Brownie Sundae is a simple mercenary. She does her job and keeps her promises. All she wants is to find employment that won't leave a bad taste in her mouth, but when gods and devils conspire to create havoc, what can one pony do?
Brownie Sundae is a simple mercenary. She does her job and keeps her promises. All she wants is to find employment that won't leave a bad taste in her mouth, but when gods and devils conspire to create havoc, what can one pony do to stop them?
A Ponyfinder crossover. No knowledge of Ponyfinder is required to understand the story, but some basic background information is included in the author's notes for Chapter 1. This story takes place in the same universe as A Dangerous Sparkle and The Apple Falls Far from the Tree (both by David Silver), but familiarity with those stories is also not required.
The story is somewhat violent and I attempted to portray the violence realistically, which may disturb some readers.
Deepcrag, the underground capital city of the Dwarves, frequently hosted examples of the many other peoples of Everglow. The Dwarves were master miners and craftsmen, and enjoyed highly profitable trade arrangements with several other nations.
An earthbound pony mare stopped at an intersection to consult a hoof-drawn map. She was very plain, for a pony; her blonde mane and brown coat were so unremarkable as to make her blue eyes stand out, and her brand of destiny was a generic canyon with a river in it. She put the map back into her saddlebags and was about to continue walking, when a dark-grey griffon landed in front of her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, can you direct me to the First National Bank of Deepcrag?”
The pony looked curiously at the griffon. “As it happens, I was just on my way there myself. It’s down this street a ways and then up a block—“
“Cool, I can just follow you then.” He noticed that the pony was wearing a very used-looking greatsword that was a couple inches longer than her body. “Are you a mercenary too?”
“Too?” The pony looked closer at the griffon and saw he was wearing a shortsword and some kind of leather armor.
“It’s okay, the notice said they wanted to hire four guards, so we don’t have to compete with each other. My name’s Shadow Claw, what’s yours?” He held out a claw.
The pony looked at the claw, but didn’t offer any gesture in return. “I’m Brownie Sundae. What makes you think we’re the only candidates for the job?”
“It’s just a boring bank guard; there’s not much excitement in that. What’s that parcel on your back? It’s plate armor, right? You must be pretty professional to have your own set of plate armor.”
“It was my grandfather’s, and it’s not a full set; the greaves have all been lost one place or another and the helmet got ruined by an axe-wielding troll.”
As they approached their destination they could easily recognize the bank; even on a street lined with impressive buildings, the Deepcrag First National Bank was an architectural spectacle. They also saw what were clearly other mercenaries entering the bank. Brownie quickened her pace and soon reached the door. Her heart sank as she saw the number of applicants forming a line in front of an officious dwarf seated behind a massive desk. She had nothing to lose, so she added herself to the end of the queue.
Shadow Claw quickly caught up to her. “Hey, what’s the rush…oh.” He ruffled his feathers in irritation. “Dangit, I hate waiting. Maybe we should go look somewhere else.”
“Speak for yourself. I spent my last copper on the lightning rail ticket to get here; I need this job.”
Shadow grumbled but stood behind her.
As she waited for her turn, Brownie inspected the other people in line. To her surprise, there were no dwarves at all. Every person applying for this job appeared to be an alien like her. Her attention was drawn to the front of the line by raised voices. The dwarf behind the desk and the human at the front of the line seemed to be angry at each other about something. After a few moments of squabbling the human abruptly stormed out of the bank.
“Next!” the dwarf called, loudly enough to be clearly heard over the background voices in the room.
As time dragged on, more and more applicants left the room in various states of dissatisfaction. Brownie began to wonder what the job must be like to discourage so many. Finally, she found herself at the front of the line.
“Name?” the dwarf asked flatly.
“Brownie Sundae.” Brownie tried to stand up as straight as she could with the sword still hanging off to one side.
“The responsibilities of this job are as follows:” the dwarf recited, “Greet cheerfully every person that enters the bank through your assigned door, remain standing for ten hours a day and prevent any thieves or hostile persons from harming customers or leaving the bank until they have been arrested by law enforcement officials. Are you able to meet these requirements?” He peered through thick glasses at Brownie’s abused equipment.
“Yes, sir,” Brownie replied.
“Heh, aren’t you going to tell me about your mighty deeds or how you’re over-qualified for this job?” He waited for a moment and when there was no reply he continued, “Compensation will be 1 gold piece per week plus free medical insurance covering only injuries received in the line of duty.”
Ah, that explained it. The rest of these mercenaries undoubtedly thought they could earn several times as much anywhere else, and most of them were probably right. Brownie, on the other hoof, was trapped. She didn’t even have the money to look elsewhere unless she took this job. “I’m your mare.”
* * *
After a week of working as a bank guard, Brownie began to suspect that many of the humanoid applicants had refused the job as soon as they heard the requirement to stand for ten hours. Even as a quadruped, her joints were quite stiff after a day of standing by the door and faking a smile to everyone that went past.
The bank had hired four guards altogether, including Brownie and Shadow. The friendly griffon had made it his personal mission to come up with nicknames for all of the other guards. He was posted on the opposite side of the door Brownie was guarding, so he had ample opportunity to test out his ideas on her.
“Hey, Blondie! How’s life treating you?” he said when a lull in customer traffic gave him a chance to stop greeting for a moment.
“My name is Brownie, and you know that,” she countered without looking at him.
“Aw, don’t be a wet blanket. I already have nicknames for the other two.” He pointed at a halfling. “He’s ‘Pint’,” he shifted his claw to indicate a unicorn, “and he’s Spike, get it?”
“I don’t like being called ‘Blondie’. Welcome to the First National Bank of Deepcrag,” she said to an elderly dwarf. “Besides, it’s not any shorter than ‘Brownie’.”
“That’s not the point,” Shadow protested, “it’s like bonding. Welcome to the First National Bank of Deepcrag. Wow, you’re big.”
The antean that Shadow had just addressed gave him a wilting glare.
“Whoa, uh, I meant, you’re the picture of health, sir.”
As the equine giant continued into the bank, Brownie watched him suspiciously. “I heard some of the customers talking about a gang of bandits that included an antean,” she told Shadow in a low voice.
“Come on, Brown, are you saying that all anteans are bandits?” He polished the hilt of his short sword with a wingtip.
“He’s carrying a really big sack.”
“Maybe he’s going to make a large withdrawal.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Brownie turned her head so the hilt of her sword was touching the side of her face.
“Relax, pony girl. One antean doesn’t make a gang. Welcome to the First National—“ Shadow was cut off in mid-sentence by a club to the head.
Brownie snatched her sword in her mouth and drew it as quickly as the long blade would allow. The unicorn magically wielding the club spun around and tried to hit Brownie as well, but she blocked the blow with her own weapon. The shock of the two weapons colliding almost wrenched the sword out of her teeth, but she managed to keep her grip on it.
Meanwhile, inside the bank, a purrsian and a human had already killed the other two guards. The antean kicked the large counter with both hind legs, smashing it to splinters. Tellers fled in all directions leaving the bandits free to approach the open vault unchallenged.
The unicorn bandit swung his club rapidly, leaving no opening for Brownie to swing her ungainly weapon. She protected her head with her sword, but received several new dents in her armor. In frustration, she lunged forwards and knocked the pommel of her sword against her opponent’s forehead. The unicorn yelped and dropped his club, reaching up with both forehooves to protect his sensitive horn. Brownie jumped back and swung the business end of her sword with lethal finality.
Shadow Claw appeared to be conscious, but very dazed. “Wha-, who, whassappening?” he asked lucidly.
“’Dey’re ahacking da hank!” Brownie said around a mouthful of sword, “Hel’ me s’op ‘em!” And with that, she ran inside.
Two of the three remaining bandits had gone into the vault, apparently trusting the unicorn to deal with the front door. The human had been left to guard the vault door, but his attention was mostly inside the vault. By the time he saw Brownie, she was already swinging her sword. His scream alerted the other two and they came rushing out of the vault to find Brownie still pulling her sword out of their associate.
Before she could react, the antean spun around and kicked her in the chest. The impact lifted her off her hooves and sent her flying across the room to land on a desk that broke under her weight. Her armor had softened the blow, but now the huge dent in the chest plate was restricting her breathing.
She jumped to her feet and held her sword up in a defensive posture, but the antean had followed her and kicked her again, this time right in the mouth. The pain was so intense that she momentarily lost her vision and hearing.
When they returned, she found herself lying in a pile of broken wood further across the room. She couldn’t tell what had happened to her face, only that everything above her neck hurt. Her mouth and nose were full of blood and she couldn’t feel or move her jaw. She tried to spit out the blood in her mouth but all she could manage was to let it dribble out. In her peripheral vision, she saw the two remaining bandits approaching.
She struggled to her feet, gasping for air, and looked around desperately for anything she could use. The antean stopped in front of her and grinned evilly. The purrsian next to him held up a serrated dagger and started to move towards Brownie.
“Shadow Strike!” Shadow Claw dropped suddenly on the purrsian’s back and the two of them rolled around on the floor, trying to strike a lethal blow with their weapons. The antean turned his head to look at the two winged cats, distracted for just a moment.
Brownie jumped onto his back and wrapped her forelegs around his throat.
The giant bucked and thrashed, trying to throw off his equine passenger. With each bounce, Brownie could feel fragments of bone moving around in her ruined face, but she just squeezed tighter. In desperation, her foe threw himself backwards into walls and furniture, but she moved her head to the side and let her armor take the pounding. Finally, the massive juggernaut staggered to a halt, dropped to his knees and rolled over, unconscious.
“Brownie, are you okay?” Shadow asked idiotically. Apparently, he had beaten his enemy too. That was good.
Brownie’s senses faded as the adrenaline in her system dissipated. She stared mutely at Shadow for a moment before she lost consciousness.
* * *
When Brownie awoke, she found it much easier to breathe than it had been before. The feedback from her senses was confusing at first, but she gradually deduced that most of her head was wrapped in bandages. She felt like there was a pipe in her mouth, at least, she hoped it was her mouth. It had been obvious that the damage to her mouth was extensive, but she had no way of knowing what had actually happened. She tried to call out, but with the pipe in her mouth she could only manage an animalistic grunt.
“Oh, she’s awake,” said a dwarfish voice, “tell her friend he can come see her.” She felt a pair of hands fussing with the bandages on her head. After a moment, a turn of bandage was removed and her eyes were unobstructed.
The speaker appeared to be the same elderly dwarf that she had greeted on his way into the bank…however long ago that had been. “I’m glad you made it,” he said with a smile, “You saved my life, and I wanted to thank you personally.”
Brownie’s mouth was still full of pipe, so she just nodded.
“I’m doctor Grimli Coldhands. Your heroics in the bank were quite a sight; you were as stubborn as any dwarf,” he said in a tone that made it sound like the ultimate compliment. “That monster did a number on you though. I’ve got good news and bad news, which would you like to hear first?”
Brownie gave him what she hoped was a wilting glare.
“Oh, right, sorry! Very well, I’ll mix them up. Your entire muzzle was shattered when that horse kicked you. I was able to reconstruct your nose and extract all of the bone chips from your face, but I was unable to save your teeth or jaws. You may have noticed the pipe in your mouth. That’s to hold your mouth open so you can breathe while your nose is healing.”
Noticing that his patient’s expression had changed to one of shock, he quickly continued, “The good news is that I know a smith who makes prosthetics, the best in the whole dwarven nation, and your employer has agreed to cover the entire cost. Don’t you worry, we’ll get you fixed up so you can’t even tell the difference.”
Brownie let out a sigh. There wasn’t much else to be said.
“There’s someone here to visit you.” The doctor opened the door, letting in a familiar griffon. “I’ll leave you two alone.” He smiled at Brownie and closed the door behind him.
After a long and awkward pause, Shadow finally spoke. “So, uh, I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“You were amazing. I have a new nickname for you.”
Brownie rolled her eyes.
“I think you’ll like this one. All the dwarves are going on and on about how you wouldn’t let go, so I think we should call you Death Grip. Isn’t that great? Everywhere you go, people will know you as ‘Death Grip, the merc that never gives up’. It’ll be great publicity; you won’t have to take lame guard jobs anymore, you can do anything you want if you have a cool merc name."
Brownie patted Shadow’s head with a forehoof.
* * *
A few days later, doctor Coldhands brought his friend, Kiln Ironbelt to visit Brownie. The smith was an eccentric dwarf that talked all the time, but usually to himself. His peculiar manner made it hard to tell if he heard what was said to him, but after several visits to measure Brownie’s face, he presented her with a masterfully crafted set of adamantine jaws and teeth. The surgery to install them was a team effort between the doctor and the smith. Brownie was sure that dwarf magic figured into the process somewhere, for when they were done she could not tell where her own bone ended and the new prosthetic started.
“Those are guaranteed for life, or 500 years, whichever’s longer,” the smith said with pride before abruptly turning on his heel and slamming the door behind him.
“Kiln’s a strange one,” Grimli observed, “but there’s no person, living or dead, that can match his knack for animal parts.”
“He even preserved the sexy shape of your face,” Shadow teased. “Well, let’s see you grin.”
Brownie self-consciously parted her lips to show two rows of jet-black teeth. “Thish will take shum getting ushed to,” she said.
Brownie Sundae sat on her bed in the Deepcrag General Hospital, staring into space, until she heard a knock. “Come in?” She refocused her eyes and looked toward the door.
The door opened to admit Shadow Claw. “Hi, Blondie! Doc says you can leave today.”
Brownie frowned, “Shtop calling me Blondie; it’sh not my name.” After a few days of practice, she had mostly adjusted to talking with the new teeth, but she still had a mild speech impediment that made her ‘s’ sound a little off.
“Sure thing Death Grip, you’re the boss.”
Something clicked in Brownie’s head. “Your name isn’t actually Shadow Claw, is it?” she guessed.
Shadow’s smile faded. “No, not really, but I wish it was.”
“What is it, really?” she pressed.
He looked at his front claws. “Short Beak, if you must know. I have the smallest beak in my family, and almost the shortest in my village.”
“It looks plenty long to me.”
“Thanks, but you’re no expert on griffons.”
“Anyway, it’s not a scary and impressive merc name, so I decided to call myself Shadow Claw. You know, because of my dark plumage and terrifying talons.”
He looked at her seriously. “Please don’t ever call me Short Beak, especially not in front of other mercenaries.”
“Don’t call me Blondie.”
“Okay, you’re right. That’s fair,” he conceded. “I found out some things you might like to know,” he added, “such as, we’re rich!”
Brownie raised an eyebrow. “When did we get rich?”
“When we killed or captured four notorious criminals that call themselves ‘The Stampede’. There was a reward for each of them.” Shadow frowned and added, “It’s a good thing too; the bank doesn’t want us anymore. Apparently they just hired us because they heard about that gang. They have a reputation for killing all the guards everywhere they rob, so the bank hired a bunch of non-dwarf guards because they expected us to be killed.”
Brownie considered this news for a moment, and then shrugged. “It makes sense, I suppose. I have to admit it upsets me less when non-ponies die.”
“It still seems pretty cold to me,” Shadow grumbled. “In any case, they certainly didn’t expect us to beat the baddies and claim the reward. Well, I suppose I should say, didn’t expect you to beat the baddies. Most of the reward is rightfully yours.”
The pony waved a hoof dismissively. “You saved my life, let’s split it evenly.”
Shadow beamed. “I am completely okay with that plan.” After a moment, he added, “So, what’s next?”
“What? Why are you asking me?” Brownie asked incredulously, “I don’t have a plan for myself, much less for you. My plan when I came to Deepcrag was ‘get a job’. That’s it. I was this close to starving.” She held her forehooves an inch apart. “Don’t you have any ideas?”
“Well, we could form a mercenary band. Kind of like our own little guild.”
Brownie stared in confusion for a moment and then narrowed her eyes. “When did you and I become ‘we’?” she asked suspiciously.
“Oh come on, Brown, you saved my life! I saved your life! We make a perfect team; it’s destiny!”
“I hardly know you, Shadow. In this business, you live longer if you trust nopony.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“It’s a saying in my family.”
“Oh, I see,” Shadow said in an exaggerated tone, “is your family a bunch of rich and powerful mercenaries?”
There was a long pause. “They’re all dead,” Brownie said finally.
Shadow winced. “I’m sorry, I spoke hastily.”
The pony just nodded.
“What I meant to say is that no one can stand alone. The toughest fighter or the most feared mercenary still needs friends. You don’t know me, but that just means we need to get better acquainted.”
Brownie’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you asking me out?”
“No! I meant we should, uh, spar or discuss our backgrounds or something! I mean, I guess you’re kind of cute – for a pony, that is – but I wasn’t…I didn’t…” Shadow noticed Brownie’s expression. “Are you pranking me?”
Brownie held her serious face for a moment longer, then snorted involuntarily and started laughing. Shadow soon joined her. Once they both regained their composure, Shadow said, “It’s not really all that funny. We should go practice together, for real. You have to get used to your new mouth, and I could clearly learn a few things from you; you killed two bandits while I was busy seeing stars.”
“I started learning to fight before I was old enough to remember,” Brownie explained, “I don’t know a lot of fancy tricks, but I’m pretty comfortable with my equipment.” She looked towards the corner of the room where her mangled armor had been piled. “Do you know what happened to my sword?”
“I grabbed it when they carried you off to the hospital. I can’t believe you swing that thing with your mouth; I can hardly carry it.”
“Like I said, I started working those muscles when I was young.” Brownie jumped down from the bed and started collecting her things. “Come on then. Let’s go practice.”
* * *
After stopping to thank doctor Coldhands on the way out, Brownie and Shadow went to the inn that was Shadow’s temporary residence to collect the rest of their gear and then made their way to an open area that would be a safe place to spar. Brownie’s armor was so badly dented she couldn’t get it on, even with Shadow’s help.
“Why don’t we start with some unarmed maneuvers,” Shadow suggested. He stood on his hind legs and struck a dramatic pose with his talons held forward.
Brownie casually walked up to him and kicked him in a kneecap.
“Argh, what!?” he protested as he went down in a graceless heap. “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ugh. How did you do that?”
“Do what, kick you?”
“How did you get past my defensive martial stance? Never mind, this time I’m ready.”
Brownie kicked him in the wrist.
After several more attempts to anticipate Brownie’s attacks, Shadow realized that his defensive moves were all based on the assumption that he was fighting someone who was also classically schooled. Brownie wasn’t ‘using moves’, she was just kicking him in sensitive areas, and he was quickly losing interest in finding out just how many of those he had.
“Okay, enough,” he said at last, “I’ve lost the feeling in all of my extremities. You hit hard.”
“Just be glad you’re not fighting that giant that attacked the bank.”
“Sorry. On that topic, though, maybe it’s time to see what your new teeth can do.”
Brownie clamped her adamantine jaws on the hilt of her sword and drew it awkwardly. “I can’d dell how hard I’m biding id,” she complained.
The griffon set up a few sticks tied to rocks as targets. Brownie swung at the first, but the sword slid out of her grip and went clattering along the stone floor. She ran to retrieve it and tried again, this time biting down as hard as she could. The sword cut through the stick easily.
“Looks like you’ve still got it,” Shadow encouraged.
Brownie set the sword down to talk. “I couldn’t feel what I was doing; it felt like I was telling somepony else what to do rather than doing it myself.” She looked at her sword and frowned. “And there’s also this problem.”
Shadow followed Brownie’s gaze and saw that there were deep tooth marks in the hilt of the sword. “Wow,” he agreed, “you bit right through the grip and left bite marks in the tang.”
“This isn’t going to work; I’ll bite the hilt right off if I can’t be more precise.”
“Maybe we just need to get a good pad so it isn’t metal on metal,” the griffon suggested.
“Yeah, maybe. What’s that thing?” Brownie pointed a hoof at Shadow’s back.
“This? It’s a longbow. I actually prefer it over the sword, but it wouldn’t have been much good as a bank guard.”
“How does it work? I don’t see a trigger or anything.”
Shadow pulled out the bow and drew the string with a talon. “I just pull the string like this,” he explained.
“Hm. I guess that’s why I never see ponies using those.”
“Talons are the greatest.”
Brownie kicked him in the knee.
“Argh!” He fell down again. “Why would you do that? We weren’t even fighting!”
“That’s how my father taught me to fight,” the pony explained with no hint of malice, “He would just walk up to me and kick me. At first, he would say something like, ‘think fast’ but after a while he just kicked. It didn’t take long for me to start anticipating his attacks.”
“That’s horrible,” the fallen griffon groaned.
“How did you learn…what you learned?”
“I took classes from martial arts masters. They told me to memorize the basic forms and practice combining moves.” He gestured at the longbow. “I took a class to learn the longbow too. That felt more natural to me, so I learned it faster.”
“That must have been expensive.”
“I guess it was.” Shadow noticed Brownie’s questioning look and quickly amended, “I mean, yes, it was. Obviously, I had to do whatever it took to prepare myself for the life of an adventurer. No non-adventurer truly understands us, am I right?”
Brownie looked at him for a moment, “I’m not an adventurer, I’m just a mercenary. I do what I’m told, and I hopefully get paid. Did you expect the bank guard job to be an adventure?”
“You have to start somewhere. Now we’re famous, so we can get really cool quests and stuff.” He grinned for a moment, and then sagged. “You’re famous, I mean. That’s why I want you to go adventuring with me: all the dwarves respect you now. We could just walk into a tavern and say, ‘make way for Death Grip,’ and they’d be fawning all over us to give us jobs to do.”
The pony furrowed her brow. “I’m sure you’re exaggerating my fame. All I did was choke an antean and get my face kicked in.” She carefully picked up her sword and sheathed it. “What about that reward, how do we claim it?”
“They said they could authorize payment later today,” Shadow said, “and it’s later, so we could go check that out, if you want?”
* * *
The reward turned out to be more than Brownie was expecting, but less than Shadow hoped. Brownie used some of her money to have her sword and armor repaired. Shadow immediately spent most of his share on a few magical items that he claimed would make him unstoppable.
After checking at several taverns, Shadow found a notice offering what amounted to a treasure hunt. A mine near Deepcrag had been unused for decades and was probably inhabited by monsters. The previous owner had recently died and his heir wanted some objects of sentimental value retrieved. The notice Shadow had found explained that the client would allow the adventuring team to keep anything else they found in the mine, so long as all of the listed items were recovered.
Brownie was dubious about the value of “anything else” but eventually Shadow persuaded her to participate. Brownie promised to meet him at the inn in the morning and spent the remainder of the day buying provisions.
The next day, Shadow came down from his room to find Brownie sleeping on top of her saddlebags in the common area. He poked her with a talon. “Brown?”
“Hmm? Oh, hi Shadow.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Since about sundown, I think. It’s hard to estimate time in this city.”
Shadow recoiled. “Why didn’t you get a room? You could have even shared mine.”
“It’s no big deal, I always sleep in the common room, it’s much cheaper.” Brownie stood up and stretched her legs. “Are you ready to go?”
Shadow opened his beak to protest, but as he looked around the room, he realized that many other people were staying in the common room, and most of them were dwarves. Apparently it was normal for other races. “Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.” As they walked out of the inn he said, “Do most people, um, worry so much about money?”
Brownie laughed humorlessly. “They either worry or starve. How is it you’re so relaxed? You didn’t seem all that plush when we were working at the bank.”
“I guess I had a privileged upbringing,” Shadow conceded.
“Well, good for you. If you’re so rich you don’t have to worry about money, what are you doing wandering around Everglow trying to get yourself killed?”
“That’s just the point,” the griffon said defensively, “I wanted to prove that I could take care of myself without my parent’s money. I am my own griffon.”
Brownie stopped walking and glared at him. “So this is all just a stunt? You play mercenary for a little while, then you go back to your money and tell everypony how brave you are?”
“No, I’m in this for real!” Shadow protested. “I broke with my family when I left. I either live as a mercenary or die as a failure.”
Brownie’s expression changed quickly to one of horror, then anger, before finally settling on depression. She started to speak twice, but changed her mind. Finally, she muttered, “You’re an idiot. Just don’t get me killed,” and started walking again.
Shadow nodded slowly. “I’ll pull my weight, you’ll see. I—“
Brownie cut him off with an upraised hoof, but didn’t look in his direction. “Later.”
The pony and the griffon stood next to each other at the boarded-up entrance to an old dwarven mine. The journey to this point had been almost completely silent, with Brownie having nothing to say and Shadow being afraid to say anything. Shadow looked at Brownie timidly. “Are you still mad?”
Brownie sighed. “No. It’s forgotten, let’s move on. What do you know about dwarf mines?”
Shadow happily accepted the topic change. “Well the dwarves do a lot of mining, and they’re pretty good at it. The risk of cave-ins is probably lower in a dwarf mine, but that might make it more attractive to monsters that want to make it their lair. Dwarves can see in the dark, so I wouldn’t expect any natural lighting, and I suppose any torches and stuff probably got removed when the mine was abandoned.”
Brownie nodded. “I’ll light a torch. What items are we looking for?”
The griffon rummaged in his pack and produced a crumpled note. “A green amulet with the family crest on it, a book with a red leather cover and no title, a diamond necklace, and a hand mirror,” he read. “There’s also…no wait, that’s crossed out.”
“Hm?” Brownie craned her neck to read over his shoulder.
That weird cursed sword grandpa found Never mind the stupid sword, it’s worthless
“Cursed, huh? We probably don’t want to mess with that.”
Shadow shrugged. “I admit I’m kind of curious now.”
Brownie just rolled her eyes and started trying to light a torch. After a few tries, she got it lit and gave it to Shadow to hold while she put her tinderbox away, then took it back with her mouth and started into the mine.
The mine opening led to a horizontal tunnel which in turn led to a chamber with a safe, several cabinets and an elevator. Shadow inspected the contents of the cabinets while Brownie held the torch. He found the book and the mirror in the second cabinet he opened.
“The jewelry is probably in the safe,” he speculated.
Shadow spent the next half hour trying to open the safe before Brownie finally stopped him.
“Da dorsh will burn oud if we dake doo long”
Shadow looked baffled for a moment. “Oh, the torch. Right. What about the safe though? It probably has what we’re looking for in it.”
“We can ged id on da way back. Oh, look.” Brownie tapped him on the shoulder and pointed into one of the cabinets he had opened.
He turned to see a lantern and supply of oil sitting on a shelf. “Oh, good idea.” Shadow retrieved the lantern and lit it. “This should last longer than the torch. It’s easier to carry too.”
Brownie put out the torch and took the lantern, hanging it on one of her saddlebags. “I might need my mouth free, depending on what else we find.”
“I guess we should see what’s down the elevator then?” He held the elevator door open with one talon and made a sweeping gesture with the other. “Ladies first.”
The elevator was a metal cage that hung from cables. A lever in the cage controlled an enchanted winch that moved the cables. When they were both inside, Shadow closed the safety gate and Brownie pulled the lever down slowly with a foreleg. The elevator began to descend.
“What do you expect to find in an old mine?” she asked Shadow.
“Well, best case scenario would be the key to that safe, but there might be some pick-axes or leftover gold or something useful.”
“Did the client ever say this used to be a gold mine?”
Shadow considered the question for a moment. “You know, I don’t think he did. Maybe it’s a mithral mine, or adamantine, or something really valuable like that.”
“Adamantine comes from space, at least that’s what it says in the pamphlet Mr. Ironbelt gave me. This could just as easily be a lead mine or something.”
“I sure hope it’s not lead, that would be lame.” They were both quiet for a moment, then Shadow said, “Space, huh? Does it make you feel weird, knowing you have star metal in your mouth?”
“No weirder than having a metal mouth in the first place.” Brownie licked her teeth and grimaced. “I forgot to clean these last night; the pamphlet says I have to scrub them every night or they will ‘foster bacteria’, whatever that means.”
“How deep is this shaft?” Shadow tried to peek through the gap between the cage floor and the wall of the shaft, but the light from the lantern did not reach past the cage.
Brownie yawned and her ears popped. “We must be pretty deep already— Oh, here we are.”
The elevator had passed through the ceiling of an enormous cavern. The lantern light did not reach far enough to illuminate the walls. As they neared the ground, Brownie gradually released the winch-control lever. The elevator ground to a halt and bumped the ground gently. There was a set of tracks leading from the elevator into the gloom and next to that was a cable connected to a giant winch.
“Ground floor, everypony out,” Shadow said.
“You can come too,” Brownie countered as she walked into the cavern.
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Shadow said as he followed her, “if you know I’m not a pony, and you know ‘everypony’ doesn’t include non-ponies, why do you still use it to mean ‘everyperson’?”
Brownie chuckled. “It’s an old habit. Practically everyone in my hometown was a pony, so as a foal it was hard to understand the difference between ‘everypony’ and ‘everyperson’. Some of the colts liked to make up extra distinctions such as ‘everyfilly’ and ‘everycolt’ to make it easier to exclude the fillies from their secret meetings.”
Shadow looked slightly embarrassed. “Yes, I remember being that age. Um, just to make sure, colts are male and fillies are female, right?”
“Yes, and foals are any non-adult.” She smiled slightly. “One of the colts convinced his friends to make me an honorary colt after I beat up two of them for stealing my hoofball.”
“What was it like being the only girl in a group of boys?”
“That was only a week before the town was destroyed by gem gnolls, so we didn’t play much.”
Shadow slapped himself in the face with a claw. “For goodness sake, Brown! I’m not trying to step on your talons, really!” He hesitantly added, “How old were you?”
“Ten. Don’t worry, I’m pretty much over it.”
“I’m really sorry—“ He broke off as Brownie suddenly stopped walking and gasped. “What’s wrong?”
Brownie turned to face him and held up a bloody right forehoof with a spiked piece of metal buried in it. “Caltrops,” she said through gritted teeth, “Watch where you step.”
Shadow blanched. “Oh my, um, let me help you with that.”
“Let’s move back first.” She hobbled backwards on three legs for a few feet and then sat on her haunches. “I have some bandages and disinfectant in my left saddlebag.” She grabbed the lantern off of said saddlebag and held it up where it illuminated the area in front of her.
Shadow retrieved the first aid supplies from Brownie’s bag and then tried to pull the caltrop out of her hoof, but he was afraid to pull too hard and it didn’t move.
“Yust pull id oud already,” Brownie said around the lantern handle.
Shadow yanked the spike out suddenly and heard a crunch. He looked up at Brownie’s face and saw sweat running down her muzzle. He also noticed that the wooden grip on the wire holding the lantern had been reduced to splinters. “Are you okay?”
Brownie swallowed and nodded.
Shadow finished treating and dressing the wounded hoof, wrapping the bandages as tightly as he could. “There, that’s the best I can do. Do you want to head back? I…could try to carry you.”
Brownie set down the lantern and spit out a few pieces of wood. “No, I’ll be okay. We just need to be really careful going forward. You have wings and claws; you should go first and move any caltrops you find. I’ll stay right behind you.”
“Alright, if you’re sure.” Shadow grabbed the lantern and crept forward slowly, scanning the ground carefully. Every time he found a caltrop, he flapped his wings for balance and picked it up with his free claw. After a few feet, there were no more in sight and they started walking faster, but still more cautiously than before.
Shadow snuck occasional glances at Brownie to see how well she was coping with her wounded foot, but she caught him looking the third time, so he forced himself to look ahead. This was fortunate, as it allowed him to see that the tracks they had been following led up to the edge of an apparently bottomless chasm. “Whoa, end of the road,” he announced.
Brownie sat down next to him. “The cable goes right over the edge,” she observed.
Shadow stood on his hind legs and held the lantern high, shielding his eyes with his other talon. “I can’t see the other side,” he said at last. “I could try flying over, but flying in the dark in a cave over a bottomless pit would be really dangerous. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t carry you and fly at the same time, no offense.”
“None taken. I doubt I could fly while carrying you either,” Brownie replied with a smirk. “I guess this is as far as we go.” She turned back the way they had come, and froze. “Shadow!” she whispered, “Look!”
Shadow turned quickly and looked down the tunnel to see two clusters of dimly-glowing eyes slowly approaching. As he concentrated his senses in that direction, he began to hear the skittering sound of many legs. “Spiders!” he whispered back to Brownie, “Great big spiders!” He set down the lantern and pulled out his bow.
Brownie drew her sword. The noise of the blade scraping against the scabbard seemed to attract the spiders’ attention and they started moving towards her. Shadow quickly nocked an arrow and loosed it at the nearest set of eyes. None of the eyes went out, but an angry hiss told him he had hit something. He reached for another arrow, but the spiders broke into a run and quickly came close.
Brownie jumped in front of the griffon and swung her sword viciously. The sword met with less resistance than she was expecting and her follow-through struck the blade powerfully against the wall, creating a small shower of rock fragments.
One of the spiders lurched forward into the lantern light and tried to grab Brownie in its mandibles, but they scraped harmlessly against her armor. She swung her sword around again and chopped off two of its legs. Shadow stepped up next to her and shot an arrow point-blank into its face. The spider screeched and fell to the ground, thrashing reflexively.
“That’s what you—“ Shadow began, but stopped in mid-sentence as the second spider sank its fangs into his back. “Argh!”
Brownie spun around and stabbed her sword into the second spider’s mouth, trying to pry it off of Shadow. When that didn’t work, she let go of the sword and kicked the hilt with both forehooves, driving it in up to the crossbar. The spider stiffened and started to fall. Brownie grabbed Shadow’s pack in her teeth and dragged him out from under the spider before he could be crushed.
“Shadow! Is it poisonous?” When she got no response, she grabbed his face between her front hooves and forced him to look at her. “Shadow! Shadow, can you hear me?”
The griffon was breathing rapidly and starting to foam at the mouth. Brownie dropped him, pulled off her saddlebags and began rummaging through them quickly. She found a vial full of colorful liquid and pulled the cork out with her teeth, then she poured the contents into Shadow’s mouth and held his beak shut with her hooves until he swallowed. Brownie watched him to make sure he was still breathing, while listening for any sounds of other spiders nearby.
After a few minutes, he seemed to be breathing easier, so she went to retrieve her sword. The hilt had been thoroughly covered with the spider’s various bodily fluids, and Brownie was loath to put that in her mouth, so she hooked her uninjured forehoof around one of the cross bars and dragged it back to where she had left her saddlebags.
Now she had to think. The first option that presented itself to her was that she could carry Shadow back to the entrance. However, he was just as big as she was and she would also need to carry the lantern. If she had the lantern in her mouth and the griffon on her back, she would be helpless if they were attacked by spiders, or worse. When her injured hoof was taken into consideration, the plan seemed downright foolish.
She tried again. Continuing forward was impossible. What if she left him here? Brownie mentally scolded herself for even acknowledging that possibility; she wouldn’t do that to an enemy, much less the only friend she had. She hesitated a moment as she realized that she did consider him a friend. It hadn’t been intentional—she didn’t even like him sometimes—but there was no doubt that she was, in fact, emotionally invested in this griffon. So much for promises; ‘never again’ had lasted just under a year.
Brownie brought her thoughts back to looking for a solution. She had several days’ food and water; maybe she could just stay here and guard Shadow until he woke up, then he could haul his own sorry rump out of this hole. Yes, that could work. With a working plan, Brownie busied herself collecting and cleaning her gear.
* * *
After a few hours, Brownie saw a light coming down the tunnel towards her. She called out, “Hello? We’re not hostile, can you help us?” She picked up the lantern and swung it back and forth a few times. A few minutes later, a trio of adventurers came into view: A dwarf, an elf and a wolf with an orange and red coat. As they came closer, Brownie thought she could see tiny flames inside the wolf’s mouth.
“What are you doing here?” the dwarf asked, “This mine is supposed to be abandoned.” He reached back to put one hand on a large and complicated crossbow that hung at his back.
“We were hired by the current owner of the mine to retrieve some of his valuables,” Brownie responded. “What are you doing here?”
“We were hired for the same job. We already have two of the items, so you should probably leave this to us.”
“As it happens, we also have two of the items. Perhaps we could cooperate. My associate was bitten by a spider. If you help me get him out of the mine, I could sell you our two items and you can claim the whole reward.”
The dwarf looked thoughtful. “An interesting suggestion.” He paused as the elf whispered in his ear. “How do we know you have the other items?”
Brownie pulled the mirror and book out of Shadow’s pack and held them up.
“Very well, we have a deal.”
Brownie smiled and turned to put the items back in Shadow’s pack. She heard a scramble behind her, then she felt the dwarf’s armored shoulder strike her in the ribs. She looked back in surprise, just in time for the elf to snatch the items from her mouth. The wolf had joined the dwarf in his charge and was pushing Shadow.
For a split second Brownie didn’t understand what they were trying to do, then, with terror, she remembered the chasm. “Wait, stop!” she shouted and grabbed onto Shadow with her forelegs. With a grunt, the dwarf and wolf shoved the pony and griffon over the edge of the chasm.
Brownie saw the cable out of the corner of her eye and bit desperately at it. She missed once and quickly tried again. Her adamantine teeth slid along the cable with a screech. She bit down as hard as she could and their fall gradually slowed to a stop a hundred feet below the edge of the chasm.
Shadow’s unconscious body started to slide out of Brownie’s hooves, and she quickly added her rear hooves to the grip. Her neck and jaw muscles screamed in protest, but relaxing was not an option. Far above her, she saw her would-be murderers looking over the edge with the lantern.
A few seconds later, she heard something whiz past her ear. As a second object flew by she realized she was being shot at. The distance and angle were making the shot tricky, but Brownie had nowhere to go. No, that wasn’t quite true; she could go down. There was no way she could climb back up the cable with Shadow’s weight, but if the cable went all the way to the bottom…
While she was still considering her options, the archer above finally got lucky. The bolt missed Shadow’s head by less than an inch, striking Brownie’s left flank hard enough to penetrate her armor. Her scream was stifled by her mouthful of steel cable.
She relaxed her grip on the cable and began to slide down it. As the cable slid through her teeth, it gave off bright sparks that burned her lips when they hit. Every time the cable brushed against the side of her face, it left a burn. Blood from the arrow wound ran down her leg and threatened to destroy her tenuous grip on Shadow.
Just when she thought she could not hold on any longer, they hit the ground with a thump. Brownie lost her grip on both Shadow and the cable. That was fine, they had made it. She lay on her side for a moment, savoring her unlikely victory.
Above her, the distant lantern was a barely-visible pinpoint of light. After a moment, it disappeared. Brownie spat out a mouthful of steel shavings and carefully felt her teeth with her tongue. They didn’t have so much as a scratch; they were hardly even warm. If she got out of this alive, she was going to have to send Mr. Ironbelt a really nice card. Maybe a basket of fruit too.
With the lantern gone, the darkness was absolute. Brownie could not even easily tell up from down. When she tried to get up, she suddenly remembered that she had been shot. After she had steeled herself against the pain, she managed to stand, although her left hind leg seemed to have no traction. Probably blood, she thought.
She fumbled around in the dark, trying to find Shadow. When she finally bumped into him, he groaned. “Shadow!” she whispered. Wait, why was she whispering? She carefully spoke in a conversational tone of voice, “Shadow, are you okay?”
Shadow mumbled something incoherent.
“Shadow, please wake up. We’re in really big trouble, and I’m just about played out.”
“Mmm…Blondie? What’s happening?”
Brownie was so relieved to get a response that she didn’t even notice Shadow’s slip up. “I’ll give you the short version. You got poisoned by a spider and while you were asleep, three other adventurers stole the items we found and threw us into the chasm. I grabbed onto the cable to slow our fall and now we’re on the bottom.”
“Oh dear. Do we have any torches left?” He started feeling around, trying to find Brownie. “I can’t even see you and it sounds like you’re right next to—Eww, what’s…is this blood? Yours or mine?”
“It’s mine; they shot me.” Brownie said matter-of-factly.
“What!? Are you…how bad is it?” Shadow sounded on the verge of panic.
“Shadow, stay calm.” Brownie tried to keep her voice steady. “I need your help. We have to find a way out of here. I think I still have my tinderbox and one more torch, but I don’t think I can find them and use them in the dark. You have talons, you should be able to do it, even in the dark. They’re in my right-side saddlebag.”
“Okay, um, pardon my reach.” He carefully felt around until he touched Brownie’s armored rump. “Sorry, it’s the only way I can find your bags.”
“Don’t worry about it, so long as you—“ She broke off with a sharp hiss as Shadow accidentally bumped the shaft of the arrow buried in her flank. “Other side,” she said through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! I found your bag, hang on.” Shadow rummaged for an infuriatingly long time before finally finding what he was looking for. In contrast to the total darkness, the sparks from the flint and steel were blinding. When Shadow finally lit the torch, both he and Brownie had to look away and squint while their eyes adjusted. Shadow looked back first. Brownie heard him gasp. “Oh, Brownie! You look horrible!”
Brownie considered making a sarcastic retort, but couldn’t seem to summon the ambition. Instead, she surveyed the damage herself. The arrow had sunk several inches into her flank, even after punching through her armor. She didn’t think it had reached anything vital, but she had already lost enough blood for it to soak her left haunch and leg and start pooling on the ground. As the heat from the torch stung parts of her face, she realized that she also had some burns from her stunt with the cable. Her right forehoof still hurt as much as before, but she didn’t think she could do without it anymore.
“Do you want me to pull the arrow out?” Shadow asked tentatively.
“No, better leave it in,” Brownie said with a grimace, “with as much force as it took to drive it in, you wouldn’t be able to remove it without causing…more damage. I have a healing potion; that should slow the bleeding, as long as I take it easy. Hopefully, I can get to a doctor that has tools for removing arrows.”
Shadow sat on his haunches, holding the torch with one talon, and rummaged in Brownie’s bags with the other until he found the healing potion. “Um…”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” Brownie said. She pulled the cork with her teeth, spat it out and then grabbed the vial with her lips and raised her head to pour the contents down her throat.
Through the hole in her armor, Shadow could see her flesh close tightly on the shaft of the arrow. The burns on her face also lessened significantly. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it might be enough to get her out of here alive—assuming, of course, that there was a way out of here.
He looked up the cliff they had descended. He could probably fly up there, but there would still be spiders and the adventurers that had attacked them to deal with. Shadow knew he would stand little chance against them by himself. Even if he managed to escape, Brownie would probably die before he could come up with a way to get her out of this hole. That left one option. “Forward, then?”
“Forward.” Brownie began walking shakily across the floor of the chasm.
Although the bottom of the chasm was only a couple dozen feet across, even the steep slopes of the walls meant that the gap at the top must be several hundred feet. Brownie was walking towards a tunnel entrance in the side of the chasm. The hole looked like it had originally been the middle of a tunnel that was sheared in half by the event that had formed the chasm. Shadow continued to hold the torch in one claw. Even walking on three limbs, he was able to easily keep up with the wounded pony.
They hobbled along in silence for a few minutes before Brownie stopped.
“Are you okay?” Shadow asked.
Brownie stood with her legs spread apart and continued to look straight ahead. “Don’t worry…I’m just…catching my breath.”
“Of course, take your time.” Shadow looked around the tunnel. “Do you see a light up ahead?”
Brownie peered down the tunnel. “Maybe. It couldn’t be daylight…this deep…could it?”
They waited a little longer for Brownie to catch her breath, and then walked towards the light. After several minutes of walking, they still hadn’t reached the source.
“I don’t think it is daylight; it seems too blue,” Shadow observed. “Still, I don’t think we need the torch anymore.”
Brownie nodded and the griffon extinguished the torch. “I think I see a door in the side of the tunnel,” she said.
A hundred feet further they found a hole cut in the tunnel wall. They stuck close to the wall as they approached. Brownie quietly drew her sword and Shadow readied his bow, silently counted to three and jumped into the doorway with his bow drawn.
He held the pose for several seconds and then relaxed. “It’s okay, there’s no one here.”
Brownie sheathed her sword and followed him into the room.
The room was roughly circular. Arranged around the walls were carved frescoes depicting the defeat of various evil creatures. In the center of the room was a pedestal on which rested a sword with an intricately decorated hilt and scabbard. The sword was as long as Brownie’s greatsword and appeared to be the source of the light they had been following. The hilt was glowing dimly, but the blade was glowing so brightly that the light was passing through the scabbard with enough intensity to make the room as bright as day.
Shadow stared at the sword in a daze. “Do you suppose that’s the sword the note said to not worry about? It doesn’t look cursed.”
Brownie looked around the room at the frescoes. “It looks like these pictures are all about people using this sword to fight monsters.” She limped up to the pedestal and gave the hilt an experimental tug. The sword moved when she pulled it, but the scabbard came with it. “Huh.” She used one hoof to hold the scabbard and pulled on the hilt again, but the sword and scabbard seemed to be inseparable.
“There’s some kind of writing on the pedestal, but it’s not a language I know,” Shadow said.
“It’s Sylvan,” Brownie said, “I’ve hardly ever seen it written, so I may have this wrong. I think it says something like, ‘This is the big sword that protects the weak. You can use it if you are…nice. Um, use it for seeing in the dark, no wait, lighting the dark, well something like that. It’s a door, or gate, or something, that locks up the…bad…things. And someday it will carry someone to…' I don’t know that word.” She blushed at Shadow’s raised eyebrow. “Sorry, I can speak a few languages, but the only language I’m any good at reading is Common.”
“Well if that is what it says, then I gather neither of us can actually use this sword,” Shadow speculated, “but we can still sell it; it looks pretty valuable.”
He reached up and lifted the sword off the pedestal. As he did, the glow dimmed dramatically to barely enough to see by. An unnatural roar sounded from behind one of the frescoes. “Uh oh.” He tried to put the sword back, but the glow did not return.
“Grab it and run!” Brownie shouted and began limping back to the tunnel.
Shadow slung the sword over his back by a strap on the scabbard and flew out the door. He joined Brownie as she took cover behind the doorway, and just in time. The wall of the room exploded in a shower of rock fragments as big as a pony, revealing a terrifying creature.
It stood fully nine feet tall and had wings sprouting from its back that spread half again that distance. The creature was vaguely humanoid with spiky red flesh, clawed limbs, a barbed tail and many horns on its head. It carried a chain with spikes all along its length.
The monster roared again and swung its chain against the pedestal, smashing it to rubble, then it rushed out of the room and down the tunnel, fortunately in the other direction from where Brownie and Shadow were hiding. For a few moments they heard it stomping along the tunnel, then there was a bright flash and silence.
The pony and the griffon stayed frozen in place for a full minute before Shadow whispered, “I think it’s gone.”
“We should follow it,” Brownie said with an audible tremor in her voice.
“WHAT!?” Shadow clamped both talons over his beak as if to catch the shout before it could get away. “Why would we do that!?” he hissed in a loud whisper.
“Two reasons: First, did you see that flash? Maybe there’s a magical way out of here up ahead. Second, we released that monster. The sword was obviously holding it here somehow, and when we took it, we broke the spell.”
Shadow noticed that Brownie had passed up a great chance to point out that it was Shadow that had removed the sword. “What can we hope to do against that thing?” he protested.
“I don’t know, but we have to do something, even if it’s just warning everypony.”
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this mess; this is all my fault.”
Brownie leaned against the wall and sighed. “It’s my fault too. I broke my own rule; I trusted those other adventurers.” She stood up straight and started walking down the tunnel. “If we get out of this alive, we should set aside a day to yell at each other for being stupid.”
A few hundred feet past the room they had found the sword in, the tunnel came to a dead end. The dim glow coming off the magic sword illuminated the back wall enough to show that its appearance was constantly shifting.
Brownie walked right up to it and scrutinized it closely. It looked almost like the rock was partially see-through and another scene was visible behind it. In fact, when she concentrated on one detail, she thought she could see a tree.
“This has to be where he went, I think there’s a way through the wall.” She put a hoof on the wall, but it felt like solid rock. With a pained grunt, she reared up on her hind legs and put both forehooves on the wall. “Maybe there’s some sort of button.”
Shadow came and stood next to her. As he did, the magic sword on his back lightly bumped against the wall. Suddenly, Brownie fell through the wall as if it was thin air. Shadow reached forward to try to catch her and also fell through. There was a moment of disorientation where they felt like their bodies were growing and shrinking at the same time, then they were dumped on the ground in another cave.
Brownie looked up and was overcome with relief. Less than twenty feet away, the cave opened onto a lush forest. Sunlight filtered through the trees, and birds could be heard singing all around.
“We’re out!” Shadow gave voice to both their sentiments. “We made it!” He looked over his shoulder, but there was no sign of the portal they had traveled through. The griffon helped Brownie to her hooves. “You look a little different, sort of rounder and more colorful.” He glanced down at the arrow still embedded in her side. “I’ll fly above the trees and scout the area. Don’t worry Brown, I’ll get you help.” As he said this, he flew out of the cave and up above the trees.
Hovering in place, he rotated slowly, soon locating a village just a few miles away.
“Shadow.” Brownie’s voice sounded like she was holding her sword in her mouth, and there was an urgent edge to it.
Shadow flew back down to ground level to find Brownie in a clearing facing three enormous and vaguely lupine creatures that appeared to be made out of random bits of wood. “Whoa, easy fellas,” he said, attempting to placate the monsters, “can’t we discuss this?”
The three wooden monsters leapt at Brownie. She dodged partially behind a tree and swung her sword in front of her, smashing one of her assailants into a scattered pile of unconnected parts. The other two split up and went on either side of the tree, but Shadow pounced on one and Brownie hit the other with her backswing.
Shadow looked with satisfaction at the scattered pieces of wood. “Hah! That was easy.”
“Look.” Brownie pointed her bandaged forehoof at the wood, which had started to glow green and slide across the ground to form three piles.
“Hmm, that could be a problem. Oh I know! Fire!” He got out the tinderbox and the half-burned torch.
At this moment, they heard several voices approaching. From the sound of them, they were oblivious to the danger. Brownie tried to yell a warning, but she was out of breath from the fight with the creatures and her voice did not carry far enough. The speakers came into sight around a bend in the path and Brownie’s eyes widened with horror. “They’re foals!” she gasped.
The magical monsters had completely reassembled and now they turned their heads towards the newcomers. There were three pony fillies, an earthbound, a unicorn and a pegasus. All three were naked except for matching red-and-gold capes and none of them seemed to have noticed the deadly peril right in front of them.
Without thinking, Brownie ran towards the wooden wolves. Her sword smashed the first before they noticed her, but then the other two turned and attacked. One seized her barrel in its jaws, crushing the wind out of her but failing to penetrate her armor. The other sunk its teeth into her neck. She thrashed about in their grip, trying to reach either one with her sword.
Suddenly, both of them dropped her and howled in pain. She looked up to see that both were ablaze, and Shadow was swinging a lit torch at them threateningly. They tried to flee, but only took a few steps before the enchantment on them dissolved and they were reduced to burning kindling.
Shadow burned the broken one for good measure and then ran back to Brownie. The bite wounds in her neck were bleeding freely and the arrow wound had reopened as well. The three fillies stared in horror for a moment, then at a signal from the earthbound pony in their group, they turned and sprinted into the forest.
Shadow paid no attention to them; he was focused on trying to find anything in his pack or Brownie’s saddlebags that he could use to stem the bleeding. He pressed pieces of cloth against the wounds, but they just soaked up the blood and did little to slow it. Shadow glanced at Brownie’s face, but she just stared back at him with grim acceptance. “Please don’t die,” he begged, “this whole mess is my fault; I should be the one that gets hurt.”
The three fillies came running back leading a zebra in a long, hooded cloak. As she approached, she produced a jar full of a brown powder from under her cloak. Shadow moved to defend Brownie, but the zebra said, “I am not here to cause you strife, with luck I may yet save her life. This powder is the cure she’s needing, it gives new strength and stops the bleeding.”
Although taken aback by the odd speech, Shadow nodded and stepped aside. Brownie lay still as the zebra carefully shook some of the powder into each of her wounds. Shadow and the fillies watched anxiously from nearby as the zebra held her hooves over Brownie and said something in an unknown language. Brownie felt her pain fade away, and with it, the only thing anchoring her to the waking world.
Brownie was in the middle of a vivid nightmare when she suddenly found herself sitting down in a field of stars. She tried for a moment to remember what she had just been dreaming about, but it was already gone. In front of her a tall and slender pony was approaching.
The newcomer had both wings and horn and wore nothing except for a black peytral and crown. Her coat was dark blue and her mane and tail seemed to be made out of the night sky. Brownie scrambled to her hooves. She had never seen a goddess before, but she suspected this might be one. “Who are you…ma’am?” She didn’t know the expected honorific, but it was better than nothing.
“I am Luna, princess of the night. Who are you to not recognize a princess of Equestria?”
“Begging your pardon, majesty, I am not from your country. I meant no disrespect.” Brownie stammered.
Luna spoke in a soothing tone of voice. “Peace, I come to you at the request of three of my youngest subjects. You saved them from great peril and they fear for your life.”
With some difficulty, Brownie reconstructed the events that had taken place before she lost consciousness. “Those three fillies are your friends?”
The alicorn nodded. “It is my duty to watch over the dreams of all the ponies in Equestria, and those three dream of you. It would seem you did not succumb to your wounds, else you could not dream.”
Brownie parsed the last statement slowly. “I’m asleep? How are we talking?”
“I have the power to bring lucidity or oblivion to those who sleep. As you have said you were not one of my ponies, is there anything you wish to tell me?” The princess fixed Brownie with a searching gaze.
Time to see if I can lie in my sleep, Brownie thought. “There is something you should know, princess: When my friend and I were on the way here, we saw a hideous monster traveling in the same direction. We hid and lost sight of it, but I think it may have entered your country as well.”
Luna’s expression conveyed neither suspicion nor trust. “Can you describe the creature?”
“Well it was sort of…” As Brownie tried to remember the monster, it manifested right next to her, exactly as it had appeared before. She cried out in alarm, but then noticed that it was not moving. She was still dreaming, she realized, and had apparently conjured the image of the beast from her own memory. She pointed at it. “It looked like that.”
Luna walked up to the facsimile and scrutinized it carefully. “Equestria thanks you for your service, Miss…?”
“Uh, Brownie. Brownie Sundae, your majesty.”
“Pleasant dreams, Miss Sundae. I hope we meet again.” Luna smiled at Brownie and then vanished.
* * *
Brownie opened her eyes and saw a wooden roof. More precisely, she saw what appeared to be the inside of a tree. She cautiously turned her head and pain shot through her whole neck. Apparently, her dream about being mauled by wolves made out of kindling had some basis in reality.
She took stock of her other pains. Her flank still hurt, but the arrow itself seemed to be gone. She couldn’t feel any pain in the hoof she had impaled on the caltrop, and her face felt pretty normal. A gentle breeze blew through an open window near her head and she felt it all along her body except for her neck and her flank. She realized that except for a few places wrapped in bandages, she was naked.
It made sense when she thought about it; the fillies’ garments had been very simple and not very modest. She was obviously the guest of some primitive but friendly tribe. Her suspicions were reinforced when the zebra that had dumped that powder on her before walked into the room, wearing nothing but some bulky jewelry. Brownie considered that it was probably fortunate that Shadow was a griffon or the local dress code might be a lot more awkward.
Now that she thought about him though, she wondered where he was. She tried to speak, but her voice came out as a hoarse croak. It still achieved the desired effect as the zebra turned to look at her.
“Ah, hero mare, you are awake, I was not sure my cure would take. I have not seen wounds so severe, as the ones you bore, my dear.”
“Could…I have some water?” Brownie croaked.
The zebra grabbed a stone mug in her fetlock and waved her other hoof over the top of it, then held the mug up to Brownie’s mouth. Brownie tried to drink from her reclining position, but it was too awkward. She tried to sit up, but large portions of her body vetoed that strategy. She finally settled for leaning over the side of the bed and lapping the water out of the cup like a cat.
When she had finished most of the first mug, the zebra allowed her a second, but recommended that she stop at two. At least she could talk now.
“Thanks for, um, patching me up. I’m Brownie, what’s your name?”
“I am Zecora. Thanks I owe, for what you did that day also. You rescued my three little friends, from what would have been untimely ends.”
“It was nothing, I just have a soft spot for foals. Wait, ‘that day’? How long has it been?”
“You can’t recall those days, it seems; you often spoke in fevered dreams. The arrow caused a long ordeal, to pull it out and let you heal. From when you first fell in a haze, until you woke was seven days.”
“A whole week? Where’s Shadow Claw? Is he alright?”
“Your griffon friend is well, except, his guilt has plagued him while he slept. It seems that all the pain you bore, he places on himself, and more.”
Brownie sighed. “We need to have a talk. Do you think you could get him for me, Zecora?”
Zecora smiled and nodded, and walked off to find the griffon. Brownie looked around the room, noting several peculiar masks and shelves full of mysterious liquids.
In short order, Shadow flew into the room in a rush of air. “Blondie! You’re awake! Ow!” He clutched the knee Brownie had just kicked, albeit with a fraction of her normal force. “Careful, you don’t want to hurt yourself again.”
“Totally worth it,” Brownie said. “Help me sit up.”
Shadow gently put his talons under Brownie’s head and shoulders and levered her into a sitting position. Brownie spread her forehooves wide and reeled for a moment before regaining control. “Whoa, I got really dizzy for a moment.”
“You lost a lot of blood. Zecora gave you a potion to help, but it will still take some time for you to make more,” Shadow said, averting his eyes.
Brownie noticed his embarrassment. “Is it that big a deal?” she asked. “Our host is stark naked and you and I are not even the same species.”
The griffon continued to look away. “It’s weird. I know you, and I’m used to seeing you with clothes. I think about you almost like I would think about another griffon, even if you are a pony.”
“Well get me a blanket or something then. There are some things we need to talk about.”
Shadow quickly found a blanket and draped it over Brownie’s shoulders. “Here you go. That’s better.”
Brownie shrugged. “You know, even civilized ponies take off their clothes when they go swimming and stuff.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, fine. What happened while I was unconscious?”
“Well right after you fainted, Zecora and I carried you to her house; that’s where you are now. She gave you a potion to make your bones make more blood or something, and then we tried to get your armor off so she could remove the arrow. It took a while; she had to cut the arrow off a little ways up. I’m afraid I got a little squeamish so she told me to leave the room while she cut the arrow out of you. Anyway, I gather you lost some more blood and it was touch-and-go for a day. For a few days after that, you just lay there, and then the last few days you’ve been talking in your sleep. Those chicks you saved just came for another visit and they said everything is fine in Ponyville—that’s the name of the town—and nobody has seen any monsters.”
Almost as if they had been listening at the door, the fillies came running into the room when Shadow mentioned them. The beige earth pony reared up and put her forehooves on the bed, giving Brownie a good view of the comically-oversized bow in her red mane. “Thanks, miss. Ya saved us from the timber wolves and we’re mighty grateful. We would’a come to see ya sooner, but we were all grounded fer wandering off the path.”
An orange pegasus jumped up next to her friend and added, “You were amazing, you smashed that first one with one blow!”
The third member of the trio, a white unicorn, joined the other two and said, “I’m sorry you got hurt so bad, I hope you’re feeling better?”
None of the three had the capes they had been wearing earlier, or any clothes for that matter. Brownie noticed that all three had no brands of destiny, but she didn’t see any scarring to indicate they had been removed.
Subtlety had never been one of her strengths, and the trio noticed her staring at their flanks. The earth pony self-consciously moved her tail to cover the empty space. “Yeah, uh, we don’t have our cutie marks yet, but we will real soon! We started a club to help us find our special talents, the Cutie Mark Crusaders!”
“Yeah!” the other two chorused as all three bumped their hooves together.
“Ah’m Apple Bloom,” she leveled a hoof at the pegasus, “this here’s Scootaloo,” she pointed at the unicorn, “and that’s Sweetie Belle.”
“I’m Brownie Sundae, it’s nice to meet you. Who would I talk to about—“
“What’s yer cutie mark?” Apple Bloom interrupted, lifting up the blanket to find her view blocked by bandages.
Scootaloo climbed over the bed and lifted the other side of the blanket to look at Brownie’s unbandaged flank. “It looks like a…canyon with a river in it? What does that mean?”
“Whoa, girls! Personal space!” Brownie blushed and tried to push the blanket back down, but in her weakened state she could not support herself with a single leg and collapsed on the bed with a groan.
Sweetie Belle gasped. “You’re hurting her!” she squeaked.
The other two ashamedly withdrew. “Ah’m sorry Brownie, we didn’t mean any harm, honest.” Apple Bloom said penitently.
Shadow helped Brownie back to a sitting position. “Take it easy on her; she’s had a rough week.”
Brownie rolled her eyes. “If I answer your questions, will you answer mine?” she asked the Crusaders.
The trio nodded vigorously.
“Fine. I don’t know what my brand of destiny means, although my uncle said it meant I was a drip.”
“How did you get it?” Scootaloo asked.
“The same way as anypony else; I was born with it.” Brownie noticed the fillies’ stunned expressions and realized with growing unease that they might be part of a cult. Removing a brand of destiny without leaving a scar would require powerful magic, implying that there was an organized faction behind it.
“Born with it!?” Apple Bloom asked incredulously. “I’ve never seen anypony that had a cutie mark when they were born!”
Brownie reconsidered the cult theory and decided it didn’t quite fit. There was definitely something weird going on, but she didn’t really want to investigate that.
“Where did you come from?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“I wander around. Before I came here, I was in Deepcrag.”
“How’d you learn to fight like that?” Scootaloo interrogated.
“Mostly from my father. Can I ask some questions?” Brownie said.
“Shoot.” Apple Bloom assented, although her squirming suggested she was just getting started with her own interrogation.
“Who is the leader in your village?”
“Princess Twilight!” Apple Bloom and Scootaloo said in unison while Sweetie Belle simultaneously said, “Mayor Mare.”
The three broke into a heated argument about the political structure of the town, but Brownie was able to deduce that while Mayor Mare was the official head of government in Ponyville, a pony named Twilight Sparkle was the person that nearly everyone in town looked to for protection and guidance.
“Um, can you tell me more about Twilight Sparkle?” Brownie asked the fillies, who by now were having a full-on brawl.
“Twilight’s the princess of friendship!” Sweetie Belle volunteered as the fight stopped abruptly, leaving the fillies disheveled but apparently unharmed.
“She used ta be a unicorn,” Apple Bloom added, “but she got so good at magic that she turned into an alicorn princess.”
Brownie filed that tidbit away to parse later.
“She lives in a big, ugly tree-castle on the edge of Ponyville now that her library’s all blown up,” Scootaloo chimed in.
“Do you think I could meet her?” Brownie asked.
“Sure, she’s real friendly,” Apple Bloom said, “she’s even helpin’ us learn special skills.” When the other two glared at her for that revelation, she said, “It’s not the same; Brownie isn’t going ta tell everypony…are ya?”
“Your secret is safe with me. Um, I need to talk with Shadow, privately, but I’ll be sure to come visit you later.”
“Okay, watch out for Pinkie Pie when you get to town,” Scootaloo cautioned. “She’s going to throw you a Welcome-to-Ponyville-and-Thanks-for-Saving-the-CMC party as soon as she knows you’re up and about.”
Brownie thought she heard a bit of embarrassment in the pegasus filly’s voice.
“Get well soon.” Sweetie Belle petted one of Brownie’s legs and then the Crusaders scampered out the door.
Brownie waited until she was sure they were out of earshot and turned to Shadow. “I had a vision last night.”
“A vision of what?” Shadow raised an eyebrow.
“I was visited by either a goddess or a powerful sorceress. Whatever the case, she claimed to be the ruler of this area and is apparently personal friends with those three fillies.”
“Did she seem friendly?”
“She seemed…nice, but also very wary. I think she was just being protective of her ponies, but she was a little scary.”
Shadow looked nervous. “What did she say?”
“She thanked me for protecting the fillies and asked me where I was from. I told her we were foreigners, but I didn’t say anything about how we came here. I also gave her a description of the demon-thing, so that’s off our plate now.”
“Just like that?” Shadow asked.
“Just like that. We’re not heroes, we’re mercs. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get back to Deepcrag so we can kill those creeps that threw us down the hole.” Brownie made as if to get out of the bed, but fell over on her stomach.
Shadow let her lay where she had fallen. “I think you’re getting ahead of yourself. You just woke up after a week of not moving, and you’re too weak to even stand up. Hah, a week in bed makes you weak, get it?”
He got only a glare in response, so he continued, “Anyway, there’s no rush to get out of here; the natives are friendly, the weather is fine. You should take this opportunity to recover before throwing yourself back into things. You haven’t even had any solid food for a week.”
Brownie considered the implications of that last statement. It had not occurred to her until Shadow mentioned it that her bodily maintenance must have continued while she was unconscious. “Oh. How did I…uh…?”
Shadow pointed a talon toward a bucket in the corner. “You owe Zecora big time.”
Zecora chose this moment to walk back into the room.
“Hi Zecora,” Shadow said, “we were just talking about—“
“Nothing!” Brownie interrupted. “We weren’t talking about anything!”
“Come on, Brown.” Shadow slapped her lightly upside the head. “You can trust Zecora. If she was going to do something evil, she could have done it when you were unconscious.”
Zecora gave Brownie a hard look. “Trust is something rare it’s true, remember though, I trusted you. I housed and healed a total stranger; I might have placed myself in danger.”
Brownie looked at her hooves ashamedly. “I…I’m sorry, it’s really hard for me to trust anypony.”
“If you want your fear to loose, make a change, not an excuse.” Zecora waited expectantly.
Brownie bit her lip. “Do you promise not to tell anyp— anybody what I tell you?”
Zecora nodded. “Yes.”
Brownie looked to Shadow, who shrugged. “Okay. Here goes. Shadow and I are from a different dimension.”
Shadow looked at her in surprise. “We are?”
“Didn’t you notice the way our bodies changed, but everypony here already looks like this? The rules are different here, even if only a little.” Brownie looked at Zecora, who just gestured for her to continue. “We were exploring a mine and got ambushed by some adventurers. They shot me and threw both of us into a hole. We found a tunnel at the bottom of the hole and followed it to a room with a sword on a pedestal. We took the sword and accidentally released a large ugly monster with spikes, horns, wings and a barbed tail. We followed him to a wall that was actually a doorway to this world. We didn’t see which way he went, and as soon as we left the cave we were attacked by the timber wolves. The rest you know.”
Zecora listened to the tale without interrupting, a deepening frown on her face. When Brownie finished, she said, “Twilight Sparkle is the one, who would know best what must be done. She has left this world before, and read about it even more. Princess Twilight has six friends that help her stop what evil sends. They are not wise nor very stable, but always do right if they’re able. I recommend that you give them a…chance to help with your dilemma.”
Shadow raised an eyebrow. “Would one of her friends happen to be named Pinkie Pie?” he guessed.
Zecora nodded. “The party pony is her friend, and all the others should attend the welcome party planned for you, so that way you can meet them too.”
“Well then, I guess we’re going to a party, eh, Blondie?” Shadow easily dodged Brownie’s feeble kick. She was right; it was an effective teaching method.
After two more days of rest, Brownie was feeling better than she had in a long time. She wasn’t sure how much of her speedy recovery was due to Zecora’s potions and how much was just the way ponies were in this world, but she tried to be appropriately grateful for the zebra’s ministrations.
Brownie attempted to wash her tunic, but the blood stains did not come out completely. Still, she decided to wear it for Shadow’s benefit. Zecora declared her healthy and they left her with a promise to pay her back someday. Brownie insisted on carrying both swords and her bundled-up armor in addition to her saddlebags.
Once they were out of earshot of Zecora’s house Shadow commented, “I hope everyone in this world is as nice as Zecora.”
“That seems unlikely,” Brownie countered, “but I’m glad we met her first.”
“I wonder why she talks like that.”
“So, what’s our next move?” Shadow asked casually.
“I suppose we find an inn and see if they’ll take our money so we have somewhere to stay. We should also try and find Miss Pie, since we’re planning to go to her party. I still find it hard to believe that she throws a party for every new pony in town.”
Brownie gave Shadow a sideways glance. “Um, how long since you became a wandering adventurer?”
Shadow laughed nervously. “Uh, would you believe a month?”
Brownie looked straight ahead. “Yes I would.”
“Ouch. Am I really that clueless?”
“Y—“ Brownie caught herself. “You just seem very new to the whole idea.”
“Well I left home when I turned eighteen, and went straight to Deepcrag because it was as far away as I could get. How about you, how long have you been working as a mercenary?”
“About seven years.”
Shadow looked skeptical. “I guess I can’t judge age in ponies; I would have guessed you were about the same age as me.”
“I’m nineteen.” Brownie braced herself for the inevitable follow-up question.
“But that would mean you started when you were twelve! Didn’t your—“ Shadow stopped when he saw the muscles in Brownie’s face tighten.
“Go ahead, say it.” Both of them had stopped walking and Brownie was staring fixedly at a singularly uninteresting point in the road.
“What happened to your family?” Shadow asked quietly.
Brownie sighed. “Zecora was right: I’m paranoid, but I have a good reason. When I was growing up, we were always pretty close to penniless. A few weeks after my twelfth birthday, my father went on a trip and told us that he had found a great job that would bring in lots of money. We were all very excited, but when he returned, he brought back a gang of purrsians. To our horror, his big money-making plan was to sell my mother, my brother and me into slavery. My brother decided to fight, and I joined him.”
Brownie sniffed. “When the fighting was done, my brother, my mother and my treacherous father were all dead.”
Shadow gaped in horror.
Brownie took a deep breath. “I had always looked up to him, and if I couldn’t trust him, who could I trust?”
“Who killed him?” Shadow asked, dreading the answer.
Shadow felt ill. “I…I can’t even…how did you get past that?”
“I had to eat, so I started working as a mercenary myself. It was hard to get jobs as a foal, but I managed. I never had too much time to think about it, and it kind of faded over the years.” Brownie wiped her runny snout with a forehoof.
Almost as an afterthought, she kicked Shadow in the knee. “That’s for making me cry."
“Before my knees get permanently lumpy, are there any other topics I should avoid?” Shadow asked with grim humor.
“Nope, you now know all of my secrets. Everything I’ve been hiding for the past seven years I just told to a random griffon that I’ve known for less than four weeks, one of which I was unconscious for. I must have lost my mind.” She started walking again.
“Well you are a pony.” Shadow sidestepped Brownie’s vengeful hoof. “Okay, topic change. We should see about getting you something else to wear; your tunic looks like you were mauled while you were wearing it.”
The pony rolled her eyes. “You have spider juice all over yours.”
“Maybe we should seek out a clothier,” Shadow suggested, “although, given the typical attire in this area, that might be a doomed quest.”
Brownie nodded. “You may be right about that.” She stopped walking abruptly. “Whoa.”
Shadow stopped next to her and they both gaped in astonishment at the multi-acre scar in the middle of the forest. “What could have done that?”
The ground for miles in every direction was blackened and heaped into unnatural piles, almost as if multiple explosions of unimaginable size had been detonated all over the area.
“That’s where Twilight had a smack-down with Tirek,” said a cheerful voice from in between them.
“GAH!” Brownie and Shadow yelled in unison. They jumped away and turned to see a pink pony with a very unkempt mane and tail smiling innocently at them.
“All this is from one duel?” Shadow asked as soon as he had recovered.
“Yes indeedy. Twi totally had him on the ropes until he cheated and used us as hostages.”
“Princess Twilight Sparkle?” Brownie asked. “Would that make you Pinkie Pie?”
The other pony nodded vigorously. “That’s me, the bestest party pony around.” She put a foreleg over Brownie’s withers and pulled her close. “You must be Brownie, ‘cause you’re brown!” She wrapped her other foreleg around Shadow’s neck and pulled him against her other side. “And you must be Shadow Claw. I owe you guys a party, are you busy later?”
“Um, how much later?” Brownie asked warily.
“Say, ten minutes?”
“We were kind of hoping we could go get something more presentable to wear first,” Shadow protested.
“Ooh, you should totally talk to Rarity about that!” Pinkie asserted and started leading them down the path with a leg still draped over each of them. After a few steps she released them and adopted a peculiar pronking gait.
Pinkie filled the rest of the trip to Ponyville with idle chatter covering a wide array of topics. Brownie tried to listen for useful information, but after a while she gave up and tuned out the cheerful barrage. Shadow was either interested in the conversation or better at pretending than Brownie was.
“…and that’s how Equestria was founded,” Pinkie concluded as they reached the outskirts of Ponyville. “That’s Rarity’s boutique right over there. Tell her I sent you.” She tipped them a wink. “Seeya at Sugarcube corner at five!” With that, she suddenly ran off at full speed. By the time Brownie turned to look, she was already out of sight.
“Five what?” Shadow Claw wondered aloud.
“I think she meant five o’clock,” Brownie speculated. “I don’t have a timepiece.” She looked around the town and spotted a large clock tower. “It’s, um, not quite noon now.”
“To the clothier?”
“Lead on, moneybags.”
They made their way to the decorative building Pinkie Pie had pointed them towards. Shadow pushed the door open, ringing a small bell that hung above it.
“Coming!” called a mare’s voice from the next room. It sounded to Brownie like the proprietor was trying a little too hard to sound friendly.
“Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where everything is chic, unique, and magnifique!” As the white unicorn came into view from behind a curtain, her eyes rested for a moment on each of her guests. She took a second look at their armaments and recognition washed over her features. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Rarity. Are you the two who saved my dear sister from those dreadful timberwolves?”
“Yeah, that’s us,” Brownie admitted. She couldn’t help but notice that even the clothier was wearing nothing. She glanced around the room and saw several elegant and lavish dresses displayed on pony-shaped stands. Are those called ponikins? she wondered. Her attention was drawn back to the other two creatures in the room, who seemed to be having a polite argument.
“I insist, darling!” Rarity was saying, “It’s the least I can do for such heroic persons as yourselves!”
“We can afford to buy our own clothes,” Shadow protested, “Tell her, Brownie.”
“Huh?” Brownie said helpfully.
“See, she doesn’t mind,” Rarity interpreted. “Please, darling, it would make me very happy.”
Shadow looked helplessly at Brownie.
“Um, nothing too fancy, right?” Brownie said tentatively.
“Whatever you say dear,” Rarity said with a wink. She levitated a tape, notepad and pencil from a nearby desk and started taking Shadow’s measurements.
* * *
Brownie and Shadow watched in amazement as Rarity whipped another garment off her apparently-magical sewing machine. When Shadow had subtly asked about the machine, Rarity had told them that it was perfectly ordinary and ran on electricity. The adventurers individually came to the conclusion that it must be dwarf magic.
When each of the outfits where finished, Rarity led them to a privacy screen to change, baffling them further. Rarity had mostly respected their request for plain clothing, but it was clear that her work was of much higher quality than could be found most places in Everglow.
As Brownie came out from behind the screen, she saw that Rarity was using her magic to sort through a collection of dresses hanging in a closet.
“It occurs to me, darling,” Rarity said innocently, “that since you’re going to a party tonight, perhaps you’d like to borrow one of these?”
Brownie looked at the dresses dubiously. “Do ponies normally wear dresses to Pinkie Pie’s parties?”
Brownie shook her head. “Thank you, Rarity, really, but I’m just not that kind of pony; I would just end up ruining it. Thank you for these lovely outfits.”
Rarity offered to dispose of their old outfits, but Brownie declined, saying that they would be useful next time they were planning to get into a fight. After thanking Rarity again for their gifts and asking for directions, they made their way to Sugarcube Corner, which turned out to be a bakery.
As they approached the store, Shadow noticed that the interior was dark.
“It looks like there’s no one there,” he observed.
Brownie rolled her eyes. “I hope they’re not planning to surprise us or something dumb like that.”
“How could they? Pinkie Pie already told us when and where the party would be.”
They walked into the darkened bakery.
“SURPRISE!” shouted several dozen voices.
* * *
Brownie had to admit, Pinkie Pie could throw a pretty amazing party. She had resisted all attempts to get her to dance or play party games, but Pinkie seemed to be placated by Shadow’s participation.
Brownie was happy to stand by the food table and talk to anypony that happened by. This position also gave her a good view of the closet they had stashed their weapons and armor in. She didn’t really believe any of these party-goers would want a sword, nor be brave enough to steal one, but she felt better knowing.
Over the four hours of party so far, Brownie had had a chance to speak to all five of Twilight Sparkle’s core group of friends, which several of the other ponies referred to collectively as the “Elements of Harmony”. Twilight Sparkle herself was a no-show, to Pinkie Pie’s obvious disappointment and Rarity’s less-obvious embarrassment. All of Twilight’s friends had assured her that Twilight’s absence was unusual, but that Brownie should not take it as an insult. A farmer named Applejack had suggested that Twilight had probably just gotten so absorbed in a book that she lost track of time.
Brownie tried to learn as much about the new dimension as she could without revealing anything about herself. Contrary to her previous assumption, these ponies were highly advanced; the room was illuminated by a silent, odorless glass device that was activated by a switch that was all the way across the room. A pony who called himself a “railroad engineer” had spent the better part of an hour describing the finer points of steam power, which apparently had something to do with using hot water to move things. Brownie didn’t want to reveal herself as an interplanar invader, so she pretended to understand until the pony got bored and went to bother somepony else.
As some of the guests began to leave, Brownie looked for Shadow. He seemed to be in the middle of a game based on performing precise operations while blindfolded. As Brownie settled down to wait for him, some movement on the edge of her vision drew her attention.
A wispy trail of purple smoke drifted in through an open window and pooled on the floor. The partying ponies backed away from it, leaving an open circle in the middle of the room. The smoke heaped itself into a mass half again the size of a pony, then suddenly dissipated, revealing Princess Luna.
Most of the ponies present bowed reflexively, and Brownie decided it would be wise to follow their example.
“Behold, We have come to join with you in…FUN!” the night princess declared in a loud and authoritative voice. She looked around at the intimidated ponies with a stern expression for a moment. Then her face relaxed and she smiled slightly. “I jest. Please continue. I am just here to speak with the guests of honor. Miss Sundae, Mister Claw, please follow me.”
Brownie and Shadow followed the princess outside, and with a sudden flash, found themselves at the top of the clock tower they had seen earlier. Luna’s magic unhooked the giant bell and set it aside, allowing them a better view of each other.
“I trust you have found Ponyville welcoming and safe,” Luna said.
“Yes, your majesty. It’s very nice,” Shadow agreed.
“I mean no disrespect, highness, but I doubt you brought us up here just to ask our opinion of the town,” Brownie said.
Luna quirked an eyebrow, but nodded. “Just so. I heeded your warning of an alien monster in our realm and informed my sister Celestia. She decided to relay the information to her former student, Twilight Sparkle. However, Twilight did not respond to my sister’s missive, and she was not present at her castle this evening, nor Miss Pie’s party.” Luna’s brow furrowed. “I am afraid that we have become somewhat dependent on Princess Sparkle’s bravery and intellect in crisis situations.”
Brownie narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why are you telling us this?”
“You are mercenaries, are you not?”
Brownie and Shadow both nodded.
“Our traditional approach in these situations is to send Twilight Sparkle and her closest friends to investigate, but without Twilight’s stabilizing influence, her friends are…unpredictable, to say the least.” Luna’s expression suggested that there were multiple stories behind that statement. “I am telling you this because I want to hire you in their place.”
Brownie frowned. “If you want us to go fight that monster, I’ll have to admit that it’s far out of our league.”
The alicorn shook her head. “I do not want you to fight it. Indeed, I would prefer that nopony fight the monster. However, until Twilight Sparkle can be contacted, our primary line of defense is unavailable. We need more information. Therefore, I want you to track this monster, find its lair and discover as much about its intentions and capabilities as possible. Are these tasks within your area of expertise?”
Brownie nodded slowly. “I do have some tracking experience, but don’t you have local ponies you would trust more?”
Luna smiled slightly. “You are very perceptive, Miss Sundae. In truth, I do not trust either of you. You have shown yourselves to be quite dangerous and I know nothing of your past. However, you also showed great valor when you rescued the foals, and I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Consider this mission a test of character.”
“Would you want us to make regular progress reports?” Brownie asked.
“The most convenient and secure method for us to communicate is through your dreams,” Luna said. “Now that we are acquainted, I will be able to reach you wherever you are.”
Brownie looked to Shadow, but the griffon shrugged noncommittally. She turned back to Luna. “We’ll do it.”
The two mercenaries spent the night at the Ponyville inn and left early the next day, once again wearing their heavily-used Everglow garb. Their first stop was Zecora’s house. The zebra was outside tending her garden when they arrived.
“It’s good to see you two again. What brings you back to my domain?”
“Hi, Zecora,” Brownie greeted her, “could you point us in the direction of that clearing where you first met us?”
Shadow answered Zecora’s raised eyebrow by saying, “We’re on a secret mission. It’s really hush-hush.”
Zecora smirked. “The clearing where I found you then is straight that way, beyond that fen. If you go that way beware and exercise the proper care; the forest near the path is mild, but over there can be more wild.” She gestured for them to wait and went inside, returning shortly with what appeared to be a vial of swamp water. “This is what I used before, to help replace your blood with more. I hope you do not get so hurt and put to waste all my effort.”
They thanked her and set out in the direction she had indicated. Shadow remembered enough of the reverse trip that they were able to find the clearing after a half-hour of walking. From there, it was a simple matter to locate the cave. They inspected the cave carefully and even touched the hilt of the magic sword to various places on the cave walls, but there were no interdimensional portals to be found.
“Oh well, it was worth a try,” Shadow sighed. “I guess we have to find the demon now.”
Brownie walked slowly across the cave entrance, staring intently at the ground and occasionally sniffing the plants. Halfway across, she stopped and pointed a hoof at the ground. “What do you think, is that him?”
Shadow looked at the footprint. “Well, it’s big and clawed. It certainly could be.”
Brownie sniffed the footprint, then sat down hard and broke into a coughing fit. After a few seconds she gasped, “That is literally the nastiest thing I have ever smelled; it has to be him.” She looked around until she found another footprint and started walking along the trail. “The only thing we have to worry about now is if it decided to fly.”
They followed the trail for a few miles before, as Brownie had feared, the trail vanished. Shadow flew above the trees to look for any landmark that might give a hint to the creature’s destination. When he came back down, he reported seeing a mountain range in the general direction they had been traveling.
They decided to continue in the same direction to see if they could find more evidence of the demon’s passage. As they continued along the same heading, they occasionally found broken treetops and other hints that they were still on the right path, but no more footprints.
A few hours before sunset, Brownie suddenly clamped her forehooves over Shadow’s beak. “Listen!”
In the sudden silence, both adventurers could hear a distant voice crying. Brownie gently released Shadow and motioned for him to stay quiet. Shadow glowered at her, but did not speak.
They crept toward the sound as silently as Brownie’s armor would allow. A furlong further they emerged into a blackened clearing. The area appeared to have been cleared by a fiery explosion. Fallen and charred trees pointed away from the center of the clearing and all smaller shrubs were gone. The wailing that had originally attracted their attention had subsided to sporadic sniffling sobs.
Shadow slowly placed one claw on Brownie’s shoulder and pointed with the other. She sighted along his leg and saw a patch of short red fur over the top of one of the fallen trees. The patch of hide was rising and falling in time with the sobbing. Brownie nodded at Shadow and started crawling closer. They reached the opposite side of the log without alerting the sobbing creature to their presence.
Brownie pointed at Shadow. He stared back without comprehension. The pony rolled her eyes and pointed at the griffon’s talons, then at her own hooves, then at each talon on one claw individually. Realization dawned on Shadows face and he held up a claw.
Three…two…one… They jumped over the log at the same time, each drawing their weapon as they jumped.
The creature on the far side resembled a pony mare at first glance, but it had small horns, cloven hooves, black, leathery wings and a naked tail with a tuft of black fur on the end. She screamed and covered her head with her forelegs. “Mercy! It wasn’t me! I’m nobody! Please, don’t kill me; she said I could live! I surrender!”
Brownie and Shadow relaxed a little, although they kept their weapons pointed at the peculiar creature. As she got a better look at their wretched prisoner, Brownie realized that she was probably not a significant threat; one of her leathery wings was pinned under the log and most of her right foreleg was missing. Judging from the raw and jagged stump, the injury was recent.
Shadow tried to calm the distraught creature by talking to her. “Easy, we’re not here to hurt you. Lay still, we can help you.”
Brownie sheathed her sword and braced her back against the log. “Shadow, I’m not going to be able to move this by myself.” However, even as she said that, the log moved. With a confused look on her face, she heaved against the root ball as hard as she could, and the multi-ton log rolled over.
The black wing folded itself tightly against its owner as soon as the log was no longer pinning it, apparently undamaged.
Shadow turned to their sniffling charity. “What’s your name?” He got no answer, and Brownie signaled him to step back.
They both walked a short distance away from the quivering cripple and Brownie said to Shadow in a low voice, “Did you notice her brand of destiny?” He hadn’t, of course. “It’s an open book supported by an upturned hoof. I’m not sure where, but I’ve seen it before.”
“Let’s ask her,” Shadow suggested and walked back to the red ponykin. “Hello, who are you?”
She raised her head, but looked straight past Shadow and stared at the magic sword Brownie still carried on her back. “No! I’m not ready to die!” she screamed, “She said I could change!”
“Hey!” Brownie yelled back, “We’re not going to kill you! We’re the…we’re working for the good guys!”
“Brownie, I think she just wet herself. Maybe you should tone it down a bit,” Shadow said.
Brownie thought for a second, then unstrapped the magic sword and set it aside. “There, see? Not going to kill you. Now please calm down and tell us your name.”
The cripple continued to sob for a while longer, but eventually subsided into occasional hiccups. “I’m Perfida,” she said at last.
“Hello, Perfida,” Shadow said, “nice to meet you. I’m Shadow Claw, and this is Brownie Sundae. What happened to you?”
Perfida hiccupped again. “She did this to me.” She pointed at her brand. “I’m evil, so evil, but I never knew until she told me.”
Shadow and Brownie exchanged confused glances. “Perhaps you could tell us the whole story,” Shadow prompted.
Perfida sighed and tried to rub her eyes with her right foreleg, apparently forgetting it was gone. She stared at the stump for a moment before repeating the attempt with her left foreleg. “I am…was…a succubus. You would call me a demon. I tortured and murdered so many people I lost count. I did every evil thing that came into my head and that was the sum of my existence.
“Then one day, a pony with a monocle appeared to me and said, ‘Now you know,’ and I did. I knew I was evil and vile and deserved to die. I wanted to kill myself but I was too afraid. I tortured myself with my own guilt until the pony returned. This time she said, ‘There is a way to escape, if you are willing.’ I told her I would give anything except my very life to escape this torment. She smiled at me and said, ‘You are mine now,’ and gave me her mark.
“There was a feeling like I was being torn in half and I woke up on the material plane. I saw a cave and crawled into it to hide, but it was occupied by a horned devil and its minions. When it saw that I bore her mark it commanded the other devils to slay me. I fled, but they caught me here and struck me down. I should have died, but She shielded me from their blows and from their sight.
“When I saw that you bear Tirai’ilbeleg,” Perfida gestured at the sword Brownie had set aside. “I thought you must be a holy paladin, come to end my evil ways. The sword accused me in my head, and promised to rid the world of my evil.”
“Tira-what?” Shadow asked.
“In Common, it would be called the Sword of the Helpless.”
“Oh, is that what it is?” Brownie said, “I suppose that’s why we can’t draw it; we’re not helpless.”
“You misunderstand,” Perfida elaborated, “the Sword of the Helpless was forged to empower those who would protect the helpless from evil creatures like me.”
“Where—“ Shadow started to ask, but was interrupted by a disembodied laugh. “Who’s there?”
The laugh continued, as if an invisible person had just heard the world’s funniest joke. Suddenly there was a white flash, and rolling on the ground in front of them was the strangest creature any of them had ever seen. He appeared to have one limb each from a lion, eagle, goat and dragon, one horn, one antler, a scaly tail with a tuft at the end, and a single snaggletooth protruding comically from his upper lip. “That’s just priceless!” the creature chortled, “I never thought she would do it!”
Shadow opened his beak to respond, but Brownie blocked him with a hoof. “Don’t respond to the Unspoken; he will draw you into a trap.”
“You seem to have me confused with someone,” the creature said with an innocent expression. He made a show of clearing his throat. “Hello, I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance. My name’s Discord, what’s yours?”
“You expect us to believe there’s more than one animal part mashup wandering around?” Brownie said with a frown.
“There are at least two,” Discord asserted, “Obviously, you are thinking of my distinguished colleague in Everglow. If you look closely, you will see that we are nothing alike; charming fellow that he is, I am clearly far more handsome.” He put his clawed foot on a rock and gazed into the distance. His jaw seemed more pronounced than it had been a second ago.
Suddenly, Perfida’s eyes glowed white and she spoke with a different voice. “There you are! Your juvenile tricks have created more trouble in a day than I have seen in a century.”
Discord slapped his face with his lion paw. “I’m not the one you want. Hang on, I’ll get him for you.” He reached sideways and his claw disappeared into thin air, and then reappeared dragging a very similar creature back with it. “You want the Unspoken. Say hi, Unk.”
The consciousness controlling the pony succubus glared at the Unspoken. “Did you know what the result would be when you challenged me to give this wretched creature a conscience?”
“Of course not Lumi, that would spoil all the fun!” the new mix-up responded.
“Nonetheless, you are the loser and will abide by the terms of our wager. Do as you promised.”
“I was just getting to that, sheesh,” he said petulantly.
“See that you do.”
Perfida’s eyes returned to normal and she gasped, “Oh, it was her!” then promptly fainted.
Discord offered the Unspoken a fist bump which his counterpart returned.
“If you’ll excuse me,” the Unspoken said, pulling a red fez out of nowhere and plopping it on his head, “I have a bet to pay off. When you get to the cave, be sure to—“
Discord clamped a claw over the Unspoken’s mouth and shoved him roughly back through the invisible hole in the air. “Spoilers!”
He looked around conspiratorially, then cupped his mismatched hands around his mouth and whispered, “I know what you two are. I can’t mess with the ponies in Everglow because of all the rules, and I can’t mess with the ponies of Equestria because I’m ‘reformed’.” He made exaggerated air quotes and grinned evilly. “But you are neither in Everglow nor of Equestria; keep me entertained or I might have to liven things up.” He pulled out a large cardboard box and added, “I’ll be watching you.”
He pulled the box over his head and crouched down so he was completely hidden by the box, then the box vanished, leaving nothing behind but empty air.
After a minute of stunned silence, Shadow looked at the unconscious Perfida and said, “While she’s out, what do you think would be a good nickname for her?”
Brownie sputtered incoherently for a second before finding words. “Are you suggesting we take her with us!? She’s a demon and a murderer; she told us herself!”
“She said she was sorry,” Shadow protested.
“She is also clearly unstable. Are you trying to bring us into the middle of a dispute between the gods?”
Shadow thought for a moment. “She’s crippled and alone, and if we leave her here, she will probably die.”
“But—“ Brownie protested, “if we…we don’t…this isn’t…argh!” She spun on her front hooves and bucked a fallen tree with her rear hooves as hard as she could. The charred tree broke into two halves and tumbled across the clearing. Brownie flopped down on the ground with a growl and pulled on her ears with her forehooves.
After a moment, she was calm again. “You are the worst mercenary ever, and I’m the second worst.”
Shadow winced, but nodded.
“I’m not ready to trust her; how are we going to keep her secure?”
Shadow looked in his pack. “Well, I have some rope?”
* * *
“Brownie, she’s waking up.”
“Great, you talk to her.” Brownie bent her hind legs, slanting her back and allowing the bound Perfida to slide off onto the ground.
Perfida tried to speak, but realized her muzzle was tied shut.
“So,” Shadow said, “I think we owe you an explanation.”
She shook her head and sighed.
Shadow looked hurt. “Here’s the thing, we don’t know you; for all we know, you like to murder folks in their sleep – you did say you were a murderer. But,” he added with emphasis, “I want to believe you when you say you’ve changed, and we didn’t want to leave you all alone.”
Perfida looked at Shadow with hope-filled blue eyes.
“Ugh, I feel like a monster!” Shadow reached forwards and untied Perfida’s mouth. “Here’s the plan: we’re going to keep you close, and any time we can’t watch you, we’ll tie you up. We’ll protect you and feed you, but we can’t trust you.”
The demon pony nodded. “It’s more than I deserve, thank you.”
Shadow untied her wings and legs as well, then stood back and watched her warily.
Perfida stood slowly and pointed slightly off to one side with the stump of her right leg. “There’s a cave over that way. I saw it when I was trying to escape. It’s big enough to provide shelter for all three of us.” She looked to the others for approval and then started hobbling in that direction.
On the way, they passed a bend in a river. “You should take a bath while we’re here,” Brownie said.
The demon made a face. “I hate water.”
“As long as it won’t actually harm you, it would be good to get rid of that smell.” Brownie explained tactlessly.
“You scared me, okay?” Perfida said, but reluctantly complied. She soon returned, dripping wet and looking thoroughly miserable.
Brownie already had a blanket ready for her. “You should probably shake before you put this on.”
“Shake? I’m already shiv-iv-iv-ering,” Perfida said with chattering teeth.
“Like this.” Shadow helpfully demonstrated how to shake. “It gets the water out of your coat.”
The succubus attempted to imitate his example, but she overbalanced, and with only three legs she was unable to catch herself. “Eep!”
Shadow and Brownie helped her up and wrapped the blanket around her.
“Were you something else, you know, before?” Shadow asked.
“I used to be a biped,” Perfida answered, “I didn’t turn into a pony until I was sent to this plane.”
“What about your leg?” Brownie queried.
“That was Her doing. When she branded me, she took my arm. Well, most of it.” She waved her stump.
Brownie’s eyebrows shot up in sudden realization. “What do you, uh, eat?”
“When I was a biped, I ate the same things as humans.” She considered for a moment. “If you don’t count draining their life force.” Oblivious to the queasy faces of her companions, she continued, “Now that I’m a pony, maybe I eat what ponies eat.”
“That would be a lucky break,” Shadow said with a smirk. He made a sweeping gesture with a talon to indicate the whole forest. “Behold: what ponies eat.”
“We’re herbivores,” Brownie clarified, “but not very picky ones.”
Perfida sampled some grass and chewed thoughtfully. “Hmm, maybe.” She pointed with her stump. “There’s the cave.”
Brownie and Shadow decided that they would need to take turns watching regardless of whether Perfida was trustworthy or not, so they left her unbound. Almost as soon as she lay down, she was asleep. The pony and the griffon quietly discussed their plans for the next day for a short time and then Brownie went to sleep while Shadow took the first watch; it was time to talk to the princess.
* * *
Brownie found herself standing on the same starry platform as before. “Princess Luna, are you there?”
“I am here, Brownie Sundae.” The night princess strode into view from nowhere and stood in front of the earth pony. “Do you wish to make a report?”
“Yes princess. We found some footprints and followed them for part of the day before we lost the trail, but we think we’re still on the right path because we found somepony that was running from him.”
Luna cocked an eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“We found her bawling her eyes out in the middle of a burned-out clearing. She told us a tale about how she used to be a demon, but she reformed and was sent here. She claims that the monster sensed her reform and tried to kill her, but she escaped. We don’t trust her, but we’re watching her closely, and if she is telling the truth, she could be a very good source of information.”
Brownie watched Luna’s face for any hint of what she was thinking, but the alicorn maintained a passive mask. Brownie continued, “Unfortunately, if she can be believed, it means that the monster is completely evil and is gathering an army of other monsters.”
The princess scowled. “This is a grave development. I realize that the danger for you and Shadow Claw has increased significantly, but so has our need for information. I do not ask this lightly, but are you willing to continue the mission? We must know for certain how great a threat this creature poses.”
Brownie nodded. “We’re still in. Hopefully, our new…acquaintance will be able to steer us away from some of the danger.” She paused. “Have you been able to contact Twilight Sparkle?”
Luna’s scowl deepened. “No, it is quite concerning. She has always been punctual and communicative in the past, almost obsessively so. However, that is not your concern. We are already considering our other options, and will let you know when it impacts your mission or personal safety. Was there anything else, Miss Sundae?”
Brownie shook her head. “No, princess.”
Luna nodded stiffly. “Sleep well, then, and good luck,” she said, and vanished.
Brownie was awakened by a mare’s scream right next to her ear. She leapt to her hooves and reached to grab her sword off the ground, but Shadow stopped her.
“Easy, Brown, it’s okay. Perfida’s just having nightmares.”
Brownie looked over at where the pony succubus was thrashing about and occasionally mumbling in a language she couldn’t understand. “How long has she been doing that?”
“Pretty much all night. I can’t say I trust her, but I think it’s obvious she was at least telling the truth about her change of philosophy. In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve never seen someone who hated themselves so much.”
Perfida’s sleep-talking arbitrarily switched to the common tongue. “No! That’s not true, she said I can choose!” She abruptly lay still, and said in an eerily-clear voice, “Kill me then; it would make everything so much simpler.”
Shadow gestured towards Brownie’s sleeping bag. “You can go back to sleep, it’s not your turn yet.”
“That’s alright, I got enough sleep, and I talked to Luna,” Brownie said with a shrug, “I can take over now.”
Shadow looked at her curiously for a moment. “Okay, thanks. I’ll take you up on that offer.” He went over to his sleeping bag and lay down. “See you tomorrow.”
Brownie walked over to the cave entrance and peeked out. Behind her, Perfida resumed her argument with her subconscious. It was going to be a long night.
* * *
In the morning, Brownie woke Shadow first, then went to Perfida and gently poked her with a hoof. Her black wings unfolded violently, cuffing Brownie across the face. She yelled something in another language and tried to focus on Brownie with bleary eyes. After a moment, recognition started to seep into her expression. “Brownie Sundae, right?”
Perfida tried to stand on her back legs and fell over. She tried to stand on all fours and fell over again. She glared at the stump of her right foreleg for a moment, then carefully stood on her three good legs.
“I’m sorry, I remember now. What do you want me to do?”
“Well, you should probably eat breakfast first,” Shadow said as he flew towards them with a box in his talons.
“What is that, Shadow?” Brownie asked.
“Pinkie Pie gave me a box of extra provisions,” Shadow explained as he opened the box to reveal a full-sized cake, which was mostly mashed into a lump from bouncing around in his pack for a day. “Cake?” He held out the box invitingly.
Perfida looked questioningly at Brownie. “You eat cake for breakfast?”
Brownie shrugged. “I guess we do today.”
Proper cake-eating utensils are not part of the standard adventurer’s kit. Shadow managed to get only one talon sticky, but both of his companions ended up with some cake on their faces.
“That was a very good cake,” Brownie observed. “What do you think, Perfida? Can you eat pony food?”
Perfida was staring straight ahead with a stunned expression on her face, as if someone had just revealed the great secrets of the universe to her. She slowly nodded. “I could get used to this.”
They all went back to the river to wash off the cake and then came back to pack up their camp.
Let’s see,” Shadow said, “the next order of business is to pick a nickname for you, Perfida.”
“A nickname? Why?” She looked confused.
“It’s his thing,” Brownie explained, “It’s best if you help him pick one, or he’ll call you something you hate.”
“Speaking of,” Shadow responded, “why do you hate being called ‘Blondie’?”
Brownie scowled. “Because,” she said with a low growl, “that’s what my father always called me.”
Shadow’s face fell. “Oh.”
“Why would that—“ Perfida was cut off by a talon over her mouth.
“Don’t. She’ll tell you about it later,” Shadow promised. “Let’s find you a nickname. How about ‘Bats’?” He flicked one of her wings with a talon. “Or maybe ‘Fida’. Perhaps ‘Gimpy’?”
“Shadow!” Brownie said sharply, “that’s horrible!”
“I don’t mind. How about ‘Stumpy’?” Perfida suggested. “By the way, where are we going?”
“We’re tracking that devil-boss fellow that you saw so we can spy on him,” Shadow said candidly.
Perfida looked like she was about to relapse into her panic of the day before, so Brownie quickly grabbed her shoulders with both forehooves. “Hey, relax, we’re not planning on him seeing us. The last thing we want is to get into a fight with him. We just need to know what he’s up to.”
“B-but if he catches us, he won’t just kill us; he’ll torture us for days or weeks before he lets us die. You inner-planers cannot imagine what sort of things we outsiders do.”
“Well then,” Shadow interjected, “if he’s so bad, it’s all the more important that we stop him, right?”
“We’re not going to stop him,” Brownie responded, “we’re just going to spy on him and report to Luna so she can stop him.” Perfida still looked quite distressed, so Brownie added, “Tell you what, Perfida. If things start getting too dangerous, you can just run away. You’re not responsible to us. If you’ll pardon my bluntness, we don’t care what you do as long as you don’t stab us in the back or something.”
The succubus took a step and spread her wings as if to fly away but suddenly froze. She seemed to be looking at a normal tree, but she didn’t respond when Shadow waved a talon in front of her face. The three of them stood that way for a minute before Perfida started moving again. She turned back to face the others. “She says I need to help you as part of my penance.”
“Who?” Brownie asked.
Perfida stared into space again, but only for a moment this time. “Princess Luminace. She is the goddess of knowledge, and you seek information. I may no longer live only for myself.”
“So…does that mean you’re staying with us?” Shadow asked.
She nodded. “I will try to help you, but I’m not sure if I still have any of my powers from before.” Her brow furrowed. “Or if I could justify using them even if they still work.”
Brownie nodded. “Okay then, which way did you say it is to the monster cave?”
Perfida pointed her stump. “This way.”
“Lead on, Stumpy,” Shadow said with humorous flair.
Stumpy gave him a half smile and flapped her wings, lifting into the air. “I’m going to try flying slowly instead of walking, if you don’t mind.”
“So, Fida, if you don’t mind my asking, what do devils do when they aren’t…um…doing what they do when we see them?” Shadow queried.
“Well, first, I’m not a devil, I’m a demon. I have some devil blood, but succubi are abyssal beings, which means they are demons…” She trailed off as she noticed Shadow starting to get a glazed expression. “You know what, never mind. It’s complicated.”
Shadow grappled with what she had told him so far. “So, devils and demons are different, but you’re both?”
Perfida tried to facehoof, but her preferred limb was too short. “Here’s the thing: I don’t remember any of my mortal life, but I was apparently an infernal sorcerer or part devil or something like that. All I know is, now that I am a demon, I still have devil blood. I don’t know what to tell you; it’s not like one is worse than the other, it’s just another kink in my twisted, messed-up past. The only part of my mortal essence that remains is my lechery, which is how I ended up a succubus in the first place.”
Brownie’s ears had been angled towards Fida since the start of the conversation, but at this they flattened a bit. “Lechery?”
“Promiscuity, licentiousness, debauchery, habitual adultery, you get the idea.”
“When you look at us, do you…?”
“Yes, Luminace forgive me. I will beat it though. This is my only chance to escape that life, and I will not let it pass me by.”
* * *
An hour later they came to a deep canyon spanned by a dubious rope bridge. They cautiously peeked over the edge and saw a river running on the canyon bottom, a hundred feet below.
Shadow poked Brownie’s flank. “This must be important, eh Brown?”
Brownie rolled her eyes. “I highly doubt it.”
“I don’t like the looks of that bridge, but we can just fly over, right?” Perfida suggested. When Brownie gave her a flat look, she added, “We could carry you?”
“Knock yourself out.” Shadow said with a smirk.
Brownie closed her eyes and sighed, but did not protest. Perfida drifted over Brownie, hovering easily. However, when she tried to grab the earth pony she discovered that weight was more of a consideration than she had thought. Furthermore, grabbing her smooth armor with only three limbs that all ended in hooves turned out to be nearly impossible.
Brownie tolerated her impotent grasping for a little while before finally saying, “Okay, enough. I’ll walk across the bridge. If you guys could carry my stuff it might not stress the bridge so much.”
“Sure, we can do that,” Shadow agreed.
Brownie divested herself of weapons, armor and saddlebags and offered them to the flyers to carry.
Perfida shrunk back when Brownie held up the Sword of the Helpless. “I’m sorry, I can’t touch that one; just looking at it gives me a migraine. If I touched it, I might burst into flames or something.”
Brownie cocked an eyebrow, but hooved the sword over to Shadow instead. “Alright, let’s do this.” She started across the bridge.
Shadow flew quickly to the other side, dumped the gear he was carrying and flew back to hover adjacent to Brownie as she walked. “We should give the sword a name too,” he observed. “Sword of the Helpless is such an unwieldy title. Maybe S of the H, or Helps. Not doing it for you? Hmm. Tira? Howie? Chops? Oh, I know, the Slashinator!”
“It’s not even our—“ Brownie’s thought was cut off by a cracking sound as the plank she stepped on gave way. She tried to stabilize herself by lunging for the next plank, but it failed as well. She pitched forward into the hole, but caught a horizontal rope in her teeth.
“I’ve got you!” Shadow said as he flew under the bridge to catch her.
Brownie tried to pull herself back up, but she bit too hard and severed the rotten rope with her teeth. With a volley of snaps, the bridge started to unravel, forcing Shadow to dodge out of the way. Brownie fell head-first through the hole in the deck and plummeted into the canyon. She hit the water, and then something hard.
* * *
Brownie woke to a throbbing pain in her head and the peculiar sensation of a griffon trying to give her mouth-to-mouth. She tried to say something, but was suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea.
“She’s alive! Brownie, can you—eugh! That’s a fine way to say thank you!” Shadow pulled back and tried to wipe off the mix of river water and cake that Brownie had just shared with him.
The pony broke into a fit of coughing. “Whr’s evypny? Whappend?” she slurred between coughs.
“Take it easy,” Perfida called to her, apparently just catching up, “you probably have a concussion.”
Brownie stopped talking and looked at Shadow again. His fur and feathers were soaking wet and there was blood on one of his front legs. “Are you hurt?” Brownie asked, finding the simple words surprisingly difficult to pronounce.
“Naw.” Shadow waved a talon dismissively. “I’m the best swimmer in my village.” He noticed the blood on his leg. “Oh, you mean this? That’s yours; you hit your head when you fell and you’re bleeding all over the place.”
Brownie carefully felt her head with a hoof and was rewarded with excruciating pain and a sticky feeling.
Perfida grabbed Brownie’s hoof and held it away from her head. “Eh, eh! None of that. Hold still.” She bit her own crippled foreleg, then squeezed the wound with her other leg to make it bleed.
Brownie watched in confusion and suspicion as the demon held out her stump and shook it, allowing a drop of black blood to fall on the earth pony’s head. There was an odd hissing sound and a subtle sense of violation, but both soon passed.
Shadow looked over the succubus’ shoulder with morbid fascination. “Wow, that’s healing fast. What was that you just did?”
“A drop of devil’s blood can cause regeneration in mortals,” Perfida explained. She looked at Brownie nervously. “I only meant to help; are you angry?”
“Um, no…it’s fine…I actually feel a lot better already,” Brownie said carefully.
Shadow’s curiosity continued to overpower his squeamishness. “Do you regenerate like that all the time?”
Perfida chuckled. “No, actually, and most pureblood devils don’t either. Ironic, huh?”
Brownie staggered to her hooves. “Thank you, Perfida.” She turned to Shadow and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Thank you too; you saved my life.”
Shadow grinned. “Now we’re even; you saved me three times and I saved you three times.”
Brownie lifted an eyebrow. “You’re keeping score?”
“A little healthy competition never hurt anypony, right?” Shadow teased. He walked back to the river to wash off Brownie’s various contributions to his coloration.
Brownie looked at the low bank of the river she had just been fished out of. “How far are we from the bridge?”
Perfida looked back the way they had come. “Eh, ten miles, maybe?”
“And most of my gear is still at the bridge where Shadow left it?”
Shadow returned in time to hear the question. “Oh yeah, sorry about that.”
“No, no!” Brownie reassured him hastily, “You did the right thing. We might both be dead if you had been weighed down with all my junk.”
“It’s a long walk back though,” Shadow observed. “You chicks stay here; I’ll fly up and get it. It should take me less than half-an-hour.” He grinned and flew off suddenly, leaving a flurry of leaves in his wake.
“Be careful!” Brownie called after him, but she could not tell if he had heard her.
Barely ten minutes after he left to get Brownie’s discarded gear, Shadow returned, grinning like an idiot. “Maybe it’s the air here or something, but I have never felt so good,” he declared. “I just flew twenty miles in ten minutes, and I was carrying your junk on the way back. Here, by the way.” He gave her the bundle.
“You’re a pretty useful guy to have around,” Brownie admitted.
“That’s what my mother always said.” Shadow’s smile slipped a little as soon as he said that.
“What’s wrong?” Perfida asked.
“I left my family rather suddenly. I wonder how they’re doing without me.”
“Ah.” Perfida tried to look sympathetic. “I have no idea who my family was or what happened to them.” She looked at Brownie expectantly.
“All dead,” Brownie said, succinctly. She started putting her armor back on.
“Okay, point taken,” Shadow sighed.
“Sorry, I wasn’t trying to belittle your problems,” Brownie said. “Maybe when we’re done here we can find a way to get back to Everglow, then you can check on them yourself.” She fussed with her armor for a few more minutes. “Okay, let’s get this over with so we can all go home.”
“I don’t want to go home, if it’s all the same to you,” Perfida said. “No demon in its right mind would.”
Brownie shrugged. “Okay, let’s get this over with so we can all go wherever we want.”
“As a group?” Shadow asked hopefully.
Brownie looked pointedly at the demon. “Maybe. I’m still not sure what kind of group we are.” She glanced at the sun and started walking.
“Wait, Brownie,” Perfida said, “the cave is that way.”
Brownie looked confused. “We were heading East-Northeast before.”
“That is East-Northeast, the sun here is weird,” the demon explained.
“What do you mean ‘weird’?”
“It’s not moving at a constant speed; it should be lower in the sky by now, but it seems to go faster near the horizon and slower near the zenith,” Perfida expounded.
“What could cause that?” Shadow enquired.
The succubus shrugged. “I don’t know, someone moving it, perhaps?”
“That’s stupid,” Brownie said, and started walking in the correct direction.
* * *
As the sun was rapidly setting, the forest began to be noticeably sparser. Just as the sun was reaching the horizon, the group emerged from the forest onto a dirt road. On the far side of the road was a flat, dirt plain bordered by a rocky ridge.
“Is that it?” Brownie asked, pointing at the ridge with a forehoof.
Perfida nodded. “The entrance is somewhere along the base of that ridge.”
“It’s getting dark. I don’t think it would be a good idea to try and get in there now. We should camp at the edge of the forest, where there’s still some cover.” Brownie found a flat spot and took off her saddlebags. “Who wants to get firewood this time?”
“We should play rock-paper-scissors to decide,” Shadow suggested with a sly grin.
“I’ve never heard of that,” Brownie said, “is it a griffon game?”
“I think it was originally invented by humans.” He held out both his talons in front of the mares to demonstrate. “It’s quite simple; this means ‘rock’, this means ‘paper’ and this means ‘scissors’. Paper beats rock, scissors beat paper, and rock beats scissors. You count to three and pick one at the same time as each other, and see who wins.”
Brownie lifted an eyebrow. “I think you’re forgetting one crucial detail.” She held up a hoof.
“That would be ‘rock’,” Shadow said with a smirk.
Brownie was about to protest again, but Perfida spoke first. “That looks like fun, can I try?” She batted her eyelashes innocently.
“Alright! Loser has to get the firewood, deal?”
“Deal.” The demon sat on her haunches to free up her foreleg.
“Ready? One, two, three!” Shadow held his claw out flat. “Paper beats rock.”
“And scissors beat paper,” Perfida agreed.
Shadow looked closer at the hoof in front of him and realized that the succubus had spread the two halves of her cloven hoof. Scissors. This wasn’t part of the plan. “Uh, it’s traditional to play to best two out of three, just to make sure it’s fair.”
“Of course, that makes sense,” Perfida said with a knowing smile.
“One, two, three! Rock beats scissors…but two rocks makes a tie.”
At Shadow’s insistence they continued to match wits in the time-honored finger game, but even with only two of the three options available to her, the succubus won or tied every single time. Finally, when Shadow was asking for best twenty-three out of forty-four, Brownie called the game.
“I think you should go get the firewood now, Shadow.”
“But…” Shadow just stared at the confidently-smiling bat pony. How did she do that, he thought, was she reading my mind?
“Of course not,” Perfida said with a huge grin, “that would be cheating.”
Shadow sputtered incoherently and pointed at Perfida accusingly.
“I think that’s fair turnabout for challenging a hooved creature to a finger game,” Brownie declared, although she looked quite uncomfortable with the revelation as well. “Just stallion up and get the firewood before it gets completely dark.”
Shadow walked back into the forest, grumbling. He had hardly traveled ten yards before he noticed a light ahead. He quickly returned to the others and all three went to investigate.
In a clearing next to the road, they found large cart that looked like it doubled as a mobile home. It was decorated with stylized representations of various heavenly bodies as well as sweeping lines that seemed to indicate movement. The overall effect suggested the owner was a high-profile expert on the arcane. In front of the cart, a blue unicorn with a nearly-white, blue-tinted mane was sitting by a campfire. She was wearing a purple cape with a star pattern on it and a pointed hat with a similar design hung from a hook on the cart.
As they reached the edge of the clearing, the unicorn jumped up like she had been stung. “Who goes there?” She looked quickly around the edge of the clearing until she saw her guests. “Do you seek an audience with the Great and Powerful Trixie?”
“Um, maybe?” Shadow said. “Is that you?”
“Do you think we could share your campfire?” Perfida added. “There’s safety in numbers.”
“You are wise to seek aid from Trixie,” Trixie said as she looked appraisingly at the motley group, “but how can Trixie know you are trustworthy?”
“You can’t,” Brownie admitted, “but you’re safer keeping an eye on us than letting us skulk around in the woods where you can’t see us.”
Trixie seemed to be alarmed by the inference. “Trixie has introduced herself to you, now you must introduce yourselves to Trixie.”
“I’m Shadow Claw, this sexy filly is Brownie Sundae…”
“Shadow!” Brownie protested.
“…and the winged tripod is Perfida.”
“Okay, I lied,” Perfida responded, “that is annoying.”
“Why are you out in the woods, Trixie?” Brownie asked.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is a traveling magician, famous throughout Equestria for her talent and charisma. Trixie just finished a highly successful series of performances in Dodge Junction and is traveling to Canterlot.” Trixie glanced at the group’s equipment. “Trixie is also a fortune-teller. She can reveal the outcome of your quest, for a modest fee, of course.”
“Hmm, how would we know you’re not just making it up?” Shadow objected. “Can you prove you’re a fortune teller?”
Trixie smiled. “Very clever. You hope to gain a free show by feigning suspicion.” She pointed to the ground in front of her with a hoof. “Very well, Trixie is feeling generous.”
Shadow whispered in Perfida’s ear, “See if she’s another mind-reader,” and walked forward with false confidence. He sat in front of Trixie and waited expectantly.
Trixie placed a hoof on Shadow’s head and looked at his face. “Hmm, you have traveled far; you are not from Ponyville. Are you from Canterlot? No, farther…much farther. You have come from outside of Equestria. In fact…you are not from this…world!?”
“What!? How could you know that!?” Shadow asked incredulously. He looked to Perfida, but she just smirked and shook her head.
Trixie beamed. “A magician never reveals her secrets.” She continued to hold her hoof against his head. “You came to this world by accident...it was your fault, and you are…worried…that your marefriend will get hurt again—“
“Stop! Stop! I don’t want to hear any more!” Shadow scrambled away from Trixie’s hoof in a panic. “You’re just guessing! You don’t know any of that stuff!”
Brownie caught him as he tried to pass her. “Easy, Shadow, don’t freak out. Trixie doesn’t know everything.”
Perfida tried to applaud, but then remembered that she was missing a leg and used her wings instead. “Bravo, Trixie, Bravo. I don’t think I could have done any better.”
Trixie’s smile slipped a little. “Trixie is the most talented unicorn in all of Equestria; no secret is hidden from Trixie.”
“Second-most talented, you mean; you still consider yourself inferior to Twilight Sparkle.”
Trixie gasped and closed her eyes in concentration. “Do not try to read my mind; I have trained in the art of mental defense.”
Perfida turned to Shadow. “She wasn’t really reading your mind; she was just making good guesses.”
Trixie scowled but did not deny it.
“But how did she know all that stuff?” Shadow asked, still obviously distressed.
“You told her. Every time she made a guess, the truth was written all over your face.”
Trixie was looking hard at Perfida. “You really can read minds. Have you ever thought about a career as a performer?”
The succubus quirked an eyebrow.
Trixie hastily added, “Trixie could provide you with a low-pressure job as Trixie’s assistant. You could assist me with my act in exchange for the chance to study under an experienced show mare.”
Perfida laughed lightly. “Maybe later. My goddess has ordered me to help these people with their quest, and I owe her so much I daren’t refuse.”
Trixie looked at Shadow again. “Is this a great and glorious quest? With the approval of the princesses?”
“Okay, look,” Brownie said, “rather than wait for you to wring the details out of Shadow, I’ll just tell you, okay?” She grumbled to herself and continued, “A huge demon—“
“Devil,” Perfida corrected.
“…found its way into Equestria at the same time as Shadow and I did. Princess Luna hired us to find it and spy on it so she could decide what to do.” She pointed at Perfida. “She’s just along for the ride.”
Trixie looked simultaneously overjoyed and terrified. “Princess Luna sent somepony beside those six on a mission to save the world,” she said to herself, “this is your chance, Trixie, there may never be another.” She stood up very straight and levitated her hat onto her head. “The Great and Powerful Trixie will aid you in your quest,” she said in a loud and dramatic voice.
“Uh-uh,” Brownie said, shaking her head, “one passenger is plenty. Luna just hired the two of us, and we’re not splitting the reward with anypony else.”
“I would do it for free, gratis!” Trixie said with a hint of desperation, “You will need a powerful spellcaster like Trixie. How could an earth pony and a griffon hope to deal with demonic magic?”
“Infernal, not demonic,” said the succubus.
“We’re not going to ‘deal’ with it,” Brownie said, “we’re just going to look at it.”
“How will you avoid detection without Trixie? Behold: invisibility!” As she said this, Trixie vanished in a puff of smoke. A voice from where she had been standing said, “Diversions!” and a tube hanging on the cart fired a flaming ball that flew above the trees with a shriek and exploded colorfully.
“Shush! We don’t want them to know we’re here!” Brownie said, trying to find the invisible magician by feel.
Trixie reappeared in front of her. “Please, Brownie Sundae, I need to do this. Give me a chance to prove my worth?”
Brownie groaned and tugged on one of her ears with a hoof. “Shadow?”
“No more telling my secrets?” he asked timidly.
“Trixie merely meant to prove her talent, but Trixie can occasionally get carried away. Will you accept Trixie’s apology?”
By now, it was almost completely dark, but the moon was visible above the trees. An awkward silence hung over the group in the wake of Trixie’s apology.
Brownie’s ears twitched. “Did anypony hear that?”
The others strained their ears. A moment later, they all heard a distant voice screaming.
“It sounds like a colt,” Trixie observed.
The voice yelled again, much closer. A second voice joined in as a shadow passed quickly in front of the moon. The group caught a glimpse of a bat-winged silhouette that was certainly not a pony.
“The monster has kidnapped a couple of chicks, I mean foals!” Shadow said fearfully.
Trixie gasped, “I know those voices! They were my most faithful fans!”
“What are we going to do?” Perfida said, looking at Brownie.
Brownie looked around and saw that Shadow and Trixie were also looking at her expectantly. She bit her lip. “We have to go rescue them, and then we can call Luna.”
Trixie extinguished her campfire with a quick spell and went inside her cart. A moment later, she emerged wearing a bulging satchel and locked the door behind her. “Trixie is ready, let’s go.”
Brownie started walking briskly in the direction of the ridge and the rest of the group fell in behind her.
“Why do you talk like that, Trixie?” Shadow asked.
“A commanding stage presence is essential for the successful performer. Would you expect an amazing spectacle if a magician said, ‘Hi, um, I want to show you something kind of cool.’? Of course not. However, when she says, ‘Come and witness the incredible feats and incomparable magic of the Grrreat and Powerful Trrrixie!’ you know that she is a professional.”
“What was that thing with the ‘r’s?” Brownie asked with an irritated grimace.
“That was trilling; it makes the speaker seem more cultured,” Trixie replied in a tone that suggested Brownie was the only sapient creature ignorant enough to not already know that.
“Shouldn’t we be trying to be sneaky?” Perfida said nervously.
Brownie looked over her shoulder and saw that the succubus was watching the sky and her ears were twitching in all directions. “Are you okay?”
Perfida grinned sheepishly. “Heh, these pony ears are weird huh? Always wiggling around, and stuff.”
“They do that when you’re nervous or scared,” Brownie explained. “You don’t have to stay with us.”
“I’ll run away when I’m good and ready and not before,” the demon replied with a forced smile. “Luminace has given me healing magic, and you guys are going to go get yourselves hurt, so I had better be with you.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Brownie said grimly.
* * *
It was nearly midnight when they reached the base of the ridge. Perfida’s peculiar heritage gave her better vision than the others in low light, so she took the lead to search for the cave entrance. Finally she stopped and pointed with a wing. “There.”
They crept up to the entrance only to find it blocked by a crude but sturdy door.
“That’s new,” Perfida noted. “Hang on, I’m going to try something.”
Before anyone could respond, the succubus’ body turned hazy and dissipated like smoke in a breeze. A moment later, while the party was still staring dumbfounded at the place she had been standing, a scraping sound came from the other side of the door. Brownie and Shadow reached for their weapons, but the door swung open to reveal Perfida, once again corporeal.
The demon smirked. “Do come in, we haven’t had guests in ages.”
“Dude, that’s creepy,” Shadow observed.
“Seriously, hurry up. We don’t want to get caught in the doorway. I’ll close it behind us so they don’t know they have company.” Once the party was inside, she closed and barred the door behind them.
Trixie stuffed her hat into her satchel and illuminated their surroundings with her horn, revealing several tunnels. “Can you tell which way the foals are?”
Perfida closed her eyes in concentration. “I’m sensing intelligence…over there…and over there.” She concentrated a little longer. “This way, I think.”
They followed Perfida in single file as she crept through the tunnels. She held up a wing to block the others and peeked carefully around a corner, then quickly pulled her head back. “They’re in there,” she whispered, “and there’s only one barbed devil watching them.”
Brownie quietly drew her sword and looked at Shadow and Trixie. “Ready?”
Brownie peeked around the corner and caught a glimpse of the enemy. The devil was nearly seven feet tall, but so skinny that it probably weighed less than she did. Its entire body was covered with long, razor-sharp spikes. It was facing away from the group and towards two unicorn colts that were locked in a small cage. Brownie looked over her shoulder and nodded at Shadow. He stepped into the open and drew his bow.
As Shadow fired, Brownie charged.
The arrow struck the devil in the back. It spun around, looking more surprised than hurt, just in time for Trixie to fire a volley of arcane blasts directly into its face. The magic seemed to cause no damage at all, but the devil was distracted long enough for Brownie to reach it.
She swung her sword with all her strength, but the blade did not cut the monster in half as she had hoped. The attack did leave a large gash in the creature’s chest, but Brownie’s neck was raked by the nearest spikes as she came close.
The devil responded by lashing out with clawed hands, missing with one, but raking Brownie’s neck again with the other.
“Shadow, wait!” Perfida called as the griffon reached for another arrow. She hovered over his quiver and touched the arrows with a glowing forehoof. “Luminace, strike the evil creature with these arrows!” Then, with a poof, she became ethereal again.
Shadow nocked one of the holy arrows and fired at the devil, only to have the arrow ricochet off of a spike. He quickly tried again, and missed. The griffon growled in frustration.
“Look out, Sundae!” Trixie called as she conjured a small thundercloud and sent it flying towards the barbed devil. It came to rest over the creature’s head and fired a thunderbolt to little effect.
Brownie stepped to the side and swung her sword again, carving another divot in the monster, but lacerating her own legs on its barbed tail.
The devil had recovered from its initial surprise and lunged at Brownie, stabbing its long claws into her sides in spite of her armor. It tried to pull her against its spikey chest, but she shielded herself with her forehooves.
“Hang in there, Brownie, I’ve got you!” Perfida’s voice revealed her location a split second before she coalesced. She looked into the devil’s eyes and shouted, “REPENT!”
The devil staggered backward, dropping the bleeding earth pony and pummeling itself with its own claws.
Shadow's continuing volley of arrows finally connected, and the enemy howled in pain as the arrows sank much deeper than before.
The thundercloud continued its impotent assault as Trixie launched a ball of magic that exploded in the devil’s face with a bright flash, but no obvious effect.
Brownie pursued the retreating devil and struck at its legs with her sword, bloodying herself further on its barbed skin.
Perfida came up behind Brownie and touched her back with a forehoof, closing some of her wounds. The devil lashed out at the succubus in response, stabbing a claw into her haunch. She cried out and fled to her incorporeal form.
Trixie’s horn glowed, but she hesitated and looked towards the caged foals. A determined look came over her face and the glow from her horn intensified. She vanished with a pop and reappeared next to the cage. The two unicorn colts were cowering in the center of the cage with their eyes squeezed tightly shut, but looked up when they heard the sound of Trixie’s teleport.
Trixie offered the foals her best stage smile. “Fear not, my young admirers! Trixie has come to rescue you!” She studied the padlock on the cage door. “This simple lock is no match for an escape artist like Trixie!” The lock sprang open in response to a pulse from her horn and she pulled the door open. “Come quickly.”
“Yes Trixie, coming Trixie,” the colts replied, dutifully adhering to either side of the unicorn.
Meanwhile, the barbed devil had recovered from the succubus’ attack on its mind. It held up a claw and fired a pair of fiery beams at Shadow Claw, burning his chest and left wing.
“Hot! Hot, hot, hot!” Shadow fluttered sideways, belatedly trying to dodge the attack.
Brownie sliced upwards with her sword, amputating the devil’s extended claw.
The devil held its crippled limb against itself and flailed at Brownie with its tail and remaining claw. The spiked tail slashed her legs and swept them out from under her. She fell flat and twisted around to point her sword at the devil just as it tried to crush her with its barbed chest. The monster’s weight pushed the sword deep into its guts before it stopped.
Brownie scrambled out from under the devil just before it fell the rest of the way, severing its own spine. Shadow stepped up next to her and fired an arrow into the monster’s brain. It stiffened, and then went limp.
For a moment, they both watched the devil to make sure it was really dead, then they looked at each other.
Brownie groaned and gently lay down on the cave floor. She held up one of her lacerated legs. “Barbed devils suck,” she commented.
“I’m sorry—“ Shadow started to say.
“Stop doing that,” Brownie cut him off, “it’s not your fault. None of this is your fault.”
“If I hadn’t talked you into exploring the mine—“
“No,” she stopped him again, “I’m an adult; I chose for myself.” Before Shadow could argue, she continued, “I decided to go with you on the job. It was the spider’s fault you were unconscious. It was those other adventurers that threw us in the hole and shot me. “
“I messed with the sword before you did. I said we should follow the devil to Equestria. I charged the timberwolves. I accepted this job from Princess Luna. I walked across the bridge. I made the call to come in here without talking to Luna first. I tried to swordfight with a creature made out of spikes.” She punctuated her point by poking Shadow with a bloody forehoof on each word. “Not. Your. Fault.”
Shadow nodded, but didn’t look her in the eye.
“If anything, I’ve been getting you into trouble. You have been more loyal and honest than any pony I’ve met.”
Perfida rematerialized next to her, showing no trace of the claw marks in her haunch. “I’m sorry I bailed on you. Here, let me fix that.” She poured out her healing magic on the pair until no sign of their wounds remained.
“Aren’t you worried about running out of that?” Brownie asked, getting slowly back to her hooves.
“Well, I don’t know all that much about being an oracle yet,” Perfida admitted, “but I’m pretty sure I still have more healing magic. Besides, without you two, the rest of us are doomed.”
Trixie was breathing rapidly and staring at the deceased devil with unfocused eyes.
The taller of the two colts looked up at Trixie. “Were you scared, Great and Powerful Trixie?”
“Trixie’s not scared of anything smaller than an ursa minor,” his companion rebuked him.
“Trixie was scared,” the magician admitted, “Trixie has never been more scared in her life.” She stepped away from the colts and turned to face them. “I know I treated you two rather badly the last time we met; I was still mad at you for what happened with the ursa, but it was really my fault. I’ve been wishing for a chance to make it better ever since. Do you…forgive me?”
The colts were staring at Trixie with a mixture of awe and confusion, but they both nodded.
“Trixie, do you think you could pull my sword out of that thing?” Brownie asked. “I can’t get close enough without stabbing myself on all those spines.”
Trixie grabbed the sword with her magic, but it was trapped under the devil’s corpse. She thought for a moment before surrounding the whole body with her magic and attempting to roll it over. The monster was not only heavy, but also very not-round; by the time it had moved enough to free the sword, Trixie was covered with sweat and panting.
Brownie reclaimed the sword Trixie levitated in front of her. “Thanks, I really didn’t want to cuddle that thing again.”
“Sparkle probably would have lifted that thing straight up and pulled the sword out without looking,” Trixie grumbled.
“Twilight Sparkle?” Shadow asked. “We heard about her. Isn’t she a princess and one of the most powerful sorcerers in your world?”
Trixie sat on her haunches and used her magic to smooth her mane. “Twilight Sparkle was selected as a filly by Princess Celestia herself to be her personal student, but I didn’t find that out until after I had publicly challenged her.” Trixie looked at the others to see they were all watching her expectantly. “Ugh, fine. I was performing a magic show in Ponyville, and some of the locals were heckling me, so I made up a story about defeating a huge monster in hopes of intimidating them into leaving me alone. Instead, three of the townsponies challenged me to a competition. I humiliated all three of them by turning their stunts against them and became overconfident, challenging a random pony in the crowd to face me like they had. She declined to show her power and I thought I had won.”
“That night, these two,” she gestured at the colts, “went into the Everfree forest and brought back the very monster I had claimed to defeat. I tried to chase the monster off, but I was not strong enough. The pony I had challenged earlier turned out to be none other than Twilight Sparkle, personal student of the princess, bearer of the Element of Magic, and the most powerful unicorn in the last thousand years. She defeated the monster without even hurting it, and if that wasn’t enough, she levitated several multi-ton objects simultaneously and without being able to see them.”
“After seeing the comparison I had foolishly demanded, the ponies of Ponyville laughed me out of town. My show fell into disfavor and I blamed Sparkle for my misfortune, so I searched for a way to become more powerful than her. I eventually found a cursed artifact that gave me great power, but quickly corrupted my personality. I was briefly able to defeat Sparkle and ruled Ponyville for a few days, but she tricked me into parting with the artifact and I fled in disgrace once again.”
“Twilight Sparkle deserved none of my resentment and quickly forgave me afterwards. Since then I have been trying to repair my reputation and improve myself through legitimate means. Someday, I hope to do something that will impress even the ‘Princess of Friendship’ as they call her now.”
She pointed a hoof at the two foals. “Spread this around and I’ll turn you into frogs.”
They gulped and nodded.
Shadow turned to Perfida. “Okay, Bats, which way out of here?”
“I…uh…” the succubus stammered with growing alarm, “I was just following the colts’ thoughts; I don’t remember which tunnels we chose.”
Brownie facehooved. “We may need some more light.”
Trixie touched her glowing horn to Brownie’s armor, causing it to glow as well.
“I can help with that.” Perfida touched Shadow’s pack, creating another light source.
“Trixie doesn’t mean to pry, but your teeth look…unusual.”
Brownie self-consciously closed her mouth tightly.
“I noticed that too, yesterday,” Perfida added. “They’re not your original teeth, are they?”
“No. I got my face kicked in by an antean, and the dwarves built me a new one.”
“Is that why you speak strangely?” Trixie probed.
Shadow rushed to her defense. “Hey, you’re one to talk! She speaks just fine!”
“My hero,” Brownie deadpanned. “But yes, I’m still not used to the new teeth, so it makes me talk funny.” She inspected the room briefly. “Let’s see, when we came into the cave, we went left first, so if we always take the right-most option on the way out, we should be able to find the entrance.”
“Stay close to Trixie,” the showmare instructed the foals, “and don’t make a sound.”
Brownie led the group back into the tunnel, her sword held in her mouth.
* * *
Princess Celestia woke to a timid knock on her door. She opened her eyes to see that it was still dark. “Who is it?”
Celestia quickly got out of bed, turned on the lights and opened the door, revealing a distressed-looking Princess Luna. “What’s wrong?”
“I have a confession to make, sister.”
The day princess ushered her sister into the room and closed the door. “I’m listening.”
“Nine days past, an earth pony and a griffon rescued three fillies from timberwolves in the Everfree forest. The pony was badly hurt, and the fillies asked me in their dreams to see to her welfare. Her injuries were such that I could not visit her dreams until almost a week later, but when I did, she told a most peculiar tale.”
Celestia nodded. “Go on.”
“She said her name was Brownie Sundae and claimed to come from another country that did not know the princesses of Equestria. Miss Sundae was the pony that warned me of the monster that I spoke to you about.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “I already knew most of this, what is it you feel the need to confess?”
“When Twilight Sparkle failed to respond to your letter, I went to speak with her in person, but her castle was empty.” Luna scuffed a hoof on the floor. “Not knowing what else to do I went to the two strangers and…hired them to find the monster.”
“What!?” Celestia’s wings opened reflexively. “They are not even citizens and you sent them to face an unknown danger?”
“There is more,” Luna said quietly. She recounted what Brownie had told her the previous night, and added, “It is currently an hour past midnight and I have been unable to find Sundae in the dreamscape; I fear she may have come to harm.”
Celestia frowned. “Do you know where they are?”
“Last night they were in the Everfree forest and traveling towards Rambling Rock Ridge.”
Celestia remained silent for a moment. “Continue to watch the night,” she said at last, “I will go look for them.” Her horn glowed brightly and she vanished with a pop.
As Luna returned to the throne room, she could hear the night guard mobilizing all around the palace. She passed several thestrals running the other way. They stopped to salute, but she waved them on. “Keep my sister safe.”
“This isn’t the way we came before,” Trixie said, breaking the silence. “We’ve been walking at least an hour.”
“Shh! They’ll hear us!” Perfida hissed.
“She’s right,” Brownie admitted, keeping her voice low, “dis isn’t da way we came before, but at dis point, da only way to keep from gedding more lost is to keep turning right.” The sword in her mouth garbled her speech a little, but Shadow seemed to understand.
“Are you sure?” he said. “We’re going deeper.”
Brownie nodded. “As long as we always turn right, we’ll get to effry part of da maze eventuwy. Odderwise, we could go da same way ofer and ofer and not know it.”
“What if we go through a part of the maze that’s already occupied?” Perfida objected, still whispering.
“Den we’re s—“ Brownie glanced at the two colts that were still glued to Trixie. “—ort of in trouble,” she finished awkwardly.
The tunnel ahead opened into a large chamber. Even with three light sources and Perfida’s darkvision, the other side of the chamber was hidden in the murky distance.
“Follow the right-hoof wall,” Brownie instructed and began to do so.
After walking for two minutes, they had passed the back wall and were moving back towards the entrance of the cavern. Brownie held up a hoof to signal a halt, ears twitching agitatedly. She turned her head to face the others, but kept her ears pointed forwards. “I fink I hear somefing else moving in here. Can we hide?”
Trixie whispered back, “I could cast invisibility on—“
“I SEE YOU,” a terrible voice spoke in all their heads. “YOU ARE ALL DEAD.”
An explosion of fire illuminated the cavern, revealing the horned devil standing in the middle. Small spot fires broke out in numerous locations as the heat wave ignited organic debris on the floor and walls. He uncoiled his spiked chain and twirled it threateningly.
Perfida and the colts burst out crying, and Trixie didn’t look far from joining them.
“Stop id, we’re not dead yet,” Brownie reprimanded the succubus. “Trissie, get the foals out of here. I’ll try to keep him busy.”
“We’ll keep him busy,” Shadow corrected.
Brownie gave Shadow a black-toothed grin and ran towards the monster, holding her sword out to the side. As she came in range, the devil swung his chain at her head, but she blocked it with her sword. The chain wrapped around the blade several times and tangled against itself.
“Hah!” Brownie gloated.
“HAH!” The devil responded. It gave the chain a sharp jerk, shattering the sword into several small pieces, and leaving Brownie holding a hilt with only two inches of blade left. Brownie stared cross-eyed at the remnant of the weapon for a moment before spitting it out.
Perfdia pulled herself together enough to imbue Shadow’s arrows with the power of good once again and he took to the air to get a better shot.
“Take this, ugly!” His arrow bounced off the devil’s thick hide harmlessly, but he succeeded in drawing its attention.
“Grab my cape in your teeth,” Trixie told the colts in a shaky voice, “and don’t let go no matter what.” As soon as they obeyed, her horn flared and all three of them vanished.
The foe swung his weapon at Shadow. The griffon tried to dodge, but the chain hit him across the back, breaking his left wing and puncturing his leather armor easily. Shadow fell like a sack of rocks, his bow and most of his arrows scattering over the floor.
Before the devil could retract its weapon for another attack, Brownie leapt over Shadow’s prone form and grabbed the middle of the chain in her teeth. One of the spikes sunk into her neck, but her adamantine jaws cut through the metal chain like it was celery.
The monster glared at Brownie and threw away the half-length chain. It shouted in a language that Brownie didn’t understand.
“He’s calling friends!” Perfida translated. “Luminace, you put me here! Help us or that Unspoken person will have the last laugh!” She gasped as a wave of confidence rolled over the party. “Sorry,” she apologized meekly.
“Get up, Shadow,” Brownie urged, pushing on the griffon’s shoulder with a hoof, “we have to move. Shadow, snap out of it!”
Shadow continued to lie on the ground, curled protectively around his crippled wing. Brownie grabbed the back of his armor in her teeth and dragged him onto her back.
The devil pointed a claw at the pair and a tiny, glowing ball flew towards them. Brownie ran away from the projectile and jumped.
A giant ball of fire blossomed out from the place the devil had pointed, burning both the pony and the griffon on her back. Brownie fell to the ground and rolled, then quickly beat out the flames on Shadow’s coat.
Perfida stepped out of midair next to her and put a hoof on her back. Brownie hissed through her teeth at the pressure on her burned hide, but the pain quickly subsided. “Thanks. Help Shadow, I’ll cover you.” She adopted a wide stance and positioned herself between the devil and her companions.
Brownie felt a tug at her side and looked to see that the Sword of the Helpless had jumped nearly a foot out of its sheath and was giving off a dazzling glow. Without a second thought, she snatched the hilt in her teeth and drew it, pointing the tip at the approaching foe.
Bright blue light radiated off the blade, illuminating the whole cavern. The devil paused in its advance and observed the sword with uncertainty. It called out again, and this time was answered by another voice in the same language.
Shadow Claw had recovered from his stupor and was trying to collect his bow and arrows while Perfida followed him, trying to treat his burns.
Three screams rang out. Brownie turned to look and froze in horror. Two barbed devils stood in the entrance to the cavern, clearly visible in the light of the magic sword. A dozen feet away from them, the two colts were hiding behind Trixie, all three just as visible as the devils. Trixie’s horn was glowing brightly as she frantically and indiscriminately threw everything in her satchel at the devils.
Perfida was the first to respond. “Hey! Spike-heads! Over here!” One of the barbed devils looked at the yelling succubus and froze, paralyzed by her gaze.
Shadow fired an arrow at the other, hitting it in one leg, but only distracting it for a moment.
Trixie, having partially recovered from her surprise, conjured a force field around herself and continued to stand in front of the colts.
Two clawed hands suddenly grabbed Brownie around the neck and lifted her off the ground. She squirmed and twisted in the devil’s grasp, but couldn’t get free. The devil leered triumphantly and swung its barbed tail, stabbing her in the belly. She cried out in pain, but between the sword in her mouth and the grip on her throat, only Shadow heard her.
Shadow spun around and gasped. “Let her go!” he shouted, nocking another arrow and aiming at the horned devil’s head.
Perfida’s ears angled back but she didn’t turn her eyes away from the paralyzed devil. “May Luminace guide your aim,” she muttered.
Shadow fired. The arrow passed scant inches above Brownie’s head and hit her captor in the neck.
The monster roared and threw Brownie at the griffon, knocking him off his feet and leaving them both lying in a pile on the ground.
The barbed devil still free to act slashed at Trixie’s shield. She reeled under the onslaught, but the spell held, for the moment.
The devil Perfida held began to work free of her hold. The succubus shook with the effort of maintaining the control, but continued to stare, unblinking, at her foe.
Brownie got painfully to her feet. “Nice catch, Shadow,” she rasped. She once again pointed the magic sword at the horned devil and walked towards it. “Call off your friends,” she demanded.
The devil backed away from the sword but made no move to surrender.
Trixie’s horn brightened as she cast another spell. Dense fog flowed from her horn, obscuring her, the foals, and the closest devil from view.
Shadow fired more arrows at the horned devil, but failed to land any significant hits.
The devil stretched out a claw towards Shadow. Lightning arced from its fingers and struck the griffon, continuing onwards to strike Perfida as well. Shadow howled and writhed, but the succubus seemed to be almost completely unaffected.
Almost. She flinched back from the thunderclap and that was all the distraction the devil needed to escape her thrall. It started running towards her. She screamed and scrambled backwards, tripping over her own tail. The devil reached down to grab her with its claws, but she held up her hooves to fend it off.
The barbed devil raked the screaming succubus with its claws, but roared in pain of its own as it did so. It stepped back with a bleeding welt on its chest matching the shape of the demon’s cloven hoof. The gashes in Perfida’s sides had partially healed almost the moment they had been inflicted. She jumped up and thrust her forehoof at the devil again, cutting herself on the devil’s barbs but draining its energy whenever she touched.
Brownie advanced on the horned devil, swinging the glowing sword in sweeping strokes, but her foe backed up or sidestepped every time she got too close. The wound in her belly continued to bleed and she could feel her strength ebbing.
“What’s going on here!?”
Shadow looked up to see a bat-winged pony in decorative armor flying near the roof of the cavern. “Help us, please! We’re friends of Princess Luna!” he called back.
The thestral’s eyes widened as he observed the situation. He turned back to face the tunnel and shouted, “In here!”
The horned devil shouted in its infernal language again. The devil fighting Perfida was too busy to respond, but the devil in the cloud of mist answered and came running.
In desperation, Brownie reared up and stood shakily on her hind legs, twisting so the sword was almost behind her.
The barbed devil reached her before she could finish the maneuver. It stabbed its long claws deep into her sides and pulled her back against its spikes. Some of the longer spikes pierced all the way through the pony’s body and emerged from her chest.
Brownie threw the sword.
It spun end over end as it flew through the air, striking point-first in the center of the horned devil’s forehead. The holy weapon cut through the devil’s thick hide and bones with no resistance, only stopping when the hilt reached the monster’s face.
The barbed devil released its victim – allowing the stricken pony to slide off of the spikes and collapse on the ground – and watched as its leader stood transfixed.
The horned devil’s body began to shrink and dissolve, with parts farther from the sword going first, while the sword remained motionless, as if embedded in an invisible wall. As the remains shrunk, an invisible force started to pull the other devils, dragging them towards the sword as well. They attempted to flee, but were quickly overwhelmed by the pull and flew up to join their master in whatever world he had been sent to. For a moment, the sword hung in the air, glowing with fervent brightness, then it dimmed and clattered to the floor.
Shadow ran to where Brownie lay in a spreading pool of blood. “Perfida! Help!”
The mutilated demon struggled shakily to her hooves and limped after him. By the time she caught up, he was propping Brownie’s head up with his arms.
“You did it, Brown, the devils are gone,” Shadow said in a pained voice.
Brownie attempted to speak, but it came out as a gurgle. She spit out some blood and managed to wheeze, “Foals?”
Perfida touched her with a glowing hoof, but nothing seemed to happen.
Shadow sagged. “I…I don’t know.” He looked over his shoulder, but the mist was still there.
At the end of the tunnel, several leather wings and a tall, white pony with wings and horn watched gravely, but made no move to interfere.
Perfida tried to use her healing magic again. “It’s not working! Why isn’t it working!?” she wailed.
Brownie coughed up a gout of blood and opened and closed her mouth. Shadow leaned down to hear her whisper, “Not…your…fault.”
“Brownie?” Shadow shut his eyes and held her tightly.
Perfida touched a glowing hoof to the pony’s body, but the glow did not disappear. She touched it to Shadow’s burns instead. “I’m sorry, Shadow.” No response. “She’s gone.”
Shadow felt lost. All of his hopes and plans meant nothing now. He wanted to be a coward and run back to his parents, but he couldn’t do that either.
A background thought broke him out his sulk; Trixie and the foals might still be alive. He looked at Perfida, but her fight with the barbed devil had left her in no condition to help anyone.
“Take it easy,” he said to the demon, “I’ll go find the others.”
Now that the fight was over, he was beginning to remember that a broken wing really hurts. He walked gingerly over to the cloud of mist and said to the group of guards standing nearby, “Can someone clear this mist? There might be someone inside.”
The guards looked to the alicorn for approval and she nodded. The mist was cleared in a matter of moments, revealing nothing but a torn and bloody cape and a piece of rope. No, not them too!
Shadow pulled back from the brink of despair when he noticed the rope seemed to be attached to the wall at a rather unnatural angle. Trixie had said she was an illusionist, could this be a trick?
Shadow walked up to the rope and gave it an experimental tug. The end of the rope appeared to be just touching the wall, but it resisted the strongest force Shadow could muster to pull it off.
He looked again at where the rope was attached and nearly had a heart attack.
“Oh, hello, Claw.” Trixie’s head and neck were sticking out of the blank stone wall right above where the rope was attached. “Trixie is glad to see you survived. Is it safe for the foals to come out?”
Shadow nodded slowly. “There are some soldiers here with…um…”
“Celestia,” the alicorn volunteered. “I only just learned of your arrangement with my sister. I would not have approved this course of action, but the fault is not yours.” She glanced towards Brownie’s body. “I am sorry for your loss.”
Shadow wanted to accuse the princess of using meaningless comfort words when she couldn’t possibly understand how he felt. He looked her in the eyes and saw that she did understand, all too well. “Thanks,” he muttered.
Trixie had gone back into the wall and now returned holding one of the foals by the nape of the neck in her teeth. Shadow reached up and grabbed him in his talons and set him on the ground. They repeated the process with the second colt, and finally Trixie wrapped her legs around the rope and slid to the ground. Her mane was in complete disarray, she was bleeding from a set of gashes in one flank, and she was not using any magic, but she seemed to have retained most of her poise. She grabbed her tattered cape off the ground with her teeth and slung it across her back, ran a forehoof through her mane and turned to face the princess.
“These two colts live in Ponyville, your majesty. Do you suppose you could have some of your guard return them to their homes?”
Celestia nodded. “Of course, Miss Lulamoon. Night Cap, Moon Walker, I trust that to you.” The named guards saluted and each put a foal on their backs. Celestia’s horn glowed briefly and the four disappeared with a pop. She looked back at Trixie and smiled. “Well done.”
Trixie gaped, speechless.
Celestia walked over to where Perfida sat. The demon-pony’s red coat was streaked with black blood and marked by numerous half-healed gashes. She was touching Brownie’s corpse repeatedly with a glowing hoof and mumbling to herself, “…the devil’s poison. The wounds couldn’t heal until the curse was dispelled. I should have known that.” She glanced over her shoulder and gasped when she saw the alicorn standing behind her. “I’m not a threat, I’m with them!” She pointed frantically at Shadow.
Celestia fixed the succubus with a piercing gaze. The demon quailed and shrunk back, but did not dare to speak again. “My sister told me about a ‘reformed demon’ that was with these mercenaries, is that you?”
“Y-yes, your majesty.”
The princess smiled reassuringly. “As long as you are willing to abide by the laws of our land, we welcome you as a resident. One can never have too many friends.”
“Of course, your majesty. Thank you, your majesty,” Perfida babbled.
Shadow reached out a claw and closed Brownie’s eyes.
“Trixie is surprised that went so well. How did you defeat…” Trixie came up behind Shadow and looked over his shoulder. “Oh. Oh dear. Tr—I’m very sorry, Shadow. I was worried about the colts; I thought you trained warriors would be alright.” She looked at the ground awkwardly. “I’m not sure what I could have done…”
Shadow shook his head. “No, it’s good you saved the chicks. None of us were close enough to do anything to help them.” He didn’t see any point in telling Trixie that the devil she had hidden from had turned around and killed Brownie instead; that would just make her feel guilty, and there was plenty of guilt going around already.
He looked towards where the magic sword had fallen. “I wasn’t paying attention, how did she get the sword to work?”
“She jumped in front of us while I was trying to heal you,” Perfida replied, “even though she was unarmed. The sword jumped halfway out of the sheath by itself and she just grabbed it.” The succubus noticed that Shadow’s wing was dragging on the ground. “Oh, I missed your wing. Brace yourself, this will hurt.”
Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed the tip of the wing in her mouth and pulled it straight with a sickening crunch. Shadow screamed and fell prone, clawing the ground with his talons. Perfida illuminated her forehoof again and rubbed it along the leading edge of the wing. Shadow continued to writhe for a few more seconds, and then lay still.
“I wasn’t ready!” he gasped. “It felt like you were tearing my wing right off!”
“I said it would hurt, didn’t I?”
Shadow gingerly flapped the wing. “It’s…it’s fine now…thanks.”
“That’s all I’ve got, so be careful.”
Celestia and her guards had looked taken aback at the demon’s bedside manner, but when Shadow relaxed, they relaxed too. “We should get you out of this cave,” Celestia said. “We can return you to Ponyville, or take you back to Canterlot, with us.”
Trixie looked undecided and Perfida looked to Shadow for a decision.
Shadow stared at the ground for a while, and then sighed, “Ponyville, I guess. We…know some of the ponies there. Give me a minute.”
He walked over to the sword and carefully put a talon on the hilt. The sword’s glow flickered for a moment, but he was able to pick it up without resistance. He carried it back to Brownie’s body and set it on top of her with the hilt towards her head.
The sword glowed a little brighter.
“I guess the sword’s as disappointed as I am,” Shadow mused. “It barely decided that Brownie was worthy to wield it before she…” he trailed off.
“Died,” Trixie offered, not noticing Shadow wince at her candor.
The griffon reached out a talon to pet Brownie’s mane. Before he touched it, a bolt of lightning shot from his talon to the hilt of the sword, and the sword glowed brightly.
He pulled back quickly, but the sword continued to shine. A voice seemed to speak in his head, but there were no words.
On a sudden impulse, he pressed both talons against the flat of the exposed blade.
Lightning crackled around the pony, the sword and the griffon. Shadow felt some of his strength being drained. The sword glowed brighter and brighter, until everyone besides the sun princess had to shield their eyes or turn away.
There was a sound like rushing wind and the glow vanished. Brownie’s body convulsed, dumping the sword onto the ground. She vomited a torrent of blood, gave a ragged gasp and opened her eyes.
For an instant, she stared at Shadow in fear and surprise, then she wrapped her forehooves around his shoulders and hugged him tightly.
Shadow hugged her back, not sure he believed his eyes, but unwilling to let the illusion escape.
“Shadow, I was so afraid,” Brownie said. “I saw the mare of death. She wanted to take me away.”
“Don’t worry, you’re back,” Shadow said, reassuring himself as much as her. “Everything’s okay now; everyone’s alive, everyone’s safe.” He continued to hold her tightly. “Queen Celestia is here, and she’s going to take us back to Ponyville, and everything is going to be fine.”
Celestia looked slightly annoyed at the promotion, but let it go without comment.
Brownie couldn’t see Shadow’s face, but his choking and sniffling told her all she needed to know. “Trixie was right, you really do—“
“We can talk about that later,” Shadow interrupted, “let’s get out of this horrible cave.”
Brownie released Shadow from her grip and tried to stand, but her legs felt like wet noodles. She floundered around on the ground for a moment before Shadow grabbed her with his talons and tried to pull her up. Instead, he joined her on the floor.
“Um, a little help?” Brownie said, sheepishly.
Trixie obligingly aimed her horn at the pair, and nothing happened. She crossed her eyes to look at her horn. “Trixie seems to have overtaxed her magic.”
Perfida shrugged and waved the stump of her right foreleg.
A yellow glow surrounded the Sword of the Helpless and slid it back into the scabbard on Brownie’s back. “Allow me,” Celestia said gently. The glow expanded to surround the whole group, and then, with a pop, they vanished.
* * *
Late in the morning of the next day, Brownie sat in a bed at Ponyville General Hospital, propped up in a sitting position by a pile of pillows. She wore a frown common to ponies deep in thought. She was so preoccupied that she did not even react when Perfida and Trixie walked into the room.
Trixie cleared her throat loudly and conjured a knocking sound.
Brownie started and looked several wrong directions before focusing on the pair. Perfida was still missing a leg, and bore several significant scars, but seemed to be in perfect health otherwise. Trixie’s barrel was wrapped in bandages, but they were mostly covered by her abused cape.
“How are you feeling, Sundae?”
“For a dead mare, pretty good,” Brownie replied, smiling cautiously.
Trixie nodded, smiling smugly. “Trixie just wanted to thank you for the part you played in Trixie’s return to favor.”
Brownie raised an eyebrow.
“Snips and Snails have told all of Ponyville the story of their heroic rescuers.” Seeing Brownie’s confusion, she added, “The two colts we rescued are named Snips and Snails.”
“Fortunately, they have no idea what happened to you,” Perfida chimed in. “They don’t seem to realize how bad things were, and how much worse they could have been.”
Trixie polished a forehoof on the front of her cape. “Princess Celestia suggested that all four of us be awarded medals, but in a show of sincere humility, Trixie recommended spending an equivalent amount of bits on a new water heater for the Ponyville orphanage instead.”
Brownie poorly contained a snicker.
Trixie looked hurt. “Laugh if you must, Sundae. The new Trixie is a mare of many virtues, but some come harder than others.”
“That’s fine with me, as long as we still get what Luna promised us.”
“Farewell, Sundae. Perhaps we will meet again.” Trixie reflexively reached a hoof into her satchel only to pull it out again still empty. “Heh, um,” she blushed, “Trixie still needs to restock her magic supplies.” She swished her cape in front of her face and sprinted out of sight.
Perfida and Brownie waited awkwardly for the other to say something. Finally, Brownie held up a corner of her gown with a hoof. “Does it seem odd to you that these ponies go about their business naked, but when you’re in the hospital they give you a gown?”
The succubus nodded absently. “That did strike me as somewhat strange.”
“And they make you wear them backwards, I just don’t get it.”
Perfida seemed to be gathering her nerve for a moment, then blurted, “Can I stay with you?”
“Stay with me?”
“You and Shadow. You’re good people and you treated me well. I need role models if I’m going to make this whole repentance thing work.”
“We’re not the best role models you could find; I was basically out for myself the whole time.”
“No you weren’t, you were always putting yourself in bad places to protect the rest of us. You didn’t have to get hurt so much; you did it on purpose.”
“I was just being practical,” Brownie protested, looking increasingly uncomfortable.
“For goodness sake, Brownie, you died to keep those foals safe. Luna just hired you to look. As soon as you knew the colts were in danger, you didn’t even ask if we should try to save them, you just went to save them.”
Brownie stayed silent.
“That’s what I need; you’re not perfect, but you have qualities I can aspire to. Please let me travel with you,” Perfida pleaded.
“Uh, I…I’ll talk to Shadow about it,” Brownie conceded. “I don’t really know what we’re going to do next.” She smiled slightly. “If we did bring you along, I don’t think we’d have to tie you up when we weren’t watching you.”
Perfida smiled. “You never did tie me up after that first time.” A feathered talon reached out slowly from beyond the doorway towards Perfida’s head. “Hi Shadow.”
The talon stiffened and pulled back quickly. “How did you know it was me?” The griffon walked sheepishly into the room. He bore no signs of his recent injuries, and seemed to be in a good mood.
“Hey, Shadow. Is it okay with you if Perfida follows us wherever we go next?” Brownie asked.
“Sure, she’s fun to have around, even if she does ruin all of my pranks.”
“I guess you’re part of ‘The Team’.” Brownie made air quotes with her forehooves.
Perfida beamed at both of them. "Thanks guys!" She turned to wink at Shadow, saying, "I’ll leave you alone now,” and became non-corporeal.
“So…” Shadow began awkwardly, “are you feeling better?”
Brownie nodded. “There’s still some pain, but I really should feel a lot worse.”
“What’s it like, you know…?” Shadow trailed off self-consciously.
Brownie swallowed hesitantly. “To die, you mean?”
The griffon nodded.
“Well…I couldn’t breathe, and passed out. I figured that would be it, and that would be the last thing I ever knew.” She pulled one of her ears with a forehoof. “It seemed like just a second later, I woke up in this big open space full of stars and stuff. There was another pony there. She had bandages wrapped around her and covering her face.” She shuddered. “She welcomed me to the afterlife and asked me who I followed. I said I didn’t know. She pulled out a scythe from behind her and started walking towards me. I ran away from her, but she stayed right behind me. Suddenly, there was a glowing sword right in front of me. I jumped at it, but it turned into a hole and I fell into it. Next thing I knew, all the pain came back and I could breathe again.”
Shadow had walked over to the side of the bed while Brownie was talking. When she finished, he patted her shoulder experimentally.
The pony gave him a strange look, but didn’t stop him. “I’ve been thinking about…stuff all morning,” she continued. “The last seven years, I’ve been trying to avoid making any friends. I expected everyone to die, and I was afraid to get attached. I expected to die myself at any moment, but I had nothing to lose, and didn’t really care,” she sighed.
“I care,” Shadow reassured her.
Brownie petted his head. “I know you do; that’s why I was so scared when the Mare of Death tried to take me away. I realized that I do have something to lose, and I don’t want to give it up.” She turned her head to look at the bandages on her back. “Do you think you could, um, scratch me back there? I can’t reach.”
Shadow obligingly dragged his talon across her back.
“Ahh, thanks. That’s been itching for hours. How long have—I mean, what was the first—“ She nickered in annoyance. “When did you get so serious – about me, that is?
“In the mine. Everyone else pretended to be my friend because I pretended to be their friend. You pretended to hate me, but then you got shot protecting me from my own stupid plan. No griffon I know would do that, except maybe my own family.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s ironic that the virtues I look for in a griffon, I find in a pony.”
Brownie opened her mouth, but Shadow put a talon on her muzzle. “Hold on, there’s more I need to say. My family has always looked down on the ponies for being weak and dependent. I was always told that only griffons are fit to lead, or worthy of respect. I ran away from home, planning to travel all of Everglow and see if it was true.”
He continued, “Now I’m trapped in a different dimension that might not even have griffons, with a pony that treats me like family, and who will probably die a gruesome death within a month if I don’t protect her.”
Brownie frowned at this remark, but Shadow still held her mouth.
“What I’m trying to say is…” Shadow released Brownie’s muzzle, “will you marry me?”
Brownie stared. A refusal was at the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t get it out. She was sure getting married was a horrible idea, but she struggled to remember why. If one of them died the other would be upset? That was already true. They were different species? Other ponies weren’t so wonderful, at least not the ones she’d met. What if they couldn’t have foals? She had never really planned to have foals anyway. What if they did have foals? That could be a problem.
“What if we had foals?” she asked. “What would they be? What if I’m a terrible parent like my father? What if we die and leave them orphans?”
“That’s a lot of ‘if’s,” Shadow said. “I’m not even sure we’re compatible, but if you take care of your foals the way you take care of your friends, I’m sure they’ll be fine.” He sighed. “I know it’s strange, and sudden, and risky, and my parents would probably disown me if they ever see me again, but…will you? Please?”
“Okay,” Brownie said in a tiny voice, then slightly louder, “Yes. I will marry you, Short Beak.”
Shadow hugged her tightly, hauling her half out of the bed. “I don’t know what we’re going to do next, but as long as we do it together, I don’t care.”
“Aw,” a voice said from under the bed.
“Perfida?” Brownie asked, suspiciously.
The pony and griffon heard an “Eep” followed by the distinctive poof of a succubus turning ethereal.
“Great, I hope she doesn’t spread it all over the country.”
Shadow put her back down on the bed. “If we’re serious about this, word will get out eventually. While we’re talking about friendship and togetherness…” He gave Brownie a sidelong glance.
“I know what we should call our band of mercenaries. How do you like the sound of 'Sundae Best?'”