• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar



Celestia's first student and Princess Platinum conspire to cheat the princess out of an arranged marriage.

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9-2

IX - II

Five Knights In Prison

Burning Hearth Castle's dungeons were defensively engineered—perhaps over-engineered—to hold rogue wizards, back in the days when the Diamond Kingdoms hadn't yet been fully unified into an incorrectly pluralized whole. The dungeons consisted of three hallways in a trident-shaped formation. The eastern hall, facing out the sheer-cliffed hill that formed the 'rock' part of the city of River Rock, had long slender chutes that offered fresh air and a view of the sky (barred and treated with void crystal to prevent wizard prisoners from just teleporting away, in the event they somehow got nullifying rings off their horns). The central spur had once been fitted with ornate cells for political prisoners held ransom in the days of high chivalry and feudalism when that sort of thing was regarded as tasteful. The western hall was the most grim, filled with oubliettes and hanging cages for the worst criminals of the common rabble—though in more civilized times, the jagged ironworks had rusted away from disuse; even the ponies Wintershimmer experimented on to learn the art of grafting unicorn horns hadn't been subjected to such devices.

The three hallways met in a large guard chamber which allowed jailers to monitor all three halls at once by sitting at the intersection point of the three hallways 'lines'—a sort of primitive, limited panopticon. Beyond that feature, however, the room was hardly well equipped for a guard's station. Instead, the wall opposite the three dungeon cell blocks featured a pair of massive wrought iron doors that opened on a very short, fairly wide hallway. By design, a formation of four knights in a shield wall could march shoulder-to-shoulder with just enough space to maneuver down the hallway toward the cells. But in addition to walking space, this hallway featured two portcullises which could be dropped down in front of the doors at each end, a set of six murder holes in the ceiling, and three arrow slits on each wall. Though you don't exactly have to be Gray Rain to draw your own conclusions, for the sake of any of Artorius' intellectual equals amongst our readership, I'll tell you outright: even if prisoners did manage to break out of their cells, bind together, and fight out to the guard post, steal the guards weapons and armor, and batter down the iron doors out of that first guard post, it would still take a miracle to make it the ten strides they needed just to touch the final set of doors.

Behind those second set of iron doors was a more comfortable guard posting, the 'outer post' (as opposed to the aforementioned chamber as the 'inner post') where one might expect to find a card table, or scattered tin plates and 'silver'ware, or a dart board or what have you. But beyond the niceties, for the purposes of our story, you only need to know two things about this room: Firstly, it granted access to a set of 'attics' — uncomfortable hallways that ran above the other guard room and the cell block halls, and granted access to more 'murder holes' above each cell—though despite their potentially military uses, historically these had mostly been used to deliver food to the prisoners without having to walk the lengths of the cell block hallways.

Secondly, the single door out of this outer guard post was plain wood, much like any other door in Burning Hearth Castle. If a prisoner somehow got past it, functionally, they had escaped; nothing else they would face on the way out would be any harder to escape than what the castellans of Burning Hearth had, throughout history, referred to as 'the Short Hallway'.

Artorius and Maelstrom made it as far as the outer post before their plan, as the saying goes, stopped surviving. For, idly flinging throwing knives from where she held a brace pinched in her feathers (somehow) into a dartboard sat Legate Wrest, sprawled out on a wooden bench with her back supported by the hard edge of a broad wooden table.

"Prelate Maelstrom? I—oh." The utterly mild expression of surprise on her burnt orange muzzle, more fitting for discovering that one's sandwich was dressed with the wrong kind of mustard than, say, a political betrayal, was her response to seeing Artorius following Maelstrom into the room. Wrest let out a sigh and shook her head. "Did the food run out earlier than you were expecting? Or did you just decide to try and get the drop on me with your treason?"

"Father's orders were clear. And I'm not going to let you reignite the Red Cloud War."

Wrest, to Maelstrom's surprise, cocked a lopsided grin at his retort. "So there is some steel in you after all. Too bad it's on the griffons' side. Or is that what the griffon's really here for? To kill me, so you can keep your wings clean?"

Artorius glared. "Maelstrom would never—"

"She's right, Artorius." Maelstrom interrupted, raising a wing to cut off the griffon's outburst. "Not that I brought you here just to kill her. But I can't fight her; I'm no great fighter like Father or Grandfather. If it comes to that, you're going to have to do the fighting." With a nod, Maelstrom added "But I hope it doesn't have to come to that, Wrest."

Wrest frowned, and pushed herself up so she was fully standing; while Maelstrom missed the thread, Artorius stepped toward the young pegasus protectively when the older Legate's motion brought her wings very near one of the knives resting on the table beside her—but she made no hostile motion. "If I step aside, does this get forgotten?"

"If you step aside, Wrest, you haven't actually done anything to forget," Maelstrom answered. "And words are easy to forget."

"You quote Octavia Haysar well," Wrest noted. "I guess all those books are good for something." And, making a sweeping motion, she stepped fully away from the heavy iron doors—well away from Artorius' considerable reach—as she gestured into the prison hallway with one wing outstretched and the other folded across her chest. "The dungeons are yours, Prelate."

Maelstrom nodded, stepped fully past Legate Wrest, and approached the heavy iron doors that led into the short hallway. After struggling for a moment with their mass, he found Artorius' talons joining side-by-side with his hooves. Even overburdened with weaponry, the griffon made short work of the doors, and the two young leaders stepped into the ominous stone cage that was the short hallway.

Artorius walked forward into the hall two solid steps before realizing that Maelstrom was not beside him; the pegasus had has back turned to the griffon, nervously eyeing Wrest.

"Come, Maelstrom."

"We're walking into a prison, Artorius. What's to stop her from locking the door behind us if one of us doesn't stop her?"

"I like that question. It's simple. Nothing. Now come on."

Maelstrom briefly glanced over his shoulder. "You're not worried?"

"Of course I am," the griffon answered flatly. "But I am a knight, so it cannot matter. I will tell you more when things are settled, if you would like."

Maelstrom looked back to Wrest; the older mare silently raised a single brow, saying absolutely nothing. But ultimately, something about the decisiveness in the voice of the simpler griffon won Cyclone's son over, and with a final glance back, he too turned into the short hallway.

They were almost to the second set of doors, leading to the inner post, when the sound of heavy chains unspooling rang with deafening echoes off the stone walls. Artorius and Maelstrom turned in time to see Wrest standing beside a heavy lever in the outer post, just as a dense wooden portcullis, braced with steel plates, fell down between them. Quickly turning her neck not toward Artorius and Maelstrom, but back into castle, she shouted "Legion! To me!"

Artorius sighed and turned around to face Wrest. "So be it."

"So be it?" Wrest scoffed as she once more turned to face the griffon and her ostensible commander, even as shod hooves rang in the stone halls of the castle behind her. "You think you have any hope?"

Artorius grinned—a response so unexpected that for a moment, Wrest seemed taken aback. "Maelstrom's heart understands, even if his head doesn't yet. But you will never understand."

Wrest rolled her eyes. "You won't get in my mind, griffon. Maelstrom, a word?"

"Now? What makes you think I'd believe anything that comes out of your mouth?"

"Because I know with all your time spent with your muzzle in a book, you're going to listen to your head, and not the griffon's crap about your 'heart'."

Though Maelstrom said nothing, his ears perked at the promise of cold logic. And that was enough for Legate Wrest.

"If you stay in there, I might have to kill you."

"You think I haven't thought of that."

"Since you're in there, I know you haven't thought it through. I don't give a griffon's steaming crap what happens to you, Maelstrom. I don't respect you, and you're not a threat. But I do care about your father on both counts. And I know that if I have to scrape what's left of you off the walls to give to him, he's not going to forgive that. So let me be clear: if you come out of there, I'll lock you up unharmed with the rest of your brothers and sisters. But if you make me kill you, I'm going to have to give him Roamulus' welcome when he gets back."

"What does that mean?" Artorius asked Maelstrom.

"Roamulus was the founder of the Cirran Empire; when he united the tribes, the Cirran tribe elders resented that he no longer had to listen to their counsel, and they stabbed him to death when he came home from war to his own people." Maelstrom actually raised a brow with some humor at the insinuation when he returned his attention to Wrest, though the humor and cockiness were short lived against the sound of still-approaching hooffalls. "You'd be, what, the fifth attempt, Wrest? Gonna try and hold one of the orphans hostage like Crane did with Blizzard?"

"Your father's ground-bound with his bad wing, Maelstrom. Makes it hard to dodge. And nopony—not even mighty Cyclone—walks off a battery of thunderheads. Don't make me do that. Don't make me do that to the orphans."

Maelstrom winced, and doubt flashed across his features. It lingered there for a moment, swirling like a lost cloud in a mountain valley, until at once a fresh wind arrived in the form of griffon talons on his shoulder.

"I will not hold it against you if you yield. For the sake of the little ones. We are strong; we will endure."

"You don't know this castle," Maelstrom answered Artorius. "And you don't know Wrest. You need me." Then he took a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling, and though he continued his thought, his words turned toward Wrest. "And if the story of Roamulus' death teaches us anything, it's that if she's willing to go against Father, it doesn't matter whether I yield or not."

"Courageous," Wrest noted, tauntingly.

"Practical," Maelstrom answered. "If the Second really is loyal to you over Father, this won't be the last time you clash. Or had you not gotten to that part of Cirran history yet?"

Wrest answered that accusation by hurling a knife, with startling accuracy, through one of the gaps in the portcullis. Her aim was terrifyingly perfect, not only timing the spin of the knife so it wouldn't catch on the wooden boards, but that when it slipped through to the other side, it was on a perfect trajectory for Artorius' throat. But to the awe of both pegasi in the room, Artorius reached up his claw to catch the weapon.

It wasn't a particularly good catch; the blade went straight through his 'palm' (that is, the equivalent of the frog of a hoof for my fellow equines). But the fact that his reflexes were fast enough to intercept the knife at all was quite the achievement.

"Doors!" Maelstrom hissed, and the urgency of the command snapped Artorius from his sagacious interaction (and, one presumes, the agony of his claw—though I rarely knew Artorius to ever exhibit a sign that he actually experienced the sensation of pain). Together, the griffon slammed the shoulder onto one door, as Maelstrom threw his whole body weight onto the other. This time, though, the doors held firm.

"Locked, I'm afraid," Wrest called over the hooffalls of her soldiers beginning to file into the outer post behind her. Two more knives flew through the air, but this time, Artorius blocked them with the shield he had taken from the castle's armory.

Awkwardly hunching his form to fit alongside Maelstrom, mostly hidden by the shield, Artorius started undoing the straps with his beak. Between pecks, the griffon spoke. "Can you hold this? I will need a moment."

"Can you burn it?"

Artorius raised a brow, then shook his head. "I am not given to flames of anger." And then, once Maelstrom had taken hold of his shield, Artorius emphasized his comment by holding up his talon, pulling free the throwing knife still embedded in it, and forming it into a tight fist. "This will not take magic," he added, as if even having use of the limb despite the blood flowing down his arm wasn't already a show of the powerful but understated magic shared by griffons and earth ponies.

"What? It's metal—"

But Artorius wasn't aiming for the doors; Instead he slammed a right hook into the stone wall where the door's hinges were mounted. Stone brick cracked along with the popping of griffon joints; blood and debris splashed from the site of the blow.

"—Mobius have mercy… no wonder we lost the war…" Maelstrom muttered, before his attention was snapped back to the shield he was ostensibly manning when a knife bounced off its edge.

Artorius, at least, showed his mortality when he unfurled his fist and shook out the arm (along with yet more blood and a sizeable bit of dust). "Mercy is not given by the gods; it must be seized. Like opportunity, or the day. Or the bird in the bush."

"What?"

"Is that not how the sayings go?" Artorius shrugged, reformed his fist, and grinned. "And I thought all my practice with Equiish would make me good." Then, with another punch—this time accompanied by a hiss of pain—Artorius unsettled the heavy door. After that, it was as simple a matter as throwing his shoulder into it, and the door fell with a deafening clang, into the inner post. After that, Artorius and Maelstrom slipped into relative safety.

"What was that?!" a hen's voice called from the far side of the room, where the inner post's central door led into the most comfortable and spacious of the three cell blocks, where the griffons were being detained.

"Mother! Maelstrom and I have come to rescue you!"

"Rescue?" Maelstrom quickly put together that the voice asking the question belonged to Aela, the leader of the griffon refugees and Artorius' mother, despite her voice being muffled by the door between them. "From what? We heard stone cracking, but—"

"No time to explain," the pegasus ordered. "Break the door off and get out here; we need to talk."

"Break the… It's a metal-banded door!"

"Only I can do that," Artorius explained in a quiet, almost bashful voice. And then, with decidedly less bashfullness, the griffon stepped forward. "Mother, please step back."

"Please don't hurt yourself," Aela answered, as though the words weren't already a knife to the palm too late. The slight retreat of her voice signaled her compliance, though, and Artorius deftly (and bloodily) beat in yet another fortified door.

Behind it, a mass of feathers and fur reacted to the violent collapse of the door with shock and concern—raising wings, backing away from the prison block's exit, and generally squawking in alarm—but most of the sight was blocked by Aela stepping boldly forward. The seasoned hen eyed up the vast arsenal strapped to her son's body, and without so much as a word, took the heavy shield and the oversized Cirran-style gladius off of him to arm herself. "Tapfer, Tsume; it seems we will be fighting again."

"Yes," echoed with less grimness and an unsettling bit of enthusiasm to his voice. "And Brumhilde, and Ysilde and Dredge! The time has come to face glory!"

Maelstrom afforded a glance back toward the doors into the short hallway, but it seemed that, at least for the moment, Wrest was content to hold her siege instead of risk hoof-to-claw combat.

As two griffons began to push their way through the mass of their kind, Aela's head fell. "Artorius…"

"Is something the matter?"

Maelstrom had to turn back to Artorius in disbelief; was the titanically powerful griffon that dense? But it seemed so, as Aela shook her head and answered the inquiry. "They bought us the time we needed to flee Magnus. Ysilde died wounding the tyrant's wing, and Brumhilde slew two of his Oathbound, but… We four are all the knights that remain." And with that comment, she gestured to two griffons Maelstrom had not yet met, finally emerging from the crowd (alongside the old bespectacled owl-like griffon apothecary).

The elder of the two was, like Aela and Artorius, a 'standard' griffon—bald of head and proud of ass—though his frankly horrifying disfigurements meant that he would never blend in with a crowd of other griffons. Some horrible blunt impact had crushed his beak, shattering the tip entirely so that his tongue could be seen if one looked directly 'up' his face, even with his mouth closed. From that shattered tip, spiderweb cracks extended up nearly to where the beak gave way to feathers on his face. And several of his talons and his paws were missing their sharpened tips and claws, where the digits weren't just missing outright. From the clean cuts of the wounds, it was clear the blows had been inflicted deliberately and carefully, rather than won in battle.

The younger griffon—close to Artorius' age, by Maelstrom's only lightly informed guess— was much different than the other three. Her eyes were ringed in brilliant orange that faded to an almost glowing gold near her white beak. Above her head, a cluster of long black plumes rose up to give her almost a proud equine mane. And her talons were at once more slender than the eagle-like griffons in her company, yet possessed clear and terrifying musculature that tensed heavily when she moved. For those unfamiliar with such a description, hers was the front half of what is called a 'secretary bird'. Her hindquarters likewise diverged from the leonine features of the 'standard' griffon, favoring instead a pale spotted cheetah and promising a terrifying speed—at least, that was true of what could be seen beneath the silk wrapped tunic that she wore, all red and orange and depicting on her back a gradient sunset ringed in what looked like gilded thread. I hesitate to call the garment a 'robe' and associate her with the worse tendencies of Equestria's early mages, but that might put into your mind a right picture; for those familiar with Neighpon, it could be called a kimono, though it was short sleeved on her forelegs and its hem was likewise pulled up from the ground to keep her movements free for the art of bladework.

"It is just us, the four," said the hen in the kimono, bearing an accent not-at-all-oddly similar to that of Archmage Mistmane (assuming you've been paying attention). "I have never fought a pony before; this shall be amusing."

"Five, Tsume," Artorius answered. "Five knights will have to do." When Maelstrom quirked a brow, Artorius looked straight at him and just nodded.

"Me? Oh, no, no; I can help if need be, but I'm no warrior. Certainly not worth a griffon of any kind, much less a knight."

"You misunderstand," Artorius said, pulling a pickaxe off his side, staring at it with amusement as if confused by its presence, and then gently setting the very tip of the haft sideways on Maelstrom's shoulder (so that the long point ran down parallel to his foreleg), before repeating the motion on the other side. "A knight is not a knight because they are the best with a swording."

"Using a sword?" Aela suggested as a correction.

"Or swordplay," Maelstrom added.

Artorius shrugged off the notes on his poorly constructed Equiish, continuing "A knight is one whose heart guides them to aid those who deserve it. And it is the heart that steels the blade; not the other way around. You are saving us even against your own kind. That is what will matter when the time comes. And so you are a knight. One of us."

"Well said, Artorius," said Aela with a smile to her son.

"I don't know how my heart is going to overcome how boxed in we are," Maelstrom muttered. "But I hope you're right." Then, nodding to the two griffons he hadn't yet met, sighed. "Sorry; I'm Maelstrom."

"Tsume," said the secretary-bird hen.

After a moment's silence, the apothecary who had been standing off to the side, gestured with one of his wings to the broken-beaked soldier. "This one we call Tapfer. His beak is not much for speech if he can help it. Too easy to cut his tongue. Do not take it personally."

"Noted," Maelstrom answered. "Alright… Are the four of you the only ones who can fight, or just the only ones who are any good at it?"

Aela grimaced. "I can get you maybe a dozen or two more who aren't so exhausted from the flight and underfed that they can hold a spear and a shield. But they will fight like conscripts. And it does not look like Artorius carried even that many weapons."

"Damn…" Maelstrom muttered. "Though not much good it would do us in the short hallway anyway. And there's no way of knowing how far away Father is…"

"How many are we fighting?" Aela asked. "And why have they turned against us? And against you?"

"Why are we wasting time discussing this?" Tsume jumped in ere Maelstrom could answer. "We were starving before the siege began. Even if there were aid coming, we could not wait for it. There is no other exit from this place; even he cannot punch a hole through the face of a mountain." There, she cocked her plumed head toward Artorius. "We have only one choice: march forward and face them. They motivations will not matter when we open their throats."

Maelstrom found himself stepping back from Tsume's violent intensity, but even as his body showed his fear, his mind caught up to almost agreeing with her. The only problem was the short hallway.

The damn short hallway.

"You're right," Maelstrom agreed. "But we'll have to be smart. This isn't just a straight fight through a chokepoint."

And then, seemingly ever the bearer of bad news, Maelstrom began to describe what I have already shared with you above: an explanation of the almost impossible danger that faced any hoping to fight their way out of the short hallway.