Chapter 1: Dragons and Ponies
My beloved subjects,
I, Princess Celestia of Equestria, am well aware of the apprehension I have put the realm through during these recent times. It is time I told everypony the truth behind the banishment of my faithful student and her loyal friends.
Equestria is under attack, my little ponies. It has been under attack throughout the centuries. At the borders of our realm, my brother, Prince Terrato, continues to lead the Equestrian Legion in protecting our home. In my desperation to protect all of you from the horrors of this conflict, I have kept it a secret from everypony. My faithful student, Twilight Sparkle, wanted to share this secret with all of Equestria for which I banished her. The only "unspeakable crime" committed was mine.
I humbly ask for forgiveness from each and every one of you for this secrecy. I allowed myself to be blinded by my own prejudice towards those who I have been counting on. I have failed as your princess to adhere to the same honesty that I have asked all of you to live your lives in all this time. All I can offer is that I face my own punishment for this and that, henceforth, there will be no secrets like this ever again.
Now that the truth has been revealed, it is time to act upon it. The war continues to rage throughout Equestria's borders. My brother and the Equestrian Legion have been pushed to their limits and they need our help. So dire is the situation in our borders that it has become necessary to call upon everypony in Equestria do its share. Soon, you will meet your defenders for the first time. They will ask that each family to have at least one member to join them. My heart goes out to those who must serve in this new duty. Know that if there was any other way to keep our home safe, I would not ask this of any of you.
I ask that you see the ponies of the Equestrian Legion as your long lost fellow ponies and not as foreign invaders. If Equestria is to survive in this difficult time, all of us must work together in harmony. I will return to Canterlot soon. For now, my siblings, Terrato and Luna must see to the royal duties that must be tended to. Please treat them with both respect and understanding.
Within his quarters, Terrato found himself frowning at the end of the decree he was reading. Celestia's royal seal marked the document as genuine and he knew that copies were likely already circulating the Heartland. Behind him, he could hear a sigh come from his younger sister, who was also reading a copy.
"I know that this is necessary but it does seem quite sad. Don't you think so, big brother?" Luna asked.
"What it seems is a little too sensitive," Terrato replied. "It can stand to be a bit more authoritative."
"Big sister has never been one to impose authority on the Heartland's ponies."
"Is that why her capital is full of fops?"
Luna let out another sigh. "Of all the cities in the Heartland, you had to visit Canterlot," she said. "There are plenty of places that could have been more to your approval. You should have visited an earth pony settlement since you have a fondness for them."
"Forgive me for assuming that a realm's capital would be a good representation of its ponies in general," Terrato replied. He set the decree aside. "I want you to go to the Heartland ahead of me, Luna. Settle their nerves a little before I show up."
"And by 'settle their nerves', you really mean 'settle the barrage of questions this decree will set off by myself', don't you?"
"That's true too," Terrato said sheepishly. His tone grew serious quickly. "But that doesn't mean that my point doesn't stand. I have a few more details to take care of here as well. One of them should be responding soon." As if on cue, his horn suddenly glowed. "About time," he muttered. He pointed his horn at the center of the room and an image began to materialize.
Luna couldn't help but gasp as the massive image of a dragon, a mere dragon's head, nearly filled the room. Its individual scales were bigger than her hoof and as black as night itself. The four massive, sweeping horns were what commanded Luna's attention. They curled around each other in an elaborate fashion until they resembled a crown. Despite the long time she spent away from this world, she had no problem identifying the sort of being with such an arrogant feature: Pride Dragon.
"The annoying frequency of your attempts at contact tells me that this is urgent, Prince Terrato," the dragon spoke. Luna could hear its rumbling voice echo in the cave it was likely in. "What business do you have with me?"
"Celestia's barrier has come down, Afralhadar, don't tell me you haven't noticed," Terrato replied.
"The affairs of ponies are beneath my notice. What concern is it of mine that your sister has come out of hiding?"
"I'm not talking about ponies. I'm talking about the dragons that have been living inside the barrier. The enchantments on them will have disappeared as well and it's only a matter of time before they start feeling the effects. I can only imagine that they've developed a different set of traditions than the ones you approve of. I can also imagine what they'll do once they start acting on their newly revived wilder instincts."
Afralhadar paused for a moment. An enormous claw appeared in the image to scratch the scales under his chin. "Dracodar behaving like animals. You are right in bringing this matter to me after all. The Draco'dim will see to this affair." The image disappeared afterwards, leaving the two by themselves.
It was Luna who decided to speak first. "I know that the Heartland's dragons will start regaining their more violent sides, big brother, but what did you just ask that pride dragon to do?"
"Afralhadar is a prominent member of the Draco'dim," Terrato replied. "They're a loose coalition of some of the oldest dragons around and the closest we'll get to any form of organized government among them. I just asked them to keep the Heartland dragons in line with Celestia's enchantments likely fading.
"Can you trust them to just go into the Heartland without harming the ponies within?" Luna asked.
"They might do that but I doubt it. The Draco'dim consider ponies low-class fare. Unless one of them somehow starves while they're there, the Heartland should be safe. A few eaten ponies will also a better alternative to a bunch of dragons rampaging about."
"Just what exactly are they going to do there?"
"Draco'dim means "high dragons" in their tongue. They're not interested in ruling but they do follow a strict ideal of what it means to be a dragon and that is to carry one's self with a degree of dignity and principle."
"I can imagine that there are a lot of pride dragons in this coalition," Luna added. "I've never heard of this group before."
"Most of them are. They're also relatively new. They started around eight hundred years ago. I don't care much for their ideals but it has been convenient in keeping problems with dragon attacks. They'll make sure that the Heartland dragons don't give them a bad reputation." Terrato frowned as he went on. "I fear that the most likely scenario is that they will cull most of the Heartland dragons. The greed, lust and gluttony ones that are too far gone will certainly be shown no mercy. The rest won't fare better if they insist on resisting the Draco'dim ideal."
Luna shook her head sadly. She was the one who told her brother that the dragons were slowly getting violent but, for the most part, her concern was for the ponies of Equestria. That war and death would also take their toll on the dragons had not really crossed her mind before.
"One more thing," Terrato said. Luna looked up in response. She wasn't expecting anything else before she departed for the Heartland. "Advise me, little sister. It's about that young dragon with the Elements of Harmony."
"His name is Spike."
Terrato raised an eyebrow. "Not exactly a dragon's name."
"He's been raised by ponies and has spent his entire life with Twilight as her assistant. Spike has the body of a dragon but is essentially a pony in everything else."
"At first, I was thinking of sending him to one of the Draco'dim."
"What?" Luna asked incredulously. "Why? Why let a bunch of pride dragons influence him?"
"Because he's looking a little stunted. He's not the first hatchling I've seen living with ponies. Spending a few months in the Western Barrier Land with the right dragon should give him a bit of growth and the proper skills to use his natural weapons. The legion knows little in training dragons."
"Are you doing this simply because you want a better soldier?" Luna asked suspiciously.
"His friends are getting stronger and the front lines aren't exactly a place for an inexperienced hatchling. I need the Elements of Harmony nearby but they don't include him do they?"
"He is still a very important friend to them."
"Then they should be glad that he's being transferred to a safer place even if it's just temporary. It's true that the legion stands to benefit from a stronger Spike but that doesn't mean I haven't considered how this would help him."
"I know that you mean well, big brother, but, from what you've told me, I don't think the Draco'dim would be a good influence on him."
"That's why I said 'at first'," Terrato said with a sigh. "Another problem with that idea is that if the Draco'dim find out that he's been working as Twilight Sparkle's 'assistant' they will kill him and then demand for her head on a platter."
It was Luna's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Then where are you planning on sending him?"
"I know of a safer more reliable companion for him for the next six months or so," Terrato said with an assuring smile. "A servant of mine who won't kill him for being "undignified"."
"You have a dragon legionnaire?" Luna asked in surprise.
The smile lessened. "Not quite. She'll do though."
"I think that you should talk to Spike about this, big brother. Given his need to make up for his part in Black Rose's plans, he just might agree but you shouldn't use that to manipulate him to going along with your plans."
Terrato didn't reply. Instead, his horn flashed gray and the image of his chamberlain materialized. "Rough Cut, I want you to send for Spike the dragon. Have him meet me here in my quarters." Terrato's eyes narrowed as he went on. "He is not to be accompanied by any of his friends, especially Twilight Sparkle."
"Yes, your highness."
"Did you really have to put that emphasis on Twilight?" Luna asked as soon as Rough Cut's image disappeared.
"I want his decision, not his friends', especially not the unicorn who's been giving him orders all his life," Terrato muttered.
"Sounds like somepony I know," Luna remarked. Terrato merely frowned at the jibe and waited. It took less than half an hour to have a very nervous Spike standing before them. Luna put a hoof on her brother's shoulder when she noticed his frown deepen. She knew the signs. Courage and the ability to remain calm before his intimidating presence impressed Terrato, unless it's Twilight Sparkle, while groveling and nervousness irked him.
"Am…am I here because you want to punish me for helping Black Rose?" Spike asked. "Am I going to be whipped?"
"Why would I send you to my quarters to have you whipped?" Terrato asked in annoyance. "Are you accusing me of something, Spike?"
"Big brother…" Luna said soothingly.
Terrato let out a long exhale and spoke of his plan. By the time he was finished, Spike was still staring at him with a dumbfounded expression. His irritation began to grow again as he thought that the dragon hadn't understood a word he had just said. "Well?" he asked impatiently.
Spike eventually found his voice and the courage to use it. "This…this legionnaire you mentioned, what's she like? Is she a dragon?"
"Her name is Seethe Scale. She gets a little broody at times but I think you can work with her. She's a kirin but she'll know enough to help you."
"Kirin?" Confusion spread across Spike's face. "What's that?"
"The unfortunate result of a meeting between a unicorn and a lust dragon. Enough about that. You can take your time in getting to know Seethe Scale once you meet her. So what's your decision, Spike?"
"I want to go."
Both Terrato and Luna's eyes widened at quick response. "Are you sure you don't want to think it through at least?" Terrato asked. "I'm not going to punish you for taking your time on this."
"Please don't think you're being ordered to do this, Spike," Luna added. "You were called here because it's a choice you can make."
"I've made my decision," Spike said firmly. "And I'm not making it rashly either. I've been thinking about my part in all of this fighting these past three days. I can't just stand around worrying while my friends are working and fighting so hard. I promised myself that if there was anything I could do to be of better use, I'd take it."
Luna couldn't help but smile. "That is very noble of you, Spike," she said.
"It's decided then," Terrato said. "Settle your affairs here and I'll have you transported to the Western Barrier Lands."
Spike saluted with a smile. "Yes, sir," he said.
Spike left the room with that. Luna noted the lack of hurry in the dragon's steps anyway. As sure as Spike was, breaking the news to his pony friends isn't something to look forward to. "You should be going to, Luna," Terrato said. "Put in a good word for me, will you?"
"I will, big brother. I'll see you in the Heartland. Oh and one more thing…"
"Try to have a talk with big sister before going."
Terrato could only snort while his sister weaved her magic and disappeared.
"Six months?" Twilight said aghast. "Why? Why do you need to be sent away? You're already plenty of help as it is!"
It was nighttime when Spike finally brought the topic up. Everypony had arrived to their shared quarters, having finished today's duties. He had his reasons for delaying so much. For one thing, he was afraid of this sort of reaction from Twilight. For another, he knew that he'd be disturbing them in their duties if he brought it up during the day. It's been three days since the wolven were driven from Bastion City. Soon, they were going to be sent out to the front to help take back FangBreaker Fortress. News had already trickled back to the city that some of the wolven were stubbornly holding on to it and were proving difficult to root out.
"I'm not being sent away, Twilight," Spike said soothingly. "His highness gave me a chance and I'm taking it. I know it sounds like a long time but I'll be back in the spring."
"We're going to miss you, Spike," Fluttershy said with a sad smile.
"Don't say that!" Twilight said with a glare at the yellow pegasus. She looked towards the rest of her friends. "Help me talk him out of it!"
"I dunno, sugar cube," Applejack replied. "He sounds like he's made up his mind. You can't argue with anypony who sounds like that. Or any dragon."
Rainbow Dash, who had started staying in their shared quarters again simply nodded in agreement.
"Let's have a sending off party!" Pinkie said happily. "It will be fun! We can mix it in with our victory celebration!"
"I'll bring the booze!" Scarlet Rabbit offered. He was gone before anypony could even react to that.
"Take care of yourself, Spike," Vanguard said solemnly. "Maybe the next time we meet, we'll be fighting side by side."
Rarity walked over and embraced the baby dragon, who looked ready to faint. "Working with Hammer Chain won't be the same without you, Spikey-wikey. You'll bring back a souvenir or two, won't you?"
The sight of her friends going along with Spike's departure all but deflated Twilight. Spike walked over to her with a sad smile of his own and a hug. "You're really going to go through with this?" she asked him.
"Cheer up, Twilight," Spike said. "I'm more worried about you. At least I'll be somewhere safer while all of you stay in the front line. I'll write to you too. It'll be spring before you know it.
Twilight's lips pressed together in anguish. Her brain agreed completely with the reasons why Spike should make this trip but the rest of her had a more visceral reaction. The Barrier Lands and all the fighting in it seemed like a greedy, uncaring entity. It had taken away a lot from her already and she felt that Spike, despite his assurances that he would return, was the next to go. It wasn't just the length of the time he would be gone. These lands were changing them. As sure as she was that a dragon would return to her in the spring, she wasn't sure that it would be Spike. She could feel the rest of the room focus on her next action. She could keep on resisting. She had a feeling that Spike would not go through with this without some form of approval on her part. But how long would it be before her stubbornness would drive him away anyway? She finally mustered a smile. It felt more like a grimace from the effort she had to put in it but she hoped that Spike saw a smile. "Just…stay safe, Spike," she said. Her expression grew serious. "Tell this Seethe Scale that if I see so much as a scratch on you when you return, she'll have to deal with me!"
Spike chuckled in response. "I will," he said. "And you take care of yourself, Twilight." He turned around and looked at Pinkie. "How about that party?"
Still grinning from ear to ear, Pinkie was already going for the door. "On it!" she sang out.
For the remainder of the night, Twilight and her friends celebrated. It didn't matter that it was late at night or that she was just one cook in the Logistics' kitchen division. Pinkie promised a party for them when the wolven siege was broken and she promised Spike a party before he left in the morning. True to her word, there was indeed a party ready in the span of less than an hour.
"This much of a spread in such a short time and in such an impromptu start…" Vanguard said breathlessly. "I'm impressed."
Pinkie had managed to scrounge up a turntable from somewhere. The others could only hope it wasn't stolen, even accidentally. The upbeat and fast music encouraged dancing and most of the ponies in the party were already doing so. Vanguard and Twilight, however, stood by the sidelines.
"Don't be impressed yet," Twilight said as she walked over to stand next to Vanguard. She held two plates with cake on them with her telekinesis and offered one to him. "You should see her with her party cannon. This was at a snail's pace compared to that."
Vanguard took the plate with a nod of appreciation. Even as he talked with Twilight, he kept an eye out for Scarlet, who was already helping himself to the bottles of booze he had brought. At the other side of the room, he also noticed Applejack chatting up Rainbow Dash. When he turned his attention back to Twilight, he noticed her giving him a look of what he guessed was concern. The concern turned into awkwardness when she looked away.
"So, uh…that's some interesting music that Pinkie found," Twilight said. "Is it the sort of music that's popular in the Barrier Lands?"
"That's Runthrough's music," Vanguard replied. "It looks like somepony in Bastion City still keeps up with music from the southerly cities. From what I heard around the fortress before, he's a little too traditional for some of the younger legionnaires but his music is still quite danceable."
"Do you like that sort of music?" Twilight asked.
"Not really. Although if you played some of my favorites here, passing ponies will think that there's a funeral going on."
"I see…" Twilight's voice trailed off and she filled the silence by taking a large bite of the cake.
Vanguard watched Twilight quietly while he chewed on a more modest bite of his slice. "Still sad?" he asked after swallowing.
"I can't help it," Twilight replied. "So many things can go wrong with this and that's not even considering that I will miss him."
"There's plenty of time to be sad and miss Spike in the next six months," Vanguard said. He turned his gaze on the middle of the room where Fluttershy, Spike and Pinkie Pie were dancing. "But you won't get to be happy for him until he comes back."
Twilight was quiet for a moment. "That's true," she finally said. Before she could say anything else, Applejack suddenly trotted over to them.
"Don't stand there like a stick in the mud, Vanguard, come and dance with us!" Applejack said with a grin. She grabbed hold of Vanguard's unbarded forelegs and pulled him to the center of the room.
"I don't know any of your chosen dances," Vanguard explained awkwardly.
"Oh horse apples! Stop thinking about chosen and barrier lands ponies for minute and just move those legs!" Applejack turned her attention to Twilight. "You too, Twi," she said.
Twilight let out a long exhale. Vanguard was right of course. She set aside her own melancholy and even the strange twinge in her chest when Applejack danced next to Vanguard while giggling at his awkward steps. She was going to celebrate along with her friends no matter what lay past this night. The smile came less forced this time when she spotted Pinkie at the center of all the dancing. This was her element after all: Joy in the face of all the crushing uncertainties of the Barrier Lands, joy spurred by will not emotion. For tonight, Twilight was going to wield that joy against the fangs of Fenrir and the machinations of Black Rose.
Tomorrow, the rest of the battle will go on.