• 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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Iron and Diamonds

Chapter 6: Diamond and Iron

The Architect looked down on the slavering hordes of ponyspawn with trepidation. He saw that a few thelocks fought over the carcass of some beast, only to notice that they argued over the body of a dead donlock. Hunger struck the ponyspawn worse than any other creature, and the desire to feed on anything flesh and blood overtook their senses. Despite sharing a hivemind, their gestalt, the ponyspawn only barely controlled their base instincts.

The larger thelock who initiated the conflict turned away from the donlock corpse, which surprised the Architect greatly. Thelocks in particular relied on their size and strength to exude dominance. However, as the smaller thelock began to eat the corpse, the larger swiftly drew his rusty blade and buried it into his rival’s neck. The smaller one gurgled for a bit, black blood pouring from his mouth until he stilled. Then the larger thelock began to feast on a much bigger prize. He also batted the donlock corpse away, where some smaller ponyspawn began to fight over it.

Shaking his head, the Architect walked away towards his study. He did not want to watch the display of cannibalism. He also needed to move quickly on his own agenda after witnessing such. The ponyspawn were once known only for their savagery and their fearlessness. With the last of the Archdemons slain, the ponyspawn could become their own people in time, choosing their own destiny. However, as demonstrated by the thelock, they learned lessons on killing and slaughter faster than anything else. With their numbers and strength combined with tactics and trickery, the ponyspawn could potentially become a much more dire force for the world to face even without an Archdemon. They needed a guiding hoof to move forward into the future. They needed an Architect.

As the Architect stepped into his study, the sight of his only true rival within the ponyspawn, or as they came to be called the Free Blight, greeted him. The Chosen held an arcane tome in his hoof; his head cocked to the side while his ornlock aide, the Shaper, stood next to him and stared daggers at the Architect.

“The Shaper tells me you were in the Mind as more false ones joined us.” His voice, cold and harsh, echoed in the cave that the Architect called his home. Taller than most thelocks by several degrees and adorned in shining black armour, the Chosen looked up from the tome to the Architect with grotesque, yellow eyes. His pupils glowed slightly, hinting that at some point the Chosen ingested lyrium.

“Chosen. First among Brothers. You honour me with this visit.” The Architect bowed his head to the Chosen, yet saw through his mask that the Shaper brought a large sack with him. It moved briefly.

The Chosen did not respond immediately, only prodding the book. “Such strange symbols,” he said, “I always wondered why the ponies valued these… books so much. How they can contain power. We do not need such things. All are shared within the Mind. The strong take their share. The weak become strong, should they claim their portions dropped by the strong, or by proving themselves stronger. That is our way. That is how it always has been.”

“I ask again, Architect. Why were you in the Mind? Why did you prevent our claim to a false one?”

The Architect looked between the Shaper and then back to the Chosen. The latter shifted his stance, showing off his flanged mace known simply as Crusher. He could feel the countless foes Crusher slew throughout the ages. He could only guess the mace was cursed in some way.

“The Warden was a distraction from my direction of the Mind,” the Architect replied, “we needed to look at the failed assault on Brightstone. I warned against sending the Howler. We didn’t know the effect of the Silencer’s presence on lesser minds. We also underestimated her resolve after the Battle of Trotterim.”

At the mention of the Silencer, the Chosen visibly bristled. His spines stood on end. “The Howler was a fool who did not accomplish anything. He did not take the sacred Blood. He did not take the shard you so desperately seek. And now the Silencer has the keep. A waste of time and brothers.”

The Architect nodded. “She would have taken the keep with our small force. It is of little matter, Chosen. Once I have the shards, I will deliver unto you the power of the Song. I have scryed the location of another shard, and it is close to your Deepest Depths. I have sent our most powerful minotaur, the Indomitable, to retrieve it.”

The Chosen seemed to consider the Architect’s words as he looked to the Shaper in wordless discussion. The twisted ornlock said nothing but nodded his head in agreement. This seemed to satisfy the Chosen as he too nodded his face as well. The Architect would have breathed a sigh of relief if the pair of ponyspawn leaders did not keep him on edge every second he remained in their presence.

“Your pretty crystals must bring us victory, Architect,” The Chosen said, “I prefer having my greatest warrior at my side, not off on some treasure hunt.”

As they turned to leave, the Chosen’s black lips twisted into a grin. The Architect hated whenever the Chosen smiled. It only meant that unfortunate and rather inefficient plans would soon be underway, and that he would need the Architect’s input.

“All was not lost from the attack on the Silencer’s fortress.” The Chosen licked his lips, his long black tongue sliding against his disgusting tusks. “For as our brothers returned, they came upon a small gathering of winged ponies. They returned with all of them. One large meal. Three smaller morsels for the donlocks. One mare.”

The Shaper’s curved horn began to glow a dark crimson and the door to the Architect’s sanctum swung open to reveal a crying, battered pegasi mare. She walked with stilted movements, held in thrall to the Shaper’s mastery over blood magic. While a powerful emissary in his own right, the Architect did fear the Shaper’s incredible skill over arcana sanguine.

The mare dropped as the Shaper let go of his spell, and she wept in front of the Free Blight’s leadership. She looked up into the blank mask of the Architect. He could see the sheer terror in her eyes, yet he could not feel pity for her. This was the ponyspawn way. They did not have mares of their own. They needed to take mares from the surface to increase their numbers. Her fate was all but sealed.

The Architect lifted the pegasus up with his blue aura, looking her over as a farmer would cattle. He lifted her wings while she wept. Her pleas echoed in both Equestrian and Dalish, yet she could be speaking in lost tongues for all he cared. She would beg for death that would not come.

He let go of the mare and instead focused his magic on his spear, Phalanx. He pointed the spear at the mare who shrieked at the sight of the weapon. Unlike most ponyspawn arms, Phalanx was a pristine spear enchanted with the purest lyrium.

“She will serve us well,” He said, “We need more Winged Brothers after the loss of the Howler.”

The mare looked up to the Architect, then to the Chosen, then to the Shaper whose horn already glowed its familiar crimson hue. Her body gripped in blood magic, she let out one last desperate scream in the caverns of the Deepest Depths. The ponyspawn only roared in reply as she was taken to the rookeries.

The Chosen smiled. “We will see the victory of the Brothers yet. A terrible time is before us without the Song, but we will become stronger than the Song could ever imagine. Victoria Fatres.”

Fatres Invictus.” It was the only Imperium the ponyspawn knew, but the words resonated in the Dark Tunnels. To the Architect, they were words that did not matter to him, as long as their victory kept in line with his work.

He turned to look out the small crevice into the darkness of the tunnels and thought of his encounter with the Warden. There was something about her that he felt familiar, but he shook it away as simply the resonance from her slaying the Archdemon. She would be a problem, as the Warden did not seem the type of pony to heed warnings.

“Heed the warning, Grey Warden,” the Architect said aloud, “The Indomitable was crafted by blood magic specifically to be invincible. If you go to the Tunnels… you will go to your death.”

***

Twilight hated the Dark Tunnels. Every slow, careful step echoed around her and only increased her already growing indignation. The damp caves dripped warm water down on her face. The smell of feces, dried blood, and corpses drifted into her nostrils, attempting to make her gag. Most of all, Twilight could feel the very presence of the ponyspawn within her heart. Above ground, the Warden senses proved a boon to detect the monsters. Here in the underground they were a liability. Only because so many ponyspawn existed in one place, did Twilight take comfort in the senses.

She couldn’t sense them, but they couldn’t sense her and her friends.

However, looking back at the party, Twilight now realized just how challenging this venture into the Dark Tunnels was going to be. Three Grey Warden recruits would enter the Dark Tunnels and face their new senses rather quickly after their joining. Twilight recalled that she had travelled Equestria and got used to her newfound abilities before diving headlong into the home of the ponyspawn. She was given time to develop her senses.

Oghren, Lyra, and Daisy did not have such luxury.

Of all the recruits, Oghren, much to Twilight’s surprise, appeared to be the most on edge. He held his axe gripped in his teeth, moving his head left and right in search of enemies. Bloodshot eyes darted every which way while heavy, coarse breathing slipped through the gaps of thick donkey teeth.

“They’re everywhere…” Oghren muttered, “Blood of the Stone, if I hadn’t gave up drinking I’d need to down three barrels of cider just to stop the whispering in my head.” He gave his head a hard shake to clear his mind. “Just… all over the place. Like they’re in the walls.”

Twilight took a deep breath as she squeezed through a small crack in the walls. The jagged edges of stone scraped against her armour and made slight screeching noises. “Just calm down and focus on your own heartbeat. You’ll get used to it over time. It’s just really condensed here. Let’s be grateful we’re not in the Deepest Depths yet.”

“Yet?” Daisy squeaked a furlong behind Twilight, yet loud enough for everypony to hear. “Y-you don’t think we’ll actually have to go that far, d-do you?”

“Stay calm, and check your fear, Daisy.” Twilight needed to make sure all her recruits would not be distracted by their own terror in the Tunnels. If even a simple word or two could help, she had to try. “We just need to find the source of the ponyspawn. It’s not enough we collapse a tunnel here or there. We need to find the new leadership and figure out why they are attacking Brightstone.”

Lyra smirked in the rear of their line. “Because they are hungry. Because they want to kidnap some mares and turn them into Broodmares. Because they just don’t like us. You know, Twilight, Wardens are meant to kill ponyspawn. I’m still surprised you haven’t lost your idealism after the Fifth Blight.”

Twilight turned to look Lyra in the eye. She felt a mild amount of annoyance at the battlemage. “Why are you surprised by that? If I don’t keep my ideals, it’ll be just one step on the slippery slope. I’ve seen ponies who gave up on what they believed in and simply gave in to despair.”

“The ponyspawn all hate you,” Lyra said, “ever since you slew the Archdemon, they hate you more than anything else in the world. They even gave you a title, like they do to the strongest of ponyspawn.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” Twilight fired back, “and I still hold true that if these ponyspawn can speak and think without the aid of the Archdemon, they can be talked to. Reasoned with. We just need to find a ponyspawn that won’t try to kill us on first contact.”

As much as Twilight wanted to believe her own words, the seeds of doubt that were planted through the long months of the Fifth Blight still held their roots within her. She could not reason with The Howler, so how could she hope to establish a dialogue with another ponyspawn champion?

Yet it was the nature of the ponyspawn to be savage and destructive, that much Twilight knew from experience. The Howler acted as the norm of the new intelligent ponyspawn, and Lyra’s words came back to haunt Twilight. They did bestow her the title of “Silencer”, and while she was no stranger to battling ponyspawn, to see them so focused on her personally unnerved her.

“I have to try,” Twilight said, loud enough for everypony to hear. There was no dissent to her plan, but nopony stood up for it either. No matter, Twilight thought as she continued on the narrow path. I know what I’m doing. I have to try.

They journeyed in silence for a while with only the sounds of hooves on stone accompanying them. The faint light of fire bled into the cavern the Wardens traversed. Twilight’s eyes lit up at the sight; it could be other donkey explorers or, though unlikely, other Grey Wardens. The chance the flames could come from ponyspawn was higher, but such an encounter would also help. She would know where the ponyspawn threat originated from, or at least finally have a trail.

Before she could pass through the small mouth of the cave, Oghren jabbed her ribs with a steel-clad hoof. “Twilight, wait,” Oghren said in a low whisper. His long ears stood a attention and his face held a grim frown. “I hear something up ahead. Let’s be careful. If it’s ‘spawn, we can get the jump on them. If it’s anyone else…”

“We don’t want to spook them.” Twilight understood that in the depths of the Dark Tunnels, everyone, donkey and pony alike, would have their nerves dance on the razor’s edge. Twilight’s first venture in the Tunnels had her freaking out at shadows. Not without reason, of course. Ponyspawn and other frightening denizens of the underground could lurk in any shadowed crevice, waiting for the opportunity to strike.

One would have to be mad not to be paranoid in the Dark Tunnels.

Twilight emerged from the crevice to see the light of what appeared to be dozens of bonfires. The sounds of battle echoed clearly now in the face of the massive cave, and as Twilight zoomed in with a quick spell, she could see the combatants clearly.

Ponyspawn did battle not against donkeys, but against a small force of diamond dogs.

“What are those things…” Lyra said, surprising Twilight as she used the same eagle-eye spell. Oghren growled through the bit-hilt of his axe.

“Diamond dogs!” He snarled, “I don’t believe it! I thought the ponyspawn wiped them out generations ago!”

“We met a dragon-cult of dogs in the Frosttop Mountains,” Twilight said, “They were not wiped out, no thanks to the efforts of the ponyspawn and the donkey kingdoms. We should help them. They might be very capable allies.”

Oghren glowered at the sight of the diamond dogs. “I know what you’re thinking. Well you can just forget it! I fought long wars against the diamond dogs, and I am not going to risk my furry neck for some mutts!”

Twilight stood up straight and then took a deep, menacing breath. She exaggerated the exhale as annoyance made itself clear on her features. She turned slowly to Oghren who remained as defiant as ever.

“I know you and the donkeys have a long history of violence and war,” Twilight said in a low voice. “Isn’t it time to let go of a conflict from so long ago? ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Even if we can’t negotiate with the ponyspawn, why should we make more enemies with the diamond dogs?”

“They’re savages!” Oghren roared back, “You can’t trust them as far as you can throw them! They’re agents of Chaos! They… they smell!”

Twilight’s horn flared with violet power as she drew her sword. “Right now I just see diamond dogs under attack by a foe that knows no mercy. I also see Grey Wardens that understand that while I am their friend, I am also their Commander. We are going to help the dogs. Any defiance of my orders will be met with an immediate court martial.”

While Twilight did not enjoy using her authority on her friend, yet she needed to keep Oghren in line. She gambled on the fact that since they already endured so many hardships together, Oghren would not move to stand against her. He would, however, begrudgingly accept her orders and follow through. The Wardens needed Oghren’s strength and skill in battle.

Twilight looked down to make a quick assessment of the battleground before deciding on the appropriate method to engage the enemy. The ponyspawn outnumbered the diamond dogs three-to-one, though the majority of the opposing force was made up of donlocks. Despite this, several thelock alphas controlled the group while screamers harassed the dogs. Thankfully, she could not see any ornlock emissaries or minotaurs. The lack of any real punch in their lines would make the battle a little easier.

Many of the diamond dogs took a position near a wall of the cavern, waving crude spears and axes against the ponyspawn. As Twilight looked closer, she could see the fear in the eyes as their meager defense showed sign of collapse as the small horde of donlocks encroached ever closer. Only a few of the dogs wore the trappings of warriors or soldiers, and yet those bits and pieces of armour looked ancient to her eye. They would not stop a ponyspawn fang, let alone one of their terrible blades.

“Daisy, you’re with me,” Twilight said, “We’re going to charge the donlock lines and give the diamond dogs some relief. Oghren, engage the alphas. Lyra, provide him with some spell support. Once we’ve swept up the ponyspawn, we can help the dogs get out of this situation.”

Lyra nodded and illuminated her staff with a golden aura. She drew the hidden blade from within the staff and held it ready. Daisy removed the razor disc from her satchel, taking the chain in her mouth as she took her spot beside Twilight.”

“By your side, Commander,” Daisy said. Twilight gave her an affirmative nod before lifting Sophia high and ready for battle.

“Charge!” Twilight felt the fur on the back of her neck rise as the thrill of battle overtook her. She hated fighting, but still found herself feeling the rush that combat brought on.

Ponyspawn and diamond dog turned their heads in the direction of the charging Grey Warden. The former hissed and reformed their lines, focusing their stronger units to take the brunt of Twilight’s attack. Jaws snapped in intimidating fashion as thelocks reared on their hooves and drew their savage swords that hung by their sides. Screamers turned in sharp arcs to bring their jagged teeth and claws to bear against their pony foes.

The largest and most heavily armoured of the thelock pushed its way through the thelock lines. A large, spiky helmet obstructed its eyes, but the monsters foul mouth was still in view, and its lips curled into a sinister sneer.

“Silencer…” the thelock alpha snarled. “You come. We… kill! Kill the Silencer! Kill the Silencer! Rip flesh! Spill blood! Slay all!”

The other ponyspawn joined in the rally with a chorus of roars and charged towards Twilight to meet her challenge. With Duncan’s shield gripped tight in her magical hold, Twilight deflected a blade meant to tear through her neck. Her sword quickly met the ponyspawn’s blade as both parried with a flurry of sparks that burst when steel met steel. The thelock growled when its attack failed, only to attack again with another strong strike that arced the blade towards Twilight’s face.

Twilight met the challenge of the rusty sword with a spell. She cast a quick yet effective beam of blinding light that flowed from the tip of her horn right into the left eye of the thelock. The monster screamed in pain, dropping its weapon and bringing its hooves up to shield its eyes. Once the thelock fell over, Twilight urged her sword forward, plunging the tip of Sophia deep into the thelock’s chest. It struggled briefly before finally stilling while a pool of black blood flowed from the wound.

Daisy handled the screamers well, throwing her razor disc into the air with expert precision. Unable to fly with absolute freedom, the screamers endured both Daisy’s attacks and the closed in cavern walls that made up Dark Tunnels. When the spinning edge whizzed by a screamer, it either killed them outright by tearing into their chests or long necks, or they sliced the wings right of the screamers’ backs.

Those screamers that somehow survived the slicing attacks by Daisy then contended with Lyra and her battle magic. Flames spewed from the harp at the end of Lyra’s staff, burning screamer, thelock, and any other ponyspawn caught in the blaze. Twilight shook her head as she looked at the face of glee Lyra displayed; she enjoyed using her battlemage training far too much.

Only Oghren remained, but his focus split between the attacking ponyspawn force and the diamond dogs who established a strong defensive stance thanks to the reprieve given to them by Twilight. He growled with the axe handle in his mouth, and his distraction allowed a donlock to flank him. The miniature monster latched onto Oghren’s side with sharp claws digging into donkey armour. The donlock opened its razor maw and clamped down on the exposed flesh of Oghren’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound as Oghren thrashed about to detach the donlock from his neck.

“Damn… critter!” Oghren shouted. “I’m going to gut you with my own bare hooves and-“

He never received a chance to finish his oath as a thelock charged into Oghren’s side, knocking donkey and donlock onto the ground with a thud. Oghren moaned in pain while blood continued to pour from the wound, though he never once let go of his axe. Just as the donlock leapt into the air to taste flesh once again, Oghren stood up with authority. With a sharp twist of his neck, Oghren brought his axe up and hewed the donlock clean in half. The split ponyspawn left a shower of black blood in its wake.

Despite the short lived victory, Oghren fell on one knee as his wounded shoulder began to fester from the bite. The other thelock sneered at Oghren then drew its own jagged blade. A long, slimy black tongue slid around the handle of the weapon. The thelock anticipated how close its next meal would be.

Twilight readied a spell against the thelock only to have a screamer fly at her face. Distracted, she back stepped away from the scratching claws of the flying ponyspawn, now unable to help Oghren.

A loud howl like those from wolves echoed through the caverns. Every ponyspawn turned their heads and snarled in the direction of the haunting call. Twilight took advantage of the distraction and drove her blade into the screamer that harassed her. Once it fell, Twilight charged towards the thelock that towered over Oghren.

The thelock heard Twilight’s metal clad hooves and moved to parry her blade with his. While he knew how to deal with a regular pony warrior, the thelock never faced the likes of the Warden Commander in battle. As soon as she held his attention on her sword, Twilight’s horn crackled and unleashed a powerful bolt of energy right into his face. The thelock’s scream of pain ended quickly as it collapsed on the ground, now little more than a smoldering corpse.

Twilight offered her hoof to Oghren who took it. “Are you all right?” she asked, looking over his wounds.

“Nothing’s more damaged than my pride right now.” Oghren clamped his teeth around the battle-axe bit once more. “We have bigger problems than ponyspawn now! Didn’t you hear the howl?”

“I did! What was that?”

The answer came rushing out of a small cave. A small figure clad in dirty black leather leaped out of the crevice onto the ponyspawn that threatened the diamond dog pack. The newcomer’s hunched back, and large paws revealed that he or she was a diamond dog. A black mask covered their snouts while the paws held two jagged daggers made of bone. Mottled grey fur poked out from some of the patches in the leather, while dull yellow eyes darted about.

“Shadowhound…” Oghren hissed the word while biting down on his axe-bit. “Keep an eye on your back, they can—“

Twilight stood in awe as the shadowhound broke into a two-legged run across the underground battlefield. The dog swerved around every ponyspawn as it brought its daggers up in quick yet accurate slices. Before they even knew death came, the ponyspawn fell while black blood poured from their slit throats. Ponyspawn fell one by one as the shadowhound continued the dance of the macabre. The jagged knives caused horrible wounds and covered the dog with blood, but if they noticed, they did not care.

The ponyspawn tried to rally, focusing all their attention on the shadowhound. This exposed their flanks, of which Twilight readied herself to take full advantage. “Everyone! The ponyspawn are distracted!” She raised Sophia high above her head. Running at full gallop, Twilight dove into the unprotected flank of the ponyspawn force and sliced through thelock and donlock alike. Inspired by her charge, Daisy gave a shout and resumed her own advance, her razor-disc flying around her head and tearing through the ponyspawn with ease. Fireballs from Lyra added an exclamation point to the counter attack, roasting ponyspawn alive in fiery blasts.

The ponyspawn, despite their ravenous savagery and newfound sentience, could not hold out against a two pronged attack. Wardens and Diamond Dogs pushed towards the alpha in the center who could only watch as his forces dwindled.

“Silencer!” He snarled the title given to Twilight before charging in a suicide assault against her and her friends. Twilight gasped as the alpha thelock slew or maimed any of his own ponyspawn soldiers just to get to her.

The thelock alpha raised his blade to slash at Twilight, only to have his attack interrupted by the shadowhound that led the diamond dog counterstrike. The hound clawed its way onto the alpha’s back while with one paw held a jagged dagger tight. As the alpha bucked and kicked and shouted, but could not dislodge the diamond dog. Dagger raised into the air, the dog struck hard into the side of the thelock’s neck, causing a geyser of blood to spew from the wretched wound.

The monster fell over with the dog jumping off and landing in front of the surprised Twilight. With the ponyspawn now just a pile of corpses, Twilight took a deep breath. Another battle won, yet it would be only the first of many. The walls of the Dark Tunnels always needed a fresh coat of blood paint.

Twilight sheathed her blade and approached the hooded diamond dog. “Thank you very much for your help,” she said, extending her hoof, “My name is Twilight Sparkle and-”

The dog barked at her, forcing Twilight to take a back step. This caused Ogrhen to growl and step between the dog and Twilight with his axe gripped tight in his teeth.

“See, just what I told you!” Oghren swung at the dog, only for Twilight to catch the axe with her magic.

The dog barked again, only this time in Common. “You stinky donkey!” The dog spoke in what Twilight guessed was a feminine voice, though it was rough and scratchy. The dog then pointed at Twilight herself. “You… shiny donkey! You come for pack! You no hurt pack!”

Twilight shook her head and yanked Oghren’s axe away in an attempt to show her peaceful intentions. Daisy and Lyra put away their own weapons, but took up positions at their Commander’s flank.

“We are not here to harm you!” Twilight searched for some way to get through to the shadowhound, who only cocked her head yet still held her daggers tight. The other dogs, at least those who could not fight, lifted their crude spears and readied to fight the Wardens. With a sigh of exasperation, Twilight decided on a route of communication.

“Me Twilight. Me pony. Me from surface. Up!” Twilight felt her eye twitch using such improper syntax. “Me no hurt you. Me good. Donkey stinky. Donkey good. Donkey and pony, friend. Dog and pony friend?”

The shadowhound cocked her head the other way as her face revealed her confusion. “You… pony? You friend with donkey! Donkey stinky! Donkey bad! You fight Korroo’sha. Ponyspawn. Maybe you no bad. Me no trust.”

Twilight nodded to the diamond dog. She was getting somewhere at least. “Me Twilight. You…?”

The diamond dog sniffed the air for a moment before sheathing her daggers. “You Twilight. Me Sparky. Me shadowhound. This is pack of Sparky. We run from Korroo’sha. You come to fight them?”

Twilight assumed that Korroo’sha was the diamond dog word for the ponyspawn. “Yes. We’ve come to face the ponyspawn. To fight the korroo’sha. They attacked our home through the tunnels. My pack.”

Sparky cocked her head at Twilight, looked to the other ponies and Oghren, then back to her. She growled for a moment. “Donkey in pack?”

Twilight nodded. The other diamond dogs approached them with caution, but as their shadowhound did not fight, Twilight assumed that the others would not as well. She got a good look at Sparky’s mottled pack, and felt a pang of pity at their disheveled appearance. Many of them were just skin and bones with their ribs clearly seen against sickly skin with only some patches of fur clinging on. Their yellow eyes reflected a despair and fatigue only matched by soldiers who fought long campaigns against the ponyspawn. Indeed, these dogs likely did encounter the monsters, with the donkey kingdoms harrowing their journeys as well.

The dogs, Twilight noted, did not have the appearance of warriors. Their weapons were little more than sharp rocks tied to sticks, if they even had sticks to begin with. They donned armour of leather that seen better days. To imagine a contest of military might between the well-armed and disciplined donkey armies made her doubt the leadership of Orzamule. The war would be one-sided, especially when the ponyspawn fought on a second front.

“Commander,” Daisy said as she flanked Twilight’s right. “I’m glad we were able to help these… dogs… against the ponyspawn, but we can’t stay here too long. We have to find the source of the ponyspawn attacks on Brightstone before they send another wave.”

“You’re right,” Twilight replied, “Anyone have any suggestions?”

“We don’t have the soldiers to build a defensive outpost,” Lyra said, “We need to find their main artery of advancement and either block it off or destroy it.”

Oghren added, “Once we find the main artery, we can fill it rocks or even lava if we go deep enough. Just remember the deeper we go, the closer to the Deepest Depths we get.”

Twilight considered what her companions said. She needed a way to halt the ponyspawn advance and she needed that way yesterday. Her mind raced as she considered every spell in her mental libraries. Her eyes lit up as one possibility jumped at her. She recalled her encounter with the Mare-of-the-Mire and her powerful defensive spells. The spell she had in mind would need help though.

“Lyra, do you know any lattice defensive spells?” Twilight asked. Lyra tapped her chin.

“If you let me have some sweet, sweet lovin’ after, I can show you all sorts of lattice spells!” Lyra’s eyebrows bounced at the suggestion, which only drew a long sigh of frustration from Twilight. “I’m kidding, star-flank! But hey, I’m a battle mage, so I needed to build fortifications on the fly and they needed to last. If we merge our lattices together, the ponyspawn shouldn’t be able to break through with their own magic or brute force.”

Twilight smiled. They had a plan and that was just another step in the right direction. That just left the diamond dogs. She could not just leave them alone, especially when the ponyspawn ran amok in the Dark Tunnels.

“Sparky,” Twilight said as she approached the shadowhound, “Your people. Your pack. They follow path. They be safe there. We go to danger. We go to stop korro’sha.

Sparky’s ears perked up and she looked to Twilight and then to her diamond dog brethren. She padded over to them and spoke in their rough language. Oghren shifted on his hooves, pacing up and down the length of the tunnel. Twilight shook her head. Did he learn nothing from their travels? Did he not learn that hatred solved nothing?

With their meeting over, Sparky returned to Twilight. “You…” Sparky smacked her lips, searching for the right words. “You go fight. My pack go hide but me go with you. Me fight good. Me kill korro’sha quick. Me want make sure pack is safe.”

Twilight beamed at the opportunity to include a diamond dog into their group, only for Oghren to growl. “Ain’t no way were going into the Dark Tunnels with a diamond dog! And a shadowhound no less! You want a knife to slit your throat in the dark, Twilight?!”

Her own frustrations mounting, Twilight turned to Oghren. “That is enough, Oghren! You may be a fine warrior and one of my friends, but your treatment of Sparky and her people is inexcusable! I want you, no, I order you to stand down and remain silent!”

Oghren was about to shoot back with choice donkey curses when his ears suddenly perked up. Twilight felt the sudden shift in her own heart and she quickly looked to Lyra and Daisy. Lyra already drew her sword from her staff and called upon a fireball to form at the tip of her horn. Daisy’s eyes went wide as she felt the black blood inside her begin to boil.

“Something… something is coming!” Daisy fell to her knees, a look of sheer terror plastered on her face. “Sweet Celestia and Luna, blessed Sisters, protect us from the coming troubles…”

Twilight raised her sword and shield as she felt a rumble in her chest and from the ground under her hooves. Sparky urged her pack to flee back towards Brightstone. Once the last dog was out of sight, she drew her daggers and growled, baring her long, sharp canines.

“He comes…” Sparky whispered. “The Big Big Horns.”

Twilight looked towards the dark caverns they were about to enter when she realized the source of the rumblings. “Not the caves…” Twilight muttered, “They won’t come from a cave. They’ll come from…”

Twilight quickly raised a shield around them as the eastern wall of the cavern exploded into several rocks and shards of rubble. A dust storm kicked up from the violent detonation that shrouded the room, but the echoing of massive hooves acted as the telltale of incoming danger.

“Minotaurs…” Twilight furrowed her brow as the dust cleared, revealing two large and heavily armoured war minotaurs. The pair of mighty ponyspawn roared but did not move forward to attack. Instead, a third minotaur, much smaller but appearing more confident and more importantly, intelligent, walked up to Twilight and her party. He did not wear armour like the other, preferring to go with simple trousers with a belt of ponyskulls holding them up. In his hands he held a great ornate mace several times bigger than any pony. A single swing would reduce to Twilight to paste.

“The Indomitable Iron Will’s the name,” the lead minotaur said as heaved the mace so it rested on his shoulders. “Killing ponies is my game and old Iron Will is the master. You see, sister, Iron Will was sent here to collect a thingy for the Architect, oh yeah, and Iron Will is gonna do just that, but when he felt the legendary Silencer was going to be a contender in Iron Will’s ring, well Iron Will just had to look into her eyes just once.”

“We don’t have to fight,” Twilight said, “You can go back to the Dark Tunnels. Inform your leadership we can parley for peace.”

“No chance in hell that is gonna happen, Silencer.” Iron Will lifted his mace firmly into his hands. “That’s the bottom line, ‘cause Iron Will says so. See, Iron Will is the single most powerful Brother in existence but he still has to take orders from The Chosen and the Architect. Iron Will does not like that arrangement much and as such Iron Will needs to increase his stock. What better way that to include the Silencer’s skull on his championship belt?”

Iron Will leapt with surprising speed towards Twilight, who quickly raised a barrier to protect herself and her friends. Iron Will’s mace bounced off harmlessly, but the stress from taking such a blow rocked Twilight’s magical core. She fell to one knee as her horn’s aura began to fade.

“When somepony tries to block,” Iron Will shouted, raising the mace above his head, “Show them that you rock!”

Iron Will’s second attack broke Twilight’s defenses, sending her barrier shattering into a million pieces. Twilight fell from the stress, her sword and shield collapsing to her sides. As she fell, her friends sprang into action. Daisy swung her razor disc towards Iron Will’s neck, a kill shot for sure. Oghren charged towards Iron Will and struck against the back of his legs to bring him down as the berserker brought down so many other minotaurs. Sparky joined the fray with daggers drawn, raising them high and plunging them into his back.

The disc bounced harmlessly against Iron Will’s flesh. The axe did not rend flesh. The daggers did not pierce his skin.

He laughed at the vain attempt. “Iron Will always gets a chuckle when some fool decides to take on the greatest minotaur of all Ages in direct combat.”

“Then let’s see how you like an extra dose of battle magic!” Lyra unleashed a torrent of flame once the party was out of the way. The other two minotaurs dove out of way while Iron Will smiled at the incoming flame strike. Twilight felt the heat from the fires as she recollected her arms, only to look up in shock as Iron Will stepped out of the fire with nary a burn on his skin.

Lyra’s eyes went wide as her spell had no effect. “That’s… that can’t be…”

“The Indomitable Iron Will has earned his honorific several times over,” Iron Will explained to the aghast party. “For you see, The Shaper merged lyrium and steel together into Iron Will’s very skin. He is indomitable! He is the best in the world at what he does, and what he is about to do is send you runts all the way down to hell! Iron Will will collect your skulls later at his convenience!”

Twilight shouted as she recollected her strength. Her horn flared to life as she fired beams of arcane might into Iron Will’s direction. It was more out of desperation and defiance than in any hopes to defeat one who appeared truly invulnerable.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone!” Twilight cried out. Iron Will only laughed again.

“Why murderize when I can let the very earth… pulverize!” Her swung his mace against the wall of the tunnel and a rumble echoed throughout the earthen chamber. Twilight looked up to see several rocks falling around and onto her. She tried to raise a shield, but the amount of rocks pelting against it was proving difficult to maintain.

Iron Will struck the floor this time, sending fissures underneath their hooves. With a second strike, the floor collapsed under them, revealing a hollow vertical drop that sent Twilight and her friends plummeting to their doom. Her screams echoed as she looked into the twisted, joyful eyes of the Indomitable Iron Will before the rocks that fell with her brought her to darkness.