• 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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On the Eve of Battle

Chapter 41 – On the Eve of Battle

Twilight walked the halls of the palace alone as the fading light of dusk illuminated Trotterim. She tried to eat something with hope that any distraction would pull her away from her thoughts, but that effort proved futile. Her normally ravenous hunger was quelled by her tight chest and upset stomach. Riordan’s words and the coming battle did not help her situation.

She walked into the courtyard of the castle, where she watched massive lineups of colts and stallions of all ages and measures of fitness wait in front of army officers as cheap weapons and armour were distributed. In the very front of the lineup was a young white colt with brown patches over his coat. His body trembled as a guard placed a helm much too large onto his head and a laid a small short sword at the colt’s hooves.

The colt squeaked at the sight of the weapon. He picked up the hilt in his mouth and galloped off to where the officer shouted. The next in line, an elderly earth pony with a long beard and weak knees, stepped forward and was given even less protection. His gear was to be a leather cap as well as a quickly strung bow. The old pony was quickly ushered away to the battlements of the city.

Twilight shook her head as she walked away from the conscription line-ups. She wanted to break up the lines and tell everypony who didn’t want to fight to run as fast they could away from Trotterim, away from the battle. Her words formed in her throat, but would not be released. As much as it pained her to see this, it was all needed to fight the ponyspawn. They all had roles to play, and running would mean little if the Blight won.

Instead of walking away from the conscripts, Twilight turned towards them and gave them her warmest smile. The conscripts she approached could barely be called stallions, only just out of their foalhoods, with fresh cutie marks on their flanks and stark terror on their faces. The armour they wore was just too big, and one could not even lift his sword in a proper manner.

Still, they needed some sort of assurance. They needed something to make them feel strong, especially against the Archdemon’s forces. “Hello, everypony,” Twilight said. She made her voice confidant. The three youths looked up to her with sunken eyes. One sniffled and rubbed his nose clean with a foreleg. His red, puffy eyes went wide with surprise as he noticed Twilight’s cutie mark.

“Y-you’re one of the Grey Wardens!” he said. “Are you here to help us win? We are going to win against the Blight, right?”

“Of course we are.” Twilight puffed up her chest to appear more heroic. “The ponyspawn can’t beat this army, and they certainly can’t beat fine soldiers like you.”

“I need you to listen very carefully now. The battle will be fierce, so while the Grey Wardens and their friends are going to do everything they can to fight the Archdemon and end the Blight. This will leave us very busy, so I’m giving you all a very important mission. There may be some stragglers in the city who haven’t evacuated. Those who can’t fight for themselves. I need you to find them and help them get to the city shelters. Will you accept this quest?”

The three young earth ponies looked to one another with doubt until one steeled his resolve and snapped a quick salute to Twilight. “We’ll help the ponies of Trotterim, Lady Warden!” he said. “Come on, colts! The Wardens are counting on us!”

Twilight returned the salute while the young conscripts galloped away in their ill-fitting armour towards the city. If they even helped one pony, Twilight considered that a success. The ponies of Trotterim needed as much hope as they could to get through the coming storm, no matter the source. Despair would battle against their very souls soon enough.

A sharp cough broke Twilight’s thoughts. Loghoof stood behind her. He still wore his grey armour and looked over Twilight as if studying her. Her brow became furrowed as she walked to the disgraced teryn. His was not a face she wanted to see any time soon, even if he was still allowed to stay in the palace. While Applejack decided his fate, the battle with the ponyspawn needed every soldier it could get. Loghoof was one such soldier.

“Loghoof.” Twilight let her cold greeting hang in the air for a moment. Loghoof simply inclined his head in response. His stern eyes never once left Twilight’s gaze.

“Warden.” Loghoof’s response was terse, yet filled with… regret? Twilight raised an eyebrow as he continued. “Please, come walk with me around the battlements.”

It was an odd request to be sure, but Twilight did not want him to see her hesitation. Standing shoulder to shoulder with somepony she once considered a dire enemy was strange enough. Conversing with Loghoof was near unthinkable. Yet there they were, walking the abandoned streets of Trotterim while soldiers made their preparations for the ponyspawn.

It did not mean Twilight had to like Loghoof, now.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Loghoof said, though his hesitation came in a brief sigh. “I want to thank you for what you have accomplished. I spent the night in deep thought, while also being chastised by Sunsword, and I have come to the realization that I have acted… poorly.”

“Ostequus wasn’t your first clue?” Twilight’s words stung as Loghoof flinched. Loghoof made no reply to that, but simply continued to walk.

“When I read Blueblood’s letters from the Filesian Empress, I felt betrayed. The son of my dearest friend would sell Equestria to the very enemies I struggled to remove, just because he and my daughter couldn’t have a child. The fact that he kept his correspondence secret from his wife and queen, my daughter filled me with rage. I wanted him dead. The ponyspawn provided a means, and Ostequus a place.”

Twilight eyes flared with anger. She moved to stand her ground right in front of Loghoof. She looked at him with challenge in her eyes before she unleashed her tirade. “All this was done out of vengeance? All of the death caused because you were mad at Blueblood!? Your inaction at Ostequus killed hundreds, including Grey Wardens! Including Duncan! All because of a grudge?!”

Loghoof’s expression did not budge as he matched eyes with Twilight. “What errors I have made, I will pay for. Her Majesty has already decided that for my part in the betrayal at Ostequus, I am to be sent on indefinite loan to Orzamule, where I am to aid in the battle against the ponyspawn after Trotterim. But never doubt, even for a second, that what I did was for myself. Everything I did was for Equestria.”

Maim’s bitter words resonated in Twilight’s mind. She turned away from Loghoof when a thought struck her. If Loghoof would fight in the Dark Tunnels for the rest of his life, shouldn’t he do it as a Grey Warden? Shouldn’t the stallion who had caused so much death give his life as payment?

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and urged such destructive thoughts from her mind. She could never forgive Loghoof, but wanting him to die just was not right. No pony deserved to have the burden of the Wardens thrust upon them, even if a part of her said that Loghoof deserved death.

“Loghoof,” Twilight said, turning to face him. “Riordan has the means to create a Grey Warden. It is the duty that cannot be forsworn, and our burden to always fight the ponyspawn. A Warden must make the killing blow against the Archdemon, or it will revive itself. Such an act is fatal for the Warden though. I offer you this chance to redeem yourself, if you choose to take it, but I will ask my other friends too.”

He said nothing for a while and simply stared over the battlements and watched the soldiers move about below him. “So this is the truth of the Wardens,” Loghoof muttered. “I am but a fool for Ostequus now, more than ever. If it means the safety of this land has a greater chance, then I will take the burden of the Wardens. For all the wrong I have done, I can at least make my life end with one right act.”

Twilight did not expect that answer. Loghoof was prepared to die for Equestria, she knew, but to simply decide to become a Warden here and now... Twilight’s only response was to nod at Loghoof and look away as she made her way down the stairs of the battlements.

“I’ll have to talk to my fellow Wardens,” she said to Loghoof as she left. “But thank you for your answer, Loghoof. I don’t hate you… but I still find it difficult to forgive you.”

“I know, Grey Warden.” Loghoof looked back at the soldiery. “I find it hard to forgive myself as well. Celestia’s light guide your path.”

Twilight took each step down the stairs of the battlements tentatively as she thought on Loghoof’s words. He was not an evil pony, she surmised, just somepony who put his duty before reason. He was prepared to give his life some sort of redemption by sacrificing himself for Equestria. It made him a strong candidate for the Joining.

Her travels through Trotterim brought Twilight to the city’s Chantry house, where the sisters busily moved about. Unlike most of the citizenry that was not conscripted, the Chantry had chosen to stay in the city to lend aid to any who needed it. Whether it was the sisters providing food, shelter, or a prayer, those of the solar and lunar cloth moved with haste and purpose.

Twilight saw Fluttershy step out of the Chantry along with the Solar Superior and waved at her friend from afar. Fluttershy smiled at Twilight and excused herself from the Superior. Once they were together, Twilight and Fluttershy walked a good ways away from the Chantry in hope to get some measure of privacy.

The thought of asking Fluttershy to become a Grey Warden made Twilight’s stomach turn. Of all ponies, Twilight did not want to taint such a sweetheart as Fluttershy. After enduring so much to escape Filais and the horrors of prison only to be thrust into a journey filled with pain, and adding the Archdemon’s black blood to a wonderful mare seemed tantamount to an atrocity.

If Fluttershy chose to take on the burden of the Wardens, Twilight could hardly say no. They sat down on a patch of grass in the Chantry gardens, with Fluttershy fidgeting in an effort to find the right words. Instead, a small whimper escaped her lips while tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Shh… shh…” Twilight soothed, “It’s all right, Fluttershy. I know the battle will be frightening. I’m scared too. But we can win. I know we can win.”

“I’m not scared of the battle… well, maybe a little.” Fluttershy sucked in a breath of air while wiping the tears from her eyes. “I’m scared for all of you. Twilight, I was a nervous wreck when I lived in the Chantry cloister. I was always afraid of the Filesians hunting me down, or another assailant or anything. When I had the dream of the firebird, I followed it, hoping that it would lead me to something better.”

Fluttershy took one of Twilight’s hooves in her own, looking Twilight right in the eye. “The firebird did lead me to something better. I joined you, and made so many wonderful friends. You showed me that I could be brave in the face of evil. That I didn’t have to live in fear anymore. I’m not afraid for me, Twilight. I’m afraid for you. If even one of my friends were to be hurt, I’d be devastated. This will be the most difficult battle we will ever fight. I fear the Sun and Moon can’t protect us all.”

“I promise you, we’ll get past this just like we had everything else. Nothing can stop our friendship, not even an Archdemon.” Twilight cleared her throat. It was time to ask one of her dear friends if they could sacrifice themselves to slay the Archdemon. She stomach made another lurch.

“Riordan has brought some Archdemon blood, to allow us to conduct another Joining. Just like what we did to Rainbow. I learned… that a Grey Warden needs to sacrifice themselves to kill the Archdemon, or else it will heal. Fluttershy… I know this sounds selfish, but—“

“I’ll do it,” Fluttershy quickly replied, surprisingly Twilight completely. “If it means protecting my friends from death, I’ll become a Warden. I said I was not afraid to die, Twilight, and it’s true. I’ll give my life for any of you. If I have to become a Warden, if I have to drink the blood of a terrible monster… then I accept that fact.”

Twilight’s ears burned as she listened to Fluttershy so easily accept the cost of being a Warden, how she didn’t care that this could spell her death. Twilight blinked away tears and embraced Fluttershy. It was this sort of selflessness that Twilight had come to respect, even if now was not the best situation for it.

“Thank you, Fluttershy. For everything.” Twilight sighed as she let go, smiling at Fluttershy. “You are the kindest pony I’ve ever met, even during all the horrible events we’ve had to endure. Your kindness is your strength, which also makes you one of the most stalwart ponies I’ve ever had the privilege to know. Whatever happens, you are always one of my best friends. I need to speak with the others, but I’ll remember everything you said.”

Fluttershy returned the smile. “Thank you so much, Twilight. We’ll show the ponyspawn that they can’t crush our spirits. We will see the next dawn.”

After saying her goodbyes to Fluttershy, Twilight walked away from the Chantry halls, her thoughts both elated and heavier. Fluttershy would make the sacrifice with no second thoughts, that was true, but did Twilight have it in her to simply watch her friend throw herself into the killing blow? It asked for too much. In her mind’s eye, Twilight crossed Fluttershy’s name off of an imaginary checklist. It was too much a price to bear.

She walked for a while, alone with only the sound of the wind and the quiet hum of activity within Trotterim before she came across Oghren and Spike training near one of the city’s barracks. Twilight chuckled despite the scene of a large donkey and a baby dragon dueling in the yard. Spike finally listened to her, and put on the helm Rarity made for him. The visor was lowered and left Spike’s face completely obscured. Both looked up as they saw Twilight approach and put an end their training session a little early.

“Let’s have a break, Oghren, I’m getting thirsty anyways,” Spike said, “Hi Twilight! I’m just going to get us some water. Want some?”

“Yes, please.” Spike ran off towards the well, leaving Twilight and Oghren alone. The older donkey sat on his haunches, his axe fallen to the ground as he fumbled for his hip flask. Twilight felt a gag reflex choke on itself as she smelt the tiniest fraction of Oghren’s “special brew”. As memories of the vile concoction filled Twilight’s mouth with a vile taste,she raised a surprised eyebrow as Oghren simply held on to his drink in both hooves.

He nursed the alcohol for a moment before pouring the contents on the ground. With a heavy sigh, he tossed the flask away and looked up at Twilight. The dark pits under his eyes revealed that Oghren did not get much sleep last night. The fact that he still practiced with Spike despite his lack of rest proved his mettle as a warrior; stubborn and will fight with courage in the end.

Even if he had not travelled with the group for that long and was one of the most lewd individuals Twilight had ever met, Oghren proven himself a reliable friend during their travels. He treated Spike exceptionally well, and for that Twilight gave Oghren her eternal gratitude.

“Hey there, Twilight,” Oghren said. “I’d ask if you wanted to join me for a drink, but as you’ve just seen, I’m not in the mood for such. Figured I’d try to keep the mind sharp. That didn’t work; trying to get some decent sleep was hell. Sober will have to do for now.”

“You really should try to get some sleep, Oghren,” Twilight replied. “The battle will be soon. We need everyone ready when the ponyspawn arrive.”

Oghren merely grunted in reply. He looked over to where Spike struggled with the well. He could not seem to pull up the bucket as the heavy container dragged the rope, and thus Spike, on a ride every time he lost grip on the rope. Chuckling, Oghren cracked his neck, picked up his axe and slung it onto his back.

“He’s a good kid. Could become a fine berserker. Fights for everyone he cares for, you know.” Twilight slowly nodded as she walked together with Oghren towards a small table near the barracks where baskets filled with bread lay waiting to be eaten.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done for Spike, Oghren. For all of us. You gave up Orzamule to come with us. I know things must be tough after Branka—“

“Lemme stop you there, Twilight,” Oghren interjected. “I came here under my own free will because I needed something to live for again. By the Stone, I’m a berserker! I couldn’t stay in Orzamule where my weapons would be taken from me! I needed action and I found it. You ponies just seem to fight a lot more ponyspawn than I expected. Us donkeys should give you more credit.”

Oghren was a warrior of considerable skill and strength, of that Twilight held no doubt. If he became a Grey Warden, the ponyspawn causality rate would increase exponentially. The fact that Oghren was the ideal candidate to become a Warden both frightened and pleased Twilight. The fact that she coldly calculated her friends to be recipients of the Taint scared her to no end.

“Oghren, there is something I want to offer you. And no it’s not booze or my rump, so get that gleam out of your eye.” His lecherous smile now replaced by the closest thing Twilight could assume was seriousness. “Riordan has another phial of Archdemon blood, so we can make another Grey Warden. Would you consider such?”

“I’d say yes faster than I slug a mug of mead, heh ha!” Oghren stroked his braided beard thoughtfully for a moment as he considered Twilight’s words. “I’ve been wondering when you were going to say something.”

With Oghren in such a good mood, Twilight hesitated. Still, he had to know about the burden, one way or another. “There’s one more thing. During the battle, the Grey Wardens will be seeking out the Archdemon. Once the Elements of Harmony expose the heart, a Warden has to give their life to slay it. Knowing that, would you still become a Warden?”

This revelation gave Oghren pause as his jovial smile faltered completely. He mumbled to himself quietly before slowly nodding his head. “Like I said, I’m a warrior, Twilight. I’ve come to accept that yeah, I’m gonna die on a sharp pointy object one day. Better to die on my hooves than to be sick in bed.”

“‘When from the blood of battle the Stone has fed, let the heroes prevail and the blighters lie dead.' It’s an old saying my dad used to tell me before he went off into the Tunnels. As one of the blighters, I sodding salute you. Whether or not you make me a Warden, I’ll say this much: Let us show them our hearts, and then show them theirs.”

Oghren let loose a torrent of guffaws when Spike finally returned with two mugs of water. He passed each to Twilight and Oghren before looking up at Twilight. He gave a quick nod before drawing his firebrand and resumed his practice. Twilight took the mug of water and slaked her thirst, the warm water some relief from her thoughts.

As Oghren and Spike went back to practice, Twilight lingered on her spot and simply watched the pair. Did she seek a contingency plan should Riordan fall, or was she looking for another pony to take the final blow so she could stay with Spike? What kind of friend did that make her?

Spike needs you, one side of her personality argued, he needs a role model, a teacher, the only pony he could ever call sister or even mother. If you die, who is going to look after him?

You need to do what you must to defeat the Blight, even at the cost of your own life. Twilight winced inwardly as she trotted away from the barracks. Spike is growing up. He won’t need you anymore. Everything you endured, he endured as well. He is strong, stronger than you give him credit for. Let him make his own decisions, but make sure there is a future for him to do so. There won’t be if the Blight wins, and the Archdemon lives.

Twilight’s frustrated growl escaped her as she shut her eyes and simply ran. Being surrounded by the preparations for war, for death, did little to help her damaged psyche. She continued to run until she finally opened her eyes. She moved at a speed far too fast to slow down as she careened into Rarity.

The collision rocked both unicorns until they were little more than a tangled mess of hooves and embarrassment. Rarity shot a look of contempt at Twilight, who responded with a sheepish grin. Once she stood up tall and straight and ensured that not a speck of dirt or mud stained her coat, Rarity’s horn came alight with a white aura and picked up Twilight.

“Certainly a way to make an impression, darling, but do take care when you go speeding off in a random direction. You’ll start acting like Rainbow Dash, and I for one could not stand to see you become even the slight bit brutish.” Rarity tittered to herself as she wisped her magic around Twilight, only to see no smile or mirth on her features.

“Oh my,” Rarity said, “Is something the matter, Twilight dear?”

Twilight looked up into Rarity’s blue eyes and could only feel dread at her questions. Rarity was the first friendly face Twilight seen after the Battle of Ostequus. She could not hide Riordan’s news, opting instead to explain everything rapidly. Once Twilight finished, she felt a gentle hoof placed on her lips and the warm, caring smile of Rarity.

“Twilight, you seem to be running yourself ragged over this. Come, walk with me.” Twilight obeyed and walked on shaky hooves, yet still able to keep up with Rarity. “It seems you’ve befallen a terrible fate, running around Equestria just to come to your field of death. Or maybe it will claim Applejack. Or Riordan. Or whomever decides to take on the Taint and become a Grey Warden.”

“Yes,” Twilight weakly replied. “I don’t know what to do. I already spoke to Loghoof, and he seemed perfect. We went out of way to fight him, why not send him to die against the Archdemon? Then I thought again and was horrified about wanting another pony to die just so we could live. And I had to bring the offer to Oghren and Fluttershy, and when I left all I could think about was Spike and now I’m here with you and I’m going to ask the same thing but you just found Sweetie Belle, and I can’t ask you to leave her behind!”

Twilight’s ragged breaths was offset by Rarity’s calm veneer as the latter stopped. She turned and looked Twilight in the eye, her voice filled with iron. “I need you to listen to me very carefully, Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity said, “And listen to me very well. I’m glad we are having this talk now because at this rate you are going to be an emotional wreck before the battle even starts. We know the Archdemon feeds off despair, and if you fall victim to its sway, we will lose.”

“It should be no surprise that I would gladly take on the Taint and become a Warden. You saw how I threw myself at Flemeth to spare you all. The only difference now is the dragon we have to deal with. And I would do it all again, darling. But you have to realize, all of your friends will lay down their lives for each other, as well as you.”

Twilight sniffled in a futile struggle to stop herself from crying. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for sacrifice.”

“Nopony does, Twilight, but we have to run the track we are given.” Rarity sighed, and then wrapped her hooves around Twilight’s neck in a surprisingly strong hug. “We’ve been through so much, Twilight. Ever since Flemeth told me to leave with you, I honestly never have been happier. I had friends, real friends, who not only showed me that I could stand up to that witch, but that I would never be alone again. Thanks to you, I have friends and family. True family. I now have Sweetie Belle, but I always had another sister. I’ve come to think of you as a sister, Twilight. The one I always wished I had by my side, growing up in the Wilds.”

Twilight’s own tears became free when she felt Rarity sob into her shoulder. The most generous pony she had ever known, where there was no price large or small to pay, even if the price was her own life.

“We’ll get through this, Twilight.” Rarity said, dabbing the tears from her eyes with a levitated cloth. “No matter what, we will make it through to the end.”

Rarity giggled to herself in an effort to regain her composure. “I’ll help you, dear,” Rarity continued. “You’ll be searching for the others, yes? It would be best if you didn’t carry this burden alone. ‘Lean on me,’ I think I heard dear Applejack say back on the mountain. An apt saying. I know I saw Trixie with the other unicorns, and Rainbow Dash was heading towards Pinkie Pie. I think she wanted to break Riordan’s news to her personally. Those two are thick as thieves after all. I haven’t seen Shale, oddly enough, considering how she sticks out like a sore hoof. And Applejack has been completely surrounded by advisors. You would think she was almost looking forward to being surrounded by ponyspawn instead.”

They walked together until Twilight could feel a slight hum in her skull and her horn buzzed as magical power crackled around it. The air thickened with lines of magic while dozens of unicorn mages pulled along the ley lines of the Fade to form various spells. In the distance, Twilight saw both Trixie and Wise Eyes concentrating on an incantation, their mouths softly muttering the spell into existence.

Twilight watched with attuned eyes, only to gasp in amazement at that being performed in front of her. She had practiced tandem spellwork before, but she had never seen it performed at this scale. Unicorns inter-weaved their magic with one another and formed a vast and impressive lattice of crisscrossed ley lines. Smiling at the display, Twilight lit her horn to aid them, only to be held back Rarity’s hoof.

“No, Twilight,” Rarity said, “We must not interfere with their magic, even if we could bolster their spell. They need to be able to work their magic on their own, especially when it comes time for the battle. You know as well as I that we will be busy hunting down and defeating the Archdemon. They need to get used to working together.”

“I’m impressed, Rarity,” Twilight replied. “You’ve learned a lot about magic since we first started this journey. I can’t wait to show you and every other unicorn what I learned from the past in the cloud temple.”

“I may not have been traditionally educated in the ways of magic, but I do watch and learn, darling.” As Rarity spoke, the unicorns completed their spell. The glittering auras around their horns vanished as a very large and expansive shield form around the city of Trotterim. A barrier of this magnitude was unheard of, but evidently not impossible. Twilight nodded in approval while the unicorns all gave out a sigh in unison, their work complete.

With the spell complete, Trixie took off her hat and wiped the sweat from her brow before noticing Twilight and Rarity approach her. “Take a look at that,” Trixie said, her eyes reflecting the shimmer of the shield. “That barrier is the strongest of its kind. The ponyspawn will be hard pressed to break that shield, and the unicorns will be ready to open a gate to allow the soldiers to pass. Hopefully we will be able to thin out their numbers before that.”

“I’m glad you’re here, Twilight,” Trixie continued. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. About the battle. And other things. Can we speak somewhere more private please?”

Rarity took Trixie’s less-than-subtle hint and found a tall, handsome stallion unicorn immediately enthralling. Twilight followed Trixie well away from prying ears in a confused state. Trixie had referred to Twilight by her first name, not by “Sparkle”, and Trixie didn’t speak of herself in the third person.

When they were finally well away from the crowds, Twilight could see that Trixie was visibly trembling. Trixie took a deep breath, droplets of sweat dripping down her head before shaking her hooves in an effort to appear busy.

“Are you all right?” Twilight asked. Trixie shook a head, sliding her hat over her face.

“There is something I need to say to you and you alone, Twilight,” Trixie said. “I don’t… I don’t feel it right bringing it up to the entire group. First, let me thank you for allowing me to come along on this adventure. If it weren’t for you, I would have likely died in the Tower when Hubred summoned his demons. I’ve learned so much about magic and made great friends, so it is with great hesitation… I mean to say… I…”

“Don’t worry, Trixie,” Twilight said. “You can tell me anything. I’m your friend after all.”

“I won’t be fighting the Archdemon with you! I’ll be with the other Tower mages!” Trixie quickly clamped her mouth shut with her hooves and turned away. Twilight felt struck numb. She certainly did not expect this as an answer to the unasked question. On one hoof she was relieved, yet on the other she felt somewhat taken aback that Trixie would not be there in the final battle.

Trixie sighed and then turned to Twilight. “Being with the unicorns again made me realize that my place is with them. Getting out and exploring the world was both fun and frightening, but it was only after today, right now did I realize I like being part of the Tower and with other unicorns. They need my help, and with them I can do the most good. I’m not a fighter or a battle mage or an Arcane Warrior like you. I faint in nearly all our major battles. But with the Tower, I can help reinforce the shield. I can feel useful. It’s all I really wanted in my life.”

Feeling somewhat relieved, Twilight embraced the surprised Trixie. “Thank you for telling me this, Trixie,” she said, “I hope you and the other unicorns can make it out of the battle okay. It won’t be the same without you beside us, but I won’t stop you, nor will I think any less of you. This is where you feel you can do the most good, and I’m happy to have helped you get here.”

Twilight cleared her throat. Even if Trixie was no longer a suitable candidate to become a Warden, she still had to know the truth, no matter how unsavoury. Twilight explained the sacrifice needed to truly slay the Archdemon. She regretted letting Trixie know as her eyes became wide as saucers, fresh tears ready to stream down her face.

“For the longest time, I thought of you as my rival, as a bar I had to jump over.” Trixie wiped the tears from her eyes. “When you came back to the Tower, I thought you were going to show me up again. But then we worked together to defeat the Sloth and Pride demons, and afterwards you let me travel with you. You became more than a bar to jump over… more like something to measure myself against. I’ll never surpass your magical aptitude, but thanks to you, I can use my magic for more than my petty rivalries. Whether we die tomorrow against the Archdemon… or Celestia forbid, you make the killing blow… know that I will always call you my friend, and you’ll always have a place in my heart.”

Twilight held the embrace tight as she felt tears welled up again in her own eyes. She didn’t want to lose Trixie, or Applejack, or Rainbow or any of her friends in the coming battle. The chaotic nature of war be damned, if she could protect them all from the blades and arrows she would. Yet the Archdemon called for death, either through flame or through sacrifice to stop the former dragon god. If there was enough time, Twilight could research the ancient magic of the Old Ones, of the Wardens in a desperate attempt to find another way.

Time was not on their side. The Blight would lay siege to Trotterim tomorrow. Many would die, and there was not a thing Twilight could about it, except slay the Archdemon quickly.

After saying a quick goodbye as Trixie rejoined the ranks of the unicorn mages, Twilight returned to Rarity’s side. Together they walked the length of Trotterim’s walls in silence, before they came across the familiar smells of lyrium blasting caps, though in much greater density.

What used to be the market square of Trotterim had been transformed into a massive production line for grenades and mines. Soldiers and civilians alike worked tirelessly to craft the explosives, while pegasi and hippogryph took bundles of landmines and flew off towards the direction of the advancing ponyspawn. An excellent strategy, the same Pinkie used to defend Red Apple against the undead hordes. It would surely thin the numbers of ponyspawn.

Yet there was no sign of the bouncing builder of bomb barrages. The only ponies Twilight could recognize were General Puissant who directed the construction and distribution of explosives. Zharia, along with Quick Kill, did their part to get the mines onto the field. Twilight was sure she would have found Pinkie, and by extension Rainbow Dash, in this hub of hurried activity.

“You are looking for Le Rouge Terrible, oui?” The General approached Twilight and Rarity. He stroked his long bushy beard in thought. “I saw her run away in anger and sorrow towards the south. I believe the assassin chased after her. I hope there is no trouble in your ranks.”

Twilight cast a worried look to Rarity before both unicorns galloped southward. “Sorrow and anger” were not words that typically described Pinkie Pie, so hearing such a description caused no end to Twilight’s concern. Rainbow must have told Pinkie of Riordan’s news and the true purpose of the Wardens. Knowing how much Pinkie valued her friendships, the news likely devastated her.

Sure enough at the end of the south road Rainbow hovered in the air around what Twilight could only call a massive mountain of haystacks. Both she and Rarity came to a complete stop the moment they were in earshot of Rainbow’s pained pleadings.

“Pinkie! Please don’t make this harder than it already is!” Rainbow’s voice, while still strong, now had a strain along with it. She likely stayed there begging for Pinkie to come out for a while, if not a few hours.

“Not unless you take it back!” Pinkie replied. “It’s not a funny joke, Rainbow Dash! Knock-knock jokes are funny! Riddles are amusing! Dirty limericks are a riot! This? This is none of those! And you’re even suggesting breaking your Pinkie Promise! How could you!?”

Twilight trotted up to the haystack. “Pinkie, it’s me. Can you come out please? We can’t really hold a conversation within a haystack.”

“Sure we can,” Pinkie chimed. “It’s free eats, makes for a comfy place to sit…”

“Pinkie…”

A loud sigh sounded from the mountain of hay. Pinkie’s eyes emerged first from the hay, and the strands slowly gave way to the former pony dynamo. Her mane lay flat against her head, devoid of the usual bounce, and dried straw stuck out of her hair and her armour. She gave Twilight a pained look before quietly contemplating the ground.

Pinkie’s emotions, typically optimistic to a fault, did leave her very vulnerable to despair should the blow strike hard enough. Hearing that her friends would likely perish was such a blow. While Twilight would not call Pinkie overtly sensitive, this needed a delicate hoof, yet the truth could not be sugar coated. Ironic, considering Pinkie’s sweet tooth, though Twilight kept this thought to herself.

“Pinkie… everything Rainbow told you was true.” Twilight regretted her blunt choice of words as Pinkie let out a loud sob of anguish. Seeing the normally happy-go-lucky pony reduced to tears felt like a stiff buck to the gut. Rainbow fared no better and turned away from Pinkie with her ears splayed against her head. Her eyes shut as if she tried to imagine she was elsewhere.

Twilight took a deep breath, only for Rainbow to suddenly burst ahead of her. She laid a comforting foreleg around Pinkie’s shoulder and tried desperately to sooth her. “Everything will be okay, Pinkie. We just… we just need to keep our heads up. We’ll win tomorrow, you know that.”

“But what if you have to make the final blow! What if Twilight or Applejack have to make it!?” Pinkie now bawled as she screamed her words. “I don’t want to lose anypony! You are all my friends, and I love you all, and if even one of you died I couldn’t bear it but one of my Warden friends has to make the sacrifice, so now I want Riordan to make the final blow but that’s horrible to even consider somepony else dying just so I can be happy but I don’t want to lose anypony! Please… please, please, please find another way! Hauberk in the Temple of Luna said there was always another way! How come there isn’t another way out of this!?”

Hauberk had said that. As one of the original Elements of Harmony, surely he would have tried to convince Dewdrop Dazzle to not make the ultimate payment to protect the world from the Archdemon. Yet, die she did, and took the Archdemon of Destruction with her. It was the fate of the Wardens.

“Pinkie Pie, listen to me.” Rainbow’s voice was stern and brooked no further arguments. Pinkie immediately became quiet, though her sobs came through in strained hiccups. “Tomorrow… tomorrow we are going to fight a battle none of us would ever dream of being in. I haven’t broken my Pinkie Promise. I’m just going about it a different way. You’ll see your family again, Pinkie. I’m just going to make sure the Archdemon doesn’t stop you. That’s how I’m going to help, and if I die… it’ll be because I’m protecting my friends.”

“N-no fair…” Pinkie said softly, wiping her puffy eyes clean of tears. “You’re using a loophole.”

Rainbow chuckled, then held Pinkie tight as she shivered against the cold. “True, but you know I’d never turn my back on you. I’m just doing things my way, same as I always have.”

Pinkie nodded then turned her blue eyes towards Twilight. She cleared her throat and let go of Rainbow so she could speak to Twilight directly. “I don’t want this to be goodbye!” she said quickly. “I just… I want to thank you, Twilight. For everything. Travelling with you allowed me to spread happiness beyond Ponyring, even if we got some owies along the way. We’ve been through so much, but I can still… I can still feel something terribly different about tomorrow. Something terrible is going to happen, but we all know that. The Blight is coming here.”

“Rainbow already told me about the Archdemon’s blood, so you can make another Warden. I told I’d do it, but she told me ‘No Pinkie Pie. You need to find your family!’ And I said, ‘But I want to protect all of you!’ And she said… well… she convinced me its better not to drink the nastiest juice of all time. J-just please promise you won’t f-forget about our friendship if things go really b-bad… please…”

This time Pinkie’s embraced Twilight, sobbing into her mane all the while. Twilight carefully stroked the straightened mane in an effort to keep Pinkie calm. “I’ll never forget you, Pinkie, or any of our friends, in this life or the next.” Twilight’s words stuttered from her mouth, but each filled her with more drive to see the Blight ended. Her friends deserved to see the journey’s end. They all did.

“Listen Twilight, I have something to say too.” Rainbow cleared her throat and scratched the back of her head. “I’m not good at this mushy stuff, so let me just say that I’m glad Loghoof sent me after you. Trust me, I’m really glad you all decided to spare me, but everypony in the group is somepony I didn’t even think I could have. Friends. I’m with you the rest of the way, until either we can see the Archdemon choke on its own tongue… or we fall. If I have to do it, I will make the blow. To see this through to the end, I’m with you.”

“Thank you, both of you,” Twilight said. “No matter what, we will see this through to the end. We will win, and we will do it together.”

All three, along with Rarity who joined them, engaged in a group hug. Twilight felt a calm as she embraced her friends. The shaking of the ground broke the hug as Twilight looked around, eyes wide. Could it be a minotaur charge already? Was the Blight upon them sooner than Riordan had anticipated?

The answer came in a sharp laugh from Pinkie as she pointed ahead to Shale, who slowly crushed the ground beneath her hooves. With a large metal box chained to Shale’s torso, everypony gave the golem a wide berth as she waded through Trotterim. Once Shale reached Twilight and the others, she gave a great sigh of relief.

“At last, I have found you,” Shale said. “I have been walking around this insufferable hive of meatbags and fleshlings for too long, looking for those few ponies I tolerate. Come, magical Twilight. I require your assistance. I will not wait long.”

Despite everypony’s curious looks at Shale’s massive container, Twilight shrugged to the others before saying goodbye and allowed them to return to their work. She walked alongside Shale towards the palace, and her curiosity over the chest bore itself well into her psyche. With the last light of the sun taken by the dark of night, Twilight looked to the sky. There was no sign of the moon. A bad omen.

“So, tomorrow will be the battle to end all battles, won’t it?” Shale asked. “I do look forward to it. So many ponyspawn to crush underhoof. It sends shivers of delight throughout my core.”

“I’m not surprised you are the only one really looking forward to it all,” Twilight responded. “Tomorrow is going to be awful, Shale. Ponies will die.”

Shale huffed. “Ponies will die regardless of whether they fight in war or if they do not. That is the nature of war and conflict against an implacable foe. You must fight, and you must win. The ponyspawn will not show mercy. You of all ponies should know this to be truth. Will tomorrow be fun— I mean a tragedy for many? I think the biggest tragedy is the fact that you are all not golems such as I.”

“There is one thing I would like to say, Twilight Sparkle.” Shale stopped on the steps of the palace. “I suppose I should thank you. If it were not for your curiosity of my control rod, I would be trapped as nothing more than a still statue, pelted by pigeon crap constantly. If it were not for you, I would never have recovered my memories, found Cairidan, and gave him, and therefore myself, some semblance of peace. Most importantly, if it were not for you, I would not have stomped and stamped and smashed as many bones and skulls as I have.”

Twilight gave a weak chuckle. How had she slept with such a murderous creature as Shale nearby? How had she called her a friend? Because she helped you when she could have easily left, Twilight’s inner voice reminded her. She stayed because she chose to stay. Just like how you chose to destroy the Storm Forge instead of taking on an army of golems through Branka.

“In the end, I suppose what I’m trying to say is that yes… I do consider you as a friend.” Shale stopped at the top of the stairs. She looked at Twilight with radiant eyes of of lyrium. “I have heard from blitzing Dash of the perils the Wardens face tomorrow. I would rather not see any of you perish. Who would be around to tell tales of my glory? The most important ponies need to know of my exploits, and who better to spin my legend into being than those who bore witness to me?”

This is probably the closest I’m going to get an ‘I don’t want to see you die because you are my friend,’ from Shale, isn’t it? Twilight laughed at the thought as she smiled towards Shale. “Thank you very much, Shale. I’m glad we became friends… and it was an honour to fight alongside you. I hope after the battle, you can settle down somewhere and find true peace.”

“Bah. That day will come once I’ve bashed every feathered menace out of existence. Inform the pegasi they won’t share this fate so long as they keep their feces off me.”

Twilight shook her head, a grin still firm on her lips while her magic flowed from her horn towards the great doors of the palace. She opened the door for Shale and they made their way through the audience chambers towards the main living quarters. Specifically, they headed towards the chambers of the new Queen of Equestria. Their friend, Applejack.

“Is the box for Applejack?” Twilight asked.

“I hope to have the box back, actually,” replied Shale. “It is quite large and perfect for looting. No, the contents are for honest Applejack. The commission was completed to my specifications, and I now present it as a gift for a new monarch. It is an old donkey tradition I remembered. I was shocked and appalled that drunk Oghren forgot and stupid Jorgen didn’t bring anything as well. It would seem I, in my Meticulous and All-Seeing wisdom must be the bearer of the gifts.”

“In any event, her Majesty shall adore my gift much more than anything you or anypony could conceive, so it would be best for you to run along now and get some rest. The battle shall make your bones weary tomorrow, and the weakness of the flesh needs as much reinforcement as it can.”

With little more than a smile and a nod, Twilight dismissed herself from Shale and began a quick trot towards her room. It seemed her friends had similar ideas, many of them milling about one more time before heading towards their comfortable beds. The thought that this could very well be the final night of sleep sobered Twilight. After tonight, it would be a day of waiting, then an evening of bloodshed.

With somber hesitation, Twilight bid the final good nights to her friends before entering her room. Spike lay asleep all bundled in his blanket, his loud snores the only sign of his presence under the sheer volume of covers. Riordan had not returned, and Twilight still had not chosen a pony to become the next Warden, but there was something more important she had to do.

Levitating both quill and parchment, Twilight looked over at Spike one last time before she began to write:

Dear Spike,

If you are reading this message, it is because I have died fallen. Whether it was because of the battle or because I gave myself up to deliver the killing blow against the Archdemon, it does not matter. What matters the most is that this letter gets to you. It is my prayer that after the battle, I can just toss this scroll into the fire, we can laugh at it as it burns, and I can give you the biggest hug I can. If not, then there are things you need to know.

Since the day you were hatched, I loved you as the little brother I never had. I didn’t make many friends in the Tower, focusing almost entirely on my studies, but you changed my life for the better. From that moment on, everything I learned was for you. I wanted to protect you from magic, so I learned shields. I wanted to keep you safe from demons, so I learned offensive spells.

I wanted to protect you from the ponyspawn, so I became a Grey Warden, knowing that if I could make a difference in fighting the Blight to protect you, I should.

I know you feel guilty about pressuring me into the Grey Wardens, but I hope this letter puts those feelings at ease. Everything I do, I do for you. I love you, Spike, and as the Sisters as my witnesses, I will always watch over you. Either in this world, or the next.

Please take care of yourself, and our friends. They will need you in the coming days. The road will be tough, but I know you will grow up to be fine dragon knight of the realm.

All my love,

Twilight Sparkle

Twilight took a sharp intake of air as she tried to quell her tears. Gently she rolled the parchment up and lifted the candle that sat next to her before letting a small pool of wax form along the edges of the scroll. Twilight let her mind wander for a bit as she considered what her thoughts on paper truly meant.

She prepared herself for death. By writing her goodbyes to Spike, it was all the confirmation Twilight needed from herself that she was ready to make the final blow against the Archdemon. She took another breath of air to steady her as she looked down at the letter. If it came down to it, she was ready to make the sacrifice. For Spike’s sake.

As the seal cooled on the letter, Twilight levitated another sheet of parchment so she could make a list of qualities in her friends and allies to find the next Warden. A sharp knock on the door startled Twilight, and her magical grip on the quill shook for a moment. Setting the quill down, she quietly walked towards the door and opened it to reveal that her guest was none other than Riordan.

“Shield Sister,” Riordan said, “The Archdemon blood. It is gone.”

“What?” Twilight’s eyes widened at Riordan’s news. “By who? Who would want to steal the blood of a monster?”

“Not stolen, but consumed.” Riordan shook his head. “Tell me, did any of your friends exhibit the changes of become a Warden? Did you see the grey crest of the Warden’s along their cutie marks?”

Twilight shook her head. “I’ve been with my friends all evening. I didn’t see the mark of the Wardens on any of them.”

Riordan ran a hoof along his chin and kept his thoughts to himself all the while his wings flapped in frustration. “It was most curious. A regular pony or donkey who consumed the blood of the Archdemon would have high chance of death. Since there was no corpse in my room, I can only assume it is somepony of great stamina to have recovered so quickly from their makeshift Joining. Still, this is alarming, and adds another variable to an already chaotic mess. While there is another Warden in the battle now, we have no idea who they are or even if they can be a help. Still, there is nothing to be done now. Get some sleep, Twilight Sparkle. And let us pray Celestia will show us mercy tomorrow.”

Before Riordan could leave, Twilight called out to him. “Wait, Riordan,” Twilight said. “I have one thing I need to ask. You seemed to ready to die when you told us the truth about the Grey Wardens. Are you really prepared for such?”

The veteran Warden’s face did not change as he turned his head to look at Twilight. “I have been preparing for this day for a long time, my friend. I had the benefit of decades of experience fighting the horrors of the ponyspawn. Whether I die against the Archdemon or fall in the Dark Tunnels, so long as my death has meaning, I can go to the Seat of the Sisters with my head held high. It is a terrible thing to request recruits so young to do such, but this is our fate. I hope you’ve come to accept that.”

Riordan walked away and left Twilight alone at the entrance of her room. She turned back to her bed with slow, deliberate steps. The door closed with a gentle click. She peeled off her armoured robes piece by piece. As she wrapped herself with the wool blankets of her bed, she cast one last look at Spike. For a moment, she considered that he had consumed the Archdemon’s blood. With a shake of her head, Twilight cast such a notion aside. Spike would never do anything to jeopardize him or all her work to protect him.

Twilight yawned as she let her eyes slowly close. Bringing her legs in close, she muttered prayer after prayer to the Sisters that they would watch over the battle, and over the souls of the countless who would fight and die. Prayers to the divine were the last line of defense in the end.

***

Applejack walked through the halls of the palace—her palace, Applejack reminded herself—flanked by both General Puissant and Big Macintosh. They spent the early parts of the dawn going over how the core strategy of the battle should go, until Applejack reminded them that the ponyspawn did not fit into neat and tidy timetables. They would attack like a vicious snake, quick and painful, using their numbers and terror tactics like venom in the blood.

What they needed, Applejack decided, was something to lift the spirits of the soldiers who would be fighting tooth and hoof against the ponyspawn. They need inspiration to stay strong when the Blight was upon them.

Oh sweet Celestia, what have I gotten myself into?

The gates of the palace opened for her and revealed the light of the noon sun to her aching eyes. Applejack’s sleep was fitful at best, but sheer force of will prevented her from displaying fatigue. There would be plenty of time for adrenaline to do its work.

Her friends waited for her on the steps of the palace. Each appeared ready for the fight, all of them adorned in shining, reinforced armour. Their faces, marred and scarred as they were from their journeys, each held a look of determination that would not be deterred. They were ready.

They all gasped when they saw Applejack, causing the new Queen to blush profoundly. She wore Shale’s gift of crimson plate armour with pride. ‘Dragonbone Plate,’ Shale had called it, forged by the master smith Hoity Toity from the scales of the high dragon they slew on the mountain. It fit Applejack like a glove, and with Silverbite and Duncan’s shield by her sides, she felt she portrayed the true image of a warrior queen. She regretted leaving behind her hat. Though she cherished it more than anything, she could not see it destroyed or lost in battle. Instead, she opted to wear the crested helm that went along with the suit, and stood before her friends ready for battle.

“This is it,” Twilight said, “We’ve traveled all over Equestria. Fought the worst things this world could throw at us. Gathered the largest army we could to fight the Blight.”

“Let’s hope it’s enough.” Applejack swallowed her fears as she continued to walk down the steps of the palace. “There’s one thing Ah gotta do. For the troops. Ah’d like ya’ll to stand with me. For support.”

Her friends nodded in agreement, and their faces ignited a fire deep within Applejack. Whether she was a Grey Warden or Queen of Equestria, the only thing that mattered was that she was in the here and now because of her friends. They would win not because they had to, but because they were together. Nothing could stop such ties of friendship.

They walked together as the low murmur of the assembled army grew louder and louder with each passing step. Once they were near the ramparts of Trotterim’s outer walls, Applejack looked around the various defenders of Equestria as they in turn looked to her. She willed her nerves away as she began to climb up to the top of the battlements. Her friends followed suit while Big Macintosh and Puissant stayed behind, soon to join their own forces and help direct the flow of battle. Macintosh looked up at his little sister and gave a simple nod to her that spoke volumes of his faith before disappearing into the crowd.

When she arrived at the top of the wall, Applejack could now appreciate the size of the army they had forged together. As far as the eye could survey, ponies of all types stood shoulder to shoulder, while pegasi and hippogriff patrolled the air. Hundreds of landmines made the battlefield glitter in the sun’s light. They were prepared for battle. Right now, they were prepared to listen to the Queen’s rally.

Applejack took a deep breath. Her heart thudded against her chest, all noise being muted as she took in the sight. They waited for their new queen, and she needed to be strong now. Not just for her, or her small circle of friends… but for all of Equestria. With a nod to Twilight, Applejack cleared her throat as she felt a small tingle in her neck. A magic spell worked its wonders to enhance her voice. She then began to speak:

“Before us stands the might of the ponyspawn horde! They, who have come to ravage our lands, our very existence without mercy! Look upon them, but show no fear! Within all of you is a fire that burns bright in the darkness cast by wings of the Archdemon! These ponies with me now are living proof that anypony can show courage, strength, and the will to overcome all odds, no matter how great they may be! No beast proved invulnerable, no mountain proved too daunting, no legend proved impossible since we were together! If this is what our small group can do, think of what an army forged by friendship can accomplish!

Look to your left! To your right! Do not see a unicorn or a pegasi or a donkey, but see a brother! A sister! Friends that will stand by you and fight with you to protect all that you hold dear. Care not for what divides you, but look at what unites you! As one, we can survive! As one, we can triumph!

The ponyspawn have pushed us to this line, but here we push back! Here we make our stand! In the memory of King Blueblood! For all those who died in Ostequus! For the Grey Wardens who sacrificed themselves so that we can have the chance to end the Blight once and for all! We fight! And we shall prevail!

For Equestria! FOR THE GREY WARDENS!”

The thunderous cheer erupted from the coalition of forces, shaking the very ramparts underneath Applejack’s hooves. The hope that came from the ponies all around her made Applejack swell with pride. They could do this. They would do this. They could truly win.

“Didn’t think you had that in you,” Rainbow chided as she gave a playful nudge to Applejack’s ribs.

“We’ll, don’t expect too much, ya hear? Still the same old Applejack Ah’ve always been.” Applejack chuckled, only a much louder crack of thunder to snap her reverie in two. Her head twisted towards the horizon on its own, with Twilight, Rainbow, and Riordan doing the same. All eyes were wide as they stood still and waited.

All hearts beat as one as they waited for the next shout from the horizon. Applejack wanted to clutch her chest, to open her ribcage and stop the rapid beating of her own heart. She looked to Twilight who stared blankly ahead, her mouth slowly moving but no words escaped her lips. She looked to Rainbow, who appeared to be struck numb with terror.

“And death came to us on ebon wings…” Riordan’s words trailed off as another impossibly loud roar shook the land. While those not of Warden’s blood were clearly shaken by such ferocity, they stood their ground bravely and calmly. The Grey Wardens, however, heard the message of their adversary loud and clear as it resonated within their very souls.

DESPAIR.

A wave of darkness brought itself to bear over the horizon. Hundreds of screamers took to the air. They swarmed the sky until the very light of the sun could not escape their dark wings. The warhost of the Blight approached soon after, with tens of thousands of ponyspawn making a slow, deliberate approach to Trotterim’s gates; each step calculated to bring the most terrifying image to the weak willed ponies they would soon battle.

On draconic wings, Uthemiel, the Archdemon of Despair, flew overhead. The master of the Blight landed on a plateau far in the distance to oversee the final battle. The Archdemon sat still for a moment and flexed its wings. Black fire flared from its nostrils. It opened its mouth to unleash yet another horrifying roar and caused screams and shouts of fear to sound from the ranks.

The time for preparations was over. This was the threshold. There would be no turning back.

The Blight was upon them.

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