Prologue: The Third Era and My Place In It
My story begins many years ago, back in the third era. Specifically, the end of the third era, but more about that later. To start with, my name is Cavalier. Supposed to be a family name, or something like that. I never did find out the story behind it. I was the grey unicorn colt of a well-to-do merchant-noble in the imperial city of Canterlot, and as such I had the benefit of a comfortable upbringing. At the time, that was as uncommon as it was useful. While all around me ponies toiled day-long for just a few bits, I was getting an education, learning the history of Equestria and practicing swordplay, among many other things. I was pretty good at it all, too. In fact, I was perfect for a leadership position pretty much anywhere, whether in the aristocracy or with the Imperial Guardsponies; I guess that’s why my cutie mark was a torch, as a symbol of leadership. Everypony would go on and on about how I was going to be highly successful, wealthy, and all the rest of it.
And I hated it.
I hated the pretentious, stuck-up idiots that they were; that they expected me to be. Suffering and misery surrounded them, and all they did was go on about how successful I was going to be. By Celestia, it was enough to drive me mad - or away, as the case was. I fled, travelling far away from Canterlot, exploring Equestria and taking up a career in adventuring; delving ruins for artifacts, recovering lost items, that sort of thing. That was good, honest work; in fact, those were some of the happiest days of my life. Of course, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon shadier lines of work. Sure, most of it was perfectly legal and safe, but there were exceptions. On one occasion, I was escorting a smuggled shipment of moon sugar, an illegal narcotic substance which can be used to make the drug ‘skooma’. I saw nothing wrong with the ethics of it; I mean, if somepony didn’t have skooma they’d just be addicted to some other drug, right?
Anyway, I had done this run several times before; I was cocky, convinced that nopony could find my discrete path that led from the arid lands of Elsmayr, past the border of Equestria and to the squalid town of Braevil, so named due its founding around an orchard that grew Braeburn apples. Centuries ago, floods ruined the orchards beyond repair; the town lost its main source of commerce, spiralling into an economic slump. It never recovered properly, and became a town of lowlifes and criminal dealings. Which is why I was escorting that cargo to the skooma-smuggling ring of Braevil, the most extensive in all of Equestria. I say ‘was’ because we had barely crossed the border when we were sprung by an ambush of Imperial Guardsponies; I hadn’t done any advance scouting this time because I was overconfident, as I said earlier.
So, that’s how I got captured. They took me to the prisons at Canterlot; my greatest fear was that I would be seen and recognised by somepony who knew me. I needn’t have worried, for I soon learned that I wouldn’t be in prison for long. The penalty for dealing in skooma and moon sugar was death. Funny, that; I’d never thought to even ask.
And that’s really where this story begins; with me rotting in a dank and dismal cell, waiting for my execution. Of course, as my mother always used to say; every end is just another beginning.
Chapter One: Horseapples, What Was That?
Cold, dark, miserable.
They were the three words that I’d use to describe my cell. Green, oozing moss sprouted from the dank grey walls of stone, the only touch of colour in a depressing sea of blandness. I sighed, falling sideways onto the mean patch of mangy hay that was my bed. It hurt to hit the hard stone floor, but I didn’t care.
I’d been in this cell for a day or so now; it surely wouldn’t be long before I was dragged off for my execution. That got me thinking about my life, and I began reminiscing about my days as a colt. At least, until my world was shaken by an enormous explosion that sent me flying into the opposite wall; not gently, either.
“Flamin’ Celestia-damned HORSEAPPLES!” I cried, none too gracefully. “What in the hay was that!” When my ears stopped ringing and my eyes began to refocus, I started to realise my situation. In the distance, I heard whinnies and cries, and distinctly one voice yelling; “ASSASSINS!”
Assassins? Who was being assassinated? Not that I cared, really, because right in front of me was perhaps the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. “By Celestia...” I whispered, staring at the gaping hole in the wall that led into the darkness of the night. I shot upright, grimacing with pain as I placed one hoof in front of the other, trying to ignore my severely bruised limbs. I made it to the hole, which was roughly the size of a grown stallion and about as high as my head, or ground level outside; they made the prisons slightly subterranean so as to make them as uncomfortable as possible. I had a fairly cushy one, in fact; just below ground level. And was I lucky for it, because here in front of me was my ticket to freedom!
Suppressing cackles of joy, I lifted my front hooves through the hole and hoisted myself up, battered forelegs crying out in pain. With a gasp, I pulled my body through, and rolled upright. The night was dark, alright; I could barely see anything, barring torches placed along the walls and the occasional flare of - wait, what was that? I peered at the bursts of flaming light that streaked through the air. Recoiling with a gasp, I realised that it was forbidden blackfire, an ancient magic prohibited in use by just about everypony because of its incredibly dangerous power. I had thought that nopony knew it anymore; that it had been forgotten and thus made safe. Well, apparently not; and here was the proof.
So what in the hay was going on, then? Everything pointed to something bad happening alright, and I didn’t want to get caught in somepony else’s fight. I hightailed it right outta there, across the greens where normally I would have seen some guardspony patrolling; I didn’t stop to think as to why they weren’t. I just kept galloping, out of the city and until I reached the river surrounding Canterlot; once there, I proceeded to swim for all I was worth. It was a struggle, but I pulled up on the far shore, exhausted, battered and hungry. I barely made it to a nearby hedgerow before collapsing into an unconscious heap.
----- ----- -----
Daylight broke over my face, causing me to grunt and stir. It took me a few disorientated seconds to remember where I was, causing me to shoot upright in shock, only to regret it when my forelegs gave way underneath me, and I fell forward in a crumpled heap. I still ached all over; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the knock I’d taken back in my cell had broken a bone or two. Carefully, I placed my hooves and straightened myself upright; only to find myself looking into the eyes of a dark green pegasus. I almost fell back again in surprise.
“You- buh- who...” I trailed off, looking desperately around for a clue. Only then did I notice that behind the pegasus and her smug smirk stood a white unicorn, absent-mindedly scuffing at a leaf with his hoof, and a solid-looking brown earth pony carrying a rough length of metal in his mouth.
The pegasus chuckled; “What’s the matter? Lost for words? Let me fill you in, then. We broke out of the prison last night in the confusion. I presume, by the looks of things, that you did too,” she added, nodding at the iron manacles around each of my hind legs, thankfully not joined. I hadn’t thought about that at the time; had a chain been locked between them, I would have been one dead pony if I’d tried to swim across the river.
“Uh, yeah. Something like that.” I quickly muttered, not sure what these ponies wanted; how did I know they weren’t here to bring me back? That earth pony looked as though he knew how to use his shiv. I must have given away my fear, because he stepped forward and spoke, carefully enunciating around the metal in his mouth.
“We ain’t here to harm ya, a’ight? We’re just what she says; escapees.” I breathed a sigh of relief; he seemed sincere enough. It was the best I had to go on.
“Well then... What do you want?” I tried, trying to sound confident and failing as my voice wavered.
“What do we want? We don’t want anything, exactly. I just thought I might extend an invitation to you.”
“An invitation? What do you mean?” I was getting more and more confused, my dazed mind trying to make sense of things.
She rolled her eyes, snorting; “By Celestia, you are a thick one. What I mean is that you’re welcome to travel with us; we’ve decided to stick together, increase our chances of survival and all that.”
Understanding washed over me like floodgates bursting open. “Ohhhh, right, I get you now. Well, sure, I guess. I don’t see what else I can do... My picture’s probably all over wanted posters everywhere now, what with me being a fugitive.” With that, the white unicorn began to giggle softly. “Uh... Something funny?” I ventured.
With a deep breath, he launched into a flurry of excited speech; “Don’t be so full of yourself, is all! Do you understand the scale of what happened at the imperial prison last night? At least half of those incarcerated fled, that’s for sure! Not to mention that everypony is preoccupied with the rest of the events at hand. All in all, the Empire simply doesn’t have the resources right now to be on the lookout for minor criminals such as ourselves. We are, more or less, free to do as we wish, so long as we remain inconspicuous.”
I struggled to process his torrent of information; “Uh, right, yeah. Sounds good.”
The pegasus shook her head, sighing; “While our friend here can be a little... long-winded at times, what he says is true. There are plenty of ponies that escaped last night. We’re just several among what is possibly hundreds of fugitives. That, and the other complications, mean that we’re probably pretty low priority for the time being. So, we need to keep it that way; no need to bring imperial wrath on us for no reason.”
I smiled; “Thanks for the translation. Oh, the name’s...” Hesitating slightly, I contemplated giving them the false name I had used for years since I fled Canterlot for the first time, Arken; but then I settled on my birth name. I have no idea why I chose to, just that it felt right. “Cavalier. My name’s Cavalier.”
She nodded respectfully; “And I’m Swift; this here’s Brash,” she gestured to the earth pony, “And this is Silenus,” nodding at the white unicorn, “But I’ve taken to calling him Sil.”
“Well, uh... Nice to meet you I guess. But we should, uh, get going or something. Don’t wanna hang around Canterlot too long. We’ll look suspicious. I suggest we make for some other town, where we can fit in, maybe find some work... I was a freelancer before I got arrested. I know where we could get a job or two, earn enough bits to figure out our next course of action. How’s that sound?”
“My father always told me to follow the torch borne by our leaders,” Swift said with a chuckle.
“Eh?” I was back to being confused. Couldn’t these damned ponies make sense for once?
“Your mark. With the torch. I presumed that it showed that you were a natural leader; and you’ve just proven it, by giving us a course of action. Without even asking us if we needed one, I might add.”
“Oh!” Blushing, I realised with a start that I had probably assumed too much of myself with these ponies that I barely knew.
“Don’t worry. Swift’s teasing ya,” snorted Brash. “We didn’t have no plan. And feel free to come up with more, too. Trust me, she ain’t much of a leader; ‘course, she’d never admit that.”
“HEY!” Swift spun around, fixing Brash with a fierce look. “I may not have the best ideas, but at least I have ideas!”
I had had enough. “Alright, alright! Just... let’s go, okay? If we head off now, we could make it to Braevil by nightfall.” Thankfully, everyone seemed to agree, and any grievances seemed to be put off as we prepared to set off for Braevil. Not that we had much to prepare; it wasn’t like we had much while we were in prison. Not even food; I was getting hungrier and hungrier the longer we waited. If I didn’t get food soon, I felt sure I would starve.
It didn’t take long to get ready, and we began to make our way cross-country in the direction of Braevil. As we walked, I decided to break the silence; “So, then. I guess we should get to know each other.”
----- ----- -----
And so, I learnt all about my new friends. Swift was a pegasus born into a family of orchard workers, who worked hard in poor soil to grow what they could. She detested the work, and left when she was just a filly to find work elsewhere. After that, she was shunned by her family for deserting her duty there.
So, she was taken in by the local guild of thieves, and raised by them until she was no longer a filly. She got her cutie mark from that line of work, too; a lockpick. Not the most inconspicuous, sure, but apparently she could just pass it off by explaining that it meant she was good at finding secrets. The truth, of course, was that there wasn’t a lock that she couldn’t pick. She had become a valuable asset to the guild, and earned herself good money through her lockpicking skills. That all changed when she went for too grand a scheme, filching some noble’s prized artifacts. She had wound up in prison when the plan went astray, leaving her with a heavy sentence which she wouldn’t reveal to me.
Brash seemed hesitant to tell the rest of us about his colt-hood, but we coaxed him into it, and he gave us his entire life story in the end. He hadn’t known his father very well; he’d been ‘raised’ by his mother; which meant simply that she let him sleep in her house. She didn’t have much to do with him at all; he was forced to find his own way on the streets of Stablehal; which, admittedly, wasn’t a bad city. Still, there were times he’d had to fight for his food, and there were times when he was on the losing side of those fights. He grew up as a street tough, and that was reflected in the cutie mark he got after a particularly nasty hoof-to-hoof brawl; a gleaming blade. Strangely enough, he didn’t even own a blade of any kind up until then, but that made him think about his future; sort of. He joined a group of bandits, and ran with them for a while, honing his fighting skills further. It was never going to last, though, and sure enough he was caught eventually. He too was facing a death penalty when he escaped.
And Silenus... wouldn’t stop talking. It was hard to pick up much in what he said, but from what I gathered he was from a relatively wealthy family, and had had a comfortable upbringing, much like mine. But he hadn’t rebelled against his parents like I had. Well, not exactly. From what I gather, he was powerful in magic, particularly in his chosen field; which, as it turned out, was necromancy.
This was, however, not shown in his cutie mark, which was a quill. According to him, it was because of his highly studious nature; if something interested him in the slightest, he would do everything to research it entirely. However, he was very quick to explain to us that necromancy wasn’t just about “raising the dead, and other such ‘evil’ things”; or at least that’s what he told us. From what I gathered, he claimed that necromancy was simply the channeling of negative energies, the opposite of positive energies (such as those used to heal wounds). He was fascinated by these negative energies, and was determined to study them; however, what with necromancy being outlawed in Equestria, he found himself on the wrong side of the law, getting arrested and held in prison while his fate was decided. He didn’t wait to find out, though; he took his chances that night like the rest of us. He didn’t seem too fazed by the rough life of a wandering pony as I would have expected him to, coming out of his comfortable life in aristocracy as he did; but I think he was simply too preoccupied with his thoughts to really understand his situation.
And that’s what I learnt of my fellow travellers; they wanted to know my story too, of course, and I was obliged to tell them. I glazed over my aristocratic upbringing, though, explaining my life up until I fled Canterlot as ‘not important’. That raised a few eyebrows, but nopony said anything. I guess they probably all had a few things they hid from the rest as well. By the time I had finished telling of my exploits, dusk was soon approaching. We had been travelling almost non-stop since morning, and my hooves were killing me.
“Right,” I said authoritatively; “The only way to make Braevil tonight would be to press on for an hour or so of night. It could be dangerous; we’re relatively unarmed, and easy targets. Who knows what we might meet on the road. So, should we stay the night somewhere, or continue to Braevil?”
“Well, I’m right done in. Thinkin’ it’d be best if we stayed here f’the night,” drawled Brash with a yawn. I felt his fatigue, and soon I was fighting back a yawn of my own.
“Yes, I-” The yawn erupted from my throat. “Excuse me. As I was saying, I think it’s best we stopped for the night. I’m in no state to go much further, myself.” As if agreeing with me, my stomach rumbled violently. “Though, I could sure go for some food. I’m famished!”
“How about here?” called Swift from somewhere to our left. Ducking through some light foliage, we came upon Swift standing by a small alcove under a large boulder. By some chance, there was a small pile of non-perishable provisions here. Somepony who used this road frequently must have left this here in case they needed it; well, we needed it more right now, so I hoped they didn’t mind.
“Sounds like a plan. Dried apple, anyone?” I called, peering into the small basket of provisions that we had found.
----- ----- -----
Shortly after, we were settled under the rock, talking quietly amongst ourselves. We had nothing to light a fire with, so we were making do without one. We’d found just enough food in the supplies to sate us, and I at least was no longer feeling peckish at all. Rolling onto my back, I thought about all that had happened over the last day or two. Not long ago, I was contemplating my own death. And here I was now, saved from that death by some inexplicable chance, and with a group of people whom I considered, against all rationality and common sense, my friends. It seemed as though things were going strangely well for me. Was this some kind of sign, that I had some path to follow? Was this Celestia’s guidance? I wasn’t devoutly religious in the least, but it still seemed a possibility. Or maybe it was just freak chance, and as usual something horrible was about to happen to even it out.
I jumped to my hooves, startling everypony.
“Swift. Sil. You said something about ‘other events’ and ‘complications’. What’s going on?”
Chapter Two: Other Events And Complications
“You mean you didn’t realise anything about what was happening when you fled? How couldn’t you?” Sil seemed almost upset with my lack of insight.
“Well... I heard something about assassinations. And there were the explosions, and the... the blackfire, but that’s it.”
“Then, I suppose it falls to me to explain everything to you,” proclaimed Sil, placing one hoof to his chest and posing majestically. Swift groaned and rolled over, facing away from him. Shooting her a glare, he continued; “Yes, well; the assassination you heard about? I believe it was targeted at Empress Celestia herself.”
I gasped in shock at this point; I hadn’t even thought it possible to kill a mortal goddess such as Celestia. Well, not by just anypony at least.
“Surprising, isn’t it? But my logic seems to point towards that as the obvious solution. That, and the fact that it seems remarkably similar to the transcribed prediction of an Elder Scroll I read in a book when I was just a colt. It was old, sure, and the source unreliable; but it’s just too much of a coincidence. The blackfire you saw, and those explosions; I believe they were caused by supporters of some cult. I don’t know what cult, exactly, and neither am I entirely sure of this theory, but it makes sense. Who else would know such a powerful, forbidden destruction magic like that but a cult; dedicated to the old gods, perhaps?”
I thought about all this. “But... The Empress, she’s a goddess, isn’t she? You can’t just kill a goddess.”
“Well, ostensibly; but what if they’d found a way to do so?”
Sighing, I lay down again. This was all a lot to think about. The whole empire thrived on the well-being of its Empress; it was an empire after all, for the love of Celestia! Who knew what would happen if it was true? If it was true. “I don’t know... I still say it can’t be done.”
“Suit yourself. Believe what you will.” And with that, Sil rolled away too. No-one talked now; I could hear Brash snoring gently. I was alone with my turbulent thoughts. And I had plenty of those, Celestia damn it.
----- ----- -----
“Alright, I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought about that.” We were outside Braevil, some distance from the gates where we’d be unseen by any guards.
“You hadn’t thought that your little ‘bracelets’ would give you away? They’re prison shackles!” Swift was prodding at the shackles on my hind legs with a small piece of metal.
“Well, they don’t have any chain between them, do they? Heck, they do look like bracelets or something now that you mention it. I could tell ponies that that’s what they are.”
There was a pop, and the iron clasp on my right hind leg came free. “There! Now hold still, I’ll get the other. I know how they work know.”
I stretched my leg gratefully; Luna, it felt good to not have that lump of metal stuck to my foot again. The other shackle fell off as Swift finished her work, and we continued on.
We approached the gates cautiously, trying to appear inconspicuous. I get the impression we failed, because we got some funny looks, but the ponies on guard were either too lazy or didn’t care; they simply let us trot on past. Once inside, I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding. “Well, that seemed easy. How we got into looking as we are... it says something about Braevil, eh?” A mare who’d been coming in the opposite direction snorted a snooty “Hmph!” loudly at this before continuing past, causing us to snicker with laughter.
“Oh, Celestia, that’s too much. Somepony sticking up for Braevil... Snrrrt!” Silenus began shaking with laughter, and had to stop to lean against a small stone wall for support. Once we’d all calmed down a little, I tried to remember what we were doing.
“Oh, right, we should go see that pony who I said might have a job for us. Did I mention that? I think I mentioned that. Heh...”
I led the others along the muddy path through town, between buildings ranging from stacked wooden shack-like buildings, to small stone cottages, to commerce districts with shops on the ground floor and houses above. The entire town seemed pretty destitute as a whole. Beggars could be seen on most street corners; some had legs missing even; others were just down on their luck. It was pretty depressing; sights such as these were part of what had convinced me to run away when I was a colt. I just couldn’t bear to see suffering like it while others lived in luxury.
I was lost in my thoughts when we came to our destination, and it was down to luck that I didn’t accidentally walk past it. It was easy to miss; just another wooden shack, somehow seeming to blend in even more than the others around it.
“This is it,” I announced. “Follow my lead.”
“Here? But it’s so... normal.” Silenus seemed confused.
“You’ll understand. Come on.” I pushed the door open, which made a noise like it was about to splinter, and entered. The room in front of me looked just as Silenus had described; normal. A rough cot, a small wooden chair and table and a fireplace were the only major furnishings to be seen. Another door led further into the shack.
With a grin, I called out to the empty room; “You can come out, Quiver.”
The three ponies behind me recoiled in shock as a dusty beige unicorn seemingly appeared in the chair, grinning. “Ah, almost gotcha though didn’t I? Anyway, what’re you doin’ here? Last I heard, you were done for smugglin’ skooma. And who’re them ponies?”
I gestured behind me; “This is Swift, Brash and Silenus. They’re some ponies I’m travelling with.” Turning around, I addressed them. “Quiver here’s speciality is camouflage and invisibility magic. That’s why the house seems so... uninteresting.”
“Don’t want nosy guardsponies pokin’ their heads around ol’ Quiver’s hideout now, do I?” Quiver giggled to himself hysterically.
“No, I guess not. Speaking of which, that’s kinda what I’m here to talk with you about; you’re right in that I got done for smuggling. Moon sugar, though. I was about to be executed...”
Some time later, I had finished telling him all that had happened up until that point. He nodded sagely; “Yep, that makes sense. I heard ‘bout somethin’ happenin’ over at Canterlot; somethin’ bad. ‘Course, the authorities ain’t telling us horseapples. So no-one knows exactly what’s happened. And lemme guess; you want me to find y’all some work so that you and your friends can get back on your feet.”
“Well... yeah,” I coughed nervously. “For an old adventuring partner?”
Quiver waved one hoof dismissively, and a letter wafted over to me. “Sure, sure, whatever. Take this contract, then. It’s from a collector in town. Pretty simple job. I was gonna do it, but he sure as hay ain’t gonna mind, s’long as he gets his trinket.”
I brightened, and turned to leave. “Really? Thanks! You’re the best, Quiver; I might not hold you to that drink you owe me after all.”
He snorted, and his horn glowed as the door swung shut on us.
----- ----- -----
The contract took us well out of town, so Swift ‘found’ us some supplies - I didn’t ask questions - and we trekked out to the location. We ended up outside the door to some ancient underground ruin set in a hillside. The note from the collector said we should be looking for a very old statue; apparently, some claimed it to be from another era even. I didn’t know about that, but the sketch that was provided certainly looked foreign to me.
“I think this is the right place. Are we ready to do this?” I asked the other three. They nodded back. I pushed at the door; nothing happened. Frowning, I tried again; still nothing.
Shaking his head, Brash walked forward and pushed me aside with one hoof; “I’ll handle it, then.” He reared up, and brought his hooves down hard on the door. With a resounding CRACK it swung inwards, hanging loosely from the one hinge that remained intact. “See? Was that so hard?”
“Yeah, yeah; not all of us are built like draft horses,” I retorted as I approached the entrance and waited for the dust to settle. It was dark inside; I focused a bit of magic so that my horn glowed. It illuminated a long, narrow passage, the end of which I could not make out. “For the love of Celestia... How far does this bloody thing go!”
Single file, we entered carefully, peering at the strange architecture as we went. Sil was saying something about it and the ancient ponies that built it, but I wasn’t paying much attention.
Shortly, we came to a solid stone door; this one appeared to be locked with a heavy iron padlock. “Now, this is where I come in,” proclaimed Swift proudly, and she pulled the wire from her neck strap and began to prod at it. “Thish ish an eashy one!” she called back at us through clenched teeth. With a ping, the lock came unclasped and fell to the ground, rolling to one side. Swift bowed dramatically to us; “And that is how you pick a lock.”
I squeezed past her to the door; “No need to thank me or anything,” she muttered before watching me curiously as I attempted to listen through the stone.
“Yeah, thanks, Swift. Sounds okay to me through here. Uh... Would you mind doing this one too, Brash?” I asked, noting with distaste that this door again felt too firm under my hoof for me to open. I really needed to build some muscle mass. Brash stepped forward and delivered a powerful kick to the door from his hind legs. Freed of its padlock, the door scraped open with a groan.
Beyond lay a spacious hall, longer than it was wide, with a raised platform at the far end. In the very centre of this platform was a pedestal, upon which was a small, spiky structure of metal set with a glowing turquoise gemstone of some kind; it matched the sketch closely enough for me to assume that this was what we had come for. Faint squares of light shone from tiny grates in the ceiling, some distance up on the hillside above; the corridor we’d just travelled through must have been sloping slightly downwards, judging by the height of the grates. The light illuminated the dust stirred up by our entry; by the amount there was, I guessed we were probably the first ponies to come here for generations. This place was pretty far from the road, after all.
I made my way over to our prize; my hooves echoing hollowly on the stone floor. The place was still with the silence of death and decay; I didn’t really want to be in there any longer than I had to. Focusing another tendril of magic, I placed this one around the statue in a weak telekinetic spell. It lifted, then moved over to hover beside me. “Okay, that was pretty easy. Anything else to do here?”
Swift, Silenus, and Brash all agreed that it was probably best to leave; we began to move back to the corridor. “So, what do you reckon this place was for anyway?” I asked the others.
“Well, if you’d been listening to me earlier, I told you that it looked like a burial site,” Silenus sighed with a shake of his head. “Honestly... some ponies.”
I paused; “Wait. A burial site? So, there’s probably ponies buried in this chamber or something?”
“Buried? Oh, no. That wasn’t the way of the ponies who built this place. They made one big burial room like this deep in a hill, or underground, and put the ponies in those, then sealed them off to stop the dead coming back to haunt them.”
“To haunt them?” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. “And... did that ever happen?”
“What, come back from the dead or their own accord?” snorted Silenus. “Of course not. You don’t really believe in such superstition, do you?”
“I was an adventurer, Sil. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe if I told you. I just haven’t been in one of these burial sites before. Besides, how do you know it’s of their own will? Maybe there’s some magic on them or something.” I fixed him with a stern look to try and convince him of my expertise.
“Uh, I hate to interrupt you guys an’ all, but... what exactly is that behind ya?” Brash was pointing a hoof at the far wall, behind us. I spun to look; all along the walls of the room, blocks of stone were gratingly sliding out to reveal hidden compartments. That was never a good sight to see in a dungeon of any sort. But something was coming out of them...
“Princess-fucking-Luna! Skeleton-ponies! Let’s get outta here!” The skeletons began to clatter their way towards us, making strange clicking noises in their skeletal throats. We turned and fled for the door without hesitation. “Why didn’t you tell us about all this earlier, Sil?” I yelled.
“If you’ll remember for just one second, I did; but don’t worry, I’ve got these!” Silenus hadn’t turned to flee; he was standing facing the undead determinedly.
“Are you mad? Come on!” Silenus wasn’t going to last five seconds against those skeletons. He didn’t reply, but I noticed his horn beginning to glow.
Brash charged back to Silenus, yelling; “I got ‘im!” He had barely made it halfway there when the air around Silenus’ horn burst into a dark crackling fire. Black tendrils shot erratically from the flames, and a blast of the deepest purple erupted from him with an enormous crack of energy.
I was knocked well back by the shock wave that followed; I could barely see past my hooves! With some effort, I managed to stay upright. I had no idea what was happening elsewhere; my entire world was the stone beneath my hooves, the purple light that danced in my ears and the rumbling of the blast.
Chapter Three: The Element of Queens
“So then; feel like explaining any of that?” Whatever Silenus did had subsided, leaving the room much as it had been before but with the bones of the skeleton-ponies scattered across the floor, lifeless; he himself was crouched on the ground, groaning.
“I... told you that I had it... under control,” he managed to gasp. Shakily, he climbed to his hooves.
I supported him with one outstretched hoof as he straightened and stabilised himself. “Well, you had something alright; but what was that?”
He managed a weak smile. “Powerful reverse-conjuration. I sent the creatures who had been enchanted to possess the skeletons back to the plane they came from.” He tried to step forward, but stumbled and almost fell.
“Powerful or not, it sure took it out of you. Come on; gimme a hand here, Brash.” Together we held him straight so that he could walk without too much effort. “Let’s get back to Braevil.”
----- ----- -----
It was the next day at nightfall that found me lounging on my straw bed in a rented room at the Mare-y Inn in Braevil. I couldn’t stand cheesy names like that normally, but it was cheap and the rooms didn’t stink of vomit and stale cider; not too much, at least. We’d arrived back in town (Silenus making a full recovery within hours) and returned the item to the collector who paid us enough for 25 bits or so each and informed us that he’d be sending them to Canterlot; thankfully, we would be completely nameless as to our services. After that, we’d come there to think about what to do next. The others seemed interested in either finding somewhere to lay low until our names were clear or travelling to a foreign country and starting again; somewhere like Elsmayr.
Neither of those options really appealed to me; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I wanted to stick with them, though; they’d proven that they could handle trouble well enough, and that was a good thing to have in companions. I decided I’d sleep on it, and see whether things were a bit clearer the next day.
As it turns out, that was exactly the case.
That night, I was visited by a haunting dream; I floated in darkness, complete darkness. In front of me floated Empress Celestia; strangely faint and almost translucent. She glowed; a soft, radiant glow.
“Yes, you are the one, alright. It is good I have found you in time” Her voice echoed throughout the void, but her smile did not move, disturbingly.
“What? What do you mean - Empress?” I added haltingly, unsure as to whether it was proper to address a dream as ‘Empress’. “What did I do?”
She chuckled; again, the image before me was still. “Not what you have done; what you will do. The gods have charged me with this task, which I in turn must charge to you.”
“Me?” I asked disbelievingly. “No offense, but - why? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Honestly? No.” Well, that was reassuring. “But I cannot explain these strange workings; simply that the circumstances are such that you are the only pony who I can trust to do this.”
Trust? That was almost laughable; I had just escaped from prison on serious charges. “Do not worry about that. It matters not what you have done; that is not what you will be remembered for.” So, she could read my thoughts, apparently.
“Then... What do I need to do? Kill somepony? Lead an army?”
Another laugh from the Empress. “Oh, no; nothing like that at all. The task I ask of you is - should be - simple. You have heard of the seventh Element, the Element of Queens?” I nodded, pleased that my meagre knowledge was finally good for something. “Excellent. You’ll know then that it is worn by the line of Empresses that I come from. I wish I had the time to tell you more, but I cannot remain much longer; you must stand alone against the Prince of Darkness. She must not have the Element! Take it. Give it to Brother Hoof, at the priory outside of Corral. He alone knows where to find Princess Luna; she is our last hope. Find her, and close shut the jaws of oblivion.” She began to fade, becoming almost transparent.
I was utterly confused. “Wait! What do you mean? Who is the ‘Prince of Darkness’? I - I don’t understand!”
The Empress just winked - winked! - at me. “My time has come. I go now to ascend from this mortal plane. Remember; the fate of our world rests in you.” She flickered one last time, then disappeared completely, leaving me in the emptiness of the black void, alone.
I didn’t continue to float. Somehow, I knew that I was now falling. The darkness around me began to glow red; bloody spikes thrusted out of nowhere. The light grew in intensity; I felt heat from somewhere. I was falling faster now, wanting to cry out and scream, but not being able to. The spikes began to blur past.
I realised with repulsion that the bodies of mutilated ponies were skewered on them, dripping sanguine blood. Eyeless sockets stared out at me, dismembered limbs grasped for me; I finally managed to let out a full-throated scream of terror.
“You cannot stand against me.” A rumbling, disembodied voice could be heard, as though directly speaking to my mind. “You will fail. You will fall. Behold; your fate!” The voice laughed wickedly, and I noticed in shock that below me was some kind of spiked floor, already bloody with disfigured pony corpses. I was approaching it - fast. No! This couldn’t be right! This was a dream! This was a -
“DREAM!” I yelled, bolting upright. I clamped a hoof over my muzzle. I was back in the Mare-y Inn; I hoped that nopony had heard me. The dream was still vivid in my mind; its horrors still haunted me. Was I really speaking with Empress Celestia? If it had been a true vision - I sincerely hoped that it wasn’t - then she was dead, and she’d ascended to another plane to become a full goddess. Not to mention all that she had told me; who was the ‘Prince of Darkness’, and why did I need to keep the Element from her? That was another point, why was the Prince of Darkness a mare? Not to mention that I didn’t even have the Element of Queens in the first place, so how could I protect it!
That settled it; I didn’t have the Element, so even if it was a true vision there was nothing I could do about it. I rolled onto my side, satisfied. There was something cold and smooth underneath me; that was unexpected. I fished about for it with my hooves. It felt like metal; probably some bits that I spilt while thrashing about in my dream. I tried to peer at what I was holding; funny, in the poor light it looked like some kind of amulet. In fact, it looked like the Element of-
Oh Celestia, NO! I flung whatever it was at the far wall. It couldn’t be the Element! How could it? There had to be a logical explanation as to why an amulet was in my bed!
I took a deep breath; I had to be sure. If it really was the Element of Queens... I crept over and picked it up in one hoof, holding it to the faint moonlight. I recognised it instantly from pictures I’d seen. Stunned, I sat down subconsciously. If this was the Element, then the ‘dream’ must have been real too; it must have really been Celestia! Everything must have been true; and that meant the world was in trouble! Think, Cavalier; what did she tell you to do?
I had the Element; she wanted me to take it to this ‘Brother Hoof’ at the priory outside of Corral, right? He could tell me where to find Princess Luna, and once I got the Element to her I was done. Maybe I’d even get my name cleared! But more importantly, that would be the end of it. There’d be no more of this weird dream business. That was all I’d have to do; I just had to do it...
----- ----- ----
I had to make the tough decision to leave my friends behind; I didn’t want to do it, but somehow I knew that even if they did believe me, they couldn’t help me here. Celestia’s exact wording was that I ‘must stand alone against the Prince of Darkness’. Besides, I’d be done before long, and I could just return to them after I’d finished. So, I snuck out of Braevil in the early hours before dawn.
The other thought I had was that if the first part of the dream was true, then the second part... it didn’t bear thinking about. But, if that was a glimpse of what would happen were I to fail - the thought made me determined to succeed. I couldn’t let that happen.
Corral itself was a fair distance from Braevil; several days of travel by hoof. I got there without much trouble, rationing my food and sparingly buying more with the few bits I had. It was an average sort of town; much better than a dump like Braevil. It wasn’t my destination, though. I was heading to the small collection of buildings on a hill just outside the city walls; Corral Priory. It seemed pretty ridiculous to put a place of solitude just outside a city, but hey; some ponies are strange like that.
As I got closer, I saw ponies moving about around the buildings; I guessed that the larger structure was the living quarters, and made my way to it, hoping to ask about ‘Brother Hoof’. The Element was safely tucked into a saddlebag I’d bought so that it didn’t draw attention.
I entered unchallenged. In front of me were stairs, and to the left was a living area. A monastic-looking pony looked up from a cauldron. “Yes? Can I help you?”
He too seemed unconcerned at my presence, even though I surely looked a bit suspicious and out of place. That’s how I felt, at least. “I must speak to Brother Hoof. Do you know where I might find him?”
Shrugging, he turned back to whatever was cooking. “He’s upstairs. Go ahead.”
I made my way up the stairs, which creaked at every step. At the top there were rooms to the left and right. I looked in the one on the left; beds. Must be a sleeping area. I tried the room on the right; inside was an elderly looking pony with grey hair behind a stack of books, reading something. Other than that, the room was bare except for some shelves and a chest. He hadn’t noticed me; I cleared my throat.
He glanced up from the book he was reading. “I’m Brother Hoof. What do you want?” Thank Celestia, I’d found him. Now came the tricky part.
“Well, see, Empress Celestia sent me to find you,” I explained, trying to sound as serious as I could.
It looked as though I’d attracted his attention, at least. He raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Empress Celestia? Do you know something about her death?”
Well, that confirmed what I already knew; she was dead. But how did he know if everyone else could but guess? “She... gave me the Element of Queens. To give to you.”
Now he was really paying attention. He laid the book down, carefully marking one corner. “You brought me the Element of Queens? I don’t believe it. Let me see it.” His expression told me that he would not pleased if I failed to present it, so I fished it from my bag and passed it to him. “By Celestia... This is the Element of Queens,” he whispered as though talking to himself.
He turned to regard me fully for the first time. “Who are you? How did you get the Element?” Then, more suspiciously; “What do you know about the Empress’ death?”
I launched into a retelling of my dream, and he listened, captivated. As I spoke, I realised how ridiculous my story sounded. He was going to think I murdered her and stole the Element! I finished my explanation, and he turned to look out the window in thought. Oh, Celestia, please believe me! I silently prayed
After what seemed like hours, he spoke. “As unlikely as your story sounds, I... believe you.” Thank Celestia for that! It was one less thing to worry about.
“Then, what can you tell me of what she said? Who is the ‘Prince of Darkness? And what does she mean by ‘close shut the jaws of Oblivion?” I asked eagerly, hoping to find some answers to the questions that had been plaguing my mind.
“The Prince of Darkness is the mare Nightmare Moon. She is one of the Daedric lords of Oblivion. The name is misleading, yes,” he added, reading the unasked question on my face. “All Daedric lords are known as Princes. ‘Close shut the jaws of Oblivion’... She must have expected this; perceived some threat from Nightmare Moon. But the mortal world is cut off from Oblivion by magical barriers.”
I was confused. “Then how can we be threatened by this ‘Nightmare Moon’ if she can’t get to us?”
Sadly, he shook his head. “I’m not sure. Only the Empress truly understood the magic involved. The Element is an ancient relic that can only be used by the line of Empresses. It was used by Celestia to light the Dragonfires; they must have shielded the mortal world from Oblivion. With the Empress dead, the Dragonfires will be unlit... it may be that this means that we are unprotected.”
I remembered something from the dream. “Empress Celestia asked me to find Princess Luna. Do you know where I might find her?”
With this, he sighed. “I am one of few who know the location of the Princess. The Empress put her into hiding many years ago; very few ponies about it. Perhaps she foresaw this coming, and wanted to protect her? Perhaps... perhaps she can wield the Element?”
He moved so that he could look me in the eye. “It’s worth a try. She lives in Kvatch, southwest of here, going by the name of Lunaris. You must go immediately, and find her. If the enemy is aware of her existence, she is in terrible danger.” He pointed one hoof at the chest by the wall. “Take what you need from there, and go. I will look after the Element. You must find her and bring her back, or the whole of Equestria will be in danger.”
“Alright, I’ll do it,” I agreed, nodding; it didn’t sound as though I had much of a choice. Then I had a look at the chest; I was surprised at its contents. “I can take any of this?” I asked disbelievingly.
Brother Hoof waved one hoof dismissively as he inspected the Element. “Take all of it, if you want. I’ve no use for it any more.” I turned back to the chest. Inside was some worn protective barding which consisted of iron buckles over some kind of padded material. Chances were that I could use it, or sell it if not, so I spent a minute or two pulling it on. With the aid of a tightening buckle, it fit snugly over my back, sides and upper arms and legs. Perfect! I might keep it after all.
I also found an old, slightly rusted sword. I put that in its sheath on the barding; might as well. Beyond that, there was also a few potions and tonics which looked useful. I put them in my saddlebags too. I was ready to go. Saying my goodbyes to Brother Hoof and the pony downstairs, I left the priory. On my way out, I looked to the city of Corral, tempted to stop there for a short while, perhaps get some drinks...
No. I needed to find the Princess, bring her back, and be done with all this. Then I could get those drinks. I set off for Kvatch, determined to be finished with this by the end of the next day.
----- ----- -----
This was not what I had expected. At all.
The town of Kvatch was no more. In its place, smouldering ruins of stone and wood stood. While many structures still could be made out, they were completely gutted; as though a great destructive fire had swept the place.
What disturbed me most was where the gates should have been; a huge arch of black spiky rock, angular corners jutting out harshly, with a glowing web of red-orange light within; a colour similar to that which I had experienced in my dream. It almost seemed to suck the life from the air around it, and it shot off occasional spluttering flames. I was so in awe of this monstrous thing that I didn’t even notice the collection of tents at the bottom of the hill that the city was located on.
Hurrying towards it, I hoped that there would be somepony who would explain just what was going on. I just hoped I could find Luna so I could get her back to the priory and away from... whatever had happened here!
The ponies in the camp looked in pretty bad shape; many had wounds and bloody gashes, while others just seemed to be wandering about aimlessly, as though they didn’t really know where to go. Or maybe they just didn’t care. I was barely amongst the tents when a terrified-looking blue pony tore out from behind a tent, barrelling straight into me. We tumbled to the ground, rolling down the hill a short ways. He poked his head up, staring at me with wide eyes, his mane in complete disarray.
“Come on! Run, while we still can! The Guard holds the road for now, but it’s only a matter of time before they’re overwhelmed!” With that, he jumped back to his hooves and made as if to gallop off again. I blocked his path and held his shoulder with one hoof.
“From what? Run from what?” I almost yelled, shaking him. I was desperate to know what was going on, and unfortunately I was taking it out on this poor pony.
He stared back disbelievingly. “Celestia’s blood, you don’t know? Daedra overran Kvatch! Last night! There were portals to Oblivion itself! There was a huge monster... something out of a nightmare... came over the walls... blasting fire! They swarmed around it... killing...” Now it was his turn to shake me by the shoulder. I struggled to piece together his fragmented sentences. A huge creature from Oblivion had destroyed the town?
“Surely the entire town can’t be destroyed?” I asked questioningly.
He just shook his head. “Go, then! See for yourself! Kvatch is a smoking ruin! We’re all that’s left, Celestia damn it! Everypony else is dead! The Captain of the Guard got us out safely, but they can’t hold the road! I know it! Nothing can stop them!” With that, he broke free of my grasp and galloped away from the camp. As he left, he cried; “They’ll be here any minute, I’m telling you; run, while you still can!”
I let him go. I couldn’t learn anything more from him. But what he’d told me was worrying enough; the town was as ruined as it looked, it seemed, and almost everyone was dead. Oh, Celestia! What about Princess Luna! I galloped on through the camp, earning a few looks of curiosity from strangers, though most were too miserable or preoccupied to even glance in my direction. I overheard mutters of dissent as I went; “How could Celestia let this happen?” “What have we done to deserve this?”
They had no idea what was really going on. It was probably better they didn’t, too. As I was running through the camp, looking for anyone I could ask questions, I realised I was heading towards the arch; which was of the Oblivion portals if that pony could be believed. The Guard Captain was supposed to be up there somewhere, right? Maybe he’d know something; I decided to go and question him.
However, as I was making my way up the path leading to the ruins of the town, I met an old pony dejectedly staring out at nothing. I couldn’t easily get past him, so I had to slow down to make my way around him as best as I could. I was almost through and off again when he spoke absent-mindedly, almost to himself; “Hope is lost; the Imperial line is dead. The Enemy has won.”
I stopped in my tracks; was he talking to me? “The Enemy? What are you talking about?”
He turned to regard me with tired, sad eyes; his cutie mark of Celestia’s sun, as well as the loose black robes draped over his back, identified him as a priest. “Nightmare Moon is the Enemy, the Prince of Darkness; the Daedra, her servants. The chapel has been cast down... my friends... all dead. The Enemy has won... and we are destroyed” He turned away again, leaving me to ponder his words. It sounded as though the creatures from Oblivion had killed all of the priests of the Kvatch chapel. That had to be bad for morale.
He might know something, though. It was worth trying. “Do you where Pr- Lunaris is? I must find her.”
Without moving, he spoke again. “Lunaris often helped out at the chapel. I... don’t think she made it out. Very few of us did. You might try Captain Savlius Matian. He might know more, for what good it will do you.” I thanked him, then galloped on even faster. It wasn’t looking good. If she was still in the town... I could only hope she was still alive.
Coming over the summit over the hill, I paused, gasping for breath. That had taken the wind out of me; I needed to recover before continuing. While waiting, I took stock of my surroundings. In front of me was the crumbling wall of the town, and the city gates torn from their giant hinges. In the place of the gateway and gatehouse, which had been completely destroyed, was the huge portal to Oblivion. Up close, it was terrifying. The colours seemed more intense, more evil, and it seemed to drain my will as I looked at it. I noticed with horror that the skies too were turning red and stormy, the colour of the gate, and rolling thunder could be heard distantly; the appearance of the portal must have caused some kind of weather disturbance.
I pressed on towards the wooden barricades that stood between me and the portal; more specifically, the ponies that guarded it. With shock, I noticed that there was a number of dead ponies littered in front of the portal, and only three standing by the barricade. They really were in trouble. Were they sacrificing their lives to buy time for the others to escape? One heard my approach and turned to face me, a fresh slash running along his jaw. I realised that all of them were armoured in chainmail; the one facing me and the other earth pony (who looked little older than a colt) also held swords in their mouths, while the pegasus mare had a bow slung over her back.
“Stand back, civilian!” cried the pony who had noticed me. “This is no place for you. Get back to the encampment at once!”
“Only if you tell me what’s happened here,” I replied, checking my weapon in its sheath.
With a snort, he shook his head slightly. “Fine. If you really want to know, we lost the damned city, that’s what happened! We’re all that’s left of the town guard; we were overwhelmed. We couldn’t even get everyone out; there are still people trapped in there, for Celestia’s sake. Some made it to chapel and barricaded themselves in, but others were just... run down in the streets. And now, we can’t even get back into the city to help them, with this Celestia-damned Oblivion gate blocking the way.”
In the chapel? That was where Lunaris was, right? There was a chance she was still alive! “What will you do now, then?”
He sighed. “The only thing we can do. We’re going to hold our ground, that’s what. If these- these beasts want to get past here, they’ll pay for it in their own blood! As Captain, I have to try and protect those that are left; it’s all I can do now!”
Damn. So they weren’t planning on getting back into the city. I had to, though, if that’s where Princess Luna was... “I’ll help. I need to save someone inside the chapel.” I regretted that the moment it came out of my mouth; what was I thinking? I’d be slaughtered!
He raised one eyebrow. “You’re kidding, right?” I wished that I was. “If you’re serious... I might have an idea. It could be dangerous, though.” Well, that was typical.
“I’ll... I’ll do what I can.” I sounded more confident than I felt. Why was I doing all this! I should be fleeing in the opposite direction, like that pony I’d met earlier, not trying to fight! Though, Celestia herself had set me this task... it wasn’t the sort of thing I could easily ignore.
“In that case, I don’t know exactly how to close this portal, but I know it can be done; the enemy closed the ones they opened during the initial attack. I sent some of my best Guardsponies in to try and find out how to close it; they haven’t come back. Get in there, and find out what happened to them. If they’re alive, help them finish the job. If not... see what you can do on your own.”
What was I getting myself into... “Alright. I’ll do it. Wish me luck?”
His reply was cut short by a demonic hiss; I spun to look at the source of the sound. A small, fiendish creature the height of my shoulder with sharp, pointed fangs waved a bony claw at me; what in Celestia’s name were these things? I’d never seen anything like it! Then, right in front of me, several more materialised from the portal - out of thin air!
I moved to pull my sword from its sheath, but before I’d even drawn it, an arrow shot past me, piercing the front one through the eye. It screeched and collapsed backwards, writhing, before disappearing in a cloud of ash and smoke. I turned to see the pegasus hovering with her bow held in her front hooves, already drawing another arrow back with her teeth. That explained the lack of corpses, too. “Scamps!” cried Captain Savlius. He glanced at me, then half-drew his sword, “Go. We’ll hold these ones here. You get in there and... do whatever you need to do. Celestia be with you!” He roared defiantly, and charged forward, blade clasped in his mouth.
I took the distraction, and charged forward, leaping into the portal. Oh Celestia, what did I do that for? I had barely enough time to regret jumping through before my world was dominated by the swirling reds and oranges. It felt as though they were pulling at me; I seemed to float, surrounded by those colours. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t do anything. I just hovered there for what seemed like hours when finally I felt an unseen force thrust me forward; I shot out of the other side of the portal-
- and into a completely different world. This was disturbingly similar to my dream. It took all my courage to not run straight back through. I was on a harsh, rocky island in a sea of lava. Dead grass and some red plants were the only vegetation I could see. In front of me, a huge stone bridge with brutal-looking red and black spikes led to another rocky landmass. The place was unbearably hot, and reeked of death. I very nearly emptied my stomach at the stench.
It took me a few minutes to steady myself enough to move about. When I was ready, I took a deep breath, beginning to trot across the bridge at a careful pace. I’d no idea what I’d face here.
But I knew I had to try. For the sake of everypony.