• Published 8th Oct 2012
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Blueblood: Hero of Equestria - Raleigh



Like all heroes, Blueblood will always do the right thing... after he has exhausted every other option.

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Bloodstained (Part 18)

Part 18

We encountered very little other opposition before reaching Twilight Sparkle's room. Only a small number of Changelings, likely survivors from previous clashes with the other guardsponies still hiding within the fortress or merely small scouting parties delicately probing our defences, dared to attack us in small groups of twos or threes. Our losses were minimal; a few scratches and bruises here and there, but nothing that would have put a soldier out of action for very long. If anything, the initial shock of suddenly being set upon by those Changelings when one least expected it was far worse than the mostly cosmetic injuries that some of the soldiers suffered. However, if they simply wanted to unnerve us then they were certainly succeeding on that front, and our progress through the single corridor that led to Twilight's room slowed to a veritable crawl. I found this all to be rather disquieting, as though the enemy was simply leading us into a trap of some description. After all, the Purestrain leading the drones had to be aware of our presence by now, and if it wanted us all dead (as the numerous enemies of Equestria seem to have a rather unhealthy obsession for killing me of all ponies, as opposed to somepony else more important) then it clearly could have done so before we even stepped hoof in this damned corridor.

Of course, the Changelings could simply have been too pre-occupied with the battle occurring just beyond the stone walls to notice a small band of guardsponies stumbling through these corridors. At the time the thought never entered into my mind, and after that large skirmish in the corridors where we were saved only by the timely intervention of Mister Yellow's rather unhealthy enthusiasm for burning things I was still not willing to put my guard down even for a second. The smaller fights, barely lasting for more than a few seconds before the rather suicidal Changelings, who were apparently under the same delusion that they could take on twelve heavily armed and rather twitchy ponies (and one all but crippled and about to collapse) that usually affects drunken revellers, only heightened my paranoia.

As we stalked through the cramped passageways, which at times narrowed awkwardly so as to allow ponies to pass through them in single file, we came across the aftermath of other skirmishes that had occurred here. Indeed, the sounds of fighting, muffled by the layers of stone surrounding us, would at times flare up, reminding us all that the battle both within the depths of this castle and without was still being waged. Every one of these vague noises or half-imagined glimpses of movement in the murky abyss that our horn lights failed to penetrate was interpreted by my fractured nerves to be evidence of a veritable swarm of drones lurking just beyond our notice. As we delved deeper into the fortress we found more and more clusters of the mutilated bodies of ponies and Changelings alike sprawled on the floor in pools of blood and each dreadfully still as only the dead can be. We passed them by with no time to give the dead ponies the proper respect that they deserved.

After what felt like an eternity we saw a faint purple glow in the distance that was unmistakeably Twilight Sparkle's magical aura. It was faint at first, all but swallowed by the darkness, but as we approached tentatively, pausing every few steps to stare into the all-consuming gloom and strain our ears to detect any sign of another Changeling ambush, it became stronger and clearer. The aura surrounded a door, which, after a momentary inspection of our surroundings, I deduced to be the one leading to Twilight's room. We passed my quarters, and I saw that the door had been torn from its hinges, and my personal belongings, though relatively sparse in number, were spilled out onto the floor in an apparent gesture of pure spite by the Changelings. [It is more likely that the Changelings were searching for intelligence; as a race that excels in covert operations such as infiltration and deception on a large scale, any important documents that would grant them knowledge to disguise themselves and blend into Equestrian society would have been highly prized. Such behaviour was observed during their brief occupation of Canterlot.]

The guardsponies fanned out into the corridor around the door, while I squeezed past the rows of armoured ponies in the awfully cramped passageway. The lambent purple glow that enveloped the door illuminated the surrounding area rather dimly. Strewed around the door were a couple of dead ponies, mutilated horrifically, and a number of Changeling corpses each with a neat, cauterised hole in the middle of their foreheads just beneath their jagged and mutated horns, and what little brains that they had congealed like pink jelly on the floor - all evidence of an extremely precise magic missile shot at close range.

I tentatively touched a hoof to the door, only to find that the aura was instead an impenetrable force field. It felt cold, smooth, and rather slippery to the touch, as if I had laid my hoof upon a window covered in condensation. In the translucent purple-pink screen covering the rotting wooden door I saw a vague reflection of myself, and I was rather disturbed by the grim, haunted mockery of the face that adorned the bedroom walls of countless teenaged fillies and had been kissed by countless daughters of petty nobility and the occasional peasant mare, staring mockingly back at me. Pushing my hoof against it, I found that this barrier was completely and utterly solid.

Nevertheless, this all meant that she was certainly still alive, which was something of a relief. I therefore drew myself up to the door and tapped my hoof politely on the force field; I didn't feel particularly confident about trying to dispel the barrier myself, or ordering the unicorns to do it for me, considering the pony casting this particular spell happens to be one of the most powerful in all of Equestria and that she would probably be rather irate even if we could.

"Lady Sparkle?" I said. My voice sounded rather hoarse, and it was quite painful to speak. I realised that I desperately needed some water. "It's Prince Blueblood. Open the door."

The door creaked open slightly, and Twilight's small and rather dainty little muzzle emerged into the gap, followed by two large magenta eyes focused into a scowl, and the horn above her brow glowing dully. Behind her, I could only glimpse the cold bare stone of the walls of her room lit by some strange dull light, tinged faintly with a shade of blue that looked damnably familiar, but I couldn't quite put my hoof on where I had seen it before.

"Yeah right," snapped Twilight. The aura surrounding her horn grew brighter, and flickered with powerful magic. "I'm not falling for that one again."

I resisted the urge to give her sneering muzzle a slap with great fortitude; it would have proved futile anyway considering the all but impenetrable magical barrier separating us. Nevertheless, I felt rather piqued that our valiant efforts to come to her aid had been met with such rudeness; even in this dank, miserable place a little gratitude would not have gone amiss. In truth I was a fair bit desperate now, and I just wanted all of this misery to end. It took a few moments, and a couple of glances back at the Changeling corpses scattered around my hooves, for me to realise why exactly she had responded in such a strange matter.

"I'm not a Changeling," I said awkwardly. There was a twitchiness to Twilight's whole demeanour that implied that one wrong word or misstep would result in my brains being forcefully ejected from the back of my skull before I could even realise my mistake.

Twilight Sparkle inclined her head in the direction of the bodies that surrounded the door. "That's what Shining Armour said," she snarled, pointing a hoof emphatically at the corpses closest to the door, "and Princess Celestia, and that one there was supposed to be Starswirl the Bearded, but he didn't even get the bells right. And Starswirl has been dead for thousands of years, too."

"Twilight," I said, once more using the familiar form of her name to try and emphasise my point. As I lowered my head down to her level, and all but pressed my cheek against the cool, slick surface of this magical barrier, she flinched slightly away from me. "The Changelings take the form of somepony one holds dear to their hearts to better manipulate their prey and feed off their love. So, unless either of us has feelings for each other that have been repressed ever since I first made fun of your lack of noble blood and your frankly awful manecut, then it's very unlikely that a Changeling will disguise itself as me of all ponies, not when there are so many of your friends that could be impersonated instead."

She hummed thoughtfully. Despite her outwardly confident, if still anxious and twitchy, exterior, I could detect between the cracks of her masque the signs of the deep underlying fear that she held; it was rather jarring when I noticed the look in those gaping eyes of hers, tinged red as if she had been crying, and the slow, measured movements of her body belied the horror that she must have felt. Was she afraid? Twilight Sparkle was the pony who had faced and defeated so many of the monsters that threatened Equestria, from psychological torments of Nightmare Moon to the corrupting influence of Lord of Chaos and everything in between. She should have had no reason to fear these beasts; she had prevailed against them before and, arguably, in a more dire situation than the one she was in now. Stepping back away from the door in an effort to show that I was no threat to her, my hooves tripped over the bent and twisted limbs of a dead Changeling and splashed in the puddle of congealing ichor and brains that spread from the corpse. Looking at the lifeless body I realised the source of her fear; in all of her adventures with her coterie of friends she had never before seen death, and certainly she had never been forced to take the life of another living creature. She had wanted to see what war is really like and she had gotten her wish; now she would have to deal with its consequences should she survive long enough to.

"You could just try and dispel the Changeling disguise illusion," I said, wondering why I didn't think of saying that earlier.

"Alright," she said, after a moment's pause. She nodded her head with a kind of nervous energy that showed one more crack in her facade. As her muzzle withdrew from the door the barrier disappeared with a loud 'pop' of displaced air and the slight smell of ozone. I was about to step through when I found my legs suddenly arrested by some irresistible force. Looking down I saw that my fetlocks had been surrounded and held secure by four glowing bands of purple energy wrapped around my limbs tightly. Pulling against them proved fruitless - I was completely stuck.

The soldiers around me reacted about as well as could be expected, and in less than a second two spears encrusted with the congealed ichor of Changelings were aimed squarely at Twilight's delicately proportioned neck and three unicorn horns charged with energy were aimed directly at her head. She hesitated, eyed the soldiers warily, and scrambled backwards on her hooves. In the corner of my eye I saw Cannon Fodder doing his best to try and push his way around his comrades crowding around the door, but, though his abilities would certainly have been useful, his efforts were confounded by the narrowness of the corridor and all of the ponies in his way. He looked rather distressed, though to a pony unfamiliar with my aide's rather limited range of facial expressions he just looked as though he had merely lost an umbrella just as it started raining.

"Alright, stallions," I said, chuckling a little and inflecting a little humour into my voice to try and deflate the tense situation. "You're scaring the civvy. Just let her do her spell and get this over with."

The soldiers only reluctantly withdrew their weapons. Twilight hesitated, and then her horn flickered again, and a diffused purple light bathed me briefly. Satisfied that I was not in fact a Changeling she breathed a sigh of relief, as did I, and the magical restraints around my hooves vanished, leaving only a faint tingle around my fetlocks.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly, blushing slightly from the embarrassment.

"Apologies aren't necessary," I said, forcing what I hoped was an amicable smile to my lips. "You were merely being cautious, and rightly so."

Soft melodious laughter sang from behind the half-opened door - a sound that, once I had deduced its origin, sounded quite alien to my ears, but nevertheless filled me with a sense of quiet dread. What was she planning now? The door swung open and Twilight Sparkle stepped to the side, revealing the room bathed in this dim blue glow, and standing in the centre was its source - Princess Luna herself, shed of her disguise, and with an expression on her face that I could only describe as 'playful'. She was nude, and levitating around her at about the level of her neck were items of armour, ancient and baroque in appearance and clearly designed for ceremonial purposes than actual protection or comfort (not that such protection was truly needed for an alicorn), orbiting like satellites around some celestial body. As I half-walked, half-fell into the room, the presence of the more mysterious of my divine relatives, of the magical aura that tinged all within a pale shade of blue, and the exhaustion that muddied my mind and dulled my limbs, I felt as if I was merely trapped inside some strange and almost ethereal sort of dream from which there was no waking.

The Corporal followed behind me, grumbling irritably about the unnecessary delay and the apparent lack of progress with our mission, whereupon he saw for the first time Princess Luna standing before him with a mildly amused expression on her face. The effect, I admit, was rather interesting, as the gruff and crude stallion had immediately stopped speaking mid-tirade, and in doing so had accidentally bitten his still-unlit cigar clean in half. The bisected stub fell to the ground, followed very quickly by his muzzle as he prostrated himself before the Princess.

A few other stallions filtered into the room, and responded in much the same manner - a moment of bewilderment before they remembered the correct etiquette for seeing royalty (which, of course, still applied even in battle) and bowed politely. Cannon Fodder too wandered into the room, after having negotiated his way past the soldiers crowded in the narrow corridor and around the door, and regarded the Princess with a distinctly unimpressed expression on his face that the other stallions seemed to find rather baffling judging by the way they watched my aide by the corners of their eyes. I can only imagine that he took my order to never speak about Princess Luna to its logical extreme.

"Rise, my stallions," intoned Princess Luna softly. The soldiers obeyed instantly, and watched her with quiet awe.

Well, that was that, then; her cover was now completely blown and any hope of keeping her presence here a secret was now extinguished, which I suspected was her aim all along. Of course, I could have forced the stallions to take an oath of secrecy, but the truth always has a tendency of making itself known and soldiers will inevitably gossip. Other commissars in my position may have threatened summary execution, or even skipped the threat and gone straight for the cold-blooded murder in the case of the more psychotic of the colleagues that I have had the great misfortune to have worked with later in my career, but, call me squeamish if you will, the idea of killing a pony for whatever reason has always felt rather distasteful.

"Princess Luna," I said, stepping forward and struggling to try and think of a way to stop her from doing something stupid without offending her, while keeping up the pretence that I was just as surprised as the other stallions around me. "What are you doing here?"

From the armour dancing around her she selected a sabaton, lacquered black and polished to a high sheen that reflected the glow from her horn, and elegantly slipped a hoof into it. "The songs of battle call to me," she said, binding the sabaton to her hoof with the straps, "and I can no longer deny them, Blueblood. I can no longer stay here with Lady Sparkle, pleasant company though she may be, and wait while ponies out there are dying for me."

"No, of course not," I said, flatly. "But what of Parliament?"

"Don't bother," said Twilight dismissively, waving a hoof. The young mare trotted languidly over to a pile of cushions in the corner of the room and rested her petite frame over them. "I've tried talking her out of it, and she won't listen."

The Princess of the Night snorted with contempt and shook her head. The remaining three sabatons were slipped onto her waiting hooves. "Worry not, Blueblood. As promised, I shall deal with those foals myself. Though this edict forbids an alicorn princess from leading ponies-at-arms into battle, it says nothing about fighting under the command of an officer of the Royal Guard."

She had a point, I supposed, and I wasn't one to question her knowledge of the convoluted mess of traditions, acts of Parliament, customs, conventions, and stuff just made up as ponies went along that made up what politicos referred to as the Equestrian constitution. That is, if I wanted to live to see the next morning. At any rate, if I survived long enough for that herd of corrupt and personality-deficient wastrels that is the House of Commons to become a nuisance to me then I would consider myself lucky, given the circumstances.

The larger pieces of her armour drifted from their orbit - her saddle around her midsection, the barding around her flanks, greaves around her long, elegant limbs, and finally a neck guard and breastplate, embossed with a crescent moon symbol crafted from lustrous platinum and situated roughly where the mare's heart lies. The lacquered black armour was studded with thousands of tiny diamonds, glittering like the stars on clear and moonless night, arranged into constellations. Weaving across the armour plates, thin lines of a paler blue could be discerned as if it were made out of exotic marble. Regardless of its purely decorative appearance, the Princess' regalia of war certainly gave her a much more menacing, daemonic appearance, much more than usual, of course, and, now fully clad in this ornate mithril plate armour, she truly looked like the feared Warmistress of ancient Equestria; divine judgement incarnate and the bringer of ruin to all of those foolish enough to threaten the safety of our realm.

Finally, she selected the last piece of her suit of armour - a black helm ridged with fine silver filigree in delicate, swirling patterns that rippled across its surface. It covered only the top of her skull down towards the back of her neck and a shining mithril plate extended to cover the bridge of her nose, yet despite this it seemed to in no way interfere with her flowing ethereal mane. Behind her horn was a raised blade of metal, much like the decorative fin on Night Guard helmets, only far larger and etched with intricate patterns of stars and crescent moons. [Historically, rank in the Night Guards, and to some extent the Solar Guards, was denoted by the size and extravagance of the helmet fin or plume. This practice was later replaced during the Reconstruction era with the system of rank insignia that we are familiar with today. Furthermore, judging by Blueblood's description, Luna donned a facsimile of the armour that she wore during the wars for Equestria's reunification just prior to the Nightmare Heresy. The original suit of armour was destroyed in battle.]

Now that she was apparently satisfied with her armour, the light from her horn faded and the room was plunged into near darkness, save for the dim light of the horns from the unicorn guardsponies around us. Luna strode confidently towards me, and it took a considerable amount of willpower on my part to resist the urge to turn on my heels to run away and try my luck with the Changelings stalking the corridors. The resemblance to Nightmare Moon, of the monster that had brought so much ruin and death that her name lives on as the epitome of all evil in the world, was only enhanced by the dim, murky light. There she stood, towering over me like an adult over a terrified foal, with a bemused smirk on her face as if she was contemplating my death in increasingly painful and imaginative ways.

So you, dear reader, can imagine my surprise when she suddenly lowered her head and bowed before me.

"I therefore place myself at your command, Commissar Prince Blueblood," she said, her eyes closed and her voice, though soft, seemed to hold some degree of reverence and strength behind it. "Command me, and I shall obey!"

It was an embarrassingly long amount of time before I managed to collect myself, overcome the initial shock of seeing the Princess prostrate herself in front of me of all ponies (though I knew that it was merely a cheap attempt to appeal to my ego), and respond. "I don't know," I said dumbly.

Luna's eyes opened and fixed upon mine, and smouldered in the darkness that drowned the room. "You have no choice," she said, rather quietly. "What are your orders?"

As much as I hated to admit it, Princess Luna was completely right. Nevertheless, I found myself rather relieved by this turn of events, as the intervention of one of the most powerful beings in existence, who was alleged to be one of the greatest warriors in Equestrian history whose leadership had brought about the fastest acquisition of land ever, could only result in our victory. Having one more body between me and the Changelings, especially one that was for all intents and purposes practically invulnerable save for the most powerful magic, certainly would help my dwindling chances of survival. Her slightly unstable mental state aside, Princess Luna was, to coin a phrase, our 'ace in the hole', and one which the enemy would have in no way expected and would have no counter to.

As ever, my assumptions would soon prove to be entirely incorrect, which really should not have come as such as surprise to me, as this incoherent mess of half-remembered thoughts will soon prove to you.

"Very well," I said, trying to sound much more confident than I truly felt. "We must secure the fortress, and your orders are to assist us in any way possible."

"As you command." Luna rose to her hooves with a loud clatter of armour plates clashing against one another, and with an imperious flick of her head her horn ignited. A sudden chill filled the room for a moment, and just as quickly as it had come it evaporated. The shadows in the corners of the room momentarily receded into absolute darkness, and the colours around us appeared to be somewhat muted, as if they had been drained. Nevertheless, despite the effect being rather brief, it was no less disturbing for its apparent lack of permanency.

"It is just a hex to confound our enemy's senses," said Princess Luna, a curious smile playing upon her thin lips. "I have clouded their sight, and now they shall stumble blindly in a world of darkness; a rather dishonourable trick to play upon them, but it is no less than what these wretches, unfit for life, deserve. Besides, victory wipes away all dishonour. But be careful of the Blank," - she pointed a hoof at a rather sheepish-looking Cannon Fodder, who had very thoughtfully moved to the far corner of the room to avoid draining her spell. I noticed that around him the colours had returned to their usual vibrancy, like an aura - "for his dispelling influence will mean that those Changelings who wander too close to him will regain their sight, but I trust that would not be an issue. Now, come my stallions!"

She strode towards the door, her head held high and proud, looking more like the heraldic symbol on the 1st Night Guard's standard than ever. The tapping of her armoured hooves upon the ancient stone rang louder than before, and the stallions crowded around it parted with greater alacrity than they would have done for me. Twilight Sparkle moved to follow, but I darted to intercept and stopped her with a hoof, cracked and in desperate need of a hooficure if I ever managed to get home to Canterlot after this, on her chest.

"You need to stay here," I said, silencing any attempt at protest from her. "Put the barrier up around the door, and don't lower it until either Princess Luna or I return."

"But..." Twilight muttered, pushing my hoof aside and rubbing down the soft fur on her chest.

"Don't worry," I said, forcing the sort of carefree smirk to my face that ponies usually expect of me, "we shan't be too long. Just do what I say and you'll be safe here."

Twilight opened her mouth to say something, but apparently thought better of it and slunk away from me without a word, though I think that her reluctant acquiescence had more to do with Princess Luna staring at her over my shoulder than it did with what I had said. Nevertheless, with that out of the way I reluctantly turned to follow my Auntie. Though I had considered the idea of remaining here under the rather flimsy pretence that Twilight Sparkle, one of the most powerful unicorns in existence and who had thrice saved Equestria from conquest, required my protection, I had rightly suspected that when Luna referred to 'her stallions' she also meant me.

Before she crossed the threshold into the corridor, to where the guardsponies crowded around the door each virtually scrambling over one another to catch a glimpse of their Princess in a manner reminiscent of a gaggle of foals, she summoned forth from the ether a sword crafted out of pure white mithril. The blade was about the length of a pony from nose to tail, perfectly straight, and despite its brutish size it had a peculiar sense of elegance to it. The gleaming length of metal was etched with stars and arcane symbols representing the moon and other heavenly bodies, dotted amidst ornate swirling patterns that danced their way across the blade from the crescent-shaped cross guard to the razor-sharp tip, all of which glowed softly in the colour of the Princess' aura.

I followed Luna into the darkened corridor, and she stood before the bewildered guardsponies who watched her with a mixture of quiet awe and confusion. Smiling softly, she stretched her great wings as wide as the cramped confines of the hallway would allow, seemingly filling it with her bulk, and addressed the soldiers.

"My stallions," she said, her voice slicing through the quiet hush like a Pattern '12 sabre through chitin, and with a great deal less subtlety. "Together we are going to teach the Changelings a lesson - to fear the dark."

***

[Prince Blueblood's description of events from here on are rather fragmented, comprising of little more than scribbled notes on scraps of paper arranged loosely into a narrative. His participation in the battle at this point was minimal at best, and owing to the self-centred nature of this account it appears that he did not feel it was necessary for him to describe what happened in much detail until the situation had developed to the point where he was forced to intervene. For the purposes of his personal account, what little I have been able to uncover and compile should suffice. However, although the threat of Changelings infiltrating the keep through the lower catacombs was most pressing on his mind moments before, he merely glosses over its resolution here. For the sake of completeness I have therefore appended an extract from an after-action report written by Corporal Glittering Diamond, whose style of prose is almost as idiosyncratic as Blueblood's.]

'We encountered more and more resistance as we went down into the tunnels. Progress was difficult, even with the Princess's magic helping us, but us Horsetralians deal with worse than Changelings on a daily basis back home. Changelings might be bigger than most critters found in the Outback or in the mines I used to work in, but they ain't got nothing on the spiders. Those eight-legged bastards will inject poison that can paralyse a sheep within seconds, turn its insides into mush, and then pop its head off like the cap on a bottle and slurp it all down. [Corporal Glittering Diamond may be exaggerating here, or attempting to tease whomever reads this, as I cannot find any example from Horsetralia's diverse and deadly array of wildlife that kills and consumes its prey in that manner.] Private Pickaxe got a nasty wound in his leg when a Changeling chomped down on it and wouldn't let go even after we cut its head off, but we couldn't leave him behind so we dragged him along the floor. He was holding all of the explosives anyway, and he still owed me a pint.

'Pickaxe slowed us down a little, and he was complaining the whole bloody time. We guessed that the Changelings were likely coming up through the same tunnels that Twilight Sparkle was studying earlier. If we could collapse the tunnels then we could stop the Changelings coming up, but there was an entire army of the bugs between us and even with the Princess' magic it would have been impossible. I had an idea, and to be honest even I thought it was a bit silly, but nopony could think of anything better. We fought our way down to the ground floor again, the one just above the one with the basement Twilight was playing around in with the funny drawings on the walls. Private Pickaxe and Private Butter Spread didn't make it. They were good mates of mine.

'It was hard, but we found the room just above where we thought the Changelings were coming from. We sealed the room and did what we diggers do best - dig. The stone around these parts is quite soft and easy to dig through, especially with the help of magic and some explosives and good old earth pony hard work. We eventually made a hole big enough to stick your head through, and we could see hordes of the bloody Changelings running through the dungeon. I reckoned we had the right place, and it was the only way into the castle from underneath short of digging your own tunnel and I don't think these Changelings know much about mining.

'I lit a big stick of dynamite and tossed it in, and then we ran away as fast as we could. After the explosion we came back, and it looked like it caused a massive cave-in. The basement and room we were in were completely filled with rubble, and there was no way anything could get past that. All of the weird pictures Twilight was looking at were gone too, and I thought it best I made myself scarce if I saw her again.

‘When we met up with the Equestrians outside some officer threatened to have us court-martialled for nearly destroying the property of the Crowns. Lieutenant Southern Cross told him he trusted us to use only enough explosives to do the job, not to demolish the castle, and no one was hurt anyway. Except for the Changelings.’

***

The more astute of you reading this drivel will note that it took Princess Luna less than a minute or so to break her word and start issuing orders to the soldiers. One could justify this as her simply executing my commands as she saw fit by directing the stallions who were ostensibly under my authority anyway, and given her status as a Princess of Equestria and her past rank as Warmistress, along with the sort single-minded loyalty that she commanded from the Night Guards that all petty tyrants and dictators can only dream of, it was not at all surprising that she had naturally fallen into her 'unofficial' role here as leader. Nevertheless, as I had stated previously I still had much greater things on my mind.

What followed was no longer a battle, but merely pest extermination. That is not to say that the fight had become a metaphorical walk in the park at all, for a Changeling rendered blind was still a fearsome thing, as their senses of smell and hearing were still potent enough for them to determine one's rough position and approximately where to swing their hooves and chomp their fangs. Nevertheless, we would find them stumbling clumsily about the corridors and halls tripping over one another and bumping into obstacles. When they had become alerted to our presence, usually by Princess Luna shouting what she must have fondly imagined were battle-cries to embolden our hearts to war, they would come scrambling towards us with their usual utter disregard for their own lives in a manner I would have found to be almost endearingly pathetic were it not so utterly disturbing to watch. They would flail their hooves and gnash their fangs in our vague direction, their eyes shrouded by the darkness of Luna's enchantment, only to be cut down with contemptuous ease with sadistic glee by the grinning, taunting soldiers.

I continued to tag along with the soldiers, finding some comfort in that while I was no longer in charge it also meant that it if and when things started to go pear-shaped, which they inevitably do for me regardless of the situation, I could no longer be blamed; it was all Princess Luna's fault and only the insane and the suicidal amongst of us, of which I am neither, would have dared to contradict her. She led our merry band of soldiers, minus the engineers and a number of guardsponies sent to collapse the lower tunnels and prevent more Changelings surging through the catacombs and into the keep, through the veritable maze of corridors. We turned left and right, ascended and descended stairs, and slaughtered our way through the myriad empty rooms. The few soldiers remaining barricaded in their rooms, who were fighting desperate last stands until they had mysteriously found their enemy all but completely incapacitated, joined us, and thus our depleted infantry section grew.

Far from feeling disappointed at being sidelined, however, I found that no longer being the centre of attention, for the time being at least as by virtue of my noble status I have throughout my entire life almost always been the cynosure of eyes in every gathering, to be quite refreshing. Naturally, I made my usual token efforts to look as if I was actively contributing to the fight, usually by firing a few desultory shots or swinging my sabre in the vague direction of the blinded Changelings, but all eyes were firmly fixed upon Princess Luna, who waded into the fray, her sword slicing the enemy into gratuitous chunks with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for foals assaulting piñatas. There was a strange, rather manic energy to her movements that I had only glimpsed briefly during our sparring match together just the day before (though at the time it felt like a lifetime away); with the nauseating sound of steel ripping into chitin, the discharge of magic missiles, and in the flames that swept the corridors and reduced the Changeling hordes into ash and charred meat, I saw for the first time in those smouldering blue eyes of hers, normally cold and piercing in a way that felt as if a stare, held long enough, would flense the hide from my body and lay bare the shrivelled up husk that I possessed in lieu of a soul, something akin to life and animation.

We came into the great hall where Captain Red Coat had detailed his plans just a few hours ago. Much of it remained the same, other than the complete lack of ponies amongst the bedrolls laid out morbidly like coffins on the cold stone floor. The small piles of personal effects, mostly crammed into kitbags and left by the side of their owner's bedroll in the hope that they would be collected after the battle, added a certain sense of poignancy to the scene. Stalking on the raised dais, groping and feeling their way blindly around the piles of books and the table upon which the maps, scraps of paper, communiqués, and the other assorted paraphernalia of military planning were still strewed about with the Royal Guard's habitual assumption that the concept of a decent filing system was something that the enemy wanted them to do, was a small horde of a dozen or so Changelings, clustered around a tall and gaunt figure roughly the size of an alicorn that could only be a Purestrain.

The soldiers crept into the room as silently as ponies heavily laden down with heavy armour and spears could, though the enemy appeared to be completely oblivious to our presence. The Purestrain, its eyes still shrouded in darkness from whatever hex Princess Luna had cast upon the enemy, must have been too distracted with the task of directing thousands upon thousands of blinded Changeling drones to have noticed our presence. Around its long, sinuous legs the Changelings hissed and shrieked at the nearly empty hall as if expressing their master's frustration and anger on its behalf.

The guardsponies started to advance, but as Princess Luna raised a hoof they stopped, almost as if they were somehow subject to the same sort of mental control that the enemy had used, and eyed her warily. I stood away off to the side, watching the proceedings quietly and taking the opportunity to catch my breath, which felt like fire filling my lungs, and take stock of the many painful wounds that I had suffered in the past few hours and ponder what interesting shapes that the new scars might take. Whatever Princess Luna had in mind to do with the hapless Purestrain and the gaggle of Changelings around it that might charitably be called an honour guard of some sort I had only a passing interest, but I was reasonably confident that the insane old mare knew what she was doing. If she didn't, I had an escape route and somepony to blame if whatever it was went horribly wrong as always.

Luna stretched her great wings wide, and pumped them once, twice, wafting me with the stale air of the hall, and then she was airborne. The Night Mare ascended up to the high ceiling of the hall, where the great wooden beams supported the arched ceiling from which mouldering banners, whose ancient symbols had long since faded into dull grey and brown splotches on ragged fabric, hung limply. Up there she was almost invisible against the darkness, and it was only the gleam of her sword and the glittering pinpricks of the diamonds upon her breastplate that I could see against the vague blue and black smudge perched upon a small alcove in the walls.

Something dived down from the roof. Princess Luna was gone, and there was a gurgling shriek from one of the Changelings. It was so quick that I barely had time to register it, but I saw that one of the enemy had its throat slit open and bled profusely as it flailed frantically against its comrades. Looking up and actually paying attention this time I saw Princess Luna once more glide gracefully close to the ceiling in a lazy and wide arc before. Then, having reached the opposite end of hall, she retracted her wings tight against her body and dived steeply towards the enemy. At the very last moment, her wings spread, arresting her descent in time to allow her to slash her blade once more into the throat, sending a spray of arterial green blood fountaining, and then she was away once more.

It soon became evident that she was merely toying with them, specifically the Purestrain who she appeared to be sparing for the last. For as she killed the drones one by one the Purestrain's terror, being the only Changeling creature intelligent enough to feel such an emotion [this is not strictly true, as Changelings who have been separated from the Hive Mind for a sufficient length of time will begin to exert a degree of free will and feel emotions regardless of intelligence], only increased. The grotesquely tall beast tried to scramble away blindly from its invisible attacker and tripped over the piles of haversacks and bedrolls and its own drones, also attempting to scramble away from their unseen attacker, in a frantic flail of hooves. Magic arced in seemingly random directions from its jagged, misshapen horn, scorching the stone walls and burning holes through the hanging tapestries but hitting nothing of any worth. Even from this distance I could hear the laboured, frantic breathing and the shrieks of terror as, one by one, the drones fell dead from Luna's sword.

"Show yourself!" it screamed, terror adding a shrill tone to its raspy, dry voice. "Face me, you coward! When I find you our Queen will drain you of your love until you are nothing more than a withered husk!"

Around me the soldiers jeered mercilessly, casting colourful aspersions on the Purestrain's lineage and taste in mares, but if it noticed them then it paid them no heed. A swift bound brought the creature back atop the raised dais and it crashed into the thin sheet of wood that served as a table with a shower of splinters and paperwork. Its limbs flailed in an effort to right itself, and it was then that Luna, apparently having run out of drones to murder, descended from the air slowly with only a faint flutter of her outstretched wings to slow her fall. As her hooves touched the floor with a faint, ringing chime of mithril, the soldiers and I approached tentatively.

The dais was surrounded by Changeling bodies - Luna's hoof-work - each with a neat, precise cut that split their throats almost from ear to ear. My hooves splashed in the growing pool of congealing Changeling blood, and I recall feeling rather faint at the sight of so much ichor. I'm not certain as to why I found the idea of walking in the stuff so nauseating, as, despite my evident refinement and noble birth, I don't consider myself to be particularly squeamish (being part of a family whose ancient patriarch had a rather unhealthy obsession with blood tends to help one get over any natural aversions to it), so it was probably a side effect of exhaustion.

The dark fog that clouded the Purestrain's wide, terrified eyes soon evaporated, and it gasped and flinched as it saw Princess Luna looming over it, sword ready to strike.

"On your hooves," snapped Luna, her voice icy. The Purestrain remained completely still, and only by the frantic flickering of its damnably intelligent eyes, the rapid rise and fall of its broad chest, and the faint tremor in its thin insect limbs did it show any sign of life. A subtle narrowing of her eyes was enough to force the Purestrain to comply, and it scrambled clumsily to its hooves, only taking two or three attempts to do so.

With her blade pressed against the long and grotesquely thin neck of the Changeling beast, drawing a thin line of sickly green as the fiendishly sharp edge dug easily into the thick armoured chitin, she forced her muzzle uncomfortably close to the Purestrain's. "I want you to deliver a message to your queen," she said, and her voice never rose much higher than a whisper. "I want you to run away to her, and when she makes you beg for your wretched life and demands that you explain why you had failed to take this fortress I want you to tell her that we will be coming for her next. Is that understood?"

The Purestrain stared back at her with wide, terrified eyes the size of dinner plates. Pupils no larger than pinpricks flickered from Luna's face, to the blade at its neck, and then to the soldiers now crowded around the beast in a sort of semi-circle, before it nodded its head rapidly with that odd sense of eagerness that only those threatened with a violent and messy death can show. Slowly, the blade withdrew from its neck, though it was still positioned in a perfect position to be thrust into the vulnerable gaps between the armoured plates of thickened chitin, and a thin, almost sadistic smile tugged at the ends of Luna's lips. By Faust, she was enjoying this. I expect that for one as long-lived and as alienated from the concept of mortality and from the lives of the ponies she ruled over as she, and with a mind as foreign and incomprehensible to ours as the concept of subtlety and personal restraint was to Pinkie Pie, it was inevitable that I and other sensible, well-adjusted ponies (of which there is a depressingly small number these days) would find her emotional responses to be quite jarring given the situation.

"Go," said Luna, and the Purestrain reacted at once. As if suffering a sudden electric shock the beast jolted backwards with a clumsy lurch of its stick-thin limbs, and thin, membranous wings like that of a grotesque insect extended from the slick, black carapace on its back. The fluttering of these wings became a frantic blur, and in an instant it was airborne and soon gone via a tall, arched window whose glass panes had long since shattered and whose beams had long since rotted away.

I was a little more wary of the Princess than usual as she turned to address us, a triumphant smile stretched her mouth wider than I had ever seen on her. "Your victory is imminent!" she cried. "You have only to eradicate this filth from this fortress. Now go, my stallions, and claim the victory that all of Equestria deserves!"

The stallions cheered as one, stamping their hooves and whooping wildly as though their favourite sports team had just scored, or something. In hoping to maintain that quiet and reserved detachment required of an officer and a gentlecolt I remained silent, as did Cannon Fodder, but it was always difficult to provoke any sort of reaction out of him anyway. Princess Luna once more spread her wings and leapt into the air, and with unrestrained eagerness she flew through another empty window, her hooves tucked against her body and her wings curved back to fit through the small and narrow aperture so that for a moment she resembled a thrown dart, in what she probably thought was a suitably dramatic exit.

With that done and the reins of command apparently thrust once more into my unwitting hooves I decided that our best course of action was to go outside and see how the battle was progressing there. I could trust the engineers to do their jobs, particularly with the enormous advantage that Princess Luna's spell had granted them, and some time into our long and meandering stroll through the castle fortresses a distinct rumble reverberating through my hooves reassured me that whatever it was that they had planned had been executed and done so in a manner that likely involved an excessive amount of explosives, which would, of course, do wonders for their morale.

As we walked, passing the piled-up bodies of Changelings, some burnt to cinders amidst stone that had melted and then solidified in strange and baroque shapes, I could not help but feel some disquiet about what Princess Luna had said at her parting. It was all far too easy and far too 'neat', and though I had only participated in one battle thus far, I felt that I knew enough to know that the end of the battle was never as truly clear cut as she had said; they tend to simply lose energy and peter out as the two armies simply become too exhausted to continue, and the side that does so the first is invariably the one that loses. Despite her optimism, things could still go horrendously wrong, and with the usual sort of almost supernatural bad luck that seems to follow me around and ensure that my life is never as easy as I would like it to be they inevitably did. That, however, was not what I found most disquieting about her words, though that idea did loom heavily in my mind like the rather creaky old chandelier above the seventh seat in my banqueting hall, but the implication that all that she knew about war was, in fact, completely wrong. To voice such thoughts would have been heresy; Luna was once Warmistress, and in a series of bloody campaigns that lasted a scant few months she had conquered almost the entirety of what is now modern Equestria, and if anypony knew about war then certainly it was her. But what she had said over the past few weeks since she had been hiding with me and just now seemed to imply a terribly naive and almost foal-like view of war. I wondered if the one thousand years she had spent banished to the moon had addled her mind somewhat. [Though I would not have put it in quite such terms, Blueblood is largely correct in saying that Luna's confinement on the moon with only the Nightmare for company would have taken its toll on her psyche. It would be some time before she would adjust fully back to life here in Equestria.]

The riotous cacophony of battle, with its myriad noises, screams, and clashes blurring into one ungodly mess, greeted us as we stumbled tired and somewhat wary out of the main gates and into the courtyard. It was all but impossible to discern what was going on, only that the battle was still raging as fiercely as before. I noted that the distance between the triage centre clustered around the gate and what I perceived to be the front lines, where the exact borders of Equestria and Changeling country were determined by the hooves of their respective soldiers, seemed to be much closer to the walls than before. A small sense of elation filled my heart as I came to the conclusion that we must be winning somehow, as the enemy, still throwing an obscene amount of drones against our troops despite their blindness, was gradually being pushed back and that this nightmare would end soon.

Looking back up at the fortress behind me I saw that the clouds had parted, and the moon, huge and yellow, appeared to be impaled upon the tallest spire of the castle from which the artillery still continued their murderous work. Around the moon the clouds spun in a dizzying maelstrom that made me feel nauseated looking at it, and silhouetted against the vast disc of light a dark figure climbed atop the jagged pinnacle of the spire.

"SOLDIERS OF EQUESTRIA!" Princess Luna bellowed from atop the tower, her Royal Canterlot Voice cutting through the almighty din of battle. It might have just been my imagination, but it felt as if the entire battle, and indeed time itself, had stopped for her speech. Luna spread her wings against the moon, and despite the distance I could see her eyes ablaze with fire. "HEAR ME! YOUR PRINCESS HAS ONLY ONE ORDER FOR YOU - PURGE!"

Author's Note:

Well, now that I've recovered from the Christmas/New Year/Burns Night binge here's the latest chapter. Hope you all like it - it was probably the hardest one I've had to write so far.

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