• 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 Gate to the Depths

Chapter 22 - The Gate to the Depths

Time passed far quickly for Twilight as she walked down the hill from the castle towards the township of Red Apple. All her friends would be waiting for her after spending two days and two nights thanks to the hospitality of their host, Arl Macintosh. It was good for the ponies to take some time away from their troubles, and Twilight was glad everypony was able to find something to keep them occupied as they readied for their journey along the Merchant's Road to Orzamule.

Applejack spent a majority of her time with the recovering Applebloom, walking with her and Macintosh as they travelled through the Red Apple region, helping in any way they could to make the recovery process easier on the ponies. When she did travel with them, Twilight could still see that haunted look on Applebloom’s face, even though Macintosh and Applejack explained to any who asked that it was a magical accident caused by a demon.

This explanation tided many ponies over, but those who still demanded justice wanted to see the unicorns involved punished for their crimes. With the death of Arl Maim’s agent during the retaking of Red Apple Castle, all that was left was Sweetie Belle, who spent the majority of her time with Rarity in the dungeon of the castle. As long as she was in the dungeon, she would be safe from those were still angry from the undead attack. Talk and rumour of the unicorn filly's involvement had spread, however, and the templar order would arrive soon enough to take the filly away.

It was unfair, but Twilight could do little to stop it. She had argued on Sweetie Belle’s behalf to try to get Arl Macintosh to protect her. Yet in all regards concerning apostates, the templars will was law, and not even an Arl could do much to stop them. All she could do was be there for Rarity when it was time to go and leave Sweetie Belle to her fate. Yet when she did speak to Rarity, she seemed rather cheerful in the face of Sweetie Belle’s imminent doom and the threat from of the Mare of the Mire. Twilight would have to ask Rarity what there was to be so cheery about.

Fluttershy had used her time to aid the recovery of Red Apple in her own way. Along with the other sisters of the Red Apple Chantry, she had brought the wisdom of the Chant to those ponies who would listen, as well as directing funeral services for those who needed it. It was somber work, but Twilight could think of no better pony to lend a kind hoof to any who would take it.

Pinkie and Trixie had spent much of their break near the docks; Pinkie had worked on her alchemy and making baked goods while Trixie conducted her lessons with Dinky in relative peace and quiet. Every time Twilight came aboard the ship, there was always the fresh aroma of baked goods or lyrium blasting powder.

When it was time to go, Twilight went to collect Trixie from the docks only to arrive as mentor and student were locked in a tight embrace. Neither wanted to depart from the other, having learned so much about magic and friendship. Ditzy was going to sell her lake barge after landing near Trotterim and take the money to secure passage to the Free Plains to start a new, safer life for Dinky there. Trixie left the ship when Twilight came to collect her and Pinkie for their journey to Orzamule. The haughty mare still had her nose in the air, but from the corner of her eye, she could still see the tear stains after saying goodbye to Dinky.

Shale had secluded itself away from pony society, wanting nothing but to be left alone until it was time to go and resume squishing things. At least, Shale attempted to seclude itself. Instead, ponies from across Red Apple proved themselves rather curious about the golem, especially the little fillies and colts who wanted to hear how Shale helped saved the community.

Instead of chasing away its new adoring public, Shale soaked in all the attention, especially from the younger generations. Whenever Twilight found Shale, the pony of stone was often seen sitting with a rather sizable group of children, telling tales tall and true to anypony who would listen. Twilight cringed whenever the golem decided to tell every little messy detail, but the little fillies and colts seemed to enjoy the stories for their content, and their parents never came to pull them away from the golem.

What Twilight could tell of Rainbow Dash’s activities was that she had used most of her time either sleeping or showing off for Scootaloo. The youngling hung on Rainbow’s every word, expressing amazement and awe at every act of flight, whether it was a series of loops or simply hovering in mid-air.

After receiving more accolades from Scootaloo, Rainbow was the last of the party to be rounded up to head to the centre of Red Apple. Twilight looked to Spike, who was riding her back with a smile, feeling almost eager for the journey. She had spent whatever time she could studying books on Orzamule and its donkey citizens, being amazed how they had amassed an impressive empire underground before the rise of the ponyspawn. What she really wanted to know was how a folk living under the earth so close to the Dark Tunnels survived without magic.

“Ready to go?” Twilight asked as she approached the waiting party. They all nodded, their saddlebags filled with rations and other supplies for the voyage north to Orzamule. With a smile to Spike and the rest of the group, Twilight took the lead on the road out of Red Apple.

“Wait!” called a loud voice from behind them. Twilight turned to see Arl Macintosh and Bann Braeburn, as well as Ditzy, Dinky, Applebloom, Scootaloo, and what appeared to be the entirety of the Red Apple community. They all had the same expression of gratitude on their faces for all that the party had done for them. Macintosh stepped forward with Braeburn at his side, both armed and ready to march against the ponyspawn.

Though the plate armour and massive sword made Macintosh looked intimidating, the giant pony’s eyes still held that calm that eased Twilight’s concerns. Woe betide the ponyspawn or soldier of Loghoof who stood in his way, however.

“Wanted to give y’all a proper send-off,” Macintosh said. “Seein’ as it’s thanks to all of you that ah’m walkin’ at all, that Applebloom isn’t speakin’ in tongues, and that Red Apple isn’t just a zombie infested stain of Equestria. We all owe you a debt we can never repay.”

“Whether Loghoof listens or not, ah just want y’all to know that the Grey Wardens have friends in Red Apple and Appleloosa. The Blights of the past were all defeated by Grey Wardens, and I believe that hasn’t changed any. Y’all go about yer Warden business and raise that army. We’ll wait for you in Trotterim, with or without Loghoof’s support.”

“Thank you, Arl Macintosh,” Twilight said on behalf of the group, “We promise we won’t let you or anypony in Red Apple, or Equestria down.”

Everypony said their goodbyes to all their new friends made in Red Apple as one by one the party stopped waving their hooves and turned towards the Merchant’s Road north, back to the Frosttop Mountains. Hearing all the well wishes from the townsfolk made Twilight smile; it was that warm feeling of having somepony rely on you rather than look at you as a source for demons to possess or some mad wizard. Being a Warden was a tough life, but the rewards more than made up for it.

As the road stretched past the farmlands of the Red Apple arling into the horizon, Twilight gave silent thanks that the weather was more than agreeable. The sun was shining high overhead amidst a blue sky, and there was nary a cloud in sight. She couldn’t ask for a better day to start another leg of their adventure.

“On the road again, huh?” Rainbow Dash said, despite hovering well above the road, “Hope those donkeys are ready for us. We seem to bring awesome everywhere we go.”

“Rainbow Dash, this is a mission of diplomacy,” Fluttershy replied, “Donkeys are isolationists. We need to treat their society with respect. After all, they functioned during their entire existence without magic, or the Chant. At least, I’ve never heard of a sister or brother going down to Orzamule to try to teach them.”

“It makes sense why they wouldn’t believe if you think about it,” Twilight added as she looked up to the sky, “They can’t see the sun or the moon. The Chantry bases the imagery of the Sisters heavily on those celestial bodies. For all we know, there are donkeys who have lived full lives and never once stepped outside their mountain.”

As they walked, Twilight began to recall all her meetings with donkeys and those who had met donkeykind before. The Merchant’s she met when travelling with Duncan to Ostequus had interesting wares, but she was more interested with everything outside the Tower rather than the donkeys themselves. The jenny, as they apparently called their mares, who served drinks at the tavern on the edge of Lake Blackwater seemed like a typical barmaid. All of Applejack’s experience travelling with the Grey Wardens in the Dark Tunnels would be invaluable, and Twilight found herself interested in their architecture from what she could gleam from Applejack and from the recorded texts.

It was the encounter with the diamond dogs that shook Twilight’s curiosity. Those dogs had been pushed to consume the blood of dragons to the point of becoming a cult after being expelled from the Dark Tunnels by the donkeys and the ponyspawn. While she knew the ravenous hordes of ponyspawn would show no quarter against any foe, the idea that the donkeys would not unite with the dogs against the monsters and instead seemingly aid in their destruction did not make any sense. There were too many questions that desperately begged for answers.

“Everything all right, Twi?” Applejack asked, looking over her shoulder as Red Apple was becoming a mere speck in the horizon behind them, “We haven’t really had a chance to talk much since that high dragon critter.”

Thankfully, Spike was well enough behind the group ogling at Rarity to hear Applejack mention the great wyrm. Twilight let out a sigh as she kept her eyes fixed on the mountains north of them.

Twilight looked at Applejack before explaining. “I was thinking about what Lockjaw said, about their wars with the donkeys. I want to see what the donkeys are, how they live, everything. But I’m worried since they did almost wipe out an entire race. What could push a people to do that?”

“Can’t rightly say,” Applejack said, “Could have been a long standin’ grudge, like what Equestria has with Filais. Could be the donkeys had their own version of Loghoof who took the reins and forced them to fight the dogs rather than the ‘spawn.”

That made a certain amount of sense. There would be others like Loghoof out in the world who desired power or the fulfillment of some vendetta during a major crisis. For every power hungry fool who was challenged by the ponies of the land, there was likely another who was able to continue on his or her agenda without dissent.

There was only some hope that whoever was leader of the donkeys would listen and honour the treatise with the Grey Wardens. Yet as she continued to walk, doubt spread within Twilight. While she was fascinated with what they could build after seeing the marvel that was the Tomb of Luna, actually meeting the donkeys proved to be something Twilight somehow was not looking forward to.

They just seem so… different. Twilight shook that thought from her mind immediately. So are all your friends. A former templar, an assassin that tried to kill you, a bard turned Chantry Sister, an apostate, a baby dragon, a golem, a braggart of a unicorn, and a pony who carries a small arsenal of high explosives.

It was unfair to judge the donkeys on the words of a clearly insane and corrupted diamond dog, and while Twilight still felt apprehensive, she would give the donkeys a fair chance. It would do nopony any good to go into their underworld with prejudices. As a unicorn, Twilight had felt the brunt of such for a long time. It was not her place to judge another pony. Or donkey.

“Twilight,” Applejack said, “Got another thing ah wanna talk to you about. Again, from the temple. Do you remember that nightmare about the Archdemon you had?”

“I do.” Twilight shivered as she recalled the memory of the nightmare. The sight of the Archdemon was still printed firmly in her mind’s eye; even the roar of the monstrosity still reverberated in her skull.

“Well… ah’ve been having those nightmares too,” Applejack continued, “Real… real frightenin’. All the death and destruction. Seeing all mah friends bite it. And you were right about the black fire. Still can’t get that horror outta mah head.”

“What ah put together was what the Archdemon said. How it kept goin’ on about ‘despair’ and all that. Do you remember all them ‘Old Ones’? That dragon god?”

“Uthemiel.” If the memory of the nightmare made her shiver, speaking the name of the Dragon of Despair made her ice run cold. Power, ancient and terrible, existed in the name of the dragon god that ruled the Unicorn Imperium in ages long past. Simply saying the name of Uthemiel seemed like enticing a curse.

“Your hypothesis is that Uthemiel, the Dragon of Mirth, is now the Archdemon of Despair,” Twilight stated, working Applejack’s guess in her head. It made sense, but only made their task all the more daunting. They had slain a high dragon, one of the most powerful creatures to have ever existed. Now it seemed small in comparison to that of the Archdemon, a god in a high dragon’s scales.

“Now don’t get yerself all worried there, sugarcube,” Applejack said, “Just think about it like this: this is gonna be the Fifth Blight. There were six dragon gods. If we make it through, when we make it through this, the world will only have to stay strong for the last Blight.”

Twilight had never thought about it like that. This could potentially be the second to last Blight the world would ever face. She smiled as thoughts of a world no longer threatened by the evil tide of ponyspawn filled her head. The world would still have its problems, but they would be pony problems, not crises caused by ponyspawn hooves.

“It’s something to look forward to,” Twilight said, and the two wardens rejoined the party on the road, moving as one with their friends towards the mountains once again.

The journey was uneventful to the point of eeriness, as there was no sign of life on the northbound road. There were no merchant caravans, travelers, guards, or even refugees heading west into Filais. The lack of any activity disturbed Twilight greatly; there were not even roving bands of bandits or marching soldiers. The lonely road bothered her as they continued walking, the complete lack of life completely alien to Twilight. There were no roving bands of ponyspawn to battle, no caravans of refugees fleeing Equestria or groups of soldiers on platoon. There was only them and whispering winds..

What they did see was the aftermath of the ponyspawn invasion. As they made camp along the side of the road, they searched the area to find several destroyed carts, scorched segments of land, and many, many shallow graves. The corpses of the monsters littered the ground, the ground soaked in their black blood. Bodies of soldiers and civilians alike that could not be buried baked in the sun, leaving a foul smell in the air. Twilight stopped in front of a corpse of thelock, studying the ground intently as the others moved the far away camp away from the road.

“This is what it means by the Blight,” Applejack explained as she approached Twilight’s side, “Ponyspawn try to kill everything alive. Ponies, animals, plants, even the soil. Nothing grows in the Blightlands around the world. The stories Duncan told me of the Blightlands he visited near the Imperium only helped me make darn sure the ponyspawn don’t do that here.”

The Blightlands, as Applejack described, where regions in the world where the Blights of the past had managed to kill off the land. The largest was near the Imperium, a barren wasteland covered in snow and black dust where nothing lived. Filais, the Yokalach, and the Free Plains had their own, each as dead as a tomb. All that remained in the Blightlands were collapsed and well-guarded canals that lead into the heart of the Dark Tunnels, once used by the ponyspawn to rapidly reinforce their numbers.

This was likely the fate of the ruins of Ostequus and the wilderness around there. For whatever reason, the ponyspawn stopped their invasions to cover the land with their spilt blood, killing life and any hope for any life to grow their every again. They also used their mighty minotaurs to dig through the earth, allowing them to reinforce their numbers with direct access to the Dark Tunnels. It was frightening to think of Equestria as a dead land teeming with ponyspawn if they failed. The need to stop the ponyspawn was never in doubt, but seeing what their black blood could do on a small scale reinforced the need to stop the Blight.

As night descended, everypony busied themselves with their own activities, whether it was sleeping, keeping watch, preparing meals, or keeping the fire burning. Only Shale kept its distance from the group, not even stopping to banter with Trixie. Twilight found this odd, knowing how much Shale loved to boast about itself. She walked over to the golem’s side, sitting next to it as the pony of stone looked up at the night sky.

“Do you like the stars, Shale?” Twilight decided some small talk would help ease into the conversation. Shale did not turn its gaze.

“They are fine enough, I suppose,” Shale replied, “Certainly a lot more interesting than the ground. I must have counted the rocks and pebbles where I was frozen a thousand upon a thousand times over. Look at how they twinkle and… sparkle. Not referring to the magical one.”

Twilight chuckled as she looked up to the star-filled sky along with Shale. “Is something wrong, Shale?” she asked, her eyes staying put on the heavens to not make Shale feel uncomfortable with her questioning, “You seem distant. You’re not bickering with Trixie.”

“Winning against the boastful one.”

“Not showing off your strength.”

“Always formidable.”

“Or talking about squishing things.”

This caused Shale to look at Twilight indignantly. “I suppose I have been acting different,” it said, “Something about the mountain mutts and what they said about the donkeys. When I saw them, when I remembered my time in the Dark Tunnels, I hesitate to return to there.”

The lights in Shale’s eyes darkened, as if the golem was closing them. As Twilight watched, the mountainous pony reopened them; its eyes narrowed as it stood up on all fours and looked down at the ground.

“I see darkness. Then I see light from crystals used to illuminate the Dark Tunnels. I see the forces of the dogs and donkeys meeting in battle in the caverns. I look to my right. There is a donkey in armour. He is giving me commands. He has the control rod hanging to his side. He orders me to kill. I charge. Dogs are crushed underneath my hooves.”

As Shale was recalling the memory, the golem moved about on its own, almost reenacting the scene only it could see. Vicious stomps on the ground woke up those members of the party who were asleep, and those on guard came to see what the commotion was about. Twilight raised a hoof to keep them away as Shale continued to thrash about.

“Dogs left and right. They cannot harm me. I see other golems. They too crush the foes. Then an explosion. I look to my right. A hole has been made by a minotaur. From the hole come swarms of donlocks, with a few thelocks and ornlocks as a vanguard. The minotaur charges towards me. We fight. I crush it. Before I could turn my hooves to the donlocks, I hear a scream of pain. I turn to see the donkey with my control rod. He is being roasted alive by the magic of an ornlock. Without his commands, the rod is useless. I am no longer a threat. I seize up. I cannot move. I am… useless.”

Shale walked off towards the edge of the camp, sitting down on its haunches. Shale hates feeling helpess, Twilight thought as she walked over to Shale’s side once the golem stopped moving, Decades unmoving in Stableshire. Who knows how long Shale was frozen in the Dark Tunnels. It would drive any pony mad.

“All right, Shale,” Twilight said, “I’ll help you. Maybe we can find something to help restore your memories in the Dark Tunnels, if we find the time while we get help against the ponyspawn.”

“I have lived, for various meanings of the word, for a long time, magical one,” the golem replied, “Perhaps there is a reason I have forgotten my past. Perhaps I am less than what I say I am. Perhaps more. It is the knowing that I am hesitant to obtain. Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss.”

The air became much colder as they drew ever closer to the mountains, though not nearly as harsh as the journey to the temple of Luna. Twilight still wrapped her cloak around her head like a shawl, the others bundling up much in the same way. As the road followed the incline of the hills towards the mountains, Twilight noticed large stones carved with shapes and symbols she did not recognize from any book or tome on the sides of the road.

“This it is, everypony,” Applejack said, “Those stones are signs on the way to Orzamule. It won’t take long now.”

They continued in silence as they climbed the hills onward to the donkey city. Twilight looked up to the great mountain before her, sizing the landmass up. Compared to the cliffs that housed the temple of Luna, this mountain was smaller but wider, with several objects that appeared to be large chimneys or smokestacks jutting from the rocky face. Grey smoke billowed in the air, with the smell of ash and soot filling Twilight’s nose.

As they rounded the bend, Pinkie Pie bounced forward, pointing a hoof. “Look!” she called, jumping up and down excitedly. As expected, the entrance into the mountain of Orzamule was carved from the rock into the shapes of two donkey soldiers guarding the way. The artisanship was impressive, though paled in comparison to Luna’s final resting place. Still, reverence brought out the best in every pony, and seemed it was the same to donkeys as well.

Standing side by side and keeping sentry to the entrance were two flesh-and-blood donkeys partly covered in shining bronzed armour, with large battle axes slung across their backs. They were slightly shorter than ponies but much stockier, with rounded faces and dark eyes. Just as Applejack had described, they bore no cutie marks on their flanks, and their coats were drab grey and brown respectively. One even had a long beard tied in a braid.

What Twilight did not expect was what appeared to be marketstalls forming a crescent around the entrance, filled with vendors both of donkey and pony origins. Merchants hawking wares from Equestria, Filais, to Orzamule itself shouted for anypony to hear them as several folks, donkey and pony alike, milled about.

“Twilight, look there,” said Applejack as she pointed a hoof at a tall earth pony soldier. Twilight looked to see that the armoured equine was bearing the banner of Loghoof’s cutie mark on his sides, signifying himself as a subordinate of the teryn of Glenwell.

One soldier was not going to stop Twilight from approaching the gate. All she had to hope for was that this was not going to break out into a fight. Thankfully, as they approached the gates, Loghoof’s soldier seemed to be in heated discussion with the guards.

“I demand to be allowed access into Orzamule so I can talk to your king or your lords or whoever is in charge! I have an important message from Regent Loghoof!”

“And we are saying that no outsiders will be allowed in Orzamule at this time, pony,” the guard with the braided beard replied, “So tell your regent that his message can wait.”

“Is there a problem, guardsdonkey?” Twilight asked, putting on her brightest smile. Things did not look good if Orzamule was locked away from surface ponies. They needed to bring the treaties to the king and get the donkeys support, but if the city was closed, that task seemed incredibly unlikely.

Unless of course a skilled unicorn mage brought a golem along with her to interest the guards. The violet unicorn had taken Shale’s advice to heart, and was wearing the control rod against her side on a length of rope. The stone warrior kept close to Twilight’s side, eyes continuing to gaze outward at nothing in particular.

“Great, more outsiders…” The guard blinked as it looked up to the imposing image of Shale looming over him. With an audible gulp, he looked back to Twilight. “By the Stone, pony, is this a real golem? I only heard about them when I was a colt.”

“Oh this old thing?” Twilight laughed as she tapped Shale’s hide a few times with her hoof, “A lot of study, digging and most of all patience. Say hello, Shale.”

“Hello Shale.” As it spoke, Twilight swore she could feel the imagery of the golem crushing her skull with a stone hoof flooding over her. Keeping her smile bright and cheery, she turned her attention back to the bearded guard.

“Now, is there a problem as to why you are not allowing guests into your city?”

The guard sighed out of annoyance as he wrenched his eyes away from the golem towards Twilight. “King Endrin Hammerfall is dead,” he explained, “Died two months ago in his sleep after the deaths of his two eldest heirs. Now there is a bitter battle between his youngest son, Prince Bhelen, and Lord Harrowmount, Hammerfall’s chief advisor. No visitors are allowed into Orzamule during this time. We don’t want outsiders to watch as we have yet another succession crisis.”

There were several groans, mostly coming from Rainbow Dash at yet another delay on their quest. The donkeys are having an issue with their throne as well? Twilight thought, this is bad. Really bad.

“Listen, is there some way we can, you know, skirt the rules a bit?” Rainbow Dash asked, “We are in a hurry.”

“The Senate ruled complete isolation during the succession problem,” answered the other guard, “No one gets in. Not no way, not no how.”

Twilight’s horn glowed with soft light as she lifted the treatise from her saddle bag, floating them towards the guards. Perhaps they would be more amicable with the seal of the Wardens calling the donkeys to aid. “My friend Applejack and I are Grey Wardens,” Twilight said as the donkeys looked over the levitating parchment, “We’ve come with this treatise to ask the donkey kingdom of Orzamule for aid against the Blight.”

Loghoof’s soldier gasped as he looked at Twilight’s cutie mark, and the star bangle shield that adorned her flank. “You’re the Wardens my lord told us about!” he shouted, drawing his blade, “Guards! Arrest these traitors to the regent!”

Rainbow Dash and Applejack reacted as expected, with blades singing from their sheaths as Loghoof’s soldier looked over at the donkey guards, his eyes begging for aid. The guard with the beard simply shot him a disapproving look, then turning his gaze back to the document.

Twilight held her breath as the tension between the teryn’s soldier and her friends continued to rise while the donkeys spoke in hushed tones. She could not recognize the tongue they were using, likely their own language or some sort of code. With a nod from the bearded guard, Twilight rolled up the document and placed it back in her bag.

“Your treatise bears the mark of King Rumblerock, from well over a hundred years ago,” the guard said, “No donkey would forge such a mark. You and your allies will be allowed access to Orzamule. Just abide by our laws, and hopefully the mess with the throne will be sorted in short time.”

“You’re going to allow these traitors in but not an emissary from the regent of Equestria!?” The soldier had replaced his blade, but this time his eyes were painted with both anger and fear. He was surrounded by enemies, and the donkeys would not aid him should a fight break out.

“Unlike the horner here, you have done nothing but make demands of us and posture like bloated casteless covered in cheap glass beads trying to pass himself up as a noble. These ponies have brought official documents bearing seals that pertain to the safety of Orzamule. You? You annoyed us. Now you better gallop off before we get real antsy.”

The bearded guard kept his stony gaze on the soldier while his compatriot drew his battleaxe. Twilight was impressed by the strength of the donkey; the weapon was almost as large as he was, and he carried the axe with ease and experience. The donkeys were a people not to be trifled with.

Thank the magic of diplomacy, Twilight thought as the donkeys pushed the doors of the Orzamule gate open. One by one, the party entered the tunnel leading into the city proper, as the shouts and curses from the soldier of the traitor teryn became more and more quiet the further they went. Soon they arrived at a circular room with no exits besides the way they came. In the center of the floor was a large lever.

“This is the Lift,” the bearded donkey said as he approached the lever, “We’ll be descending several leagues under the earth. Whatever you do, stay calm and stay in the Lift. Falling would be… hazardous.”

Twilight looked around as the donkey flipped the switch, but all she could see were the confusion in the eyes of her friends save Applejack ,who walked over to a safe distance from the edge. She turned her head, motioning for her friends to join her.

“C’mere,” she said as she smiled towards the rock face, “This will give y’all the best view.”

The sound of gears grinding underneath Twilight surprised her as dirt fell around them. Fluttershy squeaked as the floor began to move, slowly descending until the first lights of the city could be seen. Twilight gasped, followed by a chorus of surprise by her friends as they stared into the city.

“Welcome to Orzamule.”

They all stood over the edge of the Lift and looked down on the shining city before. Twilight would never have imagined that such a place would have existed in a mountain, save for all the stories of underground metropolis in storybooks. Hundreds of donkeys milled about the streets of Orzamule as the Lift finally set down, kicking up a torrent of dust below.

Twilight hopped off the elevator and looked about with eagerness in her eyes. There was a city to explore the likes she had never dreamed, and she wanted to learn every secret from this place! Already she could see two groups of armoured donkeys approach one another, likely soldiers doing drills to her estimation. Yet as they came closer, many turned their lips into snarls, and the guard who had managed the Lift held a hoof up to hold Twilight back.

“This is going to get ugly,” he said. Twilight watched as several of the soldiers drew weapons as their officers shouted at each other.

“Fancy seeing a stinkin’ Harrowmount supporter here! Trying to skip town before your lord is publicly humiliated and executed when Prince Bhelen takes his rightful place as King!”

“Ha! I would say it was you trying to escape to the surface like a couple of pony foals! We all know Bhelen is no different from a terrasprite, consuming all he can and leaving only crap behind! When Lord Harrowmount becomes King, you will all beg for mercy at his hooves!”

The two sides stared each other down until one of Harrowmount’s supporters charged forward, a sharp sword held between his teeth. There came a shout from Bhelen’s soldiers to rouse themselves to battle, as several city guards approached. Twilight was glad to see them at first, only to watch in horror as not only did the guards fail to stop the violence, they were actually egging it on!

The first attacker was quickly dropped to his knees with a strike to his legs as his friends were occupied with the enemy. He did not get up in time as Bhelen’s soldier dropped his battleaxe onto the spine of the follower of Harrowmount. His body convulsed for a moment before stilling, at it was this act of blatant murder in front of guests that finally spurred the guards into action.

Twilight simply stood there, staring aghast at the open display of violence the donkeys had just displayed. What was first a wondrous city inside a mountain quickly became a terrible den of horror if killing was not only ignored, but outright encouraged.

“Welcome to Orzamule indeed,” Twilight said to herself as she followed their escort into the city.

“Welcome to the camp, my Teryn.”

Loghoof of Glenwell nodded in silence as he was escorted by one of his officers towards the center of the camp, with Ser Sunsword walking briskly by his side. The military outpost was up to his strict requirements: soldiers were drilled in constant rotation by their officers, units were being told of the strategies and tactics he had devised to combat the ponyspawn threat, and arms were being maintained to his impeccable standards.

The mares and stallions under Loghoof’s command were the finest soldiers Equestria would ever see. They stood ready to fight with their lord through thick and thin. In battle, there was no other force Loghoof would rather have at his back when fighting against either ponyspawn or worse, Filesians.

However, morale was low after only fighting battles against fellow Equestrians, and having mixed units with Arl Maim’s soldiery did nothing to help. Maim had been sloppy in his work; what was supposed to be a quiet disposal of Teryn Highlander so Loghoof would not have opposition to claim the regency was now coming back to haunt him. Instead of subtlety, Maim had chosen to ransack Highlander’s castle and kill everypony inside, including the Teryn and his family. Now there were tales that the teryn of White Fortress’s son was alive and that he was leading his father’s forces which were considerable on their own. An oversight by Maim had lead to a disastrous folly.

Now Loghoof needed to rally his forces with a victory over the ponyspawn to show that they only needed the strength of arms and proper military discipline to defeat such monsters. Legends and tales of Grey Wardens would not save the day. Only the sharp mind of an experienced warrior and leader would achieve victory.

As he approached his personal tent, however, Loghoof could hear the music of a particular noble trying to undermine his efforts. Sure enough, there was Arl Maim drinking wine and bobbing his head to the music from his personal minstrel.

“Play it again, Midli,” the Arl of Amarethine called out as he stopped his hooves, “I do love that song.”

Instead of continuing to play on his flute, the minstrel Midli dropped his flute as Loghoof and Sunsword entered the tent. Before Maim could cast a scornful look at his minstrel, the sight of his lord caused the arl to rise to his hooves, a sheepish grin on his face.

“I was… er… just trying to make Your Grace feel more comfortable by having a quality minstrel perfrom, to raise spirits.” Arl Maim shot a glare at the minstrel before continuing. “I can see that perhaps it was not the best decision. Midli, return to Amarethine. Post haste.”

As the minstrel bowed to the lords and out of the tent, all Loghoof could do was glare at his subordinate. “Maim,” Loghoof began as he made his way to the center table where a map of the Ponyring region was laid out before him, “You have made multiple blunders since our forces united. Do not endanger Equestria through your negligence, or it will be through my hooves that you feel penalty for your ineptitude.”

Arl Maim seemed to sink away as Sunsword joined Loghoof at the table. With a stick in his mouth, the old earth pony soldier pointed to the region of Ponyring, where the ponyspawn were supposedly keeping still.

“We will liberate Ponyring by using a pincer maneuver,” Loghoof explained, “I will lead my forces here to the west of Ponyring, and then advance on the area. Maim will take the secondary force and strike from the east. Sunsword, I need you to take the high ground and position our archers at the hill without being detected. Once we route the ponyspawn forces towards Ostequus, the archers will rain down arrows, killing any caught in the path.”

“A fine plan, Your Grace,” Maim said, though Loghoof pretended not to hear him. Sunsword shook her head however, and pointed at the hills south of Ponyring.

“They may have some sort of fortification here, Your Grace,” she explained, “And if it would please him, I would remind Your Grace that the ponyspawn are equipped in ways we are not. Their flyers are a dangerous threat on the battlefield, and they field their own sort of unicorn mages. I would suggest moving our archers to high ground in the northern hills, fanning out and striking down any screamer or ornlock that comes into firing range.”

Ah yes, Loghoof thought as he closed his eyes, I forget I am not fighting Filesians or bandits or other pony threats. I am fighting monsters. Terrible creatures with abilities I must be ready for. Thank the Sisters I have Ser Sunsword and her youthful wisdom.

“What is that noise?” Maim said as he looked about overhead. Loghoof turned his ears upward as he and Sunsword listened for whatever Maim had heard. Something was making a strange noise, and at first Loghoof had thought it was Maim’s minstrel playing some sort of ditty for the soldiers. The sound was more like a whistling noise though, and it was getting closer rather than farther away.

An explosion quaked the ground around them as the tent was ripped from its moorings and into the air. Ser Sunsword immediately rushed to her teryn’s side, knocking Loghoof to the ground as Maim flipped the table and hid behind it. Cursing, Loghoof looked up to see more balls of fire sailing through the air and crashing into the camp, detonating with magical force. Each explosion sent ponies flying or scorched their bodies with flames.

“Counter-attack!” Loghoof shouted, “Go, Sunsword! Maim! Push these monsters back!”

Drawing his sword, Loghoof galloped as fast as he could, leading his army personally as he moved to strike back at the attackers. Ser Sunsword lifted her namesake, a blade as brilliant as the first rays of dawn, and joined her teryn’s side. Maim had taken to the shadows caused by the chaos of war, his specialty in any situation.

The fireballs ceased, only for the new threat to arrive from the air. While the majority of the ponyspawn advance force surged from Ponyring, several thelocks were dropped to the ground by screamer carriers. The monstrosities landed with force, kicking up great clouds of dust before savagely attacking the unprepared soldiers.

Loghoof stood face-to-face with one of the thelocks, this one much larger and more armoured than its brethren. The creature hissed through its sword-bit, the rusted blade still having a razor edge eager to tear into flesh. Loghoof kicked up some dirt with a foreleg, his eyes narrowed as the thelock charged towards him. With a quick step to the side, Loghoof countered with a strike of his own, a quick thrust into the thelock’s side.

The monster roared as it turned from the attack, black blood pouring from its wound as it sliced into Loghoof’s unprotected flank with its rusted blade. The pain was superficial, but the cut to his armour only made him wonder how much strength the thelock possessed and just how they managed to keep their cobbled weapons together.

The teryn had never fought a creature like this before. Every time the thelock missed with its blade, it would swiftly strike with a clawed hoof. The monster pony also proved incredibly nimble on its hooves, making their duel some sort of twisted dance. Still, as the thelock fought, Loghoof could see the weakness in its savage stance, and exploit the opening a monster would not think of.

It was time to end this. Parrying another mighty blow, Loghoof used all his strength to force the thelock to stumble a few paces in to the right. As the thelock turned to snarl, Loghoof tossed a hoofful of dirt right into its visor and into its eyes. The thelock reeled from the unexpected trick, snapping its head back and forth out of frustration to blindness.

Now or never, Loghoof thought as he charged forward, sinking his sword deep into the neck of the thelock. The creature choked for a moment before slumping, with the pony leader stepping away quickly to avoid the poisonous black blood of the ponyspawn.

Despite his personal victory, the thunder of hundreds of hooves still resounded in the midday air. He turned to see the sickening, fanged grins of a swarm of donlocks galloping towards them, flanked by a thelock vanguard. The ornlocks that had attacked his camp with a barrage of fireballs, horns still charged with arcane power.

“Come at me, monsters,” Loghoof swore as he rose to his hooves and lifted the blade clenched tight in his teeth, “Come at all the sons and daughters of Equestria. You won’t take this country without a fight.”

The sound of a horn broke the through the roar of battle as shouts and hisses were silenced. Loghoof turned to the source of the horn to see a large and imposing figure standing on top of the hill, surveying the battlefield. To his left was the familiar face of Bann Braeburn, the upstart noble of Appleloosa, and to his left was the banner bearing a shining red apple.

Arl Macintosh and the army from both Red Apple and Appleoosa descended into the battlefield with the mighty red pony leading the fray. As they smashed through the ranks of donlocks and thelocks, Loghoof shouted for his ponies to rally with him and join the fight. A roar of acknowledgement rocked the field, as Equestrian soldiers from all corners of the nations joined together in defense of their homeland.

They fight together now, but what happens when the last of the black-blooded fiends fall? As Loghoof joined Sunsword in taking down a group of donlocks, another thought came to mind: Arl Maim has failed me again. Macintosh is here in battle. I must have a long talk with Rendon if we survive the day.

Once the battle was done and the last of the ponyspawn were skewered on spears, Loghoof took a moment to dunk his grime-covered face in a bucket of water. As he came up for air, Loghoof’s face was covered by a linen cloth, with a gentle hoof drying off his wet mane. When the cloth was removed, Loghoof found himself looking into the amber eyes of his chosen knight, Ser Sunsword.

“We won, Your Grace,” Sunsword said, “The ponyspawn have been slaughtered, thanks to the timely arrival of Arl Macintosh and his allies.”

Loghoof turned to see Macintosh standing by the tent, keeping tabs on his soldiers mixing with those from Glenwell. He chuckled despite himself now that Macinstosh was here; while the Arl of Red Apple appeared simple and slow, Macintosh was no fool. He was as savvy as any experienced politician, just as he was as fierce as any honoured warrior.

“You came right at the nick of time, Macintosh,” Loghoof said, offering his hoof to shake, “I did not know you had a flair for the dramatic.” As he spoke to Macintosh, Loghoof could see Arl Maim sulk back into the shadows, eyes locked with fear as his supposed target was not deceased or even mildly ill, but walking and talking as any healthy stallion.

“Nnnnope,” Macintosh replied in his usual slow manner, “That was Braeburn’s idea. Give the troops a bit of a hope spot. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Just glad we could get rid of that scout force.”

“Scout force?” The disbelief in Sunsword’s voice mimicked the one in Loghoof’s head. The size of that ponyspawn army resembled those of a full battalion of soldiers. How could that have been just a simple scout force?

“Eyup.” Macintosh punctuated his point by pointing at the corpses. “Ain’t no big ones on the field called ‘minotaurs’. If there were, the force would have looked like what attacked Ostequus.”

Just as Loghoof was expecting, Macintosh bringing up Ostequus. The teryn closed his eyes as he began to organize his options. I do not have any, he concluded as he looked back on Macintosh. The Arl of Red Apple’s gaze did not change, simply staying as they always have: calm, collected, and in complete control.

“Braeburn and I are gonna stay with your boys and help keep the ponyspawn at bay,” Macintosh said, “First chance we get though, I’m using my right as Arl, with the support of Bann Braeburn and other Banns to call the Landsmeet. We have a lotta issues to work out, Loghoof, and we’re gonna work them out right quick before the ponyspawn swallow Equestria.”

Loghoof’s only reply was a nod as he turned away from Macintosh and headed back to his ruined tent. His rule as regent was now openly challenged, and there was nothing he could do stop Macintosh publicly. He needed to move quickly, or else he would surely lose control of Equestria and her means of defense.

“Get Maim,” he said to Sunsword, “Bring him to me now. I would have words.”

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