Here Be Dragons

by ToixStory

Chapter 1: Chapter 1: The World Awaits

Sweetie Belle peered out from between two bushes to the ruined town of Ponyville. She swept her gaze over the streets overgrown with weeds and crumbling houses torn about by nature and abandonment. Not a single soul stirred within the town.

“The coast is clear,” she whispered to the raiding party behind her.

Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were behind Sweetie Belle, peering over her shoulders, while Snips and Snails stood nervously in the rear, watching their backs. Rainbow Dash crouched in a tree above them, getting a look at the sky over Ponyville.

Rainbow Dash hopped down from the tree next to Sweetie Belle. “It’s all clear up there, too,” she said. “Not a Changeling in sight. With any luck, we’ll be in and out before we’re even noticed.”

“That castle of Twilight’s doesn’t look very sturdy,” Apple Bloom said. “Looks like it’s one wrong step from collapsing; the Changelings sure did a number on it. Is Twilight sure we need that fancy book of hers?”

Before Rainbow Dash could answer, Scootaloo piped up, “Of course she’s sure, she’s Twilight. Since when has she been wrong? If it weren’t for her, we’d be under the Changelings like everypony else in Equestria.”

Rainbow Dash shook her head and pointed toward a dirt path that led into town. “Alright, move out, everypony. Keep close to the houses to keep from being spotted. Sweetie Belle, you bring up the rear with Snips and Snails while Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and I go in the castle to find the book. If trouble comes while we’re in there, let us know.”

She took to the air with a rush, beating her wings until she was just above the broken rooftops of Ponyville. Scootaloo and Apple Bloom galloped after her, while Sweetie Belle stuck with the pair of stallions near the rear of their party.

Snips and Snails were quiet, as usual, and only chattered among themselves while Sweetie Belle trotted behind them into Ponyville. The once-smooth stones in the street were scattered and covered in ugly weeds and wild grass. Wind blew through holes in the houses and made an eerie echo that hung over the town.

The only sign of life were the posters hastily pinned up to every available surface in town. They read, “Free Ponies of Equestria! Do Not Fear, Resistance of the Changeling Menace Still Continues in Canterlot, Where All Pony Refugees are Welcome!” The words had once been bright red, but had faded in the twenty years since the evacuation of Ponyville. So too had the wave of refugees shrunk to a trickle over the years as the ponies of Equestria either decided to make it for Canterlot or content themselves living under Queen Chrysalis and her Changeling Empire.

“Sweetie Belle, get out of the middle of the street,” Scootaloo hissed from the ruins of the Cakes’ bakery. “You’ll be spotted if you stand there any longer!”

Sweetie Belle snapped out of her reverie and dashed to the side of the road, in the shadow of Sofas and Quills, whose roof had caved in years before. Snips and Snails were ahead of her, creeping up the other side of the street toward the castle while Rainbow Dash dove between rooftops.

Ahead, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom moved with their spears at the ready. In all of Sweetie Belle’s life, she hadn’t seen a weapon in the hooves of anypony, save for the Royal Guard, but they had become so commonplace that she hardly noticed. Only magic-wielding ponies, like Snips and Snails, rarely carried them. Sweetie Belle was supposed to use her magic as well, but didn’t feel so sure it’d help. Music could only do so much good in a fight.

Diving through the weeds, their party made their way toward Twilight’s castle. Or, really, what remained of it. The masonry had begun to come apart, and most of the stained glass windows had shattered or fallen into ruin. Even the grass around it seemed dead, like the castle itself had become a black hole that sucked out all life around it. It made Sweetie Belle’s heart jump to look at it, so she turned her attention elsewhere.

Her eyes scanned over the Ponyville ruins until she saw the Carousel Boutique. Unlike most of the town, her sister’s home and business had weathered the Changeling menace without falling in on itself. In fact, it was the only building in town that could seemingly stand up at all.

Just as she was looking away, Sweetie Belle spotted something in one of the upper windows. Just a glint, maybe sunlight on the glass... or maybe a pony inside. She stopped in the middle of the road while her friends moved on ahead.

Back in Canterlot, they had been warned about not straying from the mission, but what if somepony was in there? The Carousel Boutique was the only likely place for a refugee to take shelter in, so it would stand to reason that if there were any ponies left in the town, they’d be inside.

Checking to make sure the coast was clear, Sweetie Belle trotted towards the building. She kept to the shadows like she’d been taught and stooped low to avoid being seen by any possible enemies. Rarity would be so proud! She smiled as she neared the front door.

No sooner had her hoof touched the ground directly in front of the Carousel Boutique, however, than the building burst apart in splinters of glass and wood as a horde of Changelings swarmed out. Sweetie Belle was thrown to the ground with a cry, and covered her head with her hooves to avoid glass getting in her eyes.

The Changelings that attacked her now were different from their cousins that had swarmed across Equestria. While those had attacked the ponies en masse, the Changelings buzzing around Sweetie’s head numbered less than a dozen, but were heavily armored and armed with the curved spears that Changeling guards wielded.

For the moment, they didn’t seem to notice Sweetie, which was a relief. They buzzed over the rooftops of Ponyville in random directions, seeking out targets. Sweetie scrambled inside the Boutique that they had abandoned and huddled in a corner, waiting for relief from one of her friends.

It wasn’t long before the Changelings, however, looked for her where they had come from, as two of them swooped in through the open door of the Carousel Boutique. The floor was littered with the remains of torn dresses and broken furniture, and didn’t offer many places to hide. It only took them a moment before they spotted her, and began to advance toward Sweetie’s hiding place.

“Stay back, I’m warning you!” Sweetie Belle cried, levitating a pair of rusty knitting needles in front of her as the two soldiers closed in on her. She swiped out with the needles, but they simply bounced off the Changelings’ armor while the pair of soldiers laughed.

In the darkness of the Carousel Boutique ruins, the green glow of Changeling magic was almost blinding. She shrunk away from the glare toward a spot beneath one dirty window. With her back to the wall, she gulped and silently hoped her friends would find her before the Changelings could finish her off.

“I promise, I’m a really important pony in Canterlot,” she pleaded. “If you let me go, my sister won’t come after all of you! She’s an Element of Harmony, you know!”

One of the Changelings laughed and spat on the ground between its forelegs. “The Elements of Harmony are all gone,” it said. “The Changelings rule now, little pony, and punishment for resistance is not pleasant.”

The other Changeling giggled and pulled out a curved spear from behind his back, fitting it in his forelegs and bringing it to bear on Sweetie Belle. She closed her eyes and cowered beneath the window.

I’m such a coward, she screamed in her mind. Tears ran down her face. I’m going to die because I was too stupid to listen to anypony, and too afraid to fight back! No matter how much she yelled in her head, though, she could not bring herself to get to her hooves in fight.

She could almost feel the sharp pain of the spear on her side, and the agony as it sank into her. Her body quivered at the thought, and she almost began to beg again when the glass window above her shattered.

A cyan blur dashed into the room, straight into the two Changelings. They smashed into the ground loudly enough that Sweetie Belle could hear the cracking of their carapaces. She looked up to see Rainbow Dash standing proudly above them, a snarl on her face. “This is our town,” she crowed triumphantly, “and nopony is taking it but us!”

Sweetie Belle pulled herself to her hooves, though wobbled for a few seconds before gaining her balance. Rainbow Dash turned and looked her over, while Sweetie could only hang her head in shame.

“You’re not hurt, are you?” Dash asked, to which Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“I think it’d be better if I didn’t,” Sweetie Belle said.

“Are you sure? I swear I won’t tell anypony, you know that.”

“I said I think it’d be better if we didn’t.” Sweetie Belle dusted herself off and walked out of Carousel Boutique as proudly as she could. She could hear Rainbow Dash sigh and follow her, but tried not to give it her attention.

Outside, the other ponies in their group were finishing up what remained of the Changelings. Several of the insectoid creatures lay with broken bodies and spears through them, while a couple others had felt the effects of an apple cart dropped on them from up high. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo looked beat up but okay, while Snips and Snails were giggling over their victory as usual.

When Sweetie Belle approached them, she couldn’t look any of her friends in the eye. Nopony said anything to her, but she could feel the shame hanging over her like a great cloak. Rainbow Dash came up behind her and called attention away from Sweetie and to their mission.

“Looks like the whole mission was fragged from the start,” she said. “Our informant must have been working for the Changelings. The whole library inside the castle is burned, and these,” she emphasised by kicking one of the Changeling corpses, “were waiting for us. I’ll expect you all to fill out separate reports once we’re home.”

The younger ponies groaned and moved off with Rainbow Dash while Sweetie lingered behind. Her stomach turned as she looked at the carcass of the Changeling, but strangely she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She remembered a time, that seemed so long ago, when seeing a body would have had her spilling her lunch over the ground. Now, it was only a lingering fascination to be forgotten later.

Is this what we’ve all become?

The walls surrounding the base of Canterlot mountain stretched up toward the sky. They were almost impossibly tall, raised by magic in the dark days when it had seemed like all of Equestria would be overwhelmed by the Changeling hordes. Now it had stood for decades, and time had begun to show.

Masonry that had been erected so quickly was beginning to crumble to pieces while the base began to sink into the marshy land around the mountain. Sweetie looked at the signs worriedly, but tried to keep it off her mind. One thing at a time, she reasoned.

Unlike most walls around castles, the one around Canterlot Mountain did not have a gate. Rather, a large, round concrete pad had been placed in front of the walls. Sweetie Belle and her party stood in the center of it while a guard in a watchtower, high above on the wall, inspected them.

He evidently was satisfied, as a moment later they were teleported by a band of unicorns inside the walls and allowed to go free. Sweetie Belle nodded to her friends and began to move off herself when, to her surprise, Rainbow Dash stepped in front of her to talk.

The older mare paced in the dirt just inside the wall’s perimeter. Behind her stretched a rough path that lead up the mountain, to where the remaining free ponies of Equestria lived. For obvious reasons, nopony came near the wall unless they had to, so the land was deserted besides the guards on the walls.

“What happened today was, well...” Rainbow Dash began, dragging a hoof through the dirt.

“I know, I made a fool of myself,” Sweetie Belle said quietly, her head drooped low. The pain of the truth was obvious in Rainbow Dash’s eyes, even while she sputtered to soften the blow.

“No, no, I don’t mean to say that,” Rainbow said. “What I only meant was, maybe, this isn’t the best place for you in the military? Not everypony is supposed to go outside the walls.” She chuckled. “Besides, getting rough and dirty is for us knuckleheads. Somepony with a big brain like yours shouldn’t be risking it on scouting missions.”

“But all my friends go on them. Why should I be any different?”

Rainbow Dash grimaced. “Well, you don’t see Rarity going on these, do you? Of course you don’t, she’d probably go crazy.” She laughed, and Sweetie Belle let out a chuckle as well. The idea of her sister sneaking around in the mud and grass was pretty funny, she had to admit.

“The point is,” Rainbow Dash continued, “is that all of us have different jobs to do. Twilight has to rule, Rarity has to be our mayor, Fluttershy has to run the hospital... do you see where I’m going with this?”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Okay, so maybe I’m not a good scout, but what can I do besides that?”

Rainbow reached into her saddlebag and produced a letter sealed with Twilight’s official stamp. Sweetie immediately brightened up. “Twilight wanted me to give this summons to you sooner, but I wanted to make sure scouting wasn’t your thing,” Rainbow Dash said. “Now, go ahead and go see Twilight, she’ll want to talk to you immediately.”

Sweetie Belle nodded and ran up the path toward Canterlot as fast as her hooves could carry her. She clutched the letter in her mouth like a loyal dog returning it to her master, and was so excited she could hardly stand it. Twilight, the most revered pony in existence, wanted to see her personally!

She could hardly wait.

Up on top of the mountain, the city of Canterlot had expanded to cover almost all of the peak. Creaky scaffoldings were wedged between hastily-built stone outcroppings that were piled high with cheap housing. The stink of nearly half a million ponies crammed into the smallest space possible hung over the entire city. Despite spending so much of her adult life in or near the city, Sweetie Belle still gagged.

Sweetie Belle still remembered, as a filly, coming to Canterlot and it being like something out of a dream: a majestic castle where ponies in the finest clothes and jewelry lived. It had been a place of grandeur, so unlike Ponyville. Now, the streets overflowed with meek and worn ponies dressed in scraps to ward off the cold from so high up the mountain.

It wasn’t hard to see why so many ponies volunteered to be scouts or guards or farmers away from the city, despite the danger.

Still, ponies smiled at Sweetie Belle wherever she went, foals played in the alleys, and nopony begged on the streets. It had been years since almost anypony had really lived beyond scratching out a meager existence, but it hadn’t been enough to break anypony.

Closer to Twilight’s castle, Canterlot felt more like the one Sweetie Belle had known as a foal. The spiraled battlements and ivory walls still stood, though weathered from a lack of skilled ponies to repair them.

Sweetie Belle had to show her official summons to a myriad of guards until, at last, she was able to make her way from the outside of the palace to the magnificent throne room atop the largest spire, which afforded Twilight a view of not just the city, but the Equestrian countryside that stretched out in all directions.

Unlike Celestia’s old throne room, which had stood empty for the past decades, Twilight’s was decorated more simply. The floor was made of plain concrete with only a long rug on top of it, which itself led to a simple, black throne half the size of Celestia’s. The primary difference, however, was the lack of stained glass windows. Rather, the windows were clear glass, and showed the expanse of Equestria.

Twilight stood in front of the windows, her face almost pressed to the glass. She didn’t look up as Sweetie came in, but nodded in a way of greeting. “I was hoping Dash would give you my message at some point,” she said.

She kept her eyes to the glass and looked toward the darkened hills and pastures of Equestria. Out there, Sweetie Belle knew, ponies still played and laughed and labored beneath the yoke of the Changelings. She couldn’t imagine how much it hurt Twilight to know that.

“Do you know why I chose to have these windows made for my chamber?” Twilight asked after a moment. Then, without waiting for a response, she continued, “It was to remind me of what we once had, and what we lost. That there is a world beyond this mountain, a world that still carries on without us.”

“But they wish for us to come back,” Sweetie Belle added. “All the ponies of Equestria are waiting for us to take back our lands and free them from the Changelings.”

Twilight looked choked up, and took a moment to answer. “That may be true... maybe. But that doesn’t change the truth: we cannot take back Equestria on our own.”

Sweetie gasped, and Twilight turned around with a look of contempt in her eyes. “Sweetie Belle, don’t pretend you’re surprised. You and your sister and everypony has known for years that so few ponies cannot take back an empire so large, especially with Celestia missing and Luna in self-banishment.”

“But... did you call me up here to tell me that our situation is hopeless?” Sweetie Belle asked, shaken.

Twilight laughed softly and shook her head. “No, no, don’t be silly. Times are hard, but we can’t give in to them. No, I believe that we can still take back Equestria, but not by ourselves.” She approached her throne, casting wary glances at it. “I’ve already dispatched Rarity for the Crystal Empire, to see if she can make contact with Cadance and bring the crystal ponies to our side.”

The Crystal Empire, Sweetie Belle remembered, had dropped all contact with Equestria years ago after signing a treaty with the Changelings. At the time, Twilight had been so mad she’d nearly destroyed a whole section of her palace until Pinkie Pie stopped her.

“Okay,” Sweetie Belle said, trying to take everything in. “So you sent Rarity up to the Crystal Empire. What do you want from me? Am I supposed to go after her?”

Twilight, choosing her words with care, looked out the windows once more and said, “Long ago, just before the Changelings attacked once more, Princess Celestia had a task for me. She wished to spread friendship far and wide, over the lands beyond Equestria where little friendship can be found. Out there, ponies and other creatures fight each other for everything; food, water, shelter, even identity.

"But now, Equestria is left without friendship as well, and it will take a miracle to bring it back to these lands. However, Celestia believed that there was good in those lands, a good that was worth fighting for and friendship to be found. A friendship that could, even, help save Equestria.”

Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened with realization. She took a step backward, the information causing her to physically stagger under its mental weight. “You mean... you want me to do that?” She shook her head. “I can’t do that! I can’t do anything, not even scouting! Anypony here would be a better choice to bring ponies friendship!” Her voice had grown high-pitched, so she almost sang the words.

It was, in fact, close enough to a song that a burst of magic appeared in the air. As musical notes danced in blue magic clouds above her head, they were accompanied by pink hearts that whirled around her horn. Sweetie Belle, red-faced, ended the spell. “It still, uh, goes off sometimes when I get excited.”

Twilight, however, only grinned. “But see, Sweetie Belle, that’s why you’re perfect for the task. Your whole talent is filling ponies with joy by singing. Your voice can make any two ponies stop fighting and become friends. Out of all the ponies in Canterlot, you and I are the only ones who have a power like that. And I have to stay here and run the city. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yes, I do,” Sweetie Belle said, “but... I haven’t sung, not for real, in years. I just... with all the badness in our lives, I can’t find the spark, except by accident. How am I supposed to make friends overseas, let alone recruit them to our side, if I can’t sing?”

Twilight looked at her slowly. While she was—normally—slightly manic if authoritative since becoming a princess, the real Twilight began to show through in front of Sweetie Belle. Instead of the powerful royalty in flowing, white robes, she could see the lonely and scared filly who had been thrust into the position so many years before.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish Princess Celestia was here in my place,” Twilight said. “Her disappearance and Luna banishing herself weren’t even announced, they just happened, and I had to rule. I didn’t have any idea how to then, and I still don’t now. Not really.

“But that’s the thing, Sweetie Belle. Some ponies are born great or achieve greatness, but others have it thrust upon them. Neither of us chose the paths our lives had led us down, but we have to make the best of them. I know you can’t sing now, but you don’t have a choice: you have to go overseas, you have to sing for them, and you have to recruit them to our cause, because you’re the only one who can.”

Twilight swallowed. “And if you can’t, then Canterlot will fall and we’ll be enslaved.”

Sweetie Belle couldn’t do anything but nod in agreement. Her heart beat faster. Was this really happening? It was all so fast, yet time seemed to move in slow motion. She barely even heard Twilight say, “An airship we’ve hired will take you across the ocean, to a port called Jollygold. From there, you can hire a guide with the gold you’ll be given and find your way to the nearest pony kingdom. You’re on your own after that.”

Twilight said nothing more. Instead, she returned to looking out her windows at a moonless night over Equestria until Sweetie Belle finally left the throne room and headed home.

The next morning, her bags packed and loaded on her back, Sweetie Belle stood on a hidden airship pad near the rear of the mountain and watched the approaching dirigible. She was all alone, with not even Twilight to see her off. She supposed it made sense. Her mission was a secret, after all. That didn’t stop her from wishing somepony had showed up.

At last, the airship arrived, and a surly-looking griffin stepped out, accompanied by a small crew of two stallions who tossed Sweetie’s bags into the airship. The griffin leered at her from a face mottled with spots and scars and two cold eyes.

Despite his appearance, his voice was sharp and clear, and he spoke without an accent. “My name is Siegfried, and I’ll be your captain from here to Jollygold,” he said, inspecting her. “I don’t know what you’re doing overseas, and I don’t care. Just stay quiet and we’ll make it to 'gold in one piece.”

He huffed and returned to his ship. Sweetie Belle followed behind him and boarded, cautiously setting hoof into the cramped airship. It was more of a glorified balloon, with only a single level in the gondola that held the engine and controls, and just a little room to sit or lie down. It was, she supposed, good for a stealth mission, but uncomfortable for anything else.

Soon, however, she saw why Twilight had chosen it. The airship, though small, was fast, and Canterlot mountain was soon behind them. In only a few hours, they had reached the coast, and soon nothing but water stretched below them.

Sweetie Belle, exhausted from a night of frantic packing and worrying, settled down to sleep once they were safely away from Equestria. Without a single incident, her heart had finally started working normally. She was quick to fall asleep in the back of the wooden-floored gondola, where she could feel the warmth and gentle hum of the engine.

For hours, she slept, and only awoke occasionally to check that they were still on their way. Though their journey across Equestria had been quick, flying over the ocean was taking ages. It was only later, at some point the next morning, that she fully awoke, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Sweetie Belle shivered and got up from her spot in the back of the gondola. They must have been flying higher than before, as the air felt much colder. She spotted the griffin, Siegfried, at the helm while his crew slept near her saddlebags.

She trotted over to them and pulled out a coat to wear that she had pilfered from Rarity’s closet. After all, if Rarity was gone, she wouldn’t mind a few things missing. As she put it on, however, she saw something that felt was strange, but she couldn’t quite place it. The two crew members were sleeping in front of her, the smaller mare nustled up against the burly stallion. They seemed altogether totally normal, but she couldn’t quite place what felt off about it.

Sweetie Belle shrugged it off and began to approach Siegfried to ask about their course, when she stopped cold in her tracks. The day before, it had been two burly stallions loading up the airship, without a mare in sight. And over the ocean, there wasn’t anywhere to pick anypony up....

“Uh, Siegfried,” Sweetie Belle said quietly, approaching him at the helm, “I think there’s something funny going on here. How thoroughly did you check your crew before hiring them?” She tried to keep her voice down so as not to wake the crew. With any luck, she and Siegfried could overpower them if they turned out to be spies.

However, when Siegfried turned around, he had a taunting frown on his face. “Oh dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t figure it out until we were already in Jollygold,” he said. “But I suppose it doesn’t matter, there’s not much you can do about it now.”

Sweetie Belle began to panic. Her breath came in shallow gasps, and she started to back away from the griffin, who now seemed far more tall and imposing than the day before. Before she could get anywhere, she found herself backing into the two crewmembers. When she turned around, however, she found herself face-to-face with two Changelings. They grinned at her, their carapaces glinting gold in the early morning light.

“Gag her and bag her,” Siegfried ordered, “and get a clamp on that horn of hers; unicorns can be nasty with that thing.” He winked at her, like he was sharing a secret with an old friend. “We don’t want our pretty little pony hurting herself, would we? Otherwise, we’ll never get a good price for her in the slave market.”

He laughed and turned back to the helm. Before she could let out a cry, the Changelings pounced on Sweetie Belle, and the world spun away into a sea of darkness.

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