A man of dark magic and dreams of domination was flung into an unsupecting world of ponies. Watch as years later this dark lord faces down the greatest challenge he's ever known: parenting.
"It's not easy to be the bad guy. Sometimes you've got to raise towers of iron and magic in a testament to your power. Sometimes you've got to blanket the land in black flame just to uphold idle threats. And sometimes you've got to remind a filly that she is grounded - that's right, I mean you, missy. Don't give me that look, you've got homework to do." - Excerpt from An Interview With Lord Ironblood.
Forgath Ironblood is a man who values power and might. He spent untold years developing his dark magics, and years more using ice and iron and balefire to claim and rule his domain. But it didn't last; a group of bold and plucky rebels broke into his inner sanctum and unleashed a magic he was unprepared for, a magic that cast him into the void between worlds. At that point, he was no longer their problem and the peasants rejoiced.
The world he fell into, however, was another story. It was a world rich in magic. A world full of innocents. A world he could bend to his will and carve a new domain out of.
He never knew what hit him.
Idea adopted from Whiskylullaby, as seen here, written entirely for the fun of it.
Chapters are dated for the reader's convenience; BNM for "Before Nightmare Moon", and AB for "After Banishment".
Grinning, youthful faces. The ghostly image of an old man in a belled robe. A fierce, open howl - like wind blowing through a cave. Color. Light. Sound. All things bleeding together. Tumbling. Disoriented. Cold.
These were the last things he remembered before awaking in a crater on the side of a mountain.
He rose from the cracked ground, slow and stiff, as snow billowed and blew through the night air around him. The dull clank of shifting armor and metal boots was carried away by the wind as he lifted himself up. He stood straight, and cast his gaze around, slowly sweeping it over the mountain range he found himself in the midst of. Snow and stone ran down and away in two directions, dropping into a steep, craggy cliff before him and sloping towards a valley behind. His crater itself had been smote into the angled side of one of the taller mountains, near a plateau connecting it to its neighbor. Both peaks stretched up to penetrate the low-hanging clouds above. It reminded him briefly of his tower, and anger sparked within.
He looked around with new purpose, ignoring the aching of his armor-clad body as he tried to determine where he was. Nothing but snow for miles past the cliff. He didn't recognize the mountain line; no landmark stood out to him. As he turned, he noted what looked to be a cluster of ramshackle tents in the valley, but little else before the mountains enveloped it at the other side. In growing frustration he cast his gaze further afield, finally taking notice of the moon. It hung in the night sky over the snow planes, bright and full - and nearly without blemish. Few pockmarks or dark patches, and none familiar.
This was not his moon. This was not his Earth.
He clenched his fists as the realization sank in. He had lost. Everything he had built, everything he had done, all the battles and sacrifices and subjugation, all of it was for nothing. He had lost absolutely everything. And so too went a measure of his self-control. He roared his pain, his fury and his loss over the snow, his cry battling the wind. Then it was spent, and he sank to his knees in his chilling armor. He sat upon his heels and his back bent, his thoughts turned inward, his hands splayed at his sides; he was lost to time and sense until someone spoke.
His head snapped to his left, his gaze fixing upon a strange, small creature - like a little horse with massive eyes. It was wearing a cloak to keep off the cold. The thing, whatever it was, flinched back under his sudden attention. That act at least was familiar, and so dark thoughts were set aside as curiosity came to the fore.
"S-so...you are alive then."
He said nothing. The creature had clearly spoken, and the cautious look in those large eyes spoke of intelligence. Not some mere construct or beast then. He continued to observe the strange thing - Green fur? Pink eyes? And are those facets in its eyes? - giving it more than enough time to build up the courage and speak once more.
"That armor...are...are you...do you belong to King Sombra?" Its gaze focused on the horn-like spikes that circled the crown of his helmet.
"I belong to no man." A spark of his old passion was struck within. True, it was merely indignation, but he spoke his first true words on this world firmly and defiantly. He would not be ruled.
The creature flinched back again, before giving him a nervous smile. "Oh. That...that's good! We got free too!"
"Yes; me and the others. We escaped. We're not slaves anymore."
Long ignored memories stirred within the man before he tamped them down. His curiosity about these escaped slaves, or this "King Sombra", was deadened as the brief memories left him with a bitter taste in his mouth. His head turned forward once more, gazing out over the cliff.
"Leave me, creature."
"W-what? But you sounded so...so angry. And sad."
He said nothing. That was not worth dignifying with a reply.
"You...don't have to deal with it alone?"
Those glowing red eyes turned themselves upon the pony once more. While the sentiment was asinine, curiosity was starting to return. "Do you have a name, creature?"
"Of course; I'm Forge Bellows. But you can call me Puffy; everypony does." The man sensed a faint warmth somewhere within himself. Though it had been a long time since he had last experienced the emotion, he believed it to be embarrassment on "Puffy's" behalf. The creature continued, "What about you?"
"I am Forgath Ironblood."
"Hey, our names are kinda similar!"
"...No, no they are not."
"Well...anyway, you should come to the camp."
"It's where all of us have gathered. We're all escapees and outcasts; we all know...pain. It's not good to be alone, and together...together we might have a chance."
Forgath considered. He was little-moved by talk of chances, and he surely didn't need sympathy. But then, what difference did it make? If he went with the creature, at least he could sate his curiosity a little further. He stood slowly, and Puffy backed off a little as Forgath rose to his intimidating stature; the creature didn't quite come up to his belt. He drew in a deep, cold breath, letting it out in a sigh that only just became a word near the end:
Puffy blinked a few times, before breaking into a smile. "You...you will? Alright then! Follow me!" And with that, they were off. Or, very nearly.
"Wait. What...are you?"
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"I've never seen a creature like you before. Are you a horse?"
"I'm a pony."
"I've never seen a pony like you before."
"Oh! Well, I'm a crystal pony. I'm surprised I seem that different though; we're really very similar to other ponies."
"...If you say so. Lead on, crystal pony."
With that correction, the crystal pony lead him away from the cliff and down a sloping path into the valley. The snow crunched under hooves and boots as they wound back and forth, here across a straighter segment, there down a steeper incline, following a set of slowly-filling hoofprints left on the way up. Once they were in the valley proper progress was swift, the man's firm strides matching the pony's loping trot. Puffy seemed excited to be returning with another, while Forgath had at least one more goal driving him, simple as it was. The silence didn't last long, broken just as one might expect.
"Are you...cold in that armor?"
"It does not bother me."
"Ah...alright. Did you have anyone....with you? You know, when you...?"
"I need no other."
"Oh. Um. I see. W-well just wait until you see the camp! It's not much, but it's much better than dying in the snow!"
"We shall see."
"Hey, that almost sounded like a joke!"
"Take it as you will."
"Hah! Well okay then, I take it as a joke."
"Are all...ponies...as talkative as you are?"
"Oh no, most of them are pretty gloomy right now. To be honest, it's getting harder to keep their spirits up; most of them are...quiet. But that's okay; I can do the talking for all of them."
"...What was your given name again?"
"Never mind. You may take that as a joke."
"Eh? Well...okay then! I don't get it, but I hope it was funny?"
"I have found some amusement in it."
Puffy laughed, imagining a smile on the face under the helmet - a face that had to have an awfully short muzzle, the thought occurred. "Well some is better than none! See, you're cheering up already."
"Mm. Are we near?"
"Just over the next - ah, there, see?"
The valley they walked in was fairly flat once one made it down the slope into the valley itself, though the snow blew and settled into sloping hillocks and dunes; it was at the top of one of these that they spotted the camp, such as it was. A rough circle of irregular tents and a few minor structures stood at the bottom of a dune, a valley in a valley, which Forgath suspected was to avoid notice. As they approached, the state of the camp grew more and more apparent.
The tents themselves would have been flattered to be called "ramshackle", such was the state of their construction; strips and patches of cloth hung from whatever straight bits of wood and metal could be easily found, with bits of twine or cord (and gathering snow) binding the whole hodge-podge together at what passed for seams. The few other structures were, if anything, less impressive; a small, closed-off area that Forgath took to be a privy, a lean-to acting as storage for meager belongings and what might be foodstocks, and what appeared to be a pony sculpted out of snow. In the center was a small fire pit and it did not excel - neither as a fire nor as a pit; a small piece of glowing wood and the occasional flame was just barely shielded from the wind, and that was likely more due the ring of beings huddled close around it. Forgath suspected that the tents were empty, or near-enough; the number of wrapped and shivering figures around the fire pit was more than enough to occupy all of them.
"Hey everypony! We're back!"
Heads turned, and soon the pair were greeted by various shades of snowy muzzle poking out from hoods; tired gazes turned suddenly suspicious as Puffy lead the large, armored form towards them. Forgath stopped at a modest distance as Puffy bounded the last few lengths up to the ring.
"Puffy," one of them spoke, "What is that?"
"I found another! He's an outcast, just like us!"
"And you invited it back just like that?" This from a second. "What if it's dangerous? What if it's sent by...by...."
"Don't worry, I asked; he said he doesn't belong to anypony!"
The ponies moved closer to each other, not that they had much space to do so, whispering and shooting furtive glances by clumps and groups at the outsider. Forgath, for his part, frowned behind his visor at the noise. Fear and suspicion, and not the least undeserved. Puffy's patience appeared to be at its limit.
"Come on, we've all escaped; none of us would want to go back, and neither would he."
At that, Forgath tilted his head. "Go...back?"
Puffy turned to look at him. "You know, to King Sombra?"
"I know nothing of 'King Sombra'. He was your master?"
"Huh? Wait, he wasn't yours?"
"I would die first."
Appraising looks came from the ponies at that, sizing up this biped in his armor. At the very least he did have the look of a fighter around him. One spoke up.
"So you will not try to take us back?"
"Why would I? What would I gain?"
Another jumped in, "Somra's favor! Why should we trust you?"
A loud sigh came from a third. "What does it matter? We're all going to freeze to death out here; one more freezing with us makes no difference."
Eyes drifted quickly back to the fire pit. Forgath noticed that the wood had burned through; coals and nothing more waited there. Several ponies started up, talking over one another until their voices blended together in a most irritating way.
"Doomsaying isn't going to help!"
"Somepony see if we have any more wood."
"I knew it, we're dead."
"I don't hear you coming up with a plan!"
"Nothing non-essential; we already burned all the..."
"Why don't we just..."
"We can't go on like..."
"What about him? Is he..."
"Calm down, none of..."
"I wish we..."
Out from the ice of the fire pit leapt a great, dark flame, all ruby and jet. In an instant it banished the pitiful coals and reached up, and up, rising into a pillar and cracking the ice around it. The ponies scrabbled back in surprise, a few of the slower yelping at the sudden onslaught of heat. And heat there was; already the former fire pit began to widen, the nearest snow and ice melting back. A few of the ponies, whether quicker on the uptake or simply more desperate to feel warm again, stretched out hooves and muzzles towards the flame to bask. Every eye soon turned to the armored man, one five-fingered gauntlet raised in a fist, tendrils of magic crawling up from between the fingers. He spoke.
"Enough of this whining! You have fire, you have warmth, is that enough to keep you quiet?"
Stunned ponies exchanged glances as the pillar continued to burn, the slowly retreating ice and snow revealing solid rock at the bottom of the widening pit. Awe and fear in varied measure could be seen by the faint light given off by this work of dark sorcery. Nopony thought to answer his question. Nopony thought it was a question that needed answering.
Except for Puffy.
"Having houses would be nice too."
A faint "clank" as an armored head turned to look at the green pony. A gasp rose up from the rest of the refugees. Puffy, hooves lifted towards the fire, gave a shrug.
"What? It would."
Forgath took a long moment to consider, his fist slowly returning to his side. Bravery? Stupidity? He could not say. Impudence, certainly, but there was a certain...charm. An innocence, perhaps. He let his gaze sweep along the rest of the ponies, ears lowering in deference and fear as they noticed his attention, a few going as far as to cringe back as if from a blow. These creatures had been broken not long ago. But they had escaped their "King"? The king they had served as slaves. Useful creatures, then.
"Puffy." Came the correction.
He did not dignify it with a response. "What did King Sombra put you to? What tasks did you ponies do for him?"
"Most...everything? Mining? Housekeeping? Various trades? He...he enslaved everyone; there are no free citizens under his rule. It's...horrible." Puffy's face drooped slightly at the remembering, a shudder causing a pink mane and tail to quiver.
"Mmmmm...It will do."
"Forge Bellows, -"
"...Puffy. I will offer you ponies a bargain."
"What kind of bargain?"
"You want shelter; I can create a place for you to live. You want safety; I can lay waste to any who would attack you. You want freedom; I can make sure you'll never be slaves again."
The pony squinted. "And what do you want for all that?"
"Serve me. Not as slaves in chains, but as loyal minions; together, we shall raise a city. Under my banner, empowered by my magic, none will threaten you. You will be free to live and do as you please, so long as you bow to me and obey my commands. Join me."
"...Yeah, okay, that sounds good."
"Puffy! What are you say-"
"Good! We have an agreement."
"Hey, hang on, Puffy doesn't speak for all of us!"
An armored head turned to regard the other ponies - no longer shivering thanks to the warmth of the fire. "Do any of you disagree?"
A moment passed as the ponies exchanged nervous glances, but none saw fit to speak up. Puffy couldn't help but smirk as Forgath nodded.
"Good. Then let's begin."
Forgath reached down, his hands burning with arcane might. He reached for things familiar, hard and cold. He touched the ice and the iron far beneath, and they rose to his call. Parting at his will, rising into simple walls, the ice heeded his magics. The rest would come soon enough; he could bring up the first of the iron to be wrought into the simple tools and structures his minions would need. Lowering the ponies to the stone via retreating ice, he made his way towards them; there was some fear, even a squeak of panic, but he paid it no mind. Soon they beheld the tools he made, divvying them up. The work would begin. And Forgath found, once more, that he had purpose.
A tremendous cheer rose from the gathered crowd; hooves stomped in applause and the icy walls of the city rang with joyful shouts and whistles. The city's central plaza was full; from the edge of the central stage all the way back to the stone streets that encircled the plaza, ponies were packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Many more leaned from the walkways of the higher street and from the windows and the rooftops; nearly the entire city had turned out for the speech. A sea of bright, pastel colors dotted the mixed stone and pale ice and dark iron of the city nearest. All attention was on the tall figure of Forgath, standing atop the stage towards one edge, clad in his full armor, freshly polished, his helmet adorned with the spiky crown of his rule. Behind him, in the very center of the stage, the pillar of dark fire yet blazed. Its flickering flames lapped out from the column as it rose high, leaving any who looked at it too long to perceive agonized shapes in its tongues. On the stage with him were a small court of ponies - just shy of a dozen. They stood proudly, two in their concealing robes, three in armor, and six in rather snazzy suits (all in properly dark tones, of course). To either side of the line upon the stage were two clusters of ponies, less extravagantly but no less formally dressed. They sent the occasional smile and wave out towards the crowd whenever Forgath was not looking - and as the Lord's attention moved from point to point in the crowd, he was not looking most of the time.
As the cheers died back to a manageable level, he continued. "Yes, my minions, be joyful, for you stand at the pinnacle of our achievement! One-thousand years ago to the day, your forebearers stood on this very spot, covered in snow, living in ramshackle tents, slowly dying in the cold. I met them there, led by their undaunted chief, Forge Bellows." He was forced to pause as a portion of the crowd shouted "Puffy!" and others laughed, but he paid them no mind. "I offered them power and safety if they would join me, and look how far we have come!"
The cheers erupted again, echoing amid the Gothic architecture of the city.
"Our city stands, in defiance of the cold! Our city grows, in defiance of the windigo! Our city thrives, in defiance of all our foes!" Whoops and hollers followed each proclamation. "Never before have we been more mighty! Our warriors stand without fear, and our mages teach secrets that would sear the mind of lesser beings. But it is not just our generals and magi that are to be lauded," here, he turned and swept a hand to indicate the line of ponies behind him. "Our tradesmen, craftsmen, merchants, and administrators have made us not just mighty but prosperous. Be it mind or metal, coin or cloth, the world quakes when I stretch out my hand, and you are my reach. My most skilled and loyal stand before you; what say you, my minions?"
Once again, a great cheer arose. The line of exalted ponies stood a little straighter, smiles tugging at stoic lips as they basked in the praise of their people.
Turning to face the line, he continued. "Be proud, my generals, my magi, my keepers; you serve me well." A hand indicated the clusters to either side, one after another. "And the prized of our city; guild leaders, scholars, commanders, friends, all those who could be called noble - you too be proud."
If anything, there was a greater cheer that rose up; while relatively few in the crowd were close to the city's most illustrious, nearly everypony ended up knowing one or two of the "nobles", for they included those accomplished in nearly every craft, business, and pursuit. The groups largely tried to stand stoically as the illustrious had, but many couldn't resist a few waves or blown kisses, and one pink filly was all but pronking in place as she shouted "Yay, Dad!"
Resuming his slow turn, Forgath addressed the crowd after the cries again died down "Work hard, my minions; work hard and raise our city higher; show the world my power in your every step. Serve me well and obey, and together we shall make the next thousand years greater still than the last!"
There were a few ponies (and other beings) scattered through the plaza that seemed confused at all the cheering that some of this speech got, including visitors from elsewhere and a small number of diplomats, but nopony paid much attention to them; tourists are going to be tourists, after all. Still, it was not just the sight of this armored biped nor his questionable speech that they found odd, but the further sight of the tiny blue foal sitting atop his head. For throughout the entire speech she sat up there, looking out from behind the spikes of his crown, waving to the crowd and flapping little leathery wings as she giggled and babbled to herself. The less-confused portion of the crowd made a habit of waving back and making faces at the adorable little thing - at least so long as Forgath wasn't looking at them, of course. Forgath's slow turns and level gaze did nothing to dislodge her; she seemed perfectly content to sit up there.
"And so, let the millennial celebration begin!"
One last whoop from the crowd, a flare from the pillar of flame, and the crowd began to break up, moving to the various shops that lined the plaza and the stalls that lined the nearby streets. Carts of food and knicknacks were pushed into the plaza proper once the crowd started to thin, and the festivities began in earnest. Over the day and well into the night ponies would feast and celebrate, in deference to their dark lord's order of course.
As the ponies from the stage made their way to the stairs to join in the ruckus themselves, Forgath made his way over to one of the groups - and was met halfway by the pronking pink filly who had shouted out earlier. She bounded her way around him in a little circle, her yellow pigtails bouncing as she chattered excitedly. "Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad, can we go? Can we play some games? I wanna play some games and win a stuffed bat and eat some taffy and and and...."
"Settle down, settle down. First, let's get you and your sister some food."
Later that evening when they arrived back at The Tower of Despair, a little filly was still enthralled.
"...And did you see the way I threw the ball? It went right into the cup! That's how I won my new stuffed duck!"
"Mmmmhm, I was there." Forgath inclined his head slightly to the guards as he passed, getting a giggle from the foal atop who had wanted to ride home and now rocked forward, forcing him to steady his helmet. The guards, plenty stoic, stamped a quick salute. They pointedly ignored the few plush toys and similar fair fare their lord carried in a bag at his side.
"And the popcorn! That stuff was good! You should tell somepony to import more of that!"
"And when we got to play Pin the Dagger in the Traitor? I got it on the first try!"
"Hey, the tail counts!"
"If you say so."
She stuck out her tongue at him, blowing a smiling little raspberry. "You're just jealous."
"I missed on purpose."
"Sure Dad, Suuuuure."
As they reached the apartments (passing further guards), Forgath gingerly plucked the foal from atop his head, who whined and wiggled until she got a belly-tickling. Once she was safely set on the floor to play and watched by her sister, he went about removing his armor. The gauntlets went first, unstrapped and freeing a pair of blackened hands. The helmet second, placed upon the top of a convenient rack. Boots and greaves and gorget and cuirass followed, one after the next. With his magic to help, eventually he was left in more simple fare; a tunic, pants, and a shirt of fine chain over his chest.
"So, can we stay up late tonight?"
"No. Little fillies need their sleep so they can grow up to be strong."
"Aw, but everyone else is staying up!"
"The adults are, yes."
"C'mon, we'll behave!" Here she indicated her younger sister, who blew a raspberry in support.
"Hah. Dinner, and then bed."
She gave him her best pout, a hoof poking at his leg as he passed. "Daaaaad, I'm serious!"
Forgath's instincts perked. Turning slowly, he looked down on her with his stony gaze. Her eyes widened; she recognized her mistake, but it was too late now. Forgath leaned a little closer, the beginning of dark mirth welling up within him. The filly raised her hooves, as if to ward off what she knew was coming, but it was in vain. Forgath opened his mouth, and spoke the most cruel words he possibly could.
"Hi Serious; I'm Dad."
After dinner arrived and was eaten, the pair of fillies had played until they tired and then nestled up against their father to listen to him read. It wasn't long before they were dozing, the smaller in his lap and the other against his side.
Forgath reached down, his hands still free of their gauntlets. He reached for things familiar, soft and dear. He gently stroked the manes of his two drowsy foals and they nestled closer. Parting at his touch, running in soft locks, their hair passed through his fingers. The rest was tended to soon enough; he pet the foals a few more times, getting little yawns that betrayed just what his daughters needed. Lifting the ponies gently into his arms, he made his way towards the bedrooms; there was some wiggling and one tired objection, but he paid it no mind. Soon they rested in bed and crib, sleeping soundly. Their dreams would come. And Forgath knew, as he long had, that he had purpose.
"You know, we don't really want to be found by King Sombra, so...you might want to, you know, turn down that giant obvious pillar of fire? Maybe?"
Forgath had just finished assigning the first tasks to his new minions - except for one, it seemed. Looking down, he found Puffy standing beside him, pointing over towards the distinct black-red flames. His eyes traced up to the peak of the pillar and he nodded, raising his hand and focusing his will. The pillar shrank until it it was merely twice the human's size, if just as hot as before.
A few ponies saw the exchange, taking note.
The iron Forgath had been able to call and refine through his dark arts had been enough for many simple tools; picks, shovels, tongs, mallets, wedges, an anvil - the various sundries one would need to dig, mine, or forge. They were basic and temporary, the touch of his magic not enough to refine and temper better alloys, but steel would come in time. His magic did nothing to make them comfortable to wield, so ponies took to wrapping bits of cloth around the shafts in place of proper handles. Still, it was a start.
His magic had already swept a rocky circle around the pillar clear of ice, forcing it back and raising it up into a wall with two openings. For simple dwellings he called and shaped more ice within the boundary away from the flame, forming crude huts that could be lined with snow and fur for insulation. The fabric of the former tents could be reused for other things, and it was less than an hour before he had icy "houses" - closer to smooth, square igloos - formed atop the rock in the clearing. They were no more special than the tools, but they would keep off the wind and hold heat better than the open air.
He had minions, they had tasks and shelter. With that, his grand, dark empire had taken root. Still, Forgath couldn't help but think something was missing, something important...
"What do you eat?"
"Er...not a lot right now, honestly. Fruits and vegetables and grains and grasses and flowers, but we weren't able to smuggle out much as we ran. We're rationing, and there are caves in the nearby mountains that might have hardy plants or fungi, but we weren't eager to look; caves like that tend to be occupied."
"I see. No meat?"
"Meat is a luxury at best, and an acquired taste too; most of us have never had it."
"Hm. You're not hunters then?"
"So I see. Without game, farming will have to do. Do any of you know how to farm fungus?"
"I'm pretty sure one of us had a mushroom for a cutie-mark, hang on, I'll go check."
Puffy was already bounding through the snow towards the workers by the time he spoke, and so he didn't get an answer. Forgath shook his head, taking the time to survey the progress of his minions. A squad of ponies near the edge of the ring had begun digging downward with picks and shovels, and they had gotten further than Forgath would have expected. Then again, between being ponies and having prior experience in mining, he supposed he really didn't know what to expect. Another group of ponies was disassembling the tents and repurposing the cloth, or moving supplies into the new structures. A few of the "houses" already had hanging cloth in place of doors. Still others had taken it upon themselves to freshen up their water supply, and were heating chunks of ice in pots near the pillar. A small group were wandering further afield in pairs, every so often stopping to chip down with their picks, seeking less-rocky terrain.
Forgath waited and watched. He considered making his way over to the group Puffy had run off to, but he thought better of it. After all, micromanaging minions minimizes merit; if he wanted them to be able to do anything without his instruction, they would have to do something without his instruction. Besides, now he could take a few moments to watch the clouds twisting; pillars of flame did interesting things to the weather.
He didn't have to wait long before a shaggy brown pony with a similarly-shaggy violet mane and tail was led over by Puffy. This one had shed his cloak; apparently his fur and the pillar were enough for him this close to it. Forgath squinted behind his visor as he noticed the longer violet beard on the pony's chin, but dismissed it as just one more strange thing about these creatures. Puffy gestured to the newcomer with a nod.
"Here he is; our agricultural expert."
Forgath nodding, crossing his arms. "And you are...?"
"Plump Helmet, sir." The pony's voice was gruff, but he nodded respectfully enough. "I'm a mushroom farmer, but I know enough to grow whatever we can get."
"Good. Do we have any seeds?"
"Some crystal corn and berries we hid from hungry mouths, but no mushroom spawn - shame too; cave mushrooms are an all-purpose crop."
"I already have ponies searching for soil beneath the ice and water is plentiful. Will further preparations be required?"
"A growing-house for the crystal crops would be best; they won't take the ice well."
"If you can find any, all we need is a cave to lay down sod in."
"The mushrooms are common to caves in this area?"
"Yeah, there's one to the west that looked like a good fit."
"Good. You and Forge Bellows will accompany me to the cave."
"Gather what supplies we will need."
"But sir, caves like that are probably occupied! And we're not fighters!"
Puffy snorted. "I can fight."
"And I'm not a fighter!"
Forgath shook his head. "No simple cave-dweller can stand against my magic. Still, tell me what we are likely to find."
An hour later found Forgath, Puffy, and Plump Helmet at the entrance to a cave. The entrance resembled nothing more than a gash in the basalt, only a dozen feet elevated from the snow of the valley behind them. The entrance sloped downward, a trail of ice zig-zagging along the gravely incline. Forgath entered first, the reddish glow of his dark power casting strange shadows along the walls. He was followed by Puffy, bearing a simple shield upon a forelimb, another of Forgath's basic creations. Plump brought up the rear, clad once again in cloak. He stayed close to Puffy for defense and carried what bags and pouches could be spared from the camp.
The spelunking party delved downward; the initial passage gave way to a round chamber containing a white, frozen pond, the end of the trail of ice that accompanied them. The scent of snow and dust lingered on the near-still air; the absence of wind made the cave feel warmer than the outside. Forgath brightened his spell, removing some of the red tint in the process; the brighter orange firelight coated the walls, revealing three exits from the chamber. Plump looked around for a few moments before shaking his head. "Too close to the surface, but promising. The ice on the ceiling means that there's plenty of water getting in; we just need to get a little further down."
While one of the passages was too small for Forgath's mighty armored form, the other two could be traversed. Picking one they went onward and downward, a twisty path going for some modest distance before leading into a second, oblong chamber. Tiny crystals in blotchy patterns across the wall and ceiling reflected their light and a stale, coppery smell met them as they advanced. Puffy took a few moments to examine one of the crystal formations, before shrugging and commenting, "Quartz; nothing important."
Plump scrunched his nose at the scent, turning to Forgath as Puffy took the time to search the room further. "Blood?"
He got a nod. "Blood, but not fresh."
"Mmm. That's good then."
"Depends. If the food's not fresh, whatever was hunting might be hungry."
Plump frowned deeper, taking position by Puffy again as they progressed through the single exit. So it went for two further chambers; aside from an interesting edged formation in the basalt, hints of other encroaching ores, or occasional broadening and narrowing of the path of ice following their descent, nothing special was found. All the while the coppery smell grew more noticeable, and it was accompanied by one other thing just shy of the fifth chamber.
"Wait. Look." Forgath and Puffy paused, turning back to where Plump gestured down with a hoof. The pair looked for a moment, until a frustrated Plump Helmet gave the ice a tap with a hoof, cracking the upper layer and revealing a thin trickle of water running along the rock beneath. "It's gotten warm enough that the ice can melt and flow freely down rather than just creeping. The next one could be it."
A look passed between the ponies and then to their lord, but he was already straightening up, rolling his armored shoulders as he resumed the walk. "Good. It's been too long since I've been on this end."
The ponies exchanged a second, rather more skeptical look before they followed. Puffy cocked her head, asking the question on both of their minds. "Um....'this end'?"
"Hm? Ah. You see, for decades I have researched my magics, built strongholds, crushed resistance, dealt with meddling kids - I think this is the first time in fifty years that I'm raiding something else's stronghold!" He broke into a baritone cackle, which only faded slightly when he noticed that the ponies weren't laughing with him. He didn't need their approval; it was still funny to him.
And so it was that a faintly-cackling Forgath walked into the largest chamber yet and drew the attention of every centipede in the room in no time at all.
The room was wide, wider than any other they'd been in. Where in prior rooms the ice had carved channels and rivulets ever downward, here liquid water pooled in several places as it flowed through the room, leaving three ponds and a lingering scent of sulfur. Around the pools, life flourished; slime molds clung to the near walls and fungi surrounded them in halos at their banks. Signs of smaller creatures that lived off the growths dotted the thin layer of mycelial loam, but the only creatures of note were the giant centipedes.
Most of their number were as large as ponies, while the largest few were nearly as long as Forgath was tall. There couldn't have been more than a dozen present, but the click of chitinous legs on stone was nearly deafening as the largest six rushed directly towards Forgath. One pulled ahead, brave or hungry, and reached Forgath before the others.
He was surprised for long enough for the centipede to get its mandibles around an arm, but no more than that. His fingers spread and the glow of his other hand became a blaze, darkening from its softer shade to cruel scarlet and black. His hand cut a trail of flame through the air, and through the centipede in turn. It let loose a chittering sort of complaint, the front end still clinging to him with legs and mouth scrabbling at his armor while the lower half flopped about.
While Forgath was dealing with the first, the remainder completed their charge. Puffy leapt forward with a yell even as Forgath stripped the clinging upper body from his arm. The shield came up, catching the quickest one with a 'clang' and tipping it backward, though it would be only a moment before it righted. The upper half of the bisected one was tossed fiercely into the remainder, followed by a burst of flame that forced the chitinous mass to scatter.
"Be careful! There are mushrooms here, and we don't want them burned!" Plump Helmet stayed in the relative safety of the tunnel as Puffy spun and bucked, knocking the recovered (and singed) centipede away. He was not getting anywhere near the fight; giant centipedes were unnerving enough even without the only light being an uneven dark red.
Forgath growled his irritation, helmet clacking back and forth has he watched the vermin move to surround them, a pair scrabbling up the walls as the other three drove forward. Without his first recourse he seized upon the first of the oncoming trio, gripping it just under the head and bending it back over its body. It was flexible enough that that wasn't going to do it harm, so he brought up a big steel boot to complete the job, but its lower body lashed and darted and his killing blow landed wide, crushing only a pair of legs with a sickening crunch.
While the second peeled off to help its brother, the third rushed forward low to the ground, making to snap at Puffy's hooves. The point of the shield struck down, clanging off the rock and forcing the centipede to flinch back. Again, and again, it pressed forward, but paused each time the shield came down. With each darting motion Puffy was forced back, until it stuck its neck out just far enough; Puffy leapt forward, driving the point of shield down just behind its head and loosing a splatter of green blood across the ground. A pink-maned head came up, looking about for further foes - and spotting the two climbing along the walls, heading right for where Plump Helmet waited. The shield was plucked from the ground as Puffy left Forgath to deal with his two, shouting for Plump to back up further.
Forgath felt the second one as it clambered up the back of his armor. Releasing the first he reached back for it, grasping at it as a mandible wedged its way under the lip of his helmet. Just as he felt it grazing his skin he got hold of the thing's head. Mushrooms be damned, he was not going to have that; he released a burst of flame from the gripping palm, sending a spasm through its form and leaving its corpse thrashing as it fell off of him. The one he had been holding down was nowhere to be seen; saved by its companion, it had made good on its escape.
Forgath looked around with something of a laugh, only to stop stark as he saw his two minions slowly backed down the tunnel by forms crawling around the rounded opening. That far away for Forgath's magic, the light was dimmer, and Puffy was having to focus on sweeping shield bashes and darting motions to keep Plump safe. Were they not there, Forgath would simply fill the tunnel with his flame, but he didn't trust Puffy's shield to protect them well enough. The second option then; he called more magic out, the one hand burning brighter while reaching the other down to slap against the water flowing from the tunnel. A crackling line of his power ran up the stream towards his minions; he felt it gather beneath one of the centipedes before bursting forth in a spike of ice. The unaware creature had no chance to dodge, and it was impaled through its chitin against the ceiling.
With one foe down, Puffy pressed the opportunity, lashing out with her shield and battering the other one back, the "clang" resounding through the tunnel. Another strike, a third, and the position was right; a second icicle stabbed forth. The centipede was struck off-center and it rolled down the ice rather than being run through - only to be pinned at the base by a shield and ended by a hoof.
Forgath stood, taking his hand from where it rested against the ice, keeping the flames burning around the other. He looked around, but saw no further foe; if they were still lying in wait, they did it from the safe darkness of the further exits. The ponies made their way back to their lord, Puffy panting and Plump shaking.
"I...I told you, I'm not a fighter; I'm not built for this."
"Plump, you're stronger than I am."
"Doesn't change the fact."
"That's enough, you two. We have won; savor the victory. Puffy, stay with Plump Helmet. Plump, gather what mushrooms or other things you desire; they're all yours. I'm going to do some harvesting of my own."
As the pair began to move about the room, Forgath reached down to a boot, drawing a knife from its sheath. Too small to have been considered as a weapon to wield against the creatures, it was none the less the only blade he had with him when he was cast out of his world. He looked at it for a few moments, the sight of the engraving briefly taking him back. With a shake he cleared his head, then moved towards the nearest centipede and got to work.
Making their way down from the snowy slope of the valley wall, the newly-laden trio headed back towards the pillar of fire in the distance. Forgath strode with satisfied purpose, Puffy with optimism, and Plump Helmet with the weight of many bags of spores and meat.
"Well, that wasn't as...exhilarating as I had hoped, but we got what we needed."
Plump nodded, steadying his breathing as he plodded along. "Yes, my lord; we have enough mushroom spawn to start a farm with plenty of surplus. Not much in the way of other seeds; it's going to be mostly mushrooms until we can grow more."
"My minions will make do. We have the meat for variety."
Puffy let out a snort, moving up to walk beside Forgath. "Nopony is going to eat that."
"I don't see why not. It's rich meat."
"Most of us don't even like meat, to say nothing of giant bug meat."
A clanking armored shrug met the pronouncement. "Fine. More for me. At any rate, this was a successful expedition; good job, my minions, you have served me well."
Puffy nodded. "Whatever helps the settlement."
Plump added, "Our fortunes rise and fall together." He was not above a mumbled "for better or worse" afterward.
Forgath, having missed the mumbling, nodded. "That's it exactly. Together, we shall rise. Hm. I think I shall start on a tower when we return."
"A...tower? Why's that?" Puffy's green head tilted to one side.
"To have a seat of my power of course. And a place to renew my research. It could also act as a keep and watch-point."
"Sure, but why a tower exactly?"
"What would you suggest instead?"
"What about an acropolis?"
"No hills large enough to build one atop that it would make a difference."
"Hmmm...maybe a castle?"
"Too big and ambitious this early. Besides, if you put a wall around a tower, you've got a castle."
"The settlement itself will be, given time."
"What about a dungeon?"
"It's not a bad idea. We are going to have underground farms, storage, and other things. But they don't have the imposing majesty of the tower."
"Not sure I'd agree, Lord," Plump interjected, "dungeons are imposing in their own way." Plump tilted his head back and forth as he considered, before abruptly blinking as he realized what sort of conversation he had leapt into.
Forgath shook his helmeted head. "But there are practical issues to consider, especially if you want to use it to protect your minions. No, I don't think a dungeon is the right step. Besides, they're too cliché."
"For you?" Puffy's faux-surprise was clear.
"Nothing!" Puffy grinned and pronked ahead a few steps.
"Mmmhm." Forgath sounded skeptical, but he didn't press the issue. His tastes weren't cliché after all, they were classic; such distinctions could be lost on minions, and it was rarely worth the time to educate them on aesthetics.
Besides, Puffy was a pastel green pony with pink hair and lighter pink eyes.
Forgath's stride caught briefly as he wondered if his choice in minion would reflect poorly upon him. They weren't exactly menacing and from what little he'd seen of them without their cloaks many of them had shades of fur that were unbecoming for proper minions. Perhaps he could do something about that? He'd have to think on it. In any case, having a proper Lord's Tower was higher priority than he had realized.
He was broken from his thoughts as Puffy drew his attention once more.
"Our settlement is going to need a name, you know?"
"Hm. I hadn't thought about it, but you are correct. Something that speaks to its future, I think..."
The trio made their way through the gap in the ice wall and arrived back at camp, where they were greeted by a cheer from the assembled ponies. A group from the digging contingent approached them from the pillar, where they had been resting cloakless. The lead pony, one with a blue coat and dark gray mane, nodded with some nervousness. "Lord Ironblood. Forge Bellows. -"
"- Plump Helmet. We've made progress. The fungal growth chamber is ready for your inspection, and we've begun mining out the ores you raised to the surface, Lord."
"Good. What is your name, pony?"
"Mm. A sturdy name. Lead the way, Granite Batholith."
The pony nodded and turned, beginning to walk towards the downward-sloping entrance. As they did, Forgath noticed something odd - a marking marring the blue fur on her flanks. A step to the side let him see it more clearly as they walked along - a jutting piece of stone, like the peak of a mountain, with an orange flame-like pattern in the center. He dropped back a bit to walk beside Puffy, speaking quietly.
"That mark on Granite Batholith's haunch. What is that?"
"The...mountain-design. Is it paint or dye of some sort?"
"Oh! No; it's a cutie-mark. Everypony gets one when they learn what their talent is."
"They appear by magic when the time is right."
"Yep! look! Mine's a pair of bellows!"
He looked; it was. "Oh. So before we left, when you said that one of the ponies had a mushroom cutie-mark..." Puffy pointed towards Plump Helmet, who had moved up to talk details with Granite. Indeed, amid the brown fur of his hip was the image of a rounded purple mushroom with a long cap. "...Huh. That's strange."
"Nope; perfectly normal."
Forgath sighed internally, also resolving that he would abbreviate the name for those icons to "marks" from then on. The aesthetic issues with these ponies ran deeper than he originally suspected.
Descending the slightly-slick stone ramp led them down into a chamber hewn from the stone. It seemed the diggers had done a good job; a large central area was dug out with a few pillars remaining for extra stability, while nubs forming the start of tunnels branched off from the central room to reveal veins of black, iron-bearing ore. The ground of the chamber had been strewn with dirt - apparently the wanderers had found patches of soil beneath the ice and brought it back by the bagful. Thus it was that Plump Helmet now had several plots to work with.
Indeed, Plump was so very pleased with this discovery that he let out a rather high pitched noise, grabbed Granite Batholith up in a shaggy hug, and nearly skipped around the room to take it all in. Once he'd observed all they had for him, he declared, "it's perfect!" and immediately set to planting. Forgath was slightly concerned by the burst of excitement, but shook his head and let the stallion be; a minion that wanted to do their job was a treasure if they did it well.
Turning to Granite, he gestured towards the surroundings. "It seems he's well-pleased, and so am I. Are you and your miners going to have any trouble continuing to dig out the ore?"
"No my lord; whatever you did, the ore is close to the surface and easy to get at - and I've never seen these sorts of veins of hematite inside basalt."
"Good, though it won't last. Pairs will survey further locations through the valley and nearby mountains. We need a sense of what stones we have access to. My magic can draw iron at cost, but mining and quarrying will be necessary."
"We will start on it right away, Lord."
"Very good. Continue to lead the miners if you are capable."
"Then I will trust you to divide up the labor. Report to me regularly."
Granite nodded, and dashed outside to share the news with the rest of her workers. Forgath nodding to himself, making his way back up and out into air. A glance upward revealed another light snowfall had begun. A look around saw ponies beginning to use the stone already dug out to plan out further structures - he would have to have a word with whichever pony fancied himself an architect.
"Yes, Lord Ironblood?"
"I have a task for you."
"Heh, I guess a mare's work is never done." She wore a little smirk as she looked up at him.
"I - wait, a mare?"
"You are a mare?"
"Of course I am! You didn't know?"
"How could I tell?"
"You didn't notice that I was smaller than Plump Helmet and the rest of the stallions? That my voice was higher?"
"I thought you might be young."
"She is!" A passing pony ventured their note, on the way to get supplies to cook.
"That's beside the point! What about the shape of my muzzle?" A green hoof here indicated a rounded green snoot.
"What...about the shape of your muzzle?"
"Wha...Lord Ironblood, mares tend to have rounded muzzles while stallions have blockier muzzles. Haven't you ever seen ponies before?"
"Not ponies like you."
"...Really? But we're really common on this continent! I think..."
"I'm not of this world, Puffy."
"And I have a second task for you. I want you to tell me about you ponies, in more detail."
"Yeah, sure; I can do that."
"Good. Though first there is the other matter to attend to. Gather the rest of my minions; they will all hear this, and their tasks can wait."
Forgath began striding towards the pillar, still burning dark in the center of the clearing. He gathered several pieces of ferrous ore on his way there, a hand moving back and forth across them as he called upon his magic. While it may not be useful on the large scale, here his touch was fine enough that he could refine, pulling the iron together and stripping the impurities. Soon he knew they would have to put together smelteries once they had the stone or clay, soon the blast furnaces would glow and the hammers would ring. But he would strike the first blows now.
Ponies began to gather as he approached the pillar. The metallurgy tools had already been left nearby, and so it it was that he drew a small portion of the pillar out, coaxing the flame to billow and swirl around the iron bloom he had forced together, letting it heat until it neared melting before backing off, small bursts of magic and hammer blows knocking off bits of dross as he worked it. Soon, the entire settlement had arrived and watched him work in silence. Some of them had experience in metal craft, but none had seen a biped do it, much less their Lord. Once his magic and the flame had worked the iron into a purer form, a red-glowing bloom, he transferred it to the anvil and began to beat it into shape, first merely pressing it together, folding and mixing the wrought iron, before moving it about the horn of the anvil as he landed further blows.
Little by little, it took on its final form, quenched and returned to the heat and beaten just that much closer. A helm came to be, not the sort of all-concealing version he wore but a simpler one - designed for pony-heads. When he deemed it good enough, he quenched it once more, burned off the remaining water, and set the helmet atop the anvil to stare empty at the assembled ponies.
"I promised that you would be warm, and you are. I promised you would be protected, and you will be. I will forge for you armor and arms, and you will serve me well. Now, I have need of you, those among you who are strong and brave enough to fight. Become my first warriors and scouts, to protect the others and to find threats and boons for our new settlement. I will teach you what you need, be it how to fight or how to pass unseen. Those of you who wish to be the shield and sword and eyes of the settlement, remain after all are dismissed." The ponies exchanged various glances among themselves; fear still hung over these escaped slaves, but the spark that had been set mere hours ago had grown, and several eyes already glinted with the hint of flame.
Forgath lifted the forge hammer, letting its crude surface shine in the ruby light of the pillar behind him. "This is no longer a mere camp, and so it needs a name. A name that speaks to its purpose and future. And so..." He raised the hammer high in display. "Let it be known as Ironforge. It will be here that we forge our futures, and it is here you serve Lord Ironblood. Now, you are dismissed; go about your tasks but take the rest you need; you are no good to me frozen and starved. Rationing will be lifted with the first crop of mushrooms."
There was much mumbling, but here he turned his gaze upon Plump Helmet. "How long?"
The shaggy pony started, before speaking up loudly. "Half a week; we have plenty of spawn."
"Half a week, and then we eat our fill."
A weak cheer went up from the crowd; it hadn't sunk in with everyone, and some ponies had begun to get up once he said they were dismissed. Conversation broke out, the chatter of many pony voices filling the area as the most of their number began to file out, leaving perhaps a half-dozen as the first crop of warriors and scouts. Among those, Puffy sat stiff-backed, a faint heat in her cheeks. One of the others who remained, a mare with yellow fur, leaned over to whisper into her ear.
Forgath was enjoying a relaxing morning in the Tower of Despair. He had awoken with the sun, completed his morning contemplation and ablution, and breakfast had arrived just on time. He sat at the dining table with a book and ate, listening with a little smile for the sounds of his daughters rousing themselves and beginning their own routines. He knew that a certain pink filly had not gone to bed on time last night, and was curious to see just how late she would make herself.
The answer, as it turned out, was about fifteen minutes.
Forgath chuckled to himself upon hearing a dismayed squeak from her room, followed by frantic hoofsteps and the start of what would be a very short shower. Fillies would be fillies, he supposed. He was no stranger to late nights and sleep lost to study, but he also knew that she would learn the value of sleep better this way. Or setting an alarm - wondrous things could be done with clockwork these days.
His thoughts became nostalgic as he made his way through his eggs and toast; he realized that alarm clocks weren't tremendously new, but he still couldn't help but think of them that way. Perhaps it was a sign that he was growing old? He was on his second millennium after all...
Such thoughts were distracting, so much so that when his eldest daughter came (metaphorically) flying out of her bedroom, dressed and ready to go, he almost made a terrible mistake. She skidded her way up to the table with her blonde mane fluttering, gobbled up a few bites of eggs, and snatched up a slice of toast in her mouth to eat on the way; the moment it was secure she bolted for the door with little more than a muffled "Hi Dad! Bye Dad!" which got a hum in reply. But that's when he noticed it.
"Tourmaline Trillion Torque, exactly what are you wearing?"
The pink pony froze before the door at the use of her full name, faster than any ice spell could manage. She slowly turned towards him, smiling what she hoped was an innocent smile as she transferred her toast to a hoof to speak. "Um...a skirt and a blouse? It's no big deal, really."
"Mmmhm. And what sort of skirt is it, exactly?" A pair of heavy arms crossed over a chain-clad chest.
"Exactly! Lin, what happened to the black skirt I got you for your birthday?"
"Daaad, no one's wearing black right now; it's going out of style!"
"Blasphemy. Black never goes out of style."
"I'm sure you think so, but plaid is in right now; it's bright and peppy."
"'Bright and peppy' is not proper for a dark lady. And besides, that skirt is far too short of a filly of your age."
"But Dad, this is what everyone else is wearing right now! There's even talk about making it a school uniform, like what they have in Canterlot!"
"Not on my watch! That's absolutely inappropriate for a secondary-school uniform. And are those pleats?"
"So what? Lots of skirts have pleats. And it's called middle-school." She turned slightly, as if hoping to move the skirt out of view.
"Cheerleader skirts have pleats, not respectable skirts. No, you're going to have to go change."
"W-what? But I'm probably already going to be late! And...and besides, this is fine!"
"You have an image to uphold, and that is not it."
"Well maybe I don't want that image; I want to fit in!"
"But you used to love it! Remember a few years ago, when you dressed in black all the time? Practiced your laugh? Started calling yourself "Schorl"? You even darkened your mane. It was so cu-...villainous and threatening; quite becoming for a young lady." He heaved a little nostalgic sigh, getting a frown from her in the process. "You were taking after me so closely; you hung on my every word. What happened to all that?"
"It was just a phase, Dad."
"It doesn't have to be."
"Some of us want to grow up."
"Some of us grew up a long time ago. Now go change."
"Uuuugh! I can't believe this..." She made her way back to her room with much grumbling and toast-munching. It warmed Forgath's heart to see, and he smiled to himself as he turned back to his reading.
Before she could return, her younger sister made her own way out and over to the table with a wide yawn. Sitting down and joining her father, she began to eat. She looked better than she had been the last few days; a childhood pox had swept through the ranks of her second grade class and she still sported little red blisters all across the skin of her wings, but at least she could fold them comfortably this morning. Hopefully, it would make its way out of her system in another week, and until then Forgath could take the opportunity to dote on her. After all, it was quite clear that he wouldn't have such opportunities forever.
He gave her enough time to stop looking quite so bleary-eyed - orange juice worked wonders for waking up thestrals - before setting aside his reading and giving her a warm smile. "Morning, sweetie."
"Morning, Daddy." Still groggy, but at least speaking.
"Are you feeling alright?"
A nod, and her wings spread and refolded. "Mmmmhm. They don't itch anymore. Can I go back to school?"
"No, not while you're still contagious; it will be another week or so."
"Awwww....but I'm gonna miss Stiletto's birthday party." A sad little hoof pushed a sad little fork across her plate.
"It's unfortunate, but you don't want to get her sick as a birthday gift, do you?"
"Don't worry; we can send your friend a gift for the party, that way she'll know you didn't forget her."
Before Forgath could say more, a grumbling pink pony made her way through the room and towards the door on stomping hooves, now clad in a long black skirt (though having retained her white blouse). "I'm leaving."
"Have a good day, s-" A slam cut off whatever pet name he was going to use; out the door and galloping away she went, hoping she wouldn't be late.
Silence reigned for a few moments, before the little foal gave her father a surprisingly flat look. "You know she's got her plaid skirt in her saddlebag, right?"
"You're gonna let her get away with it?"
"She's at that rebellious time; it's good she gets it out of her system now."
"That's dumb. She's bein' dumb."
"As you will be when you get to her age."
Forgath chuckled, reaching over to playfully ruffle her mane and ears, getting an indignant squeak and a pout from his daughter. She ducked back, brushing blue-green hair out of her eyes as she fixed him with as fierce a puffy-cheeked glare as she could manage.
"Finish your breakfast, Shady, and then we'll play. I'll teach you chess."
The thestral continued to pout, mumbling through a bite of eggs, "Already know how to play chess...."
"I'll teach you to beat your sister at chess."
Little ears perked with temptation, but soon flattened again. "Mmmph. Chess is booooring. Can we play something else?"
"What would you like to play?" Forgath replaced the ribbon in his book and shut it, rising to collect the plates and placing them upon the tray to be returned to the kitchens by a servant.
"Hungry Hungry Hydra!"
Forgath held back a sigh. He did not like that game. "Alright; go on and get it."
She let loose a "Yaaay!" and off she ran to the chest of games.
He shook his head with a smile; at least she was starting to feel better, that's what really mattered. For that, he could endure an annoyingly clattery game or two.
Six years had passed. Six years since Forgath had arrived in this new world. Six years since he had collected his first batch of minions and turned their dying camp into a thriving settlement - and now into a proud fort-town. The original, simple ice shelters had been replaced with firm stone buildings. The open rocky area around the pillar of flame had been expanded into a carved plaza with the pillar as its centerpiece. The walls had been pushed back, allowing for more construction within their edifice. In addition, they had been remade as stone with iron bracing and rendered nearly unclimbable by a smooth coating of ice. And towards the northern end of the wall, well outside the plaza, loomed the Tower of Despair.
Fifteen stories and a rooftop crowned with a parapet of spikes, built of dark stone and dark iron, it stood every bit the testament to his might that Forgath had desired. Within its dread walls was the seat of power for the growing town; not merely the chambers and personal forges of Forgath himself, but the administrative center from which he could command the forces and workings of the city, aided by his trusted advisors and a small-yet-growing series of scribes, record keepers and the like. The first three floors of the tower had already been taken over by rooms filled with stone desks, uncomfortable chairs, and the smell of ink.
It was within one such third-floor room that Forgath sat behind a desk, writing in black ink upon paper formed from mushroom pulp. It was perhaps not fine paper; Forgath yearned for vellum, but as with meat the ponies turned out to have little taste for parchment. Still, it could carry ink and so the room around him held shelves of the simple paper, both free and bound. Forgath thought as he wrote, carefully considering how much to write and how to hide what he meant. In the fine tradition of mages across the apparent multiverse, he was writing notes - and writing them so that no one uninitiated would be able to understand. Knowledge was a form of power; important to give to your allies, essential to keep from your enemies.
Six years had passed. Much had changed.
"Forgath, are you in here?"
One thing clearly hadn't.
The dark lord slowly stacked his papers after making sure the ink was dry. Finished, he tied then together in a sheaf and nestled the stack in a corner of a shelf before finally calling out, "In here, Forge Bellows."
The sound of hoofsteps approached, and soon the iron door swung inward with a creak and the onrushing smell of snow. A pink mane and the green mare it was attached to made their way into the room; the latter was wrapped in a thick robe that the former had been freed of while a pair of snow goggles bounced on a cord around the mare's neck. "There you are! How many times do I have to tell you to call me Puffy, huh?"
Forgath slowly crossed his arms, the faint glowing red of his eyes narrowing behind his visor. His armor had recently been polished and had had its enameling redone; a flame-like red and black mottling starting at the ends of his limbs gradually faded to the glossy black of his chest piece. A long black cape trailed behind him, a recent gift of one of his minions. He knew he cut an intimidating and glorious visage, truly the image all overlords should aspire to.
Despite all that, Puffy merely gave a snort. "Okay, fine; Lord Ironblood."
"Good. Now then, what news do you bring, Puffy?"
"Our scouts found another batch, and they've got quite the story. You're gonna want to hear this yourself."
"Very well. I had just finished here; lead on."
"As usual." She nodded, and turned to do just that. She got a nod from the armored pony that had been seated at the door to the study, who set off to attend to other duties once Puffy relieved him.
The pair made their way down to the first floor and left through the twin sets of iron doors, descending the entry ramp and heading towards the center of town. As they walked, numerous ponies paused to bow to Forgath or waved in passing as they went about their business. While he did not respond with more than faint nods, it brought a smile to his hidden, scarred lips to see the proper submission of his minions. As to the waves...well, happy and loyal minions worked harder; it was a sign of the growing power of their city, and he would not begrudge them that. Even if they were "perkier" than the minions that served him before he arrived in this world. Six years had only resolved some of the aesthetic issues.
The more distant streets from the pillar were formed of rough cobblestone cut into pentagons and hexagons and other rounded shapes, the gaps filled with ice rather than dirt - dirt was too precious for that. The pillar itself was still a haven of warmth, and small fragments of it could be found in the hearths of most occupied buildings - though ponies much preferred daylight and lighter flames for illumination. Without a source of tallow candles were hard to come by, so enchanted crystals and experiments with plant- and fungus-based waxes had to suffice. The shades of dim red balefire, warm yellow candlelight, and pale blue magelight were especially notable as Forgath and Puffy made their way through the streets; it was noontime, but the sky was an ashen grey and snow slowly fell. The homes and shops they passed were lit more brightly from within than from without, and their windows shone faintly across streets and into alleys. Forgath found the splashes of color along the grey stone to be pleasing, almost festive, but he wouldn't say that aloud.
After all, the same could be said of the ponies, and "festive" was absolutely not the way he was going to describe his minions in an arctic environment, no indeed.
The streets of the growing town were focused on six major roads leading from central plaza like the spokes of a wheel; the overlord and his pink-maned escort made their way along the northernmost of the six, which ran straight from the plaza to the Tower of Despair itself. Forgath had named it "The Path of Despair" in keeping with the theme, though he was well aware that most of the population called it "Mane Street" instead. He was also aware of exactly how they spelled that name; six years was plenty of time for him to notice that these ponies had an obsession with equine puns. Were he to speak openly, Forgath would say that he didn't particularly mind them; while he had no real fondness for puns himself, it was far from the most annoying trait among his minions, past and present.
Fish-people. Never again.
Forgath suppressed a wince at the thought. In an effort to once more forget about them he turned his attention to the plaza ahead. The heat of the pillar was notable as the pair entered the carved circular area, and its pull on Forgath's magic lingered on the edge of perception. It was another reminder that he really should move making it self-sustaining up on his list of projects. Around the edge of the ring rested a series of shops, workplaces, and even an eatery grown out of one of the earlier mess halls. Crystal ponies milled about the plaza uncloaked; the magic of the pillar made all but the very middle comfortably warm, and left only the faintest signs of ice creeping over the near faces of the surrounding buildings, tucked into cracks and out of the direct heat. The snow didn't linger in the plaza; the constant melt ran through carved channels into a series of drains, which in turn led to a reservoir beneath the surface, which in turn filled a pillar-powered distillation apparatus, which in turn provided fresh water for mushrooms and ponies alike.
A huddled group of ponies sat in the center of the plaza, where the heat from the pillar was more pronounced. They had blankets wrapped around them and bowls of mushroom soup to help warm them up. They were a ragged bunch, unkempt, carrying few possessions; even their fur seemed pale and limp - and yet there was a hint of something in their eyes that Forgath liked. They were watched over by a sextet of mixed guards and scouts who spoke occasionally to those nearest, offering gentle encouragement. Not the most imposing way of carrying out their duties, but these were soon-to-be-minions, not prisoners.
As he and Puffy made their approach, Forgath quickened his pace slightly, approaching close enough to her that he could speak without being overheard. "They've already been given the preliminary talk?"
"They have, Lord Ironblood; they're ready for you"
"Good. Then it is time they learned their place."
Six years had passed, and over those six years the scouts had been busy. King Sombra's Crystal Empire was a powerful city-state ruled by a dark lord who, from what Forgath had been told, had the right idea in terms of style and the wrong idea in terms of rulership. A city of slaves, a city of unrest - a city of escapees-to-be. Every few months some small band of ponies would reach their breaking point, hatch a plan, and find a way to flee into the snow and ice. And if they were lucky, they would be found by the scouts of Ironforge and led to safe harbor as Forgath's minions. Even protected by Forgath's arts the scouts dared not roam too close to the Empire from which they escaped, but they scoured the lands surrounding their growing fortress.
Forgath strode purposefully across the plaza, the sharp clip of armored boots on stone easily heard over the faint rushing sound of the pillar itself. All talk among the refugees slowly came to a stop as one after another took notice of the imposing bipedal form approaching. They may have been prepared by the guard, but the difference between being told what to expect and actually seeing it rendered them speechless. He stood between the group and the pillar, its light silhouetting him. The dark flames complimented the pattern of his armor, and the light shining from behind made the red glow of his eyes all the more distinct. He watched as some of them cringed back with a certain satisfaction; it was good to know he still made the right first impression. And so, stretching out an open gauntlet to one side, he began.
"Ponies of the Crystal Empire, former slaves of Sombra, be welcome."
This got several blinks, from the crowd, a portion of the fear abating.
"You broke your bonds and set off to make your own fate - laudable behavior. Your trek has been hard; you have been cold and tired and hungry. And yet you pressed forward into the unknown, all in hopes of finding something better. Sombra could not hold you. The ice did not defeat you. And now, you are given an opportunity."
As he spoke, turning his palms up on either side, he took in their reactions. The fear was a good start, yes, but it was not all he needed from them. He watched for those hints of something more, of that spark that drove them onward. And there it was - the faintest motes of hope, or pride, muffled as it might be.
"This is Ironforge, and it is mine. All who dwell within it are my precious minions, and together we have built all you have seen and more. The food you've eaten was grown here, the buildings quarried from the stone of the valley. My magic fortifies the city, but it is will - mine and my minions' - that has made it thrive. They were once like you; cold, starving, and exhausted; ragged refugees. But now, united under my rule, Ironforge grows."
He stretched a hand toward them, angled vertically and open, fingers bent as if ready to grip a foreleg. "Join me. Let your wandering in the cold come to an end. Make your homes here, and make Ironforge better for your talents. Join me, not as slaves to be wrung for every drop of sweat and blood, but as my minions, free to make for yourselves a future of your own desiring." He clenched his fist, drawing it back near his chest. "Follow my laws and obey my decree, and you will be free to advance, free to learn, free to make use of your talents. Help raise Ironforge to glory, and you shall be rewarded."
They watched with rapt attention, and he could see the growing desire within. It was plain on the faces of some - already picturing the glories they could have in his service, no doubt. He inclined his head towards them in a brief nod of acknowledgement; he knew they would be his.
"Those who pledge their loyalty are free to begin immediately; we shall find lodging for you, provide you with necessities, and learn of your interests and talents so you may best make use of them. Artisans will be provided workspace and resources. Farmers will be provided seed and soil. Those who would learn a craft will be apprenticed. And any with a talent for numbers or learning will be provided an opportunity to use them - we have need of clerks and scholars and merchants." While coin had been minted for scant months, and mostly exchanged for luxuries, the notion of markets was nothing new to anyone in Ironforge. True, they had few ponies who were exclusively merchants as yet, but it was a matter of time.
"The rest of you are welcome to stay until you've made up your mind. All of you will be provided room and board within the boarding houses, and you will be free to move about the town with guards in escort. If you decide not to stay, you will be sent forth with new clothes and provisions, though I doubt the ice will make the same offer I have."
One pony, a red-coated mare, spoke up a mere moment after he had finished. "That's no choice at all. I don't know about this 'minion' thing, but if it means food, hearth, and a chance to practice my art? Count me in." Forgath nodded, and noticed that her mark was a round-headed brush of some kind, tipped with black. Painting? Calligraphy? He could surely find a use for such things.
"Brave enough to speak? Good. What is your name?"
"Fitting. Fine Line, know me as your Lord and prosper."
"And if I do, what's to say you won't make me a slave again?"
There was a hissed whisper from a pony nearby, a blue stallion, who glanced nervously between the guards, Forgath, and Fine Line. Fine Line's reply was just loud enough for Forgath to pick out: "I want to hear it from him, not them."
She fixed her attention expectantly on Forgath, whose eyes narrowed behind his visor. "Because I don't want slaves. I want loyal, dedicated, skilled minions."
The mare held his gaze, though her ears folded back at his tone. She glanced towards a few of the guards and scouts, who nodded encouragingly, before turning her attention back to Forgath. "Alright, it will do."
"Alright...?" Forgath's arms crossed over his chest.
"Very good." He relaxed his pose, sweeping a hand before the rest. "Anyone else?"
Many were reluctant, but several more pledged their loyalty - and with less reservation than Fine Line had. When it seemed like no more were forthcoming Forgath nodded once again.
"One last thing before you are dismissed. I am told you have news of the Crystal Empire. Tell me."
The group, new minions and not-yet-minions alike, exchanged looks with each other. Ears folded, worried little gazes sought out others, until a blue mare, looked up to him and answered, hooves quivering around her bowl of soup. "It's...it's gone."
"...Gone?" Forgath was still, only a little surprise slipping into his voice.
"Gone, Lord. When we made our escape, we headed east, towards the Kay Range. We reached the pass before night fell, but when we turned back we saw an army arriving, flying Equestrian banners."
"Equestria. The growing Kingdom to the south, with ties to the Empire, ruled by two princesses. They marched upon Sombra?"
"Yes, my lord. We saw two ponies...probably those princesses, doing battle with him with their magic. When they were done, the whole city vanished like snow blown to the wind! We didn't see any sign of Sombra either, but we didn't stay to look."
"Vanished. What is your name, my minion?"
"Crystal Rose, sir."
"And can the rest of you corroborate this story?"
Amid a collective nodding among the group, one of the scouts stepped forward. "Lord Ironblood, when we found the refugees we sent a group of our quickest scouts to the pass they mention in relay; we got word back from the relay chain just as we were reaching Ironforge. We can confirm their story; the Crystal Empire is gone, entirely missing."
"Hm. That's...fascinating. Anything else they had to report?"
"Signs of zinc deposits in the pass itself, but nothing more related to the city. The Equestrian forces had already left, though the small detail remains watching and waiting for your orders."
"Very well. Send resupply enough to sustain the relay for two weeks. No fewer than three ponies at any point. Tell them also to expect a prospector and small guard detail to confirm the ore and begin construction on a new camp. Once the supplies are moving, give the ore report to Granite Batholith; she will assign a prospector."
"Yes, my lord. Anything further?"
"No; go forth."
The scout gave a brief salute before walking off to attend to his given tasks, and Forgath turned his attention to the remaining scouts and guard detail. "Guards, help the newcomers settle in as usual. Scouts, you may aid them or rest for the remainder of the day." He turned once more, casting his gaze across the refugees. "As for you, be welcome. Crystal Rose, thank you for your report."
The poor mare squeaked a reply, almost dropping her soup. Forgath was met with salutes from his guards and scouts, and returned a nod before moving to walk away, Puffy falling into step beside him.
He waited until they were far enough across the plaza before speaking up. "I think that went well."
"Indeed, Lord Ironblood; they looked like a good bunch."
"And likely the last."
"If the Empire is gone? Yeah, that's it. The population is going to have to grow the old-fashioned way."
Forgath let out a dry huff of breath, but even that was enough to get a smile from Puffy; she'd had six years to get used to his sense of humor.
"Speaking of which..." He looked down at the mare before continuing. "How is the count?"
"Pretty good; the number of couples keeps growing, and we've had two more births in the last week; that brings the total to four-hundred and twenty-five, including the fourty-two children and infants. Even without more refugees we should be set to hit five-hundred sometime next year. Things are stable, more couples are forming, and most couples are going to have multiple foals."
"Very good. Are the incentives working?"
"Yes, Lord; between that and the stability there's little reluctance to start families left."
"Then we must plan for the next expansion. And one other thing."
They arrived back at the Tower, and Forgath lead the way to the study he'd been in earlier. Forgath moved towards one of the shelves with Puffy in tow, removing a gauntlet to leaf through the sheets of mushroom paper until he found what he was looking for. He withdrew a single sheet and held it out for Puffy to see.
"I would like you to gather these minions, and bring them to the Tower of Despair. There is a matter I must speak with them about."
Puffy looked down the list of some two-dozen names carefully. "Hmmm....mostly ponies from the first year or so...hey, I'm on this list!"
"Yes you are."
"So what are we gonna talk about?"
"You'll find out with the rest of them."
Puffy's cheeks puffed out a little and she squinted suspiciously as she looked up at him. "Is this one of those 'hooray it's a party' surprises, or more of the 'and if you want the antidote you'll do what I say' surprises?"
Forgath laughed aloud, crossing his arms as he looked down at the pony. "Forge Bellows, when did you become such a cynic? What makes you think I've ever poisoned partygoers before?"
Puffy focused all the sarcasm in her body into a single lifted eyebrow. It got another chuckle from Forgath.
"You're not in trouble; you'll like this. Go on; gather them up."
She huffed, before trotting her way from the room with a little smile. "The things I put up with..."
Forgath chuckled anew at that, before doffing his other gauntlet and gathering up more papers, as well as a fresh jar of ink. He still had a few things to prepare before they arrived.
In relatively short order the selected ponies had assembled; a collection of mares and stallions that included Puffy, Granite Batholith, Plump Helmet, and several other guards and leaders among his minions. Forgath had brought them to a room in the upper levels of the Tower, one he usually reserved for magical experimentation and thus was warded to the extent of his ability. A set of chairs had been brought in and arranged in a half-circle, facing one end of the room were Forgath stood in front of a slate chalkboard near a small bucket of chalk fragments.
He walked forward towards the center of the half-circle, casting his gaze over his ponies. They waited expectantly; in contrast to the ponies Forgath spoke to earlier, their pride and ambition shown bright. Puffy had done much to assure them that this meeting was something good, and most had been with Forgath for over five years now. With that thought in mind, he began.
"You ponies have proven yourselves worthy and loyal minions; I think it's time that I teach you."
"Teach us...what, Lord?" A stallion spoke up from the middle of the arc.
"I shall teach you how to bend the world to your will. I shall teach you how to commune with those things beyond mortal ken. You shall learn my sorcerous ways and be empowered. I shall teach you of magic." Forgath stretched his arms out to either side, flames lighting in his palms in a properly dramatic fashion. The ponies looked on with awe.
Or perhaps it was just confusion.
"...how?" A different one, a mare this time.
"How are you gonna teach us magic?"
"...Through careful tutelage, as I would have learned had I had a teacher."
"No, I mean...we don't have horns?"
"How...how are we supposed to do magic without horns?"
Forgath paused, cocking his hidden head. "Why would horns matter?"
"Well...Unicorns use magic, not crystal ponies."
"Unicorns? Horned ponies?"
"That's right," another spoke up, a bit further to the side. "Some of the Equestrians are unicorns. They can do magic because they have horns."
"I see. Well, do you see a horn upon me?"
That gave his minions pause. The ponies looked over Forgath's form, as if for the first time. Eventually, Puffy ventured, "It could be under your armor?" before she was shushed by the nearest mare.
Forgath continued, ignoring the comment. "I've known magi with extra eyes or horns or things stranger still, but never any that needed a horn. Why should you?"
The group of ponies wore looks of confusion, consternation, and the occasional blank stare of comprehension. Knowing the longer he waited the sooner somepony would try to answer the rhetorical question, Forgath pressed on.
"Today, I shall explain to you simple magic theory, and we will see if you can indeed 'do magic'."
He walked around the inside of the arc, passing out a small gemstone to each pony. "Magic is power. It is part of the world yet apart from the world. It springs up from all around us, and within. All that lives carries a spark of magic, and everything that has a will, that has emotion, can call it forth. There are different kinds of magic, and different forms it can be shaped into. These gems carry an enchantment, a portion of magic bound to the gems that will do something specific. In this case, they will take in ambient magic and glow."
"You will note that none of them are presently glowing. That is because unlike the magelight gems in your homes, the form is weak; these gather next to nothing from the air and earth around them. But you can change this." He makes his way back to the front of the room, crossing his arms before him. "All of you carry magic. In fact, you ponies have more innate magic than most of my former minions. I believe you express it naturally in many ways, such as in your marks, but I suspect you can learn to bring it forth."
"This is your first lesson: you will hold the gems and fill them with your magic by focusing your will and emotion. The sharper your focus or the stronger your feeling, the more of your magic you expose to the gem and the brighter it will glow. I want you to try on your own first, and I will teach you techniques to help once you've made an attempt. Once more, all you must do is focus your will or emotion upon the gem. Begin."
He watched as the ponies got to work, each staring at the gem held in their hoof. Some squinted, as if to manually narrow their focus. Other glowered. Orange tongues stuck out, ears folded, tails twitched, and Forgath had to suppress a sigh at their antics. But little by little, a few sparks appeared, faint glowing lights deep within gems. He waited for one to brighten enough for the neighboring ponies to notice before striding over.
"Very good, Prism Cut, very good. I expected no less from someone with an affinity for gems. Now, let us continue; can you tell us what you were thinking to make the gem glow?"
The class continued; Forgath moved from pony to pony, giving advice, having those that found success speak to the group at large, coaxing them forward until soon each could focus their internal mana well enough to cause their gems to shine bright. Some had done better than others, but all eventually were able to do it, much to their excitement and surprise. He elaborated a bit further upon the theory, sticking to the basics and connecting it to what they were doing, occasionally referencing notes he left on a desk to one side.
In what seemed like no time at all, the first class had finished. The ponies had been dismissed, each taking with them one of the practice gems and a homework assignment: a few charged shards to experiment with moving magic from place to place. One pony had stayed behind.
"There's...something I want to talk to you about."
The dark lord made his way around the room, straightening things and tucking away his notes. "Go on."
"We've known each other for a while, right?"
Forgath paused. There was something about those words, spoken as they were, that struck him as something he should be concerned about. Rather than finishing tying the sheaf he turned his full attention to her. "Yes. about six years now, ever since my arrival and the founding."
Puffy nodded, shuffling a forehoof against the stone floor. "And we've done a lot together, haven't we?"
A tiny voice within that Forgath hadn't heard since his boyhood, ages and ages ago, began to panic. "Yes, you've been my most loyal and trustworthy minion over all these years. You've taught me much about ponies and been instrumental in the rise of Ironforge."
A faint blush filtered through the green fur of her cheeks - surely owing to the high praise of her Lord, of course. She smiled up at him and nodded. "Y-yeah, exactly! And we've gotten to know each other better too..."
The little voice grew louder. "That's...probably fair to say..."
Puffy's head tilted as she was briefly lost in thought. "We fought centipedes, we got the blast furnaces going, we forged weapons and armor together, I taught you that trick with the anvil..."
"And I helped you refine your technique."
"Yeah! I've...I've enjoyed our conversations, and our forging." Her smile widened, her eyes again focused upon Forgath's own.
The little voice rallied support; Forgath began to feel clammy within his gauntlets as the faintest hint of his growing fear reached the surface. "It...has been...nice..."
"I think I'd like to get to know you better."
"Forge Bellows, -"
"...Puffy. Are you..."
"Yeah. Yeah I am. I would like to court you, Forgath."
The little voice was right! Forgath took a step back without thinking, his more practical instincts spurred into action. His gaze searched the room, focused anywhere but upon the hopeful mare before him. "Puffy, I..."
"I...While I admire your ambition, I don't think that would work..."
Green ears slowly flattened back. "What do you mean?"
He grasped at what he knew, the things more familiar, a refuge in this unexpected storm. "It's not a bad attempt; it's not my style to try to get power through seduction, but -"
"It's not about trying to gain power!" She frowned, ears fully flattened by now.
"No! I like you, Forgath; you saved us, and despite the spiky helmets and dark fires and evil towers you've been good to us. There's more to you than just Lord Ironblood. I want to get to know you better, to see more of you."
"Puffy, I...I'm flattered, but..."
A gauntleted hand made a slow circle in the air as he searched for the right words. "Well I'm just not...ah...not interested in...you know..."
"Oh. Oooh, oh goodness, you're not into mares!" A green hoof met green face.
Forgath sighed his relief, and the little voice finally shut up; she understood! "Yes. That's it exactly. You're comely and you're skilled; you have great potential and I wasn't flattering when I said you were instrumental in the growth of Ironforge. You're a precious minion and I'm sure any stallion would be lucky to have you. But I'm...well...I'm not."
"...attracted to mares. It's okay; I'm so sorry, I should have known." She gave him an exceptionally sheepish smile.
Forgath nodded. "It...seemed obvious to me; I'm not sure why...?"
Puffy shook her head, waving a hoof. If anything, her blush seemed to have deepened. "No, it's my fault. Horseapples, things have to be hard for you then."
That sounded like pity. Forgath would not be pitied. "It's...really not so different; even before coming to this work, I din't usually engage in..."
"No no, you don't want to talk about it; I get it. Don't worry, this isn't gonna be weird, I'm still your most loyal minion; it's my job to help out."
"Ah...Yes, good. Let's...keep doing that."
"Okay, I will! Um...good...talking with you." And with that, she hastily saw herself out, leaving only the door-muffled sound or receding hooves.
Forgath was left in silence. He waited a few moments, trying to put his thoughts in order. This...was not an issue he expected to deal with here, not when he was likely the only human in the whole world. He shook his head; he could have handled that better. He could hardly remember the last time he had been propositioned, and the last time he had been propositioned honestly, without some ulterior motive or power play or attempted murder? It was almost novel.
He shook his head again, dismissing the faint warmth the thought brought with it. Minions will be minions; romancing them never ended well, and romancing ponies worse still. Sure, he was a dark lord and could do what he wanted, but he had no interest in that sort of thing. The pleasures of the flesh in general were things he was more than willing to forego for power and glory, and being on a world without attractive people? The decision practically made itself.
He finished gathering and tying up his papers and putting them away in his case, then made his way out and towards his Tower. Darkness had fallen and the snow had only intensified. The shadow cast by a distant peak against the underside of the clouds left a long stretch of violet between bands of red; auspicious colors if Forgath had ever seen them. Trying to put the encounter with Puffy out of his mind (after all, these ponies were strange), he thought of the growth of the city. With the recent arrivals and word of more births, he would soon find himself pushing the walls back yet again. Or perhaps instead constructing the first walled leaf, leaving the established fort-town as the center of a growing city.
His boots crunched with each step through the snow, and as he made his way along the Path of Despair he caught the scent of bread baking; it seems the harvest of cave wheat had gone well. With that included in their most recent find several months ago, Ironforge now had six kinds of underground crops growing in their farms and a modest greenhouse growing a smattering of other fruits and vegetables. They had no orchards, but they were making preparations to cultivate a large, woody sort of mushroom called tower caps; between that and southern scouting, Ironforge would have lumber in short order.
Soon enough, he reached the Tower. He continued to consider the future of the city and its expansion as he did his rounds, checking on the forges and the scribes. With no outstanding issues, he retreated upstairs to unpack his notes and retire for the night.
Giving his guard a nod as they took up their position next to the door, Forgath entered his apartments. After a pause in the foyer to check on a project, he went through his nightly routine. All was normal until he opened the door to his bedroom.
There, on his bed, was a pony. A familiar pony.
He was sprawled out almost lazily over the sheets, lying upon his side with his belly towards the door, and thus towards Forgath. He wore nothing but his shaggy brown pelt, which must have been brushed into soft-looking curls, all the way down to his feathery, unshorn fetlocks. His purple tail had been grown out longer than Forgath had remembered, and rested modestly across hip and belly.
As Forgath arrived, Plump Helmet's ears perked and he lifted his head from the bed, his fuzzy front supported by his forelegs while his hindquarters stayed sprawled out. He gave his head a shake, sending his purple mane cascading along his neck as he turned his attention to the dark lord. He fixed Forgath with an almost coy grin, framed by his long purple beard and mustache, and his eyes narrowed in a smoky, sultry expression.
"Lord Ironblood," came the growly, gravely, masculine voice. "I was told you needed my expertise in...growing things." Saying as much, the flick of a purple tail revealed a demonstration of that particular skill. Forgath suddenly had answers to several questions about ponies he had never thought to ask - though they came with a single new question about this particular pony's name.
The newly-evident stallion tilted his head slowly, his coy smile growing into a smirk. "How may I serve you?"
Lord Forgath Ironblood stood in the doorway for several moments, his gaze held by the pony on his bed. Slowly, he backed out, closed the door behind him, and left his apartments to seek a certain green pony.
A green pony who, it turns out, did not understand.
The minotaur stood in the center of the room. Of course, "stood" was a slightly generous term, as most of his weight was supported by pair of chains connected to thick shackles about his wrists. He could relieve the weight on his wrists by stretching himself upward while standing as high on his hooves as he could, but otherwise he hung there. He was a large bull, well-muscled and well-built, decidedly top-heavy. His fur was natively a shaggy grey, but recent events had left it scored with bits of ash and dust and detritus. It carried streaks of white and gray, and the occasional blotch of vital pink.
He was not a happy bull, and he wore his discomfort in a glare. He had been captured several miles further north when he and his compatriots had been set upon by the guard of Ironforge. The others escaped; he did not. He knew their mission was not yet in jeopardy; that was some solace at least. They would still have the last laugh against this dark lord.
As if summoned by his thoughts themselves, the door to the room swung open and Forgath entered. His cloak billowed out behind him, framing the rest of his figure in the deep royal violet of its underside. With each step, a clink of metal upon stone. His eyes glowed red behind his visor, but the Minotaur met his gaze. He did not flinch; he must be strong.
The two stared each other down, the Dark Lord with crossed arms, the Minotaur with arms bound upward. Forgath was the first to break the glare, turning and striding over to a wooden table set up against the wall of the room. He examined several implements set upon it - the straight iron poker with a cruel hook, a lash with 3 weighted tips, a plunger of standard issue, and more. The lord made a show of examining each item in turn, turning them about in gauntleted hands. Apparently satisfied, he strode back over to stand before the captive.
"What is your name?" The questions began simply; they always did.
"Stark Contrast, and that's all you will get from me, monster." The bull's eyes narrowed.
"But you have told me so much already. I know you were sent by the forces of Crete. I know you are here to scout. And I know the others are still out there. You will reveal to me their location."
"I will do no such thing."
"You will, if you do not want to know the depths of my fury."
"Put it in a jug and spit in it, and it will then be worth the spit."
Forgath narrowed his eyes behind his helmet and moved a step closer, lifting a hand that begins to shimmer with whips of dark fire. "You know, I think I shall start with the horns; I could use a new goblet."
"Try it; you'll choke on anything you drink from them."
"Yes, you are a brave one. We'll see if that last as I hollow them out while they're still attached. The smell will be awful, and that's truly saying something."
The bull's eyes widened just enough for Forgath to notice, but he steeled his gaze soon after. "Any torture you do upon me just proves our cause just."
"Oh, spare me. You're a scouting force from a nation hoping to lay claim to the lands of another under a pretense of 'liberation'. If your higher-ups convinced you of justice you're both gullible and bullheaded." Forgath cocked his head for a second in consideration. "Well, more than is apparent."
"Your monstrous deeds speak for themselves."
He lifted his hand, the flames around it burning brighter. "And yet you'll be the one talking."
Just as he was moving it forwards towards a horn that jerked away from the oncoming heat, a loud rap on the door sounded. Forgath paused, speaking without looking away from the bull. "Enter."
The door opened and the face of one of his guards, an orange crystal pony, poked inward. "Lord Forgath, you are needed in the magical wing; something has gone wrong."
Forgath continued to watch the bull lean his head away from the burning hand, but he still replied. "Is it urgent?"
"Yes, Lord; one of the other captives has...responded poorly to treatment."
The flames dancing along his gauntlet died off, and he turned, striding towards the door. "Very well. I suppose we will have to see to that first. He paused at the door, turning to glance over his shoulder at Stark Contrast. "Once I've dealt with your compatriot, I will deal with you. Guards, with me."
With that, the door slammed shut. Or tried, at least. Something about it must have been set improperly - bar, latch, or otherwise - for rather than closing it bounced off its frame, giving Stark Contrast a view of a sliver of hallway beyond.
The bull waited as the hoofsteps retreated down the hallway, waited until he couldn't hear them any longer, then began viciously pulling at his chains. He grunted, he strained, the tempting hint of freedom before him spurred him on...and yet no amount of flexing would pop a manacle, no degree of tugging would shear the chain. All his effort merely set him lightly swinging by his wrists. He closed his eyes and bellowed his fury, before sagging into panting, letting himself recover.
As his breath slowed and his eyes opened, he realized he was not alone. There was a little face in the doorway, poked into the room through the open sliver. It was a calf - a foal, he corrected himself - who couldn't be much more than a yearling. It drew back a little when it noticed him looking, but when he didn't do anything it began to creep closer. One little blue hoof entering the room, then another. It was a tiny little bat pony, one with a blue-green mane hanging half in her face. She crept closer, looking nervous and ready to bolt, while the bull gave her a quizzical look in turn.
"Hello?" The foal asked, still several lengths away from him and well out of reach. Not that he had much reach to speak of other than "up" at the moment.
"Hello, little one. What are you doing here?"
She fidgeted a little, wings fanning nervously as she spoke, the sound lightly muffled by her shoulder. "...I got lost..."
She moved her head from her shoulder to look up at him. "What's your name?"
He blinked, but saw no harm in answering. "I am Auroch Stark Contrast. And who might you be?"
He smiled gently. No need to terrify a foal with his mighty presence. "It's nice to meet you, Shady."
"Why're you hanging there?"
Stark had to resist the urge to snort. "I was captured by Lord Ironblood."
The filly gasped. "Why'd he capture you?"
"Because he is an evil tyrant, ever working to maintain his grip on your people."
"He is?" She looked up with wide eyes.
"He is." The bull nodded, as certain as any could be.
"Oh. And you were gonna stop him from bein' an eye-rent?"
"Tyrant, and yes, we will stop him."
"My men and I. We came on behalf of Crete - that's the land I come from."
"Oooh, what's it like?"
"It's a series of islands; warm, without being hot, cooled by the sea breezes, in the Marediteranian. Olives grow in abundance, and red poppies and orchids of many colors - flowers, little one - rise up in the meadows. Even the rocky crags sprout snake lilies and edible cacti. And in the midst of this beauty, we have built cities and docks and labyrinths."
"That sounds really nice! It's cold here."
He chuckled softly. "Yes, I have noticed. My bulls were unused to it; the mountain passes are far colder than this city."
"Your bulls? Do you have an army? Are you a general?"
He smiled softly down at her. "No; I am an Auroch. It's not a high rank but not a low one either; I can lead many, or squads of the elite. And this time, it was the latter."
"The second; I came with an elite squad. We are taking stock."
"Oooh, you're scouting! Ironforge has scouts too!"
"That they do."
"...Did your friends get caught too? Are they in here with you?"
He chuckled at the concern on her face, shaking his head. "No. Ponies under Ironblood's thrall attacked our camp, but my bulls escaped with their gear and supplies."
"Then why are you here?"
"I was the last one to hold the pass we used as a retreat. I was captured so my bulls could go free."
"You're a hero!" She looked up at him with a measure of awe.
He stood a little straighter - or much as one could while suspended by their wrists. "That I am."
"Lord Ironblood says heroes usually make stupid mistakes and get killed."
The bull did snort at that, causing the filly to pull back a little. "That is because he fears heroes."
"As he should be. My bulls will rally at the backup positions and the mission will continue. We already know much of the land surrounding the city, and our hoplites will soon march. He will be cast down, and we will restore freedom to you and your people."
"Really?" She looked up with hopeful eyes.
"Yes." He smiled with pride. This was a temporary setback, he reminded himself. Their cause was just, and the ponies would be freed.
"B'what if it doesn't?"
The bull blinked. "What if what doesn't?"
"Th' scouts; what if they don't win? They're waaay up in the mountains; what if they get too cold?"
The bull chuckled. "They have warm clothes, blankets, and firewood. They will be fine."
"But what if they get hungry?"
"They have enough food to last the winter, much in hidden caches. They will be fine."
"What 'bout after the winter?"
"If their mission is not complete, they will be resupplied from Crete. There is plenty of shoreline along the east."
"But they don't have a leader anymore; what if they're dumb?"
Another snort, and a billowing laugh. "They're not so weak without me that they can't complete the mission; I trust each of them with my life, and my second - a bull named Shield Wall - will guide them to victory."
The filly nodded. "What about you? Are they gonna rescue you?"
He shook his head sadly. "No. I am here until I am spent or until the city is free; my bulls will not risk the mission to come for me."
"Then how're you gonna get out?"
The bull considered it, a frown stretching his face as he was brought back to the present. His wrists ached. He cast his gaze around the room for a moment, before settling his eyes on the filly. "Mmmm...I will think of something. Perhaps with the help of pony friends."
The filly perked up, her wings fluttering. "Ooh! Ooh! Can I help!?"
The bull glanced up at the doorway for another moment, before leaning his head down as far as his neck would reach (which wasn't all that far, as he didn't have much in the way of neck). "Would you like to?"
"You serve in the tower?"
"Daddy lives here!"
"Good. There is something you could do for me."
"What is it?" She was practically bouncing on her hooves by now.
"Listen carefully. Go to the eatery known as the Prickle Berry; look for a mare wearing a green shirt. Go up to her and say 'What do you think of the weather?' If she's the right one, she will say 'It's warm enough.' Then, you say to her 'I wouldn't mind more heat'. She'll take you somewhere you can talk safely with her; tell her what you know, and she'll help.
"Okay! 'What d'you think of the weather?' and 'I wouldn't mind more heat'! Got it!"
"Now go; hurry, and don't get caught."
"Okay! Byebye, Mr. Contest."
He opened his mouth to correct her, but she was already bolting from the room. She pushed the door shut behind her, where it closed with a soft click. The bull chuckled to himself, and a grin broke over his features. Perhaps all was not yet lost.
The filly bolted down the hallway, little hooves tap-tap-tapping away, until she rounded a corner and skidded right into the armored leg of Forgath Ironblood himself. Her gaze slowly rose up along his form, up and up, until she was looking right at his eyes with her ears folded back. He stared down at the adorable foal for a moment, waiting until she'd scooted herself back off of his boot, before reaching down to lay hands upon the filly.
Scooping her up with both hands, he lifted her high above his head - promptly getting a squeal of joy from Shady. He gave her a little bounce in the air as chuckles bubbled up from within his helmet, her little batty wings fluttering and flapping as he 'flew' her this way and that in the air.
"Who's my cute little good cop? Who's my adorable little good cop?"
She giggled and wiggled in his grip, her legs flailing at the air as his fingers tickles at her sides. "I am! I am!"
In a gentle motion he flipped her over and swept her into the crook of an arm, cradling her there and poking her belly with an armored fingertip. "That's right! You are! And you did such a good job; I'm very proud of you!"