• 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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V. The Gates of Hell Shall Not Stand Against

I.


We found the legionnaires eating cold pasta and cold cheese in a little dugout trench they had made in front of the Governor-Generals’ compound. They just sort of blinked at us.



They looked awful. So did we, but they just looked pathetic. All dirt and grime, all cuts and bruises, helmets askew or missing, plumes ruffled or gone. There were eight of them and they had enough shootsticks to outfit a regiment stashed in the compound and about three dozen with them in the little hole they made. They called it a trench. Trenches have to be big enough for a pony to actually hide in. It was a hole.



We got the story out of them, and traded food. They didn’t want any of our jerky, but they took the bread in Swift’s pack in return for some of their cheese, which was actually pretty great, even if it was cold. Swift got a pouch of tobacco for something that Lily probably mixed for him. One, his helmet gone, said he would give me an honest to Luna apple for my hat. My mouth watered but I just sort of shook my head at him.



Later, I asked Swift why this just sort of… happened. He laughed and said that it was like a tradition, but one you didn’t have rules about. Soldiers meet in strange lands, all of them on uneven ground, and trade little comforts. It’s just what you do. And then he blew smoke in my face and laughed when I scowled at him.



Amethyst City was too close to the initial invasion. It couldn’t be defended with the local guard and garrison, and there was really no hope of reinforcing it in time. It was doomed and everypony inside knew it as soon as the word got out. There was panic and anxiety of course it did, obviously, what else is there to do for a civilian or soldier in the face of death but to panic and die out of breath?


But the old Governor-General was a holdover from the days of Sombra. To call him crazy would be to sell the stallion short—he wasn’t just crazy. He was batshit crazy, and he was good at it.






II.



Imagine a city on the edge of revolution. An empire boiling over with discontent. Imagine ponies in the street casting dark glance up at you through the darkened windows of your home. The servants you pay—some you’ve known for a decade or more—won’t meet your eyes, won’t be anywhere near you. Is it fear? Is it worry? Or do they know that any moment knives will spring out of the dark and stab you to death and they simply don’t want to be collateral?



That is what being Governor-General of Amethyst City was like. For two years, he found what had been a more or less easy, rewarding position in a minor city turning into a life-threatening morass of frontier intrigue and resentment. He had spent the first decade at his post chortling over the blindness of his fellow nobility, thinking they had it made in bigger cities, only to be deposed within a year or three for a minor fault in currying Imperial favor. They wore themselves out. Their revels were fringed ‘round the edges with worry. But in Amethyst City, there was no great need to grovel before Imperial delegates. He had a single visit every year, and the beauracrats that came were always the new ones, bottom of the barrel, easily flattered and always impressed when they left. Minimal work, and he had no need for repression and control—the city controlled itself and he lived off of the cream on top.



Maybe he had always been a little unbalanced, and a decade of ease had only hidden it. Or maybe the suddenness with which Sombra’s reign turned dark (for those who had not been paying enough attention) had left him high and dry, struggling to reconcile a breezy spirit with the cruelties he must now officially support. Or maybe the Governor-General had always been warped. Who knew? There wasn’t much chance of asking him, now.




III.



The column is no longer a column because it is now a crowd. It piled into the Governor-General’s mansion and gawked. Hell, I gawked. It’s a pretty fancy place. Crystal chandeliers and beautiful tapestries… stained glass… gold and silver and rugs so soft you could sleep on them and it would be like sleeping on a cloud, and I’d know.


We moved the crowd deeper in and asked them to find rooms and stay put for now. The legionnaires helped us board up the windows, which was sad. Ruby and I rounded up all the food we could find.


Not that we found much. Larder was almost empty. Anything that would keep for a journey, gone, which fits with the story the Imperials told us. We found some wine in the cellars, which was poor comfort.


Mostly because when Ruby suggested looking, just in case… I feel my skin crawl. I try not to show it. “Alright,” I say, not looking at her. “Go on first.”


“Sure.” She shrugged and stepped down. Stairs. Stairs leading down into the dark, only this time it was totally dark. I can see in there, I tell myself. I can see. It’s just like home. But I keep thinking…



I follow.



Inside, wine, like I said.



Ruby and I sit in the corner, behind a rack. The bottle sits between us. “I kind of want to drink it,” I say, feeling ridiculous. Feeling, also, nervous. Do changelings hide in wine cellars? Stars, I hope not.


“Me too,” she admits.



“What the hell, there’s tons. It’ll never be missed.” I pick it up and work the top off. I drink a swig—it’s sweet, rich, not dry. I taste… I think I’m going crazy because I taste it like it’s chocolate and strawberries. I giggle, which is absurdity on top of absurdity. “Taste it,” I say and offer. She takes it and reads the label.


“Crystalberry wine,” she says. I smile at her. “Well, never had that before.”


She goes. Then me. Then her. Then me.


I feel warm all over. I’m not that much of a light weight, and I’m not tipsy. I’m just… warm. It’s nice. I kind of forgot what being warm was like. “This stuff is pretty different,” I say.



“Yeah. I like it.”



“Me too. Guess we should stash it and go up.”



She nods. We leave.



Up topside, we return to a sullen waiting. What else is there to do? Truthfully… it’s not like we could really push these poor ponies much farther. Crystal ponies said that the Governor had some sort of communication line to the Imperial palace, but… well, no buts. It’s really our only choice. Nowhere else to go, and nowhere we can hide this many ponies.



No fire tonight, but we won’t need one. That’s alright. When we meet up, all of our wing on the grand stairs with their red carpeting and their marble grace, I feel warm enough to go without one.


“I think I can skip some of the basics,” Star Brand says. “Like, we’re fucked, et cetra, et cetra.” He chuckled. “I think tonight we’ll sleep together like it’s the station again, and then we’ll have to start spreading out to cover as many weaknesses as possible. We need to be able to see anything coming before it even knows its over a city.”


“Any more of those legionaries?” Swift asks.



“They say no. Or at least, they doubt it. If there are any others left behind, we are unlikely to find them. They’ll be buried deep trying to keep out of sight, and honestly I don’t blame them. Not in the slightest. One of those Imperials is a unicorn. That’ll come in handy,” he says the last to himself.



“So. Any plan?” Swift asks again, with a smile.



“Aye,” Knight-Commander Yuletide says. We all turn to him. I was about to wonder why he hadn’t spoken first… but his face. His strange look, his hard eyes filled with something I don’t think I want to understand. “It is a plan worthy of us, methinks. Luna provide, of course. You will be hardpressed to find one more… explosive.”








IV.


So a worried and harried mind turned to questioning. Revolutions are tricky and messy affairs. Ponies get killed in revolutions, after all, worried the fat old crystal pony who they called the Governor-General. That wouldn’t do. Especially when he was sure to be one of them.


Irony: the pony who had spent his whole life avoiding having a heavy hoof, who had done as little as possible to get by, the slow and calculating one in the back of the room—he was the one who understood what his peers had not. Idiots think they murder a few malcontents and everything stabilizes. Ponies aren’t machines. They aren’t a math problem to be solved. You line up those malcontents, and soon you’ve proven them right. Yesterday, they were overreacting and made their landladies nervous. Today they were perfect and holy martyrs murdered in the name of truth.


So he did not send the garrison of the frontier town out to intimidate the populace. He did not execute anyone (except for a murderer that not a pony missed) and imprisoned nopony (except for thieves and those who deserved it by the consensus of sense) and he upped the guard presence… but only slightly. Not enough for anypony at all to notice but those who were going to notice regardless.


And so grumbles stayed grumbles. But he kept hearing them. And so his order and decency slipped slowly toward a kind of dark genius.


Two plans came out of this. The first? Tunnels. Miles of them probably, some even beyond his remembering. Every government building, every popular landmark. Four dozen boltholes that led down and down into a single great vault of stores. They called it the Den. The Governor figured it would be called Home soon, when the tide came in. He would ride it out deep beneath the streets while they raged without aim or purpose to strike down a figurehead that could not be found. And then? Listen and wait. If the revolution prospered, which he highly doubted it would, then the last loyal ponies of Amethyst City would take one or many of the tunnels that loud out onto the plain and be gone along with food and as much treasure as they could ever wish for. But if Sombra crushed every spark as was the most likely outcome? Then the Governor’s loyal guards would be thorns in the sides of rebellion, striking from the boltholes and shadows, harassing and harrying, keeping them from sleep or even from rest, and when Sombra came he would find a city waiting to be taken with ease from within. And Sombra would reward him.



Every plan needs a failsafe, of course.



He thought long and hard about it. What would ensure that in the worst case possible, he would not have been foiled without some last revenge?



The best answer lies in the one and only thing approaching crisis during his long tenure.



The Empire had had a bit of trouble with a ravening band of Griffons six years before. It was the start of the troubles, it was. Barbarians, dirty and uncultured, but they knew their bloody business well. Laden with treasures, they lumbered past Amethyst City, pursued through the ever-colder winter by (so the story was!) the Iron Bitch herself, Opal that was, Sombra’s personal favorite and her Ninth legion.



There had been talk that the griffons might try and take the city to winter there and hold the Ninth at bay, make them sit out in the cold. The idea had horrified the Governor. He could barely comprehend it. And so he had prepared as best he could. For a coward and an innocent in the ways of war, he did not do such a bad job of it. The guard was on watch, the garrison prepared and stocked, the civilians organized, and above all, the cannons of the garrison well-maintained and her unicorn mages well-fed and warm and ready.


The cannons had been a sticking point. In his restless worry, he had discovered a new thing to angst over: black power has a problem of… exploding. Violently. All you have to do is set a light. He imagined griffons swooping over and finding the armory.


So he some of it stored elsewhere, and had the building fireproofed by strong magic. And then forgot.



Until revolution was in the air, and then he remembered that nightmare and grinned in the darkness of his bedroom. Of course. Of course. Fire! Fire and explosions and above all, victory. Tunnels. Spells. Fuses.



It took him hours. He worked through the morning with bloodshot eyes, running the numbers, giggling about it all. It was, frankly, beautiful. Many evil things are. An even distribution of black powder would keep the rebels from seizing it, keep them from using it against him… but it would also be his last laugh. If he was cut off or found or killed, then he would activate the trap. Fires would start in the ordained places, set by waiting magical circles, spreading along short fuses to barrels lying in wait. Chain reactions. Combine them with careful alchemical charges, the kind they use in mining, underneath the streets… yes. Yes, it would work.



Only a pony who loved a city could destroy it in a day.








V.



“So you are going to use the failsafe the Imperials mentioned,” Soft Fang says quietly.



“Luna have mercy,” Lily whispers.



“Aye, ye say it true, Soft. Thee and Lily seem to be aggrieved.”



“It’s… they’ll all die,” Lily said, horrified. You could read it on her like a newspaper headline.



“No. There’s still stores in yon Den, below us, and we’ll send them on their way with Last Call. There must be a legion close enough for them to make it to. Perhaps even one of Our Lady’s armies,” he added, and then sighed. “We cannot outrun yon monstrous throng, and ye know it.”



“Yeah,” Swift says, and swallows. “Yeah, they would mess us over, all right.”



“So they shall leave, and we shall stay.” He pauses. No one says anything. I can hear the gentle echoes of ponies finding places to rest in the distance. “I do not need to say what this means.”



No one says anything.



No “there’s a chance!” or “we might make it out.” Just… silence.



“Go. The Imperials will take the day watching. I will make sure their unicorn sets wards and a detection spell. Then, I shall be figuring out the former ruler of this place and his means of communication. Magical, I’ll guess. It will be hard going,” he says with a mirthless grin. “Lily, thee and our initiates should see to our charges. See if any of your cures are needed. Swift and Fang, you shall find us a place to lodge for the night. I would prefer some comfort. It would be fitting.”



“Yeah,” Swift breathes.



“Go. Luna provides,” he says.



We all return the blessing with strange inflection. It sounds hollow.






VI.


It’s amazing.


Not the palace, though it is wonderful. It’s amazing how you can be told something and it just… kind of wash off of you. “Tomorrow you are going to die.” “Oh, alright,” you’ll say and blink, like they had just said, instead, “Lemons are ripe the sky,” and you don’t know what to make of it because it is nonsense. No I’m not. Death is something that happens to other ponies.


It is also kind of amazing how quickly the mind will defend itself before the danger even comes. Because of course there is rescue in the wings, waiting. Always. That is how stories go and life is a story, isn’t it?


There were lots of candidates for a daring rescue. An Imperial legion crashing the gates. Or a division of the Equestrian guard overrunning startled changelings, scattering them. Maybe Celestia coming with the sun on the third day to save a few beleaguered nightponies. I’d live in the daylight forever if she did. Maybe the new one, that Twilight, coming with that adorkable manecut to save us all from madness.



Maybe Luna in the core of the night with her hammer high beating the funeral beat, not to save but to avenge. Isn’t that how she comes in the tales, sometimes? To take the sinner and to smite the murderer? Out of the light of the moon, on a moonbeam, whatever, eyes like silvery fire? Isn’t that what she is? Isn’t that what she’s supposed to do? But who cares about what comes after the murderer’s knife is done? Or when the sinner has soiled his neighbor? Who cares? What’s there left to… to… fuck.



I swallow.


Lily chats quietly with a weary looking crystal pony mare. Ruby smiles down at her foal.



“Your eyes are funny,” says the kid.



Ruby chuckles. “Well, your mane is funny.”



The colt finds this hilarious. I kind of just look at him.



If those Imperials stay we’ll have… For some reason the number doesn’t come. Like twice as many ponies. And a whole armory full of shootsticks, and that unicorn can load them and we can just find something hard and cut holes in the side and just live there until help arrives. Maybe that’s the plan. Because there is a plan. The Knight-Commander hasn’t told us, but he will. He has something planned tonight, probably some… I don’t know. Maybe it’s some Ranger tradition. But then there will be plans and I can do plans. Plans help. We can keep them away from us, shoot them out of the sky. Shootsticks suck. They can’t hit anything past a hundred paces except in thick volleys and they smell awful and I’m bad at them. But if we just keep shooting them over and over we have to hit something, right?



“What’s your name, little one?” Ruby asks.



“My name is Flourite,” says the colt. “What’s yours?”



“Ruby,” she says.



“But you’re not a crystal pony. That’s a rock,” he says with infinite wisdom.



“No, I am not. See?” She flashes her fangs at him and he cries out in delighted terror.



“Oh wow! That’s scary!”



She chuckles. “Yes, aren’t they? I use them to scare off the things in the dark.”



“The changelings?”



“Only the bad ones.”



“Hm. Why do changelings make those weird noises?”




Black powder stores still in the palace… He kept enough here just in case they got to him before he could get to his hideaway, enough to break out if they got lazy, probably. If we gather any of the other stores, we throw off the whole failsafe but I don’t like the failsafe and anyway we don’t need to blow up a whole city to kill like less than two hundred monsters. Just one big explosion could do it, right? If we could get them buzzing around us, unable to get in… maybe put barrels outside? No. But it could work, anyway, holing up in here. We could set up lines of defense, barricades, maybe even get a few volunteers from the refugees to help us board stuff up. Plot out a few routes of escape so we draw them in after us into this place where they can’t fly and then pow! Pow! Pow! Black powder and smoke and we just make it impossible to get through the door. There’s tons of chairs in this place.



“Hm? Strange noise?”



“Yeah! It goes like this,” says the colt and he demonstrates. It is a very poor impression, and the look of utter concentration on his childish face makes Ruby chuckle again.



“Very good,” she lies shamelessly. “I can tell you practiced.”



The colt, who almost certainly had not practiced, was just old enough to look bashful about it. “Y-yeah.”



“Well, to answer your question, Flourite, I do not know why. But I think that it is how they talk.”



“But those aren’t words!”



“Ah, but they are words to the changelings. Have you heard of a tri’knor?”



He shakes his head. “No.”



“It is an old batpony word, and it means ‘cave’. Specifically, it means a very tiny cave where you keep things you think are precious. It doesn’t sound much like a word to you, probably, but it is a word. Does that make sense?”



“I don’t know! Maybe you made it up,” he says suspiciously, his little eyes narrowing.



Ruby, who has always loved children since she was old enough not be one herself, sticks her tongue out at him. “I did not. Maybe you’re just not smart enough!”



I have to catch myself before I growl at them to shut the hell up. Because I need to think. But I don’t, because instead, Lily tsks and we move on and Ruby gives the kid a little wave. What was his name again?






VII.



The room is nice. It has a painting. Our house in the cavern had a painting in the den. It was of sunflowers. I always thought that was the funniest thing ever and to be perfectly honest I still think that.



I choose my bed. Ruby chooses the bed next to me. Lily is the one on the other side. Swift at my head, Yuletide at my tail, Star Brand north of Lily, Soft Fang next to Swift. Shadow in the snow. Meadow enjoying his retirement. Luna is in the moon.



Gale came by wondering if he could eat with us, but Swift talked to him for a moment and he left, looking… weird. He looked at me for a moment like you look at foal about to be in a lot of trouble.



Rangers pick beds. It’s like we’re all eight again. We laugh. It’s almost like we aren’t all about to be horribly killed or something.


Ruby and I notice that everypony is acting strangely, but when I looked at her with a question she just sort of shrugged, and we haven’t had any time to talk about it since it became really obvious.


Dinner is probably the best we’ve had this whole time. Swift saved an apple in one of those fancy stasis boxes, and he let Ruby and I share it. Lily makes tea and it tastes earthy and its warm, the mug’s big handle fitting around my hoof and warming the frog, spreading its cheer up my foreleg. Ruby and I share a blanket and I know I look like a lovesick filly but it’s nice. I can’t forget, but its nice. And its weird. Soft Fang gives us the last of his jerky and I don’t want to take it but he insists. Star Brand plays his harmonica. He hasn’t done that in weeks. He plays “Do Not Destroy” and Lily dances a dance that to be honest is kind of not foal-friendly because it belongs on a table and Swift laughs at her and sings a different set of words and they’re awful.



Ruby hums, and then when the song is over, she reaches into her saddle bags and pulls out one of the Crystalberry wine bottles. She holds it out. “We found some… I liked it. But we can have a little, right?”


They all gawk. “Well I’ll be,” Swift says.



“Think it’s alright?” Soft Fang asks.



Lily: “Oh child, that is a find. If you offer it, I think we will all take some and be honored.”



Yuletide chuckles in his deep, booming voice and then nods. “Yes. Pass it around, child, thee does well. It is a fine gift you give, when none is asked for—that is a Ranger’s spirit, true.” He stops, and seems to consider. “May I see it first, lass?”



She holds it up for him and Yuletide stands, shakes his wings, and takes it.



“It is time,” he says. “Before I offer you this, I would have your answer.”



He stands in front of Knight Brand. “Brand, your kenning?”



“Without hesitation.”



“Then drink.”



He does so, swallows, grins, and then smiles at us. Ruby and I look at each other, and then back at them all, confused.



“Soft?”


“Yes. Both.”


He drinks. Swift: “Don’t see a reason not to, honestly.” Drink. Lily: “With all my heart.” She drinks.


Yuletide sighs a deep sigh. “I accept all of your words, and add my own: I wish that it had not happened this way.” He takes a drink and then gently sets the bottle down. “It is a fine vintage, young Ruby. Now, would the two of you come here? Stand before me, at attention.”


Numbly, we obey.



He smiles at us, but it is not a happy smile. “Sometimes Rangers know that they may not have their talk with Our Lady, and so they take our oaths and our name before, to live and die as one of us. Will you be Rangers? The company accepts this.”


I just sort of stare at him.


“What?” is all I can manage. “But…”



“Yes,” Ruby says. “Yes, sir.”



“Y-yeah,” I get out, choking. “Yes.”



He takes Ruby’s cheeks and bends her head down as he pulls her in, and I watch with blank shock as he kisses her forehead. “Ruby Eyes, Ranger of Station Nineteen, Luna Redeems, but what do Rangers do?”


“Rangers fly,” she says. No, she intones. Like a chant, like a worshipful moment.


He comes to me and I reflect on the fact that I am about to feel the lips of a male anywhere on my body that is not my father and it is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. He takes my head. He kisses my forehead after he removes my hat with a chuckle. “Midnight Aria, Ranger of Station Nineteen, Luna redeems, what do Rangers do?”



I swallow. My throat seems like it will close up and stay that way forever. I don’t… I…



“Rangers fly,” I whisper and then I think I cry.

Author's Note:

luna redeems


Rangers Fly!

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