Pony Age: Origins

by OmegaPony11

The Renegade Paragon

Chapter 28 - The Renegade Paragon

The party looked up at the golem that called itself Cairidan, still in awe as the giant creature made of steel came to Shale’s side. Like Shale, Caridian was covered in lines of blue lyrium and a rune the shape of a hoof on his forehead. Twilight had felt small before in the presence of larger creatures, and that feeling was coming back to her under the shadow of the steel golem.

“Shale,” Cairidan said, looking over to Shale. “What are these creatures? I only recognize one donkey among them, though they are similar to donkeys. They seem familiar, yet I do not remember. Why have they come here? Why do they seek my Storm Forge?”

“These are surfacers called ‘ponies’, Cairidan,” Shale answered, “Small and squishy creatures that are somehow capable of impressive feats of magic and might. They have not come for the Forge, but rather for the aid of a Paragon.”

“Paragon?” Cairidan spit the word with spite and malice as he shifted on heavy hooves. “Paragon!? A useless term that was soiled in my time in Orzamule. Why have you come here, ponies? Surely there is another Paragon in Orzamule after three hundred years? Surely you would not have ventured all the way to the Pits and my lost thaig for more than just a Paragon? Surely you would not have escaped my traps, destroyed my guardian and not seek the ultimate form of blacksmithing that is the Storm Forge.”

As Cairidan spoke, Twilight could feel a tinge of sadness from his hollow voice, a sound of pain and guilt. As he spoke, he glanced at Shale occasionally, as if seeking approval or forgiveness. Shale appeared oblivious to Cairidan’s expression, instead looking to the elder golem with what Twilight assumed was awe and respect. For once, Twilight thought Shale was genuinely happy, and not after another murderous rampage.

It was odd to see emotions from Shale that were not either complete contempt or sadistic glee. Something about Shale’s demeanor changed around Cairidan, like how a child looked up to its father with complete trust. Twilight wondered if it was a lingering after-affect to all golems, to see Cairidan as their creator or father.

“Master Cairidan,” Twilight said as she bowed towards the Paragon. “We did not come here seeking the Storm Forge, though we were after a donkey who was. We came to the Dark Tunnels seeking the Paragon Branka, a smith like you, to help choose a new king of Orzamule. There is a Blight on the surface, and we need the help of the donkeys to fight it back.”

Cairidan creaked for a moment as he looked down on Twilight before turning back and looking at the machinery that was his Storm Forge. “Even in three hundred years, nothing changes. The monsters of the Pits still seek the surface world and the lords of Orzamule still fight amongst themselves when in grave jeopardy. Tell me, pony of magic, why does this other paragon seek my Storm Forge?”

“She claims that with the Forge will restore donkey glory,” Oghren interrupted, clearly frustrated by the slow-speaking Cairidan. “By the Stone, you should know about that! Come on, Warden, if we can take the Forge we can have Branka back and get out of this sodding hole.”

Oghren looked ready to bring out his axe, only to stop as Twilight held out hoof to hold him back. Shale moved forward, eyes glaring at Oghren while scraping one hoof against the stone floor. Cairidan shook his head as he paced the length of the bridge between his thaig and the Storm Forge.

“Glory?” Cairidan replied, “There is no glory to be found here, berserker. Only pain and despair and death. This Branka seeks my Storm Forge? She will not have it! She knows not how golems are made, not the price that must be paid to make them!”

“What are you speaking about, Cairidan?” Shale said, “Are golems not of stone and lyrium? Are we not a product of greater things compared to the bone and blood of squishy ponies?”

“You do not remember Shale. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.” When Shale did not immediately answer, it looked to Twilight, confusion in its expression as Cairidan continued. “I will tell you how golems are created, and you will decide if the Storm Forge is the treasure it was told to be.”

Cairidan motioned for the party to sit around him, which they did, forming a semi-circle around the steel giant. Shale joined Trixie’s side, giving Twilight some relief that their golem friend was back with them, even if only for a moment. Once they were all settled, Cairidan began to speak.

“In our long wars against the diamond dogs and the ponyspawn, Orzamule was facing disaster. Fighting on two fronts was costing the city many of our finest warriors, and no amount of weapons or armour I could forge could change this fact. There were movements to introduce conscription to the casteless, but the warrior caste was adamant that only they fight on the fields.

I tried to forge as many weapons as I could, and even mastered the art of weaving lyrium into arms and armour, yet it still wasn't enough. The dogs and the ponyspawn were just too numerous. As I walked through the halls of Orzamule, I looked at the statues of Paragons long past, and I wondered why they did not come alive and protect us, as we so often prayed to the Stone to do.

It was then that I wondered if I could make the stone of our tunnels come alive and serve as soldiers. There was plenty of stone to be quarried and crafted into statues; surely we could build entire legions from the rock. Try as I might however, I could not create life from nothing. The first golems were nothing but glorified statues and could not fight. I needed something more. I needed actual life.”

Cairidan then turned to Shale before looking away. “I asked Queen Jaggedstone for donkeys who would not be missed. Criminals, casteless, I did not care. I needed subjects to experiment on. Once I had the donkeys I needed, I crafted another statue, only this time hollow. I placed the unfortunate soul inside the stone casing and then poured molten lyrium within. The screams still haunt me to this day, pony, but at the time I did not care. I had succeeded, somewhat. The first golem came alive and completely rampaged through my smithy, killing guards and workers. I knew it would be dangerous, but the I was too overjoyed by what I had created. The process worked.

I then invented the control rod, to keep the golems sedated when not in use on the battlefields. With my success, I went to Queen Jaggedstone to ask for volunteers to become golems. Warriors, workers, any donkey who wanted to pay the ultimate price to protect their homeland. I had thought we were bringing glory to Orzamule with every dog that was crushed, and every ponyspawn that was slain. The golems proved to be the ultimate weapon. I was declared a paragon by the Senate and Shaperate. I was given my own House. My own thaig. It was here I made the Storm Forge to mass produce golems. It was here you became a golem, Shale.”

Shale continued to be silent as it took in all the information. The party did the same, giving looks of horror as they realized what Cairidan had done to create golems. Blood magic, Twilight thought immediately. Like many Wardens, Cairidan had thought only of how to best defeat the Blight. We do what we must.

“You mean I was not always the Indestructible and Forever Superior Shale?” the stone golem asked, “I was once a squishy donkey meatbag?’

Cairidan seemed to ignore Shale, only to look down on it sadly. “One day, scouts reported a massive throng of ponyspawn coming to my thaig, and we had not prepared our defenses. Many of the warriors of my House, including one very brash and headstrong jenny, came to me and volunteered to become golems. For the first time in my life, I hesitated in creating golems. I had become friends with them, and to this jenny more than such. But the threat loomed over us and they would have destroyed my Storm Forge. I made the choice to agree to their wishes.”

“I turned my friends including you, Shayle of the Warrior Caste, into golems. My heart was broken by what I had done. I had turned the mare I loved into a golem, and I could no longer bear to look at you.”

Shale stood up, having heard enough. She walked around in a circle, the red augmentation crystals on her hooves glowing bright with magic and fury. “I was a donkey,” Shale muttered, “A mare. Shayle of the Warrior Caste.” If she could spit, Twilight only surmised she would. “Not very creative name after conversion, now is it?”

Trixie approached Shale and tried to place a hoof on her shoulder for comfort, but Shale only shrugged it off as she stared at the Storm Forge, its brows shifting against her rocky face. The runes that adorned her body glowed brighter, her eyes flashing red for a moment. Twilight had no idea what to say in this situation. What could be said? Shale was once a donkey and had been made an immortal golem of stone by her own choice.

Cairidan turned away from everyone, refusing to look Shale in the eye as she fumed across the stone floor. He shook his head before turning his attention back to the rest of the party. The remorse could be felt from the steel golem, and Twilight could not help but pity him. His creation of golems was deplorable, yet he also seemed genuinely regretful of his actions, especially considering Shale.

“When Queen Jaggedstone brought casteless and political prisoners to be turned into golems rather than volunteers, I refused her.” Cairidan now spoke with anger, as it reverberated throughout the Forge. “I would make no more golems for her, or anydonkey. We had defeated the diamond dogs. We had taken back many of our thaigs from the ponyspawn. The golems we had were enough! But she wanted more golems and she wanted her political opponents removed in one fell swoop. I refused again.”

“The queen responded. I was tossed into my own Storm Forge in a specially made steel casing devised by my apprentices. I learned that day exactly what pain and agony I had inflicted to so many others as I felt my own body burn under the molten lyrium. I felt myself merging with the steel case that would become my new body. I was reborn a golem, like so many created by my hooves. But my apprentices made one fatal flaw. They forgot to create a control rod for me. I killed Queen Jaggedstone and all who followed her. I then converted my thaig into a death trap so that none could uncover my greatest sin and use it once more.”

Cairidan regarded the guests of his thaig before speaking again. “You sought a Paragon to help you choose a new king of Orzamule? I will be that Paragon. Help me destroy the Storm Forge, so that my sin can never again be repeated. I cannot destroy it myself, being a product of the Forge.”

Twilight quickly agreed, much to the surprise of everyone around her. They looked at her quizzically, especially Oghren, while she shook her head at the Forge. Yes it was a marvel of lyrium and artisanship, but the artifact was something that could easily be abused. The donkeys would find volunteers at first as Cairidan said, only for a future king decided to repeat the desires of Queen Jaggedstone.

Prince Bhelen proved a ruthless yet cunning leader, who would likely see golems as just another tool to be used. Twilight could see the son of the deceased king sending everyone from his opponents to donkeys he didn’t like to be turned into golems. Lord Harrowmount was no better, likely deciding that the Forge would give the casteless a use and send them to become golems. Either way, the possibility of abuse of the Storm Forge was too great. It had to be destroyed.

“Twilight, wait,” Oghren said, “Think about it. If we destroy the blasted thing, Branka is going to become more unhinged. I came to the Dark Tunnels to save her!”

“Look at what Branka did to her House, Oghren,” Twilight explained, “If you had come with her, what would have been your fate? She sent her lover to become a Broodmare. What would have happened to you? You’d probably be dead, at best

“She’s my wife!”

“She’s your Paragon.” Twilight took in a breath as she pointed towards the sealed doors of the Storm Forge. “Think back to everything she has done, Oghren. Can you really take her back when she’s so driven to obtain the Storm Forge? Oghren, I know you’ve been waiting for this moment to reunite with Branka, but she’s not here to reunite with you. She’s here to take the Forge and turn donkeys into golems.”

“I know… I know…” Oghren’s conflict could be seen as he scrunched up his face. “I need a freakin’ drink, Warden, but you’re right. I couldn’t believe it when I heard her before we came into this damned thaig, but… she cares more about finding this Storm Forge than she does about me. If she could do what she did to Hespith, then you’re right, what chance do I have? Destroy the sodding thing. If Branka has a problem with it, I’ll answer her.”

With everypony in agreement, Twilight turned her attention to the Storm Forge. She looked at the artifact with eyes attuned to magic, watching the lyrium lines converge to a point. The essence of magic was mixed with the molten metal of the forge to pour down on the hapless donkey underneath. It was a breathtaking union of skilled artifice and magic, the likes she was not expecting to ever see created by the hooves of a donkey. Still, it had to go. Cairidan had convinced her of its potential for great harm.

Once she was sure they were all ready for the destruction of the Storm Forge, Twilight focused her magic into one spot where the lyrium would take over and cause a chain of destructive force. Just as Twilight was ready to unleash her spell, the sound of rumbling earth broke her concentration.

Everyone turned to the stone doors of the Storm Forge, watching as the massive doors shook with the sound of pounding battering rams. Twilight raised her staff towards the door, steadying herself as small rocks and dirt fell from the cracks forming along the doors. Each hit against the doors shook the entirety of the Storm Forge, metal smacking against metal in a strange melody of foreboding.

Branka was coming, and she would not let the Storm Forge go easily.

The doors finally collapsed, a cloud of dust overwhelming everyone, only to swept away by Twilight’s magic. Branka walked past the threshold, flanked by two of her guards, all the while marvelling at the relic with wide eyes and an even wider grin.

“This is it...” Branka said, cherishing her discovery. “All this time spent, all the suffering, the Storm Forge is finally within my hooves! You have done well, ponies. I am very pleased indeed. With the Storm Forge, I can begin making golems to serve Orzamule once again.”

“You know not what you sought, Branka,” Cairidan challenged, walking towards her in threatening steps. “The pain this Forge has created must be forgotten! It must be lost forever, and these ponies have agreed to destroy it all! Turn back now, or you will be slain and buried along with my greatest shame!”

“No!” Branka yelled. “I have spent too long, sacrificed too much just to watch the Storm Forge slip through my hooves! I’ll kill each and every single one of you before I lose the Forge to some ponies!”

“Is the Storm Forge so important, Branka?!” Oghren shouted back, “Look what it did to you! You’re obsessed with the damn thing! Just come back with me to Orzamule! It’s not too late!”

“Quiet you fool! I am your Paragon!” Branka’s eyes were wide and crazed, yet still focused on the Storm Forge. “I left you in Orzamule because you were too soft! You would have stood in my way as I did what was necessary for Orzamule! For all donkeykind!”

“You are too far gone, Branka! You are an insult to the name Paragon, just as I am!” Cairidan reared on his hooves, causing the ground to shake as he landed. “I will end you and your search to use my Forge for your ambition! Ponies! To my side!”

Branka laughed as the steel golem charged towards her, casually drawing a control rod from her saddle bag. “You are not the only master smith here, Cairidan. You are just another golem now, and all golems are made to obey! STOP!”

Cairidan’s charge simply ceased as he was brought to a halt in mid-step. He could not even speak as his form relaxed and then turned towards the ponies. Twilight watched in horror as Shale did the same, taking up a familiar battle stance, this time against them.

Shale… no!

Twilight reacted in the way she had wanted to against Branka for a long time. Since discovering Ruck in the Dark Tunnels, to finding what she had sentenced Hespith to suffer, Twilight wanted to nothing more than to give Branka the justice she deserved. Channeling her magic and refining it through her staff, Twilight directed the fiercest arcane blizzard she could muster at Branka.

The magic within her horn burned, yet Twilight ignored the pain as she focused her anger towards the Paragon. Waves of arctic cold crashed around Branka, who looked nonplussed as the storm gathered strength. Twilight’s vision began to blur as white light engulfed her, her eyes burning with power.

With a shout she unleashed her spell, the blizzard ripping forth and surrounding the enemy with blasts of magical sleet and cold. The golems shifted about, though they storm barely hindered them. Branka simply stood still as the winds ripped against her.

Once Twilight could see again, she gasped as the magic simply weaved around Branka. The Paragon smirked as her body began to glow in response to the magic, lines of blue trailing over her coat like the runic weaves within a go. The blizzard soon dissipated, leaving Branka and her thralls little worse for wear.

“I have survived in the Dark Tunnels by ingesting countless amounts of lyrium, pony,” Branka explained as she stepped forward. “They call it the essence of magic. Couple that with a donkey’s innate magical resistance and I am immune to you. Golems, crush them all. I will take my prize.”

Twilight watched in horror as the party was soon attacked by the very pinnacle of physical might, including Shale and Cairidan among the ranks of the enemy. Lines were quickly broken as the golems ran roughshod through the party, where blade and arrow were useless against their rocky hides. Spells were only marginally useful, and Pinkie hesitated in the use of her bombs, not wanting to injure the manipulated Shale.

Branka’s attacks were brutal and immediate against Twilight. Using the control rod as a mace, the donkey swung with precision showing her warrior training as well as the strength of a master smith. Each blow was timed expertly and Twilight found herself using her staff as a means to parry the blows as she backed up towards the Storm Forge.

Applejack breathed heavily as she narrowly avoided a ramming tackle from one of the other golems. Oghren was using his surprising strength in a hope to block off his target while Spike used his small size and agility to keep his golem away from him. They could not keep up this twisted dance forever though, and as she looked over to where Twilight and Branka dueled, she knew it would be a matter of time until Twilight was simply overpowered.

“If anyone has a good idea, I’m all for it,” Applejack said as she brought Silverbite across the flank of a golem, watching as both blade and phantom strike did nothing but scratch the surface.

Rarity attempted to launch a bolt of lightning from her staff, but she was weak and did very little except to mar the surface hide of a golem. “We can’t keep fighting like this!” she shrieked, backing away from her assailant. “Attacking the golems does nothing!”

Oghren looked around the Forge for something that could be used against the golems. He was in a giant smithy, surely there would some kind of weapon he could use. A bludgeon or warhammer, anything to crack open the soldiers of stone rocky hides. All he had to do was find a weapon rack of some kind. Of course, he still had to make sure he was not going to be flattened by the golem.

Stray steel pipes lay along the ground, used to repair the Storm Forge during its glory days. Setting down his battle-axe, Oghren took up the pipe in his mouth, taking in the metallic taste in his mouth before galloping towards the golem attacking Applejack. With a sturdy swing, Oghren’s pipe connected with back leg of the golem, splintering shards of rock from the wound though also warping the pipe so that it was no longer effective.

“Oghren!” Pinkie called. “Catch!”

Pinkie’s mace flew through the air, clattering on the ground towards Oghren, it’s gleaming head waiting to slam into an enemy. Oghren spat out the pipe before picking up the mace, adjusting the weapon for a moment before turning his gaze towards the golem. His adversary took lapse in attention to its advantage, smacking Oghren with a stiff strike from its hoof. Oghren rocked on his hooves for a moment, shaking his head furiously before glaring at the golem with eyes filled with berserker fury.

With a savage how through the bit-handle, Oghren charged the golem, smashing the mace into its face, creating large fissures along its features that cracked and revealed the lyrium underlay beneath. Another growl joined another bashing strike as Oghren broke one of the golem’s legs completely off, sending the hoof flying across the room.

Now unbalanced, the golem was now easy prey for Oghren. Raising the mace high, he brought down hammer blows, one after another, onto the golem’s head, exposing the bright blue core of lyrium that was its brain. “Rarity!” Oghren shouted, “Get yer shiny tush over here and give this sucker a zap!”

“Don’t you dare talk about my backside, you ruffian!” Though indignant about Oghren’s remarks, she saw the weak point he had created. Her horn arced with lightning, and with a shout she sent a bolt flying into the skull of the fallen golem. The lyrium reacted spectacularly, detonating the golem’s head in rain of lyrium and stone fragments.

Oghren took a deep breath as he tossed Pinkie’s mace back to her. He winced as he moved his jaw, spitting out a bloody tooth. Picking up his axe, Oghren looked towards where Branka was beating on Twilight. His eyes narrowed as he readied his weapon, aiming for either reconciliation with his wife…

Or the final confrontation.

Trixie looked up at the attacking form of Shale with pleading eyes. “Shale! It’s me! Trixie!” Despite her best attempts, Shale made no outward display that it could hear the magician, attacking with powerful stomps and kicks as Trixie tried to keep away from being crushed.

“Don’t let Branka control you!” she yelled, “We came too far into this journey together!”

“I cannot… resist…” Shale was able to say, just as she reared up and brought her hooves down onto a quickly prepared barrier. The shield cracked and fizzled from the strike, but held strong still. “Her control rod is too… powerful…”

“Is she too powerful?” Trixie demanded, “I thought you were better than this, Shale! I thought you were mighty and strong!”
Shale stomped again, this time breaking the barrier causing Trixie to shout out in pain. Rainbow dove towards her, pushing her aside before the golem could trample the weakened Trixie. Pinkie bounded over to Shale, jumping onto her back and holding her forelegs around her a tight squeeze.

“Shale! Remember when we first met!” Pinkie shouted, trying to reach Shale. “Remember the party I’m going to have once this journey ends! Remember that invitation I made you! We’re your friends! Nothing can stop that!”

Shale let out a loud groan as it tried to shake Pinkie off, bucking hard while the rest of the party was focused on the other four golems. While Applejack, Oghren, and Spike were trying to keep the two golem guards Branka brought at bay, Fluttershy was being chased by a rampaging Cairidan. She screamed as she tried to escape as she tripped over some loose rocks, falling over as Cairidan closed in on his prey.

Fluttershy’s wings locked up as Cairidan brought down his hoof, only narrowly rolling away from the impact in a desperate attempt to flee. The stone floor splintered under Cairidan’s strength, sending shards of rock flying in every direction. She raised her bow towards Cairidan, firing arrow after arrow in a futile attempt to hold him back. Each missile struck against the golem’s face and harmlessly bounced off, Cairidan’s advance unwavering.

“I am… sorry…” Cairidan said as he raised a hoof to crush Fluttershy. From within her mane, Angel leapt out onto the face of the steel golem, stretching its body to cover his eyes. Cairidan thrashed his head about in an effort to remove Angel from his face. Fluttershy’s screams were now those of worry as Angel was in harm’s way.

Fluttershy flew over to Cairidan’s face, trying to wrench Andel off Cairidan, but Angel held on tight with sticky paws. The steel golem’s response was to turn towards the walls of the cave, galloping hard in an effort to crush both pegasus and nug together. At the sight of the incoming wall, Angel let go, bringing both him and Fluttershy to fall and skid across the ground.

Cairidan crashed against the stone wall at full force, with several stalactites falling from the cavern ceiling. Unhindered and unharmed, Cairidan continued his attack on Fluttershy and Angel. Collecting Angel in her hooves, Fluttershy strained her wings, trying to take flight to get away. Spike ran towards her, brandishing his firebrand in hope to keep Cairidan away.
Spike attacked with his blade, the searing heat melting a portion of Cairidan’s leg. He made no sound against the damage, backing away as he looked at his wounded leg. Gulping, Spike jumped out of the way of an incoming hoof as it crashed down on the floor.

“Trixie, if you’re gonna get Shale on our side again, make it quick!” Spike’s call was quickly interrupted as he ran from Cairidan, only to be picked up by Fluttershy. Trixie stared down Shale before allowing her horn to glow with the preparation of a spell. It was a simple one, but for this the difficulty was in maintaining multiple versions and controlling them all at once. Her specialty was illusion magic, and she was going to make the most of it.

One by one, images of Trixie popped into existence, all directed at Shale and looking very smug. They spoke in unison, which the others found almost as disconcerting as the golems trying to kill them. The only way for them to tell which the original Trixie was was the fact that her horn was glowing bright with the power of her spell.

The golems looked around the throng of Trixies in confusion, stomping their hooves at any image that was near, only to watch as their strikes passed through the illusions. The real Trixie grimaced as she struggled to maintain her spell, with the rest of the party forming a protective perimeter around her.

“All I ever heard was big talk about Shale being this impressive golem amongst golems,” the illusions said in perfect chorus. “Now I’m looking at a pile of pebbles wimping out once the bits are down. You’re weak, Shale, to be under the thrall of a control rod once again. I thought you were Great and Powerful!”

Shale roared in defiance as she smashed and bucked every illusion of Trixie she could. Instead of worry, the magician smirked as sweat dripped down her forehead. She looked to the others before muttering under breath.

“Shale is breaking through,” Trixie said, “Trust me. We just need to be ready when the illusions fail. Rarity, you have to transfer what magic you have to Shale’s augmentation crystals, the defensive ones.”

“When are yer illusions gonna fail?” Applejack gritted her teeth around Silverbite’s hilt as she watched the golems get closer realizing they were attacking illusions. Cairidan shook Angel off from his face, the nug skidding across the floor. Fluttershy stood over the prone body of Angel, staring up at the steel golem as it loomed over them both.

“Now…” Trixie’s eyes rolled into the back of her head as she fainted, the illusions quickly dissipating. The rampaging Shale stopped her thrashing as she looked around, though still obviously fuming from Trixie’s remarks.

“I’ll crush you, Trixie,” Shale growled as it approached. “I’ll crush you and your stupid hat and your flashy cape and then I will show you who is the Great and Powerful one is.”

“Shale! You’re back with us!” Pinkie squealed in delight as she bounded over to Shale. “And you even called Trixie by name! And said you!”

“Quiet, Pinkie Pie, I am preparing for long awaited squishing.” Shale stopped right before she approached the unconscious form of Trixie, blinking for a moment before looking towards Pinkie. “By the Stone, you are right! This is both wonderful and unsettling at the same time!”

As Pinkie cheered, one of Branka’s golem guards charged from behind. In a swift motion on blazing hooves, Shale leapt over Pinkie’s head and landed in front of the opposing golem. The golem ignored Shale until she struck against its neck with a powerful strike, causing its attention to be ripped away from Pinkie. Shale attacked again, slamming both hooves into the enemy golem’s head until it burst in a violent explosion.

Shale’s attention then turned to Cairidan, who was busy attempting to trample both Fluttershy and Angel. She charged at the steel golem just as Rarity began to channel what little magic she had to fuel Shale’s defensive augmentation crystals. With a strong tackle, Shale budged Cairidan slightly, drawing attention to herself as her maker turned towards her.

“Shale… you can… resist…” Cairidan said slowly as he responded to Shale’s tackle with his own. “I am… pleased… you are still… strong.”

“All right everypony,” Applejack called, “We need to hold off Cairidan and make sure Twi can get that control rod away from Branka. Let’s keep the pressure on them varmints and help Twilight. Oghren, help Spike keep that other golem busy.”

“Uh, Applejack?” Spike yelled. “Oghren went running after Twilight!”

Twilight grimaced as Branka struck a bashing blow across her sheild. Branka’s face held no emotion as she fought, only clenching down on her control rod with each strike. Twilight’s body stung with pain while Branka readied herself to continue her assault. The Paragon was much faster and stronger than expected. Added with her apparent immunity to magic and Branka was the opponent Twilight had feared to face. She was no fighter, and each time she blocked a strike with either magic or her staff, she could feel the sting of each blow as if it landed on her own flesh.

Her staff was also cracking under pressure. Each blow from Branka came stronger and stronger, until Twilight was pressed against the apparatus of the Storm Forge used to create golems. With a shout, Branka slammed her control rod against Twilight’s staff, splintering the arcane tool in two.

She watched in horror as her staff no longer floated before her, but fell in shards as Branka stood back and looked at her work with smug satisfaction. Her staff was as much a companion of the journey as anypony was, and it was her one link to the ponies of the Unicorn Tower she called home for so long. It had been a gift from Wise Eyes for completing her Harrowing, for being chosen to go with Duncan and become a Grey Warden. The staff was a precious memento.
Now it lay in ruins before Twilight as Branka stood over her.

“What good is a unicorn without their vaunted magic?” Branka stomped at Twilight’s stomach with force, causing her to moan and clutch her abdomen as it rebelled in pain. Twilight looked up only to receive another smack by Branka’s hoof, her jaw aching in pain as the hoof connected. Another moment came another strike, this one against her eye. It became swollen quickly as she tasted blood.

Brutalized by the far superior fighter, with each blow from Branka Twilight felt herself weaving in and out of consciousness. Branka was a far more physical being than Twilight could ever be, and without her magic, the Paragon was right. What was she compared to the physicality of a warrior of Branka’s caliber? She had left the actual fighting to real warriors like Applejack and Rainbow Dash. Now she was paying for her lack of knowledge in the martial arts.

“I am a calculating and practical mare, unicorn,” Branka said before clenching her teeth around the collar of Twilight’s robes, forcing her to her hooves. “Everything is a resource to be exploited and used to further a goal. The iron ore found by the miners, which is then smelted into steel, which in turn is crafted into a weapon. That weapon is then given to a soldier, who fights at the command of a leader. The leader is given their commands by their superior, all to accomplish their goals.”

“Tell me, unicorn, have you not seen your own friends this way? As merely tools to be used to defeat the ponyspawn?” As Branka spoke, she adjusted levers and buttons on the Storm Forge, bringing the artifact to life. Brass manacles sprang out, holding Twilight’s legs in place no matter how much she struggled. Her spells proved useless again; the manacles were lined with lyrium.

“I don’t use my friends like tools to be discarded,” Twilight said, though each word caused more pain in her chest. “Like the way you treated Ruck, the way you tossed Hespith and the other mares to the ponyspawn to become Broodmares!”

“Oh Hespith…” Branka turned away for a moment as she fought back tears, only to turn back with the same stone expression. “Nothing else matters, unicorn. Nothing but me possessing the Storm Forge and creating a new army of golems for Orzamule. You could have reaped the benefits, but now you will be nothing more than a test subject. Cairidan only used donkeys to create golems. I am very curious what the effects of the conversion process have on a pony such as you.”

Branka turned away and resumed her work with the Forge, turning cranks and levers as the ancient relic hummed to life. The lyrium held above Twilight’s head began to glow with power as the magically enchanted pipe works caused hot magma to flow towards the crystallized essence of magic.

The heat from the molten rock helped to melt the lyrium, which flowed through the pipes to a center funnel, just waiting to open. Twilight looked up in fear, struggling against her bonds while Branka continued to command the contraption. To Twilight’s sides came two halves of a massive iron suit, and both were being slid towards her. The insides of the casing had many tools to keep Twilight in place despite her struggle.

Twilight tried to shout as the massive casings closed in on her, only to choke and cough up more blood. Her friends were still occupied against Branka’s golems, though from the distance Twilight could have sworn that there were now multiple Trixies standing about. All became dark as the casing swallowed her, cold metal braces holding her body, neck, and head still until not a single ray of light could shine through except for the very top of the casing.

Trapped in a coffin of metal, Twilight held her breath as she tried to cast a spell, any spell to get her out. Only the drowned sounds of battle could be heard from behind the metal casing. They were out matched physically, and Branka had neutralized Twilight’s only tool. Without her magic, she was completely helpless.

It was then that there was excruciating pain coming from the top of her head that felt like her every inch of her head was on fire. Twilight screamed and choked within her confines, horn glowing to spread the pain out and make it easier to bear. Her innate magical defenses reacted quickly to a single drop of molten lyrium, causing it to spread down her mane. Now Twilight’s fears had increased tenfold. If the pain from single drop could do this to her, what torments would she experience when the floodgates were open?

Spike… Twilight thought as the pain from the lyrium and the thought of her oldest friend flooded over her, I’m so sorry. Please escape the Tunnels. I failed.

A loud metal groan echoed throughout the Storm Forge, shaking Twilight within the casing. Closing her eyes tight and awaiting the end, she gave a prayer to Celestia and Luna that her death would be swift, that Spike and all her friends would escape the Dark Tunnels and that if she did become a golem she would not be used against them.

Her prayers seemed to have been answered as light cascaded over her as the two halves of the casing separated. Rarity was turning the controls while Spike rushed over to Twilight’s hooves and began hacking at the manacles. She looked up to see Shale no longer under Branka’s thrall and dueling Cairidan, while the others dealt with the rest of the golems. There was no sign of Branka except for exasperated grunts.

“Twilight, darling, are you all right?” Rarity said as she helped Twilight keep steady. “What happened to your mane?”
Rarity levitated her mirror towards Twilight, who took a moment to look at her wrecked face. Besides the bruises and cuts endured from the beat down by Branka, there was now a long strip of white trailing down her mane alongside the strip of magenta. An effect of the lyrium and my being a unicorn, Twilight assessed before looking around the Storm Forge.

“Where’s Branka?” Twilight said, ignoring the change to her looks and resuming focus on the battle at hoof. Spike pointed behind her, and as she looked could only watch as Oghren was swinging his axe wildly while Branka could only parry the blows with her control rod.

Husband and wife battled each other near the edge of a cliff overlooking the rivers of magma. From where Twilight was watching, both were evenly matched in terms of martial prowess, with Oghren’s greater strength being offset by Branka’s precision. Twilight would have called it a strange dance between two donkeys if it were not for the fact that they were trying to kill one another.

“Branka,” Oghren said through the axe bit as he blocked another strike. “Is this Forge really everything to you? What about all our good times we had? All the drinking and the sex? Wasn’t that fun?”

Branka spat her words. “None of that mattered you fool. All of it was a means to an end. Only the Storm Forge matters to me.”

“Figured as much.” With that, Oghren’s attacks became even fiercer; his eyes glazed over with fury as he began to foam from the mouth. The onset of the berserker surprised Branka, who quickly fell back and attempted to block each blow.
Branka yelled with each of Oghren’s slams, her jaw becoming numb from the sheer strength of the warrior attacking. The blows became too much for Branka, until eventually her control rod mace slipped out of her mouth along with a few bloody teeth. The weapon skittered across the ground until it dangled perilously off the edge.

“No!” Branka shouted, galloping towards her control rod. She tried to reach it with her mouth, only to be held back by Oghren. The two struggled, Branka punching Oghen in the face, yet still unable to dislodge her husband. There was no mirth in Oghren’s face though, despite being on top of his wife. Extending his hoof, he stretched to reach the control rod, nudging it into the magma pits below.

The control rod fell to the magma below, with Branka screaming in denial as her greatest weapon was lost. She looked at Oghren with wild eyes, all control suddenly gone as she drew a dagger from within her armour.

“I’m your wife you stupid jackass!” Branka howled, “Everything is lost because of you! The Storm Forge! The glory of Orzamule!”

Branka moved in for a quick strike, hoping to sneak the dagger through Oghren’s plate and into his heart. Twilight winced as Oghren brought down his axe and sank the blade into his wife’s neck. As Oghren removed the edge of his axe from Branka’s body, the dishonoured Paragon fell to her side, a sizable pool of her blood forming around her until her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Her blood glowed with the lyrium she had ingested, only for it to weaken and fade into nothing.

“You’re my paragon,” Oghren muttered, “Too bad I was never a religious jackass.” He stepped away from Branka’s corpse, dropping his axe and sitting on his haunches before gripping his canteen of “special brew,” greedily chugging away at the volatile alchohol until it was gone. With an upset huff, he tossed it aside until it fell into the river of magma.

Twilight tried to lay a hoof on Oghren’s shoulder to help ease his suffering, her legs buckling as she became off balance. She faltered and press against Rarity as her stomach gave another turn of pain. Pinkie approached with her alchemy kit, preparing a remedy as Rainbow and Fluttershy lifted the unconscious Trixie.

With the control rod destroyed, the other golems ceased their attacks, Cairidan regaining control over his body while the two remaining guards stopped moving altogether. Shale and Cairidan continued to press against each other in a struggle though, even with Shale apparently laughing.

“I remember it all now, Cairidan,” Shale said. “Being here in the thaig with the other warriors. With you. I became a golem to protect you. You were not a warrior. You were the reason I came to be a golem.”

“It still broke my heart, Shale,” Cairidan replied, “But now my long grief will end soon. I will be free, and my burden will be gone.”

Both golems broke away before joining with the rest of the party as they stood around the corpse of Branka. “Ponies of the surface, I wish to thank you,” Cairidan said as he walked over to his Storm Forge. “She would have used my forge to make countless donkeys suffer. I will uphold my promise, and take up the smith’s hammer once again. I will not only craft you a crown worthy for the King of Orzamule, but also trinkets and armour that will protect you. Your road is one of pain and suffering, for the Grey Wardens and those who choose to follow in their hoofsteps. If I can ease the pain somehow, I will gladly do so.”

Cairidan turned to the Storm Forge, grasping a hammer in his mouth before beginning his work. As the sound of steel shaping steel echoed through the caverns, Twilight lowered herself to the ground with Spike staying close to her side. Battered yet victorious, Twilight still could not smile. The journey in the Dark Tunnels had come to an end, but the costs were high.

“She was a crazy jenny, but I loved her,” Oghren mumbled, “She didn’t see the same thing in me though. All she wanted was that damn Forge. I’ll be glad to get rid of that thing and get back to Orzamule. Still…”

Ignoring the pool of lyrium-laced blood that he had spilt, Oghren dragged Branka’s body across the floor until he was up against one of the stone walls near the entrance. He called for one of Pinkie’s few remaining grenades, then armed the explosion before tossing it into the air against the wall and making a hasty retreat. The detonation caused several rocks to fall onto the carcass, making a rather impromptu cairn for Branka. Oghren stomped one hoof on the ground several times in some kind of salute before turning back to the party.

“You’re taking this rather well,” Rarity said as Oghren resumed his seat on his haunches. He merely shrugged in response.

“That’s because I ran out of drink,” he replied, “Wait till we get to Orzamule and its barrels of ale. I promise you, I’m gonna be a drunk mess and come after your sweet flank, I tell ya what.”

Cairidan soon returned with a large crate of silver bracers, each adorned with runes etched by lyrium. “These bracers are what I call the ‘Embrace of Nakkum’. Nakkum was a Paragon in ages past and a beloved leader and friend to all he commanded. These bracers will allow you to feel the presence of your friends, even across some distance. I made one for each of you, donkey, pony, golem, and lizard thing.”

“I’m a dragon,” Spike muttered, though Twilight couldn’t help but be amused. Everyone took one of the bracers, with Twilight having a feeling of calm rush over her as the silver locked into place around her left foreleg. There was a twinge of magic brushing against her, but it was pleasant.

“I have also created this crown. Use it to choose the new ruler of Orzamule.” Twilight levitated the offered crown, holding it high for the others to see. It was very tall and made of gold, appearing to be very heavy if ever worn. Inside the crown was a seal of various runes which Twilight surmised was Cairidan’s seal as a paragon.

“Thank you very much Cairidan,” Twilight said, bowing her head. “Now if we could only get your help in choosing a proper successor. Now there are two donkeys, Prince Bhelen and Lord Harrowmount and…”

“No.” Cairidan turned away from the group and walked over the cliff overlooking the magma. “I do not care for Orzamule’s petty politics any longer. You will have to choose the new King. I have done my part, now I ask for you to honour your agreement. Destroy the Storm Forge. End my suffering that I have wrought for years.”

He was right. They did make an arrangement and Twilight was not a pony to go back on her deals. She was too weak to destroy the Storm Forge herself, but a grenade would do the job just as well. With a mighty toss by Pinkie, the explosion rocked the entirety of the Storm Forge, causing pipes and runes to burst as the molten lyrium and magma flowed freely.

The explosion worked too well. The party ran to the other side of the great hall as the Storm Forge continued to collapse, stone and molten rock falling around their ears. Only Shale and Cairidan stood still amidst the chaos, with Cairidan looking down at the plunge.

“Cairidan!” Shale called as Twilight watched, knowing all too well Cairidan’s intention to end himself, “Come with us! With me! There is no need to toss yourself into the Stone!”

“There is. For my sake.” Cairidan turned to Shale, his voice filled with regret. “Shayle. Go with your new friends. Help them protect the world. I have spent so much time bringing it harm. I must go. I must answer for my crimes and become one with the Stone.”

“Have great and powerful vengeance on me, Shayle, for all I have done to you. Do what I could not. Live free. Live well.”

As the Storm Forge crumbled to ruins around him, Cairidan nodded one last time before leaping off the edge of the cliff into the magma below. Shale said nothing as she watched the cave-in continue unabated, until nothing but rubble remained. Pinkie kept tugging on Shale’s hind leg to hurry with them, but she would not move.

...Doska no Cairadin. Tolag megran thaig.” Shale reared up, slamming her forehooves into the blocked entranceway. Her voice was strained, as if she was choking on something. For a while all she did was pound away at the rocks, with nopony interfering in Shale’s grief. Twilight did not move to stop Shale or hurry her along. She respected Shale’s need to grieve her friend.

 “I found you, damn you. I found you.” Shale stopped her brutalization of the cave-in, her head bowed low. “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.”

“Curse you, Cairidan,” Shale said, “I made my choice, and do not regret it. I am Shale, Indestructible and All Mighty. I’ll crush anything that says otherwise. When the boastful Trixie awakens, I will thank her for reminding me of this. Then crush her head like a pigeon for her completely inaccurate remarks about me.”

Twilight looked back on the remains of the Storm Forge before returning to her friends. The Dark Tunnels would soon come to their merciful end, but she felt more battered and bruised than ever.