• Published 14th Apr 2018
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The Maker's Reject - Albi



Every pony has a destiny—a reason for being. Sunset Shimmer has no cutie mark, and struggles just to feel like she belongs in this reality. But the price to find her purpose might be one too high to pay.

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12. Dragon Quest

A week had elapsed since I sent my response to Twilight. Her return letter arrived one afternoon during another of my study binges. Pulling the letter out of the envelope, I found four pages of her hornwork waiting for me.

‘Dear Sunset,

‘Gosh, I don’t even know where to begin! Your whole situation sounds fascinating! And terrible, mostly terrible! Sorry, it’s hard wrapping my head around all of this. So, if I understand it correctly, not only is Armonía real (that alone is going to keep me up for a few nights), she doesn’t perceive you as real and that’s causing you to fade from existence? I guess I have no excuse to have an existential crisis ever again.

‘That was a joke.

‘So, all we have to do is make the Maker notice you. Probably much easier said than done. I don’t know anything about how ascension works, but if you think it’s your best bet, I’ll try to help however I can! I’ve already started to comb through my library’s books (I’m still so excited I get to call it my library!) and I think I’m onto a few leads, plus potential backup plans. Reading mythology and theology leads to some real interesting and heavy topics. I’ll try to keep it all clear and succinct.’

It wasn’t.

What followed were long tangents of spiritual ideas, physics equations, excited speculation, and a promise to do even more research. I couldn’t say much of it sounded promising, but the fact that Twilight was trying made my heart swell.

‘I’ll always try to keep you in my thoughts, Sunset! It’s the least I can do for you! I’ll write back as soon as I find something that might help!

‘Your friend,

‘Twilight Sparkle’

Overall, she took the whole situation in stride. Of course, I wasn’t there to see whatever potential freakout she might have had before composing the letter.

Over the next few days, I would reopen it just to read the last paragraph. It became downright therapeutic whenever I woke from a nightmare. They were infrequent, but my dreaming mind would have me revisit the castle where I was invisible to everyone, even Mom. It always ended with me falling before slamming into my own body and forcing me awake. Twilight’s letters served as a comfort before I went to my mother seeking a hug in the early hours of the morning.

I still wasn’t sure what would actually come of Twilight’s help, if anything could. Becoming an alicorn—becoming immortal still looked like my best shot of saving myself. Having a contingency plan couldn’t hurt though. And just having Twilight know felt nice.

My studies progressed slowly but surely. I was out of the remedial material and on to learning more advanced spells. At least, the theory of them. I still had trouble producing enough magic to pull many of them off. Currently, I was trying to master one of the hallmarks of true unicorn power: teleportation.

Two hoops sat on the floor of my room, one near the door and the other beside my bed. I stood in the bedside one, sweat pouring down my face as I stared at the opposing ring. My horn thrummed with power, wavering between a dull hum and an energetic rumble.

“You can do this. You can totally do this.” I closed my eyes, the hoop burned into my focus. All I needed to do was move my entire existence from one place to another. You would think it’d be easy since I barely existed. Again, I had the theoretical part down: folding spacetime around yourself and moving between the folds.

Now, it was time to put theory into practice.

Location visualized. Now, feel yourself being pushed forward. Let your body go. Feel the magic build up, and…I loosed the spell, praying at the very least it didn’t explode.

In hindsight, I wished it had.

The magic wrapped around me like a cocoon, and I felt yanked into the space between space. A black void, nothing. Devoid of sound, light, everything.

Then, I unraveled. Every part of me tried to come undone. Molecule by molecule, I broke apart, unable to do anything, not even scream. I had gone a whole month without even feeling lightheaded. Now, nihility had come to claim what it was owed. I wanted to fight, to give some last will of defiance before parting, but I had zero control.

It was only a second, two at most. But it dragged on for eternity. I felt every part of myself erased… then I slammed onto the floor, my gasping breath thundering in my ears. I shook like a leaf but couldn’t move any of my limbs. My shaking grew into sporadic jerks as feeling slowly returned to me. First, it felt like pins and needles were being pushed into my nerves. The prickling pain receded and my violent twitching died down. I stayed against the floor until my breathing was under control, then slowly lifted myself to my hooves.

I turned my head and heaved onto the carpet.

Sweat matted my forehead and my knees trembled. I coughed and spluttered out the last of my sick before stumbling backward, tripping on the hoop and falling onto my haunches. It was a paltry consolation, but my teleport had been successful.

My mind was the last thing to knit itself back together. Thoughts slowly crept in one by one, the first being that I had almost faded again. I pushed that one away in favor of doing something about the lunch I had just expunged.

With a shaky breath to compose my nerves, I cast a cleansing spell to wipe away the vomit. There was still a slight stain in the carpet, but I would deal with that later.

I stood up and made my way to the bathroom, running the tap on cold until the sink was filled. I then dunked my whole head in and stayed submerged until the freezing sting left my face numb. I pulled my face free and breathed, enjoying the sweet taste of oxygen—of life in general. I was still alive!

Levitating a towel over, I buried my face into it, enjoying its fluffy comfort and inhaling my strawberry shampoo lingering from last night. Even after I was dry, I kept my face buried.

Still here. Still Sunset Shimmer. I’m fine. I’m fine.

I lowered the towel and examined myself in the mirror, double-checking I had all of my parts. Everything seemed accounted for. The mare in the mirror looked terrified though.

I put the towel away and walked back to the bedroom. There was a small singe mark where I had teleported from, the only evidence from the spell cast. I looked from it to the window; another crystal clear afternoon.

Why? I finally allowed the thought to creep into my head. Why did that happen now? I was doing fine for so long! Did something go wrong during my teleport? Or maybe it was the teleportation.

You’re supposed to fold space around yourself to move between it like a shortcut. But even the exact methods of the actual movement through space are still hazy to arcanists. While moving did I… stop being part of this world? Do you stop existing for a brief second while teleporting?

Either way, it didn’t matter. Teleporting was off-limits from now on. I had proven I could do it. That would be enough, wouldn’t it?

I pulled a long scroll from one of my desk drawers and crossed ‘teleportation’ off the list of necessary spells I needed to know in order to ascend. A Princess of Magic had to know how to teleport. She didn’t have to rely on it.

Setting the scroll away, I set off for the dining hall. An early dinner, then an early bed time. I had enough magic for one day.

******

The wispy scent of smoke was not what I expected to wake up to.

My head jerked from my pillow as I looked for the source of the fire. As my morning grogginess cleared, I realized the scent was too light to be anywhere close. And if the castle was on fire, Mother or Platina would be pounding on my door right now.

I rolled out of bed and looked out the window. Instead of clear skies, a haze hung over Canterlot, giving the sun an angry orange tint. Something was on fire.

After a quick wash-up, I threw my door open and scanned the halls. I could already tell there were fewer sentries posted, and Platina was not waiting outside. Instead, a lesser guard stood at attention, one who was more familiar with me and competent in his own right but still, not Platina.

He saluted. “Good morning, Lady Sunset.”

“Morning, Saber Shine. What’s going on outside?”

Saber Shine pinned his ears back. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure. I’ve been posted here since five A.M. Apparently, the haze didn’t start until around six.”

“I see.” Well, there was only one pony to see then. “Do you know where my mother is?”

“Last I heard, she was on the west tower balcony.”

I booked down the hall, leaving him in my wake. “Thank you!”

“Wait, My Lady—”

But I was out of his shouting range before I could hear the end of his sentence. Using my perfect sense of the castle’s layout, I was at the west tower in minutes. Sure enough, Mother stood at the top balcony, observing something through a telescope.

Oddly enough, I couldn’t smell the smoke up here. The haze continued to surround us, and a great plume of smoke curled up from a distant mountain range. Yet the air at the top of the balcony was fresh and clean. I chalked it up to Mother’s magic.

“What’s happening?” I asked, approaching the ramparts.

“Good morning, my little sun,” Mother said calmly. “It appears an elder dragon has taken up residence in a nearby mountain and is beginning to hibernate.”

“A dragon?” Little, harmless Spike was the first image to pop into my head. But, my deeper knowledge quickly replaced his small stature and rounded scales with something much larger, sharper, and fierier. “But, the dragon migration isn’t until next year. And this is nowhere near the dragon lands!”

“Indeed.” Mother straightened up, a contemplative look on her face. “There are detractors from the main herd. This one does not seem concerned with migration patterns or hibernation areas.”

I took a second look at the billowing clouds of black smoke. “Wait, if it’s sleeping, what’s with the smoke and ash?”

Mother took to slowly pacing in front of the telescope. “Elder dragons are rather large. They’re also prone to snoring. This one seems to have a particular penchant for protruding smoke when it does.”

“Great, so Equestria is going to drown in smog because of a sleeping dragon with a sinus problem. Don’t they hibernate for a hundred years?”

“Unfortunately, that is correct. We need to rectify this situation before it goes too deep into its sleep and can’t be roused. It only arrived a few hours ago, so we still have time.”

I copied her pacing, alternating sides with her as I thought. “Well, if it’s a detractor, couldn’t you send the Royal Guard to get rid of it?”

She shook her head. “Detractor or not, I wouldn’t risk causing an international incident with the current Dragon Lord. And it would take more than the Royal Guard to subdue an elder dragon in the first place. No, we need a more diplomatic solution.”

The cogs in my brain whirred. “You need someone to go over there and convince the dragon to leave?”

Mother didn’t notice the excited tone in my voice. She tapped a hoof against her lower lip. “Correct. I wonder—”

“I’ll do it!”

She snapped her gaze to me. “Pardon?”

“I’ll go talk to this dragon! Think about it: if I convince it to leave and all the smoke goes away, ponies will have a reason to talk about me! ‘Sunset Shimmer, the pony who stoped the eternal smog!’” I waved a hoof through the air.

Mother pinned her ears back. “That would certainly work for your benefit… but, it’s a dragon, Sunset. It’s dangerous.”

My excited pulse slowed. “You don’t think I can do it?”

She winced. “No, I never said that. I’m just worried. Ponies have a hard time recognizing you as it stands. And if it does notice you, it’s still a dragon.”

I couldn’t deny her first point. But she was sorely mistaken if she thought a dragon scared me. I had already stared Nightmare Moon in the face; what could be worse?

“Mom, please, let me at least try! You need a diplomat, I have diplomatic skills! I learned everything from watching you! I can do this!”

She bit her lip and turned her head southward. It was hard to tell, but it looked like she was staring at Ponyville. At last, she looked back at me and said, “All right. I will trust this to you on two conditions.”

“Sure, name them!” I couldn’t stop my tail from swishing.

“First, take Cadence and Platina with you.”

My tail fanned a little slower. I supposed going by myself would be foolhardy. And Cadence needed diplomatic experience too. As long as she didn’t take the credit for this.

“Second, you come back home immediately if things get dangerous. I’d rather have a hundred years of smoke than lose you.”

I sharply turned my head away, feeling tears spring to the corners of my eyes. Once I was sure I was composed, I threw myself into her embrace. “Don’t worry, Mom. I got this.”

She nuzzled the top of my head. “I know you do, little sun.”

******

“We have to what?”

I didn’t think Cadence’s eyes could get so big. They looked ready to hop off her face and run away.

“Go up a mountain and tell the snoring dragon to leave,” I said again, slower and calmer.

Cadence took a few short breaths, fanning herself. “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid you said.” She paced in front of her bed, ears flicking up and down. “Okay, okay. Talking to a dragon. Why do I have to talk to a dragon?”

You don’t have to do anything,” I said pointedly. “Mom just said I had to take you with me. I’ll handle talking to the dragon.”

I sat at her desk, idling looking around her room. It was a lot like mine in terms of design. A large, circular bedchamber with an enormous four-poster bed. What differentiated our rooms was our choice of decorations. I had left the carpet and window curtains alone, retaining the standard purple and gold color scheme. My bookshelf was filled with arcane tomes and historical texts, and I kept and collection of odd souvenirs from the places Mom had taken me.

There was also a chest under my bed where I kept my old toys, but nopony needed to know about that.

Cadence had a more personal color scheme for her room. The carpet swirled with two tones of pink, matching the long, flowing curtains. Her bookshelf was filled with romance novels, though there was the odd textbook here or there. Photos covered her desk; ones of her family, Celestia, Twilight. There was even one of her and that guard captain Shining Armor.

I found myself in only one of them; a picture we had taken the first week Cadence had arrived. Her hair was still done up in a ponytail, and both of us wore those anxious smiles used when you still weren’t quite used to someone.

I should take more pictures, I thought absently. I only had pictures of me and Mom on my desk.

Cadence finished pacing and took a deep breath. “Okay.” She exhaled and forced a smile. “Okay. I’m okay.”

“You sure?”

“For now. Ask me again when we’re standing in front of the dragon.” She took another breath. “But, let’s look on the bright side. We get to do some quality bonding! We haven’t spent time together in a while.”

“You’re right. We can save Equestria while you tell me all about your big stallion friend.”

Cadence’s cheeks turned a cute shade of red. “I mean, there isn’t really much to tell.”

“Oh, I highly doubt that.”

Knock knock knock.

Cadence ran to the door and threw it open. “Miss Platina, hi! You’re just in time!”

“She won’t save you from me!” I said, the wickedest grin plastered on my face.

Platina raised an eyebrow but didn’t question anything. “I’m ready to depart whenever you are, Your Graces.”

“Right. Let me get a saddlebag together.” Cadence made it two steps before pressing a golden horseshoe to her forehead. “What am I supposed to bring for this?”

“Just pack a few essentials and get some food from the kitchens. I’ve already got the books and the map.” I got up from the desk and levitated my saddlebags on. “We’ll wait for you in the front hall.”

Cadence nodded distractedly, meandering around her room.

Platina and I left her to her devices and walked down the corridor. “Sorry for dragging you into this.”

“It’s fine,” Platina said with a shake of her head. “I would rather being ensuring your safety than lounging at home. Lance had to go into work anyway to help mitigate the smoke damage.”

“Well, with any luck, I’ll have the dragon gone by sundown.”

Platina smiled. “I have the utmost faith in you.”

Her and Mother both. It was all the more imperative that I didn’t fail. I’d be lying if I said my nerves weren’t getting a little shaky. There were three outcomes from this mission. Either I succeed and the dragon leaves, it ignores me completely and I disappoint Mom and Platina, or I royally mess up and start a war with the Dragon Lands.

Well, my very existence defies the odds, so maybe I’m a natural-born miracle worker.

Cadence joined us in the entrance hall, looking a little less nervous. I was glad Platina had nerves of steel to compensate for the two of us.

We walked out the front doors and into the gathering haze. The black clouds hadn’t reached the city yet, but the smell of soot was much stronger than it was an hour ago. Guards were posted all throughout the city, shepherding ponies back inside or using their magic to create pockets of clean air. The weather team flew overhead, keeping the bulk of the smoke at bay.

Mom had directed us to the Sky Marina where we would catch a hot air balloon to the mountain range. None of us said much. Platina kept the air around us clean while Cadence and I surveyed the city.

We passed by several of my posters hung up around town. I smiled pleasantly at the world while the caption beneath me read: ‘Sunset Shimmer, daughter of Her Majesty Princess Celestia and head of the Grand Galloping Gala Planning Committee. Say hello!’

It occurred to me, ponies would have a hard time saying hi if I stayed locked in my room most of the time. I would need to find time to walk around town if I didn’t get us all burned to the ground.

Morbid.

Cadence kept a wing in front of her mouth as we moved through the hazy city. “It looks like the scene from some apocalypse story,” she said somberly. With the orange glow and black clouds on the horizon, I could see her point.

Also morbid.

The balloon was prepped and waiting for us upon our arrival to the marina. It looked tiny compared to the airships docked off the side of the mountain face. We climbed in and Platina set us loose. I was sure the air would be more polluted the higher we got, but Platina’s air bubble kept us from having to discover first-hoof.

“Sunset, what’s our plan, if I may ask?” Cadence said. Her eyes were fixed on the approaching mountain.

“Well, the first step is to get it to notice me. Then, I have a variety of techniques to convince the dragon to leave. We’ll start out gentle, then, if we don’t make any progress, we remind it that our princess is a millennia-old demigoddess who could wipe it off the face of the planet if she really wanted to.”

Cadence and Platina both looked at me with wide eyes.

“I’m joking!” I said, laughing as relief swept across their faces. At least, I was half joking. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that, but seriously, Mom could blast this dragon to smithereens. And if it really wasn’t part of the main pack, then the Dragon Lord wouldn’t miss it.

Of course, that brought up the question: why didn’t Mom go handle it herself? I mean, sure, I volunteered, but she could have gone and dealt with this before I even woke up.

Seems lazy of her, really.

I shook my head. Mom had plenty of things to do already. She didn’t need a dragon added to her plate.

An hour later, we touched down at the base of the mountains, the closest we could get due to the thickness of the smog. It looked like a storm cloud, dropping ash instead of rain. Even with Platina’s air bubble, the smell of sulfur was strong, and I could feel sweat gathering at the nape of my neck.

Cadence stepped out of the balloon and took a deep breath. “Okay. We can do this.”

“Of course we can,” I said, stepping out behind her. “It’s just a dragon.” I’m not sure if I was reassuring her or myself.

Once our balloon was secured, we began our climb. A tall cliff face was our first challenge, nearly vertical and with few good hoof holdings. I gave Cadence a lidded glare from the corner of my eye as she examined the rock, no doubt trying to think of a way up for us wingless species.

Being an alicorn would be really handy right now.

I didn’t have wings, but I did have magic. I took a series of quick breaths and danced on my hooves to prep myself. Even on a good day, mid-caliber magic could be difficult to cast and leave me drained afterward. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

My horn ignited, and the entire rockface glowed in the same teal light. The wonderful sound of rocks scraping against one another raked our ears. Dirt and dust rained down on our heads as I pulled chunks of earth from the wall.

It should be said that trying to move and reshape stone is not an easy feat. It was like trying to stick claws I didn’t have into the rock and pull pieces out with my bare strength. There was also an art to it. I popped pieces of the wall out one by one, as a headache pounded the front of my skull. I endured, ignoring the worried shout Cadence gave me. If I could teleport then I could do this.

With a loud grunt, I pulled the last stone out and flopped onto my belly. I didn’t move, my everything was too exhausted to try. Interestingly, it felt like the moment right before I had a major existential attack. I could feel every part of my being: my heart racing, my head pounding, my horn overheated, my muscles aching. Perhaps that hadn’t been the brightest idea.

Cadence and Platina knelt down on either side of me. A canteen of water floated up to my lips and I took a deep drink.

“Are you okay?” Cadence asked.

I nodded my head, the only action I could do while I waited for my body to recover.

“My Lady, while I commend your magical prowess and inventive thinking, that was foolhardy, using so much magic when we’ve barely started,” Platina admonished. She silenced any protest I might have had by pushing the canteen against my lips.

After a few minutes, my horn and head cooled down, and I climbed back to my hooves. I could fully appreciate my hard work now. Jutting from the cliff face were small, rocky steps that zigzagged their way up to a high ledge. It was crude, truth be told, but effective.

A loud rumbling noise made us all jump. The mountain itself seemed to be inhaling. Then, it exhaled a thick plume of smoke from near the summit.

“How is one dragon causing all of this?” Cadence asked, a hitch in her voice.

“Mom said it was an elder dragon. I’m guessing that means they’re supposed to be bigger.”

Cadence smiled with all of her teeth, straining her cheeks. “Greeeaaat.”

“Come on, you’re not scared of one dragon, are you?”

“Terrified.” Her smile dropped. “How can I not be? One second, everything’s fine and the next, there’s a dragon on Equestrian soil and we have to go tell it to leave! Do princesses have to do this all the time? What if we cause an international incident? How do we explain that to Celestia? I don’t want to be responsible for starting a war with dragons! I haven’t even signed a law yet! The most princess-y thing I’ve done is comforted one of the new guards when Nightmare Moon came back! What if this is a test from Celestia to see if I’m even worthy of being a princess?”

She was breathing hard now, eyes wide and pupils tiny. I knew she had been nervous, but that was a lot to dump in one breath.

Five years of training and she’s still scared of her princess duties. She always seems so self-assured though.

It’s pathetic. Tell her to grow a spine, my cynical voice said. I pushed it aside to make room for words of encouragement.

I put a hoof on her shoulder, startling her out of the spiral her mind was still conjuring. “Listen, I know it seems a little daunting, but we’re just asking a dragon to leave. I’ll even do most of the talking!”

“But, I want to help! I don’t want ponies to think I’m just the pretty princess that doesn’t actually do anything! I don’t want Celestia thinking me becoming an alicorn was a mistake! I don’t want to think becoming an alicorn was a mistake, but I’m totally thinking this was a mistake!”

She took great gulps of air, her chest heaving in and out. Her eyes were dilated, and I could only imagine how far she had spiraled on the inside. This had clearly been building for some time, and I really did sympathize with her, but we were on a bit of a time crunch so her having a breakdown was a little inconvenient.

I chewed my bottom lip, thinking of something reassuring to say. I also tried not to think about how this was practice for handling the dragon.

“Okay, Cadence, I want you to breathe with me.”

“Sunset, I can’t,” she said, hyperventilating.

I placed one hoof over hers. “Yes, you can. It’s an easy technique Mom taught me. Just breathe in and bring a hoof to your chest.”

Cadence made a little whimper but complied, taking a shaky breath and bringing her free hoof in.

“Good. Now, breathe out and push it away. Yeah, just like that. Do it again, breathe in good, positive thoughts and push out the fear and negativity.”

Mom had taught me this trick a few years back whenever I was having a particularly hard day. It had proven effective at calming me down when I was lamenting how no one ever noticed or remembered me.

And she had known the entire time why but neglected to tell you.

I breathed in some positive energy of my own and pushed out my bad thoughts. Once Cadence had repeated the process a few times and her eyes were no longer dilated, I moved a hoof to her shoulder.

“Feeling better?”

“A little.”

“Good. Cadence, I’ll admit, when you first strolled into the palace with wings and a horn, I wasn’t thrilled. But, you’re one of the most sincere and compassionate ponies I know. I’m sure you were made a princess for some other reason than your looks. Maybe you’ll find it up here, or maybe it’s something you have to piece together in time, but you’ll find it.”

Cadence’s pupils had done a complete reversal and were so wide, I could see a complete reflection of myself. I also couldn’t help but feel a little incredulous. She looked at me like she couldn’t believe I was giving a motivational speech.

Another rumbling snore came from on high. It didn’t ruin the tender moment, but it did remind us we didn’t have time for it.

Cadence wrapped her hooves around me and squeezed tight. I still wasn’t used to her hugs, but I was glad she was at least feeling better. “Thank you, Sunset. That really means a lot. You’re going to make a great princess too someday.”

“Count on it,” I said, barely able to pass the words through my squashed lungs. She released me and I took a relieved breath, grateful to still be in Platina’s air bubble.

Speaking of Platina, she gave a firm cough and pointed to the top of the mountain. “Not to rush either of you, but we do have a dragon to evict.”

“Right.” I took to the path again, glancing over my shoulder to make sure Cadence hadn’t relapsed. She still didn’t sport the most confident look, but she was a far cry from the whimpering state she had been in.

We continued our trek unimpeded, though it was slow going at times. The dragon’s snoring threatened to bring a rockslide down on us at one point if Platina hadn’t cast a noise dampening spell.

Our surroundings grew hazier as we ascended into the actual cloud of smoke. I could see the smog fanning out to every corner of Equestria with little sunshine in sight. Even through the air bubble, I could smell the ash and sulfur.

Cadence gagged and fanned her wings. “Elder or not, I can’t believe one dragon is doing all of this.”

“Mom says it has a sinus problem.” I wrinkled my nose as the stench grew stronger. It made it harder for me to formulate my strategy for getting rid of the dragon. I had a few general ideas, but still hadn’t put together a full-proof plan past talking to it. But, hey, maybe it was reasonable.

The jagged slope curved around a bend, and we arrived at the mouth of the cavern playing host to our fiery friend. Smoke plumed out like an active chimney, and I could feel the heat prickling my skin.

“All right, this is it.” I did some meditative breathing of my own, bringing in good thoughts and pushing out doubt. It was marred slightly by the noxious air. “I just gotta go in there and tell the dragon to leave.”

Platina cleared her throat. “I hope you weren’t planning to go in there alone.”

Truth be told, I was. At least for my initial peace talk. It was completely selfish, but if I did manage to convince the dragon to leave, I wanted it to be irrefutable that I was the one who did it.

“Don’t worry, Platina. My magic’s back, so if worse comes to worst, I think I can make a quick escape.”

“I’m going to worry anyway,” she said flatly.

I gave her a bold smile and strode forward, savoring the clean air before leaving the safety of Platina’s bubble. Acrid smoke burned my nostrils and made me gag before I could make a small pocket of clean air for myself. In that brief instance, a light layer of ash had fallen into my hair. I shook it out and pressed on into the cave.

Sweat gathered on my brow the further in I walked. The cave wasn’t particularly large, and turning a corner, I found myself face-to-snout with my query.

Large, scaly, red. Very red. His main body was a deep, molten hue, set aglow by the enormous pile of gold he sat upon. The pointed spines running down his back were a brighter red, almost pink. It didn’t detracted from their lethal pointiness. He opened his mouth to let out a short yawn, showing off his equally pointy teeth: two rows of knife-long canines.

I gagged and waved away the putrid smell of his breath. Even my bubble couldn’t do much against an odor that foul. I just had to grit my teeth and press on. The sooner I got him to leave, the sooner we all could breath clean air again.

I loudly cleared my throat. “Excuse me!”

The dragon gave a snort, smacked its lips, and fidgeted a little, sending a shower of gold coins tumbling down the hoard he slept on. I didn’t expect him to wake up with one shout, but the tiny optimist in me had to try.

My horn lit up and vibrated, sending a tingling sensation into my forehead. A second later, an obnoxious ringing noise filled the cavern, bouncing off the walls. High and shrill with enough volume to wake the dead, it went on and on until the dragon’s eyes snapped open. They were bright orange, like fire, with narrow black slits for pupils.

I put an end to my alarm spell and waved a hoof. “Hi there, sorry for the rude awakening.”

The dragon gave a threatening growl.

“My name is Sunset Shimmer, and I am here on behalf of the ponies of Equestria. I must inform you that you are on our sovereign territory and polluting our skies with your snoring. I kindly ask that you leave at once or we will be forced to take more drastic precautions,” I said, holding my head high and speaking in my best diplomatic voice.

The dragon’s eyes had become unfocused halfway through my speech. By the time I finished, he gave a loud snort and nestled down again.

“Did you hear anything I just said?” I deadpanned.

A soft snore answered me.

My blood boiled and I ground my teeth together. Keep cool, Sunset, you knew this would happen. It didn’t stop it from stinging though. I refrained from blasting him in the eye and used my alarm spell again.

Once again, the dragon’s eyes snapped open and narrowed at the sight of me.

“You are on Equestrian soil! Please leave!” Short, sweet, and to the point.

The dragon inhaled, and I threw up my shield in preparation for a wave of fire, praying it would be enough. He pursed his lips, but instead of fire, a sharp gust of wind blew me out of the cave and tumbling in the dirt until I came to a stop right in front of Cadence and Platina.

I opened my eyes and stared at the clouds above. “Well, I’m not dead. So that’s a win.”

Cadence helped me to my hooves, and Platina dusted me off. “What do we do now?” Cadence asked.

“Maybe he just needs help noticing me,” I said, facing the cave once more. “This time, we’ll all go.”

Cadence took several short breaths and tried practicing the technique I taught her. “Right. Right. We can do it. We can do this! It’s just a dragon! A fire-breathing, sharp-toothed, one-hundred foot long dragon!”

Platina straightened her back. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Princess.”

A nervous chuckle was Cadence’s only response.

We marched back into the cave, braving the heat and the smoke. This time, the dragon open an eye upon our approach. His pupil flitted between Cadence and Platina, but once in a while would hover over me for a brief second. I decided to try my spiel again.

“Hi. We’re emissaries of Princess Celestia, here to inform you that you are on Equestrian territory, and that your snoring is proving detrimental to the ponies of this land. Please take your gold and relocate somewhere else.”

He blinked slowly. “And if I say no?” he rumbled in a deep voice.

I stood my ground. “Then you will face the full force of Equestria’s military might. Or, we can skip that and you can face Princess Celestia herself. You know, the pony who moves the sun?

If the dragon was intimidated, he didn’t show it. He raised his neck and leered down at us, opening his mouth just enough to show a glimpse of his teeth. “And what if you never make it back to tell her?”

“Are you threatening us?” Platina asked, pulling her spear from her back.

“Not if you leave me be.” He rested his head down again. “I will only be here a short while. You can manage until then.”

“You can’t sleep here, you’re trespassing!” I yelled.

“And you’re trespassing in my cave! I fear no pony princess. If she wants me gone, tell her to come talk to me herself. I don’t take orders from errand girls” He shut his eyes, a satisfied smirk on his face.

Indignation burned my face worse than any sunburn. Ignored, mocked, and disrespected. Part of me wanted to go back to my mom and tell her what had transpired just to see her come and incinerate this overgrown lizard off the face of the planet. But I was nopony’s errand girl, and I refused to go home a failure.

Cadence nudged my side and nodded her head toward the exit. I gave the dragon one more scathing look before retreating. The air outside was still smoggy, but at least the heat was more manageable.

Platina made for the slope down the mountain. “We tried, but that dragon is unreasonable. If he wants to challenge the princess, then I say we grant him his last request.”

“Hang on,” I said sharply, my anger spilling over. “I’m not done yet.”

“Sunset, you can’t reason with him,” Cadence said.

“You’re right, I can’t.” An inspired grin tugged at my lips. “But maybe I can speak his language instead.”

Cadence leaned back, raising a suspicious eyebrow. “I don’t like that look in your eye. Why can’t we just report back to Celestia?”

I turned and marched back into the cave. “Because Sunset Shimmer doesn’t quit!”

The dragon was softly snoozing already. I was tempted to forgo the alarm spell and just blast him in the eye, but curbed my temper and rang my horn instead. His eyes snapped open and he let out a genuine roar this time, shaking dust from the roof of the cave and sending a wave of gold coins toppling over one another as they slid to the ground. My mane flew back and my eyes watered at the heat of his breath.

He peered down at me, a growl in his throat. “Great, another one. What do you want?”

“I want you to get out of this cave and stop polluting our air with your smoking sinuses!”

He snorted. “Like I told those other ponies, I’m only here for a short century nap. I’ll be gone before you know it.”

“It doesn’t work like that!” I closed my eyes and held a hoof to my chest, then pushed it away. I chose not to breathe deep—the smoke was already making me lightheaded. “How about this. I know you dragons like a challenge, right?”

His scaley eyebrow rose. “Oh, were you going to challenge me, tiny pony?”

I puffed my chest out. “As a matter of fact, I am. If I win, you have to leave Equestria and stop polluting our lands. If you win, you can stay here as long as you want.” Was it a gamble? Completely. Was my pride getting the better of me? Most definitely. Was I about to be ridiculed by a dragon and sent home to tell my mother I had failed with the mission she had trusted to me?

Absolutely not.

The dragon shifted, stretching his arms and wings and extending his neck. He stood as tall as he could in the cramped cave and licked his teeth. “And what sort of challenge did the tiny pony have in mind?”

“A race. First one to the bottom of the mountain wins.”

He blinked. Then, a rumble reverberated from his throat. He opened his mouth and let out a thunderous laugh. If I wasn’t standing in front of him, I would have thought there was an avalanche. “Are there any stipulations to this race?”

“Nope. Anything goes.” I met his eyes and made sure not to smile.

He took a step forward. “Very well, I accept your little challenge. But when I win, I expect not to be disturbed until my nap is done.” He brought his head down until his snout was inches from my face.

“And the next pony who does wake me will become my midnight snack.”

“Understood,” I said, unfazed. I turned on my tail and marched out the cave. The ground-shaking thumps told me my opponent was right on my heels.

Platina ran up to me upon my exit. “My Lady, what’s going on?”

“Mr. Dragon and I are going to have a little race to the bottom of the mountain. If I win, he leaves.”

What?” Cadence yelled. She flew over, eyes the size of dinner plates again. “Sunset, you can’t outrun him! He’s a dragon!

“You should listen to your friends,” he said, emerging from his cavern. If I wasn’t so resolute on putting him in his place, his size might have been intimidating. He was far larger than his curled appearance in the cave suggested. Wings stretched wide, he was at least four carriages wide and five long.

“Let’s get this over with,” he growled.

“Gladly.”

Cadence buzzed next to my ear. “Please tell me you have a plan?” she whispered.

I gave her a subtle wink. “Would you be our starter?”

Cadence sighed and rubbed her temples. “I have a bad feeling about this.” She waited for me and the dragon to line up at the crest of the hill. He beat his wings, forcing me to stumble from the gale.

“All right, on your marks,” Cadence said glumly. “Get set…”

I bent my knees. The dragon stood with his wings blocking what light struggled to break through the clouds.

“Go!”

With a single beat, the dragon took to the air, the backdraft shoving me back several feet. He circled the peak of the mountain once, then dove down.

“My Lady, what were you—”

“Sshhh.” I held a hoof up. The first part of my plan had worked, now I had to pray I could pull off the second. I closed my eye, trembling as I drew upon my powers. A day ago, I had sworn off ever teleporting again. Now, I had to use it to save Equestria. I pictured our balloon waiting at the mountain base and wrapped magic around myself. The anger and adrenaline coursing through me gave surprising clarity. Despite heaving boulders earlier, I felt I had enough magic to pull this off and not die.

Maybe.

Come on, come on. You’ve got about ten seconds to get there.

My knees shook and my stomach churned, anticipating the horrible experience coming. The black void yanked me in and held me in its tight embrace, crushing me in its infinite darkness. I feebly squirmed as my body unraveled, nothing more than yarn with no spindle to hold it together.

Stay alive! Stay together! Come back!

The second of suspended animation lasted forever. Then, I shot forward and hit the dirt hard, bile rising in my throat. My muscles burned and spots danced in front of my eyes. The world spun below me, and something roared high above, breaking through the sharp ringing in my ears. The earth shook, rocking my already sensitive stomach. I sucked in a quick breath, fighting with all my strength to keep from throwing up.

You cheated!” a voice boomed just over my head.

With a pained grunt, I rolled over to find a red snout and burning eyes glaring down at me. “Didn’t… cheat…” I choked out. “Said anything goes.”

He roared again, slamming his tail against the ground. “Filthy pony, I will not acknowledge your little stunt!” His jaws opened wide, and a bright orange glow grew in his throat.

Not how I was hoping this would end. A few sparks spilled off my horn, but I had no energy left for any spell, defensive or otherwise. So much for my brilliant plan.

Hold it right there!” a voice screeched.

The flames of retribution died on the dragon’s lips, and he turned his head to see Cadence descending from the sky. She flew up to the dragon’s snout, making him go cross-eyed. Gone was her fear, there was only anger left.

“The deal was a race to the bottom of the mountain, anything goes! You had your wings, she had her magic! She beat you! Now you have to fulfill your end of the deal!”

“And who’s going to make me?”

Cadence’s horn brightened to a blinding blue shine. “I am Princess Mi Amore Cadenza! I stand in line for the throne of Equestria! By my authority, I order you to abide by the conditions of the challenge and yield to Sunset Shimmer’s request! If not, you will face the wrath of the Equestrian Military, and I will report you to Dragon Lord Torch!”

The red dragon, in all his might and size, actually flinched at Cadence’s authoritative voice, and ducked when she mentioned Torch. “Ahem, I… suppose… I could take my nap somewhere else. There’s no need to involve the Dragon Lord in this.”

“That’s what I thought,” Cadence, said, her horn dimming. “Now apologize for the trouble you’ve caused.”

He rolled his eyes. “You ponies are all the same.”

Cadence growled.

“Ahem, I’m sorry.” The dragon took off back to the summit to gather his gold. With his snoring gone, the smoke had already started to clear away, revealing patches of soft blue skies.

Cadence landed beside me and helped me into a sitting position. “Are you okay?”

That was a loaded question. Physically, I wasn’t dead, and I was starting to get feeling back in my hooves. Emotionally? I’d have to come back to that. “I’m fine. More importantly, what was that?

She blushed. “You were in trouble. And no creature hurts my family and gets away with it.”

“Well, I’m glad it took me being in mortal danger for you to find your courage.” I smiled weakly.

The ledge above us shifted, and Platina jumped down, kicking up dirt as she landed. “My Lady, are you all right?”

“Don’t worry, Platina, I’m fine.” I got to my hooves, knees shaking. “See?”

She grunted and shook her head. “Once again, that was foolhardy at best and reckless at worst! You could have died!”

I could stop existing at any moment; death might be a mercy. “I’m sorry, Platina. I promise to not be so reckless in the future.”

“Forgive me if I have doubts, My Lady,” she said dryly.

A shadow flew over us. With gold and jewels in hand, the dragon soared overhead, letting out a final roar as it sailed toward the horizon. More of the smog cleared away, and the late afternoon sun greeted us.

Platina walked toward the balloon. “Come. Our work is done.”

Cadence helped me into the basket, and Platina set us free. With the smoke cleared, we could actually enjoy the hot air ride and take in the scenery of the world free from shadow. Well, they could anyway. My eyes looked down at the world but took in none of it.

I had defeated the dragon, but Cadence was the one who got him to actually leave. The specific outcome I had tried to avoid had happened. This was her victory, not mine.

How dare she steal your thunder! She probably played up the scared act to make herself look better in the end!

Somehow, that didn’t seem like something Cadence would do. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t upset. What was I supposed to tell Mom? More importantly, how was the public going to interpret the story? Odds were, they were only going to talk about what truly mattered: who talked the dragon into leaving in the end.

Platina led the balloon down to the marina, where, to my surprise and joy, Mom waited for us. I jumped out the basket before it finished docking and ran into her embrace. She kissed me on the forehead and nuzzled my mane.

“You did it, little sun. I’m so proud of you. Of all three of you.” She took Cadence into a warm embrace and nuzzled her cheek.

Platina saluted. “Just doing my job, Your Majesty.”

Celestia smiled, then ushered Cadence and me toward the castle. “Come, I want to hear all about your adventure.”

I looked at the pavement. “Well—”

“Sunset was amazing!” Cadence gushed. “We couldn’t get the dragon to leave, so she tricked him into a race and won, and forced him to leave!”

I gave her a wide-eyed stare, but she just smiled and winked at me.

“Sunset, that’s incredible! Wait until the ponies hear about this. You’ll be the talk of Equestria.”

“Y-yeah.” A knot formed in my stomach. “I can’t wait.”

Author's Note:

I have a Ko-fi now! Feel free to leave a little tip, it helps feed the Albi. No pressure of course. :twilightsmile: