The airship slid across the sky above the roiling, boiling ocean like a skimmer across glass. Its smoothness and its ease of motion was stark contrast to the sea, as Spike stared down: it literally steamed, and it churned as well, sending up great pops of sizzling water dozens of feet high. The tremor-trails of steam were so tremendous that they even reached up all this mile high, sizzling and bending round the airship's hull. The griffin crew were sweating, as were Ashtail and Shield Maiden. Spike, of course, was not bothered, as one would not expect a dragon to be bothered by great heat. “The Simmering Sea,” he whispered. “I guess it lives up to its name.”
“You feelin' all right, Spike?” said Applejack, coming beside him.
“Just fine, Applejack. I...” he glanced down at the sea again, “I guess I'm a little nervous.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I mean, I'm a dragon, but this will be my first time in Carcosa.” His spines drooped. “They'll probably hate me.”
“Aww, cheer up, Spike. Don't see no reason they'd hate you, just because you ain't a Carcosa-born dragon.”
“But what if I am?” Spike asked, throwing out his little arms. “I've spent this whole ride thinking: I don't know anything about my past before I was hatched by Twilight. Twilight told me once that dragons trace their lineages back thousands and thousands of years- that most of the great dragon families are descendants of the first dragon families, that rose up against the great thunder lizards thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago!” He lowered his head. “And I'm just an orphan.”
Applejack's hoof, firm but gentle, settled on his shoulder. “Look up here,” she said. He glanced up- and up, for she was so much taller now. She smiled at him, new head and new face even more graceful and more beautiful than it had been. He even noticed several apple flowers in her mane and tail. “Y'all know I can't lie, right? Not unless it'll lead to greater truth. And nopony can lie 'round me.” Spike nodded. “So believe me when I say you ain't an orphan. You got a family that loves you. You got two parents, you got a great big brother, and you got a sister that loves you like a mother loves her son. And on top o' all that, you got your friends. You got us, Spike. You're with us, even at the endin' o' the world. So no more 'orphan' talk.”
His face split by a massive, sharp-toothed smile, Spike dove into Applejack's taller body. “Thank you, Applejack!” He sniffed. “Man, you really do smell nice nowadays.” Ever since her transformation, Applejack had carried in the air around her a very pleasant apple scent, just the right balance between not present and not bearable.
“Aww, shucks, Spike, you're makin' me blush.”
Whipping round, Applejack and Spike dashed to the airship's prow. Ashtail and Shield Maiden were already there. “Look!” the latter cried. Sure enough, a great landscape was sprawling out on the horizon. The thing that struck them first was how black it was. The sprawling plains were that especial blackness of things burnt, charred and rolling plains and valleys stretching out for miles far beyond the smoky blue horizon. The second thing they noticed were the mountains- or no, not mountains, volcanoes. Both were within miles of the coastline, and both, near as they could see, were active. One was billowing thick smoke into the sky; its brother was running with lava down its side, red and melted rock that hit the sea and sent up massive steam clouds to the heavens.
“Well, ponies,” Philip said, coming up behind them, “here is what you wanted. This is Carcosa.”
“How does anything live here?” Shield Maiden asked.
“The dragons, of course, are carnivores. I'm told sometimes you'll see them pluck a whale out of the sea. I wouldn't know; I've never been here before.”
“Nor have I,” said Ashtail. He turned. “I'm sorry, golden darling,” he said to Applejack, “I'll be no use to you now. I've had no dealings with dragons.”
“I'm just happy you're here, sugarcube,” said Applejack, leaning up against him. “'Sides, I've actually done a fair bit o' wranglin' with dragons. I know what they're like.”
“You do?” asked Ashtail, eyes wide. “Surely you don't mean Spike.”
“Heh, Spike's been trouble of his own in the past,” said Applejack, and Spike smirked sheepishly. “But I'm talkin' about real dragons. Heck, this one time I had to go up a mountain with my friends and convince this one nappin-”
A roar rose long and loud and carrying upon the air, splitting up the sky for miles. All the ponies briefly kicked and bucked; it was their instinct to fear such a cry. The griffins gripped their weapons tighter. Spike bit his lip, and his green reptile's eyes went wide as a pair of massive dragons swung low out of the clouds on either side of them. They were iridescent, shiny scales aglitter in the blazing sun; one was emerald green, one sapphire blue. They were three times the size of the airship- at least. They flew around the airship in enormous circles, the beating of their wings making the wood and brass craft rattle from their wake.
“Steady, y'all,” said Applejack, stepping to the airship's prow.
The blue dragon continued circling the craft. However, the green dragon began to circle up its massive wings, whipping up the winds so strongly that the griffins feared a twister was about to form. At last, when they were rocking back and forth, and the levitation magic was about to overload, the dragon stopped barely a hundred feet before them. Its wide wings flattened out, and so it soared upon the thermals, looking like a monstrous bird of prey.
“WHAT IS YOUR BUSINESS IN THE LAND OF CARCOSA?” it thundered, the power and the deepness of its voice causing a rattle in their chests.
“I'm Applejack, one o' the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony! I-”
“WHAT IS YOUR BUSINESS?” a little fire flecked out of its open-and-shut jaws.
Applejack did not flinch. “The Lord o' All the Herds has returned! He aims to take over the world! I need to speak with Emperor Ancalagon!”
She expected to be bantered with. She expected to be laughed at. She certainly did not expect the dragon's massive head to nod. It did, however, and the words, “VERY WELL. FOLLOW,” blasted through the air. The dragon flapped its wings again, whipping back and throwing up a wall of mighty wind, before it wheeled about and flew toward the blackened landscape, its blue companion close beside it.
“You heard the beast!” cried Philip. “Head inland!” The airship's wings flapped and then angled, allowing it to start a shallow, slow descent that took it to the shoreline.
Ashtail shook his head, clearing up the terror and the wonder that attempted now to clog his thoughts. He turned to his left. Shield Maiden was staring at the flying dragons, mouth slightly ajar. Ashtail smiled. “Well, Lieutenant,” he said, “a week ago you had never seen a dragon before. Now you have seen three. What say you?”
“I... am terrified,” she said gently, “and awed.”
The dragon kept up its descent. It, and its companion, and the airship traveled long and slowly downward over vast and scorched terrain. They passed a great volcano on their left, another one, upon which several massive dragons rested, bathing their hot scales in the hot sun. A full river of lava ran beneath them on a winding path, boiling and bubbling and sending up such heat that they could feel it high up in the sky. Fortunately all the flying things and creatures made good time- Applejack was starting to grow nervous at how long her journey from Equestria had taken her. She had gathered up great allies, but now she'd have to get them back to help her friends in time.
At last, looming vast and black before them, was the largest mountain any of them had seen in their lives. It was so vast around it was more than twice Manehattan's area, and so tall that its peak stretched higher than the airship's current altitude. Two shimmering gray dragons flew with mighty wingbeats to the sky to meet them. The green and blue dragons flapped forward, uniting with their comrades in the air. Then, upon the wind, there rose a singing. It was a swelling, rolling radiance of sound, a majesty and beauty like they'd never heard before.
Well, most of them had never heard it. “Draketongue!” Spike exclaimed, giddy with excitement.
“That's their language?” Philip asked.
“Yep!” said Spike. “Twilight taught it to me! It doesn't have nearly as many words as Equestrian- or, or it does, sort of, but not core words, not whole words. What matters... what'd she say? What matters is the emphasis of the words, I think! Like, which syllables are stressed! Draketongue is a tonal language- yeah, that's what she said! That's why it sounds so much like singing! It practically is singing!”
The air shuddered as the double gray dragons swung above the airship. “DESCEND,” one of them thundered. The four dragons dove until they were above a huge flat clifftop sticking from the mountain, as wide as Ponyville's own borders. Landing on their four legs, the dragons folded in their huge leathery wings and turned about as the airship came floating gently down.
After an uneasy, unsteady passage of time, the airship landed. The ramp came down, and all the ponies, griffins, and one dragon issued from the craft. Down here, on land, the dragons were even more massive, visibly bigger than all of the dragons Applejack before had seen. “By claw and talon,” muttered Philip, glancing side to side upon the beasts, “I'll have quite a tale to bring back to my mother.”
“Y'all don't need to come with us, Philip,” said Applejack. “Didn't need to come with us from the start.”
“I... suppose so,” said Philip, grinding his beak, “but I felt compelled. I must see this out to the end.”
“Fair enough,” said Ashtail. One of the dragons lumbered toward them, tall as a tower. The ground quaked in his motions. Ashtail faced him unafraid. “Is this where we shall meet your emperor?”
“HIS EMINENCE IS IN HIS LAIR,” thundered the dragon; it was one of the gray ones. He turned about, and nodded. Then they noticed an enormous cave entrance upon the end of the great platform, leading dark into the mountain's depths. Heat was wafting from it- heat was everywhere, but here especially. “ENTER.”
“Right,” said Ashtail with a nod. “Come on, then!”
“Um, if it's all right with you, we'll stay out here,” said one of the airship's griffin pilots. His fellow nodded. “It's... well, you don't need us.”
“We may need you yet,” said Philip, “and you're no safer out here than you would be in there.”
“Let 'em stay,” said Applejack. “The five o' us should be just fine.”
“YOU HAVE REQUESTED AN AUDIENCE WITH HIS EMINENCE,” thundered the second of the gray dragons. “YOU ARE SAFE, UNTIL THE AUDIENCE IS ENDED.” His red eye seemed to flash as it was turned more to face downward. “EVEN THE RUNT THAT SMELLS OF PONIES IS SAFE, HOWEVER MUCH WE MIGHT WISH TO ANNIHILATE HIM.”
Spike was shaking. He started to back away- but he backed into Applejack, who glared up at the dragons. “What's wrong with him?”
“HIS MANNERS, HIS GRACE- THEY MARK HIM AS TAME. THEY MARK HIM AS AN ACCOMMODATOR. WE HAVE NO PATIENCE FOR SUCH DRAGONS, NOT SINCE OUR HUMILIATION AT THE HANDS OF THE PONY GODDESS.”
“Well I say he's with me,” said Applejack, drawing the trembling Spike against her. “Y'all ain't gonna hurt my friend, are ya?” Her green eyes narrowed, and the sparkle of faint rainbows was within them.
“NO. HE IS A GUEST OF HIS EMINENCE. HE IS SAFE- FOR NOW.”
“I thought so.” She glanced down at Spike, who glanced up at her. She smiled. “Hop on,” she said, and he with a grin jumped on her back. “Let's go!” She started galloping, Shield Maiden and Ashtail on her heels, Philip flying right beside them. At their swift pace they quickly crossed the vast scorched rock-scape, entering the massive cavern that was so hot they were sweating, particularly Applejack and the Daleponies in their leather armor.
The cave descended shallowly but deeply. It was easy to traverse, for it was worn smooth, but in short order they were in nearly total darkness. Only by their touch and smell, and by the bursts of fire Spike sent up when things got just too dark, were they able to traverse the tunnel, going slow but steady to avoid a fall. Philip glanced about him, nervous. “I hope this is over quickly,” he muttered.
“Problem?” asked Ashtail.
“I am... uncomfortable being underground.”
“Heh, just like pegasi,” murmured Applejack.
“What was that?” snapped Philip.
At last, the tightness of the air completely vanished- and so too, just a little, did the darkness. Perhaps it merely was their eyes adjusting to the gloom, but they could clearly see the tunnel open up. Applejack gaped. The cavern that they entered was titanic, overwhelming in its size, bigger by far than the stadiums and temples she had seen. Far, far, far bigger- it was possible Manehattan could have fit inside the space, so huge it was. Applejack could not see where it ended, nor could she behold its sides. She breathed a little easier; it was still warm, but the coolness of the underground had cut the temperature a bit.
They walked further along the flat and sloping way. It took them out onto a long, wide platform in the middle of the giant cavern. A shining shaft of brilliant sunlight came down from somewhere high up above. They stopped within it, bathed in light that seemed too sickly to be truly white. Philip turned about. “Well?” he asked, voice echoing throughout the darkened air. “Where is he?”
“Hello?” cried Shield Maiden.
“Hail, Ancalagon the Black, Emperor of All the Dragons!” shouted Ashtail. “We have come beseeching you for aid!”
“M'lord?” cried Applejack. “M'lord, are you here?”
There was still silence, so much that it was eerie. Spike slid off Applejack's back and toddled apart from them. Then his mouth came open- and he sang. His lovely, rising Draketongue was very light and lively, sounding like a flute playing a gentle tune. It twittered out into the darkness, sounding like a bright Spring day.
An answer came. The air shook; their skeletons were quaking in their muscles. It sounded like a pipe organ, so huge and powerful the song came forth. It came from far in front of them- and now, now they saw them, saw the glowing of two huge, sky blue eyes.
Thus out of the darkness came Ancalagon the Black, looming like a shadow given life. He was not the biggest creature Applejack had ever seen- she had seen the World Snake, after all. But he was easily the second. Applejack's jaw opened at his size- his long and massive head, his powerful and serpentine black neck, his four enormous legs that were so far back from her she could not properly see them. In the darkness there was movement far below and to the side, and when the shift of barn-sized muscles barely became visible she realized the thing beside them and below them was his tail. He must have been... massive, huge, enormous- he must have been as big as Canterlot. She could not picture him as flying, but he clearly could fly; the wings that folded thick and angled high back and above him were not ornaments.
Fire was within him, burning hot and flashing bright behind his light blue eyes. Fire and pure Power and great Majesty- Ancalagon was simmering in splendor, a mightiness like they had never felt before was on him and inside him. His black lips parted, sending waves of heat out of his furnace belly. Teeth as big as bushes glimmered in the low and sickly light. Those huge blue eyes came on them, and out of the burning mouth there came the terrifying voice: “LOOK UPON MY BRILLIANCE.”
“M'lord!” cried Applejack, kneeling, taking her hat off her head. The others bowed as well. “You're sure a great 'n mighty dragon, m'Lord Ancalagon.”
“MIGHTY,” hammered the word into the blackened air. “YES, I WOULD AGREE. AND WHO NOW COMES TO MARVEL AT MY MAJESTY?” The huge long neck stretched forward. The head- so massive, so enormous- bent down and down, descending like a giant airship til the blue eyes swelled above them all. “PONIES... A GRIFFIN... AND-” he snorted, the rush of air whipping their manes about, “AND A PONY IN ALL BUT BLOOD.”
Spike gave again his sing-song speech, carrying on longer this time. He did not merely bow when he was finished- he got upon his belly, lowering his head and twitching his short tail.
“HA!” the laugh was like a clap of thunder, knocking them back several paces. “AT LEAST HE HAS GOOD MANNERS.”
“I am happy to be at your service, Your Eminence,” said Spike.
“I AM SURE YOU ARE.” Ancalagon inhaled powerfully, nearly sucking Applejack's hat off her head. “YOU LOOK LIKE MY PREDECESSOR, GLAURÂG THE WINGLESS. YOU SMELL LIKE HIM ALSO.”
“I... I wouldn't know anything about that, Your Eminence. I don't know who my clan or creche are.”
“BAH! IT IS IMPOSSIBLE, YOU SEE. AFTER HIS DEATH, WHEN I ASCENDED THE THRONE, I SMASHED HIS EGGS AND MURDERED HIS CONSORTS- AS WAS MY RIGHT!”
“M'lord,” said Applejack, “I gotta talk to you, m'lord.”
“WHO IMPUGNS? WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
“I'm Applejack of Ponyville! More important, I'm a Bearer of one o' the Elements of Harmony!”
“HAAAARMONY,” rumbled Ancalagon, now turning his massive eyes to her. “YES, I CAN FEEL IT. I CAN TASTE THE POWER IN YOUR HEART. I CAN SMELL THE BRIGHT LIGHT OF THE WILLS THAT DRAW THE WORLD. I SENSED A POWER WHEN YOU WERE APPROACHING CARCOSA, WHICH IS WHY YOU ARE HERE- WHICH IS WHY YOU ARE ALIVE!”
“You gotta help us, m'lord! We-”
“GOT TO? I DO NO HAVE TO DO ANYTHING! I AM ANCALAGON THE BLACK! MY FIRE IS AS THE HOT BEGINNING OF THE WORLD. MY WINGS BLOT OUT THE SUN. I AM AN ARMY, A TYPHOON, AN EARTHQUAKE- I AM AN END OF THINGS. IF I WISHED TO, I COULD BY MYSELF GO TO EQUESTRIA AND BURN IT TO THE GROUND.”
Spike, Ashtail, Shield Maiden, Philip all quailed at the sheer power of his voice. Applejack, however, did not flinch. “Then why don't ya?” she asked.
“BECAUSE EQUESTRIA IS THE HOME OF THE SUN AND THE MOON, AND EVEN DRAGONS NEED THESE.”
“M'lord Ancalagon,” said Applejack, “we need your help. I didn't mean to get off on the wrong hoof with ya. It's just that we're havin' a disaster. The Lord o' All the Herds has returned!”
“THE HERD LORD?”
“Yes! He's called Reiziger now. He's escaped from his prison, and he's takin' over Equestria! He's destroyin' our cities, killin' our ponies, and has aims on eatin' the entire world!”
“Gildedale, my country, has pledged to help fight him, Your Eminence,” said Ashtail.
“As has Issidonia, my country,” Philip said.
“But we need more help! We need some o' your help, m'lord! We need your dragons!”
Ancalagon's head drifted back into the shadows. They could still track him, though, as his blue eyes were glowing in the dark. He wound about them, going to the side. “NOW... WHY WOULD I ATTACK AN ALLY?”
Everypony's eyes went wide.
“OH, YOU DID NOT KNOW? YES- THE HERD LORD AND THE DRAGONS ARE AT PEACE. WE SIGNED A PACT OF NONAGGRESSION DURING HIS FIRST RISE TO POWER. HE DOES NOT BOTHER US, AND WE DO NOT BOTHER HIM. THOSE ARE THE TERMS.”
“But... but you gotta-”
“WE CAN LIVE IN A WORLD RULED BY THE HERD LORD. HIS DARKNESS IS NO THREAT TO US, SO WE WILL LEAVE HIM BE. YOUR REQUEST IS DENIED.” Blue fire started rising, flashing, blazing in Ancalagon's black mouth-
“You're a fool.”
In total shock Applejack wheeled about. Ashtail had stepped closer to the side Ancalagon was looming from. Ancalagon's eyes blazed. “YOU DARE?”
“I dare you to take an honest look at the situation,” said Ashtail. “One royal to another, I tell you, think about this. What do you know of Reiziger's aims? Surely you've realized that he is not satisfied with just some token lives stolen, a few swaths of landscape devoured? Have you not seen his greed? I have not, but I trust those who tell me about it.”
“I KNOW OF HIS HUNGER. HE WILL STILL HONOR HIS AGREEM-”
“For now!” shouted Ashtail, fighting to be heard above Ancalagon's enormous voice. “Just like his only aim is to conquer Equestria- for now! But if you know of his hunger, you must also know that it won't be satisfied- you must know it, deep down!”
“Yeah! Reiziger ain't gonna be satisfied with just Equestria! He's gonna eat everything in the world!”
“IF HE BREAKS HIS AGREEMENT, WE SHALL DEAL WITH HIM.”
“No you won't,” said Ashtail, “because he'll save you for last, or close to last. He'll honor your treaty, true, but he'll work around you. Once he's done consuming Equestria, he will go to my country- to Gildedale. Then he will go to Issidonia, then to other lands- zebra lands, camel lands, antelope lands. One by one he will attack them all, destroy them all, and eat them all. How powerful do you think he will be then?” Ancalagon's head drifted slowly to the side. “I'll tell you- he'll be powerful enough to forget whatever treaties and pacts he made when he was weak. Mark my words, O Ancalagon. He will come for you last, but he will come for you, and by the time he does he will be so powerful that even the strength of the dragons will not stand before him.”
“Yes!” said Philip. “You know he's a snake- because you are one yourself. You know, deep down, he'll turn on you. Why not turn on him first? Beat him to the punch while he's still weak enough to defeat!”
Ancalagon's head drifted slowly side to side. His blue eyes flashed and flickered, narrowing then widening again. He sniffed; fire flashed out of his nostrils.
“Your Eminence,” said Spike, softly but still clearly audible amid the vastness of the cavern, “what about all the dragons in Equestria? The ones Reiziger has killed, the ones he's driven out? Don't they deserve protection?” His green eyes, for a moment, flickered bright. “Aren't you their emperor, too?”
Ancalagon snarled, sniffing at the air. He loomed above them, then bent down his head, then loomed it up again. Fire flashed between his open jaws. He closed them up, then sunk into the darkness. Applejack, Ashtail, Shield Maiden, Philip and Spike stood anxiously within the sickly splash of sunlight. At last, Ancalagon's head loomed up high again. He opened wide his mouth to speak.