• Published 7th Oct 2013
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Diplomacy by Other Means - Georg

Princess Luna sends a diplomatic mission to the griffons in the hopes of preventing a deadly war. When disaster strikes, can their weakest member keep them alive?

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Ch 14 - Justice

Diplomacy by Other Means

“It is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a hen; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down.”
— Gilbert Griffon’s translation of The Princess into the Noble Tongue)

Sand sprayed as Pumpernickel dove to one side, feeling the fire of outstretched talons rake through his mane and the sting of airborne sand as the Wingmaster turned for a second strike. Without the armor, Pumpernickel felt almost weightless, and the lines of agony running down his back gave silent testimony to his fate if he had not shed the heavy weight. He sprang into the air, yanking his stubby tail up a mere moment before the Wingmaster slashed through the space he had just occupied. Instinct, or perhaps a whim caused him to kick out blindly as he climbed, feeling the shock as enchanted steel horseshoes struck the Wingmaster’s helmet squarely and the competing enchantments flared in a burst of sparks.

His wings itched for altitude while his mind countered the impulse into a sharp turn, cutting so closely to the watching griffons that more than one fell off their perches dodging for cover. Given a straight line to charge, the big griffon would hit him like a sledgehammer and rip him to bloody giblets. As it was, he barely had the time to roll inverted after his turn and tuck his wings up into a plunge to the sand as the Wingmaster slashed back in a fierce turn-and-swing maneuver.

Pausing only an infinitesimal moment to glance at the huge griffon, Pumpernickel reversed his tumble with a heave of his wings, rolling backwards along the sand as the Wingmaster pounced again, only this time not finding the sand-covered Night Guard maneuvering to receive his charge, but rolling underneath his lunge with a powerful double-buck that struck home on the griffon’s underside in a solid thump underlaid with the small popping of ribs as steel met bone, and bone barely lost. A plunging talon missed disemboweling Pumpernickel in the confusion, tracing a line of fire along the Nocturne’s own ribs. Vaulting into the sky to avoid the second hard-driven talon, he banked again in a sharp turn, keeping above and inside the Wingmaster’s own ascent.

Laughter bubbled up in his throat as he met the griffon’s fierce scowl with a smile, held on the side of sanity by the thinnest of threads. His mind was a swirling chaotic mess of emotions and thoughts, providing only suggestions to the instinctive reactions of his body. Blood ran in clotting streams down his hide, gummed together by the sand and scattering red droplets below as he flew. The Wingmaster seemed relatively untouched by the brief fight so far except for a cracked lens on his helmet where a chance blow had gone through and a few missing feathers on one wing. Pumpernickel could land dozens of solid blows on the tough old bird without crippling him, but one swipe of those steel-clad talons in the wrong place and the fight would be over. They swung together again in a clash of steel, griffon claws against the steel vambraces of the guard as they plummeted to the ground with watching griffons scattering for cover. This time they both hit the ground hard, but Pumpernickel managed to twist around to the top before impact and rebound off the griffon’s chest, away from the inevitable swipe of claws that followed ramming his hooves in the Wingmaster’s gut.

The screeching and screaming of the surrounding griffons had grown to an ear-splitting level, and he nearly missed the errant draft of air that preceded a golden-eyed griffon with bare talons sweeping down from above. They cut across his back and down one wing in ragged lines of pain, ripping and tearing at his hide where the steel talons of the Wingmaster had merely sliced, but the griffon was caught before ripping a second set of bloody cuts by Gilda. A thunderbolt of white and tan landed on the back of the first griffon and proceeded to pound it mercilessly about the head while screaming, “Don’t. Interfere. In. The. Challenge!”

Gilda looked up from her disciplinary action with a savage glare, her eyes shifting to one side just fractionally enough to give him warning and fling his body sideways, dodging the Wingmaster’s lunge at his back at the cost of only a few hairs from his tail. A second griffon launched herself forward at the guard, only to be clocked rather solidly by a pair of griffons who proceeded to ram her beak forcefully into the sand in a familiar manner. Any surge of pleasure he treasured at the sight of the explosion of violence among the spectators was abruptly snatched away as the roaring Wingmaster burst out of the chaos, and it was all Pumpernickel could do to avoid the titanic swipe he took on the way by.

“Die, pony!” The fierce swing barely ticked the tip of Pumpernickel’s wing, but it sent the Nocturne pinwheeling across the circle. One unfortunate griffon who had just raised himself up on his perch in preparation to leaping into the fray met both back hooves of the flying guard, knocking him backwards into the decaying wood as Pumpernickel rebounded in a straight line with every bit of energy his injured wings could generate. The big griffon was just a hair slower on his turn back into the fight, catching Pumpernickel’s hard-driven hoof to the side of the head in an explosion of sparks as his helmet’s enchantments flared—

And the broken eyepiece shattered, driving shards deep into the Wingmaster’s eye.

The resulting backhanded slap struck the guard squarely, knocking Pumpernickel across the circle again as Talon bellowed in agony. By chance, he skidded to a halt in a spray of sand next to the chariot where the other ponies had taken refuge when the fight had started. The three of them, four if you counted the awkward corpse, were rolled underneath the Royal Guard chariot and peering out at the chaotic battle that had broken out.

“Now?” snapped Ambassador Primrose, her horn glowing green while she focused on the Wingmaster, who was still clawing at his face in fury.

“No,” gasped Pumpernickel as he sucked in heaving breaths of air, staggering to his hooves in the bloody sand. “Don’t interfere… Until I’m… Dead!” He staggered back into the air, leaving clumps of red in his wake and with sand caked to his clotting wounds, but staying in a direct line of fire between Primrose and the Wingmaster.

“Can’t get a good shot,” snarled Primrose, bending her neck right and left as the guard accelerated against his target. “Who does that idiot think he is?”

“Justice,” whispered Laminia as she turned the shiny silver bracelet that signified his position in her hooves.

* * *

Princess Sun Shines hesitated at the edge of the Wingmaster’s perch, unable to fly down into the chaotic fight that was spreading up into the perches of the lower rungs. It was a traditional Challenge, and both Father and Grandfather had always taught her that following tradition was the most important part of being a leader. Interfering in a Challenge was a horrible crime with terrible punishments, and even though Grandfather had done horrible things, it was not right to interfere. The Challenge would degrade into chaos as it had many times before, and the resulting bloody secession wars that had been the hallmark of ancient Griffon history had left may aeries charnel pits of death and hatred, abandoned to this day.

“Princess Sunny, what should we do?” A small group of nervous griffons clustered around the Wingmaster’s perch, obviously wanting to fly down into the fight, but unsure on what side they should dive in. They were looking at her in a way she had never seen relatives act before, not looking down as if she were doing something vaguely cute and adorable, but in a near-panic, searching for somegriffon to tell them what to do. The silver ring that indicated her position suddenly felt as heavy as Stargazer’s corpse down in the chaotic circle, but she raised the claw with that symbol on it up so that the group of griffons could see it glitter in the moonlight before screeching in as loud a voice as she could manage.

“<Go down into the crowd and bring order to my flock. Any that interfere in the Challenge are to be restrained without injury and commanded to assist you in restraining others. Now go!>”

The nervous griffons seemed to gain confidence in her words and darted off into the growing brawl, except for one griffon who stayed behind with a rather terrified glance back and forth between the fight and her little griffon princess. “Um. Sunny? What if they don’t listen to us?”

Sunny’s golden eyes narrowed, her pinfeathered wings stretching out as if she were preparing to launch herself into the melee with tiny sharp beak and needle-pointed claws. “<If any refuse to listen, send them to me. I will deal with them.>”

“Yes Ma’am! I mean Your Highness!” The last griffon darted off to carry out Princess Sunny’s command as the little griffon resumed her fierce stance, concealing the doubt she felt in her heart as her Grandfather and her friend battled to the death, and she could not decide which she wanted to die.

* * *

There existed nothing but fire and Talon.

Pumpernickel had lost track of the number of times the big griffon had cut him in sweeping darts and dashes as they passed each other. Each pass had added another line of pain that wrapped his body in a tracery of fire as they struck each other, leaving more blood on the sand among the scattered feathers and ripped hairs. Every opportunity he took to roll across the sand packed more of the gritty substance into his open cuts and slashes, holding his lifeblood in temporarily by clotting the gashes while bringing the fight down to an altitude where the Wingmaster was weakest. The Wingmaster’s bones had cracked under the relentless pounding Pumpernickel had given in return for his wounds, the snap and crunch of boney uncinate processes and the underlying ribs sounding like music to his tattered ears. Even when the inevitable happened, when the Wingmaster would finally manage to lay a solid blow on the guard and spread his cooling body parts across the bloody sand in a disemboweling slash, the griffon would not be able to fly with his flock to descend upon the helpless ponies of the lowlands.

They would be safe.

His duty as a Royal Guard was over.

But there was one more thing that needed to be done before he could die.

His duty as the Heir.

The sounds and shapes of fighting griffons around the circle were only fuzzy blurs to his perception, meaningless creatures who stayed clear of their bloody battle and dove for cover whenever either of them moved in their direction. Only one griffon burned in the back of his mind, a small griffon fledgeling standing all alone on her perch while watching the Challenge with scorching eyes. He could feel her hatred as if she were a blazing bonfire in the chill night, a rage so much like the touch of Nightmare on his own soul. Her only friend had been taken by the Wingmaster’s son, and her body desecrated by the both of them. Given time, the Wingmaster could use that hatred to turn the innocent little fledgeling into a twisted parody of himself, a beast who would be as much a danger as the monster he was fighting now.

Talon had to die.

Both of their attacks were slowing with their brutal injuries, but all Talon would have to do to survive would be to back off and let Pumpernickel bleed to death. It had to be quick, before his reactions slowed too much for the desperate gamble to work.

His bloody wings pumped air to accelerate into the roaring griffon, both armored forehooves batting away the steel-bladed claws that swept down, feeling the air flex as Talon’s beak plunged forward—

And Pumpernickel jammed his wing forward, directly into the oncoming beak.

Brutal inertia jerked the guard violently into a sharp pivot around the bloody hole in his wing, coming around in an accelerating arc. Both armored rear hooves rose as he smashed into Talon’s back, driving their enchanted steel with deadly aim into the center of the Wingmaster’s spine.

The sound of shattered bone froze the onlooking griffons as their Wingmaster spasmed, flinging the bloody Night Guard across the sand in pure reflex before thrashing in agony with a piercing shriek.

Across the ring, Pumpernickel staggered to his hooves with a fierce growl. One wing hung nearly limp, the bloody sand-caked membrane showing a hole big enough to put two hooves through, while one of his vambraces had been torn completely from a bloody shin and glittered in two pieces next to the Wingmaster, the protective runes still glowing a dull red as they expired. With one wing dragging the sand in a bloody trail, Pumpernickel fixed his eyes on the mortally-wounded griffon and began to limp forward in slow, inexorable hoofsteps, snarling out words as he walked.

“Wingmaster. Surrender your position and I shall be merciful.”

“Pony!” spat Talon, crabbing sideways on the sand as his hind legs and wings failed to respond. Somewhere in the fight, the broken helmet had been clawed free and the bloody ruin of one eye dripped unmentionable fluids onto the sand even as the other golden orb was riveted on the oncoming guard. “I will not surrender to your kind. Kill him! Kill him, you worthless cowards!”

“Stop!” The voice was small and weak, but all of the griffons turned to look up at Sunny, who held onto her perch with pinfeathered wings outspread. “Do not interfere with the Challenge.”

There was silence in the circle as the griffons looked back and forth between each other. Finally, one griffon who had been poised to leap looked over at Gilda before sitting down with a thud into the sand, clearing his throat in the crisp, dry air and speaking in a wavering voice.

“I respect the Challenge.” After a moment, another griffon beside him repeated the action, and then another, until all the griffons were sitting in nervous balls of coiled tension, including Gilda, who was last to sit.

Traditionally, a successful griffon leadership challenge would last for a week until it was permitted to bring another challenge against the victor. From the eager glances between the onlooking griffons, there would be no week for Pumpernickel, nor even a single minute to breathe before having to face a second fresh challenger.

It did not matter. They were all dead anyway. Once the griffons finished tearing him into ribbons, their bloodlust would cascade over onto the remainder of the diplomatic mission. His friends. His wife. Their unborn colt. The only thing that would survive would be their memory, and the knowledge that a single Night Guard had beaten their Wingmaster in a fair fight. It was not a legacy that Pumpernickel had ever thought would be associated with him, but it was going to be told to every griffon in Equestria and beyond. The first pony Wingmaster. And the shortest-lived one too.

Turning to Talon, Pumpernickel announced, “Wingmaster, your flock has more honor than you. I ask you a second time, surrender your position, and I shall be merciful.”

“If you want my position, little pony, come and take it.” His tongue licked the blood off his beak and the Wingmaster snarled, “Delicious pony.”

“A third time I implore you, Wingmaster. Surrender.” Pumpernickel stopped just outside of Talon’s reach, his face as immobile as stone as he looked down on the fallen griffon king.

“Die, pony!” Talon lunged forward as far as his forelegs could move his body, jabbing his beak at Pumpernickel’s unarmored chest. Two steel-clad hooves landed on top of his head before he got even halfway there, knocking the griffon to the sand.

Then the hooves descended again, and the Wingmaster of the Misty Mountain aerie was no more.