• Published 13th Jan 2016
  • 1,564 Views, 66 Comments

The Old Country - Astrarian



Spike's been here before. He's sure of it. Except... he hasn't. The northern border of Yakyakistan is so far from Ponyville it might as well be another world entirely. So why does it feel like he's already home?

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Part Three

“This would have been easier before I got taller.” Twilight stooped beneath a massive rock barely wedged in the ceiling.

Spike bit his lip. “I think you had a point about the helmets too,” he said.

“I suppose we’re lucky we got this far without needing them.”

The cave passage had not, until now, been too challenging. Twilight hopped over and squeezed around dry boulders. Although the rocks were often sharp enough to wound, the ceiling remained several metres above their heads. So in the trickiest parts of the passage, Twilight had been able to simply fly over the obstacles.

They’d reached a small chamber where water trickled in from one narrow passage and exited via another. There was only one way on – the other was filled with damp, eroded stones. The new passage, beyond the boulder in the ceiling, was much narrower and lower than the preceding cave, preventing Twilight from flying. At least the walls and floor were no longer jagged. They’d been worn smooth by water long ago.

Twilight stopped with a noise of alarm before she hit her nose on a wall of smooth, white rock. Several rock formations, which looked like large spikes and thick curtains, hung from the ceiling, reducing the size of the cave ahead to chest height. There was no way for Twilight to carry on without crawling.

Spike slid off Twilight’s back and past her legs to investigate. The low roof didn’t bother him. He crawled forward. The natural protection of his thick scales became obvious. Even smooth rocks were uncomfortable if you kneeled on them, and gravel bit deep into his hands, making him wince a few times.

“We should’ve made a torch outside,” Spike grunted, more to himself than to Twilight. He had to keep breathing fire to see if the passage opened up again.

That happened within a few metres. “It’s not long,” he called back to Twilight.

“Right,” Twilight’s voice answered. No sound followed.

“Twilight?” he asked.

“This isn’t anything like what the speleological ponies described.”

He nearly laughed. “Are you surprised?”

“No,” she said defensively.

He waited for a few moments. “Are you coming through?”

“I wish I had a helmet,” her voice muttered.

Spike shuffled back into the tube. “I’ll help you. I can tell you if you’re going to hit your head.”

Twilight crawled forward on all fours, cautiously considering each section of rocky floor before her. Her wariness was vindicated when the sound of tearing fabric ripped through the confined space.

Twilight paused, easing her belly down against the floor. “It’s a good thing I’m wearing this coat,” she mumbled, jaw clenched, muscles trembling.

“You’re almost through,” Spike encouraged.

Twilight inched forward. Sweat dampened her face.

“That’s it, you’re done!”

Twilight’s legs quivered with relief as she stood up eagerly and stretched them. Spike began to smile, feeling better for it. They’d passed their first test.

Around the corner the floor of the passage first sloped steeply downwards and then dropped away entirely. The walls continued for another couple of metres, blocking the rest of the cave from sight. They seemed to be standing inside a crack. On the edge of hearing, a low roar throbbed rhythmically, deeper even than a dragon’s grumble. They were deep inside the body of the mountain now, nearing its heart.

The walls confined the light of Twilight’s horn. If there was a floor beneath their vantage point, it was hidden by a black void. Eerie shadows flickered whenever Twilight moved her head.

They peered forward and down, trying to gauge their new surroundings. Spike recoiled after a few moments. He’d sometimes wondered if not being able to see the bottom of a large drop would make it easier to stomach. Apparently not.

“Are you getting vertigo like me?” he said.

“Don’t ask,” Twilight said, swallowing. “Can you see anything about where we are? Do you think we’re already there?”

The way her voice travelled suggested that there was a large, open space hidden from their sight, beyond the walls.

Spike shook his head. “No. Well, uh, I-I mean, this isn’t what I remember. It must be further. Can you just fly down?”

Twilight made a noise that combined every possible emotion implied by the word ‘unhappiness’.

“What if. . . what if y-you lift me forward with your magic?” Spike suggested. “So I can get a better look?”

“No way. It’s too risky.”

“You’re always picking me up with magic. It’s not. . .” Even though Spike didn’t look at the dark drop beneath them, he could still see it. “It’s n-not that dangerous.”

“I’d rather not.” Twilight splayed one wing out for balance. She gingerly lifted a hoof over the edge of the drop, and lowered it out of Spike’s sight.

“What are you doing?” he hissed, grabbing her tail.

Twilight’s tongue poked out of her mouth. “Hold. . . on. . .”

She must have found some tiny, precarious ledge to stand on. Quivering, she craned her neck as far forward as she could, peering down.

“Twilight. . .”

She retreated. “I could almost see the floor down there,” she said, sounding relieved. “I don’t think it’s that far. I think you’re right. We can fly down, if I’m careful.”

Twilight spread her other wing. Most of her feathers pressed against the walls.

“I don’t know,” Spike said. “There’s not a lot of room.”

“Even if I lifted you down with magic, I don’t see much choice for myself.”

“Couldn’t you just. . . fall and catch yourself in time?” he asked.

Twilight blanched. “I-I don’t think the floor’s far enough away for me to have time to do that.”

Spike shivered too. We should’ve spent time perfecting the flight by self-levitation spell, he thought. He didn’t say it out loud; it wouldn’t help.

Twilight edged forward. She crouched down, searching for as much room as possible. Half-hunched and half-stretched across the precipice, she began to flap her wings. Since she couldn’t get full extension, she had to really force them back and forth.

Spike closed his eyes and hoped for the best, feeling her muscles working even through the coat.

A sudden drop followed. Spike’s heart jumped into his throat, hammering. But a few moments later they landed in the bend of a large passageway.

“Oh gosh,” Twilight gasped.

Spike leaped off her back. “Oh sweet, sweet ground,” he effused, kissing the floor under his feet at least twice before noticing the grit in his mouth.

“I thought having wings would be helpful down here,” he admitted, wiping his lips. “But that was pretty horrible.”

Twilight seemed to need a moment. Spike let her have it. He noted the crack in the wall where they’d come from, and damp staining on the wall below it.

They appeared to be standing in an old river channel. Brown bands stained the cave walls. The sight made him wonder if water had flowed recently. But when he touched the walls, he couldn’t tell whether they were wet or just cold.

“Whoa,” he breathed.

“Spike,” Twilight whispered.

“Yeah. . .”

“Are you ready to go? Spike?”

“Huh?” Spike looked away from the tide marks and saw Twilight looking downright miserable. “Are you okay?”

“Do you feel like something wants to hurt us? It’s like the dark is. . . watching us.”

Spike glanced at the full extent of Twilight’s illumination. Now that she mentioned it, the image of a malevolent creature lurking just out of sight came easily to mind.

“I didn’t until now. . . Uh, let’s keep going.”

“Okay. Which way?”

Spike tried to let his feet take charge. But they refused to lead him onwards. Maybe their confidence had run out now that they were underground. “Um,” Spike said, choosing to go right rather than left. He stepped around a large boulder, glancing back at Twilight.

He watched her mouth drop open as his foot went down further than it should have, into nothing.

Gravity took control. He fell into a dark smile, confident in its supremacy. A horrible feeling of stretching space and hopelessness filled him, boiling up his throat in a scream.

Wings, he thought. Oh, I wish I had wings!

The sharp lurch of Twilight dragging him back on to cold, solid stone forced the scream out. The feeling that he was about to be sick followed. He scrambled away from the black hole, deeper into Twilight’s embrace.

“Spike,” Twilight gasped. Her warm, damp breath condensed against his clammy face, setting off a chain of earthquakes in his body.

There was nothing else to say that wasn’t better said by their trembling bodies.

At least, the compulsion to be sick passed. The chill of inactivity and fear settled over them. Spike peered forward again. The pit was many metres deep; not a simple shadow like he’d told himself. Its maw made him sweat and blanch again, so he tried to look past it to the rest of the cave.

The passage ahead resembled a battlefield, created by giants capable of picking up and hurling boulders at one another. Gigantic rocks choked the passage from ceiling to floor. They leaned against one another at terrible angles, weights resting on just one razor-thin edge or broken corner. Even the small boulders could have squashed Spike into a stain on the floor if they fell.

“Is it” – Twilight gulped – “that way?”

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Spike felt that just one breath of air would unleash the loaded avalanche of doom. Like the breeze created by an alicorn flying around investigating possible ways on, for instance. He felt sick again.

“Er. . . let’s try the other way first.”

They beat a retreat back to their starting point, although turning his back on the boulder slope of death made Spike’s spines crawl. What if their steps were enough to make it crash down on top of them?

Worsening thoughts came to him. What if the cathedral was behind the boulders? What if somepony had caused a cave-in to trap the dragon they sought: somepony who had decided that it was better to leave greedy, selfish dragons alone? Spike had no proper reason to believe the dragon in this mountain, if it was even still here, would be nice at all. In fact, his other experiences with dragons suggested it would be as mean as any other. Dragons had the worst reputation of all creatures in the known world, even worse than yaks.

“I think coming in here was one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had,” he muttered.

They both looked wishfully at the fissure in the wall that led back to the surface. But then Twilight shook her head.

“No, it’s not. We’re here to find out where you come from. Whatever it takes, it’s worth it.”

Spike felt cold as he spoke. “Is it? I mean. . . I’m fine in Ponyville.”

Twilight stayed quiet for several seconds. “But you’ll always wonder, won’t you?”

Spike sighed. Twilight brushed his face with the tip of her wing, feathers soft, lifting both his chin and his spirits. She smiled at him: weakly, but it was a smile nonetheless.

Going left, the large passage sloped downward. There were no boulders to climb over or hop between, or blind pits to stumble into. Soon Spike walked beside Twilight instead of sitting on her back. Because they were close together, they often tried to step in the same spots. It would have been annoying above ground. Here, it was comforting.

Sand began to appear on the floor. The low background roar became distinguishable as flowing water, reverberating through the cave. A draft blew past their ears, hurrying them along.

The sound of water grew louder as they continued to tiptoe along the dark passage, and the sand deepened. The passage also became bigger, like a widening funnel. Rough grooves and pits marred the walls.

A crunch shattered the relative silence. Spike retracted his foot, aware that his step had caused the sound. Thousands of tiny mineral fragments covered the floor. Some looked as though someone had shaved small slices off a clouded crystal. Others looked like tiny curling twigs. They gleamed in the light radiating off Twilight’s horn.

“Oh wow, helictites,” Twilight said breathlessly, bending down to look at them. Spike tried to pick one up. It was so delicate it broke immediately in his claws. When he took a handful, they tinkled as they jostled and broke against one another.

A rumble that bore no relation to the running water shook his insides, turning them to jelly. Spike and Twilight both yelped, clutching one another. The noise quietened and then stopped.

“W-what was th-that?” Spike asked. “An earthquake?”

The noise shook the ground again, a cognizant snarling edge in it this time. Not an earthquake. Twilight’s horn went out like a candle extinguished, plunging them into a world blacker than night. “My magic,” she cried.

Spike waved his claws in front of his face. At least, he thought he did; he couldn’t see his hands to be sure. Only the physical movement of air confirmed his motion. Once the draft ceased, he immediately felt unsure it had ever happened. He saw nothing. He’d never seen nothing like this.

A mewl caught in his throat.

“Who’s there?” Twilight shouted.

“Y-yeah, show yourself!” Spike yelled, reassured by her voice.

In a roar of igniting flames and pounding water and building rage, sudden fire banished both darkness and coldness. Twilight automatically threw out a wing to shade their eyes.

The light blinded him. Spike squinted and winced in pain. Then everything suddenly came into focus. The dancing firelight unveiled unseen vastness. They were standing in a gargantuan chamber. . .

A gargantuan wedge-shaped head towered over them, huge eyes glittering and whirling.

Spike tilted his head, back, back, back, until he couldn’t anymore. And he stared.

He’d been right all along. This was the place he remembered without living memory. These were the eyes of the dragon he’d seen in his mind, the one who’d answer his questions. Feelings of respect and admiration filled him, tempered with awe. . . and terror.

A glistening strand of spit dangled from the great split of its mouth. Sharp alabaster fangs within sparkled much as the ancient spiked stalactites far above its head did. Magic shimmered around it like hazy rainbows in mist. When the dragon growled, the ground quivered and the firelight flared and the helictites chimed.

Stunned, Spike realised the light came from the fire burning within its barrelled chest. Stippled luminous skin distorted a fiery yellow-green orb, locked behind ribbed shadows.

Then Spike gazed up into its radiant regard. In eyes as multi-faceted as a diamond beautiful beyond either his or Rarity’s imagining, tiny versions of Spike gaped back. Time lost all meaning.

“Please don’t hurt us,” he heard Twilight plead.

The dragon blinked, breaking its mesmerising scrutiny. Its fangs regained prominence in Spike’s eyes. Discoloured with age, they glistened with saliva.

Spike’s own teeth were so small and blunt in comparison, and they chattered awfully as he tried to speak. “Wh-wh-who are y-you? W-w-what d-do you want?”

As Spike expected, the creature spoke in the whispering voice of the wind through the grass. “You? Want?” it sighed. “Who? You. What? Want.”

“We want to know who you are,” Twilight repeated.

Its front claw, resting sedately on the sand, snapped towards them. Burning sand stung Spike’s face, but his scales protected him from the abrasion. Twilight had no such defence and cried out.

“Who,” it hissed, iridescent eyes whirling with fury. A ferocious wave of heat caused Twilight to wither instantly. Spike made a futile grab for her: he couldn’t keep her from falling to her forelegs.

“Stop, please,” he heard her groan. Her horn sizzled.

Forked tongues dancing in a snarl, the dragon flung sand at her again. A second blast of heat and light made Twilight swoon and Spike cringe.

“Want! Worm!” the creature spat.

“Stop it! You’re hurting her!”

A snort like a boulder smashing against a mountain rocked the cavern. But the heatwave passed. Twilight gave a strangled gasp.

“Twilight, are you all right? Please, Twilight. Talk to me. Tell me you’re okay.”

“Spike,” she rasped. “I’m – Spike. . .”

“Stay with me, Twilight.”

Her eyelids fluttered. “It’s bright,” she moaned. Her face fell between her forelegs.

“Twilight.” Aghast, Spike turned on the dragon. “Hey! Turn it down a bit!”

“Want,” growled the beast.

Spike had nothing but rage to use to try to change its mind. “Turn yourself down!”

“Dragons grow thanks to want,” it said. As it spoke a full sentence, the gravel in its voice disappeared. Its sheer gravitas remained. “Worms are born from desire. Is that what you want, worm?”

“I’m not a worm! I’m a dragon. And yeah, I want you to turn it down.”

The dragon shifted onto its forelegs, swinging forward. The glistening string of spit also swung towards Spike. He flinched, afraid not just of the dragon’s size but of the resentment still alight in its whirling eyes, a furnace banked rather than quenched.

Enormous oily shadows unfurled from its back. A cooling breeze wafted over Spike and Twilight. To Spike’s relief, Twilight twitched. But she didn’t seem to be aware of him when he shook her shoulders. Despite the warmth in the cavern, he shivered.

“Wyrm, not worm,” the dragon said.

The word didn’t sound any different. Spike glared up at the beast. The massive eyes stared back, dappled like a lakebed on a sunny day. They were calmer now, spinning less quickly. Green light bloomed within and rose to the pearly surface.

Spike’s anger threatened to ebb away. At the same time, he began to understand the mesmerising feeling was magical. He shook his head, gritting his jaw.

“You better not have hurt her,” he spat.

The dragon ignored his pathetic threat. “You are not so young,” it said. “If you were a dragon, you would have wings by now. You are not.”

Spike balled his claws into fists. “I am a dragon.”

He couldn’t remember meeting any dragons who didn’t have wings, though. Just another way that meant Spike was different. Every single one had denied that Spike was a dragon. Why did he even insist that he was one of them? They were horrible.

The dragon huffed. Glints floated in its eyes, many small points of shifting colour in a green ocean. It reminded Spike of the embers and snowflakes he’d watched dance into the sky, above the ridge, several nights ago.

There was mist in the air, created by the spray from the water on the other side of the chamber. A few seconds passed before Spike realised the dragon was also responsible for the mist. Pale, smoky vapours drifted out of its nose. The smoke wasn’t noxious: in fact, it smelled inexplicably of fresh water and musk root.

The enormous maw opened and the beast inhaled. Smoke and spray cascaded into its yawning mouth.

“You do not smell of dragon.”

“Whatever,” Spike said. He folded his arms, hoping it would make him look tougher, as well as conceal his trembling. “I come from Equestria, okay. Yeah, that’s where ponies live. Big deal. They’re my best friends. If you want to call me a pony, or say I smell like one, go right ahead. I don’t care.”

“You do not smell like pony either.”

“So what – uh. . . I mean. . .” Spike sagged, wringing his claws together. “Well, what do I smell of, then?”

“Wyrm,” said the dragon. Just as Spike was about to protest again it added, “Snow. Yak.”

“Really?” Spike sniffed himself. All he could smell was his own sweat. “I told you Yakyakistan smelled different,” he said to Twilight, hoping she would respond.

The dragon swung its head towards Spike again. The shiny strand dangling from its lips almost hit him – Spike scrambled out of the way just in time.

The dragon stilled. “What do you want?” it asked. “Why did you come here?”

“Um. . .”

Now that it wasn’t swinging about, Spike got a good look at the saliva strand. It actually looked too solid to be spit. Tiny droplets of water trembled on the surface. The draft created by flowing water caused it to shiver like a spider’s web in the breeze. The more he thought about it, the more it looked like a thick fibre of spider silk.

“Speak,” the dragon demanded.

“I felt like I recognised this place when I saw it from a distance,” Spike blurted. He was shocked by his own honesty, yet continued out of fear. “Like maybe I’d been here before.”

“You are a wyrm.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Dragons have wings.”

Spike rolled his eyes. “You know, I’ve met other dragons who said that, but I’m pretty sure they were just being mean.”

A strong, hot breeze blew against his face. Spike’s gaze snapped back to the creature. He tensed, prepared to defend Twilight again.

The great regard of the beast’s eyes, multi-coloured once again, encompassed Spike. Though he could feel sand around his feet and Twilight’s mane in his fist, he wondered if he was floating.

“Look harder,” said the dragon, flapping the furled shadows on its back pointedly. Spike peered up at the shadows, and as the fire flared so did realisation.

“You’ve got four wings,” Spike gasped. “I’ve never seen a dragon with four wings before. And they’re all different. . .”

One looked like a normal dragon wing, thick and tough. One resembled Twilight’s own feathered wings. One, brindled and possessing a faint metallic sheen, almost looked furry. The final wing was thin and translucent, veins crisscrossing its surface. It looked just like a changeling wing. A chill ran through Spike’s blood.

“You’re not a dragon,” Spike realised aloud. A dozen new questions came to mind. “Can you fly like that?” he asked, before he realised he could reduce all his queries into the simple: “What are you?”

“A wyrm,” said the thing that wasn’t a dragon.

“That’s a terrible name.”

The creature tilted its head. “A name is just a word.”

“No it’s not.”

Spike saw an impression of wistfulness in its visage.

He frowned. “Although. . . I guess if you never talk to anyone, it’s just a word,” he conceded. “I’m Spike. What’s your name?”

“My name. . .” it said, as though it had to think about this of all things, while all other answers were obvious. “You may call. . . me. . . Ormr.”

“Huh. What does that mean?”

“Wyrm.”

“You’re hopeless,” Spike said. “Um, no offence.”

The creature exhaled a warm breath, pleasant rather than hazardous. Spike interpreted the action as civil, albeit not yet friendly.

“Is it just the four wings that make you a wyrm instead of a dragon?” Spike asked.

“It is magic.”

“Everyone’s got magic. Even earth ponies.”

Ormr tilted its head again. “Indeed. But wyrms are born from want. And magic is little more than the ability to make desire into reality.”

It shifted its gaze from Spike to Twilight, eyes beginning to whirl again. Like a noticeable change in the wind, magic coalesced around them. In some respects the magic felt just like run-of-the-mill unicorn magic. But it also felt like the Elements of Harmony. Furthermore, it triggered the bubbly forerunner to a magical belch in Spike’s belly.

“This alicorn wanted to hatch you more than anything else in that moment,” said the wyrm.

Spike opened his mouth to question Ormr’s words. Sweet and musky magic poured into him like water into an empty vessel. He tried to close his mouth and shut his eyes to stop the flow. Neither body part obeyed.

Ormr began to burn, soaking them in waves of lambent fire. Seductive colours swirled in its eyes. Pressure built in Spike’s head as he stared into a welkin too bright to endure yet too sublime to ignore. He reeled, falling back against Twilight Sparkle.

Magenta light purged every shadow, except that of the silhouette of a small pony. He heard muffled voices. One sounded young and sweet and disappointed.

“I’m sorry I wasted your time.”

It was Twilight’s voice. He was looking at Twilight: not as she was now, not even as she’d been on the day they first met, but just before that. He was still inside his egg, and he hadn’t hatched yet.

Rather than through Twilight’s excitable retelling, he saw his hatching through his own eyes. Technically he’d lived most of it, so this was his second viewing. But it felt like the first.

Without a memory of his own, the story had always reminded him of a fairy tale about destiny. His own birth was just a subplot in that story. Now it was altogether real, the main event. How pleasant it was to be suspended at the beginning of existence, nothing like the awful weightlessness that came before falling. How warm he was in the sun, and how ticklish the current of magic on his shell.

The ground shook and somepony cried out. Magic cracked open his shell. In a flash of pink light, he finally met the outside world. He stretched and yawned, ready for life.

“Her desire gave you existence,” said Ormr.

The vision vanished, leaving Spike with the afterimage of an overexcited filly and the impression of a rainbow. He rubbed his eyes and his shoulders, for the echo of powerful magic still pulsed through his body. “How did you know that?” he asked.

“Because you were there. And she was there. Thus, so was I.”

“You really are in my head,” Spike said, awed.

“She was just a pony then,” Ormr said, whirling eyes intent on Twilight. Spike wrestled a glower off his face. Why did Ormr care so much about Twilight, rather than Spike?

Ormr lifted itself off the ground, presumably to come closer. Spike leaped to his feet, prepared to defend Twilight again if need be, and the great wyrm hesitated. Spike glimpsed a dozen colourful ovoids buried in the sand beneath its glowing body.

“Are those wyrm eggs?” he asked. They looked too round to be mere rocks.

The fire inside Ormr’s chest flickered. After a long moment it said, “Yes.”

Spike glanced at Twilight, prone on the floor. She whined when he nudged her shoulder, as if she actually was asleep and he’d disturbed a dream. He still intended to warn Ormr away from her while he investigated the eggs.

Ormr’s jewelled eyes were stupendous, though. . .

How long he sat there, transfixed, he didn’t know. At some point Ormr’s gaze flickered. Then the wyrm looked away completely, rasping out a coarse hiss. Spike shook himself, relieving the kind of stiffness he associated with a long nap.

He made his way over to the eggs. Breaking helictites tinkled under his feet, then gave way to warm sand.

Each ovoid was about the size of his head. Up close, they looked less like rocks and more like eggs, with spotted, dimpled shells. But like any normal rock, the surface was chilly, unaffected by the warmth of the sand.

A hot, dizzying sense of familiarity passed through his body. “This is where my egg was laid,” he said. “That’s why I feel like I’ve been here before. Twilight figured it out. But how did I get out? How old are you? Are you my fam –”

He stopped, remembering how Twilight had collapsed under the heat of Ormr’s fury. If Spike hadn’t been there to distract Ormr, who could say how much the wyrm might have hurt her? The idea made Spike sick.

Perhaps Ormr just didn’t respond well to disturbances. No – it must have known they were coming. Without Ormr’s voice, Spike wouldn’t have come here. A door inside him opened when he heard Ormr’s voice, before he ever saw the rest of the world from the ridgetop of Outer Yakyakistan.

He squinted at Ormr, lessening the hypnotic impact of its lustrous eyes. The wyrm stared at Twilight. Spike noticed bared fangs and narrow eyes, and feared for her safety.

He changed the subject. “You said Twilight wanted me to hatch.”

“Our shells respond to strong magic, to want. Alas, the eggs here may never hatch. The world is full of magic, but without a friend who wants them, that will never matter.”

“Don’t you want them to hatch? Aren’t you their friend?”

“Wyrms cannot hatch wyrms. Mine is not the right magic. Nor would I wish to use it even if I could.”

“Why?”

Ormr’s luminous eyes dulled for a moment. “I lack a reason to use magic. I will never use it again.”

“You used magic when we came in. You didn’t just take Twilight’s magic away, you – you really hurt her.” Spike jabbed a finger towards her. “And she used to be the Element of Magic! You wanted to do that. Why? How long has it been since you even talked to anyone except yourself?”

The firelight wavered. “Let us simply say that it has been a long time.”

“You’ve just been here in the dark for ‘a long time’? How did you get here? Were you laid here as well? Who hatched you?”

Part of Spike felt triumphant when Ormr’s eyes began to whirl. “It matters not.”

“Of course it matters. Why are you here?”

“Why are you?”

“Because I’m looking for answers,” Spike snapped. “Why don’t you just give me some?”

A bright blaze crackled in Ormr’s chest. The little vindictive section of Spike’s heart cheered.

“You are here now,” the wyrm growled. Its head swayed from side to side, like a snake. The silken strand of spit writhed on the sand, coiling upon itself due to Ormr’s movements. Currents of magic and mist billowed around them.

Spike glared defiantly. “Answer me.”

Ormr’s claws dug great trenches in the sand, scraping against the rock beneath. “There is no need to rush!”

“You don’t scare me,” Spike said, standing up.

Ormr reared like a threatened animal, its shadowy wings blowing sand against Spike’s scales. He glanced at Twilight. She seemed unharmed.

If Ormr could see Spike’s past, Spike must be able to see Ormr’s as well. He stared up into Ormr’s massive eyes, green and yellow and red flames writhing within. I’m fireproof, he assured himself, and Ormr won’t hurt me.

Everything burned. Swirling fire surrounded him. Spike gritted his teeth and pushed onward, diving through lava, wading through snow, walking into the wind. He kept pushing even though Ormr pushed back.

Suddenly the resistance disappeared. The sun scorched his bare back. Waves lapped against his feet. He stood on the shore of a great lake at the height of summer. A perfect day.

A desolate, wrathful loneliness gnawed his heart. He bared his fangs at the dazzling sky. How dare it be so cheerful? Where was the storm his beloved friend deserved? How could the sun and moon keep rising without Chiron, the greatest centaur to ever live; the greatest centaur the world ever lost?

His eyes watered. The sun continued to blaze insolently, until he was forced to look away from its bright smirk. His eyes still streamed with tears. They dripped off his chin, fleeing into the lake.

A couple of young wingless wyrms stood in the water, one beside a griffon and one beside a centaur. They looked concerned. The griffon reached for him, and he jerked away, heart battering his ribs in an attempt to reach blessed, deathly rest.

“I hate you!”

The cry of fury broke the vision. Ormr’s heart smouldered, and Spike’s ached. Gloom surrounded them. Spike ran from the shadows into the light around Twilight, back into his own life rather than Ormr’s.

Ormr’s resentful voice rumbled through the chamber. “You are lucky.”

Spike shivered. Emptiness fuelled the flame within the great wyrm. Ormr tried to ignore it, but at the same time it obsessively nursed that bitter void. Spike pressed himself against Twilight’s warm body, inhaling the faint scents of grass and musk root clinging to her hair. There was a world of selflessness and friendship out there. He wished they were there now, around a fire with Prince Rutherford, or sorting gems for Rarity.

“Twilight, wake up,” he begged. “Don’t leave me alone.”

Ormr answered instead, growling in the gloom. “Loneliness is inevitable!”

In another life, this underground cathedral had been a serene grotto, cradling new life. Now it felt like a grave. If it was Spike’s destiny to one day nourish a deep dark melancholic rage in a deep dark place under the snow, then he didn’t want it. He didn’t want any part of the life that would lead him to such an end.

Ormr roared. It lifted one huge hand and smashed it into the wall of the chamber. With earthshattering noise, its claws ripped the rock asunder. A thousand gemstones tumbled in a glittering waterfall onto the sand. Coloured ore veins striated the rock.

Spike’s dry mouth began to water.

“Everything you need is here, wyrm,” Ormr declared. “This is your home. You will never be alone now we are together.”

Twilight didn’t move. Spike could feel her heart beating under her skin.

“My name is Spike,” he said, running his hand over her soft feathers.

He turned to face the whirling fires in the darkness. “Twilight’s more than just my friend. She’s my family. I’m not alone. But you are.”

Ormr made a sound like the rustle in the grass just before a frozen gale bites again.

“Maybe I’m not a dragon,” Spike said softly. “But just because I’m a wyrm it doesn’t mean I’m the same as you.” He barked out a laugh, breaking the weird hush created by Ormr’s breathing and the distant water. “I mean, I don’t even have wings.”

Ormr’s voice softened. “Sometimes, I don’t either.” With the barest movement of air, Ormr folded its wings away. Just like tears underwater, or life underground, they were lost to sight. . . and in a sense, to existence.

“But you could have wings,” it whispered. “Look again.”

Ormr exhaled a breath that smelled of earth and fresh water. Spike’s head spun. He recognised his own longing for Twilight’s wings, felt Ormr’s wingless back as a young wyrm, and saw himself aloft above Equestria. Rarity and Fluttershy admired the magnificence of his wings, Twilight and Rainbow Dash praised how well he flew, and Pinkie Pie and Applejack marvelled at the view from their vantage on his back. Ormr flew beside him, and their wingtips nearly touched.

Spike wanted that. But the six ponies turned to one another, laughing, and the dream Ormr nudged his non-existent wings, drawing his attention away. As the dream dwindled he began to fall. Ormr didn’t know what to say, and couldn’t catch him.

Spike wiped away tears on his cheeks. “If you’re so bothered about me having wings then why are you pretending you don’t have any?” he asked.

Ormr huffed. “Your friend is an alicorn,” it said. “She is still with you.” A wheedling quality seeped into its voice. “Perhaps you will be luckier still than I, and never lose her, if you stay with me for a time.”

Another sweet, warm breeze washed over Spike. On the coil of silken strands below Ormr’s wedge-shaped head, droplets of water trembled. Spike cringed, pressing his hand against Twilight’s pulse.

“I know little of alicorns,” Ormr whispered. “But we are much like them.”

Despite his reservations, Spike took the opportunity to keep Ormr talking. “What do you mean?”

“Mere ponies can become alicorns through magic. So too can a dragon become a wyrm instead, if it can overcome its nature.”

“What nature does a wyrm have?” he said.

Ormr didn’t answer. Instead it said, “Dragons are born from worse than want. They are born from greed.”

Spike remembered Zecora’s old warning as he spoke, challenging Ormr. “Well, I’ve been greedy. Doesn’t that make me a dragon, not a wyrm?”

“No.”

“I got so big and selfish I nearly wrecked Ponyville.”

“Home?” growled Ormr, hearing wistfulness in Spike’s voice.

“Yeah. My home.” Spike’s stomach lurched with the memory of himself and Rarity plunging towards the ground, wind buffing the fire ruby around her neck, her sparkling tears falling into the skies. He jerked his thumb at his own head. “Can’t you see it?”

Ormr seemed to shrink, a tiny candle twinkling at the bottom of an endless black chasm. “You are no dragon. You are small again. Small enough to return home.”

“This isn’t my home.” Spike took a deep breath. “I don’t think it’s yours, either.”

He sat down beside Twilight, close enough that their sides touched. “Twilight’s my real home,” he said, “like Chiron was yours. You can’t replace her. I don’t need wings, Ormr.”

The burning pain of the old wyrm’s loss was as plain as daylight, for a moment. Then the dazzling light began to fade. Stone and sand and stalactites all disappeared.

“What’s the matter?” Spike asked, a leaden weight of sadness settling on his shoulders. Darkness encircled them. “What’s happening?”

Ormr laid its huge head not a metre away from Spike, beside the lump of opalescent silk strands. Despite the deteriorating light, the silk shined as if burnished.

“It’s getting darker,” Spike whispered, huddling into Twilight. Frigid shadows touched the tips of his scales.

“Yes.” Only embers remained in the void of Ormr’s eyes, two dying stars.

“I’m. . . I’m scared.”

Two faint rainbows glimmered as they climbed along Spike’s arms and slashed across one another, over his heart. “There is nothing to be afraid of in the dark. After all, darkness is nothing.”

“Then why are you afraid?”

The light went out. The belly of the world engulfed Spike, more isolated than any place on the surface could ever be. No stars, no plants, no smells, a cold wilderness outside reality. A primeval, forgotten country where even good and evil didn’t exist: only there, and not there. He closed his eyes and looked into nothingness.

“Ormr,” he asked, “are you still there?”

The wyrm sighed. ‘Always.’

Twilight mumbled something incoherent, twitching, and Spike curled into her body. He didn’t need to see her to know she was there. I’m not alone, he thought.

But Ormr is.

Twilight didn’t need to be awake for Spike to know what she’d say if she could. But before he could speak, he heard the brief tinkling of helictites breaking, and a warm breeze caressed his face. Then the rush of distant water filled his hearing.