I would say that the rest of our journey through the Macintosh Hills passed without serious incident, and I would not be in any danger of being contradicted by my former comrades in the Royal Guard or by military historian eggheads if I did so, but that little phrase may give you, dear reader, the impression that it was in any way easier than the first half. Back then, of course, I had no way of knowing for certain that we would all eventually stagger out of those blasted valleys and into the barren empty fields of the Badlands alive and relatively all in one piece, so I was still under that constant, nagging paranoia that sooner or later, without warning, a horde of ravenous Changelings will crest over the nearest hill and descend upon us like piranhas attacking a dolphin.
This paranoia was only made worse when the pegasus reconnaissance flights reported sighting small patrols of ponies, each consisting of no more than three or four ponies, tailing us in our grinding slog through these hills. The damnable thing was that whenever our pegasi attempted to give chase to these mysterious ponies or even just wave at them from a few hundred feet in the air, our watchers would simply disappear, apparently into thin air but it was theorised by Twilight Sparkle, ever eager to posit a hypothesis, of course, that they had escaped via tunnel entrances cunningly concealed in the cliffs and gullies around us. I myself had caught sight of them briefly; small figures standing upon the edge of a cliff overhanging our vulnerable formation, clutching spears in their hooves and clad in rough cloths that appeared to be of the same colour as the earth upon which we trod. They had watched us intently for a few moments, and it felt as if they singled me out specifically on account of my big stupid hat identifying me as somepony important who must be killed immediately, before disappearing once more never to be seen again.
The other officers did not seem overly concerned about them. Apparently they were harmless; the nomadic tribes of ponies that shared this bleak land with the Changelings and Faust-knows what else horrors that lurked within those hills, and believed, later confirmed, to be the remnants of ancient pony civilisations that had pre-existed Equestria and the rule of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, and who had refused to accept the divine authority of the Royal Pony Sisters over them and thus fled to this inhospitable, useless scrap of dirt. They were welcome to it, thought I, if they were under the bizarre impression that their liberty was worth living in this thoroughly unpleasant part of the world. I also thought that it would have been nice if somepony else had actually told me of these nomads before I started getting all worked up about the robed ponies standing on a hilltop and silhouetted against the empty blue sky; it was mentioned in a few of the briefing notes, and recommended that we simply do our best to avoid them and any unnecessary complications in what was already a messy war, but when I skim-read those notes earlier I must have either not noticed or not cared.
“It’s actually a good thing they’re here,” said Captain Red Coat, once we had reorganised the unicorn platoon that I had called into a square back into the battalion marching formation. [The square formation is the primary defence for ground-based infantry against airborne attack; in such a densely packed formation, unicorns can unleash a withering hail of fire into the sky and earth ponies can present a bristling wall of spears upon which any pegasus or gryphon would impale themselves before they could get close enough to strike.]
I frowned at him sceptically. The grin on his face was a little too smug for my liking. “And why is that?”
“They wouldn’t be here if the Changelings were nearby.”
He had a point, I suppose, but my paranoia failed to be assuaged by his words. Who was to say that they were not in league with the Changeling enemy, or were in fact disguised Changelings themselves? Thus far they had proved to be entirely passive, and somewhat elusive; content with merely standing upon their peaks and watching our slow, clumsy movement, so perhaps they were providing reconnaissance for the enemy? At any rate, Captain Red Coat was keen to press on as quickly as possible, which was a sentiment I agreed with entirely, for the longer we spent in these hills the more vulnerable we were to attack, and we hadn’t the time to waste chasing after such phantoms.
We eventually cleared the hills at around lunch time, and immediately, as the battalion stopped by on the gentle slope of a hill leading down into the vast open space that was the Badlands proper, I was hit by an instant sense of complete desolation. From my perch at the head of the formation, standing by Captain Red Coat and Twilight Sparkle, I surveyed the demesne of the enemy. The landscape itself was almost entirely featureless; a flat plain, populated by dark yellow rocks and the occasional dry shrub or cactus with branches like claws grasping blasphemously at the sky. The ground was pitted and rough like the surface of coarse sandpaper or a particularly amateurish attempt at making a crème brûlée, and it stretched forth seemingly into infinity where it met the pale blue horizon in a quivering, blurred haze. The overall effect was like that of standing on a cliff’s edge and gazing out at the endless ocean. Aside from a few scraps of desiccated vegetation eking out a bleak existence in his inhospitable realm and the vultures circling portentously overhead as if in anticipation of the slaughter to come, I could discern nothing else living before me and yet somewhere, out there, the unnumbered hordes of the Changelings stood poised to strike out at our realm.
Fort E-5150 was the only landmark visible in this vista of utmost emptiness, like a lone ship in a vast sea. The fortress that I had previously seen only as a large dark smudge on blurry aerial reconnaissance photographs stood below less than an hour’s march away from us. It was a large, sprawling structure that greatly resembled a flat-topped hill; sheer cliffs rose from the flat plains to form an oval-shaped structure that reminded me of a table, crested with crenulated walls that crumbled into ruin in places, encircling a central courtyard area that seemed to be the hallmark of the ancient forts built here. At one narrow end of the oval, the main keep rose about three storeys above the fallen walls as a sprawling mess of crippled towers. In places there were great holes ripped into the sides of the keep that were patched with flimsy blocks of sandstone or simply covered with cloth, probably by the Diamond Dogs that inhabited this decaying fort. The opposite end was occupied by a large gate; two vast slabs of clumsily-cast and beaten iron, each made up of smaller, roughly crafted slabs of metal welded and bolted together with no regard for any sort of architectural niceties, rested on suitably blocky-looking hinges, and covered entirely in a thick, splotchy patina of brown and orange rust. The approach to the gates was quite steep, so a winding path had been cut into the rock. There appeared to be no way of opening those gates from the outside.
In an odd way, it reminded me of home. [Blueblood’s ancestral estate in Canterlot, known as the Sanguine Palace, was, and still is, in a state of constant disrepair.]
Our approach to the fortress was slow and cautious, both for our own sake so that we might adopt a suitable defence if things rapidly went pear-shaped and for the benefit of the primitive canine inhabitants to avoid scaring them into doing something that they would likely regret. Nevertheless, I was all but certain that the sight of a full battery of artillery ready to reduce the structure into a big, albeit impressive, pile of rubble would be enough to dissuade them; Diamond Dogs may be a somewhat backward species, but they aren’t quite that stupid (destroying the fortress would have been counter to our mission objectives, but they wouldn’t know that). Captain Red Coat and I stood at the very head of the column in front of the battalion’s earth ponies arrayed in standard battle formation. A young ensign joined us, and in place of the proud standard of the Night Guards he normally carried around with him, he held aloft a white flag. Actually, it was a rather dirty, mucous-stained hoofkerchief belonging to Sergeant Major Square Basher, for, as she proudly told me, only the Prench regiments of the Royal Guard had white flags. Given the historic rivalry between the two provinces of Trottingham and Prance I decided it was best to keep secret exactly where my mother was born and her family lineage.
We stopped a short distance from the tall walls, close to an area where part of the structure had collapsed and the ensuing rubble had formed a large, rocky slope that led up into a gaping hole large enough to park an airship. The ensign, a young, acne-ridden lad whose voice was still rather hesitant about breaking, reared up on his hind legs and waved the white hoofkerchief proudly, while Captain Red Coat announced in what he must have thought was a firm, authoritative tone that he wished to parlay with whoever was in charge of this outpost.
There was no answer.
Fearing a trap, I positioned myself behind Red Coat and the flag-wielding ensign, and scanned the crumbling battlements for any suspicious movement. Aside from the fluttering of torn, ragged banners daubed with crude and garish symbols in the gentle breeze, there was absolutely nothing moving I could see in the fortress itself. Something was wrong; I had yet to face Diamond Dogs in the field of battle, but I knew from firsthoof accounts that, while they might be simple creatures, they were all of the belief that fair play was something only losers whined about (if they survived the encounter first). Were I in their paws and I wanted that menacing army camped outside my doors gone I would have lured the battalion through that invitingly large breach in the walls and then ambushed the disorganised mess of troops as they clumsily blundered into the wide courtyard area.
“Maybe they’re just shy,” I said, trying to lighten the mood slightly. “Perhaps they might be more obliging hosts if we show them the gems.”
Red Coat nodded, and at a single barked order from his Sergeant Major, two soldiers carried the large chest that they had been guarding throughout our unpleasant journey, and placed it at the officer’s hooves. The lid was opened, revealing its contents that scintillated in the dazzlingly bright sunlight and cast kaleidoscopic reflections upon the ground before us for several hundred feet. [Blueblood is likely exaggerating here] As cunning and devious as the common Diamond Dog might be, they were still ruled by their baser instincts, and like many animals and young foals they can be easily coerced with the promise of food.
There was still no response from the castle, and Captain Red Coat was getting visibly anxious as the carefully-laid plan that we had spent weeks and weeks bashing out through long meetings began to unravel. He shuffled nervously on his hooves, incapable of standing still, as he looked longingly up at the fortress walls as if he could coerce the appearance of its inhabitants through sheer willpower alone.
A pegasus section was soon sent to reconnoitre the fortress, though they were instructed not to drift too close to the structure lest their harmless expedition be taken for an offensive military action. The corporal reported seeing tents, piles of gems, armour, rags, and all sorts of random detritus scattered around the courtyard, as was to be expected, but neither he nor his section could identify any of the fortress’ inhabitants or indeed anything else alive down there. Having reached an impasse in the negotiations on account of the second participant simply not being there, the Night Guards decided this was an excellent time to break for afternoon tea and soon the fires were lit and the kettles boiled, much to the continued amusement of the platoons from the Solar Guard, who regarded this behaviour with an understandable sense of bafflement and slight resentment, while the officers moved together for a brief confab. Naturally, Twilight Sparkle was there taking notes as usual.
“We might as well,” I said, taking a sip from my mug of tea when Lieutenant Scarlet Letter made a rather unpleasant comment about the Trottinghamites, the very ponies he claims to represent in Parliament, mind you, apparently wasting time. “We’re not doing anything productive until the Diamond Dogs show their faces, and we don’t know how long it will be before the next chance comes up. Besides, it’s good for morale.”
Scarlet Letter merely snorted in derision, but otherwise said nothing and turned his uninterested gaze up at the fortress looming above us.
“Anyway,” I said, pointing a hoof rather dramatically at the shattered breach in the castle walls, “our orders are to take this fortress by any means necessary; up to and including the use of force.”
“I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that,” said Captain Red Coat. The skin beneath his grey-dyed fur had turned very pale, a rather unhealthy shade of that too, and those chilling yellow slit-eyes seemed to be staring right through me, which gave him a rather disconcertingly vampiric countenance.
I gave a vague sort of shrug, hoping to mask the same sort of inchoate terror welling up within me that Captain Red Coat had done a rather poor job of concealing, for I knew that a poorly phrased sentence here or there would invariably send me charging into the gaping breach just behind me and into certain death. “Neither did I,” I said, being in that very rare situation of telling the truth for once in my miserable life, “but right now we don’t have a choice. Orders are orders, Captain.”
“Well,” he said, licking and smacking his dry lips in a gesture I took to be a nervous tick, “if I remember what I was taught at the Academy right, there’s three ways to seize a castle; starve out the defenders, assault through a breach, or mount an escalator.”
“Escalade,” corrected Twilight almost immediately, not even bothering to cease in her note-taking as she did so. [Probably the most direct method, and certainly one of the riskiest and most costly, of attacking fortresses, an escalade involves scaling the defensive walls with the aid of ladders.]
A slight blush returned a bit of colour back to Red Coat’s sickly pale cheeks. “Uh, yes, that’s what I meant.” He cleared his throat sheepishly and pointed at the vast mound of shattered and broken masonry that led to the gaping rent in the castle walls, and already I could envisage the good Captain here requesting that I lead some sort of glorious forlorn hope into a breach that likely had a large mob of Diamond Dogs lurking just out of sight ready for ambush. “There’s already a hole in the walls,” he said, renewed confidence inflecting his voice slightly.
“Uh, I hate to interrupt you there, mate,” said Lieutenant Southern Cross. The engineer was leaning casually on his axe, with the viciously sharp and spotlessly clean (one of the very things about him that was not covered in a layer of dust thick enough to qualify as an extra layer of clothing) planted in the hard, rocky ground and with his foreleg resting atop the upright handle. A few of the other officers looked aghast at the Horestralian’s casual use of the word ‘mate’ in addressing a superior officer, and had they monocles they would have surely popped out of their eye sockets in shock, but given the seriousness of this situation they seemed content in letting his odd verbal tic pass. “If the defenders have any sense in them they’d have planted a great big mine underneath that pile of rubble to blow us all sky-high if we cross it. It’s what I would have done.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “In war, the most obvious solution is often just a trap.”
There were a few murmurs of polite, if somewhat grudging, assent from the officers around us, save for Captain Red Coat, who was busy gazing at the fortress walls and chewing on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. “So we can’t go through the gap, and obviously we can’t just sit here and wait for the defenders to surrender.”
“And we can’t blow another hole in the wall,” I said. Red Coat cocked his head to one side in mild confusion, which made him look like some form of possessed puppy, so I explained for him: “We may need to defend this place against attack, which might prove tricky if we’ve already blasted several breaches in it for the Changelings to swarm through.”
“Right, right. So that just leaves escalading over the walls then.”
Fortunately, in our planning we had sufficient foresight to procure a number of ladders precisely for this purpose. Together, we hashed out a vague sort of plan (or ‘everypony else discussed the plan and I just nodded my head and made some thoughtful noises at appropriate points to give the impression that I was participating’ to be more accurate a description of how things proceeded) that involved sending a full platoon of earth ponies over the wall, who, assuming that enough of them would survive to actually make to the top of the walls, would fight their way down into the courtyard, assuming again that there was actually anyone there to fight, and open the gates for the rest of the battalion to march through and seize the fort. At the same time, the pegasi would provide close aerial support for the lone earth pony platoon, and the unicorns and artillery were deployed nearby to fire on the walls to keep the defenders away from them.
As the preparations were made for the escalade, I took especial care to remain as close to Twilight Sparkle’s side as physically possible, not out of any particular fondness for her company, mind you, but merely to remind everypony around me that while I would absolutely love to take part in storming the castle, a military operation whose distinguishing feature is that the attacker almost always gets slaughtered, especially in the first wave (which, given the relatively small size of our battalion, would probably be the only wave), I was motivated by my sense of honour to protect this vulnerable young mare, the apprentice of Princess Celestia and a genuine heroine of Equestria, from harm. That I was actually motivated more by my sense of self-preservation need not be mentioned; you were probably aware of that anyway, and likewise it would just as superfluous to mention that my carefully constructed scheme to keep royal head firmly attached to my neck instead of, say, impaled on a spike in some Diamond Dog warlord’s drawing room, completely fell to pieces.
“The escalade platoon is a little jumpy,” said Captain Red Coat, looking rather sheepish and doing his hardest not to look me in the eye. The platoon in question had already assembled at the base of the wall, grouped into three sections each with a long and rather disconcertingly rickety-looking ladder. “They might try a little harder if you were there to keep an eye on them, I mean, if you think it’s a good idea.”
“I really wish I could,” I said, inclining my head towards the little purple mare sitting beside me. Twilight was so intent on scribbling some nonsense into her notepad that she barely seemed to register Captain Red Coat’s presence, which, mind you, was not exactly difficult as the young stallion tended not to radiate the same sort of forceful leadership that Colonel Sunshine Smiles or Shining Armour possessed, and which I pretended to have. A furtive glance over my oblivious ward’s shoulder revealed that her hoof-writing was just as bad, if not worse, than Cannon Fodder’s; my aide tends to make some small attempt at legibility, and at least he has the excuse that his motor skills are rather limited by his complete inability to use any form of magic at all, but Twilight’s was nothing more than a complete mess of scribbles that looked as if it belonged in a modern art gallery. [Twilight Sparkle was actually writing in short-hoof, which Blueblood cannot read.]
I effected a heavy sigh that I hoped sounded disappointed enough for Captain Red Coat’s ears, and placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder protectively, from which she recoiled slightly from the exaggerated gesture and shot me a glare that conveyed in no uncertain terms was I to attempt that again. Shrugging, I pulled my hoof back. “I gave Lord Captain Shining Armour my solemn word that I would protect his little sister from anything that might harm her. I truly wish I could join the troops in this battle, but my sense of honour compels me to sit this one out. Besides” –I flashed a warm grin– “I’m sure you can handle it yourself.”
“What if your bodyguard stays and looks after Twilight instead?”
Damnation, the thought hadn’t occurred to me at all. In fact, I had all but forgotten the presence of my ‘life guard’ standing at my shoulder for most of the day, my disguised auntie having been all but completely silent the whole time, but nevertheless here she was once more to ruin my chances of making it out of this war alive as if she had some sort of personal vendetta against me. There was a sudden, unpleasant lurch in the pit of my stomach as I saw my carefully-constructed plan to keep myself out of danger crash spectacularly into pieces before my very eyes, like a skilled artisan placing the final pane of stained glass into an intricately designed and beautifully crafted window in Canterlot Cathedral depicting a key point in the life of Princess Celestia, only for some bumbling imbecile to nudge it with a hoof and cause the entire thing to shatter into a thousand tiny shards, likely ripping the artist to shreds as I would be very soon unless I thought of something very quickly.
Standing there, I stammered uselessly for a few seconds as I struggled to find something, anything to get me out of this mess, but alas I came out completely and utterly blank. I looked to Princess Luna, as if pleading with her to find some way to help me, but instead she merely smiled and nodded her head.
“From birth to death I serve the Blood,” she said robotically, reciting the ancient creed of the Servants of the Blood, which sounded quite chilling in my Aunt’s cold, refined voice. [It sounds much better in the original Old Equestrian.]
Red Coat blinked gormlessly at her. “Ohh-kay.”
“Thank you, Cloudless Sky,” I said, though I fear I could not entirely stop myself from injecting a small amount of sarcasm into my voice. That was that, I supposed, and with little other recourse besides embarrassing myself in front of Twilight Sparkle, Captain Red Coat, and Princess Luna by running to the hills I forced that cocky grin to my face that had somehow become my trademark over the course of my nascent career, despite feeling as if somepony had just torn all of my guts free from my belly and left a huge, gaping wound where they once lay safe and coiled within, and cantered over to the platoon with Cannon Fodder silently following me.
It was only with great personal effort on my part that I reached the small, disorderly mob of thirty ponies without passing out from sheer terror, which probably would not have helped my reputation for casual heroism one bit. The officer in command of the platoon was a young, pimple-faced lieutenant with a nervous stammer, and whose eyes seemed on the verge of popping free from their sockets like champagne corks when he learned that a ‘genuine’ war hero would be accompanying him. Fortunately, it was that same eagerness to get into the fray as quickly as possible that meant that I was not to be the first pony ascending those ladders, as once everypony else was in position at the base of the walls and the ladders themselves were raised slowly, like the pagans of old giving praise to the sky, to rest against the crenulated battlements, the lieutenant cried, “Who w-w-wants to live f-f-forever?” as if he was trying to impress me—if he was, then he had failed miserably, as his stammer had rather robbed his clichéd battle cry of any power it might have otherwise had and he seemed to be of that sort of courage that is nigh indistinguishable from stark-raving lunacy—and then scrambled up the closest ladder like a squirrel up a tree.
I was up next, and as I stumbled to the base of the ladder and looked up at the dizzying heights receding into the distance while fighting a sudden wave of vertigo that brought the bile rising up my throat, and the slowly diminishing sight of the Lieutenant’s backside, I wondered if now was the time to tell everypony that I very much did not like heights. It would not have worked, anyway. Nevertheless, a glance over my shoulder at the two mares observing the proceedings (Captain Red Coat had since left to take charge of the units preparing to assault the gates) provided sufficient motivation for me to start climbing; I feared that whatever punishments Princess Luna had in store for me should I fail to live up to her exacting standards would be far more severe than anything the Changelings could inflict upon me, likely making the famed cruelty and sadism of Queen Chrysalis feel like a sunny day at a petting zoo by comparison, and it was that fear that propelled me to take my right forehoof and place it upon the first rung of the ladder.
If I thought that the ladder looked unsafe from some distance away, then my fears were completely and utterly vindicated, surpassed even, when I found myself face-to-face with the flimsy wooden structure. As I transferred my not-inconsiderable weight –the symptoms of having had too many pies and not enough exercise as a youth– the old and rotted timbers creaked ominously. With no other option, I sucked in a deep breath in a vain attempt to quell the frantic writhing in my gut, placed my rear hooves on the bottommost rung of the ladder, and after bending my hind legs a little to test its integrity, I began to ascend the ladder. Moments later, the ladder lurched suddenly, which told me that my aide Cannon Fodder was right behind me.
My progress was slow, damnably so, for it felt as if I was climbing for an eternity. Part of me wondered if I was in fact dead, and that to endlessly climb this ladder, always below the arse of another stallion in some peculiar, was some form of metaphysical punishment for all of my debauchery and philandering, in the vain hope of salvation and an end to my torment was to be my eternal punishment. At the very least, I supposed, the Lieutenant was in full armour so I was spared that rather unpleasant sight, though the same could not be said for Cannon Fodder directly beneath me, and almost on reflex I tucked the small tuft of hair that remained of my tail between my hind legs to try and preserve my modesty. It was rather odd that my thoughts turned to rather trivial, and I must admit rather juvenile, themes during that climb, but when one considers that the alternative was to think of just how high I had climbed, how far it was to the hard, unforgiving ground below, and how far I had yet to go, I believe I can be excused for that.
Left forehoof, right forehoof, left rear hoof, right rear hoof... over and over again, ad infinitum. It was only by concentrating on the cold, hard mechanics of gripping one rung at a time and pulling myself up only to repeat the process again that I had acquired the mental fortitude to keep myself going. My muscles and limbs ached with exertion, and the shrapnel wound in my right shoulder flared with particularly excruciating pain with each and every single step upwards. The sweltering heat sapped what little strength remained in my limbs, until climbing each rung had become an ordeal of itself, and the sweat ran in rivulets from my much-abused mane and streaked across my hide to form unsightly dark stains in my faded uniform. Glancing down, however, at the sheer drop to the rocky ground below, cracked, parched, and made hard by the hot, dry climate of this region, gave me enough impetus to keep going, if only because falling would have been the most immediate threat of death to me, but if I actually made it to the top then at least I had some small chance, no matter how miniscule, of survival.
The defenders, if there were any hiding up there, seemed content to let us scramble up their walls unmolested. Naturally, my paranoia had decided to take the fact that I had yet to have boiling oil poured straight into my handsome face as proof that the enemy, whoever they were, was leading us directly into an ambush.
Ahead of me the Lieutenant had stopped suddenly, and I had all but rammed my horn against his rear barding. I thanked Faust that he was armoured, otherwise that might have gone much worse for all involved. It was, however, to a sense of both immense relief and growing dread that I realised that meant that we had reached the very top of the ladder, and that somehow I had managed to ascend this far without the likely rotten timbers snapping beneath my weight. With bated breath I watched as the Lieutenant turned his head, grinning, and pulled from the scabbard strapped around his back with his mouth his Pattern ’12 sabre and held it clenched between his teeth about the modified handle for earth ponies. With a muffled cry of rage, or perhaps terror, he vaulted himself over the top and disappeared.
I fully expected to have the Lieutenant’s bloodied and broken corpse thrown back at my face, but against all expectations he popped his head over the side of the parapets, that damned cheerful grin formed a thin line of white that split his face in half, and he waved a hoof down at me as if this was a pleasant day at the funfair. “It’s clear, sir!” he called out, and a cheer rose up from the stallions below me. Either side of us, on the other two ladders, the first stallions of those sections too scrambled awkwardly over the crumbling battlements with all the grace of an obese mule struggling out of the bath.
Well, there was no point putting this off. I pulled myself over the pile of rubble that several hundred years ago might have been the castle battlements and fell clumsily on my backside onto the chemin de ronde [Prench for ‘round path’ or ‘patrol path’, this refers to the protected raised walkway behind castle battlements] with a mad flail of my legs, letting loose a string of expletives that thankfully nopony seems to remember anymore. Despite my limbs protesting painfully, I staggered to my hooves and stepped to the side to allow Cannon Fodder room to follow me in clambering over the small pile of rubble with his usual silent indifference to hardship. It was immensely reassuring to feel solid, hard rock beneath my hooves, and were it not considered unseemly for a pony of my social status to do so I might have kissed the ground.
As the rest of the platoon ascended the ladders and spread out across the wall, I stood as close to the inside edge as I dared and peered down at the central courtyard. As the pegasi attested, I could see nothing alive therein, but everywhere I saw evidence that this place had been inhabited not long before we had arrived. The area could best be described as a sort of marketplace; a sprawling mass of tents, gazebos, and marquees, each made out of a patchwork of brightly coloured but ripped and torn fabrics stretched across flimsy wooden poles, no two identical, filled the courtyard with a riot of sun-bleached colour, each half over its neighbour until they rose up and against the walls of the great keep like a wave crashing against the rocks. There was, however, a central boulevard that led from the still-closed gates to the keep, but even that was by no means neat and orderly, for the small tent structures often encroached on what would an Equestrian road planner might have designed as a perfectly straight lane. Amidst the tents lay all manner of detritus strewed out haphazardly in the narrow alleyways between them, and from my vantage point I could discern piles of broken crockery, spilt bowls of food, sacks of grain, piles of gems, and assorted useless trinkets that the inhabitants of this fort traded with the other societies of this barren land scattered everywhere.
“There’s sod all down there, sir.” Private Marathon, who had served as the regiment’s runner in the previous battle, materialised at my side. She peered over the edge and spat down at the multi-coloured mess of tents below, watching as it made a small, wet stain on the dust-covered fabric of an offensively yellow gazebo that covered a number of barrels stacked upon one another.
“Is that the technical term?” I asked wryly.
“No sir; that would be ‘buck all down there’.”
She grinned inanely, and I let the comment slide for now; it was better to tolerate the rather unrefined badinage the soldiers tend to indulge in, and even take part in it if one feels sufficiently confident to do so, than to do as some of my comrades might have done, and indeed as the big commissarial rulebook instructs, and clamp down on it and be seen as a mean-spirited sort of pony whose personality might be improved by the addition of a spear between the shoulder blades when nopony’s looking. At any rate, there were rather more important things to worry about at the moment.
The platoon, now marshalled along the walls, advanced cautiously around the chemin de ronde towards the gatehouse, beyond which the rest of the battalion waited. With the narrowness of the walkway we marched two abreast, then to single file as we came to a set of stairs that led into the courtyard. One stallion had slipped on some loose paving and crashed into the tents below. Fortunately, his fall was cushioned somewhat by the tent and he suffered no worse injuries than a sprained ankle and wounded pride. We suffered no further casualties, however, as we eventually reached the courtyard. Our hosts, the Diamond Dogs, still had yet to make themselves known, and as we observed the mess of colour that lay before us like a the results of an explosion in an artists’ studio I felt an overwhelming sense of ‘wrongness’ about the scene that was quite impossible to describe in the simple terms of the lack of Diamond Dogs or the stark silence in what should have been a very busy place.
It was then that I noticed the signs all around us that a fight had occurred here very recently.
Splashed by my hooves was what were unmistakeably the dark rust tones of dried blood streaked across the ground in an arterial spray, and as I scanned the disorganised mess of tents I saw that great rents had been torn in the fabric, as if pierced by sword or spear or claw, and in places framed by a ring of blackened ash that indicated a magic missile discharge. Gazing up the boulevard, I now saw that the ripped tents and the scattered piles of broken detritus were not the fault of any inherent messiness on behalf of the Diamond Dogs and whoever else happened to be around, but as collateral damage from a violent battle that must have occurred here not long ago. The destruction that I saw was by no means complete, and quite unsettlingly I noticed that the attacking force, whoever they were, had not indulged in the rampant looting that usually follows a particularly vicious fight and left the many useless trinkets and gems either still in the market stalls or scattered and broken in the dust and the food left to spoil in their barrels. Indeed, I noticed that a few of our soldiers could not control their own impulse to loot and had surreptitiously pocketed a few baubles and cabbages. The thought that the attackers had simply faded back into the Badlands after their slaughter, not even pausing for the traditional post-battle rape-and-pillage festivities, was most unsettling; it implied that their attack was not motivated by strategic concerns, as was ours, or a simple raid, but merely to kill.
We came to the gatehouse, still wary as the platoon adopted a defensive semi-circle formation around the iron gates in case whoever had massacred the Diamond Dogs still lurked either in the keep or lay hidden in ambush within the mess of tents and debris. Now that I was closer to the gate I could see that in addition to the rather slipshod method of manufacture, which was confirmed to be merely large sheets of rusted iron many times larger than the average pony bolted together with crude implements, there were great, horrendous rents scratched into the metal, ripping open the layer of rust and exposing the bright iron that lay beneath. Across the lower half of the gate, where the two doors met, were a number of claw marks and dents, as if somepony or something had been trying desperately to tear them open. Here and there were dark, black scorch marks, and areas where the metal had melted under some intense heat and dripped like candle wax. The implication that the enemy had something that could generate that sort of heat and apply it as a weapon made me shudder involuntarily.
There was a tense moment of waiting as the Lieutenant and a small group of soldiers had disappeared inside the gatehouse to search for a way to open the gates, and during this time the only sounds audible were the faint rustling of fabric being stirred on the hot breeze and something that sounded like a small wind chime. I strained my ears, trying to find something, anything that might have indicated the presence of another, but aside from the aforementioned background noise was absolutely nothing. Abruptly, the gates behind me opened with a series of drunken, halting lurches with a scream of abused gears and pulley systems, as whatever aged, rusted, and poorly maintained mechanism contained within the gatehouse awoke with all of the efficiency and smoothness of the Equestrian Revenue Service.
The flanking battalion poured through the open gates. A quick sweep of the courtyard was conducted but found nothing of note; no Diamond Dogs or Changelings hiding in ambush, no survivors of whatever had happened here, but only more of those gaudy trinkets and random knick-knacks for sale, though I did have to destroy a few bottles of moonshine that the stallions had uncovered in their search. The door to the keep, however, was wide open, almost invitingly so for all its forbidding darkness as the cool, shaded stone promised a respite from the oppressive heat.
I accompanied Captain Red Coat and a few scouting parties into the keep, while the remainder of the battalion worked with the Engineers in clearing out the courtyard and returning it to its proper military purpose. The gates to the keep were small, and clearly designed so as to bottleneck an advancing army, should they have been fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to make it this far, and as the attackers would queue up to squeeze through the doors they would be vulnerable to all manner of projectiles hurled from the high towers of the keep from above; like shooting fish in a barrel, as the old saying goes. The first room was a large entrance hall, which, as the light shone through shattered gothic windows and through holes and rents smashed into the sides of the great walls in bright beams that pierced the gloom, had an almost reverent feel to it. The overall effect was like that of stepping into an abandoned church, with the high, arched ceiling supported by simple and bare stone pillars that gave one an impression of stepping into a vast, open space. The entrance hall receded into darkness, such that I could not possibly make out what lay beyond those beams of light, which, when contrasted with the shadows around them, looked solid enough to reach out and touch. This ambience, however, marred by the most appalling stench that assaulted my nostrils the second I stepped through the threshold.
“Dear Faust!” shouted Red Coat, taking a hoofkerchief to his nose in a vain effort to ward the smell off. The other soldiers around us gagged and protested in rather more colourful tones at the odour, though only Private Cannon Fodder seemed entirely unconcerned. I remained rather close to my aide, for though his aroma was no better I was at least more used to his. “What is that smell?”
“It wasn’t me,” said one of the stallions, who looked sheepish when his attempt at a joke was met by disapproving glares from his comrades and a well-deserved clip around the ear from his corporal.
I shrugged, deciding to ignore it. “Probably the Diamond Dogs,” I said; the stench could be best described being of death, body odour, and raw sewage, which was probably rather apt when one considers who inhabited this castle, or used to, to be more accurate. Against my better judgement, it was decided that it was best that we split up to explore the castle; Captain Red Coat apparently felt reasonably certain that whatever had murdered all of the Diamond Dogs was likely long gone by now, probably having got what they wanted from the fortress in the first place, but I was not so certain. Nevertheless, I was aware that we were rather pressed for time, and the sooner that we could declare this place secure the better, so I stuck close with Red Coat, making sure that he was always in front and that I had a clear route to escape behind me, and followed.
The smell only got worse as we passed through the hall and into the fortress proper, where the innards of the fortress split into a series of long, meandering corridors that seemed to be deliberately designed to leave one as disorientated as possible (unless one happens to have a compass rose for a cutie mark, like me). The corridors would sometimes break off to lead into rooms, which had been converted into warrens or store rooms or, in some places, a makeshift latrine, and with the torches in the wall sockets long since dead we relied on the bright glow of horn lights to guide our progress. The actinic glare illuminated the cold, dripping sandstone walls, but only for a short distance before the all-encompassing darkness swallowed our tiny flickers of light. Nevertheless, what was briefly revealed by our light was chilling, for everywhere I could yet see the signs that much slaughter had taken place here, and not too long ago either; dried blood was splattered across the walls and the floors, sometimes pooling into great cuts scratched into the rock where weapons had swung, missed their target, and smashed into the walls. There was, however, something quite obvious that was missing, which I did not even notice until Cannon Fodder had blurted it out.
“Where are the bodies?” he asked flatly.
Our section [Blueblood does not explain how the battalion was split up to explore the fortress, but from this comment and the testimony of others we can determine that each exploring party was made up of a mixed section. That is to say, an ad hoc infantry section made up of roughly equal parts earth pony, pegasus, and unicorn] came to a sudden, abrupt halt. How could I have missed it? How could any of us have missed the distinct lack of rotting corpses strewed about the place? If this was a hit-and-run attack aimed at just causing as much death as possibly upon the helpless Diamond Dogs then they probably would not have stuck around to helpfully remove all of the bodies. The implication that the enemy merely wanted their meat and nothing else was all the more disturbing, so I tried not to think about it.
Had I any sort of inkling of the true nature of the threat that lay dormant beneath our hooves I would have ordered Lieutenant Southern Cross and Sergeant Bramley Apple to cram this wretched fortress full of explosives and blow it sky-high. But the enemy that lay dormant beneath our hooves did not make itself known for several years after this battle in an attack that has since frequented my nightmares, and thus I remained in blissful ignorance of the horrors to come. [Please note that all evidence pertaining to the truth around the destruction of Fort E-5150 and of the so-called ‘Shards’ is classified at the absolute highest level by the express orders of myself and Princess Luna. Suffice to say, the events that Prince Blueblood has touched upon in this paragraph is described in greater detail in a later entry in his memoirs and are of little help in understanding his place in the history of Operation: Equestrian Dawn.]
“Maybe they ate them?” I posited.
We proceeded warily, our hoofsteps echoing down the corridors, reverberating against the cold stone of the walls, and in the silence even our breaths seemed far too loud. Once or twice, my pricked and twitching ears would hear hoofsteps in the distance, or what sounded like voices and the clatter of metal, which would send my heart hammering against my ribcage and the fur on the back of my neck prickling. The corridors felt very confining, despite my affinity with confined areas underground, and my growing claustrophobia was not helped by the presence of the other stallions around me. Judging by the wide eyes and awkward, jerky movements of the soldiers, it seemed that I was not alone in allowing my nerves to get the better of me; several times Captain Red Coat shrieked in fright, sabre drawn and ready to strike, only to find the half-glimpsed monster lurking in the dark was merely a dancing shadow cast by our horn lights upon something innocuous like a chair.
Branching off from the endless corridors were a series of rooms behind doors, most still swinging gently on rusted old hinges. There, we found the rather poignant evidence of ordinary life for the Diamond Dogs disturbed by sudden and brutal violence; food was still found in primitive pots and plates and arranged upon slab-like tables for meals, tools for mining, clothes, jewellery, children’s toys, and other personal possessions lay strewed across the floor; silent witnesses all to the slaughter that must have occurred here.
Something about the main gates irritated me, and the thought, incomplete and nascent, scratched at the back of my mind, desperate for my consciousness to give shape and form to that idea. It was as we were taking a short five minute break as we trudged through yet another nearly-identical dark, stifling corridor, identifiable from the others only by the rather large claw marks in the floor and walls as if something very big and covered in sharp things tried to squeeze through the narrow passage, that the proverbial penny dropped with a clatter that seemed to echo loudly through my head.
“The gates were damaged from the inside,” I blurted out, half to myself as I involuntarily gave voice to the thought.
“So?” snapped Red Coat, sitting by my side with his helmet tucked underneath a foreleg. The strain of scouting the corridors was clearly starting to get to him, as evidenced by his timid, twitchy movements and haggard expression around his eyes, so I decided I’d let his brusqueness slide for now.
“Don’t you see? It means that the damage was done not by an invading army trying to get in, but by the defenders trying to get out; whoever attacked the fortress did so from the inside.”
From behind came a rhythmic patter of galloping hooves upon stone, and at once the section, previously just sitting around doing nothing, leapt instantly into formation, spears and charged horns aimed down at the black abyss of the corridors. The sound of hooves was joined by clanging metal, armour most likely, and we watched, waited, for a single, horribly drawn out moment as our eyes strained into the darkness to finally see the bulky shape of a guardspony of the Solar Guard, his golden armour glinting brightly from the horn lights projected by the unicorns of our section, coalesce from the gloom. There was an audible sigh of relief from the Night Guards, and not least from me, as I wiped the cold sweat from my brow.
“Sir!” said the Solar Guard between ragged gasps of breath, and snapped a hasty salute. “We’ve found one, sir! A Diamond Dog! He’s in pretty bad shape, but you’ll want to see him.”
Finally, thought I, we would get some answers.