• Published 3rd Jun 2015
  • 2,362 Views, 214 Comments

To Keep the Fire Burning - DannyJ

Dark Souls crossover. A young stallion's journey to rescue a friend from a decaying asylum leads to an adventure through the ancient, ruined kingdom of Equestria.

  • ...

[April Fools Guest Chapter]: Sunlight for Life

The Everfree Forest was a fascinating place, one which defeated my very sense of time. The canopy overhead obscured both sun and moon, immersing Sif and I in a constant blanket of darkness, even during daylight. And the cold that accompanied the darkness was everlasting and inescapable. More than once, I conjured a tiny flame to keep myself warm, whilst envying Sif his thick coat.

My wolf companion kept pace with me, trotting along with his tongue lolling out, biting periodically at my heels for some unfathomable doggish reason. It was annoying, but tolerable – if truth be told, the little nipper had grown on me, and I was grateful for his presence on my journey. I wasn't used to being on my own just yet, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be used to it. Having a friend, even a non-sapient canine friend who liked to make eye contact with me while he pooped, made everything so much easier.

Thus it was that I, with a clear mind, a good friend, and a sense of purpose, strode toward my destination, intent on liberating Sister Pilgrimage from whatever plight had befallen her. And no power in the world would come between she and I.


Except for the three dozen angry deer that emerged from the forest and encircled Sif and I before we could react. Sif bared his teeth, and I braced myself, taking hold of Brightflame, but not drawing it. I had no quarrel with these deer, after all, and I'd sooner not provoke them into starting one with me.

The largest deer, in front of me, had a shaggy white mane that cascaded past his face and withers both, and a proud rack of antlers, each one tipped with steel. He glared at me with eyes that smoldered, and opened his mouth to speak.

Sif began to howl.

The deer and I made eye contact for the duration of the howl, his eyes narrowing, his mouth creasing into a frown. When Sif finally finished, the deer tried to speak again.

Only for Sif to preempt him with another howl.

In the midst of the howl, another deer approached the first, leaning over to whisper in his ear. The first deer nodded, and spoke again, shouting to be heard over Sif.

"Your wolf is not a local one – 'tis plain by its awoo. I must insist that you silence it."

"Sif," I hissed. "Don't awoo."

Sif lowered his muzzle, and his awoo tapered into a mere woo, before ending in a wary rowrow.

With Sif quieted, the deer had leave to speak uninterrupted.

"I am Brador, Prince of the Forest. You and your foreign wolf are under arrest for crimes against deerkind."

"Arrest?" I echoed. "I've committed no crimes against any kind, let alone deerkind!"

"Yet you were spotted in the camp of the Chaos Paladins during a skirmish, twelve hours ago. Do you deny your presence?"

Twelve hours ago?! I thought it had been days, at least! This damn forest...

"Okay, I don't deny that. But I took no part in the fighting!" I swallowed hard, beginning to fear for my life – and after I'd just gotten a new lease on it, too.

"Look, the only reason I was in that camp was because I was looking for a Way of White pilgrim who's lost in these woods, and I'm trying to find her. If you'll let me pass, I promise you, I'll take her far, far away from here, and never trouble any of you again."

Of course, where I would take her was a question I had no answer for. She had a mission of her own, after all. But surely, anywhere was better than this maddening forest, war zone that it was.

The deer that whispered to Brador approached him again, leaning his muzzle so far into the Prince's ear that it almost looked as though he was trying to caress his brain with his tongue. But he withdrew after a moment, the two of them exchanging a look and a nod. Then Brador spoke to me.

"As happens, we know of this pilgrim. She pollutes the forest with her presence, but has done nothing to harm us. If it is your intent to remove her, then we will waive the charges against you and allow you safe passage."

I felt relief, and released my magical grip on Brightflame.

"Conditionally." Brador held up a cloven hoof. "You will disarm. You will travel under escort. You must cooperate with your escort, at all times, or face swift and immediate execution. And, before you are allowed to do anything else, you must bear witness at a trial."

"A... trial?" I asked, baffled.

Prince Brador nodded. "Against one whose crimes are too heinous to name outside of court. I was on my way to this trial, at our glorious stronghold of Deerglaic, to offer testimony against the accused. You will add your voice to mine, and afterward, you will be allowed on your way."

I eyed Prince Brador skeptically. "And if I decline?"

"You will die. Gruesomely." No deer should have a smile as predatory as his. "Then you will die again, in an even more gruesome fashion. You will continue to die, until you go hollow, and then you will be sent to the purgatory, where the Undeerd Chariot shall gore your shambling carcass endlessly upon his many fearsome antlers."

I could think of no more pointless waste of the gift Sunset had given me. With no other options, I swallowed my pride and fear both, and nodded my agreement.

The deer approached, stripped me of my weapons, and shoved me roughly to get me moving. So, once more, Sif and I journeyed through the forest, far less alone than when we set off from Madame Zecora's.

All things considered, I think I preferred Sif's company to that of the deer.

Chapter 8:
Sunlight for Life

It was a tense, uneasy walk to Deerglaic, like an awkward family gathering where nobody speaks for fear of inadvertently setting someone else off and starting a no-holds-barred brawl, driving Nan to her cups in tears and leaving me behind to clean up all the missing teeth and telekinetically-flung cake and ice cream in the aftermath. Only, unlike the festivities surrounding my Cute-ceñera, I couldn't even seek solace in Nan's secret supply of bathtub-brewed whiskey (or "WISKEE," as the labels on all the jugs read), and had to grit my teeth and endure the silence sober.

The deer's numbers seemed to fluctuate as we traveled; they melted in and out of the trees and the underbrush, almost as though they were one with the forest. The most I ever counted at a time was thirty. The fewest, seven. Prince Brador was the only deer who never left, even as his entourage vanished and reappeared seemingly at will. He was always a few paces ahead of me, always with at least one bodyguard close by, and moved with long, graceful strides, holding his head high.

I was tired of being in the dark – literally and figuratively – so I decided to engage my captor in conversation. If participating in this trial would get me closer to Sister Pilgrimage, I'd endure it, but I wanted, and kinda needed, some answers first.

I plucked up my courage, and approached. His bodyguard moved to block me, but the Prince stopped him with a hoof, and beckoned me closer.

"You weather the forest well," he said. "We witnessed your battle with the wooden pack, you know. It is rare to find a pony who kills timberwolves with your level of aplomb or ferocity. Legend has it that there was a member of the Apple clan who, long ago, slew an entire pack to rescue a baby dragon, but she never went as far as killing their godfather."

"You saw the fight?" Brador's praise left me feeling strangely bashful – and uncomfortable. "Then you know it wasn't all me. I had help."

"From a sorceress bitch and a foreign mongrel-pony. Both are beneath our notice. You are not."

"I didn't see you leaping in to help out, your majesty. The sorceress bitch and the mongrel, on the other hoof, did."

"You show me deference and snideness in the same breath." Brador grunted. "Ponies. Such a fascinating dichotomy."

That, I had no idea what to make of – I had a feeling there was some sort of joke, or reference, that I wasn't in on. I decided to interpret it as a compliment, however.

"Well, your majesty, since we're becoming such fast friends—"

"We are not."

Our budding relationship appeared to have hit a snag.

"Well, I would like to befriend you, at least. Perhaps, in the name of friendship, you might share some details about this upcoming trial. I can't say I'm not curious."

"I told you," said Brador darkly, shooting me a dark look, dark eyes narrowing in the darkness. "The accused's crimes are too heinous to name outside of court. Least of all, to a pony like yourself."

I tilted my head. "But wouldn't it help your case, the more I know?"

"I fail to see how. Both the verdict and the punishment have already been decided. My testimony is little more than a formality, and you need only answer questions in the affirmative."

Definitely odd that they were going through this whole song and dance if the case was already decided.

"I'll say whatever you want me to say, and confirm whatever you want me to confirm. But if the trial is already decided, and is – I assume – largely for show, then I can tailor my testimony if I know more about the case." Now, Brador looked at me with curiosity instead of scorn. "In what regard?"

"Oh, think of the possibilities!" I grinned. "You tell me the accused's crime, and I can fluff it up with all manner of horrid details to help seal the deal. Add some truly lurid and graphic tales of how they wronged you and deerkind. Become a part of the show, so to speak, and make an even grander one."

Brador's grin – slimy this time, not predatory – spread across his face. "Young pony, I believe I'm beginning to change my opinion of you. You are positively deerlike in your thinking."

I felt insulted by that.

"Very well, then. I will tell you of the accused's crime." Brador raised his head to stare into the forest, and his face became grim as he spoke in a low, gravelly voice.

"Another nana disappeared."

"A... another nana?" I asked. Surely, I'd failed to hear him right.

"Yes. The seventh in as many weeks. You must understand, young pony, that we hold the life of the nana as paramount in the natural world. The nana is a creature who is pure, and wholesome, and who must be protected from those who would wrong her."

Brador's lip quivered, and a single tear slid down his cheek.

"Those of my clan swear a solemn oath to preserve and protect all nanas, everywhere. Deer, pony, bastard mongrel-pony, bipedal bitch, even the birdcats who circle the skies and defraud us by selling us inedible biscuits – the life of the nana is sacrosanct, no matter what form it takes. Any degenerate who offends our most basic sense of respect for the sacred nana must be held accountable."

"So the one you're trying is the one responsible for the disappearance of all those nanas?"

Brador chuckled and shook his head. "Oh, dear pony, no. This is simply someone we found and decided to pin the blame upon. But by putting on a show trial for the degenerate, and executing them gruesomely, we will deter the true culprit – whoever they may be – from carrying out any further assaults on the nana population. Thus do we, of the Ball-Touchers, maintain harmony and security for all nanakind."

I was beginning to notice some patterns in the ways deer conducted business: They liked doing things gruesomely, and they liked doing things stupidly. I could spend the rest of my life detailing all the assumptions and fallacious logic they were employing in this highly wasteful and inefficient endeavor, but that would probably make for boring reading.

So, instead, I just smiled and nodded.

"Sounds brilliant, Prince Brador," I said with false cheer and enthusiasm. "But tell me, just what are the Ball-Touchers?"

Brador's eyes cerulean orbs twinkled twinklingly, and he smiled at me. "Look around, and behold the Ball-Touchers. Since ancient times, we have touched balls to one another, and we shall persist in our ball-touching until we have achieved our goal, and wiped the foul Mound-Pounders from these woods once and for all!"

The other deer hissed and jeered.

"Mound... pounders?" I felt certain by then that he was just making stuff up.

"Yes," said Brador. "The Mound-Pounders – they who fought the Chaos Paladins – are degenerates, cut from the same cloth as the nananapper. They stand for all that we do not."

"Such as?"

"They love papas, not nanas." Brador shuddered. "But more grievous than that is their stance regarding mounds. Can you guess what that is?" He gave me a significant look.

I frowned. "They pound them, don't they?"

"They pound them!" Brador snapped, making me jump. "Once, long ago, we were united in our mutual reverence for mounds, but when the world was set aflame and our ancestral fortress of failure, the Earthen Peak, was thrown down, we faced an irrevocable schism. We of the Ball-Touchers wish to create mounds by rolling balls of dirt, touching them together, and gradually forming larger and larger mounds, until the Earthen Peak has been restored to its full glory. Then, we can ride its Transcendent Elevator to the Iron Keep in the Heavens, and reunite with the All-Nana, who will lead us into an age of enlightenment!

"But the Mound-Pounders – they know only death. And disease. And destruction and decay. They know nothing of the noble art of ball-touching; they wish only to pound mounds, until fissures in the earth are created, and their blasphemous god, the Hole-y Knightpapa, can rise into our world."

Brador looked at me, his eyes no longer dark. Now they were bright. Not twinkly-bright, like before, but, like, fire-bright.

"You understand now, yes? You understand why we must protect the nanas of this world?"

I understood that they were a bunch of morons and loonies, and that I wanted to get away from them as quickly as possible, and that the best way to accomplish that goal was to not call them morons and loonies and just smile and nod whenever possible. So I smiled and nodded, and Brador seemed satisfied.

Then he started talking some more about touching balls, and pounding mounds, and about papas and nanas, and truth be told, it was all very boring – somehow, moreso even than Sir Penance's lecture on the Way of White.

The next sensation I felt was one of weightlessness, my stomach and other innards rushing into my throat and the scruff of my neck oddly sore, as I plummeted from an unimaginable height and landed on my butt with an owie sensation.

"What the Coyotl?!" I snapped at Brador, who stood beside me, smirking. "What was that for?"

"We did nothing," said Brador smarmily. "You fell asleep as I spoke, and you were carried here."

I blinked – I mean, his lecture was boring and all, but I didn't think it was quite that boring. This damn forest...

"Then how did I get here?" I asked. "Did you carry me? One of your bodyguards?"

"We would never demean ourselves by carrying one such as yourself upon our backs and/or hinies." Brador glanced behind me. "Your wolf, however..."

I felt something slimy drag across my nape, and Sif's hot breath over the wet spot. Then came a rowf, right in my ear. I sighed and reached back to scratch him on the bridge of his nose, and he panted happily.

Good boy, Sif, I thought gloomily.

"Rise now," Brador commanded. Rise, I did. "Gaze upon Deerglaic," he ordered. Gaze, I did. "Marvel at its splendor," he suggested.

That much, I did not do.

For as overhyped as Deerglaic had been, for all of Brador's pride when speaking of it, I was expecting something grand, something to surpass anything I'd yet experienced, either in our out of Equestria. What I saw was an unfinished mess of moss-covered buildings surrounding a circular arena that looked like it had been cobbled together at the last second from paper mache and ferns. There was light overhead, at least – Deerglaic was in a clearing, and the sun shone brightly down upon it – yet even that looked oversaturated and weird.

Also, looking down at my armor, my surcoat was a completely different color. It looked almost purple in the light of Ponyville and the Everfree, but in Deerglaic, it was a rather vivid shade of blue. It was nice, don't get me wrong, but the difference was just really, really odd.

"Well?" said Brador, pride ringing in his voice. "Do you marvel at it?"

"I... something at it, alright."

Brador chuckled, and slapped me on the back. "Come, pony. Court is now in session."

Brador's guards urged me forward with a poke in the butt, and I scampered, glaring furiously at them as I passed into the arena. A concrete gallery was raised around a deep pit, with tunnels built into the sides of the arena, presumably running underground. The gallery was filled with deer, who shouted and yelled and made uncouth remarks about my parents' genitals. They were easily the most tolerable bunch of deer I'd met so far.

We reached the pit's center, and Brador silenced them with an upraised hoof.

"My friends!" he boomed. "For too long have we suffered the slings and arrows of outsiders and profligates! We wage war with the ponies and minotaurs who encroach upon our wood, and the Mound-Pounders who pervert our way of life. We suffer their existence, as we have throughout our history. But the crimes which this one has committed upon the sacred nana—"

The crowd roared in fury, and Brador waited a moment before signaling for quiet again.

"The crimes they have committed upon the sacred nana are beyond the pale." He thumped me on the back, hoof clanging loudly against my armor. "With me now stands a pony who will bear witness to our triumph over the one who offends the nana. His testimony will seal the fate of the profligate, and we shall all watch as she is torn, limb from limb, and flung piecemeal to the vulture and the crow!"

He flung his hooves open wide. "Can! You! Dig it?!"

Judging by the shouting and the stomping, the deer did, indeed, dig it.

"Then let the festivities begin!" Brador turned toward the tunnel. "Bring forth the nananapper!"

From the tunnel came the sound of squeaky, unoiled wheels. A shape emerged into the light: a wooden platform, on four rusty wheels, pulled by a burly deer jailer, at least twice my size. My eyes went to the armored mare on the platform, chained to it by all four limbs.

Sunset Shimmer's eyes found mine. And there is not a word for the cocktail of emotions which flooded through my body at the sight of her.

"This," said Brador, his voice turning ugly. "This is the fiend who offends our forest so – a monstrous pony witch who harvests the wrinkly uteri of our nanas and brews from them a foul potion to restore her youth and virility. Do you deny the charges, pony?!"

"Unequivocally," Sunset cried. "I wasn't even in the forest when your outriders caught me; I was miles away from here, and heading toward Canterlot! Firelink, tell this guy—"

"She lies!" Brador's voice boomed, to more cheering from the crowd. "She poisons your ears with her guile and tries to turn you against the rule of justice! Witness-Pony, tell the crowd. Tell them how you saw her cutting a helpless nana, cackling about brewing youth-potions from her remains. Tell them of her many heinous crimes: how she bit the head off a bunny and chewed it open-mouthed, or how she defrauded the foals of the East Side Orphanage of their every penny, forcing them into careers of thugging and pimpery! Tell them of her tenure at Mareval Comics, and her plan to retcon Captain Amareica into a horse-Nazi!"

Shrieks and jeers of mockery rained down on Sunset from the gallery. She stared into my eyes, pleading.

"Tell them," Brador hissed into my ear. "Or is the life of your pilgrim worth less than hers?"

What Brador didn't know – what he could not have known – is that I would literally murder every single pilgrim in the world with my own hooves if it meant saving Sunset Shimmer's life. I'd certainly murder an arena full of deer. Even if – no, especially if – more than half of them were fawns.

But my sword was still with Brador's bodyguard, and out of telekinetic reach. I could see Brightflame, slung over the bodyguard's back, mocking me. So close, yet so far... If it came to a fight, I'd have to do without it, at least at first. Luckily, my pyromancy was nothing to be sneezed at, and even chained up and helpless, I was sure that Sunset's magic could tilt the scales.

How odd that she hadn't tried anything against them yet.

Still, I preferred not to pick a fight as my first recourse. Perhaps diplomacy could yet win the day and set us free. Surely, not ALL deer were as bull-headedly stupid as Brador; surely there was someone I could reason with. So I leaped upon the platform, Sif scrabbling up beside me, and lifted my head to address the crowd.

"Firelink," Sunset hissed. "What do you think you're—"

"I got this. Don't worry." I smiled confidently at her. She just flattened her ears.

"My friends!" I called to the deer, circling the platform to make eye contact with as many as possible. "You cannot have this mare! She is innocent of the crimes you lay on her shoulders. I swear to you, Sunset Shimmer is a knight whose honor and courage are beyond reproach. She would never stoop so low as to murder a helpless nana. She's a vegetarian, and a philanthropist – the very spirit of generosity. And I don't think she even reads comic books!"

I chanced to look at Sunset. Her ears lifted, her cheeks were reddening, and despite our circumstances, she smiled warmly at me. The look on her face turned my innards to butter, and suddenly, I lost my train of thought. So I started shouting whatever came into my mind.

"And have you seen that ass?"

Sunset's face went ashen, and her smile vanished, and despite my own rising sense of horror, I just could not look away from her.

"I mean, hot damn, that is one fine ass. Like, scale of one to ten? A twelve, no problem. I'd let her ascend my pyromancy flame and make contact with my Brain of Mensis. I'd treat her blobby thing with care, know'm'sayin'?"

The deer began to stomp and shout again. I was beginning to wonder if they knew how to do anything else. Finally, I looked away from Sunset, at Brador, who stared at me, eyes narrowed. The Prince signaled for silence again.

"The court is moved by your eloquence, Sir Garbage Pony. We see the valor in your words and deeds – 'tis plain, as plain as the redness creeping across every visible inch of the accused's face as you objectify and sexualize her to all in earshot. Indeed, even we of the forest can appreciate dat fine pone booty." I felt relief spread through me. It stopped when I realized that Brador's dark expression was unchanging. And when I noticed his entourage moving closer to us, lowering their antlers dangerously.

"But the crime of nananapping is not one which can be forgiven so easily," Brador growled. "And you have perjured yourself in open court by allying with the nananapper. Thus, you shall share in her fate. Make peace with your pagan whore goddess!"

Lesson learned. Diplomacy was for idealistic fools and doo-doo heads. I began to pyromance.

"Stay close to me, Sunset," I whispered.

Sunset glared at me in exasperation, flinging her forelegs open as wide as they would go (which, considering they were chained to a board, was not that far) and rattling her chains.

Suddenly, Brador's eyes widened. His body swelled and bulged all over, and his mouth opened in a silent scream of pain. My stomach lurched – I could see what was about to happen.

Brador's body burst open in a shower of blood and viscera. Only his head remained intact, its expression of agony and fear frozen eternally on its face. A pony's body uncurled until it stood at full height, towering over all present. Then, with a grotesque snapping and cracking of bone and sinew, it reared onto its hind legs, its body undergoing a metamorphosis before my very eyes. Its back legs thickened, its hooves expanding and flattening into feet. Its shoulders broadened, and forelegs lengthened, while fingers sprouted from its front hooves. Its hips and torso bulged and rippled beneath its roughspun brown tunic, until it took on a form not unlike that of a heavily muscled minotaur.

Only the familiar blood-stained mask adoring its face remained to give away the identity of the Legend.

The deer turned away from Sunset and I to surround him, as onlookers shrieked and fled in droves.

The champion of the Chaos Paladins bore arms and equipment which were completely different from what he'd brought into battle against the Mound-Pounders. Besides the aforementioned trousers and tunic instead of armor, he wore boots and gloves of the same material, and Brador's head as a hat. On his back was a rusty scythe and pickaxe, with handaxe slid into his belt. He fondled its shaft delicately with meaty fingers before unslinging the pickaxe from his back.


The Legend swung with blinding speed, embedding the pickaxe's point in the temple of the deer jailer. Then he pivoted and slung the body into the thickest part of Brador's entourage, bowling over three deer and sending the rest backing away frantically.


In the chaos (har!), I leaped from the platform and galloped toward the bodyguard with Brightflame, drawing it as soon as I came into reach and swinging for his neck. The bastard sword went snicker-snack, and his headless body collapsed, the wound cauterized by my fire-magic. Then I galloped back to the platform, where Sif was fending off an enterprising deer who seemed to have misplaced the right half of his face.

Sunset watched with baited breath as Brightflame hammered through each of her chains. Once free, she leaped from the platform.

"My weapons," she cried. "Still back in that tunnel!"

"We'll come back for them later," I shouted, thrusting Brightflame through the chest of Sif's deer. "We don't want to be caught in the middle of this, Sunset, trust me!"

A deer lunged at Sunset before she could argue further. She tensed, horn glowing, but the Legend's handaxe suddenly appeared in the deer's skull, and it fell limply to the ground, skidding through the dirt until coming to a stop at the base of the platform.

"WHEN IM DONE IM PULL UR CART 2," the Legend, ankle-deep in deer corpses, boomed. More deer were rushing into the arena, some from the tunnel, and the Legend drew his scythe to face them. "I KNO HOW SENITIV UR NOBLEMAN HANDS R LMAO!"

I looked smugly at Sunset, who growled and nodded her assent. She paused to wrench the axe from the skull of her would-be attacker, giving it a tentative swing and shaking off droplets of gore in the process.

Then we were off, the three of us, racing back the way I'd come with Brador. Any deer who approached us met a swift end, by axe and sword and wolf-tooth, as we ran into the forest, leaving Deerglaic behind.

We didn't stop running until we were deep in the Everfree again, swathed in darkness and utterly out of breath. Beneath the heavy noise of my own panting was the gentle tinkling sound of rushing water – looking up, I realized that we'd had the incredible fortune of stopping beside a stream. Sif loped over to it for a drink while I plopped down and sucked down breath after breath of air to refresh myself.

Sunset was beside me, nowhere near as tired as I was. I figured she'd been at this far longer than I; naturally, her constitution would put me to shame. She also, not to put too fine a point on it, looked flat-out gorgeous. Despite maintaining a constant sprint while wearing full armor and dragging the remnants of four heavy chains attached to all her limbs, she was no worse for wear. If anything, the constant action looked like it had been good for her.

"It's comforting to know that some things have withstood the passage of time," she panted. "The deer, for instance, are just as infuriating as ever. You'd think that a few centuries would improve their disposition, but no. They just have to ruin the day of whoever they come into contact with."

Sunset looked at me with a sheepish smile, her eyes finding mine.

"Sorry you got dragged into that. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad you were there, but I wouldn't wish the company of the deer on anyone. Although I wouldn't wish the Legend on anyone, either," she added with a shudder.

I just stared, transfixed, at her gorgeous emerald orbs as her lips moved and pleasant sounds emerged from them.

A few moments of awkward staring passed. Then she coughed. "So I heard what their leader said to you – you're looking for a pilgrim, huh? I still have my own mission to consider, but after Deerglaic, I figure I owe you one. How about I help you find her? It's the least I can do to repay the favor."

"You don't need to do anything to repay me. You don't owe me anything. You showed me, a complete stranger, kindness at a moment when you needn't have, and saving your life was the least I could do to repay that debt. The truth is, Sunset, that you're very special to me. And while I doubt you feel that way about me, I know you'd walk through Hell for me, because that's just the kind of pony you are. So please, don't ever say that you owe me anything."

Or that's what I wished I'd said – what I'd thought about saying. What I'd wanted to say. But I was so transfixed by her gaze that, while making the journey between my mind and my mouth, my eloquent declaration of love became jumbled and twisted and lost, and ultimately emerged as something very different from what I'd had in mind:

"You should demonstrate your gratitude by letting me put my tongue in your mouth!"

Sunset's eyes flew open, and her face went beet-red. I heard a pained awoo from the stream, and glanced over – Sif had his paws over his eyes in a show of exasperation.

Man, wolves really were smart. And super empathetic, too!

"...Is that really how you think of me?" said Sunset in a shocked whisper. Emotions ran over her face. Hurt, and shock, and perhaps she looked a little hungry, too. I dunno. "All that stuff you said back at Deerglaic, I thought... I thought that was some kind of tactic. I don't know what to say to this."

"Can't say anything if my tongue is in your mouth!" I blurted. "Solves quite a few problems all at—"

Sunset slapped me. It stung. It may also have cracked a tooth. It certainly cracked my heart in two.

"I thought you were better than that." Her eyes were red and tearful, and her voice shook with fury. "I knew about your stupid little crush, but dammit, you were sweet, and helpful, and a good friend when I needed it, and you never forced the issue. If only I'd known that you were only playing the part to get under my tail. How dare you?!"

Somehow, her fury was incredibly arousing.

"Stallions. You're all alike." Sunset laughed bitterly, rising and turning away from me – I had the distinct feeling that she was talking to herself more than me. "You're all a bunch of pricks with legs, but every now and then, you find a decent guy to go along with the rest of the package. Thought for sure you were one. I guess the joke's on me, huh?"


Sunset's horn crackled, and I felt it in my best interest to shut up.

"You saved my life, and I still mean to return the favor," she said with deceptive tranquility. "I'll help you find your pilgrim, and I'll get you both to safety. But after that, you and I are through, and I never want to see you again."

I just stared at her, my mouth working in silence as I tried to form an apology. When none came, Sunset snorted with disgust and drew her scavenged axe. I thought for sure she was about to kill me, but she turned away.

"You look exhausted. Get some sleep." Sunset strode off some distance to lean against a nearby tree. "I'll stand watch."

Sif brushed past me, shooting me a look with his lips curled back from his muzzle, before joining Sunset and settling down beside her, resting his muzzle against her hoof. She stroked the back of his neck.

That left me to creep over to the stream and collapse, crashing immediately into slumber.

The dream offered me no reprieve.

I sat in that peaceful setting for what felt like hours, replaying Sunset's words in my mind, over and over again. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't – could ponies just not cry in the dream? That seemed odd.

So I settled for keeping my face buried in my hooves and groaning like I had a particularly bad tummy ache. That is, until the clatter of heavy armor jarred me from my self-pity, and I looked up at Sir Iron, whose rainbow wig and clown nose brought me none of their usual joy.

"Wuss on yer mind there, lad?" he slurred. "Y'look like ya jus' saw yer mum an' yer dad makin' the forty-five degree angle of marital bliss over yer kitchen sink, or somethin'."

Okay, first of all, gross. Second, his breath reeked of liquor, and his words were a nigh-incomprehensible mess of half-pronounced consonants and overemphasized vowels. I wrinkled my nose.

"Are you drunk?"

"Mm? Oh, yeah. Met an invisible bird in th'woods while I was chasin' yer Sister Pillager. Said she wanted the sparkliest an' twinkliest thing I had on me. So I gave 'er my Estus, an' I got a flask o'bourbon from 'er."

He produced said flask and took a swig from it – impressively enough, without removing his helmet.

"That sounds incredibly irresponsible," I pointed out. "Also, impossible, going by my understanding of the dream."

"Ah, save it fer the lore video, son." Sir Iron patted me on the back. It felt like being smacked by a ham clad in chainmail. "Now, what's gotcha feelin' yer oats? Tell ol' Uncle Iron, now."

I sighed, and told him everything – meeting Brador and his entourage, the fight in Deerglaic, the appearance of the Legend, and, finally, Sunset's words of outrage. Sir Iron listened in silence, nodding along, occasionally sipping from his flask. Once, he honked his nose, and it made a horn sound – I have no idea why he did that; he just did. I guess that's what you do when you have a clown nose, though. Couldn't really hold it against him.

When I finished my tale, Sir Iron offered me his flask. I took it, and drank. The liquor was the worst thing I'd ever put into my mouth, and I spat it out immediately.

"Bitch," Sir Iron muttered. Then he cleared his throat. "Well, son, it sounds like ye fucked up right an' proper, y'did."

"You're telling me." I sniffed – my nose was running, even though I wasn't crying. Part of me was curious what other bodily functions did and did not work as intended in the dream – like, could I poop, and not pee? Or vice-versa? Man, I can't wait for the lore video about that.

"So," said Sir Iron. "We're in agreement on that. Question then becomes, what are ye gonna do about it?"

"...I just need to own up to my mistake," I said firmly. "I need to speak to Sunset, and apologize for how I acted. She needs to know that I love her as a person, not as a sex object, and if I just speak from the heart and ask for forgiveness, I know that she'll—"

"No, no, no, son," Sir Iron laughed, his head clanging as he shook it mirthfully. "Ye got it all wrong. Yer mistake wasn't that ye treated Sunset like a piece o'meat. Yer mistake was in yer delivery. Y'didn't take it nearly as far as you could have – neigh, should have."

I blinked. "Uh...?"

"I know what I'm talkin' about, lad," Sir Iron continued. "I belong to an ancient covenant – the Men Going Their Own Way – and we know all about the ancient art of mistreating mares for the purposes of porkin' them. It's all in the delivery, y'see – y'need to be so awful to 'em, and break their self-esteem so utterly, that they'll be so desperate and self-hating that they'll even look at someone as schlubby and unattractive as you as someone worth givin' a roll in the hay."

"Sir Iron, that sounds..." I frowned at him. "Highly questionable."

"Pshaw," pshaw'd Sir Iron. "Y'say that now, but I know how desperately ye wanna get between Sunny's buns. An' if ye don't listen t'me, ye never will. I'm yer last clear chance at scorin' with the Phoenix Knight, y'hear? Now, are ye in, or out?"

Well, when he put it that way...

"I suppose it couldn't hurt," I said uncertainly.

I had the uncomfortable feeling that Sir Iron was grinning at me from underneath his helmet...

The forest was still when I awoke – no rustling underbrush, no chirps of birds or other animal sounds. Only the gently burbling stream gave voice to the Everfree. I blinked and rose, stretching out my legs, and looking around for my companions.

Sunset was where I'd left her before I crashed into slumber, seated in the grass with the axe floating beside her head. Sif was curled up next to her, and she stroked his ears gently. The wolf's ears pricked, presumably at the sound of my stirring, and he watched me warily without rising to greet me. It made me wonder whose respect for me I'd damaged more – Sunset's, or Sif's.

Well, nothing for it but to forge on ahead. If Sir Iron was right, I'd surely win my way back into Sunset's good graces by lowering her standards enough to simply step over them without any hassle. I could only assume that the same would hold true for Sif. But then, how does one neg a wolf? Can one neg a wolf?

A question for philosophers, not lovers. And what am I, if not a lover? Can't spell "pyromantic" without...

Well, you know. You get it.

Sunset heard me walking toward her, and looked over her shoulder at me. "Hey... um. Sleep okay?"

I shrugged.

"I guess it's hard to get a good night's sleep in the Everfree. Although you did sleep through the night. I think." She cracked her neck and rose to meet me, though Sif stayed where he was. "I went ahead and covered your watch; you seemed like you needed the rest more than I did. But I have no idea if you actually slept through the night, because I have no idea whether or not it is night. Or day. Stupid Everfree."

That was certainly chivalrous of her, but she didn't need to do that – I'd be happy standing watch in her stead while she slept. Not in the least bit because, that way, I'd be able to watch her sleep.

"Listen..." Sunset looked down at her iron-braceleted hooves, biting her lip. She'd hacked what was left of the chains off during the night. "I've been thinking a lot about what I said to you. I was harsh, and I'm really sorry, Firelink. It's just, stuff like that's happened to me a lot, you know? It's hard for me to meet guys that are interested in more than just sex. Even before the world went to shit. But that's no excuse – I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions about you, or the content of your character, because you really haven't been anything but decent and genuine with me. And, who knows, maybe I did something to lead you on..."

Behind her, Sif yawned and started licking his crotch.

"One way or another, we're gonna have to separate after your pilgrim is safe," she went on. "But I don't want that to mean the end of our friendship, despite what I said. I don't feel the same for you as you feel for me, Firelink. Nor, um... nor can I feel that way for you." She blushed. "But I'll try to be respectful of your feelings from now on, as long as you respect my personal boundaries. So..."

Sunset Shimmer extended her hoof toward me, a shy, hopeful smile on her face. "Friends?"

I looked at her hoof. At her face. At her vivid jade emerald sea-green ocular spheres. At her curving lips, at her horn, and her mane. Especially at her mane.

For once, the first thing to spring into my mind was not a stammering, awkward, inappropriate remark. It was a deliberately planned and impeccably delivered inappropriate remark.

"Your mane looks a lot better than usual. Probably because you haven't been packing it inside a helmet. Maybe if you cut it short, you wouldn't have to restyle it every time you suit up for battle." I paused. "Also, I think your butt got smaller, or something."

Sunset just stared at me, and I watched as her eyes drained of any semblance of fondness or goodwill toward me.

"...I'll assume that this is a new coping mechanism. And I'll give you a free pass. For now."

Then she turned, spinning the handaxe idly in the air, and trotted back the way we came, Sif falling in beside her.

"We're going back to Deerglaic for my gear now. Stay close, and keep your sword ready."

I watched her hindquarters sway as she walked, and allowed myself a little hoof-pump of victory.

Yuss. Back in the game.

I was NOT back in the game.

All throughout our walk back to Deerglaic, I paid Sunset back-hoofed complements and veiled insults. I named haircuts that would be more flattering for her, suggested that her chainmail would look better if she scraped some of the rust off of it, compared her to other mares I knew back in Brittlesworth with varying degrees of favorability, and offered a critical evaluation of her horn length.

She barely listened. To any of it. It was like she was tuning me out, or... or something! Sif would respond occasionally by paying me a pitying glance, or growling and shaking his head, but the target of my negging remained steadfastly un-negged. I was beginning to doubt Sir Iron's wisdom – after hours (or... minutes? Days? This damn forest...!) of constant negging, Sunset Shimmer had yet to allow me to get all up in that.

Ugh. By then, I was starting to wonder if I shouldn't just give up on it. Apologize to Sunset for acting like a clod, admit that I was following the advice of a mysterious spirit with whom only I can communicate, and hope she still liked me enough to forgive me. I doubted it would lead to the hours (Days? Months? Years? This damn forest!) of fornication that I had fantasized about since first glimpsing her, but it was better than permanently alienating her.

...Actually, I just thought about it, and no, it wasn't. Still, being in her good graces didn't exactly hurt my chances. Between that, and rescuing Sister Pilgrimage in a sufficiently masculine and badass manner, I put my odds at giving Sunny the D at around fifty-fifty.

I began by sidling up to her, between her and Sif, and clearing my throat. "Hey, Sunset?"

She looked silently at me from the corner of her eye.

Okay, silent treatment, but at least she was making eye contact. That was a start. I took a deep breath.

Then Sif stopped walking, his ears pricked and his head cocked to one side. His nose twitched as he sniffed curiously at the air. I froze – that couldn't have been a good sign. Sunset noticed, too, and drew her axe.

Sif turned his head to point his nose at some trees to out right. His lips curled back from his teeth, and a soft, guttural growl rumbled from his throat. I squinted, and could barely make out a shape in the darkness, obscured by the tall grass and the shadows of the trees.

I drew Brightflame, pushing Sif behind me. Sunset stood alongside me with her axe held close in her telekinetic grip.

"Come out where we can see you," I snapped.

The shape turned out to be a pegasus, who floated above the tall grass with firm, powerful strokes of her wings. She wore battered-looking golden armor, and gripped in her forehooves an old spear whose point had long ago gone to rust. Her coat was an off-white color, and her mane some sort of orange-ish, with a yellowish stripe running skunkwise through it. She glanced between Sunset and I, her eyes narrowed and wary.

"That's Canterlot Guard armor," Sunset whispered to me. She raised her voice to address the pegasus. "Where'd you get your gear? Are you E.U.P.?"

"I'M asking the questions, Bacon-Hair," the pegasus snapped, jabbing her spear forward once.

Bacon-hair! That would have been a perfect neg; if only I'd made the connection sooner! I cursed my short-sighted foolishness.

"Look, we don't want any trouble," said Sunset, lowering her axe so the head pointed away from the pegasus. "And I've known enough guardsmares to know that, if you're legit, then you're on the up-and-up. Nopony here's a bandit, and we're all just trying to get through the damn forest, so... how about you put the spear down?"

"Nuh-uh," the pegasus growled. "How's about you put your spear down?"

Sunset and I exchanged a look, briefly glancing at one another's weapons. We didn't need to speak to know what the other was thinking – this mare was clearly a nincompoop. It was nice to see that, even with things between us on somewhat rocky footing, we could at least agree on the blatantly obvious.

Then Sif nosed his way between the two of us. The pegasus saw him, and her narrow gaze widened. "No way," she whispered.

Without waiting for a command, and ignoring my shout of protest, Sif bounded toward the pegasus. He leaped through the air with his jaws open, and collided with her, knocking the spear from her hooves, and knocking her to the ground. Sunset and I rushed forward to pry him off...

And found him licking her face joyfully as she laughed, ruffling his ears and his thick neck fluff.

I grinned at the sight, sheathing Brightflame. "Well, if my wolf likes you, then I suppose you can't really be all that bad."

"Your..." The pegasus, breathless with laughter, extricated herself from Sif's lick-barrage, and rose to sit on her haunches. Her face was wet and slick with slobber, and Sif continued to sniff her all over, his tail wag-a-wagging swooshily.

"Your wolf?" she said at last. She patted Sif on the muzzle as his nose investigated her ear. "Sif's my wolf. We got caught in a skirmish between a Way of White warband and some frickin' Mound-Pounders. Been lookin' everywhere for him ever since."

My ears flattened – ruth be told, I sort of stopped listening when she said "my wolf." The rest, I only gathered by reading her lips.

Oh, by the way, I can read lips. Just FYI.

"Anyway, you still ain't wrong, but you got it backwards. If he hasn't killed and eaten you both yet, then you're probably not so bad." The pegasus turned her head toward the trees and whistled. "Hey! Maid Mumbly! You can come on out now; it's safe!"

Sister Pilgrimage stepped into view. Her robe was torn and stained with grass and mud, and she trembled as she walked, but she was alive, relatively unharmed... and, evidently, safe as houses. In the company of some random mare. Who also was the true owner of my wolf.

"...How?" I sputtered. "How did you find her?!"

"Oh, I met some guy in black armor and a clown get-up while I was doin' my invisible bird routine," said the pegasus nonchalantly. "He mentioned there was a nubile young cleric lost in the woods and pointed me in her direction. Said I had a fifty/fifty shot at scoring with her if I rescued her, but to be honest, all she's done is whine about death and bloodshed since I pulled her out of Mound-Pounder prison – The ImPound, it's called."

"So many heads crushed," Sister Pilgrimage whispered, trembling. "So many lives snuffed out at spearpoint. The golden mare with the fiery mane slew dozens of deer to save poor Sister Pilgrimage."

"Yeah, yeah, bloodshed this and smashed genitals that. You're so super traumatized. I get it. Done this song and dance already." The pegasus pulled out an Estus flask and took a quick swig, sighing. "Least this one ain't speakin' in rhyme."

I approached Sister Pilgrimage, but she drew away from me, whimpering.

"I went looking for you, you know," I said softly. "I was going to save you. I'm sorry I couldn't do it. But make no mistake, if I had, it would have been totally kickass, and any mare who saw it would have swooned at the sight!"

The pegasus looked at me with half-lidded eyes, and licked a bit of Estus off her lip. "I think the only pony you're foolin' with that routine is yourself, pal. Now, your friend, on the other hoof? I could see her gettin' the job done..."

She took a swaggering step toward Sunset, her skeptical look seamlessly transitioning into suave, self-assured sexiness. "Provided she's as badass as she is cute."

Outrageously, Sunset blushed and giggled, waving a hoof bashfully. "Oh, stop that."

"Ah, you like it. Don't pretend you don't." The pegasus leaned in close to whisper into Sunset's ear, and she blushed and giggled harder.

"Your face looks like a fat red tomato when you blush!" I blurted.

If nothing else, that successfully killed the mood. Both the pegasus and Sunset looked too confused to flirt.

"...Anyhow," said the pegasus at length. "Sister Stressed-to-Impress here says she had some kinda mission to do, I think, but she won't say what it is, and truth be told, I don't think she was plannin' on pickin' it up after what just went down. So I'mma take her to Dragonfall – I know a real good shrink who can get her the help she needs."

Sunset blinked. "In Dragonfall? That place was a hellhole before the undead curse! It's probably a literal hell in an actual hole by now!"

"Where've you been, sister?" said the pegasus, smirking. "Dragonfall's practically paradise now – it's the one place in the world that the curse improved. Plus, Sif's dad is the mayor."

Sif barked happily.

The pegasus took another swig of Estus and offered it to Sister Pilgrimage, who shook her head and shrank away. Shrugging, the pegasus put her drink away, nodded at me, and flashed a rakish grin at Sunset.

"So we'll be seein' you around, I guess. Look me up in Dragonfall if you're ever in the neighborhood, babe. C'mon, sis, Sif. We'll stop for cherries on the way."

Sif barked again. He trotted away without even looking at me, but did pause to lick Sunset's cheek, before he, the pegasus, and Sister Pilgrimage disappeared from my life forever.

Sunset stepped toward me, looking sympathetic. "You okay there, kiddo?"

I had trouble believing it. After the way I'd spoken to her, and mistreated her – deliberately, on most counts – since reuniting with her, she still showed respect and consideration for my feelings. I truly did not deserve her.

The stressful torture was too much for me. I needed to crash into slumber.

"I'm going to sleep," I declared, flopping onto my side.

"Uh..." Sunset looked around quizzically. "You sure this is a good time or place?"

"I'm going. To sleep."

"I can't believe it, Sir Iron," I moaned. "Everything's gone wrong ever since I left home! My best friend is dead, I blew it with the love of my life, and the last possible way I could've won her over – rescuing Sister Pilgrimage – was done for me by some pegasus bitch in rusty armor! Who also took my wolf with her, and did to Sunset in two minutes what I've failed to do in all the time I've known her! What am I supposed to do now?!"

Sir Iron grabbed me by the shoulders, and I looked into his visored and clown-nosed helm, waiting for the words of wisdom to spill from his wizened mouth.

Instead, he cuffed me across the face, and I yelped.

"Get ahold of yourself, son," Sir Iron snapped. "You wanna die a virgin? Just keep cryin' like a pussy; you'll get there."

I sniffed, rubbing the spot on my face he'd struck. "Well, actually, I'm not gonna die a virgin, if nothing else. Back in Brittlesworth, I used to ask Notch to shapeshift into a sexy lady for me to practice on, just every now and then. Only his bottom half, though. I liked to see his bug-face when we did it."

Sir Iron stared at me in silence. Then he cuffed me again, harder, sending me sprawling to the ground with the force of the blow.

"What was that for?" I whined.

"Good measure." Sir Iron wiped his hoof off on the grass, then rubbed it over his rainbow wig with a sigh. "Look, son, all's not lost just yet. The Men Going Their Own Way have a certain... ritual... that can be conducted in situations where a fellow's too much of a bitch to pick up a filly the normal way."

"A ritual?"

Sir Iron nodded. "A foolproof way of seducing a mare, and keeping her seduced. Wrapped around your hoof, one hundred percent."

"Well, why didn't you say something sooner?" I snapped, standing up and shrugging off my self-pity.

"Because the ritual requires a powerful connection to the pyromantic arts," said Sir Iron gravely.

"Did you fail to notice all the pyromancy I've been doing over the last couple of—"

"And it requires you to give up your pyromancy to complete it."


"Yeah. Oh." Sir Iron snorted. "You need to know the stakes, lad – you do this, and there's no getting back what's lost. Can you still go through with it, knowing that?"

A difficult decision, indeed. Could I go through with it? Sacrifice my pyromancy for a shot with Sunset? Pyromancy was different from sorcery or miracles; a pyromancer's power comes from the inside. The very flame wielded by a pyromancer is a tangible piece of the pyromancer's own soul. Giving that up would mean giving up a part of myself.

Then again, Sunset was really hot.

"I'll do whatever it takes," I said firmly.

Sir Iron stared at me in silence again – for a moment, I thought he was going to hit me a third time. Instead, he just nodded.

"Then prepare yourself," he said. "And I shall impart unto you the ancient knowledge of how to brew an Estrus Flask."

When I woke, it was dark – not that the lighting conditions meant much – and Sunset was fast asleep nearby with her axe propped against her flank. I could only assume that she tried to stand watch, and failed, having spent the entirety of the night before wide awake.

Good. The more tired she was, the easier this would be.

I shucked off my armor, to avoid waking Sunset with my clanking and jangling, and crept toward her on the tips of my hooves. The Estus flask hung on a belt around her middle, tantalizing me with its sunny goodness. Fitting, I suppose.

Carefully, oh-so-gently, I eased it off of Sunset's belt with my levitation, and floated it toward myself. The flask was warm to the touch, and the light burned so bright that it almost hurt my eyes. I squinted, resolving to power through it.

This was it. This was what separated the boys from the men from the men going their own way. Not that I know what a "man" is, really, but Sir Iron felt it imperative that they go their own way.

I uncorked the flask, shut my eyes, and conjured my pyromancy flame for the last time.

I awoke to the feeling of a warm body snuggling into my legs and pressing against my belly. A soft nose nuzzled along my jawline. I inhaled the rich scent of mare, and grunted.

"'S too early, Notch." I pulled away and rolled onto my other side. "'N I'm not in th'mood."

"Oh, give me five minutes," a mare's voice tittered sexily. "I guarantee, I'll change that."

My eyes shot open. That voice – that titter – carved a light through the groggy haze of sleep and rousted me wide awake in an instant. The memories came back to me: Sir Iron and the ritual, brewing the Estrus flask and sneaking it back onto Sunset's belt, falling into a dreamless sleep... Which meant that wasn't Notch trying to initiate our customary, no-homo game of Kindle the Bonfire – obvious, really, since Notch was dead and gone – but the object of my affection and the target of the Estrus ritual.

I cautiously rolled over and beheld Sunset – fully armored, for some reason – lying on her side, flashing a sultry smile and bedroom eyes at me.

"H-Hi, Sunset." I swallowed. "S-Sleep well?"

"Would have slept a lot better with a big, strong stallion to cuddle up with," she breathed, scooting closer and nuzzling into the crook of my neck. "How silly that I didn't think to do that until just now."

"Really," I said. My hoof rested a few inches above Sunset – I had absolutely no idea whether it would be appropriate to touch her just then. I'd never been this far with a mare who wasn't actually Notch from the top half up. "Um... so why didn't you?"

"Why, because the very thought of enduring your touch made me sick to my stomach, you silly colt," Sunset said, playfully shoving my chest.

Everything inside went cold and withery. "Oh."

"Of course, now I can't think of anything more appealing," Sunset pulled away and frowned, the corners of her mouth crinkling adorably. "It's funny. I took my morning swig of Estus – better than coffee, don't you know – and all of a sudden, my opinion of you as a potential sexual partner flip-flopped faster than a Canterlot parliamentarian at a flapjack cookout."

"That's a very odd and unrelatable analogy, Sunset."

"Yeah, I guess you had to see Parliament in action once or twice to really understand it." She shrugged. "I probably could have thought of something more accessible if I wasn't absolutely brimming with lust and sexual tension right now. How about the two of us do something about that for a while, and we'll see if that helps me conjure up a better one?"

"You're... propositioning me?"


"For sex."

"Hot, sweaty, partially armored pony sex."

"...For the purposes of coming up with simpler, and easier to understand, flip-flopping comparisons."

"Does the why of it really matter that much, Firelink?" Sunset leaned in closer, until the tips of our noses were touching. "All that matters is you have me, in front of you, completely willing and able – very, very able – to satisfy your every perverse, twisted desire. Why think too hard about it?"

She tittered again. Her lips brushed against mine, the air between us all but crackling as our breath mingled together...

...And I immediately pushed her away and bolted backward, scrambling to my hooves and panting.

"Sweetie?" Sunset climbed to her hooves. Her flushed, sweat-lined face was both the most attractive sight I'd ever beheld, and the most repugnant thing in the world. "What's the matter? Don't you want to rip my clothes and ravage the area?"

What was the matter? This was exactly what I wanted, right? A mare, a real life mare, attracted to me. To me! Firelink Soul! The least eligible bachelor in Brittlesworth! The colt who made fillies cry simply by speaking to them! And it wasn't just some cobbler's daughter or elderly fishwife, but Sunset Shimmer, the Phoenix Knight – a legendary hero and a veritable buffet of sex appeal, who didn't reek of cod! Why wasn't I all over that?!

Then it hit me. Her coy looks and suggestive body language and explicit offers of sexual favors were having the exact opposite effect on me. I wasn't all over that... because I didn't want her.

And I didn't want her precisely because she wanted me. Sunset was only appealing in the abstract. The idea of pursuing her, and being constantly rejected, only made me pursue her with greater vigor. When she actually returned my affections, I found that... well...

I found that I needed to be far, far away from her.

I turned around and bolted into the woods as fast as my legs would carry me, not thinking or caring about how lost I was making myself.

She chased after me, of course, calling my name. I flattened my ears, clenched my jaw, and sprinted even faster to stay away from her. Trees and greenery flew past me in a blur as I ran, ducking under low-hanging boughs and plunging into tall grass in an attempt to put as much distance between she and I as possible.

I found a pile of rocks, amid a tangle of yellow weeds, with a pony-sized gap right in the middle. What luck! I plunged into the gap and curled my legs against my body, trying to make myself as small as possible, as Sunset chased vainly after me.

"Firelink! Firelink, come back! We don't have to wear the armor if you don't want to! Firelink!"

Gradually, her voice and her hoofsteps faded as she passed me by, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I'd successfully dodged the arrow of a potential sexual conquest with the mare of my dreams.

What a bittersweet feeling it was. Sir Iron was going to be so disappointed when he heard.

I uncurled and tried to stand, to leave my rocky hiding spot, when suddenly, the rocks dissolved into smoke, and an iron cage door slammed shut in my face! I scampered back, my rump coming into contact with the back end of a cage. I looked up, and down, and saw – yep – cage. Definitely cage.

The cage rocked unsteadily as it lifted into the air. Frantically, I looked about for an explanation, and saw the shaggy white mane of Prince Brador through the cage's latticework – the back of the slain prince's severed head.

The head turned around, and I found myself face-to-face with the dead-eyed mask of the Legend.


I fainted.

Peer close enough at the passage of time, and you notice the patterns that emerge – the subtle ways in which the threads of fate are woven together into a cohesive whole. Events play out, from beginning to end, and then they play out again. The same, every time. We are bound by this yoke.

One such thread, one such pattern, one such yoke: Me falling unconscious, being carried somewhere like a sack of potatoes, and then waking up when I'm dropped onto the ground like a baby in the grasp of an inattentive Trottingham nanny. Whether by Brador and his entourage, or by the Legend and his back-cage, it seems that Firelink Soul is doomed to be dropped from things onto surfaces, for as long as the cycle should persist.

Such is our fate. As surely as the dark that churns within ponykind.

Anyway, I said "oof" when I hit the ground. Thus far, I had determined that cages were my least favorite means of transportation, moreso than fiery phoenix-talons, storm-tossed boats, and haycarts (I've never trusted haycarts, and I never will).

The Legend had brought me to the bottom of a deep, rocky chasm, lit with torches on the walls. Around me were piles of hollowed corpses, reeking of the sickly-sweet stench of decay. Peering closer at them, I could discern graying manes and toothless mouths, and even the forms of many different races. Ponies, yes, but griffons, too – and minotaurs, and batponies, even a zebra.

Nanas, I thought. Nanas of all kinds. Brador was right after all.

The Legend towered over me, staring at me through the dark, empty eyeholes of his mask. He shucked the cage off his back, and it thudded to the ground, making me start.


It took me a moment to realize he wasn't speaking to me. A gentle chuckle filled the cavern, a laugh that echoed in the deepest chasms of my memories. I knew that laugh. I knew that voice.

"The wheel turns, and the cycle nears completion," said the voice of my grandmother. "And you, my good and faithful servant, have brought me a champion, to serve me well as the ages pass. Well done. Well done, indeed."

I rose to my hooves, a faint and terrible hope quaking in my belly.

"Nan," I called. "Nan, is that you?"

Nan's laughter echoed around me again. "It is, my sweet boy. Though, perhaps, not as you know me."

"I don't understand." I blinked, my eyes mustering tears I hadn't known that I even had left. "Nan, where are you? I hear you, but I don't see you. Let me see you. I've... I've missed you so much, Nan."

"Dry your tears, sweet boy. You've no need for them."

"But I failed, Nan. I failed you, and Notch – all I did was get him killed! Then I went to Equestria, and that somehow made everything worse! I'm so sorry, Nan. I let you down."

"Child," Nan whispered soothingly. "You've failed nobody – least of all, myself. You have carried out your duty as expected. All has gone exactly as I had foreseen – else, you would not be standing here."

"Nan..." I sat down, hard. "What are you talking about, Nan? You knew this was going to happen?"

"From the moment you were born into this world, you were destined for great things, sweet boy. Your future, your fate, are writ upon you, as surely as the mark which graces your flank. You were fated to visit the asylum, to lose your soul, to be chosen by Frampt and borne to Equestria... all so that you could be brought here, to serve me."

From the cavern wall, a shape emerged, a long white body with a red cap at the top, and the faint outlines of a mouth and eyes on its wrinkled face. Those eyes opened, and a pair of shiny black dots regarded me with matronly warmth.

"I am the All-Nana," said my grandmother, the mushroom. "And my name is Elizabeth."

I didn't know what to think. What to feel. What to believe. This revelation upended every single idea I'd ever held about my life and the nature of existence. The mere fact that I was speaking with my Nan – or a giant, talking mushroom which claimed to be my Nan – was bizarre enough, but that she claimed to be the architect of every aspect of my life? Weaver of my past, present, and future? What could I say to that?

"Why the fuck is you a 'shroom, Nan?!" I shrieked.

"A natural direction for your line of questioning to take, sweet boy. I shall endeavor to answer it." Nan's mouth-lines smiled as she looked at the Legend. "But such discussions are best held privately. You may take your leave, my Lord."

The Legend suddenly melted into the ground, swallowed by the dirt. "CANT EVEN EAT W/O CROPS," he grunted, just before his head vanished.

I looked at Nan skeptically. "'My Lord?'"

"The title is an artifact from another era, much like himself, really. He has been The Wall, The Peasant, The Hole-y Knightpapa. Giantdad, Chariot Dude, and Skeleton Man. He has been called a hundred names, and will be called a thousand more before the fire goes dim and cold. But I know him by his first name, his true name – or as close to it as he will ever reveal. He is Lord Second, and he belongs to me. As do you, Firelink Soul."

My armor clanged and clanked as I stepped closer to my Nanshroom. "Nan, what is going on here? I didn't come to Equestria to serve you. I came because... because... uh... I can't quite remember why."

"A giant bird brought you here against your will."

"Yeah, that's the ticket." I winced – said out loud, it was kind of silly.

"But you ventured after Notch with my encouragement, did you not?" said Nan. "And when he perished, you were brought to Equestria by the design of Frampt. Little did he know, in carrying you here, he served my design in turn. I am All-Nana for a reason, Firelink – all nanas are manifestations of myself, serving to guide grandchildren to Equestria, that I might find a worthy champion. One such manifestation exists in Brittlesworth. You call her 'Nan.'"

"But why?" I Firelinked.

"Because the fire fades, and with it, the age. If I am to survive, to see the next world, I will need a guardian – a knight, in my service."

"But you have the Legend."

"Yes," Nan sighed, "but have you noticed that he isn't particularly good conversation? He only speaks in Internet memes, which is a bit one-note, as jokes go."

I had no idea what any of that meant, and could only trust in Nan's bottomless wisdom.

"So I began searching the world for a new champion, using my nana-bunshin to guide undead to Equestria, as I had many times before. And, as I have done in countless worlds before, I used the Lordseeker, and his myth, as a means to further guide them here. The asylum serves, as it always has, as a filter to weed out the unworthy. You are the first, and last, to make it this far."

"And the nananappings?" I asked. "Prince Brador seemed convinced that someone was going around killing nanas. He and the Ball-Touchers were quite put out about it."

"Ugh, the Ball-Touchers," said Nan disgustedly. She spat a wad of mushroom-juice out of the corner of her mouth-line. "Their devotion sickens me, as do the profane rituals of the Mound-Pounders. The nanas – my manifestations – were never being killed, or kidnapped. They were returning here, to me."

Nan nodded at the piles of grandmother corpses. "They wander back into my realm, deep beneath the Everfree Forest, and lay themselves down to die. Gradually, I break down their matter, and reabsorb it into myself, growing larger and more powerful as I do. I was hoping that the Ball-Touchers would pin the blame for the disappearances on the Mound-Pounders, and use it as an excuse to wipe them out once and for all, with the Way of White or the Paladins finishing whoever remained."

"That's pretty ghoulish, Nan."

"Feeding off of rotting corpses, and returning them to the soil, is my business." Nan snickered. "I am a mushroom, after all."

"I meant the political aspect of it."

"I am also one-quarter Lanneighster."

"Noted. But what about me, Nan?" I asked. "Where do I go from here?"

"Why, into my service, naturally." Nan towered over me, a fungal titan, the gills in her cap plainly visible from my lower vantage. "Swear fealty to me, my boy, and you will ride out the turning of the cycles for all time. You will become my shade, ageless, forever in the service of the All-Nana. A true constant in the ever-changing ages."

The prospect didn't sound entirely alluring. "And should I refuse?"

"No harm will come to you. The Legend will return you to the surface, where you may live out the remainder of your existence. Fulfill Frampt's design, or find some other cause to live for. Either way, though, you will eventually hollow – I fear it was your lust for Sunset Shimmer that was holding the pieces of your sanity together, and with that avenue now closed to you, it is only in my service that you may shirk your ultimate fate."

...And that made the prospect sound a hell of a lot more alluring. "What must I do?"

"There is no ritual. No song. No fanfare. Covenant with the All-Nana is a moment of little ceremony. Your eternal service to me... that will be celebration enough." Nan blinked slowly. "You need only kneel, Firelink Soul."

I knelt, and bowed my head, and from my scalp sprouted a bulbous red lump. My nose filled with the cloying scent of spores, making me cough and sneeze – but at least the smell of corpses was gone.

"Now, thou'rt too a mushroom," said the All-Nana. "We, two, the very last."

Sunset Shimmer climbed the ladder leading up to the straw-roofed Ponyville home. Her hormones screamed at her to gallop back to the Everfree Forest and find Firelink, to let him drive his coiled sword deep within her primal bonfire, and rekindle her first flame. Every step away from him, and every rung climbed, felt harder than the last, yet each came as a victory all the same.

Waiting for her at the top was a lavender unicorn more, her face obscured by a bearded stallion's mask, and bedecked with a long-brimmed hat, from which a white feather trailed. She lay with her legs curled under her body, one forelimb looped around the hilt of a sheathed greatsword.

The mare took sight of the red-faced, panting Sunset, and made a sympathetic sound. "You look like hell," she mused, her voice muffled behind the mask.

"Nice to see you too," Sunset Shimmer muttered. She flopped down beside the mare with a sigh.

The masked mare stared curiously at Sunset. "Are you in your cycle right now? By Epona's bellyboobs, I didn't even think we could still get those."

"It's not natural – some kind of magical influence. A stallion I was traveling with spiked my Estus flask somehow, but he tore off after I started coming on to him. Eventually I recovered enough of my wits to trudge back here, but my girly bits are still screaming at me to track him down and mount him."

Sunset rested her chin on her folded forelegs.

"Stallions are scum."

"You've been alive how many centuries now?" the masked mare chuckled. "And you're only now figuring that out?"

Sunset rolled her eyes. "Screw you, Starlight."

"Not while you're under the influence. That'd be shady." Starlight Glimmer produced a flask from somewhere on her person, its shimmering blue contents almost lost in the turquoise glow of her magic. "Here. This should clear up your little dilemma."

Sunset accepted the flask and took a swig – the taste was similar to Estus, yet altogether different – oddly anal – and left an icy sensation in her stomach and esophagus. The overwhelming, hormonal urge to breed with Firelink – or "Failurestink," as she decided to call him forevermore – faded, and she took a deep breath, now fully in control of her faculties.

"Feel better?" Starlight asked.

Sunset nodded, and looked at the masked knightess. "How did you—"

"Seen it before. It's a relic of the Men Going Their Own Way covenant, established by devotees of Pontiff Sentry in the frigid heart of the Voreal Valley. I brewed this Assen Estus as a countermeasure."

"The Men Going Their Own Way... yes, I've heard of them." Sunset returned the flask to Starlight. "I heard that covenant went extinct ages ago, though."

Starlight pulled the mask over her head, revealing a face whose left side was badly frostbitten and necrotic. She took a drink from her flask and sighed, smacking her lips.

"Yeah. Let's just say they didn't live to brag about roofie-ing Sir Lady Starlight Glimmer."

Sunset chuckled. "You're a hell of a mare, Starlight, y'know that?"

"Shut up, baby, I know it." Starlight leered at Sunset. "So, now that you're not being influenced by creepy friendzone magic... mind if I spend the next hour or two 'praising the sunset?'"

Sunset purred and leaned in close to Starlight until their lips were nearly touching.

"Thought you'd never ask."

"Another nana disappeared. So the grandson carries a cage. He ever has his cage. And nana's never coming back. So come into the cage, and become nana's shade."

Author's Note:

This chapter was actually written by Posh, not me, so please direct all complaints to him. I had nothing to do with this abomination. I was too busy sabotaging his long-running crossover story, Pony Gear Solid.

Sorry if you're not a fan of April Fools chapters (I know some people aren't), but a real one shouldn't be too far off now. I'm optimistically hoping to have the real chapter eight out within the month. Until then, I'm sure you can all content yourselves with The Ringed City, which I've been enjoying a lot myself. Feels weird to think that Dark Souls is now officially done. But I'm at least content knowing that there will probably be another form of The From Software Game at some point or another. Fingers crossed for Bloodborne 2!

Tongue, but hole.