The 1st Solar Guard mobilised quickly, and within only ten minutes the entire regiment was marching down the valley. Shining Armour’s plan, as much as I could remain actively alert and listening when he explained it, was for his regiment to link up with the 1st Night Guards currently stationed on the ridge. Once there, the unicorns of both regiments would set up with the artillery to provide long range fire support, while the earth ponies would mass in the valley, adopt the chevron formation, and charge straight into the Changeling army. The idea, however, was not to get bogged down into a battle of attrition as the 3rd Solar Guard had, but to punch a hole in the Changeling lines through which the beleaguered 3rd Regiment could retreat through. [What Blueblood is referring to is known as the Equestria Charge, which is a battlefield shock tactic that resembles more of a stampede than an ordered military stratagem. The idea is to use sheer speed and brute force to shock the enemy; it isn’t particularly subtle but its psychological impact more than makes up for it.]
As plans went, it was probably the best possible one we could think of except for ‘run away’, which would have simply left a large Changeling army to rampage around southern Equestria. That and Shining Armour, after my display at Maredun, fully bought into the image that I was somehow a noble hero willing to risk life and limb for Equestria. I didn’t particularly want to disappoint him, especially since he was starting to forgive me for making his younger sisters life a living hell in school all of those years ago, so, rather naively, I agreed to tag along back to my regiment.
Speed was of the essence, as it would only be a matter of time before the Changelings would discover our stratagem and move accordingly to counter it. However, we seemed to have been particularly blessed that day, as the 1st Solar Guard reached the ridge without any problems. I pondered that the Changelings were somehow ignorant of our presence their focus instead upon the besieged 3rd Solar Guard Regiment instead of the far larger army massing just north of their position. [Blueblood’s hypothesis does seem likely; it is entirely possible that the Purestrain leading the Changeling army would have been leading from the front, if so then it is unlikely that it would have even been aware of Shining Armour’s manoeuvres. However, considering all of the Changelings are linked by a Hive Mind broadcasted by the psychic powers of the Purestrains, it is difficult to believe that no single Changeling could have seen them. Either the Purestrain was supremely confident of crushing the 3rd Solar Guard that what Shining Armour was doing appeared to be of little consequence, or was so preoccupied with orchestrating the fighting efforts of thousands of drones that it was physically impossible to manoeuvre his army in time to counter it. With the lack of any written records on the Changelings’ behalf it is impossible to tell.]
I marched alongside Shining Armour, with Cannon Fodder and Marathon in tow behind me. Behind us the entire regiment, nine hundred ponies armoured in brilliant gold-plated steel that scintillated in the bright afternoon sun, marched. Their rhythmic hoofsteps came as distinct, single tremors that shook the dry ground beneath me.
As a precaution we had attached unicorns from their parent company to the earth pony platoons to dispel any Changeling illusionary magic. We knew from the Battle of Canterlot that a favourite tactic of the Changelings was to disguise themselves as our comrades in the field of battle, which naturally made things rather difficult for us in determining friend or foe. It was rumoured, though not officially verified, that the majority of the Royal Guard casualties in that battle were a result of ponies turning on their comrades who they believed to be Changelings in disguise, only to find the truth that they had just murdered their friends after the fact. Shining Armour was determined not to allow this to happen again.
It felt strangely nostalgic to be with my old regiment once more, though back then the only time the 1st Solar Guard came out in force was on a military parade down the streets of Canterlot. I recall the last one I had taken part in was during the Summer Sun Celebration, which took place during a great heat wave and no fewer than fifty guardsponies fainted from heat exhaustion and dehydration. We must have made for a rather sorry sight standing to attention with unconscious ponies in our midst and medics moving to aid them, all of us silently begging for Princess Celestia to hurry up and get on with it.
The sounds of distant battle were just becoming audible, sounding much like the odd background noise of a large crowd at a major sporting event. The mood was tense. The Regiment had long been considered to be the greatest of all in the Royal Guard and now, for the first time in the one thousand years since the end of the Nightmare Heresy, they would have to prove themselves worthy of that heritage. I supposed the Night Guards were somewhat lucky in that respect; the original Night Guard Corps had been disbanded after the Nightmare Heresy, so with no direct continuation between the current 1st Night Guard Regiment and the one that served one thousand years ago, other than their name, there was no proud legacy for them to live up to.
Colonel Sunshine Smiles had taken the liberty of mobilising the earth pony and pegasus companies at the base of the hill, but left a platoon and a squadron up on the ridge with the artillery just in case things went pear-shaped, which they inevitably do in the course of war.
With a few barked orders the 1st Solar Guard Regiment came to a halt with the simultaneous slamming of a near thousand hooves, which sent a small tremor through the ground. The two regiments faced each other across the plain, with the resplendent and glorious golden Solar Guard arrayed against the dark and mysterious Night Guard the difference appeared to be as clear as night and day. For a while the two regiments faced off one another, like two gangs of common street thugs sizing each other up before a brawl. I heard mutterings from the Solar Guard behind me, catching snippets of words like ‘ruffians’, ‘commoners’, and ‘monsters’.
Shining Armour stepped forwards and I followed. Marathon scampered off to rejoin her own platoon and disappeared into the serried ranks of the Night Guards, while Cannon Fodder took his usual position just behind me and slightly to the right. Fortunately for me, this time we were downwind of him so this rather historic moment wouldn’t be tainted by everypony involved gagging on his scent which, over the course of the day, had only grown worse.
Sunshine Smiles stepped out alone from the formation of Night Guards, looking rather tired but otherwise ready for battle. Curiously, he bore the cannon he had been using as a club upon his back, and I surmised that the 16th Artillery had declared that gun to be too damaged for proper use and allowed him to keep it as a morbid souvenir. His piercing amber eyes were fixed upon Shining Armour, which caused the normally unflappable Captain of the Guard to shudder slightly under their gaze. The myriad scratches and gouges upon his armour, and the messy splatter of Changeling ichor, only added to his normally fearsome appearance.
We met equidistant from the two regiments and stopped. The two officers saluted one another simultaneously.
“Colonel Sunshine Smiles,” said Shining Armour quietly, “it’s good to finally meet you, though I wish it was under better circumstances.”
The enormous earth pony nodded his head. “It’s about damned time you showed up,” he said bluntly, which made the young unicorn blink in surprise, “we’ve been waiting for you, so perhaps we can save the pleasantries for after we’ve all been slaughtered.”
“Er, yes, of course,” stammered Shining Armour, quailing a little before the imposing pony. He flopped down on his haunches and began to draw out a rough map of the gorge with his hoof in the dusty earth. Sunshine Smiles looked on as Shining Armour explained his plan to him in thankfully short, succinct sentences. I already knew the plan so I admit I ceased to pay complete attention to what Shiny Arsehole was saying, though Sunshine Smiles seemed enraptured by the plan.
“And what happens after we pull the 3rd Regiment back into the valley?” asked the scarred Colonel, which was a sensible question which I, in my haste to get this messiness over and done with, had neglected to ask.
“We fight,” replied Shining Armour as he stood up. “The Changelings’ advantage in numbers will count for nothing in there, and the horde will be under constant artillery and unicorn fire. It’ll just be a matter of time before they break.”
“Very well,” he nodded. “And where will you be?”
Shining Armour shrugged, “Leading the charge with the earth ponies of course.”
The Colonel cocked his head to one side curiously as Shining Armour wiped the dust from his purple and gold armour. “And not with the unicorns?”
“And miss out on all the fun?” he said, grinning widely. “Besides, I’d never order my stallions to do something I wouldn’t do myself, even if it is riding into the depths of Tartarus.”
Sunshine Smiles smirked and nudged the Captain of the Guard with a hoof in that characteristically friendly gesture he always gave to somepony he liked, though Shining Armour virtually toppled over with the strength of the nudge. “A stallion after my own heart, I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
I was never a particularly religious stallion. You see, it’s rather hard to believe a pony is truly divine if you’ve witnessed her chasing her younger sister around the palace, screaming obscenities, sending servants diving for cover, and crushing furniture beneath their hooves just because the latter had committed the juvenile ‘immerse-a-hoof-in-cold-water-when-they’re-sleeping-so-they-wet-the-bed’ trick. But despite my misgivings on the alleged divinity of my Auntie Celestia, I found myself silently praying to her as I followed Sunshine Smiles back to the regiment. Far be it from me to be arrogant enough to assume that Auntie Celestia, Goddess of the Sun and Sol Invictus, was bothered to listen to me pleading for my worthless little life, after all she does have rather more important things to do like stopping the sun crashing into the ground and wiping out all life.
[Despite her rather serious demeanour in public, my younger sister is an incorrigible prankster behind closed doors. The incident Blueblood describes is indeed true, and any mention of it in public (and I will know of it) will result in banishment for all involved. As for my divinity, I prefer to allow my ponies to freely believe what they will. I will neither confirm nor deny my divinity; however, it is not my place to tell ponies what they should believe. With regards to crashing the sun into the ground, that has only ever happened once and it is the reason why the dinosaurs went extinct.]
Still, my prayers did offer some consolation for me as the regiment assembled for the charge. The earth ponies stamped at the ground in nervous anticipation for the oncoming slaughter, their newly acquired spears glinted in the fading daylight, while the pegasi flew combat air patrols just above our heads. To our left the 1st Solar Guard set themselves up in a similar fashion, though the wait was interminably long. I remember standing there, being hoofed endless mugs of tea and oats rations from my venerable aide, as I counted the seconds for them to manoeuvre such a vast number of ponies into position. Not that I was particularly looking forward to it, mind you, but I was merely feeling the same tense anticipation one feels when one is about to go into a dentist’s surgery to have a root canal conducted.
The earth ponies arrayed themselves out in an arrowhead formation, with the Night Guards making up the right half and the Solar Guard on the left to produce an even split between the middle. Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles stood together at the very tip of the formation, and I was not very far behind them with Cannon Fodder and Red Coat. The young captain probably wasn’t in the best position to fight, seeing as he was half-blind by the large bruise on his eye and his body covered with small cuts and bites, but I resolved to stick close to him in the hope that the Changelings would attack him, the weaker and more injured pony, first instead of me.
“Finally ready?” asked Sunshine Smiles somewhat impatiently.
“Only if you are,” replied Shining Armour. He took a glance over at the enemy in the distance, which was only visible as a blackish-green smudge just on the horizon where the valley opened up into the vast deserts beyond. Only then did I realise that we were going to have to gallop that entire distance, and I once again cursed my lack of that earth pony stamina.
“I’ll race you,” the Colonel quipped to the unicorn at his side.
Shining Armour blinked gormlessly for a few moments, and then his mouth formed into a wide grin, “Last one there’s a mule.”
Fantastic, I thought to myself, we were being led by a pair of schoolcolts.
I took one furtive glance up to my right at the artillery positioned on the ridge, praying that this time they were firmly pointed in the direction of the enemy and not at my own head. I was not keen to face the savagery of an artillery bombardment once more, but was thankful to have it on my side for once. There was a rumble, like distant thunder, and I watched as a puff of smoke flared out of one of the cannons like dragons’ breath. To my eternal relief they had missed us entirely however, to my subsequent chilling terror that also signalled the start of the charge.
Sunshine Smiles shrieked a bestial cry of rage that was carried through the Night Guards’ ranks before, as one, we surged forth into a gallop. I tried to slow down in order to get into the centre of the formation, which I guessed to be the safest position, but in the dense press of bodies I had no chance of getting there without getting trampled by our own stallions.
Trapped in the mass of sweating, stampeding, bloodthirsty stallions was oddly exhilarating, despite the eye-watering stench of unwashed ponies that nearly made me gag and the thick dust kicked up by the hooves of those in front of me. Either side of me I felt cool steel armour and warm bodies press against my sides, while the pony behind me periodically rammed straight into my hindquarters in a vain bid to make us somehow go faster, and ahead of me were rows upon rows of bobbing heads, pounding hooves, and armour-clad flanks. Between gaps in the dense dust cover I could see our cannons spitting hot iron death at the Changeling horde between them, and the reek of sweat and clogging dust was soon joined by the familiar ozone of unicorn mage fire as they commenced their volleys. The dust obscured most of the results of such, so I could not verify their effectiveness, but I could see the clods of dry earth thrown up by round shot and the spectacular light show of magic missiles. Above us the pegasi circled in elegant and majestic sweeps shimmering glints of shining cold and cold steel in the warm afternoon sun, reminding me of flocks of phoenixes and bats alike.
Braying madly for violence and bodies streaked with sweat the earth ponies charged onwards down the valley. Shining Armour, who was just ahead of me and to the left, seemed to be doing well on maintaining his earlier promise by keeping up admirably with the earth ponies, which was something I was rather struggling to do.
The rumble of cannon fire and magic missiles ceased abruptly to avoid hitting us just as, like a weakened dam bursting, the Changeling line crumbled under the onslaught of the pony-wave. The malevolent beasts chittered and shrieked as they were impaled upon an unstoppable wall of spear points, though their shafts were shattered by the force of the initial impacts. The armoured bulk of hundreds of ponies, however, proved more than sufficient to drag the startled Changelings under our hooves. Their bodies were mashed and stomped beyond all recognition in the stampede, turning into unidentifiable pulped flesh and shattered chitin. The pegasi shrieked ahead of us into the swirling aerial ballet above our heads. Glancing up I caught fleeting glimpses of shining gold and dark steel darting around like dragonflies on a hot summer’s day, duelling with the nimble and flitting Changelings who resembled ugly swarms of midges. Sometimes, the dragonflies and midges would clash and one would fall like a stone into the armies below locked in combat.
We did not have it all our own way, however, for inevitably the stampede began to lose its momentum and slowed. The Changelings, now dreadfully aware of our presence, immediately turned away from the 3rd Solar Guard to deal with this new threat, and once more we became bogged down in the brutal slog of close quarters combat. Yet this time, we had the advantage of long range artillery and unicorn mage fire on our side. In an expert display of gunnery, the remnants of the 16th Artillery averted their aim to just beyond our position to fire into the sides of the Changeling formation where they swept around the beleaguered 3rd like the tide around an island, which did much to stem the flow of Changeling reinforcements.
It was still brutal, however, as Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles drove us ever forwards. I drew my blade into a telekinetic grasp and waded into the melee; the cloying mass of Changelings surged against us only to be hacked down by swords, spears, hooves, and, in the Night Guards’ case, fangs. I remember very little of the charge, only viciously hacking my sword left and right at the sight of any green and black in an incoherent blur of violence. Despite the lapse in memory, I vividly recall the sheer exhaustion that began to take over me, even such that the adrenaline coursing through my veins, invigorating my body and pushing me to feats of violence I would never have thought myself capable of, could not counteract it. It was magical exhaustion; though telekinesis is one of the most ‘efficient’ spells that a unicorn learns, the act of swinging a heavy lump of steel back and forth for so long took its toll upon my concentration. Then there was the noise; a vile, hateful cacophony of screams, roars, and the sickening squelch of torn flesh.
We were succeeding in driving them back, however, as despite their weight in numbers they could not fully bring that advantage to bear in the tight press of the valley, meaning that the Royal Guards’ superior training, weapons, and heavy plate armour would inevitably pull through. In the slog of combat I lost all track of time, but it felt like decades had passed before we’d finally forced the enemy back far enough for us to rendezvous with the remnants of the 3rd Solar Guard. In the course of the fight I’d received an additional bite to my leg, and despite my best efforts the shrapnel wound on my shoulder had reopened [We can assume that Blueblood found a medic at some point and neglected to include this admittedly unimportant note in his narrative], so I limped, or maybe dragged myself, over as the earth pony platoons worked on widening the gap.
The ponies of the 3rd Regiment looked exhausted, but defiant. Their once shining armour was covered in so much pale dust that they looked like ghosts, and the vivid splatters of blood and gore did little to help that morbid image. They had a haunted look to their eyes, weary but determined to continue fighting. All semblance of the Royal Guard command structure seemed to have vanished with officers and NCOs dead, wounded, or otherwise taken out of the fight, ad hoc platoons and squads were formed out of the survivors to try and maintain some semblance of cohesion. Despite their captain and colonel being blithering idiots with the collective intelligence of an apricot, the lower echelons of the 3rd Solar Guard proved to be rather effective in performing their duties. I was beginning to think the sale of officer commissions was not necessarily a good thing.
The first mob, for lack of a better term, of 3rd Solar Guard ponies we ran into were a scratch platoon of mostly unicorns and the odd earth pony who had become separated from his own unit. They were led by a unicorn sergeant, who greeted me with a mixture of relief and elation and seemed to be struggling to restrain himself from embracing me in a well-deserved hug. In the end he went for a simple parade ground salute.
“Where’s Captain Clear Heavens?” I demanded.
“Down there, sir,” he said, jerking his head to indicate just behind him. “Forgive me, sir but are we pulling back?”
I nodded my head, “Yes, prepare to organise an orderly retreat into the valley.”
The sergeant grinned, “Finally, somepony with a lick of sense. Guardsponies! Prepare to move out!”
I pushed my way through the press of weary and battered guardsponies, passing the wounded and dying as the sea of ponies parted to allow me through. The overwhelming smell of Cannon Fodder’s body odour reassured me that he was still alive and by my side, and, oddly, I found was more tolerable to the reek of blood and bodily waste that surrounded me. I saw medics attending to injured ponies, one of them thrashed and shrieked in agony as he was held down for an emergency amputation, the sight of which made me feel quite queasy and faint.
Shining Armour trotted up to join me. True to his name, his armour had somehow remained mostly unblemished despite the fact we had just ridden through the gates of Tartarus, which left me to believe that either the Changelings wouldn’t dare touch him, or he was canny enough to avoid the fighting. [Shining Armour’s after action reports indicate he was at the thickest of the fighting; the apparent cleanliness of his armour is likely down to a magical enchantment.] He had taken his helmet off and held it under his foreleg, thus forcing him to walk in a bizarre three-legged limp that seemed no more dignified than my own wearied stumbles.
“You!!” A familiar voice abruptly began to pluck at my remaining nerves. Clear Heavens forced his way through the mob of injured ponies, much to the irritation and anger of his medics. The two cuts I had given him after the duel had left two thin scars on either cheek they did little to mar his handsome visage though and I’m sure any mare would be swooning over him to tell them the heroic tale of how he earned them. “What are you doing here?!” He yelled at me above the din of battle, his face contorted into an expression of utmost indignation.
Trailing behind him was a lieutenant, his second in command probably, who looked about ready to give up. Like the other guardsponies his armour and fur were covered in a film of dust, which stuck to the splatters of blood and clotting open wounds on his body. He kept his expression impassive in that old aristocratic tradition of not displaying any emotion in the face of danger; whoever he was, he had clearly been trained well.
“Delivering your orders, Captain,” said Shining Armour. “You’re to pull back to the valley.”
He blinked incredulously, and his eyes looked about ready to burst out of his head. “Retreat? Retreat! The 3rd Solar Guard does not know the meaning of that word! And we certainly don’t need your ‘help’ in defeating the Changelings, our victory is certain.”
Well, that decided it he was clearly delusional as well as incompetent.
“Sir,” said the tired Lieutenant, the strain creeping into his refined Canterlot accent bore the weight of what he had just been forced to endure, “perhaps it might be prudent to withdraw; our casualties are becoming insurmountable and we will be overrun soon.”
Clear Heavens suddenly swung around, striking the young Lieutenant in the snout with a back-hoofed slap. The colt stumbled back from the force of the blow, but true to the old aristocratic adage of maintaining a stiff upper lip and grace under pressure, merely straightened up and looked his superior square in the eye as the insane Captain ranted and blood trickled down from his nose.
“I will not tolerate defeatism, Lieutenant Fine Vintage!” he shouted. “There will be no retreat, and I’ll have anypony who even thinks of the word flogged. The 3rd Regiment will not suffer such dishonour, not while I’m in command. For the Princess!!”
Clear Heavens reared up on his hind legs and pointed dramatically in the vague direction of the Changeling army, striking a heroic pose that would make any propaganda artist practically explode with patriotic glee, and looking as if he believed himself to be the star of his very own war film. Well, whatever movie was playing in his mind was probably better than that horrendous motion picture biopic about me. [‘Blueblood: A Commissar’s Life’ starring Tom Flanks as Prince Blueblood, my faithful student counted no fewer than three hundred factual and historical errors ranging from incorrect uniforms to the complete absence of Cannon Fodder.]
Shining Armour grunted in frustration, “Please, listen to reason, you’re exposed and surrounded out here we need to fall back to a more defensible position.”
Clear Heavens blinked at him gormlessly. “Defence? But we’re on the offence.”
I snapped. With the day I’d just been having, running back and forth down that infernal valley being shot at, bitten, and then contending with General Crimson Arrow’s gross inability to command effectively I was in no mood to put up with Captain Clear Heavens’ enthusiastic and suicidal incompetence.
So I punched him.
"I don't have time for this!"
The unicorn was quite surprised by this sudden and bold move, as were Shining Armour, the Lieutenant, and I. Clear Heavens stumbled back a little, clutching his head as he blinked back in shock at what had just happened. I reached out with my magic aura, wrapping my telekinesis around the gold rank pips on his armour and wrenched them off to throw them in the Lieutenant’s direction, who caught them with his hooves as a bewildered expression overtook that aristocratic implacability.
“Congratulations on your promotion Captain Fine Vintage,” I said, and the newly appointed Captain blinked down on the pips that rested on his hooves as if they were radioactive and might explode at any moment, “now organise an orderly retreat! That's an order!”
I turned on my hooves and marched back to my regiment, feeling thoroughly disgusted with the way some of my aristocratic brethren in the Royal Guard had been behaving. I knew this would happen, but at the time I felt that running around shouting ‘I bucking told you so’ would not be conducive to getting out of this alive, regardless of how satisfying it might have been at the time. Fine Vintage, however, proved to be a reasonably effective officer and, with the aid of Shining Armour, managed to organise a fighting retreat into the valley in short order. The famed discipline of the common Equestrian soldier came into its own as the ponies slowly pulled back into the valley we had just erupted out of; such discipline, however, did not seem to translate over to the officer corps as well as it should have.
I, on the other hoof, believed my work to be done and managed to slide my way through the press of bodies, injured ponies, and corpses back to where the Night Guards were doing an admirable job in holding back the Changeling hordes to provide a ‘tunnel’ through which the 3rd Solar Guard could pass through back into the valley. I made the excuse that I was looking after the wounded, which placated Cannon Fodder who asked me why we were moving in the opposite direction to the fighting. This, however, would only contribute to my fraudulent reputation by appearing to care for the safety of those wounded ponies. I reassured them with the false platitudes that the Ministry of Misinformation and the Commissariat had so thoughtfully provided for me, despite their abject transparency to my ears they proved enough to reassure everypony else.
My hooves began to itch just as I reached my regiment, though the ponies of all three were starting to mix as they worked, fought, and died together, and I began to realise that this was going much too well for the kind of cock-up that usually plagues my life. Granted, the problems with Clear Heavens and Crimson Arrow were irritating, bordering on disastrous, but they were each resolved in a short amount of time so as not to cause too much damage (at least, that's what I thought at the time; as it happened not summarily executing them on the spot, however unpleasant that might have been, would turn out to be a mistake). Had I any indication of what I was stumbling into as I moved away from the more obvious danger of the battle, I’d have probably stayed out at the front line instead.
True to form, the Changelings followed us straight into the valley where, to my vague surprise, Shining Armour’s plan seemed to be working in blunting the Changelings’ advantage in numbers. The odds were moved further in our favour when the artillery and unicorns on the ridge began pouring an obscene amount of firepower at the mouth of the valley where the enemy was forced to funnel in if they were to reach us. If we could hold them there, while the artillery withered down their reinforcements, then victory, or at least survival, was all but assured.
I found Captain Red Coat sitting on his haunches, supervising the transport of the injured. He held a thousand yard stare in the general direction of the ponies carrying the wounded on stretchers in a long line back to Maredun for treatment in the makeshift field hospital there. The horrid wailing and sobbing of the wounded ponies was quite disconcerting, and I did my best to try and ignore it. Keen to look as if I was actually contributing to what was going on, rather than just bossing other ponies about, I trotted on over.
“What’s the situation?” I asked him.
The young Night Guard Captain blinked up at me, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I was just speaking with you, remember? The Colonel told me to supervise the movement of the wounded back to Maredun.” he said, which made the itching in my hooves get worse, though I put his confusion down to shell shock or stress.
I shook my head, “No, I just got here; I was over with Shining Armour and Captain... uh, former captain Clear Heavens.”
“That can’t be right, I was just...” he stopped mid-sentence and stared over my shoulder at something behind me. Now, experience has taught me that whenever a pony does that, it means there’s something very dangerous and bloodthirsty just behind me and I should run away as quickly as possible, but I was young and naive at the time so I merely turned around to see what exactly he was staring at. As a precaution I drew my sword.
It was me, or rather a Changeling disguised as me. The doppelganger, whose guise was nearly perfect yet conspicuously missing the wounds I had sustained in the battle and not covered head to hoof in a thin film of dust, was standing a short distance away with a group of Night Guards and Solar Guards. I couldn’t overhear what exactly was being said, but whatever it was resulted in uproarious laughter from the soldiers. It was probably just a result of all of the stress I was feeling at the time, but the first thought that came into my tired old head was that this Changeling doppelganger seemed to be doing a far better job of maintaining morale than I was.
Behind me I could hear Red Coat clamber back up to his hooves and seize his spear, which had somehow survived the initial charge, in a loud clatter of armour plates that sounded like a pile of pots and pans falling. Not wanting to be mistaken for the doppelganger and find myself on the receiving end of that unbroken spear I pushed my way forward, charging my aching horn with the necessary magics before casting that spell I had been practicing for just over a week now.
The disguise was stripped away instantly in a flash of sickly green light to reveal something rather more monstrous in its wake. It was a Purestrain, one of the commanders of the Changeling hives that project the latent psychic hold of the Hive Mind upon its numberless hordes of mindless thralls. I had fought one before and won largely as a result of a fluke and the as-yet undiscovered unique talents of Cannon Fodder, but this one was far more horrifying in its appearance than its deceased brother.
I still shudder as I recall the hideously mutated form of that particular Changeling Purestrain. There it stood before me, surrounded by gawking guardsponies, nearly twice my size and girth bloated with whatever sickly mutations gifted unto the beast by its debased Queen, with a long sinuous neck that led up to an insectoid head shaped in a pale mockery of that of a pony. As with all Changelings, the extremities of its limbs were riddled with holes, but in this case they were decayed and riddled with maggots and fat bodied flies.
It stopped in mid-sentence as the glamour faded, and in that instant exploded into a spectacular display of obscene violence. Its slathering maw, which contained far too many fangs as to be considered safe for a mouth to hold, lashed out and tore the throat from a Night Guard, while it bucked its hind hooves into the chest of a Solar Guard and sent him flying back with a horrible crunch of smashed bone. The malformed and jagged horn upon his forehead glowed with baleful green energies that hurt my eyes to look upon, and with a blinding flash half a dozen ponies were reduced to ashes.
About a half dozen of the injured ponies carried on stretchers suddenly sat up; their bloodied injured forms were suddenly engulfed in a flickering green glow that revealed their horrid forms for all to see. The newly revealed Changelings hissed and turned on their former comrades, felling the surprised guardsponies with rending bites to throats and exposed flesh. A cry of alarm echoed through the ranks and the guardsponies were spurred into action to meet this new threat.
To say that I was terrified would have been a severe understatement, and my horror only grew when the Purestrain fixed his malevolent green eyes upon me and licked his drooling lips with a forked tongue. The ponies around me flew into a blind panic when presented with this and, agreeing that this course of action was the most sensible at the time, joined them in turning on my heels and fleeing. Cannon Fodder, being the dutiful aide as ever, followed me in my flight. I didn’t need to run fast, just faster than Cannon Fodder so that while it was busy munching on my aide I could quickly stab it in the face and claim victory.
We weren’t fast enough. I dared to glance over my shoulder and saw the beast dive towards us with its fangs bared. The obese mass of the monster shoved Cannon Fodder to the side, and sent Red Coat tumbling head over hooves with a wide swing of his hoof. With my sword already drawn I turned and stopped to swing my blade in a wide downward arc to bury it in my opponent’s skull. The abomination’s horn lit with dark magicks as I lunged in for the kill. The thing moved with sudden speed and deflected the attack with that malformed, jagged protrusion. There was a flash of green light and a snap of air being displaced as I was thrown backwards, my sabre torn from my grip and sent clattering to the ground beside me.
“This was just too easy,” he said with a voice that sounded like the crackling of embers. The Purestrain stepped towards me its dinner plate sized hooves fractured the ground beneath its monstrous bulk. It opened its maw, running a slithering grey tongue along its rows upon rows of sharpened fangs. Those keen eyes glimmered with the malevolent intelligence of their kind cunning, manipulative, but a slave to the will of their fallen Queen.
I crawled on my back, struggling to get away from the monster and closer to my weapon. Two earth ponies charged at the beast, bellowing cries of rage and warning me to get out of the way. I watched in impotent horror as the Changeling Purestrain glanced up in their direction. His horn flickered with green energy, swirling and coruscating as power flickered across its jagged length before it discharged with a crackle of displaced air, followed by the stench of ozone and melted flesh. There, where two brave ponies had once stood was a pile of ash and cinders.
It laughed, moving in closer until he was virtually straddling me and swung his hoof down across my face. Stars exploded across my vision and the right side of my head ached terribly with the strike. Something warm began to trickle down into my mane and my cap had fallen off.
“Pathetic,” spat the Purestrain derisively. “Is this Equestria’s last line of defence? We conquered your miserable city in ten minutes, we laid low your so-called Goddess, we had you at our mercy.”
The creature grinned as its horn illuminated once more with baleful energy and I closed my eyes for the end.
It didn’t come.
Of course it didn’t kill me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this bloody thing, would I?
The creature suddenly hissed in pain and I dared to open my eyes. I saw the Purestrain, his face contorted into a rictus of agony, flinch away from me suddenly. A spear was buried in a vulnerable chink in the chitin armour on his hindquarters approximately where a pony’s cutie mark would lie. Cannon Fodder emerged galloping with his horn levelled low to charge into the Purestrain’s side.
The Purestrain turned, apparently forgetting me for a while, to face this new threat. So focused was he on toying with me that he had completely forgotten about Cannon Fodder’s existence, though I couldn’t imagine why given my aide’s memorable odour, and the greater battle around us. The Changelings who had masqueraded as injured ponies had been dealt with, though at some disproportionately heavy losses as many guardsponies were slain before they had a chance to react. The Night Guards circled around us with whatever intact spears they could find levelled on the Purestrain, trapping him like a wild animal. Despite the monstrous face I had to admit that seeing his expression of dawning horror was most satisfying, as the creature undoubtedly realised that his little gambit in trying to take my place had left him isolated and completely surrounded by very angry and vengeful ponies.
I struggled to my hooves and grabbed up my sword. The Purestrain shrieked stamping its hooves in frustration and anger it lit its horn with baleful magical energies and then... nothing the Purestrain was now in range of Cannon Fodder’s Blank field. He shrieked in impotent, pathetic rage. His horn sparked uselessly with sickly green light as he tried to summon magical energy that simply wasn’t available anymore.
That didn’t deter him from fighting on. Cannon Fodder lunged, and the Purestrain spun on his hooves and delivered my aide a buck to the chest that sent him flying into the air.
It turned quickly to strike at me with its maw open, ready to bite into my tender flesh and rip me apart. I was quicker. I rammed my sabre home, driving the blade into that open mouth. The Purestrain stopped and began wobbling on its hooves, gagging on its own blood that trickled down its throat.
“You conquered our city,” I said as I twisted the blade and gazed with defiance into the dying eyes of the monster before me, “you laid low our Goddess, you had us at your mercy; but you still failed.”
I gave the sabre a shove with my magic, driving it further into the back of the beast’s mouth until the tip of the blade protruded from the base of his skull. As I ripped my sword free the Purestrain collapsed in a heap, his spinal cord severed by the blade, and his malformed body twitched as it struggled to cling to its mockery of life. I beheaded the abomination just to make sure.
I gingerly stepped over the body and the expanding pool of foul smelling ichor to retrieve my cap which, for some peculiar reason, had become rather important to me despite my abject dislike of the bloody thing. As I placed it upon my head, my limbs still trembling from the fight and my breath quick and shallow, I looked across at the large mob of guardsponies around us. Captain Red Coat and Cannon Fodder were seemingly fine, if a little battered and damaged, but at least they were still alive.
A medic tended to them as I limped on over. Red Coat was the most fortunate and suffered only another set of light bruises on his shoulder to add to the patchwork of blue and purple on his body, while Cannon Fodder seemed rather worse for wear. I felt an odd sensation of concern as I watched a medic, a unicorn identifiable by the white circle and red cross in lieu of the eye on his armour, use his telekinesis to undo the myriad straps on my aide’s breastplate and peel the crumpled steel from his barrel, thus revealing two rather large hoofprint-shaped bruises.
Cannon Fodder fidgeted a little in discomfort as the medic projected a pale yellow aura from his horn onto my aide’s chest, which I noted to be covered in a slightly darker shade of grubby beige fur than the rest of him which implied he very rarely bothered to take it off and thus all manner of interesting skin and fur diseases might be festering there. The medic also seemed to be holding his breath as he leaned in close, Cannon Fodder’s odour apparently being much too strong to bear for a pony who had been through medical school and had to build up a resistance to all manner of foul reeking horrors.
“Sorry about that, sir,” said Cannon Fodder.
I cocked my head to one side curiously, “For what? Saving my life again?”
He shook his head and grinned, looking rather proud of himself, “For missing, sir; I was aiming for the bastard’s head.”
I chuckled, mainly as a way of relieving the tension that had been building up throughout this disastrous day. The medic stood up and announced that the wounds were only superficial and should heal naturally, advising that Cannon Fodder be put on light duties for the time being before trotting off -- with an unmistakable look of relief on his face -- in search of the next pony who needed his valuable skills.
Of course, ponies would conveniently omit Cannon Fodder’s contribution to the battle, and instead crediting only me with the death of the Changeling Purestrain that had disguised itself as me; rather foolishly, I might add, considering I was very much alive. Admittedly, Cannon Fodder wasn’t the sort of pony one would want cluttering up the perfect image of the noble hero.
As I sat there with the two, my breath coming in ragged gasps that made my bruised ribs sting with every inhalation, I felt a strange sort of relief. The wounded ponies were continuously streaming past us now on their way back to Maredun and I overheard rumours, later verified, that Shining Armour’s brilliant plan had actually worked and the Changelings were in full retreat. What surprised me, however, was that Shining Armour had ordered the Royal Guard to retreat further back to Maredun. We hadn’t won the battle per se, history would later record the Battle of Black Venom Pass as being ‘inconclusive’ as the Royal Guard had failed in its objective to seize the southern end of the pass, and Shining Armour was reluctant to even attempt to give chase to the fleeing Changelings lest he lead our army into yet another possible trap [A decision that continues to generate much argument to this day. I, for one, believe that his caution was quite justified under the circumstances, as any further attempt to take the southern pass would likely have resulted in another encirclement, especially considering that the 3rd Solar Guard was in no condition to continue fighting and the 1st Night Guards were becoming exhausted]; yet I had survived and as far as I was concerned that was victory enough.
“I didn’t think it would feel like this,” said Red Coat wistfully after a moment of uncomfortable silence. “You know...? All the stories talk about the glory and the fighting... but they don’t tell you how they make you feel once it’s over.”
“How do you feel?” I asked him in a knowing, comradely tone.
The young captain shrugged his shoulders and idly kicked at the dusty ground. He didn’t look at me when he spoke, but rather at the spot of ground just between his front hooves.
“Sick,” he said after a moment’s consideration, before finally looking up in my direction. I suppressed a shudder at the haunted look in his eyes the unwavering gaze of a young stallion who had just seen and experienced things no pony of that age should be forced to. “Was your first time like this?”
I frowned. “My first time?” I considered making an inappropriate joke there about how losing my virginity also made me feel ‘sick’, but for the sake of not upsetting Red Coat I held my tongue.
“I mean your first time in battle, sir.”
I shook my head and grinned, which made him frown in confusion. “My first time in battle was the Great Canterlot Snowball Fight of ’05; I took a snowball to the head and caught a cold, so yes I did feel sick afterwards.”
He chuckled quietly and fell silent, gazing listlessly out at the guardsponies who marched past us. It was the kind of quiet stoicism that ponies expected out of their officers; they wanted to believe that we are invulnerable, perfect, and somehow immune to the psychological stresses and strains of war. Looking at Red Coat I knew he wanted to cry and run home, and I couldn’t particularly blame him for that, but to his credit he held that facade of quiet detachment rather well given his inexperience. As for me, well, I had my discreditable reputation to hide behind, and ponies seem to have a rather selective memory as far as they are concerned about my status as a hero.
The atmosphere was ambivalent at best. We hadn’t won, so there was no jubilant cheering and celebrating as usually occurs, but we hadn’t particularly lost per se either. It was a stalemate, with no sense of finality to it, only the implication that this was merely the first of what would become a gruelling, unpleasant war. The convoy of wounded soon passed us, protected by weathered platoons of earth ponies and squadrons of pegasi, while the remainder of the Royal Guard began its wary and careful retreat back to the apparent safety of the fortress.
The three of us sat there in silence for a while, watching as the three battered regiments the 3rd completely shattered and the Night Guards weary after a full day of fighting, assembled by platoons and stalked back. We shared in the mutual unspoken relief that, against all of the odds and the brutality of war, we had survived, and in the dawning, horrific realisation that this was merely the beginning.
[Blueblood’s entry ends rather abruptly here as his involvement in the battle came to an end. To better set the events in a historical context I have included a short extract from the noted historian Paperweight’s seminal work ‘A Concise History of the Changeling Wars’. While admittedly lacking in detail, Paperweight’s work provides a clear and succinct description of the wars. For those looking for a more detailed account, then I can recommend ‘Blood in the Badlands’ by my Faithful Student Twilight Sparkle which, at thirty-seven volumes, provides an unparalleled description of the war down to the tiniest details, right down to what I was having for breakfast each morning.]
Extract from Paperweight’s ‘A Concise History of the Changeling Wars’.
The Battle of Black Venom Pass might have been inconclusive in pure military terms, but the implications of this battle for the entirety of the war effort cannot be denied. The Royal Guard had failed in their primary objective to take the pass in its entirety and seize a hoofhold in the Badlands with which to launch a full invasion; however, the ancient fortress of Maredun was firmly in Equestrian hooves and would provide a bulwark against further Changeling incursions. A combination of Changeling infiltration of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment and strategic incompetence had resulted in the over-extension and complete encirclement of the 3rd Solar Guard, and General Crimson Arrow’s callous disregard for the lives of the soldiers under his command nearly resulted in the complete destruction of the regiment. It was only through the actions of Commissar Blueblood, who should really need no introduction here, in rallying the confused 1st Night Guard regiment and then removing the incompetent General Crimson Arrow from command that saved the regiment.
The 3rd Regiment, however, would cease to exist as a cohesive fighting force until much later in the war, suffering over two hundred killed and five hundred wounded. It was only by some miracle, possibly due to the propaganda being spread around at the time that capture by the Changelings was a fate worse than death, that they did not completely give up. Casualties suffered by the 1st Night Guard and 1st Solar Guard were relatively light, as it seems the Changelings were not expecting them to be so bold as to mount a rescue. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what the Changelings were thinking, given the complete lack of any written records or subjects to interview, but it is likely that they assumed that the Royal Guard would remain in Maredun, which indeed was what Crimson Arrow’s initial plan was.
The battle would ruin the careers of three leading officers in the Royal Guard; Crimson Arrow, whose callous disregard for his ponies' lives would so shock the general public that they would demand his dismissal; Rising Star, who should have retired decades ago; and Clear Heavens, whose refusal to retreat resulted in his cashiering by Commissar-Prince Blueblood. Its ramifications, however, would extend further. The Royal Guard was believed to be invincible, but the battle had shown clearly that this was not the case. We believed, in our arrogance, that the war would somehow be easy. The relative ease at which the Changelings were first expelled from Canterlot had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we assumed that we merely had to march into the Badlands and exterminate them as pests. Black Venom Pass revealed that we faced a foe that was cunning enough to set up ambushes and conduct espionage, and that our own forces were woefully inadequate to face them.
Shining Armour has been both praised for leading the charge that saved the 3rd Solar Guard and chastised for not pursuing the retreating Changelings into the Badlands.
The individual guardspony cannot be blamed, for they were well-equipped and well-trained. After action reports from the battle imply that the Royal Guard fought tenaciously and viciously in the face of the enemy, and that Changeling casualties were far in excess of those suffered by Equestrian forces. Blame, therefore, was placed upon the commanders, whose incompetence in preparing and leading the battle nearly resulted in abject defeat, were it not for Commissar Blueblood intervening. It seemed to prove the efficacy of Princess Luna’s experiments with the Commissariat, and soon commissars would be attached at all levels of the Royal Guard. An inquiry was set up under Twilight Sparkle to investigate the problems of the Royal Guard’s command structure and how they could be solved.
A/N – Phew, I’m glad that’s over, really struggled with these two chapters. Again, I can’t say I’m entirely happy with how they’ve turned out, but hey, here they are. Originally they were going to be a single chapter but I couldn’t squeeze all of it in without making it seem rushed. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them more than I did writing them.
A/N #2 - Fixed the massive punctuation errors, these were a result of some problem in converting the .docx file I was working on.