• Published 21st Jan 2014
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Pony Age: Catalyst - OmegaPony11


With the defeat of the Archdemon, Twilight Sparkle, new Arlessa of Amarethine, must assemble a new team of Grey Wardens to defeat the threat of the ponyspawn. Her friendships will be challenged by a cunning new foe while betrayal lurks around her.

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On the Road Again

Chapter 10 - On the Road Again

Twilight walked down the corridors of Brightstone with two guards by her side as well as Silverstar. She descended into the depths of her keep’s dungeons. After a week of dealing with business concerning Amarethine, Twilight decided now was a good enough time as any to deal with her jail’s lone occupant: Berry Punch, the mare who tried to assassinate her.

She passed the sleeping bodies of several diamond dogs, who preferred to be as low to the ground as possible. They also liked the cold of the underground and she discovered that living underground made their eyes susceptible to the intense rays of the sun. Sparky learned this the hard way and needed days to recover her eyesight.

The two guards who waited for Twilight unlocked the doors for their arlessa. A foul stench erupted from the dungeon that told a story of spilt blood, burnt hair, and rotting flesh. Twilight recalled what a cruel pony Arl Rendon Main was, for when he took over as Arl of Trotterim, he remade the dungeons there to include torture rooms.

Twilight destroyed such items herself, and now they fueled the fires of braziers in and around Brightstone.

The smell of death still lingered in the dungeon and would remain for many a year after. Thankfully, Twilight did not plan on staying here long. She just needed enough time to talk to Berry.


She walked up to the bars where the proud mare lingered. “Berry Punch,” Twilight said clearly and with authority, “I am here to take your case. I will hear your defense as we are now. My seneschal Silverstar will act as witness and record the proceedings.”

Silverstar stood ready with several sheets of paper and a solid pen in his mouth. He dipped the pen into an inkwell and nodded to Twilight that he stood ready. While she would have preferred her writing, it went against Equestrian protocol to record one’s own hearings.

Berry Punch, dressed in little more than prisoner’s rags, stood up and locked eyes with Twilight. Her posture gave Twilight an inkling that Berry did not much care for the new arlessa or her impending punishment.

“A trial? How noble of you,” Berry punch said with a sneer. “Most lords would string me up or take my head after a few months starving in the dungeon. Please, oh Arlessa of Amarethine, do indulge me my trial. I’m sure it won’t end any different.”

Twilight sighed, lifted up a sheet of parchment with her aura, and began to read aloud: “Berry Punch, daughter of Rendon Maim, former Arl of Amarethine and Trotterim. You are accused of attempted murder of an arl and destabilizing the region, both high crimes under The Queen’s Law. The penalty is thus Arlessa Twilight Sparkle’s to choose, with the recommended action being execution.”

Berry slammed her hooves into the iron bars. “I’d like to see you try! I don’t need weapons to kill you, murderer!”

Twilight felt another headache coming. “Strike that from the record, Silverstar,” she said, “Berry is just being emotional. If you would like to speak in your defense, calmly, do so now before I dispense punishment.”

Berry laughed. “Oh this is rich. You think I’m going to beg for my life? Kiss your hoof greaves? Forget it. I’d rather drink sewer water. You killed my father, and I came back for vengeance. I botched it and got thrown in here. So just get it over with. You stole my title, my money and my land. Might as well steal this pretty head from its neck while you’re at it.”

To accentuate her point, Berry stretched out her neck as if to appeal to Twilight’s sword. Instead, Twilight cleared her throat and continued to read her dissertation.

“The evidence against Berry Punch is conclusive as there were several witnesses that can attest to her actions. The defendant also openly admitted her guilt. As such on this Monday, nine thirty-one Dragon Age, punishment will be delivered. Berry Punch, for your actions against the ruling and rightful Arlessa of Amarethine, therefore considered, you are hereby stripped of all right to land, moneys and titles as would be your right as the daughter of the former arl. However, as is also my right as Arlessa of Amarethine, I hereby give you leniency on further punishments. You will not face the gallows, but instead have your belongings returned to you and then escorted out of Amarethine in a direction of your choosing. You are hereby exiled from Amarethine indefinitely upon pain of death should you return. You will also pay a fine of three-hundred sovereigns for the damaged caused to the Arlessa’s private quarters.”

Berry Punch stood slack jawed as Twilight rolled up her parchment and placed it with the rest of Silverstar’s notes for proper cataloguing. Silverstar looked up at his Arlessa with no less surprise than the prisoner.

“I understand why you are angry with me,” Twilight said, “and I know this is going to sound hollow to you, but I mean every word. I did not want to kill Maim. I did not want to fight him at all, but he forced my hoof. I made a decision and now, seeing you and your anger, I know I chose wrong. That is why I won’t let anyone execute you, but I also cannot allow you to stay in Amarethine. Your very presence is a liability to the stability of the region.”

Berry Punch still looked confused as the guards opened her cell door. “I don’t understand,” she said, “I’m your enemy. I tried to kill you. I could try again. You can’t honestly make me believe that you are letting me live because you feel guilty?”

Twilight turned her back on Berry. “I cannot make you believe anything, but what I say is the truth. Know that I don’t want any more pony blood on my conscience, directly or by ordering an execution. Your things will be brought to you shortly, save for three hundred sovereign to cover your fine. You’ll depart in an hour. Go in peace.”

Silverstar took that as the end of the short hearing. They ascended the stairs in shared silence as Twilight let her thoughts swirl about her. Some would call her mad to show mercy to a mare who made an attempt on her life. Twilight did not fathom that mercy could ever be seen as a weakness. She would extend a hoof in peace to any who stood against her, though if slapped away, she would easily show the transgressor the error of their ways.

Yet showing a pony mercy proved easy. Trying to offer the olive branch to the ponyspawn continued to evade her. They displayed speech, thought, and the capacity to establish leadership, yet they still gave into their primal, savage nature. They did not respond to her pleas for peace, only seeking her violent death at their hooves, claws, and fangs.

Maybe Lyra is right, Twilight wondered, maybe peace with the ponyspawn is impossible.

They entered the main hall of Brightstone where Twilight’s seat waited for her. She sat in the arl’s throne and waited for the first order of business to arrive now that her dealings with Berry Punch were concluded. Levitating a checklist she made the previous night, Twilight looked over the several matters of business she arranged to deal with before the day was done.

“Seneschal Silverstar, open the doors and let the petitioners in.” Twilight sat on her haunches as the guards opened the large oak doors and several ponies, including Bannora Harshwhinny taking the fore, stepped into Brightstone’s main hall. However, Twilight only felt the drain from the mission to the Dark Tunnels. Her body still ached from the battles as every joint and muscle strained with even the smallest movement. Sleep did not come easily as well, as Twilight continued to dwell on the loss of Daisy.

“Bannora Harshwhinny and her husband have arrived wishin’ to petition the arlin’ for funds.” Silverstar looked up at Twilight as she levitated a quill and parchment. She could take her own notes at these hearings at least.

Harshwhinny bowed low to her arlessa. “Word of your adventure into the Dark Tunnels has already reached the far reaches of your territory, my Lady. You are to be commended on a great victory over the ponyspawn.”

“It was no adventure and the victory, while substantial for the region, is hollow to me.” Twilight did not have the time or the patience for such flattery and made it clear on her face. “Explain your needs quickly, bannora, as I have many petitioners who require my attention.”

“I understand, my Lady.” Harshwhinny’s husband whispered something into her ear. She glared at him for a moment, but the stoic earth pony did not flinch at his wife’s baleful gaze. “Perhaps we should discuss such matters another time. I’d like to invite you to my holdings in the Bannorn, Arlessa Sparkle. We could have a much more intimate and understanding discussion.”

Twilight nodded and offered Harshwhinny a smile. “I have reason to visit all of the banns in Amarethine, and will do so at my earliest chance. Thank you for your patience.”

Harshwhinny bowed again and turned to leave the main hall. As she and her husband left, Sparky walked in with her hood shrouding her face; a measure to defend her sensitive eyes from the rays of the sun. As the two passed each other, Sparky’s lips pulled back revealing her large canines and she snarled at the bann and her husband. She reached for her daggers, which only alarmed the other petitioners and the guards further.

Twilight galloped over to Sparky and stood between her and Harshwhinny. “Sparky, calm down!” Twilight said, “this is no way to behave in the keep! What’s bothering you?”

“They… smell… bad…” Sparky continued to snarl at Harshwhinny and would not relinquish her daggers. The bannora huffed herself up and stuck her snout in the air.

“Disgraceful,” she said indignantly, “I know you have a penchant for mercy, my Lady, but these brutes you brought back from the Dark Tunnels need to learn proper Equestrian etiquette and quickly. If you do come to visit, you can leave your mutt behind!”

Once they finally left and the doors finally closed, Sparky began to calm. “Me sorry,” she said, sliding her daggers back into their sheaths. “But me wanted talk to Tilight. Pack is hungry.”

Twilight looked to the long line of petitioners and then back to Sparky. She needed to get through her line as quickly as possible and many ponies now appeared agitated by the disruption, but she also knew the importance of keeping the diamond dogs fed.

“Can you stand in the lineup with the other ponies?” she asked Sparky with as much gentleness as she could. “We have a system here… a way of doing things so everypony… everyone has a fair share. You came last, so you’ll have to wait until it is your turn, or until I’m done.”

Sparky thought about this for a moment before nodding. “Me wait behind pony,” she said, “me no make trouble. Me shadowhound. Me patient.”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief as Sparky to her place last in line. Once she sat back on her throne, she dealt with all the other problems on her agenda. Most were minor grievances such as land and trade disputes, while others were reports of the new recruits that arrived to join Amarethine’s standing army. As far as she was aware, she dealt with each issue fairly and expediently. With each petition dealt with, she saw Silverstar nod in approval when she passed her judgments, which only increased her confidence in administration.

Near the end, Twilight saw one of her soldiers approach the throne. “My Lady,” he said as he bowed, “I bring news that the caravan to Amarethine City is loaded and ready to depart once you are your contingent is prepared. We leave at your earliest convenience.

Twilight nodded to the soldier and recalled how she said she would sell off the majority of Arl Maim’s luxuries as a way to fill the arling’s coffers. While most of the treasures held no meaning to Twilight, she did loathe giving up some of the books in the former arl’s extensive library. She wanted to read all of them, but admitted that some of the books simply tickled her fancy rather than provide any practical knowledge. Others were written in other languages that Twilight did not recognize let alone understand. Perhaps she could find scholars eager to delve into the tomes as she would be if not for her responsibilities as both arlessa and Commander of the Grey.

She also looked forward to going to Amarethine. While Twilight did find it a bit odd that the port city was not the seat of the arling’s power, she did anticipate visiting such a city with great enthusiasm. Ports acted as vital elements to a nation’s economy and culture, and no port was as important as Amarethine City. Ships from Pura Raza to the Free Plains sailed in every day, bringing ponies and goods from other regions of the world to Equestria. If she could sell the various treasures and baubles collected by Rendon Maim anywhere, it would be in Amarethine City.


“Thank you,” Twilight said to the soldier, “please inform our escort to be ready by noon, and also make sure Wardens Oghren and Lyra are ready to go as well.”

The soldier saluted and left his spot in the petition line, leaving only a pegasus and Sparky. The pegasus bowed low to Twilight and revealed a letter bearing Applejack’s royal seal. “Word of your delving into the Dark Tunnels has reached Trotterim, my Lady,” she said, “and Her Majesty sent me with this letter as soon as she heard of your return.”

A letter from Applejack? She must be worried about me. Twilight thanked the royal messenger and told her to wait for a response. Her magic opened the letter and levitated it in front of her eyes.

Dear Twilight,

I heard you came back from the Dark Tunnels and that you suffered a loss inside. I wish I was there fighting with you again. Maybe I could have prevented Daisy’s death. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you now, as life in Trotterim just keeps getting more and more hectic. They want me to marry and start popping out foals. I’d rather be neck deep in ponyspawn guts with my friends. Please let me know if you need reinforcements. I’ll send as many soldiers as I can, and lead them myself.

Daisy was a good sort. Equestria is all the lesser with her gone.

Always with you,

Applejack

Twilight gave the note a faint smile as she read it over and over again. Applejack’s crown did not stop her from being the true friend Twilight recognized her as. Interestingly, Applejack left a postscript at the bottom in a fainter ink.

P.S. Rarity is here and is wondering if she can visit you before she returns to Filais. Please send a reply if you would like a white dove.

Twilight would like to see Rarity again, though it would have to be after her trip to Amarethine and the surrounding banns. She was about to put away the letter and take up pen and parchment herself when she noticed an even fainter post-postscript written on the letter’s edge.

Fluttershy is missing.

Twilight dropped her quill and held the letter tighter in her magical grip. Her heart started to race and she rubbed a hoof against her Bracer of Nakuum hoping she could feel the presence of Fluttershy from the paragon’s gift. She felt nothing, only a new fear taking a strong hold on her heart. Twilight knew that when her friends left for their own corners of the world, they would have to face the dangers of such on their own. To know that sweet, kind Fluttershy simply ‘disappeared’ disconcerted Twilight something fierce.

A decision needed to be made and a reply to her friend the Queen needed to be written. Twilight took her quill again and began to write:

Dear Applejack,

We are still reeling from Daisy’s death. She was a promising Grey Warden cut down before her time. I pray to the Sisters that her spirit finds eternal rest.

Please tell Rarity that while I would love the white dove to come to Brightstone, I am going to Amarethine City and the surrounding Bannorn for a couple of weeks. I will send a letter when it is safe for the dove to arrive.

Please leave any information regarding our last shared matter in the next message.

Your Friend Always,

Twilight Sparkle

Twilight sealed the letter with wax and her signet before giving it to the messenger. She also deposited a small bag of gold into her messenger’s bag. “Bring this letter to Her Majesty as quickly as your wings can carry you,” Twilight instructed, “that letter is for her eyes only. Fly swiftly.”

The messenger bowed as the letter slipped into her bag. She took off with a quick flap of her wings into the air and out of Brightstone. Twilight hoped the messenger would return to Trotterim safely and without harm. Now that only left Sparky and her diamond dog pack.

“Alright, Sparky,” Twilight began, “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”

Sparky shifted on her paws. “Pack no has food,” she explained, “pony food no good for pack. Us need meat. Used to eat korroo’sha, but no korroo’sha on surface. Sometimes.”

Twilight balked and almost retched from the idea of anypony choosing to eat ponyspawn. “You ate them? Aren’t you worried about their poisonous blood?”

Sparky tilted her head in a confused manner. “Poison? Korroo’sha taste bad, but no poison. We eat because meat hard to find. Terrasprites tasty, but they eat back. Mushroom not enough. Need tasty meat. Sometimes catch fish or nug, but is hard with korro’sha. Big horn feed pack for long time, but hunters die when hunting. Shadowhound sometime hunt, but we defend pack and kill korror’sha far from pack.”

Twilight tapped her chin as she tried to think of a way to help Sparky and her people. She only heard rumours that some ponies ate meat, namely in the Imperium, Pura Raza, some Dalish clans, and certain Mustang tribes in the southern lands, but was deemed as barbarism by the Filesian Empire. Equestria, for the vast majority of her people, did not engage the in act of raising or hunting animals as food.

That would need to change in the case of the diamond dogs. Twilight did not like the idea of hurting wild animals, but the diamond dogs needed meat and meat they would get.

“I’ll send some soldiers out into the wilds to hunt for game,” she told Sparky, “there should be plenty of deer and boars in the forests near Brightstone. It will take time, so I’ll have to ask for the pack’s patience. Can you make sure they know food is on the way?”

Sparky’s pointy ears perked up at Twilight’s promise for meat. Her tail wagged behind her as she leapt up and hugged Twilight. “Pack get tasty, good food! Me tell pack right away to wait for pony hunters. Me thank you!”

Twilight smiled and hugged Sparky back. Soon the shadowhound bounded out of the main hall while Silverstar announced that the arling’s court was to be adjourned until the next session upon Twilight’s return. Her business concluded, she allowed her seneschal to carry out her orders as she returned to her quarters to prepare for the coming journey.

She readied herself first by slipping out of her clothes and into her Arcane Warrior’s armour. While she loathed wearing the magically reinforced steel, with the Free Blight still a threat, the protection was a necessity. When the breastplate clicked into place, she almost thought the shining armour constrained against her very larynx. After a deep breath,the feeling dissipated, though it did not leave her.

The pendant Rarity gave her gave Twilight more comfort than any steel ever could. She slipped it around her neck and under the breastplate. She then picked up her sword and belt and tied it around her stomach. Once equipped, she looked at her reflection in the tall mirror. Twilight regarded Sophia with some trepidation; the last flesh it tasted was her own and in the far reaches of her mind, Twilight wanted to use that same power again.

It would be so much easier if she used blood magic. The power it provided could eliminate the ponyspawn problem quickly and with ease. All she had to do was prick her foreleg and let a little blood flow. It would save so many lives if Twilight just gave in to the rush—

Twilight recoiled from the mirror as if she was in the Eluvian’s realm all over again. Her breath came in ragged gasps as she tried to calm down, but to no avail. The taste of blood magic and the power it brought tainted her, she knew it. She needed to do something to clear her mind. Sit in the Chantry and pray, stuff her face with apple pie, drink herself to a stupor on cider, anything to clear or muddle her mind from thinking about that accursed practice.

A knock on her door nearly scared Twilight out of her skin as she gave a sharp yelp. She stared at the door as if it was to open and reveal an Archdemon, yet somehow managed a shaky “Who is it?”

“It’s Lyra,” came the reply, “I felt a magical spike in here, and was wondering if you were OK.”

Twilight could not believe how distracted she was getting. Magical spikes were things unicorn foals could not control. She was Twilight Sparkle, Commander of the Grey and Arlessa of Amarethine, and she could not even keep her own magic regulated.

“I’m alright,” she lied, “just… something frightened me, is all.”

“Blood magic?” Lyra’s reply made Twilight blood run cold. Defeated, she opened the door and allowed her fellow unicorn Warden into her chambers.

Lyra looked to have a much more composed demeanor than Twilight, though she appeared to be a much different mare than the one Twilight met during Brightstone’s siege. Lyra’s mane was slicked back and she wore a diadem around her forehead right under her horn. She wore a ash grey robe with exposed bits around her shoulders, giving her an elegant, if mournful appearance.

“It’s been a while,” Lyra said as she walked into Twilight’s quarters, “sorry I secluded myself for a while. I needed time to think after the Dark Tunnels. It’s never easy losing someone you call a friend.”

Twilight swallowed back a sob and kept her composure as she packed away some more things for the journey. “Have you… have you lost friends before, then?”

“Mhmm.” Lyra looked out from Twilights still-damaged window to the countryside below. “I may hate the Imperium as a whole, but the ponies I fought with, my fellow battlemages… well some of them, I considered them brothers and sisters. Sure we got really close, like, really really hot and heavy close, but they were ponies I trusted with my life.”

“I didn’t come here to talk about me, though it is a favourite subject of mine.” Lyra smiled at Twilight, yet after the image in the mirror, Twilight did not respond in kind. Lyra sighed. “You have to get over the fact you used blood magic, Twilight. Lots of unicorns use it every day, sometimes right under the Chantry’s nose and more often to escape the templars’ blades. I know the Tower probably taught you different, but it’s just like you shooting your purple beams or me breathing fire. It’s a weapon to be used and respected, nothing more.”

“That is where you are wrong!” Twilight cried out, “I felt the power of blood magic and I liked it. I liked hurting Iron Will and watching him suffer. I look at my sword or any other edge and I feel this pull in the back of my mind to use it again and it scares me!”

Lyra looked nonplussed by Twilight’s tirade. Instead she chuckled, which only irritated Twilight further. “Congratulations, O Hero of Equestria. Turns out you are just a regular pony like the rest of us. If you were not tempted by power, you’d be too perfect to be real. If you weren’t scared of your power, you’d be no better than the Imperium magisters.”

“Have you ever used blood magic, Lyra?”

Lyra nodded. “A few times, but only in desperate situations. It’s hard to use blood magic in the heat of battle, at least controlling it. It doesn’t care whose blood is used for the casting; yours, your enemies… your friends. But I avoid using it because I know and understand the same pull blood magic can have on your psyche. So long as I keep myself grounded with my goals, both short-term and long-term, I can resist the temptation of power.”

“Wouldn’t blood magic help with those goals?” Twilight asked. Lyra shook her head.

“They would cause more harm than good. Long-term, I’d like to see unicorns free from domination of the Chantry and their Towers. If I used blood magic, I’d just be worsening the situation. Wouldn’t that just be great, though? No more being restricted in where we can go, what we can do, who we can be with. Unicorns being just as free as any other earth pony or pegasus, able to use our special talents without fear of a templar’s blade. Free to be who we are without fear of anypony.”

Twilight was not sure if she could agree with Lyra. The Towers served a purpose in training unicorns to use the magic of the Fade safely and until Twilight could properly teach unicorns to use the magic within, it was the only magic they could use. As this was the case, it also meant unicorns needed to defend themselves from demons constantly. The Towers protected unicorns and the outside world alike from the dangers of the Fade.

Twilight did see Lyra’s point about the Templar Order, though. Even she fell afoul of a few overzealous templars who gave her disparaging stares. Once a crasser templar threatened her unless she gave in to her more physical demands, though thankfully the Tower in Lake Blackwater had two very disciplined ponies leading it: First Enchanter Wise Eyes and Knight Captain Hornshield.

However, Twilight knew she was one of the lucky unicorns to have a relatively stable Tower. She knew very little about Towers outside of Equestria and could only assume that some were as bad as Lyra expected. Perhaps worse.

“What about your short-term goals?” Twilight said as she packed away a few light tomes to read while on the journey to Amarethine.

Lyra giggled and got a look in her eyes that Twilight knew all too well. “Short term is to find all the ponies I really like, snuggle up close to them, and show them the best kind of magic they would ever have experienced. Rawr.”

Twilight was about to protest when Lyra leapt onto her bed, posed “seductively” and bounced her eyebrows in a rather suggestive manner. Twilight did groan but in frustration, her horn lighting up and pulling Lyra off her bed with a powerful yank of her blanket.

“Come on, Twilight,” Lyra begged as she giggled. “You are way, way, way too strung up these days. You need to let loose. Have a little fun. We can have a quick romp right here, right now and no one will know. There won’t be any scandals, as I am the picture of subtlety.”

“You sure are showing it now.” Twilight shook her head as she latched her saddlebags against her armour. “Why are you so focused on sex anyways? What’s the big deal?”

“What’s the…” Lyra balked, apparently unable to even comprehend the question. “You can’t be… I mean… the way you look, the way you talk, the way you simply are… are you honestly telling me that the Hero of Equestria, the Commander of the Grey… is a virgin?!”

Twilight’s frustrations began to mount as she opened her door with her supplies now ready. “So what if I am? It’s not like I’ve exactly had the time to date a pony, fall in love with them, and finally… do the… deed.”

Lyra clicked her tongue. “Oh, honey, love only has a little to do with it. Sometimes you need to just give yourself a little ‘me’ time.”

“I do have ‘me’ time. It’s when I’m in bed with a good book.”

Lyra pressed her hoof against her face. “Yeah, and I’m pretty sure that good book isn’t ‘The Lusty Dalish Maid.’ Everypony has needs, Twilight. Physical needs. You have to at least do it once before you die, and considering the near constant lethal danger we put ourselves in, that could happen any day. We’re going to Amarethine which means it’s a port city, and port cities have sailors and sailors only want two things; copious amounts of booze and some decent pony flank to get behind. That means Amarethine has brothels, so when we get there, you and me are going to a brothel to get you some.”

Twilight could not begin to believe she was having this conversation and with a known lech like Lyra. She expected this kind of behavior from Oghren, but then he seemed to have settled down over the years, save he still let loose his berserker tendencies in battle and made a crude joke or two. Shaking her head, Twilight left her quarters with Lyra following her.

“I don’t want ‘some’ of anything, Lyra,” Twilight fired back. “I don’t want to get intimate with anypony. All I want is to keep Amarethine safe and have some time to write my book on a unicorn’s inner magic, but between the ponyspawn and running the arling, I’m lucky if I have enough time to write a single sentence!”

“That’s why this is a good idea.” Lyra stood in front of Twilight and prevented her passing through the halls. “Listen, I’ll be there for you and everything will be safe and fun. Maybe not in that order, but we’ll see. You’ll have complete control of everything. Who you see, what you want to do, and it will be your rules. You have all this pent up frustration and energy that a simple spell or a night with a fuzzy horseshoe will fix.”

Twilight raised a brow. “What do you mean by a fuzzy horseshoe?”

If finding out Twilight was a virgin made shocked Lyra, she now went completely white. “Sweet Celestia’s flank, now I know you are joking. You have to be joking. This isn’t funny, Twilight, because if you are not pulling my leg, then…”

Twilight continued to stare incredulously at her fellow Warden, choosing not to say a word. Lyra sat on her haunches and pressed her face into her hooves and let loose a mighty groan.

“I don’t believe it!” she shouted, “You are telling me that not once you… you know… worked the fields? Plow the garden? Pet the kitty?”

“This is innuendo, isn’t it?”

Lyra smiled. “She’s learning.”

Twilight gave a sigh of disgust. “No, I haven’t. Like I said, it’s not like I have the time for that, and besides, it’s just… weird. To talk about. Let alone actually do it. Besides, this discussion is over and I don’t want to have it again. I will pull rank if I have to Lyra.”

Lyra tittered as she and Twilight walked out of Brightstone Keep towards the waiting convoy. “Alright, alright, commander. But mark my words, you are going to let loose one of these days with some hot stud or sexy mare, and when that day comes you are going to shower me with gratitude. Or if I’m the lucky one, you’ll just be showering with me.”

“You are impossible!” Twilight walked off at a quicker pace and hoped that her straight out refusal of any of Lyra’s night time activities would be the end of that particular conversation. She did not feel the need for companionship of any sorts beyond that of friendship and that was the end of it. Why Lyra pushed so hard escaped Twilight’s thought processes.

***

Some time passed as Twilight oversaw the preparations for her journey to Amarethine City as the soldiers readied themselves and the various carts filled with goods for the long road. Twilight spent a good while looking over a map to find the best and safest route to their destination. They would travel the King’s Road northward where the most they would have to encounter would be bandits and with their numbers as well as Twilight’s reputation, only the most foolish would challenge them to battle. However, this road was long and winding, giving the large group a fortnight to traverse Equestria.

Another road would shorten that travelling time by half, but it would take them through the Blackmarsh, a place most ponies whispered about in hushed tones. Twilight asked her soldiers what the trouble was with Blackmarsh and the tale they told did nothing to ease her own tension.

Twenty-one years ago, the land known as the Blackmarsh used to be a small, yet prosperous mining village of lyrium. After Filais was expelled from Equestria, the town grew rich and fat from the bounty of the land. Several unicorns called the village home and studied magic within the borders. During the reconstruction of Equestria, the village acted as a model for the harmonious coexistence of unicorns and earth ponies.

That was, until the accident. A massive explosion rocked Amarethine from the city all the way to the shared border of Trotterim. Some say the entirety of the lyrium mine exploded at once, for it is known that lyrium was massively unstable. Some whispered however that foul magic was being practiced too close to the lyrium mine that devastated the countryside.

The very land shifted from the magical flux created by the explosion. What used to be rocky plains turned into a dreadful swamp, filled with all manners of beasts, insects, and monsters. Terrible diseases plagued those that ventured into newly named Blackmarsh. While some braved the muck and bogs, very few emerged from the other side.

Twilight regarded the map. Her curiosity over a magical catastrophe was piqued, but she would have to investigate at a later time. She needed to protect her soldiers and those Wardens under her command. If she could avoid unneeded risks, she would do so.

She checked the carts to make sure everything was in order with her third checklist, pleased with the speed and efficiency of her soldiers. Twilight stopped when she reached the cart she would pull and took a deep breath. Daisy’s body lay inside the cart, shrouded by silk and ready to be taken to her final resting place. Twilight learned from Daisy’s last will that she wanted her body burned and her ashes scattered on the farmland she and her sisters grew up on. The farm, thankfully, was on the way to Amarethine, so long as they took the King’s Road.

Twilight wanted to pull the cart, despite mild protests that the arlessa should not do such menial labour. She brooked no arguments, however, and the display seemed to heighten the morale of her soldiers. They looked to her with eyes filled with respect and admiration rather than the fear and trepidation they held when she first arrived in Brightstone.

“By your side, my Lady,” the soldiers said as they stood prim, proper, and ready to move on her order. Twilight nodded to them to prepare for the journey as she hitched herself up to the cart with her fallen Warden Sister.

Oghren and Lyra flanked her when Sparky ran out of the shadows. She covered her eyes as best she could with her hood and much to Twilight’s surprise, did not fall over. The shadowhound did seem to be in some pain from the bright rays of the sun, however, she constantly covered her eyes with her paws while trying to look up at Twilight.

“Me come too,” she said, “me am pack leader’s shadow. Go where you go. Watch back from the shadows. Sun hurts though. Don’t know how to stop hurt.”

“Ponies do a lot of travelling, working… everything during the day when the sun is up, Sparky,” Twilight explained, “I appreciate and welcome your company, if you are sure you can make the journey. I think I know a way to help you, too.”

Twilight ripped a piece of cloth from the back of one of the carts and tied it around Sparky’s eyes. The blindfold worked well enough, as Sparky did not twitch under the sun. It did increase the amount of air she sniffed and the twitchiness of her ears.

“The Dark Tunnels are, well, dark, and not conducive to produce proper eyesight except for donkeys who have ample sources of light. That said, it appears both donkeys and diamond dogs evolved to have powerful hearing with long ears and, in the case of diamond dogs, very potent olfactory senses to maneuver through the dark regions to avoid prey and forage for food.”

Twilight felt Sparky’s blank stare from behind the blindfold, which only increased the uneasy feeling thanks to the blank stare from both Oghren, Lyra, and a good number of her soldiers. She sighed. “It’s dark underground so donkeys and diamond dogs developed better noses and ears.”

The group nodded in faux understanding while Twilight shook her head. Sometimes she wished she could carry a proper conversation with someone that didn’t involve broken common, donkey brawls, and lewd comments about her rump.

“Alright, everypony,” Twilight called out, “Let’s move out! Silverstar, I leave Brightstone in your hooves.”

The ponies of Brightstone watched as their arlessa took the lead of the caravan, many of them wishing her a good journey and praying for the Sisters to protect her. Twilight smiled and waved at the ponies who came to respect and trust her. She would not let them down.

***

They walked for what Twilight gathered from the position of the sun as five hours, the dusk settling in over the horizon. The journey proved uninteresting for the majority, though Twilight did find it odd they did not pass any other fellow travelers of the King’s Road. No sign of farmers or merchants walked the road, but thankfully she did not find any disturbances caused by the ponyspawn.

Lyra and Sparky took the time to talk to one another and, much to Twilight’s annoyance, Lyra focused on how diamond dogs “mated.”

“Sparky mate, but no pups,” the shadowhound answered the curious Lyra, “is…hard to put to word?”

Twilight was about to object very loudly when Sparky did begin to say something of interest. “Sparky runt, so runt no good for making pups. Runt good for shadowhound, so Sparky take the dark as hers. Alpha say who get mate and make pups though. Need strong dogs, tough dogs. Not many dogs left.”

“That’s so sad,” Lyra added. “What about mating for love and pleasure?”

“Love? Love nice, but no put food in belly.” Sparky’s ears drooped. “Diamond dogs not strong enough anymore. Too many wars. Too much digging into Deepest Depths. Too much want. Donkey not end of diamond dogs. Korro’sha carry blame.”

It made a sick degree of sense to Twilight as she silently listened that the diamond dogs would control the breeding within their broken packs to the degree that Sparky reported. When an entire races numbers dwindled as much as they did, the alphas likely decided that they needed to make sure only the healthiest and strongest of their kind continued to breed. That said, she was glad they did not kill off the runts as liabilities, but instead found a way to make them contributing members of diamond dog society.

Granted, that way involved making them the equivalent of assassins, but again Twilight understood. The underworld of the Dark Tunnels needed the denizens to be strong. “Survival of the fittest,” Twilight quietly mused to herself. The ponyspawn appeared to run on the same principle.

“OK, that’s why you do it,” Lyra continued, “but what about the how? How does it feel?”

Twilight gave a noise of disgust as she urged herself to take the lead. Oghren stood by her side, only with a big cheesy grin on his face that his thick red beard braids could not hide. Twilight looked at her old friend who only continued to chuckle.

“Lyra’s been getting you riled up, huh?” he said.

“She’s been getting more and more annoying,” Twilight replied, “all she ever seems to think or talk about is sex, sex, sex!”

Oghren thought for a moment. “Maybe that’s how she copes with loss?”

Twilight had not concerned that. Everypony handled grief differently, and Lyra was no exception.

“Think about it,” Oghren said, “she’s going on and on about rutting non-stop a couple days after we got out of the blighting Tunnels. Hell, I bet she even had a go with some ponies during our off time. But I also remember you two being able to have a conversation with only a few jokes from harpflank. I’m just saying it was like me and drinking back in the day when I thought Branka died in the tunnels. She wants to distract herself from Daisy’s death, to not think about it, and few things distract anyone better than a good roll in the hay. Even a mediocre roll will do, I think. Check me out, boss, I used a big word.”

Twilight did not make note of Oghren’s growing vocabulary but instead focused on Lyra once again. She had to admit that Oghren made sense in a way Twilight did not anticipate. Her companions continued to surprise her.

“Maybe you are right,” Twilight said, “maybe I shouldn’t push her away and just let her talk. Get everything out in the open.”

“Oh, she still wants to rut you,” Oghren quickly added, “I’m just saying she’s being a bit more aggressive than usual and she may be doing it for her own healing. Gotta say, I kinda like this more impulsive side of her. Maybe if I turn on the ol’ Oghren charm…”

Twilight glared daggers at Oghren, considering he only recently sent a letter to his second wife and only child to now considering a brief fling with a unicorn in mourning grief. Oghren backed down, thankfully, which allowed Twilight to focus more on the road ahead.

While dusk came to its zenith, a herd of storm clouds gathered overhead. Twilight called for a halt to her convoy and for them to make camp on the side of the road. Soon dozen of tents hitched to the ground stood tall and resilient against the powerful winds, and the first drops of rain signaled the coming downpour.

Twilight took refuge in her own tent as the pitter-patter of raindrops provided the ambiance to her reading. Laying under the covers of her cot, Twilight levitated the book Rainbow Dash sent to her and began to finally dig into the font of knowledge that lay before her.

Her ears twitched for anything out of the ordinary and Twilight constantly felt that she walked the razor’s edge between caution and paranoia. She focused on her senses and heard only the heartbeat she shared with Oghren and Lyra.

“Everything’s fine,” Twilight whispered to herself, “we’re fine. I’m fine.”

Then why did it sound like a lie?


***

The Architect walked down the cavern with a heart filled with both worry and disgust. He abhorred coming down to these reaches of the Dark Tunnels, but knew he held little choice in the matter. The ruler of this particular region of the Deepest Depths called for an audience with him and he would answer as he always did.

He jumped down to behold the massive underground lair his caller made her home. The mucus on the walls shone from the light of stone braziers, but the large fires did nothing to warm the Architect’s skin. Goosebumps crawled beneath his ruined fur, yet he did not give way to his own fears as he made his approach.

Nothing moved to greet him. In fact, nothing moved at all. Yet the Architect could hear the constant buzzing of thousands of insect wings, and every moment he remained in the cavern he could feel his sanity slip even further.

He would show neither fear nor weakness, however. To do so would put all of his carefully laid plans into the jeopardy and he would become a slave of the foul creature.

In the center of the cavern stood a bulging mass of black flesh surrounded by green veins; the source of the call that drove the Architect here. He approached the fleshy monument of a Blight long past and bowed his head to it.

“Great Mother,” he said in a reverent tone, yet not without a hint of disdain. “You summoned me?”

The fleshy mass began to tremble, though the Architect did not flinch from the foul display before him. The mound began to bleed the familiar black blood of the ponyspawn, as well as pouring putrid pus and other unidentifiable yet no less repulsive liquids. The stench from the various fluids would make any lesser pony or ponyspawn retch.

Good thing the Architect was no lesser being.

The folds of the postulant boil that acted as a throne began to peel away, each with a sticky squelch as flesh and blood tore themselves apart. The Architect remained silent as the layers of black skin peeled away until the one who summoned him finally appeared.

The Architect met no fouler a creature as the one that walked before him. In the shape of a tall pony, she bore a regal yet still savage presence on her long limbs, each leg filled with holes that made the entire body part look useless. He knew better though; he saw those legs crush a minotaur’s skull into a fine paste.

Wispy, pale turquoise tendrils of some kind of fleshy substance made up her mane and tail, the closest thing to hair the Architect could assume such a creature could have. Insectoid chitin lined her abdomen providing some protection while from her back sprouted a set of translucent wings. Like her legs, the wings had holes, and yet they still provided her with swift flight.

Atop her head sat a horn, but unlike a unicorn’s symmetrical and coiled one, or an ornlock that sat curved and filled with savage magic, the summoner’s horn was a jagged piece of bone filled with an intense yet subtle magic. A green aura surrounded the horn as she closed her fleshy chamber. The Architect knew that while carrying no formal training like any other ornlock, she could use her own twisted sorcery to savage effect.

The part that perturbed the Architect to no end were her eyes. Bright yet filled with malice, green with tainted magic, and reptilian with a fierce hunger, she stared at the Architect as if he were just another morsel to her. He almost swore that her gaze alone pierced through his mask, yet he himself could not pull away from her stare.

There was a surreal beauty about the creature. He damned himself for ever thinking it, yet could not stop.

“Great Mother, Queen Chrysalis,” he said, using both the title given to her by the ponyspawn and her own chosen name. “You have summoned me at a sensitive time.”

Chrysalis cracked her neck, the sound of bones and chitin echoing throughout the supposedly empty chamber. “I have. The Warden has the Eluvian shard from the Dark Tunnels. This is very distressing for the both of us, as I am sure you are well aware.”

“I sent the most powerful of the Chosen’s minotaurs to collect the shard,” he explained, “I did not think the Warden would defeat the Indomitable.”

“The loss of the minotaur is of no concern of mine.” Her wings moved faster than the Architect could follow, allowing Chrysalis to hover above the bridge. “In fact, the Warden did us a favour. Imagine if we had to fight such a warrior. The losses would be quite unacceptable. However, I cannot complete our arrangement until I have all the Eluvian shards.”

“I will find them, and reclaim the one taken by the Warden.” The Architect spoke with confidence, but even he understood the gravity of the situation. Twilight Sparkle proved time and time again to not only be a cunning, intelligent, and powerful force, but also shown to be a pony he did not want to fight due to sharing similar beliefs. Both wanted peace for the ponyspawn, but the monsters very natures made that difficult.

Chrysalis promised to use her substantial magic and knowledge through the centuries to aid the Architect if only he gathered the Eluvian shards. That seemed a more distant goal now more than ever. Everything the Architect designed did not take Twilight Sparkle into consideration.

“Oh, one more thing,” Chrysalis said as she inspected her hoof. “My agents told me the Shaper was incredibly furious about losing the Indomitable. He is on his way to the next shard as well. Interestingly, he did not bring any other ponyspawn with him. I think he means to do the Grey Wardens considerable harm as well as vengeance.”

This stopped the Architect cold as he stared at Chrysalis in disbelief. “The Shaper is the single most powerful blood mage amongst the ponyspawn, perhaps even the world. I fear he may be able to defeat the Warden using such terrible magic.”

He wanted to stop the Shaper or warn the Warden or do something, but either of those options would reveal his own treachery to the Chosen. Chrysalis appeared to notice as she smiled her wicked smile, revealing her long, flesh-tearing fangs.

“What will you do?” she hissed.

The Architect turned to leave. “Maintain my distance,” he answered. “If the Warden is successful, she will claim another shard and slay the Shaper. Should the Shaper win, then one of our most powerful obstacles falls, and our combined forces can take Brightstone. Either way…”

“The Warden dies.”