• Published 11th Jul 2011
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Pony Age: Origins - OmegaPony11

The Ponyspawn have invaded Equestria, and it is up to the newest addition to the Grey Wardens, Twilight Sparkle, to find the means to drive them back! With her friends and allies at her side, can Twilight win before Equestria is devoured?

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The Grey Wardens

Chapter 2: The Grey Wardens

“More books, Twilight?” asked Spike, incredulous. “You passed your test, now you can leave the Tower! Just think about it for a moment! We can go into the outside world! We can explore strange new lands, meet new ponies...”

“And where would I go Spike? It’s not like unicorns are in high demand in Equestria. Ponies fear us; they don’t want us near them. I might as well stay here, study, and teach other ponies.” Twilight’s horn glowed as she lifted a book with her mind, placing it on her desk. The pages turned with her magic until she found the entry she was looking for. As she looked for the passage she sought, her thoughts did turn to the world outside of the Tower.

Ponies lacking magical abilities had every right to fear unicorns, as the Harrowing had displayed. Magic was dangerous in the wrong hooves, and most ponies looked at all unicorns as if they were all unbound apostates, unmanaged by the Templar Order or worse, the Maleficar. The Maleficar were unicorns that practiced the most sinister of magic for their own purpose, rather than the good of all ponies. Beyond both these stigmas, there was also the chance that a unicorn could be possessed by a demon of the Fade.

All these combined gave justification for the distrust in unicorns. So long as these threats were real, unicorns would not be trusted. Twilight did not blame the general populace for a moment after witnessing the horrors of the Fade first hoof. If she could keep ponies safe by spending the rest of her life in silent study in the Tower, that was good enough for her,

“Here it is,” she said aloud as she found the page. “The Grey Wardens. They were an order of ponies that stood against the ponyspawn in Equestria in centuries past. They were removed from Equestria and forced into hiding many years ago after a supposed rebellion. I wonder why Duncan is here then.”

“We don’t get much news of the outside except what the templars tell us.” Spike jumped onto the table, allowing him to be face to face with Twilight. “I heard from them that King Blueblood allowed the Wardens to return. Why not go ask Duncan about the Wardens yourself? Maybe you can join up?”

Twilight thought about such for a moment, tapping her chin with a hoof as her mind wandered. The book did not have much history on the Wardens, just dates and events of which they were involved, mostly battles where the Wardens had proven capable of turning the tide. She shook her head before raising the book back into the shelf. “No Spike, adventuring is not for me. The Wardens have their duties just as I have my responsibilities. Besides, it’s dangerous business going out our doors. The more religious ponies would probably hate me for simply existing.”

Life in the Unicorn Tower may have been a cage, but at least it was a safe cage with all the books Twilight could study in her entire lifetime. It was a good life, a safe life. When she looked to Spike, however, she felt pity for the baby dragon. He was just as bound to Twilight as she was to the Unicorn Tower as long as they had her horn phylactery. As she returned to her books, Twilight could see the defeat in Spike’s eyes. Even though it had been five days since the Harrowing, Spike still had hopes that Twilight and he could finally leave the tower.

“Why don’t we go for a walk around the Tower?” Twilight asked, closing the book and heading to the door. “It will get your mind off things. Maybe get something to eat?”

The Tower held every amenity a unicorn could ever need. The kitchens were always stocked with food, the shelves were lined with countless books and ingredients for basic spellcasting, and most important for Twilight, the Tower was comfortably silent for power study sessions. Her interactions with fellow unicorns were sparse at best, and thankfully she had no altercations with the templars.

The air in the Tower was different today, at least as far as Twilight felt. Her fellow students approached Twilight, each offering congratulations for passing the Harrowing. Twilight mildly chuckled as she received the words of encouragement from her the other unicorns, knowing full well that many of them would face their own Harrowing soon enough. Every time a unicorn succeeding in besting the demonic forces of the Fade, it was a cause of celebration.

Twilight did not want to think about what would have happened if she had failed. The templars insufferable superiority they lorded over the unicorns proved unbearable during these times. What hurt the most was the knowledge that another colleague had fallen to the wiles of the Fade, and that it could very well be the fate of any unicorn who was not cautious enough with magic.

Spike dejectedly followed Twilight out of the dormitory and into the main halls. Twilight looked to Spike for a moment and flashing a smile to ease Spike's worries. It was the least she could do for him, considering the fact that she was consigning his fate to the Tower just as much as she was doing to herself. As distracted as she was, she did not notice a wall in her path, bumping into it and falling over onto her haunches.

“Teaches me to keep my eyes on …” Twilight stopped herself as she looked up not to one of the Tower's walls or doors, but to a tall earth pony in steel armour. There was Duncan, looking down as she picked herself up to her hooves. To his sides he was being followed by First Enchanter Wise Eyes and Trixie’s mentor, Senior Enchanter Hubred. “I’m so sorry,” Twilight said, bowing her head. “I wasn't watching and-”

“It is no trouble… Twilight Sparkle was it?” Duncan spoke calmly, as if nothing had happened at all. There was warmth in his eyes that drew Twilight closer to him, though the harsh gaze of Hubred kept Twilight at a distance. “I have heard much about you. Your recent excursion to the Fade has proved most impressive.”

“Yes, yes, she is very good,” said Hubred with a disdainful sniff. Twilight never much liked the mentor of Trixie, but he was the hunter of maleficar in the Tower thanks to his great skill in magic. “But I am certain you wish to see much more accomplished unicorns. Perhaps I can offer Trixie as an example of such?” Twilight glowered at Hubred dismissing her. If hearing Trixie boast about her powers was grating, then hearing Hubred speak about his pupil was worse. The pale coated unicorn had no mane and his cutie mark, a red eye amidst fire, seemed like a cruel perversion of Wise Eyes'. He looked down at Twilight as Duncan raised a hoof towards Hubred.

"It is my decision to make, Hubred,” the Grey Warden said, almost as if in warning. “The order is lacking in unicorns, and I must be absolutely certain I make the best choice. Trying times are ahead, and we must be prepared.”

Duncan’s eyes met with Twilight's, and she could feel the older stallion judging her. “Gentlecolts, perhaps we should discuss this in my chamber,” Wise Eyes said at last, ushering Duncan and Hubred to follow him upstairs to his private study. For a moment, Twilight considered the Grey Warden incredibly lucky. Wise Eyes had some of the rarest tomes of magic in all of Equestria, maybe even the world. She'd give her left hoof just for a chance to study one of those ancient books.

“What was that all about?” Spike asked, pulling Twilight's attention to the here and now. Twilight could only shrug before continuing to the mess hall, her stomach protesting loudly for want of a meal. After a simple lunch of hay and oats, they turned to return to the dormitories only to have their path blocked by Trixie. The magician glared at the duo until she turned completely around. Twilight could only sigh.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie has been sent to come bring you to the First Enchanter’s chamber,” she said with complete disdain, her muzzle turned upward much in the same style as Hubred. “So if you will please hurry up and follow Trixie, we can get this over with.”

Following the insufferable braggart, Twilight began to wonder what Wise Eyes would want from her. Was there an issue with the Harrowing? Was there something Wise Eyes wanted her to do? Did she actually insult Duncan when she bumped into him? Countless scenarios swam in her head as she followed Trixie towards Wise Eye's study, and all them made her worried. Spike looked up at Twilight before shaking his head. He likely thought Twilight was worried over nothing. When it came to matters of magic, though, being worried was perfectly acceptable. The dangers were too great to ignore.

Wordlessly, Twilight and Trixie entered the First Enchanter’s chamber. It was the same as Twilight remembered when she was just a little filly; filled with all sorts of books, scrolls and various oddities. Any time she was allowed in Wise Eyes' study, she always begged and pleaded with the old wizard to allow her one little glimpse into his various tomes. Her imagination had danced at the wondrous spells and knowledge kept in his bookshelves. Several apparatuses were in the room as well, filled with strange potions and pots of liquid lyrium dazzling in the torchlight.

Once again she was in front of Duncan, Wise Eyes, and Hornshield as the three stallions stood around Wise Eyes desk. Twilight’s eyes widened as she saw what was in front of the templar commander: her horn phylactery. Already her fears were strengthened as she looked on the smallest sliver of her horn floated in the small crystal phial. If the templars took the time to find her phylactery and bring it up, then this meeting was serious indeed.

The phylactery was a small sliver of a unicorn’s horn shaved off and stored away in the lowest levels of the Tower to be used only by the senior enchanters and the templar in hunting unicorns that fled from the Tower or went rogue. The fear of rogue mages turning into Maleficar, practitioners of Dark Art magic or corrupted abominations possessed by demons made the fear of unicorns justified. To many templars, the only solution to unicorns was to hunt them down and kill them. To others, they wanted to keep the unicorns useful by cutting off their horns and making them one of the Tranquil: magicless unicorns who had no drive or emotions. The idea of becoming one of those drones made Twilight shake in fear.

“Thank you, Trixie,” Wise Eyes said as both mares stepped forward. “I must be brief, for this meeting more concerns Twilight Sparkle. For your services to the Tower, I would give you the rank of Enchanter in the Tower, as well as for you to take over teaching the yearlings. I am sure they will take their lessons to heart if they are diligent.”

Trixie gave her thanks to the First Enchanter, bowing with flourish before smirking at Twilight. She had a slight hop in her trot as she left the room, which only left Twilight feeling more insecure about the meeting. As the door closed, Wise Eyes regarded the unicorn and her dragon companion.

“Twilight Sparkle,” said Duncan as he stepped forward, surprising Twilight. “What you are about to be asked is a large burden for you. I have spoken with many of the other unicorns and with the First Enchanter, and I have come to the same conclusion: you are the unicorn I want to recruit into the Grey Wardens. Your skill and mastery of magic are boons, yes, but from what I have been told of your Harrowing, you have the will to combat the corruption of the spirit, which is necessary to become a Warden.”

“You have encountered many hardships here in the Unicorn Tower, but they pale in comparison to what life as a Warden entails. It means combating against the ponyspawn threat and making terrible sacrifices for the greater good for ponies everywhere. These sacrifices are the toughest burdens, to both you and to others. I know that Equestria is teetering on the brink of a Blight, and I need only the most capable of ponies with the Grey Wardens. We do what we must, you understand, to hold back the evil tide.”

The explanation left Twilight in shock. She remembered what Spike said about becoming a Grey Warden and remembered her rebuttal for wanting to refuse such. Safe haven within the Tower, she recalled, and all the books to study for the rest of her days. But what if Duncan was right and it was another Blight? Those same books told her what the last Blight had caused; near catastrophic destruction of the Unicorn Imperium, and close to doing the same to Equestria before the rise of the Grey Wardens. There wouldn’t be a tower or books if the ponyspawn destroyed everything.

Twilight looked at Spike who simply returned her gaze, the spark of desire in his eyes to finally leave their confines. This could be the one chance to leave the Tower for both her and the baby dragon, instead of being trapped in their gilded cage. She could leave the Tower with a clear purpose and direction instead of simply existing within its halls. To help all of Equestria with her magic, instead of letting it be put to no use at all.

She had to make the step into a new life outside of the cage, she knew it. There was an entire world out there to explore, one filled with ancient knowledge and magics that the Tower simply could never teach. Yet this was her home, and if she followed Duncan out to become a Grey Warden, she would be turning her back on the only home she ever knew. If she made a decision, it would have to be now, with no hesitation. Twilight gave one last look at Spike before turning to Duncan.

She took a step forward towards Duncan, meeting his gaze. “Alright,” she said with shaky confidence. “I’ll go with you. I’ll become a Grey Warden. If I can do anything to help against the Blight, I will.”

Duncan nodded in response before speaking. “Of that I am sure of.” He walked over to Hornsheild and took the phylactery in his mouth before putting it into his saddle bag. “As a Grey Warden,” Duncan continued, “You will no longer have to worry about the templars or the Chantry. You will answer only to me. Now go pack the necessities for a long journey. The ponyspawn horde will be coming from the southern wilds, and we must meet the King there to face them.”

With that Duncan left Twilight with Wise Eyes, Hornshield and Spike as he left the First Enchanter's chambers. Spike dashed to move in front of the Grey Warden, pointing a claw at the senior Warden. Twilight wanted to pull him back out of embarrassment. “Hey!” he said, incredulous. “What about me? If Twilight is going, then so am I!”

“Of course, Ser Spike,” Duncan replied, “I would not dream of separating you from Twilight Sparkle. From what I have been told, you have proven a wonderful friend to her since the day you were hatched. You are as much a part of her strong spirit as anything. I look forward to the journey south with both of you.”

Duncan left, allowing Twilight to gather her dizzying thoughts. She was actually going to leave the Unicorn Tower for the first time in her life. She could barely remember even coming to the tower as a little foal, and the familiar and routine was going to go away completely in favour to become a Grey Warden and fight the ponyspawn.

Now Twilight was starting to regret her decision. She had read of the battles against the ponyspawn, but never dreamed she would be on the battlefront herself. Before she could say anything, Wise Eyes spoke up. “It is good you accepted so quickly,” he said, “Duncan was very intent on having you in the Wardens. I argued against this since you had only just recently undertaken the Harrowing, but he threatened to use the Right of Conscription. While I'm glad you accepted on your own volition, I am still saddened. I feel like I am tossing you from one fire to another.”

Twilight had almost forgotten about that. She read in the books concerning the Grey Wardens that they could conscript whoever they wanted into service thanks to old treatise signed by various kingdoms as well as the Chantry itself. There were records of leaders being renounced by their people for refusing the Right of Conscription. Thanks to the threat the ponyspawn posed and the Wardens being the best at fighting them. She had never heard of anyone refusing being conscripted but there was probably a good reason for that as well, considering who the Grey Wardens were.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Wise Eyes interrupted Twilight's thoughts, his horn aglow as he brought a large staff over with his magic. “I have something for you that will be of some use in your journeys. Take this staff, and know that it will help as a second focus for your magic. It floats on its own power, and will aid you in channelling magic between the focal point and your horn.”

“Thank you, First Enchanter!” Twilight said with a bright smile. The staff was simple and only carried a few engravings, but as it floated to her side she could feel warmth flowing from the top, it felt right to be next to the staff, like another friend. The staff would channel her magic much as her horn already does, but with its help she would not tire so quickly. “I’ll do my best not to let you or the Unicorn Tower down.”

Wise Eyes chuckled, but his expression quickly turned grim. “It is not about the unicorns anymore, child,” he said, “But about all of Equestria and well beyond its borders. The Grey Wardens only want the best and brightest individuals in their ranks, and he has made a wise decision, though I loathe seeing you go into danger.”

Twilight approached the First Enchanter and nuzzled his grey coat. Wise Eyes reciprocated as Twilight tried to blink away the tears. She was leaving her home and the only father figure she had ever known to venture into the dangers of Equestria. She was not likely to return anytime soon. She had never known her parents, having been told that they had perished while she was still a tiny foal. Having nothing to remember them by, Twilight had instead looked at the other unicorns of the Tower to be like a family.

A family that she was now leaving to go out into the world and battle terrible monsters. Everything seemed so sudden, but there was no going back now. Also, Twilight was born with feared magic in her blood; would it not be right to use those talents for the good of ponies everywhere? To show that magic was useful, that it could be used for good?

Twilight made her decision. She would go with Duncan south to meet the ponyspawn and become a Warden. With a bow to both authority figures, the unicorn left the chamber with Spike on her back and her new staff floating to her left. “I can’t believe it, Twilight!” Spike said with a large smile. “You’re going to be a Grey Warden! You’ll be saving all of Equestria from the ponyspawn!”

“Now Spike, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Twilight returned to the dormitory for the last time and began packing her saddle bags with such essentials as healing poultices and rations. “The ponyspawn are no joke, and we don’t know much about the outside world beyond what we are told by the templar and visiting unicorns. Now help me find some books to bring along.”

“More books? We’re going on a big adventure and you want to bring books?” Spike looked at the large bookshelves that the apprentices used, wondering what sort of books Twilight would want to bring.

“I’m not going to bring the entire library, just books on the ponyspawn, Equestria, survival, bestiaries, and etcetera. Never underestimate what you can learn from a good book. Oh and find some maps while you are at it.” Instead of maps, Spike dumped a good helping of semi-precious gemstones into her bags.

“Just some snacks. I’m going to get hungry on the journey,” he said as Twilight rolled her eyes. Pointing her staff at the bookshelves, she concentrated on the maps she wanted just as she would with her horn. Surprisingly, the staff took most of the focus and the map scrolls floated with ease down into her bags.

“This staff really will be helpful.” Twilight smiled, looking over the staff and its markings once again. A staff was more than just a weapon or magical tool. It was status symbol that the unicorn had passed the Harrowing and was a skilled and trusted user of the arcane arts. If there was ever a symbol of maturity, the staff was it.

“You should give it a name,” suggested Spike, “All great adventurers name their stuff. How about ‘Blight Blaster’ or ‘Ponyspawn Punisher’. Ooh! How about ‘The Thunderstick!'”

As Spike rattled off every cheesy name he could think of, Twilight bit on a cloak and wrapped the warm cloth over her. With one tug on the clasp the hooded cape sat comfortable over her back. She smirked at her own reflection, dressed in a cloak with a wizard's staff made her look like a story book mage. Her saddle bags were loaded and ready, and once Spike was on her back again she made her way down the tower steps for the last time.

At the bottom of the steps gathered most of the unicorns in the Tower, Trixie and Hubred included much to Twilight's surprise. While those two turned their heads away from her in contempt, the other unicorns began asking questions about the Grey Wardens, when Twilight was going to come back, wishes for good luck and prayers to Celestia and Luna to protect her. Twilight could already feel her eyes brim with tears as she tried to express her thanks to everyone, wanting to spend a few moments more in the one place she had called home. Seeing Duncan standing before the large iron door leading into the Tower's entrance gave her a sense of urgency, however, and she quickly concluded her farewells. Waving her hoof goodbye to everypony, she watched as the iron door opened before her eyes for the first time in her life.

Once they were in the foyers that lead to the true entrance of the Tower and the templars barracks, Twilight watched as the templars sealed the iron doors shut the moment she, Spike, and Duncan were across the threshold. The templar guards only watched as Duncan and Twilight approached the door that lead to the outside world. “This will hurt your eyes for a moment,” Duncan said as he nodded to the door guards. “Just give your eyes time to adjust to the light.”

The doors opened slowly with a grating creak, sunlight spilling into the foyer as both Twilight and Spike covered their eyes. Neither had ever seen the light of the sun so clearly, save for the few windows were allowed in the Tower, and being face to face with its majesty was painful. The light from the sun stung after being in the dark tower for so long, it made Twilight’s eyes water. Yet perhaps her tears where happy ones when she was looking at the sun, to see the full glory of Celestia for the first time in her life.

“It’s… it’s beautiful,” Spike said in her place as he looked up into the great azure skies. Twilight could not agree more.

“It is precious, yes,” Duncan agreed in a voice that spoke of understanding. “It is why we Grey Warden’s fight the ponyspawn; to save such simple pleasures as seeing Celestia’s gift to all ponies.”

They crossed Lake Blackwater in a small ferry boat the templars used to get to the tower. Twilight and Spike were both amazed at the water and the fish that swam in the lake. They looked up in awe at the clouds that hung above their head and the blue sky that carried them. Everything was brighter and more wondrous than Twilight could have ever imagined, it was hard to believe that it was all under threat by the ponyspawn. She wanted to savour every new experience she was having, taking note of every little thing that simply did not exist within the Tower.

Everything was much bigger as well, to a scale Twilight would not have imagined. Twilight had never realized just how tall the Tower was until she saw the structure from the outside. Mountains and hills beckoned across the small lake as the ferry approached the dock.

“Come,” said Duncan as they left the ferry and began to trot on the path southwards. “We are going to the ancient Imperium ruins of Ostequus. There we will meet with the King and his army. I will teach you about the Grey Wardens as well as many skills you will need. But before that...”

Duncan opened his bag and lifted Twilight’s phylactery in his teeth. Setting it on the ground, he smashed the phial with his hoof with a strong stomp. Twilight gasped while Spike stood agape, mouth wide at the unheard act of open defiance.

“What did you do?” Twilight looked at the broken remains of her phylactery with horror. “Now I’ll be considered an apostate!” Apostates were rogue mages who more often considered maleficar due to not being controlled by the Chantry. Many apostates hid from the fury of the templars, and often did result in using Dark Arts to escape or combat the templars. Not only more feared and hated, but the templars actively hunted down apostate and maleficar alike with extreme prejudice. Both were considered by many unicorns the true reason that the general pony populace hated and feared magic so much.

“You are to become a Grey Warden,” Duncan explained, “And the Grey Wardens do what we must, sacrifice what… and who… we must to beat back the Blight. You are no longer a unicorn under the thumb of the Chantry but a pony in an order that has one objective: to defeat the ponyspawn. I cannot have a Grey Warden worried about the ponyspawn as well as the templars. You will learn these lessons about being a Warden, and they will be harsh ones. You must be prepared for the burden now, before it is set upon your shoulders and cannot be removed. It is the duty that cannot be forsworn.”

Twilight looked on at the broken phial and saw the small sliver of her horn still there amongst the shard. The fragment floated on its own, and moved towards the unicorn’s horn without the slightest nudge from Twilight. She did not resist as it resumed the same place where it was shaved off when she was a little filly and felt completely at ease. A feeling of becoming whole enveloped her as her horn was now complete.

If there was ever a sense of euphoria, this was it. Her magic was always potent before, but now there was a feeling of being complete in mind and in body. Magic surged through her body as if in celebration for the reunion of horn and shard. Twilight took a deep breath as she let herself become used to the feeling.

Duncan resumed his canter south with Twilight and Spike following behind him, a march that left the two Tower bound individuals tired after a short distance, unused to such physical exertions. As they journeyed, they met only a few other ponies on the roads, amongst them travelling merchants, and bands of earth pony knights from the local arl’s barracks. The old Warden spoke with them when he felt necessary, asking only for Twilight and Spike to remain silent as he talked. He did not explain why he did such, but instead continued teaching Twilight about the history of the Grey Wardens, as well as such skills as survival in the wilderness and against the ponyspawn.

As they travelled, Twilight encountered much more exotic travellers on the road, including donkeys and pegasi. Duncan taught Twilight about the nearby donkey city-state of Orzamule, as well as the Pegasi of the Eastern Dales who had a clan dwelling in the nearby Everfree Forest. Twilight wanted to know more about Duncan’s first hand experiences, but the old stallion simply said she would have as much knowledge as he in a short amount of time.

They stopped for the night in a clearing. Before the sun set, Duncan pointed out a large ruined fortress in the distance. “That is Ostequus,” he said, “An ancient Imperium ruin where we will be making our stand against the ponyspawn with King Blueblood and his army, as well as the rest of the Grey Wardens. There is another Warden there with more recruits waiting for us. I believe she is around your age as well.”

“Duncan,” Twilight said, “Can I ask when you were recruited in the Grey Wardens?” She hoped the question was not too prying.

“When I was a young colt, I was found on the streets of a city in Filais. My mentor took notice at my skills in fighting and stealth, and thought I had a better future with the Grey Wardens.” He chuckled at the memory. “There was much resistance to my joining, but she made sure that the Right of Conscription would not be ignored by such an impetuous youth. I had studied much since then, including one thing above all others which you should know: The Grey Wardens protect the entire world, not just one nation. Flags mean little to us, as long as they continue to wave in the winds, free from the ponyspawn threat. Now get some sleep, we will be at Ostequus in the morning.”

The thought of a young Duncan was amusing at first, until the looming stone towers of Ostequus made their presence known, the shadows from the great stonework drifting over them with the setting sun. Quietly Twilight lowered her head on the blanket with Spike sleeping noisily by her side. “Duncan,” she started again, “Would you have used the Right of Conscription on me?”

Duncan looked over the fire he had made, not turning his gaze to Twilight. “Yes. The Grey Wardens do what they must.” He remained in silent vigil against the darkness, and Twilight at last let sleep take hold.

* * *

The ruins of Ostequus proved even more impressive up close than from a distance. Twilight and Spike marvelled at the work of the Imperium and how it still stood after millennia despite all odds. Ostequus, as Duncan explained, was built by the Unicorn Magisters of the Imperium to prevent further incursions of the Bronco Clans from the southern wilds. Unfortunately, the ponyspawn were not Broncos. They were not deterred by works of stone and mortar.

As Duncan and Twilight approached, they saw four ponies canter across the massive bridge leading into Ostequus. Flanked by his three earth pony guards, King Blueblood stood like a majestic statue in all his glory. His white coat and blond mane were flawless, while his golden armour shone in the sunlight. His gold helmet made Twilight flinch; it was adorned by a single spiralling horn. She wondered if the king new the significance of such and simply did not care.

Duncan, Twilight, and Spike all bowed towards the king of Equestria who approached with a large smile towards the elder Grey Warden. “Duncan!” he exclaimed, “Good to see you made it to the field of glory at last! And this must be your newest recruit!”

“Indeed, Your Majesty,” said Duncan, “This is Twilight Sparkle, a gifted unicorn from the Circle of Unicorns. She will be aiding us in the battle against the ponyspawn.”

Blueblood turned his brilliant smile to Twilight who felt herself blush at the attention from the king. “A unicorn, you say? Your magic will prove very handy against the enemy, of that I am certain. I have never been to the Unicorn Tower myself, how is it there?”

Twilight found herself tongue-tied, unable to answer the King’s question. Spike jumped up on Twilight’s back and looked the king in the eye. “It’s big and boring and full of books,” he said, “Now do you have anything to eat, like some rubies? I’m starving!”

The King laughed, letting the violet unicorn breathe in relief that he was not offended. “How curious! A talking baby dragon! I will have to hear all about your tales in due time. But I really must be going back, or else Teryn Loghoof will be sending out a search party. More battle plans and such. All dreadfully boring.”

“Arl Macintosh sends his regards, Your Majesty, and will be sending soldiers soon.” Twilight looked at Duncan, who had never mentioned the Arl or his soldiers.

“Arl Macintosh is probably too busy with his orchards to know where true glory is to be had.” Blueblood turned on his hooves and began to make his way back to the encampment. Twilight and Duncan began to follow as he continued to speak. “I am not certain we are facing a true Blight. We have caught a few scouts, but there have not been any sightings of the Archdemon.”

Duncan’s face turned dour. “This is a Blight, Your Majesty, of that I am quite certain.”

“Then we will meet it head on and have our names sung for generations.” Blueblood trotted with purpose, his eyes blazing with dreams of glory. “Just like the stories of old, where the Kings of Equestria and the Grey Wardens fight side by side to end the Blight. But enough talk, you will want to get your Wardens ready for the coming battle and Loghoof must be rearing in his stable. Farewell!”

As the King and his entourage left Twilight and Duncan at the entrance of Ostequus, the old Warden turned to the unicorn. “I want you to go around the camp, get accustomed to it,” he said, “But also keep an eye out for the other recruits as well as the Warden I mentioned earlier. Her name is Applejack. and I’m sure you will find her close by. Check the small orchard to the east. She was from the arling of Red Apple, you see, and will likely be there where she is most comfortable.”

Twilight nodded and with Spike on her back headed east through the ruins. She had never seen so many ponies in one place in her life before, all busy with the preparations for war. Earth ponies in heavy armour ran drills, checked weapons, and discussed battle strategy as she walked through the army camp. Chantry priests offered prayers of hopes to those who assembled around them, and nearby to Twilight’s surprise were unicorns preparing spells of protection for the army.

Everypony looked confident as they went about their business in the camp. Twilight wondered where she would be positioned in the coming battle, though the idea of actually fighting on a large scale battlefield frightened her. She was still a newly harrowed Unicorn with no combat experience save for the demons in the Fade and some practice with offensive and defensive spells. The Wardens would no doubt be on the front lines, and if she was to become one, that is where she would be.

Twilight turned the corner and saw a gathering of earth ponies surrounding a corpse. As she approached, she let out a gasp at what they were discussing. Dead on the ground was a grotesque creature, vaguely resembling a pony. Its hide was chitin instead of a proper coat and the mane was made up of bony spikes. The eyes were bloodshot, while the teeth were jagged with two large tusks protruding from the sides of the jaw. The hooves ended in sharp claws and the creature was still bleeding black blood onto the soft earth.

“This is a thelock,” said an officer. “A common kind of ponyspawn. Their blood is a lethal poison that will kill you in moments, so try to keep your wounds covered as best you can, to stop the blood from entering your system. They are savage monsters, all of them, who don’t know anything about bargaining or mercy. There are other kinds of ponyspawn as well, including what are called the ornlock emissaries, who can cast spells.”

“Magic?” questioned another pony soldier. “But are they not animals? How can they cast magic?”

Twilight wondered the same as she kept her eyes on the corpse. Nothing had prepared her for the monster before her and this was merely a dead ponyspawn. What would she do when it came time to confront a live one? The unicorn turned away from the soldiers and the example of their enemy and entered a quick canter.

As she wandered the camp, Twilight saw the orchard where she was supposed to meet Applejack. The trees were tall and grand, their branches filled with bright green leaves and scores of apples. “Hey Spike, you hungry?” Twilight asked with cheer as she began to channel the magic in her horn to bring down a pair of delicious fruit.

“I’ll get that!” A shout resounded in the orchard, followed by the sound of galloping hooves. An orange coated mare with a blonde mane wearing splinted armour and a farmer’s wide brimmed hat came dashing towards them. Before Twilight could voice an objection, the mare turned around quickly and struck the tree with her hind hooves, shaking the tree with a heavy tremor. The apples fell harmlessly to their sides, much to Twilight’s confusion.

The mare crossed her front legs with pride. Twilight took note of the cutie mark, three red apples on a grey shield. “You must be Applejack,” she said, “I’m Twilight Sparkle, the new recr-”

“And you must be the new unicorn recruit!” Applejack began shaking Twilight’s hoof as strongly as she shook up the tree. “Ah’m Appplejack alright, been right waitin’ to meet yer acquaintance. We could always use more Grey Wardens, and I can’t wait to hear about your time with Duncan. Say, you were hungry right? We can talk over some apples, lemme just buck some more for ya and get the recruits.”

Applejack kicked another tree with a hard kick, letting the apples fall to the ground harmlessly. “Soup’s on, every pony!” She hollered with a hoof to her mouth. Galloping towards them were countless hungry soldiers, chantry priests and various other ponies, all eager to partake in the bounty of fruit Applejack had provided. Rushing up to Twilight and Applejack were two earth ponies, a slender brown coated pony with a dagger hanging by his side and a much larger pony with a pale blue coat and a large sword slung over his back.

“Meet Digger and Ser Magni,” Applejack introduced, “Two other Grey Warden recruits just like yerself.”

“Pleasure is all mine,” Digger said, “And what a lovely young filly we have with us now. Haven’t seen you around Trotterim, and I know most of the ladies.” Applejack gave Digger a stern look to tell the colt to back down. Twilight, on the other hoof, couldn't help but blush. It wasn't often she was courted, and so openly at that.

“Ser Magni of Red Apple Acres, miss,” said the pony knight, bowing his head. “I hope we both get into the Grey Wardens. They are very selective with their recruits, I heard.”

Twilight smiled at all three ponies. “I’m Twilight Sparkle, and this is Spike,” she said. “Duncan told me there would be other recruits. I have to say, I’m glad I’m not the only one. “

Suddenly Applejack lifted her right hoof to her chest in a salute. Twilight, Digger, and Ser Magni turned to see Duncan approaching. “Good, you are all here.” The elder Warden looked at the three recruits and Applejack. “You have all been chosen due to possessing talents and skills deemed useful to the Grey Wardens and to our battle against the ponyspawn. While you have all come far to Ostequus and the front lines of the conflict, there is a task that will test you to see if you are truly fit to bear the title of Grey Warden.”

“Deep in the Potpourri Wilds, there is an ancient Grey Warden fort. Inside this fort you will find important documents ages old, detailing treaties the Wardens have made with the Unicorn Tower, the Donkey Kingdoms, and the Pegasi of the Eastern Dales. You will go and bring these treaties back to me, as well as seek out the ponyspawn in the Wilds and collect six phials of their blood.”

“Applejack,” Duncan turned his attention to Applejack. “As the senior Warden, you will go with them and do what you must to ensure that the task is successful.” Applejack saluted again as Duncan returned his attention to the recruits. “This will be a dangerous task, but no more so dangerous than anything else you will face against the ponyspawn. I have faith that you will succeed. May Celestia’s light protect you.”

Duncan turned back towards the camp as Applejack lead Digger and Ser Magni towards the Potpourri Wilds. Twilight swallowed as she looked to Spike. “Stay here in camp Spike, where you’ll be safe,” she said, leaving Spike cross. “If anything were to happen to you, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Spike was about to object, but then relented. “You’re the one going to be the Warden after all,” he said, “I’ll just take a nap somewhere. Maybe with the war dogs.” The baby dragon moved towards the camp as Applejack called for Twilight to hurry along. As they left the camp, Twilight looked on towards the Potpourri Wilds, nerves shaking her from hoof to horn. Even the shadows seemed to beckon towards the wilds like a hungry animal, waiting for their next meal.

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