• 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 Soldier

Gale was practically giddy as we approached the home of the next suitor, a far-cry from the mixture of dread and disgust that had dominated her approaches to the former nobles.

“C’mon, Morty,” she called over her shoulder as she nearly skipped up the cobblestones toward a clay-red home that, despite sitting on the ground, was clearly pegasus architecture.

“Somepony you like better?”

“You remember ‘Finder?” Gale asked. “Pathfinder? From the Legate’s Lookout?”

While it had been a few weeks since the first and only time I had met the stallion in question, I had spent most of the intervening time in bed, so the image in my mind was still fresh. “The old stallion with all the scars? The one who named his sword ‘Sword’? He’s a little old for you, I think. Probably a little too senile too…”

Gale shook her head. “No shit, Morty. He’s probably not here anyway. But this is where he lives.”

“So, what, one of his grandfoals is the suitor?”

Gale held a hoof in the air and rocked it back and forth. “His youngest son, Gray Rain. He’s… well, he’s fucking weird. Better than the others, I guess, since I don’t hate his guts. I just can’t stand trying to hold a conversation with him.”

“Alright… so why’re you so giddy?”

“’Cause you get to meet Rain!” Gale rapped on the door to the house while I was still a few strides away, and then sat down, seeming genuinely happy to be addressing whoever awaited within.

“I thought you just said you didn’t like—”

I let my words drop off when the door was opened to reveal an aging steel-blue pegasus. Her most notable feature was an eyepatch over her left eye, failing to cover a gash that stretched from her mane line to the edge of her sharp chin. After one got past that wound, they might notice she was—like so many of the old soldiers who dominated the upper echelons of pegasus society—in impeccable shape despite the graying of her mane and tail. I think most of all, though, I noticed how large she was for a pegasus mare—so much so that, though I now know better, at first glance I assumed she was just an unusually shapely stallion. On the incredibly off chance you who are reading this have not met a pony before, or interbreeding between the tribes has changed our bodies, at the time I met the old soldier, pegasi were by far the smallest breed of ponies and mares tend to be smaller than stallions.

“Gale?” She spoke with a surprisingly gentle voice for such a scarred warrior, and as she spoke, donned the kind of grin that only shows up on older ponies whose faces can carry the wrinkles of a lifetime of practice. “Garuda be damned, it’s good to see you.”

Then, abruptly, she slammed the door in our faces.

“Um… what?” I turned to Gale in hopefully justified confusion. “Did we do something wrong? Did I offend him?”

“Calm down, Morty. She’s just getting her swords.”

“Swords? Plural?”

“Just stand back, unless you see an opening. I’ll keep her attention.”

“You want me to fight h—wait, her?!”

‘Rain’ opened the door before I could get an answer. Sticking out from under her right wing was the handle of a sword most of the length of my foreleg, and with a blade to match tucked under her feathers and past her flank behind it. For those unfamiliar with pegasus swordplay, there’s no value in a sword having a handle much larger than the width of their mouth, so this huge weapon caught my full curiosity with a raised brow—so much so that until she dropped a full five other swords onto her own doorstep with a cacophony of clangs, I didn’t even notice the small arsenal she had been carrying.

“I don’t know what you prefer, colt, so I brought a few. I don’t have a real ‘rapey-er’ like you unicorns like, but I brought both my straight blades, plus a cutlass if you’re a naval type and—”

“No!” I interrupted. “No, no, nononono! Nope! Uh uh. No.” I waved my hooves in front of me as emphatically as I could.

Rain frowned. “Oh, calm down. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Gale chuckled, picking up an apparently familiar curved blade in her magic and spinning it in the air just a hair or two… thousand… too close to my jawline. “Relax, Morty. I enchant the swords so they can’t cut more than skin deep. We barely ever draw any blood. Don’t be such a pussy. It’s just good fun.”

“Gale, even if I were allowed to use my magic right now—which I’m not, my horn is still healing from killing Wintershimmer—you want me to fight your…” I turned to Rain and looked her up and down more to catch my mind up to my words than for actual inspiration, before finishing “…your weird elderly lesbian pegasus cyclops suitor?” After a pause, I sighed. “Does she… you know... grind meal with two mortars and no pestle too?”

Rain started at Gale for a very long moment as Gale just hung her head, massaging her temple not with a hoof but the pommel of the sword in her magical grip. After waiting for an answer, I gestured to Rain’s gray hair. “Even if my horn were healed, I can’t fight somepony her age. Even if I just stunned her, it would probably stop her heart.” That seemed to break the silence, as in perfect synchronization both mares began to cackle without any semblance of control.

“Kid, I’m not—” Wheezing, Rain couldn’t even finish the sentence.

“Morty…” Gale rubbed her eyes to wipe away tears, but she finally managed to drag back enough breath to at least put out a full thought. “This is Iron Rain. Not Gray.”

“Ah…” I nodded. “I’m not sure if it’s better or worse then, that you want me to fight your suitor’s… unusually masculine grandmother?”

“O-kay!” Rain managed between her wheezing chuckles, before finally picking up a hoof and slamming it (with a sound I could only parse as bones cracking) against her own rib cage. “Right, kid…” Though the slap had slowed her laughter, it was still piercing through her words. “First, if you take another stab at my age, I am gonna stab back. Second, even if I am getting old and gray, I will still crack you like an egg if it comes to a fight.”

I raised a skeptical brow, which apparently got the older mare’s oddly jovial ire even further riled up. “You think you’re tough, colt? You want to know how I lost this eye?”

“Rain, easy,” Gale patted the old soldier on the shoulder. “Morty wants to think he’s above this argument, but he’s too fucking smug to keep a straight face. He’s right, but it’s not because he’s a good swordspony or practiced or anything. His asshole mentor taught him a spell to pull out somepony else’s soul and just kill them.”

It was Rain’s turn, then, to raise a skeptical brow—and it was a curious quirk of the old mare’s that she always lifted the brow over her missing eye when she was intrigued or disbelieving. “Alright… Sure. Why not?” Then she lifted her hoof, spit into the frog, and extended it towards me. “Iron Rain. I used to be Praetorian Prefect, but don’t worry about titles.”

“I…” Hesitantly, I clapped a hoof against Rain’s, making sure the bone of our hooves kept her spit well away from my clean coat. “Frankly, I don’t know what that means, but I’m Mortal Coil. Pale Master, Grandmaster of the Order of Unhesitating Force…” At Gale’s telling frown, I quickly concluded. “Et cetera. But you can call me Morty.”

Gale sighed. “Morty, ’The Legion’ is organized into legions of 640-ish ponies. The first legion is called the Praetorian Guard. They’re usually veterans of other legions, and they get better pay. The Praetorian Prefect is the pony in charge of them.”

Iron Rain emitted a snort of non-committal acknowledgement, as if she couldn’t give two shits about her own history. “So you’re ‘Morty’, huh? The colt Commander Typhoon was talking about?” Rain sighed. “I was really expecting better, Gale. He’s all skin and bones!” The old soldier stepped out of her own doorway and made absolutely no subtlety in the act of looking me over. “Not much battle damage… not really much to look at at all. Scar on his neck’s interesting I guess… Oh! Is that much muscle supposed to be showing?”

Not much to look at?!” I asked, incredulously before my mind caught up with my ears. “What do you mean ‘that much’ muscle showing?”

Rain shrugged. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a little hard to see past your jacket collar, but you’ve got about a hoof’s width of your neck missing, kid. No coat, no skin. I can see some of the tendons, and a little bit of the ligament for your jaw. It’s not bleeding or anything though. Actually, that maybe ought to be more worrying than if it were a normal wound.” Rain raised her blinded brow. “On the other hoof, I’ve seen a few ponies with wounds like that in my life, but I’ve never seen one standing up. They all bled to death… How are you alive?”

Before answering, I lifted my hoof to the apparently open wound and gingerly touched it. Just as it had been on previous touches, the flesh was three things: cold, dry, and increasingly, hard. If I held perfectly still, the exposed muscle felt more like metal, though the fact that I still had mobility in my neck suggested something else. “Oh… Huh, I never thought of that. I probably shouldn’t have let Spicy applied that ointment.”

“What? Morty, what are you talking about? Are you okay?” Gale pulled down the collar of my jacket to get a better look, and then similarly pulled my hoof away with her magic. “Holy shit! Why aren’t you freaking out?”

“It’s just a simple magical mistake, Gale. I’m fine; it just looks scary. I’ve never actually worked with Flash-in-the-Pan’s Clotting Agent; I should have asked Spicy what was in it… though with how she acted I doubt she would have explained. Since it clots the blood, though, if it’s based on lesser troll’s blood like how most healing potions work, the way it clots is dependent on the tissue it’s applied to. The most important rule with those sorts of potions is to make sure the wound is completely clean before treatment. But Spicy didn’t know I still had trace amounts of quicksilver in my muscles from Silhouette’s golem-claw-hoof... thing. Which means I now have a transparent metal neck.”

“Is that… okay?” Gale asked. “Isn’t quicksilver poisonous?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I nodded. “That’s probably why I needed so much rest to recover, instead of being back on my hooves in just a day or two. But if it’s formed a shell over my wound, it means now I can’t be stabbed there very easily. The only downside is I’ll have to wear high collars, or I’ll look like an amateur zombie for the rest of my life.”

Rain raised her same eyebrow. “An amateur zombie?”

“Any self-respecting necromancer knows it’s a sign of professionalism not to have chunks of flesh missing from your creations. Not that I’m actually in the business of raising dead corpses; I much prefer just talking to the dead and making golems of stone or clay or what have you. Much more sanitary.” I did my best to prop the collar of my jacket up fully as close to my skin as possible, and then extended a hoof toward Rain. “Sorry for that; ‘exposed muscle’ made me a little nervous I was going to drop dead. I guess calling me ‘skin and bones’ to my face is a little funny in light of that. Did you have any more judgments you wanted to make?”

Rain actually whinnied by way of a sarcastic laugh. “I’m kidding, Morty. Honestly, I’m just glad Gale finally met somepony she can actually stomach being around.” She then shot Gale the heaviest wink I have ever seen, before concluding, “even if it’s only for fun on the side.”

Gale shook her head, and then said something that nearly stopped my heart. “Oh, no; we’re gonna make him a suitor.”

The transparent metal spot on my neck made a sound distinctly like ice cracking as I whipped my head around toward Gale. “What happened to keeping that under wraps? After all the trouble we went through—”

“Rain’s not going to tell my mom,” Gale answered. “Right?”

Rain chuckled. “I try not to talk to her at all if I can help it. I sure as hell would not pick that fight if I were you, Gale.” Then she turned back to me. “Gale was never very good at picking her fights. I assume that’s why she keeps coming back to get her sorry flank kicked by a mare three times her age.”

“Or a necromancer and a grizzly bear,” I observed dryly, recalling my first encounter with Gale in the woods of the hodunk backwater of Manehattan.

“Well, I had to learn to fight somewhere,” Gale answered more spitefully than I was expecting. When I raised a brow to the daughter of Commander Hurricane, Gale rolled her eyes. “Dad’s too fucking creaky and crippled to teach me anything even if he were any good with a sword—which he’s not, he’s only famous ‘cause he’s good at pegasus magic—and Ty won’t give me the time of the fucking day, let alone a lesson. And regarding your sorry ass, Morty: one, you wear fucking evil cultist robes around all the time—and don’t you fucking dare say any shit about ‘orders’ or whatever when you got them from Wintershimmer—and two, you stunned an eight year old colt in the face mid-sentence when you were afraid he was going to say something you wanted kept secret. You were asking for it.” When I opened my mouth to protest anyway, Gale punched me in the muzzle. “Rain, is Gray home? I need to give him one of these stupid letters.”

“Oh? What for?” Despite the question, Rain stepped out of her doorway, beckoning us inside.

“My birthday,” Gale answered with a combination of depressed acceptance and spite that really belonged nowhere near anypony’s mention of their birthday. “All the suitors are invited.”

“Gonna make them fight for your hoof?” Rain asked with a grin and a wink. “If Finder hadn’t fought those giant spiders, I was gonna do the same thing to him.” Then she turned in the doorway of the home and shouted upward. “Gray! Get your ass down here!” With that, she stepped fully into her own home, beckoning us in again with a wing, which only momentarily got caught on the massive guard of the sword still slung under her shoulder. “We’ll have to see how much you learned on your trip another time, Gale. Why don’t you two both come on in and have a seat? There’s honey drops and berries on the table. I know I’m not as good of a chef as Pathfinder, but I can scrounge something up if either of you is hungry. Let me just get these put away.” And with that rather shocking change in tone, she set about picking up the swords she’d dropped on her doorstep.

I must have looked rather desperate when, the moment Rain was out of sight, I lunged for the bowls of fruit and ‘grandma candy’ on her coffee table. Trying to lift berries with my hooves ended in a sticky purple mess almost immediately, and very little of the food made it into my mouth.

“You’re pathetic sometimes, you know?” Shaking her head, Gale’s magic tugged me over to one of a trio of long lounging couches in a bracketed shape centered on the house’s massive fireplace. Without a word, she pushed me down onto one of the couches, and then lifted one of my forehooves with her magic, slid to rest her back against my chest, and lowered my leg over her shoulder.

“Comfy?” I asked.

“Rain’s right,” Gale answered, nuzzling into my immaculately groomed—and thus naturally fairly fluffy—chest. “You’re all skin and bones.” Then she nuzzled further back, sighed, and chuckled. “I’m teasing, Morty; you don’t need to get so fucking stiff.” I had to admit, though, I appreciated it when her horn lit up again and carried the bowl of berries over toward us. “Open wide.”

After enough of a snack to at least satisfy my immediate hunger, and more than a bit of comfort holding one another, I let out a satisfied sigh. “I could get used to this. A beautiful mare in my forelegs, feeding me berries.”

I heard Gale scoff. “When your horn’s better, you owe me.” Then, with a slight show of awkward discomfort, she rubbed her spine against my belly as she shifted. “Push your hind legs back; have you never spooned with somepony before?”

“I didn’t even know it was called ‘spooning.’ And who in Tartarus would I ever have ‘spooned’ with?”

I could hear Gale roll her eyes in the way she sighed. “I don’t know, that crystal bitch? What was her name?”

“Silhouette,” I replied. “And no, for a lot of reasons. To state the most obvious one, she has some jagged edges.”

“Huh. I never thought about that. I guess crystal ponies probably don’t cuddle much.” After a moment of silence, she added “That would make an awful fucking noise, wouldn’t it?”

“As I understand it, they usually use some… they call it oil, but I’m pretty sure it’s rock polish. If a crystal says to another crystal that they look especially polished, instead of a compliment on their appearance, they’re usually implying that the other crystal has just had an... intimate encounter.”

“You learn something new every day.” Gale’s eyes and my own were distracted from our conversation when a stallion emerged from a hallway on the far side of the room.

He wore plain steel legion armor (as I mentioned previously, the use of gold leaf plating as a magical insulator had not yet become standard in those days), and from the way his buzzed mane was tousled at the edges, I surmised he had only just removed his helmet. Beneath that, the pony I assumed (correctly) was Gray Rain matched his name. Unlike his mother, he wasn’t gray from age, since he was only a year or two at most older than me, but that fact did nothing to add any pigment to his appearance.

Dear reader, you may be enough of a student of history to recognize the name of Gray Rain, the Wolf of Cirra. And if you are familiar with Imperial Legacy’s Complete History of the Equestrian Royal Guard, you might find what you are about to read to be completely at odds with the characterization of the charismatic, self-sacrificing stallion who would become Equestria’s first Commander of the Royal Guard. If you wish to compare our two narratives, let me remind you of two facts. Firstly, I am an immortal necromancer with a magically enhanced memory. Secondly, Dr. Legacy was a stuffy academic who wasn’t even born until almost seven hundred years after Commander Rain died.

A naturally awkward pony, Gray walked up to the arm of the couch Gale and I were reclining on, fell into a rather stiff standing posture, and… just stood there. Staring. I should clarify, lest any reader misunderstand, that he wasn’t staring in shock or disgust that I had my hoof around Her Royal Highness, or anything of the sort. There was no surprise in his features. There wasn’t anything. His expression was as milquetoast as his coloration.

“Hello, Gray,” Gale greeted the stallion. “This is—”

“Mortal Coil,” Gray interrupted abruptly, as if acting on reflex. “Titled ‘the Immortal’.” He nodded his head just as stiffly as he stood. “Gray Rain. Praefectus Faborum, Legion Eight auxilia.” That string of unintelligible pseudo-Cirran poured out of his mouth at a near monotone, and when it was done, he resumed staring through us in absolute silence.

“Hello,” I offered.

“Hello,” he repeated himself, making my pet rock’s intonation sound natural by comparison. “Good day, Aura.”

Still nestled in my legs, Gale gave a slight chuckle. “Here’s your letter, Katagismos.” Gray snatched the letter floating in the air in Gale’s grip with his wing like a viper, or as if he were afraid she might yank it away at the last moment. He then ripped open the envelope with his teeth and maneuvered the letter out between his feathers.

“It’s an invitation to my birthday party,” Gale explained.

Gray read silently for a very long second, tracing over the words three times with an utterly steady pace, eyes swinging back and forth like a pendulum, until at last he lifted his eyes. “What would you like for a gift?”

Gale opened her mouth to answer and then abruptly shut it, catching herself from whatever thought first flew to mind. “I think,” Gale continued, before hesitating for a moment. “No, you know what, I know what I want.” Then Gale stood up from my legs, walked over to Gray, and laid a hoof on his shoulder. “I want a Legion commission.”

Normally, when one tried to dig into Gray Rain’s eyes and read, one could see gears whirring at a dizzying pace as his calculating mind raced a dozen times faster than a normal pony’s. After Gale’s words, however, I saw mud and wet sand clog those gears as his face at first considered the request, and then began to seize and shudder with the malformed input. “I think I don’t understand, Your Highness… Commander Typhoon is your half-sister, isn’t she? Why not approach her for such a request? My position as Prefect does not grant me commissioning authority.” His speech was surprisingly fluid, but in all the years I knew him, Gray’s word choice never grew less stilted, rivaling even the awkwardness of his tendency to stare straight through a conversation partner while waiting for them to speak.

Gale sighed. “For some reason she’s never explained, I can’t convince my own fucking sister for a job. She won’t even explain it.”

“If I may be so bold, why do you even want a posting in the Legion? Is being the royal heir not sufficient to keep you occupied? Are you short on coin and that desperately in need of employ?”

“Gray…” I sensed a bit of cursing coming on, and was genuinely surprised when Gale instead sucked in her frustration and addressed the pegasus in as absolutely soft of a tone as she could manage. “No, I don’t need coin. The problem is that being crown princess is useless as shit. I don’t do anything; I sit in on tea parties with my mom and all of her friends. The best thing I have ever done in my life so far was run off and meet Morty and help deal with Wintershimmer. But I’m not stupid enough to think I’m gonna make any kind of difference in Equestria. So while I’d like to ask you to snap your feathers and let me make some sort of decision that’s actually going to help Equestria and make a real difference, with real stakes, instead of kissing ass and selling my body to the highest bidder for power, that’s not exactly a ‘birthday present’.”

Gray scratched behind his neck with a wing. “I understand your frustration with the lack of value in being princess, but I imagine if you seek to impact Equestria for good, following in your mother’s hoofsteps will have a far greater impact than work as a hoofsoldier or even a legate.”

“So in the meantime, I wait what, thirty years? Forty? And I just fuck around becuase everypony knows that someday, oh someday all that wasted time will somehow be worth it? Fuck that.”

Gray bit his cheek. “I see. I… will see what I can do, Your Highness.”

“Yeah…” Gale walked back to my side on the couch and tilted her horn toward the door. “See you at the party, Gray.”

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