One of these Days

by Wrabbit

First published

Far in Equestria's past, an old threat once more rears it's head, seeking revenge on the princess who thwarted it; a princess that is no more, her life claimed in the effort to destroy it. But this time is different. This time.. it can&

Far in Equestria's past, an old threat once more rears it's head, seeking revenge on the princess who thwarted it; a princess that is no more, her life claimed in the effort to destroy it. But this time is different. This time, it's come prepared. This time, it won't underestimate its enemies. This time... it can't lose.

Just an FYI, even though it says this is a sequel to TSW, it is in fact, a prequel to it. Sorry for any confusion.

Chapter 1: Behind Blue Eyes

View Online


Chapter 1: Behind Blue Eyes

~12 Aevum Illuminationis~

In a secluded garden known to only a few, Celestia wended her way through the unkempt, overgrown foliage. The dense canopy overhead blocked out almost all of her sun's life-giving light, but was unable to completely separate her from it. What few beams of direct light made it through, dappled her pristine white coat as if to spotlight her. The hot, summer air was pregnant with moisture, almost suffocating in its humidity, with nary a breeze to alleviate the oppressive feeling that niggled at the alicorn.

Verily, I wish she would cease these nonsensical visitations. We sealed him away here so that we might finally get on with the business of our lives. With a sigh, Celestia rounded the corner of the path to find what she had expected to find; had found at least once a week since the garden had been magically induced into growing in order to hide the first and only immortal criminal.

Twilight laid on her stomach before the dome-like half of the exposed boulder, a look of pained remembrance upon her face. Her lilac wings lazily flapped in an desultory effort to move the air around her, but she was still covered in sweat. Without turning around, she said, “Still thy tongue, 'Tia. I am quite aware of my mania, but I cannot deny it. I want, nay, need to know what transpired with Draco and Ursa. They wert our friends, and they vanished trying to bring this monster down like the morning fog before thy sun.”

Celestia settled down in the dirt beside her sister and gave her a quick nuzzle. “As do I, Twilight, but we shan’t find the answer by staring into Discord's prison.”

Just mentioning his name sent a chill down both alicorns' spines. Twilight looked down at her hooves, which were pushing around dead leaves, uncovering the soil beneath. “Sooth, I wish I could have attended them when they went forth to put his madness to the sword.” She looked up at her sister, tears formed, but unshed. “Prithee, what dost thou thinkest? Art they safe, but humbl’d in some fashion, 'Tia? Ursa's chosen have dwindled to a mere shadow of their original numbers, and Draco's have become so... withdrawn. Verily, I remember a time when rarely a day went by without seeing at least one of them in one of the pony villages, but now...”

Nuzzling her again, Celestia replied, “I am certs they are safe, Twily. Harken and attend, dear sister. Remember that we are exceedingly difficult to kill; nigh on impossible to do so. I doubt Discord did more than seal them away, much like we did to him in kind. Ere long, his hold on them will weaken, and we'll see them again.” Seeing that her words were failing to have the desired effect, she decided to play her ace. “Come. Nyx awaits you in her library. Did you not ask for her help on your mysterious research project?”

As expected, a crooked smile briefly played across lilac lips before disappearing behind a mock serious facade. “I did, did I not?” With a sigh, she took to her hooves and gave an all-over shake to dislodge the leafy debris that had accumulated on her coat. “Indeed, t’would be passing rudeness to keep her waiting and risk rebuke.”

Celestia smiled at the returned spring in her sister's step, and gave her a good-natured shove as she walked past; a shove that quite naturally turned into a friendly race to the end of the maze-like garden. In the center of the garden behind them, a snail slowly made its way up the gentle curve of the rune-covered stone, a tiny trail of slime marking its passage. Traversing the side of the dolomite sphere, the snail had the misfortune to touch a particularly dangerous rune, and was vaporized instantly, leaving behind a tiny scorch mark. The char crumbled and flaked off, revealing a tiny patch of clean stone. The runes all glowed once before returning to quiescence. An almost imperceptible chuckle broke the still, dead air of the garden.

(\ /)
( . .)

~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

With a critical eye, the sky blue earth pony watched her latest distillation of the dark purple liquid bubble and boil in its glass retort, an occasional puff of pink vapor escaping past the bend in the glass. She scratched down a few notes on the parchment laid out on the table next to her, then turned back around to the small, magical bead under the propped up magnifying glass. With this magnification, she was able to clearly read the runes, and she gave a small, very brief smile of satisfaction.

As I thought. A poison immunity with a minor preservation enchantments. Looks like Open Book will have to be the one to clean out the basement this time. Her smile became more devious as she imagined the smug unicorn covered in dust and cobwebs, something he vehemently detested as being beneath him.

A yellow hoof suddenly clapping her on the back almost made the earth pony drop the bead, and given the size of some of the gaps in the wood flooring, lost for all time. “How's it going, Silly?” Open Book smiled at her, somehow managing to look disingenuous, smug, and lustful all at once.

“The name,” the mare replied with a barely arched eyebrow, “is Silver Script. One would think that a pony studying to become a mage could manage to at least learn the names of the apprentices studying with him.” Silver Script's voice barely conveyed an emotion beyond a monotone, and Open Book seemed to not even notice what she had said.

“So, Silly, what did you find? Is it a spell that creates poison like I said it would be? It is, isn't it?” Open Book asked in a way that bespoke of supreme confidence in his assessment.

Silver Script shook her head, the silvery bangs almost uncovering her left eye. “Poison immunity with a minor sigil to preserve the bead itself.” She hopped off her stool and walked towards the door. “I hope you've finally learned that spell to prevent sneezing fits. It's awfully dusty down there in the basement.”

Open Book looked at the bead under the glass, and an incomprehensible rage overtook his features. He whirled back to the earth pony just as she reached the door. “Just where do you think you're going? Master wanted you to monitor this potion on the burner.”

Without turning around, she replied, “Out. Master Hokum wanted me to deliver a message when you returned from your herb hunt.” She paused, halfway out of the room and looked at her rival over her shoulder. “He also said that you're in charge of the lab until I return.”

“You're just going out to see that so-called friend of yours, aren't you?”

Silver Script's gaze turned forward again, and without a single drop of emotion, said, “Try not to let the potion burn. Hen's teeth are difficult to come by.” The mare left, gently closing the door behind her. She made her way down the rickety tower stairs and into the main floor library, where a middle aged stallion sat at a lectern, poring over a book. Silver Script tapped her hoof twice on the wood floor and cleared her throat. “Master? Open Book has returned and I'm ready to deliver your message.”

The pudgy unicorn jumped in his seat, and turned to face her with a fake smile, a hoof quickly shutting the book in which he was writing. “Ah. Silver. Good. Yes. Ah, here is the ah, message for you,” he said, using his telekinesis to float a rolled up scroll over to her saddlebag laying next to the front door. “Now, then. I ah, want you to, ah, deliver this directly to the hooves of Arcane Codex. No one but her is to, ah, read this; not even, ah, you. Is that, ah, clear?”

Silver Script bowed slightly, and was about to go over to her bag, when he stopped her by grabbing her forehoof. “Clear?” he asked, looking into her one visible eye.

“Crystal, Master,” Silver Script replied.

Hokum held onto her hoof a moment longer, lightly rubbing it as if petting a cat. “I knew I could rely on you, Silver. You're my best apprentice.” His smile grew more genuine, but also took on a lustful taint.

It took a great effort for Silver Script to suppress the shudder that threatened to overtake her from the way her master was caressing her hoof, but she managed the barest hint of a smile just as fake as the one he initially wore. “Thank you, Master. I better go now if I am to return before suppertime.”

With that, Silver Script was able to slip away and was out the door with her saddlebag before Hokum even registered that she was gone.

Free of the cloying scents of the tower whose windows were rarely opened, the mare trotted with a light spring in her step, and a smile that was almost perceptible to the ponies around her. She made her way through the streets, ignoring the snickers and glares tossed her way from the unicorns which made up the vast majority of the city of Spellgrade. Not many earth ponies made their home in the city which was the seat of unicorn magic and majesty, and the few who did, were mainly servants who looked upon Silver Script as somepony in an envious position.

The mare made sure that she never came close to one of the unicorns so as to not give them any reason to harangue her, thereby making her late; even going so far as to wait in alleyways until one particularly large group of them pass by. Even with the necessarily circuitous route, she made it to her first destination, a large, square building known as the largest library in Equestria. With a nod towards the large, armored pegasi guarding the entrance, Silver Script walked in, her eye sparkling at the wealth of knowledge neatly shelved and ordered according to the strict dictates of the head librarian.

Silver Script sedately walked over to the front desk, which was staffed by a unicorn mare affording her the same look of disgust that she might give to a garden slug that had somehow found its way into the building. “I have a message for Magus Arcane Codex from Master Hokum,” she announced in her monotone voice.

“Just leave it here on the desk. I'll see that she gets it,” came the mare's sneering reply.

With a shake of her head, Silver Script replied, “I was instructed to hoof it over directly to her and no one else.”

The desk librarian's upper lip actually curled in disgust. “Just... just go stand over there,” she said, waving a hoof over at the wall near the doors. “And don't drip anything on the carpet. Luna knows what filth you've already tracked in. I'll let you know when the Magus is free.”

Silver Script walked over to stand in the indicated spot, ignoring the “Filthy mud pony” comment the librarian didn't even bother to say under her breath. For over an hour, she stood there patiently while the librarian did her best to continue on as if she didn't exist. Other ponies approached the desk and were immediately given the assistance sought after, but still, Silver Script stood and watched the mare. Several other ponies glanced her way, but most treated her as they would a potted plant, mere decoration.

Finally, the librarian couldn't stand the feeling of the mare's eye on her and walked into the room partitioned off specifically for the head librarian in a huff. It was only a moment before she reappeared again and called the earth pony over with a wave of her hoof. “You have five minutes of the Magus' valuable time. Any longer, and I send in the guards to escort you off the premises.”

With a silent nod, Silver Script walked into the dimly lit, spacious office and bowed before the ornately carved wooden desk and the mare sitting behind it. “Magus, I bring you a message from my master, Hokum.”

The stern unicorn looked down her nose at the prostrate earth pony for a moment as if searching for weaknesses before saying, “Rise, apprentice. Deliver your master's message.”

Silver Script rose and as if handling the most precious of treasures, placed the scroll on her desk with a hoof. She then took two steps back, waiting as the Magus read the message. She surreptitiously examined the office, noting with quiet jealousy the opulence, the great number of books (this one room held more books than Hokum's entire tower), and the small peryton perched on the back of the Magus' chair. The stag-headed bird glared at her, and pulled its lips back in a snarl that revealed fangs designed to rip and tear flesh before letting loose a quick honking screech at her.

The sound of the older mare shifting around in her chair brought Silver Script's attention back to her. “Tell your master,” she said with the slightest of sneers, “that he may use one of my laboratories on the requested day, but you will not be allowed to assist him here. Your presence causes too great a disturbance, and that is not something I will tolerate in my library. Also, you would do your due diligence to inform him that he is not to send you here again, for any reason. This is a place of study, not a whorehouse.” With an absent-minded wave of her hoof, she added, “You are dismissed.”

With a bow, Silver Script silently left the study and made her way to the library's entrance. She stopped at the doors, and turned to take one last look at the enormous collection of books, scrolls, and other means of learning, breathing a longing sigh. She caught sight of the desk librarian glaring at her and making shooing motions, and with a sigh, left the library. Stepping out into the street, she noted the sun setting and gave another sad sigh. She'll have gone home, by now. Oh, well. It was a bit much to expect enough free time to see her. As she made her way down the steps of the library, a voice intruded on her thoughts.

There you are! I was getting worried that you had forgotten all about our meeting today.”

Silver Script didn't need to look up to recognize the owner of that voice. “Awesomeshine!” she exclaimed, her tone rising a half octave above her normal monotone.

A bespectacled white unicorn mare walked up and nuzzled her, bringing a slight reddish tinge to Silver Script's blue cheeks; a tinge that disappeared by the time Awesomeshine pulled back. “What are you- How did- how did you even find me?”

Awesomeshine tucked a stray lock of blonde mane behind her long ear with a smirk and gave her a bemused look. “Like it's difficult for me to ever find my best friend in the whole world?”

This time, Silver Script's blush was more pronounced, as was the confusion upon her face. “W-w-what happened? I figured you would have gone back to Foalton when I didn't show. Aren't your masters going to miss you?”

“Not as much as I'd miss you if I didn't get to see you once more before returning,” Awesomeshine replied. Silver Script smiled wistfully before a stabbing pain in her face caused her to wince. Immediately, the unicorn lifted the earth pony's bangs, revealing a milky-white eye and a scar running perpendicular to it. “Is it still hurting? Sil, you should have told me.”

Silver Script pulled back and rubbed her eye with a hoof, allowing her mane to fall back into its covering position. “It's fine. It just does this now and then. It doesn't bother me anymore like it used to, really.” She saw the concern etched onto her only friend's face, and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “You need to stop blaming yourself for this, Awesomeshine. You did the best you could at the time.”

“But it's your eye, Sil,” the white unicorn replied. “That's... not something that can just be brushed aside.”

“It is, if you're hurt by it.”

A trembling smile formed on Awesomeshine's lips. A yellow glow appeared on the tip of her horn, and the pain was erased, leaving only a soothing warmth behind. She kissed the crown of the earth pony's head and said, “You are a good pony. Don't let anypony say different.”

Silver Script looked away in embarrassment, casting about for a change of subject. “I… I can’t believe you still wear those old glasses.”

Awesomeshine recognized the tactic for what it was and smiled. “Of course I still wear them. Not only are they useful, you made them, and that’s reason enough to keep them.”

Still unable to meet her gaze, Silver Script scuffed at the ground with a hoof and asked, “How’s the enchantment holding up? I… I can strengthen the runes if they’re weakening.”

“They work perfectly, which is only to be expected of your work, Sil,” the unicorn replied.

They stood in silence for almost a full minute before Silver Script finally said, “H- how’s… your family?”

Awesomeshine rolled her eyes with a smile, doubting that her friend would ever change. “Doing well. Mom keeps wondering when I’m going to bring you back home to visit. Maybe she wants to fatten you up. She’s always going on about how thin you are; thinks they didn’t feed you enough at the orphanage. I guess she just doesn’t understand how busy we apprentices are. Dad’s business is doing well, and of course, the Smudge is being a brat like always.” The affection in her voice was apparent when she talked about her baby brother, despite her less than affectionate nickname for him.

As was always the case when the subject of Awesomeshine’s family came up in conversation, Silver Script felt a stab of jealousy at her luck in having such a family, followed quickly by guilt at feeling that about the only pony in the world she considered a friend, let alone… No. That part is dead. Just let it remain that way. “Th- that’s good to hear. Give them my regards when you see them next time.”

The unicorn surprised her by dropping an arm over her shoulders, pulling her in for a hug. “There’s no need to stand on such ceremony with them. My family is your family, You should know that by now; we say it often enough. You’re lucky enough to live in the same city as them, but you never go see them. The Smudge is going to forget what you look like, you stay away much longer.”

Silver Script looked chagrinned and gave Awesomeshine a tiny, sheepish smile. “Sorry. It’s hard sometimes to find a free moment to myself, let alone an hour or two to visit.” Silence reigned between them, during which time, the earth pony noted the creeping darkness of Luna’s night. “I suppose I better head back. Master Hokum likes his meals at a very specific time, and I have yet to start on dinner.”

Both mares looked reluctant to part ways, so Silver Script took the initiative and turned toward the street leading to her new home and school. “I guess this is goodbye for now. Until we meet again.”

She didn’t wait around to hear Awesomeshine’s reply. At a quick trot, she walked back to her Master’s tower.

(\ /)
( . .)

With a sense of satisfaction, Silver Script poured out the latest batch of her newest idea into a shallow, square pan to let it cool. The viscous, brown paste slowly oozed out of the glass beaker with agonizing slowness, piling up in the center before spreading out to fill the pan. The mare gave a satisfied grunt when the last of it pulled free of the beaker, and walked over to the window, gazing out at the hustle and bustle of the city below her.

She noted a group of unicorn foals playing a game of tag in the abandoned lot next to Hokum’s tower, taking special care to avoid talking to, or even looking at the earth pony colt that silently stood on the other side of the rickety picket fence, watching their games with longing. After a few minutes of this, exclusion suddenly became insufficient for some of the unicorns, and they began levitating dirt clods and launched them at the earth pony colt, chasing him off.

Silver Script pulled out a scroll from a shelf near the window and began reading aloud from it. At first, there was no effect, the foals in the yard laughing at the colt they had just chased off. The laughter was halted, however, when the ground beneath them heaved and buckled, sending several of them sprawling in the dirt. Then, as if the ground had become as fluid as water, the foals were tossed out into the street on top of a wave and unceremoniously dumped in the gutter. A few of the foals were quick to regain their hooves, and turned to see that the yard had a new occupant, a rather large earth elemental which looked down at them dourly, its arms akimbo.

With another satisfied grunt, Silver Script walked away from the window, and looked at the water clock. “They’re probably wrapping up the experiment by now. I hope Open Book doesn’t mess it up this time, though I shan’t hold my breath. Honestly, I’ve never seen a unicorn quite so inept at magic. Makes one wonder what his parents were teaching him, really.” She heaved a sigh and shook her head. “I wish I could return to that library. Seems such a waste to restrict it to unicorns; especially when I know that I am more adept than at least one unicorn I could name.”

She walked over to her notes spread out on the table next to her cooling experiment, and began gathering them up, forming a neat stack and took them back to her room in order to return them to their hiding place. “I guess that’s what happens when you get to write the rules. You get to exclude who you want.” Her task done, she returned to the laboratory and poked the substance in the pan with a hooftip, noting that it left an indentation.

“Excellent.” She pulled out a bit of the clay, and hoof molded it into a ball, then used a dry quill to sketch a few quick, yet precise runes on its curved surface. Silver Script held her hoof out and smiled as the ball floated up and began circling her head. She ducked and weaved, trying to avoid letting the ball circle her, even trying to bump it with her head, but the ball stayed in its orbit, always at a set distance of just under a hoof from her head. After a few minutes, the ball began to falter, then fell to the floor and crumbled to dust.

“Hmm… I’m going to have to work on mana retention.” She made a few mental notes as she packed the clay into a lead box to keep it free from interference from outside magical influences, and put the box under the bed in her room. Returning to the lab once more, she began cleaning up the mess her experiment wreaked, finishing just as she heard the door downstairs opened. Silver Script walked downstairs, eager to know the outcome of the experiment. “Welcome back, Master. How did it go?”

The sour look on his face, as well as the fresh scorch marks on Open Book’s hooves and face were really all she needed to know, but still she asked for the sake of letting Hokum vent, and perhaps rub a little metaphorical salt on Open Book’s wounds. “Awful,” came the elder stallion’s disgusted reply. He nodded towards his other apprentice adding, “Butterhooves here apparently forgot how to evenly fold cloud cotton into liquid lightning and blew up the lab. Naturally, Arcane Codex didn’t take kindly to the mess, less so since it caused all the feathers and fur on her peryton to fall out.”

“She was watching, Master?”

Hokum’s eyes darted to the side and he started to stutter. “Ah, er, yes. She, along with a few ah, others were watching, it ah, being an accreditation evaluation.”

This was news to Silver Script. Accreditation evaluations were only undertaken when a magic-user sought out a higher level of accreditation. This would go a long way to explaining why Master was so nervous about the experiment when he left this morning. Though, now that I think of it, aren’t you supposed to have some new spell, magic item, or theory to be advanced? Try as she might, the mare could not remember anything Hokum had been working on lately that would fulfill the requirement for advancement. “Er, Master-”

“Well, enough of that bit of unpleasantness,” Hokum said quickly. “Why don’t the two of you take the rest of the day off? I think we could all do with a bit of rest, don’t you?” He clapped a hoof on the mare’s shoulder, sending an involuntary shiver down her spine. “Why not go visit your friends or family? I’m sure you’d like to reconnect with them, right? And don’t worry about dinner. I’m going to eat out since I’ll be out anyway. Seems I have to find an alchemist that can brew a potion that regrows feathers and fur.”

Before she could protest, he was out the door again, leaving her alone with a still smoldering Open Book. The stallion smirked at her, giving her a vague feeling of unease. “What?” she asked.

Open Book chuckled and walked past her to the bedrooms upstairs. “Nothing. I just think that it’s... cute.”

“What’s cute?” Silver Script asked as she followed him up.

“Your naïveté. You really don’t get it.” He stopped on the landing to the second floor and looked down at her from his higher vantage point. “The Great Silver Script, the mud pony who would cast magic, whose brilliance eclipses that of her unicorn betters, is too stupid to notice what’s really going on! The irony is so delicious, it must be fattening!” He turned to walk to his room, but was stopped by her calling out.

“What are you talking about? Why don’t you spell it out for the ‘mud pony’?”

Open Book paused with a hoof on the door handle, halfway inside his own room already. “You want answers? How about a clue? I’ll let you figure it out on your own; I would so enjoy seeing the look on your face as you finally work it out for yourself. Why do you think Master only invites me along and not you when he makes his presentations? Why is it that you’ve never seen him working on his own projects anymore, only helping you?”

Silver Script began thinking back, trying to remember the last time she had seen Hokum work on one of his projects, let alone ask for her assistance instead of offering his own. Dawning realization took over her face, and her eye widened, her mouth gaping open slightly. She didn’t even hear the stallion’s vicious laughter as she ran into her room to gather her personal notes from their hiding place. Racing downstairs to the tower’s library, she ignored Hokum’s admonition to never enter the library without him, and galloped over to his desk.

She hesitated there, one hoof holding her notes, the other poised to open his private spellbook. She noticed her hoof shaking as it hovered over the silver-inlaid tome, and took a calming breath. She eased open the heavy wooden lid, coming to the page where the red ribbon marked his place and compared it with her own notations.

The writing she found there froze her blood. It was as if the words from her notes were magically lifted from the pages, and placed neatly into the book’s own. Even her diagrams and side notations were there in her own hoofwriting. Everything down to the small blotches of ink that had dripped from her quill as she paused in her writing were present. The only difference was in the signatures at the bottom. The copied pages still had her name signed in the same spot all mages sign their notes, but had “mysterious” ink blots, and Hokum’s name signed above them.

Slowly, the shock wore off and she closed the book once again. With eerie calmness, she walked over to her saddlebags and placed the book along with her notes into them. Silver Script was well aware of Open Book’s smirk as he watched her do this. The mare calmly walked out the door, never hearing him say to himself, “Heh, heh, heh. I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me, Silly. Mud ponies are so predictable.”

(\ /)
( . .)

The knock on her door wasn’t unexpected, but the one knocking was. “Enter,” Arcane Codex said, laying aside the most recent reports from the capital, and raised an eyebrow as one her pegasus stallions which guarded the library walked in followed by the blue earth pony she had given very specific instructions to never return. “What is the meaning of this? Did you not understand that I had forbidden you to return, filly?”

The hulking stallion replied first. “I beg your forgiveness, Magus, but she invoked the Right of Grievance. Being the closest council member, I was compelled to bring her before you.”

This time, both of Arcane Codex’s eyebrows rose. “Right of Grievance? I hope you don’t think to use that against me. This is my library, and so I make the rules governing it.”

Silver Script bowed low, her nose touching the rich, red, Purrsian rug that took up most of the center of the room. “Of course not, Magus. I would never think to defy your rules within your own demesne. No, my grievance is with my master, Hokum.”

Surprised at this turn of events, Arcane Codex rose and walked over to the young earth pony and looked into her one good eye, gauging her resolve. After a moment with no sign of wavering or doubt, she said, “The Right of Grievance is not something to be taken up lightly; especially for an earth pony against a unicorn. I presume you have proof of wrongdoing?”

“Physical proof, Magus,” she replied. With that, she pulled out the book along with her notes and presented them to her. “The book is my master’s. You’ll note that the hornwriting at the beginning is vastly different from what follows. The loose leaf pages are my own notes on my independent studies.”

The older mare flipped between the first few pages and where the bookmark lay, comparing the two. She then looked at the notes, and cast a spell on her eyes, making them glow unnaturally. Looking at the copied pages and the notes once more, she nodded. She was about to say something, when another knock at the door preempted her. The door opened on its own, and the desk librarian looked in. “Begging your pardon, Mistress, but as you predicted, Mage Hokum is here with a potion for you as an apology for the accident earlier today.”

Arcane Codex smiled down at Silver Script. “It seems he’s saved us the trouble of looking for him. Let us return the favor by not making him wait, shall we?” A wordless nod was all she got back from the earth pony, so she turned to her apprentice. “Send him in, Page Turner. There’s something here, he simply must see.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Vindication was an uncommon emotion for Silver Script. Being an earth pony growing up in a unicorn city that prized magical ability over all else, she had learned early on that no matter what she did, what she learned, how far she excelled, she would always, always be on the losing end. She could well remember the first time she had gotten anything other than grief from unicorns.

The small, blue filly sat apart from the others everyday in an attempt to stay below the other’s notice. Most days, this worked out well for her, and the most she would have to suffer were the normal privations that came with being an earth pony living in an orphanage in a unicorn city. Sleeping on the floor while the rest slept on beds or clouds (“They’re tough, right? They can handle it.”), getting the smallest portion at meals (“They get nourishment from the dirt just like the plants they love, right?”), getting the hardest chores (“They’re brutes, well suited for such tasks.”), and the weakest education (“They’re too stupid to learn anything more difficult.”) were all things that she was well used to by now, punctuated by explanations of why she was so inferior and beatings from the matron, who seemed to consider the strong connection to the soil and toughness of an earth pony not good enough to consider as magic, and therefore making them less than true ponies in her eyes. Even the pegasi’s ability to manipulate weather and walk on clouds was deemed more magical. No, the earth pony foals definitely had the thin end of the stick. They were all great lessons on just how the world worked to all the foals, not just the earth ponies.

Unfortunately for Silver Script, it seems that today was not one of those days where the other foals were content to simply ignore her. “What do you think you’re doing, mud pony?” Snickers met this expected opening salvo of what would likely to be a barrage of insults, if past experience was at all accurate.

Silver Script looked up, try her best to keep her face expressionless as she met the gaze of the orphanage’s top bully and her gang. She never bothered to learn her name, as to her, one unicorn was much like another. “Nothing.” This was a fair approximation of her activities, as she was simply resting in the shade one of the juniper bushes that lined the low picket fence of the orphanage’s playard.

“Wrong, mud pony,” the bully replied, wielding the insult like one might wield a cart as a weapon. “You’re breathing our air. So either stop right now, or we make you stop.”

This was a new tack for Silver Script. She had never been told to “stop breathing other pony’s air” before, so she was necessarily off balance. Unsure how to proceed, she said, “I’ll get right on that,” then went back to staring at the clouds.

“Hey, I don’t think she’s doing it,” said one of the pegasus colts. “I think she might need a hoof to learn how.”

That’s when the first mudball landed on her rump. Silver Script leaped to her hooves, but the first was far from the last. She looked towards the orphanage itself only to see the matron put her knitting in a basket and carry it inside, clearly ignoring her. Covered in mud, the filly tried to huddle down until it was over, but was forced into action when a rock sailed into her side, drawing forth an “oof” from her mouth.

Now under threat of serious harm, Silver Script ran into the streets, but the rocks and mud followed her unerringly. The filly had no idea where she was going, and didn’t care, as long as it was away from the pain. Rocks flew with the kind of uncanny accuracy that only telekinesis could offer a foal. One struck an ankle, sending her sprawling to the curb in a dirty heap. She tried to crawl through the offal and night soil in an effort to get away, but one especially well-aimed rock struck the left side of her face, breaking bone and nearly gouging out her eye.

Pain like no other before caused Silver Script’s world to turn white, while a ringing filled her ears, allowing no other sound to reach her until the vision in her one good eye cleared, and she saw… a wall of white fur? Shaking her head, she saw a white unicorn filly standing over her, angrily facing down the foals that had chased her to this pitiable condition. For every rock that came her way, she would telekinetically scoop up a hoofful of offal from the curb and fling it back at the offender with harsh precision. Finally, the other foals had enough, and fled into the streets, braying insults at both of them.

Once she was sure the others were gone, the unicorn turned to her, beaming a smile- a genuine smile at her. This too was new to Silver Script, because it implied that the unicorn was pleased to see her. “Here, let me try to fix your eye; that looks pretty bad,” the angel of mercy said, ignoring her own wounds garnered during the rescue.

Her horn glowed a light, golden aura, and some of the pain in Silver Script’s face eased, though it was still unbearable. “Oh, dear,” she said. She was trying to not sound worried, but being no older than the earth pony, she wasn’t very good at it. “Um, maybe we should get you to a healer.” She offered her hoof, but Silver Script ignored it and shakily rose on her own. Seemingly unaffected by this rudeness, she gestured further down the road. “There’s one down this way. My name’s Awesomeshine, by the way.”

It seemed that the filly’s happiness was infectious, as the normally taciturn Silver Script smiled a little as she replied, “Silver Script.”

Unfortunately for the filly, the healer was either unable or unwilling to fix her eye, so the unicorn did the only thing she could think of doing; she brought her home.

Being treated like a real pony was a unique experience to Silver Script. Not only had the filly stood up for her, but also introduced her to her parents, who treated the earth pony like one of their own. They eased her aches and pains, but unfortunately were unable to help with her eye. Regrowing an organ like that just cost too much money, far more than they were able to earn, they explained. Sadly, that they were unable to adopt her as well, given that their second child was on the way, and due within the next few months. Still, they welcomed her into their home whenever she was dragged over by Awesomeshine, giving her as much food as she wanted, even teaching her things that the lackluster teacher that came to the orphanage once a week missed, like math, history, and basic magical theory, which she lapped up like a cat at a puddle of spilled milk.

Being accepted as a mage’s apprentice, was one of those rare days that she felt that oh, so fleeting feeling of vindication; that, despite all the odds against her, she was accepted into a field that was unheard of for an earth pony. Today was another of those times.

Silver Script stood before the Mage Council which governed Spellgrade, and in precise, clipped words, explained when her notes were made, as well as the exact circumstances of each instance, impressing them with her memory. Above her, a magical sensor designed to detect falsehoods continued its quiet vigil over her testimony, never once giving the slightest indication that she uttered anything less than the whole, and unvarnished truth. She went on to tell the story of her discovery, even giving credit to Open Book where it was due. Throughout it all, she only took her eyes off of the council to look at her old master, noting how he could not seem to find the courage to even meet her gaze.

In all, it turned out that he had claimed credit for four of her projects, and had been advanced in the ranks twice thanks to them. However, he had all but her most recent notes copied into his book, and was beginning the process of transferring the notes into another ledger in an attempt to erase her contribution to his ascendency entirely. Her testimony given, she was dismissed to the witness gallery, and Open Book was called forth. He was admonished several times when the sensor above the witness stand warned the council that he was trying to embellish his part in the story, attempting to make himself seem more sympathetic towards the earth pony. Nevertheless, Silver Script couldn’t help but note how he was treated with more respect than she, despite Hokum never actually stealing any of his work. However, that was immaterial, as the magical artifacts expert told the story of how Silver Script’s signatures were uncovered from the deliberate ink blots that nearly wiped away all indications that they ever existed.

Truly, this was a great day for justice, as Hokum was stripped of all titles and rank, and sentenced to be imprisoned for thirty years. Mages took intellectual property theft very seriously. All of his property was seized to be sold once his former apprentices had cleared their belongings, leaving both of them on the streets. At least, it would have been the case for Silver Script (Open Book was quickly snapped up by another mage after it was heavily intimated by him that he was the one doing the lion’s share of the lab work), had it not been for Awesomeshine’s parents.

“Don’t be absurd, child. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. You know how little Sprocket cleaves to you so,” her best friend’s mother said. It was true. He would often bring her little presents like flowers he picked from someone’s garden, or some little widget he made “just for her”. Silver Script always returned the affection, hugging him heedless of the grease that seemed to always cling to his coat. They often joked about how he was going to marry her someday, but he always blushed and ran off to hide until the gentle teasing was over.

Silver Script ended up staying with them for only a week. Despite the love she felt from the family, she knew that her destiny could not be found within Spellgrade’s city limits. Too many bad memories combined with too little opportunity forced her to seek to further her education outside the stifling confines of the magic capital of Equestria. Unfortunately, being an earth pony apprentice of a convicted fraudulent mage like Hokum seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of her formal magical education. No mage would touch her. She was persona non grata.

Eager to get on with her life, she accepted the first prospect that came along that would at least appeal to her love of learning, which turned out to be as an assistant archivist in a small research library in the rural village of Yoke, whose only true saving grace was it’s somewhat close proximity to Foalton, and therefore, her only friend. So, with a promise to write often, Silver Script departed for greener pastures, full of bruised and battered hope.

Chapter 2: You Are My Sunshine

View Online


Chapter 2: You Are My Sunshine

~13 Aevum Illuminationis~

Twilight gracefully alighted down onto the rocky outcropping and looked around. “This doth appear to be the place. All landmarks are in agreement.” The mountain top on which she stood overlooked a vast plain that could only be called “badlands”. Arid and devoid of plant life, save the occasional lichen or oversized mushroom, the land rarely saw any rain despite the thick cloud cover that let only the barest hint of sun through, and any rain that did fall never stayed long enough to do more than dampen the ground for a moment or so. Despite that, there was still plenty of light, the vast majority of which emanated from the ever present lava flows that formed a tracery of light that crisscrossed the land like rivers of deadly hot liquid. The smoke which made up the clouds came not just from the many volcanoes that dotted the land, but also the many caves where hundreds, if not thousands of dragons slept away their shedding cycle. The particular cave she stood before had no such smoke, and had obviously been worked by magic to resemble a stylized sun, with carved rays emanating from the perfectly circular entrance.

A strong flapping sound drew her attention skyward, and Twilight saw the familiar form of Nyx finally catching up to her. The exhausted sphinx landed next to her and wheezed out a few breaths. “That was... dirty pool... cheater,” she gasped out.

Twilight graced her with a playful smile. “T'is no fault of mine thou doth not avail thyself of the wonders of the world outside of thy library... or thy downy bed.”

Hiding a blush, Nyx steadied her breathing with a few deep draws. “Are you ready?”

“Art thou sure this is the place?” Twilight asked. “Surely, the domicile of a being as pure of heart as thou intimates wouldst not be found in such an abominable land.”

Nyx grinned at her companion. “Tell me, Twi, what better place for a force for good to live than in the place where trouble is most likely to rear its ugly head?” She placed a paw on her shoulder, but quickly removed it when she realized what she was doing. She padded ahead, hoping to hide her returning blush. “C'mon. You really worry too much. You need to take a chill pill before you give yourself an aneurysm.”

As she trotted to catch up, the alicorn asked, “Prithee, what is this 'chill pill' of which thou speakest? Be it some manner of potion to prevent maladies of the mind?”

Nyx chuckled as they walked through the massive cave entrance lined with Everburning Torches, and carved bas-reliefs depicting a series of beings never seen in Equestria performing acts of greatness decorating the walls. “It means to relax, silly filly. I swear, you're more high-strung than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

Twilight returned with a chuckle of her own. “Zounds, but thou hast the oddest manner of speaking that I hath e'er found!”

Looking back at her companion, she gave a casual shrug. “Comes from being omnitemporal. When one can perceive every single point of one's existence simultaneously, one tends to pick up the odd speech pattern without even noticing.”

“Verily, we say that be a load of codswallop. No t'other being exists so, not e'en mine own sire,” Twilight replied with a playful nudge against the sphinx's side.

“Not that Time has ever admitted to it, anyway,” Nyx said with a wink.

Further discussion was halted by the sudden appearance of a small, golden dragon from one of the many side passages. With a snarl, he growled, “Who dares- oh! Lady Nyx!” Immediately, his demeanor changed to a much friendlier one, and his hackles disappeared. “I'm fear that Her Grace hath left, and may not return for some time.”

“Sal's gone? Where to?” she asked in genuine surprise.

“She departed for the firmament weeks ago. She gave no date for her return, and from her mannerisms, it appeared she may ne'er return.” He gestured to the alcoves, formerly filled with various objects of art or weapons and armor now lay empty. “Her Grace ordered the trove she hath guarded to be divvied amongst us to protect like the meanest loot. Verily, many amongst us pine for her return and fully intend to return her trophies on that day. For now, only I remain to steward her home 'till her return.”

Nyx nodded sadly. “Thank you, Aurith. We'll see if we can catch up to her in the firmament.” with a nod, she turned from the dragon and walked out at a fast clip. As she and Twilight left the cave, they took to the wing, heading straight up. They cleared the black clouds in silence, emerging into the blue sky, both breathing easier. Still they flew on, the light blue slowly giving way to a deeper hue until they left the atmosphere behind completely and were surrounded by a sea of stars.

”What do you suppose made her leave like that?” Twilight finally asked through their telepathic bond.

Nyx shook her head. ”Dunno. Must have been important to make final arrangements like that, though.”

Twilight looked at her with a quirky smile. ”'Tis answers belike those that give me cause to doubt thy claims of omnitemporalism, my friend.”

“I try not to use it to my advantage too much, Twi. Can you think of anything worse than knowing exactly what's going to happen all the time? Now, that's a curse. Besides, with the mutability of the time stream, it's not always accurate,” she replied.

Their transition to the firmament was so smooth, that at first, they didn't even notice the change. Looking around at the gray mists, they found the two most loyal amongst the starbeasts already nipping at their massive heels like tiny pups. Twilight looked down at them fondly with a smile and bent down low enough for them to lick her great muzzle. “Sirius, Procyon! It warms my heart to see thee again. Pray, hast thee seen a great golden dragon with feathered wings of late?”

Sirius nodded and stopped licking long enough to say, “Aye, Milady. We hath seen such a creature. She passed into and through the firmament, fast as a thought. Verily, we caught but the barest of glances of her ere she was gone, the swirling mist the only thing to mark her passing.”

Nyx put a paw to her chin in worried thought. “I don't like this. Sal skedaddles like her tail's on fire just when we need to talk to her about dragon artifacts? She's the only one in the world either of us would consider a peer in this field; the only one who even comes close to us. Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“Verily. I pray that whate'er befalls us, we can persevere,” Twilight replied nervously.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Stepping down from the stagecoach, Awesomeshine took a deep breath of the fresh country air of Foalton, then adjusted her saddlebags so they rested evenly. “Ah, good to be away from the terrible smells of the city,” she said to herself. A robin alighted on her back and chirped at her. “Why, thank you. It's good to be back. I just wish I could convince mom and dad to move out here. It's so peaceful.”

As if to make a liar of her, she passed by a poster warning ponies to stay clear of the streets at night, and to not go off wandering into the woods. She sighed as she read the warning, put up no doubt by the town crier, seeing as it bore the royal seal of the twin alicorns. “Oh, dear. Another caravan raided? At least no pony was hurt this time. Why have the dragons started doing this, I wonder?” She shook her head in dismay as she walked on. Everypony on the street waved to her and called her by name, welcoming her back from her trip, and with a cheerful wave, the unicorn greeted them back.

So busy was she greeting her fellow townsponies, that she failed to notice an armored unicorn in royal livery walking backwards out of the smithy, dragging an overfull bag stuffed with rolled up papers, and walked right into him, sending them both sprawling. Awesomeshine fell on to her rump, and rubbed her head. “Oh, my! Excuse me, sir.”

“You clumsy idiot. I told you to watch where you're going,” an authoritative voice from further in the shop called out. A sandy-colored, female unicorn in golden armor stepped out, glaring at the young stallion. She glanced over at Awesomeshine and gave her an apologetic smile. “My apologies, Miss Awesomeshine. Young Mister Far Cry here is still learning the ropes, as it were.” She gave a gentle kick to the stallion's side, inciting him to rise.

Awesomeshine sketched a slight bow to the other unicorn. “Good afternoon, Dame Paladin. What brings you to our humble village today?” She gave her a sly smile and asked, “You wouldn't happen to be here to fetch more of Goodwife Brick Oven's famous honey cakes for the princess, would you?”

Paladin brushed aside a stray lock of her snow-white mane with a hoof. “Among other reasons. I take it you've heard about the most recent attack on the caravan?”

“Distressing news has a way of traveling fast,” Awesomeshine replied. “Any word on why it happened this time?”

With a snort of disgust, Paladin said, “Just the same old excuse of, quote, 'spirited hijinks by youthful hatchlings testing their boundaries,' unquote. I'd doubt they'd take it half as well if the horseshoe were on the other hoof.” She looked around at the villagers going about their normal routines, and her gaze fell upon a group of foals playing tag. Her demeanor took on a grimness that worried Awesomeshine. “It's only a matter of time before somepony is seriously hurt or killed and a line is crossed from which there is no return.”

Awesomeshine laid a hoof on the guard's shoulder. “That's why we trust in you and your fellow guards as well as the army to keep us safe. I know you won't fail us. We believe in you.”

Paladin smiled at her. “If I didn't already have my eye on a mare, I'd snatch you up in a heartbeat, Awesomeshine.”

Before she could reply, they were interrupted by the herald who had finally gathered up all the spilled scrolls from the ground. “Ma'am? We still have the rest of the town to post with these notices. And then we still have to-”

Paladin waved him off with a careless hoof. “Yes, yes, I know. I guess we'll have to cut our visit short. Sorry, but duty calls.”

Awesomeshine smiled brightly and waved as they walked off. “Don't forget those honey cakes,” she called out gaily. Humming a little tune to herself, she continued her trip back to her masters. She walked into the apothecary, and was immediately assaulted by the smells of dozens of herbs, and ointments, and other various accoutrements of her chosen profession.

She had barely shrugged off her saddlebags, when a pair of hooves slid around her neck, and a breathy voice purred into her ear, “Mmm... welcome home, dear.”

Awesomeshine turned around, but was unable to escape the grip of the mare invading her personal space. “Mrs. Rose Hips, please! You're married!”

The earth pony mare kissed the tip of her horn and giggled like a filly half her age as she pulled away. “Only just, Sweetie. Besides, it's not like he's going to object. By the way, it's Mistress Rose Hips.”

“Mrs- Mistress Rose Hips, you're my mother's age!”

The elder mare cradled Awesomeshine's head to her chest and cooed at her. “If you wanted to pretend to be my daughter, all you had to do was ask, Sweetie. I'd be happy to fulfill any fantasy you wish.”

The sound of a door opening drew their attention to further in the house, where Rose Hips' husband, the inappropriately named Healthy Glow walked in, and began going through Awesomeshine's abandoned saddlebags. He set several jars on the floor and calmly said, “Welcome back. I see you were able to find the required hundred hooves of flight line and elbow grease. Were they out of- never mind. I see the chipmunk cheeks.”

More than a little disturbed that he hadn't even seemed to notice that his wife was all but molesting her, Awesomeshine asked, “Er, is everything alright, Mist- er, Master Healthy Glow?”

The gray unicorn looked her in the eyes and nodded. “Yes, everything looks to be in order here. Was there a question?” She shook her head, so he added, “Good. When you're through there, Put everything you've brought in its proper place, and check on our patient. She should be waking up soon,” he added as he returned to the basement to check on whatever potion his wife had on the burner.

Awesomeshine looked up at Rose Hips as best she could, waiting to see what she would do. She could feel her relax her grip, though it didn't totally release. “I swear, that stallion could suck the fun out of anything, even an affair a princess.”


Rose Hips looked down and smiled at her captive. “I know you're not a princess, Sweetie. It's just hyperbole.” She sighed and released the younger mare and rubbed the top of her head playfully. “Go on, and finish your work. We can play another time.”

The unicorn took a few steps, then turned back to look at her alchemy teacher. “Mistress?” The elder mare looked at her, and she said, “If you weren't married, I might take you up on your offer.”

Rose Hips smiled at her gently. “Thank you, Sweetie. You know I only flirt with you because you're safe, don't you? I know that you'd never take me up on my suggestions.” Awesomeshine nodded, and the earth pony walked up to her and smacked her on the rump as she headed towards the basement. “Cheeky thing.”

Awesomeshine quickly put the new jars of ingredients away on the shelves, then without stopping to take a break, she made her way towards the largest room in the house-cum-apothecary/hospital. Technically speaking, no hospitalers claimed residence, but it served that purpose for the small thorpe of eleven hundred or so ponies of all types. She peeked into the room filled with beds first to see if their patient had awoken to find the small, bandaged pegasus filly staring at the ceiling. Stepping into the room, she said, “Knock, knock. How are you feeling?” Placing the frog of her hoof against the side of the small filly's hoof for a few seconds, she counted the beat of her pulse.

Turning her bandaged, little head towards the unicorn, she croaked out, “Head still hurts, Miss.”

With a careworn smile, Awesomeshine stroked her cheek softly and leaned in close. “Let's see what we can do about that, hmm?” A soft, golden glow surrounded her horn, and the filly immediately felt better, giving her a wan smile. “Better, little one?” With a confirming nod, she asked, “Do you feel up to talking about what happened, yet?”

Tears formed in the filly's eyes and she shook her head. Awesomeshine sympathized, but needed to find out exactly what happened. “We can help you better if you'll tell us, Windwalker. As it is, we can't even begin to look for your family.” Getting no response, she sat on the edge of the bed next to her and rested a hoof on hers. “You were found among the broken branches of a tree on the ground, so obviously, you were flying.” Still no reply. “You were near a trail rather close to our border with Draconia. Were you chased by dragons?” Silence filled the room except for a sniffle from Windwalker.

She was about to get up to let the filly rest when a tiny voice said, “Griffons.”

Looking down at her, Awesomeshine said, “Excuse me?”

Windwalker looked up at her tears in her eyes. “Griffons chased us. Mommy hid me in a tree, and her and daddy let them chase them away, so they wouldn't find me. I tried to climb up to a higher branch to see what happened to them, but I slipped and fell out of the tree.” Now that she was talking, it was like a dam had burst, releasing both words and tears. It wasn't long before the sniffles turned to outright bawling, and the filly leaned forward to hug the unicorn around the waist. “I want my mommy and daddy!”

Awesomeshine gently rubbed her head and hummed a lullaby until the poor thing cried herself to sleep.

(\ /)
( . .)

Healthy Glow was waiting to greet Awesomeshine as she quietly left the sleeping filly to rest. “What's her condition?”

Awesomeshine smiled grimly. “She seems to be healing physically just fine. She had fairly minor injuries when she was brought in, especially considering what happened to her. I'm guessing you were listening outside the door, Master?”

“Yes. I've already sent Rose to fetch the sheriff so we can tell him what she said,” he whispered. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment before saying, “It sounds as if things are getting worse, doesn't it?”

“I have every confidence that everything will turn out fine, Master,” Awesomeshine said with a smile.

Healthy Glow quirked an eyebrow at her questioningly. “And what leads you to that incredible conclusion, if I may ask?”

Awesomeshine's smile grew into a full grin. “Simple. All intelligent beings want to be treated with respect, and know that the best way to do that is to treat others with respect. There's always going to be the odd creature out that wants to rebel or take more than what's due them, but society is self-correcting. Creatures like that run afoul of the Golden Rule, and either see the error of their ways, or are punished by their peers.”

“I wish I was as confident as you are in that,” he replied with a shake of his head.

(\ /)
( . .)

Awesomeshine walked up to the smithy and waited at the doorway for the ringing sounds of work to cease before knocking on the frame of the open doorway. The burly earth pony at the anvil paused, hammer still in the air before he could bring it down one the ingot of red-hot steel held in his tongs, and looked her way. Setting the hammer aside, he stuck the raw ingot back into the glowing forge to keep it hot. “Awesomeshine! To what do we owe the pleasure?”

The mare walked in to the shop, and greeted him with a hug, causing the gruff stallion to blush. “Good morning, Hot Iron. My master needs a few things. A bag of nails, a new spoon, and a special cauldron.”

“How special?

She looked at him sheepishly and said, “Orichalcum?”

Hot Iron emptied out his lungs, breath puffing out his cheeks. “That's a tall order, even assuming I can get orichalcum in the first place. I would need to get the forge hot; I'm talking forever more hot, here. Is he sure that he can't make do with just mythril?”

“He was quite adamant about the orichalcum; or rather, she was adamant. This is for Mistress Rose, actually,” Awesomeshine corrected herself. “They were going to have me commission one when I'm next in Spellgrade, but wanted to see if you could do it first. They're even going to supply the orichalcum.” Her horn glowed, and a large bar of pinkish-silver metal about half as long as her foreleg levitated out of it.

Hot Iron whistled appreciatively as he took the bar from her magical field. “That's the purest ingot I've ever seen.”

“Ninety-nine point nine, nine percent pure,” the mare replied. “Notice the Mage Council stamp. It took me a long time to find a pony selling one that size. Paid a pretty bit for that, too, but Mistress says that she'll be able to imbue even stronger effects in her potions and such with a cauldron made of that.”

Looking back at the forge, the stallion shouted, “Kit! Come over here a second!” When there was no response, she shouted even louder, “Kitten Kaboodle! Get your flank over here!”

A small, pink pegasus mare stopped working the bellows on the forge, and flipped up the goggles she was wearing as she walked over. “What is it, Boss- whoa! Is that orichalcum?”

“What do you think, Kit? Can we get the forge hot enough to work this into a cauldron?” he asked her.

The small pegasus took the bar from him, and almost dropped it, surprised at the weight. “Wow, a Mage Council stamp and everything! This is worth a fortune! I bet I could create a vorpal sword from this!”

Hot Iron gently bopped her upside the head. “Easy, there. It's not ours. And answer the blasted question. Can we do it?”

Returning the ingot, she started scratching out calculations in the dirt floor with a hoof and muttering to herself. After a few minutes, she looked up at her boss and said, “I- that is, we'll have to make a special engine to run the bellows, build a windmill to run the engine, hire a couple of strong pegasi to work the mill, and get our hooves an about two tons of coal, but we can do it. But I'm telling you now, that this shop is going to be hot. That is, of course, unless you happen to be friends with a dragon. You aren't, are you?”

He shook his head. “Nope. How about you, Awesomeshine”

“Afraid not,” she answered. “The closest would be my father, who is a silversmith, though he has, on occasion, worked with mythril.”

“Not even close,” Hot Iron replied sadly. “Mythril's melting point is just over a third of orichalcum's. I doubt he had to do anything special to his shop in order to work it.” He passed the bar back to Awesomeshine, who put it back in her saddlebag. “I'm afraid we'll have to pass on this one. I would have to charge Healthy a small fortune just to cover the cost of building all the things needed to make that bar malleable enough to work, and then there's the working itself. No, he'd be better off just having it made in Spellgrade after all.” He scuffed at the ground in disgust. “A shame, too. I could really do with the bits.”

Kitten Kaboodle, who up to now, was scratching new calculations in the dirt said, “Hold on, Boss. We may have a way to do this without having to go through all that after all, but it'll be a one-time deal.”

“What's your idea, Kit?” Hot Iron asked, looking down at her scratchings in confusion.

She looked up at him, excitement gleaming in her eyes. “If we can find a unicorn who's good with fire magic, we can do this, but we'll have to build a special forge, and we can keep the cost down on that if we use the right materials. It'll last long enough to cast the pot, but I doubt it will be any good after that.”

The earth pony stallion looked doubtful. “I dunno, Kit. I don't know any bricklayers willing to make things so cheaply that it'll last only long enough to work once. Too much pride in their job, you know?

“That's the thing. If we explain to them that this is just a test, a... a proof of concept, if you will, I'm sure that we can have our own forge rebuilt with this design- payed for by the money earned from this job- increasing our efficiency by...” The pegasus' eyes rolled up in her head as she did some quick mental math. “... at least twenty-two percent for steel and iron, and even better for other metals. More importantly, we'll be able to handle an order like this should it ever crop up again.”

Hot Iron rubbed his stubbly chin for a moment. “Hmm... Tell you what, Awesomeshine. Tell Healthy I'll think it over a bit, and give him an answer in the next day or two, okay?”

The unicorn smiled widely and nodded. “Thank you, sir! They'll be so pleased to hear the good news!” Hot Iron was so surprised at her exuberance, that he couldn't find it in himself to remind her that he hadn't taken the job yet.

(\ /)
( . .)

Awesomeshine set the bowl aside on the nightstand next to the bed and dabbed at Windwalker's lips with a napkin. “With the description of the griffons you gave him, I'm sure the sheriff and the Frontier Guard will be able to find them and your parents.”

Windwalker didn't seem to share her confidence, opting to turn her attention to the open window next to her bed. With a sigh, the mare laid a hoof against her cheek, stroking it gently. “It'll be okay, little one. You'll see.”

Chapter 3: Make a Little Birdhouse in your Soul

View Online


Chapter 3: Make a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul

~13 Aevum Illuminationis~

A faint sheen of sweat coated the entire mare as she concentrated intently on the work before her. Her tongue stuck out of the side if her mouth, her teeth gently biting down on it with every tap of the mythril hammer against the orichalcum chisel. A bead of sweat meandered a trail down her face in an oddly prosaic counterpoint to the rune she carved with the tools held in her telekinetic grip. Finally satisfied with her work, she stepped back and wiped her brow with the back of a hoof.

The click of hooves in a quick cadence on stone drew her attention down the stone pillar on which the mare stood to the floor some fifty hooves below. A midnight alicorn filly, just blossoming into marehood, trotted into the tall chamber, calling out, “Twilight? Where art thou, sister?”

A glow surrounded Twilight's horn, and the pillar supporting her so far from the ground slowly receded into the floor. A dozen hooves from the ground, she lightly jumped down and spread her wings to slow her decent. She walked up to the filly and asked, “Finished with thy task so soon, Lulu? Pray, bring forth thy earnest labors, that I may be struck dumb by thy brilliance.”

Luna opened the scroll in her magical grasp and held it up for her sister to examine. “What dost thou thinkest? Is it meet?”

Twilight examined the diagram with a practiced eye, taking in the simplicity of the design, making the most of the minimal number of lines and points allowed her. Rolling up the scroll again, she said, “Meet it is.”

“Come, come. Thou answer with an idle tongue,” Luna huffed in annoyance, rolling her eyes for emphasis.

“Go, go. Thou question with an insincere tongue,” Twilight shot back with a smirk. She walked around the filly regally, waving the scroll about as she pontificated. “Of the Norns, it is oft remarked that thou art the true artisan. I know word of this praise hath reached thine shell-like ears on occasion in the past, yet, thou presenteth thy latest masterpiece for mine approval, as if anything crafted by thy hooves would lack merit.” She stopped her circling in front of her sister and smiled down at her. “Thy question strikes me as disingenuous, little sister,” she said, lightly smacking her on the tip of her nose with the scroll, causing her to sneeze.

Rubbing her nose with a hoof, Luna looked up at Twilight accusingly. “Thy incredulity wounds me to the quick.” Finally unable to hold it in any longer, they both burst into gales of laughter and nuzzled each other. “Prithee, canst we set it free this eve?”

“Aye, Lulu, we shall.” Twilight could not contain her mirth as Luna pranced in a circle around her. “Come, tiny dancer. Let us hie for the firmament. Ere we depart hither, let us make our goodbyes to our host.”

Luna's eyes shone with mischief “Such is a duty I am fain to mete.”

Twilight quirked an eyebrow at her as they walked up the stairs to find Nyx walking towards the children's section with a storybook tucked under her wing. With a flourish, Twilight playfully bowed to her, spreading her wings wide as she dipped. “Fair Nyx, it saddens me to depart from thy warm company. Alas, mine sister is fair champing at the bit to set free her newest creation. Perchance we will meet anon when the stars align again.”

Nyx hid a blush by bowing just as low as Twilight. “My heart yearns for such an alignment already, Milady.” By the time they straightened again, her color had returned to it's normal olive complexion. “So, how did the carving go? Making good headway?”

“Indeed,” the alicorn replied with a nod. “T'will be but a scant few moons ere the room is ready to receive the first enchantments.”

Nyx ran in place with glee. “Ooo! I can't wait! We're gonna show those old codgers a thing or two about arcaneficarae. Hee hee! She's gonna be splendiforous!”

Twilight nodded with a smirk. “Verily. Starswirl in particular hath miss'd his due serving of humility for far too long. Call me a callow, unsift'd youth, will he?”

“Down, girl,” Nyx said, placing a calming paw on the alicorn's shoulder. “We'll show him that females can cast magic just as well as males.”

“Od's bodkins, Nyx, much better,” Twilight replied with a feral smile. “Show that stallion a mare his equal in the Art, and she'll garner scant praise. We needs serve his humble pie by way of trebuchet, if we wish to make certs the swelling recedes. Contrariwise, we shall soon have to remodel the castle with wider portals.”

All three chuckled as they separated, Nyx to the gathered group of children, Twilight and Luna to the exit and out into the tiny city itself. They nodded to the passing creatures which inhabited the city- hamlet really, though its fantastical architecture suggested differently- that had sprouted up around her library. It always amazed them to find so many disparate creatures, some of whom preyed upon others, living peacefully together. A griffon haggled with an earth pony over the price of an exquisite rug paw-woven in Purrsia. Just a few dozen generations ago, that same griffon would have been chasing down that pony to invite him to a dinner he would rather avoid becoming. Across the way, a minotaur stood on a pedestal, reciting a treatise expounding the virtues of treating others as you would have them treat you (something she called a “Golden Rule”). Not long ago, a minotaur like her would have been chasing down anyone not of her race as she attempted to conquer these lands. Even the five-tailed kitsune from far-away Neighpon, with whom Twilight shared a nod, would never have dared to set paw in these lands without first enthralling all here out of fear for her own safety.

The two alicorns spread their wings and took to the air, Twilight giving the city one last look as they left. She noted one section conspicuously absent of life, the section with the largest dwellings, those built to accommodate dragons. Ever since they had withdrawn into their own borders, no creature had dared to linger near the abandoned buildings for fear of their legendary prowess at lair wards. Nobody wanted to be mistaken for common thieves, not to a dragon.

With a few flaps of their wings, the two alicorns crossed the border into the firmament and settled down into the gray mists. Luna looked around at the stars watching them and nodded to herself. “Methinks he wouldst be happiest hither.” She pulled the scroll out of Twilight's starry mane with her magic and unrolled it.

Looking around, Twilight nodded in agreement. “Sooth.” Glancing down at the midnight filly, she asked, “Hast thou chosen a name for it- er, him?”

Luna nodded, and her horn began glowing. The ten dots marking the main structure of the soon-to-be constellation began glowing; some yellow, some blue, but only one glowed red. The ten motes of light lifted from the parchment, leaving behind a few scattered and now unconnected lines. They flew up and took their place among the other stars, find their new home. “I bid thou welcome to thy new home, Aquila.”

The ghostly blue form of an eagle formed around the constellation and alighted down on the smaller alicorn's back to perch. No bigger than a finch to an adult pony, the tiny eagle nuzzled the midnight alicorn.

Twilight smiled down at the giggling filly. “Happy Birthday, Lulu.”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

With a final tap of the trowel, Kitten Kaboodle hovered back and admired her hoofwork after flipping up her goggles. It was most assuredly, the strangest chimney design even she had seen, but her calculations left no room for doubt. At least, that was true for her. The local mason was of another mind.

“I tell you filly, that chimney won't work. It's far too narrow! And all those baffles you had us build into it will just become gathering spots for soot!” The graying stallion shook his head in amazement. “I don't know why I let you talk me into this.” He ran the tip of a cracked and worn hoof through the still setting mortar, noting how it crumbled. With a sound of disgust, he flicked the hoof, ridding it of the pasty substance with practiced ease.

Kitten landed next to the earth pony and draped her forelegs around his neck in a tight hug. “You did it because you couldn't pay me for the portable workshop I built for you, and said you'd do me a favor someday. That, and you're a lot nicer than you let on, Master Stone Facade” she chirped at him happily as she gestured to the wooden cart that had been unfolded to reveal all his tools of the trade hanging neatly from their assigned places. A cream-colored tabby cat lazed on top of it, and regarded all this hard work going on as more pony foolishness.

“When I said a favor, I meant something you could use, something with lasting value,” Stone Facade groused. “I doubt this thing will even last through one casting without either falling apart or exploding. And I told you to stop calling me Master. I'm not your teacher anymore, just like you aren't Cartwright's, or Brick Oven's, or any of the dozen or so other craftsponies you've been apprenticed to.”

Kitten smiled and bupped him on the nose, though she had to reach up to do so, barely coming up to his shoulder like she did. “Silly Master. I always learn something from you when we meet. Besides, Lemongrab seems to like it,” she added, gesturing towards the cat that regarded them with as much respect as one would a vending machine.

Stone Facade rolled his eyes, but let the gesture go. “Your cat's opinion on the finer points of masonry aside, there's something I have to tell you. Your master insisted on paying me, but I took a lot less than I would have for a project like this, so your favor is still good- but!” he happily interrupted her when it looked like she was about to object. “You can only call in this favor when you're ready for me to build you something only for you. A house, a shop, whatever it is, it's yours for the asking. Got that, Kit? Only. For. You.” He punctuated each sentence with a poke at the small mare's nose.

With a roll of her own eyes, Kitten playfully batted aside his strong foreleg. “Fine, when I finally decide what my shop is going to be, I'll let you and Mistress Cartwright know so that you can build it for me. I swear, you two are alike in the weirdest ways.”

“Well, she may just be a carpenter, but at least she knows when to put her hoof down with you,” Stone Facade said.

“I heard that, you old codger,” a gruff, but definitely feminine voice said.

An older, sea foam green pegasus mare dropped down into the clearing, pulling her own wagon of lumber and supplies. Kitten joyfully hopped over to her, giving her a hug as well, this time leaving behind a smear of mortar on her coat. “Mistress Cartwright! Are you hear to build the coal shed?”

Cartwright smiled and pushed the enthusiastic mare away to give herself a little breathing room. “Alright, Kit. Where do you need this shed? Not too close to the forge, I presume?”

“Right this way, Mistress,” Kitten said and zipped off to the other side of the clearing.

Alone with the cantankerous mason while she disentangled herself from her wagon, Cartwright said, “Not taking advantage of her are you?”

“Taking advantage of me more like. That filly can wrap anypony around her little hoof,” Stone Facade replied.

Free of the harness, the mare walked up to the taller stallion and looked him in the eye. “I worry about her whenever she's around a brute like you.”

Returning her stony glare, he said nothing. After a moment of silence, they wrapped their forelegs around each other, kissing passionately. It was several moments before they came up for air, and he said, “I've missed you.”

Smiling at him slyly, she replied, “I know.” Giving him a little nip on the nose, she turned and walked towards the end of the clearing where Kitten waited patiently, making sure to put a little extra wriggle in her rump just for the audience she knew was watching her.

Lemongrab yawned hugely, and went back to sleep on the cart.

(\ /)
( . .)

Kitten smiled as she approached the temple of Luna, knowing what was about to happen, and eagerly waiting for it. Slipping out of the cart's harness, she couldn't contain the grin as she walked just hooves away from the low stone wall that separated the churchyard from the street, leaving Lemongrab to watch the cart. Hearing the low whispers and giggles, she braced herself for the impact and wasn't disappointed in the least.

Like a small wave of rainbow, she was brought to the ground in a pile of fillies and colts, all giggling like mad. Using the only weapon at her disposal for such an attack, she went on the offensive, tickling whatever foal happened to be on hoof, moving quickly from one to another. The pile soon came to a heaving and laughing stop, fetching up against the stone wall, Kitten gasped, trying to catch her breath amid the pile of smiling foals. “What did you bring us, this time, Miss Kit?” one of the fillies asked.

Kitten pretended to struggle and fail to extricate herself from the pile before giving up. “Seems I can't move. I guess you'll all have to go without a surprise this week.”

At this proclamation, all the fillies and colts were up and suddenly helping her regain her hooves, some even brushing the dirt from her coat. A few flaps of her wings brought her back to the cart, and she pulled out a small box, less than a hoof on each side. The apprentice tinker set the box down in front of the crowd of children with a smile.

They all eagerly watched as she turned a crank on one side of the box, making a clicking noise as some spring inside was wound. After just a few turns, she stepped back, the box unfolding itself. With a complex series of movements, walls were folded, exposing the inner workings of gears and springs, and rearranged themselves until what was once a box, had taken on the shape of a dog and began walking forward, stopping every few steps to let out a tinny bark. After doing this three times, the dog sat on it's haunches and surprised all the foals by performing a back flip, landing on it's paws once more. It then neatly folded itself back into a box with a crank once more. Unimpressed, Lemongrab watched it disdainfully until it returned to its original box form.

The crowd of fillies and colts applauded like mad, and cheered the little pink mare. “Alright, alright, everyone. I've got to get going.”

A chorus of disappointed “aww”s met her declaration. “But you haven't been able to play with us all week, Miss Kit,” a small colt said, trying to sway her with his big, dewy eyes.

“I'm sorry, New Wave, but it's a long way to ol' Blacklight's, and I want to be back sometime tonight; preferably before dinner. Now all of you go on and play with your new toy. We can play again later.”

The foals ran off with their new toy while Kitten strapped herself into the cart's harness. She had a spring in her step as she left town towards the old coal mine where the last dregs were still being cut from the earth to be sold by a lone cantankerous stallion. The trip was long, but pulling an empty cart, she made good time, arriving at Blacklight's Coal just an hour after the sun passed its zenith.

As she walked up to the shack situated in front of the mine shaft entrance, she was greeted by an old brown earth pony stallion wielding a halberd rather expertly. Kitten waved at him happily, seemingly unperturbed by the less than cordial welcome. “Hi, Mister Blacklight! I'm here to pick up the last of the coal!”

The stallion relaxed a little, but didn't put his weapon down, merely pointing it away from her. “Good thing you made it when you did. I was about to close up early.”

“Ooo... got hot date?” Kitten asked with a smile.

“Consarnit girl, is that all you think about? I ain't about to go settle down with a filly just so's she can steal my fortune from me,” Blacklight replied with only a hint of anger in his voice. The anger disappeared entirely to be replaced by concern as he added, “No, there's an ill wind blowing today. Can't you feel it?”

There was indeed a breeze blowing, and coming off the mountain like it was, brought a nice chill to the early spring air. There was an uneasiness, but Kitten wasn't sure if it was because she felt it on her own, or that Blacklight put the idea in her head. “There is something; nothing I can put my hoof on, though.” She turned to her cat and asked, “What do you think, Lemongrab?” The yellow tabby let out a low, but discernible growl.

Blacklight nodded and led her to the loading dock so he could start shoveling her coal into the wagon. “Ayuh. Something's wrong in the forest today. Just hope it's nothing to do with that trouble the griffons started up last week.” He threw in a shovelful of coal and looked at her, deadly serious. “You be careful out on the road today. I'd escort you home, but I got too much to do here. Tunnel thirteen needs timber to shore it up if I want to keep it open, and Bucksaw said he'd be by later with it, but hasn't shown. That's when I started getting worried.”

“Not like him to be late...” Kitten said in a worried voice as the stallion returned to his labors.

“Nah. Especially since we were gonna open up a new jug of cider.” They worked in silence, Kitten moving the coal to the front so Blacklight would have plenty of room to pile on more. When the pile reached near the edge of the small cart, the stallion leaned on the shovel and wiped his brow of sweat. “Now you mark my words, Missy. Steer clear of the woods, I don't care if it is faster, it's become too dangerous these days, especially for a lone filly like yourself.”

Kitten nodded sagely. “No worries there. I've no intention of even going near the woods. I heard about what happened to that poor little filly. I'm just glad her parents were found alive.”

“Near death they were too, when I found them. Wouldn't have made it, if I hadn't had Rose's potions with me,” Blacklight agreed.

Kitten gave him a hug then strapped herself to the harness. “Well, I for one, don't care what they say about you in town. I think you're a nice pony.”

Blacklight smiled and watched her leave until she was out of sight. “Wait, what do they say about me in town?” he asked aloud.

(\ /)
( . .)

Kitten hummed a happy little ditty quietly to herself to help pass the time as she returned back to Foalton. Making good time now, she remarked to herself. She looked towards the sun concealed behind a tree at the moment, noting the time. At this rate, I should be home well before din-

A distant cry followed by a slightly louder one caught her attention, causing her to slow to a stop. That was definitely no wild animal. The pegasus fretted for a moment, wondering what to do, but only for a moment. Pulling off to the side of the road, she parked the cart under the shade of a tree and moved some bushes in front of it. She then strapped her saddlebag on, and quietly crept towards the sound, hunkered close to the ground. “Stay here, Lemongrab. It might be dangerous in there,” she tossed back over her shoulder in a whisper, noting that the cat settled down on the small ledge she had crafted for him.

Kitten had only gone a few steps into the woods when she heard the sound again. Definitely not a wild animal. I distinctly heard an “ow” in there. It took an agonizingly long twenty minutes to creep up on a clearing, punctuated several time by hushed voices and the occasional muffled cry of pain. What she saw almost caused her to gasp out in shock. Two ponies- both pegasi, a stallion that she recognized as Bucksaw, and a mare judging by the binding on their midsections, were tied up and gagged on the ground. Sitting near them, were three griffons, one of whom was going through a pony-sized saddlebag.

“Well, what did she have? Anything valuable?” the smallest griffon asked.

The largest one, which was going through the bag cuffed him none too gently with a wing. “Shaddup. You'll know when I let you know, and not before.” A few more seconds of rummaging resumed before he cried out, “Ah! Here we go!” He pulled out a small, stone, rectangular cube.

“What's that? A rock?” asked the smallest griffon. He turned to the third and asked, “What good is a rock to us?”

The mare on the ground began to wriggle around like mad, hurling what would have been scathing curses at them had she not been gagged.

The largest griffon walked over the the struggling pegasus and held the stone on two talons before her tauntingly. “Oh, but it's not just a rock, now is it, my little morsel?” Rage and impotent tears filled the mare's eyes. If looks could kill, much of the countryside around the griffon would have been devastated. “No, it isn't,” he said with a smarmy tone. He held the stone up to the light and examined it. “No, my young fledgeling, this is a clan chop.”

Gasps of understanding followed by devious smiles appeared on the griffons faces. The boss will give us a big reward for that!” the smallest crowed. “He'll be able to make all kinds of forgeries!”

“You bet he will,” he said, tucking the chop into a pocket of his harness. “Now see what else she had in those bags. I think it's time to start carving up our catch to take back to camp, and I need to sharpen my knife.”

Kitten had seen enough, and crept backwards, away from the clearing. Knowing that she had no time, she pulled out a small, brass sphere with a key sticking out of it. Using her wingtips, she wound the key to its fullest and pulled it out, then concealed it in her pink feathers. She could feel the slight hum as the spring inside did its job, and hoped that this plan worked. Finding a small twig, she deliberately stepped on it, making a loud SNAP.

Instantly, the largest griffon was on her and pushing her to the ground. Cowering beneath him, she brought her wing up to shield her face in feigned fright, angling it so that it passed the pocket with the chop, quickly switching the brass orb for the small stone. With a deft maneuver, she dropped the chop into her mouth and worked it under her tongue.

“What have we here? Another tasty little morsel for dinner? How kind of you to drop in,” the griffon sneered.

“Pleashe don't hurt me,” Kitten replied, groaning internally at the lisp the chop gave her speech.

The griffon ran the blade of a rather large knife across his tongue. “Oh, you won't feel a thing... after you bleed out.”

The other two griffon peeked over the bush just then. “Everything okay? You just leaped over and- oh!” The smallest griffon stopped when he spotted the pink pegasus under his leader.

“Keep an eye on the other two. I'm going to-” The large griffon cut himself off suddenly and cocked his head to the side. “Do either of you hear a buzzing?” The other griffons looked to each other, then back at their leader and gasped. “What? What is it?” he asked, trying to wave off an annoying bug that had come near his ear.

“P-p-p-p-p-p-parasprite!” the youngest griffon shouted.

Pulling his head back, the large griffon tried to zero in on the buzzing, and saw a yellow ball with blue eyes happily buzzing around him. The parasprite was openly drooling and gave him a huge lick that went across one of his eyes. “Eeugh! Get away, stupid thing!” With a swipe of a foreclaw, he swatted the tiny ball to the ground, smooshing it, and covering his talon with it's guts. He shook his talon, trying to dislodge the mess, but succeeding only in spreading it on himself.

“You shouldn't'a done that,” Kitten said. “The shmell of dead parashprite makesh them shwarm.” Indeed, the buzzing sound became a loud droning that filled the forest with vibrations. A cloud of pastel colors appeared over the forest, turning the late afternoon sky into an ominously overcast one.

Looking nervous, the griffon said, “S- so what? They don't eat living creatures. Everyone knows that.” He tried to bluster, but he voice paid lie to the false bravado.

Kitten looked up at him slyly. “They don't? Then you have nothing to worry about... or do you?”

Before he could reply, the cloud swooped down and covered the griffons in a dense swarm. Kitten was spared the indignity of having her body enveloped in parasprites due to her proximity to the ground. In a panic, the griffons tried swatting at the parasprites, bringing down many, but their numbers were seemingly endless. When the first feather was plucked from the youngest griffon, his yelp of pain began to give them real concern. The first feather was quickly followed by another, then another until finally they had enough and their leader shrieked out, “Run away!” and quickly followed his own advice. His subordinates gave chase, with most of the swarm following all three of them.

Kitten rolled to her hooves and carefully stepped around the parasprites that remained, all of whom were on the ground eating the grass. She picked up the wickedly curved knife the griffon had dropped in a wingtip and trotted over to the bound and captive ponies. She found them just as she had last seen them, and walked over to Bucksaw first. She cut him loose, and he grabbed her into a fierce hug. “Thank you so much. I thought we were done for,” he sobbed.

Nodding to him, she walked over to the pale, crimson-maned mare and spat out the chop in front of her before cutting her loose. “I think this is yours?”

“My clan chop!” she said in a lilting voice. “How?”

“Picked his pocket and left a little surprise of my own,” Kitten replied. “Gave him a little wind-up toy that I've been working on. Never got it quite figured out, because the buzzing it makes attracts parasprites, and you try working on something that does that in town.” She shrugged it off as unimportant. “But never mind that now, let's- whoa!”

Pale, leathery wings sprouted free of the bindings on her midsection as the mare stood. She folded them neatly at her sides as she quirked an eyebrow at the smaller pegasus. She picked up the chop with a hoof and rubbed the saliva off on her coat. “What, never seen an aganippe before?” Her melodic voice and unconscious grace lent the mare a certain kind of elegance.

Kitten smiled wide, and her eyes sparkled. She held out a hoof in greeting and said, “Nope, never! My name's Kitten Kaboodle, but my friends call me Kitten or just Kit.”

Clearly surprised by the gesture, the aganippe was slow to take her hoof. “Er, Knightengale, at your service.”

Walking up to the two mares, Bucksaw said, “We'd better get going in case they come back.”

“Indeed,” Knightengale replied. “Let me just gather my things those marauders dumped like so much trash.” Looking at the torn saddlebags, she sighed sadly. “Alas, that was twenty bits well spent.”

Kitten sidled up to her and gave her a hug that was reluctantly welcomed. “Cheer up! Something tells me your luck's turning around!”

Chapter 4: Against the Wind

View Online


Chapter 4: Against the Wind

~13 Aevum Illuminationis~

The Elemental Plane of Minerals was often described as one of the most inhospitable in all the universe. Nothing grew here, save for crystals, some of which seemed to appear overnight (when night was available). Water was sparse as well, the only real source being the undrinkable stuff to be found in the river Styx which wound a meandering path through the plane before moving on to the Elemental Plane of Ooze.

That's not to say that the plane itself was bereft of life. Elementals called this place home, as did many, more exotic creatures. Woe betide the careless traveler who failed to recognize the signs that they were entering the territory of one of the many kilotrot long worms which tunneled here. Travelers themselves were seldom seen on the plane, it being one of the universe's better kept secrets.

This was especially true in this part of the plane, where it bordered the Elemental Plane of Positive Energy. The sky in this part never saw night, and glowed with a golden hue. A bright, round object shone in the sky, and was often mistaken for a sun, but the truth was much stranger than something so innocuous.

Two figures slowly emerged over the horizon. Quadrupeds they were, though both also sported a pair of feathery wings. It felt to them as if they had been walking for an eternity, but thanks to the near limitless energy reserves provided by their close proximity to the Positive Energy Plane, they felt like they could go on for another eternity. Even so, they both were exhausted mentally from the terrain and lack of variation or others to whom they could talk. Sure, they had each other, but they had run out of things to talk about eons ago, so now they just kept quiet to avoid getting on each other's nerves... mostly.

“What about here?”

Twilight suppressed a sigh and kept sweeping the ground with the magical, eye-shaped sensor that floated before her face. “Nay, dear friend. As I hath said to thee, I shall be sure to inform thee of any-” She stopped as her sensor caught sight of the edge of that for which they had been searching for so long. To make sure it wasn't another false positive reading.

Nyx, however, wasn't quite so patient. “Did you find one?”

Twilight turned to her with a smile. “Aye, it is so. A shard of euclase the likes of which I hath ne'er seen!” She stood on her hind legs and grabbed Nyx's forepaws with her own forehooves, pulling her into a capering dance. “Oh frabjous day! La, la, la! La, la, la! La, la, la, la, la, la!”

Nyx happily joined in her dance and silly song until both collapsed to the ground in a fit of laughter. When both had regained their composure, she said, “I suppose we'd better get digging. I dunno about you, but I can't wait to get home again and take a bath.”

Twilight turned to her with a weary smile. “Verily. Yon sun doth work o'er much, methinks.”

“Silly filly!” Nyx replied with a laugh. “That's no sun! T'is the Positive Energy Plane!” From a pouch on her side, she produced two shovels which could not have fit in such a small container. “Now let's get cracking. Let's yoink this crystal before the locals are on us like white on rice.”

Grabbing a shovel in her magic, Twilight shook her head as she stuck it in the dirt and pulled out a ten cubic hoof block of dirt. “I know not of what thou speakest, but I shall work like ne'er afore if it allows us to return with all due haste.”

They worked quickly thanks to the enchanted shovels Nyx had brought, but in silence. It didn't take long before a large enough spur of the light blue crystal was uncovered. The spur was easily a hundred hooves long, but appeared to be a small part of a much more titanic crystal that went well beyond the sight of Twilight's sensor. A faint glow could be seen emanating from it, bathing them both in a pale blue light. Digging complete, they rested a moment and admired the crystal. “She's a right beauty, eh?”

“A shame you'll never get to use it, then.”

Both of them whirled around and looked up out of the pit they had dug to see a bipedal skeleton looking down on them. His once rich robes were now a flowing tatters, and the bone staff he held in one rotted, skeletal hand appeared to be made of the spine of a rather large creature and topped with a unicorn's skull. Beside him stood a dragon in a similar state as he, with barely any flesh left hanging from gnarled bones. Both had red glowing eyes. The biped motioned with his staff for them to step aside. “Now move aside like good little living things, and I'll be sure to turn you both into something pleasant. Perhaps ghasts? Or would you prefer something insubstantial?”

Nyx and Twilight looked to each other and smirked. “Would you care to field this one, Twi? I'm afraid I left my Holy Avenger at home.”

“T'would be my pleasure, Nyx.” Twilight replied with a small bow. With barely a thought, Twilight's horn lit up and shot a purple beam at both undead, but to no seeming effect.

The lich laughed at her. “Is that the best you can do? I'll admit, splitting up your dispelling effect like that was a neat trick, but one I learned eons ago. In any case, it didn't-” A roar of pain from his draconic companions silenced him, and he turned to see it writhing on the ground, thrashing as the positive energy from the golden ball above rained down on him. Foul-smelling, black smoke began to rise from the undead dragon and evaporated into the air. Two more beams, this time green struck both undead, and this time, the lich looked worried. “What did you do, you stupid horse?” he shouted at her.

Twilight smirked at him and flew out of the hole to land a few paces away from him. “Hark ye well, foul wretch. I hath dispell'd thy abjurations protecting thee and thy companion from the purifying light of the realm above us.” The lich looked down to find that his own rotting flesh was smoldering, slowly being eaten away by the healing energy of the plane above them. “My second spell sever'd thy connection to the astral. Thou shalt not be leaving this plane with such ease.”

The lich roared and pointed at her, shooting a beam of black energy at her. Unafraid, she let the beam strike her fully in the chest, where it dissipated harmlessly. “Hast thou forgotten where thou standeth? Such enervations will avail thee not. Thy weaknesses however, hath been laid bare.” A beam of white energy shot from her horn, striking the lich squarely in the back who had turned to flee.

With a scream of pain, he flew a dozen hooves, landing in a heap. Muttering a quick spell, he lifted off the ground and flew away with all due speed. The bone dragon he left behind had ceased all struggles, becoming so weak, that it could only look at Twilight as she stood over it's fleshless skull. She gazed down at the pitiful creature before her with sadness. “Alas, I am certs that thou hadst ne'er intend'd to end thy existence so. We shalt make thy end swift.”

Twilight readied a spell to end the creature's suffering, when Nyx landed next to her and laid a paw on her shoulder. “Whoa there, missy! Forgot where we are already?” Twilight just looked at her in confusion. With a paw, the sphinx pointed towards the sky. “Not only is positive energy bad for undead like liches, but it's also good for the living. That's why we had to walk here instead of just fly over. Go too high, and boom! Every atom in our body achieves its highest potential instantaneously, and while that's an inconvenience for immortals like us, it would make this trip that much longer.”

With a smile, Twilight shook her head. “Verily, thou art my rock, dear Nyx. Is't possible for the plane to heal such a state?”

Nyx suppressed a shudder of delight at the compliment. “'Course it is! As long as the soul is still attached to the body, it will begin healing once all the negative energy is driven out. In fact, the closer we get him to the source, the faster it will happen.” They looked at each other uncertainly.

“Dare we?” Twilight asked tremulously.

“Nyx leaned forward and looked her in the eye with a deadly serious expression. “My dear, how can we not?” Twilight nodded, and they grew in size until they were both equal to the bone dragon. They carefully picked up the creature, grunting not from its weight, but from the unnatural cold that seemed to suck up all the warmth of any living being who touched it. Together, they flew straight up into the sky. Immediately, all the aches and little pains that they had suffered over the years vanished, healed by the power of the plane. Both of them felt stronger and more powerful than ever. They could feel their bodies filling with the life-giving energy. It felt like they could fly to the ends of the universe and back again in the blink of an eye. The burden they carried in their forelimbs felt negligible in comparison to the weights they could lift, the barriers they could shatter, the magics they could cast. Nothing was impossible for them.

”I hath secured him! Return to the ground at once! Quickly, before ye art o'ercome by the energies!”

The voice in their heads snapped them back to themselves, and without hesitation, they flew back down. They could feel the build up of excess energy begging for release. The need to use the energy was so powerful it hurt like trying to push a mountain through the eye of a needle. By the time both of them reached the ground, the pain was physically overwhelming. They collapsed, white light shining from their eyes and mouths, and sparks hot enough to melt stone on contact spurted from Twilight's horn. Lacking any such easy, natural form of release, Nyx simply writhed on the ground, claws gouging deep furrows in the rocky soil.

A golden dragon almost two kilotrots in length landed near them and folded her massive feathered wings, creating a minor windstorm as she did. With great care, she placed the purple dragon in her claws on the ground and walked over to the immortals, shrinking as she went. When she was about their size, she stood next to them, careful not to get close to Twilight's sparking horn. She placed a foreclaw on each of their heads and took a deep breath before channeling the excess energies into herself. She felt them collect in her gullet to the point of overflowing, and released them in a gout of flame straight up that seemed to stretch on forever.

It was almost a full minute before the fire died out and the dragon gratefully sucked in a lungful of air. She looked down to see Twilight and Nyx looking up at her. “What hast ye learned?”

“We acted as was meet. We wouldst do so again if called upon so,” Twilight replied.

Nyx rolled onto her stomach, then to her paws, before shaking the dust from her pelt and shirt. “More importantly, where've you been, Sal? We went looking for you, but your acolytes said you left and may never return.”

Salanshandaraen looked away, a hard gleam in her eyes. “Aye, thy question bites shrewdly, though not without merit. Ye knowest of the Dragonking?” They nodded at her question. “He... he hath been slain. I hath been sent in pursuit of the dissembling, ill-bred, sheep biting cur. Sadly, I fear I shall be so for some time. The sow bellied mongrel is quite adept at obfuscation.

Twilight nuzzled the dragon in sympathy, while Nyx said, “Well, that certainly clears up a few things about what's going on back home. If the Dragonking is dead, that's sure to throw the clans into chaos. But why send you after the killer? Weren't you his favored councilor?”

“Aye. Methinks t'is the reason of the quest,” Sal replied. “Pray, what art ye doing hence? Some arcane study?”

Twilight shook her head. “Nay, we come a-excavating. We sought for and found a crystal necessary for our works, hoe'er, we ran afoul of a lich. He had ensorcel'd yon drake into servitude. After seeing him to his heels, we thought to resurrect the poor creature.”

Sal's head jerked up with a start. “A lich? Here? Pray, whence didst the cur flee?”

Nyx pointed towards the horizon. “Thataway. Twilight wounded, and dimensionally locked him, but there's no telling-” The sphinx had to stop speaking as the great golden dragon took to the air. “How can she fly so high here? The positive energy should have made her explode by now.”

“Hast thou forgot'n?” Twilight asked as she led her back to the prone dragon they had rescued. “She is a priestess, righteous of heart. Channeling such energies is her trade.”

Nyx shook her head. “But still. We're talking about... never mind. Let's see to our new friend and get our crystal back home. An arcaneficarum won't make herself, you know.”

“Sooth,” Twilight replied with a nod.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Leaning back in his chair, the earth pony chewed on a stalk of grass and looked over Knightengale once more, as if examining something distasteful. The light gray mare was used to such scrutiny, especially from figures of authority like the sheriff across the desk from her. Aganippe weren't very well understood, which translated to not very trusted, unlike their pegasi cousins, but at least were still considered ponies... barely. Were it not for the grace and open acceptance from Princess Luna, they likely wouldn't even have that much.

The sheriff moved the stalk of grass to one side and lobbed a gobbet of saliva at the spittoon next to his desk without even looking at it. “So why aren't you in the Night Guard? I thought you all went in for that 'service to the Lady' and all that,” he asked, obviously prepared to not believe the answer.

Knightengale took a deep breath and sighed. She'd heard plenty of that sort of question as well. She couldn't blame them for asking, not really. Few ponies ever see an aganippe outside of the Night Guard, and fewer still ever see their townships built in the caverns scattered across Equestria. She felt they could be excused for their ignorance, so long as it didn't become prejudice. However, she could see already that this would be one such authority figure who would become problematic, and while she didn't want to give him any reason to suspect her of wrongdoing, she had a rough few days, and was at the end of her tether. “Personal reasons,” she replied in a terse, yet lilting voice.

The sheriff's narrow gaze narrowed even further and he slowly nodded. “I'm sure,” he muttered loud enough for both of them to hear. Knightengale flicked an ear at him, but her face remained impassive. The sheriff actually smiled, but it contained no mirth. “So why'd you leave your roost? I thought your kind mostly stuck together.”

The door to the sheriff's office slammed open just then, and a large earth pony mare walked in. She easily stood a head taller than either of the building's other two occupants, as if the shock of orange hair on her head was not eye catching enough. She hung a muddy green poncho on a peg near the door and shook out the water from her mane. “Och! It's coming doon in buckets oot thar! Soom stallion y'are, sending a wee, delicate lass like m'self oot in that doopour.” She walked over to them, and sat on the corner of his desk, making it creak ominously with her weight. “Well, na'. D'ye want my report na', Tin Star, or do I have time to wet me whistle?”

Tin Star poked her in the side with a hoof, which caused the large mare to yelp and hop off his desk. “You're on the job, Deputy Ricochet. No drinking.” He could see her winding up for a good whine, but headed her off. “I want you to get Miss Knightengale here set up with a room at the Way Inn. Young Miss Kitten Kaboodle was kind enough to set her up there for a week until she can get back on her hooves and out of town.”

“Who said I was going anywhere?” Knightengale asked calmly.

The sheriff stared at her hard. “Until she can get back on her hooves and out of town,” he said through clenched teeth.

Ricochet grabbed Knightengale by a foreleg and led her over to the door. “Come on, ya barmy mare. Let's goo afore ya talk yourself int'a cell.” They paused at the door long enough to pull on a couple of ponchos, then walked out into the rain. As they trudged through the downpour, Ricochet said, “Dinna mind that prat. Soom ponies get elected sheriff, an' they go a little toys in th' attic, y'ken?”

“Seen it too many times, myself,” Knightengale replied with a nod. “Give the wrong pony a little power, and suddenly they're next in line to the throne.”

“Aye, jus' lie that!” Ricochet laughed. “I like you, cuttie. You're nae can o'piss like th'other aganippe I met.”

The aganippe in question looked up at her in surprise. “You've met others like me?”

“Aye,” Ricochet replied. “I'll tell ya all aboot it over a pint.”

Knightengale arched an eyebrow at her and smirked. “”I thought you were on the job?” she asked.

“Aye, wall, I won't tell if ye won't,” the tall deputy replied with a wink. Both mares laughed as they walked in to the local dive.

(\ /)
( . .)

Knightengale contemplated the whiskey in her tumbler as she slowly spun it on the table with her hooves. The inn's saloon had long since cleared of all other but herself, the bartender, and one lone, passed out stallion at another table. She watched as the liquid threatened to slosh out of the glass to join the other stains on the wood, but never quite made it. With a sigh, she asked herself, How did it come to this? Stranded in some no name town, no money, no prospects. No friends... She drained the last of her drink, and brought the glass to the bar. She nodded goodnight to the light green unicorn behind it, and was about to go upstairs to her room, when she noticed a “Help Wanted” sign placed against the mirror behind the barkeep.

She walked back to the bar and pointing towards the sign, asked, “What sort of help are you looking for?”

The bartender looked her over, noting the muscle tone under her coat despite her delicate-looking build. “Security, mostly. Why, you interested?”

Knightengale shrugged. “Well, I do need a job. Maybe temporary, maybe not. Depends on how long the sheriff can stand me being here.”

With a roll of her eyes, the bartender spat on the sawdust covered floor, and used her magic to start cleaning some glasses with a dirty rag. “Tin Star's a teetotaler. I could care less what he thinks. The only reason any of the fights in here get stopped is because Rico practically lives here. 'Course, half those fights she starts, but at least they end faster. You got any experience?”

“I spent most of my foalhood training for the Night Guard,” she replied, flexing one bat-like wing and folding it back.

“Yeah, I noticed you were one of them bat ponies,” the barkeep said casually.

Knightengale moved like lightning, and was behind the bar before the unicorn could blink. She picked her up and slammed her once against the wall, causing all the glassware to rattle musically. “You better watch your mouth, hornhead. That's aganippe to you, not “bat pony.”

The unicorn smiled. “Speed, strength, and restrained violence. You're hired.” Knightengale let her down slowly in confusion. “Sorry about the slur, but I needed to see if you really had what it took to bounce. I got nothing against aganippe. Even had a few who used to come in all the time when they were with the Frontier Guard. Name's Wormwood,” she said, holding out a hoof.

Taking the hoof, she shook it. “Knightengale. With a 'K',” she added when she saw the unicorn about to say something. That was something else she had gotten used to saying over the years. She mentally thanked her parents once more for giving her a name so easily misconstrued.

Wormwood had to think a moment before catching her meaning. “Parents too clever for your own good, eh? Welcome to my world. Spent the first ten years of my life thinking I was going to be some kind of worm farmer, or something.” She shook her head ruefully with a smile. “The things I used to do to earn my cutie mark.”

With a matching smile, Knightengale nodded. “I can relate. So, when do I start?”

Wormwood nodded her head towards the passed out stallion at the bar. “How about now? I'll give you half pay for today if you help me deal with him, then you can officially start tomorrow afternoon. Pay's twenty bits a day, less food, drink and rent.”

Knightengale nodded and twisted her head, causing her neck to crack loudly. “Sounds good to me. So, where do I leave him? Front stoop? Back alley?”

“Nah, this one's special,” Wormwood replied. “When he passes out here- which is almost every night these days- we let him sleep in the pantry.”


“Uncle,” the green mare replied sadly. “He helped me get this bar, laid out a lot of bits for me too.” She grunted as she carefully tipped the stallion onto Knightengale's back. “I try to look out for him, make sure he has someplace safe to sleep it off.” Leading them through the kitchens, she opened a door, and Knightengale saw a nest made of sacks of potatoes already set up with a blanket and pillow nearby. With surprising ease, the light gray aganippe eased him onto the sacks before Wormwood covered him with the blanket. “Thanks for your help. He's not that heavy, but trying to do that all by myself is a real pain.”

Knightengale shrugged it off. “Hey, it's family, right?”

(\ /)
( . .)

The sound of a bird singing at her window was just too loud to ignore any longer. It's cheerfulness would be enough to make her cringe, even were it not so early in the day. Knightengale rolled over to face the open window, removing the pillow from around her ears, and let loose a burst of ultrasonic noise, sending the bird flying off for more friendly skies. The mare took a little more pleasure in that than she really intended, but that same bird had been serenading her every late morning for the past week straight, and turnabout was fair play as far as she was concerned.

With a great yawn that threatened to pop her jaw out of joint, she rose from her bed and stretched. Spotting the clock on the wall, she noted the time. Eleven? Well, it's better than yesterday, at least. Got seven whole hours of sleep this time. She walked over to the metal mirror hanging next to the window and did her best to tame her bed mane without a brush. Ugh. Guess I'll send one of the squirts shopping for me. Can't go on like this for much longer. I have an image to maintain, after all.

More or less presentable, she walked down the stairs to her job, stopping along the way to send one of the foals that hung around the inn/saloon in hopes of earning some bits for running errands out to buy her a brush. Taking a seat at a table, she greeted the regulars, most of whom just nodded to her. Ricochet came over from her seat at the bar and took the chair across from her. “Wall, g'morning to you, sunshine. I was beginning to think I'd have to send oot a sarch party for ya.”

“You mean you were worried you'd have to abandon your cider before it was finished, don't you?” Knightengale shot back.

Ricochet brought a hoof up to her heart in mock pain, but was careful enough to not spill her drink. “Och! Ya wound me to th' quick!” She turned towards the bar and loudly said, “Ya hear these roadapples, Wormwood? Ya gonna let her speak soo to your best coostomer?”

“Second best,” Wormwood replied, taking time from cleaning a glass to point at her uncle, who raised a mug towards the mares. The rest of the saloon gave a chuckle, and a barmaid set down a bowl of fried potatoes and fruit along with a mug of (non-alcoholic) cider in front of the aganippe.

Knightengale nodded towards her, saying, “Thank you, Short Order.”

Ricochet noted the gray mare's eyes watching the barmaid walk back to the bar and lightly kicked her under the table. “Not cheating on me with th' help, are ye?” she asked playfully.

Swallowing the mouthful she had already spooned in, Knightengale replied, “Nothing wrong with looking. Besides, cheating implies we have something deeper than friendship, Rico.”

“Ya mean that night o'carousing meant naught to ya? Och, Knighty, ya sure know how to wound a gal.” Just to emphasize her point, the earth pony clasped both hooves to her heart and made a kissyface at her.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Knightengale lobbed a spoonful of blueberries at the larger mare, scoring a direct hit on the lips, and causing her to sputter in surprise. In a near perfect imitation of the earth pony's Cowadonian accent, she said, “Thar's plenty mar where that came from ya blatherskite. Na' get ye gone afar the sheriff drags your daft rump away.”

Licking the blueberry juice off her face and popping one into her mouth, Ricochet stood with a smile. “Och, ya smooth talker.” As she walked to the door, she looked over her shoulder and said, “Mark me words, that rump will be mine, Knighty.” Before leaving, she gave a daring flick of her tail, allowing Knightengale a peek at something pink underneath, nearly causing her to choke on her potatoes.

(\ /)
( . .)

Later that night, Knightengale sat at her post, a stool next to the bar, but out of the customers' way. From this position, she was able to keep an eye on the room itself as well as the door. The day had been benign enough, with only Kitten Kaboodle coming in just after noon to see how she was doing. She tried to refuse it, but Knightengale finally persuaded the smaller pegasus to take back the money she had given to house the aganippe. It wasn't until she had said, “I always repay my debts.” that Kitten finally relented.

Wormwood had commented as she cleaned down the bar for the fourth time about the desolation. “A little unusual for this time of day. Usually we get in at least a few travelers,” she said with affected nonchalance. Her uncle had said nothing, but looked at the clock above the bar and grunted with a frown.

Business seemed to pick up as the day wore on, and the shops closed for the day, and farmers came in from the fields. Wormwood was soon too busy to remark upon the sudden slowdown earlier, but the event stuck with Knightengale, especially the stallion's reaction. It was this in mind that she watched the crowd for troublemakers, but so far, the only disturbance was a card game that got out of hoof when one of the gamblers tried to proposition Short Order. A stern glare from Knightengale and a quick flash of her fangs calmed the situation down rather quickly, however.

Everypony for the most part behaved themselves, but for the past few days, there had been an undercurrent of tension. More stories from travelers about attacks from griffons, minotaurs, and even diamond dogs had been circulating more and more of late, causing people to flock towards the churches to pray for safety, and then to the saloons to drink away their worries. Even Ricochet seemed subdued and fretful.

It was into this sort of tension came the trouble. As soon as the grim pegasus stepped into the saloon, everypony went dead silent. He was dressed in the light armor of a royal messenger, and carried with him a satchel stuffed with papers, and without preamble walked up to a post near the door, nailing a sheet to it. He turned to face the room, and from the red eyes and dried tracks on his cheeks, everypony could see that he had been crying recently. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat and said, “At dawn today, the airship Solaris was attacked. A combined force of griffons and dragons brought her down. Only a hoofful of ponies were able to make good their escape. As of this time, we are unaware of the condition of any other survivors, but we must assume the worst. The Princesses are asking for any able-bodied ponies to volunteer for military service. A recruiter will be here by tomorrow afternoon to accept any who wish to join. That is all.”

With that, he turned and left. The silence was so complete that they could hear his wing flaps as he took off. Ricochet walked up and read the posting, but found nothing the messenger hadn't already said. Ponies started to murmur amongst themselves, but now, instead of just an undercurrent of fear, it was more pronounced, even palpable.

Seeing that this kind of emotion would do the nopony any good, Knightengale did the only thing she could think of. With a flap of her wings, she alighted onto the bar, instantly gathering everypony's attention, and causing the room to go silent once more. With a clear, unwavering voice, she began to sing.

I thought I heard the old mare say,
“Leave her Bonny, leave her.”
Tomorrow ye will get your pay,
and it's time for us to leave her.

Leave her Bonny, leave her!
Oh, leave her Bonny, leave her!
For the voyage is long, and the winds don't blow,
and it's time for us to leave her.

Oh the wind was foul, and the sea ran high,

A few of the patrons began singing the refrain along with Knightengale now, lead by Wormwood's uncle.

”Leave her Bonny, leave her!”
She shipped it green and none went by,
and it's time for us to leave her.

Leave her Bonny, leave her!
Oh, leave her Bonny, leave her!
For the voyage is long, and the winds don't blow,
and it's time for us to leave her.

By the second line, all the patrons were joining in the sad song.

I hate to sail on this rotten tub,
“Leave her Bonny, leave her!”
No grog allowed and rotten grub,
and it's time for us to leave her.

Leave her Bonny, leave her!
Oh, leave her Bonny, leave her!
For the voyage is long, and the winds don't blow,
and it's time for us to leave her.

We swear by rote for want of more,
“Leave her Bonny, leave her!”
But now we're through, so we'll go ashore,
and it's time for us to leave her.

Leave her Bonny, leave her!
Oh, leave her Bonny, leave her!
For the voyage is long, and the winds don't blow,
and it's time for us to leave her.

By the end of the final line, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Chapter 5: Lager for Life

View Online


Chapter 5: Lager for Life

~15 Aevum Illuminationis~

Marching up and down the meager ranks of her soldiers, Twilight nodded outwardly, but inwardly, she was cringing. Our ranks are far too thin to be of any use against anything more than a minor incursion. Sure, the earth ponies are sturdy, the pegasi fierce, and the unicorns powerful individually, but they cannot compare- Her dark, unflattering introspection were interrupted by the sedate clopping of hooves of an approaching pony. She turned, her light armor clanking, to find the only pony she knew of that sounded quite like her. “Celestia. We art thrice bless'd by thy presence. To what do we owe the honor?”

Celestia halted before her younger sister, and acknowledged the bows from the soldiers. “Season thy admiration, Sister. I come to thee to merely bend thy ear on a small, yet important matter of state. Hast thou a moment?”

Twilight favored her a smile that quickly vanished as she turned back to the troops, all stern commander once more. “Company dismissed! Return once more on the morrow for drill.” She returned their bows with a salute before turning back to Celestia, her expression still grim, but tinged with sadness this time. “Good soldiers to a one, but I fear for their future.”

“Thy vision again?”

Leading them both to a wooden rack, Twilight doffed her armor, setting each in its place until the dummy looked like an alicorn in purple chain and plate, minus the helm that she still held in one hoof. “Aye, but t'is more than that. I presume thou knowest of the latest disturbances amongst the drakes?”

With a nod, Celestia said, “T'would be the height of folly to ignore warnings so dire as these. That they didst not hold us in even the most mean of esteem as to shoulder us with their burden bespeaks ill of the plight of Equestria. Ere soon, we must take stock of our allegiances. We wouldst not want fair weather friends to become our downfall.”

Turning to her big sister, Twilight pleaded, “Then let me press more into service. Our forces hath dwindled like ne'er before, and what few we have are insufficiently trained to handle all but the meanest of forces. Not e'en the strongest unicorn couldst make one whit of difference on the outcome of such a battle. I am still confounded by this parliament! They seek to stymie us at every turn. Methinks they believe us to their enemy!” She threw her helm to the cobblestones in a fit of pique shattering the stone, but leaving the helm undamaged, save for a few scratches.

A golden aura of magic surrounded the helm, and flew it up to its proper resting place on the wooden dummy. “Calm thyself, dear Sister. Seeing thee vexed is their purpose and joy. To give them this satisfaction wouldst only encourage them to greater heights.” She nuzzled the lavender alicorn affectionately, reigning in her temper. “Thou knowest that they hold the purse strings, and are most miserly when a proposal holds no direct advantage for them. Their shortsightedness is their prison.”

“A prison that will cause all of Equestria to fall!” Twilight shouted. “This fledgeling nation, this grand experiment will fail ere two decades hath passed! Confound these ponies, they art enough to drive one to drink!” She gave a snort of disgust, and ruffled the feathers of her wings, flexing them for a moment as if she meant to take off, but changed her mind and folded them back.

Celestia kissed Twilight on her forehead, just below her horn, and let the younger mare rest her head against her broad chest. “I too, see the storm on the horizon, howe'er I fear it too late already to prepare. We shall do what we can with what few in parliament hath allied with us, but I fear it will be a mere sop to our consciences.” She appeared hesitant for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip, then added, “How goeth thy, er, Project with Nyx?”

Twilight's mood actually seemed to lift at the question. “Well enow. With the arcanificarum to assist, research hath proceeded with appreciable alacrity. I predict we wilt be able to test our theory soon, mayhap e'en afore trouble strikes.”

Celestia nuzzled the younger alicorn again. “Pray, have a care with this experiment, Twilight. Artifacts of this nature are no mere baubles, less so living artifacts.”

Twilight turned to her sister and replied, “Dear Celestia, I am always full of the utmost care and respect when dealing with primal energies. I am an arcanist, after all.”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

With a rough casualness that bespoke of her inebriated state, Ricochet threw her few, meager belongings into the only saddlebag she owned since leaving the Royal Guard. She was sure that she had heard something inside break, but didn't care. When the last bit of her life was packed into the half-full bags, she scanned the room and sighed. Am I actually sad to be leaving this dump of a town?

“And just where do you think you're going, Missy?”

Turning to one of the absolute last voices she wanted to hear at this moment, she faced sheriff Tin Star, and by her expression, she obviously would be brooking no argument today. “Dinna try an stop me, ye daft poony. I know me duty, an I aim to see it through.”

Tin Star leaned against the door frame, casually blocking the way out. “Do you? Know your duty, that is?” He put a hoof to his chin and feigned thoughtfulness. “I seem to recall a deputy of mine being dishonorably discharged from the guards. Now what was her name?”

Ricochet grabbed the nearest object to her, which turned out to be an empty glass bottle and threw it at him in a rage. “Feck off, ye gobdaw,! Ye promised to never bring that oop!”

The bottle never even came close, shattering on the wall, well away from Tin Star. With a shrug, he brushed aside the accusation. “I reserve the right to use it if it will prevent you from doing something monumentally stupid... like you're about to do.” He looked to the shattered remains of the bottle and shook his head. “Can you even hit anything besides the bottle anymore? When was the last time you even picked up your bow? You're a sad, pathetic wreck, Ricochet, and the sad part is, you're less than half my age.” He walked over to her and held out a foreleg next to her, which she bumped into several times. “Look at this! You can't even stand up straight without swaying. If you had come to me like this looking for work, I would have thrown you in a cell and then chased you out of town the next day!”

Angrily, She shoved his foreleg away, staggering a few steps as she did. “I can handle it. I dinna need your pity, and I certainly dinna need your guff.” She pulled her massive longbow over to her from its resting spot against the wall, and used it to steady herself.

Tin Star poked her chest, sending the taller mare back onto her rump, bow clattering to the floor. Looking down his snout at her, he said, “You're right about one thing. You certainly don't need my pity; you get quite enough of it from yourself. But you do need a good, swift kick in the kiester so you can get your head unstuck from in there. Pity? No, you're in no danger of running out of that anytime soon.”

He looked around the room, taking in the many empty bottles that littered the space, the ever present aroma of alcohol and stale puke, the one-bedroom apartment that likely hadn't been properly cleaned since the mare had taken up residence, and gave a disgusted snort. “I wonder, does that filly you fancy know you live like this? Have you shown her any side of you beyond the party mare? Has she woken up next to you in this filthy bed, or-”

“Ye dinna talk aboot her like tha'!” Ricochet shouted, getting to her hooves unsteadily, but ready to give him the beating of his life, sheriff or no. “Ye leave Knighty oot o' this! Tha' filly has more good in her than a thousand o' ye! She doesn't do things like tha'! She deserves better than tha'!” She sat down heavily on her rump again, not caring about the ominous shattering sound coming from her saddlebags, nor the wetness fast spreading from them. “She deserves better than me,” she finished in a weak whisper.

Tin Star gave a lopsided smile. “Well, well, well. It seems even you have recognized how far you've fallen, if you realize that even a bat pony, of all of Luna's misbegotten creatures has more worth than you right now. The question then becomes, what are you going to do about it?” He turned and walked towards the door to her apartment above the jail. He paused at the door long enough to say, “I'll let you think that question over for a bit.”

Ricochet sat there, silent tears running down her cheeks. “Damn ye, ye bastard.” Unable to support herself any longer, she leaned against the hoofboard of her bed, banging her head against it repeatedly. The sound of the door creaking open further drew her attention to the only pony she dreaded seeing more than the sheriff.

“Were you honestly thinking of leaving without even saying goodbye?” Knightengale asked. Her face was an unreadable mask, but the slight crack in her melodious voice betrayed her emotions.

Unable to hold her gaze any longer, Ricochet's bloodshot eyes darted away in shame. “Aye. I thought-”

“No, I don't believe you were thinking; at least, not about me or anypony else who might be hurt by your leaving without so much as a 'see you later',” the aganippe answered for her.

Ricochet flinched from the raw hurt apparent in her voice. “Aye. Tha'.” She looked around for something to say, anything to cover the awful silence that pervaded the room like a living thing, seeking to suffocate the earth pony with sheer oppressiveness. “I- I couldn'a stand the thought o' leaving ye, but I couldn'a stand the thought o' saying goodbye even more.” She thumped her head against the bed again, this time hard enough to split the skin, letting a dribble of blood fun down her face to mix with the tracks of her tears. “Bloody coward,” she said quietly.

Suddenly, her head was being cradled against the smaller mare's chest, and a soft kiss planted on top of her head. “Don't you dare even think of ever doing that again, you hear me? Ever! You're not alone in this world, and there are ponies who care about you. Ponies who would miss you. Understand?”

Ricochet could only manage a quick nod, as she breathed in the comforting scent of the mare holding her.

(\ /)
( . .)

Ricochet sat on her freshly made bed, nursing a mug of hot coffee, her gaze never leaving the bustling form of Knightengale, as the aganippe cleaned the room. She almost choked on her drink when the mare opened the widows wide to air out the room, leaning far out, and breathing in a breath of fresh air, unknowingly showing off her lean curves. “Why are ye doing all this, Knighty?” she asked quietly, not trusting her voice to rise in volume for fear of breaking again.

Pausing in her whirlwind of activity, Knightengale turned to her friend, and shook her head in amusement. “Nopony should have to live in filth like this. It's a wonder you haven't caught something from all this.”

The earth pony pulled a half full bottle of whiskey from under her mattress and waved it at her. “I'm thinking I was just well-preserved.” She pulled the cork out with her teeth and was about to pour a measure into her mug, but saw Knightengale standing there with a disapproving look on her face and a wastebasket held out. “Och, come on, Knighty! Just a wee farewell draught, please.”

“Rico, I know it can be hard to face the world without some sort of liquid courage, but I know too, that you're a braver pony than that,” Knightengale replied, waving the wastebasket insistently. “Besides,” she added as the recorked bottle was gently laid in the basket to clink against the other bottles already filling it, “You won't be facing the world all alone. I'll help you through this, even if it kills you.”

With a spreading blush, Ricochet replied, “Aye, wall, I dinna know aboot tha'. Personally, I'd like to survive it an all.”

Bundling up the last of the trash, Knightengale sat down next to Ricochet with a sigh, and surprised her by guiding the earth pony's hooves holding the mug to her own lips for a quick drink. “Thanks, I needed that.”

Ricochet took another pull from the mug, draining it of the last dregs and laid it on the table next to her bed. “There... there's something ye should know before ye decide to get too tangled oop in me mess, Knighty. It's how I came to be oot here and why I was booted from the guard.”

“I thought you said you left on your own,” Knightengale said.

“Aye, wall, I may have done a wee bit o' truth stretching there,” she replied. “I did leave the capital on me own, but I was booted from the guard for something terrible. I guess ye could say it really started the day I officially joined the guard...”

(\ /)
( . .)

Casually tossing her duffel bag onto the lower bunk closest to the showers, Ricochet planted a hoof on it, claiming it for all to see. She looked over at the rest of the still-green recruits filing in, fresh from the training grounds and smiled at them. “Too slow by half, ladies! This one's all mine.”

“You just want that bunk so you can watch us shower from the convenience of your bed,” a blue pegasus said as she sashayed up to her and threw her own kit on the top bunk.

Ricochet closed the distance until their noses touched. “Aye, what of it, Cornflower?”

A yellow unicorn mare rolled her eyes. “Oh, get a room, you two.”

Cornflower put a foreleg over Ricochet's shoulders, though reaching up to do so. “We do have a room; this one!” she said proudly.

“Meine Güte ! Vat ist all dis kaffeeklatsch?”

All heads turned to the doorway to find the sergeant, a short, but muscular earth pony mare whose body and face was so covered in scars, it was difficult to tell that her original coat color was actually a drab olive. She ran a hoof through a close-cropped brown mane and looked at the assembled mares with the same disdain one might bestow on a smudge on their favorite tablecloth. She walked in, followed closely by a tan unicorn mare with a scroll and quill floating next to her in the air.

With a stomp, she pointed to the rank insignia on the sleeve of her tunic. “Vat are zey teachingk recruits zese days? You come to attention when a superior enters the room! Schnell!” she shouted.

The unicorn behind her shouted, “Fall in!” in a voice that would do any drill instructor proud.

Immediately, the new mares stood at attention in front of their bunks, trying intently to stare at nothing so as to not draw attention to themselves. The sergeant walked down the line of ponies, disgust clear on her features. “I ask for soldat, and zey send me half-trained foals!” She turned to the mare behind her and asked, “I did ask for soldat, didn't I, Korporal Paladin?”

“I distinctly remember writing down 'soldier' on the requisition form, Sar'major,” Paladin replied.

“Zen zere must have been some mix-up. I see no soldat here, only vet-behind-ze-ears recruits so new zey sqveak like a mouse vhen zey valk!” the sergeant said. “Vat am I supposed to do viz zese?” she asked exasperatedly.

Paladin gave a small shrug. “The same thing you do every time the Quartermaster sends the wrong thing; make it work, Sar'major.”

The tiny sergeant facehoofed, dragging the hoof down her face. “Celestia, gib mir kraft.” She pointed at Cornflower. “You! Over here!” She pointed at the empty bunk nearest the door. “Korporal, you shall take ze schlafkoje above ze ozer vun. Maybe your presence vill keep zese barracks from turning into ein orgy.”

“Yes, Sar'major!” Paladin said with a smart salute.

Cornflower moved with alacrity, albeit reluctantly. When her gear was laying on her new bunk, the sergeant resumed her inspection. “Mein name ist Oberstabsfeldwebel Eisen Stück, but you may call me Sergeant Major Iron Piece, or as Korporal Paladin says, Sar'major; I shall reply to any of zose. I also reply to 'zat vitch' or 'die hexe', but you better be ready to back zat up mit die gewalt.”

Iron Piece stopped in front of one of the bunks and wiped a hoof along it and nodded in approval before moving on. “You vill note zat zis room ist clean enough to eat off of. You vill see zat it stays zat vay, or you vill be eating off of it.” She stopped again as she came to Ricochet, and despite the vast size difference, somehow made the larger mare feel small. “Zere vill also be no hanky-panky in mein barracks. Kein! Ist zat clear?”

“Aye, Sar'major,” Ricochet replied, gulping loudly.

Turning to the rest of the barracks, Iron Piece shouted, “I asked you all a qvestion! Ist! Zat! CLEAR?”

”YES, SAR'MAJOR!” the mares replied in unison.

Iron Piece facehoofed and shook her head. “Meine Güte , did zey teach you nozingk in basic?” She walked to the door. “I need ein bitter. Korporal, get acqvainted viz ze truppen.”

With the largest, small pony any of the mares had ever seen gone, their attention turned to the sandy brown unicorn with a white mane and tail, who rolled up her scroll, but kept it and the quill floating next to her. She smiled at them widely. “She's a peach, isn't she? For those of you wondering, my name is Corporal Paladin, your squad leader. You have all been lucky enough to be taken under the Sar'major's wing because you happened to show the most potential in basic. Unfortunately, you all also showed the most discipline problems, and she just loves discipline problems. I'm going to give you all a piece of free advice right now. Do not try her patience. She may not be allowed to beat you to death, but you'd be surprised what a pony can survive, and she comes from a very old school of thought on discipline. Positively archaic.” She walked up to Ricochet and smiled up at her and winked. “Mind you, I'm not much better.”

She walked back to the door, saying, “I'm going to collect my things now; give you fillies a few moments to kibbitz about what horrible ponies the Sar'major and I are. Try not to tear the room apart while I'm gone.”

(\ /)
( . .)

“You knew Dame Paladin when she was just a corporal?” Knightengale asked.

Ricochet smiled wistfully. “Aye, I knew the cuttie when she was just a wee bairn. Her family used to summer in Cowadonia. We would play hide'n'seek among the barrows all the time.”

Knightengale bumped shoulders with her. “Sounds like there may have been a crush somewhere in there.”

“Nae, though we did play postmare once or twice,” she replied. “Pally was- is a top shelf mare; deserves all the good in her life. She tried to help me, ye ken, but I was always a wee bit stubborn, ye may've noted.”

Putting a hoof to her chin in false thought, the aganippe replied, “Now that you mention it...”

“Aye, wall...”

(\ /)
( . .)

“Och, come oon, Pally. Give us a break. We need a respite before the horror is upoon us.” Ricochet gestured to the gathered mares of their squad, all of whom tried to pretend to be giving the two a bit of privacy. Ricochet had told them that she and Paladin were old acquaintances, and they wasted no time in trying to get her to wheedle a pass for the night. She didn't like being used this way, and she liked using her friendship this way even less, but they promised to buy her drinks all night if she did, and she was aching to try ale for the first time.

Paladin looked at her sternly, but the earth pony knew her well enough to see the resolve wavering in her eyes. The unicorn always went along with her ideas, even if she was reluctant. “We have an early day tomorrow, Rico. The Sar'major wants to start drilling right away, and she was singularly unimpressed by the looks of the girls earlier. The only reason we aren't out on the field right now is because the first day is traditionally one of rest, and she is big on traditions.”

Ricochet smiled at the opening provided. “There, ye see? A day oof rest! What better way to rest, than in the pub? Come oon, Pally. I'll even buy you a drink or two.”

Paladin chewed on her lip, clearly torn.

(\ /)
( . .)

“She eventually gave in; she always had a soft spot for me, ye ken,” Ricochet said with a smile. “Mind ye, she really had nae use for drinking, and opted to stay in the barracks. Looking back on it, tha' may have been a mistake on her part. Being out oon the town for first time since joining the guard, we went a wee bit barmy; lost track o' time. We didn'a get back until well after soonrise.”

Knightengale winced and hissed in sympathy. “I'm sure what kind of impression that made on the Sar'major.”

Ricochet nodded sadly. “Aye. Being that it was Pally what gave us the passes, she took the brunt of the Sar'major's anger; though I think she was hurt more by the disappointment in her eyes than the physical punishment or revocation o' privileges. I know I was when Pally looked me way.” She was silent for a moment before adding, “Cut right through me like a knife made o' ice. I felt aboot as tall as a snake in a wagon rut. Mind ye, it didn'a stop it from happening again.”

“Love at first taste?” Knightengale asked,

“Nae,” she replied, surprising her friend. “Could nae stand the stooff. Mind ye, my first taste was tha' weak Spellgrade swill. I would sooner use tha' to clean the latrines, than drink it. Weak, heavy oon the berries, and nae bite to it. Nae, it was'na until I discovered a pub what served proper ale from Cowadonia.” The earth pony sighed blissfully. “Now there's an ale to start the marning! Rich, bitter, thick enough to slice; t'is truly a drink of the alicarns!”

Knightengale playfully bumped shoulders with her. “I'm starting to feel like 'the other mare' here.”

“Och, Knighty. Before ye ask for tha' position, you should hear the rest o' the story.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Paladin walked beside Ricochet, Cornflower, and three other guards, wondering how she got wrangled into this. “Now, we are going to be back in time for reveille, right?”

Ricochet slapped the unicorn's shoulders boisterously. “Dinna fash yourself so, Pally. We take care o' our own.”

“That's what worries me,” Paladin replied in a sotto voice.

Cornflower draped herself halfway over Ricochet's back, allowing the larger mare to carry her in what would normally considered a shocking public display of affection, but meant little to either of them. “Oh, calm down, and pull the stick out. It's okay to let your mane down now and then, you know.”

“Aye, we're here to celebrate your grand promotion, Pally! Ye deserve it after all the hard work ye put in,” Ricochet added. “It's not everypony who's invited to join Princess Celestia's personal guard by the Princess herself, ye know. If there were ever a better reason for a celebration, I never heard o' one!”

“Let's just keep the drinking to a minimum. I have to get up before the sun tomorrow,” Paladin pleaded.

Ricochet looked at her like she had grown a second head. “Now where's the fun in tha'?”

It turned out that Paladin's fear weren't unfounded. While they could only get her to drink a total of three pints that whole night, the rest of their group were on their fifth, and Ricochet her eighth when the trouble started.

While nicely buzzed, Paladin was still in full grasp of her faculties, and was looking for a way to end the night, but every time she tried to bring it up, one of the mares would order another round. I need some time to think and clear my mind. “If you ladies will excuse me, I need to visit the little fillies' room,” she said, scooting back her chair to stand.

“Better hurry up before Rico drinks your ale again!” Cornflower shouted after her.

With a good-natured smile and a wave, she wandered off (if a bit unsteadily) to find respite. While she was gone, an equally drunk stallion wandered up to the table, and put one hoof on it, leaning over Ricochet. “How's about a kiss, Darlin'?” he asked, breath smelling strongly of whiskey.

“How's about a punch in the nose?” Cornflower asked, pulling Ricochet a little closer to her.

A lecherous grin spread across the stallion's face. “You two together?” he asked.

“An' what if we are, ya great pillock?” Ricochet replied.

The stallion looked back and shouted, “Hey guys! We got us a bunch a fillies that need to learn what being with a stallion is like!”

Ricochet tilted her head to either side, eliciting loud cracking sounds, as a grin spread across her own face. “An' ye think ye can do tha' with tha' wee bairn's dork ye got flopping around, do ye? I seen more impressive wedding tackle on a bunny rabbit.”

Naturally, no stallion would take that from anyone, especially not as inebriated as this one was. The swing he took at her was not unexpected, indeed, was even welcomed, but not when Cornflower jumped in the way of it, laying her out flat. That was all it took for Ricochet to lose all restraint. She picked up her chair and smashed it over his head, breaking it into splinters. That seemed to be the signal the whole bar was waiting for, because an instant later, there was not a pony in the taproom not involved in the melee.

Ponies fought each other, regardless of allegiances, fighting just to fight. The only exceptions were the five soldiers, who fought like a unit as they had been taught, and the barmaids, all of whom had taken cover behind the bar as if defending a rampart. During the brawl, one pony was sent flying towards the jakes where Paladin was just finishing up, and was wondering what was going on to make such a ruckus. As she was reaching for the door, the pony sent flying slammed into a table, which landed against the door, both blocking it quite effectively.

It didn't take long for the Night Guard to come in, clubs swinging, taking out all comers indiscriminately. When the last pony went down, they rounded up all of them, barkeep and serving wenches and all, taking them to jail. Paladin was found several minutes later, and freed from her prison, but given her circumstances, was released on her own recognizance.

(\ /)
( . .)

“The rest o' us were nae so lucky,” Ricochet said. “Cornflower had to see the healers to clear oop her dooble vision. Had to pay a pretty bit for it, too. She blamed me for tha', too. She was a right feisty mare in the sack, but quick to lay blame, especially if she could land it oon soomepony other than herself. I took the chimera's share oof the blame for the fight. Sorta built oop a reputation for it, ye ken. The others just got a reprimand and some KP. I... I was droomed oot for good. Dishonorable discharge. Actions unbecoming a Royal Guard.”

“For a bar fight?” Knightengale asked, incredulous.

“Nae. For crippling tha' stallion what hit Cornflower.” Ricochet winced at her friend's gasp of surprise. “Bloke couldn'a pay the healers to fix it, so all me savings, meager as they were, were taken to pay for compensation. When it didn'a measure oop for the expenses, they figured they'd be better oof withoot a can o' piss like me. All rank and privileges revoked. Only reason I could hang on to me bow was because it was mine, not issued.”

Knightengale pulled her in for a hug. “Oh, Rico...”

Tears flowed freely once more down the earth pony's face. “Tha's why ye should stay away from me. I'm a walking disaster area. Everything I touch turns to roadapples in me hooves.”

Knightengale responded by cradling the mare in her forelegs, and whispered soothing words to her, as their tears came forth. After a few moment, the tears slowed, and both ponies regained control of their breathing. “What are you going to do now, Join up under a new name?” the aganippe asked.

“They'll nae have me, and too many in the Guard know me face to try tha' blarney,” Ricochet replied sadly. She sighed and reached over to pick up her bow, which was leaning against the wall. “I dinna know what to do, Knighty. I canna go back, and I canna move forward withoot knowing where I'm going.”

Knightengale laid a hoof on top of the earth pony's, which was holding the bow on her lap, giving it a gentle, yet firm squeeze. “Wherever you go, Ricochet, it won't be alone.”

Chapter 6: Run Like Hell

View Online


Chapter 5: Run Like Hell

~19 Aevum Illuminationis~

Walking amongst the smoking ruins, Twilight picked through them carefully, searching for any signs of life. Scattered everywhere were the littered remains of slain ponies and the remnants of their implements of war. The fort itself had once been a marvel of construction, made from huge slabs of rock, some of which weighed over a hundred tons, but now portions of the walls were all that remained, reaching towards the sky like the skeletal remains of a great beast long since slain. For a structure of its type, it had been completed in record time, only taking eighteen months from the clearing of the land to the final placement of the last stone. It had been filled with an entire brigade, a third of all Equestria's official armed forces. Almost five thousand ponies lived, worked, trained, and protected Equestria from here, and only four ponies survived to tell the tale of the fall of Fort Ironspear.

Four ponies. Only one was expected to live through the night.

With a snort of disgust, Twilight continued her inspection. Many of these ponies here she herself had helped to train. Unicorns whom she had personally taught their spells, pegasi whom had learn a trick or two from their Princess of Magic, earth ponies whom had learned the finer points of dueling alongside the Twilight Alicorn. Of course, Celestia had also trained the troops when she could, but she had elected to take on the chimera's share of the duties of ruling in order to free Twilight for her magical research, and see to the defense of Equestria. While they agreed that Celestia was the strongest of the three sisters, she was also the best suited in terms of temperament when it came to dealing with the aristocracy and politicians.

Luna was still far too young to be embroiled in all this war nonsense, and so she had remained on the sidelines, watching with worry every time one of her elder sisters received a piece of bad news. She fretted with every chewed lip, every hissing intake of breath, every worried glance towards the small alicorn, who was still too young to have come fully into her celestial power, and the billowing mane and tail that denoted her blossoming into full apotheosis.

Twilight shook her head, trying to banish the track to which her train of thought continuously returned. Luna was one thing both Celestia and Luna agreed upon, and that was that she must be protected, even at the cost of their own lives. Luna, the final legacy of their parents, whom had been entrusted to them. A casual leap and flap of her wings saw Twilight up the the tallest point of the ruins, a wall ten hooves thick which was once the outer wall of the fort, and protected the second floor, which would house most of the barracks of the ponies who lived here. Surveying from her perch, she could see the devastation visited upon the land clearly. She could see the vast fields of grasslands first burned by dragonfire, then the ashes pounded into the dirt by marching soldiers.

My poor, poor ponies. Thou deserv'd better than this. A tear welled up and ran a trail down her cheek, creating a clean path of fur, washing away the ashes that stained her coat. She heard the flapping of feathered wings, but didn't bother to turn to face the pony she knew she would find there.

“Zounds. The reports didst not properly convey the calamity that befell here,” Celestia said quietly.

“What excuse didst the nobles give this time?” Twilight asked quietly.

Celestia pawed at the edge of the wall on which she stood, watching the stone crumble to ash beneath her hooves. “They allocated a purse for the formation of a new company of scouts that they might venture into Draconia and see what they may.”

Twilight cackled, her laughter sounding a bit too unhinged for Celestia's liking. She stomped onto the peak of the wall, breaking off a huge chunk, sending it crashing to the ground. “Scouts?” she shouted out shrilly, “We hath just lost a third of our organized forces, and they deign to allow us to form a company of scouts? Sooth, the generosity of the foals ne'er ceases to amaze me!” She whirled around, allowing Celestia to see the grief and anger in the younger sister's eyes, both tinged with fear; not for herself, but for the innocent ponies they had taken upon themselves to protect. A macabre rictus grin of near madness formed and sent a chill of fear into the Dawnbringer's heart. “Tell me true; what must we do to earn their trust? We hath done everything but submit our bodies to them to be used as chattel, yet they persist in this irrational anxiety that we will seize control over their fortunes as Discord of past. What sea of troubles against which must we take arms in order to secure their faith?” she shouted, a dribble of foamy saliva dripping from the corner of her mouth.

Celestia stepped forward, resting her head over Twilight's shoulder, enveloping her younger sister in the comforting embrace of her wings. Warmth spread throughout the alicorn's body, returning her to her senses. The dam she had built to hold back the grief she had been feeling since the first report of ponies going missing a decade ago finally broke, allowing her to cry fully for the first time in years. An image of every pony to have died due to this cold war flashed through her mind, many of which she knew personally. Her wail became an incoherent scream of sorrow deeper than anything she had felt before. As the sun set, and the first few stars were due to come out, but remained unforthcoming.

Looking to the sky nervously, Celestia bit her lower lip. Twilight sniffled and pulled away, more self-controlled than just a moment before. “Worry not, Dear Sister. The stars hath felt mine sorrow and mourn with me. They shalt return on the morrow.”

Celestia was halted from replying by the sudden appearance of a unicorn guard teleporting into the area. “Your Highnesses,” he said with a low bow. “I fear I am the bearer of more bad news. Private Rosewood hast shuffled off her mortal coil.”

“Hast Lady Nyx any fortune in contacting Salanshandaraen?” Twilight asked, her face a careful, but fragile mask.

“Nay, Your Highness. She hath not yet awaken'd from her trance.”

Twilight looked away to hide her emotions from the guard, who had yet to rise from his bow anyway. “I see. Thank you, and return to your duties, Lieutenant.”

Without rising, the guard teleported away in a flash of light. Celestia put a wing back over her little sister, and smiled a little when it wasn't shrugged away. Twilight looked over to her, her mask still in place, but it seemed that some of the cracks had been filled in. “Come, Sister. It is far past time we made these nobles realize that we art not their enemy, nor art we Discord.” The both of the disappeared in a bright flash of light, leaving the burned-out husk of a fortress to the curious whims of the local flora and fauna.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Trotting down the hallway, her armor-clad hooves clopping loudly on the flagstones, a sandy brown unicorn made her way to her duty station. She turned a corner, entering another hallway with a long row of tall windows open, admitting the predawn breeze, which ruffled her shock of white mane. She eyed the windows as one might a dangerous foe that just did something unexpected.

Two aganippe, resplendent in their Royal Night Guard armor, marched into the hallway from another branch, and the unicorn waved them over. “Good morning, Lieutenant Paladin. Is there something we can help you with, this morning?” the elder pony asked.

Paladin nodded and gestured towards the open windows. “Can you tell me why these windows are unsecured, Sergeant Sounder? We lock them for a reason.”

Sounder nodded and gave a weak smile. “Princess Luna requested they be opened to allow in the breeze. She said the palace was too stifling.”

“Then why was no guard posted here while they were open, per procedure? She asked.

“Because she ordered all windows on this level to be opened, and we don't have horsepower to post two guards in every hallway,” the sergeant answered, his voice full of sympathy for his superior.

Paladin sighed and shook her head. “Very well. Close up these windows, and pass the word to do the same for all other windows. I'll take responsibility if she asks. I'll have to have a talk with Princess Celestia. Maybe she can convince her that security protocols are for everypony's benefit, and not to make her life uncomfortable.”

The two aganippe saluted, and Paladin was on her way again, this time at a slightly faster clip to make up for lost time. She came to the large, bronze-covered double doors, flanked by a pair of unicorns. She returned their salutes and knocked on the door before letting herself in. “Princess Celestia? Are you up yet?”

The sound of movement near the bed drew her attention there, and she saw a familiar (and most welcome) pony standing next to it, fresh sheets still in hoof. “Oh! Good morning, Lieutenant,” a slender, silver-coated unicorn mare with a mane and tail the color of bronze said demurely.

“Well, it's certainly a good morning now, Miss Silver Bell,” Paladin replied, causing the older chambermaid to blush prettily. She approached the mare close enough for her to lay a hoof on top of hers and gently grasp it in her gauntleted hoof. “I take it the Princess is already up?”

“Up and bathed, Lieutenant,” Celestia said, walking from the bathroom, a relatively small pegasus hovering around her head, trying to brush her rainbow mane, but having little luck with the moving mare. “Art thou not full of pep and vinegar this morn. May I inquire as to the cause of such gaiety?” she asked with a smirk.

Paladin quickly dropped the hoof, blushing and stammering a moment. “Come, come, Lieutenant,” Celestia said as she walked towards the door. “We hath an infinite number of duties set out for us, and only a finite amount of time set aside for us. Let us not dally.”

As Paladin turned to follow, Silver Bell whispered into her ear, “Serves you right for fraternizing with the help.” She winked one red eye at her, then gently pushed her towards the door.

Falling into step slightly behind her Diarch, Paladin began going over her schedule for the day. “After raising the sun and breakfast with Princess Luna, the first supplicant for Dawn Court is the Duchess of Spellgrade. Apparently, she wants to renegotiate the contract for the Royal Guard's magical armor. She said something about-”

“Thou shouldst talk to her,” Celestia said, throwing Paladin completely off track.

“Pardon, Your Highness?” Paladin asked. “It's not really my place to negotiate with the Duchess about-”

“Nay, not her. Silver Bell. She is quite enamored with thee,” Celestia corrected. She looked down and noted the unicorn's blush, and smiled to herself.

“I- I- I-” she stammered.

Celestia halted and turned to face the smaller pony. “Mark my words well, young one. T'is better to get on with it soonest, else thou shalt regret all the time lost better spent with the pony thou adore most.”

Paladin looked to the floor, unable to meet her Diarch's gaze when such a serious mood was upon her. It didn't happen often that she saw, but that look seemed to be directed towards her more than most. It was almost as if she were mourning and searching for something precious she had lost. “I- I'll try, Your Highness.”

The Solar Diarch looked unconvinced, but resumed their trek. “Art thou prepared for the coming trial today? I shalt not make a mockery of thy capability by being lenient.”

“I believe so, Princess,” Paladin replied nervously. “I've studied the texts you assigned to me, but some of those concepts are extremely difficult. I mean, while necromancy is rather repulsive, I at least have a firm grasp on the concepts, but some of them like nucleomancy is just too much to wrap my head around. I don't mind telling you that just thinking about it give me a headache.”

Celestia bestowed upon her bodyguard an understanding smile. “Fear not, My Little Pony. Mine own reaction was much the same when my sister first...” The alicorn's words drifted off as she became lost in thought, that same searching look coming over her.

“Princess Luna discovered nucleomancy, Princess? No offense to her capabilities, but one would think that you being the Princess of the Sun, you would be the progenitor of that particular school of magic,” Paladin said, pulling the alicorn back to the present.

“Oh, it was not...” Celestia shook her head as if to clear it of errant thoughts. “Pay no mind to this old mare, my good Lieutenant. I say a great many things that often make little sense. I believe I shall make the test about certain special artifacts instead; especially pony-made artifacts. Pray, tell me whom is on the agenda after the good Duchess of Spellgrade?”

Paladin smiled, suddenly reminded of another bit of business that needed to be taken care of first. “Actually, Your Highness, I was wondering if you'd talk to Princess Luna about the security procedures...”

(\ /)
( . .)

Paladin watched the supplicant before the throne carefully, never letting her eagle-eyed gaze waver from the unicorn stallion standing before the raised dais. Noble he may have been, but it was her duty and privilege to guard the royal personage seated upon the throne, and she took the job with all due seriousness. She had never had to use the deadlier skills she had acquired in the manner for which they had been intended, and she intended to make sure that it remained that way. Oh sure, she had to bend a few legs the wrong way, or throw a pony to the hard flagstone floor, but lethal force had never become necessary.

While she had never had cause to use those deadly skills, she was always tempted by certain ponies to do so anyway, if only so that Equestria would not have to be made to suffer their presence any longer. Case in point: the lord before her now. “Your Highness, I must protest this gross miscarriage of justice! Those funds were allocated for the betterment of the region of Mastedonia. Your appropriation of those monies will mean the delay of a new aqueduct-”

“Baron Elder Scroll, those funds wert merely gathering dust in thy treasury,” Celestia interrupted. Though her facial expression never changed from bored interest, Paladin could hear the glee in her voice and had to hold back a smile of her own. “We art sure thou hast heard the news of the most recent attack on Equestria. The frontier town of Trace razed, burnt to the ground leaving naught but ashes, and the ponies gone with no trace.”

Elder Scroll shook his head in disgust. “As distressing as that news is, Your Highness, The fact remains that my city is in desperate need of that aqueduct, and the ponies that lived in Trace were all just ear-”

A loud, attention-getting cough from the baron's nervous guard halted all conversation in the room. The baron looked over to him as if he had suggested something terribly rude about his parentage, but the guard just pointedly looked over to Paladin, whom had raised a hoof in preparation of releasing one of her wands, and was glaring at the baron with murder in her eyes. The baron took one look at her, then up at Celestia, who glared down at him with one eyebrow arched, and blanched.

“You were saying, Baron?” Celestia asked icily.

Elder Scroll used hid magic to pull a white lace hoofkerchief from his sleeve, and tamped at the beads of sweat that had appeared there. His eyes returned to Paladin's hoof, which had yet to return to it's neutral position, and was twitching, obviously itching to send the specially crafted wand out into her hoof. Without removing his eyes from that hoof, he stammered, “I- I seem to have lost my train of thought, Your Highness. Perhaps I might be allowed to arrange for another day in court?”

“Mayhap it is best, Baron. Thy pallor seemeth to be a distressing hue,” Celestia agreed.

With a bow, the Baron turned and left, letting Paladin slowly drop her hoof to the ground once more. Her eyes followed them out, and she caught sight of Silver Bell, who happened to be leaving with the princess' tea service. The elder mare smiled at her, and Paladin threw her a wink, barely discernible under the heavy, crested helm she wore.

The final supplicant of the day was announced, and Paladin was all business once more. The final pony was a spry, young pegasus mare, dressed only in her light blue coat, and a pink kerchief tied around her neck. Right away, Paladin's senses were piqued by this mare. It was nothing on which she could place a hoof, but something seemed... off about her. The way she moved reminded her of something else, and the expression on her face bespoke of supreme confidence.

The mare came before the throne and bowed, not quite low enough for a commoner, but not enough to draw attention to the act. “Good morn, O, Princess of the Sun,” the mare said, rising from her bow a little too fast to be respectful.

Celestia too, seemed put off by something about this mare, enough so that the throne room guards came to attention a little more than they were just a moment ago. “Good morn, My Little Pony. How might Equestria serve thee today?”

The mare grinned, and Paladin had to restrain herself from drawing her weapons right then. “I require but one thing from you, Your Highness; and that is your death!” The light blue pegasus leapt at the alicorn, her mouth gaping open unnaturally wide, displaying multiple rows of fangs.

Paladin teleported into her path and knocked the mare away with a flying kick that sent the smaller pony sprawling. It was an action that she should not have even felt, but her rear leg was numb, and she winced a little at the landing. Light, that hurt! It was like kicking a stone wall! Her wands were instantly in her hooves and pointed at the mare heaped on the floor. “Seize her!”

Rising slowly from the flagstones, the mare grinned and spit out a dislodged tooth in a bloody gobbet of spit. She cackled and just as the guards reached her, she kicked out with both rear legs, sending them flying into the wall twenty hooves away, cracking the thick granite. Paladin fired her wands, the bolts unerringly finding their target. The magic bolts sent the small pony flying backwards several hooves, but the mare's laughter never stopped.

“It appears I owe Talon a diamond. I honestly did not expect to need to assume my true form to face down the Sun Tyrant's minions.” The mare began to grow, light gray scales flecked with black replacing the light blue coat, her tail growing in length, likewise losing its hair in favor of more scales. The feathers receded into her wings, which grew large and leathery. The not-mare rose to her feet, stretching out to her full size, some twenty hooves long. The dragon looked down at the small unicorn, puffed up her chest and opened her mouth to release a gout of supernaturally hot flame.

Paladin leaped backwards to land in front of Celestia and erected a bubble of force around themselves, still upright, and her forehooves thrown forward. The dragonfire parted around them, not touching them directly, but still heating up the air inside the bubble to uncomfortable levels. The fire seemed to last forever, and put a considerable strain on Paladin, who could feel the fire threatening to crumble her field.

Suddenly, the fire was gone, but they were unable to see out due to a layer of char that had accumulated on the shield. Dropping the bubble, they saw the devastation wrought by the flames. Several fires had sprouted up and were burning merrily, and the floor around them that hadn't been protected by Paladin's shield was melted into slag that still glowed cherry-red in places. The dragon herself had a spear lodged under her scales harmlessly and was holding one feebly struggling guard in a paw by the throat. Tossing the pony away like a broken toy, she turned to face the alicorn/unicorn duo. “Finally come out of hiding, have we? Well, let's get on with it. I do have better things to do today than to end your miserable, worthless lives.”

Celestia stepped forward to be joined by Paladin, who slowly started prowling to the right in order to flank their opponent. The dragoness hissed in amusement. “Do you honestly think you can take me in this form? Mere ponies?”

Electing to answer with action instead of words, Paladin charged forward, her wands popping out of their holster in her gauntlets as she leapt into the air with a telekinetic boost that sent her flying over the surprised dragon's back. She unleashed a barrage of magic bolts, most of which pierced the sensitive membrane of her wings, tearing large, gaping holes through them. Some of the bolts struck the dragoness' back however, causing her to howl out in pain.

Paladin's trajectory took her to a column, where she pushed off again just as a serpentine tail smashed into the rock off of which she had just touched. Still she fired her wands at the intruder, never quite making it through the tough, iron-colored scales, but causing enough pain to keep the wyrm's attention on her. Bouncing off a wall a split second before a lamed wing slapped into it, leaving cracks, she was about to land on another column, but the dragoness by this time had caught on to the game, and smashed it before she could lay a hoof on it.

Suddenly denied her landing pad, Paladin kept flying past the broken support, but managed to gain purchase on it with her telekinesis, allowing her to swing around, and use her momentum to literally throw herself at the dragon, armored hooves first. The unicorn's aim proved true, and her hooves connected quite solidly with a scaly snout, sending the dragoness reeling back, shrieking in pain. Paladin kicked off the wounded serpent's face to land nearby on the rubble-strewn floor.

“You will pay for that, meat! I'll eat your still-beating heart!” the dragoness screeched. “You think you accomplished something? You did nothing but earn my wrath!”

Paladin smiled at her. “I did do one other thing. I distracted you long enough for her to get ready, wyrm.”

With a nod, the unicorn directed the dragons' attention towards Celestia, who had spent the time gathering her energies. An aura of golden light surrounded her, and when she opened her eyes, it was like opening the stoking doors to a furnace of the gods. Paladin erected another bubble around herself, pulling up flagstones to reinforce it on the outside, but the dragoness just laughed. “Fools! I am immune to your puny flames! My breath can make hardened steel run like water!”

Celestia took one step forward. When she spoke, it was like the sound of a thousand roaring blast furnaces. “HOW QUAINT. MINE OWN FLAMES SUBLIMATE STEEL IN AN INSTANT.”

The dragoness raised an eyebrow at the diarch, then glanced back at the unicorn whom had completely covered her force bubble with stone, and felt a chill of doubt creep past her wall of confidence.

Twin beams of blindingly white hot energy were loosed from her eyes, both of which struck the serpent low in the chest and exited from her hips behind her. The room became unbearably hot, shattering the glass windows, and fusing all the stone in the room into one solid piece. Every bit of organic material save the dragon and Celestia burst into flames and were consumed in seconds until every last molecule of oxygen was consumed. The bronze doors were welded shut, and the shiny exterior bounced the beams up and out through the walls to the outside until they were cut off from the source. The dragoness looked down at the two neat holes, prodding them with a claw, before falling over dead.

Celestia's eyes returned to their normal rose hue as she walked over to the bump in the floor and pawed at it with a hoof, knocking free some of the now crumbly rock. A window appeared, and she tried to speak, but found that all the air in the room had been burned up, and it would take a bit of time for the pressure to equalize once more. A simple spell on her part helped speed matters along, and she gestured for the unicorn to come out.

Paladin let her bubble of force down and was immediately struck by the incredible heat within the glowing room. “Let's get you to the war room, Your Highness. An attack like this will be just a precursor to a much larger-”

Celestia held up a hoof, silencing the bodyguard, allowing them to hear the sounds of massed combat coming through the shattered remains of the windows. “That attack has already begun Lieutenant. I-” She stopped mid-sentence as if noticing something for the first time. Her eyes went wide as saucers and her face took on a decidedly sick pallor. “Nay... NAY! Not her! T'is impossible!”

An outer wall of the throne room suddenly exploded, sending deadly shrapnel flying into the room. Paladin jumped in front of Celestia and erected another wall of force shielding them both. A choking cloud of dust swirled into the room, obscuring their vision, so it was with great surprise that a massive, black tree swung out of the cloud, shatter the wall as if it were made of glass, sweeping both ponies across the length of the fifty hoof wide room, to slam into the wall, leaving massive cracks in the granite. Celestia was able to cushion the impact for Paladin, but she knew that the both of them would have at least cracked ribs from the mighty blow.

As they slid to the floor, thunderous footsteps echoed throughout the room. With a great WHOOSH of rushing wind, the dust cleared, allowing them to finally see their attacker. A dragon so massive, only half of her could fit into the room, and even that was done uncomfortably. Her midnight blue scales sparkled with sliver flecks, making her appear as if a dragon-shaped hole was cut into the fabric of reality, allowing the night sky to peek through. The only thing that made her appear alive were her cerulean eyes which glowed malevolently. Her mouth spread into a grin, exposing rows of razor-sharp teeth, which did nothing to ease any fears. “My dear, dear Celestia. How pleasant to eat you again.”

Celestia glared at her as she rose to her hooves, careful to not jostle Paladin too much. “Nightmare,” she answered, her voice dripping with venom. “How didst thou survive? I saw with mine own eyes my sister didst render thee unto thy final judgment.”

Nightmare's grin doubled. “It seems that rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated. What a shame; thy sister's sacrifice wert all for naught.”

“Thou shall pay for that, blackguard,” Celestia said. Stepping over Paladin, she bent down to whisper in her ear, “Make haste. I needst thee to seek out the Elements of Harmony; powerful artifacts to be sure. Bring them together with the bearers to lay low this cur.”

Paladin looked up at the alicorn, her duty to follow orders clearly clashing with her duty to protect Celestia. “Your Highness, I can't leave you, not when you need me the most.”

“I shall brook no argument from you Lieutenant,” Celestia hissed. “These artifacts may very well turn the tide of this war. Thou shalt need to travel far and wide, for they art scattered for their protection; but find them thou must.”

“But what about you, Your Highness? What will you do?” Paladin asked.

Celestia graced her with a strained smile. “I shall persevere, My Little Pony, until thy return.”

“Thou shalt not do it alone, Sister!” All three looked up to see Luna fly in through a window to land next to the ponies. “I shalt be by thy side!” she proudly proclaimed.

Nightmare chuckle filled the room, loud and low enough to be felt. “Thou shouldst take their advice little one. When I beat these two, I shall be feeling the pull of gluttony, and will be looking for something to fill that ache in my belly.”

Paladin leaped at the dragon, but a blue aura surrounded her, and flung her through the shattered opening of a window to land in a prickly rose bush. The unicorn jumped free of the bush, leaving long, bloody gashes in her sandy coat with the intent of rushing back into the throne room, but was tackled from the side by a pony. Looking down, she gasped in surprise. “Silver Bell! What are you doing out here?”

Looking around, she saw that she had ended up in the courtyard with several other ponies, most either servants or wounded guards. All around them, the capital city of Equus was under attack. Minotaurs and diamond dogs prowled the streets fighting with earth ponies and unicorns, while griffons and dragons fought pegasi and aganippe for dominance of the sky overhead. It was clear that the pony defenders were outmatched, both in terms of numbers of warriors, and in quality. While they had come a long way since the Dragon War, they were still far from the fiercest fighters around. It was clear that the city was being overrun, and the ponies were not going to win this day.

Paladin's gaze returned to the dozen or so ponies looking to her for help, and she made the mistake of looking directly at Silver Bell, hope alive in her eyes, but worried that she would abandon them to their likely ugly fates. The unicorn looked once more to the throne room, which was being rocked by the titanic clash no doubt occurring within. Already, she could tell that the palace would not survive for much longer, and if that was the case, it did not say much for the rest of Equus.

Fighting back the feeling of tearing her heart in two, she turned away from the palace and said, “Follow me. The Princess gave me orders, but I'd be remiss if I didn't help needy ponies along the way. Now stay close, and stay low. If trouble pops up, let us guards handle it.” She pointed towards the stallion being held up by another uninjured guard and said, “Pass him off to one of the healthy ponies here. I need you to bring up the rear and watch for surprises from that direction. Can you manage that private?”

After carefully draping the injured pony over the strong back of the Royal Chef, he saluted and went to the back of the group, picking up a dropped spear and shield as he did. Paladin nodded and gestured for the ponies to duck down, and they quietly left the remains of the courtyard amidst the fury of the battle surrounding them. They stuck to alleyways, crossing main thoroughfares only when absolutely necessary, picking up ponies both healthy and wounded along the way, swelling their numbers to over thirty.

Peeking out of an alleyway, Paladin breathed a sigh of relief, spotting the cover of the nearby forest. Thank Celestia, there's the preserve. She turned back and whispered, “Okay, everypony; we're almost out of here. It's just a quick dash to the cover of the forest about forty hooves away. When I give you the signal, I want you to use up all the energy I've had you saving. From there, we'll head to one of the smaller towns that hopefully has been spared the carnage so far; probably Foalton. I know some good ponies there. If it's still standing, that's where we'll get help for you all. Now, you ready?” Nods came down the line and she looked once more out in the street to make sure it was clear. Seeing nothing, she hissed, “Let's go! Move!”

Paladin was first out of the alley, and so was first to see the dark purple dragon easily fifteen hooves long not including tail descend from the sky, opening its mouth to breath on them as it passed. Thinking quickly, she erected a long wall of force over the ponies, effectively creating a covered walkway from the alley to the forest. “Come on! Move , move, move! Don't wait up for me!” she shouted at them. Instead of the expected flames, a chill breeze preceded a wave of cold that covered everything it touched with a rime of frost. Plants died, and ponies moved a little more stiffly, but with the roof to soak up the majority of the breath weapon, they did not break stride. By the time the last straggler made it to the forest, the dragon had finished wheeling around, and landed, blocking Paladin's avenue of retreat. She dropped the wall in favor of a much stronger bubble around her and stood to release her wands from storage and into her forehooves.

“Well, well, well. What have we here? A hero; yesss...” The dragon's sinuous tongue poked out from between her lips at her sibilant hiss. “Think you can hurt me with thossse puny sssticksss, hero? Ssshall we danccce?”

Paladin glared at her, and slowly started walking sideways, trying to get around her, but the dragon kept pace, cutting her off from the rest. “I'm not really in the mood for games today, wyrm. So if you'd kindly step aside, I won't have to hurt you.”

The dragon hissed a sibilant laugh. “You? Hurt the great Brimfrossst? I think not, little sssnack; yesss...”

“I'm not eaten yet, Brimmy,” Paladin retorted with a smile. Letting her wands return to their holsters, the unicorn whirled around, using her telekinesis to whip up an impromptu sandstorm that quickly grew in size, engulfing both pony and dragon. The dragon cried out as dirt and shards of ice flew into her dinner plate-sized eyes, blinding her.

“Augh! You nasssty little pony! I'll swallow you in one bite!”

“Not today, you won't!” Paladin replied before teleporting away towards the forest, almost falling on top of Silver Bell, who was hiding behind a bush, watching from afar. They ran further into the forest, rejoining the column of refugees. “I thought I told you not to wait?”

Silver Bell nuzzled the unicorn, causing her to blush. “Oh, no you don't. I'm not letting you out of my sight again.”

As the sun set on the most interesting day of her life, Paladin tried to think of a way to get her to stay behind while she completed Celestia's final order to her.

Chapter 7: Sunday, Bloody Sunday

View Online


Chapter 7: Sunday, Bloody Sunday

~19 Aevum Illuminationis~

As she walked into the Parliamentary Chamber, the grayish-brown unicorn mare looked around at the gathering nobles and sniffed as she came to her assigned seat next to the Prime Minister's seat. She watched the chamber continue to fill up, noting that even though they had already convened for the day, an alarming number of ponies were being assembled here. She nodded to a fellow noblepony who assumed his seat next to hers. “Dost thou knowest why the Princess recalled us today in favor of just seeing us in session on the morrow, Hard Cheese?” she asked the aging baron.

The lemon yellow unicorn shook his head, looking just as worried as she felt. “Nay, Countess Dirty Laundry. I fear for the future of Equestria if not even a score of years have passed ere the Sisters show their true colors.”

Dirty Laundry laid a hoof on his, patting it reassuringly. She knew as well as he did that his “fears for Equestria” were less for his fellow ponies, and more for his own concerns, but polite ponies didn't point out such things. “Let us give them some benefit of doubt, Milord. After all, the more rope given, the more likely a gallows will be needed in the future.”

With a devious smile, Hard Cheese patted her hoof in return. “Indeed. I- ah! Good eve, Prime Minister Clean Slate.” He nodded to a white unicorn mare who sat in the largest chair in the chamber aside from the three throne that normally sat unoccupied.

“Good eve, Baron. I am glad to see the messenger was able to intercept thee ere thee left,” The severe-looking mare replied. She wiggled around in her chair, trying to adjust herself to a more comfortable position. “I know thou art inundated with many sad duties these days. Pray, which farm was it thou wert closing this eve?” Though her words were dangerously accusatory, her tone was carefully measured to offer no insult.

Hard Cheese drew back for an instant, before resuming his carefully polite facade. “Thou art quite well-informed, Prime Minister. I pray that one day, thou wilt tell me how thou comes by such information.”

Clean Slate looked down at him from her higher vantage point, and he could almost swear he saw an infuriating twinkle of amusement in her eyes. “Careful what thou wish for, my good baron. Thou just might get it.”

By now, the chamber was packed full of murmuring ponies, trying to figure out not only why the session had been reconvened, but how all of them had known or even gotten here. Some of these ponies hadn't attended a session in weeks while they tended to business back home, and the room hadn't been this packed full in some time. Some ponies also noted the curious lack of bailiffs, but all fell silent when the Prime Minister stood and cleared her throat. She stomped three times, a magically enhanced gauntlet on her right hoof creating a resounding BOOM throughout the room. Hear ye, hear ye. All rise and bow for Their Highnesses Princess Celestia, Princess Twilight, and Princess Luna.”

Though all did as commanded, all but Clean Slate shot surprised looks at each other and at the three alicorns the strode into the room with all due grace, to assume their thrones behind the Prime Minister's box. All three princesses hadn't been in attendance since the formation of the Parliament. Sure, Celestia was almost always here while in session, and Twilight attended when military or magical matters were being debated, and occasionally, Luna was allowed to attend, even though the filly was often lost within the enormous throne in which she sat, but all three? A low, muffled susurration of surprise grew in the room, until the Prime Minister stomped once with her gauntlet, restoring order. Turning around to face her Triarchs, Clean Slate bowed low. “Your Highnesses.”

Instead of Celestia responding as everypony expected, Twilight nodded. “My thanks, Prime Minister.” She looked across at the assembled ponies, both noble born and gentry, her stern countenance causing more than a few to swallow and wonder of their Commander-in-Chief was about to bring the axe down to end their antics and power-grabs, and whether or not they'd survive whatever pogrom she had in mind. “My Little Ponies,” she said, leaving no doubt in their minds that she was upset. “Thou hast thy princesses much offended. We wert honored when thou placed thy lives and fortunes in our hooves for safekeeping. Howe'er, we have of late, felt the effects of thy plotting, thy search for rewards unearn'd. Thou preyeth on the fears of others, insinuating that our countenance to the tyrant we o'erthrew be more then mere coincidence.”

She rose from her throne causing more than a few ponies to shrink back in their chairs. Stepping forward, her steely gaze and slight frown passed over the crowd. She looked like she wanted to lash out, indeed, was on the verge of doing so, but the expected blow never came. “Thou clutch the nation's purse strings like misers, doling out pittances for endeavors which would not only improve the nation, but also protect it from enemies both foreign and domestic. Thou close thy eyes to the truth in hopes of eking out one more drop of blood from the rock by placing us in a position of submission.” She stomped the floor, shattering the stone and sending chips flying far enough away that several ponies had to duck. “WE SAY THEE, NO MORE!”

With that, her horn glowed a blindingly bright white, causing several ponies to run, thinking that their lives were about to come to an end. When their vision cleared, the entire assembly found themselves among the ruins of Fort Ironspear. Though the bodies had been cleared away, the rubble remained, still scorched and covered with bloodstains. Ruined weapons and armor lay scattered about, but they were not alone. A ring of Royal Guards stood in a circle around the crowd of ponies facing outwards, alert to danger, while a flight of pegasi and aganippe patrolled overhead. Twilight walked among the ponies, her harsh gaze wilting more than a few of them. “Look ye now, upon what thy parsimony hath wrought. Are thee so churlish as to deny thy part in this tragedy? We stand now upon the remains of Fort Ironspear, where only two ponies survived.” She whirled upon Hard Cheese, bringing the full bore of her ire upon the poor stallion and shouted, “TWO! TWO PONIES OUT OF FOUR THOUSAND, EIGHT HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-TWO!” Twilight's eyes turned into inky black pits and began radiating a black smoke as her self control began to slip in her rage.

Fully cowed, Hard Cheese dropped to the dirt, weeping tears of fright. Twilight made no move to cover her disgust, but calmed herself when Celestia laid a hoof on her shoulder, eyes conspicuously drawing her attention to their little sister, Luna. The filly was clearly shocked not just by her surroundings, but also her big sister's anger. Taking a deep breath, the Princess of Dusk and Dawn let it out slowly, and her eyes returned to normal. She offered a hoof to Hard Cheese, who tentatively took it and rose to his own hooves. She waved a hoof at all of them, indicating the ruined fortress. “Look upon this ruin and know that thy dithering and maneuvering hath brought us to this low state. How art we to defend this nation when thou give us naught but the meanest of tools with which to win?”

Twilight pointed a hoof out to the horizon the the west, where a line of jagged mountains loomed ominously, and the sky turned dark and smokey. “Dost thou thinkest the dragons will allow us time to assemble and train an army to fight them? Dost thou thinkest they will not descend upon us as a plague of locusts in a field of wheat, ripe for harvest? Whilst thou tilt at the windmills of profit, the wyrms pluck at their strength and courage in prelude to war, a war that hath been declared when they cast down this fortress as easily as thou might cast off a horseshoe.” She looked upon the assembled ponies, eyes bright with tears unshed. “Wilt thou allow thy hubris and rapacious avarice to be the downfall of our nation, or wilt thou set aside thy petty desires and perform as the brave selfless, strong ponies we know thou to be?”

With another flash of light, they all reappeared back in the parliamentary chamber, and Twilight disappeared in yet another flash of light with Luna, leaving Celestia alone with the assembly. The lone alicorn cleared her throat and said, “We believe a motion has been put forth on the floor, my good ponies. What say ye?”

Clean Slate looked upon the gathered ponies in disappointment, and saw plenty of shame and anger, but not a trace of it directed at the princesses. “All in favor of making preparations for war?” Every single pony raised their hoof in agreement. The Prime Minister nodded. “Motion carried unanimously.”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Celestia and Luna glared at the dragoness whom held their gaze much amusement. “How didst thou return, cur?” Celestia growled. “I saw with mine own eyes my sister destroyed thee.”

Nightmare grinned at her. “How indeed? Let us make a wager. Shouldst thee and thy sister win against me, I shall tell thee. If not... I shall consume thy powers entire... and thy flesh.”

“Monster!” Luna shouted and leaped at him, firing a beam of white energy from her horn. The beam struck the dragon square in the chest, but the only effect it seemed to have was to annoy her.

Nightmare swatted Luna from the air, sending her crashing through a broken pillar “Luna!” Celestia cried out. In a flash, a halberd made of a silver metal, trimmed in gold, and its edges glowing cherry-red with heat appeared floating next to her, held in her telekinetic grip. A single flap brought her within striking range, and she swung the weapon, expertly allowing the scales to guide her stroke upwards and under the scales. She felt the axe head bite into flesh, cleaving muscle as easily as butter.

As the blade exited the wound, Nightmare drew back her foreleg and roared in pain. “Thou sow-bellied flax-wench! I wilt eat every one of thy subjects before thee!” A shadow moved across the ground, merging with hers. The dragoness' rear legs sank into the ground up to the knees, and the shadow detached from hers and reformed into Luna to the side of her. “What sorcery is this?”

“Mine, villain!” Luna crowed. “Let us see how well thee fights when thy legs hath been joined with the ground.” A silver rapier appeared floating next to her in a flash, it's ghostly blade wavering in and out of existence. “Thou didst not face me when thou took our sister from us, but I hath been awaiting this day for almost two millennia!”

With frightening ease, Nightmare cast a spell under her breath and pulled her legs free of the earthy grasp. “Fool. Thou dost not tell thy foe thy advantages ere the foe hast been slain.” Her head snaked towards the blue alicorn with incredible speed, her jaws open to snap her in half. Luna leaped backwards, allowing the maw to close on rubble, which was cleanly sheared off. As she retreated, she stabbed with her rapier, scoring a hit on the snout. The blade passed through the scales as if they did not exist, wreaking havoc with the tender flesh beneath. A gout of blood spurted from a nostril, and she reared back with a howl.

Nightmare pulled her head back, drawing in a deep breath, then exhaled, sending a billowing black cloud out to fill the room. “Luna! Shields!” Celestia shouted as she erected her own protections.

Luna did as instructed, forgetting to include her weapon within the bubble. She gasped as she saw the magical rapier rust and crumble to dust in the span of a second. Not wanting to wait for the next attack to come out of the cloud, the younger alicorn dashed towards the dragoness, intent on getting behind her while the darkness lasted, but was batted away by her massive tail to crash into the welded shut bronze doors leaving a ball-shaped dent near the top, and filling the room with a loud GONG.

“Thou thinkest I couldst not see through mine own darkness, foal? Thy foolhardiness will be thy downfall,” Nightmare said smugly.

Celestia's horn lit with a golden aura as she shouted, “Then let us see if we might bring some light upon the situation!” Her eyes glowed with a fiery aura, and the glow from her horn pushed back the darkness like they were physical beings, fighting for dominance. The light continued pushing the darkness until it was gone entirely, and the room was as well lit as a grassy field on a sunny day.

Nightmare shied away from the light, murmuring the words to a spell. She pointed at Celestia and a green beam of energy shot out, only to be stopped by her shield, but bringing the field down with it. A second green beam from the dragon likewise brought down Luna's shield. Celestia's horn glowed again, and a shiny, silvery liquid poured out from the tip, coating the alicorn, until her entire body resembled a mirror, before turning the dull gray of iron. The living iron statue pawed at the ground a few times, striking sparks with every percussive hit, and her halberd swiped at the air next to her, seemingly eager to be about its business.

Celestia leaped into the air, intent of landing on the dragoness, but she was too slow. Nightmare rolled to the side, taking out more of the outer wall of the palace in the process. The alicorn landed heavily where the wyrm stood an instant before with a resounding BOOM, producing a crater fifteen hooves across, and wedging the axe head of the halberd into the broken floor nearly up to the haft.

Luna's own horn glowed with her blue aura, which surrounded her whole body before dissipating. She crouched with her wings spread, and with a speed faster than the eye could follow, she zipped off towards the dragoness, silvery bolts of energy firing from her horn in a continuous barrage that almost looked like an unending stream. She flew around Nightmare, never letting up her fusillade of destruction, though its effects were minimal. Celestia wrenched her weapon free of its stony prison and charged again, her every step leaving a cracked divot in the stone, clanging loudly like a team of blacksmiths hard at work.

While the younger sister flew about, keeping the dragoness' attention focused on her, Celestia rammed their foe and swung her weapon simultaneously. While she felt the weapon bite deeply once more, her tackle was less than effective. Even with the added inertia of turning her body to solid iron, she felt like she had just tried to tackle a mountain.

Ignoring the weapon still lodged in her side, Nightmare scooped up Celestia with both foreclaws, and with all her might, swung her around and threw the Solar Diarch into her sister. Luna was so intent on hurting the dragoness, she failed to see her sister come flying at her like a solid iron meteorite. The two intertwined alicorns flew into the palace wall and straight through it into the courtyard. Celestia shifted her weight and wrapped her legs around her little sister, shielding her from the vicious impact of the courtyard flagstones. They bounced and struck the outer curtain wall, cracking it, but leaving it standing.

As they slid to the ground, Celestia's Ironbody spell faded, returning her to her normal alabaster coat, though nowhere near as pristine. Luna coughed and spit out a gobbet of bloody mucous. “What do we do, 'Tia? Her abjurations and draconic might art too strong for our magics to pierce, and we dare not attempt to face her physically.”

Celestia touched a hoof to her golden peytral, steeling her resolve. “If we cannot end her reign of terror with magic, then we must bring our full celestial might against her, though it may cost us our mortal forms.”

Luna laid a hoof on her own peytral, clutching it like one would a treasure. “Nay, sister, we cannot! Twilight crafted these so that we wouldst not lay waste to the land in a fit of pique! Our powers be too potent by far to risk such a thing, e'en for this!”

The taller alicorn laid a hoof on Luna's and said, “I shall not force thy hoof, sweet Luna, but if we do not, Equestria faces annihilation regardless. We sent Paladin to fetch the Elements, but any number of things could negate that effort. We may even be wrong and she is not the Element of Magic, though I've yet to meet a more talented unicorn.” Celestia stood and calmly used her telekinesis to carefully unlock the jewelry's catch that only a few even knew about.

Immediately, her mane and tail turned from a pastel rainbow, to a riot of fiery, orange-yellow plasma. Prominences leaked off of them, dissipating into the cool early evening air, while sunspots drifted lazily throughout the solar mass. Her coat became blindingly bright, burning off the dust and dirt it had accumulated in a sublime act of destruction, and her eyes blazed with a blue-white flame. She looked down at Luna and said, “Do what thou wilt, Lulu. I shan't hold thy decision against thee.”

With that, she leapt into the air, but was unsurprised to see Luna next to her, her own peytral left on the ground. Her coat had turned inky black, absorbing all light, giving nothing back. Her mane and tail however, had turned from its normal starry field, to bone white miasmas with bluish gray patches and craters. Her eyes were like two, deep set stars, twinkling from the Stygian depths of the Far Realm. An aura of airless cold surrounded her, making conversation impossible, but with beings like this, that was no real impediment. “Thank ye, Lulu. E'en thus, I wouldst not care to face this threat alone,” Celestia thought at her telepathically.

Luna simply nodded in return, and they flew back to the palace. They saw the dragoness below worrying at the halberd still embedded in her side with her teeth. The haft had already been snapped off, but she could not reach the weapon's head, which had been buried deep. With a glare, Nightmare looked up to find the alicorns staring down at her, and her grimace turned into a grin.


A sinister laugh bubbled up from Nightmare's belly, escaping her great, toothy maw. “Fools! Thou hast already lost! Like a moth to flame, thou hast sealed thy doom thyselves! Look ye upon thy destruction and despair, simpletons!” She held out a claw where two large gemstones, an opal and a fire ruby floated. A dozen dragons just entering adulthood appeared in a flash around them in the air, each holding a quartz crystal the size of Celestia, and glowing with a pale blue light.

A beam of that same pale blue energy shot out of the gems, striking the ponies. A scream was torn from Celestia that pierced the ears of every creature for miles around, and a psychic scream was likewise pitched from Luna as the two ponies felt their physical forms being pulled in twelve directions. Never before had they felt pain like this. Not even when they had fought Discord had they been subjected to such agony.

Though just seconds passed, it felt to them like an eternity had gone by unaccounted for, except for the excruciating torment. Bit by bit, their corporeal bodies were torn apart by the insistent, pulling magic. Unable to withstand the torture any longer, their souls fled from their bodies, only to be sucked up by the gems held in Nightmare's paw.

When the last of the alicorns' physical manifestations were disintegrated, the dragons, gems crumbled to dust, landed around Nightmare, who towered over all of them. She peered at the gems, grinning maliciously. “Behold. In my paw I hold not only the moon, but the sun! Is it not meet that it should be thus? How I hath yearned for this moment; the millennia spent plotting and toiling, all leading to this!” She held aloft the gems, which still hung suspended midair, slowly rotating and glinting in the light. “Let the Age of Enlightenment end, for this is the dawn of the Nightmare!” The dragons all looked to the sky and exhaled, releasing their breath weapons in a salute to their mistress and her victory.

(\ /)
( . .)

Paladin watched the scouting group of minotaurs walk past calmly. While these creatures were more dangerous in combat than the diamond dog patrols, they were also easier to avoid, thanks to their being “noseblind” as the dogs were wont to say. The group of pony refugees had been dodging patrols all night on the move, and while they had been holding up remarkably well, the children and wounded were tiring, some of them practically sleepwalking. Naturally, they had all been thankful when the sandy unicorn had called a halt to the forced march, most simply collapsing where they stood. The guards had stoically remained awake, and covered the exhausted civilians as best they could and stood watch while Paladin herself went ahead to scout the path a bit.

The minotaurs paused mere hooves away from her, and one of them pointed towards the sky, prompting her to look up as well. The sight of the now familiar deep purple dragon landing on the road caused her to hold her breath and draw back into the bushes a little more. Brimfrost settled into a quadruped stance as she folded her wings. “What do you have to report?” she asked them.

The minotaurs lounged about casually, one leaning on a massive two-bitted axe as heavy as a pony. He picked at his teeth with a stubby finger and nonchalantly spit on the ground missing the dragoness by inches. “Nothing, same as we've told you the last three times. No sign of any escapees from Equus, and certainly no guards.”

Brimfrost kept a lid on her boiling temper. “Then keep sssearching. I want thossse poniesss found and brought to me. I have plansss for them, yesss...”

“Nah. I don't think so,” the minotaur said with a shrug. The three other minotaurs snickered behind him, not bothering to hide their amusement.

The dragoness' purple scales bristled at their temerity. “Perhapsss I misssheard you, yessss...”

“And perhapsss you ssshould get ssstuffed,” the minotaur replied, causing his cohorts to burst into fresh gales of laughter. “We're going looting before all the good stuff is gone. We've done what we were hired to do, and now we aim to collect our pay, with or without your approval.”

Brimfrost's claws dug deep furrows into the dirt road, but she smiled evilly. “Then maybe it'sss time to cut back on the overhead, yesss...” In the blink of an eye, she exhaled, covering the minotaurs in a thick rime of frost, freezing them in place. Her exhalation seemed to go on forever, and when it was over, she drew in a deep breath. Walking up to the lead minotaur, she tapped on his head, shattering it. “Insssolent fool. You ssshould have learned to recognizzze your bettersss, yesss...” She whipped around, slamming into the ice sculptures with her tail, shattering them all.

Taking to the wing, the dragoness flew off muttering about underlings. Paladin counted off five full minutes before crawling out of her concealment behind the bushes and quickly collected the minotaurs' daggers and smaller weapons before running back to the hidden camp. One of the privates ran up and saluted as she approached. “What was all the commotion, Ma'am? We heard something, but couldn't see anything.”

“Just our favorite dragon still hot our tails,” she said casually. She gave him the weapons she had collected and added, “Distribute these among the civilians. The way things are going the time may come where they'll have to fight for their lives, and they'll need to be prepared.”

As he walked next to her back to the camp, the stallion said, “By the way, we picked up another pony. She just wandered into the camp. She looked to be in bad shape, but insisted on healing our wounded first.”

Paladin arched an eyebrow at this, but smiled widely as she entered the camp, spotting a familiar face. “Miss Awesomeshine! Am I glad to see you!”

The white unicorn trotted over and nuzzled her neck. “Dame Paladin! I didn't know you were the lieutenant they spoke of, though it should not have surprised me. There are few mares as brave and capable as you!”

Paladin blushed, pulling back, but not so fast as to offend, and looked over to Silver Bell, who was watching at them both with a guarded look. “What were you doing out here alone, Miss Awesomeshine?”

“I was in Equus, shopping for some herbal ingredients. Not twenty minutes after leaving town, the dragons came out of nowhere and attacked. I've been dodging roving patrols ever since,” she replied. She looked hesitant, but asked, “A-are you headed towards Foalton, by any chance?”

“We are,” Paladin answered with a nod. “I figured it was small enough to avoid direct attention for the moment, especially since there was no garrison there. We could regroup, and hopefully seek shelter in the swamp nearby.”

Awesomeshine bit her lip and whispered, “How are the princesses? I know you're Celestia's personal bodyguard, but if you're here and she's not...”

Leading her further into the camp, she replied, “I'll tell you about it later. We still need to get to Foalton first.” They came up to Silver Bell, and the Royal Bodyguard nuzzled the mare affectionately. “How are you holding up, Bell?” she asked.

Silver Bell smiled gently at the taller guard. “Still in one piece. The wounded need to rest, but I suppose we better get going again?”

Paladin nodded. “We have a very small window of opportunity to get to Foalton and evacuate it before the dragons take notice of it, if they haven't already. Could you and Miss Awesomeshine here handle getting them on their hooves again while I talk to the troops?”

“You two know each other, then?” Silver Bell asked, hesitant to upset Paladin at this critical time, but unable to contain her curiosity.

Paladin indicated the white unicorn with a hoof, saying, “This is the healer's apprentice I was telling you about. The one that healed my broken leg in about a week?”

Silver Bell looked quite surprised. “So I have you to thank for her quick return?” She bowed low to the unicorn. “You've no idea how much that meant to me. Thank you for helping this clumsy filly mend so quickly.”

Awesomeshine straightened up the mare and hugged her gently, but with great affection. Silver Bell couldn't help but melt into the embrace. “It was the least I could do,” the healer said. “After all she's done for us and Equestria, I could do no less.”

“All right, all right, break it up before I get jealous,” Paladin said with amusement. “Awesomeshine, this is the mare I was hinting about.”

Holding Silver Bell out at arm's length, she looked from one mare to the the other. A joyous smile spread across her face, and she pulled them both in for a hug. “Oh, I'm so happy for you two! You make such a lovely couple! Paladin is so strong and brave, and you're so beautiful, Silver Bell! I can't wait to see your foals!”

Paladin pushed the exuberant mare back a little. “Whoa, there! I haven't even asked her out on a date yet; don't go planning out our futures for us already!”

Silver Bell smirked at Paladin. “Well, what are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?” She shook her head and held up a hoof, neither pony noticing Awesomeshine making a discreet exit to give them a semblance of privacy. “Never mind. I'll take that as an invitation, and just skip ahead to the acceptance.” Looking into Paladin's eyes again, she said, “Yes. I'd love to go on a date with you.”

Leaning forward, the two unicorns met in a kiss. It was a moment the two of them had been wanting for a long time. When they pulled apart, they rested their foreheads against each other, letting their horns cross. They stared into one another's eyes as their hearts swelled with love.

(\ /)
( . .)

Cresting a small hill in the forest, Paladin called a halt to their march and carefully surveyed the small town below her. They had been marching most of the day, and the sun was starting its descent to the west. She caught sight of the occasional pony rushing from one building to another, but the total lack of standing defenses didn't bode well.

“At least it's still standing,” Silver Bell remarked.

Paladin grunted in agreement, but pointed out several houses. “Note that there are no fires burning, so no smoke to draw attention to them. No ponies out wandering the streets, and the market looks closed down as well.” She looked back, noting the bedraggled appearance of her motley crew and shook her head. “I'm going ahead to see what's what. When I give the all clear, bring the rest in quick as you can, all right?”

Silver Bell glared at her. “You're not going without me. There may be some hidden danger in there.”

“Which is precisely why I need you here in case something goes wrong,” Paladin retorted. “Somepony needs to get these ponies into the swamp to the south in case I don't make it back, and right now, you're the one pony I can trust to do that. Private Blue Note may be a decent soldier, but he just doesn't have the guts to order ponies around, and the other guards are too wounded to take over. You're the only pony here with the guts to take charge in my absence.”

Rolling her eyes, Silver Bell replied, “Then take a pony with you. Isn't Awesomeshine from here? She should be able to tell if there's a trap if anyone.”

Awesomeshine walked up quietly. “She's right. It's too risky to go alone, and I know this town better than anypony here. Besides. I'm anxious to see if everyone is all right. I'm going.”

“Fine, but let's get going. The sun will be going down soon, and I'd like to rest in a real house for a bit,” Paladin said. Awesomeshine started walking down the path to the town, and Paladin moved to follow, but hesitated. After a moment's internal debate, she turned around and kissed Silver Bell again. “For luck,” she said, and trotted off to catch up to Awesomeshine.

Chapter 8: Run to the Hills

View Online


Chapter 8: Run to the Hills

~19 Aevum Illuminationis~

Darkness pervaded the library, swallowing all in its voluminous embrace. A shaft of dim, bluish light pierced the dark through the occasional window, but only succeeded in preventing the shadows from being all-consuming. Here, the books sat on shelves, waiting to be read by eager minds thirsty for knowledge. Some of them had been waiting for decades, if not centuries, hoping for the touch of a seeker of the unknown, or even just someone revisiting a favorite book or passage, but never gave up hope of the return of their usefulness. Books are patient that way.

The rhythmic clatter of hooves upon stone broke the silence, only to be muffled once more by a plush area rug running along the ends of the rows of shelves. A glowing, floating apparition hove into view silently. The curves and slender build suggested female, but the only really distinguishing feature was her face, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the sphinx which owned the library, and a pair of leonine ears atop her head that perked and swiveled constantly. Her whole being glowed with a pale, unearthly white light, and she bent over to examine the spines of the books, one finger tracing a path along them.

The clatter returned as Twilight walked around the corner and off the runner, a lit candelabra held in her magical grasp shedding a pool of golden light. “Hast thou found it, Kat?” she asked in a whisper.

The arcanificarum turned towards the alicorn with a smile and nodded. She pointed at a particularly large book bound in hinged, polished bronze plates. Pulling it out with her telekinesis, Twilight looked at the cover. “'Properties of Elements and Their Interactions with Magical Artifacts',” she read aloud. Looking to the floating assistant whom beamed at her, she smiled, and tousled her incorporeal hair affectionately. “Thou art a credit to Nyx and the library, Kat.”

“Did she find it, Twilight?”

The alicorn turned around to find Nyx padding over to her on silent paws. “Sooth, she hath become quite adept at seeking out the correct requested tome. Mayhap t'is time to introduce her to her other duties,” Twilight replied.

Nyx ran a finger of her paw along a shelf and frowned at the trace of dust left behind. “As much as I would love to give her more time to familiarize herself with the catalog system, I'm afraid I'll have to. I can hardly afford to keep hiring out a cleaning service given the size of my library. I mean, it only took me what, two, three days to find the last cleaning crew that got lost? It wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't been about to resort to cannibalism when I found them.”

“Is it not why thou ask'd of me to include the binding of air elementals in her creation? She hath the wit and wherewithal direct scores of them at a whim, so I do not understand the source of thy distemper,” Twilight replied.

Heaving a great sigh, Nyx turned and started walking back to the table at which they had left their research materials. “I dunno. It's just... I know we made her for this very purpose, but it's hard to put my library in someone else's paws, you know? Don't get me wrong, Kat. I know you'll do a superlative job, but it's just not easy to let control go,” she explained to the floating figure, who only looked at her with child-like awe and affection. Nyx turned away in embarrassment, trying to change the subject. “I heard about the tour you gave the Equestrian Parliament a couple of weeks ago. Did they finally tick you off enough to put your hoof down?”

“Ne'er afore, hath we encounter'd such contradictory creatures as these ponies,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes. “One the one hoof, they proffer their loyalty undying and their every resource at their disposal, and on t'other, they plot and scheme, and greedily hoard what they have while asking for more. T'is enow to make one question one's ability to tell a hawk from a hoofsaw.”

Nyx chuckled, causing Kat to titter quietly as well. “Well, I did warn you that politics would be like this. I've read enough treatises on the subject to know that politics is simply a way of legally stabbing someone in the back. I believe I have a book by a Fleecian named Baachiavelli; in it, he said 'Politics have no relation to morals'. If that's not a resounding warning not to dabble in it, I don't know what is.”

Twilight rolled her eyes again, but still smiled. “If thou wilt not help in my reign, then I beg thee to tend to thy own garden.”

“Mind my own beeswax. Got it,” Nyx replied with a chuckle. She sobered more ans she asked, “What about the dragons? Has there been any communications with them since the attack?”

With a shake of her head, Twilight answered, “Nay. Their sudden bellicosity is almost as troubling as their sudden return to reticence. Our envoy was turned away at the border under threat of consumption.” She shook her head as if to chase away gloomy thoughts and smiled at her companions as she resumed her seat at the table. “Let us not tarry on such dark thoughts. Research shouldst be enjoyable.”

Nyx nodded and joined her. “You said it, study buddy. I feel like making a breakthrough tonight! Go, Team Book!” she cried out, holding up a paw.

It took Twilight a moment to realize what she wanted, then quickly slapped her hoof against the paw “Sooth! Team Book!” she cried out in return, not caring about the echo that seemed to go on forever in the massive library.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

The two ponies crossed the open field, making no attempt to hide their approach. The waning sun cast long shadows on the green grass, but they made special effort to walk around them, making themselves as noticeable as possible. As they walked, Awesomeshine asked, “How bad do you think it is?”

Paladin examined the town with an experienced eye, now able to pick out new details as they got closer. “I don't know. I don't see any sign of the enemy, and no sign of a battle. My guess would be that we lucked out and got here ahead of the invaders.”

“I meant the war itself,” Awesomeshine clarified. “Do you think we have a chance of surviving?”

The royal guard hesitated for a step, but quickly resumed her advance. “That's... more difficult to say. Princess Celestia seemed to think that victory would be assured if I could find a special set of artifacts, and I'm inclined to believe her on a great many things...”

“But?” Awesomeshine prompted after a moment's silence.

Paladin heaved a great sigh. “I don't like doubting the Princess' words, but the creature we faced before she sent me away was more powerful than anything I had ever seen before. I never knew a dragon could even become that powerful. Just being in her presence made me want to run and hide like a scared little filly. And those eyes... I've never seen anything so chilling and heartless. It was like looking into the eyes of a blizzard; relentless and unforgiving, killing all with it's uncaring cold...”

“Hey now,” the healer said, drawing Paladin's attention to her. “Just remember that you have friends who are happy to help. You don't have to face anything alone if you don't want to.” She adjusted her glasses up her nose a bit and added slyly, “Not to mention a beautiful mare who's obviously head over hooves for you. You're not nearly as alone as you seem to think you are.”

They were both surprised to see a small, yellow cat run out of the village and jump onto Awesomeshine's back and begin to purr. “Lemongrab? What are you doing away from Kit?” The cat simply responded with a purring “Mmm” and laid on the mare's back perfectly motionless.

A small, pink pegasus mare sporting a pair of goggles on her forehead flew out of the town, followed closely by a gruff-looking earth pony stallion. “Lemongrab, you rascal, get back here!” the mare shouted.

“Kit, get your caboodle back over here! This town is under lock down for a reason, consarnit!” the sheriff hissed in a half whisper, half shout. They both reached the unicorns, and Kit picked up the sour looking cat. The sheriff smacked her on the back of her head and said, “When I say to stay put, you stay put, you hear me, filly? Where is Ricochet, anyway? She was supposed to be foalsitting you, so you didn't do precisely this!”

Paladin smiled, but lost all her mirth as she remembered the events of the past two days. “Sheriff, is Foalton safe for the moment? I have a bunch of refugees that need rest and medical attention.”

Tin Star nodded to the guard, looking relieved to see her. “At the moment it is, Lieutenant.” He looked hesitant, but finally asked, “How bad is it?”

“Very,” she replied. “I'll tell everypony all at once so I won't have to keep repeating it. Can you assemble the adults somewhere indoors? I've got a lot to say, and I think that most are going to react poorly to it.”

“I suppose I better use the saloon at the Way Inn,” he answered. “May as well, since I think most are going to want a drink. Hay, I may want one.”

Paladin grimly clapped him on the shoulder and turned to Kit. “Miss Caboodle, could I trouble you to help bring in the refugees? A lot of foals came with us, and some of them have been walking for almost twenty-four hours straight.”

The pegasus looked horrified. “Goodness! Let me go fetch my wagon from the smithy. I can help more that way.” Before the unicorn could reply, she had already zipped off, cat tucked neatly under one foreleg.

Paladin rolled her eyes. “I forgot she was so highly excitable.” She turned to the woods and waved at Silver Bell to bring out the rest of their group.

(\ /)
( . .)

Setting down her mug, Paladin motioned for Wormwood to refill it. Instead, another mug filled with chilled water was placed before her. “Are you sure I can't get you something stronger? You look like five kilotrots of bad road.”

Paladin shook her head and smiled at the analogy. “An apt description, but no. We lost too much water walking all the way here, and alcohol is the last thing I need right now, intoxication notwithstanding.”

Wormwood shrugged and they watched the saloon quickly fill up with ponies. Ricochet came over with Knightengale and sat down next to her. “So, Pally, me gal; how've ye been? Heard ye were promoted to the princess' retinue. How's tha' working for ye?” she asked, only stealing quick glances at her from the corner of her eye as she buried her muzzle in a mug of apple juice.

“Good to see you doing so well, Ricochet,” Paladin replied stiffly. “I was worried after I heard you... er, left.”

“So worried that you never called on her despite being less than a day's carriage ride away and visiting here often?” Knightengale remarked snidely, looking at the unicorn over her friend's hunched over back.

Paladin studiously looked ahead in the bar's mirror and took another swallow of water. “I had my reasons for staying away from her,” she said in a carefully even tone.

Ricochet laid a hoof on Knightengale's foreleg, forestalling the brewing storm. “Easy, cuttie. Pally's nae the type t' pile on the blatherskite. If she says she had a reason, I'm sure t'was a good one.”

The aganippe relaxed in her seat, but her expression never softened towards the unicorn. The sheriff walked in at that moment, and trotted over to the group of mares gathered at the bar. “Ladies,” He nodded at his deputy and Knightengale, then looked to Paladin. “Dame, we're all assembled, or at least as many as can be spared from tending to the wounded.”

Looking out over the saloon at the somber faces that all turned to her with despair tinged with hope in their eyes, Paladin climbed up on the bar with a hoof-up from Tin Star. “My name is Lieutenant Paladin, of Her Highness' personal guard. I'm sure you've all heard by now what's happened up in Equus,” she announced in her best parade ground voice.

Immediately, the room went silent except the the faint CLINK of mugs wetting parched lips. The sandy unicorn marched up and own the bar, making eye contact with much of her audience in a general way, but made them think that she was looking at them and sizing them up personally. “It has become my sad duty to report that the capital has fallen.” Gasps and worried murmurs met this announcement, and she gestured for calm's return. “The dragons have finally made their move, but they are not alone. Minotaurs, griffons, and diamond dogs have all been seen working with them, both fighting and pillaging.”

She heaved a heavy sigh before continuing. “I'm not going to sugarcoat this. It's looking bad out there. The Princesses themselves have taken a hoof in the fighting, and they were grim and uncertain about the outcome. We must assume the worst and prepare for it. I am making a suggestion right now to all of you to take what you can and head into the swamp to avoid detection. From there we can set up a more fortified position without worrying too much about ground forces.”

“You want us to just up and leave our homes on your say so? You couldn't even protect our capital from attack, why should we listen to anything you have to say?” a burly pegasus stallion stood and said.

Paladin looked at the muscled pony and nodded. “The best I can do at the moment is to offer up a sound strategy. Look, I was just there, I've seen what they're after, and what they can do. They'll roll over this town like it was just a bump in the road, and those of you not killed, will likely be taken as slaves or even food. I can't speak for all of us, but I'd rather not end up mining for some diamond dogs, or on some dragon's menu, or worse. Believe me, there are worse fates than those, and I think that our ratio of mares to stallions won't enhance our situation in that regard.” More than a few of the mares swallowed hard at this, clinging to whoever would offer a bit of comfort.

“On our way down here from the capital, we had to evade more than one patrol, and from the sound of their talk, I sincerely doubt that they will stop at Equus, and it doesn't sound like there's much out there right now to stop them” she added. “With the the fall of Equus, the floodgates have been opened, and there is nothing left to hold them back from an orgy of destruction.” She stopped her pacing and got down on her knees and bowed to the assembled ponies. “I'm begging you; at least send the foals and elderly into the swamp with the wounded to hide until you hear differently. What will you lose by doing so? What will you lose if I am right and they come here next?”

A murmur of quiet discussion rose as the ponies debated the situation while Paladin climbed down again and resumed her seat. She looked to Ricochet and asked, “What do you think? Will they go for it?”

“Is it as bad as all tha'?” she asked solemnly.

The guard nodded. “The hay of it is, I can't even stay and help protect them, whatever they decide.”

Knightengale tilted her head in confusion. “Why not?”

Leaning close, Paladin whispered to them, “I've actually been given a mission by Princess Celestia to retrieve a special set of magical artifacts. I'm not sure how effective they could be if they weren't stored at Equus, but she seemed certain that they could not win the war without them- owowowow!”

A silvery aura had surrounded her ear and pulled her out of the huddle and forced her to turn around in her seat to face Silver Bell. “And just when were you planning on telling me this?” she whispered viciously. “You better not be planning on leaving without me again, Missy.”

“Be reasonable, Bell,” Paladin whispered. “I'm trained for this sort of thing. I'm going to be out there dodging patrols, fighting minotaurs, griffons, diamond dogs, maybe even dragons, and doing Celestia knows what to get these artifacts out of whatever protections they have on them. I'm going to be at a bad enough disadvantage worrying about you here without putting you through all of that yourself.”

Silver Bell glared at her, causing the trained guard to gulp loudly. “And you think I won't be just as worried sick, wondering if you'll ever come back alive? At least together, we'll know where each other is and be able to offer assistance as needed.”

Paladin was at a loss for words and could only make inarticulate sounds. A hoof clapped onto her shoulder and she saw Ricochet smirking at her. “Give it oop, Pally,” Ricochet said. “You're nae gonna change the lass' mind. T'is just as well, since I'm going with ye.”

A hoof smacking the back of the earth pony's head greeted this statement. “Oh, really?” Knightengale growled. “You think I'm going to let you of all ponies out there unsupervised? You only just got to the point where you can hold a bow steady; you're a long way from top form again.”

Rubbing her sore spot, Ricochet replied, “I dinna want to speak for ye, Knighty. T'is nae gonna be a picnic. In fact, t'is a sure bet that it will be naught but a load of bollocks.”

“Well, maybe I want to be with you when the roadapples hit the fan, ever think of that, cuttie?” the aganippe asked.

Ricochet smiled and mussed her mane affectionately. “Aye, but I did nae want to drag ye back into something ye tried so hard t' leave behind.”

“What do you mean,” Paladin asked.

Shaking her head, Ricochet replied, “T'is nae my place to say, but trust me; Knighty is a pony ye want at your back in a dust up.”

Tin Star approached them, looking grim. “I'm afraid it's not looking too good for your plan, Lieutenant. They're okay with sending away the foals, wounded, and some of the adults want to go with them, but the rest want to stay. Think they deal with the dragons, with weapons, or talk, it don't matter. Worse, the elders are being even more stubborn than the younger adults. Say that they'll never abandon their homes. I did-”

The door to the saloon burst open and Rose Hips shouted out, “There's an army coming! Minotaurs and diamond dogs are headed right this way! Whatever we're going to do, it better be soon! I don't think it will take them long to get here; an hour or two at most.”

The saloon quickly emptied, and ponies gathered outside to see the spectacle. It was hard to make out, but what appeared to be the horizon marching towards them could be seen kicking up quite the dust cloud. Smaller trees and bushes were no impediment to the troops, moving aside only for larger trees or boulders. Paladin teleported to a roof and peeked over the edge at the oncoming death. She quickly and silently counted out about one hundred minotaurs. The diamond dogs were tougher, since they didn't follow any formation, and kept running from one group to another, but she estimated a like number of them. The howling of the diamond dogs played a terrifying counterpoint to the grim whistling of the minotaur's pipes and slow-beating drums. Turning around, she slid down the thatch roof onto a rain barrel, then to the ground.

“How many, do you think?” Knightengale asked.

Paladin shook her head. “Enough to lay waste to this town, defended or not.” She looked out at the gathered ponies and said, “In just a few hours, that army will be here. Do you really think they're going to just subjugate you all? I've seen what they did to the Equus, this tiny hamlet will be nothing, even to a group as small as that. This is your last chance; follow me into the swamp, or be left behind to the not-so tender mercies of your new masters. Rest assured that what you will suffer on the run, will be nothing compared to what they will put you through.”

The ponies looked out at the coming army, and listened to the chanting of the war drums and pipes occasionally joined by a bone-chilling howl. They looked to each other, then the mayor stepped forward. “Can we outrun them all the way to the swamp? It's over a dozen kilotrots away.”

Paladin bit her lip. This is where we see if I can lie as well as I hope. “If we leave now, and I mean right now and take only the barest essentials, then we might make it.” Right away, some tried to leave, but were stopped by her commanding voice. “Take only food, weapons, and medicine with you. Leave everything else behind. Ricochet, I want you and your friend to make some stretchers for the critically wounded.” The earth pony and aganippe saluted and ran off to the healer's house.

“Sheriff, I need you to keep an eye on the enemy's advancement. Let me know when they hit Woodcutter's Creek if we're not already out by then.” The sheriff jumped to the same rooftop the unicorn had just vacated with only two bounding leaps. She turned back to the rest of the gathered ponies and said, “The rest of you, gather your supplies, then meet back here in the town square. Move!”

Walking over to Wormwood, she quietly asked, “Might I trouble you for a few bottles of your strongest alcohol? It's for a, um, fire trench.”

Wormwood nodded and laid an understanding hoof on her shoulder. “I understand.”

After the mare had left, Silver Bell asked, “What do you need that for? This is hardly the time for a quick party.”

Paladin gave her a peck on the cheek and smiled. “It's just for a distraction plan. Anything that gives us more time will add that much more to our escape.” The bartender returned with four bottles in her telekinetic grip and hoofed them over to the guard. “Thanks,” she said with a nod as the mare ran off. She turned back to Silver Bell and said, “Could you check up on Awesomeshine? I want those wounded ready to move when everypony else is.”

She watched the mare trot off with a weak smile, which disappeared as she rounded a corner. The unicorn looked at the bottles of innocuous intoxicant, then looked at the roofs of the houses around her. With a sigh, she uncorked the first one, and levitated the bottle up to the roof of the inn, where she began pouring a generous amount of the liquor. She continued throughout the town, doing her best to not be seen by the townsponies. When she was done, she arrived back at the town center and solemnly looked over the ponies. “All right, Sheriff. Let's move them out, but quietly. I'll catch up to you all soon. I just want to lay some quick traps to slow them down and hopefully thin their numbers some.”

“I can help with that!” Kitten Caboodle said excitedly, jumping around in place.

“It's going to be dangerous, Miss Caboodle. We may only be steps ahead of them,” Paladin said, trying to warn her off.

Kitten waved it off as no matter of account. “Pshaw. If I help, we can do it twice as fast. Besides, building stuff is what I do best!”

Paladin rolled her eyes and looked to the sheriff. “Fine. Sheriff, move them out before anypony else volunteers for this.”

“All right, ponies! Move out! We have a long way to go and a short time to get there,” Tin Star said.

The herd started leaving, some taking one last look at their homes. As it thinned out, it became apparent that several ponies weren't leaving. Silver Bell stepped forward and said, “Well, let's get this over with. What sort of traps are you making here?”

Paladin's look of amazement turned into a grin and she shook her head in wry amusement. “Okay, here's what we're doing. We're going to set up a tripwire that will set fire to the village when the army gets close. I'll take care of the wire itself with magic so they won't see it. Miss Caboo-”

“Just call me Kit,” the small pegasus interrupted. “It'll take too long otherwise. Besides, all my friends call me that. I'll take care of the incendiary device,” she added, running off to the smithy to gather the needed materials.

“If you're going to do that, let us go get some things from the apothecary we left behind. I'll set up that shop to burn myself,” Awesomeshine said before dashing off with her master, Healthy Glow.

“I dinna cleave t' abusing perfectly sarviceable spirits so, but t'is better than letting those poxy bogards have it,” Ricochet said as she and Knightengale went off to the saloon.

Silver Bell followed her to one of the houses where they could hide while they worked. “Are you sure about this? Those townsponies aren't going to be too happy about us burning down their homes when they find out.”

Paladin's tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth as she carefully levitated some fishing line out to the middle of the field that separated the village from the forest. It took extra effort, but she was able to suppress the normal silver glow of her magical aura which might have alerted the enemy that something was up. “Some if not most of them know what I'm planning. Like Ricochet said, while they're not too happy about it, I think most of them will rather this happen than let these barbarians have their belongings and live in their homes, doing Celestia know what in here.”

They finished the remainder of their work in silence, meeting up in the town square again. Kitten tied their tripwire up to the device which turned out to be a simple box with a flint and steel striker, and several oil-soaked lines of twine running to the roofs of all the houses. Awesomeshine was the last to join them, running out her spool of twine which Kitten attached to the trap.

The task done, the seven of them carefully, but swiftly left town. Paladin used her telekinesis to sweep away the hoofprints denoting the trail into the swamp from not just themselves, but also the townsponies. They all breathed a sigh of relief as they entered the swamp, the ground becoming noticeable softer and wetter. “So what now? Do we meet up with the others and tell them we aren't coming, or what?” Silver Bell wondered.

“You're not coming back with us?” Awesomeshine asked.

Paladin shook her head. “The Princess gave me a mission that I have to complete. Leading these ponies to safety was just a necessary detour. Corp- er, Ricochet and Miss Knightengale volunteered to accompany me, and Silver Bell all but threatened my life if I didn't let her come. So, I guess this is where we part ways for now, Miss Awesomeshine.”

“Well, I'm coming too, then. You're definitely going to need my help out there,” Kitten said

Paladin shook her head and said, “Kit, while I appreciate the offer, this is not a fairy tale adventure. This is a dangerous mission. We may not come back from this alive.”

“All the more reason to have me along,” Kitten reasoned.

The white unicorn looked down for a moment before slipping off the extra saddlebags she had brought from the apothecary and giving them to Healthy Glow. “Oh, not you too,” Knightengale groaned.

“I know where I'm needed, and if this journey is as dangerous as you say, you're likely going to need the services of a healer,” she replied.

Paladin sighed loudly. “Miss Awesomeshine, we don't even know where we're going, first of all. The Princess never even gave me a starting point for my search. I haven't the first clue where to look for these magical artifacts.”

With a huge grin, Awesomeshine said, “Then it's a good thing I happen to know the most brilliant magical genius in Equestria, isn't it?”

Paladin pulled back in surprise. “You know where to find the Duchess of Spellgrade?”

Awesomeshine blew a raspberry in reply. “Please. The pony I'm talking about has more magical talent in her hoof than the Duchess has in her whole body.” Pointing to her glasses, she added, “She made me these glasses. They allow me to see magical auras, identify curses, poisons, and diseases both mundane and magical, among other things. If you want to know something about magical artifacts, she is the pony to see.”

“It would be foolish to turn you down, just based on your healing talents alone,” Paladin remarked, rubbing her chin with a hoof. “All right. Master Healthy Glow, would you take those supplies and our apologies to the townsponies? Oh, and tell them it was my idea to burn the village down, and you didn't know about it until we had left. No sense in alienating you too.”

He nodded solemnly. “I will. Do not worry about them. I will convince them it was the right thing to do.”

Paladin turned to the rest of her group and said, “Well, we best be on our way. We have some artifacts to collect.”

Healthy glow watched them leave until the swamp swallowed them up before plodding on, following the trail the ponies earlier had left.

Chapter 9: Burning Down the House

View Online


Chapter 9: Burning Down the House

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Alone in his dimly lit office, an earth pony sat at a ridiculously tiny desk, hunched over a sheaf of parchment, charcoal shard held gently in his mouth as he scratched away at the paper. The candle which acted as his only source of light flickered as it nearly reached the end of its life.

With a sigh of relief, he signed his name and gratefully spat out the charcoal. He rolled up the parchment and sealed it with some precious wax from the candle and affixed his seal of office to the rapidly cooling blob. Setting it on the edge of his desk, he rose and stretched, enjoying the popping sensation as his muscles released the tension that had building for far longer than he would have liked. He left the scroll sitting on his desk and slipped on his breastplate, showing his captain's rank prominently and took hold of a massive spear twice his length, with practiced ease and walked out the door, his ears brushing the frame as he did and went up the stairs.

As he walked outside and on to the ramparts of the small watchtower, he took a deep breath of the crisp night air. Soldiers almost half his size saluted, but he just nodded in return, allowing them to return to their duties of watching for trouble. A grizzled unicorn walked up to the ramparts and joined the earth pony which towered over him by more than a head. Looking out over the horizon to the north, he said, “Storm's a-comin', Cap'n Highwind.”

Looking down at the stallion, the larger pony replied, “Thy bones tell thee that, Sergeant Butterbear?”

“Ayuh,” he answered with a nod.

“Mayhap we shouldst lay in more firewood,” the captain mused aloud.

Another nod and a, “Ayuh.”

“Sergeant, if thou doth continue to wax loquacious, I shall be forced to order thy silence.”

Butterbear looked up at his captain and without a hint of remorse, said, “Beggin' the Cap'n's pardon Sir, but I'm just apprehensive as to the dragon's next move. Almost two years with no follow-up after Ironspear? E'en for dragons, that be slow.”

“Granted, Sergeant,” Highwind said. “The dragons have us all apprehensive, though if they wish to allow us time enow to gather our strength, I shan't be the one to hurry them along.”

Butterbear merely grunted and looked out again to the north. Highwind smiled and turned to leave. “Tarry not o'ermuch. The morn is upon us much sooner than thou might prefer.” When no reply was forthcoming, he stopped, halfway to the hatch back into the watchtower and looked back over his shoulder. “Sergeant?”

Still as a statue, Butterbear continued to look intently at the horizon. Highwind looked to the other guards, who were watching the both of them now, and just shrugged. The earth pony walked back to the unicorn and looked into his old, rheumy eyes, which were fixed steadfastly, his brow furrowed in intent concentration. All of a sudden, he burst into action, running over to the long, hollow brass bar kept next to the hatch and used the hilt of his sword to bang on it with all his might. A series of mighty peals of metallic thunder rang out loudly into the silent night. “Alarm! Alarm! Dragons!” he shouted.

Highwind was already looking to the north, and finally saw what his subordinate had seen. Three winged forms flew between a gap in the clouds, but disappeared quickly into the cover. With a great roar that actually covered the sound of the alarm, he shouted, “Battle stations! Ready the ballista and load for dragon!”

Ponies began scrambling out of the tower from the bottom and top. Pegasi and aganippe took to the air, some flying above the massing clouds which looked ready to unleash their thundery might at any time, but most took up station near the tower, flying in formation. Unicorns and earth ponies took up position on the ramparts, and behind strategically placed rock wall barriers on the ground. In the middle of the tower, wood paneling was taken apart to reveal a ballista, which was quickly pulled into the locked position with a windlass. A wicked-looking metal disk with glowing purple runes about a hoof and a half across and jagged blades radiating out in the four cardinal directions was carefully placed in a specially design shuttle, as a pegasus took the controls. She swiveled it towards the north where the captain was looking, ready to let fly at the order.

A soldier ran up to Highwind with his helm and he donned it silently. Taking his spear in hoof, he kept an eye on the sky, but an ear out for any report. The distant crack of thunder made an ear twitch, but he kept scanning the sky. “Captain, look!” a soldier cried out and pointed towards the northwest.

His head swiveled in that direction, and he caught sight of an orange-red light within the clouds, and just barely visible, a small, pony-shaped shadow falling to the ground. “Steady, ballista. Fire not until they presenteth themselves. We hath only so many of those shot.”

An aganippe suddenly dropped from the clouds and landed in a steaming heap at the earth pony's hooves. Half her face was seared to uselessness, and half her rear was purple from a fast forming bruise. Blood poured from wounds, with white bones poking through in several spots. “Th... th... three of them, Sir. One massive... black...”

Highwind shouted, “Unicorns! Acid protection!”

“No!” the aganippe gasped out. “Black... night...” was all she could say before closing her one good eye forever.

A frightful shriek from the sky split the night and seemed to echo all around the ponies, causing them all to look up in terror. Lightning struck a tree near the tower, setting it ablaze, but the flames were soon quenched by the deluge that began falling.

Without taking his eyes from the sky, Highwind said, “Sergeant, didst thou dispatch the messenger yet?”

Instantly, Butterbear was next to his commander. “Ayuh.”

“Let us hop she makes it, then.”


A faint whistling sound, barely heard over the rain, perked the ears of several of the ponies. The three dragons, one much larger than the rest, suddenly dived out of the clouds, heading right for the tower. Immediately, the ballista fired, aiming the first enchanted disk at one of the smaller dragons, bringing him down to crash onto one of the stone parapets built on the ground. Firmly taking his spear in hoof, Highwind didn't wait for the fight to come to him, and instead leapt to meet the largest dragon head on, and spear first.

Seeing this stallion daring to face her personally, Nightmare smiled evilly.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Paladin walked next to Awesomeshine, interrogating the mare for more information about the pony they were trekking to find. “So what's she like? Has she been studying long? What's her name and special talent?”

Awesomeshine chuckled and bumped shoulders with the excited guard. “I'm glad to see you've regained your good spirits, but one question at a time, please!” A dreamy smile formed on the unicorn's lips as she thought of her best and oldest friend. “Her name is Silver Script, and research is her special talent, actually. She took a little ribbing from that, but she never let it bother her. Sil's very good at it, especially when it concerns magic and magical artifacts.”

“Is that the friend you kept talking about back in Foalton?” Kitten Caboodle asked as she flapped up to them. Landing on the ground on the other side of Awesomeshine, she trotted along with them. “She sounds like a fascinating pony from the way you described her.”

“Oh, but she is!” the healer replied. “She first made me these glasses before she even was apprenticed, but has improved them several times since then. She also has several other projects that she's been working on, but wouldn't tell me about them. I think she wants them to be a surprise.” Bringing her head down to Kitten's level, she winked and said, “Don't tell her I said this, but my little brother has had a bit of a crush on her since he was just a little colt. She's very sweet about it, and tries not to lead him on or crush his dreams. We think he'll outgrow it eventually.”

Kitten tilted her head in confusion. “You think she's into mares and not stallions?”

With a shrug, Awesomeshine replied, “Dunno. She's never really showed an interest in anypony. I'm not sure she wants that sort of relationship at all, which would be a shame. Nopony deserves to be alone.”

Behind those three ponies, Silver Bell bit her lip in confusion. On the one hoof, she knew that Paladin was very interested in her, but on the other, she didn't like the way she was buddying up with the lovely Awesomeshine. Sure, she lacks my elegant curves and refined manners, but there's just something about her that's undeniably... attractive about her. She's almost... magnetic.

“Bit for your thoughts.”

Silver Bell shook her head and looked to her side to see Knightengale and Ricochet walking next to her. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, blinking her wide, golden eyes at them.

Knightengale smiled and said, “I said, 'Bit for your thoughts.' You looked like a mare on the verge of committing murder... or suicide”

“Or booth,” Ricochet added.

Silver Bell shook her head. “No. I just... I'm just not sure what to make of her,” she answered, nodding towards the white unicorn ahead of them who was laughing at something Paladin had said. “I want to like her, but...”

“Yer worried she might try to steal yer bird,” Ricochet finished for her.

“Don't get me wrong. She seems to be a very sweet filly, but...” Silver Bell hastily explained before trailing off. “Paladin... she has a lot of admirers, both stallions and mares. Ponies vie for her attention, though not all for the same reasons. Some want to be with her for who she is, most want to be with her for what she represents, and some just want to use her to be privy to the princess' secrets.” She looked again at the sandy unicorn with a sad smile, and lowered her voice. “There's even a rumor going around Equus that the princess chose her more to be a body, rather than a bodyguard; a scurrilous lie if ever there was one.”

Ricochet looked at Paladin with an appraising eye. “Aye, I ken why they might say tha'.” Knightengale smacked the back of her head with a loud CRACK, causing her to look at her apologetically. “Wha'? I'm only sayin'.”

“And if you're smart, you won't say it again,” the aganippe replied.

A small titter from Silver Bell drew their attention, but she just waved them off. “It's nothing. You two are just so cute together.”

Rubbing the sore spot on her head, Ricochet said, “Aye, if ye think cooncussions are cute an' all.” Returning her gaze to the maid beside her, she added, “Look, I dinna think ye have any need to worry about Shiny. Sure'n she's a gorgeous mare, an' a delight to know, an' joost aboot the friendliest thing this side oof a magical friend-making machine, she also would nae take another mare's bird. She does nae think tha' way.” Using her body to shove the smaller unicorn forward, she said, “Talk to her an' see. She'll nae bite, e'en if ye ask.”

Silver Bell looked back at her with a smirk and trotted forward to catch up to the others.

Ricochet shook her head and smiled. A prickling feeling on the nape of her neck made her turn to Knightengale who was glaring at her. “Gorgeous, huh? A delight, eh? Friendliest thing this side of a magical friend-making machine?” the aganippe queried. The larger earth pony gulped, looking for an avenue of escape.

(\ /)
( . .)

Before they even could get close to the town of Yoke, Kitten's sharp eyes spotted the column of smoke on the horizon. She flew up to take a better look, but was called back down by Paladin. “What? I was just trying to see if that was Yoke or not.”

“In case you've forgotten, a pink pegasus against a blue sky is rather noticeable,” the unicorn admonished. “Not only do they have their own fliers, but you'd be like a beacon flying up there, right now, drawing ground forces down on all of us.”

The small pegasus looked downcast. “Oh. I'm sorry.”

Immediately, Paladin felt like the monster, and sighed. “No, it's alright. I keep forgetting that you all aren't trained for this. Just... just be more careful from now on, okay?”

“Okay,” Kitten agreed. She appeared lost in thought for a moment before her face lit up with an idea. She dug through her saddlebags for a moment before pulling out a bamboo tube and affixed a round piece of glass to each end. She looked through one end and jumped into the air, holding the device up for all to see. “Yes! With this, I can see all the way to that smoke and find out what's making it without revealing myself! I call it, the Tell-O-Scope because it tells your eye what's far away!” The others looked at her like she was crazy, but the little inventor was too elated to notice.

With a flap of her wings, she alighted onto a low tree branch, and by hopping from one branch to the next highest, to the next highest, and so on, she made it to the top of the tree, where she clung to the trunk with three legs, and held the tell-o-scope to her eye with the other. Though the magnification wasn't the best, combined with her natural pegasus keen eyesight, she was able to just make out several burning buildings, among many others. The town itself appeared to actually be smaller than Foalton, but the biggest structure was not a temple as was normal, but a strange, stone building. She could see several torches being thrown on the roof, but the slate tiles shrugged them off and let them roll off to the ground.

Kitten hopped back down the way she came, but slipped halfway down, crashing into several branches until she was caught in a grayish telekinetic field. It brought her down, and Paladin dismissed her magical energies back into dormancy. The pegasus ran up to her, and gave sloppy salute with a wide grin. “New intelligence, Sir!” she barked.

The unicorn was unable to keep a grin off of her face as she saluted back smartly and said, “Report, scout!”

“I do believe that's the town of Yoke burning up there. Only a few houses have been caught, and most of the enemy seems intent on burning a strange, stone building,” Kitten said.

“Strange how?”

“It was made of stone with a stone roof, but I don't think it was a temple or a fort,” the pegasus replied. “There were no religious symbols that I could see, and the windows were big, but plain glass. What do you think it is?”

“The archive!” Awesomeshine gasped. “That sounds like the archive where Silver Script works!” Turning to Paladin, she grabbed the edges of her breastplate and shook her. “We've got to help her! Sil would never leave the books to be burned, she'd stay and fight!”

The unicorn galloped off towards the town, forcing the others to do the same. Paladin came up alongside her, and without any sign of shortness of breath, said, “Hold on! We can't just go running into the teeth of an army! We have to scout ahead and see what we're up against! We can't help your friend if we just get killed as soon as we set hoof into town!”

“She right, Awesomeshine,” Knightengale added. “We all want to help your friend, but us getting killed because we rushed into this won't get her rescued.”

Awesomeshine started galloping faster, sending clods of dirt flying as she went full tilt, which was still considerably slower than the trained soldiers. “You don't understand! The most valuable thing in the world to Sil is knowledge. Those books and scrolls are as precious to her as children! She'd do everything in her might to protect them!”

“But that's just silly,” Silver Bell replied, lagging behind the group. “It's not like that archive will have any unique texts; it's too small. Any other library will likely have more copies of anything you might find there.”

“And what if all the other libraries burned down?” the healer asked. “You and I know that it's unlikely to happen, but she won't think so!”

Ricochet rolled her eyes as she ran. “Oh, for Celestia's sake! Ye mean she's one o' those 'preserve at all costs' ponies? Tha' was one o' the things I didn't miss aboot leaving the guard.” With an unconscious gesture, she checked with her head that her bow was unencumbered and ready to pull free at a moment's notice.

Awesomeshine glanced at her from the corner of her eye. “Trust me. I can make her go. You just leave her to me.” She looked ahead again, and grumbled, “She'll leave if I have to knock her out and escape with her over my back myself.”

They arrived to find most of the buildings merrily burning, possessions scattered on the road where careless owners or looters dropped them. There were surprisingly few bodies of any kind, but the majority of those were ponies. Silver Bell and Kitten Caboodle gasped in horror at the carnage, but the rest tried grimly to ignore them, though not without Awesomeshine stopping to check each and every one that wasn't mutilated beyond hope.

But Ponies weren't the only ones lying dead in the streets which had run red with blood. A few diamond dogs had joined the defenders in eternal rest, but it was the living of which they were most fearful. Their yipping, and barking, and howling could be heard as the ponies dashed from cover to cover and once, they had to stop and hide as a large group of them loped past, prowling for more victims.

The group stealthily made their way to the archive to find that twenty or so diamond dogs has gathered at the front and had pushed a wagon in front of the doors, which they had then set on fire. Though the doors were sheathed in bronze, the wood cores would eventually catch, and then nothing but a lone pony or two would be left to stand in their way.

They circled around to the back, noting that all the windows had been smashed, but empty shelves had been shoved against them, blocking the invaders' entry. Looking up, Paladin whispered to them,”I'm going to 'port up to one of the high windows and check it out. If it's clear, I want you to follow me in, carrying Awesomeshine.” This last she said to Knightengale, who simply nodded. “The rest of you, stay hidden. We'll be right back with our expert and out of town, hopefully before they notice we're gone.”

Without waiting for a reply, she disappeared in a flash, only to reappear in the frame of a destroyed window high off the ground. She looked in quietly, and saw a light blue mare trying to cram books into a hidden compartment set in the floor. Though her actions were hasty, she didn't look panicked. Something was off about her, but the guard didn't have time to figure out just what it was. Looking back, she beckoned with one gauntleted hoof, and quietly dropped into the room, using her telekinesis to cushion her landing.

Her entrance was far from unnoticed, as the mare looked her way with a slight crease in her brow that might indicate anger. “What are you doing here? Why didn't you leave with the rest of the ponies?” she asked in a dead level voice.

Paladin finally noticed what was missing from the picture and looked at her in confusion. “You're not a unicorn.”

“Congratulations. You can tell the difference between a mud pony and an unicorn. You must be very proud,” she said coolly, flicking a stray hair from her visible eye. “Now are you going to leave me to my fiery death like a good unicorn, or not?”

Unused to be spoken to thus, Paladin's face colored, and her brows furrowed in anger. “Now see here-”


Both ponies turned to see Awesomeshine gallop up to the earth pony and embrace her tightly. Silver Script's demeanor changed ever so slightly as she hesitantly returned the affection, though nothing even close to what could be called a smile ever touched her lips. She pushed the unicorn back at arm's length and said, “Shine, what are you doing here? This building is about to be overrun.”

“Rescuing you, silly filly,” she replied simply. She grabbed a forehoof and started dragging her to the back of the library. “Come on, there isn't much time.”

Knightengale walked up to Paladin and whispered, “We better hurry. It won't be long before those mutts make it in here, and I don't plan on being in here when they do.” She noted the annoyed look on the guard's face and where- or rather, who- she was looking at, and asked, “Something wrong?”

Paladin continued to glare at the earth pony for a moment, then grunted. “Nothing.” Speaking loudly so all the ponies could hear her, she said, “We have to get moving. That door won't hold out much longer, and I don't know how long it will be before it occurs to them that they can just set fire to your wooden barricades on the windows.”

Indeed, the room itself was already sweltering, and the smell of burning wood filled the air, no doubt coming in through the broken windows. Silver Script looked at her defiantly, though. “Not until all the books are safely stowed in the fireproof chamber below.”

Paladin facehoofed and had to restrain her impulse to bark orders at her, knowing it would do no good. It was Awesomeshine who came to the rescue, however. She immediately used her magic to start moving small piles of books into the basement. Looking at Paladin, she said, “It'll be faster to just do it than to argue and have to do it later anyway.”

With a frustrated yell, the sandy unicorn stomped a hoof, cracking the thin, marble tile beneath. Her horn glowed with a gray aura and all the books still waiting to be put into safety, were lifted off the ground at the same time, and swiftly flew into the basement. The trap door shut with a dull thud, and a stone bench easily weighing several hundred pounds moved over it. “There. Can we go now, Your Highness?” she growled out.

The archivist shrugged on her saddlebags and nodded. “There is nothing more to be done here. Let us get Awesomeshine to safety away from those beasts.”

Rolling her eyes, Paladin grabbed the earth pony and teleported to the other side of the back wall. Knightengale flew through the window carrying Awesomeshine and set her down once they were outside. All four ran as quietly as they could to the alley where the rest were awaiting them. Silver Bell looked at the newcomer in confusion and said, “You're not a unicorn.”

Silver Script looked to Awesomeshine and asked, “Is this some new greeting among unicorns of which I was unaware?”

She shrugged helplessly. “If it is, it's new to me, too. Seems kind of silly to point out something that obvious.”

Paladin gestured for them to start moving. “Can we talk about this on the road? We still have to get out of this deathtrap of a town.”

As they left, Silver Bell walked up to the new earth pony and said, “My apologies, I did not mean to be so rude. It's just that from Miss Awesomeshine's description, I thought you would be a unicorn.”

Looking to her friend, Silver Script asked, “Just what have you been telling them?”

“Only the truth,” she protested. “I didn't think that you're not being a unicorn would make any difference, so I never really thought to mention it. You're the most knowledgeable pony in the world when it comes to magic and artifacts, see-”

“Princess Celestia sent me on a mission to find a set of magical artifacts,” Paladin interrupted. She came up alongside Silver Bell, looking over the archivist with a critical eye. “She believes that they are essential for winning the war against the dragons, and Miss Awesomeshine highly recommended your expertise in finding them.”

Ignoring her, Silver Script turned back to Awesomeshine and asked, “Is that the only reason? You needed help finding some artifacts?”

The healer nuzzled her affectionately, bringing a very slight red tinge to her cheeks. “Of course not. I was ready to pitch a full fit if they refused to help me find and rescue you, but luckily, they turned out to be nice ponies and came along without my needing to do something that embarrassing.”

Swallowing her anger at being ignored, Paladin said, “So how about it? Can you help me- er, us?”

Still looking at her friend, Silver Script asked, “What set of artifacts is it? Depending on what it is, we may need to go to another archive.”

Awesomeshine looked around her over to Paladin, who was nearly apoplectic. “What were they called, Dame?”

Paladin took a deep breath before replying. “The Elements of Harmony. Have you ever heard of them? If not, I can tell you what Princess Celestia has already taught me about them.”

Looking upwards thoughtfully, Silver Script replied, “Elements of Harmony. A mysterious set of five artifacts thought to embody and allow one total control over an aspect of harmony. Nopony who has ever laid hoof on them has ever been able to make them work, though they radiate omega level magical energies. It is speculated that the three alicorn princesses have some connection to them, especially the lost one, though they have never confirmed nor denied anything of the sort. It is also speculated that the five Elements represented are Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Honesty, and Loyalty, though again, this is purely conjecture based on observations of their reactions to certain traits exhibited by the pony holding them.”

Glancing at Paladin from the corner of her eye, she said, “There's more of course, but much of it is technical studies made of the artifacts, as well as experiments performed upon them before the princesses spirited them away for 'safekeeping'; not exactly light bedtime reading for guards.”

Paladin glared at her until Silver Bell bumped into her, breaking her from her train of thoughts. “Oh, you're good,” she whispered. Then, something the earth pony said piqued her interest. “Wait, there's only two alicorn princesses; always has been.”

The corner of Silver Script's mouth ticked upward for an instant, and was gone so fast, it left Paladin wondering if she had imagined it. “Is that so?” she asked levelly.

Chapter 10: Strong Enough

View Online


Chapter 10: Strong Enough

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Padding along silently, or at least, as silently as a two-ton feline could, Nyx made her way to the private study she had set aside for her friend, Twilight. As she quickly approached the door, she slowed down and perked her ears, hoping to hear if anything was wrong. Though Kat had said that nothing was wrong, she still seemed apprehensive when she said that the alicorn was acting strangely.

The sphinx stopped at the door and listened a moment. Hearing nothing, she knocked on it quietly. Right away, Twilight answered, “Yes?”

Though the voice was steady, it held a note of... something. “It's Nyx. May I come in?”

The door opened slightly, and the librarian walked in. She found the alicorn at the far end of the small lab, standing in front of a table which held several magical items of great power. A small-bladed sword lay next to a shield, which rested beside a crystal ball about a hoof across which contained a fiery eye that seemed to follow the sphinx's movements, which sat adjacent to a small golden pyramid. Morphing a paw into a hand, she picked up the sword, noting the curious red cat's-eye gem in the hilt. “Looks like you've done some experimenting,” she noted.


It didn't take preternatural hearing to notice the grim tone in her friend's voice. She set the sword down, and ran a finger along the edge of the shield, grimacing at the hideous face embossed on the metal. “Are those snakes for hair? Interesting choice.”

“There is method to the madness.”

“Are you going to tell me what's wrong, or are we going to have to play this game for much longer?” Nyx asked bluntly.

Finally turning to face the sphinx, Twilight said, “I rest on the horns of a dilemma, and I know not how to proceed.” She gestured to the items on the table, suspiciously careful to avoid touching the crystal ball, whose eye intently watched her every movement. “These two years past, I hath created talismans both terrible and great, but all pale before the thing I hath discover'd this day. Make no mistake, it is not in mere terms of power in which they pale, though that may yet prove to be the case, but in the price one must pay.”

“What do you mean?”

Twilight took a deep breath, and released it as a sigh. “An array of divinations I hath cast this past fortnight to affirm mine experiments, and all point towards the affirmative.” She picked up the golden pyramid which seemed to glow with a light all it's own. “As powerful as these prove to be, they may yet prove to be inadequate to the task. Howe'er, I hath unearthed a process in which I mayest create an artifact of world shaking power- an artifact that might be used to right terrible wrongs, but with an equal capacity for evil.”

Nyx sat next to the alicorn and took the hoof holding the pyramid in both her gigantic hands, gently holding it and noting the slight tremble. She moved until Twilight's eyes met her gaze. “What price?”

With a trembling lower lip, she replied, “My soul.”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

“You really can't tell us any more about these 'Elements' than that?” Knightengale asked.

Silver Script shook her head. “Sadly, I cannot. It was many years ago that I read the treatise of which I am thinking, and I never even got the chance to finish the book itself. My master was rather insistent that he was short on time that day, and we were unable to return.”

“I thought you were an expert on artifacts and magic. I was hoping to just go right to them and get them to the Princesses as soon as possible,” Paladin said with annoyance.

Looking back at her over her shoulder, the earth pony said in her monotone voice, “Sadly, not all of us can be of superior stock, and must make do with inferior breeding, Milady.” She continued on walking at their leisurely trot, catching up to Awesomeshine.

Paladin stopped walking. “That's not what I- h- hey!”

Silver Bell bumped into her side, urging her on. “Best let it go. A lot of earth ponies feel like they've been given a raw deal by the ruling class of unicorns. Pegasi too, to some extent, but it's worse with earth ponies.”

Gesturing to the pony in question, Paladin replied, “But I didn't even do anything to her! In fact, I saved her life! That's like, the opposite of oppressing her!”

“You just have to act like a noble should around her rather than as they do, and I'm sure she'll come around,” Silver Bell replied. “I don't know her whole story, but just from the way she acts around unicorns, it's not hard to see that she had some bad experience with us some time in the past.”

Paladin shook her head. “It's not fair to be blamed for something we didn't do. It's not our fault her life has been roadapples.”

“Maybe not,” Silver Bell replied, pushing a stray lock of mane from her face, “but after seeing the way some unicorns treat the other races, I find it difficult to find fault with any anger towards us as a race. I've seen how difficult and competitive it can be among unicorns, I can only imagine what it was like studying magic as an earth pony.”

Awesomeshine looked at her friend trotting at her side curiously. “Is everything alright?”

Silver Script nodded. “Yes. I was just informing the good Dame about some of life's harsher realities.”

“And none of those realities would have anything to do with how you've been treated by unicorns, were they?” the healer asked pointedly. When she failed to get an answer, she continued, “I know you would be the last pony to hold another's race or background against them, considering. I mean, you of all ponies know what it's like to be judged by something you can't help like your race; so you'd be the last one I'd expect to fall into the same trap. We've grown up together, so I know for a fact that you are better than that.”

Awesomeshine dropped back a bit to talk to Paladin about what little supplies they had managed to scavenge from Foalton, and Knightengale gave a quiet, low whistle. “Dang. I thought I was good at guilt-tripping. I think I better ask her for some lessons.”

Silver Script said nothing, and pulled out a small book from her saddlebag letting it go in front of her face where it floated as she trotted, allowing her to read as they walked.

(\ /)
( . .)

Landing in the merrily burning village, the great, purple dragon folded her wings away, She looked around at the carnage, seeing the destruction of the building, but a distinct lack of valuables or bodies. She prowled around, looking for the victors of the combat, not caring which she found. It did not take her long to pick up her fist clue, that of cooking meat. She followed her nose to the center of town where she found group of diamond dogs gathered around a fire pit where several pony corpses were being roasted.

All celebration stopped as every dog there stared at her. One of them, the most scarred, she noted, stepped forth and bowed to her. “How can humble dogs serve great lizard? Meat?”

The purple dragoness licked her lips and smiled. “Busssinesss firssst, yesss. I am Brimfrossst, and I looking for a group of poniessss, one of them a guard. Brown with white mane; a unicorn.”

The spokesdog looked back, and the rest of his pack shrugged or shook their heads. One however, raised a paw. “I saw a pony like that. She ran off to the west with a group of other ponies. You give reward now?” he whined.

“A reward? Yesss...” Brimfrost hissed. “Asss a reward, you and two othersss may accompany me on my hunt for thisss pony, yesss.”

The spokesdog looked back at the serpent and growled low. “We not go anywhere. We promised food and loot and slaves,” he said with a wave of one arm in negation.

Looking over the group of diamond dogs, Brimfrost noted a poorly constructed cage with several scared and huddled ponies in them. Narrowing her eyes, she said, “I only need three. Besssidesss,” she added, “I wasss not asssking.”

Immediately, the dogs leapt to attack, but the dragoness was faster, and reared up, flapping her wings, scattering ash, dirt and cinders in their eyes, in addition to blowing away several of the smaller ones, and knocking down the cage of captured ponies, who took the opportunity to escape unseen.

The diamond dogs rushed to attack, hoping to bring her down before she took to the wing, and indeed, several of the smaller, faster ones were able to stab her with their poorly made weapons which broke against her tough scales. One was so aggressive, he forsook all weapons, opting to instead grab her foreleg and gnaw ineffectively on her.

Brimfrost took to the air and breathed out a cone of cold, catching all but five of her opponents, who froze where they stood. The survivors scattered, running in all directions, but diamond dogs on the ground are slower than a dragon in the air, even one as young as she. Spotting the one who had spoke up earlier, she landed, pinning the small canine to the ground, forming a cage around him with her talons. The small creature struggled, trying to pull himself free of the prison; his frantic clawing digging furrows into the dirt.

Snaking her head down, Brimfrost tilted it so that she could look at him with one slitted eye. “Now then,” she said, her voice causing the dog to cease all his struggles. “Let usss dissscusss termsss for hiring your tracking ssskillsss, yesss.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Kitten lay on her back, sunning her bright pink belly, and relishing in the feeling of a full stomach. She relished even more, the feeling of allowing her hooves and wings to rest from the extended march through the lightly forested area necessitated by their quest. She quite naturally, did not begrudge the activity nor the way the events of the past few days had cut short or learning... well, she understood the last, but she didn't hold it against any of her companions. Right now, all that existed was the sun, her full belly, and the soft grass on her back.

At least, that's all there would be if a scraping sound hadn't started just then. Opening one eye, she saw Ricochet, a small, thin branch in her teeth and one hoof, while she held a knife in her other as she stripped the bark and offshoots from it. Intrigued, the pegasus rolled onto her belly and watched her do this for a moment. When the pile of wood shavings had started taking on the hue of the inner wood rather than the bark, she asked, “What are you doing?”

“Mmkmf mrrers,” came the muffled reply. She spat out the wood and said, “Making arrows.” Taking the stick back in her teeth, she resumed her task.

Kitten took one of the arrows from the quiver that leaned against the stump upon which the earth pony sat, and studied it carefully. She sniffed it and said, “Cedar?” The archer nodded, but didn't stop working this time. Examining the head, she noted the broad, but serrated blade, which hooked back. “Nasty. Looks like it would cause almost as much damage coming out as it would going in.”

Ricochet took the naked shaft out of her mouth, and held it up to sight along it, noting where it needed to be straightened. “Tha' would be the idea, love. If yer gonna take the trouble of shooting a body, nae sense in making it easy for the wanker what needed it tae take it oot again..”

Putting the arrow back, she gently pulled out the bow, noting the strange and intricate workings where she presumed the archer held it. “How do you hold it? It doesn't exactly look like it was made for a hoof.”

Ricochet held out her gauntleted right hoof, showing her the mechanism which attached the weapon. Pointing out specific parts with her knife, she said, “This is where the bow rests. This latch goos aroond and locks it in place.” Switching attention to the opposite gauntleted hoof, she pointed out a pair of hooks. “These hooks let a body pull oot an arrow and nock it while drawing back the string. Releasing it requires a little finagling, boot once ye get the hang of it, t'is like second nature.”

Kitten was oddly quiet as she stared at the gauntlets, but the quiet disguised the whirlwind of thoughts blowing around in her mind. A voice pulled her free of her musings.”May I see that?” Silver Script asked, looking to the true owner of the bow. With a nod, Ricochet returned to her work once more, and Kitten hoofed over the weapon. Silver Script turned it over, examining it from tip to tip. “Curious.”

“What's that?” Kitten asked.

“There's not a single bit of magic in this,” the scholar replied. “I would have thought a weapon of this level of craftsponyship would have at least some preservation magic on it.”

Ricochet shrugged. “Aye, wall, I never seemed to have the time to get it enchanted, like. Tha', and I never seemed to have any bits left oover after leaving the bars.”

Laying the bow down reverently, Silver Script said, “A tragedy. A weapon of that caliber deserves at least some sort of protection, if not enhancement.”

Shrugging again, Ricochet picked out a feather from her saddlebag and started stripping it. “Wall, oonless yer offering to do it for free, it'll have to stay tha' way for now. I have exactly tharteen bits to me name.”

Silver Script nodded solemnly. “Very well. What enchantments would you like to have on it other than preservation?”

Ricochet's mouth fell open, allowing the feather to fall to the ground. “Are ye havin' me on? Enchanting's ridiculously expensive, especially the one's I ha' in mind.”

Pointing to her face, the scholar said, “Does this face look like I'm 'having you on'? I never joke, and that goes double for magic.” Looking at the bow again, she added, “It would be good to get my hoof back into the game as it were. Since I lost my apprenticeship, I haven't been able to find much free time to pursue my passion in magic.”

“How do you lose an apprenticeship?” Kitten asked innocently.

Silver Script looked down at her, the slightest of frowns on her face, her one good eye twitching. When the innocent face didn't devolve into cruel laughter, she relaxed into her usual, dry demeanor. “It's a long story, but suffice it to say that after I caught my master stealing credit for my research, I had him discredited. Following that, it became difficult to find another accredited magician to take on an earth pony apprentice, much less one who was the cause of her last master's downfall.” She looked down at the bow again, noting the many layers of polish which seemed to accentuate the wear. “I took a position as an archivist at the small library in Yoke so that I might at least continue my studies alone. I think it superfluous to say that it was far from an ideal situation, but at least I wouldn't have others trying to steal credit for my work.”

Drawing up the corners of the scholar's mouth with her hooves, Kitten said, “Sounds like somepony needs to find a reason to smile again.”

When the pegasus withdrew her hooves, Silver Script's mouth slowly returned to it's neutral state. “Believe it or not, I have smiled in the past, and will likely smile again at some point in the future. I see no point in wasting the effort to show my happiness needlessly. Those who matter can tell when I am enjoying myself.” Returning the bow to Kitten's hooves, she started walking away with a nod to the other two ponies. “If you'll excuse me, I'd like some time to ponder the things I will need to enchant your bow.”

Kitten tsked quietly to herself. “That is one sad pony.”


(\ /)
( . .)

Knightengale more felt the presence behind her than heard it. Whirling around with her wings spread, she readied an attack, but stopped when she saw it was just Paladin, who looked ready to take her attack. The aganippe relaxed her posture and returned to scanning the skies. “All clear,” she said quietly.

“That's... good.” With a sigh, Paladin sat down in the grass in the shade of a tree. “Erm, look. I'm not sure what it was exactly I did to earn the cold shoulder from you, but-”

“Shh.” Knightengale silenced her with a wave of her hoof, and looked intently out into the woods.

Crouching down, the unicorn whispered, “What is it? Hear something?”

Indeed, the aganippe's ears were swiveling like mad, trying to pinpoint the source of whatever she had heard. It took her a moment before they stopped and she pointed in the direction from which they had come. Using the guard's unspoken body language, she told the unicorn, “Two enemies. Back trail. One large four-leg, one small diamond dog. Approaching fast.”

Containing her surprise at the mare's knowledge of the language, she signed, “Return to camp. Stay downwind. Return with reinforcements,” then quietly but quickly settled into a good ambush spot, not waiting to see if she left or not, bringing out her wands from her gauntlets.

It did not take long for their pursuers to reveal themselves. Paladin was a little surprised to see Brimfrost leading a diamond dog on a leash, who had his nose to the ground, obviously sniffing out their trail. The dragoness looked around suspiciously as they walked, intent on their surroundings.

Deciding to forgo stealth, Paladin leaped out from behind her cover, firing a bolt at the diamond dog, hitting him squarely on the nose. He stumbled back, yelping in pain and trying to staunch the bleeding from his nose with his paws. “You came all this way just to meet me again? I'm touched.”

Brimfrost let the leash drop, allowing the dog to run into the bushes and hide. With a feral grin, she crouched down and started circling sideways. “Ah, but it would be bad mannersss to not go halfway, essspecially sssinccce you're about to die, yesss.”

Balancing on her hind legs, Paladin circled around as well, matching the wyrm's pace. “Perhaps you've mistaken me for somepony else? I have no plans on dying anytime soon.”

“Let us see if we can change your plans, then,” Brimfrost shouted as she leaped at the pony. Paladin jumped at a nearby tree and bounced off of the trunk, sailing over the dragoness to land behind her, firing two shots at her wings, putting a neat hole about the size of a bit in each. The dragoness roared in pain and swung her tail at the pony, but Paladin ducked low and rolled under it coming once more to a bipedal stance still behind her bu on the opposite side.

“Come on, Brimfrost. You can do better than that. I didn't even have to try to avoid that one,” the unicorn quipped. She leaped again, this time straight up and impossibly high as the dragon breathed out her breath weapon, coating the ground where she had stood with frost. Paladin alighted onto a tree branch twenty hooves from the ground, wands still at the ready. “Can't you do anything else? I'm already bored with your moves.”

Brimfrost narrowed her eyes. “Then perhapsss I can alleviate your boredom wi- gurk!” She was silenced by the sudden addition of an arrow to her neck, and three more that trailed down her body. Pulling out the arrow, she had to grasp her throat to staunch the flow of blood, but found herself unable to speak again.

“Maybe you should go now,” Paladin said with mock concern. “You're not looking so... hot?”

The dragoness glared at the infuriating pony, but glanced into the woods where a lot of bushes were swishing suspiciously, and she heard several ponies talking about surrounding her. Opting not to face an unknown number of opponents, she took to the sky, still holding her wounded throat.

Waiting until she had disappeared entirely, Paladin called out, “Okay, she's gone, everyone.”

Six ponies came out of their hiding spots as the unicorn trotted over to them under the cover of the trees. Silver Bell ran up and nuzzled her, bringing a blush to the normally stoic guard's face. “I was so scared for you when Knightengale said there was a dragon. Do you think she'll be back?

Paladin nodded as she wrapped a foreleg around her. “If she's gone this far to track me down, it seems likely that this won't be the last we see of her. Honestly, though, I didn't think she'd be this determined to track me down. I must have really hurt her pride last time.”

“Then we'd best get moving again,” Knightengale said. Looking to Silver Script, she asked, “How much further to this library of yours?”

Silver Script glanced her way. “I've told you, it's not actually a library, but a repository. Books that aren't used very often and deemed not too valuable are sent there for safekeeping. It's not too far from here. Judging by our current pace, and taking into account rest periods, we should make it in about two more days.”

“Let's see if we can cut that estimate down to a day and a half, then,” Paladin said.

“Agreed,” Silver Script replied, surprising the unicorn with her rapid concurrence. “If there is a dragon pursuing us, then we would be best served by keeping our rest breaks to a minimum, and eating on the run.”

Kitten moaned and slumped a little, while Silver Bell bit her lower lip and shifted her weight on her legs. For the rest of that day, they dared not stop any longer than it took to refill their water supplied for a babbling brook until well after dark when Silver Bell stumbled on a root, almost breaking her leg. After that, it was agreed by mutual consensus that they had gone far enough for one day.

While everyone was resting, Silver Script came over to Ricochet and asked for her bow. Taking it in hoof, she laid down in the grass with it examining it carefully.

“What are ye looking for?” the archer asked.

“I'm planning the layout for the runes. I'll have to work around not only the inherent imperfections of the wood- as few as those are- but also the damage it has accumulated over the years. It appears to have been used as a bludgeon in the past; I'll have to take that into account,” she said, never taking her eyes from her task.

“Have a lot of practice with the enchantments I want, do ye?” Ricochet asked.

Silver Script nodded. “Some. I've never applied an Eagle Eye enchantment to a weapon before, but I suspect that would be mainly because nopony has thought to do so before. Quite the clever idea, that.”

Awesomeshine came over and laid down beside the scholar and took one hoof in hers. “As I suspected. I knew you were limping for the last few kilotrots.” Using her magic, she picked out a pointy rock and started cleaning the dirt out.

Ricochet watched this with some amusement, smiling at Silver Script's lack of reaction. The mare in question continued to examine the bow as if nothing unusual was happening. Knightengale joined them, laying next to the larger earth pony, and leaning against her affectionately. Watching the two of them, she leaned over to Ricochet and whispered in her ear, “They compliment each other well, don't they?”

Silently nodding, she nuzzled the aganippe's face with her own.

(\ /)
( . .)

Silver Script stood silently, looking down on the scene of senseless destruction, quietly smoldering with rage. Though she didn't let it show, the others could almost feel the indignation flowing off of her in waves. Paladin whispered at her, “Do you know of any other places that might have this book?”

Without a word, Silver Script walked forward, heedless of the lack of cover, walking calmly to the burnt ruins of the stone building in the clearing below. Awesomeshine was the first to follow, and the others soon joined her.

Boldly walking up to where the front doors once hung, she walked in, carefully picking her way through the remains of burnt roof timbers, and carefully avoided the occasional book or paper laying on the ground, ruined by the fire, smoke, and rain that had followed the building's recent destruction.

The groups stopped in the front gallery, looking at the terrible havoc wreaked upon the unpretentious building. Shelves were leaning against one another like fallen dominoes, or even laying on the floor itself, books lay scattered everywhere, swollen with absorbed moisture from the recent rain the day before. Unnoticed by all but Awesomeshine, a single tear rolled down from Silver Script's blind eye, hidden by her bangs.

“I suppose we could spend some time here searching through what's left. Maybe we'll get lucky and find the one we need,” Paladin said quietly.

The noise of shifting rubble attracted everypony's attention, and Knightengale gasped. “There's somepony alive under there!” she said and pointed towards a pile with several shelves laying across it.

Seven sets of hooves immediately set to work, clearing away fallen stone and burnt timber, unearthing an elderly pegasus stallion. Awesomeshine looked him over and sadly shook her head to Silver Script. Though he was breathing for the moment, she could tell he did not have long to live.

Paladin kneeled down next to him and whispered, “Good sir, we are on a quest given to us by the princesses. Can you tell us where to find a book on the Elements of Harmony? They're a set of artifacts-”

“T- too late. Gone,” the stallion croaked out. Paladin looked about ready to cry in frustration, but he continued on. “D- don't cry, little one. They have th-the book, but not the key.” With a shaky hoof, he pulled and ear cuff from his ear, which turned into a golden key. Dropping it in her gauntleted hoof, he laid his head down again, all energy seemingly gone from just that simple act. “Ask, and ye sh- sh- shall receive. F-f- front pillar. C-C-Celest...” With a gurgling rattle, the stallion's final breath left his body.

Murmuring a prayer, Awesomeshine closed his eyes. The rest joined her in the prayer. “Docebit vos Iumentum Suum Album ut in Elysios. Requiescant in pace.”

Grimly taking the key in her telekinetic grasp, Paladin walked to the entrance, carefully examining the pilars. Awesomeshine looked at her strangely. “Aren't you going to help us bury him? He deserves that much.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, the guard replied, “We're not burying him, and for two very good reasons. First of all, in the time we would spend doing that, who knows how many ponies will die that would be otherwise saved? Secondly, we are being pursued by a rather persistent dragon who seems to have made my destruction her top priority. We leave evidence of our being here, it could only help her track us down, or allow her to catch up again.” Returning to the business of examining the pillars, she added, “You want to honor his sacrifice? Don't let it go to waste with a gesture designed to make the living feel better but does him no good. We've already done what we can to speed him on his way.”

Walking up to the unicorn, Silver Script pointed to a pillar carved to look like Celestia rearing up on her hind legs opposite to another of Luna in a similar pose. “I believe his last word was Celestia. Let us examine that one there.”

With a nod of thanks, they examined the pillar together, the unicorn's keen sight spotting a keyhole cleverly disguised within the folds of the stone tail. Turning the key, a well concealed compartment next to a hoof opened, exposing a stone sphere about a hoof across in diameter. A diamond-like depression had been carved into it on one face, but it appeared to be otherwise unremarkable granite.

“Is that what I think it is?” Paladin asked as she was about to take it out with her magic.

Silver Scrit stopped her. “No. This is an allegedly omega-level artifact. Your magic may interact with it in unforeseen ways.”

“I thought you said that they remained inert throughout all testing?” Paladin asked.

Silver Script nodded. “Yes, but given what you've said the princess has taught you about them, I have a theory, but it will take some time to test this out.”

“So now what?” Silver Bell asked.

“Now, we scoot before our friend catches oop to us , or soome loony decides to pick oover the loot here,” Ricochet replied.

Not long after the ponies left, the pillar that had held the stone broke in three places, forever covering the stone's former hiding spot.

Chapter 11: Keeping the Faith

View Online


Chapter 11: Keeping the Faith

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

There were times when Nyx really hated omnitemporalism. She could if she so chose, relive every bad event over and over again effectively forever, thereby forming a special portion of Tartarus of her own design. That part wasn't so bad, since she could do the same to all the good times, and in fact, even tried to do that much of the time when she was alone in the library, which was more and more often as... No, don't focused/focus/will focus on that. This was/is/will be already bad enough. However, the truly horrid part of this state of being would have to be the visions forced upon her.

It was explained to her (by herself, no less) that these visions were things she needed to know; to prepare for. Damned if she could figure out how she was supposed to prepare for them, and in what way since all these visions were always accurate. Always. Well, except that one, but exceptions that proved/prove/will prove the rule, right?

Like all the visions (except that one), this one was horrific, like every time before it had been shown to her. But not content to be of the ordinarily horrific type, this one was especially bad, because not only was her best friend/lov- No! Didn't/don't/will not dwell on what could not/cannot/will not be! It didn't/hasn't/won't happen! I've seen/see/will see it! Not only was Twilight's very soul being torn asunder, forever rent to power an artifact, but it was only through Nyx's help that this was even possible. It was/is/will be through my assistance that the grand spell was/is/will be finally worked out, ready for the smartest, most beauteous, most noble being to suffered/suffer/will suffer the worst torment one could/can/will imagine.

Intelligence. That was/is/will be what's at the root cause here! We were/are/will be too smart for her own good. Too smart by half... Not for the first time, she contemplated asking that her gift be revoked, and to have her mind enfeebled. It would be so simple. She knew where to find him, indeed, she was one of two beings that even knew where to look, and she knew he would do it. He wasn't callous, or capricious, despite what many thought of him and his cruel, but inevitable touch. This was supposed to be a gift, after all. She could be rid of not only this two-edged sword, but also any memories it had granted her! Why, with a simple step to the left-


Blinking to wet her wide, staring eyes, the inky blackness left them, returning them to their normal brown hue. Finally able to focus again, the purplish blob before slowly resolved into a vision more soothing to her troubled mind than the best balm. “Twilight!” she sobbed, and collapsed into the alicorn's forelegs which instinctively went around her in a comforting embrace. Unable to make out her hysteric sobbing, Twilight just held the sphinx and let her cry into her shoulder.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Paladin paced around in a circle, trying to keep the anxiety she was feeling from taking over, though with little success. The rest of the group- sans one- lounged nearby, awaiting their next move. The lone exception had requested some space, even from her oldest friend, and was now laying in the grass of the lightly wooded area, a stone orb between her forelegs. She was using a special monocle to peer at it closely, taking careful note of the lattices of arcane energies bound within the stone. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she concentrated, but a frustrated voice behind her startled the monocle from it's position.

“How much longer will this take?” Paladin asked angrily.

Silver Script turned just her head to look the impatient unicorn with her one good eye. “It will take as long at it takes, but it will take longer the more you interrupt me. I have never studied such a hideously complex array of magics before.” Laying a hoof on the sphere, she rolled it around until the sole, four-sided decoration was facing her. “I can tell you one thing that's been postulated by the experts who studied them is true, however. In some weird, strange way, this artifact is alive.”

“What do you mean 'it's alive'?” Awesomeshine anxiously asked. “Is there a pony trapped inside it?”

Looking down at the stone again, a trace of uncertainty crept into her voice. “Not... exactly. A soul trapped inside an object would still be discernible as separate from the prison. Here, it's almost like the prison and the soul are the same. At least, it would be if it were an actual soul. The closest approximation I have would be that it's a simulacrum of a soul, or a part of a soul. I haven't studied it enough to be able to tell yet.”

Paladin approached a step and asked, “But can you use it to track down the others?”

“I was just about to discover that when you interrupted me,” Silver Script replied levelly.

Holding up her forelegs in a gesture of surrender, Paladin said, “Alright, alright. Point taken. I'll go take a walk while we wait.” As she walked away, she mumbled, “Maybe I'll top off the canteens at the creek for the third time, or something.”

The sound of a pony trotting to catch up to her caused the guard to look back and see Silver Bell approaching. She smiled genuine appreciation at the sight of the lovely, delicate mare that had opted to accompany her on this dangerous journey. Allowing her a place next to herself, she was surprised when she kissed her, causing them both to moan in each other's mouths. When they finally parted, they rested their foreheads against each other.

“You looked like you needed that,” Silver Bell said.

“I did,” Paladin admitted. “It's been far too long since we last kissed.”

Silver Bell blushed as she smiled. “Silly filly. We kissed just this morning after breakfast, remember?”

“And the time in-between was pure agony.” They laid down in the dirt right there, side-by-side, Silver Bell nuzzling her head under Paladin's. With a contented sigh, the sandy unicorn said, “If one good thing has come of all this is that it brought us together.”

Silver Bell rested her head on Paladin's forelegs and breathed in her strong musk. A smile formed on her face, and a stirring in her loins as she felt the hard muscles beneath her dirty, yet smooth coat flex as she moved. “Oh, I think it would have happened regardless of the events of the past few days. They just... sped things along a little.”

Paladin inhaled, relishing the purely feminine scent of the mare resting on her. How does she remain smelling so clean and nice even after days of nonstop travel? And her coat is as silky as if she had never left the palace! “Whatever the case, I'm just glad we finally said something to each other. Your playful flirting was nice and all, but if I had to go on for much longer like that, I likely would have gone crazy with suppressed lust. You're just too stunning to resist.”

Nestling in closer, Silver Bell replied, “My flirting? What about your flirting? Or are you telling me that you make such suggestive comments to all the mares while looking so commanding and radiant? I wasn't the only mare on the staff trying to catch your eye, you know.”

“Oh, really?” the guard asked with suspicious interest.

“I'll give you such a bite if you even think of trading me in,” Silver Bell replied, emphasizing her point with a not-so-gentle nibble on a sandy-colored throat.

Paladin yelped and almost jumped up, but was restrained by the pony resting on her forelegs. “Oh, wanna play rough, do you?” Laughing, she tackled the chambermaid, rolling around on the ground with her many times until they came to rest with the stronger unicorn laying on top. Their laughter died down simultaneously, and as if magnetically drawn together, their lips met with a passion that neither had ever felt before. Silver-colored forelegs wrapped around a tawny barrel, and one tawny foreleg stroked a bronze mane, while the other rested on a silver cheek. Their tongues eagerly met, neither seeking dominance over the other, but instead seeking to know as much of the other as possible.

They finally broke apart to come up gasping for air, their mouths poised just inches away, so close that each could still taste the other's breath. “That... was intense,” Paladin gulped.

Very,” Silver Bell agreed. She, herself gulped and looked away, a strong blush coming to her already flushed cheeks. “We... we should probably stop before we do something we're not quite ready for.”

Obviously disappointed, Paladin nodded as she stood, holding out a hoof to the chambermaid. “Yes. Now that we know how we feel about each other, there's no need to rush things, right?”

Silver Bell accepted the offer, allowing the stronger mare to help her up, but refused to let go the hoof once she was upright again. “Look, it's not that I don't want you; quite the opposite! I feel so strongly for you. I've never wanted somepony so much before I met you. You've ignited a passion in my heart that burns so strong that it keeps me warm on the coldest, lonely night... and that's why I want to take it slowly. It... it scares me how I feel.”

She placed the hoof over her heart and smiled wistfully at Paladin. “My heart aches for you when you're not around. I count the seconds we're separated. Your very presence makes me feel safe and comforted. It... it's frightening how big a part of my life you've become, and that was before we confessed our feelings. I just... I just need some time to adjust to all these feelings and changes. This isn't a 'No', just... 'Not yet'.”

Reassured, Paladin's crooked smile became genuine. She gave her a chaste kiss on the lips and nuzzled her. “Take your time. I'll be here waiting for you when you're ready, Love.”

Silver Bell threw her forelegs around her in a tight hug. “Thank you, Sweetheart.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Silver Script pawed at the ground, her brow furrowing just a touch in frustration. A bead of sweat dripped into her eye, breaking her concentration. Letting the monocle drop to the ground, she rubbed her eye with the back of a hoof. “It's no good. I'm going to have to use them,” she mumbled.

“Use what?” Awesomeshine asked.

Turning around in surprise, the scholar took notice of her friend for the first time since starting her study again. “Some magical items I made. They'll help me to disentangle this lattice.”

Awesomeshine laid a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “I understand you wanting to do this on your own without extraordinary aid, but time is of the essence.”

“I don't understand. Aren't you already using magical items to help you see the magic?” Kitten asked.

Silver Script shook her head. “The monocle is a basic sensor. Any unicorn might use it to do what I do to the same effect.” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a set of shoes and a peytral that could not have possibly fit in there along with all the other items they had seen her pull out so far. Both the shoes and peytral were crafted of a purple metal polished mirror bright. While exquisitely crafted, the shoes were plain and undecorated, and the peytral's sole decoration was a diamond cut into a six-pointed star. “These are special. They enhance my special talent many times over, allowing me to accomplish things that would ordinarily be beyond my abilities.”

“Wha'? Can ye make me a set?” Ricochet asked, nearly jumping up with excitement.

A flash of amusement passed over Silver Script's eyes before she pierced the fellow earth pony's elation. “Not unless we share the same special talent and are blood related. While I cannot attest to the latter, I sincerely doubt you enjoy studying magic as much as I do.” She stepped into the shoes, tapping the tip of each on the ground to securely seat them. She was about to don the peytral, only to find that Awesomeshine already had it in her hooves and was waiting to fasten it around her neck. A slight pink tinge came to her cheeks as she leaned her head down so that her friend could fasten the neck piece around her.

Clasping it over her neck, the healer flipped the earth pony's braid over the catch and stepped back to admire the new look. “You look just like a princess, now!” she squealed.

With an uncomfortable cough, Silver Script said, “Yes, well. I pattered them after theirs, so of course there would be some similarities. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll resume my study. You may want to stand back a bit. No telling how all this magic will interact, but I can tell you that the effects may be... extreme.”

Facing the stone once more while the others retreated a few paces, Silver Script closed her eye and concentrated. Immediately, a line of white light appeared on all the new accoutrements she had donned, spreading out to form interconnected runes. When every square inch of them were covered with the glowing symbols, the runes' glow grew brighter, lifting the earth pony from the ground in a swirling wind. Silver Script suddenly opened her eye, and a similar white light shone out of the now featureless orb. The stone levitated in front of her, and arcs of electrical-like energies passed between them.

Paladin and Silver Bell burst into the encampment, surprising the other four ponies, all of whom were cowering back, looking unsure what to do, except for Awesomeshine who looked on proudly. “The Element!” Paladin shouted over the wind, and raced over with the intention of knocking Silver Script away.

Awesomeshine intervened however, and tackled her instead. Paladin flailed in her grasp, trying to gain a hoof under herself to throw off the mare. “I've got to stop her before she damages it!”

“Trust her! She knows what she's doing!” the healer shouted back.

As if on cue, the wind died down, and the earth pony was lowered to the ground, and the white lights slowly dying, returning her attire to their normal appearance. Her eye closed, then opened to reveal her normal pupil and blue iris. Awesomeshine jumped up and hugged the mare in a tight embrace. “Oh, Sil! I've never seen you so excited! You must have found something spectacular!”

The others looked at her incredulously, unable to see any difference in the mare's demeanor. “I know. My mouth will be sore for a week from all this smiling.” she replied in a deadpan. “I was able to make initial contact with the Element. It refused to tell me anything about itself or its purpose, but it agreed to help us find the others.”

“That's fantastic!” Paladin cheered. She ran up with a hoof out to take the other mare's hoof in her own, but the intimidating lack of emotion on her face gave her pause, and she instead used the extended hoof to brush her own mane back into place. She gave an uncomfortable cough and asked, “So, how do we do this? Do we ask it and give it a shake, or let it roll along the ground, or what?”

“As long as I have the orb in my possession, I will be able to feel the direction of the next nearest Element,” she replied. Pointing to the north which was across a wide open plains, she added. “We will find the closest in that direction. I suggest we move quickly and only stop after dark. The feeling is quite faint.”

“Well, you heard her, everypony. Let's move out!” Paladin said happily.

(\ /)
( . .)

Long, long ago, the immortals first took notice of the frail, short-lived creatures living below the firmament. Some, mostly the younger immortals, took a keen interest in the comings and goings of the creatures. These creatures, these mortals, were weak and transient, yet some of them managed to leave their mark upon the world, and this fascinated some of the immortals. How beings of such feeble substance could leave anything of lasting value astounded them.

Each of the immortals chose a kind of being that piqued their interests above all others, and bestowed upon them a small bit of their own essence, tying their fates to those fragile creatures. When the Three Sisters decided to combine their gift into one, they unintentionally gave the ponies a gift whose value was greater than any gift given to any of the others. Such a gift could not be contained by a single people, and so they were split into the nine pony tribes, each drawing a distinct trait from one of the Pony Sisters.

One other thing that all mortals drew from their patron immortals was a certain amount of magic. Some immortals were more generous with this gift than others, but each intelligent being was granted some of this power. When this gift was first extended, many thought that they needed to give their patron immortal constant praise, and built large buildings whose sole purpose was to worship these incredibly powerful beings. While the power they wielded was so far beyond any mortal's grasp that it would be fair to call them gods and goddesses, few of the immortals wanted and actively discouraged such lavish praise. Eventually, those immortals grew tired of repeating themselves, and just let the mortals do as they pleased, so long as their other wishes were obeyed.

The Sister's children- their “Little Ponies” were one such people. Though the alicorns actively discouraged worship, even going so far as to avoid even stepping hoof in, or acknowledging any church's existence, worship did continue. Attendance and observance eventually tapered off, much to their relief, but something else these churches did caught the attention of the alicorns, which made them see their value. More often than not, when a foal was born to parents who could not care for it, or a foal's parents died, leaving it all alone, they found themselves on a church's front stoop. All churches welcomed such bundles of joy, mostly because as the alicorns all often declared, all ponies were precious to them, but also because only by raising orphans could many churches continue.

And so this simple act of enlightened self-interest saved many a church, as they sometimes found sacks of bits with a note asking for it to be spent on the children. Not knowing where it came from,they would follow the note's wishes to the letter. However, not all churches were so lucky. Some fell on hard times for one reason or another. Maybe a town became less religious over time, eventually phasing out their need for the priests' spiritual guidance. Maybe the head priest was inept at managing finances, and they went bankrupt. Maybe orphans failed to show up to carry on the traditions, and when the last priest died, the building was just boarded up. Maybe the town that surrounded the church slowly shrank in population until the last pony left was the priests.

The building that stood before Paladin seemed to have fallen into this last category. The church was the only building in a semblance of repair, the rest of the surrounding town left to the not-so-tender mercies of the wild that seemed intent on reclaiming the land taken from it. She looked to the left and saw Silver Script pointing one of her sky blue hooves at the ancient building. With a shrug, she walked forward, leading the six mares to the open door and peeked in.

After the brightness of the early morning, the inside of the church appeared dark and somber, despite the “Sisterwalk” skylight that bisected the building. Walking in, she peered around, looking for any sign of life other than the few lit candles at the west altar. A cloud passed overhead, temporarily bathing the church in slightly deeper darkness. She cleared her throat in preparation for calling out when she was surprised by an old and frail voice coming from one of the pews. “If you're here for services, you'll need an appointment. It takes time to ready a church, you know.”

Paladin let out a filly-ish squeak of surprise, and almost jumped a whole hoof off the ground. Turning to the voice, she could just make out a hunched over figure now that her eyes were adjusting. “Um, actually, we're not here for services, Your Eminence,” Knightengale said reverently.

With a grunt, the old aganippe mare hopped off the pew and stumped over to them, making a curious wooden THOCK sound as she walked stiffly. The mystery was solved as she walked around the pew to reveal that one of her legs was replaced with a peg leg, which explained her stiff gait as well. “A shame,” she replied. “So few these days wish to offer their praise up to the Sisters. Well, what brings you foals here, then?”

“This does,” Silver Script said, holding out the Element of Harmony with a hoof.

The old mare's eyes widened upon seeing the stone and she fell to the ground, prostrate. “She said that it may not happen in my time, but I always held out hope that I would play a part in this, no matter how small. Sisters be praised!”

Looking for encouragement from the rest of the ponies, Paladin saw no emotion from Silver Script whom had put the Element away in her saddlebag, abject horror from Knightengale, and uncomfortable disquiet from the rest. Licking her lips she nervously said, “Er, not to be blunt, but the princesses really need us to collect these. Equestria is relying on it, you see.”

The old aganippe quickly rose, though not without some ominous popping and creaks from her joints. “Of course, Mistress. Please wait just a moment while I fetch it for you.” Before Paladin could say anything, she toddled off to the east altar, leaving all the mares wondering at her sudden burst of alacrity.

She reached the altar which was thrown into shadow again as another shadow passed, and stretched out one bat-like wing, sticking her thumb into a small hole on the side. After a few deft motions, a click was heard, and a small compartment opened up to reveal a stone orb with a triangle-shaped depression cut into it. Reverently cradling the orb in her one good foreleg, she stumped her way back over to the group, but didn't get halfway before the Sisterwalk skylight crashed, sending deadly shards flying down.

Paladin tried to erect a bubble of force around the old mare, but a huge shape landing on the priestess prevented it. In the dim light of the church, they were able to make out the shape of Brimfrost as one claw cruelly snatched the orb from the old mare. “Aaahhh... at lassst. Asss promisssed, I ssshall be firssst to deliver on my pledge, yesss...”

“No!” Paladin shouted, as she pulled her wands out of her gauntlets.

“There isss nothing any of you can do about it!” Brimfrost hissed back. “Once I find and deliver all of thessse ssstonesss to my missstresss, ssshe will not only grant me great power, but alssso the life of the pony I have been sssearching for! Away, foolsss!” she shouted as she breathed out a cone of cold. The ponies took cover behind the pews, but the dragon could care less as she flew straight up through the broken Sisterwalk with the orb in one claw.

Ponies sprang into action as soon as the breath weapon ceased. Ricochet leaped over the pews and skidded across the ice on her knees as she drew out her bow, with an arrow nocked and ready to fly out the Sisterwalk, but could find no target. Paladin did likewise, but could also find nothing at which to aim. The rest rushed to the old priestess' side to find that she was still alive, but not moving.

A quick spell cast by Awesomeshine made her bite her lip. The old mare reached up with her good hoof and pat her on the cheek. “Do not cry for me, little one. I have fulfilled my duty in a way that I never dreamed possible. It was... an... honor...” With her final breath, her hoof fell, taking several of Awesomeshine's tears with it.

(\ /)
( . .)

Prowling through her mountain fortress, the dragoness quickly, but quietly made her way to her favorite chamber, licking her lips in anticipation of the meal she was about to enjoy. Her inky black scales glittered in the dim light of the lava that coursed throughout the complex, but not even that same lava could counter the chill of any being who happened to catch her throaty chuckle.

The chamber she finally stopped before had no guards- no physical ones, at least. She paused for a moment to inspect the sigils she had created to guard this chamber in lieu of any being. Why would she trust mere mortals to guard her most precious possessions? Nodding with satisfaction, she walked through the door instead of trying to open it as if it were no more substantial than water.

She walked up to the only thing in the room, a pedestal upon which two gems, an opal and a fire ruby floated in a column of light, slowly rotating. Gracefully sitting down next to the gems, the dragoness smiled. “Good morrow. And how dost this day find thee? How dost thee like the torment I hath concocted? I am told that complete immobility is quite exquisite.”

Nightmare cocked her head as if listening for a response, even though it was completely unnecessary. She could hear the screams of two alicorns quite clearly in her mind. Making a totally unconvincing expression of sadness, she said, “Now, now. What would thy mother say if she heard you speak thus? Not that she doth be here to hearken,” she quickly added. The gems momentarily glowed and ceased spinning, before resuming their normal luminosity and rotation. The dragoness' eyes rolled up into her head, and her mouth hung slack, a line of drool dripping from between her huge fangs.

It took a moment before she was able to regain her composure, and she wiped away the drool. “Surely, thou art concerned about thy precious little ponies. Since thou wert so kind as to feed me such delicious hatred, mayhap I could tell thee. Thou might even see fit to furnish me with a dessert of despair if I do.”

Laying down next to the column, the great serpent made herself comfortable. “Already, mine armies hath ceased more than half of thy lands from thee. Just this morn, Spellgrade fell. Granted, I had to take a claw in that personally, but at least thou wilt never again have to listen to that Duchess' annoying pleas. 'Please, spare my city! We did nothing to you!' All so very tiresome. I granted her a quick end that I might escape her begging. Quite unseemly for royalty, I must say.”

“Ah, but that is not e'en the best news of the day,” Nightmare added, relishing the grief she felt from the gems. “Late last night, one of my most trusted servants returned anon with a special book, and an e'en more special stone.” She could feel the consternation and total surprise at this news, followed quickly by fear and impotent rage. Once again, her eyes rolled up in her head as she fed on their hate and fear. “Oh, yes. This is just the beginning.” She pulled out a stone orb from seemingly nowhere, turning the small rock in her claws. “I doth wonder. Which part of her this is? Her joy? Her bland heroism? Her urge to make silly speeches?”

She held the orb up and examined it with a critical eye, taking note of the triangle design carved into it. “Mayhap t'were her insipid love for those frail beings o'er which you ruled? It matters not. Once they are all in my grasp, I shall use them to tear apart the nation thou worked so hard to build, and she died to protect. If thou wilt excuse me, I hath a servant to reward for finding this treasure.” She laughed uproariously at the helpless fury directed towards her as she left the room, so she missed the coveted despair from the two gems after she had gone.

Chapter 12: The Reflex

View Online


Chapter 12: The Reflex

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Sliding the final book back onto its place on the shelf, Nyx sighed sadly. Looking back down the row, which stretched on for dozens of trots without a break, she seriously contemplated dumping them out on to the floor again just so she could re-shelve them again for the third time this week. With a shake of her head, she started off again, this time for one of the restricted sections where the books that were not yet written were kept. As she walked, a tune popped into her head and she began to unconsciously sing along under her breath.

Coming to a locked door with no handle, she paused to make sure it was still secured. Satisfied, she walked through the locked door as if it were not even there, passing through as if it were not more substantial than smoke. On the other side was a brightly lit, white room filled with empty bookshelves of glass. The room's sole concession to decoration was a painting of three alicorns, one white, one purple, and one dark blue sitting next to Nyx, herself. Looking around, she first satisfied herself that the shelves were indeed empty before laying on her stomach in front of the larger-than-life-sized painting.

Locking eyes with the purple alicorn, she said, “It appears that the flesh is weaker than even I had thought. Less than a week has gone by, and I find myself here again talking to you instead of out there talking to you.” Shaking her head in disgust, she added, “Maybe it's just that here, in this room, I'm relieved of my responsibilities to Time, however briefly. Or maybe it's just that in here, I can tell you everything I'm feeling without fear of what you might say or do. Either way, it amounts to cowardice, and I'm Queen Coward.”

Unable to meet that unblinking stare any longer, Nyx looked down at her paws, one turned upside down and contemplated them. She noticed a paper cut on the pad and began picking at it with the tip of one of her claws, slowly widening it until a drop of black blood welled up, quickly congealing in the cool air. The sudden flare of magic in the room broke her reverie and she looked up to her the library's arcanificarum, Kat floating before her, beaming smile on her face.

Nyx knew that only one thing could make Kat smile like that, and couldn't help but find the excitement a little infectious. A smile automatically coming to her own expression dispelled her blue funk and she rose to her paws. “Tell her I'm coming, you silly thing, you.” With an excited giggle, Kat disappeared again, and the sphinx began her trek back to the library's entrance.

Calmly walking into the lobby, Nyx smiled at Twilight, whom returned it, though with some... trepidation? “What's all this, then, what's all this? You look like a cat with a mouthful of canary.”

Twilight stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Verily, thou doth have the most unusual and disgusting sayings, Nyx. Canst thee not ask in a more pleasant manner?”

With a chuckle, Nyx replied, “Sorry, let's try that again, shall we?” She cleared her throat dramatically, and asked, “You look like you have something on your mind. Bit for your thoughts?”

Twilight responded with a chuckle of her own. “Sooth, Nyx. Thou art the living end. Indeed, I have for thee a question. Thou rememberest our conversation about thee suffering from loneliness? I believe I hath come across the solution for thy problem.” As she said this, a small, black dragon, no larger than a pony floated out of her mane. He was curled up in on himself and snoring rather adorably, though he still bore some scars from recent wounds.

Nyx, who had become excited, hoping that Twilight meant that she was moving in with her, became slightly crestfallen when the dragon appeared, but quickly regained her demeanor when she actually looked at the dragon. The creature looked familiar, though she couldn't place from where, but she knew that the two of them would get along well. “Twilight, he's adorable! Where did you find him?”

The alicorn floated the small creature over to Nyx, whom gently took him in her paws which had turned into hands for the task. “I discovered him in a razed pony hamlet. I hath already seen his thoughts, and determined that he is safe. Indeed, he attempted to stand fast against the other dragons in his flight, but being the smallest, he was o'erpowered and left for dead.”

“Aw, poor little guy,” Nyx said, petting the dragon in her arms. She smiled, noting that he was actually purring. “Don't worry, Onyx. You'll be safe here.”

“Onyx?” Twilight asked with a raised eyebrow.

Nyx looked at her and grinned lopsidedly. “Of course. Nyx and Onyx. What else did you expect me to call him?”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Unable to take another step, Silver Script sat down heavily on a large rock and sighed. She pulled a hind leg onto her lap, inspecting the hoof for the pebble she knew had to be there, and had been aggravating her almost from the moment she had set hoof on the winding mountain trail. Paladin walked up to her and said, “Come on. We're more than halfway there. We can rest when we get there.”

Looking up at the unicorn blankly, she evenly replied, “I'm not sure if you've noticed this, Milady, but not all of us are built for long journeys. Some of us were quite sedentary before now, and this trek is beginning to show on us.” The scholar gestured to the rest of the group, most of whom were in similar straits as her. The only two who seemed to feel fine were Ricochet and Knightengale, both of whom had some training.

Taking advantage of the pause, Awesomeshine and Silver Bell had collapsed against each other, much to the vexation of the two conversing ponies. Even Kitten was splayed out on her back, despite the fact that she had spent most of the time flying instead of walking. Not for the first time, Paladin regretted agreeing to take along civilians on this mission. Throwing up her forehooves in defeat, she rolled her eyes and grunted in disgust. “Fine. Take ten, everypony.”

As the unicorn walked off, Silver Script resumed her hoof inspection, using a stick held between her teeth to dig out some dirt that had collected under the hard keratin wall.

“Here, let me help with that.”

Looking up, she found Awesomeshine standing next to her, her magic already taking the stick from her mouth. Rather than object, she leaned back, and let the skilled unicorn dig out the irritant with deft strokes. The healer sat down and took the mare's hoof in her lap as she worked. Unable to find the words to express her gratitude, Silver Script looked down at the oldest, and only friend she had ever had, and the faintest of smiles formed on her face.

Awesomeshine looked up just in time to see the smile disappear, and grinned at her. “It's so good to see you again, Sil. I've missed you so much.”

“I feel the same, 'Shine,” she replied in her monotone voice.

Knightengale quickly pulled the flask away from Ricochet's lips, though the earth pony tried to follow the container with its delicious contents until it was capped and sealed again. “No more Rico. We're trying to wean you off the stuff, not get you drunk.”

“Och, just a wee bit more, Knighty. Tha' was hardly enough t' wet me lips,” Ricochet pleaded.

“Tell you what,” the aganippe replied, “tell me what happened between you and that unicorn, and I might be inclined to let you have another sip.”

Ricochet glared at her. “Darty pool, tha' is, Knighty.” Looking away to the valley spread out below the switchback trail to avoid letting her see the hurt in her own eyes. “If ye want t' know sae badly, ask her. I'll nae hold it against ye, but I ask ye to shut yer gob if she gets oopset. We dinna need tha' kinda tension right noo.”

With a nod, Knightengale stood and strode over to the unicorn with an apparent confidence that she didn't feel on the inside. As she walked up, she could hear the sandy mare muttering to herself, calculating the time of day. “Can I talk to you?” she bluntly asked.

Turning around, Paladin saw right away what this conversation would be about. She looked over the aganippe's shoulder to see Ricochet pointedly looking up at the sky and nodding. Returning her gaze to the mare before her after making sure nopony else was within earshot, she said, “Of course.”

Now that the time of confrontation had come, Knightengale seemed less sure of herself and hesitated. “Uh, well. You see, it's about Ricochet...”

“I love her.”

“What?” Knightengale almost shrieked in surprise.

“That's what you expected me to say, isn't it? What's really been preying on your mind lately?” Paladin said matter-of-factly. “Does it make you feel better to hear me say it?” She noted the aganippe's reaction was simply to glare and flex her wings in anger. “No? Good, because we never had that kind of relationship, Ricochet and I.”

Walking to the very edge of the path, the unicorn looked out across the lush valley below them, noting how the shadow of the mountain they climbed inched across the canopy of trees, sending them into darkness. “I'll admit that I had never really considered dating mares until meeting her, but Rico was like... I guess you could say she's like a big sister to me. That's why... that's why I felt such... disappointment at her dismissal from service.” Paladin swallowed the lump in her throat, and it was a long moment before she could find her voice to continue without quavering. “That's why I stayed away whenever I was in town. I couldn't stand to see what she had done to herself.”

“How could you do that to her? What kind of friend are you?” Knightengale hissed at her.

“The kind that kept her from being fired and jailed, but could not stand to see her in person,” Paladin replied. Knowing that her answer was just raising more questions, she added, “Several times Sheriff Tin Star called me in to take her away because he could not handle cleaning up after her drunken brawls or insubordination any longer. Every time, I managed to convince him to give her another chance despite his reservations, but every time it got harder and harder to do so.” She stood there in silence a moment before going on. “I once made the mistake of checking up on her after one such incident. Seeing her sleeping off her drunk in that pig stye she called a home made me physically sick. After that, I made it a point to avoid her if at all possible.”

Turning around, she walked past Knightengale a few paces before stopping. “I'm happy to see that she's found somepony to live for, now. You're very good for her, and I hope you'll continue to stay by her side despite how trying she can be.”

Continuing her path, she walked back to the rest of the group and said, “All right, everypony. Let's set up camp here tonight. I'd forgotten that up in the mountains, nightfall tends to come quicker than the plains. Besides,” she added, looking around at the group, most of whom looked dead tired. “I think we could all do with a little extra rest.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Ricochet watched Silver Script, clad once more in her regalia, work with something akin to awe in her eyes by candlelight, since a campfire had been forbidden as too conspicuous. With a small paintbrush held between her teeth, the earth pony deftly drew tiny runes in magical silver paint just militrots high on her bow. Though the runes were so miniscule, the special paint caused them to disappear almost as fast as they were written, making their creation a tricky proposition at the best of times. Silver Script though, made it look easy, working quickly, but without haste. Each rune flared once upon completion before disappearing entirely, but the former guard knew that such a feat was something that not many unicorns could manage, let alone an earth pony, as evidenced by the scarcity of strong magical items.

Silver Script set the brush down and recorked the inkwell containing the magical paint. “Go ahead and ask,” she said without preamble.


“Whatever it is you've been thinking about as you watched me,” Silver Script replied. She put in her monocle and studied the runes she had just written with a critical eye. “I think we've become close enough that you can at least ask personal questions. Whether or not I'll answer them is up for debate, but as long as I'm not actively runecasting, and they're not phrased rudely, I don't mind hearing them.”

Ricochet blushed prettily for such a huge, muscled mare. “Ah. Wall, I was just wondering how an arth pony casts magic an' all. Thought th' unicarns were the oonly ones tha' do tha'.”

Still examining her work on the bow, the scholar said, “Ah. Question two.”


Silver Script set the bow down and took the monocle out of her eye. Pulling aside the curtain of snow-white mane that hid her ruined left eye, she showed the other mare the milky-white orb along with the scar that bisected it on her face. “Usually, a pony's first question is about this. While I don't care if one is offended by it, I still don't like talking about it.” She let the hair drop back into place, covering the old wound again. “Painful memories. But the second question is almost always yours.

“The answer is a bit of a dichotomy, actually. I don't actually 'cast' magic, though I still make use of it.” Returning the monocle to her eye, Silver Script resumed her examination. “Technically speaking, all intelligent creatures make use of magic in one form or another. That symbol on every pony's flank of which they're so proud is actually an outward manifestation of that magic, and how it is utilized. As far as I know, ponies are the only intelligent species to have an outward manifestation like that. Some have theorized that it is because we had three patrons, but until the princesses say one way or another, it will remain pure speculation.”

“Ye mean I ha' magic in me, an' use it?” Ricochet asked incredulously.

Silver Script nodded, not taking her eyes from her meticulous work. “Mmm. Tell me. When you fire your bow, how do you stand?”

Ricochet arched an eyebrow, wondering where she was going with this line of questions. “On me hind gams, o'carse. I canna fire with me teeth.”

“And how long did it take to learn to do that? How many ponies do you know who fight like that?” the scholar asked.

Putting a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, the former guard replied, “Hmm... I've been using a bow since I was a wee filly, knee-high to a grasshopper. Dunno how long it took tae larn it. As far others, I know perhaps a hooful of others who stand like I do. Moost archers are unicarns like Pally or pegasi.”

“Did you know that an upright stance like that is unnatural for ponies? Most cannot maintain such a position for more than a second or two, and that's with training. This is especially true for a stationary standing position.” Silver Script picked up the bow and sighted along the length up at the night sky. She looked over at the archer and asked, “Don't you think that requires some sort of magic?”

“If ye say so. I dinna see it meself,” Ricochet replied.

Silver Script laid the bow across two rocks, and looked her in the eyes. The taller mare felt caught by that lone, emotionless eye that seemed to bore right into her soul. “Do you not trust magic? Not even the magic that runs throughout your own body?”

Ricochet felt ensnared and helpless before the mare's question, but could not find the will to answer her. The spell was broken when the scholar reared up on her hind legs and brought her forehooves down on the bow in an obvious attempt to break it. Eyes wide, Ricochet dived forward to try to stop her, but knew that she would be too late to stop the destruction of her most prized possession. “No!”

Hooves shod with magical shoes slammed down on the bow with enough force to snap it into kindling. Supported on two sides by the rocks, the bow bent along the grain unnaturally far, almost to the point where the two ends met. Just as Ricochet had finally reached halfway to the bow, the weapon snapped back into shape, sending Silver Script flying backwards several hooves away.

Ricochet picked up the bow, examining it for damage, but could not find any. In fact, all the old scars of damage that had been there before the scholar ever took hold of the bow were slowly mending, leaving it stronger than before. Dumbfounded, the archer whispered, “H- how?”

Silver Script got to her hooves slowly, dusting herself off. “If you cannot trust the magic I imbued into your bow, it will fail you when you need it most. The magic within you is the same way. Cease believing in yourself and you will fail. It's called the Law of Sympathy.”

“Tha'... tha' was impossible. Any bow pushed tha' far should snap, nae matter what it's made oof.” Ricochet said with quiet awe.

Silver Script gave her a quick, disappointed glance as she put her belongings back into her saddlebag, taking care to wrap her regalia in a silk cloth. “I did that just now to prove to you the strength of my runecasting. If even that was too much for you to accept, then perhaps we should stop right now. I have no intention of going to all this trouble for somepony who won't appreciate it, or worse, treat my work like it were a fragile vase. That bow is a weapon of war, and should be used thus. My magic is the same.”

As she turned away to find a sleeping spot, she was stopped by Ricochet's voice. “Thank ye. I dinna mean tae insult ye, I was just...” Silver Script said nothing, just nodded once and walked away to bed down for the night.

(\ /)
( . .)

Paladin stood dumbfounded before the wall overgrown with foliage on the side of the treacherous mountain trail. She had been trying to decipher the writing on it while waiting for the rest of her troupe to catch up, but was so far, unsuccessful. Kitten flapped up to her and landed, turning her head comically at the strange writing. “What's this say, 'abandon all hope, ye who enter here'?”

“Beats me,” Paladin replied with a shrug. For all I know, it may very well be the long lost recipe for somepony's award-winning brownies.”

Silver Script walked up and evenly said, “It's ancient Equish. It says, 'Read here'.”

Paladin arched an eyebrow at her questioningly. “That's it? Just, 'Read here'?”

“What did you find?” Awesomeshine asked as she brought in the last of the group.

Kitten pointed towards the writing and said, “It says it wants us to read here.”

Silver Bell looked confused. “What, like we should break out some books and start a discussion about them?”

“That was just a loose translation,” Silver Script clarified. “A truer translation would be, 'Look ye here, and read the truth'.”

Knightengale gasped, and Ricochet asked her, “What is it, love?”

“It's a phrase used by aganippe in the old days. It means there's a carved message here that only our echolocation can see.” Walking forward, she pulled down some creeping vines, and ran a hoof over the surface. With her mouth hanging open, she looked over the wall.

An almost-but-not-quite perceptible ringing sound could be heard by the ponies, and had them rubbing their ears, as if trying to clear a blockage. “Yeesh. I'm glad I didn't bring Lemongrab along; he'd be halfway down the mountain by now,” Kitten said.

Apparently finished, Knightengale looked to the others. “As near as I can tell, this was once a monastery of my people. When it was abandoned, they set up a number of traps and 'awoke the guardians', whatever that means.”

“You're nae sure?” Ricochet asked.

Knightengale shook her head. “It was written in an ancient form of the language. It's like ancient Equish. A lot of the words and terms have been replaced, or even faded from use entirely. Trying to read it is almost like reading another language.”Pointing up the wall, she added, “There's a secret entrance halfway up the wall, so we don't have to bother with the traps at the front entrance, at least.”

“It must be pretty well hidden. I can't see a thing from down here,” Kitten remarked.

The aganippe nodded. “It can only be opened by singing an old song in a really high pitch. Also, I'd appreciate you all keeping this secret. Non-aganippe aren't supposed to know about this.” After receiving promises of their silence, she flew up the wall until she was about twenty hooves above the trail, and began to sing, using her ultrasonic vocal apparatus. After a minute, a portal opened like an iris, revealing a hexagonal passage. A burst of stale air and dust blew in Knightengale, face, causing her to cough. She landed again, leaving the passage open.

“Open, says me!” Kitten said gleefully, obviously pleased at her pun.

Paladin looked to the still coughing mare and asked, “Could you take me up there so I can scout it out a bit? If it's clear, I'll start lifting the rest up.”

Knightengale nodded and spat out a bit of phlegm. “Sure,” she rasped. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “Sure. Should I wait for you up there or down here?”

Allowing the mare to pick her up under the forelegs, Paladin replied, “Up there. I may need to make a hasty exit.”

“All right. I'll keep an ear out over here. Just... just try to not touch anything you don't have to. This place once belonged to my people, and this feels a little too much like grave robbing as it is,” Knightengale requested.

Nodding as they landed, Paladin silently crept down the tunnel, using the light from the entrance to guide her. Coming to a corner, she encountered the first problem, a lack of light. Casting a simple light spell, she made her horn glow and continued until she came to a four-way split. She cocked her ears, trying to hear, but the only thing that registered was the slight breeze wafting past her. Not willing to risk getting lost without the others, the guard walked back to the entrance. “All clear,” she said to Knightengale and Kitten, whom had joined her.

Looking over the edge, she called down, “All right. I'm going to lift you up one at a time. As soon as you're up, move away from the entrance to make room, but don't go wandering off alone. We must stay in a group, or we may never come out of this place alive.” With that, she telekinetically lifted each of them up. She had considered leaving Silver Bell on the trail, but immediately dismissed the idea. There was no telling what might find her on the trail all alone, or even if they would be leaving the way they came in.

Turning to the others, she quietly said, “Okay, here's the marching order. Knightengale will lead so she can use her echolocation unhindered. I'll follow, then Kitten Caboodle, Silver Bell, Silver Script, Awesomeshine, and Ricochet, you'll bring up the rear in case something comes up behind us. If you have a light source, use it, because it gets dark ahead. Just be sure it leaves your hooves free. Make sure you stay with the group at all times. If you spot or hear something suspicious, alert the pony next to you. Do not, under any circumstances, go after it alone, I don't care what it is. Got it?”

Six heads nodded in agreement, and they all fell into the designated formation, the unicorn's horns lighting up to guide them. They marched along in silence, turning left at the intersection when Knightengale hesitated only a moment before deciding. An orange glow around a bend further on caused her to halt. Without looking back, she whispered, “Douse your lights. There's something ahead.”

The unicorns complied, plunging the tunnel into darkness, but as soon as their eyes adjusted, they too could see the glow. “What do you think it is?” Silver Bell whispered.

“I've got a bad feeling that I know,” Paladin replied. “Come on. Let's keep going, but quietly.” They crept along, more slowly this time until they came to the corner and peeked around it. The tunnel had collapsed into a large, open cavern. The glow came from a pool of magma over a hundred hooves below them. Stone bridges crisscrossed the cavern at many angles and levels. Now that they were this close, the heat from the molten rock was almost unbearably hot, causing them to shrink back where it was noticeably cooler. With a sigh, Paladin said, “I was afraid of this.”

Kitten held her hoof out over the broken lip, and pulled it back with a hiss of pain almost immediately. She sucked on it until Awesomeshine tapped it with her glowing horn, healing the damage. “We canna go in there! We'll roast like carn on the grill!” Ricochet said.

Wordlessly, Silver Script dug in her saddlebag and pulled out three jars, and a fourth, empty one. “I knew we could count on you to have something for all occasions, Sil,” Awesomeshine happily said, nuzzling the mare.

Silver Script gracefully accepted the affection, but did not return it. Instead, she was busy mixing pastes and gels from the three jars into the fourth in carefully measured amounts. After stirring the mixture with a wide, flat stick from her bag, she had to talk around the stick grasped in her teeth, “This will make you immune to the heat for about an hour, so long as you don't get too close to it. Get no closer than twenty hooves. Fifteen would be really pushing its tolerances, and within ten hooves, the unguent will fail utterly.” She spread the paste on the others' foreheads with the stick, leaving herself and Awesomeshine for last. “It's best to leave yourself a margin for error, and just stay away from the magma as much as possible.”

Looking over the edge, Paladin spotted a stone bridge close by. “All right. Same plan as before, just in reverse. I'll go down first and lower you all down one at a time.”

“I can carry somepony; make things go faster,” Knightengale volunteered.

Paladin chewed her lower lip a moment before nodding. “Carry them on your back though. Don't want to risk your hooves getting sweaty and dropping anyone.”

The ponies worked quickly, gathering on a stone bridge, looking all around them. “This place must be extremely well-ventilated. Noxious fumes should have overwhelmed us by now,” Silver Script commented.

With a smirk, Knightengale replied, “What can I say? My people know how to air out a cavern.”

“All right, ponies. Let's get this over with. I'd like to be out of here before Silver Script's unguent wears off,” Paladin said. She started walking across the bridge, towards an opening in the wall.

“I made enough for three more applications, if necessary,” the scholar said as she followed.

Paladin nodded as the group approached the opening. “Still, let's make this quick. No telling when we might need more of that stuff before this journey is over.”

“Indubitable,” Silver Script replied.

Silver Bell sidled up to the guard and whispered, “Sounds like she's starting to warm up to you.”

“Well, I didn't exactly make a good first impression,” she replied. When the dainty mare looked at her quizzically, she just shook her head. “Later,” she promised. A sudden, painful tug on their tails caused them to stop short and give out a yelp. “Ow! What was that for?”

Knightengale dropped their tails from her mouth and said, “You were about to step on a trigger for a trap.” She pointed towards the floor, but one section of the cobbled surface looked much like another to them. With a flap, she landed in front of them, and pointed to one particular stone set in the floor. “I saw it with my echolocation. Not sure what it would have done, but given that lake of molten rock out there, I'd rather not find out.”

Flying up beside her, Kitten gave her a piece of chalk in a mouth holder. “Here you go. Just outline the spots to avoid for the rest of us.”

With a nod of thanks, the aganippe flew on, moving slowly so as to not miss any more traps. The tunnels proved to be a maze, returning several times to the magma chamber, but they noticed that they always were moving upwards, and the passages themselves started to become shorter and shorter. Every so often, Knightengale would outline another stone, or sometimes, an entire section of the corridor as a trap. While the former was a simple matter of avoiding a small area, the latter was more time consuming, forcing the aganippe and Paladin to ferry the others across. Unfortunately, this required them to take on another dosage of the unguent, causing Paladin to frown, though she said nothing.

Eventually, they came to the top of the cavern. A bridge stretched across the magma lake over four hundred hooves below to the largest stalactite any had ever seen. The open portal on the other side of the bridge just fifty hooves away. Paladin hesitantly stepped out, and looked to Knightengale, whom had landed on the bridge, and was looking at it with worry. “There's something there, isn't there?” the unicorn whispered.

Knightengale nodded and whispered back, “Stay on alert, and as stealthy as you can. Hopefully, we can sneak past whatever it is.”

Paladin nodded and passed the word down the line. Stepping carefully, they made their way out on the stone bridge. This one seemed to be in poor repair, with sections on the side missing, and curious divots marring it's surface façade. They were less than halfway across when Silver Bell looked up to find an eye in the ceiling staring at her. She let out a loud gasp which seemed to echo among the stalactites, causing many more eyes to open up and stare at the ponies below them.

The ponies looked at her, then up at the ceiling. It was only because of this that Paladin was able to avoid the small stalactite that landed just centitrots away from where her head was just an instant before. The stalactite crashed into the bridge, gouging a huge divot. The stalactite then unfolded a set of crab-like legs from it's wide end and righted itself, pointy end up, and two eyes looked out at the pony next to it. “Piercers! Move!” Paladin shouted.

This seemed to be the signal to unleash mayhem, as dozens of the creatures fell from the ceiling, trying their best to impale the ponies; ponies who had abandoned all attempts at stealth, and instead opted for making a mad dash for the open entryway at the other end. Each step brought them closer to safety, but each second brought its own dangers as another piercer or two nearly lived up to its name. Paladin's training took over and she erected a wall of forces over the ponies' heads, sending many of the pointy creatures over the side of the bridge as they bounced off the barrier.

Just as Knightengale reached the doorway, the much-abused bridge could take no more and collapsed in the middle, and continued to do so, quickly gaining on Ricochet, who brought up the rear. In their mindless intensity, the piercers continued to rain down, hastening the collapse. The large earth pony lowered her head, and ran faster, pushing into Awesomeshine's rump, speeding her along. “Move filly, move!” she shouted, barely being heard over the noise of the bridge's demise.

The group piled through the doorway, collapsing into a pile at the far wall of the chamber. As they tried to get their heart rates under control, Paladin cried out, “Role call!”



“Um, Awesomeshine.”

“Silver Bell, here.”

“Kitten Caboodle accounted for.”

“Silver Script. Ow.”

Awesomeshine disentangled herself enough to examine her friend. “Ooo... that's a nasty sprain,” she said, trying to turn the earth pony's forehoof, but not getting far before a hiss of pain escaped her. “Unfortunately, my magical reserves are too low to heal something like this right now. Between the light spells and all this running around, I haven't had time to refresh. For now, we'll just have to make do with a compress and some pain medicine.” She took out some clean bandages and tightly wrapped the hoof. “You'll have to stay off the hoof until I can heal it; think you can manage that?”

Silver Script nodded and put some leaves in her mouth to chew. “I will be fine, thank you.”

“Let's hurry this up, everyone. The sooner we find that Element, the sooner we can get out of here,” Paladin said as the healer finished with the bandage. She pointed to the other side of the room and added, “I found some stairs over there spiraling up. We'll go up in the same order, but this time, Miss Awesomeshine, stay with Miss Silver Script in case she needs your help. Let's move out, ladies.”

They walked up the stairs, this time, Awesomeshine holding back on her light spell to rest up. At a landing on the stairs, they found a large room, whose floor was lined with curious tiles, and the walls and ceiling perforated with holes of various sizes. At the far end stood a pedestal with a now familiar stone orb decorated with a five-sided diamond shape cut into it.

Kitten was about to fly over to it, when Knightengale stopped her. “Easy there. This whole room reeks of a trap.” To prove her point, she threw a stray rock into the room, and a gust of air from the ceiling blew it down to the floor where it clattered loudly. “I suspect the floor is similarly trapped, but with more deadly mechanisms, but my echolocation can tell what's what.”

“You would be right,” Silver Script said, leaning over to examine a tile. She blew on it, clearing it of a thick layer of dust, revealing a carving of Celestia. She motioned them back and pressed the tile with her good forehoof and jumped back as a jet of flame spewed forth from a hole on one side of the room. “Give me a moment while I work out the pattern.”

She examined a dozen tiles near the doorway, noting each of the carvings. Satisfied she had figured it out after a few minutes, she said, “I believe I have it now. There are three different tiles; one of Princess Celestia, one of Princess Luna, and one of another alicorn. The safe tiles to step on are of the third alicorn.”

“A third alicorn?” Kitten queried, “I've never heard of a third alicorn princess.”

“This isn't the time nor the place to discuss this,” Silver Script replied with a shake of her head. “My unguent will be wearing off soon, and we don't know if we'll need that third application. I need to get over to that pedestal and get that stone so we can leave quickly. I suspect even taking it at all will result in another trap being set off regardless, so we'll need to move quickly.”

She stepped out onto the first tile, and when nothing happened, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Paladin said, “I'll be ready to pull you to safety once you have it.”

Silver Script merely nodded and continued along the path of mysterious tiles. Several times, her forced three-legged stance almost caused her to trip, but she caught herself in time. Jumping to the dais, she walked around the pedestal before standing in front of it with a nod. The scholar sat down and looked back. “Ready?” Receiving a nod, she turned back to the orb and drew in a deep breath. With her good hoof, she swept it off the pedestal and into the crook of her foreleg.

Immediately, an orb of force surrounded her and pulled her back, as a deafening CRACK thundered through the room from a huge crack the appeared in the ceiling, sending a shower of dust on all the ponies. Gouts of flame, jets of air, and arrows by the dozens broke over the bubble encasing the scholar as she flew back to the entrance to the room. An ominous rumble shook all the ponies to their core as the crack in the ceiling widened, snaking to every corner.

Rather than set her down again, Paladin ran out of the room, dragging Silver Script along in her bubble. The others quickly followed, heading up the stairs. “Run for it!” she shouted unnecessarily. They reached the top of the stairs as the structure started to collapse behind them. The stairs opened up into a huge room filled with pony diamond dog skeletons, obviously dying, locked in combat. Huge double door opened into a courtyard of some kind, and the ponies breathed in the late afternoon sun, even Knightengale.

Unfortunately, the rumbling had not ceased, and they looked back to see the building they had just exited collapsing. “Celestia, when is it going to stop?” Silver Bell cried out.

“Assume the whole mountain is going to go, and keep moving!” Paladin shouted. They fled the courtyard to find a steep, overgrown path down the mountainside.

“Here's our ticket out!” Kitten said, holding up a battered round shield.

“What?” Silver Bell shrieked. “How is that supposed to get us out?”

“Like this!” Kitten gleefully said, and threw the shield down on the ground, face down and jumped on it. With cheerful “Whee!”, she slid down the path on the shield, laughing at every jarring bump.

“Quick! Everyone find a shield!” Paladin said, setting Silver script down on one, and giving her a shove down the path, the dour mare's eye wide with surprise.

All the ponies did likewise, hopping onto a shield, riding it down the mountainside, most holding on for dear life, trying to outrace the collapse, which seemed intent on taking them with it. It was the most intense twelve minute ride of their lives, as seven ponies fetched up in a gully with a stream running through it.

Kitten sat up and screamed, “That. Was. Intense!” She grabbed the shield and was about to fly up the mountain, when Paladin pulled her down again.

“Wait a minute,” Knightengale said, realization dawning on her face. “You and I can fly. Why did we have to do that?”

“Duh! How many chances are we going to get to outrun a mountain collapsing while riding shield?” Kitten shot back with a huge smile. All the ponies laughed along with her, with the exception of Knightengale, who just banged her head against her shield.

Chapter 13: Zombie

View Online


Chapter 13: Zombie

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Flying was normally something that Twilight did for relaxation; an escape. On the wing, with the world a vague mass of colors far below, she found it easy to leave her problems behind for a short while, at least. High enough, and even the smells became so faint as to need extraordinary means of identifying them. Unfortunately, this flight was for entirely different reasons. Even if it were just for pleasure, the alicorn was far too angry to enjoy it.

She could still see the destroyed village in her mind. The smoking ruins had once held only civilian ponies. Not a single militant-minded soul lived in the peaceful hamlet of Farrier; indeed, many times they had refused to allow a garrison to be established anywhere near it, despite its proximity to the wilds of Draconia. They didn't even have an official sheriff, but rather acted as one body when the rare instance of a lawpony was called for. Needless to say, this made them woefully inadequate to the threat a flight of young dragons posed. Every last stallion, mare, and foal was slaughtered. Not a single living creature, down to the smallest bird escaped the carnage.

Not even all that was enough to sate the dragon's lust for destruction. Every building was burned down, most with a pony or two trapped within, every stone wall was knocked over, sometimes burying a hapless pony beneath the rubble. Twilight was certain that every pony there would be haunting her dreams for some time to come. “Ne'er again,” she had sworn over their charred and crushed bodies.

So now, she found herself speeding along towards the lair of the architect of all the misery so lately visited upon her ponies. It wasn't difficult to find her; indeed, she had known all along, but had held out hope that they would be able to work things out diplomatically. The destruction of Farrier finally showed that there would be no diplomacy, no quarter given, even if asked.

Looking down, Twilight noted that the cloud cover had become total, with the the clouds themselves taking on an ominous, dark color, and the strong rotten egg odor of sulfur permeated the air. Folding her wings in, the alicorn performed a partial wingover and dived into the clouds.

Coming through the other side, she took stock of her surroundings and regained her bearings. It took no effort at all to spot her destination, it being the largest mountain of all in the range. With a burst of speed that broke the sound barrier and created a loud BOOM, she zipped over towards it, leaving a starry contrail in her wake.

Faster than the eye could follow, she came to a stop before the mountain and casually noted the dragons guarding the cave entrance. Five green beams shot out of her horn, striking each of the surprised guards before they could lift off the ground. Within a second, the five guards were gone, replaced by five stone statues of surprised dragons wielding weapons. Twilight landed and calmly walked in, turning every dragon she saw into a stone statue.

Reaching an enormous pair of doors, she paused for a moment, before looking at the wall to her left, and her horn glowed. A huge section of the wall as large as a small pony fort was wrenched free of the mountain and flung at the doors, smashing them aside as if they were made of the thinnest of wood veneers. The alicorn strode into the room beyond as if she owned it, casually batting aside three dragons who tried to pounce on her from the shadows with her telekinesis. At the far end of the room sat a very smug dragoness who smirked at her approach.

“At last, thou hast sought me out, O, Alicorn of Magic,” Nightmare said. “Verily, I hath wond'rd what wouldst finally provoke thee.”

Twilight's eyes narrowed and she growled, “No more. Not a single pony more shall fall to your evil, monster!” With a sudden move, she lowered her head, pointing her horn at the enormous dragon, and a huge ball of white energy formed at the tip before blazing a trail towards her target. A furrow formed beneath the ball of energy as it flew, smashing into the dragoness with enough force to slam her great bulk into the wall behind her.

When the smoke cleared, Nightmare retaliated, breathing a cone of black energy at the mare, striking her with similar results. Twilight managed to hold her position for an instant, but was eventually blown back by the unearthly cold, life-draining energy. She flew back, but just before she was about to strike the wall, she disappeared with a flash, and appeared above the dragon, plummeting down onto a partially outstretched wing. With a sickening crunch, the wing bent unnaturally and Nightmare whipped her tail around to strike the mare, sending her skidding to the floor many hooves away.

Twilight stood and shook her head. She reached up to her neck with a hoof, and jerked it away, revealing a previously invisible peytral. A rainbow sphere of energy surrounded her, as her mane and tail flew upwards in the updraft of ethereal energies. The sphere exploded, clearing the debris nearby, and leaving behind a mare composed of stars. Nightmare's scales seemed to be a pale imitation of the mare's coat, as the stars twinkled, and the occasional planet or sun moved past, close enough to make out details. Her mane and tail were floating nimbi of crackling purple energy. With a scream of unbridled rage, she flew at the dragon, briefly turning into a bolt of purplish energy. Leaving behind a sonic boom, she struck the wyrm's cheek, sending her reeling.

Not one to take such attacks lightly, Nightmare recovered quickly, and muttered the incantation of six spells so fast they may as well have been simultaneous, a wall of pure force appeared each side of Twilight, trapping her in a translucent cube just barely big enough for her to stand upright.

The alicorn returned to her physical form, but kept growing. The cube filled up quickly, every wall straining to hold the mare back. The walls bowed out under the strain, until they finally burst under the strain, shattering into pieces that dissipated into nothing.

Nightmare was far from idle while her foe was trapped, and finishing up the incantation to another spell, spit out four flaming gobbets, which quickly expanded into flaming meteors that struck the mare in the chest before she had time to recover from her escape. Twilight was knocked backwards into the wall so far, that it collapsed on her.

Not daring to think she had won so easily, Nightmare cast some spells on herself, one of which was a spell to heal her wing, and was rewarded for her caution when the pile of rubble exploded and Twilight stepped forth with several boulders the size of houses floating around her. Each of the boulders was hurled at the dragoness, still covered in a purple aura of energy. Nightmare moved with a sinuous speed that she had lacked up until now, avoiding all but the last boulder, which clipped a shoulder. She ignored the pain, and rushed up to the pony, slamming one massive paw on her. She screamed as she felt her horn pierce her tough hide, but did not let up on the pressure. Instead, she ground the paw down as hard as she could, shattering the stone floor and driving the pony further down.

Her first clue that something was happening was a tingle where the horn had pierced her paw, followed quickly by the sensation of the horn going deeper- no, not deeper, the horn was growing larger. Shifting as much of her body as she could over the paw, the wyrm tried to stifle the magic she knew was happening beneath, but was overthrown, allowing the alicorn to come to her new size.

Easily larger than the one hundred-twenty hoof long dragon, and outweighing her by almost half again as much, Twilight charged, sending them both crashing into the wall and through it to the hallway beyond. Several stunned dragons stood by, awestruck at the sight of the two titanic creatures warring for dominance. Twilight kept up her charge, going through wall after wall, using the struggling dragoness as a battering ram until they were out in the open and tumbling down the mountainside in a snarling, hissing, biting, clawing, kicking mass of fury.

Nightmare finally regained control by kicking out with both hind legs into the mare and sending her flying off to crash into a boulder that came apart at the seams. Taking a deep breath, she followed up with another deadly exhalation. Twilight was ready this time, and fired another bolt of magical energy from her horn, meeting the life-draining force in the middle that had them both struggling over each other. The two energy beams pushed against each other, neither creature willing to be the one to back down first. Seconds passed with neither giving ground without regaining it again, yet the energies continued to pour forth, destroying the landscape around them. Already, the land had been quite barren, but now, topsoil, rocks, brush, and even huge chunks of the bedrock itself was being torn away by the tremendous energies pouring from the two combatants. The sky itself had cleared of all the clouds, revealing for the first time in many centuries an unobstructed view of the night sky.

Alas, whatever mysterious well of energy Nightmare had tapped seemed to be deeper than even Twilight's considerable resources. The mare's blast was slowly overwhelmed and pushed back all the way to her horn, and with a loud explosion of power, she was flung back, screaming in agony.

Limping. Nightmare walked forward to inspect the ground where her foe had been. She murmured a spell and looked all around. Seeing nothing new, she looked to the sky and noting the stars, smirked. “Another time, then, Princess.”

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Looking through the hole in the wall that had once been a window, Paladin looked to Silver Script standing next to her. “Are you sure that it's in there?”

“I am quite certain of it,” she replied, not taking her eyes off the cemetery across the street from the abandoned house in which they stood. She pulled out a stone orb with a four-sided diamond carved into it, and held it close to her chest. “I feel that it is in that cemetery, more specifically, under it. Either it was buried there, or there is a crypt or mausoleum safeguarding it for the moment.”

A shuffling movement within the mist that seemed to perpetually cling to the gloomy place drew their attention. “You realize that final resting place isn't as final as the maker intended, don't you?”

Silver Script turned away from the window and started walking back to the rest of the group, which was bedding down for the night. “Considering what we're going after, it would not surprise me if restless guardians were set in place to discourage the unworthy.”

The thing that bothered Paladin the most, was that she could find no fault in her logic.

As Silver Script laid down on her belly next to Awesomeshine, she finally took note of Kitten, whom was in the middle of telling some long joke to the others. “So I said, 'Rectum? I didn't even touch him!'” The gathered mares except for the newly arrived Silver Script laughed uproariously, Awesomeshine laying against her friend and wiping away a tear.

Paladin walked over and sat down next to Silver Bell and cleared her throat. “I think we should all bed down for the night. It will be nice to take advantage of the fact that we're out of the elements- so to speak- and get a good rest. It would also behoove us to set up guards, being that we're this close to... whatever it is out there. I'll take the first watch, so what about the rest of you?”

“Aye, I'll take second watch, cuttie,” Ricochet said right away.

“I may as well take third, it being the darkest part of the night,” Knightengale added.

“I can take fourth,” Awesomeshine said.

Paladin shook her head. “Actually, I want our healer as rested as possible. If somepony else could take fourth, we guards could at least get six hours rest, depending on how tomorrow shapes up.”

“I'll do it,” Silver Bell volunteered.

Paladin smiled at her before turning to the group as a whole. “Best bed down now. Ricochet, I'll wake you in two hours for your shift.” When the ponies had settled in for the night and the fire in the fireplace had been put out, she returned to the window and peered out into the gloomy mist that seemed to perpetually shroud the abandoned town they had found. The featureless fog began to play tricks on her eyes, making her see movement where there was none, so she finally turned away from the window, instead focusing on listening for danger. “Gonna be a long night,” she whispered to herself.

(\ /)
( . .)

The next day didn't turn out to be much of an improvement. One could only tell that the sun had risen at all because the dark, impenetrable mist had turned into a light, impenetrable mist. They couldn't tell if the sky was overcast or if it had just never bothered to rise at all. Kitten had volunteered to fly above the town to see, but Paladin stopped her. “It doesn't really matter in the long run, anyway. It's not like we could do anything about it if it is overcast.”

As if to punctuate the point, thunder rumbled in the distance and a light drizzle began to fall. “Tagann gach aon rud lena iomrá ach madadh rua agus marbhán, as me grandam used ta say,” Ricochet said.

“What does that mean?” Kitten asked as she pulled on her raincoat.

“Everything comes when it's talked about except a fox and a corpse,” she replied, doing the same.

With a roll of her eyes, Knightengale said, “Your grandmother sounds like a barrel of laughs.”

Ricochet barked a laugh that was quickly swallowed up by the mist. “Aye, she was a' tha'.”

Making some final adjustments to her spare rain cloak which she had placed on Silver Bell, Paladin said, “Alright, ladies. Let's get moving. The sooner we retrieve that Element, the sooner we can leave this place behind.”

They made their final adjustments and headed out into the perpetual fog. The short trip to the graveyard was made miserable by the unseasonable bone-chilling cold as well as the rain The only saving grace was the fact that there was almost no wind at all, so as long as they avoided puddles, they remained more or less dry.

The gate to the graveyard hung loosely on one hinge, connected to a crumbling stone wall. Rather than mess with the gate which looked ready to crumble to a pile of rust at the slightest touch, Paladin leapt over a low point in the wall that barely came up to her knees. She landed on the wet grass, noting the muted green color and wondering how it survived with no sun. The unicorn walked forward to give the others room to jump over and carefully studied her surroundings. Looking back, she whispered, “Let's try to keep this quiet, alright? I'm not sure if restless guardians, or whatever's here can even hear, but no sense in alerting them if they do, right?”

The others nodded, and they crept their way through the graveyard, Paladin leading the way, but looking back to silently ask Silver Script for directions. Every so often, one of them would spot a shadow moving through the mist, but it was too indistinct to make out just what it was. Whatever it was they saw seemed to not notice them and just shuffled along on whatever business it was about. Though they hadn't gone very far, it took them over twenty minutes before they stopped at the entrance to a crypt. Paladin looked back again and pointed at the crumbling structure questioningly.

Silver Script gave a nod in return, and the guard sucked in a deep breath. Setting her shoulders straight, she crept forward, leading six ponies into one of the last places she had expected to ever go. The crypt itself had a wrought iron gate that lay half buried in the ground next to the entrance, so entry would be no problem, but then, that was never really the problem. Standing before the entrance, decrepit stairs leading down under the ground, spiderwebs in every corner, the odd bone lying out in the open, and a dank, musty smell gave every pony there pause before they took the first step into a much darker world.

Paladin threw back her hood with a gesture, allowing her horn to light the way unfettered. The other unicorns did likewise, but Awesomeshine was restrained by Silver Script's hoof on her shoulder. Looking back, the earth pony whispered, “I have a feeling that we'll need you to save your energy. Allow me.” She pulled out a black velvet bag and using her teeth, pulled the drawstrings apart. A small, white gem floated out and began circling the scholar's head, shedding a light that went out as far as the unicorns'. Though its motion caused shadows to move as it orbited her head, none complained at the additional light source.

Small alcoves lined the walls, each one holding an altar to one of the princesses, or more rarely, some other being. At the end of the narrow corridor was a iron portcullis. As they approached it, an armored pony stepped out from one of the alcoves flanking the portal and stood in it's hind legs, holding on to a whip made of some creature's spine, possibly a pony's, judging by the length and size. The truly frightening aspect of this figure was that it lacked a head, but moved with the fluid grace of a living being. “Halt, and identify thyselves,” Came a feminine voice from one of the small alcoves nearby.

Peering around, the group spotted a unicorn mare's head sitting on one of the altars, her helm a match for the armor of the body before them. Her eyes were black pits of darkness that darted around, as if trying to see everything at once, and her mouth opened wide enough to nearly split her head in half when she spoke. Silver Bell gasped and fainted at the sight of the horror of a pony's head staring at them, expectantly awaiting an answer. The head rolled her eyes. “Pfft. Neophytes. Dost any of thee possess the courage to parley, or shouldst I just commence with ejecting thy unworthy selves from my demesne?”

Paladin held out a foreleg, barring the others from advancing, and walked forward. Stopping a few paces ahead of the others, she bowed and said, “We beg your pardon Milady, but the princesses have sent us to fetch the Elements of Harmony.” She added with a nod towards Silver Script, “My colleague, Silver Script, a scholar of considerable skill, has told us that we might find one here. May we pass to retrieve it?”

The mare's head regarded her for a moment then took every pony each in turn. Stopping at Silver Script, she said, “Dost thou fathom the nature of what thou seekest? This is no mere trinket fit only for displaying as a trophy, nor a mere tool to be locked away at one's convenience.”

Stepping forward, Silver Script walked up to the head and leaned down until their faces were level. The headless body tightened its grip on the whip, but was otherwise motionless. “Lady Dullahan, we understand the gravity of that which we seek. We would not be here if the fate of Equestria, if not the entire world were not at stake. The dragons have upset the balance, and the princesses need the Elements to right this wrong.”

The dullahan smiled widely at her, displaying an unnerving number of shark-like teeth. “I thought not,” she said, confusing the mares. “It doth seem that Celestia and Luna do not yet trust thee, yet seek to use thee as one might a sword. Still, if times were not as dire as thou say, I am certain they would have bided a time. Who am I to stand in the way of their wishes?” The body shrugged her shoulders and stood aside as the portcullis opened with a, ear splitting screech. “By all means, proceed. 'Ware the guardians. Some art not as understanding as I. And if thou doth find the other intruders that sought the prize, I wouldst not object to thee dispatching them.”

“Now what is tha' suppoosed ta mean?” Ricochet asked.

“Certs that thee shalt soon discover. The foals art no doubt finding out that my warning was as much for them as it was for my charge,” the dullahan replied.

Paladin lightly tapped Silver Bell's cheek until she woke up and said, “We're heading into the crypt now. Do you want to wait here, or do you feel well enough to come with us?”

The absurd question seemed to do the trick, bringing the mare around fully. She looked up at Paladin like she had just grown a second head. “Don't you dare.”

With a chuckle, the guard said, “Alright then, form up. We're going in, and everypony remember the rules. No wandering, and call out if you need help.” The troupe moved passed the dullahan, sparing her a fearful glance, Paladin, Awesomeshine, and Silver Script the only ones brave enough to offer a nod as they went.

When they had all shuffled past, the portcullis slammed shut, and the dullahan chuckled. “Inform me when thou art ready to leave. This gate shalt remain shut otherwise.”

The room in which they stood was filled with sarcophagi, ornate with decorations of the life of the pony that presumably resided within. The walls were filled with niches containing bones of ponies long passed. The far end of the room had an open doorway leading to a similar room, presumably with another beyond that.

Moving forward, the mares tried to ignore the fact that they were walking through what amounted to a field of the dead. Walking into the next room, the shadows seemed to cling to the corners, refusing to budge for the intruding light. As they moved toward the center, Knightengale perked her ears, certain that she heard something just on the edge of her range. Coming to a stop, she whispered, “Quiet. I hear something.” Dead silence reigned in the room as they all tried to listen, but it was only the aganippe who could make out the sound. “Something's whispering to us. Can you hear it?”

They strained, but could hear nothing. “Nae, Love. What are they saying?”

Tilting her head, Knightengale said, “They... they want us to join them, I think.”

Silver Script walked up and stuffed her ears with a pasty substance, then did the same for the others starting with Awesomeshine. “This beeswax has been blessed and enchanted to prevent our minds from being affected by undead suggestions. It may hinder our normal hearing a bit, but it is better then being entranced by a vampony or some such. We will also want to keep Awesomeshine well guarded at all times, since healing magic is their bane.”

“Anything else we should know before we proceed?” Paladin asked.

Silver Script pondered for a moment before saying, “Yes. Do not let them hit you.”

Rolling her eyes, Paladin replied, “Brilliant. Let's be about it, ladies.” The next room held two different passages, as well as a hole in the wall that looked like it led to the surface. Examining the mound of dirt that had spilled in, she said, “Looks freshly turned. And these tracks...”

“Minotaurs?” Knightengale ventured.

Paladin nodded. “And diamond dogs. No dragon though, so that's a good sign. Hard to tell how many, though.” Looking to the doorway to the left, she said, “Let's go that wa-” Her voice caught in her throat as she saw a desiccated pony corpse standing there. Red, glowing points of lights filled its empty eye sockets, and it moved stiffly towards them. She could see several more shuffling behind the first, moving towards the room with the living ponies. “Uh, on second thought, let's go down the other passage.”

The group moved quickly into the next room down, trying to ignore the pony corpses sitting up from their resting places to look at them, and just as quickly moved on. The corridor they walked into was a long and winding one, with many splits and turnoffs, but Silver Script kept them moving, presumably in the right direction. Several times, a shadow would detach itself from the floor or wall, but at Silver Script's direction, Awesomeshine would hit it with a beam of healing energy, dissipating the incorporeal monster. As the creature disintegrated, it would give a moan that almost could be mistaken for a sigh of relief.

“What are they?” Kitten asked.

“Wraiths,” Silver Script answered. “They feed on your life force until you die, allowing your spirit to free itself from the body, becoming one of them. Afterward, you are doomed to roam the land, looking for more living beings to feed off of to sate an insatiable hunger for a life you can never again have, all the while spreading misery as you create more like your-”

“Please stop! Just stop it, please!” Silver Bell shrieked, her eyes closed, and hooves over her ears.

Kitten laid a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “It's okay, she didn't mean to scare anypony; she was just answering my question.”

Silver Script nodded. “Yes. I apologize for any discomfort.”

They continued on in silence after that, which is how they were able to hear the fighting further down the passageway. The ringing sound of metal weapons clashing punctuated by the whining call or bark of diamond dogs were clearly heard. The ponies sped up while trying to remain as quiet as possible. Rounding a bend, they found a room at the far end where a group of diamond dogs appeared to be making a final stand against a hoard of undead ponies, mostly fast-moving, partially decayed corpses. The creatures were huddled around a column that seemed to be one of many in the room from where they stood.

“Ghouls,” Silver Script said. “Their attacks can paralyze you if they draw blood, so be especially careful.”

They charged into the room, Ricochet and Paladin leading the way and firing their weapons at the surprised ghouls, who were not expecting this attack from their rear. Awesomeshine downed one herself before Silver Script stopped her. “Save your energy. I fear we will need it most of all soon.”

The rest of the ponies took care of any ghouls that got too close, mostly with kicks. The diamond dogs were terrified at first to see more ponies, but quickly changed their tune when they saw them only attacking the undead, and appearing to be alive. Seeing reinforcements, however unexpected the form, they redoubled their efforts, gesturing for the ponies to join them.

The two groups merged, and the ponies finally took a look at the room in which they stood. The enormous room must have stretched on for twenty hooves on each side, with the back wall being easily over a hundred hooves away. Columns turned the space into a sort of underground stone forest, and were ornately carved with scenes of alicorns performing great deeds. The far end held an altar with a the Element of Harmony they were searching for- this one bearing carving that looked like an emerald-cut gem. Behind that stood an open glowing portal surrounded by an iron ring that was designed to resemble a great, yawning mouth with pointy fangs, where every few seconds, another pair of ghouls would emerge.

Paladin looked to Silver Script and shouted, “Can you do anything about that?”

“Yes, but it will take me a moment to prepare the elixir,” she replied. Looking to Ricochet, she said, “Can you shoot an arrow with a bottle attached?”

With a nod, she said, “Aye, though it's nae easy. Wha' do ye need me tae hit?”

“That iron ring around the portal,” Silver Script said as she started mixing potions.

Ricochet nodded again and handed her an arrow. “Aye. T'is nae far. I was worried ye'd ask far soomething hard,” she said with a grin, before turning back to turning ghouls into pincushions.

One of the diamond dogs was paralyzed by a strike from a ghoul, but Awesomeshine instantly cured him with her magic. “I don't know how much longer I can keep this up, everyone. Between taking care of all those wraiths, and keeping us all from being paralyzed, I can feel my magic running low.”

“Just a moment...” Silver Script said, pouring a carefully measured amount of a smokey substance- the final ingredient- into a small bottle, her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth as she concentrated. “There.” She attached the bottle side of the arrowhead with twine quickly, then hoofed it over to Ricochet, whom had a hoof out waiting for it. “Be careful not to get any of the liquid on your bow, or it will disenchant it, and I'll have to start over with a new bow.”

With a nod, she nocked the arrow, she drew back and sighted along the arrow, then moved her sight up a little to compensate for the extra weight. Muttering a prayer to Celestia and Luna, she let fly. The arrow swooped through the air, whistling as it went, drawing every being's attention, alive an undead. For a moment, it looked like the missile was going to overshoot, but the head dipped down sharply, shattering the bottle on the peak of the iron ring. The liquid splashed onto the ring, and began dripping its way down it. Where it touched, the portal grew dim and flickered. Within a few seconds, over half of the ring had been coated, and the portal went out completely just as a foreleg stuck through and was severed neatly.

With the continuous influx of more undead, the rest were easy prey to the combined might of the ponies and the dogs. When the last was killed, the two groups regarded each other warily. “So, what now?” Paladin asked, her wands not pointed at anyone, but still in her hooves. Ricochet was down to three arrows, and everyone on both sides were exhausted.

One of the dogs looked to the others, all of whom nodded. “We go home. Lick wounds. We no find silly rock for masters, so we go now. Understand, ponies? No fight?”

Paladin smiled, careful to show no teeth. “We understand. Rock already gone.”

With that, the pack left, watching the ponies as they did until they had disappeared entirely. Walking up to the altar, Silver Script examined it carefully before picking it up.

“Well. That went better than expected,” Kitten said jovially.

Chapter 14: Rock of Ages

View Online


Chapter 14: Rock of Ages

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Something was definitely wrong. It wasn't anything that could be sensed, but it was definitely felt by Sirius. He sniffed the air as he padded along, trying to find just what it was. As expected, Procyon came up to him and whined as she nuzzled him. “What is it?”

“Can thee not feel it?” he asked her. “There is a wrongness in the air tonight; something that could threaten us all.” He continued his hunt, sniffing all the way, still unable to pinpoint the feeling. Procyon walked alongside him for a bit before putting her own nose to work. He looked over at her, but said nothing and smiled before returning to his search.

The search continued for some time, but eventually bore fruit. His sensitive nose caught a hint of something familiar. Looking over to his mate, he asked, “Dost thee smell that?”

She nodded and said, “T'is faint, but there is something there. I thought it a fevered imagining at first, it was so weak. Celestial blood hath been spilled this night. Dost thou think one of the starbeasts hath been wounded in a melee?”

“Let us hope that is the matter,” Sirius replied, tracking down the smell. They continued in silence for a time before coming across the first pool of blood. What was most worrisome was the substance the blood was made of; a dark purplish liquid that sparkled with a light all its own. The two starhounds shared a look, then continued their tracking, this time at a greatly increased pace. As far as they knew, only one creature's blood looked like that.

Their fears were confirmed when they came across the huddled form of Twilight, lying in a pool of her own blood; even more telling, she was in her unfettered mortal form. They rushed forward, and sniffed at her still form. Sirius crept forward and nuzzled her with a whine, then licked her face. It took a few seconds, but the mare stirred and opened her eyes. “S- Sirius?”

“Aye, Milady, t'is I and Procyon. What hast laid thee so low?”

Twilight gave a weak shake of her head and tried to stand. “No time. I must... I must find father. He will... he will know.”

Sirius laid down next to her, heedless of the blood. “Lean on us, Milady. We wilt aid thee in thy trek to thy father.” Procyon got on the other side and together, they were able to help her to her hooves.

Keeping her propped up between them, the three made their way through the firmament. “My thanks to you both. Of all my children, thou art the most loyal,” Twilight said weakly.

The two starhounds actually started glowing under her praise, and suddenly felt ten times stronger. “We art just glad to be of some service, however small... mother.”

Twilight kissed them both on their crowns, making them glow even brighter. After a good length of walking, the other stars started to fade until it was just the three of them in a sea of blackness. The mare stopped, causing the two starhounds to come to a halt as well. “I thank thee, but I must go alone from here. Where I must travel, only immortals may tread safely.” They whined and nuzzled her, but she remained firm. “I am sorry, my children, but you may go no further. I shalt return as swiftly as I can, but you may await me here if thou so desires.”

Reluctantly, they sat down where they stood and watched her as she spread her great wings and flew off into the dark. When she became too small to see, they laid down next to each other, and nuzzled each other.

(\ /)
( . .)

Twilight flew on, flapping her wings, despite there being no air against which they might act. She flew for what felt like an eternity until she felt a comforting presence that she hadn't realized she missed until this moment. “Mother!”

“Yes, my daughter, I am here.”

It wasn't until this moment that Twilight realized just how accustomed she had become to the ways of the mortals. “This may sound passing odd, but... couldst thou take corporeal form, mother? I find it easier if you...”

An all white alicorn formed from motes of lights in front of her, and the two embraced as ponies for the first time. “That does feel rather nice, doesn't it? I can see why you took these forms now, but why do you speak so oddly?”

“It doth- excuse me mommy. It is the way the mortals speak at the moment. In the past, they communicated in a much more crude language, but lately, they have become rather poetic, embedding their speech with flourishes. It's rather nice once one gets used to it,” Twilight replied. Shaking her head, she asked, “Where is daddy? I have an important question for him.”

The white mare sighed sadly. “I suppose it was too much to hope that you were back to visit your neglected parents. I presume this has something to do with those 'mortal' things Celestia found?”

Twilight nuzzled the larger mare again, causing her smile to return. ”I am sorry, mommy, but yes, it does. Something troubling has happened in Equestria, and I need to see if my suspicions are true.”

“Does it have anything to do with you almost losing your mortal body?” her mother asked, concern giving her voice a worried tinge.

Surprised, Twilight asked, “How did you...” She shook her head. “Never mind. It doesn't matter. Where is daddy?”

“I am here, My Dawn.”

Twilight turned around to see an alicorn stallion whose appearance was ever changing whenever one looked away from him. One moment he was a newborn foal, the next, a decrepit skeleton, barely able to stand on wobbly legs, and anywhere in between. His actual details like his colors, physique, and even voice were indistinct, as if he couldn't decide on just one form. Twilight looked at him with tears in her eyes. She hesitantly approached him and asked, “I know how much you hate revealing things, especially to those of us who chose to deal with the mortals, daddy, but I have to ask...”

“Why do you seek me out to answer questions to which you already know the answer?” has asked with a smile.

Twilight bit her lip and looked down. “I was hoping you would tell me that I was wrong; that the power I felt had nothing to do with him.”

Her mother put a comforting hoof over her shoulder and hugged her close. “It's okay to say his name, you know. He's not nearly as bad as you think. Even performs a valuable service.”

Twilight looked at her like she had just grown a second head. “How can you say that? Discord is nothing but destruction disguised as a joke.”

Her father placed a hoof on her head and ruffled her mane affectionately. “Like his sister Entropy, Discord serves a very important purpose in the universe. Without either of them, We could not make way for new things. Besides, sometimes- not very often, I'll admit, but sometimes- something new and wonderful comes of their actions. Won't you reconsider your punishment? Stifling chaos will only make it fight back harder.”

Twilight weighed his words carefully, knowing that Time never wasted his breath. “I'll... I'll talk to Celestia and Luna about it. It's not my decision to make alone, and I'm not sure we can forgive him after what he did to Draco and Ursa.”

“My Dawn, you don't know what he did to them,” Time replied.

Twilight looked up at him with hope in her eyes. “Will you tell me?”

Shaking his head, Time answered, “It is not my place to say.”

Twilight pushed herself away from her parents. “I better go now. I have much to do if I am to counter what Discord has unleashed.” She kissed them both on the cheeks and turned to leave. “I love you both! I'll make Celestia and Luna come visit more often!” Waving as she flew off, she disappeared into the void.

Time put a foreleg over his wife's shoulders and brought her close for comfort. She looked up at him and asked, “Will it really be that long? I know that millennia mean little to us, but after this last separation, this just seems...”

“I know, but there is nothing to be done. The wheels have been set in motion, and all we can do is sit back and watch,” Time replied.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Poking carefully through the remains of the small cart, Paladin winced as she came across a pony doll and picked it up. It was made from rags with buttons for eyes and yarn for a mane and tail, but it looked well-cared for, if a little worn. Silver Belle came up and saw the doll. Taking it from her gently, she said, “So no sign, then?”

Paladin shook her head sadly. “No, but no blood either. Judging by the possessions scattered about, I would say four to five ponies were here; a family, most likely. I think they were taken alive at least, though I'm not sure if that makes their situation better, or worse.”

Silver Belle put the doll in her saddlebag, then laid a hoof on hers, patting it gently. “Better, because it means there's hope for rescue.” Paladin shared a wistful smile with her, but said nothing.

Ricochet returned from her patrol and walked up to Paladin. “The tracks stop dinna goo past the wreckage, but I found soomething ye need to see.” She led them both around to the far side of the pile of scrap that was once a wagon. She pointed down at the ground, confusing Silver Belle, but making Paladin bite her lower lip.

“What is it?” the chambermaid asked.

“Dragon tracks,” the archer said simply. Silver Belle gasped and covered her mouth with a hoof.

Paladin turned away, saying, “Pull everypony in. If there's a dragon still in the area, we don't want to get picked off alone. We'll continue from her as before.”

“What about the ponies taken from here?” Silver Belle asked.

Paladin whirled back, tears in her eyes. “What else can we do? We don't know where they were taken, their numbers, the number of enemies, or anything else. We're decent trackers, but we're not so good that we can follow a creature that's taken to the air.” Her expression softened and she walked back to hug her. “I don't mean to be cruel, love, but without some clue that we could follow immediately apparent, we would waste a lot of time trying to rescue a few ponies and end up costing even more ponies their lives by delaying to search for a clue. The best we can do is to hope that we stumble across something as we go. Believe me, it pains me even more to make this decision, than it does for you to hear me make it, but it needs to be done.”

Silver Belle sobbed into the sandy guard's mane and nodded.

(\ /)
( . .)

Looking down at the map, Silver Script hummed quietly to herself and nodded. She looked to the sky again, holding up a sextant and measured the angle of the sun. Nodding with satisfaction, she took a bit of charcoal in her hoof and carefully placed a dot on the map.

Awesomeshine looked over her shoulder and tilted her head as she tried to make sense of the numbers the earth pony had scribbled on the edge of the map. “Oh, is that where we are?” she asked, pointing to the newest mark added to the parchment.

“Actually, that's where we were last week,” she answered. Pointing to the other dots, she added, “That's where we were three weeks ago, and that's from a five weeks ago. I take it you notice the pattern?”

Tilting her head to the side, the unicorn looked at the dots before it hit her. “We're going in a big circle around Equus!”

Silver Script nodded as she rolled up the map. “Correct. It seems the princesses wanted the Elements within easy reach, but not too close together. This begs the question, 'why?'. Surely they would want something so powerful close at hoof, so why spread them out like this, rather than under their personal guard?”

“Are they dangerous if they're too close together?” she ventured.

“Doubtful,” the scholar said with a shake of her head. “Harmony would only be dangerous to beings of chaos and strife. Besides, we've been walking around with three of them for sometime now, but the most they've done is allow us to find the rest, much to my disappointment.”

“Maybe their power is too easy to spot when all five are together?” Awesomeshine suggested.

“Perhaps. That may even be a consideration in their decision, but from what I've learned by studying them, I doubt it's the sole or even deciding factor. No, there is some other reason behind all this; I just have yet to work it out.” Silver Script put the map back in her saddlebag and took a pull from her canteen.

Awesomeshine walked beside her as they rejoined the rest of the group as they got back to their hooves after their noon rest break. It had taken a few days, but after having to take an entire day to recover from overexertion, the healer had convinced Paladin that they needed to allow for the less physically able among them to grow accustomed to life on the run. “So, how much further to the next one? You said you were getting used to using them, right? Any ideas on how much further?”she asked, piquing the interest of the rest of the assembled ponies.

“We should reach it either today, or the next,” Silver Script replied simply.

“Then let's get moving,” Paladin said, obviously excited. “The sooner we get them to the princesses, the sooner we can get things back to normal... or at least, as normal as possible considering the circumstances,” she amended.

The group was somewhat cheered by this prospect, happily continuing their trek, but a cloud of doubt and sadness over what they had lost hung over them, casting a shadow over their moods. Even the ever cheerful Kitten Caboodle was a bit subdued. All of them were wondering if they could ever regain anything resembling their old lives. They were also wondering how they were going to find the Element the dragons had stolen, but that was a problem that they had no conception of how to tackle.

By late afternoon, they were nearing the last hidden vault containing an Element of Harmony. The spring had returned to their steps, and they were eager to tackle this newest challenge, but what they found waiting for them took all the wind from their sails. The entrance appeared to be a simple doorway ringed with carvings of skulls to ward off the curious built into a cliff side. However, that wasn't what gave them all pause. It was the very large, dark purple dragon lying on her stomach in front of the entrance. She was easily thirty hooves long, if not longer, and looked very familiar to the gathered ponies. It was Paladin though, who finally pieced it together for the rest of them. “Brimfrost,” she whispered.

“What?” Ricochet gasped. “How? She was a wee bampot last we saw compared to tha'! How did she get soo blasted big?”

Silver Belle could not take her fearful eyes from the wyrm as she asked, “Are you sure it's her, and not some other dragon that looks like her?”

Paladin nodded. “Yeah. I recognize the scars I put on her wings. One of them hasn't even properly healed up yet. Not sure how she did it, but somehow, she's grown to more than twice her original size since we last saw her those few weeks ago.”

“The question then becomes,” Knightengale interjected, “can we still take her if it comes down to a fight?”

“What is that she's playing with?” Awesomeshine asked, squinting at the distant form of the serpent.

Silver Script slipped on her monocle. “It's a filly,” she said in a carefully controlled tone

(\ /)
( . .)

Brimfrost smiled as she let the tiny baby pegasus cavort amongst her talons. “Perhapsss I ssshould keep you for myssself. You are quite entertaining, little one, and it'sss unlikely your parentsss will return, yesss...” The filly hugged one of the talons, not even able to put her stubby forelegs halfway around the weapon. Bringing her head down, the dragoness flicked her tongue out and caressed the tiny cheek, causing the filly to giggle.

A movement at the forest line caught her attention, and one eye swiveled to see that unicorn guard into whom she kept running walking out in the open. “Finally decccided to ssstop talking about me and confront me directly, have you? Not going to bring out your little friendsss?” The mare looked surprised at this, and the dragoness pressed on. “Oh, yesss. I heard you all plotting out there, and it might have even worked... had you encountered me before my mistresss bessstowed her gift upon me.”

Paladin paused, but resumed her calm walk into danger, even though the plan (bad as it was) was uncovered before it could even be attempted. “What are you doing with that filly?”

Brimfrost circled an arm around the filly in question, blocking Paladin from her sight. “Her parentsss and I are exchanging favorsss, if you mussst know. I agreed to watch her for them, while they fetch for me a little trinket from thisss nasssty little vault, yesss. Asss you've no doubt noticcced, the entranccce isss far too sssmall for sssomeone of even my sssvelte proportionsss. Though,” she added with mock thoughtfulness, “depending on how capable they are, I may just end up keeping her for myssself, yesss. I've always wanted a pet for myssself.”

You're the one who attacked that wagon,” Paladin said through clenched teeth.

With a smile, Brimfrost replied, “Oh, ssso you found that, did you? Negotiationsss were a little... rocky at firssst, but we eventually sssettled on a mutually beneficccial agreement, yesss.”

“Let them go,” she said, advancing menacingly, which amused Brimfrost greatly.

“Are you offering to go in their placcce? I would much rather have experienccced tal- er, hoovesss, sssince you would have a greater chanccce of sssuccesss without me having to go find more... volunteers.” Brimfrost picked up the filly who giggled again and stepped back from the entrance before settling down again. “By all meansss, help yourssself; though you may want the help of your friendsss in there.”

Paladin stared at her smug grin for a moment before turning to the forest and gave a huge wave. Six ponies hesitantly came out of the woods and slowly made their way over. The guard met them halfway and explained the situation to them. “We have to help them. They didn't have anything to do with this. They were just caught up in something that was beyond them.,” Awesomeshine said with a grim look.

“O' carse we'll help them,” Ricochet said. “But do we really want to help her?” She jerked her head towards the dragon, leaving no room for doubt about whom she was talking.

Silver Script touched her saddlebag and said, “I don't think we have much choice. We cannot let innocent ponies get hurt while we have a chance to prevent it, especially children.”

The others noted where her hoof lay and nodded. They walked over to Brimfrost, who had not taken her eyes off of them, nor lost her grin, but was flipping the filly across her fingers like a coin. The filly seemed to be enjoying this, and was laughing as she went from one finger to the next.

Paladin stepped in front of the group and said, “You promise you'll let them go if we get this thing for you? Swear on your hoard?”

Brimfrost rolled her eyes and sighed. “Fine. I ssswear on my hoard that they may go free onccce you have delivered to me the artifact I ssseek. Now do run along; no telling what sssort of trouble they've gotten into all alone. I ssso dissslike working with amateursss, yesss.”

Reluctantly, the ponies filed past her, all but Silver Script giving her a glare. She locked gazes with the mare, and her eyes narrowed, briefly glowing as she cast a spell. The contact was broken by a wall as the pony rounded a corner.

The corridor itself wasn't all the big, barely large enough to allow Ricochet to walk without ducking; she definitely would not be firing her bow in there. They walked the passage in silence, except for the clopping of their hooves on the stone floor. It twisted and turned many times, so much so that a few times, they wondered if they had wandered into some sort of never-ending labyrinth with no branches. Along the way, they found evidence of sprung traps; blades half extended from narrow slits in the walls or floor, recent damage from splashes of what could only be acid, according to Silver Script's trained nose, scorch marks from activated spells, and more had to be navigated around.

“It looks like whoever came before us was either very lucky, or knew what they were doing,” Kitten observed. “Some of those blades had blood on them, but not a lot, and I haven't seen any on the floor.”

A scream of pain from further down the corridor prompted all the ponies to throw caution to the wind and dash ahead. “Soonds like their luck just ran oot,” Ricochet said as they ran.

Nopony admonished her for her lack of tact, but they all came to a halt in a pile when Silver Script tripped over something as they rounded another corner to find an earth pony stallion on the ground while a pegasus mare and young earth pony colt stood over him, crying and urging him to hold on. A thin javelin lay on the ground next to him, its tip coated in a green substance as well as a bit of blood. All three of them looked cut up and burned, but judging from the swelling on the stallion's foreleg, it looked like he was in the worst shape.

Awesomeshine struggled to the top of the pile and leapt over to the distressed ponies, already casting a basic diagnostic spell. “Hold on, I'm a trained healer! Let me see him!” the unicorn gently, but firmly shoved the mare aside to get a good look at the wound and sucked in air between her teeth. “This is bad. I'm not sure I have enough antidote to help him pull through. This basilisk poison may be old, but it's still potent.”

The healer pulled out a bottle and eyed the pinkish liquid in the clear bottle carefully, mentally calculating how much she would need. With a shrug, she pulled out the cork and emptied the entire contents into the prone stallion's mouth. She massaged his throat to help him swallow, and the petrification process that had begun to stiffen his limbs reversed. Awesomeshine sighed in relief and visibly relaxed. “Okay, it looks like we were in time. He'll be sore and stiff for a while, but he'll live. Was anypony else seriously hurt?”

The mare and colt hugged the stallion and cried. “Thank you, Miss. You must be an angel sent from Celestia and Luna. If there's anything we can do for you, just ask, and it's yours,” the mare said around her tears. Silver Script was the last up from the pony pile, but didn't join the others checking on the wounded family. Instead, she bent down to examine the floor and what she had tripped over, causing the pileup in the first place. Looking at the object carefully, she nodded and slipped it into her saddlebag, fiddling with it in the bag while the others became acquainted with the newcomers.

“It was awful,” the new mare was sobbing to the others. “That beast swooped down on us from the sky and demanded we go with it to fetch something for it. It has... It has our baby!” she shouted at them.

Paladin stepped forward and patted her on the shoulder. “Easy there, Ma'am. We're here to help. We won't let her do anything to harm any of you, especially your foals.” I want you three to stay here and let the rest of us move on to get the... what is it she's after?”

“A stone orb, Miss; about this wide.” She held her hooves up, almost a hoof apart.

Paladin bit back an angry retort. “I was afraid if that. Well, stay here while we fetch it. Then, we'll work on getting you and your whole family somewhere safe, okay?” The distraught pegasus nodded, and the seven adventurers moved on, further down the passage. They had walked carefully for over twenty minutes, fully expecting for another trap to be sprung. However, nothing of the kind happened, only ratcheting up their anxiety.

They were surprised when they came to a dead end without encountering a single trap. The dead end was around a bend, and contained a single pedestal holding up the now familiar orb, this one bearing a carving of an eight-sided gem. Silver Script and Kitten both examined it without touching it. After a thorough inspection, they nodded to each other, and Silver Script took it in hoof and gave it to Paladin. “This should be your decision. It is your mission, after all.”

With a nod, Paladin accepted the rock, and they started their trek back. They picked up the ponies along the way and carefully made their way to the entrance. Brimfrost grinned widely as they exited the vault, stone in hoof. Paladin levitated it up to her and placed it in the dragoness's paw. “There you go. Now for your end of the bargain,” she said with a glare.

Brimfrost's smile became even wider, if that was even possible, and she lowered her paw with the filly to the ground. “I am a dragon of my word, if nothing elssse,” she said. The filly looked around dazedly and hugged the Brimfrost's talon before flitting over to her mother, whom greeted her with smiles and tears. Looking at the mare, or rather, the filly in the mare's arms pointedly, she added, “Now why don't you run along. I have other thingsss to dissscusss with thessse... helpful maresss.”

Heeding discretion, the family of four stumbled into the forest as quickly as the stumbling stallion could manage. When they disappeared, Brimfrost looked down at the gathered mares. “Now, then. I believe you have sssomething I want. Sssomethingsss, rather. Give me the three other ssstonesss, and I'll let you go free. Defy me, and I'll kill you all, ssstarting with...” Her voice hung on that last word, and her talon waved around as if she was making a tough decision. “,” she said, pointing at Awesomeshine.

The ponies bristled, and Paladin shouted, “Think again, scaly. If you think we're just going to give you these stones, you got another thing coming.”

“Tha's right. We can take ye,” Ricochet added, her chest puffing out.

Silver Script pulled out the bag she had been using to hold the Elements separate from all her other belongings and held it in her hoof. “Do you swear on your hoard and your eggs to let us go unharmed?”

The other ponies gasped and stared at her in shock, except for Awesomeshine, who said, “No! Don't do it, Sil! We can't let her have them!”

Silver Script locked eyes with the dragoness once more and said evenly, “Swear it, or they go back in my bag of holding and I slit it open, emptying the contents into the Astral plane, forever losing them.”

“It'sss ssso nice to deal with reasssonable beingsss, yesss,” Brimfrost said. Raising a paw, she said, “I ssswear on my hoard and my eggsss that I will allow no harm to befall any of you.”

“For as long as any of us live,” Silver Script added.

Brimfrost arched an eyebrow and thought for a moment. “How long can a pony live? Agreed, but only you ssseven, no one elssse.” Silver Script threw the bag, and the dragon tore it open, examining the three stones. With a smile, she nodded to them. “A pleasssure doing busssinesss with you all.” Spreading her great wings, she took to the air, leaving five mares to glare at one, and the last smiling at her.

“So what did you do, Sil?” Awesomeshine asked, confusing the rest.

“What do you mean?" Knightengale asked.

Reaching into her other saddlebag, she pulled out the first Element of Harmony they had found to their gasps of surprise. “Do you really think I would just give up the Elements after all that work? I used some magical clay that I had created that can imitate other magical effects, and plastered it around a stone I found in the vault. With the right runes, it can imitate almost anything, to a point. I think they'll have a nasty surprise when they try to do anything with them.”

Paladin patted her on the back, almost causing her to drop the Element. “I'm sorry I ever doubted you. You are really something else, Sage Silver Script.”

Chapter 15: Separate Ways

View Online


Chapter 15: Separate ways

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Standing before the chalkboard, Twilight inspected her equation again, looking for the fatal flaw in her calculations. She knew that one must exist, or she would have figured this out by now. The daunting wall of symbols and numbers would have scared off all but the most studious and serious students of magic, separating the wheat from the chaff. Not finding anything wrong with the equation itself, she instead moved over to the mental diagram she would need to use in order to cast the spell itself.

She was still examining it with a critical eye when Nyx walked in to the library's main laboratory. “I thought I'd find you here. What are you working on this ti-” The sphinx's voice caught in her throat as her eyes landed on the hideously complex mental diagram, one on which she had hoped she wouldn't have to lay eyes again for a long time. Swallowing, she walked up to the chalkboard, and not for the first time, she regretted ever agreeing to help the alicorn with this project. “This again?”

“I am certain I hath erred somewhere, but its location yet confounds me!” Twilight said angrily, slamming down the chalk in her magical grasp back into the tray.

Nyx was taken aback by this show of anger from the normally gentle mare, and her feelings of guilt redoubled. Hesitantly, she laid a paw over a forehoof and asked, “What is this really about? What's got you so upset that you're willing to take it out on innocent objects?”

With a sigh, Twilight leaned into her friend, causing the librarian to blush furiously. “I cannot let this go on for any longer. Every day that she is allowed her freedom, more and more ponies and other creatures- even her own dragons- suffer. She must be stopped, no matter the personal cost!”

Guilt and grief warred for control of Nyx's heart, but in the end, it was that she could no longer stand to see Twilight suffer that was the deciding factor. Picking up the chalk in a paw-turned-hand, she walked up to the board and calmly erased a four, replacing it with a three in one spot, and added a notation mark above another magical symbol before replacing the chalk and stepping back.

Twilight examined the new formula several times, mumbling it under her breath. With a shout of joy, she said, “Nyx! You hath done it! This is the answer for which we hath been searching! I ne'er thought to use the Starswirl Principle, but it doth fit so elegantly!” She grabbed the sphinx in a hug and jumped around in joy, but the librarian was unable to enjoy the sensation; not after giving the mare of her dreams the weapon needed to destroy herself that she had been holding back for months.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Brimfrost stood in the ruined throne room, holding out the Elements she had extorted from the ponies, and giving Nightmare her first good look at them. The enormous dragoness was salivating at the thought of what she would do with the artifacts. Casting a simple cantrip, she lifted the stones from the much smaller dragon's paw, holding them up to her eye, inspecting each with a critical eye.

“Aye, thou hath served me well, my loyal minion,” she said quietly. “I do believe this calls for an appropriate rewar-” She halted mid-word as she came to the final orb, scrutinizing it with magically enhanced senses. Flicking out a huge tongue, she wrapped it around the stone, tasting its magic. In a sudden flurry of action, she backpawed Brimfrost, sending her flying over twenty feet to come to a sudden halt as she struck on of the few intact walls and fall to the ground as she bounced off.

”FOOL!” she shouted at the now cowering wyrm. “You've been hoodwinked!” Holding up the false Element of Harmony between two claws, they could both see the clay exterior falling away revealing a chunk of granite underneath.

Turning away from Brimfrost, she looked to a shadowed corner of the room and said, “T'would seem that thou hath been given an opportunity after all, my hunters.”

A scarred, mostly black and blue griffoness stepped out of the shadows and bowed. “We shall need a description of the ponies involved and their last know locations, Your Imperial Majesty. With those, we will return with the artifact you seek, or not at all.”

Nightmare ran a claw tip under the griffoness's chin, whose only emotion was a slight flinch at the contact. “Ah, my sweet Gunmetal. I knew I couldst rely on thee. Assemble thy hunting party. I am sure Brimfrost would be elated to tell thee all she knows about the ponies in question. Howe'er, I would like a little time with her to... discuss her failure.”

As the griffoness left the battered throne room, Brimfrost's screams were already echoing throughout the central complex.

(\ /)
( . .)

“Out of all the dumb ideas you've had, I think that this one is the absolute dumbest.”

Paladin paused in the act of taking off her armor to look over at Silver Belle. “Sorry about that, but it has to be this way. Out of all of us, only Knightengale and I have any experience at infiltrating, and no offense to her, but an aganippe is too noticeable for our purposes right now.” She pulled her breastplate over her head and carefully set it down next to her vambraces, wishing she could at least take those with her, but the armor of a Royal Guard was just too recognizable.

“So you're literally going into the minotaur's den totally unarmed, unarmored, and alone?” The chambermaid walked over and picked up one of the vambraces. “Won't you at least take your wands?”

Gently taking the piece of armor from her hooves, she kissed her on the cheek, causing them both to blush. “Where would I hide them? They're rather noticeable, you know. Besides, it's not like I need them to use offensive magic, they just help me focus it more precisely.”

Silver Belle foundered, trying to come up with a more credible reason to keep the unicorn from leaving on what was essentially suicide mission, but could come up with nothing more persuasive than “you'll die”. Unable to even look at her anymore, her eyes cast downward. “Is this how it will always be with us? You going off into the mouth of danger while I sit back and worry if you'll come back to me alive?”

Paladin enveloped her in a hug, hating herself for hurting her as she felt the mare's tears stain the coat on the back of her neck. “Belle, I have to do this. We're dangerously low on supplies and this minotaur town may be our last chance to lay in some more before we cross over into dragon territory. Now, the fewer ponies that go, the less chance of us being caught.” Pulling back so that she could see her face, but not letting go, she added, “Believe me, I'd rather not go at all, but Awesomeshine needs those herbs, and Silver Script says that she can extend our food supplies if I can manage to get a hold of some honey,” She still had no idea how that would be managed, but whatever worked, “so if I can do that, then it's my duty to do so.”

Ricochet walked up at that moment and said, “I've been thinking it oover, and I think she has the right of it. Better to joost skart the place, boot we need those things, So Knighty'll be gooing with ye.”

“Have you ponies gone deaf, or mad?” Paladin asked. “I said it'll be easier to get in and out alone, so that's what I'm doing.”

A hoof upside the back of her head stopped her rant, and Knightengale landed next to her. “I think you're the one who's gone mad if you think you're doing this alone. It'll be better if you have somepony to look out while you do the lifting, or vice versa. Besides, Kitten has a surprise for you; one that will change all our plans.”

The small, magenta pegasus grinned as she flew over and dropped a pile of cloth at her hooves. “Instead of sneaking in there and maybe getting caught, you'll be going in disguised.” She pulled at the cloth, which was an iridescent green, and gaily caught the light from the morning sun. Silver Script dropped some crude poles next to the pile silently. Kitten tried to find the beginning of the cloth, but quickly became lost under it; still, her muffled voice came out from under the mess, explaining her plan. “What's the one creature minotaurs respect most?”

“An even bigger minotaur?” Paladin ventured.

Kitten's head popped free of the cloth, but her face was peeking out of an obvious cloth mouth filled with unconvincing teeth painted onto a wire mesh. “Dragons, of course!” She crawled out from under the cloth, dragging the head with her, pulling the pile into a vague dragon shape. Silver Script slipped the poles into various pockets, increasing the effect, but the expression on the face was still so silly, that any fear it may have elicited was perfectly ruined.

Silver Belle lifted the head, arching her eyebrow at the googly eyes which refused to look in the same direction. “Wherever did you find this thing?”

“Made it myself!” the little pegasus proudly proclaimed. “I was going to use it for a costume next Harvestfest with Awesomeshine, but never got around to finishing it.”

Paladin shook her head. “I hate to break it to you, but this wouldn't fool a newborn foal, let alone grown minotaurs.”

“That is where I come in,” Silver Script said. “I will place a few illusion runes on it that will complete the look. The spells need a surface on which to work, so this costume should do the trick. So long as it remains intact, the illusion will as well. I will also put a spell on it to make you sound more draconic.”

Rubbing her chin with a hoof, Paladin asked, but what about our legs? How many dragons have you seen with eight legs, not to mention no wings?”

Silver Script pulled out a book from her saddlebag, flipping it to a page with illustrations of dragons. “There are several rare breeds of dragons with six to twenty-four legs. Very few of these breeds have wings much larger in proportion than Knightengale's will be in relation to this costume.”

Looking down at the costume which had been fully assembled, she noted that a space for wings had been cut out. Knightengale sighed. “I guess this means I'm in the back end of the costume.”

“Sorry,” Kitten said. “I wanted to put them where they would normally be on a dragon. Besides, we need Dame Paladin up front in case this dragon needs to use her breath weapon.”

Paladin smiled and shook her head. “Alright, we'll do it this way, but on one condition. How about we all drop the titles with each other? I think we've all earned the right to call each other just by name after all this.”

The ponies all looked to each other, then Kitten said with a smile, “You got it, Pally!”

(\ /)
( . .)

It took Paladin and Knightengale a good twenty minutes before they finally figured out a rhythm to walking. Luckily, they had plenty of time to practice on the way, and once Knightengale remembered her training, they had a sort of marching rhythm down.

They march-walked down the trail towards the minotaur town, keeping an eye out for actual dragons as well as other dangers such as small rocks over which they might trip. The town itself was fairly large, but that may have been due to the size difference between the average minotaur, and the average pony. Together in the costume (which had been rendered in loving, animated, and gruesome detail by the detail obsessed Silver Script), they about equaled the average minotaur, but being more horizontal than vertical, they still only came up about halfway to them.

This was made glaringly apparent when they passed the first minotaur, which was dressed in heavy armor and wielding a battle axe. The bovine creature glared at them as they came up, but offered a perfunctory salute. Knowing how regimented minotaur military was, Paladin guessed that there was some lingering discontent between the two races, possibly something to do with their practically being a vassal state to the dragons.

The minotaur's glare intensified as they walked up to talking distance. As they drew even, he finally spoke. “Good day, Great Wyrm. Is there something the humble town of Udderton can do for you?”

Swallowing to wet her parched throat, Paladin replied, “Just here to pick up a few things. As you were.”

The minotaur guard planted his axe deep into the dirt, blocking their path. “I hope there won't be more trouble here, today,” he said menacingly.

Paladin bristled at this and narrowed her eyes, unconsciously doing the same to the illusion. “I said as you were!” she shouted at him with her best military voice, much louder than even she had expected. The minotaur automatically snapped to attention, his axe going to his shoulder before he could even register what he was doing. Paladin telekinetically lifted herself so that she could see him eye to mouth. “Any trouble here?” He shook his head while staring straight ahead at nothing, and she dropped down to the ground again. “Good. I would hate to report back that our allies here were... uncooperative.”

They walked past the guard, looking at the other minotaurs whom had seen the exchange that suddenly found intense interest in watching anything but them. Knightengale, who had seen the whole exchange through a hidden hole in the costume, tapped the lead pony on the flank and whispered, “Nice one. I was hoping that they were as regimented as rumors led us to believe.” Paladin was unable to verbalize a response without it being amplified by the spell, so she settled for a simple grunt of agreement.

They walked through the town, looking for an apothecary, but weren't having much luck. Paladin was seriously considering stopping one of the minotaurs furtively scampering out of their way to ask for directions, when a loud, shouting voice caught her attention. They went through an alleyway, trying to sneak up to the owner of the voice which sounded like he was announcing something momentous. Going through several twists and turns, the pair eventually neared the center of town where a dragon stood on a stage alongside several young male minotaurs holding weapons.

“Come now, surely this can't be all the warriors this town has to offer? I had heard that there was no bravery like minotaur bravery; have I been misinformed?” The blue dragon hectored the gathered minotaurs which either glowered at him or looked away, refusing to meet his gaze at all. “I have seen the 'riches' this town has to offer, and I can tell you with first paw experience that the wealth out there just waiting to be taken- not just from the ponies, but from all our enemy nations far outstrips what this entire little hamlet can promise.”

He held up an amulet which Paladin recognized as belonging to the Earl of Trottingham for the audience to see. “This is but the smallest of baubles from my own collection of loot taken from the softest of targets, the ponies! If this is an example of what is to be had out there for the minimal effort of taking it from the weak hooves of ponies, imagine what the others have to reward your toil?”

“Let's get out of here before we're noticed,” Knightengale whispered. Paladin turned to go, but she noticed a poster hung on the wall. She paused to read it, and felt her blood boil. “What is it?” the aganippe asked.

Wordlessly, the unicorn tore the poster from the wall, and passed it to Knightengale's hoof, who popped her leg inside the costume to read it. “A slave market? But what does this-” She gasped as she read the part that got Paladin really steamed. “They're selling ponies!”

Paladin kicked back, gently, but firmly enough to remind her to be quiet. “Let's find where they're kept, get what we came for, then tell the others and decide what we're going to do about it then,” she whispered as she started back down the alley, towards the market. “We're going to want all of them in on this. As long as I draw breath, no pony will be a slave to any being. It's time they all be made to understand this.”

They wandered through the town, keeping to the alleys as much as possible, crossing streets out in the open only when absolutely necessary. Staying close to the center of town, they found a tall brick building with a wide, tall double door like a barn. The door was slightly ajar, and the pair were about to pass it by when they saw a pony on a leash being walked towards it by a minotaur. The pony was an earth pony mare whose tail hung limp, dragging on the ground as she listlessly walked towards the building, where she disappeared inside.

Intrigued, they walked past the open door, and gasped at the number of ponies they saw inside. Mostly mares and foals, they were all held in pens, well overcrowded beyond the point of comfort. Some wore bandages over their heads or barrels, and a few were bandaged in other places, but all were sporting some sort of injury, even all but the smallest foals. All were in poor shape, being underfed to the point of emaciation.

Dragon or no, the minotaur guards were giving Paladin and Knightengale suspicious glares, so the pair of them hurried along. Without even talking, the two of them looked at each other and nodded. The trip back was luckily uneventful, but still hoof-bitingly nerve wracking. The ever present fear of being discovered, not just by the minotaurs, but by visiting dragons, heightened their sense urgency. Rather than bothering to find the apothecary, they opted to just leave town as quickly as possible, collecting the things they needed along the way as they came across them; though, it had the disadvantage of leaving them short a few ingredients.

Paladin moved them along back to the woods at a quick trot, slowing only once they were safely back under the cover of trees. Coming up to the camp, they were greeted by an enthusiastic Kitten Caboodle. “How did it go? Did you have any trouble?”

Paladin pulled the head off the costume, breaking the illusion. “Gather 'round, everyone, there's something we have to tell you.” She told them of the poster, which Knightengale gave to pass around as she told the tale. “So, we're going to rescue them tonight, before they're... sold.” She bit off the word distastefully.

“Where are they being kept?” Silver Script asked.

Knightengale shook a hind leg, freeing it from the costume. “In a pen near the center of the town. It's... it's not pretty. Most of them appeared to be injured, and all of them starved, but there is no way we're leaving them behind.”

“Agreed,” the scholar said with a nod.

“I'll start preparing some healing and restorative potions while we wait for dusk. Sil, you better work on something that will allow them to keep up,” Awesomeshine said. A dangerous glint had taken up residence in her eyes, causing more than one of her friends to be thankful that they wouldn't be on the receiving end of her ire.

Paladin took the poster as well as a stick of charcoal from Kitten and began sketching out the layout of the town. “Then the rest of us will work on our breakout plan. Now, there are a few dragons there at the moment, but judging by the reaction of the townsfolk, I'm willing to bet that they won't be of much help as long as we leave them alone. So, what we're going to do is...”

(\ /)
( . .)

Sneaking into the town was ridiculously easy, even with the regular patrols by guards. Once more, keeping to the alleys proved to be the best plan of attack. Knightengale kept watch from above, flying just above the rooftops, warning them to take cover whenever a patrol came too close, while staying out of sight herself. All of the ponies were disguised by a bit of magic cloth that Silver Script had enchanted to blend them into the shadows, giving them a distinct edge for as long as the magic would last. The sounds of their hooves were muted by special shoes Kitten had made for each of them using thick burlap stuffed with green leaves.

Finding their way to the brick barn was easy enough, especially with Knightengale guiding them from above. The front was still guarded by two minotaurs, but after a quick reconnaissance flight, Knightengale informed them that they could get in hopefully unseen through a smashed window high off the ground at the rear. Arriving at the window, they found it to be over six hooves off the ground, but was indeed, smashed open. After examining it with her monocle, Silver Script gave a nod of approval and stood beneath it so that the other's could get a boost up.

Paladin was the first up, and standing on the provided back, she was able to peer into the poorly lit barn, and confirm that there was no guards nearby. Silently, she jumped into the open window and looked around once more before jumping silently to the cobbled floor. She stood between two pens, making a “shh” gesture to the ponies who silently watched her, hope gleaming in their eyes. She popped her wands out and looked around. Seeing no resistance, she waved at the window, and the other began pouring in.

By now, the nearly two score captured ponies were all looking at them in silent interest and waking their neighbors quietly. As Kitten began to work on the locks to the pens, Awesomeshine sidled up to Paladin and whispered, “I thought you said there were just earth ponies here.”

“There are,” she whispered back.

“Look again.”

Paladin took a good close look at the ponies again, this time looking for horns or wings, but saw none. Sure, some of them had bandaged heads or barrels, but... Really looking at one poor mare's head, she noted the odd, bloody bandage on it, with the noticeable lump it covered. Turning around to face Ricochet, she said, “Take over. I'm going to check for others, further in back.”

Distracted by the operation, Ricochet failed to notice the tone of her voice and simply nodded. The guard silently moved further into the building, towards a door with light escaping from the crack at the bottom. Putting her back to the wall next to the door, she listened to the muffled voices coming from the other side.

“I have had enough of your resistance. If you don't want yourself or your baby to end up like your friends out there in the pens, you better start being a lot nicer to me. Is that what you want? To end up on a dragon's menu? I hear that they especially love little foals.” The deep, male voice had an unmistakeable minotaur accent, and dripped with menace.

“Please don't hurt my baby! I don't care what happens to me, but my baby is all I have left of my husband!” The female voice broke down into sobbing and barely coherent pleading.

Paladin had heard enough. Taking a few steps away from the door, she charged at it, running at full tilt. Shouldering it aside with a BANG, the guard burst into the room to find the mare she had first spotted which had alerted her to the other captured ponies kneeling in front of the minotaur that had been holding her leash. Both looked at her in surprise, but the bruises and tears on the mare's face told a story that sent chills down Paladin's back.

The minotaur grabbed a knobbed club that had been resting against the side of a desk in his meaty hands. Paladin rolled under a clumsy first swing, coming to rest against the far wall, then pushed with her hind legs in the opposite direction as the club smashed into the wall where she had been an instant before. Coming to a kneeling position out of his impressive reach, she brought her wands up and fired both of them a half dozen times, sending blue bolts of energy into his chest.

The minotaur staggered back, tumbling over the desk with a crash of splintering wood, and the mare screaming out in dismay. Paladin followed in pursuit, close on his tail. She jumped onto the desk, ready to let loose another volley of bolts, but stopped herself. The minotaur had landed on a shoddy crib- more of a wooden cage, really- impaling himself on one of the wooden slats. A long, thin plank of splintered wood stuck out of his belly. As he lay there drowning in his own blood, she noticed a small movement amongst the still unbroken portion of the crate, and a tiny newborn unicorn filly crawled out from under the wood.

Paladin used her magic to pick up the baby from the floor and turned to give her to the sobbing mare. She gratefully accepted the filly and sobbed out her thanks to her savior. The unicorn gently lead her out to the main room of the barn and asked, “Are there any other captives we should know about? We're here to free everypony.”

The earth pony mare looked at the rescue party, stunned at the events happening around her. Captive ponies were milling around outside their pens, being tended to by the rescuing mares. While Kitten worked on the locks, freeing them from their bondage, Knightengale and Ricochet stood guard near the front doors and the rest tended to the wounds, Awesomeshine exhausting herself trying to heal all the worst wound with her magic. “N- no. None that I know of. This looks like everypony.”

With a nod, Paladin gestured towards Silver Script. “Alright, time to make our exit. Put it right there,” she said, pointing at a section of wall between two pens.

With a nod, Silver Script walked up to the spot and pulled out a paintbrush and a bottle which she uncorked with her teeth. Dipping the brush in the pot, she painted the wall with a black substance, quickly forming a black semicircle. That done, she put the first bottle and paintbrush away and pulled out a small, black velvet bag and upended it onto the other hoof, pouring out a measured portion of a glittery powder. With a light puff of breath, she blew the powder onto the paint, and that section of the wall disappeared, leaving an opening tall enough for a pony to walk through by ducking, but too small for a minotaur to easily walk through. After poking her head through and looking both ways, she turned and nodded to Paladin.

Turning to the assembled soon-to-be escapees, the sandy unicorn said, “Now, we're in the center of town, but we're going to try to sneak you all out. If you get separated from the group, just head south in the forest until you come to a big lake. Follow the river feeding into it, and it will take you back to pony lands. Hopefully, this whole mess will be over by the time you all reach a pony village. I would recommend staying away from the larger settlements for now, since they are bigger targets for marauders. Everypony got that?” She waited until she got some nods in return. “Then follow me, and stay quiet, for Celestia's sake. If I give the order to run, do as I told you earlier. Let's move out.”

Paladin crept out into the alley back the way they came while Ricochet stood guard, watching the other way. When the last of the ponies had ducked out of the barn, the unicorn led the sad-looking group out of danger. Escaping the town had proved to be much easier than anticipated due to the late hour. They only had to hide in silence twice as street patrols passed by, the large group of ponies surprisingly going unnoticed.

Their good fortune however, didn't last long. Flitting from rooftop to rooftop, Knightengale was the first to notice a trio of suspicious figures also using the rooftops to remain unseen. When one passed between herself and the moon, she could see the silhouette of a griffon, and judging by the way the other two moved, they were as well. As the refugees were leaving the confines of the town, the aganippe dropped down next to Paladin. “We have company. They were content to keep their distance in the town, but out here, who knows?”

Nodding, Paladin replied, “Alright then, change of plans. We'll lead them to the forest, then have them continue on to the lake, while we deal with our pursuers. I'll not let them be taken again.”

Knightengale slowed her trotting so that she could inform the rest of the ponies and have them spread the word. As soon as they hit the tree line, the freed ponies trotted on, thanking their rescuers as they passed, while Paladin and her friends stayed and hid.

They didn't have to wait long for the griffons to catch up. Just minutes after the last pony passed from sight, a female griffon dressed all in black landed and crept through the underbrush, shortly followed by a second. The third kept station over the forest, watching its brethren below. Not willing to let them get too far ahead and possibly find the escaping ponies, Paladin leapt out of her hiding spot, firing her wands at the trailing griffon, a huge fellow easily twice her size.

The bolts struck true, and he whirled around with a screech of pain. Three arrows flew out in quick succession at the flying griffoness, one striking a foreleg and the other two clipping feathers in her flapping wing. Knightengale flew from her cover at the airborne opponent and screeched an ultrasonic scream, disorienting her and causing her to crash into a nearby tree. Rocks flew at the first griffoness, some propelled by telekinesis, others by a hoofheld slingshot carried by Kitten. The rocks were poorly aimed in the dark, only succeeding in getting the fierce creature to dive for cover into some bushes.

The large male griffon pounced at Paladin, intent on disemboweling the mare. Standing in her rear hooves, she sidestepped the clumsy charge and whirled, sending him on his way with extra help from a crescent kick to his rear. Two arrows shot from Ricochet's hiding spot, pinning the large griffon's foreclaw to the ground. More rocks sailed at the hiding griffoness' hiding spot, but none could tell if they were on the mark or not.

Seeing that they were at an advantage, Paladin called out, “Fall back! They've had enough!” and jumped over a bush, disappearing into the night with her friends, heading north. The first griffoness limped out of the bushes, rubbing a bump that was forming on her head and walked over to the male griffon. “The Tartarus was all that, Scandia? I thought only one or two of them had training,” she complained to him.

Snapping the ends of the arrows off with his beak, he replied, “Beats me, Polly, but Plubia better pull her head out of the ground. Big Boss don't like failure, and I don't plan on coming back without the stone, or living the rest of my life looking over my shoulder.” With a grunt of pain, he pulled his foreleg free of the ground and licked the wounds.

A screech of pain followed by a loud CRASH announced the arrival of the third griffon, who stomped into the clearing, pulling branches from her feathers and trying to get her ears to stop ringing by rubbing her ears. “Light, that hurt! We're going to have to take this more seriously. Oh, and Scandia?” He looked at her inquisitively, and she socked him in the jaw with a closed fist, sending him to the dirt, holding a hurt beak. “I am the Big Boss, not that dragon. She's just paying for our services. What I say goes, not her. Got that?”

He nodded in silent reply, but couldn't help but think that her boast might have been more effective had she not shown such obvious signs of fear in Nightmare's presence.

Chapter 16: On the Dark Side

View Online


Chapter 16: On the Dark Side

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

The cool, crisp winter air turned stiflingly hot so fast that Twilight would have wondered if it was instantaneous, had she not known that it was a clear indicator that she had just entered Draconia. That wasn't the only indicator of course, the jagged teeth of the mountains, the perpetual ash cloud that hovered over the land, and the bleak landscape below were good signs all on their own, but it was always the sudden change in temperature that most demarcated the border for the alicorn.

She lazily winged over the barren land, seemingly without purpose, but that was purely for the benefit of the dragons no doubt watching her. She landed several times and pawed at the ground with a hoof in a desultory manner before taking off once more. She grinned internally knowing that her behavior was confusing the little wyrms Nightmare had turned to her cause with promises of power and wealth. It took several hours before her actions caused the desired outcome, and she saw her manxome foe flying her way.

Twilight paused her flapping, letting the thermals do the work for her and soared, letting the enormous dragon catch up to her. Rather than attacking outright, Nightmare kept station at the alicorn's wing, and they silently flew together in instinctually perfect formation. When one banked, the other followed; when one gained altitude, the other did so as well. They remained silent for the whole flight, only speaking when they finally landed.

“This shalt be our final tilt, Nightmare. Thy crimes art too great a sin for this world to bear any longer,” Twilight said grimly.

Nightmare seemed amused at this at first until she saw the look in her eyes. “How now, O, princess? Thy prior attack wert deflected with ease afore. How wilt thou move the mountain this time?”

Twilight started a slow walk around the larger dragon which continuously moved in a circle to keep the bulk of her natural weaponry within easy striking distance of her small foe. “Last we met, I wert o'ercome by rage; beyond my senses. My blood yet boils with the need for justice, indeed, I am eager to whet my appetite for it; yet I shalt not fall prey to thy bait once more. If vengeance is a dish best serv'd cold, then justice must surely be chilled by a clear mind.” She stopped walking, then started walking the other way, still circling around the great serpent.

“A pity,” Nightmare replied. “I was so looking forward to grappling with thee once more. None hath fought with me so since I laid Bahamut to rest.”

Twilight came to a stop and studied her face. “Thou dost not prevaricate. We hath suspected thee of as much, but thou buried the leads well. All the more reason to see thee fall, then.” Her horn glowed, and the peytral normally hidden by magics appeared and unhooked itself from her neck. With a flash, it disappeared again, this time by teleportation, and the alicorn stood, revealing all her glory to a disinterested audience. Had the smaller watching dragons been closer, they might have been able to appreciate the transformation, but as it was, only Nightmare was close enough, and she affected a grand yawn.

“Ready, at last to join my past foes, princess, or dost thou need time?” Nightmare asked, stooping into a crouch with her wings half spread.

Looking left, then right, the alicorn nodded. “Aye.” She darted forward, tearing through the dragon's wing membrane, but was struck by her serpentine tail as she passed it. Twilight continued on for a fair bit before coming to a rough landing. With a shake of her wings, she shed the blood on them, both hers and Nightmare's onto the ground and took off like a rocket again, this time going through the other wing, but not without taking a hit on her flank by a lightning quick claw for her effort. Again, she flew on before landing again, and shaking off their blood from her coat.

This scene repeated itself four more times, each time with Twilight striking another part of Nightmare, but not without suffering a hit herself, and after each pass, she flew on and landed before shedding the blood she had accumulated. After the last pass, instead of attempting the same tactic, she calmly flew over to Nightmare, her inky blood dripping to the ground, mixing with Nightmare's own life essence. She landed a dozen hooves away in front of the dragoness, her burning glare never leaving the scaly form.

Nightmare was curious about the mare's behavior, but the calm was what really unsettled her most. “What is thy game, princess? Death by a thousand cuts? We shalt be at this all week if such ist the case.”

The glowing, purple fire in Twilight's eyes intensified, flaring up even higher than her mane. “Prepare thyself, monster! Thy reckoning ist at hoof!” The alicorn flew up into the air, though her wings remained still. A cyclonic wind blew around the pair of them, enveloping them a wall of sand and debris. Six columns of light appeared where Twilight had touched down after each attack pass, each in a different color. The beams of light bent with the wind, twining around one another, forming a rainbow pillar around the combatants.

Twilight's body began to disintegrate, starting with her hind hooves floating off the ground. Her body transcended into motes of light that joined the pillar as it sublimated into pure magical energy. Nightmare's fear was readily apparent now, and she screamed at the alicorn, “What hast thou wrought?”

Twilight smiled at her, even as her body disincorporated. “Thy doom, Nightmare.”

Suddenly more afraid than she been since she was a hatchling, Nightmare flew up, attempting to fly out of the pillar of rainbow light. The pillar tightened however, and her wingtips brushed against the sides, burning her, and causing an inky black smoke to rise from the wounds. With a hiss of pain, she drew her vast wings in closer so they would not strike the light again, but that meant that she no longer had the power to lift herself any higher. Indeed, she was barely able to maintain station as the walls of the pillar inexorably closed in on her. Looking down, she saw Twilight still hovering near the ground and slowly being consumed by her spell, but looking up at her, not with hate, but sadness. In a fit of rage, Nightmare inverted her position and aimed herself straight at the alicorn, hoping to strike back one last time before being consumed by the trap.

Twilight's form continued it's sublimation, now merely a head and neck. She looked into Nightmare's eyes, noting the abject fear in them, and felt moved to sadness. “Know that I take no pleasure in this, Nightmare, but thou art a threat to the innocents of this world, and that is unacceptable.”

Nightmare roared in defiance passing through the space where the alicorn stood an instant after she disappeared fully. Unable to pull out of her dive, she slammed into the ground with a sickening THUD and CRUNCH. The dragoness looked around for her foe, but she was already gone. What had remained, was the pillar of light which continued its inward spiral, engulfing the helpless wyrm. It was said that her scream of rage and pain was heard as far away as Equus, where a weeping Celestia and Luna clung to each other.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Scandia alighted on a boulder near Plubia and Polly with a sigh. “Anything?” Plubia asked.

Shaking his head sadly, Scandia replied, “Nothing. They either took to the wing, or they're exceptionally good at covering their tracks.”

“Considering that only two of them can fly, I sincerely doubt that the air was an option,” Polly said as she absently scratched at the sides of a cactus with a talon then sucked on it before returning it to the task.

“And even if one of them can teleport, I sincerely doubt they could carry all of them very far,” Plubia added.

Scandia rolled his eyes. “We don't even know how many there were!”

“Ssseven, to be precccissse, unlesss they picked up or lossst sssome, yesss.”

The two younger griffons turned towards the voice, bristling, but Plubia remained calm. “Finally decided to show yourself? Why don't you come out from hiding?”

From behind a rocky outcropping, Brimfrost calmly walked, grinning maliciously at them. “Oh, but sssuch ssscary facccesss you all have! It'sss enough to make a defenssslesss dragon to want to flee! And here I wasss, coming to offer asssissstanccce, yesss.” Her badly scarred face and body was a fright to behold; not an inch of her was not covered in scar tissue, and her horns were broken close to her head.

“I sincerely doubt you were here to do anything of the sort,” Plubia said.

“Light! What happened to you?” Polly exclaimed.

Turning as if to show off a new trinket, Brimfrost exhibited her scars to the griffons. “You like? It's just a simple reminder to all what happens to those who fail Nightmare. A sort of 'walking declaration' she called it, yesss.” She walked over to the smallest griffon and held her beak with a talon. “I'll make sure that any who pursues them will end up just. Like. Me.” She punctuated the last three words with a tap on each of their beaks. She walked away saying, “It's nothing personal, you understand.” Stopping, she turned back and grinned at them again. “Oh, who am I kidding? It's very personal.” With that, she flew off into the badlands that bordered the minotaur lands with the dragon lands.

Polly rubbed her beak gently. “Do you think she's right? That we'll end up like her?”

“Not if we get that stone first,” Plubia replied, taking to the air herself.

(\ /)
( . .)

“I don't like this. We're too exposed out here,” Paladin remarked to no one in particular as she trudged along. Although wide open plains were the pony's natural habitat, she had good reason to be concerned. First of all, ponies didn't usually have to worry about predators from the skies in this day and age, but the war had changed that, possibly for good. Secondly, and most importantly, this was no ordinary plain through which they walked; instead, it was the badlands desert deep in dragon territory, the one race of creatures they wanted to tangle with least of all.

“Well, you'll have to grin and bear it,” Silver Script said. “We've a long way to go until we get to Nightmare's lair, and the other Elements.”

“I think she's finally warming up to you,” Awesomeshine whispered to Paladin.

Paladin glanced back at the earth pony in question who was trudging along with the same neutral expression on her face, then shot her an incredulous look. “How can you tell?” she asked.

Awesomeshine waved her off like it was a joke. “Silly. Anypony with eyes and ears can tell that,” she said, then slowed down until she was even again with her best friend.

With a confused shake of her head, Paladin dismissed the whole conversation from her mind. With greater concerns weighing on her mind than whether or not a pony she was unlikely to ever see again once this was all over liked her or not, she ruminated on just how they were going to get the Elements back from Nightmare and get them to Celestia and/or Luna, wherever they might be.

It was a thought that had consumed her since the quest had begun. What's happened to the princesses? Surely we would have heard of them organizing a resistance force of some sort, if only to confront the younger dragons and their mercenaries so they might fight the elders and Nightmare. I'm afraid to admit it to the others, but that pillar of light I saw as I fled Equus just does not bode well for us.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Ricochet saying, “Take cover! Dragon!”

Ponies scattered as they sought cover in the open plain, and seeking to not bunch up, making an inviting target for her breath weapon. Brimfrost landed and hissed with laughter as she called out. “Come out, come out wherever you are. Jussst give me what I want and we can part waysss peacccably, yesss.”

Paladin poked her head out from cover just enough to keep her in sight. “Not happening, Brimfrost. We can't let you dragons run unchecked any longer, so we aim to stop you all.”

Raucous laughter exploded from the wyrm that she tried to contain. “Oh, you ponies never fail to make me laugh. You mussst sssurely be delusssional thinking that you of all creaturesss could ssstop usss, yesss. Your preccciousss princccesssesss have already fallen to the Nightmare, and ssshe will sssoon control all of the landsss.”

“What are you talking about, wyrm? The princesses could never fall to a mere dragon,” Paladin shouted. Though she managed to keep the quaver out of her voice, she knew that what Brimfrost said fit the evidence too closely to be just a bluff or baseless taunt.

“Thisss isss ssso rich, it mussst be fattening!” Brimfrost declared. “Your princccesssesss are being held by their conqueror, Nightmare! Their sssoulsss have been trapped within gemsss, you sssee. Ssshe sssometimesss wears them like jewelry; it isss quite amusssing.”

“You lie!” Ricochet shouted as she came out from her cover, firing her bow as rapidly as she could. A flurry of arrows flew at the dragon, who was too slow at dodging, but brought her wing up as a shield. The arrows tore through the thin membrane, and on into the thick, scarred hide, lodging themselves deeper than she had anticipated they would.

Brimfrost whirled around to breathe at her, but was struck in the throat by several bolts from Paladin's wands. She reflexively swallowed, the dangerous exhalation discharged harmlessly inside of her. With a wiggle of her hips, she swung her tail at Paladin. The unicorn darted out of the way, but the rock behind which she was hiding was smashed to bits.

Knightengale flew out from a bush, booming an ultrasonic scream at the top of her lungs, causing all within the area to go a little cross-eyed, but sending Brimfrost at whom the cone of sound was aimed reeling. The dragoness staggered, trying to find her balance, but fell on her back, crushing one wing beneath her her bulk. She continued rolling, trying to get away from the horrible sound, but Knightengale continued after her until the dragoness found a large stone and threw it at her. The blow was only a glancing shot, but it was enough to drive her off.

Brimfrost stood in time to see a boulder flying her way, easily large enough to cause her serious harm. With a wing dangling limply, she leapt out of the rock's path and saw another being loaded into some sort of ballista-like device being aimed by Kitten, and loaded by Awesomeshine and Silver Belle. Silver Script was somehow carving runes into the rock with her bare hoof as it was being loaded. Where did they get that? Not wanting to wait around to see what would happen, she leapt again, breathing a cone of frost at the approaching Paladin and Ricochet.

The ponies dived to either side, avoiding the worst of the cold, forced to neglect their attacks. Brimfrost had no time to enjoy her rout, as she was struck from behind in the head by Knightengale, whom had recovered enough to continue the fight. The aganippe had caused minimal damage from the pass, but had distracted her enough to forget about the ballista until a boulder the size of a fully grown pony struck her square in the chest, sending her flying backwards.

The dragoness skidded to a halt and coughed up blood. Paladin Ricochet, Knightengale, and Awesomeshine approached cautiously, but when no attack was forthcoming, Paladin looked to the others, who nodded, then walked forward. “We remember how you honored your deal with us when you had the upper hoof. We did not like tricking you like that since you had dealt honestly with us, so we're going to let you live and call it even. We don't want to hurt you anymore, especially since you've obviously suffered because of our dishonesty with you. I doubt the fight would have gone so well for us, had your mistress not wounded you so. We hope that if we cannot be friends, then we might at least not be enemies.”

The ponies walked away, but Awesomeshine paused and looked back mournfully. She ran back and pulled a small bottle from her saddlebag and left it next to Brimfrost's snout. “It's a healing potion,” she whispered. “One of my strongest. It'll help you mend faster.” She then turned around and ran to catch up with the rest of the group.

(\ /)
( . .)

Brimfrost smacked her lips, still tasting the sweet liqueur-like potion she had swallowed earlier, bottle and all. She had been contemplating what to make of the ponies as her body mended. Already, her wing had snapped back into place and was mobile again, if not at its peak, but it soon will be. She laid on her belly staring off into the horizon and replayed the confrontation in her mind for what must have been the seventh time. What struck her hardest were the looks of sadness and regret in Paladin's eyes as she apologized, as well as the compassion in Awesomeshine's as she gave her the potion. The dragoness had not often had the need to sample such brews in the past, even she could tell from her limited experience that this particular concoction was of superior quality.

Why would they go so far for an enemy? Surely, it can't be for the simple reasons they gave. No creature could be that stupid... As she contemplated the encounter, her sharp eyes spotted three forms in the sky flying more or less in her direction. Not wanting to confront anyone right now, she closed her eyes and hoped they would go away, but when she opened them again, she saw they were now close enough to make out, and cursed under her breath.

The three griffons landed near her, but only Plubia was brave enough to come within striking distance. Brimfrost remained as she had fallen, not moving a muscle as she approached. Plubia walked with the cocksure strut of one who knows she has her talon on the meat. “So, bit off more than you could chew, I see.”

“You'll never take them down. You're too weak, yesss,” Brimfrost replied, drawing out her “s” even more than usual.

“Please, you're a wreck. Don't judge us by your pathetic standards. Once we bring Nightmare her trinket, we'll be savoring your reward.” Plubia seemed to take unseemly pleasure in rubbing this in her face.

Brimfrost gave a weak chuckle that turned into a coughing fit. “Foolsss. The only thing bringing her what ssshe wantsss will give you will be a ssswift death, yesss. Do you honessstly think that ssshe wantsss to ssshare what thossse 'trinketsss' will give her; let alone with a lowly creature sssuch as yourselvesss? No, our missstresss will make sssure to put you out of her misssery before you become a thorn in her ssside.”

The dragon's words seemed to be having a strong effect on the other two griffons, who looked at each other with concern. Plubia however, would not be dissuaded. “Cute. However, we have been personally rewarded by her in the past, and seen her reward others who have brought her great prizes. This will simply be another such time.” She turned to walk away before lifting off.

“There hasss been no greater prizzze brought to her, and look how I wasss rewarded for my faithful ssserviccce. Chew on that while you hunt,” Brimfrost said as she closed her eyes.

Scandia and Polly kept glancing at each other as they flew off after their leader, careful to not give the dragon another look.

(\ /)
( . .)

The attack this time wasn't such a surprise. The ponies had been keeping an eye out on the skies more than on the horizon, which is how they were able to spot the griffons so soon. They even had time to run for better cover than they did from Brimfrost. Instead of trying to hide behind rocks or bushes, they instead ran for a rocky mesa with a split down the middle. While they had to go through the crack single file, they would at least be protected from aerial assaults.

“I'm not so sure that this is a good idea,” Kitten said, nervously looking at the walls of the narrow cleft.

“I have to agree with the half-pint,” Knightengale added. “All they have to do is block the entrance, and we're trapped until we die of thirst or starve, while they're free to come and go. It's why sieges almost never go well for the defenders. Tactically speaking, this is a bad idea.”

Ricochet ducked, narrowly avoiding hitting her head on an outcropping. “Aye. There's nae room to turn aboot, let alone fight. T'was a daft idea cooming in here.”

“Hey, it widens up ahead, everypony!” Awesomeshine said excitedly.

“Great. Ay least we won't be hugged to death by rocks,” Silver Belle muttered, hoping that Paladin didn't hear her despite the slight echo in the cleft.

The cleft did indeed widen out, and the ponies breathed a little easier knowing that they didn't have a rock face pressed up against either side of them. They walked out into the opening which turned out to be a cul-de-sac, and was large enough to fit a pony-sized house. Right away, the martially-minded among them began looking for cover that would allow them to see the entrance, but Silver Script looked up and said, “We have a problem.” Looking up with her, they noticed that the roof overhang wasn't quite as narrow as it was in other places, widening out enough that a dragon might comfortably drop in.

Distracted as they were by the hole in their defenses, they failed to notice Polly stealthily creeping down the rock face over the only exit where she had been hiding in the shadows. She dropped down and let out a screeching roar peculiar to her kind, totally surprising the ponies.

Ponies scattered for cover as the other two griffons in the hunting party dropped through the skylight. Ricochet and Paladin got off a few shots, and the rest threw rocks and Kitten tried to set up her ballista on her own.

Plubia swooped down on Ricochet and swiped at her twice, scoring a deep gash on the mare's foreleg, causing her to drop her bow. Quick to seize on the opportunity, the griffoness kicked at the weapon, sending it skittering across the ground towards Polly, who regarded the weapon with a healthy respect.

“Rico!” Knightengale cried, darting over to help her marefriend. Plubia smirked, and jumped, not at the oncoming threat, but placing the pony between herself and Paladin, who had just rapid-fired several bolts of force at her. Knightengale cried out again, this time in pain, and flew into Ricochet, where they fell to the ground in a heap.

Scandia landed heavily on the ballista Kitten had almost fully assembled, crushing the device beneath his bulk. Kitten fell backwards, throwing a hooful of dust at him as she rolled, blinding him. With a disgruntled cry of alarm, he lashed out blindly, hitting the tiny pegasus who bounced off the rock wall and fell, unmoving. Silver Script threw a tiny glass vial which landed at Scandia's feet and broke. A thick, noxious cloud of green gas poured out of the spill, and the griffon stepped back screaming, “My eyes!” He could get no more out as a severe coughing fit overtook him and he staggered away from the fumes.

Awesomeshine and Silver Belle were lobbing stones at Polly, but stopped as she flew at them in a sudden lunge that crossed the entire distance. She landed in front of them and buffeted them with her wings. The relatively delicate unicorns were confounded by the strange tactic, and were backed against the wall and were knocked down and Polly pinned them to the ground with her foretalons.

“No!” Silver Script cried out, and rushed over to help her friend, but was tackled by a still partially blinded and coughing Scandia. She too, bounced off the rock wall and fell to the ground moaning. To make sure she would cause no more trouble, the huge griffon sat on her, covering most of her body with his.

Paladin saw that ranged attacks weren't likely to get her anywhere, and leaped with a charge at the lead griffoness who suddenly decided to not be there when she arrived, and scurried along the ground at a speed that took the mare by surprise. Paladin landed hoof-first on the wall and pushed off, tackling the griffoness' leonine tail, sending them both sprawling. Plubia rolled on top of the mare and pinned her to the ground. “Now then,” she said with a smirk, “Let's talk magic artifacts, shall we?”

The box canyon suddenly became much darker, and all looked up to see Brimfrost diving down through the opening. She flew down and pulled up to throw herself bodily into Plubia, sending her careening into the rock wall herself. The dragoness landed next to the mare and said, “Get your poniesss out of here. I'll take care of thessse walking appetizzzersss.”

Not waiting to see if they took her advice or not, Brimfrost swiped her tail at Polly, sending her into Scandia, who merely grunted as the smaller griffon bounced off of his chest. She then went back after Plubia, not letting her gain breath to speak. The griffoness fought back viciously, and was joined by her two cohorts seeking to aid her. Every time she tried to say something, Brimfrost would time an attack she had been holding back to stop her from getting anything intelligible out. The four tore at each other with a hatred born of competitiveness turned horrifically ugly. Although Brimfrost had the advantage of size and weaponry over the griffons, she was badly outnumbered and still wounded not only from her encounter with the ponies earlier, but also from Nightmare's punishment.

Paladin looked at her friends, noting that all of them were wounded, and wouldn't likely last long, even with Brimfrost's aid, especially those without any formal combat training. Choking back her bile, she shouted, “Gather, ponies!” She was proud to note that they at least responded promptly, even those who had been so roughly knocked around by the larger griffons. With a flash of light and a loud pop of air rushing to fill the void, the ponies teleported away.

“No! After them!” Plubia shouted.

Before the griffons could lift off, Brimfrost took in a deep breath and breathed upwards, her eyes glowing an unnaturally bright blue. The griffons wisely stayed out of the path of that deadly cold, but were unable to leave. The cold air formed crystals of ice around the opening that quickly grew into a wall, sealing them off from their path of escape. It was almost a full minute before the dragon ceased her exhalation, and collapsed on the ground in a bloody heap.

With her foes standing over her, Brimfrost felt a spark of pride in thwarting their efforts, not matter how temporary. “They'll be long gone before you break through that iccce. I only regret that I won't be around to sssee you get your 'reward' from Nightmare,” she croaked out with a smile and a chuckle.

With a roar of frustration, Plubia swiped a claw across the dragon's face.

Chapter 17: Somepony's Watching Me

View Online


Chapter 17: Somepony's Watching Me

~21 Aevum Illuminationis~

Quiet in the library wasn't unusual; in fact, it was the norm. Today however, the quiet carried a subtle undercurrent of uneasy anticipation mixed with grief. A feeling of disquiet not unlike waiting for a coming storm to open up while attending a funeral.

The source of the grief was easy to ascertain, of course. Barely a week ago, Twilight, Alicorn of Magic and close friend to Nyx had went off to battle the menace terrorizing the world known as Nightmare. Nyx could have told her how it would go, had she asked. She could even have given her details of the battle so vivid, that one would think that the sphinx was there herself. She wouldn't have given such details out to just anyone, naturally. She still maintained that being surprised was one of the greatest gifts she had ever given up to sate her curiosity, and envied other beings that ability. Of course, she would have told Twilight had she pressed her for details; their relationship was different like that, not that the alicorn knew. Yes, the source of Nyx's grief and lassitude were readily apparent to anyone who knew the two of them with anything beyond a passing familiarity. Not that anyone other than Onyx and Kat were aware of Nyx's suffering; she had closed the library indefinitely the day Twilight left on her suicidal quest.

The foreboding apprehension was another matter entirely. It was radiating from the sphinx so that even her baby dragon assistant had taken to finding any excuse to not be around his caretaker, often just hiding in his room searching for something to do. The town that had grown up around the library also seemed to be affected by the feeling. Perhaps it was just the fact that the library was closed for the first time in anyone's memory, or maybe it was Nyx's growing irritation in the days preceding the closure. Whatever the case, everyone in the small, diverse population steered clear of the massive building except to return books, and even then, only used the slot next to the door, almost never going inside. The streets were also clear for the most part, over half the population deciding that this was a good time to visit relatives or take that vacation they had been promising themselves.

The weather seemed to disagree with the general feel, insisting on being sunny, crisp autumn day. Hardly a cloud marred the sky, and the sun shone down, melting the frost that had gathered overnight. Nyx looked at the clock next to the window where she sunned herself and sighed. May as well go outside. There'll be less destruction that way, at least. She walked past the shelves of precious books, past the front desk where Onyx sat, sorting through a pile of returns collected from the drop box earlier. He looked up at her with fearful, expectant eyes, dreading that she would reprimand him for something he did, or didn't do, but the expected words did not come. Instead, she said something wholly unanticipated. “I'm stepping outside for a moment, Onyx. Whatever happens, no matter what you hear out there, you are not to leave this desk, understand?”

Unsure of what else to do, the baby dragon silently nodded. And watched as the huge sphinx silently padded out the door. Outside, Nyx drew in a deep breath, smiling at the scents and tastes carried to her by the gentle breeze. The sun beat down on her face, warming her cheeks against the slight nip in the air. She walked down to the bottom step of the library, looking at the stone lion guardians that flanked the stairs. She silently willed them inside and the disappeared. No sense getting them destroyed when they couldn't do anything other than get in the way anyway. Let's see. She should be here in three, two-

Nyx's inner monologue was interrupted as Celestia slammed into the ground before her in her unrestrained immortal form. Her hooves scorched and cracked the thick stone pavers lining the road up to the library. For a moment, Nyx was overjoyed that her countdown was off by even a second. Usually, minor things like that indicated that things might go differently than she knew they would, but one look at the mare's eyes dispelled any hope of that.


Repressing a sigh, Nyx replied, “I gave her the means to destroy her foe like she asked. Admittedly, I had hoped that it would turn out better, but my fears were justified.”


“You think I didn't try?” the sphinx snapped back. “I argued with her over it for months straight! I told her the dangers, but she seemed to think that 'protecting her ponies' was worth the risk! Light knows they won't appreciate it later, once the shock of regaining their freedom wears off, and it's back to business as usual! I certainly didn't want her to go, but unlike some beings, I know that what she was doing was something she wanted more than anything, even mortal life!” tears were streaming down her face now, even as her body took on the texture of old, worn out papyrus and inky black runes bleed through. “SHE MEANS MORE TO ME THAN MY OWN LIFE, BUT I WOULD NEVER DARE DEIGN TRY TO HOLD HER BACK FROM SOMETHING SHE TRULY WANTED, EVEN IF IT MEANT GIVING HER UP!”

Celestia could stand no more and charged the papery sphinx, her own fiery form singing her, but not setting her aflame. A flaming hoof struck Nyx across a cheek, drawing a line of inky blood and sending her reeling backwards. Not really a combatant, not like Celestia. Nyx knew that she was overmatched, but she also knew that this moment had to play itself out. This was a moment that both of them would later come to regret, indeed, she already had been regretting it since first seeing it happen in one of her visions.

With that simple act of violence, a line had been crossed. Out of her league she might be, but Nyx was no pushover. She was not one of the oldest immortals for nothing. She stood proud and flared out her wings, her entire body radiating a white light. “FOOL! THE SUN YOU MAY BE, BUT I AM KNOWLEDGE ITSELF! AS LONG AS THERE IS A THINKING BEING ALIVE, I CANNOT DIE! YOU LOVE YOUR SISTER, BUT SO DO I! SHE IS ONE OF ONLY A HANDFUL OF BEINGS I CONSIDER MY PEER, AND A GREATER FRIEND ONE CANNOT EVER HAVE! I ACHE IN HER ABSENCE IN A WAY YOU CANNOT EVER FATHOM!”

Their combined shouting voices were beginning to have a detrimental effect on the nearby buildings, causing many to crack and mortar to crumble under the sonic assault. Beyond reasoning, Celestia rose into the sky and called out, “THOU HAST FIVE MINUTES TO ABSCOND FROM THIS DOOMED CITY AFORE I RAIN DOWN FIERY DEATH UPON IT. THIS SHALT BE THY ONLY WARNING!” With that, she flew up into the sky, joining with the daystar far above.

Creatures of all kinds heard the pronouncement and decided that taking her at her word would be for the best. A mass exodus of ponies, minotaurs, griffons, and many others besides made haste for the lands surrounding the town, not bothering to even pause long enough to gather their belongings.

Nyx however, stared into the sun, tears streaming down her face. She returned to her normal mortal form, but did not budge from the stairs. With her keen vision, she was able to see Celestia within the sun, whom was curled into a fetal ball, weeping over the loss of her sister. She saw the angry mare uncurl and begin her rocketing trip back to the ground, and could stand no more. She turned around and calmly walked inside, carefully pulling apart the connections that tied the library to the material plane, trying to remember and preserves the locations as best she could despite knowing it would do no good.

By the time Celestia's meteoric body struck the ground with enough force to level every building, the library had already been cast adrift in the planes, with no ties of its own.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Silver Belle gently stroked Paladin's head as it lay against her side. The chambermaid was using her own body as a makeshift cushion for the pony she loved above all others, feeling that she deserved that and much more besides, but this would have to do until she could properly reward her efforts to keep them all alive. The guard had rapidly teleported them a total of three times, each time putting them in a place far removed from their last location. After the third time, she collapsed to the ground, blood pouring from her nose.

Awesomeshine had examined her and proclaimed that she would be fine with a little rest and some TLC. So, rest they had, after finding cover from any passing dragons or griffons. They needed to wait for the night anyway so that Silver Script could determine their location. Silver Belle looked over to her, who was now looking through her sextant at the ashy clouds, which were unbroken, and wondered how she was going to see anything.

The scholar mumbled something, which Awesomeshine wrote down, barely able to see anything in the dim glow of her horn, which was all Ricochet and Knightengale allowed to avoid being spotted. She carefully put the tool away in her saddlebag and joined the unicorn on the ground determining their position based on her calculations. They quietly put their heads together, whispering to each other, and Silver Belle was sure that she saw a slight blush overtake the earth pony's cheeks for a moment.

It looked like they were wrapping up whatever they were doing, so the chambermaid quickly looked down at Paladin's sleeping face and smiled gently. She looks so peaceful. It's really a shame to wake her. She was about to gently tap her shoulder, when Ricochet stopped her.

“Let the poor lass sleep. We're nae going anywhere tonight,” she whispered.

Silver Belle smiled up at her and nodded, gratefully putting her own head down on her forelegs and closed her eyes.

(\ /)
( . .)

She awoke the next morning, somewhat refreshed. Looking around, she saw Paladin, Knightengale, Ricochet, and Silver Script standing over a map, quietly discussing their plans. Awesomeshine and Kitten waved her over to the cooking pot, where gruel was being doled out for her. “Morning,” she yawned at them. “What's the plan for today?”

Awesomeshine smiled and nodded at the greeting. “Morning. We're heading to some caves that Sil knows about. They're dangerous, but less so than wandering about on the surface where those griffons or dragons could spot us with no cover.”

Silver Belle noted the way Awesomeshine's face lit up whenever she talked about her friend. It was different from the way she talked about anypony else, and she thought it was adorable. She often thought that the way a pony acted when they were in love, but had yet to confess their feelings was often when they were at their most adorable. “How dangerous, and how far away are they? Will it take long to get to the other Elements using them?”

The healer pushed her treasured glasses up on her nose. “Dangerous enough to seriously debate using them, not far, and less time than dodging patrols on the surface.”

Digging into her bland breakfast, Silver Belle contemplated the response. She took a spoonful into her mouth and had to struggle to get it down. While she wasn't averse to gruel, she avoided it whenever possible. “Bad enough to have to deal with the sun hiding behind those horrid clouds, but now we have to go underground and face whatever abominations await us below the surface.” She pushed the gruel around with her spoon, then without looking up, she asked, “Do you think what she said is true? That the princesses were captured?”

It took her companions a moment to realize what she meant. Kitten paused in breaking down her cooking utensils to answer her. “Not exactly a pleasant thing to consider, is it?” Grim silence answered her. “No, it's not pleasant. But there is something else to consider, something that Brimfrost neglected to bring up.” The other two ponies looked to her questioningly, waiting for her to finish her thought. “This is the princesses were talking about! The two most powerful, benevolent, and protective creatures on the planet! Do you really think that some paltry dragon could take them down?”

“Then where are they? Why haven't they taken Nightmare down?” Silver Belle asked, desperate to believe the little pegasus.

The little inventor placed a calming hoof on her shoulder. “Don't you remember what they told Paladin when they sent her away? They need the Elements in order to beat back the dragons. They're waiting on us.”

“Which is why the sooner we get moving, the sooner we can get this over with,” Paladin gruffly said as she walked over and nuzzled Silver Belle. “Let's get this show on the road. I have a feeling we're on the final leg of this journey, and I don't know about you, but I'm ready to take a nice, long, hot bath.”

(\ /)
( . .)

If ever an inanimate object seemed alive, it was this one. Not only was the cave lined with stalagmites and stalactites dripping with moisture, but the wind rushing through the cavernous space sounded so much like breathing that the ponies would not be surprised to find that they had wandered into the gigantic mouth of some creature. Silver Script had promised them that any such creature would never be found this close to the surface had done little to settle their jittery nerves. Of course, her assurances that being swallowed alive by such a creature would be infinitely preferable to the many dangers they now faced did even less.

When they rounded the corner and lost sight of the muted daylight, their nerves ratcheted up another notch. The unicorns lit their horns and Silver Script set her orbiting gemstone torch in place, granting them a measure of peace of mind as they continued down the path. The scholar perched a pair of glasses on her nose which began mapping their progress and displaying it in a corner.

They walked mostly in silence, their hooves on stone the only real cadence for measuring time spent. They squeezed past many narrow openings, held close to the wall as they inched their way along a narrow ledge, and once, swam through an ice-cold stream of water so heavily laden with minerals that they dared not let a drop get in their mouths.

When Paladin called a halt to their march for a brief respite, Silver Script carefully examined the floor, noting its peculiarities. Awesomeshine noticed this and asked, “What's wrong?” Her voice echoed eerily in the tunnel, causing her to gasp and cover her mouth with a hoof in an almost superstitious manner. “What's wrong?” she repeated in a whisper.

Silver Script scuffed at the dirt on the floor like she was digging for something. “There's something odd about this place,” she replied in a whisper as well. Looking up, she willed her floating gemstone to move, and it flew up to the wall, revealing obvious worked stone with old runes carved on it.

The others gasped, and Knightengale asked, “What language is that?”

“It looks like an ancient form of Equish, actually,” Silver Script replied. “Tenebrious dialect if I'm reading it correctly.”

Knightengale gasped. “But isn't that...”

Silver Script turned to her and nodded. “The dialect of the ancient aganippe, yes. I think we may have stumbled upon one of their antediluvian cities.” Returning her gaze to the markings, she added, “I think we'll have to be extra careful from here on out.”

Ricochet looked at her in confusion, asking, “An why is tha'?”

Silver Script looked at her in a way that caused the larger mare's knees to turn to jelly. “Because it appears that this dialect has evolved from its ancient form in a different way from what is used now. This city may not be as abandoned as we think.”

(\ /)
( . .)

Scandia squeezed past another narrow passage, almost blundering into the two female griffons that had been waiting on him. “Are you absolutely sure they went down here? I'd hate to go through all this trouble only to find that it was for nothing.”

Plubia adjusted the light stone placed within the special headband, making sure it was secure. “Can't you smell them? They've been down this way. Just be glad Polly was able to spot their hoofprints in the sand. Had we lost them entirely, we'd be in for a world of hurt. Besides, look at this.” With a grin, she held up a talon with a bright pink feather. “Only one thing in these lands with feathers this color, you know.”

With a placating nod, Scandia conceded the point. “That's all well and good, but why are we chasing them down here? We're aerial creatures. All this closed-in space feels unnatural; like it's all going to smother us-”

“Enough!” Plubia shouted. “I don't like it any more than you do, but we need to catch them, and we have no idea where or when they'll come out. So unless you got some sort of insight to the way their stupid pony brains work, or know where these tunnels lead, then follow them we will.” She held a claw under his beak threateningly, flexing her razor sharp talons. “I will not have mutiny in the ranks, Scandia, I really will not. If you think you're indispensable, then you are sorely mistaken. I can send you home and seek out another who'll do what I say. Now, quit your bellyaching, and move. Once we have that stone, we can leave them to wander down here forever or drag their lousy carcasses up to the light and see what Nightmare wants with them, but either way, I don't intend to stay down here any longer than absolutely necessary.”

Scandia gulped and followed Plubia and Polly in silence further into the tunnel.

(\ /)
( . .)

The ponies moved through the forest of stone columns as big around as a pony home. They ran up to a ceiling so far above them, that their meager lighting failed to reach it. They had encountered this intimidatingly large room on the other side of the portal where they had found the strange, old writing. By some strange effect of the room, every sound they made echoed back on them ten times as loud and distorted. It took several minutes before they realized that they were jumping at the sound of their own hoofsteps. Knowing the source of the sounds did little to alleviate the tension, however.

They crept ever forward, lead by Paladin, who was taking directions from Silver Script, whom did not even need to concentrate very hard to locate the direction of the other Elements. All of them spoke only when they could not avoid it, and kept it as terse as possible. By consensus, it was felt that it was better if Knightengale used her echolocation in case there were anything hostile down here that could detect it. None of them wanted to come right out and say that those hostile beings might be some sort of aganippe.

So intent were they on detecting the slightest out of place sound, that they were able to hear Scandia's wing beats as the trio flew in to attack them. Ricochet whirled around with her bow drawn and arrow nocked, as if she had been expecting an attack of some kind. She let fly, her off the cuff aim passing the arrows harmlessly through the feathers of his wings.

Silver Belle and Awesomeshine increased the power of their glows, allowing the ponies to see their attackers clearly. Paladin wasted no time in firing her deadly accurate bolts of magical energy, peppering all three griffons with hits that sent them scattering. When they flew beyond the radius of the light, the ponies formed a wheel, a trained warrior between to civilian ponies, all looking out for the approach of their enemies. Kitten whispered, “Should I set up the ballista?”

Paladin shook her head in the negative. “No. We might need to escape very quickly, and breaking it down will take too long. Just stay ready,” she whispered back.

The griffons returned, charging from three different directions at their hasty defenses, having to duck and weave around the ponies' ranged attacks. The griffons clashed with the strongest warriors, seeking to break their line, but every attack was turned aside. Both sides were taking hits from each other, and none of them were left totally untouched. Even Silver Belle managed to get in a lick or two while taking a few herself.

All the combatants were so intent on surviving the battle, that they failed to notice that every strike, every cry out, every yelled taunt echoed through the cavern eerily. None of them noticed the movement on the ceiling, nor the growing susurration of noise as creatures stirred. At first, a few woke from their sleep, wondering at the strange sounds that had not been heard here for centuries, but dozens others joined them every second. A particularly loud bellow from Scandia as he took a stab from an arrow along his shoulder woke many, many more. Sightless eyes turned towards the sounds and huge ears swiveled to locate the source of the odd noises.

The creatures prowled forward, finally catching scent of the fresh meat below them. Though unable to see them, the group below were making more than enough noise for the creatures' echolocation to find them.

Knightengale was the first to notice that they were no longer alone, her sensitive ears picking up their ultrasonic squeaks and clicks. “They're here!” she shouted, alerting friend and enemy alike to their predicament.

Looking around, Paladin finally saw the vague movement in the shadows, and shouted, “You idiots! You brought them right to us!”

Plubia chanced a glance around herself and noticed the movement as well. Uncovering her light stone, it shone directly in the face of a bone white, blind creature. If one were feeling generous, they might call the creature a pony, as it had four legs, a head, and bat-like wings, but the similarities were far outweighed by the differences. Huge, unseeing eyes stared at them uselessly, while oversized ears almost as large as their heads constantly swiveled around, gathering all sounds. Their hooves were cloven, and gripped the ground more like talons than anything a pony might have, and their mouths were filled with fangs more appropriate to a predator and dripping with saliva. Their dirty yellow manes and tails were short, and not a single one of them bore a cutie mark.

The ponies and griffons turned on the new arrivals, forsaking their old enemies. Their new foes seemed to be legion, swarming at them from the darkness without end. For every one that was struck down, three more took its place. The last stand became a running battle as the intruders, desperate to escape certain death, tried to make good their escape from the army of ravenous horde.

Luckily, the creatures were easy to put down; a well placed strike to their nose was especially painful, and their bones seemed peculiarly easy to break. The real problem came from the fact that they relied on overrun tactics rather than actual skill or toughness.

The running battle left the great hall and entered a series of tunnels, forcing the retreating group to work extra hard from being separated. The many side passages of the labyrinthine tunnels made it all to easy to lose someone, which is how they lost Awesomeshine and Polly.

A particularly enterprising aggressor drove a wedge between the two of them and the rest of the party with his own body; an opening quickly exploited by the opportunistic creatures. Four more dived into the open space created, paring them off from the rest. By the time Silver Script (who had always kept one eye on her friend, no matter what she was doing) was able to shout out, “Awesomeshine! Grab my hoof!” she was already too far to be reached. The normally sedate scholar swung a hoof at one of the creatures, hearing a satisfying crunch of shattering bone in his face, but the damage was already done. She could only watch helplessly as her only true friend and ally against the world, as well as a dangerous griffoness whom had only moments before been trying to kill them were pulled down a side passage by a swelling tide of homicidal cannibals.

(\ /)
( . .)

Awesomeshine and Polly, thrown together by circumstances well beyond their control, fought back to back, trying unsuccessfully to get back to their friends. The push of the invidious creatures had them on their metaphorical heels, unable to gain any ground, forcing them ever backwards into the unknown.

“We have to block them off!” Polly shrieked.

“We'll lose all hope of reuniting with our friends and escaping if we do!” Awesomeshine replied.

Polly grabbed one of the creatures and threw him into his companions, giving her room to breathe, but not much more than that. “If we don't, we'll fall to them anyway! Their numbers are neverending, and we can't keep fighting like this forever!”

Awesomeshine didn't like it, but she raised a very valid point. Looking at the tunnel, she nodded. “Hold them off! I'm going to blast the roof!” she cried out, tears apparent in her voice and on her face.

Drawing a deep breath, Polly let out a huge roar that echoed in the tunnel. The creatures reeled back in pain, hissing at the griffoness, but not daring to come closer to the pair. Awesomeshine peppered the ceiling with as many telekinetic blasts as fast as she could. The numerous weak blasts loosened the already weakened roof, collapsing the tunnel and separating the unicorn and griffon from their attackers.

The rocks fell in a cloud of choking dust, completely blocking the only route they knew led back to their friends. Looking behind them, Awesomeshine shone her horn light down the rest of the passage. “Well, that's that, I guess. We better get going while we still can.”

Polly followed the unicorn down the passage. “For what it's worth, I never really wanted to hurt any of you, and Scandia- the big fellow- wanted us to just abandon the mission and leave dragon lands altogether. We just... we can't leave Plubia like that, and she's too stubborn to realize that Nightmare doesn't really care what happens to us, and will just as likely kill us as reward us for this.”

Awesomeshine stopped to consider this for a moment before resuming their trek. “Do you think she'll leave us alone if you're returned unharmed?”

“Maybe,” Polly answered with a shrug. “It's always a possibility. You'd have to take it up with her. She and I are clutchmates, and we tend to be very loyal to our clutchmates.”

They walked for sometime in silence until they came to a fork in the passage. “Oh, dear. I was afraid of this. What now?” Awesomeshine asked.

Without an ounce of hesitation, Polly pointed down the right side. “That way.”

“What makes you say that?” the healer asked as they started down the indicated path.

Polly grinned at her. “I can feel a fresh breeze coming from that direction.”

Both their moods lightening considerably, they trotted through the tunnel, going around bend after bend, until a blessed sight greeted their eyes. “Daylight!” Awesomeshine cried out, racing for the exit now. They came to a blocked opening to the outside, but after a few minutes of carefully shifting rocks, they climbed outside and took in a lungful of the ash-filled air of the dragon lands. Not even the sulfurous tang in the air was enough to darken their moods.

Turning to the griffoness, Awesomeshine was about to agree to her idea, when she spied an even larger opening with the rest of their friends walking out. They ran to each other, Awesomeshine and Silver Script practically crashing into one another in a great hug. Polly ran up to Plubia , who just gruffly tousled her head feathers. “We heard your roar, telling us to meet you topside. How did you know you'd find a way out?”

Polly just smiled and shrugged. “I didn't, but I knew that you'd stupidly risk everything to come rescue me, so I did what I could to make you go on.”

This earned her a hard, but affectionate knock on the head, to which she objected with a muffled grunt of pain. “Dummy. The Clutchmaiden would have my head if I came back without either of you. Why don't you think of that next time before doing something foolishly heroic?”

Paladin turned to her and asked, “So, where does that leave us? We don't want to fight you, but we aren't giving up what you want from us.”

Plubia considered this for a moment before shrugging. “We already have what we want from you, our clutchmate. As far as we're concerned, you don't exist. Now, if you'll excuse us, we've earned a little vacation time, and it's a long flight to somewhere the dragons can't reach us.”

The three griffons lifted off, circling once before heading south. The ponies watched them leave, Silver Script not daring to let Awesomeshine go. “There go the second most bipolar creatures I've ever seen,” Kitten said.

Chapter 18: Against All Odds

View Online


Chapter 18: Against All Odds

~121 Aevum Illuminationis~

The sun rose over the glade, beaming down its gentle rays of warmth and dispelling the chill from the previous night. Dew sparkled on the grass like tiny jewels before evaporating, leaving the plants refreshed. A tiny stream wended its way through the glade, burbling over the rocks before crashing over a small fall and creating a mist that caught the rays of the sun, forming a rainbow.

The pastoral scene was being thoroughly enjoyed by the small animals that came out of their burrows to graze and refresh themselves after an enjoyable night's rest. Their enjoyment was interrupted by the arrival of two large ponies, one white as the driven snow, the other that same lovely shade as the night sky. They lightly touched down on the grass, hardly bending a single blade of grass beneath their gleaming, shod hooves. Their beatific smiles reassured the animals, whom had started to seek cover, but accepted their presence as they would each other.

“Art thou certs this is the place, Luna?” Celestia asked.

Luna nodded with a melancholic smile. “Aye, 'Tia, t'is cert. Mine dreams art as truthful as thy prophesies. We needst only-” Luna never finished her sentence, as she tripped over a rock in the stream, falling into it with a great splash.

“Lulu!” Celestia shouted as she ran to her sister's side, but slowed when she saw the young mare was unhurt. The blue mare looked up at her, her mane soaked thoroughly and hanging limply from her, though it made a valiant attempt at blowing in its celestial breeze. Several wet leaves clung to her coat and mane, and a sheepish grin adorned her mouth.

So silly was the sight, that the two of them broke out into gales of laughter, a sound they had not made in almost a century since their sister's passing. Celestia sat heavily on her rump and pointed st her youngest sister, but was taken by surprise as Luna sent a wave of water splashing at her mocking elder. Not one to take this assault sitting down, Celestia jumped into the water and splashed back. This of course, was only the opening shots of a splash war that left both sides soaked and panting heavily, but smiling and feeling lighter than they had in a long, long time.

When both had enough, the sat back, lounging in the water which barely came up high enough to wet their sides. The stream carried their manes and tails downstream, slowly waving them like banners as they laid on their backs, watching the puffy, white clouds above scud across the azure sky.

As usual, the younger was first to break the companionable silence. “It hath been o'erlong since we hath laughed so, 'Tia.”

“Aye,” Celestia replied simply.

“Do... dost thou thinkest these artifacts art the way to revive Twilight?” Luna asked, almost afraid to voice the fear that she knew they both held, for fear of making it a reality.

Celestia turned her head to look at her little sister, and noted not just the fear in her voice, but also the concern plain on her face. She missed the more innocent time of their youth where she and Twilight could shelter her from the harsher aspects of reality. She was taken by a stabbing pain in her chest as she remembered the past and what they had lost. Please, just give me this thing, just one more time. “I'm sure of it, Lulu.”

Luna wriggled side to side, a pained look on her face. “As much as I trust thy word, I cannot.. I... I cannot believe how much this rock doth poke at mine back!” She leaped up and looked at the offending stone. Her anger evaporated instantly into shock and joy. She picked up the rough sphere in her forehooves and held it up for Celestia's inspection. “We hath found it! The first Element of Harmony!”

Looking the stone over, Celestia smiled as she traced the triangle etched into the surface. For the first time since Twilight's sacrifice, she felt renewed hope for the future.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2015 Aevum Illuminationis~

Looking around to orient herself, Paladin consulted the crude map she had acquired in the minotaur town. Judging by the landmarks, she believed that they were near their goal, if the giant skull drawn over a certain peak was any indication. Even from here, they could see enormous opening of the cave that was Nightmare's lair. There was something off about the whole situation, but she was having trouble putting a hoof on it. It took Ricochet's keen observational skills to identify what was wrong.

“Shouldn'a there be more dragons around here?”

Paladin mentally facehoofed. It was only natural to expect to see a lot of dragons this deep in their territory, but not one scale had been seen. Of course! This close to their leader, there should be swarms of dragons, but I haven't seen one since just after we left the caves! Coughing into a hoof to gather everypony's attention, she said, “Well, I can't say this is totally unexpected. She holds all the cards, save one. Things are likely to get even more ugly than they have been so far. Once we enter Nightmare's lair, we'll be on her home turf, with whatever advantages she's managed to conjure up, with all this time to prepare. I wouldn't blame any of you if you wanted to turn around and head back home, because with odds like these, I wouldn't give us a snowball's chance in Tartarus of walking away unscathed. If any of you want to turn back, now's your absolute last chance to do so.”

Ricochet gruffly slapped a hoof over the unicorn's shoulder and laughed. “Pally, do ye nae understand by noo? We came with ye this far, we're nae gonna abandon ye noo.”

“I told you once already. I'm not letting you out of my sight, Missy,” Silver Belle said, giving her a kiss on her sandy cheek. With a smile she added, “I believe I speak for the rest of us when I say that we are with you.”

“Let's do it!” Ricochet cried out.

“Amen,” added Awesomeshine.

“Slow and easy,” Silver Script chimed in.

“All the way!” Kitten said gleefully.

“To the hilt,” Knightengale added.

Paladin had to resist the urge to sniff or wipe away the tears forming at the corners of her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she looked to the mountain looming just a few miles away and said, “Then let's go put an end to this nightmare.”

(\ /)
( . .)

The approach to the mountaintop lair was nerve wracking despite the lack of dragons. In fact, to most of the ponies there, the lack was somehow even more disconcerting than if the sky had been filled with them. At least with a visible threat, they would have some idea of with what they were dealing. The unknown was a powerful inducement to fear, since it could literally be anything.

The land somehow seemed even more desolate the closer they got to the mountain. Here, nothing but lichen grew on the underside of rocks; not even tough tumbleweed or cacti could be seen anywhere. The clouds were no thicker or darker here, but an undeniable chill blanketed the normally dry, hot land. By the time they had reached halfway up the mountain, their breath fogged in the air despite it not being quite cold enough for condensation.

“W-w-w-what's going on? W-w-w-why is it so cold here?” Kitten Caboodle asked through chattering teeth.

“I suspect it has something to do with our foe's presence,” Silver Script answered. “Certain powerful creatures can affect their surroundings like this. We must exercise extreme caution from here on out, since this appears to be the case.”

They continued their approach in silence, reaching the ledge with the massive cave opening which led deeper into the heart of the mountain. They were shocked to find two enormous, yet strangely posed dragon statues flanking the entrance. Rather than guarding poses, or something fierce, they appeared to have been surprised. Their eyes were wide, and their postures implied that they were guarding, but something shocking had happened to them. The ponies passed them by, casting a wary eye on them as they went.

The cavern itself was lit by torches as large as a pony that were hung from sconces easily twenty hooves from the ground. The floor and walls were only roughly worked as if the architect gave up after a while, deciding that it was just not worth the effort. There were only a few rooms branching off the corridor, and most of them appeared to be strangely empty. The few that weren't contained trophies taken as spoils. Most were of the mundane sort; a gilded carriage here, a waterclock there, a scattering of jewels displayed in cases, but there were much more gruesome things as well. A manticore skin rug welcomed the visitors to one room, and one wall had a display of horns, wings, and hooves taken from ponies and arranged in a fan-like pattern.

The seven ponies quickly moved on, wishing they could forget the grisly sight. At the end of the hallway, they came upon an enormous double door over thirty hooves tall and fifteen wide. It was covered in brass with runes etched into the surface. Silver Script walked up to it, carefully examining the runes and muttering to herself.

“Can you open it safely?” Awesomeshine asked in a whisper.

The scholar nodded, still inspecting the structure as she donned her peytral and shoes. “I can. I was just making sure that the magical traps she placed upon it are disarmed. It seems she was expecting us.” With a casual touch, the door swung open silently, leaving enough space for them to walk in two at a time.

Paladin took a deep breath, and walked in with Ricochet at her side. The others followed, entering a huge room. It was similar in construction to the rest of the lair, but another passage at the far end was blocked off by an obvious red field of energy. Instead of a single titanic dragon, six, pony-sized dragons met them. They appeared unconcerned about the number of opponents, being casually dismissive of the equines.

When the last pony entered, the door closed behind her and one of the dragons stood. “Finally. It took you all long enough to get here. We even made it as easy for you as we could. I'd start introductions, but you all aren't going to live long enough for it to matter, so why don't we get right to it?” she said aloofly.

Paladin rose to her hind legs and popped her wands out of her gauntlets, while Ricochet did the same with her bow, nocking an arrow, and the rest assumed aggressive postures. “Fine by me. The sooner we kick your butts, the sooner we can go home,” the sandy unicorn agreed.

The rest of the dragons stood, allowing the ponies to get a good look at them. There seemed to be a mixture of breeds present, no two of which were the same. They took to the wing, utilizing their superior maneuverability to their advantage.

Whispering quietly, Paladin said, “Concentrate your attacks on one dragon at a time. It'll be easier to take them down one at a time than separately. Follow my lead, and don't stay clumped together, but don't stray too far.” She decided to start with the smallest, hoping that he would be the easiest to bring down. She fired a series of weak blasts to get him dodging her rather than pay attention to the others.

The other ponies spread themselves out a little so that they would not present an inviting target for the dragons' breath weapons as they launched their attacks. Kitten had to resort to throwing rocks that she found on the ground while Silver Belle and Awesomeshine fired stinging blasts of energy from their horns. They had learned the spell from Paladin over the course of their journey, but lacked the practice or inclination to turn them into deadly attacks. Knightengale let loose an ultrasonic scream that disoriented everyone in the cavern, but was especially effective against the flying dragons.

The most effective were Ricochet and surprisingly, Silver Script. While the former peppered the dragon with her lethal volleys of arrows, the latter had pulled out her own wand from her saddlebag and fired a lightning bolt, scorching the surprised wyrm and sending him crashing into a wall, where he slumped into a pile and didn't rise again. Everyone looked at her in surprise, even her comrades, to which she just shrugged and took aim at another dragon.

Seeing that the deadliest among them was the magically armed earth pony, the dragons all converged on her, ignoring the rest, much to their regret. With all the attention on the scholar, Paladin was freed up to take the offensive instead of just a mere distraction. Instead of firing many smaller blasts, she held both wands at one dragon that the others were all shooting at and charged up a bigger blast. Setting her legs far apart to brace herself, she let loose a shot that still made her shift her weight from the recoil. The resulting shot slammed into another dragon, bouncing the lizard off the ceiling to land on the ground far away.

At this, the remaining four dragons scattered, but only momentarily. Out of the ponies' deadly range, they looked to one another and nodded. As one, they came at the ponies, whom had foolishly gathered close enough for their breath weapons to hit multiple targets. They flew in, heedless of the projectiles flung at them, some with lethal accuracy. They breathed as one, all seven ponies taking damage from at least one of them. A combination of fire, cold, lightning, and a cloud of acid enveloped the screaming victims. When the energy had dissipated enough to see, Kitten and Silver Belle were down, and all but Silver Script were hurt and trying to shrug off the pain. The unhurt scholar carefully aimed her wand and loosed another lightning bolt from it, striking a dragon with results similar to before.

It took Ricochet a moment to find any usable arrows in her quiver, but she quickly fired them, hitting the wings on two more, grounding them. Knightengale took this opportunity to go on the offensive, chasing down the remaining flier. Catching up to him, she let loose a disorienting shriek, so befuddling him that he flew straight into the wall at full speed as he tried to escape her. Awesomeshine channeled her magic into healing them, suffusing the area around them with a golden glow. Unfortunately, spreading her magic thus always weakened its effect, diminishing the result, which was further diminishing the healing done. Sadly, this depleted almost all of her energies, causing her to collapse at Silver Script's shod hooves.

The two grounded dragons charged the group, closing to melee range faster than any of the ponies thought possible. Ricochet and Paladin stepped up to meet them head on. Out of ammunition and knowing that a bow was all but useless in melee anyway, Ricochet turned around and bucked at one of the dragons, hearing a satisfying CRACK as hooves met jaw.

Paladin fired two bolts before the serpent was literally upon her. Grappling forelimbs pinned the wands away harmlessly while a tail wrapped itself around her barrel and wings beat at her head. The dragon tried to bite her as well, but the trained warrior was too quick, moving her head so that he only snapped down on air instead of pony flesh. The two of them thrashed around on the ground, biting, kicking and clawing, neither giving ground, neither gaining it.

Silver Script tried to get a bead on one of the remaining dragons, but both were too close to her comrades. She opted to go for a less devastating, but more accurate attack and switched out her wand for another. She grunted out the command word, and five bolts of energy streaked out, unerringly striking the dragon struggling with Paladin, which shrieked out in agony. Paladin took full advantage of the offered opening, and pointed her horn at his chest. The energy she shot out was wild and less focused than what normally came out of her wands, but at this range was no less effective. The dragon flew off to roughly skid to a halt many hooves away.

Ricochet had grappled her opponent, and was trying to put him to sleep in a hold designed to cut off his air. He was helped into unconsciousness by Silver Script firing another volley of missiles into his chest. He slumped to the ground limply and the earth pony released him with a sigh of relief. “Thank ye,” she said with a nod.

Silver Script merely nodded and looked around the room. Laying eyes on the red wall of energy, she said, “We'd best tend to our wounded and see what we can find over there.”

A sudden flash of light accompanied by a hurricane force wind blew everyone, pony and dragon alike, against the walls, stunning those still conscious. Nightmare stood there in her full glory, her head nearly brushing the ceiling and her wings spread out to emphasize her stature. “That wilt be unnecessary, little one,” she purred with a throaty growl.

Paladin was the first to recover her wits and stood, ignoring a trickle of blood running down her face. “Nightmare... we've come for what belongs to us.” Though she was terrified to be facing her down without the princesses, she was proud to note that her voice was strong and clear, without a hint of fear.

With a condescending smile, she pulled out the gems imprisoning the alicorns and said, “Dost thou meanest these,” with her other claw, she produced the Elements of Harmony, “or these?”

The unicorn looked at her in confusion. “Th- wait, what are those gems?” Even as weak as they were, she could feel some sort of connection with the gems, even as she felt something from the Elements. It hit her then. These are the gems Brimfrost was talking about!

“These?” Nightmare asked, holding up the gems dismissively. “Why, they art nothing less than the imprisoned essences of thy beloved princesses.”

Horror gripped the ponies' hearts like a vice made of ice. They knew that what she said was true, for they could finally recognize the feeling the gems elicited in them. Surprisingly, it was Silver Belle who strode forth and demanded in a clear voice, “Release them this instant, you monster!”

Nightmare smirked as she closed her paw, hiding the gems from their sight. “I think not, little one. If thou wishest to have them return'd, then thou must maketh me do so.”

With a scream of defiance, seven ponies charged her, those able to attack at a range doing so as they went. Nightmare merely laughed at their paltry assault, not even bothering to try to get out of the way. Instead, she swept a wing the size of a ship's sail in front of her, brushing all the ponies aside in a single gesture.

“Fools, the lot of thee,” she scolded. “As if thy pitiful attacks couldst harm a wyrm such as I. I hath defied death itself, returning from the nether realm that I may possess one of mine own kin to walk amongst the living once more! Thou thinkest I wouldst fall to such pitiful attempts as this? Fools twice damn'd!”

The Element that Silver Script had been carrying since they first discovered them rolled out of her saddlebag, coming to a stop in front of Paladin's nose, forcing her eyes to focus on it. The stone touched her nose, and the unicorn was struck by an epiphany so sublime, she wondered how it had not occurred to her before. Weakly rising to her hooves, she placed one on it and glared at the dragon triumphantly. “Fools we may be, but we're smart enough to recognize providence when it smacks us in the nose. We need not attack you directly, not when we have the Elements of Harmony!”

Nightmare's eyes narrowed dangerously. “Thou speakest nonsense, pony. I am in possession of the Elements, not thee. Thou canst not utilize what thou doth not possess.”

“Wrong, wyrm,” Paladin retorted, standing up straight. “I had thought that we needed to bring the Elements to the princesses, when all we needed to do was to bring them to you, though the journey was just as important, for without becoming a harmonious team as we have, we would never have fully realized their true potential! Without Ricochet's honesty telling us the things we didn't want to hear, we might never have faced the grimmest facts” One of the stones in Nightmare's paw flew over to the archer, enveloping her neck in a blindingly bright white light.

Paladin was far from finished, however. “It was Awesomeshine's kindness that lead us to her truest friend, who was essential in our search for the Elements!” Another stone flew from the dragon's paw before she could close it and enveloped her neck as well with light.

“Kitten Caboodle's constant morale boosting kept us all from losing hope when the despair threatened to consume us all!” A flash of light squeezed out of the spaces in Nightmare's closed paw and appeared around the tinker's neck.

Swallowing hard, Paladin continued, with the hardest part. “Without Knightengale's generous forgiveness for all but abandoning Ricochet, we would have never pulled together like we have.” Another flash of light despite Nightmare squeezing as hard as she could let her know that the last Element had escaped her grasp and appeared around the aganippe's neck.

Silver Belle came forward to stand next to her lover and boldly proclaimed, “And it was because of Paladin's loyalty that this quest even started! Without her, it would never have happened!” The stone beneath the sandy unicorn's hoof floated up to her neck with a bright light.

Nightmare sneered at them with derision. “Thou thinkest that to be enough to harm me? These trinkets cannot do the slightest harm to me!”

This time, it was Silver Script's turn to come forward. “Ah, but that's not the end. The most reclusive among us; the one who had the least reason to trust, has become the staunchest ally through all these travails. Were it not for those trials, I have learned of the most powerful magic of all, that of friendship.” From nowhere, a light began to glow on the scholar's brow, and all six of them floated into the air as the lights around them continued to brighten, bathing the entire cavern with its radiance.

The lights around the five ponies' necks flashed brighter then dimmed to reveal necklaces bearing the wearer's cutie mark, while the light on Silver Script's brow turned into a crown whose jewel was hers. A double helix rainbow burst forth from the group of ponies and wrapped around the horrified dragon, whom could only stand there in terrified fascination as it formed a tornado of light around her once more.

“No... No! NO! NNNOOOOOO!” she screamed and tried to burst past the prismatic wall, but saw her body begin to disintegrate upon touching it. Motes of light which once had been her body floated way, much to her terror. In a blind panic, Nightmare threw herself bodily at the closing wall, hastening the effect. Within seconds, the enormous great wyrm was gone, and in her place lay a tiny dragoness, no bigger than a hatchling.

The rainbow of energy dissipated, and the seven ponies gathered around the still figure. “Is she okay?” Awesomeshine asked timidly.

“I suspect she wilt be fine, though she wilt ne'er again host a being like Nightmare.”

The ponies whirled around to find Celestia and Luna walking towards them. Though they hid their physical weakness well, their manes told another story, as they hung limply in simple tresses of hair, rather than their normal, ethereal nimbi.

The ponies all bowed deeply, but Celestia laid a gentle hoof on Paladin's shoulder and smiled. “Rise my Little Ponies. Thou hast earned our eternal gratitude and respect this day.”

Paladin rose, her eyes shining with happiness. “Your Highness! Are you both alright? We had heard-”

“Be still, little one,” Luna said gently. “We art fine, or at least, we wilt be once we've had a chance to rest and regain our strength.”

“Indeed,” Celestia agreed with a nod. “Let us retire to Equus. We hath much to do, yet, primary amongst those is alerting our ponies that the war hast ended!” she said with a tired smile.

(\ /)
( . .)
~2016 Aevum Illuminationis~

Proudly trotting through the rebuilt walls of the palace, Paladin admired the new construction, just completed so recently, the mortar was still setting. She was proud of those walls. It had taken hours of arguing with the Ministers of Finance that they were entirely necessary for the princess' protection. She had even managed to convince them to commission Silver Script to oversee the enchanting, though that was hardly an achievement; no one was foalish enough to counter the princesses' personal student when it came to matters of magic.

The unicorn opened the door to the princesses' private study, where they were currently being waited on by Silver Belle, whom gave her a sly wink, and instructing their student on the intricacies of alicorn magic, a closely guarded state secret. The earth pony looked up from her book and nodded to the bodyguard. “I take it you're delivering a message that 'Shine will be unable to join us for lunch again,” the scholar stated, rather than asked.

With a nod, Paladin said, “Afraid so. Last I saw, she was elbows-deep in orphans, feeding them their lunches.” One of the sadder effects of the recent war were the surplus of orphaned foals, needing somepony to care for them. While there were plenty of adults (many of whom had lost their own children to the conflict) willing to take them in, there were only so many available homes, leading to the founding (and subsequent overcrowding) of orphanages, one of which was run by Awesomeshine and Kitten.

Theirs was actually one of the most overcrowded, due to the fact that the kindhearted unicorn could never turn one away. Luckily, Kitten was almost always able to find room for them, and if she couldn't, judicious application of a wheedling tone from Awesomeshine to Silver Script always resulted in another addition to the building magically appearing overnight. The scholar shook her head, but couldn't find it in her heart to even be disappointed that they would miss yet another meal together. As she often said, she would never stand in the way of what the unicorn wanted. “Very well, then,” she said simply and returned to her tome.

Luna and Celestia looked to one another and smiled, before quickly schooling their expression into carefully bland benevolence. “Silver Script, I doth believe thou hast gotten rather pallid of late. We suggest thou goeth outside and breathe in the fresh air and smell the roses,” Celestia said.

Without even looking up from her book, Silver Script waved her off dismissively, in a manner that would shock and dismay anypony who saw it. “No, thank you. There's too much to do here. I have three reports to write by the end of the week, a proposal to strengthen the palace wards to finish by tomorrow, and a batch of my newest version of arcanofigulate to watch over. It's at a very finicky stage right now.” The other four ponies raised their eyebrows at this and looked at each other in surprise.

(\ /)
( . .)

“Ye knoo, ye're the anly poony to get away with talking to the princesses like tha?” Ricochet said casually as they walked through the streets of Equus. She nodded to ponies as they passed, reveling in the attention her new armor garnered. Ever since the war, only a few personal bodyguards to the princesses had survived, most throwing their lives away in useless attacks against the dragons, and her sudden re-enlistment and promotion might have raised a few eyebrows, but given the lack of ponies available to fill the empty slots, no one raised anything more than eyebrows.

“Not to mention the only one brave or stupid enough to do it in the first place,” Knightengale added as she suppressed a chuckle at the earth pony's expense.

Silver Script merely trotted alongside them as they made their way to Awesomeshine's orphanage. “Believe it or not, they have told me on multiple occasions to treat them as normal ponies when not in formal settings, and that is how I intend to act. They appreciate not being treated like porcelain dolls.”

Knightengale shook her head in amusement. “There's a difference in treating them like regular ponies and disrespect, you know. In the end, they're still your teachers and your rulers if nothing else.” She waited for some sort of response from the reclusive mare, but when nothing more was forthcoming, she decided to move on. “So are you all going to the club tonight?”

Ricochet pulled her close and gave her a quick nuzzle. “O'carse! Like I'd miss ye singing, love!”

“I believe 'Shine mentioned something about going to a club tonight,” Silver Script replied with a nod. “I take it then, that the owner is still having trouble finding talent to take over for you?”

“Actually,” the aganippe answered with a sly grin, “he wants me to start singing full time and only do bouncing in between sets. Pays good for it too.”

The group finally arrived in front of the orphanage, where an ecstatic Awesomeshine came bounding out of the yard where the foals were playing. She ran up to Silver Script, enveloping her in a great hug and kissed her full on the lips. “We all missed you here, Sil! The little ones bugged us all week to get you to finish the story you started.”

A deeply blushing Silver Script pulled her head back, but made no move to escape the hug. “I was here just yesterday, 'Shine. I sincerely doubt they've been 'bugging you all week'.”

“Whatever, whatever. Come on! The tykes have been anxious to see their Auntie Silver again!” Awesomeshine pulled her by a foreleg into the yard where they were immediately swarmed by foals looking for attention from the two mares. The group herded themselves over to the shade of a tree where they sat, the two adults at the center and leaning on one another, with the youngsters surrounding them. Kitten Caboodle came out pushing a cart filled with glasses of lemonade for all and smiled as she saw Silver Script begin the story where she had last left off.

With the merest ghost of a smile, Silver Script began. “The inscrutable alicorn Twilight knew that only one course of action truly lay open to her. If her ponies were to survive, she would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the ponies whom she loved, and loved her in return. It was a grim duty, but she knew that only she could accomplish this duty of the heart...”