Diaries of a Madman

When Discord breaks free of his stone prison, he proves to be much older and wiser than he was on the show. A being of ancient and unimaginable power, he forces Celestia to make a deal to save her little ponies. What she doesn't realize is that one of the terms of the deal is that she forgets ever making it. Enter Navarone, a poor human just trying to get by—or at least, to the ponies that's what he looks like. Pulled from his home by an accidental summoning from one Twilight Sparkle, Navarone is thrust into a world of ponies and more violence than he expected from such a peaceful seeming world. These are his adventures—with a few asides from everybody's favorite Lord of Chaos, of course.

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165. Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Eight Part 1

We started seeing signs of habitation far before Zecora said we were almost to her original village. It was mostly zebras living in yurts and huts along the riverside. Each place had a small farm around it and oftentimes, someone was working the land as we flew over. In each of those cases, they stopped what they were doing and stared as we passed.

Once Zecora said we were a mere twenty kilometers from her old village, the peasants below us started sending runners as soon as they spotted us, presumably to tell everyone what was coming. At that point, the crew I hand-picked for landing started readying themselves. For some of us, that was easy. All Kat had to do was strap on her daggers, a rapier (that I had never seen her use, actually), a small pack of bolts, and find a good way to keep the crossbow holstered. Ames just needed his sword. Spike didn’t even need that, though he might have wanted to bring his anyway.

For the rest of us, we needed to get armored up. Applejack still wasn’t entirely proficient in armor, but she managed it easily enough anyway. The single bat pony squad (Sentinel’s, per Watcher’s request) geared up quickly in their old night guard armor, though it looked somewhat odd with my red hand symbol instead of Luna’s cat eye. I kinda wanted them to use the dragon armor Jak made before we found that it was haunted, but I didn’t want to risk it in case we actually did have to fight. And I wore my standard metal armor, because I figured that would be very imposing to people that didn’t have steel. I also had my ring, just in case Pertz found a way to circumvent the lack of magic.

Zecora wore a single ratty cloak with a hood that covered her entire head. She drank a potion that made her eyes start glowing a faint yellow under the hood. I’m not sure if they were weapons or not, but she also had a bandolier of potions strapped to her chest and two saddlebags with even more potions in them.

Around ten kilometers from her old village, we started seeing kayaks and other small boats on the river. Soldiers in what looked like bronze or copper armor were patrolling the area. They were a mixed bag. Mostly zebras, but as we started getting closer, we began seeing more species. A few rhinos, one or two hippos, a small amount of elephants, and some cryptids that I didn’t recognize.

Given the number and types of troops he had, I was starting to seriously doubt our ability to fight our way out if it became necessary. If it were just zebras, we’d be fine. Ames and I could cut our way through them like butter, as long as we were able to keep moving and not get surrounded. But rhinos and hippos are vicious as hell and elephants are huge enough to be problems, armor or not.

When we were just five kilometers away and could barely see the overgrown village, a large bird with a long beak landed in front of Ames and squawked. As soon as it made that noise, the thing started emitting sparks of static electricity.

Zecora pressed her hoof against my side to get my attention, then ran over to it. I followed right behind her, since it was presumably important. She didn’t make any hostile moves, so I assumed the thing wouldn’t attack us.

Sure enough, it started talking instead, though its beak didn’t move at all. “What is your business here?” a female voice asked from inside of it.

“We were sent by Princess Celestia to speak to Pertz,” I replied. “I am Navarone. He may know of me.”

“He may. The flag you fly is not one of the sun. Nor is it the one of our god. How do I know you speak the truth?”

Shit, I should have gotten Celestia’s seal or something. Zecora took the reins, though. “The waters we tread are dangerous ones, witch doctor.” The bird’s eyes narrowed slightly. “The symbol of the sun is an unwelcome one in many areas. As is the symbol of your god. I advised them against flying either. The unknown is better than that which is hated.”

“It has been long since one of your ilk has shown themselves here, shaman.” The bird looked back at me. “Were you the ones that attacked our scouts?”

“No. We were the ones that your scouts attacked. I decided to let the survivor go as a show of goodwill. And to deliver a message, of course.”

“He delivered a warning, not a message. Pertz has no desire to speak to those who attack his subjects.”

The naga snorted. “I imagine his list of new souls to talk to is very low, when his subjects attack everyone unfamiliar on sight.”

“A god has no need to waste his time on frivolous conversations.”

“Your so-called god has very much upset his ruler,” I said, putting my hand on the pommel of my sword. “He will speak to us, or he will answer to Celestia. And I can guarantee that no matter how powerful you think he might be, she’s stronger. I would greatly advise you save yourself some casualties and tell him to meet us when we land.”

The bird was silent for several seconds before more static started pooling out of it. “He will hear your words.” With that, the thing dove off the side and flew back toward the city.

Immediately after it left, Zecora whirled to me. “That is not a shaman, Nav! This is bad. Very, very bad!”

“Yeah, you called her a witch doctor. What’s the difference?”

“Shamans strive for order and peace in all things. We need balance and seek to end conflict. Witch doctors seek power by any means. And only the strongest can summon and control the great impundulu. He doesn’t have a shaman, he has a powerful monstrosity!”

“...Huh. Can you kick her ass?”

She calmed herself slightly and leaned back. “Perhaps. I will return momentarily.” She left without another word, walking back into the depths of the ship.

The naga shook his head and muttered, “Blasted magic users.” I kinda agreed, but didn’t see any reason to voice it. Instead, I walked over to the helm, where Watcher and Gourd were both standing.

“What was that thing?” Watcher asked when I got close.

“Some kind of witch doctor or something,” I said. “Zecora’s pretty worried about it. She thinks things might go poorly if we have to fight.”

“Given the number of troops he has, I agree,” Watcher said. “I very highly suggest against antagonizing them too far, sir.”

“Noted. Gourd, do you think we should land? Or would we be better off continuing to fly and hoping we don’t need a quick extraction?”

“I suggest landing,” Gourd said. “If you do have to fight, you don’t want to climb that ladder under possible enemy fire, or while being harassed by flyers. And if you have to drag in an unconscious Pertz, getting him up the ladder would also be difficult. If I can find a suitable place to land, I’ll do so.”

“Can you keep the ship prepped in case we need to extract quickly?”

“Of course. How long do you think this should take?”

I shrugged, which was kinda pointless since it didn’t show up very well in the armor. “No clue. This’ll mostly be Zecora’s show. We’re here as muscle and to get her in. If shit hits the fan, we might just deep six this asshole and book it.”

Gourd blinked a few times before looking at Watcher. “He means they’ll kill him and run if things go bad,” the old man said. “I think. And the princess’s order allows for that, if necessary.”

“She’s very understanding,” I said with a smile they couldn’t see. “I’m going to go talk to the shore party. Watcher, you coming?”

“Yes sir.” We walked down the stairs to the center of the ship, where everyone that was heading down was congregated, aside from the naga who was at the front of the ship and Zecora who was still downstairs. The three soldiers saluted quickly before going back to stretching. Applejack was nervously toying with her hair. Spike was flexing his claws. Kat was sharpening a dagger.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s almost showtime,” I said. “The goal is to get in and out quickly. But we’re pretty sure that’s going to go to shit, so the goal is to not get separated. I kinda doubt that’ll happen, too. Kat, you’re in charge of Spike and Applejack.” Spike’s mouth opened, but I silenced him with a short stare. “Sentinel, you’re in charge of your squad. I’ll try to keep the naga and Zecora with me. We’ll rearrange as needed. Regroup spot is the ship. Do not speak to the natives unless spoken to. Do not show fear. Applejack, there’s a chance they’ll think you’re our liaison, since you’re the only normal pony we’re taking with us. If that’s the case, refer them to me.”

“Yep. Why you bringing me, though?”

“Because you’re the most reliable normal pony we have here. You have common sense and won’t do or say something stupid. You can also fight and get around fine without magic. That’s why Pinkie and Rarity are currently distracting Dash.” By forcing her to dress up in all kinds of adorable dresses, from what Rarity was saying. “The reason we’re bringing you at all is because you look like a normal pony and I don’t want them to think we’re just bringing what the locals think are demons or non-ponies.”

“I reckon that makes sense,” she said with a nod.

“If we end up having to fight, we should all head for the ship. If we’re separated, don’t try to find the others. Just get to the ship as quickly as possible. Try to avoid combat if at all possible, but if you get forced into it, eliminate the hostiles by any means necessary. That means you might have to kill, Applejack. If you’re not okay with that, I’m willing to leave you behind.”

She looked away for a few moments before looking back. “I put this armor on knowing I might have to do that. I ain’t gonna let nopony down.”

“Gourd is going to try to land us in the water, so we don’t have to climb up the ladder while under attack. Zecora is going to try to take care of their mage, if it becomes necessary. I’ll back her up if my ring helps me against their magic. If he’s awake when we grab him, you’ll guard him, Sentinel. If we have to knock him out, Spike can carry him. If we kill him, leave the body. Questions?”

Kat nodded. “A lot of tribals have customs involving guests. They might feed us and expect us to spend the night in their hospitality before talking business. Should we eat their food or sleep in their village?”

I turned to Watcher, hoping he could field that one. “Don’t,” he said. “I knew Pertz before he came here. He was paranoid then. Spending a few years here likely only compounded it. He’ll be suspicious and poison or late night assassinations would be an easy way to deal with you. If you’re there that late, try to return to the ship and stay here.”

“Anyone else?” I asked.

“Why aren’t I going with you?” Spike asked.

“Because you’re a heavy hitter and Kat’s physically weak,” I said. “If she needs heavy lifting done, you’re doing it. I’m keeping the naga with me because he’s the best fighter we have and I’m probably going to be right in the middle of the village with Pertz.”

Before I could ask for more questions, Zecora joined us with another bag of potions. When she realized no one else was talking, she set the bag down and said, “We cannot leave the witch doctor here, whether we leave with Pertz or not. And I might not be able to kill or incapacitate her myself.”

“Will she have magic defenses?” Kat asked.

“Likely,” Zecora said with a nod. “Witch doctors specialize in making fetishes from lost souls that give them many extra abilities. They can also act as armor.” She reached into the bag and took out two milky-white potions. “Dripping these over weapons will allow them to pierce most magical defenses, at the cost of making them worthless against any physical armor stronger than cloth. On a sword, the effect would last around fifteen minutes. Thirty on a dagger. A bolt would be a single shot.”

I pushed one into a pouch on my belt and passed the other to Kat. “We’ll plan her assassination as needed,” I said. “Pertz is the primary target, Zecora. I know I said I’d help you save your people or whatever, but I wasn’t expecting this many fucking people. This shit’s gonna be dangerous enough without purposefully going after their secondary leader.”

“Noted, and I understand.” She pulled out an orange potion and passed it to Spike. “This will increase the intensity of your flames for an hour. It’ll also make you emit a heat that will be painful for anyone within a meter of you, so be wary when drinking it.” He gulped and nodded. She pulled out a red one and passed it to me. “This fills the imbiber with a great strength and nullifies pain, but you can’t talk or reason. Everyone that you don’t know will be seen as an enemy and a target.”

“This one goes to the naga,” I muttered, also pushing it in the pouch. “Do you have any potions that don’t have drawbacks?”

“I’m afraid that is rarely how it works,” she said. “Balance in all things. But the ones I am carrying around me are all entirely negative, if it makes you feel better.”

“It does not. You got anything else in your bag of wonders?”

She pulled out three green potions and handed them to Sentinel and her two soldiers. “These make quadrupeds fleet of hoof. Should you need to run, drink these and you will be able to move much more swiftly. Unfortunately, it dims your eyesight, so you won’t be able to see as far.”

“Seems dangerous,” Sentinel said. “How long does it last?”

“Three kilometers,” Zecora said. “Or two hours. Whichever happens first.” She closed the bag and tossed it on her back, then slowly looked around our group. “I should mention now that should the worst come to pass, allowing yourselves to be captured alive would be most inadvisable. I feel no need to go into the indignities that will likely be committed upon you, but know that they will be more than slightly unpleasant. It is unlikely that even the water elementals would be able to save us. Should we have to fight, and should we begin to lose, fight to the death.”

“Sounds like good motivation to avoid a fight to me,” I said.

“Indeed. And of course, you shall not call me Zecora while we are there. My name will be Peregrine.”

Before anyone could reply, the ship’s bell started ringing. When it stopped, Gourd shouted, “We’re going to land. Brace yourselves!”

“We’ll leave the ship as soon as we can,” I said. “For now, hold onto something.” Our group broke up as everyone went to find something to brace themselves with. For most of us, that ended up being the railing on the side.

Since Ames was being antisocial, I walked to stand next to him. He saw me and put a hand on my shoulder to help support me for the landing. “Are you ready for combat?” he asked.

“As ever. But the point of this is to avoid combat if at all possible. These guys have a lot of bad motherfuckers that I don’t want to have to deal with. I’d much rather disprove Pertz as a god and then get the hell out. That said, I’m going to want you and Zecora by my side as much as possible. If the fighting does start, the three of us will probably have the best chance of getting to Pertz and taking him down. Oh, and here.” I pulled out the red potion and passed it to him. “If the shit does hit the fan, drink this. Zecora said it’ll make you stronger, but you’ll attack anyone you perceive as hostile. Just stay with me and I’ll direct you.”

“I will be by your side, sister of battle.”

That was all we had time for before we touched down in the river. Thankfully, Gourd knows his business, so we didn’t bounce too badly or hit the bottom. Everyone milled around until the ship slowly ground to a halt next to some shoddily made docks, where a welcoming party of three armored hyenas and a gorilla was waiting for us. The gorilla had a large wooden shield and a spear tipped with bronze.

One of the crew members lowered a gangplank and I was the first on it, walking down to speak to them. “I am Navarone,” I said. “And this is my ship. We are here to speak to your leader.”

“Any emissaries from the goddess of the sun are welcome in the village of our god of trade,” the gorilla grunted, placing one of his hands on his chest. “Though you don’t look like those that came before.”

“The river is a dangerous place,” I said, placing a hand on the pommel of my sword. “The last group that was sent did not return. She decided to send a more… battle-ready crew to determine why.”

The gorilla’s eyes gazed over the group standing behind me, those of us in the shore party. His eyes lingered on some people and passed over others. Finally, he looked back at me. “Your use is not mine to determine. But the river must have truly degraded for the goddess of the sun to send so many demons.”

“She does not do things by halves. If the first attempt fails, she will ensure that the second does not. And if the second attempt still falls short, she will come personally to punish those who dared attack her subjects.” Hint hint.

“You serve a wise goddess. Come this way.” He turned and started walking away from the ship, toward land. The hyenas eyed me for a moment before following him. My group joined them, though as soon as they got to land, the hyenas stopped so they could flank us.

I passively noted that Spike stood very close to Applejack, presumably to shield her if necessary. Sentinel’s squad quietly surrounded Zecora. The naga fell in on my right shoulder and Kat took my left.

This village was very different from the shaman place. That one had no permanent structures, despite presumably having been there for a while. This town had several huts with thatched roofs, a few wells despite having a river, and children were running between houses, cavorting freely. Several female zebras were sitting in whatever shade they could find and spinning thread, tanning leather, sewing, and doing other menial tasks. We passed a few training grounds that had soldiers practicing all kinds of combat, though I didn’t see them doing any magic.

The only free pony in the entire village was right in front of a large group of wooden cages, bound together by leather ropes. Each one had a different creature in it. A lion, three of Celestia’s royal guards, a very battered unicorn mare, a few hyenas, several zebras, one wounded popobawa that flinched when he saw us, a very large and wizened elephant, a warthog, a meerkat, and two rhinos. Seeing the royal guards gave me a very bad feeling in my gut.

Pertz was a bright yellow unicorn with a cutie mark of a trading scale. He was standing in front of the unicorn’s cage, just staring at her. A female zebra that was covered in tattoos, had no tail, and was wearing a creepy mask stood next to him, watching us. The same bird we saw earlier was sitting on her back, also watching us. It was still emitting random sparks of electricity, which the zebra ignored.

The gorilla walked up to Pertz and bowed down. “My lord god, these supplicants have come to show obeisance, and deliver a message from the goddess of the sun.”

Pertz finally turned to face us and I could instantly tell something inside of him checked out a very long time ago. His eyes had a manic look in them, the same kind of look I saw in Miguel and similar to the one I saw in the king of Egypt. There wouldn’t be any talking this guy down, that’s for sure.

“Visitors from Celestia,” he slowly said in an off-puttingly high voice, which was not at all what I was expecting. “Why do you come here?”

“She hasn’t heard word from you in a long time,” I said. “She was worried about you. It would please her to have you return to Canterlot for a short amount of time, so she can speak to you in person.”

He was silent for several long seconds before turning back to the cage. “Do you hear that? She wants us to come home.” The mare flinched and whimpered. He turned back to me. “I am going nowhere.”

“It wouldn’t be a long trip,” I said. “We made it down the river in less than a week. We made it across the ocean in a similar amount of time. You wouldn’t be away from your post long.”

He slammed a hoof on the ground, making the area around us start shaking for several seconds. When it stopped, he said, “I am going nowhere.”

“Shall I dispose of them?” the zebra asked, tilting her head slightly. “Or would you prefer them in your cages?”

He shook his head, though his eyes didn’t leave my helmet. “Many of the servants of Celestia are milquetoasts and will need no convincing to depart. They will spend the night here to recuperate from their assuredly arduous journey, then leave in the morning. They will carry a message to Celestia.”

Some of her servants are cowards,” I said, putting my hand back on the sword’s pommel. “I am not one of them.”

The gorilla gripped his spear tighter and squared up in front of me. “You dare speak back to your god?” he growled.

“I fear no god or king,” I said. The gorilla thrust his spear toward me, but the naga grabbed it before it could hit me. The hyenas started growling and circling and Pertz’s horn lit up.

Surprisingly, Zecora broke the stalemate. “There is no need for mass bloodshed,” she said, stepping forward. “Dueling is the way of war, and this village has long since turned from its peaceful nature. Select your champions and we will select ours. Should you win, we will peacefully depart. Should you lose, you will return with us.”

The witch doctor bitterly laughed while the gorilla yanked his spear back. The witch shook her head and said, “Such is the weakness of the shaman! You desire equality, even if you must stoop into our violence to obtain it. Kill them all, Pertz. That will send your princess her message.”

“Do you fear me, witch doctor?” Zecora quietly asked, turning her glowing yellow eyes directly onto the bitch.

“My power is absolute. I have no need to prove it to you!”

“Shows of power are always necessary when surrounded by brutes,” Zecora said, turning her head to gaze around the camp. “Such displays keep the weaker willed in line. That is the way of the witch, is it not? Rule by fear and power, not respect and love?”

Pertz wryly smiled. “So it is, shaman. What is your name? Your voice seems… familiar.”

“I am called Peregrine. My assistance was requested for this journey down our Heart’s Vein.”

“We will meet your challenge. Five champions. Five duels to the death or until one surrenders.” He looked at one hyena and said, “Lead them to the arena. I will join them there shortly.” The hyena bowed and then started jogging away. My group followed.

When we were away from Pertz, I waved Zecora forward. “So what the hell was that?” I asked. “That wasn’t unicorn magic.”

“It was not,” she said. “It was also not my magic, or the witch doctor’s magic. If I knew how he did what he did, he would not have been a threat to me.”

Oh boy. “So what do you expect in this duel?” I asked.

“His best warriors, though I doubt he would throw away every member of a race at once. So it will likely be one or two of each race. An elephant, a rhino, a gorilla, a hippo, and likely his witch doctor.”

“Fun. Rules?”

“Melee only, for the most part. No throwing weapons, either.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“But it’s the rule. Or so it was, once upon a time. Should he use the witch doctor as a champion, magic will be allowed. But she would only deign to fight me. And even if your ring would work against her, I must be the one to defeat her.” I kinda wondered why, but I figured it was probably just an honor thing. This world is stupid like that.

The arena wasn’t too far from where they kept the prisoners. There was probably a correlation there, one that I didn’t think too hard on. The place wasn’t all that large, unsurprisingly. There were a few stands on all four sides, and the sidelines were large enough that competitors could comfortably stand around while waiting for their turn.

When the hyena wandered off, I turned to face our group. “Thoughts?”

Sentinel shook her head. “I have no interest in being a part of a pissing contest against savages, sir. Especially not ones with hides thicker than my armor. If you need me to fight zebras, I can. But there’s not much I or anyone on my squad can do against a rhino, elephant, or hippo.”

“Noted.”

Kat drew her rapier and looked down the blade. “I can handle an elephant, Nav. It certainly wouldn’t be the first this rapier has claimed. No amount of toughness would help any of you against one of them. Speed is needed, and I have the most here.”

The naga gently pressed against Kat, making her stumble back. “You are weak, kitty. What use are you against something that large?”

“Finesse beats brute strength any day, big guy. Or have you not learned that from our bouts?” He silently rubbed at a large bruise on his hip. “Being able to quickly hit a small target with perfect accuracy means a lot.”

“Then you’ll get the largest thing we fight,” I said. “But you better not get fucking crushed. I sure as shit don’t want to have to deal with Spider alone.” She smiled and bowed. “Naga, can you handle a rhino?”

“Of course. I could also handle an elephant or a hippo. Weaponless animals are cake to bring down.”

“Good. Spike, you’ll fight a hippo.”

His eyes widened. “What?! Why me?”

“They have no piercing weapons, so your scales will be impenetrable. You’ll just have to do your best to not get trampled. Use your teeth, claws, tail spikes, and fire if it’s allowed.”

“It’s not,” Zecora hastily said.

“Then don’t use your fire. But use everything else and tear the thing apart.” He gulped and nodded. “I’ll fill in the gaps and take whatever’s left. Sentinel, keep an eye on the stands. Make sure none of them try cheating if they start losing.”

“Of course, sir.” She looked around and then said, “It should go without saying that when we win, we need to negotiate the release of the pony prisoners as well.”

“We’ll worry about that when we can.” She nodded.

Zebra villagers were starting to filter into the arena, taking places in the stands. I suppose it wasn’t too often that they got to see actual fights. They probably usually only saw slaughters, though they might have expected this to be one. I certainly intended for it to be that way.

About fifteen minutes after we arrived, Pertz appeared on the other side of the arena. Sure enough, he had a hippo, a rhino, an elephant, the same gorilla, and his witch doctor. He and his mage started walking toward us, so Zecora and I met him halfway.

“I never learned your name, armored stranger,” Pertz said when we got close to him.

“I am the human Navarone,” I said. After a moment of thought, I removed my helmet. His eyes widened and his breath seemed to catch. “You may have heard of me.”

He recovered quickly, I’ll give him that. “I have. Blueblood sent me many letters about you. So did several of the other nobles. It will be good to put you in your place.”

“We shall see about that,” I said as I put my helmet back on. “I have chosen my champions. Are your troops ready to die?”

“My holy champions are ready to win,” he growled. With that, he whirled around and marched back to his side. Zecora and I walked back to our area.

The first one he sent out was the rhino. Ames drew his sword and slithered out to meet the foe.

There wasn’t any kind of indication that the round started. The rhino just suddenly started charging. Ames grinned and slid right around the beast. It grunted and skidded to a halt right in front of us, showering most of us with dust and rocks. Applejack and Kat apparently saw it coming and decided to hide behind Spike. The rest of us just turned away and let it ping off our armor.

When the rhino was facing the right way, he started walking toward the naga, who was still waiting near the center of the arena. The rhino chuckled darkly and said, “So you can dodge, naga. But how long can you stand against me? I am the boulder tumbling down the mountain. I am the avalanche that eradicates a city. I am the wave that eats away the shore! And you will fall to me, naga.”

Ames chose not to participate in the smack talk, which probably pissed the rhino off. There’s nothing quite like being ignored when you’re trying to build yourself up.

Instead of charging this time, the rhino got within goring range of his horn and tried stabbing the naga. Ames lifted his sword up and blocked the stab with the flat of his blade, which pushed his upper body back slightly. I had a feeling he was just judging the rhino’s strength.

The rhino pulled back and tried a sweeping attack that the naga ducked away from. Since that failed, the beast reared back and thrust both legs forward. Ames finally responded by quickly shifting away and swinging his sword in for an attack, which the rhino just barely blocked with his horn.

He swung his head to the side, throwing the naga off balance, then tried another sweeping attack. Ames grabbed the horn with one hand and pulled. The rhino felt him pulling and jerked his head back, which is what the naga wanted. He used that extra momentum to pull himself harder, letting his entire body fly forward.

The rhino saw that and twisted, trying to make Ames let go of his horn. He chose to twist the wrong way, because the naga landed on his back and immediately started wrapping his tail around the rhino’s neck. In response, the rhino sprinted forward and shook his head around to try to dislodge his unwanted passenger. Ames started trying to bring his sword down to stab the bastard in the back of the skull.

The rhino started bucking, making Ames hold onto one of the rhino’s ears with one hand and stopping him from stabbing the guy. Instead, his tail started tightening, though I had no idea how much pressure it would take to make a rhino choke. The horned fellow was definitely starting to panic, though, whether or not his windpipe was actually cut off. His movements got more frantic, enough that one particularly wild buck made Ames rip the guy’s ear off.

The rhino howled in pain and stopped long enough for the naga to finally get his sword ready. But he recovered and turned what should have been a killing blow into something that sliced into his horn instead. It didn’t cut it off, but it got close and the sword became stuck inside.

It gave the rhino the opening he needed, though. He finally reared back and started to fall on his back in an attempt to crush the naga. Ames smiled, grabbed the guy around the horn, and twisted around so he was sitting on the rhino’s underside when he hit the ground. The sword slammed into the dirt and cut the rest of the way through the horn, leaving it in the naga’s grasp.

Before the rhino could recover or start moving, Ames slammed the horn into its neck. His entire body jerked and his legs started flailing, so Ames pulled the horn out and slammed it in several more times, until the rhino finally stopped moving and his blood leaked out into a large pool in the dirt around them.

Ames uncoiled his tail, yanked the horn out, and slid to where his sword was. He slung the dirt off it, put it in its sheath, and slithered over to us without another word. The horn was glistening with blood, so he started rubbing his trophy off in the dirt to clean it.

Pertz stepped forward with an unreadable expression on his face and slammed one hoof into the ground. The dirt rose up around the rhino’s body and then completely engulfed it, dragging it down into who knows where. When the body was gone, he walked back to his side and the hippo moved forward.

“That’s you, Spike,” I said. “Remember that your wings don’t work and that you can’t use flames.”

“And remember that hippos are deceptively fast,” Zecora said. “Even on land, they can likely outrun you.”

“But you eat gemstones,” I said. “So you can tear through him like butter if you can get your teeth on him.”

Spike nervously rubbed his claws together before nodding and stepping up. The hippo sized him up from across the arena. When he realized he’d be fighting a dragon, he actually started looking kinda nervous.

For Spike’s part, his body started morphing as he neared the center of the arena. His claws doubled in size, sharp spines shot out of his back, spikes ripped from his tail, his currently useless wings flared, and his neck elongated sharply. When he grimaced, the hippo could see all of his very sharp teeth.

When Spike’s transformation was complete, the hippo stared in silence for a moment before shrugging and charging. Spike’s eyes widened at the unexpected speed and he dove out of the way. The hippo stopped much faster than the rhino and started charging again, making Spike dive once more.

That repeated a few more times until Spike was sure of the thing’s speed. Across the arena, Pertz was smiling, thinking this a sure victory for him. I knew better, and watched as Spike finally stood his ground against the hippo. Instead of diving to the side as it charged, he stabbed forward with his claws and then elegantly spun around it, impaling its chest and completely dodging the blow.

It wasn’t until the hippo disengaged that I noticed Spike also stabbed him in the side with his tail spikes, leaving a small hole between his ribs. The hippo noted the pain with a loud snort and charged forward with his mouth open. Spike backed up a few paces, took a moment to judge its speed and the distance between them, then sprinted forward.

Even my eyes widened at that one. I started to yell a warning, but Spike dove under the hippo. He timed its leg movements perfectly and somehow squeezed under the fairly low animal. When the hippo was right over him, Spike pushed up, pressing his back spines into the thing’s relatively unarmored stomach.

None of us were expecting that one, least of all the hippo. When he cleared Spike, he slowly ground to a halt, not quite realizing what just happened. Then his stomach burst open, spilling his guts on the ground and making him start screaming.

But he didn’t surrender.

Spike slowly pulled himself up off the ground, nervously watching the injured hippo. He didn’t seem to notice the blood dripping down his back. After about fifteen seconds of pained screaming, Spike looked over to us. I lifted up my head and drew my finger across my neck, hoping he’d understand that meant to finish it. He sighed and started walking toward the hippo.

When it saw Spike, it started trying to crawl away. It either couldn’t talk or its throat was too sore, so it didn’t try to surrender.

Spike stopped right next to it and looked back to me. I nodded. His shoulders sagged and he reached down to its neck, then used his claws to rip out its throat. The hippo quickly finished dying and Spike walked back to our side, shaking blood off his claws. As he got closer, his body started reverting to its normal form.

When he finally got to us, he didn’t say anything and didn’t meet anyone’s gaze. Applejack silently started rubbing the blood off his back with a towel she got from who knows where.

While she was doing that, Pertz was moving forward to deal with this body as well. The unreadable expression he was wearing started dipping into anger, but it wasn’t quite there yet.

“So if we win one more, does that mean it’s over?” I quietly asked Zecora.

“No. All parties will fight, regardless of the number of total victories. And neither dueler is allowed to surrender until their blood has been shed, so we can’t just beat the next one and immediately surrender to end this farce.”

“Dueling is fucking stupid,” I muttered as Pertz walked back to his place.

This time, it was the elephant that moved forward. I suppose they wanted what they thought would be an easy victory. When Kat started walking forward with just a rapier in her hands, they all grinned, thinking they had it. That was an understandable belief, given that each of the elephant’s tusks was longer than Kat’s entire body and thicker than her legs.

Even the elephant seemed to smile as he walked toward her. “Turn around, little kitty. Stomping you is barely worth the effort.”

“Ten years ago, an assassin killed King Babar in the middle of a pitched battle. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.” The elephant stiffened. “I see that you have,” Kat said as she lifted her rapier. “This is the blade that pierced his eye. And this is the paw that wielded it.”

“You slayed my king!”

“He was one of many,” she said with a cute little shrug. “The fight was too easy to be memorable, but I believe I remember enough to foresee how this battle will go.”

“YOU KILLED MY KING!” The elephant lost all pretenses of smugness and charged, baying his trunk like mad. Of course, an angry opponent is exactly what Kat wanted, because he’d lose a lot of wariness and caution. It also gave him a speed and strength boost, but Kat was still faster.

When he got close, she jumped out of his way. He tried grabbing her with his trunk while he passed, but she slapped it away with the rapier. “Too slow!” she said with a chuckle while she lifted her sword back up.

He bayed again and whirled on her, trying to use his trunk to grab her. She dodged back and kicked dirt into it. That made him stop trying to grab at her. Instead, he jumped forward to try to stab her with one of his tusks. She ducked under it and poked him in the foot, though he didn’t pay it any mind. Since she was low, he tried swinging his trunk along the ground.

She did a fairly sexy backflip over it and pulled a knife out at the same time. While he was trying to recover from that, she sliced his ear open with the knife and put it away again before he could even turn.

“You ready to surrender yet?” she asked as his blood started sprinkling onto the arena.

“Vengeance will be mine!”

I rolled my eyes. “Kat, stop toying with him!” She dodged away from another of the elephant’s blows and stuck her tongue out at me. “Fucking sadistic cats, man...”

Spike walked up next to me and asked, “Is she really just… playing with him?”

“Yes. She could have ended this fight as soon as it started.” I shook my head and sighed, “But that’s not her way.”

The crowd was also starting to get antsy. They wanted to see action, not someone tiny dodging away from someone huge while occasionally stinging him with mosquito bites. Of course, the crowd’s pleasure wasn’t exactly my concern, but I really didn’t want them to do anything stupid.

I also didn’t want Kat to risk getting clobbered by what should have been an easy conquest.

But thankfully, it seemed that she was quickly growing bored. Elephants aren’t exactly the best fighters, honestly. They’re great for shock and awe, but they’re not all too nimble and they usually aren’t extremely violent. This guy had a lot of energy and he was throwing out blows that would probably fuck Kat up if they ever hit her, but she was effortlessly dodging and could likely do so until he wore himself out.

And every blow she dodged just enraged the elephant more and more, until his eyes were bloodshot and he was continuously emitting an awful noise from his trunk.

Finally, Kat got the attack she wanted from the guy. He drove his trunk straight down into the ground, trying to slap her. She quickly sidestepped. When he yanked it back up, she stepped on it and sunk the claws on her lower legs into it. He didn’t even realize Kat was stuck there until she was right in front of his face.

He just barely had time to look surprised before her rapier impaled his left eye, making Spike gasp and grip my arm. She ripped the rapier out, tossing corneal fluids all over the arena. Before his trunk slid down to the ground, she had his other eye impaled and repeated the process of tearing it open. When both were mangled, she slid off his trunk, backed up a few meters, and waited.

The pain probably knocked him flat before blood loss did, but the eyeless elephant quickly fell to the ground, leaking blood and other fluids onto the arena. After nearly a minute passed and he was still sort of breathing, Kat walked back up to him and jabbed her rapier through one of his eye sockets, then twisted it around until he stopped twitching.

With him dead, she slung the juices from her rapier, sheathed it, then started walking back. Before she got a meter away, she stopped, pulled out a very large dagger, and walked back to the body to she could remove one of the tusks. By the time she rejoined us with her trophy, an extremely pissed off Pertz had started making the elephant’s body disappear.

“Mine’s bigger,” she happily said to the naga, hefting the tusk she could barely carry.

“Size isn’t everything,” the naga grumbled, stroking his trophy.

Kat cackled and said, “Just because your wife tells you that doesn’t mean it’s true.” The two ponies in Sentinel’s squad giggled and I kinda wanted to see what the naga would say, but the next enemy champion was walking forward. Of course, it was the gorilla.

“I suppose that’s my cue,” I said as I started walking forward and drawing my sword.

“Good luck!” Spike nervously called. I didn’t see a need to respond to that.

The gorilla didn’t attack immediately, surprisingly. He stopped several meters away, pointed his spear at me, then turned to bow to Pertz. I kept walking with every intention of stabbing him in the back while he was being an idiot, but he got up before I had the chance.

“I will teach you fear, heretic,” he growled.

“I learned that from a far better teacher than you,” I said. “Your story ends today, gorilla. I’d tell you to make peace with your god, but you probably already sucked him off before you came here.”

That really got him riled up. He sprinted forward and jabbed his spear directly at me. I neatly sidestepped and then brought my sword up in a fast arc, cutting the spear’s head off. It was made of wood, so he had no right to be so surprised by that.

Unfortunately, he recovered before I could cut his head off instead, and swung his shield at me. My reflexes failed and I got knocked on my ass and pushed completely out of breath. He jabbed me right in the chest with what was left of his spear, which knocked me onto my back and dented the armor yet again.

He tried swinging it down on my head, but I rolled over and pushed myself back to my feet before he could attack again, then finally went on the offensive. Since he knew how strong my sword was now, he deflected my first slice with his pole and backed up, then tried blocking a stab with his shield. My sword went right through it and the arm on the other side, since wooden shields aren’t the most sturdy of objects and trying to block a heavy pointy metal object is stupid, magical or not.

So he started screaming in pain and pulled his arm away. The shield uselessly clattered to the ground right around the time the cold enchantment kicked in and he started shivering. He tried swinging the pole again, but he was shaking so hard and in so much pain that I casually bisected it further, leaving him practically nothing.

He finally dropped what was left of the stick and started backing away. “Ready to die for your god?” I sarcastically asked, stepping closer. His eyes were full of fear and pain and his one good arm was holding his injured one against his body.

When I got close, he whirled around and started running toward Pertz. “Protect me, please!” I immediately caught up to him and brought my sword down on his back, slicing through part of his spine. He dropped to the ground and started crawling. “My god, please! PLEASE!”

I slowly walked up to the gorilla and put my foot on his back, making him stop and start whimpering. I looked Pertz dead in the eye as I brought the sword down in an arc, cutting the gorilla’s head off. When I looked back at our group on the sidelines, Zecora nodded. I reached down and grabbed the gorilla’s head, then held it up for everyone in the audience to see.

“Is this how you protect your subjects, Pertz?” I called out. “Is this how you save those that beg you for mercy?” I dropped the head. “Your so-called holy warriors have been turned into mere holey corpses. Would you care to cut your losses and admit defeat? Or should we turn another one of your misguided slaves into mincemeat?”

He stepped forward and some kind of magic amplified his voice. “This is the price one must pay for failure, outlander. No more, no less. I did not save him because I couldn’t, I chose not to save him because he failed me. And I choose not to silence you not because I can’t, but because proving you wrong serves a better purpose!”

I put my sword away and held my hands out to my side. “I’m calling you out, Pertz. Silence me if you can. Prove your so-called divinity!”

“Do not tempt me, outlander!”

“I’m not tempting you, Pertz. I’m daring you. We cut four of your best soldiers down without breaking a sweat. I will let you be the fifth, here and now. I won’t even use my sword.” To punctuate that, I unbuckled it and let it fall into the dirt next to me.

He actually looked tempted and I thought for a moment I’d get to beat the shit out of him and call it a day, but his witch doctor ruined it by stepping forward. “He has nothing to prove to you, weakling. You have beaten your champion and now it is my turn to fight. Remove yourself from the arena!”

It seems Pertz was using her as some kind of common sense metric, because he turned around and walked back to his side without even making the gorilla body disappear. “Coward!” I called out. He didn’t reply, so I grabbed my sword and went back to our lines, shaking my head. As soon as I crossed over the edge of the arena, Zecora started walking in, but I stopped her before she got too far. “Do you want to use my ring?” I asked.

“I do not,” she said. “We have already won this fight. If I begin to lose, I will surrender. But I do not believe I will lose. I knew this witch doctor, once. This fight was over the moment she agreed to it.”

“Ballin’. You gonna kill her or try to take her alive?”

“...I will try to kill her, though it will haunt me forever.”

“Alright, cool. Kat and I will be watching from the sidelines. If you do anything stupid like turn your back on her before she actually surrenders or unmask her and pause in surprise long enough for her to do something dangerous, we’ll kill her for you. I’m about done with playing around.”

She shook her head. “This zebra died a long time ago. All that’s left is this monster in her body. There’s nothing surprising about her, nor is there any reason for me to turn my back on her before the job is done.”

“Oh. Then I’ll see you when it’s over.” She finally went away without another word.

As soon as I stopped, the naga slid over to me. “You made several mistakes in that fight, human.”

“I underestimated an opponent with wooden weapons. And I relied too heavily on my armor to stop possible damage. I knew the actual spearhead would have hurt me, but I wasn’t overly worried about the shield or the stick, so I let him get hits on me.”

“...At least you know your mistake.”

“Yeah, now shut up. I want to see a spooky voodoo battle.” He snorted and fell silent.

At the moment, there wasn’t too much to watch. Zecora was standing several meters in front of the witch doctor. For once, the crazy bitch wasn’t advocating murdering someone. She was just standing there, waiting. After nearly half a minute, her bird flew off, away from the arena. I guess using it was against the rules or something.

Either way, that acted as the start of the match. One of the witch’s hooves caught on fire and she lifted it up to her face. She did something and a green fireball shot away from her and toward Zecora, who caught it and casually tossed it aside. “You underestimate the power of balance,” Zecora calmly said, her hoof smoking.

“You underestimate the power of destruction!” the witch shouted back. The eyes of the mask started glowing off white and then a burst of lightning shot out of its mouth. Zecora countered faster than I’ve ever seen anyone move and threw one of her potions at the bolt. The lightning shattered the potion and a glob of smoking green goop plopped to the ground.

Zecora shook her head. “Proper training and plentiful practice provides more strength than bartering your soul ever could.” She picked some dirt off the ground and blew air into it. The stuff flew away and then started whirling around, creating a small dust cyclone that quickly built up size and strength. It shot off toward the witch.

She ignored her hair flying everywhere and lifted a hoof to the mouth of the mask. It elongated and she sucked the cyclone in, dust and all. Her body vibrated rapidly for several seconds before she spewed it back out as a spear of rock that flew across the arena at Zecora.

Our zebra spun, slinging her cloak up and letting the spear impact it. As soon as it did, the rock became flexible and then quickly broke back into dirt. When Zecora was facing the proper direction again, she threw another bottle at the witch doctor. In response, the witch pulled out a single hair and threw it like a knife. It somehow flew true and hit the bottle, piercing it and making it explode into some kind of confetti.

Instead of falling to the ground, each piece of paper froze in the air and then shot directly toward the witch. She managed to jump aside quickly enough to dodge most, but some of them sliced open her right flank.

She wiped some of the blood off and stared at it for a second, then managed to convey a glare through a wooden mask. “Nobody makes me bleed my own blood! Nobody!”

Then whose blood are you going to bleed? Jesus.

Zecora chuckled and said, “I merely do unto you what you have done unto others, witch doctor. It is unwise to give that which you cannot take.”

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