The light from Celestia’s sun cresting over the broken lip of the lava dome fell upon the ruins of the Diamond Vale like a sliver of hope, promising freedom from the shackles of darkness that strove to keep the dead city in its grasp. Following after Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap, Sir Stouthorn walked with purpose towards the training grounds the arch duke had mentioned. Looking up and to his right, he saw the broken and shattered statues of the once proud Lord Darkpaw standing like silent sentinels watching over them as they made their way to the old arena.
Once the center of the cities entertainment, diamond dogs of all clans and stations flocked to the arena to see slaves fighting and dying for their amusement. Looking down at his right hand, Sir Stouthorn could feel The Vendetta humming with anticipation of drawing blood. Although it was now a broken ruin, the arena was still quite a marvelous sight. Friezes cracked and faded with time showing epic battles adorned the walls, while life sized statues of former arena champions holding intimidating poses were standing on pedestals everywhere.
“Ah, here we are,” the arch duke said, pointing towards a smaller building attached to the enormous arena. “Welcome to Lord Darkpaw’s Proving Grounds.”
“What types of training equipment does the proving grounds contain?” Sir Stouthorn asked, curious as to what he should be expecting.
“The proving grounds are special in that they provide a unique and suitable challenge for each combatant who enters it,” the arch duke explained. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“We’ll I don’t want to be injured before facing Lord Ouroboros,” Sir Stouthorn replied, unsure if entering the complex was a wise idea.
“The Slave King chose it for a reason, so I’m sure you’ll be fine,” the arch duke said. “Besides if you can’t handle a few magical traps and opponents, you’ll not stand a chance against Lord Ouroboros when the time comes.”
Sir Stouthorn looked down at The Vendetta attached to his right hand and wondered how well it would actually perform in battle. Looking up towards the entrance to the proving grounds, he steeled himself to face the unknown dangers that lurked inside its crumbling walls. Knowing full well that the building might become his end, he stepped forward boldly prepared to face the challenge that awaited him inside. Sensing his worried soul, the weapon hummed hungrily looking for any sign of weakness that it could exploit. Remembering what the Slave King had said, he clenched his right fist tightly and walked towards the open entrance.
“Good Luck Sir Stouthorn,” Seafoam said, confident that his master would best the proving grounds and come out unscathed. “May the Lawgiver protect you.”
Sir Stouthorn turned to look back towards his page and flashed him a warm smile. “Aye lad,” he said, stepping over the threshold of the proving grounds, “may the Lawgiver watch over us all.”
The moment his hooves passed over the threshold of the proving grounds, the runes covering the walls flared to life showering the minotaur with vibrant green light trapping him inside. Inspecting the entrance, he discovered that it was now covered with an impermeable green magic barrier. Peering into the darkness before him he was unable to see much of anything, but he was sure the shadows were probably concealing the dangers that were lying in wait for him inside the winding labyrinth in front of him. Placing his left hand against the magical barrier, Sir Stouthorn’s normally jovial smile softened into a soulful expression giving his page one last goodbye before heading into the foreboding shadows of Darkpaw’s Proving Grounds.
“Stay safe master…” Seafoam whispered. Lowering his teal eyes, he looked down at the sigil of the Lawgiver affixed to his armor. Standing motionlessly, he watched Sir Stouthorn’s large frame slowly disappear into the darkness of the building. Once he’d vanished from sight, he turned to look at the arch duke. “Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap …” he said.
The arch duke turned towards Seafoam and looked at him inquisitively, “What is it seapony,” he asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“Pray that my master survives this ordeal,” Seafoam said, his voice barely above a whisper, “should he perish, not even the pit will protect you from me.”
“Seapony,” the arch duke haughtily replied, “still your tongue. The Slave King himself watches over this place. It would be but a trivial matter for him to snuff out your life.”
“Then your master will be next, I swear it,” Seafoam said, pointing towards the ruined palace behind them. “Not even Tartarus will hold my soul from seeking his ruin. I swear by Lord Triton’s mustache, should my master fall he will be avenged!”
Before Seafoam could say another word he found his mouth shut by Showboat’s magic, “I apologize for his brash comments,” she said, looking apologetically towards the arch duke. “These past few days have been trying for everypony. Our next to impossible quests, combined with the upcoming duel with Lord Ouroboros have set everypony on edge.”
“Of course…” the arch duke dryly said, pointing towards the brand adorning his flanks, “there are far worse fates then dying. Pray you never learn of them.”
“What do you mean?” Showboat asked, puzzling over what could possibly be a fate worse than death. Releasing her magical grip from Seafoam’s muzzle, she looked at the brand seared into the arch duke’s flesh. Using magic from her horn, she examined the scarred flesh and recoiled in horror as her magic revealed its terrible secret to her. “You can’t die, can you?”
“No, death is beyond me now,” the arch duke said, his voice flat and emotionless. Looking towards the ruins of the city, he cast his eyes down towards the broken streets and released a sigh that could only come from one who had no hope. “He said I shall remain until I’ve paid off my debts in full.”
“What debts are those?” Showboat asked, still recovering from what she had learned.
“I must remain until I’ve paid for every last tear and drop of blood shed,” he said, while the lonely howls of the wind cut through the dead city. “Then, and only then may I enter the great sleep and rejoin my kin and Lord Darkpaw.”
When the mare realized the enormity of the arch duke’s debts she stayed silent, for nothing she could say would offer him any modicum of comfort. Though no doubt the arch duke was a villain of the highest order, Showboat could conceive of no greater curse then never being able to die. She tried imagining what it must be like to be a wretched shade, forever cursed to walk the earth endlessly with no chance for a reprieve or pardon, and found she was unable to conceive it.
Seeing the unicorn’s distress at his predicament the arch duke scowled, “Save your pity for somehound else,” he growled, annoyed that one of the lesser races might think him pitiable. “I’ll still be alive long after you and descendants are all but forgotten memories lost to time.”
Shocked by the arch duke’s rude behavior, Showboat turned around and trotted off towards where Shaw and Clover were busily discussing something with each other. Seeing his marefriend’s distress, Shaw left Clover’s side and walked towards her. “Showboat, just what did the arch duke say to you that made you so upset?” he asked, giving the diamond dog a hard look with his cold steely eyes. “Just say the word and I’ll knock his block off!”
“Don’t worry about it darling,” Showboat replied, burying her muzzle in his coat, “there’s nothing you could do to him that the Slave King hasn’t visited on him already.”
Seeing his mare looking so distraught set his blood a boiling. After gently kissing her cheek, Shaw draped his wing over her protectively. “Just say the word Showboat, and I’ll drop him from a thousand lengths above the city,” Shaw said, digging his talons into the cobblestone street that left behind deep gashes.
“Oh darling I’ll be fine,” Showboat replied, finding comfort in Shaw’s embrace. “I just need some time to compose myself.”
Shaw said nothing, instead he comforted her as best he could. Feeling safe under her lover’s wing, Showboat sighed as she felt the love Shaw held for her. She knew that no matter what he would protect her, this new found knowledge filled her heart with a love she had never known possible. Looking up into his blue eyes as deep as the Western Sea, she knew that he felt the same way about her. Looking at the ruins all around her, made her long to return to the meadow where they had first met.
“Promise me darling,” Showboat said, burying her muzzle deeply into his plumage.
“Promise you what love?” Shaw asked, looking down at the unicorn beneath his draped wing.
“That once all this is over we’ll settle down somewhere nice and peaceful,” Showboat replied, nibbling playfully at his plumage.
“Yes Showboat,” Shaw said, squeezing her with his draped wing, “I promise you that once this is over and done with, we’ll get a little house in the mountains and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.”
“Don’t you mean a villa in Londwhinium?” Showboat said, looking up at the griffin with narrowed eyes. “A lady of my stature can’t be expected to be hidden away in the wilderness.”
Upon hearing her demands Shaw brought a talon up to his beak, looking up at the sun overhead he whispered, “Why me.” As much as he cared for Showboat, he found unicorns in general distasteful and Londwhinium was full of them. “Perhaps,” he said, hoping to avoid the conversation, “we could discuss this in greater detail after we’ve successfully defeated Lord Ouroboros.”
Showboat opened her mouth to say something, but then thinking better of it closed her mouth and leaned against her lover. “Alright darling,” she longingly sighed. Then looking him directly in the eye she deviously smiled, “Once Lord Ouroboros has been defeated, we can discuss exactly where in Londwhinium we’ll be moving to.”
Grinding his teeth in annoyance at being unable to sidestep the issue, Shaw could only murmur, “Yes dear.”
Seeing the two lovers quarrel over something so mundane filled the arch duke with annoyance. Walking away from them, he sat down on a stone bench overlooking the ruined interior of the coliseum. Sitting down, he could almost hear the roar of the plebeians as they cheered for the fighters in the area below. The echoes of their weapons clashing against each other as they rang above the wails of the slaves condemned to die for the crowd’s entertainment.
As he sat lost in nostalgia, the arch duke’s thoughts were interrupted by Clover’s hoofsteps echoing throughout the ruined coliseum. “Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap,” he said, trotting up the steps that led to where the arch duke was sitting. Following closely behind him walked Shanks the last Gem Biter who wore a cheerful smile on his maw. “So what exactly will Sir Stouthorn face inside the proving grounds?”
The arch duke thoughtfully pulled at his whiskers lost in thought before turning towards the unicorn, “The challenges that it provides to each combatant that enters it is unique,” he said, before returning his gaze towards the ruins of the coliseum.
“But surely you must have some idea of what he might be facing inside?” Clover asked, concerned for his friend’s well-being.
“I honestly have no idea,” the arch duke disinterestedly replied. “The proving grounds have never had anyhound enter like the minotaur, especially since he’s wielding The Vendetta.”
“Why should that matter?” Clover asked.
“The proving grounds magically scans everyhound that enters and creates an appropriate challenge,” the arch duke explained, “with a weapon like The Vendetta entering the picture, who knows what the proving grounds might conjure up for him to face.”
“Is there any way for us to see how Sir Stouthorn is doing?” Clover asked, suddenly feeling unsure whether the knight would be successful or not in overcoming the challenge that the proving grounds would create.
“Not any longer,” the arch duke wearily replied. “The observation lounge was destroyed when the Slave King ended the world.”
Looking at the arch duke and then turning his head towards the entrance to the proving grounds, Clover lowered his head and bit his lower lip nervously as he felt a resurgence of concern for Sir Stouthorn’s safety. Shanks seeing his friend’s worries nuzzled his muzzle up against Clover’s foreleg and looked up at the unicorn.
“Aroo, don’t worry mister Clover,” Shanks barked. “Mister Sir will be okay, he almost as strong as Darkpaw. He beat it, you see.”
Clover looked down at the pup and smiled, realizing that if the Shanks could have faith in Sir Stouthorn’s success so could he. “Shanks,” he said, returning the pup’s affections, “you’re right. Sir Stouthorn is tough. He managed to defeat that dragon in the Everfree after all, I’m sure the proving grounds shouldn’t be any different.”
Leaving the arch duke to his thoughts, Clover sat down next to Shanks and waited for their friend to emerge victorious from Lord Darkpaw’s Proving Grounds. The rays of light being cast by Celestia’s rising sun fell down upon them warming them with its gentle caress. A short distance away Shaw and Showboat held each other silently in a lover’s embrace, the griffin’s wing draped over his mare protectively while Slick rolled his eyes in contempt at their public displays of affection. Sitting alone in front of the entrance to the proving grounds, Seafoam gently floated above the broken cobblestone streets of the city as he patiently waited for the return of his master. With his eyes closed in quiet meditation, the page of the Lawgiver prepared himself in earnest to make good his threat against the Slave King and his lackeys.
Far away from the coliseum in the depths of the shadows of the ruined city, a pair of grey eyes was watching as it patiently waited. Perched above the owner of the grey eyes, a pair of ravens and an owl silently conversed amongst themselves.
“Brothers are you quite sure this is a sound plan?” A raven with golden eyes asked. “He nearly destroyed the Earth!”
“Nearly, but not quite,” the silver eyed raven replied, pausing to preen his feather that were as black as the night. “Why do you ask brother, are you getting cold talons? Every venture contains some element of risk after all.”
The raven looked pointedly at his brother, blinking his golden eyes a few times before responding, “Loki,” he admonished, “this isn’t one of your simple schemes, the stakes are infinitely high! This plan walks along a knife’s edge, should it fail the consequences are most dire.”
“Hoo, hoo, hoo!” the owl with silver and blue plumage hooted, interrupting their squabble. “Lugh, don’t speak as if only failure will bring about ruin!” it said, pointing a wing towards the Slave King’s ruined palace. “Already the unmentionable one freely stalks about my domain as if he owned it!”
“Strix, that’s all the more reason for caution!” Lugh admonished the owl. “If he’s not strong enough to resist his temptations, it’ll be all over.”
“I wonder which is more worrisome,” the owner of the grey eyes mused through his half-closed eyes, “our pawn, or the pawn of our pawn?”
Lugh looked down and narrowed his eyes, before blowing a few stray feathers out of his face. “Sometimes I wonder about you,” he said, “would you have done anything, had there been no need to plot or scheme.”
“Ah my fine feathered friend,” the owner of the grey eye’s said with a small chuckle, “that’s a secret.”
“I just hope for all Equestria’s sake you’re gambit pays off,” Lugh said.
“My gambit’s always pay off,” he replied with a hint of pride in his voice. “Besides Lugh, you and our fellow conspirators shall see a wonder occur today, greater than any other seen in Equestria before or since.”
“Besides Lugh,” Loki replied with a wink, “all the pieces are in motion now. We can only watch and wait for events to unfold.”
“Besides,” the owner of the grey eyes said with a smirk, “we can always tilt the scales in our favor if the need arises.”
Loki and Strix both laughed at their companion’s joke, while Lugh looked at them disapprovingly. “Just remember there are consequences. Should our little scheme be discovered, joining Discord will be the least of our worries.”
“I have already made preparations for that contingency,” the grey eyed conspirator replied. “We have nothing to fear from the rest of the pantheon. Besides, let’s see how the brave knight of the Lawgiver is faring.”
Closing his grey eyes, he rose up and drew upon the latent power of shadow that was everywhere in the ruins of the Diamond Vale. Opening his eyes, his grey pupils dilated as he willed the shadows to create a pool of darkness on the ground before them. Releasing the excess shadows he had drawn, he looked down and saw the form of Sir Stouthorn begin to take shape. “Come,” he said, motioning his head for his fellows to come look, “let’s enjoy the show.”
Sir Stouthorn was in quite a pickle. Silently he cursed himself for failing to check the passageway for traps, and now he found himself in a quite a predicament. Well not as bad as that business back in Stalliongrad with those pony bandits, or as sticky a situation with the griffins and the golden antlers of Cerynitis at the top of the world. Come to think of it, even the time he faced off against the diamond dog slavers back in ’38 in Mareakesh was a hair worse. Okay so although this wasn’t quite the worst pickle he has ever gotten in, it was at least in the same barrel as his toughest pickles. Well perhaps the same barrel is a bit much, after all there was that one time back when he had explored some ruins in the badlands with his first apprentice. Well suffice it to say he was now in a tight squeeze, or rather had been but thankfully he had just barely managed to escape by the skin of his teeth while reminiscing about some of his favorite near death escapes.
“Le Boeuf,” Sir Stouthorn muttered to himself, “you need to be more careful, that last trap nearly ended your quest. If you die in here, they’ll have to come inside to retrieve the weapon, armor, and anklets.”
Although grateful for both the weapon and armor, Sir Stouthorn had found the anklets to be of the most useful so far. Once he realized he could walk just slightly above the ground, it made navigating past the numerous traps making up the labyrinth that was the proving grounds much easier. So much easier, that he was sure that the original designers hadn’t anticipated sometaurus entering holding such an advantage. Navigating the labyrinth of passageways while wearing both the anklets and armor made him nearly invulnerable, a fact that seemed to greatly frustrate the latent magic’s of this place. Walking deeper inside the proving grounds, he noticed that the traps kept reconfiguring themselves trying to stop him. After the first hundred or so, he had stopped paying attention as the trapdoors, jets of flame, poisoned arrows, and even giant boulders were unable to stop his steady progression towards the heart of the labyrinth.
Which was what made that last trap so devious, about the only thing he was unprotected against was poison gas and even then he wasn’t quite sure how effective it would be against his armor. Foolishly ignoring the telltale clicks as the trap reconfigured itself, the minotaur walked head on into the trigger releasing a cloud of poisonous gas that slowly began filling up the passageway. Only by using quick thinking and using The Vendetta to smash several holes in the walls to vent the gas, did he manage to escape unscathed.
Walking away from the failed trap, Sir Stouthorn turned around a corner and found himself inside a large room with no exits. Examining the room, he noticed a large dais in the center with a large crystal hovering above it. Walking towards the stairs that led up towards the crystal, he turned around when he heard the door close behind him trapping him inside.
“I take it this must be the heart of the labyrinth,” Sir Stouthorn said, who turned to look back at the crystal as his eyes darted back and forth to search his surroundings for any possible traps.
Seeing nothing out of place the knight of the Lawgiver slowly approached the steps of the dais, as he walked forward his hoofsteps were silent as he walked forward on a cushion of air. Reaching the base of the stairs Sir Stouthorn looked up at the gigantic crystal that seemed to beckon him. Its shimmering surface bathed him and the rest of the room with its iridescent green light. Looking up he felt slightly hesitant, however he brushed his caution aside as he climbed up the steps towards the crystal.
Slowly climbing the steps he approached the crystal cautiously, the closer he came the more The Vendetta began humming with anticipation. Looking down at the nondescript gauntlet attached to his right hand, he looked back up and reached out touching the glossy surface of the crystal. Immediately The Vendetta started thrumming with power, almost as if it was anticipating its first battle. The moment he touched the crystal, latent magic flowed out enveloping him with its power. Lifting up his arm to shield himself from the overwhelming light, he shut his eyes tightly as the power nearly blinded him. Once the light and magic had subsided, Sir Stouthorn looked at the crystal and saw that its green light had gone dark and now showed only his own shadowy reflection.
“I wonder if that’s it.” Sir Stouthorn mused, looking at his reflection thoughtfully.
“You know it would never be that easy,” he heard himself say.
“Yes I know… Wait what!” Sir Stouthorn said, surprised to hear his own voice echoing throughout the large chamber. Turning around, he looked to see where the source of his voice had come from.
Finding nothing, he exhaled in relieve and sighed. “By Triton’s mustache…” he said. “Perhaps Grandmaster Philharmonic was right after all. Maybe I am losing my mind.”
“No le Boeuf, I think you still have a few years left in you yet,” Sir Stouthorn heard himself say, accompanied with a dark chuckle.
“Villain, show yourself!” Sir Stouthorn roared, readying The Vendetta for battle and keeping his back to the crystal in an attempt to try protecting himself from a potential ambush.
As soon as he turned his back to the crystal, the minotaur felt a mighty kick hit him in the back which sent him tumbling down the stairs. Looking up to see who had attacked him, he saw his own reflection smiling cruelly back at him.
Struggling to get back up on his hooves he heard his own laughter echoing maliciously throughout the room. “Ah, Sir le Boeuf Stouthorn, the chivalrous, of the ‘Most Illustrious Order of Triton the Lawgiver’,” his reflection said, looking down in mock concern. “I think you may have fallen, my apologies.”
“Just who the Hades do you think you are?” Sir Stouthorn demanded, casting a baleful glare at his doppelganger.
Upon hearing the accusation, the shadow narrowed its red eyes and smirked revealing rows of razor sharp teeth. “Oh I’m only just Sir le Boeuf Stouthorn, the chivalrous, of the ‘Most Illustrious Order of Triton the Lawgiver’,” it said, bowing its head slightly. The dim light seemed to be absorbed by the shades pitch black fur. Drawing its axe, it pointed it towards Sir Stouthorn threateningly. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, now do me the favor of dying for me please.”
“You’re nothing but a cheap copy!” Sir Stouthorn said, trying hard not to show the worry in his brown eyes.
“Now le Boeuf, that’s a rude thing to say…” the reflection said with a voice filled with mock hurt. “Your words wound me so. Allow me to return the favor.”
Without saying another word, the reflection leapt out of the crystal and ran towards Sir Stouthorn leaping high into the air hoping to bring its axe down on his head. Seeing the danger, the knight of the Lawgiver rolled out of the way as the shadow’s axe barely missed hitting him by a hair.
“Damn it,” the doppelganger growled, as it formed its hand into a massive fist before punching Sir Stouthorn in the muzzle. “I guess it was a mistake thinking I could take you down all by myself.”
“Ack!” Sir Stouthorn grunted as the shadow’s bone shattering punch impacted with his face. Forming The Vendetta into a shield, he raised it just in time to deflect the creature’s axe. Slamming his shield at the shadow with all his might, he managed knocking the creature back as he retreated towards the dais in the hopes of gaining some height over his opponent.
The reflection licked its lips and grinned wickedly. “What’s the matter le Boeuf?” it asked, while walking towards him. “Running away like frightened little filly. What would Seafoam say if he could see your cowardice I wonder?”
“Shut your damned mouth,” Sir Stouthorn shouted, forming The Vendetta into the shape of his familiar axe.
With his back to the crystal, Sir Stouthorn felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Quickly dodging to the side, he narrowly missed being skewered by a trident as black as obsidian. Looking at what had just attacked him made his heart feel faint, standing before him was another shadow copy in the form of his faithful page Seafoam.
“That was a close one master,” the seapony shadow said with palpable malice in its voice. “Hopefully my next attack won’t be such an embarrassment to you.”
Normally a calm and measured warrior when fighting, Sir Stouthorn snapped when he saw his beloved protégés form being used for such a vile mockery which filled him with a blood rage. Bellowing his displeasure, Sir Stouthorn felt himself succumbing to the temptations of The Vendetta as he launched a flurry of attacks at the abomination standing before him. As his axe strokes were deftly parried by Seafoam’s clone, he felt pain as his doppelganger’s axe slammed against his armor covered back.
Roaring with pain, the knight of the Lawgiver used his anklets to launch himself high into the air away from his attackers. Looking down at them he narrowed his eyes in anger when he saw their smug smiles.
“Now le Boeuf, just what do you think you’re doing?” his copy demanded. “We still have unfinished business.”
“Yes master…” the Seafoam shade agreed, “you’re showing incredibly poor form.”
“Yeah,” a familiar voice said from behind him, “just what do you think you are a griffin?”
Immediately Sir Stouthorn swung his axe hoping to hit whoever was behind him. With a shriek, the shadow griffin narrowly missed having its head cleaved in two from a strike of The Vendetta as it deftly dodged his attack.
“Buck it all to the pit!” Shaw’s shadow clone screeched. “You’ll pay for that you doddering old bull!”
Sir Stouthorn saw an opening and prepared to land a killing blow but found his arm had become entangled by black shadowy tendrils of magic. Looking down, he saw the shapely supple flanks of a unicorn mare using magic to restrain his arm.
“Darling, nopony touches my griffin but me!” the shadowy form of Showboat haughtily declared. “Darling, would you be a dear and die for me.”
Struggling to free himself from her magic tendrils, Sir Stouthorn attempted dive bombing the shadow mare in hopes of incapacitating her magic.
Before he could land a single blow on unicorn mage, he felt excruciating pain in his forehead as a sharp stone hit him in the face. Temporarily blinded by pain, he missed his mark and slammed into his clone instead sending them both sprawling across the floor.
“What a disappointment,” a diminutive shadow Slick said, taking the opportunity to reload its slingshot in preparation of releasing another volley at the prone minotaur.
“Aroo mister Sir?” the familiar voice of Shanks asked. “You okay?”
“Ugh…” Sir Stouthorn groaned, placing his hand to his head in an attempt to stop his throbbing headache.
“Me sorry you hurt mister Sir,” shadows Shanks said, wearing the cheerful grin the real Shanks usually wore. Looking at the winded knight it stopped smiling and curled back its lips to reveal its needle like teeth. “Mister Sir, me make the pain go away permanently!”
Seeing the shadow pup preparing to launch itself at his throat, Sir Stouthorn rolled out of the way before the creature’s sharp teeth could latch onto him. Before he could recover and stand back up, he felt his clone’s steel shod hoof slam down on his chest knocking all the air out of his lungs. Ignoring the pain, he instinctively raised The Vendetta to protect him from another blow only to be rewarded with pain as the shadow Seafoam’s black trident caught him squarely in the ribs. Yelping with pain he tried remembering every weak point on seapony armor, while willing The Vendetta into an electrically charged staff. With electricity coursing up and down its length, he thrust it as hard as he could into the left flipper guard of the seapony's armor causing the shadow to squeal in pain. Leaping to his hooves, Sir Stouthorn prepared to finish the job but found himself muzzle to muzzle with a shadow copy of Clover.
“Ah Sir Stouthorn,” the unicorn shadow said while channeling magic into its horn, “you once pledged your axe to me. Keep your word and bury it in your own skull!”
Once the words had left its mouth, the shadow grinned evilly and released a torrent of magic at him. Sir Stouthorn feeling winded, spun The Vendetta hoping to disperse the magic before he was hit by it. As the black magical energy hit the spinning Vendetta, it was being absorbed by the weapon. Seeing that its attack was ineffective the shadow copy of Clover retreated back to the dais. Before he could give chase, he grunted in pain as he was hit from behind by the shadow Shaw and Seafoam who had snuck up on him from behind. Grabbing the griffin, he threw it into the seapony knocking both of them down. Changing The Vendetta into a spear that vibrated with the power of the wind, he took a defensive posture and lowered the spear readying it for a counterassault.
Sir Stouthorn not wanting to get attacked from behind tried to keep all his opponents facing him, but found that with seven opponents that was nearly impossible. His doppelganger noting his distress cracked its knuckles and looked at him evilly. “Ah le Boeuf,” it said maliciously, “what’s wrong? You seem to be at a loss for words.”
Sir Stouthorn’s bruised body was shaking, every breath he took felt like somepony was driving a knife into his side. Breathing heavily he studied each of the copies looking for any weaknesses he could exploit.
“Really master…” the seapony shadow said, raising a fin to its head and shaking its head sadly. “I expected so much more from the great Sir Stouthorn.”
“Yes,” shadow Clover agreed, drawing magic into its horn as it prepared to unleash another volley of magical attacks at the minotaur. “How you ever expected to help me in anyway is beyond me.”
“Me end your pain forever, mister Sir,” Shank’s shade growled, preparing to leap at him. “Me make sure you die quick!”
“Give it up minotaur!” the shadow griffin said, flaring out its black wings as it prepared to leap into the air to attack him. “I’m going to kick your ass, and then kill you!”
“Really darling, just give it up already,” several copies of the shadow Showboat said from behind him, each of which were ready to unleash their magic. Looking at them, Sir Stouthorn was unsure which one was the real shadow and which was the illusion.
Preparing his spear for a charge, Sir Stouthorn hissed in pain as he felt the sharp bite from a stone hitting him in the head. “Oops my bad,” Slick’s shadow copy nonchalantly said with a shrug of its shoulders, before reaching for another stone to take aim and launch at him.
Swinging the spear overhead in a long arc, the shadow clones of his friends scattered as they avoided his initial attack. Shadow Clover hurled several bolts of elemental energy, while the copies of Showboat used its magic to try restraining him once more. Prepared this time, Sir Stouthorn leapt high into the air avoiding the magical projectiles completely. He smiled when he heard the feminine shrieks of pain coming from the mare. However his celebration was short lived as he felt the talons of Shaw’s duplicate unsuccessfully trying to pierce his armor.
“Bastard!” Shaw’s shadow clone screamed, while trying to peck out his eyes with its beak.
Raising his right arm, Sir Stouthorn thrust the Vendetta forward clipping the shadow’s wings. The spear released a gale of wind that threw the griffin into the far wall with a heavy thud sending black feathers everywhere. Looking for his next target, he caught the flash of Seafoam’s copy’s trident rushing towards his head. Swinging his spear, he met the black trident mid thrust and deflected it away from its mark. Before the seapony duplicate could recover from the missed thrust, he grabbed the shadow by the mane and head butted it hard. The minotaur cringed inwardly when he heard his page’s voice cry out in pain. Steeling himself against any emotional attachment to the shadows that were taking the forms of his companions, he threw the stunned seapony into Slick’s double before thrusting his spear at the copy of Shanks which leapt towards him with its jaws wide open.
Shadow Shanks moved its head to the side to avoid being skewered by the spear thrust and bit down as hard as it could on the spear’s shaft. With the added weight of the shadow pup gripping the spear, Sir Stouthorn found he had difficulties preparing it for another attack on his own shadow clone which was approaching him menacingly. Although he was unable to thrust the spear in a series of rapid attacks, he swung the spear like a club against his reflection’s head knocking the shadow copy of Shanks free from his weapon and knocking his doppelganger to the ground.
Before he could ready his spear for a follow up attack, he felt the biting sting of several stones against his shoulder. Willing The Vendetta into a mighty flaming fist of justice, he pulled back his arm and punched the shadow dragon as hard as he could.
“Ugh,” Slick’s clone moaned.
Sir Stouthorn raised the fist and was about to crush the shadow dragon but found his arm was being restrained by the Showboat clone’s magic. Reaching down he picked up the stunned shadow Slick and threw him at the copy of Showboat hitting it and freeing his arm from the magic’s hold.
Sir Stouthorn ran towards the two troublesome shadows hoping to put them out of commission, but got knocked to the side as both Seafoam and his copies attacked him from the left. Using the flaming fist he backhanded the copy of Seafoam, sending it sliding across the floor. Before he could do the same to his copy he received a slew of magic bolts against his chest causing him to stagger from the impact.
His copy snorted once and grabbed his right arm preventing him from attacking again with The Vendetta. Try as he might, Sir Stouthorn was unable to slam the flaming fist down on his opponent. Reverting The vendetta back to its inert state, the knight of the Lawgiver grabbed his reflection and began grappling with it.
“Ah le Boeuf,” the shadow copy grunted, “it appears you just might have some bite after all. Pity that it won’t do you any good.”
The minotaur felt anger coursing up and down his body like he had never felt before. A silent whisper in his mind seemed to urge him to give into his baser urges. Before he could respond, he felt tendrils of magic restraining him as he was starting being buffeted on all sides by the shadow copies of his friends.
“See le Boeuf, your defeat is only a matter of time!” his clone said, laughing maniacally. “You will die here, it is inevitable. No matter how many attacks you throw at us, you can’t stop us.”
The old knight sighed as he thought to himself, “Perhaps it speaks the truth…”
The broken dome of the Diamond Vale was within sight now, looking at the once shining city filled Lady Zephyr’s heart with conflicting emotions. Within the hour they would enter the city and confront the Slave King. Looking behind her, she saw both Princess Celestia and Luna riding in their chariots behind her. Although she greatly respected both of the alicorns, she had no idea as to what their real reasons for wishing to join them were. Looking to her left she saw her friend Lady Suzaku flying in her wake. Although she was just as responsible for her current condition as Lord Ouroboros was, she just couldn’t find it in her heart to hold it against the phoenix.
Noticing that her friend seemed to be lost in thought, Lady Suzaku flew closer to the griffin’s side, “So Zephy love, have you decided what you want to say to the Slave King yet?” she asked, her ruby eyes looking directly into the griffins.
“No Zuzu, not yet,” Lady Zephyr replied. “How exactly do you break it to somefeather that you burn with lust for them, yet want to murder them in their sleep?”
“Zephy, when you say it like that I can see your point,” Lady Suzaku said. “But the worst he can do is rebuff your heartfelt confession.”
“But that doesn’t exactly solve my problem,” Lady Zephyr replied. “How else can I deal with all this pent up desire?”
“You know one of the mortals who visited your home suggested I take up with a mortal perhaps that might be worth pursuing” Lady Suzaku said. “After all, you were more than ready to pounce upon that poor griffin.”
Lady Zephyr gave her friend a flinty look and then caught an updraft sending her soaring high into the air. “If I recall Zuzu, that was all your doing,” she frostily said.
“Zephy my love,” Lady Suzaku replied with a slight smile, “there’s no harm in playing with the mortals from time to time. Take it from the goddess of love. Such unions can be quite pleasurable for everyfeather involved.”
“But I don’t want anyfeather else!” Lady Zephyr hissed, displaying her desire for her lover’s slayer.
“Don’t worry Zephy, I promised I’d help you,” Lady Suzaku said. “But you need to decide what you plan on telling him when we get there.”
“I just don’t know…” Lady Zephyr said hanging her head in despair.
He found himself once again in the familiar cave, following the path before him he found himself once again in Jormungandr’s library. Trotting past the roaring fire and towards the cushion where he always met the winding one, which he found to his surprise vacant.
“Now I wonder where Jormungandr is hiding.” Clover asked himself, as he looked around the deserted library he found himself in.
Trotting past the seemingly endless bookcases that towered above him, Clover found that it was completely deserted. Surprised that he was alone, he was about to head back towards the fire and wait for Jormungandr’s return when he heard two voices echoing in the distance. Cautiously the unicorn approached the source of the talking, being careful to keep his hoofsteps as quiet as possible.
“I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark Jormungandr…” a gravelly voice said. Though Clover couldn’t see the speaker he could hear his displeasure.
“Now now my friend, there’s no reason to be so testy,” Jormungandr mirthfully replied.
Clover curious to see who Jormungandr was speaking with, poked his head out from behind the bookshelf he was hiding behind and saw them. Unfortunately the other party was concealed by the shadows, only his burning eyes could be seen.
“Winding one, I’m no friend of yours,” the gravelly voice replied. “Once this business is concluded I expect payment in full.”
“Yes of course you’ll be paid, don’t worry about it,” the winding one assured him, through half closed eyes. “But the main reason I’ve summoned you hear is that my associates have some concerns…”
“Winding one, I’m not some servant you can summon at your whim,” the gravelly voice demanded.
“Yes, yes, my apologies friend,” Jormungandr replied, trying to smooth things over. “Our mutual friend is now able to enter Strix’s domain.”
“What of it?” the gravelly voice dismissively said. “If Strix is unable to control his domain that is not my problem.”
“Oh I beg to differ,” Jormungandr said while giving the concealed stranger a pointed look with his grey eyes, “We are entering a critical phase of our plan. With the creation of the weapon, its wielders will be extra susceptible to its temptations.”
“If that becomes an issue I’ll take care of it…” the gravelly voice said, with a hint of finality.
“I warn, you going beyond the scope of the plan could have consequences,” Jormungandr said with a hint of concern.
“Then that will be my problem won’t it?” the gravelly voice retorted.
“Indeed it would be,” Jormungandr said with subtle sarcasm. “My friend, I just don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily…”
“It’s a bit too late for that,” the gravelly voice bitterly replied. “I know the special guest of honor should be arriving shortly, but will the rest be in attendance?”
“Yes, all the important pieces are in motion and will be in play,” Jormungandr replied with a bit of chuckle. “Just follow through with your part and the rest should fall into place.”
“Just remember I expect full payment for my contribution,” the shadowy speaker said as he faded away.
“Ugh…” Jormungandr sighed, rolling his eyes in exasperation. “He’s wound up so tightly, hopefully once this business is finished he can settle down for a bit.”
From his hiding place Clover sat dumbfounded, although he didn’t have any idea about most of what he had just heard. He thought that perhaps Shaw had been right about Jormungandr the entire time. Perhaps he had been played for a fool by the winding one in one of his many plots after all. Was everything he had been told lies in order to get him to do what the serpent had wanted? Slowly he backed away and walked back towards the roaring fire pit in the middle of the vast library. Nervously he sat down and waited for the massive serpent to return to his cushion.
After what felt like an eternity, Clover saw the massive serpent slithering towards him from one of the aisles. When Jormungandr saw the unicorn he smiled and moved towards his large cushion. “Clover I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long…” he said as he coiled up next to the fire.
“No,” Clover lied, deathly afraid that the winding one was aware that he had overheard the entire conversation that he had had with the mysterious visitor.
“Ah good…” Jormungandr said yawning widely. “Sometimes it can be so easy to lose track of time here in the Library of Eternity.”
“So why did you bring me here?” Clover pointedly asked, trying his best to hide his feelings of anger and betrayal from the god.
“First to congratulate you on doing such a marvelous job,” Jormungandr replied wearing a warm smile. “Second, to give you a piece of advice regarding the upcoming duel with Lord Ouroboros, and third to warn you.”
“Warn me of what?” Clover asked in alarm.
“All things in their proper course my young friend,” Jormungandr said, as his tongue flicked out. “Clover you’re so close to the end, you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
“So what advice did you have to offer me?” Clover asked impatiently, wanting to desperately know what warning the winding one had to give him.
Shaw received a stone from our mutual acquaintance Strix in the Everfree forest,” Jormungandr said, as he basked in the warmth of the fire. “I have a feeling that Sir Stouthorn will be in need of it shortly. Make sure that he receives it from Shaw before he duels Lord Ouroboros.”
“I will,” Clover promised. “Now what were you going to warn me about?”
Jormungandr was silent for a moment and sighed. Bringing his head close to the unicorn’s muzzle he looked down at him sadly with his grey eyes, “The pit is hungry and wishes to claim a soul today…” Jormungandr answered.
“Who is it?” Clover shouted, demanding an answer. “Who’s going to die?”
“Although my vision reveals me all the secrets of Equestria…” Jormungandr sighed, “Alas the realm of the dead is beyond even my sight.”
“Then is there no hope?” Clover asked, feeling fear over the impending demise of one of his friends.
“My little pony, there’s always hope,” Jormungandr said, as he began singing a psalm.
Never before had Clover heard such beautiful music. As he listened to the winding one sing he was moved to tears. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” he said, wiping the tears from his muzzle. “That was wonderful.”
“Clover, I’m afraid this will be our last meeting before the end of your quest,” Jormungandr said, while wearing a serene smile.
“Why have you helped us?” Clover asked as the library began fading from view.
“Because like your princesses, I also love you,” Jormungandr said before he too faded from Clover’s sight.
Clover’s eyes shot open and he found himself seated in the crumbling coliseum. Looking down he saw that Shanks was lying next to him. When the pup saw that he was awake, the last Gem Biter barked happily, “Aroo mister Clover, did you have good dream?” he asked.
Although his last meeting with Jormungandr left him feeling a bit concerned for his friends safety, he remembered the song and the last thing the winding one had told him and felt a small piece of comfort.
Looking down at his friend, Clover smiled. “Yes Shanks, I think it was a good dream,” he said.
Sir Stouthorn coughed heavily a few times as he tried catching his breath as the blows had stopped for the moment. His doppelganger cracked its knuckles a few times and wickedly smiled. “Ah le Boeuf,” it said, bringing its face inches from his, “just think you’re already halfway there!”
“Halfway where?” Sir Stouthorn asked, through his swollen lips.
“Why to the pit of course!” the shade cheerfully remarked. “Just think, soon you’ll be dead!”
Hearing the clones mockery, filled Sir Stouthorn with a fury and he struggled to free himself from the grip of the seven shadows that were holding him in place.
His clone seeing his struggles narrowed its red eyes and shook a finger in front of Sir Stouthorn’s face. “Ah, ah, ah,” it chided, before punching him in the gut as hard as it could. “Trying to leave before we’ve killed you is rather rude.”
“Yes master,” Seafoam’s clone remarked, “have you no sense of decorum?”
“Besides,” his reflection said with a smirk, “once we’re done with you we’ll take care of the rest of your companions.”
"No…” Sir Stouthorn murmured, “Don’t you dare…”
“I think I’ll save Seafoam for last,” the clone laughed. “I wonder if he’ll break as easily as you did.”
Hearing the shadows plans for his page filled his heart with a righteous fury. Although he willed his body to struggle against his tormentors, he found that he was too weak to break free from their grasp. Knowing he was going to die at the hands of these monsters filled his soul with grief, before he gave into despair he heard a whisper in his mind say, “Release me...”
Desperate for assistance, Sir Stouthorn heeded the whisper and tapped into The Vendetta allowing its latent magic’s to fill him. Suddenly he felt a renewed vigor as new found strength coursed through his weary body. With a mighty bellow, he threw his arms back knocking the shadows aside like rag dolls.
Willing The Vendetta into a massive stone club, Sir Stouthorn began beating the shadows mercilessly. The first to recover from being knocked aside was Shaw’s clone, seeing that the knight of Lawgiver’s back was to him, it leapt into the air and tried jumping onto his back. Noticing the griffin’s aerial assault, he spun around and grabbed a hold of its neck mid flight. Raising his club high overhead he brought it down on his foe with a sickening crunch.
“No!” Showboat’s shadow cried out in anguish, charging her horn in order to retaliate against him.
Seeing an opening to attack her, Sir Stouthorn threw the griffin at Seafoam’s copy and ran towards the shadow mare.
Showboat’s shadow furious at seeing the griffin shade having been defeated, used its telekinesis to start throwing objects at him while Slick’s shadow launched a flurry of stones and the occasional burst of fiery breath. Sir Stouthorn filled with a blood rage, shook off their combined assaults and slammed the stone club into the two shadows. So quick was the attack, the copies didn’t even have time to scream before they fell. Even before the club had slammed down on the copies of Showboat and Slick, he felt magical bolts exploding against his back. Although previously the magical attacks had hurt him considerably, the minotaur couldn’t even feel a thing as he looked over his shoulder at his attacker. Narrowing his eyes, he turned around to face Clover’s copy and swung his club knocking back several of the magical bolts. From the corner of his eye he saw Shank’s shadow copy rushing at him with its maw wide open. Before the shadow pup could leap on him, the knight of the Lawgiver used the club’s downward swing to hit the shadow and send it flying across the room to land in a heap near the crystal in the center of the room.
When Clover’s copy saw the pup lying motionless, it gave out a furious cry and filled its horn with immeasurable power. Sir Stouthorn knowing time was of the essence, rushed the shadow unicorn and slammed his club as hard as he could on its horn. The resulting magical explosion shook the entire room and sent the minotaur flying.
Before he even had an opportunity to recover he felt the bone shaking blows of a trident and ax on his chest as his doppelganger and Seafoam’s copy started attacking him in unison. Opening his eyes he saw their murderous intent and rolled to the side to avoid their oncoming blows. With a furious battle cry the shadow seapony leapt high into the air to impale him with its black trident. Raising his club he deflected the attack and knocked the shadow to the ground. He looked at the mocking image of his page and didn’t even hesitate as he brought down his club with all the force he could muster silencing the creature.
Slow clapping echoed throughout the chamber. Looking up, Sir Stouthorn saw his reflection giving him mocking applause. “Well le Boeuf,” it said with a sneer, “it looks like it’s just you and me now.”
“Yes… it… is…” Sir Stouthorn said, panting heavily. Taking advantage of the lull in combat he transformed The Vendetta into a frost covered axe. Pointing the weapon at his reflection he said between deep breaths, “Come, let’s finish this…”
“Oh poor little le Boeuf,” the shadow replied with a wicked chuckle, “I think not.”
Sir Stouthorn confused by what his shadow had said looked at it inquisitively. The shadow seeing his confusion laughed and snapped his fingers. Out from the levitating crystal stepped dozens of the defeated shades, seeing his new enemies made the minotaur grip the handle of the axe tightly as he prepared himself for this new onslaught.
His shade smiled wickedly as its red eyes looked to the right and then to the left. The silence in the room was almost palpable, only Sir Stouthorn’s heavy breathing could be heard. Once the shade was satisfied that its opponent had lost all hope it said, “Kill him…”
With Celestia’s sun at his back, Lord Ouroboros flew west towards the ruins of the Diamond
Vale. Following behind in his wake were his flight of nearly two hundred dragons. With each beat of his wings he drew ever closer to his final destination and his destiny. Soon the domain of Earth would be under his control, and with the power of two prime elements he would be nearly invincible. Not even Celestia could withstand his power. With King out of the picture, nothing could stand in the way of his ambition. He just couldn’t wait to see the looks on the faces of the other members of the pantheon when he openly challenged each of them for control of their domains.
First he would assault the domain of Air and clip Lady Zephyr’s wings, with the domain of Air under his control Lord Triton and the domain of Water would easily fall. Once all four prime elements were his to control, the tyrant of fire planned on assaulting Londwhinium and forcing Princess Celestia and Luna to surrender unconditionally or see every last one of their ponies die. With the power to control even the heavens in his claws, the rest of the pantheon wouldn’t dare to make a move against him and would predictably fall into line.
“Yes it shall all be yours…” a wicked voice whispered into his mind. “For far too long have the other domains have abused generosity. Your dragons will once again be feared and respected. Nothing you desire will be denied to you, your whims shall be law. All hail Lord Ouroboros… No, all hail Emperor Ouroboros, master of the world!”
“Yes, all hail Emperor Ouroboros...” Lord Ouroboros said with a wicked laugh. Turning his head towards his flight he roared, “Remember my children, today is the treacherous Slave King’s day of reckoning. From this day forward let all the Earth tremble when dragons pass.”
In response, the hundreds of dragons all roared in unison, making the air above and ground below tremble with their might.
Lord Ouroboros looked down and saw the broken ruins of the Diamond Vale below him, and tilted his wings to glide towards the ground. “Soon manthing you will be just like your city, a broken ruin,” he rumbled as he began his descent.
“Lord Cerynitis, hold!” Lord Triton said, holding up his trident aloft as a sign for the column to stop moving.
Lord Cerynitis landed down near where Lord Triton’s chariot had stopped, looking at the Lord of Water he raised his right eyebrow, “My friend, why have you called for us to halt?” he asked, pointing with his hoof towards the broken lava dome that housed the Diamond Vale. “We’re nearly at the city, with luck we’ll have surprise on our side.”
“No my friend,’ Lord Triton replied, while stroking his mustache. “The rules of chivalry are quite clear. We must approach the Slave King and entreat with him before engaging him in battle.”
“Have you lost your blooming mind?” Lord Cerynitis shouted. “The rules of chivalry are only used for civilized deer. Savages like the Slave King don’t deserve the consideration.”
“Cerynitis, this is my campaign,” Lord Triton said, pointing a flipper at the Lord of War. “And I’ve decided that we shall entreat with the Slave king to prevent any unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Though this might be your campaign,” Lord Cerynitis replied, while pointing to the deer magi flying overhead, “your only air support is my deer, and I say the element of surprise is too great an asset to lose.”
Lord Triton sighed in exasperation at the Lord of War’s stubbornness. “My friend, perhaps now is not the time to be having this discussion,” he said, trying to keep Lord Cerynitis calm.
“I’m not going to lead good deer to their possible deaths, to just fulfill your backwards sensibilities,” Lord Cerynitis said, stamping the earth beneath his hooves.
“Then your free to take your leave of my army,” Lord Triton sternly replied.
“Damn it Triton,” Lord Cerynitis swore, while shaking his antlers in anger, “why do you always have to make things more complicated than they need to be?”
“Because I ask my knights to always do the just and proper thing,” Lord Triton said, while his scowl softened into a warm smile, “so how can I do any less then I ask them to do? So my friend, I take it you wish to continue participating in my campaign?”
“Yes I do Lord Triton,” Lord Cerynitis said with an annoyed sigh. “It’s too late to turn back now. The children of winter couldn’t live down the humiliation if we left an ally in their time in need.”
“Thank you my friend,” Lord Triton said, as he directed his honor guard to accompany him to the Diamond Vale.
“Besides,” Lord Cerynitis said with a slight grin, “I could never leave a good friend when they need my help. So shall we present terms to the Slave King in the hope that he doesn’t take them?”
Lord Triton gave his friend a wry smile, “Well, I shall present to the Slave King an ultimatum,” he said, while pointing to a scroll his secretary Choral was carrying, “he shall immediately agree to an armistice with a neutral third party to negotiate terms, he shall renew the Domain of Earth within a fortnight, and agree to attend a moot where he shall willingly submit to the judgment of the rest of the pantheon.”
“Well you’re not asking for much are you?” Lord Cerynitis said with a small laugh. “If anydeer were to come to my domain with such outrageous demands I would take the blighter’s head off.”
“I feel the terms are quite generous considering how he’s nearly drug all Equestria into an all-out war between the elements,” Lord Triton said, as he urged his chariot forward towards the main entrance of the Diamond Vale.
Lord Cerynitis said nothing as he trotted alongside the chariot. Looking at Lord Triton’s honor guards Sir Tsunami and Sir Storm Breaker, he didn’t envy the seaponies accompanying their lord on this dangerous task. While the Slave King posed little threat to immortals such as himself, the honor guard was quite a different matter. The Lord of War had thought of having two of his mightiest bucks accompany him for show’s sake but thought the better of it, if things turned bloody he didn’t want to lose two powerful warriors to a useless vanity. Shaking his head, he still couldn’t believe he was going along with this plan. If the Slave King had any intentions of being a responsible deity, surely he would have reached out to another member of the pantheon with an olive branch before things had come to this.
“Were here,” Lord Triton nonchalantly said, just outside the main gates of the broken city.
Lord Cerynitis was about to say something sarcastic, when he saw the most peculiar sight approaching them from the north. “I say Lord Triton,” he said in disbelief, “is that who I think it is?”
“Yes Lord Cerynitis, it is,” Lord Triton replied, as he stepped out from his chariot to greet the newcomers.
Lord Triton stood and waited as they landed. Once they were all on the ground, Lord Triton bowed deeply, “Princess Celestia,” he said, greeting her warmly, “to what do we owe the honor of your presence here today?”
“Kill him…” was the only sound Sir Stouthorn heard before the room erupted into a cacophony of chaos as he was assaulted from all sides by the shadow clones. His doppelganger leapt from the top of the dais at him with its axe overhead in an effort to kill him. In desperation the minotaur launched himself high above his attackers, managing to narrowly miss being hit by his reflection’s black axe. As he flew through the air above his assailants, he struggled to avoid the black magical bolts the unicorns were casting at him, while simultaneously avoiding the shrieking griffins assaulting him from all sides.
While struggling against one of the griffins which was desperately trying to bite him with its beak, he heard the familiar whisperings of The Vendetta in the back of his mind, “Unleash me and save yourself from oblivion.”
“No…” Sir Stouthorn gasped, desperately trying to avoid the temptation to loose himself in the weapons power.
Changing The Vendetta into a razor sharp whip of ice, he spun it around him in an effort to dispatch the griffins. As the whip hit each of the shadows, they froze and fell to the ground below exploding into shards when they impacted with the ground piercing the other shades with their razor sharp shrapnel.
“Still not good enough le Boeuf,” his clone taunted, as even more shades emerged from the crystal.
Exhausted and winded from all the fighting, Sir Stouthorn formed The Vendetta into a large heavy wide bladed sword that the wind flowed off. Diving at the large crystal in the middle of the room he slammed his heavy sword against it as hard as he could manage. When the heavy sword hit the crystal it managed to only chip it slightly, leaving a hair line fracture behind. Looking at the seemingly undamaged crystal, he could only stare at it dumbfounded that his attack was unsuccessful.
Before he could attempt another strike against the crystal, Sir Stouthorn felt a bone jarring punch against the back of his head knocking him face down.
“Le Boeuf,” his reflection roared in anger, as dozens of the shadows picked him up, “do you have any idea how much that hurt?”
Still stunned from the blow, Sir Stouthorn was seeing double as he felt the shade punch him twice more in the face. “You damned little bucker,” his doppelganger shouted into his ear before letting go of his head. “I’m going to take it out of your hide before I kill you.”
Looking up, Sir Stouthorn saw that his reflection was bleeding. Looking at the crystal, he saw that it twas also bleeding from the fracture he’d created. Looking at his reflection and then at the crystal he came up with a crazy plan.
“So le Boeuf, do you have any last words?” the shade asked, its voice dripping with malice.
“Yes… just one,” Sir Stouthorn said, as he willed The Vendetta to return to its neutral form.
“And just what exactly is that?” the reflection mockingly asked.
“Go to Hades!” Sir Stouthorn shouted, as he formed The Vendetta into a large bell and smashed it into his reflections face. When the bell struck the shadow, its ringing reverberated throughout the room and made the crystal begin to vibrate and crack even more.
“Argh!” screamed the reflection as it bled and cracked along with the crystal.
“For the Lawgiver!” Sir Stouthorn bellowed, hitting the shade twice more with the bell and making the crystal crack even further. All around him the shadow clones were shattering into pieces and disappeared as they screamed in pain.
“Please, no more,” his doppelganger pleaded.
“This one’s for being a blighter, and this one is for making me fight against my friends” the minotaur said, punctuating each statement with another strike with the bell against the reflection’s head. “This one is for sullying them with your twisted reflections. This one is for making me fight against my page.”
Looking up at the crystal, Sir Stouthorn saw it was now crumbling and falling apart. Picking up his reflection he dragged it towards the broken remains of the crystal. With fury in his eyes, he picked it up and growled in anger, “And this one is for me!” he screamed, while throwing his reflection against the cracked surface of the crystal.
When his doppelganger collided with the surface of the crystal, they both exploded in a shower of green sparks that sent Sir Stouthorn to flying off the dais and onto the ground below.
Bruised and bleeding, Sir Stouthorn lay prone on the smooth stone floor of the proving grounds. Resting from his ordeal, he heard The Vendetta growl with displeasure, “Unleash me!” it screamed with urgency.
Pushing the weapons demands to the back of his mind, Sir Stouthorn willed it inert and was pleased to find that he could no longer hear its cries. Getting up from the ground, he groaned in pain as his back cracked. “Oh…” he moaned. “I’m going to feel this in the morning.”
Looking around the room he saw that where the crystal once stood was now a pillar of green light. Taking a deep breath, he walked up the dais and stepped inside the light. As he entered it, his vision became a blur as the world around him fell away and disappeared. Then almost as quickly as it began it stopped. To his surprise, he found himself back outside Lord Darkpaw’s Proving Grounds. Looking down, he saw a sight that nearly brought a tear of joy to his old eyes, Seafoam resting in meditation. Even separated from his liege, his page was patiently waiting for his return.
“Seafoam lad, you are a sight for sore eyes,” Sir Stouthorn muttered through his bruised and swollen lips.
Immediately upon hearing his master’s voice, Seafoam opened his eyes and let out a mighty shout. “Oh Sir Stouthorn, I was so worried for your safety!” he said, giving his master a hug.
“Ugh!” Sir Stouthorn groaned in pain. “Not so hard lad, I feel like I’ve just been through a wringer.”
“Oh you've been wounded,” Seafoam said, bringing a fin to his muzzle. “Don’t worry master I’ll have you taken care of shortly.”
“I’m going to have words with the Slave King,” Sir Stouthorn angrily said. “What was the idea of sending me into that deathtrap? I’m all for training but that was ridiculous!”
“Ah the minotaur survived…” Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap drolly said. “The Slave King will be pleased that you didn’t perish. Now if you’ll follow me, we can prepare you for your upcoming duel.”
“Now just wait Celestia damned minute,” Seafoam said, pointing a fin accusingly at the arch duke. “Sir Stouthorn isn’t doing anything beyond getting his wounds looked at and some bed rest.”
“Seapony I’m afraid that time isn’t on our side,” the arch duke pointedly said. “The duel proceeds as planned.”
“I won’t allow it,” Seafoam said, lowering his trident threateningly at the arch duke.
The arch duke moved the trident to the side with his paw and snorted, unimpressed by the implied threats of violence against him. “Seapony put your weapon away before you hurt yourself,” he said, looking down with his muzzle at Seafoam. “If you wish to protest the schedule of the duel, I suggest taking it up with the Slave King yourselves.”
“Oh don’t worry, I plan on it!” Seafoam said, attaching his trident to his back and allowing Sir Stouthorn to lean on him for support.
As they limped back towards the Slave King’s ruined palace, they passed by where the others were waiting. When she saw Sir Stouthorn’s condition Showboat gasped, “Oh dear,” she said concerned for her friend’s well-being, “what in Equestria happened to you?”
“I ran into a bit of trouble, but I’m alright now,” Sir Stouthorn said, downplaying his wounded condition. “It takes a lot more than what the proving grounds could offer to send me packing.”
“Here, let me and Clover help you,” Showboat said, using her magic to lift up the minotaur.
Clover trotted over to Sir Stouthorn and grimaced, whatever the knight had been through must have been truly harrowing. Looking at his bruised and battered body, he knew if not for the armor, his friend would have definitely died. “So Sir Stouthorn how was the proving grounds?” he asked, as he assisted levitating the knight back towards the palace.
“Lad it was actually not too bad,” Sir Stouthorn said, wearing a wide grin and releasing a small laugh before wincing in pain. “By the Lawgiver that smarts. I’ll only say this, if that was the proving grounds, I’d hate to see what the coliseum was like.”
Clover, remembering what Jormungandr had said looked at Shaw. “Hey Shaw,” he said, “do you still have the stone that Strix gave you back in the Everfree?”
“Yes I do, why do you ask?” Shaw said, reaching into his satchel as he pulled out a nondescript stone.
“I met with Jormungandr again,” Clover replied. “I was told that Sir Stouthorn will need it for the duel with Lord Ouroboros.”
Shaw placed the stone in Sir Stouthorn’s outstretched hand. Giving the stone a curious look, the minotaur rolled it between his fingers before placing it in a pouch around his neck. “Odd, I wonder what good this stone will do for me,” he remarked, curious as to what purpose the stone could possibly serve.
“I’m unsure,” Clover replied, thinking back to the meeting he had had with the winding one. “Also there was something else…”
“What else did he say?” Sir Stouthorn asked.
“He said something rather cryptic,” Clover said, feeling uncomfortable repeating what he had been told.
“About what exactly?” Sir Stouthorn said, pressing the unicorn for the answer.
“He thinks one of is going to die,” Clover blurted out, before he could cover his muzzle with his hoof.
“Ha, ha, ha…” Sir Stouthorn boisterously laughed, while clutching at his sides in pain. “Of course we’re going to die lad, tis the fate of all who live to sometime die.”
“But surely he was referring to you…” Clover said, objecting to his friend’s black humor.
“Lad,” Sir Stouthorn said, taking a deep breath and looking the unicorn square in the eye, “If today is the day I die, at least I got to spend it with good friends and on a glorious quest no less. All should be so lucky.”
“But Sir Stouthorn, how can you be so glib?” Clover asked.
“Because I have faith in the quest and in you my friend,” Sir Stouthorn said, with a wry smile. Noticing how much the subject bothered Clover, the knight of the Lawgiver patted him on the head. “Don’t worry lad I’m not quite dead yet. Besides if I worried about every day being my last, I’d never get out of bed every morning. So chin up, it will all be alright in the end.”
The party now nearly at the palace entrance was stopped when the arch duke saw Second approaching him from a nearby shadow. The doomhound leaned down and whispered into his ear before slipping back into the shadows. “It appears that while we were gone, the Slave King has received some guests,” he told the party, before stopping to look at Seafoam. “So your audience with the Slave king will have to wait until his current business is finished.”
Seafoam looked at Sir Stouthorn and replied, “That’s fine, we can wait in an antechamber until he’s free.”
“Very well then, follow me,” the arch duke replied, motioning for them to follow him into the darkness.
As the shadows began swallowing him, Clover wondered just who could possibly be meeting with the Slave King.
“So what say you?” Lord Triton asked the scowling man on the great stone throne.
Sitting at attention with eyes that burned with a rage almost as intense as her master’s was the great beast Nightmare. With a coat almost as black as Luna’s mane she licked her muzzle and glared at each deity in turn, making sure to pay special attention to Princess Luna, Lady Zephyr, and Lady Suzaku.
“Slave King, just how long do you plan on sitting there ignoring us!” Lord Cerynitis demanded. “We only put up with it when Lord Jormungandr does it because he’s a venerable member of the pantheon. You on the other hand are nothing but a foul beast, wearing the skin of our slain kin like a coat.”
“I must apologize that no one was available to escort you to my throne room,” the Slave King said, gesturing to the empty room. “I seem to be a bit shorthanded these days.”
“Slave King,” Lord Triton said in a calm and collected manner, “let us help you. Nopony should live like this. You’re obviously not well.”
“Help me?” the Slave King replied bitterly, looking at each deity in turn. “As I recall you’ve helped me plenty already. Thanks to your banishment, I dare not leave this place. And if you wish to offer me the kind of help you offered previously, I already lost my heart, do you wish to collect another pound of flesh?”
“Thy wanton lust for violence and disregard for the will of the pantheon is the sole cause of thy banishment,” Princess Luna said, stomping her hoof with righteous indignation. “Thou darest slander our good name by accusing us thusly? Spare us thy censure knave, uprooting thy heart was of thine own volition!”
“If I recall correctly it was Lord Darkpaw and not I who was in the wrong,” the Slave King replied, pointing an accusatory finger in Princess Luna’s direction. “As to the removal of my heart, it was either that or face being imprisoned for crimes I had yet to commit.”
“The famine thou hast propagated is substantiation of thy blatant disregard for those beneath thee,” Princess Luna said, countering the Slave King’s deflection of responsibility for the crisis Equestria now faced. “How many have perished due to thy wrath and hunger for vengeance? If thou hadst a silver of conscience, thou wouldst give thyself up to be judged for thy wickedness.”
“I wonder,” the Slave King mused, “how many of your ponies did your last regent sell into slavery? Six thousand? Eight maybe, or perhaps ten. How many of them endlessly toiled until they gave their last breaths?”
“Spare us thy consternation for the plight of our ponies,” Princess Luna demanded, “We aren’t omniscient!”
“Perhaps we should all take a moment to collect our thoughts,” Princess Celestia suggested, trying to keep everypony calm.
“Celestia the Radiant, ordinarily I would agree with your suggestion,” the Slave King replied, when he saw Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap standing by a side passage. Motioning the arch duke over to him, he leaned back in his throne and tilted his head to the side. “Everyone you must forgive me for the interruption, something urgent needs to be addressed.”
The arch duke approached the Slave King’s throne and bowed once, “My liege, my apologies for interrupting this audience, but the minotaur was injured when he braved the proving grounds and is asking to postpone the duel. I’m afraid in his current condition he’s in no condition to fight.”
The Slave King considered the arch duke’s words carefully for a moment and frowned. “Advise them I shall see to his wounds, the Earth in generous after all,” he said, before turning his attention back towards the assembled deities. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to postpone any further negotiations until after my next appointment.”
“How dare you put us off!” Lord Cerynitis shouted, stomping his hoof in righteous indignation. “This negotiation as you put it was but a formality, if you don’t give us an answer immediately we shall marshal our forces and visit on you force of arms!”
“Although I would like to give you additional time,” Lord Triton said, "your obstinacy in refusing to answer is forcing my fin.”
“I’m sorry Lord Triton and Lord Cerynitis,” the Slave King said, “I will not give you an answer until after my next appointment.”
“Now who could be so important that you would risk war to brush us off?” Lord Triton asked.
“King, you wretched manthing. Where are you!” the furious voice of Lord Ouroboros roared overhead shaking the entire city. “Craven coward, come out and face me!”
Pointing towards the massive dragon flying overhead the Slave King said without emotion, “Ah, my lunch appointment has finally arrived.”
As always gentlereader comments are encouraged, read, and appreciated
Gentlereader please forgive the author this tardy entry in the ongoing story The Great Slave King. Alas, I seem to be doing more apologizing with each chapter I post. I can only pray that you find my meager offering worthy of your time. I know I promised that the last chapter would be the penultimate chapter, but as I've been writing it appears that the story has other ideas. I foresee there being two more chapters plus an epilogue before the book of earth is concluded.
For what its worth, I want to thank each of my readers who have taken the time to read and especially comment. The banter I get to have with you gentlereader makes writing worthwhile for me. I can only hope you find our conversations in the comments as much fun as I do.
Regarding the chapter proper I had planned on writing a musical number for the deities as they approached the Diamond Vale but felt that song might take away from the tension that exists between the Slave King, Lord Ouroboros, Lord Triton, and Lord Cerynitis. I had originally wanted each deity to level their accusations of the Slave King's behavior, while he would have sung a counter verse to show that he was the truly injured party. In the end I think the last section accomplished my original goal while leaving building the tension instead of lessening it. Besides I can't really imagine the Slave King singing anything more then what we've seen in last chapters dirge 'The Perverse Creation'.
Gentlereader, now that we've discussed a little of the behind the scenes extras we can move on to the fun deconstructing the story thus far.
We find that the party has a bit of a breather from their impossible quests, a chance to decompress and reconnect. While I suspect that some might dislike the first section for how much it centers on the bonds that have grown and strengthened over the story's progression, I felt it was important to show how strong the relationship between Sir Stouthorn and Seafoam has grown. Their master and disciple dynamic I think is really fun to write for because the love they share isn't based on romance but on brothers in arms and between a mentor and mentee. I liked to imagine Seafoam as a wandering seapony samurai out to avenge his master death, when he made his threat against Arch Duke Fifi le Yipyap and the Slave King. I especially enjoyed the little fight Shaw and Showboat had, and how Showboat got what she wanted in the end. Although I originally didn't put much thought into Showboat's creation beyond a plot device to get Shaw to join the party, she's becoming one of my favorite secondary characters in the story.
As for the fight all I can say is whew. I can see why many authors sometimes like to leave fight scenes so short. Properly choreographing the fight took a lot of work. I don;t know how I can possibly top it with the duel between Lord Ouroboros and Sir Stouthorn. With the fight taking up about 6500 words, I guess I'll have to do 10,000 for the duel. Speak of which I do wish to apologize for over using shadows, clones, reflections etc al. during the fight. But there's only so many words for copies before you start running out. Hopefully gentlereader you found the fight exciting and mentally exhausting to read, I was aiming for you to share the same level of exertion as Sir Stouthorn.
So gentlereader we see that Jormungandr seems to have a silent partner, who is this new player, what is he doing in order to get paid, and what is his payment? Sir Stouthorn definitely got a chance to shine, but is he strong enough to wield The Vendetta a second time, and what of the weapon's temptations? and speaking of which just who is stalking unimpeded through the realm of dreams?
One can only wonder what Lord Ouroboros will say when he realizes that not only is he not fighting against the Slave King, but a majority of the pantheon will be present to watch his duel. What will the rest of the pantheon do when they discover his treason? And what of Jormungandr's warning, who will the pit claim next?
Find out all these answers and more gentlereader in the next exciting chapter of the ongoing epic The Great Slave King.Until next time!
As always gentlereader thank you for your support, comments, criticisms, and genteel behavior in the comments.
I finally made it to the feature box up top! Thank you for all your kind words and support!
Until next time gentlereader.