• 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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Into the Breach

Chapter 5 - Into the Breach

Twilight felt the rush of air whip through her mane as the crossbow bolt from the assassin sailed only inches past her left eye. She replied to the attack with a disarming spell in the form of a violet orb. She hoped to get some distance, but the assassin dodged out of the way with deft movement. She was spry for an earth pony. Twilight saw that her hoof-mounted crossbow reloaded another bolt with a revolving mechanism, and the bowstring stretched with a single pull of a small hook at the end of her hoof.

The assassin fired again, only now for the bolt to be harmlessly deflected by a quick shield. “I don’t understand!” Twilight shouted through her shield. “I regret every life I had to take in the heat of battle. If we can just calm down and talk this through—“

“No talking to murderers!” The assassin leapt into the air and took aim at Twilight. The head of the bolt glowed with the bright luminescence of lyrium, and Twilight knew that it would pierce her shield. With a quick spell, she summoned Sophia to her side. The magical blade became free of its scabbard and easily deflected the incoming crossbow bolt.

The crossbow bolts having failed, the assassin drew her own sword. “You put my father into the ground, now you get to join him!”

The assassin began her strikes, and her blows fueled by anger proved difficult to parry. Twilight’s own hesitation did not help; she swore to never again spill pony blood so long as she could help it. She racked her mind of the all ponies she unfortunately had to end. By some divine grace, the list was very small. She recalled the assassin that tried to kill her when she first met Rainbow Dash. She remembered a maleficar who joined a rebellion in the Unicorn Tower and how she splintered his horn and mind one fell stroke. That only left the last pony she slew: Arl Rendom Maim.

Her eyes widened at the realization. “You’re Maim’s daughter?!” Her mouth twitched and her mind shook at the idea of having slain a young mare’s parent. Now the child had come to avenge the father, and why shouldn’t she? Maim was a terrible pony, but he was still a father.

Was. Twilight shook at the thought. She made sure he was in the past tense.

“Glad to see you figured it out before I gutted you!” The daughter of Maim struck with a sweeping blow, and Twilight’s distracted mind did not give her time to react. The edge cut along her cheek cleanly, splitting the right side of her face clean open. Twilight gasped in pain and held a hoof to her wound. She felt the warm trickle of blood seep down her coat and soak her hoof.

She attacked again with a spinning slash, only just barely able to clip at Twilight’s mane. Twilight gritted her teeth and launched Sophia in a warding position in hope to keep Maim’s daughter off-balanced. She measured each attack with an appropriate dodge or parry. Every warrior instinct Twilight learned during the Blight screamed at her to counter-attack, but the idealist within kept her sword steady and on the defensive. No pony blood would be spilled by her blade ever again.

As much as she wanted to ask for forgiveness, she could not let the assassin have her way with her blade. “I’m sorry,” Twilight said with all sincerity. “I gave Maim a chance to live, to answer for his crimes, but he would not let relent. I’ll do everything I can as an apology, but for now…”

Twilight’s eyes glowed bright with magic, and soon a blinding white light illuminated the entire room. Maim’s daughter gave a shout of surprise at the sudden spell and raised her hooves to protect her eyes. Twilight then looked around for something to immobilize her, only to spot Trixie’s gift of the magical lock and chains. Her horn glowed with her violet aura and took the lock in the same, and with a grunt, she threw the lock at her assailant with as much force as she could.

The lock snapped open and the chains unfurled all around the attacker. The chains swarmed over her body as they wrapped around her legs with ease. Before she even realized it, the assassin soon fell once the chains locked in place, with only her wide vocabulary accompanying her descent. Her head struck the floor hard and soon she became unconscious.

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief and told herself to send a very detailed letter of thanks to the Great and Powerful Trixie. As she walked over to the downed form of her attacker, the doors of her chamber burst open with Silverstar and two guards ready for combat.

“By Celestia, what in tarnation happened here?” Silverstar scratched his head at the sight, and then moved to remove the assassin’s cowl. Underneath the hood stood a fuchsia earth pony mare with a dark pink mane. She appeared a little older than Twilight though not by much. The guards picked up her prone body and moved her away.

Silverstar looked on in disbelief. “Don’t believe it,” he muttered, but still in Twilight’s earshot. “That’s Berry Punch all right. Rendon Maim’s daughter. He sent her away to study in Amarethine City after the two had a fight that shook Brightstone Keep awake in the middle of the night. This was before the Blight, you see. Maim was never thrilled that his only child was a daughter. Less so, when he found out she was a lush. Seemed every night she was gettin’ hosed in every bar. Then he went off to become Arl of Trotterim and she mostly stayed quiet. After the Blight though, she all but vanished into the night after another bender. Some say she boarded a ship to the Free Plains like many of the refugees, but some said she was still in Equestria. Guess the latter were right.”

Twilight watched as Berry Punch was carried out of her chambers before letting a long held sigh free. “She’ll need to be watched. I hate to do it, but she’ll need to stay in the dungeon until I have a chance to speak with her.”

“ ‘Hate to do it?’ She just tried to cut ya to ribbons!” Silverstar shook his head. “I know you don’t want to be harsh, but this is the sort of thing that needs to be done. Berry Punch isn’t just a threat to your life; she’s a threat to your rule.”

Twilight’s brows raised in surprise. “She still has a claim to the Arling?”

“That she does. Even though Queen Applejack stripped Maim of his title and therefore took away any claim his line has to Amarethine, they still have a blood claim to the title of Arl if you should ever fall. If the Banns find out, they could very well support her and try to get her to usurp your position.”

“But Applejack wouldn’t allow that!”

Silverstar held up a hoof. “A queen is only as powerful as the lords she has around her. The lords of Equestria supported her claim after both Loghoof and Maim were exposed as traitors and because of the threat of the ponyspawn. If she started taking away blood rights without reason, the nobility could easily turn on her. Then it is back to square one. Remember that it was the blood lineage that helped win the Queen her throne. The same now can be used against you.”

Twilight conceded that Silverstar had a point. For all her plans to improve the lives of Amarethine after the disaster that was Maim’s rule and to restart the Equestrian Grey Wardens, she needed the political responsibility. Berry Punch was a hindrance.

Twilight would not kill her. She would not exile her from her homeland either, not until she heard what Berry had to say.

Before she could give Silverstar an answer, the door to her chambers opened again, this time with a disheveled Lyra doing her best to burst into the room. Her staff-sword swayed in a shaky magical grip, and her bloodshot eyes swerved every which way.

“I heard a commotion! Woke me up! Here now! Where’s the bad guys?” Lyra could barely stand on her hooves, but the sight of Twilight’s gashed cheek made her fumble over. “Sweet Luna, what happened to your face! Is it ponyspawn? Insurgents? The Imperium!?”

Lyra held up her lyre-headed staff towards Twilight’s face and with her emerald aura, plucked the strings in a quick tinny tune. Twilight could feel the vibrations of the lyre send magic throughout her body, and then focus on the cut. The wound then sealed much more quickly than any poultice Twilight ever applied, and the pain that typically came with alchemical products was non-existent. She rubbed her face once the magic finished, and smiled at the result.

“Thank you, Lyra,” Twilight said, “That felt great! Is there a scar?”

“Magic healing works better than any poultice, Twilight.” Lyra smiled at her, the fluttered her eyelashes. “I couldn’t have such a pretty face scarred up even more. If I could fix those other ones too, I would, but the magic has to be applied quickly. I can show you other healing magic if you’d like… We can engage in very physical therapy.”

Twilight shook her head while Silverstar coughed and made his way out, leaving the two alone. Instead of arguing with Lyra, who continued to smile sweetly, Twilight conjured a much heavier robe around herself to dissuade Lyra from gawking at her body. This made the battlemage pout a bit.

“Well, I’m too high strung from an attempt on my life to go back to sleep,” Twilight said. Lyra’s stomach rumbled in reply, allowing for a light chuckle. “I was waiting for that. If there is one thing I remember about the Joining ritual, it was being hungry afterwards. Come on; let’s get something to tide you over.”

They walked together towards the mess hall, and Twilight gave silent thanks as there was nopony else within the room. She levitated several baskets of bread and fruit as well as a large pitcher of water and two cups. Lyra looked on with a ravenous hunger in her eyes. She smacked her lips once the food sat before and began the work of picking and choosing her stomach’s desire.

“I have been in the trenches of Grennensheck, the shores of Buf’s Landing, and the Imperium Blightlands.” Lyra peeled several apples with a paring knife held in her aura. “In each campaign, we were starved on the front lines and desperate for food. With hundreds of enemies surrounding my unit, we fought not for the Imperium but rather to fill our aching bellies. Still, after the Joining, this is the hungriest I have ever been. Enough talk, let’s eat!”

As Lyra devoured her food, Twilight sipped on her water. “It sounds like you saw a lot of combat,” she pointed out, “Is the Imperium still the warmongering nation from ages past? How do they train their unicorns to practice magic? What is life like in the Imperium?”

Lyra blinked at Twilight with a mouthful of bread and daffodils. Once she swallowed, she poured herself some water. Her tone became somber. “Every unicorn outside of the Imperium wants to know about the land where unicorns still rule, even if they follow the Chantry. The only thing that changed in a thousand years is that instead of dragons for ornaments, we have alicorns. Let me tell you a story.”

“When you were born a unicorn, and the little stub of a horn was found on your head, your parents likely knew that they would have to give you over to the Chantry and sent to a Unicorn Tower as part of your education into the ‘proper’ way to cast magic. To avoid the corruption and temptations of demons. Good lessons, but then they teach you that as a unicorn, you are to blame for everything the Imperium did. The corruption of Canterlot. The birth of the ponyspawn. The cause of the Blights. Every lesson is one of shame and caution. As a unicorn, you have no freedom. Fail the Harrowing, and be put to the sword. Succeed, and become yoked to the Chantry.”

Twilight did not contest anything Lyra said, as they were mostly true. While the templars were a surly group when they had to be, they did remind Twilight that the Chantry constantly surveyed the going-ons within the Tower, and they had the ultimate power over the unicorns.

Only because of Duncan and the Grey Wardens did Twilight leave a life of servitude to helping the greater good rather than the whims of the Chantry. Celestia and Luna were with her that day.

Lyra continued. “Now the way the Imperium does it is a little different. They mostly just gloss over the whole ‘shame and damnation’ parts, and instead focus on using unicorns. The firstborn unicorn of any Imperium family belongs to the state. There are no arguments, and if there is, the family is treacherous and starts losing rights and privileges. So the army takes the firstborns right from their mothers teats and teach them from the beginning that the Imperium owns them, mind, body and soul. The Imperium will train them; the Imperium will lavish them with titles should they be strong enough, and that they can one day rule the Imperium. This is true. Battlemages become Magisters, from the Magisters comes the Archons, and from the Archons they select an Exarch. But with all the privileges, all the gold, all the glory comes a price.”

Lyra hiked up her robes with her magic, and Twilight looked away, thinking it some kind of lewd prank. When she turned back to Lyra, she saw that the battlemage did not smile, giggle, or laugh. Her face, as if set in stone, begged for Twilight to look. She did, and right next to her newly branded grey-shield cutie mark stood a wound that made her gasp at the sight.

All along Lyra’s underbelly was a long, twisted, disfiguring scar. Twilight looked on in horror as the scar began to pulse a faint glow of blue. Whoever marked Lyra used a lyrium-edged blade. To her terror, she realized just what part of a mare’s anatomy they cut.

“Your… your womb…” she muttered. Lyra lowered her robes once the realization set in.

“The cost of power is the denial of a legacy. Of a family.” Lyra choked on the words. “The Chantry wanted the Imperium to remain strong in the face of the ponyspawn and other threats, like the Buffalo. To do this they needed the battlemages. They needed their magic and their lyrium brands on the Imperium’s griffin slaves. However, being the hypocrites that they are, they denied battlemages the ability to move on from war. Their lives belong to the Imperium and the Chantry. Our lives are constantly at war.”

“You became a Grey Warden though,” Twilight added. “We only know struggle against the ponyspawn. Your lifespan is cut short by thirty years. You can’t have foals of your own, because they too will be tainted by the black blood.”

Lyra sighed. “The difference is that I made the choice to fight. If I can have one thing in my life, it is the freedom to choose my own destiny. Not some power-mad Imperium or some hypocritical Chantry telling me what to do.”

Twilight did not know what else to say, so she fell silent as Lyra continued to devour her food. Instead of continuing the conversation, Twilight opened her arcane senses to the world around her. She saw through magical eyes attuned to the Fade and the natural energies long hidden within unicorns. Her curiosity piqued by Lyra’s outburst on both her former home and the Chantry of Sun and Moon, Twilight sought to probe deeper within her new Warden companion’s powers and abilities.

She recoiled at the sight. Lyra’s magic-self continued to eat apples even though to Twilight an inferno engulfed her body. The sheer amount of rage Lyra held within her heart made her magical image a fiery blaze, and by Twilight’s best estimate, the flames burned for a long time. Anger and fury were like logs to feed such a fire.

Thankfully, Twilight did not sense another being within Lyra. While the absence of a demon calmed her, Twilight did begin to wonder if it meant Lyra harnessed and mastered her anger and how that affected the dynamic of her group. Passion, whether positive or negative, could be incredible fuel for magic. Whether it led to corruption or even demonic possession, Twilight did not want to find to find out.

Twilight tried to look away from Lyra, only to feel another powerful magic pull at her as if from all directions. The magic yanked at her senses as if she was attached to chains, and most disconcerting was that the magic came from within Brightstone Keep. The close proximity of the force she sensed made Twilight grimace when she suddenly heard cackling in the ether.

“Twilight?” Lyra stopped eating and tugged on Twilight’s robes. “Is something wrong? You look like you’re in pain.”

The sound of Lyra’s voice snapped Twilight out of her magical senses. She looked over to her fellow unicorn and saw she no longer burned. “Sorry, Lyra,” she said, “I… felt something. Here in Brightstone. A magic that is very powerful and… laughing at us.”

Lyra floated her staff next to her, almost as if in preparation for an attack. Her eyes went blank for a moment, and Twilight knew that Lyra now attempted to seek out the same magic she just felt. She waited, and hoped all that battlemage training paid off.

It would not be the case as Lyra’s focus returned and she shook her head. “I don’t feel anything from the Fade or the ley-lines,” Lyra replied, “Maybe you were sensing the ponyspawn?”

“No,” Twilight corrected, “You’ll know when the ponyspawn are near when you hear their heartbeats like you do your own. This was something far closer… “

Twilight shook her head, and then gave Lyra a small smile. “Don’t worry about it for now. Whatever it was is gone now. Go and get some rest. We’ll go on patrol for any lingering ponyspawn from the attack in the countryside in the morning. It will make for good practice with your new senses, and maybe we can get to the bottom to this mess.”

Lyra nodded, then made her way back to the barracks, leaving Twilight alone for the rest of the morning. Try as she might, Twilight could not get back to sleep. Her mind raced and tried to compile everything that happened; an assassination attempt by the daughter of Rendon Maim who held on to a strict vendetta.

Then there was Lyra’s fiery aura, and how the battlemage blazed with fury. The sinister laugh that echoed in her senses left the final but lasting impression on her. So much overpowered her senses; Twilight did not know exactly what to do, or who to turn to. At this point, she wished any of her friends were nearby simply to confide all her doubts and fears, just as she did in the old days when they travelled the roads.

Like dust in the winds, her friends had scattered across the land. All Twilight could do was sigh, lie back on her bed, and hope for the best in the coming morning. As she slid beneath the covers once again, a chill ran across her as the cold night air whisked over her prone form.

She would have to get that window fixed rather quickly.


Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren stood at sharp attention as Twilight made her first inspection over the new Grey Warden recruits. Each bore their new cutie marks with pride, especially Oghren, who enjoyed the fact that he was one of the few donkeys to bear such.

“If I have a cutie mark, does that make me a cutie?” Oghren snickered while the mares all rolled their eyes. Twilight motioned for the newly formed party to stand around her.

“When I was first inducted into the Grey Wardens, the Battle of Ostequus was only a day away.” Memories of the terrible flushed over Twilight as she regaled the past, including the death of the former king Blueblood, her Grey Warden mentor Duncan, and the hundreds of soldiers slain by ponyspawn. “You are all fortunate to have survived the Joining. That was merely the first of many trials in the life of a Warden. Today, I’ll be showing you one of the blessings and curses all Wardens have: the Warden sense.”

“This power allows all Grey Wardens to ‘hear’ the heartbeat of their fellow Wardens and more importantly, the heartbeats of the ponyspawn. This sense will warn you if any of them will draw near, because you will hear their irregular heartbeats long before you encounter them face-to-face. For now, I want you all to close your eyes and become accustomed to your fellow Wardens’ hearts. Feel their hearts as you do your own. When you are in the Dark Tunnels or even out of sight, you will find these senses most useful to you in finding your fellows and knowing when another attack is close.”

To demonstrate, Twilight lifted a hoof to her chest and took a deep breath. As she closed her eyes, Twilight exhaled and extended her hoof outwards as if to wave at her recruits. Her breathing steadied her heartbeat, and Twilight let her senses flow outward over to the new additions to the Grey Warden. Already she could feel their hearts, how they beat with their own unique rhythms.

Oghren’s heart pounded against his chest as thunder would rock the plains. Perhaps, in his case, it would be more fitting to say the sound reminded her of great boulders that tumbled down the Dark Tunnels. She then reached out to Daisy, and felt the rapid thuds of her beating heart. Daisy needed to learn how to relax and find calm, or she would give herself a heart attack well before her time. Twilight made a mental note to have a good talk with Daisy about that.

Finally, Twilight sought out Lyra. She did not know what to expect, considering the last time she looked into the battlemage. Now, thankfully, Twilight did not feel the burn of Lyra’s inner rage and turmoil. Her heart beat with a good, steady rhythm that spoke of great control over. This was both welcome and frightening news. Lyra stood as a calm as a lake, yet the fire that burned within her screamed to be unleashed. That mixture within Lyra worried Twilight to no end.

Rage motivated ponies, yes, but it was wild and uncontrollable. However, should a pony truly master their fury, especially a unicorn with the power of magic, they could unleash terrible destruction. Cold, practiced destruction.

Twilight opened her eyes and looked to her recruits. “I can feel you all,” she said, “I can feel your hearts as if they were my own. I want you to do the same thing now. Feel my heart, and feel those of your fellows. Take a deep breath to calm yourself, then reach out.”

Oghren, Daisy, and Lyra mimicked Twilight’s action, first by inhaling a lungful of air. They exhaled all at once, their hooves extending outward just as Twilight showed them. They stood still, allowing only the sound of their breaths and the wind to be the only noise when Daisy’s ears perked up.

“I can hear it in you,” Daisy said, her eyes still closed. “I can hear your heart, commander. It’s steady and calm. I envy you… I feel like I’m about to freak out. This is so exciting!”

Twilight smiled, and then turned to Oghren and Lyra. “How about you two? Can you feel what Daisy feels? Remember to stretch out, and tune out your own heartbeats. The archdemon blood makes every part of our body stronger, including our hearts.”

Oghren’s lecherous grin returned. “I can feel ya,” he said with eyes closed. “By the Stone, this is what mares feel deep down whenever they are with ol’ Oghren, heh hah. How about you, Minty? I can feel your heart skip a beat for this hunk of donkey meat.”

“First, ew.” Lyra scrunched up her face in disgust. “Second, yes I can feel everyone’s hearts. It is weird though. I do feel it in my chest, but also feel it in my ears, like a drum that’s been beaten next to my head.”

“Good! You are all learning quickly!” Twilight let out a happy sigh. They were naturals at being Wardens, both in combat and understanding their new senses. Things were starting looking up.

Daisy’s eyes to snap open as she looked down to the ground. Her body trembled and her mouth gaped open in an expression of shock. Twilight walked over to Daisy and laid a hoof on her shoulder. She opened all her senses, especially the magical ones, and tried to seek out what frightened Daisy. The others looked about in confusion.

Twilight steadied her breath and opened her magic to Daisy. The spell she cast had to be subtle. Magic can easily spook earth ponies or who were unfamiliar with its practice. A part of Twilight worried that Daisy, using her Warden senses, felt the malevolent presence Twilight felt in the early morning.

Her magic probed into Daisy’s senses, and worked its way to her heart. It was only at the moment of contact that Twilight felt it too, and cursed herself for not paying attention. While still maintaining the link, Twilight reached out even further with her Warden abilities, specifically below the earth. She loathed announcing what she sought, but Twilight realized the implications of the discovery.

First, Daisy was to be her priority. “Daisy, listen to my voice,” Twilight said with as much care as she could. “I know what you are feeling. Hundreds of heartbeats. Some fast, some slow. All of them dangerous and lethal to a regular pony. Remember that you are a Grey Warden. You need to calm down and pull away from the noise. Pull away, Daisy.”

“There are so many of them…” Daisy’s voice was but a frightened whisper. Her body shook with fear, and her eyes never left the ground. “So many ponyspawn. I can hear them whispering. I can almost hear a name.”

Daisy’s senses were more in-tuned than Twilight gave her credit. Oghren and Lyra kept watching, while the former shrugged and closed his eyes. A deep breath later, and he reopened them.

“So… that’s what Wardens feel when they are in the Dark Tunnels.” Oghren put his hoof around his hip-flask and took a long drink. “That… that is going to get some getting used to.”

“It all makes sense now,” Lyra added, “Brightstone Keep’s underground tunnels used by Maim, the dungeons, the catacombs… This place was built right on top of a Dark Tunnel. That would also explain why the ponyspawn had an easy time destroying the keep! It’s because they didn’t need to attack the walls! They came right in through the Tunnels!”

As much as Twilight wanted to continue this discovery of the ponyspawn’s method of attack, she had to get Daisy back to the here and now. “Focus on my voice, Daisy. Break away from the sensation of the ponyspawn. The sense is two-ways. We know where they are. They know where we are. If you don’t break things soon, they might come after us at any moment.”

Twilight’s ears twitched and then a gasp escaped her lips. She heard the murmurs of the ponyspawn mind, how they chanted to one another. Words she recognized like “eat” and “Silencer.” Other words stood out though. Words that drove the ponyspawn not to the surface, but father underground. The first was a title, like the many greater ponyspawn seemed to be bestowed with. The title they chanted was “The Indomitable.”

More mysterious was the other word they chanted within whatever they called their hivemind. Even more important the title they somehow bestowed on Twilight, or the name they called for their leader, the ponyspawn drove deeper into the Dark Tunnels in search of something they could only call “The Shard.” What they sought, Twilight did not know. She had not heard of ponyspawn seeking relics. They often relied solely on numbers and terror to defeat their foes.

She would have to investigate later. Daisy closed her eyes tight, though some tears escaped. She fell to her knees and trembled, and then started to breathe. “OK… OK…” she said in between breaths. “I can’t believe… all of them right below us.”

“Look on the bright side,” Oghren quipped, “We don’t have to go scouring the countryside. Not that I’m looking forward to going back down to the Tunnels, but hey. Maybe we can get some donkey patrols to help us!”

“First we need to get down there.” Twilight turned to face Oghren. “Can your cousins find the entrance the ponyspawn used to attack Brightstone?”

“They’ll find the Tunnel like a drunk can find a full keg of beer.” Oghren stomped on the ground for emphasis. He galloped towards Brightstone with haste, leaving Twilight with Lyra and Daisy.

“Lyra, catch up with Oghren and help him prepare supplies.” Lyra took a gulp of air as she prepared mentally for what Twilight was going to say next. Twilight did not want to believe the words herself,

“We are going to the Dark Tunnels.”

Once they were alone, Twilight sat next to Daisy who did not stop muttering apologies under her breath. She wrapped a forelimb around Daisy’s shoulders. Twilight recalled the first time she felt the ponyspawn’s mass presences within her own being; she did not sleep for days when she last travelled the Dark Tunnels. Daisy now experienced the same terrible truth of being a Grey Warden.

They sat in silence for a while, with Twilight counting the breaths until she finally felt Daisy relax. Daisy raised her head to the sky, seemingly watching the clouds drift by in an otherwise brilliant sunny day. A small laugh left her mouth, but to Twilight, it felt forced and strained.

“Look at me,” Daisy said with a shake of her head. “A Grey Warden scared silly by the ponyspawn. Was it not just a few nights ago that we fought side by side against a veritable army of them? Now, here I am, shaking like a little foal when a big hairy spider comes near me. What would my sisters say if they saw me now? Would they think I am a coward? That I wasn’t prepared for the reality of being a Warden? A part of me just wants to run away, but another part knows that this is my life now. That I have to accept that I am going to go… down there. With all of those monsters.”

“Life as a Warden is a very short one,” Twilight said. “We die so that other ponies might live. Our fates are bound by the ponyspawn and by extension, their home of the Dark Tunnels. When a Warden feels their time has come, that the Taint has flowed through their bodies and threatens to turn them into ghouls, they go into the Dark Tunnels for one final stand against the ponyspawn. They fight and slay as many monsters as possible, in some vain hope that they perish against the ponyspawn before they become the monsters they fight. I did not want to take us to the Dark Tunnels so soon, Daisy, but we would have to go there eventually. The donkeys who live in the underground need the Grey Wardens just as much as the ponies that live on the surface.”

“What are the Tunnels like?” Daisy asked, though her voice was weak.

“Scary, certainly,” Twilight answered. “But also very sad. You see the unmarked graves of thousands of slain donkeys… warriors, civilians… those too unfortunate to escape the evil tide. Some are lucky to have graves. I’ve seen plenty of skeletons of the fallen, picked clean by either the ponyspawn of the natural wildlife that inhabits the Tunnels. The worst part of it all, at least to me, is just seeing these empty, dead cities and thaigs. So much lost to the ponyspawn after centuries of building, and with no way to ever truly restore these lost cities. The ponyspawn are simply too dense in the Tunnels. “

Daisy pressed her head into her hooves. “You are not really selling this as an adventure to look forward to, Commander.”

Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose. It seemed the stories of Grey Warden heroics still lingered with Daisy, and she did not see just how brutal and tumultuous their lives were. She only had an inkling of how much death and destruction Twilight endured in her journey to defeat Uthemiel. If she was going to get the message clear to Daisy, she had to do it now.

“I’m not trying to sell anything, Daisy.” Twilight kept her voice stern, in hopes to push through that Wardens did not seek out heroics like in the old stories. “The Dark Tunnels are dangerous, but not because of ponyspawn or other creatures. They are dangerous because they can really change a pony. When I went down for the first time, I saw things I have only seen conjured in my nightmares. I saw a donkey beg for death thanks to his need to eat ponyspawn meat. I saw a brilliant mind driven insane with obsession for ancient power. I saw where the ponyspawn are born. By Celestia, you do not want to know. Nevertheless, it is there we have to go. We have to down there to stop their incursions into Amarethine. Most of all, I need to get rid of those thoughts that Grey Wardens seek glory. Maybe some do, but our duty is to defeat the ponyspawn, first and foremost. Do you understand, Daisy?”

Daisy became very quiet as she crunched down onto her knees. She hit a stone around for a moment, her mind likely racing with thoughts on everything Twilight had said. Twilight did not know what Daisy was thinking, but instead thought back to when Duncan first approached her. Twilight did not think much of leaving Equestria’s Unicorn Tower and becoming a Warden at the time, and in fact resisted the idea of being part of such an order.

Now she wondered what would have happened if she knew the truth of everything that came with being a Warden. Would that less experienced Twilight consider the options carefully? Would she accept that she would fight a terrible conflict spanning mountains, castles, and the Dark Tunnels? That she would slay not only ponyspawn, but also dragons, demons and other ponies?

Would she say yes to Duncan if she knew that Spike would give his life in battle?

The inner turmoil continued to roar within the confines of Twilight’s heart. She did her best to hide tears still unshed, but as her mind drifted to Spike once again, she found it more and more difficult. A part of her said that she would still join Duncan and the Grey Wardens because Equestria needed all the help she could get against the Archdemon and its Blight.

Another part told her no, that she would have taken Spike and ran as far as she could from Duncan, from the Blight, from everything. Perhaps she would have gone to Filais, over the mountains to the Yokalach, or across the sea to the Free Plains. Anywhere, so long as it was far away from the ponyspawn.

Her stomach lurched as even her own body began to rebel against such thoughts. If it were not for the Blight, Twilight would never have discovered such wonderful friends like Applejack or Rarity. If not for the Blight, she would never have gone to amazing places like the old sky temple high above the Everfree Forest. If not for the Blight, Equestria would have been devoured by the ponyspawn. Then nowhere in the world would be safe.

All of this, for the cost of Spike.

“Somepony… tell me it was worth it,” Twilight muttered. Daisy looked up from her own thoughts and turned to her Commander.

“Is everything all right?” she asked. Twilight shook her head. There was no need to hide everything, especially if she was being truthful about the ponyspawn.

“At the Battle of Trotterim, we lost a lot of good ponies to the ponyspawn,” Twilight said. “Far too many. Soldiers and civilians both. We lost a good Grey Warden who was willing to sacrifice himself to slay the Archdemon. I lost someone very dear to me to the Archdemon itself. There are times where I think back on him and it hurts to do so. I have not moved on. I don’t think I ever will.”

Daisy spoke very softly. “I’m sorry for your loss, Commander. But… he motivates you, doesn’t he? You could just walk away from all of this any time you wanted to. It’s not like anypony could stop you. You slew the Archdemon after all. Only a crazy pony would want to stand in your way. You still keep fighting the good fight though, even though it would be easy to walk. I find myself admiring that about you.”

Daisy leaned back on the grassy knoll and looked up to the sky. “I gave it a good hard thought. Everything you said, everything I encountered up until this point. I thought about my sisters who now must be living in the west. I want to make sure they can keep up with the family traditions of flower growing without having the fear of the ponyspawn in their hearts. If I can protect them, I can. I will. Come on, Commander. I’m ready for the Dark Tunnels. I’m ready for my duty.”

Twilight almost replied with “No, you are not,” but decided against it. Daisy motivated herself and what she said struck the right cord. Spike did motivate her to do everything she could to stop the ponyspawn threat back when he was alive. Now that he passed, did things really have to be different?

“Thanks Daisy,” Twilight said instead of her bitter remark. “Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long. I wonder how long—“

An explosion from Brightstone shook the trees and bushes around Twilight and Daisy. Both mares drew their weapons from sheaths in anticipation of an attack, only to be confounded by the sound of a chorus of laughter from clearly insane donkeys.

“Oghren…” Twilight replaced Sophia back in its scabbard and shook her head. “When I asked for them to find the entrance, I didn’t think they were going to level the keep!”

Twilight galloped towards Brightstone with Daisy trailing only a second behind her. Once she got her hooves on Oghren and his cousins, there would be hell to pay. Despite all this, she couldn’t help but smile. Confiding in new friends raised her spirits. While still wary of the Dark Tunnels, Twilight mentally prepared herself with a newfound confidence.

First, she had to deal with overzealous donkeys and their lyrium explosives…

Twilight’s mouth hung open as she looked at the sizable crater in the storage rooms of her castle. Smoke and dust still lingered in the air, but more pressing to everyone around Twilight was her twitching eye. Oghren and his cousins did not seem bothered, especially Fizzbang, who rolled on the ground and laughed aloud for all to hear.

“Didja see that! What a boom! Oh, but it could have been so much more!” Fizzbang pointed a hoof at the crater and continued to giggle like a schoolfilly.

“Oghren… I asked you to find a way to the Dark Tunnels!” Twilight shouted at her fellow Warden. “Not blow a hole in my basement!”

“Relax, Twilight,” Oghren said as he pointed a hoof down the pit. “Ol’ Fizzbang here discovered this sinkhole when we started to scrounge over the place to find the passages used by the ponyspawn. We found those too, but some scouting showed those paths are very narrow and very long. Good for sneaking into a keep, but slow going. This hole here is a straight drop down into the Tunnels.”

Lyra looked down the whole with puzzlement in her eyes. “How deep does it go?”

Fizzbang stuck his head over the lip of the vertical cavern and shouted, “This deep!” His long ears perked up as he listened for his echo, which continued for a very long while.

“How are we going to get down there?” Daisy asked. Twilight smiled at the question.

“I’ll cast a spell to summon a magical disc that will act like the Great Lift in Orzamule.” To make her intentions known, Twilight looked over the gaping hole and began to cast her spell. In an instant, a violet magical disc formed center of the whole, with enough room for four ponies to stand comfortably on.

Lyra whistled at the spell while Daisy smiled, impressed with the results. Oghren looked at the magic with caution, extending his hoof to poke at the spell. To prove the disc would hold weight, Twilight jumped onto her floating structure. The disc did not wobble or tip from her weight, and only shimmered as her hooves clamoured on.

Daisy hopped on next, followed by Lyra who levitated four rucksacks filled with food, healing poultices, and other supplies. Oghren continued to stare at the disc, as if the thing would turn into a ponyspawn and eat his face in one swift chomp.

“Come on, Oghren,” Twilight said, “This is probably the safest part of the journey.”

Oghren sighed and shook his head. “I can only hope we don’t get to the Deepest Depths, now can I?” He hopped onto the disc with the others, giving Twilight a defeated nod. She could not blame him, for it was in the Deepest Depths that he slew his insane wife Branka.

“The Dark Tunnels will live up to their name,” Twilight said. With her and Lyra’s horn glowing in unison, the magical disc began to lower itself into the breach, where dangers old and new awaited the Grey Wardens once more.

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