-Begin Act III-
Chapter 14: Trottingham’s Golden Noose
Out in the empty grey plains of Equestria that stretched as far as the eye could see, a lonely dirt trail ran through the worn grey grass, headed for the shining city of Trottingham. Along it rode a lone wagon, ferrying ponies each within a few feet of each other but feeling far away from the others.
Four ponies, to be exact, with four brands of individual emptiness, though not all would be willing to admit it.
Three ponies lay in the back. Fate was sitting against a pair of stacked crates making small motions with his hooves and muttering something to himself to pass the time; Trixie and Greed were still asleep next to him, with their backs to each side of the wagon, their hooves barely an inch apart.
An alicorn sat in the front coach, the reigns running down to two harnesses that would be pulling the wagon if they were not instead pulled by magic. But in the alicorn’s mind the harnesses were not empty, one was pulled by a dark blue alicorn with a sparkling ethereal mane, and a faceless white pony who looked like no one and anyone at once.
Celestia felt them pull the four silent ponies along. She once wondered if it was she who pushed them along or they who pulled her forward, but then she realized it was both, working together in a symbiotic harmony.
She had a long way to go to help them. Her first goal was to reach Trottingham and gather supplies as well as convince Greed to help which would require a deft hoof, or perhaps a miracle.
As they travelled Celestia had checked and double checked her surroundings, and as far as she could tell Nightmare Moon had not followed them past the mountains.
It was, in part, due to placing every anti-tracing spell she had on the carriage. They had also traveled quickly, but even still they would have to reach town soon to avoid her sister’s watchful gaze.
Almost as though the city knew her thoughts, a single tower rose up in the distance as the travellers reached the apex of a hill. Trottingham Tower revealed itself in it’s full glory, emerging like a tall beacon among the plains.
Celestia turned back to speak to the only one there she could consider a friend, who was now enacting a kind of dance between his front hooves.
The grey earth pony jerked his head slightly, leaving his hooves hanging in the air mid-gesture.
“Wha? Oh, hey. What’s up?” He asked nonchalantly from the back of the wagon.
“We’re almost here.” Celestia said, looking back at the city of Trottingham.
Fate pulled himself onto one of the crates and put his front hooves on the back of the seat to match Celestia’s eye level.
The cart halted at the top of a hill with the city now in full view. Trottingham spread out before them, with it’s tallest buildings all congregated together in the middle, and becoming shorter in size as it went out.
Trottingham Tower soared forty stories high, dwarfing the buildings around it. It alone made up most of the color of the city. It’s white bricks were covered in gold decorations like window frames, banners and other royal accessories.
Other than the large tower, where almost all of the cities administrative duties were performed, the city was known very well as a trading hub. Everyone from ponies to griffons to manticores and occasionally creatures that defied explanation came to trade at the Grand River Market, which snaked through the entire city.
While the city was still familiar, it was not the same beast it once was. Large square brick buildings that were painted black, with no apparent windows or any other distinguishing features, dotted the south section of the city. They were never there when she was in power.
She also noticed that there was signs of construction work at the top of Trottingham Tower, and from that distance it appeared to be some shade of yellow.
“Now that’s new.” Fate said.
“The top of the tower or the square buildings?” Celestia asked.
“Haven’t you seen-oh wait, that’s right you’ve been...busy for the past few years. Or past month...which was also years...or something.” Fate mused out loud then shook his head.
“Trottingham is a bit different now that your little sis in charge.”
“Have you been here before?”
“Yes, once. To be honest, it kinda sucked.” He said bluntly.
As much as it did not surprise her, it was not what Celestia wanted to hear.
“What did she do?”
“First off, you see those black square things?” He pointed to the featureless brick buildings.
“Those are the main source of food. They have these crystals that make fake sunlight to grow crops and whatnot, then they sell them to the market vendors. With tax included, of course.”
“Another means to control the city...” Celestia mused. “It must be, Luna never cared about wealth.”
“She certainly at least paid attention during her Dictatorship 101 class.” Fate said.
“It’s more likely due to Luminaria’s influence.” Celestia retorted. “Who maintains control of the city now? The mayor never would allow all of this, was she removed from her position?”
“That’s a funny way of saying ‘killed and replaced by a four member council. She put a little group of hoof-picked soulless pencil pushers in charge so she could ‘manage’ the rest of Equestria.” Fate said.
“Hmm...this place used to be so busy.” Celestia looked closely at the city. She remembered the coronation of the Grand River Market, which was the first time griffons had met zebras. “It has been deeply wronged.”
Trottingham’s once proud and bright buildings, painted all manner of colors, now seemed like a blob of dreary shades of grey on the landscape. Lit windows dotted amongst the houses and skyscrapers being some of the only visible color other than the tower. Dirt and stone roads all converged on the mass, most houses along them seemingly abandoned.
In five years past, the city’s air was buzzing with pegasi carrying their load of beets, cabbage, oranges, and any other fruit and vegetable under the sun. Now there was barely a pony in the sky.
The city was no stranger to change, as it’s varied inhabitants constantly lobbying for change and bickering amongst itself. In the end though, the citizens always clung to each other and fiercely defended one another when someone was in trouble.
“Before we head into the city, we will need to be able to conceal ourselves.” Celestia said, stepping out of the wagon. “Equestria might not remember me, but we can’t take the chance of being discovered. Fortunately, I have just the thing we need.”
Celestia’s horn glowed with inner sunlight, and a small breeze swept through the grass. After a few seconds, with four flashes of light appeared revealed four simple brown cloaks that floated above the ground.
They were barely anything to look at, made of simple brown cloth with colored trim around the edges and had a golden clip that fastened it around the user’s neck. Each one had a different color: one had gold, another deep blue, the third was light purple and the last was the same bright green as Fate’s mane.
“Oh cool.” Fate exclaimed as he crawled up into the front seat. “Team jerseys!”
“These are not team outfits, they are magical cloaks.” Celestia stated as she showed him their new accessories.
“When you wear this, nopony can recognize you unless the hood is lowered or you make eye contact with them.” Celestia explained, drifting the green-trimmed cloak over to Fate.
He held out his hooves and received his present. The other two floated into the back of the wagon.
“Mine is special however.” Celestia said. She opened the gold-trimmed cloak and spun it around her body like a tornado of fabric. After making a few quick rotations around her the cloak settled down to a rest on her back.
Blinking from the sudden unexpected rush of air, Fate focused on the cloaked alicorn and his jaw subsequently dropped in surprise.
Right before his very eyes stood a pale cloaked pony, barely taller than himself. Celestia was almost indistinguishable from her normal form.
“Whoa.” Was all he could say.
He tried to look at her face but all he could see was a murky blackness under the hood. Celestia’s eyes seemed to glow yellow as she looked away to the side.
“This cloak has a magic aura that makes me very hard to recognize, so long as the hood is up.” Celestia said and reached up with her hoof, pulling back on the hood of the cloak.
Fate felt his heart speed up and stared. When Celestia pulled her hood back, it revealed a mane of light pink wavy hair instead of her usual multicolored one. “My height and mane are also changed back to how they used to be over 2000 years ago.”
“How do I look? Do you recognize me?” She asked, meeting Fate’s stare.
“Jenesi?” Fate said.
“I’m sorry?” Celestia asked, perplexed.
Fate blinked his eyes and shook his head a bit. “Oh uh, you’ll need a new name right? Like a secret identity.”
“That’s a good point, but where did you come up with that name?”
“Oh it just kinda came to me. First random name I thought of.” Fate waved his hoof nonchalantly.
Celestia didn’t buy his dismissive tone. “Is Jenesi somepony you know? I don’t mean to pry, but you said it almost instinctively.”
“No, I told you it’s just some name I thought of when I realized we could use some fake names.” Fate said.
“Alright then...” Celestia said, dropping her inquiry. “In any case, you will also need a new name while we’re in Trottingham.”
“I agree, Fate is such a silly name.” He swatted the air sarcastically.
“Your name will be... Pepper Bell.” Celestia said.
“Pepper Bell?” Fate asked. “You mean like from the folk tale about a court jester who was so bad he actually made ponies cry?”
“First random name I thought of.”
“Oh har har.” Fate crossed his front hooves and lightly chuckled.
Celestia stepped up into the wagon next to Fate. It was strange being the same height as somepony else for the first time in a long time. With a flash of Celestia’s horn the wagon lurched back to life and they started rolling towards Trottingham.
The name Jenesi stuck in her mind, even as she tried to focus on more important issues. Every now and then Celestia could feel her companion looking over at her then looking away.
Despite all that the two had been through, she knew very little about him. He had declined to talk about his past, and she did not pursue the matter out of respect. But she had asked many questions, and received few answers.
It was starting to bother her.
-30 minutes later-
“We’re here. Put on your cloak.”
A voice shook Fate out of his daydreaming haze. He looked at the source and saw a pink haired pony wearing a hooded cloak staring back at him. He mumbled an affirmation and tied the cloak around his neck.
The cloak didn’t change his appearance like it did Celestia’s. Celestia noticed this, and surmised that nopony knew who he was in the first place and the cloak’s magic didn’t need to take effect.
Using her magic, she lifted Greed’s head and tied the blue-trimmed cloak around his neck. His appearance didn’t change either. Trixie was already well covered by her large hat and cloak, so Celestia placed the cloak on the floor of the cart for now.
As the wagon reached the edge of town the two ponies, who were now both sitting in the front seat at even heights, saw black armored ponies flying through the skies in groups of three, as well as patrolling the roads further in the city.
One stood unmoving ahead of them on the side of the road they were currently on. It was clutching a spear with a black shaft and blue lines running down it. It’s head had a horizontal crescent shape with the blue spear tip coming out of the center.
“Shadowguard.” Celestia said. “Luna’s creations. No doubt here to enforce her order.”
“Bingo.” Fate responded. “Those guys are everywhere. They’re tough, but pretty stupid on their own.”
The Shadowguard stood perfectly still in front of a small building. It’s skin was pure black like an empty hole in the shape of a pony. It wore deep blue armor that closely resembled the old royal guard design, a piece of history from the time before Luna’s banishment.
It’s helmet covered almost the entire head and had round holes that served as eyes. The eyes glowed pure blue and stared straight ahead at seemingly at nothing.
This particular one lacked the bat-like wings of the flying Shadowguards or a horn. It was a simple yet effective peon that didn’t require anything but it’s presence.
“I hope you’ve got a plan.” Fate said quietly to Celestia.
“If need be. Just keep your hood up and try to speak as little as possible.” She said.
“I don’t think I like this plan." Fate smirked and the hood’s murky blackness hid his face.
Slowly rolling down the road, they soon passed in front of the guard. Looking into it’s eyes Fate saw absolutely nothing in them except the blue spark that gave the automaton life.
Celestia held her breath and looked straight ahead as they approached the guard’s position. Despite Fate’s blatant stares, the guard did nothing. Ten dread filled seconds passed as the wagon traveled by.
Fortunately, the Shadowguard did not look at Celestia or even move. Soon they passed it and started putting distance between them and the statue-esque pony. Celestia allowed herself to exhale in relief.
She looked over at Fate and saw him staring back at her with his eyes crossed and his jaw outstretched, mimicking the stoic pose of the Shadowguard.
“Stop that!” Celestia hissed. “You’re going to attract atten-,”
“Halt!” The Shadowguard suddenly shouted in a cold authoritative voice.
Celesia immediately tensed up. She could hear nigh mechanical hoofsteps marching towards them. “Let me speak.” She said quietly. This could get very bad if handled poorly.
The Shadowguard stomped up next to Fate’s side of the wagon but said nothing. It looked into the back of the wagon and saw Trixie and Greed lying unconscious, covered by their perspective cloaks.
It turned it’s gaze back to Fate, who awkwardly tried to avoid looking over at it. Next it looked Celestia over, making sure to check each of their flanks.
“Where are you from?” It demanded.
“We are travelers weary from a long journey.” Celestia answered plainly. “We wish to rest and regain our supplies.”
It stood still for a moment, analyzing her words. Just as it’s lack of response started to make Celestia nervous it spoke again.
“All newcomers must adhere to any and all posted decrees and regulations.” It pointed with a hoof to a poster on the side of a building next to them. “Furthermore, the population’s presence is demanded in the town square for an important event held by the king.”
“We understand.” She said.
“Any form of dispute will result in immediate countermeasures. Cause no trouble whilst in Trottingham and praise King Goldy Lock.” The Shadowguard said and saluted.
“Praise King Goldy Lock.” Celestia repeated, with forced enthusiasm.
With that the Shadowguard turned around and marched back to it’s previous post. Celestia took her cue to leave and quickly the wagon rumbled to life again, leaving the Shadowguard behind.
“King Goldy Lock?” Fate asked. Celestia quietly shushed him. He scrunched his mouth shut.
Rolling forward about five feet they reached the poster and stopped in front of it. At the top was a black and white portrait of the head of a unicorn wearing a large crown covered in jewels. It read:
A New Decree By Your High Master King Goldy Lock! From here on out the following rules shall be put in place to help maintain order and equality among our shining city!
1: All citizens and visiting ponies must have their cutie marks covered whilst in public! Help keep envy out of our streets!
2: Desecration of any depiction of King Goldy Lock will result in immediate and severe punishment! Report those who violate this rule!
3: No Pegasis may fly higher then the tip of Trottingham Tower! Avoid inviting jealousy into the hearts of others!
4: Evading mandatory taxes is now punishable by death! Play your part!
These new regulations are from this point forth law. Further regulation may be put into place to keep everypony together as one single city.
No one above his neighbor!
Obey King Goldy Lock and Empress Nightmare Moon as one united city!
“Who the hay is this guy? I thought Trottingham had a council running it.” Fate said and then shoved his hoof over his mouth to keep quiet.
“It would seem that ‘was’ is the key word. It is likely that they were removed from their position, and this Goldy Lock pony is the only one left.” Celestia said.
“You think he saw the others as competition?” Fate asked, removing his hoof from his mouth.
“Power creates a hunger only satisfied by more power. It’s something I know is not so easily suppressed.” Celestia said and started the wagon down the road again.
Buildings grew in vacancy as they continued into Trottingham proper. Trottingham Tower loomed in the sky and now that they were closer Celestia could see that the golden beacon being constructed atop the tower was what appeared to be the beginnings of a large pony’s head.
Signs of life began to appear. A pony slowly walked along the road wearing a small green skirt over her flank, and a pegasus pony flew overhead. Neither bothered to look at the wagon.
City noises could be heard now, the multitudes of ponies talking and wheels rolling made the familiar sense of presence only cities could provide. The only thing that made this city bustle different was how it was more panicked than busy.
Ponies hurriedly rushed into the center of the city to hear the announcement they were ordered to attend. Winged Shadowguards flew overhead, corralling ponies into the town square.
Celestia decided to turn the wagon into the edge of the crowd along the side of the road. Being outside of a crowd would only make it harder for them to blend in. Dozens of sets of hooves shuffled along the street, carrying ponies all wearing some form of clothing over their flanks.
They all spoke quietly amongst themselves, like they would be punished if somepony overheard them. A pair of griffons whispered into each others ears and one of them spit on the ground angrily.
Eventually the crowd rounded a corner and they entered the town square. It was as large as the courtyards back in Canterlot, large enough to fit hundreds of ponies at once, not including pegasi. This courtyard was overflowing with ponies of all kinds and the occasional wagon. Shadowguard stood everywhere around the edge of the square and along the rooftops, their spears forming spiked fences.
Celestia parked the wagon in front of a building near the back of the crowd. Seas of bodies all tried to look over each other at an elevated stage attached to a large three story administrative building. Paintings and banners of the pony on the poster coated the square. A pair of busts of the king were on display on the corners of the stage.
Once she looked around the square, Celestia could see what they were all looking at. Five ponies stood on small stools, and each had a black bag over their head. A long wooden beam was suspended above them, with a pile of rope above each pony.
It took a moment, but she quickly recognized what was happening.
This wasn’t an announcement, it was an execution.
Her heart started racing. The urge to act grew, but she held herself in place. Fate simply watched unperturbed.
As if on cue the orchestrator of the execution entered the stage. A pure white stallion with a shimmering golden mane walked onto the platform with a suffocating air of arrogance.
He was wearing a large crown with four spokes and a gem in each. A long and extremely complex white robe flowed off his body, with small cloth tendrils trailing behind him, and a second blue robe underneath the first that was just as complex.
Any royal member in history would have called him overdressed.
Goldy Lock stepped up to the front of the stage with his nose held high. A pair of horned Shadowguard standing to his sides cast their horns into the air and a large magical image of Goldy Lock now looked down at the assembled ponies.
“Ponies of Trottingham!” He projected his meager voice as best he could. “Your king greets you all to this wonderful occasion. It is truly an honor to have so many of you here. As I look out over you and I see not just as my subjects, but my friends.”
The crowd was less than pleased with that statement. A green pegasi standing next to Celestia’s wagon made an audible grumbling noise.
“I am very glad to that all of you are playing your part in keeping the city safe and secure.” Goldy Lock continued. “I understand that there are some who do not want peace, those who do not want the order and stability I have given you all. Those ponies are horrendous weeds that must be destroyed!”
“Today I bring you all the gift of entertainment. As you know, my fellow council members were tragically murdered only a week ago, leaving only me to govern the city. These five are responsible for the heinous crime of poisoning my dear friends’ cider.” Goldy Lock raised his hoof to his forehead in an overdramatic display of grief. Fate rolled his eyes.
He turned back to the five ponies atop their seats and pointed at them. “Their punishment is death!”
The crowd started talking amongst itself, ponies mumbled to each other and a few dared to speak out loud. The ponies about to be executed shook with fear, all except for one who stood still with a military-like discipline.
Adrenaline began pumping through Celestia’s veins. She could do nothing but watch Goldy Lock’s ‘entertainment’ take place.
The king held up a hoof and yelled. “Quiet!” A number of Shadowguards stomped their hooves in unison, bringing a hushed tone over the crowd.
“These five must be punished for their crime, and I shall bring you the satisfaction of watching these traitors face it!” Goldy Lock declared. After he spoke he turned around and tapped his hoof on the ground.
A Shadowguard stepped up behind each one of the five doomed ponies. Each one had a horn and used their dark blue magic to lower a rope from the wooden beam. The ponies cringed as a noose was fitted around each of their necks.
The crowd started murmuring again, this time out of fear. A few audibly gasped. Celestia held herself still.
“Today, I give you a contest between five ponies.” Goldy Lock said. The Shadowguards picked up small metal containers and began pouring a liquid onto the stools. An aroma of fuel wafted down into the crowd.
“We will see...” He tapped his hoof again. The Shadowguards picked up a small torch and lit them with a spark from their horn. They stepped up behind the ponies and lowered them near the stools.
“Who will last the longest!” He shouted.
The Shadowguard touched the torches to the five stools and they burst into flames. Orange light lit up the stage, and the ponies all tried to scream but a gag in their mouth muffled them.
Ponies all over the crowd screamed in horror. Goldy Lock watched the struggling ponies like a child watching a play. The flames burnt the hooves of the five ponies, and all but one thrust up their legs trying to escape the blaze.
Celestia felt a drop of sweat roll down her face. She looked at the horror and did everything she could to stop herself from shooting onto the stage and saving them. Yet if she accidently started a rebellion right now it would only lead to a slaughter.
The fire was now engulfing the ponies’ legs. They flailed their limbs in a panic, trying to stop the searing pain. Their muffled screams sent chills into countless members of the crowd. Finally one of them couldn’t take it anymore.
The blue pony on the far left kicked away her burning stool. Suddenly she felt a vicelike grip tighten on her neck and suspend her in the air. It started sucking out every bit of life she had left, despite the desperate kicking of her burning legs.
Screams erupted from the crowd regardless of the Shadowguard’s intimidation. The hanging pony finally gave out and her kicking slowed to a twitch and then to nothing.
Fate kept looking over at Celestia for signs that she was about to take action.
Celestia felt disgusted, her stomach felt like a deep pit that only got deeper. Four ponies were left on the stage. Soon one of them slipped and felt death snatch him by the neck. It was then that Celestia noticed the grey pony on the right was standing almost perfectly still.
His face was covered but Celestia could imagine it would either be one of horror or one of peace. He stood steadfast as his legs burned, a symbol of bravery among the chaos. A pony to his right slipped off her stool and fell into the noose.
Goldy Lock looked at the fire with satisfaction. Three dead lanterns flickered in his gleeful eyes. Soon the fourth pony joined them after struggling for a few moments.
“Well ladies and gentleponies, it seems we have a winner!” He turned to the crowd and gestured to the last pony standing. He eyed him excitedly but soon his excitement turned into disappointment.
The grey stallion refused to show any pain. The whole city watched him burn but hold his ground. Thousands of eyes saw him keep himself at peace as he burned.
The screams of the crowd died down a little and many simply stared in awe.
Goldy Lock frowned. He grabbed the stool with his yellow magic.
“Tch. Stupid old mule.” He said to himself and ripped the stool away. “Have to do everything myself.”
Nothing changed in the blue stallion’s demeanor as he felt the claws of death grab him by the neck. He did not struggle, but merely accepted it. He was not afraid to burn to ash and would not show fear, even as the life was strangled from him, if it meant a few ponies might not be as scared anymore.
Trottingham was not pleased with the king’s duplicitous action. Many ponies in the crowd started yelling and shouting curses at him. Celestia readied herself, the crowd was getting more angry and she wanted to be able to act if need be.
“My loyal ponies!” Goldy Lock yelled. He was drowned out by the jeering crowd. “Do not raise your voice to your king! Or you will all face punishment!”
Trottingham didn’t want to listen to him. Goldy Lock furrowed his brows. He turned his head and looked back to a horned Shadowbolt with a blue stripe around it’s horn. Goldy Lock stomped his hoof on the ground twice and shooed the Shadowguard away.
It quickly saluted and disappeared in a flash. Goldy Lock looked back at the crowd with a smug smile.
“My friends!” He shouted, the large magical projection of his face stared them down. “You should be more grateful of the gifts I offer you! I give you food and protection, nopony is left behind, we are all equals!”
The green pegasis near the wagon shouted. “You liar! You took my friend!”
Fate leaned forward and tapped his hoof on the pony’s shoulder. “Hey, we’re new here and what’s he talking about?”
“You’re lucky you don’t live here, you should leave as soon as possible. Ever since the other council members died a week ago, he decided to call himself ‘king’ and start controlling everything.” She spat.
“Tch, that filthy liar keeps saying we’re his friends but everypony hates him; he’d probably hates us almost as much if it wasn’t for our money. He says he gives us food but that’s only because he has it all and he makes us pay for it. He also kidnaps anypony who speaks out against him and takes them to the Tower. He took my best friend!” The mare said, furious.
“This guy sounds like a real piece of work.” Fate said.
“I’m sick of him killing our city! I’ve lived here my whole life, and even when Celonia ruled the world it wasn’t this bad.” She flared her nostrils.
Celestia put the pieces together in her head, now she understood what Red Hood was talking about. Nightmare Moon must have cast a memory spell of some kind to make everypony think she saved them from a terrible ruler.
It was all a big lie, that’s how Nightmare Moon took over Equestria. Make them think she’s saving them from a monster and they would at least give her a chance. But as her experience with Red Hood showed, some might not have fallen for it.
The cries all around her woke her out of her thoughts. Goldy Lock was trying to shout something but Celestia couldn’t hear him.
“That’s it!” The pegasus nearby shouted. “I can’t take him anymore! If nopony else will do something then I will!”
With that she spread her wings and leapt into the air before Celestia could grab her with her magic. Her lips snarled in pure rage and she yelled at the top of her lungs. She flew over the heads of the crowd and charged at the stage with her hooves pointed ahead.
Immediately every Shadowguard turned it’s head towards her. The horned ones fired deep purple tendrils of magic and the Shadowguard flying overhead suddenly divebombed her.
Five of the tendrils intercepted her and grappled onto her body. The winged Shadowguard converged on her and tackled her to the ground. They fell into the crowd and ponies spread away from them in a panic. More Shadowguard converged on her and they began piercing her with their spears.
She tried protecting herself with her legs but the brutal automaton’s attacks were too much. Screaming erupted all over the square once again. A few ponies tried to stop the Shadowguards but they formed a circle around the pegasis and pushed the crowd back.
“You see? This is what happens when you do not listen to me!” Goldy Lock shouted. “You will obey ME!”
Then from far outside of the city an incredibly loud and deep roar shook throughout Trottingham. The crowd stopped screaming as they felt the roar chill their blood.
From the south side of the city a large object appeared out of the clouds. It got closer and closer to the city before Celestia could make out what it was.
“DRAGOOON!” Somepony in the crowd shouted.
The dragon opened it’s mouth and let loose an earth shaking roar that erupted for miles. He reached the edge of the city and began circling the town square. It flew around and then landed on top of a six story building behind Goldy Lock. The building almost couldn’t hold up the enormous dragon.
It was one of the biggest dragons Celestia had ever seen. It had bright blue scales and a yellow underbelly. It’s arms were strong and it’s claws dug into the concrete building. It’s large wings spread out and blocked the sky.
More than twenty light blue spines jutted out of the back of it’s head, all sharp enough to skewer metal. It’s tail curled around the building, and the tip was charred black.
Drawing in a breath the dragon lifted it’s head into the sky and opened it’s mouth. Lightning bolts shot out of it’s maw into the sky. A dozen lightning bolts a second spread out above the dragon, each bolt creating a powerful thunderclap and filling the air with webs of electricity.
Every pony in the crowd stared wide eyed in fear. The dragon closed it’s mouth and looked over the crowd with a snarl. A petrified silence overtook them and the only sound left was from the crackling of the five fires.
“Yes little ponies, now you see how things really are!” Goldy Lock shouted with a smile. “This mighty beast is called Thoondahr, and he is under my command."
The dragon snarled again.
“Should any of you try a stunt like that again he will be here to make sure you and your treacherous friends are stomped out.” Goldy Lock stated.
The green pegasis laid beaten and bloody on the ground surrounded by a circle of Shadowguard. From atop his perch the dragon looked at the crowd with contempt.
“This place is out of control.” Fate said. “It’s way worse then I remember.”
Celestia mentally nodded, still unmoving. This city was in worse shape than she could have conceivably thought of. At least it was still standing, although Celestia knew from experience that that could change in an instant.
Perhaps she would have to risk being found out if it meant stopping Trottingham from destroying itself.
Goldy Lock looked over the now quiet crowd. A quiet tension coated them as the two forces stared each other down. Celestia watched the crowd for signs that another pony might try to rush the stage but everypony was frozen still.
“I am disappointed in you ponies.” Goldy Lock spoke with a smug grin. “Striking out against your king is the highest possible offense. As of today I will be raising all taxes by five percent, as punishment for your offensive actions.”
“This concludes today’s announcements.” He was met with hundreds of terrified whispers. “Obey the rules or more punishment will follow. All hail your king!” He puffed out his chest for moment and turned around to walk offstage.
Stopping after one step he quickly turned his head around and said. “...and Empress Nightmare Moon.” Then quickly marched away.
Thoondahr eyed the ponies once more and pushed his mighty legs, jumping up into the air and pumping his wings. He flew over the city and let loose a final erupting roar before disappearing to the south.
Shadowguard blocking the exits stepped aside and allowed the scared ponies to leave. They quickly shuffled out of the town square in all directions and began hastily dispersing throughout the stone streets.
“Let’s move, quickly.” Celestia said. A yellow glow covered the wheels of their wagon and they followed the flow of the crowd headed towards the east side of town.
They followed the crowd into a wide road lined with all manner of carts and vendors, a number of which looked closed or abandoned. Food stands seemed to be the only things left open, and even still many of them were in the process of closing for the day.
The Grand River Market had never looked so bad.
The adrenaline of the events in the plaza eventually started to wear out. Ponies dared to speak out loud about what had happened. Some started angrily discussing while others pleaded with them to stop.
As they traveled like herded sheep ponies gradually started to disappear into other roads, back to their homes if possible. Although some were not so lucky.
The occasional pony could be seen leaning against the side of a building, tucked away behind some ragged cloak or blanket. Every pair of eyes that Celestia saw looked ready to either fade away or let loose a fiery rage.
After about half an hour of trundling along the rocky road Celestia looked around and saw they were essentially alone. Most of the city had fled into their homes and stayed there. There was not a single open vendor in sight.
The Grand River Market shrunk in size, it’s roads becoming more vacant and narrow. A road split off of it and into a large alley with shops and the like. Celestia turned the wagon onto it’s empty paved stones.
An eerie silence made this part of town feel more like a crypt then a marketplace. Sqaure buildings were built right next to each other, making them seem like walls. They passed a number of inns but every one was either closed or run down.
“That was complete insanity back there.” Fate said. His voice shattering the silent street. “That Goldy Lock is just begging for a rebellion.”
“He’s a fool, but a dangerous fool.” Celestia answered.
“I’m honestly surprised you didn’t do anything to stop any of that.” Fate said.
“Anything I did back there would have caused a panic, and you saw what happened when that pony tried to attack Goldy Lock. He has the city locked down, completely under his hoof; and a dragon to keep it that way.” Celestia answered.
“So let’s grab what we can and get the heck outta dodge.” Fate said. “We gotta find the other elements anyway.”
“We knew Equestria was in a bad state, but seeing just how bad it is changes things. This city is standing like a house of cards waiting for an errant wind, or more likely, somepony to knock it over; and it’ll be either liberation or a genocide when that happens.”
“Yeah but a liberation isn’t what we came here for. We just needed a few nights to figure out what in the world we’re doing next and how we’re gonna find the elements. We don’t have time to beat a dragon, an army, a mad king, and free a city.”
He had a point. As much as it pained Celestia she knew that finding the elements was their best shot at saving Equestria, as difficult as that was turning out to be.
If she could get all of the elements to side with her, then surely they could take back the city. But it was already on the verge of utter chaos, and she didn’t have time to do both.
“We came here to rest and form a plan, and that’s what we’ll do.” Celestia stated. “I need some time to think.”
She looked away, her eyes distant; part of her was still having trouble believing what had transpired
Fate opened his mouth to dispute her, but decided not to. He didn’t know what she had in mind, all he knew for sure was that whatever it was Celestia could handle it. After all, she had made it this far.
And she was still virtually a demi-god in magic; that has to count for something too.
Up ahead, nestled into the walls of homes and businesses was a pale orange two-story building with light shining through a single window; it one of the only buildings that had any signs of life. It was old and the wood had begun to rot slightly. Inside the window a small living room could be seen with a pony asleep at a desk.
An old wooden sign hung on a pair of small chains and swayed slightly. The words Little Hayven Inn were carved into it and a picture of an apple pie was behind the words with two blades of grain forming a wreath around it.
The inn was old, it was hidden, and it was perfect.
“Here.” Celestia stated, bringing the invisible ponies pulling the wagon to a stop up against the inn. She opened the side of her cloak and pulled out a bag that jingled with the telltale sound of money.
“Whoa, princess have you been holding out on me?” Fate asked.
“It’s one last parting gift from Red Hood, I found it in the crate while you were doing...whatever you were doing.” Celestia wiggled her hoof to mimic Fate’s earlier gestures.
“I was actually recreating a scene from Trotio and Horseshoeliet.” Fate said and brought his hoof into the air and spoke to it dramatically. “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Horseshoeliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who's meal doth remain upon her pearly whites, and who's radiance brings forth the weeping of children!”
“I think you're remembering it wrong.” Celestia rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, well, history is formed by those who tell it. Uninteresting details like facts are often left out.” Fate said.
“Something I’m sure Goldy Lock would agree with you on.” Celestia said and stepped down out of the wagon.
“You don’t think those five ponies actually killed the rest of the council do you? You think Goldy did it?” Fate asked.
“The truth would likely be an inconvenience if found out. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, other times it’s power.”
He sat in place and nodded slightly. “I guess so.”
“Come.” Celestia placed the bag of bits inside her cloak and stepped towards the door. “Let’s finally get some rest. We’ll come back for them once we have our rooms.” She said motioning to Greed and Trixie.
Jumping out of his seat Fate walked up next to Celestia. The thought of a soft bed made Celestia suddenly feel incredibly tired. It had been over a month since she got to sleep on something other then bundled grass or a stack of hay next to some collapsed building.
Her body agreed with her mind, it was looking forward to a legitimate rest. All the fighting and all the worrying had made her body feel three times as heavy.
Celestia raised a hoof and pushed open the door to the Little Hayven Inn. A little bell rang as the door opened into a living room with an adjacent dining room that had a table with six chairs. A staircase ran up to a second floor.
The walls were painted a warm beige color that made Celestia think of strudel and freshly baked bread. Along the walls was a painting of a slice of cherry pie with a scoop of cream on top, and one of a plate of cookies with swirling wisps of steam rising from them.
One couldn’t enter this place and not soon grow a hearty appetite.
Celestia saw an orange earth pony asleep at a desk. She had a light green mane that was bundled up into a large bun at the back of her head and tied tight with a red ribbon. Three dark freckles marked her left cheek and her cutie mark was a large chocolate chip cookie in the shape of a heart. She also wore a small white and red checkered apron that covered her front.
She sat in her chair snoozing on her foreleg. The sound of the bell made her snort a little and blink her eyes open. Looking up she saw a pair of cloaked ponies enter.
Customers. It had been too long.
“Well hey there sugars!” She exclaimed happily. She had a mature voice with a hint of a Manehatten accent. “The name’s Honey Bun, and welcome to the Little Hayven Inn.”
“Hello Honey Bun.” Celestia removed her hood. “This is Pepper Bell and I’m Jenesi.”
Fate weakly waved.
“We’d like to rent a few rooms.” Celestia said.
“Well certainly, sugar!” Honey Bun exclaimed. “How many would ya like?”
Celestia pulled out her bag of bits and placed it on the table. “All of them.”
-Somewhere Outside Trottingham-
Amidst the grey pains surrounding Trottingham, a pony, in a dark red cloak with dark streaks harshly running down it’s length, walked through the faded grass.
The cloak’s hood ran well past their forehead and just over their eyes. A gust of wind lifted the cloak’s body slightly, revealing that the earth pony sported an empty sheath, strapped to the side of their red-coated body with leather straps.
They reached the top of a hill, with the grey sight of Trottingham spread out before them. It’s white and gold tower beckoned as a home of answers. The pony raised their head, exposing a rough muzzle and a white bandage wrapped over their eyes.
They tapped the ground with their hoof and lifted it up, as if pulling something from the earth. A sword rose out of the ground in response, it’s grip angled towards them. With deft motion, they grabbed it in their mouth, then lifted their cloak with a hoof, and placed the sword quickly in it’s sheath.
The ground closed when it released the sword, obeying the swordpony’s will like a hound to their master. In but a moment, the earth showed no signs of what had transpired..
Taking a step forward, the cloaked pony began to descend into Trottingham.