Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Honour and Blood (Part 22)

We tried to retrace our steps, though that proved rather difficult to do, so once again we relied upon my fickle special talent. I was still in considerable pain, so the going was rather slow. Rainbow Dash was likewise in a state of fatigue, no longer flying a few feet off the ground as she usually does, but walking by my side. Behind us, Cannon Fodder took up the rearguard, and the Royal Standard was still held reverently in his hooves. The immediate danger of death, dismemberment, disembowelment, or other such unpleasant things beginning with the letter 'D' had passed, for now, but the lingering sensation of dread was hard to shake.

Our hoofsteps, three sets of them, continued to echo around these nameless corridors, and I strained my ears to the point of madness to try and hear any sound beyond them, but anything else that I could discern was just vague and indistinct enough to set my imagination screaming. A trickle of pebbles falling behind us, or the drip-drip-drip of water from some crack in the ceiling could have been a thousand hissing Changelings, or an army of natives, or maybe even something far worse. Faust knows what else still lurks in these dark corners of the world.

We came into areas that I thought I recognised, though even with my special talent one corridor made of rock looked very much like another, and during our flight through them I was paying very little attention to the scenery. Nevertheless, the feeling that we were on broadly the right track was a pleasant one, and I dared to think that I might even get out of this mess alive. Now that we weren't being hunted by a murderous Purestrain, I could take a closer look at our surroundings, and found everywhere signs that this place had been inhabited at some point in its existence but had since been abandoned. It appeared that the ponies who once lived here were quite thorough in packing up their belongings, for all that was left was furniture that was probably too big or heavy to carry and useless rubbish that nopony wanted anymore. There were probably valid reasons for their evacuation, but my paranoid streak as ever focused in on the more unsettling theories like an astronomer gazing at the stars with a telescope; horrid monsters lurking in the dark, baleful curses, a plague, and so on and so forth.

At length, we returned to the intersection where I had attempted to delay Odonata by causing a cave-in. The pile of rocks and debris that had fallen from the ceiling where I shot it would have completely blocked the far end of the room, were it not for a great, ragged hole blasted through it. Around the edges of this gap the rock had melted, run in great sloughs and rivulets, and then solidified like candle wax. The air was warmer here, too, as the re-solidified stone still radiated the residual heat absorbed from the blast. I felt a cold shudder crawl over my ruined back - just how powerful was that creature? And, by extension, how much of that power was drawn from the lust it had absorbed? Still, considering that I had been the last pony it had fed from, I decided to take it as a compliment to my skill as a lover.

There, we rested. Though our going had been slow and steady, with the two relatively hale ponies having the patience to walk at the speed of my slow limp, I still felt exhausted and just had to stop before I could pass out. I took a seat close to the wall, though in truth I wanted nothing more than to simply flop onto my front like a beached whale, and allow the hard, unforgiving ground to take the weight of my ungainly frame off my hooves. There would be time for that later, and hopefully on a comfortable hospital bed and surrounded by attractive nurses in uniform. Rainbow Dash sat next to me, while Cannon Fodder stood close by and kept a watch on the corridors branching out.

Rainbow Dash was babbling, perhaps as a way of relieving the stress of the situation, or she was still 'pumped', as she might have put it, after that fight. I expect there's some biological mechanism for pegasi to hold onto that adrenaline rush that we unicorns lack, or something, I didn't really know or care, but in spite of my usual distaste for the sort of incessant, pointless chatter she likes to indulge in, it did at least help somewhat in taking my mind off of the pain.

"...and then we swooped in!" she said, demonstrating this with a series of dramatic waves with her forehooves. As far as I could tell, her left one represented the Purestrain, and her right one was her carrying Cannon Fodder and me. "And the Changeling was all 'bleeeegh', and you were all 'sha-weeeeeng', and you stabbed it in mid-air, and it was like, 'oh nooo, I'm dead!' That must have been a thousand-to-one chance of hitting it!"

I waited until she had apparently run out of things to say, and then a little longer just to make absolutely sure she didn't have anything further, and certainly no obnoxious sound effects, to add. "Yes," I said. "I was there, if you recall."

"But how did somepony like you learn to do something that awesome?"

"Somepony like me?" I said, arching an eyebrow.

"Well, yeah." She shrugged. "I mean, you're not exactly the kind of pony I'd associate with that kind of awesome swordplay. Jousting with the Changeling; that's like something out of a Daring Do story, not one about a, uh..."

She hesitated, so I completed that thought for her: "A namby-pamby pony prince?"

"I wasn't going to say that!" she exclaimed loudly. Her voice echoed down the tunnels, presumably alerting anything that might be lurking in the deep shadows to our presence. Though I was annoyed, I lacked the energy to summon anger at this, and upon reflection, being found was exactly what I needed. Either Shining Armour and whomsoever survived that cave-in would help escort us to the surface and safety, or it would be the natives to whom I could explain that this was all a horrible misunderstanding predicated on Changeling espionage and that we should be allowed to go home immediately. Fat bloody chance of that, but it was nice to hope, at least.

"Oh?" If my brow arched any higher it might have torn itself free from my forehead. "But you certainly thought it." I allowed myself a chuckle at her expense, though Rainbow Dash seemed more bewildered by my revealing of a lighter side to my personality, as opposed to the grim authority figure who doled out punishments like candy on Nightmare Night I had been in uniform.

"It's quite alright," I continued, taking the rare opportunity to expound upon my hobbies for once. "I expect two years on the frontline still isn't enough to completely exorcise one's reputation for indolence and luxury." Would that I could still indulge in such things, of course, but I kept that to myself. "But what you commoners probably don't appreciate anymore is that there is more to the life of a noblepony than parties and opera and growing fat off the hard work of others. A noblepony must be cultured, sophisticated, learned, and, most importantly, be capable of defending one's honour should it be insulted. The duel is a noble and ancient tradition by which wrongs are set right and honour is satisfied, and fencing is the sport by which a noblepony keeps one's skills with the blade honed. I happened to develop a knack for it, which is a good thing too when one considers all of the ponies I've insulted over the years. These days, ponies sort out their differences with lawyers - disgusting creatures. It's much less fun that way."

As a general rule, I might add, I never enjoyed duelling, even though à l'outrance [Literally translated as 'to the limit', a duel in which honour cannot be satisfied until one party was mortally wounded] was extremely rare, it was, back when such things were almost legal, still a tremendous faff appointing seconds and organising locations, weapons, and dress codes, and I'd rather spend that time partaking of more edifying activities like drinking and chasing mares. Fencing, yes, is one of the very few socially acceptable hobbies out there that I have any particular skill in, but it's a rather different beast when the combatants are encased in padded armour, iron masks, and wielding blunted swords, or simply using illusory weapons as my Auntie Luna prefers. That said, for the most part a pony who has dared to impugn my honour, or the other way around as is usually the case, will often back down once the glove has been slapped across his face and he realises he's just picked a fight with a skilled duellist, and failing that a chequebook proves just as efficient.

"Yeah, well, figures that Canterlot unicorns would make something as cool as sword-fighting and turn it into something prissy." She paused, looking at me with an expression I might best describe as hopeful, like a puppy asking for a treat. "Teach me? Please?"

I stared at her, boggling at how she could switch so effortlessly between insult, praise, insult again, and then asking a favour of me, but then I realised that she probably did not intend those insults to be interpreted as such. It was a vulgar lower-class thing, I decided; the trick with speaking with Rainbow Dash was to pay more attention to the last thing she said, and try to ignore the nonsense and excessive superlatives that preceded her point.

"Pegasus style fencing is a bit beyond me," I said. "No wings, you see, so that rules out the ancient Pegasopolis school in particular. Obviously you can't learn the unicorn style without a horn either, which leaves us with the hoof-held and mouth-held techniques such as mensur, the earth pony styles, and possibly the Cloudsdale school."

Looking at her face, dripping with sweat and with dirt and dust clinging to it, her mane frazzled and uncombed, and her cheerful smile so full of confidence despite the dire situation we were in, she struck me as very attractive. Certainly, she was not the sort of mare I would normally pursue, both in terms of looks and personality, being rather skinnier and more athletic than the pampered daughters of aging nobles I was used to. I imagined a night of passion with Rainbow Dash would be an exhausting experience, and she would probably have turned it into some sort of competition, but it never hurt to broaden one's horizons. Then again, considering that my previous sexual partner had turned out to be a grotesque monstrosity hell-bent on destroying Equestria, going back to the familiar would do me some greater measure of good.

"Not mensur, though," I said, taking her youthful features in. It would have been a shame to ruin her unique, unrefined beauty with those hideous scars. [Mensur is an obscure traditional type of fencing practiced by university student groups in Germaney. It is technically not a duel or a sport, as there are no winners or losers, but intended as a means of training and educating character and personality. The goal is not to score points or force one's opponent to submit, but to stoically endure pain and injury. The scars inflicted are seen as badges of honour, especially on the face.] "I'll tell you what, get me out of here alive and I'll give you a few lessons, if I ever get the time."

Rainbow Dash seemed very pleased with that arrangement, though I had little to no intention of actually following through with that. Besides, even though I planned to make my convalescence to recover from my injuries as enjoyable as possible, I was all but certain that the Commissariat would decide that if I could not serve the Princesses by leading on the frontlines, valiantly charging to certain death in General McBridle's next offensive, then I would have to do so sitting behind a desk and processing vast amounts of paperwork. Still, the life of a bureaucrat, as base and low and monotonous as they are, was preferable to that of a soldier on campaign, and I would not have been too unhappy with that arrangement. It was a griffon's chance of passing finishing school of that happening, of course; getting the Royal Standard back and rescuing Shining Armour and a Bearer of an Element of Harmony would only inflate my reputation further in the eyes of the hunched-back, wrist-cramped idiots that run the organisation, who would then decide my dubious abilities were wasted in an office building where the greatest threat came from paper cuts and office politics.

I decided then that we should get a move on. The stop had been pleasant enough, relatively speaking, and sorely needed. Cannon Fodder passed his canteen around, and kept a close, wary eye on Rainbow Dash should she take more than her fair share again, and soon enough we were ready. Once more we walked along the path we had fled through in a blind panic. Well, I was in a blind panic, my aide had seemed entirely nonplussed by the horrifying monster chasing us and our pegasus here was more annoyed at me for running instead.

As we stumbled along slowly, through the hole blasted through the rubble and back through the corridors again, Yours Truly still limping on at what felt like a crawl, Rainbow kept on chatting. It appeared that my running through of the Changeling with a rapier earlier had inspired some sort of interest in swords, though I wondered how much of this was in the heat of the moment and if she would just lose interest when she discovers that the sport of fencing has quite a lot of reading and tedious practice involved. I don't recall much of it, as I had ceased paying careful attention quite a while ago, and was content to just let her blather on at will. Though when she asked me a variety of questions about where one might procure swords without falling afoul of the law, I was all but forced to listen, if only out of a concern for the safety of others around the clumsy mare.

"What about a katana?" she asked, having gone through the usual list of rapiers, epees, sabres, estocs, and so forth to reach the more exotic weapons of the Far East. "They look so cool! In Daring Do and the Jade Emperor, a samurai uses one to cut right through a unicorn's shield spell."

I chuckled politely, though it was by now getting a bit tiresome. "Contrary to what ponies think, there is nothing intrinsically special about the katana," I said. "Besides, if I remember that story correctly, the samurai's sword was forged by the legendary Maresamune and imbued with the power of his ancestors' spirits."

Rainbow Dash stared, jaw hanging open as if it had been recently broken. "You read Daring Do?" she said, once she had collected what remained of her wits. "Isn't that, you know, kind of beneath you?"

"Despite having mass appeal, it's a guilty pleasure," I admitted; heaven forbid that I might indulge in some of the same trashy, pulp, escapist fiction that the common ponies like as well. The decadent poetry of Prench syphilitics and so-called high literature could only get one so far in terms of entertainment value. "You can blame Twilight Sparkle for that, when we were at school together."

It was best to keep it at that, I thought, and not explain that I had found the book when I had stolen her saddlebag and was about to toss its contents into the fireplace for a reason I can barely remember and was probably stupid anyway. Yes, foals can be cruel and I was about as cruel as one could get at the age of nine without breaking the law, but I think I've already explained that, and I remind whomever reads this drivel that I have already apologised profusely to Twilight for my past indecorous behaviour. Her Daring Do book with its striking cover had caught my eye and I decided to keep it to read instead of burning it along with her homework, and from then on I was hooked on the series. It occurred to me that I should probably return it one day.

"How is she, anyway?" I asked, wanting to quickly deflect the Bearer of the Element of Loyalty from the shameful actions of my youth, being the few such acts that I might actually feel something approaching shame for, lest her newfound positive feelings towards me get ruined. Then again, I had no idea how much Twilight might have told her friends about her past.

"Twilight?" Rainbow Dash gave me an odd look, as though she doubted my intentions towards her close friend. To be fair, I wasn't entirely sure why I asked either, but, in my state of some exhaustion, for some unexplainable reason I thought that it was quite important that I found out. "She's doing alright. I heard something about Princess Celestia moving her to the next level of her studies, whatever that's supposed to mean. Sounds like really boring egg-head stuff, but she's excited about it. So, you know, whatever makes her happy. Why'd you ask?"

"Just curious," I said, speaking mostly the truth. Perhaps I could call upon her if I was invalided back to Canterlot, should I be lucky enough for my injuries to be severe enough to qualify for a nice trip to a hospital there but not so much that I would end up crippled for life, though I could understand perfectly well if she never wanted to see me again. Now that I think of it, I can barely stand being in my own presence either.

The opportunity for more mindless chatter, which, while irritating, was still more pleasantly diverting than contemplating our current predicament, stopped when I heard the sound of voices further ahead. They were speaking in Equestrian, as far as I could tell, and I thought I could recognise Shining Armour's warm, overly-familiar voice giving what sounded like orders. Rainbow Dash started to quicken her step, apparently buoyed by that sound, but I raised my hoof to block her from rushing forth; for all we knew, it could be a trap, and, knowing my luck, that was all but certain. She seemed about to protest, but apparently having learnt that I am quite often right in my caution (at least, when Princesses' Regulations allow me to be), she relented and followed behind me.

I drew my sword, levitating it in front of my muzzle in the en garde position as I crept forwards. Cannon Fodder remained at the rear, following along with his usual lack of interest. We crested around the corner, and the sight of a deep crater scooped out of the hard stone wall of the tunnel, left of where I had narrowly dodged a shot that had singed my tail, made me shudder at the thought of just how close I came to death. I wondered if I would have even felt it, had I been struck dead-on and incinerated in the same way the solid rock had been.

The tunnel continued on, and then after a short distance opened up into the partially-collapsed chamber where we seemed so tantalisingly close to freedom. The sounds of voices and of physical labour, things being moved and tossed away by my guess, was clearer here. I almost wanted to gallop down there, but my natural inclination towards pessimism told me that it was too good to be true, so we crept forward slowly and steadily. Naturally, any attempt at stealth was ruined by my aide, whose heavy armour and the abundant equipment hanging from it combined with his usual clumsy gait meant that he sounded like a wind chime in a hurricane.

I heard one of the voices say, "Somepony's coming", and another, Shining Armour by my guess, telling them to be quiet. The industrious noises came to an abrupt end, as did the chatter. They could only be guardsponies, thought I; few ponies in all of Equus could switch between garrulous, vulgar banter and dead silence with such efficiency, and that conclusion gave me hope.

"Hello?" I called out. "Is somepony there?"

A pony's head peered around the lip of the corridor exit, framed with the familiar golden helm and topped with the scrubbing brush crest of a soldier of the Solar Guard. He squinted into the darkness and aimed his spear in my general direction. Behind him, I could make out more of his comrades lining up in a phalanx with spears, swords, and horns at the ready. As I stepped closer, brightening the feeble light of my horn to illuminate myself and my companions, such as they were, and I recognised the pony as Corporal Slipstream.

"It's the Prince, sir!" he barked to somepony unseen, mercifully pointing his weapon away from me. "And the Wonderbolt, and the, uh... the other one!"

I thought that was a little unfair on Cannon Fodder, doomed as ever to merely be 'the other one' despite having made the greatest contribution in keeping me alive throughout the years I have worn the peaked cap and red sash of the commissar. We reached the exit, and I was presented with the sight of a two dozen or so ponies with weapons and horns pointed directly at me, while Shining Armour, standing off to the side, eyed me warily. The sight was as deeply unsettling as it was an immense relief, and though I knew their caution was well-founded given the unmasking of the Changeling infiltrator, having quite so many spears, swords, and charged horns levelled at my pretty face just after everything I had been through was enough to send my heart racing as frantically as when I was being hunted.

Shining Armour approached, horn lit, and I felt a queer tingle across my fur as he cast the unmasking spell. I was relieved to find that I was not a Changeling spy, and, by extension, so was he, as he let out a deep sigh that sounded like a leaking dirigible. "Stand easy, colts," he said. "It's really him."

"I should bloody hope so," I said, crossing over into the chamber. "But it's my turn now." I cast the spell myself, being one of the precious few more complex than telekinesis or projectiles that I could do reliably. It was just as much of a relief to me to find that it really was Shining Armour I was speaking with.

The Captain of the Royal Guard's skill with shield spells had certainly paid off for the guardsponies, as all had survived the cave-in. It also appeared that while I was running for my life and jousting with Odonata, they were busy clearing out the piles of rubble around them, and it looked as though they had made good progress in doing just that. As the soldiers returned to the laborious task of clearing the way out, with unicorns blasting away at the smashed rock, breaking it into smaller chunks so that the earth ponies and pegasi could carry them out of the way, I noticed something troubling. There was no sign of the natives; no survivors of the cave-in sitting huddled in the corners and no mangled bodies being pulled out from the rubble. It was as though they had simply disappeared. The realisation set my forehooves itching anew, signifying something that my hindbrain had deduced but, not able to speak plain Equestrian, was unable to articulate.

“What happened to the natives?” I asked, once the penny finally dropped for me.

“Beats me,” said Shining Armour. “We found a hole in the ground that wasn’t there before, but it’s been filled. My guess is they went through there.”

"Wasn't the welcome back I was expecting, Shiny," said Rainbow Dash, trotting up by my side and not so much as interrupting my train of the conversation, but rather derailing it entirely. She puffed her chest out and flared her wings, grinning proudly. "Especially for the ponies who just took down a Purestrain!"

If Shining Armour was supposed to be impressed by that, he didn't show it, and the soldiers around him were either too busy getting on with the tasks of clearing the room or deliberately ignoring Rainbow Dash's habitual boasting. In this case, however, it might have been warranted, but a small amount of modesty tends to go much further than blustering about.

"It was a close-run thing," I said, being quite honest for once. "But we pulled through in the end, and we couldn't have done it without each other."

"So, Dahlia was a Changeling all along?" said Shining Armour, apparently having just worked out the bleeding obvious. "And you two, uh-" he made an odd thrusting motion with his hoof, backwards and forwards "-you know. Together."

"I'd much rather not think about that." The mental image made the feeling of nausea churning in my stomach even worse, and it would be many hot soakings in a full bathtub brimming with the most caustic soap available before I could feel even remotely clean again.

"Sorry, I just wanted to say 'welcome to the club'," he said, and then trotted off to supervise his stallions. Once I had worked out his meaning, my mind ably assisted by Rainbow Dash sticking her hoof in her mouth and making exaggerated retching noises, it almost drove me to swearing off sex for the remainder of my miserable life.

I trotted over to a corner where I would be out of the way of the ponies working, having served my purpose now and wanting to just coast along until we returned to a hero's welcome, and I contemplated taking a short nap there, but that notion was ruined when I saw that Rainbow Dash had followed me. It appeared she had taken an unexpected liking to me, which was odd considering the way that Captain Blitzkrieg and I had deliberately mistreated her in a vain and misguided attempt to make her give up and go home. Blast, I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes and not be conscious anymore, which would at least give me a momentary respite from the pain and anxiety that still gripped me.

"Yeesh, what's his problem?" said Rainbow Dash, throwing up her hooves. "He's not normally like that."

"He's working," I said, watching Shining Armour slip effortlessly into his persona of the Captain of the Royal Guard. He was, and still is, an immature colt at the best of times, and even in combat I had seen him lead his regiment into a charge with a grin on his face and cheeky quip to his opposite number in the Night Guards. Now, however, when things had reached a state of such a delicate balance - between the reveal of the Changeling infiltrator, yet another near-death experience on my part, and now the vindication of his entire career almost within his grasp - all of that had been subsumed utterly by the driven officer barking orders at his troops.

Shining Armour looked tired. He masked it well, for the benefit of the soldiers who looked up to him and wanted to believe that their commanding officer had everything under control, but beneath all of that I could see that he was barely holding it all together. Everypony has their breaking point, and though the Royal Guard likes to pretend that officers are far too gentlecoltly to have one, if one knew how to peel back a pony's facade as I do and glimpse the trembling, frightened foal beneath, it was obvious he was on the verge of reaching it. Indeed, I had seen that vulnerability firsthoof when we got drunk and maudlin together in his office. Even if we got out of this alive, returning to the fortress with the banner fluttering gloriously in the hot desert breeze, after all of the horrors of this war I doubted there was much else left of him to give. That was his greatest flaw, and why history dismisses his record as Captain of the Royal Guard; his special talent, to protect ponies, could only drive him to invest far too much of himself into his job to the point that when something invariably went wrong with no direct involvement on his part, such as the whole affair with Scarlet Letter, but still affected those under his aegis, he could only blame himself for those failures. He simply could not, or just refused to, distance himself emotionally from his duties, as all good officers must invariably do to avoid falling into that same trap. While it served well in peacetime and certainly built the sort of rapport with the soldiers that I could only dream of, in war it was to be his downfall.

All of that was just speculation, of course, as I sit here scribbling these notes and sipping the brandy that my servants keep topping up. I miss Shining Armour, in some odd way, and the short time that we had spent together before he departed north to the Crystal Empire. For all I know, what I have just written could have been utter nonsense, for who can truly tell the innermost thoughts and fears of another? Or themselves, for that matter. Faust knows that I look back on all of this and wonder how much is really true.

It was all immaterial, anyway, but I mused on this as I watched the soldiers work. Even Chipped Urn was mucking in and helping, or getting in the way, rather, judging by the way everypony else yelled at him. Soon, a passageway had been cleared in the rubble, and I could feel the desert air faintly against my fur and taste it with each ragged breath. In comparison to the stagnant atmosphere of the caves, it was like the cool, crisp air of Canterlot in the winter. In spite of my injuries I rose to my hooves, feeling almost giddy with the excitement of finally leaving this dreadful, hideous place. If I had known what awaited me out there, I might have been a little more cautious in my approach. Having been captured, held in a dingy cave that stank of substances best not mentioned, forced into slave labour, flogged, then chased by a deranged Changeling, one can surely overlook my uncharacteristic excitement.

The gap, deemed 'practicable' by Corporal Slipstream, was about wide enough to permit one modestly-sized pony to slip through without much discomfort. Shining Armour went first, before anypony with a lick of sense could stop him, and with the absence of the sounds of violence and screaming on the other side it was deemed safe. Apparently, there was simply more tunnel at the other side, which did put something of a damper on my lifted spirits, but after all of that unpleasantness and with the prospect of spending the next few weeks or so filled with nothing but bed-rest and pretty mares in nurses' uniforms (some of whom may not be qualified nurses but will nevertheless provide a valuable service in maintaining one's morale and physical acuity), I could afford a few more moments' delay.

When it came to my turn through the gap, getting through was a bit more difficult. The passage through which I was expected to crawl through was up a small slope of rubble which led to the ceiling, and while the soldiers could have cleared more of it away, it would have taken up more time than was necessary. What followed was an undignified crawling on my belly through this hole, taking the utmost care so as not to scrape my mauled back against the rough ceiling. I made it and tumbled out the other side, however, without further injury except to my pride and my once-pristine white fur.

Getting the remainder of the platoon through the gap took a little while longer, but eventually this tunnel, through which warm air trickled through like a small stream through a valley, became rather cramped with the press of bodies. Far be it from me to deliberately position myself at the front and therefore the second most dangerous position of any party, the rear being the most popular target for the sort of cowardly ambush these tunnel-dwelling natives liked to employ, but claustrophobia was getting the better of me. Besides, the allure of freedom of a sort, with an open sky above me and the wide open plains of the Badlands stretching out to the horizon and no mad stallions with whips, was enough for me to suspend my habitual caution.

"Should we block the hole again?" said Slipstream. The soldier next to him snickered, and was silenced by a quick blow to the back of his head by the Corporal. "Don't want those bastards sneaking up on us."

Shining Armour looked up at said gap in the rubble thoughtfully. "There's no time, and we don't want to give these ponies any more reason to hate us."

I had to agree with him, though mainly on the first part and not the second. Now that I thought about it, however, I realised that with 'Dahlia' gone, if she even existed in the first place, then we had no leverage over our former captors should we run into them again and they proved to be less than pleased about this turn of events. All the more reason to make haste, then, and thus we proceeded down the tunnel.

The passageway was broader than the others, probably serving as some kind of wider thoroughfare to the surface. It proceeded another fifty feet or so, and then opened up into brilliant, glorious sunlight. We all emerged, blinking and shielding our eyes, dulled by our time stuck underground and in the dim, murky light there. The heat seemed to singe my fur, as though I had just walked into a furnace, but to stand beneath the warmth of the midday sun, as though our Princess herself had placed it there especially for us, brought strength back to my exhausted limbs and quelled the agony of my wounds. This uplift in my mood lasted about as long as the time it took for my eyes to adjust to the harsh light of day, and standing before us and arranged in a semi-circle around the tunnel from which we had just crawled through were what looked like hundreds of the native ponies.

Earthshaker stood at the centre of this half-ring, directly in front of me and a relatively short distance away, and looked about as bad as I felt. Dark rings surrounded his pale blue eyes, which were narrowed in an expression of cold determination in spite of whatever it was that had afflicted him. His posture, though not exactly tall and erect in the first place, was slumped, as though he was putting conscious effort into remaining standing, breathing, or even keeping his heart pumping blood. The skin beneath his fur had a pale grey tinge and a clammy texture to it that certainly was not there before. I was no expert on such things, but it looked to me like this unicorn was in the early stages of some form of magical exhaustion. How and why I could not say for certain, but my suspicion, later confirmed, was that it had something to do with the mysterious disappearance of the natives from the chamber; I had seen his skill with geomantic magic before, so it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility that he had used this same power to mould the earth to his will and save his ponies, though draining himself in the process.

That didn't stop him from trying, as a clod of dusty pale earth the size of a melon was wrenched from the ground, encased in a shaky, flickering aura, and then hurled in an ungraceful arc in my direction with what looked like a lethal velocity. There was a sudden shriek of a magical discharge, and the world around us turned an all-too-familiar shade of purple. The projectile struck Shining Armour's shield spell and bounced off harmlessly, whereupon it fell to the ground and broke apart. I was immensely thankful that Cannon Fodder had taken his usual place by my side, and was thus far enough away so as not to allow his affliction to impede the casting of the spell.

Earthshaker suddenly cried in pain, clutching at his horn, which sparked with uncontrolled discharges of waste magical energy. A stallion moved to help him, but he pushed him aside.

[Based on the symptoms described, it appears that Earthshaker was suffering from hypothaumaplegia, when a unicorn drains their magical reserves far quicker than they can be replenished. It usually passes within a few days of rest, but pushing oneself harder may result in permanent loss of all magical abilities.]

"What have you done with her?" he shouted, his voice ragged. "What have you done with my wife?"

He was addressing me directly, apparently, and so against my better judgement I stepped forward towards him. I stopped just before the shield, with the transparent purple wall, glimmering with all the power of Shining Armour's special talent. Looking around I saw that we had been encased in a dome, like a much smaller version of the one that had almost protected Canterlot from invasion, and I wondered just how much air was inside and how long it would last.

"She was a Changeling," I said matter-of-factly. I'm sure you'll appreciate that after being flogged by him I didn't particularly feel the need to be tactful about the fact that his darling wife, such as she was being a purely political arrangement as far as I could tell, had been a grotesque, deformed, and hideous sin against nature masquerading in equine flesh.

He laughed, sort of. It was a single contemptuous 'hah' that sounded more like a dog barking than an expression of mirth. "More Equestrian trickery!" he growled, then broke into great, hacking coughs like a colt experiencing his first cigar.

I shrugged, and that bloody hurt. "That's what happened," I said. "We've been played, both of us. Think about it, old chap, only the Changelings will gain anything from conflict between us."

Earthshaker stumbled forwards, flanked by two guards with roughly-forged bronze plates attached by fraying ropes around their barrels. He stopped very close, so that if Shining Armour's shield spell had been a pane of glass I might have seen his breath condense on its surface. I could just about see the mental processes in his head working as he digested the wisdom of my words, which I was making up on the spot, mind you, in an increasingly desperate ploy to save what was left of my worthless hide.

"The Changelings have been our enemy for hundreds of years," he said. "But Equestria has been our enemy for more than a thousand."

"Have we now?" I said, affecting mock surprise. "The truth, my dear Chieftain, is that Equestria doesn't reciprocate those feelings. We don't consider you our enemy. In fact, until recently we have barely considered you at all. You are a mouse observing a fight between a cat and a dog, and you decided to bite the dog because the cat convinced you that it was a good idea."

The dog was Equestria in that stupid analogy, and it made absolutely no sense if you actually put the tiniest modicum of thought into it. Earthshaker's eyes smouldered in their deep-set sockets as he stared at me through Shining Armour's shield, and the dark rings that surrounded them, looking as though he had been bucked in the face by two well-targeted hooves, only added to their piercing quality. He didn't say anything, so I carried on, all in the hope that it would get him to see sense and let us go or until Princess Celestia arrived, which could have been any time between now and the next few days.

"We can work together," I continued. "So much has changed in the past one thousand years. Equestria doesn't want to steal your land, nor do we want to subjugate your ponies. The only thing we would ask is for your friendship."

"Friendship?" he said, grinning mirthlessly. "Not content with driving our ancestors from their lands, you now come to our home without permission, you destroyed our bridge, and you murdered our ponies. If that is how Equestria shows friendship, then you are undeserving of ours."

He had me there, I had to admit. We could have just fought our way out, and considering Earthshaker's state of obvious exhaustion after whatever magics he invoked to save his ponies and the natives' lack of skill in war compared to the humble Equestrian guardspony, we might have even succeeded. But even then it would have been a risky endeavour; they had numbers on their side, if not skill, and Faust knew how many were still lurking in unseen tunnels and caves nearby. The political ramifications too would have been disastrous, and though I might have survived, Odonata's plan would have still succeeded.

I lifted my hoof and placed it on the shield, whereupon it glowed purple. It felt like glass, smooth and cold. Glancing behind my shoulder, and ignoring the stab of pain on my back and shoulders as best as I could, I saw Shining Armour and the troops watching us warily. A few of the soldiers looked twitchy, being this close to restoring their lost honour, the last thing a soldier can say they truly possess after signing their life away on the dotted line of the enlistment form, only to be presented with this last obstacle. I would not put it past some of them to want to fight their way out.

"It's true, we did those things," I said with an affected sigh of sympathy. "The Changelings attacked us; Princess Celestia imprisoned, the Elements taken, and Canterlot occupied by a hostile power for the first time in a thousand years. We were angry and frightened, and we wanted revenge. You can understand that, can't you? You're probably feeling exactly the same way right now. But we were so blinded by our hatred of the enemy we didn't stop to consider the impact of our actions, and for that I'm truly sorry. Please, for the sake of your tribe and its ponies, don't make the same mistake that we did."

"Pretty words are meaningless without action." Earthshaker shook his head, and I could detect a hint of reluctance in that gesture, as though the drivel I was spouting made logical sense but there was something stopping him from admitting I was right. Pride most likely, that thing that smothers the eyes and ears of otherwise rational ponies.

There was only one thing for it, and it was a huge gamble, but it was still better than remaining stuck at this impasse. "Shining Armour," I said, "dispel your shield."

Shining Armour looked at me as if I had spontaneously grown a pair of wings from my ruined back, but after a moment's hesitation when he finally divined my intentions, he complied. The transparent magenta dome surrounding us rippled, like the surface of a clear lake disturbed by the dropping of a stone into it, and then vanished with an audible 'pop'. The natives lowered their spears, and likewise our troops rallied into a defensive shield wall, as much as they could with their mix of earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi. [The Equestrian phalanx, or shield wall, is usually used by earth ponies, despite its origins in ancient pegasus tactics as a means to combine the strength of a unit in the face of the superior physical power of earth ponies or magic of unicorns.] The effect of which was to leave Earthshaker and me standing out in the open between them.

I held my hoof out towards Earthshaker, offering it in the universally acknowledged gesture of friendship. Across all cultures, the presentation of a bare hoof demonstrates that one is not armed (despite a unicorn's deadliest weapon being his horn) and that one's intentions are friendly.

"What happens next is up to you," I said. "You can try to take us all prisoner again, but I don't think these stallions have much more in the way of patience for that, so it'll be a fight to the finish. Either we fight our way out, or we're all slaughtered. Then what? In both cases you've committed an act of war against Equestria, and the full force of the Royal Guard will be brought down on your tribe like a hammer on a walnut. Except, of course, it won't be that simple - you'll survive, your kind always have done, so we'll have a futile, bloody conflict that neither side can win without a whole lot of blood spilt. Do you want to be remembered as the chieftain who brought more needless suffering upon his tribe, or the one who finally brought peace and friendship between us?"

After what felt like an eternity, he raised his hoof and tapped it against mine. I was expecting a gentlecoltly hoofshake, as opposed to a juvenile hoofbump, but given the circumstances it was more than enough. Earthshaker barked a command, and his native war band hesitantly lifted their spears and sheathed their swords, and our guardsponies followed suit.

"Go," he said, tossing his head in the vague direction of Equestrian-held land. "You may take your flag back to the north. Do not think that this makes us friends, slaves of the Tyrants of the Sun and Moon."

"Thank you," I said, giving a respectful bow in the form of a slight inclination of my head. "Though in time, perhaps, we might be friends?"

To Tartarus with that, I thought, I was still very miffed about being flogged and I was not about to forget that any time soon, even if it was only at the subtle manipulations of cruel Changeling deceit. A nice word to that effect, however, would speed things along, and I simply could not wait to get out of this miserable place and into a bed, or the bar, whichever was closest.

"I do not know," he said, shrugging. "But today, I make a gesture to Equestria. In exchange for our continued liberty I will let you go, and I will pray to the spirits of the earth that I have not made a grave mistake."

And I to Faust for the same reason, though I expect She's still busy running the entire universe to pay much attention to one lonely supplicant. Nevertheless, I had done it; I had talked my way out of a sticky situation, and all I had to do was make vague promises of a diplomatic nature that I had no power or authority to actually do. Well, I did, kind of; the constitution of the Equestrian state was a tad unclear on what was and was not within my remit, but whatever happened, I could be reasonably assured that either Princess Celestia or Princess Luna would be able to sort out the whole mess. I am a commissar and my business is war, whether I wanted it or not, and though I had just averted one, another still awaited me. The relief that I felt at this development, provided Earthshaker could be trusted not to ambush us on the way home, was tinged with that shade of melancholy that comes with the realisation that such a respite was always temporary in nature.

That, however, was a problem for the future. It took the platoon a few more minutes to get themselves ready for the journey ahead, and asking for assistance in crossing the great plains of the Badlands felt like pushing our luck. Besides, we still had Chipped Urn with us, still lingering as far away from me as possible lest I give him another slap for his apparent betrayal, which, I admit, was still very much a risk when I felt like punishing him each time my back would flare up with pain.

We had retrieved our sacred banner and with it the honour of the Royal Guard, and now Shining Armour could end his career on a high note. I was exhausted, drained, and on the verge of collapse, but finally we carried on, with the Royal Standard of the Two Sisters leading our way back to Equestria. As we carried on at what felt like a dreadfully slow pace I wondered if it had been worth it, insomuch as anything in war can be considered 'worth it'. It was not an easy question to answer, and to this day I am still unsure what, if anything, we had actually accomplished besides an enforcement of a status quo and the warming of relations between Equestria and some damned sand ponies. The one thing that I can take some tiny measure of solace from, however, is that in taking back our flag I could at least say that Gliding Moth's spirit would rest a little easier.

"Is that it, sir?" said Cannon Fodder, suddenly and apropos of nothing as we made our sullen journey. Sometimes I envied him for his simple mind; for him we had gotten what we came for and that was the end of it, but I knew that there would be no end for either of us except that which awaits all mortal beings.

"Yes," I said. "We're done."

We were spotted by a patrol of pegasi a few hours into our journey and were escorted back. By the time we arrived at Fort E-5150 it was starting to get dark, in fact, as we crossed through the portcullis gates of the fortress I caught sight of Princess Celestia herself in the courtyard halfway through the process of lowering the sun for the night. A crowd had gathered to observe this ancient ritual, off-duty soldiers and those who really should have been on watch, but when the sentries cried out at our approach they all swarmed around us as we all stumbled onto the parade ground.

The sun had set, and with it darkness descended and the moon rose at the bidding of a Princess hundreds of miles away from here. Her sacred task completed, Celestia turned to look as we approached. Braziers and torches were lit, casting the square in a flickering orange glow that tinged her otherwise pristine white coat. She must have just arrived, as one of the many royal chariots stood to the side, with her two Royal Guard escorts with their glittering golden armour standing out amidst the dirty and dusty soldiers around them.

I stood at the head of this group, flanked by Cannon Fodder who still held the Royal Standard high and Chipped Urn who stared at the God-Princess of all Equestria and approached with legs trembling and ears pinned back in fear. A quiet, reverent hush had descended across the courtyard, and even the sounds of activity that were ever-present in a crowded and busy military base seemed subdued.

It was then, finally, that my strength gave out. Seeing her, reassuring me that I was truly safe, meant that I could now afford myself the luxury of collapsing. My legs simply dropped from under me as though they had turned to jelly and I fell to the dusty ground to land awkwardly on my belly. Celestia rushed forwards, calling for a medic as she did so, and the crowd likewise surged closer. I was faintly aware, in that odd, distant manner just before one loses consciousness, of ponies doing something to the bandages stuck to my back.

"Hello, Auntie 'Tia," I said, painfully lifting my head up to see her crouched over me, her face full of worry and concern. "I've found your flag for you."

[On that note, this entry in the Blueblood Manuscript ends. For those readers interested in further elucidation on the aftermath of what would later be called the Twisting Ravine Incident we must once again turn to Paperweight's A Concise History of the Changeling Wars, and I have appended an extract below. While it lacks detail to truly satisfy the academically curious reader, it will suffice to provide some much-needed context.]

The Twisting Ravine Incident led to the Equestrian-Badlands Ponies Conference, held in Dodge Junction two days after the return of the Royal Standard. Chaired by Princess Celestia and attended by delegates from seven of the native tribes, including the tribes of the Agave, the Rat Pony (Jerboa), and the Hill Hawks being the three largest and most influential, it resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Dodge Junction. Contemporary sources dismissed the strategic importance of the treaty as being a mere distraction, but with decades of hindsight it is difficult to dismiss the impact it would have on the development of the war.

In addition to formalising diplomatic relations between Equestria and the native tribes after more than a thousand years of relative isolation and neglect, the Treaty stipulated Equestria's guarantee of the independence of these tribes, free from both Equestrian and Changeling interference, in exchange for unhindered military access through their territories. In obligating Equestria to protect the liberty of the natives, the goal of the war shifted from revenge for the attack on Canterlot to the liberation and protection of fellow equines from the threat of Changeling occupation. After two years of inconclusive fighting with very little progress made on all three fronts, support for the continuation of the war had started to flag with both the general public and in Parliament. Indeed, it became the official policy of the opposition party in the House of Commons to seek a white peace with Chrysalis, until the Treaty made such a position politically unviable.

Furthermore, the inconclusive planning around General McBridle's offensive into the Badlands and to strike at the Changeling Hives, while bold, illustrated the administrative flaws in the Royal Guard and hastened calls for reform. There is very little doubt among military historians that even without the incident disrupting the preparation of the offensive, the tiny size of Army Group Centre and its lack of decisive leadership would have resulted in a costly failure for the Royal Guard. McBridle retired without seeing his offensive put into action; in fact, he offered his letter of resignation the moment Prince Blueblood limped into Fort E-5150 with the Royal Standard.

Shining Armour likewise resigned from his post as Captain of the Royal Guard and Colonel of the 1st Solar Guards Regiment. He would not command another regiment in the war, but left for the Crystal Empire to take his place alongside Princess Mi Amore Cadenza as Prince-Consort. There, he would play a leading role in the re-founding of the Crystal Guards and their integration into the Equestrian military.

The failure of the trainee Wonderbolts under the command of Rainbow Dash would force Cloudsdale to reconsider its contribution to the war effort. Bereft of unicorns and earth ponies, the city was incapable of raising conventional regiments of hoof. An attempt to restore the ancient pegasus warrior culture was half-hearted, resulting in the deployment of a single squadron whose leader lacked the appropriate knowledge of war to execute her orders effectively. Then again, very few officers of the Royal Guard could say the same. As such, the militarisation of the Wonderbolts was put back to the Cloudsdale Assembly for reconsideration and Captain Spitfire censured for her mishandling of the situation. For the time being, Cloudsdale would turn its efforts to the military applications of pegasus weather control, including such schemes as weaponising lightning and the use of clouds as cover.

All of this provided fertile ground for the seeds of reform to be sown. And at the end of the second year of the war, the Twilight Sparkle Commission published its findings and recommendations. The timing of this could not have been more apt, as the work that General McBridle had put into planning his audacious advance into Changeling territory would not go to waste. The stage was set for the new offensive early in the following Spring, and the horror of the Battle of Virion Hive that was to follow.