• 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 4 - Ashes

Diplomacy by Other Means
Ashes


“Never was anything great achieved without danger.”
— N. Marechiavelli, The Princess


Despite the bright lights illuminating the sparring ring, Pumpernickel could feel the darkness rising beneath his hooves as Luna turned away from him and walked away. Shock froze his heart and his mind as she spoke the words that would spell the end of his life in the Royal Guard.

“You have five minutes to prepare.”

She might have given him five years or five hundred years for all the good it would do. The sparring ring medics surrounded him with tape and antiseptic swabs, trying to get the last frayed seams of his worn padding taped away before the pounding it was about to receive. Nausea writhed in his belly, not at the thought of upcoming violence, but at the idea of leaving the Royal Guard, his position, the near proximity to Princess Luna that he had fought for and that had been his entire dream throughout his life. That dream was now shattered at the arrogant hooves of the legend whom he had trusted from his first days within his Nocturne family. Anger boiled within, a fierce burning that painted the night with a tinge of red just like the night when he struck—

The fire went out as if doused by ice water. The red haze of fury dying away from his vision struck a horrible resonance with long suppressed memories of his big sister laying bloody against the wall, so many years ago but still as sharp as if he were still the small colt cringing in fear at what he had done. Brook had taken weeks in the hospital to recover, but far worse had been the looks of guarded terror from his new family even after her return.

From that time on, he had been in fear of his own clumsy adolescent hooves and thought only of joining the Royal Guard the moment he became of age. Armor was to protect others from him, something to hide behind, a disguise to conceal that terrifying past. He could feel that fire in his heart whenever anger would rise, the urge to kill and destroy that only his transformation into a Royal Guard could suppress. The race of Nocturne were given their names in memory of those who had followed Luna on her rebellion and died, but the name of Pumpernickel had only been given to what he had been told were the most exceptional. The most honored. The bravest. The best.

So why me?

In the centuries since the Night of Creation, only two other colts had ever been granted the name of Pumpernickel. Both had died in pools of blood: the first one in a training ‘accident’ most probably within sight of where he stood, and the second one slaughtered two centuries ago in a griffon aerie protecting a diplomat. If he could only stand up against Princess Luna, he could walk in his ancestor’s hoofsteps and perhaps remove part of the shame from his family history, but the fire that simmered in his heart stood in the way.

Fire can be harnessed. Controlled. Used without burning the user.

To remain a Royal Guard, there was no other choice. Pumpernickel turned his will inwards, regarding the destructive force that he had never directly confronted before. It fought as a starved animal when forced into its chains, but oddly without the vigor he had expected. Like facing a monster that turned out to be a mere cardboard cutout, the rage guttered meekly to a smoldering lump as relaxation swept over his body.

Far away, the announcer could vaguely be heard describing the upcoming fight, but a rush of exhilaration swept across his armored skin that made the voice seem unimportant, with only the figure of Princess Luna seeming real in the bright lights of the sparring ring. If she wanted to see him master the fear that had been his captor for so many years, it would only be right to give her the best performance he was able.

“Three minutes. Fight.”

In perfect synchronization, Pumpernickel surged forward into a sweeping blow that was barely deflected by the hesitant princess. A flick of tail into her face happened without thought, even as he banked sharply to right on habits forged by endless hours of practice combined with some other instinct that he could not identify. Whatever it was, it flung him skywards in pursuit at nearly the same instant Luna ascended, and matched her strokes as they tumbled through the sky. Every blow met a padded block or dodge, every counterstrike met the same. What started as hesitant strikes by the princess turned into mighty blows, turned aside by padding, armor and skill in a hammering concert of musical impacts that beat across his forelegs and armored chest in a tempo of subverted violence that made his ears ring. Even though she did not wear armor under her pads, blows parried by the princess sent shocks up his hooves on impact, ripping and tearing at padded stitching so violently that sprays of stuffing burst from the ruptured seams of both sets of padding, leaving a trail of white scattered through their wake as the fight spread out across every possible inch of the sparring ring.

A chill force seemed to control his body, able to sense every move Luna made and counter it even as she did the same to his blows. Some small portion of his mind still remembered the fight was supposed to only go for three minutes while the rest simply reveled in the joy of their conflict. Royal hooves scored across guard armor, tearing pads free in a trail of sparks as the armor’s enchantments kicked in, softening the impacts to simple pain instead of the disabling strikes they would have been. They unleashed no crippling blows, no potentially lethal strikes to throat or head, only fair strokes that would have been well within the guard limitations if not for the stunning force they contained in perfect opposition to each other, as if there were only one pony fighting with two bodies. It was a heady sensation he had never felt before, being able to strike and swing without fear of death as the fire within grew to match the blows, flaring to encompass his entire body as the two of them clashed together in the middle of the ring, each with an opponent's wing between their teeth.

Feathers on his tongue.

The taste of blood.

Memories that were not his own surged as he bit down, feeling the taste of delicious flesh between his teeth. The dark memories swirled around him and drew him in, dreams of ponies dead centuries ago, living only as ghosts.

Pumpernickel dreamed of blood.

Blood and feathers stuck to his face as Pumpernickel landed hard in the sand, a ring of limp bodies dressed in archaic Royal Guard armor and drenched in blood at his hooves. Screams of his fellow guards flinging themselves at him mixed with the shrill shrieks of the wounded and dying, music to the tune of destruction singing in his ears. An earth pony guard with a net lunged out of the circle of guards, swinging the net in his teeth as he closed the range. Pumpernickel landed on him with all four hooves, feeling flesh rip as he struck the weak spots in the armor, where enchantments could not stop his teeth from ripping the guard’s throat out in a welter of gore. Bolts of power from unicorn guards burst against his side, knocking him backwards before he could finish off his victim, and a half-dozen guardstallions dropped on him in a synchronized assault that faltered rapidly at his flashing hooves and teeth. The Nightmare gave him power, far more than mortal ponies, but the blows rained in from all directions from the ancient ponies, the past dreams and present reality joining together in a mindless roar of power.

Vaguely he could feel Luna’s powerful wing strike forward, smashing him backwards through the delusions of history that clouded his mind. The rear wall of the sparring ring met his back in an explosive crash as Luna dropped to the ground, and his legs crouched beneath him, only one target obvious to his burning eyes.

Her neck.

She was stunned and prone, helpless for the five wingflaps it would take him to cross the ring and tear out her throat. With a bellowed roar, he sprang into the air, sweeping his wings back in a mighty surge of power.

One.

Little bits of sand kicked up from the ring stung against the few bits of his coat not protected by armor or whatever shreds of padding he had left. Skimming barely above the ground, he plunged forward to kill, his wings raised in another powerful stroke.

Two.

Flickers of the fire that burned in his chest resonated with the Nocturne surrounding the ring, reflecting down on him with a blazing intensity that scorched every nerve. His fellow Night Guards leaned towards him as if they hungered, each tiny flame mirrored by a silver sliver of ice that matched the chill of the Princess of the Night before him. His wings swept again.

Three.

One flicker of fire blazed brighter than the rest in a familiar pattern that drew his momentary glance. A feminine face frozen in a rictus of horror matched the feeling of fire and ice he carried in his own heart, but there was a second spark of dissimilar frozen fire within her. Very small, but it burned with an intensity that rivaled his own. A child. His son.

Four

His wings faltered as the vengeful fire burning in his heart went out, quenched into a ball of ice lodged in his chest. Luna loomed up ahead like Judgement, having scrambled upright and lifted both front hooves, her wings still tucked behind her. There was no mercy in her face, the laughter gone, only the Princess of the Night rearing above his flight path with hooves long ago stripped of fragile padding. He could still change his path, evade those deadly hooves as they began their descent, but that would only save his life, not his soul. No longer could he even tolerate the thought of sweeping up to bite with sharp teeth at her unprotected neck; instead, he lowered his head in submission to his fate as he swept his wings back for the last time.

Fiv—



Silence.

The sparring ring was frozen in moonlight.

Covered in silver.

Cold as a grave.

In a shallow crater by one wall lay the Night Guard Pumpernickel, wisps of smoke still rising up from his armor the only sign of movement, other than the occasional magical spark as the final enchantments of protection woven into the armor shorted out and failed.

Standing tall in the center of the ring was Princess Luna, her dark wings tucked up on her flanks as her burning eyes remained locked on the smoking guard she had just struck down.

Laminia recovered first, with a shriek of, “Lumpy!” that shocked the rest of the onlookers out of their stasis. Luna’s hoofmaiden was the first to leap the fence into the ring, but she hesitated at an equilibrium point halfway between the combatants, her love for her husband matched nearly exactly by her dedication to her princess. The rest of the medics and onlookers had no problems making a decision, and fairly swarmed over the fallen guardstallion several ranks deep.

“He’s alive!” The words seemed to electrify Laminia into a nervous twitch, and turning her back on her husband, she laid down on her belly in front of her princess in a full bow with wings covering her head, heedless of the stuffing-covered sand beneath her clean coat.

Commander Buttercup struggled clear of the mob around his guardstallion and approached Luna in a manner more deferential than he had ever moved before, lowering himself into a partial bow several bodylengths away from the motionless diarch.

“Your Highness, may I have permission to speak?”

Luna’s eyes moved, although her head remained perfectly still. “Commander, you may speak.”

The old Nocturne swallowed, taking a glance behind him as if he were afraid Pumpernickel would rise from the crater and resume the combat. “I’m s-sorry, Your Highness. I didn’t know what that… thing was inside of him. I assure you, we will—”

“It is naught but what lurks in all of your hearts. We should know better than any others, for we placed it there ourselves.” Luna walked forward somewhat stiffly, brushing by Commander Buttercup as if he were a foal. Guards parted before her, with fearful whispered comments between them that she pretended not to hear. She did not stop until she was at the edge of the shallow crater, looking down at Pumpernickel, who was still being attended to by one of the sparring ring medical unicorns, the only guardstallion who had not retreated at her advance. “What is the status of my guard?”

“Tenderized, Your Highness,” replied the unicorn almost casually, keeping his attention strictly on his patient. “Nothing broken or cracked, by some miracle, but we’re going to need a can opener to get him out of that busted armor. Right now I’ve got him under a sedation spell, but he’s going to be one huge bruise in the morning.”

“That’s… really good news, Your Highness,” added Buttercup almost apologetically, having followed along at her side. “I thought for a moment there you were going to kill him.”

“Didst thou think we did not know the power of our blows?”

Buttercup glanced at where a small cluster of Nocturne gathered around Pumpernickel’s flattened helmet that had been torn free of the terrifying guard on impact and lay smoldering a dozen yards away. The Night Guards seemed to be regarding it as some holy relic in need of a temple where it might be revered properly, perhaps only to be brought out on ceremonial occasions. Two Royal hoofprints adorned the twisted chunk of metal, one to each side of the crest in a display of precisely focused violence that made the guards whisper among each other to compare their sparring ranks, and their estimated time when they would experience that violence first-hoof. “No, Your Highness.”

“‘Twas my own magic that enchanted his armor, each training, work and ceremonial piece. I fear I may have overestimated the thickness of his head, however. Can he be moved?”

The medical unicorn nodded briskly. “Yes, Your Highness. I was just going to take him to the infirmary.”

“Hold, good stallion. Hoofmaiden, attend me and thine husband.” Laminia appeared at her side as if teleported, her big golden eyes glancing back and forth between her battered husband and her precious princess, who still had a few of her tattered pads hanging from her body.

“Shall I remove your pads, My Princess?”

“Disrobe in front of my guards? What of the scandal?” asked Luna flatly, triggering a small wave of nervous laughter among the observers. “Nay, I shall dispose of them after taking your husband to the infirmary myself, and procure a new set for my next sparring match.”

Her gaze swept over the ring, still littered with tufts of white padding and more than a few deep dents in the torn screens protecting the observers. “Next week, perhaps. Timekeeper, what was your record for the duration of our match?”

“Two minutes, fifty seven seconds.”

“Acceptable.” Luna nodded almost imperceptibly as Pumpernickel floated up in her indigo magic, being carried in front of the princess as she walked away. “Redoubtable, Primrose, Laminia. Attend thy Princess of the Night. The rest of you, continue your training. There is room for improvement.”

* * *

“Your Highness,” started Primrose, walking briskly alongside Princess Luna as a shimmering rose-colored shadow in the bright moonlight. She paused for a while, attempting to place a troublesome problem in diplomatic language as they passed out of the Royal Guard training facility and onto the long walkway that led back to the castle. The silence was broken by Laminia, who trotted ahead a few steps so she could look at the interloper mare who was sharing space with her husband and her princess.

“You’re frightened of my husband,” she said bluntly. “When you travel to the griffon aerie, you think he’s going to lose his marbles and kill somepony, just like he tried tonight. You want him removed from your diplomatic mission and put as far away from you as possible. You’re afraid of our kind, Luna’s childre—” Laminia slowed to a halt as Luna abruptly stopped in the center of the walkway.

“Hoofmaiden. Take Redoubtable and fly to the castle infirmary to prepare things for your husband’s arrival.” The snow-white Royal Guard who had been striding along behind them immediately opened his wings and took to the air as if relieved at being able to flee the three tense mares, but Laminia paused with wings half-spread until Luna narrowed her brows and added, “Go.”

Luna remained standing, the Night Guard being levitated in her magic making a quiet snoring noise as they waited for the two mismatched pegasi to get out of earshot. Finally the princess resumed her stride, the diplomatic unicorn at her side. “They are not my children,” said Luna firmly. “They are obstinate, disobedient, troublesome, quarrelsome little brats at times, but that does not make them my children.” Pumpernickel had the misfortune to shift positions at that moment, making little smacking noises as he returned to slumber under the sedation spell with a mumble that sounded entirely too much like “Yes, Mom.”

Ignoring her dozing guard, Luna continued. “As my creations, they all bear my touch upon their souls, but also that of Nightmare. When my guard reached out and touched the Nightmare tonight, I feared I would have to slay him, but he overcame it. Somehow.”

“You fear him too, Your Highness.” The diplomat merely nodded at Luna’s sharp glance and continued. “If you are willing to face your fears, I can do no less. I shall accept your guard on this mission, even if I have to carry him.”

Luna nodded, slowing her hoofsteps to stand stationary and look up at the stars. “Thus you hath lifted the lesser of my burdens from my back this evening. There is a greater need.” With great care, the alicorn lifted her wing to expose the bloody hole where Pumpernickel had ripped a long ragged tear in her powerful muscles. Along severed arteries and veins, large drops of blood were held against her body by an indigo glow.

“Once we have seen my guard to the infirmary, we shall visit my sister. She is an accomplished healer with much practice against my folly. We shall discuss thy mission while Celly sews.”