• Published 10th Jul 2014
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Sleipnir's Big Adventure - BlackRoseRaven

A hero makes an unlikely alliance with a stubborn prince, and they adventure across Equestria together.

  • ...

Klaatu Barada Nikto

Chapter Twenty Two: Klaatu Barada Nikto

Blueblood breathed slowly in and out, carefully lifting a bucket of nails with telekinesis up to Sleipnir, who was precariously balanced on a ladder and patching a wall shut. Blueblood personally thought that Sleipnir was doing much more work than necessary, but the earth pony insisted on helping insulate the walls with these thick planks of wood before he applied the cement or mortar or... whatever this goop was that they fixed the walls with.

Working mostly by himself, Sleipnir had already patched the worst of the damages to the keep and cleaned up most of the courtyard, breaking down almost all of the scaffolding to repurpose the materials in other places. He was diligent and a hard worker, and Blueblood was again left wondering if there was anything at all Sleipnir couldn't do.

The unicorn reached up and rubbed moodily at the scarred side of his face, feeling a little self-conscious... but... well, maybe it was because he'd had so long to adjust to it, but he hadn't been nearly as upset as he thought he would at the new additions to his features. Then again, maybe he just didn't have the energy to be upset about that right now. Maybe he still felt lucky that he'd gotten away with so little after suffering what he had at the claws of that wraith.

He shivered a little, rubbing slowly at his chest as he pulled his cloak tighter around himself... not that it really helped. He always felt a little cold now: even when he curled up in front of the fireplace under the blanket, his insides felt like he had just swallowed down a bucket of icewater. He wondered sometimes if that chill was ever going to go away... or if maybe that was part of the price for surviving.

The price for surviving, what a great way to think of that. The unicorn shook his head slowly, looking down... then he winced and blushed a bit when Sleipnir cleared his throat, looking quickly up and hurriedly taking the now-empty bucket back as Sleipnir said gently: “If thou needs to go and rest, Blue, by all means do so. Thou hast helped me all morning. Thou hast earned thy nap.”

“No, no. I'd rather not sleep.” Blue murmured, shaking his head briefly: the last thing he needed was another nightmare. And even if they had set up the spiritual wards around the fortress to keep out the ghosts, the nightmares had begun to crawl back into his mind. Thankfully, they were mostly incoherent, but the glimpses he was getting of his father amidst all the chaos...

He quieted, looking away for a moment, and Sleipnir softened before the stallion climbed carefully down from the ladder, asking quietly: “Would thou like to talk about it? And why will thou not accept Invidia's aid?”

“I just... I want to deal with this on my own.” Blueblood muttered, maybe a little harshly... and after a moment, he gave an awkward smile and added quietly: “Sorry. I'm... perhaps I'm a little cranky.”

“Fear not, Celestia was always much grouchier than thee. Luna too on occasion.” Sleipnir replied kindly, and then he reached up and squeezed the stallion's shoulder lightly. “Well, if thou desires to help more, perhaps thou can aid me with setting up a small enclosure. 'Tis not difficult, but 'tis awkward to build by myself. But it should be an easy task with thy unicorn magic.”

Blue smiled a little, then he nodded quickly: only a few minutes later, however, he found himself wondering what precisely the earth pony was doing as they carefully raised a large tarpaulin ceiling into place over a corner of the courtyard Sleipnir had already fenced off.

The unicorn used his magic to hook the thick, plasticky cloth over hooks that had already been hammered into the wall, while Sleipnir secured the heavy post that kept the far corner of the tarp raised. As the earth pony fiddled with that, Blueblood dubiously looked around the little area before he frowned and looked down, testing the ground beneath his hooves as he realized there was only a little bit of powder here compared to the rest of the courtyard, and the earth felt...

“Did you till this?” The unicorn scraped away some of the powder, and Sleipnir smiled slightly as he looked at Blue: in the past, the prince never would have noticed the ground beneath his hooves was any different, even if it had transformed from nature's warm grass to city's careless cement right beneath him. “You did. Why bother, though? You can't garden in the middle of winter.”

“Thou can if thou asks nature kindly enough. But nay, 'tis not a garden. 'Tis for the storage of materials, for 'tis very silly to have their inner stores cluttered up as they do. I think perhaps I shall begin moving the forge out into this courtyard as well, for 'tis quite spacious with all the garbage removed.” Sleipnir said cheerfully, and Blue gave him a dubious look before the earth pony huffed a bit. “Well, aye, I know we are leaving soon. But I shall at least move the heavier objects and give them a start to the project. I shall let them finish the work, for better or worse.”

“I fear it will be for worse.” Blueblood murmured, and when the earth pony frowned over his shoulder at him, the unicorn asked: “Don't you worry that these ponies are starting to depend on you, maybe a little bit too much?”

Sleipnir softened at this, and then he shook his head before saying gently: “Nay, I do not. Perhaps a few of them have taken to lounging and loitering, aye, but Butcher and Jolly Roger and Pap Mint have all been exceptionally helpful. Not to mention how active the mares are, Blue, the mares!”

“The mares, yes.” Blueblood said ironically, rolling his eyes before he smiled a bit despite himself. “You know, just because they slept with you doesn't mean they're being helpful.”

“I would disagree with this.” Sleipnir replied cheerfully, and then he turned with a chuckle, adding warmly: “Nay, I am not even speaking of that. Why, hast thou ever seen such a hard worker as Bertha? And Steele is both beautiful and studious!”

“Yes, well. Bertha reminds me more of a gorilla than a pony, and Steele reminds me of the old adage about strippers who are working their way through college.” Blueblood replied pointedly, and Sleipnir gave the unicorn a grouchy look.

The earth pony began to open his mouth, likely to chastise him... but then both looked up in surprise as there was a shriek from the front wall, followed by Rack howling: “Invaders! The dead march against us, we've been tricked by Sleipnir! Invaders, invaders!”

“Oh, it's probably just Lock, Shock and Barrel coming back...” Blueblood began uneasily, but then Sleipnir leapt past him, and the unicorn grimaced before turning to follow, hating that he couldn't reassure himself for some reason, that there was this weird twisting in his gut just telling him that something was wrong...

Sleipnir, meanwhile, had bolted to the open drawbridge, and was now standing near the end of it, glaring out at the band of skeletons slowly approaching across the field. One of them was waving a flag slowly: not for peace, but announcing their arrival and likely asking for parlay.

The earth pony rolled his shoulders and straightened, completely ignoring Rack as the old Pegasus shot down and yelled at him accusingly: “This is your fault! This is all your fault! You're either a traitor or an idiot, and I don't know which is worse but I do know that either way, it makes it all completely your fault!”

“Rack, quiet!” snapped a voice, and Sleipnir glanced over his shoulder with a brief smile as Jack Lantern approached, followed by Butch, Jolly Roger, and a massive, tan-colored mare with long red pigtails, an eternal scowl on her features as she chewed slowly on the end of a piece of straw: Bertha, her cutie mark of a boxing glove denoting her rather brutal special talent.

Sleipnir turned his eyes back towards the skeletons as Rack flew away, screaming profanities. But the Pegasus at least provided a decent distraction, letting Sleipnir lean down a little and whisper quietly to Jack: “Do not show fear. And whilst I recognize that 'tis not truly within my right to ask, all the same... permit me to handle this.”

“I would be more than happy to. Make it your problem, not ours.” Jack replied quietly, and then he stepped off to the side as the other ponies assembled, Sleipnir giving a wry smile.

He faced ahead, raising his head high as the skeletons approached and finally came to a halt only some ten feet away. They regarded each other warily, and then the skeleton carrying the flat calmly planted this in the ground in front of him before saying coldly: “We come bearing a message from our lord and master, the King of the Dead.”

“And who, may I ask, is this new king?” Sleipnir asked courteously, bowing his head slightly. “For I wish to know the name of whom I negotiate with. Singing his titles will gain him no respect nor praise: a true ruler-”

“We are not here to be lectured on what you believe, fleshsack.” growled the skeleton in the lead, and Sleipnir scowled slightly before the undead pony continued: “The King of the Dead hereby orders you to turn over the Lich known as Auros, formerly the Lich King, as well as his phylactery. He faces charges of high treason and mass murder. If you do not comply, then you will leave the King of the Dead no choice but to consider you enemies of the kingdom, and he will march upon you with all his might and glory.”

Sleipnir shook his head slowly, and then he said softly: “Auros is under my protection. We shall be leaving this fortress shortly, upon a journey that will take us far from these territories. He shall never trouble thee again. I implore thee: make peace with these good ponies. Release thy hatred, and thy desire for revenge.”

“Very well. The King of the Dead is marshaling all of his kingdom as we speak: it is only a matter of hours before he arrives with an army. But do not fear: death will only be the beginning of your punishment, as each and every pony here will join our ranks as loyal servants to his majesty.” said the skeleton, raising his head proudly. “You have been given your chance.”

“Nay. I see; 'twas no chance at all, was it?” Sleipnir asked softly, shaking his head slowly. “From the start, thou knew my answer... and even had I given thee Auros, thy king has given himself over to the dark call of bloodlust and now seeks to visit all his pain and vengeance upon the world... as if the world is guilty for the follies of a pony. As if the world can take away the prison of pain he now binds himself within.”

The skeleton in the lead only snorted in contempt, then stepped slowly forwards, saying darkly: “No mortals shall be allowed to impose upon our kingdom... our kingdom, which has hidden away in the darkness for far too long! Tonight, the spirits will give you the first taste of the horrors your kind deserves, for denying the sweet bliss that is death.”

“Madness. Madness and folly.” Sleipnir grimaced and shook his head, then he stepped forwards and reached out, tapping the end of the drawbridge as he said quietly: “But there is still time to fix this. Until the first of thy kind sets hoof upon this wood, I can still grant all of thee mercy. I can still try to reason with thee, to fix all that is wrong and broken. But once one of thee sets hoof upon this bridge with the intent to harm those inside, I will show neither quarter nor mercy. I will not be able to, as deep as it pains my heart.”

“Poor wretched little pony.” sneered the skeleton, and then he boldly stepped forwards as Sleipnir stepped backwards, the skeleton seeming to grin wider as he stepped over the line and slammed his hoof down on the bridge. “For such a large stallion, you seem to be nothing but hot air and pretty words.”

Sleipnir smiled faintly and closed his eyes, and the skeleton laughed before he started to lean forwards... and then there was a burst of dust and a sound more like shattering glass than bone as broken ribs and pieces of skeleton flew in all directions, the skull bouncing off the edge of the bridge before it fell into the moat below, to shatter into dust against a stone.

The few pieces of the skeleton's haunch that remained fell apart, Sleipnir standing with one hoof extended and his eyes cold as he said quietly: “I shall be generous. Thou hast to the count of ten to be out of my sight, accursed and cowardly dogs. Then I shall break the rest of thy brittle bones.”

Sleipnir didn't even have to start the count before the rest of the skeletons turned and bolted into the woods, and the earth pony smiled wryly before he looked moodily at the flag they had left behind. He strode over to this, then yanked it out of the ground and snapped the pole in half before tossing the broken pieces to the ground, muttering: “By the gods. What craven and foolish creatures.”

The enormous earth pony turned around, and while Butch and Roger were gaping with amazement, Jack was frowning uneasily, leaning forwards and asking urgently: “What do we do? Sleipnir, there's only one of you, and you can't stand out here and fight the entire army yourself. But there's nowhere for us to run...”

“Aye, there is not. And we have done too much work here, made this into thy home: to run would only be an act of cowardice, nothing more.” Sleipnir replied calmly, shaking his head slowly, and then he gave a soft sigh. “But aye, we shall have to prepare for war.”

He stopped, turning to regard the fortress silently before shaking his head briefly. “I do not like needless violence. Oh, certainly, I enjoy the battle, I thrill in the challenge of a strong foe... but when two true warriors fight, it should be as if a dance. One seeking to prove themselves the better, but not to kill, not to cripple nor maim. And if I should meet a monster, I do not fight with the intent to slay: I turn my eyes away from that black abyss, and focus upon doing what I must to protect others. Only Tyrant Wyrms I have never felt compassion for, and that is because they are less beast, and more terrible, insidious machine, parasites beyond nature...”

Sleipnir quieted, lowering his head as the ponies looked at him uncomfortably, and then he smiled briefly. “I shall not teach thee to make war. I shall teach thee to defend thyselves. And all of thee must promise to be wiser than these fools who march against us.”

Jack Lantern sighed quietly, and then he said finally: “We'll... do whatever you tell us, Sleipnir. What... what do you suggest?”

“I suggest that you fill the moat with kindling and oil. There are too many vulnerabilities in your thin sewer walls.” came a moody voice, and Sleipnir smiled a little as the misfits looked back in surprise at Auros. “The ghosts won't be able to get inside. But that won't stop them from... other... unfortunate tactics.”

“Aye, tactics that we shall defeat with plenty of ale and song tonight!” Sleipnir declared with a stomp. The ponies looked at him incredulously, but to his surprise, the Lich only gave a wry smile. “See? Auros, thou understands!”

“I dislike you. But what I dislike even more is that your idea is not a terrible one.” Auros replied moodily, and then he shook his head slowly. “I... I will stay watch tonight. I know better than any of you how the ghosts will act.”

The misfits looked uncomfortably at Auros, and the Lich scowled at them before saying contemptibly: “Oh, what, frightened that the awful Lich is going to sell you all down the river? Well, as loathe as I am to point this out, I am unfortunately defenseless at the moment and Roch clearly wants to either enslave me or destroy me entirely.”

“Oh, shush, they are likely just surprised thou art able to have more than selfish thoughts now and again.” Sleipnir replied mildly, and Auros gave the earth pony a moody look before the earth pony said quietly: “But we have little time right now for merriment. Come. We must make preparations quickly for the attack.”

“How serious is this, Sleipnir?” Blueblood asked worriedly as he limped up beside Auros, and Sleipnir smiled briefly, the prince hesitating before saying slowly: “I could inform Auntie...”

“Nay, nay. There is no need for such extremes, fear not.” Sleipnir replied, shaking his head quickly, and then he smiled wider before teasing gently: “Unless, of course, this is thy way of saying thou art afraid and now want to run home.”

“Quiet, Sleipnir. You... peasant.” Blue grumbled, shaking his head firmly, but he couldn't help but smile himself all the same... and he hated that, he really did. No matter what happened, Sleipnir always brought optimism and hope to a situation, always found a way to make him smile, even if he was aching and afraid...

Then Sleipnir stomped a hoof lightly before declaring: “Come, friends! There is no more time to dally now. Let us speedily make our preparations: we shall need every pony on hoof if we are to be ready for this!”

The misfits nodded, and Blueblood shifted uneasily, only hoping that they would be able to save all these ponies: even if he had all the faith in the world in Sleipnir, one of the lessons he had learned over the last few months was that nothing was certain... and that even a hero like Sleipnir could only protect other ponies so much.

If they were going to survive this, then these misfits were going to have to learn they couldn't just hide from all their problems: they were going to have to learn to stand up for themselves.

The day was long and difficult, and yet somehow Blueblood got through it on his hooves... which was more than could be said for some of the misfits. Yet even if quite a few of them looked at him with newfound respect, he didn't feel like lording over them, or even all that much pride: what he felt most was concern for the misfits who had given up or complained that they didn't have the skills or talents to be helpful.

One or two misfits had vanished entirely, much to Sleipnir's great disappointment. But both he and Jack Lantern had recognized there was nothing they could really do for them once the ponies fled into the wild, except hope that they escaped safely... although Auros had almost immediately ruined any hopes by noting ghosts were already lurking outside, and what they should really be doing was hope that Roch was too stupid to make the ponies who had fled into thralls.

As evening settled in, Sleipnir had everyone gather in the large dining room in the main building, where he had gathered kegs of wine and ale, bedrolls and cushions and blankets, and enough kindling to keep the fireplace burning for the entire night.

The earth pony cajoled them into telling stories, and singing songs, and enjoying each other's company. Blueblood sat outside the door, not because he wanted to be apart from the misfits and Sleipnir, but instead to get as much sleep as he could before the early morning hours, when he'd promised to switch out watch with Invidia. For now, the demon was only sitting nearby and watching him with a silent smile on her face, but her presence was... almost comforting. Even if he still had yet to get over those scary golden eyes of hers.

Auros was outside, standing on top of the front wall of the fortress and looking moodily down into the darkness as the wind howled around him... and below, the ghosts screamed and danced back and forth. Even as a Lich, the sounds bothered him: he pretended it was annoyance, but... seeing these wretched spirits leaping back and forth, shrieking as if they were in pain, then laughing and shouting hollow insults...

The Lich shook his head briefly, then he grimaced a little as he saw a strange, grinning pony approaching. She was matted with snow and forest debris, branches tangled in her mane, eyes glowing with hellish and unnatural light before she screamed: “Jolly Roger! I'm out here! Come and save me!”

Auros grimaced and looked hesitantly over his shoulder, but thankfully the music and the merriment coming from the keep was so loud, he could hear it from here. And that meant it likely drowned out the thrall's screaming, as the Lich looked back down over the battlements.

He didn't speak: he only pushed his hooves against the stone wall and silently wished for the monster to go away as he closed his eyes tightly. But the thrall continued to shriek and yell, twisting jaggedly, unnaturally back and forth as it paced drunkenly in front of the moat: with the drawbridge up, there was no way for it to cross into the fortress. Auros hoped that the awful thing would either fall in or give up and go away...

Then the Lich looked up in surprise as he heard hooves on the stone beside him, before he sighed almost in relief as Invidia approached, the undead unicorn muttering: “You frightened me.”

“I should.” Invidia smiled kindly to the Lich, who winced back a bit before the mare laughed quietly. “It was merely a joke. There is no need to fear, Auros... not so long as you continue to help the angel and our handsome prince.”

Auros gave an uneasy smile, and then he cleared his throat before muttering: “Well, it's... not like I have a whole lot of choice in the matter, do I? But what are you doing out here, it's not-”

“I was curious. I wanted to see how you were doing. I will return to my post shortly.” Invidia said softly, and then she leaned forwards over the battlements, adding quietly: “What a pathetic wretch. Even if the spirits could puppet that pony's body properly, they would still strike the shield trying to sneak her into our camp... are you sure this Roch is such a threat?”

“Numbers are always a threat. And you will excuse me if I feel that I've learned something about underestimating my opponents.” the Lich mumbled, reaching up and rubbing awkwardly at his forehead before he sighed a little. “I do not dare to guess what other horrors Roch has let out of the vaults and the dungeons...”

“I think you must have been a mighty king, to have kept all this in check. I think that Sleipnir merely failed to understand that you always did what was in your people's best interests... for in giving them freedom, look what they have done.” Invidia said gently, gesturing outwards over the ghosts and the puppeted corpse lurking on the other side of the moat.

Auros studied the mare warily, shifting uncertainly before he gave a brief smile and looked ahead, muttering: “Well, at least somepony here understands my vision...”

“It is beautiful.” Invidia said empathetically, and Auros gave her another uncomfortable look before the demon queried: “How did you make them obey, though? What manner of power must you have had, to make these animals bow before you and respect you?”

The Lich looked for a few moments at the demon, and then he suddenly turned away, crossing his forelegs over the edge of the wall and muttering: “I... I don't want to have this conversation with you, demon. I... I am no bully.”

A flash of hatred and anger passed over Invidia's features, but when Auros looked at her sharply, she was again smiling kindly, bowing her head to him politely as she said softly: “Of course. It's your choice... and I did not mean to insult you, my friend. I was merely... curious.”

Auros looked at her uncomfortably for a few moments, and then he bit his lip before shifting a pace away. Invidia's eyes narrowed dangerously at this, but then she simply turned on her heel and left, the Lich turning away from the battlements to watch almost fearfully as the demon made her way across the courtyard and back to the keep.

He didn't feel safe again until the door swung closed behind her, and when the Lich turned around, suddenly the screaming and the howling and the whimpering below wasn't bothering him nearly as much: he had realized there were much more frightening things in the world than some silly noises.

It was a few long, boring hours before another visitor came to speak to him, and Auros frowned as Sleipnir clomped up the stone steps to nod to him and ask curiously: “What is happening, friend?”

Auros shrugged a little, gesturing moodily down at the ghosts that were still cavorting around the outside of the moat: now the night had grown deep and clouds had obscured the moon's pale light, wraiths had appeared as well, grinning and slowly stalking around the fortress as if trying to size up their prey. “What you see.”

“Aye... and there, poor fool.” Sleipnir shook his head slowly as his eyes settled on the possessed pony, who cried up to him miserably... but there was an undercurrent of cruel amusement in her fearful tone, and her features were still twisted into a hideous, excited grin. “I was worried this would happen. Foul, tormented creature... and thou says these ghosts...”

“They are not my creations, no.” the Lich said stiffly, and Sleipnir only smiled at the undead unicorn, who felt a little stupid for his defensiveness.

But all the same, he cleared his throat and looked away before mumbling: “I don't want to know what Roch is doing. I... I tried to maintain order, you know. I was a good king. I was a strong king. I... look at what they've become without my guiding hoof!”

“Or perhaps they have become this because of how thou guided them.” Sleipnir said gently, and the Lich was stunned into silence by this before the earth pony reached up and squeezed Auros' shoulder gently. “But the past is the past: look now upon what the past has wrought and learn from thy mistakes, but do not dwell on it, nor what could have been.”

The Lich only lowered his head, not speaking, and for a little while there was silence between the two before Sleipnir asked quietly: “If I give thee thy phylactery, will it speed up thy healing? I do not know when the Dead King's army shall march upon us, but... every bit of strength would be welcome now. And I know thou shan't flee.”

“Oh really? You... you know me so well now, do you?” The Lich's voice lacked conviction or real venom, however, turning biting sarcasm into a meek question.

“Aye, I do.” Sleipnir replied kindly, smiling down at Auros. “Thou hast sought redemption thy entire life. Thou hast sought to do good and to be good, for the foolish way thou lived, treating others as less than they were worth, for selfishly hoarding thy love away... until the day it vanished, for not even vaults of iron can protect us from what destiny wills. But thou did not abandon thy friends, even if they always thought it so, did thou? Nay. Thou made this bargain in vain, to try and protect them. And thy failure to is not thy fault.”

The Lich shoved himself backwards, looking up with shock at Sleipnir as he nearly fell over, shaking his head weakly and whispering: “Y-You... you don't know... y-you couldn't know...”

Sleipnir only chuckled quietly, turning his eyes ahead and smiling as he said softly: “But thou told me. And while I am not as good as my nephew at reading ponies, I have always found it much easier than reading silly books and histories. Besides, for all thou claims to be mighty undead, thou wears thy heart upon thy sleeve... why, look at the way thou hast reached out to these ponies! Look at how thou treats thy imagined debt to me: not with grace, perhaps, but with stubborness and resolve. And those are much more valuable.”

The Lich looked away silently, rubbing at his face slowly before he shook himself quickly out. There was silence for a few moments, and then he lowered his head and whispered: “It was not my friends, you were wrong about that. It was my little brother. I was... I was supposed to watch him, he was... he was ill of mind. But instead, I made sport of him, even though he loved me, looked up to me... until the day... until the day I took the game too far.”

He lowered his head, trembling, before he looked up and almost pleaded: “People, all people, need a firm hoof and a guide! Need to be told what is right and wrong, and by any means necessary... otherwise they insist upon... upon this! Look at this violence, this escalation... look at what mercy wrought! When will you learn?”

Sleipnir only smiled kindly, and then he stepped forwards and reached up to squeeze the Lich's shoulder, looking down at him and replying gently: “I do see what my mercy has wrought, Auros. I look at the stallion who stands in front of me, and I know that I have done the right thing.”

Auros was dumbstruck by this, and then Sleipnir easily pulled the Lich into a brief embrace for a moment before he simply patted him on the back and strode away.

The Lich only sat with his head down for the longest time, rubbing quietly at his face. And early in the morning, he looked up and somehow found himself unsurprised to see Blueblood was striding towards him, the Lich surveying the stallion silently before he murmured: “I forgot how strong mortals are. It's so easy to call them frail when your body never tires or dies, but...”

Blue only shrugged slowly, smiling a little: he was wearing his armor, his sword sheathed over his back, his shaggy mane pulled back under his helm. “Well, coffee and a potion Sleipnir made for me have done wonders.”

The Lich smiled briefly, then looked silently out towards the empty fields: the phantasms had all retreated, abandoning the now-rotting corpse of the misfit they had been puppeting most of the night. The prince hesitantly stepped up beside him, then cleared his throat before he said softly: “Sleipnir is a rather difficult pony. From one monarch to another, he is the worst kind of subject: dirty, ignorant, constantly flouting the law. And worst of all, he's usually right.”

“I don't doubt Sleipnir. And I'm certain that he'll do everything he can to protect these ponies, and perhaps... I can admire that.” the Lich said softly, shaking his head slowly as Blueblood looked at him with surprise. “Not that I don't think he's an idiot for other reasons. If he hadn't shown mercy in the first place, we wouldn't be here.”

Blueblood only shrugged, replying after a moment: “Perhaps, but... I don't know. Sleipnir often doesn't do things that make sense to anypony but him, but... he... he is a better leader than I could ever be. Which certainly isn't saying much, but... he's helped me become a far better stallion.”

Auros only grunted, and the two looked towards the sunrise, and they shifted awkwardly before Auros finally asked: “Are you really Celestia's son?”

“I... no, Celestia is my Auntie.” Blueblood said, looking surprised as he looked over at Auros. “I'm her nephew. Sort of. She... she brought me into her family after I lost my parents.”

“I find it interesting that you don't seem to know much about magic, though. I could see that she taught you how to focus and control your magic quite well, but few actual spells.” the Lich said, and Blueblood cleared his throat awkwardly, looking lamely away and not wanting to admit that it was actually Sleipnir who had taught him how to focus. “I'd think the so-called 'Prince' should be able to move the sun himself by now.”

“I'm not really a prince.” Blueblood grumbled, feeling oddly defensive before he shook his head quickly, shifting a little before he glanced down at the emblem engraved over his breastplate. “I... well, I don't honestly remember what my special talent is supposed to be. I was always so focused on being... royalty, as if I had some claim to the throne, that...”

He quieted, and the Lich shook his head almost disapprovingly before he sniffed loudly and looked ahead. Blueblood only scowled at him, however, then said dryly: “Well, I don't even see a cutie mark on you, blank flank. And no matter what an awful prince I was, I certainly never drove my own people into staging a hunt for my head.”

Auros glowered over at Blueblood, and then he grumbled under his breath before looking back ahead, muttering: “My emblem isn't important anymore, I am a Lich. It's one of the things I gave up to become what I am now. And in any event, I don't know of any other Lich even half as powerful as I am, nor who managed to keep every detail of their old body present.”

“Luna's darling mare always did well with her own body, including her emblem. Of course, she would never let me inspect every inch of her, but Luna assured me many times over that yes, she was precisely the same as she was in life.” came Sleipnir's cheery voice, and Auros sighed as Blue smiled despite himself.

The enormous earth pony tromped up the steps to join them, then he peered for a moment over the wall before adding kindly: “'Tis good to see the two of thee having a chat. Aye, this is as good a time to be happy as any, for I fear that all too soon, we will be in the midst of battle and strife.”

Blueblood grimaced a little, and Auros scowled before he gestured outwards, saying distastefully: “Even if he's brasher and crueler than I remembered, there's no way that Roch is going to risk an assault in broad daylight... not when an army of the dead should have all the time in the world to simply sit outside these walls and let us die from within.”

“Aye, one would think that. And yet can thou not hear it?” asked Sleipnir, gesturing outwards: Auros frowned at this, and Blueblood hesitated before closing his eyes and raising his head, trying his hardest to do what Sleipnir always did, listening to the wind and the world and nature...

Blueblood frowned a little... and then his eyes widened in disbelief as he thought he heard... something. It was like a pulse, an impossible whisper; difficult to describe and yet something that sounded so familiar to him, like it had been everywhere he'd ever been all his life, and he'd just gotten so used to not listening for it, not acknowledging it...

As Blueblood stared dumbly into the air, Auros scoffed and shook his head shortly, saying sourly: “There is no possible way you can know anything of what's going on in Roch's camp. And I hear nothing. You may have some... strange talents, but... what? What is it?”

Auros scowled at the enormous earth pony, but Sleipnir only continued to smile warmly as he gestured easily past the Lich. And Auros followed his gaze to look with surprise at Blueblood, who had his ears swiveled to the south, staring into the distance as he whispered: “There's so many of them... S-Sleipnir, there's so many of them!”

“Aye, but we will survive this siege, fear not.” Sleipnir said gently, before he glanced up at the sky and murmured: “Nature will aid us: her winds have been cruel these last few days, and they will continue to blow, to bring down the weight of her hardest snow. And while the cold will do little, the weight of snow and ice will make even our enemies falter.”

Auros grimaced at this, then he shook his head and muttered: “A trick. That's all this is, another stupid little trick... well, I won't be deceived that easily, Sleipnir. And... and even if you are right, we have little to fear until tonight.”

But Sleipnir only looked out into the distance as Blueblood shook himself out, feeling strange as he hammered absently at the side of his head, shivering not at the cold, but at that strange pulse that seemed to be reverberating through his whole body. Like the ticking of a clock that he'd been used to for so long, it had just become part of daily life, but now that he'd reminded himself it was there, he could hear every tick and tock...

The Lich looked between the two of them, and then he sighed tiredly before asking dryly: “Oh, what, does your earth pony magic tell you what Roch is going to do?”

“Nay. But nature has warned me they are full of bloodlust and short of mind. They are afraid and angry, and not just of thee.” Sleipnir said softly, looking out into the distance. “When such an army marches, they show little in the way of patience or virtue.”

Auros grimaced a bit, and then Blueblood asked quietly: “What can I do to help? There must be something, Sleipnir... and I am honestly feeling much stronger than yesterday.”

Sleipnir studied the young prince for a moment, and then he said finally: “Aye, there is, and I see there is no deterring thou from helping, no matter how much I tell thee to rest. First, find Invidia and have her place several wards in the sewers, in case our enemy breaks in through the moat. Even once we set it ablaze, flames shan't last forever.

“Second, the munitions we created yesterday must be moved into the courtyard for easy access.” continued the earth pony, and Blueblood nodded quickly. “ I would do it myself, but the portcullis is still not repaired. I must see that the gate is dropped one way or another, and ensure the drawbridge is as secure as can be.”

“Alright, Sleipnir. I'll see to it right away.” Blue said quickly, and then he turned and hurried off, the earth pony watching him fondly as Auros frowned a little.

The Lich looked moodily towards the enormous earth pony, and then he said finally: “What is he, your child? Because you seem unnaturally attached to each other.”

“Nay, nay. I think of him as brother, really.” Sleipnir replied with a smile, shaking his head briefly. “It is simply... good to see him growing. He and I... we have traveled much together. Far and wide across Equestria, and I am proud to have him as a companion on this journey.”

The stallion halted, then shook his head slowly before he said softly: “Aye. I love him dearly, and I think that he has come to see me as a mentor. But I am not, not really. I teach and share with him what I can, but he teaches and shares just as much with me, whether he knows it or not. I am no ruler, no leader: any sway I have over his thoughts and decisions comes from what he gives me.”

“I doubt he knows that.” the Lich said wryly, and then he shook his head before studying Sleipnir meditatively. “The fact that you think so much of everyone is not a strength, Sleipnir. It's a weakness. It's a vulnerability.”

Sleipnir only gave the Lich that infuriating, ever-patient, ever-kind look in return, and then he smiled before saying gently: “If thou desires to help, perhaps thou can assist Jolly Roger. He is trying to prepare weapons and armor, but I fear he knows little of our foe, or what he is doing. He is a pirate, after all. Pirates are fond of their swingy swords, which will be of little use.”

The Lich grumbled a little under his breath, and then he nodded briefly before saying moodily: “I'll see what I can find that's iron, and teach the ponies how to deal with... my former people.”

Auros dropped his head, and then Sleipnir started: “This is not a betrayal on thy part, Auros, Thou art only-”

“You are only going to shut up.” Auros muttered, looking away with a grimace before his eyes flicked moodily back towards Sleipnir. “Let's keep one thing straight. I haven't made any promises. Whether I have a kingdom or not, I am still the Lich King, and... there... there is no other place for me in this world but beneath the earth.”

“Now thou sounds like these misfits.” Sleipnir remarked gently, and the Lich scowled darkly at the earth pony before Sleipnir turned and headed down the steps, calling over his shoulder: “Besides, there is no place at all for me in this world, and yet I seem to have adjusted quite well to it!”

The earth pony headed quickly to the front of the fortress, studying the raised drawbridge for a moment before he turned his eyes to the raised portcullis. The immense iron gate was stuck roughly halfway down, thanks to how badly rusted it was: he thought part of frame was bent as well, but it was difficult to tell with half the portcullis still hidden from sight.

Sleipnir spent at least an hour working on the gate, using mostly his bare hooves, brute force, and a little help from the giantess Bertha when she came along. But that was all he needed to eventually drag the gate down and firmly plant it into the ground.

“Thou art truly a wonder.” Sleipnir complimented the enormous mare, and she gave him a thin smile before he looked thoughtfully over at the wheel that controlled the drawbridge, asking meditatively: “Does thou think that perhaps now that I have fixed something, I should go ahead and break something else?”

Bertha grunted and nodded, and Sleipnir winked at her, saying cheerfully: “Thou truly are a mare after mine own heart, I shall have thee know.”

And then the stallion turned towards the wheel and grasped tightly into it before gritting his teeth and yanking as hard as he could, and the wheel groaned loudly before popping out of place, the chains around it rattling and clanking before Sleipnir shoved hard to the side, more gears popping and snapping out of place as the broken wheel was left anchored awkwardly, half in and half out of the foundation it had been set in.

Bertha grunted as Sleipnir looped the little loose chain he could around the large handles on the wheel, and then he glanced up curiously as a voice asked him disbelievingly: “What the hell are you doing? What... how are we supposed to get out of here now?”

“Believe me, Jack Lantern. The problem will be keeping the enemies out, not us inside.” Sleipnir replied, turning around with a nod and a grimace. “I do not wish to alarm thee, but the army of the dead is on the march, and it is rapidly cutting the distance towards us with each passing moment.”

“Oh no.” The old stallion gritted his teeth and shook his head, then he said uneasily: “We're... we're not ready for this, Sleipnir. These ponies are on the verge of panic and hysterics... at this rate, they're all going to want to cut and run or try and hide.”

Bertha growled and stomped a hoof, and Jack sighed tiredly, looking at her almost pleadingly. “Well, they're afraid, that's why. Most of the ponies here have spent their lives... running away from everything. Running away in order to survive.”

“Nay, running away was not what saved most of them. Running away was what caused so many of them the pains they faced.” Sleipnir said softly, and then he looked towards the keep, asking quietly: “How many will be able to fight?”

“Seven. Maybe.” The old pony muttered after a moment, and then he shook his head slowly. “They're frightened. You're asking them to fight a battle where even the Royal Guard would hesitate.”

Sleipnir only gave a brief smile, shrugging and responding: “We fight a fierce foe, aye, but the choice is to fight or to die. The Dead King's specters will not allow them to escape.”

“And how are we supposed to deal with those ghosts, anyway? What are you even planning, Sleipnir?” asked Jack Lantern almost angrily, and the enormous earth pony simply looked at the old stallion until he lowered his head and sighed, muttering: “I apologize. It... I just don't see how we're supposed to do this. How we're supposed to survive.”

“I cannot give any guarantees. All I can say is that so long as we all work together, we will figure a way through this. Together.” Sleipnir emphasized, and Jack nodded moodily before the vine-maned stallion strode past, saying quickly: “I shall marshal those I can find. Thou may find thyself surprised what the right encouragements can do for any pony.”

Jack only shrugged... but within two hours, Sleipnir had more than doubled the old stallion's estimate, and found no less than fifteen ponies willing to help with the defense of their home. Not to say the other ponies wouldn't be helping in their own way: two mares were on medical duty, and a group of ponies had been assigned to preparing food, keeping the lanterns burning, and other small but crucial tasks.

Auros had promised to keep an eye on the wards and to restore what magic he could: Sleipnir was unsurprised to find that Invidia had taken her own initiative and given the Lich his phylactery back, and wearing it seemed to be helping Auros regenerate and allowed him to cast a few small spells by drawing on the powers encased in the blood ruby. But what Sleipnir was most glad for was the fact that Auros was helping them of his own free will: he easily could have run off to hide, and perhaps with his phylactery, even made a quick escape through the sewers... but instead, here he was. Helping.

Invidia had vanished for now: not only to feed, but also to get some help from some 'demonic friends.' Sleipnir felt strangely uneasy about this, but at the same time, he recognized it was necessary: they would need every available hoof, after all. And he had learned not to turn down the help of even demons, just because it seemed strange to ally himself with the darker forces of the world.

Blueblood, lastly, would be on the rear wall, behind the keep: Sleipnir was afraid that the undead might try and sneak around the back of the fortress instead of simply yanking down the drawbridge and flooding inside, so Blue, two volunteer soldiers, and Betty Hear would stay on the northern ramparts, where they could alert Sleipnir if there were any attempts to sneak in.

Blue wasn't entirely happy to have been relegated to the back of the building, but he recognized that his job was important, and he knew he was still too weak and tired to be much use on the front lines. Sleipnir would guard the drawbridge and deal with the brunt of the forces, and Invidia and her demons would hopefully arrive before the undead army managed to force the bridge down.

The unicorn didn't think they'd have to worry about that too much, though: the drawbridge's chains had been nailed and clamped into place along either side of the enormous gate, and he didn't imagine the undead army had any dragons with them to yank the bridge down. Then again, he could still feel that uncomfortable pulse in his mind, and it made him feel like... like there was something bad coming, all the same. Something threatening, something... vile.

Sleipnir felt it too, and he grimaced a bit as he looked up into the snowy skies: everyone was in position, and a heavy, blanketing snow was falling, whipped now and then into miniature tornadoes of frost by the powerful winds that seemed to be haunting their fortress. The earth pony was half-glad, half-frustrated by it: on the one hoof, at least they wouldn't have to worry about any attacks from the dragon that had already been enough of a source of trouble for this fortress, but on the other, it concealed the approaching undead from view...

And he knew that everyone could feel it now: that army of the dead, drawing slowly but inexorably closer. Sleipnir could even hear them, pushing through the trees, clanking bone and metal together, and... heavy breathing, too, along with sounds that were almost bovine. He thought he recognized those sounds, and it filled him with loathing and contempt as he muttered: “In my Father's name... would they really practice the same arts they preached against?”

He leaned forwards over the battlements, scowling through the snow... and then he swore under his breath as he saw a massive black carriage drawing slowly closer, drawn by several pony skeletons in heavy harnesses, huge iron wheels crunching through the powder. There was an enormous, empty window in the front of the carriage, and he could vaguely see an armored figure inside, resting back with one foreleg draped over a huge axe...

Sleipnir leaned forwards as his eyes widened, and then the shape in the carriage leaned suddenly forwards, a cruel grin on the face of the zombie as he grinned coldly up at Sleipnir: not the skeleton mage, but instead the undead warrior who Sleipnir had refused to duel. “There you are! We have a score to settle, you and me... and this time, I don't think you're going to be able to run away!”

Sleipnir gritted his teeth, but the zombie only laughed loudly as he picked up his axe before leaping out of the carriage, his eyes gleaming beneath a spiky black crown. “Let me guess, you don't want to fight again? Well that's just fine. I don't want to duel you, either. I'm above that now. I am the King of the Dead, and you'll tremble before the power I have!”

The zombie slammed the axe into the ground in front of him, grinning cruelly as enormous, hunchbacked flesh golems strode up on either side of the carriage, chains that looked as if they had been melded into their bodies jangling over their forms.

And soon, they were joined by an entire horde: skeletons, zombies, flickering ghosts and hideous, ugly things wearing badly-put-together armor. Sleipnir swore quietly as the horde grew and grew by the moment, the Dead King laughing again before he gestured behind him with a sweep of his axe, saying darkly: “Do you see what we're capable of now? Do you understand that you should have all been good little boys and girls, and just given up Auros? We aren't going to let you surrender or show any of you fleshsacks any quarter! We're going to kill all of you!”

“I suppose we shall see.” Sleipnir said quietly, and then the earth pony shook his head slowly as he looked silently down over the army of the dead, before raising his head and asking clearly: “Where is the one named Roch?”

“Executed for treason, along with most of his mage friends. Never trust a magic user.” growled the Dead King, grinding his axe against the ground before he gestured over his shoulder with a cruel smile as a skeleton mage came forwards, holding a staff in his telekinetic grip... and Sleipnir bared his teeth in disgust as he realized that the crystalline staff was tipped with another unicorn's horn. “Although at least before they died, plenty of them decided to make one last donation to my new empire. To make up a little for their heresy.”

“Heresy? So thou would consider thyself a god now?” Sleipnir shook his head slowly, looking strangely disappointed before he muttered: “What foulness. What foolishness... what failure and ruin. Look upon thy army of shivering, fearful dead, and look at thy reflection, see what thou hast become. Oh, pathetic and wretched creature... how I wish the scales would fall from thine eyes.”

The Dead King only smiled cruelly, leaning up and saying coldly: “Oh, you think you're so clever, you think you're so capable... but you're neither, earth pony. You're just a wandering idiot with no home to go back to, and no warriors to call on.”

“Do not think that just because thou hast an army at thy beck and call, any one of them is a warrior, cur.” Sleipnir said coldly, shaking his head and looking disapprovingly down at the Dead King, before his eyes flicked slowly over the group: he could feel the mix of fear and anger and hatred that was running through their uneven ranks. He saw battered weapons and badly-maintained armor, he saw old siege equipment that had seen their glory days long ago and had been mishandled and damaged by the rough, long march here. “Aye. There are more warriors in my camp than there are in all thy kingdom.”

“Tough words. But that's all they are, words.” sneered the Dead King, and then he rose his axe above his head, shouting over his shoulder: “Auros is hiding inside, behind this mollycoddling clay pony and his friends! Let's tear down that bridge and show this weakling the might of our kingdom, and why the dead do not fear either mortals or the day!”

Some of his soldiers roared... and on the other extreme, some simply shifted fearfully, not moving even as their fellows pushed forwards to the edge of the trench. Sleipnir shook his head in disgust at how sloppy they were, then he grimaced as the undead began to pull loose chains from the sides of the golems: he realized now that all the chains melted into the sides of the creatures ended in long hooks, meaning these poor creatures had been transformed into living siege artillery.

Other skeletons had hurried forwards as ghosts began to rampage through the skies, laughing and cackling. The Dead King was shouting, egging on his troops, mocking and challenging them, but Sleipnir felt less fear and more like they were being besieged by angry, miscreant foals who still hadn't realized this wasn't a game.

The stallion only shook his head slowly, even as dead warriors grabbed grappling hooks and ropes to fling them wildly at the walls... but the fortress was tall and strong, the winds and snow fierce and heavy, and the undead not nearly as powerful as they thought they were.

“What do we do? They're going to get over the walls!” Butch shouted almost frantically as he hurried towards him, but Sleipnir only held up a hoof for silence, turning a serious, almost-cold gaze on the smaller earth pony.

Butch stumbled to a halt, swallowing thickly and looking up at the enormous stallion, who suddenly seemed imposing and unreadable, his presence making the smaller pony shrink ever-so-slightly. Then he followed Sleipnir's hoof as the vine-maned pony pointed down at the mass of undead, and Butcher watched as the grappling hooks fell into the pit or uselessly bounced off the stone walls.

One managed to actually lodge in place near the edge of the pit, and the skeleton tried stupidly to jump forwards, tugging on the rope... before yelling as the grappling hook ripped free of the ice and dirt, sending the undead soldier plummeting down with a loud crunch. Sleipnir shook his head in distaste as Butch smiled weakly, looking up at the stallion and touching his own chest as he mumbled: “I... I see, yeah. I'm sorry, Sleipnir, I didn't mean to go into hysterics like a scared filly on you.”

“'Tis fine.” Sleipnir smiled, and while he was still serious, it turned him from a menacing goliath back into the friendly stallion that the entire fortress had come to trust in. “Nay, we must not panic. There is no need to panic, for I recognize these foolhardy excuses for 'tactics;' spread word to be calm, and to not react unless a hook manages the top of the wall. But with both the weather and distance against them, they will likely exhaust themselves before they manage a way up.”

Butch nodded hesitantly, and then he turned and quickly headed down the battlements. Sleipnir smiled briefly before he turned his eyes forwards, almost sadly looking over the army of the dead.

His eyes settled on the Dead King, who was laughing, driving his forces on as they uselessly flung their rusted grappling hooks and shifted back and forth near the edge of the pit. Some of the other undead soldiers were pushing siege artillery and rolling walls into place, and a few were trying to assemble haphazard, rotten-looking ladders... but it almost hurt Sleipnir's heart to see how many of the soldiers were just sitting there, looking confused or like they were trying to hide.

Sleipnir shook his head slowly, then he sighed and pushed away from the battlements, ignoring the catcalls of the Dead King as he headed down into the courtyard. While the undead army had its tantrum outside, he could at least make sure they were stocked and ready for the conflict ahead. He knew now, after all, that it was going to be short and brutal and cruel, and as long as they kept their heads, their greatest weapon against the Dead King would be the warmonger himself.

That thought brought little comfort with it, but all the same, Sleipnir smiled faintly: not at the thought of destroying the enemy, but at the hope that they would be able to get through this with minimal pain and suffering for these misfits. He only hoped that when the Dead King was defeated, these ponies would remember to show mercy to those poor, tormented souls outside who had been too foolish to listen... and now were going to learn that those who lived by cruelty, died under the weight of their own sins.