• Published 16th Dec 2011
  • 38,085 Views, 604 Comments

Daylight Burning - Guesswork

The return of an ancient enemy draws the ponies into a deadly spy game.

  • ...

Chapter 3: The Greater Good

Chapter 3

"Well, I'm not walking in the water," said Rarity. "That scummy soup is probably swarming with leeches!"

"There are no leeches in the Ponyville swamp, Rarity," Spike said with a sigh.

"There's one now! I think I saw it flitting about beneath the water," said Rarity.

"Do leeches 'flit'?" said Spike. "I don't think leeches 'flit.'"

"I'll bet you don't know the first thing about leeches!"

Spike looked at her. "And you do?'

"Since you are the one asking me to wade through chest-deep swamp water, Spike, then the burden of proof falls to you, yes?"

"Why don't you just jump between trees, like me-ee?" Pinkie Pie singsonged down from the boughs of a tall willow. She bounded effortlessly between limbs ten and fifteen feet off the ground, then sailed twenty feet to another tree. It was like she weighed nothing.

"Come now, dear, you know I can't do that sort of thing," said Rarity. "My powers are based more on the upkeep and application of fabulosity. Which is an excellent reason, by the way, not to ruin my coat with a flitting swarm of leeches!"

"There are no leeches," said Spike.

"You know, this swamp reminds me of this thing I saw once," said Rainbow Dash, "about these Candiru fish that can swim right up your pee hole."

Rarity looked aghast at Dash. Then she rounded on Spike with giant, shiny, puppy-dog eyes that must have taken up three-quarters of her face.

Spike threw his claws in the air. "By Celestia, alright!" He helped her climb up onto his shoulder.

They moved slowly and deliberately for nearly an hour, following the faint, indistinct signal of Luna's horn. The fairylight from Rarity's own horn shone brighter than a lantern--more than enough to illuminate their way through the foggy wetlands.

Spike was very aware of Rarity's presence as she sat so close to his face. He caught a glimpse of the white unicorn's beautiful blue eyes shimmering in the ethereal light. Her coat was like cane sugar, even after a night of rocking out and swamp-trekking. As always, she smelled faintly of marshmallow.

Rarity, you are still a knockout, thought Spike with an inward sigh. He would always pine a little for Rarity, even though there were a million reasons it would never happen.

"We found Luna in the gem fields," said Dash. "I've crashed pretty hard before and I've only thrown stuff two, maybe three hundred feet tops. How in the world did the horn end up all the way out here!?"

Spike peered into the darkness ahead, his ears searching for the slightest sound. "Magical artifacts exist in more dimensions than normal objects," he told Dash. "A unicorn horn for example is four-dimensional entity, existing across infinite, similar, three-dimensional spaces. That's how it collects natural magic from the planet and the sun so efficiently. This nature makes it hard to track if it's separated from its three-dimensional host pony, though, because--"

"Get to the rainbows!" said Dash with frustration.

"It teleports around by itself," said Spike. "With a hop, skip, jump."

"Thank you! Sheesh! You really were raised by Twilight, weren't you?"

"She'll appreciate the compliment."

Pinkie Pie stopped suddenly. "Oh, gross," she said. "Cross my heart guys, I 'smelt' it, but I didn't 'dealt' it this time."

"What are you talking about?" asked Spike, and then he smelled it too. Methane. A thick pocket hanging over this whole area. I had better be darn careful with my fire, he thought. One wrong move could blow the lot of us into candy corn.

They slogged along another hundred paces.

"It's right nearby," said Rarity. "We're close, everypony."

"Up ahead," said Dash. "Two o'clock." A faint blue glow among the lily pads.

"Looks more like eleven o'clock to me," said Pinkie.

There were several beats of silence.

"I don't get it," said Spike.

Pinkie arched an eyebrow. "I was being serious," she said.

"Oh...alright," said Spike. "Well, you're both right, since a four-dimensional artifact coincides with our space at constantly changing coordinates--"

Pinkie gave a bitter laugh and her eyes sparkled with an orange glow. "I get it, I get it, 'Pinkie's a riot,' but Celestia forbid I have anything to add to the conversation."

"What was that, darling?" said Rarity.

"The sound of another screw coming loose," said Dash, flying along.

"An insult from Dashie," said Pinkie. "What a surprise. You just can't help yourself, can you? 'Pinkie Pie you're not as annoying as I thought.' 'Pinkie Pie, you're so random.' Talking down to me, right to my face, you'd think I was Fluttershy or something!"

"Whoah," Dash said, taken aback. "Way harsh..."

"Ha! Way true, you mean. You know, I think I'm finished with you high-and-mighty ponies." Pinkie Pie's eyes burned with a bright orange glow. Her hair swelled and then deflated, hanging straight-as-boards down her back and over one eye. "I'm going back to Ponyville, and if you've already bought a birthday gift for Gummy this year then I hope you kept the receipt!!"

Spike could hear Luna's voice in his memory: Sudden and severe changes in mood or alignment can debilitate a pony as fast as any wound. It is sometimes the only way to defeat a particularly elusive opponent.

"She's hexed," he said.

Rarity looked up at Pinkie with worried eyes. "What can we do?"

Spike turned and sloshed up to the tree below her. "Listen to me, Pinkie. You aren't acting like yourself. Something out here is affecting your mind and you are in danger. You need to come down here right now."

"Lay an egg, dragon," she shouted down to him. "Then suck it!"

What is the source of this? he thought, looking around into the murky darkness. It could be local wildlife, Royal Guard, hallucinogenic fungal spores for Celestia's sake! Should we press forward or fall back? Try to restrain Pinkie or search for the cause of her behavior? He had been through hundreds of training scenarios with Luna, but now that it was for real, he couldn't decided what to do. Get it together, dragon! Everypony is depending on you!

"Spike," hissed Rarity. "Can you feel that energy? Something powerful is casting magic out here. Something besides Luna's horn."

Spike's mind raced. He had a plan, but it was a terrible risk. Don't make the wrong decision now. "Okay...first, kill the lights. Then I need you to localize the source and hit them with a flare. Can you do that?"

"That will be the easy part, darling."

"Do it. Dash, get Pinkie."

Dash nodded and put on her game face.

Rarity's fairylight dimmed to nothing, and they all held their breath in the sudden pitch-black. Spike could feel the tension from Rarity's body as she concentrated on locating the energy source. It was a testament to her fine magical dexterity that she could do it without casting light from her horn if she wished. Even Twilight had trouble with that trick.

The wet noises of the swamp crept to life, crickets and frogs, clacking beetles and the screech of a bat. Spike closed his eyes and listened with dragon ears. The sounds of wildlife were not uniform. He could hear them shutting off in sections, as if they sensed a creature was passing close to them. In this way, he found he could distinguish the negative space of at least four separate entities moving to surround them. Only one of them was close enough for Spike's plan to work. He would have to wait until the others were closer before he acted. I still don't even know who or what is out there. If it's some sort of swamp creature this might just make it mad...

In the blackness, Pinkie Pie said. "Well, I guess that settles it. You go your separate way and I'll--what the hay are you doing? Ow, stop pulling my hair Dashie...that's cheating!!" The sounds of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie locked in an arboreal wrestling match sifted down from the trees.

"We're running out of time, Rarity," urged Spike.

"Just...another moment...," whispered Rarity. "There you are!" There was a fizzing pop of magic and a radiant energy ball snapped from the end of her horn. It described a graceful arc into a southwesterly copse of trees, where it burned bright white, perfectly illuminating a dozen ponies in legionnaire armor and black cloaks.

Spike could hear the three other squads closing in. Not four entities, as Spike had thought, but more than twenty pony soldiers.

"Seize them!" boomed a voice. "Restrain the pink one first, she's the most dangerous!"

"What...hey!" yelled Rainbow Dash.

The squads charged toward them. Sixty feet...forty feet...twenty feet, thought Spike. Sorry colts, you're just doing your jobs. But so am I.

"Dash," yelled Spike. "Take a bath!"

To Dash's credit, she only hesitated for a second. Then she tackled Pinkie Pie and the two of them went hurtling out of the branches and splashed into the algae-thick swamp water.

Spike grabbed Rarity by her waist and fell backwards into the foul water, dragging her with him. As the darkness closed in over them, Spike exhaled a single jet of flame up to pierce the underside of the gas cloud.

The air ignited with a whumph, and sheets of liquid fire roared out across the surface of the water in all directions. The Princess's elite guards were engulfed in the inferno and went down screaming into the water by the dozen. Spike felt sick. This is the Nightmare's fault, he thought. The Nightmare just killed those ponies, not me.

It took only seconds for the methane-air mixture to burn off, but they were terrible seconds.

Spike and Rarity exploded from the water, gasping for air and gagging on debris.

"Where are..." said Spike, casting about.

With a splash and a small geyser of water, Dash flapped up into the air, soaking wet and carrying Pinkie Pie in a full-nelson. The pegasus shook herself off, splattering Spike and Rarity with even more rotting plant material.

Rarity hadn't said a word yet. She just stood there with her hair plastered to her face, looking too traumatized to speak.

Sloshing noises sounded from all around, and to Spike's surprise, the pony soldiers began struggling back to their hooves as well. Fire suppression magic, he realized. Of course. They knew they were hunting a dragon tonight...

"Dash, get Pinkie out of here!" said Spike. "Rarity and I will get the horn!"

Dash looked at him, then over her shoulder towards the horn, then down at Pinkie. Torn in three directions, thought Spike. Please Rainbow, just do what you're told for once in your life.

But he never got to find out what Dash might have done, because at that very moment a blur of armored motion appeared in front of him and a lance of brilliant orange magic struck him square in the chest. Spike's body careened backwards across the water, smashing through a cluster of rotting stumps thirty paces away.

"What...the..." he said, holding his head as he dragged himself back to his feet. His ears were ringing and there was a disturbing numbness coming from his entire left foreleg. Before him stood a dark-colored unicorn in legionnaire barding.

"Spike the Dragon," called the pony. "I am Captain Shield Banner of the Royal Guard. I offer you this one chance at clemency. The Princess has ordered you executed, but your friends will be spared if you surrender now."

"Does that sound like an order the Princess would give, Captain?" asked Spike. "Celestia is the very image of mercy. Where is that mercy tonight?"

"Apparently, it died with Princess Luna," said Shield Banner. "Celestia may be a goddess, but she is still a pony in the end. And if that was my sister you'd murdered, I'll admit that mercy would be furthest from my mind."

"Luna was my mentor and my friend, Captain. I would never have hurt her."

"Forgive me if I take my Princess's word over that of a dragon. Now are you going to come quietly or are we going to have to get rough with you?"

Shield Banner's horn flared orange again and the tense silence was torn by Pinkie Pie's wail. "The corn cakes!" she cried. "I ate them all. They weren't mine and innocent ponies went hungry!" She slumped against a broken tree, her voice wracked with grief and agony, as if she was reliving all the worst moments of her life.

"Stop it!" yelled Rarity. "You're hurting her!"

"You are the ones with the power to stop this, not me," said Shield Banner. "Now surrender, traitors! Miss Pie is running out of time." His horn flared even brighter.

"I'm sorry I was born pink, Daddy!" sobbed Pinkie, cradling her head. "I'm sorry I was born pink!"

"That does it!" shouted Rainbow Dash, and she was on Shield Banner faster than a thought. Orange flashes lit the swamp in staccato bursts as she lay into him with a flurry of blows, but each strike, kick, or buck collided with layers of force-fields and did no damage. Finally, Dash arced into the air and shot downward with her death-from-above move, but Shield Banner cast a glowing net from his horn, and suddenly Dash was entangled and splashing down into the water. Her head breached the surface, only to be dealt a sharp blow by the captain's iron-shod hoof that caused her neck to whip back. Before she could recover, the guard captain fell on Dash, holding her under the water with his considerable weight as she thrashed around, unable to breath.

"Agile fighters shouldn't attack hard targets head-on," said Shield Banner with a laugh.

Spike let loose a terrible, furious roar. A dragon's roar. He charged headlong at Shield Banner, summoning up the hottest flame he could produce--the kind that could melt stone. But just as he moved into range of the guard captain, Spike felt a massive, uneven weight crash into him from above, and suddenly he was wrestling with three snow-white pegasus guards.

One bashed him in the stomach with a powerful kick, while the others tried to yank his forelegs behind him. Spike angrily threw one pegasus over his shoulder, skipping the stallion across the water like a stone. He chomped his maw down on another, cracking the guard's armor and tasting blood. The guard struggled to pry the dragon's jaws open, but Spike torqued his neck and smashed the soldier through the side of a log. The third pegasus dodged left and right--a move that Rainbow Dash herself liked to use--and when the guard came around for the customary left-hook, Spike reeled back and headbutted him so hard it knocked the guard's helmet right off.

Rarity had skidded into a patch of grass and huddled there, looking shocked and terrified. But now as Spike finished off the last guard, he noticed that she had clambered to her hooves and was casting a spell. No, Rarity, he thought, Don't draw attention to yourself.

There was a snap of magic and another white flare arced out into the swamp. This one landed in some brush, and there, floating in the water, was Luna's horn. Spike looked back at Rarity. She smiled at him, tears in her eyes. "Go on!" she said, motioning with her hooves. The Element of Generosity.

Save the Princess. Save Equestria.

He was in the water before another soldier could move, thrashing his body back and forth, building a rhythm. Within seconds, Spike was tearing forward along the surface. He had wondered for many years how a wingless dragon like himself could ever hope to measure up to a red, or green, or any of the rest of them. He had received his answer the first time he'd seen the ocean.

In the water, nopony could catch him. He was a blur. He shot past Shield Banner and raced straight on for the horn.

Shield Banner was not expecting this at all. He jumped off of Rainbow Dash and wheeled around towards the fleeing dragon. "Restrain the mares!" the guard captain shouted to his legionnaires as he took off after Spike.

It was too late, though. Spike had gotten his moment of surprise, and he was almost upon the horn already. He could see its night-sky glow on the surface of the water. It rippled and warped through space, seemingly in three...two...six places at once.

Got to time this just right...Gotcha!! He reached out and seized the horn as he tore past in the water. Luna's familiar power pulsed through his body, recharging him.

Spike doubled his speed and raced through the swamp, changing direction randomly and losing the airborne tail in the trees. After two miles he could no longer see pegasi through the canopy, and he slowed down to a more steady pace, dipping below the water and opening the green fans on the sides of his cheeks that acted as gills. Under the surface, Spike was invisible, even to heat-detecting magic. He could swim like this as far south as he needed to, then double back around Ponyville and enter the University from the east.

I completed the mission, he thought bitterly. I did what I had to for the greater good. Luna is our only hope against the Nightmare, the only hope for Equestria. Pinkie, Dash, and Rarity will just have to take care of themselves for a while.

He had never felt less like a hero in his entire life.

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