• Published 26th Feb 2018
  • 8,735 Views, 2,064 Comments

A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court - Antiquarian

Providence is an odd thing. Friar Jacques de Charrette, warrior monk of the Hospitallers, will learn this the hard way as a vision leads him to Equestria, where he and his newfound friends will face a diabolical threat.

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...And You Should Accept It...

Canterlot Castle, Royal Infirmary

Argent wasn’t overly fond of hospitals. It wasn’t that she disliked doctors or disapproved of their work; quite the opposite. She owed her life and, more importantly, the lives of many of her soldiers to the staff of such establishments. No, her antipathy towards hospitals was their association with the soldiers who hadn’t made it, and with those who’d survived, but whose bodies would never be whole again.

All the same, her memories of the Royal Infirmary were more palatable than most. After all, it’s not as though I had to write any letters to family after the Battle of Canterlot. One good thing about the bugs; they prefer their opponents alive. It also didn’t hurt her mood that her escort was a Solar Guard whom she’d shared that battlefield with. “So then, Comet, you’ve suffered no long-term side-effects from the burnout?”

“No, ma’am,” replied Lance Corporal Comet. “In fact, the doc says my magical reserves have actually come back stronger since the battle. Said it was like a broken bone healing stronger… or something.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Sorry, ma’am, I’m afraid most of what he said went over my head.”

“Think nothing of it, Lance.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “Between you and me and the wall, my eyes glaze over whenever the quacks get technical.” Comet’s answering laugh was more natural. “All the same,” she said a touch more censoriously, “you should count yourself fortunate to have avoided permanent damage for all the casting you performed after your reserves gave out. It would be a shame if a such a capable enlisted pony as yourself was benched for an avoidable injury.”

Comet swallowed. “Yes, ma’am. I’ve been much more regimented about my casting since then.”

“Good,” she said gravely. Once she was certain he was suitably cowed, she allowed her grin to return. “Still, though, I’m glad the Powers That Be have seen fit to promote you. T’would have been an injustice not to.”

Even through the glamour enchantment of the Solar Guard she could see him flush. “Thank you, ma’am. That… well, that means a lot, coming from you.” He chewed the inside of his lip, seeming to mull something over, before speaking further. “Ma’am, how’s the lieutenant, if you don’t mind my asking?

She waved his concern off. “Not at all, Comet. I’m pleased to hear you asking after him. He’s doing quite well at art school. He’s even got a marefriend, from the sounds of it.” Saying out loud how her old comrade was thriving helped make the bitter pill of losing one of her best soldiers easier to swallow.

“Good to hear, ma’am,” smiled the lance corporal.

“Though he’d probably ask that you call him ‘Spearhead.’ He is retired, after all.”

Comet chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. “Sorry, ma’am. I guess it’s just hard to imagine the stallion who saved my life as an art student.”

“Well, Spear always did have his head in the clouds,” she remarked as they drew up outside the room she was seeking. “Ah. I see you haven’t led me astray. Well done, Lance. I’m sure you’ll make officer in no time with that sort of pathfinding,” she quipped.

“If I were a more senior NCO and you were less lethal, I might make a joke about officers and pathfinding ability, but I value having my head attached to my body,” he remarked with a rueful smile.

Argent chortled. “Well, I’d hate to see a good joke go to waste; why don’t you pop by the uni and tell it to Spearhead. He’ll laugh at anything.”

“I might just do that, ma’am. Will there be anything else?”

“Thank you, Comet, no. You’re dismissed.” They exchanged salutes and the stallion departed. Solid soldier, she thought. Trustworthy too. I’d try to recruit him if I wasn’t so sure he’s needed here. The thought brought a frown to her features. I don’t want to believe that a soldier of any Branch would betray the Crown, but then… she thought back to the traffickers four years ago with a grimace, I know all too well the grim possibility. With a fatalistic shrug she returned to the matter at hoof and knocked on the door. Ah, well, duty calls.

“Who is it?” called out a male voice from within.

“Captain Argent Sabre.”

Startled words were exchanged inside and hooves rapidly clopped over to open the door. Private Ironhide of the Lunar Guard stood in the opening. Without his armor, the mark on his flank, an iron chain shirt, was plainly visible. The lack of the armor’s glamour enchantment also revealed his natural colors, which, it just so happened, were the grey coat, white mane, and golden-brown eyes of the Lunar Guard. Oh, I’ll bet the recruiters loved him.

The unicorn stallion saluted. “Ma’am. A pleasure to see you. Please come in.”

“Thank you, Private.” She returned the salute and entered. On the bed was Private Oaken. Unlike Ironhide, Oaken’s coloration was different without his armor: brown coat with dark brown mane and forest green eyes. His cutie mark was a coat-of-arms – a grey shield bearing the symbol of a towering tree of brown and green. Of course, most of his body is still swathed in bandages, so it’s mere good fortune that I can see his mark at all. “At ease, Trooper,” she said as the stallion started to pull himself up. “I may be a hard taskmistress, but I’m not so cold as to force an infirm stallion to rise to attention.”

Oaken still sat up straighter. “Ma’am,” he said formally.

She acknowledged him with a hum, then shut the door behind her and motioned for Ironhide to go stand beside his friend. Still regarding her quizzically, Ironhide obeyed. “How are you gentlecolts feeling?” she asked.

Oaken nudged his friend. “Age before beauty.”

Rolling his eyes, Ironhide gestured to his wound. “Just a scratch, ma’am. If it weren’t for the dark magic, it’d be healed by now. Doc said I’d have the stitches out in a few days.”

“Good. Private Oaken?”

The brawny earth pony shrugged. “I’ll be fit to fight in a few days, ma’am. Don’t you worry.”

And, in your case, that may even be true. Not that it matters either way. “Oh, I don’t think so, Private. In fact, I think you’ll be needing a rather lengthy recovery.”

Ironhide said nothing, but raised an eyebrow at the emphasis she put on ‘lengthy.’ Oaken merely looked horrified. “But the doc said I’d be fit for light duty in a week,” he protested.

Argent gave a coy smile. “Ah, but what the doctor says means little to me. You see, in my professional opinion, you both require extended medical leave. Perhaps at a hospital in a peaceful locale more conducive to recovery.” Both stallions were now staring with cocked eyebrows and deep confusion. “I was thinking perhaps Ponyville. Pleasant villagers in a sleepy community, pretty young mares of high standing, and a fascinating visitor who I’m sure would love to pick your brains about the incident in the Great Hall.”

She watched their eyes as both stallions translated what she’d just said. Small, undefended town; ponies of interest: the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony; a foreigner who may be of use regarding the attack the other night. Ironhide seemed to grasp her meaning faster, but Oaken’s eyes lit with understanding before long. That boded well for their usefulness long-term. Though how both these stallions missed OCS is beyond me.

“I see…” said Ironhide slowly. “And, I assume, certain arrangements would be made for our stay?”

“Your extended stay,” clarified Argent. “And they are already arranged, I assure you. Good stallions, your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Close Watch ducked her head into Query’s office. The colonel was seated at his desk, massaging his forehead with one hoof while he frowned at a report. He didn’t look up at her presence. Knocking twice on the doorframe to alert him, she asked, “Got a minute, Ernie?”

Earnest Query looked up at her over the top of his glasses. A tired smile came to the heavyset stallion’s weathered features and he beckoned her inside. “For you, Close, I’ve got an hour.” Nodding appreciatively, she entered, shutting the door behind her and crossing to his desk. She didn’t take a seat; it was her preference to think on her feet. Query took a draw of his coffee and then sat back in his chair to rest more comfortably. “Wow me,” he ordered.

She held up a file folder. “I have a new chief suspect.”

Query’s eyebrows shot up. “Wow. That was fast. Is there a reason we haven’t grabbed him yet?”

“Because, at the moment, it’s just a theory,” she explained, passing him a file bearing the picture of a light blue unicorn stallion with gold hair and red eyes. His mark was a basic control glyph for magical wards. “Meet Specialist First Class Bound Glyph of the Royal Corps of Engineers. Graduated in the top third of his class from Fort Lemon Wood four years ago. Special Talent, not surprisingly, is control glyphs for stationary glyph spells, especially those related to wards and traps. He served one tour with the 111th Engineers and a tour with the 96th before qualifying for MOD training. He then served a tour as part of a four-pony squad doing Magical Ordinance Disposal.”

Query skimmed the file while she spoke. “Where was he posted?”

“The 225th.” The colonel winced. Close didn’t blame him. Two years ago, the 225th had been part of a peacekeeping force sent to Maretonia in the midst of the bloody Maretonian Civil War to set up safe zones for non-combatants and to assist the Duke’s Loyalist forces in dismantling the fiendishly clever traps that the Insurrectionists employed. The Insurrectionists had not hesitated to use dark magic against the Loyalists, both soldiers and civilians, and even Equestria’s superior knowledge of magic had not been enough to prepare many of its MOD specialists for what they encountered in the field.

Casualties had been high.

“He finished one tour before transferring to Canterlot to serve in the Solar Guard as a ward and magical counter-measure specialist. He has the expertise to create and maintain the anti-teleportation wards on the palace grounds, which was why he was picked for the position. Specialist Glyph has a decorated career, no history of illicit behavior even before the military, and a combat record many soldiers twice his age would kill for.”

Query flipped through the whole file once she’d finished. It didn’t take long; the file wasn’t that large. “Okay, Close, what am I missing?”

“That’s just it, sir. You aren’t missing anything. The file is.”

The colonel raised an eyebrow. “Explain.”

She tapped the file with a hoof. “Note the unit assignments. Most soldiers tend to serve with one particular unit for several years before transferring. But in four years, Glyph has served in four different units. Now, usually, if something like this happens there’s a well-documented reason for it. Either the soldier in question had a skillset which was in high demand or he was promoted out of his position, or there was a disciplinary or interpersonal problem that necessitated the transfer. But, when I checked the paperwork, there’s no significant reason for the transfer, other than that he requested it. On top of which, the Maretonian Civil War wasn’t yet concluded when he transferred and, while his squad stayed on, he didn’t. Those MOD ponies are a tight-knit bunch. Unless there was something in the file about combat fatigue, which there isn’t, I have a hard time believing he just casually traded units in the middle of a war.”

Query chewed his lip thoughtfully. “That’s odd, I’ll grant you, but hardly conclusive.” He quirked a smile. “Though I imagine you’re not done.”

“Not hardly. Look at the file itself.” With a quizzical look, Query did as he was bade. “Note how worn the folder is, and how loosely the documents fit inside. It’s been distended as though at one point it was full of paperwork, but the files inside are sparse at best. Also, note the clip holding the pages together. It’s brand new and is almost too large for it. But the pages themselves, at least the ones prior to his transfer to the Solars, all have a sharp indent in them from a clip that was barely able to hold the documents together.” Query nodded as though he was beginning to see what she was driving at, but waiting until she was finished before speaking. “The last time I saw a file like this, sir, it was one where we’d needed to redact most of the contents for the public record because we were sending Sergeant Wire undercover with that smuggling ring. I had to forge a fresh file for him because it was obvious, to me at least, that what we’d left in the folder was the skeleton of a much larger file. Glyph’s file reminds me of Wire’s, Ernie. Perhaps I’m jumping at ghosts, but I want to know why.”

Query grimaced and ran a hoof over his balding head. “Much as I’d like to dismiss this as a lot of conjecture, I can’t. Besides your annoying habit of being right,” he quirked a quick smile, “the fact of the matter is that these Shades are ghosts, so if we need to be a little jumpy then so be it. And the best place to start would probably be his old squad.”

“That’s what I thought too, sir,” she said, pulling out another file and passing it over. “Unfortunately, that won’t be happening.”

The colonel read the new document, then let out a deep sigh. “All three of ‘em, eh?”

“And Glyph’s replacement,” she noted. “If it’s any consolation, the explosion was so powerful that they probably didn’t suffer.”

“Small consolation,” grimaced Query. “And not a little inconvenient for us now. We can try running down his COs and squadmates from the 111th and the 96th, but enough time has passed that a lot of ponies may have retired, transferred, or been promoted. It will take time and horsepower to do it.”

Close nodded. “In the meantime, there’s one other lead that I would like to follow. The case officer who signed off on his transfer to the Solar Guard would have needed to do a thorough background check and interview of Glyph, and probably should have ordered an in-depth psyche-eval as well, given his combat experience.”

“Which he didn’t,” interjected Query.

“Which he didn’t. All the same, he may have insight into Glyph that we don’t. And, to be quite blunt, if somepony did clean Glyph’s record, he would have been well-placed to do so.”

“Agreed,” grunted Query. “Making it either a buck-up or a traitor that you get to interview.” He chuckled humorlessly. “Either way, I’d like to watch you have a run at him. Who’s the lucky stallion?”

“Captain Well Met,” she replied. Query’s face darkened. “He’s retired now, living in Haystings… what’s wrong?”

Query hoofed over the report he’d been reading when she entered. “He’s a little more than retired I’m afraid.”

Her brow furrowing, Close picked up the report with her magic and glanced it over. It appeared to be a letter from the Detective Chief Superintendent of Haystings, a stallion named ‘Foil.’ In plain text it related—

“He’s dead?” she exclaimed.

“Afraid so,” grimaced Query. “Apparently he lost his balance and took a tumble down the stairs. Not surprising, really. He was getting on in his years.” His tone was sarcastic.

“You suspect foul play?”

“Darn right I do. So does DCS Foil. He’s been keeping tabs on Met because it seems that the old boy got gabby in his old age; not a good fit for a former intelligence officer. Foil was going out to check on Met as a favor to me when he found the body. The crime scene looks pretty clear cut, but ‘accident’ just felt off to Foil, so he’s digging into the matter quietly.” Now it was Close’s turn to frown. “If you’re worried about trustworthiness, don’t be. Foil’s an old war buddy of mine, and honest enough to take over for Applejack if she retires.”

“It’s not that, Ernie. It just occurs to me if this is some sort of Shade plot and they killed Met to shut him up, then your friend will be in over his head.”

“Foil can take care of himself,” Query assured her. “And, to be frank, we need him to look into this.” He ran a hoof over his scalp. “As for us, I’ll start running down leads with any soldiers from Glyph’s old units that I can find. I suggest you take a look at his civilian life.”

Close nodded. “Yes, sir. In fact,” she flipped through the file and pointed to a footnote in the stallion’s academic record, “I think I already have a fair idea where to start.”

It had been some time since Kiln had journeyed to the Temple of Kusari. His work had kept him away, but he always appreciated the opportunity to enjoy the Far Eastern architecture of the place: simple dark wood paneling, floors, and ceilings, with rice paper walls and doors. Subtle flourishes were carved into the support beams, and lanterns were tastefully integrated in such a way as not to interfere with the open simplicity of the design. Before coming under new management, the Temple had been a martial school created by the great Japonese monk and swordpony Aka Ken. The old monk’s skill with a blade had been legendary and his tastes, blessedly, had been understated. Kiln admired his utilitarian sensibilities, even if he personally preferred a different aesthetic. It was a shame that he had not passed his stoicism on to his son.

But then, if Little Ken had absorbed all his father’s teachings, he would have fought us rather than joining us. It wouldn’t have saved Aka’s life, but I very much doubt the old warrior would have let us take the place intact if his son hadn’t killed him.

The stallion in question paced back and forth, muttering vicious maledictions under his breath while Kiln stood impassively. The hulking earth pony found Kuro Ken’s harried motions to be an unwelcome distraction from the spartan quality of the chamber, but Kiln was patient, and had learned through long practice to tune the unicorn out.

The six Blades who stood behind Kiln emulated him rather than Ken in their motionless stances. He was heartened by their discipline, though he hoped that none of them would make the mistake of interpreting Ken’s unquiet mind as an opportunity to supplant him. At least, not until they are truly capable of besting him. Kiln would certainly have preferred a more stoic pony as First Blade, but he did not wish to lose promising assassins to a premature attempt. After all, Kuro Ken’s instability might have been a liability in a fight with somepony like Kiln, but weakness was relative.

As if to drive his point home, the rice paper doors which led down to the dormitory slid open to admit five Blade Initiates. Three of them looked to be hale of body. The other two…

It looks like Little Ken’s star pupils bit off a little more than they could chew, reflected Kiln. Kuro Ken spit a vicious oath in his own tongue and stepped forward, no doubt to lambast them. But even as he stepped, Kiln arrested his movement with a rumbling word.


Kuro Ken turned to glare, but the hulking pony ignored him, instead studying the Initiates to glean what had transpired.

The Initiates froze when they saw Kiln, and two, the brutalized pegasus and the heavyset earth pony, flatly gaped. The midnight black mare’s eyes almost twinkled, and the bloodied purple unicorn looked back and forth between Kiln and Ken, as though unsure whom to defer to. The final pony, the pale one with Far Eastern features, looked to the First Blade for his cues. With the exception of the female, each pony carried a palpable air of guilt, deception, and suspicion. The first was directed at Ken, while the latter two were aimed at Kiln.

He took note of all that he saw in them.

“Interesting,” repeated the hulking stallion. He gave the slightest tilt of his head, and the five answered his wordless summons, moving to stand at attention in a line. The little pegasus had trouble standing up, but none of the other ponies dared help him. And none came through the door after the five.

Kiln’s eyes narrowed. He’d reviewed the rest of the Blade Initiates earlier that morning, which meant that there should be seven before him right now. Have they killed their fellows? If so, I wonder if they shall break the silence by admitting it or stand strong in their decision. Two more figures appeared in the doorway. Kiln felt a pang of disappointment in the five. Or perhaps they simply did not succeed. Though these other two…

The russet-red pegasus with silver-grey mane and tail looked like he’d been through the wringer but, based on the smug look on his face, he felt that he’d come out ahead. His companion, whose silver-grey muzzle and hooves were the only features visible under his encompassing black cloak, looked neutral, but Kiln could detect the concern that lay beneath the façade.

But concern for what? Or for whom? It bore investigation.

Like the others, both newcomers froze when they saw him, but they recovered quickly and took their place in line, glancing at Kuro Ken and the other Blades merely to note their positions before adopting expressions of studied non-reaction. Significantly, they did not look to anypony besides themselves for cues.

Flicking his gaze over at Kuro Ken, Kiln noted that the First Blade was glaring balefully at the seven ponies, the first five with anger, but the last two with hate.

Kiln allowed himself a small smile. “Very interesting indeed.”

Inwardly, Cloak was screaming. He was grateful that his hood concealed his eyes, but he was painfully aware that that didn’t necessarily mean much against Kiln. But what in Tartarus is one of the Children of Shadow doing here?! Especially the Eldest Son!

He didn’t know, and he didn’t dare ask. The Temple’s High Acolyte had given no indication of the visit, and none of the Acolytes usually entrusted with operating the Shadowgate had been summoned. But then, the Grand Shade wouldn’t need them to open the portal, would he?

Kiln’s eyes swept over him, and Cloak’s innards knotted. We are being tested. Shadows only know why, but we must not be found wanting.

Cloak took his place in line with as much detachment as he could muster and hoped that Dagger’s recent run-in with the First Blade’s favored five would not reflect poorly on him.

Silence fell upon the room, giving no clue as to the secret thoughts that each pony must have held. For his part, Cloak was madly war-gaming to determine what purpose the visit must have. We seven are the only ponies of Initiate rank here, which means that the rest either weren’t desired, will be seen another time, or have already been seen. The fact that the Acolytes were taking Initiates in and out throughout the morning service indicates the latter. It was only Blade Initiates coming and going, meaning this likely only concerns us. The fact that the six Acolytes up there are all Blades only seems to confirm this. Carefully he observed the Grand Shade and First Blade with his peripherals. Which only leaves the question: is this test an opportunity, or a threat?

Kuro Ken stepped forward and addressed them with his customary sneer. “The Grand Shade has graced us with his presence this morning,” he said in a tone that suggested he considered it anything but a grace, “with a task from the Master himself.” There was an audible gasp all down the line of Initiates, only iron discipline keeping them from speaking. Cloak and Dagger exchanged a meaningful glance. Opportunity. “He will select the strongest from amongst you to serve the glory of the Shades!” He glanced meaningfully at Falx. “I think we all know whom he shall deem worthy, but—”

Kiln brushed past the First Blade and walked to the far end of the line. Kuro Ken fumed, but shut his mouth. It was all Cloak could do to keep a smirk off his face.

The Grand Shade approached each Initiate in turn, examining them with those horribly wide eyes.

First to face his presence was Sai. Kiln simply stared at him for a moment, then abruptly asked, “Your first kill was as a colt, was it not?” Sai’s answer was a sadistic smile and a nod. “Over a grave matter or something more… trivial?”

Sai licked his lips. “Trivial,” he said with relish.

“Of course it was,” replied Kiln, deadpan, before leaving the confused Sai behind without a backwards glance. He came to stand before Guillotine. The Prench stallion was large, almost as large as Kiln, but the Grand Shade still seemed to dwarf him. And, somehow, I don’t think it’s just Guil’s corpulence. “You are a powerful combatant,” Kiln said to him. Guillotine smiled. “But I suspect you are not the subtlest of your number, is that correct?”

Guillotine dipped his head reluctantly. “Oui, seigneur.”

“No matter,” declared Kiln. “I shall have another use for you.”

Next in line was Falx. The unicorn received Kiln with his head held high, anticipation evident on his features. The Grand Shade studied him more closely than the other two, then cast a glance back at Kuro Ken.

“My most promising student,” supplied Kuro Ken with pride. “He already fights like a full Blade, and has taken my lessons better than any other.”

Kiln looked back to Falx, his expression neutral. “Yes, I can see that,” he remarked. Then he moved on.

If Cloak could have had any one wish at that moment, it would have been that he could have framed pictures of both Ken’s and Falx’s faces right then. Judging by the smirk that Dagger failed to suppress, his brother felt the same way.

Thorn was the fourth pony to be examined by Kiln. The battered pegasus struggled to stand upright and it was a small miracle that he didn’t keel over. Kiln simply raised an eyebrow and said, “No.”

He took a longer time in his review of Silhouette. Cloak could taste the jet-black pony’s reverent excitement at Kiln’s attention. The Grand Shade’s scrutiny lasted longer for her than it had for any of the others, with Kiln occasionally glancing away from her to look at Kuro Ken and Falx. Eventually, he said with a slight smile, “You…” Silhouette tensed with anticipation, “… are being held back from your full potential.”

Cloak would never have considered using the word ‘pout’ to describe to Silhouette’s mood until that moment. The brief delight he took in her crushed dreams, however, was overshadowed by who the next pony in line was.

Dagger bore Kiln’s gaze with respectable patience. As with Silhouette and Falx, Kiln cast many glances at others as he examined Dagger, though this time he looked at everypony; including Cloak. “Tell me,” he said to Dagger at length, “why did these five attack you?”

Falx emitted a hiss of air, but was wise enough not to interrupt.

“They consider me their inferior,” replied Dagger evenly.

“And why do they think that?”

Dagger winced, hesitating in his reply, but before he would speak Kuro Ken spoke for him. “Because he is a failure of an Initiate,” proclaimed the First Blade haughtily. “He cannot even manage to perform a shad—"

Kiln twisted a hoof and shot a look at Kuro Ken. The air in the room shifted and Cloak felt the pressure change in his ears. For an instant, none dared breath. “I asked the Initiate, First Blade,” said Kiln with deceptive softness. Kuro Ken’s eyes were filled with hate as he matched Kiln’s gaze, but he stepped back in silence. Kiln returned his attention to Dagger. “Please, continue.”

Dagger had the grace to swallow, his body tense. “I cannot shadowstep, my lord,” he admitted.

Much to everypony’s surprise, Kiln chuckled, his lips opening into a toothy grin. Cloak was not put at ease by the gesture. “Indeed?” laughed Kiln. “Is that not considered rather essential to being a Blade?”

“It is, my lord,” replied Dagger with a shameful hang of his head.

Kiln continued to chuckle. “And yet you held your own against five other Initiates,” he glanced at Thorn and Silhouette, “some more powerful than others, until the arrival of…” his gaze drifted over to Cloak, and his smile broadened as Cloak’s stomach turned to ice, “… twins?”

Cloak instinctively bowed. “Yes, my lord.”

“And what is your malformation, pray tell? Is your magic as weak as your brothers?”

“N-no, my lord,” replied Cloak, cursing his weakness. “My special talent is shadowmancy, and my mastery of the Arts is unequalled by any of my peers.” The other Initiates glared at him, but they were unable to contradict him. “However, I am not the martial equal of my brother.”

“Indeed, it seems that none of you are,” agreed Kiln, who seemed almost cheery for some reason. “Which has no doubt forced you to delve ever deeper into the realm of the mind to compensate for this weakness, just as it has forced your brother to be bloody-minded and clever.” His quiet chuckle rumbled in Cloak’s bones. “Quite the dogged pair, you are. Tell me,” he said, addressing them both, “what drives your conviction?”

Cloak’s eyes widened, his memory returning to that fateful night. The storm. The fire. The blood. The rain-soaked ditch. The fear in his brother’s eyes, the tramp of hoof and talon, the flash of wings, the death. How could he ever convey that night to the Grand Shade? How could he possibly answer—?

“We will never be powerless again,” gritted Dagger. Cloak almost jumped in shock as his brother’s voice startled him from his reverie. Dagger’s grey eyes were cold as he stared openly, defiantly at Kiln.

Kiln met his gaze, his smile now triumphant. “Finally,” he breathed, his voice scarcely a whisper. “Finally, ponies who understand real power.” Turning to Kuro Ken, he declared in his normal tone, “These two shall suit the Master’s purposes.”

Cloak couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping.

What?!” exploded Kuro Ken. “You can’t possibly be serious! These two—”

“—have the mindset I require,” replied Kiln mildly. “But fret not, Kuro Ken. You and the rest of your whelps will be busy soon enough.”

Kuro Ken sputtered incoherently for a moment, then began swearing in his native tongue, as well as a smattering of others. Cloak was fairly certain that he heard an unflattering remark about his heritage in Germane. Kiln simply strode for the exit. The six Blade Acolytes followed him without verbal command. Cloak felt a nudge at his side and saw his brother motioning to him that they should too. Shaking off his stupor, he trotted after the Grand Shade. He could feel the murderous glares of those they left behind boring into him. That will be trouble for us down the road.

He glanced at Dagger to say as much, but the pegasus looked positively gleeful. “Did you see the look on Falx’s face when we were picked instead of him?” his brother whispered once they’d entered the winding corridor to the Shadowgate.

“I was a little distracted by the First Blade’s display,” said Cloak dryly. “You know we’ll have to watch our flanks doubly now. Moving up like this will make enemies.”

Dagger shrugged, not slackening his pace or his good humor. “Moving up always makes enemies. And it’s not like they didn’t already want to kill us.”


After navigating the winding corridor, passing several traps, guards, and false paths, they finally reached their destination.

Unlike the rest of the Temple, the Gate Room was hewn from stone, rough cut and jagged, a cave the size of a modest house with a raised platform at the center. The Shadowgate itself topped the platform, an obsidian circle carved with dark sigils and matrices.

Kiln stepped up to the platform and touched a hoof to the sigil. There was another pressure shift in the room, and the gate swarmed to life with an inequine wail, its twisting darkness snarling and shrieking like the funeral of a banshee. Kiln stepped through without a glance back, knowing that they would follow. One by one, the Blade Acolytes followed.

Once they were alone, Dagger shot Cloak a triumphant smirk. “Looks like it’s coming together, eh, brother?”

Cloak smiled. He often chided his brother for overconfidence, but even he was not immune to the thrill of what was finally happening. “One day we’ll sit at the top, brother.” His thoughts snapped back to that rain-soaked ditch. “We’ll get the power we deserve, one way or another.”

“Darn right,” smiled Dagger. Together they stepped forward. The darkness tugged at them, shrieking gleefully as it claimed their flesh and sucked them through the gate to the future they’d sought.

Author's Note:

Edit: in the last chapter, I referred to Kuro Ken as 'Blademaster.' This error has been corrected. 'First Blade' is the correct moniker for him.

Antiquarian came to the window of his house, coffee clutched in his magical aura as he pulled aside the drapes to glare at the mob. "It's only been a month!" he shouted.

The mob stared back.

"And I managed that despite a million other upheavals with my actual work!"

Silence greeted him.

"Don't you people have jobs?!"

One by one, the crowd melted away, leaving only a single pegasus filly, sitting in the street, staring up at the disheveled writer. She mimicked a hand with one wing, pointing two feathers to her eyes, then to Antiquarian, before backing away slowly into darkness.

Antiquarian closed the blinds with a grumble. "It ain't even Tuesday."

Whoof! Okay, this chapter fought me. It just would not come out the way I wanted it too. And it's made extra frustrating by the fact that it's not even that long of a chapter. But, that's the way it is sometimes. Writing is a fickle thing.

Lance Corporal Comet was a Private in my short story The Tip of the Spear. Reading it is not required to understand his character, but the story is only about the length of one chapter in this story. Spearhead is the featured figure in that tale (we briefly met him in season 7) and it was the debut of Argent Sabre and First Sergeant Brick. I suppose you could call it contextual reading.

We'll get back to Jacques next chapter, have him learn some things, and probably see Morning Song and her "minions" strut their stuff. We've now started the slow burn to when everything eventually goes sideways in a spectacular fashion, so keep your eyes peeled for hints as to how our merry bunch of heroes will respond to it all.

Shoutout of the chapter goes to 8686's To Be Evil. Yes, I know I give 8686 a lot of shoutouts but... what can I say? The stories are great, a lot of them don't get the traffic they deserve, and a story centering on a villain just felt appropriate this time around.

Happy reading!

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