You know that the world is old, but civilization is much older than most ponies realize. Elves, Humans, Raptorians, Grundles, Centaurs, Troggles, and countless others lived and prospered long before ponies. However, while some creatures had numbers to be a nation, they were disorganized and too spread out to form a cohesive civilization. The creatures went either living in isolation from other creatures or leading a nomadic life in search of a better place to find food and prosper.
The only constant was fear of dragons. I know you and your friends had a difficult time with that one red dragon outside of Ponyville, but at least Fluttershy was able to convince him to leave. The ancient ones were beyond reason. With few exceptions, they were beasts to their core. They had no written language, no sense of society, no history, no interest beyond feeding, mating and acquiring hordes. They attacked settlements, ate anyone or anything in their path, and stole anything of value for themselves. Had things remained thus, they might have become the dominant species of the world by sheer strength alone.
The beginning of true civilization came from the centaurs. In the face of the harsh world they inhabited, they thrived and advanced. Among their accomplishments, they found the best ways to farm land, made the first irrigation system, and they made the first steel, and used it to craft better tools and weapons. Unfortunately, these advances attracted the attention of dragons.
Things changed when a centaur named Orion became king of the largest centaur tribe. Orion was faster, stronger and cleverer than any other centaur in the tribe. He could go off alone with just his sword and bow, and be back by nightfall with enough game to last the tribe weeks. Even the most vicious predators were no match for him. From wolves to hydras, all fell to Orion.
However, Orion's greatest feat came just after he became king. He went up into the mountains and found a dragon feeding on a herd of wild cattle. Orion knew that it was close enough that it would spot the village from the sky, and attack it. Using his wits and cunning, he lured the dragon into a long, narrow tunnel in the mountains, where the giant creature couldn't easily move, then stayed to its side and got in dozens of small cuts into the dragon's hide. The dragon couldn't stop him because the tunnel was too thin to turn to breathe fire or even see where to strike at him until it finally succumbed to blood loss. The first non-dragon in history to slay one.
Orion returned with the dragon's head as proof of his deed, and was hailed as a hero like no other before him, and the legend spread across the land until there was no centaur alive who had not heard of Orion the Hunter. He united the factions of the centaurs together into one nation.
The unified centaurs began building a great city, a testament to their new strength. All this got the attention of another dragon. But, when it came, the centaurs were ready. Orion taught them the weaknesses he'd seen in the dragon he had killed. They constructed great projectile weapons to launch into the air, cutting through scales, breaking bones, and tearing flesh. The battle raged for hours, but finally ended with the centaurs victorious.
Drac'thanos, 'Dragon's Death' was the first of many cities that they built. The centaurs' might grew until they began to seek out the dragons instead of waiting for attacks. Whether the highest mountains, or the murkiest swamps they destroyed any dragon they found. This wasn't revenge, it was ending a threat that gave them no quarter.
Their advances in technology, society and reputation as dragon slayers made them the envy of the known world. So much so that a decade into Orion's reign, an ogre kingdom attacked the centaurs. The ensuing conflict was brutal and costly, but the centaurs again won. However, Orion was not overly merciful. Once victory was claimed, he also claimed the ogres' lands as property of the centaurs, and all that lived there would henceforth owe allegiance to him and his people. thus the Great Centaur Empire was born.
For centuries the Empire steadily grew. The centaurs felt it was their duty to bring civilization to the rest of the world. Dozens of kingdoms were annexed into the Empire ,whether by force or by choice, and colonies were founded in lands beyond.
"Um, sorry to interrupt, Princess, but where were the ponies in all this?" Applejack asked.
I anticipated this question. Didn't make it kinder.
"Applejack, You'll want to brace yourself for a shock. Ponies of that era, were in no position to affect the world. They were naught but dumb animals. They had no sapience, no conscience, no ego, no free will, no personal identities, and no cutie marks. Cutie marks only appear when ponies find and embrace their destinies and discover who they are. The ancient ponies did not have the capacity for such thought, and remained blank flanks from birth to death."
Applejack's eyes became wider and wider. "But...then how did they live?"
"Wildly. They knew nothing beyond the instincts of eat, breed and stay alive, and did what they had to in order to follow them."
"...What do ya mean 'did what they had to?'" I hear her dread, she's already guessed.
"As the Flutters attest, nature can be cruel, Applejack. Wild animals have neither the capacity nor the luxury of moral. Most of the world was still wild and savage, and those who were neither did not survive. If food was scarce, ponies fought over it, and the losers starved to death. Stallions would kill each other over the choice of mates, and mares had no interest which won, never batting an eye even while mating with the victor as the other lay dead. If a predator came, they would run, not caring if their fellow ponies were eaten. Death was constant, and those that died went unmourned and forgotten."
"But...what about family?" Applejack's coat looked greenish.
"Ponies stayed together out of necessity than familial bond or friendship. There is an instinct to defend one's young, but if they died the parents could have another."
Applejack looked like she might faint or be sick.
"Would you like a break?"
"N-no. No, Ah'll be fine." She cleared her throat.
"Very well. The tribes were separated and rarely intermingled. Earth ponies stayed to the plains, Unicorns and Flutterponies in the forests, Seaponies beneath the sea, and Pegasi amongst the clouds. If they ever did engage each other, it was over food or territory, and usually ended with one of them dead.
"Flutterponies stayed in hidden valleys. Sea Ponies hide beneath the waves, though one or two were seen by land creatures, often mistaken for merpeople. The remaining equine races weren't as reclusive. Their great strength and endurance made them targets targets of more advanced life. If not hunted for food they were used as beasts of burden. Many found you ugly, disturbing, having only a head where a centaur's body should be. Their myths had you as centaurs who had been punished by the gods.
"Earth ponies were used the most as simple labor, pulling carts, plows, heavy machinery and of course, as steeds. Unicorns were hunted, but never domesticated, there was no way to keep them from teleporting away or attacking with their magic. So instead they were often hunted as trophies. Their horns prized as status symbols and ingredients for mages and alchemist.
The Pegasi, were the favored of the centaurs. Their strength and flight made them ideal war horses. And were bred for war. Having pegasi pulling their chariots created the world's first air force. It allowed them to fly over city walls that would have held back ground troops, and taking away the dragons' advantage of flight in battle. Pegasi unconscious mimicked the centaurs in the three tribes era.
"No. Slavery is the forced labor or service of a sentient being. Ponies of that time had no sense of self, let alone a desire to do anything with their lives beyond living. Mostly, ponies that were owned by centaurs lived longer and more comfortably than their wild brethren. They were fed on a more regular basis, they were groomed and taken care of, and they were housed and kept safe from predators. What they had was not slavery. It was like the relationship you and your friends have with your pets."
"Ah...Ah guess Ah understand. Still don't like it."
You asked for the whole story, and it begins on an unseasonably cold summer night in Orionopolis, the Empire's capital.
The child of the reigning emperor, Chiron the Strong, had long been anticipated. Assuring the legacy going all the way back to Orion himself was so dire, that the emperors were allowed, and expected, to take at least four wives to improve the odds of siring a male child. Why male? Their society was patriarchal. Your matriarchal culture would have seemed just as strange. But theirs was incomparably extreme.
After years of trying, one of his wives became pregnant. However, when the day came for Lady Myrrha, the emperor's second eldest wife, to give birth, it wasn't a happy occasion. The baby wasn't due for two more months; and if you know the difficulties that can occur in premature birth, imagine them before medical science and magic were advanced enough to truly help.
Emperor Chiron was at his wits end. Lady Myrrha had been in labor for almost two days. The doctors had tried, but as time passed the odds of saving mother or child diminished. It was just before midnight when a nurse came to inform the emperor. The emperor's son was born, but they were unsure he would live through the night. Lady Myrrha's body had endured too much and lost too much blood.
The nurse advised him to spend the time she had left together. Chiron galloped full tilt into the chamber. Most of the doctors and nurses huddled around a table, inspecting the baby. Lady Myrrha lay on the bed, panting and drenched in sweat and blood, still breathing.
"Myrrha...can you hear me?" Chiron begged.
"Our...our son is here," she said breathlessly.
"Oh yes, he's here." He smiled. "You did wonderfully."
"Wha...what is his name?"
"I...why don't you decide?"
"But...it's the father's duty to name him."
"What's tradition if you don't break it occasionally?" He forced a laugh.
She thought over the possibilities, and even in her exhausted haze, she remembered a name she loved. A name that meant 'strong and great' for a prince who would become strong and great.
"Tirek. His name is Tirek." She smiled over at where the doctors worked over him. "He'll make it. I have faith in him. He fought his way into the world early, that's how much of a fighter he is."
"So, take his example and fight!" Chiron demanded. "He'll need his mother."
"He'll have Helena, Hermia, and Arachne as his mothers...and...he'll have...his father." She scarcely spoke the last word before she left this world.
Chiron was ready to cry, but he didn't. A centaur man wasn't supposed to cry. So he bottled his grief and simply turned to the doctors looking over his son.
"What can be done for my son?" The Emperor cleared his throat.
"He's breathing, and he's moving his arms and legs Your Highness, but he's still very small and weak. I've administered the right herbs and we're trying to get spells to strengthen his heartbeat, but I honestly don't know if he will-"
The doctor's words drowned out as the child looked up at his father. The boy's skin was a rich brown, and his fur was a deep grey, just like his father. However, it was his eyes that grabbed Chiron's attention. His eyes were a striking blue, just like his mother's. Part of her still lived in him.
"Let me be clear, doctor, my son will live!" Chiron snapped at them. "I have lost my wife, I will not lose him! You have permission to use whatever resources of the Empire to do whatever is necessary to keep him alive. If he dies, you all die!"
His sentiments were no different from any parent worthy of being called such.
Two years later, Chiron's second son was born by his youngest wife, Arachne. But he could not be heir. Unlike his other wives, Lady Arachne was not a centaur but a gargoyle princess married for an alliance. Despite being of royal blood, her son was also a gargoyle, and only centaurs could take the throne. However, Scorpan, as he was named, grew up with all the other rights and privileges due to a prince of the Empire alongside his brother.
Spoiled? Heh. From the time they learned to crawl, they were taught that nothing in life is given. Anything worth having must be earned, fought for, taken, won. Thus, everyone, from the richest to the poorest had to be ready to fight for what they wanted. Shielding the young from the harder aspects of life just wasn't done, especially among the nobility and royalty.
Still, even in ancient times, children were children. Tirek and Scorpan were rambunctious, energetic, and hell on hooves given half the chance. However, Tirek had a certain habit that set him apart from most, especially at his age; he was a night owl.
One night as Emperor Chiron was on his way to his chambers, he spotted Tirek sitting by an open window, Scorpan dozing in a chair.
"Tirek, Scorpan what are you doing out of bed?"
The princes jumped at his voice.
"Uh, I'm just keeping Tirry company." Scorpan yawned.
"And what are you doing, Tirek?" Chiron turned to his oldest son.
"Lookin' at the sky."
Chiron looked out the window at the night sky. "Looking at something in particular?"
"Nope, I just like night time. The stars and the moon are pretty, and it's quiet, and cool, and nice."
"It is." Chiron smiled. "Those stars that form a centaur holding a sword and a bow? That's your forefather, Orion. The gods set his spirit there so he could watch over us."
"Neat!" Tirek waved to his ancestor. The moonlight spilled out over the city, illuminating it almost as bright as the sun.
"I love the way the Empire looks at night." Tirek said gazing on the massive buildings, rolling fields, and mountain ranges off in the distance under the stars.
"Oh, this isn't the whole Empire, this is just the capital. The Empire is much larger. It is so large that most of the known world is part of it."
"So, you're king of the whole world?" Tirek asked in amazement.
"I am not a king, I am Emperor. That is higher than king. And I am not actually ruler of the entire world. There are still lands yet to be explored, and other kingdoms outside the Empire."
"Well, why don't you go and tell them you're Em...emer...empor...Bigger-than-king?" Tirek asked in confusion.
"It's not that easy, son. Some do not yet know the Empire exists. Others do not want to become part of it. Of course, we change those kingdoms' minds in many ways. The great Orion himself said, it's our duty spread civilization to those who are wise enough to accept it, and persuade those who are too stubborn to. Maybe the Empire will include the whole world someday, but until then, I must be the leader the Empire needs, just as you will," Chiron explained.
"You mean Tirry and me are gonna be king-I mean uh, emerors when we grow up, Daddy?" Scorpan clapped excitedly.
Chiron shook his head. "I'm afraid only Tirek will take the throne, Scorpan. However, you will have a very important position helping your brother."
"You mean, all this will be mine?" Tirek smiled in amazement.
"No, you will be Emperor. That does not mean that you own everything. There's much you need to understand before you are ready to be emperor." Chiron chuckled. "Now then...um, Tirek, why do you have blood on your hoof?"
"Huh? Oh, there was a rat. It was running around and squeaking and I stomped on it so it wouldn't bother us anymore."
"And where is it now?"
"Over there." The young prince pointed near the edge of a table.
The emperor turned and looked. He wouldn't have known it was a rat if Tirek had not told him. He assumed that Tirek had stamped on it and kicked it away, but judging by the red on the floor, and the state of the carcass, it was apparent that the boy had stomped on it until the rodent's body was completely crushed.
"Well, it's late, go wash up then both of you back to bed. It's an early day tomorrow."
"Oh, Daddy..." The princes whined.
"No, you need your rest. So, you better go on or the Reptilians might get you."
The Reptilians were the boogiemares of their day, imaginary lizardmen who rode on fictional dragon-like 'Stratodons' to snatch unruly children.
Yes, good Fluttershy best not hear about the rat.
The princes' lives were structured to make sure they learned all needed for a head of state: math, writing, geography, economics, history, as well as royal protocol, but the lessons were twice as advanced and difficult than the standard of the time.
Historical bias however, painted history with the Empire always in the right, any negative was politics at work, or the worst of the worst. The lesson taken was the Empire and Emperor could do no wrong, the future Emperor would remember that.
"Emperor Orion the Hunter proved that strength makes one just. Our people earned everything we have through the sweat on our brow and the blood in our veins. We were stronger than any who fought against us, and we defeated all who dared. The strong survive and the weak perish; that is nature. And we must ensure the survival of our people and our ways through that strength."
The boys' other education was handled by teachers, but for heritage, religion, and royal duties, their father held class.
"Sunrise is a testament to strength. Sun god Lord Helios, Orion's patron, fights his way across the sky every day against his sister. The goddess of darkness, Lady Selene, hates her brother, and all mortals who shun the night and rejoice in the day. After sunset, Lady Selene battles him in the underworld and moves the moon into the sky as a declaration of victory over her brother. Yet, Lord Helios always defeats her and raises the sun."
"Uh, Father?" Tirek raised his hand in confusion. "If Helios-"
"Lord Helios. Gods deserve to be properly addressed," his father corrected.
"Why hasn't Lord Helios defeated Lady Selene for good and made it forever day?"
"That is one of the great mysteries, my son."
"Is he only strong enough to fight her to a draw, but not end her? Maybe she's stronger than him?" Tirek was answered with the smack of a rod on his wrist.
"Blasphemy is not tolerated, even from royalty, Tirek," Chiron sternly uttered. "As Emperor, you will be an instrument of the gods and their ultimate power."
"But, you said the Empire is the greatest nation anywhere, aren't we the ultimate power? And since the Emperor is the ruler, doesn't that make him the-" He was given another swing of the rod on his wrist.
"For all our power, we are not the ultimate power. Being a leader makes none so superior to others, much less the gods themselves. You have much to learn of respect and humility, Tirek! Learn your place, or I may consider if Scorpan might be best for the throne!"
The Emperor didn't notice the look on his oldest son's face. All his life, being Emperor was all Tirek had ever thought to be, all his father ever told him he could be. The suggestion that this might be taken from him, even as an empty threat of a father trying to rattle his child, hit Tirek harder than Chiron ever imagined.
Scorpan attempted to lighten the situation. "So, can we get back to the lesson? I bet Tirek wants to hear more about his girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" Chiron looked at Scorpan confused, while Tirek glared at him.
"Yeah, Lady Seline. Tirek thinks she's cuuuuuuute!"
"DO NOT!" Tirek yelled, trying to cover a blush.
"Then why do you get that funny look whenever we walk past her statue?" Scorpan barely suppressed a laugh.
"It's all right, Tirek." The tangent brought a smirk to his father's face. "You aren't the first to fall in love with one of the gods, and you won't be the last. But, choose your affections carefully. The Night Queen is as cold as she is lovely, and can drive even those she favors mad. Perhaps it would be best to wait until you've had your first taste of mortal women before setting your sights on her."
"Yes, Father." Tirek grumbled.
"Let us move onto the legend of the long platinum drake in the east and the five headed dragoness in the west…"
Tirek did not pay attention after that jarring exchange. When the lesson ended, it left Tirek and Scorpan with little to do but wander the palace halls. They found themselves in the west wing, where Scorpan's mother, Arachne and Chiron's other two wives, Helena and Hermia had set up a table for tea.
"Hello, boys, would you care to join us?" Helena motioned for a servant to bring two more couches.
"Thank you, Mother Helena." Scorpan pulled up a seat.
Tirek sat but didn't speak.
"What's wrong, son?" Hermia asked.
"I'm not your son!" Tirek snapped.
"Now, dear, I know I'm not your real mother, but we still care for you." Hermia put a hand on his shoulder.
"Well, Father clearly he doesn't," Tirek groused.
"Oh that's not true. He's only getting you ready to be Emperor."
"Then why did he say he might decide Scorpan should be emperor instead of me?"
"Oh, that's just him trying to motivate you," Helena explained. "The easiest way to get someone to obey is playing on what's important to them. Being Emperor and following in your father's hoof prints is what's important to you, so he used it to get your attention."
"Don't let Father get to you, Tirry." Scorpan gave him a good natured punch in the arm.
He would never forget the lesson he learned; find what's most important to someone and you can make them do what you want. One of the few times he'd admit to listening to women.
Along with their general education, Tirek and Scorpan were put through rigorous exercise programs that intensified as they grew older. They started training with practice weapons to build hand-to-eye coordination and fighting techniques. When old enough, they trained with actual weapons and battle each other under the instruction of their father.
"Today, you two will be sparring with your cousins, Nessus and Pholus." Chiron motioned to a pair of teenage centaurs as they entered the practice field. "They've completed their training, so you will be facing battle ready opponents and will need to use all you've learned this session."
"Don't worry boys, we'll go easy on you." Nessus shared a laugh with his brother as they paired off with Tirek and Scorpan.
"Don't do us any favors." Tirek gave a determined smirk.
"BEGIN!" Chiron called as he rang the bell.
The four duelists faced off and raised their swords in salute. The contest was swift and fierce. Scorpan was disarmed after ten minutes, Tirek was disarmed after twice that.
"CONTEST OVER!" The bell rang again.
"Nice, Tirek." Nessus grinned as he pulled Tirek to his hooves "Almost got me."
"Excellent display," Their father said as he took the swords. "But there is still room for improvement. Scorpan, you defend so much you don't take any openings!"
"Yes, Father." The younger prince bowed.
"Tirek, you have the opposite problem. You're too aggressive."
"This is readying for battle, how is aggression a bad thing?"
"Because you keep letting your temper get the best of you and just start hacking blindly at your opponent. It leaves you vulnerable to attack from a more disciplined enemy. Anger may motivate you, but left unchecked, it can cost you."
"Yes, Father." Tirek growled.
"And that temper again. Learn to control it." Chiron turned and marched off the practice field. "Both of you are dismissed. Be ready in fifteen minutes for hand-to-hand sparing."
"Thanks for not taking my head off, cousin." Scorpan smiled as he shook Pholus' hand.
"It's not like you use it that much anyway." Pholus chuckled.
"Yeah, but I'm gonna be at the orgy at Lord Bacchus' temple tonight."
"We'll be there too! We'll try and find you a few good girls," Nessus threw in.
"Oh for...really, another orgy, Scorpan? Didn't you already take three conquests since the weekend?" Tirek scoffed.
"Exactly, I'm falling behind." Scorpan shared a laugh with his cousins.
"Fine, but at least avoid any poxy ones."
"There's no need to worry. There's going to be more than just harlots, there's going to be a whole slew of virgins."
Tirek stared speechless at his sibling. "...And you believed that? Sometimes, Scorpan, I wonder if the gods gave you the brains of a dung beetle."
"Um, Princess, Ah don't mean to interrupt, but what's an 'orgy', and why is it so important that there would be virgins or 'harlots'? Is it a party or somethin'?"
"In a way."
I nearly laughed. I prayed I never saw how Pinkie Pie would plan such a party.
I was hesitant to explain the...ahem, sexual habits of the centaurs to Applejack. Their approach was very different than that of even most wanton modern ponies. My sister tried to hide the uglier aspects of the past to avoid corrupting our ponies, and there are things in this story that I will not discuss with Applejack, but she asked for truth. She is level headed and tougher than she realizes. As my fellow Element of Honesty, I decided to give her the cold hard truth, and did not skimp details.
The wide eyed, slack jawed look on Applejack's now paler face makes me realize I may have miscalculated.
"Applejack? ...Applejack? Applejack, can you hear me?"
"WELL ALL RIGHTY THEN! I LEARNED SOMETHING NEW TODAY! WELL, THANKS PRINCESS, BUT HOWS ABOUT WE GET MOVIN' ALONG AND NEVER EVER, EVER, EVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN? THAT OK? GREAT!"
"Um...very well... you do an impressive Royal Canterlot Voice."
"MUCH OBLIGED! LET'S TALK ABOUT ANYTHING EXCEPT BANANAS!"
"Tirek? What time is it?" Scorpan asked.
"Then why is it getting dark?" Scorpan pointed out the doorway.
The group saw that the sky was rapidly filling with massive dark clouds. The rainy season was months away. It became even stranger when it seemed to start snowing. Nessus reached out the window and caught one of the 'snowflakes' and found it was ash.
"We need to find Uncle Chiron!" Nessus urgently commanded his family. "This isn't a storm, it's smoke, and there's one only thing that could cause this much at once."
The Emperor convened the high council and all agreed that the massive smoke clouds must have been caused by a dragon. The clouds were blowing in on an east wind, so the first step was to send an excursion east.
"I will lead this mission. I will take two thousand men, along with thirty members of the Praetorian Guard," Chiron addressed the council.
"Tirek, Scorpan, you two shall join the hunt. The time has come to truly test your mettle. Nessus, Pholus, as the next in the royal line, you two will stay here to defend the city."
Tirek shot a quick glance at his cousins. It had never occurred to him that they might be in line for the throne. He was already suspicious of his brother, and now he would keep an eye on them too. He silently vowed to return with the dragon's head to show them up.
The centaur contingent departed eastwards in search of the source of the smoke. They marched for two days, and found not a hint of dragon. On the third day, however, they did find something that would play a large roll in future events.
"Your Majesties," Captain Lector announced as he and several guards entered the camp. The guards pushed a little man with a large green hat forward. "We discovered this elf by the river. We think he was following us."
"Oh my, was I following you? Oh, dear, my mistake. I was meant to be following the smoke, I don't know how I got turned around." The elf chattered confusedly. "Maybe I should have taken a left at the home of fifty flying fireflies, or was it a right at the sanctum of the seven sacred snakes?"
"Hold." Chiron raised a hand to stop him. "We are also trying to find the source of the smoke. You will come with us elf." Chiron had no reason to belief he was a spy, dragons were everycreature's enemy.
"Oh, very well then. Shall we start making our way to the East Mountains then?"
"The East Mountains?"
"Of course! It's the only place for miles that is high enough that where the wind would spread the smoke as fast as it has and first sighted. Not to mention the natural cave formations are perfect for a dragon to take residence in, and I'm convinced it has to be a dragon causing this, because I've already cleared my brother's special garden and I'm almost certain it isn't the same type of smoke."
The centaurs stared in shock at the elf's reasoning. The emperor gave the elf a shrewd glare.
"What's your name, elf?"
"My name is Randall, I'm a Moochick of the Western Forest Elven Kingdom."
"Moochick?" Scorpan raised an eyebrow in confusion.
"Elf title for a great healer, teacher and magician." Randall explained.
Yes, Applejack, this was the Moochick, the same who was the first keeper of the Rainbow of Light and served as mentor to the ponies of Dream Valley. Long before those days, he was one of many elves who held the title of Moochick. However, by crossing paths with the centaurs, he was put on a path to becoming the most infamous elf to hold the title.
"So your people sent you to stop the smoke?" Scorpan asked.
"Yes, stop the smoke! Good idea, we should probably do that. Well, we better be on our way south to East Mountains."
"Um, the East Mountains are in the east, Mr. ‘Moochick'" The emperor corrected.
"Oh...of course, my mistake." Randall smiled as he picked up his walking stick. "Well, let's be off then!"
"Father, do you think it is wise to bring this addlebrained elf with us?" Whispered Tirek.
"Another set of hands against a dragon is always useful, even an elf's," Chiron replied.
Tirek sighed in exasperation. He was never overly fond of elves. He was never overly fond of anyone outside his family, but he was especially found non-centaurs distasteful. Elves' 'help the weak' attitude turned his stomach.
The expedition arrived at the East Mountains, the billowing clouds of smoke emanating from the second highest peak, accompanied by loud roars. Most of their forces remained at the base of the mountain, with only the Praetorian Guard and the elf Moochick accompanying the emperor and princes on the journey to the cave. It took several hours, but they reached to the cave entrance, and the danger it housed. A dull roar shook the mountainside.
"Oh, my! Is a dragon in there?" Randall peeked out from behind their hiding place.
"No, that was just my stomach growling," Tirek sarcastically replied.
"Oh, well then, perhaps you should have grabbed an apple or something before we climbed the mountain."
Chiron quietly ordered, "All right, I need volunteers to try and reconnoiter and assess the dragon."
Tirek was about to raise his hand when- "I volunteer."
The centaurs gawked in amazement as Randall raised his hand.
"I think one of us or our soldiers would be better suited." Tirek rolled his eyes.
"Oh, so you don't think that a spy who is smaller, quieter, and can do magic wouldn't be a better choice to approach a dragon?" Randall asked.
The Emperor and his men shared a glance.
"Very well, but at least take a sword with you," Chiron said.
"Oh, that won't be necessary." Randall slipped towards the smoke cloud. To the centaurs' horror, he shouted into the cave, "HELLO THERE! ARE YOU ALRIGHT?"
The centaurs prepared for the inevitable attack by the dragon.
"No! Feel bad!"
The centaurs nearly dropped their weapons; the voice was massive and had a guttural growl that they recognized as a dragon, and yet it had formed words. In all the years that the Empire had fought dragons, never did a dragon speak.
"Oh my! Well, here, let me clear this away so we can talk." A blast of wind blew through the cave and cleared away the smoke over ducking centaurs.
When the Emperor stood he saw the elf standing barely twenty feet away from a large purple dragon.
"MEN, PREPARE FOR GLORY!" Chiron shouted, raising his sword.
"DEATH TO DRAGONS!" Tirek and Scorpan cheered.
"WAIT!" Randall ran out and stood in their way. "Please, wait, there's no need for that!"
"Have you gone mad, elf?! A dragon threatens the land and must be stopped!"
"He's not threatening anything, Your Highness! In fact, he's in more danger than we are! Just look at him!"
The dragon was lay on the ground, with a pained look on its face, and despite seeing centaurs, it made no move to attack or flee. Its eyes were bloodshot, green splotches were among the purple scales, and smoke seeped out of its mouth regardless if it breathed in or out.
"What...what's wrong with it?" Chiron asked.
"He's ill, and judging by the cave's rocks, it's easy to see why," Randall explained. He pointed his walking stick to a large green gem embedded in the cave wall. "These gems that grow here are filled with volatile magic, and you've eaten some haven't you, Mr. Dragon?"
"Ugggghh...yes." The dragon gurgled.
"These gems become bombs in extreme heat, so imagine several of them inside the blazing inferno of a dragon's insides. They started bursting in his stomach and creating the smoke."
"Ohhh...feel bad." The dragon groaned.
"I expect so. But no problem, I'm here now and I can make some medicine to help you." Randall pulled his hat from his head and reached into it. "Now, were did I put the Athelas plants?"
"Uh, 'Moochick', I fail to see why we can't just slay the beast." Tirek's sword pointed.
"Well, for starters, he's so sick he can barely move. I admit, I only have a passing knowledge of your people, Your Highness, but what I have always heard is your honor. This dragon is not intentionally threatening your people, and he has no hope of fighting you. That's not glorious battle, it's hardly a hunt. Where is the honor in killing a defenseless creature that may die anyway?"
The emperor himself had no answer. He motioned for the rest to stand down.
"Now then, this sickness will be easily remedied. I have the herbs needed, I just need one more thing. Um, Mr. Dragon...Er, I'm sorry, where are my manners? I forgot to ask your name."
The dragon wheezed. "Heath...spike."
Chiron himself stumbled. Dragons had names?!
"Well, Mr. Heathspike, may I be allowed to procure a few rubies from your horde to finish your medicine?"
The dragon and the centaurs stared at the elf's audacity. Asking a dragon to take from its horde? Asking a dragon for anything?! He was either more insane or more clever than any of them imagined.
The dragon trying to breath deep was met by a hacking cough.
"Take." The dragon nodded.
The Moochick ran into the cave and came back out with an armful of rubies. He add the gems to a bowl and began crushing them and mixing them with the herbs. When he had mixed it into a red and green mush, he poured it into the dragon's mouth.
"It should start counteracting the toxic crystals once it reaches your stomach, which should be right...about..."
Heathspike hiccuped and the smoke billowing from his mouth turned bright pink before it stopped all together. With a relieved sigh, the dragon smiled at the elf.
"Thank. Friend." The dragon looked over to the centaurs. "You friends."
The emperor stared uncertainly as the dragon stood and stalked back into the cave. It returned with its front claws filled with treasure. He deposited the gold and gems on the ground before them and smiled.
"Oh, my gracious! Thank you my friend." Randall smiled gratefully.
"Yes, um...thank you." Chiron echoed uncertainly.
Heathspike lifted his right foreleg, causing the party to notice a black bag tied around the dragon's wrist. He pulled it open and turned to face the remainder of his horde. He unleashed bright green flames onto the treasure. The flames consumed the treasure in seconds, leaving nothing but a small cloud of green smoke that flew into the sack. Heathspike pulled the draw string and closed the bag, which looked heavier.
"Amazing!" Randall gushed. "Where did you learn that magic?"
"Me teach me." Heathspike smiled proudly. "Now, find new cave. No more bad gems. Bye, friends."
"Uh, Your Highness, sh-shouldn't we attempt to take the beast down?" Asked the captain of the guard.
"I agree, Father," Tirek added. "It's not helpless now, it's fair game. We should kill it while we have the chance."
The emperor just stared after the dragon, thinking of the positive sum gain of Randall's diplomacy.
"No. The dragon is no threat now. If he returns to stirs up trouble we shall deal with it then. The crisis is over and we shall return with all hands to our homes, with our reward," Chiron looked at Randall with a newfound respect. "And, a new ally."
"Oh, you made a new ally? That's nice. Can I meet him before we part company?" Randall asked, earning a laugh from the emperor.
The party returned to Orionopolis, Moochick in tow. When they arrived, a festival was held for the end of the dragon smoke. At the end, the Moochick was honored.
"We are in your debt, Randall, Moochick of the Western Forest Elven Kingdom," Chiron intoned.
"Oh, it was my pleasure to help, Your Highness."
"Never the less, you have done a great service for the Empire, and you will be rewarded. I understand that you are eager to return home, but I would ask you to consider becoming part of my court, as ambassador to the Western Forest Elf Kingdom and an advisor."
"Oh my gracious! Well, you do me a great honor, Your Highness! How can I refuse?"
The crowd cheered to welcome their new honored guest and hero.
Tirek stayed quiet most of that night, which Scorpan took note of.
"Uh, Tirry? Are you alright?"
"Don't call me that, Scorpan."
"Tell me what's wrong, then. None of us died, the smoke's gone, and we got treasure. Sounds like a happy ending to me."
"Yes, except that Father let an elf handle the dragon, who is still alive!"
"Relax, by tomorrow, the elf will be on his way back in his little tree house and...I don't know, make flowers grow or whatever."
"Don't trust him."
"He's up to something. I wouldn't be surprised if he was planning against us."
"You think an elf who asked if a halberd was a duck, is scheming? He's too dimwitted to worry about."
"A dimwit that's now an advisor. Keep an eye on him, brother."
Moochick Randall made frequent trips back to his home in the West Forest, but he became a familiar sight around the palace in the following two years. Especially to Tirek's eyes. However, it turned out that appointing him as an advisor was a wise decision. He had helped Chiron resolve an economic crisis, found a cure for a plague the broke out in the southern colonies, and began to teach Tirek and Scorpan some magic.
However, peace never stayed with the Empire for long. In the summer of the third year following the excursion to Heathspike's cave, an assassin attacked Tirek and Scorpan's cousins. While practicing their swordsmanship, a stealthy satyr opened fire with a bow and arrow. The guards killed the assassin, but not before Nessus was shot in one of his forelegs, giving him a permanent limp.
The assassin's armor was Pancadia's royal guard, the satyr kingdom. The centaurs and satyrs had been uneasy allies held by the most tenuous of peace treaties, and this broke it in days.
Pancadia was a small nation, but satyrs were proud and clever. They used guerilla tactics that the larger and more regimented centaur forces were not adept to. For two years, the Empire was kept at bay. Tirek was put in command of the war, with Scorpan as his lieutenant. Tirek found a taste for glory that battle brought, but also a taste for bloodshed. With his strategies, the imperial army was able to turn the tide and conquer the satyr lands. The celebration that awaited Tirek and Scorpan upon their return was the biggest the Empire had seen in decades.
On the last night of the celebrations, and the royal family in their chambers celebrated on their own late at night with bottles of vintage wine.
"Another toast to our sons!" Arachne raised her glass.
"To our sons!" The emperor and his wives raised their glasses.
"Yes, weren't we quite impressive?" Scorpan chuckled.
"Especially on the war's last day." Tirek elbowed Scorpan knowingly.
"I wish you all could have seen the goats' faces!"
"Yes, I had been meaning to ask how you were finally able to capture Capra City," Helena asked.
"Oh, that was easy once Tirek's plan went through! We spent months in summer and fall attacking the smaller cities, but always retreating. I thought he'd gone crazy!"
"Crazy like a fox." Tirek grinned. "The attacks were never meant to take those worthless cities. But the surrounding farmlands were devastated in battle."
"Which meant the harvest would be destroyed with winter on the way." Scorpan grinned.
"And when winter came, I sent the 44th Legion on a full assault on Bezoar City, where the satyrs second largest emergency food stores were housed. The damn goats sent more troops to protect it when we attacked, but the only place close enough to help before it's too late was Capra City."
"The city guard was weakened from sending reinforcements and wide open for invasion. We took their food source and their chief city in one fell swoop."
"Say it, Scorpan." Tirek smiled smugly. "Come on, say it. Saaaay iiiiit."
"You're a genius, Tirek." Scorpan shrugged.
"Yes, I am!"
"Well done, my boys." Chiron smiled. He put his hands on his eldest's shoulders. "I have missed you both, and you return to me as true men, worthy Princes of the Empire."
"It's not fair." Hermia wiped her eyes. "We only just got you both back and now we must say goodbye to one of you."
"What?" The princes looked to their stepmother in confusion.
"Yes, sadly, Hermia is right. There is a secret rite of passage for the crown prince when he comes of age." Chiron explained. "It's easy to forget the people outside the palace, yet the Emperor's decisions affect all centaurs, from the greatest to least. Thus, it was decreed by Emperor Codrus, heirs to the throne live half a year secretly as commoners."
"WHAT?!" Tirek bellowed in shock. "I return triumphant in service to the Empire and my reward is to be banished?!"
"Not at all, son! It's an essential rite, just as your training in matters of state and sword. It will build your character and give you a better understanding of the people you will rule over. It's only six months."
"But Father, this is insane! All know Tirek and what he looks like. If he goes alone, it would be easy for assassins or for ambitious criminals to ransom him!"
"That will not happen. There is a spell passed down that will change your appearance and voice. None will recognize you. You'll be given a loaf of bread, a bag of gold, and a sword, but all other needs you must manage through your own wits and labor."
Tirek hated the very idea of degrading himself to a lower-class. But overshadowing even his unending pride: was his desire for the throne. He would rather die than give up the promised power of the throne. If he had to crawl through the dirt for power's sake, he would.
"Very well, Father. I shall miss you, and our mothers and Scorpan."
"Yes, well, then it's best to savor this night. Care to regale us with more from your conquest?"
"Oh, yes, Father, you still haven't heard the best part! When we launched the invasion, we stormed the city, killing all in our path until we got to the palace. King Tumnus surrendered quickly. He was bawling like a baby! It was pathetic. It's probably why I killed him right there."
"Yes, we...You did what?!"
"That's right! The old goat begged and pleaded on his knees and..." He motioned his arm across his throat. "Ha! His head bounced down the steps and landed face down on the floor!"
"It was glorious, Father." Scorpan grinned, raising his own glass. "The queen feared Tirek might take a swing at her as well so much that she signed the surrender treaty right then and there!"
"But, I wanted to squash any potential uprising, so after that, I sent some men to kill the rest of the court, all the soldiers in the city, and any other wealthy satyrs. All they have is their queen, and nobody is going to rally around some needy woman for a revolution."
"Tirry even put the king's head on a stake outside the palace as an example! HAHA! The satyrs will learn to fly before they dare rise up against us!"
The brother's clinked their glasses, and only just realized their parents were staring at them in shock and outrage.
"What's the matter?" Tirek asked obliviously.
Their father stood and glared at his eldest son. "Tirek...you dishonor your family."
"You killed an unarmed man in front of his wife and ordered hundreds more killed after they had already surrendered!"
"'And?' To kill in the heat of battle is one thing, but this is another!"
"They were enemies, they deserved to die." Tirek stated it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Yes, they were enemies, but they had also surrendered! Surrender means the conflict is ended and any further act of aggression is dishonorable!"
"I conquered our enemies! Thanks to me, the satyr lands are now subjugated and the Empire is richer for them! I call that honorable!"
"So now it was all your doing? Never mind your brother or any of the other soldiers who fought, bled and died for the Empire?"
"You think I stayed behind the lines while the battle raged? I was on the front lines, cleaving my enemies to pieces right amongst the soldiers!"
"Yet you dismiss their efforts in favor of your own?!"
"I am their prince, they are my soldiers! They and all the other lower classes live and die to make great people richer and greater! Those oafs on the battlefield and the satyr fools are no different than chess pieces; they move at the command of a greater mind that may make use of them to win. It's their purpose!"
"'Their purpose?' Their...Dear gods in Elysium, have you so little respect for life?"
"Father, do you know what I found out in the last two years on the battlefield? Honor, respect and rules do not win wars. To the victor go the spoils and the dead stay dead. What does it matter what methods we used as long as we win?"
"Honor is all that separates us from animals, Tirek! We are civilized! We are not common beasts who kill without thought or consequence!"
"You taught me that I needed to be a warrior! Warriors kill!"
"WARRIORS FIGHT TO PROTECT WHAT THEY LOVE!" Chiron thundered, making Tirek step back. "A warrior fights to protect his home, his friends, his family and his way of life! A warrior knows the value of life and the seriousness of taking it! A warrior does not seek war for its own sake, nor kill without cause! We stopped such barbarism when Orion brought the tribes together!"
"It matters not, Father. The deed is done and cannot be undone, unless you are ready to restore Pancadia's sovereignty and deprive the Empire a conquest to spite me."
"Watch your tongue, boy! I will not be addressed with such disrespect as your Emperor or your father!"
Tirek knew enough about battle and enough of these disagreements with his father to know to pick his battles. He backed off and played the dutiful son, thinking his father would eventually see his actions as just.
"You're right, Father. I spoke out of turn. However, there is nothing I can do, so may we please move on to other matters? Such as when this exercise of posing as a commoner is complete, when shall I prepare for my first dragon hunt?"
The emperor and his wives were silent for a moment.
"Tirek, there will be no more hunts. I have made peace with the dragons."
Tirek and Scorpan were stunned silent. Chiron might as well have told them that the sky was made of stone.
"I did not mumble, my boy. I agreed to a peace with them."
"Why in the gods' names would you do that? Dragons have been our enemies since before the Empire was founded! And now, you want to go back to the days when they stole our treasure, ate our animals, burned our homes and spilled our blood?! Have you lost your mind?!"
"I am in full control of my mind, Tirek." Chiron replied sternly.
"Putting aside that we must now recover from the war you two just returned from, if we continue our war with the dragons, we would almost certainly lose and the Empire would fall."
"What war? It's pest control! Why would we fall to the dragons after all this time?!"
"Because they have followed our example!"
"Remember the stories of the platinum and the five headed dragons? They were not stories. They exist. And they are no mere beasts. They are as smart as we are, and can be reasoned with. But that is not all; they have a strange thrall over the rest of their kind. The dragons obey them without question. They've declared themselves king and queen of all dragons. Heathspike calls them gods.
"They made a show of strength at the negotiations. They brought an army of two hundred dragons to Dictys."
"I saw it! Two hundred titanic monsters flew over the city, circling, diving, spinning through the air, but never touching the city. Then, at their queen's command, they flew out over the water and began circling that ring of rocks where the waves break. They let loose their fire breath on it, all at once. The rocks were melted within seconds, and the massive steam cloud from the boiling sea rose miles into the air."
"By the gods..." Scorpan stared in awe.
"Against a small band of dragons, we can prevail, but not against them all. So, with Moochick Randall's assistance, we were able to forge a peace." Chiron shrugged as he filled his glass. "It is probably no loss anyway. No dragon has crossed our borders in decades, and as long as their...'parents' can keep them from interfering in our affairs, there is no need to provoke them."
"Have you gone mad?!" Tirek swept the glass out of his father's hand, sending it shattering on the floor. "Do you even hear yourself, Father?! Letting dragons dictate terms to us!"
"There's no alternative, Tirek." Chiron sighed as he wiped a splatter of wine from his hand.
"Uh, Father, surely there must be a way to deal with this." Scorpan interjected. "It sounds like the threat is from the silver dragon and its five headed mate, why not get rid of them? Without them, the dragons aren't united, so why don't we send our forces to kill them? It can't be impossible for our best slayers to kill two dragons."
"Precisely what he says!" Tirek pointed to his brother.
"These aren't normal dragons. I sent a thousand of our best assassins from the Order of Nemesis to deal with them the moment I became aware of their existence." Chiron sighed. "At the negotiations, the dragon queen presented me with a wagon containing their armor and their skulls."
"You speak so highly of 'honor', yet you would avenge their deaths by yielding to their murderers' demands?!" Tirek roared.
"Not at the cost of the Empire!"
"Since when does Chiron the Strong fear battle?!" Tirek demanded.
"Do you think I have not given this thought?! That I have not weighed every alternative, politically and militarily before I made this decision?!" Chiron yelled back in his son's face. "If we went to war against united dragons, with the combined strength and resources of the Empire and all our allies, that war would destroy everything in its wake. Both sides would take such losses and cause such damage, that even if we by a miracle were victorious, all we would rule over is a world of ash!"
"So be it! I would take on the whole world if it insulted us so brazenly!" Tirek declared.
"There is no honor in destroying the world, and victory at such a price is no victory at all!" Chiron yelled, staring down his son with every bit of royal dignity he possessed. "But with the knowledge of your actions in Pancadia, you obviously have much to learn about honor! Perhaps if you cannot learn it on the battlefield, you can learn it amongst your people, though you give me little reason to have faith in that!"
Scorpan gulped as his brother and father stared each other down. Before he could even attempt to speak, Tirek just stormed out of the chambers with a slam of the door. Chiron sighed in exasperation as he dropped heavily onto the sofa next to Arachne and Helena.
"Father?" Scorpan ventured.
"Scorpan...what happened to Tirek during the war?" Chiron poured himself another glass of wine.
"Uh, he got hit by a couple arrows, a couple satyrs got lucky with swords... I got snipped while trying to negotiate a city's surrender."
"No, I mean what happened to him that he cannot recognize such dishonor and seems ready to embrace mad suicide than even consider an alternative?"
"He's always been a fighter father." Scorpan answered. "And at heart, he's doing it all for the Empire, and for you. All he's ever wanted was your approval."
"Then why does he so steadfastly refuse to listen when I try to impart wisdom?"
"He makes mistakes some times, that's all," Scorpan defended.
"These are mistakes he cannot afford to make, Scorpan. You can't understand the burden that awaits him. One day, he will be Emperor, and he needs to understand what will be required of him."
"But, Father, he just won a war for the Empire! All right, he killed the satyr king and some others, but he also increased our territory and resources, and he avenged the attempt on Nessus' life! Doesn't that count for something?"
"In the grand scheme, perhaps, but what troubles me is that he did not even consider whether it was the honorable course of action when he committed the act. Being Emperor does not give him license to work his will without thought or responsibility! The last Emperor who believed that was killed by the Praetorian Guard."
"Oh, come now, Father, Tirek won't go down that path!"
"Damn right he won't! I will not let him destroy the Empire...or himself."
The following morning, Tirek was given the potion that changed his appearance. His build, fur, skin and eye color were all altered. No one would ever recognize him. The emperor announced that Tirek had gone to a retreat in the North Mountains to hunt dire wolves to cover his absence.
And so, Tirek, Crown Prince of the Great Centaur Empire went to live among the commoners under the name 'Bane.' He spent three days in the local inn before finding a job as a blacksmiths apprentice. It was tiring work, but even a prince like Tirek was no stranger to labor.
"Be quick about it, Bane! The city garrison needs this armor by the end of the week! If we're late, I'll take it out of your pay!"
"Yes, Mr. Hephest," Tirek grunted as he hammered away on a breastplate.
"Ah, you're lucky I hired you at all! With the war over, the demand for armor and swords went down. I don't know why the Emperor or the generals or whatever moron was in charge of our troops couldn't have dragged the fight out a little longer!"
"Speak for yourself, Heph." They looked up from their work and saw a guard in the doorway.
"Alcon, my old friend!" The blacksmith shook the guard's hand. "If you're here for your armor, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until the end of the week for my lazy apprentice to finish it."
"No, no, I was just going to drop off my sword. It was bent in the siege of Capra City."
"You should handle your weapon more carefully," Tirek commented as he took the blade to the anvil.
"Stow that talk and show some respect, Bane! You're talking to a soldier of the Empire!" Hephest shouted.
"No, he's right, I should have," The guard defended. "Of course, if I'm counting things I should have done, I also should have gone into farming like my mother said."
"Listening to women, Alcon? Ohohoho, I knew you were always different."
"No, I'm just tired. Two years of war with those goats was long enough. It probably would have gone quicker if the prince could have pulled his head out of his backside."
"The prince?" The blacksmith asked.
"Yeah, that blasted Tirek and his insane plans. We could have finished the war sooner if we attacked the right places, but no! He kept sending us to attack and retreat for months, and yeah, it worked, but I think he was more interested in making himself look good than winning the war."
"You shouldn't talk about the prince that way," Tirek said as he pounded the sword. "If he ever found out, you'd be in trouble."
"Perhaps, but he never will." Alcon shrugged. "Besides, if he did, maybe he might learn something from it so I wouldn't be so leery of him becoming Emperor."
"Here is your sword." Tirek shortly handed the newly straightened blade back to its owner.
"Oh, well now, this is well done indeed! You should hold onto this young man, Heph."
"I might just, Al. Well, nice seeing you. Bane, get back to work!"
When he wasn't at work, he went about town, taking in all the sights and sounds of common life.
"You seen grapes' price?"
"Tia, where are the fish?"
"Did you see Obelia? You think I have a chance with her?"
"Jason, stop crying or I'm taking you home!"
"Hey, I was here first!"
"Tunics for sale!"
He proceeded to the grocer, trying to block out the noise.
"All right, one pound of grapes and one pound of dates. That will be five gold coins for each." Tirek tossed the money down and went to leave, but the grocer called after him. "Hey, you look new around here, did you hear about the new laws?"
"New laws?" It was the first thing the man said that got Tirek's interest.
"The emperor just made a law that's going to make things much easier for my cousins and my aunty. There's going to be a new treasury set up that will be used to support the poor, the elderly and the sick."
"Yes, isn't it wonderful? The new treasury will be able to help those who can't afford housing, doctors or food. And there's even talk that they are preparing a way for young centaurs to learn an occupation."
"We already have that, it's called the Imperial Army!"
"No, this is a new type of school that'll teach youth to get all manner of different trades that will be offered as a substitute military training."
"This is madness! Next you'll be telling me they're giving centauresses the right to join the army or ponies can have jobs!"
"Hmmm...You know, that first part about the ladies might not be a bad idea, sonny. Let'em carry some of their own weight."
"I must go now." Tirek stormed off, not putting even a slight damper on the grocer's mood.
"Well, come back soon!"
Tirek went weeks with this routine, but instead of empathizing with the common centaurs, he began to loathe them. The news of the reforms his father was enacting just made him angrier. He viewed these laws as coddling the already weak masses and showing the throne as weak itself.
Still, he took comfort in the night. He found a kinship with owls, bats and other creatures of the night, watching them prowl the night and hunt rodents, insects and other prey. They were clever, they were strong, and they were of the night, as he saw himself.
His frustration at the changes in the law and the pettiness of commoners grew and grew until he could not stand it. He needed a release, and the best relief he ever had was swinging a sword into a foe on the battle field. Here, he had no battlefield, so he made do. He began to emulate the strength of nocturnal predators. He began hunting.
"Hello there, sir." As any hunter of the night, he found his prey among any who were out alone in the dark.
"Greetings, fair lady."
"Oh my! Normally, gentlemen are a bit, uh, more informal when they approach me."
"Well, all that separates a man from a boy is how he speaks to a lady. Especially one of such beauty."
"Well, I do have a man amongst boys in my presence. I am honored."
"Indeed. Shall we go somewhere more private?"
Tirek led the centauress to the temple of Venus, which had no shortage of nightly rendezvous. Poor Venus.
"Are you ready, good sir?"
"More than ready."
"Ooh! Oh my!"
"You have been with many others have you not?"
"Oh, sure. Men, women, sometimes both..."
"And how do you find them?"
"Depends on what they like."
"I have been amongst the people for some time now."
"You don't sound happy about that do you?"
"Ooh, you're in a crowd, but so alone..."
"Ooh, yes...oh...Ow! Hey, watch what you're doing there, big boy! Heheha!"
"I am utterly, completely alone."
"Ooh, I'll be yo-Ouch! Hey, be careful!"
"Because I am surrounded by brainless, bloodsucking parasites and pathetic, worthless worms."
"Ow! Wait! All right, now stop it!"
"Prove your strength, and stop me."
"That's enough! Stop it!"
"Please, stop it!"
"That is always the way of your kind. Begging, pleading for the strong to allow them something because they are weak. That is not the way the world works."
"Please, you're hurting me!"
"Yes, I am. The strong can do what they like because the weak cannot stop us, as it has always been. And yet, this is what I was born into? This is my destiny? This is why I have endured all the pain and preparation? I was born to rule a nation of ants bound by some antiquated, naive sense of honor, while it rots from within by allowing the weak minded to drag the strong down?"
"Stop, I can't breathe!"
"No. I will not stand by and be made a fool, not by my father, not by that elf, not by my subjects, and not even by the gods themselves. I will not suffer the weak to live."
"Please...ugh...please I...I can't..."
"I am the strongest, I am the smartest, I am the bravest, and the most powerful. I will make the Empire...no, I will make the world as it should be."
"I shall build a world where I am the law. I will make a world that shall become more harsh and ruthless as I perfect it. Weakness shall receive its just reward, and the strong shall rule, with me as master of all. How does that sound to you?
"Miss? I asked you a question.
"Nothing to say? How very unlike a woman. Then I think it's time that we part ways."
The guards found her mutilated body the following day. They found her head the day after.
There were more murders in the following months. A grocer, two merchants, a seamstress, and a blacksmith were found murdered and beheaded in the same fashion. The guards tracked the clues to a the guard named Alcon who was found with his wrists slit and a note claiming he couldn't live with the guilt over what he had done. The guard was buried in the wastelands among the dishonored dead for his apparent crimes, and none discovered who truly committed the murders.
"Landsake's!" Applejack paled. She had thankfully shaken off the horror of my last reveal, but was now fully immersed in Tirek's atrocity. "I know growin' up in some hoity-toity life might make ya see the world different, Orangejack did, but…What the hay was he thinking?! J-Just why?!"
"Vanity, greed, fear, hate, and apathy to others. The same vices that turn so many into monsters. And as loathe as I am to admit it, the same led me to become Nightmare Moon. I remember those feelings he had all too well. To have done so much only to be struck down for it. Believing that you are so much more than the tiny creatures around you, yet be so vexed by their strange lack of adoration. Paranoia that your peers and those you love are plotting against you. Resentment that festers until every face seems to laugh at you and every voice seems to screams the foulest insult. To see yourself as the only sane one, and think all others are the reason you are not heeded without question.
"I fell into that mania, as Tirek did. As did another of my family, which leads to our story's next part."