“Now do you see what we’ve been fighting for?”
Hearing the voice behind me, all I could do was pray. Without daring to move, I looked at my sister from the corner of my eye. The look she had on her face said it all, and it was a look I knew very well. Lost had her ‘well, fuck’ look going on. But if she wasn’t freaking out, then we had a chance.
After all, the dragon must have wanted us alive, otherwise he would have killed us already. With all the trouble we must have caused him, making him fly out at night and search through the skies, plus the whole ‘shooting him repeatedly’ part, I’d have expected a swift and silent death.
“Let’s go down,” he said calmly, without the hint of a threat in his voice. Leaning his head forward, he looked at those bowed down in the lower cavern. “You might want to move.” Without waiting, he extended the claw full of whatever junk he’d brought with him, and released. A torrent of everything from caps to uprooted trees fell down, crashing against the massive pile of gold and bits in the center of the room. Trash cans and mailboxes bounced in one direction, kitchenware in another, flying about the room and making quite the mess.
As the four of us watched, the ponies, zebras, buffalo, and everyone else there scrambled forward. Xeno stood watching, her head canted to the side and one eye squinting with her other eyebrow raised.
“Leave some for my newest,” rumbled the dragon. With his tail wrapping around to block our exit, he pointed down the tunnel. “Go. That way. I’ll explain your new place, my little ponies.”
Without much of a choice, the four of us began to walk down.
“Very obedient of you, coming so quickly,” said the dragon as he lumbered past us. Now that we weren’t in the darkness of the cloud-covered night, I got a good look at him. The dragon himself was actually just green, with lighter-colored scales on his underside, starting from the base of his jaw, down his underside, and ending at the tip of his tail. Thick ridges of lighter-colored scales formed eyebrows that seemed locked in a scowl.
What I’d thought before to be just a part of him — the gold that coated much of his back, the outsides of his legs, and his claws — weren’t really scales. They looked similar, but were caught in a strange flux between armor and scale. They moved with him, clinging tightly to his skin, but wherever they ended, there was just the slightest gap to betray that they weren’t actually attached to him. Either he’d gold-plated his hide in an effort to armor himself more than he was naturally, or something else was going on.
I looked up as we walked, and caught a glimpse of the eye that I’d shot. I expected to blind him in that eye, but he didn’t seem to notice at all. The eye itself had taken no damage whatsoever, and wasn’t even bloodshot. When he opened his mouth, I checked for damage from the grenade I’d fired at him, but saw none. Even after the onslaught from both Rose and I, he didn’t have a scratch.
“Hey, Rose,” I whispered, hoping he wouldn’t hear me trying to gossip.
“Be quiet. We’re nearly there,” he said, giving me a sideways glance and a nudge with his powerful claws.
I fell flat on my face, toppled over, and ended up on my back. Looking up, I could feel my eyelid twitching. “That wasn’t necessary!” I yelled as I scrambled to my hooves. Rubbing my nose a little, I glared up at the dragon.
“Go down the path and to the main cavern. I’m tired, and I’ll be taking a nap. Once I finish, I’ll humor all the accusations I’m sure you have pent up,” he answered, rolling his eyes.
“Just listen to him for now, Hidden,” Lost said, grabbing onto me and holding tight.
Grimacing, I did as she asked. The dragon led us further down the tunnel and around a wide corner. The hallways down here were also lined with the remains of old houses, stuffed full just like those near the entrance. I couldn’t tell, in only the few seconds it took to pass each one, but it looked like these were stuffed even more full than those I’d seen before. The deeper we got, the more stuff I saw everywhere. Whatever ‘organization’ he’d been using, it obviously hadn’t been going on long enough.
We rounded the corner and made our way into the main cavern. The pile of treasure I’d seen from above looked even bigger when I was standing right in front of it. It rose high above my head, forming a mountain I couldn’t see around. Atop it scrambled the captives, grabbing onto things like the Solaris Energy sign, or the trunks of the massive dead trees brought in. The zebra foals dove through the bigger piles, their smaller bodies squeezing between bigger chunks and then returning with bits and smaller items to carry off. Watching was somewhat fascinating, as they seemed to have a sort of ‘organized chaos’ to their methodology.
Foals weaved around the adults, dropping off bits in one pile, and gems in another. A few of the smaller foals, obviously too young to be diving through potentially dangerous piles of junk the dragon dropped, instead worked as cleaners around the pile. Little hooves skittered back and forth, grabbing onto whatever they could, before running back onto the pile and depositing it. When the small group of foals passed, the ground before us lay bare, with a precise edge to the pile. Not a single piece of gold or a single gem went past the invisible line that made up the furthest reaches of his pile.
“As I told you before,” rumbled the dragon above us, “I bring my treasure, my possessions back, and my little…” He trailed off, looking away for a moment. “My pets sort them for me.” He reached out and plucked a large ruby from the pile, one almost as large as my head. He tossed it into the air, then snatched it between his teeth. With a few crunching chews, he lowered himself back to where he’d been. “As long as you don’t try and leave, you can do whatever you want.” Stepping over us, he pushed what little was left of his night’s haul to the side and did a circle around the treasure pile.
He laid down with a thump forceful enough to make every pony, zebra, and buffalo in the room jump into the air, and rested his head so he faced the exit tunnel. “I’ll explain your place after a nap, but don’t bother trying to leave,” he said, his eyes closing. He cracked one open just a sliver, and the slit pupil of his gold eye focused directly on me. “I’ll know if you do. Go.”
I sat and watched in awe while Lost and Rose tended to Xeno and the few foals not working. Even though the dragon lay atop the pile of gold and gems, the others kept their work going around him. He didn’t even flinch as they crawled atop him and collected the remainder of his treasure.
The teamwork, despite the different species, made mine and my sister’s cooperation seem like we weren’t a real team at all. Buffalo, without batting an eye, would lift the zebra foals up, and the foals scrambled atop the dragon to dig things out. Their hooves were the only ones tiny enough to fit between his scales, and they spent their time pulling caps, bits, and smaller treasures from between the green scales and gold plates. One of the older foals stood between the dragon’s wings and unhooked the massive chains that made up his necklaces. I couldn’t imagine where the dragon had gotten the jewelry he wore, as there couldn’t have been a pony alive preparing to make that sort of thing. He had tons of gold and could breathe fire, though, so there was a chance he’d just made it himself.
“Okay, slowly,” whispered a light brown unicorn mare. Her horn lit up a pale green and she lifted the dragon’s claws with telekinesis to slide his rings away with the help of another unicorn mare. With practiced care, the two set each one next to one another, forming a row of massive gem-encrusted rings near the entrance tunnel to the outside.
Atop the dragon skittered the colt who’d unhinged the necklace latch. He lowered the chain down to the waiting others below.
“Got it,” said a confident-looking blue earth pony stallion. He and a group of buffalo pulled the chain the rest of the way down and set it out, making a line from under the dragon to the floor beyond the edge of the treasure pile. They repeated the process, with unspoken commands to fill the language barrier between buffalo, pony, and zebra. Each chain was laid carefully on the ground, though whether they wanted to keep him from waking or just not damage the metals, I couldn’t tell. Once all the necklace chains were resting in their places, the buffalo and ponies moved around the tail of the dragon, to his far side.
They worked with such precision, I couldn’t not watch.
At the same time, it took every ounce of strength I had to not run out and try to snag something for my own. The dragon was gigantic and sleeping, surely he wouldn’t miss one little ring or crown would he? Of course he would. He counted repeatedly while he was chasing us around the Wasteland, his claws always digging through his pile and making sure nothing was lost. Even in battle, he stopped to pick up the pieces he’d dropped, before trying to capture us. We could get away, the gold, caps, and other junk couldn’t. Was he really so obsessed?
I could just look. Try them on. I’d find a mirror or something, see how I looked wearing something regal-looking. Then I’d put it back. I promised myself. Just a little look, only a few minutes. That was more borrowing than stealing, right?
I looked back and forth, watching the others work. A quick glance back confirmed that my sister, Xeno, Fine Tune, and Rose were all busy tending to the few foals too young or hurt to help with the dragon’s cleanup. I gulped.
I was only borrowing. As long as I put everything back, it would be okay. The coast was clear, and the others were all busy on the far side of the dragon. Nopony, no one, would see me.
It was the perfect crime.
I rose to my hooves. This could work, I just had to do it right. I needed to be quiet... cunning. Stepping forward and gently resting the steel of my prosthetic hoof down on the ground, I looked toward the dragon’s head. So far so good. No clanking, no extra noise. Just grab the gold and tur-
“Hidden!” Lost yelled.
I swore under my breath and turned around. “Yes, sis?” I asked, with the fakest fake smile I could ever hope to fake. Really she’d probably just saved my life. Slowly, I walked back, resisting the urge to turn and look at the treasure again. We had time. I could steal- borrow some later.
I just needed to be patient and persistent. The right moment would come. It’d be mine before the night was through. All this meant was more prep work.
“Hello, Hiddenpony,” said Xeno, a lopsided smile across her lips. She sat on her haunches, running her hoof through the mohawked mane of one of the foals. “Itis good to see you, but I wouldnot advice taking from the dragon.”
“Did he hurt you?” I asked, cutting to the chase.
“No, Iam healed. The injury I took came from the collapsing building,” she explained. Aside from the slashes the splinterwolf had left across her face, I couldn’t see any damage. “My mother?”
“She tastes terrible,” said Fine Tune. Opening his mouth wide, he stuck out his tongue and poked his hoof past his teeth a few times. “I’ll leave negative emotions to the windigo.”
A shiver ran down my spine. If having my love eaten felt like my heart getting crushed, I could only imagine what it would feel like to have my hatred eaten. Then again, if eating love left me feeling crushed, maybe eating hatred would leave me feeling happy? Blowing through the corner of my mouth, I sat across from my friend and tried not to think about it.
“Oh, by the way,” Lost said. She reached back and dug through her saddlebags for a moment, producing the striped knife we’d been given by Zolera. She offered it to Xeno. “This is for you.”
The foal in front of my friend looked up, her orange eyes wide. She said something I couldn’t understand, earning a pat on the head from Xeno, who answered in their language. She took the knife with her other hoof and slid it into her satchel.
“Thank you,” she said graciously. “Whatis the plan to escape?”
“My recommendation; we put a fuck-ton of grenades along the top of the cavern, tell everypony that gives a damn to get the fuck out, and then we blow the place apart,” Rose suggested. She held up her grenade rifle and checked the drum. With a satisfied nod, she turned back to the group. “I’ve got enough to give us a running start, at least.”
The foals around Xeno started to talk amongst themselves. Xeno translated for us. “They fear you will kill them, and they donot wish to leave.”
“Why wouldn’t they? Their families are out there, the dragon holds them under threat of death!” L.A. argued. She stuck a hoof out and pointed at the offending gigantic creature that could eat a pony in one bite. “We can get them all out of here. We came prepared for this sort of thing.”
That was a lie and she knew it. We barely had enough for ourselves, let alone to fight through that barren emptiness, the feral ponies, and the rotbats, with a full group following us.
As if to illustrate my point, a buffalo walked around to our side of the dragon. His coat was nearly black, and his horns had been shaved down, leaving them blunt. Behind one horn hung a twisted feather that looked as if it had been snapped in half, and the bottom left to hang limp. He lumbered over to us, his fluffy coat swaying with every step. Though he looked gruff, he was smiling, and had a kind look in his dark eyes. “Newbies?” he asked with a grunt. “What’re your names?”
I’d never seen a buffalo at all before, much less one up close. Though I’d heard about them, meeting one felt just like when I’d met Xeno for the first time. All the little differences stood out so drastically, and I noticed things I hadn’t been able to see from above. He was massive, and while we stood roughly eye level, his bulk towered over me. I couldn’t get over wondering how his tiny legs managed to hold him up.
“Umm, Hidden Fortune?” I finally answered. Luckily, I managed not to gawk at talking to a buffalo for the first time. I hoped what I said wasn’t offensive or something, since the most I knew about them was what mom read to me, from a Stable-Tec history book about the founding of Appleloosa. I hope he didn’t catch me staring...
The buffalo nodded a few times, without saying anything. He looked over to Lost and waited patiently.
After a moment, and a look of confusion, Lost finally answered, “Lost Art, her sister.”
“Oh for,” Rose said, rolling her eyes. “I’m Rose Shimmer, the blue unicorn is their pet... thing, and the zebra’s name is Xeno.”
Wait, Rose Shimmer? What a terrible name.
“I’m not a pet,” grumbled Fine Tune, kicking his forehoof against the ground. “And, my name is Fine Tune. The only one who can call me ‘pet’ is my Queen.” He looked at Lost and smiled.
The buffalo snorted, and chuckled quietly. “Alright, well... come with me. I’ll introduce you and we can find where you’d prefer to be,” he said. He turned away and walked off. “And you can take the weapons off. You won’t need them here.”
“No,” argued Lost, “we’re not leaving our friend. I don’t care what’s going on down here, but we’re not going to take part in it.” She stomped her hoof. “We’re taking our friend, and whoever else wants to come, and finding a way out.”
The buffalo turned and sighed, looking very tired. “They all say that at first, but... well, let’s go get some food in you and have a little chat. We’re a community here, even if we’re all owned by the dragon.” He motioned to the dragon, who let out a puff of smoke from his nose. “I’m Stormheart. Like I said, I’ll introduce you to the others, then you can find a place and make your plans. Just... try not to get hurt.”
I looked at Lost and shrugged. “At least we can get to know everyone?” I asked. It would be interesting, at least. Plus I could plot my stealing of the dragon’s treasure better if I knew who my competition was. I rubbed my forehooves together.
All around us, the sound of ponies working quieted. Foals jumped from the dragon’s back and slid through a cascade of gold bits and jewelry from eras long past, sending up a shower of coins before hitting the ground. Any treasure knocked away from the pile was quickly pushed back in. Others came from around the dragon, and they all talked in quiet whispers. The groups didn’t walk toward us, and instead all made for one of the tunnels deeper into the cave system.
“Yes, there are very nice ponies, zebras, and buffalos here,” answered Xeno. Noticing the others all moving toward the far tunnel, she turned to the foal and asked her something. A short exchange in their language later, she turned back to us. “Itis time for dinner, then sleep.”
“Dinner? But it’s been night for hours,” I said.
“I’m sure we’ll get answers from the buffalo,” Lost reasoned.
Xeno ruffled the mane of the foal and stood up. She beckoned to the others to follow her, and together the group of us followed Stormheart and the others to the far tunnel. It was strange to see her so comfortable around her own kind, given how reserved she’d become near her mother. Strange but... nice.
I counted six total tunnels leading off the massive circular cave, including the one that led back to the entrance. It would have been like a star or the spokes of a motorwagon wheel, except I could see them twist just past where they branched off.
As requested, I removed Persistence and my battle saddle. Really, if explosive rounds and shots to the eye hadn’t damaged the dragon, there was no way Persistence would be able to scratch his hide. Plus, it was more polite to go to dinner unarmed if dealing with friendly Wastelanders, be they pony, zebra, buffalo, or anything else.
We followed Stormheart at a distance, wholly unsure of exactly what to expect. Never once did he turn around to make sure we were following, as if it was expected that we would. Maybe he just didn’t care if we went hungry? When the foals jumped up and ran for the food though, we followed. Xeno led the way, a small smile on her lips.
“Do you know any of these foals?” I asked, pulling my jacket tight out of habit.
“Yes, some. Many are young, and were born after I left with my brothers,” she answered. She carried the filly whose mane she’d been petting on her back, as if they were old friends and it was the most natural thing in the Wasteland to do.
“You know why they’re here, right?” asked Lost.
“Sadaka,” Xeno answered. “Letus focus on food, and learning. Wewill find a way to return the foals to my tribe after. They wouldnot make the journey while hungry.”
“You act like we have all the time in the world to do this,” snapped Rose. “We’re on a time limit, and getting captured by a dragon? Really fucking up my timetable.”
“It’ll take longer if we go without a plan, and while everyone’s hungry,” I countered. “Shouldn’t we at least get some information on what we’re up against?”
“Look, I’m not the one who’ll be punished if we’re late,” Rose said, frowning. “I’m trying to help you, here.”
“Hidden’s right,” L.A. interrupted, stepping between us to stop the argument. “We’ve been bitten in the haunches far too many times by rushing ahead with no idea what we’re up against. I don’t think we can scrape out a victory this time though; we’ve never been up against a dragon. Let’s just go see what’s going on with the others here, and come up with a plan on how to get out, okay?”
We walked the rest of the distance in silence. The foals trotted on ahead, looking far better than when we’d first arrived. We all walked into one of the larger of the tunnels, which curved off to the left and down deeper. Even here, the unnatural soft lighting kept everything glowing weakly. Just out of sight of the main cavern was a large building that wasn’t completely smashed up against the wall.
Some of the captives, two ponies, a zebra, and the other changeling we’d seen earlier all ran back and forth in and out of the building. They each carried stacks of plates, bowls, cups, and a myriad of other kitchenware. Small servings were piled on the larger plates on their backs, making it obvious that they were the cooks.
Much like the atrium in the Stables, several smaller tables were set up right in front of the not-smooshed building. Around all the tables was a makeshift fence, obviously put together out of scraps of wood and metal salvaged from the dragon’s hoard. For a creature so obsessed with his possessions, didn’t he care that his captives had co-opted his things?
Stormheart looked up at us, his eyes half-closed and a tired expression on his face. He waved a hoof at us, beckoning us over to the table he stood next to. Sitting at the table were two other buffalo, one so old that his coat had patches of grey spotting the light brown, leaving him looking almost like a well-tended brahmin. Next to him was a female, her coat similar to the buck’s, with a white streak going from between her eyes all the way down her back. She wore glasses like my sister, but they were broken, bent, and hung from her horns.
As a group, we walked over. The zebra foals disappeared into the group, mingling with the others around the tables and blending in easily.
“I see you removed your weapons,” he said, as we arrived at the table. “Thank you.” Turning to the two sitting at the table, he raised a hoof. “This is Grandhooves, and his wife Fairhorns. They’ve been here the longest, and it’s tradition to introduce them first. Until I took over, Grandhooves was in charge.”
The older buffalo buck just blinked.
With a sigh, Stormhooves repeated himself. “I said, this is Grandhooves, and his wife Fairhorns!” he shouted, holding a hoof up to the side of his mouth.
The... um, mare? I didn’t know the proper term for a female buffalo... She frowned and smacked the buck in the side.
He jumped, jostling his coat around and shaking his head. “Oh, right... Hi,” he said, staring off in the wrong direction.
“You might notice why he’s passed the torch to me,” whispered Stormheart.
“Nice to meet you,” said Fairhorns. She smiled. “How long until dinner, Stormy?”
“Right now,” he answered. “I just wanted to get introductions out of the way.” He turned back to my group. “We’ll find a table for you, and then answer any questions you have about our community.”
“Nice to meet you,” I yelled, hoping they’d hear me.
“Eh?” groaned the buck. He looked off to the side, near me, but not quite.
Xeno said something in her language and bowed her head. Rose just rolled her eyes.
Fine Tune chirped a greeting, then turned to Lost. “Umm, my Queen? Can I go meet the other changeling, please?” he asked. Dropping to his haunches, he put his forehooves up, pressed them together, and begged.
“Yes, go. Just stay nearby, okay?” Lost said, allowing him to go. By the time she’d finished saying ‘go’ the changeling was gone, transforming with a flash of green fire in midair. “Alright, so. Tell us what’s going on please?”
“Of course, come with me,” answered the buffalo. He tapped a hoof on the table where Grandhooves and Fairhorns sat, then walked off. Leading us through the tables of ponies and zebras, he eventually stopped before an empty one at the far side of the fenced-in area, a short distance from all the others.
Several seats surrounded the table, with one massive bench taking up the majority of the far side. Aside from that, the table was nondescript, but in good condition for its age. Initials were carved into the top, with so many overlapping that I couldn’t pick out which initials could be from one name and not another. Stormheart sat down on the bench and motioned for us to sit.
Lost sat on one chair, and I took a seat next to her. With a sigh, I leaned against her. She patted me on the head with a hoof and leaned back. Xeno sat next to me, and Rose took a seat opposite Stormheart.
“So, ask whatever you wish. I’ll answer the best I can,” said the buck.
Lost raised a hoof and we all looked at her. For a long moment, she scrunched her face up and looked back and forth from the table to the buffalo. “Okay so,” she started, but stopped. “Wait, I can word this better.” For a moment she chewed on her lips, before blurting out, “Where does the food come from?”
The buffalo just laughed. He laughed deep and warmly, chuckling for a moment before wiping a tear from his eye. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that,” he admitted. After another little laugh, he calmed down. “Our food comes from many places. The dragon has brought in homes, boxes, stockpiles, and all manner of things, for longer than any of us have been alive. When I first arrived, there were many others, and food was always found. There are times of feast, and times of famine, but the dragon provides.”
“So you dig through the houses he smashed into the walls until you find enough to survive on,” I summarized. I had lots of experience doing just that, what with being a treasure hunter and all.
“That’s one way of putting it,” he answered.
“How long have you been here?” asked Rose Shimmer. The name still made me want to snicker.
“As long as I can remember,” he answered. “I was brought while traveling with my herd several years ago, though I’ve lost track of how long ago that was. It’s difficult to count days in here, and leaving is expressedly forbidden.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Two reasons, Miss Fortune,” answered the buffalo.
Without noticing, he continued to explain, “The first is that the dragon does not like to lose his possessions. So long as nothing leaves the cave, he’s quite amicable and allows us to do as we want. We’ve built a community from those he brings in, and since the beginning, have accepted all who arrive. Whether they are buffalo, pony, zebra, changeling, we don’t care. The only ones who cause trouble are the cannibals, and those are either reformed, or dealt with.”
As Stormheart explained, a red unicorn mare with polished hooves trotted over. In the green glow of her telekinetic aura, she carried several plates and set them down at the table before us. “Here ya go, sugar,” she said in a sweet twangy voice. Leaning in, she planted a kiss on the buffalo, then trotted off. “Tell me when you finish orientation.”
“Of course,” said the buffalo. Turning back, he cleared his throat.
Lost snapped back to attention, her eyes having wandered to watch the curly aquamarine tail of the mare as it swayed past her haunches. “Huh? Oh. Food, right,” she muttered. Pushing it away, she shook her head. “I’m actually not hungry, but thank you.”
The plates the mare left were covered in bare bones rations of ancient food. Beans covered one edge of the plate, and slivers of canned watermelon covered the other half, with something I didn’t recognize separating the two. Never one to pass up a meal, I dove in muzzle first and started eating. It wasn’t a ladylike way to eat, but with both forehooves unusable thanks to being made of, or covered by, steel, I had to make do. Honestly, it didn’t taste bad.
“You should eat,” suggested the buffalo. Lifting his hoof, I noticed it had a split going down the middle. Grabbing a fork between the two halves of his hoof, he began to eat.
“So, what’s this about cannibals?” asked Rose as she twirled her own fork around her plate. She stabbed a piece of the watermelon, and slid it back and forth without ever actually eating anything.
“In the valley below are ponies left for too long in the abyss,” said Stormheart between bites. “Every so often, the dragon will bring one, snatched up during a fight for territory or food. The ponies below are beyond help, and often eat the first thing they can wrap their teeth around.”
“That explains what those ponies were down there,” L.A. said, a hoof covering her mouth. She gulped, winced, and pushed her food further away. With her ears drooping, she continued, “I mean, I’m fine with meat... but eating another pony is where I draw the line.”
“A sad state, yes, but often unavoidable,” added the buffalo.
“What happens to them?” asked Xeno, not bothering to touch her own plate.
“Usually the dragon burns them to a crisp,” he answered, before taking another bite. He looked to the floor and muttered something in a language I couldn’t understand. “Rarely, we teach them our ways and they accept real food. Most don’t last long. Once a pony has the taste of another’s flesh, it’s difficult to return them to normal. As we must ration what we have, they often lapse in times of famine. The dragon doesn’t like his prized possessions to be killed, and will gladly remove one lost pony to save the rest of the herd.”
“That’s morbid, does he eat them then or...” I asked, trailing off to let the buffalo answer for me. I lifted the plate with my hooves, and licked it clean.
“No,” he said, setting his fork down. “Usually there’s nothing left when he’s finished. The dragon is quite protective of us.”
“Is that the second reason?” asked Xeno. She turned and looked at the foals at one of the other tables far behind us.
“Correct,” said the buffalo. He waved a hoof in the air. “The dragon has collected us for whatever reason he may, whether as a messenger of the stars, as your kind says, or simply for greed. We don’t know, and many don’t question. Often times, stubborn newcomers will attempt to escape, and the outcome is never pretty. He treats us well, we are always fed, even if the portions are meager.” Rolling his eyes, he waved his hoof again. “Miss Bloom!” he shouted.
The red mare trotted over again. She sidled up next to the buffalo. “Whatcha need, sugar?” she asked in a sultry voice. She sat down next to him, bumping him with her haunches as she did. I caught a glimpse of her cutie mark, a set of blue and green explosions.
“Is it so bad, down here with the dragon?” he asked, while wrapping a hoof around her side.
“Nah, once ya get used to it,” she answered. “Get ta meet interestin’ ponies.” She looked at Lost and licked her lips. “Protection from the elements, I got a roof over mah head all the time. Never gotta worry about raiders, unless ‘e picks up onna them cannibals. Don’t happen too often though.”
“He abducts foals!” Lost yelled, slamming her hooves on the table. “How can you act like that’s okay? None of you should be here. Ponies don’t deserve to be locked in a cage, even if it is a gigantic cavern they have free reign of! You’re just as bad as the ponies in Skirt, living in a fucking gilded cage.”
“Lost, he’s a dragon, there’s not much we can do,” I said, pulling her back down.
She jerked her leg free and glared at me. “We came here to get our friend back, not to be stuck in captivity again. We did that already, and we’re not doing it again. Either we fight our way out, or we reason our way out.” She turned to the others. “Look! We’re going to find a way out of here. If any of you want to come with, just tell me. We’ll find a way.”
A few of the others looked up, and a few just laughed. Only Fine Tune seemed interested, at the far end of the eating plaza. He waved repeatedly, a big smile on his face.
“They don’t want to leave,” said Stormheart.
“Can’tcha see it’s safer here anyway?” asked Miss Bloom. She gave the buffalo a peck on the cheek. “Anythin’ else ya need me for, sugar?”
“No, thank you. Please make sure Grandhooves gets a second helping, though,” he said. Patting the red mare on her rump, he sent her off.
“Sure thin’,” she called back.
Lost slumped back into her seat and pressed her forehead against me. Her horn poked me in the cheek, but I ignored it. Gently, I grabbed her and squeezed.
“We’ll find a way,” I whispered.
“Dumbasses,” muttered Rose. She pushed the plate away and hurled the fork into the depths of the tunnel.
Lost stared at my jacket with the most intense look I’d ever seen. In the pale blue haze of her magic, she held a needle and thread, borrowed from one of the ponies in the tunnel. The needle lazily floated through the air, twisting somewhat, before finally stabbing into the leather of the jacket. Lost scowled and moved her horn closer to the jacket again. As long as we’d been in the Wasteland, Lost had always been the one to keep our possessions in the best condition she could. Another perk of her cheater magic, but with what happened in the mountains... She dragged the needle back out and stabbed it toward the jacket again, but missed. Lost threw her head back and let out a frustrated groan, her magic disappearing and dropping the needle through the still-open hole.
“Still not working right?” I asked, still staring at the wonderfully tempting gold hoard. Sticking my hooves out, I grabbed my jacket back and held it close. It wasn’t made to be worn as armor, and if it wasn’t repaired soon, I feared I might lose it. It’d be a shame, to have something last for two centuries or more in a box, and be shown so much love, to be patched up like it was, only to lose it because I was reckless.
“It’s a simple spell I’ve known almost my whole life and I just... Levitation works, but it doesn’t work the way I want it to. If I don’t have the same minute dexterity I did before, what happens when I need to aim a gun straight?” she lamented, still groaning. With a forehoof, she tapped at her horn. “Work properly, dammit.”
“Once we get back, we’ll see about getting more of that potion or whatever it was that Xeno made to fix your horn,” I said. With a bit of fancy hoof-work, I slid the jacket up and over my barding and pulled it on tight. Once everything was back where it belonged, I turned back to the gold. It would be so easy to steal...
“Roho upya,” Xeno explained. Catching the blank looks from both Lost and me, she coughed. “Iam sorry, speaking with the foals has gotten me to speak in my tongue again. It is a potion of spirit renewal. Itis designed to help heal the soul, but it works to fix magic, too.” She smiled. “A lucky side effect.”
“How do you make it?” Lost asked. “Your father made something for me, and it helped, but...” She tapped at her horn again. “As you can see, not perfect.”
Xeno chuckled. “Heis a stallion of drink that dulls the mind and warms the soul. Crafting that which heals and strengthens is not his specialty.” She sighed happily. “A good fighter, and a sturdy traveler, heis. Skilled in crafting potions and elixirs, heis not.”
“Trust me, I know. It was chunky,” said my sister. She gagged a little, then shot my jacket a glare. “I’d appreciate it, if you could make me something that actually works when we get back.”
Given the way things looked at the moment, she might be able to get her magic back just by waiting it out. The dragon hadn’t woken up after we finished the introduction with Stormheart. The buck left us to wander once we finished, warning us that if we tried to leave, it wouldn’t go well. Lost pressed him for details, but he only shook his head. In the end, we ended up sitting against the walls of the massive cavern behind the dragon and off to the edge of one of the cave tunnels.
Fine Tune still hadn’t come back, and when we tried to get him to return with us, he only chirped, transformed, and flew off. The other changeling went with him. In their natural form, I found it hard to tell the two apart, aside from the fact that the frill-thing the other changeling had for a mane was longer and in nicer-looking shape than Fine Tune’s was. Maybe that was how one told the difference between a male and a female changeling? Or maybe he’d just gotten his cut down during his time in U Cig.
“So, what now?” I asked after a short silence. Sitting around without moving had me agitated, and I couldn’t place why. “I’d offer to shoot my way out, but even I know better than to shoot a dragon again.”
“Given that my grenades didn’t even scratch him, I’m not quite sure either,” answered Rose. She sat next to Xeno, across from me, and spent her time cleaning the barrel of her gun. Even while her hooves polished it with the fabric of her cloak, she never took her eyes from the dragon.
“Mmm, I shot him in the fucking eye, and the mouth, and that didn’t slow him down even a bit,” I added. “It still boggles my mind about that. I get it, according to myths and legends, dragons are supposed to be tough, but we put a lot of lead and explosions into him. He doesn’t even have a scratch.” He did have lots of gold, gold that I wanted to put into my saddlebags. I could see rings in the pile, ones that would look perfect over my metal hooves.
“It’s probably the armor,” Lost said. She pointed at the gold plating on his scales.
The gold would make nice armor. Would I look better with golden hooves instead of polished steel ones?
“Doubtful,” argued Rose. She set her rifle down and pulled her cloak over it. “The zebras used dragons in the War, they had bargains with them and sent them after us. They were their heavy hitters, since it’s not easy to take down a dragon. In all my time working for the Ministry of Peace and since the world ended, I’ve never ever seen a dragon in armor. I don’t think any dragon would ever use his own hoard of gold as armor.”
“Gold would be a bad armor anyway,” said Xeno. “Itis soft, and in a thin layer can be bent by a pony of decent strength. Were the armor the dragon wears made of gold, it wouldnot have survived Rosepony’s assault.”
“Then what in the Goddesses’ names is it?” I asked nopony in particular. Inside, I felt something deflate. Maybe I could find some paint that hadn’t dried up, and paint the hooves white so they’d match me, if gold was out of the question. I looked down at them and dug at the red paint inside the etchings.
Before an answer could come, a changeling’s chirp cut through the air. Fine Tune fluttered down through the cavern, with the other changeling hot on his tail. Or maybe it was the other way around? From the angle they came in from, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two when they weren’t in the form of a pony or zebra. The two bugponies landed in front of us. Green fire filled the room, as the two transformed at the same time. When the flames fell, I saw Fine Tune in his standard blue unicorn form. He’d actually been the one I thought was him, which I counted as a small victory.
The other changeling finished transforming, and as the fires died away, a honey-color coated mare remained. She towered above us, nearly as tall as Rebar. The pony was beautiful and had a luxurious mane with gentle curls through it, colored as white as Lost or my coat when they were clean. The mare smiled and looked at Fine Tune. “Are these the ones?” she asked, her voice sounding almost like Crème Brûlée’s, with that same silken feel to it.
“Yes!” he answered enthusiastically. With a hoof out, he pointed to each of us in turn. “That’s Rose Shimmer, she’s new. Xeno is the zebra, we work together to collect things for her to make into potions and elixirs and stuff, it’s a lot of fun. The mare with the steel hooves is Miss Hidden.” Without introducing Lost, he darted to her side and nuzzled her cheek. “This is my Queen, Lost Art.” He sounded so proud.
The mare raised an eyebrow and snorted. “She doesn’t smell like a changeling,” she muttered. She squinted, her blue eyes boring into my sisters. Unlike Fine Tune’s bad habit of leaving his eyes fogged over, hers didn’t seem hollow and colorless, but had pupils as black as the night outside. “Do you not have a real queen?”
“She holds the crown,” answered Fine Tune. He sulked next to Lost, fidgeting his hooves over one another. “My hive’s Queen was killed, in our captivity, and umm. Well, a pony took over. Any of us drones who attempted to become a new Queen to save the hive, umm. Most of my kind were killed for supersedure.”
“Oh...” said the mare with a gasp. She reached out and grabbed Fine Tune with a hoof. Pulling him close, she hugged him so tight his eyes seemed to bug out. “Well, I’m sure we can start our own little hive here,” she cooed. “We haven’t had a new changeling in ages, and together...” Hugging Fine Tune tight again, she looked up and smiled. “We could have all the love we ever wanted, without the worry of another killing the queen.”
“Wait, does that mean you’re a mare or a stallion?” I asked. Changeling culture and anatomy and all that nonsense had me quite confused.
Setting Fine Tune down, the mare changeling looked at me. “Oh honey, it doesn’t matter,” she whispered.
That just confused me more.
“I don’t even want to know!” I shouted, throwing my hooves up.
The others all snickered, laughing quietly.
“Here, I’ll give you a tour to take your mind off it,” she said, offering a hoof to help Lost up. “You know,” she said, pulling Lost up. “I can sense the love between you and, ah, Miss Hidden. Are you two a couple?”
Lost turned bright red, and not just in a little stripe across her muzzle. Her entire coat flushed. She looked at me, her eyes wide, then back at the changeling. She stammered and coughed, before finally shouting, “We’re sisters!” She turned away, but I could hear her muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘thought about it.’
All I could do was stare, my jaw hanging loose below.
“They would make a nice couple,” said Rose. When the five of us turned to stare at her, the changelings included, she leaned back. “What? What! It’s not like they’re going to have crazy inbred foals. Love is love. It’s not like I’ve never done anything iffy like that. It’s not sex, it’s masturbation.” She stood up and trotted off.
“Ponies are very strange,” Xeno said. She stood as well and walked toward the honey colored mare. “Iwould love a proper tour. What did you say your name was?”
“We don’t have names normally,” she said with a sly look to Fine Tune. “The others here simply call me The Convert.” With a shrug, she turned to walk off. “This form though, you can call Honey Drip. The tour starts here. This is the dragon.”
“Isn’t she wonderful?” Fine Tune asked in a whisper.
We followed, disregarding the dragon that slept in the center of the room on his gold hoard. The Convert pointed at the tunnel we’d been in to eat at. “That’s the main tunnel, where most things are taken care of by us little people. Food is served there, obviously, at the café, and sleeping arrangements have been set up beyond that. We don’t segregate, but the others tend to group together.” She laughed. “I’ve been integral to setting up a few of them.” She winked. “Our community is very tightly knit, with, mmm... plenty of love to go around.”
“I take it you drain the ones with the most?” I asked callously.
Fine Tune stared, his jaw dropping much like my own had just moments ago. Shaking his head furiously, he begged, “Please, don’t make her mad.”
The Convert laughed. “When I need to, but I follow the same rules they do. Feast and famine. Rations,” she explained. Walking off, she turned to the next tunnel in the set. “This tunnel and the one over there,” she said, pointing to the one nearest the entrance, “connect in a short loop. If you’re looking for somewhere to ‘get away’ and have private time, that’s where I recommend. Be careful though, it can get quite messy back there.” With a girlish giggle, she trotted off.
We slowly walked past the dragon, who opened one eye to look at us. As we passed the line of his rings, and the tunnel that lead back up to the entrance, he snorted. A bout of smoke billowed from his nostrils, and he closed his eye.
I couldn’t help but jump away, startled by the sudden movement. The others had similar reactions, with Xeno eyeing him and Fine Tune transforming. As the pegasus mare, she flittered away and only returned once the smoke had cleared. Rose grumbled, but said nothing. The Convert didn’t so much as flinch. Apparently, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.
“He tends to know when one of us wants to leave,” she explained once we passed him. “None of us know how he does it, but when you have a massive dragon protecting you and bringing you food, while giving you a roof over your head, it doesn’t do to question him.”
“I said it once, I’ll say it again. You’re still a captive and still living in a gilded cage. Even if you have freedom to do whatever you want, he’s holding you hostage,” Lost said, rage barely contained in her voice.
“Well, if I weren’t here I’d be with my queen,” answered the mare. “Sadly, things aren’t meant to be.” She trotted off to the next tunnel from the main hub. “This will take you down into the depths, there’s much much much more junk down there, and we often leave it abandoned. Even the dragon doesn’t travel this path often, as the cave end is blocked off with his earlier treasures.”
“Itis a dead end?” Xeno asked.
“You have a queen?” asked Fine Tune. She transformed back into a unicorn stallion after asking.
“Yes, to both,” she answered. Her eyes glowed a moment and she leaned down to nuzzle Fine Tune. “Don’t you worry about any other queens, I’ll be the only one you need.” Grabbing onto him, she stood up on her hind legs and squeezed. “We’ll start our own hive in the caves, matching ponies together and siphoning off their love a little at a time. It’ll be wonderful!” She set him down, then pushed Lost and me together. “These two can help to feed us, as will Stormheart and Fire Bloom, and the old couple. All else fails, the dragon has such love for his treasure we’ll never starve.” She let out a happy little sigh and dropped to all four of her hooves. “The next hall is another storage hall,” she said, trotting off.
“Little single-minded, isn’t she?” Lost asked, a bit of an edge in her voice. She glared at the back of The Convert’s head. “I don’t like her,” she whispered.
The mare’s tail snapped behind her, and she walked with a bounce in her step. She looked back, over her shoulder, and smiled. “Come on, the tour’s almost over.”
“I’d rather learn more about the dragon and the, umm, ‘town’ here, than the cavern layout,” Lost said, stopping in her place.
“Given how often we travel to new places without knowing anything about them, I find that hard to believe, Lostpony,” Xeno said with a chuckle. “I agree. Thereare foals to return to the tribe, I would like to return them alive, so that none may feel the pain my mother and father had to.”
“We’re trying to learn from our mistakes,” countered Lost. “And we’ll save everyone, if we can. I promise.” Waving her hoof for us to follow, she walked over to the changeling. “So, what happened to others who tried to escape?”
“Well, let’s see,” she muttered, sitting down and tapping her chin with a forehoof. “The pegasus that snuck down from the clouds tried to fly away. He got burnt to a crisp. A family of buffalo decided they needed to roam to ‘ancestral lands.’” She rolled her eyes. “They got stomped, I think. Two of them did. The third gave up. Stormheart makes for a wonderful buck to introduce newbies though, doesn’t he?” She looked back at the tunnel where the others were still gathered.
“Were there other changelings?” asked Fine Tune. He walked around her, practically bouncing. “Any that mentioned a place called U Cig?”
“Sorry, babe, I’m the only one in ages,” she answered with a wink. “You’ll make a good little drone though.” She ruffled his mane even as he bristled at her, and turned back to us. “Where was I? So Stormheart’s family got smashed. Usually the dragon just puts the pony, zebra, whatever, back with the rest of us until they give up. He’s an extremely light sleeper, so walking out isn’t the easiest. Just stay with us, you two pair up and we’ll have ourselves a love-feast.”
“I’ve been fed on once already, and I’ll never let it happen again,” I spat. Even though it made Fine Tune’s ears droop and his bouncing walk turned sluggish, I stood by it. I never wanted to feel that again. I’d rather give up my entire body to Praline than let that happen.
“So what weaknesses does the dragon have?” Lost asked.
“None,” came the quick answer. The Convert looked up at the dragon from the corner of her eye, then turned away. “We’re almost done with the tour.” She glared at Lost a moment, waved her hoof, and trotted toward the tunnel that lead deeper into the mountains.
“We’ll find something, blow it all to shit, then leave,” muttered Rose.
“Perhaps the direct approach isn’t the best one,” offered Xeno. “We need to escape with the others, rather than through violence. We could hurt the foals...”
As we rounded the gentle curve of the tunnel down toward the deeper parts of the cavern, The Convert stopped. She looked back at the dragon and then toward us. In a hissing whisper, she demanded, “Are you trying to get us all killed?” Throwing her hooves into the air she bared her teeth to Lost. “I get it. You want out. We all do, but most of us are smart enough not to ask how to get out right in front of him. What’s wrong with you?”
“Is that why everyone here acts all happy go lucky at the fact that they’re hostages?” asked Lost.
“Yes... and no,” answered the changeling. “It’s not a bad gig, but most of us have families outside that we’d really like to get back to.” Her shoulders slumped and she hung her head. “It’s easy to get complacent. He brings us food, he keeps us safe, but...” Sighing, she pushed the white mane from her face. “I miss the feel of the wind in my mane, and I’m sick of the same love. It’s stale, tasteless.”
“That explains why you pushed Lost and me together,” I muttered, taking a step away. The last thing I needed was to have Rose make another joke at my expense. By the look on her face, she already had something in the works. I shot her a glare to keep her from saying anything.
“Partially,” she admitted. “The serious answer? He has no weaknesses. We’ve tried. There’s stories whispered when he’s gone about those who’ve tried. It never ends well.”
Lost raised a hoof.
“And before you go asking why we don’t just leave when he goes out,” she continued, not letting my sister get a word in. “Tried that too. He’s a lot smarter than you might give him credit for. Yeah, he’s greedy and entitled, but he knows his hoard like the back of his claws and if any of us get out, he knows where to get us back.” She shuddered. “It’s uncanny, that he can do it.”
“There has to be a way,” I said. “There always is.” I looked at my hooves. Often I’d lose something in that process, but if we just gave up...
“I’m telling you, we collapse the ceiling and we can get out easy,” said Rose smugly.
Xeno shook her head. “Thereare foals that could be hurt,” she argued.
Rose snarled. “If we do it right we won’t have to-”
“Shut up,” hissed The Convert.
She pointed down the tunnel to the main cavern, where we could hear sounds of the dragon slowly waking up. As a group, we trotted around the curve of the tunnel so we could see.
The dragon’s wings lifted from his back and flapped. He pushed himself from the ground and stretched, his claws extended and twitching a few times. As he yawned, smoke billowed from his mouth, smelling horrid even from our distance. It wafted out through the hole in the top of the cavern that lead to the entrance. Once awake, he scratched at his underside several times, then turned to look at us. Baring his fangs, he smiled.
“Where are you, my little ponies?” he rumbled. “Are you ready for our chat?”
Green fire filled the cavern. The dragon blew a controlled flame through his claws, melting one of his many rings. With a careful eye and subtle movements, he twisted it until the entire head of the ring was barely held together in its shape. With his free claw, he dug through the gems underneath him. After a moment of searching, he pulled free a massive ruby and pushed it into the ring. A snort later, he flapped one wing at it, cooling the heated metal and sealing the ruby in its new setting. He slid the ring down over his claw and looked at it. With a little smile, he rumbled, “Perfect.”
As we walked back from the tunnel to the main room, I found myself drawn back to the hoard. The moment I caught sight of it, I couldn’t focus on anything else. The forging of his ring was fascinating, and confirmed how he managed to find massive jewelry in his size, but it paled in comparison to what I wanted. I wanted to take it, every last bit and every last gem. I knew it was greedy, and stupid, and probably deadly, but deep in my soul, I felt a need I couldn’t ignore.
Lost danced on her hooves slightly as we approached. She looked agitated and antsy, and I knew she wanted to have her questions answered. She wanted to goad the dragon into revealing weaknesses so we could leave. She was a thinky pony, after all. If anypony could get tidbits of information we could use, it was her. Unfortunately, we had to wait until the dragon finished his vanity project.
“What will you ask, Lostpony?” asked Xeno. With a worried look in her eye, she glanced to the other tunnel where the foals were.
“I’m going to ask why,” Lost answered.
“He already told us,” I said absently. “I asked already... He said ‘why not’ and blew smoke in my face.” Just thinking about it brought back the acrid stench in the back of my throat. “I don’t think he knows why, he just does it.”
“Good luck,” said The Convert as we stopped before the dragon. She grabbed Fine Tune and hugged him tight. “I’ve been through this scene already. But you, my little drone, come see me, when you’re done...” Winking again, she set him down and trotted away.
Fine Tune just blushed, his eyes going crossed. He stammered something and slumped onto his haunches.
The cavern lit up with green fire again, and the dragon’s wing flapped furiously. He slid the last of his rings on and looked down at us. The look in his eyes reminded me of several of the ponies, zebras, and others that we’d met. They had the same gloating ‘I’m in charge’ look that Zorana and Star Paladin Jazz had both worn. “Now then, do my new little ponies have any petty little questions?” he asked as he looked over the group of us. “Any accusations you wish to spit at me?”
“Why are you doing this?” Lost asked calmly.
“Why not?” he asked back, smirking.
“Told you,” I muttered, shuffling a hoof. I took a single step forward. Just a little one. I just needed to get a little closer to the hoard. A crown sat, half-buried, nearby. It looked like it would fit me perfectly.
“I want a real answer. You have to have some motivation behind snatching up all this,” Lost countered. She raised a hoof and waved to the far side of the cavern, toward the cave where the others lived. “I could understand the gold, every story and myth tells of dragons and their hoards of riches. But why take buildings, why take food, why take living creatures?”
The dragon considered her a moment, before lifting his ringed claws. Several times he dragged them against the bottom of his muzzle, as he thought. A few coins clinked down, rustled free by the scratching of his claws. The sound of them hitting the massive pile echoed off the walls of the cavern. “I have lived for two centuries, slept for decades, and seen what your kinds do. Both pony and zebra,” he said, pointing a free claw back and forth between Lost and Xeno. “I was given anything I asked when I was a hatchling. I have wanted for nothing. As I grew, I simply took.”
Raising both his claws up, he looked to the ceiling of the cavern. His wings spread out behind him, and he lifted from his haunches to standing. “There is nothing that can stop me. So why would I stop myself?” he asked. “It’s all mine anyway. From mountain to mountain, from sea to sea. If I want it. I take it.” He lowered himself back down, pinned his wings to his side, and looked Lost in the eye. “Why shouldn’t I take whatever I want?”
As the dragon moved closer to Lost, I moved closer to his treasure. He wasn’t paying attention to me. While he was distracted, I’d just slip in and take one thing. One little bit of treasure to prove I was the best damned treasure hunter around.
“Because these are ponies, these are zebras, buffalo, changelings. You’ve taken foals from their homes,” spat Lost. “You know, the stories I heard growing up made me think dragons were supposed to be noble, and have some sort of code of honor. They weren’t petty thieves.”
The dragon laughed. “Petty?” he rumbled. “Surely you’re kidding. Thievery is for those who must take the belongings of others. None have ever kept my desires for me, from the day I hatched until tonight. Even you, after escaping, managed to become a part of my little town.” The dragon shrugged and lowered himself onto his pile of treasure. “You run so willingly to my side, at what point did I need to steal you?”
I looked down at the red paint covering the etchings in my steel hooves, and the lines that ran down my sides past my coat and barding. “You didn’t,” I said, a harsh realization hitting me. “We were offered to you.”
“Very good,” he said. “You were mine the moment I laid eyes on you. Not because I thought it best to simply snatch you where you stood. You were given to me; a bribe, a present.”
“Sadaka is offered because of you, not the other way around, dragon,” said Xeno. She said something in her native tongue, and even if I couldn’t understand, it sounded bad. “Ihave spoken to the foals. They tell me the stories of times I missed. The stars’ messenger came, and only then were they given to you. Had you not stolen from my tribe, youwould be offered no gifts or bribes.”
“Incorrect,” whispered the dragon. He once again lifted his claws, this time to inspect his rings. With a frown, he blew a small stream of fire directly across his claws. The gold simmered and liquified. Taking a deep breath, he blew on them again to cool them back down. When the gold hardened again, he smiled. “Perfect again,” he said more to himself than us. Lazily he looked down. “I told you, from the very moment I hatched, I was given what I wanted by the zebras. They wished me a weapon, like my brethren. Were I older, I’d have gladly fought by their sides and taken the spoils of war.” He laughed. “Such a shame your little world ended. So many of my prized possessions disappeared, destroyed or taken to hiding.”
“Egotistical, isn’t he?” I whispered to the others. It reminded me of several others we’d dealt with. Others I still needed to kill so they couldn’t harm others. But ponies like Jazz or Amble I could handle myself. How was I supposed to kill a dragon, or convince him to give up his quest for ownership. Please Luna, Celestia... Let Lost have a thinky-pony plan.
“So, you were their secret weapon?” asked Rose. She sat on her haunches and looked the dragon up and down. “I’m not impressed. They were right to go with balefire.”
“Secret weapon?” asked Xeno. She wore a confused look on her face, either at the revelation the dragon was a weapon, or that he accused her kind of making him. “My kind didnot support the Caesar, wewere from the pony lands.” She looked up at the dragon. “Their stripes. What color?”
For a moment the dragon mused to himself. “I’ve lived for two centuries, I do not busy myself with the details of the little kind. They looked more akin to you, than the foals,” he answered. “Who they were didn’t ever matter, what they did mattered to me. They gave me what I wanted.” Without warning, he laid down into the hoard and wriggled back and forth, a happy smile crossing his muzzle. From the force of him landing on the pile, a shower of gold and gems rose into the air, flowing like a wave. The sound of metal hitting metal echoed through the cavern. Pieces scattered around us, so close I could almost snatch one. “I’ve humored your petty concerns enough. Go.” He reached out with one claw and swiped the scattered treasure back, the razor sharp claws coming so close we had to jump back to avoid being sliced open.
Rose snickered. “So, you’ve got everything you could ever want, but don’t want to waste your time with us ‘little ponies,’ eh?” she asked. A wicked little grin cross her lips. “Why take us here if you don’t even want us?”
“Hah, don’t think that hasn’t been tried before,” growled the dragon. “Mind games don’t work. I care none for what you do, only that you’re mine. That’s all that ever matters to me.” He pointed idly toward the tunnel where we ate. “Go and spend time with the others, and don’t leave.”
“The big bad alchemy dragon of the zebras, all grown up and still alone,” said the clone mare. “You take things to fill that hole inside you.”
“I have all I could ever want,” he shot back. His claws grabbed the treasures of his hoard and he lifted them up, only to let the bits, jewelry, and gems fall back to the pile.
I could feel myself salivating. I fought against walking forward. I only needed one piece. He had more than he could ever need, he had homes and servants and everything else. What was one little gem, one ruby, sapphire, or emerald. I saw a diamond drop to the pile and roll toward me. Fighting it, I bit my lip hard enough I could feel blood trickling down my coat.
“Yet, you always seem to want more,” whispered Rose in a seductive voice. She looked at the four of us and nodded a few times in the direction of the dragon. “Go with me on this,” she whispered to us.
Fine Tune perked up and blinked several times. “A mate!” he shouted. Realizing what he’d said, he covered his muzzle in his hooves and turned red again. “Sorry,” he squeaked. Poor thing must have been lost in thought over The Convert.
I couldn’t blame him, finding a pony worth liking in the Wasteland was hard enough. I’d only just been coming to terms with the fact that maybe, just maybe, I wanted something like that too. Before any thoughts of stallions or anything else could pop into my head, I caught sight of the diamond again. Oh, how I wanted her more than any pony in the Wasteland.
The dragon leaned back, squinting and looking at the stallion. “Hmm,” he rumbled, before rolling over onto his back in the pile of gold. A great cascade of gems and bits flew into the air, crashing down to the side of the pile and covering the floor. The noise drowned out everything, even my own thoughts, as the bits of metal clinged and clanged against one another. “A mate,” he said, his eyes closed and claws in the air.
Rose motioned for us to follow and took a few quiet steps back.
I reluctantly followed, tearing myself away from a ring just a few inches from my hooves. It wouldn’t have fit around the steel hooves anyway...
Once we’d walked away, she whispered, “Okay, so I know exactly who this dragon is now. You were right, the gold on him isn’t armor. It’s part of him.”
“Just how do you figure?” I asked.
“Because I spent nearly a decade smuggling drugs across the border to sell here,” she snapped. “We’d have gone through Stalliongrad bu- It’s not important!” She took a deep breath. “Crash course in the War. The zebras were a lot more advanced than we gave them credit for, and those potions and elixirs her tribe can make...” Rose pointed at Xeno. “Those aren’t the biggest or the best of what zebras during the war were capable of.”
“A mate,” rumbled the dragon thoughtfully. “Another dragon...”
“Nice distraction at least,” I said.
“Shut up. He’s the stuff of legends, and not the kind that involve a nice pegasus talking a dragon down for being mean to her friends,” she said. “How I wish we had Fluttershy here now...” She shook her head and looked back to the dragon. “Grenades are useless, guns are useless. Collapsing the roof on him would only make him angry.”
The dragon laughed. “I could get her hoard too, make the pile even bigger...”
“Alright, context, please,” Lost said. “You were all for dropping the ceiling before, what changed?”
“Right,” Rose said with a nod. “Near as I got it from listening to our smuggler friends talking, the way zebra alchemy works is that the stronger the ingredient, the more powerful the spell.” She looked at Xeno. “Sound about right?”
The zebra mulled it over for a moment, a hoof going to her chin. “A good poison can be made from the stinger of a scorpion, but the stinger of a manticore will induce a more potent one,” she said after a moment.
“Exactly, stronger is better. What’s the strongest living thing around?” Rose asked. She pointed to the dragon several times.
“A dragon?” asked Fine Tune.
The clone groaned. “No, okay. Which is stronger, your carapace or your egg?” she asked sarcastically.
“The egg, it must keep the unborn strong, even if we have to mo-- Ohh...” he said, realization hitting him. His eyes brightened when he understood.
“But then I’d need to share,” mused the dragon across the cavern from us. He reached down and grabbed a chunk of his hoard with his claws. Holding them at length, he let the treasure rain down upon him. The sound of gold hitting his scales sounded strange, almost hollow, and echoed against the walls.
“Okay, so the zebra I knew, kept telling me the Caesar wanted the strongest protections around,” she explained. “They made a bargain with one of the dragons, Brimstone’s mate or some stupid shit like that. A single egg, the hardest shell around. The best shield an alchemist could hope for.”
“But he’s here now, so something obviously went wrong,” said Lost. She always was a thinky pony...
“The spell backfired?” I asked, trying to figure out exactly what they were going on about. “Instead of an impenetrable shield, they got an impenetrable dragon?”
“Something like that. He hatched during the process, and every part of the magic they wanted to use him for, went right back,” she answered. “Kinda like a science experiment gone wrong. He was supposed to be a part of a whole, instead he’s the whole and it’s all a part of him. I heard bad things about failed experiments in the Ministry of Arcane Sciences from Trusty, but... They don’t hold a candle to how bad the zebras fucked this one up.”
“And he became their ultimate weapon?” I asked, trying to figure out exactly how dangerous a dragon who only cared about stealing things could be. All he wanted was his gold. Then again, I wanted all of his gold and I could be pretty formidable when I needed to. I was a murderer, after all.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Balefire did. Because they could mass produce bombs and missiles. A hatchling isn’t a-”
“NO!” shouted the dragon, his voice full more of surprise than rage. With a flurry of claws and wings, he righted himself and glared at us. “I will not share with another. I do not want or need for a mate. If I ever see another dragon, I will sooner kill her than share my treasure. A mate is not worth the chance of theft.”
Well, there went that.
Not wanting to enrage the dragon with more suggestions that might lead him to think we wanted his hoard to be lost or stolen, we retreated to the tunnel The Convert had told us was used for storage of older treasure. The dragon left us with a glare, and returned to his treasure. He seemed quick to anger and quick to forgive, as shortly after Rose profusely apologized for ever suggesting such a thing, he backed off. Now calmed, he passed the time sifting through the pile of gold and letting it rain from his claws upon him.
I sighed. He was like a foal, just... one in a body so massive he could bully others.
Rather than return to The Convert or Stormheart and the others, we made sure to stay by ourselves. The fear of getting caught in the group-think, that it was better to stay complacent than to search for a way to freedom, tasted of poison. Once we were out of sight and in the slightly darker hall, we broke to make plans again.
“So, that was a bad idea,” I muttered to Rose.
“Call me pessimistic, but what are the chances of him happening to have snatched up an anti-dragon battery and put it down here, really?” she asked, ignoring my comment. She looked at the ruins of his hoard all around us, where the walls of the tunnel were lined in the same way as every other tunnel we’d seen. “He’s got enough shit down here...”
Lost deadpanned and rolled her eyes. “I doubt the, what was it you called him, big bad alchemy dragon... I doubt he’d keep something to kill him in the cavern he lives in,” she said, barely holding back sarcasm. With a cautious glance backward, she moved toward the walls. “But really, tell me every last rumor and every minor detail you know that might help us here.”
“You know what? I’m actually going to dig around. The sight of that treasure has me antsy,” I admitted. “I need to... I don’t know. I need to find something to stare at instead. Not being able to do my whole treasure hunting thing is starting to get to me.” I turned and trotted off before they could argue. I couldn’t get the thought of his gold out of my head. I’d spent most of my life trying to find something like this. My whole world was based around searching for treasure, and the rumors of a dragon hoard got me here in the first place.
Seeing it right in front of me, and not being able to snatch it up was almost painful.
“Just stay safe Hidden. You heard what she said earlier, about getting lost,” my sister yelled to me.
“I know,” I yelled back. I’d stay within the nearest few smashed houses. I just needed to do something. If the dragon just smooshed everything against the walls, he must not care too much about them. I stopped at the closest house and pulled the door open as far as I could. It would be a tight fit, but I could make it. I dove through.
“What’s her problem?” asked Rose as I wriggled my way through the closest doorway.
I stopped just inside and peeked out through the doorway to watch. Hearing what my sister thought of me when she didn’t know I was listening might be a bit insightful.
Lost looked over to the house I’d crawled my way into, and sighed. “Hidden’s a good pony, but she lives in a fantasy world half the time,” she explained. She lifted her foreleg and showed Rose the PipBuck attached to her. “The only reason we have this, and the only reason we ended up meeting you, was because somepony told us a rumor about dragon’s treasure in a cave. I tried to tell her, but she wouldn’t listen that it was just a rumor. In the end, it sent us on a nice little adventure, and made us new friends.” She placed a hoof across Xeno’s back and smiled. “That said, she treats scavenging like its a game. It’s how she copes with living in a world like this.”
“Really?” asked Rose. “She acts like a hardened murderer, from my perspective.”
“You're not so innocent yourself, Rose. She does what she needs to, and she’s got another pony in her head telling all sorts of terrible things,” Lost continued. She lowered her hoof from Xeno and nodded toward Fine Tune.
“Miss Hidden got the same conditioning my kind did,” said the changeling. “Maybe worse...”
“Anyway, ever since our mother died, she just does what she can to cope,” L.A. said. “Lucky for her, the one thing she’s really good at, aside from smashing heads, is finding stuff. Let her loose in an empty building for an hour, and she’ll somehow manage to find an entire pantry full of food, or a wardrobe stocked with guns. It’s almost uncanny.”
“So, you let her stay in her little fantasy treasure hunter mindset, because...” asked the clone. As they talked, she pulled her cloak off and slid it away.
“Because it’s what’s right for her. She knows the world we live in, she’s got the scars to prove it,” Lost said. She shifted uneasily. “It’s more fun to hunt for treasure than to scavenge anyway. I like her methods.”
The dragon snorted off in the main cavern, a sound that echoed through the tunnels.
“We should focus on what’s important though. You said you knew about him from rumors?” Lost asked.
I ducked away from the door, not sure how exactly I felt about that little exchange. On the one hoof, Lost understood the way I worked, but on the other hoof, she’d been talking about me behind my back. Well, both hooves were steel anyway now, so who cared?
“... infuses whatever they use as an ingredient,” said Rose’s voice. “Just like the M.A.S., there were backfires...”
The building looked far worse on the inside. To get through, I needed to crawl back and forth over and under all sorts of trash and rubbish and other things that weren’t actually gold. It looked like a storm had blown through and trashed the place. Twice. Hunks of wood littered what little space I could move through, from where the building had been smashed up against the wall. Whatever the layout might have been at one point, all that was left was one single room split up by the remains of walls and floors. All sorts of little tidbits of pre-War life made up the remainder. Furniture, clothing, electronics that had been rent into scraps.
“...cannot be,” said Xeno’s voice. She sounded agitated. “Itis not how the brewing process works!”
Rolling my eyes at the limited prospects, I jumped up onto the makeshift platform of wooden remains and climbed up to the second floor. I saw a nice wardrobe lying with the front toward me. I could open that, maybe it would be stocked with guns just like Lost said. Grabbing onto the door’s handle with my teeth, I pulled as hard as I could.
“...centuries of difference, different tribe, different method, different ingredients,” argued the clone. “Do you want to know what I know or not?”
It stuck. I tugged several times, digging my hooves in to open it. I flicked an ear, listening to the others talk through the shattered window.
“Fine Tune, you remember what The Convert said about his love of his treasure?” asked Lost’s voice. “Do you think you could just drain him into unconsciousness?”
The changeling chirped several times, letting out a loud ‘crikiki.’ “No,” he said. “He’s far too big. It would take a whole hive feeding all at once to drain something like that. He’s...” There was a pause. Hoofsteps clopped against the stone floor. “He doesn’t even have love for it, he has-”
I didn’t hear the rest as the door to the wardrobe finally gave way. With a quiet ‘eep’ I fell backward and rolled down the wooden planking. Landing hard on my rump, I looked up. No guns. Just- Ow! A memory orb fell from inside and hit me right in the face. Lying there, I looked up to see a pretty green sundress hanging inside, looking just as nice as the day it’d been worn last. I grabbed the memory orb and stuffed it into my saddlebags for later. I couldn’t see what was in it anyway. I jumped up and pulled the dress from its hanger. With a cursory inspection, I decided the dragon wouldn’t ever miss little things like these and stuffed the dress into my bag with the memory orb.
I grumbled about how in my nightmare I had to have some menial job and couldn’t have dreamt about being in a pretty dress at a party or something. I pushed the thought from my mind and kept digging. The process went slow, as I had to squeeze myself between broken floorboards and over shattered furniture to get through the tiniest of spaces to get anywhere. The kitchen had nothing of use, aside from a nice open area where somepony had opened every drawer and dug through it.
“Everything’s killable,” said Lost. I must have missed something between falling and moving to the kitchen. “You told us earlier about ponies taking dragons out during the war.”
I did keep an ear out just in case the others called for me, while half-listening to their conversation. The problem was that, unlike now, back then they actually had the numbers and the weapons to do it.
“Yeah, and it took Rainbow Dash herself, with teams of elite fliers and our best weapons. Do you see any of those things here?” asked the clone mare. She sounded like she was getting mad. We didn’t know any pegasi, let alone the ‘best fliers.’ Last time the only anything we knew that could fly went head to head with the dragon, he ended up splattered against a wall.
Fine Tune whined.
I pulled myself from the building and walked to the next one, my saddlebags feeling far too empty. The ponies, zebras, and buffalo who lived here had already stripped all the decent finds out of the building, and I didn’t have the patience right now to spend hours digging. I wanted something with instant satisfaction, much like the dress. It was nice, but not enough. I looked over to the others as they talked.
“...the scales he has. Two layers and one made of crazy zebra alchemy,” said Rose. “They might look like gold, but I’ve seen what an enhanced zebra soldier can do. I can only imagine what a dragon literally born from alchemy can-”
“What about a poison?” I interrupted, remembering how badly it knocked us out. “Go at him from the inside and bypass the armor and scales?”
“I donot have any,” answered Xeno. “If I did, it wouldnot be enough.” That made sense. If the dragon was too damn big for a changeling to drain, then he was probably too big for a pony-sized dose of poison. It wouldn’t even leave a bad taste in his mouth.
“Just an idea,” I said with a shrug. Reaching the next smashed home, I wriggled my way into the door, only getting stuck twice. This house looked the same as the other, with the walls splintered and ruins of furniture and other trash strewn about. I dug through the house as thoroughly as I could, crawling up rickety piles to get to closed doors and pull them open, and sliding down to get back to safety. The house didn’t have much, but I managed to find a partial carton of cigarettes for Xeno. She had complained about running low, so this would be a nice gift for her. I stuffed them into my saddlebags and left the house.
“What if we convince him he doesn’t need any of the treasure?” asked Fine Tune.
Rose shook her head. “It’s not something about him in particular,” she said. “Dragons hoard treasure. They have for as long as... forever. Nopony knows why, they just do. Being greedy bastards is their thing.” She laughed. “When I was little, there was a story about Twilight Sparkle’s dragon, Spike, in Ponyville who went through a greedy phase and grew huge in mere days. It’s ingrained in their very nature.”
“Is that not normal? This dragon seems pretty damn big to me,” said Lost.
“It is, but not that fast. Like I told you, this dragon wasn’t hatched the same way normal dragons are,” Rose answered. “At least according to the rumors. The ‘rules’ for dealing with dragons won’t work on him. They’re smart, too.”
I rolled my eyes as I walked by. None of that helped us, and the treasure hunting was keeping me far happier than listening to them talking.
“Find anything good?” asked Lost.
“Not really. They’re mostly stripped clean. I did find a present though,” I answered with a smile. I trotted back and dug through my saddlebags. Unceremoniously, I pulled out the carton of cigarettes and offered them to Xeno. “Here. You said you were low.”
Xeno’s eyes went wide as she reached up to take the carton. She smiled warily and stuffed them into the satchel she wore. Lunging forward, she wrapped her hooves around my neck and squeezed. When the dams broke on her restrained personality, they really broke. “Thank you,” she whispered.
I hugged her back. “Just... Do that cheaty light trick you do and we’ll call it even,” I joked. I still wanted to know how she did that.
As I let go of the hug, Lost stepped up to me. She placed a hoof on the side of my head and leaned in close. “What happened to your head?” she asked.
“This hit me in the face,” I said, pulling the memory orb out. I passed it to Lost.
“You’ve got the right idea, but you can’t just smash it into your skull. Memory orbs don’t work that way,” Rose said with a smirk. She clapped her hooves together slowly.
“I wasn’t trying to, it fell out of a wardrobe,” I snapped at Rose Shimmer. “Just let me know if you come up with an idea. I’m going to go hunt until I find something good.” Digging through these houses was fun, even if they didn’t have much in the way of treasure.
“Please be careful,” Lost said. She held the orb up and stared into it. “Thanks, by the way.”
The next house I entered actually had a door that opened completely. The inside was filled with boxes, rather than the same rubble of furniture and house parts like the previous two. With a shrug, I started through. I ripped off the tape and flipped the box’s lids open, then dug into them. The first was full of old books, covered in dust and smelling like they’d started to rot. Flipping one of the books open, I watched as the pages crumbled to dust. I turned from the box and dug through another. Several times I came up short, with nothing worthwhile. Several had more stacks of old books, which meant somepony had a lot of time to read. Most of the rest had clothes full of all sorts of holes.
Frustrated, I decided I’d try one more and then give up and check the kitchen. I ripped the tape off and opened it.
My jaw dropped.
Staring back at me from the box was a pile of jewelry. I stuck my hooves in and scooped up necklaces and rings and all sorts of gems. They were beautiful, and shone like- Wait. I dropped them all and held up one of the rings.
I smashed it between my hooves. It cracked and splintered. It wasn’t real, just a cheap fake.
“Gah!” I screamed, flopping back. How dare the ponies before the War. Teasing me with the chance at something great and it being just a toy. I pushed myself back up and stuck my head in the box. Underneath the play jewelry were toys. Lots and lots of toys. Wonderful, why couldn’t they label their storage?
Annoyed, I left to go into the kitchen. There might be something worthwhile there, instead of digging through what ended up being a wild phoenix chase. The kitchen, instead, was nice and rummaged through. I’d expected that, but I kept looking anyway. The drawers and cabinets were empty, but atop the counter sat an old knife holder. Sticking from it was the handle of a knife, upside down.
“What’s this?” I asked nopony in particular. I hooked the metal in my fetlock, and pulled the knife free.
It slid out perfectly, without sticking like I’d expected. Once it came free of the holder, I twisted it to look at the blade. The flat of the blade was perfect, clean, and reflected the image of my eyes back at me. The only thing to mar the perfection was a little inscription. Squinting, I read it as ‘Try it and see - R&D.’ What in the what?
Well, the knife told me to try it. I hacked into the knife holder as a test. The blade cut clean through, splitting it into two pieces. Only afterward did I notice the writing on it. ‘View memory orb first,’ it said. The two halves of the knife holder wobbled, then fell apart.
“Wow!” Eyes wide, I realized why it was left upside down. It could have cut through that thing from gravity alone. I slid it into my saddlebags, upside down, and turned away. Shame there was only one. Maybe Xeno or Fine Tune could find a use for it. Given the advice of the ruined holder, I dug around for another memory orb. Sadly, no matter where I looked, I came up empty.
Feeling that I’d snatched enough treasure from under the dragon’s nose, I walked out of the building. I trotted over to Lost and the others. Stopping short, I interrupted their conversation. “Do you know anypony with the initials R and D?” I asked.
Rose scrunched her face up. “Umm, Rainbow Dash?” she said sarcastically. “She was a hero during the War? I literally just told you about her and how she defeated Brimstone over Hoofington like, an hour ago.”
“Think this was hers?” I asked, before sliding the knife out.
“Let me see that,” demanded the clone. She grabbed it with the aquamarine haze of her magic and pulled it from my mouth. She looked at the side of the blade and slammed her hoof so hard into her forehead I felt it. “R&D means Research and Development!”
Lost wrapped a hoof around me and squeezed.
“This is probably something from the M.A.S.,” Rose suggested. “Looks like their work. Somepony must have brought it home for some field testing.” She shrugged and passed the knife back. “Where’d you say you got it?”
“I snatched it from the house back there,” I answered, pointing back.
“You stole it from under the dragon’s nose? You know he’ll probably kill you for that,” said the clone.
“I won’t let him,” said Lost.
“Technically, I’m just rearranging things until I leave with it,” I countered. “He probably doesn’t care about a little knife like this anyway. He’s pushed it back into a corner and basically abandoned it.”
Something clicked in my head. If there were other dragons who died during the war like Brimstone, what if their abandoned treasures were still sitting, unguarded. “Wait I have an idea,” I said, waving the others to come closer.
Maybe, just maybe, for once... I could be a thinky pony.
“Hey!” I yelled, trotting back into the main cavern.
The dragon lazily opened one eye and looked at me. He pulled his snout from where it was buried in the pile of treasure. “What?” he asked in a not-too-happy voice.
“I’ve got a question for you,” I announced. I stopped right in front of him, a few inches from that glorious beautiful pile of gold and gems. The others stopped behind me, but said nothing. This was my plan, and I would be the one to convince him. Lost might be better with this sort of thing, but I wanted to be the one who did it. After all, if I could convince myself that I was right, I should be able to convince the dragon.
“I’ve answered your questions already,” he rumbled. Raising a claw, he pointed opposite the entrance tunnel. “Go.”
Lost stepped next to me. “Hidden, you don’t have to-”
“I can do it, sis,” I whispered to her. I nodded a few times and took a step forward. Gently I picked up one of the bits with my teeth.
The dragon’s attention snapped to me instantly. His eyes widened while the thicker ridges of his eyebrows lowered. I could practically feel the heat rising in his chest.
I dropped the bit onto my hoof. “Just, just listen. Okay?” I begged, holding the bit up toward him.
He hesitated for half a second, which was all I needed.
“I know where there’s more,” I lied. “More, just like this one.” I dropped it back into the pile and pointed at a crown. “More of those.” I pointed to a ring. “And those.”
The dragon’s demeanor changed. He lowered himself back down and unfurrowed his brows. The slightest of grins appeared on his muzzle, showing off the gigantic teeth.
“Go on...” he said, his deep voice making the massive pile of gold vibrate.
I took a step back and looked at the others. I had him in my hoof, but I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I wasn’t a skilled talker, I was better at hitting things and fucking up... everything. If this went wrong, we could all end up roasted.
“Just do it,” said Rose. She pushed my haunches, making me step forward.
“What you’re saying is completely true, Hidden,” Lost reassured me. She was right. It wasn’t a lie at all. We’d seen bits and gems and crowns and rings before. Just... Just not in the flesh before tonight.
“There’s another mountain. It’s in the other ridge, a ways from here,” I started, carefully watching the reaction of the dragon. Since he didn’t seem to hide his feelings, and Fine Tune was there to tell me if he truly became mad, I figured I could tell if he was interested. When he nodded, I continued, “A merchant told us, he promised, that there was a dragon’s cave a ways out. He never said the dragon was still alive though. So, umm, he could have left his hoard there-”
“And?” he asked.
“Miss Hidden,” whispered Fine Tune, his voice shrill. “Impatience...”
I nodded and continued. “So I thought, you don’t want to deal with another dragon trying to steal your treasure, but, umm,” I stammered. “If there’s no dragon to fight. Couldn’t you just go steal the abandoned treasure? Nopo- No one else would be taking it.” I gulped and looked down at his treasure, the bits piled up around his mouth. Slowly, my vision drifted up toward- I tore myself away, refusing to look at his teeth. The last thing I needed was to lose my resolve. I focused on the treasure. The beautiful treasure that would be all mine the very second he left.
I’d swim in it when he disappeared into the sky. I’d just crawl in and bury myself and forget any of this ever happened. We’d all be together and we’d have all the time in the Wasteland to get free. It’d be perfectly fine.
I whispered a silent prayer to Celestia and Luna, one after the other. I’d need both of them watching over me to pull this off.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, his voice calm and disinterested. His claws slid through the mountain of shimmering bits, shifting the pile and making four ridges and sending more bits cascading down toward me. The dragon’s eyes flickered back and forth, looking from me to the others, and to his gold. “Why would you tell me?” he demanded.
Oh no. I hadn’t considered that. I just figured a dragon would jump at the chance for free treasure. I knew I would; that was how I lived my whole life. If dragons were supposed to be big greedy monsters, why was he arguing so much? I needed a plan.
L.A. cleared her throat. “You have very well trained, uh, pets,” she said. She took a step forward and stood next to me. “We saw how well they kept everything organized, and we heard how well you treat them. You keep everypony here safe, fed, and with a roof over their heads. They told us we should try to make good with you, and not try to escape.”
“Why’d you think I told you to find a mate?” added Rose. Quickly, she caught herself. “I wasn’t trying to tell you to find another dragon for competition, I just figured everyone needed a little ‘pleasure’ in their life.”
The dragon snorted, flinging gems, bits, and jewelry into the air and letting loose a foul-smelling cloud of smoke. He pushed himself up, and treasure rained back down. It was beautiful, with the tumbling coins and gems reflecting the soft light of the cavern back.
If only I could reach out and grab them all. I’d hold them so tight and never let go...
Rolling his wings and shoulders, the dragon sat and regarded us. As before, he dragged his claws along the underside of his muzzle in thought. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said after a moment. “Why are you telling me this? What do you gain from it?”
“Trust?” I offered.
“A place here, without fear?” suggested Lost.
“More chance to watch you eyefuck your treasure?” said Rose.
Collectively, the rest of us facehoofed. Even Xeno and Fine Tune joined in. There simply weren’t words to describe how stupid that was.
The dragon chuckled. With each laugh, the cavern shook, making little chunks of rock and dust fall from the ceiling down onto us. After a moment, he raised a claw and flicked a massive tear from the corner of his eye. “All admirable,” he said.
“He’s happy at least,” whispered Fine Tune. “And not just from laughing. This might work!” His eyes lit up, glowing even through his disguise.
“There’s a cave across the mountains. That’s where its supposed to be,” I said.
“Why didn’t you just go take it?” he asked. A good question. “Or... did you?” He squinted, making the glowing golden eyes into slits. “Empty your bags.” The look he gave us didn’t leave any room for argument.
Saddlebags were poured out, littering the cavern floor with our possessions. Please don’t let him think we were hiding treasure from him. Everything from guns and ammo to my shovel, to- Oh shit. The dress fell from my bags onto the floor and the knife clattered to the ground on its side atop the dress. Please please please don’t let him know I stole those.
“What’s that for?” asked Rose. “You don’t really look like the type that wears frilly dresses. Saving it for your special somepony?”
Groaning, I rolled my eyes. Her teasing was really starting to get old. “No, I just... I like dresses okay,” I admitted. I turned away from her, not wanting to see that stupid smirk.
Lost emptied her saddlebags as well, letting the memory orb I’d stolen fall free as well. As if to drag things out, a small bag of bits fell from Lost’s saddlebags dead last and landed atop everything else.
“Then wear it,” said the dragon calmly. He pointed a claw at the bag. “I don’t care what you do with my possessions so long as you stay here. Gold, however, is mine.”
Sheepishly, Lost lifted the bag of bits we’d taken from the grocery store the other day in her magic. The blue haze around the bag glowed bright, and the bag opened. Floating it over to the pile, she turned it upside down and let the hoofful of coins clatter down into the main pile. Without a word, and never daring to look the dragon in the eye, she stepped back.
“We didn’t take that from you,” I said. It was true at least, and really, the bits were mostly useless. Ponies who traded bits for caps were few and far between, since the Wasteland hadn’t bothered to keep the old currency. They were more shiny baubles than anything valuable to us. Of course, I just happened to like them because they were still treasure, even if not worth much now-a-days.
“We did find the abandoned hoard, but we couldn’t carry any more than this,” Lost said, getting us back on topic. Her lie sounded convincing.
“Mmmm?” rumbled the dragon. He reached down and picked up the small pile of coins Lost had added. Somehow, he managed to pick up every one she dropped, and not a single extra. Lifting them up, he examined them. “These are too clean to have been sitting in a dragon’s hoard, abandoned.” He tossed them to the pile, scattering them with loud clinks among the surface.
“Theywere taken from the bottom,” said Xeno, joining into the lie for the first time. “They care more for appearance, when the coinis worthless to us.” She shrugged, shaking her head and swaying her mane to the side. “Itis a badge of experience, of skill in tracking. Itis not meant to be spent.”
“Why did you hide it from me?” demanded the dragon.
“You... never asked?” said Lost meekly. She took a few steps back and pressed herself against me.
A deep rumble came from the dragon, but he said nothing. We should have known better, sure, but a single bag of bits meant little to us when we were so busy trying to stop a Goddesses-damned slavery ring.
“Where?” he asked. His wings extended and he flapped them a few times, blowing our manes back from the force of the wind. Turning, he looked at the hole we’d first looked down through, then back at us.
“A cave in the mountains, across the next ridge,” I answered. “It’s past the white... spike... thing.” I lied, not wanting him to go anywhere near the Stables where the Steel Rangers were waiting. Those were the only caves I knew about, and sending him there could be an even worse disaster than we were already in. “You can’t miss it. Fly past it, and it’s just on the other side. Big cave at the base of the mountains.”
“There’s only one a dragon your size would fit through,” added Lost, filling in little details. That might keep him from trying the cave the Stables were in, since the entrance was so small.
For what felt like an eternity, the dragon sat there. He said nothing, his only movement coming from the occasional scratch at his scales. He dug his claws beneath the gold plating on his scales and then raked them across his stomach. Finally, he nodded. Before giving an answer, he leaned down and squinted at us. “How do I know you won’t try to leave once I go off to find this supposed abandoned hoard?” he demanded.
Lost didn’t answer right away. She looked back toward the rest of us, then to the dragon. Slowly, she took a deep breath. “You left to get us, and nopony here left. Why would we?” she asked.
The dragon seemed placated by that. He looked to the tunnel where the café was and rumbled to himself.
“I want to see the hoard again,” I said cautiously. “But, umm, that means I’d have to wait for you to bring it back. So, we won’t be leaving.”
The dragon laughed. “It is glorious, isn’t it?” he asked, once again dragging his claws through the gold and leaving little trails. He grabbed a small chunk of the treasure and let the bits, gems, and jewelry fall down from them. It was absolutely, undeniably, beautiful.
He needed to just leave already. If he kept teasing me with it, I wasn’t going to be able hold myself back. I would not be held accountable for my actions. My hooves fidgeted, and I fought back against jumping forward to lay in the gold.
“Cave across the mountains,” he said, more to himself than us. Lifting his claws, he weighed the pros and cons while looking back and forth at them, ignoring us.
“Is there a problem?” asked Rose. She tapped her hoof impatiently.
“Be quiet,” snapped the dragon. Lowering his claws, he walked from the pile of treasure toward the door. “I’ll be quick, I have duties to attend to here.” Turning away, he ducked into the tunnel. A few seconds later, his tail disappeared past the curve that lead back up.
Collectively, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
“Above,” Xeno said, pointing a hoof. At her suggestion, we all looked up toward the hole we’d first looked through.
The dragon’s massive form passed it, without so much as a second look. The cavern shook, and chunks of dust and rock fell from the ceiling from his weight as he lumbered past. It lasted only a moment, before he finally vanished from sight. We were finally free of him, if only for a short while.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I dove forward and buried myself face first into the cool metal of the bits, jewelry, and the gentle edges of the polished gems. It felt absolutely perfect. I twisted around onto my back and pulled as much of the treasure as I could hold onto me. I’d lay in it, and put it in my saddlebags, and take it back. I’d have Praline make me something nice with it, maybe plate my hooves. I’d pour every last bit onto my bed and just sleep under it. Everything would be perfe-
“Hidden!” yelled Lost. “Get out of there!” She grabbed my tail in her teeth and pulled. The warm familiar haze of her magic wrapped around my rear hooves and she dragged me away from the pile. “You’re going to get us all killed!”
“You idiot!” shouted Rose.
Xeno facehoofed next to her.
Fine Tune seemed to be holding back a laugh. Was I really that funny?
“I am not,” I snapped back. “He’s gone. I just need a minute with it.” I put my forehooves together and begged. “Please Lost?”
I grabbed a ring from the pile, and a crown. I didn’t care what she said. I’d waited my whole Goddesses-damned life for an opportunity like this, and I wasn’t going to pass it up because somepony was scared. I was a big mare and I could face whatever consequences there were. But for two minutes I was going to enjoy dressing myself up like a princess and not a single pony out there could stop me.
I tossed the crown up in the air and caught it on my head. With a little nudge, I had it exactly where I wanted it. Sitting, I looked at the ring I’d grabbed. I needed to find a way to put it on over the steel hoof. If I popped it off, I could just slide the ring onto my... stump. From the corner of my eye, I saw the golden bits jump slightly and slide from the pile to the cavern floor.
“Hidden,” said Lost.
The ground shook.
“Hidden!” she yelled.
Setting the ring down, I poked at the steel hoof, looking for whatever little secret Praline used to pull it off. I could do it with one hoof, probably.
“THIEF!” shouted a voice so loud I thought my eardrums might split. It echoed through the cavern several times.
“Oh no,” I whispered to myself. It was all I could get out before the ceiling of the cavern exploded.
Rubble, rocks, and a torrent of ruins toppled down from the hole where the dragon stood. He smashed himself against it, breaking chunks away and giving him a larger hole. Fire filled the top of the cavern from his rage, and he finally managed to break through completely. Huge boulders landed at the far side of the pile from us, sending everything into the air and making a mess of the treasure.
We didn’t wait to find out what he would do. The locals at the far end of the cavern, in their tunnel, watched with horror on their faces as we scattered. Lost, Xeno, and Fine Tune took off. I heard Lost yelling for me to follow, but I couldn’t make out what she said over the sound of roars and rocks smashing to the ground.
I pushed myself to my hooves and bolted. The crown toppled from my head, rolling across my back and clattering on the floor behind me, completely forgotten. I dashed in a straight line toward the cave I’d been looting in before. Beside me, Rose followed as fast as her hooves could carry her. The others were nowhere to be seen. Had they gone down a different tunnel?
She looked at me. I couldn’t tell whether she was furious or terrified. Probably both. My own expression must have matched it.
I wasn’t a big enough mare to deal with a dragon, and I’d probably just gotten each and every one of us killed. Whatever luck or Goddesses’ blessings I had left, I prayed for them. Behind me, I could hear the thud, I could feel when the dragon landed. It shook the ground so fiercely, my hooves left the floor. Beside me Rose flailed her hooves, trying to get traction as we fell back down.
“Oof!” I coughed, hitting hard. Without time to think, I kept running. The sound of our hooves echoed on the tunnel, but were quickly overpowered by the sound of the dragon behind us. Why he hadn’t just turned me into roast pony already, I didn’t know, but I was thankful for it.
The whole mountain shook as we rounded a corner. The dragon’s claws on the ground stopped. He roared, and green flames filled the tunnel, billowing around the ceiling above the roofs of the smashed houses. If this was an old tunnel of his, maybe he didn’t fit anymore.
The mountain shook again, and one of the houses collapsed, shaken loose by the dragon’s struggling. The sound of claws digging into stone filled my ears, as did the distinct sound of something cracking. No, no no no. If he broke through...
“Was it worth it, you stupid fuck!?” hissed Rose. She glared at me as we rounded a corner and went deeper into the tunnel.
“Sorry!” I shouted. I could barely think, I could barely breathe. I felt my heart pounding in my throat. This was bad. I didn’t have a plan for this. Lost couldn’t help me. I didn’t know what to do.
So we kept running. We ran through the shaking of the mountain, through the roars of frustration and pain as the dragon tried to follow us.
“These tunnels are mine!” he roared from behind us. “I’LL FIND YOU NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU RUN!” Everything shook around us. “Finally!” he shouted. He’d gotten through, and we were fucked.
The level of fucked rose as we rounded another corner and found a dead end. The tunnel went on further, I could tell over the roofs of the houses, but there was so much stuff smashed back here, that we couldn’t get through. Houses were piled atop one another, stuffed haphazardly by an inexperienced hoarder. They weren’t nice and out of the way against the walls, but instead looked like they’d been thrown there by someone who didn’t have the time or energy to deal with it.
To us, it was a death sentence.
I deserved it. I wouldn’t give up though. I was terrified, but I was stubborn, I always had been. The houses here were just... just something I needed to get over or get through. “Come on!” I yelled, running forward. There were holes and doors, we could get through. I ripped one of the doors open, only to be met with a wall of shattered furniture. “Help me!” I said. I pushed as hard as I could, trying to get just a little space we could slide through.
Rose grunted and shoved her way in next to me. Together we pushed as hard as we could, but nothing so much as budged. “Different spots. Hurry!” she yelled, moving to another door. We didn’t have time for this, not with the thundering of the dragon down the hall behind us.
Despite trying a half dozen spots, none worked. Any opening was too small to fit through, and every door opened to another pile of smashed debris. The dragon made a good wall, even if he hadn’t meant to.
“Arg!” shouted the pink mare. She grabbed me by the shoulders with her forehooves and stared me right in the eyes. “WHY!?” she demanded. “What two braincells rubbed together to give you that stupid-”
Fire erupting through the tunnel shut her up. The dragon was close.
“I, I don’t... I couldn’t help it!” I stammered, tears rolling down my cheeks. “It’s been my goal for years. I... I waited until he left!” I clenched my eyes shut and dropped to the ground. I knew I wasn’t a thinky pony, but this was my worst fuckup ever. I’d killed us all because of my greed.
I expected a beating from Rose, or at least to get cracked in the skull once by her grenade rifle. She’d be justified, getting one last hit in, since I’d doomed her. She’d opened up to me, told me her fears and... And I’d just gotten her killed. It cut deep, knowing that she’d die the same as the Rose clones I’d killed, with nothing waiting for her... It wasn’t fair, and it was my fault.
When she said nothing, I opened an eye.
Rose stood there, her eyes closed and breathing calmly. “We can’t go through,” she said, “so we’ll go over.” Her horn lit up, and she slid her grenade rifle from her back. She set it across my hooves. “Hold this. I’ll get you over, then you find a way to help me through.” The aquamarine haze of her magic wrapped around me, and she clenched her eyes shut.
I nodded a few times. “Right, right... If I try from the other side,” I agreed as I felt myself lift off the ground. Instinctively, I grabbed the gun to keep from dropping it. I sniffled, trying to calm myself down. Rose had a plan, like a good thinky pony. This could work.
The ground shook around us. The whole tunnel shook three times as the dragon thrashed through the small tunnels. One of the houses against the walls shifted. It crumbled forward, the front face of it smashing down. The smashed furniture and rubble fell into the tunnel behind us. He was getting closer.
“Don’t fucking try. Find something. We don’t have the time for trying,” she snapped. The warm haze of her magic tightened and she lifted me into the air, much like my sister had before. “And hurry!”
I slung the grenade rifle up onto my back. “I will!” I yelled back. As I floated slowly up and over the pile of houses, I couldn’t help but look at the tunnel where we’d come from. I found it hard to believe we’d gotten such a lead from the dragon.
Apparently we hadn’t. One of his claws grabbed onto the tunnel wall and his snout snaked into view.
“Rose!” I shouted. “He’s-”
She dropped me.
The warmth of her magic around me cut out completely and I slammed into the roof of the top house in the pile. Hitting hard, I toppled head over hooves out of sight of the tunnel and off the edge. “Eee!” I screamed, clasping my hooves over my mouth to quiet myself as I landed. Groaning, I flopped onto my side.
I didn’t have time to lay there in pain. I forced myself up and threw the grenade rifle away. Everything on this side of the pile was dark, without the magic to keep everything lit. Blindly, I grabbed at whatever was in front of me. Luckily, the walls of the buildings on this side had collapsed. I used what little light leaked through the gaps to find my way as I scrambled up the rotting and destroyed wood.
“Where is she?” bellowed the dragon. The shaking of the rubble made it hard to dig through, especially since I couldn’t tell what was what. My steel hooves didn’t help the situation. “TELL ME, NOW!” Everything shook as he slammed his claws down.
“Who?” asked Rose. The cockiness in her voice was quite obviously forced.
“Tell me or you die with her!” shouted the dragon. Through the holes, I could see him, breathing heavily and full of rage. He gnashed his teeth, obviously fighting back incinerating her on the spot.
“Who said she came down this tunnel?” asked Rose. Her voice waivered, she sounded terrified. Barely visible through the gaps, I could see her turn and look back.
I worked faster, pulling some massive box-shaped thing away and jumping over it. Feeling around with useless hooves, I couldn’t get an edge or anything to grab on. I needed something. “Oh, I am not a thinky pony!” I said to myself. Turning on a hoof, I made my way for the grenade rifle. I moved as fast as I could, stumbling around smashed furniture and rubble I could barely see.
“Your stalling will not save you!” he shouted.
“Didn’t think it would,” answered Rose, her trademark snark back.
I tumbled down the last of the ruined house and right into the grenade rifle. “Thank you,” I whispered. Grabbing it, I ran back into the pile of houses. I’d only have a few seconds for this.
The dragon didn’t bother with trading snark. A low rumble filled the air.
“DUCK!” I shouted. Aiming at the darkness, I prayed it was the right spot. Bracing against a wall, I pulled the trigger.
The wall in front of me exploded in a flash of light and a deafening boom.
I threw the gun back and ran. The hole was big enough for me to get through with ease. Rose stood, staring back at me just a few feet from where I’d blown the hole in the wall. She looked far from pleased with how close I’d come to doing the dragon’s work for him.
The dragon stared as well, his mouth hanging open and a mix of confusion and anger across his face. It took him a split second to regain his composure and breathe fire at us.
I grabbed the clone pony and pulled. “Come on!” I shouted. I pulled back right as green flames surged around us. Rose followed, a half-second behind me. It wasn’t fast enough.
She screamed in pain as her coat burst into flame. She might not have been a real pony, but she felt it just like a real one.
I pulled harder, ignoring the pain as my steel hooves heated to unbearable temperatures. All around us the ruins burst into flame. I could see around me now, which helped little. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I muttered as I dragged her burning body through. A support beam broken ages ago crashed down in front of me, and I recoiled.
Rose thrashed in my hooves. Her breathing came in forced gasps. All the while she screamed in pain.
The pile of houses lurched to the side. The top half collapsed and slid backward. A mixed blessing. It knocked the way clear, but now the dragon could get over. Behind us, he roared in frustration and smashed at the houses again.
Unable to get any further dragging her, I twisted and pulled with my teeth. The heat was unbearable, but it wasn’t anything compared to what Rose was going through. This was my fault... No, I’d get her out. Everything would be fine. Put Rose’s smoldering coat out. She’d heal herself. We’d escape.
I was not going to lose her.
With a final tug, I felt the floor collapse under me. Together, Rose and I toppled to the tunnel floor, free of the flaming wreckage. Not wasting a second, I pulled my cloak off and threw it over her. With a wary eye to the shaking buildings, I rolled her back.
Even as the flames around her went out, she still thrashed and screamed in pain. Suddenly, the thrashing stopped and she went silent.
“We’ll be fine,” I told her, terrified she’d just died. “You’ll be okay!” Tightening the cloak around her, I grabbed her and pushed her onto my back. Why couldn’t I have fucking cheater magic like my sister? I couldn’t even feel her breathing on me.
There wasn’t time to check if she was okay.
I prayed, and ran for the darkness.
Footnote: Level Progress: 50%