• Published 26th May 2020
  • 2,446 Views, 344 Comments

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.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next
Interlude XIII - Pride Goeth

Interlude XIII

Pride Goeth

Sunset and Tempest followed the path they'd been provided into the dusty stone canyons of the Klugetown badlands, until at last they came to face a forbidding stone edifice engraved with nondescript faces which had been worn away by the centuries. Maybe if it weren't for those centuries of erosion, the equine skulls that those faces had once been might have urged the mares to enter the complex with a bit more caution.


Dusty walls of old tan sandstone brick had been cleaned with archaeological care in the nave of the facility, which had been subject to far less erosion than the exterior, and so showcased not only distinctly equine skulls, but also engraved text in a long dead script. The script seemed to garner little attention, though, when compared to the two vaguely earth pony-shaped outlines flanking the only threshold deeper into the 'ruins' (a term I use hesitantly, because they weren't actually that ruined).

One of these outlines held a stone pony, restrained in place by very clearly modern stainless steel chains (five-eights gauge, substantially thicker than the standard offering at most Equestrian hardware stores). This stone pony was actively struggling against its chains, causing them to rattle with each twitch and thrust against the restraints, but whoever had installed the chains and the heavy pitons that mounted them into the wall had done an impressively solid job. Still, the fact that the faceless sandstone thing was animate was concerning enough.

"Uh… can it talk?" Tempest asked. "Hey?"

"Somehow, I'm guessing not," said Sunset after a moment, before she grabbed Tempest's shoulder and pointed with her horn toward the mirrored alcove. There, less secure pitons had been ripped from the walls and scattered amongst some minor stone rubble on the floor. A few strides away, the guardian golem's mirror image lay unmoving, its 'skull' split jaggedly in half, and one half of its head fully removed to lie shattered at its stone hooves.

Behind it, at head level, an extremely modern steel guardspony's shoe, very much like the ones Red Ink favored (though in a dramatically larger size) was buried up to its two slightly winged flanges in the stone brick wall like a veritable Clawrent oriented about ninety degrees.

(Excalipurr is the sword from the lake, not the sword in the stone, in case that joke is lost on anypony, or I suppose any griffon, reading. They're often confused by lazy historians, a fact which I really can't blame given one of the two forsaken things is fictional. Even at eighteen, what I told Gale about swords with names was more right than I could possibly have known at the time.)

"You think the big mare did that?" Sunset asked.

Tempest scoffed. "Well, it's a pony's shoe, and I doubt our stallion is throwing shoes with a broken leg. But the bartender wasn't lying; you know what they say about mares with big shoes?"

"Uh… no, and I'm not sure I want to."

"They have big hooves," Tempest concluded with a smirk. "Come on; they must've gone further in."

"Uh, yeah," said Sunset, but she failed to stop Tempest before the other mare pushed forward toward their quarry. Thus, as Tempest disappeared into the dark hallway ahead, Sunset was left with only a moment to linger staring upward at the engraved depiction over the doorway: a single bell with a little wooden handle, of the sort a noblepony might ring to summon a servant for tea, wrapped in stylized chains, suspended in the air just below the outline of the head of a mountain goat with great curved horns swinging around behind his ears.

By the time Sunset caught up, she found Tempest leaning against a stone corner in the hallway, her body pressed tightly against the wall.

"Tempest, I think—"

"Shh," Tempest interrupted in a harsh whisper. "Listen."

And when Sunset was quiet, she distinctly heard more voices echoing from down the hallway.

"So, let me guess: arrows come out of the holes in the wall if we walk through this hallway wrong or something? Step on the wrong tile?" That voice was spry and feminine, with a strange sort of Canterlot accent, not suggesting snobbery or elitism, but rather coming from one of the poorer neighborhoods of the Equestrian capital. "Am I pointed in the right direction?"

"Do you want me to laugh at puns when you broke my leg?" The vaguely Abyssian toned accent clearly belonged to a stallion, and judging from the comment, was obviously Dr. Caballeron. "Yes, it's a trap. Spears, not arrows; not that it makes much difference. If you carry me through there, we'll both die."

"I could dodge," came a third voice, at once feminine and yet far heavier than Caballeron's. There was, if anything, the slightest twang of the drawl of the Equestrian south in the words; an Appleloosan tinge, perhaps, or maybe even further toward the border. "But not carrying you."

"Relax, I've got this," said the first voice again, the Canterlot mare. Then, with the distinct pop of a cork leaving a glass bottleneck, she continued "This stuff's called Imperial Glue or something, but I always like to think of it as a wall in a bottle. If I just remember my old bowling stance…"

"Do you want me to just throw it?" asked the voice of what Sunset had decided had to be 'the big mare'.

"No! You'll break it all in one place." That made the other mare the one with the black bandana; the relative unknown of the group. "Just gotta balance on my hind legs here… Okay. One, two, three, and twist." The count were accompanied by three particularly sharp hoofsteps on stone, and then were followed by the sound of a glass vial (a Florence flask, if Sunset had to guess, and then she winced at how much of a nerd she'd become to recognize the shape of chemistry vessels by the sound they made rolling down a stone floor—clearly, she needed to spend less time around the human version of Twilight Sparkle) rolling lopsidedly along the hallway. Then, a moment later, there came a growing fizzing, which I might liken at the time of writing to the common foal's experiment of mixing vinegar with baking soda. Or baking powder. Whatever.

"Come on," Tempest whispered, and then crept forward around the corner, using the sound of chemical hissing and foam expansion as cover for her hoofsteps. Sunset followed in stride, and soon the two arrived at another corner, very near to another stone archway. Here, the explanation for the noise was all too obvious, as one wall of the hallway had been obscured by a slightly wobbly wall of blue-gray foam bubbles, stretching from floor to ceiling and glistening with a sticky surface layer that vaguely reminded Sunset of super-glue. A half dozen spearheads protruded through the goop, though they had hardly breached more than two inches of the stuff before it stopped each of the weapons in turn.

Through the doorway, a torch's flame could be seen above and beyond the small gemstones set into the hallway's ceiling to dimly light the path. In its light, Sunset could faintly make out the mare holding it: a pegasus, a sort of sky blue color with what was probably a white mane if one factored out the orange light of the flame. Next to her, Caballeron's graying black mane could only faintly be seen, and judging by his awkward sideways position, he was being carried on the back of somepony of considerable size.

"So the bell's here?" the pegasus mare asked.

"That's what the wall said," Caballeron agreed. "But we hadn't actually made it past the spear trap. I'm not like Daring Do; I don't destroy a site just to get to the big piece at the end as fast as possible. And I hope that foam isn't damaging the—"

"Quiet," the big mare beneath him ordered, before taking two sizeable steps forward and then turning around. "Who's there?"

"Crap," whispered Sunset, but after a glance to Tempest wasn't answered with some sort of a clever plan, she stepped out from the corner and into the spear hallway. "Um… Hi?"

"Who're you?" the big mare asked.


"That's Sunset Shimmer," the pegasus, quick on the draw, explained. "Celestia's student before Princess Sparkle." Then, after a pause, she added "I thought she was trapped in a different world or something, though…"

"A different world?" asked the larger mare, still far enough away from the torch and the lit hallway to be shrouded in shadow.

"I told you, I don't get involved with magic stuff. This whole 'bells' thing is already outside my area of expertise."

"Hmph," said the big mare. "There's another one with you; no point hiding."

Tempest let out a growl in her throat, a sign of frustration rather than threat. "Damn it, Sunset."

"I didn't make any noise," Sunset protested.

"My leg twitched," said the big mare, and perhaps the most curious thing about that comment is that, knowing (a) Pinkie Pie, Sunset Shimmer immediately understood what it implied. Given Tempest's confused expression on her scarred brow, however, the big mare 'clarified' by saying "My leg doesn't twitch."

"Right. Great. A twitch." Tempest glanced then to the smaller mare. "You know who I am too, then?"

To our heroines' collective surprise, the smaller mare answered with a protracted whistle, looking up and down Tempest's body for a moment, before answering "Trouble." When Tempest made a rude gesture, the mare continued "Fizzlepop Berrytwist, a-k-a Tempest Shadow; the Storm King's former right-hoof mare. She's almost as wanted as you." That was accompanied by a glance to the earth pony mare.

"Almost?" Tempest scoffed. "I literally took over Canterlot."

"I'm not interested in making this a competition," the big mare replied. "Why are you here? You want the bell too?"

"No, we're working for Princess Celestia to, uh… well, to bring one of her old students back from the dead."

"Should you be that open about it?" Tempest whispered.

Sunset ignored the question. "What bell? And who are you?"

"Going Solo," said the pegasus of the pair. "Equestrian Intelligence. And this is, uh… another one of our agents."

"They're not that stupid, Solo," muttered the big mare, stepping fully forward into the light. "Soldier On. Ex-Honor Guard."

Vaguely eggshell colored, and with an off-white mane in a tight, businesslike ponytail, the most notable trait of the mare (as I have oft-leaned on over the last couple of chapters) was her size. And since so much has been made of her size, I shall spare the reader further exaggerations, and speak in objective terms.

Soldier On, also known by her Stalliongradi birth name of Stoikaja, was shorter than Princess Luna, but in very different way than you or I are (presumably) shorter than Princess Luna. Namely, unlike the average reader, if you looked at Soldier On and she wasn't standing literally shoulder-to-shoulder with the lesser, more despicable Diarch, you would probably describe her as being the same height as Princess Luna, and in that statement, you'd only be off by a fraction of an inch.

However, whereas Luna's height was attached to a body so slender and waifish that it (like her mane) bordered on ethereal, Soldier On's body was what young ponies of the day would refer to as a 'brick house'. I have met many ponies, and you almost certainly have too, whose entire skulls would fit inside her biceps.

After the surprise of her looming presence wore off, an observant pony might notice that she was missing the tip of her right ear, clipped off as if she were a stray cat spayed in a catch-and-release program.

Sunset took a sizable step back. "Y-You're the pony Mr. Ink was talking about."

It is a good thing Soldier On was not a pegasus, as the room might have been flooded with fire. Most interestingly, however, is that there was some pegasus 'ice' introduced by that comment, as not only Soldier On but also Going Solo tensed at the name.

"Is he here?" On asked, taking a much more threatening pose and stepping heavily forward.

Sunset lit her horn, mostly in reflex at the obvious threat. "I… Vaguely, yes? He's in Klugetown."

"Son of a bitch," Solo muttered, before turning toward her companion and fully putting a wing up on the bigger mare's shoulder. "On, calm. Lay off these two. We both know Ink's working for Celestia; they're probably telling the truth."

Daring to speak up, still splayed across Soldier On's back, Dr. Caballeron asked "Who's 'Ink'?"

"My brother-in-law," On answered tersely.

"Wait, really?" Solo asked. "And here I thought—"

On rolled her eyes, and waved a hoof through the air to brush off the question. "If you're not here for the bell, why are you here? What does Celestia want?"

Tempest immediately yielded to Sunset, who took a deep breath. "We're, um… A long time ago, the Princess had a student named Mortal Coil. Turns out he's immortal, and still alive. Kind of."

"Hold on," said Caballeron. "Coil the Immortal is real? From the background of Triumph over Silk?" Then, with a chuckle that was broken a bit by the pain of pressing against his broken leg on On's back, the rogue archaeologist smiled. "Is he related to Grogar somehow? That's what brought you here?"

"We don't even know where here is," said Tempest. "We came to talk to you."

"Ah," On nodded. "Well, you can have him once we've got the bell."

"Why do you want Grogar's bells, anyway?" asked Caballeron. "I hope you aren't planning on using it."

"Well, it's more about who we don't want to have them," said Solo, more to Sunset and Tempest than to Caballeron. "Short version of a long story: somebody has been up to weird necromancy stuff all over Equestria for the past few months. Weird little incidents; never in a major city. But almost no survivors. Whoever they are, On and I found out they've already got at least one of the bells. Until we can find out more, the ponies upstairs decided the best move was to get the bells, bring them back to Canterlot, and get them locked down."

"Oh…" said Sunset. "Well, about that. We, um… I think the guy we're looking for might be the one collecting the bells. We ran into him at Onyx Ridge a few days ago; he, uh, killed Mr. Ink."

That the mood in the room lightened at that cannot be understated.

On cocked her head. "I thought you said he was here?"

"He ripped out his soul; I have a piece of Morty—that's, uh, a nickname he liked—that helped me put it back in." Sunset lifted the Mentor Medallion in her magic, and Dr. Caballeron let out a small gasp at the sight.

"You have Daring Do's little amulet!"

"Yeah, she gave it to us after… well, a lot happened at Onyx Ridge. My point is, I think we're all on the same side here, old tensions aside." There, Sunset nodded to Soldier On. "But I don't really want to sit and chat in a weird dark room filled with booby traps. Let's work together, get this bell, then we can all regroup and figure out where we stand together."

"I'll pass," said On. "Wouldn't want another Baltimare, would we?" That comment was directed at Going Solo, who nodded quite knowingly. "But I won't turn down a wizard's help in here."

"I don't know how much of a wizard I really am anymore," said Sunset, "but I'll see what I can do."

"The bell's in that wall," said Caballeron, pointing to the far wall of the chamber, still shrouded in shadow. "I haven't had a chance to read the ancient warnings—"

"No point wasting time," interrupted Soldier On. "Is there magic on it, Sunset?"

"Let's see…" Sunset stretched out her magic, running her aura along the stone and feeling the ancient tingling of latent magic press back against her own. "A little bit. Um… Oh, no, actually a ton. But it's pointed inward. A… darn it, I used to know what this was called. It's a magical blackbody, basically. The magic of whatever's inside—the bell—can't get out. It's like the magical equivalent of a really high quality protective case. There's a little bit of magic on the outside; maybe an alarm or something to require a key. But there's no trap to it; at least, not on the wall itself. Honestly, this magic is just weird. Like, I can kind of tell what it's trying to do, but the way its woven together… it's like some weird combination of pony magic and the way the elk build spells."

"Acknowledged," said Soldier On, and walking calmly up to the wall, she put her hoof through what was probably a four-inch plate of magically reinforced solid stone, sending spiderweb cracks spreading across the wall.

"Ah! Celestia, no! You're destroying the site!" Caballeron protested, too late.

A moment later, the earth pony titan withdrew her hoof, holding a tiny silver bell very much like the one depicted in stone in the front chamber. And, as she did so, the room began to shake.

"That the alarm?" On asked in Sunset's direction.

"I don't know I want to stay and find out," Sunset answered, turning to run. Yet before she or anypony else could meaningfully move, the ceiling of the chamber cracked open, and desert evening sunlight poured into the room. It was joined, briefly, by an almost blinding pillar of pure white light in the center of the room, shooting up into the sky.

"Gah!" or similar not especially verbal utterances escaped the lips of the ponies assembled at the shock of the light, but to their collective surprise… that was it. Nothing fell from the sky, no arrows flew from the walls, no part of the room suddenly came to life.

"Alarm," Soldier On repeated, warily watching the walls. "But nopony to answer it."

"Are you out of your mind?" Caballeron demanded from her back, even as she walked over to Going Solo's side to hand off the bell—Solo being the one of the pair wearing any kind of saddlebags (which clinked lightly when she moved, suggesting more alchemical tricks like the one she'd used to stop the spears in the prior hallway).

"I've gotta agree with the doctor," Solo agreed as she took the bell. "We could have taken a little more time."

"Would you rather deal with traps or Ink's fire?"

"Point taken," Solo agreed. "Alright, um…" The pegasus glanced to Tempest and Sunset, and then back to On. "I don't think any of us besides you can carry Caballeron back to town, but if you get him as far as the edge of the city, we can split up and I'll meet you back where we agreed."

On nodded, but then several things happened at once.

Firstly, Soldier On's hind left leg twitched visibly, causing the steel shoe on her hoof to clack on the stone floor. Secondly, a dull pop that Sunset immediately recognized as the sound of teleportation issued from somewhere overhead of the now open room. And then thirdly, even as she (and the rest of the ponies present) began to look up, an incredibly elegant sounding stallion's voice called out, albeit with less-than-elegant diction and word choice.

"Who are you to go digging up—ah, the ponies from the black stone canyon." The speaker, of course, was a slender pale blue unicorn stallion clad in a slimming black coat with red trim. He was older than the image you might have in your mind, but not much so. Maybe twenty-five? Beyond that slight difference, the most notable distinction from the Mortal Coil you may have imagined or seen pictured was in his choice of companion. For you see, this ominous new arrival did not appear alone.

Beside what I shall dispense with the ambiguity to refer to as my 'mortal remains', Sunset and Tempest beheld a pale beige mare of the Night Guard, or at least their magical style, whose coat desaturation bordered more on gray than a true near-white like my own. Her face and mane down to her lower jaw were concealed by a mask that took on the stylized appearance of a fresh white skull, with raised cheek bones and deep eye holes. In those holes, none of the flesh of her face could be seen; only the seemingly magically glowing rings of her slitted eyes, colored a richly saturated magenta that I will go so far as to say bordered on red. Armor that was almost a parody of a guardspony's peytral and breastplate covered her torso, made of white steel fortified with ribs that at least looked like they were made of the genuine article. But most hauntingly, beneath her chiropteran leather wings, the hilt of a sword could be seen—one which Sunset knew she recognized, but in that moment of shock found that she could not place. Most interestingly, her tail was something leathery and solid, almost like a fin, striped in a dull orange and a gray gold.

Mortal Coil (bear with me on the awkwardness of this for the moment) whispered two words to his companion: "No survivors." And then it began.

Sunset only had time to watch the would-be Night Guard dive toward Going Solo before her attention was distracted by the silver torc she had wrapped around her neck—Celestia's gift from Stalliongrad—beginning to grow uncomfortably hot around her neck. A glance up to Coil revealed his horn glowing, staring straight at her as blue magic swirled around it.

The Razor.

"Mentor, a little help?"

"Driving!" Sunset knew in that moment that Mentor had taken over control of her body, but it was entirely unlike her previous experiences with the arguably cursed amulet. Even as the single word in my voice was ringing in the ears of her mind, Sunset's horn ignited; Mentor was that fast, or at least that desperate. She had no idea what he was casting—not that she had when he'd used the Razor on Ink either, but then at least her horn could tell it was a well formed spell. This time, it was just a surge of emotion and ideas in a haphazard ball thrown out of her horn like a spitball from a straw in a foal's classroom. But somehow, whatever 'spell' he'd cast from her horn, the very moment it diffused into the air, Sunset felt two changes. The first was that the torc around her neck grow cold, and the second was that the grip of Mentor's magic in her own horn—and then increasingly her whole body—started to grow feeble. Like he was releasing his control slowly, instead of just dropping it. Or, she reflected, more like he couldn't hold his control.

With a last surge of strength, he lit her horn once more, just before she felt it slide back into her control. This, at least, was a spell she understood; with a lurch of disorientation, she popped out of the world, and then back into it far above where she had been standing. She found herself standing face-to-face with the effortlessly handsome body of the greatest necromancer who had (or has) ever lived.

"Alright," said Mentor's voice, with the curious echoing, Doppler-effect-ified voice of somepony falling into a bottomless chasm and shouting up from the growing distance as they went, in her mind. "Remember to count to three. If he kills you with that now, you win. I'll be fine. Good luuuck!" And then, abruptly, Mentor was gone.

"Mentor? Mentor?!" Sunset called aloud… but the voice was gone, and she felt no spark in the amulet.

Had he… sacrificed himself for her? Somehow?

On a moment's reflection, it didn't seem like a very useful sacrifice. Sunset felt totally lost. Here she was, in a wizard's duel to the death that (as far as she knew) nopony had actually engaged in for over a thousand years of Equestrian history, and her opponent was the all-time G.O.A.T. in that field. (Pun very much intended for clever readers; otherwise, I would never stoop to referencing slang with such a short shelf life).

Sunset Shimmer, who hadn't had practiced with her horn for the better part of twenty Equestrian years. Sunset Shimmer, a true believer in capital-F Friendship.

So Sunset let the glow Mentor had left on her horn die, resisted the urge to glance down into the pit that had once been the inner sanctum of the desert facility, and smiled. "You're not really Mortal Coil. You're Grogar, aren't you?"

"The nanny pony can add two and two. It's Emperor to you." Grogar sneered with my mouth, and Sunset watched as the fade on my horn fell in magnitude, considerably. Beneath, the bone on my forehead was almost all grooves, even more tightly coiled than I had described in the much older chapters of this book. "But you know how to stop his little killing spell, and you know his name. You even call him Mentor. What are you, an apprentice? An admirer? I can't imagine a pony would want to couple with this anemic, malnourished stick of a body he's cultivated, but something powerful must drive you if you're brave enough to fight me knowing I've already killed him. Or were you hoping to try diplomacy?"

"I'm always a fan of diplomacy," Sunset answered, brain running a million miles a minute past what was coming out of her mouth—the latter more or less skipping the 'thinking' part and just trying to avoid dropping into outright human high school small talk. "I've never actually met Morty; Princess Celestia sent me to find him. I can see you've had some disagreement, but—"

"Who's 'Princess Celestia'?" Grogar asked. "The one on the money?"

Sunset's train of thought came to a screeching halt, taking out three buildings at her mental station. "How could you possibly know who Morty is, but not Princess Celestia?"

"You are very mistaken if you think I care to answer your curiosity. I ask the questions here." My shoulders rose and fell once in a breath. "But you are well-informed about this modern world in a way so many of those corpses in the frozen fortress were not."

"That was you! I knew it!"

Grogar ignored the exclamation. "I am going to ask you three questions; your life hinges on your answers…" After a moment's pause, he added "You can remind me of your name if I allow you to live. Where is Megan Williams?"

"I… who?" Sunset frowned in confusion at the name for a very long moment before she remembered her most recent session reading this book. "The human? Discord killed her. Or banished her to another world, I guess. But she's dead now."

My face smiled, but it was not a pretty smile. "Excellent. What of the wizard Gusty?"

Sunset chuckled. "Archmage Gusty the Grand? She's been dead long enough most ponies consider her story to be fiction. She's ancient even by Morty's standards."

"Your chronology is mistaken, child… ah, but then that's the trick, is it not? Last question. Archmage Hourglass."

Ice ran through Sunset's veins. "I, um…"

"I will make three observations, pony apprentice," said Grogar. "The first is that after that reaction, you could not possibly convince me you do not know. The second is that I do not need you to tell me. I can just as easily pry the answer from your corpse, or any number of other corpses I wipe out of the way of my path. And the third, most crucially, is that your life still depends on your not inconveniencing me. So I will ask again, for the last time: where is the pony called Hourglass?"

Sunset answered by lighting her horn.

Mine proved as ever the faster horn. Grogar lit the bone in question with an aura of pale blue overwhelming magic and reached out for Sunset's neck. And there, concealed among her mane, Celestia's gifted torc began to glow and burn again. With an audible crack, Wintershimmer's Razor broke through the ward, and it crumbled off the back of Sunset's neck.

Fortunately, the delay was enough for Sunset's slower magic to come into play. Not being a trained warrior-mage of old, Sunset's horn fired no stunning bolt, no scything blade, no blast of disintegrating energy. No, Sunset's magic was far simple—some might even say the oldest of spells known to our species.

Picking up a random rock from the oft-aforementioned rocky desert that made up the canyonlands outside of Klugetown, Sunset bashed my brains in.

Sometimes the old ways are the simplest.

My beautiful body bled (less than a normal body with its skull cracked open would bleed, but lacking extensive experience in the area, Sunset didn't know any better) and my legs went limp, dropping Grogar forward and to the side, rubbing red rusty dirt into my well-groomed blue coat and my pristine black jacket alike. (I lie a little; Grogar hadn't practiced my coat and mane care routine since he got his soul in the body, and a few matted patches were already showing even before Sunset's blow).

Had I (or even the bit of me that was Mentor) been there to comment, I would have observed that Sunset had quite a bit of force in her horn; most ponies aren't strong enough with their horns.

Alas, Sunset didn't even have long enough to come to philosophical terms with killing another (ostensible) pony with a rock before the dead body started laughing. Even around the blood dripping over perfect lips, and the open bit of grayish matter exposed beneath broken flesh, piercing blue eyes locked with Sunset's.

"What, did you think that was it? You know who I am, and you thought a mere mortal blow would kill me?" Pushing himself up, Grogar added "That wasn't even enough to properly kill Coil's corpse, let alone to inconvenience my soul."

"Why are you using his body, anyway?" Sunset asked, keeping her horn lit and holding her now somewhat Morty-stained rock aloft at the read.

"Do you think this is a conversation?" Grogar lit my horn in another flare of light, and when Sunset swung the rock at him again, he caught it—only to visibly falter on his forelegs, fatigued and swaying. "Damnation…"

"Oh!" Sunset smiled, following my advice and counting to three. "You don't know how that body works, do you?"

"You dare to taunt me?" Still staggering, Grogar slipped a hoof into my jacket, and pulled out a bell that fit just tightly into the frog of my hoof. "I do not need this faulty body to kill you. And it will not be necessary much longer anyway. My bells sufficed in Onyx Ridge; they'll suffice against you." One flick of a hoof, one ringing strike of the clapper, and Sunset found herself flung backward by a wall of invisible force. There wasn't even a visible magical aura; the ground just cracked, and the air itself slammed into her like a hundred stomping hooves, picking her up and sending her bouncing and rolling across the dusty parched earth.

The noise had been quite quiet, but Sunset's ears rang anyway as she tried to gather her senses. The sky had moved so many times, and the world was so bright in the sun, everything had gone white. Slowly, fuzzily, it was coming back together. Blue the left. Red to the right… no, down. She was lying on her side. And the white-ish splotch in the middle with the big shadow was—

"—to return the favor. With luck, you will survive the fall and live, crippled and broken, long enough to watch my new creation snuff out your friends." Grogar glanced past Sunset, downwards and raised his voice. "Kill this one last, if she survives the fall," he ordered. "I leave the rest in your hooves."

Then a brutal pain struck Sunset's temple, at just such an angle to drive her back as well as to break into her. With a fractured skull, her last thought was the sudden sensation that the ground before her had disappeared, and that she was falling back down into darkness.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Some moments earlier, just after Sunset teleported upward, Tempest Shadow, Soldier On, and Going Solo had gathered in a small group against the strange Night Guard creature Grogar had created, watching the masked mare pace and watch them through the shadowed (or perhaps enchanted, given their eerie perfect black) eyeholes of her mask.

Solo, the sole pegasus of the group, let herself begin to hover. "On, you call the shots here. What do you need?"

"I don't know," the titanic earth pony frowned. "Actually, land. Help Caballeron into the tunnel, then come back, but stay back."

"Land? I don't know a lot about fighting, but I do know the pegasus guards say that in a fight, 'get high or die'."

"She's faster than you," On answered. "This is a fight for Tempest and I."

Tempest frowned. "How can you tell?"

The big mare declined to explain her reasoning, instead continuing her brief directions. "If you stay on the ground, I can keep myself between you. But if you fly, she'll catch you and get the bell. No potions. Stay back. Hope numbers win out over skill."

"You know how good she is in a fight?" Tempest asked, stepping up to the side of the bulkier mare. "Who is she?"

"No idea," said On, not removing her eyes from the pacing dead pegasus. "But if she's like Luna's version of the Night Guard, that's a big enough advantage." On idly shifted her hooves, and looking down, Tempest noted a set of strange flanges sticking off the backs of her steel shoes. "Stay on the defensive; we don't know what she can do."

In a whisper, Tempest answered back "I'm not gonna sit on my flanks if I see an opening."

After a bit more circling, watching as On and Tempest stayed more-or-less side by side to stay between Solo and the mare, the tension snapped like an overtight guitar string. The desaturated tan mare flicked a leathery bat wing forward, not tight like a whip but lazily, as if gesturing to a whiteboard. Still, the motion was enough to send a cluster of a half dozen or so needle-sharp half-yard-long icicles flying through the air toward the defending soldiers.

Tempest dodged like a kickboxer, bringing both her forelegs up to cover her face, pushing with a hind leg and more or less falling sideways out of the way of the attack. The icicles flew narrowly over her shoulder.

Soldier On simply brought up her left foreleg and batted the projectiles away. A few pierced her flesh, but the wounds were—apparently—shallow enough not to inhibit the mare meaningfully.

In both cases, the effort the two mares expended did not seem enough of an opening to satisfy the corpse mare, and for another moment, silence returned to the pit that had once been the sanctuary of one of Grogar's lost bells.

It lasted less time this go around; not more than three or four seconds later, the pegasus undead lowered her wings to the stone floor, and from her wing tips, a sheet of ice about half an inch thick began to spread toward our heroines.

"Crap," said Tempest, and she lowered her broken horn to point toward their unknown enemy. A burst of malformed magic, a crackling missile halfway between a flare and a bolt of lightning, flew at the tan mare.

With her wings already on the ground, it was trivial for the mare to fling herself forward (much like how Red Ink had only a few hours prior at the far side of town). With that momentum, however, instead of tackling or pouncing on Tempest, the dead mare put her chest onto the layer of ice and slid like…. well, like an exceptionally deadly penguin. This let Tempest's magic fly just above her back without a hit, and ended with night guard fangs surging at Tempest's legs and chest, visible just beneath the lower edge of the mask.

Tempest lifted a hoof both to get it out of biting range and to take the most obvious opportunity in the history of hoof fighting: stomping directly on her opponent's face. It all came down to timing. And the moment was obvious, especially to somepony who'd been in as many fights in her life as Tempest Shadow had.

Unfortunately, none of those fights had been against a living dead monstrosity who could, using magic on the same ice she was sliding across, create a pillar that pushed her chest up off the floor and got her head well out of range—and also put her fangs not at a level to bite Tempest's extremities, but instead her throat.

It was only a hoof that saved Tempest's life, but in due deference to the impact it had on both the situation and the dead mare's side, it was a very large hoof. Between the blow from Soldier On's kick and the lack of friction from the ice, the dead mare went sliding to the far side of the room, where she slammed into the stone wall with a crack.

Tempest, too experienced to be left shocked by the near death experience, chased the undead with another violent but unformed blast from her horn, aimed straight for her center of mass.

The night guard mare, too staggered to dodge, was forced to wave her wings with much more urgency, dragging a wall of hoof-thick ice into the air out of nothing, rising up from the floor to give her cover. It barely rose in time to block the spell, but block it did in a shattering of ice crystals and mist that momentarily hid the dead mare.

In the ensuing silence, both soldier mares paced together, watching the mist, waiting for the next attack. But instead of an attack, the mist began to grow, covering more and more of the far side of the room.

"Appleoosa, you know how to deal with this?" Tempest dared to glance sideways for a half second when the question wasn't answered. "Anything?"

"Making it up as I go along," On answered. "There was never an ice pegasus in the Honor Guard. Just the Commander. And the fact she's nearly that strong is…" On briefly glanced back toward Solo, before concluding "...we'll figure something out."

Tempest raised a skeptical eyebrow, but then shook her head and grinned. "That's the trouble with guardspony types. You get so worried about collateral damage, you never learn to cause it on purpose when you need it. Cover me." Then, aiming her horn up the wall of the pit, Tempest began randomly blasting magic into the stone above the encroaching mist.

The first blast sent spiderweb cracks across the stone. The second did the same further up the wall. But the third, the third was the first where stone began to fall like rain. Chips and scraps, little bits of gravel poured into the mist. But the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, each blast sent bigger and bigger stones into the cloud.

And then, abruptly, Soldier On's clipped ear twitched down against her head and back up. The earth pony flung herself directly between Tempest and the cloud, bringing up a hoof in the very same moment that the dead pegasus shot out—a curved sword wreathed in a veil of frost clenched between her undead fangs.

Without a blade of her own, Soldier On blocked with a steel shoe. But when the general-populace grade steel of that shoe met the enchanted skysteel of the icy blade, it was a foregone conclusion which would win. At most, the deafening clang of steel on steel slowed the blade, so that it only dug a few inches through Soldier On's hoof and into the flesh of her foreleg before it stopped, presumably having struck her short pastern bone.

Tempest Shadow had caused enough screams to know what it sounded like when a pony—or really any creature, for that matter—screamed in pain. This wasn't that. Soldier On was bigger and, given how she'd handled the earlier icicles, tougher than creatures she'd watched shrug off similar wounds. The noise Soldier On let out was a haunted, terrified, broken scream; a thing of anguish and loss and turmoil, not the mere agony of nerves and torn flesh.

The earth pony didn't so much go for a tackle in that moment as thrash her entire massive mass in an attempt to free herself from the sword. Without her freakish luck—or whatever earth pony preternatural danger sense she possessed—that thrashing would have left her open for a bite or a slash of her neck or her chest. But with a wild blow, completely unaimed by her conscious mind, she at least battered the dead mare back. That left her staggering, reeling, as blood dripped from her hoof and it refused to carry her weight.

"You alright?" Tempest asked, watching the dead mare as her head swiveled like a predator just waiting for the right moment to pounce again.

"If we somehow get out of here, I've survived worse," said On, between a hiss of pain. "But big 'if'. Don't let the sword touch you. It got in my head."

The brief discussion was interrupted by a demanding and very handsome voice from overhead, one which stole the attention of everypony on the ground. "You aren't to kill this one if she survives the fall." Grogar (though as far as the warriors on the ground knew, me) stood over Sunset Shimmer on the very lip of the pit, holding a rock in a blue magical grip that was, apparently, light enough not to cause my horn to flare for holding it. The dead mare who served him nodded at the command, not saying a word. "I leave the rest in your hooves."

Then he brought the stone down with terrifying force on Sunset's head, sending a spray of blood into the air with a thrak that was audible even from so far below in the pit. The blow not only broke Sunset, but sent her limp body tumbling into the pit.

Then a whole lot of things happened in the span of about three seconds.

"Sunset!" Going Solo shouted, abandoning her quiet observation of the fight with the dead creature to spread her wings and jump into the air, aiming to catch the falling pegasus.

The masked dead, seeing her primary quarry take to wing, spread her own wings, tightened her bite's grip on the hilt of her accursed sword, and launched into the air.

Tempest hurled a rapid mana blast at the undead, but given the range and the corpse's speed, even as it left her horn she knew it had no chance of landing.

Soldier On grit her teeth, slow and stolid and last to act. But seeing what was happening, she knew she had only one option. She tapped her hind legs together, catching the flanges of her peculiar shoes and releasing a ratchet that ultimately loosened the one on her right hind hoof. Then, bracing herself on her one good foreleg, she lifted her hind legs and threw out a bucking kick—not toward the undead, but at Going Solo.

The loosened shoe, bucked straight and true, flew through the air until it struck Going Solo's right wing, right on its arch. The force crumpled the wing, bruising it if not breaking it outright, and sent the pegasus with the messenger bag tumbling from the sky just swiftly enough that the dead mare couldn't catch her. Solo hit the ground hard, her hairband unravelling out of her mane and fluttering across the ground as she came to rest not far from Tempest Shadow's hooves.

And nopony was there to catch Sunset Shimmer when, after falling for a solid three seconds, she landed on her right shoulder and her neck.

PreviousChapters Next