I galloped down the tunnel as fast as my legs could carry me. My back cried out in agony, but mortal terror, I think you'll find, is an excellent, if temporary, sedative. When every single instinct is screaming at one to get away as far away from a murderous crime-against-nature as possible, preferably the next continent over, something like pain tends to get drowned out. It wouldn't last, though, and sooner or later the adrenaline would run dry and my strength would give out, but hopefully by then I'd have reached a point of relative safety.
A multi-coloured blur shot past, then slowed to allow us to catch up. Rainbow Dash was not looking best pleased as she settled into what was to her an easy and steady sort of flight, just above and between Cannon Fodder and I.
"What gives?" she shouted. "You left me there on my own!"
"Shut up and run, damn you!" I barked.
As if to punctuate that point, a bolt of magic tore through the narrow space between Rainbow Dash and me, briefly lighting up the tunnel in a horrid emerald glow. She yelped and swerved out of the way. I felt the heat of the blast singe my fur all along my left side. A little further to the right and it would have struck me in the fundament, burned through my internals, punched a hole through my chest, and all that would remain of my earthly form would be a severed head bearing a vaguely surprised expression and four stubs of hooves. The thought sent an icy chill down my back and propelled my legs faster than before.
Rainbow Dash snarled and let out an exasperated grunt, but the instinct for self-preservation won out over her brashness and she did as she was told. The sound of our hooves on the stone and the steady beat of her wings filled the tunnel, but louder still was the frantic beating of my heart and my ragged breath. That thing, Odonata, it called itself, was behind me, and though I dared not look, something told me that it was drawing nearer.
The tunnel turned abruptly to the right, and just in time too. A scramble of flailing hooves brought me into approximately the right direction, and as I darted away another blast struck the wall where I had been just a second before. My tail was caught in the blast, but luckily it struck only hair and not the fleshy part. It still stung from the intense heat, though. The smell of burnt hair and the ozone of discharged magic burned my nostrils.
"Now where do we go?" Rainbow Dash shouted. She was further down the corridor, hovering in place at an intersection with Cannon Fodder. Dammit, my fears were coming true and I was just slowing everypony else down with my injuries. Raw terror and adrenaline can only carry one so far, and the burst of hysterical energy both provide must invariably be paid back with interest.
I stopped, briefly, to take in my surroundings. The corridor flared out at this intersection, and there were signs that this place had once served as another guard checkpoint before being abandoned for whatever reason. A broken chair lay in pieces against the wall, which itself was covered in graffiti scratched into the stone. Carved into the rock were small alcoves, which I assumed must have been used for storage purposes. Looking up, I saw that the tunnelling here was of lesser quality than the more populated parts of this underground city. The ceiling in particular was broken and rough, with large cracks criss-crossing its surface like a spiders' web. I had skipped past piles of rubble that could only have come from the broken rock above. This place must have been deemed too unstable for general use and was thus abandoned, I assumed.
"Left!" I shouted. It was a pure guess, but I trusted in my special talent, even when it often disagreed with me on what 'where I need to go' actually means. "Go left! Now!"
The sound of hooves on stone echoed behind me, filling my heart with dread. Cannon Fodder and Rainbow Dash had already gone, but if you think I was about to stand and nobly sacrifice myself for their escape you are sorely mistaken, and clearly haven't paid attention to a word I've written. There was a chance, though a slim one, of at least slowing the Purestrain if not stopping it, but it was better than nothing. I summoned as much magic into my horn as I could, until it throbbed and ached with the pressure.
The hoofsteps were not rapid, as one would expect with a gallop, but something more of a trot, as though this Purestrain had all the time in the world to find and kill me. I was put in mind of the Griffon aristocracy, who had turned the already abominable practice of killing animals for food into a grotesque and morbid sport (they call it a sport, but I don't ever recall seeing the prey win when I observed these hunts). The ‘entertainment’, if it could be called that, was in the chase and the hunt as opposed to the act of killing itself, and in these tunnels I felt precisely like a fox running for his life through the undergrowth from the hunter. [Although hunting is a national tradition in the Griffon Empire, farming practices have eliminated the need for most griffons to hunt for their food. The hunt, therefore, has become a hobby and a 'sport' for the aristocracy and country gentry, who engage in hunting parties in estates managed by gamekeepers. Blueblood attended a number of these hunts as part of a number of state visits.]
I saw a flicker of movement, and I fired. The shot was panicked and premature. It struck the ceiling, whereupon the cracked rock fell in a heap on the floor. Not enough - the beast had turned the corner, jumped, and cleared that meagre obstacle with ease, eyes alight with the promise of spilling my regal blood. I hastily fired a desultory volley of shots into the ceiling again. This time it had the desired effect; the ground beneath my hooves shook as the tunnel caved in, and great piles of rock, earth, and dust fell crashing and rolling from above to fill the chamber from floor to ceiling. Dammit, if I had held my fire a little longer I might have caught Odonata in the collapse, though I had no idea if that would give the murderous Purestrain even a scratch on its chitinous armour.
Not wanting to stick around to admire my hoofwork, however, I darted after Rainbow Dash and Cannon Fodder, the latter still holding onto that damned flag. The two of them were waiting for me a little further down, but settled next to me at a trot as I reached them.
"That'll hold it for a bit," I said. I felt sick, more so than before, and the edges of my vision closed in. There was that curious feeling of being submerged in water, and while I was aware of various sensations, mostly pain and nausea, they felt indistinct and distant. We carried on, however, and I forced myself to as near a gallop as I could manage. The aforementioned effects of fear and adrenaline were being outweighed by exhaustion and pain, and I didn't dare to imagine what this exertion was doing to my still-raw back.
Presently, I heard the sound of a discharge of magic followed by a rippling noise of rock crumbling. That little obstacle only bought us a few minutes of breathing space, but it could still be the thin dividing line between life and death.
[Changeling magic is very unrefined by the standards of most unicorns, with the notable exception of shape-shifting. Purestrains are the only kinds of Changelings able to directly manipulate magic through their horns, but typically their repertoire of spells is usually limited to raw offensive blasts. Furthermore, the amount of power one draws upon is dependent upon how much emotional energy the Purestrain has taken. In this case, we can conclude from these writings that Odonata must have glutted herself on lust, as a substitute for love which their kind usually feed on, in order to have cleared the cave-in Blueblood had caused so quickly.]
"Are you just making this up as you go along, or do you have a plan?" said Rainbow Dash, yelling above the din and apparently oblivious to the fact that I was on the verge of fainting.
"The plan is 'shut up and run'!" I barked, though at that point I considered changing it to 'sacrifice Rainbow Dash to the Purestrain and hope it chokes on all of her damned ego'. She rolled her eyes and growled in response, but otherwise wisely kept further thoughts on the matter to herself.
We kept on going. Once or twice, I'm not sure, I stumbled on the rough and pitted ground, but each time Cannon Fodder helped me back up and we carried on. But before long, I felt as though I was spent, completely and utterly. Everything hurt in that peculiar, abstract way that was still horrendously unpleasant. It was mostly in my limbs and my back, and my head felt as though somepony had rammed a hosepipe up my nose and turned it on until my skull cavity filled up with water. Every breath, already laboured with the exertion of flight, was agony, like a thousand needles filling my lungs. I was sick too, I think; I don't recall the actual act of vomiting, only that at some point there was a lingering foul taste in my mouth with a coppery tang to it, and the feeling of something dribbling down my chin.
It was getting closer and closer. The rapport of hoofsteps behind me seemed to grow louder and louder until it was almost deafening, bearing with it the portent of imminent death. I imagined feeling its hot, stinking breath closing in my neck, ready for the kill. Oh Faust, I was going to die down here, either ripped to pieces, burned to cinders, or just giving up to expire quietly - hundreds of miles away from home and from anypony who held even the slightest of positive opinions about me. But I kept on galloping as best as I could through the seemingly endless tunnel, past fleeting images of empty chambers and caves. Now and again, I'd look over my shoulder and fire a shot or two down the empty passageway, each bolt jarring like a kick to the horn. I doubted my feeble magic could do more than lightly char its thick chitin, but I hoped it would force it to keep its distance.
I saw daylight. The tunnel lurched violently to the right, then after a short distance opened up to a sort of balcony set deep into one side of the ravine. The top, that is to say, ground level, looked like a smooth ribbon of bright daylight above us, but to look down was to see the sheer walls sink into an impenetrable darkness. This great cleft in the ground, like an axe wound, stretched on to the left and right, turning away in a sort of crescent. The opposite wall was a dozen yards or so away, and in the disconcertingly smooth rock there I could make out a hole almost directly opposite us. I would guess that there had once been a bridge here that had long since collapsed, and another glance either side confirmed my theory as I saw ropes and wood suspended between other such openings further along. [The Rat Pony Tribe's underground territory did extend across both sides of the ravine, though most of the settlement was on the side closest to Equestria.]
I still recall with utmost clarity the feeling of utter horror at seeing this dead end. Dread was already gripping my heart and giving it a good squeeze, but the sight of the ground dropping off into the near-infinite depths below and vast cliff looming above us, with the open sky mocking me through the thin sliver that was visible, sank my spirits into such despair as I had never known before. I thought, perhaps, that my injuries had become so severe that even my special talent had somehow become damaged. There seemed to be no way off, save from jumping off and plummeting to my doom, and then I remembered Rainbow Dash.
She had no sarcastic comment this time; her face was grave and ashen, but I realised that she was looking directly at me and not the precipitous drop into infinity below or the sky beyond the ravine above. If I were her, and I thank Celestia that I'm not, I'd have flown off to freedom as soon as I glimpsed the pretty blue overhead, and then I would have kept on going, not even stopping to report back at Fort E-5150, and carried on until I reached either Zebrica or Griffonstone, whichever was closer, and then tried to claim political asylum. I expect that as she was the bearer of the Element of Loyalty, that precluded her from such sensible actions. Nevertheless, the look that she gave me, devoid of its usual brashness and carefree self-assurance, had the same effect upon me as if I had been slapped - when Rainbow Dash of all ponies looks as though all hope is lost, then it really, truly is.
Damn that rot, however, for as far as I was concerned it only meant she wasn't thinking hard enough. I looked at her, then up at the sky, then at her again, noting the lean but powerful musculature that lay hidden beneath that garish blue fur. The idea I had was ridiculous, but in the absence of any better ones and with the beast bearing down upon us, merely seconds away, it would have to do.
"Carry us," I said. My voice sounded hoarse and dry, and I was alarmed at just how weak it sounded.
"What?!" exclaimed Rainbow Dash. "Are you crazy?"
"Are you or are you not the best flyer in all of Equestria?" If in doubt, and you want Rainbow Dash to do something she thinks is impossible, one merely has to appeal to her ego. For all of its size and the excessive posturing it inspires, it can be a remarkably fragile thing that needed constant assurance, like a rare and expensive orchid that will die if one stops paying it any attention.
Rainbow Dash puffed her chest out, and her wings spread like a heraldic eagle on some ancient knight's shield. "Of course I am!"
"Then prove it!"
Rainbow Dash stared, apparently sizing up Cannon Fodder and I, then her self-assured grin returned. She barked out an abrupt affirmative accompanied with something approximating a salute, and darted towards us. I had no time to prepare myself before she wrapped her right foreleg around my upper body, just under my armpits, and hoisted me onto her back with an ease that I would have found thoroughly emasculating were I not in mortal peril. Her forelegs wrapped Cannon Fodder's torso in an awkward sort of embrace, and she grimaced at the close physical contact with his grubby body. As she spread her wings and flapped she made a few grunts of exertion, and then leapt into the air and the three of us were airborne.
My hooves left the safety and security of hard, solid ground, and I clung desperately with my forelegs wrapped around her upper body and neck. I was reminded of flying on Auntie Celestia's back as a colt, though the fact that I was a bit bigger than Rainbow Dash made holding on rather more precarious. That I had effectively ‘mounted’ her, with her firm flanks against my crotch, was already deeply awkward and embarrassing, and it was fortunate that I was much too terrified to make the situation any more so for the both of us.
It was shortly after take-off that I learned of the second thing that unnerves my aide, Twilight Sparkle being the first. As soon as we were airborne, soaring heavenwards with all the grace and elegance of a swan that had over-indulged on bread and gin, Cannon Fodder made some very disconcerting noises that seemed to emanate from his gut, and the skin beneath his grubby beige fur had turned a distinct shade of green. Flying disagreed with him, as did most things, come to think of it, but this was one of the few activities where he felt it necessary to reciprocate.
Nevertheless, despite her initial misgivings, it appeared to be working. We were flying, albeit at a much slower pace than Rainbow Dash preferred, and our ascent in the direction of the top of the ravine and apparent safety was slow. The pegasus grunted in exertion with every beat of her wings, and I could see her face screwed up with the effort of it all. Likewise, the taut musculature of her forelegs bulged as she held my aide, a full-grown stallion in armour, as though he was an oversized doll won at a fairground.
A shrill shriek of discharged magic and a flash of heat felt against my left flank reminded me that we were still being hunted. I dared to peek over my shoulder to see our pursuer in flight behind us, horn glowing ominously with that putrescent shade of green that I have come to fear. Odonata's carapace had opened at the back, revealing large translucent wings that beat so fast they were almost a blur. That said, judging from the way this large, armoured Purestrain lumbered into the air and lurched awkwardly, flying was not one of its strengths.
"Stop squirming!" shouted Rainbow Dash. I felt the rippling muscles on her back beneath me shift and flex with every beat of her wings. "I can almost make it to the top!"
"Don't!" I snapped back. "We'll be sitting ducks out in the open, head further into the ravine and evade."
She nodded. "On it, sir!"
Rainbow Dash brought us into a steep dive, and with it the bile rose up my throat once more. Picking up speed, assisted by the frantic flapping of her wings, the air rushed in my face and stung my eyes. We lurched to the right suddenly, and then up once more, just as another hellish green beam tore through the space we occupied not more than half a second ago. It struck the wall where the cleft turned sharply to the left, and the rock erupted into a cloud of dust and showering debris.
Onwards, Rainbow Dash carried us. Down here, far from light, the ravine was not so smooth, but twisted and turned with great clumps of rock jutting out, but she skilfully avoided each and every one without injury to herself or her passengers, but there were a damned too many near misses for my liking. A few inches higher and my forehead would have clipped an outcropping, but I had to cut her a little slack considering that she was carrying one stallion in heavy armour and another for whom the Royal Guard fitness regimen had proved ineffective against a lifetime of éclairs and port.
Odonata was still 'on our six', as the Wonderbolts would have put it. A volley of shots were fired, and Rainbow Dash, alerted by my panicked screaming, weaved left and right, up and down, and around this deadly fusillade. She was grinning, and she seemed almost on the verge of laughing. Damn her, she was enjoying this; it was just another bloody competition to her, though the prize for first place is mere survival and the only reward for second is a grisly death. If I didn't know any better, she was showing off too.
It wouldn't last, though. Even I could tell she was getting tired, and sooner or later, Odonata would catch up and that would be it. The beast seemed to know this, and was relentless in its pursuit. It made no real effort to close the distance, merely firing shot after shot in the knowledge that Rainbow Dash could dodge it with contemptuous ease, but reassured that eventually those wings that propelled her to perform such great tricks like the sonic rainboom would have to tire some time. Whether or not our flyer here knew was another matter, but the realisation to me was as stark as a splash of ice-cold water to the face.
There was only one thing for it, and I didn’t like it. Cannon Fodder’s anti-magic aura, usually such a great boon, had become a hindrance and I was unable to return fire, not that my feeble shots would have done much in the way of lethal damage. This left only one viable alternative. I looked at the Colours in Cannon Fodder’s hooves, with its sharp pointed tip like a spear, and then to the rapier still hovering in my magical aura.
“Rainbow Dash!” I shouted.
“Yeah?” she snapped. “I’m a little busy here!”
She swerved violently, and I almost lost my grip on her narrow chest. Another blast of magic burned through the air, much too close to us for comfort, and then ricocheted off the wall at a shallow angle. We flew straight through the resulting cloud of dust and vapourised rock, pelted with a spray of falling pebbles and shattered stone.
[It is likely that Blueblood misremembered this detail, as magic missiles do not ricochet off solid objects, besides being reflected off enchanted crystals. Either the shower of dirt mentioned had clouded his vision, or the blast had struck a vein of crystal hidden in the rock.]
“Have you jousted before?”
“Pegasus aerial jousting!” I snarled. “Have you done it before?”
“Why are you asking me this now?”
Damnation, she was dense sometimes, though I supposed her mind was fully occupied with the task of flying and keeping the three of us alive. She demonstrated this by expertly swerving around the paths of two further beams of magic. It was that or too many trips at high altitude had starved her brain of enough oxygen to cause permanent damage.
“Turn us around!” By now I was screaming at her. I may have used the Royal Canterlot Voice, I couldn’t tell for my ears were already filled with the roar of the air rushing past us. My blond mane was getting stuck over my eyes again, and I cursed my continued avoidance of a less elegant but more practical military buzz-cut.
"I thought you wanted to get away from the monster!"
I saw she hadn't quite grasped the severity of our problem, and seemed to think that she could carry on and out-fly this beast indefinitely. Under normal circumstances, yes, there wasn't the slightest shadow of a doubt in my mind that Rainbow Dash could fly rings around the big, ungainly Purestrain before tweaking its nose and blasting off into the sunset with a rainbow trailing from her taut, toned rear end. These were hardly normal circumstances, carrying two adult stallions and being shot at, and thus it called for the most extreme of drastic measures. I had to explain in as simple terms as possible for this single-minded mare:
"Fly me closer! I want to hit them with my sword!"
I waved the appropriate article in her face and she soon divined my meaning. She barked another curt, "Yes, sir!", and then brought us into a very sudden and sharp climb. My stomach carried on in straight and level flight for a time before rejoining the rest of my body. Some very worrying noises emanated from my aide, and the greenish tint to his skin had become much more vivid. He even covered his mouth with the hoof not occupied by holding the standard, and his cheeks bulged.
We rose upwards, but Rainbow Dash flared her wings suddenly. Our ascent stalled, and just at the apex of our climb before gravity would take its hold, the longest feathers of her left wing twitched almost imperceptibly. The world spun drunkenly before my eyes, then I stared into the black abyss of the ravine and a very surprised-looking Purestrain staring up at us.
We plummeted towards our pursuer. Rainbow Dash closed her wings around her body, presumably to maximise our acceleration. I scarcely had time to raise my rapier before she flared her wings again, bringing us out of the dive and straight past our foe. The blade certainly struck something - I could feel it slicing deep into something soft. [This aerial combat manoeuvre is known as the Hammer Head Turn, named for its creator Hammer Head, a pegasus ace of the Nightmare Heresy. Many stunts as used by the Wonderbolts in their shows were originally based on military manoeuvres of that era, and have survived as tricks.]
The wall of the ravine loomed up before us, but a deft course correction, so sharp that the edges of my vision momentarily clouded over, brought us out of harm's way and we faced the enemy once more. A blast of foul green magic struck the wall above us, showering us with clods of dirt and broken stone.
The hours upon tedious hours of repetitive drill forced upon me by my old fencing instructor had paid off in that moment, as I saw that my blade had found the miniscule gap in the Purestrain's chitin between the neck plate and shoulder guard. The Changeling beast hovered in place, membranous wings buzzing frantically, and with a look of utter horror twisting its face it held its hooves to the wound in a vain attempt to stem the arterial spray of ichor flowing from it.
We came in for another pass, quicker now that we momentarily had the upper hoof. Cannon Fodder wielded the Royal Standard like a spear, but the point was deflected by the Purestrain's chest armour, where it left only a small scratch. I, however, struck true once more, and this time my blade found a gap between the plates on its belly, plunged in deep, and was then wrenched free. Odonata hissed in agony, and lit its horn with magic. As we tore past and swerved to come in again, a volley of green fire swept in behind us to strike the wall. Great chunks of solid earth were blasted into non-existence, leaving big, pony-sized craters as though the dirt and rock had been carved out with an enormous ice cream scoop. The fight was not over yet.
Odonata was severely wounded, perhaps fatally if the flow of ichorous blood was any indication, but apparently having glutted itself on the lust of Yours Truly and Luna knows how many other stallions in the Rat Pony Tribe, its offensive magic made it still very much a threat. We had to finish this, and quickly too - Rainbow Dash was clearly tiring herself carrying the two of us, and I wasn't about to gamble on the Purestrain bleeding out faster than our pegasus' endurance.
"Get us in closer!" I shouted, almost hysterical now that the end was almost within my feeble grasp. "Ram it! Pin it against the wall!"
With a wordless cry of anger that echoed through the ravine, our pilot turned us around once more. Her blood was up and with it the red mist had descended, clearly, as I doubt that any sane pegasus would consider ramming a far larger and stronger enemy. The distance was closed in a panicked heartbeat. I saw confusion in the Changeling's face as we collided. I dared to stretch out my right hoof, keeping the left wrapped tightly around Rainbow Dash, and shoved it against its massive, armoured barrel, and I pushed with what little of my strength remained. Rainbow Dash likewise did not stop, but kept on flying, and our enemy was forced straight into the ravine wall. I heard something crunch, and saw that those delicate insect-like wings had been broken by the impact, and hung limply like scrunched up silk from the creature's back.
Hissing, shrieking, snarling - the Purestrain was more like a trapped wild animal than the patrician and noble overlord we had faced in the caved-in chamber. Ichor gushed from wounds that should have been almost immediately fatal to any lesser creature. Its great hooves flailed and kicked, and one struck me in the side of the head and stars floated across my sight. Stronger than the three of us, we were forced back, but that proved to be its downfall.
Odonata - wings broken, bleeding heavily, and no longer pinned to the wall - simply plummeted into the darkness below and was swallowed up by the gloom. We hovered there in place above the spot where the beast fell, and I stared into that horrible black abyss, straining my eyes to catch any glimpse of movement and my ears to hear anything besides the beating of both pegasus wings and my overworked heart. There was nothing, I was sure of it; the Purestrain had been gallantly vanquished and would never trouble us again, or so I had thought, but then and there, with a myriad shapes swirling and dancing before my tired eyes and the subtle howl of the desert wind my mind interpreted all manner of horrors lurking there. Any one of these could presage the abomination rushing back up against us, somehow surviving its injuries, with its horn blazing with magic to blast us out of the air. Yet each moment, counted by the rhythmic thumping of blood in my ears, brought only nothing, and I dared to believe that we had finally won.
Rainbow Dash didn't want to admit that she was tired, but it was damned obvious to all. Her sleek body was coated in a layer of foamy sweat, and my grip on my barrel seemed to be much more slippery than I felt before. At my direction she carried us back to the ledge, and all the while I watched the darkness below, despite the sight of the drop chilling me to my core, I could not take my eyes off that impenetrable blackness for the fear that Odonata would come screaming from that hellish abyss to finish what it started. There is no doubt that we could not possibly survive another fight, for our flight back was slow, and damnably so when one's hooves longed for the safety and security of solid ground. Each beat of her wings was accompanied by a pained moan that she seemed to be doing her best to hide, but the exertion was simply getting the better of her. By the time that ledge swam into view, our path could no longer be described as 'straight and level', but rather simply 'wobbly'.
We did not so much land as just drop from the sky onto the ledge from which we first took off. The impact was hard, and jarred my bones quite painfully when I gave up clinging on and slipped off to fall about three feet. Nevertheless, the feeling of hard, solid, dependable ground beneath my front as I sprawled out atop it was most reassuring. I could almost kiss it, were such a gesture not beneath one's dignity. Cannon Fodder had landed on his hooves quite well, and then staggered off to vomit over the side of the ledge like Yours Truly over my Canterlot apartment's balcony after a long night of carousing, while our pegasus flyer had more or less crashed a short distance away in an awkward tangle of limbs and wings. Still, she managed to extricate herself from her position in the furrow her alleged landing had carved in the dirt, as though landings like this were a common occurrence for her.
"That. Was. Awesome!" exclaimed Rainbow Dash, once she managed to get herself more or less upright. She thrust a forehoof into the air, apparently trying to punch it, but fell onto her side.
I stared at her, incapable of understanding how she or anypony at all could possibly interpret our near-death experience as anything other than harrowing. Then again, this was a mare who flew straight into lightning storms and picked fights with quarray eels purely for the purposes of fun. Damned pegasi, there must be something about living in clouds that damages the mind, I thought. It couldn't be healthy.
"Good, because I don't want to do that again," I said. Or much of anything else, I mentally added, except to just lie there and wait for a peaceful death or salvation, whichever came first. Either would have suited me just fine, after all of the mess I had just been put through. My body felt like it was just one solid lump of pain - everything hurt. To be more accurate, though, it was a great multitude of smaller agonies that seemed to mesh and merge to create one horrid cocktail of torment; my back was the foundational spirit in this metaphorical drink that dominated the palate, the bathtub-brewed rye whisky as it were, followed by bitters and vermouth of horn-ache, nausea, and general fatigue.
"You were pretty good out there, Prince." I tilted my head off the dirt to look up and see Rainbow Dash standing over me. She was grinning, but there was a definite hint of concern that softened the usual manic glint in her eyes. "I mean, jousting with the Changeling? I didn't think you had it in you to try something that crazy, to be honest, let alone actually pull it off."
"I saw an opportunity and I took it," I said, meaning that I had run out of sensible ideas to preserve what was left of my hide and had to resort to a stab in the dark once more. Injured though I may have been, the strictures of aristocratic deportment still overpowered mere equine weakness, and I struggled back up to my hooves. It simply wouldn't do for Prince Blueblood, Celestia's nephew, Duke of Canterlot, and so on and so forth, to be spoken down to like that, not in this moment of alleged triumph. My stance was a little wobbly, like that of a newborn foal straight out of the womb, and my vision swam and filled with stars, but I at least managed to avoid fainting or throwing up again. "I wasn't sure if you could carry the two of us, though. Well done, Rainbow Dash."
She snorted and shook her head. "I carried Rarity and three unconscious Wonderbolts when I did the sonic rainboom at the Best Young Flyer Competition, so I think I can handle two unicorns. You're a bit heavier than Rarity, though, and the Wonderbolts too. Individually, I mean, not all together."
"How are you holding up?" I asked, fearing that we may have to do something like that again.
Her wings fluttered and then flexed a few times, apparently testing out the range of movement. She hissed a few times at what must have been a few aches, but held them spread as if for me to inspect on a parade ground. "I'm just a bit winded. Give me a few minutes to catch my breath and I'll be back at peak performance!"
I glanced up at the ribbon of daylight above, and pointed towards it. "So, you'd be able to take us up there?"
A nervous grin stretched across her face, and she chuckled awkwardly. Her wings hurriedly folded back up against her body. "Well, when I said 'peak performance' I really meant 'nearly peak performance', and when I said 'a few minutes' I meant 'maybe in a day or two'. I could make it up there on my own, and then I could fly back to the fort and fetch help."
She cast a scrutinising eye over me, and I realised that I must have looked utterly dreadful standing there even with my conscious efforts to maintain as much of my dignity as possible. I stiffened, trying to stand as straight and upright as possible the way Father always told me to, but that just made my back hurt even more.
"But I can't just leave you here on your own like that. Somepony's gotta keep an eye on you."
Her concern would seem touching, I'm sure, but I was merely thankful for another body between me and whatever else was out there to kill me. There was no telling how many more Changelings lurked within this tribe, if any, ready to strike me down in this most vulnerable state. Besides, the natives too were, at this point, something of an unknown quantity, and while I hoped that Dahlia's unmasking as a Changeling Purestrain, a creature bent on exploiting a war between our two nations, would help seal the rift between us and allow me to leave freely with the Colours, Earthshaker could scarcely be counted upon to act rationally. No doubt the war-hungry chieftain of this miserable little group of sand-dwellers, his mind already tainted with Changeling lies, would put all of this down to Equestrian trickery, or undertake some other kind of mental gymnastics of the particularly ridiculous sort to justify another excuse to have me killed for the sake of a grudge thousands of years old that, I would say with the utmost confidence, precious few ponies in Equestria were actually aware of.
Princess Celestia was going to bail me out of this mess, as she has often done in the past; I reminded myself of what Luna had told me in the dream, 'help is coming' she said, but, cryptic as always, had neglected to tell me when and in what manner. Right there and then I'd have been happy to see her descend from the heavens, armoured as she had been the previous time she had to bail me out of a very sticky situation, and leading the entirety of Army Group Centre behind her. She certainly has a knack for turning up exactly when she is needed, though not necessarily when one expects. [One does one's best] I would still have to wait, but I was certainly not going to do it right here on this damned ledge.
"I think I get it now," Rainbow Dash continued, snapping me out of my vacant musings on how I was still neck-deep in mortal peril. She had an odd, far-off look in her eyes as she stared up at the sky above, as if willing the ravine to break apart further so that she might see more of the soft expanse of blue her kind called home. "All the stuff you and Captain Blitzkrieg and Shining Armour have been lecturing me about all this time, I mean. Back then, in the cave, I would have charged at the Changeling thing."
"And gotten yourself killed," I said. "Or captured."
"Yeah, that." She turned and looked straight at me, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed as she appeared to be trying to trawl through her limited vocabulary to find the right words to express herself. "I screwed up, badly, and I know it's all my fault. I hate to lose, and if you stick an obstacle in my path or tell me I can't do something, then I'm only going to try even harder to beat it and prove you wrong. But that's not what you want in a soldier, is it? When you ran away like that I was so mad because I thought I'd finally have the chance to show you what I can do, because that's all I've ever wanted to do since I got here! But I was so wrapped up in wanting to prove myself to you that I didn't appreciate just how much danger we were all in, or that you might have a plan to get us out alive."
I stood in silence, though the image that I was going for the sort of stern, authoritarian officer humouring some soldier's feeble excuses was ruined a little by the unholy sounds of Cannon Fodder retching. Some plan, just running away, but it was a tried and tested tactic that had worked for me in the past, and this time again, relatively speaking. Besides, it was best to allow ponies to assume that my making things up as I went along was actually all part of an elaborate scheme that I had planned all along. It usually made them more eager to do what I wanted them to do, if they thought it all served some higher purpose in some grand scheme.
"I was trying to make it right," continued Rainbow Dash. She was pacing now, and rather impatiently as though she wanted us to just get a move on, despite her previous assertions of fatigue. "I thought I could fix everything if I just went and got the flag back, but it made everything worse again."
She had stopped ranting, and was looking at me as though she expected me to say something. Damnation, why do ponies think I am some sort of font of wisdom? As if anything I could ever say would 'make it right', as she had put it. I just wanted out of this miserable place, really, and to never have to see her again.
"We have what we came for," I said, deciding to rely on the bluff old soldier routine that usually served me well.
"Yeah, we do," she said, eyeing the flag that Cannon Fodder was still holding onto, despite continuing to express his thoughts about Rainbow Dash's flying techniques into the ravine below. "Look, you might think this is all about me trying to get back into the Wonderbolts' training programme, and I'd be lying if that wasn't some part of it. But I couldn't just go back to Ponyville without at least making an attempt to put things right. And we blew it."
Well, this was all nice and dandy, I could tell you, as Rainbow Dash finally learned to put her ego aside in the name of the general war effort, and all it took was a couple of near-death experiences on my part for the lesson to sink in. With the suspicion that I might be getting rather low on blood creeping its way into the drawing room of my mind and taking up all of the space on the chaise lounge, my tolerance for her peculiar need to justify her own actions was at an all time low. Nevertheless I humoured her, primarily out of a sense of gratitude as, after all, she was instrumental in our dispatch of the Purestrain, but the need to get a damned move on before I lapse into unconsciousness became most pressing.
"I'll write a letter to Captain Spitfire," I said; much of this was her fault, after all, with her peculiar need to have the Wonderbolts be seen to doing their part in our great crusade against the Changelings, which all went about as well as any reasonable pony might expect from stunt flyers pretending to be soldiers. Reasonable ponies were still in very short supply in the higher echelons of the Ministry of War, evidently. "But I can't make any promises, as this is no longer a Royal Guard issue, and I'm in no fit state to write correspondence at the moment anyway. I think we should find Shining Armour and the others, it's only polite after running off like that."
Cannon Fodder had, by now, completed his necessary tasks over the edge of this balcony, and trotted on over as though nothing untoward had happened. He had the presence of mind to wipe his mouth with a rather dirty hoofkerchief that might have been white cotton at some early point in its life, but now was made up of varying shades of beige and pale yellow. The gesture did nothing to improve the cleanliness of his face and beard, however. He produced a water canteen from within the multitudinous pockets and pouches that festooned his armour and uniform, and despite initial reservations about its proximity to my aide's body and the unique aroma it emanates, thirst won out and Rainbow Dash was soon drinking greedily from it.
"Where's my hipflask?" I asked, realising that I must have left it and my cigar case in the pockets of my uniform, which lay in a neat bundle in the cave. After everything I had just been through, fine cognac would certainly have been agreeable.
"Left it behind, sir," said Cannon Fodder. He gave an apologetic look as he took his water canteen from Rainbow Dash before the greedy mare could down its contents, and offered it to me. I took a few small sips, the cool, slightly antiseptic taste was, in my battered state, far better than any liquor could have hoped to be. I instantly felt better, not perfect but merely better, and it would still be a very long time before I felt I could do anything much more strenuous than resting on a fainting couch and reading a mares' swimwear magazine. To be fair, I felt like that for a very long time, but recent events had only compounded that sensation.
"Blast, that was my father's." I returned the canteen, and it was then secreted back inside an anonymous pouch.
"We could go and get it back," said Rainbow Dash, she was trotting in place and flexing her wings, apparently as eager to be off as I was, if not more so. "If it means that much to you."
"No, I hated him," I said. The damned natives could keep that particular memento to the detestable old fool, for all I cared; it wasn't as though he was going to materialise out of wherever he got lost in Zebrica, and then demand it back along with everything else I'd inherited after he was declared legally dead. Rainbow Dash gave me an odd look, but took the wise decision not to press me further about it. "Come on, we've wasted enough time. Let's get a move on before Shining Armour runs into trouble again."