• 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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Night's Blood (Part 4)

The earth ponies of the 1st Night Guard surged forth after their Colonel as an ash-grey and steel wave. Even the unfeeling, unthinking Changeling monsters quailed at the sight of the slathering horde of fanged ponies, bellowing cries of rage and vengeance, bursting through the dense gunpowder smoke that shrouded the battlefield like mist. I don’t know if they truly inspired fear in the common Changeling, but they as sure as Tartarus terrified me.

I was just behind Colonel Sunshine Smiles as he leapt over the barricades, crushing a Changeling drone beneath his iron-shod hooves and impaling another upon his spear. I drew my blade and followed with nearly three hundred ponies, overcome by bestial bloodlust, on my flank. Like a river bloated by flood waters bursting its banks, the Night Guards washed the barricades and artillery crews away in a wave of heavily armoured pony bodies and spear points.

I hacked left and right, my sabre slashing deep into the chitinous Changeling armour and digging into the soft flesh contained therein. The Pattern ’12 Sabre was not a subtle weapon by any stretch of the imagination; it had been designed with a single purpose in mind – to kill Changelings. It was a heavy, brutish sword designed to hack into Changeling chitin and cleave flesh, with none of the poise and elegance of the lighter duelling swords I was used to.

The beasts screeched as they died in a flail of desiccated limbs and a spray of thick, green blood, cut down mercilessly in the brutality of the Night Guards’ assault. Around me the battle raged; more and more ponies flooded over the ridge and into the plateau, eager to avenge their comrades slaughtered by the cowardly artillery pieces. They fought viciously, reminding me of the tales of the infinite black legions commanded by Nightmare Moon during her indignant temper tantrum one thousand years ago, with such aggressive spear thrusts that many had their shafts shattered by their enthusiasm. Those who were weaponless tore into the Changelings with their fangs, tearing out throats, eyes, and chunks of chitinous flesh. [It is a tradition in the Night Guards that those who don’t break their spears in combat aren’t fighting hard enough.]

Time seems to slow in battle; probably as a result of the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was aware of every drop of blood and ichor that sprayed around, and spittle flying from the slathering maws of Night Guards. I could hear every shriek of pain, grunt of exertion, dying gurgle, and cursed battle cry. Directly ahead was a Changeling drone lunging at me, while another was scampering up to my vulnerable left flank. Deciding I could ignore the one on my left for the time being, and that the razor sharp fangs heading straight for my jugular was the greatest threat at the time, I brought my sword up rapidly directly into the Changeling’s path. The blade sank into the open, drooling maw, forced through by the inexorable momentum of the drone’s lunge until the ichor-slickened blade emerged from the back of its head. With that threat taken care of I pivoted on my front legs and lashed out with my hind limbs, bucking the slower beast in the face and sending it cartwheeling into the dust with a sickening ‘snap’ of its neck breaking.

As I landed, I felt a sharp stinging pain just above my right cutie mark. A Changeling drone, hitherto unseen, had sunk its fangs into my rump, yet before I could react a spear wielded by my aide skewered it in the neck. Thankfully it let go of my precious flank and fell to the ground dead.

“This one got a bit frisky, eh sir?” Cannon Fodder grinned as he shook the body free from his blade.

I laughed, mainly at the absurdity of it all as this strange little pony, who would continue to save my wretched little life time and time again, cracked weak jokes in the midst of battle. I tugged my sword free from the first Changeling and followed the Night Guards as they pushed the Changelings back.

Bodies rained from the skies. Above us the pegasi and airborne Changelings duelled in a macabre dance; clashing in a mess of flailing hooves, gnashing fangs, and flapping wings before the loser plummeted to the ground to be dashed to pieces on the unforgiving ground and trampled upon by the seething masses. I witnessed pegasi dive into the swirling maelstrom to assist any earth pony who looked to be in trouble. Captain Blitzkrieg screamed from the skies just before me, crushing a Changeling I would have never seen coming for all the smoke and press of bodies, and tearing its throat out before taking flight once more.

To my right, I saw Colonel Sunshine Smiles, having lost his spear, tear a two pounder cannon from its gun carriage and use it to bludgeon Changelings to death as a club to surprising effectiveness. Underneath his armour and sweat-streaked fur, powerful muscles bulged and strained with the immense weight he was wielding like an oversized cricket bat made of iron. Red Coat stuck close to him like a limpet, his movements were frenzied and certainly aggressive, though his spear thrusts were exceedingly clumsy and avoided even by the mindless Changelings.

Behind us the unicorns were marching up to add their weight into the battle. Of course they had ceased firing, lest they accidentally hit us, and instead drew their short swords ready to join in the carnage if it looked as if the earth ponies couldn’t handle it. It was unneeded, of course, for the Changeling numbers dwindled as the earth ponies and pegasi completely encircled the outnumbered Changeling formation and closed for the kill.

The battle ended abruptly with the dying shrieks of the last Changeling, who fought until the end with the habitual lack of concern for self preservation that characterises their misbegotten kind. It all felt rather anti-climactic to me, but then I had no inkling at the time that this was merely the beginning of what would make my discreditable career. The Changeling force here had been small; a bare skeleton crew to man the cannons and divert our attention from what was going on in the wider battle, and their little suicide mission had worked.

I felt exhausted as the last dregs of adrenaline slowly left my body. My coat was covered in dust, my uniform ripped and covered in pony blood, Changeling ichor, and thankfully unidentifiable body parts. The shrapnel wound in my shoulder stung, as did the bite marks on my flank that leaked crimson onto my attractive cutie mark. They say mares like scars, but most likely not in that location.

As I limped back towards where the gun line once lay, the regiment dispersed to rest. The earth ponies roved across the battlefield, finishing off the wounded and the dying. I watched them conduct their grim business; there was no point in taking prisoners, for these were simple mindless beasts under the thrall of their tyrannical Hive Mind. I stepped gingerly around the eviscerated corpses around me. Casualties had been light, and the majority of the dead bodies were those of Changelings, but there were a sizeable number of guardsponies lying ripped to pieces or ripped open by Changeling fangs.

Combat medics, identifiable by the white circle with a red cross emblazoned upon their helmets, moved across the field, lending their valued aid to wounded ponies and delivering the Eternal Night to those beyond saving. [Night Guard euphemism for euthanasia.] Picquet lines were set up around the field to guard for any Changeling counter-attack, though it seemed rather unlikely at the moment. ['Picquet' is a somewhat archaic alternate spelling of 'picket' when referring to the positioning of sentries.] Other earth ponies took the opportunity to set up their portable burners and kettles to start brewing cups of tea. I smirked as I observed them taking part in that most sacrosanct of all Trottingham traditions; taking a few minutes out of the afternoon for a nice cup of tea, even amongst so much bloodshed and violence. I wagered that if the Changelings did launch a counter-attack the ponies would have waited until they had finished their tea before fighting back.

Colonel Sunshine Smiles sat by the ruined barricades, resting upon the two pounder cannon he had been wielding as a club not long before, and directing orders to a handful of lieutenants who saluted and scampered off to finish their duties. His armour was scratched and battered a little, but otherwise seemed intact though his helmet had a rather large, hoof-shaped dent in it and thus lay on the ground by his hooves.

Captain Red Coat lay slumped on the ground next to the cannon, gazing blankly off into space with unfocused eyes. He suddenly looked old; where before there was youthful exuberance and enthusiasm, now there was only the haunted gaze of a young pony whose dreams had just been utterly crushed by his first time in battle. I knew he was only seventeen years old, but he looked to be about forty as he stared blankly across the field of dead bodies. His armour was scratched heavily, his hind leg bound up in a bloodstained bandage, and his left eye closed shut by an enormous purple bruise.

An ensign stood beside them, holding the regimental standard aloft proudly. The flag was battered, damaged, but still defiant and victorious as it fluttered gracefully in the soft breeze. I noticed that the pony carrying it was not the one who first carried it into battle; he had killed by a cannon ball in that first, hellish advance up that ridge.

Starlit Skies joined them, looking animatedly at the cannons and mumbling incomprehensibly to himself in excited tones. The unicorns had escaped the brunt of the fighting, though they had suffered a few casualties in the bombardment. The strain of all of that magical discharge, however, took its toll on them, as the sustained barrage of mage fire sapped their energy leaving them exhausted. Despite his exuberance, his gait was dragging and slow and there were noticeable dark bags under his bloodshot eyes.

A sudden wave of hideous body odour cutting through the general unpleasant reek of blood and gunpowder alerted me to Cannon Fodder’s return long before he stumbled into view. He gave me a large mug of hot tea he had procured from one of the guardsponies, which I accepted gratefully as my throat and mouth was as dry as the barren desert we were fighting over. The calming effect of a nice cup of hot tea, despite the warmth of Celestia’s sun beating down upon us, was oddly relaxing after the brutality of the battle we had just fought. Eventually the frantic hammering of my heart against my ribcage, which felt as if it was trying to leap out of chest via my oesophagus, died down as my breathing returned to what could safely be considered ‘normal’. This, however, was all replaced by the return of the unpleasant, cloying, slightly sick sensation in the pit of my stomach that was hitherto suppressed until just recently.

Captain Blitzkrieg landed next to me with a clumsy flutter of his membranous wings and slumped to the ground, panting heavily and his fur covered with a sheen of rank sweat. I attributed his clumsiness and the lack of his usual unearthly feline grace to the sheer exhaustion he must have been feeling far in excess of anything I or the earth ponies around us must have been feeling, for pegasi are capable of quick bursts of frenetic and violent energy but inevitably pay the price for it with overwhelming fatigue. That, of course, didn’t stop Blitzkrieg sneering up at me, despite being sprawled on the dusty ground in a less than dignified manner.

“I see you got yourself a love bite, Prince,” he jeered, pointing at the bite on my cutie mark. “Even the Changelings can’t resist a bit of the royal flank, no wonder you’re Canterlot’s most eligible bachelor.”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up,” I said, ignoring the titters and chuckles from everypony around me, except Cannon Fodder who didn’t seem to get it. “You’ll be doing latrine duty until Tartarus freezes over.”

The pegasus snickered and retrieved a large chocolate cigar from one of the pouches hidden inside his armour. “Bah, those Changelings were pansies,” he said, snickering to himself. As he spoke the cigar dangling from his mouth wagged like the tail of an overly excited dog. “Those muppets wouldn’t last two minutes in a Trottingham street brawl, even our namby-pamby prince managed to survive.”

“How long until the pegasi recover?” asked Sunshine Smiles.

“Hmm,” Blitzkrieg nibbled on the end of his chocolate cigar thoughtfully, “Give us an hour’s rest and some food and we’ll be back to fighting strength. Why? Are we going somewhere?”

“We’ll need to move out very soon,” he said and pointed out to the valley below.

Blitzkrieg reluctantly dragged himself to his hooves and slinked, cat-like, over to the edge of the shallow ridge. The plateau below was still littered with the mangled remains of ponies hit by artillery fire, and the dry earth was streaked with crimson red blood. Above us the carrion birds; crows and vultures, soared lazily overhead, casting their baleful shadows upon the ground. A few would land to pick out scraps of ruined flesh from a dead body, ripping out the softer tissues such as the eyes or the tongue. I noticed how they would avoid feeding on the Changeling corpses; I supposed even vultures had some standards.

“By Celestia’s left arse cheek,” he gasped. His lower jaw hanged loose, as if he had lost all motor function in his face, which caused the chocolate cigar he had been enjoying to slip out and hit the ground ruined.

Curiously I clambered up next to him, wondering what qualities my divine Auntie’s left buttock had over the other. Upon seeing what the problem was I was far less eloquent than the good Captain.

“Buck.”

There, at the southern mouth of the valley, was a vast grey-green smudge that encompassed the entire width of the gorge and spilled out into the vast empty plains of the Badlands. Just beyond where the valley opened, surrounded entirely by the sea of grey and green, was a small beleaguered island of gold and white. The 3rd Solar Guard, or at least what remained of that regiment, was trapped and encircled utterly by a Changeling horde seemingly without number.

The Changelings’ plan was unveiled in all of its cunningly hideous glory. The enemy had successfully infiltrated our artillery regiment, and by firing upon the rearguard of the 3rd Regiment they had forced the Solar Guard straight into the Changeling army to escape the artillery barrage, thus encircling the panicked and disorganised 3rd Solar Guard. The infiltration of the artillery regiment was only intended as a means to force the Solar Guard into a trap and to distract the Night Guards from coming to the rescue of their trapped comrades; their entire purpose, therefore, was a suicide mission, which explained the relative ease with which they were finally dispatched.

It put us now in a rather difficult situation. The Night Guards could either retreat back to Maredun to hold off the Changelings there, consigning the entirety of the 3rd Solar Guard to destruction, or we could charge straight into the vast, slathering horde of Changelings and try and mount a rescue. I, for one, believed that the latter option was the best course of action. One might be somewhat confused by this, given my admittedly cowardly nature and entirely rational fixation on my own self-preservation, to advocate heading straight into another battle. Indeed, one might have assumed I’d like to run away back to Maredun and hide behind those thick stone walls. Well, as far as I could see the great citadel of Maredun offered only slight protection; the walls were broken and shattered, the gun ports unmanned, and the garrison unfamiliar with the layout of the fortress. The status of the walls, however, was a moot point considering all Changelings could just fly straight over them even if they were all intact. If I was trapped inside the citadel then there would be no chance of escape or retreat back to Dodge Junction where the 5th Solar Guard was still encamped.

No, looking at it rationally as I did, mounting a rescue of the beleaguered 3rd Solar Guard offered the best hope. The high mountains offered greater protection from being outflanked, thus keeping our retreat path mostly clear. Furthermore, rescuing the regiment would put even more live bodies between me and the slathering hordes of bug monsters. I’d sooner take a small chance of survival, no matter how slim, over a futile last stand any day. The trouble with last stands is that, no matter how heroic they appear and how dramatic they may be in the cheap adventure novels the general public seem to enjoy, they inevitably involve everypony being wiped out.

“Sirs,” I heard a thick Appleloosian accent just behind me. Turning around I saw a bombardier of the 16th Royal Artillery, his grey coat and black armour was stained with the peculiar green gunk the Changelings use to bind up prisoners and render them immobile, saluting the officers. “Bombardier Bramley Apple, sirs. Ah’m a might glad ya’ll came to our rescue.”

I looked past the Bombardier to see the gunnery crews of the 16th inspecting the re-captured cannons, all of them with traces of the Changelings’ goo stuck to their armour and fur. Judging by the size of the mob that moved around between the resting Night Guards, each thanking their rescuers gratefully and exchanging food, tea, and candy sticks, only about a third of the original battery had survived.

“What exactly happened here?” asked Sunshine.

“Ah can’t rightly say,” he said, nervously rubbing at his stained armour. “We set up along this here ridge, regular as clockwork, then next thing Ah know there’s Changelings everywhere an’ Ah’m wrapped up in this gunk with mah Lance-Bombardier.”

“What happened to the officers?” I asked, faintly wondering what happened to Colonel Shrapnel.

“Changelings, sir,” he said as he waved a hoof at the bodies around us. “All of the officers were Changelings in disguise. Ah don’t know how we didn’t notice, but then who’s gonna notice another bunch o’ officers acting weirdly. Uh, present company excepted, sirs.”

Colonel Sunshine Smiles nickered and grinned, lightly patting the somewhat terrified Bombardier on the shoulder amicably. The friendly gesture surprised the young lad, who probably wasn’t used to the idea of officers being so forward with the common rank and file. “Bombardier Bramley, I’m placing you in temporary command of the battery, get as many of your guns as serviceable as you can as quickly as possible. Can you do that?”

Bramley Apple smiled broadly and nodded his head excitedly, giving the impression of a very happy puppy. “Yes sir! The gunners will be a might pleased to have a crack at the enemy.”

“Excellent, carry on.”

The Bombardier gave an enthusiastic salute and scampered off to bellow orders at his underlings in the same loud and colourful manner that all non-commissioned officers tend to do, often supplemented with blows to the head and threats of further violence. The newly-freed gunnery crews leapt to their duties with renewed vigour, eager to avenge themselves for their embarrassing capture by delivering death in the form of heavy iron cannon balls at the hated enemy. The majority of the cannons had survived the attack; a handful had been wrecked beyond repair by poor loading by the Changelings and a few more were thrown off their carriages in the Night Guards’ assault, but thankfully the majority of which could still be manned and fired by a skeleton crew of gunners. Though with only a third of the artillery regiment’s gunners still alive the crews had to be spread somewhat thin across the cannons, so the tricky and back-breaking business of loading the things would take far longer than we would have otherwise hoped. Still, having some artillery support would help with whatever insane plan Sunshine Smiles was plotting.

“I want a pegasus to send a message to General Crimson Arrow,” said Sunshine Smiles, taking out a notepad and a pencil. He once told me that these are the greatest weapons in the Royal Guard’s arsenal; I’d have just settled for a large artillery piece myself, but I think he was trying to make some sort of poetic point about the importance of communication in the military.

He dropped the notepad on the floor and scribbled his message down on it with surprisingly elegant cursive script.

“Changelings infiltrated 16th Artillery. 1st Night Guard has retaken ridge. Artillery serviceable. 3rd Solar Guard surrounded. Request reinforcements to mount rescue.”

Blitzkrieg shook his head with a scowl forming on his features. “No can do, sir, unless you’d like one of us to walk there.” He flexed out his bat-like membranous wings, wincing slightly at the pain in his shoulder and back muscles. “That and I don’t think any of those bastards would lift a hoof to help us if it were us down there, sir. I don’t like it, but I’ll do as I’m told like a good little guardspony.”

Considering that the average competence of a Solar Guard officer at that time wasn’t particularly high coupled with their chronic elitism, our pegasus Captain was probably right. They had shown themselves to be so clouded by their ideas of class and hierarchy as to override basic, common sense. I admit that I’ve never been the most egalitarian pony; I believe that the best society is one modelled on a strict hierarchy – the aristocracy rule and the great unwashed masses shut up and do as they are told, but even then I recognise that social status does not necessarily correlate with military competence.

“Starlit Skies.”

The unicorn Major looked up from inspecting a particularly large six pounder cannon that had been affectionately named ‘Bertha’ by its crew. “Sir?”

“Can any of our unicorns teleport?”

He shook his head sadly, “Not at that range, no.”

“We’ll send an earth pony runner then,” said the Colonel. “Red Coat!”

The young earth pony captain didn’t hear, for he was staring blankly across the valley into the swirling battle just below. His face was a rictus of fear, and his body quietly shivering. The 3rd Solar Guard were fighting bravely, indeed it was a miracle that they had continued to survive for so long, but I feared that they would get overrun if they didn’t get relieved, and soon.

“Red Coat!” the Colonel called again, and the young stallion jumped in surprise.

“Sir?”

“Go and fetch an earth pony runner.”

“Sir!” Red Coat saluted clumsily and galloped off, tripping once or twice over a body or piece of battlefield detritus, in search of an appropriate guardspony for the job.

I cleared my throat and approached Sunshine Smiles, “With your leave I’d like to accompany the runner to headquarters.”

The Colonel blinked gormlessly at me for a few times. I tensed, hoping he didn’t see my barely concealed plan to get to Maredun, suddenly discover something very important I had to do there, and find that I couldn’t simply accompany the regiment on their suicide mission after all. Actually, I could have just pulled rank on the Colonel and just go with the runner, but I decided that making him feel like he had some say in the matter would invariably help improve our relationship, such as it was.

“Just in case the General needs some convincing,” I said, not knowing just how prophetic those words would be. “He can be a bit stubborn.”

He nodded in response, “Very well. Oh, and tell them we need some more spears.”

Finding an appropriate volunteer was relatively easy, as it simply involved a matter of finding a pony who looked relatively healthy enough and ordering them to volunteer. In the end I was lumbered with a young mare named Marathon, a slightly stocky looking thing who looked rather more masculine than I’d have preferred, though that might have been a result of the Royal Guard training and the armour; one was unlikely to find the next Fleur-de-Lis in the ranks of the common soldiery. That said, the rear barding did well to conform to the shapely, muscular flanks which swayed ever so wonderfully as she jogged.

With the scrap of paper safely tucked away in Marathon’s armour, we set out. Cannon Fodder, as ever, accompanied me. Considering he had saved my life twice now, the first being the incident in the Canterlot catacombs, I was unwilling to part with him for any extended period of time. His odour and lack of social skills would be something I’d just have to get used to then.

We headed down the slope into the valley and set off at a brisk trot towards the great citadel, praying that we would not be seen by any flying Changeling patrols. As luck would have it, the Changelings were rather more concerned with the battle to our south than three lone ponies running in the opposite direction.

It was about halfway when my limbs started to burn with the exertion, and breathing required an almighty effort to perform. Even Cannon Fodder, who seemed to be rather immune to these sorts of things, looked as if he was feeling the strain. Marathon seemed more than happy to keep going, but became rather disappointed when I ordered a break to be taken to allow Cannon Fodder and I some time to recover. While I should have been happy trotting along, in the opposite direction to the massacre just less than a mile away, watching her toned flanks bob up and down, my tiredness was soon outweighing any possibly pleasure in observing this young mare.

“Hmmph,” she huffed, “I’ve never had to stop during a race before!”

I blinked up at her as I lay sprawled on the ground, struggling to catch my breath. “This isn’t a race, guardspony.”

Marathon scoffed. “I swear you unicorn pansies have no stamina at all,” she said as she jogged on the spot, before stopping as she suddenly realised just which ‘unicorn pansy’ she happened to be speaking to. “Uh, not you, sir.”

I smirked, “Of course.”

“It’s just running is my special talent,” she continued, being a rather talkative pony, not that I minded as some light conversation helped take my mind off my possible imminent death. “I’m the three times champion of the Running of the Leaves in Ponyville!” [A quaint tradition in Ponyville where the stampeding hooves of the running ponies causes the autumn leaves to fall from trees.]

“Ponyville?” I asked, realising that she definitely did not speak with that distinct Trottingham accent. “Do you know Rarity, perhaps?”

“The fashion designer? Yeah, I know her. I commissioned her to design me some new jogging clothes; they certainly looked fancy but not nearly aerodynamic enough for competitive running.”

The break lasted five minutes, where Cannon Fodder and I drained a bottle of water between us, before we headed off once more at a thankfully slower pace. By now the sun had descended past the western mountains and cast us in a deep shadow, and a refreshing cool breeze was blown through the valley from the north.

The great citadel of Maredun, with its ruined towers and walls, loomed ahead of us, beckoning us in with its promises of safety. Gaps in the curtain walls had been filled temporarily with sandbags, and eagle-eyed sentries, resplendent in their gleaming gold armour, gazed watchfully out into the valley below. The great banner of Equestria, which had been gifted unto Celestia’s Own 1st Solar Guard, flew from the tallest tower in the keep, while lesser banners fluttered in the breeze on the smaller turrets and towers.

We cantered up the winding pathway to the main gate. The slope that lead up to the castle was at too high an angle for anypony to even attempt to climb, and the sheer rock provided no hoof-holds, so the only way anypony could reach the gate was through a winding road that zigzagged its way up. While this certainly made an excellent defensive feature against any enemy unlucky enough not to be blessed with the ability of mass flight, I doubted it would prove particularly effective against the Changelings.

We galloped up through the winding pathway to the first set of gates which the sentries, upon recognising my distinctive, albeit damaged, uniform, opened for us and allowed us entry. There were three courtyards, each designed to form a killing zone from which unicorns from the walls and towers could pour a monstrous amount of firepower into the yard below and, failing that, it would be large enough to allow several platoons of earth ponies to engage the foe in close combat.

The 1st Solar Guard were already mobilised and ready for combat; assembled in combat formations in each of the courtyards and prepared to march out at a moment’s notice. They stood still to attention, with the only indication that they were not perfectly crafted statues being the swivel of their eyes and the fact they were breathing. We ignored them, galloping through each of the courtyards, up narrow staircases and through wrought iron doors into the keep itself.

The dust of ages long past was disturbed as we entered into the main entrance hall. While it must have once been a grand hall, adorned with the banners and standards of the ancient civilisation that once called this place home, it was still designed with a military purpose. The walls that supported the high ceiling concealed numerous slits for bows and unicorns, forcing the enemy to run a gauntlet of withering fire before they could make their way into the narrow corridors of the fortress.

Makeshift braziers and magical lamps lit this hallway, casting deep black shadows from the crumbling pillars. This place hadn’t been inhabited for over a thousand years, perhaps more. It was even rumoured this citadel had been built even before the founding of Equestria, when ponykind was split into numerous petty kingdoms that vied with one another for power and influence.

A sentry by the name of Arrow Heart led us through the narrow corridors, the dim lighting granting a distinct sense of foreboding as we trotted through the sepulchral hallways, to wherever it was that General Crimson Arrow was staying. We reached a set of stairs, which we climbed while Marathon was berating me for being a ‘pansy unicorn’ like a high school gym teacher screaming at a fat colt. I ignored it, but made a mental note to put her on extra sentry duty once this had all blown over.

As we ascended the stairs I could hear the sounds of a very vocal argument between Shining Armour and Crimson Arrow emanating from just above us.

“If you step one hoof out of this fortress I’ll have you court-martialled for insubordination!” shouted Crimson Arrow.

“Better insubordination than leaving fellow guardsponies to die out there!”

“The 3rd is a lost cause; I’ll not risk any more ponies in this futile endeavour.”

I heard a hoof stomp, “I can’t believe you’re being so callous about this!”

The main war room was on the third floor. It was a large, expansive hall with a huge window, the glass long since shattered and eroded by the millennia of decay, which commanded a wide view of the valley below. With the window gone the room was exposed to the elements; the grey stone pillars had been eroded by wind and sand had seeped in to pool in the crevices and corners of the room. The centre was dominated by a large, foldaway table that the general staff must have brought along with them. Strewed about it were various maps and mathematical equipment such as rulers and protractors.

Shining Armour and Crimson Arrow stood by the gaping hole where the window once lay, joined by Colonel Rising Star and a number of military aides from the general staff whom I did not recognise. The Captain of the Guard looked enraged, his body quivering as if struggling to hold back his anger, while Crimson Arrow looked far less confident. In fact, if I didn’t know any better I’d have said that the young General was nervous. His eyes were wide and constantly darting over to his aide to plead for advice and assistance in the insane responsibility now placed upon his shoulders.

“I’m being realistic,” the General insisted, his voice stammering with indecision, “we need to hold the Changelings here at Maredun before they spill out into southern Equestria. That’s what the plan says.”

Shining Armour shook his head emphatically, “Maredun is in no position to endure a siege,” he said more calmly this time, no longer shouting or raising his voice, “the walls have gaping holes and once the Changelings get in there’s no retreat from here. We can hold the Changelings at the mouth of the valley, let me mobilise my regiment and lead the 3rd in an organised retreat into the valley. The Changelings’ advantage of numbers will be blunted in the tight confines of the gorge.”

I cleared my throat loudly, and the ponies in the room stopped and looked in my direction. General Crimson Arrow’s thick eyebrows shot to his forehead upon seeing me; no doubt I made quite a sight with my dusty, dirty, blood-stained uniform.

“Forgive my appearance,” I said dryly, “but considering what we’ve just been through I think I can be excused for being a bit unclean.”

“What is it?” spat Crimson Arrow in annoyance. “Why aren’t you with your regiment?”

“We’re here to deliver a message,” I replied, then noticing Colonel Rising Star of the 3rd Solar Guard standing by the window. “Why isn’t Rising Star with his regiment?”

The elderly pony snorted, which made his impressive facial hair quiver, “You can’t expect me to be out there! I might get hurt!”

I frowned, “Then who did you leave in charge of the regiment?”

“Captain Clear Heavens,” he said with a degree of pride in his raspy voice. “I know he’s a bit impetuous and enthusiastic, but he so wanted this chance to prove himself.”

I have very rarely ever been so stunned into silence, but this was one of those times. Of all the officers in the Royal Guard that I had hitherto had the misfortune to meet, Clear Heavens was probably the one I’d have considered to be least qualified to lead a regiment into battle. Indeed, it became all rather clear now; the reason the 3rd Solar Guard had advanced so far out into the Badlands and allowed itself to get so thoroughly encircled was down to his idiocy. To be fair, the only time I had met him was during that rather unpleasant duel we had fought, but already I was beginning to regret letting him live.

The General ignored him, “Well, spit it out then! What’s the message?”

I nudged Marathon over, who seemed to have developed a minor case of stage fright in the presence of so many officers. She took the scrap of paper out clumsily and started to read it aloud, only for Crimson Arrow to rudely seize the note out of Marathon’s hooves with his magic and bring it over to read. The usually confident young mare yelped and flinched away from the magical aura.

The scowl on Crimson Arrow’s face only deepened as he read the note intently, while Shining Armour peered awkwardly over the General’s shoulder to see what all the fuss was about. I stumbled over to the map table and leaned against it for support, silently wishing for a glass of very strong alcohol to make what we were about to do seem a little less insane. Granted it was the only sensible course of action I could see, however, it seemed the General didn’t see it that way.

“No,” said Crimson Arrow as he screwed up the note into a ball and tossed it out of the window, thus showing just what he thought of Sunshine Smiles’ master plan. “It’s suicide,” he continued, turning away from us to watch the battle from the window.

The citadel was constructed on a ‘peninsula’ in the valley where a large area of the mountains protruded into the gorge, thus providing a commanding view of the entire valley. At the southern end we could still see the vast, cloying mass of Changelings and the faint smudge of the 3rd Regiment.

“Staying here is suicide,” insisted Shining Armour, “and I refuse to let fellow guardsponies die simply because you’re too timid.”

“There’s no saving the 3rd Regiment,” he retorted, not taking his eyes off the smudge in the distance. “Being a leader means having to make the tough decisions, and sometimes the most unpalatable choice is the best. We will remember the sacrifice of those brave ponies, but I will not risk the rest of the army in this foolish endeavour.”

“One thousand ponies,” Shining Armour punctuated the phrase with a stamp of his hoof, “that’s how many you are leaving to die out there.”

“Acceptable losses,” said Crimson Arrow coldly.

“That’s enough,” I said. I had been content to stand back and allow the two to argue, but the urgency of our task was starting to weigh heavily on me. If I had allowed them to bicker more, then the 3rd Solar Guard would be completely overrun before we had any chance to do anything about it, or Crimson Arrow would just pull rank and have Shining Armour court-martialled for insubordination, which would mean the only somewhat competent officer in the entire Solar Guard would have his entire career ruined.

An awkward silence fell as all eyes fell upon me. Granted, I was largely used to being the centre of attention as it comes with being a prince of the realm and damned handsome, but here in this strictly professional setting it was rather unnerving. The fact that my next few words could mean life or death for hundreds of ponies, or indeed determine the fate of Equestria, did little to help me.

“I’m with Shining Armour,” I said, much to the combined shock and relief of the Captain of the Guard.

“Too bad,” said Crimson Arrow, sounding more like a petulant child being denied a treat than a military commander, “I’m in command here.” The annoying thing was that he was absolutely right. The Royal Guard prides itself in its strict command structure; a pony doesn’t so much as sneeze without written consent from his superior officer, signed in triplicate, and then sent off to the War Ministry to be recorded for posterity.

“Not anymore,” I said, not quite thinking. Little did I know that the next sentence out of my mouth would be the one that would contribute greatest to my fraudulent rise to fame, but still an element of anxiety crept into my voice. “By the power invested in me by Their Royal Highnesses and Their Royal Commissariat, I hereby remove you from command.”

“Very funny, Blueblood,” said Crimson Arrow sarcastically and with absolutely no mirth. “I know you can’t do that. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a battle to run.”

Or not run, as far as I could see.

I felt an ice cold shudder, which I quickly repressed with the ease of a practiced dissembler. I had been attached on a regimental level to the Night Guards with authority to watch over command decisions, but I did not know whether that power extended to the general staff either. It seemed like a rather inappropriately large amount of power to be gifted to one pony, particularly one as self-centred and cowardly as I, but for some peculiar reason Auntie Luna appeared to believe I was possessed of enough strength of character not to let it all go to my head.

I drew my sword; twenty-eight inches of Equestrian steel caked and clotted with dried Changeling blood levitated just before me. The sound of steel grating on the scabbard echoed through the ancient chamber, having the desired effects of silencing the quiet murmurings of the military aides and making tiny beads of sweat form on Crimson Arrow’s brow. [Note that most swords being drawn from their scabbards tend not to make this familiar sound, despite what adventure novels may have told you; however, in the creation of the Commissariat my sister insisted that a commissar’s scabbard be altered to make this sound. Luna has quite a flair for the dramatic and understood that a commissar’s role is as much about psychology as it is about fighting.]

“No, you don’t; I’m relieving you of command,” I said firmly. “Your caution will result in the capture or deaths of nearly a thousand ponies out there and many more if we fail to stop them at the valley. I cannot allow you to continue this course of action.”

“You can’t do this!” he cried, stamping a hoof in frustration, but there was a look in his eyes that made me shudder; betrayal. “This is mutiny! I’ll see you hang for this!”

He was my friend, well, possibly one of the closest things to a friend I would be allowed to have in the aristocracy. I suppose ‘an acquaintance with whom I can tolerate being near for an extended period of time’ might have been more appropriate, but I still felt some twinge of sadness for what I was doing to the poor lad. I couldn’t quite blame him; he was young and naive, and unexpectedly thrust into a situation where he was given so much responsibility. Knowing him as I did, he felt that this battle belonged to him and him alone; this was his chance to prove he could command without anypony interfering and thus seemed to think taking the advice of other ponies to be tantamount to giving up. For the sake of those guardsponies down there in the valley, and for averting defeat, I pushed that small sliver of empathy out of my mind.

“He can,” said Cannon Fodder to the surprise of everypony in the entire room. “Princesses’ Regulations; the Commissar can relieve any officer of command deemed to be incompetent, cowardly, corrupt, or otherwise incapable of conducting their duties subject to a later inquiry.”

“I wasn’t asking for your opinion, guardspony, you will speak when spoken to.”

“Actually, he’s right,” said one of the aides, a middle-aged mare with enormously thick rimmed glasses. “The Commissariat has total power over every aspect of the Royal Guard’s command structure.”

“Blueblood...” gasped Crimson Arrow disbelievingly. “I thought we were friends.”

“It’s Commissar Blueblood,” I said, flicking the sword towards him to emphasise the point. I was hoping that he wouldn’t pull that ‘friendship’ card and make this harder than it already was. I felt somewhat sick, but I knew that ultimately this was the right thing to do. “I’m sorry,” I added.

The General huffed in indignation, steam snorting out of his flared nostrils in anger, before he turned on the spot and stomped off out of the room via an arched doorway on the far west end of the weathered hall. The aged yet sturdy door slammed shut behind him with a resounding 'thump', and an awkward silence descended on the room as we all gazed nervously at each other.

“Well, now what, Commissar?” asked one of the tacticians, his voice dripping with sarcasm, which I ignored in favour of getting on with this grisly business.

“Come on,” I said to the assembled crowd as I sheathed my sword with a steely, grating rasp, “we’ve got a job to do.”

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