Chapter 24 - A Game of Donkey Thrones
The party had been split up before, but usually due to powers beyond their control or a plan to put an end to a threat. It had never come about because of a difference of opinions. There was still hope that Applejack’s group would learn something or convince Lord Harrowmount to help them with the Warden treaties, but things in Orzamule had suddenly became a lot more complicated.
Spike, Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Shale followed her out of the Senate Halls. Twilight grumbled as she made her way to the Shaperate their tour guide had mentioned earlier, knowing all too well that more ponies of the party followed Applejack. It didn’t help her morale that Spike always went with her no matter what, and Shale was still playing the role of dutiful servant.
“Where we going, Twi?” Rainbow asked as she hovered slightly overhead. “Is this where Bhelen’s guy is going to meet us?”
“The officer who led us to the Senate said this was where the Shaperate was,” Twilight replied. “Bhelen’s aide is at the Proving Grounds, but we are supposed to meet him in the morning. I want to do some research on Orzamule and the donkeys before we do anything else. It’s better to have a wide range of knowledge on the subject at hoof than to go in blind.”
Rainbow, Rarity, and Spike groaned in unison as Twilight attempted to push the stone door of the Shaperate open. Twilight rolled her eyes in bemused irritation at their response as she pushed harder against the door. Yes, she was going to do a little bit of reading, but it was of paramount importance to learn everything she could, from Orzamule itself to the donkeys’ war with the diamond dogs.
If only I could get this door open, Twilight thought as she pushed her entire body against the stone door. Still it would not budge, not even with the collective strength of her friends. It was not until Shale nudged the door open with a hoof that the ponies and Spike tumbled into the Shaperate, dazed and eyes spinning.
“Gee, thanks Shale,” Twilight muttered as she matted down her mane. The golem simply resumed staring into space.
“I Simply Wanted My Master to Move With Purpose And Dignity.” Glaring daggers at Shale, Twilight looked up to see several grey-bearded donkeys in robes staring at her. They all immediately rushed to the golem, marveling at the stone specimen with hushed tones of amazement.
“By the Stone, the records mention golems but I have never seen one,” one of the historians gaped. “You, pony. Where did you find such a relic?”
Twilight silently sniggered as she watched the quiet form of Shale almost seethe from mention of its age. “We found Shale and its control rod in a village on the surface. After some tinkering with the rod, I gained command over it. Say hello, Shale.”
“Hello. Shale.” The golem slowly turned its head to Twilight while the donkeys fussed about. If Twilight’s stare was meant to bring slight harm back at the Frosttop Mountains, she could feel Shale was wishing for bloody squishing, judging by the return glare she was receiving.
“Remarkable,” continued another of the donkey scholars. “A working golem. Appears to be much smaller than stories of old, but we would love nothing more than to study this subject at great lengths! We’d give a mountain of gold and more just so we could investigate this historic piece of donkey craftsmanship and skill!”
Now things were starting to take a turn for the interesting. She had been expecting answers of a different kind, not history on Shale. “I’m afraid Shale isn’t for sale,” Twilight apologized with a smile. “But I am now curious on the history of golems. I’m actually a scholar myself, and would love to learn more about them.”
“Of course, of course. Please, come this way.” As the elderly donkeys turned away towards the inner halls of the Shaperate, another chorus of groans sounded from the ponies. Twilight ignored them as Shale and she walked side-by-side into the Shaperate proper. This was something she had been waiting for: a chance to enter halls of knowledge so rarely visited by ponies.
Massive stone shelves lined the Great Hall of the Shaperate, each shelf filled with hundreds upon hundreds of scrolls. It was a bona fide records room and library merged into one, with all of the donkeys’ recorded knowledge ready to be accessed. Twilight levitated several scrolls off the shelves, finding many were written in the language of the donkeys, yet many more were written in the common tongue.
What was different about the Shaperate, compared to the libraries of the Tower, were the great stone pillars that lined the room. They were not architectural supports as one would assume, as they jutted out from the ground but never reached the roof. On these pillars were millions of markings, runes and donkey tongue intertwining in some sort of large memorial. It was both beautiful craftsmanship and intriguing history molded together.
“The Shaperate was founded by Orza well over two thousand years ago,” one of the scholars informed them, “It was his answer to the fact that so much donkey history occurred during the Time of Chaos. As the Order of the Stone spoke of complete order, so too did Orza say perfect records contribute to order. The Stone never forgets, and as such, neither will the donkeys of Orzamule. It is a great honour to become a historian of the Stone and to keep the records of the Shaperate in tidy and honest condition. The Shaperate takes no side in war or politics. We simply record and state the facts.”
“Now let’s find information on your golem, yes?” The scholar looked at the very top of the stone pillars until he pointed to one near the center of the room. “There we are, pillar number seventeen after the Time of Chaos. Three hundred years ago. Give me a moment while I check the pillar markings."
“Many smiths have tried to recreate the process of making golems, and all of them have failed,” the scribe said as he scanned the pillar. “We often get many smiths who want to learn firsthoof how they were created, including Paragon Branka. The memories in the Stone say that golems were once our greatest weapons against both the diamond dogs and the ponyspawn. They were powerful constructs of stone and metal, where one golem was worth a hundred soldiers in the battles against our enemies.”
“If I may ask, why did the donkeys go to war with the diamond dogs?” Twilight looked at the runes the donkey was reading, but could not make heads or tails of the markings. “We met some in the mountains far to the east.”
The donkey responded by laughing. “You cannot be serious. The dogs were wiped out during the war. Queen Cragaxe ordered their destruction after they dug too deep inside the Dark Tunnels and gave the ponyspawn access to many important roads. The dogs never accepted surrender, and so the golems were ordered to eliminate them. If there are survivors, they would be the last of their kind.”
Twilight suddenly felt sick to her stomach as the historian turned away to study the records set in stone. When they had fought and defeated the diamond dogs in the Frosttop Mountains, they did not only end a threat to other mountaineers and free the path to the temple of Luna, but also ended the remnants of a society and a species as a whole. There was no telling where the dogs were now, or even if they had managed to survive.
I tried to reason with them, Twilight reminded herself, it’s not my fault they didn’t listen. It’s not my fault Lockjaw attacked us with his drakes. I should have done more though. I could have done more, couldn’t I?
“Please, keep going about golems,” Twilight interjected. The donkey nodded and then returned to reading the runes.
“According to the pillar,” continued the donkey scholar, “Paragon Cairidan the Smith was their creator, using something called the Storm Forge. However, his thaig, forge, and Cairidan himself were lost after the battle of Four Point Chasm, deep in the Dark Tunnels. The way to Four Point Chasm is lost, however, and our maps leading towards that region end leagues before entering heavy ponyspawn hives. Any who venture that way are lost, just like Paragon Branka.”
“Cairidan,” Shale muttered, which surprised Twilight as the golem was apparently trying to maintain the façade of servant. Pony and donkey alike turned to Shale, who simply stared out at nothing in particular.
“Astonishing!” gaped the historian. “It would appear your golem still possesses some knowledge of who Cairidan is, or at least responds to the name. Perhaps it is some residual command? It is very unclear how golems work, after all. I hope this answers your queries about golems. Do reconsider selling the subject. Studying an intact golem would be immeasurable.”
“Thank you. That will be all.” Though she regretted leaving the Shaperate so quickly, she’d rather not have the donkey scholars continue to poke and prod Shale while they had much to do. Leaving the Shaperate with her friends in tow, Twilight soon found herself drawn to a secluded corner of the Diamond Sector. Hiding herself in the corner overlooking a great chasm, Twilight laid herself onto the cold stone, hooves over her eyes as she could hear her friends approach.
Despite their presence, Twilight felt the need to be alone. Covering her eyes, she turned her thoughts completely to the mountain and to the dogs she had doomed. Was it the pressure to save Arl Macintosh and Applebloom that thrust her to fight, or was it the threat that demanded battle? Did she really do enough to avoid combat, or was fighting now the excuse for everything?
What frightened Twilight the most was how easy it was to resort to violence. Killing the drakes in the temple complex, to watching as Lockjaw was burned alive, to coming with a plan to take down a berserk high dragon. It was of little solace that Twilight and the party never started any of the fights they were forced into; they were just efficient in ending them.
“You were right, Rarity,” Twilight muttered as she looked up to her fellow unicorn. “It does get easier. The fighting, the killing. I wish it wasn’t so.”
“Don’t we all darling,” Rarity replied, her hoof tenderly stroking Twilight’s mane, “If there was a better way, we’d know.”
“Don’t beat yourself up too much, Twilight,” Rainbow added. “We’re here for you. Yeah, we have to do some dirty deeds. Most of the time we do it dirt cheap too. But we need you strong, Twi. Equestria’s counting on you. We’re counting on you.”
Twilight looked up into Rainbow’s fuchsia eyes and slowly got back to her hooves. “I’m sorry, everypony,” she apologized, “I’m just so tired. Hearing about what the donkeys did to the dogs made me realize what we did to them, even if it was out of self-defense. We took down an entire society of what they had left. I’m just scared that things will become easier as the time passes. What if we have to fight another people? What if we have to end them as well?”
“Purple one,” said Shale, stepping forward and easily parting Rainbow and Rarity away from Twilight. “There is something I want it to know. I do not say this often, and when I do it is begrudgingly said. I am a golem. It appears I have come from the Dark Tunnels, and the name Cairidan I do remember. But if I appear to enjoy squishing my enemies, it is because that was what I was made to do. I was made for battle, for war, for squishing the insignificant heads of my enemies. Of which I am pretty damn good at.”
“It, like all other ponies, was not made for war. It was made to do something else with its life. War was thrust upon it, and it has performed adequately to my ever increasing and already incredibly high standards. Do not believe this is low praise either. If I wanted to call it and all of its squishy friends idiots, imbeciles, and inbreds, I would likely have done so after I was done crushing their skulls in their sleep. I am sincerely impressed by its ability to lead and to fight despite its obvious hesitation to do so. You should feel very honoured right about now.”
Whether it was the fact that it was Shale’s or its unique way of trying to cheer her up, Twilight couldn’t help but begin to laugh. It was a simple thing to laugh at the world, and sure enough all her friends were looking at her like she was crazy.
“Did I say something amusing?” Shale asked. Twilight chuckled while shaking her head, before walking off towards the Golden Sector.
“You just said what I needed to hear. Thank you, Shale,” Twilight replied. “Come on. Let’s get some rest. Tomorrow we get to have an audience with the prince.”
Whether it was morning, noon, or just late at night, Applejack could not tell. After spending the night with her group at an inn on the north side of the Golden Sector, they immediately awoke and headed to the address given to them by one of Harrowmount’s servants. The building was just as grand as it was unnecessarily luxurious in Applejack’s opinion.
It still ate her up inside that the Grey Wardens were split in two with the decision to help two rival donkey lords. Since the battle of Ostequus, she believed they would be partners until the end against the Archdemon. Now with this split, she was not so sure.
“Here we are,” Applejack said as she looked up at a large stone estate. “This is where that ol’ Harrowmount told us we’ll be meeting him.”
“Um, Applejack?” Fluttershy squeaked as she stood beside the orange earth pony, “I know we need the help of the donkeys, but maybe we should try to get into an understanding with Twilight?”
“We ain’t making any decisions without her,” Applejack reassured. “All ah’m doin’ is finding out what Harrowmount’s position is, is all. Find out what we have to do to get a crown on one of their heads and get us a donkey army.”
The doors of the estate slowly ground open as two burly donkey warriors pushed the stone slabs aside for the ponies to enter. With Pinkie and Trixie in tow, Applejack and Fluttershy entered to see what otherwise would have been called a palace. Furniture and other decorations lined the main hall, themselves lined with precious gemstones. Trophies of bone, skin and leather were hung on the walls, each eliciting either a squeak or a gasp from the wide-eyed Fluttershy.
“It’s really shiny in here,” Pinkie commented as she looked at her reflection on a metal vase. “But why is it so nice in here, and so boring and plain out there?”
Because this particular donkey has a taste for the finer things in life. Applejack held back her distaste as Lord Harrowmount joined them, descending from the stairs of the upper levels of his manor. Flanked by two guards and twice as many servants, the elder donkey looked like he was living the life of a king already.
Still, while Harrowmount lived extravagantly compared to common donkeys and had a gruff exterior, Applejack still figured he was the better partner. No matter what creed or way of life, using the term “Kinslayer” to describe a rival was something she could not fathom. Rainbow Dash did have a point that there was no proof, but there had to be at least a crumb of truth behind such an insult.
“Good to see one of the Grey Wardens having the sense to meet with me.” Harrowmount inclined his head in greeting. “My clan has been supporters of the Grey Wardens for centuries. We greatly honour the sacrifices of the surface ponies who come to the Dark Tunnels to end their days in battle against the hated enemy. Come, we can have some refreshment in the parlour as we discuss what is needed.”
Applejack was feeling less comfortable around the fancy enjoyments of Lord Harrowmount as the group travelled, under guard, to another room that was no less lavish than the main hall. A grand table stood as the center attraction with the top covered in platters of food. The smells of delicious meals from all across the surface world made Applejack’s mouth water. The aroma of a freshly baked apple pie was more than enticing.
“Wardens and their allies shouldn’t dine on the stuff of the common donkey,” Harrowmount said. “My clan is old and rich, and I will share my bounty with you all. All I ask is that you consider why it would be in the best interest of not only Orzamule, but also the surface world, that I claim the throne.”
“We’ll listen to what ya have to say pardner, but like yer Senate, us Wardens have to be on the same page.” It was the best Applejack could come up with to keep her group aligned with each other, while still open to Harrowmount’s suggestions. While Pinkie immediately began to devour the food provided, Fluttershy hid herself away under her mane from the prying eyes of the donkey noble. Trixie was quick to attempt her own form of diplomacy, much to Applejack’s chagrin.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie would just like the Honourable and Noble Harrowmount to know that we have every intention to provide whatever assistance possible to a donkey such as yourself should we find ourselves sharing the same road.” Applejack just stared at Trixie blankly as she continued to sweet talk Harrowmount. Whether it was to butter up the old jack or trying to influence the way the group should think, Applejack could not tell, nor was she pleased by this.
Still, Harrowmount was enjoying the attention, chuckling while staring deep into Trixie’s eyes. “You are making me blush, my dear.” He laughed as he swallowed a large serving of wine. “I do take pride in the honour and heritage of the Harrowmount House. For a time, I served the Hammerfalls with the same sense of pride as I did my own house, until that kinslayer Bhelen took over his father’s estate.
“To understand what I am fighting for, why I need to be crowned king of Orzamule, one must understand what it means to stand against the ever-growing threat of chaos. Donkeys are separated into different castes from birth as determined by their same-gendered parent. A donkey whose father was a warrior would become a warrior. A jenny whose mother was a crafter would do the same in her life. It is a strict, yet tidy system. There is no confusion, there is no indecisiveness. All donkeys know their place the moment they are born.
“There are those donkeys, however, that are born without a caste. They are the stain on our bloodlines that are best forgotten. A donkey becomes casteless because of a great crime that strips them of their honour, of their family name. A donkey without honour, a donkey that falls into the pits of chaos, is less than the dirt under our hooves. All of their children carry the same chaotic taint; they all carry the crimes of the parent house. There are the slums where we pile our refuse that the casteless call ‘Dust Town’, under the Golden Sector. There, the dregs of our society beg to their betters and form violent, brutal gangs they call ‘Cartas’. These Cartas have run unchecked for too long, and have become more bold since King Endrin Hammerfall’s death. Only a king can unite the Senate. Only a king can bring order and honour back into the hearts of Orzamule.”
Learning about the caste system made Applejack uncomfortable. It was good to know where one’s place was in the world, but to have it predetermined by what one’s father or mother did in life was unfair. Where was the choice? Where were the hopes and dreams? She started to feel sorry for the donkeys; in their fear of chaos, they had attempted to eliminate all aspects of random chance, and now a case of death was biting their order in the flank.
The noble donkey’s disdain for the casteless also left a bad taste in Applejack’s mouth. The venom he spat when he spoke of the beggar and criminal donkeys seemed genuine, and he believed that the foals of outcasts carried their sins. It was a flawed system, one that Applejack could not understand how or why the donkeys kept it after thousands of years.
Harrowmount stood up and walked over to a large map of the Dark Tunnels that adorned the wall. Taking a look for herself, Applejack noted many runes along the map indicating places, likely the thaigs she kept hearing about. This was a map of the Dark Tunnels before the ponyspawn overran them.
“Orzamule is in decline,” Harrowmount rumbled, “This I know all too well. Many of our people are leaving for the surface, for fear of the ponyspawn in the Dark Tunnels as well as the increase in crime in the city. With so much uncertainty and discord in the streets, Orzamule needs a king that will keep order, tradition, and honour strong and thriving within the city.”
“Somethin’ ah can appreciate, milord,” Applejack replied. “But how can us Wardens and friends be of use to you?”
“Ah, that is the question, isn’t it?” Harrowmount walked over to a chest in the far end of the room, sliding the top open with his hooves. Taking a scroll of parchment in his mouth, he laid the sheet across an open section of the table.
“This is a part of a map of the Dark Tunnels known as ‘Four Point Chasm,” Harrowmount explained as the party looked over the map. “A crossroad in the tunnels, if you will, that leads to many lost thaigs. They are filled with ponyspawn, and we even believe that one of their hives is situated in the heart of the Chasm. It is the same crossroads that the Paragon Branka and her entire house were lost in.”
“The only way to break the stalemate between myself and Prince Bhelen is to find the Paragon Branka, who ventured into Four Point Chasm years ago and convince her to support me. The donkeys in the senate will fall into line if a Paragon, the very perfection of a donkey’s skill and devotion to Orzamule, shows their support for me. I will not lie to you; she was lost in the deepest pits of the tunnels, and as I told you, what scouts we sent, and of the few that made it back, report it to be infested with ponyspawn.”
“That sounds dangerous and s-s-scary,” Fluttershy stammered, shutting herself away again from behind her hair.
“It is,” Harrowmount responded. “But it is better than the alternative. Weeks of debate. Months of plots. Years of bloody succession war. If the Wardens want an army of donkey warriors fighting the Blight, then they will go into the Dark Tunnels and find Branka.”
Applejack looked over the map carefully, taking in all the notes scribbled in both Equestrian and Donkey. It was strange at first to see readable text on one of their maps, but then a grey shield on the corner of the map where the compass would be caught her eye. It was thankful that Wardens helped chart the Dark Tunnels, likely to make their final days easier.
Still, the map itself was missing an entire section. While the road to Four Point Chasm was known, every path to the east was lost as the map was damaged. Pointing a hoof at the torn segment, Applejack looked to Harrowmount with a quizzical expression.
“Excuse me, but where is the rest o’ the map? And how the hay do ya even know Branka is alive? Ya said it yerself, them pits are filled with all sorts of nasty ponyspawn. How could one donkey survive fer so long on their own?”
“Branka took her entire house, save her husband, into the Dark Tunnels seeking something called the Storm Forge.” Harrowmount rolled up the map and nudged it towards Applejack. His eyes were fierce as he turned to the large map of the kingdom of Orzamule. “She is a resourceful donkey, skilled with the hammer both for the forge and for war. She is out there. If she truly has perished, you will find something, anything made by a Paragon. As long as I am the one who holds it, the Senate will believe the Paragons and the Stone itself has chosen me.
“Bhelen holds the other half of the map. This is good; your Warden friend went to meet with him and he likely gave her the other half. I will leave it to you to reunite the two sides. Just remember, Warden, that all of Orzamule rests on the decisions you make with your friends. I await news of your success.”
With a nod of his head, Harrowmount left the dining room, leaving the ponies alone. Pinkie walked over to Applejack’s side, watching the donkey leave until the door closed behind him. “What are we going to do?” she asked. Applejack simply shook her head.
“We’re findin’ Twilight and then we’re goin’ to the Dark Tunnels.” Her blood ran cold just from uttering the name of ponyspawn home. It was truly a den of evil, and they were going to dive in head first.
“The chairs are made of stone. The beds are made of stone. The tub was made of stone. I would have slept on the floor, but look, dear! More stone!”
Twilight gave a heavy sigh as her group walked towards the Proving Grounds. Their night in an old inn on the north side the Golden Sector was neither restful nor remotely comfortable. Add Rarity going on about the lack of beauty sleep, and every member of their group was a little on edge.
They stopped as they neared the bridge that lead towards the coliseum in the center of the mountain. The heat emanating from the depths under the bridge was dizzying, and as Twilight looked down over the edge, she discovered why. Far below their hooves, what was likely several furlongs’ distance between the bridge and the lower depths, were rivers of lava flowing freely with waves of heat rising to the bridge.
Wiping her brow with her hoof, Twilight gulped as she resumed her walk towards the Proving Grounds. It was a long way down to the lava rivers below, and Twilight didn’t want to stay in the sweltering heat any longer than necessary.
“Do you think there were ever any accidents?” Twilight asked as she looked to her friends. Shale looked over the edge of the bridge and merely chuckled.
“I am certain there were a few accidents,” it said, “but more than likely a few donkeys angered the wrong lord and were merely tossed off. I imagine the screaming would echo in the caverns for a while before silencing in a ball of fire. I approve wholeheartedly.”
Twilight shook her head as Shale enjoyed itself with glee, continuing to move forward where a sizable crowd of donkeys were waiting in line to enter the Proving Grounds. Waiting for them was the aide to Prince Hammerfall, who quickly approached them with an eager look in his eyes.
“Ah, good to finally see you again, Warden,” the aide greeted the party. “Come. We can skip the crowd and head to my lord’s private box. Today is a special day, where Prince Bhelen is hosting a tournament in the Proving Grounds in honour of his late father, King Endrin Hammerfall. Nothing is more sacred to the donkeys than the Grounds, except of course our Paragons. It is the hall of honour, where warriors meet and fight to see who is most worthy in the presence of the Stone. It is also where disputes between donkeys are settled with honour, courage and fine donkey steel.”
The inside of the main hall of the arena had little different from the rest of Orzamule. Statues of Paragons of the past, mostly warriors, lined the halls where donkeys conversed with each other over fighters and past battles. Like the Golden Sector, there were plenty of vendors hawking their wares to the nobles and other attendees who would give them the time of day, selling mostly confectioneries and other memorabilia. Twilight could see a mental image of Applejack, now with a stand of her own, selling apples to passers-by, and the valuable import attracting attention from donkeys everywhere.
Twilight blinked away the image as quickly as it arrived. She had Warden business to attend to.
Several donkeys, decked in heavy plated armour and with large weapons slung across their backs, stood tall around the main hall, though their mismatched or otherwise custom armour clearly made them out as contestants in the fights rather than the usual donkey guards. Many posed for awed fans, while others spoke to other donkeys dressed in lavish robes: likely sponsors of some kind.
Many donkeys took notice of the ponies and golem that entered, with some moving to whisper gossip while the warriors looked on with disdain. Several began to draw weapons, not to attack but rather to show off their strength. Rainbow Dash responded by rolling her eyes and stretching out a yawn.
“Snore. None of these donkeys look all that tough.” Twilight shook her head at Rainbow to be quiet as a rather muscular donkey in spiked armour approached.
“Not so tough?” he asked through gritted teeth. “Why I outta see you out there in the Grounds and show you ponies what a real fighter is worth, except I don’t wanna stain my mace with the blood of fillies. Go back to the surface and leave the real fighting to real stallions.”
As the large warrior left in a huff, leaving a tirade-ranting Rainbow in his wake, Twilight sighed and looked at the aide in confusion. The servant to Prince Bhelen was laughing as he wiped a tear from his eye.
“Your pegasus friend has stones, Warden,” the aide grinned. “That was Jorgen Blackmace, one of the most respected and feared fighters in the Proving Grounds today. His record is that of thirty-to-three, of which my lord Prince Bhelen is a proud owner of one of those victories. The other two were handed to Blackmace by Oghren, whom I have heard you met. Come, Prince Bhelen awaits us.”
The Prince’s private box was just as extravagant as Twilight estimated, filled with imported foods and goblets of wine as Bhelen looked down from his box onto the arena floor below. To his sides were jenny servants, as well as two guards standing watch at the door, allowing his aide and the ponies into the booth with a curt nod. Bhelen’s bronze armour and circlet shone in the light from the crystals overhead.
To the right of the private booth was a large podium where Twilight saw Speaker Cranky conversing with several other donkeys. The podium was much larger than the private booth, with plenty of room for all the spectators in the Grounds to both see Cranky and hear him clearly.
“Warden, thank you for coming,” Bhelen said as he turned to Twilight. “Come, sit with me while we wait for the first match to begin. I do so enjoy a day in the grounds watching Orzamule’s very best challenge each other to combat. What I enjoy more than the Grounds is laying the stones for Orzamule’s future, which I hope the Wardens realize will not only help Orzamule, but also their war against the Blight.”
Twilight sat next to Bhelen while the others stood near the edge of the prince’s bastion, watching as more attendees milled into the Proving Grounds. A lull came over the crowd as two warriors entered the arena, staring each other down as the Speaker took his place on the podium.
“Honourable donkeys of Orzamule, from workers, crafters, warriors and nobles, as well as our special guests from the surface world, I bid you all welcome! Today we celebrate the life of good King Endrin Hammerfall, who had ruled over Orzamule for well over seventy years, and brought both security and prosperity to all who dwell within our great halls. Through strength of arms and steel, we honour his memory, and urge his spirit to become one with the Stone!”
A chorus of cheers erupted from the grandstands as donkeys shouted for King Endrin to be taken with the Stone. Twilight took careful note that the voices were unanimous, the only moment in all her time in Orzamule that two sides were not diametrically opposed. Speaker Cranky was wise not to bring up the current troubles between Endrin’s son and Lord Harrowmount, and was doubly so by not bringing up order or chaos. Instead, it seemed the donkeys really did care for the life of the former king as chants for Endrin’s name began to drown out the Speaker’s voice until he smashed another gong.
After a few quick words, the match was underway, and the two combatants began what Twilight would have described as two rocks slamming against each other. The fight was brutal, with both donkey warriors swinging their weapons and kicking their hooves with reckless abandon. Rainbow and Spike were getting into the tournament, shouting for no combatant in particular, while Rarity kept away from the event, paying closer attention to her hooves than the choice form of donkey entertainment.
“Does anydonkey get hurt in these bouts?” Twilight asked Bhelen, who simply stared off into space with a bored expression in his face.
“Often,” he answered, turning his brown eyes to hers. “Bruises and broken bones are common. Deaths are few and far between, but they happen. It is part of a warrior’s training to fight without killing when the need arrives. Losing warriors in the Proving Grounds means less to fight against the ponyspawn. It is why some martial schools are not permitted to enter the Grounds, like the Berserkergang. I heard you met one such berserker, Oghren. Almost killed Blackmace twice in the grounds, and took down several guards in one of his berserker furies.”
The fight ended as brutally as it began, with one donkey bashing his opponent clean with the hilt of his axe before almost dropping the blade to the throat. The speaker rang the gong, signaling the end of the match before the axe-carrying donkey could deliver a final blow.
“Do you know what the biggest problem facing Orzamule today is?” Bhelen asked as the arena was being cleared of both blood and the combatants. “Decline. We lose more donkeys every year to the surface or to ponyspawn attacks. Not only that, but every time a criminal is condemned and stripped of their caste, they become nobodies who do nothing for Orzamule as a whole. They become criminals and murderers, and why should they care if we call them such? They are already casteless, damned in the eyes of the Stone. They do not pay taxes, do not fight wars. They are nothing.
“It is an old way of thinking, Warden. One I stood against because it only hurts Orzamule. My father supported the Order of the Stone and the old ways, as did my elder brother and sister, as does Lord Harrowmount today. Hundreds of donkeys could contribute to Orzamule if only they were given a chance. That is only if I become king.”
“They called you ‘Kinslayer’,” Twilight muttered, not meeting Bhelen’s eyes. “It is a serious accusation.”
“So it is. Still, there is no proof. And I was always taught sacrifices needed to be made for the greater good. If I was responsible for the deaths of my family, it would be for the good of Orzamule.”
Twilight’s blood ran cold as she watched two new fighters entered the arena. Bhelen may as well have just confessed to the entire stadium, for whatever good it did. She was a pony in the kingdom of donkeys, an outsider who had no voice in the grand scheme of Orzamule. The idea to give destitute donkeys a place in society, to be productive, was something she could get behind. However, The fact that its proponent was a lord who subtly admitted to killing his own family made her sick to her stomach.
“The Wardens want an army, but only the King of Orzamule can command the entire warrior caste,” Bhelen continued as he watched the fights with disinterest. “That means either wait for the debate to continue for months, which means the surface will likely have fallen to the Blight by then, or for a civil war which will decimate our ranks even further, or we take a third option.”
Bhelen stamped his hooves on the ground once. From his side, a servant with a large wooden case in his mouth came forward, laying the case on the table. With a flick from his mouth, the case was opened, revealing a portion of a large map of the Dark Tunnels.
Twilight studied the map intently, looking as both donkey and Equestrian writing marked the parchment. A leftover of Warden ventures? Twilight wondered as she regarded the map. Notes such as “likely a trap” were written nearly everywhere on the roads towards a great star in the corner that read Storm Forge.
“Several years ago, the Paragon Branka left Orzamule with her entire house except for her husband, who was drunk in a ditch,” Bhelen explained. “This is half of the last known map to Cairidan’s thaig where the Storm Forge lies. When I learned of Harrowmount snooping around for the last known location of Branka, I decided I had to act first and cut the map in half. I cut it to make sure Harrowmount knew I had the other half and that his greed would prevent him from destroying his portion. I am going out on a limb and suggest the other half of your party was given the other piece. The words of a Paragon, the personification of donkey achievement, will sway the votes in favour of one lord. I hereby put the fate of Orzamule in your hooves, Warden. Find the Paragon Branka or the Storm Forge. Otherwise you will not have your army.”
Twilight took a deep breath as the next fighter entered the arena. In the back of her mind, she knew they would have to travel into the Dark Tunnels for some reason or another. Whether it was to stop ponyspawn attacks on Orzamule for a brief time or for another mission, Twilight had mentally prepared herself for such a venture. It was the fact that she knew all too well that she was being used that disgusted her. Being near Bhelen was enough to make her want to turn away and back.
She immediately began to think about Applejack and her decision to go to Harrowmount and wondered if the earth pony had made the right decision. Or was likely being manipulated herself by the older noble. There was something about politics that Twilight had grown to dislike, and she felt badly that this was the fate of Applejack if she did take the throne.
The sad truth was plain as day though. To get the donkeys to lend their warriors against the Blight, the party would need to enter the Dark Tunnels, find Branka or Cairidan’s Storm Forge, and crown a king. Two players in the game, but only one could wear the crown.
She needed Applejack, and quickly. This was not a decision to make lightly, nor alone.
“Bhelen!” cried a voice from the arena floor. The prince, Twilight, and everyone else in the Proving Grounds looked down on the dirt floor below to see Jorgen Blackmace pacing back and forth in the center of the floor, his eyes hot with anger as he glared at Bhelen. True to his name, a large black mace with a spiked head was slung on his back.
“Bhelen! You coward! You cur! Kinslayer! Come down and face me in battle, or do you have no honour left! Will you hide and let weak, sniveling ponies do your work for you?”
“Who are you calling weak and sniveling!” Rainbow leapt up (onto) the ledge of the private booth, seething as Blackmace made his challenge. Twilight looked up with concern; while she did not appreciate the insults being hurled at her and her friends, she did not want to cause an incident with the donkeys.
Bhelen had other ideas, however, as he stood up and approached the edge of his private seat and looked down at Blackmace. There was a glint in his eyes Twilight was uncomfortable seeing that reminded her of a ponyspawn staring down its kill.
“You believe my friends and allies are weak and sniveling?” Bhelen responded, causing Twilight to flinch by being referred to as his “friend”. “Perhaps this pegasus warrior would like you to eat your words. Or perhaps we can find that old lout Oghren, and have him beat you a third time, piss drunk without his weapon!”
Blackmace reared, grabbing his weapon in his mouth before swinging it wildly in a display of force and savagery. Before Rainbow could fly out to meet the challenge, Twilight held her back with her magic. If she could stop a scene from happening, she would. They were already on tentative grounds.
“What gives, Twilight?” Rainbow asked furiously as Twilight folded the assassin’s wings together, “I’m not gonna let that jerk say whatever he wants without a challenge! Can’t you see our honour is at stake?”
“We’ve barely been down here a day and you’re talking about honour like a donkey,” Twilight hissed back. “We don’t want to cause an incident with the donkeys.”
“But Twilight, we can’t let that bully talk to us like that!” Spike argued, “I’m not even a pony and I feel he’s calling me a coward!”
“Twilight is quite right though, Spike,” Rarity interjected, “I disapprove of going down to such a barbaric level just to appease some brute.”
Shale said nothing.
“If you don’t fight, all these donkeys here will think you’re besmirching their honour, acting like true cowards, and weaken the overall view of the Wardens and of surface folk in particular.” Bhelen had overheard everything and leaned in to join the group as they debated, making his point a strong enough one to make Twilight release her spell on Rainbow. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
“Now that’s more like it!” Rainbow announced as she flew around the arena, showing off to the crowd as boos and hisses drowned out any cheers she may have received. As she landed a good distance away from Blackmace, Speaker Cranky made his voice boom through the stadium to announce the impromptu matchup.
“The following contest is an honour proving,” shouted the Speaker for all to hear. “Under the watchful eyes of the Stone and of the Paragons of Orzamule, may both fighters show their strength and prowess to the fullest. The match shall continue until one fighter is defeated, or they submit to their betters. To my left hoof is Jorgen Blackmace of the Warrior Caste, descendant of Markus Blackmace, Warrior Paragon! To my right hoof is Rainbow Dash, pegasus pony of Equestria. Fight with all your might, and may your steel sing true!”
Twilight watched with her nerves wracked as Rainbow and Blackmace circled slowly in the center of the ring before the donkey warrior launched himself into the air. With a twist of his head, Blackmace crashed his weapon onto the ground, moving with speed that surprised even Rainbow. Barely managing to avoid the attack, Rainbow leaped away from Blackmace, dagger held clenched in her teeth.
With a growl, Rainbow took off into the air, quickly flapping her wings towards Blackmace. Her intent clear, the donkey began to smack the head of his mace into the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirt. The quickly created sandstorm was enough to not only blind Rainbow, but the stadium as well.
Ponies and donkeys coughed as the dust finally abated, only for Twilight and her friends to gasp in horror as Blackmace slammed his weapon into Rainbow’s side. The sound of cracking ribs and Rainbow’s cries were all Twilight could really hear as she looked down to Rainbow, who was struggling to keep steady. Her friend was faltering from the pain, and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
“Tosh narok. You are brave, little pony.” Blackmace moved closer to strike again. “Brave, yet stupid to step into the ring with me. After I’m done with you, you’ll be little more than pony paste.”
Rainbow said nothing, only flapping her wings to give herself distance from her adversary. Once again, she prepared to dive towards Blackmace, and once again the warrior reared up to stamp on the ground, laughing all the way as he did. Twilight had no idea what sort of plan Rainbow was coming up with, but as far as she could tell, Rainbow was being stubborn with the repeat performance.
Blackmace was kicking up another storm, laughing as the dust rose from his hooves. Rainbow Dash smirked as her enemy laughed, halting in midair before Blackmace and keeping a stable hover. With her wings she began to flap hard, pushing the dust towards Blackmace. Unfettered by Rainbow’s display, Blackmace continued to kick up his own storm.
It was then, while Twilight was watching the bout, that she noticed Rainbow was hovering closer towards Blackmace. As soon as the two were in striking distance, the smirk disappeared and Rainbow quickly tossed her head in a violent attack, sinking her dagger deep between the folds of the donkey’s armour. Blackmace howled as blood poured from the wound, his attacker drawing her weapon and pushing him down to his side before holding the edge of the blade to his neck. The black mace fell from his mouth and thudded against dusty arena floor.
“The winner of this bout is Rainbow Dash of Equestria!” Cranky shouted after ringing his gong. Quickly, Rarity leaped to Rainbow‘s side as the fighters were separated, all of Rainbow’s adrenaline running dry from the bout.
Before Twilight could join them, Bhelen smiled as she turned to leave. “Just remember, Warden. All of Orzamule leaves their fate in your hooves.” Twilight eyes narrowed at the donkey prince returned to his wine. Bhelen likely thought he had this contest for the crown in the bag, and had no problem sending the ponies into the Dark Tunnels. After descending the stairs and making her way to the arena, she levitated a bottle of healing poultice.
Rainbow quickly took the poultice in her hooves and chugged the healing fluid before coughing heavily and clutching her ribs. “I thought Pinkie made these to have cherry flavour,” she complained, making a gagging motion with her tongue. “I never taste cherries, just blech. And how come it feels like the potion is tearing my insides apart?”
“Because you just drank poultice, which you rub on the skin,” Twilight chided as she helped Rainbow stand. “Still, I can’t think of a better way to get the healing to your sides. Do your ribs feel broken?”
“They feel fine now, Twilight. Just a lot of burning.” Rainbow winced as they left the arena to where the boos and the cheers of the donkeys seemed to conflict more fiercely than the combat within.
When they finally made it to the main hall of the Proving Grounds, Twilight tried to collect her thoughts. First she had to find Applejack, then get ready to enter the Dark Tunnels. A shiver went down her spine as she recalled everything she had learned about the home of the ponyspawn, but there were few options left to get the donkeys onto their side against the Blight. No matter what, they needed to unite with the dwellers of the underground. If that meant doing into the abyss, then that was what it was going to take.
Thankfully, they did not have to wait long to meet up with Applejack and her share of the party. Soon the two Wardens were face to face, looking sheepish as they both knew that the leaders they had just met had lived up to be less than expected. Bhelen proved to be a manipulative and possibly murderous despot who had good ideas about changing donkey society for the better, if only for his benefit. Harrowmount was an honourable type who wanted to keep the status quo the same as it had always been, even if it caused the stagnation and eventual decline of Orzamule and the donkeys within.
Both leaders seemed to agree with the same thing though, even if they never met on the subject. To break the stalemate, the Paragon Branka had to be found and choose a king. Thankfully, together the Grey Wardens had both pieces of the map that detailed all of the Dark Tunnel regions as well as Four Point Chasm leading to Cairidan’s Thaig.
Twilight felt disgusted at both leaders. The donkeys worshipped the Paragons, yet both nobles had held back the map for a proper expedition to find Branka for political reasons. Those same reasons were the only thing that made them want Branka now, not for spiritual or moral reasons. Just to have a donkey of importance choose who wears the crown instead of trying to save a life that would have inspired a city.
“We’ll have a good night’s rest before we go to the Dark Tunnels,” Twilight explained. “This is going to be the toughest part of the journey yet. The Fade, Red Apple Castle, the mountain, nothing compares to the Dark Tunnels. We are going into the very heart of the ponyspawn and Celestia knows what else dwells down there. Now that I think about, no sun or moon means they don’t know.”
“The T-T-Tunnels sound awfully s-s-scary and d-d-dangerous.” As Fluttershy shook out of sheer fright, Twilight bit her tongue. For a Chantry sister, going into the Dark Tunnels where the light of the celestial bodies could never reach was a special kind of torment.
“Gotta be brave, sugarcube,” Applejack soothed, laying a comforting hoof on the trembling pegasus’ shoulder, “It’s what we gotta do. If there was another way, ah’d take it. But there ain’t.”
“I won’t say I do not hold trepidations on this venture,” Rarity added. “But if we must, then we must. I will just have to reinforce my protection against dirt spell. The Dark Tunnels sound hideous.”
“It sounds awesome!” Rainbow made a couple of loops around the party’s heads before stretching a foreleg around the nervous Fluttershy’s shoulders, “Think about it! We are going into the very heart of evil itself! Ponies just don’t do that sort of thing! We’re going to legendary… uh… legends after this!”
“We just have to stay together, giggle at the ghastlies that lurk in all their lurkiness and try not to get eaten!” Despite Pinkie’s unusual optimism, it couldn’t help Twilight this time. The Dark Tunnels beckoned to her, and they beckoned with a haunting gurgle of black blood.
“Needless to say, the Great and Poweful Trixie does not fear these Dark Tunnels!” Twilight raised an eyebrow towards Trixie, who immediately coughed and made a follow up. “But she will practice due caution when exploring the dark recesses of the world. She’d rather not be eaten, you know.”
“I look forward to returning to the Dark Tunnels,” Shale said. “If my memories serve me correctly, it was there that I faced my first and only defeat. Revenge shall be swift, plentiful, and anything with more teeth and fangs than it ought to have will be squished in rapid succession.”
“I’m glad we have these talks right before venturing into certain danger and who-knows-what that could possibly maim, maul, or masticate us in brutal, barbaric, and baneful ways.” Twilight tried to smile, but the Dark Tunnels forced it into something more akin to a donlock’s slasher grin.
“Warden! Wait!” Twilight sighed, as it seemed right before they were about to go anywhere, there was always someone telling them to wait. The party turned around to see the drunken donkey from the other day galloping towards them.
As Oghren drew near, Twilight was ready to rankle her snout at the smell of stale ale that permeated the dishonoured warrior, only to find that Oghren smelled somewhat sober. He took a moment to catch his wind before speaking, thankfully his breath not reeking of fungus booze.
“Hey, Warden, sorry about the other night,” Oghren apologized as he finally settled down, “Got drunk, you know the story. But I heard from Bhelen and Harrowmount’s goons that you’re going into the tunnels to look for Branka. I’m coming with you, Warden. I know the Dark Tunnels like the back of my hoof, and I know just exactly what you’ll be facing inside. I’m also pretty darn good with an axe, if I do say so myself.
“Branka has been missing for years, and those sods in the Senate never lifted a hoof for her until now. I’m begging you, Warden; I need to go with you. I want my wife back!”
Twilight took a moment to consider the offer made to her by Oghren. It would be good to have a guide and another capable warrior to fight the ponyspawn with. It would make a perilous journey just that much easier.
On the other hoof, she wondered if her sanity would last while a drunken lech like Oghren was in her company. The donkey berserker let out a tremendous belch, scratched his flank with a hoof, and leered at Rarity while Spike stared daggers in his direction.
Better than stumbling around in the dark. “All right Oghren. You have yourself a deal. We’ll be going to the Dark Tunnels in the morning.”
Oghren laughed as he shook hooves with Twilight. “I promise you, Warden, you won’t regret it. Now who wants a drink and a good time with ol’ Oghren?”