"Spiiiiike! Oh, Spiiiike!"
"Maybe he's not here. He didn't go with Twilight, did he?"
"Um, no, he couldn't have, because he was helping me get Angel to take his heartworm medicine yesterday."
Rainbow Dash snorted. "What's so hard about getting a bunny to take a pill?"
Fluttershy flushed. "Um. It's a suppository."
"And that will be QUITE enough of that story, thank you," said Rarity, trotting further inside the castle. "SPIKE!" she called out again.
"Seriously?" asked Dash.
"It comes in two forms," admitted Fluttershy. "And he was being very rude to Discord when I ordered it. I may have been a teeeeensy-weensy bit peeved."
Dash just grinned and bumped a hoof against Fluttershy's shoulder. "Nice."
"Y'all quit horsin' around an' find us that dragon," drawled Pinkie.
"Yeah! Because it's super-awkward having our muzzles swapped like this and not knowing what's about to come out of my mouth is really really really disturbing sometimes especially when I end up saying things I don't even KNOW about and then they come true and Pinkie just gives me that LOOK like I'm stealing her bit and I sort of kind of maybe am but I don't know how to stop doing it so I keep doing it and then I end up eating a dozen cakes at once or something!" exclaimed Applejack. Who then clamped her muzzle between her forehooves in an ongoing effort to stymie herself.
"Twilight?" asked a yawning dragon, opening his door and looking around. "Were you calling?"
"Spikey-wikey!" cried out Rarity, galloping up to sweep Spike into a hug. "You're just the dragon we were looking for!"
"Anything for you, Rarity!" he declared, grogginess instantly forgotten.
"Marvelous, darling," Rarity said, setting him back down with an air of relief. "Would you please be a dear and send Twilight a letter asking her to help us with a little bit of a magical conundrum? I really don't even know quite what caused it, but SOMETHING seems to have transferred Applejack's muzzle onto Pinkie's face and vice-versa."
"Can't you just fix it, Rarity?" asked Rainbow Dash. "I mean, it's just a spell, right? We don't need to bug Twi, just find the right book and you cast it. She was all excited about that thing in the Badlands she wouldn't tell us about."
Rarity rolled her eyes. "Really, Rainbow. Have you ever SEEN me cast a spell? Aside from my gem-finding spell, but that's a Cutie Mark spell, not a scholarly one."
Rainbow Dash blinked. "Well, no, but can't you? I mean, just because Twi is better at that kind of stuff doesn't mean you can't, right?"
Rarity sighed. "Rainbow, only a very, very few unicorns are remotely qualified for Celestia's School for Talented Unicorns. Have you ever seen MOST unicorns cast a spell in their entire lives, beyond lifting things or every now and then firing a simple magic blast? Even if we had an appropriate spellbook right in front of me, I wouldn't know where to begin with it."
"Here," said Spike, putting the appropriate spellbook in front of her. He flipped it to the correct page. "Look at this diagram, clear your mind, and picture this bit here moving in a triple-diamond shape, like your Cutie Mark, envision it shifting into the shape of this diagram here instead, and then imagine the whole thing moving up your horn and over to Pinkie and Applejack."
"What?" asked Rarity, taking a half-step back. "Spikey-wikey, darling, I don't think you have, ah, the, shall we say, physical capability for unicorn magic?"
"So?" he said with a shrug. "I went to all Twilight's classes with her once I got old enough. Just because I can't cast anything doesn't mean I didn't learn all the theory. I couldn't do the practical, but I got my diploma too."
"Oh," was Rarity's response. "Erm... repeat those instructions for me, please?"
Spike breathed out his green flame, dropping a notepad and pencil into his claws. "Let me write it out for you."
Please take the next train to Appleloosa. I've arranged to have a Royal Chariot waiting there for you to take you to the Badlands. I've found something extraordinary, and you deserve to see it yourself.
P.S. Queen Ember will be coming to see this too. Yes, it's Dragon Business.
Spike shot out the doors of the traincar the instant they opened. Evidently Celestia's golden chariot hadn't been available, as Luna's somber-hued ride was waiting there instead, complete with a pair of her bat-winged guards. He was in it fast enough that Rainbow Dash couldn't have found fault with his speed. "Let's go, let's go, let's go!" he urged them.
"Hold your... dragons," said one of the guards calmly. "We have to wait for Queen Ember. She should be flying in any time now."
"What does she need a chariot for?" asked Spike. "She can fly right there."
"The same reason ponies take cabs in Manehattan when they have perfectly good hooves of their own," the guard said.
"Laziness?" Spike asked, confused.
"Because the cabbies know how to get from point A to point B," the bat-winged guard clarified.
"Oh. So the archaeological thing isn't easy to find?"
The guard shook his head. "If it was easy to find, it would have been discovered before now. The sand got shifted by a storm and uncovered a cavern. A pegasus flying over the area sheltered in it for the night and found some pre-Unification relics there. Wingblades, hornspikes, things like that. I don't know what they've found that got the Princess so excited."
"I guess we wait, then," said Spike, taking a seat. He lasted five seconds before his feet kicked. "Come on, come on... I bet this is how Rainbow Dash feels all the time."
"It's part of guard life too," the guard agreed.
"Yeah, well, usually I have something else to do," Spike commented, scanning the clouds.
"Like what?" the guard asked, interest in his voice.
"I dunno, comics, or cooking, or something?" Spike said. "Why?"
The guard shrugged slightly. "Curiousity. It can't be easy, being a dragon among ponies. We get enough shying away just from our armor's enchantments."
Spike heh'ed, giving their batwings another glance. "Yeah. There is that. I learned that in Canterlot early. Lots of ponies take one look and run screaming from the dragon. So you have to make sure they see something harmless in that first glance."
The guard nodded, and they shared a moment of contemplative silence. Then Spike returned to skywatching.
Queen Ember hadn't arrived by the time the train pulled out. It was almost an hour after that when Spike first spotted dots in the sky. One blue, flanked by a green one on either side. It took forever for them to reach Appleloosa. It gave Spike plenty of time to think of what he could say.
Ember landed, stretched, and flexed her wings. "Hello, Spike," she said, beating him to it.
"Your Highness, your chariot awaits," Spike said anyway, with a grand bow.
Ember cracked her neck, then looked over at the green dragon on her right, who was similarly stretching. "See, guys? That's the kind of thing I keep telling you about," she said to her escorts. They were both far larger than her; their chins, Spike estimated, would have cleared Iron Will's horns with room to spare.
"What kind of thing?" Spike asked cautiously.
Ember climbed into the chariot and ruffled his spikes. He hadn't even known that was possible. "Manners. I asked Celestia for an ambassador, and he's been telling me all sorts of interesting details about how ponies do things. You're the only dragon I know who does them." She gestured at the two green dragons. "You two wait here. That was a long flight. You'll pop your wings if you don't take a rest." Then she gave Spike a look. "And thinking of that, how'd you get here before me? You can't fly."
Spike pointed at the tracks leading out of Appleloosa. "I took the train." She looked blank. Spike cleared his throat. "Uh. Big pony box on wheels that gets pushed by magic so lots of ponies can ride it and go faster than they could walk?"
"So that's what those things are," muttered Ember. "Trains. Okay. Fine. Let's get going. I want to know what Dragon Business came up in ponyland."
The guards didn't need to be told twice. They might have had guard training, they might have trusted that Princess Twilight wouldn't summon pony-eating dragons for a visit, but getting more distance between them and the two green dragons was plenty of incentive. The idea of getting more distance from Spike never crossed their minds.
The cavern was a quarter of the way around the outer mountainous 'wall' of the Badlands. Piles of sand and a magical barrier made it easier to spot from the air, but Spike could see that most of the sand had been moved recently. Twilight's doing, no doubt. Based on how far down it was, only the first few feet at the top could have been exposed when that pegasus sheltered there. Spike and Ember spent the flight catching up. Ember's stories had a repeating theme of "Say this, repeat it louder, give up and use the scepter."
Twilight was waiting inside. She wasn't bouncing on her hooves in excitement, but Spike could read the flicks of her tail and see that she was holding back for diplomatic reasons. "Hi, Twilight!" he called, and climbed down from the back of the chariot.
Ember hopped over the side. "So, what's this you have to show me?" she asked without preamble, then squawked as Twilight gave her a hug.
"It's good to see you too, Queen Ember," Twilight said gleefully. "Let's go in and..." She turned, but the side passage she headed for was blocked off by an old-looking wooden door with a thick metal lock on it. "Oops!" she declaimed. Spike promptly grew suspicious. She was a terrible liar. "I must have locked that behind me. Spike, could you get that?"
"Sure thing, Twilight," he said anyway. He stepped up to the door and inhaled.
"Wait!" cried out Ember, holding out a claw. "What's in there? Don't burn it all down!"
"Don't worry," said Spike, and aimed a tight green blast of fire at the lock. The metal drooped like wet clay and fell from the wooden door, landing in the sand underfoot.
"..." said Ember, staring.
"... What?" asked Spike, glancing between Ember and a strangely gleeful Twilight. "... What?"
"How did you do that?" asked Ember blankly.
"Do what?" Spike asked, rubbing the back of his neck. "Breathe fire? C'mon, I know that's a dragon thing..."
"Breathing fire, yes," said Ember, tilting her head as she looked at him oddly. "But that's a wooden door, and wood does this thing called 'burning' when you breathe fire on it. And there's no way ANY baby dragon should be able to get a fire hot enough to melt metal like that. Most ADULT dragons don't get hot enough for that. But you just blasted the lock clean off, and barely a scorch on the door. How'd you do that?"
"Umm... I breathed on it, I guess?" answered Spike, taking another look at the door. "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to?" He summoned up a notepad and pencil. "Did I do it wrong?"
Ember just gaped at him. "What in the WORLD was that?" she demanded.
"I... learned how to store things with my flame?" Spike hesitantly said.
Ember stared. "How exactly do you store things inside a fire? Paper things, even!"
"I think there's two factors at play here," said Twilight merrily. "One is in there. But the other, I think Queen Ember can answer. Ember, what do most dragons eat at Spike's age? Or size, anyway?"
"Rocks?" she answered cautiously, still looking at Spike. "A gem every now and then if they can find one, every year or two. They're good for a growing dragon. Stronger scales, sharper claws, stronger muscles, things like that. Most adults guard their hoards from younger dragons who just want the gems."
"... Every year or two?" said Spike faintly, trying to imagine that.
"They're not easy to come by," protested Ember.
"Not, like... every day or two?" Spike asked anyway.
"Just how is a young dragon supposed to get gems every... day... or..." Ember trailed off, eyes widening as she looked at Twilight.
Twilight beamed. "Growing up in Canterlot helped a lot in that regard, I think. I'm pretty sure Spike's much, much, much stronger and tougher than any dragon his age has been for a long, long time. Spike, you've carried Rarity's luggage on your own, haven't you? And I've lifted it all magically, and I know for a fact that grown stallions have collapsed under all that."
Ember gave Spike a new look. Appraising. "You did pull me out of the water and swim all that way carrying me," she said. "I didn't think about it then, but a baby dragon shouldn't have been able to make that swim at all. And Garble mentioned once about you swimming in the lava with them. You should barely have been able to dig in it, at your size."
"Uh... so what's the other factor, Twilight?" Spike diverted. Just the idea of getting one gem every couple of YEARS was making him feel weak. There wasn't anything WRONG with rock, of course, but it just wasn't nearly as satisfying. And one gem? Not even one bowl of gems, but one single solitary gem?
"Through here," Twilight said, and pushed the door open. When she did, Spike realized that the bottom swung over the sand - and the exposed wood on the hinge side was much too fresh to have been an original part of the cave. Cautiously, he followed after. Ember did as well, right claws on her chin, regarding him thoughtfully.
The chamber beyond had one thing that captured Spike's attention instantly. A skeleton of a dragon, the size of a train car, on its side against the far wall, all four legs splayed out.
"... Where are her wings?" asked Ember quietly.
Twilight lighted a spark in the air. Writing appeared on the wall. An unsteady, scratchy script, but clearly writing. Spike couldn't understand the language, though.
"'Changed,' it says," Twilight translated quietly. "The writing is fragmentary. I think she was fighting to remember even as she was writing. 'Made us things. Fire and greed. Horn inside my throat. Breathe magic. Walk ponies for slaves. Wing ponies into wing things, breed things. I breathe escape. I not breed things. Few magic things. Many wing things.'"
There was a long silence.
"You meant 'dragons,' not 'things,' didn't you, Twilight?" Spike said unsteadily. "She had a horn and magic."
"She breathed magic," Ember agreed quietly. "Like you, Spike."
"Yes," said Twilight. "Someone, a long time ago, turned unicorns and pegasi into dragons. But today, almost all the dragons we know can fly."
She turned her horn toward a side wall. The light shifted, illuminating five curved shapes, still half-buried in the sand. There was one divot next to them, where some sand had filled in a hole. It didn't look recent.
"How do you feel about some little brothers and sisters, Spike?"