The Quiet Place
[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]
Chapter 54: At the Gates
A slow pattering of steps across the road left no marks in the hard-packed dirt. Cool breezes lapped the land with gentle waves, rustling the trees and plants that reached from the earth all around. Evening came quietly and lonely while Twilight treaded the path with a reluctant pace, her movements dull and haggard. She stared at the ground as each step drove her forward, but with less enthusiasm than the last. Her stomach growled, and her wounds ached, but she had grown numb to the pains and yearning. Thoughts were poisoned with the doppelganger’s words, and the now-oracle began to doubt her own beliefs. Memories she once held rigid in shaping her judgments and actions now seemed unclear… and untrustworthy.
With a sigh, she stopped and looked up, watching the night layer itself upon a tree and casting the road in growing shadows. The breezes came to a light chill, but it was pushed beneath the same sheet of numbness as the rest of her discomforts. As the doppelganger droned on, she tried to suffocate its voice with anything she could think of, any memory of any other voice. She pulled Nightmare Moon’s voice and face from her mind, but as she drew comfort from it, the doppelganger quickly overpowered it.
“Are you even listening?” it asked, appearing beside her. The hallucination manifested into form again, and she inwardly sighed at it.
Any solace in the memory was lost and she marched forward again. “Please be quiet,” she intoned to it, her eyes listless and aimed ahead.
The mirror image of herself moved freely and unhindered as it seemed eager between steps. “I’ll be quieter when you start paying attention. You let your guard down to that… that thing. She could have killed you!”
It had grown hard to weather its accusations, but it seemed only to prattle on about her loyalties and the perception of right and wrong. Sometimes, Twilight would begin to believe it, and other times she wasn’t sure what it would be talking about; she could no longer tell when her thoughts were occupied elsewhere as it spoke.
“Maybe she should have,” the oracle muttered.
The doppelganger moved in front of her. “What did you say?”
It was quickly reminded of its lack of presence as she moved through its body, but she could feel its glares on her. She shrugged it off, preparing for its complaints and criticisms once more. However, after a moment, there was nothing but the soft rustling of leaves around and the pattering of her steps once more.
Quiet, she thought. The peace was short lived, and several minutes later she began to feel dizzy. A growl from her stomach reminded her that she had not eaten in a great while. Her magic sustained her to a degree, but she could not overcome her body’s need for nutritional energy.
A light formed around her horn, and leaves from the foliage nearby rapidly collected into an aura, forming a meal floating before her. The doppelganger’s words kicked up again, but she continued walking as she stuffed leaf after leaf into her mouth. She cringed as she found the taste to be flat and lifeless. Just like me¸ she joked in her mind. After eating, she sighed and hung her head, gazing down the road into the depths of darkness. Luna’s blessing allowed her to peer through the veil of night, but it gave her no relief as the road stretched as far as she could see.
“I need to rest,” she announced, looking over her injuries. Dried blood stuck parts of her fur together, scabbing and crusting it in an unkempt mess. If not for the black that had taken hold of its tint, its grotesque appearance would have stuck out.
Curving off of the road, she moved into the safety of the trees and searched for a spot to settle in. She found a tree with roots rising to the sides, but the chill of the night had grown, or perhaps she had recovered enough strength to feel it—she couldn’t tell. A hoof dug into the dirt, and she sensed the area around her for any other presence. Nothing. With her waning strength, she excavated dirt between the roots until she had created a small hovel beneath it. This will have to do, she thought, extending a yawn to her work. She climbed down into it and clumped the loose dirt behind her to seal most of the entrance, but left herself enough a hole for air. Stretching out, she laid on her side with her eyes to the vent and yawned one last time. Rolling over, she groaned as something dug into her back.
She pulled Moonlight from the dirt where she lay and studied it. I keep forgetting I have this, she thought. Its glow unsettled her, and she shoveled dirt over its glow before closing her eyes. A snort escaped her, and she opened her eyes to stare at the blackness above her. Look at how pathetic I am…Sleeping in a hole… She sighed. How much longer to the Badlands? she wondered, too tired to estimate it.
Just rest, the doppelganger cooed. We’ve still got more traveling to do, and you’re going to need your strength.
How do you know how far it is? However, sleep took her before the question could be fully formed.
Sunlight gleamed off of a large piece of metal as it stood by itself, giving a luster to the mural of a radiant sun across its face. Below the sun, clouds climbed towards it and further down trees could be seen with a lake just below, and finally a crescent moon within. Derpy glanced around and removed a bracer, fastidiously scrubbing a smudge from her tower shield. As she pulled her bracer back on, she caught Rainbow behind her studying the shield.
“How heavy is that thing?” she asked. She was lightly clad in armor, much like the other celestial knights during travel, sporting only greaves, a breastplate, bracers, and sabatons.
The paladin took a step back. “Why don’t you try lifting it?”
Rainbow stepped up to and attempted to wield it. She grunted as she tried to hold a guard towards her lover, but she toppled forward attempting to mimic the motions of swordplay. Derpy quickly caught her and propped the shield up again.
“Our armaments are meant to be enchanted so that others can’t use them,” she explained. “But I’m starting to doubt that. My sister—“
“Can wield your sword, and vice versa?” Daring interjected from, landing just beside her. “It’s not true for all of them.” She wore even less body armor than her comrades, but her twin swords were across her back. She took the shield and drew a sword, taking a combat stance towards Derpy. “See? It’s not so heavy,” she added smugly.
Rainbow folded her forelegs across her chest and frowned. “So, if you’re a paladin too, you must be really strong.”
Daring tossed the shield to her sister and bowed. “Yeah, something like that. Anyway, we’re here to train—“
“I want to see you two spar,” Rainbow interrupted.
The sisters exchanged glances, and Derpy rubbed the back of her head while she sheepishly answered the idea. “I don’t know if we—“
Daring wrapped a foreleg around her sister and smiled. “That sounds like a great idea. Let’s inspire her!” Her jovial demeanor was met with irritation from her younger sibling. “What, no rematch? Are you still angry about our duel in the desert?”
“Yes,” the paladin growled, “I still am.”
Daring drew both of her swords and quickly flew in a circle, carving a small arena in the grass of the royal gardens. Derpy grimaced, muttering, “Ugh, Luna and the groundskeepers are going to be mad.”
The sandy pegasus finished and snorted. She looked over her shoulder to parts of the damaged castle. “I think they’ve got bigger problems.” She took a low stance, with only one sword drawn.
Derpy took up her shield and stepped up to her, drawing Glance Reviver. The freshly reforged sword gleamed in the sunlight, and they stared at each other, tightening their grips.
“Same rules?” the paladin asked.
“First one to get knocked out, knocked down, pushed out of the ring, or any armor punctures loses. Sound fair?”
Derpy smirked. “I hope you’re ready this time.”
“I am,” Daring replied as she lunged forward.
Their swords clashed, and Derpy parried it away, spinning and moving within her sister’s guard. Immediately, the older sister drew her second blade and halted the advance, locking blade with blade, and blade with shield.
“Do you think you can keep up with me?” Daring taunted.
The paladin spun back and put distance between them, but her sister launched a barrage of strikes, and she danced behind her shield, maneuvering to mix dodging and blocking. Several swings breached her defenses, and she parried them with her sword. Her speed increased, and she pivoted, bringing the shield close as her sister attempted to stop her rotations. Daring failed to land a strike between the shield and her sister, and a kick struck her in her unarmored torso. She coughed and staggered back, but there was no time to recover.
“What’s wrong? Can’t fight against a shield?”
Daring snorted and her swords glowed. “I’ll just… even… the odds!” Swinging both weapons at once, she swung at her sister, only for both swords to collide with the shield in the same spot. The blades wobbled and rang as they bounced off. “What is that thing made of?”
They danced around one another, clashing steel and kicking up grass, but Daring abruptly changed her movements. She began to move around her younger sister’s attacks and with the strikes, flowing with the movements. Derpy increased her speed, but Daring did not, only evading closer and closer to her strikes.
In an instant, Derpy blurred and bashed her sister with the shield. The elder sister wobbled on one hoof and beat her wings to gain balance. She crossed her swords to an incoming slash, but she flowed with the movement and threw the strike away. Derpy brought Svalinn to her front as Daring spun and prepared for another strike. To her surprise, Daring moved even lower than her guard and swept her legs, bringing her to the ground. She blinked and both blades were at her neck.
The sandy pegasus extended a hoof to her. “Quit holding back. I’ve seen what you can do.”
Derpy took it and rose back to standing. “I don’t know what you can do. It’s not like fighting Colgate where I know exactly what I’m up against.”
“Celestia and I trained Colgate,” Daring remarked, picking up Glance Reviver and tossing it to Derpy.
The paladin’s eyes went wide and she fumbled with the blade before hugging it to against her armor to prevent it from harming her. “You? You two fight nothing alike. I’m not afraid of fighting you, but I’m afraid of fighting her.”
A sigh escaped her elder sister’s throat. “Well, when she combines her magicks it always gives me chills.” Shaking her head, she chuckled and took a straighter stance. “Alright, round two before we get back to it.”
Derpy smirked and surged forward, driving her sword toward her sister. However, Daring spun just beside the blade, moving into her guard and striking her in the chest with her hilt. She released the shield and allowed it to balance on its own, taking Glance Reviver into both hooves. With a cry, she moved around it, striking at her sister and forcing her to deflect while they circled it. As they battled around to the inner side, they crossed blades. Daring relinquished one of her swords to her sister and spun around, driving her free foreleg into the enarmes of the shield in a single motion. She continued to gyrate, and swung the shield. With a cry, Derpy blocked it with both swords, but it left her open to Daring’s.
Adrenaline gripped her as she watched the blade move towards her chest. She vanished, appearing behind Daring and unleashing a flurry of attacks. Daring leaped, hovering above the ground while she blocked attacks, occasionally dropping to the ground to use the shield for support and prevent low strikes.
How is she doing this? She knows exactly where I’m going to attack from. Am I that predictable?
Daring’s freeform defense was proving difficult to handle, and she spun around to buck the shield. She could hear her sister groan as it crunched against her body, and she moved to strike from the side. The sandy pegasus released the shield and caught a swing from both swords with her own, directing the attack around and past her. She moved in and delivered an uppercut to Derpy’s jaw. The paladin stumbled back and, as she was about to fall, she left behind a trail of images, moving again to strike from behind her. However, Daring swung ahead of the images and back to the point of origin, catching Derpy before she could complete the motion. Surprised, Derpy failed to pay attention to the follow-up kick, and she was launched from the ground. She caught herself, but she was out of the ring.
“You’re really good, Ditzy,” she said, smiling. She turned to Rainbow and made a gracious bow. “Congratulations, knight. You just might be the first pony to ever witness two paladins sparring.”
The cyan knight was awestruck as she glanced between them. “That’s incredible. Can you teach me to fight like that?”
Daring opened her mouth, but hesitated before speaking. “Not exactly. At least not in one lifetime.” She pulled her sister into an embrace, much to her chagrin. “I’m not sure how long I could handle her if she wasn’t handicapped by this little circle and her recovery.”
Derpy rolled her eyes. “What? Do you really want to fight me in an open space?”
“Ditz, nothing is equal between us.” She scrubbed a hoof through her sister’s golden mane and smiled. “I won’t let your ego stop me.” She received a jab to her stomach and she coughed and chuckled at the same time. “Aw, c’mon, Ditz. You know I’m just joking. Really, you’ve earned your title.” She turned to Rainbow and took a breath. “So, I don’t think I’ve had the chance to properly introduce myself.” Taking another bow, she grinned. “I’m the one and only Paladin Daring Do, older sister to Paladin Ditzy Do.” She motioned to her sister, receiving an eye roll in response. She leaned towards Rainbow and smirked. “I’m everything you’ve never heard about me,” she declared.
Rainbow gave her an incredulous look. “Yeah, Derpy never mentioned a sister… or another name.” Daring’s expression crumbled into disbelief.
“I honestly thought you abandoned me!” Derpy protested to her gloomy face. “But it is true that my name is Ditzy Do.” She grumbled something under her breath, as her sister moved to pull her into an embrace. “I didn’t want anything to do with her until recently.”
“Well, I’m back now, and I’m not checking out of the Do family reunion. I never stopped being a paladin, but my sort-of-desert-vacation is over. I’ll help you train your marefriend, and… uh… nurse her back to form, I guess.” Her smile crinkled as she looked over Rainbow’s thin form. Derpy blushed and wriggled out of the awkward hug. “I’m not judging, sis. I’m happy for you.”
“I don’t need your approval.” She quickly threw a hoof towards her sister. “What about you? You can’t tell me you’ve been alone this whole time. Were you and Princess Celestia a, uh…” She swallowed, hard as her face burned. “A thing?”
The question took her sister by surprise and Daring stared at her bewildered. After a few seconds, she burst out laughing, coughing and wheezing between breaths and fits. “Oh, man. That’s a good one.” It quickly died down and her face flushed as it dawned on her Derpy was serious. “Oh, geez. You must’ve seen that old picture, and with our reunion the other night…” She scratched at the back of her head while her eyes darted back and forth across the grass. “Of course not. It’s nothing like that. We’re just really good friends. Oh, shoot!” She became worried for a moment. “I hope Luna doesn’t think that, too.” She chewed her lower lip as she looked absently into the distance. “I really hope she doesn’t think that.”
The grey paladin straightened up. “W-Well, it’s none of my business a-anyway.” She motioned to Rainbow. “Let’s get started already.”
The knight drew her weapon, revealing a gleaming bastard sword. The hilt was silvery with a freshly wrapped grip and a small, round pommel. A storming cloud was inlaid into the sides of the pommel, while a carved wing on each side of the blade stood just forward to the cross guard. The wide blade carried a subtle fuller and a very short central ridge.
“It’s called Durendal. I’ve practiced a little bit already, but I haven’t unlocked any special powers with it. I can still cut waves, though.”
Derpy took the blade and inspected it. She passed it back to the knight and nodded. “It looks a lot less weird than the other one you had.”
Rainbow nodded. “Yeah. Whatever happened to that one?”
“Princess Luna gave it to Twilight Sparkle.” Derpy swallowed. “I wasn’t in much of a condition to use it back then. She thought it would serve her better than us.”
Daring snatched the sword and swung it several times. “Neat,” she remarked, passing it back. “I think it suits you.” The other pegasi stared at her with confusion.
“Do you know what it does?” asked Rainbow.
“Try to hit me.”
The cyan knight blinked several times before smirking. “Think you can dodge?” Daring drew one sword and took her low stance. “I think you’re going to need both swords for me,” replied Rainbow, her confidence etched into her face.
The sandy pegasus chuckled and tossed it on the grass, pointing at it. “We’ll call that the first goal. I hear you’re strong, but let’s see how good your swordplay is. Now, try to hit me.”
The cyan knight surged at her, cleaving wildly at her opponent. Furious slashes were met with open air, and her blade whistled quietly as it was evaded each time. A feint for a horizontal strike led her into a rising slash as Daring took flight, but she kicked the flat of the blade away before dropping low and head-butting the knight in the stomach.
Rainbow slid backwards and clutched her stomach, her mouth and an eye clamped shut as she tried to regain her breath. Picking herself back up, she started on the offense once more. Daring continued to maneuver out of her attacks, picking a thrust to move in close. However, Rainbow was prepared this time and used a wing to absorb an incoming punch.
“Hey, you’re a quick stu—“ Daring ducked as one last slash came her way. “H-Hey! Draw, draw!” She quickly ran a hoof through her mane as she made a sad face. “I hope I didn’t lose any hairs.” She replaced her composure with a serious demeanor and drew both swords. Her gaze darted towards the far edge of the gardens.
Derpy followed her gaze. “What? What is it?”
Several dragons flew into view, one by one their shadows casting on the landscape. Other ponies in the gardens quickly fled from their path out of view or towards the castle. A black dragon led the way, with two more close behind.
“They don’t look hostile—“ Derpy trailed off as her mouth and throat became dry. She tried to build up saliva to articulate, but she struggled. Turning to her sister, she took a nervous step back. The sandy pegasus seemed brighter in the sunlight now, but her face was turned towards the incoming dragons.
They landed just before them, the gardens trembling beneath the wait briefly. Each step left a small indent in the grass, thumping when they stepped onto the stone pathways. Rainbow had already drawn her weapon, but Derpy remained neutral, still struggling to gain any moisture in her mouth back. Even the air itself felt dry.
“It has been a long time, knights,” the leading dragon addressed, his eyes moving between Derpy and Rainbow. Derpy recognized his voice, but when she went to speak there was a fit off coughs that came out, her hoof covering her mouth. When it cleared, she looked up to see Daring with both weapons aimed at his neck.
“Stand down, Daring. This is—“
“A dragon,” she growled back, her blades and gaze unmoving.
“This is the dragon king, Garr,” the grey paladin explained.
The dragon’s title caused her sister to waver for a few seconds, but it did not disarm her. Derpy found herself preparing to defend against her sister, poised to move as fast as she needed to.
“Are we unwelcome?” Garr asked, motioning for the two dragons behind him to come closer. As they did so, Daring coiled down. Derpy tightened the grip on her shield, but another voice immediately brought her to a bow.
“At ease, Paladins. They are friends,” called Celestia.
Derpy relaxed and saluted, with Rainbow mimicking the motion, but Daring merely sheathed her swords and stepped aside. She kept her head low, even as the princess approached.
“I did not think the rumors were true about you, Princess Celestia, but I had to see you for myself when your signature met my eyes,” said the dragon king. His steely blue gaze slowly moved over the knights present. “It seems a lot of that has gone around in recent years, but it’s good to know familiar faces remain.” His eyes stopped on Daring. “Some that seem all too familiar, yet… not.”
“You have nothing to fear, King Garr. There have certainly been trials as of late, but I hope our alliance has not wavered.”
Daring’s head snapped up as she echoed the princess. “Alliance? What do you mean?”
“You have been away for too long, Paladin Do. There is much to explain when it comes to the Brood.”
The sandy pegasus turned away and trembled. “I… need to excuse myself.” She offered a half-bow to Garr, and saluted the princess before taking flight.
“That one seems uneasy, yet… familiar,” observed Garr, his eyes narrowing upon her. “I feel as though we’ve met before.”
Celestia cocked her head. “She has only recently returned to Canterlot, having spent much of her time traveling the western and southern outskirts.”
“The… southern outskirts? Hmm…” The dragon king stared after her a moment longer before prying his eyes away. “Forgive me. I did not travel all this way to waste your time with déjà vu. How fared your kingdom in your absence?”
Celestia motioned for everyone to follow. “Better than I had imagined. My sister and some others escaped the fall of Canterlot and continued fighting, and they joined forces with a resistance group. Ultimately, Aurelius was forced to flee, but I fear he has escaped for the time being.”
Garr’s gaze slid to the distance. “That is… troublesome news. I am dismayed that he had infected another empire. I hope you understand why I kept the Brood away from him.”
The sun princess turned to face him and smiled. “It’s alright, King Garr. I would have considered the same if it was the Brood again. I don’t know if it’s fate or luck, but Twilight Sparkle was the one to intervene at the very end.”
The dragon king chuckled. “So, that one saved you. I cannot imagine the cost.”
Celestia’s smile waned. “It was… severe. The cost of freedom always is.” She looked into the distance for a moment. “She is part of the reason I have summoned you.”
“Oh? And why exactly have you summoned me, Princess Celestia? I would have expected you to take this time to recover.”
“Twilight Sparkle has gone rogue, I’m afraid. And while she is still an ally against Aurelius, I cannot say that she is a friend to anyone else. She is pursuing Aurelius into the Badlands with the intent of killing him, however…” She trailed off and swallowed, taking a few seconds for reaffirming herself and facing the dragon king again. “I need to stop her because I need Aurelius alive.”
Garr’s eyes widened and he stiffened. He glanced back to his subordinates, each of them returning similar befuddlement. “Pray tell,” he said quietly as he turned back to the princess, “Why must Aurelius live after everything he’s done?”
Celestia swallowed again. “He may be the only hope we have of dealing with his elder sister, the late Queen Astra. I believe your kind has more knowledge of her than ours.”
“The Soothsayer,” Garr muttered. He hung his head for a long while. Breaking the silence, he sighed. “I have an idea as to where that cunning monster is going. To the dragon’s original capital city, far into what you call the Badlands. Rethaska, our original home.”
Celestia grimaced. “I had not thought of that. We had speculated it had been abandoned for eons. What could possibly still be there?”
Garr turned and motioned for his subordinates. “Only graves for those to be forgotten. This is a grim turn of events, and I must return to Draconis immediately. I will gather forces to assist your journey, but I do not know how many I can offer you.” He sighed, a guttural rumbling as he started to turn away. “Forgive the sudden departure, but farewell for now, Princess Celestia.”
They watched as he flew away, the sweeps of his wings in the air gusting loose grass and dirt, and once he was gone Celestia turned around to find Daring Do.
“I feel it, too…” Her eyes slid away as she stared into the distance. “I wish I could say no to what you will ask.” The sandy pegasus’s eyes drifted to the ground and she sighed. “I know I can’t say no…”
Celestia slowly nodded. “We need you, Paladin Do, perhaps everything of you. I must brief Luna, and then counsel for this joint effort.” She turned towards Derpy. “Send a runner to the gryphons and the minotaur. I want to take every precaution and gather as many forces as possible. Should they decline, I will personally negotiate for them if need be.” She pivoted and turned to the south. “Daring, I must ask that, no matter what happens, you spare Twilight Sparkle if the circumstance arises. Promise me, Paladin.”
Daring bowed. “I promise, and I’ll have Knight Dash ready for this mission quickly as well.”
Derpy watched as Celestia left before peeling her eyes away. She drew her sword and watched Rainbow Dash and Daring as they spoke and practiced. She outlined stances and techniques, but the grey paladin’s thoughts drifted away as she watched her sister. Everything of you? She recalled the unseen cataclysm her sister wrought in the oasis, but she failed to conjure an explanation that made sense. The environment wasn’t destroyed, but there was no denying the otherworldly battle that happened above. She snapped out of her thoughts as Daring yelped.
“Th-that’s… g-going to be a r-real u-useful power against the c-c-c… dragons.” Daring trembled and stuttered before finally shaking her body and straightening. Their swords had clashed for a moment, and Rainbow appeared worried. “Relax, knight. I’m alright. You just caught me off guard there. Now the real training begins.” She smirked as she motioned for Derpy. “Come on, Paladin. You’re going to help, too.”