• 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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9-1 The Battle of the Short Hallway


The Battle of the Short Hallway

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IX - I

The Explosion Before the Storm

It began with the most mundane of explosions.

One 'summer' night in River Rock, insofar as River Rock (or as we now know it, Stalliongrad) even has a concept of summer, an earth pony merchant with a gravelly gaze and a penchant for the pipe found herself dealing with a bit of stress after she finished dealing with a group of River Rock's 'damn traitor guardsponies'. It was always something with Cyclone's soldiers; some new tax or new regulation, or just an unnecessary inspection to waste her time with their unnecessary (she assumed) bureaucracy. Maybe it was that they wanted to feel like they had power over something, trapped as they were in this eternal frozen nightmare while ponykind moved on past them in new Equestria. Maybe they were just that awful. Wasn't hard to believe. But whatever the reason for their forbidding her from going into town further than the docks, and making such a big deal about keeping quiet about Equestria, she didn't care. She just needed to drop off her flour, pick up her coin, and be off.

So as the porters and her crew unloaded bags and bags of milled flour, she took a moment to relieve her stress with her hooked pipe under the cover of the dockside warehouse that stored what little food the city had access to.

And when one of the porters dropped a bag of flour, and it burst in a puff of dust, that was all it took.

Nopony was killed. Well, nopony died of burns. No, I suppose that isn't true either. I can say nopony died immediately - the worst casualties in the moment were a few singed manes and a single eyebrow. The storehouse, unlike a tightly closed silo, had plenty of windows and a wide-open set of barn doors to let the force and fire of the explosion pass quickly. But when it passed, it took with it several tons of River Rock's already short supplies.

And so it began.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Maelstrom Stormblade was desperately poring over the city's food records, sitting in a chair sized for his father that the young stallion couldn't possibly fill, with dozens of quills and books and reports sprawled out on a massive desk in front of him when news of the explosion arrived.

When the soldier with the news—twice Maelstrom's age, and by the colt's memory, a member of Legate Wrest's own legion—finished her report, Maelstrom's tan wing gently removed the reading glasses from the bridge of his nose, folded them tightly, and set them down on the desk.

"I understand," the young Praetorian Commander said, trying to keep a straight face (and performing admirably as his mind raced). "Tell Legate Wrest that I need half an hour to make sure my brothers and sisters are all out of the way, and then she can do as she feels she needs to."

The soldier nodded and went on his way.

"Half an hour… right…"

And Maelstrom, possibly like an idiot, but with an admirable heroism to his actions, promptly delegated the search for his siblings to a legionary roughly his own age (and thus less likely to side with Wrest's 'old guard', though it was impossible to be completely sure). After ordering the foals to be taken en masse to a somewhat less exploded warehouse by the docks, he himself made his way to a barred-and-guarded chamber in the upper halls of Castle Burning Hearth as quickly as he could without attracting undue attention from any of the wandering soldiers in the halls—soldiers who, in theory, answered to him as Cyclone's proxy and the highest ranking officer in River Rock, but as with the former young soldier, it was impossible to know how many would follow an inexperienced colt his age over Wrest's seasoned command and respect.

Fortunately, there was one soldier Maelstrom trusted: a young mare almost exactly his own age, and his occasional sparring partner (in a decidedly innuendo-less, literal sense), whom Maelstrom had, with some foresight, assigned to guarding the particular door that was his destination.

The colt's heart pounded like a thunderhead with every legionary he passed, despite their salutes and sudden motions out of his path. Twice, he crossed in front of centurions from Wrest's legion, the Nyxian Second, but mercifully, it seemed that news of the fire had not yet reached their ears.

Or they were as clever about masking what they observed as he was being.

Finally, Maelstrom reached his destination, and he glanced back and forth with trepidation down the hallway before he approached the door in question.

"Commander Maelstrom, Sir!" Grail snapped a stiff salute.

"Not now, Grail," Maelstrom answered with a much more hushed voice. "Give me the key; then you're dismissed."

Grail cocked her head, even as she hoofed over the requested key, taking its leather band off her neck. "Do you mean 'at ease', Maelstrom?"

"I mean go home, Grail," Maelstrom insisted, glancing once more up and back down the hall. "No matter what happens, you're off duty until my father gets back. That's an order."

Grail swallowed. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes. Very. But please, just go." Maelstrom felt a drop of sweat drip down his temple. "And if you can help it, don't tell anypony I was the one who told you to leave here. Just… actually, tell them… do you know any centurions from the Second? Personally?"

"Um, Taciturn is my uncle's friend—"

"Good," Maelstrom interrupted the rest of the explanation. "As a direct order, if anypony asks, tell them Taciturn decided to do you a favor and relieved you of guard duty. Now go, Grail."

Grail took a deep breath, and then nodded. "Okay. Please be careful, Maelstrom."

"I don't think I'm the one in danger," he answered. With Grail most of the way out of earshot, under his breath, he added "Not yet, anyway…"

Before Grail was even fully gone from view, Maelstrom unlocked the door behind her guard posting and pushed his way in—there was no time for the niceties of knocking. "Artorius? Are you awake? Can you walk?"

The griffon tercel who occupied the guarded room sat up in bed, showing no obvious pain or stiffness despite the bandages wrapped around various parts of his body where, Maelstrom assumed, the wounds of fenrir teeth were still healing. "I heal very fast, Commander. If it were up to me, I would have gone to talk to my mother and the others, but I'm sure the apothecary said—"

"That was my order," Maelstrom interrupted, glancing back over his shoulder and out into the hallway. "And I'm sorry for keeping you from your family for so long. But I'm also glad I did."

"Is something the matter?"

Maelstrom nodded. "One of my father's legates wants to kill your mother's griffons. They're all still staying in the dungeons under the castle, and they're unarmed. If Wrest reaches them before we can get them out, it will be a slaughter."

Artorius's eyes widened. "Your own soldiers are not loyal to your orders? Are they not sworn to the Legion's oath?"

The question earned a roll of magenta eyes. "It's not that simple, Artorius. The point is, we need to get your mom and the other griffons out of there. There's an old fortress a good way's west of here, Onyx Ridge; we can hide you there until Father gets back. Can you help?"

"Of course!" Artorius all-but-bellowed, making Maelstrom wince as he folded his ears against his skull. "What kind of knight would I be to let you lead battle against your own kind for the sake of those in need while I stood to the side? We shall crush our way to my mother, and then our flight shall be glorious!"

"No!" Maelstrom hissed. "We're doing this quietly."

"Surely between my strength and the skill of the grandson of Hurricane Haysar himself, we have no need to—"

"Do I look like a good soldier to you?" Maelstrom—stick thin and with a bit of a hunched posture when he wasn't actively maintaining his stance in front of his military peers—snapped at the griffon, before his head swung toward the door at the faintest hint of the sound of armor in the hall. "C'mon. Stay close, head down."

Artorius and Maelstrom barely had time to re-close Artorius' door, and to lock it with the key around Maelstrom's neck, before armored hooves appeared around the corner of the hall. Glancing back and forth hurriedly, Maelstrom's best hope in the split second was to cram Artorius into an alcove behind a unicorn suit of armor—yet another of the relics of the centuries of unicorn rule left over in the frozen halls of Burning Hearth.

It was an awful hiding place, and Artorius wasn't the most… covertly gifted being in the world, though, so as two legionaries on patrol approached, Maelstrom made the quick decision to walk toward them—hoping to intercept them before they got a clearer line of sight to Artorius hiding place.

"Commander!" one of them barked out, saluting. "What are you doing up here?"

Biting back his nervousness, and nearly quaking in his shoes, Maelstrom answered "I'm looking for my brother. Have you seen him?"

"Which one?" the elder of the two guards queried in reply.

The younger, jokingly, replied "Does it matter? I thought they were all ordered to stay in the upper halls—in Platinum's old quarters, sir."

"I know that," Maelstrom growled. "I'm looking for Torrent."

"Who, sir?"

"Torrent," Maelstrom repeated. "The new kid who didn't have a name. The one the griffon saved from the fenrir." To accentuate the point, Maelstrom gestured to the locked—but now suspiciously unguarded—door.

That fact didn't escape the other ponies in the hall. "Wouldn't the guard have seen her?"

"Where is that filly anyway?"

Maelstrom sighed, thinking Sorry, Grail, before aloud he told the guards "There's supposed to be a guard posted here? I ordered the door locked—" and there he gestured to his neck "—but I didn't think we needed to waste somepony standing in front of the door. You, find out who gave that order and send them to me. And you: I need to find Torrent, quickly. I'm worried he's going to get himself into danger; I haven't had time to explain where he is and isn't allowed in the castle."


"Do you want to explain to my father why one of his foals got hurt?" Maelstrom insisted. And even the specter of Cyclone's literally flaming wrath was enough to dispel any further curiosity. "Go! I'll take this way; you sweep the west galleries. Commandeer anypony you need to help, on my authority."

"Sir!" both legionaries snapped.

Had his heart not been pounding so heavily with ongoing worry, Maelstrom might have collapsed as soon as the other legionaries were out of sight; one glance inside the unguarded door, a few more steps down the hall, and that would have been it.

Hence, when Artorius walked boldly out of his hiding place and announced "It is unbecoming of a knight to lurk in the shadows and hide behind lies," Maelstrom answered with a glare that carried much of the heat of his fearsome father.

"Stay close," was all Maelstrom actually said, though.

On two more occasions, the young Praetorian Commander lied or distracted his way past patrols, hiding Artorius around corners or behind buttresses and pillars in the dense classical unicorn architecture. Finally, mercifully for Maelstrom's heart, the pair arrived at a pair of stout wooden doors.

"Can you fight?" Maelstrom asked.

Artorius shrugged. "I am not so good with my talons and claws as I am with a weapon, but I will make do. How many do we face? A dozen? More? Ten?"

Maelstrom answered that question by cocking his head nearly sixty degrees to the side. Setting aside Artorius' curious grasp of the basic skill of counting for a moment, he asked "You think you can take ten armed legionaries by yourself?"

"I do not know. I have not tried. But I am very strong. I once bested six dead griffons, and I broke my sword on the first one."

Fully giving up on a sentence that I would have believed but that he understandably chalked up to poor Equiish, Maelstrom raised a wing to placate the soldier. "This is the old armory; it's where I had the weapons that were taken from your companions stored. But our quartermaster is in, and he's an old sort; he might listen to me, or he might not. If he doesn't… I don't think it will be hard, but you can't hesitate. Understand?"

"I do," Artorius nodded. "But do you? I hear you hesitate in your voice."

Maelstrom winced; it was one thing for Wrest to call him on his hesitance to face the reality of a soldier's life, but this griffon who he'd only spoken to twice before? Was he that obvious? That weak?

"If I have it my way, nopony gets hurt. Er, no griffon either—"

"I know what you mean, and it is a noble wish," Artorius agreed. And then, with a sort of jaded wisdom belying his obvious youth, he added "If only, if only. But if someone is to be hurt, better us than innocents, no?"

And with that ominous observation, Artorius stepped forward and flung open the armory doors.

I'd love to tell you the story of more daring wordplay and tense negotiations on Maelstrom's part, but in this case Artorius settled any debate with the quartermaster of Cyclone's legion without even intending to do so. The griffon's strength—utterly understated despite the bravado of his claims—meant that when the heavy wooden doors were flung open inward, the right-hoof one of the pair caught the old quartermaster square on the muzzle with a painful and disgusting mixture of the cracking of stout wood and the suction-cup-y, mucusy slurp of a nasal cavity being mildly collapsed and heavily compressed hard enough to, albeit briefly, form an airtight seal. The senior pegasus was flipped head over hooves in a spray of blood and snot, and blissfully, was unconscious from the blunt force head and neck trauma before his body even hit the stone floor of the storeroom.

"Oh my," said Artorius, rather meekly. "I, um—I didn't mean to—"

"No time to apologize," Maelstrom cut in. "He's still breathing. He'll be fine." The indication of the latter fact was the pony letting off a sort of crinkled snoring noise, like the sound of a clarinet when played after having been sat on by a yak. "How many of your company are combat-ready? There weren't many weapons, but I assume some might have been left behind for the flight from Dioda."

"Um…" Artorius held up a claw and began counting on his talons. "Me, Mom, Tapfer, Dredge, Ysilde, Brumhilde… oh, and Tsume. So seven."

I am genuinely surprised, given the way he reacted, that Maelstrom's mane did not go shock white at that very moment. "I… beg your pardon?"

"Why? You haven't done anything wrong."

"No, I mean I don't believe you. There were almost two hundred griffons in the company that came from Dioda and you're telling me you have seven soldiers?"

"We have seven knights," Artorius corrected, as though it were the most important distinction in the world. "But... yes, all our soldiers are knights. The apothecary tells me that when I was young, there were hundreds of us, knights fighting for griffon freedom… but after Magnus slew my father, we've slowly been bleeding away."

Maelstrom winced. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"Don't be," Artorius answered, surveying the room's armaments. "It was as honorable a death as any griffon could ever hope for—fighting evil against impossible odds, and despite defeat, winning something of great value."


"They unsealed Valhalla," Artorius answered. And then, when Maelstrom cocked his head, the bird-brained knight's mind realized just how staggeringly much context such a statement would need to make sense to a pony, and resolved "I will tell you over a horn of ale when my people are safe. You have my word."

"I'll hold you to that; now you've got me curious." Maelstrom scanned the walls. "I know we took those two thicker curved swords from one of you," When he spied them, the young pegasus gestured up to a shelf with a wing before hopping into the air and hovering to grab them in his mouth.

"Tsume's," Artorius answered. "She's told me their names a dozen times, but I can't say words in her language to save my life." After taking what readers who are familiar with the lands of the kirin as a katana and a tanto—and those who aren't will understand as a saber with delusions of grandeur and a dagger with delusions of being a saber respectively—the griffon indicated a few other weapons on the shelves. "The lance there is Tapfer's. Let's see… where's Brumhilde's trident?"

"I don't think we took a trident," Maelstrom noted. "I feel like I would have remembered that."

Artorius shrugged. "Maybe it got lost. Grab a few pilums, and we'll have to hope she doesn't bend all of them."

"Um…" Maelstrom briefly considered explaining that a pilum bending, if not outright breaking, was the point of the weapon (perhaps even the point of its point) but ultimately gave up the note to instead glance around the room for a different offering. A pang of hesitation swept his mind as his eyes fell on a slender, sealed case at the side of the room. The heavy padlock indicated its contents were valuable, and the young Praetorian commander knew the key was surely with his father, though the gods only knew where Cyclone was at that moment. Would it be a betrayal? But he'd already gone this far…

"Can you snap that lock off with a hammer or something?" Maelstrom asked.

"Hmm? Sure." Artorius nodded, wandered over to the lock, and quite casually snapped the dense, almost horn-tip-width steel shackle like it was a dry branch. Maelstrom's eye twitched at the show of brute force, even as Artorius opened the case. "Oh, a spear! And well-balanced too!"

"It was my grandmother's," Maelstrom explained. "Swift Spear. I hope we don't have to use it. Father will kill me if it gets broken."

"It's heavy," Artorius noted, despite obviously not struggling whatsoever with the weight.

"Pure nimbus skysteel," Maelstrom explained.

"Why does the city matter?"

Maelstrom cocked his head before his mind traced the thought fully. "Not Nimbus the city; it's made of thunderheads. I've heard my grandmother could occasionally make lightning arc off of it when she spun it, but nopony has actually used it in my lifetime."

"It will be in good hands with Brumhilde. At least, you can feel safe knowing I'm not using it."

"Why would that matter?"

"I… tend to break weapons," Artorius admitted with some trepidation. "Even very sturdy ones."

"Are all griffons as strong as you? Could the old doctor you had with you break that lock?"

"Oh, certainly no. I am young, and well-fed, and if we are honesting, fairly large." Though he wore a stupid grin in saying so, I should emphasize here that Artorius was not being puerile with that comment; he wasn't nearly smart enough, even in old Cirran or Griffon, let alone Equiish, for that—he really did just mean the size of his overall body. "And I practice throwing rocks." Before Maelstrom could dig further on any of his curiosities, the normally more distractible of the pair, Artorius, tucked Swift Spear's spear under his wing, darted over to a rack of swords and started rifling through them. "Hm… skysteel, skysteel… no… Aha! Mom's sword."

Maelstrom took note that it was, essentially, a Cirran-style gladius, just grown to about half-again the standard Legion size to match a griffon's form. Readers familiar with more modern guard shortswords in the straight-bladed unicorn style should know that, while the word 'gladius' is another word which just means 'sword' in Cirran, the term generally referred to a particular kind of sword for Cirra: a blade with a straight or nearly straight blade that took on more curvature toward the tip, allowing flying pegasi in military formation to slice with momentum of their whole bodies instead of just the strength of their necks.

"Anything else?" Maelstrom asked. "We do need to hurry."

Artorius nodded, glanced around the room, and finally smiled when his eyes alighted on a lacquered red tower shield with a single dominating spike in its center. "There we are. And that just leaves something for me… do you still have that warhammer?"

Maelstrom shook his head. "I put it back on the wall upstairs."

"Then I'll make do with something else…" Glancing around, Artorius seemed not to settle at all; he grabbed no fewer than six weapons—and odd mixture of old unicorn polearms like halberds and bec-de-corbins and other similarly inane nonsense, along with a three-headed flail, a pickaxe, and to Maelstrom's unspoken confusion, the circular stone he ripped out of the center of a pedal-powered grindstone contraption the still-unconscious quartermaster had presumably stored in the corner of the room. Carrying all of that beneath his wings and under one foreleg (arm?), Artorius nodded to Maelstrom. "Lead the way."

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