• Published 8th Jun 2019
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Tavern Tactics - Impossible Numbers



Before the final battle of the Siren War, the Pillars and Stygian take a moment to get ready, get what fun they can, and if possible, actually get along.

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Part Two

The door whined as it opened. Even the hinges had rusted here, in this cursed town.

Three mares stepped in.

At once, most of the company straightened up, except for Rockhoof and his current disputant. Not that pretty mares were rare in backwater places like this one, but usually they were built along solid, child-bearing, sheep-carrying, barrel-shouldering lines.

Whereas the first to enter was Somnambula. Probably none of the ponies here knew what “exotic” was, or how to spell it, but Somnambula’s rich eyelashes, Somnambula’s pristine headdress, Somnambula’s very see-through clothing, all spoke of “exotic” right down to the bone. She even walked with the kind of sinuous stride that made ponies – who’d lived slap-bang in the middle of wet fields all their lives – dream of palm trees, and white sandy beaches, and the sweet flesh of coconuts.

Someone actually wolf-whistled as she passed.

Ever the traditionalist, Flash Magnus removed his helmet and stood up as she approached. “Nil desperandum, Somnambula. The room brightens with your approach already.”

“Enough of that, you old soldier,” she said, and the slinking way she spoke suddenly made Stygian regret years spent cooped up in his private library. “Although if you’re paying, I’ll have a Honeyed Snakebite on the rocks.”

“I’m afraid your tastes exceed this establishment, Somnambula. But I’m sure I could slake your thirst with a humble mead?”

Star Swirl waved them both off like gnats. “Silence, please! I am concentrating!”

In the end, Somnambula nodded, and took Flash Magnus’ seat while he flapped over to the bar with a fresh surge of haste.

Meanwhile, Stygian watched the second mare swagger in. Mage Meadowbrook noticed him, beamed, and waved so hard she almost stumbled.

At the bar, Rockhoof and the other warrior – Ironsmith, was it? – had abandoned words and were now trying to flex their muscles. Shirts threatened to rip. Those patrons who could tear their eyes away from Somnambula cheered the two combatants indiscriminately.

Seeing this, Meadowbrook barked a laugh and hurried over. “Don’t stretch too far, Rocky! Y’all recollect how long it took me to sew up the last one, you hear?”

All stallions began smoothing down their manes and grinning at her approach. Meadowbrook swept into every room as though a belle at a ball. Besides, she had a way of beaming at ponies that made even scar-battled thugs turn into complete gentlecolts.

“Oh, Meadowbrook,” mumbled Rockhoof, and it astonished Stygian how someone who looked like the world’s hardiest battering ram could sound so sheepish. “Don’t go into that now.”

“Uh, I bet you does the best stitchin’, ma’am,” rumbled Ironsmith, nudging his colleagues. “I ken my wife can’t patch a hole worth a drake’s bottom.”

“Ain’t you sweet? I’m more into the stitchin’ wounds business, darlin’.” Meadowbrook rapped the bar for attention. “But when you’re travellin’ with the big boys, you learn fast someone’s gotta do the laundry-work, un-glamorous as it may be. And as for the smell… Sanitation clearly needs to be in this season. Am I right on the money, or what?”

Really don’t go into that now.” Rockhoof squirmed. It sounded like a rhinoceros struggling against a leather harness.

Around him, the other stallions’ comments outvoted him. “Aye, cleanliness is next to princessy-ness.”

“‘Tis a fine thing to have the laundry under an expert’s hooves.”

“No joke.”

“Aye.”

“A fine thing, a verra fine thing.”

“Mares these days just ain’t a patch on the old ways.”

“Well!” Meadowbrook smiled, a mother among children. “There ain’t no mistakin’ you darlin’s for anything but true gentlecolts! Shame we have to meet under such dark clouds. I’ve been tending to blood and guts all day, and let me tell you: healin’ ain’t a dainty li’l job. I could rightly enjoy a dram of brandy.”

“And how the hay are you gonna pay for –?” Rockhoof began.

At once, the cry rang out. “I’ll pay yer round, lass!”

“Give o’er! I saw her first!”

“One dram o’ brandy comin’ up!”

“I’ll make it two drams and the finest oatmeal money can buy!”

“Crivens, I’ll make it three drams and a hot meal and a slap-up breakfast to die for come sunrise!”

Amid the shouts and brief, sudden, but gentlemanly scuffles – a lady was present, after all – the third of the mares finally made her way over to their table.

At once, Stygian stood up. “My lady –”

“My little scholar,” groaned the elderly tones through the wrinkled smile, “I wouldn’t take your seat from you.”

“I’ve been saving it for you, my lady! Thought you might like to sit next to Star Swirl, my lady!”

This wasn’t just gallantry on Stygian’s part. Not that he’d ever say a word against the great Star Swirl the Bearded, sorcerer among sorcerers, master of the subtle arts. But it would be nice to have a negotiator between him and the old rambler, and few ponies were more open to negotiation than Mistmane.

The other advantage, of course, was that Mistmane knew magic too. She’d trained at one of the harshest schools of magic in eastern Equestria. Even Star Swirl watched her cautiously, and rarely talked over her.

Stygian was an observer, though, and he couldn’t help noticing the way Mistmane looked at the other two mares, one accepting her mead and deep in conversation with a flustered Flash Magnus, the other happily surrounded by fighting stallions and more brandy glasses than could fit in a chicken coop. No one had looked twice at the old biddy bringing up the rear.

It didn’t matter that Mistmane was, in fact, younger than the other two. She had more wrinkles and bone deformations than a wise old elephant left too long in the sun. Stygian wondered, not for the first time, if the young sorcerer secretly regretted her rash if noble sacrifice: beauty spent, once done, never rescinded.

Star Swirl cleared the irritation out of his throat. “Now that all of us are here, we can finally concentrate on a matter of genuine import.”

“We found a place to rest for the night, Star Swirl,” said Mistmane.

“Balderdash. We’re staying at the tavern.”

“Pardon my frankness, but we’ve seen what the sirens have done here. I don’t think it would be wise to stay here for long. Some of the citizens are starved and crazed, the poor things.”

Stygian pulled up two more stools, one for Somnambula who gave him a dignified nod and sat down at last, one intended for Meadowbrook once she could get out of the eager-to-please scrum. He himself had no problem standing. Scholars didn’t mind minor discomforts, and he had to confess he didn’t feel quite on par with the rest of the company. Not yet.

“Meaning what, Mistmane?” said Star Swirl, but warily; Stygian heard the old sorcerer weighing up his chances against the eastern unicorn, whose mane flowed and flexed against an ethereal wind, even indoors.

“There might be some desperate souls willing to rob us in the night.”

“So? A simple forcefield spell will solve that problem. We have nothing to fear.”

We have nothing to fear. They do. Star Swirl, they’re angry and desperate and confused. Some of them fled when we approached, and Meadowbrook offered them food!”

“All the more reason,” said Star Swirl relentlessly, “to develop our battle strategy tonight.”

Mistmane’s sigh was a dewdrop of sadness, small, fragile, and yet reflecting so much of the world around it that Stygian wondered if he was blessed to have heard it or cursed never to forget what truths it had revealed.

He decided to take a step forwards. “What she means, sir, if I may be so bold, is that we should move for the sake of the inhabitants. The siren attack must have come as a shock to a town as small and isolated as this one, sir. If we waltz in and erect barriers, we might be treated as another enemy from outside.”

“Young colt, I still don’t see –”

“We’re a complication in the current chaos, sir,” added Stygian, who wished Star Swirl didn’t say “young colt” like they were at school. “And these ponies don’t understand the wider context, sir. If we move on quickly, the inhabitants might recover enough to focus on calming down and rebuilding their homes. If we stay, or worse, fight them, we’d only stress them all the more.”

Despite his adult pride, Stygian took Mistmane’s small smile warmly, as though accepting a golden star from a teacher. Mistmane even resembled one of his old tutors from when he was knee-high and full of beans, eyes shining as they saw the future…

“Very well,” snapped Star Swirl. “What do you propose?”

Somnambula fended off Flash Magnus’ sweet nothings long enough to say, “I found an old temple some way into the dark woods. Flash and I could travel as the crow flies, as they say in the country, but the land has hills, and the forests are muddy and difficult to walk.”

“Sounds like swamp country,” said Flash Magnus. “Meadowbrook was born in a swamp, and old Rockhoof could walk through a glacier. You unicorns might have a tough time, I suppose, sah, but if us two carried –”

“The very idea!” Star Swirl’s hat jangled as he turned his snout up at the suggestion. “A sorcerer can find his own way without anything as undignified as an airdrop!”

“Or her way,” said Mistmane.

“Or her way, yes,” added Star Swirl carelessly.

Stygian held his breath. One of them was going to mention him, any second now, without his prompting, any second now…

Flash Magnus hovered over the map. In the distance, Meadowbrook laughed her high girly laugh and said, “Now a shindig I’d sample any day! Perhaps one of you fine stallions could show a girl how to cut the rug around these parts. Any takers?”

Or no one would mention him.

In case it helped, Stygian coughed loudly. Only Mistmane looked up. The other three still stared at the map.

“Those sirens are trying to mislead us,” said Somnambula, rubbing her chin.

“I doubt it,” murmured Star Swirl, his hoof tracing a spiral over the map. “See, they’re working their way to the heart of Equestria. Simple spiralling tactic. It means they first eat up the negative energy from the outlying regions, where there are no major cities and the defences are much weaker. Then they build up their strength for the larger settlements nearer the middle. Canterlot and Everfree will be the endgame, you mark my words.”

“So what do you propose?”

“Simple. Instead of following in their wake, we anticipate them. Lay a trap for them… Let’s see…” Star Swirl’s hoof swirled over the map as though stirring a large coffee. Then he slammed it down. “There!”

Stygian squinted. Oh well, if he didn’t put his best hoof forwards…

“Rambling Rock Ridge, sir?” he said. “There’s no settlement there.”

“No!” Star Swirl’s eye twinkled, a sign of genius at work, or so Stygian charitably assumed. “However, it lies on a direct path between Canterlot and Everfree. The sirens need to finish this. They’ve had the element of surprise so far, but word spreads. Forces are rallying. The army’s being called back to defend the cities, which means more military might is concentrating on the centre.” Star Swirl glanced up. “Isn’t that right, Captain Magnus?”

Flash Magnus nodded. “Standard siege preparations, sah. So far, the army’s treated these as minor skirmishes, the idiots. I told them sirens don’t go down easy –”

“Yes, yes, that’ll do,” said Star Swirl, and for once Stygian felt pity for him.

The early days of the siren war had gone badly. When they’d emerged from the Southern Luna Sea and the towns there had degenerated into in-fighting, the high command had gotten cause-and-effect backwards. Ponies fought each other, and that caused the sirens to invade and eat up all the negative energy being born. They hadn’t realized that sirens caused ponies to fight.

So they’d gotten it back to front. They’d sent small squadrons to force peace on the ponies, which just meant the ponies had a new target on which to take out their anger. And once the soldiers had decided the ponies were more dangerous than the sirens, they’d finally heard new voices urging them on. They’d listened to the siren song…

Flash Magnus breathed deeply. Stygian had recruited him first, which only meant Flash had seen far more fights than he’d wanted to.

“Once the sirens target a larger settlement,” said Flash, “the army won’t take any chances with a small task force. They’ll go big.” He muttered, “About time.”

“Exactly,” said Star Swirl. “And the fewer settlements are left, the more desperate they’ll become. That means do or die.”

“But why in between, sir?” said Stygian.

“Because, young colt, if we choose only one of the cities and wait there, the sirens will simply attack the other. Without us defending it, that city will fall. Once the sirens have a city full of hatred fuelling them, on top of countless settlements’ worth of the stuff, even we will be powerless to stop them mopping up the rest.”

“With all due respect, sir,” said Stygian, “if we’re in between, how can we guarantee we’ll reach the attacked city in time anyway?”

“They’re only a few hours apart. Even Rockhoof could clear that distance at a gallop, and with two pegasi scouting for us, it’ll be easier still. Whereas if we pick Canterlot and the sirens go for Everfree instead, they’ll have enough time to eat up considerable power before we realized our mistake.”

Somnambula tapped the map. “Except the sirens will not do that.”

“Of course they will!” Using his hoof, Star Swirl traced the spiral. “Look at the course they’re charting!”

“Yes, Star Swirl. I see it. But we see what the sirens want us to see.”

“Poppycock. You make them sound too intelligent.”

Somnambula leaned back. Although her eyelashes flapped like butterflies under the blinking, when she finally settled into a frown, the dark wings became knives of shadow. The eyeliner – at least, Stygian assumed it was eyeliner, having never seen how or even whether the mare used cosmetics at all – gave her a glower that cut further than her face, carving up the air through sheer fury.

“My tribe tells many legends of the sirens,” she said, low and menacing as a crouched panther. “Beyond the Desert of Nap, along the coast, the monsters are said to seize unwary travellers. Beware, beware, my little mare, for siren song is beyond compare. My mother taught me how they reach into your mind, looking for any scrap of anger, any morsel of fear, any flicker of resentment.”

Around the table, silence held its counsel. Only the sounds of someone torturing a fiddle broke through, yet it sounded far away.

“Creatures like that know ponies,” Somnambula continued. “They know how we feel, how we think. They have to. They are ugly beasts no one would trust, so they sneak around us. They listen to our complaints and grievances. They avoid the soldiers where they can. If they know they are being followed, they fly away and hide, or lure them into traps. On the seas or on the sands, there are monsters all around us.”

“Somnambula,” whispered Mistmane gently, “you don’t have to…”

“We know how to deal with ordinary monsters, but those three sirens are getting smarter and smarter. How?”

“I know! I am familiar with the three in question,” said Star Swirl. “It must be their leader. She is something else. She’s different. She’s smarter, and stronger, and she’s far more ambitious than any creature I’ve ever encountered.”

“Somnambula does have a point, sah,” said Flash Magnus. “If they were ordinary monsters, they couldn’t possibly have gotten this far.”

“Mm, perhaps?”

“No perhaps about it, sah. Remember Snake Island, sah?”

For once, Star Swirl shuddered. “I remember Snake Island very well, thank you!”

“Exactly. A whole island full of pegasus warriors, sah, all seasoned veterans. Fortified garrison, warned ahead of time. Unicorn shield spells, earth ponies monitoring the caves going in and out of the camp, and regular checks on anyone trying to get in. All kept hush-hush and hidden ready for ambush.”

I said I remember very well.

Stygian didn’t. He’d been south at the time, looking for Somnambula. But he’d remembered Flash coming back, armour dented, out of breath and flying as though he wanted to drop out of the sky.

The sirens knew magic. Magic they shouldn’t have known, if they were just ordinary monsters.

The sirens hadn’t bothered with a direct attack. They’d cursed one ordinary earth mare and sent her to slip through the defences as a refugee. Then, like a virus, the curse had spread. Once it reached the soldiers, who were jumpy and itching for a fight in any case, the unicorns barely had a chance. The shield went down, and immediately, the sirens had leaped in.

Like they’d been waiting for it, Flash had said.

Star Swirl ran a hoof over his face. He’d been part of the shield squad at the time, under royal orders. As far as he was concerned, it had been his shield. Now he looked very old indeed, or very ill.

“It is entirely possible,” said Flash Magnus carefully, going over a script in his head, “that the… that the earth mare that time just happened to have been infected with the curse. She was a refugee, after all.”

“I do not think so, Captain Magnus.” Somnambula pointed at another part of the map, closer to the Frozen North where Equestria howled under blizzards. “They knew we knew their trick by then. They completely missed the ambush at Sasquatchewan.”

“Proof that the earth mare infectee was a fluke!”

“No. They knew we had learned that trick by then. I believe – I know they had learned to work around any ambushes by that point. They only targeted small villages for the following three weeks.”

Flash Magnus nodded. “All right. Say they were trying to be careful. Building up strength. But that way, they wouldn’t need tactics like cursing one refugee. They could just force their way in.”

“Yes, but even so –” began Mistmane.

“They learn,” insisted Somnambula. “That must be why we always lose. We underestimate their cunning.”

Star Swirl snorted. “Yes. The rest of us are aware of that, thank you, Somnambula.”

Oh boy, weren’t they just. Stygian had first seen their magical battles up close round about the time Mage Meadowbrook came out of her swamp to join them. Stygian himself managed to trap one of the sirens with a bubble spell. Nothing a stubborn enemy couldn’t break eventually, but enough to hold her in place for a comrade to aim a blow. Somnambula and Flash Magnus had prepared to strike…

Only to be tackled by the other two. Who had sent the startled pegasi flying, right into Stygian.

He hadn’t remembered much except the sickening crack. If it hadn’t been for Mage Meadowbrook, he dreaded to think what his back would have looked like, how much worse it could’ve felt, whether he might even have lived to see it again in a mirror.

But then she’d slung him onto her shoulders in a lift that was all about business and not at all about preserving his dignity, and while he’d been carried off to recover, he swore the same siren he’d trapped had glowed about her chest. The bubble spell collapsed around it.

Of course, he thought. Sirens have magical gemstones embedded in their chests. He remembered now, from one of his old bestiaries.

That was when the siren had conjured her own bubble, holding Rockhoof at bay long enough for the sirens to escape.

Those gemstones didn’t just absorb negative energy. They absorbed magic. The sirens learned spells by consuming them. And how many times had Star Swirl hurled his best at them, only to have it hurled back? It was like fighting yourself.

“My point is,” said Somnambula, thumping the map for emphasis, “if the sirens want us to think they are spiralling into the centre of Equestria, then they want us to waste time in the cities.”

“And I repeat: those are prime feeding grounds.” Star Swirl’s horn flashed. Magical lines encircled the two cities right in the middle of the map. “Where else are they going to go?”

“It’s a puzzle, sir,” said Stygian, trying to sound as loyal as his reedy voice allowed.

Hoofsteps thumped towards them.

“Is this a private party,” growled Rockhoof, “or can anypony join?”