• Published 31st Dec 2011
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The Wind Thief - Cold in Gardez

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The legends told of their return.

For over a decade Equestria has been beset by the dragons. Every year more villages vanish in flames, and the lonely cities stand as our last redoubt. Winter has gripped the world, and our hope is fading.

But the legends tell of another, a light in the darkness. The Dragonborn, a mythic warrior reborn with the power of the Voice, the only one who can stand against the dragons.

But when she appeared, she was not what we were expecting...

The Wind Thief

The guard was not an amused pony.

To be fair, he was not in an amusing situation. A faint crust of blood still stained his muzzle, left over from a stray hoof to the face during the struggle. That any pony in their right mind would dare toss a punch at him was something of a miracle – he seemed to be hewn from bare rock, more so even than most earth ponies. His armor was almost an afterthought, resting atop his shoulder like the lid on a tea kettle. Legs like tree trunks ended in hooves polished to a regulation shine, blemished with faint scuff marks from the fight.

The subject of his ire sat on the far side of a set of bars, keeping company with a filthy straw mat and bucket. Her light blue coat was dull beneath a layer of grime and dust well on its way to acquiring the permanency of a tattoo. She wore nothing but a slim iron ring fastened to the base of her horn, blocking her magic. The last she had seen her clothes – not to mention weapons, potions, scrolls and armor – they were being packed into a chest in the guards’ armory. Since neither the mat nor the bucket was very talkative, she conversed with the guard instead.

“…and that’s how your mother met your father,” she finished, waving a hoof with a flourish. “At least, according to every bard I met between here and Fillydelphia. Did you know they have seven different songs dedicated to her legendary promiscuity?”

The guard stared back at her, stoic and silent.

She waited a moment for some further reaction, but to no avail. Her other attempts at conversation had been equally unsuccessful: flattery, reason, argument and finally insults had all fallen flat. He was the most disciplined guard in Canterlot. Or maybe he was deaf.

“Look,” she tried again. “This is horseapples. I’m a hero. That stallion was a bully. Every shopkeeper in the market was paying him money for ‘protection.’ I should get a reward for taking him down a peg!”

The guard was unmoved.

“Yes, maybe there was a bit of property damage, but you know how cheap those stalls are. A stiff wind and they’ll fall over. It’s not like anyone was hurt!”

The guard raised an eyebrow.

“Seriously hurt,” she amended. “And I’d like to apologize again for hitting you. If I’d known you were a guard, I never would have fought back.”

He snorted. The sound of a door opening and closing echoed down from the floor above them, followed by the sound of hooves on stone.

She scooted closer to the bars, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Okay, here’s the truth. You’ve heard those stories about the legendary ‘Dragonborn?’ The one who’s come to save Equestria from the dragon hordes?” She paused. “Well, I don’t want to brag or anything, but that’s me they’re talking about.”

A faint chuckle escaped from the guard. It was the first sound he’d made since they met hours ago in the market.

“I know it sounds crazy,” she continued. “I didn’t believe it at first, either, but—"

The huge wooden door at the end of the prison block swung open with a rattle and thud. A second guard pony, practically indistinguishable from the first, poked his head in.

“Pack her up,” he shouted down the long corridor. “Princess wants to see her.” The door closed with a resounding slam.

She demanded her clothes and a bucket of water before she would get out of the cell. They gave her a bucket’s worth of water, unceremoniously dumped on her head and soaking her powder blue mane into limp strands that clung to her face. Slightly cleaner, she decided to consider that a victory.

They didn’t bother shackling her legs. Physically, she was no threat to the hulking guards that stood on either side, and as fast as she could run, pegasi could fly much, much faster. Without her magic or weapons, she looked as harmless as a kitten.

She did her best to encourage that perception.

It was a long walk from the jail to the palace. Ponies stepped quickly out of the way of the guards, leaving a clear avenue through the crowded streets. It wasn’t a bad way to travel, if one could ignore the fact that it began, and likely ended, in a jail cell.

The shops around them grew steadily larger and richer as they approached the palace. Packed dirt roads gave way to gravel, then to cobblestones with actual gutters lining the streets. Open-air vegetable stalls were replaced by bakers and candlestick makers, followed by clothiers and jewelers. The pedestrians around them went through a similar change, the dull colors of earth pony laborers slowly being replaced by the brighter pastels of pegasi and unicorns. The air seemed fresher, but also thinner, fraught with tension. Even the wealthiest ponies bore an air of nervousness, their eyes darting up to the sky every couple of steps.

A sign of the times, she reflected. Dragons didn’t care how rich their food was.

The palace itself was everything she had heard. It clung to the side of a cliff thousands of feet above the rest of the city. Spectacular fountains lined the path, featuring fantastical carvings of ponies, gods and monsters. A leering manticore spouted water into a basin; a pegasus, mortally wounded by a spear, bled a trickle of water down its stone side. Birds flocked around the statues, flapping away whenever ponies drew too near.

The path wound up the mountainside, passing through the gardens on the way to the palace proper. Ancient topiaries dotted the landscape alongside trees. Dozens of gardeners roamed the grounds, pulling carts and carefully tending to the flower beds and larger plants. It was a peaceful, soothing scene, marred by the faint acrid tang of smoke carried on the wind.

The path turned around a tall hedge, and she stumbled to a halt. A huge swath of the gardens was charred to ruins, covered by a thick, smokey haze. Topiaries and trees were reduced to burnt stumps, alongside massive furrows carved into the earth. Boulders, statues and parts of smaller buildings littered the grounds, tossed about like toys. At the far end of the destruction, dozens of ponies labored around what looked at first like a giant impressionist sculpture, until a breeze cleared away the concealing pall.

The dragon’s skeleton still smoldered. Bits of ash glowed and lifted away from its bones, drifted through the air, then cooled to a somber grey and settled onto the ground like snow. The laborers ignored the ash as they worked, sawing away at the body and loading pieces onto carts. About half of the dragon was left, it looked like.

“That’s a big one,” she whispered.

One of her guards snorted. “Wasn’t big enough. Keep moving.” A kick to her flank propelled her forward a few steps. Within a few moments the dragon’s remains were out of sight again behind a tall row of hedges.

Beyond the gardens lay Canterlot Keep, seat of the Equestrian government and perhaps the single greatest concentration of wealth in the world. The castle was a wonder, a dream carved from marble and glass. She resolved to come back to get a better view of the place later when she wasn’t being hustled through the back corridors by her humorless escorts.

They spent what felt like hours waiting in a small anteroom. It had no furniture, so she sat on the cold flagstones while the guards stood. If that bothered them, they gave no sign. After her third attempt to engage them in conversation, one of them produced a leather muzzle from his saddlebags, and set it down in front of him. She took the hint, and spent the rest of her time contemplating the virtues of silence.

Finally, a third guard appeared. Some subtle gesture passed between them, and they escorted her down another set of corridors. The new guard stopped them at a non-descript wood door, knocked once, then entered. They followed.

She blinked at the sudden change in atmosphere. Unlike the bare stone corridors, the large room practically screamed “wealth.” The walls were completely lined with mahogany bookcases, holding tens of thousands of tomes. Some shelves were bare of books, instead bearing glowing crystals, intricate vases, even a few polished antique swords and shields. She unconsciously drifted closer to the weapons, her eyes filled with avarice, until a stern look from one of the guards froze her in place. She grinned innocently at him.

A door on the other side of the library opened, and a purple unicorn mare wearing a set of flowing grey robes trotted through. Her head was turned over her shoulder to speak with the pony behind her in hushed tones.

The second pony entered, and the room grew brighter in her presence. Her coat, a brilliant white with the faintest hint of pink, sparkled like new-fallen snow. A pastel mane more a cloud than mere hair flowed in an unfelt breeze. The only living pony in Equestria with both horn and wings towered over the rest of the room, easily twice as tall as the guards. Celestia graced them with a warm smile, then turned her gaze to the prisoner, who was doing her best to look small and harmless.

“So, you’re the pony who turned the harbor market upside-down,” Celestia said. She walked over to a large table at the center of the library, where a goblet of wine was already waiting for her. A glowing light surrounded the goblet, and it lifted to her mouth for a sip.

The prisoner coughed politely. “That’s an exaggeration, your majesty. Yes, a few stalls were damaged, but honestly that market wasn’t in good condition to begin with. If you didn’t know what to look for, you wouldn’t even know—"

“They say you shouted,” interrupted the purple unicorn. She had walked behind the prisoner and was examining her from all angles as one might inspect an insect. “That you knocked over a stallion and the stalls with only your voice. Where did you learn that?”

“Ah, well, just something I picked up somewhere,” she said, looking back and forth between Celestia and her new interrogator. “It’s not that unusual. I hear lots of ponies can do it.”

“A few ponies can,” Celestia said. She set the wine down on the table and leaned closer. “Ponies who have spent years studying the words of power, dedicating their lives to unlocking the Thu’um within themselves. But – and please don’t take this wrong – you don’t seem like that kind of pony.”

“Would you believe that I have many hobbies?”

The princess chuckled. A scrap of paper on the table glowed and lifted into the air before her.

“Hobbies. Yes, I would believe that,” she said, her eyes flicking down the page. “Let’s see. Sly, is it? Aside from your weapons and armor, you were carrying three different sets of identification, a dozen lockpicks, magic scrolls for everything from charmed speech to invisibility, and several thousand bits worth of jewelry. Jewelry, it should be added, apparently belonging to a noble family that recently reported a theft at their mansion.”

“There’s no way to prove any of that,” Sly said. “Lots of ponies have jewelry. I bet we could ask any pony on the street if they have jewelry like that and they--”

“You stole his signet ring,” the unicorn interrupted again. She was starting to get on Sly’s nerves. “It had his initials carved into it.”

Celestia laughed quietly, filling the room with joy. “I’m afraid Twilight Sparkle is correct,” she said, glancing at the purple unicorn. “As little sympathy as I have for that particular noble, we’ll be taking those back.”

Sly huffed. This wasn’t going the way she wanted, much less the way she had expected. She squinted at the princess.

“What’s this really about?” she asked. “Don’t tell me you personally question everypony arrested in your city. There’s not enough hours in the day.”

Twilight Sparkle answered. “Not everypony, no. But you’re not everypony, are you?” She poked curiously at Sly’s star-and-moon cutie mark, provoking a yelp.

“Hey, hooves to yourself!” she growled. She did her best to ignore the chuckles from the guards.

“What Twilight means is that we almost never see ponies who know the Thu’um,” Celestia said. “We certainly don’t arrest many. Where did you learn to do that?”

“Um, it’s a hobby?” The two mares stared at her, unconvinced. She sighed.

“Fine,” she continued. “I was hoping to save this for a more, uh... formal setting, but you’ve given me no choice.” She drew herself up to her full height, which still left her the shortest pony in the room by several inches. “I am the Dragonborn,” she said with all the dignity she could muster.

There was a short silence. Twilight Sparkle broke first.

“The Dragonborn?” she snickered, covering her mouth with a hoof. “You? You think you’re the…” She trailed off, her words replaced with laughter that left her bent over and clutching her sides.

Sly’s eyes narrowed. She measured the distance between herself and Twilight Sparkle, wondering how many blows she could land before the guards intervened. Less than four, she decided. Not enough to be worth the subsequent beating.

Celestia’s gentle smile never moved, though her words were tinged with amusement. “You’ll have to forgive Twilight,” she said. “There are quite a few ponies these days claiming to be the Dragonborn. Almost as many as there are dragons in the skies.”

Twilight laughed again. “Two plagues for the price of one!”

“But I can Shout!” Sly said, stamping a hoof in annoyance. “How many fake Dragonborns can do that?”

Celestia tilted her head. “That is worth considering. Twilight, what do you think?”

Twilight shrugged. “She may think she is the Dragonborn,” she said. “But do I think she’s the mythical savior of ponykind, the great warrior returned to vanquish the dragons and restore peace to Equestria?” She gave Sly a skeptical glance, then shook her head sadly.

“I think we have to keep looking, princess,” she added.

Celestia nodded slightly, her eyes still fixed on Sly. The rest of the room was silent while she thought.

“You’re probably right,” she eventually said. “But wouldn’t it be terrible if she really were the one? We would be tossing away a wondrous opportunity to end these attacks forever. Perhaps she’s worth taking a chance?”

“A small chance,” Twilight said. She glanced at Sly and hastily added, “No offense.”

Sly waved a hoof dismissively. She was used to jokes about her height.

“But a chance nevertheless,” Celestia said. She stepped closer to Sly, then lowered herself to her knees so she could look the smaller mare directly in the eyes. Even kneeling her presence loomed like a shadow over the room.

Being so close to such a huge pony should have been intimidating, but Celestia’s presence filled Sly with a sense of warmth and comfort she hadn’t felt since she was a foal huddled against her mother’s side. She resisted the urge to bury her face in the princess’s mane.

“There is a weapon that can aid us greatly against the dragons,” Celestia said, leaning close, her lips just inches from Sly’s ears. “It might even turn the tide of the war in our favor. Unfortunately, it has been lost for centuries, and nearly forgotten during the long years when dragons were but a myth. Twilight and I have been working for months to craft a new one, but just days ago we found what might just be a hint of its location.”

“A... friend of mine acquired a book, a history text we’d thought was lost,” Twilight said. She seemed more excited about the book than the weapon. “If the book is to be believed, the weapon was seized during the fall of the Griffin Empire by an earth pony warlord named Curalmil. He had it fastened to his crown, and we think he was buried with it.”

“He fastened a weapon to his crown?” Sly asked, imagining a sword glued to a pony’s crown and sticking out like a unicorn’s horn. She snickered.

“It’s not a weapon like you’re thinking of,” Celestia said. “It’s a special jewel my sister made, back when we were younger.” For a moment the ever-present smile faded from Celestia’s face, her eyes losing their focus.

“Whoever wears the jewel will find that their wounds heal before their eyes,” she continued. “They will run and never grow tired. Every arrow they fire will find its target. And once, during the lifetime of its bearer, it will grant a wish.”

Sly’s eyes widened. A wish? Possibilities began drifting through her head. She almost missed Twilight picking up the conversation.

“Curalmil has always been a mystery to historians,” Twilight said. “He was a gifted warrior, but not much else. Yet somehow, less than a year after defeating the griffins, he ruled an inland empire nearly the size of Equestria. When he died, his sons all claimed his place, and within a month his empire was torn into a dozen feuding pieces. The jewel would explain how he managed that feat and why it collapsed after his death.”

“We know where Curalmil’s tomb is hidden,” Celestia said. “If you can retrieve this jewel for us, it will be the greatest blow we can strike against the dragons. It would be an accomplishment worthy of the Dragonborn.”

Sly sat back on her haunches, her mind whirling in thought. The outlines of a plan were already forming: agree to retrieve the jewel, get it from the tomb, then take off for the nearest border. With an artifact like that, she would be unstoppable. Dreams of living in her own palace, with hundreds of servants and guards to keep her and her vast fortune safe, tantalized her.

Apparently her glee showed on her face. The princess’s smile widened, and her voice contained a hint of laughter as she spoke.

“Of course, we’ll need some insurance, to make sure you really do return with it,” Celestia said. “Twilight will accompany you to help identify the jewel and defeat any defenses Curalmil’s followers may have set up to guard it. Dragonborn or not, this won’t be easy.”

Sly came down hard, the dreams vanishing like smoke. She’d known Twilight for less than ten minutes and had already considered hurting her. She didn’t see a weeks-long adventure with the annoying mare ending well.

Celestia continued before Sly could object. Her eyes flicked up to the iron ring around Sly’s horn. “And until we know for sure if you can be trusted, I’m afraid that damper is going to have to stay in place. We’ll modify it so you can use your magic, but only when you are near Twilight.”

Sly carefully kept her features still. “And what if I just use the jewel to wish the damper off?”

“Well, then you won’t be able to wish for anything else, will you?” Twilight said. “A waste of a good wish, when we could be using it against the dragons.”

Sly frowned. Twilight was right: as nice as the rest of the jewel’s powers sounded, the wish was the important thing. The damper was a powerful form of coercion, but if there was one thing Sly knew, it was how to escape from tricky situations.

She gave the two her most sincere smile. “It’s a deal,” she said. “I’ll be glad to help retrieve this weapon. What’s it called, anyway?”

Celestia’s smile dimmed slightly. “Luna called it the Wind’s Eye.”

Footnote: Level Up.
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