Captain Sterling paused for a long moment before the main entrance to the keep. Even though he had already made up his mind, actually going through with his plan was another matter. It was crazy. It was suicidal. But he knew that it had to be done. He had long ago sworn his oath to the crown.
Gritting his teeth, the captain headed on through the gate, hoping that his nervousness wasn't too evident. But it didn't seem like he needed to worry. The guard who was supposed to be posted at the gate was missing. As was the next guard. In fact the stallion didn't see a single pony as he quickly made his way down to the dungeons. Something was very wrong here.
As the stallion rounded the last corner, he skidded to a stop and gawked at the long row of iron doors standing wide open. The cells were empty, every last one of them. The alicorn sisters, Lord Astron, and every other pony that had been unlucky enough to get on Silver Gild's bad side were simply gone without a trace.
Sterling thought quickly. There had been no alarms raised, and even though all of the guards were missing there were no signs of a struggle. The doors weren't damaged either. Besides, if this many prisoners had somehow escaped, every guard in the city would have heard about it by now. No, these prisoners hadn't escaped.
There was only pony besides himself that had the authority to do something like this.
"Well? How are we supposed to get past all this?" Celestia demanded impatiently.
"I'm thinking!" Golden Apple retorted.
The white alicorn glanced cautiously around the corner. Directly down the street she could see the gates of Capital City, brightly illuminated by dozens of torches. The gates stood wide open, teasing her with a glimpse of freedom just a short trot away. But it might as well have been as far away as the moon
The entire area was crawling with Royal Guards. The main street was packed with patrols constantly coming in and out of the city. The walls and towers were lined thickly with watchful pegasi. Nothing bigger than a flea was getting through those gates unnoticed.
"I'm thinking what we need is some kind of a distraction," Lord Astron suggested. "Something big and flashy that will draw everypony's attention away from here."
"Like a big out of control fire in the middle of town?" Golden asked with an unsettling gleam in his eye.
Astron shook his head. "Preferably not," he replied sternly. "We don't want anypony to get hurt, after all."
Golden merely shrugged.
"That's a terrible idea! What is wrong with you?" Celestia bit out.
"I'm not really concerned about these ponies," Golden answered with a nonchalant tone. "Getting you and Luna out of here is all I care about."
"I don't know if you've changed or if you're just showing your true colors," Celestia retorted. "Either way, I don't like it."
"Big surprise," Golden growled. "Miss Prissy doesn't like something."
Celestia's eyes narrowed. "That's it. I'm not talking to you anymore," she huffed.
"Will you two cease your incessant squabbling?" Astron snapped, his patience worn thin. "This is serious. I need you two to stop acting like a couple of spoiled brats and focus."
Luna cowered against her sister's flank. "Why is everypony fighting?" she asked anxiously.
Celestia let out a long sigh. "We're all just really scared right now," she told Luna gently. "Sorry about that."
"I'm not scared," Golden muttered. "Fine, here's another idea. These ponies have no idea who I am. Well, they mostly have no idea. How about I cause a big disturbance and draw them off?"
"And just how exactly are you going to do that?" Astron asked.
"Oh, I have my ways. And I promise that no pony will get hurt. At least not seriously."
"That's far too dangerous," Celestia asserted. Luna nodded her head emphatically in agreement.
"I thought you weren't talking to me," Golden replied.
"I'm afraid I must agree with Celestia," Astron hastily interrupted before the two could resume their argument. "You're just a colt."
"First off, I'm not a colt," Golden retorted. "Well, not a pony one anyways." He held up a foreleg and briefly reverted a portion of his transformation to reveal a scaled claw ending in sharp talons. "Trust me; I can take care of myself."
"You're a griffon?" Astron gasped as he backed up a step.
"Not exactly," Golden replied as his claw morphed back into a hoof. It looked like all that time he had spent in Everfree Forest practicing his transformations had paid off. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. "Stay here until the path clears, then run for it. I'll meet up with you later."
"I'm not going anywhere without you!" Celestia insisted. "I don't care what you are; you're going to get yourself killed!"
Golden's stern expression softened. "Take care of your little sister," he said gently to her. Giving Luna a warm smile, he playfully tousled the younger alicorn's hair. "And you, little one, take care of your big sister." His face hardened as he turned his attention back to the cautious looking stallion. "Make sure nothing happens to them, or you'll have to deal with me."
"No!" Celestia gasped as Golden spread his wings. A golden aura surrounded the colt as she held him in place. "I won't let you go!"
Golden effortlessly broke free of her magic and took to the air without another word.
A cry went up from the walls as the pegasus colt was sighted barreling straight for the gate at top speed. Several pegasi moved to intercept him, but just as it looked like they were going to catch him, Golden's entire body was suddenly enveloped in a brilliant white light. The guards had to shield their eyes as the colt's glowing form began to swell to a massive size.
Just as the blinding light faded, there sounded a long deafening roar that reverberated through the air, rattling every window pane in the city. Where the colt had been a massive reptilian form now hovered, his immense wings flapping slowly to keep him aloft. Massive white teeth gnashed as the monster cast his baleful glare on the ponies before him.
"Dragon!" one of the officers shouted in disbelief. "Everypony to arms!"
The pegasi already in the air were sent sprawling by a single lash of the dragon's long tail. With a dreadful sneer the dragon turned away from the gate and lazily started making his way towards the keep.
The entire keep was as silent as a tomb as Sterling raced up towards the wing where the self-proclaimed king dwelled. It wasn't just the guards that were gone. All of the servants, retainers, and minor officials that were always bustling about were gone as well.
Terror began to well up in the stallion's heart as he neared the study. Silver Gild had been totally obsessed with that locket ever since he had gotten his hooves on the damned thing. He had barely left his rooms the last few days, and judging from his eyes he probably hadn't slept either. There was no telling what the old unicorn was thinking.
The captain knocked tentatively on the thick wooden door. No response. And as usual the door was locked. Sterling took a deep breath, turned around, and with a single buck split the door nearly in two.
The room was empty.
Several torn up books littered the floor, but there was no sign of the unicorn or the locket. Sterling shivered as he slowly backed out of the room. Something just felt wrong in there. He couldn't pin it down, but it wasn't like anything he had ever felt before.
His eyes wandered to the nearby staircase that led to the roof. Silver had always been fond of studying under the stars. Perhaps the old pony was up there.
He took the winding stairs two at a time and slammed open the door at the top. There was Silver Gild alright. But it wasn't the king that drew Sterling's eyes. It was the dozens of bodies lying motionless on the stones around him.
"Ah, Captain Sterling," Silver greeted him warmly. "How fitting that my most loyal officer be here for this moment." His smile disappeared. "You are loyal, aren't you? I must admit, I've heard some worrying things." He nudged the limp dark grey form at his feet. "Though the source was questionable at best."
"Wh-what have you done?" Sterling stammered.
"I have done something extraordinary!" Silver laughed. "I have created new magic!" His horn lit up, lifting the dark red rainbow locket above his head. "Behold!"
The locked opened with a soft click to reveal twin heart shaped voids in place of the normal silvery mirrors. Darkness seemed to almost seep forth from the inky surfaces. The feeling of wrongness that Sterling had felt before was intensified a hundredfold as he stared into the fathomless depths inside the corrupted relic.
"I must admit, I was a bit vexed earlier when I couldn't find those fillies," Silver Gild said cheerfully as he gazed up at the locket, "but then I had the most marvelous idea. What's stronger than a unicorn's magical power? Why a pony's life force, of course! Tirek had the right idea all along! Though I did have to feed my Rainbow a lot more ponies than I expected. It seems to have quite the voracious appetite."
"How can you laugh like that? What you have done here is so wrong and vile that I don't even have words for it!" Sterling snarled.
Silver's smile disappeared. "How dare you. Have you forgotten that I am your king?" he demanded. "I decide what is right and wrong now. Your place is merely to follow, you sniveling mud pony."
"You are NOT my king!" Sterling answered. "You're nothing but a monster!"
Silver Gild turned his attention back to the locket. "With this power, I can become a god." He smiled coldly as his horn began to glow more brightly. "But I can feel that the Rainbow still hungers. I suppose giving it a few more ponies wouldn't hurt."
At that moment a terrifying roar reached them from across the city. Silver Gild's eyes grew wide as he rushed to the battlements and looked out eagerly. "Oh my, that sounded like a dragon!" he exclaimed. "What timing! That should make a wonderful meal for my new and improved Rainbow."
Sterling was momentarily dumbfounded. A dragon? Here in central Equestria? In Capital City? It was unheard of. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. A dragon loose in the city was a big problem, but the Guard could handle it. He needed to focus on the threat before him.
"It's coming this way," Silver laughed. "Perhaps I'd best feed my Rainbow one last snack before the main course." He started to turn back towards the captain, but the battle hardened earth pony was already on the move.
Sterling was already turning as he skidded to a stop before the unprepared unicorn. The captain tensed his powerful muscles and aimed a desperate buck at the locket, hoping to knock it out of the unicorn's reach. His hoof missed the Rainbow locket by millimeters, but his other hoof inadvertently hit home.
There was sharp crack as something gave way. A second later the locket clattered loudly on the stones as the would-be king slumped to his knees. A light grey conical object flew in a short arc over the side of the battlements and dropped unnoticed to the street far below.
"No," Silver Gild whispered as his eyes grew wide with shock. A single hoof weakly reached up and lightly traced the wound on his forehead where his horn had been. His hoof dropped limply back to the stones. "What have you done?"
Sterling looked upon the defeated old pony with a mixture of pity and disgust. "How does it feel to be just a regular old mud pony?" he asked bitterly as he turned towards the quickly approaching dragon.
"No," Silver Gild softly repeated as his eyes fell upon the fallen locket. "It can't end this way. I won't let it." With the last of his strength he lunged for the still open locket and caught it between his teeth.
Sterling heard Silver's words and turned his attention back to old unicorn, but it was too late. The entire locket slipped down the old pony's throat with a loud gulp.