Chapter 2: The more things change, the more they stay the same
Twilight’s mind raced with memories as she walked the underground passage between the destroyed pub and Brightstone Keep. Only a year ago did she travel through a hidden path just like this one during a demonic invasion in Red Apple, taking note that both strongholds were connected to alcohol. While the difference was a tavern and a distillery, she wondered if all the nobles of the land signed some secret pact that all hidden passageways must be linked to drinking holes.
“Does this passage lead into the dungeons?” Twilight asked. Daisy shook her head.
“They lead to Maim’s private cellars,” she answered. “He often had different drinks ordered from across the world and brought to the pub for extra storage. He’d then use this passage to transport them without the populace noticing. While he always had mercenaries act as his personal bodyguard, as Arl he had to maintain an army in the event of an attack on Equestria. Since most of the soldiery come from peasant stock, Maim didn’t want an uprising in the event they found out that taxpayer money was being used to buy expensive wines.”
Twilight made a mental checklist as Daisy explained Maim’s policies. Keep the army in good working order and don’t use the taxpayers’ money to buy booze. Seems easy enough.
“So… Grey Wardens, huh?” Lyra said as they continued to walk the underground. “Running around, fighting ponyspawn, being all heroic and stuff. Sounds like a good time. Using your magic and weapons for good and stuff.”
Twilight raised a brow at Lyra. “It’s not all fun and games you know. The ponyspawn don’t pull any punches, as I’m sure you are well aware.”
“I know all that! Do you think being a battlemage is the easy life?” Lyra turned to face Twilight, her eyes no longer teasing and jovial, but stern. “Listen, I’m not afraid of the ponyspawn. You saw how I deep fried the bunch of them, right?”
“Being a Warden isn’t just about fighting ponyspawn,” Twilight shot back. She looked to Daisy as well, choosing the next words for her as well. “When I became a Warden, they called it the duty that cannot be forsworn. I want you and Daisy to think about that while we take back Brightstone.”
Twilight spurred herself forward, brooking no more argument from Lyra or further comments from Daisy. Every second they spent talking about the Wardens was another second the ponyspawn were tearing Brightstone apart. Applejack and her army could not afford any more delays.
She approached the door that would lead into Arl’s private reserves, gripping the door in her magic. Lyra and Daisy nodded to Twilight as she looked back, the former’s staff igniting into flames while the latter began to spin her disc, ready to strike. Twilight returned the nod, looking forward and stretching her senses past the door. She could hear many ponyspawn heartbeats beyond, all of them eager for a fight.
Better not keep them waiting. Bringing her sword upward, Twilight closed her eyes and channeled a simple, yet powerful orb of arcane energy. The ball crackled with magic along with Twilight’s horn, and she could hear Lyra gasp behind her.
“I don’t believe it,” she muttered. “I’ve never felt so much magic in a single spell since meeting an Archon of the Imperium! And there’s more inside you just waiting to be used. Celestia’s sun, you are as powerful as the stories say.”
Twilight acknowledged Lyra’s awe with a grunt, her focus completely on the orb. With a silent word, she thrust the orb against the wooden door, shattering the doorway and detonating her magic in a blinding flash. With Sophia floating by her side, Twilight charged inside, shouting a warcry to the surprised ponyspawn within.
The force of ponyspawn consisted of three thelocks and four donlocks, all growling as Twilight’s light destroyed their vision. Twilight stood surrounded by blinded ponyspawn, her thoughts extended to her senses in a struggle to understand their motives. Still they held nothing but rage and hatred for her, even more so now due to her attack.
Her hesitation did not last long. Knowing the ponyspawn would not leave her or Brightstone in peace, Twilight bit her tongue and urged Sophia forward. Her sword dove towards the throat of a thelock, slicing the insect-like underbelly clean open, spilling its blood all over the damp stone of the cellar. The thelock gurgled its last breath, but Twilight paid no heed, her head swiveling towards a dazed donlock.
Magic collected into her horn as Twilight focused on a single, effective spell that would put down the donlock for good. A single bolt of violet energy lashed out from her horn, striking the donlock right between the eyes. The small, savage monstrosity was blasted across the room, thankfully saving Twilight from looking at its demolished face before it collided with a wall.
Lyra burst from the passage, playfully smirking at two donlocks and a thelock while puffing her cheeks. Twilight shielded her eyes with a hoof as Lyra commenced her attack, another dragon-like stream of fire from her mouth buffeting her enemies. The two donlocks who stood in front of the thelock were engulfed in flames instantly, their cries dying out quick as an instant. The thelock snarled at Lyra but kept its distance, struggling against animalistic urges of fight or flight versus the typical ponyspawn desire to rend flesh.
From the flames, Lyra galloped towards the remaining adversary, her staff following close behind her. Twilight watched in surprise as the staff, gripped in Lyra’s amber aura, revealed itself to be more than just a simple wooden implement of magic. The lyre on the top detached, spinning off the staff to reveal a long narrow blade hidden within. Lyra swung her sword in a downward arc, catching the thelock across the face and cleaving the eye in two. The thelock roared, rearing up on its hind legs to protect its face. With the underbelly exposed, the battlemage gave a shout and thrust her sword into the thelock’s weak point, tearing into its organs. The sword slid out of the thelock with ease, the collapsing monster falling to Lyra’s hooves as she smiled with grim satisfaction.
As the two unicorns fought, Daisy leapt from the cellar, her disc flying into the face of a donlock. The disc’s edge missed as the donlock blindly charged towards her, but with a quick tug on the chain, Daisy caught the donlock’s neck with the length of metal. As the chain wrapped around the donlock’s neck, Daisy planted her hooves on the ground, watching as the disc struck against the floor, sending sparks flying with every pass until it finally sunk into the desired skull.
The short-lived death hiss of the donlock did not concern Daisy so much as the last thelock recovering its eyesight. With her natural earth pony strength, Daisy pulled against the chain, lifting the enwrapped donlock corpse into an impromptu flail. Daisy swung at one of the large barrels of booze, slamming the carcass against the weak supports and breaking both the body and the wood. The barrel fell over onto the thelock, its cries of surprise silence by the explosion of wood and ale.
Twilight covered her snout as the rank smell of ponyspawn blood and rank ale intermixed. She looked to see Lyra dash over to the cellar door, breaking it open with her magic.
“I refuse to have this mire waft into my nose anymore!” she announced, gasping for breath in the hallways of Brightstone. Twilight could not help but agree. No magic spell she knew could totally eliminate smells, and thus she added it amongst an ever growing checklist of disgusting smells her adventures seemed to bring to her nostrils.
Daisy looked around the hallway, her ears flicking about. “If we arrived in the cellar, all we have to do is head to the courtyard and then the battlements. I just hope we can find some survivors.”
“So do I.” Twilight tried to ignore the constant beating of ponyspawn hearts her senses unceasingly fed to her mind, only to fail. The steady beats like those of drums created a sort of ambience to her ears. To Twilight, it was a constant reminder of the ponyspawn presence and their hatred for her until they could be expelled from Brightstone.
“I’ll take point,” Daisy said, “I know the way to the courtyard.”
The last time Twilight walked the halls of an Arl’s castle, she squared off against the forces of the undead controlled by a demon possessing the body of a child. Just like then, the eerie silence of the abandoned fortress corridors made every hoofstep echo and every breath sharp and tense. Twilight’s eyes darted around, half expecting the ponyspawn to leap from every shadow. Unlike the walking dead, who lumbered around clumsily as lesser demons attempted to command rotting flesh and broken bones, the ponyspawn still proved an effective and terrifying enemy.
No ponyspawn ambushed them in the dark halls, yet as they approached the courtyard, Twilight’s chest tightened with dread. A throng of heartbeats pounded against her ears and she flattened them against her head by instinct. Despite her trepidation, Twilight raised her blade into the air, motioning for Lyra and Daisy to take positions near the door.
Twilight counted her breaths in an attempt to get her breathing in order. Once she closed her eyes, she began to breathe easier, in through the nose, out through the mouth, a simple yet effective exercise to calm the nerves and steady respiration. Her horn began to glow, allowing Twilight to take control of the large doors leading into the courtyard.
She looked to Daisy and Lyra, nodding to the two as she pressed the door open. Lyra’s horn was also aglow, the head of her staff igniting in magical flames while she drew her own sword from the staff. Daisy began to spin her disc, ready to release the razor’s edge against the ponyspawn at Twilight’s command.
With her allies ready, Twilight pushed the door open as quickly as she could. She charged first, raising a magical buckler to defend herself only for her and the others to quickly skid to a halt.
Dozens of ponyspawn of all sizes and subspecies waited for the three, gnashing their teeth and clawing at the air, all of them sharing a bloodlust that would not be sated. Twilight’s mouth hung open as the largest force of ponyspawn she had ever encountered since the Battle of Trotterim. Even though they acted savage, the ponyspawn did not attack, confusing Twilight even more.
A loud screech pierced the night sky, the ponyspawn quickly falling silent as a large screamer circled above their heads. Twilight kept her eyes locked on her adversary while the screamer dropped to the courtyard, landing with a thud and kicking up a pile of dust as well. She raised a hoof to block out the dust, and then looked again to see the screamer saunter towards them.
She had known larger screamers before, but they did not typically reach the same size and mass of their larger thelock cousins. This one stood as tall as a thelock on strong limbs ending in powerful claws, a suit of dirty yet effective chainmail covering its body. Two long daggers hung at his sides. The singular eye that all screamers possessed on their faces stared down Twilight, its red iris rippling like a pool of bubbling water.
“You… know you… The Howler knows who you are!” He spoke in a low, raspy voice through dirty yet razor teeth. “Your heart beats with the blood, but you are false! You struck down the song! We need the song! Madness rules without the song! Silencer! Silencer!”
The rest of the ponyspawn horde began to chant the word “Silencer” over and over, shouting and yelling the word directly at Twilight. Twilight backed away from the ponyspawn, her sword dropping from her aura and clattering to the ground as she felt each shout accentuate with a powerful thud of her heart.
“I don’t understand!” She cried back. “What do you mean by ‘silencing the song’? Why are you calling me the Silencer?”
“You slew the One Who Sings!” Black spittle flew from the cracked lips of The Howler. “You silenced the soothing song, the song that drove us to victory! The Architect told us to find you! The Howler has done so, and now he will slay you! He will burn down your castles, your houses! He will take back what was stolen from the One Who Sings! He will watch and sing and dance as the unworthy are put to the flames!”
“Kill the Silencer! Kill her until she is dead and silent! Go into the pony-hive and take their mares! Bring them to the tunnels and share with them our blood so they may breed more brothers!”
The ponyspawn charged at the Howler’s command, their hooves like thunder as they neared. Lyra’s staff ignited in to flame and launched a fireball at the ponyspawn, the monsters broke their formation while a few where immediately overtaken by fire. There was no time to cast another spell as the ponyspawn quickly regrouped and charged again, forcing Lyra to go into the fight.
Her sword flashed in the light of the flames as she swept the blade’s edge through the ponyspawn, slashing through their thick carapaces and hides and spilling their blood all around her. Her efforts proved futile as there were too many ponyspawn to fight through, all of them clawing and biting at her robes. A donlock jumped from the writhing throng of ponyspawn and collided with Lyra, biting at her shoulders until it finally sunk its teeth into her fur.
Lyra screamed out in agony, the donlock twisting its mouth and wrenching the wound wider. Her eyes flashed red with dark magic, the blood from her wound twisting subtly around the neck of the donlock, only for Daisy’s disc to smash blade first into the donlock’s skull. The donlock’s grip became lack while Daisy yanked the disc along its chain, the body falling harmless to her side.
“One down, about a hundred to go,” Lyra quipped. “I owe you a smooch, flowerflank.”
“Can you go one dire situation without making a crack about kissing and such?” Daisy whipped her disc into the throat of a thelock, the death of another foe giving her grim satisfaction. Before she could pull her weapon back to attack again, a minotaur smashed its way to the front of the group, tossing away every ponyspawn smaller than it.
The minotaur took large steps towards them, snarling all the way as well as stepping down on Daisy’s chain. She looked up at the massive monster in horror, unable to wrench her weapon free.
“Commander! Daisy shouted, “We need to get away! We can’t win against all these ponyspawn!”
Picking up Sophia, Twilight felt the intense magical heat of her sword ignite beside her, her focus solely on the Howler. “The One Who Sings,” she said, taking a confident step forward. “You mean the Archdemon? The Archdemon is slain! You don’t need to follow Uthemiel’s directives anymore!”
The Howler twisted his body into a strange upright position, able to stand on its hind legs with perfect balance, though still hunched over. It growled, drawing its long curved daggers from their scabbards. “The One Who Sings, the one you killed! The one you silenced! We need the song! We need to know that we are led, that we have a purpose, that we are loved! The Architect tries, but he fails! He promised freedom, he brought the song to us! But you! You silenced it! We hate you! Hate you forever! The Howler will rip your hide from your bones and wear it as his trophy and present it to the Architect! Then he can begin his work again and bring back our song!”
With one flap of his large bat-like wings, the Howler took off into a swooping dive towards Twilight. She only barely managed to bring her blade up in time to parry the Howler’s blows, lashing against it with a simple blast of magic. The Howler shook off the strike, its eye glaring at Twilight before beginning another flurry of blows.
Twilight’s training came into full effect, ducking and weaving around the dagger slashes of the Howler. He attacked with swift motions though, and forced Twilight to be on the defensive. The left dagger came down in a flesh-tearing strike and Twilight answered with her magical buckler. Before she could counter, the right dagger thrust towards her neck, and thus she replied with a parry with her own blade.
She shouted in frustration as the two combatants were in a deadlock, her horn proving to be the most effective weapon against the Howler. The air became frigid, Twilight’s magic reducing the temperature around her as the very air froze. A single shard of ice, sharp like the edge of a blade, formed above her head and continued to grow ever larger.
The Howler looked up from their deadlock, his single eye widening in fear. A quick flap of his wings broke the hold, but not before the ice-shard sliced through the air and across his right forearm. Dropping his dagger, the Howler hissed and crashed into the courtyard, with Twilight standing over his wounded form.
“Curse you, Silencer.” The Howler seethed with rage. “The Howler will kill your song! You will be rendered mute while the Howler sings!”
The maw of the Howler opened wide, and the worst noise Twilight ever encountered blasted her ears. Despite his name, the Howler did not howl, but instead screeched much like his smaller screamer cousins. Soon, all other noises from the battle were drowned out by the screech, and Twilight could do nothing but answer.
Her magical buckler dissipated into thin air, and her grip on Sophia quickly vanished, the arcane blade falling to the ground. Twilight fell while the Howler continued his sonic assault, covering her ears with her hooves in a vain effort to block out the noise. She sprawled to the ground, writhing in pain as the force from the scream shook her body violently, from her rippling skin to her disturbed organs. She felt nauseous, but could not stand to rebuke the attack or even run away.
The Howler continued to scream, advancing towards Twilight’s battered form with a dagger held tight in his claws. Twilight opened one eye just a crack, enough to see the dagger raised high above her head. Her chest tightened as she tried to prepare a spell, the edge of her horn sparking with some semblance of magical energy. The shockwaves produced by the Howler destroyed her concentration, and she could not summon even the simplest of spells into existence.
Something distracted the Howler then, the great screamer twisting his long neck to his left and finally ceasing the skull-splitting screeching. Twilight looked up in a daze, still hearing the scream of the Howler as well a faint ringing in her ears. A torrent of dust and stone burst from her left, the small clouds making her choke. Slowly, Twilight stood up to see the fiery remains of an explosion, with several burning chunks of wood as well as ponyspawn thrust from a blast.
The wall to Brightstone’s courtyard held a large hole, and from that new entryway a dozen or so donkeys poured through, each shouting some warcry or another. Leading the bunch was a familiar donkey, dressed in black plate armour with a long battleaxe in his grip. Oghren’s braided beard swung as he galloped towards the ponyspawn, dodging the monsters and leaving them to his fellows. Each ponyspawn that did get in his way was quickly hewn with every swing of his axe, Oghren becoming a literal walking death to the enemy.
“Twilight!” he shouted through his hilt-bit. “I’m comin’! Keep that star-flank alive just a little longer!”
The Howler snarled at Oghren, his wings flaring open. “Cursed Silencer has donkey allies,” he muttered. “Will gut you later! Need to take the prize!”
Twilight stood up as quickly as she could on quaking legs, her stomach turning flips while she levitated her sword for a feeble attack. Sophia missed the legs of the Howler as he flew off towards the battlements of the keep and out of sight. She fell again, only this time to be caught by gentle hooves, the soft touch of fabric rubbing against her hide.
“Don’t worry, Twilight, I got you,” Lyra said, though Twilight still could not hear very well. “The donkeys and Daisy are taking care of the ponyspawn. I think they are still confused by the explosion. Just hold still.”
Twilight watched through blurry eyes as the golden image of Lyra’s staff floated near her head. The strings of the lyre began to a play a soft tune as magic flowed across them, a wave of green energy not unlike Lyra’s aura now wrapping around Twilight. Her ringing ears soon gave way to the gentle melody from the lyre, and Twilight could feel her body mending under the guidance of powerful magic.
When the song ended, Twilight found herself standing upright and feeling leagues better than she did. Lyra smiled at her, not those lecherous smiles from before, but a warm and caring gesture often used by healers to patients.
“I feel much better, thank you,” Twilight said with utmost sincerity. “But I thought you were a battle-mage, not a healer.”
“All unicorns in the Imperium armies are battle-mages. I was studying to be a spirit healer and use my special talent of playing my lyre to heal other ponies. Then I got drafted and the rest is history.” A flicker of sadness passed over Lyra’s eyes. “In any event, I’m just glad I was able to get to you before the Howler did, thanks to that donkey friend of yours.”
Looking over Lyra’s shoulder, she saw that Oghren and his fellow donkeys made quick work of the ponyspawn that did not follow their leader or flee the battle. Shining axes bit into blackened flesh, tearing into the ponyspawn with ease and spilling their blood to the ground. Oghren’s motley band of donkeys gave Twilight little mind, as she focused her attention to the brazen berserker.
Oghren moved quickly through the hordes of ponyspawn, swinging his axe in long arcs, cleaving donlock, thelock, and screamer alike in his wake. Each slain foe drove him ever forward, whatever blows they could land either deflecting off his armour or simply ignored. Twilight noticed that as Oghren’s axe neared a ponyspawn, right before it would hack open the flesh the edge of the axe seemed to glow with a bright red light. It was almost as if the edge became very hot as it neared ponyspawn flesh.
Only the presence of a minotaur slowed Oghren’s advance. As the greater monster roared, lifting its fists into the air to crush Oghren, he responded in kind, shouting donkey obscenities and charging headlong into battle. The minotaur’s fists slammed into the courtyard, kicking up stone and dirt in a small dust storm, only to look down and see Oghren had dodged the attack.
With a swing of his burning axe, Oghren cut across the exposed neck of the minotaur, careful to avoid the poisonous downpour of black blood. The minotaur grasped at his ruined throat gasping for air, but before it could react further, Oghren smashed his axe into the side of the minotaur’s head. This blow killed the minotaur instantly, its massive frame slumping to the ground as Oghren’s berserker frenzy abated.
His breathing ragged and heavy, Oghren still managed to produce a smile as he slung his axe onto his back. Twilight returned the smile, only to surprise both Oghren and herself as she embraced the bloody berserker tightly in her hooves.
“Oghren…” she said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you!”
“Same here, Twilight, same here.” Oghren patted Twilight’s back, ignoring the last of the courtyard’s ponyspawn being driven out by the donkey band.
“What are you doing here, though?” Twilight asked, “You’re the last donkey I’d expect to see here in Amarethine.”
“I came to join the Grey Wardens, of course!” Oghren broke the hug, bringing his axe to bear as a show of prowess. “Who better to join up with than a group that feeds and houses their members for the whole purpose of fighting ponyspawn! …Oh, and I might have wanted to see you again. It’s been a while. We should have a drink after this is over. Tame stuff for you!”
Twilight inwardly cringed at the memory of drinking Oghren’s homebrewed ale, remembering the vile taste of Celestia-knew-what he put in as ingredients. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Oghren,” Twilight said, “But who are all these other donkeys?”
“Just various friends, colleagues, drinking buddies, casual acquaintances, and one guy who owes me fifty gold coins.” He snickered, before pointing to each donkey in turn. “That’s Logger, Togger, Yogger, my cousin Eoghren, the twins Mogo and Wogo, Lallat, Fizzbang is the one who made the explosives that breached the wall, Calgon, who makes a mean mushroom ale, and finally Big Bog.”
The donkeys crowded together in front of Twilight, pushing and shoving so they could take precedence over the others. Daisy shook her head at the assembled mass, and Twilight could not help but giggle at the sight. They all grinned at her, save for Fizzbang who simply wandered off and began to prepare more explosives.
“Quite the lively bunch, ain’t they?” Oghren smiled with pride. “Not all of them are warriors, and I’m still the only berserker, but when I went back to Orzamule, I asked around if there were any donkeys who wanted to come with me. Quite the response, don’t you think? I brought builders, crafters, merchants, the whole tap and keg.”
Twilight nodded to the donkeys, only to turn her head upward. She could still feel the heartbeat of the Howler and several of his screamers covering him as he flew to the battlements. Somewhere on the stone walls of Brightstone was the Howler’s prize, and Twilight knew all too well that if a ponyspawn was after it, whatever it was could only lead to disaster.
“Daisy, Lyra, Oghren, with me,” Twilight ordered, “We’ll be going to the top of Brightstone’s battlements. We have to stop the Howler before he takes whatever his prize is. He’s proven to be a capable commander if he took Brightstone so easily, so he is still a threat until… neutralized.”
Daisy stepped forward, her disc-and-chain hanging to her side. “By your side, Commander. Let’s show the ponyspawn they can’t just gallop all over our towns and villages without expecting some kind of payback!”
“I made a promise to see this through,” Lyra said, “And I always make good on my promises. I just hope you do the same when the time comes. That, and I just like looking at your rump.”
Oghren looked over at both Daisy and Lyra, shaking his head before turning his gleaming eyes to Twilight. “Kinda small crew we got this time around, don’t we, Commander?” He snickered as he mentioned her Grey Warden title.
Despite his jests, Twilight did take a look at her small party. She was used to travelling with a larger band of friends, galloping freely across the entirety of Equestria. Sure, they were on a dangerous quest to unite the various factions across the land against the ponyspawn, but things were simpler then. She could not doubt it any longer, and Oghren’s presence only made it more apparent.
She missed her friends.
Even though she liked Daisy, Twilight could not see Applejack or Pinkie Pie in her. Lyra definitely did not match any description of Rarity or Trixie. She missed Shale’s banter, and Rainbow Dash’s boastfulness. She missed the soft, gentle words of Fluttershy, but most of all, she missed her number one assistant. The closest thing she had to a brother.
I miss you, Spike.
Twilight willed her tears away. Now was not the time. Daisy and Lyra proved to be capable fighters with both blade and spell, and the Howler showed that while the abilities of the ponyspawn might change, they were still monsters behind black scales and razor teeth. From her youth as a foal in the Unicorn Tower to the becoming a Grey Warden to now being her order’s commanding officer, Twilight had progressed against the face of adversity and fought against the greatest foes the world could throw at her. She would not break to a single screamer.
“All right everyone, listen up!” Twilight’s voice carried with it the force of command. Everyone, donkey and pony alike, snapped to attention. “Myself, Lyra, Daisy, and Oghren are going after the Howler. The rest of you stay here and defend the keep from any of his reinforcements. I want one of your number to make their way to Queen Applejack and tell her where to push her forces. If everything goes well, we’ll drive the ponyspawn out of Brightstone before breakfast. Now move out!”
The donkeys saluted to Twilight, rushing towards the breach in the wall they made and readying a defensive line. One donkey, who Twilight recalled was named Yogger, sprinted past his fellows and began his trek towards Applejack’s army.
Twilight turned on her hooves and began her own sprint up the stone staircase towards the battlements. Her small party followed behind, and when she reached the top of the stairs she could see in the distance the fires of battle. Applejack’s forces pushed against the ponyspawn, driving them backwards towards the keep. Three groups of screamers broke from the main force: one flying towards the keep in support of the Howler, the other flying off to the north while yet another group flew to the west. Messengers, Twilight assumed, to bring the news of defeat to the ponyspawn leadership. There was no time to pursue them.
The sound of steel clashing against steel sent Twilight’s mind back on track. The Howler was engaged in battle with somepony, a motivation to assist them and stop the greater screamer.
Daisy pointed at one of the large guard towers straight ahead of them. “Those towers were designed to hold many archers. They lead to the upper battlements and at the very top there are catapults to fight back against large forces and even sieges. If we take that tower, we can get into position against the Howler from the front and the rear.”
“Good. Let’s do it.” Twilight lead the way into the archer’s tower, only to feel a single black arrow shoot through the air and only just deflected by her sword. She looked up to see several thelocks and donlocks on the steps leading towards the upper battlements, each of them armed with long bows, arrows flying towards her.
With quick thinking she raised a barrier to defend herself and her friends from the arrow assault, allowing the others to get into position. Those ponyspawn closest to the group dropped their bows, drawing swords, axes, and maces and charged into battle.
Oghren took the lead, using his size and his axe to block the staircase towards the others. Each swing of his axe chopped into the flesh of another ponyspawn, dismembering some and sending their bodies to the ground floor below. “Come on, you blighters!” he roared, decapitating a thelock while he advanced up the wooden stairs. “Give ol’ Oghren a better fight than this! I’ve seen nugs wrestle fiercer than you sods!”
He quickly passed through Twilight’s barrier, about to cleave into another donlock when an archer fired its arrow right through Oghren’s armour. The arrow punctured his back plate, slipping past the metal and striking between his shoulder blades. Oghren shouted in fury, but unable to carry himself, much less his axe. The weapon fell as he did, tumbling down towards Twilight’s shield.
“Oghren!” Twilight grasped at her donkey friend with her magic, while Lyra collected the loose battle axe in her own aura. She could not divert her attention for too long, as her shield would fall without proper concentration.
“Commander, get back! I’ll take care of them!” Daisy pushed her way forward, spinning her disc in her teeth. Twilight regretted pulling back, but Oghren continued to lose blood from the arrow wound, and each strike of the ponyspawn barrage made it more difficult to focus on him. When they made their way back to the entrance, Lyra pulled Oghren away into relative safety, allowing Twilight to quickly rejoin Daisy.
The need to fight never came. Daisy lashed out with her disc at surprising speeds, hurling the disc blade first into the remaining ponyspawn. A large thelock about to draw on the string fell first, the blade slicing through the air and into its throat. As the thelock fell, Daisy yanked back on the chain, narrowly dodging Twilight’s head before tossing the disc into the face of a second donlock, readying his bow. He fell with ease, leaving the last thelock dropping his bow and rushing towards Daisy while the disc remained stuck.
Before the thelock could gore Daisy with its tusks, a bolt of violet magic lashed out from Twilight’s horn, slamming into the side of the ponyspawn’s head and twisting it into an unnatural angle. Death followed, the body spiraling into the pit below before it joined the others at the bottom of the tower.
Daisy breathed deeply from the fight, but still managed to smile at Twilight. “Thanks Commander.”
“That’s what friends are for, Daisy,” Twilight replied, “And please, call me Twilight.”
Lyra entered the tower again followed by Oghren, who grumbled as he sulked inside. “Blood and damnation, Twilight, I’m getting sloppy in my old age.”
“Old age?” Twilight raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. “It’s only been six months since I’ve seen you last. Were you drinking before you came to Brightstone?”
“I’m not a young jack, and I’ve been sober for those six months!” This surprised Twilight, as Oghren’s fondness for liquor proved to be quite the character trait, in her own summation. If he was not drinking anymore, something about him had changed.
“We can discuss this later,” Lyra interjected, “The Howler is still here, and so are the ponyspawn. Let’s focus on the real issue at hoof and kick the ponyspawn straight in the nads!”
Twilight rolled her eyes, but could not fault Lyra for her rather apt description. They ascended the steps to the top of the battlements, until they came across the middle of a heated battle. Ahead of Twilight was the Howler, fighting against a fair-sized earth pony covered in plate armour and a sword clenched in his teeth. A farmer’s hat, very similar to Applejack’s, sat on his head.
The screamer pack that flew to reinforce their leader spotted Twilight and the others. They all hovered around a large crate covered in chains, and next to the crate stood a burlap sack. They all screamed their surprise at the arrival of Twilight and her party, some shrieking the name “Silencer”, distracting the Howler and his opponent.
“What in tarnation?” The earth pony turned his head, revealing a very thick moustache that covered his mouth. The Howler took advantage, sinking his daggers between the plates of the earth pony’s armour. Twilight shouted in vain hope that the Howler would stop, only to watch the earth pony fall.
The Howler looked up, his singular eye narrowing. “Silencer has given chase,” he hissed, “Silencer comes to her doom. No tricks will save you this time! No surprise donkeys! No rescue! No hope! Your meat will make a fine supper for our bellies, and your skull I will present to the Architect!”
“Don’t fight us, Howler,” Twilight warned, “Let us speak to your Architect. Enough blood has been spilt today. Bring the Architect here, and maybe we can find peace between pony and ponyspawn.”
“What are you doing Twilight? They’re nothing more than ugly sods!” Twilight ignored Oghren’s words, desperate to hold on to the idea of peace.
“Please, we can end this hear and now,” she pleaded, “Lay down your arms—“
The Howler screamed, the shockwaves of his attack pushing everyone back. “Never! No peace while ponies live! For great Uthemiel, and all other songs that came before her, Howler will offer the blood of the enemy as a sacrifice! Break their bones! Spill their blood! Kill! Kill! KILL!”
“Everypony! Pick your targets and go!” Twilight gave her order while drawing Sophia, the magical sword burst into flame at her command. She had long chosen her target, galloping towards the Howler while he soared through the sky. Oghren, Lily, and Lyra chose their own screamers to battle, blades and magic clashing against fang and claw.
The screamers under the Howler’s command, much larger and covered in similar armour to their master, were mentally dubbed the first screamer alphas Twilight had ever encountered. They did not bear arms like the Howler, but instead wielded sharp blades attached to their forelimbs, which they now used with great bloodlust.
The first of the screamer alphas struck against Lyra, a deep slash from the foreblades parried by a quick draw from her staff sword. Lyra struck with both blade and spell, a quick but effective fireball being spun by the strings of her lyre. The blade acted as a mere distraction, slashing away at the screamer bodyguard under the mint aura of Lyra, before she was ready to strike with burning flame.
The screamer lunged at Lyra, using its wings as a shield against the blade. Lyra, surprised that the screamer would use its own body parts to defend itself, still did not hesitate to unleash her fire onto her attacker. The fireball burst from the staff, and the lyre emitted a sharp chord that shook the very dust off the ground of the battlements. The fireball then collided with the screamer, with its armour caught in the blaze. The screamer shrieked its agony, rolling on the ground but unable to quench the magical fire, until it became naught but a burning husk of a ponyspawn.
“I took care of mine! I’ll take care of the bleeding pony’s wounds; just take out these buggers, right?” Lyra brought her staff low, the spririt magic already at work to mend the earth pony’s wounds.
Daisy tangled with another screamer in a violent brawl, as the screamer leaped onto her and began to bite and claw at her chainmail. Her disc snapped through the air like a snake tussling with a meal, yet ineffectual against the screamer at close proximity. With a shout of frustration she let go of her disc, her focus now shifted entirely on taking the fight hoof-to-claw.
“Get off of me, you ugly repulsive creature!” Daisy shouted and pushed the screamer off her. The metal blades on its forelimbs swung out for a quick strike, and they caught Daisy’s midsection. The weapons ripped through her armour with ease. Daisy screamed out as she fell, her hoofs clutched to her bloody side, desperate to reach the chain of her disc.
Oghren rushed to her side, all the while chased by another screamer alpha. “I’ma comin’!” he grunted through his axe-grip, “Just hold on a little longer!” His gallop towards Daisy turned into a slide, and his patience allowed for Oghren to prepare his axe for a stiff and accurate chop.
“Close your mouth!” he warned, “Don’t take any of the Taint in your mouth!” Oghren brought down the axe straight across the exposed neck of the distracted screamer. The single eye blinked once before it fell to the ground, leaving a bloody stump where it once stood. Daisy screamed and scrambled away from the corpse. She pulled the disc towards her and then looked to Oghren.
Daisy said nothing, only her wide eyes revealing to Ogrhen his own peril. A screamer reared up behind him, about to dig its metal shears into his belly. Oghren prepared to counter, only for Daisy’s blade to whistle past his beard and embed itself deep inside the mouth of the screamer. The mockery of a pegasus squirmed as the blade dug into the back of its throat, but was unable to remove the weapon before it bled out all over the stone of Brightstone.
“Pretty darn good with that thing,” Oghren said, pointing to the disc. “Takes a strong neck and a talented mouth. Got any other special talents like that?”
“Ugh, first Lyra, now you.” Daisy looked around for a moment. “Where’s the Commander?”
Twilight and the Howler paid little attention to the battles around them. Her focus remained squarely on him, and the same could be said for the Howler. She drew her blade and with a simple utterance of a spell, Sophia ignited with purple fire. Another quick cast of magic and the protective buckler took shape in mid-air.
The Howler drew both his dagger, prepared to strike at a moment’s notice. “The hour has come, Silencer!” he said, his daggers raised high above his head. “The end of this struggle. The moment your blood is given to the Song of Songs! My blades will be anointed by your corpse, and my head will be raised—“
“You talk too much.” Twilight’s horn glowed, the spell of frigid cold creating not one, but dozens of razor sharp icicles into existence. The summoned shards flew towards the Howler, but he moved with the grace and dexterity of a swift pegasi. With such nimble legs, he avoided the shards with ease.
With a single flap of his ruined wings, he burst forward towards Twilight, his teeth clenched and his blades ready to slice. Twilight blocked each blow he delivered, one with her shield and another with her sword, before counterstriking with a slash of her own. Sophia’s violet fires melted the chain-mail the Howler wore, which allowed the edge of the blade to cut through metal, flesh and bone.
The Howler lived up to his name as his limb fell to the floor, the wound cauterized by Sophia’s flames. He his eye blinked in rapid disbelief. As the smoking stump cooled in the night wind, the Howler crawled to his lost limb, yet still held his other dagger tight within his other claw. “They said you would be soft,” he muttered, his eye now locked on Twilight. “They said the Silencer did not have the stomach for killing. That fortune and the Cursed Ones favoured her that night.”
“They thought wrong,” Twilight said. “Lay down your arms and surrender, Howler. You won’t be given another chance.”
The Howler reacted, screeching once again at Twilight with such volume that she halted her advance on the ponyspawn leader. Twilight held steadfast against the Howler and his scream. Still, she could not continue her attack as the scream disrupted her concentration and ceased her magic.
Instead, Twilight lowered the hilt of Sophia into her mouth, and her buckler disappeared with a thought. Slow and steady did she take each step, pushing through the scream while she kept her eyes trained on the Howler and his other dagger. The Howler’s scream continued unabated, though he did take a worried step backwards. No matter how much he backed away, Twilight gained ground until she was close enough to strike.
“Die now!” The Howler lunged at Twilight, his aim to plunge his blade into her neck. Without a single blink of her eyes, Twilight reacted, her sights set on ending the battle. Sophia struck true as the blade seemed to slide with ease through the chain hauberk of the Howler until it was half-way through his chest. The Howler’s dagger only managed to catch Twilight’s robes.
Twilight let go of her sword and allowed the body of the Howler to fall. “You will never hurt anypony ever again.”
He crumpled to the ground onto his back, the sword still jammed in between his ribcage. The Howler’s wings twitched while he gurgled his last, while black blood seeped through his fangs and pooled under his now lifeless eye. The Howler stilled under the moonlight. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, and then turned towards the battlements to see how the battle would unfold.
In the distance she saw Applejack’s army finishing the remnants of the ponyspawn. Those who did not run were quickly felled. Twilight focused her magic to a small group of torches and banners, her eyesight stretched to have a clear view. There she saw Applejack and a vanguard rushing towards Brightstone.
“Twilight!” Lyra called, “This guy is all better. Just a few scratches and bruises, but nothing a good time away from the front won’t heal.”
The earth pony with the moustache dusted off his armour before snapping a salute to Twilight. “Name’s Silverstar, Commander,” he said, and shook Twilight’s hoof in a firm manner. “Hail all the way from Appleoosa. Tried to get here ahead of you with your crate, but never figured the ponyspawn would come on down. Quite the varmints, aren’t they.”
“Thanks for trying to hold Brightstone,” Twilight replied, “I know the ponyspawn took everypony by surprise. They were really interested in that crate. The Howler called it his ‘prize’, but I don’t know what sort of item could bring the ponyspawn to near frenzy. Do you have any idea what’s inside?”
Silverstar shook his head. He pointed at the crate and a burlap sack next to it. “All we know is that they wanted it, but right when I was about to get into a tussle with the big one, he screamed the word ‘silencer’ and took off. What we do know is that inside the sack are the keys to the crate, as well as a letter saying that the contents were for your eyes only.”
Twilight nodded to Silverstar, and walked over to the crate to investigate. While it appeared ordinary enough, there was a hum of magic within the chains and padlocks. Her curious nature would have to be sated later though. For now, the victory at Brightstone had to be told to Applejack.
Her magic lifted the crate into the air, and along with Silverstar did the party make their way back to the courtyard of Brightstone Keep. Applejack and her guards greeted them with warm smiles and congratulations.
“Never thought Ah’d see the day Ah missed takin’ the fight to the ‘spawn,” Applejack said. “Was a right hootenanny, Ah tell ya what. Quite the first day on the job, right Twilight?”
“You can say that again.” Twilight looked over to the assembled group. Before she could continue, Oghren barged out in front, his beard unable to hid his wide grin.
“Applejack, great to see ya!” He sauntered over to Applejack, and both shook hooves. “Haven’t seen in you in a while. I hope you brought some of that Red Apple cider with you. I could use a sodding drink after all this excitement. Nothing slakes the thirst after battle like that sweet, sweet nectar.”
“Oghren, ya old jackass! What are ya doin’ here besides causin’ Twi trouble?”
Oghren guffawed and poked Applejack’s sides, much to the consternation of her guards. “Gonna cause more if I have my way! I’m here to join the Grey Wardens!”
“We’ll I’ll be.” Applejack snorted a laugh, though her smile was genuine. “Sounds like you have a trouble maker and a very dependable donkey in the ranks. You keep Twilight safe, ya hear? Not just from ponyspawn, but from keeping her snout in all them books.”
Oghren nodded, while Twilight cleared her throat to continue. “Daisy did exceptionally well in the battle. She will make a great Grey Warden.”
The Queen nodded. “That she will. Good job, Daisy. Ya got quite the responsibility on yer shoulders now. Keep a cool head and try not to be so stiff. Ah see ya’ll met Silverstar too. He’s gonna be yer senny… senshol… senesh… darn Filesian words… majordomo! He was Braeburn’s right hoof pony, but wanted to be reassigned to Brightstone and help the Hero of Equestria.”
Silverstar seemed to blush under his moustache at Applejack’s praise. Finally, Applejack moved to look over Lyra, who shrunk away from her sight. Twilight raised her brows in surprise; what happened to happy-go-lucky unicorn who would not leave a word about her flank unsaid? She began to resemble Fluttershy at this point.
“You don’t have to be shy because Applejack’s a queen,” Twilight said. She looked to Applejack to explain. “Lyra is a runaway battlemage from the Imperium. I’ve agreed to make her a Grey Warden to protect her from prosecution by the Templar Order.”
Lyra shook her head. “It’s not your crown I’m afraid of,” she said in a hushed tone. “You’re a templar. I can feel the anti-magic flowing through you.”
Applejack bit her lip after the reminder of her less than savory days. “Was a templar. Never chose that life, Lyra, was pushed into it. Yeah, Ah can use anti-magic, but believe you me when Ah say Ah don’t follow the superstitions of the Templar. Ah’ve travelled with prissy unicorns, loud unicorns, and stuffy unicorns. Even fought against some bad ones too. But Ah know to give unicorns a chance, not because they have horns and magic, but because they are ponies like the rest of us.”
“Twilight is one of my best friends. If she sees good in you, then Ah believe her words one hundred percent. Ah’m sure ya’ll make a good Warden.”
Lyra closed her eyes in thought, but nodded her thanks anyways. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Applejack looked to Twilight and tilted her head to the gates of Brightstone. The two walked together in silence for a while, away from prospective Wardens and other soldiers. Twilight appreciated the gesture, as it became difficult to have a private word with her friend and Queen.
They looked over the small town that surrounded the keep, the smoking roofs and glowing embers of houses and shops the last visages of the ponyspawn attack. Soldiers pulled the bodies of slain townsponies away from the streets. They also dragged the corpses of ponyspawn to throw onto pyres and removed their taint from the land with cleansing flame.
Twilight pursed her lips as she surveyed the destruction. Victory always seemed to taste so bitter.
“Not the way Ah had planned to hoof over Amarethine to you, Twi,” Applejack said, “But Ah suppose this attack really shows that the ponyspawn are getting a little smarter. If they don’t need an Archdemon to raze towns to the ground, then they’ll continue to be bold. They will attack again, maybe less fortified villages, Ah dunno.”
“They somehow got inside Brightstone without alerting the guards,” Twilight added, “We’ll find this new Blight and put it down. Amarethine will be in good hooves, so long as the ponyspawn don’t attack again. We learned plenty from the ravings of the Howler and we still have the crate they were after. We’ll piece together this mystery and stop them.”
Applejack nodded, only to stomp her hoof in frustration. “Land sakes, Twilight. Ah should be here with you, fightin’ the ponyspawn. Ah feel like Ah’m lettin’ you down. Ah—“
“You don’t have to worry about me, Applejack.” Twilight laid a hoof onto her friends shoulder. “You have an entire nation to worry about. I’ll be fine. I have Oghren, Daisy, and Lyra. We’ll take care of it. When you visit Amarethine, you’ll see the happiest place in the entire kingdom!”
Applejack did not immediately reply, but instead pulled Twilight in a tight embrace. “Everypony else is gone, Twilight. Ah’ll sure as hay miss you. Ah already sent word to the Banns under Amarethine, and they’ll be comin’ here to meet the new Arlessa soon and help you out. But if you need anything at all, and Ah do mean anything, just holler, and Ah’ll come with the entire army if Ah need to.”
They remained together in silence for a while, and Twilight enjoyed what little time she had with Applejack before the court of Trotterim and the realm called on her again. They returned to the blood-stained courtyard of Brightstone where the others waited for them, each of them eager for the next bit of news.
“Well, best to skedaddle before all them lords throw a hissy fit,” Applejack said. “Good luck to you, Arlessa Sparkle of Amarethine. Looks like ya’ll gonna need it. Make sure ya’ll support your Commander too, Grey Wardens.”
Each of the prospects bowed to Applejack, who left them and Twilight with a wave. Once the Queen left, Twilight led her new charges up the steps towards the inner halls of Brightstone Keep. Her keep, she reminded herself, and not without a hint of trepidation. As the next page of her life unfolded, she wished it would turn into a sunny day, rather than through the ashes reaped by the ponyspawn once again.
Her wish would not be answered today.