• Published 11th Apr 2014
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At the Inn of the Prancing Pony - McPoodle

Celestia awakens from an enchantment to discover that Equestria has been taken from her.

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Chapter 4: A Tale of Two Sieges (Horn's Reach)

At the Inn of the Prancing Pony

Chapter 4: A Tale of Two Sieges (Horn’s Reach)

Three stallions surrounded Celestia, one of each breed, and they were silently looking down at her. Silently judging whether she would live to see tomorrow’s sunrise. The lack of a cutie mark was clearly a vital part of their quiet interrogation of her. She could make them out, dimly, thanks to the light of a nearby campfire that silhouetted them in the darkness.

“Thank you,” she said to them after regaining her breath. “Thank you for saving me.”

The three of them looked at each other.

“My name’s Hope Springs,” she said, holding up one hoof.

“Swipe,” said a dark blue pegasus with a white mane as he extended his hoof to pull Celestia to her hooves. He was wearing an open dark-brown duster jacket with holes in the back for his wings and embroidered with his cutie mark, a pile of coins of many denominations. “I hope you don’t mind getting your pretty little hooves dirty.” He said this with a half-smile, one brow raised and a twinkle in the eye. Once she was up on her hooves, he turned and pointed at the yellow-coated, orange-maned earth pony wearing a star-covered purple robe and matching pointed hat. “This is Firelit, and this is—”

Vaya Con Dios, Mademoiselle,” the red unicorn with yellow mane said, taking Celestia’s hoof and spending several seconds kissing it. He was wearing a long black cassock embroidered with his cutie mark, a cartoon heart with wings.

This caused the pony named Swipe to badly stifle a loud laugh.

“Excuse me,” Celestia said, looking down at her hoof.

“Oh, just call him Vaya,” Firelit said. “Everybody else does.”

Celestia gently removed her hoof from Vaya’s embrace, causing Swipe to finally break out in laughter.

So what does she have?” asked the voice of the fourth member of the party.

“So speaks our brave and valiant leader,” said Swipe. He led the others back to a partially-built campsite off the side of the road. A large fire was blazing in a pit created out of stones, and surrounding it were four sheepskins, each laid out flat on the ground.

Celestia quickly turned away from this sight to see the earth pony passing a small glass vial containing a red liquid to a second earth pony lying on the roadway. As she watched, the wounds and gashes visible on the prone pony’s coat faded away. The pony being affected by this amazing healing seemed if anything bored by how long it took. He rose to his hooves, revealing himself to be a giant, nearly the height of Celestia when she was at her full power. His broad, rust-colored chest briefly filled her entire field of vision, and she craned her neck back to take in his jutting cheekbones and proud eyes under a silver mane.

“H...hello,” she said, crossing her forehooves in a sudden attack of awe. “I’m Hope. Hope Springs.”

“Indeed,” the massive stallion said with a raised brow. “And I am Soul Cleaver.”

Celestia blinked. The sheer viciousness of that name slammed into her, breaking the spell that his stunning appearance had briefly brought over her. Indeed, his cutie mark showed a cleaver passing between a shocked caricature of a pony and its equally cartoony ghost. She looked up at the stallion, waiting for him to make the next move.

Only he didn’t. He simply stood there, looking over at the other ponies behind her. Expressions flitted across his face: annoyance, impatience and finally resignation. Similar expressions appeared on the faces of the others. Swipe burst into laughter, for no visible reason, and then just as swiftly stopped, as if he had been chastised. While all this was happening, Celestia finally had a chance to see the eyes of these heroes. One of them had eyes the same impossible shade of brown as Rigged Bee. The other three had blue eyes, which was a normal pony eye color, only all three of them had very nearly the same shade of blue, which was extremely rare. As the silence wore on, Celestia realized that besides looking at each other, and glancing at her, they spent a good deal of time flicking their eyes to the same spot in the western sky. Celestia slowly turned her head left to look in that direction, but saw absolutely nothing of any significance: a midnight sky and a patch of the Milky Way between the constellations of Orion and Gemini, the center of what was known as the Winter Hexagon. No trees and no flying creatures appeared to be anywhere near the spot.

“Have you come bearing us a message?”

Celestia quickly turned her head back to face the formidable Soul Cleaver. “Uh no, Sir.”

“You weren’t sent by Stride Eater, or whoever’s running Redmoss?”

“Redfern,” the earth pony Torchlit corrected, pointing absently at a hoof-drawn map that was spread to one side of his sheepskin. His attention was on a stone cup filled with a foul-smelling green substance that was being held over the fire by a pair of tongs.

“What is that?” asked Celestia.

“Tincture of timberwolf,” Torchlit answered eagerly. “I’ve got enough for at least four ‘Animate Plants’ potions. I think you should answer Cleaver’s question, by way.”

“No,” answered Celestia. “The answer to my question, that is. It’s ‘No’.”

“Are you here to fight us?” Vaya asked.

“No!” Celestia exclaimed. “One would have to be a foal to even imagine doing such a thing.”

“Indeed,” Vaya replied. “But that hasn’t stopped some from trying. Is it possible that you are the message?”

“What does that even mean?” Soul Cleaver asked with narrowed eyes, his suspicion centered on the mare.

“No, no, no!” Celestia protested. “I wanted to learn more about you heroes.”

“I get it!” Swipe exclaimed, his eyes wide and a big grin plastered across his face. He looked like he was about to tell a joke. In fact, from his subsequent expressions, it was clear that he was telling a joke, even if it was one that only he thought was funny. He turned to face the same spot in the sky.

Indeed, the other stallions responded to Swipe by collectively rolling their eyes.

“Quiet!” ordered Soul Cleaver, nearly a minute after Swipe’s last utterance. “I know exactly how to keep Foaltus happy.” To Celestia he asked, “Do you wish to join our band?”

Celestia looked between the faces of these obviously mad ponies. “Yes,” she said with all of the confidence she could muster.

A moment later, she felt her saddlebag being removed by unicorn magic. Her six bits worth of coin was emptied out into Vaya Con Dios’ magical field.

“Hey!” she exclaimed.

“Consider it your entrance fee,” the unicorn said with a smirk. He opened a small chest that seemed to contain far more rings, potions, wands, rods and especially mountains of bits than should be able to fit in a container ten times that size, and added Celestia’s meager savings to the collection. After closing and locking the chest, he turned to her and rose on his hind hooves. “And here’s your first perk: a complete health plan, on the house.” He began to wave one free hoof in the air, compelling Celestia’s eyes to follow it. “By the power of Foaltus,” he intoned, his voice growing in volume with every word, “I command you...to...Heal!” With that last word, he forcefully tapped Celestia on the forehead with the waving hoof, causing her to fall back on her rear. As she rose, she realized that her wounds were now healed.

“Don’t complain about the form of the healing spell,” Vaya quickly told her. “House rules.”

“From now until you get your mark, you get a half share of everything we get,” Cleaver told her. “That’s both gold and experience.” This part was specifically addressed to the spot in the sky. He turned back to face her. “Now here is your next and most important rule: Do not speak to us unless we give you permission. We don’t want to hear your backstory, and you don’t need to hear ours.”

“Aw, but mine is a real heartbreaker!” Vaya moaned.

“Shut it, Vaya. Agree to do that, Commoner, and maybe you will get to the Inn in time. Now...?”

Celestia again looked from one pony to another, as the silence around her intensified. At this point she could only reach two possible conclusions: either these quiet moments were part of their evident madness, or else they were engaging in some form of telepathic conversation with each other. A conversation that a fifth, sky-borne entity was apparently a part of. Maybe even their god? The same being responsible for the common ponies of Equestria being held in a state of near constant terror, never to learn the sense of purpose that came from gaining a cutie mark?

Celestia glared at the Winter Hexagon with this realization, sending waves of pure hate skyward.

“Look,” Soul Cleaver said, dragging their argument back into the realm of the audible. “We’ll reach the cave mouth in three days’ time, and then—”

“And then what?” Torchlit asked. “In case you didn’t notice, my Staff of the Magi is dead. D.E.A.D., dead! That fireball against the timberwolves was its last charge. What chance do we have against Ivan without that?

The others all got quiet.

“I saw a magic staff at Horn’s Reach,” said Swipe.

The others stared at him. “What magic staff?” asked Torchlit. “I don’t remember any magic staff in Horn’s Reach. Do you remember any magic staff in Horn’s Reach, Vaya?

“The hero’s impound,” Swipe said before the unicorn could reply, “behind the pillory. The one I had you cast ‘Detect Magic’ on? The one we had to leave behind when somepony accidentally set off the entire Unicorn Army?”

“Oh...right,” said Torchlit. “That magic staff. But I couldn’t tell for sure what kind of staff it was. It could have been a Staff of Withering.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to be much use against a dracolich,” commented Vaya.

“But it’s certainly worth a shot, right?” asked the pegasus.

“Yeah, if we had a plan,” Vaya commented idly, but then he caught the eager looks from Swipe and Soul Cleaver. “Oh, no! I thought we agreed that Stride Eater was bad news!”

Celestia was almost completely lost by this point.

“And he still is,” Cleaver said, sidling up to the unicorn. “That invasion scheme doesn’t stand a chance. But it will give us plenty of time to sneak in and take that staff.”

“And as much loot as we can carry?” asked Swipe.

Cleaver rolled his eyes. “Since when has any of our visits to Horn’s Reach not ended in all the loot we can carry?”

The quartet laughed merrily at that.

Celestia, on the other hoof, did not.

“So that’s the plan,” Soul Clever told them. “Tomorrow morning we join Stride Eater’s mad army of earth pony invasion, we break into the fort during the chaos of the following morning, and we’re facing off against ex-dragon Ivan for a king’s ransom in gold and magical artifacts by Canterday brunch! Now everypony get to sleep! I’ll take first watch.”

Wake up!” the voice whispered in Celestia’s ear.

At first, the mare thought she was being roused for her turn at keeping watch through the night. Two facts undermined this assumption: she was currently surrounded by the branches of a bare tree, and her mouth was being covered by a wall of feathers.

“Hee-hee-hee!” the voice of Swipe continued in her ear. “It’s time for some fun!”

Celestia looked at Swipe. Perhaps, if he was exceptionally dim, he might take that look for confusion. In reality, she was working out precisely how she was going to incapacitate him. “What do you want?” she asked in a cold voice.

Swipe moved his wing so it was no longer covering Celestia’s mouth, although it was still keeping her from falling out of the tree he had apparently carried her to. “Hee-hee!” he tittered. “That! Exactly that! I only want you to talk, you lovely mare! It’s so funny!”

“Funny?” she asked.

“Ha-ha-ha-ha!” Swipe exclaimed, his eyes fixed on a spot below the western horizon.

Since she knew precisely how close her sun was to rising over the opposite horizon, Celestia was able to confirm that he was indeed still looking at the Winter Hexagon.

“Tell me where you come from,” he ordered her.

“I was born in the village of—” Celestia said, beginning to go over the backstory for Hope Springs that she had used on the inhabitants of Redfern.

“No, no, I’ve got something better!” Swipe exclaimed. “Tell me who your favorite hero is. Present company excluded, of course.”

“Of course,” Celestia said dryly. “Rigged Bee.”

“Oh, you are aiming high, aren’t you! The living legend herself! I suppose you’ll say that your second choice is Nestoria the Valiant, your third Felnor the Brave?”

“No, I don’t...” Celestia began, before interrupting herself. “Wait, did you say ‘living’? Is Rigged Bee still alive?”

“The shell of her is,” Swipe said with a shrug, his expression serious for the first time this encounter.

“Do you know where she lives?”

“Sure. She’s got herself a villa, about a day’s trot east of Horn’s Reach. Of course, if you want to meet ..., you’ve got six months ... time to reach the Inn.”

Near as Celestia could tell from his expression, the two pauses in the middle of Swipe’s speech had been caused by him slipping from speaking to her into thinking on the heroes’ private mental wavelength, without him even realizing it. Like he had been about to say something Celestia was not meant to know, and had been silenced by his god as a result.

“Oh!” Swipe exclaimed, taken with a sudden inspiration. “This one’s the clincher: are you...a Celestia worshiper?”

“What?!” Celestia exclaimed. “No, of course not! Celes...she’s no goddess!”

“Hee-hee-hee!” the pegasus giggled. “But you don’t think of the Sisters as the Forsakers though, do you?”

“For...forsakers?” Celestia asked, her eyes growing distant. “I don’t...I, I didn’t...I’m so sorry.

Swipe hadn’t paid attention to that last answer, his focus instead being on the state of the eastern sky. “Alright, fun’s over,” he said to her with a frown. “My shift’s nearly done, and I’ve got to get you back to camp before anybody asks any funny questions. Now, you’re not going to tell any of the others about this right?” Celestia suddenly felt the point of a knife sticking under her ribs. “Or do I have to gut you right here and now?”

“I’ll keep quiet,” Celestia answered.

There was no fear in her voice. Only a steely resolve, and the patience to wait for her moment.

Celestia spent the next several hours pretending to sleep, weighing the pros and cons of staying with the group vs. leaving them to seek out the home of Rigged Bee.

As she was lying there, she heard two ponies converge on either side of her.

So, how is the blank flank going to change the order of battle?” whispered Vaya Con Dios.

She goes first,” Cleaver whispered back in a matter-of-fact tone. “That way she’ll absorb most of the damage from attacks. ... has made it clear that adding her to the campaign was a mistake.” (The subject of that last sentence had been swallowed up by yet another telepathic pause.) “This will get her killed the quickest.

Celestia became very still.

We could let her go,” Vaya suggested.

Soul Cleaver laughed out loud at this, before reigning back his volume in an attempt not to wake the pony whose fate they were contemplating. “You know what letting a commoner go does to a hero’s reputation? We’d never be able to set foot in the Inn again. No, she’s gotta die.

Why can’t we just kill her in her sleep?” Vaya asked, just as coldly as the other hero, like he was discussing a carp to feed to his pet cat.

Soul Cleaver muttered the mysterious phrase “alignment penalty” in response.

But we can make her cannon fodder without getting in trouble? Cleaver, you would have made a good lawyer.

Celestia’s mind was pretty much made up at that point.

The next day, the party broke camp and trotted northwards, in the direction they had been coming from. At noon, Celestia helped Soul Cleaver to put shackles on Swipe and Vaya Con Dios. Then they left the main road, and headed east. An hour later, they had reached the camp of the “Invincible Army of the Earth Pony Nation”, led by Generalissimo Stride Eater.

Celestia thought she had seen the heights of madness, first from the party of heroes met by firelight, and then in the crazed eyes of Swipe the pegasus a few hours later, but this was nothing next to Stride Eater.

“The hooves of the earth pony trample all that they encounter,” the generalissimo told them in a well-rehearsed speech, nevertheless made quite unnerving by way various parts of his body jerked uncontrollably as he gave it, like he was a puppet whose controller was having a heart attack in the middle of the performance. “The ground, unicorns and pegasi, even dragons, all are equally effortless. It is our fate to be the masters of the plains, and to convert everything to plain! We shall topple the mountains and dump their dust into the oceans, until all...is...plain!”

“Bravo!” shouted his army of not even a hundred soldiers. What they lacked in number they at least tried to make up for in discipline.

The discipline of a cult, thought Celestia to herself.

“Bravo!” exclaimed Soul Cleaver.

“Bravo,” echoed Torchlit, his heart clearly not in it.

Celestia decided to match her tone to Torchlit’s.

Soul Cleaver flicked a whip. “Applaud your superior’s speech, slaves!”

“Bravo!” cried Swipe and Vaya in unison.

“Yes! That is the proper state for all who do not worship the earth!” exclaimed Stride Eater.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me!” Swipe exclaimed, getting perhaps a little too into character.

The Invincible Army of the Grand Earth Pony Nation (additional adjective added by one-pony committee overnight) began their assault of the unicorn outpost Horn’s Reach at dawn. The great earth pony heroes Soul Cleaver and Torchlit led the assault. As a result of a fierce argument out of Stride Eater’s sight between Swipe and Soul Cleaver over the all-important topic of “battle order”, “Hope Springs” did not in fact get put in the role of “cannon fodder”, and instead was left behind with the heroes’ chest of holding, the “slaves”, and a couple of guards.

An hour into the battle, when it was clear that the unicorn forces were completely committed to holding off the assault, Swipe and Vaya revealed how weak their bindings actually were, and quickly took out the guards. Vaya climbed onto Swipe’s back. “Guard that chest with your life,” Swipe told her as they lifted into the sky and headed for the fortress walls, “and the rewards will be beyond your imagining!”

Celestia watched them go with cold, quiet eyes. She then climbed a nearby hill to watch the battle.

The two sides seemed pretty well matched. The earth ponies in their tan uniforms were well practiced in the ranged weapon skills necessary to disrupt the spells of the unicorns, who wore silver barding. But the earth ponies were rapidly running out of ammunition. Celestia couldn’t see Soul Cleaver or Torchlit directly, but she could guess their location by the occasional unicorn being knocked into the air. It was clear that no single unicorn could take either of them on, and with Stride Eater’s army behind them, the unicorn army could not spare enough ponies to take them out as a group.

The situation reminded Celestia of the Battle of Northern Winter, 120 years earlier. A pony fortress at the border of Equestria was being besieged by a seemingly-inexhaustible army of griffons, led by three large dragons. Luna, who had snuck into the town before the siege had completely circled the fortress, had attempted many means to stop the attackers, but all to no avail. She and her forces could stop the dragons, but not while they were being supported by the griffons, and she could stop the griffons, but not while being led by the dragons. So Luna had allowed the fort’s treasury to be taken by the dragons, one of whom buried it a couple hundred strides away from the city walls. The next time she led her army into battle, a force of pegasi flew high over the battle, to start digging up the buried treasure. The dragons abandoned their allies to defend their hoard, and in this way Luna was able to take each of them out individually.

Sure enough, Celestia heard the sounds of hoofbeats rapidly approaching from behind. A white-coated unicorn mare with a blue feathered helm galloped into the heroes’ camp, followed closely by a breathless unicorn colt, white coat with a green mane, bearing a clipboard in his magical field. Ten unicorn guards came behind the pair, their eyes constantly on the prowl for potential dangers. Stopping before the treasure chest, the youngest pony flipped through a few pages, stopping at a drawing of the same chest. After receiving an affirmative nod from the colt, the mare stepped up to the chest, and she loudly rapped its top two times with a hoof. A loud ghostly moaning broke out from the chest, and in the next moment, a cloud of vapor appeared and disbursed a few strides away, revealing all four heroes.

The unicorn commander, a captain if the meaning of purple-colored barding hadn’t changed since Luna was commander in chief, stepped back as the four of them converged on the chest. Without a word, she pointed sternly westward, away from the battle, and the ranks of her forces parted to form a corridor. The colt quickly moved into position to be beside her, a look of condemnation upon his features.

“This isn’t the end, Captain,” Soul Cleaver said coldly as he rested the chest on his broad back, before turning to Celestia. He glared for a moment at the colt, causing him to hide behind the commander. “Come along, Commoner,” the hero said.

Celestia gave the captain a look, a look that she hoped communicated a great deal. The captain nodded to herself, and then stepped forward to put herself between Celestia and the party of heroes. She looked back in their direction, her expression a silent challenge.

Soul Cleaver made one step towards Celestia. A dozen unicorn horns lit up as one.

“Fine!” Cleaver exclaimed as he turned away. “Take her! She was only driving our goddess crazy as it was! May her madness descend upon you next!”

The other heroes looked back at Celestia: Torchlit with regret, Vaya with longing, and Swipe with a look that Celestia would rather that she never see again.

And then they were gone, a trail of dust behind them.

Celestia held her head high. “I suppose I am your prisoner, then?” she asked.

The Captain looked her over, a cold expressionless look, with the merest hint of a smile.

“Y...yes, ma’am,” the colt answered for the Captain, in a post-pubescent voice. “You’ll be coming with us for processing.”

The Captain strode past him to the spot that Celestia had been using to watch the battle.

The colt pursed his lips. “...After Captain Sparkle’s business here is done, of course.”

They didn’t have long to wait: without their strike force, the Invincible Army proved easy to break.

Author's Note:

This chapter was accompanied by the unrelated Guest Review of "Amadeus", which led to another blog post on that blog post's consequences...

Long story short, the author's been revealed as Princess Luna, and chapter 5 won't be coming out for awhile.

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