Brightblade Warpony

An Epic
Recorded by Clipper as dictated by the bard Ramon

Chapter 1

It was a mild autumn day in the hills north of Ponyland. Brightblade stood atop a high hill. The sun gleamed off the whorled horn of his war-helm. He felt a slight breeze in his mane, breathed deeply the fresh air, and remembered the last time he had stood atop this hill.

It had been spring, only five months earlier, but it seemed like an eternity. The weather had been similar, but the breeze was warmer, from the lowlands rather than the mountains. It had been on that spring day so long ago that Brightblade had first encountered the mysterious Epona. Brightblade had been enjoying a pleasant walk when a strange unicorn appeared, as if out of nowhere. Her coat was the color of sunlight and her main and tail were fiery red, much as Brightblade's own. On her rump was the image of a key.

"Good day!" Brightblade had greeted her. "I've not seen you here abouts before; what part of Ponyland do you hail from?"

The unicorn ignored his question. "Brave warpony!" she called playfully, "join me, won't you, on a grand quest!"

Brightblade answered in fun, "Surely maiden, but what manner of quest do you propose?"

"For a champion as dashing as yourself, only the grandest quest will do; you should slay the beast that threatens Ponyland." The last part was spoken with deadly seriousness.

Realizing that the stranger was not speaking of play, Brightblade inquired as to her name. She replied, "I am called Epona, and as you may have guessed, the quest I have proposed is all too real." Brightblade was too shocked to reply. Epona explained further. "Ponyland is in danger; I need your help to save it."

"M-me, but why?" was all Brightblade could manage to utter.

"You are a warrior, if not yet in action then in spirit. You alone among the ponies have the power to save Ponyland."

"But I'm no warrior! What could I do?"

"Come near and see." Epona touched her horn to a pool of water, all that remained of the morning's showers. As the ripples spread in ever increasing circles an image appeared.

Brightblade recognized the land as Ponyland, but it had changed; the sky was filled with dark clouds, the rivers and ponds were stagnant and green, the grass was brown. Thorn bushes choked out all other vegetation. Once open fields were crowded with row on row of dark mud-brick buildings; through the dark windows the glowing red eyes of the inhabitants could be seen darting about. The ponies Brightblade could recognize were in a similarly pathetic state as their land. Tex, thin and bony, pulled a heavily laden cart along a muddy path; others tread straw into mud for bricks.

"You asked what you could do, Warpony? You could prevent this."

Brightblade stared, spellbound, at the pool as the image faded. "W-what? How?"

"That was the future, or at least one possible future. The most probable future, if you do not partake the quest I have proposed."

Brightblade was silent for a time and when he spoke, he spoke softly, "Where am I in this future?"

"Do not ask a question unless you want to know the answer," Epona warned.

"Show me ... please."

"I cannot, unless - until - you have accepted the quest."

"If you show me, then I will accept your quest."

Epona hesitantly touched her horn to the water once again. Again the image appeared of a Ponyland cloaked in gloom. This time there were no mud-brick houses or hard-driven ponies, only a clearing in the thorns where the grass was still a little green. Brightblade recognized the place, it was a favorite spot of his to picnic, but there now stood a number of crosses carved from stone. Names were chiseled into the crosses: Sundance, Fizzy, Windwhistler, Firefly, and Brightblade. "G-graves," Brightblade stammered.

Epona nodded, "You have a warrior's spirit, and you will find it, now or later. Now you can make a difference; later it will be useless."

Brightblade was silent again, longer this time. When he spoke, it was with a sense of despair; "But how can I slay a monster that can destroy all of Ponyland?"

"You ask too many questions, Warpony." Epona's voice was less grave. "You have strong hooves." She reared and kicked at the air with forelegs. "Use your head." She fenced with her horn.

"But I haven't got a horn," Brightblade complained.

Epona paused a moment, "Oh? Then you'll have to get one."

"How can I get a horn? You've got to be born with them."

"Do you think I would have gone to all this trouble had I not prepared for such an obvious occurance? You will find your horn to the west, beyond the Valley of Thorns. There, in the temple of light, lies the Warrior's Horn. All you have to do is claim it. Once you have the horn, return to this place; then the true quest will begin."

Chapter 2

As Brightblade stood atop the hill, remembering, flame-maned Epona appeared as if out of nowhere. "Greetings Warpony, you have changed since we parted."

"In many ways."

"Are you ready for the quest?"

Brightblade nodded, "Where shall I find the beast?"

"Far away, but first tell me of your journey."

"Do we have time?"

"It is nearly dusk; we shall wait until dawn to begin the quest."

"Very well."

After we parted I went west, as you directed me. It took me more than two weeks to reach the Valley of Thorns. It was a dismal place. Though the valley was cut of from the surrounding countryside by a high stone wall, I could see through a wrought iron gate an arid land of brambles and ancient, gnarled trees. There was no sign if life save the circling vultures.

I was discouraged at first for the wall was too high for me to climb and the gate was securely locked. I decided to rest for a time and partake of the juicy apples that grew outside the valley. After a short nap I began to search the length of the wall for an open gate or other way through. I searched for the rest of the day and after a restless night resumed the search.

By afternoon of the second day the land became rough. This slowed my progress but offered me several opportunities to mount the wall from the numerous rocky outcrops which dotted this territory. Unfortunately, all I found beyond the beyond the wall was a sea of thorns; had I entered the valley at this point I would have been torn to shreds before any progress would have been made. Because I had seen a path through the thorns at the gate, the only gate I had encountered, I decided to turn back the next morning in hopes of finding a way to pass the gate.

A day and a half later I was back at the gate but could still find no way through. I even tried kicking it down but it was far too solid. As I studied the gate hoping to discover the secret to passing the portal I noticed some movement in the thorns. Out of the shadows of the bramble a white rat scampered. He slipped under the gate and darted toward an apple tree and disappeared into a hole among its roots. A moment later he reappeared.

"'ello'" he squeaked from the entrance to the hole. "You're making quite a racket banging on the gate like that. Y' might disturb the neighbors."

"Who are you?" I asked.

"I am Ramon," he replied. "Now would you mind explaining what you've got against that gate?"

"I need to get through the valley," I explained.

Ramon shook his head, "Nobody goes into the Valley of Thorns, not unless they know their way around, and even then they'd need an awfully good reason."

"I need to get through the valley; the future of all Ponyland depends on it!" I told him.

"Sounds like you've got a good reason," he replied, "Too bad you don't know your way."

"But you do," I said to the rat.

"And I suppose you want me to be your guide?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Sorry, I can't help you," he said. "I've never gone very far into the valley, just far enough to gather some medicinal mushrooms."

"Well I still need to get through and you know the valley better than I," I argued.

"That place is dangerous," Ramon replied, "We'd likely get ourselves killed; I just don't want to take such a risk."

"Well could you at least help me open this gate so I can get on with my quest?" I asked.

"You just won't give up, will you?" he asked in return.

"No," I replied.

Ramon sighed, "Very well, if you're determined to kill yourself I might as well come along to see that you get a proper burial."

I smiled, "Your help will be greatly appreciated, by all of Ponyland."

Ramon disappeared into his hole for a moment and reappeared with a twisted piece of bronze wire. He scampered over to the gate and swiftly climbed to the lock. After inspecting the lock for a moment he inserted the wire and began to carefully manipulate it with his forepaws. In less than a minute the lock was loosed and the gate swung open with an eery creak.

"Well," I said, "we should get moving."

"No," responded Ramon. "We should gather provisions and rest, it'll be dark soon."

The remainder of the day was spent gathering provisions. Ramon produced a large sack from his hole. We filled the sack with apples, mushrooms, and three clay jars sealed with corks and wax. One of the jars was decorated with geometric designs in brown, red, and black. Ramon told me that he thought it was filled with wine. The other two were filled with water he had melted from snow last winter.

After a good nights rest we set out into the Valley of Thorns.

Chapter 3

Brightblade Warpony and flame-maned Epona stood atop the hill. As the day wore on, Brightblade continued his narration.

The sun was barely above the horizon when Ramon and I set out into the valley and Ramon re-locked the gate. I carried the sack of provisions by a strap about my neck; Ramon was perched atop my head. Beyond the gate, we found a wide dusty path between walls of thorns. The thorn bushes seemed dead and leafless at first; then I realized that they were in fact covered in small pointed leaves that were almost brown in color and blended in very well with the bark of the plants. In fact, everything in the valley was brown, what little there was: thorn bushes, occasional trees, the dusty path, even the sun seemed brown through the dust kicked up by my hooves.

Neither of us talked much; in the valley there wasn't that much to talk about. It was about mid-morning when Ramon spoke. "At the rate we're moving, we'll be out of familiar terrain by noon. I estimate two days after that we'll reach the far side, if we last that long."

"I don't see why you're so worried," I replied. "This place doesn't seem so bad."

"It will," Ramon said, somberly.

As the day wore on, I began to understand Ramon's apprehensions. The path became more and more rocky. By the time the sun set, the path was bare, red-brown bedrock. I still do not know how those thorns continued to grow so well without soil.

After dark it got worse. Ramon and I gathered some twigs and started a small fire in the middle of the path, so as not to set the whole valley ablaze. Once we got the fire burning I found myself wishing that we had not lit it, though Ramon assured me that it was preferable to darkness. The flickering of the fire, made worse by the cold wind which had picked up, cast shifting shadows amidst the thorns. I could not tell if the motions I saw at the edge of the light were simply the shadows or something else.

By morning the wind had brought cold, dark clouds. Dawn was little better than night, but we had to leave our little fire and move on. As we carried along I heard movement in the thorns, as if something was following us. I hoped that the fear was more imagined than not. I asked my guide, "What do you know of the inhabitants of this valley?"

Ramon replied, "Well, they're smaller than ponies and less civilized than rats."

"They must be total savages," I joked in hopes of lightening the mood.

"I resent that!" Ramon huffed.

"It was supposed to be a joke," I explained. "Sorry, I'm just nervous; those things,"I gestured in the direction of the brambles, "have got me spooked."

"Me too," replied Ramon. "I've never seen one of them but I've heard them chanting beyond the wall at night. Never seen any sign of activity during the day, until now that is."

"At least they don't seem aggressive; not at the moment anyway."

"They don't like the light. With all these clouds it'll get dark early, we won't be able to make a lot of progress today." It was already afternoon.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the center of the valley. We found ourselves standing on the brink of a chasm, the bottom of which was out of sight in the rapidly fading daylight. There was a rope bridge across the gorge but it seemed to be in an ill state of repair.

"We should cross before nightfall," said Ramon. "Hopefully those things won't cross the bridge."

"How do we know there aren't more of them on the other side?" I asked.

"We don't, but we do know they're on this side; we'll have to take a chance."

"I wish there was another way across," I said.

"So do I," replied Ramon.

I approached the bridge and tentatively tested it with my forehoof. The bridge creaked and moaned but held. Another hoof and still the bridge held. I continued to inch forward while Ramon remained behind on solid ground; the bridge continued to creak and sway but held. When I was halfway across, one of the ropes broke; I froze in fear. Ramon called out, "Move, Brightblade! Get off the bridge quick!" With that he rushed across the bridge, right between my legs. Another rope broke. The bridge tipped and swayed; the apples fell from the sack.

"Don't look down!" Ramon called. "Look at me and get off that bridge fast!"

I looked at Ramon and galloped as fast as I could. The bridge collapsed a moment after my hooves hit solid ground. I looked back at the gorge and the ruins of the bridge. "How are we going to get back across now that the bridge is gone?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, so to speak," said Ramon from the thorns beside the path where he had ducked to avoid being trampled by my mad dash.

"It grows late," said Epona. "You can continue your tale tomorrow as we travel."

Chapter 4

As Brightblade and Epona set out on their quest, Brightblade continued his narration.

Ramon and I built a small fire near the gorge. There was no sign of activity in the shadows on our side, but we could hear chattering from the far side. The night passed uneventfully.

As the bleak dawn broke, we broke fast on dried mushrooms. They were chewy and flavorless but they filled our stomachs. As we began our trek, I quickly realized that our progress would be slowed as we climbed out of the valley. Fortunately there was no sign of the inhabitants of the valley, at least not during the first day's journey. That evening we finished the last of our mushrooms around a small fire.

The next day we set out with only some water in our stomachs. It was about midday when I realized that Ramon was no longer with me. "Ramon!" I called, "Ramon, where are you?" I began to panic; my heart almost stopped when I heard a noise in the brush. "Who's there?" I uttered weakly.

Ramon appeared from the thorns carrying two fresh mushrooms. "Don't worry," he said "It's only me, but you should be quiet. I've seen signs of those things. We're not out of the woods yet."

We rested and ate the mushrooms; they were better than the dried ones, less rubbery anyway, and they tasted rather bitter. As we resumed our travel we again heard the sounds of the mysterious inhabitants of the valley following us. That evening, the eerie character of the fire again haunted me. A strange feeling in my stomach made it hard to sleep.

Walking the next day was as difficult as sleeping had been the night before. I pleaded with Ramon to let me rest a day, but he insisted that we press on. My legs felt like rubber but I made my best effort to walk. My memory of the rest of the day is fuzzy, but I got the impression that we were not making much progress.

As I lay near the fire Ramon built that evening, he opened the wine jug and gave me a drink in hopes that it would ease my ailment. It was strong stuff and it burned my thought, but it numbed the pain in my gut.

That night as I lapsed into and out of consciousness, I recall that Ramon was talking continuously, though I cannot say what he talked about. I couldn't make any sense of it as Ramon's rambling was intermingled with strange dreams and hallucinations.

The next day we did not travel. I lay incapacitated by my illness while Ramon scurried about gathering firewood. That night Ramon was silent, at least when I was conscious. At dawn Ramon told me that he was going to scout ahead, to see if he could find help. Before he left, he made me take another drink of wine and told me to keep the fire burning night and day. I was too weak to argue with him.

I remember little of the next day-and-a-half save fear.

By the time that Brightblade reached this point in his tale, he and Epona had reached the pleasant fields of Ponyland. It was near noon and as they sought a place to take lunch, they encountered three ponies, Sundance, Firefly, and Tabby, who were out on a picnic. "Hey, Brightblade!" Sundance called. "Who's your new friend?"

Brightblade introduced Epona to the ponies.

"Where'd you get the cool hat?" Firefly asked.

"That's a long story; I was just telling it to Epona."

"Why don't you join us on our picnic and tell us all the story?" suggested Tabby.

"I don't know if we have the time for that. We're on a very important journey."

"Oh, nonsense," said Epona. "Time is not that short that we cannot afford to be sociable."

Chapter 5

As the ponies enjoyed their picnic, Brightblade briefly recounted the beginning of his tale, leaving out those details he thought too disturbing for the other ponies. As Firefly laid out dessert, Brightblade continued his narration.

My first memory when I awoke was a soothing voice. "Don't worry," it said. "You will be fine." Then I began to move, though not under my own power. Someone put a bottle of bitter liquid to my lips and I drank. It calmed my stomach and I was able to sleep peacefully as my unseen benefactors carried me to my as of yet unknown destination.

When I awoke I found myself lying on fresh, green grass under an airy pavilion. A cool breeze rustled the canvas dome. There was a plate of nut cakes and a cup of water nearby and I ate and drank. Shortly after I had finished my meal, a female rat entered the pavilion. "Ah, you're awake," she said. I recognized her voice as that of my rescuer. "And I see you've finished your refreshments," she went on. "I'll get some more and tell Ramon that you are up."

"Thank you," I said, not knowing what to make of my situation. A short time later Ramon and the other rat returned carrying a plate of fruit and a cup of water.

"I'm glad to see you're feeling better," Ramon said. "I'm sorry about what happened to you out there."

"It's all right, you did all that you could to help me," I assured him.

"But it was my fault, it was those mushrooms I foraged that made you sick."

"You couldn't have known," I said.

"But I could have, or should have. We rats are tough, we can eat almost anything. I should have realized that you could be more sensitive."

"It's okay, don't blame yourself. I'm alive and that's what's important."

"I guess you're right about that. By the way, I'd like to introduce you to Cassandra," Ramon said, turning to the other rat. "She is the daughter of the village chieftain, and she led the rescue party into the valley."

Cassandra bowed slightly. "When my father heard that you were in danger, he insisted that I lead the rescue personally."

"Why would your father be so concerned with my safety?" I asked.

"He is a seer," she explained. "He foresaw your quest some time ago. We have been preparing to aid you since then."

"What do you know of my quest?"

"You seek the Warrior's Horn in the Temple of Light so that you can save Ponyland, and more."


"Yes, Ponyland is only the first step; if you do not stop the evil there it will not only consume Ponyland but the entire globe. You have a great destiny, Warpony, if only you have the courage to claim it. Now I will leave you to your refreshments. You are still too weak to walk; tomorrow I will show you around the village." Cassandra bowed deeply and left the pavilion.

"Would you like me to leave you also?" Ramon asked.

"No," I replied, "stay, tell me what happened, where we are."

Ramon recounted the events of the last two days, how he had found a village of rats just outside the valley, how he had led Cassandra's rescue party to where I had lain, and finally of the journey to the village where I recuperated. After Ramon finished his tale, I slept again.

When I awoke I found myself alone; the cup and plate had been removed as I slept. I stuck my head out the pavilion flap where I found two rats waiting for me. "Hello," one of them greeted me. "Cassandra asked us to bring you to her once you woke up, if you feel well enough."

"I'm fine, lead the way." Once out of the pavilion I was finally able to get a look at my surroundings. The pavilion had been erected near a large oak atop a high, grassy hill. The rats led me down the hill to where the village lay, nestled between two hills. To my left, some distance from the village, I could see the wall which surrounded the Valley of Thorns. Its architecture on this side of the valley was the same as on the other side.

The rats' village was a pleasant place. Their small whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs were separated by wide, grassy footpaths. The whole village was surrounded by a hedge of lilac bushes. In the middle of the village was a small pond. There was a large crowd around two figures standing on the shore of the pond. By the time we reached the lilac hedge, the crowd was beginning to disperse. My guides led me to the pond's edge where the two objects of the crowd's attention still stood, Ramon and Cassandra.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi," said Ramon.

"Good day, Warpony," Cassandra greeted.

"What was with the crowd?" I asked.

"Ramon was telling us the tale of your journey so far," Cassandra explained.

"I've found I have quite a knack for story telling, a skill that the villagers hold in high esteem," Ramon said, proudly.

"Yes," said Cassandra, "your friend has the tongue of a great bard. He is already very popular among my people.

"Now, would you like me to show you around the village?"

"Yes, thank you."

My tour of the village ended in front of a large house next to the pond. "This is my father's house," Cassandra explained. "He would like to meet you."

"And I would like to meet him."

"Wait here, I will get him."

Cassandra disappeared into the house. She returned several minutes later followed by two rats carrying a litter where a very old rat sat. They set the litter on the grass in front of me and the old rat spoke. "It is good that you have come," he said, weakly. "Your quest is of utmost importance. Please know that you will have whatever aid my people can render. Now I must rest, take me away." As the litter bearers took the old rat back into his home, he turned his head and said, "I am glad that I was able to meet you, Warpony. I feared my days would be fulfilled before you came to us."

When Brightblade reached this point in his tale, the picnic was over. "Oh. What happened next?" Sundance asked.

"Yes, what happened?" begged Firefly and Tabby.

"I'm afraid we haven't any more time to socialize at the moment," flame-maned Epona said. "We must be back to our quest."

"But you can't just leave your story unfinished," whined Tabby.

"Don't worry," said Brightblade Warpony. "Once my quest is finished, I'll tell you the rest of my tale; but first I have to find out how it ends."

Brightblade and Epona then made their goodbyes and continued on their journey.

Chapter 6

That afternoon, Brightblade Warpony and flame-maned Epona continued their trek; Brightblade was silent. "Why do you not continue your tale?" Epona asked.

"I need some time to gather my thoughts," he replied.

Before Epona could respond, a raven flew out of a nearby tree and perched on the Warrior's Horn. "Khaar! It is good to see you again, Warpony!" the raven kawed. "Are we nearing the end of our quest?"

"You'd have to ask Epona," Brightblade replied. The raven was silent. "Epona," said the Warpony, "I'd like you to meet Breeks." Breeks looked away from Epona, trying to look like he was simply admiring the scenery.

"Not very talkative for a raven," Epona commented.

"He clams up like this every time I mention you," Brightblade explained. "He seems not to like you; have you two met before?"

"No, of all the birds I've known, none have been this disagreeable. How is it you came to know him?"

"That will be revealed when I continue my tale. I met Breeks shortly after Ramon and I left the village of the rats."

The rats had replenished our provisions with dried fruits and nut cakes. Our water bottles were full and the wine bottle filled with the bitter herbal brew that was administered to me during my illness in the valley. The rats had also given us directions to the Temple of Light. It lay southwest of their village, beyond the Pack Lands where the wolves dwell. Though most wolves are peaceful, the rats warned us of the pack led by the one calling himself Kerberus. They also warned us not to stray too far to the west, for the lands west of the Pack Lands are ruled by Death and should be avoided at all costs.

The contrast between the green hills of the rats and the dry plains of the Pack Lands was sharp. At the base of one hill the soft green grass abruptly gave way to tall, brown, sharp-bladed grass growing in clumps. Much of the ground was bare; and many rocks, some of great size, projected from the ground. The rocks were more numerous than trees, but the trees that did grow in the Pack Lands were impressively tall and gnarled.

As we progressed further into the Pack Lands, Ramon began to grow nervous. "I think we should have asked Cassandra to send some guards with us," he said. "Those wolves could be right on top of us before we even knew they were there." I was about to agree with him when we heard from behind us, as if on cue, a threatening growl. We turned and found ourselves facing two large wolves with their fangs bared. I turned to run-- Ramon was riding on my back at the time-- but found my path blocked by three more wolves. I heard a vicious bark from my left and instinctively turned to my right and ran. Strangely, there were no wolves blocking my way.

Ramon kept me informed of the status of our pursuers, who numbered six in all. They kept an even distance from us, even when I put on an extra burst of speed or slowed from fatigue. It was as if they did not intend to catch us but instead drive us to some unknown fate.

Before I realized where I was running, Ramon and I found ourselves in a shallow canyon between two broad outcroppings of rock. In front of us the outcroppings came very close together; I had to slow my pace to avoid running into the cliff. It was then that I noticed that the tops of the outcrops were lined with wolves; we were surrounded.

A large, dark-furred wolf stepped forward from the pack. "Greetings, my victims," he began to speak but was cut off suddenly.

"KHARRRR!" cried a raven as he dove at the large wolf. The wolf, Kerberus, leapt back and ducked to avoid the raven's razor sharp beak. The entire pack seemed frightened, or at least nervous. (Breeks' chest seemed to swell with pride as Brightblade related these events.)

After his dive, the raven circled around and perched on my head. "Kharr! Flee, while you still have the chance!" he kawed in my ear. "Quickly!"

I trotted as rapidly as I could through the narrow of the canyon. The canyon floor rose or the cliffs dropped, I couldn't tell which, but we soon found ourselves in open country again. We could hear the angry shouts of Kerberus as he tried to marshal his pack against us. "Quickly, toward those rocks!" the bird kawed.

As I galloped toward the rocks, I asked the raven, "Who are you and why did you help us?"

"I am Breeks," he replied, "and I helped you because you are the Warpony."

Chapter 7

The trio drew near the Dark Forest. "Khaar!" called Breeks. "The end of our quest is near; I can sense it!"

"Not the end," said flame-maned Epona, "but a stepping stone to the next leg of our journey."

"I wasn't talking to you."

"Could you try to get along with Epona, Breeks?" implored the Warpony. "Our quest is too important to jeopardize over some petty…whatever your problem is."

Breeks was silent as they passed into the shadow of the wood.

"We will follow the trail only until nightfall. In the morning we will leave the trail and go northward to a river; that will lead us to the ‘stepping stone' I mentioned. Now, Warpony, continue your tale."

Ramon, Breeks, and I moved quickly among the rocks until Ramon called a halt. "I don't like this; we must be nearing the land of Death and this bird directs us further west. He is driving us to our deaths!"

"Yes, we approach the land of Death, but you will be safe as long as you do as I say. The wolves fear death, and they fear me because I do not. Now move!"

I did not have long to consider the arguments before I heard our pursuers closing in. Breeks took to the air. "Kraaa! Follow me, quickly!"

I galloped after Breeks, away from the howls of Kerberus' pack. The landscape changed gradually as we neared the land of Death. To my surprise, the land seemed to grow more fertile; brush and trees began to fill the already narrow passages between the rocks. The growth slowed my progress, but still, we seemed to be outdistancing the wolves.

"You see," said Breeks from atop a tall rock, "they will not follow; not willingly anyway. Kerberus inspires great fear in his followers. He may inspire them to follow us but they will be hesitant. We must keep moving."

I struggled through the brush and soon came to a clearing bounded on three sides by brush and on the fourth by a massive rock. "I have to rest awhile," I said.

"Very well," said Breeks. "Rest quickly."

"While we are halted, would you mind explaining why you are helping us?" asked Ramon. "Not that your help is not appreciated."

"Krhaa!" kawed Breeks. "I am a great warrior; my name is sung by many bards in the western lands; but to have my name sung in verse with the great Brightblade Warpony, that would be true greatness! Aye, our legend will be sung for many years and our names will not be forgotten!"

"So you do this only to serve your own ego?" I asked.

"Just be glad that my ego is served by the cause of Light. Are you ready to travel yet?"

"Almost, I…"

I was cut off by a vicious growl as a large wolf entered the clearing. "Ah, the quarry is mine," he snarled. "You will bring me great honor."

Breeks took to the air. "Kharrr! Be gone, ruffian!"

I only stared at the wolf in terror.

"I am not so superstitious as the others, bird. I will not be frightened off so easily." The wolf advanced toward me.

"Uh, Brightblade," Ramon whispered in my ear, "I think you better do something."

The wolf drew closer. "Move!" he commanded. "Back to the Pack Lands."

The abruptness of the wolf's command caused me to jump, freeing me from the spell of fear. I was backed up against the rock and could hardly move. I summoned up all my strength and courage and leapt over the wolf into the middle of the clearing. As he turned to face me, I lashed out with my hind feet. My hooves caught the wolf in the midsection and he was thrown against the rock.

I turned to see the wolf's still form lying at the base of the rock. I froze in terror again as I realized what had happened. "What have I done?" I sobbed.

"Ya did what had to be done," called Breeks from high above. "Now move! Speed is now more urgent than ever!"

I could not move, though. I could only stare at the still form of the wolf. "I didn't mean to…"

"Come on, Brightblade," said Ramon. "We have to move on, to complete the quest."

I walked slowly from the clearing in a daze.

As I glanced back one last time, I saw a small red rabbit hop out of the brush. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it was the only other animal I saw in the land of Death.

Chapter 8

Night fell. The Warpony; his guide, flame-maned Epona; and the warrior raven, Breeks; made camp on the forest path. Tomorrow they would leave the path behind. Fortunately, there was little underbrush in this part of the forest; traveling through it would not be too difficult.

As the trio ate their evening meal, Brightblade continued his tale.

Breeks drove us hard through the Lands of Death. After we cleared the rocks, we found ourselves on a lush, grassy plain. We traveled quickly; though there was no sign of Kerberus' pack, there was something; I still felt as though we were being followed. We traveled through our first night on the plains and camped the next day. The next five nights we traveled until, near dawn on the fifth night, we came upon a shallow but very wide valley.

"Here is the border of Death's lands. In the hills beyond is the Temple of Light, and the Warrior's Horn," explained Breeks. If we travel through the day we could be halfway to the Temple, and beyond Death's lands by nightfall."

"Sounds good to me," Ramon asserted. "The sooner we leave Death's lands behind us the better."

"That's easy for you to say," I replied. "You don't have to walk or carry supplies."

Ramon jumped down from my back. "I'll walk it if I have to, to get out of here quicker."

"I agree with the rat," said Breeks. "This rout was a last resort. Now that Kerberus is no longer a threat, it would be to our benefit to leave these lands as quickly as possible."

"Very well then, we travel through the day." I didn't really mind; I had become used to long treks without rest, even though that day's journey seemed slow and long due to my lack of sleep. However, since we were descending into the valley, we made good time. That night we camped on the bank of the river that ran through the valley.

In the morning, Breeks led us southwest, along the river, to where it could be crossed. There was no bridge, only a broad, shallow ford. Around the ford grew a grove of willow trees. It was the most idyllic site I had seen on my journey. We could not linger long; but since we were beyond the Lands of Death, we made camp after crossing even though it was not yet midday.

We resumed our journey the next morning, refreshed. The traveling was easier than it had been in a long time, even though we traveled uphill. By evening, we were in the hills where the Temple of Light lay.

"Where to now?" I asked Breeks.

"Khaar! Must I guide you by the hand through the entire quest?" he shot back. "What would you have done had I not joined your quest?"

"We'd just wander through the hills until we found the Temple, I guess. I figured you'd just lead us to the Temple for expediency."

"You'll not be a hero with that attitude," replied the raven.

"I don't think he knows where the Temple is," observed Ramon.

"Khraa! O' course I do!" kawed the bird. "It's in the hills…somewhere."

"Well, we'd better get looking then."

The next morning we began to search the hills for the Temple of Light. Breeks flew high overhead, scanning the ground with his keen eyes, while Ramon and I searched the numerous caves and groves of trees. It was the middle of the afternoon when we crested a hill and saw, in the valley below, a white, domed structure ringed with columns, set into the slope of the opposite hill. We had found the Temple of Light.

Chapter 9

For half the day, the trio trekked through the untamed depths of the Dark Forest. By noon, they could hear the river in the distance. Epona insisted that they press on and save their midday meal until thy reached the river.

As they neared the river, the forest became thick with brush and brambles. Breeks flew ahead to see if he could find a path through the growth, but to no avail. Brightblade blazed a trail as best he could with the Warrior's Horn, but still the going was slow. From the time they had first heard the river to the time they reached its cool waters was near an hour-and-a-half.

Brightblade waded into the river, the clear water soothing his sore hooves. Epona touched her horn to a small, calm pool and gazed into the images that appeared.

"What do you see?" asked the Warpony.

"Nothing of import," Epona replied. "We are on schedule. Now let us eat and hear further of your adventures."

Ramon, Breeks, and I made our way across the valley to the Temple of Light. We climbed the steps cautiously, as we did not know what to expect inside. I peeked into the temple from behind one of the columns and saw that it was mostly empty. The floor was of polished marble, as white as fresh milk or new fallen snow. The columns that supported the domed roof surrounded about three-quarters of the area (I don't want to call it a room as there were no walls). The quarter that was without columns, which was opposite me, was dug into the hillside; and there was an arched doorway that led to some unknown inner chamber of the temple. In the center of the temple there was a statue of a unicorn carved from green stone, bathed in light from the opening in the center of the dome.

"It looks clear," I said as I stepped out from behind the column. Ramon followed me, and Breeks flew past and perched on the statue's horn.

"So, where's the Warrior's Horn?" asked Ramon.

"It must be through that doorway," I said.

"Khaar, that's obvious," kawed Breeks. "Which means that there is probably more to it than that. Something doesn't feel right here."

I walked up to the statue. "It is strange that this place is so clean, being open to the elements and all.. But we haven't got time to worry about that. We have to find the Warrior's Horn." I was about to investigate the arched doorway when Breeks squawked in terror.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Rawwk! The statue moved!" he replied as he fluttered about my head.

"What? That's impossible," said Ramon.

"Yah," I said. "You're just imagining things." Even though I didn't believe that the statue had moved, I couldn't help but stare at it, waiting for the slightest hint of movement.

"Brightblade," said Ramon, "weren't you going to look for the Horn? Let's move."

"Huh? Yes, Breeks has just got me a little spooked, I guess," I replied. But just as I turned away from the statue, I thought I caught a slight movement, or maybe it was just the shadow of a cloud, or a high flying bird; at least, that's what I told myself at the moment.

"Halt! Trespassers! None shall enter the Temple of Light lest they have proven themselves worthy!"

The booming voice came from behind me, where only the statue stood. I turned to see the statue no longer on its pedestal, but walking towards me. It seemed unreal; it was still the same smooth green stone I had seen before, at first. Then it seemed to soften a bit only to remain stone. Its movements seemed blurred, as if the thing did not really move, but existed at a different place at each moment in time.

"You who would claim the Warrior's Horn must first face me in single combat!"

Chapter 10

The trio followed the river for the rest of the day. At night, they found a clearing in the thorns where they could make camp. Brightblade was awakened the next morning, to his surprise, before sunrise. "What's up?" he asked flame-maned Epona.

"We are near a stepping stone, but we must be there at dawn. Come, we have no time to waste."

They continued their journey in the dark, with Breeks complaining all the way. As the soft glow of the sun was just appearing on the horizon, the trio found themselves at the foot of a thundering waterfall. Epona stepped forward and touched her horn to the fall just as the first rays of sunshine touched the shimmering water. Brightblade and Breeks gasped in awe as the waters of the fall parted, revealing a huge, dark doorway.

"Here we begin the next leg of our journey, in another world," Epona explained. "Now, Warpony, continue your tale as we proceed. It will help to prevent distraction."

The unreal unicorn stepped toward us. "Which of you is the champion who should claim the Warrior's Horn?"

"I... I am," I replied.

"Then defend yourself!" The unicorn guardian lowered his horn and lunged toward me. Ramon scampered off and hid behind a column while Breeks flew about overhead, kawing his encouragement. I sidestepped but almost tripped on my own hooves. The guardian swung his horn; I ducked and head-butted him, and nearly knocked myself out. The guardian, though moving like a living thing, was still as hard as stone.

I regained my senses quickly and jumped backwards as the guardian reared up and drove his fore-hooves down where I had been a moment ago.

"You're quick, but it will take more than that to prove your worth," the guardian taunted.

I staggered backwards as the guardian advanced, swinging his horn to and fro. As I ran out of room to withdraw, I ducked under the guardian's horn and kicked him with my hind hooves, catching him on the side. The jade unicorn was knocked off his hooves but was back up in an instant. "Well done, Warpony, but it will take more than that to keep me down." With that the guardian renewed his attack.

I evaded the guardian and tried to keep to the center of the domed chamber. Though I was becoming somewhat fatigued by the constant dodging, I found it was becoming easier to anticipate the guardian's moves. I waited for the right moment, feinted to the right and quickly doubled back to the left and kicked the guardian in the side of his head as he turned to follow my feint. The guardian fell to the ground. I turned quickly, reared up on my hind legs, and drove my fore-hooves down hard on the guardian's whorled horn. The horn shattered and the guardian faded away.

I looked around the chamber. Ramon crawled out from his hiding place and Breeks perched on top of my head. "K'haar!" he cried. "You did it, Warpony! You won!"

A brilliant white light shone forth from the arched doorway to the temple's inner chambers. "I... won," I said, almost in disbelief.

As Brightblade Warpony remembered that luminous portal, it seemed the antipoint to the dark passage he now traversed.

Chapter 11

The dark portal was dank and stuffy. There was a slight current to the air, but it came from the unknown darkness that lay before the voyagers and carried with it only more dankness and stuffiness. The floor of the passage was slick with moisture and uneven. Strange sounds drifted up from wherever they were heading: some almost like voices, others mere moans, and most were unidentifiable.

Occasionally Brightblade sensed that a passage forked off to one side or another. He couldn't actually see the passages in the darkness, but he could feel an emptiness to one side or the other, and once overhead. And Epona had warned him about becoming distracted. To help focus on the task at hand, the Warpony continued his tale.

The glorious light poured from the arched portal. I stepped forward cautiously toward the light. I was afraid that the light would blind me, but I could not close my eyes or look away. I gazed wide-eyed into the light as I was drawn into the temple's inner chambers.

The first chamber was round, much like the outer chamber, but smaller and not open. It was all of purest white stone, perfectly polished. There was no apparent source for the light that bathed the chamber; it was almost as if the very air glowed. Despite the glorious appearance of the room, the Warrior's Horn was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the chamber was entirely empty.

I moved on to the next chamber. The only sound was that of my hooves on the polished stones of the floor. This chamber was illuminated like the last but not so brightly, and was of the same polished stone. This chamber, however, was huge. The ceiling was so high that it was almost lost in the supernatural glow. The width and length of the chamber were filled with massive columns. It was like a forest of stone with a broad path down the middle. There was no sign of the Horn.

Beyond the Chamber of Columns was another chamber, more of a hallway than a room. Along the walls were reliefs depicting all kinds of Little Ponies; there were earth ponies, unicorns, pegasi, flutters, sea ponies, and some I did not recognize. The air in this passage was not luminous; the only source of light was the door to the previous chamber. By the time I reached the end of the passage, I was in near total darkness.

The final chamber was blackness. I could not see any walls, ceiling, or even the floor. But the room felt vast. Though there was no light, the Warrior's Horn floated, gleaming, in the middle (or what I imagined to be the middle) of the darkness. I walked forward, mesmerized by the vision of the Horn, until I was directly under it. It seemed impossibly distant and at the same time almost within me.

The ancient helm floated down (or rose up from within me) and came to rest upon my head. It formed perfectly to the shape of my head. Though the Warrior's Horn seemed to be forged of cold steel, it felt almost warm against my coat, and was surprisingly light, almost weightless. It felt as if it were part of me.

The remembrance of his first joining with the Horn lifted Brightblade's spirits somewhat. The warmth of the horn spread throughout his body. He concentrated on his quest and the immediate concern of traversing the Dark Portal. The Warrior's Horn began to glow, as it had only done in the past when the Warpony had gone into battle. Now Brightblade and his companions could clearly see the passage they traveled, but the light of the horn only illuminated the true path; it did not penetrate the side passages that branched off and led to certain doom. Epona smiled; at last the Warpony was learning the true extent of the Horn's power.

Chapter 12

Their way now lit, the travelers were able to progress more quickly into the unknown. The passage eventually began to level out and widen. The passage had become a massive cavern. Their course through the cavern was indicated by a sort of path weaving its way between stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. The path branched as the passage had, and the Warrior's Horn continued to illuminate the proper course.

Outside the path, amidst the shadows of the slender stone projections, strange shapes with glowing, red eyes flitted about, accompanied by the sounds of scurrying, slithering, the flapping of wings, and the occasional faint growls, moans, and mocking laughter.

"Khaa!" kawed Breeks. "We have walked into the heart of darkness. We are but three against an army. If we live, this will make a most magnificent song to sing. But if we die, there will be none to sing our praise."

"It is not the body we must fear," said flame-maned Epona, "but only the head. Without its leader, this army of darkness will pose us no threat."

"So," Brightblade said, "that is the beast I am to slay, the one that threatens Ponyland."
"Yes, but the time has not yet come for you to worry yourself with that. Why do you not continue telling your tale?"

I had just recovered the Warrior's Horn from the innermost chamber of the Temple of Light when I heard a commotion from outside. Though I feared for the safety of my friends-- Ramon the rat and Breeks the raven-- who waited for me outside, the calming affect of the horn would not allow me to disturb the reverence of the temple by rushing through its chambers. I walked slowly and calmly to the outermost chamber where my friends waited. When I emerged, I was greeted by the baying of wolves.

"We've got a problem," said Ramon.

Breeks was perched on the horn of the restored guardian statue I had battled to gain entrance to the inner chambers of the temple. "Kharr! Kerberus has followed us with his minions. They've the temple surrounded."

I remained calm. I looked out over the valley where Kerberus' wolves were assembled below the Temple of Light. "This will give me a chance to test the Warrior's Horn," I said. I stepped out of the columned outer chamber of the temple into the sight of the wolves. Their baying escalated to vicious barking and growling, but they did not advance.

"Kerberus!" I called out, trying to sound confident. "If you are truly such a great warrior as your following would suggest, come forward and face me in single combat to determine my fate and the fate of my friends!"

The massed wolves parted and the large, dark form of Kerberus stepped forward in the gap. "My, my, pony; you seem to have grown a backbone since our last encounter. Are you sure you don't want the bird to fight me in your stead?"

"I have made my challenge and I will stand by it," I replied.

The wolf grinned. "It will take more then a new hat and loud words to defeat me."

I lowered the Horn. "Then I shall have to give you more."

I walked forward with confidence; Kerberus, poised to strike, bared his teeth and growled. As I neared my foe, the Warrior's Horn began to glow; the nearer I drew, the brighter it glowed. I could see in his eyes that Kerberus was unnerved a bit by this, but he stood firm, waiting until I was near enough; then he struck.

He threw himself toward me with his jaws wide and his claws spread, but before he could touch me there was an explosion of light from the Horn. I felt nothing, but Kerberus was thrown back. He landed with a thud but was unhurt and unwilling to give up. He charged me with a mighty growl. This time he did not attack me head-on but swung around to attack from the side. I twisted my head around as he lunged, caught him with the horn, and flung him over my back. This time he landed with a rather pathetic-sounding yip.

Some of Kerberus' followers were beginning to loose faith in their leader and were leaving the valley, and Kerberus was not blind to this. "Come back here, you swine! Come back or I will hunt you down once I am finished with this pony! Hunt you down and make you suffer!" This only discouraged the wolves, and more left.

I walked up to Kerberus and lowered the point of the Warrior's horn to his face. It glowed so brightly, he had to avert his eyes. "You are beaten, Kerberus," I said. "Your pack has deserted you. There is no need to continue this."

Kerberus was silent for several moments. "Very well," he finally spoke. "You and your friends are free to go. I will cause you no trouble on your passage through the Pack Lands; but if any of you return, you will know my wrath."

All present knew the last part was only said to save face with his few remaining pack wolves, and they followed their leader off the field of battle with their tails tucked between their legs.

As the wolves disappeared in the distance, Breeks flew down from the temple and perched upon the Warrior's Horn. "Kraaaah!" he screeched. "You are truly the Warpony, friend Brightblade, just as I knew you were."

"Good job," said Ramon as he scurried down from the temple. "I was afraid you wouldn't make it at first, but that horn sure showed Kerberus a thing or two."

"Not just the horn," I told him. "Without a pure spirit to guide it, the horn is little more than a decoration. I do not know how I know this, but the power of the horn comes from its wielder."

"I hate to interrupt your tale," Epona said, "but we are coming to a challenging point in our journey that will require our full attention, even that of the freeloading bird."

Breeks huffed and ruffled his feathers at that remark, but said nothing.

"What must we do?" asked the Warpony.

Chapter 13

"We have come to a critical point in our journey," said flame-maned Epona. The floor of the cavern turned down sharply before them into a vast emptiness. A cold wind emanated from the blackness which chilled the travelers to the bone. Whips of mist carried on the wind appeared like shades fleeing the underworld. A slender rod of ice spanned the void like a bridge; it appeared to be the only way across the pit.

"The crossing will be difficult. The ice is slick and the winds are strong, too strong for flying. There are also spirits about; you must have focus, lest they deceive you. Only when I tell you will you be safe."

"Kharr!" screeched Breeks. "And what if we hear you and it is only the spirits' deception?"

Looking at Brightblade, not Breeks, Epona answered, "The spirits cannot mimic me; I am beyond their power."

Brightblade did not understand what she meant by this; Breeks huffed and ruffled his feathers.

Epona stepped lightly onto the glassy bridge. Her movements were smooth and graceful; she seemed almost to glide across the ice.

"That doesn't seem so hard," said Brightblade.

"She is nearly as bad as the spirits," replied Breeks. "Kraah!"

Brightblade stepped up to the abyss. "Well, we might as well get this over with." The Warpony tentatively put his fore-hoof on the ice. It was cold and slick but he pressed on. The frigid wind from the depth whipped around the pony and the raven perched upon his horn, and it chilled them to the bone. Breeks tucked his beak under his wing.

Brightblade found it difficult to maintain his footing and the wind was getting stronger the further he went, but he persistently moved forward. It was getting so that he could hardly feel his hooves; at one point he almost fell when his hoof missed the bridge.

After he recovered, he continued his crossing. He was beginning to hear the voices of the spirits in the wind, though he could not make out their words. His eyelids were becoming heavy with ice and his vision was blurred but he thought he could see the spirits flying about and, sometimes, through him. He could feel his coat becoming heavy with ice and his legs becoming stiff.

Brightblade inched forward through what had become like a blizzard. He did not know how long he had been going, or how much farther he had to go, but he could not give up. He closed his eyes, lowered his head, and pressed on. Just as he felt his legs about to fail him, the Warpony heard a familiar voice: it was Epona.

"You have done well, Warpony. You have made the crossing successfully; now it is time to rest."

Brightblade opened his eyes. He was standing on solid ground. There was no wind, his coat was cold but not icy, and Breeks had spread his wings. "Kharr! Well done, Warpony," the raven called.

"Now we will rest," said Epona, "while Brightblade continues telling his tale."

Since Kerberus' pack was no longer a threat, we had decided to rest for a time at the Temple of Light before heading back to Ponyland. It was a week before we set out. We traveled eastward toward the Packlands rather than northward toward the Lands of Death from which we came. We reached the Packlands after two days journey. There the Packlands were so rough and rocky that much of the terrain was impassable. Though our destination lay in the north, we were often forced to travel east, west, or even south for nearly a day at a time to circumvent towering, wall-like projections of rock.

It took us three times as long to reach the point where we fled into the Lands of Death than it had taken us to reach the Temple of Light from that juncture. Being there, where we had first encountered Kerberus and his pack, brought back unpleasant memories of a desperate act that had liberated us from one of Kerberus' lieutenants. Little did we know how much that act would haunt us in the days to come…

Chapter 14

Ramon, Breeks, and I passed near the place where we had been confronted by one of Kerberus' lieutenants after fleeing into the land of Death (see chapter seven for the details). My memory of the outcome of that encounter made me uneasy and I was eager to be gone from that place as soon as possible; but my companions were fatigued and it was growing late, so we made camp.

As we rested around our small fire, Ramon and I ate from our store of supplies gathered from the woods about the Temple of Light. Breeks flew off by himself, as he did most nights. I didn't know what he was up to and I didn't ask. When it was time to sleep, Breeks usually returned to roost on the Horn.

It was shortly after midnight when I was rudely awakened by a shove. I wearily opened my eyes to find a mangy wolf breathing in my face. "Kerberus promised us safe passage," I mumbled. "Go away or I might have to demonstrate how this Horn works."

The wolf laughed a weak and wheezing laugh. "I no longer serve Kerberus; I've a new master now."

The voice was familiar but at the time I was too tired to care. "Huh?" was all I could say.

"You don't remember me, do you?" the wolf snarled. "It wasn't far from here where we last met; across the border, in the land of Death."

Realization struck me like a bolt of lightning. I was wide awake and on my feet in an instant. "You…you're…it can't be…"

"Oh, but it is. And my new master has an interest in you. He has given me great power; such power could be yours as well, if you abandon your quest and join us. Otherwise, you will serve him anyway, as a slave."

"I serve the Light," I replied, though I know not where the words came from. "And the Light is my power!" The Horn upon my brow began to glow. The wolf shied away from the light of the Horn.

"Your Light is nothing," the wolf laughed defiantly. "Compared to my master's darkness, which shrouds his servants and hides them in shadows, your Light is a beacon, calling your enemies to you."

"Let them come! I am no coward, and my Light can cut your master's cloak of darkness and leave you exposed to the Light. When you are not hidden, you are powerless." The Horn glowed brighter.

The wolf scowled. "You are a fool! My master's power is greater and you will serve him, one way or another."

"No, your master has no power. You say he is strong and yet you shy away from the Light. If darkness is greater, why do you fear the Light?" The Horn's light flashed as brightly as the sun. My tormentor recoiled as if he had been struck by a physical blow.

The wolf snarled at me and then turned to Ramon, who was still asleep. "Denounce your Light. Denounce it and lay aside the Horn or I will kill the rat."

"No! " I cried, and leapt between the wolf and Ramon just as the wolf lunged for my friend. I was able to cut him off. The Horn flashed and the wolf howled in agony.

The commotion awakened Breeks, who had moved his roost to a small, gnarled tree. "Kraaa!" he squawked. "A ghost! Warpony, quickly be rid of it, before it's too late!"

"Cursed bird," the wolf snarled.

I lowered the horn and advanced on the wolf. "Be gone, dark shade, or whatever you are!" The Horn glowed brighter than I had ever seen it glow before. The wolf shrank away and disappeared into the night, but the Horn didn't stop glowing, or at least the light didn't go away. Even when I went back to check on Ramon, the extent of the light remained as it had been when the wolf fled.

Breeks woke up Ramon with a peck on the head. "Huh, what's up, you two?" the rat asked groggily. After we filled him in on the events of that evening, we decided it would be best if we took turns keeping watch for the rest of the night, but none of us got any more sleep. The light from the Horn remained until dawn and there was no further sign of the wolf.

We set out at first light that morning. We wanted to get as much distance as possible between us and the land of Death before we had to make camp again. Oddly, that same morning, I saw what could have been the same red-furred rabbit I had seen after our first encounter with the wolf.

In the dark underworld where Epona, Breeks, and Brightblade rested, the flame-maned pony slowly shook her head at the conclusion of Brightblade's tale of the odd encounter. "I wish you had told me of this sooner, though it is not of too great importance, but it would have been nice to know what other players are involved."

"What do you mean?" Brightblade asked.

"Though the evil we have come here to fight is the most immediate threat, there are others who would take advantage of the current situation. There is no need to worry; if we are successful, the situation will no longer be available for their advantage. Come, it is time to move on."

Chapter 15

The odd wolf was the last encounter we had in the Pack Lands. Soon after, the land became green again and we knew we were nearing the village of the rats who had rescued us from the Valley of Thorns and given us aid on our quest. Ramon and I looked forward to the peace of the village and reunion with friends there. Breeks, who had joined us after we left the village, knew of it but had never visited. "Rats and ravens tend not to get along," he explained. "If I had flown into their village, they would assume I meant to make a meal of them. I saw no reason to cause such an incident."

The rats greeted us cheerfully, and they did not seem to fear Breeks in the least, though that could simply be due to the fact that he arrived in the company of friends. At the village, we decided to rest for a while before setting off through the Valley of Thorns.

Breeks found that he enjoyed the rats' company immensely, as they did his,for they all loved heroic stories. Every evening when the villagers gathered to listen to their bards telling stories, Breeks would join them and have contests with the bards over the best telling of certain tales, which he won as often as he lost.

Ramon spent most of his time with the chief's daughter, Cassandra. They seemed inseparable, and every night they would gather with the others for stories. One night, Ramon was heckling Breeks as he told a tragic story of some ancient war and the raven challenged Ramon to tell a better tale. After his telling of our adventures, all present, including Breeks, admitted that Ramon was the greatest bard in the land.

Much of my time in the village was spent in conversation with the chief, who was a great bard in his own right. I learned much of the history of the Warrior's Horn, as well as all the strange lands through which we had traveled. We also discussed the problem of crossing the Valley of Thorns. The creatures I no longer feared-- I had the Horn to protect me-- but the bridge across the river chasm had fallen in. The rats had investigated the ruins, but had been unable to affect repairs. Eventually they had abandoned the site in hopes that the creatures of the valley, who had been known to use the bridge, might repair it. Otherwise, my only hope of crossing the valley lay in the narrow ledges on the walls of the chasm that might lead to the river at the bottom where I could wade across and ascend similar ledges on the far side.

* * *

Finally the day came when we had decided to set out once more. The rats had prepared an assembly to send us on our way. As we walked to the assembly area, next to the village pond, Ramon said to me, "Brightblade, you're a good friend, and this quest has been a real adventure, but... well... since you've got the horn now... you shouldn't need my help getting back through the valley... I was thinking of maybe staying here in the village... if you think you can do without me."

I was struck dumb for a moment. "But what about your home on the other side of the valley?" I asked, unable to think of anything better to say.

"There's nothing there that can't be replaced, and though it was peaceful and private, it was lonely. Here I'll have companionship, and if I ever need privacy, there's plenty of space outside the village. I think I could be really happy here."

"Well, if you're sure you want to stay, who am I to stand in your way. I wish you well."

"As do I, my friend."

* * *

At the assembly, the chief of the rats gave a grandiose speech praising the three heros and wishing us well on the completion of our quest. After the speech, and much cheering from the assembly, Ramon announced his intent to stay, and again there was much rejoicing. After the assembly, Ramon, Cassandra and an honor guard of rats escorted Breeks and I to the gate in the valley wall. There we made our goodbyes.

"Fare well, brave warriors," said Cassandra. "May the light guide you on your quest."

Ramon was next to speak, "Well my friend, this is goodbye, for now anyway. Maybe I'll visit you in Ponyland some day."

"I'd like that," I replied. "And maybe I'll return here some day. Until then."

"Khaaar!" kawed Breeks. "Farewell great bard Ramon, may your tales never lose their greatness!"

"Aye, and may your talons never lose their points!" the rat replied.

Brightblade ended his telling for the moment as the three reached the end of the narrow passage. The tunnel suddenly opened out into a vast cavern. Along one wall, a great castle-like fortress was carved out of the living stone of the cavern opposite a vast opening.

There were numerous windows over the castle walls, all of them dark; not a single light shone, nor was there any other sign of life. The entrance to the castle was blocked by a massive iron gate.

"How are we going to get through there?" asked Brightblade.

"Not through the front door," Epona said calmly. "There is a secret entrance; the way will be difficult but it is less likely to be guarded."

Chapter 16

In the great cavern of the fortress, Epona led Brightblade and Breeks along the curving wall, toward the great graven fortress. Not more than one-third the distance to the fortress, which was still a considerable distance considering the mammoth size of the cavern, the heroes came to an almost invisible narrow ledge snaking its way up along the cavern wall.

"Atop this path, unknown to its denizens, is an entrance to the fortress-- last I was here anyway," Epona explained.

"You've been here before?" Brightblade asked.

"Of course she has," Breeks cawed. "Many times, no doubt."

"There have been many times of great need that have required that I venture into these dark nether-regions," Epona admitted as she began the treacherous ascent.

Brightblade, with Breeks perched on his horn, followed with little hesitation. As hazardous as this trek promised to be, he had undertaken a similar one after leaving the village of the rats.

As there was no great danger in the Valley of Thorns, Breeks flew ahead to Ponyland while I made the crossing on foot. With the Warrior's Horn, I was sure that the creatures on the far side of the valley would not bother me. I reached the chasm at the center of the valley by noon on the second day of my trip; unfortunately, the bridge that had collapsed when Ramon and I had first crossed the valley was still out. I had hoped that the creatures, or whoever had originally built the bridge, would have fixed it by now, but they had not. I had to find another way to cross.

The thorns did not grow all the way to the brink of the chasm so I was able to make my way along the abyss in hopes of discovering another way to cross. I considered climbing down one cliff and back up the other, but the cliffs were sheer. Late in the afternoon, about a mile north of the path, I discovered a narrow ledge , much like the one that we are climbing now, zigzagging down the face of the cliff. Because of the late hour I returned to the path and made camp for the night.

The next morning I proceeded directly to the ledge and began my descent. The narrow precipice was smooth and rounded from rainwater running into the chasm. At some places it was worn down to little more than a slight bulge on the cliff face. I stepped carefully and took my time to insure I kept my footing and didn't fall.

It took me half the day just to reach the bottom of the chasm where a deep, swift river ran. On the opposite cliff I could see similar ledges to the one I had descended, but there was no way to cross the river. The ledge, however, continued along the river so I decided to follow it downstream in hopes of finding a crossing. My hopes didn't last long as the ledge soon sank into the river. I continued along the sunken ledge until the current became too strong. As I carefully turned around to go back, I noticed a deep crack in the cliff face that appeared to open into a cave.

"Maybe the cave will lead to another ledge or crossing, or maybe even go right under the river," I mused.

I squeezed through the crack into a low cave. I had to bow my head because of the low ceiling. The Warrior's Horn glowed dimly to supplement the light from the crack. To my right the cave seemed to slope up steeply. To my left it gradually sloped downward. I decided to follow the downward passage.

The further from the crack I got, the darker the cave got, but the Warrior's Horn did not glow brighter. It was not long before I could not even see my own hooves in the darkness. I was just about to turn back when I heard the sound of running water ahead. A short time later I saw the glint of my horn's light reflecting off the surface of an underground river.

The river intersected the cave at a sharp angle and looked shallow and swift. The cave continued on the other side of the river so I decided to try and cross it, hoping that this river corresponded to the river on the surface. When I reached midstream, which was deeper than I had imagined, I slipped on the uneven floor and was swept away by the swift current.

Chapter 17

While Epona, Breeks, and Brightblade ascended the narrow way to the secret entrance of the Fortress of Darkness, Brightblade recounted the tale of his second crossing of the chasm in the Valley of Thorns.

I don't know how long I was carried along by the underground river. It may have been five to ten minutes, or half an hour. At one point, I hit the roof of the cave and was forced underwater. If I had a chance to take a breath before going under, I doubt it would have been as bad as it was; as it turned out, I blacked out for a while.

When I came to I was lying on a gravel bar in the river at the bottom of the chasm. I was apparently quite a way down river from where I had entered the cave, as I hadn't been able to see any gravel bars earlier.

There were gravel bars on both sides of the river, but the river was still too wide and swift to cross. I didn't want to go any further downstream but I didn't have much choice. I followed the gravel bar for several hours until I found another cave in the cliff wall.

The opening was almost too high for me to reach, and once I was inside I found nothing except a pool of water. It was deep-- I couldn't see the bottom-- but the water was still and clear so it was apparently not connected to the river.

Following the gravel bars didn't seem to be getting me anywhere so I took a deep breath and jumped into the pool in hopes that it would lead somewhere. Once under water, with the dim light of the Horn, I could see that the pool-- or rather the tunnel, as I could now see-- went down steeply but curved slightly toward the river. This gave me hope; if it was deep and long enough, it might just get me to the other side of the chasm, under the river!

The flooded tunnel plunged deeply before finally leveling out. It seemed to be going in the right direction, and to go on forever. At one point another tunnel branched off, downward, but I didn't want to go further down; I wanted to go up, as soon as possible. Just when I thought I could no longer hold my breath, the tunnel began to curve upward. I pushed on with renewed hope.

The ascent seemed to take longer than the descent had; my lungs felt like they were on fire. Suddenly, I broke the surface of another pool, just as I could no longer bear the pain and gasped for breath-- a breath I did not expect to be there, but it was-- and I was overjoyed and thankful to be alive.

After taking several minutes to catch my breath, I examined my surroundings. I was apparently in a vast cavern; the dim glow of the Warrior's Horn didn't reach the walls or ceiling of the chamber. I had no way of knowing for sure which side if the chasm I was on.

From the darkness beyond the light came strange noises, noises like those the unseen creatures of the valley made. Fearing that these creatures would be more aggressive here, in what I presumed to be there lair, I tensed for combat and the Horn shone brightly, dispelling the shadows and revealing the forms of the creatures for the first time.

They were mangy balls of fur walking about on birds feet. On their faces were huge staring eyes and vicious curved beaks. Large pointed ears spouted from the sides of their heads, though there was no clear distinction between body and head. The creatures, of many colors, milled about and shied away from my light.

Behind the creatures, I could now see an opening in the cavern wall. Hoping that it was an exit, I strode confidently forward and the creatures parted before me, disappearing into the shadowy fringes at the far side of the cavern; obviously these were not light-loving beings.

The passageway turned out to be an exit indeed. It wound its way upward for some distance before opening into a clearing in the thorns. A number of the creatures were in the clearing; they squawked threateningly before fleeing into the thorns. I assumed that they were the guards of the lair; they surely had quite a shock at a stranger coming out of their home.

I stood in the clearing looking toward the mountains in the north. The ground around me sloped to my left, westward. I had made it across the chasm. Now all that remained was to find the path and return to Dream Valley.

Brightblade ended his telling as the trio of adventurers reached the top of the perilous path. There was no door that Brightblade could see, but Epona touched her horn to the rock face and an opening appeared.

"Follow, but be quiet, as from here on we are in the very heart of darkness," The flame-maned unicorn instructed. The trio passed through the opening and found themselves in a narrow hallway, no longer the natural passages they had been in before. There was no sign of the opening through which they had gained entrance. The hallway stretched on in both directions. Either way one looked, one saw the same thing: a distant dim light, or at least a patch of less darkness. The Horn no longer glowed and the hallway was unlit. Occasionally shadows would move across a patch of less-dark, shadows highlighted by glowing red eyes.

"Come, this way." Epona turned to the left; Brightblade and Breeks followed in silence.

Chapter 18

The three adventurers crept through the passages of the dark fortress. Brightblade was sure they were lost; all the passages looked the same, but he was positive they had passed the same intersection several times. He had no idea where they were going, however, so all he could do was trust and follow Epona, who seemed confident in her leadership.

Several times they had to duck into a side passage to avoid the denizens of the fortress, but they never came into conflict. It seemed like they had been sneaking about the dark hallways forever when Epona finally spoke. "The time is nigh for your final challenge. Beyond the doors in the next chamber sits the ogre-lord who is behind the threat to Ponyland. It is he and he alone you must defeat." Brightblade nodded in response.

Next, Epona strode confidently out of the passage into a large chamber. Its high ceiling came to an arched peek. The dark openings of several other passages opened into the chamber. On one wall was a huge double door. When Brightblade and Breeks entered the chamber, they noticed numerous creatures-- goblins, imps, and shades; all of whom seemed oblivious to the intrusion to their realm.

The heavy door seemed an impassable barrier to their progress but Epona seemed undaunted. She stepped up to the doors and touched her horn to them. The doors swung inward-- even though the hinges were made to swing outward-- and reveled the innermost chamber of the dark fortress. Across from the doors-- on a throne of stone upon a raised dias-- sat the lord of darkness, attended by his entourage of creatures.

The lord himself was a hideous sight-- a huge ogre with fangs, horns, pointed ears, and a massive belly that hung over his belt. His scaly skin was mottled sickly green and black. He wore naught but a loin cloth, though a pile of leather and steel armor lay beside his throne. A heavy iron sword lay across his knees.

"So, Epona," the ogre spoke as he waved away his attendants. "You have seen fit to stick your nose into my business once again. I have been expecting you." The ogre rose and swung the sword about his head. "Well, let's be on with it. Which of these is your champion? The bird or the faux unicorn? Ha-ha! Either way, it will hardly be worth the effort to slay him!"

Brightblade stepped forward and Breeks flew from the Warrior's Horn, where he had been perched, to the top of one of the doors. The Warpony spoke. "I am the champion not only of Ponyland, but of all the world of Light!"

"Humph! A brash young champion. He will not live long enough to learn better!" The ogre raised his sword and swung it at Brightblade's neck. The Warpony jumped back and brought the Warrior's Horn to meet the blow. When blade met horn there was a blinding flash of light; blinding, that is, to all but Brightblade.

When their vision cleared, the spectators gazed in wonder at the ogre's sword, or at least what remained of it. Where the blade had struck the horn, it was melted through; the severed edge of the blade still glowed bright red. The ogre threw down his now useless sword-hilt.

"You've much power, Warpony. I'll take great pleasure in squeezing it out of you!" The brute lunged at Brightblade, grasping for his throat. The pony stepped backward and to the side, leaving nought but thin air for the ogre to squeeze. The ogre howled in rage and lashed out again and again, but he could not catch the pony.

Brightblade grinned. "You fear my power, but even without it, you cannot touch me." The ogre growled and lunged again. Brightblade sidestepped and slapped the ogre's backside with the Horn as he passed. "Abandon your mad plan, ogre, or you shall have to face the full power of the Warrior's Horn!"


As the ogre lunged, Brightblade tripped him with the horn. The ogre fell to the ground with a slosh and a thud. Brightblade stood over his fallen opponent. "I gave you a chance to end this. Now you leave me no choice." The Warpony lowered his Horn and touched the ogre's chest. There was another flash of light, brighter than the earlier, but it blinded only the creatures of darkness. Time seemed to stand still as the chamber seemed forever bathed in white light. As the light slowly subsided, the ogre was nowhere to be seen. Upon regaining their sight, and seeing their master gone, the creatures of darkness fled and disappeared into unseen holes.

"He has been sent to another realm, one where he can cause no pain; at least not for the moment," Brightblade explained. "Ponyland is safe."

"You have done well, my champion. Now we may leave this place and have peace in the knowledge that harmony and light will continue in Ponyland."


With the ogre vanquished, the veil of darkness that hung over the underworld lifted. There still was no light, but the darkness was not so oppressive as it had been. As the three triumphant heroes made their way through the less-treacherous passages and caverns and out of the front entrance, there was no sign of the creatures who had seemed always just outside of sight before.

Even though the underworld had lost its dread, Brightblade was happy to be through the waterfall portal and back in Ponyland, even if they were in the middle of the Dark Forest. When the trio reached the edge of the forest, Epona called a halt.

"You have done well, Warpony, and it has been a great honor to have known you; but the time has come for me to take my leave. Farewell."

"Goodbye, Epona. Thank you for all that you did."

The flame-maned unicorn shook her head. "It is I who should thank you." And she mysteriously disappeared.

"Khar, aye," kawed the raven Breeks. "You are the hero; it is your hour of glory! Now I, too, will be off, for a while at least, to spread the word of your triumph! I'm sure that rat will want to hear the tale."

"Goodbye, my friend, and give my regards to Ramon and Cassandra."

"I will. Krah!" With that, the raven flew away and Brightblade the Warpony stood alone.

* * *

The weary pony was glad to be home at his cottage in the little wood outside of town. It had been more than a year since he left on his quest, though it hadn't seemed quite so long. Breeks had once told him that time was different in the underworld; maybe that explained it.

He placed the Warrior's Horn upon his mantle, ate a light supper, and went to bed. It had been such a long time since he had a decent night's sleep that he slept until noon. After another light meal (most of his food had spoiled during his absence), Brightblade set out for town.

On his way to the grocery store, Brightblade passed a strange new building. "Pokčmon Center," he read off the sign. "What the hey is a Pokčmon?" he mused. "I guess the best way to find out is to ask inside."

Inside the center, Brightblade found a pink unicorn, Tabby, behind the main desk and a strange cat-like creature standing guard next to her. "Hello," he greeted Tabby. "Say, didn't you used to run the vet clinic?"

"Hmm? Clinic?" Tabby murmured, as she had been reading e-mails and had only half heard the question. "Oh, my vet clinic was run out of business months ago. That would have been about... eh... about a few months before. But then..." She appeared to be doing invisible figuring in the air, and was suddenly snapped out of her thoughts and sat up straight. "No, I don't have my clinic any more," she affirmed. "Who are you? Do you have a hurt Pokčmon?"

"I'm Brightblade. I live in the little cottage outside town, but I've been away for a while. And I've never heard of Pokčmon."

"Never heard of Pokčmon?!" the cat-thing huffed.

"Oh, yeah, you and that other unicorn were telling that strange story at that picnic last fall. Hey, weren't you a unicorn last time?" Tabby queried.

"What? Oh, you mean the Horn. I left that at home."

"You left your horn at home? Whatever..." said Tabby.

The conversation was getting nowhere, and the cat-thing was eyeing him evilly, so Brightblade decided to get on with his business. "That was weird," he said to himself once he was back on the street.

* * *

After the shopping was done and Brightblade had eaten a hearty meal, he decided to stop by the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe for dessert. Just as he stepped into the shop he saw Tabby, Sugarberry, and a smaller, purple stallion sitting at a table together.

"There's that strange unicorn I was telling you about. The guy who left his horn at home," he heard Tabby say.

Oh, great, Brightblade thought. The weirdo.

"That's no unicorn," Sugarberry said. "Brightblade, come sit with us."

Brightblade sighed. It would be rude to ignore the invitation, but sitting with that crazy unicorn...? "Oh, what the hey." He sat down and Sugarberry introduced him to Clever Clover from Friendship Gardens.

"Boy, things sure have changed while I've been gone. I've never even heard of Friendship Gardens, or Pokčmon," Brightblade mumbled. "It will take me a while to get things figured out."

"So Brightblade," said Sugarberry. "Where have you been all this time?"

"Well, that is a long story..."

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