• Published 30th Jun 2018
  • 665 Views, 24 Comments

Little Sparrow - Mitch H

She was the greatest warrior of her generation. But her greatest challenge wasn't anything she could fight with hoof or spear.

  • ...

The Demon Ram

Sirespire was the making of the little sparrow. The cities and the nobility of the Vale were terrified of her. She had defeated a major imperial army in the field with a patched-together coalition force, and then in rapid succession turned against the very polity she'd saved, mounted a technically challenging investment and siege, and stormed a terrifyingly well-fortified nest of dark magicians with relatively low casualties. This is the sort of mercenary captain performance that in the past had eventually led to the conquest of vulnerable city-states and the founding of new dynasties.

The ponies of the Vale loved her for it, of course, because the fall of the Sirespire solved many mysteries that had haunted that region, and gave closure to hundreds of bereaved families. The Sirespirean warlocks had hidden in plain sight for generations, and fed the banditry problem by subsidizing the outlaw market with their purchase of captives and the underwriting of kidnappers.

Without the Spire, the bandit gangs stopped re-organizing, reappearing, and regenerating. It was yet another illustration of a sad, terrible fact within the economy of violence - incentives matter. Money matters, and so do rewards. All the good intentions in the world are meaningless so long as ponies are willing to pay ransoms, buy stolen goods at a discount, or worse - buy captives. Hang enough receivers of stolen goods, hang the purchasers of slaves and captives, and you pull the weed up by the roots. Everything else is just grazing on the bitter leaves.

But as much as the common ponies loved Gusty, the contracts started drying up as well, because the instability of a perpetual banditry problem took with it a lot of the incentive for the duchies and the small cities to pay big premiums for mercenaries. Without that need for professionals to patrol their roads, burn out nonexistent bandit nests, and deter their overproud and angry neighbors, they could no longer justify our overhead. The summer after the destruction of the Spire, Gusty's Forge was compelled by the sparse offers on hoof to move onwards.

It hadn't helped that diplomats from the new empire to the east and south had been sending emissaries into the Vale to lay the groundwork for peace between Tall Tale and the Republic's once-fractious neighbors. The Royal Pony Sisters were aggressive practitioners of pugnacious diplomacy, and from all accounts were making impressive inroads in the Vale of Clouds to the east, dismantling the aging Cyclone Empress's despotism around her weakened ears. When they were done absorbing Pegasopolis into their 'New Equestria', it would be Tall Tale's turn, and the Talltails seemed almost eager to be dissolved in the belly of the new beast.

Harmony is a hades of a drug, it seems. Especially with the negative example of something like The Sirespire as a salutary lesson in disharmony and the evil that lurks in the world for those that go it alone.

So we moved westwards, and out of what the agents of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover called 'the inland provinces'. Gusty had bad history with the Serene Republic, but was willing to break bread with those that had done her and the Warsparrows wrong, in exchange for a new start for the Forge and a new venue somewhere far away from the upstart alicorn sisters and their romance of the damnable Cyclone Empress.

We left the Vale of Tail with more crystal ponies than we'd entered it, despite all of our casualties and losses in the Sirespire campaign. The Crystal Expeditionary Force had lost a great deal of prisoners when we'd broken its field army in the investment fortifications, and later, when we returned most of them as part of the deal for the exchange of engineering expertise in bringing down the ruin of the Spire, a number stayed with the Hammers and the prospect of an active, heroic life far away from the corrupt and suffocating rule of the Crystal queens.

I'm not sure exactly what the thought-process was that led to several of the crystal engineers, who had helped implode the Spire, joining up with the Forge, but the Ironmongers welcomed the construction expertise of ponies like Radiant Stanchion and Jewel Joist. For my part, I generally get along with ponies from home, but there was something I didn't like about Radiant Stanchion. His name reminded me painfully of an old girlfriend from the days before that damnable witch Amore drove me out of my childhood home, and his repulsively handsome muzzle set off all sorts of subconscious alerts in my jealous soul.

The little sparrow smiled too often when she laid eyes on Radiant Stanchion. And he often was there to be looked at, making unnecessary appearances in the command tent, or lurking about, trying to weasel his way into her presence. I could tell he would be trouble.

But in the short term, the additional crystal ponies meant that the Hammers became the dangerous, well-integrated force multiplier that Gusty always knew we could be. Our six-pony crystal focuses became tightly-drilled wrecking balls, pry-bars, mobile striking units. With the aid of the Warsparrows and the heavy chariots the Ironmongers built for us, we could advance rapidly by air, dismount and form up to blast open vulnerable fortifications before the enemy could consolidate and defend their positions against the lightning assault.

Our contract with the Serene Republic resulted in a dizzyingly rapid advance of Van Hooverian domination along the shores of the Northern Lunar Ocean, from the Bight of the Setting Moon all the way westwards into the capes of the far north-west. Two campaign seasons consolidated the Serene Republic's dominion over the whole of the northern littoral. The Grand Doge of Van Hoover was racing to consolidate his authority and power in anticipation of diplomatic offensives by the still-distant Royal Pony Sisters, and figured that unification was the way to repel their advances. Thus, the Serene Republic's kinetic wooing of its more recalcitrant neighbors. And as a primarily naval power with many little coastal enclaves built around most of the ports of the North Lunar, the Serene Republic had many, many recalcitrant neighbors.

We were kept quite busy for several years threatening the enemies of the Serene Republic, and occasionally cracking open a hostile fortress or two. And ponies had started to forget that Gusty and her ponies had expertise in something other than rapid siege and assault operations.

Until Grogar and his cloud fortress began their reign of terror across the face of western Equestria.

Nopony's exactly sure where the Demon Ram came from, exactly. There are ancient stories of a villainous sheep of the same name who conquered a city named Tambelon centuries ago, and briefly ruled an empire of terror throughout the central principalities which eventually became Unicornia. This was many generations before Platinum's family dynasty established their sovereignty over the unicorn tribes, of course. Even today, you can feel the terror and despair that Grogar had wrought upon the ponies of the hollows of the Unicorn Ranges and Dream Valley, a unicorn-settled region which seems to have corresponded to what is now the Vale of Clouds, in the days before the pegasus migrations.

The books say that he was defeated by a great but mysterious heroine named May Gain, which the accounts insist was neither a unicorn, nor even a pony. My reading is that this heroine was some sort of minotaur, those semi-legendary half-monstrous bipedal bovines with strength greater than earth ponies, and clever claws and dexterous digits. May Gain and her army of rebellious unicorns sealed away Grogar in his fortress-city of shadows, and dread Tambelon was wiped from the face of the world by a terrible magic known as the Dark Rainbow.

The rumors of his return to this modern, fallen world were contradictory, but the one which I found most compelling claimed that pegasus explorers piloting a mobile cloud-fortress known as Cloudsdale found a ruin somewhere deep in the Smokey Mountains, and awoke something they shouldn't have. What is true is that Grogar next appeared in command of said cloud-fortress, now a blue-black thunderhead of terrifying aspect. Corrupted pegasi sallied forth from this piratical city in the skies, and raided the struggling, poverty-stricken earth ponies in their scattered settlements throughout the Smokey Mountains region, which is still full of monsters and feral dog tribes even to this day.

Refugees fled the depredations of Grogar and his pegasus raiders, and those ponies flooded the south-western provinces of the Serene Republic's back-country. This concerned the Doge and his court, of course, but it wasn't until the Cloudsdale pirates sacked a Van Hooverian tributary that the Serene Republic terminated our latest pacification campaign in the north-west, and sent Gusty and her Forgesmiths south to deal with the problem.

The problem of dealing with a highly mobile raider like Grogar and his cloud-city was similar to those that ponies have had to deal with ever since the pegasi came out of the far east some thousand years ago. The unicorns, earth ponies, and other land-bound peoples were highly vulnerable to bands of aggressive warriors who could fly over any wall, bypass any mountain pass, and flit scores of leagues ahead of any pursuing force that might object to their thefts and depredations. The thieving, slaving pegasus tribes had hit Ponyland like a thunderbolt, and for all of Grogar's first reign of terror, it had faded in memory before the immiseration which had been the great pegasus migrations that came after the fall of Tambelon.

The first and simplest solution to dealing with a pegasus tribe incursion was to simply buy them off. Paying the pegageld had quickly become a tradition among the neighbors of any given pegasus tribe, and the pegageld became the bedrock foundation of Pegasopolis's power and prosperity. But Grogar and his flock of dark pegasi didn't try to extort their victims, they simply appeared, slaughtered, captured, burned, and left. There was no opportunity for buying-off - there was nopony that could be bought off, they didn't stop for parleys, or to make demands. No, the pegageld was off the table.

The second solution to be found in the 'how to deal with wild pegasi' playbook was to hire a rival tribe of pegasi to bring their mustang cousins under control, and this had become the second supporting wing of Pegasopolis's domination of the region. These two ‘wings’ carried the prestige of the Pegasopolitan commanders upon the prevailing winds, and they built this prestige upon raider suppression and the collection and redistribution of the protection tribute from the land-states below. The power this both represented drew most of the old, wilding clans to gather under the mighty wings of proud Pegasopolis.

The Serene Republic found that they couldn’t appeal to Pegalopolis's traditional role of wildling suppression for the very good reason that there wasn’t, for the moment, a Pegalopolis to speak of. The Cyclone Empress died before Grogar's incursions began, and the pegasus clans swiftly fell into chaos and civil war as the despotate fell apart in the absence of any strong claimants to the throne. Ponies demanding the revival of the old military republic fell into armed conflict with each other and those Cyclone ex-loyalists who cleaved to this distant cousin or that jumped-up courtier. The end result was a collapse of authority and cohesion. The Vale of Clouds fell into bloody chaos.

In fact, Gusty had been approached by some republican revivalists about the same time as the orders from the Doge had come down to head south and take over the anti-raider campaign. She'd been tempted by the chance to return to her homeland and redeem the good name of her late patron, the last Commander, the hapless 'Private Pansy'. But the fact that our little sparrow had grown into a commander of mostly wingless hosts meant that the basis of her power and prestige was largely land-bound, and we would have been at a disadvantage among the airborne flocks that filled the armies of the air which were contesting the control of Pegasopolis. Also, she told me that she expected the Royal Pony Sisters to rush into the mess and pick up the pieces. We hadn’t yet learned that the alicorns were obsessed at the time with the antics of that enormous pain in the flank, the Lord of Chaos. News moves at its own pace, and our knowledge of the situation in the eastern principalities was often months out of date. Nopony in the far west had yet figured out that the attention of New Equestria would be focused eastward, nor that they would be leaving Pegasopolis to its own fratricidal devices for seasons yet to come.

And so, the Serene Republic sought out the nearest approximation of a 'rival tribe of pegasi' they could find, in the person of Gusty and her Warsparrows. The rest of us in the Forge tagged along to keep from breaking up the legion. The Serene Republic regarded us initially as nothing more than an anchor that weighed down the response of the Warsparrows, and our employers had tried to talk Gusty into breaking up the Forge rather than waste all of that time displacing the whole mercenary army southward across the heart of the North Lunar Ocean. There was much bit-pinching and complaining from the paymasters of the Serene Republic when we tied up half a flotilla of galleasses shipping our siege train and chattel along with the whole body of Ironmongers and Hammers. The Doge's ponies couldn't understand why Gusty needed all of these encumbrances - and with this jab, they'd stared directly at Steeljack and I, making clear that the encumbrances in question were Gusty's wingless minions.

Gusty didn't care, and all of her ponies came with her on the Grogarian suppression campaign. In the end, it turned out to be a very good thing. Because when we arrived in the region, we'd found that another 'pegasus tribe' had tried to stop the Cloudsdale menace, and had been - we couldn't figure out what exactly had happened at first.

There was a scattering of deserter pegasi hiding here and there in the towns of the region. There had been a clash somewhere nearby that had occurred while we were mid-ocean, vomiting up whatever food we'd been able to choke down, bobbing up and down and in general ruing the day that ponies decided to start floating wooden toys in bath-tubs. A cohort, possibly two cohorts of one of the royal legions had deserted in the aftermath of some betrayal or clash in the Vale of Clouds, and wandered westwards. Attracted by news of the renegade cloud-city raiding the towns and hamlets of the far west, they decided to try their hooves at the mercenary trade. Their leader had led this fragment of the XVI Legion against Grogar's sky-city, and the Pegasopolitan ponies had been - it's hard to say what.

The double-deserters claimed they'd been hit by some sort of dark magic, a great wave of fear which had caused an overwhelming desire to flee, to hide, to abandon their fellows. You'd expect that of ponies who had abandoned their duty, not once, but twice. But. In interrogating the prisoners, I found that their minds showed the distinct traces of very strong mind-control magic, something brutal enough and careless enough that it had permanently warped their biochemical balance. Those ponies would never be warriors again - they'd been broken at a fundamental level. Whatever Grogar did, it was permanent, scarring, and deeply unsettling.

I counseled Gusty to keep our forces at a distance, and not try to confront the enemy main force until I and my ponies could come up with a shield or counter to keep this Demon Ram from destroying any force that approached him. I had images of the Warsparrows wiped from the skies, my little sparrow reduced to a drooling imbecile, pissing herself in fear at the sight of a housecat.

I begged for custody of the pegasus prisoners and set up a lab to experiment on Grogar's victims. I put my executive officer into field command at Gusty's pleasure, and detailed the more… morally flexible of my unicorn subordinates to aid me in figuring out how Grogar's magic worked, and how to counter it. And so, while the rest of the Forge trailed the track of destruction and misery which corrupted Cloudsdale left in its wake, I and my minions tore apart those morally crippled pegasi, and put them back together.

And then I did it again, to prove to myself that I understood and had mastered Grogar's mind-control magics. They were fiendishly fashioned, really, fear-based. Sort of dark, but not the sort of magus-destroying dark which consumes the caster completely. A master could control entire armies using this trick, and not fall into his own darkness. At least two of my minions lost their taste for the experimenting while we weren't even halfway through the work, and asked for transfer back to the front lines. I let them go. I had no use for ponies without the stomach for the work which needed to be done.

After experimenting thoroughly with my subjects, I had figured out the trick, and more importantly, one of my minions made the breakthrough of how to block the trick. A simple ray-based countermeasure, one low-energy enough and so suitable for broadcast that a single six-pony crystal focus could protect an entire army under arms. Presuming that they kept together in close order, of course.

We dumped the expended experimental subjects on a local sanitarium, and returned to the Forge, where Gusty and the rest of her ponies had been tracking Cloudsdale. The raiders’ fortress-city had worked its way back eastwards, into our old stampeding grounds, the Vale of Tail. Gusty had found and recruited another wayward cohort from the Pegasopolitan civil war while my minions and I had been analysing Grogar's fell magics, and between the old Warsparrows and the new II/XI, they'd started building a series of wind-walls that had, by the time I'd returned to the field, penned Grogar and his corrupted pegasi into a cul-de-sac southeast of Tall Tale.

Once we'd reunited, the plans almost made themselves. The trapped cloud-fortress circled at the mouth of a shallow mountain valley with steep slopes it couldn't rise over, penned in behind Gusty’s wind-walls. I had my research-minions form a pair of crystal-focus choruses to defend our forces, while the engineers built an assault-ramp out of a nearby high hill. Gusty's now-numerous pegasi couldn't closely approach fallen Cloudsdale while they'd had no defense against Grogar and his mind-control terror-magics, but now that we could direct counter-resonance beams along the expected vector of the fighting, they could engage them more closely.

Our superior numbers overwhelmed the enemy flights, and they were driving back inside their walls. Gusty and her pegasi wrapped the enemy fortress in their wind-magic, and brought it inexorably closer to the 'hill' the engineers had built. I and my Hammers worked our way through the militias and the Ironmonger assault elements, casting cloud-walking spells on every warrior's hooves. By the time we were done, Cloudsdale's defenders had been driven back inside of her high mist-walls, and she had been pushed almost up to the lip of the assault-ramp 'hill'.

Steeljack and his pioneers charged in the van, carrying enchanted ladders and bridge-segments they used to bridge the gaps between the rammed-earth ramps and the top of the walls of trapped Cloudsdale. The rest of the assault elements followed the pioneers, charging across the precarious ladders and narrow bridges, while the Hammers' crystal focus choruses bombarded the exposed defensive bastions of the fortress-city. Grogar's pegasi barely put up any resistance as we forced their walls, and those ballistae and bolt-throwers they managed to pony were quickly battered into scrap and flaming kindling.

To be honest, the warlocks of the Sirespire put up more of a fight than Grogar and his mind-controlled troops. Active, participatory evil is more effective than zombified victim-slaves when it comes to defending a breach, it would seem.

Grogar himself put up more of a fight, and Steeljack lost a good many ponies trying to force the entrance to his throne-room-cum-warlock's sanctum. Gusty and I eventually got ahead of the rest of the troops, and led the last heavy-hoofed push into Grogar's shattered final defense. The two of us beat him into submission, she with her hooves and her wing-blades, and I with my magic. Grogar himself was no weak-limbed wizard, but rather was a great roaring beast, a menace. He was nearly a monster in his own right, half again as tall as the little sparrow, who was still the biggest pony in our entire army. He fought hard, and knocked us around more than a little before he went down before our blows.

We found that we couldn't kill Grogar. We beat him down again and again. Gusty cut slices off of him like a griffon carving a boar for a feast, and I flash-fried him more than once, turning his outer layers into blackened charcoal. He just kept regrowing whatever we burned or chopped off of him. Whatever dark pacts he'd made with the infernal depths, they kept him from dying. The best we could do was put him into stasis, and that took a full crystal focus chorus to keep in place.

With that we'd won, and we took away the magic bell which he’d used like a focus. With that separation between wizard and artifact, the waves of fear, terror, and compulsion came to an end. It took a while for his mind-controlled slaves to come to their senses, but once they did, all sorts of chaos broke out. In retrospect, I'm vaguely surprised that it didn't attract Discord himself, but I understand that the Royal Pony Sisters were in the process of chasing him down in the far east around about this time, so you can understand that he was a bit distracted at the moment.

Gusty's hooves were full with keeping the celebrations of the freed captives, slave-guards, and guarded slaves from degenerating into riot and retribution, for the later captives blamed the earlier victims for their degradation, and the latter refused to simply be beat down for something that had neither been their idea, nor, in their minds, their fault.

I and my focus-choruses of ponies were kept busy keeping Grogar from reviving and starting the whole damned process all over again. We came to the conclusion that we would have to put Grogar somewhere more secure, someplace that could deal with his undying malice. So I told Gusty that we were talking him to Tartarus, to let the eternal guardians of that dark realm deal with him.

My little sparrow was busy with her own problems at the moment, so she simply nodded her permission for our journey eastward. The Mouth of Tartarus lay in the heart of the Unicorn Ranges. I and my ponies marched into the east, to make bargain with the Lords of Tartarus for Grogar's fallen soul. As I turned to leave for Tartarus, my eyes passed over the infuriating masculine beauty of Radiant Stanchion, who had somehow attached himself to Gusty's command group as they worked to keep the freed prisoners and slave-guards from killing each other. Looking back, I wish I'd killed him right there, right then.

I could have, if I had only known. But I fear that my little sparrow would never have forgiven me for committing unprovoked murder right in front of her. If, if, if… if I had known, she might still be alive today, no matter what else might have come to pass.

Author's Note:

Thanks for editing and pre-reading help to Shrink Laureate, Oliver, and the general Company.