• 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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Joined in Body and Mind

Chapter 4 – Joined in Body and Mind

After a breakfast of honey and oats with her friends, Twilight felt reinvigorated to meet the day head-on. She looked to each member of the Grey Warden hopefuls with her own goal to give them a sense of calm before the Joining Ritual later that night. On the other hoof, as Twilight continuously tried to tell herself, perhaps to give her own fears some rest. This could very well be their last day alive. How best to spend it?

“Everypony, listen up,” Twilight said as she called for the others to gather around her. “Tonight after dusk, we’ll be undertaking the Joining Ritual. I won’t lie to you all; this won’t just be a simple ceremony with some solemn words and some lyrium. This is dangerous and it could very well be lethal. When I undertook the Joining, two other hopefuls died. One by the ritual itself, and the other by my mentor Duncan’s hoof.”

Lyra and Daisy looked at each other, then to Twilight. She felt her stomach tie into a knot as she relayed that memory in words. She would not kill them if they refused, that much she counted as certain. Still, Twilight determined that the outside world simply was not ready to accept the truth on how Grey Wardens were inducted into their order. The Joining shared too many similarities with blood magic, and that twisted practice held a proper stigma for its diabolic uses.

For now, simple trust would have to do. “For now, I just want you all to spend the day doing whatever you please. Anything at all. I also will not blame you if you leave Brightstone. Such a decision to stay and undertake the Joining should not be made lightly. You have the entire day to decide if this is what you really want. To become Grey Wardens is the duty that cannot be forsworn. Please remember this before tonight. You are dismissed.”

Without another word, Twilight left the barracks of the Grey Wardens with hope in her heart that her newfound friends would take her words seriously. There was no doubt that Oghren would not leave, not now, for his love of battle and challenges brought him to the doorstep of Brightstone to begin with. Daisy and Lyra were the unknowns. Twilight did not doubt their bravery. In the face of a lethal choice, however, would they willingly take such a burden as the Wardens demanded?

Twilight would have to wait until after dusk for such an answer. For now, her day’s itinerary involved meeting the ponies of Brightstone after the siege and determining where to focus rebuilding efforts. On her way through the halls of the keep, Silverstar appeared to be waiting for Twilight underneath an archway leading to the keep’s audience chamber.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Arlessa,” Silverstar said, “Just wanted to inform ya that the Banns under Amarethine’s sphere o’ influence will be arriving together in the afternoon. Ya’ll be expected to entertain them rascals, but they are under yer command. It’s funny seein’ them all to be here in one place though. Most of the time they are too busy snipin’ and pickin’ fights with each other.”

Twilight felt a migraine caused by politics beginning to form. “Wonderful news. Hopefully they’ll be able to explain to me why they did not show up when Brightstone was under siege. Apple… I mean, Her Majesty’s army could see the burning keep miles away.”

“They can certainly lie to ya, Ah tell ya what.” Silverstar gave a deep sigh. “Wouldn’t wish this sort of stuff on my worst enemy, but heavy is the head that bears the title. Don’t worry, milady, the Banns won’t be here until well into the afternoon. Ah’ll send a pegasus quick like when they arrive. Got a few of them employed as couriers. Pretty darn quick too.”

Twilight thanked Silverstar before they both made their way out of the keep’s gates and into the small township within Brightstone’s walls. The morning sun greeted them alone with nary a cloud in the sky, and it almost appeared as if the siege the previous night had not occurred. Already the citizens that made their homes around the keep worked to clean up both debris and carcasses of the slain. Ponies caught in the fighting had their bodies moved with reverence. Ponyspawn corpses were dumped into inglorious pyres and set alight.

Just like the ponies who worked in the keep, those who milled about ignored her or avoided eye contact. Twilight’s ears splayed across her head, only for her to remember her resolve to prove to these ponies that she would become a much better Arl than Maim ever was.

She approached an older stallion who busied himself with removing broken bits of masonry away from the northern walls. Twilight regarded the massive piles of broken stonework from a wall destroyed by a minotaur’s fists, and began to channel a simple levitation spell around her horn. The magic captured the broken bits of stone in her violet aura. With ease, Twilight moved the debris into the cart nearby, reducing the stallion’s workload.

Instead of a look of thanks, the stallion gave her a curt nod, hitched himself to the cart, and walked off with nary a word. Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose; this would prove more challenging than she anticipated. The ponies of Amarethine showed themselves not to be the most accepting bunch.

She and Silverstar continued to walk down the path towards the town where they soon found themselves watching a pair of fillies drag a sled of food up towards a building long charred by the ponyspawn’s flames. They barely looked over ten summers old, yet they both shared the look of yearlings who could not eat a decent meal save for the shrubs in their shed.

“Hello,” Twilight said as she approached the fillies. “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m the new Arlessa of Amarethine, and I want to know if there is anything I can do to help. Are you hungry? I can easily find you some better food than dried old shrubs.”

Their eyes wide in terror, both fillies dropped to the ground in a bow caused by fear. “We’re sorry for taking your plants, Arl!” cried one. “We were hungry and the ponyspawn destroyed our home and they burnt most of the food and… and.. . and…”

The fillies began to cry out of fright, causing a scene Twilight would never in a hundred years wish to make. Soon a small gathering of townsponies surrounded her and Silverstar, though they did not get too close.

“No different from Arl Maim,” said one.

“She’ll bring us nothing to trouble, being a noble, Grey Warden, and a unicorn,” said another.

The crowd dispersed to resume their work. Silverstar approached her side and shook his head. “Ponies from Amarethine are stubborn folk,” he explained, “Kind of like ponies from Red Apple or Appleoosa. Instead of being stubborn and helpful, mind you, they are fiercely independent. Maim’s daddy, Kick Start, wanted the ponies of Amarethine to be self-reliant. This was used as a way to keep the Filesian lords who ruled Equestria back in the day off their backs. When Maim took the lands after the old king kicked the Filesians out, he pushed the same beliefs. Instead of self-reliance for strength and toughness, though, he promoted such a belief again, if only to lessen his own workload.”

“ Just remember that combined with a long tradition of self-reliance and a general mistrust of nobles, thanks to Maim, getting these ponies on your side will be a challenge. The Banns aren’t much better, but you’ll see they strut that dirty side of them the moment they step through Brightstone’s gates.”

Twilight furrowed her brow as she took in Silverstar’s words, only for her to make her way quickly to the top of a bunch of crates. Only a few ponies noticed that their arlessa took a stance above them, though a few stopped what they were doing.

“Everypony! Listen to me!” When she noticed her shout sailed over their heads, Twilight amplified her voice with a spell. “Everypony! The Arlessa of Amarethine wishes to have your attention!”

This did cause the townsponies to stop, though they looked at her as if she just sprouted another head. “Thank you,” Twilight said, bringing her voice back down in volume. “There are some things I feel I need to address with all of you, things that I will inform the region of soon. It was my hope that I could wait until things settled down and let you all adjust to the changes, but a ponyspawn attack changes everything.”

“What about that attack?” shouted one pony, “How can you promise to protect Amarethine when Brightstone fell so easily?”

“My first act as Arlessa is to announce a major recruitment drive for the Amarethine army under my command.” Twilight noticed that that made some heads swivel. Now was the time to press the advantage. “During the Blight, Amarethine was blessed to not have had ponyspawn incursions until now. As arlessa, I will rebuild our army to protect this land and her ponies. As Commander of the Grey, I promise you that I will personally find the cause of this attack and put an end to it before anypony else is hurt.”

“What if you can’t raise an army? What if ponies don’t want to join you and just want to stay in their farms or Amarethine City?”

“Then I will call on the assistance of the Queen personally.” Twilight hated to use Applejack as a political bargaining tool, but it was her best bet to get these ponies to listen. It also meant she could appeal to their sense of self-reliance. “She will send her personal army to help patrol the lands. As many of you know, however, that the Royal Army is not cheap to maintain. Taxes will no doubt increase, but I leave this choice to the ponies of Amarethine: those who are brave and heed the Arlessa’s call to become soldiers and knights in service to their land, or to remain on their farms and work harder to pay a larger debt. This choice I leave to you all.”

Twilight smiled as her words sparked discussion amongst the collective populace. She finally got through to them. Now to press the advantage.

“We have all suffered a lot. The Blight. This new attack on Brightstone. But I know together we can rebuild, re-grow, and rejuvenate Amarethine to be even better than before. The most important part of all of this is trust, however. I trust the ponies of Amarethine to work hard and well towards a brighter future. What I need is your trust that I am not Maim. I will not spend gold on frivolous pursuits or waste my time or anypony else’s time. My duty is not to rule over you, but to protect you. Whether from the ponyspawn or political machinations, this is my duty, both as an Arlessa and as a Grey Warden.”

The ponies of Brightstone, while still not as accepting as Twilight would have liked, also showed that they would consider her words about soldiers and the ponyspawn. They returned to their business once Twilight stepped down from her makeshift podium, and Silverstar gave her a nod of approval.

“Ya have a knack for stuff like this,” he said as they resumed their walk around Brightstone. “Gotta say, Ah didn’t right think you were up to the challenge of governance. Politics is a more dangerous battlefield than any a ponyspawn could inhabit, Ah figure.”

“Ponies need a firm yet gentle hoof,” Twilight replied, “But most of all, they want to be free. While they have their obligations to family and kingdom, they ultimately want to have the choice on how to live their lives. I gave them the choice of either military service or higher taxes, since the needs of the state must be met, somehow. In the end, I did what I believed was right and as a Grey Warden, I did what I must.”

With her first act as an administrator for a province done, Twilight set out to prove that she could do more than talk the talk but also trot the trot. She walked over to a cart laden with broken stones, then hitched herself to the yoke. A couple years of near constant battles and journeys across the land hardened her body and gave her strength and stamina, so a simple cart did not prove a challenge compared to the maw of a minotaur. Twilight did not mind working her mind by reading books. Working her body would be comparably similar. She hoped.

“Please,” she said to the stallion earlier who carried away the damaged stone. “Let me help.”

The stallion did not smile, but he did nod his head somewhat. “Might as well. Gets the job done quicker.”

It was all Twilight asked for.


***


With the sun at high noon, Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow after taking down another cart full of debris. The simple act of hauling stones gave Twilight a new appreciation for the hard work Applejack enjoyed back in Red Apple. While her bones ached, Twilight could not help but smile. The work filled her with a sense of satisfaction, and the ponies of Brightstone did not look at her with disdain, but with approval. While some whispered that her work was merely a show, others said just inside her earshot that her labour was more than anything Maim did for them.

Twilight sat with Silverstar and a few other townsponies as they enjoyed a quick break including some refreshing water and oranges when the slight shadow of a pegasus darkened their table. A very scrawny colt flyer landed nearby. He appeared to be little more than perhaps ten years old, with bad teeth and a grey coat. He stood on legs like spindles, before bowing low to Twilight.

“Featherweight reporting, ma’am, Arlessa, miss hero.” The colt tried his best to salute, but his ragged breaths gave made his hoof shake. Twilight levitated a mug of water and an orange, peeling the fruit as she watched Featherweight drink.

“Rest up and eat,” Twilight said as she offered the skinless fruit. She then turned to Silverstar. “This must be the scout you mentioned earlier. If he is here, then the Banns must be close. Let’s go meet them.”

She called for some of her guards to help Featherweight back into the keep, and then said her goodbyes to her new acquaintances. Twilight did not heed the dust and dirt that clung to her robes and fur; she likened the look that she was a hooves-on kind of pony, rather than a stiff upper-crust noble afraid to get her mane dirty.

Twilight did not bring any of her guards, but instead stood tall as she nodded to the gatekeepers to open the doors. Twilight waited in silence as the main gate creaked open as gears grinded against chains in a loud, obnoxious noise before they came to a halt. Silverstar shifted on his hooves and adjusted his hat. He seemed nervous, but a quick glance in his direction made the seneschal straighten up.

The three Banns approached the gates of Brightstone with their entourage. One mare and two stallion earth ponies decked in fine armour and weapons made their way through the gate, their banners flapping in the wind. Not one of the Banns had a blemish on them, and Twilight found herself eyeing these nobles with caution. Silverstar’s warning held close to her heart, and she knew she had to be on her guard around them. They were supposed to be her dignitaries and protectors of the ponies of Amarethine. Instead, each had the appearance of predators; they would not hesitate to strike should the opportunity arise.

“I bid you all greetings to Brightstone Keep,” Twilight said, trying to her best to keep her smile sincere. “Please excuse the mess. The ponyspawn are tenacious in their sieges, and we are still in the process of rebuilding. I hope we can work together to keep Amarethine safe and prosperous.”

The mare looked over Twilight with a critical eye. Her short cut blonde mane did not move in the wind, and she appeared to be leader of Amarethine’s Bannorn thanks to her harsh demeanor. “I am certain we can come to some sort of amicable relationship,” she said, “I am Bannora Harshwhinny, and these are my fellows, Bann Ground Pound and Bann Broad Strokes. We heard of the ponyspawn attack on Brightstone and moved as quickly as we could to—“

“Arrive at noon the next day, when your holdings are all less than two hours march from Brightstone.” Twilight’s smile faltered. Already the Banns were giving her excuses. “I’ve looked over the maps and calculated how long it would take to bring even an emergency reserve force to bear.”

“My Lady, we understand you are new to lordship, and perhaps don’t have the experience with military logistics, leadership—“

Twilight raised a hoof. Her expression became sterner. “You might be surprised with what I do know, Bann Pound. I know what it is like to see the horrors of the Dark Tunnels first hoof. I know how to lead a small band of earth ponies, pegasi, unicorns, donkeys, golems, and dragons to save a nation. I know how to slay an Archdemon. I am going to make myself very clear to all of you.”

Twilight’s tone changed from the lighthearted nurturing one she used with the populace of Brightstone to a voice laced with steel. “The granaries empty faster than expected. We do not have enough food to last through the winter. The ponies are disgruntled. There are ponyspawn attacking throughout the countryside and Amarethine is defenseless. Fillies and gentlecolts, I am utterly appalled that you, who are supposed to safeguard the land, allowed Maim to wreck such havoc.

What did he promise to pay you all? Lands? Titles? Gold? None of these things matter anymore. I already told the ponies of Brightstone my plan to keep Amarethine defended. You three will go back to your holdings and deliver my request for soldiers. You will oversee the collection of taxes, the success of the harvest, and you Bann Harshwhinny, will ensure that the city ports are open to trade. I am going to liquidate all of the treasures and luxuries Maim collected over the years, and they will be brought to the city to be sold. What little gold we can collect from this will be used to rebuild. These are my orders. Do you all understand?”

Harshwhinny looked to protest when Broad Strokes held her back. “We hear you perfectly, my Lady.” He declined his head. “And we will help you achieve all your goals. The day is not yet done; perhaps we can use it to help each other.”

Twilight breathed a little easier when she heard Stroke’s support. “Thank you. It is as you say; I am not experienced in the art of governance. Coupled with my duties as Commander of the Grey, I need all the support I can get. As long as we are all on the same page, we can really make this work.”

With her smile now returned, Twilight shook the hooves of the Banns. “Tonight, we are going to celebrate. Not just that Brightstone can expel the ponyspawn hordes, but that we can rebuild our walls, our lives, and our arling. Come to the keep at sundown, and we will have a communal meal with the new Grey Wardens and the ponies of Brightstone. There, we can conduct the fealty ceremony as well, to confirm the loyalties of Amarethine Bannorn. While I always give everypony a chance to prove their trust, the traditions must be kept as well as the records, which will be sent to the Queen. I hope everything is in order?”

Harshwhinny blinked rapidly and turned to look in the direction of the working populace. “You want us to eat with… peasants?”

Twilight did not take the bait. “Ponies. They may not have titles or fiefs, but they wake up every morning the same as we all do. I trust this won’t be such a problem, Bann Harshwhinny.”

“It won’t be an issue, my Lady,” Harshwhinny said, her voice tinged with annoyance. “I look forward to tonight.”

“Perfect!” Twilight clapped her hooves in delight. “We are already off to a great start. I can’t wait for the ceremony now. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go prepare the checklist to prepare for the event. Silverstar, can you escort the banns until tonight?”

Silverstar bowed. “It’ll be my pleasure, my Lady.”


***


Dusk seemed to fall rather quickly, and Twilight found herself back in her room alone save for Daisy as the hopeful Warden rummaged about the closets. She had spent the last half-hour in an attempt to find Twilight an appropriate garb for the fealty ceremony, only to find that all of Twilight’s robes were simple wear.

“Everything in here is just so… boring.” Daisy said as she tossed one of Twilight’s favourite yellow robes aside. “You travelled with a seamstress and couldn’t snag something with a bit more flare?”

“Trust me, Rarity tried many times to get me into some gaudy fashions.” As Twilight spoke with Daisy, she levitated a brush through her mane. Bits of dust and dirt clung to her hair and simply would not let go. “What can I say? I like to keep things simple and sensible. Besides, I invited everypony to come. The ponies need to know that I’m an approachable arlessa. What better way than to eat with me, the Wardens, and the banns? I never understood the division of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It’s like a three estate system is in place and while functional on some degree…”

“Commander. Tangent.” Daisy shook her head as Twilight shut her mouth. “Here, try this. I found it in one of the other rooms. A simple maroon dress with embroidered flowers around the shoulders. With this blue sash around your waste, some violet slippers, and a nice flower in your mane, you’ll stand out as a mare of elegance and refinement. A true image of an arlessa.”

Twilight shrugged and began to put on the offered robes. Once she was dressed, Daisy brought over a flower pot on her head filled with carnations. “Not the best selection, but we have to make do with what we have. My sister Lily wore flowers in her hair. Well, lilies. Probably still does right now…”

Twilight’s ears drooped as she heard the sadness in Daisy’s voice. “You miss your sisters, don’t you?”

“All the time.” Daisy placed the carnation against Twilight’s ear. “Do you have any siblings Commander?”

“No. Maybe? I don’t know.” Twilight’s chest constricted for a moment. “I never knew my blood family. Never knew my father or my mother. Unicorns are taken when they are just yearlings by the Unicorn Tower so they can be taught the safe practice of magic. If I have any siblings, I never met them. Sometimes, when I’m asleep, the Fade tries to recreate my earliest memories, but all I see is a blur. A blue coated stallion and a white coated mare looking down on me. They try to say something, but the noise of the Fade makes it difficult to hear them.”

She took a deep breath. “I had a younger brother who helped us fight the Blight. Not related by blood… he was a baby dragon. I hatched the egg with my magic, raised him, and taught him everything he knew… He came with me to fight against the Blight. Throughout our adventures, I always thought he would be by my side.”

“Then the Battle of Trotterim came.” Twilight wiped the fresh tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I should be more focused on the ceremonies tonight. Once the fealty oaths have been sworn, we’ll move to the parapets for the Joining Ceremony. It’s a very… life changing moment, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I can, Commander.” Daisy tried to appear confident, but Twilight could see the subtle shake of her knees. “It’s what I want, to be a Warden. Does the Joining hurt? I can’t find any information on that particular ritual.”

Twilight could not help but laugh at Daisy’s question. “I’m sorry,” she said, checking her appearance over once more before heading to the door. “But I won’t lie. The Joining will either be the worst pain in the world you will ever feel… or your last pain.”

Daisy’s audible gulp shook Twilight as they made their way out of her room and into the halls of Brightstone once again. First they had to collect Lyra and Oghren from the Warden’s quarters. They walked in silence with only a few guards on patrol for interactions. With the banquet hall being prepared, the rest of the keep spent the second night under Twilight’s rule in preparation for a feast, though at a small scale. A ponyspawn attack could not put life on hold. Twilight could only move forward after all.

Once they arrived at the quarters, Twilight opened the door to find Oghren looking especially grouchy while Lyra tittered around him. Her back turned to Twilight, Lyra shook her head as she used her magic to grasp at Oghren’s red mane and beard.

“I hate you,” Oghren muttered and shifted in his rather dapper blue suit. His mane was tied back rather than sticking up with his usual spikey style, and his beard, while still in the same double braids, were bound to his mane.

“Oh come on now,” Lyra said; her own mane tied in an outrageous updo that would make Rarity proud. “You have to look nice for the arlessa’s guests. When was the last time you dolled yourself up? I swear, you have bits of dust and blood in your mane that are older than me.”

“That’s because they are older than you, you mad mare.” Oghren huffed and shrugged himself free of Lyra’s magical grip. Thanks to the donkey innate magical resistance, Oghren escaped her hold and gave his head a good shake; the vibrations freed his beard and allowed the braids to fall.

“I haven’t had to take a bath in years. Only my ex-wife gave me grief over my smell. Now, she’s slag. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lament my sobriety by stuffing my face.”

Twilight chuckled and the sound attracted the attention of Oghren and Lyra. Both stood at attention in their finery, and Twilight found herself appreciating Lyra’s clothing choice. Gone were the dark, sullen robes of the battle mage, which were replaced with white silk with golden trim. She seemed to glitter in the torchlight and the image caused Twilight to catch her breath.

Lyra, of course, noticed. “Like what you see, hmm?” She approached Twilight with half-lidded eyes, fluttering her eyelashes in an attempt at seduction. Twilight rolled her eyes, channeled her own magic and gave Lyra a quick but polite push.

“Come on, Grey Wardens,” Twilight said, “Let’s go meet the people.”

They walked together towards the great hall of Brightstone. The sounds of ponies talking and enjoying themselves elated Twilight. Her plan worked to get everypony together and simply forgetting the troubles caused by the ponyspawn. The guards along with Silverstar waited for Twilight. They all saluted Twilight before Silverstar stepped forward.

“My Lady,” Silverstar said with a bow, “Your Wardens will be going in first and make their way to their own table. The banns are already inside and waiting for your arrival, which we’ll announce right quick. That Broad Strokes fellow seems amicable enough, but Harshwhinny is not bein’ a good guest. She keeps a-snipin’ at the workin’ types. Ground Pound hasn’t done anything either way. Once you’re in, though, everything will come to order.”

“All right,” Twilight said with a nod. “Wardens, head on inside. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren nodded in reply and made their way into the banquet hall proper. Once they were seated, Silverstar entered the hall and raised his voice.

“Fillies and gentlecolts of Brightstone and Amarethine. Honoured guests. It is my esteemed pleasure and honour to present to you the Arlessa of Amarethine, Commander of the Equestria Grey Wardens, and Hero of Equestria. Please welcome… Her Lady, Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight felt her heart thunder against her chest at Silverstar’s introduction. How odd that in little more than a year, she went from a simple mage so enraptured by her studies to a Grey Warden travelling the land to a lady of the realm and a hero of all Equestria. She wished her friends were here to help support her, but a quick rub of her bracer, the same bracer they all wore, helped remind her that they were all close despite the distances.

Twilight walked through the banquet hall to the applause of all her guests. She felt her cheeks burn thanks to the attention, something she did not seek out. A question rose within her: were they genuinely happy to see her or just giving her some sort false praise simply because of her rank? Such questions made her doubt the loyalty of the ponies she was supposed to work with.

The world of politics. She almost hoped the beating in her chest was the telltale sign of the ponyspawn.

Twilight took her seat in the dead center of the head table, with her hopeful Wardens on her right and her banns on her left. Everypony watched her and waited for her to speak. Twilight coughed into her hoof as she assessed the group. Everypony she invited from the workhorses to the fillies who ran from her attended the soiree.

“Good evening, everypony,” Twilight said to the assembled guests. “Tonight is the start of a new era for Amarethine. Tonight, noble and common pony sit and dine together as friends as we prepare ourselves for the future. The time of Arl Rendon Maim is now long ended and it is my solemn vow to everypony here and in all of Amarethine that under my leadership, no pony will live in fear once again. To do this, however, we need to help one another. I will do my best to organize our arling and defend it from ponyspawn incursions. I trust that our Banns will work with me to accomplish everything, and I trust the people to work hard to bring our shared vision of safety and prosperity to life.”

“Hear hear!” Bannora Harshwhinny smiled at Twilight. All Twilight could think was that the smile looked forced. Harshwhinny needed to be watched.

Twilight shifted focus on her guests. “The ponyspawn attacked us and we fought them back. They will strike again. Let us show our enemies that the ponies of Amarethine are stronger than they think us for. Let us show the denizens of the Dark Tunnels that they are not the hammer that will sunder our armour, but the anvil of which will strengthen our resolve!”

The ponies in attendance looked at each other as Twilight spoke, until one filly began to stomp her hooves. Soon, others joined in and a chorus of applaud rose over the main hall of Brightstone. Twilight did want the ponies to believe her and to believe the words of her message. Regardless of which they placed faith in, she seemed to connect with them, at least on the most basic level. Once she abolished the terrors of Rendon Maim, she would focus solely on the ponyspawn threat.

Once the chorus ended, one of Brightstone’s resident Chantry Sisters led the room in giving thanks to the Sisters. The assembly turned to the food, and everypony ate long and well. This gave Twilight an opportunity to think solely on what was to come. She needed to prepare herself mentally for the ritual ahead. Her Joining saw the deaths of two, one by the dark blood, another by the blade of the Warden in charge.

Please don’t let anypony die, Twilight prayed, and hoped that just once, Celestia would hear her.


***


The feast ended late into the night, and the townsponies of Brightstone returned to their homes, while the Banns retired to the guest rooms within the keep. Twilight told the Warden hopefuls to get ready and meet her on the highest tower of the keep. There they would be away from prying eyes. There, should anything unfortunate happen…

There would be no interruption nor there be any questions. Twilight made sure of that with strict orders to her seneschal.

Twilight laid out a small table with the implements needed for the ritual. The Silver Chalice, the same one her own lips touched when she drank deep and began her journey as a Grey Warden. From the chalice came the mixture of lyrium and archdemon blood. Through that, the power to detect ponyspawn and to fight them with heightened strength and senses. With that power, Twilight’s life changed, as reflected with the grey shield that merged with her cutie mark.

Next to the chalice, Twilight stood the vial of the Archdemon Uthemiel’s blood. Twilight felt a cold rage fester inside her as she looked at the vial. Uthemiel took the one person she held most dear and destroyed so much in such little time. The thought that her Wardens would consume such a despicable being’s blood churned her stomach. Shaking her head, Twilight lifted the vial and popped the stopper. The smell of black blood made her wretch. She poured the contents into the Grey Warden’s silver chalice and quickly masked the stench with a bottle of lyrium. Once the concoction finished settling, Twilight held up the chalice to the light of the moon.

“The same mix I drank,” Twilight muttered, “Will you create more Grey Wardens, or will you take my new friends away from me?”

With the Joining ritual now ready to go, Twilight waited for some time in quiet contemplation. She listened to the sound of the winds in the cold dead of night and the rush of cool air that brushed against her face. Her heart raced, providing the only sound until she heard the creak of the door leading to the top of the tower. The sound of hoofsteps joined after. Twilight opened her eyes and turned to see Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren waiting patiently for her.

“Commander,” Daisy bowed her head. “We’re ready.”

You are. “Welcome, everypony,” Twilight said, smiling as she approached her friends. She took a deep breath before continuing.

“In peace, vigilance. In war, victory. In death, sacrifice. This is the oath of the Grey Wardens, as spoken by my mentor Duncan, and his mentor before him, until the beginning of our order. You have all proven exemplary in the defense of Brightstone Keep, and all possess strong, brave hearts. Yet you can fight all the ponyspawn in the world only to be ill prepared for the Joining ritual.”

Twilight lifted the silver chalice with magic and brought it over to her recruits. “The Grey Wardens were founded during the First Blight against the Archdemon of Destruction, Lianari. To fight against the Archdemon and their ponyspawn hordes, the first Wardens drank the blood of the ponyspawn mixed with concentrated lyrium. Tonight, you will take the chalice to your lips and pick up the grey shield, as I have.”

They all took a moment to look at Twilight’s cutie mark of magical stars emblazoned on a grey shield. It had been so long since her cutie mark changed that Twilight could hardly remember the stars without the crest. She wanted to see more shields tonight, but everyone involved needed to know the risks.

“The Joining ritual is the most deadly trial you will ever face,” she said, “For it is one where there is no defense. No blade can deflect it, no armour can protect you, and no spell can stop the effects. It is also one where you must take on the challenge willingly. You must drink the blood of the Archdemon, and then pray that your body will survive.”

Twilight held the silver chalice close to her recruits. “If you choose not to take the chalice, no harm will come to you. In the past, Grey Wardens dealt with those who refused to chalice… harshly. I am not without mercy, and will understand if any of you do not drink. However, I won’t be able to let you stay in Brightstone. Wardens need the protections offered by the Joining to fight against the ponyspawn. It is too dangerous to face them otherwise. If you do choose to take part of the Joining, remember that this is the duty that cannot be forsworn. Once you are a Warden, you are a Warden for life. Your lifespans will be cut short as the corruption eats away at you slowly for thirty years. If this is what you all truly want, then step forward and partake in the Joining.”

All three stood by in silence as they looked at the chalice. Twilight did not make a great effort to sell the Wardens, but she needed absolute assurance that any of those in front of her knew the risks of the Joining. She did not want to see anyone die.

Oghren stepped forward, his eyes filled with grim determination. “What are you all waiting for?” He barked, “There isn’t a single drink above or below that old Oghren can refuse. This isn’t any different. Give me that cup, and I’ll drain it dry.”

Watching Oghren take the chalice in his hooves made Twilight’s heart skip a beat. They journeyed through the Dark Tunnels, trekked through the Everfree Forest, and fought in the Battle of Trotterim together. She saw Oghren kill his own wife after madness took over and refused to yield a powerful yet incredibly dangerous artifact. If anyone would survive, it would be Oghren the hardened donkey berserker. If anyone’s death tonight affected her the most, it would also be Oghren.

Oghren took a deep whiff of the concoction and gave it a disdainful eye. “Drank worse cave muck in Orzamule,” he muttered, “Probably drank real cave muck too. All right. Bottoms up!”

He brought the chalice to his lips and drank deep, far more than Twilight did during her Joining. She still remembered the coppery taste of blood, the sting on her tongue never leaving her mouth since that night. As Oghren finished, he dropped the chalice, forcing Twilight to catch it with her magic. He began to cough and groan, only to suddenly lift his eyes towards the sky.

His eyes rolled into the back of his head as his coughing ceased. Twilight looked closely at Oghren, seeing the Joining from the other side of the ritual ever since the impromptu ritual she gave to her friend Rainbow Dash. She watched as black blood flooded across Oghren’s eyes, only to secede away back into his skull.

Oghren then belched before promptly falling over.

“Well…” Lyra gasped as she looked over Oghren’s body. “That was both horrifying and disgusting.”

Twilight shook her head, only for a new surprise to overtake her. Donkeys were not known to bear cutie marks, yet on Oghren’s flank a grey shield much like the one Twilight bore began to form. “The Joining gives cutie marks…” Twilight whispered to herself. A part of her took notes on the subject of the Joining. Another part of her was happy Oghren survived and now joined the ranks of the Grey Wardens.

Lyra took a deep breath and stepped forward, taking the chalice in her own aura. She took some long amount of time estimating the contents. A sniff of the potion for the Joining made her wretch, until she looked up at Twilight with a pleading face.

“Can’t I just sign a bunch of contracts instead?” Lyra begged. Twilight shook her head.

“All Wardens need the abilities and power that the Joining gives them. When you join in the blood, you learn to detect ponyspawn from leagues away, while they will not be able to sense you for the most part due to travelling in large numbers. Your body becomes hardier and stronger, and even your magic is strengthened due to power of the archdemon’s blood. You also won’t get sick from the Taint in ponyspawn blood, and we will be knee-deep in the dead. I won’t fault you if you decide not to take up the Joining.”

Lyra held the cup aloft before she lowered it to her lips. “I change one set of chains for another, it seems.” She closed her eyes. “No. Not chains. A purpose. If I become a Warden, I lose the chains the Imperium and the Templars, and take up a destiny of my choosing.”

Without another word, Lyra drank deep from the chalice, her body instantly regretting it by almost vomiting up the blood cocktail. Twilight took control of the chalice and waited with trepidation as the black blood took hold of Lyra.

The battlemage keeled over on her knees, coughing and gagging during the conversion. Twilight bit her lip but could only watch Lyra suffer. Daisy’s eyes went wide at the sight of agony in front of her. Whether it was because of Lyra being a unicorn with incredible yet unstable magical potential or another reason, Twilight did not know. She should send a letter to Applejack to describe her own Joining in detail for posterity.

Lyra’s coughing ceased as she, in the same vein as Oghren, turned her gaze upward to the sky. The blood settled in her eyes and her cutie mark, forming the grey shield around the golden lyra that sat upon her flank. The Joining complete, Lyra sighed and then fell onto her side, utterly unconscious of the world around her. Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight helped Lyra to rest against the side of the battlements.

Twilight then thought about what she saw during her Joining, and wondered if Oghren and Lyra saw the same. During her joining, Twilight saw the visage of the Archdemon and the entirety of the ponyspawn hordes. She became like them, her heart beat now one with the monstrosities she vowed to fight. Thankfully, her heart joined with those who aided her in this monumental task.

With Oghren and Lyra unconscious but stable and also Wardens, only Daisy remained. The law of averages, Twilight thought to herself. Can I really go three for three in regards to the Joining? Will Daisy survive as the other two?

“Daisy…” Twilight cleared her throat and tentatively brought the chalice forward. “I understand if you don’t want to-“

Daisy held the chalice in her hooves and looked into the small amount of black blood within. “This is what I want,” she said, “I want to protect the land of my birth. The ponies I’ve come to call my friends. Your blood… will be my blood!”

With chalice in hoof, Daisy drank the last of Uthemiel’s blood. Immediately Daisy began to convulse, her coughing and gagging much more violent than Oghren’s or Lyra’s. Twilight rushed to Daisy’s side and held her close as she suffered. Daisy groaned with incredible volume that echoed into the night sky.

Her horn pulsed with magic as she tried to stabilize Daisy’s condition. “Don’t fight against it, Daisy!” Twilight yelled, her face dripping with a cold sweat. “Let the blood settle into you! Don’t struggle against the vision the blood will reveal! If you fight, it might kill you!”

Twilight reached out even further with her magic, finding the faint arcane signature all ponies held within them. Out of desperation, she tried to dive into the very core of Daisy’s essence out of some vain hope she could save the solider of Amarethine. As Twilight dove, she felt a sudden pang in her horn, and her vision blurred for a moment-

The Dark Tunnels. Twilight recognized the stench of the Tunnels the moment she could smell the foul mix of mold and death. One moment she was helping Daisy on the farthest heights of Brightstone Keep, and now she was here. The blood of the Archdemon must have given Daisy a vision, and Twilight’s attempt to help her brought her in the midst of the vision.

“Daisy!?” Twilight called, “Daisy! I’m here to help you! Tell me where you are!”

Twilight tried to use a spell that would find Daisy, only to find her magic did not function. She guessed that because she was in a vision, her magic would not function in a faux world like this. Breaking into a mad gallop, Twilight dashed forward with a small hope that she would find Daisy in the confines of Daisy’s mind.

“I could be anywhere,” Twilight muttered aloud, “The Dark Tunnels run too deep. I could be in the Darkest Depths for all I know. Daisy… where are you…?”

She knew time ran short for Daisy. The longer Twilight wandered in the vision, the more Daisy would succumb to the black blood of the Joining. As Twilight walked the shadowy corridors of the tunnels, she heard the sounds of hooves on stone nearby. She pivoted on her hooves and galloped in the direction of the sound at full tilt. Perhaps the noise came from Daisy.

Twilight ran as fast she could go until she saw a figure in the darkness. “Daisy!” Twilight called out, only to approach a figure that did not resemble Daisy in the slightest. The individual stood taller than Twilight and wore a great mask that completely covered his face. He wore a long tattered robe with bits of rusted metal placed in key areas to protect his vitals. What flesh could be seen was covered in the mottled splotches of black bloodstains. A large unicorn horn jutted out from the mask, revealing that its owner was a unicorn and not an ornlock.

“You…” The masked pony looked Twilight over. “I know you… you are the one they call ‘The Silencer.’ The one who slew Uthemiel and lived. You should not be here. The ponyspawn are distracted with another, but if they find you here, the weight of their collective minds will crash down upon you. It took me years to gain the fortitude to weave through their gestalt, for lack of a better word. With the archdemon dead, those powerful minds have the ponyspawn at their disposal. And all are seeking you out to slay you.”

Twilight stood dumbfounded. This… pony, obviously holding a great amount of ponyspawn taint, spoke to her calmly and without malice. A first for her and any interaction with ponyspawn, though Twilight guessed that she now dealt with a powerful ghoul. The last ghoul she met in the Dark Tunnels asked for death as a form of mercy.

“Who…” Twilight approached the ghoul very carefully. “Who are you?”

He stood silent for a while before turning around. “The gestalt will claim your friend. She is scared and broken. While I try to keep the ponyspawn at bay, there are minds that will challenge my own. After the debacle at Brightstone, there is one mind in particular you must be wary of: The Chosen. A powerful thelock, he contests my decisions at almost every opportunity. It was him who sent the Howler ahead of my own emissary. For the pain the Howler caused, I am sorry.”

Twilight followed the masked ghoul down the dark caverns as her head spun. It had only been less than a year since the death of the Archdemon and the end of the Blight, and the ponyspawn not only gained sentience, but are now warring amongst themselves. She could only guess that perhaps during the long years between Archdemons, the ponyspawn regained some measure of individuality, only for their dark masters to snatch it up upon awakening. Despite this newfound sentience, the ponyspawn still carried the savage desire for war and bloodshed within them. Perhaps there really was no redemption for such a destructive race.

“If you want to save your friend, you will follow me.” The masked one quickly sped off into one of the tunnels while Twilight scrambled to follow. They galloped for some time in the mindscape shared by Daisy and the ponyspawn gestalt. Twilight realized that during her own Joining, her mind touched the gestalt as well, only then the Archdemon Uthemiel was in complete control. Now the minds of the ponyspawn were just as ravenous as their bodies, and Daisy was easy prey.

They came across Daisy huddled in a corner of a dark cavern. Twilight wanted to question how the masked one found her so easily, but she surmised that he knew the gestalt better than she did. She guessed that Wardens skirted the edge of the gestalt in their ponyspawn senses. It was her best estimation of the situation.

However, one thing she noticed was the severe lack of ponyspawn. Only Daisy existed in this cave beyond the two newcomers.

“Where are the ponyspawn?” Twilight asked the masked one. “I thought they would be here. Torturing her.”

“They are here,” the masked one replied. “They are the caves. They are the sounds around us. This is their territory, Warden. Only my presence masks us both. If the gestalt feels you, especially the Chosen, they will turn all their attention and power on you. And they will find you. And they will kill you. You are gifted in magic, yes, but not in the power of the mind. Ponies think the strength of the ponyspawn lies in their savagery and numbers. They are wrong. Their minds, their collective focus on a goal, is what makes them the most powerful force in the world second only to the Archdemons.”

Twilight wanted to contest that the Elements of Harmony proved much stronger than the Archdemons, but she did not know if she could trust the masked one. Instead, she walked towards Daisy and knelt towards her. She stroked the weeping soldier’s mane with tender strokes.

“Daisy, it’s me,” Twilight said with a soft tone. “I’m here to help you.”

“I’m sorry, Commander,” Daisy sobbed. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t resist. They are everywhere. Everywhere… whispering. Slavering for my blood…”

“You don’t have much time,” the masked one said. “I’m protecting you both, but I can’t resist their hunger for long. They know something is disrupting their meal. Be quick.”

Twilight nodded to her mysterious benefactor. “Daisy, you are not weak. This is something not even I knew happened with the Joining. The ponyspawn are something mysterious to Wardens. Even now we don’t know anything. But I can help you. Please. Give me your hoof.”

Daisy looked up with red puffy eyes at the offered hoof. Slowly, she extended her own armoured limb and placed it against Twilight’s own. Suddenly Twilight felt a pull on her entire being as the very essence of the Dark Tunnels mindscape warped away. Only the masked pony stayed, yet he too calmly turned away.

“Wait!” Twilight called as the mindscape broke apart. “Who are you? Why are you helping me!?”

The figure stopped. “I am the Architect,” he replied, “I aim to design the ponyspawn to be better than they are, but there are those who oppose me. As for you, I want you to protect the surface world from the Chosen and his followers. Make no mistake, Warden, we are not allies. Do not pursue me. You won’t like what you find.”

Twilight cried out to the Architect, only to find herself back on the battlements of Brightstone keep. She wondered how long she was in the ponyspawn gestalt, but the moon had not moved across the sky in the slightest. Twilight shook her head and, remembering Daisy’s plight, looked down to her fallen Warden hopeful.

There, Daisy breathed silently as sweat poured down her brow. On her flank, Twilight saw the Grey Warden’s shield now bearing the colourful flowers that remained. Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight slumped onto her rump. The harrowing journey into the center of the ponyspawn mind over, she now prepared to move her friends to their quarters and herself to retire for the night.

Silverstar walked up the steps of the walls and looked to the collapsed bodies. “Well Ah’ll be damned,” he said, shaking his head. “Dunno what you Warden types do, but I guess it’s not easy.”

“Nothing ever is,” Twilight replied. She levitated Daisy’s body and began to carry her. She then lifted Lyra and helped put her on Silverstar’s back while carrying Oghren aloft in a cloud of magic. Together they carried the new Grey Wardens to their quarters. With all of them safe and in bed, Silverstar bid his Commander good night and returned to his work.

Twilight walked the lonely corridors of Brightstone towards Maim’s quarters… her quarters, she reminded herself. She opened the door and found her gifts glittering in the light of the fireplace. She stripped out of her robes, armour, and her sword then placed them on the nearby armour stand. Donning a simple night robe, Twilight lit a small candle by her bed. She took up the book Rainbow Dash gifted her and prepared for a night of reading to calm her racked nerves.

As she started to read, a cold breeze brushed past her face. Twilight turned her gaze towards the large window that overlooked the Amarethine arling. The window was open. Shaking her head, Twilight got out of bed and walked to close it. Yet as she walked, she heard something in the dark corner of her room. Something much like…

Twilight raised a magical barrier, quickly catching a crossbow bolt aimed for her face. From the shadows came a screaming, masked earth pony bearing daggers strapped to her hooves. Her eyes were painted with murderous rage as she quickly loaded a new bolt, this one tipped with lyrium.

“Death to killers!” she yelled, raising her loaded crossbow and firing.