Pony Age: Catalyst

by OmegaPony11

First published

With the defeat of the Archdemon, Twilight Sparkle, new Arlessa of Amarethine, must assemble a new team of Grey Wardens to defeat the threat of the ponyspawn. Her friendships will be challenged by a cunning new foe while betrayal lurks around her.

With the defeat of the Archdemon, Twilight Sparkle, new Arlessa of Amarethine, must assemble a new team of Grey Wardens to defeat the threat of the ponyspawn. Her friendships will be challenged by a cunning new foe while betrayal and deception lurks behind every corner.

Siege of Brightstone Keep

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Pony Age: Awakening

By OmegaPony11

“I look upon the world now,

Where ponies tread in the mires they have formed.

I see them suffer and hate,

And spread despair and torment to one another.

I weep for my little ponies,

For they know well what they do.”

-Canticle of Coltenidies, 8:45

The Chantry tells us that the Alicorn Sisters, the scions of the sun and moon, are the epitome of perfection. That Luna descended to the world to cast down the Unicorn Imperium for their treachery and debaucheries. That Celestia shuns the world until every pony knows and sings the Chant of Sun and Moon, and that it was the Chantry’s duty to bring the chant to all until earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi were united.

The Chantry has been known to lie.

In the years leading into the Fifth Blight, in a Unicorn Tower in the farthest reaches of the now decrepit Imperium, the Imperial Chantry, already at odds with the main religious body, began a controversial experiment with dreams to bring new hope to the masses, as well as a figurehead of which to command the world.

They created an alicorn.

Knowing the disaster that would come through an Exalted Gallop, they waited until ready to reveal the new goddess. The Imperium hid her away in a Tower in the far reaches of the north. There, she was taught piety, magic, and the Chant, and all that aligned to the ideals of the Imperium.

They did not account for love.

The Alicorn and her chief guardian fell in love, and soon they talked of a land called Equestria, the guardian’s home. Together, they conspired to escape the clutches of the Imperium and the Chantry altogether, and live in peace and harmony with each other. They married, vowing to protect each other until death… and beyond.

The Templar Order, under the personal command of the Solar Divine, attacked the Tower.

Both the Alicorn and her guardian were slain, their bodies tossed into the Dark Tunnels to be food for the ponyspawn. Little did anypony know that this was to be the catalyst that would shake the very foundations of this world… and the next…

This is a tale of the Pony Age.

Chapter 1: Siege of Brightstone Keep

The first snowfall of winter drifted lazily from the sky as the Grey Warden Twilight Sparkle walked alongside her friend and queen of Equestria, Applejack, along with a sizable escort of well over two hundred soldiers. Twilight had called the large armed force unnecessary, and Applejack was one to agree, but in the end the nobles would not budge. As long as the threat of the ponyspawn warbands was above their heads, they would not take any chances. Being the Hero of Equestria did have perks, Twilight had to admit.

Twilight frowned at the thought of fighting ponyspawn once again. Her past few months living in Trotterim as Applejack’s advisor were peaceful enough, simply reorganizing affairs for the queen in a manner that would increase efficiency ten-fold. Yet she was no longer just a Grey Warden, but the newly promoted Commander of the Grey, and as long as ponyspawn were wreaking havoc in Equestria, it was her duty to fight against them.

Yet another title was placed upon her shoulders, this one Twilight was actually looking forward to. Since the Arling of Amarethine was granted to the Grey Wardens to rebuild their numbers, it would still need an Arl. After posthumously stripping the recent Arl Rendon Maim of his title after his treachery was revealed, Applejack made the station of Arl of Amarethine and Commander of Equestria’s Grey Wardens one and the same. As such, Twilight would become Arlessa of Amarethine, a great honour for any unicorn to hold. She looked forward to learning about politics, macro and microeconomics, trade between the other regions of Equestria and of other nations, and—“

“Twilight, you okay? You got that goofy grin on yer face again.” Applejack smiled at Twilight, who quickly gave her head a shake and replied in kind.

“I’m fine Applejack, really,” Twilight said. “I’m just really looking forward to my new posting. There is just so much to learn, and I can’t wait to get started.”

“Only you can look forward to the actual busywork of nobility, rather than the power and wealth and all that. It’s why Ah think you’re the best for the job.”

Twilight blushed at the praise from her friend. “I just hope the ponies of Amarethine will like me. They’ve been used to Maim’s rule for so long, and I don’t want to impact their day-to-day lives too badly.”

Applejack chuckled. “Well, why don’t we ask one of the Amarethine ponies now? One of their numbers has wanted to meet you for a long time. She wants to slap a grey shield on her cutie mark as well. Corporal Daisy! Front and center!”

They stopped as a young earth pony mare galloped before them, snapping into attention and saluting with a bright pink hoof. Her helmet could not hide her green mane as it fell in curls around her neck. Green eyes focused solely on Applejack as the Queen snickered.

“At ease, Daisy,” she said, “We’re all friends here. Ah’d like you to meet your commandin’ officer, Twilight Sparkle. She’s a best friend of mine, and she could use all the help she can dealin’ with Amarethine.”

“Of course, Your Majesty!” Daisy bowed to Applejack then raised her hoof towards Twilight. Twilight firmly shook the offered hoof as Daisy continued. “It’s a real honour to meet the Hero of Equestria, and knowing you’ll be there in Amarethine will ease the minds of everypony there!”

“The pleasure is all mine, Daisy,” Twilight replied. “Bring me up to speed with the situation in Amarethine.”

“Take your pick, Commander.” Daisy let out an exasperated sigh. “Amarethine is the only Arling that has jurisdiction over three Banns, and all three are deplorable guttersnipes. Excuse my words, but the moment they found out Arl Maim was killed, they began their own little war to try to take the Arling for themselves. They immediately stopped once Queen Applejack was crowned, but the rumours of insurrection are mounting. The only thing that they all agree on is that a unicorn has no right claiming the title of Arlessa. They are already trying to spread lies that you practice blood magic and consort with demons, but it’s hard to argue with your other title of Equestria’s hero.”

That stung Twilight, if only a bit. During the Blight, she did not have to worry about the disdain regular ponies gave to unicorns because they focused more on her profession as a Grey Warden. Now that the Blight no longer posed a threat, her horn and the power within now made the center attention. Still, she would take all the jabs in stride. The accusatory glances were nothing compared to the shadowflame of the Archdemon.

“All right, volatile political situation,” Twilight summed up. “We’ll deal with the Banns when we have the time to do so. Now to more important matters. What is the situation with the ponyspawn attacks? I thought with the defeat of the Archdemon, they would have retreated to the Dark Tunnels.”

“We all thought that, sugarcube,” answered Applejack. “Ain’t nopony, not even the Wardens, able to understand what they are doing. Usually when they attack, it is with large numbers in fights of attrition. What they are doing here is different, and if the ponyspawn are acting different, well, it scares the apples off my flank.”

“Her Majesty is correct, Commander,” Daisy said, ignoring or not noticing Applejack’s eyes roll at the mention of her title. “The ponyspawn have been committing hit-and-run tactics on Amarethine holdings for the past couple of weeks. They’ve struck hard, but the very fact that they are falling back to the Dark Tunnels is cause for concern. I’ve never heard of ponyspawn retreating. What’s even stranger are the spells their ornlocks are using. I’ve seen them healing other ponyspawn.”

The mentioning of ponyspawn actually healing each other gave Twilight cause for alarm. Her old foes had little to no regard for their well-being, attacking with savage abandon and brutal efficiency. They were cunning monstrosities, but their tactics mostly involved throwing as much ponyspawn as at an opponent until they were eaten.

To think that the ponyspawn were fighting with a semblance of intelligence frightened Twilight to her core. The last Blight had taken a toll on everypony in Equestria, and that was when the ponyspawn were just being their natural savage selves. If a grand strategy was hatched by new leadership, it would spell disaster for the world.

There was also the nagging doubt in the back of Twilight’s mind as she considered if the ponyspawn held true sentience. Twilight was taught that the ponyspawn where the enemy of life itself and could not be reasoned with. Her experiences with them unquestionably proved that such was the case. Yet if they were intelligent, Twilight had not shown the ponyspawn any mercy in the slightest. If she could reason with just one of them…

“This ain’t a Blight. It can’t be.” Applejack shook her head. “Ain’t no more Archdemons. Something else has to be leading them. But so soon?”

“Has the Amarethine forces been able to track down the ponyspawn through the Dark Tunnels?” Twilight felt a shiver run down her spine. The Dark Tunnels, home of donkeys, diamond dogs, and ponyspawn alike still gave her nightmares. The things she had seen and done continued to haunt her, and the very idea of returning made her tremble. If she could avoid it, she would.

Daisy shifted uncomfortably on her hooves. “The soldiers… they’re not much disciplined, I’m afraid. They did not dare venture into the Dark Tunnels, instead opting to wait for Grey Warden support.”

“Ah understand completely. Tell them not to fret any.” Applejack gave Daisy a comforting smile. “The Dark Tunnels scare the horseapples out of me, and Ah’ve been there twice. Ya’ll are right, this sort of thing is gonna take Grey Wardens to solve. Good thing we have the Hero of Equestria and her number one recruit to take on the challenge, am Ah right?”

Twilight’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You want to join the Grey Wardens, Daisy?”

“I do, Commander.” Daisy looked up at the starry sky with a twinkle in her eye. “It’s the best place where I can protect the ponies I love from the monsters. When you are a Warden, you are a somepony who can make a difference. Her Majesty and you proved such without a doubt.”

Now Twilight felt uncomfortable. The very notion of inducting more ponies into the Grey Wardens was one of the few things Twilight did not look forward to. Her own Joining ritual, even after all this time, was still fresh in her mind. She could still see the faces of the other hopefuls who died after taking in the Archdemon blood, the very essence of their taint. She felt queasy just thinking about drinking that vile cocktail of blood and lyrium.

Twilight turned her head to look at the one heavily guarded wagon, covered in wood and metal. Within the container contained several barrels of lyrium as well as the blood of the most recent Archdemon, to be used to rebuild Equestria’s order of Grey Wardens. The truth of the matter was that Twilight did not want to create new Wardens until they knew of the risks beforehand. Only with some words of wisdom from Applejack did she decide not to spill forth all the information at once, and save it for the actual Joining ceremony.

“I don’t have much else in life,” Daisy continued. “I used to be a florist along with my two sisters. Things were doing fine… until the ponyspawn.”

Until the ponyspawn. How many stories had Twilight heard from the survivors of the Blight that ended with that very line? The countless families that were living happy lives until the ponyspawn came. The farmers, tradesponies, and merchants making a living until the ponyspawn came.

If the ponyspawn had true intelligence now, maybe, just maybe, Twilight could get the bottom of why they attack. There had to be more underneath their scales and chitinous skins, something that drove the ponyspawn to be the monsters that they were. If there was any way she could stop the fighting, she would.

Daisy sighed. “Once our home was destroyed, my sisters wanted to relocate. They went south towards Cherry Hills, while I stayed behind. I felt bound to the land, for whatever reason, but more importantly to the ponies living here. Maim didn’t do so much to maintain the army. Most ran off the first chance they got. Forgive me for saying, but Amarethine got lucky, being the east coast and all, since the ponyspawn were attacking from the west. Oh… I’m sorry Commander. I’m being very presumptuous about getting a post with the Wardens.”

Twilight chuckled, placing a comforting hoof on Daisy’s shoulder. “It’s all right, Daisy. Once we get to Brightstone Keep, I’ll go over the requirements of being a Grey Warden in full detail. But trust me on this, you definitely have what it takes.”

Daisy’s eyes lit up at the compliment, her smile widening to match her expression. Twilight couldn’t help but beam as well until she could see the visage of Brightstone Keep in the distance. The castle was large and wide, with towers that were dwarfed only by the Unicorn Tower and Fort Drakon back in Trotterim, but still impressive nonetheless. The orange glow around the keep was also unsettling. Twilight’s smile faltered as she tried to focus on Brightstone.

“Brightstone was built by the Filesians back during the occupation,” Daisy said, unable to see what Twilight’s magical vision allowed. “It was about the only thing Maim truly cared for. He used his vast wealth to collect things, you see. Brightstone has the single largest gallery of fine art in Equestria…”

“Uh huh…” Could they be having some sort of celebratory bonfire? Twilight wondered, her horn glowing bright as she cast a spell to see something in the distance much closer.

“The largest collection of exotic weapons. There are some which I’m not even sure how to use!”

“Uh huh…” It’s definitely fire. I think Brightstone is under attack! I need to tell Applejack!

“And the biggest library in all of Equestria! Arl Maim wanted to appear educated and well versed in every school of knowledge, so he picked up any book he could. I’m quite certain nopony has ever seen him read a book, though.”

Twilight’s eyes shrank into pinpricks before a look of rage marred her face. How dare the ponyspawn attack the biggest depository of books in the country? All that knowledge would be put to the torch, and she was not going to sit by and let that happen.

“Applejack, Brightstone is under attack!” Twilight cancelled her telescopic spell, drawing her trusted blade Sophia with her magic. “We need to move, quickly!”

“Captain! Get the calls out to the army! We got ponyspawn in Brightstone!” Applejack drew her sword Silverbite from its sheath, the silver blade glinting in the moonlight while her army began to mobilize. Lines formed with ease as the officers barked orders to the troops, each soldier standing ready with a sword held tight in their mouths.

Daisy revealed her weapon of choice, carefully removing a single disc from its protective cover. The steel disc bit into the ground with surprising ease while Daisy took the chain it was attached to in her mouth. With a single jerk of her head, she caused the disc to fly upwards, and then began to a small rotation on the chain with her jaw. The disc began to spin in the air, scraping against the rocks in the ground until Daisy managed to make it only a razor-edged blur.

Twilight had never seen a weapon like that, but she knew the effects were no-doubt nasty on a fleshy body.

“Something I picked up from Maim’s collection,” Daisy said through the chain. “I think I got the hang of it.”

The Queen’s army approached Brightstone quickly, the flames of the burning keep clearly visible and giving the night skies an ominous orange hue. Twilight found it odd that there was no sign of the ponyspawn outside of the walls. She could see screamers circling ahead, but the lack of any of their ground forces was confusing.

Above their heads, the screamers, twisted mockeries of pegasi ponies, began to channel their namesake. Their screeches were quickly replied with the thunder of battering rams against the walls. Applejack shouted for a halt to the army’s advance. Twilight listened to her beating heart as it thudded within her chest. She could feel the presence of the ponyspawn around her, but most disconcerting was the emotion that came along with the twisted creatures.

She felt the ponyspawn’s hate for the Grey Wardens, but for her it was especially powerful. Twilight’s ears lay back against her head as the strength of the ponyspawn’s hate bore down against her, as if a large weight pressed against her shoulders. The resentment they held for her was thick mire, and it took all of Twilight’s will to separate her senses and return to reality.

Applejack frowned, holding Twilight steady with a hoof. “They’ll be gunning for you, Twilight,” she said. “Ah think you should stay here and let the soldiers deal with it. If the ponyspawn see you, they’ll go crazy. As strong as you are, you can’t beat an entire ponyspawn army.”

“I can’t run away from a fight just because the ponyspawn hate me.” Twilight stomped her foot. “Listen, they know we’re coming, but their senses get muddled amongst themselves. I have a plan: if you can keep the ponyspawn occupied, Daisy and I can sneak into the keep and try to take out their leadership.”

Twilight winked at the now nervous recruit. “Think of this as your entrance exam. Same as mine, I suppose.”

“Probably be easier. You won’t have to deal with Rarity, just some ornery ponyspawn.” Applejack laughed at the memory of their excursion to the Potpourri wilds for Twilight’s test to join the Grey Wardens. Twilight sighed wistfully at those days. Things were simpler then.

Applejack nodded to Twilight. “All right then. We’ll keep them busy. They’re probably gettin’ ready to fight us off anyways. Once Ah give the holler, you and Daisy should skedaddle to Brightstone as fast as your hooves will carry you. And Twilight? Good luck.”

“Thanks Applejack. Stay safe.” Twilight reared on her hooves, signaling she was ready. “Let’s go, Daisy.”

Applejack raised a horn to lips and called out her army with a blaring sound, the roar of her soldiers overtaking the air as the ponyspawn emerged from Brightstone to begin the battle. Pony fought ponyspawn once again in the field of war, and Twilight felt a knot tie in her stomach as she and Daisy sprinted as fast as they could away from the main fighting.

They traveled under the cover of night, darting from shadow to shadow before coming across several corpses of Amarethine soldiers. Their blood stretched across the ground, showing they were fleeing from the city as one of the gates was completely destroyed. Two thelocks stood guard in front of the door way, snarling and twisting the rusted blades in their mouths.

“Looks like we’ll have it easy to start. Follow my lead and stay quiet.” Twilight levitated her sword behind one of the thelocks, staying hidden in the shadows and carefully remaining silent. Daisy followed suit, spinning her blade in the air until only the faintest whistle in from the blade slicing the air could be heard.

Twilight had never seen ponyspawn sitting still and simply watching for enemies before. They often moved as one horde, overpowering and devouring everypony in their path. To see them put up sentries made Twilight concerned.

Any theories about this new behavior in the ponyspawn had to wait. For now, Twilight had a duty. If there was even a remote chance at having talks with the ponyspawn, it would not be while ponies were under threat.

“On the count of three.” Twilight raised her sword, with Daisy nodding slowly, her blade moving in a single deadly blur. “One. Two. Three!”

Sophia curved in a fatal arc, slicing the thelock’s throat wide open, black blood flowing from the disgusting wound. The thelock gurgled on its own blood as it fell, its fellow snapping its head to the fallen only to be on the receiving end of Daisy’s disc. The metal blade cut cleanly through the helmet, the disc digging deep into the very center of its skull. Grey matter poured from the fatal wound, leaving the thelock to slump to the ground.

“Great job, Daisy,” Twilight said, “Now we can—“

Before she could finish, a loud screech resounded from the top of the battlements, a single screamer revealing itself from the shadows. It flew off towards the keep, while the roars of more ponyspawn and their trampling hooves shook the ground.

Twilight could not believe it. The ponyspawn had tricked her into attacking, revealing her location. Several thelocks and donlocks emerged from the streets of Brightstone’s castle town, all equipped with arms and armour, while a single ornlock snapped its jaws and hissed. It’s horn glowed with a crimson aura as a fireball formed in midair. The ornlock reared up, smashing its magically encased horn into the fireball to launch it against Twilight.

“Get down!” Twilight shouted, raising her magical barrier as quickly as she could. Daisy ducked low behind her, covering the back of her head with her hooves. The fireball crashed into her shield, the heat of the flames making Twilight break into a sweat. She grimaced as the force of the attack pressed against her, but for a moment Twilight felt her lips turn upward in a smirk.

Gripping the fireball in her magic, Twilight kept the blaze alive and contained. With a shout she tossed the flaming orb back towards the ornlock and its ponyspawn soldiers. This method of countering was a favourite of Twilight’s, using the power and momentum of the enemy spell to strike back against them.

The fireball flew towards the ponyspawn, detonating in a bright orange explosion and consuming the monsters in flames. Twilight’s cheer of victory was short lived as the ornlock stepped past the flames, surrounded by a pale red shield of its own. It turned towards those ponyspawn who were not immediately killed by the fireball, a wave of green mist floating from its horn towards the wounded. Twilight gasped as she saw their wounds closed with the power of magic.

“It’s true,” she muttered. “You are healing the ponyspawn! If you can do that, then you know we don’t have to fight! You are not under the sway of Archdemons anymore! We can end the fighting for good!”

If the ornlock heard her over the roars of the ponyspawn and burning buildings, it made no indication, lighting its horn again in a red aura. A crimson bolt burst from the horn, sailing towards Twilight. Her shield rose quickly to her defense, all the while she could hear the whistling of Daisy’s blade disc slicing through the air from behind.

The blade cut through the magical barrier of the ornlock with surprising ease, cleanly cutting the ornlock’s head from his shoulders. As the head fell, the other ponyspawn attacked, charging towards Twilight with weapons raised. She stared them down through her shield, keeping her head low as her horn sparked to life.

“I tried to be merciful!” Her shout was drowned out by the frigid blast of her ice magic, a cone of cold freezing the ponyspawn. Fluids solidified within moments, leaving the monsters to become frozen corpses in mid charge. Twilight gasped for air, watching as Daisy’s disc slid along the ground past the iced ponyspawn and to its user. Daisy looked at Twilight with eyes filled with concern, but Twilight had no answer to give her.

“Commander, if I may be so bold…” Daisy bit her lower lip. “I’m confused. Grey Wardens are supposed to slay ponyspawn. That’s all I’ve ever known about them. They are attacking Brightstone Keep without provocation. No ponies I’ve heard have ever led an attack on their homes in the Dark Tunnels. Why are you offering them mercy?”

Twilight mulled over her words for a moment, stepping around the frozen menagerie of dead ponyspawn. “Because everypony deserves the chance of mercy,” she said, “I’ve been fighting ponyspawn for a little over a year, but it feels like decades. Every time we meet, I’ve killed them without thinking. The idea that we can offer them the chance to flee is just something I have to try.”

Twilight lowered her head though. She looked around at the corpses of ponyspawn and ponies alike. “You’re right,” Twilight relented. “The ponyspawn are attacking ponies, and we have to stop them, through lethal force if needed. But I want you to know one important thing Daisy: Grey Wardens are supposed to defend ponies from the ponyspawn. That is their chief mission.”

“Now…” Twilight scratched her chin as she looked up at the imposing figure that was Brightstone Keep. On the battlements there were still signs of fighting, thus Twilight decided that would be her best bet.

“Do you know of any other ways we can get into the keep?” Twilight pointed her hoof at the fortification. Daisy thought for a moment before her eyes lit up.

“I know of a secret tunnel that Maim had built!” Daisy exclaimed. “We can take the underground passage into the cellars. From there, we’ll be in the keep!”

Twilight nodded, allowing Daisy to take the lead. They galloped through the besieged city, Twilight taking note of the few civilian corpses on the ground. Most were either ponyspawn or soldier ponies. While Twilight could see that as a relief, there was the stomach-turning fear that ponies were being herded to whatever entrance the ponyspawn used to attack from the Dark Tunnels. They very thought that the ponyspawn were in search of mares to be used as broodmares…

“Twilight!” Daisy pointed at another corpse, this one of a freshly killed earth pony in heavy plate armour. Twilight approached the carcass, noting three stab wounds in the back of the neck by a cruel blade. A favoured weak point of assassins, if anything her assassin friend Rainbow Dash had told her.

With a flick of her magic, Twilight turned the corpse over, revealing the burning sword emblem of the Templar Order, the guardians and jailers of the world’s unicorns. “A templar?” Twilight wondered aloud. “What would a templar being here?”

“Templars,” Daisy added, pointing around her. Twilight’s mouth hung open as several templars laid slain in messy trail leading into a building. “I don’t know why templars are here either, Commander. I do know that they were all killed near the building we needed to find.”

The sign of an old pub hung on one of its links, the doors flapping in the wind. The fact that there would be a secret passage from the castle to a bar was not lost on Twilight, but the sight of templars was always alarming. They were not an armed force to be thrown at enemies, nor were they travelling knights in the storybook sense. The Templar Order existed to hunt down rogue unicorns, the Maleficar, as well as to put down demonic invasions from the Fade.

If there were templars here, then that meant there was trouble with magic nearby, or trouble with a unicorn.

Twilight lifted a hoof, signaling for Daisy to stop. She began to focus her senses, seeing the world shift from the vibrant colours of battle to a dull grey. The leylines of magic in the world, trailing across the ground and into the sky, formed concentrated points towards the Fade. Along many of the magical streams, several lesions rippled across the blue lines. Twilight backed away from the sight.

She did not look away though as she watched the streams of magic being repaired by a radiant green aura, as if a seamstress was doing stitch work on an expansive quilt. Only another unicorn gifted in magic could heal the tears in the Veil between the real world and the Fade.

“Uh… Commander?” Twilight heard Daisy speak. “We need to move, now.”

“Hold on, Daisy,” Twilight said, “there’s something strange going on between the real world and the Fade. Somepony is fixing the Veil, and they doing really well. We need to find them and make sure they are safe. Incredible! Brightstone could have been the spot of a demonic invasion if it wasn’t for him or her. What had Maim been doing here to make the veil so weak?”

“Commander, the ground is shaking! We need to get ready!”

That caught Twilight’s attention. Her sight of the Fade reverted back to normal vision, just in time to see the pub explode in a burst of bricks and lumber. Standing amidst the dust and the ruins of the pub was a minotaur, snarling at Twilight, its mouth foaming in blind rage. Unlike most minotaurs Twilight fought against, this one wore heavy plate armour all along its body. The helm blocked out its eyes, and its twisted appendages known as “hands” was a massive spiked maul.

“Horseapples,” Twilight squeaked. Minotaurs were deadly siege machines on their own, but she never encountered one wielding arms. The ponyspawn had learned much, including equipping their strongest warriors.

The minotaur roared, holding its maul close to its chest before lowering its steel-capped horns towards Twilight. Twilight’s initial reaction summoned a shield to quickly defend herself from the minotaur. The barrier crackled with sparks from the attack, Twilight shouting in pain as her horn felt the immense pressure of the minotaur.

Twilight collapsed on her knees, the barrier barely keeping together. She looked up to see the minotaur raise its maul over its head, preparing to hammer down on her shield and eventually her. Twilight’s horn flared to life again, firing a bolt of violet energy towards the minotaur’s head. The bolt snaked into the slits of the minotaur’s helmet, causing the giant to cease its strike.

The growl echoed throughout the burning keep, the other ponyspawn responding in the kind. Several thelocks appeared, charging towards Daisy and Twilight. Daisy spun her disc, throwing it at one of the offending thelocks at slicing the neck clean open. The loss of one did not slow them down, instead one of them gripped the outstretched chain in its tusks and yanked, pulling Daisy towards them.

Releasing her hold on the chain, Daisy staggered backwards, drawing her sidearm, a simple dagger. She waved the blade in a desperate attempt to keep the ponyspawn at bay. The thelocks swung their rusty blades at her head. She continued to back away until her backside pressed against a wall, the thelocks snarling at her as they had her surrounded.

Twilight cursed, firing another beam of magic at the minotaur, this time the bolt striking against the chestplate. The minotaur was unhindered by the attack, instead gripping its maul and swinging in a stiff yet quick motion, slamming the head into Twilight’s shield. The barrier flickered again, Twilight’s scream of pain echoing within her bubble.

She slumped to the ground, looking as the minotaur prepared for the crushing blow. Her magic was drained simply holding off the attack. Twilight’s thoughts moved rapidly. She once blocked the powerful shadowfire with her magic; now she couldn’t take on the direct attacks of an armoured minotaur. How had she let herself go and forget how to fight properly? All those months of peace made her soft.

Twilight closed her eyes, preparing for the hammer to fall against her shield and eventually crush her bones. Her thoughts turned to her friends, divided across the world. She stroked the bracer of friendship they all wore. If this was to be her end, then she would think of them.

The end did not come with the sound of a shattering shield but instead with the sound of an explosion and the howling agony of a minotaur. Twilight looked up to see the minotaur drop its maul and reach around to its back, twisting and allowing Twilight a good look. The smell of melted metal on foul flesh was overpowering, hot steam rising from the damage caused by an explosion of fire.

Across the street, the caster of the saving fireball raised her lyre-ended staff upward again. “Hey ugly, over here! Tasty Imperial ponyflank ready and waiting for you! I don’t typically do ponyspawn, but I’m sure we can have ourselves a tango right here, right now!”

Twilight balked at the bravado of the unicorn with the golden eyes, being reminded of a certain Trixie and her boastful nature. Despite this, Twilight could feel the magical energy coming from the mare. Her mint-green face held a mischievous smirk, similarly-tinted mane blowing in the wind. Their eyes met even though the minotaur was quickly recovering.

“Hey there, sweetcheeks!” The stranger called. “We can swap names, life stories, and spit later! Right now we have to take this bull by the horns in the most literal sense!”

“Huh?” Twilight’s confusion at the mare’s choice of words was quickly replaced with the realization that they were still in battle. Raising Sophia into the air, Twilight lashed out at the dazed minotaur, charging the edge of her blade with a burst of heated magic. The blade cut through the rusted armour the minotaur used, searing into its arm and spilling gallons of black blood.

The minotaur gripped its arm, dropping its maul with a crash while staring at Twilight through the slits of the helmet. Once again, Twilight could see the sheer hatred the minotaur’s gaze, the only thing that was keeping the giant from falling over in fatigue.

Twilight’s sword glimmered with a powerful violet flame. If she struck now, it would be the deathblow to the minotaur. “Why do you hate me?” she asked, though she did not expect an answer. As she predicted, the minotaur answered with a roar, raising his battering ram-like fist high for one final smash.

It never got the chance as Twilight swung her blade across the neck of the neck, searing the fatal wound open. The minotaur fell over, gasping for its final breaths, but never once turning its gaze away from Twilight. Only when it stilled did Twilight take a deep breath of relief.

Still cornered by the thelocks, Daisy warded them off with weak little jabs from her dagger. “Hey flowerflank!” The stranger called. “Get down!”

Daisy looked over the shoulders of the thelocks to see the horn of the strange unicorn glowing with an amber light. Her mouth was open and from the depths of her throat Daisy could see a burning flame igniting. She ducked her head, covering the back of her head.

From the mouth of the mint-green unicorn came a torrent of flame, engulfing the thelocks in a fiery storm. Twilight watched all the while, amazed at the kind of ferocity her magical breath was capable of. The thelocks were immolated quickly and without mercy, their screams of agony being silenced by the consuming fire.

The green unicorn smirked as the charred remains of the ponyspawn collapsed onto the ground, proudly prancing around in her red robes lined with gold. The jingle of her earrings made for a sort of victory tune as Twilight headed towards Daisy to help her up.

“How are you doing?” Twilight asked. Daisy coughed for a moment before smiling at her commander.

“Lightly singed, but I’ll live.” They both turned to the stranger unicorn, who admired her hooves, blowing off ash and smoke from them. Twilight approached her, extending her hoof.

“Thank you very much for the help. My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this is Daisy. It’s nice to meet you, miss…?”

“Celestia,” the now blasphemous unicorn said. “At least, that’s what the mares usually say when they are in the afterglow of the best night of their lives. If you really want to be formal, then I’m Lyra! Former battlemage of the Imperium, now unjustly being chased by the Templar Order across Equestria, and now I am one really happy mare having laid eyes on two absolutely stunning beauties.”

Twilight’s cheeks flushed with colour as she gaped at Lyra. “Not only a cutie of a unicorn, but the Hero of Equestria in the flesh!” Lyra giggled as she leaned against Twilight. “I’ve never done a hero before. Maybe we can make time once we are out of the peril of a ponyspawn attack, hmm? I can show you things. Wonderful things.”

“Not likely.” Twilight shifted her weight quickly, sending the unbalanced Lyra towards the ground with a yelp. The fallen Lyra gave a half-hearted chuckle as she looked up into the eyes of Twilight.

“What do you mean you were a former battlemage?” Twilight raised her eyebrow inquisitively. “And what do you mean you are unjustly hunted by the templars?”

“Long story. Would you like to come down to the secret underground passageway leading towards the keep?” Lyra pointed towards the ruins of the pub. “I’ve been trying to keep the civilians the safe, away from the fighting.”

Lyra levitated the debris caused by the minotaur, tossing it away to reveal a doorway into the tavern’s cellars. The door opened with a loud creak as Lyra led the way, Twilight and Daisy following close behind. The door shut with a bang, a large chunk of wood nailed in place to prevent easy access to the ponyspawn.

“Well, you probably want to start with the obvious,” Lyra said, “so the obvious I will begin. Yes, those templars were after me, but I didn’t do anything, cross my hooves and hope to fly! If they weren’t prepared to fight ponyspawn, it’s not my fault! Besides, they came after me because I’m a unicorn from the Imperium who just happened to smash her own phylactery.”

Twilight’s knowledge on the Imperium mostly came from Chantry dogma on how the Imperium used blood magic to cross into the Fade and destroy the seat of Celestia, Canterlot. Through that sin, the first ponyspawn were made from the Magister’s corruption and subsequent banishment by the ruler of the sun. Little else was known of the secretive remains of the Imperium, only that the Chantry was incredibly powerful there, as well as being one of the largest concentrations of unicorns and magic in general.

“You are not just ‘some unicorn’,” Twilight added. “You are an Imperial Battlemage. Everything I heard of them was that they were the best of the best. Some of the most rigourously trained magic-users in the entire world.”

“That much is true, as you’ve seen with my own magic.” Lyra’s staff flickered with magelight, providing a beacon in the depths of the passage. “But the Imperium and especially the Imperial Chantry want their battlemages under extremely tight leashes, and not the fun kinky kind. I decided I didn’t want any of that, packed my bags, blasted my Magister, and deserted from the army. Took the first caravan that would have me, and lo and behold, here I am!”

Daisy whispered into Twilight’s ear. “I don’t trust her, Commander. She’s Imperium, to start with, and chased by the Templar? That’s a recipe for trouble.”

Twilight considered that Daisy did not have experience with the complicated affairs of unicorns, the templars, and magic. Perhaps she would be willing to give Lyra a chance, even offer her a place away from the eyes of the Chantry and the Templar Order.

The Grey Wardens, for instance.

First things first, Brightstone needed to be taken back. “We’ll deal with the templars when the time comes,” Twilight said, “for now, we need to get rid of the ponyspawn. Lyra, would you be willing to help us? We could use the numbers to take out the ponyspawn leader.”

Lyra rubbed her chin, humming rather loudly in mocking thought. “I could hang out with two hot mares, use my war magic to roast some ponyspawn, or I could stay here and hope they don’t find me and eat me, and not in the fun way. Not a hard decision, but I want you to promise me something!”

Twilight raised her brow. “What is it?”

“Promise me that you’ll help me find a way to keep the Templars off my back.” Lyra’s voice became softer, a hint of fear in her words. “Their anti-magic hurts me more than most unicorns. Battlemages are incredibly potent magically, but with that potence is also a greater sensitivity to anti-magic. I’m tired of running from the Templars. Will you help me?”

Daisy pursed her lips but said nothing, looking to Twilight for direction. Her curiosity about Lyra and her Imperium education in regards to magic won out in the end. “I’ll help you, Lyra,” Twilight said, offering a smile. “I won’t let you be taken away by the Templar.”

“Yay!” Lyra jumped onto Twilight, squeezing her neck in a vice-like grip. “Oh happiest of days! Together, we’ll roast ponyspawn with magic unparalleled. Then after, maybe we can get nice and toasty by the fire, tell stories, make each other real comfy…”

Twilight promptly wrenched Lyra off her and dropped her to the ground. Another round of weak chuckling left her lips. “Or maybe not. Come on, this way to the keep!”

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

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Chapter 2: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Twilight’s mind raced with memories as she walked the underground passage between the destroyed pub and Brightstone Keep. Only a year ago did she travel through a hidden path just like this one during a demonic invasion in Red Apple, taking note that both strongholds were connected to alcohol. While the difference was a tavern and a distillery, she wondered if all the nobles of the land signed some secret pact that all hidden passageways must be linked to drinking holes.

“Does this passage lead into the dungeons?” Twilight asked. Daisy shook her head.

“They lead to Maim’s private cellars,” she answered. “He often had different drinks ordered from across the world and brought to the pub for extra storage. He’d then use this passage to transport them without the populace noticing. While he always had mercenaries act as his personal bodyguard, as Arl he had to maintain an army in the event of an attack on Equestria. Since most of the soldiery come from peasant stock, Maim didn’t want an uprising in the event they found out that taxpayer money was being used to buy expensive wines.”

Twilight made a mental checklist as Daisy explained Maim’s policies. Keep the army in good working order and don’t use the taxpayers’ money to buy booze. Seems easy enough.

“So… Grey Wardens, huh?” Lyra said as they continued to walk the underground. “Running around, fighting ponyspawn, being all heroic and stuff. Sounds like a good time. Using your magic and weapons for good and stuff.”

Twilight raised a brow at Lyra. “It’s not all fun and games you know. The ponyspawn don’t pull any punches, as I’m sure you are well aware.”

“I know all that! Do you think being a battlemage is the easy life?” Lyra turned to face Twilight, her eyes no longer teasing and jovial, but stern. “Listen, I’m not afraid of the ponyspawn. You saw how I deep fried the bunch of them, right?”

“Being a Warden isn’t just about fighting ponyspawn,” Twilight shot back. She looked to Daisy as well, choosing the next words for her as well. “When I became a Warden, they called it the duty that cannot be forsworn. I want you and Daisy to think about that while we take back Brightstone.”

Twilight spurred herself forward, brooking no more argument from Lyra or further comments from Daisy. Every second they spent talking about the Wardens was another second the ponyspawn were tearing Brightstone apart. Applejack and her army could not afford any more delays.

She approached the door that would lead into Arl’s private reserves, gripping the door in her magic. Lyra and Daisy nodded to Twilight as she looked back, the former’s staff igniting into flames while the latter began to spin her disc, ready to strike. Twilight returned the nod, looking forward and stretching her senses past the door. She could hear many ponyspawn heartbeats beyond, all of them eager for a fight.

Better not keep them waiting. Bringing her sword upward, Twilight closed her eyes and channeled a simple, yet powerful orb of arcane energy. The ball crackled with magic along with Twilight’s horn, and she could hear Lyra gasp behind her.

“I don’t believe it,” she muttered. “I’ve never felt so much magic in a single spell since meeting an Archon of the Imperium! And there’s more inside you just waiting to be used. Celestia’s sun, you are as powerful as the stories say.”

Twilight acknowledged Lyra’s awe with a grunt, her focus completely on the orb. With a silent word, she thrust the orb against the wooden door, shattering the doorway and detonating her magic in a blinding flash. With Sophia floating by her side, Twilight charged inside, shouting a warcry to the surprised ponyspawn within.

The force of ponyspawn consisted of three thelocks and four donlocks, all growling as Twilight’s light destroyed their vision. Twilight stood surrounded by blinded ponyspawn, her thoughts extended to her senses in a struggle to understand their motives. Still they held nothing but rage and hatred for her, even more so now due to her attack.

Her hesitation did not last long. Knowing the ponyspawn would not leave her or Brightstone in peace, Twilight bit her tongue and urged Sophia forward. Her sword dove towards the throat of a thelock, slicing the insect-like underbelly clean open, spilling its blood all over the damp stone of the cellar. The thelock gurgled its last breath, but Twilight paid no heed, her head swiveling towards a dazed donlock.

Magic collected into her horn as Twilight focused on a single, effective spell that would put down the donlock for good. A single bolt of violet energy lashed out from her horn, striking the donlock right between the eyes. The small, savage monstrosity was blasted across the room, thankfully saving Twilight from looking at its demolished face before it collided with a wall.

Lyra burst from the passage, playfully smirking at two donlocks and a thelock while puffing her cheeks. Twilight shielded her eyes with a hoof as Lyra commenced her attack, another dragon-like stream of fire from her mouth buffeting her enemies. The two donlocks who stood in front of the thelock were engulfed in flames instantly, their cries dying out quick as an instant. The thelock snarled at Lyra but kept its distance, struggling against animalistic urges of fight or flight versus the typical ponyspawn desire to rend flesh.

From the flames, Lyra galloped towards the remaining adversary, her staff following close behind her. Twilight watched in surprise as the staff, gripped in Lyra’s amber aura, revealed itself to be more than just a simple wooden implement of magic. The lyre on the top detached, spinning off the staff to reveal a long narrow blade hidden within. Lyra swung her sword in a downward arc, catching the thelock across the face and cleaving the eye in two. The thelock roared, rearing up on its hind legs to protect its face. With the underbelly exposed, the battlemage gave a shout and thrust her sword into the thelock’s weak point, tearing into its organs. The sword slid out of the thelock with ease, the collapsing monster falling to Lyra’s hooves as she smiled with grim satisfaction.

As the two unicorns fought, Daisy leapt from the cellar, her disc flying into the face of a donlock. The disc’s edge missed as the donlock blindly charged towards her, but with a quick tug on the chain, Daisy caught the donlock’s neck with the length of metal. As the chain wrapped around the donlock’s neck, Daisy planted her hooves on the ground, watching as the disc struck against the floor, sending sparks flying with every pass until it finally sunk into the desired skull.

The short-lived death hiss of the donlock did not concern Daisy so much as the last thelock recovering its eyesight. With her natural earth pony strength, Daisy pulled against the chain, lifting the enwrapped donlock corpse into an impromptu flail. Daisy swung at one of the large barrels of booze, slamming the carcass against the weak supports and breaking both the body and the wood. The barrel fell over onto the thelock, its cries of surprise silence by the explosion of wood and ale.

Twilight covered her snout as the rank smell of ponyspawn blood and rank ale intermixed. She looked to see Lyra dash over to the cellar door, breaking it open with her magic.

“I refuse to have this mire waft into my nose anymore!” she announced, gasping for breath in the hallways of Brightstone. Twilight could not help but agree. No magic spell she knew could totally eliminate smells, and thus she added it amongst an ever growing checklist of disgusting smells her adventures seemed to bring to her nostrils.

Daisy looked around the hallway, her ears flicking about. “If we arrived in the cellar, all we have to do is head to the courtyard and then the battlements. I just hope we can find some survivors.”

“So do I.” Twilight tried to ignore the constant beating of ponyspawn hearts her senses unceasingly fed to her mind, only to fail. The steady beats like those of drums created a sort of ambience to her ears. To Twilight, it was a constant reminder of the ponyspawn presence and their hatred for her until they could be expelled from Brightstone.

“I’ll take point,” Daisy said, “I know the way to the courtyard.”

The last time Twilight walked the halls of an Arl’s castle, she squared off against the forces of the undead controlled by a demon possessing the body of a child. Just like then, the eerie silence of the abandoned fortress corridors made every hoofstep echo and every breath sharp and tense. Twilight’s eyes darted around, half expecting the ponyspawn to leap from every shadow. Unlike the walking dead, who lumbered around clumsily as lesser demons attempted to command rotting flesh and broken bones, the ponyspawn still proved an effective and terrifying enemy.

No ponyspawn ambushed them in the dark halls, yet as they approached the courtyard, Twilight’s chest tightened with dread. A throng of heartbeats pounded against her ears and she flattened them against her head by instinct. Despite her trepidation, Twilight raised her blade into the air, motioning for Lyra and Daisy to take positions near the door.

Twilight counted her breaths in an attempt to get her breathing in order. Once she closed her eyes, she began to breathe easier, in through the nose, out through the mouth, a simple yet effective exercise to calm the nerves and steady respiration. Her horn began to glow, allowing Twilight to take control of the large doors leading into the courtyard.

She looked to Daisy and Lyra, nodding to the two as she pressed the door open. Lyra’s horn was also aglow, the head of her staff igniting in magical flames while she drew her own sword from the staff. Daisy began to spin her disc, ready to release the razor’s edge against the ponyspawn at Twilight’s command.

With her allies ready, Twilight pushed the door open as quickly as she could. She charged first, raising a magical buckler to defend herself only for her and the others to quickly skid to a halt.

Dozens of ponyspawn of all sizes and subspecies waited for the three, gnashing their teeth and clawing at the air, all of them sharing a bloodlust that would not be sated. Twilight’s mouth hung open as the largest force of ponyspawn she had ever encountered since the Battle of Trotterim. Even though they acted savage, the ponyspawn did not attack, confusing Twilight even more.

A loud screech pierced the night sky, the ponyspawn quickly falling silent as a large screamer circled above their heads. Twilight kept her eyes locked on her adversary while the screamer dropped to the courtyard, landing with a thud and kicking up a pile of dust as well. She raised a hoof to block out the dust, and then looked again to see the screamer saunter towards them.

She had known larger screamers before, but they did not typically reach the same size and mass of their larger thelock cousins. This one stood as tall as a thelock on strong limbs ending in powerful claws, a suit of dirty yet effective chainmail covering its body. Two long daggers hung at his sides. The singular eye that all screamers possessed on their faces stared down Twilight, its red iris rippling like a pool of bubbling water.

“You… know you… The Howler knows who you are!” He spoke in a low, raspy voice through dirty yet razor teeth. “Your heart beats with the blood, but you are false! You struck down the song! We need the song! Madness rules without the song! Silencer! Silencer!”

The rest of the ponyspawn horde began to chant the word “Silencer” over and over, shouting and yelling the word directly at Twilight. Twilight backed away from the ponyspawn, her sword dropping from her aura and clattering to the ground as she felt each shout accentuate with a powerful thud of her heart.

“I don’t understand!” She cried back. “What do you mean by ‘silencing the song’? Why are you calling me the Silencer?”

“You slew the One Who Sings!” Black spittle flew from the cracked lips of The Howler. “You silenced the soothing song, the song that drove us to victory! The Architect told us to find you! The Howler has done so, and now he will slay you! He will burn down your castles, your houses! He will take back what was stolen from the One Who Sings! He will watch and sing and dance as the unworthy are put to the flames!”

“Kill the Silencer! Kill her until she is dead and silent! Go into the pony-hive and take their mares! Bring them to the tunnels and share with them our blood so they may breed more brothers!”

The ponyspawn charged at the Howler’s command, their hooves like thunder as they neared. Lyra’s staff ignited in to flame and launched a fireball at the ponyspawn, the monsters broke their formation while a few where immediately overtaken by fire. There was no time to cast another spell as the ponyspawn quickly regrouped and charged again, forcing Lyra to go into the fight.

Her sword flashed in the light of the flames as she swept the blade’s edge through the ponyspawn, slashing through their thick carapaces and hides and spilling their blood all around her. Her efforts proved futile as there were too many ponyspawn to fight through, all of them clawing and biting at her robes. A donlock jumped from the writhing throng of ponyspawn and collided with Lyra, biting at her shoulders until it finally sunk its teeth into her fur.

Lyra screamed out in agony, the donlock twisting its mouth and wrenching the wound wider. Her eyes flashed red with dark magic, the blood from her wound twisting subtly around the neck of the donlock, only for Daisy’s disc to smash blade first into the donlock’s skull. The donlock’s grip became lack while Daisy yanked the disc along its chain, the body falling harmless to her side.

“One down, about a hundred to go,” Lyra quipped. “I owe you a smooch, flowerflank.”

“Can you go one dire situation without making a crack about kissing and such?” Daisy whipped her disc into the throat of a thelock, the death of another foe giving her grim satisfaction. Before she could pull her weapon back to attack again, a minotaur smashed its way to the front of the group, tossing away every ponyspawn smaller than it.

The minotaur took large steps towards them, snarling all the way as well as stepping down on Daisy’s chain. She looked up at the massive monster in horror, unable to wrench her weapon free.

“Commander! Daisy shouted, “We need to get away! We can’t win against all these ponyspawn!”

Picking up Sophia, Twilight felt the intense magical heat of her sword ignite beside her, her focus solely on the Howler. “The One Who Sings,” she said, taking a confident step forward. “You mean the Archdemon? The Archdemon is slain! You don’t need to follow Uthemiel’s directives anymore!”

The Howler twisted his body into a strange upright position, able to stand on its hind legs with perfect balance, though still hunched over. It growled, drawing its long curved daggers from their scabbards. “The One Who Sings, the one you killed! The one you silenced! We need the song! We need to know that we are led, that we have a purpose, that we are loved! The Architect tries, but he fails! He promised freedom, he brought the song to us! But you! You silenced it! We hate you! Hate you forever! The Howler will rip your hide from your bones and wear it as his trophy and present it to the Architect! Then he can begin his work again and bring back our song!”

With one flap of his large bat-like wings, the Howler took off into a swooping dive towards Twilight. She only barely managed to bring her blade up in time to parry the Howler’s blows, lashing against it with a simple blast of magic. The Howler shook off the strike, its eye glaring at Twilight before beginning another flurry of blows.

Twilight’s training came into full effect, ducking and weaving around the dagger slashes of the Howler. He attacked with swift motions though, and forced Twilight to be on the defensive. The left dagger came down in a flesh-tearing strike and Twilight answered with her magical buckler. Before she could counter, the right dagger thrust towards her neck, and thus she replied with a parry with her own blade.

She shouted in frustration as the two combatants were in a deadlock, her horn proving to be the most effective weapon against the Howler. The air became frigid, Twilight’s magic reducing the temperature around her as the very air froze. A single shard of ice, sharp like the edge of a blade, formed above her head and continued to grow ever larger.

The Howler looked up from their deadlock, his single eye widening in fear. A quick flap of his wings broke the hold, but not before the ice-shard sliced through the air and across his right forearm. Dropping his dagger, the Howler hissed and crashed into the courtyard, with Twilight standing over his wounded form.

“Curse you, Silencer.” The Howler seethed with rage. “The Howler will kill your song! You will be rendered mute while the Howler sings!”

The maw of the Howler opened wide, and the worst noise Twilight ever encountered blasted her ears. Despite his name, the Howler did not howl, but instead screeched much like his smaller screamer cousins. Soon, all other noises from the battle were drowned out by the screech, and Twilight could do nothing but answer.

Her magical buckler dissipated into thin air, and her grip on Sophia quickly vanished, the arcane blade falling to the ground. Twilight fell while the Howler continued his sonic assault, covering her ears with her hooves in a vain effort to block out the noise. She sprawled to the ground, writhing in pain as the force from the scream shook her body violently, from her rippling skin to her disturbed organs. She felt nauseous, but could not stand to rebuke the attack or even run away.

The Howler continued to scream, advancing towards Twilight’s battered form with a dagger held tight in his claws. Twilight opened one eye just a crack, enough to see the dagger raised high above her head. Her chest tightened as she tried to prepare a spell, the edge of her horn sparking with some semblance of magical energy. The shockwaves produced by the Howler destroyed her concentration, and she could not summon even the simplest of spells into existence.

Something distracted the Howler then, the great screamer twisting his long neck to his left and finally ceasing the skull-splitting screeching. Twilight looked up in a daze, still hearing the scream of the Howler as well a faint ringing in her ears. A torrent of dust and stone burst from her left, the small clouds making her choke. Slowly, Twilight stood up to see the fiery remains of an explosion, with several burning chunks of wood as well as ponyspawn thrust from a blast.

The wall to Brightstone’s courtyard held a large hole, and from that new entryway a dozen or so donkeys poured through, each shouting some warcry or another. Leading the bunch was a familiar donkey, dressed in black plate armour with a long battleaxe in his grip. Oghren’s braided beard swung as he galloped towards the ponyspawn, dodging the monsters and leaving them to his fellows. Each ponyspawn that did get in his way was quickly hewn with every swing of his axe, Oghren becoming a literal walking death to the enemy.

“Twilight!” he shouted through his hilt-bit. “I’m comin’! Keep that star-flank alive just a little longer!”

The Howler snarled at Oghren, his wings flaring open. “Cursed Silencer has donkey allies,” he muttered. “Will gut you later! Need to take the prize!”

Twilight stood up as quickly as she could on quaking legs, her stomach turning flips while she levitated her sword for a feeble attack. Sophia missed the legs of the Howler as he flew off towards the battlements of the keep and out of sight. She fell again, only this time to be caught by gentle hooves, the soft touch of fabric rubbing against her hide.

“Don’t worry, Twilight, I got you,” Lyra said, though Twilight still could not hear very well. “The donkeys and Daisy are taking care of the ponyspawn. I think they are still confused by the explosion. Just hold still.”

Twilight watched through blurry eyes as the golden image of Lyra’s staff floated near her head. The strings of the lyre began to a play a soft tune as magic flowed across them, a wave of green energy not unlike Lyra’s aura now wrapping around Twilight. Her ringing ears soon gave way to the gentle melody from the lyre, and Twilight could feel her body mending under the guidance of powerful magic.

When the song ended, Twilight found herself standing upright and feeling leagues better than she did. Lyra smiled at her, not those lecherous smiles from before, but a warm and caring gesture often used by healers to patients.

“I feel much better, thank you,” Twilight said with utmost sincerity. “But I thought you were a battle-mage, not a healer.”

“All unicorns in the Imperium armies are battle-mages. I was studying to be a spirit healer and use my special talent of playing my lyre to heal other ponies. Then I got drafted and the rest is history.” A flicker of sadness passed over Lyra’s eyes. “In any event, I’m just glad I was able to get to you before the Howler did, thanks to that donkey friend of yours.”

Looking over Lyra’s shoulder, she saw that Oghren and his fellow donkeys made quick work of the ponyspawn that did not follow their leader or flee the battle. Shining axes bit into blackened flesh, tearing into the ponyspawn with ease and spilling their blood to the ground. Oghren’s motley band of donkeys gave Twilight little mind, as she focused her attention to the brazen berserker.

Oghren moved quickly through the hordes of ponyspawn, swinging his axe in long arcs, cleaving donlock, thelock, and screamer alike in his wake. Each slain foe drove him ever forward, whatever blows they could land either deflecting off his armour or simply ignored. Twilight noticed that as Oghren’s axe neared a ponyspawn, right before it would hack open the flesh the edge of the axe seemed to glow with a bright red light. It was almost as if the edge became very hot as it neared ponyspawn flesh.

Only the presence of a minotaur slowed Oghren’s advance. As the greater monster roared, lifting its fists into the air to crush Oghren, he responded in kind, shouting donkey obscenities and charging headlong into battle. The minotaur’s fists slammed into the courtyard, kicking up stone and dirt in a small dust storm, only to look down and see Oghren had dodged the attack.

With a swing of his burning axe, Oghren cut across the exposed neck of the minotaur, careful to avoid the poisonous downpour of black blood. The minotaur grasped at his ruined throat gasping for air, but before it could react further, Oghren smashed his axe into the side of the minotaur’s head. This blow killed the minotaur instantly, its massive frame slumping to the ground as Oghren’s berserker frenzy abated.

His breathing ragged and heavy, Oghren still managed to produce a smile as he slung his axe onto his back. Twilight returned the smile, only to surprise both Oghren and herself as she embraced the bloody berserker tightly in her hooves.

“Oghren…” she said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you!”

“Same here, Twilight, same here.” Oghren patted Twilight’s back, ignoring the last of the courtyard’s ponyspawn being driven out by the donkey band.

“What are you doing here, though?” Twilight asked, “You’re the last donkey I’d expect to see here in Amarethine.”

“I came to join the Grey Wardens, of course!” Oghren broke the hug, bringing his axe to bear as a show of prowess. “Who better to join up with than a group that feeds and houses their members for the whole purpose of fighting ponyspawn! …Oh, and I might have wanted to see you again. It’s been a while. We should have a drink after this is over. Tame stuff for you!”

Twilight inwardly cringed at the memory of drinking Oghren’s homebrewed ale, remembering the vile taste of Celestia-knew-what he put in as ingredients. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, Oghren,” Twilight said, “But who are all these other donkeys?”

“Just various friends, colleagues, drinking buddies, casual acquaintances, and one guy who owes me fifty gold coins.” He snickered, before pointing to each donkey in turn. “That’s Logger, Togger, Yogger, my cousin Eoghren, the twins Mogo and Wogo, Lallat, Fizzbang is the one who made the explosives that breached the wall, Calgon, who makes a mean mushroom ale, and finally Big Bog.”

The donkeys crowded together in front of Twilight, pushing and shoving so they could take precedence over the others. Daisy shook her head at the assembled mass, and Twilight could not help but giggle at the sight. They all grinned at her, save for Fizzbang who simply wandered off and began to prepare more explosives.

“Quite the lively bunch, ain’t they?” Oghren smiled with pride. “Not all of them are warriors, and I’m still the only berserker, but when I went back to Orzamule, I asked around if there were any donkeys who wanted to come with me. Quite the response, don’t you think? I brought builders, crafters, merchants, the whole tap and keg.”

Twilight nodded to the donkeys, only to turn her head upward. She could still feel the heartbeat of the Howler and several of his screamers covering him as he flew to the battlements. Somewhere on the stone walls of Brightstone was the Howler’s prize, and Twilight knew all too well that if a ponyspawn was after it, whatever it was could only lead to disaster.

“Daisy, Lyra, Oghren, with me,” Twilight ordered, “We’ll be going to the top of Brightstone’s battlements. We have to stop the Howler before he takes whatever his prize is. He’s proven to be a capable commander if he took Brightstone so easily, so he is still a threat until… neutralized.”

Daisy stepped forward, her disc-and-chain hanging to her side. “By your side, Commander. Let’s show the ponyspawn they can’t just gallop all over our towns and villages without expecting some kind of payback!”

“I made a promise to see this through,” Lyra said, “And I always make good on my promises. I just hope you do the same when the time comes. That, and I just like looking at your rump.”

Oghren looked over at both Daisy and Lyra, shaking his head before turning his gleaming eyes to Twilight. “Kinda small crew we got this time around, don’t we, Commander?” He snickered as he mentioned her Grey Warden title.

Despite his jests, Twilight did take a look at her small party. She was used to travelling with a larger band of friends, galloping freely across the entirety of Equestria. Sure, they were on a dangerous quest to unite the various factions across the land against the ponyspawn, but things were simpler then. She could not doubt it any longer, and Oghren’s presence only made it more apparent.

She missed her friends.

Even though she liked Daisy, Twilight could not see Applejack or Pinkie Pie in her. Lyra definitely did not match any description of Rarity or Trixie. She missed Shale’s banter, and Rainbow Dash’s boastfulness. She missed the soft, gentle words of Fluttershy, but most of all, she missed her number one assistant. The closest thing she had to a brother.

I miss you, Spike.

Twilight willed her tears away. Now was not the time. Daisy and Lyra proved to be capable fighters with both blade and spell, and the Howler showed that while the abilities of the ponyspawn might change, they were still monsters behind black scales and razor teeth. From her youth as a foal in the Unicorn Tower to the becoming a Grey Warden to now being her order’s commanding officer, Twilight had progressed against the face of adversity and fought against the greatest foes the world could throw at her. She would not break to a single screamer.

“All right everyone, listen up!” Twilight’s voice carried with it the force of command. Everyone, donkey and pony alike, snapped to attention. “Myself, Lyra, Daisy, and Oghren are going after the Howler. The rest of you stay here and defend the keep from any of his reinforcements. I want one of your number to make their way to Queen Applejack and tell her where to push her forces. If everything goes well, we’ll drive the ponyspawn out of Brightstone before breakfast. Now move out!”

The donkeys saluted to Twilight, rushing towards the breach in the wall they made and readying a defensive line. One donkey, who Twilight recalled was named Yogger, sprinted past his fellows and began his trek towards Applejack’s army.

Twilight turned on her hooves and began her own sprint up the stone staircase towards the battlements. Her small party followed behind, and when she reached the top of the stairs she could see in the distance the fires of battle. Applejack’s forces pushed against the ponyspawn, driving them backwards towards the keep. Three groups of screamers broke from the main force: one flying towards the keep in support of the Howler, the other flying off to the north while yet another group flew to the west. Messengers, Twilight assumed, to bring the news of defeat to the ponyspawn leadership. There was no time to pursue them.

The sound of steel clashing against steel sent Twilight’s mind back on track. The Howler was engaged in battle with somepony, a motivation to assist them and stop the greater screamer.

Daisy pointed at one of the large guard towers straight ahead of them. “Those towers were designed to hold many archers. They lead to the upper battlements and at the very top there are catapults to fight back against large forces and even sieges. If we take that tower, we can get into position against the Howler from the front and the rear.”

“Good. Let’s do it.” Twilight lead the way into the archer’s tower, only to feel a single black arrow shoot through the air and only just deflected by her sword. She looked up to see several thelocks and donlocks on the steps leading towards the upper battlements, each of them armed with long bows, arrows flying towards her.

With quick thinking she raised a barrier to defend herself and her friends from the arrow assault, allowing the others to get into position. Those ponyspawn closest to the group dropped their bows, drawing swords, axes, and maces and charged into battle.

Oghren took the lead, using his size and his axe to block the staircase towards the others. Each swing of his axe chopped into the flesh of another ponyspawn, dismembering some and sending their bodies to the ground floor below. “Come on, you blighters!” he roared, decapitating a thelock while he advanced up the wooden stairs. “Give ol’ Oghren a better fight than this! I’ve seen nugs wrestle fiercer than you sods!”

He quickly passed through Twilight’s barrier, about to cleave into another donlock when an archer fired its arrow right through Oghren’s armour. The arrow punctured his back plate, slipping past the metal and striking between his shoulder blades. Oghren shouted in fury, but unable to carry himself, much less his axe. The weapon fell as he did, tumbling down towards Twilight’s shield.

“Oghren!” Twilight grasped at her donkey friend with her magic, while Lyra collected the loose battle axe in her own aura. She could not divert her attention for too long, as her shield would fall without proper concentration.

“Commander, get back! I’ll take care of them!” Daisy pushed her way forward, spinning her disc in her teeth. Twilight regretted pulling back, but Oghren continued to lose blood from the arrow wound, and each strike of the ponyspawn barrage made it more difficult to focus on him. When they made their way back to the entrance, Lyra pulled Oghren away into relative safety, allowing Twilight to quickly rejoin Daisy.

The need to fight never came. Daisy lashed out with her disc at surprising speeds, hurling the disc blade first into the remaining ponyspawn. A large thelock about to draw on the string fell first, the blade slicing through the air and into its throat. As the thelock fell, Daisy yanked back on the chain, narrowly dodging Twilight’s head before tossing the disc into the face of a second donlock, readying his bow. He fell with ease, leaving the last thelock dropping his bow and rushing towards Daisy while the disc remained stuck.

Before the thelock could gore Daisy with its tusks, a bolt of violet magic lashed out from Twilight’s horn, slamming into the side of the ponyspawn’s head and twisting it into an unnatural angle. Death followed, the body spiraling into the pit below before it joined the others at the bottom of the tower.

Daisy breathed deeply from the fight, but still managed to smile at Twilight. “Thanks Commander.”

“That’s what friends are for, Daisy,” Twilight replied, “And please, call me Twilight.”

Lyra entered the tower again followed by Oghren, who grumbled as he sulked inside. “Blood and damnation, Twilight, I’m getting sloppy in my old age.”

“Old age?” Twilight raised an eyebrow in puzzlement. “It’s only been six months since I’ve seen you last. Were you drinking before you came to Brightstone?”

“I’m not a young jack, and I’ve been sober for those six months!” This surprised Twilight, as Oghren’s fondness for liquor proved to be quite the character trait, in her own summation. If he was not drinking anymore, something about him had changed.

“We can discuss this later,” Lyra interjected, “The Howler is still here, and so are the ponyspawn. Let’s focus on the real issue at hoof and kick the ponyspawn straight in the nads!”

Twilight rolled her eyes, but could not fault Lyra for her rather apt description. They ascended the steps to the top of the battlements, until they came across the middle of a heated battle. Ahead of Twilight was the Howler, fighting against a fair-sized earth pony covered in plate armour and a sword clenched in his teeth. A farmer’s hat, very similar to Applejack’s, sat on his head.

The screamer pack that flew to reinforce their leader spotted Twilight and the others. They all hovered around a large crate covered in chains, and next to the crate stood a burlap sack. They all screamed their surprise at the arrival of Twilight and her party, some shrieking the name “Silencer”, distracting the Howler and his opponent.

“What in tarnation?” The earth pony turned his head, revealing a very thick moustache that covered his mouth. The Howler took advantage, sinking his daggers between the plates of the earth pony’s armour. Twilight shouted in vain hope that the Howler would stop, only to watch the earth pony fall.

The Howler looked up, his singular eye narrowing. “Silencer has given chase,” he hissed, “Silencer comes to her doom. No tricks will save you this time! No surprise donkeys! No rescue! No hope! Your meat will make a fine supper for our bellies, and your skull I will present to the Architect!”

“Don’t fight us, Howler,” Twilight warned, “Let us speak to your Architect. Enough blood has been spilt today. Bring the Architect here, and maybe we can find peace between pony and ponyspawn.”

“What are you doing Twilight? They’re nothing more than ugly sods!” Twilight ignored Oghren’s words, desperate to hold on to the idea of peace.

“Please, we can end this hear and now,” she pleaded, “Lay down your arms—“

The Howler screamed, the shockwaves of his attack pushing everyone back. “Never! No peace while ponies live! For great Uthemiel, and all other songs that came before her, Howler will offer the blood of the enemy as a sacrifice! Break their bones! Spill their blood! Kill! Kill! KILL!”

“Everypony! Pick your targets and go!” Twilight gave her order while drawing Sophia, the magical sword burst into flame at her command. She had long chosen her target, galloping towards the Howler while he soared through the sky. Oghren, Lily, and Lyra chose their own screamers to battle, blades and magic clashing against fang and claw.

The screamers under the Howler’s command, much larger and covered in similar armour to their master, were mentally dubbed the first screamer alphas Twilight had ever encountered. They did not bear arms like the Howler, but instead wielded sharp blades attached to their forelimbs, which they now used with great bloodlust.

The first of the screamer alphas struck against Lyra, a deep slash from the foreblades parried by a quick draw from her staff sword. Lyra struck with both blade and spell, a quick but effective fireball being spun by the strings of her lyre. The blade acted as a mere distraction, slashing away at the screamer bodyguard under the mint aura of Lyra, before she was ready to strike with burning flame.

The screamer lunged at Lyra, using its wings as a shield against the blade. Lyra, surprised that the screamer would use its own body parts to defend itself, still did not hesitate to unleash her fire onto her attacker. The fireball burst from the staff, and the lyre emitted a sharp chord that shook the very dust off the ground of the battlements. The fireball then collided with the screamer, with its armour caught in the blaze. The screamer shrieked its agony, rolling on the ground but unable to quench the magical fire, until it became naught but a burning husk of a ponyspawn.

“I took care of mine! I’ll take care of the bleeding pony’s wounds; just take out these buggers, right?” Lyra brought her staff low, the spririt magic already at work to mend the earth pony’s wounds.

Daisy tangled with another screamer in a violent brawl, as the screamer leaped onto her and began to bite and claw at her chainmail. Her disc snapped through the air like a snake tussling with a meal, yet ineffectual against the screamer at close proximity. With a shout of frustration she let go of her disc, her focus now shifted entirely on taking the fight hoof-to-claw.

“Get off of me, you ugly repulsive creature!” Daisy shouted and pushed the screamer off her. The metal blades on its forelimbs swung out for a quick strike, and they caught Daisy’s midsection. The weapons ripped through her armour with ease. Daisy screamed out as she fell, her hoofs clutched to her bloody side, desperate to reach the chain of her disc.

Oghren rushed to her side, all the while chased by another screamer alpha. “I’ma comin’!” he grunted through his axe-grip, “Just hold on a little longer!” His gallop towards Daisy turned into a slide, and his patience allowed for Oghren to prepare his axe for a stiff and accurate chop.

“Close your mouth!” he warned, “Don’t take any of the Taint in your mouth!” Oghren brought down the axe straight across the exposed neck of the distracted screamer. The single eye blinked once before it fell to the ground, leaving a bloody stump where it once stood. Daisy screamed and scrambled away from the corpse. She pulled the disc towards her and then looked to Oghren.

Daisy said nothing, only her wide eyes revealing to Ogrhen his own peril. A screamer reared up behind him, about to dig its metal shears into his belly. Oghren prepared to counter, only for Daisy’s blade to whistle past his beard and embed itself deep inside the mouth of the screamer. The mockery of a pegasus squirmed as the blade dug into the back of its throat, but was unable to remove the weapon before it bled out all over the stone of Brightstone.

“Pretty darn good with that thing,” Oghren said, pointing to the disc. “Takes a strong neck and a talented mouth. Got any other special talents like that?”

“Ugh, first Lyra, now you.” Daisy looked around for a moment. “Where’s the Commander?”

Twilight and the Howler paid little attention to the battles around them. Her focus remained squarely on him, and the same could be said for the Howler. She drew her blade and with a simple utterance of a spell, Sophia ignited with purple fire. Another quick cast of magic and the protective buckler took shape in mid-air.

The Howler drew both his dagger, prepared to strike at a moment’s notice. “The hour has come, Silencer!” he said, his daggers raised high above his head. “The end of this struggle. The moment your blood is given to the Song of Songs! My blades will be anointed by your corpse, and my head will be raised—“

“You talk too much.” Twilight’s horn glowed, the spell of frigid cold creating not one, but dozens of razor sharp icicles into existence. The summoned shards flew towards the Howler, but he moved with the grace and dexterity of a swift pegasi. With such nimble legs, he avoided the shards with ease.

With a single flap of his ruined wings, he burst forward towards Twilight, his teeth clenched and his blades ready to slice. Twilight blocked each blow he delivered, one with her shield and another with her sword, before counterstriking with a slash of her own. Sophia’s violet fires melted the chain-mail the Howler wore, which allowed the edge of the blade to cut through metal, flesh and bone.

The Howler lived up to his name as his limb fell to the floor, the wound cauterized by Sophia’s flames. He his eye blinked in rapid disbelief. As the smoking stump cooled in the night wind, the Howler crawled to his lost limb, yet still held his other dagger tight within his other claw. “They said you would be soft,” he muttered, his eye now locked on Twilight. “They said the Silencer did not have the stomach for killing. That fortune and the Cursed Ones favoured her that night.”

“They thought wrong,” Twilight said. “Lay down your arms and surrender, Howler. You won’t be given another chance.”

The Howler reacted, screeching once again at Twilight with such volume that she halted her advance on the ponyspawn leader. Twilight held steadfast against the Howler and his scream. Still, she could not continue her attack as the scream disrupted her concentration and ceased her magic.

Instead, Twilight lowered the hilt of Sophia into her mouth, and her buckler disappeared with a thought. Slow and steady did she take each step, pushing through the scream while she kept her eyes trained on the Howler and his other dagger. The Howler’s scream continued unabated, though he did take a worried step backwards. No matter how much he backed away, Twilight gained ground until she was close enough to strike.

“Die now!” The Howler lunged at Twilight, his aim to plunge his blade into her neck. Without a single blink of her eyes, Twilight reacted, her sights set on ending the battle. Sophia struck true as the blade seemed to slide with ease through the chain hauberk of the Howler until it was half-way through his chest. The Howler’s dagger only managed to catch Twilight’s robes.

Twilight let go of her sword and allowed the body of the Howler to fall. “You will never hurt anypony ever again.”

He crumpled to the ground onto his back, the sword still jammed in between his ribcage. The Howler’s wings twitched while he gurgled his last, while black blood seeped through his fangs and pooled under his now lifeless eye. The Howler stilled under the moonlight. Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, and then turned towards the battlements to see how the battle would unfold.

In the distance she saw Applejack’s army finishing the remnants of the ponyspawn. Those who did not run were quickly felled. Twilight focused her magic to a small group of torches and banners, her eyesight stretched to have a clear view. There she saw Applejack and a vanguard rushing towards Brightstone.

“Twilight!” Lyra called, “This guy is all better. Just a few scratches and bruises, but nothing a good time away from the front won’t heal.”

The earth pony with the moustache dusted off his armour before snapping a salute to Twilight. “Name’s Silverstar, Commander,” he said, and shook Twilight’s hoof in a firm manner. “Hail all the way from Appleoosa. Tried to get here ahead of you with your crate, but never figured the ponyspawn would come on down. Quite the varmints, aren’t they.”

“Thanks for trying to hold Brightstone,” Twilight replied, “I know the ponyspawn took everypony by surprise. They were really interested in that crate. The Howler called it his ‘prize’, but I don’t know what sort of item could bring the ponyspawn to near frenzy. Do you have any idea what’s inside?”

Silverstar shook his head. He pointed at the crate and a burlap sack next to it. “All we know is that they wanted it, but right when I was about to get into a tussle with the big one, he screamed the word ‘silencer’ and took off. What we do know is that inside the sack are the keys to the crate, as well as a letter saying that the contents were for your eyes only.”

Twilight nodded to Silverstar, and walked over to the crate to investigate. While it appeared ordinary enough, there was a hum of magic within the chains and padlocks. Her curious nature would have to be sated later though. For now, the victory at Brightstone had to be told to Applejack.

Her magic lifted the crate into the air, and along with Silverstar did the party make their way back to the courtyard of Brightstone Keep. Applejack and her guards greeted them with warm smiles and congratulations.

“Never thought Ah’d see the day Ah missed takin’ the fight to the ‘spawn,” Applejack said. “Was a right hootenanny, Ah tell ya what. Quite the first day on the job, right Twilight?”

“You can say that again.” Twilight looked over to the assembled group. Before she could continue, Oghren barged out in front, his beard unable to hid his wide grin.

“Applejack, great to see ya!” He sauntered over to Applejack, and both shook hooves. “Haven’t seen in you in a while. I hope you brought some of that Red Apple cider with you. I could use a sodding drink after all this excitement. Nothing slakes the thirst after battle like that sweet, sweet nectar.”

“Oghren, ya old jackass! What are ya doin’ here besides causin’ Twi trouble?”

Oghren guffawed and poked Applejack’s sides, much to the consternation of her guards. “Gonna cause more if I have my way! I’m here to join the Grey Wardens!”

“We’ll I’ll be.” Applejack snorted a laugh, though her smile was genuine. “Sounds like you have a trouble maker and a very dependable donkey in the ranks. You keep Twilight safe, ya hear? Not just from ponyspawn, but from keeping her snout in all them books.”

Oghren nodded, while Twilight cleared her throat to continue. “Daisy did exceptionally well in the battle. She will make a great Grey Warden.”

The Queen nodded. “That she will. Good job, Daisy. Ya got quite the responsibility on yer shoulders now. Keep a cool head and try not to be so stiff. Ah see ya’ll met Silverstar too. He’s gonna be yer senny… senshol… senesh… darn Filesian words… majordomo! He was Braeburn’s right hoof pony, but wanted to be reassigned to Brightstone and help the Hero of Equestria.”

Silverstar seemed to blush under his moustache at Applejack’s praise. Finally, Applejack moved to look over Lyra, who shrunk away from her sight. Twilight raised her brows in surprise; what happened to happy-go-lucky unicorn who would not leave a word about her flank unsaid? She began to resemble Fluttershy at this point.

“You don’t have to be shy because Applejack’s a queen,” Twilight said. She looked to Applejack to explain. “Lyra is a runaway battlemage from the Imperium. I’ve agreed to make her a Grey Warden to protect her from prosecution by the Templar Order.”

Lyra shook her head. “It’s not your crown I’m afraid of,” she said in a hushed tone. “You’re a templar. I can feel the anti-magic flowing through you.”

Applejack bit her lip after the reminder of her less than savory days. “Was a templar. Never chose that life, Lyra, was pushed into it. Yeah, Ah can use anti-magic, but believe you me when Ah say Ah don’t follow the superstitions of the Templar. Ah’ve travelled with prissy unicorns, loud unicorns, and stuffy unicorns. Even fought against some bad ones too. But Ah know to give unicorns a chance, not because they have horns and magic, but because they are ponies like the rest of us.”

“Twilight is one of my best friends. If she sees good in you, then Ah believe her words one hundred percent. Ah’m sure ya’ll make a good Warden.”

Lyra closed her eyes in thought, but nodded her thanks anyways. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Applejack looked to Twilight and tilted her head to the gates of Brightstone. The two walked together in silence for a while, away from prospective Wardens and other soldiers. Twilight appreciated the gesture, as it became difficult to have a private word with her friend and Queen.

They looked over the small town that surrounded the keep, the smoking roofs and glowing embers of houses and shops the last visages of the ponyspawn attack. Soldiers pulled the bodies of slain townsponies away from the streets. They also dragged the corpses of ponyspawn to throw onto pyres and removed their taint from the land with cleansing flame.

Twilight pursed her lips as she surveyed the destruction. Victory always seemed to taste so bitter.

“Not the way Ah had planned to hoof over Amarethine to you, Twi,” Applejack said, “But Ah suppose this attack really shows that the ponyspawn are getting a little smarter. If they don’t need an Archdemon to raze towns to the ground, then they’ll continue to be bold. They will attack again, maybe less fortified villages, Ah dunno.”

“They somehow got inside Brightstone without alerting the guards,” Twilight added, “We’ll find this new Blight and put it down. Amarethine will be in good hooves, so long as the ponyspawn don’t attack again. We learned plenty from the ravings of the Howler and we still have the crate they were after. We’ll piece together this mystery and stop them.”

Applejack nodded, only to stomp her hoof in frustration. “Land sakes, Twilight. Ah should be here with you, fightin’ the ponyspawn. Ah feel like Ah’m lettin’ you down. Ah—“

“You don’t have to worry about me, Applejack.” Twilight laid a hoof onto her friends shoulder. “You have an entire nation to worry about. I’ll be fine. I have Oghren, Daisy, and Lyra. We’ll take care of it. When you visit Amarethine, you’ll see the happiest place in the entire kingdom!”

Applejack did not immediately reply, but instead pulled Twilight in a tight embrace. “Everypony else is gone, Twilight. Ah’ll sure as hay miss you. Ah already sent word to the Banns under Amarethine, and they’ll be comin’ here to meet the new Arlessa soon and help you out. But if you need anything at all, and Ah do mean anything, just holler, and Ah’ll come with the entire army if Ah need to.”

They remained together in silence for a while, and Twilight enjoyed what little time she had with Applejack before the court of Trotterim and the realm called on her again. They returned to the blood-stained courtyard of Brightstone where the others waited for them, each of them eager for the next bit of news.

“Well, best to skedaddle before all them lords throw a hissy fit,” Applejack said. “Good luck to you, Arlessa Sparkle of Amarethine. Looks like ya’ll gonna need it. Make sure ya’ll support your Commander too, Grey Wardens.”

Each of the prospects bowed to Applejack, who left them and Twilight with a wave. Once the Queen left, Twilight led her new charges up the steps towards the inner halls of Brightstone Keep. Her keep, she reminded herself, and not without a hint of trepidation. As the next page of her life unfolded, she wished it would turn into a sunny day, rather than through the ashes reaped by the ponyspawn once again.

Her wish would not be answered today.


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Chapter 3: Letters

Twilight gripped the door to Brightstone keep’s main hall in her magic, opening the way into the Arl’s hall. Her hall, she had to remind herself, taking note that save for a few tossed aside tables, the hall did not display any damage from battle. The ponyspawn had not taken an interest in the hall. Twilight felt a twinge of relief, but also something of trepidation as she took a few nervous steps into the hall.

Awaiting her stood the seat of the Arl of Amarethine, where she would be expected to sit and listen to the affairs of the arling. The dais she would sit on reflected the torchlight off a polished walnut surface, the former chair of Arl Rendon Maim before his joining forces with Teyrn Loghoof. The same Arl Twilight unfortunately slew due to his resistance.

She would have to find out what Maim’s policies were so she could counteract them. A terrible pony in life who only focused on his own greed, he likely did not have Amarethine in his best interests. Twilight wanted to be an Arlessa ponies could look up to and trust, and hopefully she would be given the opportunity.

So long as the ponyspawn threat was mitigated, though Twilight believed that scenario was unlikely.

Lyra whistled loudly as she took in the sights. “Wow, Twilight. I never figured an Arl’s place would look so… sparse. Nothing like the Magister’s mansions back home up north. However, I figure a few choice rugs, maybe some colourful candles, and we can make this place be the envy of all the lords of Equestria. Our first step should be your bedroom. I’m sure we can really have some fun redecorating in there.”

Twilight let out a frustrated noise, ignoring Lyra and her incessant giggles. A shame, as she was curious on her own sleeping arrangements, though Twilight felt certain her sleeping schedule would not be shared with Lyra. Instead, her focus was taken by Silverstar who smiled at her through his moustache.

“This here is where ya’ll be having yer audiences and such,” he explained, “The Banns will arrive tomorrow evening to swear their fealty to ya, Arlessa Sparkle. We’ll also bring in that crate the ponyspawn wanted so much. Bring it here for you to figure out what they were after.”

“Thank you, Seneschal,” Twilight replied with a nod. Silverstar tipped his hat and left the hall. Daisy walked up to Twilight, her smile bright despite the bloodstains on her armour and fur.

“I can’t wait to show you around,” she said, “Hopefully the ponyspawn haven’t ransacked the keep. They don’t usually loot and pillage, but they they’ve done many things they don’t usually do. I’ll send word to whatever guards we have to make sure the keep is secure before we move about on our own. There might be ponyspawn stragglers.”

Oghren sauntered up to Daisy and Twilight and plopped his haunches onto the ground. “Just make sure the kitchens are full and the booze ain’t harmed,” he said, “I’ve got a hankering for some eats and a lot of drinking.”

Twilight chuckled and shook her head. Some ponies, or in this case donkeys, never changed and thank Celestia for that. She would have to make time to speak with Oghren and what he was up to during his own adventures after the Battle of Trotterim. For now, she had other priorities to get to.

The doors opened again, allowing two earth pony soldiers and Silverstar to drag in a very large crate wrapped in chains and padlocks into the great hall. Everypony watched in curiosity as the guards set the crate down on that crate the Howler was so intent on capturing. Twilight approached the crate, eager to delve into its contents when Silverstar approached her with a parcel.

“Came with the crate, Commander,” he said, pushing the parcel to Twilight’s hooves. “Bears not only Her Majesty’s seal, but also the seal of Ashen Targe, the Grey Warden headquarters.”

“Thank you, Silverstar.” Twilight’s horn silently lit with a violet aura, wrapping the crate and parcel with the same power and casually lifting both into the air. “Lyra, Oghren, why don’t you two get yourselves a meal and a hot bath. Find your quarters, and then wait for my call. Daisy, I would like to bring this crate to my own room, so I’ll need you to help me find it. Silverstar, bring the body of the Howler to the dungeons; I’ll be by to examine it when I can. Just be very careful of the black blood.”

Daisy led the way through the corridors of the keep, with Twilight carrying her crate and parcel in a magical tow. As they walked, Twilight noticed soldiers and servants alike carrying about their business to make Brightstone presentable once again. Whether it was clearing away destroyed furniture or cleaning up spilled blood, they all worked diligently only to stop when Twilight approached them.

Few ponies bowed to their new arlessa, but all of them averted their gaze, some of them appearing cross at Twilight’s very presence. There was an air of resentment permeating from the gaze of the common ponies. This was something Twilight never felt before. Being hated by ponyspawn was expected for a Grey Warden, especially one who slew the Archdemon. Hated by ponies for her title was something else entirely.

“Come on, you lot,” Daisy quickly called, getting everypony back to their jobs. “That’s enough gawking. Tomorrow, the Arlessa takes her place in Brightstone, and I want you all to show her the proper respect. The Banns will be coming too, so the keep better be in tip top shape, got it?”

Daisy pursed her lips while the servants and soldiers muttered under their breaths. “I’m sorry about that, Commander. Many of them only knew the rule of Maim. It’s understandable that they are suspicious of a new arlessa. I’m sure you’ll win them over soon enough.”

Twilight certainly hoped so too, though she did not vocalize it. Her focus shifted onto the crate, her mind’s eye wanting to keep the mental clutter to a minimal. Daisy stopped in front of a door ornate with decorations as well as several locks, the room Twilight assumed once belonged to Rendon Maim. Daisy opened the door, only for Twilight to stop in the doorway.

This room, once the private sanctuary of a vile, evil pony, was to be hers. This room, whose last owner abandoned it for a more comfortable office in Trotterim. He only had to give his loyalty to a usurper, kidnap and torment several foals of nobles, and kill countless ponies. This room, which once belonged to the last pony Twilight had killed in battle.

“Commander?” Daisy waved her hoof in front of Twilight’s eyes in an effort to bring her back to the present. Twilight blinked rapidly, giving her head a quick shake before replying with a smile. Daisy tilted her head in confusion. “Are you all right? We made sure to get rid of most of Maim’s things in time for your arrival. Your quarters are pretty sparse, admittedly, but we can go into town once the damage from the—“

“This is perfect,” Twilight quickly said. She stepped inside her new room and promptly lowered the crate and her parcel onto the floor, taking in her new accommodations. The room held a magnificent view of Amarethine’s valleys to the north, as well as a clear picture of the night sky. The room, warmed by a roaring fire in the hearth, also had plenty of space, and Twilight already began to envision what it would look like in the end.

“The window is the perfect place to put a simple telescope,” Twilight said, “I haven’t been able to study the stars in a long time; I can’t wait to get started again. Do you think I’ll be able to buy a telescope in town? I’ll probably have to have it delivered, so I might need to get into contact with the Tower. Trixie owes me a favour anyways. How long does it take to get a messenger to the Tower from Amarethine? We can bring many bookshelves in here as well. I think I’ll be checking out plenty of books from the Arl’s personal library, but we can get to that soon enough and…”

Daisy giggled. “I see you’re excited at the possibilities. I’m glad. Her Majesty wanted to make sure you were comfortable, so we did everything we could to get rid of Maim’s belongings. It’s as if he was never here.”

As much as Twilight wanted to believe that, she could not. She turned her head to take in the room, only to spot the seething figure of Maim in the corner. His eyes, bloodshot and baggy, glared at Twilight with complete hatred. She blinked, and the shadow of the last arl quickly faded as well. Daisy continued to smile at her, hoping for some kind of response.

“I’ll need time to adjust,” Twilight finally replied. “Maim left a mark on me. I hope you understand. Go and have some dinner with Oghren and Lyra and be prepared for my call. I will conduct the Joining ritual tomorrow. We’ll have a busy night tomorrow with all the other Banns, as well as the rituals of the Grey Wardens.”

“Thank you, Commander. Have a good night too.” With one last bow of her head, Daisy left Twilight’s new room, leaving just the Commander and her hotly anticipated crate. Twilight walked around the crate a few times and looked over the various chains and padlocks that held it closed tight. The locks, sealed by steel and magic, rebuffed her magical probes. The answer then was to use the key in the sack.

The key, made of simple iron, lifted from the sack in the grip of her magic. It did not radiate with a spell like the lock, but Twilight used the key without further questions. The tumblers within the lock clicked open, and the chains around the chest snapped open and began to retract into the massive lock. Twilight took a step back as the lock fell onto the floor, the hooks and the chains now within the strange mechanism. When the noise subsided, the key fell to the floor and the chest opened on its own.

Twilight peered inside to find an assortment of different and unique items awaiting her. Before she examined the prizes, Twilight levitated a bundle of letters towards her. Each letter, bound by a different wax seal, held the cutie marks of her friends on the front and all written for Twilight.

She forgot all about the battle, the ponyspawn, and the chest itself as she lay on the fur rug of her new room with all her letters. Twilight picked up a simple decanter of water from the bedside and brought it and a cup towards her as she felt the warmth of the fire across her fur. With a simple flash of her horn, her armour shifted and she was now dressed in a quaint evening gown, comfortable and practical for an evening of reading letters.

Twilight lifted the letter emblazoned by the seal of Applejack first. The seal broke off with ease, and the letter unfolded in front of her. It read:

Dear Twilight,

By the time you get to sit down and read this, you should be comfortable in your new keep of Brightstone. I hope the transition was an easy one, and that you didn’t move in with an army of ponyspawn rattling down your door as I did.

Twilight laughed at the words. If Applejack remembered what she wrote, there was a good chance she chuckled as well, even at a distance.

You have a tough task ahead of you, being both Arlessa of Amarethine and Commander of the Grey Wardens, but you are the smartest pony I know. You’ll not only manage both jobs, but thrive on them too. There are some good ponies in Amarethine, like Silverstar, who will help you every step of the way. Maim’s shadow is still there though, so it may take time to win the hearts of the ponies, but if anypony can do it, it’s you.

I also sent a gift inside this crate, as the rest of your friends did to make this job a little easier. A good stallion used this shield in the defence of Equestria against the ponyspawn, and you found it and gave it to me to do the same. Now, I think you need it more than I do. Ironguard is yours, now, and I’m sure Duncan would be proud.

Twilight felt a sob choke in her throat as she turned her attention back to the crate. She called for the shield of Duncan, the first Grey Warden she had ever met, her mentor, and the pony who inducted her into the order. From the depths of the crate came a large, round, iron shield. On the front, the shield bore the animal symbol of Celestia, the phoenix, who rose from the burning flames of glory.

She wiped away her tears as she held the shield in front of her. When Duncan died, Applejack was the pony most affected, her grief near ceaseless until she found his shield in the ruins of Ostequus. That Applejack now gave the last memento of Duncan to Twilight meant more to her than could ever be put to mere words.

I think he’d like to know his shield is still protecting ponies from the ponyspawn, so treat Ironguard well. Shucks, I know you will. Just remember you have friends in high places, and I’ll come running if you ever call. We’ll have a feast of the finest apples in all of Equestria.

With best wishes, Applejack

“Thank you so much, Applejack,” Twilight said aloud, if only for her own comfort. She lifted Ironguard in her aura and laid it with reverence near her bed. While she loathed admitting it, Duncan’s shield would be used in battle soon, if the ponyspawn would not cease their attacks. Instead of concern over the violence, Twilight shut that part of her mind off and focused on her letters. There would be time to deal with the ponyspawn later.

The next letter was written on an immaculate piece of parchment, embroidered in gold and silver. The seal of three diamonds was not needed to inform Twilight that this letter came from Rarity. With the letter opened, she began to read:

Dearest Twilight,

I do hope this letter finds you in good spirits, darling. Celestia knows we could all use some higher spirits. Still, I won’t rain down on your parade, Arlessa Sparkle. Ooh, what a lovely title for such a lovely mare! Such glamour! Such grace! Have you found an appropriate gown to wear during audiences? Tell me if you need such, and I’ll be more than thrilled to make you the envy of all the lords and ladies of Equestria!

Sweetie Belle and I have just arrived in the Filesian capital along with Fluttershy, who sent her own letter and gift alongside mine. It was difficult adjusting to this place, as we don’t speak a single word of Filesian, and this is the home of both the Chantry and the Templar Order. It was frightful at first, but thanks to Fluttershy and her new position, I was able to open a new boutique in the city. It is quite the change compared to the swamp!

Twilight chuckled as memories of her first meeting with Rarity flashed in her eyes. How such a dainty unicorn lived in a swamp was beyond Twilight’s understanding, but she was forever grateful for meeting Rarity.

Enclosed with this letter is a gift for you, darling. Something so that you will never forget your friends, though I am sure you would not. It took some work, considering how difficult it is to get lyrium in Filais from under the snouts of the Chantry, but I think you’ll be quite pleased with the result.

Her curiosity now piqued, Twilight channelled her magic to the crate once more. Magical focus now on Rarity’s gift, she lifted a small black box and brought it towards her. The box opened and revealed a small gemstone pendant that hung on a silver chain. Twilight held it close to her eyes and adjusted it in the light, a delighted gasp of surprise from her mouth.

The gem shone with ethereal beauty in the light of the fire, and as she turned the pendant, the cutie marks of her friends sparkled within. Each mark shone with its own beauty, and Twilight found herself mesmerized by the gift.

Lovely, isn’t it? A simple pendant, but it took a dreadfully long time to make. I hope you love it, and when you wear it, think of us close to your heart. As much as I appreciate Cairidan’s Bracer of Nakuum, it is a bit drab. However, I’ll never take it off, of course.

Miss you terribly, dear. Please write often, even if it takes weeks for your letters to arrive. Moreover, if you need anything, anything at all, don’t hesitate to ask. I will be by your side in a heartbeat.

With all my love, Rarity

Twilight lifted the pendant over her head and slipped it around her neck, marvelling at the sight in the mirror. The apples of Applejack, the lightning bolt of Rainbow Dash, to even the stone-hoof sigil that was on Shale’s forehead all shimmered with brilliant light. One symbol made Twilight pause: the flaming sword Spike wielded into battle.

She felt the same constriction in her throat again as she looked at the reminder of Spike. “Thank you so much, Rarity,” Twilight said as she pressed her pendant close to her heart. Once she became calm, Twilight lifted the next letter from the bunch, this one from Fluttershy. It read:

Dear Twilight,

Even though the time since we last parted wasn’t that long ago, it feels like its been years already. I am doing well here in Filais, and have been given a position in the Chantry as the Keeper of the Solar Divine’s menagerie. Truth is, I do enjoy my work a lot, and Mister Bright Star is a kind pony to work under, but I would give anything to be with all my friends again. I’m glad Rarity and Sweetie Belle are in the city for me to visit. It would have been very lonely otherwise.

I wanted to send you something, but it proved very difficult to think of something appropriate. There are plenty of books in the Chantry’s libraries here in Val Royeux, but most of them have to do with the Chantry and very few books did not outright condemn magic. However, the Lunar Divine herself helped me find something she feels you would appreciate more than any other tome. I think she was right. I hope she was right. Please don’t be upset if you don’t like it.

Twilight shook her head as she read the note in Fluttershy’s flustered voice. Even her written words sounded just like her. With a flick of her magic, she sought out the gift sent by Fluttershy. A small package of simple cloth and string rose from the crate, and Twilight unravelled the present with care.

She smiled at the wonder inside, holding a clear yet pristine crystal towards the light of the hearth. A simple pyramid held within it a red flower, something akin to a rose. Held in perfect stasis by magic, Twilight turned the flower around in the light, admiring it at all angles.

This is called the Spera Rosa, Fluttershy’s letter explained, and it is the only plant that can grow in the Blightlands, specifically those in the ruined areas of the Unicorn Imperium. The Lunar Divine told me that while Imperium magisters use the Rosa as a sign of wealth, the Grey Wardens hold it in much more reverent regard. She said that the Rosa represents growth in a dead land, which the world can recover even from the most destructive of Blights.

She also said that it was the blood of Grey Wardens who sacrificed themselves that allows the Spera Rosa to grow in the Blightlands. I hope, when you look at this flower, that you know that if something as beautiful as this rose can grow in the worst of places, it means the very earth thanks you and the Grey Wardens for all they have done.

I miss you and the others so much, Twilight. I wish we could be together again, and always know if you need me, I’ll come. I may not be as fast as Rainbow Dash, but nothing would stop me from getting to you.

Celestia and Luna be with you, always, Fluttershy

“Thank you so much, Fluttershy.” Twilight laid the Spera Rosa down on the nightstand near her bed, another smile and another tear on her face. With still more letters to go, Twilight opened the next one with haste.

This letter, embroidered with Pinkie Pie’s cutie mark of three bulbous balloons, appeared the same as any other letter though felt much heavier when Twilight held it in her magic. With extreme care, mindful of Pinkie Pie’s propensity for party pranks, she opened the letter. Sure enough, the letter exploded in a hail glitter dust and confetti.

This is your singing letter

And I hope it finds you well!

We’re on our way to Geldwall,

Our new home where we will dwell.

We’ll be getting on a boat soon,

And we’ll sail across the sea,

Dash and I will miss you,

In the Plains that are called Free.

I left a pocket party package

In here just for you,

It was fun to make so I hope

You had some fun too!

This letter isn’t goodbye

Or in Filais ‘Bon Voyage!’

But one for ‘See you later’

Where friends can say Hi!

Twilight laughed as she put away Pinkie’s letter and gift. At least, what remained of it. Pinkie’s presence would be missed, since she always held the means to produce a smile on the face of even the dourest of ponies. In the darkest reaches of Equestria, Twilight always relied on Pinkie to lift hers and their friends’ spirits.

Alas, Pinkie now resided in Geldwall by now, and who knew what kind of nonsense she and Rainbow Dash were getting into in the Free Plains, far across the ocean. Speaking of which, Rainbow’s letter was next. Thankfully, this letter did not detonate like Pinkie Pie’s. Instead, it read:

Hey Twilight!

I’m not really very good at the letter-writing thing, so I’ll try to keep mine short. As I’m writing this, we’re waiting for our ship to Geldwall to get ready to go. We’re on the same ship as Ditzy and Dinky Doo, remember them? They say hi by the way. Anyways, it was Ditzy who helped us find this boat, so we’re really happy. Pinkie’s already made friends with many of the other passengers, including this couple named Cup and Carrot Cake. They plan to open a bakery in Geldwall, and Cup Cake is pregnant, so they want to make it a fresh start. Hate to say it, but a lot of ponies are leaving Equestria in hopes of a better life. A lot say they can’t stay in a Blighted land, even if we kicked the Archdemon’s butt!

So… I sent something along with Pinkie’s gift. Not sure if you’ll like it, but I know you are just going to love it!

A book floated from the chest towards Twilight. She smiled at the simple yet effective gift from Rainbow; it had been a very long time since she could sit down and read anything simply for enjoyment. The title read “The Dunes Beyond Pura Raza: A Journey to the Unknown East,” and looked to be about the hidden lands and nations to the east of Pura Raza. Already a strange continent with dubious customs, as per Rainbow’s stories, to find that there were documented reports of such places made Twilight envious that her friends were able to leave the borders of Equestria.

That said, the gift of a book such as this gave Twilight a welcome sight. While she remained in Amarethine, such tomes of knowledge allowed her to go to faraway places in her own right. While no substitute for real experiences, her lot in life demanded that she stay in Equestria and defend the land against the ponyspawn.

The letter did not go on for much longer. This might sound really weird, Twilight, but while we were waiting for a boat to take us to Geldwall, I may have cracked open the cover, got lost in the mystery of the Dune Lands, and basically read it front to back. Twice. Be proud, Twilight, be proud.

Almost makes me want to go back to Pura Raza, if only to make it to the Dune Lands myself. Two things stopping me: the fact that I promised Pinkie that I would help her find her family in Geldwall, and that I never want to go near Pura Raza if I can help it. Maybe there is another way to the Dune Lands, but for now, all I really want is this boat to get here.

Hopefully by the time you get this letter, I’ll be sailing towards Geldwall with Pinkie, so I guess this is so long for now. We’ll meet again, I know it. Just come visit us in Geldwall when you get the chance! Grey Wardens do get vacations, right?

Catch you on the flip side!

-Rainbow Dash

Twilight held the book aloft, impressed with Rainbow’s choice of a gift. As much as Daisy’s stories enticed her to plumb the depths of the keep’s library, a book from a friend would quickly ascend to the top of her reading pile. Even through her own studies, Twilight never heard of the Land beyond the Dunes, and eagerness crept over her as she considered the delicately embroidered cover of the tome.

She placed the book along with the other gifts, and then moved on to the next letter. Encased in some of the glitziest parchment Twilight ever beheld, she could not help but squint at the overly fanciful stylus she could only assume came from Trixie and Shale. Considering that the titles used by both were longer than the length of the envelope, Twilight shook her head. Those two simply refused to change, but at least they had each other now.

Twilight opened the envelope only to find the two letters seemingly in a contest to see whose letter Twilight would read first. In the end, she pulled both letters out, but chose to read Shale’s to start. Not that she favoured Shale over Trixie, but that Shale’s letter was considerably smaller. Trixie’s missive rolled down onto the ground for several feet before stopping.

However, when Twilight finally opened the paper heap, she regretted her decision. The crude writing that only a large brush could create hurt her sensibilities over penmanship, but at least Shale tried. The letter read:

Majekal Twilight

I m lurn to rite lik pone ur words r sily n nonses y so many words tat sund same

Bowsful Trixie say to rite anoter letter becuz tis one is bad but she is jut julus tat I m cik lernr

I myd her help ME rite all ur names is gud, yes?

Will crush bird now rite more pone words latr

The allmeety and indesruptible Shale

“I’m glad to see you learning, Shale. Thank you.” Twilight lowered Shale’s letter and moved on to Trixie’s. The new First Enchanter must have spent more time and magic on her cursive writing than anything else, as illegible words confused Twilight with all their loops and swirls. As she attempted to read bits and pieces of Trixie’s letter, one segment stood out to her. It read:

Shale will not admit it, so it will be the impeccable wisdom of the Talented and Humble, but still Great and Powerful First Enchanter Trixie to inform you, oh-not-so-powerful-but-decent Twilight Sparkle that Shale misses your presence. Trixie, in her Wondrous and Implacable wisdom, does not miss you quite so much, considering she carried the group throughout all over Equestria.

Trixie must admit that things are much more different now that she is no longer adventuring. The Tower has gone back to the same normalcy since Hubred’s betrayal, though the templars still view us unicorns with suspicion, even more so now. Still, thanks to Shale, they keep a wide berth from the unicorns. “The only one that shall do any unicorn squishing is me,” she once said. “I’ll have you know that I can easily add tin-pot templars to the list of things I shall crush under my hooves.”

Being the new First Enchanter is a challenge, but it is one Trixie happily accepts. You should see Snips and Snails now; they have become quite the illusionists. They tried to play a prank on Shale, but let us just say that they neither will be doing that again anytime soon. Trixie hopes you do not get overburdened by your new titles, but if you do, you can always pass them along to Trixie. She could always use a longer name.

Signed with the most utmost sincerity,

The Great, Powerful, Wise, Charitable, Humble, Forgiving, First Enchanter of the Equestrian Unicorn Tower, Slayer of Minotaurs, Friend to all Golems, Most Important Aide to the Hero of Equestria, Trixie Lulamoon

“Accurate in your own way, I suppose, Trixie.” Twilight placed the letters along with the others and let out a long awaited sigh. With exception of Oghren, whom she guessed saw no need to write a letter as he made his own way to Brightstone, this was to be the last correspondence with all her friends for a long while. They were off to the four corners of the world, as it was, to seek out their own lives and destinies. While letters would be slow, she could always keep in touch, somehow.

All save one.

Twilight cursed and bit her lip, but nothing could stop the painful memory of watching Spike engulfed in the shadow-flames of the Archdemon. She cursed herself this time, due to her failure at protecting Spike from the Archdemon and her subsequent failure to finish the job and defeat Uthemiel. More lives were lost due to her, and each one weighed heavily on her mind.

With utter care, Twilight tried to dispel her despair by shifting focus to the next letter. Only two more remained in the crate, and each came along with a package. A violet aura wrapped around the larger of the two and brought the package and letter to Twilight. This one bore the seal of the Grey Wardens, so Twilight assumed it came from the headquarters of Ashen Targe. The letter opened crisply, and the text within read clear and concise.

To Commander of the Equestrian Grey, Twilight Sparkle,

From the Office of Lord Grau Rüstung,

I would first like to congratulate you and your friends on the defeat of the Archdemon and the Blight of Equestria. Grey Wardens the world over felt the foul dragon’s death throes, as is recorded in the archives. Most unusual was the fact that you, Frau Sparkle, somehow lived through the killing blow, but we will not look providence in the mouth.

As I am sure you are well aware, Wardens from Ashen Targe have removed the carcass of the Archdemon from Trotterim. We have collected a vast quantity of blood from the fiend, so we will be able to have more Wardens undertake the Joining ritual for generations to come until the Blight of Ending.

Such as it is, now that you have taken over Duncan’s role as Commander of the Equestrian Grey, I hereby offer to you the symbol of your station; the Silver Chalice of the Joining Ritual. Along with the flask of Archdemon blood held securely in this crate, you will be able to conduct well over one hundred Joinings.

Needless to say, the journey ahead of you will be a difficult one, and unfortunately, Ashen Targe cannot spare any more Wardens to help Equestria right at this moment. With the defeat of an Archdemon, the Dark Tunnels are in disarray and ripe for a counterattack. Have no fear, Commander. We know that Equestria cannot lend aid to the battles below at this junction. Use this time to rebuild a new generation of Grey Wardens, so that another generation and more after that shall rise to meet the challenge of the ponyspawn in the future.

Remember, we are the first and last line of defense against the ponyspawn. Stay strong, Sister, for challenges will continue well after the Archdemon drew its last breath.

In peace, vigilance. In war, victory. In death, sacrifice.

-Ashen Targe

Twilight looked over the letter one last time before tossing it into the flames. She watched the parchment catch fire and burn away to ashes in rapid succession. The only other Grey Warden that aided Equestria in its hour of need, Riordan, had told Twilight that the Lords of Ashen Targe abandoned Equestria after the disastrous battle of Ostequus. The fact that they wanted to use Equestria as an “example” with her blighted lands and ruined people made Twilight sick to her stomach.

Once the letter burnt to a crisp, Twilight levitated the silver chalice and the flask of blood from the Archdemon. Her nose rankled at the very sight of the pitch-black blood, even if she could not smell the foulness within. A smell that would stay with her all her life, a new fear made its presence known as a lump in her throat.

She would oversee another generation of Grey Wardens to put under the sword, or in this case, under the shadow of a chalice. The lethality of the Joining ritual hung over her head, and Twilight knew all too well how many did not survive the process. During her own Joining, two hopefuls had died and left her the sole survivor and thus Grey Warden.

Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren would be the hopefuls to take the foul Taint within their own bodies through a cocktail of Archdemon blood, ponyspawn blood, and lyrium to hold it all together. The likelihood that one of those three would die chilled Twilight. Oghren was an old friend who battled the Archdemon with her, and there could be no telling what the Archdemon blood could do to a donkey’s body. Daisy proved herself a capable warrior and Twilight easily considered her a friend after they spilt blood on the battlefield. Lyra, already a skilled and powerful battlemage, wanted to become a Warden to be free of the Imperium.

All three good friends, no matter how long or short Twilight had known them, would be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Even if the Joining did not kill them outright, their life spans would be cut by thirty years. The Taint still afflicted Grey Wardens, and would eventually drive them to become ghouls; ponies gone mad thanks to the corrupting influence of the ponyspawn blood. It was an end Twilight did not like to imagine for herself, as the alternative was to lead one final attack on the Dark Tunnels at the end of her days and die killing as many ponsyspawn as she could.

As she studied the vial, Twilight recalled the fervor the Howler showed in trying to take the crate and the contents. Certain that the ponyspawn leader did not have interest in the gifts of her friends, Twilight wondered what purpose the ponyspawn had for the blood of their leader. She knew that the blood gave certain ponyspawn strange mutations, but that could not be the only reason. Perhaps they used such in some sort of Dark Art ritual or another. Twilight shivered. The idea of the ponyspawn’s twisted magic along with the blood of a fallen dragon god unnerved her.

Twilight took a deep breath before levitating both the chalice and the vial of blood back into the crate. All that remained now was one final letter and a much smaller package. A simple letter strung along with a small thin package lifted from the crate with little effort on Twilight’s part. She raised her brow in surprise; there were no identifiable markings, only simple text that read “To Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight opened the letter and found that the missive only contained one line. It read:

You will need this.


After examining the letter in all angles she could, Twilight could not sense anything unusual from the letter. She moved on to the package, opening it up only to watch a single shard of glass fall from within.

“Is this somepony’s idea of a prank?” Twilight quashed such a conclusion as she looked back on the crate. The magical chains sealed the container just earlier, and with so many safeguards to keep the crate safe, this glass shard needed to be something more than a practical joke. Yet try as she might, Twilight could not discern anything from the glass. There was no trace of magic, lyrium, or anything her arcane knowledge could reveal.

Instead of focusing on the glass shard further, Twilight placed it back in the package and then into a small drawer on her nightstand. With the crate re-secured, and the gifts now on display throughout her chambers, Twilight looked to her bed now with longing. She took a deep breath, then jumped onto the bed, enjoying the comforting feeling of something other than the cold ground to sleep on during a march.

Sleep would not come easy, however. So long as the silver chalice and the blood of Uthemiel remained near her, Twilight struggled to keep her eyes closed. The haunting aura from the chest that contained them bothered her to no end, and soon she roused herself from her bed, picked up her pillow and her blanket and began to walk through Brightstone’s keep halls.

She walked a brisk pace until she came across the barracks room set aside for the Grey Wardens. As Twilight neared the door, she could already hear an argument between Lyra and Oghren over who got top bunk. Considering that there should have been plenty of sleeping spaces for everyone, Twilight could only cock her head in confusion. Perhaps they only argued because they enjoyed such.

With a slight push from her hoof, Twilight winced as the old door creaked loud, announcing her presence to the Grey Warden hopefuls. Lyra and Daisy looked up in surprise, while Oghren waved at Twilight with a pillow in his mouth, of which he promptly spat out.

“Hey there, Twilight!” he said, “Coming to check on the recruits? Good, ‘cause then you can tell Harpflank here to give up the top bunk. I like being up high after all the stuff we’ve been through.”

“I want the bunk closest to the door in the event I need to use the little filly’s room!” Lyra complained, “And there is no way I am letting somepony or donkey as smelly as you take the top bunk.”

“If you can resolve this quickly Commander, I would really appreciate it,” Daisy said with pleading eyes. “I really want to get some sleep.”

Twilight looked at the Grey Warden recruits, or as she reminded herself, new and old friends. She listened to them squabble for a moment about something as simple as beds before she burst into a torrent of giggles. The others looked on confuse as Twilight wiped a tear from her eye.

“There are plenty of bunks for everyone,” Twilight said, “Lyra, you can have that one on the left, Oghren can have that one, and Daisy can have whatever she wants. As for me… I’ll take this one, by the window.”

They watched as Twilight brought her pillow and blanket over to a nearby bed, with Twilight humming away happily as she prepared her bed. Twilight looked over her shoulder and said, “I hope you all don’t mind. I couldn’t sleep, and I think it would be better to sleep alongside my friends. I miss those days, back on the road.”

As Twilight predicted, Lyra jumped at her words. She kept her magical grip tight on the pillow. “That’s great! Totally great! Listen, forget the bunks, you and I can share a bed. Yeah, it’s a little snug, but we’ll keep each other warm, you just have to open your heart and your hooves to the idea.”

Twilight took a deep breath, then quickly turned to fling her pillow at the unsuspecting Lyra. The pillow harmlessly bounced off Lyra’s face before she could even blink, only for the battlemage to glower and encase several pillows in a minty green aura.

“You may have a flank to die for, but honey, I’m about to get dangerous on you.” Before Lyra could fire, another pillow struck her face, followed by another. Oghren and Daisy shared goofy grins before ducking behind the beds for cover. Twilight smiled as she joined them, and the greatest pillow fight she had ever known began, leaving the worries of the silver chalice, the Archdemon blood, and the next day far forgotten for a night.

Joined in Body and Mind

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Chapter 4 – Joined in Body and Mind

After a breakfast of honey and oats with her friends, Twilight felt reinvigorated to meet the day head-on. She looked to each member of the Grey Warden hopefuls with her own goal to give them a sense of calm before the Joining Ritual later that night. On the other hoof, as Twilight continuously tried to tell herself, perhaps to give her own fears some rest. This could very well be their last day alive. How best to spend it?

“Everypony, listen up,” Twilight said as she called for the others to gather around her. “Tonight after dusk, we’ll be undertaking the Joining Ritual. I won’t lie to you all; this won’t just be a simple ceremony with some solemn words and some lyrium. This is dangerous and it could very well be lethal. When I undertook the Joining, two other hopefuls died. One by the ritual itself, and the other by my mentor Duncan’s hoof.”

Lyra and Daisy looked at each other, then to Twilight. She felt her stomach tie into a knot as she relayed that memory in words. She would not kill them if they refused, that much she counted as certain. Still, Twilight determined that the outside world simply was not ready to accept the truth on how Grey Wardens were inducted into their order. The Joining shared too many similarities with blood magic, and that twisted practice held a proper stigma for its diabolic uses.

For now, simple trust would have to do. “For now, I just want you all to spend the day doing whatever you please. Anything at all. I also will not blame you if you leave Brightstone. Such a decision to stay and undertake the Joining should not be made lightly. You have the entire day to decide if this is what you really want. To become Grey Wardens is the duty that cannot be forsworn. Please remember this before tonight. You are dismissed.”

Without another word, Twilight left the barracks of the Grey Wardens with hope in her heart that her newfound friends would take her words seriously. There was no doubt that Oghren would not leave, not now, for his love of battle and challenges brought him to the doorstep of Brightstone to begin with. Daisy and Lyra were the unknowns. Twilight did not doubt their bravery. In the face of a lethal choice, however, would they willingly take such a burden as the Wardens demanded?

Twilight would have to wait until after dusk for such an answer. For now, her day’s itinerary involved meeting the ponies of Brightstone after the siege and determining where to focus rebuilding efforts. On her way through the halls of the keep, Silverstar appeared to be waiting for Twilight underneath an archway leading to the keep’s audience chamber.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Arlessa,” Silverstar said, “Just wanted to inform ya that the Banns under Amarethine’s sphere o’ influence will be arriving together in the afternoon. Ya’ll be expected to entertain them rascals, but they are under yer command. It’s funny seein’ them all to be here in one place though. Most of the time they are too busy snipin’ and pickin’ fights with each other.”

Twilight felt a migraine caused by politics beginning to form. “Wonderful news. Hopefully they’ll be able to explain to me why they did not show up when Brightstone was under siege. Apple… I mean, Her Majesty’s army could see the burning keep miles away.”

“They can certainly lie to ya, Ah tell ya what.” Silverstar gave a deep sigh. “Wouldn’t wish this sort of stuff on my worst enemy, but heavy is the head that bears the title. Don’t worry, milady, the Banns won’t be here until well into the afternoon. Ah’ll send a pegasus quick like when they arrive. Got a few of them employed as couriers. Pretty darn quick too.”

Twilight thanked Silverstar before they both made their way out of the keep’s gates and into the small township within Brightstone’s walls. The morning sun greeted them alone with nary a cloud in the sky, and it almost appeared as if the siege the previous night had not occurred. Already the citizens that made their homes around the keep worked to clean up both debris and carcasses of the slain. Ponies caught in the fighting had their bodies moved with reverence. Ponyspawn corpses were dumped into inglorious pyres and set alight.

Just like the ponies who worked in the keep, those who milled about ignored her or avoided eye contact. Twilight’s ears splayed across her head, only for her to remember her resolve to prove to these ponies that she would become a much better Arl than Maim ever was.

She approached an older stallion who busied himself with removing broken bits of masonry away from the northern walls. Twilight regarded the massive piles of broken stonework from a wall destroyed by a minotaur’s fists, and began to channel a simple levitation spell around her horn. The magic captured the broken bits of stone in her violet aura. With ease, Twilight moved the debris into the cart nearby, reducing the stallion’s workload.

Instead of a look of thanks, the stallion gave her a curt nod, hitched himself to the cart, and walked off with nary a word. Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose; this would prove more challenging than she anticipated. The ponies of Amarethine showed themselves not to be the most accepting bunch.

She and Silverstar continued to walk down the path towards the town where they soon found themselves watching a pair of fillies drag a sled of food up towards a building long charred by the ponyspawn’s flames. They barely looked over ten summers old, yet they both shared the look of yearlings who could not eat a decent meal save for the shrubs in their shed.

“Hello,” Twilight said as she approached the fillies. “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m the new Arlessa of Amarethine, and I want to know if there is anything I can do to help. Are you hungry? I can easily find you some better food than dried old shrubs.”

Their eyes wide in terror, both fillies dropped to the ground in a bow caused by fear. “We’re sorry for taking your plants, Arl!” cried one. “We were hungry and the ponyspawn destroyed our home and they burnt most of the food and… and.. . and…”

The fillies began to cry out of fright, causing a scene Twilight would never in a hundred years wish to make. Soon a small gathering of townsponies surrounded her and Silverstar, though they did not get too close.

“No different from Arl Maim,” said one.

“She’ll bring us nothing to trouble, being a noble, Grey Warden, and a unicorn,” said another.

The crowd dispersed to resume their work. Silverstar approached her side and shook his head. “Ponies from Amarethine are stubborn folk,” he explained, “Kind of like ponies from Red Apple or Appleoosa. Instead of being stubborn and helpful, mind you, they are fiercely independent. Maim’s daddy, Kick Start, wanted the ponies of Amarethine to be self-reliant. This was used as a way to keep the Filesian lords who ruled Equestria back in the day off their backs. When Maim took the lands after the old king kicked the Filesians out, he pushed the same beliefs. Instead of self-reliance for strength and toughness, though, he promoted such a belief again, if only to lessen his own workload.”

“ Just remember that combined with a long tradition of self-reliance and a general mistrust of nobles, thanks to Maim, getting these ponies on your side will be a challenge. The Banns aren’t much better, but you’ll see they strut that dirty side of them the moment they step through Brightstone’s gates.”

Twilight furrowed her brow as she took in Silverstar’s words, only for her to make her way quickly to the top of a bunch of crates. Only a few ponies noticed that their arlessa took a stance above them, though a few stopped what they were doing.

“Everypony! Listen to me!” When she noticed her shout sailed over their heads, Twilight amplified her voice with a spell. “Everypony! The Arlessa of Amarethine wishes to have your attention!”

This did cause the townsponies to stop, though they looked at her as if she just sprouted another head. “Thank you,” Twilight said, bringing her voice back down in volume. “There are some things I feel I need to address with all of you, things that I will inform the region of soon. It was my hope that I could wait until things settled down and let you all adjust to the changes, but a ponyspawn attack changes everything.”

“What about that attack?” shouted one pony, “How can you promise to protect Amarethine when Brightstone fell so easily?”

“My first act as Arlessa is to announce a major recruitment drive for the Amarethine army under my command.” Twilight noticed that that made some heads swivel. Now was the time to press the advantage. “During the Blight, Amarethine was blessed to not have had ponyspawn incursions until now. As arlessa, I will rebuild our army to protect this land and her ponies. As Commander of the Grey, I promise you that I will personally find the cause of this attack and put an end to it before anypony else is hurt.”

“What if you can’t raise an army? What if ponies don’t want to join you and just want to stay in their farms or Amarethine City?”

“Then I will call on the assistance of the Queen personally.” Twilight hated to use Applejack as a political bargaining tool, but it was her best bet to get these ponies to listen. It also meant she could appeal to their sense of self-reliance. “She will send her personal army to help patrol the lands. As many of you know, however, that the Royal Army is not cheap to maintain. Taxes will no doubt increase, but I leave this choice to the ponies of Amarethine: those who are brave and heed the Arlessa’s call to become soldiers and knights in service to their land, or to remain on their farms and work harder to pay a larger debt. This choice I leave to you all.”

Twilight smiled as her words sparked discussion amongst the collective populace. She finally got through to them. Now to press the advantage.

“We have all suffered a lot. The Blight. This new attack on Brightstone. But I know together we can rebuild, re-grow, and rejuvenate Amarethine to be even better than before. The most important part of all of this is trust, however. I trust the ponies of Amarethine to work hard and well towards a brighter future. What I need is your trust that I am not Maim. I will not spend gold on frivolous pursuits or waste my time or anypony else’s time. My duty is not to rule over you, but to protect you. Whether from the ponyspawn or political machinations, this is my duty, both as an Arlessa and as a Grey Warden.”

The ponies of Brightstone, while still not as accepting as Twilight would have liked, also showed that they would consider her words about soldiers and the ponyspawn. They returned to their business once Twilight stepped down from her makeshift podium, and Silverstar gave her a nod of approval.

“Ya have a knack for stuff like this,” he said as they resumed their walk around Brightstone. “Gotta say, Ah didn’t right think you were up to the challenge of governance. Politics is a more dangerous battlefield than any a ponyspawn could inhabit, Ah figure.”

“Ponies need a firm yet gentle hoof,” Twilight replied, “But most of all, they want to be free. While they have their obligations to family and kingdom, they ultimately want to have the choice on how to live their lives. I gave them the choice of either military service or higher taxes, since the needs of the state must be met, somehow. In the end, I did what I believed was right and as a Grey Warden, I did what I must.”

With her first act as an administrator for a province done, Twilight set out to prove that she could do more than talk the talk but also trot the trot. She walked over to a cart laden with broken stones, then hitched herself to the yoke. A couple years of near constant battles and journeys across the land hardened her body and gave her strength and stamina, so a simple cart did not prove a challenge compared to the maw of a minotaur. Twilight did not mind working her mind by reading books. Working her body would be comparably similar. She hoped.

“Please,” she said to the stallion earlier who carried away the damaged stone. “Let me help.”

The stallion did not smile, but he did nod his head somewhat. “Might as well. Gets the job done quicker.”

It was all Twilight asked for.


With the sun at high noon, Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow after taking down another cart full of debris. The simple act of hauling stones gave Twilight a new appreciation for the hard work Applejack enjoyed back in Red Apple. While her bones ached, Twilight could not help but smile. The work filled her with a sense of satisfaction, and the ponies of Brightstone did not look at her with disdain, but with approval. While some whispered that her work was merely a show, others said just inside her earshot that her labour was more than anything Maim did for them.

Twilight sat with Silverstar and a few other townsponies as they enjoyed a quick break including some refreshing water and oranges when the slight shadow of a pegasus darkened their table. A very scrawny colt flyer landed nearby. He appeared to be little more than perhaps ten years old, with bad teeth and a grey coat. He stood on legs like spindles, before bowing low to Twilight.

“Featherweight reporting, ma’am, Arlessa, miss hero.” The colt tried his best to salute, but his ragged breaths gave made his hoof shake. Twilight levitated a mug of water and an orange, peeling the fruit as she watched Featherweight drink.

“Rest up and eat,” Twilight said as she offered the skinless fruit. She then turned to Silverstar. “This must be the scout you mentioned earlier. If he is here, then the Banns must be close. Let’s go meet them.”

She called for some of her guards to help Featherweight back into the keep, and then said her goodbyes to her new acquaintances. Twilight did not heed the dust and dirt that clung to her robes and fur; she likened the look that she was a hooves-on kind of pony, rather than a stiff upper-crust noble afraid to get her mane dirty.

Twilight did not bring any of her guards, but instead stood tall as she nodded to the gatekeepers to open the doors. Twilight waited in silence as the main gate creaked open as gears grinded against chains in a loud, obnoxious noise before they came to a halt. Silverstar shifted on his hooves and adjusted his hat. He seemed nervous, but a quick glance in his direction made the seneschal straighten up.

The three Banns approached the gates of Brightstone with their entourage. One mare and two stallion earth ponies decked in fine armour and weapons made their way through the gate, their banners flapping in the wind. Not one of the Banns had a blemish on them, and Twilight found herself eyeing these nobles with caution. Silverstar’s warning held close to her heart, and she knew she had to be on her guard around them. They were supposed to be her dignitaries and protectors of the ponies of Amarethine. Instead, each had the appearance of predators; they would not hesitate to strike should the opportunity arise.

“I bid you all greetings to Brightstone Keep,” Twilight said, trying to her best to keep her smile sincere. “Please excuse the mess. The ponyspawn are tenacious in their sieges, and we are still in the process of rebuilding. I hope we can work together to keep Amarethine safe and prosperous.”

The mare looked over Twilight with a critical eye. Her short cut blonde mane did not move in the wind, and she appeared to be leader of Amarethine’s Bannorn thanks to her harsh demeanor. “I am certain we can come to some sort of amicable relationship,” she said, “I am Bannora Harshwhinny, and these are my fellows, Bann Ground Pound and Bann Broad Strokes. We heard of the ponyspawn attack on Brightstone and moved as quickly as we could to—“

“Arrive at noon the next day, when your holdings are all less than two hours march from Brightstone.” Twilight’s smile faltered. Already the Banns were giving her excuses. “I’ve looked over the maps and calculated how long it would take to bring even an emergency reserve force to bear.”

“My Lady, we understand you are new to lordship, and perhaps don’t have the experience with military logistics, leadership—“

Twilight raised a hoof. Her expression became sterner. “You might be surprised with what I do know, Bann Pound. I know what it is like to see the horrors of the Dark Tunnels first hoof. I know how to lead a small band of earth ponies, pegasi, unicorns, donkeys, golems, and dragons to save a nation. I know how to slay an Archdemon. I am going to make myself very clear to all of you.”

Twilight’s tone changed from the lighthearted nurturing one she used with the populace of Brightstone to a voice laced with steel. “The granaries empty faster than expected. We do not have enough food to last through the winter. The ponies are disgruntled. There are ponyspawn attacking throughout the countryside and Amarethine is defenseless. Fillies and gentlecolts, I am utterly appalled that you, who are supposed to safeguard the land, allowed Maim to wreck such havoc.

What did he promise to pay you all? Lands? Titles? Gold? None of these things matter anymore. I already told the ponies of Brightstone my plan to keep Amarethine defended. You three will go back to your holdings and deliver my request for soldiers. You will oversee the collection of taxes, the success of the harvest, and you Bann Harshwhinny, will ensure that the city ports are open to trade. I am going to liquidate all of the treasures and luxuries Maim collected over the years, and they will be brought to the city to be sold. What little gold we can collect from this will be used to rebuild. These are my orders. Do you all understand?”

Harshwhinny looked to protest when Broad Strokes held her back. “We hear you perfectly, my Lady.” He declined his head. “And we will help you achieve all your goals. The day is not yet done; perhaps we can use it to help each other.”

Twilight breathed a little easier when she heard Stroke’s support. “Thank you. It is as you say; I am not experienced in the art of governance. Coupled with my duties as Commander of the Grey, I need all the support I can get. As long as we are all on the same page, we can really make this work.”

With her smile now returned, Twilight shook the hooves of the Banns. “Tonight, we are going to celebrate. Not just that Brightstone can expel the ponyspawn hordes, but that we can rebuild our walls, our lives, and our arling. Come to the keep at sundown, and we will have a communal meal with the new Grey Wardens and the ponies of Brightstone. There, we can conduct the fealty ceremony as well, to confirm the loyalties of Amarethine Bannorn. While I always give everypony a chance to prove their trust, the traditions must be kept as well as the records, which will be sent to the Queen. I hope everything is in order?”

Harshwhinny blinked rapidly and turned to look in the direction of the working populace. “You want us to eat with… peasants?”

Twilight did not take the bait. “Ponies. They may not have titles or fiefs, but they wake up every morning the same as we all do. I trust this won’t be such a problem, Bann Harshwhinny.”

“It won’t be an issue, my Lady,” Harshwhinny said, her voice tinged with annoyance. “I look forward to tonight.”

“Perfect!” Twilight clapped her hooves in delight. “We are already off to a great start. I can’t wait for the ceremony now. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go prepare the checklist to prepare for the event. Silverstar, can you escort the banns until tonight?”

Silverstar bowed. “It’ll be my pleasure, my Lady.”


Dusk seemed to fall rather quickly, and Twilight found herself back in her room alone save for Daisy as the hopeful Warden rummaged about the closets. She had spent the last half-hour in an attempt to find Twilight an appropriate garb for the fealty ceremony, only to find that all of Twilight’s robes were simple wear.

“Everything in here is just so… boring.” Daisy said as she tossed one of Twilight’s favourite yellow robes aside. “You travelled with a seamstress and couldn’t snag something with a bit more flare?”

“Trust me, Rarity tried many times to get me into some gaudy fashions.” As Twilight spoke with Daisy, she levitated a brush through her mane. Bits of dust and dirt clung to her hair and simply would not let go. “What can I say? I like to keep things simple and sensible. Besides, I invited everypony to come. The ponies need to know that I’m an approachable arlessa. What better way than to eat with me, the Wardens, and the banns? I never understood the division of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It’s like a three estate system is in place and while functional on some degree…”

“Commander. Tangent.” Daisy shook her head as Twilight shut her mouth. “Here, try this. I found it in one of the other rooms. A simple maroon dress with embroidered flowers around the shoulders. With this blue sash around your waste, some violet slippers, and a nice flower in your mane, you’ll stand out as a mare of elegance and refinement. A true image of an arlessa.”

Twilight shrugged and began to put on the offered robes. Once she was dressed, Daisy brought over a flower pot on her head filled with carnations. “Not the best selection, but we have to make do with what we have. My sister Lily wore flowers in her hair. Well, lilies. Probably still does right now…”

Twilight’s ears drooped as she heard the sadness in Daisy’s voice. “You miss your sisters, don’t you?”

“All the time.” Daisy placed the carnation against Twilight’s ear. “Do you have any siblings Commander?”

“No. Maybe? I don’t know.” Twilight’s chest constricted for a moment. “I never knew my blood family. Never knew my father or my mother. Unicorns are taken when they are just yearlings by the Unicorn Tower so they can be taught the safe practice of magic. If I have any siblings, I never met them. Sometimes, when I’m asleep, the Fade tries to recreate my earliest memories, but all I see is a blur. A blue coated stallion and a white coated mare looking down on me. They try to say something, but the noise of the Fade makes it difficult to hear them.”

She took a deep breath. “I had a younger brother who helped us fight the Blight. Not related by blood… he was a baby dragon. I hatched the egg with my magic, raised him, and taught him everything he knew… He came with me to fight against the Blight. Throughout our adventures, I always thought he would be by my side.”

“Then the Battle of Trotterim came.” Twilight wiped the fresh tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I should be more focused on the ceremonies tonight. Once the fealty oaths have been sworn, we’ll move to the parapets for the Joining Ceremony. It’s a very… life changing moment, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“I can, Commander.” Daisy tried to appear confident, but Twilight could see the subtle shake of her knees. “It’s what I want, to be a Warden. Does the Joining hurt? I can’t find any information on that particular ritual.”

Twilight could not help but laugh at Daisy’s question. “I’m sorry,” she said, checking her appearance over once more before heading to the door. “But I won’t lie. The Joining will either be the worst pain in the world you will ever feel… or your last pain.”

Daisy’s audible gulp shook Twilight as they made their way out of her room and into the halls of Brightstone once again. First they had to collect Lyra and Oghren from the Warden’s quarters. They walked in silence with only a few guards on patrol for interactions. With the banquet hall being prepared, the rest of the keep spent the second night under Twilight’s rule in preparation for a feast, though at a small scale. A ponyspawn attack could not put life on hold. Twilight could only move forward after all.

Once they arrived at the quarters, Twilight opened the door to find Oghren looking especially grouchy while Lyra tittered around him. Her back turned to Twilight, Lyra shook her head as she used her magic to grasp at Oghren’s red mane and beard.

“I hate you,” Oghren muttered and shifted in his rather dapper blue suit. His mane was tied back rather than sticking up with his usual spikey style, and his beard, while still in the same double braids, were bound to his mane.

“Oh come on now,” Lyra said; her own mane tied in an outrageous updo that would make Rarity proud. “You have to look nice for the arlessa’s guests. When was the last time you dolled yourself up? I swear, you have bits of dust and blood in your mane that are older than me.”

“That’s because they are older than you, you mad mare.” Oghren huffed and shrugged himself free of Lyra’s magical grip. Thanks to the donkey innate magical resistance, Oghren escaped her hold and gave his head a good shake; the vibrations freed his beard and allowed the braids to fall.

“I haven’t had to take a bath in years. Only my ex-wife gave me grief over my smell. Now, she’s slag. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to lament my sobriety by stuffing my face.”

Twilight chuckled and the sound attracted the attention of Oghren and Lyra. Both stood at attention in their finery, and Twilight found herself appreciating Lyra’s clothing choice. Gone were the dark, sullen robes of the battle mage, which were replaced with white silk with golden trim. She seemed to glitter in the torchlight and the image caused Twilight to catch her breath.

Lyra, of course, noticed. “Like what you see, hmm?” She approached Twilight with half-lidded eyes, fluttering her eyelashes in an attempt at seduction. Twilight rolled her eyes, channeled her own magic and gave Lyra a quick but polite push.

“Come on, Grey Wardens,” Twilight said, “Let’s go meet the people.”

They walked together towards the great hall of Brightstone. The sounds of ponies talking and enjoying themselves elated Twilight. Her plan worked to get everypony together and simply forgetting the troubles caused by the ponyspawn. The guards along with Silverstar waited for Twilight. They all saluted Twilight before Silverstar stepped forward.

“My Lady,” Silverstar said with a bow, “Your Wardens will be going in first and make their way to their own table. The banns are already inside and waiting for your arrival, which we’ll announce right quick. That Broad Strokes fellow seems amicable enough, but Harshwhinny is not bein’ a good guest. She keeps a-snipin’ at the workin’ types. Ground Pound hasn’t done anything either way. Once you’re in, though, everything will come to order.”

“All right,” Twilight said with a nod. “Wardens, head on inside. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren nodded in reply and made their way into the banquet hall proper. Once they were seated, Silverstar entered the hall and raised his voice.

“Fillies and gentlecolts of Brightstone and Amarethine. Honoured guests. It is my esteemed pleasure and honour to present to you the Arlessa of Amarethine, Commander of the Equestria Grey Wardens, and Hero of Equestria. Please welcome… Her Lady, Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight felt her heart thunder against her chest at Silverstar’s introduction. How odd that in little more than a year, she went from a simple mage so enraptured by her studies to a Grey Warden travelling the land to a lady of the realm and a hero of all Equestria. She wished her friends were here to help support her, but a quick rub of her bracer, the same bracer they all wore, helped remind her that they were all close despite the distances.

Twilight walked through the banquet hall to the applause of all her guests. She felt her cheeks burn thanks to the attention, something she did not seek out. A question rose within her: were they genuinely happy to see her or just giving her some sort false praise simply because of her rank? Such questions made her doubt the loyalty of the ponies she was supposed to work with.

The world of politics. She almost hoped the beating in her chest was the telltale sign of the ponyspawn.

Twilight took her seat in the dead center of the head table, with her hopeful Wardens on her right and her banns on her left. Everypony watched her and waited for her to speak. Twilight coughed into her hoof as she assessed the group. Everypony she invited from the workhorses to the fillies who ran from her attended the soiree.

“Good evening, everypony,” Twilight said to the assembled guests. “Tonight is the start of a new era for Amarethine. Tonight, noble and common pony sit and dine together as friends as we prepare ourselves for the future. The time of Arl Rendon Maim is now long ended and it is my solemn vow to everypony here and in all of Amarethine that under my leadership, no pony will live in fear once again. To do this, however, we need to help one another. I will do my best to organize our arling and defend it from ponyspawn incursions. I trust that our Banns will work with me to accomplish everything, and I trust the people to work hard to bring our shared vision of safety and prosperity to life.”

“Hear hear!” Bannora Harshwhinny smiled at Twilight. All Twilight could think was that the smile looked forced. Harshwhinny needed to be watched.

Twilight shifted focus on her guests. “The ponyspawn attacked us and we fought them back. They will strike again. Let us show our enemies that the ponies of Amarethine are stronger than they think us for. Let us show the denizens of the Dark Tunnels that they are not the hammer that will sunder our armour, but the anvil of which will strengthen our resolve!”

The ponies in attendance looked at each other as Twilight spoke, until one filly began to stomp her hooves. Soon, others joined in and a chorus of applaud rose over the main hall of Brightstone. Twilight did want the ponies to believe her and to believe the words of her message. Regardless of which they placed faith in, she seemed to connect with them, at least on the most basic level. Once she abolished the terrors of Rendon Maim, she would focus solely on the ponyspawn threat.

Once the chorus ended, one of Brightstone’s resident Chantry Sisters led the room in giving thanks to the Sisters. The assembly turned to the food, and everypony ate long and well. This gave Twilight an opportunity to think solely on what was to come. She needed to prepare herself mentally for the ritual ahead. Her Joining saw the deaths of two, one by the dark blood, another by the blade of the Warden in charge.

Please don’t let anypony die, Twilight prayed, and hoped that just once, Celestia would hear her.


The feast ended late into the night, and the townsponies of Brightstone returned to their homes, while the Banns retired to the guest rooms within the keep. Twilight told the Warden hopefuls to get ready and meet her on the highest tower of the keep. There they would be away from prying eyes. There, should anything unfortunate happen…

There would be no interruption nor there be any questions. Twilight made sure of that with strict orders to her seneschal.

Twilight laid out a small table with the implements needed for the ritual. The Silver Chalice, the same one her own lips touched when she drank deep and began her journey as a Grey Warden. From the chalice came the mixture of lyrium and archdemon blood. Through that, the power to detect ponyspawn and to fight them with heightened strength and senses. With that power, Twilight’s life changed, as reflected with the grey shield that merged with her cutie mark.

Next to the chalice, Twilight stood the vial of the Archdemon Uthemiel’s blood. Twilight felt a cold rage fester inside her as she looked at the vial. Uthemiel took the one person she held most dear and destroyed so much in such little time. The thought that her Wardens would consume such a despicable being’s blood churned her stomach. Shaking her head, Twilight lifted the vial and popped the stopper. The smell of black blood made her wretch. She poured the contents into the Grey Warden’s silver chalice and quickly masked the stench with a bottle of lyrium. Once the concoction finished settling, Twilight held up the chalice to the light of the moon.

“The same mix I drank,” Twilight muttered, “Will you create more Grey Wardens, or will you take my new friends away from me?”

With the Joining ritual now ready to go, Twilight waited for some time in quiet contemplation. She listened to the sound of the winds in the cold dead of night and the rush of cool air that brushed against her face. Her heart raced, providing the only sound until she heard the creak of the door leading to the top of the tower. The sound of hoofsteps joined after. Twilight opened her eyes and turned to see Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren waiting patiently for her.

“Commander,” Daisy bowed her head. “We’re ready.”

You are. “Welcome, everypony,” Twilight said, smiling as she approached her friends. She took a deep breath before continuing.

“In peace, vigilance. In war, victory. In death, sacrifice. This is the oath of the Grey Wardens, as spoken by my mentor Duncan, and his mentor before him, until the beginning of our order. You have all proven exemplary in the defense of Brightstone Keep, and all possess strong, brave hearts. Yet you can fight all the ponyspawn in the world only to be ill prepared for the Joining ritual.”

Twilight lifted the silver chalice with magic and brought it over to her recruits. “The Grey Wardens were founded during the First Blight against the Archdemon of Destruction, Lianari. To fight against the Archdemon and their ponyspawn hordes, the first Wardens drank the blood of the ponyspawn mixed with concentrated lyrium. Tonight, you will take the chalice to your lips and pick up the grey shield, as I have.”

They all took a moment to look at Twilight’s cutie mark of magical stars emblazoned on a grey shield. It had been so long since her cutie mark changed that Twilight could hardly remember the stars without the crest. She wanted to see more shields tonight, but everyone involved needed to know the risks.

“The Joining ritual is the most deadly trial you will ever face,” she said, “For it is one where there is no defense. No blade can deflect it, no armour can protect you, and no spell can stop the effects. It is also one where you must take on the challenge willingly. You must drink the blood of the Archdemon, and then pray that your body will survive.”

Twilight held the silver chalice close to her recruits. “If you choose not to take the chalice, no harm will come to you. In the past, Grey Wardens dealt with those who refused to chalice… harshly. I am not without mercy, and will understand if any of you do not drink. However, I won’t be able to let you stay in Brightstone. Wardens need the protections offered by the Joining to fight against the ponyspawn. It is too dangerous to face them otherwise. If you do choose to take part of the Joining, remember that this is the duty that cannot be forsworn. Once you are a Warden, you are a Warden for life. Your lifespans will be cut short as the corruption eats away at you slowly for thirty years. If this is what you all truly want, then step forward and partake in the Joining.”

All three stood by in silence as they looked at the chalice. Twilight did not make a great effort to sell the Wardens, but she needed absolute assurance that any of those in front of her knew the risks of the Joining. She did not want to see anyone die.

Oghren stepped forward, his eyes filled with grim determination. “What are you all waiting for?” He barked, “There isn’t a single drink above or below that old Oghren can refuse. This isn’t any different. Give me that cup, and I’ll drain it dry.”

Watching Oghren take the chalice in his hooves made Twilight’s heart skip a beat. They journeyed through the Dark Tunnels, trekked through the Everfree Forest, and fought in the Battle of Trotterim together. She saw Oghren kill his own wife after madness took over and refused to yield a powerful yet incredibly dangerous artifact. If anyone would survive, it would be Oghren the hardened donkey berserker. If anyone’s death tonight affected her the most, it would also be Oghren.

Oghren took a deep whiff of the concoction and gave it a disdainful eye. “Drank worse cave muck in Orzamule,” he muttered, “Probably drank real cave muck too. All right. Bottoms up!”

He brought the chalice to his lips and drank deep, far more than Twilight did during her Joining. She still remembered the coppery taste of blood, the sting on her tongue never leaving her mouth since that night. As Oghren finished, he dropped the chalice, forcing Twilight to catch it with her magic. He began to cough and groan, only to suddenly lift his eyes towards the sky.

His eyes rolled into the back of his head as his coughing ceased. Twilight looked closely at Oghren, seeing the Joining from the other side of the ritual ever since the impromptu ritual she gave to her friend Rainbow Dash. She watched as black blood flooded across Oghren’s eyes, only to secede away back into his skull.

Oghren then belched before promptly falling over.

“Well…” Lyra gasped as she looked over Oghren’s body. “That was both horrifying and disgusting.”

Twilight shook her head, only for a new surprise to overtake her. Donkeys were not known to bear cutie marks, yet on Oghren’s flank a grey shield much like the one Twilight bore began to form. “The Joining gives cutie marks…” Twilight whispered to herself. A part of her took notes on the subject of the Joining. Another part of her was happy Oghren survived and now joined the ranks of the Grey Wardens.

Lyra took a deep breath and stepped forward, taking the chalice in her own aura. She took some long amount of time estimating the contents. A sniff of the potion for the Joining made her wretch, until she looked up at Twilight with a pleading face.

“Can’t I just sign a bunch of contracts instead?” Lyra begged. Twilight shook her head.

“All Wardens need the abilities and power that the Joining gives them. When you join in the blood, you learn to detect ponyspawn from leagues away, while they will not be able to sense you for the most part due to travelling in large numbers. Your body becomes hardier and stronger, and even your magic is strengthened due to power of the archdemon’s blood. You also won’t get sick from the Taint in ponyspawn blood, and we will be knee-deep in the dead. I won’t fault you if you decide not to take up the Joining.”

Lyra held the cup aloft before she lowered it to her lips. “I change one set of chains for another, it seems.” She closed her eyes. “No. Not chains. A purpose. If I become a Warden, I lose the chains the Imperium and the Templars, and take up a destiny of my choosing.”

Without another word, Lyra drank deep from the chalice, her body instantly regretting it by almost vomiting up the blood cocktail. Twilight took control of the chalice and waited with trepidation as the black blood took hold of Lyra.

The battlemage keeled over on her knees, coughing and gagging during the conversion. Twilight bit her lip but could only watch Lyra suffer. Daisy’s eyes went wide at the sight of agony in front of her. Whether it was because of Lyra being a unicorn with incredible yet unstable magical potential or another reason, Twilight did not know. She should send a letter to Applejack to describe her own Joining in detail for posterity.

Lyra’s coughing ceased as she, in the same vein as Oghren, turned her gaze upward to the sky. The blood settled in her eyes and her cutie mark, forming the grey shield around the golden lyra that sat upon her flank. The Joining complete, Lyra sighed and then fell onto her side, utterly unconscious of the world around her. Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight helped Lyra to rest against the side of the battlements.

Twilight then thought about what she saw during her Joining, and wondered if Oghren and Lyra saw the same. During her joining, Twilight saw the visage of the Archdemon and the entirety of the ponyspawn hordes. She became like them, her heart beat now one with the monstrosities she vowed to fight. Thankfully, her heart joined with those who aided her in this monumental task.

With Oghren and Lyra unconscious but stable and also Wardens, only Daisy remained. The law of averages, Twilight thought to herself. Can I really go three for three in regards to the Joining? Will Daisy survive as the other two?

“Daisy…” Twilight cleared her throat and tentatively brought the chalice forward. “I understand if you don’t want to-“

Daisy held the chalice in her hooves and looked into the small amount of black blood within. “This is what I want,” she said, “I want to protect the land of my birth. The ponies I’ve come to call my friends. Your blood… will be my blood!”

With chalice in hoof, Daisy drank the last of Uthemiel’s blood. Immediately Daisy began to convulse, her coughing and gagging much more violent than Oghren’s or Lyra’s. Twilight rushed to Daisy’s side and held her close as she suffered. Daisy groaned with incredible volume that echoed into the night sky.

Her horn pulsed with magic as she tried to stabilize Daisy’s condition. “Don’t fight against it, Daisy!” Twilight yelled, her face dripping with a cold sweat. “Let the blood settle into you! Don’t struggle against the vision the blood will reveal! If you fight, it might kill you!”

Twilight reached out even further with her magic, finding the faint arcane signature all ponies held within them. Out of desperation, she tried to dive into the very core of Daisy’s essence out of some vain hope she could save the solider of Amarethine. As Twilight dove, she felt a sudden pang in her horn, and her vision blurred for a moment-

The Dark Tunnels. Twilight recognized the stench of the Tunnels the moment she could smell the foul mix of mold and death. One moment she was helping Daisy on the farthest heights of Brightstone Keep, and now she was here. The blood of the Archdemon must have given Daisy a vision, and Twilight’s attempt to help her brought her in the midst of the vision.

“Daisy!?” Twilight called, “Daisy! I’m here to help you! Tell me where you are!”

Twilight tried to use a spell that would find Daisy, only to find her magic did not function. She guessed that because she was in a vision, her magic would not function in a faux world like this. Breaking into a mad gallop, Twilight dashed forward with a small hope that she would find Daisy in the confines of Daisy’s mind.

“I could be anywhere,” Twilight muttered aloud, “The Dark Tunnels run too deep. I could be in the Darkest Depths for all I know. Daisy… where are you…?”

She knew time ran short for Daisy. The longer Twilight wandered in the vision, the more Daisy would succumb to the black blood of the Joining. As Twilight walked the shadowy corridors of the tunnels, she heard the sounds of hooves on stone nearby. She pivoted on her hooves and galloped in the direction of the sound at full tilt. Perhaps the noise came from Daisy.

Twilight ran as fast she could go until she saw a figure in the darkness. “Daisy!” Twilight called out, only to approach a figure that did not resemble Daisy in the slightest. The individual stood taller than Twilight and wore a great mask that completely covered his face. He wore a long tattered robe with bits of rusted metal placed in key areas to protect his vitals. What flesh could be seen was covered in the mottled splotches of black bloodstains. A large unicorn horn jutted out from the mask, revealing that its owner was a unicorn and not an ornlock.

“You…” The masked pony looked Twilight over. “I know you… you are the one they call ‘The Silencer.’ The one who slew Uthemiel and lived. You should not be here. The ponyspawn are distracted with another, but if they find you here, the weight of their collective minds will crash down upon you. It took me years to gain the fortitude to weave through their gestalt, for lack of a better word. With the archdemon dead, those powerful minds have the ponyspawn at their disposal. And all are seeking you out to slay you.”

Twilight stood dumbfounded. This… pony, obviously holding a great amount of ponyspawn taint, spoke to her calmly and without malice. A first for her and any interaction with ponyspawn, though Twilight guessed that she now dealt with a powerful ghoul. The last ghoul she met in the Dark Tunnels asked for death as a form of mercy.

“Who…” Twilight approached the ghoul very carefully. “Who are you?”

He stood silent for a while before turning around. “The gestalt will claim your friend. She is scared and broken. While I try to keep the ponyspawn at bay, there are minds that will challenge my own. After the debacle at Brightstone, there is one mind in particular you must be wary of: The Chosen. A powerful thelock, he contests my decisions at almost every opportunity. It was him who sent the Howler ahead of my own emissary. For the pain the Howler caused, I am sorry.”

Twilight followed the masked ghoul down the dark caverns as her head spun. It had only been less than a year since the death of the Archdemon and the end of the Blight, and the ponyspawn not only gained sentience, but are now warring amongst themselves. She could only guess that perhaps during the long years between Archdemons, the ponyspawn regained some measure of individuality, only for their dark masters to snatch it up upon awakening. Despite this newfound sentience, the ponyspawn still carried the savage desire for war and bloodshed within them. Perhaps there really was no redemption for such a destructive race.

“If you want to save your friend, you will follow me.” The masked one quickly sped off into one of the tunnels while Twilight scrambled to follow. They galloped for some time in the mindscape shared by Daisy and the ponyspawn gestalt. Twilight realized that during her own Joining, her mind touched the gestalt as well, only then the Archdemon Uthemiel was in complete control. Now the minds of the ponyspawn were just as ravenous as their bodies, and Daisy was easy prey.

They came across Daisy huddled in a corner of a dark cavern. Twilight wanted to question how the masked one found her so easily, but she surmised that he knew the gestalt better than she did. She guessed that Wardens skirted the edge of the gestalt in their ponyspawn senses. It was her best estimation of the situation.

However, one thing she noticed was the severe lack of ponyspawn. Only Daisy existed in this cave beyond the two newcomers.

“Where are the ponyspawn?” Twilight asked the masked one. “I thought they would be here. Torturing her.”

“They are here,” the masked one replied. “They are the caves. They are the sounds around us. This is their territory, Warden. Only my presence masks us both. If the gestalt feels you, especially the Chosen, they will turn all their attention and power on you. And they will find you. And they will kill you. You are gifted in magic, yes, but not in the power of the mind. Ponies think the strength of the ponyspawn lies in their savagery and numbers. They are wrong. Their minds, their collective focus on a goal, is what makes them the most powerful force in the world second only to the Archdemons.”

Twilight wanted to contest that the Elements of Harmony proved much stronger than the Archdemons, but she did not know if she could trust the masked one. Instead, she walked towards Daisy and knelt towards her. She stroked the weeping soldier’s mane with tender strokes.

“Daisy, it’s me,” Twilight said with a soft tone. “I’m here to help you.”

“I’m sorry, Commander,” Daisy sobbed. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t resist. They are everywhere. Everywhere… whispering. Slavering for my blood…”

“You don’t have much time,” the masked one said. “I’m protecting you both, but I can’t resist their hunger for long. They know something is disrupting their meal. Be quick.”

Twilight nodded to her mysterious benefactor. “Daisy, you are not weak. This is something not even I knew happened with the Joining. The ponyspawn are something mysterious to Wardens. Even now we don’t know anything. But I can help you. Please. Give me your hoof.”

Daisy looked up with red puffy eyes at the offered hoof. Slowly, she extended her own armoured limb and placed it against Twilight’s own. Suddenly Twilight felt a pull on her entire being as the very essence of the Dark Tunnels mindscape warped away. Only the masked pony stayed, yet he too calmly turned away.

“Wait!” Twilight called as the mindscape broke apart. “Who are you? Why are you helping me!?”

The figure stopped. “I am the Architect,” he replied, “I aim to design the ponyspawn to be better than they are, but there are those who oppose me. As for you, I want you to protect the surface world from the Chosen and his followers. Make no mistake, Warden, we are not allies. Do not pursue me. You won’t like what you find.”

Twilight cried out to the Architect, only to find herself back on the battlements of Brightstone keep. She wondered how long she was in the ponyspawn gestalt, but the moon had not moved across the sky in the slightest. Twilight shook her head and, remembering Daisy’s plight, looked down to her fallen Warden hopeful.

There, Daisy breathed silently as sweat poured down her brow. On her flank, Twilight saw the Grey Warden’s shield now bearing the colourful flowers that remained. Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight slumped onto her rump. The harrowing journey into the center of the ponyspawn mind over, she now prepared to move her friends to their quarters and herself to retire for the night.

Silverstar walked up the steps of the walls and looked to the collapsed bodies. “Well Ah’ll be damned,” he said, shaking his head. “Dunno what you Warden types do, but I guess it’s not easy.”

“Nothing ever is,” Twilight replied. She levitated Daisy’s body and began to carry her. She then lifted Lyra and helped put her on Silverstar’s back while carrying Oghren aloft in a cloud of magic. Together they carried the new Grey Wardens to their quarters. With all of them safe and in bed, Silverstar bid his Commander good night and returned to his work.

Twilight walked the lonely corridors of Brightstone towards Maim’s quarters… her quarters, she reminded herself. She opened the door and found her gifts glittering in the light of the fireplace. She stripped out of her robes, armour, and her sword then placed them on the nearby armour stand. Donning a simple night robe, Twilight lit a small candle by her bed. She took up the book Rainbow Dash gifted her and prepared for a night of reading to calm her racked nerves.

As she started to read, a cold breeze brushed past her face. Twilight turned her gaze towards the large window that overlooked the Amarethine arling. The window was open. Shaking her head, Twilight got out of bed and walked to close it. Yet as she walked, she heard something in the dark corner of her room. Something much like…

Twilight raised a magical barrier, quickly catching a crossbow bolt aimed for her face. From the shadows came a screaming, masked earth pony bearing daggers strapped to her hooves. Her eyes were painted with murderous rage as she quickly loaded a new bolt, this one tipped with lyrium.

“Death to killers!” she yelled, raising her loaded crossbow and firing.

Into the Breach

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Chapter 5 - Into the Breach

Twilight felt the rush of air whip through her mane as the crossbow bolt from the assassin sailed only inches past her left eye. She replied to the attack with a disarming spell in the form of a violet orb. She hoped to get some distance, but the assassin dodged out of the way with deft movement. She was spry for an earth pony. Twilight saw that her hoof-mounted crossbow reloaded another bolt with a revolving mechanism, and the bowstring stretched with a single pull of a small hook at the end of her hoof.

The assassin fired again, only now for the bolt to be harmlessly deflected by a quick shield. “I don’t understand!” Twilight shouted through her shield. “I regret every life I had to take in the heat of battle. If we can just calm down and talk this through—“

“No talking to murderers!” The assassin leapt into the air and took aim at Twilight. The head of the bolt glowed with the bright luminescence of lyrium, and Twilight knew that it would pierce her shield. With a quick spell, she summoned Sophia to her side. The magical blade became free of its scabbard and easily deflected the incoming crossbow bolt.

The crossbow bolts having failed, the assassin drew her own sword. “You put my father into the ground, now you get to join him!”

The assassin began her strikes, and her blows fueled by anger proved difficult to parry. Twilight’s own hesitation did not help; she swore to never again spill pony blood so long as she could help it. She racked her mind of the all ponies she unfortunately had to end. By some divine grace, the list was very small. She recalled the assassin that tried to kill her when she first met Rainbow Dash. She remembered a maleficar who joined a rebellion in the Unicorn Tower and how she splintered his horn and mind one fell stroke. That only left the last pony she slew: Arl Rendom Maim.

Her eyes widened at the realization. “You’re Maim’s daughter?!” Her mouth twitched and her mind shook at the idea of having slain a young mare’s parent. Now the child had come to avenge the father, and why shouldn’t she? Maim was a terrible pony, but he was still a father.

Was. Twilight shook at the thought. She made sure he was in the past tense.

“Glad to see you figured it out before I gutted you!” The daughter of Maim struck with a sweeping blow, and Twilight’s distracted mind did not give her time to react. The edge cut along her cheek cleanly, splitting the right side of her face clean open. Twilight gasped in pain and held a hoof to her wound. She felt the warm trickle of blood seep down her coat and soak her hoof.

She attacked again with a spinning slash, only just barely able to clip at Twilight’s mane. Twilight gritted her teeth and launched Sophia in a warding position in hope to keep Maim’s daughter off-balanced. She measured each attack with an appropriate dodge or parry. Every warrior instinct Twilight learned during the Blight screamed at her to counter-attack, but the idealist within kept her sword steady and on the defensive. No pony blood would be spilled by her blade ever again.

As much as she wanted to ask for forgiveness, she could not let the assassin have her way with her blade. “I’m sorry,” Twilight said with all sincerity. “I gave Maim a chance to live, to answer for his crimes, but he would not let relent. I’ll do everything I can as an apology, but for now…”

Twilight’s eyes glowed bright with magic, and soon a blinding white light illuminated the entire room. Maim’s daughter gave a shout of surprise at the sudden spell and raised her hooves to protect her eyes. Twilight then looked around for something to immobilize her, only to spot Trixie’s gift of the magical lock and chains. Her horn glowed with her violet aura and took the lock in the same, and with a grunt, she threw the lock at her assailant with as much force as she could.

The lock snapped open and the chains unfurled all around the attacker. The chains swarmed over her body as they wrapped around her legs with ease. Before she even realized it, the assassin soon fell once the chains locked in place, with only her wide vocabulary accompanying her descent. Her head struck the floor hard and soon she became unconscious.

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief and told herself to send a very detailed letter of thanks to the Great and Powerful Trixie. As she walked over to the downed form of her attacker, the doors of her chamber burst open with Silverstar and two guards ready for combat.

“By Celestia, what in tarnation happened here?” Silverstar scratched his head at the sight, and then moved to remove the assassin’s cowl. Underneath the hood stood a fuchsia earth pony mare with a dark pink mane. She appeared a little older than Twilight though not by much. The guards picked up her prone body and moved her away.

Silverstar looked on in disbelief. “Don’t believe it,” he muttered, but still in Twilight’s earshot. “That’s Berry Punch all right. Rendon Maim’s daughter. He sent her away to study in Amarethine City after the two had a fight that shook Brightstone Keep awake in the middle of the night. This was before the Blight, you see. Maim was never thrilled that his only child was a daughter. Less so, when he found out she was a lush. Seemed every night she was gettin’ hosed in every bar. Then he went off to become Arl of Trotterim and she mostly stayed quiet. After the Blight though, she all but vanished into the night after another bender. Some say she boarded a ship to the Free Plains like many of the refugees, but some said she was still in Equestria. Guess the latter were right.”

Twilight watched as Berry Punch was carried out of her chambers before letting a long held sigh free. “She’ll need to be watched. I hate to do it, but she’ll need to stay in the dungeon until I have a chance to speak with her.”

“ ‘Hate to do it?’ She just tried to cut ya to ribbons!” Silverstar shook his head. “I know you don’t want to be harsh, but this is the sort of thing that needs to be done. Berry Punch isn’t just a threat to your life; she’s a threat to your rule.”

Twilight’s brows raised in surprise. “She still has a claim to the Arling?”

“That she does. Even though Queen Applejack stripped Maim of his title and therefore took away any claim his line has to Amarethine, they still have a blood claim to the title of Arl if you should ever fall. If the Banns find out, they could very well support her and try to get her to usurp your position.”

“But Applejack wouldn’t allow that!”

Silverstar held up a hoof. “A queen is only as powerful as the lords she has around her. The lords of Equestria supported her claim after both Loghoof and Maim were exposed as traitors and because of the threat of the ponyspawn. If she started taking away blood rights without reason, the nobility could easily turn on her. Then it is back to square one. Remember that it was the blood lineage that helped win the Queen her throne. The same now can be used against you.”

Twilight conceded that Silverstar had a point. For all her plans to improve the lives of Amarethine after the disaster that was Maim’s rule and to restart the Equestrian Grey Wardens, she needed the political responsibility. Berry Punch was a hindrance.

Twilight would not kill her. She would not exile her from her homeland either, not until she heard what Berry had to say.

Before she could give Silverstar an answer, the door to her chambers opened again, this time with a disheveled Lyra doing her best to burst into the room. Her staff-sword swayed in a shaky magical grip, and her bloodshot eyes swerved every which way.

“I heard a commotion! Woke me up! Here now! Where’s the bad guys?” Lyra could barely stand on her hooves, but the sight of Twilight’s gashed cheek made her fumble over. “Sweet Luna, what happened to your face! Is it ponyspawn? Insurgents? The Imperium!?”

Lyra held up her lyre-headed staff towards Twilight’s face and with her emerald aura, plucked the strings in a quick tinny tune. Twilight could feel the vibrations of the lyre send magic throughout her body, and then focus on the cut. The wound then sealed much more quickly than any poultice Twilight ever applied, and the pain that typically came with alchemical products was non-existent. She rubbed her face once the magic finished, and smiled at the result.

“Thank you, Lyra,” Twilight said, “That felt great! Is there a scar?”

“Magic healing works better than any poultice, Twilight.” Lyra smiled at her, the fluttered her eyelashes. “I couldn’t have such a pretty face scarred up even more. If I could fix those other ones too, I would, but the magic has to be applied quickly. I can show you other healing magic if you’d like… We can engage in very physical therapy.”

Twilight shook her head while Silverstar coughed and made his way out, leaving the two alone. Instead of arguing with Lyra, who continued to smile sweetly, Twilight conjured a much heavier robe around herself to dissuade Lyra from gawking at her body. This made the battlemage pout a bit.

“Well, I’m too high strung from an attempt on my life to go back to sleep,” Twilight said. Lyra’s stomach rumbled in reply, allowing for a light chuckle. “I was waiting for that. If there is one thing I remember about the Joining ritual, it was being hungry afterwards. Come on; let’s get something to tide you over.”

They walked together towards the mess hall, and Twilight gave silent thanks as there was nopony else within the room. She levitated several baskets of bread and fruit as well as a large pitcher of water and two cups. Lyra looked on with a ravenous hunger in her eyes. She smacked her lips once the food sat before and began the work of picking and choosing her stomach’s desire.

“I have been in the trenches of Grennensheck, the shores of Buf’s Landing, and the Imperium Blightlands.” Lyra peeled several apples with a paring knife held in her aura. “In each campaign, we were starved on the front lines and desperate for food. With hundreds of enemies surrounding my unit, we fought not for the Imperium but rather to fill our aching bellies. Still, after the Joining, this is the hungriest I have ever been. Enough talk, let’s eat!”

As Lyra devoured her food, Twilight sipped on her water. “It sounds like you saw a lot of combat,” she pointed out, “Is the Imperium still the warmongering nation from ages past? How do they train their unicorns to practice magic? What is life like in the Imperium?”

Lyra blinked at Twilight with a mouthful of bread and daffodils. Once she swallowed, she poured herself some water. Her tone became somber. “Every unicorn outside of the Imperium wants to know about the land where unicorns still rule, even if they follow the Chantry. The only thing that changed in a thousand years is that instead of dragons for ornaments, we have alicorns. Let me tell you a story.”

“When you were born a unicorn, and the little stub of a horn was found on your head, your parents likely knew that they would have to give you over to the Chantry and sent to a Unicorn Tower as part of your education into the ‘proper’ way to cast magic. To avoid the corruption and temptations of demons. Good lessons, but then they teach you that as a unicorn, you are to blame for everything the Imperium did. The corruption of Canterlot. The birth of the ponyspawn. The cause of the Blights. Every lesson is one of shame and caution. As a unicorn, you have no freedom. Fail the Harrowing, and be put to the sword. Succeed, and become yoked to the Chantry.”

Twilight did not contest anything Lyra said, as they were mostly true. While the templars were a surly group when they had to be, they did remind Twilight that the Chantry constantly surveyed the going-ons within the Tower, and they had the ultimate power over the unicorns.

Only because of Duncan and the Grey Wardens did Twilight leave a life of servitude to helping the greater good rather than the whims of the Chantry. Celestia and Luna were with her that day.

Lyra continued. “Now the way the Imperium does it is a little different. They mostly just gloss over the whole ‘shame and damnation’ parts, and instead focus on using unicorns. The firstborn unicorn of any Imperium family belongs to the state. There are no arguments, and if there is, the family is treacherous and starts losing rights and privileges. So the army takes the firstborns right from their mothers teats and teach them from the beginning that the Imperium owns them, mind, body and soul. The Imperium will train them; the Imperium will lavish them with titles should they be strong enough, and that they can one day rule the Imperium. This is true. Battlemages become Magisters, from the Magisters comes the Archons, and from the Archons they select an Exarch. But with all the privileges, all the gold, all the glory comes a price.”

Lyra hiked up her robes with her magic, and Twilight looked away, thinking it some kind of lewd prank. When she turned back to Lyra, she saw that the battlemage did not smile, giggle, or laugh. Her face, as if set in stone, begged for Twilight to look. She did, and right next to her newly branded grey-shield cutie mark stood a wound that made her gasp at the sight.

All along Lyra’s underbelly was a long, twisted, disfiguring scar. Twilight looked on in horror as the scar began to pulse a faint glow of blue. Whoever marked Lyra used a lyrium-edged blade. To her terror, she realized just what part of a mare’s anatomy they cut.

“Your… your womb…” she muttered. Lyra lowered her robes once the realization set in.

“The cost of power is the denial of a legacy. Of a family.” Lyra choked on the words. “The Chantry wanted the Imperium to remain strong in the face of the ponyspawn and other threats, like the Buffalo. To do this they needed the battlemages. They needed their magic and their lyrium brands on the Imperium’s griffin slaves. However, being the hypocrites that they are, they denied battlemages the ability to move on from war. Their lives belong to the Imperium and the Chantry. Our lives are constantly at war.”

“You became a Grey Warden though,” Twilight added. “We only know struggle against the ponyspawn. Your lifespan is cut short by thirty years. You can’t have foals of your own, because they too will be tainted by the black blood.”

Lyra sighed. “The difference is that I made the choice to fight. If I can have one thing in my life, it is the freedom to choose my own destiny. Not some power-mad Imperium or some hypocritical Chantry telling me what to do.”

Twilight did not know what else to say, so she fell silent as Lyra continued to devour her food. Instead of continuing the conversation, Twilight opened her arcane senses to the world around her. She saw through magical eyes attuned to the Fade and the natural energies long hidden within unicorns. Her curiosity piqued by Lyra’s outburst on both her former home and the Chantry of Sun and Moon, Twilight sought to probe deeper within her new Warden companion’s powers and abilities.

She recoiled at the sight. Lyra’s magic-self continued to eat apples even though to Twilight an inferno engulfed her body. The sheer amount of rage Lyra held within her heart made her magical image a fiery blaze, and by Twilight’s best estimate, the flames burned for a long time. Anger and fury were like logs to feed such a fire.

Thankfully, Twilight did not sense another being within Lyra. While the absence of a demon calmed her, Twilight did begin to wonder if it meant Lyra harnessed and mastered her anger and how that affected the dynamic of her group. Passion, whether positive or negative, could be incredible fuel for magic. Whether it led to corruption or even demonic possession, Twilight did not want to find to find out.

Twilight tried to look away from Lyra, only to feel another powerful magic pull at her as if from all directions. The magic yanked at her senses as if she was attached to chains, and most disconcerting was that the magic came from within Brightstone Keep. The close proximity of the force she sensed made Twilight grimace when she suddenly heard cackling in the ether.

“Twilight?” Lyra stopped eating and tugged on Twilight’s robes. “Is something wrong? You look like you’re in pain.”

The sound of Lyra’s voice snapped Twilight out of her magical senses. She looked over to her fellow unicorn and saw she no longer burned. “Sorry, Lyra,” she said, “I… felt something. Here in Brightstone. A magic that is very powerful and… laughing at us.”

Lyra floated her staff next to her, almost as if in preparation for an attack. Her eyes went blank for a moment, and Twilight knew that Lyra now attempted to seek out the same magic she just felt. She waited, and hoped all that battlemage training paid off.

It would not be the case as Lyra’s focus returned and she shook her head. “I don’t feel anything from the Fade or the ley-lines,” Lyra replied, “Maybe you were sensing the ponyspawn?”

“No,” Twilight corrected, “You’ll know when the ponyspawn are near when you hear their heartbeats like you do your own. This was something far closer… “

Twilight shook her head, and then gave Lyra a small smile. “Don’t worry about it for now. Whatever it was is gone now. Go and get some rest. We’ll go on patrol for any lingering ponyspawn from the attack in the countryside in the morning. It will make for good practice with your new senses, and maybe we can get to the bottom to this mess.”

Lyra nodded, then made her way back to the barracks, leaving Twilight alone for the rest of the morning. Try as she might, Twilight could not get back to sleep. Her mind raced and tried to compile everything that happened; an assassination attempt by the daughter of Rendon Maim who held on to a strict vendetta.

Then there was Lyra’s fiery aura, and how the battlemage blazed with fury. The sinister laugh that echoed in her senses left the final but lasting impression on her. So much overpowered her senses; Twilight did not know exactly what to do, or who to turn to. At this point, she wished any of her friends were nearby simply to confide all her doubts and fears, just as she did in the old days when they travelled the roads.

Like dust in the winds, her friends had scattered across the land. All Twilight could do was sigh, lie back on her bed, and hope for the best in the coming morning. As she slid beneath the covers once again, a chill ran across her as the cold night air whisked over her prone form.

She would have to get that window fixed rather quickly.


Daisy, Lyra, and Oghren stood at sharp attention as Twilight made her first inspection over the new Grey Warden recruits. Each bore their new cutie marks with pride, especially Oghren, who enjoyed the fact that he was one of the few donkeys to bear such.

“If I have a cutie mark, does that make me a cutie?” Oghren snickered while the mares all rolled their eyes. Twilight motioned for the newly formed party to stand around her.

“When I was first inducted into the Grey Wardens, the Battle of Ostequus was only a day away.” Memories of the terrible flushed over Twilight as she regaled the past, including the death of the former king Blueblood, her Grey Warden mentor Duncan, and the hundreds of soldiers slain by ponyspawn. “You are all fortunate to have survived the Joining. That was merely the first of many trials in the life of a Warden. Today, I’ll be showing you one of the blessings and curses all Wardens have: the Warden sense.”

“This power allows all Grey Wardens to ‘hear’ the heartbeat of their fellow Wardens and more importantly, the heartbeats of the ponyspawn. This sense will warn you if any of them will draw near, because you will hear their irregular heartbeats long before you encounter them face-to-face. For now, I want you all to close your eyes and become accustomed to your fellow Wardens’ hearts. Feel their hearts as you do your own. When you are in the Dark Tunnels or even out of sight, you will find these senses most useful to you in finding your fellows and knowing when another attack is close.”

To demonstrate, Twilight lifted a hoof to her chest and took a deep breath. As she closed her eyes, Twilight exhaled and extended her hoof outwards as if to wave at her recruits. Her breathing steadied her heartbeat, and Twilight let her senses flow outward over to the new additions to the Grey Warden. Already she could feel their hearts, how they beat with their own unique rhythms.

Oghren’s heart pounded against his chest as thunder would rock the plains. Perhaps, in his case, it would be more fitting to say the sound reminded her of great boulders that tumbled down the Dark Tunnels. She then reached out to Daisy, and felt the rapid thuds of her beating heart. Daisy needed to learn how to relax and find calm, or she would give herself a heart attack well before her time. Twilight made a mental note to have a good talk with Daisy about that.

Finally, Twilight sought out Lyra. She did not know what to expect, considering the last time she looked into the battlemage. Now, thankfully, Twilight did not feel the burn of Lyra’s inner rage and turmoil. Her heart beat with a good, steady rhythm that spoke of great control over. This was both welcome and frightening news. Lyra stood as a calm as a lake, yet the fire that burned within her screamed to be unleashed. That mixture within Lyra worried Twilight to no end.

Rage motivated ponies, yes, but it was wild and uncontrollable. However, should a pony truly master their fury, especially a unicorn with the power of magic, they could unleash terrible destruction. Cold, practiced destruction.

Twilight opened her eyes and looked to her recruits. “I can feel you all,” she said, “I can feel your hearts as if they were my own. I want you to do the same thing now. Feel my heart, and feel those of your fellows. Take a deep breath to calm yourself, then reach out.”

Oghren, Daisy, and Lyra mimicked Twilight’s action, first by inhaling a lungful of air. They exhaled all at once, their hooves extending outward just as Twilight showed them. They stood still, allowing only the sound of their breaths and the wind to be the only noise when Daisy’s ears perked up.

“I can hear it in you,” Daisy said, her eyes still closed. “I can hear your heart, commander. It’s steady and calm. I envy you… I feel like I’m about to freak out. This is so exciting!”

Twilight smiled, and then turned to Oghren and Lyra. “How about you two? Can you feel what Daisy feels? Remember to stretch out, and tune out your own heartbeats. The archdemon blood makes every part of our body stronger, including our hearts.”

Oghren’s lecherous grin returned. “I can feel ya,” he said with eyes closed. “By the Stone, this is what mares feel deep down whenever they are with ol’ Oghren, heh hah. How about you, Minty? I can feel your heart skip a beat for this hunk of donkey meat.”

“First, ew.” Lyra scrunched up her face in disgust. “Second, yes I can feel everyone’s hearts. It is weird though. I do feel it in my chest, but also feel it in my ears, like a drum that’s been beaten next to my head.”

“Good! You are all learning quickly!” Twilight let out a happy sigh. They were naturals at being Wardens, both in combat and understanding their new senses. Things were starting looking up.

Daisy’s eyes to snap open as she looked down to the ground. Her body trembled and her mouth gaped open in an expression of shock. Twilight walked over to Daisy and laid a hoof on her shoulder. She opened all her senses, especially the magical ones, and tried to seek out what frightened Daisy. The others looked about in confusion.

Twilight steadied her breath and opened her magic to Daisy. The spell she cast had to be subtle. Magic can easily spook earth ponies or who were unfamiliar with its practice. A part of Twilight worried that Daisy, using her Warden senses, felt the malevolent presence Twilight felt in the early morning.

Her magic probed into Daisy’s senses, and worked its way to her heart. It was only at the moment of contact that Twilight felt it too, and cursed herself for not paying attention. While still maintaining the link, Twilight reached out even further with her Warden abilities, specifically below the earth. She loathed announcing what she sought, but Twilight realized the implications of the discovery.

First, Daisy was to be her priority. “Daisy, listen to my voice,” Twilight said with as much care as she could. “I know what you are feeling. Hundreds of heartbeats. Some fast, some slow. All of them dangerous and lethal to a regular pony. Remember that you are a Grey Warden. You need to calm down and pull away from the noise. Pull away, Daisy.”

“There are so many of them…” Daisy’s voice was but a frightened whisper. Her body shook with fear, and her eyes never left the ground. “So many ponyspawn. I can hear them whispering. I can almost hear a name.”

Daisy’s senses were more in-tuned than Twilight gave her credit. Oghren and Lyra kept watching, while the former shrugged and closed his eyes. A deep breath later, and he reopened them.

“So… that’s what Wardens feel when they are in the Dark Tunnels.” Oghren put his hoof around his hip-flask and took a long drink. “That… that is going to get some getting used to.”

“It all makes sense now,” Lyra added, “Brightstone Keep’s underground tunnels used by Maim, the dungeons, the catacombs… This place was built right on top of a Dark Tunnel. That would also explain why the ponyspawn had an easy time destroying the keep! It’s because they didn’t need to attack the walls! They came right in through the Tunnels!”

As much as Twilight wanted to continue this discovery of the ponyspawn’s method of attack, she had to get Daisy back to the here and now. “Focus on my voice, Daisy. Break away from the sensation of the ponyspawn. The sense is two-ways. We know where they are. They know where we are. If you don’t break things soon, they might come after us at any moment.”

Twilight’s ears twitched and then a gasp escaped her lips. She heard the murmurs of the ponyspawn mind, how they chanted to one another. Words she recognized like “eat” and “Silencer.” Other words stood out though. Words that drove the ponyspawn not to the surface, but father underground. The first was a title, like the many greater ponyspawn seemed to be bestowed with. The title they chanted was “The Indomitable.”

More mysterious was the other word they chanted within whatever they called their hivemind. Even more important the title they somehow bestowed on Twilight, or the name they called for their leader, the ponyspawn drove deeper into the Dark Tunnels in search of something they could only call “The Shard.” What they sought, Twilight did not know. She had not heard of ponyspawn seeking relics. They often relied solely on numbers and terror to defeat their foes.

She would have to investigate later. Daisy closed her eyes tight, though some tears escaped. She fell to her knees and trembled, and then started to breathe. “OK… OK…” she said in between breaths. “I can’t believe… all of them right below us.”

“Look on the bright side,” Oghren quipped, “We don’t have to go scouring the countryside. Not that I’m looking forward to going back down to the Tunnels, but hey. Maybe we can get some donkey patrols to help us!”

“First we need to get down there.” Twilight turned to face Oghren. “Can your cousins find the entrance the ponyspawn used to attack Brightstone?”

“They’ll find the Tunnel like a drunk can find a full keg of beer.” Oghren stomped on the ground for emphasis. He galloped towards Brightstone with haste, leaving Twilight with Lyra and Daisy.

“Lyra, catch up with Oghren and help him prepare supplies.” Lyra took a gulp of air as she prepared mentally for what Twilight was going to say next. Twilight did not want to believe the words herself,

“We are going to the Dark Tunnels.”

Once they were alone, Twilight sat next to Daisy who did not stop muttering apologies under her breath. She wrapped a forelimb around Daisy’s shoulders. Twilight recalled the first time she felt the ponyspawn’s mass presences within her own being; she did not sleep for days when she last travelled the Dark Tunnels. Daisy now experienced the same terrible truth of being a Grey Warden.

They sat in silence for a while, with Twilight counting the breaths until she finally felt Daisy relax. Daisy raised her head to the sky, seemingly watching the clouds drift by in an otherwise brilliant sunny day. A small laugh left her mouth, but to Twilight, it felt forced and strained.

“Look at me,” Daisy said with a shake of her head. “A Grey Warden scared silly by the ponyspawn. Was it not just a few nights ago that we fought side by side against a veritable army of them? Now, here I am, shaking like a little foal when a big hairy spider comes near me. What would my sisters say if they saw me now? Would they think I am a coward? That I wasn’t prepared for the reality of being a Warden? A part of me just wants to run away, but another part knows that this is my life now. That I have to accept that I am going to go… down there. With all of those monsters.”

“Life as a Warden is a very short one,” Twilight said. “We die so that other ponies might live. Our fates are bound by the ponyspawn and by extension, their home of the Dark Tunnels. When a Warden feels their time has come, that the Taint has flowed through their bodies and threatens to turn them into ghouls, they go into the Dark Tunnels for one final stand against the ponyspawn. They fight and slay as many monsters as possible, in some vain hope that they perish against the ponyspawn before they become the monsters they fight. I did not want to take us to the Dark Tunnels so soon, Daisy, but we would have to go there eventually. The donkeys who live in the underground need the Grey Wardens just as much as the ponies that live on the surface.”

“What are the Tunnels like?” Daisy asked, though her voice was weak.

“Scary, certainly,” Twilight answered. “But also very sad. You see the unmarked graves of thousands of slain donkeys… warriors, civilians… those too unfortunate to escape the evil tide. Some are lucky to have graves. I’ve seen plenty of skeletons of the fallen, picked clean by either the ponyspawn of the natural wildlife that inhabits the Tunnels. The worst part of it all, at least to me, is just seeing these empty, dead cities and thaigs. So much lost to the ponyspawn after centuries of building, and with no way to ever truly restore these lost cities. The ponyspawn are simply too dense in the Tunnels. “

Daisy pressed her head into her hooves. “You are not really selling this as an adventure to look forward to, Commander.”

Twilight rubbed the bridge of her nose. It seemed the stories of Grey Warden heroics still lingered with Daisy, and she did not see just how brutal and tumultuous their lives were. She only had an inkling of how much death and destruction Twilight endured in her journey to defeat Uthemiel. If she was going to get the message clear to Daisy, she had to do it now.

“I’m not trying to sell anything, Daisy.” Twilight kept her voice stern, in hopes to push through that Wardens did not seek out heroics like in the old stories. “The Dark Tunnels are dangerous, but not because of ponyspawn or other creatures. They are dangerous because they can really change a pony. When I went down for the first time, I saw things I have only seen conjured in my nightmares. I saw a donkey beg for death thanks to his need to eat ponyspawn meat. I saw a brilliant mind driven insane with obsession for ancient power. I saw where the ponyspawn are born. By Celestia, you do not want to know. Nevertheless, it is there we have to go. We have to down there to stop their incursions into Amarethine. Most of all, I need to get rid of those thoughts that Grey Wardens seek glory. Maybe some do, but our duty is to defeat the ponyspawn, first and foremost. Do you understand, Daisy?”

Daisy became very quiet as she crunched down onto her knees. She hit a stone around for a moment, her mind likely racing with thoughts on everything Twilight had said. Twilight did not know what Daisy was thinking, but instead thought back to when Duncan first approached her. Twilight did not think much of leaving Equestria’s Unicorn Tower and becoming a Warden at the time, and in fact resisted the idea of being part of such an order.

Now she wondered what would have happened if she knew the truth of everything that came with being a Warden. Would that less experienced Twilight consider the options carefully? Would she accept that she would fight a terrible conflict spanning mountains, castles, and the Dark Tunnels? That she would slay not only ponyspawn, but also dragons, demons and other ponies?

Would she say yes to Duncan if she knew that Spike would give his life in battle?

The inner turmoil continued to roar within the confines of Twilight’s heart. She did her best to hide tears still unshed, but as her mind drifted to Spike once again, she found it more and more difficult. A part of her said that she would still join Duncan and the Grey Wardens because Equestria needed all the help she could get against the Archdemon and its Blight.

Another part told her no, that she would have taken Spike and ran as far as she could from Duncan, from the Blight, from everything. Perhaps she would have gone to Filais, over the mountains to the Yokalach, or across the sea to the Free Plains. Anywhere, so long as it was far away from the ponyspawn.

Her stomach lurched as even her own body began to rebel against such thoughts. If it were not for the Blight, Twilight would never have discovered such wonderful friends like Applejack or Rarity. If not for the Blight, she would never have gone to amazing places like the old sky temple high above the Everfree Forest. If not for the Blight, Equestria would have been devoured by the ponyspawn. Then nowhere in the world would be safe.

All of this, for the cost of Spike.

“Somepony… tell me it was worth it,” Twilight muttered. Daisy looked up from her own thoughts and turned to her Commander.

“Is everything all right?” she asked. Twilight shook her head. There was no need to hide everything, especially if she was being truthful about the ponyspawn.

“At the Battle of Trotterim, we lost a lot of good ponies to the ponyspawn,” Twilight said. “Far too many. Soldiers and civilians both. We lost a good Grey Warden who was willing to sacrifice himself to slay the Archdemon. I lost someone very dear to me to the Archdemon itself. There are times where I think back on him and it hurts to do so. I have not moved on. I don’t think I ever will.”

Daisy spoke very softly. “I’m sorry for your loss, Commander. But… he motivates you, doesn’t he? You could just walk away from all of this any time you wanted to. It’s not like anypony could stop you. You slew the Archdemon after all. Only a crazy pony would want to stand in your way. You still keep fighting the good fight though, even though it would be easy to walk. I find myself admiring that about you.”

Daisy leaned back on the grassy knoll and looked up to the sky. “I gave it a good hard thought. Everything you said, everything I encountered up until this point. I thought about my sisters who now must be living in the west. I want to make sure they can keep up with the family traditions of flower growing without having the fear of the ponyspawn in their hearts. If I can protect them, I can. I will. Come on, Commander. I’m ready for the Dark Tunnels. I’m ready for my duty.”

Twilight almost replied with “No, you are not,” but decided against it. Daisy motivated herself and what she said struck the right cord. Spike did motivate her to do everything she could to stop the ponyspawn threat back when he was alive. Now that he passed, did things really have to be different?

“Thanks Daisy,” Twilight said instead of her bitter remark. “Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long. I wonder how long—“

An explosion from Brightstone shook the trees and bushes around Twilight and Daisy. Both mares drew their weapons from sheaths in anticipation of an attack, only to be confounded by the sound of a chorus of laughter from clearly insane donkeys.

“Oghren…” Twilight replaced Sophia back in its scabbard and shook her head. “When I asked for them to find the entrance, I didn’t think they were going to level the keep!”

Twilight galloped towards Brightstone with Daisy trailing only a second behind her. Once she got her hooves on Oghren and his cousins, there would be hell to pay. Despite all this, she couldn’t help but smile. Confiding in new friends raised her spirits. While still wary of the Dark Tunnels, Twilight mentally prepared herself with a newfound confidence.

First, she had to deal with overzealous donkeys and their lyrium explosives…

Twilight’s mouth hung open as she looked at the sizable crater in the storage rooms of her castle. Smoke and dust still lingered in the air, but more pressing to everyone around Twilight was her twitching eye. Oghren and his cousins did not seem bothered, especially Fizzbang, who rolled on the ground and laughed aloud for all to hear.

“Didja see that! What a boom! Oh, but it could have been so much more!” Fizzbang pointed a hoof at the crater and continued to giggle like a schoolfilly.

“Oghren… I asked you to find a way to the Dark Tunnels!” Twilight shouted at her fellow Warden. “Not blow a hole in my basement!”

“Relax, Twilight,” Oghren said as he pointed a hoof down the pit. “Ol’ Fizzbang here discovered this sinkhole when we started to scrounge over the place to find the passages used by the ponyspawn. We found those too, but some scouting showed those paths are very narrow and very long. Good for sneaking into a keep, but slow going. This hole here is a straight drop down into the Tunnels.”

Lyra looked down the whole with puzzlement in her eyes. “How deep does it go?”

Fizzbang stuck his head over the lip of the vertical cavern and shouted, “This deep!” His long ears perked up as he listened for his echo, which continued for a very long while.

“How are we going to get down there?” Daisy asked. Twilight smiled at the question.

“I’ll cast a spell to summon a magical disc that will act like the Great Lift in Orzamule.” To make her intentions known, Twilight looked over the gaping hole and began to cast her spell. In an instant, a violet magical disc formed center of the whole, with enough room for four ponies to stand comfortably on.

Lyra whistled at the spell while Daisy smiled, impressed with the results. Oghren looked at the magic with caution, extending his hoof to poke at the spell. To prove the disc would hold weight, Twilight jumped onto her floating structure. The disc did not wobble or tip from her weight, and only shimmered as her hooves clamoured on.

Daisy hopped on next, followed by Lyra who levitated four rucksacks filled with food, healing poultices, and other supplies. Oghren continued to stare at the disc, as if the thing would turn into a ponyspawn and eat his face in one swift chomp.

“Come on, Oghren,” Twilight said, “This is probably the safest part of the journey.”

Oghren sighed and shook his head. “I can only hope we don’t get to the Deepest Depths, now can I?” He hopped onto the disc with the others, giving Twilight a defeated nod. She could not blame him, for it was in the Deepest Depths that he slew his insane wife Branka.

“The Dark Tunnels will live up to their name,” Twilight said. With her and Lyra’s horn glowing in unison, the magical disc began to lower itself into the breach, where dangers old and new awaited the Grey Wardens once more.

Iron and Diamonds

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Chapter 6: Diamond and Iron

The Architect looked down on the slavering hordes of ponyspawn with trepidation. He saw that a few thelocks fought over the carcass of some beast, only to notice that they argued over the body of a dead donlock. Hunger struck the ponyspawn worse than any other creature, and the desire to feed on anything flesh and blood overtook their senses. Despite sharing a hivemind, their gestalt, the ponyspawn only barely controlled their base instincts.

The larger thelock who initiated the conflict turned away from the donlock corpse, which surprised the Architect greatly. Thelocks in particular relied on their size and strength to exude dominance. However, as the smaller thelock began to eat the corpse, the larger swiftly drew his rusty blade and buried it into his rival’s neck. The smaller one gurgled for a bit, black blood pouring from his mouth until he stilled. Then the larger thelock began to feast on a much bigger prize. He also batted the donlock corpse away, where some smaller ponyspawn began to fight over it.

Shaking his head, the Architect walked away towards his study. He did not want to watch the display of cannibalism. He also needed to move quickly on his own agenda after witnessing such. The ponyspawn were once known only for their savagery and their fearlessness. With the last of the Archdemons slain, the ponyspawn could become their own people in time, choosing their own destiny. However, as demonstrated by the thelock, they learned lessons on killing and slaughter faster than anything else. With their numbers and strength combined with tactics and trickery, the ponyspawn could potentially become a much more dire force for the world to face even without an Archdemon. They needed a guiding hoof to move forward into the future. They needed an Architect.

As the Architect stepped into his study, the sight of his only true rival within the ponyspawn, or as they came to be called the Free Blight, greeted him. The Chosen held an arcane tome in his hoof; his head cocked to the side while his ornlock aide, the Shaper, stood next to him and stared daggers at the Architect.

“The Shaper tells me you were in the Mind as more false ones joined us.” His voice, cold and harsh, echoed in the cave that the Architect called his home. Taller than most thelocks by several degrees and adorned in shining black armour, the Chosen looked up from the tome to the Architect with grotesque, yellow eyes. His pupils glowed slightly, hinting that at some point the Chosen ingested lyrium.

“Chosen. First among Brothers. You honour me with this visit.” The Architect bowed his head to the Chosen, yet saw through his mask that the Shaper brought a large sack with him. It moved briefly.

The Chosen did not respond immediately, only prodding the book. “Such strange symbols,” he said, “I always wondered why the ponies valued these… books so much. How they can contain power. We do not need such things. All are shared within the Mind. The strong take their share. The weak become strong, should they claim their portions dropped by the strong, or by proving themselves stronger. That is our way. That is how it always has been.”

“I ask again, Architect. Why were you in the Mind? Why did you prevent our claim to a false one?”

The Architect looked between the Shaper and then back to the Chosen. The latter shifted his stance, showing off his flanged mace known simply as Crusher. He could feel the countless foes Crusher slew throughout the ages. He could only guess the mace was cursed in some way.

“The Warden was a distraction from my direction of the Mind,” the Architect replied, “we needed to look at the failed assault on Brightstone. I warned against sending the Howler. We didn’t know the effect of the Silencer’s presence on lesser minds. We also underestimated her resolve after the Battle of Trotterim.”

At the mention of the Silencer, the Chosen visibly bristled. His spines stood on end. “The Howler was a fool who did not accomplish anything. He did not take the sacred Blood. He did not take the shard you so desperately seek. And now the Silencer has the keep. A waste of time and brothers.”

The Architect nodded. “She would have taken the keep with our small force. It is of little matter, Chosen. Once I have the shards, I will deliver unto you the power of the Song. I have scryed the location of another shard, and it is close to your Deepest Depths. I have sent our most powerful minotaur, the Indomitable, to retrieve it.”

The Chosen seemed to consider the Architect’s words as he looked to the Shaper in wordless discussion. The twisted ornlock said nothing but nodded his head in agreement. This seemed to satisfy the Chosen as he too nodded his face as well. The Architect would have breathed a sigh of relief if the pair of ponyspawn leaders did not keep him on edge every second he remained in their presence.

“Your pretty crystals must bring us victory, Architect,” The Chosen said, “I prefer having my greatest warrior at my side, not off on some treasure hunt.”

As they turned to leave, the Chosen’s black lips twisted into a grin. The Architect hated whenever the Chosen smiled. It only meant that unfortunate and rather inefficient plans would soon be underway, and that he would need the Architect’s input.

“All was not lost from the attack on the Silencer’s fortress.” The Chosen licked his lips, his long black tongue sliding against his disgusting tusks. “For as our brothers returned, they came upon a small gathering of winged ponies. They returned with all of them. One large meal. Three smaller morsels for the donlocks. One mare.”

The Shaper’s curved horn began to glow a dark crimson and the door to the Architect’s sanctum swung open to reveal a crying, battered pegasi mare. She walked with stilted movements, held in thrall to the Shaper’s mastery over blood magic. While a powerful emissary in his own right, the Architect did fear the Shaper’s incredible skill over arcana sanguine.

The mare dropped as the Shaper let go of his spell, and she wept in front of the Free Blight’s leadership. She looked up into the blank mask of the Architect. He could see the sheer terror in her eyes, yet he could not feel pity for her. This was the ponyspawn way. They did not have mares of their own. They needed to take mares from the surface to increase their numbers. Her fate was all but sealed.

The Architect lifted the pegasus up with his blue aura, looking her over as a farmer would cattle. He lifted her wings while she wept. Her pleas echoed in both Equestrian and Dalish, yet she could be speaking in lost tongues for all he cared. She would beg for death that would not come.

He let go of the mare and instead focused his magic on his spear, Phalanx. He pointed the spear at the mare who shrieked at the sight of the weapon. Unlike most ponyspawn arms, Phalanx was a pristine spear enchanted with the purest lyrium.

“She will serve us well,” He said, “We need more Winged Brothers after the loss of the Howler.”

The mare looked up to the Architect, then to the Chosen, then to the Shaper whose horn already glowed its familiar crimson hue. Her body gripped in blood magic, she let out one last desperate scream in the caverns of the Deepest Depths. The ponyspawn only roared in reply as she was taken to the rookeries.

The Chosen smiled. “We will see the victory of the Brothers yet. A terrible time is before us without the Song, but we will become stronger than the Song could ever imagine. Victoria Fatres.”

Fatres Invictus.” It was the only Imperium the ponyspawn knew, but the words resonated in the Dark Tunnels. To the Architect, they were words that did not matter to him, as long as their victory kept in line with his work.

He turned to look out the small crevice into the darkness of the tunnels and thought of his encounter with the Warden. There was something about her that he felt familiar, but he shook it away as simply the resonance from her slaying the Archdemon. She would be a problem, as the Warden did not seem the type of pony to heed warnings.

“Heed the warning, Grey Warden,” the Architect said aloud, “The Indomitable was crafted by blood magic specifically to be invincible. If you go to the Tunnels… you will go to your death.”


Twilight hated the Dark Tunnels. Every slow, careful step echoed around her and only increased her already growing indignation. The damp caves dripped warm water down on her face. The smell of feces, dried blood, and corpses drifted into her nostrils, attempting to make her gag. Most of all, Twilight could feel the very presence of the ponyspawn within her heart. Above ground, the Warden senses proved a boon to detect the monsters. Here in the underground they were a liability. Only because so many ponyspawn existed in one place, did Twilight take comfort in the senses.

She couldn’t sense them, but they couldn’t sense her and her friends.

However, looking back at the party, Twilight now realized just how challenging this venture into the Dark Tunnels was going to be. Three Grey Warden recruits would enter the Dark Tunnels and face their new senses rather quickly after their joining. Twilight recalled that she had travelled Equestria and got used to her newfound abilities before diving headlong into the home of the ponyspawn. She was given time to develop her senses.

Oghren, Lyra, and Daisy did not have such luxury.

Of all the recruits, Oghren, much to Twilight’s surprise, appeared to be the most on edge. He held his axe gripped in his teeth, moving his head left and right in search of enemies. Bloodshot eyes darted every which way while heavy, coarse breathing slipped through the gaps of thick donkey teeth.

“They’re everywhere…” Oghren muttered, “Blood of the Stone, if I hadn’t gave up drinking I’d need to down three barrels of cider just to stop the whispering in my head.” He gave his head a hard shake to clear his mind. “Just… all over the place. Like they’re in the walls.”

Twilight took a deep breath as she squeezed through a small crack in the walls. The jagged edges of stone scraped against her armour and made slight screeching noises. “Just calm down and focus on your own heartbeat. You’ll get used to it over time. It’s just really condensed here. Let’s be grateful we’re not in the Deepest Depths yet.”

“Yet?” Daisy squeaked a furlong behind Twilight, yet loud enough for everypony to hear. “Y-you don’t think we’ll actually have to go that far, d-do you?”

“Stay calm, and check your fear, Daisy.” Twilight needed to make sure all her recruits would not be distracted by their own terror in the Tunnels. If even a simple word or two could help, she had to try. “We just need to find the source of the ponyspawn. It’s not enough we collapse a tunnel here or there. We need to find the new leadership and figure out why they are attacking Brightstone.”

Lyra smirked in the rear of their line. “Because they are hungry. Because they want to kidnap some mares and turn them into Broodmares. Because they just don’t like us. You know, Twilight, Wardens are meant to kill ponyspawn. I’m still surprised you haven’t lost your idealism after the Fifth Blight.”

Twilight turned to look Lyra in the eye. She felt a mild amount of annoyance at the battlemage. “Why are you surprised by that? If I don’t keep my ideals, it’ll be just one step on the slippery slope. I’ve seen ponies who gave up on what they believed in and simply gave in to despair.”

“The ponyspawn all hate you,” Lyra said, “ever since you slew the Archdemon, they hate you more than anything else in the world. They even gave you a title, like they do to the strongest of ponyspawn.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” Twilight fired back, “and I still hold true that if these ponyspawn can speak and think without the aid of the Archdemon, they can be talked to. Reasoned with. We just need to find a ponyspawn that won’t try to kill us on first contact.”

As much as Twilight wanted to believe her own words, the seeds of doubt that were planted through the long months of the Fifth Blight still held their roots within her. She could not reason with The Howler, so how could she hope to establish a dialogue with another ponyspawn champion?

Yet it was the nature of the ponyspawn to be savage and destructive, that much Twilight knew from experience. The Howler acted as the norm of the new intelligent ponyspawn, and Lyra’s words came back to haunt Twilight. They did bestow her the title of “Silencer”, and while she was no stranger to battling ponyspawn, to see them so focused on her personally unnerved her.

“I have to try,” Twilight said, loud enough for everypony to hear. There was no dissent to her plan, but nopony stood up for it either. No matter, Twilight thought as she continued on the narrow path. I know what I’m doing. I have to try.

They journeyed in silence for a while with only the sounds of hooves on stone accompanying them. The faint light of fire bled into the cavern the Wardens traversed. Twilight’s eyes lit up at the sight; it could be other donkey explorers or, though unlikely, other Grey Wardens. The chance the flames could come from ponyspawn was higher, but such an encounter would also help. She would know where the ponyspawn threat originated from, or at least finally have a trail.

Before she could pass through the small mouth of the cave, Oghren jabbed her ribs with a steel-clad hoof. “Twilight, wait,” Oghren said in a low whisper. His long ears stood a attention and his face held a grim frown. “I hear something up ahead. Let’s be careful. If it’s ‘spawn, we can get the jump on them. If it’s anyone else…”

“We don’t want to spook them.” Twilight understood that in the depths of the Dark Tunnels, everyone, donkey and pony alike, would have their nerves dance on the razor’s edge. Twilight’s first venture in the Tunnels had her freaking out at shadows. Not without reason, of course. Ponyspawn and other frightening denizens of the underground could lurk in any shadowed crevice, waiting for the opportunity to strike.

One would have to be mad not to be paranoid in the Dark Tunnels.

Twilight emerged from the crevice to see the light of what appeared to be dozens of bonfires. The sounds of battle echoed clearly now in the face of the massive cave, and as Twilight zoomed in with a quick spell, she could see the combatants clearly.

Ponyspawn did battle not against donkeys, but against a small force of diamond dogs.

“What are those things…” Lyra said, surprising Twilight as she used the same eagle-eye spell. Oghren growled through the bit-hilt of his axe.

“Diamond dogs!” He snarled, “I don’t believe it! I thought the ponyspawn wiped them out generations ago!”

“We met a dragon-cult of dogs in the Frosttop Mountains,” Twilight said, “They were not wiped out, no thanks to the efforts of the ponyspawn and the donkey kingdoms. We should help them. They might be very capable allies.”

Oghren glowered at the sight of the diamond dogs. “I know what you’re thinking. Well you can just forget it! I fought long wars against the diamond dogs, and I am not going to risk my furry neck for some mutts!”

Twilight stood up straight and then took a deep, menacing breath. She exaggerated the exhale as annoyance made itself clear on her features. She turned slowly to Oghren who remained as defiant as ever.

“I know you and the donkeys have a long history of violence and war,” Twilight said in a low voice. “Isn’t it time to let go of a conflict from so long ago? ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Even if we can’t negotiate with the ponyspawn, why should we make more enemies with the diamond dogs?”

“They’re savages!” Oghren roared back, “You can’t trust them as far as you can throw them! They’re agents of Chaos! They… they smell!”

Twilight’s horn flared with violet power as she drew her sword. “Right now I just see diamond dogs under attack by a foe that knows no mercy. I also see Grey Wardens that understand that while I am their friend, I am also their Commander. We are going to help the dogs. Any defiance of my orders will be met with an immediate court martial.”

While Twilight did not enjoy using her authority on her friend, yet she needed to keep Oghren in line. She gambled on the fact that since they already endured so many hardships together, Oghren would not move to stand against her. He would, however, begrudgingly accept her orders and follow through. The Wardens needed Oghren’s strength and skill in battle.

Twilight looked down to make a quick assessment of the battleground before deciding on the appropriate method to engage the enemy. The ponyspawn outnumbered the diamond dogs three-to-one, though the majority of the opposing force was made up of donlocks. Despite this, several thelock alphas controlled the group while screamers harassed the dogs. Thankfully, she could not see any ornlock emissaries or minotaurs. The lack of any real punch in their lines would make the battle a little easier.

Many of the diamond dogs took a position near a wall of the cavern, waving crude spears and axes against the ponyspawn. As Twilight looked closer, she could see the fear in the eyes as their meager defense showed sign of collapse as the small horde of donlocks encroached ever closer. Only a few of the dogs wore the trappings of warriors or soldiers, and yet those bits and pieces of armour looked ancient to her eye. They would not stop a ponyspawn fang, let alone one of their terrible blades.

“Daisy, you’re with me,” Twilight said, “We’re going to charge the donlock lines and give the diamond dogs some relief. Oghren, engage the alphas. Lyra, provide him with some spell support. Once we’ve swept up the ponyspawn, we can help the dogs get out of this situation.”

Lyra nodded and illuminated her staff with a golden aura. She drew the hidden blade from within the staff and held it ready. Daisy removed the razor disc from her satchel, taking the chain in her mouth as she took her spot beside Twilight.”

“By your side, Commander,” Daisy said. Twilight gave her an affirmative nod before lifting Sophia high and ready for battle.

“Charge!” Twilight felt the fur on the back of her neck rise as the thrill of battle overtook her. She hated fighting, but still found herself feeling the rush that combat brought on.

Ponyspawn and diamond dog turned their heads in the direction of the charging Grey Warden. The former hissed and reformed their lines, focusing their stronger units to take the brunt of Twilight’s attack. Jaws snapped in intimidating fashion as thelocks reared on their hooves and drew their savage swords that hung by their sides. Screamers turned in sharp arcs to bring their jagged teeth and claws to bear against their pony foes.

The largest and most heavily armoured of the thelock pushed its way through the thelock lines. A large, spiky helmet obstructed its eyes, but the monsters foul mouth was still in view, and its lips curled into a sinister sneer.

“Silencer…” the thelock alpha snarled. “You come. We… kill! Kill the Silencer! Kill the Silencer! Rip flesh! Spill blood! Slay all!”

The other ponyspawn joined in the rally with a chorus of roars and charged towards Twilight to meet her challenge. With Duncan’s shield gripped tight in her magical hold, Twilight deflected a blade meant to tear through her neck. Her sword quickly met the ponyspawn’s blade as both parried with a flurry of sparks that burst when steel met steel. The thelock growled when its attack failed, only to attack again with another strong strike that arced the blade towards Twilight’s face.

Twilight met the challenge of the rusty sword with a spell. She cast a quick yet effective beam of blinding light that flowed from the tip of her horn right into the left eye of the thelock. The monster screamed in pain, dropping its weapon and bringing its hooves up to shield its eyes. Once the thelock fell over, Twilight urged her sword forward, plunging the tip of Sophia deep into the thelock’s chest. It struggled briefly before finally stilling while a pool of black blood flowed from the wound.

Daisy handled the screamers well, throwing her razor disc into the air with expert precision. Unable to fly with absolute freedom, the screamers endured both Daisy’s attacks and the closed in cavern walls that made up Dark Tunnels. When the spinning edge whizzed by a screamer, it either killed them outright by tearing into their chests or long necks, or they sliced the wings right of the screamers’ backs.

Those screamers that somehow survived the slicing attacks by Daisy then contended with Lyra and her battle magic. Flames spewed from the harp at the end of Lyra’s staff, burning screamer, thelock, and any other ponyspawn caught in the blaze. Twilight shook her head as she looked at the face of glee Lyra displayed; she enjoyed using her battlemage training far too much.

Only Oghren remained, but his focus split between the attacking ponyspawn force and the diamond dogs who established a strong defensive stance thanks to the reprieve given to them by Twilight. He growled with the axe handle in his mouth, and his distraction allowed a donlock to flank him. The miniature monster latched onto Oghren’s side with sharp claws digging into donkey armour. The donlock opened its razor maw and clamped down on the exposed flesh of Oghren’s neck. Blood spurted from the wound as Oghren thrashed about to detach the donlock from his neck.

“Damn… critter!” Oghren shouted. “I’m going to gut you with my own bare hooves and-“

He never received a chance to finish his oath as a thelock charged into Oghren’s side, knocking donkey and donlock onto the ground with a thud. Oghren moaned in pain while blood continued to pour from the wound, though he never once let go of his axe. Just as the donlock leapt into the air to taste flesh once again, Oghren stood up with authority. With a sharp twist of his neck, Oghren brought his axe up and hewed the donlock clean in half. The split ponyspawn left a shower of black blood in its wake.

Despite the short lived victory, Oghren fell on one knee as his wounded shoulder began to fester from the bite. The other thelock sneered at Oghren then drew its own jagged blade. A long, slimy black tongue slid around the handle of the weapon. The thelock anticipated how close its next meal would be.

Twilight readied a spell against the thelock only to have a screamer fly at her face. Distracted, she back stepped away from the scratching claws of the flying ponyspawn, now unable to help Oghren.

A loud howl like those from wolves echoed through the caverns. Every ponyspawn turned their heads and snarled in the direction of the haunting call. Twilight took advantage of the distraction and drove her blade into the screamer that harassed her. Once it fell, Twilight charged towards the thelock that towered over Oghren.

The thelock heard Twilight’s metal clad hooves and moved to parry her blade with his. While he knew how to deal with a regular pony warrior, the thelock never faced the likes of the Warden Commander in battle. As soon as she held his attention on her sword, Twilight’s horn crackled and unleashed a powerful bolt of energy right into his face. The thelock’s scream of pain ended quickly as it collapsed on the ground, now little more than a smoldering corpse.

Twilight offered her hoof to Oghren who took it. “Are you all right?” she asked, looking over his wounds.

“Nothing’s more damaged than my pride right now.” Oghren clamped his teeth around the battle-axe bit once more. “We have bigger problems than ponyspawn now! Didn’t you hear the howl?”

“I did! What was that?”

The answer came rushing out of a small cave. A small figure clad in dirty black leather leaped out of the crevice onto the ponyspawn that threatened the diamond dog pack. The newcomer’s hunched back, and large paws revealed that he or she was a diamond dog. A black mask covered their snouts while the paws held two jagged daggers made of bone. Mottled grey fur poked out from some of the patches in the leather, while dull yellow eyes darted about.

“Shadowhound…” Oghren hissed the word while biting down on his axe-bit. “Keep an eye on your back, they can—“

Twilight stood in awe as the shadowhound broke into a two-legged run across the underground battlefield. The dog swerved around every ponyspawn as it brought its daggers up in quick yet accurate slices. Before they even knew death came, the ponyspawn fell while black blood poured from their slit throats. Ponyspawn fell one by one as the shadowhound continued the dance of the macabre. The jagged knives caused horrible wounds and covered the dog with blood, but if they noticed, they did not care.

The ponyspawn tried to rally, focusing all their attention on the shadowhound. This exposed their flanks, of which Twilight readied herself to take full advantage. “Everyone! The ponyspawn are distracted!” She raised Sophia high above her head. Running at full gallop, Twilight dove into the unprotected flank of the ponyspawn force and sliced through thelock and donlock alike. Inspired by her charge, Daisy gave a shout and resumed her own advance, her razor-disc flying around her head and tearing through the ponyspawn with ease. Fireballs from Lyra added an exclamation point to the counter attack, roasting ponyspawn alive in fiery blasts.

The ponyspawn, despite their ravenous savagery and newfound sentience, could not hold out against a two pronged attack. Wardens and Diamond Dogs pushed towards the alpha in the center who could only watch as his forces dwindled.

“Silencer!” He snarled the title given to Twilight before charging in a suicide assault against her and her friends. Twilight gasped as the alpha thelock slew or maimed any of his own ponyspawn soldiers just to get to her.

The thelock alpha raised his blade to slash at Twilight, only to have his attack interrupted by the shadowhound that led the diamond dog counterstrike. The hound clawed its way onto the alpha’s back while with one paw held a jagged dagger tight. As the alpha bucked and kicked and shouted, but could not dislodge the diamond dog. Dagger raised into the air, the dog struck hard into the side of the thelock’s neck, causing a geyser of blood to spew from the wretched wound.

The monster fell over with the dog jumping off and landing in front of the surprised Twilight. With the ponyspawn now just a pile of corpses, Twilight took a deep breath. Another battle won, yet it would be only the first of many. The walls of the Dark Tunnels always needed a fresh coat of blood paint.

Twilight sheathed her blade and approached the hooded diamond dog. “Thank you very much for your help,” she said, extending her hoof, “My name is Twilight Sparkle and-”

The dog barked at her, forcing Twilight to take a back step. This caused Ogrhen to growl and step between the dog and Twilight with his axe gripped tight in his teeth.

“See, just what I told you!” Oghren swung at the dog, only for Twilight to catch the axe with her magic.

The dog barked again, only this time in Common. “You stinky donkey!” The dog spoke in what Twilight guessed was a feminine voice, though it was rough and scratchy. The dog then pointed at Twilight herself. “You… shiny donkey! You come for pack! You no hurt pack!”

Twilight shook her head and yanked Oghren’s axe away in an attempt to show her peaceful intentions. Daisy and Lyra put away their own weapons, but took up positions at their Commander’s flank.

“We are not here to harm you!” Twilight searched for some way to get through to the shadowhound, who only cocked her head yet still held her daggers tight. The other dogs, at least those who could not fight, lifted their crude spears and readied to fight the Wardens. With a sigh of exasperation, Twilight decided on a route of communication.

“Me Twilight. Me pony. Me from surface. Up!” Twilight felt her eye twitch using such improper syntax. “Me no hurt you. Me good. Donkey stinky. Donkey good. Donkey and pony, friend. Dog and pony friend?”

The shadowhound cocked her head the other way as her face revealed her confusion. “You… pony? You friend with donkey! Donkey stinky! Donkey bad! You fight Korroo’sha. Ponyspawn. Maybe you no bad. Me no trust.”

Twilight nodded to the diamond dog. She was getting somewhere at least. “Me Twilight. You…?”

The diamond dog sniffed the air for a moment before sheathing her daggers. “You Twilight. Me Sparky. Me shadowhound. This is pack of Sparky. We run from Korroo’sha. You come to fight them?”

Twilight assumed that Korroo’sha was the diamond dog word for the ponyspawn. “Yes. We’ve come to face the ponyspawn. To fight the korroo’sha. They attacked our home through the tunnels. My pack.”

Sparky cocked her head at Twilight, looked to the other ponies and Oghren, then back to her. She growled for a moment. “Donkey in pack?”

Twilight nodded. The other diamond dogs approached them with caution, but as their shadowhound did not fight, Twilight assumed that the others would not as well. She got a good look at Sparky’s mottled pack, and felt a pang of pity at their disheveled appearance. Many of them were just skin and bones with their ribs clearly seen against sickly skin with only some patches of fur clinging on. Their yellow eyes reflected a despair and fatigue only matched by soldiers who fought long campaigns against the ponyspawn. Indeed, these dogs likely did encounter the monsters, with the donkey kingdoms harrowing their journeys as well.

The dogs, Twilight noted, did not have the appearance of warriors. Their weapons were little more than sharp rocks tied to sticks, if they even had sticks to begin with. They donned armour of leather that seen better days. To imagine a contest of military might between the well-armed and disciplined donkey armies made her doubt the leadership of Orzamule. The war would be one-sided, especially when the ponyspawn fought on a second front.

“Commander,” Daisy said as she flanked Twilight’s right. “I’m glad we were able to help these… dogs… against the ponyspawn, but we can’t stay here too long. We have to find the source of the ponyspawn attacks on Brightstone before they send another wave.”

“You’re right,” Twilight replied, “Anyone have any suggestions?”

“We don’t have the soldiers to build a defensive outpost,” Lyra said, “We need to find their main artery of advancement and either block it off or destroy it.”

Oghren added, “Once we find the main artery, we can fill it rocks or even lava if we go deep enough. Just remember the deeper we go, the closer to the Deepest Depths we get.”

Twilight considered what her companions said. She needed a way to halt the ponyspawn advance and she needed that way yesterday. Her mind raced as she considered every spell in her mental libraries. Her eyes lit up as one possibility jumped at her. She recalled her encounter with the Mare-of-the-Mire and her powerful defensive spells. The spell she had in mind would need help though.

“Lyra, do you know any lattice defensive spells?” Twilight asked. Lyra tapped her chin.

“If you let me have some sweet, sweet lovin’ after, I can show you all sorts of lattice spells!” Lyra’s eyebrows bounced at the suggestion, which only drew a long sigh of frustration from Twilight. “I’m kidding, star-flank! But hey, I’m a battle mage, so I needed to build fortifications on the fly and they needed to last. If we merge our lattices together, the ponyspawn shouldn’t be able to break through with their own magic or brute force.”

Twilight smiled. They had a plan and that was just another step in the right direction. That just left the diamond dogs. She could not just leave them alone, especially when the ponyspawn ran amok in the Dark Tunnels.

“Sparky,” Twilight said as she approached the shadowhound, “Your people. Your pack. They follow path. They be safe there. We go to danger. We go to stop korro’sha.

Sparky’s ears perked up and she looked to Twilight and then to her diamond dog brethren. She padded over to them and spoke in their rough language. Oghren shifted on his hooves, pacing up and down the length of the tunnel. Twilight shook her head. Did he learn nothing from their travels? Did he not learn that hatred solved nothing?

With their meeting over, Sparky returned to Twilight. “You…” Sparky smacked her lips, searching for the right words. “You go fight. My pack go hide but me go with you. Me fight good. Me kill korro’sha quick. Me want make sure pack is safe.”

Twilight beamed at the opportunity to include a diamond dog into their group, only for Oghren to growl. “Ain’t no way were going into the Dark Tunnels with a diamond dog! And a shadowhound no less! You want a knife to slit your throat in the dark, Twilight?!”

Her own frustrations mounting, Twilight turned to Oghren. “That is enough, Oghren! You may be a fine warrior and one of my friends, but your treatment of Sparky and her people is inexcusable! I want you, no, I order you to stand down and remain silent!”

Oghren was about to shoot back with choice donkey curses when his ears suddenly perked up. Twilight felt the sudden shift in her own heart and she quickly looked to Lyra and Daisy. Lyra already drew her sword from her staff and called upon a fireball to form at the tip of her horn. Daisy’s eyes went wide as she felt the black blood inside her begin to boil.

“Something… something is coming!” Daisy fell to her knees, a look of sheer terror plastered on her face. “Sweet Celestia and Luna, blessed Sisters, protect us from the coming troubles…”

Twilight raised her sword and shield as she felt a rumble in her chest and from the ground under her hooves. Sparky urged her pack to flee back towards Brightstone. Once the last dog was out of sight, she drew her daggers and growled, baring her long, sharp canines.

“He comes…” Sparky whispered. “The Big Big Horns.”

Twilight looked towards the dark caverns they were about to enter when she realized the source of the rumblings. “Not the caves…” Twilight muttered, “They won’t come from a cave. They’ll come from…”

Twilight quickly raised a shield around them as the eastern wall of the cavern exploded into several rocks and shards of rubble. A dust storm kicked up from the violent detonation that shrouded the room, but the echoing of massive hooves acted as the telltale of incoming danger.

“Minotaurs…” Twilight furrowed her brow as the dust cleared, revealing two large and heavily armoured war minotaurs. The pair of mighty ponyspawn roared but did not move forward to attack. Instead, a third minotaur, much smaller but appearing more confident and more importantly, intelligent, walked up to Twilight and her party. He did not wear armour like the other, preferring to go with simple trousers with a belt of ponyskulls holding them up. In his hands he held a great ornate mace several times bigger than any pony. A single swing would reduce to Twilight to paste.

“The Indomitable Iron Will’s the name,” the lead minotaur said as heaved the mace so it rested on his shoulders. “Killing ponies is my game and old Iron Will is the master. You see, sister, Iron Will was sent here to collect a thingy for the Architect, oh yeah, and Iron Will is gonna do just that, but when he felt the legendary Silencer was going to be a contender in Iron Will’s ring, well Iron Will just had to look into her eyes just once.”

“We don’t have to fight,” Twilight said, “You can go back to the Dark Tunnels. Inform your leadership we can parley for peace.”

“No chance in hell that is gonna happen, Silencer.” Iron Will lifted his mace firmly into his hands. “That’s the bottom line, ‘cause Iron Will says so. See, Iron Will is the single most powerful Brother in existence but he still has to take orders from The Chosen and the Architect. Iron Will does not like that arrangement much and as such Iron Will needs to increase his stock. What better way that to include the Silencer’s skull on his championship belt?”

Iron Will leapt with surprising speed towards Twilight, who quickly raised a barrier to protect herself and her friends. Iron Will’s mace bounced off harmlessly, but the stress from taking such a blow rocked Twilight’s magical core. She fell to one knee as her horn’s aura began to fade.

“When somepony tries to block,” Iron Will shouted, raising the mace above his head, “Show them that you rock!”

Iron Will’s second attack broke Twilight’s defenses, sending her barrier shattering into a million pieces. Twilight fell from the stress, her sword and shield collapsing to her sides. As she fell, her friends sprang into action. Daisy swung her razor disc towards Iron Will’s neck, a kill shot for sure. Oghren charged towards Iron Will and struck against the back of his legs to bring him down as the berserker brought down so many other minotaurs. Sparky joined the fray with daggers drawn, raising them high and plunging them into his back.

The disc bounced harmlessly against Iron Will’s flesh. The axe did not rend flesh. The daggers did not pierce his skin.

He laughed at the vain attempt. “Iron Will always gets a chuckle when some fool decides to take on the greatest minotaur of all Ages in direct combat.”

“Then let’s see how you like an extra dose of battle magic!” Lyra unleashed a torrent of flame once the party was out of the way. The other two minotaurs dove out of way while Iron Will smiled at the incoming flame strike. Twilight felt the heat from the fires as she recollected her arms, only to look up in shock as Iron Will stepped out of the fire with nary a burn on his skin.

Lyra’s eyes went wide as her spell had no effect. “That’s… that can’t be…”

“The Indomitable Iron Will has earned his honorific several times over,” Iron Will explained to the aghast party. “For you see, The Shaper merged lyrium and steel together into Iron Will’s very skin. He is indomitable! He is the best in the world at what he does, and what he is about to do is send you runts all the way down to hell! Iron Will will collect your skulls later at his convenience!”

Twilight shouted as she recollected her strength. Her horn flared to life as she fired beams of arcane might into Iron Will’s direction. It was more out of desperation and defiance than in any hopes to defeat one who appeared truly invulnerable.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone!” Twilight cried out. Iron Will only laughed again.

“Why murderize when I can let the very earth… pulverize!” Her swung his mace against the wall of the tunnel and a rumble echoed throughout the earthen chamber. Twilight looked up to see several rocks falling around and onto her. She tried to raise a shield, but the amount of rocks pelting against it was proving difficult to maintain.

Iron Will struck the floor this time, sending fissures underneath their hooves. With a second strike, the floor collapsed under them, revealing a hollow vertical drop that sent Twilight and her friends plummeting to their doom. Her screams echoed as she looked into the twisted, joyful eyes of the Indomitable Iron Will before the rocks that fell with her brought her to darkness.

The Dead City

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Chapter 7: The Dead City

A loud ringing echoed in Twilight’s ears as she slowly stood up. Her vision blurry and her bones aching, Twilight wobbled on her hooves until she collapsed against a nearby wall. She felt something warm drip down her face. A quick rub of her hoof revealed it to be blood. A cut on her hairline, she guessed, but she was no healer.

Pitch black enveloped the cave as there was no source of light. Twilight strained to cast even the simplest spells, her body screaming in denial to any activity and using pain as protest. Her magic obeyed finally, and a small violet light emitted from her horn. Her heart sank as she could not see her friends.

“Lyra…” Twilight coughed out, her voice raspy from the dust that inhabited her lungs. “Daisy… Oghren… Sparky… can anypony hear me?”

A pile of rocks moved, revealing Oghren rising up from underneath. His face held several bruises, but the stubborn berserker was no worse for wear. “I’m alright,” Oghren muttered, “Been dealing with cave-ins like that since I was a young buck. Can’t say a minotaur ever made one, though.”

Sparky’s head popped out of the shadows and Twilight gave thanks that her new acquaintance made it through the violent upheaval of the earth. She approached the group on confident paws, though her daggers never left her clutches. Instead, Sparky sat in front of Twilight all the while scratching her back with a hind leg.

“Rocks fall, but everyone no die. Sparky glad.” She then looked around the dark cavern. “Sparky happy that Warden-friend still live. Stinky Donkey not so much. Where are Minty and Scaredy?”

Twilight waved her mage-light around the cavern. When that failed to locate Lyra and Daisy, she turned inward to her heartbeat and focused on finding the same black blood that flowed in her friends as did in her. The sound of her friends’ heartbeats, however, was very faint, while the ponyspawn that ruled the Dark Tunnels thundered all around her in a twisted orchestra of savage blood.

“I can’t feel them, Twilight said, “They’re here but I can’t find them. We have to start digging through all the rock piles. They could be hurt!”

Twilight mustered as much strength as she could in her horn and tried to lift some of the heavier boulders. A weak body gave nothing but weak magic, and even the simple spells of levitation proved a monumental challenge. The boulder she lifted fell and tumbled away, but Twilight did not feel enough strength to cast the same spell again.

Panic struck Twilight as the thought of Lyra and Daisy trapped under rubble ran through her mind’s eye. She immediately sprung to life, desperately moving rocks with her hooves. She panted heavily as a sharp pain rose from her chest. She guessed at a broken rib or two, but did not care for her own injury. If she lost Lyra and Daisy on their first mission…


Oghren joined Twilight in digging through the cave-in while Sparky stayed back, her snout in the air. Seeing this, Oghren shouted at the shadowhound.

“Damn it, you useless mutt!” he roared, “Get over here and help us! Those two are dying under all this rubble!”

“Stinky donkey also stupid donkey. Stinky stupid stubborn donkey.” Sparky continued to sniff the air while Oghren shouted obscenities. Admittedly, Twilight thought Oghren’s point was legitimate until Sparky leapt onto the rock pile, her nose leading her.

“Nose knows,” Sparky said, “Can smell Minty. She smell nice. Can smell Scaredy. She smell like donkey fear.” Sparky then began to dig into the mound of stones, using her powerful paws to push the rocks away with ease. What surprised Twilight was the other method Sparky used to clear the rubble. When her paws were full either lifting or pushing rocks, Sparky leaned in and bit into a rock, breaking it apart with ease in her jaws.

Twilight joined Sparky in the dig and with some hesitation, Oghren did as well. They dug together into the mound until they found Daisy unconscious and bleeding within the rubble. She was breathing to Twilight’s great relief, but only barely. Her lungs struggled to keep air as the hoarse sound made its way through cracked and bloodied lips.

Sparky lifted Daisy up with care until Twilight could carry her. To her delighted surprise, Lyra was underneath where Daisy had been looking haggard but otherwise whole. As they lifted her up, Lyra opened her eyes and coughed out a chest full of dirt and dust.

“Had a couple tumbles in my time, but none quite as painful that.” Lyra chuckled as they helped her stand upright. “I like getting dirty as the next girl, but this is ridiculous. Thanks for the timely rescue. Wait...”

“Daisy was covering you when we found you two,” Oghren explained. “She’s in rough shape—“

Lyra turned to Daisy as Twilight laid her on the ground. “No…” Lyra whimpered, her jovial nature all but erased. She rushed to Daisy’s side and began to look her over. “My staff!” Lyra shouted, “I need my staff!”

Sparky approached Lyra with the staff in question clamped in her teeth. Lyra picked up the staff in her aura and quickly began the process of healing Daisy’s serious wounds. The green glow of Lyra’s magic washed over Daisy, sealing lacerations and setting bones into their proper place. As she worked, Lyra closed her eyes and began to mutter something. Her interest piqued, Twilight leaned in close to hear the incantations to Lyra’s spell, only to find that she was reciting a prayer to the Sisters.

Twilight sat on her rump and levitated a couple of healing poultices for herself and Oghren. She first poured the contents of one bottle over Oghren’s head, allowing the healing mixture to mend his wounds. She then doused her own wounds, starting with a splash of poultice on her chest to heal the broken ribs, and then pouring the rest on her various cuts and scrapes. The healing from the poultices tingled through her body, though sealing and repairing broken ribs proved rather painful. Once the mixture restored her body, Twilight shook her head and looked about their predicament.

Trapped in the deep regions of the earth without a clear way to escape, surrounded by bloodthirsty monsters who were all too eager to spill blood, and too weak to properly combat them. Twilight lifted an apple from her saddlebag and took a bite, ignoring the dirt that covered it. The fruit gave her the only real semblance of calm that could be garnered.

Lyra sat next to Twilight and gave a great sigh of relief. “Daisy’s stable and she should be fine after a night’s rest. I’m spent though. I’ll be lucky if I can light a candle after this. No after disaster nookie, Twilight. Please don’t come onto me, I’m not strong enough to resist.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and instead walked around the circumference of the room they fell into. She looked up at the hole in the tunnel, only to see darkness. There was no way of knowing how far they fell and even if she did know, getting back up in their condition would be impossible. Neither Twilight nor Lyra had the magic to levitate the party back to where Iron Will dropped them.

Iron Will needed to be stopped, but Twilight could not figure out how to overcome his incredible resiliency. Spells simply bounced off his lyrium-skin. Blades could not pierce his flesh. The Indomitable Iron Will lived up to his name and then some.

Everything held a weakness within, it simply meant Twilight needed to find it in Iron Will and exploit it. If such a minotaur could be replicated, it would spell doom for the surface. She needed to find him, defeat him, and stop the ponyspawn advance form under Brightstone. Yet so long as she was trapped in the Dark Tunnels, Iron Will could continue unabated on his mission from the Architect.

She looked over to see Oghren struggling with his pack. He was trying to bite down on both a sheet of parchment and a quill. Twilight raised her brow as she had never seen Oghren take up the pen before. With what little magic she had, she helped Oghren with his struggle until the parchment, ink and inkwell sat before him. She then joined Oghren as he sat down and looked over the sheet.

“Thanks, Twilight,” Oghren said, “Been, uh… been meaning to write this since me and the boys arrived in Brightstone. Just never seemed to have the time, what with being a Warden and all.”

“What are you going to write?” Twilight asked.

“A letter to my wife.” Twilight looked puzzled at Oghren’s statement. The only wife of Oghren’s she knew was the fallen paragon Branka, and Oghren killed her after a bloody battle.

“Well, uh… I wasn’t exactly the most faithful jackass in Orzamule,” Oghren explained. “Met a nice jenny in the tavern that caught my eye. One thing led to another, we got real acquainted with each other, and well… I’ll save you the details. Needless to say I was the greatest stud in the whole damn city after, considering how long we went at it! And how loud. Heh ha!”

Once again, Twilight rolled her eyes. “Between you and Lyra…”

“Hey now, story time isn’t over. Anyways, next thing I know she’s banging on my door saying she was leaving for the surface with her child. My child. I was… I mean I was still in love with Branka being as she was my first wife and we never had a kid and…”

Oghren shook his head. “Blood of the Stone, I was scared Twilight! Me, the best damn berserker in all of Orzamule and I was scared by getting some other jenny pregnant. I ain’t a father. My father wasn’t much of one either, but he was a jack and I was too, so I was going to become warrior caste no matter what. Wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I wasn’t sure I wanted my own spawn to carry on.”

“How were you so sure you were going to have a son?” Twilight questioned, “She could have had a daughter and become merchant caste like her mother.”

“These sacks only carry jackasses, boss.” Oghren chortled as Twilight wretched, trying not to think of Oghren’s “sacks.”

“Point is… I wasn’t ready to be a father, but after the Battle of Trotterim, I decided to see if I could find the mother. I did, while you were helping Applejack be queen. She seemed happy to get back together. Maybe she missed her stud, maybe she liked the idea of having a hero for a husband, but I asked her to marry me and she said yes. Since we were both surface donkeys now, we were casteless, so my boy didn’t have to be a berserker.”

“Thing was, I wanted to show him how to fight. The world’s a dangerous place, after all, and a donkey needs to know when and how to kick danger in the jaw. My boy is cute as a button, Twilight. And plenty strong too! He’d become a fine warrior one day. But his mom wouldn’t allow me to train him, saying she wanted a peaceful life. I tried to settle down, do normal work. Heck, I even became a village guard just so I can have an axe in my life. But I can’t deny who I am, Twilight. I’m a berserker! I live to fight! I love to fight! Settling down is not for me. So I went east.”

East. To Brightstone. To the Grey Wardens. Twilight’s initial reaction was to rebuke Oghren’s selfishness, but she took a moment to let his confession sink in. A donkey trained from a young age to be a warrior would only know how to be a warrior. To one with so much pride as Oghren, becoming a simple guard or a farmer or shopkeep would be an insult to who he was.

“Are you writing a letter for your wife?” Twilight asked.

“I guess… but it’s more for my son. To explain why I’m not there.” Oghren sighed. “Maybe I should forget it.”

“No!” Twilight lifted the quill and dipped it into the ink. “I’d be more than happy to write a letter, though I only know Equestrian Common. If you want to write it in donkey…”

“Hah, forget that. His mom wants him to learn Common too.” Oghren smiled at Twilight, and she could not help but smile back. It was a genuine smile of thanks, and that gave her a good feeling in her heart that the black blood of the ponyspawn could never overcome.

With quill in her magical grip, Twilight looked down onto the parchment. “Let’s start simple,” she said, “Dear…”

Oghren fidgeted and looked away from Twilight. “Is something wrong?” she asked.

“His mom wanted to hold one tradition,” Oghren replied, “Since I was the dad, I got to name him. So I guess the letter would start as ‘Dear…’ ‘Dear…’”

“Dear Spike.”

Twilight blanked as the words echoed around her. The quill fell onto the parchment as she stood in shock for a moment. She felt something warm fall across her cheeks. She knew she was crying at being reminded of losing Spike. Slowly Twilight turned to Oghren. “You… you named your son…”

“I know we didn’t know each other very long,” Oghren said, “And I should have asked your permission or something but he needed a good strong name and Spike was…”

Twilight threw her hooves over Oghren and held him in a tight embrace. Her tears flowed freely, though she kept her voice soft. “Thank you, Oghren. Thank you for telling me. Spike would have been honoured that you named your son after him. We’re going to write this letter. We’re going to write the best letter ever, and when we get back to the surface, I would very much like to meet your son, Spike.”

With new determination, the two worked on the letter together, all the while Twilight making an oath that they would escape the Dark Tunnels together. They would defeat Iron Will and stop the ponyspawn’s entrance to Brightstone. A new Spike’s world depended on it.

Twilight slept for a while after helping Oghren write his letters, only for a hoof to prod her awake. She instinctively lit her horn, only to be met with the smiling face of Daisy.

“Commander,” she said, looking hearty, “Good to see you again.”

“Daisy!” Twilight got to her hooves with haste to hug her fellow Warden. “I’m glad Lyra’s magic worked so well. How are you feeling?”

“Right as rain.” Daisy trotted about to show she was able and willing to fight. “I’m ready to fight the ponyspawn, Commander. There is something you should see. While you were with Oghren and while you were asleep, the diamond dog Sparky… well, it’s better if you see for yourself.”

Twilight followed Daisy to a wall which held a large hole bored through it. Sparky sat and smiled next to the hole, wagging her tail with pride. The hole appeared large enough for a pony in full harness to go through. With no signs of tools, Twilight guessed Sparky simply clawed and chewed her way through the solid rock.

“Incredible,” Twilight said as she beamed to her new friend. “Great work, Sparky! Do you know where it leads?”

“Sparky dig until she find big tunnel,” she explained, “We go back to main roads, able to escape Big Big Horn.”

Twilight shook her head. “We can’t run from Iron Will. We have to defeat him so he isn’t a threat to Brightstone or your pack.”

At this point the party stood around the hole. Lyra spoke up, “How do we defeat him though? He’s practically invulnerable. Our blades don’t scratch him and our magic doesn’t faze him.”

“Conventional tactics won’t work on Iron Will,” Twilight agreed, “So we’ll have to improvise. Maybe we can use the environment against him like he did against us. He can’t be invincible. I won’t believe that.”

Instead of worrying about the battle, Twilight led the group into Sparky’s tunnel. While big enough to crawl through, the tight quarters did give Twilight some trouble. She moved slowly as her armour scratched against the walls and a few times her horn collided with loose rocks on the ceiling. The dank smell of soil filled her nostrils, but at least she could stomach it. That aroma beat the stink of dried blood any day.

She thought back to the last time she was in the Dark Tunnels, and how harrowing a journey it was then as it proved to be now. If she had not found the diamond dogs, Twilight likely would have just formed a defensive barrier with several hundred wards in the event it failed right outside of the entrance. Many of her old friends suffered greatly in the Dark Tunnels, and the longer they remained in the underground, the more likely her new friends would suffer the same.

All the more reason to find a way to defeat Iron Will before he claimed his prize and turned his attention to Brightstone. This thought spurred Twilight forward at a quicker pace. She ignored the stalactites that broke off her pauldrons as she urged herself and the others to move quickly. Her heart beat normally and Twilight noticed that the only other hearts she could sense were those of her friends. The ponyspawn were not nearby at all.

They emerged on the other side of Sparky’s tunnel after what felt like a couple hours of crawling. Twilight stretched her limbs as she looked around the new expanse of the Dark Tunnels. Several sun crystals bunched up together on donkey-carved edifices providing needed light. The path was expertly paved and somehow in good condition despite likely having been abandoned centuries ago.

Oghren wandered the tunnel, studying some of the old donkey statues that adorned many of the roads in the Dark Tunnels. He looked up at one of the massive signposts and mumbled the words in Donkic. Twilight followed his gaze.

“What does it say, Oghren?” she asked.

“Well, one of the signs points to Orzamule,” Oghren answered, “while another points towards Four Point Crossing, where we went last time. Still, another one points to Onagon. That was a rival state to Orzamule a hundred years ago until they stopped sending messengers. Nodonkey knows why that city fell silent. The sign says Onagon is several thousand furlongs away. It would take a couple hours to get there.”

Twilight shook her head. “Another war… what is with you donkeys and constantly kicking things and making a mess?”

“Warriors have to fight, and Onagon had things Orzamule wanted.” Oghren shrugged. “From what I remember, our wars against Onagon were for lyrium infused crystals. That sodding golem Shale had crystals inside her shell, if you remember. Onagon tried to make its own golems for years but never managed it, so they fiercely guarded their crystals. As far as Orzamule knew, they controlled the only crystal mines for a thousand leagues.”

Daisy looked at the donkey signpost, her brow furrowed. “Commander, maybe Iron Will is going to try to capture Onagon and the crystal mines. The ponyspawn could make use of the crystals with their newfound intelligence, and the last thing we need is monsters empowered by magic.”

Twilight could not agree more. However, there was the risk they could be going in the wrong direction on little more than a hunch.

Sparky approached Twilight and tugged on her robes. “Sparky knows donkey city good,” she said, “lots of shelter from cold. No stinky donkeys. No korro’sha. But…”

Twilight’s ears splayed back against her head. “But…?”

Looking behind her shoulders, Sparky eyes held true terror. “But donkey city filled with ghosts! That why we no stay!”

Oghren’s face fell flat before he barked out at Sparky with spit flying from his lips. “Look at this stupid mutt! First she gets us nearly killed, now she’s talking crazy about ghosts! How can you let this fleabag travel with us?”

Before Twilight could berate Oghren, Lyra interjected. “Ghosts are not so unusual, Oghren. There are many ruins on the surface where the Veil between the material world and the Fade is weak. Some demons can only send out their shadows and appear to be like ghosts, while other specters are the remains of a pony infused with magic. Typically those who die a violent death. However, due to the lack of a connection with magic or the Fade, there have never been reports of donkey ghosts.”

Oghren grumbled again as Twilight took in Lyra’s explanation. She saw a spirit of the dead once before, but he was a guardian to an ancient tomb belonging to Luna no less. The idea of seeing ghosts intrigued her as well as unnerved her.

“Let’s go to Onagon,” Twilight decided. “If Iron Will is going there, we can beat him to the crystals. Maybe their power can help us defeat him as well.”

At once they began their long trek to Onagon with little more than a hope that they would find something of use. Twilight kept her senses open, fully aware that the ponyspawn could ambush them at any moment. She also kept her magical senses until Lyra shook her head. The battlemage would focus on assessing any arcane abominations and aberrations around. Twilight just needed to keep watch for any ponyspawn.

The lonely road to Onagon gave Twilight the chills. She felt her skin crawl as cold air blew across her unprotected face from the direction of the derelict city. The only sound that echoed inside the tunnel was the sound of hooves and the clang of plate armour. Twilight never liked the relative solitude of the Dark Tunnels, as it always felt like she walked through history’s tomb. In the past, donkeys used the roads for commerce, trade, and regrettably, war. Now no one walked the empty tunnels for fear of the ponyspawn and other monsters that lurked in the depths.

Time passed as they walked and Twilight noticed that the cavern was getting larger. Her inquisitive mind spurred her further and she picked up the pace, eager to see Onagon. The others followed suit as faded but still functioning sun crystal torches lit the way.

Finally they were greeted by two massive statues of donkey paragons. Old, cracked, and faded, they still held strong in front of the city. Onagon laid out before them with several massive pylons jutting out into the air with sun crystals illuminating the land. Tall buildings appeared to rise from the very rock and the city laid out in a structured way just like Orzamule. Twilight could see a marketplace, a massive foundry for metalworks, several neighborhoods for donkeys to live, and even a great arena for Proving Challenges. Statues of paragons and kings lined the streets and stood vigil.

Yet despite the grand city below, Twilight’s heart sank as Sparky’s truth became apparent. Nothing lived in the city. No donkeys hawked goods from the market stalls. The sounds of hammers on anvils did not ring from the foundry. The hoofsteps of proud soldiers in shining steel did not resound through the streets as they made their patrols.

Only dead silence remained in Onagon.

They walked down the hill towards the city proper with Oghren taking point. Lyra remained in the rear as her horn and eyes both glowed with pale white light. Daisy stood at her side, keeping Lyra standing steady. In a moment Lyra’s eyes stopped shining and she shook her head.

“The Veil is very weak here,” Lyra said, “There are a lot of negative emotions feeding the tears. Despair. Hopelessness. Rage. A lot of fear. Whatever happened here happened painfully and violently. I don’t think we need to worry about demons, but we should try to close the tears as we find them or else we will have to worry about them crossing over.”

With Lyra at work on the Veil, Twilight focused on the abandoned city. It unnerved Twilight that absolutely nothing remained of the donkey inhabitants. No people, no guards, no blood, no bones. It was as if they all got up and walked out without taking anything with them. Twilight guessed that the diamond dog scavengers that sometimes made camp had found whatever food that did not rot away from the long years. Weapon stalls were the only empty ones in the market with no stock, again a sign of the diamond dogs. Twilight glanced at Sparky’s daggers and did notice the donkey markings on the hilts.

“I don’t like it here,” Oghren said, “There’s nothing here at all. No markings to show danger, no remains of a great battle. Orzamule didn’t get any refugees from Onagon at all, so they didn’t flee. Where did the sodders go?”

“The Veil will show us.” Twilight turned around to Lyra who made a vertical gesture with her staff in the air. A bright light shone from the tear in the Veil as raw Fade magic poured through. Thankfully it was just enough to fuel the lingering spirits of the dead and not draw a demon.

Twilight and the others stepped back as translucent donkeys appeared before them. She studied the appearance of ghosts from tomes but never saw any of them in practice. What she did know was that ghosts lingered in their final memories, haunting their homes by reliving their last days over and over unless the spirits could finally claim their long awaited rest.

Several of the ghosts wore ragged armour and were covered in ponyspawn blood. They stood in front of a donkey with a long beard and a robe denoting noble status. Next to him was another donkey, a jenny with several hammers and tools at her side.

Twilight watched as they conversed. “Well? Did you find it?”

“We escaped from the thaig before Cairadan could notice us,” said another. “We have the plans to make our golems now. Four Point Crossing is lost to the ‘spawn though. There are just too many, and they are coming our way instead of Orzamule.”

The guard lifted a pack of loose parchment from his saddle bags and dropped them at the hooves of the smith. She took a brief look over some of the pages before shaking her head. “These plans look incomplete. We won’t be able to make the Paragon’s Storm Forge exactly like his.”

“We don’t need to make a Storm Forge like his. We just need one that works and will produce golems. Get on it, smith.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

The ghosts faded away after the short scene, and Twilight shook her head. Golems, soldiers made from stone, metal, and lyrium were incredibly powerful warriors on the battlefield. The cost was that a living donkey needed to be used as the base of such a creature. The donkeys of Onagon did not know the cost of such a weapon, at least not yet.

“We should keep going.” Daisy looked around Onagon, her eyes wide. “I’d rather not stay in a haunted donkey city with the potential of a ponyspawn ambush.”

Twilight nodded. “You’re right. Let’s find the crystal mines quickly and see if we can’t get an edge over Iron Will.”

“Easy enough.” Lyra’s eyes continued to glow as more ghosts of soldiers materialized in front of them. “Just follow the guards.”

The guards began to walk their old patrols and the party followed close behind them. Twilight raised her brow as she regarded Lyra’s magic. “Why does a battlemage know how to summon ghosts?”

“Battlemages master both aspects of their title,” Lyra explained as she walked with Daisy’s help. “Obviously, we are pretty awesome at the whole magic thing. Fireballs, dragon’s breath, defensive lattices, healing, all that can turn the tide of battle. The thing is with most unicorns is that they use magic like a hammer and everything is a nail. Instead of fireballing one guy, I make a tear into the Veil to summon ghosts from a long gone battle. I could fry one or two soldiers, sure, but what happens if I break the collective will of twenty, fifty, a hundred? Battlemages are more than just soldiers, we are the ones who win battles. The big difference between the vast majority of the Imperium’s legions and me? I am a sexy piece of hotness.”

Twilight pressed a hoof to her face and shook her head. “Lyra, you are impossible.”

“Actually, I’m incredibly easy to ponies I like. Just whisper sweet nothings into my ear and my knees will buckle and I’ll be all ‘Oh Twilight, take me now!’”

“UGH!” Twilight continued to walk until she saw the paved road began to crumble and give way to a path dug in by hooves and the ruts made by wagon wheels. The soldier ghosts faded from view, leaving the party alone in front of a massive building carved into the side of the vast tunnel.

The foundry that Twilight saw from the entrance of Onagon loomed overhead, appearing more a vast beast that hungered for metal and stone than a place of industry. Great beams of metal led from the cavern around Onagon that carried vast amounts of ore and crystals to be processed. Hundreds of mining picks and shovels stood waiting to be used in neat racks. Time seemed to freeze for the Onagon foundry.

The closer the party got to the foundry, the warmer Twilight felt. Heat still emanated from within the grand forge and she wondered if the donkeys found some form of automation to their mining process. The smell from the foundry made her cough and cover her snout. Ash and molten metal were expected but something else mixed in to make the odor completely vile to waft into her nostrils.

She wanted to turn away. Yet as Twilight turned, something began to pull on her horn. A powerful force urged her to walk inside the foundry and Twilight felt both intrigue and fear. Donkeys could not use magic. What in the shadowy regions of the Dark Tunnels, in the middle of a dead city could pull on her own acute magical senses?

Twilight looked to Lyra who did not seem bothered from her search for Veil tears. Lyra did not feel the pull as Twilight did, or maybe she was hiding it? That did not make sense. Now her concern grew. Was she finally losing it to magical madness?

“Look,” Sparky said, pointing a claw towards the ghosts of the king and the smith. The king of Onagon paced as the smith looked on with annoyance.

“Hundreds of thousands of pounds of iron and steel and not a single golem to show for it!” The king flustered with his words and stomped his hooves. “All I have are glorified statues! The ponyspawn are massing at our gates. I’ve thrown our soldiers at them, and they were killed. I’ve thrown the casteless at them, and they were dragged away to the Stone knows where. Tell me where. Are. My. Golems!?”

“Your Majesty, I believe I found out what the missing catalyst for the golems.” The smith looked uncomfortable as she tried to will the words to her lips. Twilight’s ears drooped. She knew what was about to be said next.

“We want to bring life to the lifeless.” The smith did not look into the eyes of her king. “We cannot make life without giving life. We will need the blood of living donkeys to make our golems live.”

“So be it!” The king of Onagon turned away. “If it’s donkeys you need, then you shall have them. And I don’t want just any golems. The ponyspawn draw closer to us each passing hour. We need a golem of such power that they will never threaten my city ever again. We need a golem of such magnitude that Orzamule is humbled by the tremors of its hooves!”

The smith’s eyes went wide. “A giant golem… but that would take weeks, months even! And the amount of stone, steel, lyrium… the amount of blood…”

“Will be great, but so is Onagon!” The king sneered at the smith. “Make my grand golem. Or I’ll find another smith who can. And I’ll make sure you are the first thrown into the melting pot. Onagon stands tall with me as its King, or by the Stone, it falls!”

The ghosts faded from view, leaving the party alone in front of the massive steel doors to Onagon’s foundry. Twilight shook her head at the greed and pride shown by those in positions of power. How they could not see past their own snouts at the true and dire needs of their people, instead focusing on such petty things like their legacies or the good name of their cities. Now Onagon was a dead city, lost even to other donkeys so long as the ponyspawn existed. She prayed she’d never become the kind of despot like the king of Onagon.

Twilight studied the great doors of the Foundry. The pull on her horn grew stronger now and she felt compelled to open them. That same compulsion scared her; dark magic very well could be the source, though if that was the case, Twilight could not tell precisely. That, bothered her more than anything else.

“Lyra,” Twilight said, “There’s a magical compulsion working from inside the foundry. It’s calling to me, but I can’t tell the exact source or if the spellwork is malignant or not.”

Lyra focused her own senses on the door, only to shake her head. “I can’t sense a darn thing.” She looked Twilight in the eye and her usual leering gave way to a worried expression. “Twilight, when magic specifically calls out to a unicorn, nothing good can come from it. Especially down here! Donkeys can only craft using lyrium because they have no magical presence. There is no way they can make something that calls to you. I think we should turn around and figure out a way to beat the Indomitable.”

Twilight shook her head. “I think we should go forward into the Foundry. If I ignore the compulsion, there is a good chance the pull will become stronger at the most inopportune time. We have to find the source. It could be something that will help us beat Iron Will.”

She studied the Foundry doors for a moment, following the path that the great chains and pulleys worked themselves into the very rock. She saw a massive turning winch with four levers for four donkey workers to push. Twilight walked towards the winch and motioned for the others to join her. Daisy took a lever for herself while Oghren and Sparky took the other two positions at the same time. They gave each other a dirty look before signaling they were ready to push. Lyra stood in front of the gate, drawing her sword and preparing a fireball at the end of her horn.

With a push of her hooves, Twilight began her work on the winch with her friends working in unison. They drove the winch forward and the echoes of grinding gears and chains shook through Onagon. Dust fell from rocky alcoves while the chains tightened. Soon the doors began to move, their large frames scraping against the ground.

Twilight let go of the winch as she noticed the device moving on its own. She joined Lyra only to recoil from the incredibly revolting stench that poured from the inside of the Foundry. Lyra gagged as she dispelled her fireball, while Daisy’s already green colouration turned more so. Oghren merely raised a brow as Sparky clenched her sensitive snout with both paws. She drove her nose into the ground, hoping that the smell of the earth would block out the stink.

“Sweet Celestia and Luna on high, what the hell!” Daisy coughed as she pressed a foreleg against her nose. “What makes that kind of smell?”

Twilight recognized the smells from her travels. Sulfur from mining and the metalworks. Rotten food left long abandoned. Most noticeable, however, was the stench of corpses. As there was no direct vents to the surface, the smells intermingled and grew staler during the long years of Onagon’s silence.

“What we need is light!” Twilight reared on her hooves as her horn sparked and emitted an orb of bright violet light. The orb flew from the tip of her horn into the Foundry. The orb hung in the air and illuminated the great work of the donkeys. Anvils and forges lay unused while great pipeworks still carrying molten magma hummed above their heads.

Yet everypony’s attention was drawn solely to the great statue in the middle of the Foundry. Massive in scale, it towered over their heads like a great monument to donkeykind. Made of dull steel and lined with inactive lyrium runes, the steel sentinel stood silent sentry over the foul remains of the Onagon Foundry. Twilight marveled at the work.

“This golem could have easily turned the tide of the war,” she said aloud. “So why does it appear incomplete? Did they not have enough lyrium? Did they not have enough blood? Or did the ponyspawn get to Onagon before their guardian could begin his purpose?”

“One way to find out.” Lyra sparked her horn with the spell used to bring the echoes of the past to life. The ghosts of the smith and the king formed on the highest scaffold while several soldiers took up ranks at their sides. Twilight looked upward as the king laughed his head off.

“Finally!” he cried out to the unseen masses. “The sacrifices of our people shall not be in vain! Behold the greatest golem ever to exist, the savior of Onagon! Behold Titanus!”

Instead of an uproarious applause, Twilight heard the faint murmur of discontent from the crowd that she would have likely stood in one hundred years ago. Twilight continued to watch with trepidation as the smith bowed low to her king.

“Your Majesty, Titanus is nearly ready to be deployed,” the jenny said, “With the artifact we found in our mines, Titanus can continue to function for centuries without any more crystals or lyrium. There is just one thing left to do for the Pride of Onagon to be truly complete.”

“What is it?!” The king shouted, “I’ve given everything to complete Titanus! My treasury is empty! My streets are empty! We have mined as much lyrium as possible! What. Is. Missing?!”

Twilight gasped as the ghostly guards sprang into action, grabbing at the king’s fine robes and pushing him towards a large hatch on the back of Titanus. His eyes bulged with terror as he realized his fate. All of the king’s struggles would do him no good against the physical prowess of the warrior caste he thought he commanded.

“You can’t do this!” He whimpered as he looked down the hatch. Twilight guessed that he was looking at what remained of his people thrown to fuel the needs of creating such a golem. The thought made her wretch.

“I helped make you a Paragon! The Senate will have your hide!”

The paragon shook her head. “That is where you are wrong, your Majesty. As a Paragon, I have as much say to the Senate as you do. The vote was unanimous. You’ve not only been deposed, but also volunteered to be the final, clinching soul needed to make Titanus live.”

“No! I’m your king! Your king!”

“I’ll take the control rod to the Deepest Depths where it can be lost forever. Seal the doors and evacuate Onagon. Titanus is our sin. To atone, he must never live.”

The ghosts faded as the king’s final screams echoed throughout the Foundry. Twilight looked hard into the stony gaze of Titanus as her ears splayed against her head. So many lives lost, and in the end it didn’t mean anything. Titanus did not live, and Titanus did not save Onagon.

However, as Twilight focused more on Titanus, she felt the compulsion magic working on her horn once again. She looked up and focused her arcane senses on the golem, feeling that the source of the pull came from the face. The scaffolding surrounding Titanus appeared useable in all these years, though only barely. Tentatively, Twilight took a step on one of the steps. The creak from the old wood echoed in the silence, but the step held.

Hoof by hoof Twilight began to climb, her focus solely on the source of the compulsion. She could not hear anything or anypony else no matter how much she strained to hear Lyra’s warnings. Even the foul smell of the Foundry disappeared as she strove to find that which called to her.

Higher she climbed until finally reaching the face of Titanus. She studied the face for a moment until the pull focused itself on the forehead of the colossus. There Twilight found a single twinkling shard of glass, shining with incredible magical power. From that power, Twilight thought she heard a voice whisper in her ear.

…help me…

“I found something!” Twilight shouted to the others. “The magical potency in this shard is incredible!”

“I don’t feel anything up there!” Lyra called back. “Just worried you’re going to fall and hurt yourself on those rickety scaffolds!”

Lyra still can’t detect this magic, even when we are so close and the power simply amazing to behold? Twilight was not sure what to make of such, but knew she needed to take the shard. This had to be the prize Iron Will was after.

Before she could begin the work of prying the shard out of Titanus, the heavy doors of the Foundry began to shake and grind against the ground. Sparky barked at the door as she drew her daggers. Oghren looked to the doors and drew his axe.

“Gonna have company…”

The doors finally wrenched wide enough to reveal the two war minotaurs in the dull yet perfectly functional steel armour. They roared at the Wardens as their leader Iron Will strode into the Foundry with his ornate mace slung across his shoulders. With a smug grin, he looked up at Titanus with a whistle on his lips.

“When success comes to your plan, it proves you are the man.” He hefted the mace in his hands preparing for battle. “The Architect was right about you, Silencer. He said that the Grey Wardens, especially you, were more resilient than we thought. You’d think after hundreds of years, we would take the hint.

He was also right that you would be after the same artifact that he sent me to get. So I made a plan. Lure the Silencer and her friends to a room with a weak floor, but close enough to this donkey city. I had my brothers attack those diamond dogs near you to lure you all out. I then sent you down towards the city. With the information from the Architect he gave me in the Mind, he knew you would come to seek out artifacts of incredible magical power. Now I have all three of my prizes in one convenient package. I can claim the artifact the Architect wanted. I’ll have a weapon of incredible power to make the Chosen cower before Iron Will! But my favourite prize is that skull of yours I’ll be adding to my belt!”

Twilight looked on in horror as the mace Iron Will carried revealed that it was not a mace at all as the head began to glow with a dark crimson light. A massive golem would have needed a massive control rod. Iron Will had found it in the Deepest Depths. The magic from the control rod’s lyrium shot a beam of light from the head towards the artifact attached to Titanus’ head.

The ground rumble beneath everypony's feet as the runes all over Titanus’ body began to glow with the same red aura as the control rod. The magic flowed through the body of the giant golem until it poured into the eyes of Titanus.

The golem began to move, slowly at first, and a loud groan echoed in the Foundry from Titanus itself. The groan soon took on an edge made of rage as Titanus began to thrash about. Titanus swung its great head to the sides, knocking over the rotten scaffolds and kicking up a great storm of dust. Twilight called Sophia to her side and the sword glowed with bright violet energy. She also conjured her arcane warrior’s helmet.

“Titanus… lives…” the golem said, its low deep voice sounding like the pained cacophony of a hundred donkeys in constant misery. It looked down on Twilight, her wardens, then to Iron Will and his minotaurs.

Iron Will smiled wide as he raised the control rod up towards Titanus. “Golem! I am your master now! Crush these fools that dare to stand against me!”

Twilight remembered when she fought golems before, namely her own friend Shale and the creator of golems, Cairidan. Under the influence of Branka’s control rod, golems made themselves one of the most powerful enemies Twilight and her friends ever did battle with.

To fight against a colossus like Titanus appeared to be hopeless.

Titanus looked to the control rod and Twilight felt a spike of magical energy from within its body. “Crush… crush… crush!”

Raising one of its large steel hooves, Titanus slammed it down on top of Iron Will, crushing both the minotaur and the control rod with him. Titanus roared with a crazed anger as he turned his dread gaze towards Twilight and her friends.

“Everyone, get ready!” She yelled as she reared on her hooves. With a simple motion of magic, the visor of her helm came down and secured into place. With weapons drawn and spells prepared, Twilight charged into a hopeless battle against a creature made of steel, magic, and rage.

Shattered Shield

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Chapter 8: Shattered Shield

“And if you could sign here, here and here, your Majesty… and don’t forget your meeting with Bann Grey Wolf later this afternoon, and your dinner arrangements with Ambassador Oregano of Pura Raza…”

Applejack let out a huff as she scribbled her initials on yet more official proclamations and royal policies. Even after the scant few years since she took the throne, Applejack never felt comfortable on the hard chair. She looked longingly out the window to her personal orchard where mighty apple trees from all over Equestria stood tall, waiting to be bucked. Their bounties ranged from mavericks to golden delicious, but the type of apple did not matter. She enjoyed the taste of the succulent fruits and more importantly, sharing them with the ponies. Her ponies.

Yet, the duties of a monarch forever called to her, and now with winter coming she needed to make sure there was enough food to last. Portents from her unicorn and pegasi advisors said the winter would be a long and cold one, so it was her duty as Queen to make sure the ponies were protected from the cold and from hunger.

However, her desire to constantly write her name and stamp her seal soon gave way to simply getting away from it all, if only for a few moments. “Tell ya what,” Applejack said after laying down her quill, “None of these darn procedures and decrees are gonna be in effect until tomorrow morning, so it doesn’t really matter if Ah sign ‘em now, right? Ah’ll get right to them after dinner, fer now Ah’m gonna get some fresh air, ya hear?”

Her courtier stammered. “Your majesty, there is still the matter of finding a suitor for you. You will need to find a king consort so you can produce heirs…”

Applejack paled at being reminded that she needed to marry and have foals of her own. She felt the familiar headache of such conversations coming on and wanted nothing more than to run to her orchard.

The Queen knew, however, she could not run from this particular duty forever. Half an hour would be enough, for now.

“We’ll finish this later,” she said, grabbing her crowned hat and tossing it onto her head. “Fer now, Ah’m getting’ a bite to eat. Ah’ll see ya in a bit.”

“Would you like—“

“No guards.” Applejack didn’t like the idea of having others protecting her. Call it pride, but she fought off high dragons and archdemons, she could handle any run-of-the-mill assassins. To prove her point, she tapped a hoof against her trusty blade Silverbite. Without another word, Applejack dashed off very un-royal like out the door and into her orchard.

The sun shone through the canopy, providing some much-needed warmth when compared to the cold halls of Trotterim Palace. The wind rustling the leaves provided the ambient sounds as Applejack looked about her orchard with satisfaction. Here, she was not a Queen. Here she could be just another earth pony who enjoyed the bounty of the woods. With a strong apple tree before her, Applejack performed the one motion that ever felt natural to her these days. She spun around, raised her hind legs, and gave that apple tree a good hard buck.

The cascading delicious fruit followed the sound of her hooves smacking the hard tree trunk. With her meal now provided without the fussiness of palace staff, Applejack sat down and took a bite out of a savoury golden delicious. The first few bites felt like a gift from Celestia herself.

The next few bites did not carry the same sentiment. As she chewed, Applejack looked around her orchard and found it lacking in something incredibly important to her: her friends. Everypony was gone to separate corners of the world and Applejack was left alone to rule a nation.

She ate her apples alone and in silence, or so she thought as a trio of chirping birds fluttered about the palace orchards. To see that some of nature’s smallest yet vibrant denizens deign to join her pleased her heart greatly. They chirped and sang, giving her orchard a picturesque quality.

One bird in particular remained silent, however. Applejack regarded the bird for a moment as it stood on a lone branch, its white feathers neat and immaculate. Bright blue eyes stared back at the queen, the bird giving harmonious calls. Applejack rolled her eyes and equally rolled an apple forward.

“Well, what are ya waitin’ for,” Applejack said, “It’s been a while, Rarity. Come and have some apples with me, or are they too good for yer ‘refined tastes’.”

The dove fluttered her wings before taking off, flying around Applejack’s head for a few laps. She then landed in front of Applejack only for swirling magic to appear around her. Applejack held down her hat as a vortex of magic and wind swirled around the dove until it was gone and a beautiful white unicorn mare stood in its place.

Dressed in an exquisite white gown with silver inlay and adorned with gems, Rarity stood as tall and elegant as Applejack remembered. Although she wore far more finery than the leather and feathers of the mire, Rarity still wielded a staff of gnarled wood. Staves, as Applejack recalled, were not mere weapons to be tossed away, but held a great connection to the unicorn who wielded them. Despite its appearance, the staff was just as much a part of Rarity’s magic as her horn.

Rarity smiled at Applejack. “Missed me?” she said with a sly smile. “Dear Applejack, you look… well I was expecting a queen to wear something finer than simple trousers and a shirt, but I suppose a crown does not stop one from being a simple mare from Red Apple, does it?”

“Nope. C’mere!” Applejack threw herself to hug Rarity, who squealed in contempt at the rather undignified method of endearment until she started to giggle and returned the embrace. They sat down underneath Applejack’s tree with the queen offering her newly arrived guest the choice pickings of her orchard.

Rarity accepted a couple of apples, levitated one, and began to slice it apart with her magic. “Are your guards not going to be concerned at a strange unicorn being with the queen in her garden?”

“Orchard,” Applejack corrected, “And you can’t tell, but some are watching right now. They also know Ah’m a faster sword draw than they are, so if anything were to happen, Ah got ol’ Silverbite to protect me plenty. Gonna have a lot of questions to answer, but hey, Ah’m the queen. Ah get to make the rules around these parts.”

The two chatted for a while about events in each other’s lives. Rarity by all accounts seemed to be doing well in Filais. She opened her own boutique in the capital city to serve the Filesian elite. Apparently, she was doing so well that even the highest levels of the Filesian courts in their Winter Palace sought her out to make fine dresses and suits.

Rarity tittered. “Filesian court is so wonderful, Applejack! The sophistication! The mystique. You should see the balls they hold throughout the Empire. The most beautiful ponies I have ever seen dancing and politicking the most gorgeous designs. I am not one to brag, my dear, but half of the dresses are of my design. Oh, and the masks! Everypony wears a mask, Applejack, even the Empress.”

“Why do they go and do a silly thing like that,” Applejack said as she chewed her apples.

“Simply so that others cannot read their emotions. Some ponies have terrible Deadly Grace faces.” Rarity sighed. “Truth be told that is one of the reasons I came here to visit you. As much as I adore my intricate masks, I simply abhor hiding this wonderful face behind anything. Oh… and I do like knowing I can be myself around my friends without being scrutinized.”

Applejack smiled at Rarity and hugged her again. “Always good to see you, prissy britches. Speaking of which, Applebloom’s been asking about Sweetie Belle. How is she?”

Rarity’s smile quickly reversed course. “By all that is good in the world, she may be my little sister, but she is a hoofful and a half! She never sits still during social soirees, she likes running around in the mud, and she absolutely adores the shapeshifting magic I taught her. Do you know what she turned into last week? A pig. She turned into a noisy, squealing little piglet and ran roughshod all through my boutique! Disgusting. So you may tell Apple Bloom that she is fine. Happy as a pig in mud, because that is what she is.”

Applejack chuckled at the thought of a little white pig running amok in a fancy clothes store. She finished her apple only to look up to see Rarity have a distant look on her face. She cast her blue eye gaze to the parapets of Trotterim’s palace without saying a word.

“Everything alright, sugarcube?” Applejack asked. Rarity shook her head.

“I did not just come by for a cordial visit,” Rarity said, “I came by to give you some news from Filais, amongst others. Like I said, darling, I bump shoulders with the crème de la crème of Filesian nobility. There are rumblings of a civil war in Filais between the Empress and her cousin the Duke. The Duke is a military pony, and he is amassing an army to take the Winter Palace by force. This may not be of much interest to you, but remember that Filais is the most powerful nation in this world. Whatever happens in Filais affects everypony. He also wants the land Filais used to control, from the Free Plains to Equestria herself. He sees you as an upstart and without an heir, easy to dispose of.”

“Like to see him try,” Applejack said, tapping a hoof to her sword. Still, the last thing she wanted was to fight a war against Filais. They just suffered the Fifth Blight and were still recovering from the grave wounds it inflicted. Another conflict would bring Equestria to her knees.

In addition, of course, more talk about Applejack needing an heir. She felt sick at the idea of rushing child rearing, but that was the reality of her station.

“There’s something else.” Rarity looked sadder about what she said next. “It’s about Fluttershy. Dear sweet Fluttershy, she’s… missing.”

Applejack stood up. News of a potential war could be dealt with in carefully planned steps. News of one of her best friends having gone missing? That alarmed her to no end. She wanted to gallop out of the front gates of Trotterim, to call out search parties, anything. Instead, she touched the Bracer of Nakkum she wore around her foreleg. Rarity lifted up her dress and revealed the same gift from the paragon Cairidan.

“I can’t feel anything either, darling,” Rarity said, “It could mean she is far away. She sent me a letter, but all it said was that she was going far away to help the Divines expand their menagerie. I certainly hope she is safe, but it just seems so… wrong… that she just upped and disappeared without a word. She was shy, yes, but never with us, after all we’ve been through.”

Applejack sighed. “Everypony’s gone their own way. Fluttershy is working with the Divine’s, you’re in Filais, Pinkie and Dash are off to Geldwall… heck, Ah even miss Shale and Trixie arguing. Sometimes this palace can get awful quiet. Awful lonely. Hopefully Fluttershy shows up again. You’d think these bits of metal would tell us if anything…”

Applejack did not continue. She did not want to. The idea of never seeing her friends again scared her more than any Archdemon. Losing Spike was a blow to her morale even now. Losing another would be crushing. She had to tell herself that Fluttershy was just away and that nothing untoward happened to her. However, that thought became harder to believe in as she thought of the dangers the world held. If she could be with somepony that she trusted, that she called friend for a little while, she might even forget that she was a queen, if only for a short moment.

“Rarity…” Applejack took a deep breath. “Ah know you are watching over Sweetie Belle and you have your own life to live… but if Ah could ask ya to stay here a bit longer… Ah’d be mighty grateful.”

Rarity smiled at Applejack and sat down next to her. “Of course,” Rarity replied. “Sweetie Belle stays out in the wilds practicing her magic far from the eyes of the Templars whenever I go out for long periods of time. She’ll be fine. I can stay here for as long as you like.”

“Thanks.” Applejack draped a foreleg around Rarity, much to the latter’s surprise. The two held as much similarities as apples and orchids. Both plants, but otherwise they did not share many connections. Yet there was no one else Applejack wanted to spend time with, to be close with.

They sat in silence for a while until Rarity spoke up. “How is Twilight doing with her new Wardens and her new title?”

Applejack chuckled. “There ain’t nothing Twilight can’t do when she’s faced with a problem. She’s the smartest pony we know, after all. Ponyspawn, politics, she can do anything. I’m sure she’s fine.


Twilight was not fine.

With a colossus looming above her, Twilight instinctively moved as fast as she could and as far as she could. Titanus roared in frustration as he thrashed about the Foundry, his great steel hooves crushing anything and everything underneath them. Twilight breathed heavy as she tried to find some way to stop the monstrosity Iron Will unleashed. Titanus could not only squash them like ants, but his destructive rage could level the Dark Tunnels. Only an army stood a chance against Titanus, but only with catastrophic losses.

Such losses above or below were unacceptable. Twilight raised her sword high and charged it with her intense magical energy. Violet flames burst from the edge of Sophia and with her Grey Warden shield high, Twilight charged towards Titanus. A ridiculous move all things considered, but it was either fight or flight, and Twilight chose to stand her ground with sword and spell.

She struck against Titanus with her flaming sword, striking it against its hard shell. The flames seared some of the metal workings on the leg, but otherwise did little damage nor did it slow the golem down. Titanus replied by lifting its leg up and swiftly bringing it down. Twilight’s horn sparked a spell of haste, and she moved with incredible speed away from the crushing hoof. Haste spells always left Twilight feeling incredibly drained from their use as they increased the rate of which her entire body functioned. Consistent use would leave her in a weakened state or worse, unconscious.

Daisy tried to attack as well. Her razor disk did as much damage as it did to Iron Will; the steel edge could do nothing to pierce such a thick, hard hide. Daisy back peddled away from Titanus until she stood next to Twilight, panting heavily.

“Tough nut to crack, commander,” Daisy said following a deep breath of stale air. “How are we supposed to defeat this thing?”

“A friend of mine is a golem,” Twilight quickly explained, “And she is one of the best warriors I know, but she wasn’t invincible. Spells and weapons won’t have much effect. We need something more powerful! If we can at least crack the steel hide of Titanus, we can get to the underlying lyrium layers. Lyra and I can disrupt the lyrium connections inside the golem, but we won’t get that chance if we can’t get underneath the steel!”

“Onagon…” Titanus groaned. “We will defend… Onagon! Crush all… invaders! For the glory of… Onagon! Onagon! Onagon!”

Twilight looked up to see Titanus turning with great effort to face her and Daisy. Before it got a chance to move, a couple fireballs flew to the side of its head and exploded on impact. Titanus looked to see Lyra summoning another fireball. With an almost crazed look in her eyes, she threw it right into the face of Titanus.

“Come on, you big junkheap!” Lyra shouted, “I’m lean, mean and green! You can’t touch this!”

Titanus roared again as he gave chase to Lyra, demolishing the many workstations within the Foundry. Lyra shouted back to Twilight, “If you have a plan, do it quick!”

Twilight was about to react when she heard the familiar snarls of the minotaurs. The two heavily armoured behemoths charged at them with fury in their eyes and large stalactites as rudimentary yet deadly weapons. One minotaur swung his club downwards in a crushing blow towards Twilight, who dashed out of the way with a backward leap. Twilight replied with a beam of magic aimed square into the minotaur’s chest. The spell did little but make him angrier.

The minotaur roared and moved to attacked again when a barking mad Sparky leapt from the shadows and onto the minotaurs back. Sparky howled before plunging her twin daggers into the thick neck of the minotaur. The greater ponyspawn tried to reach up and snatch the shadowhound off his back, only to find Sparky much more spry than expected. She moved with a swiftness on the ground that Rainbow could match in the skies, striking the minotaur with precision slashes.

“Go!” Sparky shouted. “Me got this one! Me—”

Sparky yelped when the minotaur finally countered with a powerful backhand that sent Sparky flying into the nearby cavern wall. With distance between them the minotaur scraped the ground with his hoof and lowered his head. He charged at Sparky, fully intent on goring her with his sharp, armoured horns. The very rock underneath his hooves crumbled and shards of stone flew up as he prepared to impale the injured shadowhound.

Before the minotaur could reach Sparky, Oghren galloped with a crazed look in his eyes, his great axe held tight within his strong donkey teeth. With a mighty swing, Oghren cleaved his way through the minotaur’s right leg, separating it completely from the knee. Unable to keep his massive frame upright, the minotaur fell and tumbled on the ground while still howling in pain. Despite the grievous wounds, the greater ponyspawn continued to crawl towards Sparky with one of its crushing hands stretched outward.

Sparky, however, had gained enough time to recover from a dazed state. Snarling, she revealed her full row of incredibly sharp teeth and leapt onto the minotaur’s head. She took a large bite into one of the minotaur’s horns and wrenched the bone right out of his skull. Black blood poured from the socket as the minotaur cried out in pain, only to be silenced when Sparky plunged the horn deep inside the skull and thus through the brain.

“Why donkey save Sparky?” she asked as she picked up her daggers.

Oghren readjusted the axe handle in his mouth. “Twilight seems to like you,” he muttered, “And if she hangs around a jackass like me, then maybe, just maybe some diamond dogs ain’t so bad. Besides, you fight decently enough, and I’d rather not have you bite me.”

Sparky replied with a big sharp grin.

Twilight wanted to be glad that the pair finally got along, even though it took a dead minotaur to do it. The threat of Titanus still loomed and Lyra would not be able to keep him distracted for long.

“There has to be something we can do,” Twilight said. “Something we can use in the Foundry to slow or even stop Titanus.”

Oghren’s ears perked up. “I got an idea, boss!” He pointed a hoof to the pipeworks above them. “The Foundry’s lyrium lead pipes are still working! They have to be filled with magma from the Deepest Depths. That kind of heat can melt that great, big, sodding jackass faster than a drunk can down a dozen deep mushroom ale! If it won’t stop him, then it should strip the steel from his hide!”

“Crazy enough to work!” Twilight looked upwards at the pipeworks then back to her party. Lyra needed to recover her strength, so it would be up to Twilight to keep Titanus from thrashing about and crushing all of them. Daisy did not have the strength alone to rupture the pipes.

“We got this, boss,” Oghren said, pointing a hoof between him and Sparky. “I can turn the valve to get the magma flowing while Sparky chews through the supports. It’s going to be dicey without a doubt. We need Titanus to be directly under the magma before the security measures seal up the pipes. One shot, Twilight, just like we always get.”

Twilight nodded to Oghren and Sparky to begin their mission when Lyra’s scream shook her to her bones. She turned to see her fellow mage being tossed about by Titanus’ steel hooves, her shields barely holding with each strike. Twilight knew from experience that magical barriers could not last indefinitely. If Lyra’s broke, she would be defenseless against Titanus.

“Daisy! With me!” Twilight galloped at full tilt towards Lyra, her sword and shield floating by her side. Daisy ran even faster and she spun her razor disc around, her eyes never once leaving Titanus. With a hard crank of her neck, Daisy threw her disc in such a way that it looped the long chain around Titanus’ neck. The disc lodged itself between the plates of Titanus and once Daisy felt the chain was taut, swung herself by her teeth towards Lyra.

Twilight saw what Daisy attempted as well as Titanus lifting his hoof for one final crushing attack. “Lyra, lower your barrier now!” she shouted, while at the same time striking Titanus in the leg with her violet flame sword. She knew her attacks would not harm it, but simply wanted a means to distract the colossus from Daisy’s rescue attempt.

Wobbling on weak legs, Lyra let go of her barrier just in time for Daisy to catch her and swing away. Titanus stopped its crushing motion as it tried to follow the pony pair during their swing. Since her attack proved ineffective, Twilight tried for one more desperate attempt to get Titanus to chase after her.

“Uh…” Twilight cleared her throat and glared at Titanus. “Hey, you! Ugly! I’m talking to you! Look around you! Onagon is lost! Nopony… er… nodonkey lives here anymore! It’s a dead city! You failed!”

Titanus stopped moving, allowing Daisy and Lyra to crash into a wall without the colossus chasing them. It then turned its massive head towards Twilight. She took another deep breath and continued her tirade.

“You were a mistake! You never should have existed! Everydonkey would be happier without you ever being around! They all wish Titanus was just a memory, a figment of the Fade! You failed in your mission and now Onagon is a ruined husk because of you!”

Twilight gaped at the words spilling from her mouth, but the frustrations that built up from seeing the ghosts of Onagon’s past finally let themselves out. Her plan on reaching out to the golem, to lure Titanus away from her friends also worked. Now his attention solely focused on her.

Wait, now that I think about it…

Twilight looked up to see her reflection staring into the now blazing red eyes of Titanus. She gasped as she realized its eyes were not merely focal points of lyrium, but also gigantic red crystals. It groaned again as it took several steps towards Twilight until beams of intense heat and flame burst from his eyes. They took aim directly at Twilight. Only instinct from fighting spells of such power saved Twilight as she raised Ironguard and reinforced its protection with her own defensive magic.

Daisy balked as she tried to carry Lyra away. “The Commander just taunted a giant golem who just revealed he can shoot freaking eye beams!” She gave her head a good shake. “When did this mission turn completely crazy!?”

“Daisy…” Lyra breathed out, weakly pointing to Daisy’s right. “Mino…”

Daisy turned just in time to duck out of the way of the other of Iron Will’s minotaurs. He slammed his fist into the Foundry wall, causing several rocks and bits of metal to fall from the ceiling. Daisy yelped as a shard of metal sliced across her cheek. Blood oozed from the wound while she tried to maintain some distance between herself and the monster.

With a hard pull of her hoof, Daisy recalled her razor disc, hoping that the blade and minotaur met half-way. The minotaur moved out of the way not to dodge the disc, but to charge headlong into Daisy. With the added weight of Lyra on her back, Daisy needed to move with care rather than with speed. She swung her disc ready for another attack. Unlike Titanus and Iron Will she could attack this minotaur.

“Lyra, hold on,” Daisy whispered, “I think I’m going to do something utterly insane.”

With the chain to her disc firmly in her mouth, Daisy let the spinning blade drop to the floor with a thud. She stared down the minotaur who scraped his hoof on the ground and lowered his horns for a goring attack. Daisy breathed out as she felt Lyra’s hooves tighten around her neck. She could do this. She did not have a choice in the matter.

With a sudden burst from her hooves Daisy galloped as quickly as her hooves could carry her and Lyra together right in the path of the minotaur. The greater ponyspawn did the same, charging right towards them with his steel capped horn aimed dead center to skewer the both of them. As the two opposing forces neared, Daisy made her gambit and hoped that the ponyspawn, even with their newfound intelligence, were either too bloodthirsty or stupid to figure it out.

Daisy jerked her entire body so it would be right between the minotaur’s legs and slid past them, all while Lyra screamed bloody murder on her back. The minotaur tilted forward as they passed under him while trying to move his horns to impale the passing ponies. This error caused his horns to stab into the ground with great force, great enough that the minotaur embedding himself into the rocks horn-first.

With a yank, Daisy pulled on her chain and the weapon flew back to her, but not before it rammed blade first into the minotaur’s face. The blades of the razor disc slashed the minotaur’s face open, spilling the foul black blood in a terrible fountain of gore. The minotaur wrenched himself free only to grasp at its face. He turned around to face Daisy, one of his eyes now missing. A powerful jet of steam came out of his nostrils; his destroyed face portrayed his fury well.

Her disc by her side, Daisy went on the offensive, flicking the blades back into the minotaur with swift snaps. The blades would tear at the exposed flesh of the minotaur in one flick, only to be pulled back by another crank of her neck. Daisy continued this attack with each passing second and the momentum allowed her to slice and dice the minotaur to pieces.

Lyra, having regained her strength, let herself go from Daisy and sparked a spell on her horn. She looked to the disc and summoned a ball of flame to sheathe it. Daisy looked at her weapon and produced a wicked grin. Her now flaming disc soared back into the face of the minotaur. Its edge both cut and seared into the monster, making him scream out in pain as the smell of burnt flesh and blood filled the air. Finally, the minotaur fell over stone dead.

Daisy pulled her disc back as Lyra marveled. “You are really good,” Lyra said with a weak smile, “Thanks Daisy. Couldn’t have pulled out of that one without you.”

“We’re Grey Wardens. We’re in this together!” Daisy smiled and then turned to help Twilight, only to stop. “No comments about my butt or your butt?”

Lyra’s leering smile returned. “Oh, well if you want one so badly, I would be totally ok with us touching butts when we get to Brightstone. Ooh, we can invite Twilight and have a three-way and…”

Daisy pressed her face to her hoof. “I now really want to fight the giant killer golem with eyebeams.”

As Daisy and Lyra galloped to her side, Twilight continued her own effort to not be vaporized. Her shields held strong only because Twilight reinforced her barrier with the enchantments laced into Ironguard. She could not see anything past her barrier though, as the beams of red flames from Titanus completely engulfed her. No one knew Twilight’s limits better than her, and while she cast spells of great power, even she reached a cap.

Titanus did not seem to share the same limitations. The colossus continued to advance towards her, its giant hooves crashing into the ground with each step. Twilight felt Titanus getting closer, and knew if he came too close, she would have to defend against both the attacks from his eyes and the crushing brute strength from his hooves. She could not survive defending both at once, and her friends were in no condition to attack.

“Any time now, Oghren! Sparky!” Twilight cried out as she fell to one knee.

High above, Oghren struggled up the narrow walkways used by the smiths of the Foundry’s past. He struggled through some of the narrow paths, as this method of controlling the flow of magma was meant for emergencies, and the engineers did not design these paths for comfort. He grumbled as he saw Sparky climbing upwards on the rocky walls with ease thanks to her clawed paws.

Oghren grunted as he neared the valve that controlled the flow of magma into the Foundry. The heat from the pipes still made him sweat despite their construction of both lead and lyrium. The paragon Leadhoof perfected the magma carrying process ages ago, but for once Oghren wished the paragons were not as good at their respective jobs as they were. He put his hooves onto the valve and looked over to Sparky who swung herself on top of the pipe segment connected by chains.

“Once I turn this valve, it’s gonna get real hot real quick.” Oghren nodded to Sparky. “You’re not so bad, you dumb mutt.”

“Donkey not bad. Is nice change.” Sparky nodded to Oghren and positioned her sharp teeth over the chains. Looking down, Oghren saw that Titanus was nowhere near where it needed to be for the magma to reduce it to slag.

“Twilight!” Oghren shouted, but she could not hear over the thrum of her shield and the roar of Titanus’ eye beams. He looked down to Lyra and Daisy and shouted again. “Twilight can’t move, and she’ll be crushed any moment! You need to get the big sod under the pipe works!”

“How?!” Daisy shouted back, “Our weapons and magic do nothing against it! We don’t even register to him!”

“Wait…” Lyra nodded her head. “Twilight was able to taunt Titanus to focus on her. All we have to do is taunt him off her!”

“Can you raise a shield like the Commander?” Daisy pointed to the eye beams. “If you haven’t noticed, he’ll fry us the first chance he gets!”

“Just follow my lead and go to the other end of the room!” Lyra galloped away from Daisy, all the while shouting, “Hey! I heard Onagon is full of easy jennies! Can you point me to the local whorehouse, and I don’t mean your mom! I already saw her plenty last week!”

Titanus stopped its attack on Twilight and slowly craned its head towards Lyra. Massive metal joints creaked as Titanus shifted its position so that it was now facing the battlemage. Twilight took a deep breath and collapsed on her hooves, her weapons falling to her side.

Lyra cackled at her insult only to realize that Titanus now focused all of its hatred on her. As its eyes glowed, Lyra yelled, “Your turn, Daisy! Make it good, make it quick!”

Daisy stammered for a moment. “Uh… well… you are very large so you have a big butt! Yeah! And you smell bad too!”

Lyra shook her head. “I’m doomed.”

High above them, Oghren could only watch instead of fight as he wanted so desperately to do. “Stupid donkey construct,” he muttered, “You took Branka from me, I won’t let you take my friends too!”

An idea suddenly sparked. “Hundreds of donkeys were used to make Titanus,” Oghren said to a confused Sparky. “We have to piss them off in the only way a donkey knows how to do!”

“Rawr?” Sparky cocked her head, looking between Titanus and Oghren. “You have plan? Tell Sparky!”

Oghren winked before clearing his throat. He then shouted with all his breath, “Kog’ka magorran dos jaka! Deshan meg toran kalaak moorca!”

Titanus stopped his advance on Lyra and quickly turned its head upwards Oghren. Once he was sure of Titanus’ position, Oghren turned the valve on the pipes to allow the magma to flow freely again. The heat from the molten rocks warmed his hooves despite the lead lyrium pipes and Oghren galloped away once he saw things were about to get more heated thanks to Titanus’ unique weapons.

Sparky quickly chomped on the chains until the magma pipes shifted beneath her, yet they did not break. Before she could shout at the apparent failure, Titanus fired the beams of fiery magic upwards at the pipeworks. The intense force of its attack tore the pipes apart and thus allowed the magma to flow freely.

The magma poured from the pipes slowly, but once gravity took over, the super hot magma dripped onto Titanus’ face. The golem stopped firing its eye beams as it screamed with the collective noise of a hundred donkey souls. Bits of metal melted off its face, while more magma continued to fall onto it and melt the golem down.

Oghren and Sparky ran across the collapsing scaffolds and stone stairways while Titanus flailed about in the Foundry. The colossus fell over onto its side as magma melted not only its hide, but hooves as well. Eventually, the pair joined Twilight and the others as they watched the once mighty Titanus fall. Despite such breaches to its chassis, Titanus continued to move forward towards the group by pulling itself towards the Grey Wardens. One eye completely melted over while the other continued to blaze.

“Will… not… fall…” Titanus rumbled, “Onagon… needs… safety…”

“Onagon fell a long time ago,” Twilight said, “You are all that remains. Maybe after this, you can find peace. Now Lyra!”

Both unicorns pointed their horns at Titanus and cast a spell that would link them with his lyrium. Beams of violet and green light latched themselves onto the golem and already the lyrium started to overload, glowing brighter and hotter than before. The throng of voices that made Titanus screamed, but Twilight kept her focus.

Her spell located the power source the Paragon used to make Titanus function. A single shard embedded in the golem’s forehead, just as the compulsion told her it would be. Twilight felt the same compulsion again and she let go of her magic on Titanus to pry the shard out. She grunted as she pulled with all her magical might, all the while unable to hear the others around her.

“No…” Titanus said, “Don’t… take… shard… need…”

“So… do… I!” Twilight ripped the shard from Titanus’ forehead and the gargantuan golem finally fell silent. Twilight held the shard close to her as she took a deep breath.

“May Onagon rest in peace at last.” Twilight looked around the destroyed foundry and could already feel the Veil between the material world and the Fade begin to repair itself. She looked over the shard and balked at the thing. Before when the compulsion led her to the Foundry, the shard radiated incredible power. The shard allowed a mountain of a golem to move and attack with deadly power. Yet now that it lay in Twilight’s magical grasp, it appeared little more than a shard of glass.

Just like the one from ABF, Twilight recalled. She slipped the shard into her saddle bag and turned to her friends who stood around her. They were battered and bruised, but not beaten, and Twilight could not have been prouder.

“We did incredible work today,” Twilight said, “And I’m so happy to call you all Grey Wardens. With this victory we have shown that it is our differences that allow us to achieve victory. So long as we stand united we can—”


Daisy dove for Twilight, pushing her commander over. When Twilight looked up, she saw Iron Will still alive and wrestling with Daisy. The pair struggled on the ground but with his greater size and strength, Iron Will took the advantage and placed a hand firmly on Daisy’s head. Twilight’s horn sparked as she tried to blast Iron Will off her friend, to no avail. His body was still immune to damage. If Titanus could not crush him, then what use was a simple concussive spell?

Iron Will looked Twilight in the eye and smiled a wicked smile. “When ponies think your stuff they can take, give their necks a little break!”

Twilight reached out with a hoof, her mouth drying faster than water in a desert. Everything around her slowed down as she watched Iron Will dump Daisy to the ground. Just a moment ago Daisy was fighting a minotaur. Just a moment ago she taunted a massive golem. Her green eyes remained open as her skull landed on the ground with a sickening thud. The same eyes that looked at Twilight with respect, admiration, and friendship.

Now those eyes were dead.

“No!” Lyra cried out. She unleashed a torrent of flame from her mouth with her dragon’s breath spell, only far hotter and wilder than the version she used in Brightstone. The flames quickly engulfed Iron Will, who merely laughed them blaze off as he continued to advance.

“Stupid ponies,” Iron Will said in a mocking tone. “Sure, I didn’t expect that golem to turn on Iron Will, but you know what Iron Will did expect? That either you or it would be left standing, allowing Iron Will to pick the bones clean. Now about your skulls Iron Will wants so much…”

Lyra coughed, her dragon’s breath sputtering out until she fell to her knees. Exhausted from the fight, she looked up as Iron Will neared and summoned enough strength to spit on him.

Twilight simply sat there in a daze as memories of the Battle of Trotterim rushed to her head. Lyra’s flames became the flames of the burning Chantry. Daisy looked back at Twilight, yet her dead eyes became those of Spike. The flames consumed all, yet Spike still stared as the metal from his armour melted onto him, disfiguring him as he screamed.



Oghren hefted his axe and charged towards Iron Will, his eyes crazed with murderous fury. He swung at the minotaur leader’s legs, yet his axe left nothing against them. Failure to wound did not stop him as he continued to attack, allowing Lyra to crawl away to relative safety.

Sparky leapt into battle, her daggers drawn and her lips pulled back into a horrifying snarl. She used both blade and fang to tear into Iron Will’s hide, yet her attack was no more effective than the others. Iron Will threw Sparky aside and casually backhanded Oghren out cold.

“Iron Will has bigger fish to fry than you weaklings,” he announced. His hooves stomped the ground as stood over the stunned Twilight. “The shard is what I’m after. The Architect wants it, but for now, it’s mine. Time to die, Silencer.”

Twilight looked up at Iron Will but did not see the minotaur alpha. Instead she looked up to see the gaping maw of the Archdemon Uthemiel standing over her. The dragon roared in Twilight’s face, but instead of fear, Twilight felt something else deep within her. Something that lay repressed for years now bubbling to the surface.



Twilight’s horn sparked and shone an impossibly bright light into Iron Will’s eyes. He recoiled away and covered his eyes, tripping over his own hooves while groaning in agony. When able to see again, Iron Will looked up to see Twilight standing on the head of Titanus. Her gaze directed unparalleled hatred at Iron Will. She ground her teeth as her horn no longer glowed with her familiar violet aura, but instead with an ominous crimson hue.

Her sword drifted by her side and remained fully vertical. Twilight extended her left hoof and removed the plates from her armour, allowing her violet coat to be seen. She did not wince or yelp when Sophia lowered into her arm, splitting flesh and pouring blood.

The blood did not touch the ground, but instead formed a small orb, no bigger than an apple. She lifted the blood in her magical hold and levelled it towards Iron Will. While Twilight never practiced blood magic, as it was forbidden by the Tower and the Chantry, she studied it to prepare herself in dealing with Maleficarum. Her special talent of magic, however, meant her studies made her adept in any magical school she chose. Conjuration. Evocation. Transmutation. Abjuration.

And, of course, Blood Magic.

The blood orb flew towards Iron Will, splashing against his face. Twilight continued to stare down the minotaur as he wiped away the blood, while some became absorbed into his skin. He smiled again as he stood up straight.

“Is that really the best you have, Silencer?” Iron Will said, “When it’s that time again, Iron Will brings the—”

“Pain.” Twilight’s horn and eyes glowed crimson in unison as she activated the spell. Iron Will suddenly convulsed and screamed in extreme pain, his bellows echoing throughout the Foundry. He clutched his chest and breathed heavily, all the while Twilight walked towards him with slow methodical steps.

“Impossible,” Iron Will spat in between lungfuls of air. “My skin… the Shaper made it so nothing can pierce my skin! No blade or spell… how?!”

“My blood,” Twilight explained, “Is now a part of your bloodstream. The pain you feel is attacking you from the inside. Your skin may be invincible, but the disgusting creature that lies beneath? Not quite. Consider your skin the pot, your blood water, and my magic the heating element. Because your skin cannot break, it will contain your blood as it bubbles and boils within you. Soon your organs will cook inside you. Now… Suffer.”

Iron Will screamed again at the command of Twilight’s spell. He fell over and lay on his back while his entire body spasmed from the excruciating pain. Twilight could not help but smile. Blood magic felt good, incredibly good. The power she held in her horn thanks to her blood made her feel stronger than any other form of magic. Magic from the Fade paled in comparison, and the magic within herself did not do what she wanted in this instance.

She wanted to hurt Iron Will. Killing him would be too easy, she wanted him to suffer for everything that he did to her. To Daisy. Twilight wanted to make Iron Will beg for his life, to crawl to his knees and request that he be put to the sword, only for Twilight to deny him. How many times had the ponyspawn and their leaders inflicted pain on her? How many friends had to die at their wretched hooves? For all the suffering the Blight had caused, why not inflict it on them a hundred-fold?

Yet for all the harm she inflicted on Iron Will, the minotaur continued to smile. “Truly…” Iron Will coughed up his own blood as he tried to stand on quaking knees. “Iron Will has done something no other has done since the Song. He has hurt the Silencer. I have hurt you in such a way that I won’t be forgotten. Iron Will shall forever be with you, Silencer. Through him… victory for the Brothers.”

Twilight was about to increase the heat her blood magic caused within Iron Will when she heard Lyra’s voice. “Twilight… it’s over.”

Twilight turned to see Lyra cradling Daisy’s body. She closed Daisy’s eyes and appeared to whisper words of comfort into the dead ear. Tears fell down her cheeks, ruining her makeup. The sight of Lyra mourning snapped Twilight out of her murderous fury. She turned back to Iron Will and shook her head.

“You’re right,” she said in a weak voice. “You have hurt me. But now… you will never hurt anypony ever again.”

Twilight turned her back on Iron Will and with only a thought, increased the potency of her blood spell by several magnitudes. Iron Will gurgled as blood flowed out his mouth until he fell over, dead. Black ichor and grey matter leaked from his mouth, nose, and eyes. The Indomitable Iron Will was no more.

With Iron Will dead, Twilight walked over to Daisy. Oghren and Sparky joined her at her side as she laid on her knees and stroked Daisy’s green hair. Hot tears streamed down her face as she looked on. It almost appeared as if Daisy was merely sleeping, but no matter how many times Twilight begged the Sisters, Daisy would never awaken again.

“She was scared, terrified of the Dark Tunnels, the ponyspawn,” Oghren said, breaking the silence. “She still came down here with us despite her terror. That’s the sign of a true warrior, of somepony worth standing beside in battle and out of it. I…”

Oghren wiped his eyes. “Stone keep you, Stone protect you, Daisy.”

Sparky walked up to Daisy and held one of her hooves in shaking paws. “Sparky called Daisy a scaredy,” she said, “but Daisy no scared. Sparky not know Daisy long but…”

Instead of words, Sparky sat on all four of her paws and turned her head upward, delivering a long, mournful howl. It echoed throughout the Foundry, to Onagon, and through the Dark Tunnels. Lyra sobbed into Daisy’s mane while Twilight remained silent. Once again the Dark Tunnels stole something from her. Before it was a sense of innocence, that she could do anything. Until she met Ruck. Until she met the Jailer. Now, the Tunnels claimed the life of a friend.

The Dark Tunnels laid claim to all who descended its depths until they swallowed light itself into the abyss.

The Fall of Dragons

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Chapter 9 - The Fall of Dragons

The trek back to the surface took three days of utter silence, with the party stopping only to rest and eat. None among the Wardens held the will to say anything, leaving only Sparky to take the lead and navigate the labyrinthine Dark Tunnels. Twilight and the others did not sense any ponyspawn around them as well, which proved beneficial for both sides. It meant the Wardens traversed the Tunnels without being harassed, and it meant the ponyspawn would not be culled where they stood by an angry group.

Twilight remained up front behind Sparky, walking with stoic purpose so as to not further demoralize the others. However, she kept her helm firmly on her head with the visor down. The others did not need to see her bloodshot eyes, due to sleepless nights of silent weeping and of the nightmares the Fade gave to her. Conscious in the Fade, Twilight felt her psyche continually assaulted by the fiery demons of rage and the icy windigo demons of hatred. She resisted the frostfire only because her training demanded it; a part of her wanted to use the demonic power to wipe whole scores of ponyspawn from the earth.

Daisy remained draped on her back as they marched through the tunnels. Twilight used her bedroll as a makeshift shroud. She chose not to use magic to carry Daisy’s body. The Wardens were Twilight’s burden to bear, and she would carry their victories and defeats on her back, literally if need be.

With sleep being difficult to obtain, Twilight focused on sensing for ponyspawn, though she also reached out with her arcane senses. She tried to focus on the shard, yet still could not get a reading. By itself it appeared only a shard of glass much like the one she received from the mysterious ABF. Twilight scowled at the glass; she knew she felt a compulsion she could not combat, and thanks to it, Daisy was dead.

As expected, Twilight did not sense anything from Oghren. Being a donkey, he did not carry a Fade presence. She was a bit jealous of this. Oghren could sleep all night and not be bothered by dreams or nightmares or demons from the Fade. A night of unsullied sleep; it seemed like a pipe-dream to Twilight.

Surprisingly, Sparky felt just as magically empty as Oghren. She did not have any trace of magical energy in her or radiating from her, something Twilight only estimated on. Twilight then wondered if the donkeys knew of this similarity, but that would be unlikely. Since donkeys did not use magic or experience the Fade, they cared very little about either, save for how lucrative the lyrium trading, and therefore smuggling, business was to the surface.

Lyra, on the other hoof, gave Twilight nothing but pause and concern. As far as Twilight knew, Lyra refused to sleep, the bags under her eyes acting as proof of such. The magical energy from the battlemage sparked off in a multitude of directions. Her mind frayed, Lyra never looked at the body of Daisy directly, nor did she make eye contact with anypony. When Twilight focused closer, she saw the burning rage festering inside Lyra, only this time instead of being a blazing inferno, the flame dwindled having cooled by the winds of despair and hatred.

She held hatred for the ponyspawn, of course, but also hatred at herself. Twilight wondered what this meant, if maybe Lyra blamed herself for Daisy’s death. They were all too spent after the battle with Titanus to deal with the sudden attack by Iron Will properly. Lyra wasn’t to blame. They could not do anything to stop Iron Will.

At least, that was the line Twilight told herself. She killed him after all. With blood magic, something else that ate at Twilight in the dark corners of her mind. The ultimate taboo in all magical theory and ethical practice, and Twilight broke it in a fit of fury. She thought she had better control than that. She thought she had enough magical aptitude and knowledge to never resort to such spellcraft. Obviously, she thought wrong.

Twilight did not think she would be considered a maleficar, as the only other among them to recognize blood magic was Lyra and she did not seem the type to get the templars after her. However, Twilight did feel immense disappointment with herself. Not only did she cast blood magic, but she enjoyed every moment of it. When she cut her foreleg with her sword, the rush she felt when her blood spilt felt good compared to losing blood in battle. She felt the intoxicating power of the magic in her spilled blood and her horn working in unison. She delighted in the suffering of Iron Will. The worst part? She wanted more. A part of her demanded that ponyspawn attack her and her group just so she could feel the rush of blood magic again.

This scared Twilight more than any archdemon.

Their silent march led them back to the pit that Iron Will sent them plunging through. One more day of walking and they would be back in Brightstone and Sparky would be reunited with her pack. They still needed to form the defensive shield to prevent the ponyspawn from using the tunnel again. Once they had set up their last camp in the Dark Tunnels, Twilight approached Lyra.

The battlemage looked like a wreck with her messy hair and ruined makeup and while she did not speak, she did nod in agreement that now was a good enough time as ever to set up the wards and barriers. The two worked in concert together, merging barrier lattices into one complex and intricate pattern that Twilight knew would give even the strongest ornlocks difficulty in breaching. They also cast powerful ward spells that would link with sister wards back in Brightstone. Should the barrier be breached, the wards would alert Brightstone of an imminent attack.

After a short rest, the party left the wards and continued the walk back to Brightstone. As they neared the tunnel they first arrived in, Sparky stopped to sniff the air, her lips curling into the first smile any of the group showed since the battle. She dashed off ahead of the group, her barks echoing throughout the tunnel. Twilight gave Sparky a small smile; it lightened her heart to know Sparky returned to the ones she loved.

Sparky’s barks received a reply in kind, and soon several diamond dogs ran towards her, equally happy. They literally dogpiled on top of their shadowhound, each cheering in the diamond dogs guttural language. Sparky hugged her brethren close to her until Twilight and the others caught up to them. At the sight of Twilight, Sparky hushed and urged the others to be silent as well in respect for Daisy. Twilight’s stomach lurched; she did not want to ruin the celebration.

Sparky approached Twilight and sat on all fours. “Sparky happy to meet Tilite,” she said. Twilight smiled at the diamond dog and scratched her behind the ears. It seemed like something one would not do to a sentient dog, but since mabari hounds enjoyed it, Twilight guessed diamond dogs did as well. Sparky seemed to enjoy the scratching.

“I’m glad to have met you too,” Twilight replied, “I’m sorry we had to close the way. We can help you find another entrance to the Dark Tunnels if you’d like.”

As she finished, Twilight got an idea. “Wait, Sparky. You fought valiantly by our side despite everything. I’d like to offer you…” Twilight coughed. She remembered she needed to speak Equestrian in a manner Sparky would understand. “Sparky, you fight good. You good friend. Twilight happy to meet you. Twilight ask big question. Sparky and pack can stay with Twilight and Twilight pack. One big pack. You like?”

Sparky looked surprised by the offer. “Need talk to alphas,” she said, “Me just shadow, but me try to talk.” Twilight nodded and watched Sparky join the alpha diamond dogs in the pack. They spoke in hushed tones, though Twilight could not decipher the language as being little more than barks, growls, and yips.

The conversation did not last long as Sparky backpawed an alpha across the face. This seemed to be the way the diamond dogs made decisions as Sparky returned to the party. “Pack trusts Tilite. One say no, say go back to Dark, but he stupid. Diamond dog not be on land of moon and sun since time of Luna. Pack return. Need safety. Your pack give?”

Twilight nodded. “My pack give.”

Sparky barked something to the other diamond dogs, with an equal reply barked back by the entire group. Twilight did not expect the entire pack to sit on all fours, their eyes solely focused on her. Some blinked, but otherwise stood still. Sparky joined them.

“Sparky pack and Tilite pack. One,” she said, “You alpha. They listen.”

Oghren whistled. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, “never thought I’d see the day when diamond dogs behaved like decent folk.”

“They are decent folk,” Twilight corrected, “we just need to show them a little friendship. Come on, everypony… and everydog. Let’s go home.”

Twilight and Lyra worked together to form the magical disc that would carry them back to Brightstone. Despite initial hesitation, the dogs clamoured onto the disc, waiting to be carried away. With a flick of her horn, the disc began to move with Twilight focused on their ascension while Lyra took care of the stability.

The short ride ended with the surprised look of two Brightstone sentries. They looked onto the disc and the dogs that arrived with Twilight, unsure of what to make of them. They did help Twilight, the Wardens, and the others off the disc though. After all, she was still their arlessa.

“Go get Silverstar,” Twilight said. The guards gave her a sharp salute and galloped off to fulfill her command. She took a deep breath and with her friends by her side, made her way into the undercroft of Brightstone to the courtyard. She knew her first priority with her return.

Daisy needed to be laid in Brightstone’s chantry.

Twilight emerged from Brightstone with Silverstar waiting to greet her. “My Lady,” he said with a bow, only to stop when he saw the body she carried. His eyes went wide until he then saw the diamond dogs behind her.

Silverstar shook his head. “Are you alright? What in tarnation happened down there? What are all these things?”

“You’ll get my report soon enough,” Twilight replied, “for now, I just need to bring Daisy to the Chantry until… until I know how she wanted to be laid to rest. As for the diamond dogs… they are denizens of the Dark Tunnels and are now refugees of Brightstone under my protection. They are to be treated no differently from any other pony.”

“By your will, Arlessa.” Silverstar repeated her command to the officers, who galloped away to do the same to the soldiers under their command. With a path cleared, Twilight walked to the Chantry. Only now did she notice the clear night sky with the fading moon hanging overhead. The stars shone bright, yet what comfort their light used to give Twilight did nothing now.

The Chantry sisters opened the large doors allowing Twilight entry. With their aid, Twilight laid Daisy’s body on a stone slab in the basement of the house of worship. “She need’s proper rites,” Twilight said to the priestesses, “Everything you can do, please do for her. She was very brave. Ponies loved her.”

“Celestia and Luna loved her as well,” the Reverend Mother said to Twilight. “We will treat her with the utmost respect and discover how she wanted to be laid to rest. It is custom for soldiers of the military to include such instructions in their last will and testaments. They should be in the archives. Light of Sun and Moon guide your path, my Lady.”

With Daisy taken care of, Twilight left the Chantry and for the first time in what felt like a week allowed her body to ease up and get rid of some tension. She wanted out of her armour and soiled robes as quickly as possible. When she exited the building, she told one of her messengers to inform Silverstar that she would retire for the evening and that she was not to be disturbed unless an emergency came up. Silverstar would understand.

As she returned to the keep, Twilight saw Oghren rejoin his various cousins who both cheered at his return and spoke in hushed tones whenever they saw a diamond dog. Oghren, for his part, tried to reassure his extended family that these dogs were friendly, but to the skeptics among the donkeys, he laid down Twilight’s law that they were to be treated well. They all decided to go to the tavern and drink the rest of the night away. Twilight understood that after an excursion to the Dark Tunnels, maybe a little imbibing of spirits needed to happen. Not one for drinking herself, Twilight did want something to take the edge off.

Unfortunately, Lyra all but disappeared from sight. Twilight guessed she went back to the Warden quarters, though with how morose Lyra was, she wondered if Lyra would finally get some sleep. Twilight, however, headed straight to her private quarters, her desire for solitude and isolation overruling all other desires.

On her way she asked for some hot water to be brought up to her room and Brightstone’s servants made haste to complete her request. Once in her quarters and alone, Twilight began to unhook and remove her armour piece by piece with her hooves. Her own horn sickened her as the residue of blood magic remained like a stain one could not hope to clean. If she did not need to use magic, she would not do so.

“Magic is my special talent,” Twilight told herself, “But magic is dangerous. I’m dangerous. If I don’t practice control, I can lose myself in my own power. I’m scared of my magic. I’m scared of my magic. I don’t know what to do.”

Twilight doubted her magic at times, about the power she possessed. She slew a high dragon and an archdemon for Celestia’s sake. She stopped a donkey’s heart with magical force. It was within her power to raze castles and annihilate ponies within moments. The fear of unicorns seemed more warranted after Twilight’s particular display. She just took the smallest taste of blood magic’s power and could only imagine how Maleficars felt with prolonged exposure.

With her armour and robes removed and in a heap in her quarters, Twilight grabbed her sword in her mouth and tossed it with the others. She could not bear to even look at Sophia right now. The arcane warrior’s sword took its name from an ancient word for “wisdom.” She did not feel very wise at this moment. She did not feel worthy of her title as the last arcane warrior.

Twilight pulled on a simple dressing gown when she heard a knock on her door. The servants arrived with the hot water and quickly filled her wooden tub. They did not linger any longer than needed, though they did ask their arlessa if she wanted anything to eat or drink. Wine and real food sounded good to Twilight, so she made her request politely, if without her usual smile. The servants departed, and Twilight, now alone, began to strip to have her bath.

The sudden shake from her treasure chest stopped her in her tracks. Twilight spun around to see both the chest and her saddle bags shaking violently. She approached both cautiously until she felt the same compulsion spell used on her just as it did in the Dark Tunnels, only now the force pulled on her with even greater strength. Her frustrations now at a high, Twilight opened her saddle bag to see the glass shard Iron Will sought to be the culprit. She opened her treasure chest and found the other glass shard doing the same.

“What in the world…” Twilight trailed off as the two shards began to glow with radiant white light. She shielded her eyes as the light engulfed the room, her retinas burning despite her efforts. She felt herself getting pulled into the very floor, yet also she felt her very being pulled in every direction. Twilight wanted to scream but only silence escaped her as the white light engulfed her.


When the light finally faded, Twilight looked around in complete shock. She was no longer in her quarters, but instead, in a grey wasteland filled with shattered mirrors. Instead of her dressing gown, Twilight wore her armour again, though she did not remember putting her raiment back on.

Twilight looked about the grey expanse with trepidation. She did not feel anything here at all and nothing disconcerted her more. There was no cool wind against her face, nor did she even feel her heartbeat inside her chest. An attempt at a spell also revealed that magic did not exist in this strange realm.

“Hello?” Twilight called out, “Is anypony here?”

A shadow stepped out from behind one of the shattered mirrors wearing a black robe. “Twilight Sparkle, so it’s true. I’ve waited long to see you.”

The robed figure approached Twilight and threw back her hood, revealing a familiar face. “Zecora!” she said, thankful to see a friendly face in this dead zone. “I can’t believe it! I thought I would never see you again! You just disappeared after the Battle of Trotterim! How are you? What are you doing here? Where is here?”

“Seeing you is always a delight, she who walks both the day and night.” Zecora smiled at Twilight as the two hugged. “The battle was not where I will die. Answer your questions, I will try. After the battle that raged so long, I passed out from the Ursa’s death song. My health is fine, but time is short, there is much to learn in this grey port.”

“Port?” Twilight looked around for a ship, but saw none. “I don’t understand, Zecora. What is this place?”

“This is a place lost in time, a remnant of an evil crime.” Zecora held up a shard of glass with her hoof towards Twilight. “You know these shards, Commander of the Grey, for they are why the ponyspawn slay. This shards belong to a mirror bright, the Eluvian, an object of pegasus might.”

Twilight recalled the Eluvian from when she joined her horn with the arcane warrior’s phylactery. From time lost to the Imperial Age a wise unicorn wizard, Starswirl the Bearded, used the Eluvian to travel. She still remembered the look of despair on the old wizard’s eyes as he emerged from the mirror and caught his breath.

“Canterlot has fallen. Celestia and Luna are gone.”

She also remembered seeing Starswirl obliterated by one of the Old Ones, Lianari the Dragon of Grace. She would become the first Archdemon, the bringer of Destruction. Twilight shuddered as she recalled the twisted envy Lianari showed in her face when Starswirl rebuked her. How such a beautiful creature could be capable of such cruelty and brutality was beyond Twilight.

“The Eluvian was an artifact the Arcane Warrior showed me in a vision of the past,” Twilight said to Zecora. “Starswirl destroyed it so it would not fall under the control of the Old Ones. Could it be repaired and used by the ponyspawn?”

Zecora did not reply, instead turning around and walking off towards one of the mirrors in the grey world. Twilight wordlessly followed. She felt a chill run down her spine as she walked among the plains of shattered glass. The lifelessness of this place gave her a sense of incredible dread. Twilight thought that she saw shadows hopping between the ruined uprights of the hundreds if not thousands of Eluvians, only to blink and see nothing was there.

They passed an Eluvian that was mostly whole, though lined with cracks and gaps in the glass. Twilight stopped and looked into the mirror despite it’s ruined state and felt shocked that the reflection of herself was when she was just a little filly. Twilight could not help but laugh at the sight of herself when she was young. So eager to learn anything and everything about magic. How long ago had it truly been when her curiosity and desire for knowledge trumped anything else? Her instructors gave her warnings that even though her mind hungered for the arcane; she still needed to sate her body’s hunger for real food.

Twilight gasped as she saw herself begin to grow rapidly. Soon the reflection resembled her teenage years, with long gangly legs and a face lined with pimples. Those days Twilight secluded herself in the Tower’s library. While other students focused on relationships thanks to growing hormones, Twilight focused all of her studies on her Harrowing.

The reflection continued to grow until Twilight saw herself as she was after the Harrowing. An adult mare in her prime, Twilight looked at the image of herself with a sense of sadness. While she did not concentrate on her looks like her friend Rarity, she did try her best to appear presentable, and she did admit when she saw her younger self that she looked pretty and vibrant. Bright violet eyes stared back at her, with immaculately cut hair and those different coloured streaks Twilight could not help but adore. The reflection even showed her staff when she finally became a full-fledged unicorn mage before it was destroyed.

Once again the reflection aged rapidly, until Twilight knew it now reflected her present self. The young mare vanished before her eyes it seemed. She gazed upon her true reflection saw the heavy bags under her eyes from sleepless nights, the scars from the claws and blades of the ponyspawn, and the simple haggard appearance from constant battle and strain. The white streak on her main caused by molten lyrium clashed with her other colours and acted as a constant reminder of the Dark Tunnels.

“Sometimes I don’t know who you are,” Twilight whispered to her reflection. “Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choices, or if I had a choice to begin with. I look into the mirror and don’t know the pony I’m looking at. Who am I?”

“You are Twilight Sparkle,” the reflection said, much to Twilight’s shock. “You are the world’s most powerful unicorn. Ponies fear you. The ponyspawn hate you. You can make nations bend their knees to you. You can single hoofedly raise the Imperium back to glory as Imperator. You can bring order to a world drenched in chaos. All you need to do is accept this.”

Twilight recoiled in horror from her reflection as it shifted once more, only this time revealing a Twilight Sparkle adorned in the robes of the Imperator of the Unicorn Imperium. Resplendent crimson robes adorned her body made of the finest silk while also being protected by armour crafted from the scales of a high dragon. A mighty crown sat on her head made of platinum and blood rubies. A sword of incredible power hung by her side, and while she did not wield it herself, Twilight somehow knew its name: Dominus, sword of Imperator.

“No,” Twilight said to the reflection, “I’m not you. Power is not for power’s sake. I’m afraid of my power! I don’t want to give in! I won’t give in! I won’t!”

Acting on impulse, Twilight smashed a hoof into her own reflection, shattering the mirror. She took a deep breath as she watched the shards scatter about, until she felt a soft hoof on her shoulder. Twilight looked to see Zecora holding her steady; she only realized now she trembled out of fright.

“What…” Twilight breathed out. “What did I see?”

“What you saw was what is true,” Zecora replied, “You saw the potential of you. These mirrors see all within their sight, from days long past to who we are at night. Fear not the reflections or what they show. With me now, for there is a place we must go.”

Twilight resumed following Zecora until she came upon another Eluvian. Unlike the others, this mirror only had a single gap on the surface, though otherwise remained whole. As she looked the Eluvian over, Twilight noticed that Zecora’s eyes were filled with tears.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked. Zecora held Twilight’s hoof in hers and shook her head.

“A choice is made to you now, for the choice will act like a vow. Place the shard into the mirror, and knowledge will make your quest clearer. If you do this, countless will be saved, but you Twilight, in pain you will be bathed. The suffering you will endure I would not wish on my greatest foe, but the burden must be taken and yours to know. Chose to turn away instead and many will perish in dread. Look into the mirror and the other shards you will need. You must confront the Architect and stop his quest for his own greed.”

“What need?” Twilight asked, her mind abuzz of questions needing answers. “Zecora, why are you here? What is going on? What do you mind that I have to carry the burden?”

Zecora only shook her head and offered Twilight the shard. “You must now choose, or else it will not be the ponyspawn who lose.”

Twilight looked down on the shard. Another burden was being thrust onto her. Was not being a Grey Warden enough? Was not living a life of constant battle not enough for Celestia and Luna to throw against her? Why did she need to suffer? Why did she need to endure the slings and arrows against her fortitude which even now felt like it began to crack from the constant strife.

…help me…

Her ears perked up at the sound of the voice. It was the same one she heard in Onagon’s foundry. It came from within the shard. Twilight cursed herself…

She had to do it. She had to take up the burden, simply because she was Twilight Sparkle, and she used her power to help others. She was a Grey Warden.

Twilight levitated the shard and held it close. She then placed it into the Eluvian and watched as the entire artifact began to glow with the white light as the shards did in her quarters. Twilight looked back on Zecora who simply raised her hood and walked away.

“Whatever the Eluvian shows me, Zecora, I’m not afraid!” Twilight shouted to the retreating zebra.

“You will be,” Zecora replied, her voice heavy with remorse. “You will be.”


When the white light faded, Twilight found that she now stood in the middle of a barren field. Scorch marks stained the very ground, while thousands of rusty weapons and bleached bones of ponies littered the area. Above her head, the sky rumbled with thunder as bolts of lightning flashed all around her. She tasted the very ashes of fires that still raged in the distance.

“A battlefield,” Twilight said as she walked forward. “What is the Eluvian trying to show me?”

An earsplitting roar shook the battlefield more than any catapult or lyrium mine ever could and Twilight quickly raised her sword and shield on reflex. She turned to face the origin of the roar, only to have her very bones shaken from another roar, then another, until all her pounding eardrums heard was a continuous cry of multiple dragons.

Five dragons even larger than the high dragon Twilight fought on Luna’s Temple flew over the mountains in her direction. She cursed as they swooped low to the ground; she trusted Zecora or the being who took her form and now she was being fed to five impossibly large dragons. Ready for the end, Twilight raised her sword high only to stop.

She looked closer at the dragons with a spell that allowed her to see with eyes of an eagle. One of the dragons looked eerily familiar. While its scales were white as snow, it bore a bronze plate covering its left eye.

“Uthemiel…” Twilight felt her anger contort her face at the Dragon of Mirth that would become the Archdemon of Despair. However, as the dragons flew over her without paying Twilight any heed, she realized that either she was not their intended target, or that she did not exist.

The past, Twilight thought, I must be seeing images of the past. Zecora did say the Eluvians saw all. She galloped hard across the ruined battlefield in an effort to follow the dragons. Twilight only recognized Uthemiel, but she knew the identities of the others due to her and one missing dragon amongst the five.

Lianari the green, Dragon of Grace. She would be the Archdemon of Destruction.

Galonomei the black, Dragon of Charity. He would be the Archdemon of Avarice.

Mezzerak and Palakesh the twin blues, the Dragons of Zeal and Virtue. They would become the Archdemons of Deception and Betrayal.

However, Twilight noticed the most powerful member of the Imperium Hexumvirate missing. Asha’Bellanar the red, Dragon of Victory, did not fly with her family. With this notable missing element, Twilight followed the Old Ones as they flew, thankful that she did not have to deal with five of the most powerful beings the world ever knew on her own.

She did not run far. Once Twilight crested over a hill, she saw a massive army of ponies in pitch black armour waiting for the Old Ones. They numbered in the tens of thousands, each wielding swords and spears of shining steel. Their weapons looked like stars amongst the night sky.

Twilight’s eyes went wide as the leader of the army step forward. Standing taller than any pony she ever saw, an alicorn in indigo armour and fur of pitch black stood in front of her army. Impossible as it may seem, Twilight knew who she bore witness too. She of the Night. The Lady of the Stars. Sister of Celestia.


Twilight shook her head. Not Luna. Nightmare Moon. The Temple of Luna told her in its carvings that Luna could not defeat the Hexumvirate without the power of the Fade. Without the power of darkness itself. The power corrupted her and turned her into the evil Nightmare Moon.

But what if the ancient ponies were wrong…?

“Galonomei. Palakesh. Mezzerak. Lianari. Uthemiel. How wonderful of you all to join me on this fine evening.” Nightmare Moon laughed. It froze Twilight to her soul. “Where is big sister Asha’Bellanar? I was hoping to deal with you all at once. It would be much more convenient.”

The dragons leaned their great maws closer to Nightmare Moon, who seemed almost bored at the display of might. “Much to our surprise, our sister betrayed us,” said Palakesh, “She kept babbling about making peace with you and your sister.”

“She sought to deceive the deceivers, but we were ready for Asha’Bellanar.” Mezzerak chuckled. “Now we are five, but all the more united to stand against you.”

Galonomei reared on his haunches and stretched his mighty black wings. “This world is ours to do with as we see fit, alicorn. We took this world from the grip of chaos and made it in our image. The sun shines because it is our will that allows it. The moon is no different.”

“Lay yourself at our talons, Luna, and we may be merciful to you and to your followers.” Lianari rumbled, almost as if a massive cat purred. “We could have so much together. There need not be any more bloodshed. I’ll make a special room in my harem just for you.”

Uthemiel loomed close to Nightmare Moon. “Your power is great. It is not too late for you. Ignore Lianari and her lustful ways, and join us in the Hexumvirate. With Asha’Bellanar gone, there is a place ready for you. Rule this world with us. Celestia will not accept you as you are now. We will. Together we can usher in an Age of complete order and dominion over the world.”

Nightmare moon seemed to think about Uthemiel’s proposal. She started to smile, only for her smile to turn wicked. She then began to cackle and then laugh as if they just told her an impossibly funny joke. Twilight felt a cold chill run down her spine at the sight.

Every one of Nightmare Moon’s soldiers dropped their weapons, yet their mistress continued her hysterics. As spears and swords fell, a dark aura surrounded them. They began to float into the air while Nightmare Moon regained her composure. Twilight looked up behind Nightmare Moon and saw thousands of weapons floating behind her. The dragons noticed the wall of blades pointed in their direction as well. They roared in anger and spread out so as to attack Nightmare Moon from all directions.

“Did you really think after everything I’ve done, after everypony I’ve sacrificed to gain this power, that I would give up to you worms simply because you told me to?” Nightmare Moon’s smile quickly reversed. She now seethed with fury. “After your betrayal, Celestia disappeared on me as well! The Fade is ruled by demons, remnants of the Discordant Age and where is Celestia? Gone. It was not your magisters who chased her away from Canterlot. She never sat on the Sun Throne to begin with!”

If Twilight felt cold before, she now became utterly frozen. Twilight knew the Chant of Sun and Moon down to the last verse, yet here, now, the Eluvian revealed something that could destroy the Chantry. Luna, sister to Celestia, did not know where she was. That Celestia was missing at the same moment that Canterlot fell. That she did not defend her most sacred of cities from the magisters of the Unicorn Imperium.

Then there was the fact that walked and talked in front of her, of Luna’s corruption into Nightmare Moon. Twilight started to hyperventilated as she sat on her haunches in a vain attempt to anchor herself. Did the Chantry even know all of this? If they did, they damned themselves for lying to an entire world and giving ponies false faith. If they did not, then who perpetrated such a massive, centuries long cover-up and power grabs?

“This… this is the truth?” Twilight breathed out as she watched the much smaller Nightmare Moon stalk toward the five dragons with her wave of weapons behind her. Each pointed their edge directly at Nightmare Moon’s enemies, eager to slice and tear into the scales of dragons.

Only Lianari and Galonomei stepped forward to meet Nightmare Moon in battle, while Mezzerak, Palakesh, and Uthemiel appeared much more apprehensive. “Beware,” Uthemiel said, “those weapons are made of moonsteel.”

“How perceptive,” Nightmare Moon gloated, “this metal is infused with my very essence, created for one specific purpose: to slay my enemies.”

“Enough talk!” Lianari roared, “If you will not serve the true masters of this world, then you will be reduced to cinders!

The Dragon of Grace bellowed a bestial epitaph before unleashing a torrent of black flame towards Nightmare Moon. Twilight yelped at the intense heat of the flame. She continued to watch, however, and soon was struck numb as Nightmare Moon not only did not dodge, but smiled as the fire slammed into her.

Twilight gasped as the black fire completely consumed Nightmare Moon. She recognized the fire and knew its destructive properties well. The resurging Asha’Bellanar and the Archdemon Uthemiel used the unholy flame against her and her friends. She could only barely hold a shield against such an attack, and only for a few moments. Yet Lianari kept up her attack for several minutes, with no sign of Nightmare Moon amidst the fires.

Nightmare Moon’s soldiers did not fare well against the shadowflame. Whoever did not get obliterated by the incredible force of Lianari, soon melted from the heat of the fire. Those who did manage to escape did so with foul burns across their bodies. Many screamed and cried out as fire reduced them to ash or their very armour melted into the skin. Twilight only watched in horror; everything she saw already happened, and no amount of screaming for the dragon to stop would save those ponies now.

As the flames finally abated, the wicked laughter of Nightmare Moon echoed in the barren battlefield. Lianari visibly recoiled as her foe stepped out of the black flames unscathed. Nightmare Moon carried a long sword in her magical grip, paying more attention to it than she did the Old Ones in front of her.

“How droll,” Nightmare Moon said, nonchalantly inspecting her sword. “If that is the best the gods of the Imperium can muster, I will end this quickly, if only because I shan’t be dying of doldrums. Now then… I believe the next move is mine to make.”

Nightmare Moon blinked and her sword sliced through the air faster than anything Twilight ever saw. Lianari readied another desperate breath of shadowflame, only to have the sword slip inside her waiting maw. She clutched her chest with her talons and began to cough violently, with rivers of blood pouring from her mouth.

Lianari fell as she continued to cough. She reached up to her brother Galonomei with desperation in her draconic eyes that Twilight never imagined such a being to have. “Galo…” Lianari breathed out. “Help me… please…”

The Dragon of Charity could do nothing but watch as his sister fell dead, her inner organs likely torn to ribbons by Nightmare Moon’s blade. The sword cut its way through Lianari’s hide and returned to its mistress’s side. Incensed, Galonomei turned his red eyes to Nightmare Moon.

“No pony has ever slain a dragon… until now.” Galonomei rumbled, “Your insolence shall be paid for in the lives of your people. For time everlasting our broods will fly through the blackened skies of this world and no pony shall ever be safe again. Their lives are little more to us as the ants beneath their hooves. This is the end of our Imperial Age, for now a new Dragon Age dawns. You shall be the first to offer the Dragon Age the blood it demands!”

Mezzerak and Palakesh joined their brother as Galonomei began to cast a great sigil on the ground where Nightmare Moon stood. A great black symbol of arcane potency twisted the very ley lines of magic in both the ground and the Fade itself. Magic distorted itself around Nightmare Moon, the very notion of which baffled Twilight. The other two dragons flew circles around their enemy, breathing great billows of ebon frost at Nightmare Moon, encasing her in a tomb of black ice.

“This world is mine, pony,” Galonomei snarled, “with Asha’Bellanar weakened, I take dominion over this world. I shall remake it as a world for dragons, with myself as the most powerful of our kind. We will be gods who hold this world in our talons. Ponies will be slaves or morsels, nothing more. I shall delight in breaking their spirits, just as I shall revel in your painful demise. Where is Celestia now to save you, Luna?”

Galonomei turned to Uthemiel who, despite her brothers’ successful attack, continued to reel back. “Brother,” she said, her voice shaking in terror. “Luna… she’s stealing your magic!”

“What?!” Galonomei turned to see his sigil shrinking with every passing second. Twilight felt Nightmare Moon’s already massive arcane power grow exponentially until the black ice glacier the twin blue dragons created to jail her began to crack. Not waiting for Nightmare Moon to be free, Galonomei opened his jaws, the crackle of electricity echoing throughout the battlefield.

The black ice burst open, revealing an even more powerful Nightmare Moon cackling like a madmare. As she took a single hoofstep forward, Galonomei unleashed his own breath attack in the form of a massive bolt of black lightning. Unlike Lianari’s shadowflame, the lightning struck Nightmare Moon square in the chest, knocking her backwards. Galonomei smiled with his reptilian lips at striking a blow on his foe.

However, only Nightmare Moon’s chest plate took the damage caused by the black lightning. The metal peeled away to reveal a blood red substance beneath. Twilight thought that perhaps Nightmare Moon took a wound, but the shine revealed it to be red metal. For reasons Twilight found difficult to describe, she found herself both drawn and repulsed by the red metal in equal measure.

Now it was Galonomei’s turn to recoil in horror. “It cannot be…” he rumbled, “You truly are mad!”

“And you are dead.” Nightmare Moon’s eyes began to glow a dark crimson while a small yet incredibly potent orb of magic formed on the tip of her large horn. With little more than a thought, the orb fired into a small, single beam, no bigger in width than Nightmare Moon’s horn. The beam struck Galonomei under his jaw, only to pierce out of the other side of his skull.

Galonomei fell soon after without a single word or roar, his body twitched only for a moment before it stilled. Nightmare Moon’s smile shifted as she stared into the sky where Palakesh and Mezzerak hovered.

“Five hundred years have I waited for this night,” Nightmare Moon said, her voice dripping with malice as venom does a snake’s fang. “Five hundred years since the end of the Discordant Age, when the mighty dragons betrayed the sun and the moon! Those who gave themselves to the Fade to stop its encroachment onto the world of ponies! And then those ponies we swore to protect worshipped you! False gods who claimed dominion over this world! No longer! There will never be a Dragon Age, for I will hunt your kind down to the last egg and crush them all beneath my hooves. The Imperial Age is over! The Age of Night begins now! The Night will last forever!”

Twilight knew that Palakesh and Mezzerak never stood a chance. Rage fueled Nightmare Moon as she took to the skies with her thousands of moonsteel weapons, all pointed at the twin dragon brothers. The pair roared in defiance and let loose another blizzard of impossibly cold black ice, yet all this seemed to do was incense Nightmare Moon further.

“I called out Celestia’s name into the Fade, but did my dear sister answer?!” Nightmare Moon cried out. “No! When your magisters corrupted Canterlot, did my sister return to defend her throne? No! When demons poured into the Fade, did my sister do anything to stop them? NO!”

“Only I had the will to do anything. Only I have the power to bring true order to this world, and only I have the right to begin this tapestry anew. And you, foul dragons, shall provide the paint with your blood!”

As she shouted, the thousands of blade flung themselves towards Mezzerak and Palakesh. The moonsteel blades tore through the dragons’ hides with frightening ease. They first tore apart their wings, causing them to lose altitude and crash to the ground. As they lay bleeding and hobbled, more blades spun around them before pinning the tail and legs to the ground.

The two blue dragons struggled against their impaling bonds, only to have the weapons sink into them deeper. Palakesh tried to turn his great head towards Uthemiel, who continued to slink away from the lopsided battle.

“Sister!” he cried out, “We need you! Please!”

Yet Uthemiel did not stand to fight or raise a talon to help her brothers. “I cannot,” she said a voice shaking with terror and filled with shame. “I cannot stop her! She slew Lianari and Galonomei! I… I must find Asha! She can… I’m sorry!”

Uthemiel turned around from her brothers and took flight, sailing through the air as quickly as her wings could carry her. Nightmare Moon laughed again as she brought her thousands of moonsteel weapons to bear against the Old Ones. Palakesh and Mezzerak continued to fight against their bonds, yet Twilight knew that escape was impossible.

Nightmare Moon watched as Uthemiel flew off, shaking her head while she composed herself. “How adorable. She thinks she can escape. Might as well put a stop to that. I’ll deal with her next.”

Both Nightmare Moon’s horn and the red metal chestplate began to glow in unison. With little more than a smirk, Nightmare Moon fired the same crimson pinpoint beam she used to slay Galonomei. The beam seared through the air until it collided with Uthemiel’s wing, ripping the appendage clean off and forcing the dragon to crash into the earth with a thunderous smash.

With that deed done, the Lady of the Night turned her turquoise gaze towards the defeated Palakesh and Mezzerak. “Now then…” Nightmare Moon mused on how to dispatch her fallen foes. “I know. I gave Lianari and Galonomei rather quick reprieve. For you two I have decided that will not be the case.”

The thousands of moonsteel blades moved all at once, stabbing into the twin blues with rapid strikes. Their edges tore into them like hot steel through butter, spilling rivers of blood into the very ground. Both dragons screamed and shouted draconic curses, but that only drove Nightmare Moon to stab them with greater brutality.

Twilight only watched in horror. This was supposed to be Luna, the bringer of the Chant of Sun and Moon that told ponies how to live a good life. This was supposed to be a goddess sent down to deliver ponies from the throes of the Imperium, not a butcher who took sickening delight of her killings. This was supposed to be a beacon of light in pitch black night sky, a symbol of guidance, yet all that stood before Twilight was a creature hell-bent on the destruction of her enemies and the establishment of her own empire.

She felt her very faith shatter before her eyes. Was this to be the burden Zecora told her she would bear? The truth about Luna? The truth about Celestia?

Palakesh and Mezzerak lay dead at last, with hundreds of blades jutting out of their torn and ruined flesh. Four proud dragons came to Luna with the intent to kill her and to protect their Imperium. Now four lay slain, their bodies already melting away leaving only bones while the fifth lay crippled and bleeding.

Nightmare looked to the still hundreds of weapons floating above her head. “Gwayffon Y Nos,” Nightmare Moon called out, “Come to me. We end this.”

A long, heavy spear floated to Nightmare Moon’s side. Twilight marveled at the weapon with its intricate designs, yet could not read the runes that lined the haft even with magically enhanced sight. As far as she knew, they did not exist in her time.

Nightmare Moon flared her wings and took to the skies with a great leap, flying with incredibly speeds that would put Rainbow Dash to shame. Twilight galloped on hoof to catch up, thankful that this monster who wore Luna’s skin delighted in playing with her fallen prey. Thankful, but not by much.

Uthemiel’s body started to glow with a pale red light, her form shrinking from that of a dragon to a unicorn. Twilight remembered this form vividly, as she encountered the spirit of the Archdemon in such a form in her dreams. Uncorrupted, Uthemiel could have been called beautiful. She was lithe and tall with a mane of rich blonde hair that draped over her body. Covering her left eye was a plate of brass bolted onto her face, a remnant of an injury that even a dragon could not heal.

She wore a suit of white armour with accompanying robes and gave off an image of purity that baffled Twilight. Uthemiel was just as much a tyrant as her siblings. She killed Spike. However, as Uthemiel desperately tried to escape Nightmare Moon, Twilight felt a pang of pity to her former enemy. She saw in the dragon’s good eye the same sight she beheld in ponies across her travel. She saw it in the faces of her friends. She saw it in herself.

Uthemiel was terrified and knew the hour of her death had come. The worst part was that she could do nothing to prevent it.

“Please… please!” Uthemiel cried as tears fell from her uncovered eye. “Mercy, Nightmare Moon, mercy! You have slain my siblings and you know I cannot stand against you! Please spare me your wrath! You’ve won! I’ll exile myself to the Frost Wastes! I’ll serve you! I’ll do anything! Anything!”

Nightmare Moon said nothing, only thrusting the tip of Gwayffon Y Nos until it was mere inches from Uthemiel’s throat. The dragon yelped and continued to cry though she did not once let her sight leave the point of the spear.

The spear moved quickly and Twilight forced herself to watch. Uthemiel screamed as the spear ripped the brass plate from face. Blood splattered against Nightmare Moon as Uthemiel’s ruined eye moved every which way, held on only by a few tendons. Twilight recalled the sight of the eye on Uthemiel’s Archdemon form. That memory seared itself into her mind.

“This was the work of Asha’Bellanar, was it not?” Nightmare Moon looked at the terrible wound with disgust while Uthemiel sobbed. “I can feel her very essence in the flesh. You angered her, did you not?”

Uthemiel did not answer Nightmare Moon, but cried, “Asha! Asha! Kor’kallon mar teelus! Asha’Bellanar!”

Nightmare Moon’s face twisted with fury. “That will be the last thing your foul tongue ever utters! This is justice for your betrayal!”

She thrust her spear into the twisted eye of Uthemiel, who merely gurgled and shook in convulsion. The Dragon of Mirth died quickly and collapsed at her hooves. Nightmare Moon’s magic pulled Gwayffon Y Nos out of the dead dragon while the remains of her army gathered around her.

A thunderous roar of cheers from Nightmare Moon’s soldiers shook the land. Uthemiel’s body rapidly decomposed in front of Twilight’s eyes as she tried to stomach the sight she beheld. As she walked away, she felt her body being pulled by unseen yet powerful magical forces. The Eluvian showed Twilight what she was meant to see. Twilight closed her eyes and allowed the magic to bring her anywhere, so long as it was far away from here.


When Twilight reopened her eyes, she found herself back in her quarters within Brightstone. Twilight rubbed her horn, her head pounding from the events long since passed and how exactly she would deal with this newfound knowledge. She looked to the Eluvian shards for answers, but they appeared little more than ordinary pieces of glass.

Twilight placed the two shards into her magically locked chest and looked around her quarters. She recalled that she called for some hot water for a bath and walked over to the wooden tub, expecting the water to have long cooled. However, the water still held some heat as she dipped her hoof in.

However, the rather sobering experience from the Eluvian shards drove Twilight away from her bath. She did not feel like relaxing or cleaning up. Instead, Twilight slipped a simple dress over her head as well as a heavy cloak and made her way to the parapets of Brightstone. She wanted time alone to think and to pray.

As she emerged from within the keep, however, Twilight looked up at the clear night sky with the fading moon hanging over head and recoiled at the sight. What once gave her comfort now filled her with disgust. Luna did not win the war against the Imperium through the Chant of Sun and Moon, through mercy and conviction, but with brutality that rivalled her draconic enemies.

What other lies did the Chantry cover up?

Twilight kept her head low as she mulled such a terrible revelation when she heard the sound of harp music in the distance. She followed her ears to find Lyra sitting along near the edge of one of the parapets with her staff floating by her side, her magic plucking the strings in tune with a sorrowful melody. Twilight appreciated such songs, but wished they didn’t choke her up as much as they did. Twilight wiped away her tears. She turned around as she did not want to disturb Lyra’s way of coping.

“Twilight.” Lyra’s voice stopped Twilight in mid-step. “You can stay, if you like. I wouldn’t mind the company.”

Twilight took a deep breath. While Lyra did not mind her presence, Twilight wondered if she could be around anypony right now. With the Dark Tunnels and the vision together, her mind felt frazzled and frayed. She just wanted some time in peace.

She sat on her legs next to Lyra, though her gaze drifted to the courtyard below. “May I just listen to your music?” Twilight asked. Wordlessly, Lyra nodded and continued to play. As the mournful song carried into the night, Twilight felt the cold night wind across her tear-streamed face. She closed her eyes and let herself drift into her thoughts of friends and faith now lost forever.

On the Road Again

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Chapter 10 - On the Road Again

Twilight walked down the corridors of Brightstone with two guards by her side as well as Silverstar. She descended into the depths of her keep’s dungeons. After a week of dealing with business concerning Amarethine, Twilight decided now was a good enough time as any to deal with her jail’s lone occupant: Berry Punch, the mare who tried to assassinate her.

She passed the sleeping bodies of several diamond dogs, who preferred to be as low to the ground as possible. They also liked the cold of the underground and she discovered that living underground made their eyes susceptible to the intense rays of the sun. Sparky learned this the hard way and needed days to recover her eyesight.

The two guards who waited for Twilight unlocked the doors for their arlessa. A foul stench erupted from the dungeon that told a story of spilt blood, burnt hair, and rotting flesh. Twilight recalled what a cruel pony Arl Rendon Main was, for when he took over as Arl of Trotterim, he remade the dungeons there to include torture rooms.

Twilight destroyed such items herself, and now they fueled the fires of braziers in and around Brightstone.

The smell of death still lingered in the dungeon and would remain for many a year after. Thankfully, Twilight did not plan on staying here long. She just needed enough time to talk to Berry.

She walked up to the bars where the proud mare lingered. “Berry Punch,” Twilight said clearly and with authority, “I am here to take your case. I will hear your defense as we are now. My seneschal Silverstar will act as witness and record the proceedings.”

Silverstar stood ready with several sheets of paper and a solid pen in his mouth. He dipped the pen into an inkwell and nodded to Twilight that he stood ready. While she would have preferred her writing, it went against Equestrian protocol to record one’s own hearings.

Berry Punch, dressed in little more than prisoner’s rags, stood up and locked eyes with Twilight. Her posture gave Twilight an inkling that Berry did not much care for the new arlessa or her impending punishment.

“A trial? How noble of you,” Berry punch said with a sneer. “Most lords would string me up or take my head after a few months starving in the dungeon. Please, oh Arlessa of Amarethine, do indulge me my trial. I’m sure it won’t end any different.”

Twilight sighed, lifted up a sheet of parchment with her aura, and began to read aloud: “Berry Punch, daughter of Rendon Maim, former Arl of Amarethine and Trotterim. You are accused of attempted murder of an arl and destabilizing the region, both high crimes under The Queen’s Law. The penalty is thus Arlessa Twilight Sparkle’s to choose, with the recommended action being execution.”

Berry slammed her hooves into the iron bars. “I’d like to see you try! I don’t need weapons to kill you, murderer!”

Twilight felt another headache coming. “Strike that from the record, Silverstar,” she said, “Berry is just being emotional. If you would like to speak in your defense, calmly, do so now before I dispense punishment.”

Berry laughed. “Oh this is rich. You think I’m going to beg for my life? Kiss your hoof greaves? Forget it. I’d rather drink sewer water. You killed my father, and I came back for vengeance. I botched it and got thrown in here. So just get it over with. You stole my title, my money and my land. Might as well steal this pretty head from its neck while you’re at it.”

To accentuate her point, Berry stretched out her neck as if to appeal to Twilight’s sword. Instead, Twilight cleared her throat and continued to read her dissertation.

“The evidence against Berry Punch is conclusive as there were several witnesses that can attest to her actions. The defendant also openly admitted her guilt. As such on this Monday, nine thirty-one Dragon Age, punishment will be delivered. Berry Punch, for your actions against the ruling and rightful Arlessa of Amarethine, therefore considered, you are hereby stripped of all right to land, moneys and titles as would be your right as the daughter of the former arl. However, as is also my right as Arlessa of Amarethine, I hereby give you leniency on further punishments. You will not face the gallows, but instead have your belongings returned to you and then escorted out of Amarethine in a direction of your choosing. You are hereby exiled from Amarethine indefinitely upon pain of death should you return. You will also pay a fine of three-hundred sovereigns for the damaged caused to the Arlessa’s private quarters.”

Berry Punch stood slack jawed as Twilight rolled up her parchment and placed it with the rest of Silverstar’s notes for proper cataloguing. Silverstar looked up at his Arlessa with no less surprise than the prisoner.

“I understand why you are angry with me,” Twilight said, “and I know this is going to sound hollow to you, but I mean every word. I did not want to kill Maim. I did not want to fight him at all, but he forced my hoof. I made a decision and now, seeing you and your anger, I know I chose wrong. That is why I won’t let anyone execute you, but I also cannot allow you to stay in Amarethine. Your very presence is a liability to the stability of the region.”

Berry Punch still looked confused as the guards opened her cell door. “I don’t understand,” she said, “I’m your enemy. I tried to kill you. I could try again. You can’t honestly make me believe that you are letting me live because you feel guilty?”

Twilight turned her back on Berry. “I cannot make you believe anything, but what I say is the truth. Know that I don’t want any more pony blood on my conscience, directly or by ordering an execution. Your things will be brought to you shortly, save for three hundred sovereign to cover your fine. You’ll depart in an hour. Go in peace.”

Silverstar took that as the end of the short hearing. They ascended the stairs in shared silence as Twilight let her thoughts swirl about her. Some would call her mad to show mercy to a mare who made an attempt on her life. Twilight did not fathom that mercy could ever be seen as a weakness. She would extend a hoof in peace to any who stood against her, though if slapped away, she would easily show the transgressor the error of their ways.

Yet showing a pony mercy proved easy. Trying to offer the olive branch to the ponyspawn continued to evade her. They displayed speech, thought, and the capacity to establish leadership, yet they still gave into their primal, savage nature. They did not respond to her pleas for peace, only seeking her violent death at their hooves, claws, and fangs.

Maybe Lyra is right, Twilight wondered, maybe peace with the ponyspawn is impossible.

They entered the main hall of Brightstone where Twilight’s seat waited for her. She sat in the arl’s throne and waited for the first order of business to arrive now that her dealings with Berry Punch were concluded. Levitating a checklist she made the previous night, Twilight looked over the several matters of business she arranged to deal with before the day was done.

“Seneschal Silverstar, open the doors and let the petitioners in.” Twilight sat on her haunches as the guards opened the large oak doors and several ponies, including Bannora Harshwhinny taking the fore, stepped into Brightstone’s main hall. However, Twilight only felt the drain from the mission to the Dark Tunnels. Her body still ached from the battles as every joint and muscle strained with even the smallest movement. Sleep did not come easily as well, as Twilight continued to dwell on the loss of Daisy.

“Bannora Harshwhinny and her husband have arrived wishin’ to petition the arlin’ for funds.” Silverstar looked up at Twilight as she levitated a quill and parchment. She could take her own notes at these hearings at least.

Harshwhinny bowed low to her arlessa. “Word of your adventure into the Dark Tunnels has already reached the far reaches of your territory, my Lady. You are to be commended on a great victory over the ponyspawn.”

“It was no adventure and the victory, while substantial for the region, is hollow to me.” Twilight did not have the time or the patience for such flattery and made it clear on her face. “Explain your needs quickly, bannora, as I have many petitioners who require my attention.”

“I understand, my Lady.” Harshwhinny’s husband whispered something into her ear. She glared at him for a moment, but the stoic earth pony did not flinch at his wife’s baleful gaze. “Perhaps we should discuss such matters another time. I’d like to invite you to my holdings in the Bannorn, Arlessa Sparkle. We could have a much more intimate and understanding discussion.”

Twilight nodded and offered Harshwhinny a smile. “I have reason to visit all of the banns in Amarethine, and will do so at my earliest chance. Thank you for your patience.”

Harshwhinny bowed again and turned to leave the main hall. As she and her husband left, Sparky walked in with her hood shrouding her face; a measure to defend her sensitive eyes from the rays of the sun. As the two passed each other, Sparky’s lips pulled back revealing her large canines and she snarled at the bann and her husband. She reached for her daggers, which only alarmed the other petitioners and the guards further.

Twilight galloped over to Sparky and stood between her and Harshwhinny. “Sparky, calm down!” Twilight said, “this is no way to behave in the keep! What’s bothering you?”

“They… smell… bad…” Sparky continued to snarl at Harshwhinny and would not relinquish her daggers. The bannora huffed herself up and stuck her snout in the air.

“Disgraceful,” she said indignantly, “I know you have a penchant for mercy, my Lady, but these brutes you brought back from the Dark Tunnels need to learn proper Equestrian etiquette and quickly. If you do come to visit, you can leave your mutt behind!”

Once they finally left and the doors finally closed, Sparky began to calm. “Me sorry,” she said, sliding her daggers back into their sheaths. “But me wanted talk to Tilight. Pack is hungry.”

Twilight looked to the long line of petitioners and then back to Sparky. She needed to get through her line as quickly as possible and many ponies now appeared agitated by the disruption, but she also knew the importance of keeping the diamond dogs fed.

“Can you stand in the lineup with the other ponies?” she asked Sparky with as much gentleness as she could. “We have a system here… a way of doing things so everypony… everyone has a fair share. You came last, so you’ll have to wait until it is your turn, or until I’m done.”

Sparky thought about this for a moment before nodding. “Me wait behind pony,” she said, “me no make trouble. Me shadowhound. Me patient.”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief as Sparky to her place last in line. Once she sat back on her throne, she dealt with all the other problems on her agenda. Most were minor grievances such as land and trade disputes, while others were reports of the new recruits that arrived to join Amarethine’s standing army. As far as she was aware, she dealt with each issue fairly and expediently. With each petition dealt with, she saw Silverstar nod in approval when she passed her judgments, which only increased her confidence in administration.

Near the end, Twilight saw one of her soldiers approach the throne. “My Lady,” he said as he bowed, “I bring news that the caravan to Amarethine City is loaded and ready to depart once you are your contingent is prepared. We leave at your earliest convenience.

Twilight nodded to the soldier and recalled how she said she would sell off the majority of Arl Maim’s luxuries as a way to fill the arling’s coffers. While most of the treasures held no meaning to Twilight, she did loathe giving up some of the books in the former arl’s extensive library. She wanted to read all of them, but admitted that some of the books simply tickled her fancy rather than provide any practical knowledge. Others were written in other languages that Twilight did not recognize let alone understand. Perhaps she could find scholars eager to delve into the tomes as she would be if not for her responsibilities as both arlessa and Commander of the Grey.

She also looked forward to going to Amarethine. While Twilight did find it a bit odd that the port city was not the seat of the arling’s power, she did anticipate visiting such a city with great enthusiasm. Ports acted as vital elements to a nation’s economy and culture, and no port was as important as Amarethine City. Ships from Pura Raza to the Free Plains sailed in every day, bringing ponies and goods from other regions of the world to Equestria. If she could sell the various treasures and baubles collected by Rendon Maim anywhere, it would be in Amarethine City.

“Thank you,” Twilight said to the soldier, “please inform our escort to be ready by noon, and also make sure Wardens Oghren and Lyra are ready to go as well.”

The soldier saluted and left his spot in the petition line, leaving only a pegasus and Sparky. The pegasus bowed low to Twilight and revealed a letter bearing Applejack’s royal seal. “Word of your delving into the Dark Tunnels has reached Trotterim, my Lady,” she said, “and Her Majesty sent me with this letter as soon as she heard of your return.”

A letter from Applejack? She must be worried about me. Twilight thanked the royal messenger and told her to wait for a response. Her magic opened the letter and levitated it in front of her eyes.

Dear Twilight,

I heard you came back from the Dark Tunnels and that you suffered a loss inside. I wish I was there fighting with you again. Maybe I could have prevented Daisy’s death. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you now, as life in Trotterim just keeps getting more and more hectic. They want me to marry and start popping out foals. I’d rather be neck deep in ponyspawn guts with my friends. Please let me know if you need reinforcements. I’ll send as many soldiers as I can, and lead them myself.

Daisy was a good sort. Equestria is all the lesser with her gone.

Always with you,


Twilight gave the note a faint smile as she read it over and over again. Applejack’s crown did not stop her from being the true friend Twilight recognized her as. Interestingly, Applejack left a postscript at the bottom in a fainter ink.

P.S. Rarity is here and is wondering if she can visit you before she returns to Filais. Please send a reply if you would like a white dove.

Twilight would like to see Rarity again, though it would have to be after her trip to Amarethine and the surrounding banns. She was about to put away the letter and take up pen and parchment herself when she noticed an even fainter post-postscript written on the letter’s edge.

Fluttershy is missing.

Twilight dropped her quill and held the letter tighter in her magical grip. Her heart started to race and she rubbed a hoof against her Bracer of Nakuum hoping she could feel the presence of Fluttershy from the paragon’s gift. She felt nothing, only a new fear taking a strong hold on her heart. Twilight knew that when her friends left for their own corners of the world, they would have to face the dangers of such on their own. To know that sweet, kind Fluttershy simply ‘disappeared’ disconcerted Twilight something fierce.

A decision needed to be made and a reply to her friend the Queen needed to be written. Twilight took her quill again and began to write:

Dear Applejack,

We are still reeling from Daisy’s death. She was a promising Grey Warden cut down before her time. I pray to the Sisters that her spirit finds eternal rest.

Please tell Rarity that while I would love the white dove to come to Brightstone, I am going to Amarethine City and the surrounding Bannorn for a couple of weeks. I will send a letter when it is safe for the dove to arrive.

Please leave any information regarding our last shared matter in the next message.

Your Friend Always,

Twilight Sparkle

Twilight sealed the letter with wax and her signet before giving it to the messenger. She also deposited a small bag of gold into her messenger’s bag. “Bring this letter to Her Majesty as quickly as your wings can carry you,” Twilight instructed, “that letter is for her eyes only. Fly swiftly.”

The messenger bowed as the letter slipped into her bag. She took off with a quick flap of her wings into the air and out of Brightstone. Twilight hoped the messenger would return to Trotterim safely and without harm. Now that only left Sparky and her diamond dog pack.

“Alright, Sparky,” Twilight began, “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”

Sparky shifted on her paws. “Pack no has food,” she explained, “pony food no good for pack. Us need meat. Used to eat korroo’sha, but no korroo’sha on surface. Sometimes.”

Twilight balked and almost retched from the idea of anypony choosing to eat ponyspawn. “You ate them? Aren’t you worried about their poisonous blood?”

Sparky tilted her head in a confused manner. “Poison? Korroo’sha taste bad, but no poison. We eat because meat hard to find. Terrasprites tasty, but they eat back. Mushroom not enough. Need tasty meat. Sometimes catch fish or nug, but is hard with korro’sha. Big horn feed pack for long time, but hunters die when hunting. Shadowhound sometime hunt, but we defend pack and kill korror’sha far from pack.”

Twilight tapped her chin as she tried to think of a way to help Sparky and her people. She only heard rumours that some ponies ate meat, namely in the Imperium, Pura Raza, some Dalish clans, and certain Mustang tribes in the southern lands, but was deemed as barbarism by the Filesian Empire. Equestria, for the vast majority of her people, did not engage the in act of raising or hunting animals as food.

That would need to change in the case of the diamond dogs. Twilight did not like the idea of hurting wild animals, but the diamond dogs needed meat and meat they would get.

“I’ll send some soldiers out into the wilds to hunt for game,” she told Sparky, “there should be plenty of deer and boars in the forests near Brightstone. It will take time, so I’ll have to ask for the pack’s patience. Can you make sure they know food is on the way?”

Sparky’s pointy ears perked up at Twilight’s promise for meat. Her tail wagged behind her as she leapt up and hugged Twilight. “Pack get tasty, good food! Me tell pack right away to wait for pony hunters. Me thank you!”

Twilight smiled and hugged Sparky back. Soon the shadowhound bounded out of the main hall while Silverstar announced that the arling’s court was to be adjourned until the next session upon Twilight’s return. Her business concluded, she allowed her seneschal to carry out her orders as she returned to her quarters to prepare for the coming journey.

She readied herself first by slipping out of her clothes and into her Arcane Warrior’s armour. While she loathed wearing the magically reinforced steel, with the Free Blight still a threat, the protection was a necessity. When the breastplate clicked into place, she almost thought the shining armour constrained against her very larynx. After a deep breath,the feeling dissipated, though it did not leave her.

The pendant Rarity gave her gave Twilight more comfort than any steel ever could. She slipped it around her neck and under the breastplate. She then picked up her sword and belt and tied it around her stomach. Once equipped, she looked at her reflection in the tall mirror. Twilight regarded Sophia with some trepidation; the last flesh it tasted was her own and in the far reaches of her mind, Twilight wanted to use that same power again.

It would be so much easier if she used blood magic. The power it provided could eliminate the ponyspawn problem quickly and with ease. All she had to do was prick her foreleg and let a little blood flow. It would save so many lives if Twilight just gave in to the rush—

Twilight recoiled from the mirror as if she was in the Eluvian’s realm all over again. Her breath came in ragged gasps as she tried to calm down, but to no avail. The taste of blood magic and the power it brought tainted her, she knew it. She needed to do something to clear her mind. Sit in the Chantry and pray, stuff her face with apple pie, drink herself to a stupor on cider, anything to clear or muddle her mind from thinking about that accursed practice.

A knock on her door nearly scared Twilight out of her skin as she gave a sharp yelp. She stared at the door as if it was to open and reveal an Archdemon, yet somehow managed a shaky “Who is it?”

“It’s Lyra,” came the reply, “I felt a magical spike in here, and was wondering if you were OK.”

Twilight could not believe how distracted she was getting. Magical spikes were things unicorn foals could not control. She was Twilight Sparkle, Commander of the Grey and Arlessa of Amarethine, and she could not even keep her own magic regulated.

“I’m alright,” she lied, “just… something frightened me, is all.”

“Blood magic?” Lyra’s reply made Twilight blood run cold. Defeated, she opened the door and allowed her fellow unicorn Warden into her chambers.

Lyra looked to have a much more composed demeanor than Twilight, though she appeared to be a much different mare than the one Twilight met during Brightstone’s siege. Lyra’s mane was slicked back and she wore a diadem around her forehead right under her horn. She wore a ash grey robe with exposed bits around her shoulders, giving her an elegant, if mournful appearance.

“It’s been a while,” Lyra said as she walked into Twilight’s quarters, “sorry I secluded myself for a while. I needed time to think after the Dark Tunnels. It’s never easy losing someone you call a friend.”

Twilight swallowed back a sob and kept her composure as she packed away some more things for the journey. “Have you… have you lost friends before, then?”

“Mhmm.” Lyra looked out from Twilights still-damaged window to the countryside below. “I may hate the Imperium as a whole, but the ponies I fought with, my fellow battlemages… well some of them, I considered them brothers and sisters. Sure we got really close, like, really really hot and heavy close, but they were ponies I trusted with my life.”

“I didn’t come here to talk about me, though it is a favourite subject of mine.” Lyra smiled at Twilight, yet after the image in the mirror, Twilight did not respond in kind. Lyra sighed. “You have to get over the fact you used blood magic, Twilight. Lots of unicorns use it every day, sometimes right under the Chantry’s nose and more often to escape the templars’ blades. I know the Tower probably taught you different, but it’s just like you shooting your purple beams or me breathing fire. It’s a weapon to be used and respected, nothing more.”

“That is where you are wrong!” Twilight cried out, “I felt the power of blood magic and I liked it. I liked hurting Iron Will and watching him suffer. I look at my sword or any other edge and I feel this pull in the back of my mind to use it again and it scares me!”

Lyra looked nonplussed by Twilight’s tirade. Instead she chuckled, which only irritated Twilight further. “Congratulations, O Hero of Equestria. Turns out you are just a regular pony like the rest of us. If you were not tempted by power, you’d be too perfect to be real. If you weren’t scared of your power, you’d be no better than the Imperium magisters.”

“Have you ever used blood magic, Lyra?”

Lyra nodded. “A few times, but only in desperate situations. It’s hard to use blood magic in the heat of battle, at least controlling it. It doesn’t care whose blood is used for the casting; yours, your enemies… your friends. But I avoid using it because I know and understand the same pull blood magic can have on your psyche. So long as I keep myself grounded with my goals, both short-term and long-term, I can resist the temptation of power.”

“Wouldn’t blood magic help with those goals?” Twilight asked. Lyra shook her head.

“They would cause more harm than good. Long-term, I’d like to see unicorns free from domination of the Chantry and their Towers. If I used blood magic, I’d just be worsening the situation. Wouldn’t that just be great, though? No more being restricted in where we can go, what we can do, who we can be with. Unicorns being just as free as any other earth pony or pegasus, able to use our special talents without fear of a templar’s blade. Free to be who we are without fear of anypony.”

Twilight was not sure if she could agree with Lyra. The Towers served a purpose in training unicorns to use the magic of the Fade safely and until Twilight could properly teach unicorns to use the magic within, it was the only magic they could use. As this was the case, it also meant unicorns needed to defend themselves from demons constantly. The Towers protected unicorns and the outside world alike from the dangers of the Fade.

Twilight did see Lyra’s point about the Templar Order, though. Even she fell afoul of a few overzealous templars who gave her disparaging stares. Once a crasser templar threatened her unless she gave in to her more physical demands, though thankfully the Tower in Lake Blackwater had two very disciplined ponies leading it: First Enchanter Wise Eyes and Knight Captain Hornshield.

However, Twilight knew she was one of the lucky unicorns to have a relatively stable Tower. She knew very little about Towers outside of Equestria and could only assume that some were as bad as Lyra expected. Perhaps worse.

“What about your short-term goals?” Twilight said as she packed away a few light tomes to read while on the journey to Amarethine.

Lyra giggled and got a look in her eyes that Twilight knew all too well. “Short term is to find all the ponies I really like, snuggle up close to them, and show them the best kind of magic they would ever have experienced. Rawr.”

Twilight was about to protest when Lyra leapt onto her bed, posed “seductively” and bounced her eyebrows in a rather suggestive manner. Twilight did groan but in frustration, her horn lighting up and pulling Lyra off her bed with a powerful yank of her blanket.

“Come on, Twilight,” Lyra begged as she giggled. “You are way, way, way too strung up these days. You need to let loose. Have a little fun. We can have a quick romp right here, right now and no one will know. There won’t be any scandals, as I am the picture of subtlety.”

“You sure are showing it now.” Twilight shook her head as she latched her saddlebags against her armour. “Why are you so focused on sex anyways? What’s the big deal?”

“What’s the…” Lyra balked, apparently unable to even comprehend the question. “You can’t be… I mean… the way you look, the way you talk, the way you simply are… are you honestly telling me that the Hero of Equestria, the Commander of the Grey… is a virgin?!”

Twilight’s frustrations began to mount as she opened her door with her supplies now ready. “So what if I am? It’s not like I’ve exactly had the time to date a pony, fall in love with them, and finally… do the… deed.”

Lyra clicked her tongue. “Oh, honey, love only has a little to do with it. Sometimes you need to just give yourself a little ‘me’ time.”

“I do have ‘me’ time. It’s when I’m in bed with a good book.”

Lyra pressed her hoof against her face. “Yeah, and I’m pretty sure that good book isn’t ‘The Lusty Dalish Maid.’ Everypony has needs, Twilight. Physical needs. You have to at least do it once before you die, and considering the near constant lethal danger we put ourselves in, that could happen any day. We’re going to Amarethine which means it’s a port city, and port cities have sailors and sailors only want two things; copious amounts of booze and some decent pony flank to get behind. That means Amarethine has brothels, so when we get there, you and me are going to a brothel to get you some.”

Twilight could not begin to believe she was having this conversation and with a known lech like Lyra. She expected this kind of behavior from Oghren, but then he seemed to have settled down over the years, save he still let loose his berserker tendencies in battle and made a crude joke or two. Shaking her head, Twilight left her quarters with Lyra following her.

“I don’t want ‘some’ of anything, Lyra,” Twilight fired back. “I don’t want to get intimate with anypony. All I want is to keep Amarethine safe and have some time to write my book on a unicorn’s inner magic, but between the ponyspawn and running the arling, I’m lucky if I have enough time to write a single sentence!”

“That’s why this is a good idea.” Lyra stood in front of Twilight and prevented her passing through the halls. “Listen, I’ll be there for you and everything will be safe and fun. Maybe not in that order, but we’ll see. You’ll have complete control of everything. Who you see, what you want to do, and it will be your rules. You have all this pent up frustration and energy that a simple spell or a night with a fuzzy horseshoe will fix.”

Twilight raised a brow. “What do you mean by a fuzzy horseshoe?”

If finding out Twilight was a virgin made shocked Lyra, she now went completely white. “Sweet Celestia’s flank, now I know you are joking. You have to be joking. This isn’t funny, Twilight, because if you are not pulling my leg, then…”

Twilight continued to stare incredulously at her fellow Warden, choosing not to say a word. Lyra sat on her haunches and pressed her face into her hooves and let loose a mighty groan.

“I don’t believe it!” she shouted, “You are telling me that not once you… you know… worked the fields? Plow the garden? Pet the kitty?”

“This is innuendo, isn’t it?”

Lyra smiled. “She’s learning.”

Twilight gave a sigh of disgust. “No, I haven’t. Like I said, it’s not like I have the time for that, and besides, it’s just… weird. To talk about. Let alone actually do it. Besides, this discussion is over and I don’t want to have it again. I will pull rank if I have to Lyra.”

Lyra tittered as she and Twilight walked out of Brightstone Keep towards the waiting convoy. “Alright, alright, commander. But mark my words, you are going to let loose one of these days with some hot stud or sexy mare, and when that day comes you are going to shower me with gratitude. Or if I’m the lucky one, you’ll just be showering with me.”

“You are impossible!” Twilight walked off at a quicker pace and hoped that her straight out refusal of any of Lyra’s night time activities would be the end of that particular conversation. She did not feel the need for companionship of any sorts beyond that of friendship and that was the end of it. Why Lyra pushed so hard escaped Twilight’s thought processes.


Some time passed as Twilight oversaw the preparations for her journey to Amarethine City as the soldiers readied themselves and the various carts filled with goods for the long road. Twilight spent a good while looking over a map to find the best and safest route to their destination. They would travel the King’s Road northward where the most they would have to encounter would be bandits and with their numbers as well as Twilight’s reputation, only the most foolish would challenge them to battle. However, this road was long and winding, giving the large group a fortnight to traverse Equestria.

Another road would shorten that travelling time by half, but it would take them through the Blackmarsh, a place most ponies whispered about in hushed tones. Twilight asked her soldiers what the trouble was with Blackmarsh and the tale they told did nothing to ease her own tension.

Twenty-one years ago, the land known as the Blackmarsh used to be a small, yet prosperous mining village of lyrium. After Filais was expelled from Equestria, the town grew rich and fat from the bounty of the land. Several unicorns called the village home and studied magic within the borders. During the reconstruction of Equestria, the village acted as a model for the harmonious coexistence of unicorns and earth ponies.

That was, until the accident. A massive explosion rocked Amarethine from the city all the way to the shared border of Trotterim. Some say the entirety of the lyrium mine exploded at once, for it is known that lyrium was massively unstable. Some whispered however that foul magic was being practiced too close to the lyrium mine that devastated the countryside.

The very land shifted from the magical flux created by the explosion. What used to be rocky plains turned into a dreadful swamp, filled with all manners of beasts, insects, and monsters. Terrible diseases plagued those that ventured into newly named Blackmarsh. While some braved the muck and bogs, very few emerged from the other side.

Twilight regarded the map. Her curiosity over a magical catastrophe was piqued, but she would have to investigate at a later time. She needed to protect her soldiers and those Wardens under her command. If she could avoid unneeded risks, she would do so.

She checked the carts to make sure everything was in order with her third checklist, pleased with the speed and efficiency of her soldiers. Twilight stopped when she reached the cart she would pull and took a deep breath. Daisy’s body lay inside the cart, shrouded by silk and ready to be taken to her final resting place. Twilight learned from Daisy’s last will that she wanted her body burned and her ashes scattered on the farmland she and her sisters grew up on. The farm, thankfully, was on the way to Amarethine, so long as they took the King’s Road.

Twilight wanted to pull the cart, despite mild protests that the arlessa should not do such menial labour. She brooked no arguments, however, and the display seemed to heighten the morale of her soldiers. They looked to her with eyes filled with respect and admiration rather than the fear and trepidation they held when she first arrived in Brightstone.

“By your side, my Lady,” the soldiers said as they stood prim, proper, and ready to move on her order. Twilight nodded to them to prepare for the journey as she hitched herself up to the cart with her fallen Warden Sister.

Oghren and Lyra flanked her when Sparky ran out of the shadows. She covered her eyes as best she could with her hood and much to Twilight’s surprise, did not fall over. The shadowhound did seem to be in some pain from the bright rays of the sun, however, she constantly covered her eyes with her paws while trying to look up at Twilight.

“Me come too,” she said, “me am pack leader’s shadow. Go where you go. Watch back from the shadows. Sun hurts though. Don’t know how to stop hurt.”

“Ponies do a lot of travelling, working… everything during the day when the sun is up, Sparky,” Twilight explained, “I appreciate and welcome your company, if you are sure you can make the journey. I think I know a way to help you, too.”

Twilight ripped a piece of cloth from the back of one of the carts and tied it around Sparky’s eyes. The blindfold worked well enough, as Sparky did not twitch under the sun. It did increase the amount of air she sniffed and the twitchiness of her ears.

“The Dark Tunnels are, well, dark, and not conducive to produce proper eyesight except for donkeys who have ample sources of light. That said, it appears both donkeys and diamond dogs evolved to have powerful hearing with long ears and, in the case of diamond dogs, very potent olfactory senses to maneuver through the dark regions to avoid prey and forage for food.”

Twilight felt Sparky’s blank stare from behind the blindfold, which only increased the uneasy feeling thanks to the blank stare from both Oghren, Lyra, and a good number of her soldiers. She sighed. “It’s dark underground so donkeys and diamond dogs developed better noses and ears.”

The group nodded in faux understanding while Twilight shook her head. Sometimes she wished she could carry a proper conversation with someone that didn’t involve broken common, donkey brawls, and lewd comments about her rump.

“Alright, everypony,” Twilight called out, “Let’s move out! Silverstar, I leave Brightstone in your hooves.”

The ponies of Brightstone watched as their arlessa took the lead of the caravan, many of them wishing her a good journey and praying for the Sisters to protect her. Twilight smiled and waved at the ponies who came to respect and trust her. She would not let them down.


They walked for what Twilight gathered from the position of the sun as five hours, the dusk settling in over the horizon. The journey proved uninteresting for the majority, though Twilight did find it odd they did not pass any other fellow travelers of the King’s Road. No sign of farmers or merchants walked the road, but thankfully she did not find any disturbances caused by the ponyspawn.

Lyra and Sparky took the time to talk to one another and, much to Twilight’s annoyance, Lyra focused on how diamond dogs “mated.”

“Sparky mate, but no pups,” the shadowhound answered the curious Lyra, “is…hard to put to word?”

Twilight was about to object very loudly when Sparky did begin to say something of interest. “Sparky runt, so runt no good for making pups. Runt good for shadowhound, so Sparky take the dark as hers. Alpha say who get mate and make pups though. Need strong dogs, tough dogs. Not many dogs left.”

“That’s so sad,” Lyra added. “What about mating for love and pleasure?”

“Love? Love nice, but no put food in belly.” Sparky’s ears drooped. “Diamond dogs not strong enough anymore. Too many wars. Too much digging into Deepest Depths. Too much want. Donkey not end of diamond dogs. Korro’sha carry blame.”

It made a sick degree of sense to Twilight as she silently listened that the diamond dogs would control the breeding within their broken packs to the degree that Sparky reported. When an entire races numbers dwindled as much as they did, the alphas likely decided that they needed to make sure only the healthiest and strongest of their kind continued to breed. That said, she was glad they did not kill off the runts as liabilities, but instead found a way to make them contributing members of diamond dog society.

Granted, that way involved making them the equivalent of assassins, but again Twilight understood. The underworld of the Dark Tunnels needed the denizens to be strong. “Survival of the fittest,” Twilight quietly mused to herself. The ponyspawn appeared to run on the same principle.

“OK, that’s why you do it,” Lyra continued, “but what about the how? How does it feel?”

Twilight gave a noise of disgust as she urged herself to take the lead. Oghren stood by her side, only with a big cheesy grin on his face that his thick red beard braids could not hide. Twilight looked at her old friend who only continued to chuckle.

“Lyra’s been getting you riled up, huh?” he said.

“She’s been getting more and more annoying,” Twilight replied, “all she ever seems to think or talk about is sex, sex, sex!”

Oghren thought for a moment. “Maybe that’s how she copes with loss?”

Twilight had not concerned that. Everypony handled grief differently, and Lyra was no exception.

“Think about it,” Oghren said, “she’s going on and on about rutting non-stop a couple days after we got out of the blighting Tunnels. Hell, I bet she even had a go with some ponies during our off time. But I also remember you two being able to have a conversation with only a few jokes from harpflank. I’m just saying it was like me and drinking back in the day when I thought Branka died in the tunnels. She wants to distract herself from Daisy’s death, to not think about it, and few things distract anyone better than a good roll in the hay. Even a mediocre roll will do, I think. Check me out, boss, I used a big word.”

Twilight did not make note of Oghren’s growing vocabulary but instead focused on Lyra once again. She had to admit that Oghren made sense in a way Twilight did not anticipate. Her companions continued to surprise her.

“Maybe you are right,” Twilight said, “maybe I shouldn’t push her away and just let her talk. Get everything out in the open.”

“Oh, she still wants to rut you,” Oghren quickly added, “I’m just saying she’s being a bit more aggressive than usual and she may be doing it for her own healing. Gotta say, I kinda like this more impulsive side of her. Maybe if I turn on the ol’ Oghren charm…”

Twilight glared daggers at Oghren, considering he only recently sent a letter to his second wife and only child to now considering a brief fling with a unicorn in mourning grief. Oghren backed down, thankfully, which allowed Twilight to focus more on the road ahead.

While dusk came to its zenith, a herd of storm clouds gathered overhead. Twilight called for a halt to her convoy and for them to make camp on the side of the road. Soon dozen of tents hitched to the ground stood tall and resilient against the powerful winds, and the first drops of rain signaled the coming downpour.

Twilight took refuge in her own tent as the pitter-patter of raindrops provided the ambiance to her reading. Laying under the covers of her cot, Twilight levitated the book Rainbow Dash sent to her and began to finally dig into the font of knowledge that lay before her.

Her ears twitched for anything out of the ordinary and Twilight constantly felt that she walked the razor’s edge between caution and paranoia. She focused on her senses and heard only the heartbeat she shared with Oghren and Lyra.

“Everything’s fine,” Twilight whispered to herself, “we’re fine. I’m fine.”

Then why did it sound like a lie?


The Architect walked down the cavern with a heart filled with both worry and disgust. He abhorred coming down to these reaches of the Dark Tunnels, but knew he held little choice in the matter. The ruler of this particular region of the Deepest Depths called for an audience with him and he would answer as he always did.

He jumped down to behold the massive underground lair his caller made her home. The mucus on the walls shone from the light of stone braziers, but the large fires did nothing to warm the Architect’s skin. Goosebumps crawled beneath his ruined fur, yet he did not give way to his own fears as he made his approach.

Nothing moved to greet him. In fact, nothing moved at all. Yet the Architect could hear the constant buzzing of thousands of insect wings, and every moment he remained in the cavern he could feel his sanity slip even further.

He would show neither fear nor weakness, however. To do so would put all of his carefully laid plans into the jeopardy and he would become a slave of the foul creature.

In the center of the cavern stood a bulging mass of black flesh surrounded by green veins; the source of the call that drove the Architect here. He approached the fleshy monument of a Blight long past and bowed his head to it.

“Great Mother,” he said in a reverent tone, yet not without a hint of disdain. “You summoned me?”

The fleshy mass began to tremble, though the Architect did not flinch from the foul display before him. The mound began to bleed the familiar black blood of the ponyspawn, as well as pouring putrid pus and other unidentifiable yet no less repulsive liquids. The stench from the various fluids would make any lesser pony or ponyspawn retch.

Good thing the Architect was no lesser being.

The folds of the postulant boil that acted as a throne began to peel away, each with a sticky squelch as flesh and blood tore themselves apart. The Architect remained silent as the layers of black skin peeled away until the one who summoned him finally appeared.

The Architect met no fouler a creature as the one that walked before him. In the shape of a tall pony, she bore a regal yet still savage presence on her long limbs, each leg filled with holes that made the entire body part look useless. He knew better though; he saw those legs crush a minotaur’s skull into a fine paste.

Wispy, pale turquoise tendrils of some kind of fleshy substance made up her mane and tail, the closest thing to hair the Architect could assume such a creature could have. Insectoid chitin lined her abdomen providing some protection while from her back sprouted a set of translucent wings. Like her legs, the wings had holes, and yet they still provided her with swift flight.

Atop her head sat a horn, but unlike a unicorn’s symmetrical and coiled one, or an ornlock that sat curved and filled with savage magic, the summoner’s horn was a jagged piece of bone filled with an intense yet subtle magic. A green aura surrounded the horn as she closed her fleshy chamber. The Architect knew that while carrying no formal training like any other ornlock, she could use her own twisted sorcery to savage effect.

The part that perturbed the Architect to no end were her eyes. Bright yet filled with malice, green with tainted magic, and reptilian with a fierce hunger, she stared at the Architect as if he were just another morsel to her. He almost swore that her gaze alone pierced through his mask, yet he himself could not pull away from her stare.

There was a surreal beauty about the creature. He damned himself for ever thinking it, yet could not stop.

“Great Mother, Queen Chrysalis,” he said, using both the title given to her by the ponyspawn and her own chosen name. “You have summoned me at a sensitive time.”

Chrysalis cracked her neck, the sound of bones and chitin echoing throughout the supposedly empty chamber. “I have. The Warden has the Eluvian shard from the Dark Tunnels. This is very distressing for the both of us, as I am sure you are well aware.”

“I sent the most powerful of the Chosen’s minotaurs to collect the shard,” he explained, “I did not think the Warden would defeat the Indomitable.”

“The loss of the minotaur is of no concern of mine.” Her wings moved faster than the Architect could follow, allowing Chrysalis to hover above the bridge. “In fact, the Warden did us a favour. Imagine if we had to fight such a warrior. The losses would be quite unacceptable. However, I cannot complete our arrangement until I have all the Eluvian shards.”

“I will find them, and reclaim the one taken by the Warden.” The Architect spoke with confidence, but even he understood the gravity of the situation. Twilight Sparkle proved time and time again to not only be a cunning, intelligent, and powerful force, but also shown to be a pony he did not want to fight due to sharing similar beliefs. Both wanted peace for the ponyspawn, but the monsters very natures made that difficult.

Chrysalis promised to use her substantial magic and knowledge through the centuries to aid the Architect if only he gathered the Eluvian shards. That seemed a more distant goal now more than ever. Everything the Architect designed did not take Twilight Sparkle into consideration.

“Oh, one more thing,” Chrysalis said as she inspected her hoof. “My agents told me the Shaper was incredibly furious about losing the Indomitable. He is on his way to the next shard as well. Interestingly, he did not bring any other ponyspawn with him. I think he means to do the Grey Wardens considerable harm as well as vengeance.”

This stopped the Architect cold as he stared at Chrysalis in disbelief. “The Shaper is the single most powerful blood mage amongst the ponyspawn, perhaps even the world. I fear he may be able to defeat the Warden using such terrible magic.”

He wanted to stop the Shaper or warn the Warden or do something, but either of those options would reveal his own treachery to the Chosen. Chrysalis appeared to notice as she smiled her wicked smile, revealing her long, flesh-tearing fangs.

“What will you do?” she hissed.

The Architect turned to leave. “Maintain my distance,” he answered. “If the Warden is successful, she will claim another shard and slay the Shaper. Should the Shaper win, then one of our most powerful obstacles falls, and our combined forces can take Brightstone. Either way…”

“The Warden dies.”

The Shadow Over Blackmarsh

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Twilight shifted in her sleeping bag, trying to get comfortable in the dead of night. The sound of raindrops pattering against her tent prevented her sleep, so she stood up and walked on shaky hooves towards the water trough. While likely to get the scorn of the polite, pompous, pony populace, Twilight did not care where her water came from so long as she could drink. They did not have to hunker down on the side of the road while leading a caravan through dangerous territory like she did.

Chuckling at the thought, Twilight wondered how exactly she got to this point where she liked travelling the road again. Despite the rain, the mud, and the lack of warm meals and soft beds, Twilight felt more comfortable travelling than she did at Brightstone. Maybe after all the time trekking through Equestria with her friends, it simply felt natural to walk that same path again, in a figurative sense at least. With new friends at her side, Twilight looked forward to the coming dawn.

If she could get some sleep. A slight cramp in her lower body was nature’s way of telling Twilight that she needed to relieve herself. Pulling on a tunic, some trousers, and the belt that held her sword, Twilight sighed as she lit her horn with a small magelight. She made her way through the mud and rain to some bushes for a little privacy. Let no pony say that the Hero of Equestria did not have regular bodily functions as the common pony did.

Once the deed was done, Twilight trudged through the rain and mud back to her tent when a silhouette in the shadows caught her attention. Twilight tried to see who it was, but with the rain and the dark of night, could not tell who or what stood in the woods. She blinked and the shadow vanished. A part of her wanted to dismiss it as an animal. Her more inquisitive and perhaps paranoid self knew it had to be something else.

Twilight kept her magical grip on her sword tight as she approached the figure in the shadows. With a twitch of her head, the light on her horn grew larger until it flooded over the under brush. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw only one of her soldiers in the middle of the bushes, likely having the same need to be outside as she did. After realizing this, Twilight turned away with a furious blush on her face.

“I’m so sorry for disturbing you,” Twilight quickly said, averting her eyes with a hoof. “Please… uh… carry on!”

The soldier did not reply, which gave Twilight an odd feeling. Usually those under her command promptly replied with “Yes, my Lady,” or “Of course, Arlessa,” but this one did not reply. She heard the shifting of hooves as if he turned around and with caution as to not catch a glimpse of anything, Twilight peeked over her hoof. The soldier now faced her, only his body swayed as if he were drunk or stunned. His bloodshot eyes stared back at her, but also appearing vacant, as if without thought behind them. He held his sword tight in his mouth, prepared for battle.

“Urk…” The soldier garbled his words as foam flowed from his mouth, only to suddenly jerk his head, and therefore his sword, forward towards Twilight. She quickly drew Sophia and parried the blow, all the while take a few cautious steps backwards. Taking a breath, Twilight kept her blade steady but did not move to attack. Her eyes flashed briefly, allowing Twilight to see the world through its magic.

The soldier glowed with a red aura surrounding him, something an earth pony should not be capable of due to a lack of potent magic. Attached to the aura was something akin to a scarlet thread which led deeper into the woods towards the Blackmarsh. Twilight knew from the bloodshot eyes and the red aura that her soldier was under the control of powerful blood magic.

“The Shaper.” Twilight breathed out the name as the soldier tried to attack her again. This time, Twilight leapt out of the way and countered with a powerful, concussive blast aimed at the back of his head. She did not want to harm one of her men, but instead simply render him unconscious with a subduing blow. The invisible force shook the air, knocking away the rain as it fell until it collided with the back of the soldier’s helm. It flew off and landed in the mud, while the soldier groaned and fell over.

Twilight followed the red strand of blood magic back to the forest, watching the spellwork fade back to the source. However, she saw several more bands of sorcery reach into her encampment. One by one her soldiers exited their tents with bloodshot eyes and weapons drawn. Each of them faced Twilight with jerking motions and all of them moved with the same murderous intent that the Shaper directed them to.

“Lyra! Oghren! Sparky!” Twilight yelled, walking backwards as her soldiers turned against her. “I need help! It’s the Shaper!” As she cried out, she noticed, thankfully, that the blood magic of the Shaper did not seem to affect the other Wardens, though for what reason she did not know nor did she have the time to find out.

Sparky emerged first from under her tent, daggers and teeth bared in equal measure. She immediately charged forward with her deadly weapons ready to strike when Twilight shouted, “Be careful and don’t kill them! The Shaper is using magic to control them!”

“Magic? Control?” Sparky slid on the mud to a stop, though the soldiers paid her no heed. “How Sparky help Tilite? Sparky shadowhound! Sparky kill enemy!”

“Just—” Twilight ducked her head from a swipe at her face from one soldier while another aimed for her neck. She only barely managed to parry the attack in time. She replied with more concussive blasts. “Just try to knock them out! Put them to sleep!”

Sparky seemed to understand at this, sheathing her daggers and moving to assist Twilight. With incredible agility, Sparky ran across the muddy road and onto the back of a soldier. The soldier began to buck hard in an attempt to forcefully remove Sparky from her back, but the shadowhound held on with her paws holding on to the plates of the soldier’s armour.

Sparky wrapped on foreleg around the soldier’s neck while her other paw pressed against the snout. The soldier continued to kick hard, trying to wrench Sparky off her back. In time, the soldier’s movements slowed, until she swayed to and fro on her hooves. Putting her body weight behind her, Sparky brought down the soldier onto the mud, letting go as the earth pony collapsed onto the wet grass.

“Sometimes dog need sleep quick,” Sparky said with a smirk, “Easy way to make sleep. Great way to make shush.”

As Sparky made her way through the camp in an effort to knock out other soldiers, Twilight did the same. However, the Shaper directed all of Twilight’s soldiers and officers to focus solely on her. They all approached her with jerky movements and bloodshot eyes, even a few muttering her given title of “Silencer”. Each made their way to her, surrounding Twilight until there was no escape.

Twilight took up an appropriate battle stance. Her sword hung by her side inside her aura. She looked to the blade of the first soldier that attacked her and picked up the weapon for added defence. As each soldier attacked twice, even three at a time, Twilight moved with speed and accuracy to deflect their blows. Her sword sang in the cold night air as it clashed with the steel of soldiers bewitched by ponyspawn magic. When one thought to attack her from behind, Twilight followed in the motions of her friend Applejack and slammed both of her hooves right into the offending party’s snout.

However, Twilight knew the numbers game would catch up to her eventually. There were a hundred of them, and only a few Wardens. Twilight faced incredible odds before, but never against a force that she could use lethal force against. As Oghren and Lyra emerged from their own tents, clearly confused by the melee buy ready to stand by her side, Twilight took a chance to try to find a way to break the blood magic that controlled her soldiers.

“Lyra!” Twilight called for the battlemage while dodging a sword that would have sliced her face in two. “Do you know a spell that can help?”

Lyra raised her lyre-head staff high into the air. “One.”

While Oghren tackled soldiers and pummelled them into unconsciousness, Lyra began to channel her spell. The strings of the lyre began to pluck themselves, creating a melody that drowned out the constant fall of rain, hooves, and the clash of steel. A song began to play from the lyre and it took over the din of battle. Soldiers and wardens alike stopped and stared at Lyra, who attracted all the attention onto her. Twilight surmised it was some kind of spell that drew onlookers to Lyra for reasons other than a distraction but right now, Twilight wedged her focus from the battlemage and towards the red lines of magic the Shaper used to control her forces.

Twilight’s horn flared and soon her sword ignited into violet flame. The best way to save her soldiers was to literally sever the threads the Shaper used to control them. Her sword raised, Twilight looked to Lyra to see the entirety of her convoy host now lifted their weapons against her.

Lyra saw this as well. “Not the typical reaction,” Lyra uttered aloud, “usually they are raising something else. Could use a little help here!”

Oghren bounded towards Lyra shouting donkey obscenities as Twilight noticed he did not have his the Ponyspawn Punisher held tight in his mouth. Having forgone the axe, Oghren settled on his large helmet which he used to great effect as a battering ram. Strapped to both sides of his body were large wooden shields.

“Keep it up, greeny!” Oghren roared as he smashed his helmet against the snout of a soldier. “Just give the boss more time!”

Twilight gave silent thanks to her comrades as they made her task of severing the Shaper’s blood magic much easier. She guided her burning blade towards the bands, her senses all but ignoring the material plane as she focused solely on the magic. With each cut, a soldier fell unconscious from the strain that blood magic put on his or her body. While powerful, the spell the Shaper used proved to be fragile as a single swipe of Sophia cut the scarlet thread with ease.

The soldiers dropped as Twilight cut each cord, some of them looking up in utter confusion, while many more held a gaze of stark terror at being controlled by an ornlock blood mage. Soon Lyra’s songspell ended, though they still remained in the thrall of the music. As Twilight continued to slice the dark magic, the soldiers under the Shaper’s control stopped attacking altogether. Instead, they turned to face Twilight.

They all spoke in unison, which only unnerved Twilight, though she did not stop breaking the blood bonds. “Silencer,” her soldiers said, “You are known to the Mind, to all brothers. We know what you look like. We know the scent you give. We know your voice. We know the taste of your blood. We know the blood of the Song runs through your veins, but you are false. You are hated for silencing the Song, and for that, I will do everything in my vast power to destroy you.”

Twilight slowed her cutting of the blood magic as she looked into the bloodshot eyes of her soldiers. She wanted to converse with the Shaper in some foolhardy hope that maybe she could understand the ponyspawn’s motives. This seemed like a good enough opportunity.

“You are the most powerful of the ponyspawn ornlocks,” Twilight said, “with all the magic at your disposal and without the restrictions pony society places on such, you could do great things for the benefit of both our peoples. Why do you feel such hatred for ponies?”

“The Brothers exist to scourge the world,” the Shaper said through his many manipulated mouths, “I feel no need to explain anything to the focus of our hatred. You are our enemy, first and foremost. I have underestimated your power. I will not do so again. Come to the heart of the Blackmarsh. Come and face me in direct conflict.”

Twilight did not know how to respond a direct challenge from a ponyspawn. Typically they gave her no choice in battle, attacking with such savage ferocity that the only way to stop them was to kill them. Even now, though, Twilight wanted to give peace a chance. She needed to. The Howler and the Indomitable were brutes and perhaps not capable of striking deals. The Shaper showed that he was far more intelligence through his use of blood magic. Maybe she could start some kind of dialogue with him.

“I refuse your challenge,” Twilight replied, “there is no reason for any more of our peoples to have their blood spilt. If we could just meet your leader and finally converse...”

The collective assembly of pony puppets all gave a sigh of frustration. “The Indomitable showed me your weakness,” they all said, “even in his throes of death, he was still part of the Mind and the finest of my creations. If you will not choose to fight me, then I will force your hooves.”

The soldiers controlled by the Shaper picked up their weapons. Instead of attacking Twilight, they began to deal death blows to each other. Twilight took a step back in horror as those under her command hacked each other to death. As they died, the soldiers broke free of the Shaper’s control for a brief moment. They could only stare in disbelief for the brief moment they were in control, only to die moments later from the mortal wounds their fellows gave to them.

Her fellow Wardens moved quickly to try to stop the soldiers from killing each other. Oghren continued to knock ponies unconscious with his helmeted head while Sparky leapt around the muddy field. Her technique for putting ponies to sleep worked, but was far too slow.

Lyra attempted another song, but her magic felt jerky to Twilight. She saw in Lyra’s eyes a terror she never saw in another’s before, one that told volumes of the scene that unfolded in front of her. What the Shaper did this night shook Lyra to her core.

Tears fell from Twilight’s eyes, though they mixed with the rain that splashed against her cheeks. “Enough!” Twilight shouted to the sky. “Stop it! You want me, then I will come to the Blackmarsh! Just stop hurting these ponies!”

Something large shifted near Twilight which forced her to look away. She saw that the cart that held the body of Daisy move on its own, until it began to roll faster into the woods until it went out of sight. Twilight began to chase after it only to slip on the mud. The last of the Shaper’s controlled victims laughed.

“This one is important to you, Silencer,” he said, “then if you want the corpse so badly, you will come to the Blackmarsh and face me.”

Twilight saw through her magical senses the last of the Shaper’s blood magic cease and it released the hold on the soldier. He looked up utterly confused as to where he was, but when he saw the bodies of the slain around him, quickly turned his confusion to fear.

In frustration, Twilight pounded her hoof onto the muddy ground. Though she splashed mud on her face, Twilight did not care. More died from her incompetence in handling the ponyspawn threat. Lyra and Oghren were right. There was no reasoning with the ponyspawn. They only lived to cause pain and destruction to all ponykind. As much as Twilight put all her effort into peace, they put just that much and more to continue the bloodshed.

Twilight stood up as Lyra, Oghren, and Sparky approached her. Her eyes narrowed on the Blackmarsh that lay out before her. “Tell the soldiers to give the dead proper rites, but also to burn the bodies,” she said as she turned to her tent. “Get cleaned up and get ready to move out. We’re going after that bastard.”

Oghren smiled at this. “Heh-ha! Yeah, we’re going to stomp him good. Let me get my junk and I’ll be ready to cleave all kinds of heads.”

Sparky nodded in agreement. “Me get knives, make sharp. Kooro’sha be sorry for attack.”

The pair went back to their tents, leaving Twilight to enter her tent. Lyra followed her, though she did not have the familiar leery smile she usually had. Twilight did not mind that Lyra was in her tent or that fact that she removed her soiled clothes in front of another, especially one like Lyra, for all her focus was on putting on her armour and giving chase to the Shaper.

“Is there something you need, Lyra?” Twilight asked, “I told you to get ready for battle.”

“I…” Lyra paused. Twilight heard her take a deep breath despite the sound of several metal plates clanging against one another as she put on the Arcane Warrior’s armour. “I… I’m sorry I froze up. I could have saved more, but seeing that kind of blood magic wielded… it frightened me.”

Twilight sighed. “It’s no problem, Lyra. We all have fears, and seeing something so powerful would give even the most experienced templar knight pause. We know what we are facing now and can counter accordingly.”

Lyra opened her mouth to speak, only to become silent again. When Twilight adjusted her chestplate so that it was snug, she turned to face Lyra. Her impatience with Lyra mounted as evident with the way she spoke. “What is it? I don’t plan on keeping the Shaper waiting.”

“It’s nothing,” Lyra said at last, “I was just… caught off guard by the Shaper and his magic. I’ll go get ready to enter the Blackmarsh.”

Lyra left the tent allowing Twilight to focus on gearing up and getting ready for the battle ahead. She paused on briefly to wonder why Lyra came to see her, as she did so without a hint of lechery in her eyes. Twilight pushed that line of thinking out of her mind. She needed to have her attention solely on the Shaper.

She did not fear the dark magic of the Blackmarsh. She did not fear the foul sorcery of the Shaper. Twilight only knew one truth and that she would protect the ponies under her care by any means necessary. With all her fury, she would make it so.

To that end, the Shaper will die.


Iron-clad hooves drudged themselves through the mud and muck of the Blackmarsh, though discomfort was the last of Twilight’s worries in this gruesome place. The thick foliage of the marsh prevented the light of daybreak from reaching in, forcing the unicorns to use magelight to shine their way forward. They trudged on without a word, though everyone held their weapons tight and at the ready. The Shaper was close and he had the advantage of choosing the battlefield. An ambush, therefore, was likely.

Twilight focused her senses on finding the Shaper but to no avail. Either he mastered a way to hide his arcane presence or, more likely, the dense magical residue from the calamity that destroyed the region caused havoc to her abilities. Twilight never felt such a disturbing conglomerate of magical residue in one place, especially of a dark nature. Everything reeked, from the foul smelling bog water to the deformed plants to the very magic in the air. Twilight crunched up her snout. The smell of rotten cadavers hung heavy in the air.

Lyra did not seem much better. “This place is disgusting,” she said aloud, “I’m going to need a week long bath once we get to Amarethine City. And a barrel of wine so I can forget about this place.”

Twilight, for once, felt like agreeing with Lyra. Instead, she focused on the task at hand. She noticed the oppressive air almost as soon as she stepped into the Blackmarsh. Whatever tragedy happened here left a terrible scar not only in the land, but also in the Veil. The small barrier between the material world and the land of dreams and nightmares consisted of only the smallest of slivers here. Twilight shook her head, wondering why the Unicorn Tower never spared any mages to heal the land.

As much as she wanted to stop and repair the damage, her priority was solely on the Shaper and nothing else.

Oghren’s eyes darting back and forth as he scanned the dark woods that surrounded them. “This place is worse than any cave in the Dark Tunnels,” he said, “feel like we are trudging through the Deepest Depths without a light and a hope. Paragons preserve me, I’m getting the willies just by walking.”

“Stinky donkey no be scared,” Sparky added, “just walk and ready to fight. Find kooro’sha, kill it, and get back brave pony.”

The thought of the Shaper having possession of Daisy’s body boiled Twilight’s blood and with her incredibly potent magic within her, perhaps the expression was more literal than previously thought. However if her body felt warm on the inside, then to confuse matters, Twilight’s flesh bristled as if she walked through a blistering blizzard. A deep chill ran down her skin and around the follicles of her coat and mane.

Rage and hatred churned within her both as a flame and as frostbite-like burn against her body. She knew well that the demons of the Fade fed off strong emotions and that to them, she must appear like a feast. Twilight clenched her teeth and tried to focus on something, anything else so as to not disturb the Fade further.

This proved difficult as Lyra’s mindset blazed around her in a fiery aura.


The harp at the top of Lyra’s staff ignited into flames the further they walked into the Blackmarsh. Twigs and dead leaves burned into cinders with every step Lyra made. Her eyes, normally bright yellow, now seemed to contain a fire within. Knowing how much rage Lyra pent up within herself, Twilight knew that the battlemage was like a powder keg; a single spark was all it took to set her off.

The Shaper led them into the perfect trap.

“Lyra, listen to me carefully,” Twilight said, “You have to keep calm. This place is going to do havoc on our emotions, so we need to steady ourselves. If we lose control, we could cause even more harm to the Veil.”

“I am calm,” Lyra shot back. “This is my calm face, get it? Now let’s just find the Shaper, kill him, and get the hell out of here before I decide that the best way to get things done is to simply torch this entire bog. Burn it all to the ground.”

Twilight suddenly heard her stomach growl as if it demanded food. Thoughts of apple pie, fresh cider, and delicious cakes danced in her head. She wanted to eat something right away, so she levitated a loaf of bread from her saddleback and quickly took a bite in hopes to satiate her hunger. As she ate, Twilight realized that the bread was gone quickly and now she wanted something else. She also realized that she never felt hunger like this before.

“This is all wrong,” Twilight said as she munched on her bread, yet she could not for the life of her figure out what. She was just too hungry. Oghren and Sparky merely looked at each other and then back to the pair on unicorns. Twilight shook her head as she ate another loaf of bread. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just hungry. Can’t fight on an empty stomach.”

Lyra stopped for a moment as she looked deeper into the forest. “I have an idea,” she said in a low voice, “Sparky, why don’t you and Oghren scout ahead. You two can cover more ground as Twilight and I focus on finding the Shaper through our magic.”

“Good idea,” Twilight replied, “With our magic working in tandem, we can search for the Shaper and his own arcane presence through the marsh and the Fade. Just be careful and come back if you see anything suspicious. Do not engage any ponyspawn no matter who or what they are.”

Oghren spat in defiance, but could say nothing. He only shook his head. “Yeah yeah,” he muttered, “I’ll go with the dog, but we’ll be right back! Can’t be divided with a crazy ponyspawn bastard running around, especially with some kind of mean magic in his horn.”

The pair trudged off into the deeper parts of the swamp with hooves and paws splashing through the mud and muck. Twilight’s horn flared to life as she prepared a spell that would help expand their search a hundred fold. With Lyra’s magic joining hers, they would find the Shaper so long as he did not know any spells that could mask his presence. While ornlocks were not known to have knowledge of such arcana, the Shaper proved himself a skilled sorcerer.

“Alright,” Twilight said as she prepared to properly cast her spell. “Now for this to work you need to join the spell at just the right time. Don’t force yourself in or else we’ll spend more time calibrating—“

Twilight never finished her sentence as a force pushed her down onto the mud. Groaning, Twilight looked up to see Lyra standing over her, her eyes half-lidded and her tongue licking her lips.

“This isn’t funny, Lyra,” Twilight all but growled. “We have more important things to worry about than your hormones!”

Lyra only smiled, inching her snout closer to Twilight’s. Despite the dank smells from the marsh, Twilight could smell the lilac oil Lyra used to clean her mane. Her heart beat fast as she felt Lyra’s warm, heavy breaths against her face. She wanted to struggle out of anger, but her body did not obey. As much as Lyra annoyed her, Twilight did not mind the position she was in now.

“You’re all covered in mud,” Lyra said in a sultry tone, “Won’t find a bath for a long while. That’s OK. I like getting dirty.”

“We… we don’t have time…” Twilight breathed out only to still when Lyra kissed her forehead, right under her horn. Twilight shivered from the touch of Lyra’s soft lips right on the sensitive part where flesh gave way to bone.

Inching her body closer to Twilight, Lyra hushed Twilight as she trailed kisses across down her commander’s face. “We have all the time in the world. I need this. You definitely need this. Forget being a Warden for a little while and just focus on being a mare. With needs. Needs only somepony like me can satisfy.”

Lyra then pressed her lips against Twilight’s, leaving the Commander of the Grey frozen from the shock of such an aggressive display. Yet still she could not struggle against Lyra; Twilight found that she enjoyed the kiss. Her inhibitions melted away as she reciprocated. Though she knew her method was clumsy due to this being her first kiss, Twilight figured that Lyra did not mind. After all, she did pursue her for so long. What were a few sloppy kisses from the inexperienced?

Twilight and Lyra continued to kiss on the muddy ground, with Twilight completely ignoring the fact that she could feel the marsh muck seep into her scalp. Lyra was right, perhaps. Maybe she did need to just forget about being a Warden for once. She loved to learn, but never thought she could get such knowledge of life like this. For once instead of swords or spells, Twilight learned the lessons of love, an area she sorely lacked knowledge in.

Oghren and Sparky could wait. So could the Shaper. So could Dai—

Twilight’s eyes widened. She pushed Lyra off of her and quickly scrambled to her hooves. “No no no,” Twilight shook her head as if to force the distracting thoughts from her head. “This… this is all wrong! We can’t do this!”

Lyra slowly stood on her hooves, but instead of a dejected face, her eyes were filled with fury. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Her eyes literally flared as she snarled. “I give myself freely to you, and you push me away? You don’t deserve somepony like me. I could have been the first and best lay you ever had, but you keep holding on to… to what?! Do you think being chase will make you a better Grey Warden? Do you think I’m not good enough for you?”

Her eyes narrowed, Twilight’s horn sparked as she stared down Lyra. “This isn’t about you,” Twilight said, “This place has seen the Veil so damaged that the very essence of demons from the Fade seeps into the area. They took hold of me, true… but they easily influence you, Lyra. Rage, desire, pride… you are like a feast for those kinds of demons. You need to learn to calm down!”

Lyra’s eyes literally flared as she roared in frustration and anger. No words cried out from her mouth, but instead she unleashed a torrent of flame directed at Twilight from her gullet. Twilight raised her shield just in time to defend herself while the magically infused steel deflected the flames around her. She cringed under the strain that Lyra’s dragon-breath spell put on her own magic and body alike. With her haywire emotions and incredibly potent spellwork, Lyra proved to be a difficult threat.

Something about the bog shifted, though not in the physical realm. Twilight felt something stir within the Fade and thanks to the spells she and Lyra held at the tip of their horns, whatever that something was became swiftly aware of their presence. It felt simply wrong to Twilight, like the very fabric of the world seeped slime like the grates of a sewer filter. Something pushed against the Veil and it wanted out in the worst possible way.

Not only did a foul presence lurk beyond the Veil, but something familiar appeared to sit on ground, though Twilight could not put her hoof on it thanks to Lyra trying to roast her hide.

Knowing that such a denizen of the Fade could not be let free, Twilight cancelled her spell and galloped a safe distance away from Lyra. She waited out Lyra’s dragon breath spell until her crazed friend needed to take a breath. When the flames died off for a moment, Twilight knew she only had one shot to get this right. She pushed herself into a full gallop towards Lyra, pivoted on her hind hooves, wound up, and socked Lyra in the jaw before she could react.

Twilight hated herself for such an act, but it did the job. Her steelclad hoof knocked Lyra right out in one go without much ceremony. Lyra simply collapsed onto the muck of the bog with a loud, squishing noise. Taking a deep breath, Twilight wiped the sweat from her brow, only to realize that she rubbed mud on her face.

“Sorry about that,” Twilight said, her horn alight as she lifted Lyra out of the mud and onto her back. “But we need to get out of here as soon as possible.” She hoped that Lyra would think Twilight would focus solely on a magical defence and not try anything physical, which allowed Twilight to enact her plan. It also helped that even though Lyra was a battlemage, she still had a glass jaw that most unicorns possessed.

The Shaper led them into the perfect trap, but now Twilight wondered if he himself knew the extent of dark magic that permeated through the very essence of the swamp. The Grey Wardens needed to regroup and find a way to get the Shaper out of the bog and into territory where they did not have to worry about a break in the Veil.

“Oghren! Sparky!” Twilight called out, “We can’t stay here! Lyra’s out cold, we need to go!”

When she was met with silence, Twilight’s heart began to beat just that much faster. Perhaps they went deeper into the swamp or perhaps she did not shout yell loud enough. Twilight needed to focus on her friends and get to them as quickly as possible. The longer they stood in the swamp, the more vulnerable they were to the Fade and to the Shaper.

With Lyra on her back, Twilight trudged through the swamp, her sword and shield drawn and ready for combat. Her eyes turned every which way, vigilant for any ambush the enemy attempted. She did not spy Oghren or Sparky anywhere, and the mush she treaded did not allow for even the simplest form of tracking their prints. Her magical senses told a similar story, unable to pinpoint anything but the lurking presence that permeated the swamp.

In the distance only a short gallop away, Twilight saw two shadows forms on the other side of the tangled branches of the swamp. They must belong to Oghren and Sparky. Twilight increased her speed, splashing mud all around her as she neared her friends. The sight of allies in this dire swamp warmed her heart.

“Oghren! Sparky!” Twilight called out, “We have to get out of here, it’s a trap!”

“You’re right,” Oghren said, though his voice was dull and monotone. Twilight stopped immediately when she heard Ogren speak, her blood running cold as the possibility ran through her mind.

Sparky then spoke as well. “This is a trap.”

Twilight quickly drew her sword and shield in her telekinetic aura, knowing full well that Sparky did not speak in such clear sentences. As Oghren and Sparky turned to face her, Twilight let out a gasp of horror. Just like the soldiers influenced by blood magic, both of them stared at her with bloodshot eyes, blood leaking through their tear ducts and trailing down their face. Despite their natural resistance to magic, the power of The Shaper’s blood sorcery took a hold of them all the same.

Twilight then looked up to see an ornlock stand on a tall rock, looking down on her with face filled with disgust and hatred. The intense magical energy he radiated quickly allowed Twilight to realize she now faced the Shaper himself in the flesh. His horn extended twice as long as the typical ornlock and it crackled with crimson arcane power. He wore a long red robe, but Twilight could not tell if it was original such a colour or simply caked with years of blood. Slash marks trailed all along his limbs and around his body; signs of the cuts he made to himself to allow the use of blood magic.

“Silencer.” The Shaper used Oghren’s voice to say his words. “I have waited for this moment for a long time. Your mastery over magic is commended, admirable even, but you are hated and must be eliminated for the New Blight to begin.”

“Let my friends go!” Twilight glared at the Shaper and pointed her blade at him. “If it’s me that you want, I’m right here!”

“No,” Sparky said, yet another puppet of the Shaper, just like Oghren. “They are my slaves now, and their flesh interests me. I have not met a donkey Grey Warden, or a diamond dog of such tenacity as this. They will be useful to my research. The other unicorn… she will make a fine broodmare. More ornlock brothers to bring into the Mind, to bring into the New Blight.”

Twilight heard enough. “You won’t have any of them!” With a shout she fired a bolt of searing magic towards the Shaper, hoping to burn his head right off his shoulders. The magic collided with an invisible barrier, however, and did nothing to harm him.

“Fool,” Oghren said, “Your power over magic, while considerable, is paltry to my own, for I bear the blood of the Song. The Song you silenced. I cannot be harmed by you. No, I shall lay claim to your friends, just as I will lay claim to you.”

The Shaper jumped down from his rock and stood between Oghren and Sparky. Twilight’s eyes darted between her true enemy and her friends. She needed to snap her friends out of the Shaper’s blood control, but did not know how. Lyra might have had an idea, but her being unconscious did not help matters in the slightest. All Twilight could do spin her sword in her aura and prepare for a deadly fight.

Oghren attacked first, bringing his axe to bear against Twilight, the blade seeking the flesh of her neck. Twilight raised Ironguard just ahead of the blow with the shield taking the brunt of the attack. She sparred with Oghren before and felt his considerable strength against her. Only now his blow connected with the clear intent to kill thanks to the Shaper’s command. The axe struck the shield like a mallet to a gong, and Twilight felt the strength of the berserker ring through her very magic. Too many blows like that and the strain would weaken enough for her to lower her guard.

“Forgive me,” Twilight said and immediately launched a counter-attack. She used the edge of her shield and aimed it right under Oghren’s jaw. With a sharp motion upward, Twilight applied all the force she felt necessary to knock him out. The Shaper may possess Oghren’s strength, but he only controlled the body, not the considerable combat skills Oghren held. A simple blow like Twilight’s would have been child’s play to a warrior like Oghren. The blow to his jaw, along with the considerable haft of his axe, sent shockwaves throughout his skull until he fell unconscious to the ground.

A sharp pain in her shoulder gave Twilight panic as she turned her head to see one of Sparky’s daggers embedded in her body. With great regret, she lowered her horn and promptly blasted Sparky off of her back, though the damage was done. Blood oozed from the wound as the dagger remained entrenched in her flesh. Twilight collapsed on her knees while the Shaper leapt from his rock and landed with a thud near her.

Slowly, like puppets on tangled strings, Oghren and Sparky stood up, taking hold of their weapons again. Despite the pain from the knife in her back, Twilight still controlled her magic, and swung her sword and shield every way she could toward the Shaper and his slaves away. The Shaper’s curved horn began to glow as well with a dark crimson aura, wrenching Sophia from Twilight’s telekinetic grasp and tossing the blade away into the swamp.

“You hesitate,” Sparky said, still very much in the control of the Shaper, “Your hesitation has been your undoing.”

“I want to see it in your eyes,” Oghren spoke for the Shaper as well. “I want to see the terror in your eyes as you look on at your failure. The donkey’s body will be host to my experiments. The diamond dog as well. From them I shall create new weapons, new spells, of which to ravage the lands touched by the Sun and Moon. The unicorn shall be made a broodmare, and I will have an army of ornlocks of which to command. You, however, I shall present to the Chosen, broken, shattered. Your screams will be our new song as you hang as a trophy, kept alive through sorcery sanguine.”

The Shaper’s horn glowed brighter then and from the under brush of the Blackmarsh walked the corpse of Daisy. Her bones creaked with every step. Her coat once vibrant now appeared pale in the shadowed light. Her cheeks sunk into her skull and her eyes might as well have been blackened pits. Twilight gasped as the corpse of Daisy slowly dragged her hooves towards her.

“Why do you look afraid?” The Shaper said through Sparky, “this is but a corpse, a walking husk of flesh now old and decomposing. Do you feel some sort of guilt that the Indomitable was able to slay her so easily?”

“Why not ask her yourself for forgiveness!” Daisy’s mouth screamed, making Twilight recoil in utter horror. The corpse of Daisy laughed with a shrill, unnatural voice. Twilight pressed her hooves against her ears. She could hear Daisy scream, the crack of her neck on her desk, everything from the Dark Tunnels.

“Your spirit, so easily broken! How you managed to silence the Song I will never comprehend, but now your time is done!”

Sparky removed her dagger from Twilight’s back and turned her around, pinning her to her black. Ogrhen loomed over her, his axe level with her neck. She tried to struggle but her limbs felt weak and sluggish. Twilight used too much energy against Lyra and now could not fight any more. She tried to reach out for her blade, but the Shaper tossed Sophia out of her magical reach.

The Shaper stood over Twilight’s form, his broken, black lips curling into a smile. “Now… your threat will end…” he hissed, using his own dry, raspy voice. “A new Age will dawn on this day. The Dark Age where the Brothers will consume the world. A shadow will loom across this world the likes that not even your precious sun will pierce through!”

“Slave… take her head.”

Oghren raised his axe high. Twilight shut her eyes. The end drew near.

The wind carried the whistle of a narrow projectile followed by a blood curdling scream. Twilight opened her eyes to see the Shaper thrashing about, a crossbow bolt embedded in his eye. Black blood and ichor gushed out from his ruined ocular while his horn blasted beam after beam of energy. Rage filled his screams, but thankfully little else. Oghren and Sparky collapsed to the ground complete out cold. Twilight guessed his blood magic spell shattered just like his concentration.

Twilight scrambled to her hooves and searched for her sword as to get back into the fight. As she looked up, she saw the familiar form of Berry Punch already reloading another crossbow bolt into her hoof-mounted weapon.

“Get down!” Berry shouted as she took aim at the Shaper once more. With the twang of the bowstring, another bolt sailed through the air and stuck itself several inches inside the Shaper’s neck. He howled again, only now knowing the direction his injuries bore from. He turned his head towards Berry, his one good eye filled with blood as magic pooled at the tip of his horn.

He fired a large beam of intense crimson magic at Berry, a spell of both incredible power and everlasting rage. Twilight felt the potency of such a spell in the very air. A single blow from magic of that magnitude could tear Berry Punch apart likely in gruesome ways. Twilight lit her horn and took aim.

She launched a powerful if generic counterspell at the Shaper’s crimson bolt with the two colliding in midair. The magic exploded in a blast radius that scorched the swamp around them. Berry Punch yelped and dove into cover with bits of burnt wood from fallen trees flying past her head. The shockwave from the blast sent everyone flying backwards. Twilight collided with a tree. Oghren and Sparky landed next to each other in the muck, but otherwise remained unharmed and unconscious. Lyra smacked into a rock hard enough to be woken from her own torpor.

“Ugh…” She muttered, rubbing her head with a muddy hoof. “Why does my head feel like a dozen wagons ran over it…”

“Lyra!” Twilight shouted, but her voice soon lost its volume as a roar from twisted magic ripped through the air. Twilight turned to see the Shaper galloping away at full tilt, his black blood leaving a trail behind him.

If the roar did not come from the Shaper, then where?

“Warden!” Berry shouted as the roar continued to shake the Blackmarsh. “Look!”

Twilight looked to where Berry pointed her hoof, only to gasp at the sight. There, where her spell and the Shaper’s collided, stood a tear in reality itself. In the middle of the tear, a large, bloody eye stared at everyone it could until it focused on Twilight. The arcane forces of her counterspell reacting with the blood magic of the Shaper must have caused the already weakened Veil to tear, and now something was trying to get out.

“Lyra!” Twilight screamed, “Lyra! We have to seal the Veil! Something is breaching through to the material plane! We’re the only ones here who can do it!”

Twilight’s words were moot as a single black bolt of energy lanced through the air and struck Lyra’s horn. Lyra’s scream filled the air with terror, only to thankfully go silent. Her body floated in the air, eyes wide and glowing, but otherwise she did not move.

“Lyra!” Twilight yelled, but that only attracted attention from the being in the tear. A black bolt streaked through the air and hit her horn, just as it did to Lyra. A burning, excruciating pain ripped through her body the likes Twilight never felt before. She could not help but scream.

And then a white light overtook her.

The Just Hoof

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Twilight’s stomach rumbled. She wanted some food right now.

That was her first thought as she slowly opened her eyes and stood on shaky hooves. The second thought was wondering where exactly was she? Twilight tried to remember where exactly was she before falling asleep. There was a swamp… she was fighting someone, but fighting was bad. The nanny always told her to never fight. Fighting was for bad ponies and bad ponies didn’t get any sweets.

“My head hurts,” Twilight said, her voice high and… young? That wasn’t right, was it? She was a big pony! A unicorn of great power! Yet as she looked around, she saw that she sat inside a playpen made of tall wooden fences. They extended into the very clouds themselves. She just needed to wait for the nanny to come by. She finished her nap, so after nap time was snack time.

Twilight galloped to the fence of the wooden playpen and tapped on the polls with her hoof booties. “Nanny!” Twilight called out, “Nanny, I’m hungry!”

“Be quiet,” said another young pony, “I’m trying to get comfy here. You are too loud! I can’t sleep with my toys if you are going to make a racket!”

Twilight turned to see another unicorn just like herself in the corner of the playpen, surrounded by all manner of large stuffed pony dolls. The green pony stuck out her tongue and buried herself in her toys. Twilight remembered her name: Lyra the battlemage of the Imperium.

No… not a battlemage. Lyra was just a naughty pony. But why did she have so many toys then? It didn’t seem fair! Naughty ponies like her shouldn’t have so many toys. But then, she didn’t have books like Twilight did. Wonderful books about plants and animals and magic and ponyspawn.

“Nanny… nanny said books about magic and ponyspawn are for big ponies,” Twilight said. She rubbed her head, specially around her horn. Something about everything was not right and it confused Twilight. It hurt so much! Too much! Twilight began to cry at the top of her lungs, her wails echoing throughout the house.

Poking her head from under her stuffed toys, Lyra pressed her hooves against her ears. She then began to cry herself. Both fillies cried louder and louder, as if this was contest for the nanny’s attention.

Their bawling turned to sniffling as heavy hoof steps echoed throughout the house. Walking towards them from the kitchen, an adult pony wearing a brown cloak and hood looked over the edge of the tall playpen fence. She looked down on them with her bright eyes and cheerful smile.

“Oh my,” she said in a low but sweet voice, “Don’t worry, little fillies. Nanny is here for you. Shhh… shhh…”

Twilight and Lyra looked up at their nanny and wiped their eyes. “We’re hungry,” they both said, though they shot dirty looks at each other. Nanny chuckled at the childish display. They both floated in the air and the nanny touched noses with both of them.

“Of course you are,” nanny replied, “It is after naptime, so now it must be snack time! I have some lovely leaves that will fill your tummies! Come now!”

Nanny placed both fillies on her back and trotted while humming a tune. Twilight and Lyra giggled as they bounced on the nanny’s back. They liked the rides. In no time at all they entered the small cobblestone kitchen where nanny already laid out their leaves for snack.

First Nanny placed Twilight in her high chair, then Lyra. “Now then, eat your leaves, dearies,” Nanny said as she turned her hooded face towards the kitchen. “Eat them all up and I’ll come back with a special treat! Who wants cake?”

“Me!” Twilight and Lyra said in unison, though Lyra quickly stuffed her face with leaves, munching away loudly and messily. Twilight shook her head. Lyra was always such a rude pony, never once using her table manners. Such a dirty, naughty pony.

However, as Twilight lowered her head to eat her leaves, she stopped. The leaves looked familiar. Like something she read from a book. Twilight’s horn sparked as she wanted to lift the leaf to take a good look at it. She was still just a little filly though and as such she could not do magic yet. Nanny said magic was bad, but Twilight thought magic was important to her. Something special. Something she was talented in.

Her horn sparked again, this time with the leaf finally moving on its own within the grasp of a violet aura. Twilight’s eyes lit up as she saw what she accomplished. “Nanny! Nanny! Come look! I’m doing magic!”

Nanny rushed into the dining room and immediately slapped the leaf out of the air. Her voice turned sharp and raspy. “What did I tell you about using magic?!” she hissed. She raised her hoof as if to strike Twilight who cowered in her high chair. Fresh tears began to form in her eyes.

Nanny’s features softened as she saw Twilight’s fear reflected in her white eyes. “Now, now, little one,” she whispered, lifting Twilight into her hooves. “You know it’s dangerous to use magic. Mean, nasty ponies called Templar will snatch you away and then you’ll never have fun or eat sweets again. That would make Nanny very sad.”

Twilight continued to sniffle as she and Lyra were carried by Nanny to the playpen. “Now you two stay here. Read your books. Play with your toys. Take a nap. Rest and never fear again. You are just little fillies with no worries or responsibilities. Nanny will take care of everything.”

That sounded nice to Twilight, who giggled as she scampered towards her pile of picture books. She laid one of the leather-bound books on the floor and flipped the cover over. The story told of a brave knight who fought against an evil dragon. His purple scales and green spines shone in the light Nanny put out for them, and the knight—


Twilight’s head began to hurt again as she remembered that name. It was important to her, but she could not recall why. Twilight pushed away the book and went for another one. Flowers adorned the cover and Twilight thought them incredibly pretty. She opened the cover and the first page showed three daisies. Their white petals and yellow center looked like a—


Again a pang went through Twilight’s head. Something… everything wasn’t right. These names… Twilight knew them. Daisy was a friend, a Grey Warden. Brave and bold, she died fighting the Indomitable.

Spike… a dragon Twilight hatched from a forgotten egg. He was her number one assistant. A knight made so by her friend Applejack. He had a crush on her other friend Rarity. He gave his life to help some ponies at the battle of Trotterim.

Names of friends who fell in battle. Names of friends who screamed her name. How could Twilight forget them?

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but her horn blazed to life instead. “This… this isn’t right!” Twilight screamed with purple streaks of magic from her horn ripping the cottage apart. Lyra started to cry once more, hiding beneath her dolls and other toys.

The Nanny stormed back into the room, though her form shifted. Her legs grew longer and spindly, while her cloak turned more twisted and took on the colour of blood. The jaw stretched outward while her teeth gained length and sharpness. Her eyes molded into one, and then split into the dozens. A single, sharpened horn jutted from her head and at the tip crackled with a baleful green energy.

“Stupid little filly!” The nanny demon shouted as she took hold of Twilight and slammed her to the ground. “Is rest not what you wanted?! I could have made you forget your pain, but I should have killed you from the start! I can feed on the other as much as I like! You… you are extra morsels I do not need to trouble myself with anymore!”

The nanny demon roared as she reared up, her mouth opened impossibly wide. She aimed to gobble Twilight in one bite. Twilight struggled to be free, but the demonic grasp on her body held steadfast against her.

The door of the cottage burst into splinters, making the Nanny demon hiss in surprise. A blinding light, like that of the sun, shone through the entrance of the cottage. Twilight covered her eyes with a hoof and screamed as a set of hooves walked into the room joined by the clang of metal. When the intense light abated, Twilight looked up and gasped at the sight.

Clad in shining white armour from head to toe was a tall pony bearing a gleaming sword at its right side and a pair of scales to its left. It wore a blindfold on a feminine face, but Twilight knew the being could see better than anypony. As the armoured one walked towards the nanny demon, Twilight saw that the face was not such, but rather a metal mask. The pony did not have a body to speak of, but instead appeared to be living sunlight inhabiting a suit of armour.

“A spirit…” Twilight breathed out.

The spirit raised its scales and spoke in a voice of a mare that commanded respect and deference. “I finally found you. The surge of magic is like a beacon in the Fade. It is time for judgement, Lazilia. Face Justice.”

“A curse on you and your name!” Lazilia spat at the spirit. “These two are mine! Mine! The power of these two are mine to consume! They have already given in to my world! You have no place in it!”

A surge of light shone through the body of the spirit. It raised its scales towards the demon, a feather on one platform and nothing in the other. As Twilight watched, a crimson orb formed in the other scale; she recognized it as a heart of a demon. The orb pulsed like a heart with black bolts of magic arcing around it.

“To my left, the Scales of Judgement!” The spirit yelled, her voice booming throughout the house. “To my right, the Sword of Retribution! The Scales will judge your heart, Lazilia!”

Unfortunately for the demon, her heart weighed heavily against the feather. The spirit turned her mask towards the demon, who hissed and crouched low, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. A pair of tendrils sprouted from her back and formed into sharpened edges.

The spirit raised her sword which glowed with a holy light. “The Feather of Truth has found your heart wanting! I hereby decree you guilty! The penalty to your crimes is destruction! Make peace with Chaos, demon of sloth, for I shall give you the mercy you showed your victims!”

The nanny demon shrieked a noise far more terrible than any screamer could produce. She jumped to attack the spirit, only for the spirit to make a deathblow with her sword. The brilliant blade cut through the demon as if like air, cleaving the foul monster in two. Lazilia collapsed in two heaps on the ground before disintegrating into the ether.

May your foulness never again rise in this realm, though I find these words hollow.” The spirit slid her sword into its sheath and looked to the two fillies in the playpen. They both looked up at her shining mask with curiosity and terror in equal measure. With a nod of her head, the spirit removed the playpen and approached the two.

What has that monster done to you?” she asked, “No matter. I will reverse it. Take my hoof, and all will be as it should be.

Twilight did not understand what the spirit meant that everything would be as it should, but there was something comforting about her presence. She felt warm in the glow of the spirit. Reaching out with a small hoof, Twilight touched the spirit only for a white light to overtake her. She did not scream, as the light gave her nothing but joy.

Soon Twilight found herself in her adult mare body once more, covered in the armour of the arcane warrior rather than the clothes of a foal. Sophia and Ironguard hung at her sides. She turned to face the spirit.

“Thank you so much for helping me,” Twilight said with sincere gratitude. “That demon of sloth… Lazilia…”

She found your spirits in the Fade and took you both to her lair before I could save you,” the spirit explained, “Until now, I was unable to find her in the Fade because of the Bannora’s influence. Thanks to you, Arcana, I was able to find her. Now, let me help your friend.”

Twilight looked at the spirit, puzzled. “Arcana?” Twilight asked as the spirit approached the pile of toys. “I think you have the wrong pony.”

I do not,” the spirit retorted. “One moment. Little one… your heart is heavy with guilt. I must weigh it against the Feather of Truth.”

Lyra, still very much a filly, dove back into the protection of her stuffed toys. “No!” she screamed, “I saw what you did to nanny! I don’t want to die! Leave me alone!”

“What are you going to do?!” Twilight rushed over to the spirit as she held the scales in front of the pile of toys. She saw what the spirit did to a guilty demon; what would she do to a guilty pony? The spirit did not reply to Twilight, instead focusing on the scales. A beating heart materialized on the scale opposite of the feather. After a moment of watching the scales tip back and forth, both the heart and feather remained in balance.

Despite this, the spirit made a noise of confusion. “Her heart is heavy with guilt, but the Feather speaks that she committed no crime against another pony, not of her own volition in any event. I hereby decree you innocent. Take my hoof, and all shall be as it should.”

Twilight stifled a laugh at the thought of Lyra being innocent, but the spirit was right; Lyra was no criminal who brought harm to other ponies. Lyra slowly withdrew herself from the pile of toys and stepped towards the spirit. With her eyes shut, she reached out and held the spirit’s hoof.

Much like Twilight, Lyra’s filly body began to glow with light until she reappeared back as her former adult self. Lyra took a deep breath and turned to regard the pile of toys she once found refuge in. She knelt down and brushed a particular toy’s mane.

“That demon,” she said, her voice low and cracked with guilt. “She made all my past lovers into toys… just like how I treated them. I found comfort in their hooves, but it was empty. Hollow. Just like any other wish granted by a demon.”

Lazilia was known to bring ponies from the Material Plane to the Fade and turning them into foals.” The spirit turned around and started to walk out of the cottage. “She fed on the desire to remain young and no longer have responsibilities. A devious demon of sloth if there ever was one. But you are not out of danger yet.”

Lyra began to follow the spirit but stopped at the edge of the doorway. “Who are you, spirit?” she asked.

The spirit turned to face them. “I am the spirit of Justice,” she said, “I am the embodiment of the world’s desire to see wrongs righted, for those who trespass to be punished by the rule of law. If there is no law to follow, then I am to use my own judgment.”

Lyra’s jaw dropped as the spirit introduced itself. “You’re Justice. The spirit of Justice. I can’t believe it! Do you know how rare this is, Twilight?! To have a spirit, any spirit, come to us directly like this in the Fade!”

“It is an honour, Justice,” Twilight said, bowing low out of respect, only for Justice to shake her head.

You should not bow to me, Arcana. Your return has long been expected. It is my honour to meet you once again. You have been gone for a thousand material years. You must not be able to recognize me. The previous Justice died in the Imperial Age. After you and the rest of the Harmonium saved the Luminescent from Chaos, you did not return.”

Justice then looked around, despite the blindfold on her mask. “I do not see the others of the Harmonium with you. All spirits felt their power many material months ago, only for you to go silent once more. What is wrong, Arcana?”

Twilight began to understand what Justice talked about. “The Harmonium. There were six of… us, right?”

Of course,” Justice replied with a nod. “Honor. Joy. Charity. Fidelity. Compassion. Arcana. The Harmonium as chosen by the Radiance to be the greatest of us all. You were sent to the Material to protect the Luminescent and the ponies of the world, but have long been silent.”

“The Elements of Harmony…” It made a degree of sense to Twilight that the Elements of Harmony might have at one point been Spirits of the Fade, servants of the Sisters. Justice likely did not see her as she was, a unicorn from the real world, but instead as a spirit of Magic, Arcana.

“I’m afraid I’m not Arcana, at least, not as you might know her.” Twilight explained, “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m a Grey Warden and bearer of the Element of Magic… in the Material Plane, we know the Harmonium as the Elements of Harmony. There is a lot I have to inform you of.”

Justice, despite not having visible eyes, appeared to peer into the depths of Twilight’s soul. “You speak truth…” she said, “I would like to know more, but we cannot tarry here for too long. The demonic forces under the Bannora’s command will likely feel the defeat of Lazilia. They will want to feast on her entrails and on those that defeated her. We must flee to the Chantry. There the spirit of Faith will keep us shielded from the Bannora’s dark magic and her demon hordes.”

As Twilight stepped out of the cottage behind Lyra and Justice, she saw that she was in fact once more in the Fade, the realm of dreams and nightmares. She could only guess that the tear in the Fade back in the Blackmarsh and the black magic energy that flowed from it caused her mind to be drawn into the realm once again. It would take some time for Twilight to figure out a way out of this mess. Once one was in the Fade because of magical influence, it took a great deal of energy to return to one’s body.

To do so, Twilight needed to find the focus that kept her and Lyra’s spirits trapped in the Fade. The last time Twilight found herself in this predicament, a demon kept her bound using its own influence. She held a suspicion that this Bannora Justice mentioned acted as the same vile anchor.

They approached the edge of the small floating island, the same kind that made up the vast majority of landmasses in the Fade. If they could be called such. The Fade shifted at a whim more often than not, and Twilight had reason to be cautious. Spirits like Justice were a boon to be with, but demons haunted the realm more than any other.

“Twilight,” Lyra said, her voice low, “About what happened in the swamp…”

“Forget about it,” Twilight quickly replied. She meant it in every possible way. She did not want to hurt Lyra’s feelings, but she also did not want to deal with Lyra’s advances in any way, shape, or form while they traversed the Fade. “We’ll discuss things once we get out of the Fade.”

Lyra merely nodded and stepped back away from the group. Her face downcast, she turned her focus to the sky when she gasped. Twilight followed Lyra’s look and almost lost her breath herself.

Hanging above their heads, the dead city of Black Canter loomed like a terrible shadow. Twilight suddenly felt an intense pressure on her heart. It took all of her mental fortitude to break away from the site of the hellish burg.

Black Canter.” Justice shook her head. “If there was ever a place so hated by my kind, it is the place we once called home. The Bannora knew her spell would bring us close to the den of demons, but even with the gates sealed, we feel its presence.”

“You haven’t explained who the Bannora is or what’s going on,” Twilight said, keeping her gaze towards the abyss. She did not want to cast even the slightest glance at Black Canter.

There is much to be explained, Twilight Sparkle Arcana,” Justice said, with Twilight noting the addition to her name. “All shall be revealed once we reach the Chantry. The Fade is a vastly different place than when you left it millennia ago. Be on your guard and follow.”

Justice drew her sword and pointed the tip at the empty expanse. Tiles materialized in thin air in the direction of her blade and Justice began to walk down them like a staircase. Twilight followed suit with Lyra right behind her. As Lyra stepped off of a tile, it vanished into the ether of whence they came.

This is not the Fade as you are familiar with,” Justice said, turning her mask towards the east. “The magic that tore this place apart eighteen material years ago lingers as strongly now as it did then. Faith and I long suspected that a great magical force within the Material Plane burst, one born of Chaos, and created this pocket dimension in the Fade as you see it now”

“You mean the explosion in the Lyrium mines,” Lyra added. “I’ve never heard of an explosion causing damage to the Fade and the Veil to such a degree though.”

Justice did not seem to register Lyra’s question. “I know not what occurred in the Material, but know that time moves differently in the Fade. Those caught in the burst are living in the same village they lived before thanks to Faith’s shield. However, the Bannora will use the disturbance of your arrival to make an attack on the Chantry.”

A loud whinny shook the Fade itself, making Twilight, Lyra, and Justice turn their heads to source of the disturbance. Galloping in the sky as easily as land, two demons of hatred rushed towards them. Known also as windigos, the hate demons charged forward, their wispy bodies leaving a trail of ice behind them.

Twilight recognized them. She felt their icy breath once before in a cloud temple of the pegasi. Drawing her sword and shield, Twilight yelled at Justice. “We need to get going! Can you make the path faster?!”

I can, but it will be unstable!” Justice began to gallop down the tiles as more materialized. “Quickly! The demons of hate are powerful here, for they feed off the Bannora’s loathing of unicorns! They have come here for a quick meal, but we will show them that we are not simple prey!”

Twilight raised Sophia to the air and fired a lancing beam of violet energy. Lyra joined her by launching a fireball at their direction. Both attacks failed to connect as the windigos shifted their very bodies to avoid the attack. Both windigos opened their mouths and let loose a gust of frigid air. Twilight braced herself by raising a barrier that protected herself and Lyra.

With a shout to hurry, Twilight began to gallop anew down the path Justice provided. The windigos gained on them, however, and with their powerful magic began to create large shards of ice with which to skewer the two unicorns. As the icicles flew through the air with lethal intent, Lyra turned to face the two windigos, the strings of her staff glowing with a golden light.

Opening her mouth, Lyra unleashed a torrent of flame with her familiar Dragon’s Breath spell. This caught the windigos off guard. They whinnied and galloped away from the flames, but Twilight knew they would simply make another pass for them. Lyra turned around to join Twilight and the two continued to run down the tiles, with Justice waiting for them halfway down.

Hold fast!” Justice said as she pointed with her sword. “The demons, they attack again!”

True to her word, the winidigos surged through the air like the winds of a hurricane. Both of the hate demons rushed by the Grey Wardens, making the tiles beneath their hooves shift, even though they were under Twilight’s shield. With a yelp, Twilight felt her footing slip from under her and she fell, only just able to catch onto the edge of the tile with her forelegs.

Twilight felt her lower half swing underneath as she tried to desperately hang on to the platform. The biting cold from the windigos did not help her hold and her hooves began to slip. The windigos closed in for the kill only to be warded off by a sudden flame sparked from the edge of Lrya’s staff.

Lyra set her staff to hover in front of her, the strings of the lyre spewing a continuous stream of fire all around. With the windigos at bay, Lyra knelt down and pulled Twilight up with her hooves. Twilight scrambled in the air, stretching her hind leg as far as she could to so as to get a hold on the tiles.

As much as this battle took place in the realm of dreams, Twilight knew all too well the real and deadly consequences of dying in the Fade.

With all four hooves set on the platform, Twilight launched a quick reprisal at the windigos, throwing Sophia at them while igniting the edge of the blade with violet flame. The sword struck one of the windigos, slicing through one of its forelegs which vanished as a wisp of cold air. All this did was make them hate Twilight further and they redoubled their efforts.

Quickly!” Justice shouted, pointing a hoof towards another large landmass. “I see the way to the village! We must hurry!”

Twilight and Lyra did not need to be told twice about the danger they faced. They galloped as fast as their hooves could carry them, firing more spells at the windigos as opportunity allowed. As they neared the edge of the landmass, Twilight took a deep breath. They were almost on firm ground.

As they made hooffall onto the ground, the land they stood on began to shake. Suddenly more demons appeared including several pony shaped shadows wearing ragged robes and a single burning eye where the face should be. In the center of the shades, a small volcano erupted, spewing forth a creature of fire and lava. The creature roared as it took shape in the form of a large boar. Molten tusks dripped lava from the tips.

Curse them,” Justice said as she entered a battle stance. “They attack with hunger shades and a demon of rage!”

That is a rage demon?!” Lrya balked, “I thought they were formless masses of fire!”

Twilight grimaced as she raised both shield and sword, prepared for battle against the mass of demons. “They must be getting stronger, just like how the windigos did not even exist hundreds of years ago!”

The rage demon scraped its hoof on the ground, kicking up both dirt and fire. It let out a loud, primal squeal as befitting a boar. “Kill them! Kill them!” the burning boar roared, “Scorch their bones! Feast on flesh!”

I will keep the demons of hatred off of our backs,” Justice said, moving to the rear. “You two will need to contend with these other monstrosities.”

Twilight nodded and kept her sword and shield raised high. Lyra drew the sword from her staff and held them aloft. They both nodded to each other knowing the stakes of the coming conflict. As the hunger shades drew closer, Twilight and Lyra both sprung to attack.

In a storm of swords and spells, both unicorn Grey Wardens cleaved their way through the shades. While the shades tried to scratch them with twisted claws instead of hooves, their power as the weakest of the Fade’s demons meant little to the sheer magical might of the Commander of the Grey and an Imperial Battlemage. Twilight’s sword swung like a deadly pendulum cutting through the raggedy robes of the hunger demons, while her horn blasted any foe that came near with either arcane power or the frigid cold of cryoturgy.

Lyra did the same, making her way through the demon horde that rose to defeat them with her thin blade and her spells of flame. The narrow sword she drew from her staff pierced its way through the glowing eye of a hunger demon while a fireball set the robes of several more alight. The demons ran off screaming, but for every demon they vanquished, another took its place.

The rage boar, infuriated from the defeat its minions suffered, charged through its own allies, knocking them aside so as to get to the Wardens itself. It aimed for Twilight first, bringing its molten tusks to bear against her. Twilight managed to turn at just the right time, bringing Ironguard up just at the moment the tusks came within striking distance. The blow still struck her hard and her magic wavered from the strength the boar exhibited.

A bolt from a crossbow embedded itself into the boar’s shoulder, eliciting a squeal of pain. The boar and Twilight turned to see Berry Punch once more taking a high vantage point and reloading her crossbow.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Warden,” Berry Punch said as she snapped a new bolt into place. “I’m here to because I didn’t really have a choice, and I’d rather take my chances with you than these demons!”

Berry quickly silenced herself and ducked behind cover as the boar opened its mouth and spewed out a cone of flame. With the rage demon distracted, Twilight levitated her sword over to the fiery creature’s hide and stabbed it in the midsection. The rage demon squealed again, only this time its legs buckled from under it.

Her teeth grinding against each other, Twilight raised her sword for a finishing blow. In one downward slash, she severed the boar’s head from its body. She quickly backed away from the molten mess that spilled from the creature’s body. It was not dead, not in the true sense of the world, but it would take a long while for it to reconstruct itself. With its demise, the other demons fled from the battlefield. Justice returned to them as the windigos sped off into the Fade’s sky, missing many of their limbs.

Berry leapt from her perch to join Twilight, Lyra, and Justice. “This place is insane,” she said, loading another crossbow bolt. “I’m going to need something strong down my gullet after this. This is the Fade, isn’t it?”

She looked around for a moment and marveled. “I can’t believe I’m really here,” she said in awe. “They said it was impossible.”

“You’re real body isn’t here,” Twilight explained, “This is just an image constructed by our minds, but believe me; it is very, very real. I guess it will be us three and Justice though; Oghren and Sparky don’t have Fade presences, so they can’t help us on this side.”

Before Berry could say something else, Justice rushed to her with the Scales of Judgment held high. “I feel the weight of crimes on this one,” the spirit said, “I would judge her for her crimes!”

“Justice, stop!” Twilight blurted out, pushing Justice’s scales down. “I know what you are sensing. She tried to kill me, so I gave her a trial. I found her guilty and exiled her from my domain. However, she also saved me twice now. Once from the ponyspawn and now from a demon. I believe some leniency is allowed.”

Justice stared at Berry, only to put away her scales. “If she has been judged by the court of ponies, then my duty will not interfere in that ruling.”

“In any event, we are close to the village and thus the Chantry. We should hurry, as more demons will--“

Justice’s words cut themselves short as the ground rumbled again. All brought their weapons in preparation of a fight as dozens upon dozens of shades, rage boars, and other demons appeared before them. In the distance came a roar. Twilight looked to the source and used magic to enhance her sight. Barreling down the hill of the landmass galloped a pride demon of exceptional size, his lithe reptilian body shining in the ambient light of the Fade. Both of his tentacles, ending in snapping claws, clacked about as it landed in the midst of the army of demons. At the pride demon’s sides stood two desire demons, both wearing sheer silk and jewelry of gold. Their flaming manes crackled as they hung off the pride demon’s body. They looked to each other and smirked before letting loose a deafening scream.

“There’s too many of them!” Lyra shouted.

“Run!” At Twilight’s words, the four galloped across the Fade with Justice at the helm and a horde of demons at their hooves. Twilight never saw so many demons in one place before. The sheer numbers alone would make any hardened soldier of Fade-traversed mage pause with terror.

As they ran away in the direction Justice led them to, Twilight heard the sound of dozens of hooves galloping towards them. Twilight stopped and took a deep breath. A demon horde behind them. An unknown force charging in front of them. The edge of the abyss to the side. A mountain to round things out. Twilight found herself trapped between dangers often, but this was ridiculous. Brandishing her sword, Twilight decided to not run anymore. She summoned the arcane warrior’s helm and felt the cold encasement of steel surround her head. Despite the helm only having a small visor, to Twilight, it was like she did not wear a helmet at all.

If they wanted to bring the Commander of the Grey down, they would come for a fight.

Only for Justice to chastise her. “You have spent too many nights surrounded, my friend,” she said, “For those that come to us mean us not harm, but to rescue us.”

True to her word, a dozen ponies, actual equines crested over the hill shouting war cries. Unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi all held weapons aloft to fight against the demon horde. Pegasi rained down spears and arrows while earth ponies and unicorns formed a defensive perimeter around the Grey Wardens, Berry, and Justice. Two unicorns, dressed in the plain robes of scribes, raised their staves high and created a lattice barrier.

“Stay behind!” shouted the stallion, “The will drag you into their swarm if you get out of the barrier. Seen it enough times! Rather not see it with happen to our new guests!”

Twilight charged her sword with simple yet potent blasting spells, launching a barrage of magical bolts to keep the demons at bay. Lyra joined her with a stream of fire from her staff. Others formed up at the edge of the barrier. Whenever a demon drew too near, an earth pony sword drove them back before they could breach the barrier.

“We can’t keep this up forever,” the unicorn mare shouted to Justice. “They’ve grown in number too much!”

“So have you!” Twilight lowered her horn and joined her magic with the other two. With her arcane might working in tandem with the unicorns, the shield grew even more powerful. Demons that threw themselves against the barrier bounced harmlessly off. Even the barrage of spells the desire demons lobbed at the ponies did nothing against the barrier.

However, while the demons struggled against the reinforced barrier, Twilight felt something within the two unicorns’ magic. Something familiar, as if she felt her own presence within their spellwork. The thought unnerved her. It couldn’t be… could it?

Justice stepped forward, her sword and scales held high, and Twilight refocused on the barrier. Justice held her scales aloft towards the demons. The scale did not need to represent their hearts against the Feather of Truth: the scale for the judged dropped almost instantly.

I judge you all guilty!” Justice shouted, “The penalty is death! You are fortunate though that practicality stays the Sword of Retribution, but while Justice may slow this day, Justice will never waver! You will be punished for your crimes!”

Stabbing the ground with her blade, Justice reached for her mask and removed it. A single radiant, almost blinding orb of light shone where the mask once was. To Twilight, it looked more like a small star. With the mask removed, Justice unleashed a wave of light from her very being, a wave that washed over the demon hordes as if they were nothing. The weaker hunger shades disintegrated almost immediately, while the more powerful demons retreated. The desire demons hissed and fled, while the pride demon stood its ground.

“We come for you!” the pride demon roared, “One day, Faith will be broken and Justice brought to ruin! All will feel the sting of our barbs, our teeth, our magic! There will be no mercy!”

With that said the pride demon opened a portal and stepped through it. Those demons that did not have such power simply opted to continue their retreat. Justice stared at the fleeing hordes, put her mask back on, and promptly buckled onto her knee-plates.

Lyra rushed to Justice’s aid and offered her side for support, which Justice took gladly. “Thank you, Lyra Hearthstrings,” she said, sounding winded. “The use of such power drains me. I will need to rest. But we won this day. We should continue on to the Chantry. Faith is waiting for us.”

Aided by Lyra, Justice took the lead once more, followed by the other ponies trapped in the Fade. Now Twilight took a good look at the unicorns that felt so familiar to them. The stallion was tall, lean, with an indigo coat and a darker blue mane. His yellow eyes seemed to carry a shine to them, and as Twilight regarded him, he gave her a warm smile. The mare had a white coat with a white mane accompanied with purple streaks. Her violet eyes shared the stallion’s comforting virtue. For some reason Twilight felt safe near them. They were not demons in disguise. Sadly, their robes covered their cutie marks.

As they walked, Twilight saw in the distance a small village. She tentatively approached with the rest of the group. The last time she was in a village in the Fade, demons occupied it and haunted her and her friends with their deepest desires as a means to avoid conflict. This time, the village appeared deserted with nary a soul wandering the roads. The buildings looked old and dilapidated save for the Chantry near the village’s central square.

The Chantry stood tall and resplendent with its high steeple roof and shining stain glass windows depicting Celestia, Luna, and their various symbols. At one point the Chantry would have given her comfort, but ever since Twilight saw the vision of the Eluvian, she saw nothing but an establishment built on a lie. She sighed and then joined the others as they stepped inside the Chantry.

Humble in its presentation, the Chantry building saw itself more of a refuge than a house of worship. Amongst the ponies who stood about were the elderly, the infirm, and the young. Twilight’s heart broke at the sight of foals huddled in the shadows; they might not know their bodies were long dead. The sight of new ponies scared them, and they huddled in the hooves of their parents.

“Look,” Berry said, pointing a hoof upward. Twilight looked up and gasped at the brilliant sight. Floating high above all of their heads, the spirit of Faith maintained a sphere of light all around its body. The soft glow of sunlight that shone through her form gave Twilight ease of her worries. Everypony glanced up to the spirit and thanked it with a quick recitation of the Chant. To them, Faith might as well be Celestia and Luna themselves. Of course, she protected them with a very real shield that kept the demons out.

Like Justice, Faith wore a mask to cover her sunlight body. Unlike the more martial spirit, Faith wore flowing robes that appeared to be made of long scrolls of text. As Faith floated down, Twilight saw the text as being passages of the Chant.

Justice, my friend. My heart is lightened to see you here once again.” As Faith spoke, Twilight thought she heard Chantry chimes ringing in her ears. The voice was beautiful, melodic, and easing. “When I felt the Bannora’s demons grow in number, I feared the worse.”

“None can stand against Justice,” Justice said, standing up on her own power. “I have found those who crossed the Veil and saved them from Lazilia’s clutches. An Imperial Battlemage Lyra. An assassin already punished. But of all, I found Arcana.”

Faith turned her mask towards the three ponies and much to Twilight’s surprise, the light from Faith dimmed considerably. She backed away. “You are all… broken. Arcana… I feel your faith… broken. I feel the Battlemage’s faith… broken. And you…”

“You never had Faith to begin with.”

Berry shifted uncomfortably on her hooves, but otherwise did not react to Faith’s accusation. “You have something to drink in here?” she asked incredulously.

Faith moved on from Berry, casting a cautious glance at her, then went on to Lyra. “Your faith is broken after years of lies and deceit. What has happened to the world of the Material that I look into your heart and see your faith in such disrepair?”

She then moved on to Twilight, who still wore her helmet. “And you, Grey Warden… your Faith has recently been shaken. You have seen things that confuse you, that tears your heart asunder. But while your faith in the Chant dims, I feel another, more powerful faith in your friends. So long as you believe in the strength of friendship, your inner strength will shine through. But beware, for faith is easily barraged by the circumstances of our lives. It can be shaken, or turned to a dangerous Fervor.”

Faith then floated back to the middle of the room and resumed her task of keeping the Chantry protected. Berry walked away, turning only to give Faith a dirty look. Lyra returned to aid Justice. That left Twilight with the two unicorns she felt she knew.

“Been a heck of a day, hasn’t it, Warden?” The stallion unicorn said, sitting on his haunches against one of the Chantry’s support pillars. “I both wish you were not stuck here in the Fade and very glad you and your allies came through to help us, but I don’t think you went looking for us. How did you end up in this realm anyways?”

“I was fighting a powerful ornlock in the real world,” Twilight explained. “He used the most potent blood magic I’ve ever encountered. I used my own magic to stop him, but with the Veil around the Blackmarsh so damaged, I think that sloth demon was able to use its influence and bring our minds into the Fade.”

The mare shook her head. “Blackmarsh… is that what became of Cornucopia? That land… the ponies who lived and worked there… so much promise gone in an instant.”

The mare buried her head into the chest of the stallion, sobbing lightly while Twilight stood awkwardly to the side. She did not know what to say to comfort those two. With their bodies long dead and their home a mire of nightmares.

“There, there, hun,” the stallion said, stroking the mare’s mane. He looked up at Twilight and offered a sad smile. “I’m sorry you have to see us in such a sorry state. It’s only because of Faith and Justice we hang on at all, if only barely. Still, it doesn’t do me any good to be rude. Allow me to introduce ourselves. My name is Night Light, resident bookbinder and record keeper of Cornucopia. At least, I was. And this is my wife, Twilight Velvet.”

Twilight’s heart stopped as she stared at the older mare. After all this time… all the silence, could it really be that these two were…? Twilight… Twilight was an uncommon name… one could say rare but… it couldn’t be…

There was only one way to make sure.

With a spark from her horn, Twilight dispelled the arcane warrior’s helmet around her head. Her lavender locks fell to frame her face. Both at of the unicorns stared in shock at her. They looked to each other with mouths agape.

Twilight choked as she tried to find the words. “My… my name is Twilight. Twilight Sparkle. I think… I think I’m your daughter.”

The Long Nightmare

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Oghren groaned as he rolled onto his back with his head feeling like a thousand warhammers all started rutting at once. How martial weapons got it on was beyond him, but he was sure he did not want to find out. A thousand hangovers could have rattled his skull, but nothing felt worse than whatever that sodding Shaper did to him.

He could still see himself with his axe in his mouth fighting against Twilight, intent on cleaving her head from her neck. Oghren was many things: a lout, a former drunk, a lech, but he would never go against Twilight. She did more for him than all the donkeys in Orzamule ever did. She gave him hope in finding Branka. Stone, she found Branka, even if it the meeting ended up a brutal battle. Twilight received a scar in that fight that she would bear for the rest of her days. As far as he was concerned, Twilight is family.

To that, the idea that he almost killed her infuriated him. He was a donkey, by the Stone, and a damn strong one at that. How could he have not been able to resist the magic? Then again, the spells the Shaper used felt more powerful than anything Oghren had ever experienced. Twilight would know. He needed to find her.

Shaking the mud and blood from his beard, Oghren stood up and picked up his axe, slinging it back onto his back. He saw Sparky nearby and walked to her on painful legs. Every muscle in his body burned against his bones, but a little pain did not matter to him. Pain just made his berserker blood flow again. He nudged Sparky with a hoof eliciting a slight mumble from her. She kicked one of her hind legs and then stretched it to scratch her ear. Annoyed with her, Oghren whapped her across the snout, making Sparky yelp in pain.

“Why you hit Sparky!?” she yelled, rubbing her nose, only to rub her head. “Oh… Sparky head hurt. Saw Tilite and…”

“Tilite!” Sparky began to whine as her own memories rushed over her. “Sparky stab Tilite! Why Sparky do that? She good to pack, good to Sparky!”

“She’s good to all of her friends,” Oghren said, “But that ponyspawn bastard used some kind of magic to control our bodies. Controlled our sodding mouths too. If I ever get my hooves on him…”

Of course, that was the problem. He looked around and the Blackmarsh looked worse than when they first arrived. He could not see Twilight, Lyra, or the Shaper anywhere. They would not just leave them in the swamp, so something must have happened to them. They needed to find Twilight and Lyra soon. Oghren did not much care for swamps, but something about this place felt wrong.

“Sparky, get up and use your big nose to find Twilight,” Oghren said, unslinging his axe. “I’m going to make sure we don’t have any more surprises.”

Sparky nodded and began to sniff the air in an attempt to find a scent. As Sparky searched for their friends, Oghren searched for foes. He might as well stick to his strengths. He also wanted to see if he could find the Shaper, or any ponyspawn for that matter. Something that he could sink his axe into to take off the edge.

As he searched, he saw a valley within the swamp. He trudged through the mud, each step a slog to get through with his heavy boots. As he approached the ridge, Oghren looked down and made a noise of consternation. It seemed the swamp held more secrets than he cared for.

“Oghren!” Sparky shouted, “Come! Come! I find them!”

Slinging his axe onto his back, Oghren did his best to gallop through the muck in the direction of Sparky’s voice. As he approached, he breathed a sigh of relief when Sparky stood next to the bodies of Twilight and Lyra. He crouched down and listened to them carefully. Their breathing was shallow, but at least they were breathing. He took some comfort in that they lived, but something still felt wrong.

He tapped Twilight on the side of her leg. “Hey, boss,” Oghren said as gently as he could. “Boss! Wake up!”

“Minty pony not waking up either!” Sparky shook Lyra with the scruff of her robes. “Why they nap now?!”

“No idea…” Oghren then spotted another pony, an earth pony, in the distance. She was armed, but equally unconscious as the other two. Sparky joined him, but as they drew closer to the unknown pony, Sparky started to growl. She bared her teeth at their fullest, showing off every edge and point.

“Me no like her,” she snarled, “she smell bad! We should leave her.”

“Twilight wouldn’t like that,” Oghren chided, “You know how she is with all of her mercy and friendship and stuff. It worked out pretty well for her, so let’s give it a try. Not like you smell any better. Put her and Twilight on my back, then carry Lyra while you keep up with me. I saw a place we can bring them, someplace that looks decently safe.”

Sparky huffed but otherwise said nothing as she lifted the unknown pony and placed her on Oghren’s back. They began the march to the valley in the swamp that Oghren had found and from there he showed what he discovered.

At the bottom of the hill stood the remains of a village long since destroyed. Several of the houses were knocked clean over, some little more than rubble. In the town square, or what Oghren guessed was such, stood several tall buildings which he guessed were for worship and administration. He still did not understand pony villages compared to donkey thaigs. That said, he did see a building that looked solid enough to act as a shelter while Twilight, Lyra, and their new arrival recovered from whatever ailment struck them.

Also in the village, a massive skeleton of three snake-like creatures jutted out from the swamp. It was a creature Oghren had never seen before, at least none that he could recall seeing sober. Nothing like it lived in the Dark Tunnels at least.

Sparky whimpered at the sight. “What that thing?”

“It’s dead is what it is,” Oghren said, “C’mon, let’s get these ponies into that house.”

With a hard kick from his hind leg, Oghren knocked the door to the only standing house wide open and brought the two passengers on his back inside with Sparky following behind him. The house was in decent shape overall, with two bedrooms that held perfectly functioning beds inside. Oghren plopped the unknown earth pony onto the floor while depositing Twilight onto the bed as gently as he could. In the other room, Sparky deposited Lyra on the other bed.

“What we do now?” she asked as she drew her daggers and began the work of sharpening them. Oghren merely sighed.

“The worst blasted thing we can do in this situation. We wait.”

Sparky whimpered and dropped her daggers. She nestled her head underneath Twilight’s right foreleg. Oghren shook his head and then got an idea. He smiled and nestled himself down in a corner.

“I know what will keep your spirits up,” he said, tossing his canteen to Sparky. “The best kind of spirits, the one you drink! Let me tell you about this one time I was buck naked and drunk in Dust Town…”


To say that there was an awkward silence that hung in the air would have been the understatement of the century. Twilight merely stared at Night Light and Velvet as she waited for… anything. Acceptance, refutation, a line of questioning, anything but complete silence. Maybe she should have left her helmet on and focused on the trial of leaving the Fade.

Try as she might to convince herself otherwise, when the opportunity and the evidence both aligned so perfectly, Twilight felt the only course of action was to simply state what she concluded: that she was in fact their daughter. The longer she looked at their faces, Velvet’s in particular, the more she believed they shared a resemblance. The name, while not indicative of much, acted as another clue. The lynchpin was the magical energy Twilight felt when she and the two unicorns joined forces in the creation of a barrier. It felt too much like her own spellwork. Since it came from both of them, Twilight only had one conclusion.

That Night Light and Twilight Velvet were her father and mother.

Throughout the majority of Twilight’s life, she thought herself simply as a student of the Equestrian Tower with no family to speak of. When she brought up the subject of her family to First Enchanter Wise Eyes, he told her that her parents died when she was very young. If the accident that destroyed Cornucopia killed her parents as well, then it would explain so much.

This was what any orphan dreamed of, pun of the Fade notwithstanding. To meet their long lost parents, to have names and faces to their image; Twilight felt her heart race as her emotions ran wild. What would she say if they accepted her conclusion? Would she embrace them? Tell them about her life? A horde of questions rushed through her head and there was no clear answer to any of them.

However, Twilight did harbour fear. What if they rejected her?

Her fears were put to rest as Velvet nodded her head, tears streaming down her face. “It is you,” she breathed out, the words strained and difficult for her. “Celestia’s mercy, it’s our little filly. All grown up… you’ve come back to me.”

“Please tell me this isn’t a cruel trick.” Velvet held Twilight’s hoof in her own, her sobs echoing in the Chantry hall. “Please tell me you are Twilight Sparkle, my little Twily…”

“It is her, love,” Night Light said, barely able to contain tears of his own, “She’s real. She’s here. With us.”

Confirmation from her husband broke the emotional dams for Velvet, who almost threw herself onto Twilight while filling the air with racked sobs. She wept loudly and openly as she almost crushed her daughter in her forelegs. Twilight embraced her mother as tears of her own flowed down her cheeks. Night Light joined the two, wrapping his own hooves around the two mares.

They were a family united.

Nothing pleases my essence than the reuniting of family,” Faith said from her position in the air, “For Faith in family can be a bond that is stronger than any steel. If you require privacy, there are chambers in the Chantry’s basement.”

“She’s right, Twilight,” Lyra said, a genuine smile of joy on her face. She wiped away a tear of her own. “I’ll come get you if anything happens like a demon attack or Berry Punch goes crazy. You just… you just go and be with your parents. Not many ponies get a chance like this, you know.”

Twilight gave a soft thanks to Lyra and then followed her parents into the Chantry basement. They did not need candles or torches as the Fade provided enough light through glowing rocks that made up the landmass.

Once everypony sat comfortably, Twilight gave her parents a nervous laugh. “This… this isn’t really what I thought for a reunion,” she said, “So I guess you have a lot of questions.”

Velvet immediately jumped on the chance. “Were you treated well in the Tower? How did you do in the Harrowing? Why did you become a Grey Warden? Has there been a Blight? Are you seeing anypony? Do you have foals of your own? I don’t know where to begin, I want to know everything about my little Twily!”

“Calm down, dear,” Night Light said, giving his wife a warm smile a comforting hoof against her own. “We… we don’t know how much time we have until the next attack. Let’s start from the beginning.”

Twilight did so. She told them about her life in the Tower, about hatching Spike from his egg, about her Harrowing, and about meeting the leader of the Equestrian Grey Wardens, Duncan, to fight against the Fifth Blight. She told them about meeting all her friends on the road: from fellow warden Applejack who would be queen, the swamp witch who wanted to be a fashion star Rarity, the kind spy Fluttershy, the wild yet fun Pinkie Pie, to the assassination attempt and befriending of Rainbow Dash. She told them of her rival Trixie who took over as First Enchanter of the Tower, of Oghren the donkey berserker who joined the Grey Wardens, to Shale the Indestructible golem warrior and foe to all pigeons.

She regaled them with tales of all her adventures in succinct form. From the failed battle of Ostequus to the demon invasion of the Tower, to Orzamule and the Temple of Luna. She told of battles against the high dragon, to encounters with hippogryphs. She told of the Battle of Trotterim and the death of Spike. She told of how her journeys brought her to her parents after the excursion to the Dark Tunnels and the loss of another friend.

Throughout all of this, Velvet never seemed to stop crying, though her sobbing lessened, somewhat. “You’ve been through so much,” she said, “I wish we could have been there with you. Helped you. Celebrated your victories and comforted you through loss.”

“We always knew you would be a great pony,” Night Light said, his face beaming with fatherly pride. “We just… never expected all of this.”

“But what about you?” Twilight asked, though unsure if she wanted the answers. “Blackmarsh has been the way it has been for over twenty years. You two are long… long…”

“Dead?” Night Light gave a sad chuckle. “We know. We know more than most of the ponies here who still live in denial. Time moves at a different rate for many within the Fade. For your mother and I, it has been a long time… seeing you all grown up made us realize just how long we’ve been trapped here. You must be twenty-three by now… you were two when the Templars came to take you to the Tower.”

Twilight nodded. Night Light continued. “Cornucopia was an experiment in pony cooperation between earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns as decreed by King Maverick. But it couldn’t be just any community, it needed to be prosperous. The king was nothing if not practical. So an opportunity arose when prospectors found the largest lyrium deposit so close to the surface. Just on the border of Amarethine, it should have fell under Arl Maim’s purview, but King Maverick declared the village a royal protectorate. He really wanted the village to work and even visited a number of times; though that dropped off during another stand-off with Filais.”

“Your father and I moved to Cornucopia after our wedding in the Tower,” Velvet said. She still held Twilight’s hoof as if it were a lifeline. Twilight did not mind. “We were supposed to aid the other unicorns in researching lyrium, assist with the mining and storage of lyrium. We were happy there. The mine was prosperous, the farms were rich, everypony was happy. We really were living a happy life in a happy community.”

“But what happened?” Twilight asked. “Everything seemed so wonderful for you two and everypony involved. What disaster struck you to be besieged by demons?”

Night Light shook his head and walked over to a nearby desk. There he lit up his horn and pulled out a small blueprint. It appeared to be the Cornucopia lyrium mines. “On the surface things look peaceful and prosperous, but underneath things were boiling over, literally and figuratively. First, because of the surface mine, we did not need to have as much trade with Orzamule. This angered the Cartas who dealt almost exclusively with lyrium, including smuggling to Maleficar and other apostates. They set about to sabotage the mines by making the lyrium explode.”

“Second was the administrator Arl Maim put in charge. Since he could not tax the land like he wanted to, Arl Maim demanded that he appoint a Bann from his section of the Bannorn. He chose Bannora Aurora Lights, but nowadays her mind is so splintered and she’s so far from a pony now we just call her the Bannora. She obsessed with magic despite being an earth pony. We believe she might have brought us all to the Fade by accident, because of her own practicing of Dark Arts. Maybe she even has a False Horn. Justice can tell you more about the creature the Bannora has become. She’s been fighting her for years.”

Velvet looked over in the corner of the room with fear. “The third thing… well, maybe it’s better to show you.”

Velvet led Twilight to the corner of the basement where a large stack of crates lay. She moved them aside with her magic until she found a much, much smaller box, one that would have fit in the middle of Twilight’s hoof. She pushed the box with her hooves towards Twilight.

“Whatever you do, don’t open it and don’t use magic,” Velvet warned. “The power inside the box is unlike anything we have ever seen before. We only just managed to seal it inside when we found it. The mine… it dug too deep.”

Twilight looked down on the box and felt an incredible yet volatile presence within. It felt like pure lyrium but utterly wrong. The longer she stared at the box, the more she felt like her mind was going to go mad. Already she felt an immense pressure on her brow as whispers filled her ears.

Velvet slid the box back into its darkened corner. “Even in the Fade, that… thing has power. It also means the box we used to seal it in the real world still exists as well. What is inside is what we call red lyrium, or raw lyrium. Whatever it is, it is more volatile than regular lyrium and drove the miners and the Carta saboteurs insane. They blew up the mines with the red lyrium, completely warping the region from the vast plains to the swamplands you mentioned before. The Bannora’s dark magic coupled with the power of the blast brought us here, stuck between death and the afterlife.”

Before Twilight could ask questions about the red lyrium, a loud explosion shook the Chantry even down to the basement level with violent tremors. Velvet immediately jumped on top of her daughter to protect her from falling debris, while Night Light covered both of them with his form. The screams and shouts from the upper level, while somewhat muffled, still conveyed the chaos up above.

“We need to get up there,” Twilight said. Her mother tentatively let go of her, her eyes filled with sadness. Twilight gave her parents a strong smile to reassure them and drew her sword for emphasis. She was not the foal the Templar took from them decades ago. She was a Grey Warden, and she would fight to protect anypony from evil, whether ponyspawn or demons.

They rushed up the stairs one by one until they were back in the main worship hall. The foals hid in the corners surrounded by adults, their hooves over their heads in a desperate bid to defend themselves. Another explosion made the Chantry tremble with bits of the roof falling all around their heads. Twilight looked to the main entrance and saw no sign of forced entry. She guessed the demons were using a scare tactic.

“Everypony, stay calm,” Twilight called out, “If they wanted to breach the walls, they would have done so.”

The spirit of Faith floated down in front of Twilight. The light within her appeared faded. “The more the demons attack my barrier, the weaker I become. Not only are their attacks powerful on their own, but with each passing day, the faith of these beleaguered ponies wane. My strength will fall soon.”

“Then it is about time we put an end to this.” Justice walked over to Twilight and Faith though unlike her counterpart, the sunlight from Justice’s body radiated almost blindingly, fueled by righteous fury. Twilight could feel the power emanating from within the spirit.

The only way these ponies will be free to move on to the hereafter, the only way they can have justice, is if we bring the fight to the Bannora herself. She is more demon now than pony, and as such, I believe this conflict will end only with her demise.”

“We have spoken of this at great length, Justice,” Faith said, “While I have no doubt in your power as a spirit, the ponies here are not warriors. Each time you leave the walls, it is a miracle you come back at all.”

Justice nodded, but then pointed a steel clad hoof at Twilight. “That was before Twilight Sparkle Arcana arrived. She and her friend Lyra Heartstrings have proven capable mages. They are still connected to the material plane as well, so their bodies reinforce their magic. Together, we have the best chance to defeat the Bannora. Perhaps the only chance.”

It sounded like another suicide mission to Twilight. She should get used to these by now, but she did not want to get complacent. Justice’s plan was a good one. If the Bannora truly was more demon than pony, then she commanded this segment section of the Fade. Like the Sloth Demon who attacked Twilight and her friends in the Tower, only with his defeat did they manage to get out of the Fade. However, Twilight did have concerns; how could a pony, an earth pony no less, command a portion of the Fade and an army of demons as well as keep two spirits at bay? That kind of power was unheard of.

“I’m with you, Justice,” Lyra said, joining Twilight’s side. “Everyone here deserves to rest in peace. They deserve justice. I’ve done some pretty crazy things, but I believe we can do this.”

“I’ll be by your side as well,” Twilight added, “Lyra is right. We need to give everypony here to move on to whatever lies beyond. Besides, I’ve been in worse situations. I just had a small army of friends behind me then.”

“Twilight…” Velvet approached her daughter and held her close. “I know… I know you have to do this. It pains me to see my daughter diving headfirst into danger. The idea of losing you so soon after meeting you… it hurts. But if… When you succeed then this portion of the Fade will vanish. Our souls will be free.”

“What your mother is trying to say is…” Night Light held both wife and daughter close. “We’re glad to have met you, Twilight. We’re proud of what you accomplished, and no matter what happens, you belong in our hearts. We love you, Twilight.”

Twilight took a deep breath and embraced her parents tighter. However, Justice was already opening the door to begin their mission against the Bannora. She let go of her parents and said, “I’m going to free you from this torment. Then I’ll be back as soon as I can so we have some time together.”

Flanked by Lyra and Justice, Twilight gave one last look at her parents who waved at her as she walked out of the Chantry. She felt overwhelmed; she never thought she’d meet her parents today, much less in the Fade. If she wanted to get back to them, she would need to keep the Fade stable herself, but to do so sounded cruel and—

Twilight took a deep breath. What she really needed to do was calm down and focus on the task at hoof. The Bannora bound them to this portion of the Fade. The longer they stayed here, the more their bodies wasted away in the real world.

Before Twilight could leave the barrier, Berry Punch jumped down and confronted her. “You’re not going anywhere without me,” Berry said in a challenging tone. “I need you alive so I’m going with you to make sure of it.”

Lyra raised her brow. “And what exactly do you need Twilight for? To kill her yourself?”

“I have my reasons.” Berry said, though she did not look at Lyra at all. She kept her gaze locked on Twilight. Twilight did not pay Berry much attention; she would deal with Berry once they were out of the Fade. Her focus remained solely on defeating the Bannora and saving her parents.


As they left, Velvet held onto her husband. She watched her daughter, a noble and a hero, walk headfirst into danger once more. To save them.

“We should have told her,” Velvet said, “What if she doesn’t come back in time? What if she doesn’t come back at all?”

“She will defeat the Bannora. I know it.” Night Light held his wife’s shoulders tight. He kissed her cheek. “You saw how she was after finding her parents. She needs a strong mind to face the monsters in this realm. If she knew, there is a chance it would hurt her more than help her. No. We’ll wait for her to return. We will see her again. Then we can tell her about Shining Armour.”

“Then we can tell her about her brother.”


They walked in silence until they reached the edge of Faith’s shield. The golden light of the barrier lay as the only divisor between sanctuary and the demon hordes that hungered beyond. As far as Twilight could see, only a few demons patrolled the lands far from the Chantry building. Windigos brought their cold winds and frigid hate to the skies. Hunger demons skulked along the ground. Twilight took a deep breath to calm her already rattled nerves. After everything she went through in the span of a day, simple breathing exercises did not work.

Justice raised her sword to the sky and made it glow with a radiant golden light. From the tip of the blade she made another barrier form, similar to the one created by Faith. With a new barrier, Justice stepped out of the one created by her fellow spirit, almost extending it into a small pocket of the Fade. Justice motioned for the others to follow. Twilight stepped between barriers first, followed by Lyra and then Berry.

My shield is not as powerful as the one of Faith,” Justice explained, “for I favour my scales and sword. However, it should be enough to move us closer to the Bannora’s stronghold. I have tried to make this assault before, but the ponies of the village are not warriors. The Bannora is powerful, but I believe we have the means to defeat her.”

“Justice, how did you and Faith end up in this section of the Fade?” Lyra asked, “I thought spirits had more freedom of movement in the Fade because they are more powerful than demons.”

Normally, this is true,” Justice confirmed, “The spirits were given freedom to move about the Fade as beacons for ponies. However, we are not nearly as numerous as our demon counterparts are. In addition, when demons have a pony host or a pony benefactor, they can gain incredibly potency. This is why demons seek to create pacts with ponies in the material plane. They want the power of essence that ponies possess.

Twilight thought on what Justice said and tried to associate it with things she read on the Fade and from her own experience. As far as she knew, demons tried to cross over into the Material Plane to possess a pony’s body out of jealousy that they could not materialize their own bodies. Ponies also acted as walking, talking reservoirs of emotions, the very thing that demons fed upon. She never heard of a pony’s spirit being strong enough to exist independently within the Fade.

“Have you ever encountered the Bannora before? In battle?” Twilight looked to Justice, who dipped her head low.

“I did once,” she responded, “It is my greatest shame that I could not dispense with her and give retribution. Her mastery over fear is… uncanny. I truly did not think I would be brought under her sway, and only with great will and the presence of Faith did I escape in time. I thought her just a demon my blade could slay. I sorely underestimated the tenacity of the unjust.

“But now that you three are with me, I have no fear. Today is the day the Bannora meets her end.”

Twilight was not so sure, so she remained silent as they walked along the Fade’s twisted landscape. Unusual for landmasses in the Fade, this one was much larger than any Twilight experienced before. Granted, she did not recall many adventures into the realm of dreams save for the incursion back at the Tower, but nothing she read prepared her for this. So long as the Fade remained a place so easily shifted by emotions, memories, and dreams, it was nearly impossible to make any definitive conclusion on the realm.

As they marched through the Fade, Twilight did notice that this region felt rather devoid of oddities. No floating furniture, no twisted visages from dreams or nightmares alike, nothing out of ordinary if the ordinary came from the real world. Just a barren land filled with rocks and dirt. Something was not right, Twilight thought. The Fade should have been… different.

“Justice, the Fade feels wrong,” she said, looking around for a clue as to why things were the way they are. “Is it something the Bannora did?”

It is,” Justice confirmed, “One thing I cannot understand is how she shifted the entirety of the Fade in this region to her personal fortress. She wields the power of the Fade. From such, strange creations have made their presence known. Things I have not even seen.”

If Justice never saw the things the Bannora used, then this mission became a lot more complicated. Perhaps the red lyrium her parents showed her played the part of catalyst for corrupting the Fade even further than a demon could. Twilight would have preferred doing research on the matter, but time and urgency did not allow for such. For now, she could only follow Justice’s lead.

As they walked, Twilight stopped cold as she felt an immense weight that lay on her back. Her eyes went wide as she felt her heart beat a hundred times a minute. Dread passed over her and her body started to tremble. Something was not right here. Something evil lurked in the shadows, in the air, in the very rocks. Something bestial. Sinister.

Her breathing, now shallow and forced, made her stagger backwards. Twilight turned her maddened gaze to the others, to see if the same force that washed over her affected them. She looked to Lyra and called out to her, only to recoil at the sight. Lyra’s flesh melted away in front of her very eyes, the skin, and the muscle mass, everything flowing like lava down the side of a volcano. Twilight cried out for Lyra, but her voice was silent.

Lyra’s skeleton stepped out of the pool of gore that was her own flesh and stared at Twilight with empty voids in her sockets. She opened her mouth and a high-pitched scream tore through the air. A mane of fire erupted from her skull and she drew her sword from her staff, which also ignited.

Twilight drew her sword and tried to take a defensive position. This was an illusion, she knew it, but everything felt so real. The flames from the skeleton’s mane exuded heat that blasted against her skin. The smell of burning flesh filled her nostrils. Everything was real.

She called out to Justice, only to see the spirit shift and change just as Lyra did. The sunlight that made up Justice's body turned scarlet and then began to flow like blood within a mass of twisted metal that was her armour. The armour then produced large, twisted spines that stretched into fine pointed needles. The mask of Justice morphed as well. The blindfold blasted off the eyes and Twilight only barely ducked out of the way of the molten metal. Twilight then saw two burning orbs of energy of which she felt an incredibly fury within them. The face of a pony mutated into that of a wolf, long fangs protruding from the mouth of the mask.

Twilight then looked to Berry, who was not immune to the twisted metamorphosis that played out before her eyes. Berry’s eyes lit up with a sickly yellow glow, and she smiled at Twilight with a grin that stretched too wide and with far too many teeth, similar to a donlock. Her limbs began to grow to an obscene length, turning spindly like those of an insect. Her neck stretched out to an impossible length, turning in complete disorder but heading towards Twilight. A striped, green tongue slipped out between her long serrated teeth.

“This isn’t real!” Twilight screamed, “Lyra! Justice! Berry! This isn’t you! This isn’t you!”

“Twilight!” Lyra’s voice called out to her, and when Twilight blinked, the burning skeleton was gone and her fellow Warden stood in front of her holding her shoulders. Twilight looked around to see Justice and Berry their usual selves, though now Justice bore her sword.

The magic in this area is more powerful than I expected,” Justice said, “The last time we tried to attack the Bannora, she simply sent out her legions. Now her manipulation tries to break your spirit from a far.”

Twilight took deep, laboured breaths in an attempt to steady her limbs. “I saw you all turn to monsters,” Twilight said, “I knew it was fake, that it was just an illusion, but it felt so real.”

“We call the Bannora’s fortress ‘Vereor’.” Justice pointed her blade to an empty expanse in the distance. “I did not think we would face her vile magic until we were inside the fortress.”

“Vereor… that’s an Imperial word.” Lyra closed her eyes and plucked a few strings on the lyre on her staff. The short tune soothed Twilight’s nerves.

“What does it mean?” Twilight asked, her knowledge of the Imperial lexicon rather lacking.


A beam of yellow light pierced through the air of the Fade, tearing it asunder until it struck a single hard point in the middle of the air. The air rippled as if a stone hit the surface of a lake. The yellow light flowed outward and tore away at the layers of illusions that shrouded Vereor Fortress. As the illusion peeled away, Twilight gasped at the sheer magnitude of the Bannora’s fortress. Not only was the structure large, but it was also bizarre and misshapen in ways only described as impossible. An architect from the real world would have seen this and called it a monstrosity.

This is the lair of our enemy,” Justice said, “My light can reveal the source of the fear, but only the blade will bring justice to this terrible criminal. Steel yourselves, for by revealing her fortress, the Bannora will send out her legions to stand against us. Then we must contend with her conjurations once we are inside.”

Justice looked Twilight straight in the eye. “If the illusions that affected you here caused distress, then those inside will destroy your mind. The demons that serve the Bannora are unlike any you have ever bear witness to.”

“I’ll be fine,” Twilight said quickly, though she was unsure of her own words. The only way to save her parents from this nightmare was to delve into the fortress of the Bannora, so that was what Twilight would do. Still, she looked on at the imposing structure with trepidation. The illusions were so real. To face even worse inside the castle…?

I faced down an archdemon, Twilight told herself, I’ve plunged into the depths of the Dark Tunnels. I’ve faced nightmares and monstrosities that would break the most hardened of warriors. I can do this.

The gates, they open,” Justice said, brandishing her sword. “The demons of the Bannora come!”

The gates of the fortress slowly ground opened, revealing only a black abyss. Twilight held her sword aloft and prepared for the coming hordes of demons. She had become used to fighting these monsters and many like them, so this battle would be no different from the hundreds she took part in already. While her friends were not in the Fade with her, she could feel their spirits with her, cheering her on. Her friendship gave her strength. Perhaps she could show the same strength to the others now.

Yet as they waited for the demon army, nothing came. Not a single claw, tentacle, or dark magic emerged from the fortress. Justice stepped a few tepid hoofsteps towards the entrance, shaking her head.

I do not understand,” Justice said, “where are the legions? The swarms of terrors that spew from this fortress like the last time I besieged these ebony walls.”

“This smells like a trap,” Berry said, though she cocked her hoof-mounted crossbows. “I don’t like traps. They are the worst buzzkills.”

“Are you drunk right now? No wonder you couldn’t kill Twilight, not that you had a chance.” Lyra shook her head and took a cautious step forward. “Can you feel it, Twilight? There is something inside… beckoning us.”

Twilight did feel it, though she did not want to say. It was not a pull on her horn like other forms of compulsion. It was a sound, a small voice. A voice that rang in her ears that shook her to her bones. A voice that gave her nothing but grief and torment.



Twilight’s tears trailed down her cheeks. “Spike…”

“Twilight,” Lyra said as softly as she could, “You know he’s gone. His spirit would have moved on to the Everafter.”

“How do you know that?” Twilight retorted, a hint of aggression in her voice. “I’ve met my parents in the Fade! I thought they were gone forever! What if the spirit of Spike is inside that fortress? What if I can save him from torment?” Her breathing became heavy and laboured.

Lyra took a deep breath. “What if the fortress is controlling you? There is already evidence of that. You need to calm down.”

“I am calm!” Twilight roared while a low rumbling of magic forming in the back of her throat. Lyra placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder and shook her head.

“No, you’re not.” Lyra then took Twilight in an embrace. “Think of what you did for me in the Blackmarsh. The Fade influenced me then, that same power if trying to influence you now. Just think rationally.”

Twilight knew Lyra was right, but did not want to admit it. What if Spike’s spirit was alive in Vereor? Wasn’t it worth the danger to at least try to explore it? Twilight then thought of the battle of Trotterim. She thought of how she tossed aside certain victory against the Archdemon to save Spike and failed anyways.

She had to accept the cold truth. Spike was gone from this world and the Fade. Nothing she could do could bring him back.

Twilight choked back tears but managed to give Lyra a smile. “You’re right,” she said, “I’ll calm down. Justice, is there any other entrance into Vereor?”

The golden spirit shook her head. “There is not. Are you prepared to assault the keep and the Bannora herself?”

“I am,” Twilight replied with a nod. She kept her sword level, spinning it once just to give herself some confidence. She looked to Lyra, Berry, and Justice, who all nodded in preparation. Without a word, Twilight galloped at full speed into the black fortress. She would meet her fears head on.

Or die trying.