• Published 11th Jul 2013
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Wolf In Pony's Clothing - Ardashir

Ardi the wolf is hiding out in Ponyville from an angry dragon and enraged ponies. Oh, and he's disguised as Rarity. AND a fear of Changelings and other monsters pretending to be ponies stalks the land. What could possibly go wrong?

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Day Six: Deal With A Dragon

Day Six: Deal With a Dragon

“More sweet tea, my dear?” Spike said, smiling broadly at “Rarity” where “she” sat across from him. He held the pitcher up.

“Why, of course, Spike.” The unicorn mare returned the smile, not even bothering to hide her mouthful of wolfish fangs. When Spike blanched, “she” added, “Oh, and please, remember to bring some nice raw meat next time.” The look on Spike’s face went from uneasy to annoyed as he flung the pitcher down.

“Oh, come on! The real Rarity wouldn’t ask for raw meat.”

“Well, then, maybe you should wait for ‘the real Rarity’!” Ardi got up with a growl. He huffed, “I’m letting you practice for your big date with her on me, I should get something for my pains.”

“You are getting something,” Spike said loftily. Ardi glared at him as the little purple blackmailer folded his arms across his chest. “You get to not be outed to the whole town as that wolf they’re still worried about, remember? And if it’s not too much, I really prefer it when Rarity,” his voice went all dopey and dreamy again, “Calls me ‘her little Spikey-wikey’.” Ardi growled at that. Unfortunately the little flamethrower had a point.

The wolf strode away from the spread blanket, set out just far enough from Fluttershy’s house to keep some distance from her animal friends. He arrived early at her hill-house to find them in a panic at his presence. Ponies might not be able to tell who he really was while encased inside this Rarity-suit, but Fluttershy’s animals knew him. The maresuited wolf looked at the Everfree, green-crowned trees rising and the last of the early morning mist clearing out from under them. He wondered if that big green dragon was really still looking for him. And speaking of dragons? He turned and looked back at Spike, who was impatiently tapping one clawed foot against the ground.

“Fine… darling,” Ardi added that at the last moment, in place of the word he wanted to use for the scaly extortionist. He trotted back over to the blanket and picnic basket, reached inside to bring out a small bag of gems. He spilled them into Spike’s claws, yellow and crimson and emerald. As Spike licked his lips Ardi added, “Oh, just a little token of my appreciation, Spike… y-wikey.” He shuddered at saying the last words. “You know, you’re so young, I doubt she has a thing for you. You might do better with her little sister.”

“Sweetie Belle?” Now it was Spike’s turn to shudder. He spoke through a mouthful of gemstones. “No thanks. One time I danced with her at Shining Armor’s big wedding. She kept stepping on my claws. Nice filly, but she has four left hooves.” He licked one of the larger stones, a ruby roughly the size of his fist, once or twice before biting it in half. Despite himself Ardi watched with fascination, wondering how the little dragon didn’t break his own teeth doing that. Spike returned a dreamy look. He patted the blanket next to him. “Shall we… sit closer, my dear?”

“Wait, what was that about a wedding?” Ardi said fast, wanting to distract him from this scent-trail of thought. “I think I heard Fluttershy mention something about it, about how some bug-ponies attacked and caused trouble?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, the Changelings.” Spike shrugged. “Twilight and the rest helped her big brother Shining Armor and his wife Cadence chase them away. They scared the ponies a lot, though; I’ve seen a lot of pulp magazine stories about them. And you saw that movie yesterday.” While Spike spoke, he moved closer to Ardi, and finally set a claw on ‘her’ hoof. “But enough of such subjects, fair Rarity. I’d much rather discuss us.”

“Yeah, that movie.” Ardi yanked his “hoof” back. “Heh. These ponies don’t know what a fight is if they thought they were staging one there.” He hesitated, and then remembering that other little problem, swallowed hard and slowly took Spike’s claw. “But, really, Spike, I suppose I do have some rather important questions to ask you.”

“Really?” Spike said, his eyes glowing. The look of delight on his face faded at the wolf’s next words.

“I mean wolf-me. Ardi, not ‘Rarity’.” As Spike sat back with a scowl, his arms folded, Ardi said, “Rainbow Dash and Applejack said you’re an expert on dragons.”

“Huh?” Spike said uncertainly. He looked at him, confused, before quickly adding, “Oh! Uh, yeah. Been studying ever since the Great Dragon Migration. I know pretty much all there is to know about dragons.” He idly inspected the back of one claw as he spoke. Ardi frowned. Something about this reminded him of some packmates who would boast of their skill at hunting various prey animals and monsters, only to turn out to be something less than experts when the time came. Unfortunately, he had little choice, so he pressed ahead. Maybe he’d better butter the little guy up some.

“Spike, dear,” Ardi purred, trying for his silkiest “Rarity” voice. Judging by the poleaxed look on Spike’s face, the little dragon was giving “Rarity” his full attention as Ardi asked, “Say somewol – somepony, unintentionally stole a few odds and ends from a dragon’s den. Oh, nothing special or really expensive,” he quickly added upon seeing the wary look cross Spike’s face. “Just, say, a few old coins, a bag or three of gems. Nothing anyone with a big hoard would really miss. But if for some reason the dragon was actually offended, just how would you go about making it up to them?” Ardi despised the almost pleading tone of his voice at the end. But this was something he needed to know. He glanced at the deep depths of the Everfree and shuddered at his memories of how he’d left it last.

“Huh? Plundering a dragon’s hoard?” Spike giggled. He fell on his back and rolled, claws folded around his belly in draconic amusement. Ignoring Ardi’s fangtips showing at “Rarity’s” lip, he said, “Oh, man. Anypony who did that would be dead meat. Dragons never forgive hoard thieves. Not unless you can pay back four or five times what you took. And if you can get another dragon to officially apologize for you.” Spike sat up, wiping a tear from his slit-pupil eye, and froze upon seeing the wolf’s face. “Hey, wait, Applejack and Dash told me about that wolf, I mean you, running out of the Everfree with a dragon on your tail, and…” Spike broke off, and asked in an oddly quiet voice. “Was he big and g-green?”

“Yeah,” Ardi said, and then by what was now force of habit, “I mean, yes he was, darling. Why, what difference does it make? If I can spend some of Rarity’s gems, and you talked to him…” Ardi sank back down on his belly, wondering if he’d have to wear this hide forever.

“Oh, nothing,” Spike said entirely too quickly. Something about his answer made Ardi glare at him. The little dragon was already on his feet and gathering the blanket up. More like tossing it into the basket he’d brought with him, along with the plates and silverware and bottle of iced tea. “Oh, wow, look at the time! Twilight gave me chores and… lessons, and stuff, to take care of while she was gone. I’d better get to them.” He gathered everything up and hurriedly said, “Thanks for the lesson I really learned so much about how I’ll talk to Rarity when the time comes. Oh, and I won’t be saying anything about you to anypony. Next time tomorrow afternoon. Bye!” He turned and all but raced off for the library. Ardi licked his or rather “Rarity’s” nose and huffed his annoyance. Everything still smelled like flowers!

But did he detect a thin trace of fear left behind by Spike?

Ardi turned and began heading for Fluttershy’s, she’d promised him more of that bean mash – he shuddered – and then it happened. The wind howled and something caught at it with a heavy and frightfully familiar thump. Something roared, mingled with the sound of wood rending and snapping. Birds and beasts alike shrieked and yelped and squealed in terror.

And worst of all in the midst of it, Fluttershy’s scream, high and shrill and terrified to death.

“Fluttershy!” Ardi raced for her hut, head down, not caring if anyone saw him running like a wolf. He snarled, fangs bared, as he topped the small rise leading down to her house. Whatever was hurting his sole real friend in this town was going to discover what the wrath of a Stalliongrad wolf felt like, and –

He froze, skidding to a stop. Or he tried to. Ardi’s feet went out from under him and he rolled down the hill, fetching up against the side of Fluttershy’s assailant.

It was the dragon he’d robbed, towering over Fluttershy’s house. Green scales shone in the sunlight and his eyes seemed lit from within as the dragon bent his head down on his long neck to stare Ardi in the face. The wolf snarled at himself to run, to help his friend, to do something, anything, but for some reason he could only stare at his reflection in that giant eye. “Rarity” looked haggard, her coat and mane and tail a mess, like Ardi remembered looking when he’d first come to Ponyville. The dragon pulled back slightly, letting him see how, inside one clenched claw, Fluttershy kicked wildly to escape. Or at least her hind legs did; the dragon held her head downwards, her head and front half of her body hidden from sight in its claw.

“Pony,” the dragon said, his voice a sharp crack like pine trees snapping in a harsh freeze. Little wisps of flame and smoke escaped his jaws, the fangs as long as one of Ardi’s legs, as he said, “Pony. Listen to me. Your village is hiding the thief who stole from me. I want that wolf, and I want him by the end of the day or…” He squeezed his claw slightly. Fluttershy made a sort of choked squimper and froze up, her long pink tail shivering.

“We’ll repay you,” Ardi heard someone say in a fearful yet lovely voice. He knew it couldn’t be him, he was too frightened of this horror to speak, but then who else could it be? “I, I have gems, lots of them. I’ll give them all to you if you let Fluttershy and the wolf go.”

“Let them go?” The dragon made a sound like steam escaping the world’s largest kettle. It took Ardi a moment to realize that the dragon was laughing. “If you can find a dragon to speak for him and all of you, and if I am willing to accept what you offer me, then fine. Ask the thief where my lair is. He will know how to find me.” Ardi heard panicked neighs and whinnies from the town, thin and shrill at this distance. The dragon spread his wings with a sound like sails catching a wind gust. It seemed to barely crouch and then with a mighty heave it sprang into the air. The wings beat, sending gusts down. Ardi coughed and gagged on the leaves and dirt they threw into his face, but he didn’t close his eyes. Ignoring their tearing, he watched the dragon flying back off into the Everfree with a last roar of, “Either his apology, his blood, or hers,” he shook Fluttershy again, “Or I’ll come back for another pony tomorrow. Maybe you!”

And with a last roar of defiance the dragon flew off over the Everfree.

* * *

“Spike! Spike! Get off your scaly backside and open this door!”

“Huh?” Spike stretched and yawned. The library was closed today, and after that practice early-morning “date” with “Rarity”, he felt no desire to leave bed until noon at the earliest. Apparently some ponies just couldn’t take a hint. “Yeesh, I’m coming, I’m coming.”

He went downstairs, past the stacks and to the door. He could only barely make out whichever pony it was at the door. They sounded frantic as they pounded on it. Huh, the whole town sounded upset for some reason.

“Spike, unless you open this door right now I’ll kick it in and bite your scales off!”

“Okay, okay,” he grumbled as he opened the door. “Now what’s the emergency – AAAAHH!”

He found himself looking up into a frantic pair of blue eyes set in the face of a very familiar and lovely white unicorn. But as Spike looked closer he saw that ‘her’ mane and tail were a mess. Also, ‘she’ panted in a most un-equine fashion. He winced at the smell of meat and soybeans on her breath as it blasted into his face. ‘Rarity’ took a deep breath and said:

“Spike, I need you. Right now!”

“Huh?” Spike got up and hastily backed away. “Uh. Look, Ardi, I’m kinda flattered, I think, but no matter how much you look like Rarity you’re not my type.”

“Wait, what?” Spike fought not to flinch back as ‘Rarity’ bared wolfish fangs at him and flattened her ears in anger. “Not that, you ninny!” Ardi began panting again and started swaying on his, her, “Rarity’s” legs. “Fluttershy – dragon – it’s after me – have to have – another dragon – to speak for me – I – need – help!” Ardi fell down on his haunches, gasping. He managed to say in a somewhat calmer voice, “Didn’t you hear what was going on?”

“Wait, what dragon?” Spike looked out the door behind “her”.

Ponies were stampeding in every direction, shrieking and whinnying in fear. Daisy and the other two Flower Ponies galloped past, Lily yelling, “The horror! The horror! We’re all going to end up dragon food, and it’s that wolf’s fault! The horror! The horror!”

Spike looked back at Ardi, scratching his head. “Uh, no offense, ‘Rarity’ but this sort of thing happens around here about once a month. Ponies are panicky in case you hadn’t noticed.” He recoiled as Ardi growled at him.

“This time they’ve got good reason! Listen.” He took a deep breath and said in one rushed burst, “The dragon I stole from came back to Ponyville and he’s kidnapped Fluttershy and said he’ll kill her and me too unless I can repay ten times what I took from his hoard and I need another dragon to stand up for me and you’re the only dragon I know so please help me save Fluttershy!” As he’d spoken Ardi moved closer to Spike, who kept stepping back until he bumped up against the wooden table in the center of the library. The little dragon grinned nervously as Ardi grabbed him with ‘his’ forehooves and said, “We gotta get going! Climb on my back, we’re heading to the Boutique!” With those words he plopped Spike onto his back, staggered a second, and then spun and raced out the door.

“Whoa! Hey, wait! Stop, wolf!” Spike grabbed two handfuls of mane and held on for dear life. Ardi paid him no attention, taking the little dragon on a wild ride across town, dodging stampeding ponies. Past Town Hall, where squawking griffins and pegasi were striking tents and loading caravans. He barely slowed down to open the door of Carousel Boutique rather than just crash through. Once inside the wolf headed straight for Rarity’s gem bins, overflowing with diamonds and emeralds and rubies, all coldly shimmering, looking downright juicy. Spike unconsciously licked his lips at the sight. Once there Ardi sat down. Spike gave a yell as he rolled off onto the floor. The wolf stuffed a saddlebag into Spike’s hands and took one himself that he began stuffing full of gems.

“Come on, dragon, hurry up and get to work.” Spike picked up a ruby and gave it a lick. He froze when Ardi gave him a growl. “No tasting, we need these to save Fluttershy!” Spike sighed but began stuffing the bag full of precious, delicious jewels.

“Big sis! I mean, Ardi!” Sweetie Belle pushed in between Spike and the wolf. “What’s going on outside? Why is everypony so scared? And hey, why are you stealing my big sister’s gems?” Sweetie tugged at the bag in Ardi’s hooves. He bristled but calmed himself.

“Sweetie, listen,” he said. Spike saw him take Sweetie in his forelegs much the way Rarity herself might have as he said, “Something bad’s happened to Fluttershy, and something worse might happen if I don’t use these gems to get a dragon to let her go.” Sweetie gasped, her green eyes going wide.

“Hey, maybe I can get the Cutie Mark Crusaders and we can help?” She trotted back and forth as Ardi filled one bag full and began working on another. Sweetie added, “Why don’t you use my sister’s cart out back? That’d hold all of them!”

“It would? Wonderful!” He nuzzled Sweetie. Were it not for the mess “her” mane and tail were in, Spike thought he would have looked just like Rarity then. Ardi said, “Sweetie, if you can get that cart and bring it around front, that’d be wonderful. Can you do that?” Sweetie nodded at him and raced off. Ardi turned to go back to getting the gems, only to freeze. Opal sat atop the nearest pile, lightly scraping her claws against them and giving him a truly evil glare.

Spike wondered what they’d do now, but then Ardi stuck his nose right into Opal’s face and snapped; “Listen up, cat. I hate you and you hate me. But you love Fluttershy, and I do to. And unless I can give these gems to a dragon for her life he will kill her. Now move aside, and no more trouble!”

Opal gave the mare-suited wolf a measuring stare. Ardi just cocked an eyebrow. Opal leaped down from the gems and slowly went up the stairs in a very obvious, “because it pleases me” fashion. Ardi got back to work, hoof-sheathed paws raking through the gems. Spike hesitantly cleared his throat.

“Uh, so, Ardi… what’re we gonna do when we get to the dragon’s lair?”

“What do you think?” Ardi indicated the gems with a sweep of ‘her’ luxurious tail. “Give these to the dragon, ask forgiveness for Ponyville and myself, and then leave.”

“Yeah, but what happens when everypony in town finds out who you are? I mean,” Spike said quickly to the stunned-looking wolf, “We’re gonna need help to get through the Everfree. Applejack and Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie are going to want to help save Fluttershy. And according to everything I read about dragons in Twilight’s books, you’re going to have to identify yourself when you ask it to forgive you. And if they’re around when you ask, well…”

Ardi froze as he thought about what that would be like.

“So! Y’all were hidin’ among us the whole time, were ya?” The palomino mare snorted and lowered her ears as she forced Ardi back against the amused and gigantic dragon. “If ya woulda said somethin’ ‘fore this, Fluttershy wouldn’t have gotten hurt!” She pointed over at the whimpering butter-yellow Pegasus, too frightened to even notice what was going on around her. The rainbow-maned Pegasus and the fluffy pink poisoner glared daggers at him where they hugged her.

“But, but,” Ardi whimpered. He cringed away from the painfully hot scales covering the dragon’s belly. “But you wanted to make a rug out of me!”

“You won’t become a rug,” the dragon rumbled in an amused tone. Ardi yelped in panic as it picked him up by his, er, ‘Rarity’s’ tail and dangled him before its face. “You’ll become a tasty tidbit instead! Hmm, fresh wolf wrapped in unicorn; I think I may have just invented a new snack!” The jaws opened wide beneath him and Ardi dropped into them with a shriek, with everything around him being darkness and wet stretchy walls leading to that furnace belly…


“We’ll just have to make sure they don’t find out,” Ardi told him. “We sneak out of town, and…” His voice choked off as a knock and a fearfully familiar voice came at the door.

“Hey, Rarity, ya in there? C’mon and open up, we gotta get goin’ and save Fluttershy!” More voices joined hers.

“Yeah, hurry up, Rares! We gotta save Fluttershy and find that scuzzy wolf!”

“Come on, Rarity!” Ardi choked at the sound of the pink poisoner’s voice. “I bet I can find that wolf with my Pinkie Sense. Gee, it’s pointing here for some reason!”

Ardi backed away from the door as Sweetie trotted back into the room.

“I got the cart all set up at the back of the Boutique, Ardi. Wait, who’s at the door?”

“Sweetie Belle!” He turned and picked her up. Sweetie stared at him with wide eyes as he said, “Sweetie, I have to ask one more favor.” Ardi pointed at the door. “Please, please stall them!” He and Spike hurriedly began gathering the bags together, dragging them to the back door. Spike hurried out with most of them. Ardi hurriedly threw a pair of saddlebags over his sides as Sweetie looked at him.

“Uhh, okay, what do I tell them?”

“I don’t know! Say I’m not decent,” Ardi headed for the back door. “Tell them I’m in here with Spike and he’s not decent! Whatever!” He headed out the back as Sweetie called after him.

“Okay, but what’s ‘not decent’ mean?” By that point Ardi was already outside, heading for the traces of the cart. Ardi grunted as Spike tightened the girth straps across his chest, stretched his neck to try and get some air. His body looked like a pony’s, but it wasn’t built the same. He just hoped he had the strength to pull the cart. Spike then peeled a branch off a small tree nearby and clambered up into the cart. Gems filled the body of it behind him. Ardi hoped they’d be enough.

“Hyaah, mule!” Spike yelled behind him, and lashed down with a switch he held. Ardi yelped as it lashed against his back, dug in his feet and started pulling. Nothing happened. He almost sobbed and pulled harder. Did he feel it move, if only slightly?

Voices rose inside the Boutique, and Ardi winced to hear hooves heading for the back door. “Huh? Rarity and Spike? Not decent? What the hay are you talkin’ about, Sweetie?”

“Dang it, Rarity, come on!” The palomino’s voice spoke up again. “This ain’t no time to get all gussied up! We gotta find that wolf, an’ when Ah do,” Ardi froze at her next words, spoken in a voice that burned with anger, “Ah’m gonna buck him right outta his pelt!”

Those words gave him a renewed strength. Ardi dug in and heaved. The cart resisted a moment longer, and then cart and tiny dragon and mare-suited wolf were all racing across the railway tracks and over the small bridge into Ponyville, heading across town for the Everfree Forest. Ponies neighed and dashed out of the way; griffins cinched up traces of their caravans and overloaded wagons, the first of them already taking wing.

“Ahhhh!” Ardi heard Spike digging his claws into the wood of the cart. The dragon yelled down at him, “Slow down, you crazy wolf! Slow down! You’re gonna smash into something!”

“No! Time!” Ardi gasp-panted back at him. He barely dodged around the three panicked flower ponies he’d seen earlier as they dived into the fountain in the town square to escape. They rose spluttering and soaked as he passed with a yell of, “Sorry, darlings!” Then down one more short but broad street, broad enough at least for ponies to press back against brick and half-timbered walls. The blue and pink ponies who’d been out hunting him were cleaning in front of a flowery-smelling tent-building. They stared after him with wide eyes. Ardi wondered briefly what sort of a reputation he was leaving to the spear-head whose form he wore. No matter. If he didn’t save Fluttershy and himself, he’d never be in a position to care.

Then they were past the poisoner’s gaudy bakery, past the schoolhouse from yesterday, down the road leading to Discord’s Demense. A couple cottages on the outskirts, then they were out of Ponyville proper, dashing past the West Pasture.

The road jogged to the left at Fluttershy’s house. Spike yelled green fire as the cart took the corner on one wheel, then they were speeding down the Everfree Road, rail fences on one side and the dark wall of the forest on the other. Past the South Pasture, past the Carrots’ farm…

Near Sweet Apple Acres, Ardi swerved into the forest along the same trail he’d used to enter a few days before. Coming from beyond it, the manifold noises of Discord’s Demesne.

Home free! Despite everything Ardi grinned. I’ve done it! Just me and Spike, and…

Something dropped down between him and the woods with a wild yell. At the same time something rough slithered around his neck from behind, cinching tight.

Ardi shrieked and slammed all four feet down, barely stopping before running into that flier-pony who wanted his tail. She glared at him. He choked and gasped as he worked against whatever monster’s tentacle was wrapped around his neck. Ardi stopped when the palomino came up beside him and with a flip of her head took the lasso from around his neck. He gasped as he felt air entering his lungs again. The palomino came up on one side of him while the pink poisoner bounced up on the other, looking more confused than furious. The palomino snorted and shoved her snout up against his.

“Yah didn’t really think this would work, did yah?”

Ardi just gulped.

They know!

* * *

Actually, they didn’t.

Ardi heaved a sigh of relief when they revealed that they were there simply to make sure that she got to the dragon’s lair intact, along with the gems and Spike. However they did insist on “her” sharing the plan with them. And as the mare-suited wolf and small dragon went deeper Discord’s Demesne, what the ponies called the Everfree Forest, accompanied by the flier-pony and the two earth pony mares, all of them bearing saddlebags of gemstones, they told “Rarity” at length what they thought of her plan.

“Horseapples, Rarity,” the sharp-voiced flier – no, her name was Rainbow Dash – said as she flew alongside the wolf. “That’s your big plan? Give all your gems to the dragon and hope he lets Fluttershy go?”

“And the wolf too,” Ardi quickly added. At Dash and Applejack’s suspicious looks, he added, “I mean, it’d be simply cruel of us to let that horror, oh sorry Spike,” the dragon sniffed and hmmphed but let it go as he finished with, “hurt the poor wolf. I mean, all he did was run into town in a panic. Er, or so Fluttershy told me.”

“Ah, he’s a wolf an’ all wolves are trouble,” Applejack said in a tone that brooked no argument. Ardi bristled, and her next words did nothing to mollify him. “This whole darn mess is its fault. He hadn’t a’ run into town like he did, after robbin’ that dragon’s hoard, then none o’ this woulda happened!” She looked ready to say more, only to fall silent when the pink poisoner – no, wait, her name was Pinkie Pie – started to speak.

“Aw, come on, AJ,” she said, bouncing along tirelessly. Before now Ardi thought wolves the most enduring of beings, but after several hours of heading for the dragon’s lair Pinkie seemed as fresh as when they’d started. “It’s not like the wolf wanted this to happen. And hey, maybe he was just scared and looking for a place to hide…”

At least somewolf’s on my side, Ardi thought. He kept swiveling his ears, trying to catch every alien sound. Which in Discord’s Demesne, meant virtually every sound around him.

“…And besides, if we ever find where he’s hiding in Ponyville,” Ardi almost thought that the pink one aimed a meaningful look at him, “Then we can watch you and Dash kick him into a rug! And say, Rarity, is something wrong? You look kinda sick or something.”

“Oh nothing, Pinkie darling,” Ardi choked out. Then again, maybe not on my side. He trotted along with them silently, thinking. How am I going to keep them busy while Spike and I save Fluttershy, to say nothing of myself? He tilted “Rarity’s” muzzle back and sniffed deeply. Once again, flowers everywhere. Blasted pony-suit nose. No. Wait. He sniffed even more deeply.

“Uh, something wrong, ‘Rarity’?” Spike said from astride his back. Ardi grunted a bit and sat down, letting Spike dismount. He groaned with relief. That little lizard was heavier than he looked. The three mares watched as Ardi sniffed again. There it was. A scent that mingled old meat and the sharp musk of a serpent’s den with sulfur. And ahead, just visible through the thick trees, that weird independent rock formation that was so frightfully familiar.

“This is it, girls,” Ardi said, wishing his voice sounded a little stronger. Part of him wondered if Rarity would sound so frightened. Probably not, he thought. She defeated mad gods and even Nightmare Moon. She’s not a mere helpless mortal like me. He looked at the other three and hope suddenly blazed up within him. Then again, neither are they. He cleared his throat and said in his best Rarity-voice, “This is it, ladies. The dragon’s lair is right ahead. Now give Spike and myself the gems, and we’ll go on ahead alone.”

As he’d thought, everypony started complaining at once.

“Whoa, Rarity, ya know we can’t let ya go an’ do that!”

“Yeesh, Rares, are ya crazy!”

“Umm, maybe we should all meet Mister Dragon and try and get him to laugh this all off?”

“Remember how that worked the last time?”

The last time?

“Listen to them, ‘Rarity’,” Spike said. The little dragon looked at the lair and gulped audibly. “I mean, it’d be silly not to use everything we have to handle one measly full-grown and angry dragon, right?”

Ardi waited for them to finish. Only then did he speak. “Girls, now listen. We’re here because the dragon is angry at somewo – I mean pony for invading his lair, right?” Three mares and one tiny dragon all nodded, looking curious. Ardi continued. “Well then, if he sees a whole pack of ponies entering his lair, he’ll just get angrier. He’ll probably think that we’re here to steal his hoard.”

“Yeah,” Spike said, like the words were dragged from him. “I’ve seen this dragon before, a couple of years ago when I ran away after Owlowiscious showed up. He’s really defensive of his horde, of all those,” Spike licked his scaly lips with a long forked tongue, “Of those emeralds, and rubies, and oh, the lumps of turquoise were just divine, with only a hint of gold…” He broke off when he realized they were staring at him in annoyance, wiped the drool from his chin. “Heh. Oops, sorry.”

“Anyway,” Ardi said, indicating the rocks with a toss of “her” tail, “If only Spike and I go ahead, then the dragon will be at least a little inclined to talk. Especially when he smells and sees the gemstones we’ve brought him.” He lightly tapped a hoof against one of the saddlebags Applejack bore. “Besides if anything does,” he gulped at the sudden mental image of dragonfire washing over him, “Does go wrong, then all of you will be available and ready to help. And you’ll have the element of surprise.” Ardi finished with a big smile that he hoped looked more confident than he felt. Applejack, Dash, and Pinkie looked at each other. A moment later Dash and Pinkie nodded.

“Okay,” Applejack said as she and her friends set their heavy saddlebags on Ardi. He staggered under them but bore up as she said, “We’ll be waitin’ here for ya to come back with Fluttershy. But ef ya ain’t back in, say, fifteen minutes, we’re comin’ in ta help ya. Understood?”

“I think five minutes would be more than long enough –“ Spike began, only to stop when Ardi slapped a hoof over his mouth.

“Oh, Spike, such brave little fellow to be joking right now!” Ardi grinned at the others, got behind Spike, and lowered his head and began pushing him towards the dragon’s lair. “We’ll be seeing you in a moment with Fluttershy, girls!” Spike dug in his heels but Ardi still managed to get him around the corner of the rocks and out of sight of the ponies. When they did the wolf growled, “Okay, scales, now what’s the problem?”

“Uh, this dragon? I think you need to know something about him. And me.” Spike looked at the open cave mouth, big enough for even the largest dragon to use without having to duck. Old clawmarks showed against the floor from where he’d scratched the granite absently when leaving or returning, and a reek of rotten eggs and meat came from within. Ardi noticed the old blackened bones he’d seen before when he’d snuck inside to snitch a few pieces of treasure as well, lying in profusion to either side of the cave’s mouth. Spike gulped and said, “I kinda sorta stole some of his hoard once myself. And he might remember me.”

For several seconds Ardi said nothing. His eyes went wide while the pupils shrank down to near pinpricks. His muzzle worked, lupine fangs visible by velvety pony lips, as he slowly forced out. “And you waited until now to reveal this why, exactly?”

“Hey, don’t snarl at me! You didn’t say which dragon it was.” Spike pouted and said, “Besides, you’re the one that robbed him.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ardi said, “Rarity”s voice dripping venom. “I didn’t think I’d need to establish a list of exactly which dragons wanted to kill my assistant!” He looked into the lair. “Besides, why would someone leave their home wide open and unguarded?”

Spike pointed at the bones. “Those didn’t warn you?”

“This is Discord’s Demesne! Everything out here can kill you!” Ardi lowered his muzzle and shook his head. The purple ribbon of a mane spilled about his eyes. “Look, it, it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting Fluttershy out and saving both Ponyville and my own neck too. Can we just get going before my nerve gives out?” He looked up pleadingly. Spike scowled at him. Ardi remembered that look Sweetie had used on him and tried it out. Spike growled and looked away. Ardi tried harder, uttering small puppy-like pleading whimpers as he crawled towards the little dragon, belly almost to the ground.

“Yeesh, okay, knock it off!” Ardi leaped to his feet, grinning. Spike just shuddered. “Man, but that was scary. You look too much like Rarity.” He turned and headed for the cave mouth. “Okay, let’s get going.”

Laden with the gems, Ardi and Spike entered the cave. The air inside should have felt cooler, shadowed as it was, but as soon as he stepped in the wolf started to pant. He could feel the oven-like heat coming right through the mare-suit. Smaller passages went off to the sides. Ardi hesitated, wondering which way to go.

“Never mind those,” Spike said, his voice low. “They’re just old storage chambers. He’d keep food or prisoners in there when he didn’t expect company. He’s gonna have Fluttershy with his main hoard. So gee up there!” There came the sound of a hard slap, and Ardi jumped and barked unexpectedly at the feel of a hard scaly palm smacking his backside. He gave Spike a furious look. The dragon grinned unabashedly. “Sorry, but I always wanted to do that.”

Grumbling, Ardi moved forward. A glow grew ahead and he slowed, taking one last deep breath. He went forward the last few paces. Spike’s clawed feet scratched against the stones behind him, and then Ardi found himself in the presence of the dragon.

He looked so much bigger than before. Ardi told himself it was just the effect of the dragon looking against the cavern walls and ceiling, and maybe the effect of his hoard spread out around him – piles of gems shimmering with their cold fire, fiercely glittering golden and softly shining silver coins from lost Equestrian mintings, finely-tooled saddles and bridles, even shining barding and lances from long-gone would-be pony and griffin dragon slayers.

And the dragon himself, towering over it all. His scales shone like emerald mail in that light coming from fancy-worked brass lamps from Saddle Arabia he kept hanging from the ceiling. Also hanging from the ceiling was a songbird’s cage big enough for a pony. In fact, a pony was inside it right now. Fluttershy was singing in very bad tune, hooves hobbled and a sort of hood covering her eyes. The dragon, for his part, looked at her in amusement. The wolf wondered if he even knew they were there. He didn’t know he’d spoken aloud until the dragon responded.

“Pony,” he said, “and hatchling. I feel your air. I hear your breath, and I smell your fear.” He turned his massive head around and looked down at them. He sounded bored, but even through the reek and flower-smell Ardi caught the sharp anger in his scent. “Now tell me, are you here with the wolf and my treasure?”

“Yes, and no,” Ardi said. “We have gifts for you, and we bear an apology as well.” He and Spike quickly laid the loaded-down saddle bags down before the dragon. The dragon looked down. Lazily he reached out with one sharp claw the length of a hunting spear and sliced the nearest one open. Gems spilled forth, a princess’s ransom even by Equestrian standards. The dragon picked the entire bag up and tossed it into his mouth. Two stony crunches and it was gone. He looked back at Ardi.

“Thus far I am unimpressed,” he said, sounding very bored. “I trust the apology will be better than the gift.” He lowered his head down until Ardi could catch sight of himself in the dragon’s eye. “For your sake, little unicorn, it had better be.” He then turned his gaze to Spike. “And this is the speaker for your town and that wolf? He doesn’t seem old enough to be out of his egg. But wait,” He sniffed, his long forked tongue slipping out to taste the air. Spike swallowed and grinned nervously as the dragon said with a new angry rumble entering his voice, “He smells quite familiar, somehow.”

“Oh, he just has that sort of a scent,” Ardi said, putting his forehooves on the dragon’s muzzle and smiling at him. It glared at him. He gulped but didn’t cower, saying instead, “Now how about you take the gems and the apology, and agree to let Fluttershy there go free, along with Ponyville and the wolf? I mean, unless you’d like me, Rarity Belle, a heroine of the realm and Titular Countess of Lipizzan, to go and ask her very good friend the Burning Queen, Princess Celestia, if she needs to come and ask?” Ardi dropped back as the dragon raised his head up. Spike came up beside him.

“You shouldn’t have trotted out the big guns,” he said. “Dragons don’t like feeling like they’re being forced into something.” Ardi kept a calm smile on his, or rather Rarity’s, muzzle while he whispered to him.

“Hey, if some name-dropping keeps me from getting either devoured or incinerated…” Before he could say more the dragon spoke.

“You’re known to Princess Celestia? You’re Rarity, the Countess Lipizzan?” The dragon sounded thoughtful and even a little concerned. He thrust a claw at Fluttershy. “And her, is she nobility of the Equestrian court as well?”

“Why of course,” Ardi purred out, very glad for once that he was inside this mare-suit. It dulled the instinctive lupine body language that would have shown how he lied to anyone who knew wolves. “Oh, my yes, we all became countesses when we defeated and exiled her mad sister Nightmare Moon. And the Twisting One, and so many minor threats besides.” Spike seemed dismayed for some reason, coughing and hacking as he tugged on Ardi’s tail. The wolf ignored him, twitching ‘her’ tail away and saying, “Why, sometimes Celly – she likes us to call her that, you know – sometimes Celly drops by for some tea and to ask us for some advice on how to run the country. Poor dear Burning Queen, she seems so run down by the cares of her position. Sometimes it’s all she can do to prevent herself from killing some annoyance right then and there, but if I begged for mercy on your behalf she might just… YEEK!” The world spun around Ardi’s eyes as the dragon lifted him into the air. He found himself hanging before that muzzle, with the scaled lips curling back over the fangs in a draconic smile.

You know Princess Celestia, do you?” The dragon’s smile grew even wider. Hot breath blasted out from his mouth to strike Ardi with a moist heat as the dragon said, “Rarity, countess of her court? Who helped exile the Nightmare? Who saves the innocent from the fiery wrath of the Burning Queen?” He chuckled, a sound like rocks grinding together. “I’m afraid I very much doubt that, given that ponies never refer to their princess as ‘The Burning Queen.’ Only wolves do. Wolves like the one who robbed my hoard!” Then with a mighty intake of breath he shoved Ardi against the end of his muzzle. Ardi gasped as he felt the sudden inrush of air as the dragon took in his scent. He shuddered as that long tongue, sticky and slimy and thick as a cable, slipped out and around him before withdrawing as the dragon hissed in a tone devoid of any amusement. “A wolf. Like you. Exactly like you.” Ardi gulped as the monster held him up by the tail and before its eyes. “What illusion did those ponies hide you under, you miserable vermin?”

“I-I-I…” Ardi tried to think of something, anything, to say as that maw opened before him. White swords of fangs lined a wet crimson cavern. He almost swore he could see the words Here lies a dead wolf on one of those fangs. “It’s not an illusion! It’s the real me! I mean, the almost real me! I'm stuck inside a magical maresuit! And I’m sorry I robbed your hoard! I didn’t know it was yours, please don’t eat me!”

“WHAT?” The dragon held the thrashing “unicorn” close enough that Ardi could have stuck his nose into the dragon’s eye, aglow now with its inner fires, if he dared. “Syhlex’s fires, what? A ponysuit? I want an explanation!” The wolf all but rushed through his story, starting with entering Ponyville and ending up inside the Rarity-suit. When he finished the dragon threw its head back and roared with laughter, pounding the floor with his tail hard enough to send some of the smaller stalactites hanging from the ceiling crashing down.

“Oh, a-hahaha!” The dragon bellowed with laughter, actually wiping a tear from his eye. “How could even a wolf be so stupid?” Ardi winced and snarled, only to gasp at its next words. “I’ll be doing you a favor when I put you out of your misery and into my belly.”

“Don’t you dare!” Ardi heard Fluttershy cry, and from somewhere down below there came a dim thud. The dragon looked down as did Ardi. The wolf fought to keep his lunch down. The floor of the cavern looked so very far away. And down there, lining up a minotaur battle axe almost as big as he was, Spike swung it against the dragon’s ankle to utterly no effect.

The dragon rumbled out something like a sigh. Then with stunning speed he reached down and snatched Spike right off of his feet. Little Spike yelled in panic as he found himself held up before the dragon’s eyes. The dragon looked from one to the next.

“Two meals for now,” he growled. He looked at Fluttershy’s cage. “And then a nice light dessert, and later, that entire wretched town. Just for hiding you.” Ardi yelped as the dragon shook him by the Rarity-suit’s tail. The dragon said, “That should teach any survivors not to hide hoard thieves.”

“N-no!” Ardi tried to get his attention. Part of him wondered why he was trying to defend a bunch of ponies who didn’t even like him. The other, larger part of him felt he could die with some sort of peace if he only saved Fluttershy and Sweetie Belle. He waved his hooves wildly, yelling, “Don’t do it to them, they didn’t know! It was my fault, I ran to hide there, I put this costume on…” He broke off with a gasp as the dragon swung him around by the tail for a few moments. When it stopped, Ardi hung with a groan, working very hard not to be sick.

“Quiet, you,” the dragon said with a scowl. He turned to Spike. “And you, little cousin. Why do you help this thief, or those ponies? Syhlex’s spawn should stick together, and…” He looked closer, his brow furrowing. He sniffed deeply. Spike groaned in disgust as that tongue came out and slithered over him. The dragon said thoughtfully, “I still think you smell familiar.” Then his eyes widened. “Wait! I remember! That filthy little hatchling a few years ago, the one I found inside my lair, eating my hoard!” He turned and snarled at Fluttershy, “Oh, you vile ponies, you were hiding him too, I’ll burn your whole miserable den of thieves to the ground, and…”

And it happened.

Spike belched loudly and a puff of green flame came from his mouth. The dragon roared in surprise. Ardi winced and flattened his ears against the echoes ringing in them as the green fireball coalesced into a vellum scroll, rolled and sealed with a Royal Sunburst. The dragon snarled as he reached after it with the paw holding him. He let go, and Ardi found himself dangling from the suit’s tail again. “If you’re wise and want to live five seconds longer, grab that scroll, now!”

The wolf needed no encouragement. He snatched it and held on like it was a lifeline, which in essence it was right then. The dragon looked at him and then at the comparatively small vellum.

“I might as well know what message was being sent to this thief. What does it say?”

“I c-can’t read Equestrian very well,” Ardi said, sheepish. The dragon just looked at him and ostentatiously licked his fangs. Ardi quickly unrolled it and began to read, fumbling over the more difficult words:

“Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity

“Something terrible has come up in Canterlot. Princess Celestia has ordered me to come and fetch all of you to the Palace with the Elements of Harmony – immediately, just as you are.

“Rarity, this means you. No packing ‘just a few essentials’!”

Ardi broke off and grinned hopefully. The dragon simply looked at him. Ardi hurriedly returned to reading.

“Everything else you need to know, you’ll be told when you arrive. I’ll be bringing you to Canterlot by Royal Guard Pegasus Chariots. Spike, get everypony to the library, I’ll meet you there. Tell Rarity NO PACKING ‘A FEW ESSENTIALS’ and Pinkie NO PARTIES. Until then, stay safe and…”

Ardi gulped at the next words, which seemed aimed at him.

“Be v-very careful of any ponies who don’t seem to be themselves.

“Twilight Sparkle.”

The scroll fell from his hooves, to vanish against the floor below. Ardi closed his eyes and wondered what it’d feel like when the dragon ate him.

“You do know Celestia,” it said, sounding oddly subdued. Ardi dared hope, a hope that grew stronger as it said, “And Luna. And the Princess’s apprentice. Well enough for her to send her own royal guard to bring you to her.” It sighed. “That’s more than I care to face, over a few gems.” The dragon carefully lowered Ardi and Spike to the floor. Ardi shook, wondering at the feel of gems and coins underhoof. He watched as the dragon carefully lowered Fluttershy’s cage to the floor and opened it. Flutts stumbled out, shivering. Ardi yanked the hobbles from her hooves and the hood from her face.

“Ardi!” She gasped and hugged him. She shivered, and he smelled her mingled fear and relief. “I thought that you... That we were all about to… Mmph!” Ardi pulled her into a kiss, his forelegs around her. Right then he wanted to know what it felt like to be alive, and he couldn’t think of any better way. After a nice steamy moment, Fluttershy pulled back. Ardi looked at her, suddenly and unexpectedly hopeful.

“Sorry,” Fluttershy said in her soft little voice, “But you’re not my type.” Ardi looked away from her to the dragons. Spike looked slightly disgusted. The big one looked bored again, but Ardi caught how his claws dug into the floor beneath him.

”If you’re done being mammals?” It said dryly, indicating the exit to its cave with one claw. Fluttershy and Spike both turned to leave. Ardi turned to follow, but halfway there he stopped and looked back.

“You’re really letting me go, because of Celestia?” The Burning Queen saved my life? He waited for an answer. The dragon gave none, simply looking at him with those glowing eyes. Ardi was about to get going when the dragon finally spoke.

“Yes, but not entirely for the reason you think,” it said. Ardi looked back at him as the dragon said, “Celestia and Luna are indeed too dire a set of foes for me, but more to the point, Celestia has a much greater imagination than I do.” His grin turned to an evil smirk. “Whatever fate I could dream up for you, a wolf pretending to be a national heroine and member of the aristocracy, would be as nothing beside what she will do. Just think,” and as the dragon spoke, Ardi felt his heart trying to crawl up into his throat. “Celestia turned Discord into stone, and sent King Sombra into the shadows, and she even exiled her own sister to the moon for a thousand years. Whatever she does to you?” The dragon laughed, and Ardi dodged a falling stalactite with a yelp. “It will make any planned vengeance of MINE look like a hatchling’s game!”

And with those words in his heart and the dragon’s mocking laughter filling his ears, Ardi fled to he knew not what fate.

* * *

Twilight Sparkle shivered with more than the last of the morning chill as she trotted to the Palace landing stages and the waiting pegasus chariots, Princess Celestia walking beside her. Wave after wave of pegasus couriers winged overhead, their barding flashing gold in the light of Celestia’s sun, carrying sealed messages from Canterlot to the cities and towns of Equestria. Fear and excitement jousted inside the lilac-coated unicorn as she set out on her mission, her mentor there to see her off.

In the frenzied night and morning between Blueblood’s crashing Celestia’s bedchamber and the present, the fragments of what happened had begun to come together. Apparently the Changeling Queen had infiltrated Blueblood’s townhouse wearing the shape and identity of a reporter – Flash Bulb from The New Moon. The real Flash Bulb had turned up in a South Side alley shortly after Celestia raised the sun, staggering from the aftereffects of a sleep spell plus emotional drain. Further investigations by both the Canterlot Constabulary and Royal Guard had turned up nothing except more questions. Like the one Twilight now broached to her mentor.

“Princess? Why did the Changelings just leave Blueblood and that other pony? When they could have just taken them away to wherever their Hive is?”

“I don’t know,” the Sun Princess replied. “That puzzles me, too. It would have been much easier and safer to just make them ‘disappear’. Keep them in the Hive to feed on their emotions, or cocoon them and make them into Changelings.” During the Battle of Canterlot, Celestia had seen the inside of a Changeling transformation cocoon; she did not want to repeat the experience.

Another wave of couriers flew overhead, these with bat wings and iron-grey barding, smoked-glass goggles shielding their eyes from the blinding sun. Looking up at the Night Guard couriers, the Sun Princess commented “My sister seems to have taken quite an interest in this operation since last night. She remembers how Chrysalis decoyed her away during the Wedding.”

The two – mortal unicorn and immortal Alicorn Major – reached the end of the landing stage, where three two-pegasus chariots awaited. Stopping before the center one, Celestia dropped her head down and nuzzled Twilight. “Stay safe, my student.”

“I won’t disappoint you, Princess,” Twilight said as she boarded the centermost chariot. The two Pegasus Day Guards in the traces spread their wings as she braced for takeoff.

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