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At last, the final sight of the Tartarian Descent Team is engulfed by the interminable darkness.

The Great Seal rends the earth with a deafening quake, as it slides nearly shut, open only by a hairsbreadth. The Loyal Kerberos, ten thousand Umbral Hounds strong, holds one end of Shei's Black Thread in one of his mouths. He leers at it contemptuously, but holds it nonetheless as agreed.

Most of the others accompanying Sir Pryce cannot look anymore at the Great Seal, ready to direct their thoughts to anything other than the fates of their friends… and foes. Sir Estuary is the only one who seems composed. He looks to Pryce, and with a slight bow of his head, says, "Perhaps we should make for the surface, milord. We have no further business here."
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Pryce still feels torn on the idea, but he trusts River in that it should be fine.
"Alright, a backup would be helpful if anything like that were to happen."

Pryce pauses in thoughtful concern when River mentions speaking on with Buiwong about the past allegiance, but doesn't push the subject.

Pryce looks down at the ball of silk.
"So this will be our means of contact?"

>"Do we follow it, or do we make a circle with it?"

KP asks curiously.


"From what he told me…" River begins, looking about the airship. She then winds back her foreleg and rolls the ball across the floor, but holds onto the loose string. The ball rolls and banks off an open doorway, losing some momentum…

…But as it looks as if it may roll to a halt, it starts to move again, of its own accord, and rolls off. With widened eyes, the others creep after it, following the string. The ball has rolled under the couch in the central room. Onion and Zjetya scoot it aside, and find a hole in the ground where there was none before. There is pitch darkness on the other side, and the spider-silk leads directly into it.


KP follows after the ball eagerly, while Pryce holds some caution as they trail after it. When the couch is moved to reveal a hole, both peer down into it.
"I'll check it first," Pryce says, lighting his horn as he steps into the hole, being the first to check in case anything nefarious is at play.


Your light does nothing to illuminate the darkness, until you're all the way through the portal. A brief disorientation follows – as the portal flings you towards a dark, star-studded sky, which is now below you. A new gravity takes hold, and you manage to stick the landing onto high grasses, near the portal.

You're in the midst of a dark forest, with cramped, close-clumped trees stretching far higher into the sky than any of even the greatest trees of your world. The shadows are different here – things are either lit or they are totally dark, there is no gradient to speak of (cel-shading).


Pryce spreads his wings as he falls suddenly through the portal to help balance himself. After landing, he looks around the dark forest, the lighting putting him on edge with the total void that exists for some shadows.
"Hello? Is anypony there?" He calls out through the trees, wondering if this is the location they were supposed to go, or if there is further travel to be made.


You see no obvious path, and no voice greets you… but you can sense presences nearby. No telling how many; could be one, or a multitude… your spiritual senses feel dim, and foggy, by the power of this zone.


Pryce pauses in thought a moment, then heads towards the presences with caution. He hasn't seen the others follow him yet, they're likely still on the ship still, so it'll be safer to check now then to bring them along. He keeps on guard as his senses feel damped by this area, ready to react if this is indeed a trap.


A glint of starlight illuminates a blade of damp, jagged teeth. Far ahead of you lurks the mouth of a wolf. That, and a sliver of its face, is all you can see. Judging by the size of what little you can see, the wolf's height is on par with yours.

A low rumbling growl breaks the still air, and is echoed all about… this wolf is not alone.


Pryce holds his ground, turning or running would instigate a chase immediately. He keeps eye contact with the glint of teeth he can see, to not be caught off guard by this one, waiting if it means to attack or will pass.


A cold, damp touch electrifies your shoulder, as you feel another wolf, eluding your notice, approach from the side to smell you. Other shapes lurk just behind that wolf.

A few moments of inspection pass, and the wolf's haunches relax. Its ears lean back, but in a decidedly friendly way, not a hostile posture. The wolf steps fully out of the shadows, then stops, turning to look back at you.

Seems it wishes for you to follow.


Pryce nearly snaps to the side as he feels the touch, his training and nerves keeping him from doing. He watches as the wolf inspects him, not showing any hostility or threat.
When it relaxes it posture and continues on, then giving the feel to follow, Pryce cautiously follows behind.


Subtle waves in the shadows surrounding indicate that a small retinue of wolves has joined you, either guarding, shepherding, or judging you from the peripheries…

…and, after some time of walking, you see another source of light, this one coming from ahead, and not above. Candlelight through a glass window. Between the trunks and through the branches, you see a vast, three-storied cabin, guarded by a great stone wall and a moat, though the bridge is down. This small castle is the only such fixture of civilization you can see in the area.


Pryce walks with the pack as they traverse the forest, keeping on a light guard.

He peers ahead as light finally breaks through, showing the cabin, the first notable sight here. If this area is where Buiwong's family is settled, then this should be their home. Pryce steps forward towards the bridge.


As you approach the bridge, the lead wolf abruptly halts, forcing you to halt as well, lest you crash into it. The wolf gives a triplet bark –

–And a great lattice of twisting, chaotic energy rises up from the bridge and moat, all manners of colors and sounds reverberating from the energetic nets. A flashback follows, as you recall your first breach of one of Buiwong's lairs, so many months ago… one such lattice turned you into an Alicorn.

A few moments after the trap is disarmed, the door of the manor opens, and a silhouette pokes its head around the corner. The figure takes a second to assess the situation… then raises a hoof.

"Hiii!" the voice, female, greets. "It's safe to cross. Come on in!"


Pryce stops behind the wolf, wondering if he stepped out of line. He then looks up as the rainbow of energy flies up from the moat, starting to question if this is really the right place they were going.

"Uh, hello! I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Pryce calls out as the voice greets him, holding a moment before crossing the bridge.


"Well, we weren't expecting guests so soon after we heard," the voice says, holding open the door. Once you enter, and your eyes adjust to the light, you find yourself in a spacious foyer. To your right is an open dining room, and across from that, on the left, is a room dominated by a pool table. Other tables with other games are along the walls.

You see now your host: A light green earth pony drider, with black-and-white striped hair like Mocha. She wears a similar modest poncho. She seems to be a year or two younger than Mocha.

"Are you hurt at all?" the mare asks. "Thirsty? Starving? Cursed?"


"Some things came up. Well, more of questions," Pryce comments as he enters, looking around the surprisingly decorated foyer.
"No, no, I'm fine," He answers to the questions, surprised on the hospitality. "I'm guessing you're Mocha's sister?"


"I'm Mint Leaf," the mare says, with a nod. "I'm one of her sisters. Metis is somewhere around here. Our brothers are out with Pops. C'mon and have a seat."

While she heads to a cushion in the dining room (indeed, there are no chairs anywhere to see; less suitable for the drider physiology), you hear another set of legs walking about. From the doorway adjacent to the dining room comes another drider; this one, a zebra mare, also wearing a poncho.

"Ohh! Don't tell me…" the mare says, tapping her chin. "You're… uh… Heeeex… Errr… Pryce! Pryce, right?"


"Nice to meet you Mint," Pryce says, then follows her to the dining room. When another voice calls out, guessing his name, Pryce nods.
"That's right. And you must be… Mocha's mother?"


"That's right," the zebra drider says. "I'm Matryoshka. I've heard so much about you all from dad and Mocha! Oh, you stay right there, I'll put some tea on."

Matryoshka heads back to the other room, and you hear a fire lighting. "Hope you weren't planning on leaving in a hurry," Mint says. "Once it's tea time, guests are here to stay. So, what did you want to ask?"


"Oh, you don't need…" Pryce trails off, seeing that the tea won't stop no matter what's said.

"Not really, though the others probably are still waiting to see if it was safe to come in here," He comments. "Oh, right. Well, we have a situation, and River suggested asking one of you for help in taking away power."


"Help, huh…?" Mint asks. "…If it involves going outside, that's going to be a question for Mom and Pops. Mocha might have worn down them and Grandpa with her persistence, but Grandpa and Pops weren't the most thrilled about it. They used to kvetch about it all the time while Grandpa was still around."


"I guess that would depend on if any of you could help with this," Pryce answers. "We're dealing with dragon powered knights, and taking away that power is the only idea we have to avoid the whole group getting killed."

Pryce nods as Mint brings up the difficulty on leaving.
"Yea, Mocha mentioned something along those lines before. Would they be willing to talk on the matter if it comes to that?"


"You've made it to the house. That's proof enough you're worth talking to," Mint says. "Nobody gets to this point without the wolves' assessment. You might not have noticed, owing to the spiritual dampening on this little realm, but the wolves led you past countless hurdles and traps to get here – not just the stuff on the bridge and in the moat. So, I already know you're good people, and so will everyone else. Tell you what, why don't you check back in with your friends so they don't panic and send in a rescue party? I'll send word to Pops while you're out."


"I assumed they were pets of some kind, didn't expect they're be guardians as well."

As Mint says she'll give word while they wait, Pryce nods, standing to head out.
"Good idea. I'll be back soon," He says before making the way back to the ship.


"You're telling me you don't get the wordplay!?" Mint gasps, aghast. "Oh jeez, you'll have a hard time here…"

With that cryptic warning on your mind, you head back out, and a wolf retinue (though smaller this time) escorts you back the direction you came, until you step into the portal, and back out into the airship.

After getting your bearings in the familiar gravity of your own world, you see that the others are, contrary to Mint's prediction, not organizing a rescue party. You see them through the front windows of the airship, dozing off in the shade of a tree on the village outskirts. Most of the villagers are doing similarly, taking refuge from the summer sunlight in a wide-scale siesta. They sleep just as hard as they work, it seems.


As Pryce reenters the airship, he looks around wondering where the others are. When he finally spots them outside, he heads out, opting to nudge River awake first to inform her from the nap since it was her idea.


"Hmmph, hmm?" River stammers, peering out through narrowed eyes. "Awake. I'm awake…"

The others rise with similar reluctance, stretching and yawning.

"How was it?" Zjetya asks. "We thought about coming to get you, but decided you had it under control. Plus it's naptime."


"It went well, it was safe to enter, and I got in touch with them. I laid out the situation, and came back to check on you guys while we wait for their dad to get back to talk." Pryce says, keeping the names out to help keep to the secrecy given they're in a secure location.


Zjetya nods. "Let's not keep them waiting, then."

The others collect themselves and walk off their lingering drowsiness, making ready to accompany you to the secret castle.


Pryce leads the group over to the yarn portal to head into the secret dimension.
"Keep an eye out, we'll be getting a wolf escort. They're friendly though."


When you get back to the portal, the wolf retinue is already waiting for you. Seems they understood the brief nature of your absence, and put a guard on the portal to await you. The others are puzzled and hesitant at the sight of this escort, but when they see the lead wolf turn away and walk through the forest, they ease up somewhat.


"Its ok, they're leading us to the castle," Pryce says as he sees the others at unease at first. Once the lead wolf starts to walk ahead, Pryce gestures for the others to follow.


The others, still a bit unnerved by the situation and the uncanny light of the realm, proceed in silence. Only River seems to be a bit at ease; her time aiding Buiwong no doubt afforded her a certain familiarity with his dimensional decorations.

Soon enough you're back at the moat, and again the lead wolf barks thrice, lifting the final supernatural blockade. The others, astounded, watch the lattice lift into the air, until a familiar voice calls.

"Tea's all ready!" Mint Leaf says. "C'mon in!"


Pryce leads on, keeping the pace comfortable to help ease anypony against the eerie atmosphere they walk through.

"Sorry if we kept you waiting," Pryce calls back as they return to the bridge, leads the others across.

>"Wow, they sound friendly,"

KP comments, eager to see Mocha's family.


In the dining room, you see the full group of seven, sitting on a ring of cushions with a tea-table between them. Though some wolves are inside, sitting guard by the family, they leave an additional cushion open, presumably for Mocha.

Just as KP saw in the portraits, it's a family of Matryoshka and her earth pony husband, and five of their six earth drider children, though they're a few years older than they were in the portrait.

"Oh, wow!" Matryoshka says. "I heard you were a big group, but I lost track of who was going where. Mint, can you get more cushions?"

"Sure can," Mint says, getting up.

The others look about with amazement at the comfy manor.


>"Hello! It's great to finally meet all you!"
KP greets after they enter the dining room, looking with awe at the drider family.

"Hope its not too much of a hassle to have everypony here," Pryce comments as the matriarch requests more cushions.


"Don't even let that thought cross your mind," Matryoshka says. "We love guests, even if we rarely get them. I was so excited when Dad asked me if we'd be okay with the idea of this realm doubling as a shelter."

"Don't get a lot of people this way, do you?" Zjetya asks as Mint comes back with more cushions.

"No," Matryoshka says. "Though, I suppose it's a sign they don't need extra shelter… hopefully."

"It's… rather dangerous out there," River says.

The husband nods with a grave grimace. "Hence, the protections on the entrance… have a seat, everyone. We've heard a lot about you, but go ahead and introduce yourselves."


"Don't imagine you'd get any guests out here," Pryce comments with the remoteness and unique entryway.

Pryce nods as they're asked to introduce themselves.
"My name is Pryce," He greets, keeping it simple given the rough history with Buiwong.

>"I'm KP! Mocha told me a bit about you guys before we split up,"

KP chimes in after.


Your other allies give their names as well, keeping it light on the details.

"There's another guy with us," Zjetya says. "But he couldn't make it. Name's Estuary."

The family, in response, gives their introductions as well: Matryoshka, the mother. Mint Leaf, the middle sister, and Metis, the youngest sister. Then there's the father, Archer, his eldest son Alloy, the middle son Acacia, and the youngest son, Almond.

"And we've heard our share about your adventures, too," Archer says. "Darn near a few books' worth, at that."

Matryoshka brings out a tray of honey and jam biscuits, and Metis follows with the tea set. "Help yourselves, everyone," Matryoshka says.


"You've all been kept up on things then?" Pryce asks.

When snacks are brought out, KP takes a biscuit eagerly.

Pryce feels a little questioning, focusing more on the task at hoof to not appear rude.


"More or less," Archer says. He doesn't sound all too thrilled about that.

"Oh, that reminds me," Matryoshka says. "Mint mentioned you had some questions for us?

In the background, the five drider youths are busy chit-chatting with your allies. Though your allies are reticent at first, the driders seem not to mind, keeping up conversation in spite of it.


"We did, yes," Pryce says, looking back from the chitchat. "We were wondering if any of you could help us with removing powers."


"Removing power?" Archer repeats.

River nods. "Here's the situation that we're in…"

She lays out the basic details of the situation affecting Vortigern's people, and your desire to mitigate any unnecessary killing.

Matryoshka nods. "I see. Well, that ability does run in our blood, from Dad. We could help…"

Mint Leaf and Alloy look to Archer with wide, "Didn't-I-tell-you-this-was-gonna-happen?" eyes.

Archer wears the frown of one very annoyed that they can see the logic in their opponent's argument. "I never should have listened to a word out of Mocha's mouth…"


"I know this is a bit much to ask given the situation, and I don't blame you if you refuse. But we don't have too much time and we don't have any other options really," Pryce follows after seeing the dislike Archer is having to this situation.


"I've already set a precedent," Archer says. "Letting Mocha sweet-talk me into letting her have an adventure. Now my daughter's somewhere in Tartarus."

"Kicking ass," Almond says.

"Language," Matryoshka says.

"Sorry," Almond chuckles.

"So, I don't have any grounds to deny the same right to the others," Archer continues.

A loud gasp of enthusiasm rises from the kids.

"If, and only if–" Archer interjects. "They can pass my trial."


Pryce feels some guilt at having pushed the idea, despite the drider kids being excited for the idea.
"A trial?" Pryce repeats, curious to how this is unfolding.


"In order to leave on a prolonged adventure," Archer begins. "They must land eight consecutive strikes on me, before I can land three strikes on them, in a one-on-one duel."

"So far, only Mocha accomplished that," Metis says. "Even though we all tried."

"That's how you need to be able to fight demons," Archer says. "If you can't manage that on even a mortal, you won't have any chance out there."

"Ehhh," Almond says. "You got some of Ma's power, I wouldn't call you 'mortal' anymore."

"But even BEFORE I got that, I finished a much more grueling challenge, to which this trial doesn't even hold a candle," Archer says. "Against Buiwong… I landed eight hundred strikes."

"Teeeechnically he only had to land eighty consecutive strikes," Matryoshka says. "But between all his different attempts, he racked up about 814."

"I'm humble, so I round down," Archer says with a snort.


"…How close have any of you gotten?" Pryce asks the others with concern.

"You had to fight Buiwong?" Pryce asks after Archer says he had to do similar before.


"To take Matryoshka out on a date," Archer answers with a nod. "He was going to make me fight him again for each successive date but considering I got eight hundred just for the first one, we called it even."

"Most of that first date was me treating his injuries," Matryoshka shares with a laugh.

Alloy raises his hoof. "I'm the closest, with five. But, Pop, don't you think the current circumstances merit waiving the test?"

"You heard the recap," Archer says. "These Dracoknights sound like they're on-par with demon tamers. And since tamers rarely fight with just one demon, I'd consider a Dracoknight a stronger opponent. You're lucky I don't bump it up to sixteen strikes."

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