• Published 22nd Jan 2016
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Redeem Us In Our Solemn Hour - Cynewulf



Midnight Aria, an initiate of the Lunar Rangers, finds herself in a losing battle that she was never meant to fight.

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II. Giants in the Land

Giants in the Land

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that...













I.




A pegasus on the wing is a cloud. He is speed and excitement, the wind that pushes the great mountains of the sky to new lands. She is the lightning. The biting cold winter wind that pushes you back and steals your hat with a laugh.



But a batpony is only a great shadow. She is the way that the dark thunderheads cover the sun. She is the thunder and the dirty rain. He is the gale and the tornado, and the stillness in winter which creeps into your bones bit by bit.



A pegasus flies because it is free. A batpony flies because it wants to be free. In the paper, you will see beautiful pictures of pegasi in flight, racing and rescuing and showing off. On ancient ironbark scrolls, all but indestructible now, you will find the scrawled myths of batponies who served the Ancient Father, before Luna came to them and gave them a new world. Pegasi have bright cities in the sun. Batponies live in the depths of the earth and under safe forest canopies, in clearings which lie always in shadow and whose comforts are rarely disturbed by the presumption of the arrogant sun.



A pegasi is like a great exclamation mark after Watch This! But a batpony who is watched feels only a gentle dismay, and would say, Please look away.





II.




I banked and got another good look. Yeah, definitely something. It was hard to get a good guess at size this up, but it was moving. Slowly. It was like watching an ant on the snow, a little black spot.



Let’s see what you are, spot. Diving right down would usually be the plan, but the world’s not like it was before, so instead I dip down and glide about a hundred meters away. Long enough to avoid an ambush, close enough to pursue.



Back on the ground, I find myself thankful for the brief break in the cloud cover. The sun is the best cover when you’re in the sky. If this thing is what I think it may be, the light will be even more help.



I edge forward, ignoring the snow clinging to my eartufts and woolen Ranger coat. I wish I had one of those ushanka hats like they made in Lunangrad. It would keep my tufts warm and not snowy. But I didn’t have enough bits to buy it and as much food as I wanted, and so I chose gluttony over warmth. Typical. But I hadn’t expected to be on campaign then, had I?



I take a deep breath and keep low, coming from behind whatever it is. It’s probably a pony. I’m mostly sure. Wolves, timberwolves or normal ones, don’t move like that. It moves with too much purpose, one leg in front of the other.


About fifty meters away, I stop and cling to the earth. I push sow in front of me so it can’t look back and see my gray coat and I pull my ears back so they don’t stick straight up. Then the binoculars come out of my coat. They’re small, but they’re good enough. I look.



Changeling. Or what is probably something new, because these aren’t really changelings anymore. Not like the ones we know. I haven’t seen any use another form but this one.



Normal changelings bother ponies a little, or at least they bother other ponies. Weird eyes, weird skin, weird wings, weird teeth… But we don’t care about that. Sometimes batponies have eyes like a cat’s in the Old Colony, so they say. We have weird wings and weird teeth. I think ponies dislike everything that isn’t all curves and blunt ends.



But this new changeling bothers even us. I would call it a new breed, but it doesn’t get the point across.



Take a normal changeling and add on twice the mass. Its spines don’t just jut out: they look like they ripped themselves free. Its wings and body seemed in poor repair before, but now it looks as if it tried to eat itself, and yet still it looks like it could destroy the old changelings. Its eyes are black voids. Fangs that protrude almost impossibly—they can barely keep them behind lips. The chitin is cracked and misshapen, like something burrowed inside and kept kicking from the inside. There are changelings living in peace in the empire now. We have a few of them in the column. Those are small and compared to this thing, they’re adorable. Harmless. Scared.



I grimace at the changeling as it walks slowly.



There are a few things that I have learned can be counted on. One of them is that changelings are never alone if they can help it. New changelings are never alone period.









II.



What madness stirred in the hoary heads of the mages who built the castle of Winter’s Grip? The old Empire had called them barbarians. But they were useful barbarians, making baubles and lights that never went out, minor magical trickeries.



It was an imposing castle, all jutting towers and looming parapets. And inside a distressed monarch made her home to escape the howling winter.



Chrysalis, her name was, and she only wanted a place to sit in the dark and plot. Vain empires would race in her mind and fill the maps. A thousand thousand children with happy faces and full bellies, and the rest could burn. Forever and a day, all of them secure for at least as long. And one day they would live forever.



The cold does things. Some ponies break under the heavy hoof of winter. Some it bends, and not always in good ways. Some simply bear it like a package upon their back, like a sturdy earth pony courier on a long country road.



But Chrysalis was not a pony like these. Chrysalis was the choir director of a chorus that had fallen into disarray.



With her, of course, were the remains of Grand Hive. Every loyal changeling. Every changeling who still called her Mother, after the Mother of old. Sometimes, Chrysalis thought of herself that way too. More and more, she did. Had not the Mother endured before the Ancient Father? Had she not preserved the First Hive? Even when those monsters and their hellish Father had struck her down, even then she had done what no other could and wounded Eternity. Or as close as anything with flesh came.



Some ponies would have been content in Winter’s Grip. The Imperial Outriders kept it stocked with emergency rations and a modest supply of medical treasures that she had eagerly taken advantage of, and nopony would ever come and check on this place. Some years, the Outriders forgot it even existed. It was just an old ruin still in one piece, a convenient excuse not to build another waystation in the mountains. It was not important.



Perhaps it should have been.



Ponies often make the mistake of thinking that what they do and think and say is new. Of course, by necessity, sometimes they are right. But mostly they are wrong. The world is old now. Dig long enough and hard enough in one direction, and it reveals mute secrets which few will comprehend. Mostly, this involves fragments of strange and troubling things, bits of art and scraps of old cities that delight. Sometimes, if you look deep enough, you find half-made wonders.



In the bowls of Winter’s Grip there is an alchemical laboratory preserved for millennia. It has a magic that hums only to those who would continue its dark works. Chrysalis, restless and unhappy, longing for an answer to the puzzle of life, heard the humming.



Had she always heard it? Perhaps that is what led her to flee into the mountains when the Hive had shattered.



Her heart had been heavy, for though she was cruel, she was not without heart. She was monstrous, but not a monster. Not yet. She had brought the hives into a lasting peace, fed and sustained the weak and humbled the proud. Her laws had governed their greedy, short-sighted broodmothers and her love had gentled and tamed a savage, fearful race.



But it had not been enough. New lands. New food. Destiny. She had let them worm into her ears and heart, those princes and princesses of diminished Hives. She had listened. Quick, before the Imperials return, they said. You can make a land for us. No need to carve it out slowly and smartly. We can take it all. You could do for us what Mother did.



And she had listened, for in her heart of hearts she was The Mother herself. Or would be.



And now they had left her and the Grand Hive was only the pained memory of dreaming. They had gone back to their savagery and their cunning and their in-fighting. They bit and hurt one another. If she could destroy the world she might have done so just to spite it, such was the bitterness that swelled in her.



And then she found it. The Darkest Forge of Aulu’ii.










III.



I have to take this thing down. I know that. Never let the enemy find you. We don’t know how the new changelings work, but the old ones were all… it’s complicated. They all shared the same Dream, the same Gestalt. That’s what the little scared changelings in the column told us. It’s weird, but what we understood was this: if one finds you, all find you.




I swallow and try not to breath too loudly.



How to do this? If it runs, I’ll be hardpressed. These things are faster than they used to be. But they fight as a group. But I was also trained to fight as a group. I was never a guard. I’ve never even been in a schoolyard fight that was just me and one pony. There was never a reason.



I can’t just creep up on it. I have to take it quickly. I have to… I have to…




I have to go away.



When we fight, we fight in wings. And when that happens, I go away. My body is there, but I’m not. And it’s okay. It’s okay because it’s not me. But I can do what I have to do. I can do the job in front of me. That’s what Grizzlebrand would say. Do the work in front of ye, just like that. Breathe. Breathe. Okay. I’m going now.



The changeling doesn’t notice but Midnight springs up out of the snow behind him. She is level, building speed as much as she can with a bad start. She doesn’t need to go too fast or she’ll lose her balance if she hits. Just fast enough.



It turns when she’s halfway, catching the sound of her leathery wings beating furiously in the still frozen air. Its mouth opens in something like dull surprise. Its blank black eyes gawk.



Midnight hits it hard, one hoof in its neck and the other against the shoulder, and she hears chitin crack. It doesn’t manage to get a hoof up to try and stall her rush and they roll into the snow.



The changeling hisses. Its fangs are massive but there is no more room in Midnight’s head for fear because the whole thing is shivering nerves and fear already, and she stamps down hard on its face. Once. Twice. Again. Again. It pushes her off and she stumbles back, and then it is on her, trying to bite her. Anywhere. Everywhere. It punches through her duster easily but gets stuck in the padded shirt underneath.


She tries to shake the thing off, but its stuck on something underneath the duster. She throws it down, using its face as a sort of fulcrum, and she kicks viciously, quickly, at its softer belly. It screams in its strange alien way. Midnight has no time for screaming. She kicks it in the face as hard as she can, rearing up to let both hooves fall down with their cold iron horsehoes right on—






IV.


Chrysalis was not evil.


She was cruel. She was violent, and violent often. In another world, they would have called her a Machiavelli. In this world they simply feared her, pony and changeling alike. Chrysalis was the one changeling queen who was willing to sacrifice. She would do the hard things, the impossible things, and above all else, the painful things.



Those who think they understand what sacrifice is are perhaps the most frightening creatures of all.



So in her aimless brooding walks she came at last to the dark depths of Winter’s Grip, and found the laboratory. And what did she make of it?



Let it be said that, to her credit, she was horrified. Chrysalis was not evil, or not what some think of as Evil, all maniacal laughs and ushering in the doom of all life. She certainly did not revel in death and perversion. She was an artist of deceit, but so was any pony who lived as a beggar in the streets of Canterlot, and one hesitated to call the poor evil. She could lie, she could steal, she could spy upon intimate moments, she hurt those who deserved it with pleasure and she could kill those who did not deserve it with grim necessity. If she had to. It was the necessity that was the thing. The damnable thing. It was the last little string that had kept her from perdition.



What a dangerous thing to cling to.



Her disgust at the air in that vile place was unimaginable, and yet she walked through all of it. Even when she knew exactly what the hoary heads and crazed eyes had done in the darkest places, she still walked them. Not because of any evil plot or vile secret wish, but because like all living things with some soul left in them, she was curious even in the face of the forbidden. More so, then.



What had they done, you might ask. It is hard to be exhaustive. Some of their works were simple and innocent: enchanted measuring instruments, the most beautiful colored glass, scrying stones, and lights that would not go out for years and years. That was the first floor: the simple and the innocent, and even there she felt a sense of dismay. But she pressed forward.



Another floor. Here they had tried the old forbidden arts and found them dull. Blood magic. Amniomorphically-powered magic. The twisting of the mind by thaumaturgical means. The dark magicians of Winter’s Edge had practiced every ancient method of using others for selfish ends. Chrysalis was repulsed. A changeling does not kill to experiment. She feeds, but she will not do so with cruelty simply to be cruel. Cruelty must be pretexted by need, and she knew no need that would have inspired the torture chambers she found. Feeling sick, she had continued.



Then the more modern methods. Non-magical tortures and techniques. Here, as they grew dissatisfied with mere perversion they moved on to new and exciting realms. How to so injure a pony that he or she would live even as their body was wracked with the absolute greatest pain. She found notes preserved by alchemical paper, written with the sort of precision she would have expected from that damnable Twilight Sparkle, detailing the exact methodologies and the pushing of the frontiers of agony. How much pain could a pony even endure? Well, in Winter’s Grip, they pretended to be hermits and deep below they endeavored to unlock the mystery. They did things with water and acid. Retrained the mind with clever tricks and sometimes merely with repeated pain until it could be anything they wanted. These things, too, they recorded. What so and so had managed to program into some lost soul: eating vile things, hurting captured loved ones, intimate perversions, self-inflicted death. At the drop of a hat. At the tiniest clop of a hoof on cold stone. And Chyrsalis felt something like fear. Changelings could tear and rend and manipulate, but not like this. Never like this. What sort of monster did this, she thought with horror (for even the monstrous have monsters) but she continued.




When she found the preserved remnants of their experiments below she destroyed them. Wordlessly at first. With tears at last. Again and again, she burned the horrible shapes of ponies twisted into nameless things away. She broke their containments glasses and burned them, each and every one long dead. Here the sages of darkness had achieved their penultimate glory: they had twisted raw soul and flesh into new and—to their eyes—dazzling shapes. Ponies bonded with metal and wood and in one case, ice. Living ice, with visible veins and innerworkings. Ponies with jaws bigger than their shriveled heads, filled with row on row of sharp, unnatural teeth—she found with a shudder that they were steel, and it did not take long for her to realize that every single one of these creations was so artlessly made that they had suffered for years, their whole existence one great suffering. Above, they had been craftsponies and artisans. Here, they threw aside all of their art and focused instead on wild experimentation. Here they began to lose their minds.



Chrysalis stopped destroying only because she could not bear to do anything. She covered her eyes. She hated ponies. She hated most of those things that thought and felt and were not changelings… but no pony alive deserved this. She would not have done these things even to Celestia or that damnable pink… She couldn’t even bare to think about other creatures in this place. And for the first time in her life, Chrysalis felt a selfless impulse for something other than her children. This place must be ended. For every life it had claimed, she would do what no other monarch on earth had done: she would avenge, she would purge as the First Mother had sent the Destroyers away before ponies had kingdoms. She would save those who could not have been saved.



But then she noticed the final door. And her heroic fire began to glow weaker in the face of the horrified need to know. And she opened the door. She discovered the Mitou, the ultimate triumph of the Sages of Winter’s Grip.



They had resurrected the Mountain Gods.












V.



Trembling, I lay in the snow. I’m back again, but not totally. I think something is wrong with me.



Okay, Midnight. Think. Focus.



Shortness of breath. Elevated heartrate. Adrenaline? Aches—those I can understand. It got me in the stomach once. Nausea. Oh. Oh, I can smell it now. It’s all over the snow, all of what was inside—Oh, Luna, please not—



I throw up and then roll away, heaving, trying to stay on my side so I don’t swallow any if more comes. My whole body shakes.



Please not another. Please not again.



He’s dead. I know he is. It, not he. It. Or she. It. It’s dead, very dead, I saw it die and I’m not checking. Dammit. Fuck checking. I can’t.



I don’t know how long I lay on my side, facing away from it. Eventually, my breathing normalizes. I don’t feel like my skin is trying to leave my body, and my heart beats normally. I listen to it beat like a little drum. I want it to remind me of the storyteller’s drum in Shady Vale when I was a filly but mostly it reminds me of the sound that chitin makes when you kic—


I shiver. It’s cold, and we don’t have the same resistances to the elements that pegasi do. We handle snow and rain better than unicorns do, but so does almost everything. I rise and stand firmly on my hooves. I’m fine now. I’m fine.



I’ve never killed anything before. Not anything with a face that had eyes that thought and could talk.



When we fly in formation, I’m on the edge. So maybe I have killed something. I don’t know. My job is to plow through whatever we hit and then make sure nothing gets away. But nothing ever gets away from the Rangers, so if I kill things I don’t see them die. They die over there, and I can say—Lily got that one, or Soft Fang got that one. Or Knight-Commander. Anyone else. Maybe Ruby. But never Midnight. Never Midnight.



I can’t stay here. I have to go. I fly back to the column.









VI.


The Mitou were the last triumph of Winter’s Grip for a reason. That reason is that the now deranged and dangerous old stallions of that place had forgotten a very important lesson that every little unicorn learns: Magic is dangerous. Another foal’s lesson: Magic is not tame.



Magic is both physical and not. It creates a form, but simply because every other apple is one way does not mean one summoned from the air will obey the same laws. And in fact, it is not the same. An apple summoned from the air without anything else, like a bit of wishful thinking, will not nourish you. It will taste nice, but it will leave you hungry. One must let loose of some of the expectations of mundane experience.



And so, the Sages created with their hoary heads and dulled horns the forms of the Mountain Gods, and it did not occur to them to ask if they might also have built a home for…


Well, it is more simple to say that Spirit wants Form. Build the Form with magic, and if the magic is great enough, Form becomes a fire and Spirit becomes a wandering mosquito.



And the Spirits of the Mountain Gods were as close to raw malice as could be found. And she beheld them.



Let us be honest. They did not control her. They did not warp an untainted mind into evil. Let no one guardedly say that she was tricked and cajoled and manipulated into what came next. Potential only had to waltz out in front of her, and declare itself with a little smile. Hand over a card, and say: I’ll be here when you change your mind.



If you could create something that did not suffer forever… or if you could change a living thing into something better…



Well.



And it would be different, wouldn’t it? If it was done in love, with hope for the future? Wasn’t that what parents did, really? Help their children grow? And sometimes growing looked painful and scary from the outside, didn’t it?



Chrysalis, let us give her this small grace, did not quite believe it. But she stopped her destruction. She had time to think. The evils of Winter’s Grip could be destroyed later, after all. When she had really thought about what she had seen. Understood it.



And when she closed the door to where the Mitou waited in martial readiness, every single horrible giant shared a joint smile. Every face the absolute same, with blank eyes and great toothy grins big enough to swallow a pony whole. A month, maybe two, and then they would march again.

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