• Published 8th Jul 2012
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King of Diamonds - Midnightshadow

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Under a Starry Sky


♠♣♥King of
Diamonds

The Ambassador's Son - Book 2
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Chapter 1
Under a Starry Sky
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow


The sputtering oil-soaked torch flew through the air and landed with a soft thud on the roof of the hut. For a few seconds nothing happened, but then the flames caught on the dried grass. In what seemed like mere moments, many of the pony village's mud thatch dwellings were in flames. Hot red and yellow flames licked the clouds as with snarls and growls, the diamond dogs moved amongst the scattering herd. Teeth flashed and claws slashed, and bright red blood was spilled in the moonlight.

Life on the edges of Celestia's domain was harsh and dangerous, and the villagers of Crook Hoof were getting a painful reminder of that. However, the ponies on the edge of Celestia's domain were also harsh and dangerous. Roused into action, the villagers fought back; those with horns attempted to spear their enemies, or enchant them if they had the teachings. Those without merely used their hooves and teeth. Battle was joined.

The village was small and undefended, but the ponies were not without allies. As the skirmish raged and their homes burned, the great village horn was sounded. The single note was long and pure, and it echoed far and wide. Help would come, as had been pledged. On great leathery wings, the dragons would come and their territory would be defended.

♠♣♥

The raid had been planned audaciously and in great depth. Five of the strongest and most resourceful diamond dogs from the Cracked Hills pack had been picked to participate — or at least, went other whispers, those unlikely to be missed.

The cover of darkness was essential to the plan, but even then it would take a concerted effort from the rest of the pack to have even the smallest hope of victory. Their prey was notoriously dangerous and their prize was fleeting and rare. Centuries could pass before another chance like this came. With thunderheads rolling in and plunging the already-dark tundra into pitch black, things would never be better. This night was going to be perfect.

So it was that five lanky-limbed diamond dogs found themselves ascending a mountain in the chill autumn air. They moved swiftly, on all fours or on their hind legs as best suited by the terrain, traversing the scree with as much ease as when loping across the plains or digging through the Underdeeps.

Sparing a single glance to the distance, where fires signalled their diversion was well underway, Hunter grinned in the darkness and moved on to the true prize.

Like shadows retreating before noonday sun, the hunting party stole into the dragon's den with nary a glance over their shoulder. There was no more time for deliberating; now they would do, or they would die. The unspoken warrior's pact was forefront on their minds: everyone dies eventually, it only mattered how, and whether it was without fear.

The dragoness was old, past her prime, and tired from her labours. She had been sleeping fitfully on her nest ever since the laying. She reclined on a mound that was part hoard and part bedding. It was made of more gold, jewels and precious things than many royals saw in a lifetime - yet she was guarding within it the most precious treasure of all. Her eggs.

Hunter had struck first, driving his black lodestone pike deep into her eye. It had taken mere moments from when they had first snuck through the unguarded entrance to first blood, but with dragons, moments was all you could expect. Giving it a twist, the cold metal staff lodged against her eye-socket and was ripped from his paws. Hunter was thrown clear across the cave as she had reeled back in pain. It knocked the breath from him and cracked a few ribs as he slammed into the solid rock.

The dragoness spat fire and hissed, ripping two of their companions in twain. Her talons flashed mercilessly in the murky darkness, spattering blood and gore across the walls, ceiling and floor. In the commotion, Ranger dove in close and slid another pike deep into her belly even as she had bit into a third hapless hound, ending his life.

His pike, like all the others, was poison-tipped; dragons were notoriously immune to almost all magics and poisons so it wouldn't hold her for long, but perhaps long enough. She roared in pain and agony, spurting flame, blinded and dangerous. The diamond dogs leaped and bounded as far from her grasping talons as they could until the poison took effect, each hoping that the second jab had penetrated near enough to her heart to subdue the great beast.

Finally she collapsed in a heap, her lingering pain-wracked shudders as she fought for breath threatening to bring down not only the roof of the cavern, but the entire mountain peak. Defeated, she lay still, twitching and barely breathing.

The two remaining diamond dogs looked at each other, unable to hide the grins that split their muzzles. For a moment, there was silence, then the two trolls whooped and hollered, slapping each other on the back. The sounds of rejoicing just as quickly died down as Hunter put a paw to his lips.

"Come, take eggs, then we move," Hunter said, guttural voice as low and quiet as he could make it.

Ranger nodded, grinning, "We are victorious, brother!"

Hunter couldn't help but grin again, though he boxed the other's ears lightly in admonishment, "We live for now, but first we must escape."

"Must count dragons before they hatch, yes?"

They would have to move fast; the dragoness' battle-roars had echoed from sky to sea, and her mates would be returning with all haste. Trouble-making by other members of the pack elsewhere within the dragons' protected territories, poaching and general chaos, had led her mates away, but at her cries, they would return without delay. Things were rapidly going downhill, and the raid had already been far more successful than anticipated.

The two diamond dogs skittered around the moaning dragon, dodging her deadly claws as she fought against her weakness, seeking to disembowel them. She was angered and eager, but unable to overcome the poison.

They made quick work in the darkness, sacking not the hoard, but the nest. Gold and jewels were one thing to covet, but unborn dragon whelps... there was wealth untold. In minutes, their burlap sacks stuffed full of dragon eggs, the two remaining thieves finally made a run for it.

♠♣♥

The diamond dogs lumbered down the mountain, gathered loot thrown over their shoulders and pikes alternately gripped in teeth or paws as they ran three-legged from the flaming, spitting doom that was sure to be soon behind them.

"Must. Stop. Hunter!" puffed Ranger, swinging his bag of dragon-eggs to the ground in front of him, breath whistling and wheezing. They'd been thundering down the mountain path in the dark pell-mell, barely stopping to think, let alone breathe.

"No! No stop! No stop here, this dragon country!"

Suddenly, ear-shattering roars raised their hackles and sent new floods of adrenalin coursing through their veins. Picking up their prizes, the pair headed for a shallow rock-bed stream as silently but as quickly as possible — the water would mask their scent, but not the sounds of their splashing. The diamond dogs had a trick or two left, however; they had chosen this stream in particular because it featured a hidden cave behind the waterfall that could be found just a short ways upstream. Moving as swiftly as possible, not caring for the cold nor minor injuries from any sharp rocks encountered in the dark, they pressed on to what they could only hope was safety.

♠♣♥

Footsteps echoed softly through the cave. The ponies in the cage at the back flicked their ears up, eyeing the entrance warily. Sure enough, the diamond dogs had returned, but in far fewer numbers than they had left in.

Panting and cursing, the two diamond dogs dropped to their behinds, leaning back against the wall of the cave. They breathed heavily for a few moments, and then broke out laughing, sending barking yelps echoing throughout the small space.

"Hunter, we have prize!" Ranger exclaimed breathlessly.

"Ranger, big prize! Big, big prize!" Hunter replied, grinning like a maniac.

They punched each other heartily on the shoulders, wheezing and leaning against each other as they recovered. Outside, they heard the roaring and screeching, but it was angered and scattered.

They'd made it, they were home free.

The sacks were emptied in short order, and the eggs within were collected into a large pile. The hounds started drooling as they eyed their prize, but turned their heads at the gasps from further back in the cave.

"What in Equestria... dragon eggs? Oh goddess, they've got dragon eggs! You damned fools, you've doomed us all!" One pony said. He was a stocky earth-pony stallion, with a grey and black hide, and a patchy, thunderhead-coloured mane and tail. The two diamond dogs growled, picking up their pikes again.

"Quiet, pony!" Hunter snarled.

"You see nothing." Ranger levelled the business end of his weapon at the small rickety wooden cage that nevertheless held two ponies securely. The female unicorn behind the stallion sobbed quietly, as she eyed the skeletal remains of another pony that lay blackened in the fire-pit.

"They see enough, Ranger," Hunter said, a grin splitting his features. "They trouble and me hungry."

"If you want to hurt Shimmer Star, you'll have to go through me!" snarled the stallion.

"Please, Rainy, don't antagonize them!" Shimmer Star was a unicorn, her usually bright lavender coat was dull and unwashed and her blue mane dishevelled and unkempt. She herself was gaunt and thin, the poison-tipped weapon that had led to their capture having taken its toll.

"No, Shimmer, I won't be quiet! They're going to kill us anyway!" shouted Rainy Days, his grey eyes flashing with anger, "I'm not going to be a meal for some dumb troll without a fight! Why don't they just eat the dragon eggs, anyway? They can't fight back, don't cowards prefer that sort of thing?"

The two diamond dogs growled, but Rainy was unfazed. He lowered his head and pawed the ground, snorting. Hunter and Ranger snarled, but turned away, more intent for the moment on dealing with their prize.

"Dragon eggs are special, love... I'm not surprised you don't know." Shimmer's soft voice made her stallion turn to look at her, questioningly. She continued, "Dragons are special, when you think about it. Their eggshells are magic, so are their bones and teeth. The skin of their young makes the best spell-book vellum known. It will never crack, never fade-"

"Vellum?"

"Leather, skin and hide."

"That's barbaric!" Rainy looked like he might be sick.

"Diamond dogs are barbaric, my love... oh poor Flutter Fire!"

The diamond dogs had been ruthless in their treatment of the ponies they had stalked during their patient stakeout. Flutter Fire had gone down first, snagged in a net. Her wings had fouled, breaking as she flapped madly to escape, and the dogs had killed her as much to shut her up as for a meal. A poisoned wound from a crossbow bolt had felled Shimmer Star, and that alone had kept Rainy Days in check. Rainy Days was strong, his earth pony constitution shaking off the fell brew almost immediately, but Shimmer Star had been weaker, and he would not leave without his remaining wife. They had been imprisoned in a hastily, yet securely-constructed cage. It wouldn't hold the ponies long, not once Shimmer Star was well enough to travel. Until then, things were at an impasse.

"So they don't want to eat them?"

Shimmer Star whimpered as an egg was cracked with a hefty paw-blow, shaking her head. The baby dragon within chirped and chirruped as it was freed from the confines, and was suddenly silenced. The snap of its neck was audible throughout the cave. "No, they don't."

Rainy Days watched now, silently, as the diamond dogs leaped upon egg after egg. With every weak uluation of life, ended quickly and without remorse, he shuddered. Equestrians were not by nature violent, though they were more than capable of defense. Such callous disregard for the lives of innocents shocked and sickened both him, and Shimmer Star.

A sudden exclamation of annoyance brought Rainy back to the present. An egg, far from the pair of trolls, had cracked all by itself, spilling a small green baby dragon into the cave. It squealed, flapping tiny wings as it instinctively fled the dog-troll and sought shelter.

Ranger laughed heartily as his pack-mate slipped amongst the pile of shells, large claw slamming onto empty ground as his attempt to grab the hatchling failed. It scurried across the dusty dirt floor, staying out of reach more by luck than design, as it ran. The small green bundle of wings and claws scampered towards the furthest corner of the cave, and found itself caught in a strong grip.

"Hey there little one!" Shimmer Star snatched at the creature with her muzzle, grabbing its neck in her teeth as she dragged it between her forehooves. It squalled and complained, but Shimmer Star held it close. She nuzzled and breathed on it gently until it calmed down.

Rainy Days looked down at the dragon between his mare's hooves with a mixture of horror and intense interest, "Honey, what are you doing?"

The dog-troll, Hunter, hissed, "Give back!"

"No!" Shimmer Star shouted.

"Star, be reasonable..." Rainy Days backed up a little, looking down at the odd-looking green dragon, still covered in birth-fluids, squalling in his mate's grasp. To risk a fight, over a dragon. He couldn't understand it. Glancing back at the pile, now all but forgotten, the earth pony counted at least forty other eggs the diamond dogs could be obsessing over. Just his luck they wanted the one that got away.

"No!"

Rainy Days shook his head as he looked long and carefully at Star, and sighed. Turning back to the diamond dogs, he snorted, "You heard the lady. Get lost."

Hunter bared his fangs, growling. Rainy Days pawed the ground. Hunter and Ranger both growled viciously, snarling. Rainy Days whinnied a battle-cry... and the cave shook with a terrible rumbling and cracking as the rock itself around them split. The thin sliver of moonlight which fed in through the water-covered entrance darkened, to be replaced by a pointed outcropping of what appeared to be leathery rock. The leathery outcropping growled, and the smell of fire and brimstone flooded the cave. The muzzle of the gigantic creature withdrew, and the entrance of the cave was ripped asunder as a claw the size of boulders widened it.

Hunter was quick, but Ranger was quicker. The second troll snatched up a good half of the eggs and dead hatchlings in his burlap bag, and leaped for the cave wall. Slashing into it with his claws, he was gone, even as the first tongue of dragonfire was snaking into the enclosed space.

"Rainy, get BACK!" screamed Shimmer Star, and she closed her eyes, screwing them up in concentration as her horn exploded into light.

Dragon-fire was hot. It was like the sun itself had dawned within the cave, bringing everlasting morning to the depths of the earth. With a scream that faded into nothing, much as the dust his body became, Hunter was obliterated. The shattered yolks and unborn dragons - those not stolen away by Ranger in his panicked flight - boiled and seethed before succumbing also to the inferno, leaving nothing but gleaming eggshells.

Eventually the light faded, and the cave was dark and silent save for the soft ping as the rocks cooled.

"Shimmer?" Rainy Days said, voice wavering and soft.

"Y-yes, love?"

"I... I think I'm blind."

Rainy Days sat on his rump and cried. The heat had been intense, he had shielded his wife as best he could with his body, but there was only so much that magic and a wall of pony-flesh could do. Hot tears dripped from his muzzle as he shuddered. He was hurt, but he had no idea how badly. This worried him. He'd been burned before, the deceptive lack of pain was easy to ignore and his left foreleg felt strangely numb.

Shimmer Star must have sensed there was more to his behaviour than mere tears, for she comforted him with brief licks to his muzzle. "It's okay, darling, I'm here. I'm with you, I'll always be with you."

It worried him that he couldn't feel his wife's touch, it was as if she were caressing him through a suit of armour. "I... you know I love you, don't you, Shimmer?" He nuzzled her softly, kissing her from her whiskery snout to the poll of her head.

"Rainy-"

Shimmer's eyes were wet, Rainy could taste that. A rasping tongue licked at her muzzle, then at her mane. "Shh, love, I'll... I'll be alright." Rainy felt his wife suddenly stiffen and he perked his ears up, alert, "What? What is it?"

"Rainy, love... just... remember I love you, always." She started sobbing, leaning close in to his body and rubbing her head against him.

Rainy whirled, placing himself between whatever-it-was and the love of his life. "Come no closer! I'll... I'll kill you!"

"Brave little pony, for one so injured." The voice was low, rumbling. It shook the remains of the cave and raised the hackles on Rainy's back. Come to think of it, Rainy Days thought wryly to himself, it doesn't sound like much of a cave any more.

"I'll kill you if you come closer," Rainy threatened, with bravery he didn't possess. Sightless eyes swept across the cave in front of him, searching pointlessly for a target.

"I doubt it, little one. Tell me, what befell your party?" The voice was soft, yet rang with undertones of command that were all but inescapable.

"Rainy, be careful. M-maybe we'd better do as he says..." Shimmer Star placed one hoof on her mate's injured back to urge caution.

The stallion softened his tone. "W-we were ambushed. Sir," added Rainy. "Flutter was killed, they... they ate her. My mate was injured, I protected her. Now you, well you may have killed me."

"Did you touch the eggs?" The owner of the voice asked again. This time, the creature's short words hinted at deadly reprisals.

"You won't touch her!" Rainy pawed the ground as he heard his wife squeak in terror.

"It's okay, love," Shimmer said finally. Rainy heard her standing up. Something mewling was carried in her muzzle. Rainy heard her put it down on the floor before she moved back, fearfully.

"I see," the owner of the voice said, then grew silent.

Rainy felt something huge snag him around the barrel of his chest, and he flailed, whinnying, trying to escape.

"Be still, little one." The wind that followed, though it stank like a charnel house, was soothing. Somehow the all-encompassing darkness lifted. He could feel it; magic of a similar texture to that wielded by healer-unicorns, yet... subtly different. It flowed through him, and where it passed, he knew peace. Light, first indistinct and hazy but then bright and true, slowly made it's presence known.

Rainy blinked away tears as the world swam into focus; a ruined cave with the roof torn to shreds, open to the elements. He was turned, then, to behold his benefactor. He found himself looking up into the red eyes of a large, ebony dragon.

"Hail and well met," the creature said, amusement written large on his scaly snout.

Rainy wet himself.

♠♣♥

The dragon had lain still for many long minutes after healing Rainy Days. It seemed unlikely something so minor could tire the creature out, but neither of the ponies wished to push whatever fel luck remained. Then, the dragon seemed to come to a decision. Rainy and Shimmer watched, entranced, as the dragon worked more strange magic before them. At his insistent murmuring and claw-waving, a magical aura swept through the cave, gathering up the dust which had previously been Hunter. Wavering and indistinct, the form of a hunched diamond dog reformed before their very eyes.

"Speak, shade," the dragon commanded.

"What would you know, master?" The voice was sibilant, like memories on the wind. It chilled the ponies to the bone, causing them to reel back in disgust.

"Where lies your camp? Your people? Speak!"

"East, to the gorge. South, through the forest, South West to the broken hills. We ring the quarry, our dens-"

"Enough, shade. Begone." With another wave of his great claw, the dragon dismissed the spirit his necromantic magic had called forth. The great beast leaned back then, eyes focused on some distant place, before he turned, finally, to the ponies.

Shimmer Star gulped as the dragon looked down at them."What are you... what are you going to do now?" she asked, looking up fearfully at the huge beast. She nervously scuffed her hooves through the black powder that had been their cage, all but vaporized by the blast of dragon-fire.

The dragon glared down at the egg-shells, "I shall find and then kill them all. I shall make an example of their kith and kin and raze their villages to the ground, my little ponies."

"I... please don't kill Rainy. He never touched the hatchling. I did."

The large ebony dragon stared then at the whimpering little green ball of scales for many minutes, before finally answering, "Keep him. You have sullied his birth, and he is not fit to be amongst his own kind. When you deem him ready, present him before me for judgement."

Shimmer Star blinked, "What?"

The dragon looked back down at the lavender unicorn, "You are now responsible for his life. Fail, and you should beg to your princesses that I am merciful. Succeed, and your debt is repaid. Unless you would give your life in his stead?"

"Y-you mean..."

The dragon glared at the unicorn, "The birth of a dragon is sacred, pony. It was taken from him, so it is as if he has not been born at all. Lest you be responsible for poaching and subject to the same fate I shall now deal out to those diamond dogs who dared perpetrate such an insult, see to his continued welfare. Consider it a gift, a bond and a geas, pony. Or give your life to me. I may be merciful. I may not."

Shimmer Star glared back at the dragon, "I will look after him. What... what about the eggshells?"

"Gather them. Keep none for yourselves or your lives are forfeit, you know full well what they are capable of. Such things are not for ponies. Consider yourselves under my wing until I release you. Cross me, and you will not live to regret it. Neither will your father, nor your mother, nor your siblings, your children nor your children's children. Am I clear?"

"Very."

"And... place his shell-shards separate."

"Yes... yes sir." Shimmer Star added.

The black dragon rumbled appreciatively and turned, lumbering away, "I will be back, my little ponies. See to it that you complete your tasks. When I return, you shall aid me in taking what belongs to my clan to its rightful place, and then I shall escort you to the nearest pony settlement."

With that, and a rush of wind and dirt, the dragon was gone. Rainy let out his breath in a rush, blinking. "Did we... was that..?"

"Yes, love, that was."

"And you've got a..?"

Shimmer Star smiled, licking the remaining birthing fluids from her tiny charge, "I do. Say hello to your son, Rainy."

Rainy Days stepped closed to the strange little bundle of green scales, "I... guess he's kind of cute. In an ugly way." Rainy shook his head. The dragon's magic had healed him, and the searing nightmare memory was receeding, moment by moment. It would never truly be gone, but it would not do to dwell upon it.

"Oh hush, that dragon'll roast us for that."

"I doubt it. All babies are ugly. What shall we name him, anyway?"

"Dewdrop? Lilac?" Shimmer suggested, pausing between soft licks.

Rainy Days snorted, "Hardly suitable for a dragon, dear."

"Ow! Hey! No biting!" Shimmer Star buried her muzzle in the creature's belly, blowing raspberries which made the little dragon giggle helplessly.

"He has a sharp set of teeth, my dear!"

"One sharp tooth, at least, that's what they use to break through the eggshell with, you see?" Shimmer used her hooves to gently pry open the dragon's muzzle. He squealed, she apologized with a kiss.

"Sharptooth," Rainy Days scratched at his chin with a hoof, "that could work."

♠♣

Sharptooth opened his good eye, blinking sleep away. The other eye remained closed, only time would tell if it had survived intact. Ancient memories echoed in his mind, slinking away as the dawn banished them. Curiously, he found a tear dripping down his muzzle. He wiped it away carefully with a claw and looked at it as it ran down his scaly hide, to disappear between the floorboards.

Sniffing to clear his nostrils, he yawned and stretched carefully, his myriad injuries making it a slower process than usual. Unaccustomed to sleeping on a wooden floor in what he recalled was the town schoolhouse, he found he ached, but it was not just with his choice of abode. A wing was torn to shreds, he was missing more than a few scales and various deep rakes from the talons of one of his oldest friends still stung. The less said about the broken bones, the better. A dragon's tail shouldn't be quite so limp...

Groaning in effort, Sharptooth stood. He could smell his son in the room. The boy had stood guard, he could tell. The nervous tense aroma of sweat and adrenaline hung heavy, easy to identify to a dragon. Was he so feeble as to require guards? Sharptooth grinned to himself, despite the pain. After the battle last night, it was quite possible that he was.

Ears perking up, Sharptooth heard voices. It was Celestia, and Chip. Sharptooth chuckled to himself; for a son he had thought dead, for a dragon of so few weeks let alone years, Chip was proving remarkably competent. Celestia, however, was altogether an entirely new level of difficult to deal with. Sharptooth straightened, hid his pain, and exited the school.

"Good morning, Princess Celestia." Sharptooth heard Chip say, "My father is... indisposed."

Sharptooth grinned, and eased himself out as silently as he could. "Your father," he said from right behind the surprised foal, "is quite capable of speaking for himself."

♠♣♥

Chip meandered through Tacksworn with no real destination in mind. His father was being healed by that lavender unicorn Twilight Sparkle, under the guise of merely checking his injuries, whilst the dragon protested about the insult of it all. Chip didn't really understand; he knew it was a game of sorts, but when it came down to it, it sounded like a bunch of foals squabbling over who gets the last bite of hay.

"So, this is Tacksworn, huh?"

"Mmhmm," Chip replied, flicking an ear at the dragon sitting on his back.

"I expected more from the site of the Equestrian Peace Accords."

"The what?" Chip stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

"The Pax Equestrus? You don't know about it?"

"Uh uh." Chip shook his head.

"About... two hundred years before Luna was banished, according to Twilight, the three main races in Equestria came together to seal a peace deal. Dragons, Griffons and Ponies. They found a neutral place, as far from each Realm as they could, and pledged not to make war on each other, and to aid those who found themselves in battle."

"And that place..?"

"Was right here, Tacksworn. The diamond dogs joined the treaty about three hundred years after Luna was banished, and there's been peace ever since."

"More or less, huh?" Chip started walking again. He pointed out where the remains of various buildings were still smouldering, or traumatized ponies were hauling away the last of the debris before they could start to rebuild.

"More or less," Spike agreed. His fidgeting made Chip stop again and look back, inquisitively. The dragon mustered up enough courage to talk. "What happened last night?" the small dragon finally asked.

Chip turned away again, and continued trotting through town, "I killed a dragon. I killed a bunch of diamond dogs first though. I set them on fire, or bucked them to pieces. I don't want to talk about it."

A little purple fist knocked on Chip's haunch-plate, "These are worth it, then?"

"I wish I could take them off sometimes, but even when they're off, I know they're there."

"Would you be a pony again, if you could?" Spike asked.

Chip laughed, softly, "It doesn't make much sense to say it, but no. Life is change, you can't go back."

"But you can... stop?"

"I think that's why Sharptooth lives out here, Spike. He just wants a bit of peace and quiet when he's not off doing... whatever it is he does. Usually this place doesn't change much, I guess."

"And now it has two dragon lords, and the invading army is subsequently effecting repairs under their new master. Hail, young dragons!"

Chip blinked, and looked up at an adult griffon he didn't recognize. The creature was huge, probably three times the pony's size and almost as big as Sharptooth. A metallic helm on the creature's head was painted in odd designs and glaring colours, and he held a long pike decorated in the same devices in one claw. The leading edge of his wings and his wrists were sheathed in gleaming metal, as were his foreclaws and hind paws.

"H-hi," Chip said, grinning hopefully.

"It is good to see the hero of last night's battle in the flesh!" the griffon shouted happily. He lunged for the pony, and wrapped his wings and claws around Chip's neck before butting the helpless pony-shaped dragon in the head.

As the stars cleared, Chip was somewhat surprised to find he was neither dead, nor shredded. "Thanks... I guess." He blinked to clear his vision some more, staggering slightly.

Spike had fallen off and was dusting himself down, "Let me guess, you don't know much about griffons, either?"

"Ah, forgive me, my good Lord Sapphire! Where are my manners? I am Clan-Chief Thrinn, junior-most member of the Tacksworn Protectorate Council. Our forces were summoned last night to battle, and a glorious battle it was! I do apologize for our tardiness, but I am glad to report we were successful in our endeavours."

"Clan-Chief who-now?" sputtered Spike.

"And you, Lord Sapphire! A glorious blow it was, a mighty blow! Straight and true. Later, at our ritual entertainment, you and your servant must regale us with a proper telling of the tale!"

"Servant?!" squeaked Spike.

"Not my fault! Roll with it!" hissed Chip, a manic grin on his muzzle.

"It's the apron, isn't it? They saw me earlier when I was baking muffins..." Spike muttered to himself, as the griffon chief, apparently satisfied, sauntered off with his entourage in tow.

"Are all griffons like that?" Chip asked

"I really don't know," Spike replied.

"But Carmine-"

"But Carmine what, you doofus?"

Chip froze as the griffoness landed in front of him, a stupid look manifesting on his muzzle.

Spike kicked the pony in the flanks a few times to see if he'd start moving again, "Chip? Chip? Ugh, I'll never get like that around a girl. Come on, get moving..." The baby dragon finally hopped down from Chip's back, and stormed off, grinding his teeth. "You know, you're a real butt when she's around."

Chip never saw him go, "Hey Carmine. I really missed you, you know."

"Don't get mushy on me," Carmine replied. She looked left and right, but then leaned in and punched him on the chest, "I missed you too though. What happened to you? I mean last night, you said you were... all over the place, but-"

"Sharptooth, he... he took me to the funeral, and then left me with my uncle in Stalliongrad. I guess he thought it was a good idea." the pony replied, flicking his ears and tail noncommittally.

"How'd that work out for you?" Carmine asked, as Chip started walking again.

"He tried to kill me, then he died. Then his house burned down."

"Tough break." Carmine nodded, raising an eyebrow.

"I did meet my cousin, though. She's a unicorn, and she'll make a good Baroness Irontail."

"Hey! That's great!" Carmine replied, punching Chip again.

"I had to enslave her and her father to stop a pair of dragons from killing her. And Celestia hates me for it."

Carmine whistled through her beak, "You know-"

"I think that's probably worse than the fact I own a pegasus though," Chip continued.

"Wait, you what-"

"But I can't free Hairpin, and Celestia's really not very happy about-"

"Wait, Chip... Chip! You have got to be kidding me!" Carmine grabbed Chip and spun him around, "You disappear for weeks and return, breathing fire-"

"It's temporary! I think..."

"And you own slaves."

"Pets."

Carmine let go of his withers like she'd been burned, "What in the First Egg's name happened to you?"

Suddenly, Chip started crying. He tried to explain, to tell her, to make it all make sense. He tried to talk about Pig Iron, and Pyrite, and Hairpin and Sunshine, but it all came out in a jumbled mass. Tears ran down his muzzle and choking sobs bit off most of his words.

Carmine pulled the pony closer, wrapping a wing around him, "Chip, you... you're a good kid. If there's one thing I know, you're a good kid. You're a butt, but you're... a good butt, okay?"

Chip hiccuped and tried not to laugh, sniffling loudly, "Okay."

"Okay. You'd never do something bad... Celestia's really mad?"

"Uh huh."

"Because you own a pet pegasus?"

"Uh huh."

"Is she cute?"

"Uh huh."

"As cute as me?"

"Uh uh."

Carmine glared, "Cuter?"

"Uh uh." Chip grinned, wiping the tears away.

"That's alright then. Not that I like you or anything. Dweeb." Carmine ruffled her feathers, picking at the primaries and grooming them idly as they walked. The soft snick-snick of her beak barely echoed as they passed through small alleyways towards nowhere in particular.

"Carmine, did you... get a look at that map again?" Chip asked suddenly.

The griffon shook her head, "Not last night, not today. Why?"

"I've been thinking. Lord Sapphire... he said it was the wrong map."

"So?" Carmine chewed a piece of Beryl's famed Rabbit Surprise she'd purchased on their walk. This time, and it truly was shocking to contemplate, it wasn't rabbit. She hadn't asked what it was, she was hungry.

"So... is there no map, or... or was Lord Sapphire looking for something else? And if he was, what was it? All this..." Chip gestured around at the town which was being cleared of debris and rebuilt, a town which was consoling itself over great loss and steeling itself for the future, "all this, could it really be over a mistake? Or is there something else behind it all?"

"You mean another map? But... what to?" Carmine stared at Chip

Chip stared back at Carmine, "What was the first map to?"

Carmine grinned, the corners of her beak turning up imperceptibly, "Your dad said it was to some sort of path. Only one way to find out for sure."

♠♣♥

The schoolhouse was deserted. Chip had commandeered it the previous night for Sharptooth to sleep in, and it had remained empty the whole day, what with everypony being far too busy dealing with the aftermath of the battle to see to such mundanity as lessons. Empty, the building held a strange aura, as if echoes of the thousands of lessons spent under its roof could still be heard. The two moved silently, whispering even though there were none to rebuke them. Finding the map was simple, even after last night, it wasn't locked away. Quite probably, with the invading forces now belonging to Chip, there had been no apparent need. Chip wondered at that as they dragged it into the middle of the empty classroom; he wondered whether ponies were by nature too easy going or friendly, and how they'd managed to get the dragons, griffons and diamond dogs to agree to a treaty in the face of it.

"Your dad said it was... somewhere near Neighvada."

"What was?" Chip stepped carefully over the mat. He'd never seen anything quite like it anywhere else, before coming to Tacksworn. Now he knew why; there was nothing like it, anywhere else, and likely never would be.

"Here!" Carmine pointed with a talon at a small design. Chip leaned closer, it appeared to be a mountain range to the East of Neighvada, only much older. The design didn't seem to be quite made of thread. Now he looked at it, the map didn't seem to be entirely woven either. He suspected it was magic, though he had never heard of anything like it. "What does it say?"

"I... can't read it. It's in draconic," Carmine said, "or maybe in Ancient Diamondese, I don't know. It's not Equestrian."

Chip stared long and hard at the formation, "I've got to talk to Sharptooth about this. I have to know what's there."

"Where is he?"

"I think Celestia took him home. I don't think he can fly yet, don't tell anyone. Dragons and flying..."

"Kinda like griffons, I bet."

Chip grinned, but as he looked out the window at the distant rock spire his grin faded. "Yeah, probably." At the base of the mountain that formed his home was a large cairn of boulders. Under it was the body of the previous Lord Sapphire, placed there by Chip and a few members of what appeared to be his own personal army of diamond dogs. It would be a constant reminder from this day forth of what had happened. "I wonder how he's getting on?"