• 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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Interlude VI - Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls

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The fortress called Onyx Ridge began its life as… well, if one is being blunt, as exactly what it says on the tin. The forbidding cliff of dark grey and sometimes utterly black rock had historically marked the western border of the Diamond Kingdoms. It may not have actually sat on a coast or a river or at the base of a wall of mountains or some other natural boundary, but beyond those rocks, the influence of the marauding crystal barbarians was too great for unicorn (or earth pony) expansion to survive for long. Hundreds of years before the founding of Equestria, King Malachite had carved walls for an encampment from the stone. But while the unicorn leader was successful in taking the cliffs from the River Rock, he proved incapable of keeping them. The creation of the fortress that stands there still to this day, when Equestria is the better part of two millennia old, is mostly owed to the crystal warlords who held it for the centuries after Malachite's death. In digging out quarters and storerooms, they found rich iron veins, and gems colored by its rust. And so, over years, the fortress became home to deep mines and vital weapons, lusted after by both sides.

Over the years, there were almost countless Battles of Onyx Ridge, as ambitious crystal warlords and unicorn would-be avengers alike pushed too far into their foes' territory and were forced back to make ill-fated final stands on its sheer black walls. The most famous of these took place only a scant few years before my birth, when the last of the true crystal warlords, Halite (remembered as "the Hammer" by history books, to differentiate him from others of the same name, though contemporaneously he was just "Warlord Halite") had found himself under siege by a coalition under the young mare who would become my childhood sovereign, Queen Jade of the Crystal Union.

When Equestria was founded, and Jade ceased the hostilities between the Union and the new nation (despite Wintershimmer's manipulations to the contrary), Onyx Ridge lost all value as a geographic chokepoint. The fortress was still close enough to River Rock to be subjected to the curse of eternal winter, and so was subject to the reluctant rule of Cyclone the Betrayer. But, of course, Cyclone had neither the manpower, nor the supplies, nor the strategic need to occupy such a fortress. And so, for the better part of his life, Onyx Ridge was forgotten under mounds of snow.

As life struggled above the frozen soil, it thrived beneath it. The mines beneath Onyx Ridge were warm, as most deep tunnels are. And as the life on the surface of the former Diamond Kingdoms and Low Valleys struggled to find food, much moved into the deep. It was the vargr and their fenrir, of whom I wrote in the preceding chapter, that claimed the abandoned mines. And there they held out through all of the history of Equestria. Though I have no idea in what year you are reading this, I would nevertheless offer even odds, if not better, that they are still there in your day.

When the Constellation finally finished its first real voyage from the sunny environs of Canterlot and (imagine my heavy sigh here) "Ponyville", down in the copious space inside Onyx Ridge's walls, it found the snowy ground was already home to a small but formidable camp. Numerous tents clung to the shelter of the dark stone walls, using them to shield against the wind that so often accompanied Stalliongrad's snows. The entire crew (if a mere four ponies can be called a 'crew' with a straight face) stood gathered around the wheel located inside the airship's cabin, looking through the glass windshield that was the 'belly' of the vessel as they adjusted their snow attire.

"You said there were monsters here, Stalliongrad?" Tempest asked as she helmed the ship, her black armor supplemented by what was clearly a stallion's gray overcoat, buttoned off-center across her breast. "Why haven't whoever's sleeping in those tents gotten eaten yet?"

"The vargr are only threat in tunnels, below," explained Red Ink, the only member of the crew whose winter attire was identical to his normal attire. Clearly at home in the snowy domain, he hadn't even buttoned his black jacket over his guardspony issue gilded breastplate. (In case I haven't mentioned this before: gold is a magical insulator; it isn't just for show as some non-arcane species often assume). "They dig through soil with rocks in it, but not solid rock." Ink then indicated the walls of the fortress with a wing. "This courtyard or square or… the hole inside fortress, it is not natural. Unicorns and crystals mined it out. The ground beneath us is one giant solid slab of rock. No threat to be burrowed up through. Be more worried about who is in tents."

"They n-need a massage?" Somnambula chittered through the chattering of her teeth. "B-because they're too int-t-tense?"

Ink pinched the very base of his muzzle, between his eyes. "Who is in those tents, old mare. And what are you shivering for? Airship has heating. We have not even opened hatch yet."

"I g-grew up in the d-desert! I don't d-do snow!" Despite the noise, and Ink's (accurate) observation of the internal temperature, Somnambula was perhaps the most dressed of the four, wearing a fairly puffy pink parka and even a pair of matching snow pants—an absolute rarity for those who don't know pony fashion—as well as boots, a scarf, and a knit hat. That their colors clashed like a psychedelic cubist's attempt to create an interpretation of the meaning of life only made it more clear that, to Somnambula, quantity had been far more of a concern than quality when raiding through their provided apparel.

"You're welcome to stay on the ship," Sunset offered, wearing an outfit that perhaps suggested more a comfortable Hearth's Warming Eve evening with a cup of cocoa than the frozen wilds of Stalliongrad—though the subtle sheen of magic might have suggested to the subtly observant eye that she was not so ill equipped as she appeared. "Hopefully, Daring Do is in the camp here. We ask a few quick questions, and we're on our way. Even if we do have to go chasing after her, it sounds like Ink and Tempest are going to be the ones getting us through that safely."

"Yeah, but… I s-should be there," Somnambula's wings shifted under her layers of thick clothing. "W-what if M-Morty's already h-here?"

"If we're that lucky, I will eat my hat," announced Red Ink (despite his lack of headwear), wandering in the direction of the side of the Constellation's hull, where an obvious (though complex—presumably to make it watertight) bulkhead door would allow the crew to disembark without needing to go up onto the exterior deck several floors above the ground, only to then lower a plank back to ground level. Veiny, somewhat disgustingly overbuilt forelegs were turned on the large rotary wheel in the center of the door, and as Ink applied force, the audible hiss of the frigid wind outside began to become audible even to those inside.

"Hold your whorses!" The intense vulgarity of Tempest Shadow's irritated snap at Ink seemed not to affect him nearly as it did Sunset and Somnambula. "We're not even on the ground yet!"

"Close enough," Ink answered, flinging the door open and letting icy air sweep into the ship. The others barely heard him cheerfully (and quite sarcastically) announce "No time like present for making new friends!" before he flung himself bodily out of the Constellation.

Frigid wind whistled past Red Ink's ears, and his face donned a smile at the chill of home. Then, glancing back to the ship, he caught a glimpse of Sunset Shimmer stepping up to the hatch of the ship with her horn lit, before pointedly disappearing (the pop of teleportation lost to the winds), and decided that it would be better to get down to the ground to assist her—whether with the translation of Stalliongradi, or with force of hooves. And with that, he dove.

Sunset took quiet notice of the red pegasus landing beside her, but she didn't turn to face him. Moments later, Somnambula followed suit; she could be identified just by the tapping crunch noises her shivering hooves made on the snow-covered stone of the courtyard. But despite the company, Sunset's eyes were on the tents; lights from lamps cast the silhouettes of ponies in heavy winter clothes of their own on the canvas walls, yet despite the not-especially quiet approach of the Constellation and the considerable shadow it cast, nopony stepped outside.

"Um… Hello?" She called out. "Does anypony here speak Equiish?"

When the question was met with the howling of magically frigid wind, Ink took a step forward. "Как делишки, как детишки?"—a jovial, borderline joking greeting that I record in Stalliongradi only so as to ram the point of his choice of language down the reader's throat; I'll translate the rest for you, such as his next utterance: "Alright, fine. This is Commandant Blood Stroke; I'm here with the Honor Guard on business from Celestia. Whoever is in charge, show yourself."

It was a bit too cold in Onyx Ridge for crickets (and it had been for eighteen hundred years) but the idea of their noise flashed through Sunset's mind nonetheless.

"Okay… that's bad," Ink muttered. Sunset caught a glimpse of metal as Ink slipped a hoof into the breast of his jacket, and came out with a far shinier and visibly bladed shoe on his right forehoof.

"W-what's wrong? W-why w-would that b-b-be different than what S-s-sunset asked?" Somnambula stammered.

"I have a reputation here. Introducing myself might have got some of them to run away instead of coming out. But just ignoring me?" He shook his head and then began to walk forward on three legs, keeping his now bladed hoof ready. "This feels like not a friendship kind of problem to me. Stay close, and if there is blood to draw, get back on the ship and get it in the air. And do not wait for me."

"W-w-we're not gonna l-leave you b-b-behind!" Somnambula countered (though she did move close to Ink's backside, in acknowledgement of the sense of danger). "N-not in w-w-weather like this! Y-y-you'll freeze!"

"The cold doesn't bother me much. From your time, you know of Tsyklon, right?" Ink asked as the trio approached a tent. "I am like that. It does not hurt me to be on fire." As he spoke, Ink reached the flaps of the nearest tent, through which the silhouette of a pony could be seen. He flicked two of his feathers in a gesture at the tent, and then held a cautious state, ready to lunge into battle at a moment's notice.

And then, after a moment of awkwardness, Sunset said "You want me to—"

"Yes," Ink hissed. "Unicorn is always responsible for doors in a squad. Tent isn't likely to be trapped, but I don't take stupid chances."

Sunset shimmer's magic pulled back the flap, revealing a heavily wrapped earth pony stallion with a scarf over his face, a heavy ushanka cap, and a furry winter coat. His head was vaguely pointed toward the entrance of the tent, but even when the glow of magic and the sight of the three ponies were revealed, he didn't exactly react; at best, his eyes drifted disconcertingly toward them—disconcerting both in the sense that they unsettled the trio at the door, adn because they moved literally out of concert, first one, and then the other. That little glimpse of pony fur that wasn't wrapped up or covered was pallid and matted, and the eyes framed at the top of the muzzle were bloodshot, surrounding rather milky irises.

"We represent the Honor Guard," Ink repeated cautiously in his native Stalliongradi. "State your name, sir."

The stallion answered with an unsettling cock of his neck and a raspy moaning noise, and shuffled off-balance one step toward Ink.

And then he shrieked. The metaphor of a bean sí (that is, a 'banshee' as you probably know that particular breed of fey) is not entirely unwarranted; most prepubescent fillies could not naturally make the noise that whistled out of this pony's throat, to say nothing of the average adult stallion. The sound cut through the eternal winter winds of the windigo of Stalliongrad without any apparent opposition.

Barely a moment later, he lunged at Red Ink. And then, when Ink answered as one might expect from such a sudden motion—already armed as he was—the shrieking noise ceased to pierce through the scarf over the stallion's lips, and instead began whistling out of the new, freshly bleeding hole in his throat—now broken up occasionally by the gurgling of surprisingly dark, thick ichor into his windpipe. And then, after longer than any of the three ponies would have guessed, the scream finally faded off.

Ink turned fully around, both to survey the other tents and to address his companions. "Go back to the ship. I—"

"Ink!" Sunset interrupted, her horn igniting; Ink barely had time to process the warning before a sudden, warm, wet weight slammed into his back and side, and the clacking of bony teeth resounded barely an inch from his ear. He jumped forward, flaring all the strength of his wings and overbuilt legs, then whirled to find the stallion he had just killed gnashing through his scarf in an attempt to bite the soldier's neck; only Sunset's magic wrapped around his shoulders in a sort of amaranth blob had kept the bit from connecting with Ink's flesh.

"Stay dead, you salty condom!" Ink snapped in Stalliongradi (translated literally; cursing in Stalliongradi is strange). The short pegasus thrust his hoof three more times into the stallion's exposed throat, stopping only when his bladed hoof literally bounced off one of the stallion's vertebrae. Then he finished the series of blows with an uppercut, which (due to the aforementioned damage to the pony's neck) flipped his skull back like the lid on a pedal-operated garbage bin, causing the stallion to finally stop his flailing and biting. "What…" Ink panted slightly, apparently more from surprise and concern than exertion. "What was that?"

When the body, now very obviously dead, began to stir a third time, Sunset lit her horn—the spell she cast was a bit inelegant, but I can hardly fault her for a lack of experience in the metaphysics of animus manipulation. In any case, it had the desired effect; before he could get back on his hooves, the stallion suddenly stopped moving.

"I wish that hadn't worked," Sunset muttered, then turned to look Ink square in the eyes. "That was an undead."

"And we're looking for a famous necromancer?" Ink asked.

"M-M-Morty wouldn't-t-t…" Somnambula gave up on the protest and merely pulled herself into a tight ball to resist the cold.

"Even if it isn't him," Sunset told Somnambula, "the dead don't rise on their own. Somepony—or something—brought this pony back to life. And killed him in the first place."

Ink nodded. "Well… not a friendship problem, but maybe we cannot send you back on the ship anyway. Will setting them on fire kill them?"

Sunset shrugged. "When you get your necromancy license in Canterlot, this is item number one on what not to do. Maybe Morty's book says more, but I can't exactly—"

Sunset's thoughts on my (earlier) writing were cut off by another horrifying, borderline inequine shriek. In the course of their conversation in the snow, Somnambula, Sunset, and Ink had failed to notice the other silhouettes on the walls of other tents beginning to move. And, in their defense, the snowfall in the winter wind did make such a note of detail subtle if one wasn't exactly looking for it.

What was harder to miss, after the shriek, were the mass of seven or so ponies, presumably dead, now shambling toward them. Behind them, the sheer black walls of Onyx Ridge opened into a hole—more like a cave or a tunnel than a gatehouse—which led down in the dark threatening earth.

Sunset lit her horn and (inexperienced as she was at handling magical violence—at least, in a pony) adopted what she assumed was a combat-ready stance. Ink spread out his wings through slits in his jacket and casually channeled his magic to set them alight. Even Somnambula readied herself, and had somepony been watching closely, they might have seen the snowflakes around her subtly shift, as the winter wind was opposed by a smaller but locally stronger gale.

As the first of the corpses drew close, a burst of magic flew over Ink's shoulder, collided with the forwardmost of the dead, and vanished into her skin. And then, something like half a second later, the corpse of the mare exploded in a flash of volatile almost raw arcana and became something that a griffon might liken to stew meat.

When the trio on the ground glanced back, Tempest Shadow put away the wince from the almost lightning-like crackling along her horn and gave them a nod. "Guessing from the body at your hooves that this isn't a friendship kind of problem."

What ensued was, if I'm being honest, a perfunctory battle. Seven shambling, unattended corpses do not—once identified—pose much of a threat to a quartet of Celestia's hoof-trained operatives.

In fact, the group was down to a single remaining foe when anything of consequence happened. Somewhere in the distance, the keening toll of a hoofbell pierced the storm and the frantic noises of violence. Ink—actively on fire, and with his right foreleg literally inside the ribcage of another pony—turned to Somnambula and asked "Did it just get a lot colder?"

"N-n-not th-that I can t-t-tell. Why?"

"I guess some snow just got down my collar—" And then, abruptly, Ink collapsed.

"Stalliongrad's down!" Tempest yelled, and hurled another of her spells at the dead mare who was now very close to the stallion but no longer being held back by his superior strength. Even as the unicorn mare's magic severed the head of the already dead mare, though, the tone of the group shifted instantly.

"W-what h-happened?"

"Did he say his neck?!" Sunset demanded, casting her eyes around the courtyard of Onyx Ridge, and up onto the sheer black stone battlements. After a moment of searching, her eyes caught a figure—shrouded by the mist of snowfall, the details of his form were obscured from, save some kind of cloak or coat and a prominent horn. "We need to run."


"Run!" she shouted, picking up Ink with her magic and glancing around frantically.

"The ship's right—" Tempest tried to offer.

"No!" Sunset insisted. "Inside the fortress!"

Another toll of a bell cut the air.

"What is that—" Tempest didn't even get to finish her question before Sunset's magic wrapped around the entire team. And in a flash of her arcane aura, Celestia's agents blindly teleported into the dark tunnels of Onyx Ridge.

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