The sky above was cloudy, and the northern winds whipped hard. The hills that had ascended gently over the past day were blown across by all the moving air, rippling the golden grass that in the dull gray light was nearly brown. Spike glanced beyond their place, beyond the hill they now ascended, into the gray sky. “Are we almost there?” he asked. “It's been hours since sunrise, and this is the third day!”
“No worries, Spike,” said Shield Maiden. “We are quite close.”
“In fact,” said Ashtail, “just over this hill...”
They crested the hill then, and Spike's jaw dropped. A massive range of snow-capped mountains surged before them, but these were not new- he'd seen mountains before. Never, though, had he seen art on mountains. But sure enough, many of the sheer rock faces had been carved with glyphs, with pictographs half-miles tall and wide. On some of the smaller mountain peaks, in fact, the summits had been carved into beaked heads that looked in three or four directions, great eyes staring sightless at the summits of the world.
“Golly,” said Applejack. “That's Issidonia?”
“Some of it, anyway,” said Ashtail. “There is a great vast valley that cuts into this mountain range. Much of the country runs along that valley, along the cliff walls and upon the mountaintops. The griffins live amid the mountains- their cities and their towns and their aeries are there. Most of the time they are cut into the very r-”
A shriek came down and all three ponies ducked as something swooped low o'er their head. It pulled back and then up. With great awe Applejack saw that it was a griffin- and no sooner had she picked it out amid the sky than all the air was full of them. A dozen of them flew in swirling circles overhead. Then they swung in wide arcs ever downward, spiraling descending til they nearly touched the manes of everypony on the ground. By this time, though, not even Spike was flinching.
Ashtail rolled his eyes. “That's enough of that!” he shouted. “Come down and speak to us!”
As if on command the griffins swung about and skimmed the grassy earth. One by one they touched down, wings folding upon their sides. A gray and white griffin, armored in bronze, curving sword upon his hip, padded forward. “Daleponies,” he said, his Equestrian somewhat accented, “what brings you to our borders?”
“Uh, actually,” said Applejack, stepping forward, “I'm the reason everypony's here.”
The gray griffin looked sidelong at her. “You are not a Dalepony- you have the colors of an Equestrian.”
“Sure do! I'm Applejack, of Ponyville. I'm here to request an audience with King Darius!”
“Ha!” the griffin laughed, and past his shoulder all his fellows laughed as well. “Yes, yes, you who wander in here like a charging buffalo- yes, we'll take you right away! I'm sure His Majesty will love to see you!”
“This is no laughing matter, master griffin,” said Ashtail. “Doom is coming. Blackness is spreading.”
“First of all,” the griffin said, “I am Duke Philip of the House Pahlavi, so we'll dispense with this 'master griffin' nonsense.”
“Delighted to meet you, O Philip,” said Ashtail. “I am Prince Ashtail, son of King Hammer Hoof of Gildedale.”
“Hmph,” huffed Philip. “Then I put the question to you: what is Gildedale royalty doing on our doorstep?”
“I am here on behalf of Applejack,” said Ashtail. “She seeks an audience with King Darius, as she has mentioned. I should like to add my voice to her petition.”
“We have no business with you, Dale prince, and one Equestrian pony very far from home is not going to sway us.”
“She is no mere Equestrian,” said Shield Maiden. “She is a bearer of one of the Elements of Harmony, which I am certain you have heard of.”
“Yeah!” cried Spike. “She's the Element of Honesty! She and her friends have saved the world a bunch of times!”
Philip arched an eyebrow. “Prove it.”
“How dare you-” Ashtail started.
“If she's really one of the Elements of Harmony, she won't object to me seeing what she can do. Go on, Equestrian.”
Applejack stepped forward. A shadow passed above her head; looking up, she saw an airship, a great wide-winged contraption, floating overhead. Her eyes went wide. It was so different from the Equestrian airships, powered by balloons; she'd heard that the griffins had such crafts, but seeing one was something else.
“Oh! Sorry,” said Applejack. She blinked hard, briefly at a loss- but then she grinned. “All right, honey, tell me somethin' about yourself.”
“You're the one who needs to talk!”
“This is part o' the demonstration. Now, go on- lay some details on me.”
“Hmm,” said Philip. “Well, my mother's side of the family traces its beginnings back to Atusa, one of our first and greatest queens. I am the true claim to that lineage, the one who bears the title Scion of Atusa-”
“No you ain't,” said Applejack. “There's somepony else you've swindled it from.”
Philip's eyes went wide. He shook his head. “Nonsense.”
“Come on, Philip,” said Applejack, stepping forward, “tell the truth.” Just then her cutie mark began to glow. A ripple tinged in rainbows spread out from it, tingling through the empty space.
“I... no... no that's not tr-” Philip jerked backward. “It's a li-” he twisted to one side. He flipped backward and started writhing on the ground. “It's not tr-!” his tongue curled back into his throat, and then he started choking, started flailing, clawing at his throat so much that feathers flew from it. At last, exhausted, he rolled onto his side. “You're right.”
“What?” a griffin bellowed.
“What devilry is this?” another griffin cried. “What did you do to the captain?” He drew his sword.
“No, no...” Philip stood up, “she is right.” He chuckled bitterly. “She is right!” They gasped. “In our family, only the true firstborn is allowed to bear the title 'Scion of Atusa.' But my mother's firstborn, her true firstborn, was a daughter. “ Gasps rose up. “She came out sickly, and died a few days after she was born. Thus the title should have lain dormant until my own children were born. However, my mother convinced the Royal Surgeon to manipulate the records and show her as having a miscarriage, show the birth as having never happened. So when I was born, I got to claim the title- and all the grand privileges that came with it.”
“My Duke... that can't be true,” a griffin said. “All this time- you've been lying?”
“Yes,” he said, and chuckled mirthlessly again. “I was going to carry my secret to the grave... but when you asked me, when you spoke... I just couldn't lie. I tried and tried but I couldn't.”
“I'm so sorry, honey,” said Applejack, putting a hoof on his shoulder. “T'ain't right for anypony to lose family.”
“How?” asked Philip. “How did you get that out of me? That was something I swore I'd never tell. I even used hypnotism to reinforce my unwillingness to tell.”
“That is the power of the Element of Honesty,” said Ashtail, “so now you truly know to whom you speak.”
Philip peered deeply in Applejack's green eyes. She smiled gently at him. He sighed, at last, and shook his head. “True enough,” he said at last. “I have heard of the Elements of Harmony, but to feel one's power is something different. And for my earlier flippancy I am disgraced! I will be stripped of my title. At the same time, I feel strangely... good.” He sighed, and even smiled a bit. “So then here are the Element of Honesty and the Crown Prince of Gildedale, eh? All right, fine! I shall take you to the king!” He motioned with his talons, and the airship slowly drifted to the ground. Its wings were canted upward as it landed, and the griffins in it kicked open the door. “We are bound for Elam!” Philip cried. “Go to the capital at full speed!”
The three ponies and Spike walked quickly into the enlarged interior, where wooden panels forged a warm and gently curving space, while bronze fixtures and brass controls were present everywhere. Philip and the other griffins crowded in as well; when they were all inside the doors were closed, a shimmer signifying magic passed into the ship, and slowly all were lifted off the ground. The great airship turned round and spread its wings, then gave a gentle flap, sending it into the vast and awesome mountains.
“This is amazing!” shouted Spike, clustered by the window. Looking down, he kept on gasping from his awe: every mountainside and peak was carved with pictographs and bas reliefs, many of them miles wide and long. In the cloudy sunlight they were dark and terrible, especially since many of them showed griffins locked in battle, fighting now with dragons, with deer, with minotaurs- and with pegasi. In fact, the scenes of combat between pegasi and griffins were the most common of all. “Hey, what's the deal with you guys and pegasi?” he asked.
“The pegasi are our enemies of old,” said a griffin nearby. “We have fought with them, and they with us, as far back as either of our kind can remember. Even when they joined together with the unicorns and the earth ponies to form Equestria, they still fought with us.”
“I do recall hearin' about that,” said Applejack. “The pegasi used to be the only soldierin' types in all Equestria. Heck, that's why most of the old knight orders are made o' pegasi families.”
“And why there are so many pegasi in the Royal Guard,” said Spike. “Twilight told me about it once- she said that more than half the guard was made of pegasi!”
“They are fighters, and so are we,” said Philip. “They are fierce, and so are we.”
“Whoa!” cried Spike again. “Applejack, Ashtail, Shield Maiden- look!”
The three ponies hurried into the windows, and they gasped as much as Spike. The airship was now passing quickly through the mountains. They had moved beyond most of the mountain carvings, though here and there a few still could be seen. What stuck out of the mountains now were homes. Towns, villages, whole huge cities could be seen carved directly into the mountain rock, firelight burning in their windows as the day remained all dark and glowering. Roads wrapped up in rings of life and light, sturdy towers jutted from the peaks, everywhere the glimmer of the stone, the flash of bronze, the shine of golden accents was a marvel and a wonder.
“By the Sun Queen,” whispered Shield Maiden. “I have never seen such wonders.” She shook her head and chuckled. “I am seeing so many wonders so often, now. Blessed be the day I became mixed up in Equestrian business!”
“Kinda looks like Canterlot, actually,” said Applejack.
“Ha!” said a griffin. “Your princesses got their idea of Canterlot from us! Their city is based on our cities.”
“It wasn't always so,” said Philip. “We griffins were once a folk of the plains, far to the south and the west. But when the pegasi moved north, we moved with them, and when they helped create Equestria, we attacked them. They repelled us with the help of their unicorn and earth pony friends. We had come too far, and were too many, to go back to where we once were, so we settled here.”
“And you are still unofficially enemies of Equestria,” said Ashtail, “though there is a pact of nonaggression between your nations. I am glad you are friendlier with Gildedale.”
“Formal peace with the pegasi? Such a thing is preposterous,” said Philip with a sneer. “But earth ponies are another story- we have no quarrel with your kind.”
They journeyed on across the soaring rocky mountains for more hours still, Spike and Shield Maiden frequently crowding at the windows to behold the marvels of the land. There were ribbons of red flowers running through mountaintop meadows. There were cities plated all over in bronze, so that when streaks of sunlight came out of the cloudy sky they seemed to burn and blaze. Great statues of griffins sometimes capped a mountain peak, while other times these statues sat down in the lakes at the bases of the mountains.
At last, from the front, the captain of the airship said, “We're here!” Every dragon, griffin and pony hurried to the front.
“Wow!” cried Spike, and for perhaps the nineteenth time today, his cry was well-deserved. A mountain spread before them. Unlike the tall sharp peaks all around, this mountain was broad and flat, stretching perhaps twenty miles all around. The city, Elam- the capital of Issidonia- was carved atop it. Rings and rings had been all chiseled out from round the middle of the mountain to the summit, so that the city seemed a great huge maze. Applejack's eyes bulged- even she, who'd been to Manehattan, who'd been inside the Crystal Empire, had never seen a city this enormous. Domes, towers, courtyards, plazas surged out of the bronze-hued rock. The air was dotted with many a swooping dot, griffins flying overhead, while airships hovered and then sunk then swooped.
“To the deck!” said Philip, crossing to the airship's back. There was a ladder there, and he quickly ascended it. When he reached the top he kicked a hatch open and hurried out. Ashtail bounded up the ladder, followed now by Applejack and Spike. The wind was cold and whipping now about them. The clouds of morning had been burned off by the blazing sun, so that all of the mountains all around were sparkling with black and red and white and gold.
There was a thud and two thickly-built griffins landed on the deck across from them. Their armor was of bronze lacquered with blue, and they wielded great spears. “Duke Philip!” one of them exclaimed. “What brings you so close to the palace?”
“I bring visitors direct from the borders. They must have an audience with His Majesty!”
The second burly griffin squinted. “Ponies? You bring ponies here?”
“I bring the Prince of Gildedale, and one of the Six Bearers of the Elements of Harmony! They are...” his face faltered, and then he twisted round. “Actually, why are you here?”
Applejack's eyes narrowed. “The Lord o' All the Herds is back! The King o' the Black Deer is back!”
The guardsgriffins erupted into laughter. “Do you expect us to believe in ghost stories?” one of them said.
“Applejack, your Element! Your Gift!” said Spike. “Use it again!”
She took in a deep breath. Then she stepped forward and surged what power through her that she had. “I'm tellin' the truth.” Another rippling rainbow wave spread out from her.
The guards stopped up their laughing. They looked at her in awe. “I feel strange,” said one.
“I feel embarrassed,” said another, “like I should go talk with my wife... and like I should have believed you from the start.”
“I'm the Bearer of the Element o' Honesty!” said Applejack, standing tall and proud; her burnt red armor shimmered in the sunlight. “This is important! All the world's in danger! I need to see your king!”
The two guards glanced upon each other. Then they nodded. “Very well. We'll guide you down.” They flapped their wings and flew off, diving downward briefly before breaking into looping spirals that slipped slowly towards a massive square-topped building just below. The airship bent its wings and gently fell, tipped downward toward the building, which sat within a massive walled-off compound. Whole fields of great pillars, holding nothing up but merely sticking to the sky, sat in sections of the compound, along with tall steep ziggurats and great carved statues of- what else- stone griffins.
And real griffins, live griffins, milled about amid the sunshine and the crisp high mountain air. Most wore drapes of silk, many also wore gold chains and collars that were looped and dangled in between their beaks and chests. “Make way!” cried one of the guards, running through them. The other followed, and then Philip and all of the border guards, then the ponies, Spike riding atop Shield Maiden. They crossed the great and open courtyard to the tall, amazing, dominating palace, trimmed in gold, worked in marble, square and jutting to the sky.
Entering the massive open atrium just inside the palace's great doors, the griffins halted. “Now,” said Philip, “here we wait, I think.”
“Yes,” said one of the palace guards. “We must now speak with the majordomo. We shall plead your case- however, you yourselves may need to convince him, as you convinced us.” They flapped their wings and flew down a long hallway, whence they turned a corner and were gone.
Shield Maiden sat down, Spike sliding off her back. “Amazing!” she exclaimed, staring everywhere, and she was not wrong in her awe. The pillars and the walls were bone white marble, dropping down into a floor that was a black and white marble, arranged in squares much in the manner of a chessboard. The ceiling was of bronze- or maybe gold, they could not tell- and had been formed into a magnificent bas relief of griffins crowned and pedestaled in glory, standing on metal-shaped mountain peaks with all the valleys and the heights of Issidonia spread out before them.
“Man,” said Spike, “Princess Celestia always used to say that Issidonia was 'breathtaking,' and now I know what she meant.”
“It's certainly... showy,” rumbled Ashtail. “Perhaps a bit too gaudy for my taste.” His eyes flitted all back and forth. “By the way, Applejack, when we meet King Darius, don't be... put off.”
“'Put off'?” Applejack repeated. “What's that mean?”
“I think I know,” said Philip. “His Majesty is very... concerned... with... amusement. He loves nothing more than indulging his idle fancies.”
“He spends much of the royal treasury on games and shows and dances,” said a nearby griffin.
“He is not fit to be king,” muttered another.
“Oy! Enough!” snapped Philip. “I'll not have my patrol backbiting against His Majesty!”
“Ha!” barked the complaining griffin. “If you would take away our right to complain on the king, Philip, you would take away our right to be griffins at all!”
Soft hooves clopped on the floor then, and a voice said, “Well met, Applejack.”
She turned, and a great smile split her face. “Clive!” For it was Clive Croeuxus, old and grizzled as she'd ever seen him, saddlebags upon his narrow haunches.
“Well met, master pronghorn,” said Philip.
“To you as well, master griffin,” said Clive. “And of course to you Daleponies, particularly Your Highness,” and he bowed to Ashtail. “And...” he turned, “oh, hello Spike!”
“Heya, Clive!” said Spike in turn. “Nice to see you feeling better.”
“Ah, yes, I made a complete recovery from the Herd Lord's attack. Even managed to get the scorch marks out of my fur, eventually. Oh- speaking of,” he turned to Applejack, who held her breath. “Applejack, two nights ago the Jovai of the Pronghorns met in conference. We talked long into the moonlit hours, debating many things. The discussion got quite heated at certain points.”
“And?” said Applejack, heart racing.
“And... the Jovai have decided that the threat of Reiziger is too great to maintain our standard neutrality over. He is an enemy of every folk and race beneath the sun. If he triumphs in Equestria, and then moves on to other lands, everything we have worked for- all the peace and good relations we strive every day to build and maintain- will mean nothing.” Clive bowed low, sweeping a long leg. “The Pronghorn Network is at your disposal, Applejack of Ponyville.”
“Yeah!” cheered Spike, pumping his fist.
“Oh... oh thank you, thank you Clive!” cried Applejack, hurtling forward; she was upon him in a flicker, and she wrapped him up into a hug. “I'll never forget any o' this! Equestria won't, either!”
The griffins glanced in wonder at each other. “What is this?” one of them asked another. “The pronghorns breaking their neutrality?”
“I've never seen anything like it,” said the other.
“That should give you some idea of the danger the world is in,” said Ashtail.
With flapping wings three griffins soared back up the hallway to them. Two of them were guards; the third, right in the middle, was a rusty color, deep red with a lightly pinkish neck and head. He wore white silk and silver rings upon his talons, with a silver earring in one ear. “Order, order!” he exclaimed as he touched down. “What is this?”
“Master Baraz,” said Philip, “I bring ponies and a dragon from Equestria and Gildedale. They seek an audience with His Majesty.”
“As I have been informed,” said Baraz. “I recognize you, Prince Ashtail, but who are you, Equestrian?”
“I'm Applejack o' Ponyville, m'lord,” said Applejack, sweeping her hat off her head.
“Applejack?” he repeated. “That name... you are one of the Elements of Harmony, are you not?”
“Yes, yes, I am well aware of you and your five friends- I have heard enough about you from our emissaries to Equestria.” He snorted. “At least you aren't one of the pegasi.”
“It's an honor and a privilege to speak with the head of so great a household, O Master Baraz,” said Spike, bowing low. “May the blessings of Equestria, of the Sun and the Moon, fall down upon yourself, your king, and your country.”
“Hmm, such good manners,” said Baraz. “With such polite behavior, you at least deserve some consideration. If His Majesty were busy today, I'd turn you all aside. However, court has been slow. The king could use a bit more entertainment, if nothing else. And the strenuous pleas of all who have encountered you merit something. Very well- you may see King Darius. Come with me.”
He led them down the tall and massive hallway, lined on every side with griffin statues made of bronze. Clive fell in behind the ponies, Spike rode Ashtail, Philip and the other griffins followed in their train. All the while Applejack and Shield Maiden could scarce contain their awe. The palace was as grand as Canterlot, just as wonderful as Thatchholm, and yet it was so different from the other two, so fierce, so bold, so sturdy.
They reached the hallway's end and turned down yet another, this one lined with mirrors that reflected everyone. Traveling into the end of this they made a right, and there were suddenly two massive doors of bronze. Guards stood in front of them, yet as Baraz approached they flapped up to the great rings and they pulled. Slowly, with a loud and ringing creak, the doors came open, and one by one all folk stepped through.
Soaring heights and glorying great windows marked the throne room. At the back there was a great open pavilion, in which sat a pool and several lounges. Draperies of gauzy silk were hung from a huge canopy above the the throne room's back. Griffins dressed in silks and golds were gathered through the space, where they were milling round and chatting aimlessly. At the sight of the three ponies and of Spike they perked up, pointed to each other, and began to whisper. Spike fidgeted to be the center of such strange attention.
The clash of steel erupted through the air. Pushing through the crowd toward the front, Applejack came forward just in time to see two armored griffins lock their swords. The first griffin, a white one, lunged then, but the other griffin, who was gray, expertly stepped backward and brought up his sword to parry. The white griffin advanced again, the gray griffin slashed out but the white griffin batted off the sword and thrust. Flapping hard his wings the gray griffin sailed backwards, coiled back his mighty legs, and pounced, sword held high above his head. The white griffin flew up to meet him, so they wove and danced and hummed and hovered through the throne room with the ringing and the flashing of bright steel. Yet the gray griffin had his hidden move. He allowed the white griffin to lunge at him and thrust at him. So expert was the gray griffin's control of his own body that the sword scraped harmlessly upon the outer level of his feathers. Then his free arm and his leg and even now his tufted tail came in and wrapped around the white griffin and now the gray griffin flapped hard to the ground. The white griffin crashed back first on the light beige rug. The wind was knocked from him; his sword went flying from his talons. The gray griffin pressed his own sword's blade up against the white one's neck.
“Done!” cried a deep and mighty voice. “A good fight, both of you, but Sir Payam is the winner!”
Clapping filled the air, the whooping and the hollering of nobles erupted all about. With his eyes rolling, Baraz stepped through the last front reaches of the crowd, and bowed low. “Your Majesty, I bring you visitors from the borders seeking an audience with you.”
“They came all the way from the borders? And you let them in? My, that's interesting. Let's see them!”
The crowds parted around the ponies, Spike, and Clive. Those who had not seen them yet could see them now, and there were gasps and shouts.
“Ponies? You bring me ponies?”
A great lounge was situated underneath the canopy. On it, reclining, was the biggest griffin Applejack had ever seen. Not that he was fat- he was simply large, taller and more muscular than any griffin she'd before encountered. His feathers were mostly white, and white was the vast bulk of his enormous body, though there were fringes of a rich brown at their tips. His great shoulders, neck, and forehead were likewise a brown, such a brown as to be nearly bronze. This was helped out by a strange sheen that was glossed upon him, such that he seemed near metallic. His talons were jet black and razor sharp, while his fingers and toes and beak were golden-hued. He wore a golden collar, and golden lengths, thin and narrow chains, drooped downward from his beak into this. He also wore gold bracelets and gold anklets, and he wore a diadem in which was set a glimmering blue lapis stone.
“Your Majesty,” said Baraz, “they are here on urgent business. Here is Prince Ashtail of Gildedale, whom you-”
“Ashtail!” bellowed the great griffin. “How are you, my boy? Getting bigger every time I see you.”
Ashtail inclined his head. “Greetings and good fortune to you, O Darius, King of Issidonia.”
“And to Gildedale in turn- tell your father I wish him well.”
“This here is...” Baraz arched an eyebrow, “I'm sorry, my dear, who are you?”
She bowed low. “I am Shield Maiden, Lieutenant of the Dale Guard.”
“Ah, more Daleponies! You're all such grand company, especially when you're drunk.” Shield Maiden wrinkled her nose, but said nothing. Darius swiveled his purple eyes. “Now then who...” his eyebrows rose. “Say, you're not a Dalepony. You're too colorful!”
“I'm Applejack of Ponyville, m'lord!” she said, sweeping her hat off her head.
“An Equestrian!” he bellowed. “What a marvel. And... Applejack, hold on, that name... where have I heard it before?”
“She is one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony, Your Majesty,” said Baraz.
At this there was a massive burst of talking; griffins turned toward each other gossiping like mad. Uneasy and nervous, Spike next stepped forward. “I'm Spike, Your Majesty, also of Ponyville.”
“And even a dragon! This is grand theater.”
Spike bowed low, sweeping out his arm. “I bring with me the blessings of Their Highnesses Princesses Celestia and Luna, of the Sun and the Moon, of all the pony types. I hope good fortune will fall upon you and your kingdom all the days of your life, and all the lives of your descendants, so long as the great land of Issidonia will endure.”
“Now that's something!” bellowed Darius. “What good manners.” He waved a taloned hand. “So now, what have you got for me, O Bearer of the Elements?”
“Say now, which Element have you got? Is it Magic? Are you the Magic one? How about the Generous one?”
“I'm the Bearer o' Honesty, your majesty.”
“Now that's something!”
“I need to-”
“I keep asking Celestia to send you all here for a demonstration. We do love a good show here in Issidonia, and what could be grander than the Elements of Harmony?”
“Say, that hat- aren't you one of those wild west, mild west ponies from that southern part of Equestria? Oh, do some tricks! I'd love to-”
“Hey!” bellowed Applejack. Darius jumped back upon his couch; the guards stepped forward, swords drawn from their scabbards. Applejack was undeterred: “Listen, I didn't come here to do tricks or nothin'! I'm here for help! The Lord o' All the Herds has returned!”
“Lord of all the... the Herd Lord?” said Darius.
“You mean the bedtime story villain?” asked Baraz.
“He ain't no bedtime story- he's real! He's come back, and he's takin' over Equestria! He wants to take over the whole world!”
Darius' eyes narrowed. “I don't believe you.”
“Your Majesty, you should-” started Ashtail.
“The Herd Lord is just a fable! Just a legend from the time of legends when the deerfolk ruled the Earth!” Darius rolled his eyes. “Is this why you've come here? To tell me children's tales? Boring.”
“It ain't a lie,” said Applejack.
“You have to believe us, Your Majesty!” said Spike. “He's real, and he's destroyed a bunch of our cities! He's trying to take over Equestria and eat it!”
“Your Majesty,” said Philip, “I did not believe them at first either, but I have been convinced- I know beyond knowing, now, that the ponies speak the truth.”
“Suppose I believed you,” said Darius. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“We're... we're gonna stop him,” said Applejack, “we, the Elements o' Harmony, we're gonna stop him! His name's Reiziger, and he wants to kill the whole world- but we're gonna stop him! But we need help! We need some o' your forces, King Darius.”
“You expect me to commit my soldiers- stout fighting griffs, the best of our country- to this farcical quest against a magical fairy tale monster? And you've nothing to show me to prove you're even close to telling the truth?”
“This is a bad performance, Applejack of Ponyville.”
Applejack snorted from her nostrils, suddenly enraged. “I ain't here to perform. I'm here to tell the truth! I...” her green eyes shone with pain, “I'm beggin' for help, m'lord. We need y'all! I need y'all! We need all the help we can get.”
“Gildedale has already committed to helping Equestria, Your Majesty,” said Ashtail. “My father, King Hammer Hoof, will be riding with the entirety of the Dale Guard. This is no joke. Have you not looked south and west at nights? Have you not seen the flashes and the flares of magic in the sky? Dark powers, terrible things, are gathered in Equestria now. This is a business for all the world, and all species, all folk, should devote themselves to solving this problem.”
“Oh, spare me,” said Darius, waving his talons. “You are both ponies, and one of the things I have learned about ponies is that they can be very silly. I mean, you all get spooked by butterflies, for hippogriff's sake. Who is to say this threat, this Herd Lord you've conjured, is not but smoke and mirrors?”
“You gotta believe us!”
“This is really turning into a comedy of errors.”
“Gildedale is not the only nation that has made its decision,” said Clive, stepping forward for the first time. “The Pronghorn Network has declared its intent to stop the Herd Lord- to stop Reiziger, as he is called now. And I have seen his power firsthoof, O Darius King. I have felt the infernal heat of his crimson flames. I have seen the hate and the hunger in his infinite red eyes. I know he means nothing less than the killing and the devouring of all life on this Earth.”
“Come now, master pronghorn-”
“And you, you should be more concerned for the threat that, when it finishes in Equestria, will surely turn its fangs both north and east. You should be more concerned with the existence of your nation, and not with constantly amusing yourself- which seems to be your only care!”
A gasp snapped through the throne room. Baraz said, “How dare you speak to His Majesty so insolently!” and as if commanded, a dozen griffins brandished spears and axes and stepped forward.
Clive said nothing, but he turned about, and lightning crackled in between his horns. Any thought of combat died at once- for Clive was a Jovus of the Pronghorns, and they are terrible when angered.
Darius huffed, and settled back upon his couch. “I still don't believe. I refuse to believe, and unless you can convince me otherwise, you'll get no help from me!”
“I... m'lord...” Applejack's heart faltered. She stepped backward. The crowd was murmuring and whispering. Tears sprang to her eyes...
“Applejack,” whispered Spike, “your Gift!”
She drew a sharp breath. “I'll make you believe! I'll make you see that I'm tellin' the truth!” She cantered forward, standing just before the steps up to the canopy. “You wanna show, Yer Majesty? You wanna see what the Elements o' Harmony can do?” She dove into her heart, working on the channels of her soul. At once she felt resistance- she felt as though a wall had hit her. There was so much lying in that throne room she was in. So much deceit, so much backstabbing and such huge amounts of gossip. It hurt her heart, it pained her, she grunted from the agony. But she welled up the thing she knew: honesty. She peered now through the hearts of those about her, trying to find, trying to approach and touch the truth that she knew had to be within them all. At first the lying washed against her like thick oil. It was so noxious, and so black. But she did not give up. She breathed out hard, she panted, her cutie marks began to glow.
One by one, the griffins whispering between themselves stopped talking. A strange sensation was now growing in their chests. They did not know how to describe it- it was a kind of... clearing. It was a kind of brightening, a kind of lightening. Darius sat up upon his couch. He was staring hard at Applejack.
Her eyes suddenly flickered. She stepped forward once again, putting one strong hoof upon the bottom step. “I'm tellin' the truth!”
There was a blast of rainbow-
“Huh?” said Twilight Sparkle, raising up her head within the stronghold. “What was that?”
“Oh my,” whispered Fluttershy, settled in the shadow of a scorched and blackened hill. “Pinkie, did you feel that?” Pinkie Pie raised her head, but did not speak.
The thestral and the mythicorn raised up their heads within their shadowed stalls.
There was soft light, and the smell of clean water. When these dissipated, there was Applejack- only moreso. She had grown bigger, longer legs, stouter torso, larger head than she had had before- she was now as tall as Ashtail. “So you see, m'lord,” she said, “I ain't lyin'.”
“I... I...” stammered Darius. Nor was he the only one at loss for words. All the griffins in the throne room stammered, shuddered, looked upon each other with silence and shame.
One of them said to another, “I've been unfaithful to you.”
“I... I've been cheating you out of those wagers,” said another to another.
“I had your daughter killed!” one bellowed out.
Exclamations, weeping, cries for mercy and for understanding echoed, rippled through the air. Darius, now off his couch, now standing still and tall, glared with terror down at Applejack. “What... what are you?”
“Harmony,” said Applejack, and something shuddered as she spoke. “Do y'all believe?”
“I... I... yes, yes! I do believe now! I believe you, beyond a shadow of a doubt!” Darius sat down hard upon the marble floor. “The Lord of All the Herds has returned!” He clutched his head. “The end of days is here!”
“No it ain't!” cried Applejack. “We'll stop him, m'lord- but we need your help!”
“Yes... yes!” said Darius, standing up again. “Yes, you may have my help. I shall help the Elements of Harmony in any way I can!” He shook his head, he chuckled, and some of his old humor filtered back into his voice. “Besides, it would be a shame if the pegasi were wiped out before we had a chance to do it ourselves!”
Applejack tipped her hat. “Mighty kind o' you, m'lord.”
“Yes!” cheered Spike, jumping up and down.
“Applejack, that was magnificent!” cried Shield Maiden.
“Thanks, y'all,” said Applejack, trotting back toward them. “Just glad I could do it.”
“Oh my,” said Ashtail, “you... you're tall.” They stared eye-to-eye now.
“Huh?” Applejack asked. She glanced down at herself; her green eyes widened. “Well would you look at that...”
“And what's that on your head?”
“What?” Applejack's eyes bulged. She felt upon her head- and sure enough, her nub had grown. It was nearly horn-shaped now, and was poking out above her champron. “Oh- oh, lordy.”
“What is it?”
“It's....” she sighed, and hung her head. “It's a long story, sugarcube.”
Ashtail rubbed her gently on the withers. “I suppose... you can tell it to me on the way back to Equestria?”
“I guess I- no! No, not yet!” She turned about again. “M'lord, King Darius, there's one more thing I need besides an army!”
“I... I can't think what more I can give that would be of use stopping the Herd Lord, but anything you need, I'll provide.”
“I need to borrow one o' your airships!”
Darius nodded. “That seems perfectly doable.”
“Why borrow an airship to go where we can go on hoof?” asked Ashtail.
“But we can't go where I wanna go on hoof,” said Applejack, “I mean, the Simmerin' Sea's too hot to swim through.”
A gasp rose through the throne room. Everyone's eyes bulged. “The Simmering Sea!” cried Spike.
“Applejack,” said Ashtail, “what do you mean? The only thing across the Simmering Sea is-”
“Carcosa? Sure is!” Applejack tipped back her hat. “And that's where we're headed. We're gonna go talk to the Dragon Emperor!”