• 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.

  • ...

The Dead King's Folly

Chapter Twenty Three: The Dead King's Folly

When Sleipnir returned to the battlements only an hour later, he discovered that only three hooks had managed to actually managed to reach the wall, and these had all been quickly cut loose. The Dead King hadn't ordered any changes to his tactics, though, apparently content to sit back in his carriage and continue the full-frontal attack.

These were vicious, rabid tactics, and Sleipnir was sorely disappointed and disgusted by it. With only a little bit of patience, the undead army could have easily forced an engagement on their own terms by setting up a camp around the fortress. They even could have tried flanking them, or started building bridges of their own to bypass the moat.

The most strategy they had employed so far was to send several skeletons down into the bottom of the moat to try and find a weakness. And Sleipnir knew there were several walls that could be knocked down, niches and cracks to be exploited, and he hadn't had enough time to do more than put up a simple bulwark at the sewer entrance. But the scouting party had either miraculously missed all of that, or decided nothing they'd seen was worth the effort to try and take advantage of.

The ghosts had tried to carry the massive hooks chained to the flesh golems across to the drawbridge, but they had been repelled by the spirit wards and quickly given up. Now the unicorn mages were trying to literally fling the heavy hooks into place... and while Sleipnir knew they'd eventually succeed, it would clearly take much more luck than skill. And by the time they managed to bring the drawbridge down, Sleipnir would have his counterattack ready.

He had ordered the volunteers not to attack, but to instead study their opponents and to be patient. So apart from cutting a few ropes, there had been no real conflict with the enemy... and yet the Dead King's army had already lost at least ten soldiers, who had jumped, jostled, or tripped and fallen into the moat. It was doing quite a bit for the morale of the misfits, at least.

The biggest threat that Sleipnir could see were the mages: there were only three of them, but with their staves enhancing their magic, they were able to fling even the anchor-sized hooks around like toys. If they realized that they could start bombarding the walls with magic, then they might actually be a threat...

But they clearly took all their orders from the Dead King, and from what Sleipnir could see, the Dead King expected his troops to do nothing more and nothing less than what he told them. Or at least the ones he could see: there were plenty of undead soldiers now lounging around, and the earth pony was fairly certain that a few had already deserted.

Then the enormous earth pony grimaced as there was a loud clanking below, looking down with distaste to see that one of the mages had actually managed to hook an anchor into the drawbridge. For a few moments, he studied this silently, and then he shook his head before muttering: “Wretched fools.”

The army roared as the Dead King leaned out of his carriage with a callous grin, shouting some mockery or profanity, but Sleipnir barely paid any attention to it. He instead looked back and forth at his own soldiers, holding a hoof up before he turned to call calmly down into the courtyard: “Lock, Shock, Barrel! 'Tis time for the three of thee to trade off with Blue and his companions!”

The skeletons in the courtyard hurriedly saluted, then turned and bolted for the keep: Sleipnir had decided to rearrange the positions of the soldiers a little to better take advantage of the barbarianism and idiocy of the Dead King.

Then the stallion frowned in surprise when he saw Auros approaching, the earth pony hesitating only a moment before he left his post, shooting one last glance over his shoulder: but the three mages were actually doing a worse job now of hurtling their hooks, and one had already managed to tangle his chain in the line that had anchored to the drawbridge. Assumption was the mother of failure in war, but Sleipnir figured he had at least a few minutes more of safety.

He headed down to the courtyard as the Lich approached, asking quietly: “Is something wrong, my friend? 'Tis important that thou maintains thy post, and-”

“I want to talk to Brutus.” Auros interrupted, and Sleipnir cocked his head, then reached up and quickly caught the Lich before he could push past. The undead unicorn glared at him, but as Sleipnir only looked back, he eventually lowered his head and muttered: “I... I want to try and reason with him. Because he's... he's going to get my whole kingdom killed, otherwise.”

Sleipnir smiled at this, and then he nodded firmly before patting him on the back, saying quietly: “Then go, with my blessing.”

Auros looked up at Sleipnir for a moment, then he gave a brief smile before striding past. He headed quickly up the stairs to the top of the wall... and the moment he appeared, there was a great roar and commotion, flickering ghosts shooting straight at him and undead hurling rocks and grappling hooks at the former Lich King.

The snow had lightened, but the winds were still fierce, and the aim of even the best soldiers was wild enough that the closest any of them got to hitting him was a rock that flew over his head and arced down into the courtyard to bounce off Sleipnir's rump, making him yelp. Auros looked mildly over his shoulder for a moment at this, then he shook his head slowly before turning his eyes back forwards as the Dead King roared: “You! You dare to show your face?”

Another ghost shot towards the Lich, but he looked up with distaste before the spirit bounced off the invisible shield enshelling the fortress, the ghost squealing and zigzagging wildly away. Then the Lich turned his eyes back down to Brutus, saying coldly: “I should have known that you would turn on Roch at the first chance you got. I should have known that even with as much as he hated me, Roch would never have done these things to his own citizens. Oh, yes, he was cruel and he would have preyed on the mortals, and he certainly would never have hesitated to make me or his enemies thralls... but you? Look at what you've done to our own people!”

“They aren't our people, they are my servants!” Brutus shouted furiously back, slamming his axe down into the front of the carriage and cutting the wall beneath the front window in half. Then he snarled before ripping his weapon to the side, smashing a large chunk of paneling out of place so he could leap down out of the carriage and snarl challengingly: “Come down here and fight me, Lich King! Offer up these mortals as sacrifice and maybe I'll consider letting you live as a thrall instead of shoving you into the soul press!”

Auros lowered his head, and then he looked up and said quietly: “I am not you. Look at what you've done. All I ever wanted for us was peace and prosperity, and now...”

“Shut up! Shut up, come down here and fight! Fight me, and let me rip open your body and drink your blood and your spirit! Fight me, and let me prove that I am the rightful King of the Dead!” roared the zombie, leaning forwards as he stomped a leg savagely several times.

Auros looked moodily at this, and then he smiled thinly before saying in a patronizing voice: “Horn or not, I wouldn't want to take advantage of a cripple, Brutus. What's wrong, you couldn't reattach your poor hoof?”

Brutus snarled in fury at this, and then he roared angrily before suddenly flinging his massive axe at the Lich. It flew a surprising distance... but then arced downwards and fell, hammering uselessly off the drawbridge and falling into the moat below with a thud. “Come down here and I'll show you how crippled I really am!”

The Lich King was silent for a moment, and then he simply turned away from the wall as the army of undead all looked fearfully at their leader, who was all but frothing at the mouth, his eyes glowing with unnatural hate, his armored body trembling with animal fury before he suddenly turned and seized a skeleton, snarling: “Go get my axe!”

He flung the skeleton over the edge of the moat, the undead pony screaming until he hit the ground with a thud, and the Dead King's eyes blazed before he glared sharply over his shoulder. And immediately, fearful soldiers scurried towards the moat to slide and clamber down before the Dead King could take his temper out on them.

Auros approached Sleipnir, the Lich hesitating a moment before he looked up and said finally: “I... if we survive this, Sleipnir, I will help you on one condition. You must... I plead for mercy for my people. And... I don't even know what that means, whether that means you must let them return to their kingdom or... let them go free.”

“It means that thou hast not forgotten who thou art.” Sleipnir reached up and gently squeezed Auros' shoulder, smiling at him compassionately. “Thou hast glimpsed mercy, and glimpsed what the lack of compassion and love can cause. Thou hast weighed them, and understood which is grain, and which is chaff. And thou hast given me something to be proud of, no matter how this battle goes.”

Auros dropped his head, looking strangely embarrassed before Sleipnir glanced up as there was a loud thunking, and a roar from the undead army, followed by a bellow from one of the golems. And then Sleipnir sighed, shaking his head and muttering: “They are luckier than they deserve. Head into the keep and tell the noncombatants to prepare their shelters.”

The Lich grimaced, but he nodded and headed quickly on about his task. He passed Blueblood as the prince strode towards Sleipnir, and the earth pony smiled without looking around before he said softly: “Blue. 'Tis time for us to begin fighting these foes. I shall leave thee here to marshal the troops whilst I mount an ambush, in the hopes of slowing their offensive. Can thou do this for me?”

“You don't want to wait for Invidia?” Blueblood was surprised at how even his own voice stayed, and then he smiled briefly as Sleipnir only gave him an entertained look over his shoulder. “Of course not. Just... be safe.”

“As safe as I can be, fear not. But nature promises to cloak me as best she can.” Sleipnir smiled slightly as he looked up into the air... and Blueblood could swear that he not only heard something, some whisper in his mind, but the snowfall began to grow all the heavier.

Blue took a slow breath, and then he strode up beside the stallion before nodding firmly once, gazing up the stairs and saying quietly: “I... I won't disappoint you.”

“I know.” Sleipnir reached up and knocked twice on Blue's helm, making him wince a bit. “Remember, thou art not alone. Thou hast my whole family looking out for thee.”

Blueblood smiled wryly, glancing over his shoulder... and then he stared in disbelief as he saw that Sleipnir was already gone. He mouthed wordlessly for a moment, then shook himself quickly before hurrying forwards.

He took position at the head of the battlements, leaning down and grimacing as he saw one of the flesh golems was slowly trying to drag the drawbridge down, rumbling as its claws dug deep trenches in the earth. Chains clinked and clanked as the old wood of the bridge groaned loudly, shuddering already just from the one golem pulling on it. If the mages managed to anchor the other hook...

Blueblood looked back and forth, then he gestured quickly towards the ponies who were closest to him. They both approached hesitantly, Butch asking nervously: “Where's Sleipnir? We aren't supposed to leave our posts, I thought...”

“I want you to pass an order down the line. Have the ponies with crossbows move in to where they can get clean shots at the mages. The rest of you prepare your explosives. Once the crossbows fire, aim high and deep into the ranks of the army. Whatever you do, do not aim at the ones in front, near the moat. It's better to toss too far than too short.” Blueblood instructed quickly.

Both ponies looked surprised, then nodded hesitantly. They began to turn away, and Blueblood quickly added: “Keep quiet and low. Let's catch them by surprise.”

The ponies nodded, dropping a little and hurrying down the line, and Blueblood smiled grimly before he leaned forwards over the battlements to study the enemy's position.

The Dead King was back in his carriage, barking orders. Several skeletons were dragging the zombie's axe slowly out of the moat, and the mages were all clustered in one area. The ghosts were cycling through the air, and a few of them had started to angrily divebomb the undead infantry, taking out their frustrations on their own.

One golem stood on one side of the mages, and the other was inching forwards towards the forest, the drawbridge groaning as it fought to stay raised against the creature's massive strength. But the snow and frozen earth were both making it hard to get good footholds, at least, and it seemed to be tiring, little by little.

Blueblood shook his head slowly... then glanced up as the three ponies who had been given crude crossbows all approached. They all had bolts loaded... although after a moment, Blue realized that one of the ponies had loaded the weapon backwards somehow, and he sighed before holding a hoof out, saying moodily: “Here.”

The pony blushed deeply and passed the weapon to him, covering her mouth as Blueblood quickly reloaded the weapon properly... and then stared when the mare simply turned and ran away, whimpering. He blinked slowly at this, and then one of the other mares said awkwardly: “She's always been sensitive. Uh... sorry?”

“Wonderful. And I used to want to be in charge of ponies.” Blue muttered moodily, and then he looked down at the crossbow in his hooves before grimacing. Here goes, I suppose... “We're going to aim at the mages. Lean up and look at them. Don't draw attention to yourselves, just look at them and tell yourself that's where you're going to fire.”

The ponies looked nervous, but they did what he said... which was just repeating what Sleipnir had taught him. Blueblood took a slow breath, doing the same himself before he slowly brought up his crossbow, muttering: “Now take aim...”

The two ponies brought their weapons up... and one fired prematurely, sending a bolt shooting down into the ranks of the undead army and knocking a skeleton sprawling. Immediately, a roar went up from the ranks... and unfortunately, the other ponies all took it as a sign to leap up from hiding behind the battlements to fling their homemade explosives over the walls.

Blueblood swore, glaring furiously at the pony who'd fired, and he flushed and scrambled to reload his crossbow; instead, he fumbled the quiver of bolts, sending ammunition spilling all over the walkway before he scrambled to pick it up... and in his hurry, flung his crossbow to the side, sending it plummeting down into the courtyard to shatter into splinters.

Blueblood swore again angrily, then spun around and leaned quickly over the edge as the second pony fired, her shot going wide and smacking into the flesh golem, with roared loudly and shook itself angrily. Then she screamed when one of the mages snapped his staff upwards and sent a massive fireball hurtling past, Blueblood wincing to the side before he took aim, gritting his teeth and feeling frustrated and furious and-

There was a sharp pulse in his mind, and it felt like... like something seized him, wrapping him up in a tight embrace that was both loving and firm. His breath caught in his chest, anger draining out of his body as surprise was steadily drowned out by a sense of calm and control, before he heard a whisper in his ear, telling him to trust himself, and trust in the wind...

He aimed down at a mage... and then shifted his aim slightly to the side under that voice's guidance. And when that wordless pulse in his mind told him to fire, he pulled the trigger without hesitation, sending the bolt streaking through the wintry air.

It was buffeted by a shriek of wind on the way down, the bolt rolling to the side in the air... and then slamming straight through the skull of one of the mages, knocking backwards in a broken heap as its staff sizzled wildly with energy. The weapon fell to the ground and unleashed a tremendous blast of arcane force, and the other two mages were buffeted high into the air, one of them crashing backwards into the Dead King's carriage and the other flailing wildly through the air before he dropped into the moat with a scream.

The flesh golems both roared and went into a panic, the one that was caught on the drawbridge pulling harder, wildly yanking on its chains as the other living siege engine bolted, smashing through the ranks of undead soldiers as the chains lashed back and forth behind it, devastating its own allies until the anchors caught in the frozen earth and ripped furrows through the ground as the monster stumbled, then fell face-first with a tremendous bang as skeletons and zombies scattered.

Blueblood gaped in disbelief... and then he looked dumbly down at the crossbow in his hooves before shaking himself out and quickly throwing the weapon to the stunned pony who had dropped his. “Here, just... just aim and shoot! We can do this! We-”

And then the unicorn was cut off as there was a tremendous groaning from below before the drawbridge was torn out of place, falling with a tremendous crash as the panicking flesh golem flopped forwards. Blueblood stared with horror as the Dead King booted the stunned skeleton mage out of the way, grinning viciously as he leapt down from his carriage and shouted: “Bring out the sappers! Do your duty for your King!”

Blueblood's horror only grew as he saw the army breaking rank, most of them fleeing in all directions... but out of the crowd, skeletons with what looked like barrels shoved inside their ribcages were charging straight for the bridge.

“Shoot them! Stop them!” Blue shouted, and then he turned and leapt down the stairs, gritting his teeth as he bolted across the courtyard towards the storage area.

He skidded to a halt, snapping his horn out to heft up an entire barrel of lantern oil even as his whole body twitched with pain at the exertion, before he stumbled around in a circle and ran straight back towards the doors. He gasped for breath as he sprinted towards them as he saw the sappers drawing rapidly closer before he glared up at the keg of oil.

The cork tore itself out of place, fuel sloshing out as Blueblood ran to one corner of the gate before skidding around and running straight across, upending the barrel at the same time to leave a gush of oil in his wake. Then he flung the barrel down against the badly-anchored wheel before turning to try and run-

A sapper smashed itself into the iron bars before it drove a hoof into a pressure fuse on its own belly, sending up a brief crack before there was a tremendous explosion. The rusted portcullis was warped and mangled by the blast, and Blueblood was sent hurtling with a howl of pain through the courtyard, crashing bonelessly down on his face and rolling violently several times to a broken sprawl.

Several more sappers leapt into the portcullis only moments later, and chunks of metal flew in all directions as the broken wheel was knocked tottering out of place. The maw of the archway became an inferno as the barrel of lantern oil exploded, the fires flaring higher as the Dead King laughed loudly, then shouted eagerly: “Go! Go, go, go!”

Undead soldiers roared and swarmed forwards onto the bridge even as volunteer soldiers yelled and pelted them from above with explosive projectiles: some of these missed, however, falling into the trench and igniting the trap below prematurely, the entire moat filling with flames in moments. But the only purpose it served now was to make it impossible for anyone to escape through the sewers, as the undead swarmed eagerly towards the front door of the fortress...

Except the first wave of skeletons and zombies screamed in agony as they tried to shove through the firewall, panicking before flinging themselves backwards into their own ranks. And the Dead King stared in disbelief as gold-tinged flames leapt from soldier to soldier almost greedily, spreading through the ranks of his army before a sapper that had gotten caught up with the rest of the group squealed as it caught in the middle of group of suddenly-burning bodies.

It exploded with a tremendous bang, blowing apart part of the archway and tearing a chunk out of the thick wood of the drawbridge, making it shudder as undead spilled like fiery tears off either side of the span. Immediately, the rest of the Dead King's army tried to backpedal wildly, knocking a few more unfortunates into the inferno now raging below.

A few mangled skeletons stumbled weakly through the other side of the flames, but they collapsed in bursts of ash, all life fading quickly from their bones. The volunteer soldiers who hadn't panicked and tried to run for safety were left staring with shock, as Blueblood groaned weakly before slowly picking himself up, breathing hard as he shivered and looked over his shoulder.

Just as Auros and Sleipnir had promised, the lantern oil had been enchanted after all... and the unicorn smiled weakly before coughing a few times, then grimacing and spitting out a wad of blood. He shivered once, his whole body shaking with pain but the stallion forcing himself to look up, then shout in a rough voice: “You, uh...”

He couldn't remember their names, or what they were supposed to do. He could barely focus through the haze, the prince gritting his teeth and rubbing uneasily at his face before he yelled harshly: “Crossbow ponies, stay on watch there! The rest of you get... get down here!”

The volunteer soldiers that remained hurried down, even as Blueblood swayed blearily on his feet, and he coughed a few times before pointing at a big earth pony: Bob or Hutch or... Booth or something. “Y-You. Get... get more barrels of oil, it's going to burn up quickly and we need to... to hold them off for as long as we can. You three, get... we need to build a barricade. And you, you need to go... check on the tunnels. Make sure... make sure the fire isn't spreading inside the building.”

“Yes, sir!” The ponies all listened, at least, even though the big one hesitated a moment, looked at him with worry. But Blueblood only smiled briefly, shaking his head a bit and signaling that he was fine, before the unicorn forced himself to head back towards the stairs leading up to the battlements.

He stumbled a little as he made his way up to the top, and he had to take a moment to breathe once there, shivering and closing his eyes. He could hear the Dead King yelling orders, and the clash of grappling hooks against stone as well as the sound of the crossbows twanging away... but it was all blurring together, confusing him...

He found himself searching for that strange pulse without even realizing it, and he shivered a bit as he felt it touch his mind, felt the wind seem to stroke his face, teasing a bit of stray mane that had come out from under his helm. His eyes blinked open, and he felt the pulse in his mind thump sharply, making him grimace a little before he straightened slowly and murmured: “Right... right, don't... don't get distracted. Sleipnir, where the hell are you...”

Blue looked down... and then he flinched to the side when a grappling hook flew past before it yanked back, catching on the wall. The skeleton at the end of the line immediately leapt forwards and began to haul himself up the line, and Blueblood frowned almost curiously as he leaned over the hook and tapped it a few times with one hoof. “How many of these do they have? They should be... securing these at the bottom of the line, right?”

He continued to stare almost quizzically at the hook until the skeleton finally shoved his head up over the battlements, reaching out and clawing wildly at the wall. Then the undead pony stared at Blueblood as Blueblood looked almost querulously back, before saying with strange regret: “Sorry.”

Blue reached out and gently shoved the skeleton backwards by the head, and it grabbed madly at the snow-slicked battlements before slipping loose and toppling down into the trench. Then the unicorn grimaced before simply flicking the hook off the edge of the wall, muttering: “I don't think they know what they're doing.”

He rubbed slowly at his forehead, then frowned as he heard yelling before looking over his shoulder... and swearing loudly, the burst of horror he felt run through his system drowning out the daze he'd fallen into as he saw the ponies had tried to build the barricade too close to the flames, and it had caught on fire as well. He dashed down the stairs... then stared in horror as he saw it leap across a board to a barrel even as Butcher ran forwards, the prince spinning around and shouting: “No, stop!”

But just as Butch began to look over his shoulder, there was a terrible explosion of fire and heat and pain, Blueblood crashing down on his back and skidding over the courtyard as screams of agony went up. He gasped, blood flying from his mouth, then dropped backwards, choking on his own blood until he rolled on his side and vomited.

Tears stung his eyes his face scalded, his armor burnt and horribly, horribly awake: there was no loss of self or consciousness this time, as Blue slowly looked up with horror to see Butcher's smoldering corpse laying brokenly nearby, along with several of the other volunteer soldiers. And worse yet, as he watched, the battlements above the battered and broken archway trembled before collapsing in an avalanche of stone and shale, dragging down one of the crossbow ponies as the other barely managed to throw herself away.

Blue trembled in horror as yells, and worse yet, cruel laughter cut through the air... and a moment later, there was a shout, orders that barely made sense to Blue's buzzing ears. He breathed hard as he tried to crawl for his hooves, struggling and trembling... but when he next rose his head, he found himself staring with dread at the sight of the Dead King limping towards him, a cruel grin on the zombie's face, his executioner's axe gleaming as the army of the dead followed him over the smoldering stone that had suffocated the flames.

He laughed loudly as he approached Blue, and the ivory unicorn tried to shove himself up to his hooves... then swore in pain as a hoof slammed across his face, stumbling backwards but at least managing to get himself standing. He gasped, blood running from his mouth as he trembled hard, glaring at the Dead King as the dead warrior sneered: “Look, the pup's all alone! I guess the big coward ran while the running was good, huh?”

The Dead King laughed again, and then he leaned forwards, asking mockingly: “Now what about you, colt? Are you going to run away and cry or are you going to help me find the Lich King?”

Blue steadied himself, then trembled and gritted his teeth. And a moment later, his silver sword lit up before it shakily drew itself, shivering in the air as the Dead King grinned widely. “N-Neither. Stay... stay back.”

“Or what?” asked the Dead King derisively, and he stepped forwards before slapping Blueblood across the face with the flat of his axe, knocking the unicorn staggering before a skeleton leapt up behind the stallion and caught him, then shoved him to the ground.

Brutus laughed once more at this as several of the undead soldiers cheered, and the soldier who'd shoved the prince down kicked him roughly in the side before he hurriedly scuttled away, joining the crowd as it formed a rough circle around the two. Blueblood breathed hard, trembling on the ground, his silver sword somehow still floating beside him as the Dead King asked patronizingly: “Do you need a nap, little colt? Or what's wrong, you waiting for your daddy to come save you?”

“He's not... my 'daddy...'” Blueblood murmured, and then he trembled for a moment, closing his eyes... and he felt the pulse in his mind. He felt it spread through his entire body, felt the snow spreading a numbing, soothing cold through his side as the wind whispered down across his body, and Blue gritted his teeth before he rolled onto his stomach and began to stand.

Brutus reached forwards and seized him by his helm, then forcefully yanked Blueblood up and forwards, sending him stumbling past towards the crowd before another eager soldier leapt out of the ranks of undead and punched Blue across the face. The prince staggered back a step, but then caught himself before his eyes snapped open with a snarl, and the skeleton almost fell over as he hurriedly jumped back into line as the others only chortled.

The Dead King grinned and gestured at his soldiers to cheer louder, obviously thinking it was all about him as he strode back and forth. Blueblood, meanwhile, took the opportunity to steady himself as the wind whipped past, the snow lightening as Blue heard a whisper in his mind, felt a strange tremor run through his body as he dragged himself around in a circle.

Brutus turned towards him, and the zombie grinned widely before stepping forwards and saying mockingly: “Oh, what's wrong, yearling? You fall down and hurt your face? Don't worry, it's an improvement on that ugly mug of yours.”

The Dead King reached up and mockingly patted Blueblood's cheek, and then he suddenly drew his hoof back before roughly slugging the prince across the muzzle. Blue stumbled with a curse, and two undead behind him hurriedly stepped forwards and shoved him roughly down, sending him crashing down on his knees in front of the Dead King, who only grinned again as he spread a foreleg wide and taunted: “Oh, I'm sorry, but I'm not a colt cuddler like you! Or are you begging for your life? I really can't tell with the way you seem to be drooling all over the sight of a real stallion like me!”

Blueblood kept his head low, trembling and breathing hard: he was terrified, and he was in agony, but it was like... like he could feel the earth pulsing beneath him, and like the wind was carrying whispers and wisdom to him, telling him to wait, to wait, even as blood ran from his mouth and his silver sword trembled in the air beside him, and he was getting so cold...

The Dead King grinned coldly, and then he slammed his axe to the ground in front of Blueblood: the blade scratched just across his muzzle, but the stallion barely flinched as Brutus leaned over his weapon and said softly: “Tell you what, though. You bow your head low, and I'll make it nice and quick for you. And when you get to hell, I'm sure they'll let you get your mouth around all the stallions you want, with a pretty face like yours.”

Blue trembled, and then he lowered his head almost humbly as the pulse soothed him, and the Dead King grinned widely as he slowly reared back, hefting his massive, heavy axe leisurely, drawing it out as he basked and reveled in the adulation and the fear of the undead soldiers around him. His eyes glowed with delight and his head raised proudly as he posed with his weapon, puffed out his chest, displayed his total dominance...

And time almost froze as the zombie posed proudly over the stallion, and the prince's eyes snapped open as the pulse roared like a lion.

Blueblood was on his hooves in a flash as his sword shot upwards, and the Dead King didn't even have time to scream as the silver sword tore upwards through his exposed throat and out of the back of his skull. His eyes bulged with horror as Blue slammed both his hooves up into the handle of the weapon, sending the hilt slamming into the zombie's neck before the unicorn roared as he yanked to the side with all his strength.

The zombie's face all-but-exploded as the crown was torn in half and flung off the Dead King's head, Blue staggering to the side as his silver sword bit into the ground. Brutus spasmed, dropping his axe as he collapsed to his knees, the single eye remaining in his head filled with horror and disbelief before Blueblood snarled and gave a raw, desperate yell as he put all his weight into another vicious swing, this time hitting the back of the zombie's neck... and less than a second later, burying his silver sword into the ground.

Brutus' head toppled from his shoulders, rolling away as the undead soldiers stared in horror. The Dead King's body trembled for a moment as ichors spilled from the wound, and then the zombie's body collapsed... and a moment later, Blueblood trembled before falling to the ground himself, breathing hard but glaring defiantly at the Dead King as the zombie stared at him weakly.

Brutus tried to mouth something, tried to shake his head... and then he spasmed once before both his body and head began to steam violently. And then all life vanished from his form as his flesh rapidly rotted away into nothing but a few reeking pieces of meat and ancient, yellowed bone.

The undead soldiers looked fearfully back and forth between themselves before one of them drew a knife, stepping towards Blueblood... but before he could take even another step, there was a loud roar, and then the sound of one of the flesh golems howling before it was followed by a clap like thunder. The earth seemed to shake beneath their hooves, and the undead looked at each other with shock for a moment before there was a second bleating, a sound of smashing... and then silence.

The soldier trembled, then almost leapt on top of Blue, raising his knife high-

A rock shot through the air and smashed through the skeleton like it was made of paper, sending chunks of bone and rusted armor flying in all directions as it collapsed in a heap of dead debris. And all the undead stared as Sleipnir slowly, calmly approached over the rubble of the gate, the earth pony saying evenly: “I would not recommend that.”

Blueblood smiled faintly from the ground, looking up as Sleipnir simply shoved through the ranks of the undead before he crouched beside the stallion, gently reaching out to rub along his back as he said softly: “I apologize, my friend. It took me longer than I expected to circle around the encampment... and while I had hoped to draw their attention to me, thou ended up drawing their attention to thee. But thou hast done well... better, better by far than I ever could have asked.”

Blueblood only trembled and shook his head, then he whispered: “No. I didn't... I... Butcher, and the ponies, and-”

“Shush now. Shush. We shall mourn them when this is over. But first, my brother, we must attend to thee... and to those who remain on the battlefield.”

Sleipnir slowly straightened, surveying the undead soldiers with calm eyes, and the group looked with palpable fear back and forth between themselves before the surviving skeleton mage stepped forwards out of the group, raising his staff and snarling: “You may have won a victory today, but we'll be back... we are Death! You cannot stop Death, mortal!”

“I have met a Death or two in my time, creature, and I am very glad to say he has never worn thy guise.” Sleipnir said courteously, before he reached down and calmly picked up the Dead King's broken crown, asking evenly: “So what, does thou proclaim thyself the new ruler?”

“I... yes! I am the King of the Dead now! And I will never forget what you have done here!” shouted the skeleton mage as he rose his staff high, his eyes blazing with hellish light. “Now you will let us leave, or I will have my armies rip apart this festering mortal tumor!”

“Very well. Then here, thou requires thy crown.” Sleipnir said unhurriedly, and the skeleton mage had enough time to tilt his head before the stallion flung it viciously like a discus, the spiked circlet smashing through the skeleton mage's skull and reducing its head to dust.

The skeleton mage trembled for a moment, then fell slowly backwards as his staff sparked violently, and undead flung themselves out of the way before it exploded in a tremendous bang. But Sleipnir didn't so much as flinch, only smiling even as his eyes remained cold. “Perhaps all of thee can take this as a lesson. Thou art free to pick up the crown... but one must consider its weight before thou places it upon thy head.”

The undead soldiers drew back as the last of their resolve crumbled... and then several of them simply cut and run, and they were shortly followed by most of the horde. The rest only shrank down, staring up at the earth pony with either fear or miserable resignation, but Sleipnir barely spared these undead a glance before he knelt by Blueblood and asked quietly: “Can thou stand?”

Blue hesitated, and then he nodded slowly before gritting his teeth. His whole body trembled with pain as he forced himself up, and Sleipnir smiled faintly as he allowed the stallion to stand on his own power. Then the earth pony quickly picked up his silver sword, wiping the ichors clean with a bit of snow before he sheathed it carefully over the unicorn's back, murmuring: “Thou did well. How did it feel? And how did thou wield thy blade?”

“I...” Blue stopped, looking down before he closed his eyes, murmuring: “I'm not sure. I wanted to protect Auros... but... I also wanted to kill that... that bastard. And I did. I did, because... there was... something guiding my hooves.”

He stopped, then looked quietly towards the ruined maw of the fortress, trembling as he saw the corpses of the ponies laying amidst the smoking stone before he whispered: “Look at what I've done, Sleipnir... I... I'm so sorry...”

“No, no. Enough of that, enough...” Sleipnir soothed, reaching up and gently rubbing along the stallion's back, and then he turned his eyes out towards the silent undead. There were at least half a dozen of them who hadn't run, and the earth pony rose his head before asking calmly: “Why are all of thee still here?”

They looked between themselves, and then one hesitantly stood up, the pale, mostly-whole pony trembling a little before bowing his head forwards and whispering: “We have nowhere else to go, my lord. The... the Kingdom of the Dead has fallen. We have no Lich King, no King of the Dead. We have nowhere to go...”

“Yes, you do.” came a sharp voice, and all eyes turned towards Auros as the undead unicorn strode calmly out of the keep, keeping his head high and proud. The undead ponies all turned towards their former Lich King, and Sleipnir softened a little as Auros halted in front of his surprised audience.

The Lich looked slowly over his former subjects... and then he suddenly lowered his head, closing his eyes and saying quietly: “I... I am sorry for everything that has happened. I tried to protect you. I tried too hard, and made our paradise a cage, and Brutus took advantage of all of you, and your fear, and my... failure. I do not deserve this, but I... I ask that you all come with me. Sleipnir, please let them come with me, and let us help you. Maybe it's not much of a step towards redemption for me, but I think it would at least be a start.”

Sleipnir smiled faintly, and then he shook his head slowly before saying softly: “Look, Blue. Such wisdom. How fortunate am I, to bear witness to fools growing into wise stallions all around me... while I get to continue to be nothing but a silly foal myself?”

He laughed quietly, then looked up and smiled faintly, nodding and saying softly: “Thou asked me for mercy for thy subjects before. So I have shown them mercy and reprieve. Outside these walls are others, and while the ghosts can do little to harm thy friends and allies, they still heckle and deride and frustrate the undead who remain in the ruins of the field. I will invite thee, new friends, to make thy choice now: either leave this encampment in peace, to find thy way across Equestria... or go, spread word of this offer to those who have not yet broken away, and remain here with us.”

There was silence for a moment, and then one of the undead looked up before asking meekly: “H-Honest, sir? That's... you don't want anything else from us?”

“I require nothing else. But if thou will... help us lay our fallen friends to rest... I think it would be appreciated by all the ponies of this place.” Sleipnir replied gently, and the undead shuffled uncomfortably before the earth pony added: “And if any of thee like, know that we shall help attend to thine own fallen companions.”

There was quiet, broken only by the sound of more hooves hesitantly approaching. Blue dragged his head up to see Jack Lantern and other ponies walking towards them, looking afraid, looking hurt, looking ill... and as Jack began to open his mouth, Blue said before he could stop himself: “The dead ponies... it's not their fault.”

Sleipnir frowned, as Jack looked sharply towards Blueblood, and the prince trembled before dropping his head, whispering: “I gave... I was an idiot. The barricade I had them build caught fire, our store of oil exploded... I am the responsible pony here. Not... not these people. I am.”

Jack Lantern looked silently at Blue, before a pony cried out and ran away from the crowd, lunging towards the fallen body. Sleipnir reached up and silently squeezed the prince's shoulder, but Blue only stared at the ground before Jack whispered: “We've all seen enough death for now. We... we need to... deal one thing at a time.”

“Of course.” Sleipnir said softly, and then he looked up and smiled faintly as the snow began to lighten, saying quietly: “Fear not, my friend. For soon, thou shall close thy eyes, no longer than a blink, and when thou opens them, thou shall look at friend and foe side-by-side, and see only pony. Thou shall see only people, no matter how different we are on the outside... but both of us mourn, both of us feel, and both sides of the battlefield, today, have lost much. Have lost too much...”

Sleipnir squeezed Blueblood silently around the shoulders, and the unicorn trembled as Jack only shook his head slowly, then began to turn away. Except the old stallion's eyes were drawn by a scream, and he looked up sharply to watch as Steele flung herself at one of the skeletons in armor, who only took her useless blows before he reached up and caught her by the shoulders as she half-collapsed.

She looked up at him for a moment, and the skeleton simply stood for a moment before his hooves slipped silently back and pulled her close. And Steele trembled uselessly before she began to sob, her hooves grinding over rusted armor before clinging into his shoulders as she cried.

Jack stared for the longest time, and then his eyes looked disbelievingly towards Sleipnir, and the earth pony smiled faintly through the unshed tears in his eyes as he said quietly: “The cruelest truth of war, my friend, is that we are all merely people. People, in service to another, doing what we think is right... doing what we must to simply survive. We are all people.

“And we must never forget that, 'lest we risk becoming less than pony ourselves.”

As darkness fell outside the encampment, the torches and lanterns were lit with new oil, making the ruins of the fortress as bright as burning day. Sleipnir and many others had worked for the rest of the day on fashioning coffins for the ponies who had died, and the bodies had been laid quietly into them and carefully arranged near the center of the courtyard.

Wraiths and ghosts floated and hissed around the exterior of the fortress, kept out by the spiritual wards, but refusing to leave what they saw as easy prey behind. And Invidia hadn't returned yet, which made Blueblood wonder silently if she had abandoned them, as he sat quietly in only his cloak across from the coffins.

He hated coffins. He hated funerals. He hated the living dead. And yet here he sat, staring miserably at them, preparing himself as much as he possibly could for tomorrow, when they would dig their graves and lay these bodies to rest. Just the thought of a grave made him shake with fear, but he did his best to swallow it back: at least all the time he was spending around the undead ponies was starting to desensitize him to their presence a little.

There were quite a few undead wandering around the fortress, after all: even now, many of them were quietly working, hauling stone and debris away to toss into the moat or at the edge of the forest, clearing up wreckage and taking the remains of their fallen allies to throw into the great bonfire burning outside. They had used blessed oil to light it, so the ghosts and wraiths were staying far away from the purifying flame, and the camp that Auros had further protected with a few more totems and wards he had carved.

They weren't so bad. They were sheep-like and easily bullied and frightened, maybe, but they weren't so bad. Blueblood smiled faintly at this thought as he looked down, biting his lip before he lowered his head and thought that maybe they weren't so different from the misfits, though: the misfits had been told to trust in them, and they had, and now Butcher and three others were dead.

The prince closed his eyes tightly... then frowned a little as he heard a quiet crunching through the snow before looking up to see Auros striding towards him. And after a moment, Blueblood rose his head slightly in surprise as he saw a new, proud horn was standing out of the undead unicorn's skull... although it seemed oddly... mismatched.

The Lich caught Blueblood's look, then he gave a wry smile as he stopped and shrugged, gesturing up at his horn with his eyes. “One of the skeleton mages... left this behind. I decided to see that it was put to use.”

Blueblood shivered despite himself, looking back towards the graves, and Auros chuckled quietly before he murmured: “I suppose that I can understand how that concept is... unpleasant to you. But this is not the first body I've worn. I was surprised to learn that Sleipnir and I have rather similar views on the subject: our bodies are only... clothing. We wear them until they are used up, and then we shed them, and... move on.”

“Except when you take off your clothes, you usually don't die. Although I know that applies more to me than you.” Blueblood muttered, and then he added dryly, as the Lich gave him a flat look: “And even I didn't wear clothes every day. And I used to be... noble.”

Blue laughed a little, shaking his head slowly at his own bitter joke, and Auros studied him for a few moments before he looked across at the dead bodies, asking: “Why are you afraid of death? And I don't mean in the sense that many of the other ponies here are. You fear death as a concept, not the experience of dying.”

The prince was silent, and the Lich studied him for a few moments before Auros shrugged and looked back at the graves, saying quietly: “I apologize, then. And Blueblood... this was not your fault.”

“Yes, it was. I was responsible for the orders I gave them.” Blue murmured, looking down and closing his eyes. “It's a sick joke, Auros. I have done more damage to this whole encampment than an entire army of the dead did.”

“Would you like me to patronize you and tell you that you did the best you could? Is that what you want to hear, so that you can be angry, and hurt, and upset?” the Lich King asked distastefully, and Blue glared over at the undead unicorn before the Lich King looked towards the bodies and said in a softer voice: “Because I am not going to indulge your self-pity, Blueblood. You don't get to be self-pitying, because you fought with more bravery today than I have shown in my entire miserable life. Even if you're guilty of these imagined sins, your honest mistake only cost four lives: no matter how infinite their sum, it is nothing compared to the dozens of lives I have inflicted death and suffering and hell upon with my honest desire to... to help.”

Blue shifted silently, softening as he looked across at Auros as the Lich lowered his head, before he closed his eyes and whispered: “I am scared... no, more like terrified, of death. You see, when we die, Blueblood, we leave our lives behind. We fall into the great sea of souls within our planet, where we are supposed to be cleansed and purified, and then we're reborn. As... as anything from a blade of grass to a mighty dragon.”

Auros stopped, then looked over at Blueblood, meeting his eyes as he continued in a murmur: “Some ponies say that what we become in the next life is based upon how we acted in this one. And some ponies believe that... in the sea of souls, we can meet our lost and loved ones. For one final conversation, for... for judgment, too, I suppose.”

Auros' eyes flicked to the side, and then the Lich shivered and hugged himself, looking back at the coffins and whispering: “I imagine every day, dying, and going down to that sea, and seeing all the people I have failed. I thought with all my power, with eternal life, I could help more ponies. Instead, I... I simply have more ponies to fail, to watch wither away and die, languishing in disease and torment. There are so many woes in this world, and even if you fix some poor pony's problems, another one arises: out of luck or the audacity of others or his own idiocy.

“So... I thought that I would gather the others like me. The undead are feared, Blue, but... but most of us are far more frightened of you than you are of us. The bodies of the dead are brittle, and we do not heal like you do. The cold loves us, but fire loves our taste far more. And there is such... pain and darkness that opens up in our hearts and minds, always threatening to swallow us up...

“Look at how magnificently I failed, though. When... unstable elements arose in my kingdom, what did I do? I locked them up. I... I foolishly created a breeding ground for creatures like Roch and Brutus, who wanted to challenge me... perhaps not entirely unfairly. And when I grew more and more desperate and... and more fond of my power, why lie... I became the anathema of everything I had once striven to be. And when I tried to shove all my problems into the abyss I created, they just came crawling back out as monsters... and then I... I crafted something unforgivable. For five hundred years, I never took a single life, and then...”

Auros halted, then he simply gestured silently around, finishing: “And now, here we are. Et voila. And thus your petty responsibility is nothing compared to my grand misorchestration.”

The Prince of Equestria looked silently over at the Lich King, and then he shook his head slowly before he said quietly: “Is there any point in comparing our faults, Auros? Whether you're right or wrong, I still feel hollow.”

The Lich smiled briefly, looking towards the coffins before he replied candidly: “And yet part of you wants to suffer, does it not? Just like part of me wants to crawl into the darkness, or run away, and forget all this ever occurred.”

Blueblood looked silently towards the coffins as well, and... yes. He recognized that voice well. He recognized that pain, and that misery, and... heard that weak little voice whimpering to him about going home...

The prince smiled faintly, and then he shoved himself up to his hooves, and Auros looked at him with surprise as Blueblood held a hoof out, saying quietly: “Thank you. You're right: part of me wants to suffer. The selfish, foolish part of me that just wants to take the easy way out. But I won't give in to that part of me again. I'm going to keep going, and I'm going to keep fighting, and next time, I'll do better, and I'll never let these stupid mistakes happen again.”

Auros looked up at the prince, and then the Lich smiled again before taking the stallion's hoof, letting the scarred pony pull him up. And then, without another word, both ponies turned towards the keep, striding side-by-side out of the lonely darkness to rejoin the people who still needed their help.