• Published 26th May 2020
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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.

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A Cold War

For Aella, even having the opportunity to surrender was welcome after crossing the seemingly endless snow. When the Cirrans flew out to meet her forces, she knew that if they chose to fight, her griffons would stand no chance. There may have been a few hundred still alive, but by her estimate, there were seven real weapons between them.

The leader of the pegasi that had flown out to meet her was younger than she had expected, but more welcoming than she had dared to let herself hope—which was mostly just to say she wasn't met with swords drawn. He introduced himself, and then (rather meekly for a commanding officer) asked her to surrender her 'forces' (if one could call them that) and their weapons. Normally, such a request would probably have been met begrudgingly, but Aella surprised the young soldier by not only agreeing, but doing so enthusiastically—with only the stipulation that they be detained somewhere warm.

Many words followed, but not many of them were of substance; the Cirrans collected the griffons' weapons (in fact there were only six, plus the more bladed selections from the apothecary's tools), secured the various wagons of mostly-depleted supplies which the more fit of the griffons had been pulling with them, and led the mass in small groups down into the dungeons of Burning Hearth Castle. The Cirran leader was kind enough not to lock the groups into separate cells, giving free access to the dungeon hallways and effectively using the space as a large improvised dormitory or barracks where the griffons could congregate. He did, however, post a considerable guard at the door with orders not to let the 'guests' leave.

Aella, however, was pulled aside swiftly; the young commander informed her that they would have a great deal to talk about, but that he would allow her someone else to join their meeting in case she needed a second voice to account for the griffons needs, or to help her translate Equiish or Cirran. And while Aella's Cirran and Equiish were both arguably perfect, she wasted no time in gesturing over the Apothecary for their meeting.

The old griffon, whose face rather resembled a charcoal owl behind a pair of thin spectacles, and whose hindquarters were similarly closer to drab gray than a golden tan, was hesitant to answer the order. Aella proved quickly that she didn't need to speak aloud to convey the importance of her demand, though; a firm glance brought the aged tercel in line.

So it was that, within the hour of the griffons arrival, Aela found a (rather undersized) mug, visibly steaming, being slid in her direction across the top of an absolutely ornate wooden table in a small sitting room with features that, while pony-sized, were entirely alien to the Cirran culture she had known in her youth.

"This is hot chocolate," the stallion explained, electing not to mention it was the only chocolate in River Rock, at least to his knowledge as its steward. Such was diplomacy. "To ward off the cold, and hopefully warm introductions. I hope there aren't any hard feelings from your initial reception. I am Prelate Maelstrom Stormblade," the tan pony with the striped mane offered by way of introduction. "And I am guessing you are Aella. Do you—"

"You know of me?" Aella interrupted, speaking in a sudden rush. "From Hurricane Haysar? Or my son?"

Maelstrom steepled his wings as he sat back in his polished wooden seat, noticeably built for somepony of a more formidable build. "Artorius."

Visible relief washed over Aella, and the old griffon at her side smiled as he placed a claw on her shoulder. "Can I see him?"

"He is recovering from some wounds at the moment, but he should be well enough to see you when we are done talking." Realizing how that probably sounded to the griffon's mother, Maelstrom immediately winced. "That is, he—"

Behind his spectacles, the apothecary rolled his eyes. "I tried to warn you he would pick a fight with the Cirrans, Aella."

Maelstrom shook his head frantically. "No, nothing like that, I promise. He volunteered to help us with a monster problem outside the city. We tried to convince him to stay back, but…"

"He has his father's stubbornness," Aella completed. "Believe me, I know; Still, I cannot express how grateful I am to hear he is here, and more-or-less well." Then the hen dipped her 'bald' white head low and interlaced her talons in a sort of seated bow. "Thank you, Maelstrom Haysar."

"Oh, no, I'm not Emperor, Aella. My father is still alive and well. He's just away from River Rock momentarily."

Aella sighed in relief, and then shot a slight smirk in the far older griffon's direction. "And you say ponies don't live that long."

"Unless Hurricane was uncommonly… how does one say in Equiish, Maelstrom? Virile? A prolific Deckhengst?" The apothecary waited for a moment for Maelstrom to chime in, but the young stallion was far too flustered by the abrupt pivot into a discussion of the virility of his grandfather to answer quickly. After a few silent seconds, the old griffon waved his talons in the air. "In any case, Aella, I would bet Maelstrom is Hurricane's grandson. Am I right?"

Maelstrom nodded once and coughed to clear his throat—really, a naked attempt to refocus himself. "Yes. On all counts. Grandfather—Emperor Hurricane—passed a few years ago. My father Cyclone is the Emperor, the 'Haysar', now." Nodding to the old griffon, he couldn't help but raise a brow. "How did you know?"

"Regarding Emperor Hurricane: twenty years ago, when he had come to Dioda looking for your… it is 'goddess', yes, and not 'empress', for Lun?" Maelstrom's quick nod was all the old griffon needed in affirmation before continuing. "We do not draw a difference for Magnus. In any case, he had only just lost his wing when Celeste brought him back across the sea, and some venom still racked his side. I treated him—not that his wounds were within my skill; only Lun could do that. But I… Aella, we say diagnostiziert, do you know the Equiish word?"

"Diagnose? Rather, 'diagnosed'?"

"Yes, that. I diagnosed that the wound had gotten past the muscles of his side and affected his heart. It wouldn't kill him that very moment, of course, but I told him that when old age claimed him, it was sure to be his heart giving out. Am I wrong?"

"I… assume so?" Maelstrom shrugged. "He passed in his sleep. That's all I know."

Maelstrom felt suddenly very nervous as the eyes of the older griffon locked with his, squinting with honed avian focus over the tops of his spectacle lenses. While hardly his elder sister Sirocco's equal with pegasus magic, to say nothing of even coming close to Cyclone or Hurricane's skills, Maelstrom still had enough experience to tell if magic was being used to try and intimidate him. But the apothecary wasn't forcing the issue with magic; rather, there was something about the old griffon's personality that seemed to burrow into Maelstrom, and make the young stallion wonder if perhaps his lie had a smell.

Then, mercifully, the old griffon reached up to his face, removed his spectacles, and rubbed them against his fur coat—just below where the feathers covering his upper body ended—as if to clear some speck or mote of dust from view. When the spectacles rose to rest again on the griffon's beak, it was as if they were on a different griffon entirely. "As for how I knew you were not likely to be Hurricane's son, that is just a matter of arithmetic. Aella, he only has… I would guess sixteen years to his name. Am I right, Prelate?"

Aella's eyes widened, and she leaned over to the apothecary's side, speaking in a whisper that didn't quite manage to avoid reaching Maelstrom's ears. "He's younger than Artorius? We're negotiating with a child?"

"Ponies mature much faster than griffons in their early years," the apothecary countered in his distinct accent. "But, to give clarity, you are negotiating with a child. I have never had any pretending of leadership. I don't want any part of it. I am only here to ask for medical supplies, and offer my services to smooth whatever deal you make." With an obvious hint of snark, the old griffon added "My lady."

Aella responded with an amused, or at least good-humored sigh. "Well, Maelstrom, that does bring us around to the point of our talk, doesn't it? As you said before, I am Aella, the leader of our ragged little group of rebels against the tyrant god Magnus. This is our apothecary."

Maelstrom nodded to both griffons in turn, though his gaze lingered on the elder of the two. "Do you… not have a name? Or…?"

"I earned one in Magnus' service," the tercel replied, both his well-aged humor and his intimidating presence replaced with trepidation. "So when I turned against him, I discarded it. Being 'the apothecary' suits me more than well."

"You fought alongside Magnus?" Maelstrom asked.

"I have not 'fought' in a quarter of a millennium," the apothecary replied. "But in the interest of honesty, I treated the wounded on Magnus' side."

"Not literally at his side," Aella added, with trepidation to match the doctor's. "None of us were close to him. A few of us, like myself, are Canii; we were former auxiliia for Cirra at the beginning of the war. But when Emperor August ordered all griffons in Cirra be wiped out, we weren't presented with much choice, whether we liked Magnus or not. Our rebellion came later, when—"

"If I may," the apothecary interrupted, "Aella, this story will still be here when I have my bandages and my needles and water."

Aella nodded firmly. "See, I brought you for more than you thought." Then, turning to Maelstrom, she nodded. "We have a very long story, and we are more than glad to tell it, but I promise it isn't going anywhere. Right now, several of our companions are sick from the cold, and none of us have eaten well in weeks. We thought Magnus did not know where our encampment was, and our sentries only gave us a few minutes warning before his forces would have reached us. We left without the supplies we would have needed to safely fly here from Dioda like your late grandfather did. So please, I have to beg you, some of us are starving. I'm more than happy to offer whatever services we can provide to repay you, and Cirra, but—"

"I sent some food already," Maelstrom interrupted. "We don't have enough supplies to feed such a large group, so I will offer my apologies that it isn't much, but hopefully it will be enough for the moment."

"A harsh winter?" Aella asked.

"Yes," Maelstrom agreed. "And it has been since it started, twenty-five years ago."

"Magnus is doing this?" the apothecary asked. "His power reaches this far from Dioda?"

Maelstrom shook his head. "A different monster. I'll explain later. I… Not much grows here. Suffice it to say, I hope you like fish."

"We thank you for sharing what you have, then," Aella replied.

"Though I hesitate to impose further, I must insist also about medical supplies," the apothecary offered. "Most importantly, boiling water and clean linen. As I said, if you supply me, I will gladly repay you by offering my services to your forces."

"That will be easier," Maelstrom offered. "Firewood, we have in abundance, and I can certainly see to clean cloth. In fact—" Maelstrom then turned in his seat to face the stout door of the meeting room and raised his voice a good bit. "Centurion, send word to have all the hearths in the winter hall lit, and get started boiling snow in the cauldrons. Gather clean bandages too. You have permission to commandeer anypony you need."

"Sir," came the acknowledgement, just before Maelstrom turned back to his griffon guests.

"We can't thank you enough, Maelstrom," Aella offered. "I know it may not seem like much, but you're saving our lives by letting us stay here."

"Well, there is a part you won't like," Maelstrom countered. Naturally, that phrase produced some worried looks on both griffons' faces. "There's still a great deal of hatred for griffons among our forces. Especially some of the older generations. I believe our soldiers are disciplined enough not to act on their own. But, for the time being, I'm going to have to insist you remain under lock here in the castle—at least until I'm able to get the city ready for the idea of griffons wandering the streets."

"I…" Aella swallowed, but nodded. "I understand. If that is what it takes for both us and your citizens to be safe, so be it."

"There's one other thing," Maelstrom added. "How many of your group know about my grandfather's trip?"

Aella frowned and stroked the bottom of her beak in thought. "I think you, Tapfer, and I were the only ones there who have still survived."

The apothecary, to whom she seemed to have been speaking, nodded. "Glum and Brunhilde stayed to hold off Magnus when we left…" A wave of visible regret washed over Aella's face at that grim reminder, though the apothecary seemed more jaded to his own words. "And Theod, of course."

"Artorius' father?" Maelstrom asked, remembering the name from Artorius' own introduction..

Aella nodded. "He died fighting alongside your grandfather and Celestia… Another long story for a later day." This time, rather than a concern of time, it was obvious to Maelstrom that the hen was avoiding the subject to spare her own feelings. "So yes, only the apothecary, myself, and one other were there. But we have not exactly kept his presence a secret. I suspect most of us have heard mention of what happened. Why?"

Maelstrom steepled his wings again and sighed. "If you want shelter here, I'm going to have to stipulate that there be no talk of my grandfather's return to Dioda."

"Of course," Aella agreed.

"Why?" the apothecary asked. When Aella shot him a far harsher glare than even Maelstrom, the old griffon placatively held up his talons. "I do not mean that I will not comply. I just… I am, you would say, colored curious?"

"There was… a lot of debate about returning to Dioda," Maelstrom explained. "Some ponies only wanted us to stay here long enough to build up our forces and our strength before we returned to take on Magnus. When Grandfather put his hoof down that he intended to abandon Dioda… there was rebellion." Maelstrom was quite certain he had not even given the implication that his father Cyclone had anything to do with said rebellion, and yet he suddenly found himself under the apothecary's piercing gaze just the same. "So… Grandfather kept his return to Dioda a secret. He never said where he found Luna. And if the secret came out, it could make an already unstable situation worse."

"Wise," the apothecary replied.

"We will keep your secret, Maelstrom," Aella concluded, looking more at her companion than at Maelstrom. Though when she said "We can never thank you enough," at least those words were given in Maelstrom's direction, and with far less hostility in her gaze.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Legate Wrest was waiting when Maelstrom delivered Aella and the apothecary, along with the latter's surgical tools and his bags of various salves and poultices, to Burning Hearth's dungeons. Hers was a stark contrast to the grateful nods and smiles he got from the griffons through the door, despite the fact he had quite literally placed them in the darkest, dingiest, and often coldest part of Burning Hearth Castle. But knowing that he would not escape whatever conversation the far more senior soldier wanted (despite her comparative lack of rank), Maelstrom begrudgingly waved her closer with a wing once he had locked the dungeon door.

"Permission to speak freely, Prelate?"

Maelstrom, with a sense of foreboding, glanced backward over his shoulder—not to meet Wrest's gaze as she followed behind him, but to make sure he was far enough from the dungeon door to be out of earshot of the griffons. "Go ahead."

"We should kill them," Wrest said, completely dispassionately.

"What? Legate, my Father ordered Artorius not be harmed." Maelstrom shook his head as he set his hoof on the first step of a spiral staircase that would lead up to his office, where quill and parchment awaited to carry a message that would summon Cyclone's authority home.

"That order died when three hundred griffons followed him," Wrest rebutted, iron in her voice. "One griffon, we could tolerate. We trust the Emperor has his reasons. But think, Prelate! My centuries are restless about taking in so many griffons. And frankly, I agree with them."

"You want a second Red Cloud War?" Maelstrom asked sharply.

"Better than bowing our heads and pretending they didn't slaughter us," Wrest answered. When Maelstrom continued up the stairs without offering a reply, the armored mare bashed a hoof into the stone bricks of the stairwell wall, sending out a crack that echoed like rolling thunder up and down the stairwell. "You don't have anything to say?"

"The conversation is over," Maelstrom answered flatly, continuing on his way. "I intend to send a message to Father explaining what has happened. I won't take action unless he orders it. It is far easier to ask forgiveness for not having killed them sooner than to raise them from the dead."

There was more than a tinge of snideness in Wrest's voice when she asked "And how do you intend on feeding them in the days it will take him to get back?"

"I'll re-allot rations, and have the griffons fish to pull their own weight."

Wrest scoffed. "And how do you intend to keep Equestria a secret, if the griffons are out able to walk the streets and the docks? What happens if one flies down to Trotsylvania? What if they meet a ship's captain? Will you keep all of River Rock in on your little lie?"

This time, though Maelstrom was again silent, it was far clearer that he had no answer.

Wrest saw his weakness and pressed. "Even if you do let them fish, and if every one of them can fish as well as three ponies, do you think that will be enough? A griffon needs five times the food a pony does. I won't insult you asking how you intend to make the rationing work. We both know what we have now isn't enough. Either you have another plan about how to feed an extra legion of mouths, or you're intending to take food out of Cirran mouths to feed griffons when the city is already on the brink of starving. And then the only question is, when pony meat is on the menu, is it us eating or them?!"

"I think I have a plan," Maelstrom told her, curtly, his voice trying to make it clear the conversation was over by tone alone. His hooves had carried him to the castle's main floor, and since the upper floors of the keep were not connected to the castle's towers, it was as high as his path would carry him before he ventured into the inner halls.

Legate Wrest had clearly already had such a realization well before their talk began, because when Maelstrom opened the door and stepped into Burning Hearth's main hall, he found the room filled with nearly all of Wrest's 2nd Legion, fully armored and standing in formation.

Wrest spoke to Maelstrom in a quiet tone, approaching from behind to loom over the younger stallion, who clearly took his size, like his coloration, more from his aunt than his father. "The Second is interested to hear what you have to say about where their family's food is going to be coming from in the next few weeks, Prelate. Would you like to tell them? Or were you trying to lie to me?"

"I should have you executed, Wrest."

"Who's going to do it, colt?" Wrest answered. "Every legionary in River Rock knows you're a coward. A parchment-pusher."

"So? What's your point? I won't order their deaths."

"I know," Wrest replied. "I'm not asking you to. All I need from you is to stand aside when the time comes, and let somepony braver do the dirty job that needs doing. I'm not afraid of your father, or the lash, so long as I don't have to hurt any of his family in the process." Then Wrest nodded to Maelstrom. "Now go. Send your letter, and see to your brothers and sisters. The new one will need your attention."

Maelstrom, to his credit, tried to build up some courage in that moment to stand up to Wrest. But as his gaze met soldier after veteran soldier, and not a single one had any sympathy in their expression, his resolve withered to nearly nothing.

That 'nearly' is a great deal of credit indeed for a pony in such circumstances.

"At least give them a few days. If Father returns—"

"It would take a miracle to get him back before food grows scarce," Wrest replied. "But out of respect for your father, I will give the chance for that miracle. But nothing more. Our oath is to Cirrans first. Never forget that, Maelstrom."

And thus, Maelstrom made his way up into the castle proper, and reflected for the first time with sympathy on the unease that seemed to hang over his father constantly.

Rarely does one know in advance that one's quill will change the course of history. Maelstrom found the weight suited him ill, as he wrote thus:


More griffons have come to River Rock. I have confined them per your orders, but there is not enough to feed them for long. I fear they will starve, and it will be as if we killed them.

The Legion sees this too. They want blood. And they do not fear me. I do not know how long I can hold that bloodlust at bay.

I will fulfill your orders as best I can, Father.

I pray to Mobius that I will live to see you again.

Your son,

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