• Published 26th May 2020
  • 2,570 Views, 346 Comments

Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar

Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
6-1 The Birds and the Bereaved


The Birds and the Bereaved

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

VI - I

Curiosity Killed the Cat

“So you’re really a good griffon?” The voice that asked the rather slanted question was high pitched, saccharine,and utterly innocent as to the philosophical implications of such a question.

Sitting up in the straw-filled trough that was his bed, Artorius the griffon laughed at the gaggle of young pegasi swarming around (and in one especially intrepid and small filly’s case, atop) him. “Of course! I am a knight! I am sworn to do good, to fight Emperor Magnus’ false cult and his tyranny—just like your grandfather, actually.”

"Grandpa?" Another little pegasus asked. "We have a grandpa?"

"You dolt! It's Emp'er Hurricane!" snapped a third voice. "But who cares? He's out west being old and boring. I wanna hear about griffons!"

"Well, what can I tell you?" Artorius replied with a chuckle.

"Are all griffons huge like you? How do you fit in doors?"

It was to this riveting conversation that Imperator Maelstrom stuck his increasingly long face, and he lived to immediately regret it.

"Big brother!" one of the dozen-and-change adolescents cried out, and like hungry chicks upon the return of their mother to the nest, the heads of the masses turned as one.

"What are you all doing in here?" Maelstrom asked harshly. "Who told you you could be in here?"

Most of the foals were smart enough to detect the hint of reproachment in the tan stallion's voice (if one can call Malestrom a stallion, given he wasn't even my age at the time). One little filly (the one whose vocabulary included the word 'dolt' but not the word 'emperor') did not. "We heard there was a griffon, so we came to kill it!"

Tan feathers pinched the bridge of a tan muzzle. "So did the legionaries I sent not take you all to the nursery, or did you run away from them? Where are they anyway?" When a hoof was raised, Maelstrom glared at it. "I don't actually care. All of you, to the nursery, now."

"But big brother—"

"Now is not the time, Sleet. Go. All of you. I'll see to you when I am done dealing with our guest."

Most of the foals made their way out of the room, some hanging their heads with the vague shame of having done something wrong, but not fully understanding what it had been. Sleet, though, responded as a nine year old filly might have been expected to, sticking out her tongue at Maelstrom and firmly planting her hooves on the floor beside the straw-filled trough that was Artorius' bed. "Big sister would have let us talk to him!"

Maelstrom grit his teeth. "Blizzard isn't here, Sleet. I am."

"Well, go west and get her back! And maybe you can be gone instead!" Sleet stomped toward the door of the room the moment Maelstrom took a single step toward her, though not yet content with her comments, she paused to add one more parting barb. "Everypony likes Blizzard better than you, Maelstrom. Even Father."

Maelstrom simply shook his head and turned away from Sleet, seemingly giving her leave to exit the room unpunished for her transgressions.

"Hold now!" Artorius declared, pushing himself up out of his bed to loom over the tiny pegasus. "Your… elder brother here, I guess… he is doing his best to care for you in your father's abscess… wait, no… abstin…"

"Absence," Maelstrom offered.

"While your father is gone, yes." Artorius briefly nodded in thanks to Maelstrom, before turning again on the young filly. "You think it's okay for you to talk to him that way? When he's trying his best to help you?"

"He's not my real brother!" Sleet snapped.

"Ah…" Caught up in the strength of his convictions, Artorius' words (or perhaps his grasp of Equiish) failed him. "And…?" he finally managed, lowering his rhetoric to Sleet's level. Though, it should fairly be said, he still made his point.

Sleet blew a raspberry at Artorius, then turned and stomped away.

"You didn't need to stand up for me like that," Maelstrom observed, once Artorius had shut the door to his room.

"I'm fine," Artorius answered. "I am strong, and young, and my wounds are healing well. I am told griffons heal faster than pegasi, thanks to our magic. Let alone standing, I am sure I could fight."

Maelstrom chuckled at that. "No, I mean… you didn't need to defend me to Sleet."

"Ah." Artorius shrugged. "Well, that is the knight in me. I cannot let someone who is innocent be attacked unfairly." Extending a claw for a shake, the griffon nodded his 'bald' white head. "I am Artorius, son of Theod. It is good to meet you, Maelstrom."

Maelstrom met the gesture and nodded. "Prelate Gladioprocellarum Maelstrom, Praetorian Guard. I've been ordered to escort you to the bakery here in River Rock."

"River Rock?" Artorius asked. "That is the name of the palace? I'm surprised it is not a Cirran name."

"The city is River Rock," Maelstrom explained. "This is Burning Hearth Castle. And neither is Cirran; they were already here when Grandfather led us across the sea… That is, Hurricane. I assume you gathered, but I'm Cy— Emperor Cyclone's son." While Maelstrom had the formal posture and stiff stature of a military stallion, his speech was halting and lurching, lacking in confidence as he stared up at the griffon looming over him. "Come. I will take you to the bakery. You can meet Lefse."


"The baker who found you when you were half frozen in the blizzard a few days ago. She's a good friend of my older sister." With a tan wing, Maelstrom held open the door to Artorius' room. "Come."

As the adolescent commander led the griffon knight down the halls of the former unicorn royal palace, Artorius cocked his head in thought. "This is the older sister I met before? Sirocco? Or the one who went west, who the little ones prefer to look after them?"

The question, though completely innocent, sent a chill down Maelstrom's spine. "The latter."

"What is to the west, then? Some battlefield? Or—"

Half a measure of quick thinking and half a measure of desperation, Maelstrom cut off the griffon's curiosity with a snapped phrase. "It's a euphemism for the Great Skies."

Artorius took the rushed answer with a flush of embarrassment, and stopped fully in his tracks. "I am so sorry. Please, forgive me, Maelstrom; I had thought—Oh, but that makes sense. Why the little ones said Emperor Hurricane was to the west as well."

Maelstrom refused to turn in the hallway, if only to hide the bobbing of his throat as he swallowed, and what he was sure was the visible bulging of his chest as his heart raced, by keeping his back to the griffon. "You are forgiven. Just, please, don't explain it to them. Blizzard…" Maelstrom sighed, and would only later realize that it would have been perfectly appropriate even if it was just for show, rather than to collect his thoughts. "...she left us not long ago. Only a few months."

"I'm so sorry."

"No need. Just… perhaps better not to mention it at all."

"Of course. You have my word." Artorius then drew some sort of symbol over his chest with a talon. "Perhaps we should talk about something happier. You said this city, this palace, was not built by the Cirrans. Tell me more."

I won't bore you re-reciting Cyclone's history, nor waste your time with the rough edges of that same story which Maelstrom sanitized for Artorius' sake. Suffice it to say that Artorius listened intently, stopping only to ask about things which he had never before heard of, like unicorns. As they spoke, Maelstrom led Artorius through the halls of Burning Hearth, out into its courtyard, past its elaborate, triply-portcullised gatehouse, and onto the frosted streets of River Rock.

Artorius had no idea, of course, that Maelstrom had arranged a curfew in the city, save for a few carefully chosen civilians and off-duty members of the colt's own forces to give the appearance of some life—however little it was. Maelstrom may not have been a charismatic or cunning liar on the spur of the moment, but with time to plan, one could hardly accuse him of putting on a show that was anything but compelling. And with practiced words, by carefully choosing to dodge certain topics with other pre-planned euphemisms, he drew attention to just how meager the state of the city was.

Artorius asked about why it seemed to be winter in River Rock when it was late summer in Dioda (just as it was in Everfree). When Maelstrom explained Hearth's Warming and the curse of the last windigo, that led to a rather natural question of how the city was even fed. And just as that question was being asked, as if on cue, the two passed in the street a pair of ponies bartering over the price of a barrel of fish, with the fishmonger announcing rather more loudly than necessary how the catch had been bad because there was more ice on the river than usual. And for all the stagecraft, Artorius was none the wiser.

The tour went on that way for some time, with Maelstrom admitting that there were fringes of the frozen land that still grew crops in the summer (hence the existence of a baker), that strict martial law with Cyclone's extensive military was due to suppressing criminal action from desperate ponies (and here, I have to admit, Maelstrom played a masterstroke—for while it was true a small group of ponies in the outskirts of River Rock had turned to cannibalism, the stallion missing an entire foreleg who Maelstrom used to imply that point without saying the word himself had actually suffered his wound in war with the Crystals under Queen Jade's predecessor, Warlord Halite).

In fact, the demonstration might have been a diplomatic masterstroke on the part of the young pegasus commander, were it not for its interruption by no less than a full contubernium (literally meaning 'tent-sharing group' in Equiish) of eight of Maelstrom's own Praetorian guard.

"Commander!" the most senior of the group called as they descended on River Rock's street. "We have a problem."

Maelstrom sent a meaningful glance Artorius' way. "Do we need to speak privately?"

"I… don't think so, sir. It's wargs, sir. A raiding pack. Coming from the northwest."

"Wargs?" Artorius asked. "Is that some kind of monster?"

Maelstrom ignored the curious griffon for a moment, taking a step toward his subordinates. "Isn't Legate Wrest minding the city walls today? Why are you escalating this to—"

"There is a fenrir leading them."

"What is a fenrir?" Artorius pressed, stepping up toward the soldiers. One mare went so far as to reach for her sword, though Maelstrom calmed the threat with an upheld wing.

"A warg is a creature sort of like a wolf that burrows through the ground… are there diamond dogs in Dioda?"

Artorius shook his head. "What are they?"

"Like wargs, but smaller, smarter, and friendlier… usually. You can reason with a diamond dog. Wargs are more like wild animals. Predators. They can't burrow up through the paved roads or solid stone, but they'll burrow up wherever there's dirt, even if it's frozen—gardens, unfinished basements, some parts of the city sewers. They're usually no match for a century of legionaries, if we're clever about luring them to the surface." Maelstrom concluded the thought by massaging his temple with tan feathers. "But a fenrir is a problem Like a gigantic warg, and a dozen times harder to kill. The wargs follow them like leaders, but fenrir are more animalistic yet." Maelstrom turned his growing scowl back to the messenger. "Did somepony go out into the hills? Ration thieves? Smugglers?"

"I have no idea if the wall guards actually caught anypony, sir, but there was some talk in the usual back alleys that there was some leftover haul of ore somepony could trade with Eque—"

"I take your point," Maelstrom interrupted harshly, working very hard not to look at Artorius as he did so. "We need to assume something angered it enough to attack the city—"

"They are monsters, then? And we must defend the helpless innocents?" Artorius outright grinned as he said that, before turning to the other soldiers present. "What is the largest weapon you have?"

Maelstrom groaned and pinched his muzzle with a wing. "No, Artorius. Fenrir keep well enough to themselves, but they're extremely territorial. Intrude on one's den and it will hunt you for miles. We lost an entire century when one tracked a group of smugglers back from one of the mines. After that, Father ruled intruding on the old mines they like to use as dens would be punishable by execution. So if we're lucky, it'll be tracking somepony, and we can let it take them."

"You're going to let it kill one of your own subjects? Why not fight it? I will gladly lead the charge."

"I'm going to let it kill a criminal who should have known better, Artorius. No point saving somepony we'd only crucify later. And I can't allow you to get yourself injured fighting for us, even if we do end up needing to move against it."

The soldier who had delivered the report to Malestrom cocked his head, letting a bit of River Rock's ever present snow tumble from his mane. "Why not? What's one dead griffon—"

"Mobius help me, I will have you flogged, legionary!" Maelstrom snarled. "Or would you rather be responsible for restarting the Red Cloud War? Hmm?" When the (substantially older) soldier stepped back and yielded face, Maelstrom allowed himself a deep breath. "A fenrir is something like three times your height, Artorius. They dig as fast as we can fly, and they can smell through solid stone. Break through all but the thickest of it, too. They're cunning enough not to surface if they suspect a trap, but land on the ground for even a moment and they'll burst out to drag you under. Father's fire magic is strong enough to fight them, but without him present, we'll have to rely on numbers and discipline." Maelstrom steepled his wings and set a cold gaze at his subordinates. "Legionary Wicker, go to Legate Wrest and have her choose a century. Tell her…" Maelstrom swallowed. "Tell her they don't need to be her strongest, but to expect heavy casualties if we have to deploy them. They're to meet us at the north gate. Understood? Dismissed."

"What?" Artorius asked, his face turning sour as Wicker departed. "You would send your weak ponies to their deaths when the strong might survive?"

"Artorius, the strength of our soldiers is irrelevant when there's twenty feet of frozen earth between us and the monster. If I want the fenrir and the wargs to surface, somepony has to stand on the ground to draw them out. And strong or weak, that pony will almost certainly die." Maelstrom then stepped away from Artorius and toward the other members of the Praetorian. "Go to the castle skyfoundry and whatever forges you know in the city. Commandeer all the thunderheads you can find. If you have to, bring raw cumulus and nimbus and we'll charge them ourselves. When the beast surfaces, pray to Grabacr that a battery of artillery kill it before it slips low again. Go."

For those etymologically inclined readers, the pegasus practice of bucking charged cumulonimbus clouds as a form of siege weaponry is the reason that both 'a collection of artillery pieces' and 'a stack of alternating zinc and copper discs in saltwater for the purposes of providing continuous electricity in alchemy' are both referred to as 'batteries'.

Artorius and Maelstrom watched the messengers depart into the snowy sky for a few long moments, before at last Artorius' beak broke the silence. "Let me fight alongside the troops on the ground."


"Maelstrom, on my honor as a knight, in the name of my father Theod, I cannot let these lesser warriors die without at least standing amongst them. And I am… forgive my pride, but it isn't only pride when I tell you I am very strong."

"I don't have time for this," Maelstrom replied dismissively, waving a wing in the air between himself and the griffon. "You aren't even properly healed, are you?"

"Maelstrom, if you do not let me fight, I will be forced to restrain you and take to the battlefield myself."

"You'd risk fighting me for the right to get yourself killed fighting wargs, all to protect ponies—knowing that fighting me, you'd fail in your mission to find a new home for your own people?" Artorius' mouth opened and shut twice as he searched for words before, at last, Maelstrom cut him off. "Who will carry your message back to the other griffons when you're in three pieces on the snow, hmm? If Father does agree to let them come here?"

"I would trust that you would repay my sacrifice," Artorius answered, though he continued with a chuckle "supposing they even touch me. I assure you, I am tougher than I look. I only need a weapon. The largest you have."

"I can't convince you, can I?" Under his breath, Maelstrom couldn't resist adding "...like talking to a brick wall."

Artorius shook his head. "I cannot be swayed, no. For a knight, my oaths are worth more than my life."

"Mobius, god of mercy, give me patience when I am found wanting." Tan hooves paced up and down in the street as Maelstrom weighed the two impossible options the griffon had set before him. Artorius watched the other pony pace, seeing Maelstrom's tri-colored mane occasionally flick as he glanced in the direction of the wall where danger approached, and back to his own form. With an arpeggio of hoofbeats, Maelstrom's patience face grew sterner, seemingly aging a decade in the span of moments, and finally he cast his gaze up to the sky, where even through the snowy clouds, the vague hint of the sun's presence could still be detected, trawling its inexorable path across the heavens. "Fine. Beyond Father's sword, most everypony uses Legion-issue gladii." Maelstrom looked Artorius' towering height up and down once and shook his head. "But they'd be like daggers to you. Hmm… Ah. Can you fly?"

"For a bit," Artorius agreed. "Where?"

"Back to the palace. There's a weapon that would suit you perfectly on the wall."

"Is it sharp?" Artorius asked. "A ceremonial sword won't do me much good in battle."

"No," Maelstrom replied with a hint of amusement. "It's a warhammer."

Artorius' laughter was far from just a 'hint' as it barked out over River Rock, following after Maelstrom on spread griffon wings.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

On the snowy fields outside the north wall of River Rock, a solid two miles up from the banks of the icy-ridden Volgallop, Artorius' protesting wings lowered his leonine paws onto the sheet of white. It took little effort for the griffon to balance on them, keeping himself upright so that he could hold a weapon in his avian claws; part of being a knight was to hold such a stance for some time, after all. And the weapon in question brought a smile to the corners of his beak.

The block of charcoal-toned steel on the end of a long-ish shaft had once belonged to a crystal soldier, and a lieutenant to Warlord Halite. The mare, Castigate, had led a brutally successful offensive on the right flank of Halite's main forces, cutting off River Rock from any hope of reinforcement from the earth ponies at their old capital of Amber Field. Alas, the offensive came just as Commander Hurricane had first begun to negotiate with King Lapis IV to provide soldiers for the unicorns to defend themselves in exchange for food and land for his refugees. Rather than risk injuring his soldiers flying down to meet the crystals in melee, Hurricane simply set about making constant torrential rain and hail fall on the crystal forces—not just for a day or two, but for three months of siege, until the ground was so muddy that it was impossible to even drive a tent peg into the ground sturdy enough to hold up shelter. Castigate left her warhammer where it lay when she and what was left of her besieging forces returned to their homeland with what few prisoners and spoils they could bring themselves to carry.

Hurricane presented the warhammer personally to Lapis, and Lapis hung it on the wall. And there it hung, until Hurricane's grandson unceremoniously yanked it down and dropped it into the hands of an eager griffon knight.

Artorius liked the feel of the weapon. Its head was small for a griffon warhammer, but its shaft was easily long enough for him to hold it in a two-handed grip. In his mind, he decided it must have been incredibly awkward for a pony to hold, before he tamped down on that criticism and tried to focus on the moment. That, he thought, was surely what his teachers would have advised. Grizzled old Tapfer, his mother Aella, the inscrutable apothecary… Even his friend Tsume—

"Sighted!" shouted a pegasus clad in a scout's lorica squamata armor, its collar and wing slits accented with furs to guard against the cold. "Commander, it's chasing somepony."

"Thank the gods." Maelstrom, hovering overhead with a stormcloud not far below his hooves, hadn't been particularly subtle about declaration. A brief cheer went up from the pegasi on the ground behind Artorius in their dispersed, battle-ready formation (the usual 'tortoise' the Cirrans favored on the ground being of little value against a subterranean enemy). "Remember, they'd be excecuted even if we saved them. Um… you, scout." The young soldier's eyes locked on the mare who had first given the announcement. "Cut them down. You don't need to kill them; just a blow to slow their pace should do it. We'll let the beast do the rest."

"Hold a moment, scout." The voice that spoke came from a mare near Maelstrom's side. Artorius' eyes quickly picked her out from the ranks manning the stormcloud battery. Unlike Maelstrom, not only did she bother to wear armor at all, but her outfit was painted with a golden trim, and her helmet bore a tall black crest indicative of some commanding rank. Her next words were spoken at little more than a whisper, but they were clear to Artorius' sharp ears (the senses of a griffon being, by and large, sharper than our own as ponies—at least until one applies magic). "Permission to speak freely, Commander Maelstrom?"

"Granted, Legate Wrest." Maelstrom nodded to the substantially older mare, probably not far off from Cyclone's age, and even lowered himself to hover about as close as two pegasi can.

"Your father would carry out such an execution himself, Maelstrom," said Wrest.

Maelstrom shifted nervously between his shoulders in the air. "Yes, well… I mean, I suppose I could… But I'm not armored, and—"

The young commander's words weren't actually cut off; it was Artorius' attention which was stolen when his sharp ears picked up a different speaker altogether.


It wasn't the word that so distracted Artorius as it was the voice crying it out: a shrill, warbling, desperate voice that even a griffon unused to ponies could hardly mistake.

"A child!" Artorius spread his wings, but then froze—not out of hesitation, but rather out of realization that unlike so many recent battles, he was not fighting alone. "Cirrans! I will bring the foal to safety. Let us form a line and be ready when the beast arrives."

"Artorius, wait—!" Maelstrom's protest fell on ears that, despite their twice aforementioned sharpness, seemed suddenly deaf. There was no hope of stopping the griffon—save perhaps bucking a bolt of lightning into his back, and praying to the Cirran god of mercy that it would stun him without inflicting permanent harm.

Artorius' wings ached as they carried him into the air—not just the sore ache of muscles overworked, but the deep, biting ache of cold slipping deep between feathers to bite at what had already begun to blacken from its earlier gnawing. But the young knight was nothing if not stubborn, and having fought through axe wounds, broken limbs, and even the biting of the dead, he had more than the willpower to cover a few hundred paces of open ground even in the icy cold.

The wind whistled past Artorius' feathers. Frozen wind stung his eyes. The snowfall seemed to turn, as it only can for the truly swift, to be flung into his face instead of merely downward from on high.

Speed stole away all definition from the drifts of the snow on the plains outside River Rock; only a white mass remained. And in the middle of it, a speck. One that swiftly grew closer.

One that cried out "Please! Anypony!"

The foal in question was an earth pony colt, brown of coat with a slate gray mane—only remarkable in just how unremarkable he was. Far more worthy of attention were the growing cracks and fissures in the frigid soil and ice behind him, mounding up like entrenchments, or the fault line of an earthquake.

Having seen a great mass of soil turned to liquid and watched a great beast swim beneath it, I can say the fenrir moved with less agility through the earth—though only just. And since any more nuance would perhaps require me to enchant this book with an image, I think that description shall suffice. The earth rippled in such a way that Artorius could see the vaguest hints of the creature's enormous foreclaws peaking up above the snow as it burrowed, as long as the span between his shoulders and more than capable of striking his heart with a single blow.

A less courageous warrior (or, it might be said, one with half a brain and/or the remotest sense of self-preservation) might have felt a very different chill settle over their heart than that of the weather. Fortunately for the young colt so close to death, Artorius was far too brave and far too stupid to turn back. And so, angling the ridges of his shivering wings forward and tucking his borrowed warhammer into an armpit to have both his talons free, Artorius angled into a dive.

It was a clever plan, at least I assume, having not bothered to reach back in time and try to read Artorius' mind at the moment in question. (At a certain level of literacy, one resents the idea of returning to foal's picture books). Namely, snatching up the foal, carrying him back to the line of reinforcements, and fighting the fenrir together with Maelstrom's forces would offer considerably less risk against the gigantic creature than trying to take it on single-hoofedly. Or, rather, single clawedly.

Unfortunately, I cannot say for sure whether or not that was Artorius' plan, beyond my inference based on how he stowed his hammer. For as Artorius wrapped his talons around the barrel of the screaming young colt and exclaimed "I've got yo—ooof!" just about as eloquently as such a phrase could be uttered by any creature, he discovered that force required to pull up from his rescuing dive was more than his injured wings could really take.

Forced into a roll more by his momentum and the laws of physics than any tactical consideration, the most the knight could do was to tuck his wings and forelegs around the child he had mostly failed to rescue, protecting the young colt's body from the terrain even as Artorius himself rolled and slid across it… right toward the broken ground where the fenrir was rapidly approaching.

Artorius had just enough time to dig the claws of his leonine paws into the snow and arrest his motion, and to lift his head up to take in his surroundings, before an enormous muzzle erupted from the ground mere inches from his beak.

The smell of carrion and copper—no, Artorius corrected himself, blood—washed over the griffon as the world seemed to slow. It was the approach of death, a feeling not entirely foreign to Artorius, but nevertheless hardly a welcome one. This time, though, laying on his side with his legs splayed out behind him, there was no question that he would not be able to ready his weapon, let alone stand, before the teeth swallowed him. And though, to his credit, Artorius son of Theod made the attempt with all the honor any creature calling himself a knight ought to have in their final moments, his intuition was proven correct.

To the watching pegasi, there was a great deal of confusion at just how they were supposed to feel about Artorius' heroic—if ultimately vain—sacrifice. On the one hoof, he had died trying to save a young pony with no thought to his own well-being. On the other hand, he was a griffon, and therefore the world was better for his death.

Now, I know in my prior text I've chastised readers who are too clever by half, assuming I cannot possibly have died in a situation with this sort of tension, because being the foremost necromancer in the world, and having died enough times to reasonably call myself a professional, you're probably better off betting I do kick the bucket in any situation where the threats against my life are remotely on par with my magical capabilities. All that being said, I didn't just start telling you the story of this random young griffon because the idea of wasting your time amuses me. Unlike yours truly, Artorius never became immortal in anything but the cop-out sense of song and fable and legend and so-forth, so unfortunately, those of you who hate fun do in fact get to cheat with him.

To the pegasi watching from the ground nearer River Rock's walls, or from their posts manning the battery a few hundred feet overhead, the fenrir seemed to pull itself up out of the ground and tilt its head back as if to let out a howl like a normal wolf whose maw could not compete with a small designer closet for storage area. However, instead of a howl (or a bass rumbling more akin to a localized earthquake, as such a creature's vocal cords would more likely produce), the sound that escaped its mouth was a fierce metallic twang and a crack. Immediately, the creature shook, and it yelped in agony. And flying out of its mouth (not on wings, but by the force with which the fenrir's gigantic head had been flung backward), the pegasi could see Artorius, clutching the rescued foal against his side rather like a hoofball in one claw, and the upper half of the borrowed warhammer in the other. Its shaft had broken midway down the handle, shearing through not only the grip but what appeared to be a metal core (or 'tang' if one wants to borrow the terminology of swords). Judging by the smear of red on the jagged bottom tip of the handle, it was safe to assume either the force of the fenrir's jaws snapping shut, or Artorius' own arms, had driven the splintery mess into the roof of the beast's mouth.

Tragically, while Artorius was now exactly where he wanted to be, in the air above the creature, he was rather worse for the wear. One of the tercel's hind legs had been punctured by a lupine tooth and was visibly drawing a ribbon of red in the sky. Worse yet, when Artorius spread his wings, one of the appendages twitched and jittered, obviously broken and completely unfit to carry weight.

And so, Artorius was reminded of the classic aphorism: 'what goes up must come down.'

Ever one to treat wordplay like a battle, Artorius seemed to parry that aphorism and retort with one of his own: 'if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.'

How he was even conscious with two of his limbs broken, I can only ascribe to the strength of his innate griffon magic. Artorius didn't even seem to notice the pain. His mind was on the colt in his arm, and the hammer in the other. "It'll be okay, little pony," the knight tried to say calmly. Alas, given the wind rushing past both his own ears and the colt's, he was forced to shout, and it didn't seem to offer much comfort.

Nor, one supposes, did the fact that the fenrir had collected itself from the pain of what was essentially a giant toothpick being rammed into its palate. With its head still tilted back, it opened its mouth for just a moment, and then aimed to bite right through the center of Artorius' torso with one of its formidable canine fangs.

With one wing out of commission, Artorius had no hope of juking the attack by flying upward, even for a passing moment. Diving into the creature's mouth a second was the sort of insane idea I would come up with, but without magic to back it up, was an obvious act of suicide even for the unusually bold griffon. (Or perhaps he was just worried about the colt he was protecting). But then, the only option that seemed to be remaining was to let the teeth close on him.

And essentially, that's what happened. Artorius stared at the fenrir's approaching teeth, raised the broken hammer, and let gravity add to his already considerable arm strength. There was more than enough force; all that remained was getting the timing right. And as the teeth grew close, it was the wash of the beast's foul breath that gave him his signal.

The hammer came down on the face of the fenrir's fang, right near its gum line. The result: the tooth splintered, cracking all the way through its base, just as the jaws closed around Artorius. The tooth was pressed into Artorius' chest, but rather than going point-first, its tip fell into the mouth, and its flat normally outward-facing edge was rammed into the griffon's belly—still carrying more than enough force to knock the wind from his his lungs and break a rib or two. The colt in Artorius' grip was pressed tight to the side of the tooth as well, probably a bit painfully, but he managed at least to slip below the line of those fangs which were still attached, and so only take a bit of a bruising jostle.

The pain of having a tooth sheared completely off its root by a blow from a hammer was, understandably, enough to get the fenrir to roar in agony again. And in so doing, it again opened its jaws wide. That was all the chance Artorius needed. He let go of the hammer completely, letting it fall into the throat of the beast below him, and wrapped his now free arm around the broken stump of the tooth. And as he too fell into the creature's throat, all that remained was to aim the point of the tooth at the most tender, vulnerable flesh.

The fenrir's roar turned rather grisly and wet when one of its own fangs pierced the side of its throat from the inside. Still not even fully emerged from the snow, the beast thrashed and tossed, and then in a few moments, slipped into unconsciousness.

"Is it dead?" one of the pegasi watching asked, the first to break the silence that swept over the plains.

"Never assume a wild beast is dead," Maelstrom replied, his tone making it clear he was quoting some work of ancient wisdom, though he didn't bother to provide an attribution aloud. "Um… You three. On me. We'll slit its throat, make sure we finished the job. Maybe pull Artorius out, if he survived."

"What about the other wargs?" one of the other ponies asked.

Legate Wrest shook her head. "No creature is going to watch their leader die, or cower, and then still take on battle themselves." Her eyes stayed firmly locked on Maelstrom as she spoke, and she nodded once. "Be careful with that griffon, Commander. He might well be the best warrior in River Rock."

A merciful finish to the fenrir came swiftly, but extracting Artorius took a good few minutes longer; his injuries made squeezing out through the fenrir's wounds inviable, and so eventually Maelstrom gathered a full two dozen ponies to pry the beast's jaws open again and let Artorius victoriously walk out.

"Here, little one." Artorius directed the little colt, who he had still kept tucked under arm through the whole affair. "Your own kind."

"I… I… thanks, mister." I cannot understate how impressive it was that the colt even remembered that level of manners, visibly shaking as he was from his experience. With Artorius' prodding, the hesitant colt took two strides toward Maelstrom and his soldiers before collapsing on the snow, still well inside the fenrir's maw.

He must have been six or seven by Maelstrom's guess, and he was obviously starving; rather like Graargh when I had first set eyes on the bear, it would have been a trivial matter to count the colt's ribs even from a few strides away. He had no cutie marks, nor any particular markings of note.

"What's your name?" Maelstrom asked.

The colt shook his head. "I… I don't remember."

"You don't remember your own name?" one of the legionaries at Maelstrom's side asked, before both Artorius and the commander in question shot her harsh glares.

"Trauma can make things hard," Maelstrom observed. "Do you have family, kid?"

The little colt answered that question all too completely when he glanced at the fenrir's teeth, opened his mouth to answer, and began to shake violently without finishing so much as word.

Maelstrom stepped forward from the line and placed a wing over the colt's shoulders, both to warm him and to comfort him. 'No need to talk about that anymore. Here, why don't you come with me? You can be my little brother. We'll get you something to eat back up at the palace."

"O-o-o-okay," shivered the anonymous colt.

Maelstrom went so far as to lift the colt onto his back before turning his attention to Artorius. "You can't walk back like that."

"I can limp a bit," Artorius protested. "I—"

"You two, go and fetch a sledge," Maelstrom directed his soldiers, cutting off the griffon's protest. "Your… knightly honor was well appreciated, Artorius, but nopony is going to look down on you for needing help back to your bed."

With an indignant huff, Artorius hung his head. "Very well."

And so, after only a short wait for the wooden sledge to arrive, Artorius was treated to something that may well have been unique in the history of Cirran-griffon relations: a full escort by legion pegasi through the streets of what had become, in a way, their capital city.

It might have been a perfect blissful end to the story, had a group of scouts not flown up to Maelstrom and his entourage just a few dozen strides from the gatehouse of the castle.

"Trouble, Commander."

"The other wargs?" Maelstrom guessed. "Tell Legate Wrest she's authorized to use the battery we provided—"

"No sir," interrupted the guard. "With apologies for interrupting sir; it's more of them!" Pointing toward Artorius reclining on the sledge, the armored pegasus even felt the need to clarify "Griffons."

"More griffons?" Maelstrom asked more to himself out of shock than any need to confirm.

It was Artorius, however, who spoke up with the most useful question. "How many?"

"Two, maybe three hundred," the scout reported, facing Maelstrom despite answering Artorius' question. "We didn't approach. Most of them were pulling skywagons."

"No…" Whispered Artorius. And then, hauntingly, he added "There should be more. There have to be more."

"What should we do, sir?"

Looking rather like the shivering colt on his back had, Maelstrom froze in place. His eyes jumped in their sockets between Artorius and the scout, back and forth and back again. His wings twitched, but they did not unfold.


"Rouse the legions," Maelstrom finally ordered. "Everypony."

"Maelstrom, please!" Artorius called out from his resting place. "If it is Magnus' forces, not only do you have my blessing in fighting them, but I would gladly fight alongside you. But if it is my mother and ours, I beg you, hear them out."

"You're not going to listen to a griffon, are you?" the scout asked. "Sir, you've heard what Magnus did to your grandfather's messengers—"

Maelstrom finally seemed to find himself, turning to the escort around Artorius and pointing as he rattled off orders. "You two, take Artorius to the dungeons. Be gentle with him; I need him restrained, but I will not have him hurt. And put this colt with my brothers and sisters. You three, rouse Legate Fell and Legate Ramble. Have Wrest bring her battery. Make sure everypony is ready for combat, but I don't want any hostile action taken before I give the order, or I fall out of the sky. The rest of you, on me. Understood?"

"Sir," the pegasi answered with more-or-less synchronized salutes before dispersing.

"And Artorius?" Maelstrom asked as he lifted the young colt from his back, setting him down on Artorius sledge. "What is your leader's name?"

"She's my mother, Aella," Artorius offered. "If… If something happened to her, they might be led by Tapfer; you can't miss him, since his beak's broken down the middle. Or failing him, the Apothecary, or Tsume—"

"I need to go, Artorius," Maelstrom interrupted, spreading his wings. "I give you my word I will hear them out."

And then, with a pump of tan wings, Maelstrom was gone, and a fear gripped Artorius far colder than that he had faced in the mouth of the fenrir.

PreviousChapters Next