• Published 8th Jul 2012
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King of Diamonds - Midnightshadow

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Songs of the Dead

♠♣♥King of
Diamonds
The Ambassador's Son - Book 2
═══════════════════════════════════

Chapter 19
Songs of the Dead
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow


♠♣♥

Diamond dogs are simple. Their civilisation is complex, but that's because individual trolls are... uncomplicated. Ponies are the other way around, with individuals being opaque but their society straightforward and clear. That wasn't to say diamond dogs are stupid, because they aren't, Chip saw that in an instant, but their minds were direct and to the point. In a pack, there is only ever the one alpha, and his mate. Below him are his lieutenants and Pack Elders, and below them comes the rest. Inter-pack issues arise mostly when the pecking order between members of differing packs needs to be established.

Ruff had been a conundrum for the three hulking great hounds in the labyrinth since they'd smelled him coming. He was small, weak and immature... yet obviously the pup commanded the ponies and griffons that came with him. So where was he on the heap? It had been relatively simple at first: as a pup, he was to be humoured and taught the proper ways of the pack. He obviously had a decent sire, as he was alpha of his own little group, but his standing in the real world wasn't so clear... or it hadn't been, until he'd first proven to be a Stonetalker and then had wielded an Alpha's staff. Now, he commanded not only his own strange little pack, but also the three adult diamond dogs too.

The two groups moved swiftly through the semi-darkness, the bear-like Neighvada trolls calling "Come! Not much further!" Their stumpy tails were tucked neatly between their hind legs and their ears folded back as they turned to urge the Tacksworn pup and his friends onwards, the spitting torches they held alternately blinding and then bewildering as the weird shadows they cast danced with every motion. The two groups moved through the murkiness with only the echoes of their hoof and paw-steps and their own laboured breathing for company. Suddenly, the walls of the cramped tunnel fell away as it opened into a huge cavern. It stretched upwards into darkness, flanked by jagged cliffs made of some sort of glass-like material. Around him sounded muted gasps of amazement, and Chip realized his own throat was tight with awe, as his hooves trod carefully against the slick, glossy floor. The same glass-like material that rose into the darkness also stretched from beneath him into the shadows on either side. It rang like a bell with every precisely-placed hoofstep.

"This... this is castle," the first troll whispered, tail wagging as he pointed hopefully.

"How old is it?" asked Chip reverently, voice soft and whispering.

"Not know. Old enough." The second troll shrugged, his own voice little more than a breathy mumble as he hefted his torch. Numbers for the years meant little; the castle was here, that was all that mattered.

The two groups fanned out as they approached the dark structure buried within what Chip realized was solid obsidian. Spitting oil torches framed an implacable portal, a sealed gateway which mutely barred entry to the brooding, mysterious ruin. "Can Khan Ruff open door?"

Ruff gulped as he stepped hesitantly forwards, the butt of the staff sending echoes dancing up and down the length of the cavern with every step. Bella followed him, the light from her horn illuminating the solid, ominous doorway. Ruff looked long and hard at the exposed sections of the immense structure; it was an ancient castle, made of some odd stone that set his paws tingling, encased by several feet of glassy rock. A rude gash of a tunnel had been carved haphazardly through to the portcullis. The diamond-hard obsidian barrier had been laboriously hacked at and broken through by muscle alone, the shards carted off piece by piece and leaving the sides generously littered with jagged protrusions. "Ruff can try," he said, voice small against the vastness.

"Long time before, marker was up above," whispered the nearest of the bear-like trolls in a husky voice. "Then came rains, and the earth shook. It sank down below, to join castle."

Chip trotted forwards and examined the entrance; it was a rich, dark green, and clearly different to the obsidian that surrounded it. He tapped it with his hoof. It rang hollow. "You can't get in?"

The third troll shook his head. "Only Khan can open door. Khan speaks to stone, stone answers. All else must ask Khan."

Bella pushed Ruff forwards gently, with her hoof. "If we're to get anywhere, pup, you're the one to do it."

"But..." Ruff hesitated, holding his breath for a moment as he contemplated the full enormity of the task before him, "Ruff not know how."

"Ask it nicely?" suggested Hairpin, nervously fluttering her wings as she caught up, unwilling to be left alone.

Ruff chewed his lip as he waddled up to the massive door. He tapped the staff against it. "Open?" he asked tentatively, tilting his head. Nothing happened, so after a few moments, he leaned the staff against the door and then put his ear against it. He tapped methodically with his knuckles, and listened. "There something inside."

"Well we know that, dufus," snarked Carmine.

"No, Ruff mean... inside door."

"A lock?" asked Bella, wrinkling her muzzle in confusion.

"Locks need a key, makes sense." Hairpin tapped her hoof on the jade door too. "I don't see a keyhole though."

"I guess there isn't one. Maybe the key only works when the right troll turns it," said Chip thoughtfully. "Ruff, don't lose that staff. Maybe it's something like what you do with the rocks, or maybe it's not enough on its own..."

Ruff picked up the staff and turned it over and over in his paws. Gently, almost too gently to notice, the base impacted with the door. To his surprise, Ruff had to pull to get it to come free. Dropping the body of the staff, he picked it up by the base and peered at it thoughtfully for a few seconds. "Thunderbolt iron!" he exclaimed suddenly. Pointing excitedly, he danced from hind paw to hind paw. "It made of thunderbolt iron!"

"Is that important?" asked Chip, swishing his tail thoughtfully.

"Ruff think... maybe so." The pup picked up the body of the staff again and brandished the base at the door. Closing his eyes, he moved it back and forth across the structure. "Yes, yes!" he crowed. "Ruff feel it... down here, across here... more thunderbolt iron!" Ruff followed the traces of metal only he could feel, the base of the staff sliding down the door and along the floor until he found himself standing a few feet from the doorway. Hefting the staff, he grimaced. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow; the staff didn't want to move upright.

"Need help?" asked Chip eagerly.

"Yes!" Ruff grunted, red in the muzzle as he strained against the buried, uncooperative mechanism. "Ruff can feel it, down there." Ruff pointed at the ground beneath his feet. "Staff talk to rock, Ruff talk to staff... but is old. Damaged."

Chip rolled his shoulders and puffed his chest out. Turning his head left and right then right, he sought to get a good grip on the staff. Once satisfied, he bunched up his muscles and grunted, straining against the blockage. After a few aborted attempts, he spat it out. "Car, can you help? I don't have claws," he said sheepishly.

"Need a paw, huh?" asked Carmine with a smirk. Waggling her claw-tips at Chip, Carmine strutted over to Ruff and took a hold of the staff with both forepaws. "Ready when you are, Ruff," she said, batting her lashes as Chip rolled his eyes.

"When Ruff say pull, you pull."

"Pull how?" squawked Carmine, eyeing the staff suspiciously.

"You'll know," the diminutive dog replied.

The griffon took a hold of the staff and gave it an experimental yank. It refused to budge. Catching Chip's eye, she stuck her tongue out at his swaggering 'see-I-told-you-so' tail-swish.

Ruff placed both paws around the metal shaft and closed his eyes, and Carmine collected herself in readiness. As the pair exerted themselves, Chip fancied he saw a faint glow form around Ruff's paws. The flickering blue lights were undeniable as they spread all over the pup's body and engulfed the staff. In a single smooth motion, Ruff flexed his muscles and jammed the staff into the rock floor. The obsidian shattered from the impact, and the staff sank several inches into a jagged hole. Gritting his teeth, Ruff's arms bulged as he exerted his not-inconsiderable strength into tilting the staff. Seeing this as her cue, Carmine redoubled her efforts.

For a few moments, nothing seemed to be happening, but then Chip realized he could hear a distant rumbling that was slowly gaining in volume. The ominous sound grew, like the roar of some hidden beast, as dust and rocks fell from the ceiling far above. An almighty crack sounded sharp and hard in the cavern, the defeaning noise rebounding from distant walls, and whatever ancient mechanism lay buried beneath them gave way. The staff, with Carmine attached, was sent hurtling into the darkness. The rumbling turned to a distinct grinding, and the portcullis-like gate slid haltingly upwards.

Like the dying breath of some dark god, a huge cloud of dust and fetid air belched forth, enveloping everything.

In the silence that followed, the three diamond dogs fell to their bellies and grovelled in front of Ruff.

"Great Khan returns!" cried one.

"New High King!" wailed another.

"Stonetalker!" was the strangled cry of the third, the one who had guided them through the maze.

"Ruff not... Ruff not special," the pup protested, gazing around helplessly for backup. Bella was trembling at the knees, Chip's muzzle was open with shock and Hairpin was reconsidering the train of happenstance that had led here.

For her part, Carmine merely snorted as she returned, the staff in her beak. She dropped it in front of him and shook herself out, feathers fluffing up. "Can't say I agree there, pup. You opened it. Nobody's been able to open this place in... well, in forever. So you needed a little help, so what? That doesn't make you not-special. In fact, I can think of at least one special somebody who always needs help, right Chip?"

Chip shook his mane out derisively and stomped onwards towards the yawning chasm. "Come on. It might close again, and then where would we be?"

"Outside, safe, not trapped inside forever? You know, like sensible people?" retorted Bella hotly, prancing nervously from hoof to hoof as curiosity fought against her better judgement.

"Bit late for that," countered Hairpin, rustling her feathers and trotting past. "I don't know about you, but I can't find my way out of here alone."

"Ruff can," replied Ruff, shrugging. "Ruff smell way to fresh air. Come on, Ruff open door once, can open door again."

Carmine and Bella shared a glance, the former rolling her eyes, before also truding in. The three diamond dogs hastily followed, grabbing fresh torches from holders set on the walls as they went.

♠♣♥

Inside the fortress-like castle, it was deathly silent. Silent as the grave, thought Chip, or a tomb. The young dragon slowly picking his way through the shadows cast by the distant light of Bella's horn and the dancing flames of the spitting animal-fat torches. Ears twitching constantly, Chip realized his hackles were up, his breathing loud and wheezing, almost deafening in the silence.

The first corridor was some sort of barbican. There were thin slits in the walls and murder holes in the ceiling through which invaders would have been mercilessly speared, shot at, or worse. It opened into an enclosed courtyard with battlements and palisades lining the walls all the way to the impressively high domed ceiling.

Everything was neat, tidy... and empty. There was no sign of any disturbances, other than fallen buttresses and other masonry, presumably from sheer age.

"Where is everyone?" asked Bella nervously. "I know this place has been sealed shut for centuries, but that sign said it wasn't empty when it was."

"I'll take a look," replied Carmine softly, eyes flicking to and fro from buttress to buttress. Trotting to a diamond dog, she held her foreclaw out for a torch. Hefting it carefully, she took off in one mighty leap, swooping up to the battlements before trotting into a gatehouse. Moments later she backed out, wings half spread. She flew to a second and a third, her torch a shooting star in the darkness, before flying back down again, visibly shaken, her wings refusing to settle close to her body.

"What..?" asked Chip earnestly, his tone begging for details as he watched the distraught griffon wordlessly give the torch back to the troll. "What did you see?"

"I... they're there." Carmine swallowed, trembling, her wings rustling nervously.

"What do you mean?" asked Bella, pushing forwards, her eyes searching Carmine's.

"I m-mean," said Carmine, swallowing again, "that the guards are all there. At their posts."

"What? But—"

"Dead, of course." Carmine shuddered, took a deep breath and grew still before staring off into space. "Long dead. They just... never left their posts."

Chip ducked his head, chills playing up his spine. "Come on," he said in a whisper, "we've got to keep moving."

"To the keep," said Ruff, nodding.

"Just... brace yourselves," said Carmine. "I don't think we're gonna like what we find."

The sight, when it came, was macabre. In a great hall, ringed with the remnants of pennants and what could once have been flags, were hundreds if not thousands of skeletons, all laid out neatly. Some were alone, others were huddled together, bones entwined as if they had died embracing each other... which some obviously had. The three trolls who had travelled with them muttered under their breath, touching and arranging the odd scattered bone here or there, their voices uncommonly soft for the normally-brash creatures.

"Oh sweet Celestia," whispered Bella as she stepped into the room, her voice strained and her eyes closed tight. She turned her head back the way they'd come for a moment, breathing hard as she fought against tears. "There's pups here too. Whole families. Everyone..." Her eyes glistened wetly as she turned her head to and fro. "They just... died."

Chip shivered as he walked. "It wouldn't be this... neat. Not without help." At one large, metallic object in particular, he stopped, sniffing it experimentally. "Bella, what what can you tell us about this?" The faint clear ringing of his hoof on a large metal cauldron echoed through the great hall, bringing everyone to silence. Bella's hooves clip-clopped reverently across the stone floor, and then her horn-light went out. Moments later, it flickered back on, lightning dancing from it and playing across and in the recepticle as she examined the long-dried mixture in the bottom.

She hissed, drawing back. "Don't touch it. I don't know if it's still deadly, but it won't be good for you. It's some special herbs and plants, mixed in specific quantities. They... they made it taste better, probably for the youngsters." Bella retched, turning away.

Hairpin's voice was strained, tearful. "They gathered here, in the dark, said farewell to everyone and everything they knew... and died." The distraught pegasus nudged a bundle of rags which might have once been a dolly, or a stuffed, cuddly animal. Mingled with some too-small bones was a hint of silvery metal. A locket, big enough only for the smallest of pups to fit around an ankle or a wrist. Hairpin sobbed, quietly.

"What happened here?" asked Bella.

"Dragons happened," said Chip, recalling the dread message on the stone marker and the feet-thick mass of glass surrounding the structure. He briefly locked eyes with the Neighvada trolls. Their jaws tightened in remembrance of ancient sins.

"Your father—" whispered Hairpin, sniffing once to clear her nose.

"No!" shouted Chip, his yelp bouncing from wall to wall. He ducked instinctively, ashamed of his outburst. "He would never—" he began, voice lowered.

"Shh, be calm, Master. Let me explain. Your father was the only one of his clutch to survive poachers. He told me about the diamond dogs that killed his siblings—"

"I know, I saw their eggshells," confirmed Chip.

"And in return, his kind, whilst Sharptooth was still small, took retribution on the pack that committed the crime." Hairpin's words were level and soft.

"And buried them alive. They had nowhere to go, not enough food, not enough water..." Chip trailed off as he wandered towards what appeared to be a throne with only a single skeleton reclining in it. "Didn't you see the glass outside? That was the result of balefire. The only thing that prevented them from burning was this castle itself, but it didn't save them, it condemned them. They took the only way out they had left; death, but on their own terms."

"I guess," said Hairpin in a soft voice, "they thought a quiet, dignified death was... less painful than hunger and starvation, trapped between a rock and Tartarus itself." The pegasus fluttered her wings, gently and carefully running her hoof along a tiny skull. "No tears, only sleep... and silence."

Chip looked up at the grinning visage of whatever ancient tribal leader had presided over this grisly last supper, the pieces of a broken staff laying haphazardly amidst the bones, and swore softly to himself. There was no crown, no jewels, no finery. This had been a leader, maybe a great one, but it wasn't who they were looking for. He sat down on his haunches, shaking his head slowly. "They're not here," he said, half to himself.

"What?" asked Carmine.

"The king's jewels. They're not here. Your king," said Chip as he turned to look at Ruff with a level, calm gaze, "is in another castle."

♠♣♥

For a while, not much was said. There wasn't much to be said; the only sounds were the solemn chanting of the three trolls, echoing through the quiet halls as they moved amongst the dead. Their restrained crooning howls offered benedictions and pleaded with the heavens above for safe deliverance of any lost souls, asking that they be released from their prison and led to the Ancestral Pack.

Chip picked his way around the tomb, ears flicking to and fro, as he pondered the meaning of things. The cavernous room smelled of dry hopelessness; an ancient melange of tears and sadness melding with the musty, unpleasant odour of the long dead. This, he realized, was what dragons did.

No, no... Chip caught himself carefully. This is what dragons could do. Just as the diamond dogs that had killed his aunts and uncles — not to mention his birth-parents — didn't represent all diamond dogs, the dragons that had caused this weren't representative of all dragons. This whole tragedy had been dead and buried a thousand years before he was born, but like ripples in an impossibly large pond, the reflections of those actions reverberated down through the centuries. And this castle, this colossal fortress, was at the heart of it.

This fortress, then, was the site of the draconic hegemony's retribution for the killing of his adoptive father's siblings, so very long ago. Sealed away in its depths was no great king, just old, old stories, the retelling of which had grown grander with every passing year, ultimately leading to the misunderstanding which had brought him to Tacksworn.

Sharptooth, bereaved, had found new parents and a new way of life. The diamond dog nation, crushed, had been broken and scattered on the winds. Knowledge and truth had been lost amid the strife.

A thousand years later, those ancient quarrels would lead to the death of two innocent, ignorant ponies and the journey of their progeny back to the source of it all: the halls of a long-dead troll king. Fate, it seemed, had a sense of humour, or propriety.

"It's not that simple though, is it?" whispered Chip to himself.

"What?" asked Carmine.

"I said—" Chip cleared his throat. "I said it's not that simple." The young dragon looked up at Carmine from where he had been contemplating the long-dead troll king's deeds, before turning and squinting up into the darkness that surrounded them. "Bella, can you give us more light? A lot more light? I want to see something."

"Umm..." Bella looked around nervously, ears flicking to her skull as she realized what it would mean. "For a bit? When it goes out, it will take a while—"

"That's okay. We'll all be together. We can wait. We're safe; there's nothing in here but us, not even rats." Hairpin put a wing over the fearful unicorn, nuzzling her softly.

"Okay... I'm not sure how well this will work..." There was darkness for a few tense seconds, and then Bella's horn lit up in a brilliant flash. For a brief moment, it seemed to glow as bright as the sun before spewing forth a bolt of magelight, which was sent hurtling upwards. It impacted the ceiling, where it stuck fast and glowed with a cold, harsh light, illuminating the entire room.

Chip gazed at the walls and began to laugh. As his friends cried out in concern and surprise, he pointed a hoof. "It's there! It's all there! All of it!" Chip gestured to giant murals that, in the harsh blue mage-light, could clearly be seen inscribed on the domed ceiling and walls. "Look! Dragons, griffons, ponies! Each one receiving a piece of the king's staff... and there... on the last picture... the High King."

The entire group gathered on the steps of the dais, gazing around in awe at the ancient fresco. They were mostly pictographical, though there were words to go with it. They told a simple eight-part story. The first was when the trolls emerged from what looked like a tunnel, into a cave, where they met a dragon. From there the dragon sent them to the griffons, who escorted them to two alicorns, Celestia and Luna. Neither Bella nor Chip could look away from that section as its import became clear.

"This is old, guys," said Bella, reverently. "A thousand years ago, Luna was imprisoned in the moon... this is older!"

"You're telling me," said Carmine, "that those pictures are over a thousand years old?"

"Well, the story in them is, at least," replied Bella, thoughtfully.

"You think it's real?" Carmine raised an eyebrow, her crest lifting in surprise.

"Well it matches with the book, right?" Bella looked down at Ruff for confirmation, who nodded.

"Ruff can read words, looks the same."

"Copy them down, Ruff, everyone! They're important. Whatever happened here, it wasn't supposed to happen! But packs stick together, and they all suffered. I think it may have been before... before diamond dogs were a proper part of the Pax Equestrus."

"More than that, Chip," Carmine added, "this is what happened when they first arrived." Her eyes glittered as she cast her gaze around the now brightly lit room.

"I was afraid of that," Chip responded, heaving a heavy sigh.

Hairpin locked gazes with Chip, who shook his head softly at her unspoken question. Return to Tacksworn was out of the question. She scowled, but bowed her head slightly to Chip before turning to the diminutive troll, still holding his staff. "Ruff, tell your boys to secure the area. I think we've got another trip on our hooves."

"Another one?" moaned Bella.

"Relax, this is going to be a real short trip. At least... this part of it is, right, Chip?"

"Short? Where are we going?" Bella looked anxiously from pony to pony-shaped dragon to troll.

Chip just grinned. "Soon as we can, as soon as Ruff's got the text on those murals down, we're heading to Neighvada City. I'll explain when we get there." He turned to the three diamond dogs, "We're going to need your assistance. We need to get our friends from up above, and then we need to get into Neighvada unnoticed, think you can help?"

The three trolls looked down at Ruff, who nodded emphatically. Three tails wagged and the biggest crossed his gargantuan paws across his chest.

"Where you want go?"

"Let's get out of here, and I'll show you."

♠♣♥♦

Grash and Pug stood opposite each other as the flood of trolls became a trickle, then stopped entirely. They took one last look at the old alpha, standing stoically with the last few of his tribe who had decided to stay; his eyes betrayed his real feelings: go.

Turning together, the two stepped hesitantly into the glowing tunnel of light.

"Quickly, young alphas," hissed Akash, strain visible in his clenched teeth and rapid breathing. "You must... you must pass through! Your pack needs you!"

"Come with us?" pleaded Pug.

"I... cannot," Akash panted, his ears splayed out and his tail hung limp. "If I move, all that holds this passage open will fall," Akash growled, glaring directly at the pup. "As you witter away at me, that end approaches all the quicker! Now flee, damn your hides! Flee!"

It was Grash who took hold of Pug – not unkindly – and forced the smaller troll to move. "Come! Our duty is to the pack, as is Akash's, but our duty is not here."

Pug swallowed heavily, looking back and forth between the Elder and his new brother. Finally, he nodded. The pair pushed onwards through the spectral tunnel. The air was thick, and it was slow going as if they were moving through mud. That feeling of thickness, of pressure, only grew, until they were fighting to move against a torrent of force. Against these odds, Grash took hold of Pug and forged onwards. Together, the two suddenly found themselves flailing in free air as they emerged into a dimly lit, ordinary looking cave.

Rolling to his hind paws, Pug stood and turned, reaching out to what looked like a strange, multi-coloured crack in the wall. It was already too small to pass through, but he could not bring himself to let the old hound go. "Akash!" he cried. "Please, Akash! Come!" The small troll threw himself against the wall, grabbing the sides of the crack, but his paws slipped off, finding no purchase, almost as if the crack wasn't there at all. Tears streaming down his muzzle as he strained against the impossible, Pug begged and pleaded Akash to follow them to safety.

Finally – it had been only moments, but it had felt like an age – Pug gave up, leaning heavily against the rock wall. As his breathing calmed, he realized he could hear singing. It was Akash, the old hound's howls filling whatever nether-space he now inhabited with cries to the lost dead, to come gather round the firelight and to let the flames of mourning send them to the Place Above, abode of the Ancients, whose eyes looked down during the night to keep their children safe. The ancient words resonated within Pug's being, setting a fire alight in his mind. As the strains of the ancient funeral dirge flowed through him, it was as if a great veil lifted from his eyes; the world stood out clearer than before, sharper. It was as if, Pug realized with thoughts suddenly nimble as jackrabbits, that up until this moment, he had always been sleeping. Before he could finish contemplating this, the song finished and the crack sealed itself up, both the song and singer disappearing forever.

Pug beat his fists impotently against the wall, silently cursing Farak. Then he drew a great breath and let it out. Akash's magic had been potent. The old hound was safe, far from the blind soul-eating demon. He was probably already beside Ik'Mara in the Forever Forest, leading his pack of ancestors in the Great Hunt.

Pug was safe too, along with Grash and the rest of the pack. The vengeful blind demon was far away, beyond the wall through a tunnel which none could open, not even old One Eye himself. He had his health, his pack-mates, and his pack. He turned to them and cleared his throat. Pointing randomly, he chose several trolls and applied his new-found inner clarity. "You two, go find water. You, you, you, go find wood and bring back here for fire. No hunting, first must see where we are, what is about us. We are few. We are vulnerable. For our pack to be strong, we must first be wise."

"And why should we listen to you?" bristled the first troll.

"Because," snarled Grash, stomping over and throwing him to the floor, "I'll rip your backside out and feed it to you if you don't. Do as he says!" Grash looked at Pug, and they shared a common understanding. Whatever the last gift of Elder Akash had been, it had also touched Grash. Pug nodded.

The unlucky troll whined, grovelling before Grash, kissing his paws. "Crusher good, Crusher behave."

"See you do. And no hunting!" Grash called as the troll vanished. "Now—" Grash rolled his head, cracking his neck, and stretched, "—where we are?" He strode through the cave, pushing through the torrent of trolls, heading along the flow. After a good amount of a time strolling through the cave-system, following the sweet scent of clean air, he emerged from the dark into the glaring sunlight. Blinking back tears, the grandeur of the new world gradually came into focus.

It was a large, green and fertile valley. Mountains rose before him, and the world disappeared far behind to the sound of surf. This was a plateau, then, protected from the elements and flush with life. A glorious bright sun shone high in the heavens, free of the taint that had dogged their own.

"This... good home," said Pug from behind him.

"Hope so, not much choice if not." Grash laughed, tail wagging as his muzzle fell open in a canine grin.

"We stay here awhile, gather strength, then move." Pug bent and plucked a flower. Placing it in his mouth, he chewed it carefully before spitting it out.

"Move?" Grash perked an ear.

"This place... smells wrong. Some will stay, it is the way of things, but I will go. Will you follow?"

Grash pondered awhile, looking up and around as he dug a claw in his ear thoughtfully. "If you say move, pack move. Where to?"

Pug laughed, easily and lightly. "Does it matter? I will know." The diminutive troll dropped to all fours and dug his claws into the loam, enjoying the feel of the earth between his digits. Without standing up, he padded over to a nearby tree, playfully tearing great rents in the mud. Stretching upright and flexing his muscles, he pulled down a branch, working at it until it snapped free. Using his claws, he began to strip the bark and shape it, muttering softly. Where his paws passed, the wood took on a grey sheen, the green fading as it dried.

"You learn magic? When?" Grash's eyes were wide with shock.

Pug shrugged. "Ever since tunnel, ever since hearing song of Akash... things smell different. Branch spoke to me," said Pug, not looking up from his work. "It remember when fire ravage valley one summer. It scorched tree, burned grasses. It thank us for tending to land. There will be no more fires, not long as pack tread here. In return, I make a staff."

Grash nodded, "Old One speaks through you now. Song of Akash still with us, as long as one who heard it lives."

The sun wheeled in the sky, and the lost tribe of diamond dogs made themselves comfortable in their new home.

♠♣♥♦

Honeydew hummed to herself as she trotted through the valley. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and summer was well underway. She'd been busy all morning gathering wild mushrooms and had even found some apples and onions. She'd dug them up with her horn and had patiently lifted them one by one into the pannier bags Weaver had made for her. Honeydew sighed happily in the warm spring sun, the cold of winter having finally been banished for another year. It had taken her herd-sister a long time to dry and properly treat the rushes, longer than it had taken Honeydew to find them all. Now, the bags were full and lunch would be filling and fancy.

Sadly for her herd-mates, it would also be very, very late.

She never saw or heard the creatures that had been following her. She never felt the jaws that fastened around her throat, and she never felt pain from the pressure that snapped her neck. She died in seconds, a confused expression on her muzzle as the weight of the troll on her back bowled her over, gutting her with his hind-claws, tearing out her throat and leaping off to roll to his paws.

Wiping his claws, Crusher licked the blood from them before sinking his muzzle into the steaming entrails, even before his packmate had finished telling him to stop.

"Crusher! Alpha said no hunting!" protested the second troll, ears flat and tail tucked. His nose, however, twitched. He was as hungry as the rest of the pack; the poor hunting during the flight had taken its toll on everyone.

"Quiet, Howler! Crusher hungry! When Crusher bring food, then pack see, Crusher be alpha! Not snivelling pup, not brainless lackey! Crusher feed, Crusher rest. You fetch wood!"

"But..."

"If Howler bring wood for two, Crusher share leg. There are four, all juicy. This creature fat, fed well. There more, good hunting, but Crusher feed pack well."

Howler's stomach growled, making his mind up for him. He fled.

♠♣♥♦

Pug and Grash had set up camp in a meadow under a large, shady tree. The sun was high and beat down powerfully, but the warmth rejuvenated the pack, young and old alike. Several scouts were already returning with good news.

"Found water, not far from here. Big lake, fresh water, many fish. Urge caution, animals close. Big animals." The large troll abased himself before Grash and Pug, grovelling. His tail wagged.

"Well scouted, Sniffer," said Grash, chewing his lip thoughtfully. Finally, he said, "Take larger group, some pups, some elders. Water them and return. More will follow. Look for good hunting grounds."

"But no hunting!" said Pug, snarling.

"Pug," cautioned Grash, "tribe hungry."

Pug lifted a paw. "Remember disaster at Haroon? Must be cautious. Big animals may be dangerous."

"Hrmm." Grash nodded reluctantly. "Big animals... how big?"

"Sniffer not know, but—" The troll stopped at a sudden commotion as two more trolls pushed their way to the center. His nostrils flared at the scent of blood and meat.

With a loud thump, a hefty, gutted carcass was dumped into the center of the rapidly-dispersing group of trolls. Crusher thrust himself forward and grinned wide, his lips stained red with blood.

"Crusher!" hissed Pug, looking down aghast at the carcass before him. "What have you done?"

"I have hunted. Good game here. Fat, juicy, tasty! Whilst Pug grovel and scratch in dirt, like chicken, I hunt, like troll should!"

"You disobeyed me!" snarled Pug.

"Can only disobey alpha, pup," said Crusher, growling, his hackles rising.

"Grash told you no hunting too!" roared Grash, standing next to Pug.

"Who is Grash to tell Crusher? Snivelling pet, muzzle-licker, begging for scraps!"

"Grash is—"

"Quiet!" shouted Pug, ears perking up.

"Pug—" began Grash, turning in surprise.

"Listen!" Pug stared earnestly at Grash, urging silence with every pore.

Grash perked his ears up, as long low notes from some giant horn sounded from far away. "What that..?"

Pug stepped closer to the limp pile of meat, crouching down to examine it. He sniffed. "What it was carrying?" he asked, softly

"Carrying?" asked Crusher.

Pug pointed at places between where the head and neck had been, and around the stomach near the hind legs. "Ropes or... straps. What it was carrying?"

"Carrying. Humph! What Crusher cares?"

Pug screwed up his muzzle in exasperation before slamming the butt of his staff against the ground, eliciting an answering rumble from the mountain peaks. "This carried things. This wore clothes, used tools. This was not animal! We only eat animal, you... you..." Pug broke off in frustration, slamming his foreclaws against the dirt, sending up a huge spray of mud and rocks.

Crusher spat dismissively. "That no diamond dog. It animal."

Pug didn't even raise his gaze from the ground. "This not our world, fool. That was... diamond dog from... from this world." Pug struggled to articulate the new thoughts rattling around in his head. He understood, the difficulty was to make others understand. "It not look like us, but it... it think like us. It breathe like us, live like us." He turned to the carcass and put out a paw, almost touching the bloodied hide. "Our prey, our meat, not mourn dead. This does."

"How you know?" Crusher was laughing, but his hackles were up as chills ran down the back of his neck.

"Because her guardian comes."

"Guardian?" Crusher backed away, his voice faltering as his brash facade crumbled.

Pug straightened and pointed to where a dark shape in the sky was rapidly growing larger. Moments later, a gigantic winged beast landed heavily on the outskirts of the makeshift troll camp. It strolled easily in through the scattering trolls, batting at those too slow to move out of its way and sending them flying. Finally, it came to a stop, where it looked down at the remains of the dead pony. A series of noises came from its throat, and Pug realized it was speaking.

"I... not understand. Not speak same tongue," said Pug, striding to stand before the great creature.

It watched him impassively for a few moments before snatching him in its claws. Pug fought hard against a whimper as it brought him before its huge, sharp-tooth-laden maw for a closer look. As hot, fetid breath washed over him, Pug realized this creature was called a dragon, and she was female. The slain animal was called a pony, had been a unicorn to be precise, and she had lived in a village down by the lake that his scouts had located, in a country called Equestria. Information flooded into his brain like water flowing through a burst dam, filling the corners of his mind with tidbits of facts, figures and formulae. It was a dizzying, almost physical force that left him weak and nauseous.

"Tell me now, creature, what happened?" The great blunt head of the copper-coloured dragon made the same noises as before, but now Pug found he could understand them as if he had been speaking with these sorts of creatures all his life.

Pug blinked, mind filled with a new understanding. This was a dragon, a great wyrm like and yet so-unlike the creatures his kind had herded back in their home realm. She was enormous, with beautiful golden eyes that seemed to pierce through to his very soul. Gleaming white horns spiraled out from the back of her head and two leathery wings adorned her flanks. "I understand you now!"

The dragon rolled her eyes. "Have you never seen magic before?"

"Not like yours. I have never seen your like before, nor... nor hers." Pug rolled the new words around in his mouth with surprise. He sounded like Akash, and that both worried and enthralled him.

"I see." The dragon put Pug down, staring around with some amusement at the range of emotions and stances to be found amongst the remnants of the Shattered Hills pack. "I suggest you tell your pack to cease their aggressive behaviour. I do not wish to play, and I assure you I can make light of whatever attacks they could bring against me."

Pug nodded. "Stand down!" he barked.

"You understand that?" asked Grash.

"Yes. She... taught me to speak."

"What she want?"

Pug eyed the dead pony. "I think she wants to know who did that and why." Turning to the dragon, he said, "Forgive us, our pack is lost and hungry, and we did not know—"

"Who slew the pony?" asked the dragon, interrupting Pug with one raised foreclaw.

"I—"

"No! No, do not attempt to take the blame for your minions. I see the thought playing across your mind, little one. Ordinarily I would be appeased by such substitution, but right now I feel you are perhaps the only one amongst your group who has the wherewithal to converse at all legibly with me. I would have the culprit."

Pug reluctantly pointed at a quivering Crusher.

"Inform him that he has a choice. He will submit to my will, and thereby make amends, or he will die."

"Crusher," whispered Pug, swallowing heavily, "you have broken the laws of this land, but you have also broken the laws of the pack, and so I must weigh your protection against the good of our clan."

Crusher snarled. "Save your words, coward."

"I am no coward," said Pug, "but I am no fool. Submit to the dragon, and you will live. Otherwise, you will die. If we oppose this creature, more will die, and I will not have that."

Crusher just snarled and launched himself at the dragon. In the blink of an eye, he was speared through the torso by a single, razor-sharp talon. He twitched, silently gasping as his life-blood flowed down the talons and spilled onto the green grasses, and then was still.

"Pity," said the dragon, as she pulled her claws from the dead troll. "Now, tell me what has befallen your people. I may be able to help, for a fee."

Pug eyed the creature thoughtfully for a second before sitting down in front of her, pointedly ignoring the dead troll that lay silently bleeding into the grass. "What will your help cost? We seek to find ourselves a home here. Many of us wish to stay in this place, but... we cannot afford mistakes like Crusher made."

The dragon laughed softly. "I smell two trolls on the dead pony. One, the guilty, has been dealt with. The other may offer himself to me, and for that price I shall guide your pack to safety and speak on your behalf to the princess of this land, and the other powers that owe fealty."

"That is not my decision to make," replied Pug. "I am alpha of my pack, but not master of the trolls within it."

"Then I shall ask him myself." The dragon searched through the crowd and located Howler. Pointing, she bid him approach, beckoning with a talon.

"She will not harm you," Pug said as the shivering troll came closer. The dragon lifted him up and wove the same spell on Howler as she had on Pug.

"Now we may deal," said the dragon, settling herself down comfortably. As the rest of the pack cowered back uncertainly, Pug and Howler listened to her speak. "I am the Lady Manasa, and you will address me as 'my lady', 'Lady Manasa' or 'Mistress'. For the price of your obedience to me, I will bestow upon you the ability to talk to the ponies. In return for your pack offering protection, you will be fed and traded with, and you may stay here."

"Kept like chickens? Or hogflesh?" blurted Howler indignantly. Choking at her sudden glare, he followed that up with a squeaked-out, "Lady?"

The dragon shrugged, mollified. "If it suits you to think of it like that. Surely you would rather see it as becoming alpha of a pack of your own, of becoming alpha of the ponies, too. They will grow to depend upon you, as you will depend upon me."

Howler thought to himself for a moment before he looked up at the dragon. "Howler would be alpha? What must Howler do, Mistress?"

"You are to make sure your pack does as I wish: you are to protect the ponies from all threats, both foreign and domestic, and your pups will do the same, as will their pups. That is all. In return—" the dragon turned to Pug— "those who burden your exodus are free to stay here, in safety and prosperity."

Now it was Pug's turn to think. "You... would command him, my lady? And his pups?"

"And their pups, and on, unless I have no use for them. And I give you my word, those will be set free with no negative consequences."

"You would command them too, like an alpha?"

"If that is how your kind wish to put it." The dragon waved a claw nonchalantly.

"You could command him now though, surely, my lady?"

"But not willingly. It is..." The dragon waved a claw, unsure how to state things.

Pug waved a paw placatingly, "I understand enough. Magic. You are powerful, I sense that."

"I could teach you the ways of the mage. You are a strange creature, but I feel the powers stir within you. I would see them blossom."

"Part of the same deal?"

The dragoness laughed. "As you wish it, so mote it be."

"My Lady Manasa," blurted Pug, "could you... take us home?"

The dragon locked eyes with him for a second then turned her head to the distant cave. She sniffed, seemingly nonchalantly, but Pug felt a certain... draw from her as she exercised her powers. "I could," she stated finally.

"And what would that cost?" Pug all but held his breath, almost speechless.

"To send your people home?" The dragon weighed the options for a moment, casting her gaze across the clearing before answering smoothly and without a hint of hubris. "A third of your adults, equal male and female, all of your young and a representative number of your elderly, all pledged to me. In return, you could be home this very night, under your own stars, with knowledge beyond your wildest dreams, enough to cement your status amongst your own tribes."

Pug fell back in shock and Howler's ears flattened against his head. Pug's head swam as he contemplated the enormity of what he was about to do. "I... cannot agree to that," Pug said eventually, his voice hoarse and muscles tense. As the dragon nodded, his shoulders slumped. He had made his decision. His mind reeled as he contemplated how the story of this moment would be told and retold for generations yet to come. It was enough to turn his legs to jelly and to set his water flowing. He swallowed, knowing that he had just sealed his people's fate, that forever more they would be a tribe apart from the realm they had once called home.

The dragon stared long and hard at Pug, but the troll's gaze slowly hardened and his back straightened. Finally, she smiled and inclined her head. "So be it."

♠♣♥

The installation was dark, patrolled only by a few loose pairs of carefree pegasus guards in the air and by some surly and bored earth ponies on the ground. The moved as quickly as possible, stamping their feet against the chill desert air, aching to be downtown amongst the bright lights and action, or at least back in the guardhouse where the coffee was terrible but plentiful. This was Neighvada, the gambling, drinking and entertainment centre of Equestria. Nopony wanted to be stuck patrolling when they could be out carousing.

If the guards had been attentive, they might have heard some odd noises that were a little bit too repetitive to put down to an overactive imagination, or to animals out in the tundra; noises like the distant scrabbling of claws, or of hushed voices arguing about how far exactly the tunnel system had been extended, or even how deep underground, or whether they were, in fact, anywhere at all near some supposed mystery destination.

"Chip," grumbled Carmine, shaking her feathers out for the umpteenth time that night as she plodded inexorably down the interminable tunnel to nowhere, "are you absolutely sure you know where you're going?" The griffon pointed a wing at the three tireless trolls.

The group had returned to the surface, picked up Bethany and Penny, and had promptly been shown back underground, out of the night air.

"Not a clue," said Chip with a grin, the smirk almost wider than his muzzle, "but they do."

Chip had spoken in hushed tones with the three trolls, who had turned out to be called Cecil, Cheshire and Rollo. Chip had pointed with a hoof, waggling it in a roughly Easterly direction until the hounds had nodded. They could get the group to where he wanted to go; diamond dog tunnels stretched for miles under the savannah, it would be pups' play to extend them the rest of the way. Shortly after that, despite protests, the entire group – minus Hardhat – had shuffled into the trolls' tunnels. They'd been tromping through the semi-darkness ever since.

"Relax, catbird," grunted one of the trolls. He was panting hard form digging through several miles of solid rock, and all four of his paws were slick with sweat.

"Cecil," asked Hairpin, nudging the troll, "it is Cecil, right? How do you... know where you are?"

The troll stopped digging and straightened as much as his back and the cramped tunnel would allow. Joints popped and cracked in the darkness, glow-gems on their hardhats providing almost enough light to trip over obstacles by. Then he gave Hairpin a withering glance, which he shared with his pack-mates. "Birdpony, you not get lost up in sky, right?"

"Right, but that's obvious. I can, you know, see around up there."

The troll snorted derisively. "Birdpony not see all across Equestria, but know where to go, if want to get there, right?"

"...Right, but that's diff—"

The troll shook his head. "Uh-uh. Not different. birdpony not get lost up there, diamond dogs not get lost down here."

"He's got a point, you know," said Chip, still grinning, as Cecil started to dig again.

Carmine gave an annoyed squawk. "You're insufferable. Must be a dragon thing."

Chip just grinned more. Despite the dark, despite it being hard to breathe, despite the last air shaft being quite a ways back and the slow going, he was having the time of his life. Probably because he was going to be killed, roasted, chopped up and served on a bed of Arugala at the end of it all. Might as well live it up whilst you have the chance, right?

In a darkened field, between two large and mostly shapeless buildings, a section of the hard-packed earth broke apart, forming a small bulge which rapidly expanded to a hillock of rock and dirt before collapsing. Carefully, very carefully, a seemingly-dark head festooned with a risen crest and beady eyes peeked above the rim.

"Looks clear, guys," hissed Carmine. Moments later, she hopped out of the tunnel and vanished into the shadows. She was joined by Chip, Ruff, Hairpin, Bella and one of the three guardian trolls.

"Right where you said we'd be, Cecil. Where's our target?"

"Cecil already say, know where going underground." the diamond dog puffed up, proud of himself. "Cecil know tunnels as well as birdcats know air or ponies forests. What you want is in there!" Cecil pointed to one of the dark, humongous buildings, tail wagging furiously.

"Cecil, you're a genius. Couldn't have done it without you," agreed Chip, hoofing the troll in the ribs. "Now, you three get clear. From here on out, it's all down to us."

"Khan Ruff okay with that?" Cecil asked, tail wagging and ears perked.

Ruff nodded. "Ruff okay. Cecil do good. Real good."

Cecil yipped happily before diving back through the hole, which he rapidly filled up behind him until it was nothing but lumpy, brown patch of earth.

Bella poked it with a hoof experimentally before looking up at Chip. "You sure this is a good idea? Where are we, anyway?"

"Just follow me, and stay in the shadows. We're... not exactly supposed to be here."

"And where is here? What are we doing here?"

Chip grinned in the darkness. "Breaking and entering."

The door opened reluctantly, the gang wincing collectively as the hinges squealed in protest. Chip had made short work of the padlock, he was still chewing it and smacking his lips as they stole into what, it quickly became clear, was a hangar.

Carefully, Bella caused her horn to glow just enough to make sense of what they were seeing. A large, glittering and brightly coloured shape hung suspended in the air before them, oozing a sense of purpose and strength from every elegant square inch. It was an airship, gigantic, sleek and majestic. It hung poised before them, tied down by taut wires, almost begging to be released. As they approached, Chip had the feeling it was caged within the hangar like a beast, raging to be set free, its dormant might and majesty almost palpable. Strange designs and writing flowed across the enormous gondola beneath the envelope. Chip thought they looked somehow familiar, but he couldn't quite make them out.

"That's the Great Harmony," said Hairpin breathlessly.

"What?" asked Carmine, her crest raising in surprise.

Hairpin's eyes shone with awe. "She's the flagship of the Equestrian Fleet."

"And," said Chip with barely-restrained glee, "we're going to steal her."

♠♣♥

Author's Note:

You waited patiently for it, and I hope it's delivered. I may be (once again) publishing too early, but I think I'm as happy with it as I'm going to get. I could not (simply could not) have done this without the help of the following:

BritBrony
maskedferret
Nyerguds
EricKilla
Lazygamer313
Caliaponia
Jake the Army Guy
Forevermore
AntiquatedAnnomaly
Fangwarden
q97randomguy

and I owe them so much for their help with grammar, spelling and punctuation. Not to mention character interaction and talking heads. It's still not perfect, they didn't get their own way (meaning I was pig-headed often enough to ignore them) and yet I strongly feel this chapter is much improved because of them.

cookies this time for those smart enough to get the reference at the end... and I hope y'all remember what happened at the very end of chapter 4!

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