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The ponies, most of whom spent countless days in the palace, nicknamed it the 'Triple C'; the Chamber of Command and Conflict. An area that has been in place since the first full construction of the palace. An extensive and expansive room that's only purpose was to handle times of major civil unrest or war.
But the incidents of Discord and Nightmare Moon did not require the use of these quarters; those events were too sudden, and had been swiftly taken care of by six unofficial, yet effective ponies. On top of that, there had never been another event that required serious military action, and because of this, it was barely used.
Walking into the large war room, I considered it a shame that such a luxurious part of the palace was almost always out of commission. The room measured 30 meters long and 20 meters high and wide. It had a tri-coloured scheme, with pearl white flooring and pillars, orchid walls and ceilings and furnished with a shade of bleu de france. Along all three walls lined uniform rows of light purple pillars, with a spacing between each one big enough for the image of the frosted windows. Frosted glass panels windowed the three sides of the chamber, each depicting a historic epic battle with enemies and creatures that I never knew existed in Equestria.
I recognized the only one in the center as the Draconequus of Chaos, being defeated by the Royal Sisters. The scene was frozen with each character stuck in a majestic pose.
Along the sides of the chamber, a raised row of purple council seats ran down the room, meeting at the far end of the entrance and forming a 'U' shape around the center of the council area. A long, opulent carpet trailed from the entrance and ended at the center of the high stands, just a few meters short of touching it. It was as if it was leading you where to go. The space between the carpet and the stand was filled by the refracted images of the frosted glass, painting the pearl white floor for as long as there was light.
Entering the chamber, I felt an ominous aura come over me; a feeling that only bad news was going to be delivered in this discussion. But such discernment was quickly dismissed, and was hastily replaced with a sense of honour. Not only was I in the presence of Nobles, but this was the first time I had ever seen the three princesses together in person. The very presence of those regal and powerful beings filled one with reassurance.
Seated at the curvature of the stands were the Princesses, with Princess Celestia at the head of the council. When we came in, her horn glowed yellow as she shut her eyes and concentrated. She was still setting the sun. It was clear on her face that, even in her and her relatives' omnipotent states, she was still under a lot of pressure and concern for her people. I was unsure, but I thought her mane looked more mellow than usual.
Princess Luna's expression was similar, sitting by the right side of her sister and raising her interstellar representation as her sister lowered hers. Although she may not have been as wise as her elder sibling, she still showed genuine concern for her subjects, along with worry for her sister. I hadn't personally met Princess Luna in my stay in Equestria, and I wished I didn't have to meet her under these dark circumstances.
Princess Cadance sat to the left of both the Royal Sisters, watching her elders helplessly, as they performed the royal duties that she was not yet powerful enough to perform. Apart from the episode, I hadn't seen much of her before either. Although she was smaller than Luna, she looked no short of royal ambience. If anything, she was the greatest form of support to not only her Aunts, but to the ponies of Equestria.
Shining Armour entered first, followed by the Mane Six and I. Behind us, the towering palace doors swung quietly shut, and for good reason. Shining Armour signaled with his hoof for silence, so as not to distract the princesses. As many times the sun and moon had been raised and lowered, it was still a sacred procedure among Equestrians. So we waited, only to speak when their business was finished.
The princesses were not alone in the 'Triple C'. There were three other ponies as well, equally spaced among the seats and each donning uniforms of high status, much like Shining Armour's suit during his wedding. From their high chairs, I tried to inspect each of them to the point where the table cut off my view.
One was a plain white pegasus with a slick silvery mane, boasting a pair of matt black shoulder plates. The stallion wore no helmet, but I still couldn't determine whether his expression was one of fear or anxiety. He was seated at one of the very ends of the council, and was the first to notice us entering.
Another colt, seated a number of seats down from the pegasus, was another pegasus. This one placed both of his hooves on the table, putting two metallic silver vambraces in full display under the rising moonlight. His coat was peculiar, being covered in the same colour as standard nocturnal guards. However, the areas around his eyes were neatly circled with a light grey tint, slanting downwards with his golden eyes, and joining at the beginning of his snout. It looked like a mask when seen from afar.
The third was the only mare there besides the princesses. A mint green earth pony sat alone on the other side of the council, with a short pale red hooded cape draped over her shoulders. Her dark brown mane had a single braid, running down the length of her neck. She bore a burdened expression, biting her lower lip while fiddling with her golden forelegged bangles.
All three remained silent as the goddesses of their land finished their rightful duties. But all three of them never took their eyes off of me. Standing between Shining Armour and the Mane Six, it must have looked like I had been captured. I gave Shining Armour a nervous glance, who returned it with a comforting nod. I began to wonder why I was scared; as long as I was in the company of my friends, I was safe.
Soon, the red sun had vanished from the skyward plains and was replaced by the luminous glow of the moon and stars. The frosted images were no longer lit with the sun's amber rays, but instead gleamed by the light of the moon. A haunted atmosphere lingered in the spacious chamber for the short time it was shadowed in darkness. The next moment, a row of lights magically lit at the sense of dusk. Overhanging fire lamps provided more, but dimmer lighting to the room.
A heavy sigh escaped the lips of both Celestia and Luna, extinguishing the gold and cobalt glows of their horns. I was slightly surprised by this, thinking that the process of raising and lowering the sun and moon were almost effortless tasks. We allowed them another minute of breath. Their eyes finally opened, and immediately noticed the eight new additions to the council's meeting.
"Your highness," Shining Armour began, lowering down on his front legs into a kneel. "Those you have so gracefully requested have arrived." He said, brimming with respect.
The Mane Six followed suit, getting down and stretching out one front leg while bending down on the other. I found it best that I follow suit, dropping down onto one leg and bowing my head.
"Please rise." The princess commanded, but with such a comforting tone only found in loved ones. "I'm so glad you responded so quickly, Twilight. It is essential that all of you are here for this meeting."
"As soon as we heard, we came as fast as we could, princess." Twilight rose, followed by the others.
"That is pleasing to hear from our subjects. Please sit, we must continue with the situation at hoof." Princess Luna chimed in. Although she had managed to learn to control her volume, it still seemed that she was inclined to speak with olden royalty.
"Now just a minute, your highness."
Everypony turned to the one stallion that spoke with such a brash attitude. It was the one with the supposed mask.
"Speak, Steelheart." Princess Celestia dismissed his tone with good nature, never losing her encouraging smile.
"You're telling me you invited..." The colt known as Steelheart trailed off his sentence, nervously glancing between me and the princess.
"Yes...?" Princess Celestia prodded.
"That... that thing." The naturally masked stallion pointed a hoof in my direction.
"And what about 'that thing'?" I asked.
"Silence, human! I believe it is no coincidence that your kind suddenly appear in these times!" Steelheart spat, restraining his voice so as not to shout in front of the princesses.
"Control thyself, Lieutenant." Luna said calmly. "Thou shalt-... I mean... You should not let your quick judgement get the better of you."
"With all due respect, your highnesses, this has nothing to do with judgement.
Shining Armour stepped in front of me in defence, eyeing Steelheart cautiously.
"At ease, Lieutenant. I wouldn't want to get into trouble with anybody that Princess Celestia personally requested."
The frustrated pegasus folded her wings, never removing his piercing stare from me. The rest of the council members shared less aggressive, but equally uncertain looks.
"Please calm yourself, Steel, we cannot delay the problem that has been placed before us." The other pegasus consoled.
"Rook is right. Everypony, get yourself seated." Princess Celestia wearily nodded at the group of us, still at the center of the court-like chamber.
With a quick bow of his head, Shining Armour turned to the left, leading the way up the hidden staircase behind the stands. The Mane Six followed him, making their way from the center of the room. But just as I was about to do the same...
"I said 'everypony'."
I stopped dead in my tracks, swiftly turning at the stern voice of the eldest Princess. I quickly gave the Mane Six a tense grin. I whispered to them, "It's alright, girls. I was expecting this."
I made a slow about turn, watching as the Mane Six climbed to the high chairs. There were brief salutations and quiet salutations between them and Princess Cadance, with Twilight even embracing her. They sat themselves down around the arch on both sides of the princesses, almost filling all the seats of the council. The girls showed different levels of discomfort, being around ponies of such high status, one of whom was Applejack who sat right next to Luna.
Returning to my place in the center of the room, I stood hands behind my back and legs shoulder width apart, in a basic military position. I found there was no point in looking like a insubordinate.
"Your Majesty?" I innocently inquired.
"We ask these questions solely for the sake of our citizens, Keith." Princess Cadance gave a small grin, trying to soften a blow I knew was coming. I couldn't shake of the nervousness from the situation, but it's not everyday you're suspected by a goddess.
"Conway," surprisingly, it was Princess Luna, instead of Celestia, that was making this light interrogation. "Have you or have you not left the premises of Ponyville, or the land of Equestria for that matter, under your probation?"
At this question, Steelheart removed his colourless metal helmet, leaning forward on his front legs.
"No," I replied calmly, "I haven't. I can swear upon the Medallion; I have not left Ponyville until this day. I was just as taken aback about this siege as you are, and I've nearly lost my life to it. Twice, in fact... but I can assure you that I haven't stepped foot outside of Ponyville, in exception to my home world."
An echoed grumble came from Steelheart, visibly snorting at my statements. I figured there was no real point convincing him right now, so I looked up to Princess Celestia. Her multi-coloured mane still waved in the windless night and she never smiled. Not yet.
My eyes locked on her, and for a moment, I even thought she was going to accuse me. A fresh bead of cold sweat ran down the line of my spine, waiting for a response. There was something mesmerizing in her gaze; her light magenta eyes could have been looking right at my soul for all I knew, but it was a fixation. A very unnerving fixation.
Maybe there was something in the way that she stared at me, but afterwards, she questioned me no further. All she had to do was blink for me to realize that I had free movement of my eyes again. Her mouth broke into a small smile, one that was no longer hostile.
"I do apologize, Keith," she began, "we didn't have to question you. But for the safety of our ponies, every foreign species is under suspect, especially the more powerful ones."
"No need for apologies, your Highness." I made an effort to gracefully bow my head, "You're doing what you must for your peopl-I mean- ponies. And besides, I'm the only one of my species here. How much danger could I be?"
"Oh I think we know." Celestia's knowing smile grew wider. Even Luna smirked. Princess Cadance just raised an eyebrow in confusion.
I recalled in that moment, a little more than a year ago, when I was recovering from my first arrival's permanent consequences in the Ponyville Hospital. I remembered lying in the infirmary pleading to Twilight, who was writing to her teacher of the events of that past month, to not include my ordeal with such great detail. But it was to no avail. She may have included my accidental overdose of almost unlimited lost human magic, but she didn't include how much of my human hide had to be handed to me to get there. Nonetheless, the magical tremors felt by the princesses at that time had been explained.
With a silent nod, I was given permission to join the others in the meeting. I hastily made my way up the stairs behind the seats, smiling at each of the Mane Six before sitting myself right next to the mint green mare. She was far less hostile than Steelheart.
"My name is Marrysong, Head of Healer Hall and second-in-charge of pony welfare. Pleasure to meet you." She grinned.
"My name is Keith," I returned the grin, "and I currently have no status worth my fortune."
"Now where were we?" Princess Celestia looked tired for once, and that wasn't a good thing. "Ah, yes; the attackers."
"Yeah! Who were those chumps?!" Rainbow Dash suddenly shot out the question, but immediately regretted doing so. She shrunk back into her spot next to Steelheart, who gave her a condescending shake of the head.
"That's what I was saying, Princess." Rook stood up, speaking in a stoic deep voice. "We cannot take action against them, until we fully certain."
"Umm... don't mind us interrupting," interrupted Pinkie Pie, "but could you mind filling us in? We just got here." She squeed.
"We fear it may be one of our closest allying nations, Miss Pie." Luna replied. "And you may not be as pleased to hear this, Miss Dash, but it is the Griffins we suspect."
"The Griffins?!" Rainbow Dash's jaw dropped, hanging in silence to take in the news. For those of us who knew Rainbow Dash, this might have been a more personal blow to her.
"We're afraid so." Luna continued, "But we cannot be certain."
"But it is a very high chance." Marrysong, whom I later found out was a heart-healer, spoke up. There was a melancholy tone in her voice. "Only recently, about a week since today, the nation of Avia has cut off trade and supply routes with all parts of Equestria."
"And what's more, when we tried to get a response from them through letters, none came." Rook added, "It would appear we have lost full communication with the state of Avia."
"Avia?" I whispered in confusion to Rarity.
"It's the homeland of the Griffins, my dear. You should really brush up on your Equestrian geography." The white unicorn teased.
"But we will not act in offence unless it is confirmed." Princess Celestia continued, "A few hours ago, we sent out a scouting team to locate any intruders. We did this as soon as we got wind of the attack, and with luck, they should be returning at any moment."
"So, what are we doing now?" Twilight queried.
"Besides planning in defense? All we can do is wait."
"Princess Cadance, it is an honour to meet you." I made a long bow to the cerise-coated Alicorn.
"I could say the same, Keith Conway." She nodded politely, in lack of her royal grace. "And Shining Armour has told me quite a bit about you."
"Seriously?! How many ponies are doing this?!"
"You're a potentially powerful being that is the last of its kind in this land. I'm pretty sure that gets you some sort of fame." Twilight pointed out humourously.
The council meeting was put on hold until the scouting team returned. The rows of fiery lamps flickered in the bright night. Steelheart and Rook had opened the chamber doors, and a few guards entered to receive their commands without question. Princesses Luna and Celestia were discussing with Marrysong a matter on the pegasi's morale from the recent events, leaving Cadance and Shining Armour to converse with us.
"It's been a while, Cadance." Twilight went on, "How are the Crystal Ponies?"
"They're doing very well, but I'm afraid I may have to return to them soon. Who knows how these recent events have shaken them."
"Everypony's a little shaken by it." Shining Armour made an inconspicuous gesture towards Rainbow Dash. "Especially Rainbow Dash."
The cyan pegasus was pacing in a circle around Applejack and Pinkie Pie, who were trying to comfort their restless friend. She hadn't spoken since she heard the news. I knew it was bad when she wasn't hovering above the ground, but gaiting.
"Taking it a little harshly, isn't she?" Shining asked in concern.
"Well, she has a lot of flying friends, including griffins." Fluttershy explained. "She's both worried and confused right now."
All forms of conversation drew to an abrupt halt, as the shout echoed through the palace halls. Everypony turned their attention to the galloping guards that had just entered the chamber, panting with exhaustion. One wore the diurnal uniform while the other wore the nocturnal armour.
"Princesses..." One guard spoke between breaths. "We have... sighted... them!"
"Who?" Steelheart approached the two scouts. "Who?! Speak up, soldier!"
"The... The Griffins!"
"Damnit!!" Steelheart spat in frustration. "It's the Winged War all over again!"
At this, the numerous guards that were present broke into fearful murmurs. That hadn't been a full-on war in decades, and perhaps they doubted their ability.
"Are you absolutely certain?" Princess Celestia inquired, never losing her cool.
"We saw them... it was strange... they had no catapults!"
"No catapults?" Shining Armour listened intently. Even as the Captain of the Royal Guard, it sounded as a surprise to him from another species' tactics. "Then how do we explain the siege? Surely it wasn't them?"
"It was, Sir!" The day guard spoke up. "We were close enough! There was only a small squad of them; they were armed, but had no artillery. But they were... spying or something close... it was as if they were directing the projectiles!"
"Woah, woah, woah! That's a little far-fetched!" Rook the white stallion tried to calm his peculiarly coated comrade. "Griffins have no real control of magic. They may have it, but they cannot harness it like us."
"Actually..." I spoke out of the fray, "... they may not be able to control it, but suppose they had a... catalyst? Harness? A conductor of a sort."
The whole room was in a nervous chatter. The still night air was broken by the awakening of the palace ponies, having caught the news of the attackers as well. It affected every pony different; some reacted with anguish, some with fear. Every voice echoed throughout the castle compounds.
"Enough of this!" Princess Celestia's voice boomed, just above speaking volume. "Guards, leave us! Send for Ambassador Areopagus. I must see him."
With a quick bow, the soldiers ran out the chamber doors, each then splitting off to their separate duties. By now, the majority of the guards wore the dark armour, in camouflage with the violet-blue sky. As soon as they left, the towering doors slammed behind them, bringing a wave of short silence over the original meeting members. Everypony slowly trotted back to the council seats, with this new knowledge burdening their minds.
Princess Celestia sighed heavily, she had to remain strong for her ponies like she had done so for thousands of years. Princess Luna placed her head against her sister, in reminder that she was no longer alone in her duties. But it wasn't just the burden of war that was on their shoulders. It was also the feeling of betrayal.
"Princess Celestia," Steelheart spoke confidently, "with her Majesty's permission, my garrison is ready for battle. And now would be a better time than any to-"
"Hold your tongue, Lieutenant." Luna said sharply, answering for her sister. "The night is still young, and so is this matter."
"We're trying to stop a war, not start it!" Princess Cadance added with equal agitation. Steelheart blushed, laying his head down in shame.
"So then what's the plan, Princess?" Marrysong asked softly, in a tone that came close to Fluttershy's.
"Have faith, Marry. I have faced this situation once, and I would not like to face it again anytime soon."
Just then, the doors swung open once more, allowing a single pegasus to enter.
A light brown pegasus, well-built with a short blonde mane, wore a bright red cape over his body. The cape was held by clip resembling the symbol of the royal guard. He gaited with the poise of a noblepony, legs straight and snout held just a tad higher in the air. Coming to the center of the council, he smoothly lowered himself to a kneel.
"At the beck and call of the princesses, your Highness." Even his voice sounded smooth. I would soon come to learn that he was one of the most persuasive ambassadors that represented Equestria.
"Ambassador Areopagus, it saddens me to have to call upon one of our best representatives in such dark times." Princess Celestia began, "However, there is a mission for you that we would like to have you carry out."
"Say no more, you Majesty." The Ambassador rose from his position. "Say the word, and I will see to it that it is done."
He didn't notice me, and I couldn't read him to tell whether he was confident or just cocky. His face gave nothing away, aside from the slight raise of the side of his lips. However, my mind wasn't fully on that matter, I still wondered about this strange method of attack by the griffins. Drumming my fingers on the table, I pondered the explanations.
A soldier directing projectiles? That sounds too much like an airstrike.
But everyone here doesn't have that type of technology yet. So... how?
Do they really have a catalyst like me?
While I pondered these thoughts, I ignored the briefing given to the Ambassador. I caught hints of the Princesses warning him of grave danger and risks, but he merely pushed those aside.
"... understand, Areopagus? You are to lead a small treaty party to Avia. Present yourself to King Gryphus, and see where lies the problem. It's not like the Griffin King to turn against us so quickly."
"You can put your trust in me, Princess. I fly at dawn."
"Take care, Areo, and blessed rest." Princess Luna dismissed him. With that, the Ambassador slowly backed out of the chamber with his head bowed.
"As for the rest of us," Princess Celestia labouriously dragged on, "we must do what we can to prevent another attack. The Griffins have advanced through the ages by rational and conventional thinking. In the days of old, we managed to make peace with the Griffins just as they created a weapon; a weapon they have since promised to keep and forbade themselves to use it. I do not know much about it, but I do know what it can do."
"What would you have your troops do, my liege?" Steelheart picked up his helmet, placing it over his head readily.
"Rook, you're in charge of Equestrian defenses. Have every able-bodied pegasus patrol the skies constantly. Make sure every state in our land has sky support. From what I know, the weapon cannot function unless a griffin is on site, understand?"
"I hear and obey, Princess. I am off." With a gallant bow, Rook took his leave.
"Marrysong, make sure every wounded pony, mentally and physically, is treated to the best of care. That is the top priority. Once they are taken care of, see to the construction and repair of Cloudsdale."
"I'll help to, Aunt Celestia." With a flap of her wings, Cadance elegantly glided to the door, with Marrysong doing the same. They disappeared beyond the doors that stayed open.
"What of me, your Highness?" Steelheart asked in curiousity. It seemed no role had been given to him, although he was First Lieutenant to Shining Armour.
"We have a rather special task for you and your regiment, Steelheart." Princess Celestia broke a small smile. "But now is not the time. Until then, help Rook in his defenses, but keep your troop present."
There was a moment of hesitation from the pegasus, but he loyally complied. "As her Majesty wishes." He stretched his shadow with the hallway's candlelight, marching out the door with fierce determination in his task.
All that was left was the Mane Six and I, and we had no real military rank to hold us to a task.
"As the Spirits of Harmony, your roles will evidently play a part to create new peace with the enemy, be it Griffins or otherwise. Until then, I invite all of you to formally stay in the palace once again." Princess Celestia managed to stretch a smile.
"We'd be happy to Princess." Twilight answered for everyone.
Princess Luna rose from Celestia's side, hovering to the door. "Well, I believe the meeting is over. Should anyone require my presence, I shall be watching the night tonight. Rest well, my subjects."
It was a relief to all of us to be dismissed. Everypony, although tense, became less nervous with the formal discussions out of the way. I yawned and stretch, then lurched as my stomach gurgled, reminding me that it had been empty since morning. The Mane Six, followed by Princess Celestia were already heading out of the massive 'Triple C'.
I turned around to find Twilight's brother with a badge in his hoof. "This is the symbol of the royal guard. Figured you might need it."
I casually took the badge from Shining to examine it. It was a golden shield with a cyan star on top of it, like the emblem I saw on the other guards. A small sense of pride came over me.
"Now, you may not be part of the royal guard, but I don't think you want to get arrested on every street you walk on either."
"Thanks, Captain." I pinned it onto the right chest pocket of my shirt. "I'm gonna need it."
The two of us were the last to leave the chamber. The moment we stepped foot outside of the room, the hanging lamps automatically went out, turning the chamber to darkness but for the frosted windows. The heavily armoured guards of the door shut it and locked it behind us, saluting the Captain before dismissing themselves from their post. The palace hallways were quiet again, if not for our chatter.
"Now rest well, my little ponies," Celestia said with a grin. "get yourselves something to eat. You must be hungry. We must keep our strength up for the days ahead. After all, we just might need it."