• 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 VII - Blood Runs Cold

Blood Runs Cold

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The sudden disappearance of the howling of the wind was almost as horrifying as the dying of the light—both went not with the slow decline of a sunset, but in a single violent snap (for there was no time for Sunset Shimmer to build up the safety walls of a mere 'pop' as she took the only blind hope she could for survival.

"Sunset?! Somna—whatever? Stalliongrad? Where in Tartarus are we?" Tempest Shadow's voice echoing off the walls answered some of that question without the need for speech; still, a moment later she got a much quieter answer.

"Quiet!" Sunset insisted, and her horn flared in the darkness; magic drew two circles, illuminating by about a hoof-radius glow at a time the roughly circular walls. As the sparks moved from the floor up the shiny black walls, along similar stone ceilings, and back down to the floors, it became clear that the Equestrians were in a black stone tunnel that stretched off into darkness in both directions without visible forks or turns—not that the darkness was all that far away. "We're under Onyx Ridge, somewhere." As she spoke, Sunset's magic again illuminated the black walls of a subterranean tunnel, and after a moment, the magical aura built up at the tip of her horn in the form of an orb, which shortly disconnected from her horn altogether and began to float near her shoulder. "That spell should keep our noise from echoing up the tunnels. If anypony… or anything gets close enough to see the light, I can't do much about it. But I think we're more in danger in the dark than we are carrying a light."

In addition to the two speakers, Sunset's light revealed a somewhat less shivering Somnambula—the glowpaz she always wore around her neck smothered under her layers of winter jackets—and a completely still Red Ink who had collapsed onto his side on the stone where Sunset's spell had dropped him.

"Mr. Ink!" Somnambula rushed to the stallion's side. "Is he okay?"

"He's breathing," Tempest noted, watching the stallion's chest, even as she placed a hoof near his muzzle to confirm that claim. Then, with the same gentle hoof, she peeled back one of his eyelids, and continued "And his eyes dilate with the light, so he's not braindead."

"He's dead," Sunset interrupted the other mare's makeshift diagnostic session.

"What? Didn't you just hear what I—"

"No, listen," Sunset interrupted. "Did you hear what he said right before he collapsed? He asked if it got colder? And then he mentioned the collar of his jacket?"

"...and?" Tempest asked.

"I thought Celestia had you read Morty's last book, at least?"

"I… I'm not a big book pony, ok? I skimmed it. Nopony mentioned I'd die if I didn't write a book report." When Sunset's brow furrowed, the taller, mercenary mare rolled her eyes. "Like I said, the guy seemed—seems—like an asshole."

"You might be right," Sunset answered under her breath, before explaining herself. "A cold feeling on the back of your neck is the hallmark sign of Wintershimmer's Razor. The spell to rip out a pony's soul."

"What?" Somnambula hunched up her wings in a classic sign of pegasus stress. "No; you can't be saying—do you think somepony else learned the spell?"

"Princess Celestia told me she'd gone out of the way to make sure nopony else learned it… but maybe?"

"You're humoring her?!" Tempest snapped. "If what you're saying is right, Stalliongrad is dead, we just fought an army of damn zombies, and you wanna worry about trying not to hurt her feelings?!"

Sunset grimaced, and Somnambula recoiled from the substantially larger mare's shouting—ears folding back as it echoed through the tunnels. "Look… I really don't know if it was him. But I did see somepony who looked a lot like a unicorn in a light jacket on the walls."

"Then we need to go talk to him!" Somnambula insisted, and though there was hurt in her expression, Sunset was sure she also saw steel in the ancient pegasus mare's eyes. "Morty knows me! He'll listen to me! Maybe—maybe he just didn't recognize me! It was snowy and cold, and—"

"He made a bunch of zombies that attacked us unprovoked!" Tempest cut in. "And for all we know, since they weren't covered in bite marks or stab holes, he probably killed them too! If we're gonna stand any kind of chance, it'll be an ambush. One good shot to the chest, kill him before he even knows we're here."

Sunset shook her head. "No. Both of you, no. Tempest, he's immortal. You heard what Princess Celestia said; he's died so many times it's his special talent. Even if you did catch him off guard, do you expect he'd stay dead? And Somnambula—I understand you want to talk to him and try to figure out what's going on. But it's been almost two thousand years since you knew him. Who knows how he might have changed? And do you know he'd even remember you? Or give you a chance to even say a word before he ripped your soul out too? Right now, before anything else, we need to get out of here alive and warn the Princesses. If Morty's… gone evil or whatever, they, and Twilight—"

"And Star Swirl," Somnambula offered grudgingly.

"—and Archmage Star Swirl, have the best chance of actually doing anything. But if we want to do that, we need to get out of here alive."

Tempest gave a firm nod. "Well, you're right; that's a better plan than I had. Damn, I knew this was a suicide mission. Stupid princess tricking me with her fancy airship…"

"I think you're right too," Somnambula muttered, though there was more than a bit of hesitance in her words. "I still think this is a misunderstanding, somehow. But for now, how do we get out of here? Is there another exit?"

"I have no idea. Well, no… I have a really bad idea. Maybe two or three. But for any of them, I need somewhere to sit down and do some magic and read without getting distracted. Or killed."

Tempest's nostrils flared in a sharp exhale. "You're joking."

"I just finished a part in Tales about how Cyclone's son sent a bunch of griffons here to protect them, so there might be something in the book we can use to navigate these caves. But that's a stretch. A better hope is that I get to the part where Morty explains how Wintershimmer's Razor actually works, and I can figure out how to protect us. But most importantly, I'm gonna try and bring Ink back to life, because he actually knows his way around in here. So either we find a dead-end and hide while I read and figure it out, or we get out of the tunnels and I see what I can do when we get back to some kind of civilization."

"You can't just cast the spell now?" Tempest asked.

Sunset briefly found her brow creased in frustration. "It's not that simple." Then she sighed. "Morty makes the things he does sound really easy, but necromancy with real souls is hard. Like, up there with time-travel magic and dimensional portal magic hard. And if I screw up, I could damage Ink's soul. Permanently. It's extremely illegal to do necromancy without a license, and even if you have one, they don't teach you how to connect a soul to a real body. Outside of this very specific situation, that kind of magic is only good for making… well, zombies, as you put it. So… Tempest, can you lift him?"

"Yeah, probably. I… oh shit, this guy is dense." Tempest slung Red Ink over her barrel, glad for his short stature that his dangling legs and wings didn't drag on the ground. "Do you at least know which way we need to go?"

Sunset nodded. "I don't know how deep we got; the spell just found the first open space in the direction I pointed my horn. But I do know the front of the fortress is roughly that way…" An amber hoof pointed in a direction vaguely matching one of the paths of the tunnel. "And I don't think it's hard to say we don't want to go back the way we came. So…"

"Deeper it is…" Somnambula frowned. "At least we're out of the cold and it's a little warmer, but of course it has to be into a cave."

"Not a fan of the dark?" Tempest asked.

"Most pegasi don't like closed spaces," the pharaonic pegasus replied, eyes tightened to lines and muzzle wrinkled as she squinted into the darkness. "I wish I had my blindfold."

"Your what?" Tempest snapped. "Seriously? I'm carrying a dead guy and—"

"It's not like that," Sunset interrupted, even as Somnambula hid chuckles beneath a wing. "She had to do a challenge to get rid of a sphinx, right?"

"Yeah," Somnambula agreed, still trying not to laugh. "Sorry. The, heh, the point is, it reminds me that even in the dark, there's hope…" And then, after trailing off, Somnambula suddenly stopped walking. "Wait."

"Hmm?" asked Sunset. "Something wrong?"

"No. I had an idea." Somnambula stepped briefly in front of Sunset and raised a wing. Then, closing her eyes, she drew in a breath over what seemed like a minute—and which was long enough, at least, for Tempest to shoot Sunset a skeptical glance that the leader of the group answered with an amused shrug. "Huh… Okay."

"You gonna let the rest of us in on it, or just keep making noises?" Tempest asked.

"Oh; sorry. So, there's this one weird trick I learned from Hurricane—"

"Did you actually just say 'one weird trick'?" Sunset interrupted.

"Yeah, why? Does that mean something?"

"...nevermind. It's from the other side of the mirror."

Somnambula shrugged. "Anyway, I learned, uh, a weird piece of magic from Hurricane. See, pegasus magic connects feelings to the elements, and the elemental magic is way more famous. But it turns out pegasus magic can also directly interact with feelings. Now, I'm not super good at it like Hurricane or apparently Mr. Ink…" a brief flash of a frown split Somnambula's usually smiley expression. "...anyway, I do know a few things. One is how to sense emotions. I feel them in my feathers."

"You can read minds with your wings?" Tempest asked.

Somnambula shook her head. "No. I get a read on other ponies feelings like they're different kinds of wind. Anger is hot and thick and humid like a swamp, joy is fast and fresh; that sort of thing. I'm not very good at it. But luckily, you don't need to be very good to feel that a windigo hates your guts. And because I can feel that like wind, I think there has to be a way out this way."

"You think?" Tempest asked.

Somnambula rolled her eyes. "You have a better plan?" When the note of rare sarcasm hit deep, the pegasus softened the words with a slight smile. "Have a little hope, Tempest."

Though it was obviously given grudgingly, Tempest Shadow obliged the pegasus in her company.

Something that many ponies who read stories like mine fail to realize is that in between events of note and moments of valor and heroism, there are long stretches of boredom. Often, walking above ground in relatively safe places, these can be enjoyable times—at least, for those who haven't grown too soft by the pleasures of urban comforts. Other times, it isn't travel but hard work that occupies the time of heroes; whether it be digging a well or researching hitherto unpracticed magic, though the effect may save someone's life, the actual work is tedium. But by far the worst, the most unpleasant experience that often gets glossed over in stories like these is what I've come to call the tedium of horror. It is when one walks knowing a monster stalks nearby, or when one is moving as swiftly as they can to the rescue knowing that the focus of their aid might already have been wounded or destroyed before they ever arrive. And that, at least for me, is one of the ultimate sufferings of the equine condition: the combination of the unknown, a measure of impotency, and a thick serving of tedium. Were I a better pony, I would tell you that I would not inflict it on my worst enemy… but I know what dwells in the deepest circles of Tartarus.

Some of it, I put there.

For the better part of two hours, the trio of mares carried the still-breathing corpse of their fourth companion—the only one of their number who had ever seen those dark halls before—in near total silence (for Sunset's magical zone of silence was not up-to-snuff to move with them) and near total darkness (though her dim magical light at least did accompany them)—past dozens of forks and twists and down at least one ragged jog where the tunnel's floor dropped a good two shoulder-heights, and the trio had to stop with bated breath as a loose rock tumbled off the edge and the sound echoed down the halls…

…and then was answered, horrifyingly, by a wet, heavy breath somewhere in the distance.

Whatever beast had made that horrible noise, though, never appeared. Instead, the trio were left with three minutes with Sunset's light dimmed, holding their breath and pressing tight together, ready to attack in desperation at the slightest noise.

Ultimately, though, Somnambula's wing brought them to a tunnel that ended in a glimmer of light. And, not much further along, the sliding of hooves, as ice began to completely coat the stone walls and floor. There, the source of the wind was obvious not only to Somnambula, but the unicorns as well; one could hardly miss the whistling of wind on cold rock and sharp ice.

"What's going on?" Tempest whispered. "We haven't gone that far up from where we started, have we?"

"Hard to tell," Sunset agreed. "Maybe there's a canyon or a cliff on the back of the fortress, so ground level is lower? Somnambula, what do you think?"

The pegasus shuddered—not in chill but in something like fear—and nodded. "It's outside. That's the real wind here; I can feel the windigo hate on it. If you want to know about the ground, we'll have to get Rockhoof. But I think the first step is g-going that way anyway."

"Great, she's shivering again…" Tempest sighed, and nodded to Sunset. "Well, let's get out of here."

Progress forward was surprisingly difficult; the tunnel sloped up mildly, which made any loss of traction on the frosted floor cause the trio to slip back. Worse, as they progressed, the biting wind grew harder and harder, channeled into a windtunnel by the hard walls beyond any force that they had felt on the surface. Ultimately, Tempest took the lead, pressing her shod hooves into the ice to make grooves that the other two could track to follow—a veritable equal of 'Good Queen Wince-Loss', if you're a fan of Hearth's Warming carols.

As they progressed, they witnessed one other change: the light at the end of the tunnel grew brighter and brighter, until it was not just like daylight, but the kind of eye-searing snow blind white that comes on sunny days in the windy mountains.

And then, all at once, the white gave way to visibility—only just in time for the trio not to plummet to their deaths.

The tunnels of Onyx Ridge, and indeed the earth into which it was built, had been sundered by a gargantuan chasm, deep enough that only darkness could be seen at its nadir. Sunset's magic only narrowly caught Tempest, who—unbalanced with another pony's weight on her back—began to slip forward when they stepped onto the narrow ledge that hung over the edge of the chasm.

It took our heroes some time to take in their surroundings, once they had regained steady hoofing, confusing as the sight was. Rather than work through what they saw, I think you, dear reader, will understand the scene better if I explain how it came to be this way.

One thousand, eight hundred, and neither you nor I give a proper care about the other two digits years ago, a young knight-errant buried her mentor beneath a lonely cairn of stones a ways northwest of the sheer cliff that held the face of the fortress of Onyx Ridge. Into the stones, with painstaking effort, she carved a lonely epitaph for a mare with whom I often quarreled, but for whom I have the greatest of respect. But, more importantly, beside the stones, she thrust the fallen mare's blade into the icy ground. And, had it been any other mare and any other blade, that might have been the end of it. Corpses don't decay in Stalliongrad's snow; it might have lingered beneath those stones. But buried beneath the long accumulation of snow and ice and permafrost, sword and body alike would no doubt have been forgotten.

But this was no common mare, and no common sword, and the latter drew the attention of the snow itself. The cursed blade—because despite whatever the dead mare might have said in life, that blade was cursed—the cursed blade's accumulated hate, its unyielding sorrow, its bottomless pit of cold so deep that there can be no snow, no wind, no breath—was answered by the Last Windigo. And it came to dwell on the cairn, to rest on the upturned pommel of the sword. Through the blade, the chill of Stalliongrad's suffering seeped into the earth. And the earth cracked.

At first, it was a small crevice, the sort of thing that might spell a broken leg for somepony unfortunate enough to make a misstep. Then the side of the gap that held the cairn broke free and fell in. Over a thousand years, tendrils of ice from the windigo formed into a nest that pushed and shoved against frozen stone, and the stone gave way. Soon, the deep tunnels of the vargr that moved into Onyx Ridge to escape the surface cold were exposed, hewn in twain and sometimes connected by the spires of ice that jutted threateningly from the walls.

And then, by the day of our adventure, the ice had formed into a rigid, transparent spider web over a blackness that seemed to stretch down to Tartarus itself.

At its center, hanging perilously and precipitously over empty air and certain death, our heroes beheld the true horror of the Last Windigo, resting in its nest atop the hilt of a skysteel sword. The ethereal flesh of its gaunt, stretched-out, corpselike face slapped in the wind of its own magic, grown massive on enough civil wars and invasions and starvations and the predation of enough lesser evils that even in its sleep, it could wrap the miles wide compact lands in bitter winter and yet still haunted by an unnatural hunger for more. Mercifully, sleep it did, for its eyes were covered in empty, fleshy lids, and its body rocked in the same unseen wind that teased its parody of flesh.

Scattered around the blade of the sword, half submerged into the ice of its nest, were countless treasures and trinkets—like a dragon's hoard, save that they were almost certainly enchanted items because they certainly weren't valuable for their beauty or appearance (or edibility to a dragon)—amongst the clutter, Sunset noted about a half-dozen assorted weapons, a length of silver chain, and a sizeable black bell.

But most notable, and quickly stealing focus from the assorted treasures of the nest was a figure standing just in front of the apparently sleeping Windigo's face. Frozen to the ground with a crust of frost up past her knees and nearly to her shoulders perhaps three strides away from the cairn was a gold-coated pegasus mare wearing a brown leather jacket with a fur collar—what Sunset might have called a 'bomber jacket' from her strange other world—and an olive pith helmet.

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