• Published 27th Jul 2014
  • 4,338 Views, 263 Comments

Foreigner - AugieDog



Gilda has taken a posting in a far-flung corner of griffon territory in the hope of never seeing another pony again. That hope is, of course, in vain.

  • ...
7
 263
 4,338

6 - Sorcerer

Knowing that she'd misheard because there was no way in a thousand feline Hells that Twilight had really just said— Gilda forced herself to breathe in, then out, then in again before she asked, "What?"

"Griffon magic," Twilight said, her eyes moving back and forth over the manuscript floating in the purple light of her horn. "This Glendora claims that she—"

"No!" The word burst from Gilda like a kit clawing out of its egg. "There isn't—! We're not—! It can't be true!"

"Well..." Twilight's brow wrinkled, and a bar of whiter light passed over the pages. "Both my authentication spell and my own experience working with ancient books seem to agree. The parchment, the ink, the patina: everything indicates that this work is definitely twelve hundred years old."

"But—!" Gilda's mind spun. "It could still be phony! I mean, maybe Glendora just imagined it all! Or maybe when the windigoes buried Catlatl in ice, she...she just went crazy!"

A snort from Discord, stretched along the ceiling above the door. "You don't know the half of it, sister."

"Shut up!" Gilda leaped into the air and jabbed a claw at the space between his red and yellow eyes, his snide tone more than she could handle right then. "You weren't there, monster, so don't you dare talk about it like you were!"

Those eyes went wide, then narrowed, and the silence around Gilda got as prickly as a cactus. "Discord," she heard Fluttershy say below her. "Please remember that Gilda finds any talk of griffon magic to be very distressing."

"Well, she should." Every bit of his snideness had vanished, his next words drifting over Gilda as cold and gentle as winter's first snowfall. "Griffon magic destroyed me, after all, and forced me into a nightmare that after a dozen centuries has only recently become bearable."

"You—" Gilda's wings froze, and she dropped to the floor, unable to tear her gaze away from him, the thought robbing her of breath. "Were you there? In Catlatl? During the Resettlement?"

"Discord?" Twilight was staring up at him as well. "Do you know something about all this?"

"As I believe I mentioned earlier—" He wheeled suddenly away from the wall and flopped down among the papers Rarity had been trying to organize on Gloriana's bed, the unicorn shying away from the cloud of dust that poofed up. "—there are some things I can't say." A grin curled his snout. "But since you've got Mother's interminable manuscript right there, you're bound to run across the passage eventually." He snapped the pads of his lion paw, and the pages hovering in front of Twilight began rapidly shuffling themselves. "So why don't I show you the spot?"

Twilight gasped. "Careful! You'll tear it!"

"Oh, please." Discord waved his talons. "That nasty thing may fade and wrinkle with the ages, but it's as indestructible as I am." The roiling of the papers stopped, and he flicked one of his foreclaws, sent it swooping across the room to tap the page that now lay on top of the stack. "Right about there."

Blinking, Twilight looked down. "It says, 'They had to pay, and mine was the power to make it happen.'"

"No, no, no!" Discord sat up, his dark glasses back in place, a black beret perched between his horns and a scarf knotted loosely around his neck. "Acting is about more than reading the lines, Twilight Sparkle! You have to bring the words alive! Like so!" He snapped his claws again, and—

And Gilda found herself with the others at the top of a wind-swept cliff, the sky so blue overhead, it was practically purple. Craning her head, she saw mountains towering around them, their peaks capped with snow, and spreading out below them lay a green and sunny landscape, forested hills rolling gently into the distance.

A place she'd seen before, she realized with a start. When she'd left griffon territory all those years ago, her vow never to return fresh on her beak, this had been her first sight of Equestria Proper, the Pony Lands, the place she was convinced Destiny had meant for her to spend the rest of her life.

"And?" Discord's voice said behind her; Gilda looked back to see him aiming a talon to her right. "Action!" he whispered urgently.

Following his pointing claw, Gilda sucked in a breath. Another griffon crouched further along the edge of the cliff. "They have to pay," this other griffon said, her words choked and trembling, and when she whirled around, Gilda couldn't keep from taking a step back: the other griffon's eyes were literally burning, tongues of flame licking at her eyelashes, smoke billowing around her with a fiery stench of hatred and despair. "And mine is the power to make it happen!" she shrieked.

She leaped away from the cliff and landed beside a large canvas pack. "The decades I've spent training and striving, tearing the very fabric of reality apart and learning to manipulate its shreds! Now at last, it all comes to fruition!" Sickly green sparks rustled among her feathers, and when she spread her talons, lightning flashed from them. "Ponies sewed chaos and destruction over my people's former lands, so I shall sow chaos and destruction over this new Equestria of theirs, cursing and befouling their nests as they cursed and befouled ours!" She flexed her claws, and the backpack exploded, glowing shapes flying out to land among the rocks in a pattern that made every hair on Gilda's body stand straight up.

"Arise!" the griffon roared, and more spidery bolts of lightning crackled from shape to shape along the ground. "Arise!" she screamed again, and the lightning arched over the pattern to create a shimmery sort of dome. "Arise!" she bellowed, and the area beneath the dome began to swirl with colors and lights. "And one final time I command it!" She sprang upward, the fire around her talons almost too bright for Gilda to look at, and struck the dome, slamming her foreclaws against it and shattering it with a roar louder than any blast of thunder. "Arise!"

Blinking away the purplish afterimage of the explosion, Gilda didn't notice for a few seconds that something was stirring in the ashy center of the now dull and lifeless pattern, something brown and jagged that stretched and yawned and sat up smacking its lips—

Or rather, smacking his lips...

"Discord," the other griffon said, and the word seemed to toll like a bell. "That will be your name, my creature, and that will be your function. Move among those vile ponies and show them what horrors they inflicted upon us when they brought about the destruction of my beloved Catlatl!" She crooked her talon at the green countryside beyond the mountains. "Now go!"

Swiveling his head, Discord blinked first at the landscape, then at the griffon. "Not even a good-bye kiss, Mother?" he asked.

"Scene!" a nearly-identical voice shouted from behind Gilda, and she couldn't keep her wings from flaring out when Gloriana's room snapped back into place, the others looking every bit as disoriented as she felt. Except for Discord, of course: his glasses and beret still in place, he folded his arms. "And that, I'll have you know, is the proper way to create a dramatic presentation."

The silence went on for a few more heartbeats, then— "Discord?" Fluttershy asked with a tremble. "Are you saying that that griffon...created you?"

"I'm saying nothing, my dear Fluttershy." He snapped his costume away. "There are some things I can't say, after all." He waved at the old parchment pages, now scattered across the floor at Twilight's hoofs. "Still, if you dare venture into Mother's convoluted prose, you'll find that the proper term is 'manifestation,' the magical process by which an abstract concept—such as, oh, let's say 'chaos'—is forced to take corporeal form, locked into this horrible, horrible world of light and air and gravity, and separated forever from the thoughtless, emotionless, intangible nothing that is the rest of itself." He sighed. "Ah, the good ol' days..."

"Then..." Twilight was staring wide-eyed at him. "It was Glendora's magic that turned you loose on Equestria. And if Professor Gloriana finds her secrets—"

"Yes," Discord said quietly, Gilda's hackles rising as the implications started popping through her brain. "There are many abstract concepts far worse than chaos. And for all that I'm loath to say anything positive about Mother and will not forgive her for making me powerless against her magic, after she hid her recipe book away in the ruins here, she never fashioned another piece of thaumaturgy as long as she lived. She made her way south to the new griffon capital city and spent the rest of her days working as a mid-level government clerk." His voice dropped to a growl. "Still, I somehow think your professor has something more grandiose in mind."

"All right." Gilda could barely keep from jumping out Gloriana's window, but panic wasn't an option. "We need to find Gloriana and stop her before she can blast open wherever this magic's buried." She had to restrain herself again, this time from grabbing Twilight and shaking her. "Teleport us back to the site of the wyvern mosaic, and we'll—"

"Forgive me, Praetor." Godfrey was leafing through the black-bound notebook he'd taken from Gloriana's lockbox. "But unless I miss my guess, Professor Gloriana did not import those mining geodes to help her unearth Glendora's magic." He turned the book to reveal a double-page spread: a rough sketch of Catlatl's familiar streets, Gilda could see, a random scattering of tiny circles drawn over it. "Six boxes of ten geodes, and I count sixty marks on this map."

The room wanted to start spinning, but Gilda refused to let it. "She planted the mines throughout Catlatl? But...why?"

"Distractions," Applejack said, her orange face paling almost to pink. "If'n parts of the city started blowing up, she musta reckoned y'all'd be more interested in stopping that than stopping whatever she was messing around with."

Even more implications smacked around inside Gilda's head as hard as cudgels, and she had to fight another urge: to curl up mewling on the floor. "So if we go after her, the city gets destroyed. Or while we're finding and disarming the mines, she gets Glendora's magic." Gilda clenched her claws. "That's not gonna happen, though, neither of those."

"Two teams," Twilight said, nodding to Rarity. "These are explosive geodes we're talking about, so with that map, Rarity, you can find them by tracking the crystals inside."

Gilda shook her head. "Magic sets 'em off, remember?"

"Right." Twilight tapped her chin. "I go with Rarity, then: I can cast an area-effect shield spell, make all magic in the whole valley more diffuse and less direct. That should let Rarity detect the things without touching them deeply enough to trigger them and should also keep Gloriana from being able to set them off remotely."

Rarity was nodding. "And with these being actual gems, I should be able to locate them much more easily than I could those little mosaic pieces."

"And then—" Applejack stepped forward. "If Gloriana's hid the things up high, I'll buck 'em down, and if she's buried 'em, I'll dig 'em up. Won't need no magic for that 'cept these li'l darlings here." She rubbed her hoofs together.

The tiniest flicker of hope in her chest, Gilda turned to Pinkie. "So how do you disarm the bombs once they're set?"

Pinkie's mane was still almost entirely flat. "You don't. I mean, you can, but you hafta spend, like, twenty minutes hugging each one and thinking calm, friendly thoughts. It takes a while for rocks to relax, y'know, 'specially when they're all wound up and ready to go."

"So option two." Dash spread her wings. "Twi and Rares find 'em, AJ gets 'em out, I fly 'em up to the tropopause, give 'em a squirt of wind magic, and let 'em blow up."

"Too dangerous," Gilda said. "And yeah," she went on before Dash could start objecting. "I know danger's your middle name or whatever, but don't be an idiot. Magic pours off you like a waterfall. You even flap your wings too close to wunna these things, you're likely to trigger it. We need something—" A memory flashed through her, and Gilda whirled to where Spike sat restacking the scattered pages of Glendora's manuscript. "Those balloons you were inflating for Pinkie when she was making that floating rock sculpture! Was that just hot air, or were you using magic?"

Spike blinked up at her. "Just hot air. I mean, I didn't wanna send 'em crashing down onto Princess Celestia."

A gasp from Pinkie. "And I've still got plenty of string and balloons!" Her mane springing up, she dug out a double hoofful of multicolored little rubber things.

Dash had folded her front legs across her chest. "Fine. Pinkie ties Spike's balloons to 'em and floats 'em outta the city. Then can I blow 'em up?"

Gilda scraped a claw at the floor. "If we can get 'em high enough. Shock waves'll damage the site, too, and I really doubt sending an avalanche down from the Wyverns'd be the best thing for it, either."

"Ummm, Gilda?" The sound was so quiet, it took Gilda a couple looks around till she found Fluttershy peering out from behind Discord. "You said something earlier about peregranite falcons in these mountains?"

Swallowing her impatience, Gilda nodded, and Fluttershy nodded back. "Well, I could ask them to grab Pinkie's balloons and fly them out of the valley. They could take them a safe distance away, leave them there, and then Rainbow could use her magic to, ummm, dispose of them."

"But—" Gilda hesitated. Her first question—How d'you think you're gonna get the falcons to do that?—would likely just make the little pegasus start cowering again. So she asked her second question instead: "Aren't peregranite falcons magic?"

Fluttershy opened her mouth, but it was Pinkie who answered: "Animal magic's a totally different thing. Mining geodes get taught to ignore it."

Silence for a quarter of a moment, then Twilight spoke. "Well! There's our plan. We—"

"It's crazy!" Gilda couldn't keep from shouting. "This can't—! It isn't—! There's no possible way—!"

"Gilda." Twilight was suddenly right in front of her, those purple eyes big and deep and serious. "Let us save Catlatl. You stop Gloriana."

And as much as one part of Gilda wanted to cheer—Of course the ponies'll save Catlatl!—another part was growling—Or finish the job their ancestors started and destroy it once and for all...

But there wasn't time for doubts. "Go," she said, then she turned to Godfrey. "You're with me, Aedile."

"And me!" a thick voice called out; Gilda glanced over just as something gray and blonde wrapped a hug around her. "'Cause we're friends, Gilda! And it's gonna take a lotta friendship to make this work!"

Gilda swallowed against the lump in her throat. "Look, Derpy, I—" But the expression on Derpy's face, tough and tender at the same time, made her nod. "All right," she said.

"And me," Discord said, sliding across the room toward her like he had ice skates on. "As I said, I'm not allowed to meddle directly with Mother's magic, but if this carefully-wrought plan of yours collapses into as many pieces as it seems likely to, well—" He stomped a hind leg, and a strip of cloth appeared, wrapping itself around his waist and between his legs. "It's been some time since I did any sumo wrestling, but perhaps I can slow down whatever vile monstrosity this Professor Gloriana of yours manages to manifest from the abstract concepts available to her."

Another swallow, and Gilda looked from the monster to the wall-eyed pony to her trusted aedile, now holding out Gloriana's little notebook with the map for Twilight to take in her magic. He stepped away from the group gathering around the princess, and Gilda sent a quick prayer to the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father before saying, "Good luck."

Twilight nodded. A purple bubble formed at the tip of her horn, spread out to encompass the ponies and Spike, and then vanished, taking all of them with it.

"Here," Discord said, tipping over the neat pile Spike had made of Glendora's old manuscript and digging out several pages. "You'll need these."

"Why?" Gilda took the parchment and squinted at the faded writing.

"Directions." He had pulled a set of shoulder pads from the air and was strapping them on. "To where Mother hid her magic. Gloriana's probably memorized them, so it might be a good idea for us to be on our way."

"Right." Gilda turned the pages over to Godfrey and gave Discord a sideways glance. "I don't suppose you could magic us down to wherever those directions are pointing?"

Discord slipped a football helmet over his head, his horns popping out through the top. "I'm already pushing my limits here, so no. I'd best leave the rest up to you."

"Fair enough." Gilda unfurled her wings. "Let's go."

"Weapons, Praetor?" Godfrey asked, and Gilda hesitated.

Just for half a breath, though: "If we go in armed, she'll think we're there to fight. We wanna talk to her, get close, and take her down hard before she can start summoning monsters or whatever. And if she already has..." With a shrug, Gilda gave the chirp for 'tactical withdrawal.'

He chirped his acknowledgment, and Gilda sprang into the air.

***

Down the corridors and out the main doors into the early afternoon sunlight, Gilda refused to think about anything except the mission: refused to think about the empty way her wingbeats echoed through the garrison; refused to think about the absence of cadets guarding the entry; refused to think about the slight breeze stirring up from the south and the barely-trained fledges she'd sent out to face whatever force the Grand Imperator—

No. Not thinking about that. Remember?

Ahead of her, then, lay the city, the fifteen-hundred-year-old remains of Catlatl, abandoned twelve hundred years ago and covering the valley floor from the crumbling docks along the river all the way up to the walls of the Palace. And ticking away inside the city, sixty explosive—

No. Not thinking about that, either.

For all that she wanted to plunge straight down, knowing she could pull out and land just fine, she kept her angle of descent strictly within regulations, Godfrey in perfect position to her right, Derpy's wings buzzing as fast as a hummingbird's on her left, Discord wrapped in padding and flapping like a windsock below her. Eyes fixed on the canal, she swooped to follow it south till she saw the large open area among the ruins, the bazaar where they'd left Gloriana. "There!" she called, gesturing, and she banked over to land, her aedile again matching her exactly.

Derpy came in a bit more heavily, stones slipping under her hoofs, and Discord slithered down with a clattering clank, plate armor now encasing him. "Charming spot," he said, stirring up a cloud of dust with a rear hoof. "I can see why Mother was so fond of it."

Yelling at him would just waste time; instead, Gilda waved a claw at the wedge in the rocks Applejack had kicked open earlier, the green and blue shimmering clearly among the yellows and browns. "That's where the wyvern mosaic's buried." She looked at Godfrey. "Where do we go from here?"

He had pulled the pages from his pack. "Ten blocks due west."

A gasp from Discord, and he wavered like the horizon on a hot day, his armor collapsing to the ground around him. "Perhaps we could hurry?" he asked in a tight voice.

Gilda launched herself toward the western edge of the market square, ticked off the blocks one through nine as she flew past, then pulled into a hover at the intersection. "Do we turn here or at the other end?"

"Here." Godfrey tapped the page, his mouth clenched into such a hard line, Gilda almost expected his beak to start cracking. "The rest of Glendora's instructions make it obvious that she's leading us directly into the heart of Catlatl's meat slaughtering district."

"Mother's non-existent sense of humor." Discord shook his head. "I can't tell you how glad I am to have begun making friends with ponies." A grin squirmed across his snout like a freshly caught fish. "It makes me warm all over knowing how disappointed Mother would be if she could see me now."

Bobbing up and down in the air beside Gilda, Derpy gave a brow-wrinkling frown. "I don't like to say it, but this Glendora sounds like she was pretty mean."

"Yeah." Gilda gestured to Godfrey. "Take point, Aedile, and get us where we need to be."

"Praetor." Godfrey stuffed the papers into his pack and took off over the collapsed roofs to the south-east; Gilda kept pace easily enough, and after cutting in a diagonal over several blocks, he descended to the street, the weathered buildings on both sides still standing three and four stories tall in some spots.

She saw it even as he was raising a foreclaw to point: recently disturbed rocks pushed aside to clear a doorway at the end of the block. She nodded, waited for Derpy and Discord to join them, then said softly, "Anything you're able to do, Discord, feel free to do it whenever you can. Derpy? I want you behind Godfrey and me, and—" There wasn't a single bit of protocol for a situation like this, of course, so she just finished with, "—be careful." Giving a nod to Godfrey and getting one in return, she started toward the open door.

The darkness seemed to crackle as she stepped in, her fur and feathers prickling the way they did before a thunderstorm. The space made her think of a front office or a waiting room, and fallen stones partially clogged three of the four doorways in the back wall. The fourth, though, not only had had the rubble pushed aside, but a faint glow seemed to drift in its air like dust.

Treading carefully over the debris-strewn floor, Gilda moved into the narrow hallway on the other side, Godfrey's familiar paw and claw steps right behind her. The hallway went straight into the building a good four dozen paces, the glow in the air getting stronger with each step, then with a turn to the left, it led Gilda out into—

She stopped at the sight, a part of her wanting to wheel and run. The big room still held more than a whiff of the slaughterhouse it had been all those centuries ago, and the walls weren't nearly as collapsed as most of the interior rooms she'd been in during her three years leading groups around Catlatl. A mound of stone filled the center of the space, more conical than seemed natural, and the still-intact ceiling said that the rubble hadn't fallen into place. No, it looked like it had been deliberately placed there to cover something.

That something, Gilda guessed, was the book Professor Gloriana sat clutching partway down the side of the mound. The professor's beak was moving, her eyes shifting from side to side, her claws turning the pages so rapidly, it was less like she was reading it than like she was sucking the information in through her every barb and follicle. Strange hissing whispers tugged at Gilda's ears, and she wasn't really sure that all the sounds were coming from Gloriana's direction.

The light, though, she could tell where that was coming from: a swirling pillar of greenish sparks reached from the top of the mound to the stone ceiling maybe a story-and-a-half above, the sickly, uncertain glow scattering oddly around the walls like it was bouncing off invisible pieces of glass floating everywhere. Just looking at the light made the urge squirm even harder in her chest to fly as fast and far as she could in any direction that was away from here, but she swallowed against it, started forward, caught Godfrey moving up on her right out of the corner of her eye—

"Not another step." Gloriana didn't look up from the book she was shuffling through. "I've actually enjoyed much of my time interacting with you, Gilda, and you, Godfrey, have been a true pleasure to know. But I will kill you both and destroy this city we all love if you don't do exactly as I say."

Gilda let her hackles spike up. "You can try, I think is what you meant to say."

The professor raised her gaze from the book this time, and Gilda's hackles bristled even higher. Gloriana's eyes weren't pools of liquid fire the way Glendora's had been in the scene Discord had showed them earlier, but they guttered like banked coals, like they were just waiting for someone to toss a clawful of dry straw or twigs over them as fuel for their flames. "Try, Praetor?" She held up a set of talons, something black and rectangular in them. "Perhaps you'd like to try this."

Her claws moved, the box gave off a tiny clicking sound, and Gilda braced herself, hoping and praying to the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father that Twilight was right about that shield spell she'd been talking about.

Silence went on all around them, and Gilda couldn't help grinning as Gloriana's expression soured. She clicked the little box a couple more times, and when no explosions rang out either nearby or in the distance, she gave the box a glare before turning that glare toward Gilda.

Gilda shrugged. "When you leave us a map," she said, "you've gotta expect we're gonna use it. So now that all your little pop rocks are outta the city, how 'bout you come on down here and talk to us." Again, there weren't any protocols for this in the manuals, so she swallowed and just said what she felt. "I mean, c'mon, Gloriana! You can't think it's a good idea to mess around with magic! I mean, we're griffons! We don't need—"

"But we do!" Gloriana slammed her clenched talons against the pages of the book, and Gilda swore she heard thunder rumble around her. "You saw the evidence yourself, Praetor! Nine Jaguar, the greatest griffon the world has ever known, forced to debase herself and appeal to the mercy of ponies for the sunlight Catlatl needed! Fifteen hundred years, and the problem's just gotten worse!" The fire in her eyes seemed to glow even brighter, and Gilda felt a cold numbness envelop her wings. "You know as well as I do that they should fear us and respect us. That's what's proper."

"No!" Derpy's thick voice cried out behind Gilda. "We can all be friends! That's always a lot nicer than being mean!"

Gloriana's beak curled into a sneer, and Gilda could only stare as the professor crooked a claw and sent a tiny jagged lightning bolt—not much bigger than an inch worm, some part of Gilda's brain said—flashing through the semi-darkness. The bolt sizzled over Gilda's head, and she forced her head around to see the thing strike Derpy right between the eyes.

Derpy blinked, her mane prickling up a bit. "Hey!" she said, her brow wrinkling. "Why're you giving out tickles? Aren't you s'pposed to be the bad guy?"

A hiss drew Gilda's attention back to Gloriana. "Another few minutes, and you'll find them less pleasant." She waved at the pillar of green fire. "I'll also introduce you to someone who's even less interested in being your friend than I am."

"It's started," Discord whispered into Gilda's ear, then he cleared his throat loudly and slid in front of her, a slouch-brim hat between his ears with a flashing sign on it that said Press. "Professor? Scoop Discord, here, Chaos Daily Times-Picayune." A notepad appeared in his talons, and he began scratching at it with a quill pen. "My readers would love to know what horrific and unnatural being you plan to corporealize and unleash upon the unsuspecting world."

Gloriana smiled, the expression even more ghastly than the last time Gilda had seen it. "Perhaps I'll give you to your big brother as a plaything once I've taken care of this first summoning. After all, you were the greatest mistake my predecessor made." She flipped a few more pages, the light from the pillar getting brighter and brighter. "My observation of ponies has led me to conclude that chaos was simply the wrong force to manifest in the face of their infernal friendliness. The spirit Glendora should have manifested was the spirit of cruelty." She turned over the book's last page. "I think I'll call him Spite."

Behind her, the pillar flared, angry reds flashing among the green, and Gilda finally managed to shake her wings open. "One-five, Aedile! Go!" And she leaped into the air.

"Fools!" Gloriana leaped upward as well, and waves of heat blasted over Gilda from the professor's spreading wings.

"Gilda!" Derpy cried out, and just as suddenly, Gilda felt tiny spots of cold wetness peppering her fur and feathers: snow dropping from a gray cloud growing larger above her.

Gloriana's shriek shook the room. "I will not have this!" Lightning again spat from her talons, and in its spidery bolts, Gilda could make out Derpy diving and spinning through the dimly glowing green air.

Swooping sideways herself, Gilda flapped hard, pulled her wings tight, and dove left, drawing fire from Gloriana's other claws. "This is pointless!" Gloriana shouted. "In another minute, my creature will— Oof!"

The lightning cut off as suddenly as her screeching voice, and Gilda spun to see Godfrey sliding down the side of the rock pile with Gloriana beneath him, the book flying from her grip. Godfrey was dancing as he slid, too, pounding Gloriana with paws and claws all the way to the floor. And when Godfrey flipped off Gloriana's back when they reached the bottom, the professor didn't move, only her sides fluttering with her breathing.

"Hooray!" Derpy shouted, and Gilda had to nod. She'd been fairly sure a standard 'one-five' would work on someone as easily distracted as Gloriana.

"No time!" Discord was yelling, waving what looked like eight of nine arms at the book lying closed in the rubble at his feet. "The summoning's nearly done!"

"What?" Gilda looked from Discord to the pillar; it seemed larger now, the redness whirling through it faster. "But—"

"No time!" Discord shouted again, and Gilda darted back to where Godfrey was picking up the book. "The process can't be stopped at this point! It can only be controlled!"

Ice shot through Gilda's body, but she asked anyway: "Meaning what?"

"Mother's magic!" He waved his paws and claws, the pillar of light definitely bloating, expanding in fits and starts down the sides of the rock pile. "It's still pulling cruelty into a physical form! We might have a chance to disperse him when he arrives, but, well, it's griffon magic, isn't it? And if there isn't a griffon here wielding that magic..."

The fear on his face froze the ice even thicker inside her, but the air thrummed and throbbed, the magic filling it thick and warm and wanting to melt her utterly. Griffon magic, not pony magic: she could feel the difference, could feel its sharp eyes and beak and claws as distinctly as she could feel her own. This was what she'd dreamed of since her days in the state rookery; this was what had driven her out of griffon territory into the Pony Lands; this was the power she'd always known she was destined to carry.

Except—

"No." She stepped back. It wasn't right; she wasn't right. Searching for that power had turned her into a vicious, thuggish shell of a griffon, a caricature of a caricature. Only by rejecting those infantile dreams had she found her true self, her true life as Praetor of Catlatl Garrison. She couldn't turn back. She wouldn't.

"No??" Discord was flailing again. "That isn't an option! We need a griffon and we need one now!"

"Praetor?" Godfrey's voice quivered, something Gilda had never heard before, and when she looked at him, he seemed much paler than usual. "No matter what happens, I will never be anything but your aedile. If that's an acceptable proposition, of course."

Power flowing everywhere, Gilda couldn't catch her breath. If he was saying what she thought he was saying— She reached out and rested her talons on his shoulder. "I'll always be honored to be your praetor."

His nod was of exactly the proper depth. "Then, with your permission?"

She nodded, stepped back again, and managed to squeeze out, "If you'd be so kind, Godfrey."

He spun, tore the book open, leaped straight into the maelstrom, its blood-red and bile-green edges just touching the bottom of the rubble pile—

And everything exploded, Gilda tumbling backwards and smacking hard into the wall. "Mr. Godfrey!" she heard Derpy cry from somewhere, but the roar that rose up then drowned out every other sound, seemed to stab straight through into Gilda's brain like a talon into the heart of a pumpkin muffin.

As much as she didn't want to sit up and look, Gilda did.

The creature was enormous, black and red like a forest still smoldering after a wildfire. It stood on all fours, straddling the rock pile, its head like a bull, its body like a bison, its wings stretching from wall to wall inside the former slaughterhouse. "Who dares?" it bellowed.

Something fluttered up from the floor, and while Gilda's first blink made her think it was a moth, she then realized just how big the monster was and saw that it was actually Discord flopping through the air. "Brother Spite! How dreadfully horrible to see you here!"

The thing's giant fiery eyes squinted. "Discord?" it asked with a voice like bubbling tar. "Surely you've not summoned me to this wretched place?"

"Me?" Discord waved his lion paw and made a rude noise with his lips. "As much as I despise you and everything you stand for, I certainly wouldn't subject you to the sad and endless indignities of corporeal existence!"

"I see." Spite's forehoof lashed out and wrapped itself around Discord like a wedge of partially-solidified lava. "Still, since you're the one I've got, I think I'll blame you and start peeling away the layers of your skin one by one."

"No," came a voice that tolled through the flickering shadows deeper and more clearly than the note of a bell. Gilda's fur prickled up like needles all along her back, and Godfrey rose into view behind Spite, her aedile's wings unfurled but not flapping, his foreclaws spread, lightning dancing and flickering over them. "Instead, I'll be apologizing for the trouble we've put you through and dispersing you back to the abstraction from which you were so rudely wrenched."

The red, glowing cracks across Spite's black forehead narrowed, and he tossed Discord away like a banana peel, the chaos spirit splashing against the wall and running down it to reform into himself to Gilda's left. "Really?" Spite rumbled, lumbering around to face Godfrey. "And if I'd rather not go?"

Every part of Gilda wanted to scream when fire burst from Godfrey's eyes; with a piercing cry, he slammed his talons together, and silver-white bolts of electricity shot from his entire body. The bolts skewered Spite from horns to tail, stabbed into the creature's charred sides, and shattered it into a hundred thousand black shards with a crash like nothing Gilda had ever heard. She flinched, shards flying toward her, but they were breaking up even as she watched; nothing but a peppery smoke ended up washing over her.

Half a heartbeat of silence, then— "Hooray!" A gray streak flashed through the shadows overhead, and Derpy spun into Godfrey with a hug so big, it knocked the both of them halfway toward the floor on the other side of the rock pile. "Mr. Godfrey, you're the best magical griffon ever!"

"Thank you, Ambassador." His voice almost sounded like it should, but Gilda sill couldn't quite get her hackles to settle as the two flew around the cone of stone and landed in front of her. The fire still burned slightly in the back of Godfrey's eyes, after all, and the scent in the air made her think of autumn leaves. But he nodded with his usual exactitude when he said, "Praetor."

"Aedile." Gilda nodded in return. "We're not quite finished yet, I take it?"

"Not at all." That little not-quite-a-smile tugged at his beak. "You shall ever be the claw that brandishes me, and I shall ever be the weapon at your side."

Gilda cleared her throat, not sure she really wanted to think about the implications of all that just yet. "Yeah, well, I kinda meant in the here and now. " She gestured with a wing to where the professor still lay in a barely-breathing heap at the foot of the rock pile. "As much as I might like to, we can't just leave Gloriana here, but with Doc gone and Twilight still dealing with those mines, I don't really know what we can do to—"

"Ah." Godfrey pressed his talons together, and the air around him began to waver again. "If I might, Praetor?"

It took nearly all Gilda's strength not to jump away from him. "What do you have in mind, Aedile?"

Staring at his talons, he said, "This magic I've taken in: it can be a much subtler thing, I think, than either of my predecessors realized." With a hop and a flap, he landed beside Gloriana, his claws suddenly glowing a pale blue. "For the strength inherent in abstract concepts is so vast that one shouldn't need to completely personify them in order to utilize their power. The slightest quivering touch should be sufficient. For instance—" He passed his claws through the air above the professor, and the blue fire began drifting down, falling over her as gently as snow.

Gilda didn't even try to pull her beak closed, the blueness quickly covering Gloriana in a see-through bubble. "Healing," Godfrey said then. "And while a summoned creature would be much more powerful, this way will be less—" He looked over his shoulder, his gaze focusing past Gilda. "—disruptive to the forces involved, I believe," he finished.

Turning, Gilda saw Discord standing among the rubble, his eyes wide, his tail clenched in his paws. "You did it," he whispered. "You made Mother's magic work. You could—" He swallowed so hard, Gilda could see the bulge of it travel all this way down his neck, could hear the splash when it dropped into his midsection. "You could send me back. After twelve hundred years, I could finally go home, could finally be free of this...this—" He shivered. "Horrible physicality."

"Discord?" Derpy blinked from where she sat. "You're going away?" She leaped into a hover. "But...you can't go without saying good-bye to Fluttershy! She'd be so sad if you did! And Pinkie, too! And maybe even Twilight." She touched her chin, one eye rolling to the side. "Prob'bly not Applejack, though: I think she's still mad at you for making her apples all rubbery and bouncy last time she was bucking them."

A scuffling in the rubble beside Gilda, Godfrey taking his place there, his feathers still shimmering with magic. "Your orders, Praetor?" he asked.

With a swallow, Gilda nodded—this was the deal she'd made, after all—and fixed her attention on Discord. "Is that really what you want?"

His head shook so quickly, she heard things rattling inside. "Even just a year ago, I might've said yes. But now?" He pulled in a breath, his chest inflating like a balloon, and when he blew it out, white flowers swirled from his nostrils. "I believe I'll put the whole 'dissolution into the unthinking cosmic vastness' business on the back burner for the time being."

The clench in her gut loosened, but an explosion, muffled and distant, tightened it again. "Was that—?"

"Yes!" Discord stomped a hoof, and confetti popped from his lion paw when he waved it over his head. "That's all sixty of those geodes blown up quite nicely!" He stopped, his eyes going wide and his horns flopping down the sides of his head. "And I missed it!" Scowling, he folded his arms across his chest. "Hopefully, that's the last item I shall ever need to put on my list of things to blame Mother for."

Gilda let a little laugh out, but she didn't dare do more than that: she was still feeling jagged enough around the edges that a good, full-bodied laugh was likely to shatter her as completely as the giant monster whose birth and death she'd just watched. "All right," she said instead, pushing her mind to focus on the more mundane details. "Discord, can you get us to wherever Twilight and the others are? We should have a couple hours before the Grand Imperator gets back, but we need to regroup and figure out—"

Another sound, also muffled and distant, folded her ears, a shrieking cry that had to come from one of the signal corps cadets on station high above Catlatl: 'Enemy sighted,' its pitches and cadences told her. 'On rapid approach.'

Her training had her airborne and through the doorway before she could even think, Godfrey right behind her.