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Scales of Steel: Into the Burning Maw (Closed)


Solaria
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A freezing, snowy wind bit at Mjölna's cheek as she stood upon her rocky outcropping, looking out over the desolate world of The Badlands. Far below, the tundra continued in unerring bleakness, obscured by the relentless torrent of blinding white that fell from the grey sky above. She smiled. It reminded her of home.

After another moment or two of studying the landscape she turned and began trotting the short distance back to the nearby inn and tavern, the last one before the true uncivilized wilderness began. The last place to see a friendly face as it were, and the term was used very lightly. Any ponies to be found out here were used to surviving an environment that didn't care if you froze, and it often carried into their attitudes. It hardly mattered. Mjölna had been, and still mostly was, one of those ponies, despite calling Ponyville home now.

As she entered into the torchlit warmth of the two-story, timber and stone building, she shook her coat mightily and scattered any clinging ice crystals to the worn floor. Aside from a long red cloak, she wore nothing to ward against the elements. Returning to her table and its resident mug of mead, she took a long swallow before thumping her heavy, trademark hammer square on its rickety surface. To the furniture's credit, it didn't shatter under the massive tool. The action had the desired effect, and drew the attention of most of the others in attendance.

"Prithee," Mjölna called out in a strong, steady voice. "Who among you considers theirs the heart of an adventurer! One who looks danger in its own eye and laughs at the challenge? A pony whose courage knows no bounds, and meets adversity with enthusiasm?" She thumped her mallet again. "I am such a pony. I will be venturing deep into Mount Naskralar to find one of the oldest supposed dragons known to ponykind. And we shall... request... the use of several of his scales. As should be obvious, dragons' lairs are gilded with gold and other such treasures! Any who would wish to accompany me on such an undertaking would likely return all the richer, for my only goal is the scales for use in some of my greatest armor to date. I shall depart upon the rising of Celestia's sun."

Her proclamation finished, the confident earthpony settled before the roaring hearth with her hammer and mug. She would enjoy the warmth tonight, for ahead all that lay in wait was cold and very possible danger. She smiled once more.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Page Turner looked into his mug of cider, refusing to make eye contact with any of the ponies around him. While he did have a hidden strength in his small body, it didn't change the fact that there were a few characters here that could snap him in half if they thought he looked at them in an odd way. This meant the only place that he could look, was into his drink. He'd somehow managed to get a place in front of the fire without argument, and he savored the warmth emanating from the flames. He was no stranger to the cold, but he still preferred his heat.

He risked a glance around the room, and again saw that he really was out of place. Half the size of almost everypony else, one of the few stallions with shorn fetlocks and the only with glasses. He began to regret ever coming to this frozen place, and having to stay because of the storm. But the treasured he managed to buy off of that mare were nothing short of incredible. Treasure was a relative term, as not all ponies saw bound paper as riches. The irony was that while these types of places were the last location in Equestria book-loving ponies could be found, they held some of the oldest and most fascinating tomes. A few of them the Canterlot library might even be interested in.

For now, though, he was stuck until the morning, when the storm was going to subside enough for him to move his wagon out. Until then, all he had was the fire and a few drinks, but even that little group had to be interrupted by a loud bang.

Page turned around with the rest of the tavern's occupants to look at the mare that seemed to want the attention.

She began ranting about courage and an epic quest of some sort, but Page simply returned to looking into the fire, tuning her out. But a single word bought his attention back to the loud mare.

The dragon of Naskralar. Was she really....

By th time his mind had pieced it all together, the mare was in front of the the fire with him, taking in the warmth. Not knowing how to approach the mare, he went the usual route and held out his hoof.

"I'm Page Turner. Now you say your seeking the old dragon of Naskralar? Last I heard, it was just a legend."

He reached into his saddle bag and pulled out one of the books he'd obtained that afternoon. It was a deep brown with an artistic representation of a dragon on the front.

"And I know my legends."

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Mjölna took a deep draught of her mug, letting the liquid fire spread through her veins while the actual fire in the hearth warmed her fur. It was a good feeling, being the eve of a day of adventure and courage. Who knew what she'd find in those mountains? The pony next to her, apparently. With his diminished stature and his bookish appearance, the mare wouldn't have thought twice about him until he directly introduced himself with hoof extended.

"Page Turner?" she echoed with a friendly laugh. "Well met! It is mine honor to meet a loreseeker such as yourself." She shook his hoof. "I am called Mjölna. And yes, just a legend perhaps. But tell me brother, do not legends hold their basis in truths long past? It is true that the story of a might dragon might entertain foals some dark Equestrian night, while they lie safe in their homes. But to truly face such a creature is terrifying. So in light of your disbelief, I believe I shall go and face a legend."

The thought of one of the oldest dragons in Equestria, bearing down upon her with unbreakable armored scales coating its body while opening a furnace of a maw that could swallow a schoolhouse did frighten Mjölna, but she wasn't about to back down. No, her father had raised strong, brave ponies. And to be the best at what she did, she needed the best materials.

"What say you, Page Turner? Wouldst thou meet a dragon?"

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She was much more used to train chases and confronting diamond dog bandits around here. But work for coin was always a welcome prospect to the young gryphoness. And the speech of the mare at the center table had certainly given her reason to listen. Miasma did feel however, that in this place, she was a bit overdressed, or more appropriately, looked very much out of place. Her default style of men's formal wear did not mesh well with what was essentially amounting to a fantasy quest. A little thing like that wouldn't stop her, but it was indeed a pet peeve of hers.

Maybe she'd find some armor on this excursion. Finders keepers and all. But first, she needed to introduce herself.

"Dragons and legends. I'm more concerned with the bottom line." said Miasma Vice, clad in a green dress vest, white dress shirt, black formal tie and dark green blazer. She stepped forward, standing next to Page Turner as he spoke. "The name's Miasma. Here's my card," said the gryphon, interrupting the two of them, and setting down two laminated cards on the table listing her as an adventurer for hire along with her address in Talonopolis. "My mother's an adult dragon so nothing I haven't seen already in that department. Unless this one has like, electric fire or something... You ponies really oughta get out more."

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  • 2 weeks later...

While Mjölna waited for a response from the diminuative stallion before her, a rather abrupt voice sounded from behind them. The mare's ear flicked slightly, the speaker sounded as though was very business-oriented and would do whatever necessary to get what they wanted. Admirable, but those were personalities to be wary around. She turned to look directly at the new guest as two laminated cards were flicked to the table.

"Miasma," she echoed, rolling the name around in her mouth. "A fine determination you have. However, I have not any bits nor coin with which to pay you. The journey is merely for those seeking glory and wishing to make their ancestors proud, with the great opportunity for treasure as we forge onward. You woud of course be welcome to anything you find in the dragon's lair, but this is not a paid journey. For it to be so would undermine mine own confidence in retrieving the scales."

A hoof idly traced along her hammer's etched designs as she spoke, her mind already deep in long-forgotten tunnels and caves while meeting ancient dragons in heated combat. It was foolhardy to go seeking battle with some of the deadliest creatures known to ponykind, but Mjölna liked to be frank with her own imagination. Negotiations would likely be met with fire. Lots and lots of fire.

"What say you, sister of the skies? Is that 'bottom line' enough for you?" the earthpony asked with a grin.

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"Well, sister of the hammer," said the gryphon, "I didn't come all this way for nothing."

An adventure through a frozen tundra with a pair of ponies for dragon scales. This was a pretty big game to get into, but Miasma was confident in her abilities to handle trouble, wherever it sprung up. Sharp talons and quick wings. Two things that never failed her. And even so, she could tell Mjolna wasn't somepony she wanted to be on the wrong side of. Her appearance matched with the simple aura of strength emanating from her, an earth pony who no doubt made use of her impressive muscles on a daily basis.

And Page Turner seemed quite knowledgeable, hence the name that implied one who read many books. He didn't look to be much of a scrapper, but surely he'd be of some kind of use if he already knew about the mountain they were about to travel to. How much he knew had yet to be seen.

"So Molly," Miasma addressed the earth pony with a nickname rather quickly, "is there a place where we can strap up, get supplies or something? Or are we going in dry?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mjölna smiled idly at Miasma's comment.

"There is nothing else here aside from the inn. What provisions we take with us will be at the grace of our wonderful host." She indicated a gnarled old stallion with a lazy eye who was standing with a snarl at anypony who came close. "At best, we garner a pair of bedrolls and some meat and water, perhaps a lantern or two. What is likely? We venture forth with scant sustenance and rely on our strength and vigor to see us through our quest."

She hoisted her stein at the griffon and took a long draught before clunking it down with a sigh. She slowly wiped the back of a hoof across her muzzle to clear any droplets and shook her mane slightly in the tingling aftermath of the drink.

"As I said, it is not a journey for the faint of heart. But who among these ponies can say they bested an ancient, full-grown wyrm?" She clapped Miasma on the shoulder. "No pony, or griffon, save us can make such a boast when we're through. Come friend, enjoy one of your last warm nights for quite a while."

The earthpony slammed down a few more bits on the counter, endured a screech from the innkeeper, and returned with two full mugs.

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She cringed slightly when the owner of the inn was indicated. He looked like he could have used a bath and a few hundred years off his life clock... Maybe a new eye too. Not that Miasma had any intention of mentioning these things. If she was getting a free night out of that old codger, he couldn't be half as bad as he looked. It was a spot of light in this quest that she'd be loath to take for granted.

Mjolna was a lively one, that was for sure. And almost did a number on her shoulder where that hoof had clapped her, good goddess. The gryphon had met more than a few workhorses in her short career, but 'ol Molly beat out just about all of them. She flexed just by moving alone.

"Nothing but the clothes on ou--" she stopped, and then looked at herself. Then back to the earth pony. Mjolna was already naked. "Right..."

Mjolna traipsed off and came back in a few seconds, mugs full of drink. Miasma had very few pony brews, but she couldn't disrespect the place by refusing to try their beverages. It looked like mead, actually, the little bubbles rising to a foamy surface of golden liquid. She took it from her and nodded her head politely, "Thanks."

There was some sequence of words bothered her, even as she raised the mug to her lips, before she could take the first sip, she lowered the mug and asked the wrong question.

"If the handle to that broke," said Miasma, observing the mare holding onto her drink via the hoof in the handle, "how would you drink that?"

The gryphon went back to sipping her mead before she failed spectacularly at preventing a spit take and getting the stuff all down her green blazer and shirt.

"And what the hay do you mean, Wyrm?"

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Mjölna calmly sipped at her mead, smiling idly at the griffon's reaction. She hadn't much expected a fierce leonic avian in a business suit to answer her call, but she wasn't complaining. After all, she'd heard good things about how Miasma's kind reacted to hardship: by giving their antagonists even more hardship than they'd received themselves. It was a good way to deal with problems in the pony's opinion. The mare did however give a flat look at the first question.

"I would use two hooves, of course," she chuckled, thunking her mug back down. "A mere handle won't stop me from tasting the nectar of the gods!"

She was trying to find how best to explain the power of a wyrm when the question was answered for her by a calm, quiet voice from a corner booth.

"A wyrm is a beast of a dragon," a hooded figure explained in its feminine voice, eyes glittering darkly from beneath it's cloak. "All dragons are long-lived, with some dating back to Celestia and Luna's ascension to the throne. Whereas you might fear a fully-grown dragon, and rightly so, wyrms are the oldest and most intelligent of them all. Imagine a creature of impenetrable hide that is capable of melting solid stone or steel simply by opening its maw, coupled with an impossibly sharp mind. Not to mention dragons never really stop growing."

The pony, for that's what it could be presumed she was, stood and trotted over to the pair before lowering her hood and revealing herself to be a tall unicorn of dark purplish hues. Her focused gaze moved from Miasma to Mjölna and back again.

"That is of course, unless you were expressing disbelief in the fact that we might be facing a wyrm in general. In which case I hope it's true, because that's the reason I'll be coming with you. Those creatures have vast hoards of not only treasure but knowledge as well, and I would see what Naskralar's keeper keeps hidden away in his mind and scrolls."

The unicorn extended a hoof.

"I'm Destiny. A pleasure to meet you both."

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"So instead of being big and friggin' scary, they're big, friggin' scary, and smart." deadpanned Miasma, dabbing at her blazer with the napkin she kept in her breast pocket. "Just great."

In truth, facing down some of the most powerful creatures in existence should have been a selling point to Miasma. And in some cases, it was. Adventure was in her job description for crying out loud! So what was this feeling creeping up her spine? What was this doubt-

"You've scared the poor thing."

The voice came from behind Miasma, and another hooded figure standing next to her now. "Wyrms are nothing to be taken lightly, child." said the comparatively shorter midnight coloured unicorn mare, pulling her hood away to reveal her maneless head. "They will not hesitate to remove you." She turned her head toward the gryphon, "Unless they're hungry of course."

The look of simple surprise on Miasma's face at the new arrival not seconds after Destiny's appearance quickly turned into a rather heated stare. Who did this pony think she was, coming out of nowhere, calling her afraid?

"Hey, you. I ain't afraid of nothin'." she said, pointing a claw back at her, though the darker unicorn had already turned her attentions back to the other ponies.

"We are certain to face Naskralar in mortal combat. I doubt there's the slightest chance of him being the exception to any of the rules of dragonkind, much less wyrmkind." she continued. A white glow emanated from her horn before settling around her chest. From within her cloak arose sixteen shards of marble snapping together slowly in midair, shining with enchanted magics to form a crude rectangle with serrated edges on one side. "You will need more than courage and knowledge to face him. You will need power."

"Oi, I'm talkin to you-" said Miasma, pushing the shards out of her way and stepping directly into the mare's circle.

Not that she cared to talk back to her...directly. "This cowardly lion will serve as a healthy snack for him, I'm sure." she said, walking past her and over to the bar. "I will acquire my own drink, and when the time comes, we shall be on our way, yes?"

Miasma seethed as she watched the other mare head in the direction of the bar, the marble shards separating and storing themselves in the harness underneath her cloak. "I vote we institute a one unicorn limit." she said to Mjolna.

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Mjölna had almost answered this newcomer, Destiny, when another mare showed up and offered more blunt and foreboding monologue. It was also a tad more condescending, but Miasma seemed like she could handle herself. The earthpony didn't want to embarrass her even further by making her own comment on the situation. Instead, she shook Destiny's hoof and nodded grimly.

"Aye, what you both say is true," she said slowly, turning the words over in her mouth to try and speak more modernly. "Naskralar is indeed a fearsome creature. Anypony in their right minds would stay leagues from the beast. But I did say that only the bravest of heart should accompany me, and you three approached me. Obviously Hairless over there can swing her big rock around, I guess... Miasma, you have a keen mind and stout courage. And anger, I like it," she added, patting the griffon reassuringly. "But that just leaves you, Destiny. Why should we bring you into a valorous journey fraught with danger? Book smarts only get so far in the lands of dragons."

Without a word, Destiny inclined her head as her horn began to glow beneath her hood. A small, shimmering orb appeared over Mjölna's mug, quickly growing in size. Inside, the bewildered sandy-maned mare could only sense emptiness, a void. In the blink of an eye, the spell was over and the mead was nowhere to be seen.

"A pocket dimension. One of the many spells in my repertoire. I'll go fetch you another drink," the dark-coated mare chuckled, trotting off to the bar.

With an arched brow, Mjölna turned back to her original associate.

"Be ye sure you will hold to your one unicorn rule?"

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Darkest Dawn trudged through the cold weather of these badlands that were laid before him, the pegasus shivering slightly, trying to hover slightly and only managing to do so, "[colour=#b22222]Ugh, why do I take up these assignments again?...Oh yeah, 'cause nopony else at the University would...bunch of self righteous professors with their muzzles in text instead of the class...[/colour]" Dawn stated angrily as he continued on his way, sighing as he did to express his discontent, "[colour=#b22222]Easy, Dawn...[/colour]" He tried to reassure himself as he continued.

As you no doubt would have guessed by this point, Dawn wasn't used to this sort of thing, and had certainly never set hoof in these badlands before. Part of him never wanted to again but his more rational side of thought brought him back to the reality of his situation. The pegasus was employed as an assistant in the University of Canterlot to one of the leading professors of astronomy there. Due to his past clean record with them the faculty there decided he was 'perfect' for a trip to the badlands to investigate some strange astrological signs coming from the direction of the badlands.

"[colour=#b22222]Let's see, there's got to be some place about here where some ponies could find shelter.[/colour]" The pegasus hovered on, looking around him for a sign of anywhere useful, and more to the point, warm. He nearly assumed he was lost until he spotted a nearby building. He opened up his map and examined his locations according to the few stars he could see above him, "[colour=#b22222]Hmmm...an inn! Finally![/colour]" He stated with enthusiasm as he quickly made his way there.

Upon opening the door to the establishment, Dawn felt he was instantly set upon by the eyes of everypony and creature in this place. He made his way slowly over to the bar and sat down for a bit, resting his wings and hooves. As he did he examined his map and a letter from his employers once again, stating the location he had to go to, where the stars back in Canterlot were hinting towards. "[colour=#b22222]Hmmm...[/colour]" Dawn pondered as he looked around.

He spotted a group of individuals all gathered roughly around the same area. He spotted one with a hammer and even a griffon, "[colour=#b22222]Hm.[/colour]" He stated as he did something he wouldn't normally do. He approached the decently sized group, they all looked ready for action and familiar with the local area, so he figured this ones would be as good as any, "[colour=#b22222]Excuse me...Sorry to interrupt all of you but, I'm looking for this one place, 'Mount Naskralar'. I was wondering if any of you knew how to get to there. I sort've overheard you guys talking about it...If you all are heading there, would I be able to tag along?[/colour]" He inquired.

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She DID have to laugh at the nickname. Hairless was an accurately descriptive moniker for the deathly serious looking mare who had just insulted her. And Destiny's power sounded rather useful, for keeping all the loot together if nothing.

And then ponies just kept coming.

Could there be one more gryphon at least? Of course not. This was cold. Cold did not bode well for anything with wings. Not that Miasma hadn't thought to handle that before she came by. Hidden within each of her wings was an enchanted piece of ruby, emitting heat and warmth through her plumage, and ensuring her safe usage of her about-face appendages.

That one that called her a coward...she was gonna get it later. Bald b--

"[colour=#b22222]Excuse me...Sorry to interrupt all of you but, I'm looking for this one place, 'Mount Naskralar'. I was wondering if any of you knew how to get to there. I sort've overheard you guys talking about it...If you all are heading there, would I be able to tag along?[/colour]"

The pegasus in front of them just screamed "red shirt" at Miasma just by his talking to them. He wasn't looking for this journey intentionally, was he? Or mentioning it like it was some walk in the park or something? But just as soon, she prevented herself from the facetaloning she was about to go through. That one unicorn had taunted her, calling her afraid. Miasma was better than that, no question!

"Ask the big girl over here," Miasma jerked a thumb in Mjolna's direction. "I'm gonna go get a refill..."

And with that, she walked off toward the bar, passing the unicorn with the marble shards attached to the harness under her cloak. They shared a contemptuous stare as they went by one another, and her claws flexed. They'd settle this after the adventure was over, Miasma decided.

She ended up in front of the bar, mug full of mead once more, and gravitated over to Destiny. "Yo..."

"You two showed up at the same time... D'you know that frosty broad?" she said, pointing at the other unicorn mare.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mjölna stared with some interest as a pegasus stallion trotted his way over to them, inquiring about Mount Naskralar. The way he spoke about it, however, made it sound more as a foal's school trip rather than a venture into the darker parts of Equestria, where monstrous things roamed. Did he not realize what resided there?

"Aye, we travel unto the mountain to seek its keeper. But this is not a journey for the careless, friend. Why do you seek the fangs of ice and fire? Knowledge? Treasure? Adventure? All fine goals, but hazardous to the unwary. We may yet allow you to accompany us if your intent is clear and your courage strong."

Meanwhile at the bar Destiny regarded Miasma with a mildly arched brow, a smile on her shadowed muzzle.

"I do know her, somewhat," she admitted, taking a sip of her drink before returning her gaze to the gryphon's. "We used to be... friends. But we've since grown apart. As you can see she has a much more direct approach to things, which is what partially caused the split. She's more than capable however."

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Dawn thought for a moment as to how he should respond, he could tell he was seen a bit as 'out of place' here but he tried not to let it deter him. He thought as to why he would possibly need these 'fangs of ice and fire'. As far as this pegasus knew he was just being sent to scope out some cave for an upcoming archaeological expedition. However these ponies were speaking of it as if it was a dangerous place, and as far as Dawn knew, they were probably correct.

The pegasus set aside his thoughts, and impending realization that his superiors may have just sent him on some cruel trick they may have been unaware of and proceeded to answer the mare who had addressed him, "[colour=#b22222]I'm seeking merely what my higher ups have instructed me to...[/colour]" And that's when it hit him. Dawn realized something he should have ages ago, and that it was this, his superiors back in Canterlot had sent him on, apparently a useless errand, to freeze his wings off and to scout out some cave that hardly anypony knew was important or dangerous.

The pegasus sighed lightly at his realization, but then he started looking at the possible upside of this, he continued his explanation, "[colour=#b22222]...However, it would seem these 'higher ups' that have sent me to investigate this mountain clearly have no knowledge of what may lay inside. So, at this point, I see no reason for me to turn back without venturing in there, with or without their approval. I know none of you even know me but I would be very much appreciated if you let me come with you all, I'm not seeking treasure or items of any large value, at this point, it seems like a good opportunity for adventure.[/colour]"

Dawn was all fine and good with this but he felt he should include why he may be useful, "[colour=#b22222]My name is Darkest Dawn by the way.[/colour] [colour=#b22222]I'm a student of astrology from Canterlot so I know how the stars work and have a good knowledge of the local area from what I've read, so I could offer directional help. I'm also trained in some medical practices so if anypony were to get dinged up I could fix them up so they could keep going, I brought some supplies for that very need just in case, and I can handle myself in a violent situation. I would be grateful if you would let me join this journey as you put it.[/colour]" Dawn finished, wondering what he got himself into. At this point he didn't care though. He was cold, he was far from home and at this point a dangerous cave with untold secrets seemed as good an option as any.

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  • 2 weeks later...

"Friends? Her?" said Miasma, surprised. "She looks like the kinda pony where 'friend' means shield. I don't think we can trust her, but whatever. It's Molly's call."

She took another sip of the mead--this was a strong mug right here--and then looked over to Mjolna and Darkest Dawn before turning to Destiny again. "And what is it with you ponies and these names? I've never heard one of you not named after a noun, or something in latin. Like, you're called Destiny," Miasma moved around her to point a finger at her covered up flank, "but your destiny is some kinda tramp stamp that you get to wear forever." She laughed. "Even the males! That wouldn't fly with us gryphons."

Meanwhile, the other unicorn watched them all from afar, hot water steaming from a small cup at her table. Another weakling had joined their ranks. Another sacrifice for the burning maw of Naskralar.

The two fools, the pegasus and the gryphon would do well as the diversionary group to keep Naskralar's attention. The earth pony seemed capable, but then, this was speaking by earth pony standards, which were well below her own as a unicorn. Magic was true might. Any creature who could wield it directly had the world at their control.

Looking over to Destiny, the maneless unicorn's lips curled upwards slightly. "Soon enough old friend...you will see..." she whispered.

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The conversation had gone on long enough for Bamboo Blade to know that she wanted in on this trip. She had been skulking in a corner of the tavern for a while now, sneaking in earlier when a group of boorish stallions had bustled their way into the place, and using it's facilities to better wash and clean herself. The life of a wandering hero was certainly trickier than she had imagined, but then, she had also imagined that by now she would have her fame, and her name would be revered upon high as Celestia's chosen, as one deemed worth to defend the very goddess herself. She shuffled about in her cloak, making sure that it was secure over her flank, hiding her tan coloured body from view with special belts that tied together with almost no effort, even to her earth pony hooves, thanks to magical spells interlaced for her by a friend.

"I shall join you upon this quest. I may be small, but I am no stranger to peril," she said, pacing forwards. Her tail was pure white, as was her mane, and in the thick fibres, bound by her tail, sat a long wooden sword, longer even than her own body, by quite some distance. It was not made of bamboo but of heavy oak, and probably weighed more than she did too. She brought it down to the floor as she approached the little gathering, and removed her hood, revealing her pale, pupil-less eyes to them. She turned herself to the bold sounding mare who had issued the call to adventure, and bowed gracefully to her.

"I wish to inform you ahead of time that my eyes are sightless, I can see nothing. However, with my sword and my other senses, I am no more burdened than any other pony here," she said, flicking her long tail'ed hair to indicate the others, being sure not to hit anyone with it.

She waited for the inevitable onslaught of accusations of being a child, and of being a hinderance, calmly and maturely, she had heard them all before. Worthless. Just a burden. No use to anypony. She took a soft breath, and cleared her throat. "My purpose is that of challenge. Some of you may wish to steal, to plunder, to pillage. Others to learn, to cherish. I seek to find out. Find out if I can. I want to know where my limit is, that which I can do, and that which I cannot. In a world of darkness, ALWAYS darkness, the unknown is a daunting thing indeed. The more I push, the more I challenge myself, the less is unknown," she said, hefting the sword upwards, swishing it through the air a few times, again careful not to hit anything. "I am a skilled fighter, agile and quick, with cunning and size to my advantage. In the lair of a dragon, I will be of much use to you," she finished, sitting back upon her flank, sword landing with a heavy rattle by her hooves.

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At a nearby table, the quiet sizzle of carbonated drink was overshadowed by the low hum of magic as a frothy stein lifted off its surface encased in the violet glow of unicorn magic. The flight of the stein was quickly followed by the clip-clop of hooves on stone. A shapely figure sauntered up to the gathering at Mjolna’s table, covered by a thick hooded cloak of deep purple. A stroke of a hoof and the hood dropped to her shoulders, revealing a pair of amethyst eyes, a pearlescent horn, and a self-assured grin.

The unicorn mare was unusual to say the least. She was tall and leggy, dextrous without appearing frail, and fit without being obnoxious. Her lovely violet locks fell loosely across her neck, with a similar-coloured tail tied at the base and trimmed so as not to drag or catch. Cinched over her chest, a vest of wool and canvas doing double duty for warmth and style. Her appointments appeared well-traveled, the clasps scratched and worn, but not neglected in care and the cloak soft and rumpled, but well-hemmed and cleaned.

[colour=#4b0082]“Dobriy dyen, molot’chka. Good day to you, molot’chka!”[/colour] she began cheerily, prefacing her piece with a bit of local tongue. After all, it could be presumed that locals would gather in a local pub, could it not? The unicorn paused a moment to let her greeting sink in. Of course, in spite of the bravado, Andromeda was not merely just Andromeda. Her command of Stallian, style of mane and tail, and the lavish, if well-traveled gear she equipped were merely a smokescreen.

After all, a princess could not outright say that her vacation in Stalliongrad was to be spent ”adventuring.” It was dangerous. It was risky. It was improper. But like a siren song wafting across the sea, the world of Equestria called to her. The winds of fortune beckoned, gently caressing her psyche with the temptation of excitement and adventure outside the hallowed halls of Canterlot castle where she would ordinarily be sequestered. She had to do something, go somewhere, be something else. Surely there was something exciting for a Princess in the wide world of Equestria?

Before, Celestia was merely toying with the idea, but now she was certain. She had it... wanderlust. It was virulent and it was highly uncomfortable. She had to find some way, ANY way, to quench it... and so she found herself at this particular establishment outside Stalliongrad, in costume, in character, and in luck. A spell here, a spell there for cosmetic manipulation, some creative use of mane dye and proper attire, and a princess was no longer a princess insofar as her appearances went.

[colour=#4b0082]“They call me Andromeda,”[/colour] Celestia smiled, brushing her mane out of her eyes with a hoof. [colour=#4b0082]“Traveling storyteller, crafter of spells, and pony of all trades. They told me if it was adventure I sought, to come to this table! So what say you, molot’chka; Lady of the hammer and her mighty company? Have you room for one more?”[/colour]

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It seemed now that Mjölna had more enthusiasm in regards to her journey than she could have ever guessed. At this point the group was no longer a hardly-noticeable task force, it was something more... a fellowship? No, but that was close. The advantages and consequences of so many ponies mostly balanced themselves, as while they'd be more conspicuous they would also have more protection, not to mention a more variable skillset. As it stood, they were rather well-off: a pair of resolute and strong earth ponies, three unicorns who seemed capable of playing with reality itself, a gritty gryphon with the wind beneath her wings, and a pegasus who claimed navigational and medical skills. It was a well-balanced gathering, at least. The mare first addressed Darkest Dawn.

"Knowing where thy body lie is indeed an important skill, my friend. All the better that you know how best to fix something that is broken, though the will of a warrior can also be taken into account, aye?" she laughed. "Hold strong, and you are welcome among us."

"A bold claim you make, young one," Mjölna continued, turning to look unflinchingly into Bamboo Blade's blind eyes. "An earth pony always finds a way, it would seem. Testing thine limits is always a worthy venture, so long as one does not meet their end in doing so. There is no honor or glory attainable beyond your final breath, so you must ensure that your resting place is one worthy of song. I would have you, little mare, as I was no larger than yourself when I attained the materials for this." She shook her hammer from where it dangled over her flank, causing it to swing over its likeness emblazoned upon her side. "Keep your courage."

Now came the final addition to the entourage. This "Andromeda" had a presence similar to that of the unicorn from before, Destiny. Why did unicorns always have such a taste for the mysterious, and concealing cloaks? Perhaps it was a magical thing. After all, their height didn't intimidate Mjölna in the least, but the prickling of her neck hairs when around them did give her pause. She inclined her head and gave a confident grin anyway.

"Though I am not a native of these lands, your attention to their detail is impressive, milady," she complimented, her compulsion in the mare's presence causing her to use the honorific title. "I hail from the frozen crown of the world, a far harsher place than even this. Hopefully this journey proves a challenge even for myself. If all goes well, you shall not lack for tales to weave into your songs, bard. Perhaps your skills will even call the spirits to aid our passage through lands and caverns untold. We leave at dawn."

Her accomplices acknowledged and informed, the mare drained the rest of her stein and retreated upstairs for a hearty rest to prepare herself. No more needed to be said. Destiny watched the last bit of messy blonde tail disappear onto the upper landing before turning her cowled countenance back to Miasma. A small smile graced her lips in response to the gryphon's take on cutie marks.

"My destiny isn't foretold by the sigilus arcanum upon my flank," she explained patiently. "It merely exemplifies where my greatest talents lie. Many such marks are abstract and thus misleading, as an earth pony with a quill upon his sides could still easily move a boulder if desperate need arose. And as for names... I'll attribute that to cultural differences. I confess I do not know the inherent meaning in Miasma Vice beyond the obvious, after all." Her amusement dulled somewhat. "We should rest. And while you should have nothing to fear from the others, just be wary. It's good bodily advice."

Without another word, Destiny vanished.

********************************************

Just before the burgeoning winter sun threatened to break over the silver horizon, Mjölna stood ready at the edge of the inn's plateau, her warm cape whipping about her as her mane blew free. Below them lay the expanse of pure white snow, beautiful in its uniformity. And far, far in the distance, if one squinted their eyes to slits, lay the amorphous shadow of the giant Mt. Naskralar, its outline shifting with every flurry. Who knew what treacherous paths lie through the ice fields? There was only one way to find out.

"Let us begin!" the earth pony bellowed, leaping over the edge and sliding down the rather steep incline.

Trappings flaring open, pack rattling, hammer swinging as her hooves carved a billowing swath through the powder, Mjölna gave a mirthful laugh at the thought of adventure and challenge.

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Unicorns. Miasma whispered sardonically, Celestia's version of easy mode.

The din of the pub seemed to be dying down at last. The drunkards and vagabonds were exiting and being carried out and so on, leaving only a few stragglers the small army unintentionally summoned by Mjolna. Miasma marveled at all the comers and couldn't help but wish for one more gryphon. But it was a sizable unit, and the more the merrier right? Magic, cunning, and raw physical power...oh, and the red shirt. They had it all.

It was at this point in her contemplation that Miasma fished in her pockets for her second bag of gold, and her spare bag of silver quarter bits. One of the few non-affiliated parties stood in a corner mysterious as could be with his long, black coat, his face hidden behind a mask and under a hood. Miasma wasn't very comfortable asking the pony shaped black shroud for directions, but ponies were heading to bed now. He was here for a reason, clearly.

"Yo, mister." she called to him as she approached, "I'm looking for a merchant. You know where I can find one here?"

In very raspy and very creepy voice, he replied, "Welcome, strangeh."

And her stood up on his hindlegs, spreading one foreleg to the side, the coat billowing across the floor before revealing a number of items and glowing things and bottles full of shining liquids. "Whaddya buyin'?"

A quick survey of his coat told her that the albino stallion had a little of everything she needed. Her keen eyes spotted two shortsword length pieces tied securely to his robe. The sheaths had her fooled, but his grips told her everything.

"Those two daggers, three of those green glowy things, and...eh, gimme one of those black cloaks."

---

The maneless mare's provisions were safe and secure in her white cloak, which she'd wear while they group traveled through the frozen tundra.

Sixteen polished shards of marble sat secured in a harness secured over her chest, ready to be assembled into the terrifying blade which she had affectionately named "Primal". A single saddlebag hung over her side, and she had a thermos strapped to her other side, full of hot water that she had bewitched to stay heated for longer than usual. Her diary and quill were the only things she would store in the void. She'd only need them afterwards.

'And a name.'

Strider. It was a simple alias. Strider cared not for other ponies to know her true name, but Destiny was the only one who knew presently, and that was fine with her. Glancing at a blank page in her diary before closing the floating portal in front of her, she imagined the eventual picture of Destiny's smiling face sketched in it. She would understand her true place in this world at last.

---

And at last, the day had come! Miasma was at the front along with Mjolna, with Strider at the back ranks along with two other unicorns. Strider didn't bother to question the presence of yet another horned pony, but found herself fascinated with her aura. Very curious that a bard would join a crack-team like this with a questionable level of survival (even WITH Strider in the group).

The gryphon found Mjolna's laughter infectious, cackling as she slipped the rubies into her wings once more. There was something to be said about forming such a collective in the course of a night, united and ready to defy death for their own desires.She felt brave. She felt ready.

"Molly!" she said with an all too wide grin. "Call me Aposemati! That's my real name!"

And then she whipped her azure crested head back and let loose a ferocious lion's roar, scaring the birds to the trees, and shaking her whole body with the excitement.

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Dawn nodded in approval as he was welcomed into this now sizable group of adventurers. For the mostly city-raised pegasus the thought of spontaneous adventure such as this should have been perceived as mad, however at this point the pegasus came to a conclusion; he simply did not care. For once in his life, Dawn was ready to throw caution to the wind and wonder where the great road of life would take him and what experiences said road would hold. It was a rather liberating feeling, and Dawn breathed in every moment of it.

"[colour=#b22222]Thank you. I will indeed hold strong.[/colour]" Dawn replied blankly to Mjolna, smiling internally as he turned himself back towards the bar in the hopes of getting a drink to start this journey off. However, he felt compelled to turn his head as a new figure entered the scene, one that seemed very statuesque and imposing to say the least. The pegasus let out a slight 'Hmm' noise as he couldn't shake the feeling that this pony was...different, unlike anything he had ever seen or encountered; the same could be said for most of today though so he simply shrugged it off, but still with a niggling thought in the back of his mind.

The pegasus contemplated the situation heavily, wondering if he did indeed have the necessary provisions to be and effective medic and navigator out in the field. But then a realization hit him, that this would indeed be a dangerous journey. The pegasus nearly smacked himself for not considering all of the implications of this. He believed himself to be capable in a bout however, and realized he would need something, like a weapon. He looked around, not expecting to find much, until he looked in his pack and found a survival knife, one he had used to get here. He sighed and whispered to himself, "[colour=#b22222]It'll have to do, Dawn...[/colour]" He uttered begrudgingly as he attached a sheath to his side and secured the instrument carefully, before paying for his accommodation for the night.

----

As he lay in his room that night, he couldn't help but mull over the situation, thinking to himself, "[colour=#b22222]Hmm...okay, Dawn...you're heading out to Celestia knows where with a group of ponies you've never even met to dangers you probably have no idea about...why is that such an enticing concept?[/colour]" He wondered, smirking slightly, "[colour=#b22222]Everypony else seems pretty confident and capable...so I'll just have to be the same...After tonight, there's going to be a new Darkest Dawn in the morning.[/colour]" He concluded before drifting into a deep slumber.

----

The morning had came as briskly as it left, leading Dawn outside with the rest of the party. He readied himself as he witnessed a few individuals going on ahead towards the prospect of discovery, laughing as they did. This caused the pegasus to smirk slightly, even chuckling along with them as he followed them into the unknown, keeping himself ready for any task that would best suit his abilities. Standing at the ready just behind Mjolna as he trotted along.

He got right into the adventuring spirit and after hearing a loud roar from an accompanying member, he grinned and shouted, "[colour=#b22222]Ya! Onward![/colour]" He bellowed rather spontaneously, not caring one bit as he kept his eyes on the area map, however not before throwing his previous employment contract into the deep snow.

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Bamboo could FEEL the pony gazing down at her, something in her very core felt the gaze upon it. She held her own, her unblinking, pale white, flawless orbs stared right back as the mare spoke. She did think it a little foolish of her to shake something when there was no way the blind youngster could see it without touching it, but the gesture was, she assumed, quite a grand one. Whatever it was the mare shook around, she must have been very proud of it.

"My courage is as strong as the very earth upon which we stand. It will not give out, even when face with situations beyond comprehension. I do not wish a fools demise, only the knowledge of the true extent of my skill and training," she replied, trotting backwards a few steps.

She closed her eyes, something she liked to do when she concentrated on one sense in particular, a simple gesture to show others that she did not wish to be disturbed, as she began to listen. From what she could gather, the group consisted of the mare, Mjolna, as well as a griffon, three unicorns and another earth pony, although, she could have been wrong. Her interest was piqued momentarily by the mare named Andromeda, but she could not put her hoof on why. The bar was full of noise and focusing her hearing for too long made her temples throb with pain. She let out a faint sigh, and flicked her cloak around, turning to head towards the stairs, and the warm embrace of sleep.

---

The following morning, Bamboo awoke to the feel of the suns rays upon her back. She stirred in her sleep, and mumbled something about more bananas, before sitting upright with a shriek. She had overslept. Leaping from the bed, she tumbled across the little single room she had rented for the night, and grabbed her cloak between her teeth. The little mare sped across to the bed, folding and setting the covers as best she could while she struggled with the clasp of the hooded cowl, but with a little effort, she was able to achieve both results relatively easily. Her ears twitched as she heard a ferocious lion's roar, and the male cry out something in response. Cursing beneath her breath, she whipped her tail around her sword, and with a swing, sent the window flying open. Or, rather, shattered the thing completely, cracking the hinges and sending the wrecked wooden frame scattering across the rooftop.

"O..Oops!" she squeaked, leaping up and out onto the roof, her hooves finding no grip upon the icy sheet of snow. Cursing louder still, she scrambled about but it was no good, she was going to fall from the roof. Rather than continue her embarassing display, she decided to accept her defeat with dignity, and just sat there, sliding towards the fall. As she tipped over the edge, she swang her sword, embedding the tip into the wall. She swung around by her tail a few times, before letting go, backflipping in the air, landing upon the hilt of the sword, causing it, and her, to fall straight to the ground. At the moment of impact, she grabbed the sword with her tail, and sent a forceful blow into the snow, slowing her descent enough to allow her to land daintily.

"Forgive my tardiness," she said, nonchalantly, as she cantered up to the group, "There was a large bird lion in the next room, snoring loudly, which kept me awake into the night," she said with a delicate smirk upon her face.

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"Though I am not a native of these lands, your attention to their detail is impressive, milady," she complimented, her compulsion in the mare's presence causing her to use the honorific title. "I hail from the frozen crown of the world, a far harsher place than even this. Hopefully this journey proves a challenge even for myself. If all goes well, you shall not lack for tales to weave into your songs, bard. Perhaps your skills will even call the spirits to aid our passage through lands and caverns untold. We leave at dawn."

For a fraction of a split second, Celestia’s -- Andromeda’s -- smile faltered. Was the hammer mare so perceptive as to pierce her carefully-assembled persona at first glance? Regardless, it would not do to drop character. Besides, Mjolna, if her name were recalled correctly, seemed to be intent on wrapping up for the night. Andromeda had caught them at just the right time.

[colour=#4b0082]“I cannot guarantee the aid of the spirits,”[/colour] she replied. [colour=#4b0082]“But song and tale I am most excited for!”[/colour]

As Mjolna went back to nursing her drink, Andromeda glanced quickly at the assembled company. The lady of the hammer. A scholarly pegasus of the name Darkest Dawn. A gruff griffon whose name could have been misconstrued as the aftermath of a chili cookoff. Finally, a little mare with a big sword. Interesting characters to say the least. But most interesting of all were the unicorns that seemed to keep to themselves. Even without sampling the aether around her, Andromeda got a strange feeling from those two, a chill that seemed to transcend the draft that had just worked its way back down the fireplace flue. Destiny was obviously a mare of great intelligence and power; the overheard bits of conversation were enough to deduce that. But this “Strider,” was more difficult to read.

Andromeda shook her head, sniffing at her own overanalysis. She required more drink and more merriment. After all, this was VACATION! Work could wait until she got back to Canterlot.

[colour=#4b0082]"To adventure!"[/colour] she said with a smile, raising her stein high.

------

Andromeda bounded through the snow after Mjolna, her long loping strides more akin to a deer than a pony. It was all she could do to keep from breaking the spell and unsheathing her wings to take flight. She laughed with her excited comrades, the rush of wind through her mane both liberating and exhilarating. Few occasions had allowed her to be so involved in the world over which she held dominion, an irony that she who was to be in touch with her kingdom was kept sequestered away much of the time. But that would change. Andromeda would change it.

[colour=#4b0082]“So,”[/colour] she called to the hammer mare and the griffon. [colour=#4b0082]“Every place has tales attached to it, and Naskralar is no exception. Tell me, molot'chka, which of the tales drives your grand adventure?”[/colour]

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  • 2 weeks later...

Mjölna smiled at the general good cheer of her companions. She'd half-expected most of them to grumble about the early hour or be freezing after a couple of minutes in the snow. It wasn't an unwelcome development, to be sure. Or perhaps they'd just gone crazy already. Either way it suited the earth pony. She nodded to Miasma's admittal of her true name, and turned her attention to Andromeda with an only mildly curious glance.

"The mountain is named not for the whims of a cartographer, milady. In days long past, the titles of lands told of their greatness and deeds in wondrous detail. Naskralar is a primal creature from times immemorial, and his lair shares his name. Many believe that the beast is naught but a myth, a legend, and that the flames that spout from the rocky peak have natural explanations. They fear to venture forth and verify their claims, preferring to stay within their protective cities and cozy lives. My people hold to the old tales, however, and one such story describes the dragon as possessing scales harder than any suit of armor, nigh impenetrable.

"I will test this claim, by strength of courage and will. If I am successful, I will have materials of which any armorsmith could only dream. If not, I will bring great glory and honor to my ancestors in the contest." She smiled. "Would you not enjoy seeing one of the most ancient creatures in our world, bard? It would make for quite an epic to share about your hearths."

**********************************************************************

Destiny had spent her evening in a light sleep, and awoken a short while before their decreed departure time. While many of the others were shouting their excitement to the dawn, she remained quiet and followed the group along down the steep hill, using her magic to secure her hoofing rather than sliding down like a lunatic. After all, despite the fact that her REA status oft required that she rose before the sun, she still wasn't a morning mare. Her hood did nothing to stop the rising sun from glaring directly into her eyes after all.

With no pony to talk to, aside from maybe Strider, she opted to listen to the various other conversations going on about her. It wasn't required that she make friends here by forcing conversation, though she wasn't opposed to it. They were adventurers with a common goal, not little ponies going to share a picnic. Their environment alone was enough of a reminder of how alone they would really be. She simultaneously summoned a translucent, lavender landscape of magic to hover in the air before her. The more they walked, the more detailed the image became. An arcane map, of sorts.

The unicorn didn't know how helpful such a thing would be in this featureless expanse of chilling white, but it never hurt to be prepared. She drew her hood closer, spared a grimace at the weak sun, and glided on.

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"I might have to come out here more often, Molly!" said Aposemati, absentmindedly whipping the zebra on the flank with her tail for her jibe earlier about lost sleep. "Stories like that are a dime bit a dozen back in Talonopolis, and everyone just calls 'em myths cuz' no one's ever taken a chance to go see anything."

The black cloak whipped about her feet as she kept up with Mjolna and Andromeda at the front. The farther she was away from that Strider, the bettter. She assumed Darkest Dawn was at least ahead of her as well. Aposemati's instincts hadn't quite red flagged Strider, but the animosity from the previous night was a long way from abated. The gryphon took very uncomfortably to the mannerisms and speech of that mare. Cold and aloof, but somehow, was friends with Destiny, who was basically Molly, but quieter? Crazy.

"Speaking of seeing things," she glanced at Bamboo Blade, carrying her massive wooden length. "remind me how you're able to do that, Ribbonbutt. Y'know...on account of having no irises or pupils."

---

Strider paced patiently next to Destiny, examining the other four ahead of them. While the wailing winter winds cried out to her, she yielded not the slightest chatter of teeth, or the faintest gasp for air. These conditions were perilous for the unprepared, and not those who took precautions. Mithril horseshoes crunched on through the snow while the thermos of hot water rested against her side, occasionally switching to make sure one side didn't seize up on her.

Destiny's map work reminded her of days long past when she had openly sought out the other unicorn's companionship. The pair had excelled in the fields aethertic sciences, earning commendations from the University in Canterlot years ago before their split. Beyond their shared affinity for magic lied a deeper bond, held together by the magic of friendship. The white cloaked mare would need to take care not to fall prey to sentiment in this journey. She had plans for her former friend, and no dragon was going to halt her in them.

"You do know," started Strider, moving next to Destiny as they trotted on, "that we may very well be of better use off of the front line. Naskralar's domain contains more chambers than merely his own I'm sure."

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