In the dark of night, a unicorn dreamed. He felt himself floating in a creamy white fog, like he was swimming through a bowl of milk. He paddled through the strange landscape, only feeling the sensation of movement without seeing where he was going. The buoyant mist made him giddy as it flowed into his nostrils, giving him a light, bubbly feeling in his head. He giggled boyishly and spun around in a corkscrew, not knowing and not caring which way he was going, or where. He was lost, but somehow that was okay, since he knew he was safe, deep in these lost recesses of world and mind.
With a flap of his limbs he jetted forward, laughing and whooping as he did loops and tight, twisting turns, flying through the strange foggy void. He was a young foal again and he didn’t want to lose this sense of majestic wonder, of being simply okay with ignorance, since that meant so much opportunity to learn new things. He was young and carefree. Somewhere behind him was a vast darkness that would swallow his innocence, a gulf that was consuming everything and threatened to open his safe little haven to the infinity of the outside world. But he just wanted to cavort and play like any little foal.
He continued to whirl and swing without a care in the world. His horn sparkled brightly, sputtering with uncontrolled, undirected magic, making cheerful little pictures as the motes of light drew out images in his head. Here was a neon blue bunny rabbit, hopping and smiling, here were pink flowers that tumbled through intangible winds, there were birds of limitless colors and sizes, all of them drawn with childlike simplicity yet as alive as any creature. He picked out a bright green manticore and dropped on its back, riding it through the soupy back corners of his dreams like the whirligig rides at a festival. Soon he was surrounded by bright colors and shapes only imagined, all of them dancing and twirling as he laughed and laughed and cantered back and forth on the back of his imagination.
At length through the shifting fog he heard a voice. It was a breath across a crowded room that caught his ear like a hook.
“Verity! Verity, come here! It’s time for supper!”
He kicked his back legs into clean spring air, stamping fresh grass underneath his hooves. The sun was bright on his face, Celestia’s blessings raining down and gracing the moment with her watchful gaze. His azure eyes drank in the sights and sounds of Equestria opened up to his imagination. He charged up a hill and realized that it wasn’t real grass underhoof, it was the rough, scratchy surface of a book’s page. He looked around and saw everything had gone flat and thin, pressed into parchment.
His hoof was bigger when he ran it over the page, letting out a wistful sigh. If only he really had lived in those days.
“Verity, are you listening?”
He shut the book and sighed again, looking around at the study. It was such a sparse place. So few books were left of the times before, and now he was being interrupted. He enjoyed being cloistered here. There wasn’t that much to get done before tomorrow morning, couldn’t they just let him alone?
He turned his head away from the grey, dying landscape and watched the storm clouds gathering near the village.
“I have to do this,” he told his father, his azure eyes meeting the implacable amber stare of the older stallion. “We were safe until my powers matured. I can’t hide anymore.”
“Verity, please, there are so few of us left… there’s only three families that even had foals this year! You must stay.”
Verity said something he didn’t remember. It was unkind and he remembered feeling guilty.
His father stamped the ground nervously, trying to think of an excuse to delay him. “Windamere. Poor Windamere will be heartbroken-”
“She’ll be dead if I stay. My aura’s too strong. All the other unicorns can see it. They’ll find us unless I do something, and this is my only chance! The griffons can protect you here, I promise… you’ll be safe… you all will…”
And what about you, Verity?
He was drifting away, watching his father fade into darkness.
Who will keep you safe?
He was back in the white mist, watching a dot float in front of him. It was a little black dot, and then suddenly it was a giant, monstrous shadow that swallowed everything, his mind, his spirit, the world. Towers collapsed into nothingness and starless night swept over the land. The giant shadow sprouted wings and dove upon him with a blood-curdling roar, and there were flames and screams and a bright light like the sun, but it wasn’t the real sun. It was something harsh and terrible and full of rage. He ran. He rolled and sprinted; he twisted and jerked, scrabbling desperately just ahead of the terrifying light that was coming. And then it snatched him up into the air and he felt himself burn, burn away, and he was no more…
He awoke in darkness. It felt like a blanket of dead things, icy and smothering.
The floor was cold. He was cold. Dirt was everywhere. In his mane, his pelt, under his hooves, even crusted onto his horn. He ached. He ached from pain, from hunger, from want. He wanted to know where he was, and how he got here. He wanted to know why he was covered in bruises and stinging cuts, and why he felt like he hadn’t eaten in days. He wanted something to eat, he wanted to be outside again, not in this black space and horrified at his condition. More importantly he wanted to know just who he was. He thought for a while, and then it came back to him.
His name was Verity. He must have suffered quite a knock to the head to be jostled free of his own memory for a time. He rubbed a hoof against his temple; it came away dirty with dry blood.
Gingerly he tried to stand. His rear left leg buckled under him with a jab of pain, and he attempted to tug himself forward on his front legs, crawling on his belly over the scratchy, cold gravel. His ash grey fur and navy blue mane blended well with the dark rock beneath him.
Everything hurt so much. He was confused, scared and alone, and what terrified him the most was that he couldn’t remember how he had ended up here. So to the matter of thinking and remembering he put all his mental effort.
He saw himself running through the forest. Which forest? The Ashwood, that was it. He was running because something was chasing him. Something his magic couldn’t handle. It was a blur. Horrible shadows clawed and tore at him, goading and teasing with the inevitability of his doom. He remembered not caring which way he went, not caring if he broke all his bones, only that he got out of that chase alive. He shivered as he crawled along the hard, dead ground, not from the cold but from the horror of the memory.
His horn glowed in the dark. Comforting blue light shined onto the blank stone all around him, and somehow knowing he was in a natural cave instead of some terrible void made him feel a little better. There were stories that told of dark, horrible places where Nothing resided, and sought to devour anything that touched it so they would become Nothing too. He wouldn’t be surprised if such a thing were real in a world like this. Ponies these days didn’t have the luxury of just brushing off old, scary legends.
He continued to wrack his brain, searching for memories, sights, and sounds, vibrant and pulsing as they flowed before his eyes in a confused jumble. He didn’t know what most of them meant, seeing faces he didn’t quite recognize, hearing voices that he couldn’t place. He used his magic to silence the gnawing pain he felt all over his body, and help calm him inside. Being calm was one of the most important things a unicorn performing magic could do, as if the body was under stress, the magic would not flow properly. He remembered his first rudimentary lessons taught by the only other unicorns who lived in their little village, passing on their knowledge in a desperate bid to help it survive to better times.
Magic, they said, was more a matter of mind and spirit than of science. It was an art, a manifestation of everything a unicorn was inside. It reflected who a pony really was. With no textbooks on magical theory left except in the great libraries in the fabled hidden cities, everything had to be felt by instinct. Every spell had to be teased and cajoled from out of the ether. A deep understanding of one’s place in the world and among ponykind had to be developed. The horn glowed brighter and he began to see he was in a large tunnel that stretched on and on, seemingly without end. His heart sank. How was he going to get out of this mess? There was no way he could just walk on out and find somewhere safe. There was nowhere safe these days.
All he could do was use his magic to support himself until he got out of here.
He walked for what felt like hours, his horn the only illumination he had. The tunnel kept making all kinds of twists and turns until only his magic could give him a faint idea of where he was underground. It was a useful spell for unicorns who had been forced to go underground to avoid the enemy. He reached out with his magic and felt only cold, hard stone all around him. Not even cave creatures lived this far into the dark, and he felt very alone. But he had to keep going, in spite of the pain that made him jerk with every step, and the crushing desperation that he felt creeping back into his mind. It had been gone while he was unconscious, but now he was very much aware of how dire his straits were.
At length he reached a great sloping precipice, down which the rock tunnel flowed like a petrified waterfall. Using another spell from his inventory, he reached out through the ground again, looking for something, anything that might be a clue to getting out of here. Animals, movement, anything. He sighed calmly and reached out through the ground, and at the edge of his senses he felt a whorl of cold slide over his horn, sending goosebumps trailing over his skin. Water was nearby. He clambered down the smooth, slippery face of the rocky rapids. It wasn’t long until he had come to a long, straight tunnel carved out by the flow of water hundreds of years ago. He wondered where it went, or if it had once supplied the overgrown swamp of Equestria. He had only heard stories of that place, where monsters roamed and magic was wild and untamed. Ponies had once inhabited it, though he couldn’t see how. The swampy forest that blanketed the land was nigh impenetrable, home to monstrous creatures.
Though, Verity thought that if he did end up there, there could be worse places to be. Anywhere he could hide now was welcome, and the thought of thousands of tons of rock between him and the shadows that had been hunting him ever since the Pony Dales was comforting more than intimidating.
“Maybe father was right,” he whispered brokenly, his voice as quiet as a thought. “Maybe it would have been better if I stayed."
The end of the tunnel suddenly began to open up, the walls swinging away into nothing and the floor widening out. Verity perceived through his magic that he was in the middle of a giant, ancient cavern. Curious, and knowing that nobody would know what he was doing down here, he pulled the magic in from the world around him, and then pushed it into his horn, increasing the output of light from its tip. There, just a few feet from his hooves, was what appeared to be a sea. It stretched out into the darkness, a seemingly limitless gulf with a surface as smooth as glass. He stepped closer to the edge, shining his light into it. Purely out of curiosity, he pushed his magic just a little harder… and found a hidden miracle.
The light of his horn had become just enough. The energy he gave off caught on the veins of some unknown, precious mineral that snaked through the rock that made up the pool, and they… glowed. Something had been activated, and Verity found his eyes widening with wonderment as the jagged trails of light pushed out far beyond the range of his horn, lighting up a good deal of the space around him. He was surrounded by lightning bolts cut into the living rock, which glowed a pale, comforting green. He stepped back and watched the scene unfold. The water rippled, its perfect stillness broken, and the energy the rocks had gathered from his horn was released, drop by drop. Little orbs of magical energy slid up from the water, from the veins of magical ore all around him, and gently floated upwards, surrounding him in an inverted snowfall of magical energy, going up and up to the ceiling. Verity, struck with amazement, stared at the tiny, pixie-like spheres, and reached out with a hoof. The one he touched burst into glowing green ashes that dissipated to nothing before his eyes, but he could still feel the spurt of energy given off by the tiny explosion. He smiled. The tiny return of strength felt like a gift. It seemed he had somehow unleashed the gathered magical power stored within these rocks. He touched another orb and watched it burst like a bubble, surprising himself with a boyish giggle.
That one had tickled. He touched off another, and another, and soon he was setting off a cascade of bursting magic orbs, surrounded by a beautiful, miniature fireworks display. Colors were everywhere, just like in his fevered dreams. He reared up as far as his leg let him and kicked a whole bundle of orbs, feeling the magic flow into him like a river.
It was a wonder that nobody but him would ever see, and he paused at the solemnity of that thought. He looked back down at the pool of water and saw that the shore stretched out for only a short while before dropping precipitously into darkness again. Verity gulped. He could handle walking in a cave… but what if that had been a sheer drop? How far down did it go? Was it some kind of massive aquifer that was slowly draining out into some lucky waterfall or river?
More importantly, what lived in a place like that, if anything?
“I really am lost,” he said to himself. This place was secret and beautiful, and only he had found it, and only he and the mysteries that dwelled here would know what was laid to rest in these waters. Loneliness crept in again, and he knew he had to push onward, to survive if nothing else.
He took stock of his surroundings. The orbs were lesser now, but still gave off light, and he heard their pops echoing as they burst on the ceiling. It was solid rock up there. He had to find out how big this place was. Using the stored energy from the magical shower, he pushed himself as far as he dared. The giant pool was indeed massive, stretching far out no matter how much he pushed his light. There were great islands and columns of rock, however, that pierced the surface at irregular intervals. He could teleport between those if need be.
Seeing no other way, he walked to the edge of the cavern wall and slid along the edge of the shoreline, skirting the deep waters, ignoring the abyss right next to him as he walked. More magical stones were lit by his passing, and he created a trail of the glowing veins behind him, a friendly green path that seemed to him a gentle reminder that not all was dead and lost in the world. The shore he had come in on soon disappeared behind, and the wide curve of the underground lake continued on and on and on.
The water touched his hoof. He shrank back from the sudden cold and looked down, seeing not that he had stepped in the lake, but that it had washed up to him. He watched as another little wave washed up, splashing innocently on the rocks. Verity felt himself grow sick. He hadn’t done that. The orbs hadn’t done that. The water had rippled somewhere far from shore, from something strong…
Something was in the water.
He pushed himself up against the cavern wall and increased the light from his horn even further, until it was a strain and he got a headache. But he didn’t want to be in the dark, not
with the terrible something that-
Over there! He swore he had seen a ripple, a splash. He pushed himself into the wall as if trying to melt away, to hide in the stones. Another splash, from something big. A thundering rumble of churning water as it turned towards him.
“No, no, no!” he whispered. His own light had destroyed him, the thing had seen him!
Then he saw the eyes. Great , pale slits of eyes that had seen nothing for hundreds of years, the blank, indifferent stare of an otherworldly being that had thoughts nopony could understand. The beast seemed bigger than the pool, than the cave, than the world, and far older, or was that just terror making his imagination run wild? A dangling tendril of flesh poked up from the water. On top rested a small glowing sac that brightened as it got closer, the orbs that had once been Verity’s silent companions being drawn into the fleshy thing like a vacuum cleaner plucking up dust.
And then Verity understood.
It’s hunting by magic.
The unicorn had a brief moment to curse his so-called gift before the water dragon burst from the pool, and fell upon him with a mighty roar.
Its jaws parted, revealing two rows of needle-like teeth, and a throat that seemed to be the entrance to eternity.
Verity felt himself quaking, but everything suddenly seemed so dull and unimportant.
The way the light caught off the flumes of water was so beautiful…
Verity kicked into high gear and teleported away from the cavern wall, appearing on a nearby island as the dragon’s giant head smashed into the stone, with a boom that rattled Verity’s bones. The stone cracked. The dragon was only dazed. Its magical feeler swung back and forth over its unseeing eyes, and its nostrils opened up. Its sniffs were like the bellows of a furnace, every twist of its huge head like the turning of a mountain on its axis. Verity was looking upon an apex predator, a beast that had no enemies and knew no fear.
He trembled as the feeler swung towards him, and blinked to the nearest island he could see, hearing the dragon’s jaws snap shut as it missed him by a moment. He looked around for an escape. There were just more rocks! He blinked again, farther away this time to gain some ground on his pursuer. The dragon roared with frustration. It could feel his magic, but it kept jumping here and there. Annoying prey was the worst kind. It surged down into the water, coiling its serpentine body around the columns of rock, and the chase was on. Verity’s mind struggled with the instinctive fear that welled up inside him, and had to think on the fly, and he blinked as fast as he could, just trying to keep some distance for now.
What do I do how do I get away I don’t want to die please don’t let me die please!
He screamed as the jaws came at him again, and he blinked away, trying to draw as much energy from the stones as he could. Even with all the raw fuel for his magic he could need besides his natural abilities, the strain of so much use at once was already becoming too much. His head was pounding, but that was nothing compared to the icy terror gripping his heart. He readied himself for another attack, already breathing heavily, and blinked away at the last moment, but saw the dragon’s head swirl towards him just as he reappeared. It sensed the magical outburst from his re-integration! He looked around to another island and flew there, seeing the dragon patiently following his movements. It could smell him and see his magic… he had to find some way to confuse those senses. He looked down at a vein of glowing rock beneath his hooves, reacting to his frenzied escapes.
Another great splash made him look up, and saw that the dragon had grown tired of the chase. It had slammed its tail down into the water, sending waves careening over the tiny islands. A wall of water rushed towards him, and instinct took over.
He bowed his head as a bubble of light encircled him, strong and unyielding. At first the wave broke upon the shield, washing all around it, but the effort needed to keep away that kind of force overcame him in milliseconds. With a gasp he fell to his knees and the shield faltered, the water rushing in. A solid blow knocked him down into the grip of the frigid water, and it was a moment before he felt the knives of cold cutting into him. Where was up, or down? He struggled and flailed in the roiling current, opened his eyes, screamed into the water as he saw the glowing feeler and massive teeth surging towards him. He shut his eyes and his horn glowed. There was a pop and a snap as dragon jaws met only water, and Verity found himself on solid ground. He took gasping breaths, feeling like his heart was about to burst from fright. Where was the dragon? Where was he? The islands of rock were rushing past him in a blur. His own island was… moving?
Wait. This island had scales.
Verity turned and saw the dragon’s head rear up from the water, coiling around to growl at him.
“Oh Luna!” he wailed and jumped away, blinking in mid-air. He appeared in the water near another island and scrambled ashore. The dragon screeched in pain as it bit itself trying to get at the pony, and thrashed about like a living tsunami, waves crashing all around it. Verity, gasping for breath, closed his eyes and concentrated. This was his only chance, and he had to do it now, or that thing would run him to exhaustion. He had to overload its magical sensors. His horn glowed bright, and the dragon swerved to face him, snarling with rage. Verity reached out into the living rock, using his magic to grab hold of the latent energy stored in the minerals, the water, all of it. He tried to ignore the freewheeling fear in his heart, the pounding in his head, and concentrated solely on the moment, the action of drawing from the well of the world. His life was on the line, and he had to do it right now.
Princesses give me strength…
And with a heave of effort he yanked his head upwards as the dragon surged towards him, the water foaming all around its neck.
Verity was surrounded by a deep green glow as a shower of orbs cascaded upwards, answering his call, choking the very air around him with magical energy. His mane and tail drifted upwards with an invisible wind. And with the orbs that danced in the air, his fears seemed to float away. The orbs suddenly swirled towards him, blanketing him in a vortex of chaotic, arcane power. It centered around his horn, and the glow around it exploded into a fantastic display, lighting him up like a target for the dragon, and it roared with triumph as its bulk descended on him.
Verity did not move. He felt… strange. Calm. He knew he wasn’t going to die here. Power, indescribable power flowed through him. He had no idea what was happening. He hadn’t meant it to, didn’t even want it. But it felt so… right. Like this kind of power was exactly what he was supposed to have been wielding all along. The orbs cascaded into his horn, filling it up to the brim, and yet it drank still more until it overflowed. It overwhelmed him, blew away his senses, and took his identity. He didn’t just have magic. He was magic. Numbing warmth spread from the base of his horn all over his body. He tried to stop the flow, but it was like some other part of him had taken over, and knew exactly what to do. Verity leaned back, lifting one hoof, and as the jaws opened to kill him, he unleashed his wrath.
There was a terrible noise, a rumble that shook the foundations of the mountain that encased the combatants, like the disapproving groan of a god woken from its slumber.
A shaft of pure magical energy made of thousands of years of collected potential exploded upwards, vaporizing the dragon’s head into so much gas. Heat filled the cave, then lightning, and thunder, and the shaft smacked into the ceiling, boiling away rock and smashing upwards. It pierced the surface, battering through the raging storm that had gathered, burning through the clouds, dissipating at last far above. Great cracks appeared in the rock below, splintering the once impenetrable fortress, sending the entire roof of the cave crashing down and taking much of the surrounding woodland with it. Hundreds of tons of rock shook the cavern until at last it collapsed on itself, great plumes of dirt escaping into the air in geysers upon geysers of dust. Great claps erupted over the landscape, like the moon had collided with the earth. Everything living nearby was subjected to a calamitous earthquake as a new lakebed was created in a few devastating minutes.
At last the noise of the storm took over again. In the midst of the devastation, Verity alone stood victorious. Encased in a shroud of slowly dissipating magic, he was gently lowered to the ground upon a rock, and he dropped into a deep slumber in the middle of a crater formed by a final pulse of magic. The storm swirled and raged above, heedless of the pony it poured its fury onto.
Far, far away, something evil awoke from a deep slumber. It turned its gaze upward, to the roof of its throne room, and the rumble its massive body made sent its minions into spasms, quivering and shaking in fear as they watched their lord consider the rumble of deep, powerful magic. It blinked thoughtful eyes.
At last, it thought. At last fate has arrived. I told you, didn’t I, my dears, of the day the magic would reveal itself again. Soon, now... soon it will be mine. And my dominion of this world will be complete.
Sometimes, River Rush found that he was lonesome.
It wasn’t just being the only pony around for many, many miles. Neither was it the fact that living at Highfall Eyrie meant that he was surrounded by griffons, who were bigger, tougher, and sometimes meaner than any pony could hope to be. It was the fact that there was nopony to relate to, in mind more than body. No griffon had the same hopes and dreams as a pony, or even lived the same way. Theirs was a sparse, competitive lifestyle, with each Eyrie ruled by a king or chief who could sometimes be quite harsh. Punishments were meted out with just severity, and everyone was expected to pull their weight. What was worse, they were omnivorous, and more than once River had thought he had seen one or two of them looking at him in a very… predatory way when he had first arrived. Every day had been a struggle to prove himself, rivalries coming as familiar as breathing. He supposed he had to expect all that, living with a race that had been in a state of war with the powers that be for the last three centuries.
Still, as much as he hated to admit it, he was a pony, and his people were close-knit and easygoing. The griffons were like the mountain crags many of them lived on: unyielding, sharp in tongue and wit, and without mercy for the weak and the useless. And so, River had pushed himself, to become stronger, faster, and deadlier than any pegasus pony had a right to be.
It had been enough to prove his mettle. It had not been enough to make the chief trust him enough to let him do as he pleased, let alone work his way up the ranks to command his own squadron. Griffons were not “commanded” so much as “led” anyway. Even now, with scars on his flank to show that he was a capable fighter, and tough, wiry muscles on his legs and chest, River had to work hard to prove he could take care of himself outside of the Eyrie, and did not need looking after.
This was the reason why, even in the middle of a cold, harsh rainstorm, he kept pumping his tired, sore wings into the wind, ignoring the way his goggles kept fogging up over his eyes, and the dead weight of his saddlepacks. He forced himself to keep pace with his sole companion, a griffon that was easily twice his size, but never fell too far ahead or behind. River looked at the predatory glint in his friend’s golden eyes, and knew he was safe with those eyes looking out for him.
“See anything, Glimner?” he shouted.
“Nah!” squawked the griffon. “We passed the sixth landmark just a few minutes ago, though! If we’re going to find something, it’ll be around here.”
River beat his wings hard when he felt his altitude drop, trusting his innate magic to keep away the lightning, and subtly deflect the worst of the wind gusts. Though these were terrible conditions to fly in, the patrol still had to be completed, and River wasn’t going to let a little wind and rain force him down.
“What about you? Get a glimpse of anything?” Glimner asked.
“No!” River yelled back. “I can barely see the trees down on the ground! It’s a blessing of Luna we haven’t smacked into a mountain by now!”
“She wouldn’t let one of her children die a death that embarrassing! It’s what else might be flying around in here I’m worried about.”
“We’re on the southern border. Nothing ever happens around here except a few lazy scouts! It’s boring ever since Nixalta moved further west!”
River did a short corkscrew turn to try and relieve his anxious boredom. Glimner glided lazily towards him. “Dragons gotta do what dragons gotta do! Just be glad Karkan even let you out today.”
River grunted and pushed further ahead, as if to flap the frustration out of his system. Glimner followed with a grim chuckle. River may have always been the little brother of their squadron, but he was no goblin, taking any excuse to sit out bad weather. Not that Highfall even got that much action, sitting in the middle of a mountain range and two big forests, far, far northwest of the jungles and desolate plains of the Plaguelands, so Glimner could understand River’s drive to get out and do something whenever the opportunity arose. He just hoped they wouldn’t run into another Hunter patrol without support, like they had a few months prior. It was all fun and games until they were flying for their lives.
“The storm’s picking up! More lightning!” Glimner warned River, who shook his head.
“Yeah. I’m starting to peter out,” he said, his resigned tone barely audible over the storm. Glimner knew he was one of very few griffons that River would that honest with.
“Let’s drop into that stand of trees!” he suggested, pointing towards the earth. Without another word, burning with frustration that he couldn’t keep going, River followed his friend in a steep downward plunge. They swept under the treeline in seconds and settled among the thicker branches. River groaned as he folded his sore wings, exhausted from keeping them stiff and straight to battle against the wind.
“I hope it dies down soon,” said Glimner.
“I don’t,” River shot back. “I’m in no mood to head back early. Just because there aren’t any Hunters in this area doesn’t mean there’s nothing here.”
“There could be anything,” Glimner conceded. “Including Hunters.”
“Ahh, Glimner!” River moaned, dropping his chin onto the branch beneath him. “We’re too far North to worry about that. Last month was a fluke. They didn’t have any real reason to come here, and we took them out before they could report a pony around.” River shook his milky white mane free of excess water, letting it frizz up around his head.
“Be that as it may… I’m not going back out until the storm’s over and we can see what’s going on.”
River had to concede, and the two of them settled in for a long wait. A storm like this could rage for a few minutes or several hours, and it had been continuing all day already. Eventually, River even found himself growing bored, lounging under the cover of the trees and listening to Glimner snooze. Even through his bone-aching fatigue he felt the need to get back into the sky, and find something worthwhile to report. Sky Captain Karkan was a taskmaster if there ever was one, and he liked seeing results. It didn’t help that Group Leader Hirfal kept coming back with evidence of slain goblins and scraps with the trolls that had been harassing their eastern border to impress the Chief.
It was then he saw the flash. It was a faint green glow far away between the trees, catching his eyes at the corner of his vision. He hadn’t even turned to face it before it burst out of the ground and shot towards the sky in a massive green column, bursting through the clouds. And by Celestia, it was bright. River’s jaw dropped. Then he felt the rumble, and heard the noise, and he was shaken from his perch by a massive quake that ripped through the ground and wracked the trees with shakes. He and Glimner took their air in a whirl of feathers, bursting through the swaying branches as they looked back to see the ground wobble and quiver. Neither of them could find the words to describe what they were seeing; the bone-rattling rumble drowned out most of their hearing anyway. Their minds were filled with terrified awe as a whole section of the countryside collapsed, taking most of the foothills of an entire mountain with it. They hovered in place, watching the dust clouds billow as the column of light faded away. The cloud was soon reduced by the ferocity of the storm, but they didn’t go any closer to investigate.
“By Celestia’s beard!” River gasped after the catastrophe was done. “Did you see that, Glimner? Did you feel that? That was… that was amazing!”
“I can’t even begin to imagine what could have caused that.” The griffon pondered the event in silence until his pegasus friend began to fret, fluttering nervously from side to side.
“We… we should investigate.”
“Something big just happened, Glimner. Something dangerous. We need to figure out what it was so we can have something to report to Karkan.”
“You have a point. Very well. But we don’t get too close… we won’t report anything dead.”
River slid his goggles down and took off, excitement driving most of his decision making. He had been waiting for something to come up, and now it had just exploded in front of their faces. It was a long flight, a full hour due to the wind that had picked up again and their need to fly low and cautious. River’s imagination had time to run wild, conjuring apocalyptic scenarios. This just made him fret even more as they approached the site of the wreckage, and could see just how far the devastation had spread. A huge swathe of forest and hillside had sunk into the earth, centered on a crater that the duo stuck to the outer fringes of.
“There’s the center!” Glimner pointed, and with more than a few second thoughts they peeled towards it. The drop to the ground was precipitous; both of them wanted to get in, see what was wrong, and get out as soon as possible. River’s keen eyes searched the wreckage, scanning over the epicenter where the rock was charred and melted into smooth planes. It was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Fortunately the wind and rain was at last beginning to slack off, turning to a mere drizzle. The clouds, too, became less grey and threatening, allowing him to see...
The pegasus locked onto a small blot of navy blue set against the harsh black and grey of the rocks, and he turned to investigate. As he grew closer, his eyes got wider and his shock grew until he was forced to drop right onto his hooves to avoid a crash. There, lying prone and silent on the ground, was a unicorn, sprawled out like he was sleeping under a summer sun. His ashen grey coat and dark mane were soaked, but River could clearly see the cutie mark of a torch on his flank. Glimner swooped down beside him, and the two stood in solemn silence for a long while, the noise of the storm drowning out any other thoughts and concerns.
“A pony. A unicorn,” River Rush whispered at last. “On his own.”
“Never thought I’d see the day,” Glimner said. He searched the edge of the huge crater. “You think... you think he’s the one who-”
“No, no,” River Rush exclaimed, shaking his head. “It’s impossible. Magic like that doesn’t exist anymore. Not with ponies. He’d have been shipped off to Burnspire or a stable by now... or he’d have to be a turncoat!”
“Or he came from one of the sheltered villages. Those do exist, you know.”
“None nearby, though.”
“So where could he have come from?”
“I’m more concerned about where he was going. And why.”
“Well, he’s freezing out here... we should get him to the forest, and then try to make a fire. I’m not gonna have the first pony I’ve seen in years die because of a little cold!” River took a single step forward, and then leaped back as a loud crack split the air as sure as lightning, followed quickly by a series of long, loud howls. A crowd of dark shapes was clambering over the rocks towards them. River straightened his stance and stepped in front of the unicorn, flaring his wings, while Glimner shook more water from his feathers and prepared for a fight. The figures loped over the slippery debris with clumsiness that belied their strength, strong paws and claws leaving scores in the rock they passed over. River Rush snorted as he watched one of them slip and fall, then scramble back up with comic self-consciousness.
“Diamond Dogs,” he grumbled. “Figures they’d show up here.”
“Try not to start anything, River Rush,” Glimner warned him. “We’re here to scout, not pick a fight.”
“Yeah? I’m here to protect an innocent pony.”
“If they do try anything-”
“Then I’ll beat their heads in.”
“- we chase them off and go home. We don’t have the numbers to run them down.”
The Diamond Dogs took up position not too far away, distancing themselves so they had enough time to react if griffin or pegasus attacked, standing proud on their ungainly knuckles. They regarded the feathered duo with practiced disdain, glaring from underneath their steel helmets which were probably stolen from their betters, several of them taking up firing positions. River Rush eyed their gemstone powered muskets that were dwarfed in their massive paws. They were simplistic constructions with none of the magical fine-tuning needed to launch anything, spell or shot, with accuracy or power. Those were probably stolen, too, or made by some particularly enterprising gemsmith. Each could only carry a single shot before needing to reload, and Diamond Dogs had notoriously bad aim, but if enough of them started shooting at once...
Their apparent leader, a slim and wiry black-furred mongrel, swung forward, standing up on his rear legs to address the duo in the grating, unintelligent voice most Diamond Dogs possessed.
“Griffin and pegasus pony! What are you doing coming down from the mountains? You forgot how it works? Our packs keep the ground, you stay in your birdie nests, and nobody gets hurt!”
“This isn’t your territory, Dog!” Glimner spoke up with a snap in his voice that made a couple of the canines recoil. “Our landmarks are but half a mile from here! You don’t own this mountainside any more than this storm does.”
“Stupid cat-bird!” the Diamond Dog screeched. “Doesn’t matter! That unicorn belongs to us! He’s on the ground, so we get dibs!”
“Dibs! Dibs! Dibs! Dibs!” the rest of the canines chanted.
“What do you even want with a unicorn?” River Rush retorted. “Look around you, mutt! You think all this destruction was caused by the storm? He’s dangerous. Big magic in his horn. He won’t do as you say. On top of that, Hunters will come looking for this pony, and they won’t appreciate you hogging their prey.”
“You stay out of this!” The Dog waggled his musket at River Rush. “We Diamond Dogs are better than you ponies. We make guns! We do all the digging! This unicorn not so tough! We have ways of stopping all your precious magic, and this unicorn will make us rich by finding us lots and lots of gems!”
“Gems! Gems! Gems! Gems!” chanted the others.
“Oh yeah? Well we got something that beats anything you got!” barked Glimner. He closed his eyes and stuffed as much smugness as he could into a single smirk.
“We found him first.”
The Diamond Dogs were hushed into silence. Their pack leader’s eyes bulged until River thought they would pop right out of his head. The Dog began to hop furiously in place, punching the ground with his knuckles.
“That... that doesn’t matter!” he howled. “Stupid griffin trying to play your word games! You think you’re so smart. Well this pony was on the ground first. And we saw the big light first. So he belongs to us first! None of this silly finding first nonsense! Dibs overrules your stupid finding first!”
“Dibs! Dibs! Dibs! Dibs!” the Dogs chanted.
“Stop that!” their leader screeched.
River Rush sighed. These Dogs were desperate for something valuable to drag home, and a unicorn pony fit the bill. They just had to run into the one pack that was dumb and stubborn.
“All right, listen up you smelly old dirt-sniffers!” he shouted. “This unicorn is coming with us. Like it or not, we get first share of any ponies in or near our land. If you’re too brainless to figure out he’s too much trouble for you, then you can just stuff it between your floppy ears.”
Glimner sighed as the Dogs went from comically angry to deadly serious in a matter of seconds. Bargaining time was over. The muskets were leveled at the duo, coal black barrels threatening.
“We. Get. Pony!” the lead Dog shouted. “Hunters come and we blow them up! Just like we blow you up if you don’t go NOW!”
“River Rush,” Glimner said. “I think we should-”
“No!” the pegasus snapped. “I’m not leaving him. Not for these poachers. If they take him he’ll be gone forever! You know how valuable he is! How all ponies are!”
“Just listen to me.”
“This is the first pony I’ve seen in my adult life! I’m not just going to hand him over to a bunch of slobbering, mangy, dumb-”
A sudden feeling of despair swept through the area. It was a pulse, a noiseless sound that dove inside and clenched the heart in a grasp of ice. It lasted for a fraction of a second, but it chilled the hearts of everyone in the crater. The wave of dark, frigid emotion dulled all anger, dampened any spirit. River Rush tucked his wings against his body and lowered himself to the ground, and Glimner bared his talons and hissed. The Diamond Dogs began to howl and point their guns to the sky. River and Glimner turned away, scanning the clouds.
“Hunters?” River guessed in a hushed, dry voice.
“Only one thing could cause that,” Glimner agreed.
“How could they have come so fast?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe they were already tracking the unicorn...”
River Rush stamped his hoof again, shaking his head to clear it of fear and doubt. Fear was a weapon the Hunters had been enchanted with, bleeding it out in an aura that surrounded them. He stood back up and practiced the drills everyone in the squadron knew by heart. Breathe deep. Feel the strength inside, the natural magic that was opposed to the shadows. Lose yourself in it. This pony needed him. Glimner needed him. This was a chance to finally start making a difference. He didn’t even know the comatose unicorn, but every single life was a treasure these days. He wasn’t going to run away. He was going to prove his worth in the eyes of Luna, and make a stand to defend one of his own. If this wasn’t what he had been training for, fighting for, what good was he? He cast his gaze to the Diamond Dogs.
“Hey! Mutts!” he called. “Those guns of yours really any good?”
Glimner stared. Hard. “River Rush, are you saying-”
“Yes,” the pegasus snapped. “We all know Hunters are dangerous, but they aren’t invincible. Those muskets can punch right through armor. There’s a strategy for everything, remember?”
“We won’t be able to take them by surprise,” Glimner said, ruffling his feathers. “They have to know we’re here by now. And killing an entire squad without backup? Karkan won’t be happy about it.”
“We might not be able to hide ourselves,” River said, “but maybe we can still catch ‘em with their wings furled. Hey! All of you!” He shouted at the Diamond Dogs. “You said you had dibs, right?”
The black-furred dog stopped his hopping and looked worriedly from side to side. “Ehhmm... yes?” he muttered, tapping his claws together.
River pointed with his hoof. “And you said you’d blow up anyone that tried to keep the Diamond Dogs from getting their precious gems, right?”
“Um... maybe! I might have said something... like that.”
“Well guess what! You’re not going to get anything if you don’t help us. No magic, no fun, and worst of all no gems!”
One of the Diamond Dogs raised his gun and started to chant. “No gems! No gems! No... gems?” he trailed off in bewilderment when nobody joined in.
“No gems,” River repeated. Another wave of shock and awe blasted over and through them, almost bowing his head to the ground, but he stood firm. A few of the Diamond Dogs whimpered pitifully, but the rest of them gripped their weapons tight, bolstered by the thought of not getting more of their beloved shiny stones.
“They’re close,” Glimner reported. “I can feel it.” He wasn’t scared of Hunters more than he was disobeying orders and getting involved in a scuffle. Still, they were in a state of open war, and Hunters in their skies were just asking to be taken down, whether they were servants of the Eternal Flame or not.
“We can settle who gets the unicorn later!” River announced. “But right now those Hunters know you’re all here, and you won’t be able to run.”
“Not fair! Not fair pony!” the lead Dog shouted. “You made us stay with tricks and talking! No wanted trouble!”
“Well it’s here,” River Rush retorted. “So you can run with your tail between your legs and be locked up by the Big Boss in Undertown for going back empty-pawed, or you can help us and maybe get a reward. The griffin-folk have gems of their own you know.”
Glimner huffed. “You’re asking a bit much there, buddy...”
“And! We’ll pay you a bounty with it. The unicorn’s weight in gems.”
Glimner sighed. “Karkan is definitely not going to like this.”
The lead Diamond Dog punched the ground with his beefy forearms. “Grrr! Fine! But, but, three weights in gems, or Diamond Dogs never forget!”
“They’re here!” Glimner shouted.
“Deal!” River said. “Now I have a plan. Everyone stay calm. Dogs, you shoot when I give the signal!”
“Wait! Wait! What is signal? What is signal?!”
But then there was no time to talk. River looked to the sky and cringed, watching the dark shapes descend on shadowy wings that shimmered with magic. River Rush and Glimner spread their wings and stood in front of the unicorn. The dark shapes landed without a sound in spite of their size, each them perfectly identical and almost as large as Glimner. The rocks sizzled as their needle-like talons clutched them. Long, heavy snouts sniffed the air at the end of powerful necks drawn in a reptilian s-shape that led to a strong, narrow back. Whiplike tails swayed like reeds in the wind behind them. Not a single sound came from the beasts save for the quiet crackle of the fires that burned beneath their incorporeal skin.
River Rush knew that cracking open those thin shells and crushing the magical gemstones and focal points inside their bodies was the key to defeating them. In three hundred years, the Hunters had changed little. They were fearsome magical constructs that served a purpose and little more. That did not make them any less deadly. Destroying them would alert every other Hunter in a large radius to their deaths and likely bring some form of reprisal. But to save the life of a pony, and a unicorn no less, was worth it.
“Well, well, well.”
All eyes turned towards the new voice that came from the midst of the Hunter swarm. From out of the black crowd came a short, beady-eyed unicorn pony with a pale orange coat, and a stringy, white mane. He wore the tight fitting uniform of the Dragon’s Teeth, the arm of the Eternal Flame’s army that snatched up errant ponies that matched their ambiguous criteria for abduction. River Rush bristled.
“Traitor!” he spat. “Turncoat! What’s one of you doing here?”
“Bringing the lord of this world one step closer to true victory,” the unicorn said in a blasé tone, as if nothing they were doing was of any great importance. “We require that unicorn you have there.”
“You’re not getting him.”
“Come now. Let’s not make this any more difficult than it has to be.” The unicorn turned towards the Diamond Dogs now, giving them a contemptuous sniff.
“As for you all. I don’t expect there will be any trouble? No? Of course not.” He looked back at Glimner and River Rush.
“Remove yourselves from this place or die. It’s an easy choice.”
River Rush flapped his wings. He looked between the Hunters and Glimner, who nodded. The pegasus sighed and closed his wings again, stepping aside.
“Fine. We don’t want any trouble.”
“No, certainly. I’m glad to see some of you yokels still have a lick of sense. Remember that you all owe your quaint, uncivilized lives to the Flame’s beneficent rule. He views you as little to no threat to his domain, and so you are not all long dead. I do not think any of you want that to change, so, if you’ll excuse me...”
River Rush and Glimner took to the air. They watched intently as the unicorn advanced on his still unconscious counterpart, preparing to teleport them both away. River Rush waited. He watched. The dark feelings oozing from the Hunters assaulted his mind, but he held firm. The unicorn closed his eyes. His horn began to glow.
He never saw River Rush’s hooves crack into the back of his head as the pegasus swooped down, felling him with a single blow. The Hunters took to the air the moment their leader went down. River Rush zoomed upwards with a flap of his wings as Glimner dived down to meet the onrushing shadows and charged right down the middle of the swarm, dodging slashing claws and beating wings before pulling up mere feet from striking the ground. The pack split apart, forced to choose between two targets. River Rush buzzed the heads of the Diamond Dogs, who ducked even lower as the Hunters passed right over them.
“Signal! SIGNAL!” River Rush screamed, frantically beating his wings to stay ahead of the Hunters’ grasping claws.
The lead Diamond Dog blinked at the swirling commotion. “Ummm... oh! Yes! Signal! Shoot! All you stupid dogs shoot! For gems! GEMS!”
“GEMS!” the Dogs shouted. The sound of fifteen muskets firing at point blank range was deafening. Sparks, pops, and booms resounded through the air, and the Hunters’ hides were torn open by projectile spells ripped from the gemstones in the muskets’ loading breeches. Fierce gouts of magical fire poured from their wounds, but the Hunters didn’t even flinch. Several peeled off from the pursuit of the pegasus and swooped down to attack the Diamond Dogs as they reloaded, sending them scattering over the rocks as their leader screeched for them to stay in formation.
River Rush gritted his teeth and pumped his wings to get more height, hearing his friend Glimner screech with rage as he went up against the Hunters claw-to-claw. There were three Hunters right on River’s tail, several of them sporting injuries but seeming no worse the wear for them. The gems that served as their eyes glowed with a malevolent energy as they chased the pegasus in an ever heightening column into the sky over the battle, trailing angry black smoke trails. River Rush thought he could hear his wings buzzing as they flapped faster and faster to keep him away from the flying horrors, the strain he had received from a full day of fighting the storm giving him a terrible ache in his joints. Round and round they went, turning a huge column in the air. River kicked his legs back and sent a buffeting wind downwards, but the Hunters blew right through it without even slowing down.
River led them to the clouds above. It was hard flying on his already tired wings since they were still thick and cold with moisture, and he knew he couldn’t hide in the clouds; the Hunters could track the faint energy field possessed by all living creatures. He just had to be faster than them, and that he could do. The pegasus put on an extra burst of speed, gaining precious inches, and stuck his hooves out in front of him. Clouds swelled up between his forelegs. River Rush waited until he had a nice big bundle of grey, wispy stormhead, feeling it crackle with gathered energy, and let it drift behind him, angling his wings to lower his speed. The Hunters felt him get closer and pushed themselves harder, talons outstretched to rend and tear their prey.
The one in the lead had no chance to avoid the lightning bolt that River Rush bucked from his cloud. It struck the beast’s head, which exploded into murky black vapor and crystal shards. The powerful body became nothing more than a jumble of flailing limbs as the Hunter fell apart, the spells holding it together collapsing and disappearing. The construct trailed smoke and flames all the way down as it disintegrated. Its fellows flew in a dazed circle, confused by the powerful discharge, and they were unprepared for another daring attack by River Rush as he blasted between them, dragging a strong wind surge behind him. The drag that torpedoed downwards whistled in the holes of the Hunters’ wings, disrupting their flight patterns. They were good at hunting and catching; prey that fought back with so much audacity and skill was not what they were made for. River came screaming back to them through a tight turn, cannoning into a wing with his front hooves. There was a hard crack as the gemstone inside shattered under the mighty blow. A feeling of immense cold and fear jolted his body as he passed through the darkness and fire, nearly making him freeze in midair. He sped away to get some distance and collect his wits as the remaining Hunter watched its fellow spiral to the ground, helplessly flapping its remaining wing. It seemed to come to a decision and began to fly away as fast as it could go.
It was then that Glimner barreled into the monster. The griffin had suffered numerous deep cuts, but that seemed only to fuel the raging strength that he used to dig his talons into the Hunter’s body as they plummeted into free-fall. Hunter and griffin clawed viciously at one another in a blur of movement, a cacophony of screeching and rending and tearing. Glimner struggled to get a good grip on the smoky form, until he managed to grab one of its claws in his beak. He pulled back with a vicious yank, dismembering the Hunter and allowing him to punch his front talons into the creature’s chest. Ignoring the scalding heat, he grasped with his claws and found a large gem inside, latching onto it. He pushed himself away from the Hunter with his strong back legs, and the inside of the Hunter’s chest came with him in a fountain of inky black smoke. The magical beast exploded into a menagerie of sparkling lights, its body dissolving into thin air as it hurtled downward.
The two friends hovered, watching the creature plummet and disappear into a burst of ash and flame.
“Well. That’s that,” Glimner snarled, bleeding from several open wounds and nursing burned talons. River Rush nodded, doing his best to ignore the soot and harsh stinging all over his body. A consequence of coming into direct contact with the Hunters’ magical flames.
“That’s that. We better get back down and check on those Dogs. Who knows how well they fared.”
The site of the battle was atrocious. Four Diamond Dogs had been mauled to death, their bodies left sprawled over the ground. Wispy black smoke curling on the damp air was the only evidence that the Hunters had been defeated, or even been there at all. There was one other strange thing.
The remaining Diamond Dogs were gone.
“What...” River looked back to the spot where the unicorn had been.
It was empty.
“No... no, no, no!” River flared his wings and almost took off when he felt a strong yank on his tail. Glimner had snatched it with his beak, straining to keep the pegasus from flying off on his own.
“Hold on there, bud!” he said, releasing River’s tail with a snap. “They haven’t gone far. I just saw the last of them duck into the treeline.
“Then let’s go get them!” River shouted.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not in the best shape I’ve ever been, and they still have their guns. Taking on five Hunters alone would have killed me, if our ‘dead shot’ friends hadn’t backed me up. On top of that... there are the treaties to consider.”
“Hang the treaties, a pony’s in danger! Glimner, I’m sorry, but we have to hurry! I’ll track them myself if I need to!”
“All right, all right, fine, I trust you. But they’ll be heading into the swamps. You need to stay behind them, and don’t you dare show yourself until I get back with reinforcements. You know the signal to leave behind?”
River reached into his saddlepack and pulled out a small pink orb. With a flick of his hoof, it lit up with a bright light.
“Excellent. Remember your lessons now, pal. Stay safe. I’ll be back with the whole Eyrie soon enough. These filthy Dogs can’t get away with thieving a pony.”
River Rush watched in silence as the griffon took to the air with a pained expression, intent on reaching home as quickly as possible. And with that, he took off towards the fleeing Diamond Dogs, and hopefully, one step closer to healing the world again.