Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 13)

Part 13

At the heart of this fortress, cocooned within a shell of labyrinthine corridors and rooms the original purposes of which could only be guessed at, and above a veritable rats’ nest of tunnels and mines that descended Faust knows how far into the earth below my hooves, was a large, open hall which, millennia ago, might have witnessed many great and noble martial ceremonies held beneath the high vaulted ceiling, but it appeared to have been more recently used as a sort of communal dining area, throne room, and ad hoc sports arena; at least until the Diamond Dogs all got slaughtered, that is. As was typical of just about every room that I had looked into in this thoroughly miserable little castle, it was a complete and utter mess that belied the ancient military purposes of this fortification; at the far end of the hall, from the main entrance where I stood and surveyed the chamber, was a raised dais where ages past a king or noble or some petty warlord might have sat upon a jewelled throne and held court, and from the walls that stretched to many times the height of a pony hung ancient, torn tapestries the designs upon which had faded centuries before.

It was decided that this would be the ideal place to set up both the billets for the soldiers and Captain Red Coat’s centre of operations. Therefore, when the sweep of the castle had been completed and the troops were preparing to scout the complex maze of tunnels and mines upon which this fortress was built, small teams of pegasi were busily sweeping away the piles of rubbish and preparing the hall and the multitude of rooms here fit for pony habitation once more, despite their constant griping that this was ‘mud pony work’. [Presumably because their powers of flight would be quite limited in tunnel-fighting] Others flittered in the air across the great open expanse of the hall, darting like sparrows in the garden between the great pillars that held up the high, gothic-arched ceiling that appeared by some cunning illusion to stretch far higher than the cramped confines of the castle would allow. Upon its surface one could discern the faded, cracked outlines of what might have been an elaborate fresco depicting cherub-faced pegasi dancing amongst the clouds. As I stepped into the hall, my hooves stirred the ancient dust that coated the floor, and the sound of my iron horseshoes striking the cold, hard stone rang out clearly and reverberated across the empty space. I took a few moments to pause and survey the hall, turning my gaze over the groups of pegasi who busied themselves collecting, piling, and removing the unidentifiable bits of refuse that once blanketed the floor of this hall, and in doing so I pulled what I hoped was an appropriately heroic and commissarial expression in order to further instil their somewhat warped image of me being the supposed exemplar of martial perfection.

There, in the dark and dingy far corner of the room where the light of a half dozen or so candles scattered haphazardly in seemingly random spots on the floor could barely illuminate, was a small, hunched figure in dirty rags for clothes being tended to by an earth pony soldier. Captain Red Coat had suggested that I join the earth ponies and unicorns in plumbing the depths of the tunnels, as my skill in navigating underground tunnels and alleged ‘inspiring presence’ would undoubtedly be of benefit to the troops, I managed to convince him – while Princess Luna was busy elsewhere on Twilight-watching duty for the time being – that getting some answers out of the only Diamond Dog survivor found thus far took priority. After all, it was my role to liaise with civilians wherever we encountered them so that the officers could focus on purely military matters, and especially so if it meant I could worm my way out of potential mortal danger again.

As I entered the hall, with Cannon Fodder by my side as usual, I became strangely self-conscious about the manner in which my hoofsteps echoed throughout the chamber; it felt as if the mere act of stepping upon these stones was in some way an act of sacrilege to the ancient ponies, whose civilisation predated that of Equestria and perhaps even ruled this once verdant land longer than our realm has even existed, who had first built this place, desecrated thought it was by the Diamond Dogs who until very recently squatted within these halls. Or perhaps it was merely an acute form of home-sickness – for the thick, tall columns, moth-eaten tapestries, general sense of decay, and the schizophrenic mix of wide open halls and tight, narrow corridors, each crafted by ponies long since dead and apparently possessed of the notion that the concepts of ease of use, of personal comfort, and of a single cohesive building style were of secondary importance to each giving life to their own individual architectural visions, bore an eerie echo of sepulchral confines in which I was born and raised. As thoroughly miserable as the Sanguine Palace is it was home, of a sort, and I found myself missing the cold emptiness of the stones and the claustrophobic feeling of the weight of history upon one’s shoulders. There, however, I was the inheritor, a scion of one thousand years of the Blood, but here I felt as if I was merely an intruder breaking into somepony else’s legacy. It felt as if the ghosts of the long dead were offended by my presence.

“Sir!” The guardspony snapped to attention when he saw me, swinging one forehoof in a wide arc to clang against his helmet in salute and stamping the other upon the floor, which made his ward jump slightly and spill some of the smaller gems onto the floor.

“Stand easy, Private Stainless Steel,” I said. Few things help improve one’s image in the eyes of the common soldiery more than remembering their names, or at least giving the impression that one makes an effort to do so, which is not exactly difficult given the embossed name badges attached to the breastplates of their armour. Besides, Stainless Steel was always rather easy to identify as his armour tended to be curiously shinier than everypony else’s; even after two days of solid marching in the ever-present dust the cold iron reflected darkly the flickering candles as motes of yellow dancing across the metal plating.

“Thank you, sir.”

The soldier relaxed a little, letting his spear rest against his shoulder as he in turn returned to his previous position of leaning casually against the wall, which, I belatedly noticed, was positively covered in graffiti scratched in a wide variety of different languages, some that I understood and some which had been quite dead for some time, into the pale yellow stone walls. As he stepped back slightly the thick, orange light from a nearby sconce illuminated his face, which had been cast in shadow when he was at attention, and revealed across the exposed part of his muzzle three claw marks that were crusted over with dark red scabs. He appeared to have noticed me looking at them, as he rather self-consciously touched an armoured hoof to the crimson lines that marred his large, blocky muzzle and grinned inanely.

“He gave me these when I stumbled across his hiding spot,” he said, his tone of voice remained rather jovial despite having been attacked. “Gave both of us a fright, it did, sir, but he’s only a lad and seeing what he’s just been through I can’t really blame him for that, can I? But just between you and me, if anypony asks it was a Changeling what did this, and there were at least ten of them.”

“Of course,” I said flatly, having no inclination to take part in any sort of light-hearted banter with him, not with the unanswered questions as to what exactly happened here still gnawing away at the back of my mind like a nasty rash. I feared, however, that whatever answers that I would get out of the sad, broken wretch that sat sullenly before me would do very little to help improve my mood. “I need to ask him a few questions; if he knows anything about what happened here it might help us should the enemy attack once again.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, not that he was in any position to say ‘no’ at all. He gave the Diamond Dog a little pat on the shoulder with one hoof and indicated towards me with the other. “This is my ‘boss’. He just wants to ask you a few questions, alright?”

The Diamond Dog did not look up, and instead continued to stare sullenly into his bowl of food. I felt rather at a loss as to what to say; for the most part I find speaking to be rather easy, indeed it’s one of the very few things that I count as one of my skills, and as long as one says something with sufficient confidence and in the correct tone of voice one can gain anypony’s trust with but a few sentences, but when I was confronted with this picture of very real grief and shock I struggled to think of how to begin. Nothing that I, a total stranger and not even of the same species, could have said would help heal the emotional wound within this beast’s soul; as real and as painful, if not more so, than those which scarred his flesh.

I removed the peaked cap from my head, deciding that the questioning that was to follow would be better conducted if the grinning face of death was not leering down upon the poor thing from the very pony purporting to aid him, and sat down on my haunches before him. He was young, damnably so; only a child if my guess was correct, and he would have reached my shoulders if he were standing straight. Instead, the creature was hunched over, as if he was trying to tuck his head in between his own shoulders, and those large paws, clearly built for digging and burrowing, idly fiddled with a small bowl of shiny gems that lay between his crossed legs. His grey fur was matted with sweat and filth, and in places it had moulted to leave patches of raw pink skin, bruised and covered in small cuts and scabs. Clearly undernourished and having been so for some time, one could discern the grim outline of his skeletal structure impressing on his skin.

I did my best to look as sympathetic as possible, which, mind you, is not particularly easy when one is dressed in a uniform that is explicitly designed to project cold, unfeeling authority and dread, and cleared my throat noisily.

“I am called Blueblood,” I said, at length. “I am a prince of Equestria and the commissar attached to this battalion of Their Divine Highnesses’ Royal Guard. Might I ask your name?”

It was a fine start, thought I, as the Diamond Dog slowly raised his head towards me and stared with wide, bloodshot eyes like coals that smouldered from within their sockets. It had occurred to me somewhat belatedly that while the average laypony would be suitably over-awed by the string of epithets attached to my name, like hangers-on trailing the celebrity of the moment at some fatuous social event, to a Diamond Dog, whose society was ordered primarily upon the doctrine that the principles of good leadership are being able to punch the hardest and the drink the most without incurring irreparable damage to one’s liver, such grandiloquent titles, of which I was to garner a rather obscene number later in my career, were likely completely and utterly meaningless to him. [This is a rather simplistic and quite stereotypical representation of Diamond Dog society which, as Blueblood readily attests to, is based upon his very limited prior exposure to their culture. Social status within a clan is decided upon a variety of different measures, though physical strength and tolerance to large quantities of alcohol do indeed make up part of it, but these are generally considered merely to be symptoms of good leadership rather than cause.] The youth looked at me with a blank, unreadable expression on his face, and as a warm draft from some unseen crack in the walls sent the candle flames flickering and their pin-prick reflections in those accusing, penetrating eyes of his dancing like fireflies lost in the inky darkness of a moonless night, I suppressed a small involuntary shudder up my spine. He then turned his head up to Stainless Steel, who offered a kind smile and a reassurance that I am quite safe and trustworthy (two things which I am most certainly not), and then looked back to me.

“I’m Rex,” he muttered quietly.

Odd name. “Thank you, Rex.” I have never felt entirely comfortable when speaking with foals; their inherent volatility and immaturity always makes choosing the correct words to engender the correct reaction from them, and judging their reaction in the first place, rather difficult for me, but I also have this entirely irrational fear that due to their questioning natures and the fact that, unlike the adults that they would later become, they do not have any sort of pre-conceived notion of who I am and what I should be like, that it would be a child who will uncover the truth behind my entirely false reputation.

“We want to help you,” I said, after a few moments of thought. Those five words, however, are probably the most horrifying words one could hear from an officer of the Royal Guard, not least of all from me. “We need you to tell us everything about what happened here.”

“I-I don’t want to talk about it.” The gems in the bowl clattered as he fiddled with them, and I contemplated taking them away if he wasn’t going to answer me. That, however, would have probably upset him and annoyed Stainless Steel, so I decided upon a more tactful approach.

“Please,” I said, leaning forward towards him, “it’s important; I have to know what happened here if I’m going to keep my troops safe and so we can bring whoever did this awful thing to justice. I need you to be brave and tell me, alright?”

“They...” He shuddered, tears welling up like glittering gems in the corners of those over-sized eyes of his. After taking a brief, albeit tense, moment to collect himself, he seemed to gather up his courage and wiped his eyes with the large, slab-like palm of his hand. “They came out of the tunnels,” he said, staring at the bowl of gems in his lap, “we dug too deep and they came out of the tunnels.”

The hall had become almost completely silent, quite unnervingly so, as he spoke, aside from the beating of pegasi wings and of the noises beyond the confines of the stone wall, and I became aware of dozens of pairs of eyes affixed upon Rex and I. As the knot within my stomach grew tighter as my fears were slowly becoming vindicated – that we were all standing atop something completely and utterly terrifying just waiting for the prime opportunity to murder us all – I questioned him further, though uncertain as to whether I truly wanted to hear his answer:

“Who did?”

“Ponies,” said Rex. “Ponies made out of black crystal. They... they came from out of the gem mines.”

“Crystal ponies?” I blurted out dumbly, and then shook my head. It was impossible; one must remember that this happened a full year before the return of that rather vulgar little ‘empire’, little more than a small city-state inhabited by absurdly shiny ponies with mad pretensions to greatness now, and besides, being this far south I thought it would be highly implausible that we would find any indication of their once-vast empire here of all places, or so I had thought. “Do you mean the Changelings?” I said in exasperation. “Was it the Changelings who did this?”

“No!” he shrieked suddenly. I flinched slightly at the voice, filled with the power of the raw horror that he must have witnessed, and I felt rather embarrassed at my mishandling of this questioning. I took a few steps back to allow him some space as he, for the first time since he started speaking, lifted his head to look at me. “I know what I saw! They were... they were like black crystal, and they... and they killed everyone here with magic. I watched them from behind the walls, and they were silent as they killed us all!”

It was over; the Diamond Dog suddenly broke into wracking sobs as the metaphorical dam holding back all of his grief broke. He clung to Stainless Steel’s chest, weeping into the cold steel of his breastplate, as the soldier attempted to comfort him by stroking his head and all the while looking at me with a slightly hurt expression. I made an awkward apology and left; I had gathered all the information that I felt I needed, though incomplete and I was certain a more compassionate individual than I could have handled all of that a damn sight better, it was enough for me to know that as long as those mines and tunnels were left open we were not safe.

The mention of ‘crystal ponies’ did not bother me overmuch at the time, and in truth I did not pay much heed to the Diamond Dog’s outburst; a foal is often blessed with great imagination, and I could only have guessed that he had seen the shiny black carapaces of the numberless Changeling hordes pouring from the tunnels and, since his entire life must have revolved around the acquisition and consumption of gems, merely conflated those with crystals. Still, even then, in my ignorance of the truth, the thought continued to nag at me that there was something else entirely unknown down there. Nevertheless, the idea of vast mobs of Changelings pouring out of those mines like an unstoppable wave of chitin to kill us all while we slept was thoroughly unnerving in its own right, and so with Cannon Fodder behind me and bearing all of this with his unique brand of quiet stoicism I galloped down maze of corridors, relying upon my preternatural skill with navigation to guide me.

We blundered past teams of guardsponies clearing out the rooms to make them ready once more for pony habitation, and the sound of profanity followed in our hoofsteps from those we had rather inconvenienced. From one corridor we took a flight of stairs, twisting and turning this way and that in a manner which suggested that the architect had fallen asleep halfway through drawing the blueprints, left a large squiggle where the stairwell into the basement should have been, and being a rather lazy sort of pony did not bother to correct the mistake. As we descended the air became dank and cool, but still muggy with a strange, thick, soup-like consistency to it, and soon the disorientating spirals of steps deposited us into a broad, underground chamber. The ceiling was quite low; comfortable enough for most ponies, but one of my stature would have had to bend their neck down at quite an uncomfortable angle to avoid banging their head, and very soon I developed quite an unpleasant crick there. The room was mostly empty, though evidence of its use by the Diamond Dogs and the recent passage of the guardsponies through it was plain to see in the hoof and paw prints disturbing the thick layer of dust on the floor. There were blocky square pillars, quite bare and functional compared to the ones that held up the high ceiling of the main hall, from which ancient chains and shackles, long since too rusted to be of any use now, creaked with the sound of hooves upon a blackboard in the thin draft. This place was a dungeon, the aged shackles bearing witness to the brutality that must have occurred here both in past too distant to imagine and too soon to be comfortable.

Acting almost on instinct I slowed as we entered this room and drew my sword, for the light was dim and the deepened shadows retreating into a formless black abyss could conceal all manner of horrors, and we advanced cautiously. Between each hoofstep my ears strained to hear anything, but aside from the incessant ‘drip-drip-drip’ of water splashing down in some unseen corner and the murmurs of conversation and activity muffled by thick stone walls, there was nothing immediate save for the scuffle of our hooves upon the dust and of our laboured breaths. That the time between each drop of water was by no means uniform was becoming quite maddening.

No, amidst scuffling of our hooves I could discern faintly the sound of a quill scratching on paper that had haunted me for the past week or so, and from the gloom a voice called out that seemed to hold more terror for me than anything else those tunnels could have possibly concealed.

“Hello?” Twilight’s voice called out, sounding remote and diffused in the thick, clammy air as if the humidity itself was somehow deadening the sound. I intensified the light of my horn, and the fur upon the back of my neck bristled at the sight of the small, purple unicorn mare stepping out from the blanket of utmost darkness. Held aloft before her were her ever-present companions, the notepad and quill; and I then noticed that her eyes glowed a subtle shade of magenta, before a short flurry of rapid blinking returned them to their normal hue. I thought about questioning that strangeness further and inquiring as to what she was doing here alone in the dark, but when Princess Luna, still disguised as a Servant of the Blood, materialised like a phantasm rising from its tomb and a sudden chill shuddered down my spine I was soon dissuaded of that notion.

“Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Twilight a little too happily for my tastes. Cannon Fodder had noticed the somewhat manic look in her eyes and retreated a little behind me. “Come, I’ve found so many interesting things in this chamber.”

She cantered away once more into the darkness, and after sharing a look with Luna, which she returned with a rather tired, exasperated expression across her aquiline features, I followed tentatively. I was aware that this would likely be a waste of time, but previous experience with Twilight Sparkle had told me that unless this sort of behaviour was nipped in the bud early it could very well spiral out of control and very soon she would have the entire battalion taking brass rubbings of various monumental plaques. As I groped my way through the darkness, pushing as much magic into my horn to illuminate the gloom as much as I dared without giving myself a crippling migraine, the sound of her voice delivering one of her infamous Twilectures guided me.

“This fortress was built by an ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation upon an even older structure built by an even more ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation called the Haygyptians. It might even have been a trading post of the Crystal Empire judging by the pictograms I’ve discovered; at its height it ruled all over the east coast of modern Equestria, so it’s not only possible that they could have placed colonies and trading posts all over the continent but it’s very, very likely that they did so. And here we are, standing on top of what is probably the best preserved ancient Crystal Empire site in Equestria. There’s just so much we can learn from this place!”

“Lady Sparkle,” I said through set teeth, starting to lose my patience with this increasingly irritating diversion, “you are here on orders of the Princesses to survey the Royal Guard; I would advise you to stick with one project at a... time...”

My voice trailed away as for the first time since I had stepped hoof within this chamber I saw the walls. The effect was rather startling, such that I had temporarily forgotten how tall I am and bashed my horn quite painfully against the ceiling; I briefly lamented the fact that the world around me seemed to be built by midgets. Scratched upon every inch of the stone slabs that made up the walls was row upon dizzying row of writing, like how one imagines the chambers of a murdering psychopath might look like. The language was nothing that I recognised; comprised mostly of pictograms reminiscent of the chicken-scratch scrawl of Cathayan and Neighponese, albeit with a greater sense of structure to it. Circles and lines bisected one another, branched off, and connected other pictograms to form what could have been compound words or sentences. Intriguingly, I noticed interspersed amongst the mess of arcane symbols were the much more recognisable and rather saner hieroglyphs used by the ancient Haygyptians, though that only added another layer to the mystery of this strange complex. It was maddening to even consider the sort of culture that would have considered such hypergraphia to be even remotely appealing. This most unsettling development was only made worse when I turned my head and illuminated the next slab on the wall to reveal a faded, chipped fresco painted there which, even in its decayed state, was unmistakeably that of a stylised pony skull. Surrounding this skull was a circle carved into the rock, from which three lines emerged from its underside like a comet with three tails rising up from below.

Twilight emerged into view once again, and apparently she hadn’t heard me as she continued babbling half to herself. I vaguely wondered how she had been conducting her work in the complete and total darkness, and decided that Princess Luna must have had something to do with it. [Note that the passages imply that nopony had thought to suspend mage-lamps in this chamber and that Twilight was not using her horn to emit light. Therefore, we can assume that she was conducting her work with the use of a night-vision spell so as not to expose the fragile artwork to artificial light that could potentially damage it. The aforementioned glowing of her eyes adds further credence to this theory.] Scattered around our hooves was a veritable forest’s worth of papers scribbled with notes, arcane diagrams, copies of the pictograms, and charcoal rubbings of a few of the more complicated markings.

“We know this to be a Haygyptian temple-tomb complex,” she continued. “It was probably built during the reign of Hamon Rei judging by the images presented on the bas reliefs, and then when the Haygyptian Empire broke apart a fortress was built directly on top of it. The tombs might already be looted, but their burial sites were very complex structures with hidden chambers and traps so there’s still the possibility we can find something interesting down there. I haven’t had the chance to take a look at the rest of the complex, but it could extend miles and miles underground.”

She stopped, and followed my gaze to the ghastly mural before me. “Oh, this?” she said. “I’ve found this motif everywhere in this chamber, and it’s very common in other Haygyptian sites just like this one. It stands for resurrection; the ancient Haygyptians were obsessed with death and the prospect of life beyond, and their pharaohs were specially embalmed so that one day they may be returned to life. My preliminary analysis of these writings suggests that the Haygyptians were trying to harness forbidden alicorn magic to find the secret to resurrecting dead ponies, which, of course, is completely impossible as any student of magic knows that the concept of resurrection violates the second law of thaumodynamics.” [Those looking for further elucidation on the topic of repeated failed attempts by mortal ponies to unlock the secrets to eternal life one can look no further than the seminal work ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’ by Hail Fjord]

“That’s, uh, that’s all very fascinating, Lady Sparkle,” I lied.

“Please, call me Twilight.”

I frowned at her and shook my head, my horn scraping a line noisily against the rough ceiling. “That would be improper of me. Anyway, have you seen Captain Red Coat?”

Twilight Sparkle pointed further into the darkness, where I presumed the chamber opened up into the mines. A soft lambent glow of horn lights and magical lamps could be seen from that direction, framing the square outline of what was probably an open doorway, but it seemed diffused and muted in the inherent mugginess of this room. “He went down there with his troops. I hope they don’t break anything down there; I’d really like to study more of this complex.”

She was rather welcome to do just that, provided that we bricked up the tunnels behind her, though naturally that would have put me in rather poor stead in the eyes of my divine Aunties so I shelved that thought for a later date for when I might feel a bit depressed again and needed a bit of cheering up. I feared, however, that I had come too late, and that Captain Red Coat might be so deep into the mines that I might either lose him or that he might stumble across the Changelings that I assumed wiped out the Diamond Dogs. Nevertheless, I was hopeful that he had not proceeded too far into the tunnels, but I was wary of the fact that every second wasted chatting aimlessly with Twilight Sparkle increased the risk of very messy and violent death for all concerned.

“Lady Sparkle,” I said, trying to inject some tone of authority to my voice which, to my mind, sounded as if it was starting to waver disconcertingly, “I need you to head upstairs with Princess... uh, Cloudless Sky immediately.”

I turned and was about to begin my grim task of locating Captain Red Coat and ‘advising’, which, translated from commissarial-politico-speak, meant ‘giving him a direct order but pretending that he had some say in the matter’, to withdraw from the tunnels and prepare to work with the engineers in finding a way to collapse them, permanently if possible, when Twilight Sparkle’s nose bumped into my chest.

“What’s going on?” she asked, cocking her head to one side quizzically.

“There’s been a change of plans,” I said, wishing that she would just get out of my way while I was busy taking something seriously for once in a lifetime of trying to avoid doing just that. Well, taking something that actually mattered seriously, to be more accurate. “We’re not exploring the underground complex; instead we’re going to withdraw to the castle and seal them off completely.”

Her brow knitted together in a small, slightly disappointed frown, and she chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. I had thought the matter resolved there and then, as most ponies tended to take whatever I say as profound military gospel completely and utterly without question, despite being severely under-qualified to dispense any sort of tactical and strategic advice as my time in the Royal Military Academy was primarily spent on a varying combination of gambling, drinking, and fornicating. I therefore stepped around Twilight Sparkle and headed towards where I thought the entrance to the mines were, and as I did so I projected the light from my horn into a narrower, more penetrating beam that illuminated a small archway in the direction that she had pointed towards earlier. Unfortunately, I had not taken into account her irritating propensity to question.

“What?” she said suddenly, and I cursed that my own cautiousness in approaching what looked to me as a mouth of immense darkness meant that I could not have fled before the inevitable tantrum. The young mare trotted before me once more, an expression of outrage twisting her face, and then jabbed at my chest with a dusty hoof. “’Seal them off’? What do you mean by that?”

“The Changelings that killed all of the Diamond Dogs here came up from the gem mines,” I said calmly, pushing her hoof away from my breast and smoothing down the print and the creases that she had made in my storm coat. I thought it best at this point not to reveal what Rex had told me about the so-called ‘ponies made of crystal’, as no doubt it would only increase her urge to go down there and start indulging in some more amateur archaeology down there. “The risk that they may attack us in exactly the same way is too great to just ignore.” I shone my light upon the exit; it was a large archway, sans any sort of door, and upon its surface it echoed the chilling motif of the rest of the room in the brutally simplistic pictograms scratched into the polished stone slabs.

“But there’s a chance that they might not!” she said suddenly, the grin over her face cracked wider than I thought possible on a pony’s face, and leaned in uncomfortably close to me. Pinprick pupils regarded me with a manic, hysterical gleam that I found quite unsettling. “A-after all, not doing the same thing twice is one of the most basic rules of fighting a war and the Changelings have proven themselves to have a good grasp of basic strategy, so there’s a reasonably good chance that the rest of the underground complex is safe enough for a small archaeological expedition. This might be the most significant discovery in our lifetimes with all of the knowledge and power of the ancients, and there might even be clues about why the Haygyptian Empire collapsed so quickly—and you just want to brick it all up?”

Twilight!” I snapped, stressing the familiar use of her name to try and impress upon her the severity of the situation. I looked directly into her eyes, stressing over every word. “We are at war, and I will not place the lives of these soldiers at any undue risk just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Is that understood?”

That seemed to do the trick; the self-righteous outrage at my presumed cultural vandalism was wiped away from her face to be replaced by an expression of quiet embarrassment, as her shoulder slumped, her cheeks flushed crimson, and an uneasy, awkward smile came to her lips. “I, uh...” she muttered quietly to the ground between my hooves, “I didn’t think of that.” Cautiously, she stepped out of my way, and as she slowly backed away from me with defeat written not only in her face but also in every subtle movement and in her posture I held the most uncompromisingly harsh glare that I could possibly muster. I waited for a few moments, just long enough for that stare to fully sink in, before turning upon my hooves and heading with some trepidation towards the doorway.

“Don’t worry, Lady Sparkle,” said Cannon Fodder, who had hitherto been silent and staring uninterestedly at the rather ugly skull on the wall as if it were merely a poster detailing the health and safety procedures in a train station, “the tunnels will still be there when this war is over.”

If this war is ever over, thought I, but my aide’s words seemed to cheer Twilight up slightly, and she smiled a little more earnestly. “Sorry,” she said, a little more confidently, “I guess I got a little carried away there.”

Well, that was putting it mildly, though I had to concede that as far Twilight Sparkle mental breakdowns go this one was relatively understated compared to the ones that I recall with dread from high school; it was over quite quickly and nopony actually got seriously hurt this time, not least of all me. Nevertheless, as I crossed the threshold from the improvised dungeon area into tunnels carved into the sun-scorched earth and I heard the patter of Twilight’s hooves trotting away into the darkness, the unsettling thought that there was something greater at work here than mere Changelings continued to nag at me, and that it would not be by their fangs and their hooves that I was to meet my untimely but inevitable demise but from Twilight’s own blundering. She was, and still is, a supremely intelligent mare with a fantastic ability to just consume knowledge like Cannon Fodder stuffing his face at an all-you-can eat buffet; the only issue with this is that her same fanatical desire to learn tends to come at the expense of her common sense as she would dive heedlessly into these ‘projects’ with little to no thought about the possible unintended consequences of such behaviour.

I dared to glance over my shoulder, and there, illuminated just barely by the pale light of my horn, stood Princess Luna now stripped of her disguise. A sudden chill crept up my spine at the sight of her; dark and mysterious, and in the dim light the distinction between the alicorn and the darkness surrounding her was fuzzy and indistinct, as if she was somehow an extension of the inky blackness that receded from my light. What surprised me most, however, was her expression, for her aquiline features bore something that was most strange and rare – a smile. It was genuine, so far as I could tell with my aunt’s rather vague and slightly amateurish attempts at imitating the facial expressions of ponies, which often looked as if she had only heard of the concept of a smile as described by a Neighponese tourist with a very limited grasp of the Equestrian language, and despite its apparent warmth the fact that I could not recall a time when she had smiled at me before only made this feel all the more disturbing. Suppressing a shudder, I turned and headed down a single, black passageway, and did not look again.