Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 17)

Part 17

"Platoon will volley fire at my command!" I bellowed [As a pony of the royal bloodline, Blueblood has some nascent ability in the Royal Canterlot Voice, though his use of it tends to be accidental rather than deliberate], recalling hazily the memories of unicorn fire drill from my time at the Academy. The order was echoed by the officers of the two other platoons either side of us. "Front rank, kneel!"

The entire front row of the platoon, some fifteen ponies, crouched down, almost laying upon their stomach in readiness for the order to fire their horns glowed with each individual unicorn's aura, presenting a veritable rainbow of colours that shone dimly in the darkness of the night. Despite their previous commanding officer having been a pony with all of the martial skill of a particularly irate goose and with none of the personal charm, the platoon was still as well-drilled and disciplined as any in the 1st Solar Guards, which was a fine testament to the training that they had received and of Shining Armour's own efforts in maintaining such high standards even with Lieutenant Scarlet Letter in command.

The Changelings were a little more cautious about their approach now, and in small groups of twos or threes they trotted hesitantly into this gaping crater. I chewed on my lower lip, fighting that base instinct to turn tail and run; there was little point in firing now, not at this range and with so few targets. This was the key principle of unicorn fire drill - to wait until the enemy presented one with a large and numerous target, until they were close enough for most shots to hit something, and then fire with massed volleys for maximum effect.

With their uncannily efficient method of organising themselves, by virtue of the blasphemous telepathic control that their dark Queen and her henchmen the Purestrains exercise over their legions, the enemy had with frightening rapidity and unearthly alacrity arranged themselves in that crater into something resembling a cohesive military formation, insomuch as a vast rabble of such creatures can be considered organised. My heart pounded against my chest as I watched them, and with agonising slowness as if they were trying to prolong the terror they began to crawl out of that crater and advance upon us.

It is always the times when one is not actually fighting that are the worst in battle. In the heat of combat there is nothing to think about except trying to survive just a little longer until the madness ends; but before, after, or during one of the isolated periods of relative calm that occasionally pop up in the course of the battle, there is little else but the fear and horror that chills my heart and bowels.

The first Changelings pulled themselves out of that crater, and marched forth across this blasted quagmire of mud, rubble, and bodies. I could take it no more.

"First rank, fire!" I shrieked, the terror adding greater urgency to my voice. The soldiers responded with equal enthusiasm, and fifteen bright charges of crackling energy flashed in the darkness, illuminating the front ranks of the enemy briefly before they were cut down, and their remains crushed beyond dust by the hundreds of hooves that marched over them.

"Second rank, fire!" Another volley, this time fired over the heads of the front rank, once more ripped into the Changelings, each finding a target within the densely packed mass. To either side of us the other unicorn platoons too opened fire as well, timing their volleys with ours to maintain a constant barrage of fire upon the advancing enemy. Above and behind us, still stationed in the towers of the castle, the artillery too opened fire, raking the much-battered castle walls and the breach with carefully-aimed shots of explosive shells and shrapnel, which, though I trusted Sergeant Bramley Apple's fire discipline, still felt rather too close for comfort.

I must have screamed myself hoarse as I tried in vain to make my commands heard above the roar of artillery, the rhythmic 'snaps' of magic missiles, and the hideous shrieking and hissing of the wounded and dying Changelings. Nevertheless, despite marching straight into a withering hail of canister shot and magic, trapped as they were between overlapping lanes of fire from our unicorn platoons, they continued to advance heedless of the utterly horrendous casualties that we were inflicting upon them. Any other army would have been routed long ago, but not them, not the Changelings for whom the concept of the sanctity of life inherent in all living creatures is nothing more than a polite suggestion to be ignored at their earliest convenience.

The enemy broke into a gallop. Hissing, shrieking, snarling; lips pulled back to reveal rows of viciously sharp fangs as they screamed down at us across the muddy ground, hooves splashing in the pools of stagnant water and sinking into the mire. A few floundered in the swamp-like conditions to be trampled upon by their comrades in their mad dash to get to us. Grimly, with the sort of clarity of mind that comes with knowing that one is close to death, I unsheathed my sword and held it before me in the ready position. Not that I had any intention of getting into the brutal melee that was to come, for the earth ponies that had waited impatiently behind us swarmed forth through the gaps in our ranks, and presented a bristling wall of steel with their spears. I looked to my right to see that Cannon Fodder was standing by my side, observing as the densely packed formation of earth ponies along with Captain Red Coat and his command section, organised themselves with all of the casual disinterest of a pony watching the traffic from the window of a restaurant. I found his presence to be oddly reassuring.

There was the sound of a heavy 'thud', as of an ancient door being slammed shut with some violence, when the Changeling horde smashed into the front rank of the earth ponies. Our troops held firm, and the noise of sharpened spears piercing hardened chitin and sinking into soft flesh was a thoroughly sickening one, yet through the sheer weight of their vast numbers the enemy burst through the first ranks, and in spite of my best efforts I found myself thrust into the melee.

It was not so much a battle as one might envisage if one has been raised on stories of gallant heroes striding across the battlefield smiting the enemy with holy wrath as much as it was just an ungodly press of bodies, pushing and shoving against one another in a vain effort to achieve some sort of advantage like a marginally more deadly version of the scrum in a game of rugby. [Judging from other eyewitness testimony of this battle, the cramped environment of courtyard meant that Blueblood's description of the battle as a scrummage in rugby hoofball is rather accurate.] The night became a vicious, swirling morass of steel, chitin, blood, rain, and mud. The sound of screams, shrieks, roars, of guns and of flesh being ripped to pieces filled the night. When it became obvious the that the first rank of earth ponies was in no way going to be able to hold back the onslaught I scrambled backwards, giving up all pretence of trying to maintain my entirely false reputation for the sake of trying to save my miserable life. Alas, it was not to be; pushed forth by those stallions around me, I was thrust to the front, whether by accident or by some misguided desire by those soldiers to see the conquering hero doing his job I don't know - in truth I remember precious little of these bursts of violence beyond these flashes of blood and steel, and of the pain and fatigue. I count it as a blessing that I cannot recall anything in detail, though the memories of what I felt, the exhaustion, of feeling sick to my very core, of wanting nothing more than this misery to end, and of the terror, are all too vivid; and in my nightmares, of which I have far too many, I live this battle and many more again and again. I let loose a scream of terror that was taken by those who heard it to be a cry of rage as I hacked and slashed wildly, each savage blow of the heavy, brutish Pattern '12 sabre cutting deep into the toughened chitin and mutilating the flesh within, and with none of the subtle grace or even forethought that was expected of a skilled duellist such as I.

We were mere inches away from the hated enemy, with barely enough space for me to swing my sword, close enough to smell the rancid breath of these abominations as they shrieked and flailed and ripped flesh with their fangs, and for me to see my own face, marred by exhaustion and small cuts that wept crimson blood, stark against my stained white fur, reflected a thousand times over in those malevolent, compound eyes of theirs. Every single movement in that fetlock-deep, sucking, cloying quagmire was a horrid struggle; too many times I saw a guardspony, weighed down by his armour and equipment, flounder helplessly in the mud, to be slaughtered by the enemy while his comrades were powerless to aid him.

The fight had devolved into a hard, brutal slog of attrition. Each time we pushed the enemy back but a few feet, we too were forced back by that same amount. This tug of war continued, and as the dead and wounded piled up we stumbled on the growing mound of bodies, most of them Changelings I think, though in this darkness it was quite difficult to tell. In this tiny, packed courtyard on this blighted little rock in the middle of nowhere, all of the planning, the manoeuvring of vast numbers of ponies, of the logistics that sustained them, the weapons that armed them, and the armour that protected them, it all came down to each pony's single, myopic viewpoint of just trying to survive. For me, the world had been reduced to just myself and the unending assault of horrors out to get me. It was on these individual struggles, of which mine was merely one of hundreds, that the course of this battle, and indeed every battle throughout the history of war, hinged upon.

It was some time, minutes, hours, days, I don't know, I couldn't keep track of the passage of time in that fight, when the Changelings finally began to slink away from us. They did so slowly, breaking off one by one into a slow, cautious retreat under an unceasing hail of artillery fire at near-point blank range.

"Hold!" I shouted. A few of the more eager troopers lunged forwards, heedless of my order as their bloodlust took hold, thrusting their spears and blades at the retreating foe before scrambling back to rejoin their formations at the behest of their non-commissioned officers.

As I watched the enemy retreat, still maintaining that unearthly discipline and unity of purpose despite being decimated by the close artillery barrage, I felt an overwhelming sense of exhaustion take me. For as the adrenaline and the rush of blood that had sharpened my instincts in that fight slowly began to fade away as with the Changeling's remarkably swift withdrawal beyond the wall breach and out of sight, the pain, dull, throbbing, and seemed to sap what little strength there was in my frame, slowly spread from within. The pain of wounds that I could not recall receiving had returned, too; my muzzle was split from the ridge of my nose diagonally across my cheek, my nose had been bashed repeatedly by Changeling hooves and was thus bleeding profusely, and across my chest, forelegs, and barrel a multitude of small cuts and bruises smarted painfully. All of this, however, was nothing compared to the pounding, throbbing headache I was feeling, rather like some awful hangover only without the vague memory of a good time to offset its unpleasantness.

But what I remember most is simply feeling sick; I had learned from my experience in Black Venom Pass not to charge into battle on a full stomach, as my alleged heroism was marred somewhat when my chin and hooves were splattered with the half-digested remains of what I had for lunch, but there was a horrid, hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that sent me dry-heaving. The sight that stretched out before me, like a vista of the worst torments of Tartarus, of the bodies, pony and Changeling alike, bloodied, ripped, torn, or otherwise seemingly left un-marred as if merely sleeping, were strewed before us in a vast, unbroken sea of the dead, and from the rippling waves of mangled flesh and blood and ichor broken limbs and heads emerged at grotesque angles like rocks by a shore, certainly did not help my disposition.

I was relieved to find that Cannon Fodder was still by my side; in the swirling chaos of the fight I had lost track of him, though I was certain that he had remained steadfastly by my side throughout, but in combat one's view and senses of the outside world becomes all but blind save for that which is necessary to one's immediate survival. Aside from a few scratches on his muzzle and a few more dents and stains added to his already much-battered armour he seemed to be relatively unscathed. His usual expression of slight boredom, as if what we had just gone through together had all of the excitement of a particularly dull lecture series on the reform of the Equestrian taxation policy, was quite reassuring despite all of the pain and death around us.

The formations were a mess. While the heterogeneous mess of earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns that had fought in this first skirmish had by and large organised themselves back into their respective racial groups in preparation for the second wave, with platoons and sections now under-strength, officers and non-commissioned officers dead or otherwise incapacitated, and ponies displaced far from their original units they all simply had to attach themselves to whomever appeared to be in charge. The platoon that I commanded was now a jumble of gold and silver, white and grey, each equally dulled by dust and marred by blood, drained from the fight but judging by the impatient stamping of hooves and irritated snorts they were still eager for more.

"Is that it?" said Cannon Fodder, sounding rather disappointed. He punctuated that remark by spitting into the ground and rubbing at it with a dirty hoof.

"Of course not," I said, shaking my hoof and trying to fight the taste of bitter bile that rose up my throat. "That was just a probing attack to test our defences."

My aide snorted. "Not very fair of them."

Despite the brutality of this vista of death stretching out before us, in the hush there was a strange and morbid serenity about the stillness of those mangled corpses. I would be hesitant, however, to suggest that there was any sort of dignity about it, as ponies who speak of dignity in death clearly have never seen a pony, or indeed any living creature, slip from this mortal shell and into the next life. Turning my gaze over the horror, I looked to the right to see that the main gates of the castle still stood firm, despite the corrosion of the ancient iron, and that the Changelings had not even attempted to bring them down. Judging by the way that the enemy dead were piled, layered, in the area immediately between myself and the wall breach implied that they had not bothered attempting to climb or fly [As the rain had ceased by now flight was now possible, which the pegasi veterans interviewed after the war described as an immense relief not to be trapped in the mud] elsewhere over the still-formidable walls, which had all but proved my hypothesis that the worst was yet to come.

At that moment, however, I had very little idea of just how much worse things could possibly get.

In this brief, awkward period of relative hush, as if some cosmic referee had just called half time on the battle, I used this moment to step away from the platoon, leaving it in the now-bloodied hooves of Ensign Black Marble and Sergeant Cheque Book to prepare for the second wave in my absence, to try and find Captain Red Coat. I hoped that he had survived, as it would have reflected rather poorly on me if he had been martyred in the name of Equestria and the Princesses while being ostensibly under my protection, even if really there was not much that I could have been done about it.

After a few moments of searching I found Red Coat leaning against the cold stones of the castle wall, just by the main doors made of rotting wood and sheltering underneath the tall parapets from which the artillery still took one or two pot-shots at the enemy massed unseen behind the walls. Despite my concerns it seemed that the lad had acquitted himself rather well in the fight, and aside from a few scratches and bruises on his muzzle and limbs where his mithril plate armour did not cover his body he seemed to be relatively in one piece. Nevertheless, I felt a small twinge of envy when I saw the deep scratches upon his armour, and the bare metal underneath the dull grey lacquer marred by dirt and dust shone brightly in the flickering lights of the still-burning braziers nearby, which would have killed him had he not been wearing an inch-thick breastplate, and yet I still had to make do with a thin piece of cloth that by now had been torn and ripped and stained with blood from the resultant wounds inflicted.

Around him and crowded around the door, which stood half open, the wounded and the dying were laid out in long rows, not more than a few dozen yards from where the battle was fought just moments before. The medics, standing out amongst the tarnished silver and gold stallions around them by the red cross insignia and their pouches and bags laden morbidly with scalpels, needles, phials of medicines, saws, and other decidedly grim-looking medical equipment, stalked amongst this mass of misery and pain to administer triage. Those who simply needed patching up were quickly attended to and, despite a few vocal protests on part of the patient, sent back to their unit, while the more serious cases, with limbs and flesh and faces mangled beyond belief, screaming and whimpering horribly with the pain, were taken onto stretchers and carried over to a large tent for surgery. [Blueblood does not mention this, as hospitals and the like tend to make him uncomfortable, but the tent was merely a temporary casualty-clearing station, and that the main hospital area for the most serious injuries was inside the castle itself.] The ones beyond any mortal help were simply given a heavy dose of painkillers and simply left there to mercifully expire in their own time. It was here that the stench of death, blood, decay, and waste was at its worse, and despite the horror of the sight before me I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from it.

Although I myself felt utterly drained after that 'burst' of combat, the Captain was a bundle of nervous energy running on pure adrenaline. He twitched incessantly, like a startled rodent, with wide eyes darting this way and that and with peculiar, bird-like movements he fidgeted as he leaned awkwardly against the cold stone walls. In his hooves he clutched his spear, aimed towards the black sky, and still-warm Changeling blood trickled down from the chipped and battered blade onto the wooden pole.

"Commissar!" he exclaimed as I delicately pushed my way around a small gaggle of medics bandaging up a comatose soldier's severed hoof. "I saw you charge straight into the enemy horde!"

I blinked vacantly at him for a moment; it took a while for his words, sounding rather distant, faint, and somewhat muffled as if he was speaking through a paper bag, to be fully comprehended by my addled mind. Did he not see me desperately trying to escape? No, of course not. Ponies only seem to remember what they actually want to remember, and nopony wants to remember that same pony who had allegedly saved Princess Cadence and saved an entire regiment from destruction flee.

"I was feeling a little bit left out just standing by the sidelines," I said, inflecting my voice with the usual bravado normally expect of me, which Red Coat lapped up with his habitual enthusiasm for hero-worship.

Standing by his side rather protectively was Company Sergeant Major Square Basher, who, I have been told, had lost her weapon in the chaotic melee and had to resort to crushing Changeling skulls one after the other with her bare hooves, if the soldiers' increasingly unlikely stories were to be believed of course. As I approached, the mare snapped to attention and saluted curtly, and only relaxed slightly when I told her that she could stand easy.

"When do you think they're coming back?" he asked quietly.

"The Changelings?" I asked flatly. The fact that my head felt like it had been immersed in jelly was further compounded by the worsening of my headache, with the pain throbbing seemingly with every rapid beat of my heart.

Red Coat nodded his head quickly. "Yeah. They'll be mounting another assault soon, I guess."

"It'll be very soon, I think," I replied glumly. "I can't say what goes on that twisted hive mind of theirs, but it's probable that they'll try to take this fortress as quickly as possible. That way they can turn the full brunt of their forces against the main assault from Black Venom Pass, thus inflicting defeat in detail on Army Group Centre."

"Unless the main force can reach us in time," he said, that small shred of hope colouring the tone of his voice. "They won't leave us out here alone, right?"

I forced a good-natured chuckle, and it did much to put the Captain at ease, inasmuch as anypony could possibly be relaxed when surrounded by scores of the wounded and the dying. This metaphorical silver lining, however, was to be soon obscured by another storm cloud, as such spots of hope invariably tend to find themselves crushed mercilessly frequently throughout my life. The door beside Captain Red Coat flung open with a shriek of protest from the un-oiled and rusty hinges, and with such force that several of the old wooden panels groaned, cracked, and then snapped into a shower of splinters. An earth pony ensign of the Night Guards burst through the open door with equal violence, startling two medics carrying a stallion, his face covered in bloodstained bandages, on a stretcher.

It was not the nature of the stallion's arrival that was most shocking, however, for his physical appearance gave a much-needed excuse for it. As he ran he limped, and as he approached Captain Red Coat and me it was evident that he had sprained his hoof in some manner. His lacquered grey armour was covered in a great many scratches, and indeed was much of the colt's body that was not protected by the thick armour plates. His face, which might have otherwise been considered to be quite handsome for a pony in his late teens, was marred by blossoms of large, purple bruises and three horrendous lacerations long and straight ripped across his thin and rather delicate muzzle, and opened up like ravines in a flat country.

Despite his wounds he brushed off the assistance of a medic, and continued to half-gallop, half-wobble towards us with the peculiarly single-minded determination of an aspiring young officer eager to please his superiors.

"What happened?" exclaimed Red Coat, pushing himself off the castle wall he was leaning upon for support.

The Ensign stopped before Red Coat with a mad flail of his three remaining good hooves in the soggy ground, and slapped a muddy fore-hoof against his helmet in a clumsy salute. I noticed that his right eye had been gummed shut by the blood trickling down from a wound on the ridge of his brow. His nose, too, appeared to have been broken, and the whispy, adolescent beginnings of a moustache likely intended as imitation of the extravagant facial hair preferred by the more old school of officers was matted with blood from his battered muzzle. He panted horribly and swayed awkwardly on his hooves, as if he was on the verge of collapsing in a heap before us.

"Things are a bit sticky, sir," he said, at length, in what was a prime example of that admirable, if rather unhelpful, tendency of ponies from Trottingham towards understatement in the face of mortal peril. When translated into proper everyday Equestrian as you or I or any other pony of our vast and diverse realm might understand it, however, it roughly meant 'we're all fucked'.

It took a short moment for that short phrase and its dire implications to sink in, and already a half-dozen nightmare scenarios raced through my mind one after the other, each more horrifying and fanciful than the last. Sergeant Major Square Basher was the first to speak, as she regarded the relatively diminutive Ensign in the same manner that a mother would her injured foal.

"You what?" she said flatly.

"Sticky," repeated the Ensign, as if somehow doing so would make his meaning clearer. "The Lieutenant said to tell you things are a bit sticky. His exact words, sir."

"Dammit!" Red Coat snapped angrily, his face twisted into a snarl as he approached, nostrils flared and snorting steam. "Speak plainly, will you!"

A chill wind from the north howled through the courtyard, plucked at the soggy fabric of my uniform and chilled me to my bones, and the torches flickered and danced in protest. The Ensign gulped awkwardly, and I gave him a reassuring smile and a nod, despite feeling just as impatient as Captain Red Coat, if not more so. I beckoned those medics that he had brushed off earlier to tend to his wounds, and, as gently as I could, implored him to elaborate.

"It's the Changelings, sir," he said, wincing a little as a medic dabbed at the cuts on his muzzle with a cloth soaked in some foul-smelling antiseptic. "They came up from below without warning. We were caught by surprise, so we barricaded ourselves in the rooms and collapsed the tunnels where we could, but it's only a matter of time before they'll break through. The Lieutenant sent me out with two other ponies to get the message to you, but I'm the only one who's made it out alive."

"Is the artillery safe?" I asked; though my knowledge of strategy and tactics was still rather poor, I knew enough that our advantage in long range firepower was probably what was keeping us from being overrun.

"Yes, sir, and the hospital too. For now, at least. The Changelings have full run of the main hall and the corridors, but we still hold the entrance and the upper floors, but the barricades we set up probably won't last long against them. I think there's a Purestrain with them."

"What of Lady Twilight Sparkle?" Not that I was overly concerned, as I was all but certain that with Princess Luna by her side no harm could possibly come to Celestia's most faithful student.

He gave a vague sort of shrug. "I don't know, sir. We were all separated in the attack. I think she's still in her room with that bodyguard of yours, sir, unless the Changelings have got her."

I shared a concerned look with Captain Red Coat, though I felt a shiver ripple down my spine like something cold, wet, and slimy had just crawled down the back of my shirt. Despite my terror, the knowledge of just how completely and utterly 'sticky', as the stalwart ensign had so elegantly put it, our situation had become had invoked a peculiar sense of calm in me; as that of a condemned criminal coming to terms with his fate on the long, lonely walk to the gallows. Or perhaps I was merely too exhausted and sick to actually feel anything but the pain of my wounds and the aching fatigue that deadened my brain as much as it numbed my limbs and joints. This development, however, felt like a vindication of my suspicion that the old adage of anything that can go wrong invariably will, and as I regarded the Captain's bug-eyed horror at the Ensign's words what he had said in the briefing, to 'cheer up' as 'things could be worse', echoed in my mind. It made me want to punch him.

"That's impossible!" exclaimed Red Coat, his voice becoming quite desperately shrill. He took a few steps towards the Ensign, who was struggling to stand with his wounds but nevertheless put up a valiant effort in maintaining his dignity. However, I touched a hoof to Red Coat's shoulder as he moved, and shook my head gently; I had to do something before the lad allowed his emotions and fears to get the better of him. Far better, of course, to merely suppress them as far as possible and put on a brave face, while making plans to excuse oneself from the source of said fear, as I do.

"The engineers sealed the tunnels, did they not?" I said. "Either there are other tunnels that we don't know about, or the Changelings have something in their arsenal that could breach our barricades."

"Or somepony let them in," said Cannon Fodder in a somewhat dreamy fashion as if he didn't really mean to. He gave a vague, slightly meek shrug when he noticed ponies were looking at him. "Just saying..."

"I bet it was Lieutenant Scarlet Letter," Red Coat said darkly. "Must have moved the stones with unicorn magic... things."

There was a sharp intake of breath around us, and even those medics attending the more serious cases stopped whatever it was that they were doing to stare. I gave the Captain an accusing look, which he didn't appear to notice now that his blood was now well and truly 'up', as it were; one did not call into question the competence of a fellow brother-officer of the Royal Guard in front of the common soldiery, for doing so was to damage the myth of the infallibility of the officer class that the rigid hierarchy of our military relies upon, even if Scarlet Letter was a damned traitor in addition to being a pompous imbecile. It was simply good manners to wait until after the court martial, or his summary execution depending on what mood I would be in when I eventually found the stallion, assuming that I would survive to do so, before speaking so openly about his shortcomings.

"We don't know that," I said firmly, despite my gut telling me that Captain Red Coat's assumption was correct, albeit in rather more eloquent tones than the teenager's unprovoked assault on the Equestrian language. "Besides, talking about it will waste time and lives. We need to act now."

Red Coat frowned at me, before calming down somewhat. "You're right," he said, nodding his head quietly.

Of course I was right, I'm the Commissar, I get to decide what's right and what isn't. Rather than vocalising that rather facetious thought, which had entered into my mind unbidden and, as ever, entirely at odds with the situation at hoof as if my hindbrain had developed a shield of sarcasm and dry wit to protect itself from the horrors I now faced, I merely imitated Red Coat in nodding my head in agreement. Naturally, I was to be rewarded for helping diffuse the situation by steering the young officer on the right track with yet another opportunity to get ripped apart for a good cause.

As if to punctuate my words, our conversation, such as it was, was then interrupted by three shrill, sharp blasts of a whistle from the castle keep high above us. A moment later, as I stepped back and looked up at the towers that seemed to stretch into the infinite darkness of the overcast night sky, and from those broken spires the desultory fire of the artillery could be seen as thin streaks of light that flashed into existence and swiftly faded. A pony's head, illuminated by the torch that he held levitating dangerously close to his face, appeared over the edge of the parapet.

"Changelings, sir!" he cried, though his voice sounded damnably faint as if he was speaking from the other side of a thin wall. "Thousands of them! They're advancing again!"

I looked to Captain Red Coat, and saw that he was frozen by fear and indecision. He trembled in his armour and his mouth flapped uselessly as though he was struggling to put into words the abject terror that he must have felt. To be fair on him, were I in his position I'd have likely responded in the exact same manner, albeit with more dignity.

"What are your orders?" I asked firmly, trying to prompt some sort of response out of him.

Captain Red Coat didn't appear to hear me at first. Instead, he stared straight through me with wide, uncomprehending eyes, before they suddenly and starkly focused upon me, as though his consciousness had momentarily vacated his body and was now suddenly returned to it by my words.

"We're entirely surrounded now," he said. "We'll still have to try and hold them here, but if we can send a few units and the engineers in to ensure that the keep is absolutely secure then we may be able to hold out until Crimson Arrow's force comes to relieve us."

There was always one other option, but as a commissar of Their Highnesses' Royal Guard I could not possibly be seen to countenance the dreaded 'S'-word, not unless it was swiftly followed by either a court martial or a sabre to the throat of the pony who dared to utter it. The idea of surrendering had occurred to me, but the rumours whispered between off-duty soldiers over their camp fires and over ale rations of what Changelings do with captured ponies had rather dissuaded me from pursuing that course of action. Though the average guardspony has the rather frustrating tendency to exaggerate just about everything, from the unpleasantness of whatever messy and tedious task they had been given to do to exactly how big the Changeling that nearly took his head off in the last fight was, I decided to err on the side of caution. Besides, I didn't think it would be possible for me to surrender without anypony seeing me, unless I happened to be the only survivor, and frankly that didn't look terribly probable.

CSM Square Basher was thus sent to rally the troops once more, and it was not long before the battalion, though disorganised and still reeling from the last scrap, was prepared for the attack. As I watched her, her loud voice rising above the roar of the artillery and the rhythmic 'snaps' of magic missile fire I mused that had she been born to the correct family with the right connections and with the appropriate amount of wealth and education that she might have made a decent commissar. A better one than I, at least.

With no other option, I nodded my head and quietly conceded that his plan was likely the best course of action, for the simple fact that nopony else, least of all me, of course, could come up with anything better. As the saying goes, we were up a certain creek without a certain paddle, and the best we could manage is simply to delay the enemy for as long as possible.

"We'll need to make sure that Twilight Sparkle is safe, too," said Captain Red Coat. "You, uh... you swore an oath to Lord Captain Shining Armour to keep his sister safe, right?"

My stomach lurched at the mention of that rather hastily-sworn oath, causing the bile to rise up the back of my throat. I suppressed it, however, and nodded slowly. "Of course," I said. "A prince never forgets his oaths." No matter how ill-advised, I added mentally.

I could see what was coming next a mile off, and truth be told it was not something that I particularly wanted to do. Though Captain Red Coat would never actually order me to lead a rescue party and Lieutenant Southern Cross' engineers into the Changeling-infested fortress, as while ordering a commissar to do something is not necessarily against the rules most officers are at least civil enough to phrase their requests merely as polite suggestions, Red Coat was evidently trying to coax me into performing that duty in his usual adolescent and ham-hoofed attempt at subtlety. And although it was well within my power to tell him that I'm staying put, the expectation of what Prince Blueblood, Hero of Equestria, would do in this dire situation had all but prevented me from doing so.

"I don't suppose you could let me borrow a section or two," I said, striking a suitably heroic pose and gazing contemplatively at the castle gates. "I don't want to keep Lady Sparkle waiting."


There was no time to waste, and thus I was forced to grab the closest collection of earth ponies and unicorns [Though Blueblood does not say, we can assume the pegasi were overlooked due to the equally important duty of theirs to keep the skies above the fortress clear, now that the rains had ceased, and that they would be disadvantaged in the narrow tunnels] unfortunate enough to be wandering around nearby looking for their respective sections. Eventually I settled on a mixed section of ten ponies made up of roughly equal parts earth pony and unicorn. Though I would have much preferred a larger mob of guardsponies between myself and the Changeling hordes, this would simply have to do, at least until I could find any survivors within the keep. The Ensign, too, insisted on accompanying us on this mission, despite having sprained his ankle and therefore being in absolutely no condition to fight. However, despite having this golden opportunity to spend the remainder of the battle on a stretcher and in the company of some rather attractive nurses in uniform, there was simply no dissuading this foolish young lad. I therefore resolved to stick close to him; the Changelings were more likely to attack a wounded pony than me, I reasoned.

Commanding this section, for as a commissar my remit was to monitor the command decisions of ponies rather than giving those orders in the first place, which, I might add, helped greatly for dodging blame on the all-too-frequent occasions that things go well and truly pear-shaped for me, was a grizzled old unicorn corporal of the Night Guards. He was apparently in his forties, judging by the lines that creased his face like somepony had scribbled on it with a quill and the flecks of grey that tinged what could be seen of his military buzz-cut from under his helmet. His personality, such as it was, seemed cultivated to match his unrefined exterior, and when he spoke the mystery of how he had remained a mere corporal despite having spent much of his adult life, some twenty-five years or so, in the Royal Guard.

"Alright, you pansies," he said, addressing the three Solar Guard soldiers and two Horestralian engineers who had been roped in to help with this mission. "You're in my section now, and I don't want you airy-fairy types with your pretty gold armour and perfect teeth slacking off just because you're afraid to get your hooves dirty. Faust almighty, it was bad enough being one of you bloody girlies for two boring decades before they transferred me to Luna's Night Guards, but I'll buck you sideways if I catch any of you prissy little snobs embarrassing me in front of the Commissar here."

The five guardsponies exchanged a few awkward looks before one, who appeared to have been elected their leader by some silent accord, spoke. "Don't you worry, Corporal, we'll fight."

The Corporal gave a nod of his head, and from his armour retrieved a small, stubby cheap cigar and clamped his jaws around it. "Alright then," he said, and the unlit cigar wagged awkwardly between his lips, "let's get this over with."

One by one the soldiers slipped through the open gates, followed by the Ensign limping hopelessly behind, while I stood by, ostensibly making sure that everypony was suitably prepared and motivated for the task at hoof but really I was ensuring that I was closer to the rear of our unit and therefore the least likely to be killed in a Changeling ambush. Cannon Fodder was with me too, which I found reassuring if the enemy had any sense and ambushed us from the rear.

One pony stopped to speak with me. There was a mad, manic glint in his eye, and a sadistic grin that looked much too gleeful for my liking. 'Mister Yellow' he was called, though I doubted that was his real name, and I only recall that due to the sheer amount of times that I had to have the pony disciplined for attempting to start fires. It was only his preternatural skill in pyrokinetic magic and a fear of what he might do unsupervised in the civilian world, and a misguided desire on part of his previous handlers that he should have some productive outlet for his mental illness, that stopped the pony from being discharged from the Royal Guard entirely. I had seen his power exercised on the practice range as the target dummies were consumed in a sea of flames; it was a fate that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies, but they're all dead now so it doesn't matter.

"Will Mister Yellow get fed tonight?" he said, much too quickly so that his words ran together. "It's been a long time."

"Yes," I said, doing my best to hold in my innate disgust at this twisted little pony. "I, uh, suppose it has."

Cannon Fodder came to my rescue once more and pointed a hoof lazily at the open door. "You're holding everypony up," he said, and the pyrophile pulled a sulky face and slinked through the gap.

The noise of battle just beyond the rows of soldiers, not more than a few hundred yards from my location, rose to an unholy crescendo as the Changeling horde once more smashed into the ranks of the Royal Guard. As the roar of cannons and the screams filled the night as it had done so earlier, conjuring the all-too-recent memories of blood and steel into my mind, I gave thanks to Faust that I was not out there again. Yet, as I turned to the door after the last of the soldiers slipped through the narrow gap, and gazed into the cavernous entrance hall that seemed to recede into an infinite darkness that the burning torches fixed upon the crumbling stone columns failed to illuminate, an almost overwhelming feeling of dread took me. I took one last look to my companion, who was staring at the half-opened doors with all of his usual lack of interest, before I too followed the soldiers inside.

Behind me the door slammed shut, and the torch flames flickered and danced in the sudden and brief draft of wind. The shadows cast by crumbling statues and piles of broken rubble bobbed and swayed drunkenly, before finally settling down once more. With the noise of battle outside somewhat muted, I felt strangely isolated and alone in this dank and rather dismal place, despite being in the company of twelve other stallions. No... as the lights settled and I stepped into the room proper, I could see that standing sentinel besides a heavy wooden door barred shut with a hefty-looking steel bolt were three other stallions of the battalion. They clutched their weapons and eyed the door that they guarded warily.

The door was opened, albeit rather reluctantly, but not before being warned that beyond here the Changelings were running riot through the labyrinthine mess of corridors and rooms. Once the last of us had filtered through, the door was slammed shut behind us with a dreadful sense of finality, and an impenetrable darkness descended upon us. Tentatively, I cast a dim light with my horn, knowing full well that it would make us damnably visible from a mile away, but on balance being able to see where we were going felt like a fair compromise. The cold, actinic light illuminated the slick cold stone surrounding us, and little else, and thus the corridors, with their torches put out, seemed to stretch away into a void of infinite darkness. The silence that fell too, despite the laboured breathing of the dozen ponies crammed into this tight space, felt as oppressive as the weight of the stone above me.

I led the way towards Twilight's chambers, though only out of necessity, as my special talent of navigation was once more proving itself to be far too useful for my own liking. Our progress was slow, as each sound, distant and diffused, caused me to stop and wait, ears straining to find and identify the mysterious rustling sounds that felt far too close to me. I don't know how long it was, as in all of the twists and turns and stairs I had rather lost track of time, but as we scrambled onto the first floor [he may mean the second floor here] onto yet another corridor that receded into absolute darkness, I saw a vague flicker of movement, so barely perceptible that I had thought that it was merely my mind playing tricks on me.

We stopped, and with a wave of my hoof I brought the unicorns forth, filling the corridor in three abreast just in front of me, and their horns charged with magic. I waited, and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my ears. Something moved again, and then something else. The darkness rippled and flexed, as though it were some sort of obscene flesh on a grotesque nightmare creature, before it was suddenly filled with a dozen pair of glittering gem-like eyes and fangs. As if birthed from the darkness itself, the Changelings themselves emerged, hissing and shrieking, and tore straight towards us.

I didn't even need to give the order; the unicorns at the front opened fire before I could open my mouth. A dazzling volley of magic missiles lit the hallway with a flash of multi-coloured light that stung my eyes, and felled a couple of drones, whose corpses were simply subsumed into the oncoming mass. The enemy poured into the narrow corridor in a flail of hooves and fangs, each scrambling over and trampling one another as they closed the distance between us with frightening speed.

"Flamer!" I shrieked, hoping that the fear in my voice would merely be taken as urgency by the ponies around me. "To the front! Burn them all!"

Mister Yellow forced his way past his comrades, the earth ponies jostling for position to lay down a wall tipped with steel with their spears, to the front. The pyrokinetic pony's horn flickered briefly, and hot yellow flames danced about its tip. I screamed at him to get a move on, though my voice was lost in the volley of magic missiles and the banshee wail of the enemy bearing down on us. Then, a blast of heat hit me in the face. The corridor before us was flooded with magical fire, and the Changelings died shrieking in agony. It was a sight that would continue to haunt me to this day; the enemy was consumed utterly by the flames, and in the midst of the boiling morass of fire, melting the ancient stones into slag, I saw the horrid and macabre dance of creatures driven mad by the flames. Limbs, heads, wings, all stark against the undulating sea of brilliant oranges and yellows and stifling blacks, flailed at grotesque and broken angles. Amidst the crackle of flames were the dying shrieks of the drones, and it was then that I learned that while under the thrall of their hive mind they did not know fear, they still knew pain.

One beast stumbled drunkenly out towards us from the flames; its flesh burning, underneath the blackened and cracked chitin, flames wreathing its body in an unholy aura. Eyes that had burst in the heat wept fluids that streaked down its face, swollen and blistered. The flesh under its chitin, visible through the plates that had cracked and shattered from the intensity of the heat, bubbled like molten candle wax, and the fats sloughed off in great lumps. It staggered helplessly out towards me, the burning eye sockets appearing to plead with me for some end to its torment, and its jaw was twisted open in some sort of silent scream. We watched it emerge from the flames, before it collapsed in a smouldering heap before us.

"That's enough, Private," I said, and the unicorn reluctantly stopped.

The flames had ceased as abruptly as they had started, leaving a glimpse into Tartarus. The stench of burnt flesh was overwhelming, such that one of the ponies next to me was suddenly and violently sick on my hooves. Cracked shards of chitin and pools of melted fat and lumps of singed meat, all arrayed out into grotesque mockeries of the shapes of ponies, each shrivelled up and curled inwards on themselves, littered the corridor. The stones themselves were blackened with soot, and in places had melted into slag, leaving strange and nightmarish shapes.

"Alright," I said, taking a moment to make sure that everypony else was ready. "Let's go."