• Published 7th Jul 2013
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Origins - websterhamster

Deep beneath the primeval Everfree Forest, unimaginable things can happen... This story begins several thousand years before Hearth's Warming.

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Chapter Four - Questions, Questions

Chapter Four – Questions, Questions

The tunnel was dark, with spectral shadows filling the gulf between each red torch burning on the walls. The rough grey basalt bricks that graced the floor and walls seemed to magnify the gloom of the passage, making Midnight feel almost as if he were walking through somepony's nightmare. The creature he followed definitely added to that vibe, his strange loping stride and glowing eyes combining to make it a convincing replica of a monstrous demon from the dark recesses of a young pony's mind.

However, Midnight Shadow was immune to such horrors. Ever since he was a foal, he had never been afraid of the dark; in fact, he always seemed to be happier at night. The first time he used magic, when he was only two years old, he had been watching a meteor shower with his parents. While lying on his back, idly waiting for the next star to go shooting by, he had almost unconsciously grabbed the shadows cast by the moon, and made them mirror his thoughts. Nopony noticed until the shadows moved into the moonlight in front of them.

He had gotten his Cutie Mark when he was fourteen years old. In the village where he grew up, there were a bunch of young fillies and colts always playing around, and, as in all groups of young creatures, there were bullies. Midnight never received the benefit of their attention, but he couldn't stand the sight of ponies being ridiculed and harassed, so he decided to use his shadow-magic to protect them. When he realized that there was an immense good that magic could do for the world, he knew that he wanted to study and learn all he could about it, to discover and record new spells. And thus he earned his Cutie Mark.

A cold draft of air came blowing in from under the metal door, catching Midnight momentarily unawares. His shadows billowed in the breeze before he enthralled them again. The lizard lifted his head and sniffed, no doubt noticing the scent of morning dew in the air. Midnight hoped he could get Forest out before dawn, but was afraid such a feat would be beyond his ability. He was used to scholarly pursuits, not deeds of subterfuge and rescue.

The rest of the journey to the interior of the dungeon was uneventful. About a thousand meters from the door, he began to see short passages coming off the main one, with barred doors on either side. These appeared to be prison cells where criminals and enemies could be kept locked away; however, these all seemed to be empty.

They walked for another fifteen minutes before arriving at a small circular room at the end of the hallway. It was much like the throne room, although without any pillars; at the back was a wooden door, and to its right, a barred gate. In front of these portals was a desk, behind which sat another lizard, dark green in color, with a slightly lighter shade of green on her belly. She was adorned with golden armor, a crested helm upon her head. Leaning against the wall behind her, between the two doors, was a sword-belt, shield, and spear. She looked up at the approach of the black lizard.

The guard who Midnight had been following stood to attention and saluted by placing his right fist over his chest. “Private Brex reporting for duty ma'am!” He said.

The martial-looking lizard behind the desk stood and returned the salute. “At ease, Private. I don't know how much Sergeant Cathka told you, but our scout team has captured a young pony, a unicorn, on the surface near the north entrance. I believe this one, although too young to use magic yet, may someday be our means of finding the lost tribe.” She suddenly looked sharply at the shadows behind Brex, no doubt seeing a movement when Midnight shifted his hooves to be more comfortable.

She continued. “It’s highly possible that the scouts were pursued, as they noticed another unicorn, a stallion, accompanying the prisoner. They observed him acting as a mentor to the prisoner, so he may have attempted to “rescue” her. The perimeter guards at the edge of the Great Shadow heard a noise earlier, but haven't reported seeing anything yet.”

Private Brex had shifted to a less stiff position while he listened to the briefing. Midnight was interested to hear all this, as it was obvious Forest Treasure was their prisoner, and he was the pursuer. They didn't know who they were dealing with, did they? He thought, smugly. So far he had escaped detection, although apparently some of the guards had heard him teleport over the gorge.

“Commander, permission to make a suggestion?” Brex asked.

“Granted,” replied the other lizard, who was apparently a commander.

“It may be faster and simpler to use the prisoner as bait for the older unicorn. Instead of waiting for her to learn magic on her own, we could have the stallion do the work now. We could shave years off the wait that way,” the Private said.

The Commander looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head. “That's actually a good idea, but for now there's a more pressing matter. As you know, the lorions of the Southern Shadow have been gearing for war for a year. Also, I'm sure you know that their army was spotted at our southern border a week ago, with an escort of unicorn battle-mages from High Gate. They intend to attack soon, and we need to know their plans. If this unicorn was part of a scouting party, we could get some important intel from her.”

“And Sergeant Cathka said you needed me to interrogate her?” Brex asked.

“Yes. While your methods are... unorthodox, I can't argue with the results. I've spent the last hour trying to get her to talk to me, but she insists she was on an adventure with her teacher, 'searching for knowledge' I believe her words were.” The Commander leaned forward. “I need you to get at least some numbers from her. We need to know what we're dealing with.”

Private Brex straightened and saluted again. “Yes Ma'am!”

The Commander stood and took a large black key from a drawer in the desk. She then walked over to the gate, inserted the key, and unlocked it, pushing it inwards with a creak. Motioning for Brex to follow, she entered, with a lizard and shadow-cloaked pony following closely behind.

The gateway opened into another corridor, only about twenty meters long. On each side were large doors of a golden metal alloy that looked similar to the doors Midnight had seen earlier, although these doors had a slight reddish tint to them. Complicated lock mechanisms surrounded the doorways, with strange triangular keyholes in the center of each door. Above the doorways were two gas lamps, although only one was lit on each cell. With the exception of the door at the end of the corridor, the lamps all burned green, while the last door had a lamp burning red, the glow of which cast the cell door in a menacing and evil shade of crimson.

Between the doors were racks, full of equipment that was either for torture, or meant for the restraint of various different creatures.

“You haven't been enlisted long enough to know how this works, but when we captured a magical being, we always keep them locked up in this cell block, behind doors made of Adamantium. The locks are also shielded with Adamantium, so they can't use magic to escape. Under no circumstances will you interrogate a prisoner here or open any of these cells unless the door to the cellblock is closed; it locks automatically to prevent escape.” The Commander said.

“Yes Commander,” Brex replied.

They had traversed half the distance to the end of the corridor when Midnight stubbed his hoof against an irregularity in the paving of the floor, tripped, and hit his head against one of the doors with a loud clang! Both of the military lizards froze, then wheeled about to see a cloud of shadows disintegrate to reveal a dizzy and reeling unicorn trying to get up without falling over again.

So much for sneaking around,” Midnight thought, as he began to charge up his horn to defend himself. But before he could regain his concentration to form a spell, the Commander had swiftly capped his horn with a conical sheath of the same metal the cell doors were made of. Straining, he found that all of his magic was contained, making him basically defenseless; he was a scholar, not a warrior, and he knew he wouldn't stand a chance in a physical fight against these trained guards.

“So, you made it this far, did you? Well, no worries, we'll double the watch to make sure none of your friends can follow!” The Commander said, leering at him. “Private! Open cell one of the Adamantium cells and introduce our ‘guest’ to his new accommodations. After seeing to the filly, we'll interrogate him; he may be more useful at any rate.”

“Yes Ma'am!” Brex took a harness off the wall and quickly latched it about Midnight's withers. After attaching a long leather leash to the harness, he led the dark blue stallion to a cell adjacent to what Midnight assumed was Forest's. Inside, the guard lizard attached Adamantine shoes to Midnight's hooves, which were then chained to prevent him from moving.

The whole while, Midnight was silent, and didn’t resist. He was a scholar of magic, and as such knew that with his horn capped there was no way he could defend himself; there was no use getting beat up when he would likely need his strength later. He hoped that the lizards had been more gentle with Forest Treasure.

Brex closed the door with a clang, leaving Midnight in utter silence and darkness.

Brex was excited. He had only been in King Narmon's Elite Guard for two months, and had already made a good impression on his superiors. Now, he had the honor of not only interrogating two enemy spies, but he also got to do it in front of Commander Shaktas after she herself had failed in the same endeavor! Rubbing his palms together gleefully, he stood watch at the end of the corridor, while Shaktas made a call to General Drakol to inform him of the capture of another enemy unicorn.

“Guardsman, this is Commander Shaktas, connect me to the War Room immediately!” Shaktas ordered through the handset she had taken off the wall.

After a moment, she said, “General, may the darkness shield you from light. We have captured another unicorn scout, which was probably following the one we caught earlier. He made it right into the Adamantine cellblock before we noticed him; he seemed to be wearing a cloak of shadows.” The last few words she spat out in disgust. Brex understood the sentiment; having an enemy use the Darkness against them was depraved beyond description.

“Yes sir, we're also increasing the guard in all wards. I don't want to go into lock-down yet, but I want to be ready at a moment's notice. We'll be interrogating the prisoners to find out what they know.” Commander Shaktas continued her conversation with the General. Brex could only hear on side of it, of course.

“Yes sir, that's fine. I think you should let Private Brex try it first, though. He's always had a knack for getting information from prisoners. No sir. Yes sir, I understand. Very good sir. May the darkness be with you.” She flicked the lever next to the communicator, then asked to be connected to Sergeant Cathka.

“Sergeant, may the darkness shield you from light. I need additional guards in all wards, and especially at the old north entrance. We've had an infiltration, and we need to contain the damage. Also, you should reinforce the guard at the Throne Room, I think the spy we caught may have walked right through there. I'm also giving you authority to command the ordinary guard, as I'm going to be occupied with the interrogations for a while. Don't bother sending more guards here, by the way, General Drakol's sending some of his marines over.” Shaktas was obviously in her element, making things happen quickly and efficiently.

“That'll be fine, Sergeant. Make sure you're ready, we may have to initiate a lock-down at a moment's notice. Yes. Thank you, may the darkness be with you.” She hung the receiver on the wall and turned back to Brex, who was now starting to feel the pump of adrenaline through his veins.

“The war is starting, isn't it Commander?” He asked.

Smiling grimly, the warrior responded, “Yes Private, the war is starting. This is our hour of reckoning, when the lorions of the Great Shadow shall be seen as either weak or strong. And although we don't have a horde like those of High Gate and Southern Shadow, we shall prevail, as our minds are sharp, and in our blood is the magic of the lost tribe.”

The two lorions looked at each other solemnly, pondering the paths they might tread in the days to come. Being soldiers, they both knew that sacrifices would have to be made, and blood would be spilt before the war was over. They also knew that decisions they made could turn the course of history at this critical time. If victory was to be theirs, they would need every ounce of valor, every precious drop of courage, and all the strength, both mental and physical, they could summon.

“Well, the war isn't going to stop for us, so we should do our part. Private, are you prepared to interrogate the filly?”

Brex responded, “Yes ma'am, let's do this.” His face was set with determination. As a member of the Elite Royal Guard Regiment, he would only be on the front lines if the king went there, or if his regiment and the king were the only remaining soldiers of the Great Shadow. But he could do just as much good by gathering intel as he could by slaying enemies, so he was resolved to do as much as he could.

The Commander took her Adamantine key and opened the door to the filly's cell. Inside, the young unicorn lay asleep, tears slowly trekking down her cheeks and falling to the floor. Brex didn't think she was a spy, and if she was, High Gate must be very desperate to field such young ponies for military duty.

The Commander stood back, by the door, and motioned to Brex to go ahead. “She's all yours, Private. I'll stay silent and let you do your thing. If anyone can get the truth out of her, it's you.”

Blushing with the compliment, Brex stepped up to the filly, and gently shook her awake. She started, and seeing his fearsome (to her eyes) countenance, began to sob and shake with fright.

“Let me go! Leave me alone, I haven't done anything!” She cried.

“Shhh, little one, I'm not here to harm you. I just want you to answer some questions I have. The quicker you answer my questions, the sooner I can let you go,” Brex said.

“I can't answer any of your stupid questions! I don't know any of the answers. She already asked me, and tortured me, but I don't know the answers,” the little filly said, pointing a hoof towards Commander Shaktas.

“Well, she's letting me ask the questions now, and she's letting me decide whether or not you're lying. I think you'll tell the truth; I have a knack for judging liars from those who are sincere. I don't think you're a liar, are you?” Brex knelt down to get to the same level as the filly, looking at her calmly.

She looked into his eyes and without wavering said, “I never lie. I am always proud of myself, and never need to hide anything I do from anyone.” Her cold look and steadfast demeanor only helped validate her statement.

Brex settled himself comfortable on the cold metal floor, and asked the first question. “What is your name?”

The filly stammered, “F-Forest Tr-Treasure.”

“Forest, why were you so close to the northern entrance to the Great Shadow?” Brex asked.

Now Forest looked confused. “What's the Great Shadow? She asked, puzzled.

Brex gestured around. “This, all of this. You are in the Great Shadow, the domain of King Narmon, High King of the lorions. This city, and the entire cave system we're in, is the Great Shadow.”

Forest seemed to understand now, and replied to the question. “I was camping with my mentor, near the forest road, when a bunch of things like you grabbed me, tied my muzzle shut, and carried me here. We were on an adventure to learn about ma-ma-magiiic!” And she started sobbing again.

“I don't want to make you cry, but I have one more question for you. Have you ever heard of High Gate?”Brex said gently, watching the filly closely. Her answer to this inquiry would tell him whether she was a spy or not.

“High Ga-ate? I-isn’t that where the unico-orns live?” She seemed to have calmed down a bit, but her voice was still hitching.

“Yes, that’s right. What do you know about High Gate?” Brex continued.

The young filly’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling, as they did every time she thought about what to say. “I just know tha-at the traders tell stories about it to Midnight whene-hever they come by our hhh-house…” Her voice trailed off and she sniffed loudly, probably thinking sadly about the old cottage that was alone and empty right now.

“And one more question, Forest Treasure. What's your mentor's name?”

“Midnight Shadow,” was her response.

Brex and Shaktas looked at each other uneasily. It was very unusual for a pony to have an affinity with the darkness like the lorions, but the stallion Midnight Shadow seemed to be the very embodiment of shadow and night.

Brex turned to his commander and motioned that they should leave the cell. Taking a breath, he said, “Commander, this pony is telling the truth. She is not a spy, nor is she from High Gate. The other one, her mentor, may have more useful information for us, however.”

Shaktas thought for a moment, then apparently made a decision. “Have her taken to one of the holding rooms and unshackled. Place a guard by her door to keep her safe.” She didn't need to elaborate on why she thought a guard was needed. As the reality of the war fell upon the rest of the lorions, they would want a witch-hunt for anyone who could have aided High Gate and the Southern Shadow.

Brex left the room and relayed the order to one of the marines stationed just outside the Adamantine cellblock. As the marine led Forest Treasure away, Shaktas and Brex met in her office to plan the interrogation of Midnight Shadow.

While the two lorions had been preparing for war and questioning Forest, Midnight was running his brain in overdrive, trying to figure out how to get away so he could free his apprentice.

He thought aloud. “These lizard-people are very martial, think and react quickly, and seem to prepare for all eventualities. This cell is magic-proof.” Even if the cell weren't made of Adamantine Brass, the sheath locked on his horn prevented all but the most basic mind spells to work, none of which could help him escape.

He sighed despondently. Midnight was the most educated unicorn mage in the land, yet he couldn't rescue his own student from foal-nappers! The indignity and hopelessness of his situation frustrated the midnight stallion, making him feel anger towards his captors, something that was decidedly unhealthy for a pony. Taking slow, measured breaths, he tried to calm down.

Doing nothing, while it was difficult, was the only action he could take. He just prayed that the lizards weren't hurting Forest Treasure.

“So, first we ask him what his name is. If he tells us, then he'll feel like he has control when we call him by name.”

Commander Shaktas looked at Brex skeptically. “You obviously know what you're doing, but these methods are highly irregular,” she said, unsure of what to make of the young rising star of the guard force. While he was sharp and eager, showing great talent for interrogations, the black lorion Guard was very, well, boyish at times, and it made Shaktas uneasy to be putting such great responsibility on such a freshskin.

I don't know what's wrong with me, he's never done anything to make me doubt his abilities! I should give him a chance, she thought. He's likely the most prime candidate for promotion of the whole guard; after this prisoner issue is dealt with, I'll recommend him to Sergeant Cathka.

Brex continued, “After we've established a dialogue, we'll ask him, politely, what was his purpose in camping near an entrance to the Great Shadow during wartime.”

“You're very direct. What if he refuses to answer? Wouldn't it be better to get answers in a more roundabout way, so he doesn't know he's giving himself away?” Shaktas wasn't at all sure of Brex's plan.

“That should be a last resort. He'll know if he's being manipulated; if there's a chance he'll cooperate, we shouldn't ruin it, because this way we'll likely get more and better information,” Brex responded.

Commander Shaktas was ready for action now. “Well, enough talk! There's a war on, and we need to find out if there's an army knocking at our back door. Let's go speak with the unicorn.”

Midnight looked up as the large door in front of him ground open, revealing the same two lizard-guards that had captured him. The one who had been identified as ‘Commander’ took a position behind him, while the other one, Private Brex, knelt in front of him, and began to speak.

“I'm Private Brex of the Royal Elite Guard. I'd like to begin by asking your name,” the young guard said.

“My name is Midnight Shadow. It's not a pleasure at all to meet you, seeing as you've locked up me and my student in this most unfair and uncivilized manner!” Midnight responded angrily.

“Your student, you say? Would you please describe her, and tell me her name?”

Midnight locked eyes with the lizard. “Her name is Forest Treasure, and I am her mentor. She's a young unicorn filly, light green, with a brown mane and tail. If she's been harmed in any way, I will imprint your image upon my soul, and hunt you until the day the world passes out of time!” He said this last sentence very forcefully, wanting to be very clear. He was serious, too; if Forest was injured, either physically or mentally, he would make these lizard-people feel as if their very essence was pain. When it came to his student, he would hold nothing back to protect her.

“You needn't worry, your student is well and safe. We have taken her to a holding room, and she's been unbound for her comfort. She has been deemed innocent of all crime against the Great Shadow, and it is my wish to exonerate you as well,” Brex said, as sincerely as one telling the truth was able to do. It was obvious enough to Midnight, and went a good way to relieving him of his fears.

Brex continued, “What do you know about High Gate and the Southern Shadow?”

High Gate? Why in the world would he be asking me about High Gate? That's hundreds of miles away!” This was indeed surprising to Midnight, since most unicorns knew all about High Gate; it was the seat of their empire. While the Empire didn't extend this far into the Wilds, most of the unicorns living out here would be within two generations of being born there – Midnight had been born in High Gate himself.

“I was born in High Gate; it’s the principle city of the Aetheric Empire. I’ve never heard of the ‘Southern Shadow’,” he responded to Brex.

“When was the last time you spoke with a leader of the Aetherian military?”

Of all outrageous things! He must think I’m a spy, he thought. The indignity of the situation was now fully impressed upon Midnight’s mind; these strange lizards seemed to be highly militaristic; their custom must be to assume all trespassers were hostiles intent on harming their citizenry.

Midnight replied, “I can’t recall the last time I spoke with anypony in the Aetherian army. I departed when I was barely a stallion, to explore the world. It’s been thirty years since I was last in High Gate, and that was when I left.”

The male lizard gave a significant glance to his superior, the meaning of which was lost to Midnight. All he could think about was Forest’s safety.

“Please, may I see Forest Treasure? I must see that she is alright for myself,” He asked, anxiety apparent in his voice.

Brex seemed about to speak, but the Commander beat him to it. “I’m afraid that won’t be permitted. Until we’ve reviewed the evidence, you’re to be treated as a prisoner of war.” She leaned forward, until her snout was almost brushing Midnight’s muzzle. “Let me be very clear. If you are determined to have been in league with the combined forces of Aetheria and the Southern Shadow, you will be executed as soon as we have time. You may be shown leniency if you share whatever you know about their army with us.”

Brex looked uncomfortably between the Commander and Midnight, then continued his questioning.

“Are you a member of the Aetherian Royal Army, or any division of military thereof?”

“No, I am not.”

“Are you under orders to infiltrate the Great Shadow and provide intel to the combined forces of High Gate and the Southern Shadow to aid their cause in the impending battle?”

This one threw Midnight for a loop. “No. And I don’t know what the ‘Southern Shadow’ is, as I said before. And what battle? If there’s going to be a battle, I would like to be free to escape it with my student, if you don’t mind.”

Brex leaned close to the Commander’s ear, whispering something to her. She nodded. “Very well, let’s go. The other matter is even more pressing, and I’d like to get a report to the Council of Elders as quickly as possible.”

With that, they left, Brex giving Midnight a hopeful smile on the way out.

The cell once again filled with stifling darkness, made even more oppressive to Midnight by the fact that he couldn’t banish the shadows; although, after the amount of magic he had used searching for Forest, very likely he wouldn’t be able to power the spell anyway.

Having nothing else to do, he fell into a troubled sleep, waiting for the inevitable to come.

It had been four hours since they’d interrogated the dark unicorn. All Brex wanted to do was go to his apartment and rest, but they were at war, and there was no time to lose; even now, patrols were bringing in scouts from the enemy army. Unlike Midnight Shadow and his apprentice, these ponies and lorions bore armor emblazoned with their respective armies’ insignia. Brex, having been highly recommended by Commander Shaktas, had been ordered to oversee all the interrogations.

The second interrogation of the young filly had produced very different results, but it had been with a different purpose as well. Where Shaktas had been trying to determine if Forest Treasure was an infiltrator, Brex was asking questions from a very specific list that had been provided by the Council of Elders. He wasn’t sure what exactly they were looking for, just that it had something to do with the legend of the Lost Tribe, a group of lorions that had supposedly left the Great Shadow in its golden age, for the deep underground labyrinth known as the Forge. They had left hundreds of years ago, after a pony philosopher had suggested they could be the beginning of a new form of magic, one that could rival the power of Chaos magic while actually being beneficial to everything around them.

To Brex, it sounded like so much nonsense, but the Council believed in the story, and so he must as well. He wasn’t the most faithful citizen, but he paid his tithes and visited the Temple of Darkness once a month to pay his respects. The Council believed the Lost Tribe could somehow save the Great Shadow, and they had convinced General Drakol that it should be investigated as a supplement to defending the city with more conventional means.

A prophecy had cropped up around the time the Tribe left, stating that the Lost Ones would return after experiencing the essence of love, and becoming a new kind of shadow. Ever since, it had been taught to hatchlings as an important part of the history and legacy of the Great Shadow..

In the Darkness and deep Fire

When power will fail

Through hatred, love’s defiler

Bloodshed without scale

The Shadow misplaced

By deed of great thought

When happiness mattered

Were miracles wrought

For springing aloft, A

Standard unfurled

For Harmony’s bliss

They searched the world

In Era of battle

When Shadow shall bleed

The Dark will be compelled

Descendant shall concede

Tasting Love to complete

New Shadow reveal’d

Young child shall discover

Power not in wealth

Power six fold, power galore

Love shall conquer evermore

Chaos unbalanced, feeling pain

Shadows combin’d, nev’rmore twain

It had been interpreted to mean that one day, in the darkest hour of the Great Shadow, when all would seem lost, a young descendant of the pony who had led the Tribe away would journey into the bowels of the earth, into the Forge itself, and bring them back to their brothers and sisters, to force the enemies of the Great Shadow to bend the knee and never again rise against their rightful king. Brex had no opinion on the validity of this claim. Maybe it was true, maybe not; prophecies had come true before, but there simply weren’t enough facts to prove or disprove this one.

Brex was no idiot, so he guessed right away that the Council suspected Forest was the pony of legend, destined to bring unity and dominance to the Great Shadow and King Narmon. They were meeting now, probably arguing over the likelihood of the filly being the actual one that was foretold; Brex had observed a few of their meetings before, and knew that ‘discuss’ and ‘brainstorm’ were terms alien to them. They argued, fought, shouted, screamed, and otherwise behaved chaotically when they were trying to decide something.

Brex winced as a loud thump came from the door to the Council Chambers, followed by a muffled shout. He sighed; apparently they had passed the ‘build up a rage’ part of the meeting, and were progressing into the ‘beat the others into submission’ stage. This was usually a free-for-all, since none of them were ever willing to compromise if they had a differing opinion.

Finally, the young girl who had been assigned as page to the Council for the day opened the door, beckoning to Brex to enter. The Council had his orders, at last!

Rising from her place at the head of the table, the aged and wise Grand Matron of the Council of Elders addressed Brex.

“Private, it is the will of the Council that you bring the filly Forest Treasure to this Council immediately, that we may interview her ourselves and determine a course of action. The Secretary shall record this as our latest action,” she rumbled; her deep voice was legendary in the Great Shadow.

Brex saluted, saying, “It shall be done, Grand Matron. May the darkness be with you.”

Forest Treasure was very scared. She hadn’t been away from Midnight for this long since she had become his apprentice, and it was very frightening. She missed his warmth, the comforting words she knew he would say, the firm yet gentle reassurance of his presence. Without him, all manner of horrible things might happen!

With this frame of mind, Forest was brought before a group of mostly old lorions which were seated around a broad, oval table of grey carved stone. In the center of the table was a gas lamp, and in the background could be heard the dull whump-whump-whump of a fan circulating the warm air in the room. The soldier that had brought her here, the lorion named Brex, stood behind her as she faced the table from the foot of the room.

At the head of the table was a large, high-backed wooden chair, almost a throne. The aged lorion who was seated there began to speak.

“I would like to begin this interview with a few questions for young Forest Treasure, which should provide the most insight while causing the least amount of anxiety for those of us eager to express diverse opinions,” she said, shooting pointed glances at more than a few lorions at the table.

“Forest Treasure, we are the Council of Elders of the Great Shadow, the spiritual leaders of our people. We guide them in matters of the heart and soul, and in things that are believed, not seen. We have cause to believe that you may be a fulfillment of a prophecy hundreds of years old, in this, our time of need. For the benefit of those reading the transcript and our remote audience-” here she gestured at a device in the table before her “-I shall read the prophecy of the Lost Tribe.”

As she read from a scroll, Forest idly watched a moderately sized beetle crawl up the leg of a chair, its occupant, a dark brown lorion of many years, oblivious to his danger (at least Forest assumed it was dangerous, the only beetles she had ever seen that size were flesh-eaters).

The old lorion finally stopped reading and put down her scroll. “Forest, we believe you to be the young child prophesied in the Legend of the Lost Tribe.”

Forest was, of course, speechless that anypony would write a prophecy about her; she didn’t know enough to say for sure if really was the one, but the old lorion sure seemed to think so.

The lorion spoke again. “We must first determine if your lineage is eligible. Eltnek! Fetch the genealogy tome by Twisted Roots, it’s the large green one with a big tree on the cover..” Looking up, she said, “Before the hostilities began, we received a book that will help us determine if this filly is in fact the child who will restore order to King Narmon’s realm by bringing the Lost Tribe back to the Great Shadow.”

The page-girl walked to the back of the room, past Forest, and began searching through the huge bookcases there.

At this point the beetle had begun to crawl across the Elder’s lap, and he noticed it; he picked it up and threw it in his mouth, munching as if it were a delicacy. Needless to say, Forest was disgusted.

One of the council members, a very fat grey lizard with a sour disposition (if you could even tell his disposition through his thick, leathery hide), interrupted sarcastically. “Just lovely! Another wondrous example of unicorn ingenuity. Maybe this time our twice-respected Grand Matron will present to us something real for a change!”

The Grand Matron narrowed her eyes at him. “And, Elder Gahok, what help have you shared with the Council? Nothing but criticism and dissent! I suggest you keep you dirty snout shut until you can use it for something useful,”she said, venomously.

He snorted and leaned back in his chair, muttering.

Forest was sweating lightly now. Conflict and contention invariably made her feel ill at ease, and the tension in this room, the unfriendly glances the elders shared amongst themselves, all combined with the stressful situation she was in had her feeling quite uncomfortable.

Little Eltnek brought back an enormous green tome, with a shimmery golden tree embossed on the cover. Placing it in front of the Grand Matron, she backed away and sat once more in the shadows.

The Grand Matron pulled the book to her, and asked the simple question, “Forest Treasure, what are the names of your parents?”

Instantly, an emotional wound that was but thinly bandaged was ripped open viciously, as Forest felt her heart stabbed with a combination of great longing, sorrow, and fear. She had never known her parents, and had grown up with Midnight since almost as long as she could remember. One of her greatest sorrows was not knowing anything about them, or if she had a family. If Midnight had been there, she might have been able to overcome this, but his absence drove home her orphaned state cruelly, and she began to cry quietly.

Brex, behind her, was very observant, and noticed this right away. But before he could say anything, another old codger, an Elder named Nedoni, raised her voice at Forest.

“Speak up, child, we haven’t got all night! Who are your parents? What are their names?”

And that was the proverbial straw that broke the pony’s back. Forest completly broke down, sobbing with sadness and fear. “I do-on’t ha-ave any pa-re-he-he-hents!” She screamed. “I’m an orphan!

Brex, ever the big softy, went up to her and kneeling, held her close. “Shhhh, it’s alright, little one. I’m not your mentor, but you needn’t worry when Brex is with you. There is no need to fear,” he said gently. Looking up, he glared at Nedoni.

Said lorion huffed, and folded her arms, while Gahok snorted and said, “I expect she’s the daughter of some Aetherian whore. Maybe some noblecolt’s daughter. There’s no way in Tartarus she could be descended from the Shepherd!”

And at that invocation, an outside observer would have thought Tartarus itself had come to defend its honor, as all semblance of order and decorum in the council chambers vanished. Elders stood and shouted at each other, raising their voices to be heard. Forest caught bits and snatches of what was said, each one a nail being hammered through her heart.

“...or even think of it, you must be absolutely insane!”

“What if she’s actually that handler that followed her, what was his name? What if she’s his spawn? Maybe they…”

“...going to the Forge? You imbecilic nincompoop…”

“...probably just a toy for that dark stallion’s pleasure…”

Finally the Grand Matron shouted, “ENOUGH!” The room quieted down.

Lowering her voice to a conversational level, the old lorion spoke to the Council. “Brothers and sisters in shadow, these are the most treacherous times in the history of the Great Shadow. Never before have so many threatened our borders, even our fair city itself! I know the size of the army we face, and I know the size of the army we can muster - we cannot hope to win by ordinary means. We must recover the Lost Tribe, or at least whatever secrets the Shepherd may have had that could aid us in our efforts.

“I propose to the Council that we send a party to the Forge, to attempt to recover the Lost Tribe, and bring them home to the Great Shadow.”

There was utter silence for a moment, then one of the younger Elders asked, “Who would you send?”

The answer rang with the voice of Doom. “We shall send Forest Treasure, accompanied by Sergeant Brex, and young Eltnek here. They shall bring hope with them when they return.”

“Have I leave from the Royal Guard for this quest?” Brex asked.

“While my greatly respected colleagues were.. discussing… our options, I contacted General Drakol and obtained leave for you. And a promotion, you will observe.” The Grand Matron replied.

Nedoni started chuckling. “Once again, you’ve beaten us, Karoth! Ha, we can’t even argue against your plan because we’re so desperate that we might as well go along with it. So be it! I call the question.”

Grand Matron Karoth spoke to the Council, “All those in favor…”

Midnight awoke from his sleep when a guard began unshackling him. His eyes opened slowly, the temporary binding of his magic making him very drowsy. The guard unlocked the collar around his neck, and led him out into the hallway. There was a squad of heavily armored soldiers waiting.

One of the soldiers stepped forward. “Midnight Shadow, under the Law of the Great Shadow, Articles of War, section J, verse 22998, you are being ordered to attend to the Commanding Officers of King Narmon’s Royal Army. You will cease any aggressive intentions toward any citizen of the Great Shadow, and allow us to lead you to the War Room.”

The lorion nodded to the guard, who removed the Adamantium cone from Midnight’s horn. The instant his horn was exposed to air once more, sparks of magic flashed around him, as he experience a magical surge from the sudden return of his power. The soldiers raised their pikes, but otherwise remained still.

After the surge died down, and Midnight showed no signs of attacking his captors, the soldiers surrounded him in a box formation and began to march him back toward the city.

Ten minutes later, Midnight was ushered into the “War Room”, a very interesting place indeed. In the center of the room was a table, that appeared to have been alchemically saturated with a magical formula, showing a holographic representation of the state of the Royal Army. Midnight had experimented heavily with alchemical enchantments before deciding to study the idea of enchanting objects with pure magic. That quest was what had led him here in the first place.

The soldiers around him suddenly kneeled, and one of them whispered furiously, “Kneel! The King is here!” Midnight kneeled, looked around, and spotted the lorion that must be the King. It was the same one he had noticed on the throne on his way in, and he was conversing eagerly with a group of very martial-looking lorions wearing heavy bronze armor.

The king looked up, and noticed the group that had just entered. “Please, step forward Midnight Shadow. I would request of you your services.”

Midnight stood and walked slowly to the king, nervous.

My services? Why in Tartarus would he want my services? And why would he think I would help him, after all he’s done?!

The king introduced himself and his generals. “I am King Narmon, ruler of the Ever-Reaching Shadows. These are my generals, Drakol, Jartok, Raekii, Pilin, and Fortosh.”

He clasped his claws behind his back, and paced back and forth. “As I’m sure you have deduced, we are at war. An entire city of my people, the Southern Shadow, have forsaken their eternal vows to the Crown, and seek to dominate the world. They are allied with High Gate, and have fielded an enormous army of lorions and unicorns to occupy the Great Shadow and subject its people to bondage. I have little hope of repelling them through force of arms or conventional battle-magic - the most I can muster against them barely comes to a quarter of their full strength. I also have only a handful of trained unicorn mages, and very few lorion battle-mages at my command.

“Frankly, our situation is hopeless. High Gate no doubt wishes to double-cross the Southern Shadow as soon as they win the Central Forest, for we’ve been hearing rumors of sacrilege and heresy from the kingdom of the unicorns for a couple of years now, and even whispers that the Pony Alliance is in danger of collapsing. You are scholar, surely you must realize what this means, not just for my city, or your acquaintances to the east, but for the entire world! If the ponies don’t work together, the world will be overtaken by windigos, and worse, chaos. Balance is hard to achieve, but only little children don’t know the consequences of living without it.

“Which is why I need your help. I need you to help in upcoming battle, to bolster the strength of my battle-mages. We do have a last-effort plan in action at this moment that may save the day, but it requires time. We have no other options. Will you help me?”

Midnight thought for a moment. If what Narmon said was true, the world was indeed in danger. The traders had been hinting at contention between the tribes to the west, but in the Central Forest very little of that mattered. The forest was a wild place, and the ponies that lived there all worked together. They didn’t have cities or kingdoms, and knew that if they didn’t help each other, they would surely die.

In fact, if the situation had been different, and he had come here with Forest, and the two of them had not been captured and imprisoned, he would have been completely willing, even eager, to aid the Great Shadow in their fight. And the fact the the King was being honest with him up front did a little to help Midnight forgive them.

But, he had a significant concern. “What about my apprentice, Forest Treasure? Will she be freed and kept safe from the danger? I am responsible for her,” he said.

“Your student will indeed be kept safe from the dangers of the war, however, she will have her own dangers to face. The Council of Elders has seen fit to send her on a quest to an area known as the Forge. This is the contingency plan I mentioned; your student will, if an ancient prophecy is to be trusted, bring a powerful Lost Tribe of my people to the city, to wipe out the enemy or make them bend to their oaths, and my rule. It is our last hope.”

Now that was unexpected. How dare they send a young filly, not barely ten winters old, on a quest by herself?

“I cannot accept this. If she is to go on such a quest, I must accompany her; she is my responsibility!” Midnight’s voice was raised at the end of this statement.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about that. The Council was adamant, and in their decision they voted to not deviate from that course of action. You may not accompany your student; however, she will not be alone. She will have one of my finest guards and an apprentice battle-mage as companions. I have utter confidence in their abilities.”

“No, I will not permit this! You must return her to me at once, and then we’ll leave! I will not abandon my apprentice, not if the Dark and Light combine and make Nothingness!” Midnight charged his horn, and the shadows in the room began to coalesce.

The king noticed this, and growled at Midnight. “You overstep your bounds, pony. I am king here, and will NOT be gainsaid! If you will not help us of your own accord, then we will be forced to imprison you for the duration of the war, and if we lose the battle, then you may find yourself under the spell of the Aetherian Emperor. You would lose your precious student forever!”

Midnight gave a roar of blind rage and began flinging his shadows around, battering the soldiers and generals mercilessly. The room filled with a low hum as the air charged with magic.

King Narmon snarled, and jumped at Midnight, throwing him to the stone floor. Midnight, being in the mental stupor that came of releasing too much magic at once while out of shape, was unable to respond quickly enough to stop the king from bashing his head against the cold floor. The last thing he saw before darkness overcame him was the sorrowful visage of the king.

As his consciousness faded, he thought, Why do I keep getting knocked out like this? And I hope Forest is alright, because I don’t think I’ll be able to protect her...