Chapter 42 - Death Flies on Ebon Wings
Twilight had always thought Duncan spoke in rhetoric when he called the Blight “the tide of evil.” It was common practice to make something more dangerous than it sounded with fanciful words or even a simple phrase. Yet as she looked over the battlements towards the horde of ponyspawn, she now knew Duncan spoke true, and it terrified her.
As far as she could see was a literal sea of writhing blackened monstrosities born out of nightmares. Tens of thousands of ponyspawn poured over the horizon. The donlocks led the suicide charge while thelocks and minotaurs made up the primary force. Ornlocks remained in the back ranks as their curved horns lighted like beacons in the distance, ready to let loose a torrent of painful spells on any hapless victim of their barrage. The skies proved no better. Screamers swarmed in the skies and blocked the sun, and every gibbering mouth cried out in a cacophony of madness and hunger.
Her heart thudded against her chest; pain shot all over her body, but Twilight did not let the sight of such a force unnerve her. She focused her magic to her eyes, and Twilight looked across the land like an eagle. She took note of how the ponyspawn moved, what formations they used, and what passed as their leadership. The Archdemon continued to fly overhead the army, too far for anything to strike, yet thankfully it had not made an attack flight of its own.
The soft light of dusk faded and gave way to night, though the light of Luna’s moon was not there to give some comfort. Storm clouds drifted overhead and covered the starry sky.
Twilight closed her eyes and listened to her tainted heart in an effort to hear the patterns of the ponyspawn. She sifted through their heartbeats, but to find some sense in it all proved a challenge. The thoughts of the ponyspawn came at her in a jarbled mess, as they thought to say simple needs like “kill”, “eat”, and most of all, “despair.” It was a long shot to try to use the Warden senses in this way, but the fundamentals were no different than when the Archdemon sent images to them. All Twilight needed to do was seek them out.
There. Twilight felt the thoughts form a more coherent string. Twilight considered most of the gutteral noise nonsense, little more than a black speech that should not have been heard by pony ears. The sheer hatred these chosen ponyspawn held for ponies was immense, the likes of which Twilight had only encountered when Uthemiel invaded her dreams.
The ponyspawn who lead the Blight were given titles rather than true names. The Serpent, a massive screamer more akin to a flying snake. The Magus, an ornlock with two horns, who already worked at disassembling the Unicorn Tower’s shield. The Breaker, a four armed minotaur who readied its brethren to charge against the walls of Trotterim.
Lastly, there were the images of the leader of these ponyspawn, with whispers only calling him The Vanguard. The voices hushed when they spoke of the ponyspawn general, as tall as Shale and nearly as wide, adorned in finely crafted crimson steel that was physical bolted onto his body. The Vanguard hissed his orders through whatever hivemind the ponyspawn used. One urged the donlocks “forward” while another growl towards the ornlocks told them to “prepare”.
“Sugarcube, are you ok?” Applejack asked. To Twilight, she sounded distant as Twilight continued to swim in the mire that was the ponyspawn’s thoughts. Her newfound magical abilities worked outside of the confinements of the Fade and made Twilight dizzy. Thankfully, none of the other ponyspawn could detect her. For all their twisted magic it was still a product of the Fade.
Twilight’s eyes shot open as she felt the unmistakable presence of sheer power in the magical ether. She was not alone as she thought. The sudden surge overwhelmed her and forced her to her knees. She looked up, and Twilight saw a visage of the Archdemon loomed over her. The very spectre burned in shadowfire. The Archdemon roared and compelled Twilight to leave her arcane wanderings while at the same time she pressed a hoof against her rapid heart.
“Twilight!” Several of her friends called her name as she fell, though the pain overwhelmed her as the memory of the Archdemon burned into her psyche. Twilight moaned in agony and writhed on the stone battlements.
The thunder of explosions brought a dust storm to life in the distance. Soldiers rushed towards the edge of the stone walls and watched as the donlocks rushed as the first wave. With no regard for their own lives, the squat donlocks rushed into Pinkie’s hastily made yet vast minefield, detonating them to clear the way towards Trotterim. Those few who had a clear view of the self-perpetuated onslaught looked at horror as the donlocks continued to advance.
Those ponies who had never seen such behavior immediately showed their fear. Several took steps away from the front lines as the donlocks sacrificed themselves to clear the paths. Loghoof stood silent and still, flanked by Sunsword and Puissant and watched as the soldiers of Equestria and her allies were helpless but to watch.
“How can they just throw their lives away so carelessly?” Fluttershy said in a soft whisper. She shook her head in disgust. “They just don’t care, and for what? To stop ponies from living happily?”
“They want to stop us from living completely,” Twilight replied. She tried to stand and shake off the pain from her body. “I felt it. Every single one of the ponyspawn hate us, because the Archdemon hates us. I only wish I knew why.”
“No time to think about that now!” Rainbow shouted, “We have incoming!”
Twilight looked up to see dozens of fireballs illuminate the night sky. Their fiery tails left streaks of flame in the air before sailing towards Trotterim. They exploded against the unicorn shield and caused screams of terror from the ponies that hid beneath it.
Many of the unicorns buckled under the magical barrage, as cries of pain resonated along with the blasts of fireballs. Trixie winced as another attack hit her segment of the shield, though she remained tall against the onslaught. She turned her staff with levitation and urged the instrument to fire a simple blue spark, a flare that would act as a message to those who oversaw the battle.
“The north is holding strong,” Applejack said, “But we can’t stay here getting pummeled forever.”
“The only way this battle will end is if we all die or the Archdemon is slain,” Riordan explained, “The fiend will not attack us directly if it believes the army will win. We need to fight against the ponyspawn and force the Archdemon to fight us directly.”
“Ya know how crazy that sounds right?” Applejack did not believe her ears. “Ya want a nasty, evil dragon to come down here where it’ll make hay out of the ponies fighting on the ground!”
“It must be done, Your Majesty.” Riordan looked towards the wrathful Archdemon as it continued to hover in the distance. “I took the liberty of setting up ballistae around Trotterim. They are all equipped with links of heavy chains. If we can lure the Archdemon close and fire the ballista bolts at the right time, we can keep the monster grounded so the Elements of Harmony can reveal his heart, and so that I can deliver the killing blow.”
Twilight swallowed as she was reminded about the final blow against the Archdemon. She looked down on Spike, who still fidgeted with his helmet’s visor. They must finish the battle quickly. “This is the best plan we’ve got. Once the Archdemon is vulnerable, I’ll use the last of our Star Strands to activate the Elements.”
As Twilight spoke, she felt a wave of warm, comforting air spill over her from the south. She turned to look in the direction of the Everfree forest, where another flare, this one of pure white light, burst through the forest’s canopy. A whisper travelled through the air; a soft voice almost tickling Twilight’s alert ears.
…the shaman Zecora has finished her deed, this message you must now pay heed…
…to the forest, fly with haste, time is not yours to waste…
Zecora! Twilight pointed in the direction of the Everfree then shouted. “Rainbow! Fluttershy! I need you two to go to the Everfree as quickly as you can! Zecora is using flares to show where she is, and I think she’s trying to get us that supernatural army she promised us!”
As if to accentuate her point, a small force of ponyspawn broke away from the main group, consisting of donlocks, thelocks, screamers, and an ornlock. They galloped with all due haste towards the Everfree Forest, now alerted by Zecora’s flare.
“Got it! You can count on us!” Rainbow’s wings flared to life as she called to her partner. “C’mon, Fluttershy! We need to
make wind trails yesterday!”
“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness…” While she stammered, Fluttershy’s wings did not falter where it mattered most. They sprang to life as she followed close behind Rainbow. With a nod of encouragement, Twilight turned to Applejack, who shouted orders at her new officers.
“Tell the ground commanders to get ready for ponyspawn!” Applejack galloped away from Twilight and the others. She looked through the shield to where the Blight’s main force split in two. “Damn it all! They’re gonna flank us!”
“It is a classic pincer strategy,” Loghoof said. “With us on the defensive, they’ll surround Trotterim within the hour. Then they will have free reign to heard us like cattle to the slaughter.”
Twilight watched the Blight separate into two massive branches, all the while the blue bursts of lyrium explosions continued unabated. “I’ll tell the unicorns to lower the shield, and begin to barrage the ponyspawn with spells. Tell the archers to do the same, and for our army to get ready to fight. Spike, Oghren, Pinkie, you three come with me. We’ll try to help the forces attacking the east wall. We’ll meet up when I shoot a flare into the sky.”
Applejack nodded, then barked her orders to her subordinates while they shouted to officers to do the same. Without a moment to hesitate, Twilight galloped down the battlements with her friends in tow and stopped briefly to allow Spike on her back. Together they ran down the steps of the walls into the city proper and rushed towards the swiftly made magical crucible where the city’s shield originated.
The sight of the weakened unicorns who struggled to keep up the barrier caused pangs in Twilight’s chest. Several keeled over on their knees with sweat dripping off their faces while their horns whimpered with whatever power they held leftover. A few, however, died; their corpses remained in a silent scream as their horns lay in splinters around them. Those who still managed to keep the shield strong fought against the ponyspawn as their bodies glowed, the telltale sign of Trixie’s chanted magic.
Still, the sight brought a new level of fear to Twilight. The ponyspawn magic was powerful and dangerous, yes, but in all her travels she never saw their sorcerers’ abilities prove so effective. These were some of the most skilled and powerful unicorn mages in all of Equestria, but even they were brought low to the power of the Blight.
Before she could say anything to her friends, Pinkie rushed towards the fatigued unicorns. She brought stamina draughts to their lips so they would drink. With the unicorns attended to, Twilight had to hurry to get them to lower the shield.
“Trixie!” Twilight called out. “You need to lower the barrier before the ponyspawn get into position around Totterim! The army has to fight them directly!”
“How…” Trixie’s words were shaky as she visibly trembled with fear. “How are they so powerful? There are a lot of them, but their attacks feel charged. Empowered.”
Twilight thought for a moment as she felt the unicorn magic falter all around her. She thought on Trixie’s words for a moment, trying to decipher quickly how the ornlock emissaries were able to cast such potent magic. Not even Twilight knew of such surges in magical strength except for the aid of Trixie’s chants.
“That’s it!” Twilight heard Pinkie exclaim behind her. “Those mean ornlocks are getting boosted just like we do! They must have the anti-Trixie with them!”
“Pinks may be right, Twilight,” Oghren added. “We find the ornlock that’s buffing the others, we can take the hurt off our side.”
The Magus. Twilight’s mouth turned into a frown as the image of the two horned ornlock made itself clear. If the ornlock amplified their power to such magnitudes, it would be that foul creature.
“Let’s hurry!” Without another word Twilight galloped past Trixie and the unicorns while they recovered. They galloped off as quickly as she could out of the gates of Trotterim. The soldiers did their part and maed the way clear for her group while also cheering Twilight on. The sight of the Grey Wardens charging into battle was one straight from a foal’s storybooks, and now Twilight fleshed out that role now.
Conjuring a helm to protect her, Twilight’s ears perked up as the blast of a horn resounded behind her. Louder still was the sound of the pony army as they charged into battle while the prismatic barrier fell around them. Behind her, the unicorns changed their tactics from defense to counterattack and launched a volley of their own fireballs into the air against the screamer swarms. Screamers caught on fire in the blasts and careenned to their deaths while they burned, deflected away from Trotterim by small, much more focused shields. The enemy ornlocks, on the other hoof, pressed their attack and their fireballs slammed into the walls and city proper.
Despite how defenseless Trotterim appeared, Twilight could still breathe a sigh of relief. No civilians remained in the city. Walls and buildings could be rebuilt. Ponies could recover what they had lost. The dead could not be raised, however, and protecting lives was what a Grey Warden was about. If not, then it was what Twilight stood for until the bitter end.
Battle did not wait for Twilight. The moment she broke through the front lines was when she was assailed by those donlocks who survived the minefield. Sophia sang with the cry of metal as the sword slid from its scabbard, sharp steel reflecting the light of Twilight’s magical horn. With a war cry, Twilight thrust Sophia forward and pierced the flesh of one of the donlocks, the edge sinking past its ribcage towards its heart. The donlock gurgled on its own blood for a moment before falling slack. Her enemy slain, Twilight to removed her sword and pressed forward into the lines of the enemy.
Spike jumped from Twilight’s back and brandished his burning blade, ready for battle. “Tosh narok!” he cried, taking a line from Oghren as he began to ward off several donlocks on his own. They leered at him with their mutated smiles, chomping their fangs and simply waited for a moment to pounce. When one did take the initiative to strike, it was met with the flames of Spike’s sword. Whatever the donlock had for hair was now set alight, the stumpy creature forced to flee, only to collapse as the fire engulfed it. Spike grinned at his kill as turned to Oghren, sword held high.
“I got one!” he cheered. Oghren turned around and acknowledged Spike’s victory with a grunt.
“That’s great, kid! Don’t get cocky!” Oghren turned his attention to the thelocks who had now joined their smaller brethren. A pair of thelocks stood ready to fight, licking their tusks in anticipation of the feast of donkey flesh. Oghren’s response was merely to chuckle as he turned the blade of his axe before suddenly exploding in a fit of rage. He howled like a mad pony as he brought his axe to bear. The ponyspawn likely never encountered savagery that matched their own, and were caught by surprise as Oghren beheaded them both in one swing. As their bodies fell limp, Oghren roared and turned his bloodlust towards more hapless ponyspawn.
Pinkie moved with purpose as she bounced around the battlefield and cracked skulls with her mace. She fought with surprising precision and skill for one known to be completely random, every blow with her mace calculated to deal the most trauma on the body of a ponyspawn. Donlock and thelock alike fell to her, writhing in pain when another soldier would happen along them to finish them off.
A minotaur smashed through the ranks of its own forces oaring into the night sky. The monster bore down on Pinkie and galloped on both hooves and twisted hands in an effort to gore her on sharpened horns. Pinkie’s eyes narrowed, muttering some curse under her breath over and over as she deftly dodged away from the minotaur’s horns. She exacted retaliation with a hard strike against its head. The minotaur staggered for a moment as it clutched its skull, giving Pinkie an attack of opportunity.
She jumped onto the minotaur’s back, holding on for dear life as she dropped her mace. The minotaur thrashed as it tried to wrench Pinkie from its back, only to fail as its hands could not clutch such a slippery pony. As she reached the minotaur’s neck, Pinkie swiftly opened her grenade satchel and used her tail to cradle a bomb as she brought it closer to her. Once she brought the grenade to her mouth, Pinkie chomped down on the explosive, twisting her neck so the primer would set to detonate quickly. Before she was face to face with her own bomb, Pinkie rammed the grenade into the minotaur’s mouth, allowing gravity to give her a quick escape.
The minotaur did not have time to react to such a sudden snack, the grenade tearing its face apart in a blaze of lyrium and fire. The minotaur teetered without a face before it fell over, with a perfectly calm Pinkie walking away from the corpse. Twilight stopped to listen to Pinkie as she continued her mantra, and for a moment she could have sworn she heard “…balloons and streamers and cake and candy and games and fun, gonna have a party with balloons and streamers…”
“Impressive,” Oghren said as he wiped the blood from his axe onto the ground. Twilight could not help but agree. When Pinkie was motivated, it seemed little could stop her. It was a good that she fought for her friends.
They could not keep fighting the rank and file of the ponyspawn forever though. Twilight needed complete concentration with her magic to locate the pulse the Magus emitted every time he used a spell. Yet every time she stopped to channel her magic, more ponyspawn descended on her. Three screamers swooped down on her, only for Twilight to cast a quick glance in their direction, horn glowing as a wave of frigid magical frost encased them in ice.
“Everyone! Form a perimeter around me!” Another blast of arcane energy sent a thelock sprawling into the masses of ponyspawn, the beasts only pushing away the corpses of their dead to clear a path towards the ponies.
Twilight’s small party formed a circle around her, beating back the ponyspawn with both blade and bomb. Closing her eyes, Twilight searched the ley lines of the Fade with some small hoped to quickly find the most disturbed area where the Magus would be casting his spells. The Veil was weak, though, and to sort through hundreds of spell lines would prove time consuming. Time was a commodity in low supply.
Her eyes flashed open as she felt the sting of a blade sneak its way past her forleg armour and bite her flesh. She looked to see a donlock wrapped in garb that made it look like an assassin chatter away with a wretched dagger clenched in his razor maw. Twilight’s sword flew on instinct, only for the tiny ponyspawn to dash off with surprising dexterity into the mass of ponyspawn.
“Great, they have rogues too,” Twilight said aloud as she slashed with Sophia to cut open the exposed neck of a thelock harassing Spike. Pinkie’s head seemed to pop up from the masses, turning towards Twilight before she let out a loud gasp. Smacking a lone screamer in the eye with her mace, she made her way to Twilight and kneel down to inspect the wound.
“It hurts,” Twilight breathed. “I can’t concentrate on finding the Magus.”
Pinkie rubbed some of the poultice on the wound. “Don’t worry about the ponyspawn or the wound, just do the voodoo that you do. Oghren! Spike! Get these McNasties away from Twilight!”
Spike turned to see Twilight hurt on the ground. With a roar Spike raised his sword to his lips before blowing a stream of green fire from his gullet. The enchanted sword amplified Spike’s natural fire, causing a torrent of flame to engulf the offensive ponyspawn that were ravenous for Twilight’s flesh.
“You’re pretty good at this, brother,” Oghren said with a smile, only to resume gleefully hacking away at the enemy the old fashioned way. He turned around to the forces behind him for a moment, then yelled at the top of his axe.
“Jorgen! You dumb, lumbering, nug-nuzzling, casteless-cuddling, swill-sipping piece of ponyspawn crap! Get your ass over here and show me you’re a better warrior!”
From the front lines came an annoyed growl, until the sound of rampaging hooves broke through the ponyspawn front. Jorgen Blackmace soon revealed himself, almost seeming to froth at the mouth.
“Oghren!” he shouted, his black mace dripping with ponyspawn blood. “Where is that son-of-a-bitch? I swear if the ponyspawn haven’t killed him yet, I will, and I’ll feed him to the ‘spawn myself!”
“Shaddup, you big oaf, and help me clear away ponyspawn! I bet I can gut more than you can!” Oghren laughed as he began to swing his axe every way. Jorgen joined in the rather morbid game of collecting kills, all the while more of Orzamule’s soldiers galloped to join the fray. Twilight blinked as she watched her donkey allies rush to the front, only to realize that this was Oghren’s plan all along. He bought her time to find the Magus.
Ignoring the pain in her leg as the poultice continued its work Twilight closed her eyes again and listened to the flow of magic to find the disturbance once again. The blackened leylines of the Fade were much closer now, so much so that—
“Look out!” Pinkie crashed into Twilight and Spike and sent them both sprawling to the ground as an explosion cratered the ground where they once stood. An intense heat pulsed from the black fireball that caused such destruction, scorching ponyspawn and donkey alike. Twilight looked to the black flames behind her, quick to scan the skies if she would to have to face the Archdemon much sooner than anticipated.
Whether Twilight could be grateful or not was a debate she would have to save for a later date. Stepping past the black fire was the Magus, adorned in robes lined with ancient yet terrible runes drawn in blood. The master of ponyspawn sorcery looked around the battlefield, its reptilian lips curled into a sneer and showed off an impressive set of deadly fangs. His two horns seemed to split the ashen air in two like a burning knife in butter. Both horns blazed with dark magic.
A donkey soldier ran up to the Magus in an attempt to let his axe slice into the monster unicorn’s neck. The attack proved feeble as the Magus merely glanced at the donkey, enshrouding him in an aura of black magic as he was lifted off the ground. The donkey suddenly started to scream, his flesh igniting in the same shadowfire that Magus used to breach the front line, until nothing was left but ash.
The Magus turned his attention back on Twilight, his horns already glowing with arcane strength in preparation for an attack. As he looked to her, his lips curled into a sickened grin while a single word was hissed from his lips.
Twilight stood up and looked the Magus dead in the eye, her sword leveled and ready for the fight. The sheer power that emanated from the Magus gave Twilight slight pause; he was able to summon forth the shadowflame, the unholy fire that she thought only the Archdemon could create. Twilight exhaled and called a small, focused shield into being that hovered near her.
The Magus merely chuckled, a low warbling sound as its horns hummed to life. All around, weapons from fallen ponyspawn and ponies alike began to tremble and lift themselves off the ground. They floated near the Magus as an array of menace. The monstrous mage smiled and revealed rows of twisted, yellow teeth as the weapons flew towards Twilight.
With a shout, Twilight moved her conjured shield and Sophia in a defensive, deflecting each weapon as they came for her flesh. Her sword parried the rusted blade of a fallen thelock just as it was about to cleave her head from her shoulders. The axe of a downed donkey swung downward in a wide arc, only to be held back by her shield. The force of the Magus’ attacks were great and pushed Twilight’s magic to her limits. Beads of sweat dripped down her forehead as she raised another shield to block an incoming spear.
All the while Twilight was committed to her defense, the Magus began casting another spell. It summoned a fireball of shadowflame into existence above its head and took aim at Twilight. The black fire grew in size and power with every passing moment, and Twilight could only watch and raise a more encompassing shield. The last time she properly defended herself from shadowflame, it had been from a half-hearted attempt to kill her by the Dragon of Victory, and she had the aid of the Element of Magic assisting her.
With her magic distracted by both the telekinetic wielded weapons and the constant warped rhythm of ponyspawn hearts all around her, Twilight’s fears were raised when Spike ran towards her. Before she could shout at Spike to turn away, the Magus unleashed his black flames, the fireball slamming against her shield with incredible force.
All of the weapons fighting her were instantly incinerated in the explosion, the barrier cracking under the intense pressure. Twilight cried out in pain as the shock flooded her horn, but her concentration was completely broken as Spike tackled Twilight.
Twilight looked in horror as the shadowfire wiped out her shield and the remnants of the flames lashed against Spike’s armour. He gave a cry of agony as the tongues of fire streaked across his back, melting his armour into his scales. No… Twilight silently mouthed as she watched her Spike being hurt. He’s a dragon, he should be fireproof. But this… this…
“Get away from him…” Twilight growled as she stood to her feet. The Magus approached her, another black fireball formed between his horns. Her face became flushed while she gritted her teeth, the anger she felt over the Magus hurting Spike swelling inside her. How dare that monster even think of harming Spike!
She would make the ornlock pay for its transgression. Her eyes began to flare with arcane power, magic merged with raw fury as she felt a telekinetic struggle begin with the Magus. Her violet aura fought against the black magical grip of the Magus, while at the same time Twilight advanced ever closer to her foe. Her magic lashed at him, like powerful whips that ripped through his robes and scales. The Magus roared in defiance and tried to bring the fireball down on Twilight. It would destroy itself in the process, yet no ponyspawn ever cared for its own life.
Twilight stopped and felt the Magus push against her with all of his might. With a shout, Twilight pushed back, continuing her small yet forceful steps towards the Magus. As soon as she was almost horn-to-horn with her adversary, Twilight linked her magic with the Magus and forced him into a magic feedback.
The searing pain along her horn did not abate with the link, but instead was magnified tenfold. The magic the ponyspawn used was now brought full bore into Twilight’s magical essence, her grip on the shadowfire loosening. Twilight howled in pain, yet did not relinquish her hold. She knew that defeat here would shatter her horn and leave Spike defenseless.
“Despair,” the Magus hissed, the word reverberating throughout Twilight’s mind. Instead of an answer, Twilight pushed against the tainted magic and unleashed the magic she held both form within her very soul and from her link with the Fade. Having two fonts of magic to work with instead of just one proved effective, the Magus’ surprised roars all but confirming her tactic.
A sinister smile crept on Twilight’s lips. She felt her magic wrap around both the fireball and the Magus’ twin horns like a snake wrapping itself around a doomed prey. For a moment Twilight thought she could feel fear in the magical signals emitted by the Magus. He sent a message through the hivemind of the ponyspawn akin to “Aid me!” Whether the ponyspawn would come to reinforce their leader or not was unimportant to Twilight.
The Magus hurt Spike. For that his death was sealed.
“I came this far, and I will go farther to save everyone I love.” Twilight’s words echoed around her, spoken not by her voice, but rather by her very power. “Let this be a message to every ponyspawn, to the Archdemon herself! I will not stop until your threat is over, and you are nothing but a bad memory longing to be forgotten! As for you, you false Magus… You…”
“You will never hurt anypony ever again.”
A burst of power erupted from Twilight and grasped at the Magus’ horns and clutched them like a vice. The Magus howled and tried to escape, releasing its hold of the shadowfire to completely focus Twilight’s control. Twilight ignored the fireball and focused all her pressure onto the horns of the Magus. She grinned with smug satisfaction as fractures marked the bone.
Both horns splintered in a burst of violet energy. The Magus fell to his side as tainted blood and corrupted lyrium pooled around his head. With the Magus dead, Twilight felt the very foundations of magic shift around her, the ponyspawn presence between the Fade and the real world now reduced significantly. It would give the city defenders a better chance to defend against ponyspawn magic.
Twilight ignored her kill and galloped to Spike’s side as he struggled to regain his stance. The smell of burnt scales and molten steel filled her nostrils; a revolting smell that only made her heart ache more.
“Pinkie!” Twilight yelled, turning her head wildly to find her friend. “I need something for Spike! He’s hurt!”
Pinkie slammed her mace into another thelock before looking around, her colouration darkened and eyes downcast. This battle had taken its toll on Pinkie, as they all did. Dark bags hung from under her eyelids, and she moved much more slowly. When Pinkie saw Spike hurt, she moved as quickly as she could, slinging her mace to her side.
Twilight beckoned to Pinkie to come over faster, only for her ears to twitch and her give senses a strong tug. They warned her of a powerful presence nearby; similar in stature to the Magus and the other ponyspawn generals, but it was only a vague sensation. To Twilight, it felt like she a ponyspawn watched her from the shadows, rather than the obvious signs of a strong foe her Warden abilities often told her.
Through the commotion of the battle, trying to discern this new presence proved difficult and too distracting. Twilight had to focus on Spike who still moaned in pain. Where is she!? Twilight thought, I need Pinkie now!
When she turned to see what took Pinkie so long, the same hooded donlock that had attacked Twilight with the twisted dagger leaped towards Pinkie’s face. Twilight reacted, lifting Spike onto her back while she prepared a simple magical blasts to be used against the rogue donlock.
She was too late. The donlock’s blade slashed across Pinkie’s face and tore the pink coat apart. Blood spilt all over her face. Pinkie tumbled and dropped the contents of her satchel, including the needed poultices. Glass smashed and grenades rolled away, their contents now lost across the landscape.
The donlock laughed with a high pitched noise, before bouncing off toward the throes of battle. Rushing to Pinkie, Twilight turned her onto her back to examine the wound. The mark stretched across Pinkie’s face, just barely missing her right eye and left several smaller gashes under the main slash. Whatever weapon the donlock wielded was a piece of work to deal such horrible wounds like this.
The Stalker, Twilight heard, an incredibly faint whisper trailing into her ears. Somehow she had missed that ponyspawn leader.
“Okay… okay, I can help with this…” Twilight searched through the remnants of Pinkie’s alchemical supplies, scrounging for anything that would help both her and Spike. She found a broken bottle of healing liquid, though a crack in the glass revealed the contents would seep into the dirt quickly.
“I’m sorry, both of you,” Twilight said as she undid the stopper. “I only have enough to sooth the pain somewhat, Spike. I also only have enough to keep the wound from festering, Pinkie, but it’s going to leave a scar.”
Pinkie winced as Twilight applied the poultice to her scar, and saw some of the flesh heal itself. “Don’t worry, Twilight,” Pinkie said, her voice now unnervingly quiet. “We’ll need to get back to the city though. I don’t have any more poultices or grenades left.”
“I’ll be fine, Twilight.” Spike said once she had applied the poultice to his scales. “It hurts, but I’ll just peel the scales off when the battle is over.”
“All right… all right.” Twilight took a deep breath and looked for Oghren. He and Jorgen were still fighting amidst the ponyspawn advancing towards them. Twilight raised her voice. “Oghren! We’re going back to Trotterim!”
“Go on without me!” He shouted back, slicing a thelock’s head clean in half vertically. “I’ll help Jorgen keep these blighters back! You and Pinkie are the ones with the shiny Elements, you need to get ready for that Archdemon!”
“Oghren!” Spike shouted while Twilight set him on her back. Oghren merely waved before twisting around and digging his axe into the back of a grounded screamer.
“Don’t worry about me, kid. It takes a lot more than some ponyspawn to take down old Oghren! We’ll have a drink or ten after! Now go get that giant lizard!”
Twilight nodded towards Oghren before galloping back to Trotterim. With Pinkie by her side, they made good time as they neared the damaged walls of the city. Despite their minor victory against one of the Blight’s generals, the battle continued to be waged around her. The Archdemon roared, shaking dust from the crumbling city walls, and reminded everyone that it still had not joined the battle proper.
Keeping her eyes locked on the shadowy visage of Uthemiel in the distance, Twilight shivered as a cold wind swept her mane behind her. She shook the fear from her heart. She had a duty and she would do it.
Even if it killed her.
If it were any other flight, Rainbow would have been greatly annoyed that she was forced to slow down to allow Fluttershy to keep up. As it stood, Rainbow didn’t feel the least bit bothered as she kept her pace even with Fluttershy as they soared through the skies towards the edge of the Everfree Forest. Leaving Fluttershy behind would be exposing her friend to the hundreds of screamers that dominated the skies.
That simply didn’t fly in Rainbow Dash’s book.
She flashed Fluttershy a quick smile of confidence, with Fluttershy replying with a tiny one of her own. The eyes told a different story, that Fluttershy was scared, and Rainbow could not blame her one bit. Rainbow couldn’t hide the terror in her eyes as well, her pounding heart telling her not only was she flying on a sheer adrenaline rush, but that thousands of ponyspawn hungered for her head.
There was also the thought of the final blow against the Archdemon. Rainbow regretted not telling Twilight or anypony sooner, but she really, really didn’t want to give up her life. Even if her lifespan was cut by thirty years, there was still plenty to live for. Rainbow still had skies to fly, and she promised she would help Pinkie find her family. She couldn’t do that if she died.
Rainbow feared death. She could not hide such a fact. All her bravado, all her courage simply vanished when the prospect of giving her life away came up. For all her talk, Rainbow was afraid of the sting of death, of the oblivion after death. Rainbow was not a religious pony, but if she had been dropped next to Celestia’s hooves, she didn’t know what she’d do.
She furrowed her brow. Yes, she was afraid, but she knew exactly what she would say to Celestia. Rainbow would lift herself up, look Celestia in the eye, and demand to be sent back to the land of the living. She died for her friends, and if she was dead, how could she help them? How could she protect them? So much for loyalty if she was no longer around to help them.
“Rainbow!” Fluttershy yelled, snapping Rainbow’s thoughts away from death to the here and now. “Behind us!”
Rainbow looked behind her and gasped. The largest swarm of screamers she had ever seen now trailed behind her and Fluttershy, beating their bat-like wings into a loud thunderous thrum. The largest screamer Rainbow ever seen lead its fellow monstrosities. As long as ten screamers, the Serpent seemed to swim through the air, its massive fangs ready to consume flesh. The single gigantic eye bulged from its socket, constantly moving as the bloodshot ocular searched for any pony it could swoop down upon.
“Damn,” Rainbow muttered. As awesome as she was with her blade, not even Rainbow could take on hundreds of screamers and their general. Blow on the ground, the ponyspawn first lured by Zecora’s flare charged ever onward. “Come on, Fluttershy! We can lose the screamers in the Everfree!”
“ …I hope.”
A warcry broke through the air, followed by a resounding screech that caused Rainbow to twist around in the air to see the Dalish pegasi and the hippogryphs descend on the swarm from above. Blades, arrows, and talons sank into the flesh of the surprised screamers, all the while Zharia and Quick Kill rallied their forces from on high.
“Those who call the sky their home!” shouted Zharia, “These monsters seek to take our skies!”
“They threaten our fledglings! They threaten our nests!” Quick Kill raised his talons to sky. “How shall we answer!?”
“With the fury of the storm!” As the warcry resonated in the cold night air, Rainbow’s heart skipped a beat. Two enemies that were at each other’s throats now fought together in perfect unison. They fought for the future and for each other. Right now, though, they fought to give Fluttershy and herself a chance to reach Zecora.
Best not to squander that.
“Come on, Fluttershy, that’s our window!” Rainbow called. “Let’s go!”
They dived towards the forest and ducked and wove out of the way of the branches, snapping away dead twigs. Their hooves landed on the cold dirt. The sounds of the aerial battle was little more than hum in the wind and allowed Rainbow Dash to breathe a little easier. A small pack of ponyspawn on the ground was something she could deal with.
Once she helped Fluttershy to her hooves, both turned to a mad gallop through the Everfree. The silent forest proved as unwelcoming now as it did a week ago. Perhaps more so, as there was no sounds from the dark woods, save for a few rustled leaves and the sound of somepony chanting in the distance.
Rainbow tilted her head in the direction of the chanting, followed by a quick nod by Fluttershy. They ran into the forest to find Zecora standing over a large pewter cauldron, a blue liquid bubbling within with similarly coloured vapours drifting to the treeline. Zecora’s eyes were closed as she continued to chant in a strange language, but what proved more alarming was her choice of guards.
A large manticore stood behind Zecora, while a pair of timberwolves patrolled around the zebra. All of the creatures growled at the pegasi approaching them, only to be set at ease by a stern hoof and a gentle smile from Zecora.
“I see my message came through, loud and clear. I am glad to see my winged friends here.” Zecora inclined her head to Rainbow and Fluttershy before turning back to her bubbling brew. “My concoction here is nearly done—“
“This is no time to rhyme, Zecora!” Rainbow shouted, before applying a hoof to her face at her own example. “Listen, there is a group of ponyspawn coming this way, a big group, and a whole flock of screamers over the Everfree. We came here because we saw your flare, but all you seem to be doing is making soup!”
Zecora’s smile faltered, quickly become a small frown. “You are right. The time for levity is done. But what I am making is not a simple brew, but instead a potion whose smell will reach into the far corners of the Everfree. Within the deepest reaches of the forest sleeps a guardian of nature itself, who will come when I finish the incantation.”
The two timberwolves began to snarl in the same direction Rainbow and Fluttershy came from, causing Rainbow to quickly draw her dagger. “Hurry with that soup then!” Rainbow beat her wings against the air, taking flight as she prepared for battle.
“Here they come!” Fluttershy readied her bow along with her cry, readying an arrow to fly as the first of the ponyspawn burst through the underbrush. Donlocks and thelocks charged at the small group. The timberwolves launched themselves into the fray, while the manticore took to the skies before dive-bombing into the ponyspawn force.
Her teeth clenched around her dagger, Rainbow rushed to the aid of the beasts, finding a well armoured thelock Twilight long ago determined was an “alpha” of the group. The thelock alpha quickly turned to face Rainbow, his massive, rusted sword moving in a wide arc to clip her wings. With a swift movement she landed, twisting her neck so she could sink her dagger between the thelock’s grimy plates. The blade struck true, digging into the thelock’s skin while black blood flowed freely.
Rainbow’s dagger was not a sword, and was unable to truly deal significant damage against a much more heavily armoured and greatly muscular thelock. The ponyspawn warrior turned its blade toward her, the edge of his rusted sword burning with magic as it split several of Rainbow’s hair before finally cutting through her cheek. She screamed in pain while the burning spread throughout her body, clutching at the burn mark as she backed away. The thelock alpha leered at her, snarling before raising his sword for a killing blow.
The blow never came as sickening thwaks of arrows embedding themselves into the thelock resonated in the forest air. Rainbow looked up to see Fluttershy firing arrow after arrow into the thelock, her eyes fierce with anger.
“Stay away from her!” Fluttershy shot another arrow, this one sinking deep into the thelock alpha’s neck. “You are not going to hurt my friends! Do you hear me! Never!”
Fluttershy took aim with her bow, the sharpened point aimed straight at the thelock’s head. Sucking in a breath of air, her aim steadied. She released the arrow with a sharp gasp, the projectile sailing above Rainbow’s head before piercing through the rusted plate helmet the thelock wore, right between the eyes. The thelock’s mouth went wide as if in surprise, dropping its sword before falling over.
Rainbow gasped for air as she got to her hooves, slowly approaching the corpse of the thelock before ripping her dagger out of its flesh. The stench of the ponyspawn and its black blood was overwhelming, but Rainbow quickly ignored it in favour of being greatly impressed by Fluttershy. They really did come a long way if this was the shy Chantry sister from the Ponyring cloister.
Behind Fluttershy a donlock galloped to her, its razor face open to bite down on her skin. Rainbow cursed, pushing against the ground and giving her wings a mighty flap for speed, barreling into Fluttershy. She quickly pushed Fluttershy away, getting in front of the donlock as it pounced and clamped its jaw around Rainbow’s left foreleg.
Wincing, Rainbow tumbled to the ground while Fluttershy tried to help, only for Rainbow to push her back. “I got this one!” she cried out. “Don’t worry about me! Help defend Zecora!”
Pushing against the ground with her hind legs, Rainbow twisted her position on the ground, one eye closed tight as the donlock clamped down on her foreleg ever tighter. With a grunt, Rainbow raised her dagger high, slicing into the face of the donlock. The miniscule ponyspawn screeched, finally releasing its hold on Rainbow and tumbling away. It sprang back to its clawed hooves quickly though, and immediately launched itself again.
This time, Rainbow was ready. Though setting down her wounded leg was painful, she still set her hooves in a ready position, leaping with the aid of her wings towards the donlock. With an extra pump into the air, she attained leverage over the smiling monster. In mid-air she struck, driving her dagger into the donlock’s neck, pushing her weight down to keep it pinned. The donlock squirmed and gurgled as black blood poured from its mouth, only to become still.
Sighing with relief, Rainbow drew out her dagger to see the rest of the ponyspawn force quelled by the timberwolves and manticore. She had seen many messy battles in her time, but the savagery of beasts would always take some getting used to.
The timberwolves circled a lone thelock, one of the wooden beasts prowling behind the ponyspawn while the other kept it at bay. The second timberwolf suddenly lunged, sinking stiff oaken fangs into the thelock’s flank. The thelock turned its head in surprise, leaving its neck exposed for the other timberwolf. Together, they brought the thelock down and began to tear it apart, limb from limb with terrible precision.
The much larger manticore chose to finish off the remaining donlocks. With its large paws extending to razor sharp claws, the manticore took a quick swipe at a donlock, slashing the face to ribbons while the force of the blow batted the monster away. The next donlock to fall was quickly impaled on the edge of the manticore’s stinger tail, tossing the donlock in the air before throwing its corpse away.
The last donlock looked around to see itself surrounded by beast and pony, snapping its jaws in a feeble attempt to be intimidating. Rainbow’s wicked smile grew as she limped towards the donlock, ready to strike, only to be held back by Fluttershy.
“Rainbow Dash, your leg!” Without another word, Fluttershy began to treat Rainbow’s wound with a small bottle of healing poultice and bandages. Annoyed, Rainbow tried to move only to find that Fluttershy was surprisingly strong when she wanted to be.
“We can’t let that last donlock get away, Fluttershy,” Rainbow said, frustrated.
“Let the animals of the forest deal with it, we’ve won.” Fluttershy continued to carefully wrap the bandage over the wound. “Zecora’s safe. As long as we stay together, we’ll be fine. Then we can go back to Trotterim and help Twilight and the others.”
A thunderous roar cracked through the sky as the trees themselves shook in response. Everypony looked up to see the tree line bend and break as the Serpent descended into the Everfree forest. The gigantic screamer crashed on top of the lone donlock, crushing it completely while staring down Zecora’s defenders with its great cycloptic eye. Hanging from its mouth was the body of a pony, horribly mangled and disfigured, which the Serpent dropped to the ground. The only thing Rainbow could easily identify past all the blood was a pair of crossed blades for a cutie mark.
“Zharia… no…” Rainbow clenched her teeth to see the warleader of the Dalish pegasi reduced to a desecrated corpse. A feeling of dread flooded over her. If the Serpent was here, then that meant the Dalish and the hippogryphs had fallen. She and Fluttershy were on their own against the Serpent until Zecora’s guardian finally arrived.
Right… no pressure.
“I still need more time, my friends!” Zecora shouted. “The guardian of the forest needs to be coaxed from its cave!”
“We don’t have time!” Rainbow shouted, only to be drowned out from breaking of trees as the Serpent coiled upright, preparing to strike. The manticore roared in defiance against the Serpent, but Rainbow felt it was a futile gesture. As large as the manticore was, the Serpent towered over the beast. The Serpent opened its mouth, a long grey tongue licking its fangs clean of pony blood.
The Serpent chuckled, a low, resonating thrum as it looked at each of its enemies. “Despair,” the Serpant said and sent another chill down Rainbow’s spine. Fluttershy visibly trembled at the sight of the giant screamer. Taking in a deep breath, the Serpent began to scream right in the face of the manticore, causing the entire forest to shake. Trees were stripped of their leaves, while Rainbow, Fluttershy, and Zecora held their hooves against their ears.
The shriek of the Serpant continued unabated, the high pitched wail, sounding like hooves on a chalkboard amplified a thousand-fold. All other sound was reduced to only the shriek and the violent ring in Rainbow’s ears.
The manticore facing the Serpent did not fare well against the scream. Blood flowed from its feline ears, and the manticore dropped to its sides, shuddering as the Serpent continued to pulverize it with sound, slithering ever closer. When the manticore finally lay dead, liquefied ooze flowed from its orifices until the Serpent began to devour the corpse.
“Fluttershy! That glutton’s distracted, now’s our chance!” Rainbow took off, drawing her dagger. With a shout she swung around to the Serpent’s head, bringing her blade down into its scaly hide. The Serpent roared, rolling to its side in an effort to dislodge Rainbow. With the ground coming up fast, Rainbow removed her dagger from her foe’s flesh, flying away and looking for another opportunity to strike.
That chance did not come, as the Serpent’s elongated tail swung around and struck Rainbow hard, sending her careening into a thick tree. Another blast of pain ran through her body as she slid down the bark to the ground, her face colliding with the dirt. Coughing up dirt, Rainbow looked up to see Fluttershy trying to aim for the Serpent’s eye, only to have her arrows embedded in the monstrosity’s thick wings.
Rainbow grimaced as she stood up, pain shooting through her wings down to her hooves. She had taken far too much punishment already, her wings feeling weak and blood staining her bandages. How she was going to fight the Archdemon later was beyond her. “Just think of it as a challenge, flygirl,” Rainbow muttered to herself. “Flying higher than ever. That’s just what this is. Instead of trees or mountains, just the biggest, ugliest screamer you can imagine.”
The Serpent lowered its wings, aiming its gaze towards Fluttershy, slithering ever closer towards her with fangs bared. Fluttershy screamed, taking flight in a desperate effort to get away. The timberwolves took the chance to attack, leaping onto the Serpent and biting into its flesh. Fluttershy quickly turned around in flight to watch in horror as the timberwolves were quickly outmatched.
Twisting its form was no challenge to the Serpent as it easily constricted the two timberwolves in a tight grip. Both wooden lupines struggled to get free, but even their supernatural strength and endurance was no comparison to the vice the Serpent put them under. Their oaken skin began to crack under the pressure of the squeeze, until they eventually burst in a hail of splinters.
“No!” Fluttershy squeaked, though she immediately regretted her outburst as the Serpent turned its attention on her. Rainbow cursed as she hobbled forwards, her ears still ringing from the scream.
Come on, Rainbow, think! She demanded from herself, you can’t let that overgrown eyeball eat Fluttershy or shriek at her! There has to be a way to get it!
Rainbow looked at her mother’s dagger, an idea forming that could prove effective. With a turn of her neck, Rainbow threw her dagger, watching it spin in the air until the point sank into the Serpent’s skin. “Hey, you! Big and ugly! Try picking on somepony your own size!” Rainbow stuck out her tongue, only to watch as the Serpent directed his ire towards her.
Her plan worked too well. The Serpent became focused on Rainbow, its great iris narrowing to a point while it flapped its large wings to become airborne. It moved through the air with almost supernatural fluidity, fangs bared as it sailed towards her. Rainbow looked to Fluttershy, who immediately knocked an arrow on her bow.
“Stay away from her!” Fluttershy shouted, letting loose the arrow. The Serpent turned at the sound of Fluttershy’s shout and blocked the arrow with its wing. Just as planned! Rainbow thought. Letting adrenaline take over, she jumped towards the distracted Serpent and reached with her mouth for her dagger. Clamping her teeth around the hilt, Rainbow lurched downward and let her body weight and gravity drag the blade downward, twisting it along the flesh towards the wing of the Serpent.
The beast roared in pain, attempting once again to slam its body into the ground in an effort to crush Rainbow. This time Rainbow did not let go, forcibly removing her dagger then following through with a downward cut at the weakest joint where wing and body met. The screamers were horrible mutations of pegasi, after all, and they shared the same strengths and weaknesses, something an assassin like Rainbow was all too familiar with.
The cut was clean and effective, separating wing from body in a quick and simple motion. The ruined wing fell as did the Serpent and sent the monster to land right on top of Rainbow. Rainbow turned as the Serpent collapsed, cushioning the fall with her left wing, yet cried out when she heard a sick crack.
Hearing Rainbow’s cry caused Fluttershy to give a shout of fury. “Nopony hurts my friends!” she yelled, drawing three arrows and notching them perfectly against her bow. She took steady aim at the Serpent then let the arrows fly, each point aimed directly at its eye.
The first arrow connected, shattering the ocular in a vile explosion of blood and juices. Rainbow pulled herself from under the writhing Serpent. The other two arrows were the coup de grace, penetrating past the collapsed eye and into skull of the screamer general. The Serpent looked ready to unleash another shriek, but only a weak whimper escaped as it fell to its claw and scraped weakly against the ground. As it breathed its last, Fluttershy moved quickly to Dash’s aid as the latter fell onto her back, sucking in gasps of air heavily.
“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” Fluttershy cried. “Your wing, Rainbow Dash! It’s broken! We need to get you to a healer.”
“Ain’t any time, Fluttershy,” Rainbow replied. “We have to get back to Trotterim quickly. They need us to beat the Archdemon.” Rainbow tried to stand, only to collapse from the pain, moaning and grasping at her ruined wing.
“My dear friends, have no fear.” Zecora said from behind her cauldron. “The ritual is complete, and the guardian will join the battle shortly. I will assist you in getting Rainbow Dash back on her hooves to face the Archdemon. There is just one last thing that must be done before hoof.”
Zecora closed her eyes as she added a phial of lyrium to her concoction. Standing on her hind legs and raised her forelegs to the sky, she began to shout:
"On this we call our darkest hour,
show us now Nature's true power.
Against the Blight, this land we wager.
I call you forth, great Ursa Major!"
Rainbow and Fluttershy looked around for the guardian of the Everfree Zecora summoned, only to feel the ground quake beneath their hooves. Zecora continued to smile as she galloped to Rainbow’s side, applying all manners of medicines to her wounds both strange and exotic. Both ponies splayed their ears in surprise as a long and resounding growl echoed through the forest.
“Behold, my friends, the guardian of Nature in all her majesty! As old as the world is young! Stronger than any oak, more terrifying than a thousand ponyspawn! The salvation of the land given form!”
From deep within the everfree came a titanic form, where it seemed the very stars of the night sky came together to take shape. The great ursine shape rose above the tree tops, lifting its great head pointed towards Trotterim. Enormous teeth marked the Ursa Major’s jawline, while each mighty paw ended in claws that could rend the very world.
Slowly the Ursa Major strode through the Everfree, unhindered by the forest yet not disturbing a single tree. Rainbow forgot all about her pain as she watched the Ursa Major pass them, her mind growing numb as the cosmic body walked past them and towards the battlefield. Only one thought remained when her awestruck gaze finally ended.