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Chapter 25 - Heart of the Pits
Twilight instantly regretted bringing Oghren along. He spent nearly an hour packing what he called “supplies”, all of which seemed to be varying degrees of alcohol. When asked why he was packing so many drinks, Oghren stated that everything he was packing was necessary. Sighs and groans of exasperation resounding in Oghren’s home, Twilight remained unimpressed as he continued to pack more alcohol.
When the group reached the gates of Orzamule that led into the Dark Tunnels, the guards were waiting for them with more practical supplies, as well as returning Oghren’s axe. Among the gifts were small light crystal torches, and plenty of rations made from a hardened substance Twilight didn’t dare to identify.
At the final gateway leading out of Orzamule, a couple of the guards walked up to Twilight. “There is very little foraging for food in the Tunnels, save the mushrooms, as anything found within is either poisonous or dead.” They produced two large satchels from their saddlebags, offering them to Twilight. “These are gifts to aid you from both Harrowmount and Prince Bhelen. Surface rations, canteens of water, and light crystals. To find fresh water, just look for underground streams. They are mostly untainted. Just don’t drink the black stuff.”
After receiving the packages and saying their farewells, they approached the road leading into the regions beyond Orzamule. Twilight swallowed her fears in an audible gulp. Just as the name implied, the Dark Tunnels descended into pitch-black caverns several leagues away from the city. Nothing but silence emanated from the bowels of the stone except for the echoes of cautious hooves on stone.
The Dark Tunnels were as rank as Twilight imagined, possibly even more so. The smell of mold permeated in the caverns closer to Orzamule, while smells from massive mushrooms made many of the ponies gag. The rock did not help matters, as the very stone was dark enough to make every twist and turn appear like a dead end. Every once in a while, Oghren would stop the march through the Tunnels to point out which mushrooms were edible and which were deadly poison. Knowing that relying on rations would deplete their foodstuffs quickly, Twilight listened to his advice and stopped the group to harvest whatever food they could.
The pungent stench of blood smelled the strongest inside the Dark Tunnels. More often than she was comfortable with, they would stumble across various bones and unmarked graves of those who fell in the dark. Ponyspawn and donkey remains alike stained the ground with blood, and leftovers of pyres could be seen to stretch for entire caverns until they came to a crossroad.
The map they used to navigate proved no better thanks to the utter darkness. Instead, they tried to create signs to show the way they were going, whether they were scratches on the ground, arrangement of rocks, or setting the bones of the slain in the shape of arrows. It was morbid to use a donkey’s bones like simple signage, but there was no way around it.
The first night camping in the Dark Tunnels was nerve racking to say the least. After what felt like a full day of marching, they stopped under a large rock formation that jutted from the walls. After Applejack started a campfire, pieces of edible mushroom and small cups of water were passed along to everypony. Shale kept watch as the others ate in silence, though the quiet was as comfortable as the noises coming from the caverns. Hisses echoed in the dark air while what sounded like grunts, growls, and even a scream reverberated in the empty stone corridors.
It took all of Twilight’s resolve, and then some, to try to keep her image of brave leader up. Yet even she could feel it in the air: the sheer oppression as the weight of the world bore down on all their shoulders and that they were in the darkest regions of the world. Somewhere in the Tunnels were enough ponyspawn to dwarf the force that attacked Ostequus, and they were heading right in their direction.
She looked to Applejack, and her fellow Warden appeared no better than she did. They said nothing, but both knew what the other was hearing: a hundred different heartbeats beating in chaotic unison above, below, and all around. Twilight tried to cover her ears when she attempted to sleep, but that was a futile gesture. She could hear the heartbeats as if they were her own until the sound was in harmony with her own thundering heart.
It was maddening, hearing the heartbeat of hundreds, if not thousands, of ponyspawn at once. There was no telling if they were close or near, if they were small donlocks or large minotaurs coming or going near their campsite. Every shadow seemed to hide a monster just waiting for Twilight to let down her guard. Her eyes widened as the shadows shifted into rusted ponyspawn blades, razor tusks and crushing hooves cloaked in the black abyss, twisting their way towards the group past the vigilant golem and eager for flesh.
They were getting closer. Had Shale gone blind? How could it not have noticed the ponyspawn approaching? Was the golem out of energy and needed the control rod to recharge?
“They’re coming!” Twilight shrieked as she readied her staff to fight off the attackers. “Everypony! Get up! The ponyspawn are here!”
Quickly the party stood up on their hooves and readied weapons to defend their camp from attackers. Fluttershy’s eyes were wide with fright as she ushered Angel Nuggy behind her, her hooves shaking as she attempted to ready an arrow. Trixie looked no braver as she leveled her staff forward, ready to strike with magic missiles against the darkness.
“Where are they?” Rainbow Dash said through the bit of her dagger. “I can’t see anything! Somepony get some light over there!”
Rarity complied, her horn glowing with magic as she pushed her staff towards the shadows. The magelight engulfed the area, but showed nothing but an empty rock cavern.
Applejack’s hoof on Twilight’s shoulder steadied her, and the violent shadows quickly recessed back to harmless corners. Blinking rapidly, she looked to where Rarity’s staff hovered, seeing that indeed, they were truly alone.
“Twilight,” Applejack said, “Yer hearing a lot of ponyspawn at once, somethin’ yer just not used to. Just calm down, and take deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. One and two… one and two…”
Twilight listened to her friend and followed her advice, taking deep breaths as she tried to drown out the noise of the ponyspawn hordes and their heartbeats. When she was sure that the beats sounded at least similar to her own, Twilight looked up to Applejack gratefully.
“This is gonna be the worst part of being a Warden, bein’ here in the Dark Tunnels,” Applejack explained. “We can hear them all. The deeper we go, the more we’re gonna hear. They’ll be loud, worse than wardrums until you hear their black blood flowin’ like it does in you. There is one benefit though.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow, incredulous that there could be a benefit. “What’s that?”
“They can’t sense us either. Too many of them, and we sound just like the monsters. Now get some rest. We still have a long way to go.”
Sleep did not come easy, and many times Twilight’s eyes shot open whenever a particularly loud heartbeat thudded in her chest. Whatever sleep she did get was plagued with nightmares, always about the final battle against the ponyspawn horde on the surface. The Archdemon made his appearance known in the nightmares as well, covering the land in black fire and shouting the victory of despair.
Unable to sleep, Twilight roused herself to her hooves and stepped away from the slumbering members of the party. Her staff followed her as she walked the outside perimeter of their camp, its light glowing bright to reveal the stone hidden in the darkness.
Shale was still on watch to the south of the camp, being that it did not need to sleep, but Oghren had just taken over for Rainbow Dash to guard the north tunnel. He was more concerned with drinking and sharpening his axe than he was keeping sentry, though Twilight did attempt to hide her displeasure when she stood next to the donkey berserker.
“Warden,” Oghren said in greeting as he rubbed the blade of his axe across the whetstone. “No time for a romp right now. Gotta keep my eyes open for any ponyspawn.”
Twilight coughed as Oghren made his intentions known. This was starting off well. “For a donkey who wants to find his wife so badly that he would brave the Dark Tunnels with a group of strange ponies, you certainly don’t act very faithful.”
“I have been faithful.” Oghren looked at Twilight for a moment before slinging his axe across his back. “There is only one filly I love, and by the Stone that’s Branka. Rutting’s got nothing to do with it. The first time we met, we brawled for six hours. Did I get any then? No. The second time we made a huge ruckus of shouting and swearing that every colt and filly in all of Orzamule were repeating what we said, much to the horror of mothers everywhere. I still didn’t get a roll in the hay. It was when I finally cracked her over the head with a mug when she thought she had me down for the count that we finally started to bump uglies.”
“We got married, she became a Paragon, and then she went out to find that blasted Storm Forge. For years I always wondered what happened to her after she left for that sodding forge, and now I’m going to find out.”
“But why didn’t you go with her when she first left?” Twilight questioned, “And why did it take you so long to attempt a rescue?”
“You’ve seen the Senate firsthoof Warden,” Oghren snarled. “How they fight amongst themselves rather than do anything useful, even for a Paragon! Without their support, how is one donkey going to go into the Deepet Pits, the very home of the ponyspawn where the Forge is supposed to be? I couldn’t go by myself, that’d be suicide. As for why she left me behind and took the entire House we had together, well… I just don’t know. I woke up drunk after she held a party, and next thing I know, she’s gone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Twilight whispered as she stared into the darkness. What would it have been like to find out the pony you loved had left in the middle of the night with all your family and friends? It spoke volumes about why Oghren was a drunk. Something told her the booze was either to help him forget or cope, maybe both.
“Eh, we’ll find her, I’m sure of it,” Oghren reassured. “I trained her in the same school of fighting I belong to, the Berserkergang. She’s also the best example of a smartass in all of Orzamule. If anydonkey could survive in here, she could. She’s probably already at the Storm Forge as we speak!”
“Berserkergang School?” Twilight asked, cocking her head in confusion.
“‘School’ may be pushing it.” Oghren chuckled. “Some folks need to control their anger. That’s essentially what the Berserkergang teaches, except instead of shoving it away, berserkers embrace it. We get so sodding mad, everything looks like a diamond dog or a ponyspawn and we just want to hack it to pieces. We’re so close to chaos, we’re told from the moment we become berserkers that the Stone will just spit us out when we die. My dad was a berserker and his dad before him, so I figured, why not? Let’s get drunk, angry, and cut up ponyspawn all the easier.”
Oghren gave a great laugh at the thought before clenching a bottle of foul smelling alcohol in his teeth and downing the contents. He smiled after he finished, tossing the bottle into the shadows before drawing out another.
“Come on, Warden, have a drink with old Oghren. It’s my own special blend.” Twilight looked at the bottle with a critical eye, noting the brown fluid within and its smell that resembled something from the Unicorn Tower’s cellars after a fireball had wiped out the mutated rats. The unicorn looked up at Oghren with fear in her eyes.
“I have to drink this?”
“Damn right,” Oghren said. “If you want to be battle buddies, we drink!”
Twilight could only give forced chuckles as she lifted the bottle with her magic. Oghren leered at her as she tilted the bottle back, and then took a big swig of the drink. At first she thought she had drank mud as it flowed down her throat. Her throat started to burn and her eyes began to water, and then came the coughing and the itchiness in her hooves.
Then there was darkness and a loud thud.
“What did you do?!”
“Just gave her my own ale recipe.”
“And what exactly is in this ale?”
“Usual stuff like fungus, lichens, dirt. Added some various surface herbs and spices to give it more kick. Oh, some lyrium and rubbing alcohol. To get drunk quicker.”
Twilight groaned as she leaned up on her hooves, her head pounding with a painful headache. The stone caverns appeared to be spinning until she pressed her head against a hoof. There was a disgusting after taste in her mouth that made her wretch, and her throat felt inflamed and sore.
“Oh, darling, you look simply awful,” Rarity gasped as she helped keep Twilight steady. After a fit of coughs, Twilight motioned for a cup of water, unable to speak except for raspy squeaks. She tried to recall what she had drank before falling over, only to have the memory of Oghren’s unique brew make her recoil in horror.
“Guess she couldn’t take her liquor.” Oghren chuckled, only to be smacked in the shoulder by Applejack.
“Steady now, steady,” Applejack soothed gently. “You fell over after drinkin’ that swill. How do you feel?”
“Like horseapples,” Twilight replied. She lifted the small cup of water with her magic and downed the contents. It was warm and stale, not refreshing at all. However, compared to that drink she had just consumed, it was the best taste she had ever experienced.
Pinkie passed over one of her stamina draughts which Twilight drank quickly. The orange drink was invigorating and also acted as a good distraction from the rest of the aches. It was as if her body was in open revolution against her, from her head to her hooves.
Oghren eventually apologized for making Twilight sick, if only because Applejack was looming over him threateningly. Camp was broken soon after, with the party ready to resume their march to Four Point Chasm. The path was still pitch-black, and every once in a while, Twilight had to stop to drink some more water to remove the taint of foul booze from her mouth. Only drinking the potion from the Joining could match the foulness of whatever Oghren had given her.
With another day of uneventful travel completed, camp was set up again inside a smaller stone formation. Using her staff as a source of light, Twilight drew the map from her saddle bag and set it down on a flat surface, the party joining her in studying the twisted maze that was the Dark Tunnels. The map pointed out two ways of travel: one that would take them through long abandoned roads used by the donkeys to travel between Orzamule and the outlying thaigs, while another, much shorter path lead straight to the Chasm. Skull and crossbones marked the passage way.
“I don’t like the looks of that,” Twilight commented as she pointed out the shortcut. “Maybe we should stick to the main roads.”
“That’s too long!” Rainbow complained as she shoved a hoof towards the shortcut. “We don’t have a lot of time, right? We should take the faster route and be that much closer to the Storm Forge.”
“We can’t just rush in blind.” Applejack looked on at the map with worry. “Wardens helped chart the course. Whatever is down there that they feel it necessary to leave old bones on a map worries me somethin’ fierce.”
It was a dilemma to be sure. Fast yet dangerous, or slow yet relatively safe. Twilight rubbed her chin as she looked at the map before turning her eyes to Shale. The golem merely stared back at her before letting out a long, drawn out sigh.
“The purple one wants me to scout again, doesn’t it,” Shale said dryly. Twilight nodded as she pointed out the shortcut.
“You’re the strongest of us all, Shale,” Twilight explained. “Blades and teeth don’t hurt you, you don’t tire, and you are immune to the ponyspawn poison blood. If anyone can scout ahead, it’s you.”
“Very well,” Shale consented, “But I will need a source of light. I may be all that you described and much, much more, but I still cannot see in the dark.”
“I’ll go with Rocky,” Oghren volunteered, standing beside the golem and ignoring the death-stare Shale was giving him. “I know the Tunnels. We’ll scout out the shortcut, see what’s going on, and then come on back.”
The party agreed, and with light crystals secured against their hides, the golem and donkey duo departed into the shortcut. Twilight sighed as she watched the light of their torches slowly be consumed by darkness; she would now have to play the waiting game.
It was difficult, waiting for Shale and Oghren to return as they sat in the cave with only the light from a campfire to give comfort. Tension was high as Twilight could still hear the heartbeats of hundreds of ponyspawn around them, and no amount of study or distraction could peel her thoughts away from the sound of hearts beating with black blood.
They ate charred mushrooms in silence as they waited, with only the barest amount of conversation spoken. It was not until Fluttershy opened her saddle bag and noticed that some of her rations and collected pieces of mushrooms were missing did the party become alert.
“We’re not alone,” Rainbow muttered as she looked around their shelter. Twilight perked her ears as her friends readied themselves for battle. Listening intently, Twilight could only hear the thudding of monstrous hearts and her heart ringing in her ears.
Fluttershy shivered as she stepped backwards into the rock; Angel gripped her head as she moved away. She jumped into the air with fright as she bumped into something that also leapt in shock, running away on its hooves into the Dark Tunnels.
“After him!” Rainbow called, taking flight to give chase to the thief. The others soon galloped after the assassin, trailing behind as Rainbow disappeared into the darkness with a torch in her mouth. With a curse, Twilight urged her staff forward to give them light; the hot-head had rushed into the unknown, and it would be all too easy for something to catch her unawares.
A crash up ahead and the sound of falling rocks worried Twilight until they found Rainbow sprawled on the dirt, rubbing her head. “The thief knows the tunnels,” she spat, “Knew all the twists and turns. We have to catch him!”
“Follow me!” Twilight said, lowering her glowing staff like a torch as they ran through the tunnels. Galloping hooves broke the silence of the caves as they ran in chase of the thief, whose heavy wheezing betrayed his location.
As they gave chase, the tunnels became narrower, with more arcs and bends until it became difficult for the party to continue at full gallop. They slowed to a trot and formed a single file line, with Twilight taking point. Oddly, the heartbeats she heard from the ponyspawn became slightly quieter the deeper into this cavern she went, as if she was moving away from the bulk of the horde. She looked to Applejack, who had her sword held tight in her mouth; her fellow Warden gave a slight shrug, and then turned her attention to the cave.
Eventually they emerged from the narrow cavern into a wider one, the glow from several light crystals illuminating the rocky den. Inside, piles of refuse and junk lined the walls while a small campfire gave the room some warmth. There, trembling in a corner of the cave was a sickly donkey, dull eyes looking at the encroaching ponies with utter terror. Littered about the room were corpses of ponyspawn, mostly donlocks which were in various stages of decay. They all appeared to be half-eaten.
Twilight held up a hoof to keep the others back. Like any cornered creature, this donkey would become dangerous if threatened. With a slight look at her staff, the magelight dissipated, and the staff floated behind her. She looked to the other ponies, who slowly put away their weapons.
Her heart broke as she took cautious steps forward to the donkey. He was the most wretched equine she had seen in her journeys. Emancipated, his ribs showed clearly against a mottled coat of grey, and his hooves were lined with cracks. A good portion of his tail was missing, as well as a large chunk of his right ear. From the donkey came an incredibly noxious smell, which Twilight could only guess was years of sweat, blood, and dirt building up against his coat.
His eyes were the most disturbing, being bloodshot but with black veins instead of red. His irises were languid grey, and he had huge black pits under his eyes, denoting a complete lack of proper sleep. Behind those eyes was fear for his life as Twilight tried to step forward.
“Go away!” His voice cracked in mid-sob. “Go away! Leave Ruck be! No hurt Ruck! Ruck do nothing! Ruck no hurt you!”
“Shh…” Twilight soothed as she tried to communicate. “I’m not here to hurt you. None of us here will. Your name is Ruck? My name is Twilight. I’m a Grey Warden.”
The mention of the Grey Wardens made Ruck’s whole ear perk upwards. He took a few tentative hoofsteps forward until his features could be clearly seen in the light of the fire. Rarity let out a gasp at Ruck’s squalor, though she made no further comment.
“You Wardens?” he asked, “Your heart, beat like monsters. Beat like Ruck. But not monster. Wardens nice. They give Ruck food and wood and water when they come. They don’t stay though. They go to the Pits. They go to die. Make Ruck sad.”
“Twilight, careful,” Applejack said, standing next to Twilight. “Ruck’s a ghoul: somepony who got raw ponyspawn blood in them. If the blood doesn’t kill outright, it will make a pony become like the ponyspawn. Only becoming a Grey Warden can cure it. Never seen a donkey ghoul though; maybe they’re more resistant to the Taint.”
Ruck was closer now, and Twilight could see the lines under his eyes and just how dirty and bruised his body was. With his good ear hanging low, Ruck spoke in a shaky voice.
“You… you not donkey,” he said, pointing a hoof at Twilight. “You different. You pretty. You clean. But not like clean donkey who hurt Ruck. Not like Master Branka. She yell at Ruck. She hurt Ruck. Then she goes to Pits. Says Ruck should be eaten by the ‘spawn.”
“Ruck no want die then. Ruck want live. Ruck find ‘spawn who get lost from horde. Ruck kill. Ruck eat. Ruck feel sick, but Ruck live. So long Ruck do this. Just Ruck in the Tunnels, eating monster and mushroom. Always hiding. Always listening to the beat of hearts. Can’t remember face of other donkey, except for Master Branka and…and…”
The wretch broke down into sobs, vile black tears oozing from his eyes as he cried. Fluttershy mustered herself forward, holding Ruck steady as he cried. She looked up at Twilight and Applejack with tears of her own as Ruck continued to weep. The sound of hooves against stone made them all turn to the entrance of Ruck’s cave to see Oghren standing there. His face was dour, but he remained silent. Shale was not with him, being unable to fit into the narrow passage way.
“You were with Branka?” Twilight asked. “What happened? Were you with her house when they searched for the Storm Forge?”
“Ruck was good worker, wanted to make mama proud,” the desolate donkey replied. “Branka promised wealth. Many donkey go with her to the Tunnels. We find thaig in gorge, Branka say ‘fix thaig’. Ruck good worker. We find monster in the dark. Hoofs and wings and teeth! Branka say ‘fight monster’. Ruck good worker, not warrior. Scared. Then we go to Pits. Branka says ‘go die’.”
“Traps! Monsters! Every time we go into Pits, more and more donkey fall. Blood everywhere! Jacks die! Jennies taken! Ruck run to Master, but Branka has new house. House of stone. Donkeys of stone. Branka find Ruck. Branka beat Ruck. Tell Ruck to die.”
“Ruck live in Tunnels. But Ruck no sleep! Ruck eat monster, hear their hearts as his! Always close! Ruck find tunnel where he be safe. Monster don’t find Ruck. No monster. No teeth or hammer. But Ruck tired. So tired. Ruck want sleep. Ruck want no nightmares.”
As Fluttershy stroked Ruck’s messy mane, Twilight felt anger rise within her. Branka was supposed to be donkey perfection, a hero amongst her people. How could she have asked her entire house to enter this place called “the Pits” and die for her? How could she discard her House?
Then there was the line that worried Twilight. Branka had a house of stone, donkeys of stone. If Ruck was right, Branka had found golems just like Shale, and she had many of them. Branka would be well protected, but was she worth finding now, knowing that the Paragon of Orzamule had willingly sent so many to their deaths?
“Branka…” Oghren muttered, only to trail off and stare at his hooves. Fluttershy looked up at Twilight.
“We need to help him,” Fluttershy said. “We can use our Star Strand on him. Heal him of the Taint.”
“We need to save those strands for emergencies,” Trixie countered. “We only have three left.”
“Ah hate to agree with Trixie, Twilight, but fer another reason.” Applejack sighed, shaking her head. “We saw that the Star Strand could heal Applebloom’s body, but her mind was still in shambles. It will take months, if not years fer her to let the wounds of the mind heal. Even if the Strand could heal the Taint, he’d still have the mind of a ghoul. We don’t even know if he’ll survive without the ponyspawn blood.”
“Maybe Ruck can get help,” Twilight said, looking to Oghren. “If Ruck was no longer a ghoul, could he go back to Orzamule?”
Oghren shook his head. “If the guards don’t kill him on the spot for being a suspected ghoul, they’ll kill him for cowardice. Donkeys who go into the Tunnels are only supposed to return if they made some sort of progress. One donkey coming back would look bad enough. Once they confirmed who he was, they’d kill him for abandoning a Paragon.”
Twilight’s ears drooped as she looked to Ruck. There was no way to win; they could heal him, only to leave him to his fate as an insane donkey in the Dark Tunnels. Orzamule would kill him. Leaving him like this would only prolong his suffering.
Damn it, Twilight cursed, Why? Why can’t I help him? What good is being a Warden if I can’t help one broken donkey against the ponyspawn and their blood!?
She was snapped out of her thoughts when she felt a cracked hoof touch her face. Ruck was looking into her eyes, almost pleading. “You look like Mama,” he said. “Kind eyes. Thoughtful eyes. Ruck no want scared anymore. Ruck want sleep. Please. Mercy.”
Lowering her head, Twilight had to make a decision. Leave Ruck, try to heal him, or give him what he wanted. Give him a merciful death. She felt cold as she considered her options. Nothing was right, everything was wrong, and she had to choose how this one life was going to end.
She took her breaths deep and slow, in the same calming way as First Enchanter Wise Eyes taught all the students of the Unicorn Tower. She took air in through the nose, then out through the mouth. Her body trembled as she looked down at the begging Ruck, who remained silent.
Her mind’s eye went back to the day of Rainbow’s ambush in the fields of Equestria, of freezing the pegasi assassin Redwing with arcane ice. If there was one thing she was grateful for, it was that during their journey to unite the equines of the land, she had not slain another pony. Monsters, demons, and a high dragon she could deal with. They could not be reasoned with.
This was something else. Something inexplicable that Twilight couldn’t wrap her head around. There was a sick logic behind it which made her ill. Yet who was she to deny a donkey his final wish?
“Leave us,” Twilight ordered as she brought her staff forward. “I don’t want anypony to see this. What I’m about to do.”
Everypony stayed put, much to Twilight’s relief and dismay. “No can do, sugarcube,” Applejack objected, “We can’t just leave you to suffer this alone. If you want, I can do it.”
“I’ll do it,” Rainbow offered. “I’m used to it. Assassin and stuff. I can make it quick and painless.”
“Thank you,” Twilight said softly, her smile weak. “But I feel I have to do it. Just… thank you for helping me.”
Ruck turned away, walking slowly towards his campfire before lying down, as if to sleep. Twilight followed with Fluttershy beside her, both somber as they looked down on the donkey before them. Then, much to Twilight’s surprise, Fluttershy began to sing.
“Hush now, quiet now,
It’s time to lay your sleeping head,
Hush now, quiet now,
It’s time to go to bed...”
It was difficult for Twilight to focus the magic needed. As a donkey, Ruck had some natural resistance to magic, though the Taint weakened this somewhat. If she used her staff, Twilight would have had an easier time, but this was something that had to come from her and her alone. Not amplified by an instrument.
Strands of magic flowed from her horn towards Ruck’s body until they found his heart. As Fluttershy continued to sing, she twisted her magic until it formed a vice around his organ. Tears in her eyes, Twilight raised a hoof towards Ruck’s face, stroking it tenderly as a mother would her foal.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered while Fluttershy ended her song. “I should have done more.”
“No sorry,” Ruck said back. “Ruck want sleep. Ruck get sleep. Thank you.”
It was now or never. Before she could hesitate or release the hold on his heart, Twilight gave a sharp cry, turning away as her horn flared with magic. Ruck exhaled one last time and peacefully fell asleep.
Nary an eye was dry as Twilight hurled herself against Applejack’s shoulder, weeping bitterly as the others looked on at the body. Even Oghren allowed a few scant tears as he paced the length of the cave, muttering obscenities. Rainbow kicked the wall in anger as Pinkie held her face in her hooves. Fluttershy stood over the body with Angel standing next to her as she cried. Rarity pressed a kerchief to her eyes. Spike took Twilight’s foreleg in a tight embrace, which she reciprocated by nuzzling against his scaly head.
Oghren then began to move with purpose, scouring the room for rocks of all sizes and shapes and pushing them towards the body of Ruck. “What are you all waitin’ for?” he asked. “Help me out. We’re giving this blighter a cairn.”
They worked in silence, moving rocks towards Ruck and reverently placing them over the body until the entire donkey was covered in stone. Oghren stood over the cairn, before placing both hooves onto the cairn.
“Stone keep you. Stone protect you. As we are born of the Stone, so we return to the Stone. All who lay their eyes and hooves upon the Stone where you now lay beg that you find peace.” Suddenly Oghren reared up before slamming his hooves against the cairn three times, each time followed by a strange donkey curse. The cairn did not budge no matter the strike.
“Not a religious jackass,” Oghren explained, “but I figure the blighter needed a good sendoff after living like he did. All because of Branka. Come on, Warden. Me and that golem of yours have some news, and you won’t like hearing it.”
They walked through the winding tunnels of the cavern before emerging on the other side. Shale was waiting for them, light torches still hanging from its side. “Good, the ponies and the drunk have returned,” it remarked. “Though the fear on the faces before has been replaced. What has happened?”
“We’ll tell you soon enough,” Twilight said, her voice flat as she looked on into the Dark Tunnels. “Oghren said you have news?”
“Oh yes. We explored the small short tunnel briefly, and it is indeed a much quicker route. I don’t see any problem using that route.”
“That’s because you’re not telling them about the terrasprites,” Oghren snapped. “Damn tunnel is filled with them. Think flying mouths filled with sharp teeth and you’ve got an idea what they are. Some say the ponyspawn corrupted a surface critter with their blood to make the terrasprites. Dunno if it’s true, not that it matters. They make crawling through the tunnels murder though.”
Twilight let out an exasperated sigh. The shortest route was infested by flesh eating insects, so of course Shale wasn’t worried thanks to being made of stone. That left the long route.
“Now there is a bit of silver in this mine,” Oghren continued. “The floor is completely covered in their crap. There’s enough that even old Rocky here can walk through as silent as a nug. Terrasprites are blind, and they rely on sense of hearing to get around and find blighters to munch on. As long as we’re quiet, we can walk right through the pass to Four Point Chasm and cut a week of travel with only a few hours in this cave. Or we go the long road.”
There was tremendous appeal to cutting a week of travel time between here and the crossroads. While the idea of walking through feces was repugnant, it was nothing Twilight couldn’t handle. Rarity was making her objections well known, however.
“Darling, you cannot possibly be considering going into such a disgusting, revolting, simply vile cavern filled with… dung.” Rarity looked at Twilight with quivering lip and huge eyes, hoping beyond hope that such a display would sway the party leader. Twilight’s face was as solid as stone, adamant and unflinching.
After a quick moment of pouting from Rarity, the party resumed their march in the Dark Tunnels, heading towards the shortcut as detailed on the map. Twilight kept looking back behind her as the thrum of a thousand beating hearts joined hers in chorus, thinking back on Ruck and his impromptu tomb.
With the threat of ponyspawn lurking around every corner and beating in her heart, the sense of adventure and accomplishment before entering the caves had diminished. In its place were only uncertainty, fear, and trepidation. Every shadow was an enemy, and every rock was a tombstone for all who had fallen within the darkness.
They approached the entrance of the shortcut with hesitation as black droppings flowed like a sickening river from the mouth of the cave. Twilight peered in, looking about the pitch-black hall where no light crystals stood to give a sense of direction. There was a scraping noise from the cave, but Twilight dared not hazard a guess if it was the terrasprites’ wings, or their fangs.
“Oghren,” Twilight said as she turned to Oghren. “Ruck mentioned something called the ‘Pits’.”
“Makes ya shake with anticipation, doesn’t it?” Oghren replied, chuckling. “The Pits are the darkest, deepest regions of the Tunnels where no light crystals are found. It’s where the ponyspawn hives are at their thickest, and not even the warrior school Legion of the Dead dare go. They say lost donkey thaigs and cities are in the Pits, but nodonkey goes that far in. If Ruck is right, Branka is down there, and so is that blasted Storm Forge.”
Twilight nodded as Oghren moved to the fore of the group. “I’ll take point,” he said, “Get old stone-flanks to watch the rear. We can use light, but whatever you do, don’t make a sound.”
Light crystal torches were held secure and magelight sparked from the unicorns’ staves before they braved the passage. Walking in single file, Twilight ignored the squelching noises under her hooves, focusing on what was roosting above her head, brimming with savage hunger for flesh.
The terrasprites were just as Ogrehn described. As large as a pony’s skull, they were little more than mouths on four large insect wings, with gaping maws breathing slowly. Their teeth were yellow and moldy, but still holding razor edges to bite and shred skin. They had spherical bodies covered in black fuzz, and they had no discernible eyes.
The slightest squeak from Fluttershy as the magelight revealed the sleeping abominations made the swarms above their heads shake for a moment. Everyone stopped suddenly, staring up at the terrasprites, waiting for anything to happen. Fighting such beasts would be difficult inside such a narrow cave. With a flick of her magic, Twilight moved her staff between the group and the terrasprites in case they woke up. On her back, she could feel Spike shift about, moving a scaly hand towards his burning blade.
A single terrasprite dislodged itself from its roost, flying about the cave on buzzing wings. Every once in a while it would screech as it flew, with others of the colony replying with their own screeches. Each pony stood as statues, fighters slowly craning their necks for their weapons in the event of an attack.
After a few passes overhead, the one terrasprite returned to roost. If she could, Twilight would have breathed a sigh of relief. Oghren continued to move, prompting Twilight and the others to keep close. When she turned to look at the others, the terror she felt was clearly painted on their faces.
As the crystal torch that hung off Oghren’s side dipped, noting a decline in the cave, Twilight held back and kept her magelight bright as she let the other ponies past. Pinkie stepped by her first, the worry in her eyes a stark contrast from her usual jovial nature. The Dark Tunnels were getting to her as much as they were getting to Twilight. Rainbow Dash followed behind, her wings flexing and begging to be used, though the close confines of the Tunnels denied this.
Applejack kept her eyes on the roof of the cave when she stepped past Twilight, giving short eye contact and a quick nod of assurance. This was deeper than Applejack had ever gone to, and her experience ended before this shortcut. Behind her, Fluttershy shivered as she moved, muttering prayers to the Sisters while Angel never took his little eyes off of terrasprites. Trixie came soon after, eyes just as wide as the nug’s as she traversed the cave.
Rarity was next, who looked at the ground like it was lava from a flowing volcano, and her hooves were being burnt alive. No anti-dirt spell would save her now, and if it were any other situation, Twilight would have found Rarity’s disgust humourous. The Dark Tunnels were not a place of jokes, Twilight decided, and said nothing as her fellow unicorn disdainfully continued her march.
Shale was last in line, and after checking to make sure no terrasprites would follow, Twilight used her magic to levitate the golem gently onto the feces ground below. She flinched as Shale’s hooves made slopping noises as it landed, shooting her head upwards to see if the buzzing monsters were disturbed. Thankfully, they remained asleep.
Twilight wished they were moving in utter silence, but for Twilight the heartbeats of the ponyspawn were only getting louder, thousands of beats ringing in unison. Her head on a swivel, she looked about the cavern as she did in the first night in the Dark Tunnels, eyes searching for any ponyspawn ambush that was bound to happen. She could hear them all; surely they could hear her and Applejack as well.
There was no sign of ponyspawn or of anything except the terrasprites that made their home in the small cavern. Despite the small mercy, Twilight still felt she was trotting on the razor’s edge. One small sound could alert the entire colony into a feeding frenzy.
The sound of a crack alerted everypony, who turned to see a small group of terrasprites bundling up against a stalagtite. The pushing of the terrasprites caused the rock to crack until it fell into the dung-filled floor below, splashing Rarity with excrement.
Twilight winced as she watched Rarity shake with anger at being splashed. Her eyes trailed to the roof of the cavern as thousands of wings hummed to life at the sound of the falling rock. The terrasprites did not move, however, only buzzing their wings as they continued to sleep. Twilight took a deep breath. They were too close now for simple accidents to jeopardize everything.
She then felt a rumble, not from the earth but in her chest, one that she had not felt since Stableshire. Twilight pressed a hoof to her chest as her ears perked up, listening as one heartbeat ruled over all others including her own. A minotaur was nearby.
It knows we’re here. Twilight cursed, focusing her magic into her staff and preparing a spell of arcane cold. As her staff began to ice over, the other ponies drew weapons. This was between the maws of the terrasprites and the jaws of the ponyspawn in the very heart of darkness. If it were anything else, Twilight would have laughed.
“With me, my friends.” Twilight looked to the party, who stood ready to fight.
The walls of the caves burst open, rocks and dust flying everywhere as the minotaur stuck its head through the hole, roaring with primal fury. Donlocks moved about under him, hissing and chattering their teeth as they surged forward. Above it all, the terrasprites awoke, gnashing their teeth as they swarmed towards pony and monster alike.
Shrieks, shouts and charges happened all at once to turn the small cave into a chaotic battlefield. Three forces fought in a chaotic dance of savagery and desperation. Shale rushed forward, slamming its rocky head against the chest of the mintotaur. Applejack gave a battlecry through her sword-bit, pushing back the donlocks along with Rainbow and Oghren, while Trixie, Rarity, and Fluttershy held off the storm of terrasprites at range.
“Shout havoc!” Oghren laughed, swinging his axe to and fro, cleaving any donlock that got near. “Crying is for foals! Let loose the dogs of war anyways! Ha ha! Tosh narok!”
Oghren charged, challenging several donlocks on his own. As he fought, Twilight turned her staff to the terrasprites, her cone of cold frost blasting from the top of her staff in a spray, freezing the carnivorous insects. Those frozen by the ice fell to the ground, bursting into shards.
Another hiss echoed, and more ponyspawn struggled to pile into the cavern. Thelocks now joined the fray, their mouths dripping with black ichor as they urged themselves into the cave, eager to rend flesh against their tusks. Pinkie held them back by launching several grenades, each blast shaking the earth above their heads. Rocks fell, slamming against pony, terrasprite, and ponyspawn heads alike.
“Pinkie!” Twilight called after blasting an incoming thelock in the face. “No bombs! We can’t let this cave fall on top of us!”
The fighting continued in earnest with the ponies pushing for the breach made by the minotaur. As they entered into a much wider cavern, Twilight saw Shale still fighting the minotaur, but unlike the massive monster it fought in Stableshire, the golem was making much faster work of the battle. The augmentation crystals on its body glowed with magical power. The green crystals shone like emeralds every time Shale took a blow, absorbing the damage from the minotaur. The red crystals glowed like fire when Shale attacked, setting its hooves on fire and scorching the creature’s flesh with every strike.
Rainbow took advantage of the wider cavern, taking flight and moving like a razor wind, slicing terrasprites in one pass and cutting the minotaur with another. The combined strikes from golem and pegasi were too much for the minotaur, who succumbed to his wounds with a loud crash.
Twilight basked in the victory until she felt her heartbeat feel like it was slamming against her chest. Another minotaur. She turned with Applejack to the direction the Warden senses told her, to see another of the beasts cresting over the hill, this time with a passenger balanced on its shoulder.
Jumping from its ledge, the ornlock was unlike any Twilight had encountered. Tall and slender like its brethren, sporting a curved horn jutting from its forehead, this ornlock had a mouth of blunt, black teeth with a long chain gripped within. Similar chains were wrapped around the ornlock’s eyes, seemingly rendering it blind, while other metal links were tied around its hooves and torso. The creature hissed, looking about at the ponies before giving a blood curdling scream. Behind him, more donlocks and thelocks emerged from the shadows, charging forward to continue the fight.
The chained ornlock felt powerful and old, much more than any other ponyspawn Twilight had ever encountered before. It stood on its vantage point, looking down on the battlefield and barking orders in whatever black tongue the ponyspawn used for speech.
“Defensive lines!” Twilight called, “We need to stay together!”
Shale and Oghren ignored her, the former going after the second minotaur, and the latter lost to the berserker lust for battle as he continued to laugh and fight. The pair moved together to meet the foe at once, causing whatever kind of cohesion the party had to be strained. The terrasprites seemed to be endless as they poured from the crevice near their roosts.
“Pinkie! Use a bomb on the cave! We can’t deal with the terrasprites and the ponyspawn!” Pinkie nodded, priming a grenade and flinging it with her tail, the brass ball bouncing for a moment before detonating in blue fire. It was a poor decision, Twilight knew, to close off their only means to return to Orzamule. It had to be done, lest they fight on two fronts.
As focus turned from the terrasprites to the new force of ponyspawn, Twilight cried out in pain as a sharp point pierced the flesh of her foreleg. She looked down to see a hook embedded in her leg near the hoof, tightly coiled and the point pulling her coat open to expose the wound. The other end was held tight by the ornlock.
Eyes focused on the ponyspawn mage, Twilight channeled her magic into a quick arcane burst to weaken the hold on the chain. The dark metal then began to glow, stinging her from hoof to horn and forcing her concentration away from her spell to the chain. The chain shone with eerie blue light, just the same as lyrium.
“Twilight!” Applejack called, only to be blocked from helping by a large thelock. Twilight reeled from the pain of the hook, trying to clench the chain in her mouth and pull it off. She looked up to see another of the ornlock’s chains float near her by its levitation, hook ready to grab and pull.
A sharp grunt from another alerted Twilight that the ornlock’s attack had failed against her. She looked up to see the chain swung tightly around Rarity’s neck, the hook damaging her once pristine coat with rust marks and blood.
“Rarity!” Twilight looked at her hoof to find that the chain dislodged itself, being reeled back towards the ornlock who launched another chain at Rarity. Whatever purpose this dark wizard had was simple; he was trying to capture Twilight only to decide to make do with another unicorn. For what purpose Twilight dared not guess.
It would not be Rarity’s fate as well.
Staff near her for support, Twilight hobbled forward, firing blast after blast of power at the ornlock. Her attempts to ward off the ponyspawn were for naught, as each shot grew weaker and weaker in strength and the ornlock deflected the spells easily with his chains. Rarity looked to Twilight, horror in her eyes as more chains bound her hooves and restricted her movements, her screams for help echoing in the caverns.
The fighting in the background shifted as the ponyspawn responded to their commander’s orders, their tactics now properly defensive and keeping the ponies away from rescuing Rarity. The minotaur in particular knocked Shale away and quickly fell back to the ornlock’s side.
“Help!” Rarity cried as the ornlock’s magic dragged her away. “Please! Twilight! Fluttershy!”
Fluttershy moved quickly, faster than Twilight had ever seen her move and fired arrow after arrow at the ornlock. Like Twilight’s magic, the ornlock easily deflected the arrows before shouting in guttural speech to the minotaur. The great monster slammed its fists into the walls, with the other ponyspawn aiding the minotaur in breaking down the halls.
“Rarity!” Summoning every ounce of magic she had, Twilight reached out to pull her friend away from capture amongst the ponyspawn. Her magical might was countered by the ornlock, who pushed back with surprising force.
The ornlock spoke. “Despair.” From its wide mouth came a disgusting grin as the minotaur caused more rocks to fall. Whatever ponyspawn were left fighting continued their savage attack, knowing that their master had abandoned them. Their new frenzy made it impossible to safely reach Rarity.
“No!” Twilight cried, urging herself forward only to fall thanks to the wound in her leg. “No! Rarity! Rarity!”
Rarity’s screams continued to echo as the ornlock and his escort turned away, the cave-in preventing all manner of chase. When the last of the rocks fell with the last of the ponyspawn, the party were left battered and bruised as they looked on at the tumbled stone, with Twilight shouting.
“Rarity! Rarity!” Her cries went unheeded as a cold silence drifted over them all. There were no screams from Rarity, nor the rumble of a collapsing cave. Just the heartbeats of the ponyspawn, the dead quiet of the Dark Tunnels, and the knowledge that she had let her friend be dragged down to the deepest, blackest Pits.