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Long Distance

by Ezn

 

Chapter One

 

"Rise and shine, everypony! You're listening to K-FILY on a bright, sunny day in the great city of Fill-ey-delphia! The weather teams have scheduled a downpour this evening, so enjoy that sun while you can, fillies and colts!"

 

White Noise rubbed his still-closed eyes with his hooves as he slowly lifted himself out of bed. He'd been up late the previous night, and it felt as if he hadn't had any sleep at all. He had half a mind to switch the alarm clock off and go back to sleep, but knew that wouldn't be the most responsible of actions. He had an example to set.

 

His horn glowed brightly as he put the kettle on for some coffee. One advantage to living in such a small apartment was that everything was in the telekinetic range of your average unicorn. Another advantage was the lack of walls – White Noise had some friends who loved to try lifting things on the opposite side of walls, but he himself liked to be able to see what he was doing.

 

Magic wasn't White's main thing after all – his speech-bubble-shaped cutie mark could attest to that. When it first appeared, his parents had been frightened he'd grow up to be a comic book artist, but White had known instantly that his talent was communication. Not saying things himself, that is, but figuring out easier ways for ponies to talk to each other under more circumstances.

 

White poured himself some coffee as he looked over the reports from his mail service – Dragonfire Delivery. He'd been too busy to read them the previous night, but that was fine, because business seemed to be doing wonderfully. Sales of bottled dragonfire were through the roof, and his dragons were coming to more towns and cities throughout Equestria by the day.

 

Finished with his drink, White Noise checked out his light blue mane and white coat in the mirror, decided they were presentable enough, and trotted out of his apartment, his mind already turning back to the problem that he'd wrestled with long into the previous night.

 

***

 

"Rise and shine, everypony! You're listening to K-FILY on a bright, sunny day in the great city of Fill-ey-delphia! The weather teams have scheduled a downpour this evening, so enjoy that sun while you can, fillies and colts!"

 

Sky Wave had already been up for ages when the mellifluous tones of K-FILY announcer Chats travelled through the air and into her radio. Celestia was in the middle of raising the sun, way off in Canterlot, and Sky sat on a cloud to watch as the great big fireball rose over the mountains and turned them from black to orange to green.

 

She had got up before the sun to practice her flying routine against a backdrop of the pitch black night. For the past hour, Sky Wave had silently glided, looped around and dove in her graceful, majestic way. Some pegasi were all about speed, but she loved the feeling of control she had when flying at slower speeds, and the way her flow carried her through the air from one move to another.

 

The sun was a little late this morning, which pleased Sky Wave. There had been a call to standardise the rising and setting of the sun, but Princess Celestia, in her wisdom, saw no reason not to vary the times for the good of her subjects. Cold winter days were shortened, and warm summer days lengthened. On a more specific note, the Grand Galloping Gala had happened the previous day, so Celestia gave her subjects a little time to sleep in.

 

Sky Wave picked up her radio in her mouth and opened her wings to fly off as the sun asserted its position in the sky. After performing her old routine at the Grand Galloping Fillydelphia Party Gala, she'd managed to work out a good chunk of a new routine this morning, and was pleased with her progress.

 

Some ponies thought Sky's practice of only performing routines once completely crazy, but she was committed to entertaining ponies in new and exciting ways every time she performed. The only constants between performances were her light pink coat and deep crimson mane – and she'd even toyed with the idea of dying them between performances.

 

Her cutie mark was a red ribbon with three loops of varying sizes. She often imagined it floating free on the wind, contorting and changing as it moved from one updraft to another, just as she did.

 

***

 

"Rise and shine, everypony! You're listening to K-FILY on a bright, sunny day in the great city of Fill-ey-delphia! The weather teams have scheduled a downpour this evening, so enjoy that sun while you can, fillies and colts!"

 

Sibwashie was jarred awake by the announcer pony's Filly accent. He'd been meaning to find something more in tune with his tastes to listen to, but he hadn't yet found the time. Being a Zebrican zebra in Fillydelphia, Equestria meant that he had a lot to learn.

 

Sibwashie switched off the radio as the announcer was in the middle of some speech about the previous night's Grand Galloping Gala. He preferred the radio's songs to its news – at least in song, ponies were polite enough to talk in rhymes.

 

"I miss my home more than I can bear

But I'm learning more here than over there," Sibwashie said to himself in a slow, deliberate tone.

 

Making up an Equestrian-language couplet every morning had been a great way to learn this strange new language. It was harder to find good rhymes than in his native tongue, but their pursuit had greatly expanded Sibwashie's vocabulary. He'd spent many nights poring over his prized Equestrian language rhyming dictionary.

 

Sibwashie reminded himself that rhyming was not an Equestrian custom. In Zebrica, only close friends and family would talk to each other in prose, so hearing it everywhere made Sibwashie feel a little strange. But he would have to get used to it, if he wanted to succeed in his lifelong dream.

 

Sibwashie wanted to be a Zebrican ambassador to Equestria. Throughout his life, he had borne witness to interracial misunderstandings and fear. Ponies and zebras would get off on the wrong hoof with each other because of their differing customs and ways of being polite. Each side would trumpet its own ways, and neither side would admit the other's merits.

 

Looking out the window, the zebra noticed that the sunrise was almost over. Taking that as a good reason to get a start on his day, Sibwashie slid into his brightly coloured saddlebags (adorned with intricate designs, drawn in traditional Zebrican style by a good friend of his) and headed out.

 

***

 

White Noise used telekinesis to flip the "Sorry, We're Closed" sign around so it said "Yay! We're Open" instead. This would be the third day of operation for Dragonfire Delivery's Fillydelphia outlet – the second one (out of two) in Equestria.

 

The store was small and sparsely furnished, but its simplicity and cleanliness gave it a pleasant style all the same. White Noise moved into place behind a wooden counter that extended across the shop's width, separating its customers from the shelves behind White Noise that carried his wares.

 

The shelves were adorned with cylindrical jars, each with a neat little label with the name of a place on it – "CANTERLOT", "MANEHATTAN", and "HOOFINGTON", to name the most popular ones. What was really eye-catching about the jars, though, was that each one flickered with green light – they all contained that special type of dragonfire used for sending messages across vast distances. Unlike real fire, the green flames burnt eternally without fuel, and would actually extinguish once given a sample of fuel, however small. White Noise had considered marketing them for their perpetual light-giving ability on top of their primary function, but nopony liked the sickly green hue they cast upon dark surroundings.

 

No, Dragonfire Delivery had stayed true to its original purpose, concocted by White Noise while studying at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. The young company had done an admirable job of bringing the convenience and speed of the school's internal mail-by-dragonfire system to the common ponyfolk.

 

"Good morning, White," said a cheery voice. "How are you feeling today?"

 

"Not terrible, thanks," answered White Noise, "but you sound quite happy, Turquoise."

 

"I try to be happy every day, you know that!"

 

White Noise smiled. Although he hadn't known her for very long, he found his Fillydelphia-branch assistant to be a very likeable dragon. She reminded him of Smooth Scales, his oldest dragon friend – currently managing the Canterlot branch – only she was perhaps a little less mischievous and prank-happy than that devilish creature.

 

"You'll be happy to know that sales are rocketing up. Our new partnership with the Equestrian Post Office was a fantastic idea, if I do say so myself."

 

"Yes Turq, you did good with that idea. I'm glad we're reaching more ponies!" White Noise replied enthusiastically, the good news wiping some of the sleep out of his eyes. "Dragonfire Delivery is going to change Equestria, I promise you."

 

"I wouldn't be working here otherwise, sir. And speaking of the post office, here's our liaison now."

 

Turquoise's words were punctuated by the entrance of a pink pegasus wearing an EqPO baseball cap on her head and a set of tan saddlebags over her back. She smiled awkwardly through gritted teeth, which gripped a clipboard.

 

"Hello Sky," White Noise greeted. "How are you feeling today?"

 

"Tired, but still just a little psyched from my performance last night," Sky replied, placing her clipboard on the floor.

 

"Ah yes, congrats on that. You were great up there! I was only able to hang around a short while, but I liked what I saw."

 

"Thanks, I worked really hard on that performance," Sky Wave replied, blushing almost imperceptibly. "Anyway, I guess I'd better pick up the goods. I've got the post office's order written down on my clipboard."

 

White Noise levitated the clipboard up to his face and then busied himself levitating various jars off shelves (parallel levitation, now that was a skill worth knowing!). The post office would be taking almost all of his Canterlot dragonfire today, probably in anticipation of all the letters that would be sent to-and-fro regarding the previous night's Gala. White Noise hoped he would have enough left for his own, private clients.

 

The jars landed softly in Sky Wave's magically wide-open saddlebags, making them bulge quite significantly, and putting a visible amount of strain on the poor pegasus.

 

"That looks really heavy. Are you sure you shouldn't maybe make two trips?" Turq asked.

 

"Nah, I can handle it," Sky replied, smiling bravely. "A good performer must be graceful and strong. Also resilient. Besides, I've carried heavier weights – I'm a mailpony!"

 

White Noise chuckled softly at this statement. "I'm not sure where the trend of mailing other ponies large gifts like pianos came from, but I guess it must be good conditioning for you guys. I know it doesn't do my business any good."

 

"My back longs for the day ponies can deliver parcels by dragonfire!"

 

With that parting wish, Sky Wave flew off into the air, her ascent slowed by the weight of her saddlebags.

 

"I am glad we partnered with the postal service," Turquoise commented. "She's nice."

 

***

 

Later that day, White Noise and Turquoise were having a debate about the nutritional value of gemstones, when a tall, exotic shadow darkened their door. The conversation melted away as a large-framed zebra with a large and very traditional mohawk stepped into the establishment.

 

White's eyes widened as he caught sight of their latest customer. Clearing his throat, he launched into an enthusiastic greeting:

 

"«A warm welcome to you, traveller from a faraway land

Speak what you desire, and I will understand!»" White said in measured tones of his best Zebrican.

 

Sibwashie was taken aback at the unicorn's words. His rhyming was awkward and his words lacked the rhythm of a mother-tongue speaker, but he got his point across. Sibwashie hadn't heard any other ponies speak to him in his own language before.

 

"«Your warm accommodation finds welcome in my heart

Now, I pray, aid a traveller by using your life's art.»"

 

"Uuuuh….." said Turquoise.

 

"«Where would you like to send a letter? Limited choices are available, I'm afraid.»" White asked.

 

"«My correspondence is with a mare in Hoofington, a fine lady of the farming trade.»" Sibwashie continued, completing White's rhyme as was the Zebrican custom.

 

"'Hoofington', I understand. I'll go fetch a jar of that from the back," said Turquoise, shaking the bewilderment off her face.

 

"Unicorn sir, your empathy and interest I will repay

by speaking in your tongue, with you, today." Sibwashie said, switching to Equestrian.

 

"That's kind of a relief, I was running out of words!" White joked. "I'm White Noise, graduate of Princess Celestia's School For Gifted Unicorns, and owner of the Dragonfire Delivery company. It's a pleasure to meet you."

 

"Sibwashie is the name I've borne since birth

And I am the only Sibwashie on this earth."

 

The zebra and pony shook hooves just as Turquoise returned with a small jar of green flame labelled "HOOFINGTON". The flame flickered and swam about behind the clear glass, entrancing Sibwashie with its unreal colour and movement.

 

"Say hi to Mr Sibwashie, Turquoise," White gently commanded. "This is my Fillydelphia store manager, Turquoise. She's a good worker, even if she doesn't know too many languages."

 

"Hello Mr Sibwashie, sir," Turquoise said, handing over the Hoofington jar.

 

Taking the jar in his mouth, Sibwashie gave Turquoise a silent nod, grateful that he was presently unable to speak – his Equestrian rhyming still needed work, and he didn't want to get stuck on "Turquoise".

 

"So, if I may ask," began White Noise, as Sibwashie deposited some bits on the counter in payment. "What brings you to Equestria? Zebrica's quite a way away from here."

 

After placing the jar of dragonfire in his left saddlebag, Sibwashie put a hoof to his chin, thinking for a moment before opening his mouth.

 

"The glyph upon my flank describes a very delicate mission

It compels me to prevent international peace attrition.

 

"Or, to put it in a fashion more clear-spoken and plain

Means my job is full of pony-zebra friendships to maintain.

 

"By travelling deep into pony country and living among you

I hope to understand, and discover what is true."

 

"So, basically, you're a diplomat?" White surmised.

 

"Ambassador is the term I would prefer

But, right now, I am neither.

 

"I am a young zebra, with so much to see and to learn

I must make myself worthy of the position I yearn."

 

"Well you seem like a pretty interesting guy nonetheless. You know… I've always been curious about life outside of Equestria, and it's about lunch time. Would you mind accompanying me? I'm sure I can tell you a fair bit about Equestria, from my perspective anyway. And if you're at all interested in Dragonfire Delivery…"

 

Sibwashie smiled and nodded. Perhaps this would be a beneficial relationship to cultivate, he thought. Communication technology IS an essential component of any relationship between nations.

 

***

 

"I can't believe I never thought of that before!" White Noise blurted out. "Distance doesn't matter to Dragonfire – there's absolutely no good reason why my business shouldn't have branches all over the world! Just think of the possibilities!"

 

"With such a grand, all-spanning system put in place

I would be able to keep in touch with other members of my race."

 

White Noise and Sibwashie were sitting at a booth in the former's favourite Fillydelphia deli. White had eaten a daisy sandwich; Sibwashie had ordered the soup of the day. Their meals finished, they were leisurely drinking cups of coffee – White knew that Turquoise could manage the shop on her own, and Sibwashie didn't have any pressing engagements for the rest of the day.

 

"You've given me a lot to think about, Mr Sibwashie," White said, very truthfully, resting his coffee mug on the table.

 

"I can say with joy that it's the same on my end

I am glad to have met you, my new pony friend."

 

Sibwashie felt that White Noise was maybe a little too absorbed in his job, but he had still managed to learn a few new things about Equestrian culture from the unicorn. More importantly, he'd gained an insight into the Equestrian viewpoint on Zebrica and zebras from someone who had studied the subject. Who would've thought they found traditional zebra ceremonial masks frightening?

 

***

 

Sky Wave swooped gracefully into one of the many wide entrances that lead straight from the sky into an upper floor of the Fillydelphia post office. She trotted up to her supervisor's desk, twisting and turning as she went to avoid colliding with any of the bustling mailponies scurrying around her.

 

"Got today's dragonfire for you, boss," Sky said cheerfully.

 

"Thank you," came the reply, spoken in a voice that was unfamiliar to Sky Wave. "I have something for you as well."

 

Sky did a double-take at the mare in front of her. She was wearing a uniform identical to Sky's supervisor's one, but a few sizes smaller, and obviously cut for a mare rather than a stallion. The light red mare who looked to be Sky's new supervisor also had a severity to her gaze, and a very neatly styled mane – a far cry from the shaggy, unshaven Stamp she had grown used to.

 

"What happened to Stamp?" Sky asked, trying to use as polite a tone as possible.

 

"He moved on. This department is currently undergoing a large-scale restructuring," retorted the strange new supervisor, pushing a brown envelope across her desk towards Sky.

 

Sky took the envelope in her mouth, hearing a rustle of bits as she did so. It was the beginning of the second week of that month, and Sky was fairly certain that payday was not on the agenda of "stuff to restructure"... but maybe it was a special bonus!

 

"Shank yew ma'am, but today'sh shnot payday."

 

"And that's not your wage. It's your severance package."

 

Sky Wave's eyes widened in horror, and the envelope of bits clattered to the floor as her mouth did the same. She was being fired?! Had she done something wrong? Delivered letters to the wrong addresses? Broken the contents of a package? Dropped a piano on somepony's head?

 

"The Equestrian Post Office and I feel you would be better suited to a career more in-line with your natural strengths," the red mare said. "New employee policy disallows us from hiring anypony without a mail-related cutie mark, so I'm afraid we have to let you go."

 

Sky Wave opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. This new supervisor didn't strike her as the compassionate type.

 

***

 

Sibwashie and White Noise walked along one of Fillydelphia's many concrete pavements, watching the carriages go by as they made idle conversation.

 

"...and that's why Princess Luna has been missing for the last thousand years," finished White. "I heard her return was a public relations nightmare – took my civil servant friends in Canterlot weeks of sleepless nights to smooth over everypony's confusion and anger."

 

"But on a more personal note," White said, switching topics after Sibwashie's nod of understanding, "all this talk about the Princesses has reminded me of a problem I've been puzzling over for a good few nights."

 

White closed his eyes for a moment as he composed his thoughts.

 

"A few weeks into my first term at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns," he began, "my class had a visit from the Princess herself…"

 

«-oOo-»

 

A young White Noise sat in the middle row of his General Magic class, staring down at his hooves. He was wondering why he of all ponies had been accepted into such a prestigious academy, and how long it would be before the school figured out that they'd made a mistake and kicked him out.

 

During his short time at the school, he'd met, seen and heard about so many ponies with magical skills far beyond anything he could claim to have. Sure, his earth pony friends back home had been impressed by his levitations, light-tricks and magical funny voices (great for pranks!), but the ponies here were ridiculously talented.

 

There was Ivy, the dark green filly who could make flowers grow and dance in front of her! And Steady Stand, the big red unicorn who knew a spell that made walls and carriages practically unbreakable! There were even some older unicorns working on inter-dimensional teleportation, whatever that was.

 

And of course there was Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia's personal student, as of the beginning of the year. White Noise hadn't met her, but he'd heard all kinds of stories about her entrance exam. He wasn't sure which ones were true, but he'd seen the giant hole in the exam room's ceiling.

 

What all these ponies had in common, and what made White Noise feel out of place, was that they had their cutie marks. White felt at times that he'd give his front hooves for a vine, or a wave crashing against a dyke, or even something lame like a hammer on his flank. How was he supposed to be a "gifted unicorn" if he didn't even know who he was?

 

White was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of an old mare clearing her throat. The class was starting.

 

"We have a very special guest teacher for you today, fillies and colts," said Chalkboard, the class's dusty grey teacher. "Please stand for her Majesty, Princess Celestia."

 

Gasps and squeals of excitement filled the air as the hundred-and-something little ponies in the class rose to their hooves, their eyes widening as the Princess stepped into room.

 

The Princess, regal as always, slowly stepped across the length of the small classroom, smiling at the low-bowing teacher-pony before her. Her mane blew out in front of her face, despite the lack of wind, and the Princess seemed to radiate a magical aura all about her tall, elegant frame.

 

"Good morning, my faithful students," she said, giving her voice a magical boost that made it echo softly around the room. "I trust you have enjoyed your first few weeks at my school. You have learnt a lot under the guidance of Ms Chalkboard, but you still have much, much more to discover about magic... and about yourselves."

 

White sat up at this.

 

"You are all young ponies, and many of you don't know what your special talents are. Even those lucky ponies who have their cutie marks already may still be a little confused about their lives and what their marks really mean."

 

Princess Celestia paused for a moment, a smile crossing her muzzle.

 

"Not everypony gets something straightforward like a sun cutie mark that means they should go out and raise the sun every morning."

 

It was hard to tell if the Princess was making a joke, or whether or not she expected the class to laugh at it, so a few polite giggles rose up from the class before being strangled by awkwardness. White Noise smiled softly.

 

"Rest assured that you are all among the most magically adept unicorns in all of Equestria," the Princess continued, slowly gazing around the room. "Each one of you has amazing potential in one or more fields of magic, and this General Magic class is where you can find out what those fields are."

 

Just as Princess Celestia was pausing to let the class think about her words, a scroll materialised in front of her in a puff of smoke. Catching it with her levitation, the Princess set it down on the teacher's desk and continued speaking.

 

"That was an example of an ambient spell, my little ponies. Can anypony tell me what an ambient spell is? Yes, you in the front row."

 

"An ambient spell is a spell that does something constantly, Princess Celestia," came the front-row pony's matter-of-fact tone.

 

"Very good, my faithful student. My mail-delivery spell constantly looks for dragonfire letters addressed to me, and when it finds one, it delivers it directly to me."

 

This was new information to White. Like all the other ponies in his class, he'd been briefed on the school's dragonfire communication system, but he had been under the impression that dragons could only deliver letters to each other.

 

"Although the system sounds simple," the Princess continued, "it actually takes a lot of magic to maintain – that is the most important thing to remember about ambient magic. At the moment, I am the only pony with enough magic to use it."

 

«-oOo-»

 

"…with enough magic to use it," White said, his story coming to a close. "It was on that day that I discovered my fascination with communication. My cutie mark came later on – that's a whole other story – but the point of the story is that last thing the Princess said."

 

White Noise let out a sigh, and Sibwashie noticed the lines beneath his eye for the first time. It looked like White hadn't been getting enough sleep.

 

"The Princess said that nopony could cast that spell but her. And from what my research shows, she's absolutely right. The spell requires insane amounts of magic, and its ambient nature doesn't help matters. But I still feel like I have to figure out some way of using it. A spell like that would revolutionize Dragonfire Delivery – just think of all the places ponies' messages could reach!"

 

At this point, White's eyes had glazed over with excitement, and his grin stretched so far across his face that Sibwashie feared he'd hurt himself.

 

"I guess it's more than that, though," White continued, coming back down to earth. "If I don't have a way of casting that spell and making practical use of it, then what does that say about my understanding of dragonfire? I mean, the fire's literally the fuel that my business runs on, and sometimes I just get the feeling that I have no idea what I'm doing."

 

Sibwashie could think of a straightforward solution to his new friends' dilemma, one that he would enact were he in the same position.

 

"When seeking to understand problems like this, the only recourse

Is to begin your search by finding the source.

 

"Dragonfire is breathed by dragons, you know?

Perhaps you should see what they have to show."

 

"Well, yes, but I'm just not –"

 

White Noise's eyes widened as an idea dawned on him. It was probably a bit of a stretch, and hardly an appropriate thing to ask of somepony (somezebra?) he'd met maybe an hour before, but at that moment White was overcome with a sense of destiny.

 

"Sibwashie, you're a diplomat-in-training, right?" he asked tentatively. "Isn't Dragonia awfully close to Zebrica? Have you been there before? Would you go there again?"

 

Sibwashie blinked. This was quite a bit to take in. He'd been to the outskirts of Dragonia a few times, but it wasn't a place he'd lavished much attention on. Dragons, for the most part, were solitary creatures who liked nothing more than to be left alone. The ones in Dragonia especially – their incredibly long lifespans meant that on the rare occasion they did make friends with others, the others in question would be other dragons. They viewed the zebra population with quiet amusement, watching them live out their entire lives in the time it took a dragon to take a nap.

 

Nonetheless, White Noise had made an interesting offer. It would merit some serious contemplation.

 

"Hey, what's wrong?"

 

Sibwashie noticed that White Noise had been busy talking to a pegasus mare while he'd been lost in thought. The light pink mare's head was drooped, and she looked rather down on her luck.

 

"I just got fired," she said in response to White's question. "The powers-that-be decided my cutie mark wasn't 'appropriate for a mail-carrier'."

 

"That's pretty rough," said White. "But you've still got your performances, right? Don't those bring in a fair amount of money?"

 

Sky sighed. "Sadly not. If it did, I'd not have taken that post office job. My gigs are just too irregular – my specific flight style isn't as breath-taking or daring as that of, say, the Wonderbolts, and even though I'm okay with that, and my fans are okay with that, it just means that I'm not the kind of performer most ponies want at their events."

 

"Is there anything I can do to help you?"

 

"Know of any other jobs I can get?"

 

For the second time in less than five minutes, White's eyes widened at his own brilliance, and he felt that strange sense of destiny. Again, it was a bit of a stretch, but…

 

***

 

"…and that's how it'll work, if you guys are sure you want to do this," White Noise finished, taking a deep breath. "Sibwashie, you'll use your local knowledge and people-skills to get us to some dragons who can help me with my magic studies, and Sky, you'll be our eye in the sky while we're hoofin' it to Dragonia. Both of you will be paid handsomely – Dragonfire Delivery is doing very well at the moment, and a trip like this would be the perfect opportunity to expand even further."

 

The pony and zebra nodded in agreement. For Sibwashie this would be a chance to see more of Equestria, and visit his home again; White Noise had promised they'd make a stop in Zebrica, seeing as they'd probably end up going through it anyway. For Sky Wave it would be a way to actually have something to do over the post-Gala event drought. White's mention of payment had a fair bit to do with their agreement as well.

 

"So we'll meet up at the edge of town tomorrow?" Sky asked.

 

"The edge that faces Hoofington, to be precise. We'll be travelling along the E7 for most of the way," White replied matter-of-factly. "I'm glad you guys don't have a lot of stuff you need to do before we make this trip, because I'd hit that road right now if I could."

 

"I will send some letters and give my landlady notice of my leave

Then I just have to pack – that's all – hard to believe…" replied Sibwashie.

 

"I'm a leaf on the wind, White," said Sky Wave dramatically. "Wherever destiny takes me, that's where I go."

 

***

 

"So you're sure you'll be fine to manage the shop on your own?" White Noise asked Turquoise the next day.

 

"Don't patronise me, boss," she replied cattily. "If I wasn't able to do something as basic as that you wouldn't have hired me. It's not like you were going to stay at the Fillydelphia branch forever in any case. No offense, but you're a Canterlot pony, through and through."

 

"None taken," replied White, wistfully thinking of Canterlot's majestic towers, pathways and bridges. "It's too bad we're not going in that direction."

 

"Are you sure you know the way, White?"

 

White Noise levitated a map out of his right saddlebag to assuage his dragon shop-assistant's fears. A thick dotted line marked a path along the main roads from Fillydelphia all the way to Port Anchor, where a boat would take them across the sea to Zebrica.

 

"We'll be heading through Hoofington, Ponyville and a few other places. The Hoofington dragon I've hired will be glad to help open up a branch over there – he says the Post Office is far too noisy a working area for his liking."

 

"Sounds like you've got it all figured out quite nicely, boss," Turquoise said, raising an eyebrow.

 

"They don't give just anypony a degree in Communications Technology, Turq," White replied snidely. "Anyway, I'd better get going. Take care."

 

"Good-bye Mr Bossman," Turquoise replied as White levitated the shop's door open and stepped out.

 

The white unicorn hurried along the road to the edge of town, where he'd arranged to meet his travelling companions. He was a little nervous about going on such a long journey with a pony and zebra he didn't know terribly well, but something told him it would all work out fine. Who knows? he thought. We could even become friends.

Next (Chapter 2) -->


Chapter Two

 

The sun hovered a short distance above the lonely dirt road, making the trees that rose up on its eastern side cast long shadows over its surface. The morning atmosphere was fuzzy with the light mist that arose from the grass beneath the trees.

 

Birds sang, leaves rustled in the gentle breeze, and the world was otherwise silent. Then came the soft padding of hooves – not a so much a disruption of the silence as a carefully-measured, respectful step around it.

 

The two ponies and zebra had not been walking for very long, but they felt that they were already quite far removed from the hustle and bustle of their city lives. Fillydelphia was no Manehattan, but the contrast between it and their current surroundings was jarring nonetheless.

 

A rabbit skipped across the path and disappeared into the underbrush – a rare sight even in rural Equestria, as most animals were almost completely helpless outside of domestic situations. Sibwashie smiled at the sight of the wild rodent, thinking back to the lions and cheetahs that roamed the plains around the village where he was born.

 

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" whispered Sky Wave.

 

Her companions nodded in agreement, unwilling to further harm the tranquillity of their surroundings with even the softest words.

 

***

 

The journey continued in this fashion for a time, until White Noise finally spoke: "If you wouldn't mind, Sky, I think now'd be a good time to fly up and see if there's anything up ahead that we should be aware of. A fallen tree, or a broken bridge, or maybe a fork in the road: something like that."

 

"On it," Sky replied briskly, rising into the air before the words had fully left her mouth.

 

With a few soft flaps of her slender wings, Sky rose up above the tree to survey the path ahead. It twisted and turned in places, but as far as she could tell there were no upcoming forks, broken bridges or trees obstructing any part of it. Raising a hoof above her eyes to block out the sun's glare, she saw Hoofington's pretty wooden houses lying on the horizon.

 

Sky flapped her wings once more and rose several feet higher. The whole of Hoofington now spread out at the edge of her vision, and turning east for a moment, she could see Manehattan's majestic skyscrapers of steel and concrete rising up to touch the sun. It's a shame we're not heading in that direction, she thought. I've always wanted to see that city at night, all lit up like it is on the postcards.

 

With a sigh, Sky bade farewell to Manehattan's towers and swooped down to rejoin her earth-bound companions. She gracefully folded in her wings as her hooves touched the dirt and brought her trotting into step with the pace of her companions.

 

"The way's all-clear from here to Hoofington, guys," she said. "And Hoofington's not too terribly far away either – if we speed this trip up with a nice gallop, I'm sure we can get there within a few hours."

 

"Guess I could use the exercise," White Noise said nervously as he noticed Sibwashie nod eagerly at Sky's suggestion.

 

"Great!" Sky exclaimed. "On your marks... getsetgo!"

 

At that, all three ponies broke into a gallop. Sky's nimble legs carried her light frame swiftly along the path, and Sibwashie's thick and powerful ones did an admirable job of speeding his large body along at a relatively similar pace. White lagged slightly behind the others, hoping that the few times he'd been jogging since he got to Fillydelphia would pay off and help him to keep up with his companions.

 

***

 

They didn't.

 

"That was good and invigorating run

I cannot recall when last I had such fun," smiled Sibwashie.

 

"You did pretty well, boss," Sky Wave said to the panting unicorn that lay sprawled on the path just behind her. "Most unicorns I know probably couldn't gallop half that distance."

 

It was hard to tell through his heavy breathing, but Sky thought she saw White mouth the word "thanks".

 

"We're pretty close to Hoofington now," Sky said. "It wouldn't be a bad time to take a short break for lunch."

 

With that, Sky reached into her saddlebag and brought out some daisy and daffodil sandwiches she had packed for the journey. They were not as artfully made as the ones at White's favourite Fillydelphia deli, but right at that moment they may as well have been, given how appetising they appeared to his hungry eyes.

 

"Let's dig in," Sky said cheerfully, shucking her saddlebags to one side and slumping down on the grass. "I brought enough for everypony – and zebra!"

 

"Thank you for your thought, but I'm afraid I must decline

Your flowers disagree with me, and I find the grass quite fine," Sibwashie apologized politely, bending his head down to the grass and taking a bite out of it.

 

"My father got me to eat grass on a camping trip once," said White, having recovered his breath somewhat. "I can't say it agreed with me."

 

"It's quite nice once you get used to it, White," Sky replied. "In fact, I think I'll do some grazing for dessert."

 

With no further words, the ponies and zebra started eating their respective lunches. Sky Wave and White Noise each had three sandwiches (two daisy and one daffodil and pansy), and Sibwashie had enough grass to fill up his stomach. Sky joined him in grazing once she'd finished her sandwiches and White gingerly bit into a single blade of grass and turned quite green.

 

"I wonder if there's any signal out here," said Sky Wave, retrieving her portable radio from one of her saddlebags. "Oh, the battery's dead. White Noise?"

 

White Noise motioned with a hoof for Sky to place the radio in front of him. Closing his eyes, he lit up his horn and focused on the radio, sending his magic between the device's vents until it glowed even brighter than his horn.

 

The radio-powering spell was a slight variation of standard unicorn telekinesis, simple enough to be cast by any unicorn. The tricky part came in severing the portion of magic powering the device from one's own magic supply. A student of Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns had no trouble doing this (severing was the second thing they were taught in General Magic), but some younger and less magically-inclined unicorns would wear themselves out powering a radio for extended periods of time.

 

Sky Wave's radio came to life with a flare of static.

 

"Guess we're out of range of K-FILY," she said. "I mainly listen to them for the early morning music anyway."

 

White Noise turned the dial on the radio to its second channel. The static persisted. He went to the third channel. Still only static could be heard. The fourth and fifth channels yielded similar results, and then White had to turn back to the first channel because he had run out of options.

 

"So Hoofington doesn't have any radio stations," he concluded. "It makes sense. This radio thing is a pretty new technology, after all. Canterlot just got its first station the other month, and I don't know of anywhere other than Manehattan that actually uses all the channels."

 

"Every village in Zebrica has a radio station

Dedicated to relaying important information

 

"And it's largely thanks to the unicorns of this magical land

I'm surprised your system isn't more grand," Sibwashie said slowly.

 

"As am I, Sib," White Noise responded. "But I guess it's an issue of familiarity. Sure, we gave you guys the magic to really get your radio system into widespread use, but it's your invention. You've been using radios since the days you had to squeeze magic out of Poison Joke to power them, so you're just more accustomed to the idea of listening to disembodied voices all the time."

 

Just then, the three found their ears filled with the sound of trumpets, tubas and clarinets, belting out a stirring patriotic anthem that none of them could readily identify. The sound seemed to be getting louder.

 

"I don't think that's coming from my radio," Sky smirked.

 

And indeed it was not. In a few short moments, the source of the noise turned a bend in the road and stepped into view. It was a marching band.

 

The band was outfitted in cloaks, saddles and hats of dark purple and black, with a few patches of red here and there to lend the outfits some assertiveness. They marched stiffly, bearing serious expressions on their faces as they blew into their instruments. Attached to some of their saddles were large purple banners with the letters "NLR" written on them in bold black letters.

 

The dark ensemble was led by a proud-looking grey unicorn wearing a flowing black cape. Her striking red eyes flashed with acknowledgement as she saw White, Sky and Sibwashie, and she held out her left foreleg to signal the band to stop.

 

The instruments fell silent the moment the grey mare's leg left the ground, and the band stopped dead in their tracks. They stared at the three ponies before them without changing their serious expressions for a split second.

 

"Warmest greetings, travellers!" exclaimed the grey mare, her face breaking into a pleasant grin. "I am Quickblink, leader of this contingent of representatives of the New Lunar Republic, and my companions and I would like to extend our best wishes for your trip, wherever you may be headed."

 

"Uh..." White Noise began. "New Lunar Republic?"

 

Quickblink's face took on a look of shock. "You can't mean to tell me you haven't heard about the New Lunar Republic, the future haven of all forward-thinking equines – and might I say, Sir Zebra, on behalf of my countryponies, it is an honour to host a guest from the mighty empire of Zebrica."

 

Sibwashie noticed that Quickblink had very nearly said "ponies" and smiled inwardly. Outwardly, he gave the unicorn a polite nod and a far less sarcastic smile.

 

"Nope, I'm afraid 'Lunar Republic' really doesn't ring a bell," offered Sky with a shrug.

 

"Then please," began Quickblink, her horn glowing, "take a flier!"

 

The unicorn's cap flew up with a flourish, and a glossy black pamphlet floated out of one of the pockets and deposited itself at Sky Wave's feet.

 

"Now while I'd love to stay and chat, the band and I have a very busy schedule to keep to. Please take the time to read about our movement during your journey, and if you have any further questions, you should be able to find satisfactory answers at one of our offices – you'll find at least one New Lunar Republic outpost in most towns and cities in Equestria. Good day to you all."

 

Quickblink lowered her foreleg and the band behind her resumed playing from the very note they'd left off on. White Noise and his friends cleared out of their way as they marched along the dirt path and off into the distance.

 

"Well there's something you don't see every day," snarked White, once the marching band was out of earshot. "I wonder what this whole business is about: must be quite a big deal to inspire that kind of a performance from those band ponies."

 

White Noise remembered his short-lived marching band days back at the Princess's school. The band was made up of very talented and creative musicians, and also it had him in it. Needless to say, the creative differences everypony had with everypony else didn't win them any accolades. It's hard to be gifted sometimes, he thought, smiling wryly to himself.

 

"I wonder who does these pamphlets," muttered Sky Wave, admiring the pamphlet's shininess and pleasing layout as she unfolded it and spread it out in front of her with her hooves. "I should get some like this for my performances, that'd really snazz them right up."

 

"What does it say?" asked White Noise.

 

"There's an interesting-looking write-up about the movement's inspiration in the centre of this page," Sky replied, scrunching her eyes up with a look of concentration. "Let's see here..."

 

«-oOo-»

 

More than one thousand years before, when the Royal Pony Sisters ruled Equestria from their stone castle in the Everfree Forest (long before the word "Everfree" had taken on its present-day meaning and connotations), a group of brave pony travellers set out with large wood ships to explore the seas beyond Equestria, in search of new lands to explore and colonize.

 

A few days into their travels, they happened upon a lush tropical island, brimming with plant and animal life. The moment the ponies stepped of their rowboats, they knew that their short-lived quest had come to an abrupt end, for the island seemed to cast a spell upon anypony who set a hoof on its sandy shores.

 

It is said that in those days, whenever a pony lent down and put her ear to the ground, it was filled by the low, earthy tones of the very grass growing. Ponies who planted trees and crops experienced drastically-shortened wait times before their produce was ready for consumption.

 

After some months of prosperous pony living, the Royal Pony Sisters heard about their citizens' new settlement in the middle of the sea. It was decided that the younger sister would travel to the island and extend her congratulations and an offer of aid to the settler ponies, while the older sister stayed in Equestria to take care of matters there.

 

The younger sister took a ship to the island, and discovered its secret as soon as she disembarked. After a brief rendezvous with the island leaders, she called an urgent meeting of all the island's citizens, scheduled for dusk that very day.

 

When everypony was gathered in front of the royal alicorn, she thanked them all for coming and told them that she was about to reveal the reason for their new home's abnormal fertility.

 

Her horn began to glow as the gathered ponies watched her, riveted. As the glow became stronger, the ponies started to notice shimmering purple mist all around them. The mist was slowly settling on the grass, the trees and the crops of the farmer-ponies.

 

With a sudden flick of her head, the younger sister motioned for the assembled ponies to look up into the sky – up to the source of the purple mist.

 

When the ponies saw the moon that night, it was not the usual grey moon that they had become used to. The moon appeared solid purple. As comprehension dawned on the crowd, they bowed down to the younger sister and shouted their adoration and gratitude to her.

 

"My dear friend the moon has long smiled upon your island, my little ponies," she began. "Every night, it casts its spell upon the land, so that plants might grow, and the harvest of this island might be bountiful beyond imagination."

 

The island's leaders had a short conference, and it was decided that the island state would henceforth be called the Lunar Republic, in honour of the younger sister and her kind and gracious gift. A deafening cheer rose up to the heavens as ponies shouted the name "LUNA", their hearts overflowing with joy.

 

"Thank you, good ponies," said Luna, once the cheering had died down. "It pleases me to see you all so happy, but please remember one thing – remember what you saw tonight. Please remember what I have done for you and your families on this island."

 

«-oOo-»

 

"The rest of the story is actually pretty depressing," said Sky. "The ponies grew old and died; their children forgot about the moon and failed to give Luna any kind of respect or even thanks. And we all know what came of that."

 

White Noise and Sibwashie nodded. Given how much was generally known about Nightmare Moon and, by extension, Luna, it was hardly surprising that this story had fallen through the cracks of history. It shed a further light on the circumstances that led to Luna's fall and put an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of White Noise's stomach.

 

"What's also interesting is that after Nightmare Moon was imprisoned on the moon, it stopped fertilising the Lunar Republic," Sky added, reading further. "Apparently the effect has resurged slightly in the year since Nightmare's defeat, but it's nowhere near what it was in those ancient times."

 

Sky turned over the pamphlet and let out a startled gasp.

 

"Oh my... do you know what the Movement's ultimate plan is? They want to crown Princess Luna as the ruler of the Lunar Republic, so that everypony can, and I quote, 'escape Celestial tyranny'."

 

"Well that's not very nice," scowled White. "I'm inclined to go give these ponies an earful at their office – honestly... insulting Princess Celestia like that!"

 

"For what it's worth, they can't be that harmful if this is the first we've heard of them," Sky replied, cracking a smile. "I'm okay with them so long as they don't decide to replace their instruments with weapons and their marching bands with army platoons."

 

Sibwashie's eyes widened in fear at this remark, and he nearly choked on the mouthful of grass he'd been chewing lazily.

 

"I think she's just joking, Sib," White Noise said. "Ponies aren't known for their ferocity or willingness to fight at the drop of a hat – most of us, anyway. And I hardly think Princess Luna would approve."

 

"I wonder if she even knows about this," Sky pondered. "I hope she has a good laugh at it, rather than getting frightened."

 

***

 

One brisk canter-verging-on-a-gallop later, the travellers found themselves face-to-wood with a delightful painted sign depicting a grizzly old farmer pony shaking hooves with a young pegasus. Carved into the sign, above the picture, in large, easy-to-read-letters were the words

 

WELCOME TO HOOFINGTON

"The friendliest place in Equestria!"

Population: 900

 

"I am quite fond of the detail and colour in this work of art

It makes me feel that my home and here are really not so far apart," commented Sibwashie, staring appreciatively at the fuzzy edges that made it obvious that the sign had been painted by a mouth rather than a horn.

 

The sun had just shifted west from the middle of the sky when the travellers entered the town. They were greeted by a cul-de-sac of small wooden buildings with thatch roofs, arranged in a horseshoe pattern. The houses surrounded a large patch of land that was currently being used as a farmers' market, evidenced by the neat rows of various produce stands with their hastily-assembled wooden frames and striped awning roofs.

 

"We should find an inn to stay the night at," White Noise said. "We'll rent two rooms – I'm happy to share a room with Sibwashie, and then Sky can have her own."

 

"That place looks good," replied Sky Wave, pointing a hoof at a dark wooded building with swingy saloon doors and a sign that christened it the "Noble Manticore Inn".

 

More interesting than the writing on the sign, however, was the painting of a manticore wearing a top hat, walking with a cane and looking positively distinguished underneath it.

 

"Regardless of the quality of the rooms, I'd like to go in there just to ask about the name," quipped White.

 

***

 

The Noble Manticore Inn's check-in room was very small, but in a cosy sort of way. This atmosphere was aided greatly by the sounds of laughter and animated conversation coming from the dining room that it lead into, and by the warmth of the torchlight illuminating the staircase leading up to the rooms.

 

"Two rooms please," White Noise asked the plump, middle-aged mare at the counter. "One for the lady, and one for us stallions."

 

"Alright, that'll be –" the mare began, forgetting her words as she looked up and saw Sibwashie.

 

Sibwashie looked away as the mare gaped at him with wide, confused eyes. He'd been afraid of this kind of treatment in Equestria's small towns and villages. Most of the ponies there had never even seen a zebra, and of that number, the majority weren't even sure what zebras were. Or so he'd been told.

 

"Oh my, you're a zebra!" the check-in desk mare finally stammered out. "I've always wanted to meet a zebra! I've heard so much about Zebrica – you know, we ponies can sure learn a thing or two from you zebras. What's your name?"

 

"My name is Sibwashie, kind keeper of this fine inn

I am happy to hear such kind words about my kin," Sibwashie replied, trying not to let his surprise show on his face.

 

"So you do talk in rhymes!" the mare exclaimed excitedly. "Oh, how beautiful!"

 

Sibwashie smiled awkwardly and looked away. This hadn't been what he was expecting, and in some ways, that made it more difficult to deal with. To be honest, though, it wasn't entirely unpleasant.

 

"I'm going to give you a discount on that second room, considering how far your companion must have travelled already," the excited check-in mare told White Noise, turning her face back to him, "a two-bed room for the same cost as the one-bed room. That'll be thirty bits, please."

 

"With pleasure," replied White, levitating the bits out of his left saddlebag and placing them on the desk. "And thank you for the discount."

 

"You're welcome, my dears. Now do go and get something to eat – or at least to drink – in the dining room. Everypony will be thrilled to meet a real, live zebra and his real, live friends."

 

The check-in mare gave the group their keys, and one exchange of mutual gratitude later, they found themselves in the dining room, much to the apprehension of Sibwashie. I'm not sure I like all this attention, he thought. It makes me wish I didn't stand out quite so much. But I guess ambassadors get a lot of attention too, so maybe I'd better start getting used to this kind of thing.

 

Sibwashie, White Noise and Sky Wave soon found a three-place table to sit down at and were swiftly brought menus by the inn's efficient catering staff. In a few short and very efficient minutes, the ponies and zebra were all drinking cold, freshly-made lemonade.

 

"How are you folks enjoyin' my inn so far?" asked a gruff voice, as an older earth pony trotted up to their table.

 

The earth pony was pale brown, with a shock of fiery orange mane sticking out of his head as if it were about to burst off. His green eyes had a kindly expression in them, and his demeanour was so calm and slow that the travellers barely noticed him pulling up a seat to make their three-place table a four-place one.

 

"It's very nice so far," replied Sky Wave, taking another sip of her lemonade. "And this lemonade is absolutely delicious! How do you get it so sweet, Mr...?"

 

"That's a family secret, I'm afraid, and I didn't get this lemonade glass cutie mark for nothing. But what isn't a family secret is that you can call me Mr Hos-pit-ality!" grinned the brown and orange stallion. "No seriously, that's the name my wife – I assume you've met her, she's at the front desk – and I took for ourselves when we married. My original name is Grassfire."

 

"Grassfire?" asked White Noise, having not come across any similar names before.

 

"I was born during a dry winter, to a nomad family in the Plains," Grassfire replied, a wistful look coming into his eyes. "It was hard times – enormous fires had chased us from our last camp, and the horror of the flames bore heavily on everypony's minds. And then I was born."

 

Grassfire took a deep breath and looked down at his hooves.

 

"It was always hard times on the plains, to be fair," he continued. "Guess that's what civilized me in the end. That, and my dear Petunia. But that's a whole story of its own – a right exciting one, mind you, but it's a little long in the tooth, so let me stop before I keep you here all day with my rambling. Where're you folks from?"

 

"We came here from Fillydelphia, but only Sky Wave is actually from there," White Noise replied, motioning to Sky as he mentioned her. "I was born in Canterlot, and Sibwashie here is all the way from Zebrica, over the sea."

 

"Heh, I always thought a Canterlot pony would be above coming to my humble little inn."

 

"A lot of them probably would be," White Noise smirked.

 

"And a zebra all the way from Zebrica! It's not often that we host folks from so very far away in this inn; I hope the service is to your satisfaction, Mr Sibwashie."

 

The three travellers hit it off with Grassfire and ended up talking with him until dinner was served, talking through dinner, and then having cups of tea with him after dinner. He told them the long story of how he had met his wife and the shorter story behind the inn's name. They tried to tell him their own interesting stories as well, but they lacked the practice that comes with so many years of managing an inn and making lemonade.

 

Eventually, everypony decided that they were too tired to listen to any more stories, or drink anymore tea and lemonade. With some rounds of thanks and goodnights, the ponies and zebra ascended the staircase to their rooms – numbers 210 and 212 – and finally got into bed.

 

"Hoofington's a pretty different place from Fillydelphia, isn't it?" White Noise asked Sibwashie, as the two of them lay awake in their beds on opposite sides of the room.

 

"The greatest mistake for which a traveller can ever take the blame

Is assuming that all members of one race are exactly the same

 

"The culture of Equestria changes from town to city to town

Just as it does everywhere the sun comes up and goes down," Sibwashie said, after a slight pause.

 

"Well I guess so. Goodnight Sib."

 

***

 

Princess Celestia and her sister Luna sat in their private drawing room, deep in serious conversation.

 

"I really don't know what the story with these New Lunar Republic ponies is," Luna said, her voice strained with anxiety. "I promise I didn't know anything about it before you told me, Celly. I've never even met any of the ponies that are running this crazy thing!"

 

"Relax, Luna, I believe you," Celestia said soothingly, putting a hoof on her sister's shoulder. "Nightmare Moon might do something like this, but not my dear sister Princess Luna."

 

"Thanks Celly. That means a lot to me," Luna replied, her voice noticeably less stressed. "I don't know what to do about it. These ponies really love me, but they blame you, my wise older sister, for doing what you had to do all those years ago. They're calling you a tyrant and a trickster."

 

Celestia sighed deeply and let go of it with a little smile. She'd been the ruler of Equestria for over one thousand years and had spent the majority of that time as its only ruler. She'd seen her popularity wax and wane, and she'd had her share of criticism as well as praise. This was nothing new to her, but she could understand Luna's distress.

 

"I have an idea," Celestia said, after pondering the dilemma for a minute or two. "I think the time has come for you to pay another visit to the Lunar Republic, dear sister. Perhaps then you can straighten out your part – or lack thereof – in the minds of the ponies there and here and put a stop to some of the wilder rumours going around."

 

Luna nodded at her sister's suggestion, her good mood renewed now that she had a clear course of action. She turned around and stared out of the drawing room's largest window. She had made it a full moon that night.

<--Previous (Chapter One) | Next (Chapter Three)-->


Chapter Three

 

"Alright Melvin, we're going to be opening the Hoofington shop a little earlier than I originally planned," White Noise said to the young, bespectacled blue dragon in front of him. "I hope you're prepared."

 

White Noise and his dragon friend were standing just outside of the boarded-up storefront that was soon to become the Hoofington branch of Dragonfire Delivery. Up until that date, the ponies of Hoofington had only been able to receive messages by dragonfire from Melvin, who sat at the post office all day and burped. Now they would be able to send messages via dragonfire as well.

 

"I'll be glad to move to a more peaceful working environment," Melvin huffed. "The ruffians at the post office are always making such a racket."

 

"Don't expect it to be too peaceful," replied White Noise. "That wouldn't be good for business!"

 

"I wouldn't count on Hoofington to keep the business afloat, sir. I'm not sure any of the ponies here have ever been more than a few miles out of town in their lives. Who would they even send letters too?"

 

White Noise sighed.

 

"Let's just get this shop open, shall we?"

 

***

 

In keeping with its name, the town of Hoofington was built in the shape of four hooves, or perhaps more accurately, four horseshoes. This gave the town four separate "squares", two of which were regularly used for markets and one of which was used as a park. The remaining square was occasionally used for town meetings.

 

It was a busy day for Hoofington's market squares. A fair number of the town's population were out spending their bits on all manner of fresh produce at the farmers' market, and even more ponies had shown up to see the wares of the fleet of caravan merchants that had set up shop in Hoofington's other market square the previous night.

 

Among the crowds milling around the latter market area were Sky Wave and Sibwashie, who were out taking a leisurely walk after breakfast.

 

"You there!" came a loud cry. "Mr Zebra, sir! I think you would be very interested in one of the items I have here today."

 

Sibwashie turned in the direction of the voice to see a dark blue earth pony with a thick black moustache and the eager and slightly slimy grin of an all-too-experienced salespony.

 

"For what purpose do you call for my attention, pony sir?

And what about my purchasing habits can you infer?" Sibwashie said slowly.

 

"You seem like a smart chap, Mister, very intelligent indeed," the salespony replied, his fast words betraying a working-class Manehattan accent. "Nope, you sure as anything ain't no fool. So I'm sure you're aware of just how important it is to be protected from curses! Only a fool would let themselves wander around all open to being cursed by anypony with the know-how!"

 

Before Sibwashie could give a retort, the salespony had pulled a number of bottles and jars of strange-coloured liquid out from under his table, all with hastily scrawled labels.

 

"I've got curse-blocking potions, curse-blocking body sprays and even some curse-ward bubble bath here," the fast-talking pony continued. "These are all one hundred percent effective, certified by not one, not two but three highly-re-spected zebra magic scholars from Manehattan, home of the great. No right-thinking indiv-idual can afford to go without these must-have items!"

 

Sibwashie dug his hoof into the ground, and a scowl formed on his face.

 

"I don't know what stories you have heard about zebra-kind

But I can see through the tricks you're playing on my mind," he retorted as he stomped off, leaving the vendor to curse under his breath.

 

Sky hurried to catch up with her companion, shooting the vendor a dirty look as she cantered off.

 

"I'm so sorry about that, Sibwashie," she said. "Some ponies are just... like that."

 

Sibwashie took a deep breath and seemed to calm down.

 

"Do not worry; I will not use him to judge all of you

That would be a most hypocritical thing to do."

 

"Ha, it would!" laughed Sky, smiling awkwardly.

 

The pegasus and zebra continued wandering through the marketplace, making a concerted effort to avoid any salesponies that looked even a little too eager to sell them things.

 

"Oh, my dear, what a lovely shade of pink your coat is! I've got a saddle here that was made for you."

 

"No thanks."

 

"In the market for a stronger plow, sir? This beautiful piece of farm engineering here is guaranteed to be the last plow you'll ever need to buy!"

 

"I do not have a farm, my friend

The tree you're barking up is a dead-end."

 

Eventually the two came to the end of the market, and were able to say with certainty that they had seen all of the stalls and found nothing of interest in any of them. A pretty necklace had caught Sky Wave's eye, but closer inspection revealed a heart around the name "ICY WIND" carved into the back of the pendant. As nice as it would have been to own a genuine piece of Eskimo pony jewellery, Sky decided that she wouldn't have felt right wearing it.

 

As Sibwashie and Sky Wave were walking through the town, a little yellow filly came barrelling out of the door of one of the small houses, laughing and shouting, presumably playing a game with some of her friends. The filly was having so much fun that she wasn't even looking where she was going and she ran right into Sibwashie.

 

"OOHF," she gasped as her little body slammed into Sibwashie's right foreleg and came to a standstill.

 

Sky gasped. "Are you okay, dear?"

 

Slightly dazed, the filly stumbled backwards and landed on her haunches. She blinked a few times and then smiled and nodded vigorously.

 

Then she noticed the large black-and-white striped pony she had run into. She looked up at the thick Mohawk that rose up from his head and her eyes widened in fear.

 

Before Sibwashie could say anything to calm the child, she cried out in fear and bolted back into the cottage she'd come out of.

 

Sky frowned and looked at Sibwashie, who merely shrugged. The pony and zebra were prepared to leave it at that when two other ponies – a mare and a stallion, some years older than themselves – came running up to them with anxious looks on their faces.

 

"Oh my..." Sky began, trailing off as she wondered how these ponies would mistreat her zebra friend.

 

***

 

"I've come up with my own personal dragonfire jar filing system, you know," Melvin sad, puffing out his chest in a proud manner. "It's quite ingenious, if I do say so myself. I've got all the dragonfire set out perfectly in the back room."

 

"I'm glad to hear that, Melvin," White Noise replied. "I always like it when my employees take initiative – finding new and better ways of doing things is the philosophy that I started Dragonfire Delivery on, and it continues to inform every new business decision I make."

 

The dragon had unlocked the door of the shop and led White Noise through it and into the storeroom. Taking a quick glance around the shop's main room as he passed through it, White noted that it had been cleaned recently – not a spot of dust could be seen, which was surprising for a place that saw so little use.

 

"Here we are," Melvin said, pointing at the shelves that covered the walls of the storeroom he and White Noise had just entered with a flourish of his clawed right hand. "Primary sort: geographical distance from Hoofington, with the closest places closest to the door. Secondary sort: date of manufacture, oldest in front, newest in back, avoiding the possibility of dragonfire sitting on the shelves forever."

 

"Very good, Melvin," replied White Noise, his eyes turning away from the dragon's precious shelves. "And what's that about?"

 

White gestured with a hoof to the only space of the wall unadorned by shelves. In their place, a glossy poster hung. It depicted a blue-coated mare with a white mane and a purple cloak and wizard hat. Large letters in circus-script proclaimed her

 

THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE!

BRAVE HEROINE OF TROTTINGHAM

 

The poster went on to say that she had used her astounding magical powers to banish an Ursa Major that threatened to destroy the town, and that she would be performing for the ponies of Hoofington for one night only: a truly grand spectacle that was not to be missed.

 

"I enjoyed her show," Melvin replied indignantly. "It's not often that one sees very much magic here in this dinky little farming town full of earth ponies. Also, I got her autograph!"

 

Sure enough, an overdone cursive signature had been splattered across the bottom-right corner of the poster, with the words "to Mervin" written above it.

 

"Sure, she may have misspelt my name, but it's the thought that counts, isn't it?" Melvin defended when White Noise brought up the mistake in the message. "She's a busy lady, after all – all that travel and adventure, you know."

 

White Noise decided to change the subject: "Seeing as you've already got the storeroom organized perfectly, there's not much left to do now but open for business. Help me move some of these jars to the main room, and we'll get them arranged nicely on the shelves behind the desk for everypony to see what we're selling them."

 

Melvin grunted his consent and grabbed two jars from right near the door. White Noise levitated a few more in front of him as he stepped out of the storeroom. He decided that opening this branch would probably be fairly easy going, as Melvin was pretty well-organized, if a little snotty about Hoofington and the ponies living there.

 

***

 

"We're very sorry about our daughter," the parents began, their eyes filled with concern as they faced Sibwashie.

 

"I promise we raised her better than that, sir," implored the mother. "It's just... she's never seen a zebra before."

 

Sibwashie smiled and lifted a hoof in understanding. This wasn't the hostile reaction he had been expecting from the filly's parents, and that lifted his mood considerably.

 

"It is quite alright; I fully understand that your child is still young

Please do not reprimand her too harshly with your parental tongue."

 

"Oh don't worry, we won't," the filly's father said. "We'll just have a chat with her about respect for non-ponies – zebras in particular."

 

Sibwashie and the parent ponies parted on amicable terms, leaving a smile on the zebra's face. But just before they were out of earshot, the mare stopped in her tracks, apparently hit by a sudden idea.

 

"Hey, Mr Zebra sir," she called out excitedly, "would you like to have dinner with us this evening? Perhaps you could talk to our girl and show her first-hoof that she shouldn't be afraid of zebras. Oh, and what's your name?"

 

"I call myself Sibwashie

Student of the art of diploma-see," Sibwashie replied proudly, having recently devised that introduction couplet and just now found an opportunity to use it.

 

"I'm Garden Rose, and my husband's name is Placid Fields," the mare replied. "Our daughter is Daffodil, and we live in this cottage that she just ran into. Please do join us for dinner at sunset – and feel free bring to your lady-friend as well."

 

"Thank you kind earth ponies for your gracious invite

I shall see you here, on the cusp of Princess Luna's night."

 

Garden Rose giggled and nudged her husband before the two of them waved goodbye and disappeared around a corner.

 

"That was unexpected," said Sky flatly, speaking again after an extended silence. "In a good way though. Also: lady-friend?"

 

Sibwashie shrugged.

 

"Eh, whatever. I'm certainly not going to turn down the cooking of small-town earth ponies... mmm... I can taste the carrot soup already..."

 

***

 

White Noise levitated a "Sorry, We're Closed/Yay! We're Open" sign out of one of his saddlebags and placed it on the door of the newest branch of Dragonfire Delivery, with the latter side facing outward. The store interior had been cleaned, the dragonfire jars had been laid out appealingly on the shelves at the back, and all that remained was to help Dragonfire Delivery's first Hoofington customer.

 

"Okay Melvin, I'm going to help the first customer, and I want you to watch what I do very carefully," instructed White Noise, "because you will be helping our second customer."

 

Melvin nodded detachedly as he and White Noise took their places behind the counter and began to wait.

 

It wasn't long before the duo's first customer – an earth pony mare with a light orange coat – walked in. She had a pleasant smile that gave away just the slightest hint of puzzlement.

 

"Welcome to Dragonfire Delivery, ma'am," White Noise said enthusiastically, looking the mare in the eye. "How may we help you?"

 

"Uh... yes," she began, the confusion on her face growing. "I noticed this shop that wasn't here yesterday, and I was just wondering, uh, what is that you... do... exactly?"

 

White Noise smiled.

 

"Dragonfire Delivery is the future of long distance communication in Equestria, ma'am," he said proudly, levitating a jar labelled "FILLYDELPHIA" off the shelf behind him. "Using the magic of dragonfire, we can send messages across vast distances in the blink of an eye. And because you are our very first customer, we will now give you a first-hand demonstration. Melvin, take a note."

 

Upon producing a quill and a scroll of parchment, Melvin fixed his eyes over the paper, ready to take dictation. Dragonfire Delivery's first Hoofington customer smiled and looked intently at the jar of dragonfire sitting on the counter in front of her.

 

"For this demonstration, I will be sending a letter to my shopkeeper in Fillydelphia, a dragon called Turquois," White Noise began. "Melvin, write this: 'Hello Turquois. Please reply to this message as soon as you get it. Signed, White Noise'."

 

Once Melvin had written the message and rolled up the scroll, White Noise levitated it out of his grasp and held it over the dragonfire jar.

 

"Now I'm going to unscrew the lid and drop the message onto the green flame."

 

White Noise did as he said, and the mare watched in awe as the flame wrapped around the message and burnt it up, destroying itself in the process and leaving an empty jar.

 

"The message has been sent, and now we must just wait for a reply."

 

Soon enough, Melvin coughed and spat a message out onto the table, causing the mare to recoil a bit. Melvin was a young dragon, so he did not yet have complete mastery over his magic, but he had managed to tone message delivery down from a retch to a semi-polite cough. Turquois in Fillydelphia was the only dragon White Noise knew who could receive a message with a breath, something she was very proud of.

 

"Would you do the honours of unrolling the scroll, ma'am?" asked White Noise. "I assure you, it's quite safe to touch – that is how all dragonfire messages are sent, after all."

 

The mare smiled nervously and nosed open the scroll. It was a copy of that day's Fillydelphia Post, with the words "Here you go, boss. -Turq" scrawled across the top. White Noise made a mental note to congratulate his Fillydelphia assistant for devising such an ingenious method of proving the legitimacy of his system.

 

"Woah," said the mare, checking and double-checking the date on the newspaper. "I'll take two please: one for Trottingham and one for Ponyville."

 

"At a special, first-customer-only discount, of course," White replied with a charismatic smile, levitating the relevant jars off the shelf behind him. "Tell your friends!"

 

***

 

As their lack of a common name indicated, Garden Rose and Placid Fields were a very modern couple, and kept a neat little homestead without too many frilly decorations – although that could have been because one of the cottage's three occupants was a very energetic and curious little filly.

 

However, much to the delight of Sibwashie – and the even greater delight of Sky Wave – good cooking had clearly not gone out of fashion along with shared names.

 

The two had informed White Noise of the dinner and ensured him that he would be welcomed in true small-town earth pony fashion should he choose to join them, but he had instead elected to stay behind at Dragonfire Delivery and take care of all the administrative paperwork that goes with opening a new branch of one's business.

 

"What's it like where you come from, Sibwashie?" Garden Rose asked, after taking a polite sip of her expertly-prepared carrot soup. "Is Zebrica much different from Equestria?"

 

Sibwashie finished swallowing his mouthful of soup and thought for a moment before answering.

 

"If you look on the surface, many differences you'll see

But where it really matters, zebras and ponies are alike as can be

 

"In Zebrica the forests make way for great savannahs and deserts where wild animals roam

But much like ponies, zebras enjoy good foods, good friends and the comfort of a warm home

 

"Our magic is different from yours, as not one of us possesses a horn

But we don't believe in curses or other imaginings of which the foolish forewarn."

 

Placid Fields clapped his front hooves together appreciatively once Sibwashie had finished his poetic speech.

 

"I've always really liked the way you zebra folk talk," he said. "I remember seeing a play that a zebra acting troupe put on once, and they kept up that fantastic rhyming all the way through: in every piece of dialogue and all the narrations. They even thanked us for watching the play afterwards in poetry."

 

Daffodil, who had been sitting very quietly at one end of the table for the entire meal, suddenly became very animated. Her eyes lit up at her father's mention of the word "play" and she almost started hopping around in excitement.

 

"A play?" she asked, eyes bulging ever further out of their sockets. "Ooh, ooh, Daddy, Daddy! Can you please please please take me to see the zebra play? Please, oh please, oh please, oh please!"

 

Placid Fields smiled kindly at his daughter, feeling glad that she had seemingly got over her fear of zebras. "Of course, dear. Next time they come into town, I promise we'll go."

 

Sky Wave smiled to herself. She had noticed that the filly had yet to get her cutie mark, and something told her she already had a pretty good idea of what it would look like.

 

"Now, Sibwashie," began Placid, speaking quite gravely. "As a zebra in Equestria, it must be hard for you to... blend in, right? Ponies tend to, maybe, make judgements about you based on your... heritage?"

 

Sibwashie nodded, not sure where Placid was going with this sudden shift in tone.

 

"Have you experienced any of that kind of negativity here in Hoofington?"

 

Sibwashie put a hoof to his chin and thought for a moment, before telling the stallion about the incident in the marketplace. He also remembered that Petunia Hospitality had been abnormally excited to meet him because of his "heritage", but didn't mention it. That was hardly "negativity", he thought.

 

The stallion's expression turned sour, and he opened his mouth to make a serious proclamation: "That simply shall not do. We the people of Hoofington cannot tolerate that kind of insensitive behaviour. Luckily, I have some connections in the governance of this town, so I'll have a chat with some influential people to ensure that such an incident is not repeated within our borders – not even by any other non-Hoofingtonians."

 

Sibwashie nodded and expressed his gratitude, not really knowing what else to do. Once Placid Fields looked satisfied, the family and their guests continued to sip their carrot soup.

 

***

 

Sometime earlier, White Noise and Melvin received their second customer. White nudged the dragon with an elbow, reminding him that this customer was his.

 

The customer in question was a stout, older stallion with streaks of grey going through his black mane. A brown, slightly-fraying fedora sat atop his head, tilted at a jaunty angle. His pale yellow eyes bore a twinkle of good-naturedness.

 

"Good afternoon sir," Melvin said stiffly, apparently not even trying to imitate his boss's enthusiasm. "Welcome to Dragonfire Delivery. How may we help you?"

 

The stallion screwed up his eyes and made a strange expression with his mouth, as if he was thinking very hard about something.

 

"Errr... yis," he said at last, through a thick accent. "Ah wuz 'opin' that yew culd uuze yir fency dragone fyre to send this 'ere loaf of 'ome'ade bread ta mah boy in Appleloosa."

 

Now it was Melvin's turn to screw up his face in a confused expression. He was about to ask the stallion to repeat himself – at a slower pace this time – when a loaf of bread was thumped down on the counter in front of Melvin and he made the connection.

 

Sighing deeply, Melvin shot off a response: "I am sorry sir, but the dragonfire used by Dragonfire Delivery can only be used to send scrolls of parchment, not baked goods."

 

Even though this was the first customer Melvin had ever dealt with, he somehow managed to say this line through such a thick film of boredom and apathy that one could be forgiven for thinking that he had been suffering through a dead-end service industry job for his entire life – and perhaps even a little longer.

 

"Wut's that son?" asked the kindly old stallion. "Wha'ever dya mean?"

 

"Sir, I regret to inform you that Dragonfire Delivery physically cannot send your loaf of bread to Appleloosa," Melvin replied, rolling his eyes.

 

"Ah dun geddit."

 

"Dragonfire is to be used exclusively for the transfer of written correspondence."

 

"Speak plainly-like, boy!"

 

"Can't. Send. Bread. Sir."

 

"Why naut?"

 

"It. Won't. Burn."

 

"Ah think it'll burn jus' fine. Why, one time when Ah wuz jus' a li'l colt, Ah used bread to keep mah campfire goin'. Y'see, like e'ery yung'un, Ah ran away frum 'ome once and –"

 

"I'm sorry sir but your bread will not burn in special green dragonfire regardless of its flammability properties with respect to regular fire good DAY!"

 

Melvin forced the final word of his long sentence out with such force that, had it been a loaf of bread sent by dragonfire rather than just a word, it would have shot across the store and knocked the old stallion out cold.

 

"Well a'right then," the stallion said, looking at the floor. "Yah dun need ta be so rude 'bout it. Gud day ta y'all 'swell."

 

The old stallion picked up his loaf of bread and turned to tail to leave the shop. Once he was out the door, Melvin let out a long breath of relief – only to suck it right back in again when he caught the edge of White Noise's disapproving glare.

 

"Did I do..."

 

"No, Melvin. You didn't do good. Not at all."

 

***

 

Sibwashie awoke the next day to another idyllic Hoofington morning. The caravan merchants from the previous day had long ago packed up their wares and left town, leaving a quiet early morning atmosphere and a desolate market square.

 

Desolate, that is, except for a group of three athletic young stallion earth ponies kicking around a white and black ball. Sibwashie's ears perked up when he recognized the game they were playing – it was the international sport of hoofball, and they were playing in the rather unfair teams of two versus one.

 

The stallions were all varying shades of brown, with short manes and tails that varied from pitch black to a light green. All three of them were lean and well-muscled, although none of them were quite as solidly-built as Sibwashie.

 

Sibwashie galloped up to the ponies excitedly and shouted an enthusiastic greeting and appeal to join their game.

 

"Good morning, sportsponies, I see you are playing hoofball, my very favourite sport

I'd very much like to join you, and then you would no longer be one player short."

 

The earth ponies exchanged glances, and then the one who had hitherto been on his own nodded eagerly and beckoned Sibwashie over, while the other two nodded and motioned with a little less eagerness.

 

"Okay, reset the score!" called Sibwashie's new team-mate, before turning to him. "We're scoring over there, and the other team's scoring over here. You're a pretty big guy – how about you defend, and I'll attack?"

 

Sibwashie nodded his agreement and in moments, the game was on.

 

Playing hoofball again reminded Sibwashie of long afternoons during his childhood, when he and the other young boys in his village would all get together and play a game or six. Sometimes he'd win, sometimes he'd lose, and sometimes no-one remembered to keep score.

 

Sibwashie had the ball. Head angled down, he wound his way between the two opposing team ponies, dribbling the ball in between his forelegs. The goal was in sight, but it was still a little far away. Sibwashie spun around, preparing to buck the ball for all he was worth...

 

...and one of the opposing ponies whisked it out from behind his hooves, leaving him to buck air.

 

Not losing a moment, Sibwashie smiled and regained his footing, tearing after the pony with the ball as soon as he laid eyes on him.

 

The pony was going for their goals. Out of the corner of his vision, Sibwashie saw that his teammate had moved in to mark the second pony on the opposing team, who was sliding up to a position near the goals.

 

The stallion with the ball looked around frantically for a few moments. Sibwashie was gaining on him from the one side, and to another side his teammate was being aggressively marked. Thinking quickly, he angled himself towards his teammate and set himself up for a pass.

 

Then, at the last minute, the pony whipped himself around and bucked the ball straight between the two trees that made up Sibwashie's team's goalposts.

 

It was a decisive shot, and the score was set to one-zero, in the opposing team's favour.

 

The game continued in that vein for some time. Sibwashie and his teammate scored a lucky goal, but the others managed to get a further two goals passed them. Sibwashie's teammate shot him an anxious look as the score changed from two-one to three-one.

 

The sun was inching ever higher in the sky, and the hoofball players were sweating from exertion when another pony stepped onto the field. This newcomer was an older stallion wearing a policepony's hat and presumably not intending to join the game.

 

The policepony beckoned the closest member of the opposing team over to him and whispered something in his ear. Whatever it was, it made the stallion nod profusely as his eyes widened. The policepony smiled and patted the stallion on the back with a hoof before moving out of the field of play.

 

"Carry on!" he bellowed.

 

***

 

White Noise ambled towards the entrance of his newest Dragonfire Delivery store, still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. After giving his assistant a long lecture about proper behaviour towards customers, and then leading him through an impromptu employee training session, he had to spend the rest of the previous night filling out forms and balancing his books. The moon was very low in the sky when he had finally finished and crawled back to the inn and into his bed.

 

It was nearly noon and the unicorn had only just woken up. White hoped that Melvin had taken at least some of what he'd said the previous day to heart and hadn't managed to make too many more ponies swear off Dragonfire Delivery.

 

White Noise entered the shop just as another pony was leaving. A quick glance at her face showed him that she was smiling and had probably – to his great surprise – received satisfactory service.

 

"Good afternoon, boss," Melvin said cheerfully, loudly placing a number of bits into the cashbox in front of him. "You'll be glad to know that we've been very busy today. The word must have spread since you asked that lady to tell her friends about us yesterday."

 

"Uh, yes," White replied tentatively, taken aback by Melvin's new, positive attitude. "I'm, uh, glad to see you were listening to the things I told you yesterday, Melvin."

 

"Why of course I was, sir," Melvin replied indignantly. "I'd say I've certainly turned over a new leaf this morning. I'm fully prepared to give my all to these customers and start earning my salary."

 

And indeed he had. White watched in appreciation as customers would come in, one by one and be treated with dignity and respect. He would be patient with the old earth ponies who didn't entirely understand how the system worked, and he would be quick and efficient with the busy young unicorns who absolutely needed to send messages to every town in Equestria.

 

White Noise left Melvin to handle the store on his own a little later in the afternoon, after giving him a commendation and the promise of a bonus later on in the year.

 

***

 

"Another excellent goal, Sibwashie!" said Twitch, smiling with his mouth. "Let's call it day though – I'd say you two have us thoroughly beaten."

 

A round of hoofbumps and proper introductions later, Sibwashie parted ways from Twitch, Trailblazer and Jump. Final score: five-three to Sibwashie and Jump.

 

This triumphant turnaround didn't make Sibwashie as happy as he had thought it would. The game had been very different after the policepony's interruption. It seemed to move at a much slower pace, and Twitch stopped catching Sibwashie out with his signature jerky movements quite as much.

 

Sibwashie had scored three out of his team's five goals, and he had never even been very much of a shooter back home – he had pretty much always played goalkeeper. He was certain that the other ponies had been holding back and letting him do well at the game. But why would they do that? he thought. Surely they just got tired in the second half of the game, and I just had a bit of a lucky streak.

 

"Hey Sibwashie, how's it going?" called out Sky Wave, as she and White Noise turned a corner and came into the zebra's view. "White's just told me that the dragon in his shop here has proven himself capable of handling the place on his own, so we figured we'd get some lunch to celebrate that! Want to come with?"

 

"I am pleased to hear that your business is going well

And some lunch just about now sounds pretty swell," Sibwashie replied.

 

"There's a nice little eatery a few shops down from Dragonfire Delivery that'd probably be nice to try," White Noise suggested. "It's not as famous as the last place Sibwashie and I had lunch at, but I think it should do nicely all the same."

 

The two ponies and zebra made their way to the eatery, and true to White Noise's word, it was a pleasant, quaint little place. The three sat down on hay bale-seats around an outside table and ordered soups, salads, sandwiches and their lunch-appropriate ilk.

 

Everything was going swimmingly until Sibwashie lifted up a leaf of lettuce and found a worm crawling across its underside. A little shocked, Sibwashie put the leaf down on a sideplate and discretely pointed it out to White and Sky. The three companions shared amused smiles.

 

"Good thing it's a live worm," whispered Sky Wave. "That's how you can tell the salad's fresh."

 

No sooner had Sky finished her hushed sentence than the sound of thundering hooves filled the eatery's outdoor section as not one but two very flustered-looking waiters rushed over to their table and snatched up Sibwashie's salad, apologizing profusely all the while.

 

"Our humblest, humblest apologies, good sir," the first waiter said. "We are utterly ashamed about this terrible, terrible travesty and the bleak misfortune that cause it to be visited on you today."

 

A third waiter cantered over, balancing two salads on his back.

 

"Please, accept these two free salads as our apology to you," said the second waiter – a unicorn – as he levitated the salads onto the table in front of Sibwashie. "And if there's anything else you need, don't hesitate to ask. Please remember, we are in your debt."

 

Their melodramatic play over, the waiters disappeared into the eatery kitchen, leaving a very confused zebra and his very confused pony friends to stare at the two salads in silence.

 

"...Are you gonna eat that?" asked Sky Wave.

 

Without a word, Sibwashie nosed the plate over to her.

 

***

 

"They probably treat all their customers like that," White Noise hypothesised as he, Sky Wave and Sibwashie left the eatery. "These businesses have a small enough customer base that it's very important to leave everypony with a good impression. Everyzebra too."

 

"Haha!" laughed Sky, pointing a hoof at something in front of the group. "Look at that poor guy!"

 

Sibwashie and White Noise's eyes followed Sky's hoof and came to rest on a blue earth pony stallion who was desperately trying a to balance an enormous fruit-basket on his back. He tottered in one direction and then another as we walked along the path in front of them, looking like he was going to drop the basket at any second. The pony had obviously never worked as a waiter.

 

"Vhis vis veavy," came a muffled voice from above the blue pony's head.

 

A sharp thud drew his attention to his side, where Sky Wave was lying with her wings extended and her mouth over the handle of the giant fruit basket.

 

"Perhaps we could help you carry this basket to wherever it is that you're going, friend," said White. "No offense, but you're not really managing so well on your own."

 

The blue stallion only smiled nervously at White's offer, staring at some point beyond him and Sky. Sibwashie raised an eyebrow – he was getting more than a little weirded out by this new pony's staring.

 

"Zebra from a foreign land, we have brought you a selection of Hoofington's finest produce

Please enjoy this complementary fruit basket – and remember, you can ask for more-juice," said the pony at last, sweating profusely all the while.

 

Sibwashie stared blankly at the pony while White Noise cringed at the rhyme. Gears were turning in the zebra's head, and he decided he had had quite enough of this bizarre preferential treatment.

 

He told the stallion to keep his over-sized fruit-basket and stormed off, with White Noise and Sky Wave cantering behind him. Sky cast a sorrowful glance at the fruit basket before remembering that she had just had lunch and really didn't need any more food.

 

***

 

"That basket of fruit made to feed a village was the final straw

I'm sorting this weirdness out with the an officer of the law.

 

"The policepony I saw at the game earlier on today

Will tell me why everything's going my way," said Sibwashie determinedly, after filling White Noise and Sky Wave in on his day.

 

The zebra and his two pony friends soon arrived at Hoofington's small police-department – a cottage that had been painted deep blue and given a sign with a gold badge drawn on it. Upon entering the building, Sibwashie immediately set eyes on the stout policepony he thought responsible for his preferential treatment.

 

"Uh, hello zebra visitor from a faraway land –"

 

Sibwashie cleared his throat and started to speak before the policepony had finished; likely saving the latter party from perpetrating a crime against language with an awfully contrived rhyme.

 

"Mister policepony, I saw you earlier today at my game of hoofball

You helped me turn it around and win when I had my back to the wall.

 

"Sadly, you were not playing, so the help was not fair

Why did you do as you did: why did you care?"

 

The policepony swallowed. His eyes turned from the accusing stare of Sibwashie to the merely puzzled stares of Sky and White, and he breathed out, as if releasing a load from his chest.

 

"It's the mayor's orders, sir," said the policepony meekly. "She got us policeponies together this morning because she wanted to make you feel welcome in Hoofington and make sure nopony was short with you. We can't have discrimination or hate in the friendliest town in Equestria, now can we?"

 

"Where can we find this mayor?" asked White Noise.

 

"She should be in her office at the town hall, signing papers and doing mayor-stuff."

 

***

 

Sibwashie and co. burst into the mayor's office to find a surprised-looking tan earth pony mare with a curly brown mane. Getting as far as the office had proven no trouble for Sibwashie, given his new status in the town – the trickiest part had been convincing the staff not to have him carried up to the office on a recliner.

 

"Before you start rhyming and asking how you can make his day better," began White Noise, making fierce eye-contact with the mare. "My zebra friend has some questions for you."

 

Nodding to White, Sibwashie began:

"Ms Mayor, please tell me why you have thought it fitting

To single me out for favours and gifts unremitting.

 

"I am little more than a humble traveller, moving through your town

There is no need to accommodate me by turning it upside-down."

 

The mayor pushed her glasses up on her nose and stared blankly at Sibwashie, the gears slowly turning in her head as she tried to figure out how to reply.

 

"I'm sorry, Mr Sibwashie," she said at last. "I was approached this morning by my good friend Placid Fields, who told me that we had a zebra staying in our town, and it was of utmost importance that he be treated right, in accordance with our creed of friendship."

 

"Friendship is one thing, ma'am," interrupted Sky Wave. "But you had the whole town going mad trying to keep a smile on Sibwashie's muzzle. Isn't that a little excessive?"

 

The mayor put a hoof to her chin and nodded slowly. "I suppose it is, when you put it that way. But we have a good reason for our behaviour."

 

"This reason I would very much like you to tell

And I'm sure my friends are interested as well."

 

***

 

"It's largely to do with someone we knew as foals," began Placid Fields, speaking clearly and slowly into the eager ears of Sibwashie and his friends.

 

The mayor had summoned Placid, his wife Garden Rose, and the chief of police (the stout policepony Sibwashie had met earlier). The group sat in a circle, listening to Placid Fields tell them the story – a story which the Hoofingtonians in the group knew all too well.

 

"Nearly thirty years ago, a zebra lady named Maseni lived in Hoofington," Placid continued. "She was a kind old lady who would always gather us children around and tell us fantastic stories about her homeland and about her many travels throughout the world. She had had a lot of adventures in her long life and had seen so many wonderful things. The adults were all scared of her, but we kids knew better. Maseni was like a second mother to us."

 

"I remember one time, I had a cold," interjected Garden Rose. "It was quite dreadful and it absolutely wouldn't go away. I would sneeze and sneeze, and I'm sure I kept all of Hoofington awake at night with the racket my nose made. Anyway, it was on the second day of my illness that I woke up to find a steaming bowl of soup on my window pane, with a note attached. I couldn't read the note, but I recognized Maseni's beautiful Zebrican signature at the bottom. The point is, the soup was delicious and made me better within a day."

 

Sibwashie smiled, remembering his mother's soups and how they would chase out any ailment he was feeling with warmth and flavour.

 

"As I was saying," continued Placid Fields. "The adults were all afraid of Maseni, and they'd always tell us to stop visiting her and tell us horror stories about curses and tasty pony stews. Not that we listened. Eventually though, they found a reason to kick her out of the town: some contrived thing about a health hazard posed by her exotic garden – I was too young at the time to really understand what was going on."

 

"Our elders were really horrible about the whole business," added the mayor. "They jeered at Maseni as she left town with the few belongings she could carry in an old set of saddlebags and then had a huge party to celebrate her departure."

 

"Thankfully the old coots have been calmed down by the wisdom that comes with age," the police chief said. "And now that our generation holds most of the power here in Hoofington, we've dedicated ourselves to making this town a place of friendship and acceptance."

 

For a time afterwards, Sibwashie was silent. He had become quite angry with the town's treatment of him: as if he was a poor, lost foreigner who needed all the kindness the ponies could possibly give him to wipe away the blemish of one insult by one pony. As if the town of Hoofington were afraid he would judge them unfairly because of some slight unpleasantness experienced within their borders.

 

Now the zebra saw that their pandering was an honest mistake; the result of an over-correction of a past injustice that the ponies still felt some lingering sense of guilt about. Sibwashie had seen his share of bigotry and misunderstanding and moreover, he understood what it was to want to redeem the actions of one's forebears.

 

"I thank you good citizens for the work of your best intentions

And I understand their cause, as you and I are similar in some dimensions."

 

***

 

Melvin watched White Noise and his companions head out of Hoofington through one of the shop windows. He'd heard they'd caused some stir at the mayor's office the previous day, but he also heard, later on, that everything had worked out alright, so he hadn't bothered to investigate further.

 

Once the travellers had disappeared around a bend in the E7, Melvin turned his attention back to the shop's entrance. A unicorn mare entered and asked him for an Appleloosa jar of dragonfire, which he swiftly retrieved from the shelves behind him.

 

"That'll be thirty bits please," he said.

 

"Here you go," replied the customer, levitating the necessary currency into Melvin's waiting claws.

 

Melvin smiled to himself once the customer had left the store. He remembered how White had always told him and the other dragon that "distance doesn't matter to dragonfire". According to the learned unicorn, that was the crux of his whole business.

 

White Noise is an academic, not a businesspony, thought Melvin. The customers don't know how dragonfire works, and therefore they have no idea whether or not distance is a factor. Any shrewd businessperson would figure out how to take advantage of that.

 

Officially, jars of dragonfire were to be sold for twenty bits each, regardless of destination. Melvin had happened upon the idea of charging extra bits for deliveries to further away places while sorting the shop's jars of dragonfire according to geographical proximity. He figured he'd be able to spin a story about magic intensity or flame size if he ever needed to back himself up and seeing as he was dragon, ponies would have to believe him.

 

Melvin's boss would never approve of such a business practice, for a variety of reasons the dragon hadn't paid attention to during his employee orientation, and that was why Melvin smiled extra wide as he slipped ten of the bits he'd just received into a bag under the counter.

<--Previous (Chapter Two) | Next (Chapter Four)-->


Chapter Four

 

"Celestia! Celestia, good news!"

 

Princess Luna's voice echoed off the walls and high ceiling of the royal throne room as she rushed in to join her sister. Luna was levitating an opened scroll, which she eagerly handed to Celestia just as she reached the room's two thrones.

 

"What is it, dear sister?" Celestia asked calmly, levitating the scroll up to her face as Luna released it.

 

"Read the scroll!" Luna replied. "The governor of the Lunar Republic says he'd be honoured to host me, and that he's having everyone on his staff prepare for my arrival. He's ever so grateful for the return of the moon's blessing to his country and wants to make a personal apology for the rudeness of his ancestors."

 

"That's wonderful news, Luna! When do you wish to depart for the Lunar Republic?"

 

"As soon as possible – uh, the day after tomorrow, I think. That will give me time to inform the gracious governor of my plans and sort out some stuff over here before I go."

 

"When you are ready with a reply, have Wind Tamer send the governor a message hawk. Sadly, I don't think there are any dragons in the Lunar Republic, so our second-fastest communication method will have to do."

 

Luna sighed at her sister's mention of dragons. Before her thousand year banishment, message hawks had been the fastest method of communication, bar none, and dragons had been dangerous monsters that clever ponies stayed well away from.

 

"I do hope they get with the times soon," Celestia sighed. "Perhaps you could have a talk with the governor about that, if you can make time for it."

 

***

 

White Noise, Sibwashie and Sky Wave had ambled into Ponyville as the sun was setting over the mountains behind the Everfree Forest. They'd walked there directly from Hoofington, something that had taken them the entire day, with very few breaks along the way. Needless to say, White Noise was dead on his hooves and desperately needed to lie down.

 

"What a nice little town this is," Sky Wave said. "The buildings are so colourful and cottagey. It's such a shame that it's right on the edge of that creepy forest."

 

The travellers were still a fair distance away from the centre of town when they came across the first ponies they would see in Ponyville.

 

"Oh, look at that," Sky Wave whispered to her companions, pointing at the two ponies. "Some hard-working folk still working in their garden at this hour – I wonder what they're plant– oh my!"

 

"No Ditzy," came an exasperated voice from the first pony, an orange mare. "You can't grow carrots faster by burying food with their seeds. Seeds cannot eat."

 

"But aren't they just like eggs?" asked the orange pony's companion, a grey pegasus, as she dropped another muffin into the hole she and her friend were planting in. "Plant eggs, I mean. Like, don't plants come out of seeds in the same way chickens come out of eggs? And what if they're hungry when they get out? Plants don't have mommies to feed them, you know."

 

"Plants do not – oh, hello," said the irritated orange pony, noticing her and Ditzy's three new spectators and changing her tone considerably. "I don't think I've seen you ponies before."

 

"We're travellers, passing through on our way to Port Anchor," White Noise replied, offering a hoof. "I'm White Noise, this is Sky Wave and that's Sibwashie. Pleasure to meet you, Ms..."

 

"Carrot Top."

 

"My name's Ditzy Doo! Why do you have such a funny-looking coat, Mr Sibwa– Sibwa– Sibyouhaveafunnynametoo?"

 

Sibwashie smiled at the pegasus. Normally, he might have been offended by such a remark, but there was something in Ditzy Doo's cheerful tone of voice that prevented him from harbouring even the slightest resentment for her.

 

"I could say the same thing about your coat and name, Ms Doo

What people see as normal and strange varies, this much is true."

 

"Oh! You're a zebra like Zecora! You talk all sing-song, just like she does! And your coat looks like hers too, all striped and stuff. Oh wow this is so exciting!"

 

Ditzy broke into a ridiculous grin at this point, and the three newcomers saw her pupils move in opposite directions – one looking up, and the other looking down.

 

"You'll have to forgive Ditzy," whispered Carrot Top. "She's differently-wired from most ponies, and she's had a rather rough time lately as well."

 

"You bet I have, CT!" Ditzy Doo blurted out, having heard her friend's every carefully-concealed word. "I used to work at the Ponyville post office, but the other day they kicked me out because they said my cutie mark wasn't enough like a cutie mark a mailmare should have. I told them all about bubble wrap and how wonderful it is, but they didn't agree. Which is actually good because I don't think my cutie mark is about bubble wrap, I mean that would be silly. I think it comes from my bubbly personality, or at least that's what my parents told me when I got it which bythewayisaninterestingstoryitallstartedwhen..."

 

Ditzy kept on talking, her voice getting faster and softer, until she was rapidly moving her mouth without any words coming out of it.

 

"I used to work at the post office too, Ditzy," Sky said sadly.

 

Ditzy looked up at Sky Wave, her misaligned eyes lighting up.

 

"But apparently a ribbon isn't mail-related enough for those snobby ponies," Sky continued, motioning to her flank with a hoof. "I guess you could tie your mail up with a ribbon, but I didn't think of that at the time..."

 

"It's not fair!" wailed Ditzy, suddenly audible again.

 

White Noise cleared his throat and interjected with a word to Carrot Top, before the conversation got too depressing: "Could you perhaps point us towards an inn? It's getting late, and we're going to need somewhere to sleep tonight."

 

"There's a nice one just over there," Carrot Top replied, motioning towards a white and brown wooden building with a thatch roof just down the road. "It's cheap, and I've heard that the rooms are clean and the service is decent. It's also your only choice – Ponyville doesn't get enough ponies passing through to need more than one inn."

 

"Thank you Ms Carrot Top, that should do nicely," thanked White Noise gracefully, motioning to Sibwashie and Sky to tell them it was time to go. "We'd best be going to book our rooms. Thanks again for the help, and good luck with your gardening."

 

The five new acquaintances bade farewell to each other, and as White Noise and his companions headed for the inn, they heard Carrot Top tell Ditzy that gardening wasn't her strong suit.

 

***

 

The following morning, Sky Wave awoke to the sound of pebbles knocking against the window of her second story room in Ponyville's single inn. Clink. Clink. Clink.

 

Rubbing her eyes, Sky slid out of bed and looked out the window. A grey face with mismatched yellow eyes smiled sheepishly back at her, and she heard a low whistle as a bunch of stones fell from the pegasus's hooves.

 

"Ditzy?" Sky asked sleepily, pulling the window open.

 

Ditzy tapped the side of her head a few times, her eyes coming further into alignment with each successive tap. Once they looked normal, she donned a serious expression and opened her mouth to let out a flood of words.

 

"I remember yesterday when we met you said you lost your job at the post office just like I did because of the same reason and I was wondering if you could help me find something else to do I tried gardening with Carrot Top but she said I'm no good and I don't really know what else I can do and you seem to be alright and you look like a smart pony and..."

 

"Alright! Alright, I'll help you, Ditzy," Sky cried, bracing herself against the torrent of words that threatened to sweep her away. "I'd be happy to help out a fellow former-mailmare."

 

"You would?" Ditzy replied, her eyes starting to dislocate as her smile threatened to do the same to her jaw. "Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou!"

 

Ditzy flew through the window and tackled Sky to the ground with a very dangerous hug, fortunately not breaking any of the inn's furniture in the process.

 

Ohmigosh I wish she wasn't so strong, thought Sky, as her breath went out of her under the force of Ditzy's hug.

 

***

 

"Good morning boss! Ponyville Dragonfire Delivery operative Spaug at your service!"

 

The green dragon snapped a claw to her forehead in a salute, and White Noise nodded appreciatively. Spaug was a few years older than Turquoise, and even though she nearly too tall to walk through the doors in Ponyville without stooping, she made a fine employee.

 

"Glad to see you so eager," White Noise began. "As I said in the letter I sent you a few days ago, we're going to be opening up the Ponyville branch of Dragonfire Delivery today, so you won't have to hang around in the Post Office anymore. I trust you're prepared for your promotion to store manager?"

 

"Yes sir!" she replied. "I started preparing the shop as soon as I got the letter. I've stocked the shelves, dusted the whole place from top to bottom, organized the storeroom and given the sign a fresh coat of paint. All the shop needs is your approval."

 

"Excellent!" replied White Noise, already levitating his second "Yay! We're Open/Sorry, We're Closed" out of his saddlebag. "Judging by your performance in the past, I trust that that is exactly right."

 

With Spaug's capable claws at the helm, Dragonfire Delivery's Ponyville branch's opening day went off very smoothly. The dragoness handled every customer who came in with grace and politeness, never losing her cool with even the most exasperating ones. She was the oldest dragon White Noise had in his employ, and her résumé indicated her experience in a number of previous service industry jobs.

 

Spaug was doing such a great job that White Noise had become very bored sitting in the shop and watching her handle customers even better than he could.

 

In his boredom, White got to thinking about something the Ponyville innkeeper had told him when he'd asked about the town. The librarian was apparently a student of Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, just like himself and was said to keep a very extensive library.

 

White Noise had perused every book on dragons, Dragonia and dragonfire he'd been able to find in the Canterlot and Fillydelphia libraries, but that wasn't saying much. Dragons were not, as a rule, very active writers – most seemed happy to take dictation.

An avid reader and book collector living in close proximity to the Everfree forest may own some rare books on monsters, thought White Noise. And dragons are kinda like monsters... although I wouldn't say that out loud in my present company.

 

"I'm going to go see if I can find something at the library, Spaug," said White Noise. "Keep up the good work while I'm out."

 

"Yes sir!" Spaug replied enthusiastically.

 

***

 

"Okay, so let's start with your cutie mark," began Sky Wave, giving Ditzy a serious look. "Bubbles. What special talent does that give a pony?"

 

"My mom and dad said that the bubbles were for my bubbly personality!" replied Ditzy enthusiastically. "They said I'm always smiling and happy and fun to be around, but I really don't know why anypony wouldn't always be all of those things! If I wasn't happy, I might get sad!"

 

Sky gave Ditzy a blank stare.

 

"No offense, Ditzy," she said, "but I don't think that 'having a bubbly personality' counts as a special talent. I'm sure your talent is something a little more concrete."

 

Sky put a hoof to her chin and contemplated bubbles, soon losing herself in thought. Ditzy tried to follow her example, but the pretty shapes of the clouds kept distracting her.

 

"Are you sure, Sky? Everypony always says I've got a bubbly personality – they use those exact words all the time and everything it's a little weird."

 

Sky smirked and let out a long, knowledge-laden sigh.

 

"Ditzy," she began. "My cutie mark is a ribbon. That ribbon represents me – it flows gracefully in the wind, just like I do when I dance. My friend White Noise, his cutie mark is a speech bubble, because he helps ponies talk to each other. Princess Celestia's cutie mark is a sun because she raises the sun, not for her 'sunny disposition'. I'm sure your special talent has something to do with actual bubbles – it can't be some weird metaphor."

 

Ditzy looked perplexed at this, but went back to thinking. Sky followed suit.

 

"Ah-hah!" Sky said at last. "Got it! Have you ever tried... cart washing?"

 

"No, I haven't ever done that!" Ditzy said in response, smiling widely. "Maybe it's my special talent!"

 

"It could be – there are a lot of bubbles in cart washing."

 

***

 

Sibwashie strolled aimlessly through the town, feeling quite bored. Both of his friends had found things to do, and now he was alone, with a whole day to hang around in Ponyville and nothing to occupy it. With a deep sigh, he headed a first shop he came across, hoping that he would find something worth buying, or somepony to talk to.

 

"Welcome to Sugarcube Corner!" said a cheery voice, belonging to a pink earth pony with a poofy mane. "What would you – GASP!"

 

Sibwashie looked around frantically as the pink pony gasped and leaped into the air. Were they being attacked? Was the roof about to fall in and crush them both? Did he have something on his face?

 

"I've never seen you before!" she exclaimed, landing back behind the counter. "And you're a zebra! This is so exciting I'm so excited! Why, I'm so excited I could just THROW A PARTY but actually I can't do that because Mr and Mrs Cake are out of town today and they left me to watch the shop all day long and I have to prove to them that I'm responsible and I promised not to throw any parties while they were out! So instead I'll just say 'Hello! I'm Pinkie Pie, who are you?'"

 

Pinkie blinked. Sibwashie blinked. This mare was crazier than that grey pegasus he'd met the day before!

 

"Hello! I'm Pinkie Pie, who are you?" Pinkie said, speaking slower than before.

 

"I call myself Sibwashie -

Student of the art of diploma-cy," Sibwashie replied, reusing his slightly awkward greeting rhyme from Hoofington.

 

"Ooh... so you like talking to ponies and zebras and buffalos and other people?" said Pinkie. "That's so super-duper – you get to talk all the time! I love talking!"

 

I guessed, thought Sibwashie, smiling outwardly.

 

Pinkie Pie launched off into a speech about... something, and Sibwashie sat quietly and listened, nodding his head every so often. Just as Pinkie was getting into her opinion of bendy straws, Sibwashie heard another voice, coming from the shop's entrance.

 

"«Never in my time here in Ponyville, did I expect to see another of my kind

Young one, please tell me your name and your quest, if you wouldn't mind.»"

 

Sibwashie's smile widened as the words of his native tongue reached his ears – not the stilted, mispronounced words of an inexperienced speaker like White Noise, but the rhythmic, natural tones of one who had been speaking his language longer than even he had. He turned to Zecora and bowed his head in respect for his elder, as was the custom among zebras.

 

"«Good mother, I thank you, you have warmed my heart

A zebra must not, from his own herd, be so long apart.»

 

"«The name my father gave me is Sibwashie, and my quest is this:

To see that relations between peoples are not of hatred, but of bliss,»" Sibwashie replied, comfortably slipping back into his own language.

 

Pinkie raised a quizzical eyebrow as the zebras continued to talk in their language. She'd made up languages before – it had been a popular party game back home, as her parents thought that if they were going to have a party-pony for a daughter, she may as well play party games that stretched her brain. In any case, the language the zebras were speaking sounded nothing like anything she'd ever made up, so she decided against spouting off gibberish at the two. Also, a little thought in the back of her mind told her it might be considered rude, but that was only a secondary concern.

 

As Pinkie was contemplating what little she knew about Zebrican language, Zecora, now speaking Equestrian, approached her counter and asked her for a bag of sugarcubes.

 

"Flabbidy gabbidy gah!" Pinkie exclaimed cheerfully, grabbing a small bag with her mouth. "Shooben doogle wizzospotten."

 

"«I'm beginning to think that this pony is a little bit crazy,»" commented Sibwashie.

 

"«In Ponyville, the line between sane and insane is quite hazy,»" Zecora replied sagely.

 

***

 

A short while later, Ditzy and Sky had become the two newest employees of Ponyville Cart Washers, "the cleanest place in town!" Sky had suggested a new slogan shortly after being hired, but as a very temporary employee, her opinion didn't have much weight.

 

Ditzy Doo's first customer arrived soon. He was a wealthy, fit young stallion pulling a gleaming black cart with well-polished chrome wheels that shone in the sunlight. Ditzy got through the pleasantries alright, and soon the stallion had gone off to pay, leaving Ditzy to start washing his cart.

 

"Cart-washing is boring!" she complained about three minutes in. "Sky, if this is my special talent, then shouldn't I be enjoying it?"

 

Sky thought for a moment. She lived for her dancing, and her friends White Noise and Sibwashie had been driven far from their homes in their quests to realise the potential of their talents. White Noise in particular could jaw a pony's ear off for hours about dragonfire and radio and the nuances of different languages.

 

"Maybe you just aren't doing it right," Sky said. "Being good at something often comes from approaching it from a completely different angle to what most ponies do, and you haven't tried washing carts in any other way than how the boss told you to."

 

"Maybe you're right," said Ditzy, refocusing her eyes to show a thoughtful expression. "But I'm not sure how I can – ooh! I have an idea!"

 

Ditzy zoomed off into the sky with call of "I'll be right baaack". Sky smiled to herself. This may just work out nicely after all.

 

SPLASH!

 

Sky squealed as a torrent of water rained down on her.

 

"Sorry Sky," Ditzy apologized from above the cloud she'd just gone to fetch. "I should have warned you. Oh well! Pass me the soap, please!"

 

A dripping Sky Wave grabbed a box of soap off the ground and handed it to Ditzy, who dumped the whole box's contents into the cloud, which she then proceeded to jump up and down on repeatedly.

 

"I think it's working!" she shouted, her eyes defocusing with joy.  "I found a new way to wash carts! I'm the best cart washer ev–"

 

CRACK-A-THOOM! A bolt of lightning shot out of the bottom of the cloud and singed the sleek black paint off of a spot in the cart's interior.

 

"My cart!" cried the wealthy stallion, having walked into view at exactly the wrong time.

 

"Oops..."

 

***

 

As he was walking towards the Ponyville library, White Noise realized how little he or anypony else knew about the dragon homeland. Dragons were not, as a rule, very sociable creatures, and although many parent dragons had been sending their children (some as mere eggs!) to live, learn and work in Equestria in recent years, their contact with ponies was still very minimal.

 

All these thoughts were buzzing around in White's head as he finally reached the green door in the large oak tree that he assumed led into the library. Hoping that they would somehow have a book that he could use, he pushed the door open and walked in.

 

"Oh, hello sir," said a meek, surprised voice as a purple head looked up from a thick book on a reading desk in the middle of the room. "I don't think I've seen you here before. How may I help you?"

 

White Noise's eyes widened – the lilac mane – the purple hair and eyes – the bookish demeanour. It couldn't be...

 

"Twilight Sparkle?" he asked, twisting his face quizzically.

 

"Uh, yes," she replied. "That's me."

 

"You actually left the library?!"

 

"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?"

 

Twilight narrowed her eyes at the strange white stallion.

 

"I'm White Noise," he said. "We were in General Magic together back in our first year at the School for Gifted Unicorns. Well, I don't think we ever really talked, but everypony knew about you, Twilight!"

 

"Oh, well I guess they would," she replied.

 

"I remember every time I went to the library, I'd see you sitting there with a book – just as you are now, I guess. We, uh, used to joke about how you probably had a sleeping bag behind the librarian's counter."

 

Twilight blushed, thinking back to all the times she'd woken up with her face in a book and a crick in her neck from falling asleep in the library. In retrospect, it might have been a nice idea to have kept a sleeping bag behind the librarian's counter, she thought.

 

"So what are you doing here in Ponyville?" White Noise asked snidely. "The idea of you leaving the school's grounds at all comes as quite shock."

 

"Princess Celestia sent me here on an important mission for Equestria!" Twilight announced proudly. "I have been tasked with studying the magic of friendship!"

 

White stifled a snicker, earning another glare from Twilight.

 

"Hey, who's there, Twilight?" asked a voice from the stairs. "He sounds... oh. Hey, White Noise."

A familiar baby dragon entered the library from above and smiled at White Noise.

 

"Spike! It's been a while," replied White, walking over to bump Spike's hand with his hoof. "How's life?"

 

"Same old, same old," Spike replied casually. "I see your business is going well! It's been cool having another dragon in town."

 

White Noise and Spike descended into conversation about Canterlot, their mutual friends from the school and White's business, while Twilight pretended to return to her reading. She decided that she would have to ask Spike how he made so many friends... perhaps she would be able to make a study of it...

 

***

 

Sky frowned. Ditzy frowned. The two pegasi lay prostrate on the grass, their manes tangled and their coats covered in tree sap.

 

"I wish we had had more success finding you a new job, Ditzy," Sky said morosely. "At least we tried."

 

"It's okay, Sky," Ditzy replied slowly, weariness winning over the usual cheer in her voice. "I guess I'm just not good at anything. I don't have a special talent – just these stupid bubbles. What do you even do with bubbles? You blow them and they pop..."

 

"Don't say that!" Sky exclaimed, startled by the depth of Ditzy's depression. "Everypony's good at something, Ditzy. And we'll find out what it is that you're good at, even if we have to get covered in tree sap again and again and again!"

 

The two ponies heard the clapping of tiny hooves some distance behind them. Mustering up the strength to turn her head, Sky looked in the direction of the sound and saw three little fillies wearing red capes, who shortly walked over to the pair.

 

The little yellow earth pony wearing a red bow was the first to speak.

 

"You're tryin' ta find what makes you special too?" she asked. "But you already have your cutie marks."

 

"Ditzy Doo does have her cutie mark, yes," Sky replied. "But she doesn't know what it means. When she got it, she thought it was because of her 'bubbly personality', but she has no idea what talent it represents."

 

"But don't you just know what you're supposed to do when you get your cutie mark?" asked another member of the group, an orange pegasus. "When Rainbow Dash got her cutie mark, she knew it was because she was supposed to be the fastest flyer in Equestria! Same with all her friends and their boring stories!"

 

Ditzy Doo hung her head in shame. Sky put a hoof on the sad pony's shoulder.

 

"Not always, girls," she said to the three little fillies. "Cutie marks are just pictures – they don't come with instruction manuals."

 

The little fillies looked downcast at this. Sky glanced at their flanks and noticed that none of the three had their cutie marks yet.

 

"Getting your cutie mark is still an amazing experience, even if you don't understand what it means until later," she explained. "The day this red ribbon appeared... it was the happiest day of my life..."

 

***

 

"So you really think that the... friendship... between ponies is a source of magic?" asked White Noise.

 

"There's so much more to it than that, but if you must put it that way, then yes," replied Twilight. "Friendship is magic."

 

The two unicorns were seated on two of Twilight's cushions, with Spike-made glasses of lemonade on the carpet next to them. White had forgotten all about any books he'd been looking for and was having an in-depth discussion about magic with Princess Celestia's star pupil: something he had never dreamt he'd do.

 

"Guess I've heard stranger things," White said. "It makes a kind of sense – one of those 'invisible bonds that link us all' types of things."

 

Twilight was enjoying this rare opportunity to talk to another gifted unicorn about magic. None of her earth pony or pegasi friends were really that interested in her greatest passion, and even Rarity didn't have an awful lot to say on the subject of magic. Twilight found herself wishing she'd made friends back at the school – having ponies to talk about her research with was very fulfilling.

 

"Believe me, I didn't believe it at first either," Twilight said. "I thought magic was all about studying and learning the tricks of previous masters and about understanding the intricate relationship between –"

 

Just as Twilight was about to recite the introductory paragraphs of the thesis she'd been planning, her train of thought was interrupted by the noisy entrance of three little fillies and two older ponies.

 

"Wow, Sky Wave," said Scootaloo. "That was actually a pretty okay story. Not as awesome as Rainbow Dash's cutie mark story, but I never knew air-dancing could be that extreme!"

 

Sky smiled modestly at the filly's compliment – the surprise on the faces of her friends indicated that to receive a compliment from Scootaloo was a rare honour, usually reserved for whoever this Rainbow Dash pony she kept talking about was.

 

"Hey, Sky," greeted White Noise. "Made some new friends, I see. Oh, hi again, Ditzy Doo."

 

"You have a talks bubble for a cutie mark," pointed out Apple Bloom. "Do you draw comic books?"

 

"No," replied White Noise bluntly, "but a lot of ponies ask me that."

 

Sweetie Belle walked over to Twilight to return a book while Apple Bloom launched into a barrage of questions about White Noise's cutie mark and special talent.

 

"...It's not really that exciting," concluded White, as he finished satisfying most of Apple Bloom's questions.

 

"Sure isn't," Scootaloo snorted.

 

While all this was going on, Ditzy Doo was sitting very quietly in a corner, looking down at the library's carpet with a big frown on her face.

 

"...sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, Sweetie..."

 

Ditzy caught a snippet of Twilight's conversation with Sweetie Belle.

 

"...like when I was trying to escape a hydra near Froggy-Bottom Bog..."

 

"Did somepony say hydra?" Scootaloo asked excitedly, her ears perking up to listen to Twilight and Sweetie's conversation as well. "Those things are cool."

 

"Yeah, I'd like to hear about this 'hydra adventure' you had as well, Twilight," added White Noise. "I really enjoyed Monsters 101 back at school, and I've always wanted to see one with my own eyes."

 

Sighing a little, Twilight related the story of her adventure with the hydra and the Pinkie Pie-themed events that led up to it.

 

"So the moral of the story was that sometimes you just have to believe in things, even if you can't make sense of them," Twilight concluded.

 

"I can imagine that would be difficult for you, Twilight," White Noise retorted.

 

"The other moral is don't go near Froggy-Bottom Bog," Twilight continued, eyeing the Cutie Mark Crusaders. "It used to be perfectly safe, but it's become a hydra habitat in recent times. I think it's got something to do with the –"

 

"Hey, where's Ditzy?" asked Sweetie Belle, preventing Twilight from educating the others on the care and feeding of hydras.

 

The ponies in the library looked around to confirm that Ditzy Doo was indeed missing. She probably wandered off, thought Sky Wave. No big deal... she must have left when... oh!

 

"I think she left around when you mentioned that giant... bubble..."

 

I'm sure your special talent has something to do with actual bubbles – it can't be some weird metaphor.

 

Everypony's eyes widened in realisation and they all raced out the door, Cutie Mark Crusaders included.

 

"You girls stay here, or go home," commanded Twilight. "I already told you, Froggy-Bottom Bog is too dangerous."

 

"Aww man..."

 

Dejectedly, Scootaloo crossed "Cutie Mark Crusader Hydra Slayers" off her mental checklist, while the other two did the same with sighs of relief.

 

***

 

White Noise, Sky Wave and Twilight raced across the town in the direction of the Everfree Forest. Froggy-Bottom Bog lay on its outskirts and had for a long time been considered a safe place for ponies to visit, but in recent months, frightening creatures from the Everfree had been encroaching on the bog, rendering it a danger zone.

 

"Sibwashie, come, we need to get to Froggy-Bottom Bog! No time to explain!" Sky Wave yelled from her position in the sky, as she passed over the street Sibwashie had been nonchalantly walking across.

 

Without even taking the time to compose a situationally-appropriate couplet, Sibwashie leapt into action and galloped after Sky, swiftly overtaking her unicorn companions.

 

Sky arrived on the scene first. A grey blur shot towards her, and her heart sank. Maybe she found out what her cutie mark means? Sky hoped.

 

"Help! A hydra's chasing me!" shouted Ditzy Doo. "The bubbles didn't listen when I told them to defend me!"

 

Well, maybe not.

 

Sky chuckled, and then swallowed nervously.

 

"Get out of here!" she shouted. "I'll divert the hydra's attention, don't worry."

 

Shouting a further command to Sibwashie (who had just arrived) to do what he could to help, Sky dove towards the bog, where she caught sight of the meanest, largest hydra she had ever seen.

 

And it was already halfway out of the bog, bearing scowls of rage on its many faces. Most of its eyes watched the area of the sky where Ditzy had just been, but a few turned to face Sky, sending a shiver down her spin.

 

She had no idea how she was going to deal with the hydra, but thought that maybe it would go away if she stuck a hoof in its eye or something.

 

"FLY IN AND OUT!" shouted White Noise, his voice magically amplified. "TRY TO TIE ITS NECKS IN A KNOT!"

 

Probably a better idea than just trying to poke it, Sky thought, adjusting her trajectory to accommodate her new plan.

 

She flew down. The hydra's nearest head followed her.

 

She flew up. Another head followed her.

 

She flew towards the hydra's body. Both heads followed her.

 

She twisted around, flew around the heads and flew up towards a third head. She couldn't see what was happening.

 

She flew down, then left, then right, then in a zigzag pattern and finally flew away from the beast.

 

Sky put on a cocky expression and glanced back at the knot she'd made of the hydra – except there was no knot. The hydra's heads bobbed up and down on its untangled necks, and she could have sworn one of them smiled viciously at her.

 

"Aaah!" she gasped as one of the hydra's heads snuck up behind her.

 

Sky flinched just in time for the head to pass her by with a loud WHOOSH of wind, riling up her mane but otherwise leaving her unharmed. Before the hydra was able to snap at her again with another of its many mouths, Sky soared out of the hydra's reach and made her way towards White Noise.

 

"It's too smart for me to tie up!" she cried, hovering just above the hill White was standing on. "I've only managed to tire myself out; if I landed now, I don't think I'd be able to get up again."

 

White Noise nodded in acknowledgement as he wracked his brains. He had been told by a grizzled old adventurer once that a nimble pegasus could trick a hydra into tying its necks together with the correct sequence of movements, but the effectiveness of that trick relied on the hydra being young and unaccustomed to the number of heads it had – neither of which applied to this vicious and crafty beast.

 

"Tying the hydra in knots, that's got to be the solution!" White Noise shouted. "Maybe if we could cut off some of its heads to –"

 

"Stop right there," Sky Wave interrupted, resisting the urge to give him a hoof to the face. "Have you seen how many heads that thing has already?"

 

White Noise glanced over at the hydra. Three of its heads scanned the muddy ground, frantically looking for whatever creature had been poking and pinching at its sensitive underside. For a big guy, Sibwashie could be artfully stealthy when necessary. And he was also quite skilled at swamp-diving.

 

That buys some us some time, White Noise thought. Maybe enough time for it to forget about Ditzy Doo and get back into the swamp.

 

One of the hydra's heads swivelled around at just the right moment to catch Sibwashie surfacing above the mud. A roar and a lunge later, Sibwashie was out of the fight and the hydra had hopped out of the swamp entirely and was slowly ambling towards Ponyville.

 

Or not.

 

"Okay, if you can't make it tie itself up," White said to Sky, the panic showing I his voice, "then we need magic to tie it up ourselves – and while I'm not bad at tying bows on birthday presents, those necks are as thick as ponies! I don't have that kind of power!"

 

"I do."

 

Twilight Sparkle stood right behind the two ponies, her body lowered and tense. Her horn slowly lit up.

 

"Normally I'd tell you visitors off for provoking a hydra, but this one is far too large and dangerous to be so close to town, and it looks a little too interested in chasing Ditzy Doo."

 

Her horn glowed ever brighter as the tendrils of her magic reached out to touch and then surround the hydra. Twilight closed her eyes tightly in intense concentration as beads of sweat broke upon her brow.

 

"Aah! Help!" cried the voice of Ditzy Doo, coming from behind Twilight.

 

Ditzy zoomed past Sky Wave and White Noise, her goofy eyes wide with terror.

 

"I tried to go back to Ponyville but there's an evil dog-thing and he's chasing meeee!"

 

Sky and White watched in horror as a giant, three-headed dog – a cerberus – bounded out from behind a clump of trees and lunged at them. Frothy saliva hung from its mouths, and it had a look of blind rage in all six of its eyes. The creature was easily as tall as three ponies stacked on top of each other. White Noise had read about such creatures, but he hadn't been aware that they were able to grow to such enormous sizes.

 

The beast's multiple aggressive roars were deafening, growing ever more so as he closed in on the three ponies. But suddenly, they came to stop with three low whimpers.

 

"Gotcha," said Twilight, her voice straining just slightly as she held the hydra and the cerberus in her magic.

 

White and Sky opened their eyes to find that they had been holding onto each other for dear life. They quickly disentangled and stared in awe as Twilight levitated the giant dog – now closer in countenance to a scared puppy – towards the hydra's many heads.

 

Sweat poured down Twilight's face as she slowly tied the cerberus up in the hydra's necks. One neck, two necks, three necks...

 

"They're... resistant... to magic," she grimaced. "Not... sure... why. Can... get through the barriers... but... takes... a lot... of magic. Running... out..."

 

Twilight's horn glowed brighter than White Noise had ever seen a unicorn's horn glow before as she tied more and more of the hydra's necks together, but he could see she was close to breaking point.

 

"Just... need... a little more... power."

 

A crazy thought came into White Noise's head.

 

"I can help," he said.

 

White took a deep breath, and his horn started to glow. He looked at the hydra, and then back at Twilight. Magic tendrils extended from his horn and wrapped around the other unicorn, before shrinking to only cover her horn.

 

White was about to try something that'd he never heard of anypony doing before. He let out his breath, and severed his magic. All of it. His face contorted into a pained expression as his magic rushed out of his horn and into Twilight's.

 

The magic transfer held. With the extra surge of power pushing her just over the edge, Twilight's eyes glowed pure white as she quickly tied up the rest of the hydra's necks, making a neat cerberus bundle (nicely wrapped up in hydra gift paper). Twilight then flicked her neck dramatically and levitated the bundle up into the air.

 

She released her magic, and the hydra-cerberus package flew high into the air, reaching its maximum height halfway to the horizon and dipping down into the depths of the Everfree Forest.

 

Twilight collapsed from over-exertion, and tears leaked from White Noise's eyes. His horn appeared a shade darker than usual.

 

Sibwashie had emerged from the swamp by this time and stood next to Sky and a still-shaken-up Ditzy Doo, mouth agape in awe of the spectacular feat of magic that he had just witnessed.

 

"WOOHOO!" came a piercing cry, as Pinkie Pie appeared on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere. "This calls for a celebration!"

 

***

 

An hour or so later, Pinkie's party was in full swing.

 

Everypony in town bombarded Twilight with gratitude for saving Ponyville from the terrible wrath of the enormous hydra and its friend the gigantic Cerberus, which made her feel quite uncomfortable.

 

"These travellers helped too!" she insisted, desperately motioning towards Sibwashie, Sky Wave and White Noise.

 

The three travellers smiled politely at the townsfolk, who soon returned to swamping Twilight, leaving them to talk in peace.

 

"Are you sure your horn's okay?" Sky asked White. "It looks odd."

 

"That's because I gave Twilight my entire magic reserve back at the bog," replied White. "My magic will replenish itself in a day or two, but until then I just won't be able to do magic. It's an annoyance, but it's only temporary. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get some punch... without levitating anything."

 

As White Noise ambled over to the punch bowl, his mind returned to something Twilight had told him on the way back to Ponyville.

 

"Beasts of that size have no reason to be so close to Ponyville," she had said. "When I talked about hydras in Froggy-Bottom Bog, I meant young ones: hydras that just get lost in the Everfree, or runts that get chased out of the bigger swamps. That one was certainly way out of the age range of 'young'. What's more, I know of the cerberusi – or is it cereberi? – who hide in dark caves in the forest's depths, but they seldom come out and definitely don't journey as far as the bog when they do."

 

"Maybe they just got lost?" he had replied. "I'm sure it happens to older hydras and cereberi as well."

 

"I was thinking that as well, but then I started using my magic on the hydra. As soon as I tried to move its first neck, I felt that... sense of disconnection you get when something has been enchanted to resist magic. It wasn't a very sophisticated enchantment, but it was there."

 

White Noise shuddered as he thought back to the magical resistance breaking course he had barely scraped through in school. Even the "not very sophisticated" enchantments would leave him with a massive headache.

 

So Twilight thinks that somepony was behind the attack, at least indirectly, White though as he looked to both sides, checking to see if other ponies were watching before dipping his muzzle into the punch bowl and taking a long drink. Not sure what anypony would have to gain from enchanting huge monsters and sending them to Froggy-Bottom Bog though.

 

***

 

In another, lonelier corner of the party, Ditzy Doo felt a hoof on her shoulder.

 

"Hey Ditzy," said Sky Wave kindly. "How's it going?"

 

Ditzy looked at the ground, too ashamed to make eye contact.

 

"I'm so sorry!" she bawled. "I nearly got everypony killed!"

 

"Don't say that!" Sky reprimanded. "It wasn't your fault that there was a hydra hiding in the bog! And besides, if I hadn't been so insistent about the meaning of your cutie mark..."

 

"Wait..." began Ditzy, as she brought her eyes into focus. "So, you're saying that you were wrong? That my cutie mark does mean what my parents told me it means?"

 

"Yeah... I guess," Sky admitted. "Okay fine. Yes. I'm sorry, I was wrong. Forgive me?"

 

"Well..."

 

Ditzy thought about it for a moment, before nodding her head and wrapping her forelegs around Sky. Sky smiled and returned Ditzy's hug.

 

"Ahem."

 

A gruff voice interrupted the two ponies, and they turned around to see a middle-aged brown pegasus stallion. He had a few days' worth of stubble on his muzzle and was wearing an expression that showed him to be feeling very sorry for himself.

 

"Mr Brown!" Ditzy exclaimed. "Uh... are you okay? …Sir?"

 

"Ditzy Doo, this is really embarrassing for me, but, uh," the brown stallion mumbled. "D'ya wanna have your old job back?"

 

Ditzy's eyes widened in shock, and her pupils lost their focus as her irises drifted in opposite directions.

 

"But I thought my cutie mark –"

 

"Yes, yes, that's still how it is," interrupted Ditzy's old boss. "But the thing of it is this: the Equestrian Postal Service cannot spare any more mailponies from anyplace else. The mailmare who was supposed to transfer here from Trottingham has been reassigned, and Ponyville doesn't have a mailpony right now. Folks are gettin' agitated."

 

"She'll take her job back," Sky offered coyly. "At double the salary!"

 

Mr Brown raised an eyebrow, and Sky immediately regretted her demand.

 

"Not my call to make. Ditzy, the offer to get your old job with your old pay back still stands. We'll make a plan to deal with the bureaucrats at headquarters."

 

Ditzy barely had to think before nodding her head vigorously and wrapping her "new" boss in a bone-crushing hug.

 

"Thankyouthankyouthankyou!" exclaimed Ditzy. "I can't wait to get back on the job! Back to my old route, with my old mail bags and my old breakfast muffin and my old..."

 

Sky smiled to herself as she trotted off to find her travelling companions. Ponyville had been full of excitement, and she'd made a number of great new friends, but she found herself hoping that the next stop she and the others made would be a little less eventful. If she ended up having to fight any more hydras, she would have to ask White Noise for a raise.

<--Previous (Chapter Three) | Next (Chapter Five)-->


Chapter Five

 

The town of Port Anchor was a quaint little place, populated mostly by sea-faring ponyfolk who jittered about uncomfortably in their little wooden houses and longed for the sea when they weren't out sailing. As such, the town's large docks were its busiest area.

 

Which wasn't to say that they were particularly busy. Equestria, by and large, was a very self-sufficient nation, largely because of its great size and the diversity of its climate. Large tracts of arable land provided more than enough food for the ponies living there, and beneath the fine soil, the ground was rich with precious metals and gems. Equestria had a cordial relationship with nearby countries and exported much of its excess produce, but the majority of that activity took place in the shipping district of Manehattan.

 

As such, the docks of Port Anchor were, at their busiest, not overly busy, and the vast majority of the ships there were Equestrian in origin. True to its name, the town was a place to anchor for a short time, should necessity demand it.

 

A shiny new ship, small enough to almost be called a boat but still very sea-worthy, sat to the side of one of the wooden harbours, docked on mooring lines. Large white letters across the ship's near side christened it Moonchaser. Its owner stood nearby, admiring her fine, week-old craft.

 

Ocean Glider, an indigo earth pony mare with a dark purple mane and a crashing wave for a cutiemark, believed very strongly that this ship was the best purchase she'd ever made. Having a ship of her own would finally allow her to start her transportation business and ferry ponies to and from the increasingly visited Lunar Republic.

 

Ocean wasn't a native Lunar Republican. Her parents, being the crazy old seadog ponies they were, had ensured that her birth coincided with a trip they had been taking, and she had been born in international waters, making her a "citizen of the world". As she'd spent most of her life on ships and boats, she felt that that status was quite appropriate and had never before considered acquiring Equestrian citizenship, or that of any other country.

 

Which made it very strange that she was, at that moment, considering the benefits of becoming a citizen of the Lunar Republic – or rather, the New Lunar Republic, as it would become once Princess Luna overcame the shackles of her oppressive sister and took her rightful place as ruler of the island kissed every night by her moon.

 

"'Moonchaser', eh?" said a gruff voice to Ocean Glider's side. "You one o' them Lun-arr Rep-ub-li-cans?"

 

"Well, no," she replied semi-truthfully, feeling flustered about the loss of her train of thought.

 

"Then why is ya boat called Moon-chase-ah?"

 

Ocean Glider turned to the speaker and found herself staring right at the slimy, yellow-toothed smile of an old and crusty grey sailorpony. His orange eyes narrowed, and a number of other sailorponies stepped into view just behind him.

 

"We don' take kindly ta desert-tahs," said the grey stallion, as his followers stepped closer to Ocean Glider. "Isn't Equestria good enough for ya? Is Princess Celestya ta old fer ya?"

 

"N-no," Ocean Glider stammered, as her aggressors stepped ever closer. "W-what do you want?"

 

The group's leader let out a low, raspy chuckle that made Ocean Glider dislike him further, something that was fast becoming nearly impossible to do. A dry tongue flicked over his yellow teeth, and he nodded towards Moonchaser.

 

"Torch it, boys," he commanded. "We ain't 'avin' no in-sub-ordy-nants in mah town. Not while Ah'm still breathin'."

 

Ocean watched in horror as the ponies under the unseemly stallion's command brandished wooden torches in their mouths, and the group's single unicorn lit up his horn with an orange glow.

 

There was a WHOOSH as the first of the mob's torches lit up, followed by many more as the unicorn's orange magic field stretched out further and further. Ocean's heart sank as the ponies in the mob turned towards her beautiful ship and readied their torches for throwing. A single word from their leader would light up her ship in a brilliant orange blaze.

 

"Stop!" she cried desperately. "You'll burn the harbour! You'll burn the rest of the boats too!"

 

"We're pro-fesh-ionals, lady," jeered the leader, raising his right foreleg theatrically. "Now lads, when mah hoof hits the wood, ya throw ya torches. Git ready."

 

The leader's foreleg reached the top of its arc. He stood frozen for a moment, before shooting Ocean a particularly nasty glare and slamming his hoof down.

 

SPLASH!

 

The sound of the leader's hoof hitting the wood was drowned out by a sudden massive downpour. Ocean squealed in surprise as she was thoroughly drenched, but noticed with glee that the same had happened to her aggressors – and to their torches.

 

The source of the downpour was a decently large cloud that had snuck above the group while nopony was watching – or, perhaps more accurately, had been snuck above the group while nopony was watching.

 

Something moved above the cloud and the pegasus responsible for it swooped down onto the harbour triumphantly and was joined by a white unicorn and large-framed zebra.

 

"Sorry to interrupt, but I think you ponies really need to find a safer way to celebrate maiden voyages," the pegasus said casually. "I'd suggest something that allows the ship to actually make the voyage afterwards."

 

The leader of the mob shot the newcomers a dirty look, his mood dampened almost to the same extent as his coat and mane. The less dedicated members of his mob had already wandered off, and he didn't have the energy or the will to start a fight with some crazy tourists.

 

"Sorry about getting you all wet like that," the unicorn of the group said to Ocean Glider, once the soaked mob had fully dispersed. "It was the best plan we could come up with on such short notice."

 

Ocean stood flabbergasted, her jaw hanging open. She hadn't moved from the spot she'd been rooted to when her three saviours made their perfectly timed entrance.

 

"Are you okay?"

 

***

 

A round of introductions and a torrent of gushing thanks later, Ocean Glider and her new friends sat down to eat on the deck of an old passenger ship that had been repurposed as a nautical-themed café. Ocean insisted on paying.

 

"Thanks again you guys," she said, hugging her towel closer to her body. "If you hadn't shown up just then –"

 

"– you just don't know what you would have done?" Sky Wave interrupted, finishing the sentence Ocean had already repeated at least one hundred times that night. "Don't worry about it. We just did what any decent pony would've done."

 

Ocean smiled and nodded, still feeling amazed at her good fortune.

 

"If you want to repay us, though," began White Noise, suddenly cottoning onto a great idea. "Then you could tell us what you're planning to do with that nice new boat. Perhaps you can help us out?"

 

Ocean nodded eagerly and launched into her business plan: "Moonchaser's gonna take ponies between here and the Lunar Republic! At the moment, there isn't a dedicated passenger liner that does that, and that's because, for centuries, only supply ships have been out that way. But that's all changing now, with Princess Luna's return and the renewed lunar magic she's brought with her. Ponies want to visit – or even immigrate to – the Lunar Republic, and my little ship's going to help them do just that."

 

White Noise thought back to the geography he had learnt at school. The Lunar Republic was a small island in the Radiant Sea, situated roughly halfway between Equestria and Laung, the continent Zebrica and Dragonia formed the west-most outcropping of.

 

"Have you started operating?" he asked Ocean.

 

"Not yet, no," she replied. "Moonchaser hasn't even been on her maiden voyage. In fact, she only left the dry dock the other day."

 

White Noise's eyes flashed with realised opportunity.

 

"I think I may have a proposition for you, Ocean Glider. If you're willing to go a little further than the Lunar Republic for your inaugural trip, then my friends and I would be happy to be your first customers."

 

"How much further?"

 

"Laung."

 

"That's double the distance!"

 

"Sure is."

 

"I guess I do owe you guys."

 

After the promise of handsome payment – which she negotiated down slightly because of her unending gratitude to White Noise's group – Ocean agreed to take the ponies and zebra to Laung, provided they were happy to stop off in the Lunar Republic on the way.

 

"You aren't actually my first customers, you know," she snarked. "I meant it when I said there were ponies who really wanted to get over to the Lunar Republic."

 

The group laughed and talked until their food came, and then talked and laughed some more while they ate.

 

"Yeah, we've had some pretty interesting experiences since we left from Fillydelphia," said White Noise. "You've gotta hear about what happened in Bridleburg, the last town we stopped in."

 

"Eccentric ponies put us and themselves in terrible danger

Compared to any other town, Bridleburg will always prove stranger," added Sibwashie cryptically.

 

The travellers told Ocean all about their journey thus far, and she interjected with her own little stories about her life at sea and all the places she had been to and the amazing things she had seen. Eventually, the question that had been gnawing at her mind since White Noise first started telling her about the group's adventures couldn't stay beneath the surface any longer.

 

"Sorry if I'm being nosy," she began. "But, uh, why are you going to Laung, anyway? I know you've been setting up outlets of your shops, but you haven't come here to set one up, and you haven't been to Manehattan or Trottingham either. Are you taking your business international?"

 

White Noise exchanged glances with Sibwashie and Sky.

 

"That's a distinct possibility, but it's not the main focus of this journey," he began. "Sibwashie would like to visit his home again, and I'm glad to accompany him there, but that's not the main focus either. The main point of our journey is this: I am going to find out how dragonfire actually works."

 

White Noise took a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing.

 

"To do that, I'm going back to the source, to ask the masters themselves. This journey's final destination is Dragonia, where I hope to use my academic credentials to gain an audience with the leading dragon experts in dragonfire and its associated magic."

 

Ocean Glider's eyes widened, and she marvelled at the group's bravery. Although Equestria–Dragonia relations had improved greatly in the past few centuries and more and more dragons were sending their young to live, study and work in Equestria, the idea of actually going into Dragonia was a frightening one. Not all dragons were educated, or benevolent creatures, and beyond that, the country's dry climate and rocky, mountainous terrain made not at all ideal for ponies to travel through.

 

White Noise went on to explain the dilemma he felt was inherent in setting up a business based around a kind of magic he didn't fully understand and how dangerous it was to trust his livelihood to it. However, his impassioned speech about the quest for knowledge was soon interrupted.

 

"I heard ya say ya was headin' fir Dragonia," said a grave, old voice. "I would be a leetle more careful about ideeas like that if I was yew."

 

The voice belonged to an old brown earth pony sailor with a well-worn blue ship-captain's hat on his head and an anchor on his flank. A low, hurried whisper from Ocean Glider named him Salty Seadog, a mostly retired sailor who loved telling folks stories about his glory days. The stories weren't always true, but Ocean assured her new friends that they were always entertaining and promptly offered the old stallion an empty seat at their table.

 

"Thank ya kindly, ma'am," he said politely, his smile revealing an incomplete set of yellow teeth, but making Ocean feel completely different from last time she had seen such a smile. "Now let me tell you folks about dragons..."

 

"I know you kids are used to yir home-grown helpful baby dragons that write all yir letters and clean yir house, but them's completely different beasts from the dragons livin' in Dragonia. I tell ya, there's a reason why them dragons aren't allowed in Equestria, and I seen that wit' mah own two eyes..."

 

«-oOo-»

 

The fine ship HMPC (Her Majesty Princess Celestia's) Duskbreaker was looking very much the worse for wear as it rounded Dragonia's cliffy coastline. It had just been through a terrible storm, and although nopony had been lost to the raging winds or turbulent waves, the sails were in tatters and there were great holes in the mast and deck.

 

As the ship's sails were all but gone, its only form of propulsion was its secondary rowing system, with the help of some limited unicorn magic. To row the enormous ship, however, took the horsepower of nearly the entire crew and travelling too far by such an energy-intensive method was bound to tire out the ship's crew to the point where they would be unable to go on long before reaching Equestria.

 

The ship's captain, a prudent fellow named Calmwaters, decided that the ship would have to anchor somewhere soon, if it hoped to avoid being caught in another storm (the fury of which it would surely not escape in one piece). The crew, their hearts eager for Equestria, agreed with their captain's decision and assured him that, once the ship landed, they would be able to fix it in no time at all.

 

Alas, the high and foreboding cliffs of Dragonia prevented the ship from anchoring anywhere for another day, and then the day after that, and the day after that. The crew were beginning to get despondent – when would they be able to land?

 

Finally, on the fourth day, the Duskbreaker sailed into a small bay, and the sailorponies alighted on the bay's tiny beach.

 

Beyond the beach was a thin clump of trees, and beyond that, the cliffs rose just as high as any in Dragonia. The crew did not have much space, but they would have enough wood to keep a fire burning at night and to mount basic repairs on their vessel.

 

A younger, more impulsive Salty Seadog was among the sailorponies. This being one of his earliest voyages, he was but a lowly cabin boy, whose main task was cooking remotely edible food out of whatever plantlife he could find. The crew didn't rush for seconds of his grass-and-leaf stew, but they ate it quietly and made no complaints.

 

With the crew rested and fed, the ship's repairs progressed rapidly. A great big tree was chopped down and hewn into a new mast, and the holes in the ship's deck and hull were patched up with the wood that remained. New sails were woven from a combination of the remains of the old sails, some leaves and bits of bark cleverly molded and woven by unicorn magic and one or two extra hammocks.

 

Salty had even managed to make himself useful by supplanting the ship's dwindling food supplies with stores of the edible leaves he managed to find.

 

By nightfall on the third day, work on the ship was complete, and Captain Calmwaters announced that the Duskbreaker was seaworthy once more. It was decided that the crew would go to sleep early that night, awaken the following morning with renewed strength and sail out of the bay, Equestria-bound.

 

***

 

Around midnight, the ponies were awakened by a terrible screeching, unlike any noise they had ever heard before. All at once, they opened their eyes to a terrifying sight.

 

For above the bay, just lower than the tops of the foreboding cliffs, there flew a great blue dragon, twisting and writhing in fury. The bone-chilling screech tore through the air once more, and the sailorponies realised that it was the dragon that made been making the awful sound.

 

Salty remembered Captain Calmwaters assuring everypony that they were too low down to be bothered by any dragons – apparently dragons felt uncomfortable close to sea-level, or above smooth, level ground.

 

All of a sudden, the dragon turned around in the air and plummeted towards the sailorponies, making even the most hardened veterans of the waves among them scream like little fillies and run around madly.

 

Caught up in the moment's frightening atmosphere, young Salty picked a direction and ran, closing his eyes for fear of seeing the dragon hurt him or one of his shipmates. It was on this day that Salty would learn never to run away from something with your eyes closed, as a protruding tree branch shortly caught one of his forelegs and sent him tumbling down in a heap.

 

Lying on his back and feeling quite dazed, Salty could only watch as the great blue dragon swept over him, ruffling his coat and mane with the gust of wind that came with. For a split second, Salty saw the dragon's eyes. They were pure white and appeared to be dripping with some foul liquid. Certainly not tears.

 

Salty felt a sense of warmth against his back as the dragon breathed out a column of fire, setting the trees behind him alight. This proved to be the exact motivation the little cabinpony needed to get back on his hooves and gallop out of the small forest, trying to ignore the screams of ponies less successful than he.

 

A loud shout ripped through the air, and Salty recognized the dignified voice of Captain Calmwaters, not even quivering with fear in the face of this immense danger.

 

"Dragon!" he bellowed. "Why do you attack us? What have we done to bring your anger down upon us?"

 

Calmwaters was barely able to jump out of the way in time to miss the blast of fire that shot his way the instant he finished talking. Salty could see that the hairs on his one side had become singed, and his magnificent blue hat had been blackened on one side.

 

Seeing the wisdom in beating a hasty retreat, Calmwaters turned tail and rushed towards the ship, ordering the remains of his crew to do the same.

 

Salty and the others galloped faster than they had ever galloped before, and once on the ship, the anchor was drawn up at a rate that suggested it was made out of balloons rather than heavy iron.

 

Losing interest in the pony-kebabs he had made, the great dragon turned his attention to the escaping ship (its crew rowed with a vigour that might've carried them to Equestria faster than the strongest of gales, had they kept it up). With another mighty screech, the dragon blasted the ship with his fire.

 

And that might have been the end of Captain Calmwaters, Salty Seadog and the rest of the crew, had it not been for the ingenuity of Flighty the unicorn, who turned her magic on the dragon's powerful breath of fire and turned into a regular powerful breath, of air.

 

The Duskbreaker shot out of the bay, skipping across the water like a stone – or so it felt. The rowing crew emerged from below and cheered, while the dragon could be heard screeching impotently into the night before fading from sight, utterly uninterested in following the ponies any further.

 

Flighty was given a commendation for her bravery and resourcefulness, followed by a stern lecture for shirking her duties – she had been on deck watching the dragon, instead of down below, helping the other unicorns telekinetically row the unoccupied oars.

 

There were a lot of unoccupied oars in the bowels of the Duskbreaker, for Calmwaters had lost a third of his crew to the dragon's fire that night.

 

«-oOo-»

 

"So don't yew tell me that dragons ah ha'mless," Salty concluded, staring wistfully out to sea as his tale came to an end. "We did nothing to tha' devil, but 'e still burnt a third o' us to a crisp. Even afta Cap'n Calmwaters tried reasonin' with him!"

 

Salty's audience nodded their heads gravely, none of them knowing how to respond to the story they'd just been told. White Noise thought about all of his dragon friends, and a knot formed in his stomach. Even Melvin, sour little git that he was, couldn't possibly be capable of such atrocities.

 

A waiterpony brought the group their after-dinner teas and coffees, and Salty Seadog yawned and bade them all a good night.

 

"Heed mah words!" he warned. "Don' go pokin' around in the bus'ness o' dragons!"

 

"We'll remember what you've told us, don't worry," White Noise said, mustering a semi-earnest tone out of his extremely boggled mind.

 

As Salty hobbled off, the group turned to their drinks, dipping their muzzles into the cups and lapping up the warm liquid.

 

"Hey," said Ocean Glider, suddenly noticing something. "White Noise, why are you drinking like that? Don't unicorns usually..."

 

"Yes, they do," he replied flatly. "Usually."

 

It was then that Ocean noticed something odd about the white unicorn's horn. Most unicorn horns were colours that matched their coats exactly, but White's horn was a strange, greyish off-white that looked out of place against his pale coat.

 

"Ponyville," he told her. "Can't believe we never even got to that part of the story. Anyway, the short version is this: I do usually have magic and use my magic like a regular unicorn, but after I had to sever my supply – you wouldn't understand what that means, but don't worry – to help fight a hydra, I haven't been able to do magic."

 

Ocean Glider gasped. "Is it... permanent?"

 

"No, no, it's nothing that serious. My magic supply just has to build up again, and that takes a while. A while longer than I thought it would, but seeing as nopony's ever severed their entire magic supply in one go, I guess I'm in uncharted waters here."

 

"It's rather irritating," interjected Sky. "White's magic would've really come in handy back in Bridleburg."

 

White Noise put a hoof to his chin and thought for a moment, before adding: "It's okay, I can feel my magic slowly returning, but I just haven't felt able to use it yet."

 

"Well that's a relief," Ocean sighed, her mind turning to other thoughts now that her worries were put at rest. "You guys fought a hydra?"

 

"Well," began Sky, looking down at her teacup modestly. "Twilight was the one who actually defeated it..."

 

***

 

Two days after the heroic rescue of the Moonchaser and her owner, the fine ship was fully prepped for the voyage ahead. The three travellers lined up on the dock with four of Ocean's other customers, all of them eager to mount the ship and set sail for foreign lands.

 

"I can't believe we're finally about to leave Equestria," said White Noise to his companions. "I've read a lot about the world out there in books, but I've never actually been to any of the places I studied in school."

 

"Same here," agreed Sky Wave. "I'd barely ever been out of Fillydelphia before you guys got me to come on this crazy trip, and I'm a pegasus pony! I can fly anywhere I want to and have travelled so little, while Sibwashie has no wings and has been further across the world than the two of us combined!"

 

Sibwashie chuckled softly to himself.

 

"I love discovering other cultures and seeing new places

But there's comfort to be found in familiar faces.

 

"My talent and my calling has brought me here and will send me all over the world

But sometimes I wish to lie beside the fires of home, sleeping with my tail curled."

 

The two ponies looked at the zebra with wide eyes, nodding slowly and smiling as they noticed a small tear in the corner of one of his eyes. It could have just been a trick of the light, or a speck of dust, but White and Sky were certain that Sibwashie was overjoyed to be on his way home.

 

"All aboard!" came a shout from the deck of the ship, jarring the three friends out of their shared moment of contemplation.

 

The passengers ascended the boarding plank in single file and alighted on the ship's recently swabbed deck (so clean that it shone in the sunlight). The single sail hung proudly from its mast, bearing a lovingly painted image of the moon (a very up-to-date image, as it lacked the traditional mare's head shadow).

 

The Moonchaser's captain, a proud and haughty-looking Ocean Glider wearing a smart blue hat, stood in front of her newly hired crew and welcomed her passengers aboard graciously, shaking each one's hoof and looking them all directly in the eyes, confidence exuding from her every pore.

 

"We now set sail for the Lunar Republic," she announced. "As you may have already heard, her majesty Princess Luna departed for the island herself not three days ago. She has stated that her visit shall be a casual, very temporary affair, but I hope you will join me in hoping that the Princess sees the beauty and potential of the Lunar Republic, and extends her services to... renew it."

 

Ocean Glider's speech concluded, and the ship's passengers stomped their hooves politely against the deck, some more vigorously than others. White Noise felt a queasiness rising in his stomach.

<--Previous (Chapter Four) | Next (Chapter Six)-->


Chapter Six

White Noise woke up with a start, banging his head against the bed above him.

"Ow..."

The throbbing pain from the new bump on his head was further compounded by a sudden blinding headache. White let out a small whimper and curled into a ball under his sheets. Why did I have to take the bottom bunk? he thought.

Rubbing his head with a hoof and trying to focus his mind, White Noise tried to remember what had caused him to wake up so suddenly. It had been a dream – he'd had a very strange dream, and it had become very frightening at the end.

White Noise tried to remember his dream, but only small snatches of it came to mind. Standing on a mountain, with the world stretched out beneath me. Shouting into the wind... it changed colour as my voice got louder and softer. Darkness... a voice... a scream!

Sweat broke on White's forehead as he decided against trying to recall the end of his dream. He found himself envying Daisy Dreams, an earth pony who had mastered lucid dreaming and been the subject of an in-depth study conducted by some of his old classmates and friends. Her dreams were always controlled and she had the psychological resilience of a rock.

"Good morning White Noise, I trust you slept well

I dozed like a log, and dreamt sweetly for a spell," Sibwashie announced from above, as he peered down at White.

Sibwashie smiled sympathetically as he saw White Noise rubbing his head and sighing.

***

The sun was still low in the east as White Noise and Sky Wave hobbled onto deck, with a steadier-hoofed Sibwashie following just behind them. White blinked the sunlight out of his eyes and turned his head to the side.

"Uurgh..." moaned Sky. "Why does the ground... keep... moving? It's making me –"

Her words were cut off as Sky raced to the edge of the deck and stuck her head over the side. White Noise felt something rising up in his own stomach, but fought to keep it down.

Once she had finished emptying her guts, Sky suddenly got an idea that she felt she could kick herself for not coming up with earlier. She smiled as she extended her wings and lifted off the deck, feeling better as soon as her hooves left the swaying floor.

White glared at her enviously. "Remember to flap, now."

Being a clever pegasus, Sky knew that the strong wind that was propelling the Moonchaser would be able carry her without any need for flapping, so she merely extended her wings. She gained a little bit of speed and flew up and around, doing a loop-de-loop in the air.

"Pegasus show-offs," muttered a member of the crew, who was busy mopping the deck.

Watching Sky twist and turn in the air, White was reminded of his nausea, and quickly turned to Sibwashie in an effort to take his mind off it again.

"So, Sibwashie, excited to get home soon?" he said, envying the zebra's nonchalant attitude to the swaying deck beneath them. "Where exactly is your village? In relation to this 'Molaro' we're going to be landing at, anyway?"

The zebra smiled, and replied after a period of thought:

"As soon as I could walk, I learnt how to swim and how to sail

The coastal town of Molaro, conveniently, is from whence I hail.

"I remember the seaweed dinners and the long boating trips

My parents' warm, wooden hut, and my brother's dinnertime quips.

"They won't be expecting me, not for a while – I'll catch them by surprise and unaware

But they'll be overjoyed to see me, and homesickness is a burden I'll no longer bear."

"Wow, that sounds great!" White Noise replied, his eyes wide with anticipation. "I can't wait to meet them! In fact, I'd better practice my greeting. Hold on, let me think about this for a bit..."

White furrowed his brow in a look of intense concentration, while Sibwashie waited patiently to hear his friend's latest attempt at Zebrican.

White Noise cleared his throat and began to speak, slowly and deliberately:

"«Hail and well met, family of my friend

I hope you don't resent the time that he will spend»

"«Helping me out with the dragons and their fire

I'd rather not earn any of your ire.»"

Sibwashie nodded his head enthusiastically while cringing on the inside. Sibwashie had to give White points for effort, even if his rhythm was quite off.

"Hey, look at that!" Sky shouted from above. "The island's coming into view!"

White and Sibwashie rushed over to the side of the ship and peered out at the small chunk of land that had just appeared. The island was relatively flat, and looked very green and full of life, even from a distance.

***

"Welcome to the Lunar Republic!" Ocean Glider announced proudly, as the ship pulled up to a shiny new harbour some time later. "We'll be disembarking in the recently founded town of Port Welcome, where I hope you will all feel... 'welcome'!"

Sky Wave rolled her eyes and landed back on deck as the Moonchaser came to a halt and let down its anchor. She was loathe to admit it, but her wings were actually quite tired after keeping her up in the air for so long. At least I've managed to keep my lunch down, she thought.

"Ohthankgoodness," White Noise cried, galloping off the ship with a wobble in his step as soon as the board was lowered.

Once the ship's other passengers had departed, White, Sky and Sibwashie were able to have a chat with Ocean on her own.

"Thanks for the wonderful trip," said White, trying not to think about his lingering sea sickness. "When will we be departing for Zebrica?"

"I'll just need two days to stock up on supplies and take care of some business over here," Ocean replied. "Maybe find some other passengers for the trip too. If you guys can hang in there until then, that'd be great."

"I'm sure that we will find something to occupy our time in this place

Go ahead and do what you need to; don't make it a race," said Sibwashie.

"Great! I don't have to get started with all that just yet though, so I'll show you guys around town. Port Welcome's gonna be a pretty important place someday..."

***

As Ocean Glider had said, Port Welcome was a very new town, having only been founded a few months earlier. It had been established to handle the sudden influx of traders, tourists and new citizens who had come to find adventure and riches in the newly prosperous Lunar Republic.

"Ever since the return of Her Majesty Princess Luna," Ocean began, slipping into a pattern of speech that suggested a history as a tour guide, "total agricultural production in the Lunar Republic has increased by approximately twenty-one percent, and is set to get even bigger. Plants just get bigger and grow faster here, and it's all thanks to the fertilizing magic of the Princess's moon – which this island just happens to be in the perfect spot to receive."

White Noise lifted a hoof to his chin. He knew that there was definitely something about this island that made the plants grow better than they did in Equestria, and he was starting to believe the moon-magic story, despite its inherent absurdity. He remembered that astronomy and studies of the moon were never Princess Celestia's favourite subjects and that their tiny departments received very little interest or funding. He regretted not showing interest in either of the fields; some grounding in astronomy would have helped him understand a little bit more about the nature of the magic at work in the Lunar Republic.

The four equines trotted out of the harbour area and into Port Welcome proper. They trod on newly placed paving stone, past wooden houses so new that they were practically still wet with paint, and into what would eventually become the town square.

"As you can see," said Ocean, using a foreleg to gesture towards the buildings around them, "this town square isn't finished yet. Directly ahead of you, where those short walls of stone now stand, is where a clock tower will eventually watch over Port Welcome. Also note the empty storefronts: they're on sale by the town planning committee for low, low prices. Any forward-thinking entrepreneur should scoop one up now, before they're all gone."

White Noise got the hint and made a mental note to visit the town planning committee later on that day.

"Uh, Ocean?" asked Sky Wave. "Sorry if I'm interrupting or anything, but is there anywhere a pony can get something to eat around here? I'm pretty hungry."

"In keeping with its theme of hospitality to newcomers, Port Welcome hosts a number of fine eateries, each catering to a different taste," replied Ocean, not missing a beat. "My personal favourite is 'The Giant Salad': a brand new local startup with a distinctly Lunar flavour and very generous portions."

Sky Wave's eyes lit up at the prospect of "very generous portions", and she insisted that the group make their way to the eatery for a big lunch post-haste.

"Sounds fine to me," White Noise said, realising how hungry he had become after eating very little on the voyage, due to fear of throwing it all up again.

"The sun is in the middle of the sky, signalling the time for a meal

It would be good to pay it heed and fill up our stomachs, I feel," agreed Sibwashie.

***

The Giant Salad was a very new business, and it showed in the inexperience of its waitering staff. The group had had to wait rather a long time for their food, but all the irritation that went with that was forgotten upon the meal's eventual arrival.

"Woah," said Sky, her eyes growing wide as she desperately tried not to drool. "They don't call it The Giant Salad for nothing. This is going to be sooo gooood..."

The other three thanked their waitering staff and made light conversation while picking at their food politely. They ignored Sky's ravenous chewing, and tried not to grimace as she stuck her head right into her salad, splattering her pink face with lettuce and tomatoes.

"You seem to know quite a lot about the Lunar Republic," remarked White Noise, once Ocean Glider finished detailing the pros and cons of the island's various beachfronts. "How did you learn it all?"

"To be honest with you," Ocean Glider replied. "It was all required reading for my side-job as a canvasser for the New Lunar Republic."

White nearly choked on an olive, but managed to squeeze out a polite smile (or rather, a polite grimace).

"Now, I know folks are a little antsy about our movement, and I don't expect you or anyone else to support us just because, but there's been a lot of misinformation going around. I'd really like to clear some of that up."

"I'm listening," White replied, having successfully swallowed the olive.

Sibwashie's ears perked up, indicating that he too was interested in what Ocean had to say for her "movement".

"A lot of the misconception that ponies have about the NLR stems from their basic misunderstanding about what a republic is and how our government works," Ocean began, slipping back into tour-guide-slash-lecturer mode. "The Lunar Republic doesn't have an immortal and benevolent princess to watch over it, so we have to make do with regular ponies. And I don't know about you, but I'm disinclined to put as much trust in a mortal pony with selfish desires as in a wise and ancient princess. So that's why we have a little thing called 'democracy'."

Sibwashie grew more interested. In his studies of different cultures and governmental systems, he'd heard of this "democracy" (adapted from the Goatish words "demoroc", meaning "people" and "racseey", meaning "rule of law"), but he had never studied any country that practiced it in very much depth.

"What that means is that we get the ponies living here to vote for who should lead them. To prevent any one governor – that's what we call an 'elected prince or princess' – from becoming too powerful or too complacent, we hold new voting sessions every three years, and each governor is only allowed to be governor for a total of six years at most."

White Noise nodded in understanding. "So it's a lot like how we decide on mayors, but on a larger scale."

"Exactly. Now, because of that scale, it's very difficult for one pony to get him or herself elected into governorship on their own, as the first few candidates soon found out when the Lunar Republic started out. A successful election campaign that captures the votes of ponies requires the kind of careful planning and thorough advertising that can only be achieved by a group of ponies working towards a common goal. And that's where the 'party' system comes from."

A loud burp distracted Ocean from her speech for a moment, and she turned to look at a blushing Sky Wave.

"That was some good salad," she said meekly, gazing at her empty bowl with half-lidded eyes.

Ocean Glider smiled dismissively and returned to her speech. "A party is a group of ponies that bands behind a single candidate for governor whose views they support and tries to get that governor elected. The New Lunar Republic is one such party – it is a peaceful political organization, and not a rebel movement, as some might think."

"Then what about that 'Celestial tyranny' business?" asked White, narrowing his eyes accusingly. "I take offense at that kind of slander being aimed at my Princess."

Ocean rubbed her mane with a hoof and smiled awkwardly. "Some of our PR officers – especially those working in the Equestrian Outreach program – are perhaps a little overzealous. Although their claims are not completely unfounded: Princess Celestia could probably have handled the Nightmare Moon situation a little better."

White Noise considered starting an argument with Ocean about the princess's conduct a thousand years before, but decided the better of it. Over the previous year, the subject had become a hideously divisive issue among enough ponies for White to want to steer clear of it.

Sibwashie's face crinkled up in concern, and he opened his mouth to speak:

"Your explanation has been well-worded; a soothing balm to my fears

But there's something I do not understand; a problem gumming up the gears.

"As a student of nations and peoples, I've studied this political system

But all other cases suggest that a party's country binds them.

"If this is true, then why does your New Lunar Republic escape its confines?

Why search Equestria for votes, when none from there can even queue in your lines?"

"A good question," replied Ocean, taking a moment to decode Sibwashie's poetry. "The New Lunar Republic is a new party that believes in and aims to create, well, a 'new Lunar Republic'. This small country has seen a huge influx of ponies over the past year or so, and many of them came here after being told about the island's agricultural wonders. At the moment, citizenship is easy to come by, and with citizenship, comes voting rights."

"That's pretty smart," noted Sky Wave, joining in the conversation now that she was finished eating.

***

After their lunch, the travellers bade farewell to Ocean Glider, who had to go attend to various matters in town. Their tour over, the two ponies and zebra decided to head over to the town planning office with White Noise, to have a look at the price of shops in the square.

"I really think it's time to expand Dragonfire Delivery outside of Equestria," said White Noise as the three walked down the road. "The whole point of dragonfire is its ability to send information over vast distances! Restraining it to operating within a single country would be an awful waste."

"But who are you going to get to run the store?" asked Sky Wave. "As far as I know, the only dragons outside of Dragonia are the young ones in Equestria, and they're mostly there for the School for Gifted Unicorns."

"I've thought about that a lot, and I think I'm going to do a little redistribution back home," White replied. "Melvin's sudden and refreshing change of attitude has earned him a job somewhere more important than Hoofington. I was going to just give him my newest employee – one of Spike's friends, whom I hired via correspondence in Bridleburg – as a shop assistant, but that's kind of a stupid idea now that I think about it, and not really fair to my other employees."

"Hmm," pondered Sky. "So Melvin will work in the new store here, and your new employee will be able to cut his teeth in the slow-moving Hoofington."

"Exactly. It's a rather brilliant solution, if I do say so myself."

Activity on the other side of the street caught Sibwashie's attention, and he turned his head to see two stallions arguing over something.

"I ain't hirin' nopony what supports them pushy NLR politicians," said the first stallion, a stout middle-aged yellow earth pony with a thinning mane of brown hair. "Them's gonna ruin mah country wit' their highfalutin ideas about Princess Luna and buildin' cities. Mah great-grandfather left Equestria because 'e wanted –"

"Yes, well, I'm allowed to support whatever political party I want to," interrupted the other stallion, a young brown pegasus with a full-bodied blonde mane. "And it's not like you have any choice but to hire me! In case you haven't noticed, there aren't a lot of pegasi in this town, and your crops are going to get awfully dry unless somepony gives them a little rain every now and then."

"It's a matter o' principle!" the older stallion roared.

"It's a matter of you have no choice and should pipe down and give me a job!"

Sibwashie had always been a rather large zebra and not because of gluttony or sloth. In school he had always been the largest in his class, and he had excelled at the traditional Zebrican sport of Quaggball because of it. When he discovered his special talent, however, he began to use his great physical stature for a rather different purpose.

The arguing stallions fell silent as a large shadow loomed over them and a disapproving striped face gave them each a long stare.

"From what I understand of your fight, the two of you could work together for mutual benefit

But the younger has a radical political affiliation, and the elder, he will not hear of it.

"Consider for a moment, if you will, the practicalities of your situation as things stand

The younger needs money, and the elder needs a pegasus to water and nourish his land.

"Although you disagree on matters of state, it may be necessary to put such things aside

For until other pegasi move into town, each other's presence you must simply abide," Sibwashie said.

The younger stallion pumped a hoof in the air and sneered at the older one. A glare from Sibwashie quickly wiped the expression off his face, as the diplomat prepared for another speech.

"Young one, your disrespect towards an elder marks you as a stallion of poor breeding

Cease this foolishness, lest your conduct reflect on the NLR in a manner most misleading.

"This old farmer has lived many more years than you, and is wiser for having seen more

He respects the ideals of his ancestors, and the land to which both he and you swore.

"I would recommend that he hires you to keep his farm alive, yes

But for your insolence, whatever pay you asked for, he should offer you less."

The two stallion stood dumbfounded for a moment, before nodding their heads slowly and turning to each other. Their right forelegs lifted off the ground and went into a shake, and their quarrel was resolved.

Sibwashie smiled and bowed to the two stallions before returning to White and Sky, who had long since stopped their conversation to watch the scene unfold.

"Very nice," said a voice from behind Sibwashie. "An excellent show of diplomacy – and the rhyming just tops it all off with a delightful layer of finesse!"

Sibwashie spun around to face the speaker: a charcoal-coated earth pony mare a few years older than him. Her yellow-and-orange-streaked mane was done up in a tight bun on top of her head, and she glanced at the zebra with keen, clever eyes from behind a pair of round-framed glasses.

"My name is Vibrant Pattern," she said to him, her tone brisk and business-like. "After seeing that skilled display of mediation performed by a stranger in an unfamiliar environment, and to ponies he doesn't even know, I feel I have gauged enough of your character to know that you can be of great use to me. I have a task for you, sir, and should you choose to accept it, I would be eternally grateful. A large monetary reward would be in order."

"I will listen to what you have to say

Perhaps we can enrich one another this day," replied Sibwashie.

"Sky and I are going to go on ahead to the town planning office," called White Noise, anticipating that Sibwashie's conversation with the long-winded mare could take some time. "We'll meet back here later."

Sibwashie nodded to White, and then turned his attention back to Vibrant Pattern.

"Excellent!" she said. "Now, my husband and I are new to the Lunar Republic, and have been living on a farm. Coming from a background where we knew little of agriculture, we have nonetheless planted our first crops quite successfully. And that would be the end of it, if not for the terrible problem that plagues us."

The mare took a breath, steeled her resolve, and continued.

"You see, sir, for the past week, a terrible great beast of a dragon has been burning our crops! He comes every night to destroy a part of our fields, and leaves again once the morning comes. My husband and I have tried to chase him away, but to no avail – we have even come close to being burnt ourselves many a time!"

Sibwashie raised an eyebrow at the mare's story. The behaviour of this dragon really wasn't consistent with the profiles of any dragons he had ever met - but it did fit in eerily well with Salty Seadog's cautionary tale.

"Nopony is willing to help us: they are all too afraid of the dragon to chase him away, be it by coercion or by force. Now, my husband and I are both modern ponies, and have no desire to hunt the dragon like a common animal – we have both dealt with a good few kind and generous dragons, and know that they are just as much people as we ponies and zebras are. This is where you come in."

Sibwashie's eyes widened as he realized what he was being asked to do.

"We'd very much like it if you could talk our dragon into going away and not burning our fields anymore."

***

The sun was low in the western half of the sky as Sky and White exited the Port Welcome town planning office with smiles on their faces and a neatly rolled-up deed in White's saddlebags. It had taken a fair amount of paperwork and discussion, but overall, White Noise found that buying a stand in Port Welcome had been a good deal easier than in Fillydelphia, or even Ponyville.

"Now I just need to send Melvin a message about his promotion," White Noise told Sky Wave. "I'll include a cheque for travel costs – he'll have to hire a pony to get him to the docks, because those stubby little legs aren't going to cut it."

"When do dragons' wings come in?" Sky asked.

"I think it takes about a century – that's what Smooth Scales told me, anyway. The only dragons that can fly are a good deal older than you or I. A little unfair, perhaps, but then they go on to live with wings for thousands of years, so I guess that makes it better."

The ponies walked in silence until they came to the shop White Noise had been looking for – Birdtamer's Hawk Messenger Service, a modest little store with a majestic hawk painted on its sign.

White entered the store and produced a pre-prepared letter from his saddlebag, using his mouth rather awkwardly, and sorely missing his telekinesis (not for the first time).

"To Melvin the dragon of Hoofington, Equestria, please," he asked politely, depositing the letter on the counter.

The clerk locked eyes with White for a moment, and then took the letter and his bits. Moments later, a hawk was released into the air with White's message tied around its ankle.

White Noise left the shop to rejoin Sky Wave, sighing inwardly as he did so. Little did the clerk know that the letter he had just sent would likely put him out of work within a few months, or a year at most. White felt sorry for the clerk, and for whoever owned the store, but he knew he couldn't stand in the way of progress; especially not progress he had personally worked so hard for.

***

"She wants you to do WHAT?!" Sky exclaimed.

The day had given way to night, and she and White had met up with Sibwashie in the town square, before going off to book rooms at the first inn they came across. The hay and oats dinner the inn had provided had been quite delicious, and the ponies and zebra were lounging in their chairs around the dinner table, feeling stuffed after their second (or in Sky's case, third) courses.

"It seems like a good idea to me," White Noise added. "In case you've forgotten Sky, I originally hired Sibwashie for basically the same reason. We're going to be negotiating with dragons in Dragonia to discover the secrets of dragonfire magic, remember?"

"Yes, but there's a difference between academic dragons who discuss magic with academic unicorns, and crazy dragons who burn up ponies' farms for no good reason! This sounds like a really stupid idea to me."

"Every pony, zebra, dragon and any other creature you could care to name

Has reasons behind their actions, although they may not all think the same," Sibwashie told Sky, at which she rolled her eyes.

"Do this if you must, but I really don't think it's going to end well," she replied.

"Oh don't be such a wet blanket, Sky!" chided White Noise. "We're going to go with Sibwashie tomorrow and offer him moral support, and that 'we' includes you, whether you like it or not."

Sky pouted, but stiffly nodded her head.

***

Using his mouth, White Noise angled the toothpaste tube towards his toothbrush and gave it a gentle squeeze. Toothpaste exited the tube and landed neatly on the brush's bristles. White put the tube down and smiled to himself – a perfect spread on the second try: he was slowly getting better at doing things without magic.

The toothbrush was held by an earth pony bathroom fixture which White had dubbed the "brush vice", even though it probably had another, more delicate name. As he angled his head down and moved his teeth over brush's toothpaste-filled bristles, he tried to remember how he'd managed to do this sort of thing during the first few years of his life, before his magic had manifested.

Like a lot of gifted unicorns, White had been able to use magic earlier than most, which made him the talk of the magic kindergarten back in East Canterlot. He'd only been able to do a little very weak telekinesis and some funny voice-changing spells (which he now found little use for outside of parties), but the earth ponies and other unicorns in his class would watch in awe when his horn so much as lit up.

That just means I'm really at a disadvantage without my magic, he thought. I hope it comes back soon.

White's horn sparked, and a tiny glowing particle descended from his horn and into the basin in front of him.

Woah.

Closing his eyes in concentration, White focused on his horn. Was his magic back? He could feel something there. The bottoms of his hooves tingled as if he was standing in a very shallow puddle. White tried to lift his toothbrush.

A flashing pain cut through White's skull, and his thoughts became foregrounded with a violent shade of red. His horn sparked again, made a faint clicking sound, and then fell dormant. White could feel that his magic was finally building itself back up to noticeable levels, but decided against trying it again for a few more days.

He returned to brushing his teeth.

***

Vibrant Pattern and her husband owned a small farm just a few miles outside of Port Welcome. She met with Sibwashie and his friends in the afternoon of the following day, and the four of them took a horse-drawn carriage to the farm, with the ladies riding in the back while the men pulled.

"This... is probably... good for me..." wheezed White Noise as the farm finally came into view. "I'm sure... I'll be a lot fitter... once this trip... is over..."

The ponies pulled up to the farmhouse in the late afternoon, and were greeted by Vibrant's husband, a nervous and retiring warm-coloured stallion who introduced himself as Yellow Orange.

"Hello dear," Vibrant said, running up to her husband and giving him an affectionate nuzzle. "In order of appearance, these are: White Noise, Sibwashie and Sky Wave. Sibwashie is the zebra I told you about; the one who's going to solve all of our problems! His friends are here for moral support."

"I'm glad to hear that," Yellow replied, before turning to address Sibwashie. "My wife and I really need this farm to work. If you can talk the dragon away, we will be forever in your debt."

 

"I can only promise to try, as I know little of this dragon's nature or his circumstance

But I shall do my best to get through to him, now that I have been given this chance," Sibwashie replied gravely.

 

The night was not due for another few hours, and the ponies and zebra wiled away the afternoon with chatter, all of them trying to ignore the tension and gravity of the situation. The travellers told Vibrant and Yellow of their travels, and Vibrant and Yellow told the travellers of their lives on the farm, and where they had come from.

 

"Yellow and I are very much city ponies, funnily enough," Vibrant told them. "Yellow is one of the Manehattan Oranges, and I was born to the Manehattan Patterns. Our families have lived in that city for generations, and most of our relatives still do."

 

"But the times have been tough on us," Yellow Orange continued. "I ran a specialist orange and orange-related products store in Bronklyn, until a combination of bad luck, dishonest employees and the fickle Manehattan market put it out of business. Seeing as my special talent is basically 'oranges' – like many members of my family – I was at a loss about what to do after the disastrous failure of my business."

 

"We considered starting another shop in Fillydelphia, or even an orange farm somewhere out in the country, but we didn't have enough money! We were forced to live – or should I say leech  off the kindness of our respective families until we found out about the Lunar Republic."

 

"I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was walking home after another unsuccessful day of job searching when a kind pony noticed my unhappiness and asked me what was wrong. I broke down and poured out all of my sorrows on that kind pony, who listened quietly until I was done. When I could speak no more, he offered me flier."

 

"Yellow stormed into the apartment with that flier in his mouth: he was so excited! I read it over and over, not believing what I was seeing. We knew then that we would be able to start a farm in the Lunar Republic for less than we could ever have imagined, and reap the benefits of the island's magic! It was the happiest day of our lives..."

 

The city-turned-farmer-ponies talked at length about the wonders of their new country and their beautiful farm, and about all the plans they had for it. At that time, they had only planted cornstalks and orange trees, but they planned to expand into other forms of produce – and then there was the thought of starting a family.

 

All the excited talk served only to make Sibwashie nervous. He was confident in his skills as a diplomat, but he had to admit that he had never used them on a dragon. I've never even used them on a baby dragon, let alone a full-grown, crazy one! he thought.

Thankfully, the talk of the farm eventually let up, largely thanks to White Noise's intervention.

"Did we tell you that Sky Wave's an aerial dancer?" he asked them.

"Oh, how delightful!" Vibrant replied, bringing her hooves up to her face in glee. "Please do give us a demonstration, dear – I do so enjoy a good dance!"

"Well, I haven't really –"

A discreet jab in the ribs from White cut Sky's excuses short, and she gave in showed the ponies a part of her newest routine, swearing them all (but Vibrant Pattern especially) to secrecy after the fact.

 

Eventually, the sunset cast its red rays over the land, and Sibwashie was led to the orange orchard, with instructions to gallop over to the cornfield, should the dragon decide to burn that instead. His friends offered to accompany him, but he politely declined. Any interference from factors he didn't have complete control of could jeopardise the whole operation.

 

***

 

The evening breeze broke against Sibwashie's stiff mohawk as he waited for the dragon to make an appearance. He watched the small leaves of the young orange trees in the "orchard" sway in the wind, and stared out into the evening sky. The stars had not yet come out, and there was no hint of a dragon. If one lay in wait nearby, he was doing a good job of keeping himself concealed.

Many of the trees had been newly planted, he noted, and there were scorch marks on the ground not far from where he stood.

 

Sibwashie waited for what felt like an eternity, his mind empty of thoughts as he focused only on watching the sky. He knew what he would say; he had practiced his lines over and over in his head, and had analysed every little detail of his words to ensure its effectiveness. All he could do was continue waiting, and try not to be driven mad by it.

Eventually, his sensitive ears caught the soft sound of leathery wings flapping above him. Sibwashie looked up at the dragon, and the dragon looked down at Sibwashie.

The dragon's tar-black scales made his shape difficult to discern over the backdrop of the night sky. All that Sibwashie could make out clearly was his dark purple belly, and his eyes. The eyes of the black dragon glowed red with menace, making it impossible for Sibwashie to read any real emotion in them.

However, the eyes were not white, and neither were they stained with fluid. This brought Sibwashie some small relief; relief that was immediately cancelled out by rows of the dragon's long, sharp teeth, so white that they glistened in the moonlight.

Sibwashie cleared his throat, and in a loud, clear voice, began to speak:

"Oh dragon lord, thou who hast lived my lifetime a hundred times over and more

For your kind ear and wise understanding, I stand beneath you and implore.

"I speak for the humble and diligent ponies making a living of the fruits of this land

For there is much about thine conduct that neither I nor they understand.

"Why, pray tell, dost thou roast more of their farm each night?

Couldst thou bring the cause of thy actions to light?

"For if thy reasoning is flawless, and thy intentions noble and good

I shall make them vacate this land, and even agree that they should."

The dragon continued to stare down at Sibwashie, his expression unchanged.

<--Previous (Chapter Five) | Next (Chapter Seven)-->


Chapter Seven

The dragon blinked its glowing red eyes. Sibwashie wondered to himself if the old-fashioned Equestrian had been too much. And I spent all that time researching it!

FWOOM.

A great column of flame from the dragon's mouth snapped Sibwashie out of his thoughts in an instant. He jumped out of the way of the dragon's fire just in time to avoid being roasted alive and fell onto his side. Sibwashie's eyes widened in fear, and he stared at the dragon in awe.

It wasn't long before the great black beast had set the pitiful orange orchard ablaze and was able to turn his attention to the frightened zebra beneath him. Sibwashie scrambled to his hooves and broke into a gallop, tearing the ground as he tried to escape the dragon's fire.

There was a flash, and suddenly orange flames licked the grass in front of Sibwashie. He reared up and almost lose his balance as he desperately twisted and tried to run in another direction.

FWOOM. The dragon breathed out another torrent of fire, this time to Sibwashie's side, singing his fur. He darted away from the fire and glanced all around him, looking for a clear path.

There was fire to his left, to his right, in front of him and behind him. To his horror, Sibwashie realised that the dragon was trapping him in a ring of fire. It was not a complete ring, but the gaps were closing fast.

In a sudden moment of intense clarity, Sibwashie felt the ground under his hooves. It was soft and supple. Moving faster than he ever had before, he used his front hooves to dig up a mound of dirt, which he then kneaded into a compact ball.

Okay, he thought, I only have one shot at this.

The traditional Zebrican sport of Quagball was played by two teams of seven players each. Each team had to attempt to launch a ball through a hoop angled at forty-five degrees and mounted on a pole two metres above the ground. It was a contact sport. Players needed to be quick-thinking, quick-moving and to have powerful, accurate hindlegs.

Sibwashie turned around, lowered his stature and scooped the dirt-ball up with his hind legs before bucking it straight into the dragon's mouth.

Yes!

Coughing and spluttering filled the air as the dragon choked on the dirt. The great black beast flailed around in the air and made gurgling noises with his throat before departing, his wings unstable and his upward course haphazard. He was done bothering farms for the night.

There was still – as Sibwashie realized after a brief moment of elation – the problem of the fire. He thought back to the stories Grassfire had told him and his companions back in Hoofington. The traditional plainspony way of dealing with rampant fires was to ensure that the fire ran out of fuel by carefully burning everything around it.

Sibwashie raced out of the incomplete ring of fire and rushed towards one of the few unburnt trees in the area. Using his jaw, he snapped off a dead branch, which he lit up at one of the numerous fires that burned around the orchard.

Sibwashie burnt a patch of grass, and then stomped the fire out with a hoof. He winced at the pain and hoped that his friends would see the blaze and come to his aid.

***

The other ponies were sitting around an outdoor table behind the farmhouse, twiddling their hooves and ineffectually trying not to appear nervous to each other. White Noise whistled in a jaunty and tuneless fashion, Sky Wave focused intently on her hooves, and Vibrant Pattern and Yellow Orange just sat and stared into space, absently holding onto each other.

"I wonder if your friend has made any progress," said Vibrant Pattern. "I do hope that his mediation abilities are good enough show that dragon the error of his ways."

"I'm sure he's doing gre–"

White Noise's words stuck in his throat as he noticed a column of black smoke rising up beyond the farmhouse.

"We've gotta go help," he blurted out, already on his hooves. "There's smoke."

The others sniffed the air and looked up to see the spiralling smoke. They gasped in shock, and within seconds the four ponies were galloping for the burning orange orchard.

On the way there, White Noise spied a small lake, which he directed his telekinesis at. Spluttering sparks from his horn and a sharp pain in his head reminded him that his magic was still recovering. How much longer?! he thought. I really need my magic now!

Sky Wave took to the air and soared towards the source of smoke, coughing and wincing as it got in her mouth and eyes. Despite this, she managed to get to what was left of the orchard long before the any of the grounded ponies. She saw Sibwashie brandishing a fiery branch in his mouth and stepping gingerly on his hooves.

"Sibwashie!" she cried. "I'm here, and the others are on their way! What should we do?"

"I'm glad to see you have arrived so swiftly to help me extinguish this fire

The others can help me starve it, but from you a raincloud I require!" Sibwashie shouted up to her.

Sky marvelled at her zebra friend's ability to rhyme his words even in the most stressful of circumstances and zoomed off to find a raincloud as he had instructed.

She remembered noticing what a clear day it had been. It was a clear night as well, and there was nary a cloud in sight. Except... Sky had to squint to see it, but she noticed a very faint, wispy cloud off in the distance. It would hardly put out any big fires, but it would have to do.

White Noise and the farming couple finally reached the burning orchard just as Sky raced off to fetch the wispy cloud. Sibwashie caught sight of the three and beckoned them to him, where he instructed them to grab branches off trees and follow his lead.

Like Sky before him, White marvelled at Sibwashie's rhyming skills before heading off to follow his instructions. Given a few more years, the zebra would likely become a better speaker of Equestrian than he was.

Sibwashie assessed the situation around him. Sky was nowhere in sight – likely still looking for a cloud. White was wincing in pain as he stuck his hoof onto a small patch of grass he had just lit on fire. Yellow and Vibrant had their sticks in their mouths and were heading towards a patch of fire to light them.

Although his hooves were throbbing in pain, Sibwashie ran to help White Noise put out his patch of fire. Between the two of them, they made short work of the grass around the burning orange tree, and soon the fire starved and went out.

They were about to move onto the next patch of fire when they heard a horrified scream. Sibwashie spun around to see Vibrant Pattern lying on her side, almost entirely encircled by fire. Without thinking he twice, he dashed to her rescue.

"My... hooves... they hurt," she whispered as Sibwashie appeared at her side. "Dropped my... branch..."

The great zebra knelt down and manuevered himself under Vibrant Pattern's body. He was able to lift the mare up quite easily, due to her light frame. But the added weight drove his hooves further into the ground than before, and he teared up with pain as tried to leave the ring of fire.

There was still an opening in the ring, and Sibwashie managed to get himself halfway through it before collapsing. He shucked Vibrant over his head and out of harm's way as he fell, but he himself landed directly in between two walls of flame, which crept ever closer.

Sibwashie tried to scramble up, but his hooves hurt too much. The fire was getting closer, and he didn't know if he had the energy to escape. If he wasn't able to, Vibrant would likely be killed by the encroaching flames.

Sibwashie heard wings flapping over him. He strained his neck upwards to see Sky. She was carrying a wispy cloud between her forehooves, which she now squeezed and strained for all she was worth.

A few drops of water left the cloud, but it was not enough to quench the raging fires. Sky squeezed the cloud until there was nothing left, and then looked around frantically for another. Clouds were the only way she could help Sibwashie, as he was far too big for her to be able to carry out of harm's way.

Sky spied a cloud in the corner of her vision and dashed off to fetch it just as White Noise came running up to were Sibwashie lay. He was bigger than Sky, but still not big enough enough to carry the enormous zebra. He supposed he would be able to do it with Yellow's help, but he could see that Yellow was already busy carrying his wife off.

White closed his eyes and let his thoughts extend to his horn. The magic that had built up within it was not large in quantity, but it was something. It certainly felt like there was more than there had been when he had tried to levitate the water in the lake. Perhaps there's just enough to perform that spell, he thought. The one I've barely ever used and shouldn't even know.

White Noise focused his magic, and surely enough, his horn began to glow for the first time in nearly a week. The air above his head crackled, and a body of white foam appeared. It was arranged in neat letters that read "Help has arrived".

The foam sign bobbed in the air for a moment before White shot it at the fire to Sibwashie's left. The foam mowed down the fire, reducing the ring by half. There was still, however, the wall of fire to Sibwashie's right to contend with.

As White was contemplating whether he'd be able to push Sibwashie out of the way or not, Sky suddenly appeared with a great big black storm cloud. She made short work of the rest of Sibwashie's ring of fire and managed to put out the few other remaining fires as well.

"My mother always told me that weather pegasi tend to leave extra storm cloud lying around for emergencies," she explained. "Turns out she was right."

White smiled at her before losing his footing and passing out, as an overdue feeling of pain tore through his temples.

***

The Lunar Republic's governor, a middle-aged stallion named Grain Harvest, paced across the boardroom impatiently as he and his advisors, associates and assistants awaited Princess Luna's arrival. The princess had arrived in the capital the previous evening, and would be holding her first meeting with the ruling elite of the Lunar Republic in over one thousand years this morning.

She was already ten minutes late. But she was also an alicorn princess capable of raising and lowering the moon, which made up for it.

At long last, the boardroom doors burst opened and the room filled with black smoke. The governor and his many cronies coughed and spluttered as Princess Luna entered the room.

"We have ARRIVED!" boomed the Princess's powerful voice. "We doth EXTEND our warmest GREETINGS to GOVERNOR Grain Harvest and her FINE associates, and we WOULDST like to EXPRESS our sincerest HOPE that this visit shall PROVE beneficial to both OUR country and thine."

"Somepony needs to teach her Equestrian," whispered one of the governor's assistants to another.

"W-welcome y-your highness!" squeaked Grain Harvest as he shakily edged over to Luna to kiss her outstretched hoof. "I hope you have enjoyed your stay in on our humble little island so far."

"YES!" replied Luna, still not adjusting to an indoor voice. "We have been MOST pleased at the fine treatment WE have received at the HOOVES of your diligent staff! We have also enjoyed the FRUITS of this fine land's many FARMS and GARDENS. We do not REGRET our gift to you ALL those centuries AGO."

The governor and his associates smiled wearily. Although Princess Luna was at least a thousand years older than any of them and many times more powerful and accomplished, they couldn't help but feel a little sorry for her. For all her royal posturing, she seemed to be little more than an immensely powerful lost child.

"And we thank you for that, Princess," said Grain Harvest. "It is the magic of your moon that is taking this country from poor island state to a major contender in the global scene."

Luna looked around the room. There were too many ponies there – too many judging eyes and ears. She had something important to talk about, but she knew she wouldn't be able to mention it to so many, many ponies.

"COME Governor, we wish to HAVE words with THEE. Lead us to a place WHERE we can conduct a PRIVATE conversation, between us and thou ALONE."

***

Vibrant Pattern and Yellow Orange prepared the guest room for the three travellers. Although Sibwashie had not succeeded in negotiating with the dragon, they were still immensely grateful for his selfless rescue of Vibrant, and for the help his friends gave them with the fire.

It turned out that both Yellow and Vibrant had completed some first aid training back in Manehattan, and the two swiftly tended to the travellers' wounds and their own. Most of the twenty hooves that entered the farmhouse that night were treated for burns and bandaged.

Once this was done, the still-unconscious White Noise was gently deposited on one of the guest room's sleeper couches, and his friends followed suit. Sky and Sibwashie were asleep before their heads hit the pillows, and they slept soundly until the next morning.

"Good morning," said Sibwashie, rising and stretching as rays of sunlight peered into the room through the curtains.

"Good mor– wait, what?" replied White, finally rising from his comatose state. "Uh... slick awning?"

Sibwashie raised an eyebrow and smiled kindly.

"Why aren't you rhyming anymore?" asked Sky, who had just opened her eyes. "I know it's not because you can't find any more good rhymes."

"You two saved my life last night," Sibwashie replied gravely. "In Zebrica, it is customary to rhyme when speaking to casual acquaintances, superiors and colleagues. We forgo the formality when dealing with close friends and family."

The room was awash with silence as Sky and White contemplated the meaning behind their friend's gesture. The three travellers had been through a lot together, and they still had a long way to go before their journey came to an end.

"That's... quite an honour," said White Noise at last.

"You deserve it," Sibwashie replied. "Especially you, White Noise. I cannot imagine how much pain you must have had to go through to perform that spell while your magic is still recovering."

"What was up with that spell, by the way?" interrupted Sky. "I saw you casting it just as I reached Sibwashie with my cloud. Where did a communication technology unicorn learn to summon magical fire-eating foam?"

White Noise chuckled and gave his friends a sly look.

"Besides telekinesis, unicorns generally only have a few spells, all related to their special talent," White said. "What most don't know is that there's a pretty simple way of learning other spells. All you've gotta do is recontextualize the spell as something relevant to your talent."

Sky and Sibwashie gave White blank looks.

"Okay, a more concrete explanation then. If you had looked closely at the foam I summoned, you would have seen that it spelt a message – 'Help has arrived', to be precise. It did this because my special talent is communication – creating means of communication. By making the foam I summoned an overt means of communication, I was able to 'hack magic', as we say, and move beyond my basic repertoire."

"I think I understand," said Sky. Sibwashie nodded in agreement with her.

"Don't think it didn't take its toll on me, though. All that recontextualization takes a lot of magic to get right, and I think that little spell managed to deplete what little magic had built up again."

Yellow Orange entered the guest room as White finished his explanation. Despite the rest he had had the previous night, he still looked tired. His right forehoof was tightly bandaged; it had been the only one he'd had to use when starving the fires.

"My wife and I would like to thank you travellers for your help last night," he said. "That blaze was bigger than any before it, and if not for your help, the entire farm may have burnt to the ground. We have tended to your wounds, and would like you to have some oranges as a parting gift."

Yellow reached into his saddlebag and gave each of the travellers three oranges.

"These are no ordinary oranges," he said gravely. "They come from my family's private orange orchard, and have been enchanted at great cost. They will not go bad. Eat them when you require strength or healing."

The travellers thanked Yellow for his kindness and put away their precious gifts.

"Yellow Orange, I am truly sorry that I was unable to stop the dragon from burning your farm

But perhaps my friends and I can help you in another way, saving you from future harm."

Yellow's ears perked up, and he poked his head out of the door to call his wife.

"We're interested," he said.

***

Once the governor and Princess Luna were sitting in the governor's office, behind a locked door and away from prying eyes and ears, the Princess lowered her voice to honour the governor's high status.

"We hath heard tell of many strange goings-on about this island and with its ponies," began Luna. "Tell us, Governor, what be the meaning of thy campaign to maketh me thy queen?"

The governor shifted nervously in his seat.

"Oh, you've got it all wrong, your Highness!" he said. "The, uh, 'Princess Luna's New Lunar Republic' campaign is not my doing. It's all the work of my opposition, the 'New Lunar Republic', as they call themselves. The whole thing is a ploy to gain ponies' votes!"

"Opposition? Votes?" Princess Luna asked. "Is there a war here? Thou speakest in riddles, governor!"

Grain Harvest sighed inwardly as he realised that the ancient Princess had no idea how the Lunar Republic's political system worked, or even what democracy was. He supposed she couldn't be blamed.

"Well you see Princess..." he began, going on to explain his country, the party system, and its various ramifications.

"We... think we understand," replied Luna tentatively, after Grain Harvest had finished explaining, repeated a few key points, and fielded a lot of the Princess's questions. "So... thou represents the 'Farmer–Trader Alliance', and thy 'opposition' is the 'New Lunar Republic'? And the two groups compete for the hearts and minds of the citizens, so that the prince – governors of the winning group can ascend to the throne and rule the land? But... only for three years at a time? And thou is the latest in this string of 'elected' governors?"

"Yes, your Highness, that's it exactly."

"And it is the New Lunar Republic – not thy party – that desireth our queenship?"

"That is also correct."

"Oh."

Grain Harvest got the sense that he had misspoken at some point. He glanced up from his desk at Luna, who stared blankly at the wall behind him.

"Please don't see it as disrespect, Princess Luna!" he implored, making eye-contact with the Princess. "It's not that we don't think you'd make a good leader for our nation – I daresay you'd be a better one than me. It's just... well... you and Princess Celestia were meant to rule Equestria together, right?"

"This is true."

This is true, Luna thought. The words echoed in her mind after she said them, and she backed them up with more words and phrases, like "we were meant to rule together, dear sister" and "half the day is night". But the seed of doubt was already planted.

***

White Noise quietly drank the juice out of his first orange as Sibwashie began speaking. He could feel the pain in his hooves receding as the tangy liquid washed down his throat.

"Although I tried to reason with the dragon and my words fell short

I found another way of dealing with him – a method of a more violent sort.

"In my homeland, where the elephants roam and the lions prowl for prey

We have learnt to use the ground to build our houses and keep danger at bay.

"I will teach you the dirt-shaping techniques we use in the place of my birth

And show you how to accurately buck, as in Quagball, a solid sphere of earth."

Vibrant and Yellow were bewildered by Sibwashie's words at first, but he ensured them that what he intended would be made clear upon demonstration. White Noise recommended that he eat one of his oranges to quell the pain in his hooves before trying to pack dirt or buck balls with them, and he did so.

When Sibwashie was ready to demonstrate his unique method of dispatching dragons, he found that his audience consisted of more than just the farming couple. Vibrant and Yellow had called for and gathered a small group of young, fit stallions and mares – some barely out of foalhood – all eager to learn what Sibwashie had to teach them.

As it turned out, Yellow Orange and his wife were not the only farmer ponies who had had their farms decimated by the dragon. Many of the stallions and mares came from the farms of their parents (or in rare cases, their own farms), where the same thing had happened. From what they said they had heard, it seemed to happening all around the island, and on a regular basis.

"And what really gets me," White Noise said, as he and Sky were sitting on the grass, watching Sibwashie's training. "What really gets me is that everypony seems to have been attacked by the same dragon. They've all described a black-scaled dragon with a dark purple underside and evil red glowing eyes."

"He's gotta be a pretty busy dragon then," Sky replied.

"Yeah, busy burning ponies' farms for no personal benefit. It makes no sense!"

"Maybe it does. To the dragon, though – not to us."

"And it would matter to the dragon because... because I don't even know why it would matter to the dragon. I don't know dragons. Not the big ones, anyway."

At that moment, what had been White Noise's quest for knowledge of a dragon-specific branch of magic gained a second purpose: the search for understanding. He, Sibwashie and Sky were going to go to Dragonia not just to plunder secrets and ideas from the dragons' minds, but to understand them – to understand why a dragon would attack sailorponies on a beach, or orange trees on a farm.

***

 

The president of the New Lunar Republic (or the Movement for the New Lunar Republic, as it was officially known but seldom called) stared out of the window of her office, which was located at the top of a two-storey building in Tranquillity, the island's capital (and only) city.

Her name was Joyous Dawn and she was a unicorn of around the same age as the island's present governor, although she looked a good deal younger. The effect of her neatly tied-back black mane on her dark red coat gave her a severe look – one that she was proud of. Dawn was emphatically not a pushover, and wanted ponies to know it.

She was known to her followers as a dynamic and charismatic leader, and a worthy successor for Mecury, the mysterious mare who had started the movement and then disappeared a month after its establishment. Her cutie mark was an hourglass, overlaid by an ornate telescope. It symbolised her vision and her ability to see things from a long-term perspective.

To her opposition, she was seen as a dangerous opponent, but not an unworthy one. Although there had been murmurs of malcontent with regards to her latest, Luna-centric campaign, most ponies still saw her as a hard-working and terribly intelligent politician, likely to make a very positive difference in the country should she be elected.

Dawn lifted the teacup on the desk behind her with telekinesis, and brought it to her muzzle for a long, refreshing sip. Elections were barely a fortnight away, and she still had a lot of work to do to ensure her continued success in the polls. However, most of the puzzle pieces had already fallen into place, and it was looking as if the completed puzzle would display a picture of Joyous Dawn being sworn into office by solemn government official ponies.

Despite the return of Princess Luna's moon fertilisation magic, there had been a drastic drop in agriculture output in recent weeks. Agriculture was, in Dawn's estimation, the only thing the current government cared about. If they couldn't even protect that which was most important to them, then there was little chance of Grain Harvest seeing another term.

Princess Luna's recent arrival was also an interesting and potentially useful development. According to Dawn's sources, she would be staying in the country for an extended period of time – until a few weeks after the elections, to more precise. Sources also claimed that she was incredibly curious about the ponies who wanted to crown her Queen of the Lunar Republic.

Dawn smiled as she put down her teacup down on the windowsill in front of her. The princess would find out about them soon enough. When she did, she'd come to investigate at head office. And Dawn would be waiting for her.

A knock at the door distracted Dawn from her thoughts. Her ears perked up and her horn glowed a faint red.

"Come in, Barley," she said, face still to the window.

The door opened and a very light yellow pegasus mare entered the room. Joyous Dawn turned around to greet her, and smiles immediately broke upon both of the ponies' faces.

"I still think it's really weird when you do that sensing thing, Joy," Barley said. "It makes visiting you like going to the fortune teller, except you manage to call ponies by their names instead of just saying 'I've been expecting you'."

"Ha, perhaps so," Joy replied jovially. "But there's no point in letting my special talent go to waste, now is there? That spell was the first thing I learnt after getting my cutie mark – it's pretty important to me."

"Fine, fair enough. Anyway, I came to ask you about something: there've been complaints about a dragon attacking farmers' crops recently. At first it was just one farm, somewhere near Port Welcome, but it's been getting worse. Why, just this morning we received letters from at least ten different farms all around the country asking us what we'll do about the dragon if and when we get into power."

Dawn put a hoof to her chin and stood in silence for a moment. Then she smiled.

"We've got barely a fortnight until voting day, and this couldn't have come at a more perfect time. Let the concerned farmers know that a vote for the New Lunar Republic is a vote for a new Lunar Republic, and that new Lunar Republic doesn't include crop-razing dragons."

Barley was already seated on the floor, furiously writing the president's words down on a pad of paper with her mouth.

After thinking for a moment, Dawn added: "Reword it to make it say 'New Lunar Republic' fewer times. I'm all for brand recognition, but this may get a little confusing."

***

 

The sun had just set as the Moonchaser left Port Welcome. White Noise stood on deck, watching the dock recede as the gentle breeze filled the ship's sails and sent it further and further away.

Before leaving the farm, he had made a promise to Yellow Orange and Vibrant Pattern that he would do what he could to find out the cause of the dragon's strange behaviour when he got to Dragonia. Dragons were mysterious creatures, and the only way he was going to understand them was by talking with some.

"Maybe you can also ask them how we should apologize for all the dirt-bucking we're going to do," Vibrant Pattern had said. "I hate to antagonize the dragon like this, but we really have no choice. If he's going to act like a barbarian, then we really don't have any choice than to give that right back to him."

Sibwashie stood on the other side of the deck, looking at the sea that spread out in front of him. He wasn't looking towards Zebrica – the Moonchaser would have to go around the coast of the Lunar Republic before he'd be able to do that – but he pretended he was. He hadn't been home in over a year, and he was eager to see his family and friends again, if a little anxious about discovering how much had changed in his absence.

Below deck, Sky Wave lay on her bed, feeling her seasickness returning. She considered eating one of her oranges for a moment, but immediately dismissed the idea as a waste.

Instead, she fished one of the oranges out of the saddlebag that lay strewn across the cabin floor and just looked at it. It was bigger than any orange she had ever seen before and, unless it was just a trick of her eyes, seemed to glow faintly in the dark room.

***

Upon entering the Hoofington branch of Dragonfire Delivery to get his morning papers, Grassfire Hospitality was surprised to see a lanky red dragon standing behind the counter in place of the usual short, stout blue one.

"Good morning sir, and welcome to Dragonfire Delivery!" said the dragon, smiling toothily. "How may I help you today?"

"Well, um," began Grassfire. "I don't think I've seen you around here before. Where's Melvin?"

"Melvin has been reassigned, sir," replied the dragon. "His expertise was required elsewhere! I'm Groze, his replacement!"

"Well, okay then," replied Grassfire. "Awfully sudden. But anyway, I'm here for my usual newspapers – although I guess you wouldn't know what those are. Today's Fillydelphia Times and Ponyville Daily, please."

"Certainly sir," said Groze, already writing requests for the newspapers on blank rolls of parchment.

Dragonfire Delivery's local newspaper service had been Melvin's idea. He'd implemented it in Hoofington as soon as White Noise had left, and had then confirmed it as a good idea with White via correspondence somewhat later on. White's response had been enthusiastic, if a little rushed.

"That'll be seventy bits please, sir," said Groze, upon spitting out the two newspapers.

As newspaper delivery cost two jars of dragonfire and the cost of the paper itself, Grassfire tried to avoid purchasing his papers more than once a week. He loved to know what was going on in Equestria, and read new and exciting stories from around the country, but he wasn't made of bits.

Thanking Groze, Grassfire tucked the papers into a saddlebag and trotted out of the store. He waited until he was seated in his private study in the Noble Manticore to read his newspapers.

Equestria was a busy place, and there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in both Fillydelphia and Ponyville, but what caught Grassfire's eye the most was the Ponyville reports of monster sightings and attacks.

Being on the edge of the Everfree Forest as it was, Ponyville was one of the more dangerous hamlets in Equestria. Even so, the monsters that roamed the forest seemed to have little interest in the little town, and generally stayed away from it, unless provoked.

Grassfire knew all this, and – much like the Ponyville Daily reporters – was perplexed at the strange behaviour of the Everfree monsters in recent days. Large and dangerous hydras had been spotted as close to Ponyville as Froggy-Bottom Bog, and a cockatrice had caused quite a stir in the town the previous afternoon. In addition, nearby farmers had reported hearing strange noises at night and seeing large, shadowy figures skulking around their fields.

Ponyville's foremost magic expert and librarian, the famous Twilight Sparkle, was investigating the matter, but had not yet turned up any answers. She was, as the paper said, reluctant to divulge her early, underdeveloped suspicions and theories. "It's got something to do with magic" was all the reporters were able to force out of her.

Grassfire put down the newspaper and reclined in his study chair. The morning sunlight shone in through the window to his right, warming him in its gentle glow. It's got something to do with magic.

<--Previous (Chapter Six) | Next (Chapter Eight)-->


Chapter Eight

 

Melvin lugged his heavy suitcase full of glass jars off the ship and onto the dock, looking around disdainfully as he did so. He'd heard a lot of excited chatter about the Lunar Republic, some of it from ponies he halfway respected. While he'd been careful to keep his expectations characteristically low, he was nevertheless disappointed at the state of Port Welcome.

 

"And I thought Hoofington was a dump," Melvin whispered to himself.

 

As he carried his suitcase out of the docks and down the town's main road, he made a few keen observations. The town was clean, if only because it had barely been around long enough for anyone to have the time to dirty it up. There didn't seem to be many places one could go for entertainment – unless one had a fondness for the elegance of scaffolding and the diligence of hard-working builder ponies, and Melvin didn't.

 

Builder ponies. Builder ponies, shopkeeper ponies, farmer ponies and sailor ponies. Melvin noted with that the town had an overabundance of earth ponies. This made sense to him, as no pampered unicorn would choose to live in such an underdeveloped hole and very few airheaded pegasi would care to live so close to sea-level.

 

"This place isn't even finished," Melvin remarked to himself. "Although that could be a good thing – fewer buildings mean fewer awful buildings."

 

Eventually, Melvin came to shop 16A – the place that was, under Melvin's care and guidance, to become the first international branch of Dragonfire Delivery. He had to give White Noise credit for getting a shop right in the middle of town – or rather, he would've had to give White Noise credit for that, if Port Welcome had been a town worth being in the middle of.

 

Melvin sighed. Perhaps you're looking at this the wrong way round, he told himself. Instead of looking at this town for what it is, perhaps it would be wise to see it for what it has the potential to become – under your guidance. It has the potential to become dreadful (well, even more so) under anyone else's.

 

"Are you Melvin the dragon, sir?" asked a dapper earth pony with a neat moustache.

 

"Yes, that's me," replied Melvin, regarding the new arrival with some interest. "Are you from the town planning committee?"

 

"Yes sir," said the pony. "I have come to present you with the key to your boss's new shop."

 

"You've got excellent timing," Melvin complimented. "I only just arrived in town."

 

Melvin presented the earth pony with his identification document, at which the pony nodded and motioned towards a key hanging around his neck. Melvin detached the key and opened the door with it.

 

"Thank you," he said to the pony. "I like your style. Your name?"

 

"Correspondence, sir."

 

"I think I'll call you Corr, for short. Have a good day, Corr."

 

"I will, thank you sir. I wish you the same."

 

Yes, Melvin thought. I can work with this.

 

***

 

The Moonchaser set down anchor at the docks of Sibwashie's hometown of Molaro in midmorning.

 

"Thank you again for agreeing to take us here," White Noise said to Ocean Glider. "I mean, I know it's quite out of your way, and I'm sure a trip back to Port Anchor could've been far more profitable."

 

"Nothing would have ever been 'profitable' about my little business if you guys hadn't saved me that night," Ocean replied. "Thanks again – especially to Sky. Besides, you guys weren't my only passengers on this trip – and hey, maybe I can even find some zebras who want to go to the Lunar Republic!"

 

A round of hoofshakes and promises to stay in touch later, the travellers and Ocean went their separate ways. Ocean would need to restock the Moonchaser before setting sail again, but it was unlikely that the four would see each other again for a long while.

 

"Come, I will show you around," Sibwashie told his friends, smiling widely. "A few things seem to have changed since I was last home, but it looks like it's still very much the same Molaro I grew up in."

 

The two ponies followed their friend out of the docks and into his town, looking around and sniffing the air as they did so. Sky Wave noticed a dryness in the air and was also struck by the town's lack of trees. Staring up at the sky, she couldn't see any clouds.

 

The town's buildings had been designed in a fashion that blended traditional Zebrican solidness with Equestrian flair. The squat, round buildings were made of tightly packed dirt, topped with clean, carefully-woven thatch and beautified with Ponyville-style painted wooden window frames and hanging signs. A few of the more recent-looking structures had even experimented with tiled roofs.

 

Sky asked about this, making sure to end her question off with "it's very nice, of course".

 

"Because this is a port town, we are more in touch with Equestria and the rest of the world than inland Zebrica," Sibwashie explained. "The builders and architects who grew up in this town developed a fascination with the exotic designs of your ships and your pastel-coloured wood."

 

"It's certainly a nice gesture," said White Noise. "All this town needs now is a marble tower or two, and I'll feel right at home."

 

Sibwashie balked at the thought. Like most zebras, growing up in a town of single-storey buildings had not prepared him for towers and skyscrapers, and he had been happy to leave them behind in Equestria.

 

"«Sibwashie!»" cried a familiar voice, shaking him from his thoughts. "«That you, bro?»"

 

The travellers turned to see an excited young zebra colt gallop up to them. He was wearing a pair of slick-looking sunglasses and a huge, goofy grin. The two features contrasted greatly.

 

"«Yes, Walene, it's me,»" Sibwashie replied, running over to meet his younger brother. "«It is good to see you again.»"

 

"«Mom and Dad are going to» FLIP OUT «when they see you! Who are these ponies you're with?»"

 

"«Friends from Equestria. I will introduce them to you.»"

 

Sky gave White a nudge with her elbow.

 

"He says he's going to introduce us," White whispered to her.

 

"Oh."

 

White Noise and Sky Wave smiled awkwardly at the newcomer, who looked them both up and down a few times. Sibwashie nudged his brother and whispered something into his ear.

 

"Welcome to our humble town, travellers from afar

My name is Walene, and I'd like to ask who you are," he said to the ponies, giving a small bow.

 

"White Noise," said White, extending his hoof. "Business-owner."

 

"Sky Wave," said Sky, also extending a hoof. "Part-time aerial performer."

 

Walene met both Sky and White's hooves with his own two forehooves and shook them both in a comical manner, causing Sibwashie to let out a chuckle under his breath.

 

"«Let's go now,»" Walene said, turning to his brother. "«You've kept Mom and Dad and the rest of us waiting for over a year already.»"

 

One hastily whispered translation in Sky's ear later, the two ponies and two zebras were walking down the dusty town pathway through the town and towards Sibwashie and Walene's parents' house. The two brothers chatted amicably in their own language, but many of the words they used where unfamiliar to White, so he didn't try to translate them for Sky.

 

Once they arrived at the house, Sibwashie rapped a hoof across its newly sanded wooden door. He was greeted by an older zebra mare, who blinked at him a few times, and then embraced him with a cry of joy.

 

"«Sibwashie! My son, you're home!»" she cried.

 

"«I missed you, mother. Also, I have brought friends from Equestria. Would you mind hosting them?»"

 

Sibwashie's mother's smile grew even broader as she released her son from her hug and caught sight of Sky and White.

 

"It would be an honour and a pleasure, for it is indeed my duty, dear son

To ensure travellers are well-treated and think fondly of us when their visit is done," she said, smiling widely.

 

Sibwashie couldn't wait to tell his family about all the new Equestrian words he had learnt since his last visit.

 

***

 

Sibwashie's family house was an L-shaped structure, made up of three distinct hut-shapes joined together by hallways. His parents and younger brother lived in one, his older brother lived in another with his wife and child, and the third was used as a lounge and dining room for the whole family, but only on cold nights.

 

That evening was not cold at all, and it was under the stars, in the family's yard where Sky Wave and White Noise experienced a traditional Zebrican dinner for the first time. And hopefully not the last! Sky thought afterwards.

 

The meal was made up of various different types of grasses, flowers and leaves, which, at first glance, weren't very exciting. They were arranged very artfully, and White Noise didn't scoff at them as he had scoffed at grazing before, but what really made them enjoyable were the spices and herbs that Sibwashie's mother had added.

 

Sky had wolfed down three bowls of the stuff, all of which the zebras were happy to give her, in keeping with their custom of hospitality. She thought the food was so nice that she asked Sibwashie's mother – whose name was Baleni – what her secret was.

 

"My recipe is a cherished family heirloom and a sworn secret between parent and child

Giving it away freely, even to a good and noble pony, would be an act most reviled," she replied.

 

Sky felt a little bashful after that.

 

Young Walene cleared away everyone's plates, and the family and their guests enjoyed after-dinner cups of tea.

 

Sibwashie's older brother was named Inkirenlo, and his wife was Juweni. They had a very young daughter named Ponli, who had been creeping closer and closer to Sky as the dinner went on.

 

While White Noise and Sibwashie's father, Makena, were in the midst of an in-depth business discussion, Sky felt a tiny hoof on her left wing.

 

She looked down and the hoof immediately retracted, jerking back to cover Ponli's face. Sky smiled at this and extended her left wing slowly.

 

Ponli flinched again as Sky's wing started to move and took a few steps back, before covering her face with her other forehoof as well. Oh no! Sky thought. I hope I haven't scared her.

 

"It's okay," Sky reassured Ponli, using her softest voice. "It's just a wing. It won't hurt you."

 

Ponli slowly removed her hoof from her face and stared dumbly at Sky. She was too young to know any Equestrian, so she had no idea what the older mare was saying, but she could feel no menace in her words and could detect only kindness on her face.

 

"I can move it, see," said Sky.

 

Sky moved her wing in and out, only twitching it at first, but slowly building up to the point where she was gracefully extending and contracting it. Ponli had removed her hooves from her face and stood mesmerized by the movement.

 

"I won't mind if you want to touch it. Go on."

 

Sky slowly extended her wing towards Ponli's tentative forehoof. The child looked at her for a moment, and then reached out towards the wing and gently laid her hoof against it. Ponli smiled at the softness of the wing's feathers, and Sky couldn't help but smile with her.

 

"She has never seen a pegasus pony before

We do not get that many on this shore," said a soft voice to Sky's left.

 

Sky smiled at Juweni and said: "Well, I guess we don't get too many zebras in Equestria either. But, if you don't have any pegasi, then who controls the weather?"

 

"Zebrica is a dry, warm country, without many clouds or very much rainfall

Griffons take care of farms and our magic changes the seasons, but that's all."

 

Sky remembered overhearing Sibwashie and White's numerous discussions about magic, and the nuances of and subtle differences between internal unicorn magic and zebra alchemy, but she had never understood very many of the words they used, or been particularly interested in the subject as a whole.

 

Winter Wrap-Up in Fillydelphia was her favourite event of the year. Sure, they used magic to wrap up winter in Canterlot and Manehattan, and there had been a drive to start doing the same there, but Sky was glad that nothing had yet come of it. Why let the unicorns have all the fun? she had always thought.

 

A little to the right of where Sky was daydreaming, White Noise was still deep in conversation with Makena. Their conversation had started with Makena asking White what had brought him to Zebrica, but had soon evolved into a discussion about business practices and the potential Dragonfire Delivery had to completely change the world.

 

"It's a shame you have to use dragons to make your message fires

The only ones I've ever met have been uncouth vagabonds and liars," Makena said gravely.

 

"Oh, don't worry about that," White quickly retorted, slightly taken aback. "All the dragons in my employ are diligent workers, and fine, upstanding members of society. Many of them previously served as personal assistants to students of Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns."

 

Makena hrumphed thoughtfully and nodded ever so slightly.

 

"I will admit that I have only ever met one dragon, who lived in a cave

Living in cities and towns may teach them the right way to behave."

 

A niggling voice at the back of White's mind reminded him of an article in the Canterlotian he read a few months prior. It had been about a large dragon who had illegally entered Equestria and decided to take a nap on the top of a mountain. If not for the brave actions of a group of ponies from Ponyville, his slumber may have covered Equestria in smoke for a century.

 

That sort of uncaring, thoughtless self-centeredness didn't fit well with the picture of what a dragon was like that he had in his mind, and he didn't like to think about it. This, of course, wasn't helped by his group's recent encounter with a malevolent dragon, or Salty Seadog's story.

 

And I'm going to be waltzing right into dragon territory – scratch that, dragon ancestral homeland – with two friends and a bunch of questions, he thought nervously. It probably won't even take more than a week to get there...

 

Meanwhile, Sibwashie and his mother and younger brother were talking about the formers experiences in Equestria – especially the ones he'd had in the past two weeks or so.

 

"«The mayor of Bridleburg said WHAT?!»" asked Walene in disbelief, leaning in to hear the story better.

 

Sibwashie chuckled at his brother's exclamation and repeated the mayor's words. Walene's eyes grew ever wider as Sibwashie's story progressed.

 

"«Oh my!»" said Baleni worriedly. "«I'm not sure I want to hear any more of this – you've certainly managed to get yourself into some nerve-wracking situations, Sibwashie. Please be careful about that sort of thing.»"

 

"«It's alright, mother,»" Sibwashie assured. "«If I hadn't come out of this adventure unscathed, then I wouldn't be here right now, telling you this story. My job as a diplomat is going to necessitate me going into dangerous territory, you know.»"

 

Baleni sighed and gave Sibwashie another look of concern, before making him promise that he wouldn't do anything unnecessarily dangerous, which he did.

 

Little Ponli tugged at Sky's wing.

 

"I think she want to see you spread your wings and fly," said Juweni.

 

Sky noticed that something was off about Juweni's speech. Where's the second part of the... oh.

 

She suddenly remembered being briefed about this sort of thing by both Sibwashie and White. "When a zebra wants you to respond to them, they will usually begin a rhyming couplet, and it is your duty to finish it," she had been told.

 

Her mouth went dry. Gotta think of something, gotta think of something! What rhymes with sky? Die... no, that's horrible! Pie... no, zebras don't eat pie... or do they? Spy... no... try... lie... fly... uh... sky... Yes! Sky, that's it! It's even in your name, idiot!

 

"Sounds like a good idea," began Sky, her polite smile growing a little too wide, "I really like... the sky!"

 

Juweni smiled and nodded ever so slightly, and Sky breathed an inward sigh of relief. Juweni then announced Sky's offer to the rest of the table, and they all started looking at her expectantly. White motioned for everyone to steady their cups and mugs with their hooves, lest they be blown away by Sky's take-off.

 

"Lights, please!" White asked, motioning for Walene to turn off the outside light, which he did.

 

The group was now illuminated by the light of the full moon alone and would be able to see Sky's performance. There was silence as they let their eyes adjust to the darkness.

 

Sky breathed in and out, trying to relax. Being careful not to disturb anything on the table, or any of the zebras around her, she got to her hooves, spread her wings and lifted off, shooting up into the star-filled sky.

 

The whole town of Molaro spread beneath her as she ascended. She could see the little mud-and-wood houses, the few zebras who still roamed the streets after dark, and the cheery lampposts and porchlights that gave the town a warm glow.

 

Remembering her audience, she stopped herself before rising too high and swooped back down into their view, performing a slow corkscrew as she did so. Sky smiled nonchalantly as her mane flapped about her face while she turned.

 

On the last corkscrew, Sky tilted her head up and went into a series of loop-de-loops – an old classic. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her spectators. Ponli was especially transfixed by her flying, her pupils tracking Sky's every movement.

 

Sky slowed and straightened up. Flapping her wings to stay in a hovering position, she twirled around and around. One of her hindlegs moved to the side, the other stayed rigidly beneath her, and Sky spun around in the air, as if balancing on the vertical leg.

 

The dry air made her eyes itch, and she closed them for a moment. There were no tall trees anywhere near the house, so she wasn't at all worried about colliding with anything.

 

Once Sky had finished her impromptu performance, she landed gracefully next to the table and was immediately engaged by an energetic Ponli, shouting her head off excitedly in baby-Zebrican.

 

"She says that that was wonderful, and she wants to see more

But it's already long past the time I should put her in bed to snore," Juweni translated.

 

Sky smiled at her newest little fan, and she smiled back, reaching out to touch Sky's wing again.

 

"Wow, Sky Wave, that was a really excellent display

Where-ever did you go to learn to fly that way?

 

"None of the griffons I've seen here do those kinds of twisty-turny moves,

Their flight's complete purpose-driven, like zebras are on our hooves," Walene said excitedly, displaying a greater command of Equestrian than expected.

 

Sky blushed and told him and little Ponli (even though she couldn't understand) about her dancing lessons during her summer vacations in Cloudsdale. They listened attentively, and even their respective parents appeared interested.

 

"It sounds like this dancing has taught you patience and discipline

Perhaps a grounded version would be good to enroll our daughter in," said Inkirenlo.

 

"I'd recommend it!" Sky replied.

 

After realising that it was long past Ponli's bedtime, the ponies and the other members of her family soon found themselves yawning and discovered that it was possibly just a little bit of time past their own bedtimes as well.

 

Makena and Baleni offered Sky and White sleeper couches in the common room of their family hut, which the ponies gratefully accepted. They were perhaps not the most comfortable beds in all of Molaro, but they were free of charge and given out of a spirit of hospitality the ponies did not wish to offend.

 

***

 

"White," whispered Sky. "Psst – White? You asleep yet?"

 

"No," came a flat voice from the other side of the room.

 

"Uuh... me neither," Sky replied, shifting under her duvet. "Everything's so strange here – I swear there's a different smell to the air and everything."

 

A very soft sniffing sound came from White's couch. "Hmm. You're right."

 

"If things are already so strange and different here in Zebrica, imagine what it's going to be like when we finally get to Dragonia?" Sky mused. "Do they even have towns and cities there? I don't know that they do."

 

"My research shows that most dragons in Dragonia live in caves in the rocky mountains. They have no need for artificial buildings, apparently. Their caves suit them just fine, and if one isn't too their liking, then they just find another one. It's a very... different sort of society."

 

"Sure sounds like it."

 

Neither pony wanted to voice their real concern: whether or not it was actually a good idea to continue their journey to Dragonia, given all they had recently learnt. They'd been through a lot together already, too much for them to just turn back without completing their quest – the quest that had started as White's quest alone, but was gradually becoming shared by all three. But Dragonia was largely uncharted, and their safety would be entirely in the hands of dragons – dragons they may not be wise to trust.

 

The two continued their smalltalk for a few more minutes, before it died down and they finally went to sleep.

 

***

 

White Noise had another strange dream that night.

 

He was standing in an empty room. The walls, floor and ceiling were plain white, and there were no windows or doors. The room was perfectly square, and White stood directly in the middle of it.

 

He blinked his eyes a few times, and the walls began to wobble. Ripples cracked along their surfaces, and White heard a sound – almost like flowing water, but with a slight, grating edge.

 

The floor beneath him turned green, and then blue, followed by red. The ceiling mirrored these colour changes. Before White knew it, the colours had spread to the walls, and the wobbling to the ceiling. The floor's wobbling knocked him off balance.

 

He crashed down onto the floor, and with an echoing TSSH, like the breaking of glass, a web of cracks appeared beneath him. The web grew.

 

Soon the whole room was riddled with cracks, and parts of it began to fall away. As more and more of the room shattered and fell in around him, the strange, water-like sound grew louder. It grated at White's ears, becoming almost deafening.

 

As the din reached its grew louder and louder, White thought he heard a voice, screaming through the room and penetrating his mind. The voice didn't say anything – it just screamed.

 

White awoke with a start.

 

Sweating profusely, he tried to recall what his dream had been about, but found he could not. This dream was even more difficult to remember than the last one.

 

His body still wracked with nervous shivers, White lay his head back down on his pillow and tried to get some sleep.

 

Just as White fell asleep again, Sky mumbled something indistinct and shifted on her couch uncomfortably. She was having a dream about flying through a waterfall.

 

***

 

A Zebrican breakfast, as it turned out, was just as good as a Zebrican dinner. It was also made of mostly the same ingredients, with a few eggs and some toast in addition.

 

"I am afraid that we zebra do not have as varied a diet as they say you do

But I have bought some eggs: traditional Equestrian breakfast foods for you two," explained Baleni.

 

"That's quite alright," replied White Noise. "Sky and I are in your country now – we may as well sample some of the local culture and get an understanding for how you do things here."

 

"As long as we don't have to rhyme all our words," Sky added.

 

Sibwashie chuckled under his breath.

 

"The most important thing that rhyming helps us learn

Is not to speak thoughtlessly, or out of turn," said Inkirenlo, speaking for the fifth time since he had met Sky and White.

 

"Oh, uuh," Sky began, suddenly feeling very foolish. "I... uh..."

 

Sky smiled awkwardly and continued eating her breakfast. Inkirenlo's silence and stoicism intimidated her, but she figured he must not have been too bad if he was Sibwashie's brother, and if he raised the delightful little Ponli. Still, he was intimidating.

 

Once breakfast was done with, White Noise and Sky Wave decided to have a look around town, in search of some supplies and perhaps some advice about travelling through Zebrica. They asked Sibwashie to join them, to which he replied that he would catch up with them in a little while.

 

Once they were gone, Sibwashie turned to his family. "«It has been a great joy to see you all again, dear family. But I was not planning to stay here for very long. The success of White Noise's mission relies on my mediation skill, and so I must depart with him when he is ready to go. I will see you again later on today, and then once more, upon our return from Dragonia.»"

 

Baleni immediately ran up to hug her son. "«We'll miss you, dear. Please take care of yourself»"

 

"«I will, mother.»"

 

Releasing her son, Baleni thought for a moment before adding: "«And tell that pegasus girl she's a good pony.»"

 

"«I will, mother.»"

 

"«Just don't go getting any ideas about marriage or something like that! She's not that good.»"

 

"«I won't, mother»"

 

***

 

Princess Luna stood alone on a deserted beach. She stared out to sea, gazing in the direction of Equestria, thinking of Canterlot. Dusk was coming to a close, and the time had come for her to raise the moon.

 

While her sister encouraged large audiences to gather around when she would raise the sun, Luna preferred a more discrete approach to her celestial duty. She stood alone to raise the moon, just as she had done many years before, in the dark courtyard of the old castle.

 

Luna closed her eyes and slowly rose into the air. The task of raising the moon employed a kind of magic more closely related to the innate, mysterious magic of the pegasi and the earth ponies than the carefully-studied spell-casting of unicorns. Luna would ascend with a few powerful beats of her wings, and the moon would ascend with her.

 

The moon peered over the ocean, and the princess returned her hooves to the sand and admired it. Given an initial boost, it would continue along its ancient path until it was time to put it to rest and let Celestia bring out the sun.

 

To any other set of eyes, the moon's silvery light alone would have been visible on the water, but Luna saw another light, made visible by her glowing horn. The moon basked the island in a soft, purple mist that wafted lazily along the ground. Cocking her ears, Luna fancied she could hear the plants growing around her.

 

She suddenly felt very tired. The princess was reminded that she had not yet regained all of her power. Raising the moon was getting easier, but it still took a lot out of her – a far cry from the ease with which she had locked it in the sky at her full power a thousand years before.

 

Her lack of power was also evident in the state of the purple mist. It was thinner than she remembered it being. Before, it had obscured the ground in an almost opaque fog, but on this night it was little more than a thin film, giving the sand a slight purple tint.

 

But it was something, and the people of the Lunar Republic were grateful for it. Everywhere she had been, she'd seen smiling faces and heard cheerful whoops, all in celebration of her appearance. Nopony was afraid of her, and everypony wanted to hear her speak and to compliment her on her beautiful night.

 

"My daddy says you make all the plants on our farm grow really really big!" a young filly had told her. "He says you do it with the moon!"

 

"THIS IS CORRECT, YOUNG ONE," Luna had responded proudly. "It is indeed with the MAGIC OF MY MOON that your LAND'S HARVEST is the most BOUNTIFUL IN ALL THE WORLD!"

 

The filly had been so excited by Luna's reply that she had run off to tell all her friends about her short audience with the princess. She'd been too excited to even say goodbye to Luna, but the Princess understood.

 

Later on that day, she'd received an overflowing basket of apples, pears, oranges and other assorted fruits from a stout shopkeeper with a luxurious moustache.

 

"Zis is a gift, your Highness, a gift for you!" he had said, his eyes twinkling. "But it is actually a gift from you. A gift from you to yourself! For vithout your powerful magic, fruits of zese sizes would not grow! I thank you, your Majesty, I thank you on behalf of all Lunar Republicans. For ze New Lunar Republic!"

 

Luna had heard a few grumbles of dissent among her government-hired bodyguards at the pony's parting words. Party politics was very new to her, and she wasn't sure she liked it.

 

Although the governor had conspicuously avoided mentioning the upcoming elections, Princess Luna had managed to discover that they were scheduled for less than two weeks after her arrival. Since she planned to tour the island for a month, she would be there for the election.

 

And I'll be here after the election as well, she thought to herself. I wonder who's going to get elected? Will Grain Harvest stay on as governor, or will there be somepony else? What if another party gets elected? I should ask somepony...

 

Princess Luna decided that she would need to pay the New Lunar Republic's head office a visit.

 

***

 

"We'll be spending most of our time on the open road," said White Noise, poring over his newly purchased map of Zebrica. "I'd have liked to have visited Shangora, or one of the other big cities, but none of them are on the way. In fact, there don't seem to be an awful lot of zebra settlements along the road to Skandar's Pass at all."

 

The map's crisp brown surface had been marred with a dashed red line leading from Molaro to a gap in Dragonia's formidable cliffs, known as Skandar's pass. Sibwashie had mentioned earlier that Skandar's Pass was among the only safe routes into Dragonia available to non-fliers.

 

"The stories tell us that the dragons chose their mountainous, isolated homeland out of a desire to be left alone," he had explained. "In the old days, dragons would swoop down from their nests to catch unsuspecting zebras. That's why there aren't many towns nearby – dragons may not eat zebras and ponies anymore, but the subconscious fear persists."

 

After stocking up on some necessary provisions at the local shops and bidding a long farewell to Sibwashie's family, the travellers set their sights upon the dusty road that would lead them to their destination. They set out in the middle of the afternoon, having timed their departure so that they would make it to a roadside inn a little while after sundown.

 

The three trotted along the road at a leisurely pace, staring across the flat plains that extended past the horizon. The long grass that grew on either side of the road swayed in the gentle breeze. To the north, they could just see the cliffs of Dragonia. The sun set behind them as they inched further north-east.

 

<--Previous (Chapter Seven) | Next (Chapter Nine)-->


Chapter Nine



It was mid-afternoon the day after their departure from Molaro when the travellers arrived in the first town on their route. The hot Zebrican sun had dipped below its noontime zenith, and it was in a pleasant, hazy heat that the three entered that small village of Kweweri.

Sibwashie smiled at the sight of the town's plain huts, unadorned by Equestrian flourishes. The scene reminded him of visits with extended family in similar villages.

"Have you been here before, Sibwashie?" White Noise asked him. "Anything you can tell us about the village of Kweweri?"

"This is my first time here," he replied. "We shall all discover it together."

"Nah, I've been here before," Sky added. "Bought the t-shirt and everything."

The other two glanced at her. She grinned. White Noise rolled his eyes, and then turned them to the buildings around him, searching for a sign that indicated the presence of an inn or cafe. His stomach grumbled loudly.

"Sibwashie!" he said. "My zebra-script is a little rusty, so perhaps you wouldn't mind finding someplace to eat and leading us there?"

"I can do better than that," was Sibwashie's reply.

Mystified, the two ponies followed Sibwashie as he walked off the town's dirt road and approached one of the huts. This particular hut didn't have a sign and looked far more like a home than any kind of business. Sibwashie strode up to the front door, and the two ponies lingered behind.

Frowning, he motioned for them to join him in front of the house's front door instead of awkwardly standing around a few steps back from it. Once they were standing next to him, one on either side, he made sure they had smiles on their faces and rapped a hoof against the hut's knobby wooden door.

A call was heard from inside the house, and a few moments passed before the door opened to reveal a zebra couple who looked around a decade older than the travellers. Sibwashie and the two ponies smiled at the couple.

"Zebras of Kweweri, I bring you greetings from Molaro and good wishes from across the sea
My friends and I have just arrived in your village and would like to request your hospitality.

"We have walked all day, and it has caused us to hunger and to tire
If you can provide us with food, I will tell you our tale – I am no liar.

"We have come far and seen much; this is obviously true
And even now, a good way in, there is still so much to do," Sibwashie said, speaking slowly at first, and speeding up as the recognition in the eyes of the zebra couple showed that they could understand Equestrian.

The couple looked at each other before both of them broke into smiles and ushered their visitors inside.

"If you can tell a story that excites and enthralls,
We will be glad to have you within our walls," said the male zebra.

Sibwashie grinned at his companions and leaned down to whisper to them.

"Old zebra hospitality custom," he told them. "It's very useful if you have got a good story to tell."

***


Melvin rubbed the rightmost jar of dragonfire on the bottom display shelf in his new shop. Stepping back to take a look at it, he noticed that the label read "ridleburg". Melvin carefully straightened the jar, lining it label up with that of the jar on the shelf just above it.

He then stepped out from behind the counter and admired his handywork. Dragonfire Delivery – Port Welcome was looking clean and ready for business. He'd put up some posters detailing the business's various services and prices, as well as a "flavour poster" he'd commissioned from a starving artist in Hoofington.

The so-called "flavour poster" was adorned with two long-bodied dragons that twisted along its sides – one red and one blue. At the top of the poster, green fire came out of their mouths and formed the words "Dragonfire Delivery". Below these words was the feature of the poster that Melvin felt most proud of – he had written it himself.

Since time immemorial, the proud and mysterious dragon race has used the magical properties of its fire to send letters far and wide in the blink of an eye.

The dragons kept their magic a fiercely guarded secret until one century ago, when the wise Princess Celestia was able to gain the trust and respect of the great Dragon King, and the "Equestria-Dragonia Treaty" was drawn up. The Princess learnt the secrets of this powerful communication method and brought numerous young dragons into Equestria under her employ, and created a robust internal mailing system in her School for Gifted Unicorns

Now, for the first time in history, the speed and convenience of dragonfire is available to you, the common pony! Gone are the days of waiting weeks for your mail – with dragonfire, you can receive correspondence from friends on the other side of the country in the time it takes to have a cup of tea!

Dragonfire Delivery – condensing long distances into short timeframes.


Once he was done admiring his deft prose and enviable marketing skills, Melvin took a few steps toward the front of the shop, flipped the sign on the door to "Yay! We're open" and hooked the door open.

And now to wait, he thought.

***


Melvin was not destined to wait very long and had just readjusted an errant "Seaddle" jar when his first customer arrived on the doorstep.

"Wot's all this then?" asked the customer.

Melvin didn't even have to look at the pony to ascertain that he was a young stallion from Trottingham (or possibly Buckshire) who had recently arrived in the Lunar Republic to seek his fortune. He looked at the pony anyway, confirming most of his assumptions. He also noted that the stallion was a white-and-brown-spotted paint pony.

"Hello, good sir," he greeted, putting on a fake smile and faker cherry demeanour. "Welcome to Dragonfire Delivery! How may I be of service?"

"You can be 'of service' by tellin' me wha' this is all abou'," the stallion replied. "It's no' everyday a new shop opens up in Por' Welcome – although it does come close to that a'times. This is a fast-growin' town, after all! Full of opportunity! Brimming with potential! And adventure!"

Melvin smiled at the customer, his mouth beginning to hurt. "Um, yes... quite. Now, you said you wanted to know what it is that Dragonfire Delivery does?"

"Tha' I did. I see yew've go' a fancy sign, prob'bly wi' writin' on i'... prob'bly writin' that answers my question. But I don' like readin' so much, so if ya could tell me, I'd be much obliged."

"Well," Melvin began, gathering his thoughts. "Basically we're like an extra-speedy version of the postal service. With the amazing magic of dragonfire, I can send a letter from here to anywhere in Equestria in the time it would take you – or rather, me – to sneeze."

"That so?"

"It is indeed. For a price between forty and sixty bits – depending on the destination – I can sell you one of these jars of dragonfire on the shelf behind me. Simply write a letter, and then put it in the jar. The letter will burn up and be transported to one of our dragon operatives in the city or town on the jar's label. As an added bonus, jarred dragonfire still gives off light – perfect writing-light, in fact!"

"Hmm..." the stallion pondered, stroking the ratty goatee on his chin.

"A Trottingham jar would normally cost fifty bits," Melvin said, eyes lighting up. "But seeing as you're my very first customer, I'd like to give you fifty percent off! Twenty-five bits, and that jar is yours!"

The stallion's eyes widened, and Melvin smiled inwardly. He would still be making a personal profit of five bits.

"I'll take it!" he said. "Mum 'n dad will be so 'appy to ge' a letter from me!"

"We offer some other services too. Newspaper delivery is one of our most recent innovations. I'm sure I can offer you a copy of the Trottingham Sun, for a today-only discounted price of fifty-three bits – two jars of dragonfire and the cost of the paper."

"'Today-only', you say? Well, I'm not one f'r readin', but I go' a few friends 'ho migh' like a paper fr'm the mainland. I'll spread the word."

"Oh, that would excellent! Thank you, sir."

Melvin sold his first customer a "Trottingham" jar of dragonfire and rubbed his claws together as the pony left the store to tell his friends.

***


Dinner was concluding as Sibwashie entered the final stanza of his poem.

"And so on that lunar ship, we sailed to the Zebrican shore

We put down anchor near Molaro, my home of yore

Before travelling further, we had a quick respite

And Sky Wave danced in the sky at night."


The zebra couple clopped their hooves together politely, at which Sibwashie beamed and bowed his head.

"We cannot imagine how much of that story was true
But we know that all of it was entertaining – thank you," said the husband, whose name was Padle.

With Sibwashie's story finally over, the group's attention turned to Sky and White, who had both been sitting very quietly up until this point.

"Mr Noise, as an international businesspony, I must ask your advice
Do you think apples are a good investment, or should I go with rice?" asked Padle.


"Uh, well, I guess you should..." White Noise began, trailing off as he desperately tried to remember the few things Turquoise had told him about the stock market.

"Perhaps I can invest in wood?"

Padle's wife, whose name was Kalena, turned to Sky, who smiled politely at her.

"I am the manager of our Post Office, so I too have delivered mail
Your dismissal was highly irregular; in Zebrica, it would not sail," Kalena said.

"Tell me about it," Sky replied. "I don't know how our Post Office thinks it's going to function with only ponies specifically born for the job."

"It is unfair that they believe anyone without a mail-related cutie mark to be a slob."

"Yeah, but if they hadn't fired me, I wouldn't be here right now. That would be quite sad."

"Good things can come of bad; I envy your opportunity to travel – it is one I wish I had."

"I never thought I'd leave Fillydelphia, and here I am on another continent! I've seen so much... but it's more than just that – I've made friends as well."

"By the time you return home, you will have amazing stories to tell."

"And, of course, there are these oranges!"

"..."

Kalena's mouth shut tight, and Sky gave her an inquisitive look. Her eyes widened and then narrowed disapprovingly. Sky didn't get it.

"Excuse me, Sky – we need to talk. Perhaps we can quickly make use of the next room's doorhinges," said Sibwashie, cutting into the conversation.

Kalena breathed a sigh of relief as Sibwashie led a very confused Sky into the house's living room.

"What was that about?" she asked. "Why did she stop talking like that?"

Sibwashie put a hoof on his forehead for a moment before replying.

"Oranges, Sky," he said gravely. "The word 'oranges' does not have any perfect rhymes."

"So? It's not like we were... oh wait..." Sky covered her mouth with a forehoof as she realised what she had done. "But your parents..."

"My parents are more accustomed to speaking with non-zebras than these villagers. When you did not respond to Kalena with your own couplet, she assumed that you meant her to complete your rhyme."

"Oh. I guess I've still got a lot to learn." Sky's hooves moved to her forehead. "I don't think you ever told me why this rhyming stuff is so important to you guys."

"I never did, no," replied Sibwashie. "My mistake. It would have been the sensible thing to do."

"..."

"I take it you would like to know why rhyming is so important to us zebras."

"Yes, please."

"Very well. It all began over a thousand years ago, long before ponies and zebras ever made contact..."

«-oOo-»


The land of Zebrica was not always united under one government. In ancient times, herds of zebra living in close proximity to one another built self-governing villages, with their own customs, hierarchies and chiefs – becoming individual tribes.

In those days, life was peaceful, and tribes largely kept to themselves, occasionally trading or intermarrying when one came across another. There were occasional disagreements, and these were settled by battles, but not large-scale ones. In these early battles, champions from both tribes would face off in a physical fight, and the tribe of the first one to get tired and collapse would be declared the loser and would have to concede to the other.

For many years, this was the way of things, and zebras all over the land were happy. This was until Shano's appointment as chief of the Zolaro tribe. Zebras in that time said Shano was "kissed by the stars", and his close associates described him as having a passionate fire in his eyes.

Not satisfied with his tribe's pitiful size, Shano spent long, sleepless nights trying to figure out ways to bring the Shano to greater prominence. He tried a barbaric breeding regime, forcing every mare of child-bearing age to foal as many little zebras as she could and using the magic of the tribe's shamans to increase the probability of them giving birth to strong twin colts.

But with pregnancies taking as long as four hundred days, Shano became impatient with this method and soon hit upon another: the integration of other tribes.

It was through Shano that zebrakind was introduced to large-scale violence. In his ambition, he forewent traditional champion battles and built up an army of champions, using them first to intimidate, and later to force other tribes into joining his own.

Over the years, the Zolaro tribe grew in numbers, power and influence, eventually coming to cover half of the today's Zebrica. Shano was ruthless, but not stupid. He kept his tribe under his mighty hoof and designed battle formations, weapons and training styles to keep his edge over the few remaining independent tribes.

These independents, not wishing to fall under Zolaro rule, reluctantly joined forces under their oldest and wisest chief: Xenta of the Mumbaro tribe.

Xenta was a kind, reasonable leader, but she was not impractical. She took no joy in raising armies against the forces of Shano, but did so out of necessity. Many great battles were fought between the two factions, and much zebra blood was spilt in the dust.

Eventually, Shano died – he was stabbed in the back by Dishaka, his power-hungry younger brother. Sadly for the Zolaro tribe, Dishaka was not half the leader Shano had been, and the tribe descended into bloody in-fighting.

Zebras had been introduced to the effectiveness of war and bloodshed, and many of the weaker-willed would fly into murderous rages over the slightest disagreements.

Some years after Shano's death, the Mumbaro tribe were having a feast with Dishaka's splinter of the Zolaro tribe. Spirits were high, and the talk of peace was in the air – until a heated argument broke out between the generals of the two tribes' armies.

As the Mumbaro general was reaching for the assegai in his saddlebag, the wise Chief Xenta intervened. She looked into the eyes of the two generals and held up a hoof to both of their mouths, saying that she was not interested in what they were arguing about.

The people of both tribes were silent when Xenta finally spoke.

"Generals, why would you provoke ill-will between our two herds?
Reiterate your arguments, this time with a rhyme in your words," she said.

The generals were taken aback at this, but did as they were instructed. After a few minutes of thinking, each stated their viewpoints.

"I was just saying that the bull-and-horns formation is one of great power
It catches the enemy army off-guard and makes them... cower..." said the Zolaro general.

"And I merely stated that no formation so well-used can be surprise
I concede that it was deadly in Shano's day, but now we've grown wise," said the Mumbaro general.

Xenta smiled as the generals considered each other's points and came to an agreement, nodding and laughing instead of reaching for their weapons. From that day forward, zebras conducted all important matters of trade and debate in rhyme, preventing anyzebra from losing his temper and saying harsh words in haste.

«-oOo-»


"Collaborative couplet-completion came later on. It is usually used when zebras are asking questions and exchanging more causal ideas with one another, as opposed to when they debate, make statements or teach others." Sibwashie bowed his head as he finished his story.

"I think I understand now," said Sky. "Let's go back to the dining room – I'll apologise to Padle and Kalena."

"And you'll avoid ending your sentences with words that don't have rhymes when talking to them?"

Sky opened her mouth to complain about how difficult that would be, but then thought better of saying  that to somezebra who had managed to adlib a poem about their adventures earlier that evening.

***


"I was told that you sell Equestrian newspapers in this establishment," said Melvin's second customer.

"Your source was correct," Melvin replied. "What can I get you?"

"I'd like a copy of the Manehattanite, the Fillydelphia Post and the Canterlot Herald."

"Certainly sir," Melvin replied, before ducking down to the abacus he kept under the table.

Melvin's nimble claws flicked the abacus's beads this way and that, and after a succession of soft tapping noises, he came up with a total.

"That'll be one-hundred and fifty-nine bits, please ma'am."

The mare's eyes widened in horror. "Daylight robbery!"

Melvin smiled awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other. He refrained from mentioning that the exorbitant price of his wares was an opening day special.

"I like the news, certainly, but not that much!"

"Could I perhaps interest you in a single newspaper? The Canterlotian, perhaps?"

Melvin did a quick mental evaluation of the customer: middle-aged, unicorn, mare, hat-wearer...

"I have it on good authority that there's an exclusive interview with Hoity Toity in today's issue," Melvin mentioned. "There's even a piece on the headwear designs of the up-and-coming young designer Miss Rarity."

"Who's that?"

Melvin raised an eyebrow and smiled inwardly.

"Why, she's the hottest new name in the Canterlot fashion scene!" he said. "Her dresses and hats have been the centrepieces of everypony's wardrobes for months! Surely you must have heard of her?"

"Oh, that Miss Rarity! Of course I've heard of her – I placed an order for three of her dresses just last week." The mare chuckled uneasily. "Um, one Canterlotian, please."

Two minutes and a message to Smooth Scales later, fifty-three bits clattered onto Melvin's counter and his second customer left the store, her snout entrenched in the day's Canterlotian.

Melvin deposited half of the bits he'd just received below the counter, with the rest of his ever-growing private stash. Strangely, it looked slightly smaller to him than it had the previous day, even though a quick mental tally showed that the bits still came to the same total figure.

After patted himself on the back for his triumph, Melvin became serious. He knew that he wouldn't be able to guilt everypony into buying his newspapers so easily, and he also knew that selling Equestrian newspapers to homesick Lunar Republicans could and should be a huge source of income. If only he could make it less resource-intensive...

An idea began to form in Melvin's mind.

***


After a restful night and a large breakfast with the Padle and Kalena, the travellers thanked their hosts profusely and went on their way. At one point, White Noise had motioned towards his bit bag, but Sibwashie had put out a hoof to stop him – by Zebrican custom, their story had been payment enough.

The hot Zebrican sun beat down on the trio as they made their way to the edge of the town. There was not a cloud in the sky, and not a body of water to be seen for miles around. The travellers felt very thirsty, and White Noise groaned inwardly at the thought of the long way they would be walking that day.

At the edge of the town, the travellers spotted a metal-and-wooden something that made White's pre-emptively tired heart soar – train tracks. His eyes followed them to a squat wooden building to the group's right.

"Look at that!" he exclaimed. "There's a train station here! Maybe we can take a train to the Dragonian border!"

"My country's trains do not serve its far-flung borders," Sibwashie replied. "Our railway system is very much centralised – a station in place like Kweweri is likely the end of the line."

"That... actually makes a lot of sense," Sky interjected, musing on Equestria's own raillines.

"Well," White Noise began, scrambling for reasons to ride a train instead of walking, "maybe there's one or two more stops along the line? I'm sure we could make our journey that little bit faster with the help of this train."

White's companions nodded in agreement and mumbled about there being no harm in trying, and the three of them headed towards the train station hopefully.

"Look at that," Sky said as they neared the station. "It looks like there's some kind of party going on here!"

Just in front of the station, a patch of clear ground was occupied by a group of around ten large male zebras. The zebras were dancing and singing, their hooves rising and falling in time to the slow rhythm of their drawn-out words.

"Is this a traditional dance?" Sky asked Sibwashie eagerly. "Like, a dance intended to stop the train from having an accident? Or to improve the morale of the zebras pulling the train?"

Sibwashie let out a long breath and motioned towards the signs that had been propped up around the dancers. Their zebra-script was indecipherable to Sky, but the words were large and roughly inked.

"This is a strike," he said. "The train-pullers do not feel that they are receiving adequate compensation for their work."

White, who had hitherto been staring intently at the scattered signs, nudged Sibwashie with his elbow and pointed at one of the signs.

"I've always wanted to see rough, mouth-written zebra-script! However, I fear that my knowledge of it is a little rusty, or perhaps too rigidly set on the printed version. What does that sign say?"

"You don't want to know, my friend," Sibwashie warned, chuckling inwardly.

"How are we going to use the train if the pullers are on strike?" Sky asked suddenly. "I don't think it can run on its engine alone."

"Well, actually..." White Noise began, before trailing off. "No, sorry, I was thinking of something else."

"Maybe we should go inside and talk to whoever's in charge here," said Sky. "We may even be able to help settle this!"

White cocked an eyebrow at her. "And just how are we going to get through this? Last time I checked, strikers don't just let ponies walk into the places they're striking in front of."

"Maybe it's different in Zebrica?" Sky pondered, glancing hopefully at Sibwashie.

Sibwashie shook his head. "It's not. People are much the same, wherever you go."

As if in answer to their dilemma, the station's door opened just then, and a hard-faced griffon wearing a conductor's hat walked out.

A grin stretched across Sky's muzzle as she looked into the griffon's hard eyes. Here was a griffon with a cushy office job, oppressing the hard-working zebra train-pullers who were actually native to the land. Here was her opportunity to stand up for the downtrodden!

Sky flapped her wings and rose into the air, puffing her body up to look intimidating.

"You there!" she cried, pointing a forehoof at the griffon. "I want to have a word with you."

The griffon looked a little perplexed, but decided to fly up and humour to confrontational pink pegasus. Her anger made her look rather adorable – just like his teenage daughter back home.

"Yes, ma'am?" he asked politely.

Sky was fuming with righteous anger. "How dare you come into these zebras' country, steal a cushy job in their transport industry, and then use it to oppress them! You should be ashamed!"

"Uh..." the griffon began, inwardly amused at Sky's antics.

Down below, Sibwashie raised a hoof in front of his face.

"Well?" Sky asked haughtily.

The conductor breathed in and out, before speaking slowly: "Ma'am, this here payment problem is a tragedy, but not one that I am responsible for. My train-pullers haven't got their annual raise because the company's losin' money. There's a drought here in Zebrica, and that means that we have less produce to transport, which in turn means that we make fewer stops, get less payment for our transport services and have less money to go around."

"Oh," Sky said flatly.

"In fact, I was just coming out of my office to try negotiate a deal with my workers – get them a small raise at the cost of some of my own paycheck from this 'cushy job' of mine."

Sky hung her head and descended, landing next to her companions. They had heard everything.

"I'm, uh... I'm sorry, sir," Sky said to the griffon who had just landed in front of her. "I thought..."

"Don't worry about it, ma'am, you had good intentions; jus' try not to jump to conclusions like that in future."

The four stood in silence for a moment.

"So, uh, I guess the train isn't running at the moment," White said.

"I'm afraid not," replied the griffon conductor, a deadpan expression on his beak. "The train will not be running until I and head office can sort out this strike."

White Noise thanked the conductor half-heartedly, and the three travellers turned their back on the station and walked away. White's hooves felt especially heavy.

***


Melvin smiled to himself as he admired his handiwork: a pile of claw-written sheaves of paper, summarising the most important events that had happened throughout Equestria the previous day. It had taken him the whole of the previous night, and his writing claw was suffering from awful cramps, but he was proud of his work.

He had placed a new sign in the window of the shop, advertising the "Dragonfire Equestrian Digest", at its "affordable price of 30b!", and with its "news from all corners of the pony homeland, from Prance to Stalliongrad".

Sure enough, his first customer arrived shortly after opening time. Melvin smiled as he recognized the dapper pony entering his store.

"Good morning, Corr," he said cheerfully. "How may I help you?"

"I would very much like to see this 'Digest' of yours, sir," replied Correspondence, his eyes already locked on the pile of papers resting beside Melvin's clasped claws. "I have been dying to hear about Equestria again for months."

In response, Melvin grabbed the top sheaf from the pile and held it up in front of Correspondence's face, letting his exemplary summarising skills speak for themselves.

Much to Melvin's dismay, Corr frowned. "I thought this was supposed to be 'digest'."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Melvin snapped.

"Well, it's about as easy to digest as a bucket of gravel," Corr added. "This article about diamond mining, in particular, has a very needless digression about gem aging and 'subtle taste differences resulting from shape and impurities'."

Melvin bit his lower lip. He'd been working so hard on his digests that he'd forgotten to eat the previous evening. If everypony has the same opinion as Corr does, this is going to be a disaster! he thought.

Corr plucked the digest from Melvin's claws and put it down on the counter, shaking his head as he skimmed over more of the articles. He muttered things about "verbose language" and "misplaced witticism" as he paged through the rest of the digest, causing Melvin to bite his lip even harder.

But before Melvin could draw blood, an idea struck him.

"Hey Corr," Melvin began, taking a quick glance at Correspondence's right flank. "What's your special talent?"

"Summary," Correspondence responded sharply.

His cutie mark is a quill, thought Melvin. I guess it is kind of a short quill... maybe...

"Tired of working for city hall?"

"They pay me well."

"How much do you get?"

Corr told him.

Melvin glanced down at his private stash of bits. "I can double that."

Corr nodded politely and raised a hoof to Melvin's already outstretched claw. Melvin winced slightly as he clasped Corr's hoof – his claw cramp hadn't gone away – and the deal was done.

"Welcome to Dragonfire Deliveries, Mr Correspondence!"

"Thank you, sir."

With his eyes closed and his face turned away, Melvin swept his papers off the counter and into a waiting rubbish bin, before handing a stack of newspaper and a quill to his new employee.

"Get summarising," he said with a smile.

***


Princess Luna stood outside of the door of the New Lunar Republic's head office – a modest, two-storey brick building close to the centre of town. The glass door was propped open, but Luna hesitated slightly before going inside.

Her royal guards had wanted to come to the office with her – for protection, they had said. Luna had flatly refused their help and sent them off into the town to bide their time until she was ready for them to take her to another part of the island on her royal chariot. She was more than capable of handling herself.

Many centuries before, when she and Celestia had only recently wrested control of the land from Discord, there had been no need for guards, or political meetings, or any of this modern stuff that made Luna's head spin. The princesses had lived with a few trusted friends and servants in their castle in the forest. With Discord turned to stone, there was nothing they needed to be guarded from.

Luna entered the office's foyer, striding purposefully. She saw a desk at the far end of the office. Behind the desk stood a light yellow pegasus, and a crimson unicorn stood to its side. The two were engaged in quiet conversation.

Luna shrugged and cleared her throat softly. No need to make a big deal of my entrance, she thought.

"GREETINGS, ponies of the NEW LUNAR REPUBLIC," she announced, filling the room with her powerful Royal Canterlot voice. "YOUR INSPIRATION hath arrived UPON your DOORSTEP! Pray tell, where DOTH we find the one named 'JOYOUS DAWN'."

The crimson unicorn turned around and bowed politely. "That would be me, your Highness. It is an honour and a privilege to finally meet you, Princess of the Night."

Princess Luna held out a hoof, which Dawn dutifully kissed, still maintaining her humble bowed position.

"WE have many QUESTIONS for THEE!" Luna barked.

"I can imagine you must," replied Dawn. "Please, follow me upstairs to my office, and I will do my best to tell you whatever you want to know."

Luna nodded gravely before following Dawn up the stairs to the left of the reception desk.

"I don't use my office very often, so I'm afraid it isn't very well-decorated," Dawn mentioned. "I'm a hooves-on kind of leader – I'd rather be out there, getting things done than sitting in a stuffy office."

Luna nodded approvingly.

As she soon discovered, Joyous Dawn's office was exactly as advertised – its main decorations were the reams and reams of paperwork, magazines and newspapers that lay strewn across every available surface – especially the floor.

"My secretary suggested having shelves installed, but I'm in my element in this kind of organized chaos," Dawn explained. "Shelves are where you put books and papers when you want them to sit around getting dusty – I'd rather use the whole floor as a shelf and keep everything readily accessible. It's important to keep one's hoof on the pulse of events in this politics business, as I'm sure you're well aware."

"YES," Luna replied, holding her head up proudly. "WE ARE INTIMATELY ACQUAINTED with the MANY NUANCES AND FACETS OF POLITICAL DEALINGS!"

"And that's why I'm sure we'll get along spectacularly, your Highness," Dawn replied, her voice firmly mired in a sincerity backed up by her serious gaze. "You are a wise and powerful ruler, and your voice resonates with the confidence that defines you. How do you do it?"

Luna blushed slightly at the compliment, fighting to keep her haughty and regal demeanour.

"I've always been inspired by you, Princess Luna," Dawn continued. "It was your reappearance on the throne in Canterlot that brought me into politics, you know. My party – not to mention my country – owes you an immense amount of gratitude."

"Um, yes," replied Luna. "Yes, that is, uh... that is why we sought thy audience."

"I hope you don't find me presumptuous!" Dawn gasped. "I assure you, your Majesty, I had only the noblest and most respectful of intentions when I used your name to inspire the members of my party, and our prospective voters. You must understand, Princess, that you have done a great deal for our island. Without you, we would not be the 'Lunar Republic', after all."

"This is true..."

"Please, Princess Luna, have a seat. Take my chair – it's the fanciest piece of furniture I own."

The Princess did as she was requested and rested on the wide, soft chair behind the office's paper-covered desk. Dawn swiftly deposited the desk's papers on the floor and took a seat in front of the desk, in the chair her guests would usually use.

Dawn wasted no time in continuing her speech. "Princess Luna, since you returned to Equestria, the long-forgotten circumstances of your original banishment have come into popular knowledge once more. I know that you felt underappreciated all those years ago, and I cannot say how sorry I am for the acts of my ancestors, whom you gave the gift of your moon's magic. They were ungrateful and insensitive."

Luna leaned forward in her seat. Dawn was speaking very earnestly and looked as if she might cry.

"I promote you in my party because I cannot let that happen again, Princess Luna. You are a good and kind princess, and you deserve the love and adoration of those you serve so selflessly. So, Princess Luna, will thou allowest me to – in my own minute capacity – bring thee the fame and respect that thou deservest?"

Luna didn't answer right away, to which Dawn gracefully conceded. The two mares spent the rest of the afternoon discussing politics and the welfare of their two nations. Dawn did most of the talking, but Luna chimed in where she could, her voice growing softer and gentler all the while.

Eventually, though, Princess Luna's softened voice found a hard edge.

"So, what thou art saying is..." she began, screwing up her eyes. "What thou art saying is that we should abandon our sister and come to thy Republic?"

Dawn's eyes flared with shock momentarily. "Well, your Highness, I wouldn't put it like that, but-"

"I see," Luna replied sternly. "We are interested in discovering why thou holdest that opinion."

Dawn took a deep breath and readjusted the spectacles on her nose. "I'm going to be frank with you, your Majesty. The ponies here like you. I'm sure you've seen their smiling faces and the way they mob around you whenever you come into town. Lunar Republicans treat the Princess of the Night with the respect she deserves."

"Miss Dawn," Luna replied, a stern expression on her face. "To go where we are most 'liked' would be an act of selfishness unbefitting of a princess. We are the night, and our sister is the day. How can night be without day?"

Dawn bit her lip.

Luna continued, "Yes, we are aware that day was without night for one thousand years. We are aware that for the entire lives of thy generation and the ones preceding it, the name 'Luna' was forgotten. But that was not how things were supposed to be, and to force our sister to reign alone once more... It is unthinkable."

"But you misunderstand me," replied Dawn, speaking ever-so-softly. "I do not want your sister to be alone; I merely wish for a more active partnership between Equestria and the Lunar Republic. You have blessed our land, Princess Luna, and for that, you deserve a part in its governance. You deserve to reap the benefits of what you have sown."

The room was silent for a moment as Princess Luna carefully considered Dawn's words.

"Thou HAST give us a LOT to think about," she proclaimed, rising from her seat. "We shall SLEEP on it."

"Thank you, your Majesty," Dawn replied silkily. "I am certain that whatever decision you come to will be wise and well thought-out."

***


The trio were on the road once more, having picked up a few necessities that now weighed down their saddlebags before leaving town. White Noise had done his best to push any thoughts of trains out of his mind and was trudging along, focusing on the dull aching in his hooves.

Sky was still feeling a little embarrassed about her outburst, but her thoughts of the strike itself had largely been overshadowed by something the conductor had told her – something she didn't understand.

"Hey Sibwashie," she said, glancing at the silent zebra walking next to her. "What's a 'drought'?"

If he was at all taken aback by Sky's comment, Sibwashie did not show it, merely stating: "A drought is what happens when it doesn't rain somewhere for a long time. Things dry out, and crops die."

"But why wouldn't it rain where there are crops?" Sky asked. "I mean, my mom always told me that farms were the very first places to get fresh supplies of clouds."

"Yes, I am sure that is the case," Sibwashie replied, "in Equestria. Sadly, Zebrica does not have floating cities full of cloud factories, or the winged ponies to staff them. Here, we get our clouds from what the wind is kind enough to blow over our land and what griffon weather-importers are able to requisition and transport from Equestria."

"So, then, if you can't get enough..."

"Drought. The winds have not been kind to us this year."

"But, but won't zebras... starve?"

Sibwashie smiled reassuringly. "Thankfully our government has made plans for things like droughts. Zebrica has just had to increase its imports – I'm sure it's caused a strain on finances, but zebras shouldn't starve."

"It's awful that you have to live at the whims of natural forces here, Sibwashie," White Noise added. "It's unnatural." 

"I, too, regret that nature has not provided us zebra with floating cloud factories," Sibwashie replied.

"Good thing we ponies can do something to help you guys," White continued, completely blasé. "Why, I remember experimenting with food delivery via dragonfire back in my student days... not that that ended well..."

At the urging of his companions, White reluctantly divulged the stories of some of his less-than-successful magical communication experiments. The journey's mood lifted significantly as the three travellers laughed with each other.

"... and that's why you should NEVER practice voice projection on an empty stomach..."

***


Correspondence's improved Dragonfire Digests did not sell well. The first one was finished toward noon and couldn't be sold because it needed to be used to make further copies. Even with Melvin's help, the two did not build up a respectable pile of digests until it was time to close the shop for the evening.

The following day, however, Correspondence found himself frantically scribbling new copies – no easy feat for an earth pony – as Melvin sold every single one they had in a matter of hours.

"Well, Corr, it looks like we've really hit a nerve with this," Melvin said as they closed up the shop for the night once more, this time with considerably higher spirits. "Let's split the profits sixty-five thirty-five – I am a generous employer, and you did a great job summarising all that news."

"Yes, thank you sir," replied Corr, scooping the bits Melvin presented him with into his saddlebag.

Correspondence said goodnight to his new boss, and Melvin found himself alone, staring at his (and White Noise's) share of the day's earnings. He poked at the bits with a claw, trying to decide how much to apportion to White and how much to keep for himself.

I did come up with the digest idea all on my own, Melvin thought, and it's based on the newspaper idea that I had before... all on my own. I also spent a lot of time physically making the digests today. Why should I give White Noise any of this money? I earned it – it should be mine!

Melvin gazed loving at the bits on the counter for a moment, and then quickly gathered them up and added them to his private stash – a collection of shiny bits that was growing at a very pleasing rate. I'm going to run out of space under the counter if this keeps up! he thought gleefully.

Yawning widely, Melvin decided it was time to go to sleep. He started making his way to the back room, where his bed sat, surrounded by extra jars of dragonfire and his beloved Trixie poster, but something stopped him.

Melvin looked at his stash of bits and suddenly got a very strange idea. With a flourish, he knocked the bits out from under the counter. They clattered to the floor, spreading out across its length. Melvin's eyelids drooped, and he sank to his knees.

A clawed hand reached up to place a pair of round glasses on the counter, and then Melvin was out. He slept soundly on his bed of shiny bits, dreaming of all the bits that were to join them.

<--Previous (Chapter Eight) | Next (Chapter Ten)-->


Chapter Ten

Nightfall found the three travellers trudging along the dirt road through the Zebrican plains, still far from the next town along their route.

"Are you sure we didn't take a wrong turn?" asked Sky. "I don't see any inns around here."

"It was clearly marked on the map," White Noise replied curtly. "I'm sure it's right over the next hill."

"I'll be the judge of that," Sky replied indignantly.

With that, she flapped her wings and soared up into the air, soon flying past the hill. She scanned the ground that spread out beyond it, squinting to make things out in the darkness.

"I can't see anything down there!" she shouted back to her companions. "Nothing except more grass and trees."

White Noise sighed heavily as Sky landed back with her companions.

"Well, maybe we did take a wrong turn somewhere," he admitted. "I guess I should have asked you to fly up and check, instead of placing all my confidence in this cheap map – piece of junk."

"What should we do now?" Sibwashie asked, interjecting calmly.

"I guess we should just keep walking," White suggested. "It's not like we really have a choice. If we need to, we'll find some comfortable grass to sleep on."

The three travellers exchanged glances. White shrugged and they continued walking.

***

"I don't... think that that's an inn," said Sky, battling to keep her eyes open.

The three of them had been walking through the night for hours, with only the light of the lantern they'd purchased in Molaro to guide them. They had passed many trees, gone over many small hills and navigated a number of places along the road where the grass had grown to almost pony-height, but this was the first time they had come across any sign of civilisation.

"It looks like it could function as one though," White added hopefully.

To the right of the road, a gravel path led to a large brick mansion. Two neatly-trimmed walls of hedges lined the path and were themselves surrounded by a well-maintained garden, full of boxy flowerbeds and straight rows of trees. The contrast this had with the wild, sparsely foliaged plains around it was quite jarring.

"I am not averse to sleeping under the stars," Sibwashie stated, "but I feel that it would be a mistake to pass by this establishment without at least finding out a little bit more about it."

"Alright, let's do that," replied White. "Guess it can't hurt."

The travellers made their way up the gravel path towards the mansion's large wooden doors. Sibwashie made a movement to grab the knocker with his mouth, but White held up a hoof to stop him.

"I think I've got this," he said, closing his eyes and furrowing his brow in concentration.

White's horn glowed faintly, and the knocker soon followed suit, slowly rising into the air, and then falling back down as White released his magic. He smiled to himself as the knocker hit the door, and then proceeded to repeat the process two more times.

"It shouldn't be too much longer until I'm back in action," he told his companions cheerfully.

Before they could respond, the sounds of locks being released and heavy latches being lifted were heard from beyond the door, followed by a creaking as it slowly opened.

"Hello," said the pony at the door. "What brings you here? It's not often that I have guests."

The speaker was a gaunt blue pegasus, his mane and tail white from age. He wore a rumpled black tuxedo with a large red bowtie and had a neatly trimmed white goatee. His brown eyes twinkled warmly, and his facial expression showed the beginnings of a smile.

Sibwashie was the first to speak:

"Wise father, we feel that we are truly fortunate to have chanced upon this stately nest

With your permission and the necessary fee, we ask that you accommodate our rest."

"No 'fee' is necessary, young travellers!" the old pegasus said with a smile. "Of course I'll let you spend the night in my house – it's far too big for just one pony, and lately, I've been rather lonely."

Showering the old pony with thanks, the three hurried into the mansion.

"You can call me Mr Drifter. I was quite the globetrotter in my youth, so I sympathise with your situation entirely. Please, let my escort you to the guest wing – you all look positively exhausted!"

The mansion looked even larger from the inside than it did from the outside. A long stretch of red carpeting cut across a hard stone floor and scurried up the wide staircase the dominated the room the travellers had just entered. An enormous glass chandelier hung above their heads, and colourful tapestries hung on the walls around them.

White, Sky and Sibwashie glanced down at their dusty hooves self-consciously, feeling very out-of-place amidst the grand proportions of the room's entrance hall.

"Welcome to my humble abode," Mr Drifter chattered as he led his guests up the wide staircase and down the hall to the left. "I had it transported here from Equestria, you know – flown and teleported brick by brick!"

As the three travellers marvelled at the scale of such an operation, Mr Drifter swiftly brought them to the advertised guest wing. Using a wing, he pointed each of them to what would be their rooms, mentioning little bits of trivia as he went.

"... that room was once occupied by Galineigho... the telescope stand is still attached to the window... and that one once hosted Marey, Queen of Oats..."

"Thank you for your generosity," White Noise eventually said, cutting Mr Drifter off. "We really are very grateful for such hospitality."

"And these rooms!" Sky interjected, having just peeked behind her door. "They're the most beautiful rooms I've ever seen!"

Mr Drifter smiled at White and latched onto Sky's excitement with a twinkle in his eye. "I would expect that to be the case, Ms Wave. Whatever positive things you can say about the cloud buildings we pegasi usually live in, nothing else ever quite compares to the majesty of a good, old-fashioned, earth-bound structure made out of solid stone."

White's eyelids drooped. I could really go for the majesty of a soft bed right now, he thought.

"Oh!" Mr Drifter exclaimed, noticing Sibwashie stifle a large yawn. "How rude of me! You three must be dying to get to sleep. Well, you know where your rooms are, so let me not keep you up any longer."

After a final round of profuse thanks, Mr Drifter trotted off to his own bedroom, and the three travellers entered their own. Sibwashie and White Noise had neighbouring rooms, and Sky Wave's was just across the hallway.

"Night everypony!" Sky said cheerfully.

"Good night."

"Night."

***

Sibwashie stood on the edge of a great cliff, looking out at the plains of inland Zebrica. The veld was sporadically dotted by low, wide trees and herds of elephants, rhinos and wildebeest roamed around in the long grass.

He turned around to face a small village behind him. A few zebras milled around the dirt huts with their thatched roofs. Many wore colourful cloaks and saddlebags, and a group in the center of the village were trying on elongated wooden masks. Smiling at this peaceful scene, Sibwashie trotted forward to enter the village.

He was stopped in his tracks by a sudden chill in the air. The wind's direction changed, and Sibwashie felt his mane bristle against it. The zebras in the village lost their carefree demeanours and turned to face him, their eyes blank of expression. The expressions on the wooden masks seemed to contort into severe frowns.

Sibwashie opened his mouth to protest, but no words came from it. In their place, a torrent of glowing cyan light flooded out, wrapping the entire village in its sparkly glow.

At first, the magical glowing did nothing but obscure the true colours of the village and its inhabitants, but soon enough, larger changes became evident.

The yellow bales of dried grass, charming in their unevenness, morphed into painted planks of wood. The circular huts started growing corners, and the dirt flecked away from their walls to reveal stone and wood. The black stripes on the zebras' faces began to fade to white.

Sibwashie felt a sharp pain in his forehead and glanced upwards to see a horn, alit with magic.

He awoke with a start, breathing heavily. A film of sweat drenched his face, and he felt his heart thumping against his ribs.

Sibwashie put a forehoof to his forehead. Everything's fine, he thought. It was just a dream.

Collapsing his head against his pillow, Sibwashie tried to go back to sleep.

***

The three travellers awoke almost simultaneously the following morning, as their weeks on the road had taught them to. They met in the hallway just outside their rooms and headed downstairs together, hoping they would be able to find Mr Drifter in the great big rambling house.

"Mornin' everypony," White Noise yawned. "I slept very well last night  these beds are amazing! I trust you two had a good night's sleep as well?"

"Well, actually..." Sibwashie began, remembering his strange dream.

"I kept waking up from nightmares!" Sky blurted out. "...The beds are very comfy, though. You've got that right!"

"Hmm, well, that's unfortunate," White replied, his cheerful expression dampened by the sour ones on his friends' faces. "I wonder if there's any specific reason for it... I had some friends who studied dreams back at the school... fascinating stuff, it was..."

"Why don't we go downstairs and find Mr Drifter?" Sky suggested, the hole in her stomach making her less receptive to another of White Noise's school stories. "Perhaps we can have breakfast with him before we hit the road!"

"Well, I wouldn't want to be a burden," White replied, "but I suppose it'll be okay if he offers. He seems like the type who might."

White, Sky and Sibwashie made their way down the hall and towards the stairs, their hooves barely making a sound as they traversed the house's thick carpeting. On their way, they glanced at the many portraits of stern-looking, long-dead mares and stallions: presumably previous occupants of the castle.

As soon as the group reached the top of the stairs, a cheerful voice called up to them. "Ah, there you lot are! Come on down here, you're up just in time for breakfast!"

Mr Drifter was smiling up at his guests from the first floor of the manor, clad in the same – or at least a similar – black tuxedo with a red bowtie from the previous night. Probably the same one, mused Sky Wave. I wonder if he even has an iron in this great big house of his.

The travellers made their way down the stairs and were quickly ushered into the kitchen by a their host.

***

"I've always been a firm believer in labour-saving devices," Mr Drifter said. "They're the way of the future, you know!"

Drifter and his guests were seated around a small wooden table in the manor's kitchen, eating a traditional Equestrian breakfast of oats, hay and some barley, with a course of toast, marmalade and some coffee to wash it down. The breakfast and the table were arguably the most traditional things about the room.

Everything else  the fridge, the stove, the toaster – was covered by multitudes of metal manipulating appendages. The appendages were long, thin metal rods with various devices mounted on their ends, the most common of which was a grabbing device that strongly resembled a dragon's claw.

White, Sky and Sibwashie had been a little taken aback by the way their food had been prepared and served by dozens of spindly machines, but soon found themselves marvelling at the speed and efficiency of the automated kitchen. Sky reckoned that it probably made fewer mistakes and dropped fewer plates than a regular pony chef-slash-waiter.

"An old friend of mine made everything you see here," Mr Drifter continued. "Those earth pony engineers are something else!"

"Indeed they are," White Noise replied knowingly.

"The system didn't run nearly this smoothly at first, of course. Old Cogwork and I had to work out a lot of kinks just to stop it from endangering the lives of the ponies it was trying to feed! Of course, he did most of the work  I would just mention that 'the stove's left arm moves a tad fast, old boy' or 'maybe you should make that bit out of flame-retardant material'; things like that."

"I'm sure you were a greater help than you realised," Sky said sweetly.

"Thank you, dear  perhaps you're right! I certainly helped with all the testing meals we made  blew me up like a balloon, all the food did."

Sibwashie stifled a harsh glare, pushing thoughts of the country's drought and the famine it was creating out of his mind. It will not do to be rude to Mr Drifter, he thought to himself. A pony this rich has to be influential as well; even if he lives in the middle of nowhere.

"Why not head out into the garden with me?" Mr Drifter suggested, changing the subject as he noticed that his guests had finished eating. "It's not very often that I have guests, and it's such a terrible shame that my beautiful garden never gets to delight anypony else."

"That sounds lovely," replied Sky Wave, already getting up from her place at the table. "We'd really appreciate a chance to see your garden up close, Mr Drifter."

"Excellent!" Drifter beamed, his eyes scrunching up against his cheeks. "Please, follow me – oh, don't worry about the dishes, Mr Sibwashie! They'll take care of themselves."

Sibwashie placed his breakfast crockery back on the table and got up with the others to visit the garden. His ears picked up the sound of the mechanical arms grabbing plates and dunking them into sinks of soapy water as he exited.

***

The manor's back garden was even larger and more astounding than the gathering of plantlife that furnished the front of the building. Where the front garden had short, neatly trimmed hedges, the back garden had rows of tall, pointy conifers, many of which poked their tops above the slanted roof that sat upon manor's three-storey frame. Where the front garden had flowerbeds of daffodils and daisies, the back garden grew a more eclectic collection of Heart's Desire, Windroot and Manalily  there was even a specially-cordoned-off bed full of Poison Joke.

"Welcome to my garden, filly and gentlecolts," Mr Drifter said, beaming with pride as a made a sweeping gesture towards the garden with a forehoof. "This place is the fruit of my life's labour; the sum total of my long and numerous endeavours! Please, look around freely, and do not hesitate to ask about any of the trees and plants on display."

Sibwashie gazed up at a strong, tall oak tree to his left, frowning ever so slightly. Making a mental note to be polite, he caught Mr Drifter's attention with a wave of his hoof.

"This garden is a great achievement, with trees and flowers from all over the earth

But in the dry Zebrican climate, how do you give them each the water they're worth?" he asked.

Mr Drifter's eyes twinkled as he responded. "That's where being a pegasus pony comes in handy, my boy!"

He fluttered his wings and pointed a hoof at the door of a small square building, semi-detached from the manor. "I keep a healthy stock of clouds in my storeroom over there, and whenever the garden needs some water, it's a simple matter of pulling out a cloud and hopping on it a few times."

"How do you get your clouds, may I ask?" Sibwashie began.

"Griffon freelancers; with them it's an easy task," Drifter replied nonchalantly.

White Noise, who had been staring intently at one of the flowerbed and rubbing his chin with a forehoof, suddenly spoke up. "How do you manage to grow the Beneviolet here, Mr Drifter? Surely it can't survive away from the magic of its natural habitat."

"Astute question. The answer: it's Lesser Beneviolet  Much Lesser Beneviolet, I'd call it. I bolster it by surrounding each individual flower with a circle of Manalilies, but if you were to pluck it and eat it right now, the best it could do is cure a papercut or maybe an upset tummy."

White Noise nodded with satisfaction. Sky Wave then pretended to gaze intently at the short, not-at-all-exotic lawn while she tried to come up with an intelligent-sounding question for Mr Drifter to answer.

"I could probably increase the potency of the Beneviolets a little if I used some magic harvested from my Poison Joke collection," Drifter mused, talking more to himself than anypony else, "but I don't really like to mess around with that stuff unnecessarily. I ended up with crossed eyes last time I did that."

"Crossed eyes?" asked White Noise, thinking back to what he'd learnt about Poison Joke in Introductory Alchemy.

"Oh!" Drifter exclaimed, suddenly yanked from his thoughts. "I don't suppose I ever told you travellers what my special talent is. And you couldn't have guessed either, what with the way this silly tuxedo (why do I wear such an outfit in this heat?) hides my cutie mark."

With that, Mr Drifter lifted one of his tuxedo's twin tails to reveal a picture of a weathered brown rolled-up map on his flank.

"You're a pirate!" Sky gasped.

"No, no, but my parents had the same concern!" Drifter assured, laughing to himself. "Before I retired, I was a cartographer  a maker of maps. But I was no ordinary mapmaker, no... I was also an explorer! I've always believed that mapping is about knowing, and there's no knowing without going!"

White nodded slowly.

"So, you see, the crossed eyes made it quite impossible for me draw maps, or to read them, for that matter!" Drifter quickly added, remembering White's question. "Of course, the joke was on the Joke, because I'm retired!"

Mr Drifter laughed heartily at his own joke, and his guests joined him with polite, rather more restrained laughter.

"It is so very nice to have company!" Drifter gushed. "You can't imagine how lonely it gets out here sometimes... I have my plants, my machines and my maps for company, but between you and me, I think they're starting to drive me mad..."

"Company alone cannot possibly be enough to repay your hospitality, Mr Drifter," White said, clearing his throat. "Please, allow us to give you a reasonable fee for "

"Ha!" Drifter cried, waving White Noise off with a hoof. "Trust me, son, I'm much happier to have some company than having more money! I've got more of that than I'll ever know what to do with  I don't need to add to it."

"But, surely there's something more we can do for you," White pleaded.

Drifter put a hoof to his chin and thought for a moment before responding. "Well, some of my machines could do with a recharging, Mr Noise. Severing is so very much more effective than Manalilies and so much less hazardous than Poison Joke extract."

"That's actually the one thing I can't offer," White apologised, rubbing the back of his neck. "I severed my entire magic supply a few weeks ago, and it's been really slow in recovering. Right now I can barely lift a knife and fork."

"Well, that's a shame... but at least now I don't have to apologise for not having any of that funny unicorn cutlery stuff in the house!"

"Yeah, that's... something."

Smiling at his joke, Mr Drifter glanced casually at the watch on his left foreleg, and then looked back up at his guests, obviously preparing to launch into another of his speeches. Before he could even open his mouth, his eyes widened in realisation and he stared back at his watch.

"Oh my!" he cried. "My new shipment of clouds should be here! Since five minutes ago! Please excuse me while I go fetch that."

With that, Drifter flapped his wings and took off, flying over the manor instead of going through it.

Sky approached White. "Are you sure there's nothing wrong with you? Your magic is really taking its time to regenerate. Maybe you should find a unicorn doctor or something."

"I don't think I'm going to find any 'unicorn doctors' in Zebrica, Sky," White said, sighing heavily, "but you do have a point. My magic should be back to full strength by now. Even after that thing at the orchard, it's had plenty of time to recover. I don't know why I'm struggling like this."

Sibwashie stepped up to the two ponies and joined the conversation: "White, you mentioned a while ago that you were able to cast the spell that saved my life because of the relationship between magic and friendship. Perhaps you should look into that."

"An interesting idea, Sibwashie, but I don't know that I can," White replied. "From what Twilight Sparkle told me, I know only that 'friendship' between ponies has some sort of enhancing effect on magic. From my own experience, I can say that seeing my friends in danger recharges by magic by a large degree. Beyond that, friendship's exact relationship to magic isn't something I can pin down or use in any practical way."

A sudden breeze blew across the garden, ruffling the ponies' manes and breaking against Sibwashie's mohawk. A leaf detached from a large oak tree and slowly drifted down the ground.

CRACK!

A sudden, lound thundercrack sounded from in front of the house, startling the travellers.

"What was that?" Sky asked, looking up at the cloudless blue sky.

"Sounded like Mr Drifter's testing his new clouds," White replied calmly.

CRACK! CRACK!

"AAAAH!"

Hearing the sudden scream from the front of the house, Sky flicked her wings out and took off. "I don't think there's supposed to be screaming..."

White and Sibwashie nodded to each other and were already galloping back through the manor as Sky flew over its roof.

***

Sky flew over the roof of the manor and into view of the front garden. She scanned the dirt road beyond the short, neat hedge walls and spotted a dark-brown, wooden caravan, parked directly in front of the path leading to the manor's front door.

Mr Drifter was standing just in front of the caravan, talking to three scruffy-looking figures. A particularly feathery one was holding a dark storm cloud right above his head, ready to strike him with lightning.

Sky let out a low squeak, immediately covering her mouth with her forehooves and hoping that she hadn't been seen.

"Hey! You there," shouted a gravelly voice. "Get down here, or the old guy gets it!"

Her eyes filled with dread, Sky meekly complied.

"That's a good girl," the gravelly voice continued, its tone now edged with menacing mock-kindness.

Sky landed between the gap in the low hedge walls in at the edge of the front garden. She could now see the three new arrivals very clearly, and they weren't a welcome sight.

A zebra mare and brown-coated earth pony mare stood on either side of a grizzled male griffon, whose right eye was covered by an eyepatch. The griffon gripped a small black cloud in his talons, which he was holding inches from the frightened face of a very pale Mr Drifter.

"Now just play along, and no-one gets hurt," the zebra rasped.

"I'll do as you ask! No need to be curt," Sky replied, suddenly getting a very cheeky idea. "Say, do you like oranges?"

The zebra replied with a swift slap across Sky's face. "Not everyzebra does that cute little rhyme thing, featherbrain."

"Hey! Leave her alone!" shouted a voice from the manor's door.

"What? There are more of you?!" the earth pony shouted.

White Noise and Sibwashie swiftly galloped to Sky's side, doing their best to look intimidating by scrunching their faces up in determined scowls.

"There sure are!" White Noise said confidently. "Now, you'd better tell us just what it is that "

CRACK!

White was cut off mid-sentence by another loud thundercrack. A bolt of lightning shot up into the sky, briefly turning everything white.

A faint plume of smoke rose from the uplifted talons of the one-eyed griffon. "Enough!"

The griffon slowly brought his cloud back down into Mr Drifter's face. His beak twisted into a cruel smile. "You are going to co-operate with us, my little ponies. You are going to take us to where Grampa here keeps his clouds, or Grampa is going to light up like a firecracker."

Sky nudged her companions in the ribs, silently urging them to do as the griffon said. Sighing, they bowed their heads in defeated nods.

"Follow us," Sky said softly.

The seven creatures slowly marched to the still-open front door of the manor. Mr Drifter tried to eek out a "thank you" to his guests, but was cut short by a low growl from the griffon.

***

The strange group made their way through the manor's ground floor and out into its back garden. Sky lead them, while the griffon dragged Mr Drifter along with him and the mares, brandishing knives in their mouths, kept four focused eyes on White and Sibwashie.

"There it is," Sky said, pointing a hoof at the small building built into the back of the manor. "Mr Drifter... he told us that the clouds are in there."

"Good," growled the griffon. "Now, ladies, please take care of Grampa, Needlehead and Stripes. Ribbonflank, you come with me. You're going to help move the clouds."

White, Sibwashie and Mr Drifter were ushered back into the kitchen, where they were held at knife-point while the mares used some rope from their fraying saddlebags to tie them each to one of the kitchen's many mechanical arms. At the griffon's request, Mr Drifter was gagged.

Sibwashie glanced at the hard brown eyes of the zebra mare and felt the need to say something.

"Sister, why are you doing this? It is not the way of our people to steal

If you have fallen on hard times, you know anyzebra will give you a meal."

The zebra frowned and glared at Sibwashie.

"Heh. A traditional," she smirked. "Well, brother, if you're so concerned about 'the way of our people', then maybe you should have thought twice before entering the home of The Drier."

"The Drier?" White Noise asked.

"The one you call 'Drifter'," the zebra replied, sighing. "He stores up this country's precious few clouds, drying our land and killing our crops. He cares not for the plight of the zebra – only for his precious garden."

Sibwashie let out a sharp breath. Mr Difter's garden was the greenest part of Zebrica he'd seen since getting off the boat at Molaro.

"We are taking The Drier's clouds to the people of Zebrica – the ones who need them to survive. The Drier can go arrange his flowers back in pony land."

Composing himself, Sibwashie quickly prepared a couplet.

"Why do you steal? You could have just said please.

Mr Drifter is wealthy; he gives kindly and with ease."

White Noise nodded enthusiastically at Sibwashie's words. "He'd probably throw in a free breakfast!"

White and Sibwashie's captors both had their backs to Mr Drifter, so they could not see him nodding enthusiastically, or starting to tear up.

"I do not believe it," the zebra said. "Now stop bothering me, or I will have Quarry gag you as well."

The earth pony's eyes flashed at the mention of her name, and she grinned menacingly at White and Sibwashie, her knife still clasped between her teeth. White caught a glance of her flank  three jagged rocks, arranged haphazardly.

"I'm sure you would find her special talent very intriguing, Mister Unicorn. However, I doubt you would be able to write a dissertation on it after I ask her to give you a demonstration."

White gulped and smiled nervously. "I'll... take your word for it, Miss..."

"Siela, if you must know. Now why don't we all introduce ourselves and have a little tea party? I'm sure you would enjoy that very much, Mister Pony."

***

The door of the cloud storage room was not locked. The one-eyed griffon was pleased at this; he explained to Sky that he had left his crowbar in the caravan and was glad that he would not have to waste his valuable time fetching it.

"Now, here's how this is going to work," he growled, narrowing his good eye at Sky. "You are going to float all the clouds that you can handle out of this storeroom, over the house and into the back of my caravan. It's enchanted, so there will be enough space."

The griffon then raised a sharp talon to Sky's nose, gently touching its tip. "If you try anything  anything at all  I will make your pretty little face look just like mine. So unless you want to go eyepatch shopping on your little Zebrican vacation, you won't try to escape, or call for help, or fight me."

Sky took a deep breath and nodded vigorously. "Y-yes sir."

"You don't want to test me, girl. I lost this eye in a fight with a dragon, and I was the lucky one."

Turning towards the small storage room, Sky noticed that its door opened up into thin air. Instead of a floor, the room descended into inky blackness. I wonder how far down this goes... she thought, peering over the threshhold.

Suddenly, Sky felt a cold set of talons touch her flanks. Before she could react, the griffon behind the talons gave her a hefty shove, knocking her off her hooves and down the hole.

Seconds later, Sky's wings flicked out, and she caught herself in the air. Recovering from unexpected dives was one of the first things young pegasi learnt at flight school, so she was a little put out by the griffon's conduct, but not flustered or hurt. I probably should have been expecting that, she thought.

Flapping her wings steadily, Sky looked around. She saw nothing, as the room was still quite dark. Apparently Mr Drifter, for all his love of technology and labour-saving devices, had not had automatic lights installed in his windowless, underground room. Sky listened to the flapping of her wings and pondered trying to use echolocation for a moment.

The flapping of Sky's wings was joined by the striking of a match, followed by a crackling sound. A light appeared behind her as the one-eyed griffon entered the room, torch in talon.

"Wow," remarked Sky, seeing the room for the first time as the torch's light illuminated it. "This place is huge!"

"Much like my future bank balance," the griffon quietly snarled.

The cloud storeroom was twice as tall as it was wide, and a thick layer of clouds shrouded its floor. Sky estimated that it was at one fourth of its cloud-storing capacity. A sharp one-eyed glare told her that she would need to bring that percentage down speedily if she valued her life.

Meekly staring down into the cloud blanket, Sky dived down and gathered some of it between her four hooves. Gathering the clouds was a lot like gathering up huge swaths of cotton candy, but less sticky, and – as Sky had disappointedly discovered as a foal – not as tasty.

Thinking back to her attempt to eat clouds as a foal helped calmed Sky's nerves, and she tried to pretend she was back in Weather Organisation class at flight school. She had found it dreadfully boring as a foal, but imagining the one-eyed griffon as the dour Ms Rain gave her some small solace.

Ms Rain had always been very particular about what she liked to call "conservation of energy". She would always insist that the children in her class take as much cloud matter in their hooves as possible before moving it around, and preached the importance of carefully planning the positioning and size of every cloud before even thinking about actually placing any.

"That's good," Ms Rain said in a bored voice. "Now fly those clouds up and put them in the caravan."

"Yes m sir." Sky's breath caught in her throat as her reminiscence shattered around her.

The griffon narrowed an eye at her. "I'm not a big fan of comedy."

Sky gulped nervously. She and the griffon, each carrying as much cloud as they could, flew out of the storeroom, over the roof of the manor and to the griffon's caravan. Foisting his clouds onto Sky, the griffon swiftly swung the caravan's back double-doors open and stared into its gaping interior.

Sky peeked through the mountain of clouds that was making her resemble a snowpony very closely, and her jaw dropped at the size of the caravan's interior. *It must be at least THREE times the size of Mr Drifter's storeroom!* she thought.

"Impressive, isn't it?" the griffon boasted. "Used to belong to a very famous, very talented unicorn. She... left it to me as a gift, in exchange for a favour. I find that you ponies are nice like that."

Under the griffon's watchful eye, Sky obediently floated the mass of the clouds into the caravan's cavernous depths, barely taking up any space inside it at all.

The two fliers made a few more trips between the storeroom and the caravan without incident. Sky's mind was reeling with plans to thwart the theft, but the griffon was too attentive. Although he had half Sky's vision, she was sure he was at least twice as observant.

"You thinkin' of pushing me in there and locking the door?" the griffon asked, upon packing the last of Mr Drifter's clouds into the caravan. "I wouldn't, if I were you."

"N-no, I wasn't," Sky stammered.

"Good. It's my caravan, and I know it like the back of my wing. There's a secret exit that I like to come out of when I want to... surprise ponies like you."

With that, the griffon slammed the caravan doors and slid a padlock onto them, locking it with a key he had been concealing. He then turned to Sky, and his beak broke into a crooked smile. "I like you, kid."

Sky didn't like where he was going. "Uh..."

"You've been helpful, and you haven't tried to pull one over on ol' Eric Deadeye. I like that in a pony."

Sky smiled awkwardly, silently hoping for her life.

"It's not a very productive business, stealin' clouds with the help of two dirt-crawlers. I have to do all the dirty work, just because Siela and Quarry's useless little hooves can't grab clouds. It's a bit of a problem – but I think I've found the solution."

"Um... yay?"

"What's your name, Pinkfeathers?"

"Sky Wave, sir."

"Well, Sky Wave, how would you like to earn more bits than you've ever dreamed possible? You're a pegasus, and I need one of those on my little team if I'm going to make this thing work. Besides, you're a pretty filly, and I like the way you fly... could make a very usable distraction..."

Before Sky could reply, Eric thankfully changed the subject. "Well, first things first. Let's go see how our friends are doing, and then you can give me your answer."

Sky and Eric turned tail on the caravan and walked up to the manor in silence; the latter's menacing gaze staring a hole into the former's soul.

***

At the behest of Siela's strange sense of humour, Quarry raided Mr Drifter's kitchen cupboards and served tea and biscuits to herself, her companion and their prisoners. The two impromptu wardens gulped their tea down while the tea prepared for the prisoners sat untouched on the table, out of their reach.

White looked around at his fellow prisoners. Sibwashie was standing very still, staring at the wall with a stone-faced expression. Mr Drifter's eyes were closed, and he seemed to have dozed off.

"Mister Unicorn," Siela began, between licking stray drips of tea off her nose, "why do you not levitate your teacup to your mouth to drink from it? In 'my culture', it is very impolite to refuse food when it is offered to you."

White sighed heavily, anticipating the ridicule that would follow the statement he was about make. "My magic's not working very well at the moment. I... can't lift the cup from that far away."

"Hahaha!" Siela laughed. "A unicorn without magic! How pointless!"

Quarry smiled slightly, but said nothing.

"It is here that the magic of the zebras shows its true strength," Siela said, getting up from her place at the table and stepping towards White. "Our magic is gathered from the earth; we cook brews and fashion talismans without any need for your fancy horns. We do not have magic within ourselves like the high and mighty unicorn, but we are stronger for it. Ours is never a magic that 'doesn't work very well at the moment'."

Sibwashie cleared his throat.

"And speaking of us zebras," Siela growled, turning her attention to Sibwashie before he could open his mouth to speak. "You are exactly the type of zebra I despise, Brother. You uphold our customs, but you do not care for the people beneath those customs. All that poetic rhetoric does nothing but steal clouds from our skies and food from our tables! I may not be as proper as you, but I am a zebra where it counts, and I am not afraid to say what I feel!"

Sibwashie blinked, saying nothing.

"Just as I thought," Siela smirked. "Maybe I'll come back and talk to you again in a few minutes, once you've made your reply rhyme."

With that, she returned to her place at the kitchen table and nibbled at the remains of her biscuit.

White looked at Sibwashie. Neither of them had anything to say to the other.

***

"Hello, hello, everyone!" cried Eric as he pushed open the door of the manor's kitchen. "I hope that you all behaved well while Ms Wave and I were busy working!"

Eric's tone sent a shiver down Sibwashie's spine. It was cheerful, but had a very sharp edge of menace to it, as if Eric would turn from joy to violent rage at the slightest provocation. I don't want to be there when that happens, thought Sibwashie. I hope these jerks will just leave now that they've got what they came for.

"So you have collected The Drier's clouds?" asked Siela.

Eric nodded solemnly.

"Excellent," Siela continued. "Now we can take them to my family's farm – Mom and Dad will be so happy to see the rain again!"

A very small smile flicked across Eric's beak momentarily. White Noise was the only one to notice it.

"That is not the only good news," Eric replied. "I am also happy to announce that Ms Sky Wave here has agreed to become the newest member of our little team."

Sky felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. White and Sibwashie cast forlorn looks at her, and the world started spinning as she shook her head in vigorous denial. What?! I never agreed to that! she screamed inside her head.

"There are many things I don't know about ponies," Eric began, turning to face Sky, his voice softer than it had been since she had met him, "but one of the things I do know is that when ponies shake their heads like that, it is not because they agree with what is being said."

Eric reached for Sky's face with his talons, brushing them across her fur very lightly. "I don't like it when ponies disagree with me. And when I don't like something..."

Eric slowly moved his right arm back. Sky was frozen to the spot. White Noise's eyes widened in horror. Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window, reflecting off the golden surface of Eric's very, very sharp talons.

All of a sudden, time seemed to come to a halt for White Noise. He suddenly felt very detached; as if he was not in that kitchen, but was instead looking at a painting of it  a painting that showed a bound Sibwashie and Mr Drifter, two stoic ruffian equines, a griffon with a raised arm and a terrified Sky Wave.

It will be a shame to ruin her pretty little face, but it is important to inspire respect in my followers.

White Noise's head exploded with pain. He longed to grasp it with his hooves, but they remained bound to his sides.

That griffon's going to hurt Sky! Must... break... free!

White bit his lip. Thoughts were coming thick and fast, bombarding him right in the center of his mind. He felt his horn light up, but it was not by his command.

I do not entirely approve of Eric's barbaric practices, but I must put up with it for the sake of my family.

White's horn was throbbing with magic, more than he had felt for weeks. His head threatened to rip in two from his headache, but a small part of him was overjoyed.

I wonder if Eric will let me go next. She's a pegasus, so I'll focus on her feathers and pretend I'm beating on him.

I must say, Princess Luna, it was awfully nice of you to invite me for tea like this. I have always been an admirer of your work with the night sky...

The room exploded with cyan light as magic dripped from White's horn. His reserves were full, and still the magic kept building up. It needed to be released.

White Noise breathed in and closed his eyes. The thoughts – which he now knew to be the thoughts of everyone in the room around him – swirled around in his brain, waiting for him to take care of them. All he had to do was send each one on its way, to where it would do the most good.

That zebra sure is a stupid one. I can't believe she thinks I'm going to all this trouble just to help her pathetic little family. I've earned these clouds, and I'm going to make a fortune selling them!

That's the one, White thought, smiling.

Eric's thought shot off into Siela's mind on a bridge of cyan magic. Smiling, White turned his focus to a thought that had stood out to him earlier.

I wonder if Eric will let me go next. She's a pegasus, so I focus on her feathers and pretend I'm beating on him.

And this one's for Eric.

White breathed out, smiling serenely. Time resumed.

***

Sky shut her eyes tight, scrunching up her face. She was too scared to move, and could only stand there and wait for Eric's talons to rip into her skin.

"WAARGH!" came a primeval battle cry.

Strange, thought Sky. That doesn't sound like Eric.

A loud thud sounded from just in front of her, and Sky jumped back in fright, finally snapping out of her frozen fear. Keeping her eyes shut, she raised a tentative forehoof to her face. She felt no pain, no blood and no scar.

"HOW DARE YOU!" shouted Siela.

Sky opened her eyes to see a pile of striped limbs and feathers sprawled across the floor in front of her. Siela was slamming her hooves into Eric's face, hitting him over and over and over again.

"YOU TRAITOR!"

With a shrug, Quarry trotted over to the fighters and jumped into the fray, baring her teeth.

Sky averted her eyes from the fight, turning to look at her bound friends.

"Hurry!" shouted White. "Untie us before they kill each other! I mean, I don't like these guys, but, well, y'know..."

Sky nodded jerkily and untied the two ponies and the zebra in a flurry of hooves and teeth.

As the ropes fell around their feet, White wasted no time in lifting them with his newly recovered telekinesis and wrapping them around the fighting thieves, bringing them into a rather vicious and painful embrace.

"Kiss and make up, you guys," he said confidently, tying the rope in the most complicated knot he knew.

The thieves growled at White as they struggled at their bonds in futility.

"Oh my!" said an elderly voice from behind the three travellers. "I am growing more grateful for you guests every passing minute!"

Mr Drifter, who had just woken up, straightened his bowtie with a hoof and beamed at his rescuers.

"It really wasn't us," Sky was quick to mention. "They just started fighting inexplicably. It was really weird."

"Well, actually," White began, raising a hoof, "what happened was I... I..."

White Noise's face went whiter than usual, and his smile cracked. His head drooped and he squeaked out something barely audible.

"What have I done...?"

***

"Yes officer... yes, three travellers apprehended the gang on my estate... yes, that will be fine... thank you, officer."

The sound of Mr Drifter speaking to the police in the closest village on his two-way radio drifted out of the open door in the kitchen and into his tranquil garden.

The moon cast an eerie glow on the solitary figure of a unicorn sitting on the edge of Mr Drifter's back veranda, staring intently at the ground. The only movements White made were the gently, almost imperceptible rises and falls of his chest as he breathed out. Even his face was still  its serious expression may as well have been carved out of marble.

A soft patter of hooves gently probed the quiet around him, and Sky sat down next to him, her face turned up towards the stars instead of down to the ground.

White Noise didn't react to her presence.

"It's a nice night," she said softly. "I'm sure it's a great one for stargazing  that's something you Canterlot ponies do, right?"

It could have been Sky's imagination, but White's head seemed to nod just slightly.

"I'm glad everything worked out alright in the end," Sky continued. "The police should be here soon, but in the meantime Sibwashie's in there negotiating a deal between Mr Drifter and Siela, on behalf of her family. She seems like the most reasonable one of the bunch."

"Heh, yeah," White muttered, a bitter edge in his voice. "Reasonable. I guess one does tend to get 'reasonable' after one gets mind-controlled into it."

"White..."

"You don't need to sugarcoat it, Sky. I know what I did. What I can do. I finally understand all those weird dreams I've been having since that night on the Moonchaser, and I really wish I didn't."

The two ponies sat in silence for a moment. White continued to stare intently at the blades of grass growing just beyond the veranda, and Sky shifted her gaze from the stars to the moon.

"Those dreams you and Sibwashie told me about earlier," White continued. "The ones where he turned into a unicorn and you..."

"Teleported around the world on a surfboard made of green flame?"

"Yeah, those ones. I caused them – subconsciously. I was busy mind-controlling you guys in my sleep."

"Well, I wouldn't say "

"I told you not to sugarcoat it!"

White snapped his head around and glared daggers at Sky, who shrank back with a quizzical look in her eyes.

Taking a deep breath, White rested his head in his hooves. "I'm sorry, Sky. It's just... well, I always knew communications magic was my special talent, but this... I'm not sure I should be allowed to have this kind of power."

"Think about what would have happened if you didn't have it."

Sky would have had her face cut in half by Eric, White thought. And then she would have been forced into joining his gang and going around stealing clouds and reselling them to desperate zebras at exorbitant prices.

"Sky..." White began, his mouth suddenly feeling quite dry. "I... I didn't think of it that way."

Sky Wave smiled at her friend, and then began to say something she'd been thinking about for a good few hours. "I understand that you're scared of this new power of yours, White. I know that it may seem bad and dangerous, but it can be used for good, and it was. Sibwashie and me, we're your friends. We'll help you figure this out."

White wanted to say thank you, but he couldn't find the words. Instead, he just smiled back at Sky, nodding weakly.

The two ponies embraced under the moon's soft glow.

<--Previous (Chapter Nine) | Next (Chapter Eleven)-->


Chapter Eleven

Clouds of dust blew up behind the wheels of a small wooden caravan drawn by a two expressionless zebras, who came to a stop a few metres before the end of the road. The dust settled.

Sky looked out of the window of Mr Drifter's caravan, at the cliffs of the Dragonian border. The foreboding walls of stone rose as far as the eye could see on both the left and right horizons. A steep, narrow, winding pathway starting from the end of the dirt road formed the only visible way past the wall.

Hearing the sound of a door opening behind her, Sky turned away from the window and followed her companions outside.

"Thanks for the lift, Mr Drifter!" said White Noise, turning around to face Drifter, who still stood in his caravan. "It must have cut our travel-time in half at least!"

"It's really my pleasure, Mr Noise," came the reply, as Drifter stuck his old head out of the caravan's back door. "You did a sterling job of recharging all my machines, after all. Oh, and you lot also saved my life… almost forgot that part! My, my, I am getting old!"

Sibwashie bowed to the caravan.

"Good father, we are forever in your debt

Your kind deeds are ones we shan't forget."

"And it was super nice of you to help out Siela's family and donate all the clouds you did!" Sky added.

Mr Drifter chuckled. "That's only the beginning of it, Miss Wave! If anything good came out of our ordeal, it's that it helped me realise that I've been too reclusive these past few years. I may be old, but I'll do some good in this world still – you'll see!"

A few more rounds of goodbyes later, the three travellers graciously thanked the caravan pullers and watched their ride disappear into the distance. Sibwashie looked out at Zebrica one last time before turning around to face the winding Skandar's Pass.

"Say, White, who was 'Skandar' anyway?" asked Sky, as the three trotted from the dusty road to the rocky one.

"Probably a dragon from ancient times," White replied. "I'm afraid they didn't teach us much about dragons at school, even though we worked alongside a whole bunch of them every day. I don't think there's much knowledge regarding dragons in Equestria at all."

"Zebrica fares no better," interjected Sibwashie. "Although we share a border with the dragons, and have favourable relations with their country, the amount we know about dragons might fill a slim pamphlet."

"They're a reclusive bunch," concluded White, "but that's why we're on this journey, after all. Maybe we can ask somedragon about who Skandar was."

"Speaking of somedragon..." Sky's words trailed off as the three rounded a bend in the pass and found that the road had widened considerably – enough to accommodate a massive wrought-iron gate that stood at least ten metres tall, next to which was the most enormous guardhouse any of the three had ever seen.

More interesting than any of that, however, was the long snout of a red, beady-eyed dragon that was poking out of the guardhouse's service window. Two columns of smoke wafted from his nostrils, and a great big blue conductor's hat sat upon his scaly head.

As the travellers' eyes widened at the sight of this great dragon, the dragon's own eyes narrowed at them.

A loud rasping sound cut into the ears of everypony present. "State your business, outsiders."

The travellers looked at each other. Sky pushed White forward a few inches before moving behind Sibwashie. He nodded at the pony who, despite being a close friend at this point, was still technically their employer and the one in charge of the expedition.

Clearing his throat and puffing out his chest, White Noise looked up at the dragon and said, "Greetings, sir. My name is White Noise, and I and my companions have travelled here from Equestria on a scientific mission. I am a magical scholar, specialising in communication, a topic which owes much to the innovations of your proud species. We wish to enter your land in order to learn from your own great magical scholars, and perhaps share some insights of our own."

The dragon blinked.

"Um, if you need a toll of some sort, then I've got some bits, or maybe a gemstone, if that's the accepted curr–"

"NO!" A spurt of orange flame erupted from the dragon’s mouth as he roared at White.

The travellers shrank back at this display. Was it something I said? wondered White.

"I cannot accept your currency, traveller," the dragon continued, composing himself. "But do not worry, I will still open the gate for you to pass through. Your cause seems noble... but if you are lying about it..."

A chill ran down White's spine as the dragon's snout twisted into a menacing grin.

"If you are lying – if your visit is ill-intentioned – then I do not think you very wise. Three puny ponies cannot hope to wrong a dragon in his home and live to tell of it."

The dragon turned his face down and another column of fire shot out from his mouth, scorching the ground a few scant metres from where the travellers stood. Laughing at their terrified reactions, the dragon pulled his face into the guardhouse and, within a few minutes, the wrought iron gate slowly slid open.

White was already taking a few tentative steps towards Dragonia when the guard stopped him with a warning. "Little ponies, you are the first visitors to Dragonia in a very long time. Tread carefully. Do nothing to upset my countrydragons, or you will be very sorry. Do not disrespect them, do not speak ill of the Dragon King, and – above all – do not make the mistake of offering bits or gemstones to anyone. Trust me on that."

The three travellers nodded solemnly, at which the dragon smiled. "Go forth, outsiders. May you return here satisfied."

With that, the dragon retreated into his guardhouse, and the three travellers marched passed the gate, White Noise leading.

***

The steep, winding path up to the elevated surface of Dragonia was long and winding. For much of their journey, the three travellers were hemmed in at both sides by oppressive grey cliff-faces, but in time they reached a point where the path became level with the northern cliff.

Taking a slight detour off the demarcated path, the travellers trotted across the surface of the northern summit to peer over its edge. The rocky, bumpy land of Dragonia stretched out before them.

"Hey! I think I see a green valley somewhere waaay over there!" Sky exclaimed.

"I can see a few more," White Noise replied, deadpan. "Some lakes and rivers, too – you know dragons need to drink, right?"

"Jokes, White." Sky rolled her eyes.

"I do not see any buildings," said Sibwashie. "Perhaps the stories about dragons only living in caves are true."

"Well it makes sense," White replied. "Imagine how many trees they must've had to cut down to make that guardhouse!"

"My father would call it uncivilised. He does not believe that anyone who lives in a cave can be anything but an animal."

White and Sibwashie stood and stared out at the land before them in silence. Sky flapped her wings and took off, signalling to the other two that she was going to have a quick look at the lay of the land and would be back shortly.

"Sometimes I wish I could do that," White Noise said, as Sky flew off into the distance. "I tried to levitate myself once, you know?"

Sibwashie nodded.

"Ten seconds and two feet off the ground later, I lost it. Fell on the ground and slept for the rest of the day; pretty irritating waking up on Monday morning and having to go to class again when you've only had half a weekend."

Sibwashie chuckled. "I always wondered why I had never seen a unicorn try that."

Sky soon returned, a faint smile on her face. "It feels great to really fly again! Travelling with a pair of landlubbers like you guys kinda cramps my style sometimes."

"And?" White enquired.

"Well, there are a whole lot of rocks and cliffs and stuff. I didn't see any dragons, but I saw a bunch of caves. In fact, there's one just a little further up along Skandar's Pass."

"Maybe that's where ‘Skandar’ lives."

"Only one way to find out! Race you guys up there!"

Before White or Sibwashie could protest, Sky shot up into the air like a bullet, leaving them to slowly amble back to the path.

***

"What took you so long?"

Sky sat in front of the yawning mouth of a cave, tail curled around her body and a bored expression on her face. White and Sibwashie had just rounded the corner of the path and were huffing and puffing from exertion, as the last quarter of the way had become quite steep.

White sighed at Sky, who smiled wryly.

"Is anydragon home?" he asked.

"I haven't checked yet," Sky replied, picking herself up. "Y'know, just in case it's a bad dragon who eats ponies. I was hoping he would be more eager to eat you guys than to eat me."

Sibwashie chuckled dryly, and White joined in with some more nervous laughter.

"I, uh, really doubt that ponies taste as good as gemstones," White said.

"They taste better!"

The travellers started as they heard a loud, rumbling voice from inside the cave. Sky's wings flicked out. Sibwashie lowered himself into a defensive position. White caught sight of a large rock and hid behind it.

"Nothing like fresh ponies for dinner! That marshmallowy taste is sooo good!"

White's legs quivered. Sibwashie's eyes narrowed. Sky soared into the air, arcing around to face the cave from a position where she figured she would be face-to-face with the dragon who was about to emerge.

A plume of dark black smoke billowed out of the mouth of the cave. It was soon followed by another, and then another. The air outside just outside the cave became thick and black, and the three travellers coughed and batted at it with their hooves, tearing up and blinking as it got into their eyes.

But then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the smoke was dissipated by a mighty gust of wind. The travellers' eyes were all closed, but they could hear a leathery beating of wings.

Sky was the first to open her eyes. She blinked a few times before realising what she was looking at. Her eyes shot wide open.

Standing in front of the cave, wings spread at her sides, was a rich purple and deep blue dragon. She was the size of five ponies and had a smile on her face. At first glance, Sky might have called it a wicked smile, but upon closer inspection, it seemed almost friendly.

An ear-bursting sound erupted from the dragon's mouth as she threw her head back and laughed.

"You should see the looks on your faces!" she boomed. "Such scaredy-ponies! Scared of being eaten by a dragon! Ha ha! How rich!"

White Noise emerged from behind his rock and promptly slumped onto the ground. He wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to think.

"Oh, queen of dragons, I beseech you; do tell us your intent

Is this really a joke, or are is relaxing us part of your hunting bent?" asked Sibwashie, his voice unwavering.

"Ooh! A striped pony who talks in song!" the dragon cried. "I really like those ones! They have a certain… exotic flavour."

The travellers stared at the dragon, their terrified expressions slowly giving way to bewilderment.

After a few moments of silence, the dragon sighed. "You guys are no fun. Obviously I don't want to eat you! I don't even like marshmallows!"

A great weight lifted off the shoulders of the two earthbound travellers, allowing them to raise themselves up and relax their tense muscles. Following her companions' example, Sky descended and tucked her wings at her side. All three travellers looked up at the dragon expectantly.

"Oh! How rude of me!" she exclaimed. "I never introduced myself!"

Instead of continuing, the dragon extended her leathery wings and shot up into the sky, doing a number of twists and somersaults in the air. Sky found herself surprised at how such a big creature could be so graceful in the air.

"My name," the dragon called out from a way above her visitors, "is Venkra: second daughter of Skandar the Great!"

Venkra tossed her head back and breathed a long, straight column of green flame into the sky directly above her, and then another two to her left and right.

"Welcome to my home, little ponies!"

***

The interior of Venkra's cave proved surprisingly homely, or at least more so than any of the travellers had expected a dragon's cave to be. Enormous Sheepersian rugs covered the cave's rock ground, and a series of evenly spaced lamps managed to light the cave up like a regular home. The thick legs of a coffee table and some sofas rose above the travellers' heads.

"You have a wonderful home, Ms Venkra," Sky complimented, thinking back to her mother's advice about the correlation between someone's conduct and the upkeep of their living space.

"Why thank you, little pony!" Venkra replied, quite delighted. "Some of my kind are content to pile their treasures into a cave and call it a day, but we're not all that unsophisticated. All of these delightful furnishings only cost me a few feet, anyhow."

Feet? White wondered, his ears perking up. That's an odd measurement to use for currency. Do dragons...?

White shuddered, shaking off the thought of dragons cutting of the feet of rabbits and monkeys to use as currency. He had heard that the superstitious llamas of the southern mountains of Andia weren't opposed to such practices, but decided not to make too many negative presumptions about dragons while travelling through their lands.

Sibwashie cleared his throat.

"I would like to ask a question I have been pondering, if I may be so bold?

Who is your father, this Skandar the Great? What stories of him are told?" he asked.

"Was, dear zebra," replied Vrenka, her voice faltering ever-so-slightly. "I'm afraid he passed away recently – snatched from the earth at a mere thirteen thousand years old!"

"I'm... sorry to hear that," Sky said, casting her eyes down at the rug.

"It's alright, dear one," Venkra replied, smiling gently at Sky. "Although it's only been about forty years... feels like just yesterday." A wistful look came over her features and she seemed to drift off for a moment. "You know, my father had a little pony friend..."

Hmm, interesting, thought Sibwashie. Dragonpony relations in Dragonia. I should ask about that.

"Um, how old are you, Ms Venkra?" asked Sky, dragging Venkra away from her thoughts and speaking before Sibwashie could fully compose a rhyme.

Venkra raised an eyebrow. "They say you should never ask a lady her age. Of course, it's ponies who say that, and I've never understood why. I'm going to be exactly three hundred in a few months, Ms Wave, but I shan't ask you the same question."

"Wow..." Sky said. "I had a great, great granny who passed away at one-hundred-and-fifty, and we thought she was old! You must have seen so much in your life already!"

Venkra put a claw to her chin, amused. "I suppose you could say that. I have certainly 'seen a lot', but a lot of that lot has been terribly similar to the rest of that lot, to coin a phrase."

I don't think that's gonna catch on, thought White.

Venkra turned her head in White's direction. "What did you say your name was again, Mr Unicorn?"

"White Noise, ma'am," he answered.

"Your... what do you call it... uh, flank-picture-thing... what is it? I know your friend Sky's is a ribbon, and I've quite given up on interpreting those impressionist paintings on zebra flanks, but yours..."

"It's a speech bubble, ma'am," White responded.

Venkra stared blankly at him.

"Um, like in comic books?"

Venkra's facial expression remained unchanged.

White sighed inwardly. "It's a visual representation of speech – if you draw a pony on a piece of paper and then draw a bubble like this one with its tail leading from her mouth, it's accepted that the words in the bubble show what she is saying."

"Ah, so that's why you've been so quiet up until now!" Venkra exclaimed triumphantly. "Your 'speech bubble' is empty!"

Sky stifled a snicker.

"I've... never thought of it that way," White said, his face clouding over slightly. "But anyway: my cutie mark is a speech bubble because my special talent is communication – not communicating myself, but enabling others to communicate – communication magic, to be more precise."

Venkra nodded sagely. "Ah, so that explains your reasons for being in Dragonia. And here I thought this was a social visit! Oh well..."

"Well, um, yes," White replied. "We're here to do some research into dragonfire and how it's able to transport things between any two points in space instantaneously."

"Green dragonfire, you mean."

"I guess...? Is there another kind?"

Venkra hid her face in her claws. "I will take you to the University."

"Oh!" White asked excitedly. "You will? That's great! But I simply can't allow you to do something so kind without recompense! What's your fee?"

The room went silent. A horrified look came over Venkra's face and jets of fire streamed out of her nose. White could see her claws twitching as she forced them to stay at her sides.

"Ms Venkra, are you –?" White had to jump back as Venkra shoved her snout in his face a blew a breath of hot air over it.

"Never offer a dragon money, Mister Noise," she said coldly, narrowing her eyes at him. "Especially not me."

White jerked his head up and down in the fiercest nod he'd ever given.

Satisfied, Venkra straightened up and her face regained its usual friendly expression. Sky and Sibwashie gave White sympathetic looks, but decided not to press the issue.

"Now then," said Venkra. "I will take you to the University, and on the way, I will explain some important things about dragons to you. Pay attention."

Venkra's guests nodded firmly, and the four creatures left the cave.

***

Wind whipped around White Noise's ears as he clung onto Venkra's back, trying to keep himself from being sick. Just behind him, Sibwashie had his head turned up and was focusing very intently on a puffy white cloud just above them.

"Woo-hoo!" shouted Sky, who was corkscrewing in the air to their left. "Air is the only way to travel!"

"Haha, yes indeed, Ms Wave," agreed Venkra. "I still remember the day my wings began to grow with much fondness... the day they were finally big enough to fly with was even better."

"S-so," asked White, "what did you want to exp-plain about d-dragons, Ms Venkra?"

Venkra's eyes lit up and she twisted in the air, nearly expelling White's breakfast.

"Ah yes, dragons! We certainly are remarkable creatures, if I do say so myself. What many non-dragon folk don't realise is that we're actually a highly magical race, even though we don't have horns. But you see, the magic is in our fire. Apart from the run-of-the-mill orange stuff that we burn things with, we dragons have five types of magical fire: green flame, purple flame, pink flame, blue flame and black flame."

"What do the different types of flame do?" asked Sky, flying closer to Venkra's snout.

"The most common type is green flame, which is used for teleporting small objects between dragons. 'Most everydragon can make that stuff. Less common is purple flame, which works like unicorn telekinesis – I can't make it myself, but I've heard those that do need some really fine tongue control. Blowing still-less-common pink flame against a barrier creates a temporary portal through it. Blue flame can melt the very earth, and is used to carve out caves and mountain passes. Black flame... well, I'm not really up on what that does, but only one or two dragons have ever used it."

"That's really interesting," said White, forgetting his sickness for a moment. "I can't believe I never learnt this stuff in school. What types of fire can you make, Ms Venkra?"

"Only boring orange and common green, I'm afraid," Venkra sighed. "A little over half of all dragons can make two different types of magical flame, and most of our magic scholars boast at least three. I'm afraid I've never really had an aptitude for magic. Not like my father..."

Venkra was silent for a moment before continuing.

"Skandar's Pass isn't just called that because he was a great dragon. My father carved the pass you walked up with his own blue flame and in doing so created the first and only geographical link between Dragonia and the lands that surround it. He had a great vision of better integrating dragons with the outside world, but I'm afraid that most of that seems to have died along with him."

"I'm sad to hear that," White replied. "All is not lost, though. Dragonfire is the preferred internal communication method of Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, and I'm working to make it the preferred communication of Equestria, through Dragonfire Delivery – my independent mailing business."

Venkra smiled knowingly. "Ah, so you are here not only as a scholar, but also as a businesspony. The ancient secrets of dragonfire will no doubt be able to bolster your bank balance quite nicely."

A chill ran down White's spine, and he could feel a sudden tightening in the atmosphere. He glanced worriedly a Sky and Sibwashie, the latter of whom failed to return his glance, as he was still staring straight up.

"It  it's not like that at all, ma'am!" White protested, beginning to sweat. "Believe me when I say that I started my business out of a love for communication – a desire to bring Equestria – and even the world – closer together! My special talent is communication, not greed."

Venkra said nothing.

For a moment, White pondered mentioning how he was prepared to strike up a business deal with anydragon prepared to help him. He swiftly bit his tongue upon remembering Venkra's earlier outburst at his attempt to pay her for the trip.

White wisely said nothing, and the rest of the journey to the University was spent in relative silence.

***

Half an hour later, Venkra landed in front of a small, non-descript cave entrance somewhere around the middle of a large mountain. Sky alighted next to her, and her passengers tumbled thankfully to the ground. Sibwashie collapsed on the stone surface, rapturously pressing himself against the solid ground.

Shaking off his naseau, White glanced at the small cave entrance. "Who lives here?"

"No-one lives here," Venkra replied, chuckling. "Although, judging by the amount of time some of the scholars seem to spend holed up in their research chambers, they actually sort of do."

"Wait," White said incredulously, furrowing his brows. "So this is the university? I was expecting something... bigger."

"And flashier," added Sky.

Venkra tossed back her head and laughed heartily, her powerful voice in echoing in the wide-open spaces all around them. "I did suggest that they invest in some signs once, but that caused an argument about which script to use. You would think they'd just use dragonrunes, but apparently a number of world culture professors made a convincing case for zebrascript, of all things. Once that had nearly been agreed on, the decision shouted down by clamours for the Equestrian alphabet by the literature professor, followed by further arguments for everything from ancient ponyglyphics to antelopescratch. It got quite nasty, or so they told me."

"But how do they fit all of those arguing professors into such a tiny cave?" asked White Noise, who had been staring intently into the mouth of the cave in front of them.

"You don't think this is the only entrance do you? And you can't think that this cave is the entire university... can you?"

White stared blankly at her, blinking a few times.

"Uugh, do I have to teach you ponies everything?!" Venkra groaned, sliding her claws across her face. "The university has many entrances, all over this mountain, because it is this mountain. The intricate network of tunnels and caves that fill Mount Jilthor that's the name of this mountain, by the way – and extend miles beneath it are a result of some of the most elaborate blue flame work ever done by dragonkind. Once we get inside, you'll see."

Not giving her companions time to ask how they were going to get inside the university, Venkra swiftly marched into the cave, signalling for them to follow her.

The cave was small enough for White's horn to light up its every nook and crevice. The walls were crude and featureless, and the ceiling was low enough that Venkra had to stoop a little. She wore a concentrated expression on her face and had shut her eyes.

"What no–"

White's question was cut off as the center of the floor suddenly flashed pink, turning slightly transparent. He heard a loud WHOOSH as the ground seemed to disappear from beneath his hooves.

There was a flailing of legs and two startled cries, followed by a loud THUD.

Groaning, White picked himself up off the hard stone floor. He gave Sibwashie a sidelong glance as they watched their two winged companions land gently next to them.

The cave they found themselves in was tinted a violent shade of pink by a great gust of fire shooting up to the ceiling  but only momentarily. Warm, flickering yellow light replaced the pink as the flame died away. A soft coughing was heard from the far corner.

Much to the annoyance of White and Sibwashie, a matted purple carpet began mere inches from the hard stone they had fallen on. This, coupled with the rows of wall-mounted lamps and occasional fern or painting, made the cave they had landed in feel more like an entrance hall than a cave. The young, tie-clad dragon who approached them reinforced this feeling further, to the point where White Noise could almost pretend he was back at Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.

"Hey Jangro," greeted Venkra. "I've brought some pony travellers to the see the guys in Communication."

"Ah, that you have," croak Jangro, leaning down to glance curiously at the three travellers. "And for what purpose?"

Venkra grinned and nudged White forward with a scaly elbow. "I think Mr White Noise here and explain that better than I."

"Umm, yes," White said, glancing up into the judging eyes of the dragon Jangro, desperately trying to maintain eye-contact. "Well, um, I myself am a student of Communications Magic. Although technically I'm not a student anymore, because I already graduated... from Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. Although I guess one is always a student in some way; there's always more to learn, more to discover..."

Jangro cleared his throat loudly. A tiny pink flame flickered on the end of one of his nostrils.

"Right, yes, the point," White continued, straightening up. "Dragons know a lot about communication magic. Green flame is the most advanced form of we ponies have yet discovered. I've been using it as the basis for a delivery business in Equestria, but I don't actually understand how it works, or why it works. They could never teach me that at school, because they didn't know either. I want to learn. Communication magic is my special talent, and my entire livelihood comes from using a form of it I don't understand. As a learned dragon, I'm sure you can understand that frustration."

Having finished his speech, White breathed deeply before looking up at Jangro's large dragon eyes, waiting for a response.

"I was going to say 'no'," replied Jangro, after a time of silent contemplation. "When you mentioned the word 'business', I was very tempted to deny you any audience with the University's scholars. We cannot support greed as a motive for the seeking of knowledge. However..."

Everyone in the room held their breaths as Jangro paused.

"...I do not think that anything you have said is indicative of greed. A greedy pony would be content to make money off something he can use but does not understand. A greedy pony would not, I don't think, come all this way in the name of discovering something that would not service their greed. You have nothing material to gain by understanding green flame, so I will grant you an audience with our foremost Communications Magic scholars."

The room breathed a collective sigh of relief, and an enormous grin spread across White's face. That was easier than I expected, he thought.

"Now, they're very busy at the moment, but they should be ready to speak with you just as soon as they finish their current project."

"When would that be?" asked White. "I'm perfectly happy to wait a while."

"Oh! You're in luck!" Jangro smiled. "They're in the final stages of the project and will be done in a mere seventy years!"

The three travellers' jaws all dropped in unison.

Jangro and Venkra both stared down at the travellers, the quizzical expressions on their faces very slowly turning into looks of realisation.

“That’s a really long time,” said Sky.

“Relatively speaking, of course,” White added quickly. “I’m aware that dragons have a somewhat... more drawn-out lifespan than ponies do, and I respect that, but...”

“...But by the time they finish up, you’ll all be very old ponies,” Venkra finished.

“Precisely. Isn’t there... another way?”

Jangro put a claw to his chin, scratching it thoughtfully for a few moments before turning to Venkra and giving her a knowing glance.

Venkra gasped. “You don’t mean –”

“I do,” said Jangro gravely. “Ponies, there is one other way to find the knowledge you seek and to do it in a more appropriate timeframe.”

“Yes?” White asked, his eyes lighting up with the hope that his entire trip hadn’t been a complete waste of time.

“You must meet with the Dragon King,” said Venkra, her expression turning very serious. “He can tell you everything you need to know about green flame.”

“But be warned,” Jangro continued, “for not everyone is worthy of an audience with our great ruler. You will be judged, and if you are found wanting...”

“...you will be banished from Dragonia forever,” finished Venkra.

Sky leaned over to whisper something White. “No pressure...”

***

Time passed in silence as the five creatures looked around the cave and at each other, all waiting for a decision.

White Noise had a decision to make. Would he give up on getting assistance in his magic research from the dragons after travelling all the way to their country for it, or would he seek an audience with the Dragon King and risk said king's wrath in the process?

The biggest problem was that he wasn't only gambling with his own health and safety. He had the welfare of Sky and Sibwashie to think of as well. They had travelled all this way with him, and he knew that he probably would not have made it to Dragonia this quickly or in this good a shape without their aid. Of course, they would both receive payment for their services after the journey was over, and so what did it matter to them if he didn't accomplish his goals?

White glanced at his friends with an uncertain expression on his face. They beckoned him over, and the three formed a tight huddle.

"This 'Dragon King' stuff sounds dangerous," said White. "If you don't want to go through with it, we can turn back now and go home. I'll still pay you what we agreed on before we left Fillydelphia."

Their momentary silence told White that his offer was tempting.

"No," Sibwashie replied decisively. "We came to Dragonia so that you could learn more about communication magic. I remember the story you told me about Princess Celestia's speech. This is important to you, White Noise."

"Sibwashie's right," Sky added. "It's not about the money. It's about dreams! Friends don't let friends give up on their dreams, White! We can't just give up and go home empty-hoofed."

"We are as invested in you achieving your goals as your are, because we want you to be happy and satisfied," Sibwashie continued. "Remember also that you may not ever have an opportunity like this again."

That's true, White thought. I can turn around now and go back home and just let everything go back to the way things were. Dragonfire Delivery may even do well for a while – at least until somepony else does what I couldn't do and actually completes this research.

A shiver ran down his spine as White thought about his finances for the first time in days. This expedition of his had been conducted on company money, and despite every cost-cutting measure he'd taken, the transportation and lodging fees added up. He owed Dragonfire Delivery results.

White's mind was made up. "We'll take our chances with the Dragon King. Thanks, guys..." he said, feeling a bit of moisture in his eyes.

The huddle lasted a few seconds longer, and then broke.

"What have you decided?" asked Jangro, lifting an expectant eyebrow.

White took a deep breath and looked back at the smiling faces of his friends for support before saying, "We would like to seek an audience with the Dragon King, if that is the only way to complete our quest."

Jangro and Venkra gave each other a look, and the latter shrugged.

"Fine with me. I'll even give you ponies a lift to the palace."

<--Previous (Chapter Ten) | Next (Chapter Twelve)-->


Chapter Twelve

The trip to the palace of the Dragon King – a series of caves dug into Mount Olym – was a short one, as it was fairly close to the university's mountain. The three travellers had barely said their parting words of thanks to Jangro when they alighted on a jutting peak in front of their destination.

The mountain's black, jagged peaks gave it a menacing appearance. Taking a step back from the gaping, blacker-still mouth of the entrance cave, Sky half-expected to be startled into the air by a sudden thundercrack.

"Don't ask about signs," said Venkra. "His Highness feels that the unique look of this mountain is indication enough."

White cleared his throat nervously. "So... do we just go in?"

"Pretty much," replied Venkra, waving a claw dismissively. "Don't worry, I can accompany you for at least part of the way."

"We would be very grateful if you would take us as far as you want to go

If we are to succeed, there may be some things we need to know."

"I'll tell you all about the king's hobbies and favourite colour, don't you worry!"

The conversation lulled. After a series of nervous gulps, the four visitors slowly walked into the cave's dark depths, one step at a time. Once the darkness had fully consumed the end of Sibwashie's short tail, White's horn sparked and lit up.

"It gets lighter later on," Venkra advised. "It's just that dark entrance ways are sooo in right now, and his Highness highly values his ability to relate to his subjects."

***

After a few twists and turns, the visitors came to passage where the cave did indeed get lighter. Crude, wooden torches lined the walls, showing that the passageway they were in had grown much narrower since its gaping entrance.

"It's not too much further now," said Venkra. "This castle does take up most of the mountain's interior, but if memory serves, the king's throne room is fairly close to the entrance."

"It looks like the tunnel widens just after this next bend!" said Sky, who had flown slightly ahead of the rest of the party. "It gets brighter too, I think..."

The rest of the party soon rounded the bend and came into view of a place where the tunnel widened into an enormous, bright cavern. The many torches scattered around the walls and ceiling of the cave shed a light that glistened and glinted off the cavern's contents: towering piles of gold, silver and gemstones.

Sky, White and Sibwashie stared out at the treasure with their jaws hanging open, while Venkra, being uncharacteristically quiet, stared at the floor.

"Let's keep going," she said, her voice sounding strained. "There's another tunnel just up ahead."

White ignored her. "So I guess this is the treasury. It's very impressive, but I do wonder why the Dragon King would put it in the middle of the entrance hall. It doesn't seem... prudent."

"Our wise leader has his reasons," Venkra replied curtly, shuffling towards a large wooden door set into the far side of the cave, her eyes firmly aimed at the floor.

White gave his companions a quizzical glance, as if to ask "what's up with her?" Upon eliciting only shrugs and looks of bewilderment, he turned his attention back to Venkra and cantered a short way to catch up with her.

His curiosity got the better of him. "Why is it that –"

"Because, okay!" Venkra snapped, the heightened volume of her voice echoing off the cavern's walls. "It's just how dragons are!"

At that moment, as if triggered by Venkra's sudden outburst, a golden crown – fitted for an equine head – came loose from its precarious position on one of the towering treasure piles and sailed down towards the cavern floor.

BONK!

"Ow!"

By some stroke of misfortune, the crown's path to the ground was blocked by Venkra's scaly head, which it bounced off before landing on the ground in front of her. For a tense moment, everything was still and silent. Venkra stopped in her tracks and stared down at the crown. A shiver went down Sky's spine.

Then, quite unceremoniously, Venkra bent down and scooped the crown up with her right set of claws. She examined it further before straightening up and marching to the treasure pile to her left, presumably to put it back where it belonged.

A small, wicked smile crept across Venkra's lips. Her knees bent. Her wings flared. She jumped...

"GERONIMO!"

...and landed right in the middle of a pile of golden coins, cackling with glee.

"MINE!" she shouted, getting a crazed look in her eyes.

Venkra's companions looked on with concern as she tried to splash and dive in the pile of treasure as if it was a very expensive swimming pool. They offered each other incredulous glances, but said nothing.

"Hee hee!" cackled Venkra. "Treasure! Treasure! Riches! Gold! So shiny! What a sight to behold!"

Sibwashie raised an eyebrow.

Becoming still more concerned, White started to take a step forward before stopping with his forehoof dangling over the ground, which had begun to shake.

WEE-YOOO! WEE-YOO! WEE-YOOOOO!

An ear-splitting alarm blasted through the room, seeming to come from all sides at once. White, Sky and Sibwashie all clutched their ears with their forehooves, but Venkra remained unmoving. If she could hear the alarms, they did not bother her.

CRRRACK.

A slow, sickening snapping sounded through the room as a portion of the rocky floor near the entrance cracked open. The hole widened and widened, revealing a boundless, dark chasm beneath it.

"What's that about?" asked White, getting no response.

Then the wind started.

"Do you feel a that?" asked White. "The, uh, slight breeze. I didn't know caves had breezes."

"They don't," hissed Sibwashie. "Look at the hole."

White glanced casually at the hole. Then he did a double-take and examined it more seriously. Small rocks and glinting bits of treasure were slowly moving towards the hole, as if they were being sucked in.

"It's sucking everything in!" exclaimed Sky. "And look – the sucking is getting faster!"

What had been a slow trickle of the smaller, lighter coins and gems had become a wave of treasure, zooming into the hole from all sides – including the side that the travellers were facing away from.

A fast-moving stream of gold crashed towards the group. Sky took to the air and Sibwashie was alert enough to leap a few feet and avoid being knocked off his hooves. White just stood there.

"Waaaaa!" he shouted, as the current knocked him off his hooves.

"White!" cried Sky and Sibwashie in unison.

"Help!"

Sibwashie looked to Sky and then to White before turning around and galloping for the exit, jumping over the treasure as he went.

Sky swooped over to White, scooping him out of the current with all four of her hooves. She huffed and puffed as she slowly lifted him.

White's horn lit up. He still remembered how he'd tried to lift himself with his telekinesis at a young age. Not wanting to pass out this time, he cast the same spell, but gave it only a third of the power.

It was enough. Sky smiled and flapped her wings, moving swiftly to the edge of the cave with the reduced weight of her burden.

She and White tumbled to the ground next to Sibwashie, who was standing just beyond the opened wooden door, just out of the wind's range.

"Th-thanks..." said White, shakily getting to his hooves. "B-but what about Venkra?"

The three glanced back at their greed-crazed friend. She was still quite oblivious to both the obnoxious alarm that was still blaring and the powerful wind that was slowly sucking her towards the hole in the floor. Sky could hardly bare to watch as she ran coins through her claws and laughed and muttered to herself.

Thanfully, Venkra was moving away from the center of the sinkhole and seemed more than strong enough to escape the current, at least for the time being.

Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Sky made a decision.

"I'm going in," she said.

"You'll be sucked up!" White cried.

"Somepony has to try to save Venkra," Sky replied. "We can't just leave her there."

White conceded to this, and Sibwashie nodded solemly.

"How are you going to do it?" asked Sibwashie. "I mean no insult, but you're not strong enough to carry such a heavy dragon."

"Well she has wings, doesn't she?" replied Sky. "I just need to snap her out of whatever weird trance she's in, and then she'll be good to fly herself out. White: you know dragons. What's up with her?"

White swung a forehoof back and forth, avoiding eye-contact with Sky. "For all I know about dragons, I really don't know all that much. I have no idea why she's acting like this, but..."

White paused as he cast his mind back to something that both Venkra and the border guard had said to him.

Sibwashie, who had been silently thinking about the same thing, beat him to the punch. "Perhaps this is why dragons are so strongly opposed to being paid or receiving any kind of currency. Perhaps the sight of it drives them mad with greed."

"That's..." White began. "It seems likely, but I pay my dragons in bits, and I've never had them go crazy."

"You must not pay them enough."

Sky nervously glanced back into the treasury while her companions continued to discuss dragon psychology. Venkra's smiling face had edged just a little closer the hole. The wind was gaining force, and she was losing ground.

"Solutions, guys!" Sky snapped. "I need to know how to snap her out of it!"

"White's thought-transferral powers might prove useful," said Sibwashie calmly.

"WHAT?!" White spat, his eyes bugging out. "I – Those – But –"

Sensing an incoming moral crisis that none of them had time for, Sky swooshed over to White and grabbed him by the shoulders, giving him a rough shake.

"White!" she said. "If there are any good applications of that kind of magic, then this is one of them. Without your intervention – the special magic only you can do – Venkra will die!"

White stared into Sky's hard gaze, his eyes trembling a bit. Sighing deeply, he nodded.

"Good," said Sky, her expression softening. "Now hop on my back and fire up that telekinesis! ...Unless you'll need to conserve magic to..."

"No," White replied. "I always have enough magic when my friends are in danger."

And indeed, White's horn glowed brighter and brighter as he and Sky flew towards Venkra. Once they were hovering just above her, Sky nodded to White and shucked him off.

White's descent was slowed by his telekinesis, but he still had a bumpy, stumbling landing on Venkra's back. He wrapped his forehooves around her neck, holding on for dear life as he prepared to cast his newest spell.

I can do this, he told himself. Relax, White. It's just like any other spell... just like any... other... spell.

A spark of cyan magic jumped off White's horn. Except it's evil. Magic like this was never meant to be used by mere mortals.

White shook his fiercely. No. I have this spell, so I can use it ethically. All I'm going to do is transfer a few thoughts from one brain to another. I do that all the time – it's what communication's about! And there's nothing wrong with communication!

A second spark of magic left White's horn, followed soon afterwards by a fourth and a fifth. His horn glowed, and finally he closed his eyes, focusing his mind on the thoughts around him. They soon came into view.

Venkra needs to snap out of it and forget about the treasure, or she's going to die! That's okay, right, White?

White smiled. Yeah, but maybe you should leave off the last bit, he thought, quickly firing it off to Sky.

Okey-dokey (this is weird)!

Venkra needs to snap out of it and forget about the treasure, or she's going to die!

Taking a deep breath, White snatched the thought from Sky's mind concentrated on redirecting it. Then he stopped. Where Venkra's mind should have been, he found nothing. He could sense Sky's mind and was even getting a faint reading from Sibwashie's, but, try as he might, Venkra's remained elusive.

White concentrated harder. This doesn't make sense, he thought. Her mind's just... missing.

His eyes shot open, and he turned them up to Sky. "Apparently it doesn't work on dragons!" Somewhere in the back of his mind, this relieved him.

"Treasure! Treasure! Riches! Gold! So shiny! What a sight to behold!" Venkra chanted, not even noticing White or Sky.

Panicked seconds passed as White and Sky stared at each other in terror, both desperately waiting for the other to come up with a solution. When no solution came, Sky shrugged and swooped down towards White.

She grabbed him. His horn lit up. Magic spread over him. She started to rise. His forelegs released Venkra's neck. The magic flickered almost imperceptibly.

"Woah!" White cried.

Sky's eyes narrowed as she gripped him with all four hooves. He felt heavier than he had before.

White's hindlegs left Venkra's back. His magic flickered. His horn spluttered.

The light dimmed.

"Oof," Sky groaned. She dipped lower and lower.

"My magic!" White cried, pulling his hooves up to his body. "It's... I can't –"

Sky lost her grip, and he slipped.

"Help!"

"White!" Sky shouted.

A sudden surge of adrenaline shocked her system and she dove down towards the swirling golden whirlpool.

White reached out a forehoof.

The treasure clattered and clanged as Sky touched down on it, slipping immediately.

"Aah!"

She caught herself with her wings. Bad idea! she thought.

A few metres away, White noticed a golden chain lying next to him. Thinking quickly, he grabbed it between his teeth and rolled his head around, trying to swing it to Sky.

White scowled as the other end of the chain landed not half a metre in front of him. Fortunately, Sky soon swooped in and grabbed the chain in her own jaw.

Unfortunately, the current proved stronger than her. She beat her wings furiously, but still edged closer to the hole.

White cast her a forlorn look. If I get too close, I'll have to let go, he thought, for Sky.

Sky looked behind her to see that Venkra was moving towards the hole as well, but not at a very high speed. She wasn't putting up any resistance, as her attention was fully focused on the large diamond clasped between her claws.

Her eyes flashing with inspiration, Sky lowered herself to Venkra's left forearm and quickly fastened her end of the golden chain to it. Then, without thinking too hard about what she was doing, she snatched the diamond from Venkra's claws and heaved it as close to the edge of the cave as her forehooves could manage.

It worked. Venkra roared and lunged in the direction of the diamond, bringing White out of immediate danger.

"Woo-hoo!" he shouted. "That was a great idea, Sky! You really –"

"AAAAH!"

"Sky!"

In Venkra's mad scramble for the diamond, her tail had hit Sky right in the gut, winding her and knocking her into the whirling treasure. White looked on despondently as she edged closer and closer to the hole at the other end of the cave.

There was only one thing he could do to save her, and it was a long shot. "Venkra!" he yelled. "If any part of you is still there, do something! Sky is going to fall in!"

For a tense moment, nothing changed. Then, without saying anything, Venkra rose up on her great wings and pulled White up onto her back with a swift tug of the chain tied to her left foreleg. Her expression was hardened, but cracked slightly as she cast her eyes down to the diamond she had abandoned, and then hardened once more as her head jerked back up.

Sweat poured down her forehead, and White could hear her groaning as she threw the chain to Sky.

Sky caught it. She was tired and winded, but not unconscious, and quickly used her mouth and hooves to fasten the chain around her midsection, tugging it when she finished.

This seemed to calm Venkra. The groaning subsided as she pulled Sky away from the windy hole and towards the cave's exit.

Sibwashie sighed in relief as his three companions tumbled through the door, and was quick to slam it shut after them.

The chain's far end had come loose from Venkra's forearm as they'd flown through the door. Sky lay panting on the ground, clutching it to her body.

Venkra looked at the chain for a moment, her eyes cold and wet. "Keep it," she said, without understanding why.

Sky was too exhausted to be puzzled by anything just then, so she lifted her head to smile weakly at Venkra instead.

***

The three lay sprawled on the floor of the lamp-lit corridor, catching their breath. Sibwashie sat in front of them, patiently waiting for one to speak. Venkra was looking at the ground quite intently, and Sky was inhaling and exhaling heavily. White, on the other hoof, looked like he was on the verge of saying something.

"What the hay was that about?!" he demanded, quickly forgetting his resolution to always be polite to all dragons. "You almost got us killed!"

Venkra breathed in and out deeply a few times, but said nothing. She avoided eye contact with White, but Sky caught a glimpse of her sorrowful expression and motioned for White to leave her alone.

Once they had all caught their breath, Venkra slowly stood up and started walking along the corridor. A slight motion in one of her right claws was the only indication she gave the others to follow her.

White's brain was abuzz with curiosity. What brought out that greed? he wondered. More importantly, what brought Venkra back out of it?

The trek through the twisting stone corridors was long, and the talkative Venkra eventually grew weary of passing it in silence. With a heavy sigh, she opted to satisfy White's curiosity at last.

"Dragons are greedy," she said. "Really, really greedy."

Pausing to listen to White's hoofsteps speed up slightly as he trotted closer, Venkra smiled and gathered her thoughts.

"Like, if ponies are all about love and friendship, then dragons are all about greed. It's our central instinct. The desire to own more pretty and valuable things is the desire to be a better dragon, and that is our great curse and our heaviest burden."

At this point, Sibwashie and Sky also sped up slightly to listen more closely to what Venkra was saying.

"What you saw back there is the reason I was so emphatic about you not giving dragons any form of payment," she continued. "The accumulation of wealth is a slippery slope – once you have some, you want more, and the more you have, the more you want more. Wealth drives us crazy, but it also helps us grow – and I mean physically grow, like, get bigger."

"Wow," said White. "That's... uh... so that's what you meant about your furniture only costing a few feet!"

"Yep." Venkra chuckled. "I had to spend some treasure on making that cave look nice, and then I had to get some help moving it all in, because I'd shrunk during the transaction. It's a strange feeling, shrinking."

White nodded, the dots beginning to connect in his head. "So... the amount of treasure you own determines how physically large you are?"

"Well, yeah, sorta," Venkra replied, waving an arm dismissively. "Of course, 'treasure' isn't as good a term as 'stuff', but generally gold and gems cause more growth than other possessions. It's not an exact science."

A strange thought suddenly entered Sky's head. "Venkra... why didn't all that treasure you were swimming in make you grow any bigger?"

"I didn't own it," Venkra replied bluntly. "That didn't stop it from driving me crazy, though."

"What was that, um, like?" asked White, his curiosity getting the better of his tact. "Being crazy with greed, I mean."

"...It was like having your priorities really, really messed up," said Venkra. "The entire time, I was vaguely aware of the alarm, of that windy hole-thing and of you and Sky flapping and flitting about around me, but the only thing in the world that seemed to matter was the beautiful, shiny, glistening mountain of gold and silver and jewels and – uugh!"

Venkra groaned in pain and clutched her face with both of her clawed hands, standing still and breathing shallowly for a few moments before recovering.

"Are you okay?" asked Sky.

"For now," Venkra said, straightening up, "but White here almost made me have a relapse!"

White grinned sheepishly at the disapproving glares of his friends.

"Further talk of this dragon weakness strikes me as unwise

Let us cease this, and not burden our guide with further 'why's," Sibwashie concluded sagely.

The dragon and her three companions trudged further and further along the winding passageway, coming closer to the Dragon King's throne with every step.

***

"We're here," said Venkra at last.

She needn't have said anything, for where they were was quite evident to the rest of the group. The narrow tunnel had widened considerably and was completely filled a few metres ahead by the largest set of doors they had ever seen. On either side of these doors stood two guards, who – at around twice the size of Venkra – were easily the biggest dragons they'd ever seen.

The two guards both had blood-red scales, and wore shiny steel helmets as their only armour. They held spears the height of Manehattan apartment buildings at their sides and didn't so much as flinch as the four visitor came into sight.

"Now let me do the talking," Venkra continued.

Her three companions nodded in unison. They were far too busy taking in the scale of everything around them to think about talking to the guards.

Venkra motioned for them to linger behind as she stepped up to the front of the door.

WHOOSH! The guards crossed their spears as soon as Venkra got within spitting distance of the great doors.

"Halt," they boomed.

"Hello, sirs," Venkra replied, shrinking down a bit.

White smiled a little, thinking about how small Venkra seemed just then.

"Greetings," the guards said, pausing for a moment with a far-off look in their eyes, "Venkra, second daughter of Skandar the Great. Please state your business."

"I've brought some travellers from Equestria to see his royal Highness, sirs." Venkra pointed a claw back at her companions, eliciting a timid hoof-wave from Sky. "They wish to confer with our king on matters of communication magic, and have assured me that –"

One of the guards cleared his throat loudly. "We know of your conduct in the Royal Treasury, Ms Venkra."

For a moment, Venkra froze. A horrible sense of dread washed over her and travelled on to White, Sky and Sibwashie. The guards had harsh looks in their eyes and frowns on their snouts.

Don't let them say no... White mentally pleaded, feeling himself start to sweat. Not after all of this...

It was only a few seconds later that the second guard spoke, but it may as well have been a few years.

"Ms Venkra, we and his Highness are sorely disappointed at your lack of self-control," he said gravely. "As a dragon, you should know better. We recommend you seek counselling."

Venkra nodded meekly.

The first guard's frown softened. "However... you did come out of it, and neither you nor your companions stole anything from the treasury. Additionally, your companions displayed great courage and empathy in coming to your rescue."

White's ears perked up and the hairs of his coat stood on edge. And...? he mentally begged.

The second guard blinked a few times before saying, "His Highness will see you. All of you."

"And he will answer whatever questions you have about magic of any kind," added the first guard.

In less formal and solemn surroundings, White might have jumped for joy and danced around, whooping and hollering, but in this case he decided to merely canter up to the guards and thank them as politely as possible.

With another WHOOSH of air, the two spears flew away from each other and uncovered the door, which soon began to creak open.

"It's..." White began.

"...so..." Sky continued.

"...bright..." Venkra finished, shielding her eyes with a foreleg.

The throneroom beyond the door was piled gold and gems, enough to cover every rocky surface that gravity would allow it to. Golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling, on which was painted a beautiful scene with hundreds of multicoloured dragons.

But nopony – or dragon – was looking at any of that once the doors opened fully. In the center of the room, hovering just above the top of the highest mountain of gold, was the wrinkled, crimson head of a dragon with wizen green eyes. His head alone was easily the size of Venkra's entire body, and the rest of him disappeared from sight in the depths of the cave. Upon his head was a golden crown, inlaid with more jewels than anypony present could count.

"Well met, outsiders," boomed the deep, old voice of the Dragon King. "Please, introduce thyselves!"

<--Previous (Chapter Eleven) | Next (Chapter Thirteen)-->


Chapter Thirteen

 

As soon as the King's visitors entered his throneroom, the enormous double doors behind them clanged shut. White winced at this as he stepped forward to introduce himself.

 

He bowed briefly, and then began, "Greetings, your Majesty! My name is White Noise, and I come to you as a humble seeker of knowledge. I am a magic scholar, specialising in communication magic, and I have been told that your Highness's great wisdom is the best possible source for the information I seek."

 

Sky and Sibwashie stepped forward as White finished speaking, taking his silence as a cue to bow themselves.

 

"These are my friends and travelling companions," White continued, motioning towards the bowing equines to his left and right. "They do not share my interest in magic, but I would not have made it here without them."

The King nodded slightly, and turned his eyes to Sky.

 

"My name is Sky Wave, your Highness," she said. "Being in your Highness's court and seeing your Highness face-to-face is an honour and a privilege that I never dreamed I'd have."

Again, the King nodded, before turning to Sibwashie.

 

"I bring warm greetings from the people of your Highness’s neighbours on a Zebrican plain

We have great respect for the dragons, and I am humbled to be allowed in their domain," greeted Sibwashie, glancing deferringly back at Venkra.

Venkra smiled warmly at the King. "Hey Uncle Kasdar. How's it going?"

White stopped himself just short of gasping in horror.

"I am very well. Thank you, Ms Venkra."

 

White nearly fainted. Dragons have very strange protocol, he thought.

 

The Dragon King lifted an enormous clawed hand – large enough to grab and squash a pony, Sky nervously considered – to signal that he was about to announce something of importance. A loud rumbling from his throat filled the room as he prepared to speak.

 

“Friends,” he began, “and I do call you friends for what you have done and what you shall do for my kingdom, it is good to meet you in person at last – at last, for I feel that you have longed for this meeting for many weeks now.”

 

White Noise’s thoughts honed in on a single word. “Friends”? Really? Why? This is incredible! If the King is calling us his friends, he’ll tell me about dragonfire for sure! Stay cool, White, stay polite!

 

“It is an honour to be in your court today, your Highness,” replied White, bowing so low that that ground muffled his words. “It is also perhaps too great an honour for your Highness to call us friends.”

 

Sibwashie nodded slightly and lowered his own bowing almost to White’s level.

 

"Pray tell us, oh King of dragons, what we have done to earn such praise

We would not want to wonder what we have done right till the end of days."

 

The Dragon King’s snout twitched into a faint smile, and small chuckle boomed from the corner of his mouth. He turned his great eyes to Sky, who shrank back slightly.

 

"As the king of the dragons, I am intimately concerned with their welfare,” he said, “and not just the welfare of all dragons as general measure, but the health and happiness of every one of my subjects – indeed, every member of my species! This is why I am the king of the dragons and not the king of Dragonia – I would not worry for the sake of rocks!"

 

The King blinked and swiftly raised his head up on his tree trunk of neck, nearly smashing his skull into the cave’s ceiling.

 

"Ms Wave," he proclaimed, his voice growing louder in volume and more solemn in tone. "thou hast forged a strong bond with our subject Venkra, daughter of Skandar in the treasury cave this day! By the power of your friendship, nevermore shall she succumb to the scaly temptations!"

 

Sky raised a forehoof in front of her mouth in shock. Venkra too was surprised, but only for a moment, as her surprised features soon relaxed into a knowing expression.

"Yes, my child," the Dragon King continued softly, lowering his head to peer down at Venkra as he noticed her face. "This little pony is the first non-dragon you have given some object of value to, out of concern for her and not for you. She is your gafcomp, and her existence shall be a ward to your greed."

 

Sky’s look of shock slowly turned into a look of shocked puzzlement, and then a look of pure puzzlement.

 

"Gafcomp?" she asked. "What’s a gafcomp? ...Your Highness?"

 

The Dragon King smirked. "It has been a long time since I last needed to tell anydragon – or anypony – the Legend of the First Dragon."

 

Taking a deep, slow breath, the King filled his lungs with air before carefully expelling it in a column of black flame. The column fed into a growing sphere in of black flame, suspended in the air above the visitors’ heads. Once all of the flame had been absorbed by the sphere, it started to change colour.

So that’s what black dragonfire does, thought White. Incredible.

 

Blurry blobs of different hues formed on the surface of the sphere, slowly becoming clearer and revealing themselves to be pictures. The pictures moved, and with the Dragon King’s booming narration, they told a story.

 

«-oOo-»

In eons past, when the world was young and those who would become its dominant creatures were only just beginning to think and to reason, there was much needless fighting. In those days, dragons, griffons and all types of equines shared a single island in the middle of an endless ocean, and each faction vied for dominance.

During the first decades, the factions were caught in frustrating stalemate. The griffons had their sharp and dexterous talons, the dragons had their magical fire-breath, and the ponies, zebras and others had great numbers and devilish cunning. Each group would attack another group, and losses would be thankfully light on all sides, but nothing would be accomplished. This was not to last.

When the dragons' caves became too small to sustain them, they dug and blasted away huge swaths of rock, going deeper and deeper underground in search of more space. What they didn't expect to find along with their new space was gemstones.

These stones were dismissed as pretty trinkets at first, after the brief consideration of using them as distractions in battle against the other factions. Having nowhere else to go, they were piled into one of the then–Dragon King's extra rooms.

In those times, a full-grown dragon was the height of two ponies standing on their hindlegs. When the Dragon King shot up in size to the point where he was unable to leave his chambers, his subjects were greatly shocked. The greatest doctors and magicians under the King's rule tried everything they could think of to shrink him down again, but he kept growing, up to the point where his great size stopped others from entering his chamber.

The doctors were relieved when he stopped growing at this point, but still found no way to cure him. Weeks and months passed, and the equines and griffons must have wondered at the sudden reclusiveness of their common adversary.

Eventually, the doctors and magicians gave up and stopped visiting the King. They made his firstborn son the new king and encouraged everydragon to forget about the old one.

Some months later, the ex–Dragon King arrived unannounced to a great banquet held in honour of the square metre of land that had been annexed from griffon territory that day. He was back to his normal size and looked healthy and well-fed.

At that feast, dragons ate gemstones for the first time and learnt of the effect that owning them had on growth. The dragons clamoured for the old King to be reinstated, but he declined, patting his son on the back and saying how much he looked forward to his retirement.

It was only after he died that his son put what dragonkind had learnt that day to use.

«-oOo-»

The pictures faded out, and the ball of flame turned black once more.

"Now I remember what black flame does!" Venkra cheerfully whispered. "It's too bad barely any dragons can use it – it would make plays so much easier!"

The Dragon King took a moment to breath in and out as his visitors politely waited. He then took a final deep breath in and expelled it in another column of black flame, which collided with the sphere and brought it back to life in a flicker of colours.

"Now, where was I?" pondered the Dragon King. "Ah, yes: putting knowledge to use."

«-oOo-»

A few weeks after his father's funeral, the Dragon King instituted a ban on the consumption of precious stones, while at the same time starting an initiative to find more. His subjects did not understand why these measures had been taken, but any who doubted the King's wisdom were soon reminded of the thirty square metres of land that had been won from the other factions during his short reign.

The miners worked diligently, and many gems were unearthed. These gems, along with the stockpiles that had already been collected, were distributed equally among the population, together with strongly worded instructions not to eat them under any circumstances. The dragons were bewildered, but grateful.

When they started to grow, they understood the King's plan, and whoops of elation echoed through the winding corridors of their cavernous home.

After some months of complete silence from the dragons, the equines had seen their chance and planned a raid on their caves. Great was their surprise when hoards of massive dragons – easily the size of six ponies each – burst out of cave exits that were too narrow to accommodate them.

What fighting there was was mercifully short. Those few equines who were too brave or too foolish to surrender immediately were crushed, and the rest quickly gave up and joined the dragons to successfully conquer the griffons, which they all had very mixed feelings about.

Flags bearing an image of a large, blood-red dragon were hung all over the island, and the Dragon King flew up to its highest peak to survey his domain. The leaders of the other factions had surrendered to him, and he wore their tiny crowns as rings on his claws. As he stood on the mountain peak, breathing in the fresh, cold air that was now his, every griffon, pony, donkey, mule and zebra on the island were being shackled and herded into their new lives as slaves.

«-oOo-»

The colours faded from the globe once more, and the Dragon King's guests looked up at him expectantly. If that is the end of his story, then it's the most upsetting story I have ever heard, thought Sibwashie. Although I can see why it might appeal to dragons the more barbaric and power-hungry among them, at least.

"Fear not, my friends," assured the Dragon King. "This story is conventionally told in three parts – one every fifty years, when dealing with dragons. Bear in mind, also, that this is the summarised version."

The King blew another gust of black flame into the sphere, lighting it up for the final part of his tale.

«-oOo-»

It's all mine! thought the King. Everything as far as the eye can see... is all mine!

After he had stood on the summit for quite some time, the King finally flapped his wings and flew back down to the cave system where he knew his subjects would already be putting their prisoners to work in the mines. He was so busy thinking about how he would expand the dragons' gemstone-mining effort that he didn't notice the odd quiet that had fallen over the cave and was not disturbed by his status as the only dragon who wandered the rocky halls.

The King soon reached the mines, and was shocked by what he saw there. One of his subjects, a very loyal and hard-working dragon named Lyschek,  was curled up in a corner, guarding a pile of gems much larger than what he had been allotted and cackling greedily to himself.

Despite the King's best efforts, Lyschek would not leave his corner, or forsake any of his treasures. When he began to grow, the King left swiftly, lest he be killed by his mad subject.

It was with a heavy heart that the Dragon King discovered that Lyschek's madness had not been an isolated incident. Formerly diligent and duty-bound dragons had lost track of their griffon and equine slaves in order to fight each other over the ownership of gemstones. Some lay guarding their spoils, and others lay impotently clawing at the ground as they shrank.

Knowing not what else he could do, the Dragon King flew back to the top of the mountain. When he looked out at the land once more, it was with great sadness, and boiling tears ran down his face.

With a flash of blinding-white light, an angel appeared before the King. She was shaped like a pony, but stood far taller, and had both a horn and a pair of wings. Her whole body glowed with light that obscured her features, and the King threw himself to the ground to avoid gazing upon her.

"Jhangren," she said, speaking the King's name, "you and your dragons have unearthed a terrible weapon and used it to balance the state of affairs on this island overwhelmingly in your favour. I could not stand by and watch such a thing happen, so I have cursed your people."

The King whimpered softly, but did not lift his eyes to face the angel.

"Henceforth, a dragon who owns too many gemstones will be driven to madness by a desire to have more," continued the angel. "Your species shall be defined by the greed you have shown in your conquest for this land. Dragons will spend their long lives in constant concern, always worrying that one more gold piece could be the difference between a niggling voice in the back of their heads and utter delirium."

The King sunk lower to the ground at this point, wishing that the earth would swallow him up.

"But," said the angel, softening her tone considerably, "I have provided a way for dragons to overcome this fatal flaw. If anydragon gives freely and kindly to a member of another species – be it a pony, camel, griffon or any among the sentient peoples – then their bond with that individual shall always be enough to overcome their temptations."

With that, the angel disappeared, and the King flew back down to the surface of the island. In the coming weeks, he stole and ate as many gemstones as he could, getting other dragons to help him as they were cured of their madness. With no further hunger for fighting and no love for the other factions, despite what the angel had told him, he had his subjects build great boats and before many years had passed, the dragons left that island behind them.

The King only told the story of the angel on the mountain with his dying breaths, for the curse he had brought on his species ashamed him so.

«-oOo-»

"When a dragon forges a bond with a member of another species, that individual is known as the dragon's gafcomp, which is the word for 'guardian angel' in the old language," said the King as his sphere of black flame faded out for the final time and collapsed in on itself. "You, Ms Sky Wave, are Ms Venkra's gafcomp, for she 'gave' you that golden chain – which is actually mine, and will remain mine, but the workings of such magic can be liberal with their interpretations of 'ownership'."

"Oh!" Sky exclaimed, "then you should have this back!"

She reached into her saddlebag and pulled the long golden chain out with her mouth, dropping it in a snaking heap in front of her. "It's suprising how light it is," she remarked.

"Yes, I have most of my treasure enchanted in some way or another," explained the King. "On second thought, why not keep the chain? I won't miss it."

"Thank you, your Highness!" Sky and Venkra said in unison. They looked at each other and grinned awkwardly.

"Thanks for saving me from my greedy dragon nature," Venkra whispered.

"Uh, you're welcome?" Sky whispered back.

While Venkra and Sky were whispering to each other, the Dragon King's eyes twitched from side to side and he put a clawed right hand to his chin, stroking it thoughtfully. He looked down at White's expectant gaze.

"Ah!" he cried, snapping his claws and lifting his head up to the ceiling once more. "Of course, that's what I needed to do..."

The King coughed and put on a serious expression. "Mister White Noise, thou hast travelled far to learn the ancient secrets of dragon communication and green dragonfire. We have agreed to disclose these secrets to thee, for we trust that thou wilt not misuse them. Listen closely!"

With this, the King's neck shot down and he brought his head to a hovering stop just in front of White Noise, who could feel his hot breath on his fur and couldn't decide whether he was more elated than frightened or more frightened than elated.

"You ponies are familiar with the statement 'friendship is magic', aren't you?" asked the Dragon King.

Remembering his discussion with Twilight Sparkle in Ponyville and feeling just a little bit sheepish for having laughed at her about the focus of her studies, White nodded vigorously.

"Ah, good. Princess Celestia has taught you well, then," the King continued. "You know, back when she was just 'Celestia the Alicorn', it was I who taught her that saying. She was a very independent young pony... as was her mother."

White's eyes widened. "You knew Princess Celestia's mother?"

The King chuckled heartily. "Since she was but a filly. I have walked this earth for twenty thousand years, and I shall walk it much longer yet. Now, watch!"

The Dragon King took a deep breath and expelled another spurt of black flame. Instead of forming into a ball, this flame formed a wobbly plain and lit up with colours that dimmed as it slowly dissipated. It lasted long enough for White to see himself on it.

White saw him, Sky and Sibwashie walking through the gate and into Dragonia. Another burst of black flame showed him the scene in Venkra's cave. A final blast reminded him of the ordeal in the treasury that had happened only an hour before.

"Black dragonfire allows me to see things," continued the Dragon King, once the last of the flames had faded, "things that should be far too far away for me to see, and things that happened in the distant past. I have watched you and your companions since you entered my country, and I paid close attention to your actions and words in the treasury room. You are already aware of the boost that your magic experiences when your friends need your help, and so you already know of the magic of friendship in that context.

"With dragons, there is a little more. Allow me to show you."

The Dragon King slowly slid his eyelids over his eyes and began to hum softly. White felt his horn light up involuntarily, and his pupils shrunk to pinpricks as he a powerful and unfamiliar presence enter his mind.

You are in luck, young unicorn! Your mind is already open to the magic of friendship that we dragons know so well!

You can do this too?!

Of course I can! And not because I am a king or a special individual, but because all dragons are capable of telepathy, and most dragons use it on a day-to-day basis. Why do you think it is that we have an old language to cherry-pick words like "gafcomp" from, but no new language to hide our thoughts from foreigners with?

Wait, but... that doesn't make sense! If all dragons can do this, then why couldn't I access Venkra's mind back in the treasury? Was it because she was insane?

Logical assumption, but no. Why? Because as experienced users of telepathy, we dragons naturally protect ourselves from the kind of interference that new telepaths perpetrate on those with unsuspecting minds unfamiliar with foreign thoughts.

So... Venkra was naturally blocking my, uh, "signal"?

Yes, but don't think that your plan would have succeeded had that not been the case. I suspect, from previous experience, that you have been able to manipulate others by planting thoughts in their heads. This is only an effective tactic because those people cannot fathom the existence of thoughts in their heads that are not their own, but we dragons are very familiar with such things.

I think I get that, but I have a question.

Yes?

I see that this is definitely a form of "communication magic", but what does it have to do with how green dragonfire sends messages?

Why, everything! Green dragonfire disintegrates objects, shoots them along the intangible bond everydragon has with everydragon else and recreates those objects at the other end of the line. That's why it requires two dragons, and why it is functionally instant – one cannot hope to measure friendship or love in miles or kilometres, now can one?

What about Princess Celestia? How does she receive messages?

After she unlocked her telepathy, I inducted her into the dragon network and taught her the spell she would need to recreate the messages on her end. She can't send messages on her own, of course  nopony can breath green flame!

Could you teach me that spell too?

I have already decided to. I shall teach you the spell I taught your Princess, and at the same time, I shall teach you to control your telepathy. Your mind is weary with the stress that comes with having such great power. I shall ease your burden, White Noise.

White's eyes shot open. A soft buzzing filled his ears, and he took a moment to realise that the Dragon King's head had left him. When the buzzing subsided, he heard the King conferring with his friends.

"– and we will be busy with that for quite some time. You three will wait outside the throne room until we are done and you are called for."

"Yes, your Highness," replied Sky.

She and the others bowed to the king once more and waved at White before leaving the now-open doors of the throne room, which closed swiftly behind them.

***

The atmosphere just outside the throneroom was tense. The two guards stood at attention outside the great doors, and Sky, Sibwashie and Venkra milled about awkwardly in front of them.

 

Sky was the first to speak. "So I guess I'm your gafcomp now?"

 

"Yeah, I guess," Venkra retorted.

 

"Uh, did I do something wrong?" asked Sky. "Is there something about me that isn't gafcomp-ey enough?"

 

Venkra's snout sunk into her claws, and an awkward silence filled the cavern for at least a minute before she replied.

 

"No, Sky," she said softly. "You're a nice pony, and I'm grateful that you... well... I guess I'm grateful that you almost got yourself killed in order to snap me out of my little spell. Yeah, that's what I'm grateful for. Sounds a little messed up, doesn't it?"

 

Sky dug at the ground with a forehoof. To Venkra, her silence said everything.

 

Venkra sighed. "I'm ashamed of myself for needing a gafcomp, Sky. Really, I'm glad it's you, and I'm glad that us being acquaintances – should I say friends? – will stop me from doing something like that again, but I shouldn't need it."

 

Venkra and Sky sat down face-to-face, and Sibwashie ambled over to them with a puzzled look on his face. He had been listening to their conversation.

 

"From what I can surmise,

A gafcomp is a great prize.

 

"Surely all dragons should have one to curb and soften their base desires?

Why do you live with this curse, when a friend is all its breaking requires?" he recited.

 

"Maybe if the world was perfect... maybe then everydragon would be big pals with their own pony or zebra or narwhal," Venkra snapped. "But that's not how it is! As things are, dragons keep to themselves. I am the nineteenth dragon to ever have a gafcomp, and it's a badge of weakness!"

 

Sky's ears drooped.

 

"Let me tell you about what's important in dragon society," continued Venkra. "It's size. The size of a dragon denotes how much they matter. Why? Because the more you hoard, the more you grow, and the more you grow, the more you want to hoard. Everydragon has a breaking point – a point where they amass enough treasure to have a completely overpowering desire to get more – a desire that clouds their rationality and makes them little more than beasts."

 

The next lines came as a soft whisper. "You've seen that happen to me."

 

Sky bit her lip.

 

Blinking the beginnings of tears out of her eyes, Venkra resumed talking at her normal volume. "A bigger dragon obviously has a bigger hoard, and if a big dragon with a big hoard is still sane and rational, they must have a lot of self-control. That's why the King is so massive – he has the greatest self-control of all of us."

 

"So... having a gafcomp means you don't need self-control to stop your greed?" Sky asked tentatively.

 

"Pretty much, yep," replied Venkra. "I must say, it's a relief to be rid of that little voice in the back of my head that kept telling me to ransack your saddlebags, but I can kiss goodbye to getting any respect... Not that any of this is your fault, Sky! Please don't think that!"

 

Sky thought that, but put on an understanding face for her friend's sake. "So, uh, is there anything I have to do to be your gafcomp? Do I have to, like, move to Dragonia?"

"No! No, of course not," Venkra gasped. "Sky, being a gafcomp doesn't even mean we have to see each other often! Just knowing that, uh, you're out there somewhere is enough to... woah, this sounds kinda weird."

Sky nodded. Dragons are so strange, she thought.

"Uh, you know, Sky, my father had a gafcomp in his twilight years," Venkra said, her face brightening up.

"Really?" Sky replied, perking up.

"Her name was Mary. We always called her his little pony friend, which annoyed her greatly, because she was a donkey. It was kind of funny."

Sky chuckled. "Is she still around?"

"Oh, uh, no," Venkra replied hastily. "She, uh, there was... there was an accident."

"I'm so sorry to hear that! What happened?"

Venkra bit her lip and rubbed the back of her neck. "It's not, uh, not something I really like to talk about. I'm sorry. I'll tell you... just not right now."

Sky didn't press the issue, but gave Venkra a sympathetic look.

***

White was seated on the stone floor, unmoving. His eyes were shut tight, and his horn was glowing. Concentrate... His ears perked up at the sound of a piece of parchment being incinerated. The glow of his horn dimmed as he focused his magic inward. A warmth in his stomach told him that he was succeeding.

Before his lesson from the King, White had cast only a few ambient spells for various classes, each for no more than an hour. He'd always been frightened that he'd cast one, forget about it, and have it drain all of his magic. But thinking back on his journey, he found that that fear didn't have much of a hold over him anymore.

BZAP! White felt his horn pulse. He opened his eyes to see an intact scroll hang in the air for an instant, and then plummet to the ground. A slight scent of smoke mixed with the smell of cut grass told him that his spell had succeeded.

Well done, White Noise, came a voice in his head. Open it.

White enveloped the scroll with his magic and unfolded it before his eyes. It contained a short message, written in painstakingly perfect calligraphy.

All dragons share a bond, and now so dost thou, Mind-Dragon. Bear thy new title with pride, and wield thy power with responsibility.

Strength is in numbers. Insight is in communication. A mind is better shared.

White looked up from the scroll and into the King's face. His wide smile showed his many large teeth.

"This same scroll was presented to Princess Celestia five hundred years ago," he said. "Along with her and three others, you are now a Mind-Dragon. Do not abuse your position."

"I won't, your Majesty," White replied gravely, dropping down into a very low bow.

"Good." The Dragon King seemed pleased with White's response. "Now, is there anything else you require of me?"

White was about to reply that there wasn't when he suddenly remembered something, and chastised himself for almost letting it go unsaid. "Umm, yes, your Highness. There is one thing... to do with the Lunar Republic."

"The Lunar Republic?" asked the King. "Is that on the moon?"

"No, your Majesty, it's an island – around halfway between the Zebrican and Equestrian shores, I think. Anyway, it's been having a, uh, a bit of a... 'dragon problem'."

The King raised an eyebrow. "A 'dragon problem'? How do you mean, young Mind-Dragon?"

White told the Dragon King all about the dragon who had been burning up farms all around the Lunar Republic, how Sibwashie had failed to reason with him, and how they'd had to organise a more antagonistic solution to the problem.

"...and so we'd really like to be able to deal with the dragon without choking him with dirt, but he's burning down crops that ponies need to live," White concluded.

"Interesting. I must admit that I had no idea there were any dragons living on that island. I do try to monitor as many members of my species as possible, but the ones in Dragonia simply must take priority." The Dragon King put a clawed hand to his chin and got a far-off look in his eyes. "I am going to cast my mind towards this island and take a look at the mind of this dragon."

"Towards the island?" White asked "But, you told me that telepathy works along the lines of relationships, not physical locations. I don't understand."

"I'm glad you've been listening," the King replied. "Geography-based telepathy isn't something many of us use often, but it's necessary in this case because you haven't given me a name. I can't make use of the standard spells without a name. Now, let me concentrate."

The room went quiet as the Dragon King receded into his own mind, and White stood patiently waiting. After a few minutes, a sudden twitch in the King's face made it clear that he'd gotten through to the dragon.

"Ahh!" The King gripped his head in pain, and his eyes snapped open. "I've found him! The dragon... the dragon in the Lunar Republic is in great pain! He has lost his mind and become an unthinking monster! It hurts to watch the crude machinations of his broken mind!"

White gasped as the Dragon King jerked his head up to the ceiling of the cavern.

"White Noise," boomed the King. "Thou must make haste to the Lunar shore to rescue this poor soul from himself! Our subject Ms Venkra shall fly thee and thy companions there! Now go!"

Having given his orders, the King looked down at White, made a shooing motion with his claws, and pulled his neck away, hiding himself from view in his collection of treasure.

"But how will I...?"

You are a dragon in the mind now! Limitless are your resources! When you arrive, you shall know what to do.

"Bye, then," whispered White, rubbing his temples with a forehoof as the doors creaked open behind him. He still didn't feel very confident. "Thank you, your Majesty."

***

White's friends swarmed around him as he left the throneroom, their faces eager with questions. Before any of them could ask him anything, however, he held up and forehoof for silence. "Guess where Venkra's taking us and what we're going to do when we get there."

"First question, The Lunar Republic. Second question, we're going to help that dragon out," Sky replied.

White stared at her. "How did you know?"

"The King's voice is pretty loud, and these doors aren't that thick," she said matter-of-factly.

"Wait, I'm taking you somewhere?" Venkra asked incredulously. "Why would I" – she glared at the closed double doors – "Okay, okay, I'm taking them somewhere! Keep your scales on, Uncle Kasdar!"

Venkra shrugged towards her friends, and the four of them made their slow way back through the tunnels and out of the cave.

"Alright, ponies, hop on," Venkra ordered, once the travellers were standing on a jutting out ledge of Mount Olym once more. "Sky, you can fly alongside me for as long as you feel you're able, but there ain't gonna be any rest stops on this journey. My bedtime isn't for another thirty years."

<--Previous (Chapter Twelve) | Next (Chapter Fourteen)-->


Chapter Fourteen

 

The streets of Tranquillity were quiet as Princess Luna, standing on the flat roof of an apartment complex, lowered her moon in preparation for the coming sunrise. She slowly breathed in and out as it dipped lower and lower, eventually disappearing from sight. Technically speaking, she did not have to lower the moon – it was able to follow the course she had set for it upon its ascension.

 

But Luna wanted to lower the moon. She wanted to guide it along its well-worn path through the heavens, nudging it in the direction it ought to go. Part of it was recompense for her refusal to lower the moon over a thousand years before. Part of it was that she had missed seeing her moon as a friend rather than as a prison.

 

With the moon lowered, its princess lowered herself to her haunches to watch the sun rise over the sea she glimpsed in the east.

 

Slowly, colour bled into the grey world: a rich red, followed by a bright orange, followed by all the colours of the rainbow and more. Luna blinked. Her eyes were strong enough to withstand the light of the sun, but she and her sister had long before trained themselves to blink with some regularity, so as not to alienate their subjects.

 

The Princess's ears perked up as they caught the sound of a creaking door behind her. The creaking was followed by a soft patter of tiny hooves.

 

Luna turned around and smiled at her visitor. It was a young earth pony filly with a white coat and a pink mane. On her back was a purple set of saddlebags, embroidered with pink hearts. Luna's smile widened as she mentally noted that the filly looked a little like Celestia had in the very distant past.

 

"HELLO, YOUNG ONE!" Luna greeted, making extra sure to enunciate her words clearly for the child's benefit.

 

The little filly put a hoof to her mouth and blushed slightly. She swiftly reached her snout into the saddlebag on her left side and produced a notepad and pencil.

 

Setting the notepad down on the floor in front of her, she took the pencil in her mouth and scribbled a quick note, before tearing it off the pad and presenting it to the Princess.

 

Luna squinted at the note. Equestrian writing had changed a lot since her exile, and although she had spent a lot of time reading books and asking her sister about the most important changes, she still wasn't entirely comfortable with it – especially when it was mouth-written and not printed. Still, Luna managed to make out the words on the foal's paper.

 

hello ur hyness

my name is cotton candy

thanks for makin al the flowers grow so qik

my momy is a flowrist n shes very hapy

 

Letting Luna take the note in her magic, the little filly reached her snout into her right saddlebag and pulled out the biggest, most brilliantly purple Moonorchid Luna had ever seen and laid it before the Princess's forehooves.

 

Luna's eyes were beginning to tear up at the note when the little filly started scribbling another note.

 

please rite on this paper princes

i cant hear if u talk to me

 

The filly presented her small pencil to Luna, who gently cradled it with her magic as she slowly wrote out a reply, using the same flowing script she used for important official documents.

 

We thankest thou immeasurably for thy flower, Miss Cotton Candy.

Please tell thy mother that it is truly the most beautiful Moonorchid we have ever seen.

 

Cotton Candy's eyes widened at the elegance of Luna's hornwriting as her paper and pencil were floated back to her. She smiled widely and bowed to the Princess clumsily, before packing her saddlebags and cantering off with a short wave.

 

Luna waved her forehoof behind the little filly, and looked back at the Moonorchid.

 

The brilliant purple of its petals and the vibrant green of its leaves seemed to glow in the early morning sunlight. As Luna brought the flower up to her face with her magic, she felt better about herself – more confident; stronger.

 

A breeze whipped through her hair. However, this breeze did not feel a simple gust of air – it was softer, and somehow more personal.

 

Princess Luna turned her head to inspect her tail and almost jumped for joy at what she saw. Her cyan hair had turned a rich, dark blue colour and was dotted by tiny stars. It flowed in a magical wind and had become slightly transparent, but not to the degree Nightmare Moon's had been.

 

Suddenly, the roof turned a purple colour, as Luna focused her magic. Sure enough, the fog all around her and the rest of the island was more opaque and thicker than it had been the last time she had checked.

 

***

 

"Ouch!"

 

Correspondence cocked an eyebrow at Melvin as the latter bashed his head against the roof of the shop for the third time that day. There were now three shallow indentations in the roof behind the counter, and Correspondence silently hoped that his boss wouldn't make too many more.

 

"Are you alright, sir?" he asked, the tiny hint of concern in his voice concealed by boredom.

 

"Uurgh, yes, Corr, I'm fine," Melvin replied, rubbing his head. "Maybe I wouldn't keep smacking my head like this if I could actually see. Are you sure you couldn't find any dragon-sized glasses in this whole town?"

 

"I looked everywhere, sir."

 

Melvin sighed heavily. "Typical Lunar Republic. I wish this place would get out of the Paleo-Pony Period."

 

"Perhaps you should be more concerned about your sudden growth than acquiring a new pair of glasses."

 

Melvin chuckled at this. "Corr, pal, everyone has to grow sometime. We may be similar ages, but I'm actually very young for a dragon. I mean, have you seen the sizes some of my species grow to? This sudden growth spurt is totally normal."

 

"If you say so, sir."

 

"Off with you, Corr! Go check the shops again! Place an order or something."

 

Correspondence nodded very slightly before turning around and swiftly cantering out the shop, leaving Melvin alone with his thoughts and his new, gangly limbs. Corr didn't think that he would actually find any glasses for his boss, but he was happy to take an extended lunch break.

 

Watching a tan smudge exit the white-and-brown smudge that was his shop, Melvin squinted and assured himself that his diligent new employee would be able to find him a new pair of glasses before the day was up. He looked down at a black smudge that was his glasses on the wood-brown smudge that was his counter and sighed heavily. He had had that pair of glasses for a long time.

 

Melvin switched his attention to the white smudge on the counter as he felt his eyes misting up. He was unable to read Correspondence's digest that day, but from what the writer had told him, he wasn't missing much. Every newspaper in Equestria was reporting on basically the same story, and while this made his and Corr's jobs that much easier and cheaper, wasn't all that interesting to hear about.

 

Apparently the strange, slow relocation of enormous and dangerous beasts from the depths of the Everfree Forest to the outskirts of Ponyville had hit a fever pitch, and citizens were on full alert for an outright attack. Enormous hydras, cerberuses and star beasts had somehow been pushed out of their natural habitats, and none of them were happy about it. Froggy-Bottom Bog was becoming overcrowded, and nopony knew what to do about it.

 

That day's Ponyville Express, Melvin had been told, had a stirring tale of heroism as its cover story. Apparently, Twilight Sparkle – Princess Celestia's personal student and arguably the most powerful unicorn in Equestria – had, with the help of the town's other unicorns, successfully rescued the apple orchard of a local farm from a Cancer's menacing pincers. The other unicorns had used a ground-breaking new magical technique, in which they fed their magic supplies into Twilight's horn, making her even more powerful than she already was.

 

The papers were optimistic about this brave defense, but most of them also carried an undercurrent of concern. So far, every magic expert and cryptozoologist who had arrived in Ponyville had been completely unable to figure out what had displaced the creatures and made them so aggressive.

 

Melvin didn't have any idea about what it could be either, but the stories made him glad that he was an ocean away from all the of the trouble. Not because it frightens me, of course, he thought. Just because I've got so many better things to do than listen to ponies panic about the Everfree. Now, if the Princesses were actually smart, then they'd just track down The Great and Powerful Trixie and have her single-hoofedly sort out the whole mess... but I di

 

Something golden glinted in the corner of Melvin’s eye, interrupting his train of thought.

 

"Hello, Mr Melvin!" called a jovial voice, which Melvin quickly identified as belonging to Flint Hardrock, one of his regular customers.

"Evening, M-Mr Hardrock," Melvin stuttered, trying to not to focus on the shining gold dot in the middle of the smudgy brown mess that was the customer he needed to serve. "How can I help you?"

"Just the usual – one jar of Baltimare fire, please," Flint said, smiling extra wide, much to Melvin's dismay.

Mr Hardrock was a dark grey earth pony prospector who appeared to Melvin as a dark grey smudge – except for the very clearly defined, shining golden tooth in the left side of his mouth. It was the only thing Melvin had seen in days that wasn't a smudge, and he had to tear his eyes away from its glinting surface to tend to his business.

"There we go, sir," Melvin said breathlessly, smacking the jar of dragonfire down on the counter breathlessly. "That'll be thirty-five bits please."

Flint paid the bits quickly and, with an amiable nod, picked the jar up between his teeth and turned around to leave the shop, mumbling a farewell. Melvin waved after him absently, his attention captured by the bits on his counter.

Why are they so clear? he wondered. "In Celestia We Trust".... I shouldn't be able to read that!

But Melvin was glad that he could, despite the mystery. He hugged the coins to himself, before slumping under the counter and adding them to his stash.

 

***

 

Joyous Dawn tossed her copy of the Dragonfire Digest aside, sick to her stomach of reading about Equestria's issues. She then turned to her copy of that day's Canterlotian and scoured it for stories that weren't about Ponyville, or monsters, or the Everfree Forest, or magic theory related to any of those three things.

 

Page ten. There was a small blurb about the upcoming Lunar Republican election on page ten, and somepony had left the "u" out of her name. Dawn pouted and tossed the paper aside, letting it join the Dragonfire Digest and the Fillydelphia Post.

 

Joyous Dawn's demeanour softened as her horn lit up. A soft breeze seemed to blow through her mane as she sensed a gentle, welcome presence just outside of her door.

 

"Please come in, Barley," she asked, already pulling her door open with her telekinesis.

 

Barley smiled awkwardly from the doorframe. "Sometimes I wish you'd wait for me to know, Madam President."

 

"And waste my special talent?" Joyous Dawn laughed heartily. "If you only knew the things I went through to get this cutie mark!"

 

"I'd love to hear more of those stories sometime!" Barley replied cheerfully. "Anyway, I picked up a copy of the The Daily Moon for you, ma'am."

 

"Thank you, dear." Dawn plucked the paper out from under Barley's left wing and levitated it in front of her face. "Oh my! Have you seen this, Barley?"

 

"I sure have, Madam President."

 

Dawn smiled smugly as her eyes scanned the article that dominated the front page of the Lunar Republic's most widely circulated newspaper.

 

NLR REPLANTS DECIMATED ORCHARD

 

Occupants of Fresh Pear Farmstead were pleasantly surprised to wake up to the beginnings of a new orchard on the land where their old one had been burnt down by a series of unprovoked dragon attacks. Mrs Pear, age forty, departed from her farmhouse in the early hours of the morning and was greeted by a cheerful group of unicorns claiming to be affiliated with the New Lunar Republic party...

 

The article went onto explain the scientific brilliance of the group's use of poorly-understood Zap Apple seeds for their ability to grow new trees with astounding rapidity, which, compounded with the Lunar Republic's natural agricultural magic, meant that the country's dragon threat was almost entirely countered.

 

"We've already won!" Barley exclaimed. "There are gonna be a whole lot more ponies calling you 'Madam President' very soon, Madam President."

 

Dawn smiled gently at her assistant. "Now, now, Miss Barley. You and I both know that we didn't use the party's resources to do this just for votes. We did it because we care about this country, and because we want to see it become the agricultural powerhouse that we both know it should already be."

 

"Riiight..." teased Barley, belabouring a wink. “I got ya, Madam President."

 

Dawn's smile widened into a grin, and she gave a short chuckle.

 

***

 

The fire crackled and danced in the brick fireplace, casting a warm glow on the small dining room of the Noble Manticore Inn. Of the four tables and sets of chairs, only one was occupied. Mr and Mrs Hospitality sat across from two of their guests.

 

"…and that's why it's called the Noble Manticore Inn!" Grassfire Hospitality finished, coming to the end of his well-practiced tale once more.

 

The unicorn couple sitting across the table smiled at the story. The mare of the group nodded politely, and the stallion said nothing.

 

"Forgive my husband, dears," apologised Petunia. "He just loves telling that story; so much so that I'm sure he hasn't even asked about you! Where are you two travelling from?"

 

"Oh, uh," the mare began hesitantly, glancing at her husband. "We're from Ponyville. Going to visit family in Neighton."

 

"How delightful! I hear it's wonderful there this time of year!"

 

Grassfire narrowed his eyes at the couple and began speaking in a low, conspiratorial tone, "You chose a good time to get out, what with all that monster business. My father always told me that only fools would build a town so close to Everfree. Surprising how it took this long for that to bit Ponyville in the fl–"

 

"Grassfire!" Petunia slapped her husband's shoulder with a forehoof, shooting him a disapproving glare. "He means no offence, dears."

 

"I agree with him," came the stallion's stern, low voice. "That town's a disaster waiting to happen – strike that, it's a disaster that keeps happening! Ursas, hydras, Cancers, what next?!"

 

"That so...?" Grassfire wondered aloud, smiling smugly at his wife.

 

"Yes, yes, my husband is right," added the mare. "We're hoping that things will be back to normal once we come back. You'd think that it would have been sorted out already, with all the scientists and wizards who've been cluttering the streets for weeks, but I suppose such things must take time."

 

Petunia sighed understandingly. "Oh, they certainly do, dearie... Grassfire, tell them about that minotaur who visited us back when we first opened up – now that was a mess!"

 

Not needing more than a slight nudge to get talking again, Grassfire launched into yet another story and regaled their guests with it until they finally excused themselves to go to bed.

 

One exchange of cordial goodnights later, Trapper and Tamer sat on their bedroom's queen-sized bed, poring over the letter they'd fetched from Dragonfire Delivery earlier that day.

 

"Boss wants us to hop on the first boat back to the Republic," the stallion Trapper said. "She wants to present us with our pay herself, 'for doing such a sterling job', she says."

 

Tamer chuckled. "Long as she doesn't stiff us, I'm happy to oblige. With the money that's coming our way, we can make a cruise of it."

 

"Sounds like a plan. Just don't tease the sea serpents this time, alright?"

 

***

 

Joyous Dawn and Barley sat on a pair of cushions in the former's office. A radio on the desk was tuned to the Republic's only station, and the ponies' ears stood at attention waiting for the election results to be announced.

 

Barley's wing flicked nervously. "Just a few more minutes," she whispered.

 

"Yes..." Dawn replied, her voice low and dry. Her ordinarily smooth, immaculate bun was a spidery mess of loose strands, and Barley could see bags under her eyes.

 

"...and coming up after this next song: the results of yesterday's presidential election! The hard-working ponies at the Electoral Commission have been busy counting the votes all night and much of this morning, and they've just informed me that they're almost ready to make a statement!

 

"For now, though, I'd like you all to just sit back and enjoy some relaxing tunes..."

 

A slow, ambient track started playing, and Dawn frowned ever-so-slightly. Despite being written as "relaxing music", the song quickly frustrated her.

 

"It's okay, boss," Barley reassured, seeing Dawn's irritation. "I've heard this one before – it's only two minutes long!"

 

Dawn tried put on the widest fake smile she could and ended up with a blank expression.

 

Two agonising minutes later, the radio crackled as it transitioned from music to an announcer's voice. "The votes have been counted, fillies and gentlecolts!"

 

"At last!" Barley exclaimed cheerfully. "Tell us, Smooth Talk!"

 

"Drumroll please!" A drumroll started up in the background. "Fillies and gentlecolts, the winner of the election – and your new ruling party – is – wait for it... The... NEWLUNARREPUBLICPARTY! Woo-hoo! Give it up!"

 

A racuous sound of hooves beating against the ground drowned out the announcer's voice, and Dawn reached out a hoof to turn off the radio. Her facial expression hadn't changed.

 

"Barley," she began, speaking in a very even tone, "who did you say that radio present was?"

 

"Smooth Talk, Madam President!" Barley shouted, barely containing her excitement at the utterance of the latter two words.

 

The corners of Dawn's mouth turned up slightly. "Is he a government employee?"

 

"Yes, Madam President!"

 

Dawn glanced sideways at Barley before proudly raising herself up off her cushion. Her slight smile cracked into a full-on grin.

 

"For my first act as President of the Lunar Republic," she stated, "I am going to fire Mr Smooth Talk and hire somepony who knows the difference between a presidential election and a prize raffle."

 

"As you wish, Madam President!" Barley had a feeling that she wouldn't soon tire of saying that, no matter how many of her favourite radio presenters her boss fired.

 

***

 

Sky peered over the leathery edges of Venkra's wings, letting her eyes take in the vast ocean below them. Water extended as far as she could see in every direction.

 

"How are you feeling?" she asked, trotting closer to Venkra's right ear.

 

"Perfectly fine, thank you!" replied Venkra. "I flew much further than this every twenty years for around two hundred years, you know."

 

"Oh! Was that for the Great Dragon Migration?" Sky asked, remembering the time her parents had allowed her to watch it as a very young foal.

 

"We dragons don't generally call the migration 'great', but yes, it was for that. The idea behind it is to get the younger and more restless dragons out of the old folks' spines and to give them a chance to practice flying with their new wings."

 

"Fascinating!" called White. "It's astounding how much we ponies have got wrong about dragons!"

 

Venkra smirked. "Yeah... you guys aren't known for your expertise on creatures other than yourselves."

 

Sibwashie, who was sitting rigidly and staring straight up, managed to loosen up for a second to chuckle at this.

 

"Anyway," White redirected, feeling a bit put out, "what are we going to do when we land? About the rampaging dragon, I mean. What's the usual procedure in these circumstances, Venkra?"

 

"Well, it depends..." Venkra began, speaking carefully. "There are different kinds of 'dragon rampages', and treatment depends entirely on what kind is happening – something you can't know until you see the dragon for yourself."

 

"Different kinds?" asked Sky. "What kinds?"

 

"Well, there's what happens when a dragon succumbs to her innate greed, like what happened with me in the treasury. And then there's..."

 

The sound of great wings beating against the wind was the only noise that reached their ears for a few moments, as Venkra gathered her thoughts.

 

"...there's the other kind of rampage – a rarer one that's much harder to snap a dragon out of," Venkra continued. "It's the kind that happens if a dragon's... gafcomp is... killed."

 

Sky gasped.

 

"The dragon's eyes turn milky white and he goes into not a fit of greed and desire, but a violent frenzy, prompting him to destroy everything in his path. The dragon's grief at the murder of a gafcomp is a wild and terrible thing." Venkra's voice had taken on a sad, contemplative tone.

 

Thoughts connected in White's brain and before he could ask the question he was busy phrasing, Venkra spoke again.

 

"It happened to my father."

 

***

 

Corr trotted through the quiet streets of Port Welcome, on his way to work early in the morning, before anypony else was stirring. His boss Melvin was a diligent worker, and Corr knew that he'd find the shop already open, even at the early hour. It helped that Melvin slept in the shop's backroom.

 

Letting out a short, measured sigh, Corr steeled himself for the day ahead. He had thus far been unable to find his boss a pair of glasses that would fit the latter's ever-widening skull and had for the past few days been tasked with reading aloud every scrap of writing he came into contact with. Corr was a quiet pony; he estimated that he had done more talking in the previous three days than in the three months before that. A rustle of his saddlebag made a swishing noise, informing him that he had not left his much-needed bottle of water at home that morning.

 

An eyebrow raised above Corr's right eye as the shop came into view. The door was locked and he could clearly make out that the sign was flipped to the "Sorry, We're Closed" side.

 

His pulse quickened as he checked the watch on his foreleg. It was completely unlike Melvin to sleep in this long – he was a very early riser. Corr knew that his boss had been acting a bit strangely since the start of the unexpected growth spurts, but this was on a whole new level.

 

Assuring himself that Melvin had just had an uncharacteristic late night, Corr turned his head back to rustle around in his rightside saddlebag. He found his key to the shop nestled between two copies of the Dragonfire Digest he had prepared a few hours before.

 

The key was fitted with a mouthgrip, so Corr had little difficulty turning it in the lock and unlocking the door. A forehoof pushed the door and he peeked around it into the dim room beyond. Nothing stirred.

 

CREAK. The door slowly opened the full way, and Corr stepped inside, feeling uncomfortably aware of the sounds his hooves made on the wooden floor. Entering the shop without being greeted by Melvin was downright eerie.

 

A low rumbling sound reached Corr's ears from beyond the door to the back room. Wasting no time, Corr hurried to the door and knocked on it with a slightly shaking forehoof.

 

"Good morning, sir," he said sharply. "It's a few minutes to opening time."

 

There was no response.

 

Corr put a hoof to his chin. "Oh, sorry! Silly me! I meant to say that it's a few minutes past opening time. You'd better get out here, sir."

 

The low rumbling returned and swiftly became a loud roar. Corr stumbled back as he heard a loud thud from behind the door. Maybe that tactic was a little too effective, he thought.

 

Corr barely had time to snap out of his thoughts and roll out of the way when a great claw crashed through the backroom door, sending splinters flying everywhere.

 

"ROAR!" The claw retracted and a big, angry eye glared through the hole in the door. It focused on a spot on the wall just above Corr. His blood froze.

 

Was that...? No, it can't be...

 

"S-sir?" asked Corr, voice shaking.

 

The dragon behind the door growled in response.

 

Corr's ears flattened against his head, and he slowly backed away from the angry dragon eye that was staring him down. He fought to control his panicked mind and tried to come up with a logical plan.

 

I'll get help, he decided. I'll go straight to the police station and see if they can do anything about this. But first, I need to get out. Back away slowly... back away slowly, and then close the door.

 

Trying to take his mind off the possible dietary habits of large, savage dragons, Corr slowly backed out of the door and softly but firmly pushed it closed.

 

Lock it!

 

Thankfully, Corr had left his key in the lock when he entered the store moments earlier. Within seconds, he had locked the door and was galloping down the street, garnering a few raised eyebrows from the few ponies awake at that time.

 

The police station was two blocks away. A breathless Corr stumbled into its lobby and collapsed against the front desk, panting heavily and looking uncharacteristically distressed.

 

"Well, what a surprise!" came a bubbly, girlish voice from behind the desk. "Whatever could have happened to get the stony-faced Correspondence into such a state?"

 

Looking at Bluebottle, his childhood friend, straight in the eyes, Corr stammered, "Dragon! Dragonfire Delivery! Big! Scary! Hungry!"

 

"Well, no, Mr Melvin is actually a pretty small dragon –"

 

"Not recently! Look, point is, he's grown all big and he's angry! He smashed the door of our backroom in! I've got him locked up, but he could escape any sec–"

 

Corr was cut off by a loud roar and a heavy thud. Eyes widening, he spun around and rushed out of the police department, Bluebottle hot on his hooves.

 

A gigantic blue-scaled dragon with an armful of golden bits and jars of dragonfire towered above the low building of Port Welcome, standing just a few metres outside of Corr's workplace. His head was pointed at the sky, and his mouth was open in a loud roar.

 

As Corr and Bluebottle stared, the dragon lifted the slanted roof off the top of the building directly across the street from Dragonfire Delivery and poured his horde into it.

 

"I see what you mean," Bluebottle said to Corr, growing serious. "I'm on it."

 

"How?!" Corr demanded.

 

"This distraught thing kinda suits you, Corry," Bluebottle teased, flicking her blue wings open and narrowing her brown eyes. "Do me a favour and use the radio in the station to call for some backup."

 

Before Corr could say anything about protocol, Bluebottle took off and shot towards the great dragon who was terrorising her fair town.

 

"Hey scaly!" she shouted. "Take this!"

 

Bluebottle spun around in the air to point her back legs ahead of her, in direct collision course with the dragon's snout. She closed her eyes and braced for impact.

 

Before her hooves hit the dragon's snout, she was snatched up by a pink blur from the side.

 

"That's a really stupid idea," said a mare's voice. "Do you have any idea how tough dragonhide is?"

 

Bluebottle opened her eyes in surprise to find a pink mare with a crimson mane carrying her. "Hey! What are you doing? How dare you assault a police officer!"

 

The mare rolled her eyes. "You'll thank me later."

 

The pegasi touched down on a flat rooftop within moments, and the pink mare turned Bluebottle's head to face the dragon – only she now found herself facing two dragons.

 

"That one's on our side," Sky whispered into Bluebottle's ear.

 

<--Previous (Chapter Thirteen) | Next (Chapter Fifteen)-->


Chapter Fifteen

 

Bluebottle watched, eyes widened in awe, as the purple dragon swooped down from the sky and landed solidly on her hindlegs a few metres in front of the giant blue dragon. He faced her and growled defensively, tightening his claws around their small hoard.

 

The purple dragon raised an eyebrow and extended her wings, casting a large shadow behind her.

 

"Sibwashie, we're finally going to defeat the dragon!" said an excited male voice from behind Bluebottle. "I didn't think we'd find him right here in Port Welcome, but here he is!"

 

Bluebottle turned around to see a stocky zebra and a white unicorn. The former frowned and leaned over to whisper something in the latter's ear.

 

The unicorn's face fell. "Black scales... wings... red eyes... Right, right, of course. So this is just some other dragon, then."

 

Bluebottle's face creased in confusion. "Who are you po– err, people?" She frowned. "And what's with the dragon?"

 

"I'm Sky Wave, the unicorn's White Noise and the zebra's Sibwashie," Sky said to her quickly. "The dragon's name is Venkra."

 

As if on cue with her introduction, Venkra swung a fist at the blue dragon's face, the wind whistling by as she barely missed it. A crowd had begun to assemble on the street below.

 

Venkra recovered from her missed punch and whipped her fisted claw back, preparing to try again. A look in the blue dragon's eyes told her he was anticipated that. Smiling inwardly, she thrust her fist forward, extending her claws at the last moment. The flat of her hand missed his face entirely and gave him a solid shove in the chest instead.

 

It worked. The blue dragon staggered backwards. Enraged, he grabbed a jar of dragonfire and tossed it at Venkra. It broke against her left claws, which had shot up to shield her face just in time, and its contents dissipated in a puff of green smoke.

 

"He has dragonfire jars?" White wondered aloud.

 

In the middle of the substantial and still-growing crowd on the streets, a tan earth pony wearing a boater hat produced a megaphone. His voice carried all the way to Bluebottle's rooftop.

 

"Step up, folks, step up and bet on the fight of the century! Two terrific titans – draconic destroyers – monsters of mayhem – they're both strong and they're both fast, but who will win? Will it be the pretty Purple Punisher or the boisterous Blue Bruiser? Place your bets here, folks, and win big!"

 

Much to the shock of all four ponies on the roof, the crowds flocked to the boater-hatted pony, whose boater hat was soon heavy with bits.

 

"Some ponies..." Bluebottle scoffed, producing a slim book from her shirt pocket and flicking through it.

 

As Bluebottle pored over her police handbook, Sky turned away from her to rejoin her friends. White's face had turned even paler than usual.

 

"What's wrong, White?" she asked.

 

White pointed a shaking hoof at the fight. "Look at that dragon."

 

"Yeah, Venkra's a real pal, isn't she?"

 

"Not her, the other one!"

 

"What about him? He doesn't seem very nice. Probably on some kind of rampage – the greed one, with any luck."

 

"He doesn't have wings. He's blue. Who does that remind you of?"

 

Sky gasped. "It can't be..."

 

All of a sudden, a door flew open behind the group on the roof, and a breathless tan earth pony staggered out of it. Strands of black hair were coming loose from his slicked-back mane, and he stared ahead with wide brown eyes.

 

"Bluebottle! Thank goodness you're fine! I was certain my boss had injured you in his madness."

 

"Pah, I can handle a baby dragon!"

 

"...your boss?" asked White, feeling at a loss.

 

The emotion dropped from Corr's demeanour and his wild mane almost seemed to fall back into place as he straightened up and faced White Noise. "Yes, sir, my boss – Melvin the Dragon, manager of the Lunar Republic branch of Dragonfire Delivery."

 

Before White could reply, the group's attention was jerked back to the fight in the streets by a loud roar. Their forelegs locked together, Melvin and Venkra wrestled with each other, swaying back and forth as one or the other got the upper claw.

 

Sporadic shouts of "Punisher!" and "Bruiser!" shot out of the crowd, growing in frequency until the two terms were being chanted in turns, and then simultaneously.

 

"I fear that the opponents in the fight are too similar for one to win

For this to have the outcome we desire, we need to put a new element in," Sibwashie said gravely.

 

"I have an idea," replied White, lighting up his horn.

 

White's magic surged from his horn and spread over his face. The spell he had cast became obvious when an explosive "HEY MELVIN!" boomed from his lungs.

 

"Melvin! I'm back and I think we need to have a little chat about how you've been running my business!"

 

Whether because of some remaining shred of sanity or because of the White's loud, harsh tone, Melvin turned his head to face the ponies on the rooftop.

"H-his business?" Corr asked himself. "What have I..."

 

A smile flicked across Venkra's face. Wasting no time, she pushed down on Melvin's forelegs as hard as she could and brought him to the ground with a heavy, resounding thud.

 

"Yes!" shouted Sky, pulling her two friends into a hug. "Woo! Way to go, guys!"

 

A cacophonous mixture of sighs and elated whoops erupted from the crowd on the streets below, but soon turned to unified cries of dismay as the townsponies realised that their bet-organiser was no longer in the centre of the crowd.

***

From his hiding place behind a nearby office building, the pony with the boater hat breathed a sigh of relief and patted his heavy saddlebags with a forehoof.

"Give it here," came a cold, stern voice from above.

The pony looked up in horror to see a blue-coated police-pegasus hovering above him. He considered making a run for it in the split second before the rational side of his brain reminded him what a stupid idea it would be for an earth pony to attempt to outrun a pegasus.

"I'm confiscating your illegally acquired revenue," Bluebottle continued. "In accordance with the National Gambling Policy – section 33, paragraph B – the funds you raised will be put towards repairing the damage done."

With a defeated sigh, the earth pony pulled a sack of bits out of his saddlebag and pushed it a few inches in front of him.

"Thank you for your service to your country," Bluebottle said. "As a reward, I won't arrest you. You are free to go. And you'd better hurry up, too – that mob is looking pretty angry!"

The earth pony gave a curt nod and swiftly scurried off.

***

With Melvin pinned on the ground, the disaster was cleaned up swiftly. Teams of pegasi placed roofs back on buildings and fastened them there as best they could, and an earth pony cleanup crew removed the debris from the streets.

After some of the ponies from the hospital subdued Melvin with a few litres of tranquiliser, a group of unicorns was called in to create and maintain a magical forcefield around him. The task of figuring out what to do next was left to his employer and his shop assistant.

"So... what you're saying is that Melvin hired you to help out around the shop and write a news digest for him to sell?" asked White. "And, you're also saying that he paid you..."

Correspondence stated how much Melvin had been paying him.

White's jaw dropped. "Mr Correspondence, that's... that's more than double Melvin's own salary... I – I don't know how he could possibly have afforded to pay you that much, even with the extra revenue from selling the digests."

"Well, sir, the Lunar Republic is quite far away from most cities and towns in Equestria," Corr replied, battling to keep a look of incredulity off of his face.

"And so?"

"Well, uh, surely you know already, sir? I mean, from what you've told me, I gather you've just returned from a successful expedition to find out about the mechanics of dragonfire. And surely you must know about the different grades of fire required for transmitting messages over different distances!"

"Different grades? There's no such thing as –"

White's world slowed down for a moment as a sickening realisation dawned on him. He felt an uncomfortable pressure in his chest and could barely blurt out, "Corr, tell me ab-about the grades."

"Well, sir," Corr began, sounding utterly baffled. "For every extra metre of distance a letter transmitted via dragonfire goes, a dragon must use more and more of his inner magic to create dragonfire powerful enough to... Sir?"

Sky and Sibwashie murmured to each other as White put a hoof to his forehead. "It's rubbish," White said. "All of that. It's complete garbage. The whole point of sending messages by dragonfire is that distance doesn't matter. All this stuff Melvin told you about grades... he used it as an excuse to sell different jars of dragonfire for extra bits, didn't he?"

Correspondence nodded.

"Twenty bits, Correspondence. Just twenty bits per jar of dragonfire. Twenty for a Fillydelphia jar, twenty for a Hoofington jar, twenty for a Ponyville jar. Twenty bits for any jar from anywhere in the world. That was the whole point of my business..."

Slumping onto his haunches, White let out a long sigh. "So Melvin reworked the prices, started new initiatives and hired – no offence, Mr Correspondence, you weren't to know – without consulting me. And he got rich because of it. Rich... and greedy."

"Greedy, sir?" Corr asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"I'll let Venkra explain."

"Come, young one, let me tell you a tale of my people..." Venkra said, putting on mock airs. She flapped her wings and swooped to a spot in front of Corr, where she sat down and began animatedly retelling the Dragon King's story. Her audience recoiled only slightly at the sight of her pointy teeth inches from his snout.

White trotted to where Sky and Sibwashie were standing, looking at Melvin's sleeping form with hard, concentrating expressions.

"Any ideas?" he asked.

They shrugged at him. Sibwashie looked down at the street and Sky rubbed the back of her neck with a forehoof, casting her eyes away.

White smiled weakly. "Didn't think so."

Glancing between White's expression and the giant sleeping dragon in the middle of the street, Sky bit her lip. The three unicorns in charge of the magical barrier – all of whom had shield-related cutie marks – were hesitant to show it, but she could see the fatigue in their eyes. The barrier they'd had to conjure had to be large enough to cover a dragon and strong enough to resist its strength when it woke up. That couldn't be an easy thing to do, and Sky doubted they'd be able to keep it up perpetually while she and her friends aimlessly mulled over possible solutions.

"Well, there is one thing I've thought of, but I don't know if –"

"What?" White interrupted. "It can't hurt to try."

Sky took a breath and gathered her thoughts. "You know how you couldn't do that thing you do with the mind of a dragon, but then learnt how when the Dragon King taught you?"

White sighed. "Yes, and thank you for suggesting it, but even now I can't enter the mind of a dragon uninvited, because –"

"– the dragon won't let you, I know. You've told us. But right now, not only is Melvin out of his mind with greed, but he's also asleep. You managed to mess around with Sibwashie and my dreams for ages, so surely you can do something to his when he's in this state?"

"I... I'll give that a shot. I haven't tried to use my powers on a someone while they're asleep before."

As he always did when he prepared to cast his newest and most powerful spell, White closed his eyes and blocked out the world around him. He wasn't certain if it was strictly necessary, but it afforded the process a solemnity appropriate to the dangerous business of tampering with the thoughts of another sentient being.

Good luck, White! I wonder if he can hear this thought...

Hello, White Noise. Welcome to my brain.

Look a while, stay a while, but from damages refrain.

These ponies had better sort out their pet dragon soon, or I'm going to be going home with a massive headache.

I wonder if I'll still have a job after all this. I wonder what'll happen to Melvin. I suppose he deserves whatever he gets for commiting fraud like that, but he was a good boss and a shrewd businessdragon.

Gold. Bits. Dragonfire. Trixie Posters. All mine, all mine!

The final thought surprised White, and his surprise grew as a steady stream of similar thoughts flowed out from the same source. Melvin's madness coupled with his sleep had obviously lowered his innate mental defences.

White sent an excited thought to Sky. You were right! I can see Melvin's thoughts just as clearly as I can see all the rest of yours!

Hooray! That means you can fix him, right?

Yes, but I'll need your help, like last time.

Why do you need my help? Can't you just send your own thoughts to Melvin like you're doing with me?

But you know I'm talking to you. It's clear to you where your thoughts end and mine begin. To others, that distinction does not exist. The best way to keep myself from abusing this power is to only use it for communication – to only use it to move thoughts between the heads of others. Planting my own thoughts in others' heads... that's what I'm afraid of doing.

Okay, White, I trust you know what you're doing. What do you want me to think?

Think of gafcomps. Think of Venkra's delivery from her madness and how she hated it. Maybe that will help.

White waited as Sky composed her thoughts for a few moments, seeing jumbled words and sentences compose themselves and flop into place together.

Greed can destroy a dragon, and it's trying to destroy you. Fight the greed for the sake of your sanity. Fight it for the sake of your friends and the ponies who care about you.

With a determined grin, White plucked the finished thought out of the air and sent it along a cyan tendril of magic, straight into Melvin's head.

Gold, bits, riches, diamo– f-friends? Ponies who – gemstones – care? What ponies? Diamonds! Who cares? Rubies! Ponies?

Melvin's stream of thoughts became a tangled mess of conflicting ideas that grew and grew until all their light and sound were not mere words but pictures – moving pictures. White couldn't believe his mind's eye as images swam into focus around him. What's going on?

White looked down into a deep, dark cave, filled with gold and gemstones that provided the only light, glowing from within. Atop the great pile of riches sat Melvin, solemnly looking over his hoard.

Melvin! White sent a thought to the image of Melvin, uncertain about whether he was an apparition or the actual dragon.

"Yes, what?" Melvin snapped, his voice reaching White in a way that made him uncertain of whether he was hearing it in his mind or with his ears.

Fight this greed, Melvin! Stop rampaging and come back to us!

Melvin snarled. "Why should I do that? So that you can fire me formally?"

Melvin, if you can just break this curse, we'll be able to sit down and discuss that. I'm not an unreasonable pony, and I'd like to think I have a fairly good understanding of dragons now.

"A good enough understanding not to need us, I'm sure! That was the whole point of your journey, wasn't it?"

No, it –

"Understanding dragonfire means not needing dragons anymore. Maybe you don't like to think about it because you always tell yourself you're a nice, reasonable pony, but that's what it's all about. Now that you know all about how our fire works, it's just a matter of time before we all get the boot. I just took the precaution of saving up!"

With Melvin's last angry word, the illusion fell apart and White lost his mental connection. His horned dulled, his eyes shot open and he panted and gasped for breath.

"Woah, White, are you okay?" asked Sky, giving him a worried glance as his legs collapsed beneath him and he fell to the ground. "Did... did it work?"

Taking a few deep breaths and regaining some of his composure, White shook his head. "No. I... I spoke with Melvin, though. I spoke with him, and he's not happy. He thinks... he thinks I went on this expedition to Dragonia so that I could learn enough to fire him and the other dragons."

"Isn't that the case?" asked Corr, who had just finished listening to Venkra's story and was trotting up to White's side.

"What? No! Of course not! That's absurd!"

"But... sir, from what I gather, you went on your journey because you were dissatisfied with how little you knew about the nature of the magic providing your livelihood, and now you know a good deal more about it. Perhaps enough to not have to rely on dragons anymore."

White looked to his friends for support.

"Mr Correspondence makes a fair point," Sky said, shrugging. "I kinda got the same feeling when you asked me to join the expedition in the first place."

"But I'd never – I mean, I guess..."

White's voice softened and faded away as he contemplated the excited plans he'd been making in his head ever since the Dragon King had taught him how to tap into the dragons' mental network. With a bit of reverse engineering and study, he figured he'd be able to combine the magic behind his psychic powers, the magic of the dragon network, green flame and perhaps the magic behind radio – Sibwashie surely knew somezebra who could help him with that – to automate the dragonfire messaging service. He'd still need dragons to make the fire itself, but the rest might feasibly be taken out of their claws.

"Melvin was right," White said at last. "I was meaning to make their jobs redundant. I just never admitted that to myself. But should I feel bad for trying to make a little progress?"

Nopony had an answer for that, and an awkward silence hung in the air. Eventually, Venkra cleared her throat.

"So, how about that 'curing Melvin of his dragon greed' thing, eh? Surely we've got a few more ideas between the five of us. Uh, White, why not try out those magical healing oranges you were telling me about earlier?"

"That's a good idea, Venkra," White replied, shaking his head free of its troubled thoughts and reaching into his saddlebag to grab one of the two oranges he had left in his telekinesis.

As he did so, a low rumbling was heard from the barrier. All eyes turned to Melvin, who was stirring and twitching in his sleep.

"He's waking up! Brace yourselves, gentlecolts!" shouted the oldest of the unicorns, in a gruff voice that made it apparent that he was in charge.

The great beast that was Melvin growled. It opened its eyes slowly and sluggishly tried to raise itself onto all fours. Its eyes glinted as it jerked its head up.

THUMP. "GRAR!" Melvin roared out in pain as the top of his head connected with the barrier. He slumped back down and rubbed his injured scalp.

"Expand the barrier! He won't be as agitated if he has space to stand!"

With curt nods, the two younger unicorns joined their leader in channelling their magic into expanding the barrier. Its surface rippled as it grew upward.

"Ah, perfect timing," said White, smiling at the orange that floated in front of him as he magically unpeeled it. "Sky, we'll need you to fly up there and toss the orange in his mouth."

Sky flexed her wings, but became hesitant upon looking up at the gigantic blue beast. "What about the barrier?"

"It's one-way!" shouted the leader of the barrier-maintaining unicorns. "You can throw as many things in there as you like, but you won't be able to get them out again!"

Feeling relieved, Sky grabbed the orange in her mouth, being careful not to bite down on it and squeeze its juices out. Her wings flicked out and within seconds she was soaring in front of Melvin, who paid her no mind.

"GHEY GELVGGGIN!" she shouted through the sides of her mouth. "Ggovger gghere!"

Melvin continued to rub his head and stare angrily at the unicorns in charge of his magical prison.

Sky's eyes narrowed and she waved her forehooves about her ears. Still Melvin ignored her. The barrier rippled, and a unicorn quickly shot out a stream of magic to reinforce it.

Hit by a sudden spark of inspiration, Sibwashie whispered a rhyme into the unicorn's ear.

Between Sky and the top of Melvin's enormous scalp, a section of the barrier suddenly collapsed inward.

"RAWR!" Melvin looked up and roared at Sky, who could only smile in response, her teeth free of their projectile.

With a soft zwhoop, the orange phased through the barrier and fell directly into Melvin's roaring mouth. "GRAR?"

"Yes! I got it! He's..."

Melvin didn't appear to even have noticed the orange that had fallen into his enormous mouth. As the seconds ticked by, Sky's elation faded, and her face fell as she descended.

"Nothing," muttered White.

"Well it was worth a shot," said Venkra, shrugging. "Anyone else have another idea?"

Sky thought back to her last encounter with a dragon in the throes of a greed-fuelled madness. "The most obvious solution is to get somepony to be his gafcomp. We need Melvin to give something to somepony."

"But what?" asked White. "He's got nothing to give! We confiscated his hoard while he was sleeping!"

"Without anything to give, Melvin will have to be starved out of his monstrous state," Venkra concluded. "I've heard that if you keep a mad dragon away from all material goods for long enough, he'll revert to his proper frame of mind."

"How long's long enough?"

"It varies, but I believe the shortest time is at least two weeks."

A loud groan sounded from where the unicorns maintaining the shield were standing and was followed by discontented muttering.

"We don't have two weeks!" White said, exasperated. "We can't expect the town to divert traffic and business around Melvin for that long, and we definitely can't expect these guys to keep up their shield spell that long either."

"So the only option is to get Melvin to freely give somepony something," Sky lamented. "Which would require him to have something... and to be willing to give it away."

Venkra chuckled darkly. "Good luck with that second part."

The two ponies and dragon looked at each other hopelessly. Corr and Sibwashie, who had both been watching silently, walked over to them, their faces clouded with thought.

All of a sudden, Corr's eyes lit up. "Wait! I've got it!"

"Yes?" asked Sky and White simultaneously.

"I won't pretend to understand all this dragon business about 'gaf-comps', but if you just need Melvin to give something away... why not use dragonfire?"

White clapped Corr firmly on the shoulder. "That... is a brilliant idea. Somepony fetch me a jar!"

***

Half an hour of set-up and planning later, Sky, White, the shield unicorns and Corr stood in their positions, nervously shifting on their hooves as they readied themselves.

"Let's go over this one more time!" shouted White.

On cue, Sky said, "I'm going to drop this anvil on Melvin's tail, and he's going to jerk upwards in pain..."

"...then we're going to push him down with the barrier," continued the leader of the shield unicorns, "and..."

"...I'll have this jar at ready to catch the flames, and then I'll perform the necessary enchantments and slap a label on it," White finished. "If we're lucky, that'll count as Melvin 'giving' me something."

Sky and the leader of the shield unicorns nodded at White, and the group readied themselves. Sky was already hovering when a stammered cry diverted everypony's attention.

"Wait!" Correspondence grinned sheepishly. "Sir," he said, facing White Noise, "as Melvin's boss, haven't you had him 'give' you dragonfire many times in the past, in exchange for his salary?"

"Of course I have," White replied. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Well, if I remember correctly, Ms Sky said that Melvin would have to freely give something to a pony for him to be cured. And, if you're his boss, and you're paying him..."

White bit his lip.

Venkra chuckled in delight and leaned down over the proceedings. "I think he has a point. Magic was never my strong suit, but I remember my father would always ramble on about the importance of 'context and precedent', as he called it. White, I think you'd better let him take care of it."

Moments later, everypony stood at ready once more, but it was Corr who hold the empty dragonfire jar between his forehooves, while White stood to one side, his horn primed.

"On the count of three!" announced Venkra. "One!"

Sky's wings flicked out and she tightened her four-hoofed grip on the anvil.

"Two!"

The shield unicorns shifted on their hooves.

"Three!"

Sky lifted the anvil into the air and was above Melvin's tail within moments. The beast seemed unaware of his surroundings and was scratching at the tarmac when he felt a sudden spike of pain.

"RARGH!" he roared, as his head shot up...

...only to impact with the suddenly lowered ceiling of his prison. The jolt shocked a burst of green flame from his snout.

"Yes!" White shouted, igniting his horn.

Corr held the jar in front of his head, wincing as wisps of the strange, cold blast tickled his forelegs and singed some of their hair. The fire didn't hurt him, but sent a shiver down his spine all the same.

With a loud snap, the lid of the jar trapped the fire inside it and was swiftly followed by a label bearing a question mark. Corr set it down on the road and planted a forehoof on top of it, waiting.

For a moment, nothing happened.

"Did it work?" asked Sky, who had collapsed shortly after dropping the anvil.

POP! There was a great whooshing of air as something very large suddenly became something very small, followed by a cry of pain as something very small landed on its rump.

"It... worked," said Corr, already trotting through the barrier to assist his boss and gafcomp.

Melvin sat in the middle of the street, squinting at his blurry surroundings. "Uurgh, my head... what happened?"

"You went insane with greed and grew into an enormous, mindless beast, sir," said Corr, already by Melvin's side and offering him a forelimb. "Don't worry about it though, we managed to snap you out of it and now you should be fine."

"What? I... I..."

Watching the scene from a few metres back, White bit his lip. The little dragon who had seemingly spent his employment defrauding White and ripping off Dragonfire Delivery's customers was tired, dazed and very confused. And sooner or later, he'd be "fired" as well.

A familiar voice snapped White out of his contemplation. "When I heard about the dragon rampage in the middle of Port Welcome, I really should have guessed you guys would have something to do with it."

"Ocean!" said Sky, fluttering over with a big smile on her face.

Ocean Glider grinned and waved a forehoof at her friends. "It's good to see you all again. I take it the... uh" – she motioned towards Venkra – "dragon is with you?"

"Yes, Ms Venkra is our good friend from the far off land of the dragon," Sibwashie began.

"Well, in that case, I'll see to it that somepony rolls out her welcome wagon," Ocean quickly finished. "Now that president Joyous Dawn is in office, the Lunar Republic will truly be a promised land for all creatures."

"Thank you very much in advance," Venkra said playfully, "I'm sure such treatment will bring delight to my features."

Ocean's face clouded for a moment. "I regret that my pleasure at meeting a dragon from Dragonia is not without an ulterior motive, Ms Venkra. I was sent to request your services in a matter of grave importance to the country."

Venkra cocked a scaly eyebrow.

"You see, ma'am," Ocean continued, "the Lunar Republic has been having a 'dragon problem' for a number of months now – many of our farms have been cruelly and repeatedly attacked and had their crops incinerated by the same black-scaled dragon. I've heard that Sibwashie here was able to alleviate it somewhat by teaching the farmponies defensive techniques, but that's only been a temporary solution."

Venkra cocked a second scaly eyebrow.

"Well, to cut a long story short, President Dawn is hoping that you'd grace Golden Harvest Farmstead with your presence tomorrow night, as added security for, um, 'Project Ejection'."

"'Project Ejection'?" asked Sky.

"That's what the president's calling her personal confrontation with the dragon. She's going to persuade him to leave, basically. We're all pretty confident it'll work out, but it never hurts to have a little extra security in case things go awry."

Putting a claw to her chin, Venkra thought for a moment. "Sure, why not?" She shrugged. "My little pony friends told me all about that dragon on the way over here. He sounds like an embarrassment to the species, and I'd be glad to help take him down."

Ocean smiled winningly and dug a map out of her saddlebag, which she gave to White. "Then it's settled! Perfect! I'll see the four of you at Golden Harvest Farmstead at six-thirty tomorrow night. Don't be late!"

"We won't," White replied, feeling the beginning of a queasiness in his stomach. How does this president pony think she's going to talk down a mad dragon?

<--Previous (Chapter Fourteen) | Next (Chapter Sixteen)-->


Chapter Sixteen

 

Joyous Dawn looked into Princess Luna's eyes with a sympathetic, almost mournful expression. "Are you sure you don't want to accompany me today, Princess? I'm quite certain it will be a spectacular event."

 

"No thank you, President Dawn. We have no great love of dragons, diplomatic strides made in our absence nonwithstanding. We are quite certain that thou hast the capabilities necessary to accomplish what thou desirest. Go with our blessing, but ask us to accompany thee no longer."

 

Dawn frowned. "Is your Majesty certain?"

 

"VERY." Luna's voice remained calm and resolute, despite its rise in volume. "We fear we may not be able to act politely in the company of dragons. We fear we may not want to. In times long past, dragons roasted and devoured many of our subjects. That is not a wound easily healed."

 

"But surely" – Dawn paused – "as the old adage goes, time is the elixir which heals all wounds."

 

"And I have not had so much time as others." Luna's voice quivered slightly, and Dawn relented.

 

"I shall see you later, then, Princess Luna. But before we part, I have something else to discuss..."

 

***

 

A long shadow spread out from the base of the wrought iron gates leading into Golden Harvest Farmstead, and was soon merged with three other long, pony-shaped shadows, until all four were covered by an enormous, jagged dragon’s shadow.

 

"So this is the place, huh?" asked Venkra.

 

"Apparently," replied White. "I wonder how they're so sure the dragon's going to turn up here tonight – it's not like he's known for his co-operative spirit."

 

"I'd be more interested in how this 'Joyous Dawn' thinks she's going to persuade him to listen to her. I've never known a dragon willing to listen to a pony just because."

 

"I imagine that's exactly why we've been invited," White said grimly. "Just be on your guard and if we're lucky this won't end too catastrophically."

 

Venkra affected a look of mock-horror. "Shame on you! I'd expect a little more optimism from one so young."

 

"Faith in positive outcomes when one knows better

That is the mark of a fool and often a debtor," Sibwashie added.

 

The three equines entered the farm's entrance archway with little ceremony – that they left to Venkra, who swooped over it and announced her presence with a blast of green fire. A few metres away, a sizable crowd of ponies had already gathered around the platform the president was going to speak from – the entirety of which turned around in shock.

 

"Calm down, everypony," a familiar voice called over a megaphone. "This dragon's friendly."

 

Ocean Glider put her megaphone down and jumped off the wooden platform, a wide smile nearly splitting her face in two. She cantered over to her friends excitedly. "So glad you made it! President Dawn is very eager to meet you all."

 

"Indeed I am."

 

Ocean Glider swivelled around. "M-Madam President! When did you arrive?"

 

"Oh, not terribly long ago. I didn't want to make a nuisance of myself while everypony was setting up, so I just slipped in without calling attention to myself. Sometimes it's nice just to observe, don't you think?"

 

President Joyous Dawn, Sky noticed, looked a fair bit younger than she'd expected, and also a good deal more striking. Her red coat and black mane where both a few shades darker than what was usually natural, and the latter was tied up on her head in a very tight bun. A pair of thin spectacles sat on the end of her nose, and she had a presence.

 

"Now, Ocean, please introduce me to these friends of yours I've heard so much about."

 

"Of course, right away."

 

Joyous Dawn shook hooves with each of Ocean's equine friends, looking each of them directly in the eyes, and lent a hoof to two of Venkra's claws.

 

"Mr Noise," she said to White. "It's come to my attention that the sole Lunar Republican outlet of your revolutionary business was destroyed in the recent Port Welcome dragon rampage. It's my pleasure to personally inform you that your shop will be fully repaired by the state at no cost, thanks to the fundraising efforts of one Mr Sweep Stake."

 

"That's great news! Thank you... uh, Madam President!"

 

Joyous Dawn smiled photogenically. "I'd love to stay and chat a while longer, but we'll be starting soon, so I'd best get going. We must continue this conversation at a later stage."

 

As the president trotted back to the platform, Ocean grinned and nodded at her friends. "She's inspiring, isn't she? I knew you'd like her!"

 

All four travellers nodded vigorously and voiced their agreements, but White knew – with a faint ignition of his horn – that the other three had found her just as unsettling as he had. Politicians, he thought.

 

Before long, Joyous Dawn was poised in front of a lectern, and Venkra was hovering overhead, eyes alert for danger. Dawn used her telekinesis to neaten a stack of papers before placing it on the lectern. She then turned her eyes skyward.

 

At this, the nervous chatter of the gathered crowd died away into murmurs and then silence. Many of the ponies turned away from their president on the platform and followed her gaze to the early evening sky, scanning it for a long, black reptilian figure.

They were not to be kept waiting.

 

The keen-eyed and alert Venkra was the first to notice a dark, jagged shadow against the clouds, which she pointed to with a claw, uttering, "Look!"

 

Swiftly, the black dragon swooped down to the audience awaiting him. Many of assembled ponies gasped as they saw, for the first time, the scourge of their country's farms, and their frightened gasps soon turned to angered grumbles, but never to outright shouted abuse.

 

Joyous Dawn's strong, stern facial expression remained perfectly in place even as the dragon flapped towards her, its glowing red eyes glaring. Dawn cleared her throat and then began her speech.

 

"Oh, ancient and powerful dark dragon, how you have brought woe and misery to this land!" she cried, her voice washing over the crowd even as it blasted the dragon. "Look upon the faces of those ponies you have brought ruin to!"

 

The dragon continued to glare at Dawn instead.

 

She continued unabated. "Look upon the faces of the hungry and the starving, the poor and the struggling! Know that it comes as a result of your senseless destruction."

 

"But no! I have been unfair! You did not cause this, noble dragon!" Dawn held a hoof to her forehead dramatically.

 

Gasps of surprise rose from the crowd.

 

"You have been bewitched – this needless destruction was not the product of a thinking mind, nor a feeling conscience. Some vicious, malevolent force inhabits your mind, and forces you to wreak destruction against your will. Truly, a more hideous fate has not been conceived of!"

 

The dragon blinked, and the glow from its eyes appeared to dim slightly.

 

Meanwhile, White noticed a pair of unicorns – a mare and a stallion, both with coats of different shades of green – at the back of the audience light up their horns faintly, their eyes shifting around as they did so, as if they were afraid of being watched.

 

When nothing floated in front of either unicorn for more than a minute, White started getting suspicious.

 

"But fear not, noble beast!" Joyous Dawn boomed, drawing White's attention back to her. "Your salvation is at hoof!"

 

Admiring gasps rippled through the crowd as they stood transfixed by their leader's theatrics. Her voice boomed loud, clear and sincere, and White could see something wet glistening on the fur below her eyes.

 

"Using the ancient magical techniques taught to me by Princess Luna herself, I will rid you of your mind's affliction!"

 

At this, Dawn's horn lit up brilliantly, and she bit her lower lip in an act of exertion. The unicorns White had noticed at the back of the crowd increased the brightness of their horns simultaneously.

 

White's curiosity was eating away at him. No longer able to resist it, he closed his eyes and lit up his own horn.

 

Is this mare crazy or something? That dragon's going to burn her up if she tries to use magic on him!

 

I hope President Dawn knows what she's doing...

 

Now this is the kind of thing I like to see! Fearlessness like that reminds me why I voted for Dawn in the first place.

 

A searing pain shot through his head, and he bit back tears. So many thoughts... so many minds... gotta focus...

 

White cast his perception above the crowd, breathing a soft sigh of relief as their cacophoneous thoughts were reduced to background noise. This high in the air, only one mind was visible.

 

Kill. Burn. Destroy. Kill. Wait. Wait then kill.

 

White surmised that this was the dragon's mind and then suddenly realised that he was seeing into a dragon's mind. That shouldn't be possible!

 

With a dragon as young and unacquainted with his own kind as Melvin, it made sense that no mental barriers had been constructed to block White's interloping, but a dragon who looked to be significantly older than Venkra should not have been susceptible. Even in her madness, Venkra's mental barriers had remained intact.

 

Maybe this guy's also unfamiliar with dragonkind? White reasoned, still feeling suspicious. Hmm. I wonder what Joyous Dawn is thinking...

 

White cast his perception downwards, and slightly forward.

 

Be free. Be free. Escape your mental shackles, great and noble creature! Think, feel, reason!

 

White felt slightly taken aback. Is she actually doing this? I was certain it was...

 

Dawn's cutie mark, as White had taken note of earlier, was a telescope overlayed on an hourglass. How does that translate to curse breaking or mental manipulation? White asked himself. He was reminded of Ditzy Doo back in Ponyville, and how cryptic and indirect cutie marks were capable of being. With a dissatisfied huff, he turned his perception back to the dragon's thoughts.

 

Wait then kill. Wait then burn. Wait then destroy.

 

Feeling utterly useless and frustrated, White opened his eyes and let his spell fizzle out and die. Dawn's horn was still emitting a blinding light, and the dragon was still hovering in front of her, staring her down his horrible expressionless red eyes.

 

Until he wasn't.

 

Dawn groaned with effort and a blast of magic exploded from her horn, washing over the dragon's snout and wiping it of its blank expression. All of a sudden, the dragon roared, gasped and flapped his leathery wings around haphazardly, soon losing altitude and landing unceremoniously on his rump.

 

Venkra stifled a chuckle.

 

White glanced at Sibwashie, who looked back with disbelief plastered on his face and then immediately back at the dragon.

 

The dragon's eyes had lost their red glow, and now looked like the eyes of a normal dragon, bar that they were beset by a sense of confusion and fear uncharacteristic of the race.

 

With dry lips and a cracking voice, the dragon spoke: "W-where... am I? What happened?"

 

There was a flash of magic as Joyous Dawn teleported to the dragon's side.

 

Awed murmurs turned into joyful shouts as the crowd shook off their stupor and approached Dawn and the dragon. Somepony in the middle started saying "Joyous Dawn! Joyous Dawn!" over and over, and soon enough it became a chant.

 

White scanned the chanting, deliriously happy crowd, but saw no sign of the suspicious unicorns.

 

"How are you feeling?" Venkra asked the black dragon, who was still blinking his eyes and looking around in a daze.

 

"Rested," the dragon replied. "It feels like I've just woken up from a quick nap, but I'm certain this isn't one of my usual napping spots."

 

"You'd be correct in that assumption," Venkra replied. "You're on an island full of ponies, a good long way away from Dragonia."

 

"No... that's definitely not somewhere I can see myself taking a nap. Thank you, Ms...?"

 

"Venkra. And it's an odd dragon who uses titles – only my Uncle Kasdar does that. You sure you don't make a habit of napping among ponies?"

 

The black dragon immediately rose to his hindlegs and puffed out his chest proudly. "The noble and brave Huldor, you will find, is quite unlike most dragons, and not because of where he chooses to rest! I am an explorer, Ms Venkra, so of course I have more refined manners than your average dragon!"

 

Venkra bit her lip and White's horn glowed involuntarily. Do you have any pony spells to turn him back? I think I liked this guy better when he didn't talk.

 

"Well then, Mr Huldor, let me be the first to welcome you to The Lunar Republic and wish you a pleasant stay," Joyous Dawn shouted, drawing the two dragons' attention closer to ground level. "As president of this fine nation, I assure you that you can expect nothing but the best from its citizens – and its fantastic weather! I'm sure even the splendid state of some of our natural caves might have you reconsidering your desire not to sleep among ponies!"

 

"Thank you very much for the warm welcome, Ms 'President'. I think I'm going to have a wonderful stay here, but first, could you shed some light on how I came to be here in the first place? I've never been to an island of ponies before, and my memory's feeling terribly hazy at the moment."

 

A sudden pain shot through White's temples. Come on, let's get out of here!

 

Ow! Alright, fine, we can go.

 

White turned around to slip away, motioning for Sibwashie and Sky to follow him, much to their confusion. Venkra had already flown to the farm's gate and was waiting for them impatiently.

 

 "What was that all about?" White asked, perturbed.

 

"It's getting late," Venkra said, looking up at the night sky. "We should all get back into town and get some sleep... well, not me, but you ponies."

 

"How thoughtful!" Sky said.

 

White cocked an eyebrow. "Yes, how uncharacteristically thoughtful."

 

Venkra bit her lip for a moment before breaking down. "Look... it's just... I really don't like that Huldor guy. He thinks he's so much better than the rest of us, just because he's 'independent'. As if being a loner is a point of pride or something. Dragons need friends."

 

Sibwashie nodded and cleared his throat.

 

"Dragons, zebras, ponies and mules all do, it's how we are made

We have a story of a zebra like Huldor – Tlambo the Black-Sprayed."

"What did Tlambo do, Sib?" asked Sky.

Sibwashie's voice slipped into a familiar groove as he began to tell the tale of Tlambo the Black-Sprayed.

"In the days of the tribes, the zebra Tlambo thought himself better than others

'His arrogance and pride is a pain, his loss would be a gain,' said his brothers.

So they sent him away to meditate in the wilderness and learn to value community

But his journey had great hardships, which he blamed on others, and gave himself immunity.

"The hatred in his heart grew until he cursed all zebras and every civilised race

He painted his white stripes black with sticky tar, each on from his tail to his face.

He drifted from settlement to settlement, stealing scraps and howling

But his infamy grew and soon they all knew to keep him out, faces scowling.

"Tlambo tried to start a farm on his own and grow good food to eat

But that year there was a terrible famine, killing even the grass beside the street.

Tlambo saw the storehouses the tribes had stocked when they had the opportunity

And his heart grew sad and hungry, and he finally understood the value of community.

"Tlambo entered the tribe a beggar and tried to plead for food,

He had forgotten how to rhyme, and everyzebra thought him rude.

But they took pity on the poor fool and nourished him until his ribs no longer showed

For this he was grateful, and forever mindful of the debt to society he owed.

"One zebra is not a tribe, for one zebra can be starved by a drought

A tribe thinks, a tribe works and a tribe will see every storm out."

 

***

 

White couldn't sleep. For the first time since he'd first used his telepathic powers, he'd been having weird, disturbing dreams that kept shocking him awake. Eventually he gave up trying to get to sleep and just lay in bed, eyes open and staring at the ceiling.

 

He'd heard a voice whispering to him in his dreams, but it wasn't a very whispery sort of voice. Instead, it sounded like a low rasp, and whispered brief, unintelligible things that sounded almost like words, but not quite. It reminded him of the simplistic and repetitive voice he'd encountered in the black dragon's thoughts. Maybe he's unaware of his powers, like I was. He is an 'independent dragon', after all.

 

White remembered breakfasts with Sky and Sibwashie, when they would speak groggily of the dreams that had been keeping them up at night, and suddenly he felt a sense of kinship with Huldor the black dragon. What if I could teach him to use his powers, like the Dragon King did with me?

 

Perking up at this bright idea, White closed his eyes and focused his magic. His horn glowed and he slowly expanded his field of view, passing over sleeping and dreaming minds until he found the one he was looking for.

 

Fly over water. Dig up dirt. Eat shiny food. Find cave.

 

Shame, thought White. For all his grand speech, this guy's not all too bright. But maybe I can help with that.

 

White quickly prepared a thought, and then shot it through. There is a teacher who would like to help you, Mister Huldor. I am that teacher. With your permission, I can teach you to use your natural telepathy.

 

Who you?

 

My name is White Noise. I am a student of the Dragon King.

 

You come. Come to me. I want learn.

 

Well, actually I don't need to go to you; I can teach you without physically being in your presence.

 

No! I want to see you. Come. Find me.

 

Alright, if you insist. I'll come find you. Stay where you are.

 

White's horn dimmed and he wrinkled his snout. Shrugging, he shucked off his blankets and hopped out of bed.

 

As far as White was able to tell, Haldor was across the street, in what looked like a large warehouse. It struck him as odd that a dragon would choose a warehouse to sleep in over a cave, but a quick glance at Venkra ­– who was curled up on the roof of the inn he'd been staying in – put the question to rest. Dragons are weird.

 

The warehouse was built like a barn, and its street-facing wall was dominated by a large set of double-doors. They were locked, but White soon found smaller door to the right that wasn't and quietly slipped inside.

 

It was dark inside the warehouse. White called out for Huldor, but received no answer. Maybe he's asleep, or shy?

 

A glow from White's horn lit up his corner of the large room, and he slowly made his way into the centre, scanning for a large, black silhouette. "Hello? Huldor? I'm here. I've come to teach you."

 

There was a quiet sound of scuffling and muttering behind White, and he turned around. "Huldor? Is that you?"

 

Someone chuckled. "Sort of."

 

Before White could determine who the voice belonged to, something hit him on the back of the head. His legs gave way and he felt himself crash onto the ground. The chuckling returned, and then was silent.

 

***

 

White's eyes fluttered open and he blinked in the dim lamplight.

 

"Are you quite alright, sir?" a voice asked.

 

"Yeah, I think... ow, my head."

 

"Just lie down."

 

A damp, cold cloth pressed against White's forehead, to the right of his horn. His eyes focused and refocused. The cloth was being held in place by a yellow hoof.

 

"Who..." he began.

 

"My name's Barley, sir," said the voice. "I found you knocked out outside the warehouse next door. It's very lucky for you that I was working late. You might have – oh, Madam President!"

 

White's winced at Barley's sudden exclamation. Wouldn't it be funny if...

 

"Good evening, Barley. Oh, and hello to you to, Mr Noise."

 

A door shut quietly and a set of hooves clopping against the floor at a brisk pace. President Joyous Dawn soon stepped into White's vision, looking as immaculate and keenly attentive as ever.

 

"May I ask what happened to your head, Mr Noise?"

 

"I'm... not sure."

 

"I found him lying in the alley outside that abandoned warehouse next door, Madam President," Barley chirped. "Do you know him?"

 

"We met earlier this evening. Barley, the gentlecolt you're rubbing ice on is Mr White Noise, the founder of Dragonfire Delivery."

 

"Oh! Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, sir!" Barley thought for a moment before adding, "Although perhaps it might have been more of a pleasure in different circumstances. Oh well! How's your head feeling?"

 

"Much better, thank you." White was already standing up as he said this, eager to get back to the hotel. An odd sense of dread was building in his throat.

 

"Wait..." Joyous Dawn said, in a voice that was soft and airy, but just loud enough to give White pause.

 

"Since you're here anyway, there's something I've been wanting to discuss with you."

 

"It... can't wait till morning?"

 

"Well, it could, but time is money for busy and enterprising individuals like us. That, and it's related to bringing whoever attacked you to justice."

 

Barley gasped. "You think he was attacked?!"

 

"Ponies don't just fall unconscious right outside abandoned buildings by themselves, Barley."

 

White glanced at Dawn and Barley. He wanted to leave, to get back into his warm bed and go to sleep and forget all about this, but there was something very firm and commanding in Dawn's tone. It can't be wise to snub the president.

 

"Alright, I'll listen to what you have to tell me," he said.

 

"Wonderful!" replied Dawn. "Let's go up to my office – we can talk undisturbed there."

 

Wordlessly, White followed Dawn up the stairs. He hadn't had much experience dealing with politicians, let alone the odd kind of politicians in the Lunar Republic. Though he wouldn't say it around Ocean Glider, there was something about these "presidents" that seemed almost heretical – like they, mere mortals, thought they could do the job of the Princesses.

 

Joyous Dawn's office was very clean, and the desk had been pushed against the wall to make a large, empty space in the middle of the room. A thick Sheepersian rug covered much of the carpet.

 

"Please, take a seat," Dawn said, motioning to the rug. "I find that desks imply a certain power relationship that works counter to the kind of dynamic I like meetings to have. We shall both sit on the rug and discuss matters as adults and equals. I believe, Mr Noise, that we can help each other out."

 

White bit his lip and silently wished he was back in bed. Still, he sat down on one side of the rug, and Dawn took the other.

 

"Now, White – may I call you White; you may call me Joy – let's get straight down to business. You were attacked earlier, and I'm reasonably certain I know who by."

 

"Yes?"

 

"The hungry, White. When a pony gets hungry enough, she goes a little crazy and starts causing trouble. Because of the drought in Zebrica and the dragon attacks here, there's not as much food in the Lunar Republic as there should be."

 

"Oh. Okay, sure." White wasn't really sure.

 

Dawn closed her eyes for a moment. "Now... this ties in to the original reason I wanted to see you, White. Had you not appeared in my lobby this evening, I would have sought you out tomorrow morning, for I am in need of your help."

 

"What for?"

 

"Very to-the-point! I like that! However, I'm afraid this particular matter isn't one that I can be to-the-point about. To understand what I require of you, I must first tell you a little story. I take it you've heard the legend of Princess Luna's gift to the Lunar Republic?"

 

"I have, yes."

 

"Good, good. What most don't know is that it has a second part..."

 

White's ears perked up with interest for the first time since he'd sat down on the rug.

 

"It begins with a meteor shower..."

 

«-oOo-»

 

In the fifteenth year following Princess Luna's banishment, a great and beautiful meteor shower was seen from Trough, a small farming village not too far from Equestria's eastern shore. Many wishes were made on those falling stars that evening, one of which had a particular significance.

 

A unicorn filly of a poor family – destitute Lunar sympathisers in hiding – wished for falling star of her own, to cast a light over her bed and keep the monsters away while she slept. Moments after her wish was made, there was a flash outside her window and a soft pock in the dirt.

 

She immediately ran outside to investigate, and lo and behold, there in the dirt outside her window lay a smoking meteor.

 

Because the rock was far too hot to pick up with her hooves and she had not yet learnt how to use magic, she left the rock where it lay and went back inside. She could hardly sleep all night, so excited she was.

 

The little filly was woken up early the next morning by a shrill cry of surprise from outside her window. It sounded like her mother's voice.

 

"What's wrong, Mommy?" she asked, poking her head out of the window.

 

"Oh darling, there's an enormous beanstalk that wasn't here yesterday," her mother replied, very flustered.

 

And indeed, she had good reason to be flustered, for the little filly turned her head and saw a thick, green beanstalk that reached far into the heavens. As she gaped at the sight, it occurred to her that the stalk had grown right where her fallen star had landed.

 

The little girl's parents had no love for beans, or for any sorts of uninvited plants on their property. Following a speedy breakfast, the father sharpened his axe and swiftly chopped the stalk down, removing its roots as well. His daughter sat quietly by and watched him work.

 

As the roots came up, pulled by the father's telekinesis, a delighted yelp burst from the little girl's mouth. "My star, my star!" she sang. "My star grew the stalk!"

 

Her father looked down at the rocky surface that had been beneath the stalk and was puzzled. He didn't know much about agriculture, but he did know that plants weren't supposed to grow out of rocks. Especially not monstrous beanstalks.

 

He ushered his daughter inside and brought the matter to his wife, who knew as little about agriculture as he did. For a good five minutes, they were stumped, but then they realised it must have been a question of magic, not farming, which they knew a good deal more about.

 

They discussed growing magic, teleportation, illusion and many other subjects, until the wife recalled a feat that their revered but ill-fated Princess Luna had once performed on an island not far from Equestria.

 

"Could it be that our Lady has blessed us with a fragment of her moon?" the wife hypothesised.

 

Her husband became very excited at this and rushed outside to take another look at the magical rock. Grass was already sprouting on it, but enough of its surface was visible for him to imagine it being a part of the moon. His wife soon joined him, and she agreed.

 

From that day forth, the family's luck changed. The magic of the rock allowed them to grow any fruit or crop they could want in abundance, and they used this for all kinds of incredibly successful business ventures, and to ensure they never went hungry. Within a generation, they had become the wealthiest family in Trough, and they prospered for a thousand years.

 

«-oOo-»

 

"I am the latest of that line – the Rockefillies, as they're sometimes called – and about a year ago, when I found out about the lunar magic at work in this country's farmlands, I realised that there was finally a way I could share that prosperity with the world. That's why I moved here and went into politics, you see," Dawn concluded.

 

"Well, that's a nice story," White replied, slightly confused. "I just can't see why exactly you need my help. Do you want to collaborate with Dragonfire Delivery somehow? I'd advise against trying to send moonrock via dragonfire – it'd be a fantastic way to destroy a precious family heirloom and little else."

 

Dawn threw her head back and laughed. "Ha ha, oh that is very funny, White! A tiny little moonrock is hardly enough to really share with the world, even with your astounding technology."

 

"I don't follow." White made a blank face.

 

Dawn's horn glowed and she pushed her spectacles up her nose. "I'm going to need the service of another of your many talents, Mr Noise."

 

"I... still don't..." A heavy feeling choked the rest of the words before they could escape White's throat. There was something about the expression on Dawn's face, the tone in her voice, the way she was slowly leaning towards him... something that made him terribly uneasy.

 

"I know what you can do," she whispered, now close enough to him that her snout tickled the rim of his ear. "It's my business to know ponies, and I have a power that helps me."

 

Dawn withdrew, even more slowly than she'd approached.

 

"Your friend Sky Wave's special talent is beautiful flying. Yours is communication magic. You're capable of standard unicorn telekinesis, altering the volume and pitch of your voice, magical severance, various hacks... and a particularly powerful brand of telepathy."

 

White watched Dawn's smile growing as he imagined his own jaw was dropping.

 

"I need that last one for a special project of mine. An important project that will change the world and progress pony civilisation like nothing else before. You like progress, don't you?"

 

Dawn's horn sparked, and a bell sounded. "I need you not to be alarmed at what you're about to see, White. It's something that would frighten and disturb the average pony on the street, but as a unicorn of science, as a magical scholar, I appeal to you to see it for what it represents to the future."

 

A shiver ran down White's spine, and his tail flicked involuntarily. He turned to face the office door.

 

Slowly, the door creaked open, and a unicorn entered. His horn was glowing, and there was something startlingly familiar about his face and colouring. Another unicorn entered shortly after him, and she too had a glowing horn and a quality of elusive familiarity about her.

 

They're the unicorns from the farm! White suddenly realised.

 

After the two unicorns had fully entered the room, a third unicorn followed them, walking stiffly and staring blankly forward. But she wasn't a unicorn – a pair of wings jutted out from her back.

 

It was Princess Luna. And there was a gag tied firmly around her muzzle.

<--Previous (Chapter Fifteen) | Next (Chapter Seventeen)-->


Chapter Seventeen

"I tried to reason with her, I really did," Dawn said, her voice taking on a remorseful, pleading tone. "I painted her a beautiful picture of what the world could be like, what ponies could achieve, all with just a tiny sacrifice on her part, and hardly even that."

White had risen to his hooves and stood open-mouthed, staring at the statue-still Princess Luna with her blank eyes and the dirty gag tied around her mouth, as if she were some common criminal.

"She became loud and hostile," Dawn continued. "I was worried for my safety. I had to have her restrained. And then, once I had that... well, once I had Princess Luna gagged and held against her will I couldn't very well release her!"

"W-When did you do this?" White asked breathlessly, feeling like he was going to be sick.

"Right before the confrontation with Huldor at the farm. She was very stubborn about not wanting to attend that as well. Poor Princess Luna, still stuck in the prejudices and fears of a thousand years ago."

White could have struck her for that comment, but it seemed an unwise action in the middle of her office, with her two powerful accomplices on either side of him.

"How are they restraining her?" White asked, his scientific curiosity momentarily trumping his horror.

"They're using a technique similar to your telepathy, actually," Dawn replied, pointing towards the unicorns' identical marionette rod cutie marks. "They can use it to make her walk" – Luna took an awkward step forward – "whinny" – a muffled noise came from behind the gag – "and sit down" – Luna slowly, jerkily lowered herself to her haunches – "but not much more than that."

Dawn took a step closer to Luna and looked down at her sympathetically. "This is the first time they've used it on a pony, to the best of my knowledge."

"Yeah," Trapper said gruffly. "These stunts are too risky. It's too obvious she's not moving under her own will."

"And a Princess!" Tamer added. "Even with both of us controlling her I'm getting a headache!"

"I helped these two out of tight legal spot some years ago, back when they were only using their abilities to control animals. Their telepathy works by overriding the mind's control of the body and creating a temporary, very basic mind in its place – which is fine for a hydra, or a manticore, or possibly an earth pony, but it doesn't allow for control of a unicorn's horn. Incidentally, that's why I need you."

White saw Dawn's glasses flash, and he stumbled backwards. "You – you can't possibly expect me to..."

"You are the only one for the job, White. You can reach into Princess Luna's mind and make her use her magic to cut a small, inconsequential, no-bigger-than-this-island slab of rock off the moon and bring it down here, where it can be of some use."

She's insane, thought White. Totally insane.

"I know what that look means, White. I've seen it before, on many other faces. But you – you're more like me than you know. We both want the same thing."

White blinked. I have to save Princess Luna somehow. He considered trying to get into her mind to free her from Trapper and Tamer's spell, but feared what they might do if they saw his horn light up. Both of them had their serious, menacing eyes trained on him.

"We both want progress."

Progress. White supposed that was true, after a fashion. He wanted to revolutionise the way ponies communicated with each other, and that was certainly progress. But he'd never have cut up the moon. That's just crazy!

"And before you tell me that what you're doing is all positive and doesn't hurt anypony, think for a moment about the Equestrian Postal Service. You don't think all that retrenchment was just about affirmative action, do you? They feel threatened by your advances." Dawn stared down her spectacles at White. "Progress has a cost, Mr Noise."

A lump was forming in White's throat, but his face betrayed no hint of it. Gotta figure something out!

"Even your own employees are at risk because of your dedication to progress. I'm sure that whatever you've learnt on your travels will lead to kind of strides in dragonfire technology that eliminate the rare and troublesome dragon himself."

The image of a giant blue dragon roaring in the middle of a city street flashed behind White's eyelids. He saw the sad faces of his more trustworthy employees – of Spaug, Turquoise, and dear old Smooth Scales in Canterlot – faces they made as they twisted pink slips of paper between their claws.

"I don't blame you, White," Dawn said, her eyes going wide with sympathy and quivering a bit at the edges. "You understand the need for progress, and the sacrifices those living today must make for the betterment of those who will be born tomorrow. You get it, White Noise, and that's why you must help me."

Dawn removed her glasses, and the dark lines under her eyes became more apparent. White noticed stray hairs coming loose from her bun, and her lips twisted upwards in a genuine, hopeful smile.

"You must help me. If I fail, there will be chaos and political unrest. Rioting in the streets, souring of alliances, all kinds of evil. Princess Luna will have suffered for nothing. But if I succeed... everything will be better than ever."

Dawn was on the edge of tears, and Trapper and Tamer stood transfixed by her words, their horns glowing as a mere afterthought. White saw his chance.

A faint blue glow was lost in the lamplight. White saw four minds. He honed in on the one being bombarded by green waves of thought from two of the others.

Sit. Sit still. Do nothing.

Princess Luna! Your Highness, can you hear me?!

Now White knew why the Dragon King had been unable to reach Huldor's mind. White barrelled through layer after layer of the same, single-verb commands. Luna's mind was buried deep, but he could find it. It would just take time.

"Hey! What are you doing?!"

White's concentration collapsed. The layers closed up. He lost contact, and then he felt a weight on the back of his head.

For the second time in as many hours, White Noise lost consciousness.

***

"Sky! Sibwashie! Over here, guys!" called the cheery voice of Ocean Glider, shouting from the other side of the street.

"Oh, hey Ocean!" Sky replied, her face brightening as she flew across the street and alighted on the pavement. "Say, you haven't seen White around, have you?"

"That's actually what I came to talk with you about," Ocean said, nodding to Sibwashie as he trotted up to her and Sky. "President Dawn told me that she had a business meeting with him early this morning."

Sky smirked. "White Noise, going to an early morning meeting? I'm not sure he knows what the early morning is."

"Well, that's President Dawn for you – inspiring change in the world around her. Anyway, I wanted to say that she'd like to invite you guys to a brunch with her and White, seeing as she's already taken up so much of his time. You haven't made travel arrangements or anything yet, have you?"

"No, no, of course not. We were hoping to travel on the Moonchaser, now that you bring up the subject."

"That's great! I'm pretty busy with my government job these days, so I wouldn't be able to accompany you, but my boat's still sailing between Anchor and Welcome on a regular schedule."

"We're glad to hear it, and brunch sounds fantastic!"

Sibwashie nodded his agreement. He hadn't even eaten breakfast yet.

Ocean, Sky and Sibwashie chatted lightly as they took the short walk to the Port Welcome's governmental office building, which was on the opposite side of the street from the hotel they were staying at.

"They're in the President's office at the moment," Ocean said as she stepped through the door ahead of her companions, waving at the yellow pegasus behind the reception desk. "Let's just go up there now and surprise them! I'm sure President Dawn won't mind."

***

White rubbed a hoof over the bump on the back of his head as he woke up. His neck and back were stiff, as if he'd been sleeping on the floor all night. A glance at the rug beneath him confirmed that this actually was the case.

"Good morning, White Noise!" came the chipper voice of President Joyous Dawn, who stood before his half-closed eyes with her head held high and her mane perfectly styled. "I've got a surprise for you this lovely day... an inspiring surprise!"

Groggily, White raised himself onto his hooves. He scowled at Dawn, but felt too tired and confused to do much else. There's something about waking up in front of a thoroughly awake pony that makes you just know you're inferior, he thought.

"Now, White Noise, I hope you remember the generous proposition I made to you last night – the one where I offered you the chance to play a key role in the technological advancement that will redefine how ponies live in this world."

White groaned, partially from fatigue.

"I do hope you've reconsidered."

Before White had time to reply that he hadn't, Dawn continued. "However, it is unwise for somepony with particular ambitions to put too much stock in the whims of others. I have come too far to back out of this now."

There was a knock on the door. Dawn's horn glowed for a fraction of a second, and then she said, "Come in!"

The door opened. Sibwashie and Sky's smiling faces were on the other side. White's eyes widened in terror. He opened his mouth to scream a warning at them.

A filing cabinet burst open and the room was flooded by an eerie green light. Sky and Sibwashie's faces dropped, and they marched into the room on stiff legs. White rushed forward, forehooves outstretched, to push them back, as if getting out of the room would save them.

White's hooves hit made contact with Sibwashie. There was a surprised yelp as door glowed green and slammed. White felt a pressure in his gut. The pressure increased, and Sibwashie's hefty right forehoof sent him flying backwards.

"Aah!" White's back hit the edge of the desk against the wall and he slumped down into a limp heap.

"Make another move and I'll have Stripey throw you out the window," Trapper said, growling. "And if I see that horn of yours light up again I'll make you jump."

White whimpered, and Dawn pushed her glasses up her snout and continued speaking, as if nothing had happened. "The fate of your friends rests on you doing the right thing, White Noise. Help me in the name of progress, and I promise that no-one shall harm them. Refuse, and the ponies of the future won't be the only ones to lose something."

Tears were forming in White's eyes, and he couldn't tell if they were from pain or stress. "You're a monster. How can you do things like this and act like you're in the right?"

"How can you spend so much time and money looking for more creative ways to fire your employees? These are the questions that a narrow-minded individual might ask of one who can see the big picture. Now come, we have much to prepare for tonight."

***

Sibwashie ran an idle forehoof across the cold steel bars of the cage, making a slow clicking sound.

"Stop that!" shouted Tamer, lighting her horn momentarily. "I'll make you do that with your face if you're not careful!"

Sibwashie sighed. He, White and Sky were trapped in an iron cage in the basement of an observatory President Dawn had had closed for the day. While she set up telescopes and decorated rooms, they could only wait, with no hope of escape. White thought of sending a message to Venkra, but feared what might happen to him if Trapper or Tamer saw his horn glow.

"Maybe the Elements of Harmony'll save us," Sky mused. "Aren't they from around here?"

White cocked an eyebrow. "I heard they lived in Buckingshire."

"You're both wrong," Tamer sneered. "The Bearers of the Elements of Harmony live in Ponyville, and they're a little busy taking care of a pest problem – an invasion of small-minded animals, you might say."

Sky held a hoof to her mouth. "You're responsible for that?"

"Naturally," Tamer replied proudly. "Trapper and I did some very fine work in the Everfree. Lasting, too, seeing as animal minds aren't so quick to destroy our overrides as you ponies."

"What about dragons?" asked White.

Tamer scoffed. "Oh, they're pretty much animals. The spell we put on that Huldor guy stuck and held fast – was a darn shame just dismantling it like that."

White felt a little sick and decided against continuing any conversation with her. He turned to his companions, who offered him sympathetic looks and shrugs.

"I'm gonna miss the moon," said Sky, "or at least I'll miss part of it. Won't it look odd, just hanging in the air with a chunk cut out? Won't that mess up the tides or something?"

White rolled his eyes. "Don't be silly, Sky, everypony knows that's controlled by seaponies."

"Seaponies?" A light came over Tamer's face, and she took a step closer to the edge of the cage. "Did you say 'seaponies'? Are they real, then?"

"Oh, most definitely," White replied, his facial expression deadly serious. "And, from one unicorn with mind-control powers to another, they're pretty weak-willed."

Tamer chuckled. "Wait, you think your dinky little power is mind-control? You think it compares with my skillset?"

"Well" – White gave his friends a sidelong glance – "your boss certainly went to a lot of trouble to enlist my dinky little power to set her master plan into action and, you know, radically change the world."

Tamer grunted. "She's just hedging her bets. Right now, Trapper's busy working on a way to get our powers to manipulate Princess Luna's horn, and if he finishes by tonight, I really don't think President Dawn's going to need any of you."

"That's not going to happen, and we both know it," White replied. "You can't even make ponies walk properly."

Tamer's horn flared into action. "I'll make you walk properly, you little–"

But it was too late. White had already cast his most powerful spell and planted an idea in her mind. The angry expression on Tamer's face dropped and her horn dimmed.

"Actually," she began, suddenly speaking with a much more even tone, "I don't know why I'm doing all this. President Dawn doesn't want money, she just wants ponies to like her. She'll probably give all the food she grows instantly away for free, and pay me and Trapper a pittance."

There was a click and the padlock on the door of the cage opened. Tamer used her telekinesis to swing the door open, and beckoned for her prisoners to come out.

"It'd make much more sense to stop Dawn and turn Princess Luna in for the reward money Celestia's no-doubt gonna start offering once she gets wind of this."

White and Sibwashie tentatively stepped out of the cage, Sky following them at a slightly slower pace.

"What did you do?" she whispered.

"Alright," decided Tamer. "You're gonna help me and Trapper take out Dawn. Let's go."

"Great," White said, casting a confident grin back at Sibwashie and Sky.

Tamer opened the door with a flash of her horn. Her husband and President Dawn stood on the other side. Three mouths fell open in shock.

"Ah!" Tamer gasped, putting a forehoof to her temples. Sparks flew from her horn.

"I'm glad to see you're all ready," President Dawn said. "It's about time to go."

"I'd say it is," said White, menacingly. His horn blazed for just a moment, and then he dropped into a fighting stance.

Sky leaped into the air and dived at Tamer with her back legs. A well-placed kick sent her tumbling into Trapper, and the two collapsed against the wall opposite the door.

"Go! Go!" White shouted, narrowing his eyes at President Dawn, who looked remarkably unfazed.

"All the doors are magically sealed," she said nonchalantly. "What's more, I poisoned your meals."

The three stopped. White remembered the bales of dirty hay they'd been given an hour or so before. He hadn't wanted himself or his friends to eat them, but they were all terribly hungry and had caved.

Trapper and Tamer picked themselves up and laughed at Sky, who could scarcely look up from the floor. She, Sibwashie and White were soon marched away from the prison room.

"I'm surprised at you," Tamer whispered in White's ear, startling him. "That was a clever little mind-control trick you pulled. I'll admit you had me going for a bit. If that business of yours doesn't work out, Trapper and I would be delighted to take you in..."

White shivered. He felt like he was going to be sick.

"Save your lunch for after you force the sovereign ruler of the night to mutilate her moon," Tamer jeered.

***

The telescope had been removed from its usual place in the observatory, and now there was a large gap in the ceiling, showing the last orange-and-red strands of the sunset. President Joyous Dawn stood on a raised platform, looking out at the rapidly falling night.

"Bring out the Princess," she commanded. "It is time to raise the moon."

White, Sky and Sibwashie stood to one side of Dawn, their hindhooves chained to a fence around the platform. Their expressions were stoic, but each one of them was a nervous bundle of stress and fear on the inside.

"D-During all the confusion," White whispered, "I sent a message to Venkra. If we can stall this moon thing for long enough, maybe she'll get here in time to save us."

Sky and Sibwashie both nodded almost imperceptibly, saying nothing.

An irregular clopping and clanging echoed across the empty room as Tamer and Trapper walked on either side of a shambling, chained and muzzled Princess Luna. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking, and she slowly, awkwardly ascended the ramp onto the platform and came to a standstill beside President Dawn.

Trapper and Tamer cut their magic. The Princess collapsed.

"Rise, your Highness," Dawn commanded. "It is time to raise the moon, and then it will be time to make history."

"Yeah, get up!" Trapper yelled. "I don't think you want a repeat of last time."

"Never..." Luna croaked. Her starry mane was limp and she barely had enough strength to stand. It was all that either Sky or White could do to resist their patriotic impulses to rush to her side.

"Oh, I know your stance on my wonderful plan, Princess," Dawn replied. "I won't make you bring me a piece of the moon yourself. I've got another pony for the job. White Noise!"

White cringed at hearing his name. He felt the large, sad eyes of his Princess, and could not meet her gaze. He wanted to disappear.

"Mr Noise, I don't have time for stalling, so I'm going to tell you something I wasn't planning to reveal. I didn't poison your food. Only your friends'."

The room was silent.

"To clarify," Dawn said, in the tone of a particularly bored schoolteacher, "if you don't get into the Princess's mind right now and do what I ask, you will have the singular pleasure of watching them expire, and knowing that it was all your fault."

White gulped.

"Come on, Mr Noise. It's time to make a New Lunar Republic, and with it, a new world."

Sibwashie cleared his throat. In a calm, clear voice, he started to speak in his usual rhyming pattern.

"Joyous Dawn, how far are you going to take this crusade?

Will you murder two ponies? Do think that guilt will fade?"

Dawn sneered. "I do what I have to, Mister Sibwashie. I have an important part to play in the future of ponykind, and if you die, it will be Mr Noise's fault, not mine. You need to rhyme, I need to give everyone in the world all the food they will ever need."

A groan sounded from where Princess Luna lay on the floor. "Compare NOT the SACRED TRADITIONS of OUR ZEBRA FRIENDS with YOUR BLASPHEMY! He rhymes even as his life ebbs away as a courtesy to thee, even though thou deservest none of it! Destroying our moon will bring only pain and–"

Trapper's horn glowed and Luna bashed her own head against the floor. "How's that for bringing pain?"

"Enough of this!" shouted Dawn. "I'm right, you're wrong, and White Noise will fulfill his destiny right NOW!"

Sibwashie remained stoic and stood firm.

"If your purpose is pure, necessary and destined to be

Rhyme of its beauty and meaning, as a last courtesy to me."

Dawn opened her mouth to yell, but stopped before the words left her throat. "Alright, fine," she said. "I will rhyme about it, and you'll see that this is supposed to happen. Ahem!

"There once was famine and drought in Zebrica

And Joy fixed it 'cause she's the bestica!"

Sibwashie raised a sarcastic eyebrow, and Sky stifled a giggle.

Dawn glared at them. "Not good enough for you? Well, try this one!"

With that, she puffed out her chest, lifted her head high, took a deep breath, and punched herself across the muzzle with her left forehoof. Her glasses flew off and shattered somewhere below the platform.

"That's enough poetry for one day, I think," said Tamer, as Dawn hit herself with her other forehoof. "To be quite honest, I'm getting a little sick of her voice. Aren't you?"

A deft right hook sent Dawn sprawling on the ground, moaning in agony. Trapper gave her a swift kick in the midsection before stepping up to stand next to his wife and glare at the surprised prisoners.

"Alright, everypony, here's how things are gonna work from here on out," he started. "There's been a little change of management, but your roles will all stay the same. Stripes and the Bird are gonna sit down and shut up, and Fancyhorn's gonna make with the mindcontrol. Let's get that chunk of moonrock down here and start making some money."

White's blood ran cold. There would be no stalling or reasoning with hardened criminals like these two, and he had no doubt they'd kill him and his friends without a second thought if provoked. They didn't have the same investment in his wellbeing as Dawn did.

With nowhere else to turn, White lowered his head and lit up his horn.

"If either of us get any funny thoughts in our head, it's over for you, so don't even try it," said Tamer. And indeed, a glance at their minds showed them to be producing a torrent of jeers and threats directed at him.

Sibwashie and Sky's minds showed only fear. Princess Luna's mind...

Hello, Princess Luna. It's me, White Noise.

Can you really do it? Can you take control of my horn and make me slice up my own mind?

I'm afraid it's likely. All it would take is the thought of one of Joyous Dawn's utterly sincere, totally convinced speeches about the beauty of the new world she's crafting. I put that into your mind without marking it as a message from me, and you'll think you thought it, at least for long enough for you to cast the necessary spell.

So you're capable of just... changing anyone's mind?

Not anyone's. Dragons are trained to keep out foreign thoughts that don't identify themselves as messages. They gave me the same training, and your sister has it too.

Dragons. Perhaps if I'd been more open to them...

In the outside world, White's ears pricked up to a faint, leathery beating of wings.

Perhaps you'll have a chance to do just that, Princess Luna. I'm not about to betray my country or my Princess. Do you know a spell that can break chains?

Of course I do, but I am weak.

Then I will give you strength.

At that moment, White left Luna's mind, and focused on her horn. But he cast a very different, and much simpler spell on it. A stream of wispy, cyan light funnelled out of his horn and into Luna's.

"He's doing it!" cried Tamer. "He's doing it, honey! We're going to be rich!"

But White wasn't. The stream of magic cut off, and Luna's own horn lit up. With a sound very much unlike the splitting of stone miles and miles above their heads, six ankle-clamps released, and three equines kicked them away.

A column of scorching orange flame shot in through the hole in the ceiling, and Tamer screamed as a purple dragon descended on her.

"Get him!" came a shout, and a flurry of hooves kicked Trapper to the ground.

Tamer's horn blazed at the dragon on top of her, but she could not penetrate Venkra's mental shielding. I can't do it! she thought. I can't do it and I'm an idiot and dragons are so great especially this one!

Before long, Trapper and Tamer were bound by the same chains that had held their prisoners, but the chains were tangled around them in addition to being clamped on their ankles, completely immobilising them. Just to be safe, Sibwashie knocked them both out with a firm right forehoof.

The dust settled. Sky, Sibwashie and White looked at each other's bruised and battered faces, and smiled with tears in their eyes.

"Do not forget about the POISON, my SUBJECTS!" exclaimed Princess Luna, who had drawn herself up to her full stature and was looking slightly regal again.

"That's okay," White replied, "we'll just take the antidote from – hey! Where'd Dawn go?"

"We have to find her!" Sky said. "She – the Princess – the moon – the antidote!"

"Hold your horses, ponies," Venkra said, chuckling and holding out a closed hand. "Luckily for you, I had the presence of mind to bring those oranges along. I know they didn't work for Melvin, but I'm sure–"

Sibwashie and Sky had already snatched the oranges out of her claws and chomped them up.

"Careful! You'll get indigestion!"

"We still need to find Dawn," Sky repeated, juice dribbling from her muzzle. "She's kind of evil."

***

Panting and grimacing, Joyous Dawn dragged herself down the hallway on hobbling limbs. Her snout twitched in the absense of her glasses, and bits of her mane fell about her face.

"That's the last time I give – hrrk – legal consul to anypony facing animal cruelty charges," she muttered. "Now I'm going to have to – nngh – start all over again."

Just then, Dawn sensed a familiar presence. Her horn flashed dangerously.

***

With a mighty buck, Ocean Glider kicked a splintery hole in the wooden door to the observatory. She dashed inside, heart racing. Dawn's going to answer for this, she thought.

Ocean remembered bringing Sky and Sibwashie up to the President's office. She remembered pushing the door open for them, and she remembered the desperate look on White Noise's face as he stared mournfully at them.

Sky and Sibwashie had marched into the room on stiff, unnatural limbs, and President Dawn had slammed the door in her face. She had cried out, and then been kindly escorted out of the building and told to go home and get some rest by Barley. The President was giving her the rest of the day off, the President valued her work, the President was thinking of promoting her soon... and so it went.

Ocean hadn't bought it. She'd seen White's face.

"Where are you, Joy?!" she shouted into the observatory. "I know you're in here, and I know what you're up to! Barley told me everything!"

There was no reply.

"I believed in you, Joy! I still do! Please tell me this is all a big joke! This isn't you, President Dawn! This– hrrk!"

Ocean sputtered and choked as a thick wooden staff pushed itself against her neck. As she gasped for air, something warm and fuzzy pressed up against her flank, and the staff relaxed slightly.

"You're right, Ocean," said a soothing, honest voice. "This isn't me. I don't want to do this, but I have no choice. Now, let's take a walk, and we'll get things all cleared up."

Fear pierced Ocean's chest, and she complied. The two ponies walked awkwardly back the way Dawn had come.

***

"She won't get far," White reassured Sky. "Trapper and Tamer here were pretty rough with her."

"I'll fly up and see if she's left the building yet," said Venkra, already extending her wings.

"Good idea, but be quick."

Venkra saluted gravely before flying back out of the gap in the room's domed ceiling. In her absence, the three travellers were reminded of the striking presence of Princess Luna.

"Are you okay, Princess Luna?" asked Sky.

"We... have survived worse," Luna replied. There were thick black lines under her eyes and her voice was coming out strained.

"Then I take it you're still perfectly capable of bringing me my moonrock?"

The four equines gasped at Dawn's sudden reappearance. Stringy strands of her mane hung over angry emerald eyes. Her breathing was ragged, and her horn glowed blood-red, the same colour as the wooden beam she held against the neck of a frightened, shaking Ocean Glider.

"Ocean!" Sky cried, her wings flicking out instinctually.

"Stay right there and do as I say, or the pony gets it," Dawn growled. "I'll do it, too. I've expended far too much energy on this project just to let it fall apart at the seams now!"

Ocean yelped as the beam pushed further onto her neck. Sky nearly dived off the platform in rage, but Sibwashie held out a foreleg to stop her. There was a glint in his eye and faint smile on his face.

"Princess Luna, you are going to bring me what I want of your own free will, and you are going to do it right now, unless you want another pony death on your conscience! I did not engineer a famine in Zebrica for this!"

White's eyes widened. "You did that?"

"You'd better believe I did! I planned the 'start a farm in the Lunar Repulic' initiative in Equestria, and I spearheaded the postal service retrenchments to get more ponies for it! Guess who delivers rainclouds from Cloudsdale to Zebrica?

"What's more, I had Trapper and Tamer brainwash that dragon into destroying all that farmland to ensure my success, and I distracted the Elements of Harmony so Celestia wouldn't send them to interfere! I have done so much for this, and I. Am Not. Going. To be. Thwarted!"

Dawn pulled the wooden beam tighter. Ocean gagged. Sky screamed. White gasped. Sibwashie glanced upwards.

"Oh president, oh president, look up at the night!

I gaze at the heavens and see all the stars in flight!

"I see the Bit and the Bridle, and the Three-Headed Fly

But I see not the moon; it is not there in the sky."

<--Previous (Chapter Sixteen) | Next (Chapter Eighteen)-->


Chapter Eighteen

Sibwashie smiled confidently, and a sense of knowing glinted in his eyes. The twilight had turned into night, and Luna had not yet raised the moon. It's only a matter of time now, he thought.

Joyous Dawn snarled. "I don't see what that has to do with anything. Luna will raise the moon, and then she will bring me a piece of it! That, or I am going to kill Ocean Glider! Do as I say, and what in Equestria is that light?!"

At that moment, White Noise felt a warm sensation on his back. A bright yellow light was shining in through the gap in the ceiling, making the night feel just like day. He felt the corners of his mouth turn up instinctually.

A loud voice shouted from above, "No more ponies will be harmed tonight!"

The wooden beam dropped to the ground with a clatter and Ocean took a deep breath. As her face returned to its normal colour, fear and discomfort was replaced by rage and disappointment. Her hindlegs shot into a powerful buck, and she heard a scream.

"Ah-hem," the voice said. "What did I just say?"

Ocean Glider's eyes travelled up to the ceiling, and her eyes met with the stern gaze of a great white alicorn in all her glory – Princess Celestia. A nervous chuckle escaped Ocean's throat before she dropped to the floor in a low bow.

"Sister!" Princess Luna exclaimed, running to embrace Celestia as she landed on the platform.

"I came here as soon as I noticed the lack of a moon in your night, Luna," she said, caressing the back of her sister's mane. "What happened to you? You look a mess!"

Luna's forehead creased. "'Twas her, dear sister!" she exclaimed, pointing an accusing forehoof at Dawn. "The red unicorn! She had evil desires for OUR moon! And she was aided by the green unicorns chained near thy feet!"

Celestia cast a brief glance at Trapper and Tamer, still lying unconscious, and then there was a brilliant flash as she teleported in front of Dawn, who lay on the floor, clutching her midsection. "Explain yourself," Celestia demanded.

Agonisingly, Dawn pulled her head up to look Celestia in the eyes. "I– I had such beautiful plans... everything would have worked out..."

"WASTE NOT thy time with that SCOUNDREL, Celestia," Luna barked. "Know only that she wronged us, and that these good ponies came to our aid."

Princess Celestia nodded. She lent down to whisper something in one of Dawn's ears, and then put her to sleep with the touch of her horn.

"I recognise one of you," Celestia said, turning to the four ponies in the room who were still bowing. "Rise, so that I might see you better."

The four rose, and White saw a glint of recognition in Celestia's eyes as they made contact with his own. He smiled sheepishly.

"You are one of my students," Celestia said kindly, taking a step towards him. "Your name is" – she closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment – "White Noise, and you graduated with a degree in communication magic last year."

"Yes, your majesty," White replied. "That is all correct."

Celestia glanced back at Luna. "You say that this pony and his friends aided you?"

"Yes, YES!" Luna nodded her head vigorously. "Although OUR mane and tail now glow with the STARRY CURTAIN OF NIGHT, we are still weak. Without the help of these brave ponies, we do not know what might have happened."

"I see." Celestia turned back to White. "Tell me, White Noise, my student, what have you learnt?"

"Well I'm not–"

"Once a student, always a student."

"Well I didn't–"

"I'm not interested in your technical learnings."

"Then I guess... I've learnt..."

White's eyes clouded over with thought as he cast his mind back over the ordeal he'd just come out of, and over the journey he'd undertaken to get there. Joyous Dawn had orchestrated so much of the things he'd seen, and so many of the coincidences that led to him and his friends being there that night.

"President Dawn wanted to end famine by bringing a piece of the moon down to where we can grow food on it. She was driven insane by a desire for 'progress', and she hurt so many ponies trying to achieve it. So maybe... progress is bad? ...No, that's not it!"

White thought some more, and the Princess waited. "I began this expedition to find out more about dragonfire, so that I could advance the technology my business runs on. I also wanted progress. But because of that, my employee Melvin thought that his job was going to be made obsolete... and so he embezzled me and committed fraud. Is progress bad?"

Celestia said nothing.

"No, progress can't be bad. If progress were bad, Zebrica would still be a bunch of loose tribes, or we'd all still be at war with the dragons and the griffons. I've got so many ideas for innovations and new products... they can't all be rotten, evil things that'll cause pain and suffering."

A smile was beginning to creep over Celestia's face, and White became more confident.

"And I can't blame myself for what Melvin did! He's a schemer! I think... I think progress is complicated. And I think that's because dragons are complicated... and ponies are too, and so are zebras, and so is everyone! I've met so many different creatures on this journey, good and bad. Is that it? 'Ponies are complicated'?"

Princess Celestia nodded slowly. "Yes, my faithful student, that's it. You have done well."

"Thank-you, Princess!" White said, grinning. "'Ponies are complicated'."

Just then, the air sparked and a scroll materialised in front of Celestia's face. A telekinetic shroud wrapped around it before it hit the floor. "Excuse me," Celestia said. "I need to attend to this for just a moment."

As Celestia stepped away from the ponies to read the scroll, White felt a presence in his mind.

I know about this, White Noise. You have a gift that few ponies ever receive, and it can be a powerful tool for spreading the truth, or an evil power for lying to and manipulating others. I trust that you have used it for good, and I hope you shall continue to do so.

I... have, your Majesty, and I will.

Good. I'll be watching you, and so will Kasdar. Whatever you do with this power, one of us shall find out. Be careful.

Yes, Princess Celestia.

A shiver went down White's back, and he turned to his friends, shaking the thoughts out of his head. "Guess we'd better book that boat ride back. Ocean?"

Ocean Glider just looked at him. Sky stifled a giggle, and Sibwashie shook his head slowly.

At just that moment, there was a whooshing of air and Venkra descended through the gap in the roof. "I couldn't find Dawn anywhere, so she must still be – oh..."

Six pairs of eyes stared up at her.

"I missed something here, didn't I?"

Princess Celestia caught Venkra's eye and smiled up at her. "Yes, Ms Dragon, you did, but it is nothing that cannot be explained later. For now, know that you have my gratitude for whatever part you played in tonight's proceedings, and be still. My sister is about to raise the moon."

A hush fell over the observatory as the Princess of the Night stepped into the center of the raised platform, standing on the spot from which Dawn had previously taunted her. Her coat was matted and her crown askew, but she held her head up high and her starry mane billowed behind it.

Luna's horn glowed, softly at first, but then strong enough that the ponies had to shield their eyes. The glow grew to envelop her body, and with a flap of her wings she ascended three feet off the ground, and then six, and then twelve.

Her audience turned their heads to stare out of the gap in the roof, and they saw the moon – whole and unblemished – slowly rise into view.

"I don't think I missed anything at all," whispered Venkra.

***

"...And that's when Princess Celestia came in and told Ocean off for kicking President Dawn!" Sky finished, smiling broadly.

"Hey!" Ocean chided.

Venkra chuckled and reached for a sapphire from the middle of the table. "It's okay, she deserved it. You go Ocean!"

"Thank you."

The party sat around a circular table in the middle of a large auditorium that the Princesses had arranged to be cleared for their gathering. Celestia and Luna sat next to each other, with the ponies, zebra and dragon around them, digging into the feast that had been provided.

White turned to the Princesses, idly twiddling a fork with his telekinesis. "What are your Highnesses planning to do about... uh... the Lunar Republic? I get the feeling it's going to be a political nightmare."

"Yes, I imagine so," Princess Celestia replied. "President Joyous Dawn was well-loved by her people, and for many good reasons. Luna has told me much about her experiences in this country, and it is with a heavy heart that I am impressed with Dawn's brief leadership."

Luna looked down at her plate, sullen. "I used to be quite fond of her, sister."

"Yes, I'm certain. I had a long chat with Joyous Dawn before coming here. She's a very interesting pony... but quite mad, I fear. I will see to it that she gets the help she needs, and perhaps we can keep this whole sad affair from receiving too much publicity... although that is probably just wishful thinking."

"You're not angry?" asked White. "Not even after she had those two scumbag cronies of hers mind-control and hurt your sister?"

"I am deeply saddened that any ponies would do such horrible things, but I have long learned not to waste anger on what is already past. Those criminals will be put somewhere where they cannot hurt anypony ever again."

White nodded and lifted his fork to his mouth.

Princess Celestia wasn't finished. "My student, as you've learnt, ponies and all other speaking peoples are complex beings. I do not believe that any are predisposed entirely to evil, and I know that we all" – she glanced briefly at Luna – "deserve a second chance. It is just important to take precautions."

"I'll try to remember that, Princess," said White, chewing a lettuce leaf absently. "I think I know of someone I know who it should apply to."

***

The sun shone down brightly on the construction workers as they sweated and toiled rebuilding the front wall of Dragonfire Deliveries. Melvin sat close by, supervising the building and feeling glum. Guess this is my last little job before White fires me. Hope I at least get paid.

Melvin smirked at that, but felt more like crying.

"Ah, Melvin!" said a painfully happy and familiar voice behind him. "Just the dragon I was looking for! I trust everything's going well here – mind if we have a quick word?"

Melvin slowly craned his neck around to glance at White Noise, standing there with his head held high, and nodded slowly. Let's just get this over with.

"Excellent!" White took a seat beside Melvin, and the two watched the building for a while.

"So am I fired?" Melvin asked bluntly.

White put a forehoof to his snout, appearing to think for a time before answering. Oh no, here comes a speech... thought Melvin.

"Well..." White began. "I think that yes, it would be a prudent business decision to fire you. You falsified prices, stole, sold new products without my authorisation, and went against the core philosophy of Dragonfire Delivery – that distance doesn't matter. I have a lot of very good reasons to fire you."

Melvin's head sunk. He wished White would just skip the lecture and fire him.

"However," White continued, "I've been going over the financials and talking to Correspondence, and now I realise that I also have a lot of good reasons not to. You may have stolen from my business, but a lot of what you stole probably wouldn't have come in if not for your innovations. We'll have to adjust the prices, of course, but newspaper delivery and the Dragonfire Digest? That stuff is brilliant!"

Melvin smiled slightly, daring to make eye-contact with his boss.

"Melvin," White said, adopting a serious and official tone, "I hereby promote you to Head of Marketing and Product Development. Correspondence shall be hired to do your old job – well, the parts a pony can do, anyway – and you'll be his supervisor."

"Wow..." Melvin replied, his eyes growing wide. "I– I don't know what to say... Thank you! I won't let you down, boss!"

White smiled, but then grew stern. "I'll be making sure of that. Although you will be Corr's supervisor, I've also asked him to keep an eye on you. What's more, I'm going to be paying closer attention to the financials from now on – Dragonfire Delivery's going places, and I'm going to need to learn some business savvy if I want to keep up."

That's true, Melvin thought, careful to hide his amusement.

"And there are some things you're going to need to learn too, Melvin. Things that a dragon should know – like the full extent of those powers you use to send mail around the world."

"Full extent? Like what?"

White's horn glowed. You'll see... and no, this isn't your brain talking to you.

Melvin's jaw fell open. "Did you–?"

"Ask Venkra about it."

And so Melvin did.

***

A week passed before the Moonchaser was set to leave for Equestria. In that time, the Dragonfire Delivery storefront was mostly rebuilt, and the Princesses had Joyous Dawn sent away to a mental hospital in Equestria.

On the morning of their voyage, the three travellers stood on the docks with Venkra. "I'm going to miss you colourful little horses," she said. "Travelling with you has been the most excitement I've had all century!"

"We'll miss you too, Venkra," said Sky. "Please don't forget to write... or pester White in his brain, if that's easier!"

"Thank you for all your aid, and may your journey be short

I hope we speak again soon, fair lady of the Dragon King's court," Sibwashie said, smiling.

"I get a rhyme!" Venkra grinned toothily. "Take care, stripey singing horse! May your days be... without remorse! ...That was a good one."

"Feel free to pester me whenever you want," White said. "Just not at night. Or when I'm busy with work. Or in the morning before I've had my coffee. Or–"

Venkra cackled loudly. "Okay, got it. I'll try to keep to those conditions, but no promises."

Venkra's friends laughed with her, and then their laughter slowly got quieter and died away. There was a period of silence.

"Guess it's time, huh?" Venkra said. "Nothing I hate more than agonising goodbyes, so... bye! White, stay smart. Sib, stay poetic. Sky, stay awesome!"

With that, Venkra drew her leathery wings and took off, waving a claw before she got too high for anypony on the ground to see it. Her friends waved their forelegs as she turned eastward and began her long flight back to Dragonia.

Sky sighed, and White and Sibwashie lay forehooves on each of her shoulders.

***

Waves jumped out of the path of the Moonchaser as it cut across the water. Three ponies and a zebra stood on its deck, looking back at an island that was slowly disappearing into the distance.

"I wonder what'll happen to the Lunar Republic now that its president's in a straitjacket," Sky wondered aloud.

"Oh, there'll be another election," Ocean said. "The old Farmer–Trader Alliance'll probably win it. They always did before Dawn came along, mainly 'cause they tended to be the only ones who ran."

"You're joking," White said flatly. "All that talk about the power of 'democracy' and you ponies don't even use it properly?"

"Yeah, okay, fine. It's probably just 'cause no-one wants to do the thankless job our politicians have. I worked in that area for long enough to know it ain't no picnic."

Sibwashie smiled knowingly.

"So," Ocean said, "what are your plans now that you're on your way back to Fillydelphia? Gonna go back to the daily grind?"

"For a bit," White replied. "I think I'll focus on my business for a while, maybe do some research, but as soon as I can I want to get back to Zebrica. The zebras who invented radio live in Shangora, and, don't hold me to this, but I think that combinations of radio and dragonfire magics may yield some interesting results."

"When you return to my homeland, I think I too may benefit from another visit

Perhaps we can travel together again, if circumstance will permit it," Sibwashie offered.

"And I'll see if I can't come too!" Sky enthused. "After your little niece was so enthralled by my flying, I can't help but feel that Zebrica would be a great place to give my performing career a bit of a boost."

All three looked at Ocean. "At this rate I'm going to have to make that Lunar Republic–Zebrica trip a regular route."

"I guess this means we'll be seeing each other again soon," Sky said happily, turning her head away from the Lunar Republic and towards Equestria. "I'll be looking forward to it."

The four looked at each other, and then moved to the front of the boat, squinting their eyes to try to get a slight glimpse of the Equestrian shore.

"And, y'know," White began after a time, "there are a few dragons working for me and working at Princess Celestia's school who know nothing of their history or their inborn abilities. Maybe we could talk Venkra into..."

***

In a small inn in Hoofington, Petunia Grassfire sat behind the reception counter, absorbed in a paperback mystery novel. She suspected the butler of stealing the Grazington family's prized paleo-pony-period tapestry, but secretly hoped she'd be proven wrong.

As the grandfather clock against the wall struck five, she heard the door creak and the padding of three sets of hooves on the soft carpet. She looked up to see three familiar faces, all wearing familiar saddlebags that looked a little the worse for wear since the last time they'd been in town.

"Hi Mrs Hospitality!" Sky chirped.

"Greetings to you again, well-named innkeeper's bride

We're returned to this inn in search of a place to reside," added Sibwashie.

A smile broadened across Petunia's kindly old face. "Ms Wave! Mr Sibwashie and Mr Noise! How good to see you all again, and yes, of course we have room for you! How was your trip?"

The three travellers each raised one eyebrow, almost simultaneously. "Eventful," Sky said with a giggle.

Just then, a voice called down the stairs. "Good news, honey! I just read in the paper that they've finally managed to stop the attacks on Ponyv– why, hello there!"

Grassfire descended the staircase, a look of pleasant surprise on his face. "Did you come to hear another story?"

White Noise stepped forward and looked him in the eye. "Actually, Mr Hospitality, this time I think we have a story to tell you."

<--Previous (Chapter Seventeen)


Acknowledgement