• Published 31st Dec 2011
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The Wind Thief - Cold in Gardez

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Part Three: What the Spider Said

The Wind Thief
Part 3: What the Spider Said

The town square was filled with dust and shadows.

Sly darted between the buildings, imagining she was in the ruins of some long-forgotten temple. Wooden walls became vine-choked stones, crumbling under the weight of centuries. To her the fountain in the center of the square was an evil goddess’ altar, flowing with blood rather than water. Wind whistled through the derelict buildings, imitating the chanting of cultists preparing for their next sacrifice. A cloud eclipsed the sun, and the temple in her mind plunged into cloying darkness.

One of the abandoned stores was a tomb filled with fantastic treasures — the rest all traps, designed to lure her to her death. Empty doorways leered at her, beckoned her; the old bakery, abandoned for almost a year, called her name. She slipped through the door without a sound, her hooves stirring only the faintest traces of dust as she passed through the empty foyer.

Behind the counter were bags, still filled with rotting flour and other mouldering baking goods. Her imagination transformed them to burial shrouds, wrapped around the remains of long-dead warriors interred in restless sleep. She cautiously opened the drawer beneath the cash register, searching it for treasure. It was empty; she had cleaned it out long before, during another delve.

The kitchen was next. Embalming tools, shaped curiously like whisks and spatulas, lay scattered atop the tables and counters. She nudged them carefully with her hoof to check for traps. When (to her disappointment) nothing happened, she turned her attention to the cabinet doors beneath the counter.

This was her favorite part. A simple lock held the doors shut, designed more to prevent them from opening accidentally than to actually keep ponies out. She pretended it was a massive padlock, the last line of defense against sticky-hooved sneak thieves. Her horn glowed with a weak, faltering light, and a tiny wire floated out of her mane. She bit the tip, bending it at just the right angle, and slid it into the lock. A careful twist disengaged the latch, and the door cracked open.

Her tummy trembled as she imagined the treasures inside. Gold, jewels, weapons, a friend. She let out a shaky breath, and yanked the doors apart.

The cabinet was empty, just like last time. A tiny spider, disturbed by the light, spun around in its web. She sighed and closed the doors, taking a few extra seconds to lock them again.

Maybe next time.

Stars filled the night sky when Sly woke.

After a few minutes of looking up, she realized that something about them was off. Stars weren’t blue, for one thing. And hadn’t they been in a tomb? Something about this was all wrong.

She blinked a few times, and tried tilting her gaze to get a better look at the sky. Her head was resting on a saddlebag, which was much more comfortable than the rock floor. Especially since her skull felt like a mining pick was lodged in it.

Eventually the stars resolved into the bulbous shapes of glowing blue mushrooms, clinging to the walls of the cavern around them. Thousands of them filled the space with light. Tiny, sparkling spores drifted from their caps, crowding the room with an azure haze.

A campfire was burning merrily a few feet away, though the flames were a curious cream color, almost white. After a few minutes of staring at the fire, Sly realized with a start that there was no fuel being burned; the flames licked at the bare rock as though drawing sustenance from it. She rolled onto her belly with a grunt, intent at getting a closer look.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Twilight Sparkle said. She was resting a few feet away, with one of Sly’s saddlebags laid out before her. Her various belongings were arranged in neat rows according to type.

Sly worked her jaw a few times. Her mouth tasted like something had crawled onto her tongue and died. “Good morning,” she finally said. “We really need to stop meeting like this.”

“You really need to stop getting hurt,” Twilight countered. “Seriously, you do this for a living? How have you survived this long?”

“Well, I don’t usually fight dragons, or monsters like him.” She gave the room a quick glance. A huge rockslide completely covered one side of the cavern. Ageund’s final resting place, she presumed. “Speaking of which, I don’t suppose he was guarding the jewel?”

Twilight shook her head. “No such luck. His sarcophagus did have some useful things in it, though. Some weapons, a few scrolls, healing potions.”

Sly’s ears perked up at the mention of the potions. “Any of those left?” she asked.

Twilight’s horn glowed, and a stoppered glass bottled floated over. The red liquid inside sloshed around sluggishly, coating the glass with a dark smear. It looked almost like blood.

“Just the one, I’m afraid,” Twilight said. “I administered the rest while you were out. Your breathing wasn’t sounding very good.”

Sly took a deep breath. There was a slight twinge in her side, but the burning agony of her broken ribs grating together was gone. Amazing what a little magic could do. She uncorked the healing potion and took a swallow, savoring the delicious taste as it washed away the pain in her head. Her eyes closed, and she let out a long, satisfied sigh before chugging down the rest.

“So, is it really better than sex?” Twilight asked.

Sly coughed, getting some of the potion in her windpipe. “Twilight!” she eventually choked out. Twilight just smirked at her while she recovered. Fortunately, choking on healing potion juice wasn’t very painful. She wondered briefly if it was possible to drown in the stuff.

“Anyway, thank you for saving me back there,” Twilight said. “He would’ve killed me if you hadn’t stopped him.”

“We’ll call it even,” Sly said, waving a hoof dismissively. She paused, then continued, “That was really stupid, though. What were you thinking? Just ask politely and maybe he’ll let us steal the jewel?”

Twilight blushed. “You said they were cursed, that they were still inside... I thought maybe they just needed someone to be nice to them...”

Sly sighed. It was easy to forget how new Twilight was to this. She put on a smile for the other mare’s sake.

“That’s very kind of you, Twilight,” she said, “but these things are evil. The best you can do for them is destroy them as quickly as possible.”

Twilight looked pained at that, but eventually nodded, her mouth set in a firm line. “Anyway,” she said, “there’s a trap door inside the sarcophagus. I assume it leads deeper into the tomb.”

“Deeper? You mean there’s more?”

Twilight nodded, then stood, stretching out her legs. She waited for Sly to stand as well, and trotted over to the empty sarcophagus. A large wood door filled the entire bottom of the coffin; Ageund had apparently spent the centuries resting atop it.

“Huh,” Sly said. “Guess they didn’t want anyone sneaking past him. Do you think we should go in?”

“No, but that’s what we came for, isn’t it?” Twilight gave the door a troubled glance, then walked back to the saddlebags and began packing their supplies. Sly considered helping her make sure the valuables were safe and secure in the correct saddlebags, but it looked like Twilight had a system of some kind, and she decided not to interfere. Besides, she could rearrange things later, after Twilight was asleep.

Instead she went looking for her missing bow, and found it in pieces at the edge of the platform. Something large and heavy had crushed the limbs into splinters. Ageund must have stepped on it, she realized with dismay. Just lovely. Two bows broken and my sword buried under tons of rock. I guess I can spit at the draugr. She kicked at the broken wreck and walked back to Twilight, who was still stuffing books back into her saddlebags.

“You said there were some weapons in the sarcophagus?” Sly asked.

“Huh? Yeah, I think they were weapons,” Twilight said. “I dumped them by his axe.” She pointed a hoof to the far side of the sarcophagus.

She thought they were weapons? Sly stared at her for a moment, then sighed and trudged in the direction Twilight had indicted. The axe was still resting on the platform where she had tripped over it during the fight. It was far, far too large for her to wield. She’d be lucky to even pick the damn thing up.

Fortunately there were smaller weapons as well. What was probably Ageund’s dagger rested next to the axe’s blade. It was finely worked steel, with a ceramic handle that had withstood the centuries well. She picked it up and gave it a twirl: perfectly balanced, and nearly the size of her sword. Well, my luck’s not all bad. She pulled her old, empty scabbard off and attached the new blade in its place.

Her luck got better. Resting against the side of the casket where Twilight had dropped it was a bow. She sucked in her breath and levitated it reverently.

It was as much a work of art as a weapon. Carved from dense ebony, its curved limbs curled away from the shelf, adding extra tension to the string. Silver wire was wrapped around the grip where an earth pony would have braced it with their hoof. Her old bow was a toy compared to this weapon: a tool for hunters, next to this instrument of war. A pure, vibrant hum filled the air as she plucked the string. She hugged the bow to her chest, barely resisting the urge to hop around the room like a filly. Eeeeee!

She wanted to fire it. Right now. Nothing was more important than playing with her new bow. She looked around desperately for a target, but the only other pony in the room was Twilight, and she probably wouldn’t appreciate being part of the test. Instead Sly whined to herself and wandered back toward the campfire. In the brighter light she could make out delicate carvings etched into the black bow: armored ponies, griffins, monsters, all entangled, all at war. Just below the shelf a single word was carved upon the front of the lower limb. It was in the old script — Sly couldn’t even pronounce it.

“Hey, what’s that say?” she asked, shoving the bow in Twilight’s face.

Twilight flinched, then scowled at her. “Manners?” she mumbled, but nevertheless she squinted at the bow. “Aefenrepsung. Nightfall. Is that like a name or something? Who names a bow?”

Sly sighed. So smart, and yet so clueless. She resisted the urge to ruffle Twilight’s beautiful mane again. Nightfall... I like it!

“Anyway, shall we?” Twilight asked. Despite the soot and dust smeared into her coat, she seemed to be holding up well. Together they approached the sarcophagus.

Come on, jewel! Sly silently cheered as Twilight gripped the trap door and pulled it open. A set of stairs greeted them, leading deeper into the earth beneath the cavern. Damn.

“Who designs tombs like this?” Sly said, half to herself. She hopped nimbly onto the edge of the sarcophagus, then down onto the stairs. Twilight clamored over the edge with significantly less grace.

The stairs were as wide and dark as the set outside Ageund’s tomb. Sly didn’t count, but she suspected it had the exact same number of steps. A door, just like the one leading out of the tomb, waited for them at the bottom. The only difference, as best Sly could tell, was the plaque above the door: the inscription was shorter.

Twilight stood to get a better look, and began translating. “Cianim, second born, middle son. Cianim, least loved, least remembered. Cianim, schemer, betrayer. Cianim, be bound here forever. Cianim, reside in death upon the webs you wove in life. Cianim, stand watch until sun and moon and stars cease to be, and in their ceasing forget at last your crimes, Cianim.”

“I feel like I’ve been here before,” Sly said dryly. “Let me guess, one of Curalmil’s sons?”

Twilight nodded glumly. “I suppose I should tell you now he had three sons, so this might not even be the end of the tomb.”

“Better and better,” Sly said. “Remind me to thank Celestia when we get back.” She placed her hooves against the door and leaned into it. The wood creaked in protest, and slowly began to open. Puffs of rust wafted from its hinges.

The tunnel below was even more primitive than the cavern above. No attempt had been made to level the rough rock floor. Stalactites hung from the ceiling like icicles, some so large they formed rock columns that further crowded the the tight passage. The light from Twilight’s horn reflected faintly back at them from the darkness ahead, a dark gossamer mirror that shifted with the gentle breath of air flowing deeper into the labyrinth.

“Wait here,” Sly whispered, silently readying her new sword. There was no sound from farther down the cave, just the odd reflections shining back at them. For a moment she thought it might be a ghost, but those had always glowed with their own spectral light. This was something else entirely. Curious, she pressed forward, the tip of her blade leading the way into the tunnel.

The walls grew darker as she pulled further and further away from Twilight. There was still enough light to see by, but the walls became lost in the shadows. Ahead, the reflections seemed no closer than when she had started. What the hell is that?

The answer came sooner than she expected. A long step carried her over a break in the rock floor, and she felt a sticky web break across her face. Thin silken strands tugged at her mane, snapping apart and wrapping themselves around her horn and hair. She came to a sudden and disgusted halt.

Okay, spiderwebs, she thought. This is fine. There must be more up ahead causing that reflection. This is perfectly fine.

Tiny legs tickled the side of her neck, slowly moving back across her shoulders and withers. She froze. The sensation vanished when it reached her armor.

It’s just a spider. This is fine. Deep breaths, Sly. Deep breaths.

Something moved in her mane. A moment later it was joined by a friend, which crawled around the base of her horn. Her eyes had adapted enough that the shadowed walls were no longer pitch black, and she could see dozens of tiny shapes — and a few not so tiny — skittering across the stone. She felt another trying to climb the inside of her leg.

This is fine, she thought. The important thing is not to panic. Remember, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. The first spider emerged from beneath her armor and started exploring her belly. Do not panic. Do not. No panicking. Stop.

“Ah!” she heard Twilight cry out from the entrance. Her voice was higher than usual, almost girlish. “Sly, I saw a spider!”

No. Do not panic. One of them began scaling her snout. Its legs probed curiously at her nostrils.

“Oh my heavens. Sly, you need to see this thing,” Twilight said. “I didn’t know they grew this big.”

That was the tipping point. The panic that had been building finally burst through the last frayed remnants of her self-restraint. Screaming and flailing about was clearly the best course of action in this circumstance.

“Gah!” she yelled, bursting into motion. She shook her head violently back and forth, flinging the tiny creatures off into the darkness. Her sword swung around wildly, slicing effortlessly through the silk strands and striking sparks from the walls. She stomped, and kicked, and stomped and kicked some more, until the last of the crawlies had fallen away, and she charged back down the tunnel to Twilight. Screaming was involved; it was not her proudest moment.

Twilight stared, mouth agape, as Sly jumped in place, trying to shake the last of the spiders out. After several breathless and thoroughly humiliating minutes she finally slowed, her head hanging and her tail flicking wildly to chase away the phantom spiders she half-felt crawling across her back.

“Uh,” Twilight said.

“Don’t... say anything...” Sly panted.

It turned out the cave spiders were afraid of light. Twilight led the way down the tunnel, her horn shining like a beacon in the darkness. The spiders fled from its brilliance, taking shelter in the nooks and crevasses of the rocky walls around them. They followed the passage deeper into the tomb; behind them spiders descended from the ceiling on silken strands, reclaiming their tunnel as it fell back into the shadows. Occasionally they encountered thick mats of webbing blocking their way. Sly hacked them down with her sword, and they continued ever onward.

The tunnel ended in what could only be described as a pit. A massive circular space opened before them, its far edges lost in the shadows. In the circle of light cast by Twilight’s horn they could make out rough walls, riddled with cracks and alcoves, rising high above their heads. Huge lightless braziers, filled with dust and ancient ashes, flanked the entrance. The gloom was broken all around by the faint shimmer of spiderwebs in the darkness.

Sly unslung Nightfall and began creeping around the edge of the pit. What looked like bones littered the stone floor, mixed with larger shapes — about the size of ponies — entirely mummified in webs. She was pretty sure the little spiders in the tunnel weren’t that ambitious.

Where are the spiders, anyway? She stopped for a moment and peered around the room. All of the spiders had vanished. In the tunnel the damn things had been close enough to touch, always lingering just outside the light of Twilight’s horn. The constant skittering of their spindly legs clicking against the rock was gone; only the sound of Twilight’s rapid breathing remained.

She was about to mention the spiders’ absence to Twilight when a rattle from high above broke the stillness. There was a whisper of air, and a large bone crashed to the floor not ten feet away. It bounced with a loud crack, flipped end over end, and came to a rest near the center of the pit. Sheets of webbing slowly fluttered to the floor around it.

Sly swung the bow up, sighting down the drawn arrow at the shadows where the bone had fallen from. She couldn’t see a thing more than a few feet away; for all she knew, the ceiling might be a dozen or a hundred feet above them.

“Sly?” Twilight whispered behind her.

Sly licked her lips. Her mouth had gone dry all of a sudden. “Yeah?”

“That’s... that’s a pony’s leg bone.”

“Uh huh. Can you cast a light spell up there?”

Twilight took her time answering. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” she finally asked, her voice weak and thready.

“I can’t shoot what I can’t see.”

"Right." Twilight let out a deep breath, then pointed her horn up into the darkness. A tiny purple spark built at its tip, shining like a star and banishing the shadows around them. With a final burst of light it leapt into the air and streaked toward the ceiling faster than one of Sly's arrows.

The spark flew past acres of webs stretched across the high room like sails. It flew past dark, twisted cocoons trapped in the silk. It flew past pieces of armor, swords, shields, spears, helmets, tattered clothes, torn bags, bones, and bones, so many bones, all caught in the webs. It flew higher and higher, and finally burst against the stone ceiling hundreds of feet above, filling the pit with a wan light that cast pale dim shadows on the floor.

"Oh dear Celestia," Twilight whispered. "It's an abattoir."

One of the shadows moved.

Sly whipped Nightfall around, trying to track the dark shape in the webs. It vanished into an alcove carved into the wall; her arrow broke harmlessly against the stone. Above them the webs swayed slowly. A few more bones, much smaller than the first, fell to the floor with a clatter.

Crap! Sly floated another arrow — one of her last, she noted — out of her quiver. She backed up against Twilight, both of them craning their heads to peer into the gloom. Seconds passed, and stillness returned to the pit, broken only by the faint sensation of Twilight shivering at her side.

"Giant spider?" Twilight asked. A bright red ember appeared at the tip of her horn. Sly could feel the heat pouring off of it.

"Probably," Sly said. "I don't think you should try reasoning with it."

"Wasn't going to try," Twilight said. "Maybe we can scare it with—"

Sly never found out what she intended to scare it with. A wad of gooey webbing shot out from one of the lower alcoves, striking Twilight directly between the eyes and plastering her face from horn to snout with phlegmy strands of silk dripping with some unmentionable fluid. She fell back onto her haunches, her mouth hanging open in shock. The glowing spark at the tip of her horn went out with a tiny puff of smoke.

Ohhhh... wow. Definitely a giant spider. Sly nearly loosed her arrow into the alcove, but the dark space held no target she could see, and arrows were too precious to waste on anything but a sure shot. Instead she kept her bow trained on the hole, and darted forward to stand between it and Twilight.

“Sly, I can’t see anything,” Twilight said. Her voice was high, almost on the verge of panic.

“It’s just spider silk,” Sly said. She tried to keep her tone as calm as possible, for Twilight’s sake. “Try brushing it off.” The webs above her rustled as something large moved among them.

There was a disgusting squishing sound behind her. Sly couldn’t help but chance a look over her shoulder at its source. Twilight stood on three legs, the fourth apparently stuck to her face.

“Sly...” Twilight’s voice sounded like it was about to break.

“Okay,” Sly said. “It’s okay. Just, um, hang on a second.” The faint light high above began to dim, deepening the shadows around them. Something shook the webs, and more bones rained down upon them. One struck a glancing blow on Twilight’s flank.

It was too much for the mare. Blind, hobbled and under assault from falling debris, she shrieked and reared onto her back legs, flailing with her one free hoof as though trying to ward off unseen attackers. She stumbled badly as she came back down, and fled on three legs across the room.

“I can’t see!” she wailed. “I can’t see! I can’t—” Her cries cut off when she reached the stone wall at the far end of the room head first without slowing. Sly stared, stunned, as Twilight staggered back and fell to the ground with a quiet groan.

Well, this can’t get any worse, she thought, right before the light spell finally died, plunging the pit into absolute darkness. Only the faint glow surrounding her bow, far too weak to illuminate anything else, broke the inky black night surrounding her. Even the glimmer of light reflecting on the spiderwebs was gone. Right. Of course. Thank you, universe.

Twilight’s decision to run around screaming was starting to look like the best option left. She crammed that thought as far back into her mind as she could, and raised Nightfall in front of her, intent on at least injuring the spider when it finally decided to come and eat her.

“Welcome, welcome little ponies, to my parlour...” a soft, sibilant voice sounded in the darkness, somehow filling the huge space despite being no louder than a whisper. The words echoed far longer than they should have, haunting the cavern like restless spirits speaking from beyond the grave.

“Who’s there?” Sly shouted. Her own voice was swallowed in the emptiness. Twilight’s faint groans carried to her across the room, and Sly slowly began creeping toward the sound. Each hoofstep was a mixture of guesswork and caution in the pitch black. The bow shook in her grip.

“Who?” The unseen speaker sounded genuinely curious. Silence stretched out interminably before the voice returned. “I had a name once, but now it is gone from me. Like so much else.”

She almost tripped over Twilight when she finally reached the other mare. They both yelped in surprise, though Twilight sounded much groggier. At least she’s awake, Sly thought.

“Twilight,” she hissed. “I need some light.”


“Light! Cast that light spell!”

A pause. “Light?”

Damn it. She spun back around, the bow held out like a talisman to ward off evil. Probably just as effective, considering she had absolutely no way to aim it in the darkness.

“You seem nervous, little pony,” the voice in the dark whispered. It was much closer now, almost directly above her. “Don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt at all.”

Her heart felt like it was about to explode out of her chest. “What doesn’t hurt?” she asked, already dreading the answer.

“Dying, of course,” the darkness said.

Beside her, Twilight stirred. A tiny red spark, so dim she almost thought she was imagining it, appeared near the floor. It cast just enough light to separate shape from shadow, stone from flesh. For all its weakness, the spark was more beautiful, more welcome than any dawn. It was hope.

The light grew, and pushed back the darkness. Slowly, the walls and floor came back into focus, washed in red and flickering as Twilight pulled her hooves under her. Sly leaned down and pressed her shoulder against the other mare's. Together they stood, Twilight balancing precariously on three legs.

"Are you okay?" Sly whispered into her ear. Her breath ruffled Twilight's mane, revealing a streak of blood running down the side of her head. It was colorless in the red light, visible only as a dark, shining runnel that dripped onto the floor.

"No," Twilight whispered back. She sounded remarkably calm, considering the situation. "I think I'm going to throw up... can you see anything?"

“Sort of. Not enough,” Sly said. “Can you cast that light spell again?”

Something rumbled high above, sending drifts of dust and loose cobwebs drifting down to the floor. After a moment Sly realized it was laughter.

“Light,” the voice said. “What wonderful gifts you have brought me. Yes, bring me your light, that I might remember the sun.”

“Sly, who is that talking?” Twilight asked. She tried to pry her hoof away from the sticky mass of webs covering her face, without any luck.

“I think... I think it’s the spider.” Sly slowly edged along the wall back to the entrance, guiding Twilight with gentle pressure on her shoulder. The tunnel leading back out the crypt was perhaps thirty feet away, and was hopefully too narrow for the giant spider to follow them down. Little spiders seemed much less dangerous all of a sudden.

“Spiders can’t talk,” Twilight said matter-of-factly. She stepped on a rib bone and nearly stumbled to the floor. The loud crack of the bone snapping beneath her hoof echoed in the cavern.

“I know. Just... just keep moving, okay?” They were almost halfway to the tunnel. Sly dared to think they might actually make it when a huge form, indistinguishable before from the rock wall, stepped down from its perch above the entrance, blocking their escape.

Calling it a giant spider was an injustice. It was an enormous spider. Its squat, bulbous body was the size of a wagon, bristling with spines and hairs in ridges running from head to spinners. Eight legs, thick as trees, held the creature off the ground. Each was tipped with a pair of curved claws that scraped the rock floor with its steps. There wasn’t enough light to make out its face, aside from a pair of fangs that could have pulled double duty as wheat scythes.

Sly froze. Every muscle in her body locked up, ignoring her brain’s desperate orders to run, to jump, to dive, to flee, to do anything but stand there before this monstrous predator. She didn’t breathe; she couldn’t breathe. Nightfall slowly settled to the floor as the magic holding it in the air slipped away, along with her will to move. Terror, cold and piercing, pinned her in place

“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked. Her breath was coming faster, almost panting.

The spider took a step, closing half the distance between them. Its hot, rank breath tugged at their coats. A carrion stench invaded their lungs. Sly felt something warm and wet trickling down the inside of her rear legs; a distant part of her mind burned with humiliation, but was drowned out by the jibbering fear running rampant through the rest of her thoughts.

“Sly? Please talk to me.” Twilight’s voice was edging back into panic.

“I’m afraid your friend is indisposed,” the spider said. Its sibilant voice grated against their ears. “Pity. So few ponies to speak with down here.”

Twilight took a shaky step back. Absent her support, Sly sank to her knees, and stared up at the monster looming above her. In the dim light it filled her vision. It filled the cave. It was the only thing in the world. It was her world.

“You’re him, aren’t you?” Twilight said. Her head darted around blindly, trying to get a fix on the spider, not realizing it dominated the entire pit. “You’re Cianim.”

The spider reared back in surprise, its front pair of legs lifting off the ground. The claws at their tips were nearly as large as her horn, Sly noted. She tried again to stand, but her legs refused to cooperate.

“Cianim,” it said slowly, as though tasting the word. “Yes, Cianim. That is three gifts you have brought me, beautiful ponies.”

“Three gifts?” Twilight asked. She bumped against the wall, and almost fell back onto her haunches. “Light, a name, what else?”

“The most precious thing of all,” it said. Its front legs lowered to the floor on either side of Sly’s trembling form. The curving fangs brushed against her mane.

Friendship? Please be friendship.

“Meat,” it whispered, just for her. Its mouth yawned open wide enough to snap her head off in a single bite.

Nope? Okay, time to move. Time to move, Sly. Time to move time to move NOW! She rolled forward, her horn brushing against something warm and wet that she desperately didn’t want to think about. The spider’s fangs crashed together behind her with a spray of venom. Tiny droplets spattered her coat before she could kick her legs away, eating smoking holes in her skin. Her sword flicked out wildly, scoring a thin line on the spider’s abdomen. It didn’t even notice the wound.

“Twilight, do something!” she yelled, leaping to her hooves and darting out from beneath the spider’s body. It spun with an unnatural grace to follow her, its front legs held high in the air.

“I can’t see anything! What do you want me to do?” Twilight edged away from the fight, pressing her shoulder against the wall for support.

Gah! Sly jumped backward, barely avoiding the spider’s leg as it crashed down. Its claws carved a pair of deep lines in the stone where she had been standing. She lashed out with her sword at the leg, this time managing to dig into its armored flesh. A spray of black blood stained the wall beside her. The spider jerked its leg back with a shriek and eyed her sword warily.

It was the opening Sly needed. She gulped a deep breath of air, ignoring the putrid stench, and Shouted it back out. “FUS!” The Thu’um erupted from her throat, filling the pit with a ghostly blue light as it blasted the spider. Debris crashed down from the webs, and went flying against the far side wall; the floor itself shook from the force of her Shout.

Cianim barely budged.

Huh. She had just enough time for that insightful observation before a giant leg lashed out, crashing into her side with enough force to send her tumbling across the room. Her armor prevented the claws from slicing her apart, but the blow still left her lying shaken on the floor.

“What’s going on?!” Twilight cried. She pulled again at the webs covering her face, without any more success than before. “Sly, what’s happening?”

“I could really use some help!” Sly shouted back as she rolled to her hooves. Her sword was lying on the floor near Cianim. She reached out with her magic, but before she could blink, one of the spider’s massive legs slammed down atop the blade, pinning it to the floor.

“I know this sword,” the spider said. It ground the blade into the rock, drawing sparks from the steel. “You’ve met my brother, haven’t you?”

Sly tried to edge away from the spider. It wasn’t easy; with its legs spread, the monster covered nearly half the pit floor. Nightfall was on the floor near Twilight, and she began circling back toward it. With any luck the spider would stay fixated on the sword for a few more seconds.

Again, no such luck. It turned its baleful glare toward her and lashed out with its claws. Sly barely evaded the leg, and burst into a run toward the bow. She was a few steps away when a sopping, hot mass struck her flank, knocking her to the floor again. A blanket of sticky webs enmeshed her from the hips down, tangling around her rear legs and binding them together.

A shadow loomed over her. She looked up to see Cianim’s massive form blocking the rest of the pit. His fangs parted slowly, and a dry chuckle spilled from his fetid mouth.

“Twilight,” Sly said, surprising herself with her own calm. “Please do something.”

“I can’t see!” Twilight wailed. “I can’t do anything!”

Cianim was close enough to touch. Sly tried dragging herself away with her front legs, but the webbing bound her neatly to the stone floor.

“Twilight,” she tried again. “I am going to die.”

Twilight sobbed. “I’m sorry! Please, Sly, I’m so sorry!” she cried.

Well, that’s that. Sly turned back to the spider. She had always hoped that when death finally came for her she would meet it proudly and without fear. That was how the Dragonborn would do it, right? Stare death in the face, spit in its eye, etc. She tried to work up a bit of saliva, but nothing came. Oh well. Certainly there had been a few undignified moments, but overall she didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. Even wetting herself was entirely understandable, given the circumstances. Despite Cianim’s earlier assurances, she wondered if death would hurt.

The answer would have to wait. Behind her the dim red light doubled and redoubled, becoming a blinding flare that lit the pit like day. A red spark streaked across the room, far away from either Sly or the spider. It slammed into the far wall with a deafening crash and blossomed into a ball of fire that flowed out and up, engulfing half the room. Bits of rock, blasted from the wall by the impact, pelted her in a stinging hail.

“Did I get him?” Twilight asked.

The answer was obviously no, but Sly wasn’t sure she wanted Twilight to try again. The expansive sheets of webbing stretched across the cavern above them caught fire and began to burn enthusiastically. Tiny flaming bits drifted down toward them. Sly batted them away with her magic; Cianim ignored them entirely, his face turned up to the inferno.

“Light,” he said, his voice easily carrying above the roar of the fires. “So much light...” His front legs lifted, reaching up to embrace the burning mass above him. Flames washed over his armored skin without causing him any apparent measure of pain.

In the fire’s light Sly got her first true look at his face. The fangs were still there, but his head was that of a pony’s, terribly deformed, nearly split in half by gaping jaws. The remnants of a mane trailed down his thorax, blending eventually with the coarse hairs and spikes sticking from his abdomen. Only his eyes, bright blue and wide as a foal’s, were unblemished. They were filled with wonder and flames.

“Sly, what’s happening?” Twilight coughed. The air in the cavern was beginning to fill with smoke. “What’s going on?”

Sly didn’t answer. Cianim’s warped, cursed face held her horrified gaze. Nothing could pull her away from it.

“Sly?! Say something!” Twilight stumbled forward and collapsed onto her chest. She grunted and tried to tear her stuck hoof free again. Perhaps it was the heat; perhaps desperation lent her strength, but finally the webbing tore, and with a cry of pain she ripped her leg away, uncovering an eye in the process. She blinked furiously, then looked up, a expression of relief briefly on her face.

But then she saw the raging fires. She saw Cianim — the monstrous, cursed amalgam, larger than anything she could have imagined — reaching up with his arms. She saw his horrible face, the twisted mockery of a pony that had lived for centuries in the darkness, waiting for them to stumble to their deaths in his lair.

Twilight did what any sensible pony would do in her situation. She screamed.

She screamed even she tore one of the huge stone braziers from its rocky cradle by the tunnel entrance with her magic. She screamed as she slammed it repeatedly into Cianim’s form, battering the giant to pieces. She screamed as he collapsed, though he never took his gaze from the brilliant light of the fire, even when she brought the brazier down upon his face, closing his blue eyes forever. She screamed until Sly managed to free herself from the webbing and wrap her in a tight hug.

Sly held Twilight’s face against her chest, mumbling soothing sounds into the mare’s ear, until her sobbing quieted to noiseless trembles. Above them the last of the webs were consumed by the hungry fires, and darkness returned to the cavern.

“Come on, we’re almost there. There’s some light up ahead.” It was a lie, but it was a comforting lie. That was more important than truth at the moment.

Twilight Sparkle didn’t answer. She hadn’t spoken since the pit, since Cianim. Instead she followed obediently behind Sly, stumbling occasionally in the dark tunnel. Half her face was still wrapped in webs; on the other half Sly could faintly see her eye, wide and wet.

The little light they had came from a book. Sly had pulled the first one she could reach out of Twilight’s saddlebags, then ripped the pages out and set them on fire with a smouldering piece of web from Cianim’s lair. Each page burned quickly, but it was a thick book and would last them a while, even at this rate. She hoped it wasn’t expensive.

The tunnel ended in another door, what felt like hours later. Sly was starting to get sick of the things. It wasn’t locked, and opened easily when she leaned against it.

Oh, thank you Celestia!

The room beyond was a wide corridor with another door at the far end. A plaque above the lintel bore a message in Old Equuish. Despite the promise of another battle to come, the room was a vast relief. It held clean air, wooden bookcases, and complete lack of draugr, dragons, spiders or who-knew-what monsters waiting for them. She pushed the door closed behind them, and started smashing bookcases to pieces for firewood. Ruined books, ancient beyond reading, made for wonderful kindling.

A few minutes later she had a cheery fire burning in the middle of the room. It wasn’t as neat as Twilight’s magical campfire from before, but after the suffocating darkness of Cianim’s lair it was the most beautiful thing in the world. She gently pushed Twilight to the floor next to the fire, sat down beside her, and began checking her for injuries. Aside from a nasty bump where she ran into the wall, she seemed fine.

Physically, anyway. Sly lifted a wool blanket out of her saddlebags and draped it over their backs. Twilight’s leaned heavily against her side, her shivering eventually slowing to the point that it didn’t rattle Sly’s teeth as well.

“Sly?” Twilight said. Her voice was high and weak.

Sly let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Hearing Twilight speak was almost as much a relief as finding a safe room to rest in. “Yeah?”

“I killed him, didn’t I?”

She’d done more than that. Twilight had destroyed Cianim. She had smashed his body to pieces with the stone brazier. Most of his legs had no longer been attached to anything by the time she was done. Calling it gruesome was an understatement. That wasn’t what Twilight needed to hear, though.

“You did what you had to do,” Sly said instead. “You saved my life. That’s what, three times now?”

Twilight was quiet for a while. She stared into the fire silently while Sly fed another broken board into the flames.

“It wasn’t like Ageund,” she eventually said. “He wasn’t some mindless undead. He could think. He could talk, Sly. He could talk, and I killed him.”

Sly sighed. Why would Celestia do this to her? Perhaps she truly hadn’t known how dangerous this trip would be. Perhaps she thought it would be as easy as finding the tomb, cracking it open, taking the jewel and skipping back home to Canterlot. Perhaps it was their fault for continuing, long after it was clear what dangers awaited them. Perhaps.

It wasn’t too late to stop. “We don’t need to do this, you know,” she said. “We can go back. Tell Celestia we couldn’t find it. There are other weapons we can use against the dragons.”

Twilight was silent again as she stared into the fire. The room had started to warm up nicely. Beneath them the stone floor was almost comfortable, no longer sucking the heat from their bodies.

“It’s not that simple, Sly,” she said. “The dragons have been taking more and more territory every year, and at this rate we’ll lose everything but the major cities within a decade. Celestia is desperate to get the Wind’s Eye back. She would’ve come here herself if she could leave Canterlot.”

Sly blinked. That actually sounded like a good idea. “Why can’t Celestia leave Canterlot?”

“It would be ashes by the time she returned. Did you see the dragon outside the palace?”

“Yeah, couldn’t miss it. It took out half the gardens.”

Twilight nodded. “It would have taken out more if she hadn’t killed it. They’re attacking almost every day, now.”

Celestia killed it?” Sly boggled. She couldn’t imagine the kind, motherly figure with the beautiful mane slaying a dragon. “Why doesn’t she just hunt them all down, then?”

“Dragons are immortal,” Twilight said. “Even if you kill one, it will be reborn again somewhere else. It’s like trying to empty a lake with a sieve. Only the Dragonborn can kill a dragon forever.”

Oh. Ohhhh. That’s why the Dragonborn is so important. Sly hummed thoughtfully, then realized Twilight was giving her a hard look.

“I knew that,” she said quickly. “Because I’m the Dragonborn, I mean. Already knew that. Shouting, remember? I can shout.”

Twilight shook her head. “Sometimes, Sly, I...” She sighed. “Nevermind.”

It was an excellent time to change the subject, Sly decided. The less critical reasoning applied to her claims, the better. She cleared her throat.

“Hey, let’s try to get those webs off your head. That can’t be too comfortable.”

It was easier said than done. The gooey webbing had started to dry, which made it fairly simple to remove from Twilight Sparkle’s face and eye. The entire thing peeled back like a mat, only taking a bit of her coat with it. Twilight gritted her teeth, but didn’t complain about the pain.

She did complain about the next part, however.

“You want to cut it?!” She grabbed her mane, holding it with her hooves defensively. After a moment she yelped and pulled her legs away before they could get stuck again.

“I have to,” Sly said. “There’s no way we’ll be able to get it out.”

It was the truth. Except for a few inches at the base of her neck, most of Twilight’s purple mane was coated with the sticky, hardening mass. Special solvents might have been able to dissolve it, but they weren’t exactly near a beauty parlor.

“But... it’s my mane!”

“Look, either we cut it out, or you have a new, unusual hat until we get back to Canterlot.”

Twilight whined, but there was only one possible choice. She bit back whatever angry comment she was about to make, and laid her head down on the stones.

“Fine,” she said. “Try not to do any more damage than you have to.”

Sly did her best, using her tiny skinning knife to carefully slice away the affected strands. She went as slow as possible, trying not to cut more of the beautiful mane than necessary. Twilight simmered quietly while she worked. It was uncomfortable for them both.

“So,” Sly said, desperate for something to break the silence. “Celestia can’t come here herself. Why not just send an army to get the Wind’s Eye?”

“Well, for one, we don’t have an army to spare.” Twilight scrunched her eyes shut as the skinning knife danced over them. She hadn’t flinched yet, to her credit. “They’re all trying to fight dragons.”

“Just a few warriors, then,” Sly said. “Like those guards back at the palace. They seemed pretty tough.” Twilight’s bangs were completely gone, revealing the root of her horn. It looked longer, exposed like that. No wonder some unicorns wore their manes that way.

“Think about it,” Twilight said. “You’d be sending them to retrieve an incredibly powerful magical item that grants wishes. She could only send someone she absolutely trusted. This had to be kept as quiet as possible.”

“Well, that explains why you’re here. She trusts you. But why the hell am I...” Sly trailed off. The knife froze as her thoughts caught up with her.

As quiet as possible. A trusted student. A thief, by her very nature quiet, and bound by magic to aid the student. A thief desperate to prove herself by completing a quest.

“Sly?” Twilight asked, very quietly. Her eyes were open and focused on the knife.

Celestia planned this. She planned everything. She doesn’t think I’m the Dragonborn. She doesn’t care.

“Sly, I think my mane is fine now.”

She’s using me. She’s using us.

“Why don’t you put away the knife?” Twilight’s voice had a nervous edge to it.

Sly did not put away the knife. She started cutting with it again, carefully slicing away the tangled, ruined bits of mane. As strands of the webbing came free, she floated them into the fire, where they burned brightly for a moment before vanishing.

“Twilight,” she said, very calmly. “Do you trust Celestia?”

Twilight took her time in answering. More and more of her mane vanished into the fire. “You have to remember,” she finally said. “Her concern isn’t just with herself, or her friends, or even her kingdom. The fate of the entire world may rest on this war. She can’t let her personal feelings for anypony keep her from doing whatever it takes to win.”

“Even if it means sending ponies to their deaths?” Sly carefully trimmed around Twilight’s ear. It flicked nervously as she brushed it with the blade’s handle.

Twilight appeared to think her answer through before responding. “I know that she loves me, Sly. I know that sending me here was one of the most painful decisions she’s ever made.” She seemed to relax as she spoke, the tense muscles in her shoulders and neck easing.

“But I also know it was an easy decision,” she continued. “Just as easy as it was for me to agree.” Her eyes closed again, no longer concerned with the knife.

Sly trimmed the last bit of ruined mane away. Little remained but a dark buzz of hair running up the top of her skull. She brushed a few strands of stray webbing away with her hoof, then floated the knife back into her saddlebags. Twilight opened her eyes and looked up expectantly.

“It’s just... it’s not fair. She’s supposed to love us and care for us. Sending you here... that’s not love.” Sly huffed and stomped her hoof for emphasis.

Twilight stared at her for a long time. The fire burned down, the ancient, dessicated wood vanishing quickly. They both ignored it.

“I wish you could know her like I do,” Twilight said. “Love is everything to her. If she thought giving her own life would let the rest of us live in safety, she would do it in an instant. But she can’t, and it breaks her heart.”

“Well, at least she could be honest!”

Twilight shrugged. “She was as honest with you as I was. Do you think I’m dishonest?” When Sly didn’t answer, she let out a quiet chuckle and continued. “Now come on, let’s get some rest. There’s at least one more guardian to get through, and I’m exhausted.” She gave the door at the far end of the hallway a glance, then settled her head down on her crossed hooves.

Sly wanted to argue. She wanted to stomp and snort and cause a ruckus. Instead she let out a quiet breath, and lay down beside Twilight. After a time the other mare’s slow, even breaths lulled her to sleep.

Not fair.

Sly awoke with a start. The fire had died down to embers, but still cast enough light to see by in the corridor. Beside her, Twilight was sitting bolt upright, drenched in sweat, almost panting.

She looked around. The corridor was still empty. The doors were still closed. Twilight’s breathing started to slow back to a more sedate pace as Sly turned to her.

“You okay?”

“Yes, sorry,” she said. “Just a bad dream.”

Right. “You want to talk about it?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said quickly. “Just... fine.”

That seemed unlikely. “Well, good night then.” Sly put her head back on her forelegs, letting her eyes drift shut.

A gulp in the darkness. “Yes. Good night.” There was a quiet rustle as Twilight laid back down as well.

Silence. Sly waited.

The blanket shifted beside her, and a warm body pressed up against her side. “Sly,” came a tentative voice. “Is it okay if...”

“Of course, Twilight.”

There was a relieved sigh. Sly felt it as much as she heard it.

“Thank you... good night.”

“Good night.”

Well, maybe a little fair.

Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Agile Defender -- Increase armor rating for Light Armor by 20%
New Toy! Nightfall Bow -- 20% more damage to ponies and pony-based monsters (i.e. draugr, vamponies, etc)

{As always, thanks to my reviewers, especially Kurbz and Drakmire. Also, please comment and rate! It's how writers get feedback, and feedback is the only way we get better.}