• 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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The Unbridled Wrath of Tsar Cyclone Stormblade

Perhaps the most crushing feeling in the world is working every ounce of wit and cunning and luck in your repertoire, gambling everything on a miracle, having it succeed, and then not having that success be enough.

Maelstrom's plans had only really extended to escaping the Burning Hearth dungeons; there hadn't been much point investing his mind in the question of 'what then' when that first issue was already so impossible, so unwinnable. He only had the vague thought of occupying the abandoned crystal barbarian fortress at Onyx Ridge and holding out for his father (or hoping Wrest would not pursue, and just let them starve) to fall back on.

Briefly, his mind toyed with the idea of abandoning secrecy and taking them across the narrow seas to Equestria, but he tossed it aside as the first chill of a fresh snowflake touched his mane on the snowy cliffs at the western base of the castle. That was a true last gasp. And besides, Onyx Ridge was on the way to Equestria, to the west. Even if the griffons did have to fly further, they would at least have already gone in the right direction.

But how to feed them? As he watched the griffon civilians crawl out of the shattered hole in the castle walls, offering their visibly malnourished bodies quake with the climb out of the dungeons, leaning on what should have been a far weaker pony body for support with the last big step up into the cold air, and then shivering like wet cats—they wouldn't survive waiting a week for Cyclone. It was the same question, the same damnable inevitability of logistics, that had started the whole problem in the first place. And the answer, although Maelstrom hated it, did seem obvious. River Rock's ponies were fed; not well, but enough to survive strict rations for a few days. If he got the griffons out of the way, he could get food en masse from Equestria without giving its existence away (though actually getting Equestria to give food to the traitors they thought of River Rock as was another problem he couldn't confront yet). He just had to hope the wait didn't start a rebellion.

The real value of Onyx Ridge wasn't its defensibility—even with the tables turned, and the defenses on the griffon side, Wrest could win by attrition eventually, or just siege the griffons until they started starving and were forced out; it wouldn't be a long siege. The fortress' value to Maelstrom was getting the griffons away from River Rock long enough that they wouldn't ask unfortunate questions about ships laden with fresh produce. But to keep them alive long enough for any of this to be worth it, he had to get them food to last the wait. Which meant stealing.

It seemed like a stupid word, when the 'infiltration force' consisted of several hundred creatures each half-again larger than the average pony. But there wasn't time to think further; Tsume and Artorius may have been impossibly good soldiers by most Legion standards (maybe, Artorius wondered, the like of his father), but they could only hold so long.

"Tapfer!" Maelstrom called. The injured griffon turned his attention from helping the last stragglers of the civilian griffons out of the makeshift escape tunnel and nodded to Maelstrom, once again refraining from speech. The colt stepped to his side and gestured with a wing at the skyline of River Rock down the slope of 'mountain' (really, a rocky hill—especially if your point of comparison is Canterlot) upon which Burning Hearth sat. Though the falling snow left a sort of white fog on the distant buildings, the eternal storm was calm enough that the general layout of the city was at least comprehensible. "There on the river; you see those bigger buildings? Those are warehouses. You're going to find food there; flour and dried meat and whatever else will keep in the cold. I want you to anypony, or any griffon, still strong enough to carry a weight while they fly, and go down there. Take anything you can eat. The castle larders have enough food for the rest of the population until we can negotiate something with the dragons." At that comment (blatantly a lie, but apparently Tapfer didn't know the details of the incompatibility of draconic and equine diets) Tapfer raised a brow, but the broken-beaked griffon then gave another short nod and began sorting through the crowd. As he left, Maelstrom concluded "There may be guards, but they won't be Wrest's elite legionaries; try not to hurt them if you can."

After watching Tapfer walk off completely, the colt then turned to the other conscious griffon he recognized. "Apothecary?"

"Hmm?" said the old griffon, groaning as he transferred Aela's weight onto a much younger griffon hen's back. "You want something, little commander?"

Maelstrom rolled his eyes at the apothecary's granted title. "I'm going to need you to lead this group to shelter. If you head due west from here—"

"Hold on, hold on! You're not coming with us?"

"I'll follow afterward. But I need to save my siblings from Legate Wrest. And somepony needs to lead Tsume on hoof, with her wing burnt. I'll send Artorius by wing, and—"

The apothecary fiercely shook his head. "No, no, no; if you send Artorius with directions, and there are more than perhaps three steps, I promise you will never see him again. He is inspiring in battle, yes, and he has his father's instinct for honor, but he…" Tapping his temple with a single talon, the apothecary concluded in his native tongue "... dumm wie Bohnenstroh."

Maelstrom did not need a translation for that phrase, and so offered a nod. "I won't mind having him with me for this."

"I'm sure he will tell you that he owes you," the apothecary agreed. "But I should give you a warning: if you do not bring him back, I encourage you to die as well. Elsewise, Aela may kill you."

"Noted," Maelstrom then looked due west, across the river. "If you fly west of here, you'll come to a fir forest; stay over the trees and keep flying west. We like to fly between the trees; they cut the wind, and if you're out when the snow is too thick, you'll freeze and fall out of the sky. The forest will curl south, following a small river, as the trees get thinner. Eventually, you'll be able to see a huge black stone in a clearing next to the river; it's pointed at the top, like a flint speartip. When you get there, give up following the trees and point due west. Even if the snow is thick, you should be able to see some sign of the sun through the clouds. You should see Onyx Ridge within the hour, and the name should make it obvious, but to be clear: it's a fortress carved out of a rock formation. And if for any reason you hit the western sea for some reason, stop; our scouts have never found any land on the other side, so you'd be flying to your deaths."

The apothecary's eyes once again focused in narrowly on Maelstrom for a pregnant breath of time itself—and then his aged joviality (as tested as it was by circumstance) returned. "Thank you, Maelstrom."

"Thank me when my father returns," Maelstrom answered. "Then we'll know we've actually made it out of this."

The apothecary gave a rather pragmatic nod, and then turned his attention to the bulk of the griffons Tapfer had left behind. Maelstrom, likewise, took a deep breath, and then headed back into Burning Hearth's dungeons to fetch Tsume and Artorius.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

To spare you listening to Maelstrom repeating the same plans I outlined above, it is sufficient I think to jump ahead to a solid ten minutes later; Artorius and Tsume barricaded the inner guardhouse doors (being forced to just prop up the one Artorius had beaten off its hinges) in order to give the appearance they were still present, long enough to slip out of the dungeons. They took only the shield Nimbus (still strapped to Artorius), Aela's griffon-sized Legion gladius, and Tsume's blades (which I understand are collectively called a 'daisho'); Maelstrom was unarmed, feeling uncomfortable with the odd assortment of weapons remaining, and realizing that compared to the two griffon knights, he had nothing meaningful to add in a battle anyway.

Together, the odd trio climbed up the walls of Burning Hearth, occasionally leaping with brief wing-bursts between rocky ledges or bits of the castle's battlements. It was a decisive reminder that the castle dated to an era before the Diamond Kingdoms had any concept of defending against an army of winged foes, and another reminder of one of the major reasons Cyclone had so effortlessly been able to take the castle from King Lapis IV a quarter-century earlier. The process involved more stealth than either Artorius or Tsume were comfortable with, but both yielded to the 'dishonor' of sneaking as knights when Maelstrom reminded them that his siblings' lives were likely on the line. And so, ultimately, they managed to sneak their way into castle's dining hall by way of one of its gargantuan hinged windows (a feature far less useful since the advent of the windigos), and from there through the throne room and into the former royal family's wing, where Cyclone and his foals now resided.

But as Maelstrom frantically rushed from room to room, he found them all empty. Each and every door yielded another disappointment, along with a growing terror. Had Wrest already killed them? There wasn't any blood in these rooms, but maybe she had rounded them up before putting them to the sword, so none might escape if they heard their siblings screaming or got some kind of warning. Another door slammed open at his hoof, and then another, with the two griffons struggling to keep up in his rushed desperation. Finally, when his conscious mind caught up to the idea that his actions were no longer valuable in the search, and just a sign of his denial, his lingering hope, he collapsed onto the carpet spread down the middle of the hallway.

"Where else might they have gone?" Artorius asked.

"Or where would the mare commander have taken them?"

"I don't know!" Maelstrom beat a hoof onto the floor. "This castle is huge, and that's assuming Wrest even kept them here."

"You must have a guess?" Artorius pressed. "Or perhaps we can ask one of your ponies; surely you must have some still loyal?"

Maelstrom swallowed and nodded. "Yes. Yes, there's some ponies I can ask. Let's go."

And so the two griffons flanked Maelstrom as he walked back out of the royal wing through the doors behind the throne. But upon setting hoof and claw into the throne room, everything changed. Opposite the throne, standing in front of the warped metal doors through which guests would enter into the crown's presence, molten and mangled by Cyclone's fire, Legate Wrest stood, sword sheathed under her wing and clad in full banded armor, flanked by six of her heavy infantry armed with swords and shields.

"Maelstrom," she uttered, tired. "Are you here for the foals?"

"Are they still alive? What did you do with them?!"

The veteran legionary sighed and shook her head. "I was never going to hurt them, Maelstrom. And I don't have a dream of usurping your father; I don't want to try and rule this disaster of an empire. I just wanted to get you away from the griffons. You've always lived in cold logic, always so distant from the actual work of the Legion—the blood and blades and discipline. I thought I could spare your life and make talking your father down easier. I admit, I was surprised you held your ground. If it weren't siding with the enemy, I might even admire it." She spat on the floor of the throne room. "But instead, seventeen good legionaries are dead, and you've let griffons free across River Rock. So now, I'm going to take my chances that when Cyclone does get back, he takes my side. You brought this on yourself."

The battle that followed was far different from the one in the short hallway; there wasn't time for Maelstrom to form a grand plan; there was only time to fit in thought in the time it took to draw blades from their sheathes, and then it was chaos.

Wrest's legionaries, it seemed, had been chosen to accompany her because they were trained in magic. 'Feather-memory'-backed like her own though it was, when combined between trained legionaries, it still proved quite effective; Artorius and Tsume had time to draw their blades, but they had no time to lung forward and actually draw blood before the two pegasi on Wrest's right extended their bladed wings, along with Wrest's own. From the leader came the fire our trio of heroes had already seen in the siege of the hallway many stories below. It melded with an icy mist not unlike Tapfer's (though less potent, less pervasive) to create an acrid, billowing smoke that was then dispersed into the eyes of the oncoming griffons with a billowing gale from the feathers of the third legionary.

The griffons tried desperately to push away the smoke, or eventually to wave it away with their own wings; yet it seemed to Maelstrom that neither Artorius nor Tsume were trained in the use of empatha. Artorius' efforts were marginally successful at best, and with only one useable wing, thanks to her burns, Tsume's work was utterly devoid of value. Both griffons began to cough and choke on the unbreathable air, staggering apart in search of a fresh breath, until the distance between them obscured them altogether, and Maelstrom was left alone.

In the dark, head aching and whirling, Maelstrom jumped at the sound of steel hissing through the air, and his stomach turned at the splash of something wet on the throne room floor. Somewhere to his right, a flash of fire briefly lit up silhouettes in the smoke, though it faded before he had any sense of orientation of the battle. Stumbling, he gasped when another flash of orange flame revealed one of Wrest's soldiers at leg's reach to his left, staring straight into his eyes. Maelstrom dropped to the floor just in time to avoid catching a wingblade in the throat, and then awkwardly rolled while pumping his wings to slide out of range of a following swing from a legion gladius. The sparks it cast scraping on the floor, and the clang and scrape of steel on stone, were the last he saw of the other legionary before another roll reoriented the room and left his head spinning anew, lost in the smoke.

Backing away from where he assumed the enemy to be, his hoof pressed against a frigid pillar, and before he had time to shift his weight, the icicle snapped beneath him. It was lost in the mad sounds of the chaos, but it marked the presence of yet more magic that, lost in the dark, he feared Artorius and Tsume had no answer to—if they were even still alive.

That grim thought carried him backwards, to his surprise, out of the cloud of smoke. Coughing and clearing his lungs, he found he had stepped to the side of the main path between the throne and the only path out through the twisted iron doors. Wrest had deployed her forces up to the edge of the smoke, but she herself still waited, guarding the doors. And her eyes immediately met Maelstrom's.

There wasn't another speech, another offer of peace or surrender. Maelstrom moved to duck back into the smoke, and a searing, slicing pain in his shoulder, accompanied by the sickening sweet smell of burning flesh and the rank odor of burnt fur, snuck its way into his nostrils. By the time his mind put together what had happened, he had fallen to the stone floor on his chin, and an attempt to push himself up failed completely with another surge of pain from the red-hot throwing knife embedded up to its guard in his right shoulder. When he tried to use his wings to push himself up, he felt another magically heated blade go clean through his right crest. A cry of agony slipped out of his lips.

Then Wrest hefted a third knife, heating it on flames along her wing; letting Maelstrom take in what was sure to be his death.

When one confronts imminent, seemingly inevitable death (at least, the first few times), there comes a moment of strange clarity, like the eye of a great storm. In that moment, one finds all manner of concerns are pushed aside, and purpose is clear and singular.

Castle Burning Hearth's throne room was not possessed of windows; instead, the major feature of its walls was what gave the castle its name: a series of massive fireplaces that kept the room warm even in the chilliest of (pre-windigo) winters. There were dozens of notable features about these fireplaces, made suitable for the surroundings of the unicorn royal court, but those facts were all pushed clear of Maelstrom's mind, save for one singular quality: their flues. His mind remembered a record written by the unicorns of the castle, which he often loved to read, not of centuries past, but of the days of his father's foalhood:

During one of their many negotiations, in an early winter after the pegasi arrived, well before the windigos, Hurricane had endured a complaint from King Lapis about the state of the smoke coming from the throne room's fireplaces. Hurricane, seeing an opportunity to strengthen the welcome of the pegasi, installed a series of cloud 'pumps' into the flues of the throne room hearth, designed to suck up smoke without removing the heat of the fires from the chamber. It had been a perfect gift for the desperate pegasi, cheap to produce but indescribably valuable to the unicorns without their cloud magic, and it formed an early step toward a long friendship between the then-young pegasus leader and his unicorn counterpart.

Enduring the worst pain he had ever, or would ever face, Maelstrom pushed up with both his injured and whole wings, kicked with his hooves, and jumped at the nearest fireplace. Wrest's knife took flight. Maelstrom's tan hoof only barely caught the handle of the damper that would open the flue, and his weight was just barely enough to shift it. But it was enough.

Enough, at least, to give him a brief glimmer of satisfaction, before Wrest's perfectly aimed knife found his neck.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Tsar Cyclone Stormblade walked through the streets of River Rock three days later, accompanied by his old friend Thunder Hawk, and the unearthly quiet of the city formed a knot in the titanic stallion's stomach that he could not shake.

His guards at the doors of Burning Hearth failed to meet his gaze as he approached, but one gave some warning about griffons in the throne room—and trembling, failed to offer anything more intelligible. With a scowl, Cyclone loosened the sheath around his greatsword, Hellfire, and proceeded into his own throne room.

There, he found easily recognized Artorius alongside a griffon hen he did not recognize, alongside Legate Wrest, fully missing a wing and with an obviously broken foreleg, in their custody. An ornate coffin, pony-sized, lay in the center of the room in front of what had become his throne.

"My Emperor, I—" Wrest's words stopped instantly when Cyclone lifted his own good wing in a gesture of silence. There was a calm to the stallion as his mind seemed to process the information before him, and with slow but heavy steps, he approached the coffin. It took only a momentary glance beneath the lid to answer the first of his questions.

"My son is dead," Cyclone said, apparently to Thunder Hawk, in a tone drained of emotion, as if it had been sucked out of him like the smoke through the fireplace flue. "Artorius, I take it this is not the only griffon with you?"

"No, Emperor Cyclone. Magnus attacked our resistance. They arrived not long after you left."

"Where are they?"

"Maelstrom said a place called Onyx Ridge. We would have joined them, but without him we did not know the way," Artorius answered.

Cyclone nodded at that too, then turned to Wrest. "Tell me what happened."

And Wrest did; her account was truthful and, largely, fair to Maelstrom, if one accounts for her own perspective on the griffons as unilateral enemies rather than refugees. It concluded with the battle in the throne room, only noting that when Maelstrom's last gambit cleared Tsume and Artorius' vision, they made short work of the now out-of-formation legionaries she had brought, as well as besting her personally. She was only alive because Artorius had offered her surrender, and she had accepted rather than throw away more pony lives against the griffon knights' uncanny skill at arms.

Cyclone glanced briefly to Artorius and asked only "Is this true?"

"It is," Artorius offered. "Maelstrom died saving our lives."

Cyclone nodded again. He drew in a slow breath, and let it out equally slowly. And then his cold eyes turned on Wrest. "Twenty-five years ago, I should have been executed when I committed treason against my father's rule. He pleaded for mercy for me, and for all of us, because of my mother's dying wish. She did not want to see our family torn apart, even as she lay dying."

Thunder Hawk, the stallion personally responsible for Swift Spear's death, swallowed nervously behind Cyclone. The room grew thick and heavy. Even unflappable Tsume wilted from the titanic red stallion, the only mortal pony she would ever have to physically look up to.

"I did it because I, too, believed griffons would always be the enemy. Because I put my idea of Cirra ahead of respect for mercy, and peace. Because I was self-righteous enough to ignore my superiors and my orders." Cyclone drew in another breath, and his nostrils flared as he released it. "My father forgave all those mistakes in me. He spared my life."

A slight breath, one Wrest had not even realized she had been holding, escaped her lips in relief.

"My father was a better pony than I will ever be," Cyclone concluded, and when his wing gestured toward Wrest, what emerged was not orange fire like her own, nor even the blue heat like he had threatened me with in that room not so long before; no, what he cast forth was pure white. The flame of his fury was so hot that it burned the eyes to even look at it. The air around the fire rippled and swam, folding like a mirage as it was sucked in by hungry fire.

When the fire passed, perhaps two seconds later, Legate Wrest's shadow was all that remained of her, burnt into the stone of Burning Hearth Castle's walls in the gap between two of the fireplaces. Her silhouette remains there to this day, if one knows behind which tapestry to peer; a testament to the agony of the first Tsar of Stalliongrad at the death of his beloved son.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

A few miles north of Stalliongrad, on an icy bluff that looks out over a bend in the Volgallop, if one knows where to look, one can find a small cluster of stone markers at a place called Headstone Point. All writing on the stones has long since been eroded away by snowfall and wind and the cracking of ice. But I knew what was once written there, so long ago.

Two more days after Cyclone's return, he finally buried his son. He might have done it that very day, but Artorius asked for a stay so that some of the other griffons could be present. And so, when they were retrieved from Onyx Ridge, Cyclone found himself burying his son in the unlikeliest of company: five griffons, in addition to a few of Maelstrom's friends and his siblings who were still in River Rock.

In those days, Headstone Point had only one marker. It read thus (translate from old Cirran, and with traditional abbreviations expanded):

Into the wings of the Garuda

Swift Spear

Beloved Wife, Mother, Hero

The Great Skies are better for you

In all the days of his long life that I knew him, I learned that Cyclone was not good at crying. On that day, in the icy chill of eternal winter writ across summer, carrying his son's last remains on a shoulder shared with Artorius, the red stallion blinked furiously into the wind, and if any drop did fall from his eyes, it would have been lost in the snowfall. Together with the griffon, he lowered Maelstrom's remains into the ground, arranged in the old ways of the Legion, and fought blow after hard fought shovel blow into the icy ground, to bury him.

When it was done, the red stallion stood back and turned to the assembled mass. "When Maelstrom was born, I thought he was a curse. He had my sister's face, her mane… my regrets. Now I see the curse is saying goodbye to those sights on this hill again. Maelstrom was so unlike me, in so many ways. I struggled to relate to him, but as he grew, I admired what he accomplished with his mind and his books. I wish I could say I was always proud of him. He deserved that. And I want to say I'm proud of him now, but… I just want him back."

That was all Cyclone could say, and so he stepped aside. After the griffons shared a glance amongst themselves, Aela gave a nod to Artorius, and he stepped forward.

"When we fought in the dungeons, I told Maelstrom that, even if he did not have our strength or our skill at arms, or our magic, he was still a knight. Because what mattered was that he saw we were in need, and he fought to help us. The pegasi have every reason to hate us. Instead, Maelstrom gave his life for us." Nodding his head solemnly, the griffon concluded "So long as one of us draws breath, free griffons will never forget the name of Maelstrom."

Cyclone nodded his thanks, and then gathered himself and stepped forward once more for words that were more practiced, and older—albeit changed subtly, for reasons he shared only with his father, which we will discuss in this story in time.

"Maelstrom, you go to the grave not with the curse of a sellsword, or the hollow death of a thief or a rogue, but with the highest honor that one can give: the honor of death on the battlefield, fighting to defend…" The Cirran words would have been one's home, one's family, one's nation, but it seemed to Cyclone a disservice, and so he continued instead "...a peace at the end of a conflict that has bled and burdened generations of your family before. In the service of the Legion, and all the pegasi of Cirra, we pray your soul may find its way to the east, to the rising sun, and the Great Skies from which the new light is born again every day. Your honor has been unyielding, and as best you could, you have adhered to the tenets of honor and justice with all the effort a only could muster. You are beckoned to the Skies to live in peace. Go now, and leave the pain of the world behind. Let your wings guide you to the Skies above, and may your wake leave a trail for those who loved you, and still love you, to follow you into the dawn, when the dusk of their time comes."

Then Cyclone retrieved from a pouch at his side a single tan feather—Maelstrom's leading flight feather, and he beheld it mournfully before turning to Artorius.

"Sir?" the griffon asked.

"In Cirran tradition, you fly up to the sky and give their best feather to the wind. But…" Gesturing back to his crippled wing, Cyclone concluded "Would you honor him for me?"

Artorius did not hesitate, but when he offered Maelstrom's feather to the wind, despite the old Cirran words about the afterlife, the feather seemed to prefer to fly west, toward Equestria.

When the assembled left Maelstrom at the hill, he lay beneath an alabaster marker.


Son, Brother, Knight

Let the clouds be red no longer

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

On the way back from the burial, Aela gently paced to spare her injuries and still fall into place beside her apothecary.

"My lady," he offered in griffon. "Those were good words. Artorius speaks well."

"His Equiish has gotten quite reliable, most of the time," she agreed. "But I didn't come to talk to you about that."

"Oh? Then what is on your mind?"

"Your thoughts on what Maelstrom told us about Hurricane. When we first arrived."

"Hurricane?" The apothecary raised a brow. "That is a very interesting thing to ask. I did have a suspicion he was trying not-very-well to hide something from us when we spoke. But I also do not think he was lying. That monstrous venom Hurricane suffered from when he came to us in Stratopolis, it wreaked havoc on his heart. He would have had to live a very quiet life, and be extremely lucky to still be alive today. And given we are talking about Emperor Hurricane, I very much doubt that would ever have been possible. So I would expect there was some controversy around Hurricane before his death. Can I ask why you are curious?"

"When Theod and Hurricane and Celestia and I were searching for… well, you know…" Even speaking in whispered griffon, Aela still scanned the surrounding crowd. "…Hurricane mentioned to Celestia that if he died, he wanted to be buried with his wife."

"And?" the apothecary asked.

"That headstone said Swift Spear." When the apothecary raised a brow, she explained further "Hurricane's wife's name."

"I… now I am very confused, I must admit. Maelstrom spoke of Hurricane in the present tense, and so did the legion mare… Wrest, was it? I had thought it was just a mistake, or perhaps it is Equiish getting the best of my own skill." His always present accent grew thicker in that last thought, if only for effect. "But if Hurricane is not dead, and everypony knows it, then what?"

"I don't know," Aela answered. "It means there is a secret, but until we know what all we can do is dig. I think we need to know if we're going to survive here; they've already turned on us once. And since I can't trust most of the knights to be discrete, I'd like the digging kept between us."

"Do you want me to…"

The apothecary's offer was not interrupted, it trailed off and lingered in silence for a moment before Aela's eyes narrowed and she hissed "No! Ask discretely whenever Cyclone isn't there to watch. I might try to pry it out of his foals; they seem very interested in us. You're welcome to do the same, or see if there are any books or records you can get your talons on. But that is as far as we will go."

"But of course," the apothecary lied.

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