Chapter 38 – Maimed by Night
The moon stood bright as a beacon in the sky while the party stood in front of the Red Apple estate. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy stood shoulder to shoulder, ready for the long flight towards Red Apple proper in search of the small, yet capable Filesian forces. Twilight stood with Pinkie Pie, Trixie, and Oghren, ready to infiltrate the estate of Arl Maim. With both teams ready to depart, and Rarity, Spike, and Shale having not yet returned from their trip to the smithy, Applejack felt a little left out.
“Ya’ll be careful now, ya hear?” Applejack said as she tried to hide her displeasure with a smile. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, and Ah’ll still need all the help Ah can get for it.”
“Don’t worry another minute, AJ,” Rainbow replied. “We’ll be back with some troops before you even have a crown on your head!”
Pinkie’s eyes lit up at the mention of a crown. Applejack couldn’t help but wince. “Ooh, ooh! When Applejack gets crowned queen, that means there is going to be a coronation, which means super awesome party!”
Twilight rolled her eyes before steering Pinkie back towards their infiltration group. “We’ll worry about the party after we rescue a Grey Warden, a soon to be former queen, and make sure Arl Maim can’t make any more trouble for us.”
With great restraint on her part, Applejack resisted the urge to growl at the mention of Maim. All Applejack wanted right now was to storm his estate, kick down his door and buck Loghoof’s right-hoof colt square in the jaw. It would certainly make her feel better considering how much harm that snake of a pony had inflicted on Red Apple, on Macintosh and Applebloom. Blood be damned, I should be the one to drag Maim into the courts for attempted murder!
After checking that they had all the gear for their missions, Twilight signaled with a hoof that it was time to leave. “When Spike gets back, take care of him for me, please?” Twilight asked. Applejack nodded; the love and care between the two inspired her. It was the same as her care for Applebloom and Macintosh. Something like that just didn’t happen every day and should be protected.
Fluttershy and Rainbow departed first, the former trailing behind the latter as they took off into the night sky. Their task would be one of endurance, as they would fly several leagues past the walls of Trotterim into the ponyspawn infested lowlands. Just the two of them alone was enough to turn her stomach with worry. Lightspeed, both of you, Applejack silently prayed until both pegasi were mere specks in the moonlight, and then no more.
The others left in silence as well as they walked down the deserted streets towards the Arl of Trotterim’s estate near the palace. Something was bound to go wrong. Applejack knew it, and she loathed being left behind. So many noise makers in one place doing a job that was meant for subtlety were bound to come across problems.
Twilight was right, though. They needed to keep Applejack safe for the Landsmeet, where she would finally, and officially, declare herself the true heir to the throne thanks to royal blood. Sweat poured down her face at the very thought of being in front of a large group of noble ponies who commanded fields, towns, and armies as they watched an inexperienced pony claim dominion over them all against a known hero, a respected noble, and a renowned general.
“Ah can’t do it!” Applejack exclaimed to Macintosh. “Ah don’t have a hayseed’s chance of dislodgin’ Loghoof from his seat! How ya’ll convince me that Ah could beat him in politics? Pony’s been at it for years and Ah’m going onto the biggest stage in front of everypony without any know-how on what to do! What to say!”
“Now calm down, Applejack,” Macinitosh said, laying a firm, yet gentle hoof on her shoulder plate. “Eyup, things look bad. But you got me to help ya, yer friends, and everypony who wants to see this country run right.”
“Ah wasn’t raised to be a high and mighty queen. Ah was just a simple pony on Red Apple. Then a simple templar. This whole royalty business…”
“If Blueblood were still alive, you’d be in line for the Arling of Red Apple if Ah kicked the bucket.” Macintosh motioned for the Applejack to follow him. “This is the way it’s gotta be. We need one of the royal bloodline on the throne, or everything our pappies fought and died for will be for nuthin’. Armeria is smart, and she’ll make a fine teyrina, but she’s the widow of a king and the daughter of a commoner who only got his teyrnir as a gift from the king. Her hold is shaky at best. Ya’ll have the better claim, and the best chance to stabilize the country once Loghoof is gone.”
“Look at me.” Applejack looked into her brother’s eyes, a sight that always gave her strength before. It was her hope that she could find strength in them again. “Ah wouldn’t do this to ya if Ah didn’t think it was best for everypony, Ah told you this back in Red Apple. What’s got yer tail in a knots that ya want to back out now?”
“Ah’m scared, Macintosh!” Applejack’s unrestrained yell was enough as her face contorted in both rage and despair. “Ah’m scared Ah’m gonna fail an entire country. Ah’m scared of changin’ who Ah am just so my head can fit into a crown. Ah’m scared of losing everything and everypony dear to me for a throne Ah never knew could be mine.”
Macintosh said nothing. Instead, he approached Applejack and gave her a tight embrace. She found herself with her face buried in an orange mane and sought the same comfort for whatever ailed her, much like she did when she was just a little filly. Especially after the deaths of her parents and Granny Smith.
“Ah can’t do it alone,” Applejack whispered. “Ah need help.”
“And we’ll all be there to help ya,” Macintosh replied. With a nudge of his head, he signaled that it was time to go back inside. Her stomach agreed, rumbling loudly and causing a burst of chuckles from the both of them. They headed straight to the feast hall, where Applejack poured herself a generous mugful of cider before making her way to the food.
She sat and ate with her brother, and regaled all about the adventures she had been in since the Battle of Ostequus. He listened intently about all their battles and discoveries, and took keen interest in the tale of the Mane of Stars and the battle against the High Dragon. Just as Applejack was about to retell the part where she climbed onto the dragon’s head, there was a murmur of voices from outside the door of the hall.
“I still can’t believe you! He was right on your back! What were you so preoccupied with that you could lose track of a baby dragon in full plate with a flaming sword!”
“Perhaps I was imagining the different ways to crush your skull. Not that it would be hard. Just lift up my hoof and stomp. It would be very messy and very satisfying.”
The door flung open and revealed Rarity and Shale arguing into the estate, with Shale removing her disguise then tossed it into a heap on the ground. Applejack shook her head in disbelief as they approached the pair before she felt a cold chill run down her spine. Where was Spike?
“Now calm down and tell me exactly what happened,” Applejack reproached them. Rarity pushed past Shale, her eyes wrought with worry.
“Spike’s gone missing! While I was working with the armourer Hoity Toity, Spike left Shale in a huff. Probably offended that we were working on dragon scales, the poor dear. When we left the smithy, Spike was nowhere to be found! We searched high and low, but we simply cannot find him!”
“I expected him to come here,” Shale added. “He was saying that he wanted to tell Twilight about finding one of Loghoof’s lieutenants. A squishy earth pony with a golden sword. What was her name…?”
Macintosh’s eyes widened at Shale’s description. “Ya’ll mean Sunsword?” When Shale nodded, Maninstosh drew a sharp breath. “Sunsword is Loghoof’s most trusted knight, who serves as his personal bodyguard and enforcer of his will. If she has your friend Spike, it will be very difficult to take him back through force. She’s a skilled swordspony, and is extremely capable at whatever Loghoof needs doin’. There’s a good chance that she saw a chance and took it, and if Loghoof hasn’t sent her to check on his daughter in Maim’s clutches, he will.”
“Then we have to stop her and save Spike!” Rarity was about to be out the door when Applejack grabbed her tail in her teeth.
“Now hold on a minute, missy,” Applejack said with great hesitation. “If we go out there now in the dead of night and make a ruckus, we’ll endanger Twilight and her mission to bring back both Armeria and another Grey Warden.”
“Then what shall we do?” Shale looked at Applejack expectantly. Applejack knew the words that needed to be said, the words of a queen in a war against an enemy, yet feared to utter them. The choice she had to make.
“We wait until the Landsmeet,” Applejack said as she turned away and retreated to her room. “And pray. We gotta pray.”
The Arl of Trotterim estate regaled in a grandiosity that made the Red Apple estate look like a simple garden shack. Twilight would not utter such a comparison around Applejack considering her agrarian background. One part noble abode and one part barracks, it was as much a home to the Trotterim guard as it was to Arl Maim. Well worn roads where soldiers marched lead from the city to the estate, while gardens in full bloom flanked the same walkways.
From her vantage point in a dark alley, Twilight watched as several patrols of two earth pony guards walked in predictable motions around the estate. Looking up, she took note that there were no pegasi guards in Maim’s employ. That was good. They didn’t need to worry about the air.
“There has to be a way into the estate without being detected,” Twilight said aloud. Pinkie extended a hoof into the air like a student in a class room.
“We could try knocking on it and asking politely?” Pinkie suggested, “It seemed to work for grumpy golems, maybe it works for amoral arls as well!”
“We’re trying to be subtle,” said Twilight, “We can’t just walk up to the front door and ask to be allowed in. We need another approach.”
Oghren shrugged. “We could bash down the front door, make a daring rescue that would be sung for ages, fighting our way into the dungeons until we face down Maim himself and you and him fight in single combat in a deadly duel.”
Twilight blinked at Oghren. “What part of ‘subtle’ doesn’t anypony seem to understand?”
“Trixie has an idea.” The magician pointed a hoof at one of the patrols. “All we need to do is get four uniforms, and then we can sneak in disguised as part of the soldiery. Once we make our way to the dungeon we can save both the Warden and the queen.”
“Great idea, Trixie!” Twilight’s horn and sword pommel quickly became alight with magic. “Just give me a moment to study to study their armour…”
Twilight watched the guards intently and took note of every piece of equipment they wore. The soldiers patrolled in shining steel mail with plates of metal in key places on their chests and sides, as well as very thick plates along their right shoulders. They walked on greaves made of steel while longswords hung from leather scabbards. Common soldiery that bore the emblem of Equestria on their chests.
“Got it.” Twilight turned to Trixie in surprise as the illusion magic shrouded both her and Pinkie in pale blue light. In a moment, they were both decked in the same uniform as the estate guards.
“Impressed?” Trixie said with a smirk. “Trixie is a skilled illusionist after all. It’s foalsplay, really. It will also keep your magic level if you are not straining to keep the illusion up for three ponies and a donkey.”
Twilight smiled, then cast the disguises for herself an Oghren. As she worked the spell, Twilight saw Trixie in a new light. Gone was the magician whose sole purpose for studying magic was out of spite and jealousy. Now Trixie stood a new mare, one who seemed to get better at spellcraft every day. With the knowledge that Trixie had greatly matured, Twilight had no doubt that if she chose to return to the Tower, she would be an excellent teacher for the younglings.
For that, I’ll make sure there is a Tower to return to. As she looked over herself, Twilight felt rather pleased that the spell worked. Even the helmets provided enough cover to shroud their horns, and the armour felt real and heavy upon her body. This was a key to illusion magic; for illusions to work well, both the observer and the user had to at least have inkling that the falsehood was reality.
“Alright everypony, let’s go. Just follow my lead.” Walking in formation, Twilight approached the estate then turn to the right of the estate. As long as they could find the entrance to the barracks of the estate, they could circle the building and hopefully not raise any alarms.
Twilight tensed as she walked past the first patrol. The two guards only looked up once before stopping; her heart beat faster as they turned towards them. When the two groups met, the guards offered a friendly smile.
“More guards, eh?” said one, “Maim’s been more and more paranoid ever since Loghoof sent the Queen to stay under his care. Where’d he grab you four?”
At the question, Twilight realized a flaw in her plan. She hadn’t come up with a workable cover story for the guards. Beads of sweat began to flow down her face as she stuttered for a moment before Pinkie stepped forward.
“We’ve been reassigned from the north palisades,” she said, sounding calm and professional. “Arl Maim requested soldiers to be brought over from the west wall as well, but they won’t come until morning.”
“Again from the north wall?” the guard’s partner said in exasperation. “The captain said that wall is our weakest position with all the reassignments. The estate is better defended than the whole of Trotterim now. Reinforcements from Fort Drakon have to go toward the south and west walls, and thanks to that, they’ll have to curve through the city to get to the north side. I don’t have the slightest idea what Arl Maim is up to.”
“Yeah, it does sound like he’s more concerned with himself than the defense of the city. With the weaknesses he’s made due to all these reassignments, the ponyspawn could breach the northern palisades with ease. It keeps me up at night it does, just thinking one of these days the ponyspawn are going to do just that.”
“What are we going to do?” Pinkie replied with a shrug. “Teryn Loghoof made Maim Arl of Trotterim. That means defending the city is his job, and we have to do ours. Don’t worry, though. Once we beat the Blight, the Queen is going to host a party and everypony is going to be invited!”
“Hear that? A party!”
“What I wouldn’t give for some cake and a belly full of mead…” The guards walked away in higher spirits as they continued their patrols, leaving Pinkie all smiles and Twilight all confused. Right. She was a guard of Ponyring, Twilight recalled, of course she knows how to speak with other guards. Bringing her along was the right idea.
With the sound of hoofsteps as the only sounds, they continued to patrol the grounds as good soldiers did, all the while Twilight noting of the exchange between the guards and Pinkie. The situation from Trotterim appeared dire if there were weak points in the city’s defense. Things were already bad that the common citizenry had not been evacuated; if the city were to become a battleground as Twilight’s dreams indicated, they would be unprepared and encumbered by the frightened masses.
Focus Twilight, she chided herself, focus on the task at hoof. You’re about to approach another pair of guards. Play it cool. Play it Pinkie. Oh Celestia, I didn’t just think that.
They approached a doorway on the side of the estate watched over by another pair of guards. Unlike the patrols, these bore the cutie mark of Arl Maim, a bloodied dagger, on their talbards and shields. Twilight winced as she looked down for a glimpse of the emblem on their disguises; the flag of Equestria was magically embroidered across their chests.
The two Maim guards looked at Twilight with suspicion, moving their eyes to each member of the group. Unlike the Trotterim guards, these soldiers held stern looks, as if expecting a brawl to start any moment. Or to start one out of boredom.
Twilight looked to Pinkie, who seemed comfortable taking command of the situation. She walked up to one of the guards and gave them a crisp salute. “Sergeant Puddinghead reporting from North Palisades,” she said, “I come with Privates Clover, Wanda, and Bob. Who’s the captain in charge we’re supposed to report to?”
One of the guards sighed, rubbing the back of his head with a hoof as he appeared to be in strenuous thought. “Wonderful, more of you Trotterim types. Captain Bigguns is asleep, so you’ll have to wait until morning. Or…”
He nudged his partner who drifted off at his post. “Why don’t two of you take over our shift while we catch forty winks? Maim’s been running us ragged for a long time, and a nap sounds like the best thing ever right now.”
“Two ponies can hold this post. What about the other two?” Twilight asked. The guard merely shrugged before leaving the barracks.
“Don’t know, don’t care. Patrol the lower section of the estate or something. Just uh… don’t go down into the dungeons. Only Maim’s ‘elite’ guards go down there with him. If I didn’t value my job, I’d say they were just a bunch of overpaid stuffed shirts made to look tough. Only real scary one down there is Maim himself. Ah well, you have a nice shift now, you hear?”
Once the guard was out of earshot and the door closed behind him, Twilight turned to her group. “We need to keep two of us here for appearances,” she said in a hushed whisper, “Maim’s hiding in the dungeon, that’s good. We won’t have to search the entire estate.”
“Trixie and I will stay close to the door,” Pinkie said, “I’ll turn all the guards away from here so that there isn’t any problems for you and Oghren when you go all sneaky-sneak.”
Twilight nodded and motioned for Oghren to follow as she opened the door of the barracks and walked inside. The party had become a simple partnership now, and Twilight was not as confident as she was. It was no fault of Oghren’s, as he was generally quiet as they made their way through the halls of the estate, though his eyes darted back and forth in search of trouble. No, it was the fact that she and Oghren were alone with little chance of reinforcement against a shadowmaster like Maim.
The barracks were a simple affair, with many bunks for sleeping guards under the covers, while a few soldiers stayed awake. Twilight noticed an interesting dichotomy as she walked past them all. The soldiers of Trotterim spoke of their fears of the ponyspawn, of weaknesses in the cities defenses. Those ponies under Maim’s employ from Amarethine mostly muttered about payment, or lack thereof.
I wouldn’t put it past Maim to draw his soldiers from mercenary companies. She avoided eye contact with any of the guards in hope that they would ignore her and Oghren. Thankfully, they were too busy with their conversations or meals to pay much notice, though a pair did watch them enter. Twilight simply nodded to them in greeting and received a slow nod in return before resuming her patrol of the hallways.
Once they were out of the barracks, Twilight found herself marvelling at the halls of luxury. Silk tapestries hung with care from the walls detailing past glories of Equestria, while gems adorned the walls and reflected the torch light. Whether they were Maim’s or the previous Arl’s, she did not know. What she did know was she found herself conflicted looking at the opulence of the estate. While ponies suffered at the hooves of ponyspawn, the Arl of Trotterim stood by, sipped wine and called for higher taxes for more silks.
“I suppose some things don’t change across cultures,” she heard Oghren say. “Nobles will be nobles, huh?”
Twilight couldn’t agree more. While the common pony suffered, the nobility did nothing but squabble amongst them and squander needed resources. As the land burned and ponies were killed by monsters, they feared threats imagined rather than real. Twilight truly started to regret putting Applejack on the throne, and the future headaches of a political nature to come.
Though, maybe Applejack can buck some sense into the nobility. Twilight mused that thought as they walked into a large and lavish lounge with tables holding fine crystal glasses while similar decanters filled with rich, scarlet wine waited to be consumed. Only a few servants milled about and cleaned the lounging hall. They paid no heed to the typical patrols of two guards. Their disguises worked so far.
As they walked through the halls, the familiar yet unexpected tug of magic made its presence known to Twilight as a tug on her horn. Raising a hoof to her lips, she motioned for Oghren to remain silent as she looked around for the source of the magic. She turned her senses solely onto magic and the world around her drifted away until she could see the ley lines from the Fade link into the land.
The Veil between the dream world and the real one showed slight damage, and as Twilight extended her senses, she could feel the weight of pain and death bear down on her shoulders. The simple feeling of wrongness extended towards her from below, to where Arl Maim made his dungeon. Twilight shivered at the thought of what he had done that could tear into the Veil. Nothing pleasant, she imagined.
Once she shook herself from thoughts on the Veil, Twilight refocused her efforts in finding the spell that pulled at her. Arl Maim was an employer of unicorns it would seem, but thankfully she could find no malicious magic at work. Though that ruled out Maleficar, any unicorn could prove a dangerous foe. Instinctively, she found the ley lines of spellwork in the very floor as a single straight pathway that linked a large ornate door to the lower levels.
It was not a very impressive barrier spell and Twilight could break it easily. The spell appeared to have been designed to keep a simple pony locked in, after all. Still, she held back as she looked at the single line with caution. The line was likely a link to the unicorn who cast the spell, a simple yet effective alarm that would tell the unicorn and more importantly, Arl Maim, that their prisoner had escaped.
“Hello?” Twilight said softly as she approached the door.
“Who’s there?” said a feminine voice. “Maim? One of Maim’s lackeys? I am ordering you to let me out! This is not how you treat the queen of the realm! Once my father hears about this, I’ll make sure you and your Arl have a personal cell within Fort Drakon!”
“Queen Armeria Mac Tir?” Twilight smiled as she approached the door. “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m a Grey Warden here to rescue you from Maim.”
“Oh thank Celestia and Luna on high… wait…” There was a stiff silence for a moment, the sound of hooves on stone being the only sign that Armeria was still behind the door. Twilight took a sharp breath in as she waited. “You… you’re a Warden? Did you fight in Ostequus?”
This was the question Twilight dreaded. Who knew what lies Loghoof told his daughter about the death of her husband and king? What if she screamed or raised an alarm? It was too late to back away now without some sort of answer.
Honesty is the best policy, Twilight heard Applejack’s voice in her ear. Steeling herself, she spoke to the door. “I was. I saw the battle from atop the observatory that had a fire signal for your father.”
“You were able to light the signal?”
There was a long silence after Twilight made her confirmation. She pressed her ear against the door only to hear the faint muffle of sobs. “My husband, King Blueblood,” Armeria said, “Did my father abandon him? I know I have no reason to believe you… but… I can’t trust my father anymore, or any of the other nobles of the court.”
“I’m sorry, your Majesty. But yes.” Twilight took a deep breath. “Loghoof retreated from the field. He left the armies of King Blueblood and his Warden allies to die. We went back to Ostequus, and gave your husband a proper burial. We also found letters from Blueblood and…”
More silence before Armeria broke it. “I know of them. Father must have found them as well. Celestia preserve me… I am sorry for the loss of your Wardens. I didn’t imagine he would do all this. He’s doomed Equestria, he has. What good is fighting off Filesians when the ponyspawn are just going to leave this land a blighted mess?”
“Your Majesty, I need to be honest with you.” Twilight gulped. How do you tell a monarch you came to save her so she could abdicate her throne to your friend? “We came to rescue you to resolve the issue with the throne.”
“You… want me to abdicate.” The quick realization surprised Twilight. “I heard about the other claiman. The old king’s bastard. Er... I’m sorry. I understand. Without Blueblood, I’m just a chess piece to be used by my father. He cares deeply for Equestria, please understand. He truly loves this land! Becoming teryn and exposed to power and politics… changed him. If it helps save Equestria, then I will put away my crown.”
“That’s... awfully lenient.” Was this a trick? Twilight couldn’t tell if there was deception in Armeria’s voice.
“ ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’, unless you’re Blueblood and see it as an accessory.” Armeria sighed. “I feel sorry for whoever you want to put on the throne. They’ll have their hooves full.”
“She’s the old king’s illegitimate daughter,” Twilight replied. There was a cold laugh from behind the door.
“Then I hope she can produce an heir. Being barren is as much a death sentence in the court as it is facing a ponyspawn.”
“Listen,” Armeria said, “You need to go into the dungeon and find Maim. He has a unicorn who placed the ward on the door with him at all times. The door itself isn’t locked, but if it opens, Maim comes galloping with a dozen of his elites. He’s tired of serving my father, and plans to use me as a pony shield for his escape to Amarethine.”
“Got it,” Twilight said, “We’ll find Maim and get him to bring down the barrier. We’ll be back soon, Your Majesty.”
“Wait.” Twilight stopped in mid step before turning back to the door. “Maim… Maim is a monster, Warden Sparkle. He has contacts to the Imperium. He sells pegasi ponies and political prisoners to them as slaves. He is a brutal pony, who I believe murdered Arl Rich so that my father could give him the arling of Trotterim. I’ve read the King’s journals, about how he saw Maim as a necessary evil against the Filesian occupiers. I think my father sees the same, that Maim is distasteful but useful. You may have to fight him, and if you do, you will have to kill him. A desperate stallion is incredibly dangerous, especially if he was planning on ransoming me to escape to Amarethine. Celestia protect you.”
Twilight stewed with those thoughts as she rejoined with Oghren and made their way towards the dungeons. Her senses guided them by following the magical trail left by Maim’s wizard servant. Armeria had, in essence, told Twilight that if she were to fight Maim, then it would be a battle to the death. The idea of fighting a pony she had never met would also mean finding the resolve to kill him. Oghren looked to her, yet Twilight remained quiet. There was no reason to discuss doubts in the middle of enemy territory.
It would be no different than the assassin’s lead by Rainbow Dash. She would give Maim the opportunity to surrender. To escape. If he failed to heed her warning…
She would end his threat to Equestria and her friends.
They rounded a bend towards a staircase and descended into the lower levels of the estate. What was once the lap of luxury increasingly became plainer as they continued downward towards the depths. The stone of the estate bore no decoration, and instead of candles and glass windows to light the pathways, blazing torches illuminated the dark corridors. The smell of mildew mixed with the unmistakable stench of blood that almost caused Twilight to wretch. It would seem Arl Rendon Maim still had a few of his Shadowmaster hobbies in full play. She loathed the discovery.
Twilight peeked around a corner and could see two of Arl Maim’s personal soldiers standing by a very large barred door. Both guards wore heavy armour with helms that covered their eyes in obscuring visors.
“Hopefully we can bluff past them and into Arl Maim’s dirty little basement.” Twilight walked towards the two elite guards with the same confidence Pinkie showed. “Hello. We’re here to help keep watch of the dungeons. Arl Maim sent for more soldiers from the north wall.”
With their covered faces, Twilight could not tell how they reacted save for both guards’ lips curving into scowls. One of them drew his sword while the other scoffed at them. “Arl Maim did not send for any more troops. You are not supposed to be here.”
“Ah well.” Oghren reached for his axe. “Was wondering when I got to smash in a pony’s face. No offense, Warden.”
The guards launched themselves against Twilight and Oghren. In the heat of battle, the disguises faded away and revealed the infiltrators’ true selves. With Twilight’s blade free from its sheath, both her horn and weapons blazed with magical power as she deflected a strong slash and replied with a forceful knockback. The push sent one elite guard right into a wall To her right, Oghren parried blow for blow against his opponent. He grinned wide as he struck with his axe.
No more pony blood will be shed by me or my friends! Twilight grimaced as she felt the strength of the elite’s strike against her levitating sword and pushed back with all her magical might. “Oghren! Don’t kill them!”
“They aren’t really giving us many options!” Oghren spun on his hooves before delivering a stiff mule kick to the head of the soldier. A shout and a crack echoed in the small room, and caused Twilight to worry that Oghren had kicked too hard and broke a neck. Applejack’s bucks were powerful enough to snap bone on a ponyspawn; there was no telling what a seasoned warrior like Oghren could do.
Thankfully, the guard simply slumped onto the floor with a groan. His chest heaved in slow motions, but he still lived. Oghren smirked at Twilight who smiled, then turned her full attention to the other guard. Twilight channeled her magic and enveloped him in a field of violet energy. She tossed away his sword and ripped the helmet off his head.
Leaning close to the elite soldier who looked up at Twilight with terror, she brought her sword close to his throat. “Where are Arl Maim and the Warden he captured?” she hissed as she glared at the soldier.
“You said you didn’t want to kill us!” The soldier sputteredm “Why would I tell you anything?”
“You’re right, I said I wouldn’t kill you.” Twilight’s frown turned devilish as she leaned closer. “That doesn’t mean I can’t make your life a living hell until you tell us where they are. My friend here, however, has no such moral qualms. Now where is the Arl?”
Oghren belched at the right time to accentuate the point. With a gulp, the guard reached to his side and held a ring of keys on his hoof. “These keys can open all the doors in the dungeons,” the guard said, “Just the same as the Arl’s. I don’t know where he is specifically, but he should be downstairs with the Warden. What’s left of him.”
Damn. We have to move quickly. “Thanks for the help. Now sleep.” Before she could cast a simple sleeping spell, Twilight saw Oghren’s axe pommel strike the back of the guard’s head, sending him into unconsciousness. She shot a quick glare to Oghren, who replied with a simple shrug.
After the door to the dungeons opened, Twilight pressed a hoof to her snout in an effort to block the stench. The overpowering smell of blood and rotten corpses in the air made her silently wish she could vomit. Whether it was Maim’s work that caused this basement level to be a vile den of death and filth or simply a buildup of generations, Twilight didn’t care. It disgusted her. That was the simple truth of the matter.
Oghren’s ears straightened, his head turning on a swivel. “I hear something Warden,” he said, “Sounds faint though. Could be Maim.” Oghren led the way, and Twilight leveled her sword, ready in the event Maim used his shadowmaster talents against her.
For somepony like Maim, Twilight’s mind raced on how to approach the cunning Arl. He was a rogue of sorts, likely holding a very quick and precise repertoire of moves similar to Rainbow Dash. Stay away from his blade, that’s a given, Twilight thought as she made a mental checklist, keep him in sight, always. Don’t let him go near shadows. Don’t let him get behind me or Oghren. If need be, and he will not surrender… kill him.
“Here, Warden!” Oghren called, “I found ponies! Just… you aren’t going to like the sight.”
Twilight walked up to the bars in a rather large cell and peered inside. She could hear the faint whimpers of young foals, and while her curiosity piqued, it was also disturbed. Her horn began to glow until a simple orb of magelight engulfed the cell. As she looked inside, a small sob escaped her lips as she looked onto the sordid sight.
Crammed into the small dungeon cells, dozens of foals peered through the bars and all of them whimpered in pain as they recoiled from Twilight’s magelight. They were a dirty bunch, covered in grim and more horrifying, blood. Scractches and bruises lined their bodies, several having hollow black eyes. Many had not even discovered their special talents, their flanks bare of any cutie marks save for more damaged flesh.
“By the Stone,” Oghren muttered, “I can’t believe this.” Twilight could not either. The room smelled of filth and blood and rot, discarded platters of food that was more like bile strewn across the room. There was only a single lavatory for them all to use, and it smelled as if it had never been emptied.
“Maim.” Twilight all but spat the name in disgust. Was he so low that he would take children away from their families? What was he planning to do with them? Were they being held for ransom? Did Loghoof have a part in this despicable act? She could feel a low growl rumble in the back of her throat, coughing to clear her voice. The foals held enough fear in their hearts thanks to Maim; an angry unicorn with unrestrained magic at her command would send them into shock.
Her gaze softened, Twilight looked through the bars of the cell while she offered a hoof. “It’s OK,” she said, “I won’t hurt you. Nopony is going to hurt you. What happened here? Why is Arl Maim holding you all?”
A grey filly with pale, violet eyes stepped forward. She walked with a limp and caused Twilight to wince at each step. “My name is Silver Spoon. Maim took us from our families,” she said, her voice hoarse. “My daddy’s Arl Greywolf of West Hills. He sent me here to keep me safe, but Maim took me and threw me in this cell with Diamond Tiara. She... she...”
Silver Spoon turned and pointed at a little fuscia filly curled up in a corner. She was roughly the same age as Applebloom, but much worse for wear compared to the others. Her ribs protruded from her emaciated body. Her body was covered in festering scars, and her eyes were sunken and bloodshot. She turned her head and stared right into Twilight’s eyes.
“You… you can help…” she said in a dead monotone. “Daddy… sickness... Loghoof returned... Maim... Tried to stand up to Loghoof... took one look at me and… and he told Maim… he said… ‘Deal with her...’”
“Been here for months... Can’t remember the sun...” As she spoke, hot tears flowed from her darkened eyes. “More foals thrown in. Maim’s angry with them. With me. Seen ponies dragged into the other rooms. Screams every night. Make it stop... Make him stop... Please…”
Twilight’s scowl hid the burning fury from deep within her chest. Sophia flashed to life from its sheath, and Oghren stepped away from Twilight in surprise. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you out. We’ll stop Arl Rendon Maim and we’ll help you all find your families again.”
“Will you now?” Twilight spun around on her hooves, her fierce gaze piercing into the darkness of the dungeons. One by one the torches snuffed out and left everypony lost in darkness save for the light from Twilight’s horn. She ground her teeth as the last light went out.
“Maim!” Her shout echoed throughout the dungeon, only to have a sharp, yet sinister chuckle respond to her. “What have you done? First a Warden who was only trying to help us against the Blight—“
“A filthy Filesian who was a spy!”
“The Queen of the realm?”
“A contingency plan if Loghoof decided I had outlived my usefulness.”
“And all these foals? What could you possibly need them for? Why brutalize innocent children?” Twilight barked her words, each syllable filled with as much anger as she could muster. As she panted from her shouts, she could almost feel Maim’s sneer in the darkness. Oghren growled next to her and drew his axe.
“Loghoof wanted to make sure he could not possibly lose the Landsmeet against your pretender,” Maim said from behind his shroud of darkness. “He gave me as much autonomy as I needed to do what was to be done. I capture the relatives of the Banns and of the Arls and remind them that if they did not stand behind Loghoof, their loved ones would take on a dark fate. It would have been the least I could do for the regent after giving me the Arling of Trotterim.”
Arl Maim stepped out of the shadows, his scowl planted firmly on his lips as he stepped into the light. To his side was a peach coloured unicorn, his horn alight with magic. He ran a hoof through his greasy mane before letting out a long, exasperated sigh.
“Everything was going so well,” he continued, “First; I attack the teyrnir of White Fortress and kill Teryn Highlander. I missed his son, but he has been in hiding for some time. He knows he cannot stand against me or Loghoof. This allowed Loghoof to take the regency with his only equal out of the way. Loghoof then stopped Blueblood’s plan to allow the Filesians into our country, and through him I was given Trotterim. It wasn’t until you Wardens got involved that things started to sour.”
“You’re right, Maim,” Twilight said as she and Maim began to circle each other. “We did ruin your plans. You tried to get rid of Arl Macintosh using a foolish unicorn. You didn’t expect a demonic invasion from the Fade though, nor did you expect us to stop that and find the Mane of Stars.”
“And because of that failure, Loghoof has been watching me like a hawk.” Maim spat the name of his benefactor. “Equestria is doomed, you know. Nothing will stop this Blight. I’ve read the reports of past Blights. How they were slow invasions, not a sudden blitzkrieg like this one. Let Loghoof have his delusions that the Filesians are the greatest threats; I don’t care about this country anymore. I stopped caring when I was not given my due by the king.”
Twilight focused her anger on Maim as she moved her hooves carefully. This stallion, this monster, was the vilest creature she had ever met. At least the ponypawn killed most of their adversaries. At least the diamond dogs had offered them a deal. Maim was a tormentor of foals, a greedy coward, and a true traitor. Everything he was sickened her to her core. This was a pony who should not be allowed to live.
No more pony blood will be spilled. She bit back a curse to Maim and instead took a deep breath. “Maim… tell your mage to lower the barrier holding the queen hostage. You will then surrender to me, call off your soldiers, and come with me, the foals, and my friends back to Red Apple Estate. When Applejack is crowned queen, you will be brought towards her court and judged appropriately. She may even show you leniency.”
“Excuse me as I highly doubt that.” He drew a long dagger and clenched the bit between his teeth, then poised himself for battle. “This can only go two ways, Warden. I told you everything out of some idea that explaining myself would make me feel better. You know what? It did. It made me feel good to know I told all of my and Loghoof’s plans to a dead pony. One of us isn't going to leave this estate alive. So frankly, it doesn’t matter if I hold my tongue anymore!”
Twilight leveled her sword and readied herself for the oncoming fight. “I have only one question,” she said, nodding at Oghren to be ready. “Why did Loghoof do this? What did he have to gain by betraying Blueblood?”
“The same reason he does anything, Warden. For Equestria!”
Without warning his tail flared out and tossed a small bomb at his hooves. The ball burst into a cloud of smoke, and enveloped the dungeon in an impenetrable shroud. Twilight coughed as the smoke burned her throat and eyes while the chuckles of Maim echoed in the dungeon. Twilight’s horn let loose a hastily cast cone of cold and blew away the smoke with an icy wind.
Once the smoke cleared, Twilight saw that Maim was gone and left his mage servant alone with them. The mage’s eyes widened at the sight of two angry intruders before galloping away. Twilight cursed as she turned her head to find a glimpse as to where Maim had escaped to.
“This way, Warden,” Maim mocked. Twilight turned only to feel the sharp kiss of a dagger slide against her hind leg. Oghren turned to become face to face with Maim, swinging his axe feebly against the much more nimble Arl.
Maim’s demonstrated impeccable hoofwork as he danced out of the way of the slow and heavy battle axe before striking at Oghren’s stomach with a swift kick. Oghren coughed in pain and dropped his axe as he collided with the floor. Maim looked up at Twilight as he stood over the fallen berserker, a sinister smirk smeared on his face.
Twilight focused her magic into one searing arcane bolt to wipe that smirk off of Maim’s lips. With a shout, a beam of violet energy left her horn and slammed into Maim’s chest and sent him off his hooves into the bars of a nearby cell. With Maim sent away, Twilight knelt down besides Oghren, who pressed a hoof against his tender side.
“Damn blighter kicked me in the kidneys,” Oghren gasped, “I’ll be fine. Just need to catch my breath.”
“Don’t worry, Oghren, I’ll—“ Twilight was cut off as she felt the sting of a blade sink into her shoulder. With a cry, Twilight fell to her knees and looked at her wound to see a very small dagger protruding from her armour. Blood flowed from the wound. Her coat and armour in became stained in crimson.
As she looked up, several more blades sailed towards her. With only a moment to cast, she raised a small buckler of magic to deflect the throwing knives. Each projectile bounced off the magical shield. Struggling to stand, Twilight cried out as she buckled onto her back as Maim smacked into her, dagger clenched tight in his teeth.
When she looked into Maim’s eyes, the jovial mirth of a sociopathic killer and a scoundrel was gone, replaced now by a burning hate in his eyes. It was akin to the look Boreas gave to the Thunder Roc, only now directed at her. Maim lifted his head before bringing down his blade in an effort to pierce her neck. Twilight moved her neck, but still could not avoid the dagger. She gasped in pain as the blade’s edge ran its course along her neck, shaving her fur and spilling blood.
“It was your fault, Warden!” Maim stayed on top of Twilight despite her struggles. The older stallion was physically stronger than she was, able to keep her pinned with little effort. “You couldn’t leave well enough alone! You couldn’t submit to the fact that this land is doomed! Still you cling to some fool notion that Equestria can be saved! The Blight will end, but it will be by a stronger army. The Filesian Empire has forces that dwarf ours! Even Pura Raza has a larger military machine, and they are all mercenaries!”
“Don’t take this personally, Warden,” Maim sneered, “This is simply the business of survival.”
“No one touches Oghren’s junk and lives!” Maim turned in time to narrowly dodge another of Oghren’s axe swings. The sharp edge cut several hairs of his long brown mane but otherwise left Maim unharmed. With his attention diverted, Twilight cast a simple spell to push the Arl off of her. Getting to her hooves proved difficult, and she had to use Sophia as a crutch, but Twilight took a stand next to Oghren.
Now alone, Maim took a few careful steps backwards until he was against the bars of another cell. His tail swished for another smoke grenade, only to find his bomb belt gone. Maim growled at his enemies, only to yelp as two forelimbs extended from the cell behind him and wrapped around his neck.
“Remember me, Maim?” A thick Filesian accent accompanied the face of a sickly grey pegasus, who throttled the Arl’s neck. On his flank was a storm cloud emblazoned on a grey shield.
The other Warden! Twilight thanked her good fortune that he was still alive. Maim wrenched himself free from strangulation before turning his hateful eyes to Twilight.
“One of us dies… So help me, it will be you!” He leaped towards Twilight again, and his anger made his movements predictable. Twilight responded in kind, her sword moving in an arc to slash at Maim’s legs. Her blade struck true and caused Maim to collapse on his knees towards Twilight. She held her sword in and magical grasp and kept the point on Maim’s neck.
“You are the most disgusting pony I have ever met,” she all but cursed, her voice low and menacing. “When Applejack becomes queen, you’ll be spending the rest of your life in Fort Drakon, a noble brought low by his own greed and treachery.”
With Maim cowed, Twilight turned towards the jailed Warden. Lifting the keys to the cell door, Twilight heard Maim’s shuffled hooves as he stood up.
“Celestia burn you,” Maim said with as much venom and hate he could muster. He picked up his dagger and readied himself for one do-or-die lunge. “I. Deserved. More!”
She reacted as the memories of the Arcane Warrior told her to react. In one swift movement, she spun on her hooves and curved Sophia’s arc toward’s Maim. She watched in both satisfaction and horror as the tip of the blade pierced through Maim’s leather armour and into his chest. Maim’s mouth became slack, his dagger falling with a clatter. He gurgled blood while his body slumped onto the floor. Maim looked up to Twilight and pawed at her robes and spilled blood on her until the light in his eyes faded and he finally collapsed.
Twilight stood still as she looked at the body of Maim. “I’m sorry,” she said as she went to close Maim’s eyes. “I didn’t want it to end this way. You forced my hoof. Sisters show you mercy, and may they forgive me. It gets easier.”
Oghren stood back as Twilight opened the cell to the captive Warden. He accepted his freedom with a smile as he gave his mane a long stroke. “Thank you for the timely rescue, Sister,” he said, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Riordan, Grey Warden of Filais. The only one who came from Filais, sadly. I came to give Equestria any help I could once I heard of the defeat at Ostequus. Unfortunately, it would seem some Equestrians need to learn a lesson in manners.”
“I’m sorry Maim treated you so poorly,” Twilight replied, “I don’t understand though. You said you were the only reinforcements the Filesian Grey Wardens could send? Why is that?”
Riordan looked away from Twilight in shame. “The Lord Commander in Ashen Targe did not take kindly to the threats and bluster of Teyrn Loghoof Mac Tir, doubly so when he heard of Duncan’s death. They had the same Joining ritual, you see, and while they did not see eye to eye, the Lord Commander loved Duncan like a brother. When news reached Ashen Targe, the Lord Commander declared that Equestria’s blighted lands would serve as a testament to the world, to never to doubt the Grey Wardens and needlessly sacrifice their lives. He will put all of Equestria to the torch to prove a point. I am here to stop that and the Archdemon.”
Twilight blinked rapidly at Riordan’s news. She reeled away from him in disbelief. The Grey Wardens were supposed to be heroes who stood up against the evil and savagery of the ponyspawn. Did they abandon whole nations too, just to prove a point that the world needed them? Loghoof was scum for letting Equestria’s Wardens die, but did everypony have to suffer because of the mistake of one stallion?
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there is more.” Riordan approached a nearby chest and opened it and revealed his leather armour within. “There is much I must explain to you and the other Warden survivors before the Archdemon and the Blight attack Trotterim. I suspect we only have a week to prepare, even less. I must go ahead and begin work on our defense. I know of one secret entrance from the estate. If we move now with the little ones, we can escape in time.”
“Wait.” Twilight looked to Oghren. “Go with Riordan and the foals. Make sure they get to Arl Macintosh so he can help them find their families. Whatever you do, make sure they get out of here. I have to escort Armeria out of the estate’s grounds and meet up with Pinkie and Trixie.”
“Maim got you good, Warden,” Oghren said, and pointed a hoof at Twilight’s wound. “Doesn’t feel right just leaving you alone.”
“Please, Oghren. Riordan is in no position to watch over all of these foals, and they need a strong warrior to defend them if Loghoof tries to continue Maim’s work. Don’t worry about me; I’ll meet up with you back at the Red Apple estate.”
Oghren grunted his acceptance of the request, but did not appear to like it. Riordan bowed, then ushered the foals away towards Maim’s escape route. Twilight, now alone, made her return to the main levels of the estate.
The simple task of climbing stairs made Twilight feel incredibly sore, as the wound caused by Maim stung her shoulder and sent pangs throughout her body. She did not have the means to heal herself, and blood trailed from the wound, down her armour, and onto the floor. Already her vision blurred from the pain, and Twilight began to suspect that Maim’s blade held a poison on the edge.
She had to press on. As she got closer to room that trapped Armeria, the silence of the estate began to dwell on her. The quiet disturbed her; where were the guards or the servants that made their rounds? With no signs of life, Twilight now had no choice but to continue. Her laboured breaths did not make small trip any easier.
The door to Armeria’s room was open just a crack, but enough for Twilight to look inside and see that the Queen already escaped. The magic around the room dissipated without a trace. “That unicorn really did have unimpressive magic,” Twilight said to herself.
As she left the room, her knees buckled from the strain of keeping steady, and soon Twilight collided with the wall to ease some her own weight. She breathed through her mouth in pained gasps and looked to the wound. The edge of the gash began to fester into a postulant green colour. Whatever toxin Maim used, it worked.
Now Twilight had to make her escape and find Pinkie. Her friend would surely know of some kind of antidote or some other curative. Making her way through the estate proved more difficult than she thought. With her vision blurry and her mind disorientated, keeping her concentration became more and more difficult.
“Just a few more steps,” Twilight said to psyche herself up. “Just have to make it out of the estate. Then we’ll deal with Loghoof…”
A scream from down the hallway broke Twilight’s concentration on her wound. Without a second thought, she galloped as fast as her legs could go. The rush of adrenaline made her forget about her wound. With nothing but a large door in her way, Twilight’s horn sparked with magic and gave the doors a mighty push wide open—
--into a trap.
She counted them quickly. Thirty of Loghoof’s armoured soldiers waited for her in the barracks of Maim’s estate, and all of them had their weapons drawn and poised to strike. In the middle of them all stood a blonde mare holding a massive blade against the throat of Spike.
Twilight’s eyes flashed with magic fueled by rage at the sight of a helpless Spike. She almost began to channel a spell that would have torn the entire estate to pieces when she saw the knight press her sword against Spike’s throat. As powerful as Twilight was, she could not risk that her magic would be faster than her enemy’s sword. Instead, she growled, but kept her distance. Where were Pinkie and Trixie.
“Twilight Sparkle, Grey Warden, and enemy to the Regent of Equestria. I am Ser Sunsword, Teyrn Loghoof’s knight.” Sunsword kept her gaze on Twilight unsullied by distraction and her grip on her swordbit tight. “You are charged with high treason against the Crown, conspiracy to commit treason against Equestria in favour of your lords of Filais, the kidnapping of Queen of Armeria, and the murder of Arl Rendon Maim. Your punishment is to be tried and executed personally by the Regent. Surrender peacefully, and your lizard friend will go free. Free to warn the other traitors that their time will come if they do not bend knee to Equestria’s true protector.”
Spike looked on at Twilight and pleaded with his eyes to resist against Sunsword. Instead, Twilight’s heart sank. Every spell she knew put Spike at risk. There was only one option.
“I surrender.” Once those words left her lips, Twilight removed her sword-belt from around her waist and let Sophia fall to the floor with a clatter.
“Twilight! No!” Spike rushed towards her once Sunsword drew away her blade, only to be held back by two guards. When Twilight looked through the visor of the guard that held him with a hoof, she could have sworn that she stared into the apologetic and mournful blue irises of Pinkie Pie.
“We’ll make sure the lizard gets back to Macintosh!” Pinkie said in her gruffest voice. Sunsword nodded as both she and Trixie left Twilight to her fate.
“By order of the Teyrn, I hereby place you under arrest,” Sunsword said, “Bind her and bring her to Fort Drakon.”
The soldiers moved quickly. Several tore at her armour, and in reflex Twilight did try to resist. When she felt the cold clasp of a lyrium ring around her horn, she knew resistance would be futile. Already she felt the magic around her blocked, and her horn sparked fruitlessly as her magic became nullified.
Ropes were then thrown around her neck and tightened, one leading to a soldier while Sunsword carried the other. Despite being surrounded, she stood alone, naked and bound. Her ears splayed against her head as she kept it low towards the ground.
Nothing could prepare her for this. Nothing could prepare her for being a helpless prisoner. As they placed the sack around her head, Twilight took in a sharp gasp of breath as darkness overtook her.