• Published 16th Sep 2018
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Timberwolves: Guardians of the Everfree - Keystone Gray

A research paper on the timberwolves, exploring their creation, purpose, and their connection to the Everfree Forest.

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8. The Dangers of Latent Dark Magic, by Apex

The Dangers of Latent Dark Magic

By Apex

"Memkut: evna en morot, a yardaquae quillet vilbet azhken, iy a faue plana vilbet morotet."

Kahl Alpiyn

Year 2, After Reunification

During Grand's early adulthood, he was still easy to excite, young, alive, and ready for the world. He loved to hunt, launching himself into the woods ahead of me whenever I suggested we go, scarcely giving me time to prepare. If he saw me collecting my bow, he'd know immediately what we were going to do. If he so much as made physical contact when I had the inkling to hunt, he'd know then, too. I'd have to plan accordingly, discreetly gathering my supplies and waiting until just the right moment to say, "Nyali eda kah." We're going hunting.

On a fateful autumn's morning however, I noticed Grand had become uncharacteristically lethargic, refusing to lift off of his right side. I hoped to rouse him by asking him if he was hungry again, but his reaction was not as I expected, his gaze shifting my way in a most reserved and sluggish manner. He did not hold his attention on me for long either, clearly distracted by something. Worse, he had begun to groan softly with pain at every breath.

I was alarmed. This was well beyond anything in my training. For a moment, I thought rather plainly that he might have caught some kind of timberwolf specific illness. I wondered if Grand had eaten a wisp that was somehow tainted, or if he had eaten some flora that interacted poorly with his enchantments. But surely, Blackthorn would have told me about this risk if it existed. Under closer observation, I noticed wispy lines of dark green magic between the joints of his body. Normally, such magics only visibly presented when Grand was either overfed or underfed on wisps, in either case struggling to retain his form's cohesion with telekinesis.

He was struggling, of that there was no doubt. His emerald eyes were below baseline luminescence, each dimmer than I had ever seen them before. He refused any fruit I offered him. When he at last rolled to nose a proffered pear at my insistence, I noticed his right shoulder was covered in a dark substance. I yelped at the sight of it. The damage consisted of an oily, toxic black moss that hung like a small cape, gripping his wood at a narrow strip at the top of its length. The mass occasionally rippled with crimson and green. This occasional shimmer, I was later told, indicated the recursive casting of a dark magic spell.

If an infection was weakening his golem, that meant something was critically wrong with his own defensive enchantments. I took him to Thicket at once. There, several deer experts examined his body. Prince Bramble, son of King Aspen, caught wind of this development quickly. As our top alchemical researcher, His Highness knew best out of any alive as to the nature of alchemy magic, and so he lent his expertise. Upon investigation, he informed me that if Grand's protective enchantments were to falter for much longer, he would surely die.

We were all terrified, as this kind of mossy infection had never occurred before. Worse, we feared that if such a blight could affect Grand, it might spread to other timberwolves as well. In alarm, we realized that this incident coincided with two timberwolf packs going missing outright, their whereabouts untraceable for several weeks. We scrambled to find an answer, now desperate to discover the source of the infection before it spread any further.

The knowledge of those old protective potions was long lost to time, and so we could not replicate them on our own. I knew from my studies, however, that Princess Luna had been greatly involved in the process of timberwolf creation, and had returned from her exile two years hence. I hoped that Her Majesty might recall some of this lost knowledge, and so I urged the deer to petition her for aid. We sent an emergency courier to Ponyville far to our east with hope that the message would be carried directly to Canterlot. But we would not stand idle. Until Her Majesty's help arrived, we had but one other hope.

At the edge of the Everfree Forest where Sombra had finally lost the Dark War, there had been a severe discharge and explosion of forest energy, one that radiated for miles as it returned itself to the land. At the focal point of this blast, a tree had sprouted, one we ponies came to know as the Aura Tree. The village of Heartwood, well known for its healing potions and salves, had grown around this tree, taking advantage of its unique properties.

Aura Sap was quite a valuable and limited resource, capable of intensifying or amplifying enchantments beyond their standard capabilities. It had to be used in conjunction with a precise distillation however, making it difficult to use effectively, and so its use was limited only to those who would use it responsibly.

The deer laid no claim to Heartwood, itself a border village but well within Equestrian territory. I had one connection in Heartwood though: Hopscotch, who was by then a very skilled alchemist himself. We hoped he would either have some of this resource on hoof or could otherwise petition for its use.

Normally, using potions or tools to alter a living golem was considered a grave crime in the Dierkahl. We had no other options, however, if we were to save Grand's life. As the Dierguard searched my recent hunting grounds for the root vector of the dark magic infection, Blackthorn went as courier to Heartwood, racing ahead. Prince Bramble and I left at once in his wake, Grand in tow, traveling as quickly as we could and warning off any Vorku who approached to escort us.

During our trek, His Highness and I shared some initial concerns about bringing an adult timberwolf into a village of ponies. I knew, from anecdotes told to me by villagers, that Heartwood had one negative interaction with a Guardian about twenty years prior. Their village elders knew nothing of the true nature of timberwolves, nor of their cultural significance to the deer. They were sure to remember that attack quite well, and not with any fondness. Nopony was harmed in this incident, but there was still some risk that our request might be rejected as a result of their frustrations.

Blackthorn met us near the outer edge of the Everfree, stating that Hopscotch had smoothed things over for us in preparation for our arrival: he had advised the villagers of what to expect, had given them his word that Grand would be civil, and stated that Grand would be escorted by one pony and two deer handlers. The village leadership had tentatively signaled their acceptance. In any event, I hoped that Grand's friendly demeanor would shine though and win them over.

Our only chance of curing his blight laid at the center of their village. If there was even a vague hope that his enchantments could be restored, I would do everything I could.

Heartwood serves as a way station between the Everfree's bounty and the world at large, for there are plants, fungi, and fruit unique to our forest and known for their power in medicines and salves. Heartwood, being a town of pony alchemists that specialize in medicine, is thus one of the most respected scientific capitols in the known world.

At the time, the village was hosting the year's Running of the Leaves for Sound Valley. Ponies from all over the region gathered for a thunderous competition, racing one another for accolades and renown. The carefree residents of our humble river valley would rumble the amber leaves from their trees with their stampede. The skies were cloudy, and in the dusk, they shone bright with the orange-yellow reflection of Celestia's waning sun.

One wouldn't know there was a race going on with how busy the village market was. The air was alive with calls for trade, merchants offering phials of potions that cured all that ails, poultices and teas and comfrey weave bandages, soothing ointments, and flavored cough syrups that smelled like sweet candy. Wagon trains full of fragile goods came and went, traders of all races coming and going, all bound for cities all over Equestria and beyond.

The homes of this village were, through some twist of ancestral fate, vaguely similar to those built by deer. They were each suspended from the canopies of the trees and built into and around the trunks, the homes each surrounded by cylindrical outward balconies. Catwalks bridged close homes together, allowing neighbors to cross without reaching the ground. Such design, I knew, was intended to discourage the nocturnal predators of the Everfree from assailing the residents in their sleep.

When we arrived, Grand attracted onlookers as expected. Being quite well socialized and comfortable with a pony already, he showed only initial apprehension as ponies crowded around to get a look. They were wowed as they watched his body shift and move about. His golem's design was more deliberate than those of this wild-raised counterparts, and was very clean. Having fewer loose parts than his wild counterparts made Grand look less like a pile of wood to the villagers, and more like a true lupine.

With some nostalgia, I remembered how I felt when I looked at Kahruvel for the first time, and part of me envied them for the pleasant mystique of that experience. But they could not have seen Grand as I did. To them, he must have looked stoic and calm, the very picture of dignity as he moved with carefully measured steps. But to me, this was not Grand at his best. He was usually very active. To me, he looked distressful, nervous, frightened, and in considerable pain.

We passed the Aura Tree as we crossed the village central square: a bountiful willow, clad in silver bark and bearing gilded leaves, whose sap shines like molten gold yet is always cool to the touch. This reagent was a potent and powerful transformative liquid, oozing like an ectoplasm. Yet, only a few drops are produced each year.

As such, our request for Aura Sap had been denied. Blackthorn argued with the elders for at least an hour, applying his now infamous argumentative spirit. Failing with this approach, he moved on to emotional appeal, telling biting hypotheticals about a forest without timberwolves growing wild, its creatures flooding out for refuge before the land shriveled to nothing under the tyranny of wisps. But these ponies could not have known these risks, and they had little reason to trust a deer, having never met one before. His presence was only tolerated at the behest of Hopscotch. As their patience was at its limit, I feared they might turn us out; I urged Blackthorn to retreat from the town hall.

We tried our best not to be angry, but we had nothing now, and we had to do something.

It was our hope that a pony perspective in this problem might provide a new approach to solving it, as it did long ago. Prince Bramble provided Hopscotch with several deer recipes that pertained to strengthening trees against infection from dark magic. These were the only three recipes to survive the purge of twenty-some recipes of timberwolf creation, ones that were important enough to not be considered secretive. The deer had already tried all of these methods on Grand before, but to no avail. We hoped this might change if they were attempted with an earth pony's magic, as it was in the old times.

Hopscotch and Prince Bramble began at once.

As the alchemists worked, Blackthorn and I had taken Grand for a walk around the edge of town by the Everfree, trying to keep him in connection with the land. I again tried to offer Grand some fruit, and yet he still would not eat, wincing at the sight of it. Maybe he was afraid that eating would feed the corruption that tormented him, or perhaps absorbing more food simply worsened the pain. Blackthorn suggested that Grand simply did not wish to allow any more forest energy to be corrupted, so dedicated Grand was to his overriding duty.

We returned to Hopscotch's home within the hour. As we waited helplessly, Blackthorn and I tried to comfort Grand. In our own ways, the four of us each worked through the night. I did not sleep as I comforted Grand, soothing him with promises that everything would be okay. With despair, I watched the black, bubbling moss on his shoulder grow, turning me into a liar.

The cauldron's heat was strong within the treetop home of my friend, the glow emanating strongly from the center hearth of the tree's trunk. Hopscotch and Prince Bramble debated quietly about the different enchantments of their potions and how they might affect Grand's current enchantments. They were fully aware that their urgency and uncertainty gave me no small measure of stress. We knew that the decoctions they brewed were only delaying measures, only slowing the spread of the moss, but none would destroy it. To succeed, their potions had to protect the wood up to the same standard of the original enchantment, and then to exceed it. For that, we needed the Aura Sap.

Soon, the night was nearly over, the light of Celestia's sun beginning to return as the sky moved from a starry black to a deep navy blue. So far, we had treated Grand with several different iterations of the potions we had. We hoped some would burn away the moss, while others were made to affect Grand's enchantments more directly. All were either rejected by his body as foreign, or were outright ineffective.

To modify a timberwolf's golem magic is to submit them to torment, for the whole of their body is the chamber of their spirit. Their enchantments require constant power, and so to change an enchantment forcibly was to potentially damage the forest magic within, risking its loss. This is why such modifications are not only taboo, but outright illicit in the Dierkahl. If the enchantment potion was to be successful, Grand would be subjected to immense pain as he absorbed it. If it ever failed, we would have wasted valuable time in its creation. But we had no choice but to try. Losing Grand would be so much worse.

Being his mother, I was privileged to have Grand's trust more than any other, and so I had to participate closely with each application of potion. He would allow only me and me alone to do this. I placed a hoof upon his paw every time. My intent was pure and true, to heal him, and I knew he sensed this. How couldn't he? Already, he knew me better than any other being alive. I focused my whole being on the hope that he would survive, hoping he could feel that hope too.

He held my gaze quietly, listening to my every word as I comforted him. In those moments, I wished I could soulshare with him myself, and I wished I could share the load of his pain. I wished I could understand his own unique, telepathic language. I had no idea what would happen to him. I knew he could feel my fear and my love all at once.

So far, nothing had worked.

Princess Luna had received our message in the evening, flying at once to Thicket. Upon her arrival, the deer directed her to Heartwood, and she had flown further through the strong wind of the night to our aid. Immediately, she had appealed to the village elders to learn of our location. In this early morning meeting, they advised her of our request for Aura Sap. Of this request, she demanded immediate approval.

Minutes later, we heard her knock on the door of our balcony. To open a door to find one's Princess on their doorstep was quite a shock; still, she wasted no time, entering and explaining immediately. Her Majesty brought not only a full phial of Aura Sap, but her own freshly recalled knowledge of the Dark War's sciences. To Her Majesty, that intervening passage of time since the war felt to her as though it had been only a mere fourteen years... short enough time to guarantee solid recollection of the old spells.

The past unfolded in the humble kitchen of a humble pony alchemist, aided by two royal kehls. Hopscotch and Prince Bramble quickly followed Princess Luna's instructions to the letter, forbidden from writing anything down and urged to forget the ingredients as soon as they were added. There, for what we had hoped would be the final time, we revived an ancient secret long ripped from the pages of history.

Soon, the formula was nearing completion. The glass distiller at the hearth glowed a strange color, some mixture that seemed not quite green and not quite gold. I stared with desperate hope through the foggy glass as it was turned over. Several bright, glossy drips of gold-mercurial Aura Sap were added then, and the colors intensified twofold as the distiller glowed. For a moment, I could see nothing else but its light. Before I could blink, the distiller had been emptied into a phial by Hopscotch, its contents carried to my hooves by my Princess.

I guided Grand to lay down with a hoof. He obeyed. I know he could feel my hesitation, and he gave a nervous glance toward the others in the room, then toward the phial I held in my hoof, whimpering in pain and fear. A timberwolf's grasp of Cerfish can be spotty and scant when they are malnourished. It is difficult to know when they understand the words they're offered. To be certain, parents often develop and train a tell for such situations. In Grand's case, he knows to paw the ground twice in understanding.

"Shh... by tai, vanna nei. By tai."

Be good, my love.

At my words, Grand reached out and gently pawed twice at my hoof with his claws. He trusted me.

As I looked upon his ravaged shoulder, the oozing black moss seemed to ripple faster with arcs of red-green electricity. It had spread to a quarter of his right side by then. I knew that Grand was fighting a battle too, constantly recasting as he tried to eliminate the infection. I began to tip the phial, hesitating as I looked down at my friend, my Guardian, my child, who now more than ever needed our protection. He looked up at me with a soft, pleading whine. His leafy eyebrows turned upward. He was terrified. He had endured so much pain already throughout the night, but I had to continue. I had no choice but to continue what was essentially a surgery on a conscious patient.

I poured very little at first, only a drop, but it began to sizzle immediately. It was enough to cause Grand to cry out and convulse; I had to shush him for several long minutes, and my heart broke to see him suffer. But the effect upon the infection was as immediate as it was obvious. The black moss had bubbled viciously in a bid to survive, failing to do so as one full radial inch of it burned away. It had crusted as it seared and died, forever scorching the surface of his shoulder.

At once, we knew this blight could be defeated, but I also learned that the easy part of this ordeal was now behind me.

It took several hours to cut away the infection. It was the most difficult trial of our lives, but it was done.

We carefully removed the deadened moss for analysis. Hopscotch painted a rendition of the dark, mossy substance for posterity, so it may be later identified in future occurrences. With this rendition, we sent a letter to The Canterlot Royal Archive, requesting any information they might have on this seemingly unprecedented magical phenomenon.

It was morning. I still hadn't slept. Grand remained at my side, and I could hear the clattering of his wooden limbs as the space between the pieces narrowed. He was starving, but I hoped he could now eat. As Blackthorn and others discussed the issue with Princess Luna, I took Grand for some fresh air, walking with him into the forest.

A mere two years before, I had taken that same path to begin my first true expedition into the Everfree. I had no idea then of what I was getting myself into, but I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything in the world. Back then, I was an idealist. Now, I was a true ecologist, pragmatic and driven. What concerned me now was Grand, his survival, his comfort, and that of the forest by extension.

He still loped awkwardly, but that would eventually pass. He walked closer to me now though. I recognized his hunger, his head darting in desperation as he scanned the nearby forest. We both knew that the hunting period was quickly drawing to a close, and so the wisps would be retreating to their trees in due time. Fortunately, dawn under a full moon was the best time to hunt, providing the largest wisps. I gave a silent word of thanks to Luna and her moon, taking Grand and my longbow partway into the Everfree.

We found a plump boar wisp within the hour. I remember it well: the creature was large enough to rival Grand for size, its tusks each the size of my forelegs. Grand rushed forward immediately, desperate to feed and trusting my aim. I reared up to draw the bow fully with both forehooves, releasing an arrow and hitting the wisp square beneath its neck and directly at its chest.

Grand swooped in and finished it off as it staggered and tried to flee, my child digging his wooden teeth into its neck and eating ravenously. The energy seeped from the wisp, turning from blue to green as it seeped into his piercing emerald eyes. He charged up, thriving for a moment. But then, the majority of that meal was swept down to his injured shoulder. He forced it inward, the green tendrils reaching out from his skull and wrapping tightly around his side, Grand binding his own enchantment to the fresh alchemical magic with as much strength as he could channel.

It wasn't until I watched him charge his shoulder plate that my fear gave way to relief, one that slowly replaced itself with a cold anger. I knew the colors of the old enemy, of that heavily contrasting red-green on black. Even a thousand years on, part of that old foe Sombra was still alive, still trying to kill us, trying to kill our forest. I wanted to ensure this infection never happened to any other Vorku. "Never again," I muttered to Grand. I wasn't alone, either. When I returned to the village, I could see that same fire in Luna's eyes, and in Blackthorn's, and in Bramble's. We all knew what had to happen next.

We thanked Hopscotch for his expertise and returned to Thicket immediately. Grand remained at the city in the care of Blackthorn, as we feared he might be reinfected in his weakened state. The rest of us joined the scouting Dierguard, who by then were already retracing my recent routes through the forest as best as I could remember.

Recognizing the importance of the timberwolves, Princess Luna ordered that the stores of Aura Sap be surrendered to the deer as needed. Several more phials of the restorative potion were created, and we prepared for the worst.

Over the course of the next several days, a militia of deer searched for the source of the corruption, each carrying a small dose of the critical cleansing potion mixture. They all retraced my recent patrols and expanded from there. I chided myself for losing sight of Grand on more than one occasion, as he is as apt to explore independently as I am. I suspected his infection may have occurred when we were separated.

It was infuriating to be without answers, especially after expending so much effort to find them, knowing that what happened to Grand likely already had occurred to others. Still, at the time, I continued to blame myself for Grand's damage. Blackthorn, ever a friend, assured me that it wasn't my fault. "You are his mother," he said. "You are giving him nothing but your best."

I was still thinking of Grand as though he were still a puppy. I still wanted to protect him from everything. Without a doubt, that lesson would not be lost on him. He would remember my love as he grew older and left me for good. He would pass that lesson on to other Vorku in his life. The forest would share it. I tried to find strength in that.

My concerns paled in comparison to the utter drive I could sense in the Dierguard scouts. As I joined with their patrols, I noticed they were far more intense and determined than I had ever seen them. It should not have been a surprise to me. My affinity for nature, strong as it is, will always be nothing compared to theirs. We all knew the extent of damage Grand suffered. We all knew the risks, and with so many other timberwolves missing, we feared the worst.

Princess Luna provided her knowledge of the region as well, amending our maps with the locations of smaller ancient pony ruins now long gone from our records. Not even the Archives of Thicket were so precise: she brought knowledge of several scorched earth lines in the Everfree, of the measures taken to stall and delay Sombra's hordes, of the countermeasures taken by Sombra himself, and of the locations of smaller important towns and villages that were razed by his army. The deer scouts and scientists began a sweep of these territories as one, with King Aspen himself joining in the search. We turned over every location for any latent hints of dark magic.

It was at this time that Princess Luna received a letter from Princess Celestia, confirming our fears at last: King Sombra had been sighted in the frozen north beyond the Everfree, and the Crystal Empire had returned from its magic shroud. We gave Princess Luna our thanks for her aid and good luck as she returned to organize Equestrian affairs. Both nations again prepared for the worst, fearing the return of war.

Our journey eventually led us to several hanging green mosses, each lined with fuzzy dark lines as they hung from trees.

According to Luna's additions to our maps, these trees were growing atop the ruins of buildings of an old village that was once populated by two thousand deer. The clinging, darkened tendrils were unassuming, blending perfectly into the foliage of the Everfree, and there was no way we could have known that they were so dangerous or potentially deadly unless we were looking for them. Immediately, we treated the roots of the trees in the same decoction that had been used to cure Grand. Special defoliant potions were used to debride the moss, which was then collected for study.

Not far from the mosses, we found the lost Guardians.

At the sight of them, the lead scout wailed with anguish. I heard it from where I stood across the town as I worked, her cry echoing loudly, stunning all of our unit to silence. In an instant, I could feel her pain, heartache, and misery. I could not see it yet, but I immediately knew what that sound meant. My heart wept already as I rushed to her side with the others, and I saw the lead doe turn away, shuddering as she fell into the shoulder of another.

The eight empty golems teemed with red-green electric arcs, the black moss covering their wooden corpses like a blanket of death. They were laid side by side, close to one another, having attempted to soulshare in a desperate, hopeless bid to conserve themselves. I remembered the agony Grand endured when I had offered him food; I could only imagine how excruciating it must have been for these Guardians to share their energy so desperately.

Their life energies had been swallowed whole. Beneath the moss and within their skulls, their soul crystals were compromised, burned black and cracked into lightless gray shards by the evil magic. The enchantments placed on their golems had been snuffed. Their tender souls were long dead, lost forever, their energies unable to return home to the earth of the forest.

I knew two of them. Vorku Velka was a preternatural who was raised by Dierguard Canina, a friend to Blackthorn; the second was a wild Vorku puppy nicknamed Liytsae – Sunlight – by the fawns of Briar. She was known for approaching our village to feed on scraps, or to soulshare with Grand when he too was still a puppy. I remember hoping they would pack together, long ago. Now I knew that would never be. While part of Liytsae would live on in Grand forever, it was little comfort... it also meant that part of Grand had also died with her.

Eight funerals were held in Thicket, one for each loss. The skullpieces of each golem were cleansed, restored, preserved, and forever commended to the Mausoleum of Guardians. Over the next months, the entire able population of the Dierkahl had made a pilgrimage to their capitol to participate in one of the ceremonies. Together, we each mourned our losses as one.

It is important for us to remember that the Everfree Forest is still so dangerous, and all forms of life - even those of dark magic - can still thrive in its depths. For all of our study, research, and knowledge, for every attempt we make to understand this home, we still know so very little.

The deer, whose core philosophy is to coexist with the chaotic nature of the forest, consign themselves to the truth that there will be much loss in life. Sometimes the answers we are given as to why these losses occur are not as clear as we wish them to be. But it does give an important frame of reference as we mourn. We are reminded every day, whether we realize it or not, that life is as easily taken away as it is given. All we can do is strive to understand the dangers that lurk in the darkness and adapt to them.

After this, I take so little for granted anymore.

Author's Note:

[Steven Price - I'm Scared Too]

Being at the bedside, knowing a loved one might not survive, is perhaps one of the most frightening experiences in one's life. For those of you who haven't experienced this, I hope you never have to. For those of you who have, thank you for lending your strength and hope to one who needed it most.