• Published 12th Jan 2013
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A Song of Storms: Snow and Shadows - The 24th Pegasus



With the onset of the windigo curse, Commander Hurricane and the other tribal leaders leave in search of new lands. They aren't the only ones to face challenges, as the tribes inch closer and closer to ripping each other apart with each day.

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Chapter 18: End in Fire

Chapter 18: End in Fire

Both Typhoon and Cyclone rebounded from their sword clash, their limbs shaking and their breathing heavy. They had mirrored each other’s actions all the way to the strike, and both had struck with so much force that they nearly lost their swords. Just from that one blow, Typhoon’s neck ached, and Cyclone roughly shook the tension out of his own muscles.

Both were disappointed it didn’t end one way or another on the first strike. Now they had to continue trying to kill each other, ripping their own hearts in the process.

Typhoon immediately began to aggressively press Cyclone. Opening her wings, she used them for a quick burst of speed to close the gap between her and her brother, windmilling her sword over her shoulder as she moved. Cyclone stood his ground, adjusting his stance so that his left wing was raised as a bladed shield over his head. When Typhoon’s sword came down, it became lodged in the scales on Cyclone’s wingblade. Cyclone attempted to counter with his own sword, but Typhoon managed to catch his on the very last scales on her wing crest; the last line of defense before it would have cleaved her neck in two.

Cyclone attempted to hook his right wingblade at her exposed side, but Typhoon was faster. In an alarming display of brute strength, she heaved her body to the left. Between the wingblade and the sword that she had locked in her grasp, she managed to nearly flip Cyclone onto his side. Although taken by surprise, the red pegasus was fast enough to disengage and twirl out of the range of her weapons, where he took a split second to reorganize his attacks before charging her.

Typhoon attempted to sidestep at the last second, but Cyclone had predicted it. With a sudden kick off of his left hooves, he rammed his shoulder into Typhoon’s chest while she was still moving. The mare flailed her wings and forelegs as she struggled to keep her balance on her hind legs, but Cyclone wouldn’t give her the time to situate herself. With a single stroke of his wings, he barreled straight at Typhoon, swinging his sword towards her exposed gut in the process.

Seeing the attack coming, Typhoon desperately braced her forelegs and kicked her knees out. The bracers protecting her shins connected with the sword, halting its progress but causing her to grunt in pain. As Cyclone’s weapon rebounded, Typhoon dropped her weight towards him, swinging her sword at the opening near his shoulder blade. Twirling his own sword around in his mouth, Cyclone managed to barely catch Typhoon’s weapon and quickly slide out of the way of her momentum. He retaliated by attempting to take out her left foreleg with his wingblade.

Twisting her wing to block the attack, Typhoon was able to meet the blades with her own, though not without cost to herself. Cyclone’s wingblade came in so fast and so hard that it nearly crumpled Typhoon’s wing as she tried to block. At the very least, she felt it pull on the ligaments holding the limb together, and for a split second it threatened to dislocate on her. Only a costly roll to her left side managed to ease the strain enough before any damage could be done.

Unfortunately, that opened her up to the next set of Cyclone’s attacks. The would-be Emperor drove his sword straight downwards at Typhoon, which the mare only avoided by continuing her roll. She felt the scalding heat of Cyclone’s cumulostratus sword pass by her side, and she could smell burning feathers as it nicked the tail ends of her primaries on her left wing. As she transitioned out of her roll and ended up on all fours, she could see a seared line of blackness charred into the tiled floor of the throne room.

With a sharp tug on his sword, Cyclone ripped the blade out of the ground and flicked several small globs of molten stone off of the metal. The skysteel was blisteringly white, and the very air around it rippled as the fire Empatha bled off of the sword. Typhoon was entranced by that blade. She had heard what ponies sounded like when Cyclone impaled them with that weapon. She hoped she would never experience why they sounded like they that.

The Praetorian Guards behind her gave her a shove forward with their shields as she wandered too close to the edge of the ring they made around the room. She glanced over her shoulder in surprise for but a second, and Cyclone was already driving at her again. His strikes came in a flurry of blows, first his sword, then a wingblade, then his sword again immediately followed by a slash and counter from his other wingblade. The attacks came in like lightning, and his movements were a whirling blur.

Any other pony would have broken under such a vicious onslaught, but not Typhoon. She was in her element now; the coolness of her adrenaline poured into her blood, slowing the world down until seconds dragged out like minutes. She was able to continue blocking and countering Cyclone’s attacks as they came in, even as the sparks they produced threatened to blind her as they showered over her face. Steepening her left wing, Typhoon caught one of Cyclone’s sword strikes under the scales and yanked him downwards. She lashed out at his neck with a wingblade, but Cyclone dropped far more readily than she had expected. Instead of splitting open his neck, it simply slid across his side, bringing forth blood but hardly the lethal fount she had been trying for.

Cyclone grunted from the wound but used his downwards momentum to yank Typhoon’s left side towards the ground. The mare stumbled on her hooves, and Cyclone threw his entire weight onto the wing. He could feel the bone twisting and straining, but it was difficult to snap under the row of metal scales protecting it. Above him, Typhoon shrieked in pain, but even that scream was turned into a powerful strike with her sword. Cyclone managed to angle himself so that his armored back took the majority of the flat strike, but he could still feel the skysteel crumple slightly against his spine. A coldness gnawed on his senses, but it was quickly blasted away with the fire Empatha he carried in his blood.

Releasing Typhoon’s wing, Cyclone rolled onto his right side and struck out with his hooves. He was able to take out Typhoon’s forelegs and send her face smacking into the ground. With a cough, she sputtered blood through her broken teeth while Cyclone pushed off with his wing and spiraled until he was on his four hooves facing her. He waited, watching Typhoon stand up. Blood was dribbling down her chin; she must have bit her tongue when she fell to the ground. Still, she securely fastened the sword in the bars of her jaw and began to advance, though more delicately this time.

Cyclone forced down the Empatha haze threatening to cloud his judgment and backpedaled cautiously. He watched Typhoon as she advanced, slowly and teasingly testing one side or the other with a feint or a jab. He kept his grip on the sword on his teeth rather than on the bars of his jaws so he could quickly flick it from one side of his head to the other with his tongue, and his wings were fully extended on either side. He kept light on his hooves, ready to jump or sidestep at a moment’s notice. He saw the Praetorians nearby out of his peripheral vision, and he angled his movement to the left to step away from them.

That was apparently what Typhoon was waiting for. With a sudden yell, she leapt directly at him, pummeling his left side with her hooves and armored shoulder. Cyclone grunted as the air was forced out of his lungs, and his eyes regained their focus just in time to see a sword slicing through the air towards his muzzle. With a quick puff of breath, Cyclone collapsed his forelegs, feeling the chill of Typhoon’s cirrostratus blade pass through his mane. As his sister struggled to reel in the weapon, Cyclone lurched to the side, knocking Typhoon off her hooves. The two tumbled across the ground before Typhoon managed to kick Cyclone off of her and launch him back several feet.

Typhoon rolled onto her side and stood up just in time to receive a buck to her chin. Luckily it was only a glancing blow; otherwise, her jaw would have been shattered completely. It didn’t save her from the rest of Cyclone’s attacks, and she barely managed to dodge the lethal ones aimed for her throat. Her sword was a blur through the air, but still a clumsy blur as she struggled to respond. On one block she slipped, and was rewarded with a seared line that ran down her chin and across her neck before ending at her shoulder blade. With a powerful shove, she pushed Cyclone away and struck her sword at him, giving her space to retreat. She shuddered as she realized she had been less than an inch from death.

As Cyclone came towards her again, Typhoon adopted an aggressive stance, with wings flared and sword held tightly in her jaws even as her head was curled downwards against her neck. When her brother was within range, Typhoon suddenly somersaulted towards him and kicked off with her hind legs. Cyclone was caught off guard, and even though he tried to adjust his sword to block her, she connected with his neck and tackled him. Brother and sister tumbled back, grappling and trying to strike with swords that were too close and wings locked together. Cyclone managed to shove Typhoon off of him, but the mare was just as quickly back at his side, striking away at him.

Now Cyclone was furiously trying to defend himself. His wings ached with each sword slash he blocked, and his neck was full of knots and twists as he blocked and countered and parried Typhoon’s attacks. Yet still he could not manage to land a hit on her. She was simply too fast and too precise to give him the chance to make an opening. Cyclone could feel the heat building in his blade as the tension mounted, and he moved as fast as he could to try to make something happen.

Something did happen. Cyclone sensed a small chink in Typhoon’s defense, and he hammered it with all his might. Deflecting her sword with the edge of his wingblade, Cyclone drove his sword at her left shoulder. The blade barely scraped past armor, but it was too shallow an angle. The tip of the blade came back red, but not much else. All he had done was scratch his sister rather than the wound he was hoping for.

Typhoon’s response was brutal. She completely twisted her wing around and under Cyclone’s outstretched blade and tugged on it. It didn’t pull it free from her brother’s jaws, but it brought his head closer to hers. Lunging forward, she slammed her helmeted head against Cyclone’s exposed brow. His nose began to bleed and his eyes misaligned for a second as he struggled to clear the stars from his vision. Typhoon took the opportunity to draw a wingblade across his face.

Blood spattered her armor and Cyclone shouted in pain. With a nick of his wingblade at Typhoon’s right leg, he was able to offset the mare’s balance and wheel away. The two took the time to collect their breath and look at each other instead of pressing an attack.

Typhoon stopped breathing and simply stared at Cyclone’s face. Her brother glared at her for a moment longer before he realized what she was staring at. He could feel the blood trickling across his eye and down his muzzle. He knew what it was, and the irony was not lost on him.

It was a scar, running from his brow, across his eye, and down his muzzle on the left side of his face. A perfect mirror to the scar Typhoon wore on the right side of hers.

-----

Hurricane was sweating by the time he flew over River Rock’s walls and the smoking remains of its guard towers. The fires littering the countryside and the city itself were spewing so much smoke and ash into the air that it reminded him of the aftermath of the Feathertop eruption. The snow, what little there was left, had turned into rain, drenching Hurricane’s feathers and making it that much harder to get the sweat off of his neck. Given the alternative of the frigid cold, he was surprisingly content with this.

River Rock, the pride of the unicorn race, jewel of the Diamond Kingdom, was ruined. Pegasi flew unchallenged across the city, with only the occasional burst of manafire or arrows diverting their attention long enough to dive down and eliminate the resisting unicorns. The upper crust of River Rock was smoldering in flames from pegasus firebombs, and the slums at the bottom of the valley had been flattened out. The smoke belching from the ancient stonework of the buildings around the castle was a testament to how little the Diamond Guard’s tradition and pride meant to it against legions.

“Regiments! Landing zones, go, go, go!” Iron Rain shouted from behind Hurricane and Pan Sea. Her voice used the wind and fire and rain to its advantage, carrying her orders back rank by rank until the entire legion aligned in formation and split off, following their centurions as they dispersed throughout the city.

“Legate, with me,” Hurricane ordered. “I need two regiments, one on the ground and one for air support. We’re going straight up the gut towards the castle, and we’ll try to rally what Diamond Guards we can along the way. We’re going to need their magic to drive out the Praetorian. Otherwise, the privates are going to be cut apart.”

“Sir!” Rain responded before looking over her shoulder. Her eyes met Pathfinder’s, and the stallion groaned.

“I haven’t drunk enough for a siege,” Finder muttered under his breath. Reluctantly, he fell in line behind his wife and stretched his wingblades, sighing as the rain worked its way between the scales and soaked his wing crests.

Hurricane scanned the city around him, looking for a suitable place to land his soldiers. Smoke obscured the majority of the city, and the skies were dark and cloudy and difficult to navigate. Mane Street was always an option, but much too open for Hurricane’s liking. It would be too easy to be attacked from above, and enemies could easily hide in the burnt-out storefronts. A courtyard on a side street would make an excellent staging area; he just had to find one now.

A sheet of gray smoke blocked his view, and Hurricane lowered his helmet against it and plowed through. Shaking his head and snorting loudly, Hurricane blinked away the burning in his eyes and squinted through his eyelashes ahead of him. He managed to focus on the world around him just as a hundred screeching pegasi slammed into his lines.

The Legionnaires behind Hurricane were caught unawares with the smoke blocking their sight. The gray cloud was torn apart as dozens of pairs of wings ripped through it, streaking past Hurricane on either side. The brutal efficiency of wingblades cut many a soldier out of the sky, trailing blood in rough lines behind the attackers’ wings and dropping pegasi to the ground like equine meteors. After sustaining heavy casualties in the first seconds of combat, the two regiments rallied and began to beat back at the traitors.

Two pegasi launched themselves at Hurricane. The air currents behind their wings carried the smoke and ash along with them, making their feathers seem ablaze with unholy fire. Their wingblades were aimed at his throat, and Hurricane had only mere seconds to respond.

He responded by accelerating. Pumping his wings, he darted forward between the two traitors even as he lowered his head and deflected their wingblades with his shoulders. As the two pegasi passed behind him, Hurricane pulled off a sharp flip and turned to face them. The traitors cursed and wheeled around on their wings to come at him again.

As they charged, a yellow blur dove through the sky and sheared the wing off of one traitor with a wingblade, sending the appendage spiraling through the air with its owner reaching for it, screaming as he fell. His companion veered off sharply to the left, but Hurricane intercepted him. Off-balance as the traitor was from the sudden death of his friend, Hurricane pressed him even further back with flyby attacks and slashes from his wings. The traitor twisted and brought his own blades to bear, but Hurricane decided to bypass them entirely. Diving low, he slashed a wing at one of the Legionnaire’s dangling forelegs, severing it completely. The traitor only had enough time to shriek in pain before Hurricane twisted and perforated his throat with several wingblade scales.

The two regiments combined were enough to drive away the traitors, and Hurricane soon found Pan Sea by his side. “Good work,” he complimented, to which Pan Sea nodded. “We need to get to ground, fast.”

“Sir,” Pan Sea acknowledged. “They did a number on our regiment, though. More attacks like this and we’ll be worn down to nothing before we even get to the castle gates.”

“Right,” Hurricane affirmed. Turning to look at the soldiers behind him, he quickly located Legate Rain, her pearly white coat stained with crimson and a manic smile plastered across her face. “Casualties, Legate!”

Iron Rain professionally wiped away the smile and made a quick estimate of the regiments’ strength. “We lost about seventy or eighty soldiers, Commander, but we’ve still got around a thousand left with us. If we keep taking hits like that, though, we’ll be broken before we even complete our objective.”

Nodding, Hurricane turned his attention back towards looking for a landing zone to position his troops. Mane Street was clogged with blood and death; he’d take far too many casualties trying to land there before his regiments even got hooves on the ground. Most of the other side streets were too narrow to land troops in by more than one at a time, and several courtyards were either burning or piled with dead and dying bodies, taking up space.

Looking to his left, Hurricane finally spotted a courtyard suitable enough for landing his regiments. Unfortunately, it was filled with arcane bolts as unicorns on both sides of the clearing exchanged fire with each other. There were a few pegasi to be seen as well, and they were in the faces of one side of unicorns, leading the slaughter.

“Looks like the Diamond Guard has its own traitors!” Pathfinder shouted. “Would you look at that!”

“Cyclone didn’t act alone,” Hurricane thought aloud. “Somepony else must have set this up with him… maybe this isn’t entirely his fault…”

Pan Sea nudged Hurricane’s shoulder with a grim look on his face. “Maybe, Commander, but your son has gone too far to turn back now… you must do what you must.”

Hurricane screwed up his face in thought, but quickly shook it away to focus on the task at hand. “We need to help the loyal unicorns, then. Clear out this courtyard of all traitors, pegasus and unicorn alike, and we have our staging area.”

Iron Rain saluted and flew upwards to extend her voice. “Legionnaires, ready! We’re going to be landing under fire! The unicorns are fighting amongst themselves just as much as we fight brother against brother. Why don’t we help out our fellow soldiers?”

A collective “Hooah!” answered her. Grinning, Iron Rain saluted to Hurricane and spiraled off to the left. Hurricane, Pan Sea, and Pathfinder watched the two blocks of regiments tilt and bank after her, descending into the courtyard. They spread out like molten silver poured into a bucket as they landed, their bright armors reflecting the sun and fires off of the skysteel as they rushed both the attacking pegasi and the traitors in the Diamond Guard. Legate Rain disappeared into the melee, leaving bodies in her wake.

“Don’t you want to go with her, soldier?” Hurricane asked Pathfinder as they wheeled around the descending column of pegasi.

Pathfinder’s eyes widened imperceptibly and he shook his head. “Believe me, sir, the last place I’d want to be is next to her on a battlefield.”

“Why’s that?” asked Pan Sea.

“She’s a Nimban mare, through and through.”

“You poor soul,” Hurricane remarked as he began to descend. Despite the city having fallen two decades ago, the ponies of Nimbus still remembered its name in all its terrifying glory. There was no better soldier, no pony more thrilled by the glory of battle than a Nimban pegasus. Some would call it bloodlust, and others madness, but both describe outcasts of society, not the magnificent warriors they truly were. No, for the ponies of Nimbus, their thirst for blood and glory was the foundation of their very way of life.

Clearing his thoughts and diving down, Hurricane gritted his teeth and flared his tired, aching wings to slow before hitting the ground. Though he managed to land without hurting his hooves, the force of the wind through his wings tore away several of his ragged black feathers. They fluttered down around him in the rain, blending into the soot and cinders. He glanced at one feather as he gathered his breath; it exploded into ash and heat as a bolt of mana went streaming past his nose, singeing a few hairs. Hurricane cursed and began to move, even as more bolts were directed towards him.

He quickly drew his sword with such force that it scattered sparks into the air, casting a ghostly illumination across his face, and rushed the line of unicorns. They peppered him with arcane bolts of all colors, but Hurricane lowered his helmet and was surprised to not feel even the slightest burning of flesh. Instead, his armor began to ring. The bolts aimed for the Commander’s head and neck suddenly swerved away from his body and slammed into his armor, where they left a small glowing circle before fading away. Bewildered, the Diamond Guard traitors tried to ready more powerful bolts, but Hurricane was already upon them.

His first swing cleaved a unicorn’s head from its shoulders. As the surrounding traitors backed up to draw their weapons, Hurricane spun around and bucked the body as it fell. The body left a trail of blood spurting from its neck as it sailed through the air before colliding with two unicorns and knocking them over. Using the momentum from the kick, Hurricane collapsed his forelegs and launched himself at a soldier across from him. He slammed his shoulder into the reeling unicorn, knocking them both to the ground. There was the whistling of a blade through the air behind him, and Hurricane rolled out of the tackle not a moment too soon. There was a small tinny sound as the flat of the blade deflected off of the tail of his armor, followed by a much more definitive crunch and a scream as it pierced through the chest of the unicorn he had clobbered.

Blood spattered the unicorn who accidentally killed his friend, but Hurricane didn’t give him time to react. Twisting his sword from one side of his mouth to the other, Hurricane struck at the unicorn’s sword and knocked it away to the side. As the unicorn gasped and tried to recover his weapon, Hurricane twisted on his front hoof and drew his wingblade across the soldier’s throat. Crimson sprayed the ground, and by the time the corpse hit it, Hurricane had already killed two more soldiers.

“Clear, clear! Fire!”

Hurricane heard the distressed commands, and quickly grappled a nearby soldier. Drawing his hoof around the unicorn’s neck, he tightened his grip on the struggling unicorn and hoisted him up as cover. Pulling up sharply on the unicorn’s neck, Hurricane turned his hostage just as numerous shots of arcane energy scattered around him. The unicorn held in his grip spasmed and coughed up blood, and Hurricane shoved the dying soldier directly into the firing line with a grunt. He immediately followed the body, charging into the midst of the unicorns and swinging all of his blades as fast as he could.

The stickiness of blood soon coated Hurricane’s wings and glued his feathers together, but it had no effect on the onslaught he continued to deliver. Unicorns rushed him with swords raised or tried to barrage him with magic, but the Commander was simply too fast to hit. Ducking in and out of attacks, he slid underneath clumsy blows and spilt the intestines of several opponents as he passed. As Hurricane spun out of one attack, a powerful discharge of mana struck him in the gut and propelled him twenty feet backwards. He ended up against a wall with smashed crates and rotting cabbage heads scattered around him.

“Not the bucking ringing,” Hurricane cursed as he scrambled out of the remains of some poor merchant’s stall. He looked upwards at the bottom edge of his helmet and scowled as the void crystals continued to resonate. “I hate the Gods-damned ringing!”

His anger at a mild annoyance propelled his limbs with a vicious and powerful fury. The Commander dove into the ranks of the unicorns and laid blows around him. A quick upwards slice from his gladius through a Diamond Guard’s neck was followed by a twisting slash from a wingblade that snapped a unicorn’s horn straight off, showering the side of the building in iridescent sparks and screaming. Raising his other wing, Hurricane blocked a sword stroke and countered by wrenching the weapon aside and skewering the soldier with the Gladius Procellarum. There was a pop of light, causing the unicorn to scream, and as Hurricane withdrew the sword it released a fiery boom of frigid lightning that dropped the soldier dead.

By now, the rest of the unicorns had scattered away from Hurricane’s reach, terror beginning to fill their eyes and eat away at their hearts. All the pegasus had to do was leer in a direction and the soldiers would scurry backwards, frightened. Nopony dared fire on him for fear that the Commander would survive and come after them next. Instead they watched, their eyes fixated on them even as their nervous sweats froze into frost around their ears and across their brows.

They didn’t see the rest of the legion coming.

Dozens of pegasi dove out of the skies and into the group of unicorns, scattering them and their limbs in various directions. Blood and death filled the square, and Hurricane sheathed his sword as the soldiers around him cleaned up. Pan Sea, Pathfinder, and Iron Rain all took up positions around him and left carnage in their wake, only worsening the massacre. By the end of it all, Iron Rain was no longer identifiable as a white mare, and both Pathfinder and Pan Sea were eyeing her warily. Across the street, the loyal Diamond Guards were organizing themselves with assistance from some of Rain’s centurions.

“Was that all of them? Don’t tell me that was all of them!” Rain shouted. Sheathing her huge sword, she flung several droplets of blood from her mane with a shake of her head. The scarlet pattered against Pan Sea’s and Pathfinder’s faces, who glanced worriedly at each other.

“Easy, Legate,” Hurricane warned. Leaving her behind, he trotted across the street. Walking up to a cluster of unicorns, he waved a wing at them.

“Who’re you?” they responded, gruff and tired from hours of fighting.

“Reinforcements,” Hurricane answered just as curtly.

“For us or for them?”

Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “I just killed off your assailants, including several treacherous Cirrans, pulling your asses from the fire in the process, and you still have the gall to ask that question?”

The soldiers stared at him blankly, panting and shuffling their hooves in the meanwhile.

“Commander!” a different, familiar voice called out to him. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Shame we had to meet again on such awful terms.”

Hurricane looked over to see a blue unicorn clad in officer’s armor approach him, his face ragged with blood and soot from all the fighting and his horn smoking lightly.

“Chiseled Gem? You’re still around?”

“Living, fighting, killing, not much has changed,” the unicorn said as he saluted to Hurricane. “Once again, you’ve shown up just in the nick of time. Come.”

Hurricane followed without question, staying close by the Diamond Guard’s side as he walked towards Mane Street. Approaching the corner of the building, he cautiously leaned out before walking into the street, beckoning for Hurricane to follow.

“There,” he said, pointing with a hoof at the distant castle obscured by smoke and fire. “Cirrans landed there a few hours ago. Cut through anything and everything we put up against them. Of course, it didn’t help that half of the Celestis-damned Guard suddenly shot us in the back as soon as they arrived.” He sighed, and years of stress piled onto his aching shoulders. “The loyal Guards scattered. I’ve been trying to put together whatever regiments I can, but we’re getting ambushed and firebombed every other second. I’m trying to fight my way to the castle, but I can’t pull in the numbers to break through that.”

“I’ve got a thousand with me, and several thousand more throughout the city,” Hurricane said. “We’re trying to get to the castle too. My son is there.”

“I didn’t know that there were any Cirran garrisons left in River Rock.”

“There aren’t,” Hurricane answered.

Chiseled Gem mouthed a silent ‘oh’ and bit down on his lip. “If we can rally a few thousand more Diamond Guards, I’d say we can make a run on the castle.”

“I’ll need your magic to cut through the Praetorians.”

“Everypony knows the Diamond Guard isn’t cut out for that sort of work, even the Diamond Guard itself.”

“That’s why I’m leading the way. Your magic will make up for what I’m lacking in numbers.”

“Right.”

The two ponies regarded the burning castle for a little bit longer before Chiseled Gem turned to Hurricane. “Reminds you of the siege twelve years ago, eh?”

“No, it doesn’t. The castle wasn’t on fire then.”

“Details. We’ll put out the flames soon enough.”

-----

“Rraugh!”

Typhoon grunted as she ducked under Cyclone’s sword and rolled out behind him. Bounding out of the move, she struck her own blade at her brother’s exposed flanks, but the stallion twisted to the side and dodged it by a few hairs. Carrying the momentum across his left side, Cyclone slammed his sword hard into Typhoon’s shoulder armor, shoving her backwards.

Taking a few steps to recover her balance, Typhoon carried her stumble into a brisk canter to wheel herself back around towards Cyclone. Gritting her chipped teeth and split lips around the hilt of her sword, she swung it furiously at Cyclone’s neck and shoulders. Her brother angled his head to the side and blocked the sword with his own, recoiling ever so slightly with each successive strike. With a few steps backwards, Cyclone put some distance between himself and Typhoon, and braced himself for her next attack.

An impressive ring of steel filled the room as the two blades met, and both pegasi were left leering into each other’s faces as they pressed their locked swords against one another with all the strength they could muster. Blood and sweat, snow and ash, determination and sorrow stood out clear as day on their faces as they locked eyes. The muscles in Cyclone’s neck rippled with exertion, and Typhoon drew back her lips in a snarl as she struggled to push back against her older and stronger brother.

With a muffled shout, Cyclone began to move Typhoon’s sword back. The mare’s hooves slid against the tiled ground as she struggled to press back. Her eyes lit up with dismay as she felt herself losing ground, and she tried to disengage from the clash. Cyclone pressed her through all of her movements, however, and with a powerful twist of his neck he raised Typhoon’s sword into the air and slammed it back against the ground on her other side, driving his sister’s face into the tile.

Typhoon shouted in pain and struggled to slither away as dizziness clouded her mind. Glancing upwards at Cyclone, she barely had enough time to respond to the wingblade he was driving towards her neck. Raising her own wing, she locked the scales of the blade with her brother’s and pushed back enough to stop him. Cyclone’s wing flared up with fire Empatha, however, and he shoved her wing to the side with a fiery stroke of force and ash. Typhoon felt her shoulder drag across the ground, even as Cyclone carried his momentum into turning around and kicking his hind legs out at her.

His hooves made solid contact with Typhoon’s face and launched the mare backwards. After flopping on the ground a few times, Typhoon came to a rest near the outer edge of the circle and moaned. She didn’t linger long on the pain, however, and exhaustedly struggled to her hooves. When she stood, a searing flash of pain burnt the back of her eyes, and she doubled over, teeth clenched. Squeezing her eyes shut, Typhoon managed to force the pain down and coughed, spattering blood from her face and mouth onto the tile in front of her.

Cyclone watched her from a distance, his own breathing quick and ragged. His body ached, but he wouldn’t give in to the pain yet. His endurance was much greater than his little sister’s, and he could tell she was wearing out. A few more strikes and he would be able to break her. Then it would all be over.

He wasn’t sure how to feel about his thoughts.

Reaffixing her grip on her sword, Typhoon held the weapon firmly between her teeth and began to charge at Cyclone. Her vision narrowed until he was the only thing that she saw, and she watched all his movements with intense scrutiny as she approached.

Cyclone braced himself for the charge, spreading out his legs and lowering his shoulders against it. His skysteel sword glowed white hot in anticipation, and the air around him rippled from the heat pouring off of the weapon. The sweat on his face burnt off as the warmth evaporated it. Even the Praetorians standing near Cyclone backed off as the heat threatened to roast them inside their armor.

Typhoon’s limbs moved with rhythmic certainty, her four hooves clopping a regular pattern across the tile as she galloped towards Cyclone. Thirty feet, twenty-five, twenty, she closed the gap to him. Both siblings locked eyes and prepared for the strike to come.

But it wasn’t the strike Cyclone was prepared for. With a small hop barely ten feet away from her brother, Typhoon elevated ever so slightly into the air, drawing Cyclone’s blade upwards. Then, with a quick upstroke of her wings, Typhoon flattened herself against the floor and slid under his defenses, slamming her wingblades across her brother’s legs as she passed by.

Cyclone shifted his forelegs ever so slightly and managed to catch his sister’s wings on the bracers guarding his shins, but the force of her charge still knocked his legs out from under him. There was a clatter of metal and a sharp pain in Cyclone’s limbs, and as he fell onto the ground a bracer was torn free from his right leg, the crumpled skysteel rolling off to the side of his vision.

Arching his back, Cyclone flipped onto his hooves just as Typhoon rolled onto hers. This time Cyclone advanced, putting all of his energy into his sword. Typhoon pivoted her own blade to block it, and the two metals hissed as fire and ice Empatha met along the edges of their weapons. Instead of locking swords like earlier, however, Cyclone pulled back on his and swung it again. Typhoon’s neck shuddered as the blow travelled along her sword and down her spine, and she shifted her hooves for better balance. Again Cyclone pulled back, and again he drove his sword down against her. This time, he hit Typhoon’s weapon so hard that he knocked it from her grasp, causing her to spray blood and spittle from between her teeth as the weapon left. Wheeling back on the strike, Cyclone spun a wingblade towards Typhoon’s throat, which the mare was able to block on the rim of her breastplate’s collar.

Pushing harder, Cyclone lodged the scales of his wingblade underneath Typhoon’s shoulder piece and pulled sharply upwards. Typhoon shouted as she felt her hooves leave the ground and the razor sharp scales of Cyclone’s wingblade brush against her neck. With a roaring yell, Cyclone tugged his wingblade free of Typhoon’s shoulder, tearing off the steel plate protecting it and flipping the mare onto her back. Typhoon grunted as she hit the ground and the air was forced out of her lungs, but quickly rolled to the side as Cyclone dropped his sword towards her. Almost bashing her already broken nose against the ground, Typhoon grabbed her sword and swung it blindly upwards out of the roll towards her brother.

The steel somehow hit true on Cyclone’s breastplate, and with such force that it split the armor into two crumpled pieces hanging from his back by little more than leather straps. Cursing, Cyclone twisted on of his wings back and snapped the leather holding the rear half of his breastplate in place, letting the shattered armor drop to the ground like a split carapace. The front of his armor still clung tightly to his coat, even if the onyx stone and skysteel was cracked and crumpled. The golden lightning bolt emblazoned across his chest was folded in two from one of Typhoon’s blows, distorting the reflection of the approaching mare as she swung again at her brother.

The two swords met with incredible force, producing a hiss of steam as fire and ice combined. Both ponies drew back from the block, and both attacked at the same time, meeting at a different angle. Flaring his wings, Cyclone feinted low then high before finally driving his sword at Typhoon’s chest. The mare quickly responded to both feints but left herself open to the attack, and screamed as she felt the blade rip through her armor and slide under her coat, searing the flesh the entire way through. With a desperate strike, she flicked a wing at Cyclone’s neck, drawing a sharp line of blood against his throat but failing to slice deep enough to kill him. The stallion shouted and coughed, allowing Typhoon to head-butt her helmet against his nose and send him reeling back, a hoof to his face.

Typhoon responded by lowering her sword and pressing a hoof to her wounded side. The right side of her armor was shattered and melted, and a cut about two inches deep just underneath her wing and shoulder ran through her flesh. She hissed to herself as she could see the charred flesh surrounding the face of a barely exposed rib that had deflected Cyclone’s sword from cutting into her organs. Still, every twist of her body to the right side left her in a staggering amount of pain. Closing her eyes, Typhoon clenched her teeth as she summoned her Empatha to the wound, letting the ice numb her nerves and take the edge off of the pain. As long as she couldn’t feel the pain, it wouldn’t slow her down much. Or, so she hoped.

It would have to do, because Cyclone was advancing again, this time with fire in his eyes and crackling out of his mane from underneath his helmet. With flaming wings and steel, he beleaguered Typhoon with strikes, forcing the mare to quickly yet gingerly respond to each one to avoid getting hit or burned. Deflecting blows to her center and left, Typhoon nearly failed to stop one from cutting through her right side. Only with a great amount of difficulty did the mare manage to raise a wing with the torn muscles on her right and block Cyclone’s sword.

An idea hit Typhoon, and seeing her brother prepare for his next attack, she collapsed to the right side. Cyclone adjusted his stance accordingly, and prepared to swing his sword down on Typhoon’s exposed left flank. Just as he began to move, however, Typhoon quickly sprung around and delivered a buck to Cyclone’s jaw. The blow knocked the sword from his teeth and sprayed blood out of his mouth, along with an errant tooth. As he staggered backwards, Typhoon stood up, gritting her teeth through the pain, and swung the sword she held tightly in her jaws against Cyclone.

The stallion raised his wing to catch the blade, but he positioned it at too sharp of an angle. When Typhoon’s blade met the first scale, it was with such force that it ripped it off and kept going. Four scales on the wingblade were torn from the assembly, and the sword became lodged in the fifth. Snarling around the hilt of the sword, Typhoon pulled back, putting all her weight behind her. Cyclone stumbled forward as the sword dragged the locked wingblade along with it, struggling to free his wing. He finally did with a shout of pain as the blade assembly was torn off of the crest, twisting his wing in an unnatural angle. There was a wet pop, and the stallion screamed as his wing dropped loosely by his side, the crest pointing backwards and the primary feathers brushing limp against the ground.

A sheen of sweat covered his face, and Cyclone quickly hopped backwards out of Typhoon’s reached and retrieved his sword. His wing lagged behind him as he went, and every sudden motion drove a knife of pain into the stallion’s face. Despite this, he still held his sword and one good wing out and ready.

This time, both siblings advanced together. Their strikes were slower now—paced and measured through the pain hindering their movements—but the clash of steel was just as powerful as before. Cyclone struck out at Typhoon, first high, then low, and twice on the right. Typhoon blocked each strike and rotated out of the last one to slash at Cyclone’s left. The sword caught his armor, further crumpling it, and she moved to press Cyclone farther back. The stallion led her until he was able to hook his sword under hers and parry her strike away, leaving an opening for his one good wing to attack. When it did, he punched it into Typhoon’s chest three times, each one pounding the steel further until it left a crumpled gash in the mare’s side, making it difficult to breathe. Following that up, Cyclone ducked under a slash from Typhoon and slammed his sword into his sister’s helmet. Typhoon shouted as the sword burned off part of her ear before lodging in her helmet. Pulling on his sword, Cyclone ripped the helm off of Typhoon’s head and pushed her backwards.

Typhoon fell back long enough to coil her legs underneath her and propel herself towards her brother. Slamming a wingblade into his skull, she flipped Cyclone onto his back and sent his helmet flying into the stained glass lining the hall, where it became caught halfway through the lead and colored window. Luckily for Cyclone, he was able to twist his body so that he didn’t fall on his dislocated wing, but even still he grunted as it flapped loosely against his side.

Scrambling around, both ponies stood up and faced each other. They each panted several times, their breathing pained and ragged. Both swayed where they stood and were unsteady on their hooves as they slowly walked towards each other. Without blinking, that walk turned into a canter, and from a canter, a full gallop. Brother and sister eyed each other’s necks while watching where their opponent’s swords were angled. Little more than ten feet from each other, both ponies swung their swords with everything they had.

Fire and ice collided in the center, spewing steam and tiny shards of shattered skysteel into the crowd of Praetorians surrounding them.

-----

Commander Hurricane and Captain Chiseled Gem trotted out into one of River Rock’s main thoroughfares leading straight to Castle Burning Hearth. Behind them were Hurricane’s thousand soldiers from his regiments, with the surviving hundred or so Diamond Guards sticking by Chiseled Gem’s side. Together they marched down the streets, fearless to the fire and death raging through the city around them.

Behind Hurricane, the trio of Legate Iron Rain, Centurion Pathfinder, and Private Pan Sea marched in a line. Both Pan Sea and Pathfinder had their swords sheathed for now, but Iron Rain still held hers in her mouth, letting the flat of the massive griffon zweihander rest across her armored back. Pathfinder had assured Hurricane some time ago that there was a story behind it, but he’d save that for a late night of drinking once this was all over.

Ahead of the liberators, Castle Burning Hearth stood in all of its tragic glory. Smoke billowed forth from shattered windows, and several burning flags fluttered in the bloody wind circulating throughout the city. The armored forms of pegasi clashed high above, cutting into each other with wingblades in terrible aerial combat. Broken, bloody, and mangled bodies lay draped across rooftops or impaled on flagpoles from where they fell from the sky, and the snow had been speckled with scarlet splatters of pony. Here or there was a wing, and some soldiers slowly turned and moaned on the ground as their vitality poured out of mortal wounds through their stomachs.

Hurricane and Chiseled Gem ignored them in the interest of time. As the army approached an area riddled with scorch marks from manafire, Hurricane held out his wings and nodded to Chiseled Gem. The unicorn nodded back in understanding, and began to trot ahead of the army, bringing the rest of his loyal Diamond Guards with him. As he walked into the middle of the street, Hurricane could see shadowy movements in the buildings around him.

“Honorable soldiers of the Diamond Guard!” the Captain called out to the buildings. His legs stood stock-straight and authoritative, and his eyes intently shifted from window to window. “This is Captain Chiseled Gem of the Diamond Guard, 4th Brigade! We fight to beat back the treacherous bastards from both Cirra and within our own ranks who strive to kill the King! We’ve got loyal reinforcements from Commander Hurricane, and they’re advancing on the castle as we speak! So, who dares fight for King Lapis this day?!”

There was silence at first, and Hurricane glanced from building to building. These soldiers might very well be allied with Cyclone, and if so, they’d cut Chiseled Gem to ribbons and remove his magic support from taking on the Praetorian Guard. He couldn’t let that happen. Feeling the eyes of unicorns hidden in the shadows watching him, Hurricane slowly unfurled his wings.

“Swords…” he droned cautiously over his shoulder without taking his eyes away from the buildings. He could hear the hiss of oiled steel sliding through scabbards from behind him, and he leaned forward to place his teeth around his own sword.

Just then, a shout echoed down from the third floor of one of the buildings. It was difficult to hear at first, but it was soon joined by a chorus of others.

“Long life to the King! Long live King Lapis!”

Chiseled Gem smiled and released a tense sigh as unicorns began to trot out of the buildings around him. Most were dirty and covered in sweat and grime, exhausted from fighting the traitors for so long and having gone into hiding to avoid the lethal dive-bombs of the pegasi up above. Seeing reinforcements, however, their eyes lit up with determination, and they soon slid into formation around Chiseled Gem.

Now over two hundred strong, Chiseled Gem turned back to Hurricane and nodded. Returning the nod, Hurricane stood up on his hind legs and bellowed out across the street, “All soldiers, advance!!”

Shouting answered him, and Hurricane began to trot down the street with all his soldiers in formation behind him. Ahead, the unicorns advanced, calling out cries of ‘Long live the King!’ and other patriotic phrases as they passed. Loyal unicorns began to pour out from their shelters and join with Chiseled Gem’s ranks, bolstering the army as they got closer and closer to the castle.

Abrupt manafire broke out from several buildings as the army advanced, forcing the ponies to scatter, but it was little more than a few seconds of inconvenience. As soon as the windows lit up with arcane energy, several pegasi firebombers from above slammed their payloads into the facades of the buildings. The explosions were deafening and the screams piercing, but Hurricane and his army advanced through the fire and flames as the dead traitors fell out of their hideouts. Their screaming echoed through the streets as they swatted at the fire roasting their flesh before their spines crunched against the horribly hard ground, ending their pain forever.

“Double time!” Hurricane shouted. Lowering his head into the charge, Hurricane galloped nearly recklessly towards the rubble-strewn and smoke-filled town square. Ahead of him, the unicorns of Chiseled Gem’s picked up their pace, struggling to stay ahead of the faster pegasi and provide them room to advance. Hurricane had to reign in his advance slightly when he closed to within ten feet of the unicorns in front of him, and after a few quick steps to pace himself, unfurled his wings and took to the skies. Behind him, the rest of the army followed, and soon the shadow of Cirra’s might passed over the Diamond Guards on the ground.

After having leapfrogged Chiseled Gem’s company, Hurricane extended his forelegs and touched down on the ground, immediately breaking into a full gallop and launching himself at the nearest enemy soldier he could see. It was a pegasus with a red smear of paint across her helmet, and she barely had time to turn and draw her sword before Hurricane was on her. Raising her weapon, the lavender pegasus managed to block one of Hurricane’s strikes, but the force still sent her reeling backwards. Struggling to balance herself, the mare gritted her teeth and lunged forward at Hurricane. Angling his wings, Hurricane rolled to the side and disarmed her with a quick stroke of his bladed wing before landing on his forehooves along her side. His rear legs didn’t even touch the ground; instead, they coiled and kicked out with amazing speed, connecting solidly with the mare’s cheek and shattering her jaw. Her helmet popped into the air, catching the light of the fires of hell before it clattered against the ground.

The mare stumbled backwards, tripping over her hooves and falling onto her side, too dizzy to stand up. Hurricane turned and advanced towards her, sword drawn, and she trembled in fear. “Pleash!” she shouted through broken teeth and fragments of bone. “Pleash, mershy!”

“May Mobius show you the mercy you ask for,” Hurricane darkly spoke, “for I have none for you.”

Pleading, the mare raised a hoof towards Hurricane, but the Commander only swatted it aside and plunged his sword into the mare’s neck, withdrawing it crimson. There was a sputter of breath and then nothing as the traitor’s life ended there. Hurricane spared her no thought; she had betrayed the Legion, and as such she had deserved no quarter.

Looking onwards to the Castle, Hurricane saw three traitors advance on him, supported on either side by a unicorn. Lowering his helmet, Hurricane rushed forward to meet them, swinging his sword over his head and rotating his shoulders for momentum as they clashed. The pegasus in the middle blocked the attack, and retaliated with a wingblade towards Hurricane’s side. The Commander caught it with his own, and quickly transitioned out of the attack to bring his sword down on the traitor’s crest. There was a satisfying clang of metal and crunch of bone, and the pegasus screamed as his wing fell loosely to his side, half of it barely hanging on with little more than skin and muscle to hold it together.

Before Hurricane could finish off the traitor, the two pegasi at his sides attacked. Quickly retracting his wingblade, Hurricane sidestepped away from the soldier on his left and raised a wing to deflect an attack from the soldier on his right. Catching both that traitor’s sword and wing, Hurricane threw them to the side and flicked his sword around so the point was to his right. As Cyclone’s soldier tried to respond to Hurricane’s counter, the Commander drove the length of his sword through his neck, stopping only when his cheek touched the pony’s coat and blood sprayed across his muzzle. Ripping out his sword, Hurricane then moved to the next pegasus.

The soldier on his left was ready, and ducked under Hurricane’s wide sword swing to deliver a jab to his gut. Hurricane raised up onto his hind legs to avoid the blow, and then began to slash with one wing after the other at the retreating pegasus. The traitor blocked and sidestepped and ducked away from Hurricane’s onslaught until out of the corner of his eye, the Commander saw the wounded pegasus from before limping away. He looked past him towards the two unicorns beginning to fire their bolts of mana in his direction.

Breaking off from the advance, Hurricane angled himself so that his magic armor would absorb the blast before it could hit his unprotected wings or neck. True enough, the bolts swerved and slammed into the void crystal plating of his armor, making dull glows before fading away. The unicorns stepped back a bit in shock, but soon furrowed their brows in another attempt. This time they produced no bolts of mana, but their horns still lit up. Hurricane looked around quickly to see what they were focusing on before happening to glance down and see the ground underneath his hooves glowing.

“Shit,” he cursed to himself. With a grunt, he flared his wings and pushed out ahead of him, feeling the air launch him backwards and out of the way. No sooner had he flopped onto his back did the ground he was standing on split in half and rise to meet itself, both halves slamming into each other right where he would have been.

“This is why I hate unicorn magic,” he grumbled as he stood up and retrieved his sword. “Let’s see how you do in a real fight!”

He tried advancing against the unicorns, but they quickly responded in throwing up their own defenses by making pillars of earth erupt between them and the pegasus. Hurricane was stretching his wings to fly over the wall when it suddenly exploded outwards as a shockwave of Arcana blew through it. Absolutely pelted with stones, Hurricane threw up a wing to shield himself as he felt them clatter against his helmet and armor. When he lowered it, he could see the unicorns preparing to unleash another spell.

They didn’t have the chance. Swooping down from the sky, Private Pan Sea landed between the two of them and began to attack, his sword moving faster than Hurricane had ever seen it move and his wings flurrying about him in a storm. The two unicorns broke off, though Pan Sea dogged one and quickly put his sword through his neck after a few feints with his wings to throw off the traitor’s defenses. With a flutter of his wings, the Private spun around and launched himself at the other unicorn before he could summon a spell to use against him.

Turning away from that finished fight, Hurricane located his adversary he was pursuing before the unicorns interfered. The pegasus was in the air and diving towards Hurricane, his gladius held to the side to cleave through the Commander’s neck. Raising onto his hind legs, Hurricane blocked the pegasus’ dive-bomb strike and flung the traitor to the ground, even with the added momentum he had gained from his aerial attack. As the traitor rolled away, Hurricane beat his sword after him, tearing up chunks of ground in bursts of thunder and lightning. When the pegasus had barely scrambled to his hooves, Hurricane quickly took them out from underneath him and planted his sword deep between the traitor’s ribs, letting the skysteel of his weapon simultaneously burn and freeze his lungs and heart on the way in.

The traitor spasmed once, his eyes wide and glassy as he coughed blood into the air before rolling back and falling limp. With a few shakes, Hurricane managed to free his sword from the corpse and look around.

“Commander!”

Hurricane’s ears flicked backwards and he looked over his shoulder just fast enough to see a sword slicing towards his neck. He flinched and tried to raise a wing to catch the sword while dropping his opposite shoulder. The blade passed over his wing by little more than two inches and slammed into the collar of his breastplate as he rolled to the side. The soft metal lining the collar slowed the blade enough that when it did strike against his neck, it did little more than leave a flesh wound and knock the Commander backwards.

Collapsing onto his side, Hurricane slid across the crimson ice with his wings flared to try and slow himself down. He soon spun onto his back, and stopped with his exposed chest open to a pegasus’ sword. Swinging the weapon downwards, the traitor attempted to gut Hurricane, but the black stallion responded by rolling to his right and using his left wingblade to catch the sword. Without the leverage to use his strength, Hurricane struggled to keep the blade at a standstill with his wing, while the traitor pressed both hooves down on the sword and began to inch it closer to the Commander’s neck.

Sweating, Hurricane managed to press one hoof against the edge of the sword and once again bring the duel to a stalemate. Sweat beaded on his forehead; his opponent had the advantage in weight and leverage, while Hurricane only had his strength to go on. Flailing his hind legs, he tried to kick the traitor in the groin, but the stallion deftly stepped past Hurricane’s range and adjusted his leverage to put even more weight behind the sword. It began to march closer to Hurricane’s neck yet again, and the Commander’s shoulder burned as even more stress was put on his wing. The stallion smiled victoriously at Hurricane as he overpowered the commander of the Legion by himself.

There was a feral scream behind the traitor’s back, and suddenly a massive zweihander cleaved through the left side of his neck and out the right, leaving the head to flop onto Hurricane’s chest. Red poured across his body, and with a heave of his hooves Hurricane pushed the body off to the side. In its place was Iron Rain, with blood dripping in rivulets from her Gryphon zweihander along both the blade and the counterweight at the base of the hilt to keep the weapon balanced. Her coat was decorated in scarlet, and there were only a few spots on her coat that were still their original white. A wild and terrifying joy was printed across the mare’s face, and Hurricane had no doubt that she’d fix up those spots on her coat in no time.

“Come on, sir, now’s no time for a nap!” Iron Rain screeched as she hauled Hurricane to his hooves. She pointed to the castle, which was fewer than a hundred yards away. “It’s now or never, and they’ve got reinforcements pouring in from all across the city! We have to end this now.”

Around him, Hurricane heard panting as Pan Sea and Pathfinder, both exhausted and covered in blood, trotted up next to him. The four pegasi stood there, looking out amidst the carnage around them, and the fires clinging to the tattered tapestries fluttering in the blaze of war. The stench of blood hung heavy in the air like a smothering blanket, and the screams of war deafened them to everything else. A thick cluster of traitors, both unicorns and pegasi alike, spotted them, and began to shout to each other as they organized and charged.

Nodding towards his companions, Hurricane raised his wings and galloped into the fray. By his sides, he could hear the hoofsteps of the other three against the snow and ice. To his right, Iron Rain edged out ahead of him, while Pan Sea and Pathfinder dropped back slightly into support positions.

With a clash of steel, Hurricane’s wedge punched through the traitors’ line. Spreading and twisting his wings, the Commander deflected errant stabs from two traitors at his sides and parried a third’s slice with his own sword before wheeling around on his front hooves and bucking him in the chest. Four pegasi closed around Hurricane then, each with their swords drawn, and began to swing them at the Commander. Flattening himself against the ground, Hurricane felt two whistle past his ears before raising his right wing and catching a third on the center of the wingblade. Pushing back, Hurricane had just enough time to skirt to the side and let the fourth pegasus bury his sword in the muck.

Driving hard with his right wing, Hurricane disengaged from the soldier he had blocked and sidestepped left to stomp his hoof down on the sword embedded in the ground. The Legionnaire hissed and slashed a wingblade at Hurricane, which the Commander deftly dodged before impaling the traitor’s neck on the scales of his own bladed wing. Dropping to his right, Hurricane barely ducked beneath another sword and pulled sharply upwards with his left wing. The corpse still lodged on the scales went with it, and with a shout of exertion the Commander flipped the body across his back and slammed it on top of the pegasus to his right before he could attack again. That soldier grunted and collapsed under the weight of body and steel, letting Hurricane focus his attention on the two remaining soldiers around him.

The pegasi cautiously kept their distance and spread to opposite sides of Hurricane, to which he responded by opening his wings and keeping a tip pointed at each of them. Darting forward, they attempted to unbalance him, but Hurricane swiftly stepped back and blocked their attacks with his wings, forcing them in front of him. Pressing their advance, the two privates utilized all their blades, jabbing with wingblades and slicing with their swords at Hurricane’s defenses. The Commander meanwhile sidestepped and backpedaled under the assault until he could find an attack of opportunity.

Opportunity soon came, and Hurricane shot underneath an overstretched attack to disarm one of the soldiers with a swift blow to the throat. As the Legionnaire coughed and stepped back, Hurricane whipped around and bucked the other soldier’s snout as hard as he could. There was a definitive cracking of cartilage followed by a sputter of blood and bone, and the traitor fell to the ground, unmoving.

Hurricane set about to press the swordless soldier, but he saw a blade chop through the traitor’s helmet and skull from above, dividing his eyes and muzzle to opposite halves before the sword came to a stop halfway down his neck. With a scream of intense rage, Iron Rain viciously bucked the body off of her sword, letting blood and gray matter paint the snow around her.

“That one was mine!” Hurricane shouted as he scanned for more targets.

“Be faster next time!” Rain called back before spinning around to cleave an unfortunate stallion’s leg off. Bodies enveloped her again as the traitors tried to take her down, but the Legate only swung her weapons wildly, severing limbs and filling the air with red mist and screaming.

Checking once more that he was not in immediate danger, Hurricane halted to take stock of the battle. The Diamond Guard and his loyal soldiers had fought their way into the plaza and were almost at the castle gates, driving out most of the traitors in the area. More, however, poured in from the skies and the side streets, pressing back and threatening to cut off their rear and crush their flanks. Hurricane could see the centurions and captains running back and forth to organize their regiments, but to little avail. The plaza was already chaotic enough to begin with; now, it had devolved into a bloody free-for-all.

Looking forward, Hurricane tried to spot his companions amongst the mess. In the thickest of the fighting was Iron Rain, moving with deadly grace and precision, striking down foes left and right and leaving untold bodies in her wake. Behind her, Pan Sea and Pathfinder worked together to bait their targets out and strike them down with quick blows. Together, the two soldiers had put down five traitors without much fighting, and soon enough companies of unicorns and pegasi arrived by their sides to protect their flanks.

Spotting Chiseled Gem, Hurricane galloped over to his side. “Captain,” he greeted before diving straight into business. “I need your soldiers, now! We’re at the steps of the castle, we just need one final push to break through!”

Chiseled Gem saluted and turned to his soldiers. “Sapphire company, forward! Pry open those doors and bring us some Praetorian heads! Emerald company, keep up the support and keep those damned peggers off of us!”

Hurricane nodded his thanks and turned back to the castle. Flaring his wings, he screamed out to the battle around him, “Pegasi of Cirra! One final effort is all that remains! I want everypony who can get to the castle on it, now! Don’t let anything hold you back!”

To his relief, a loud ‘hooah!’ sounded from all around him, and dozens of Legionnaires broke from combat and sped towards the face of Burning Hearth. Flapping his wings as well, Hurricane took off and flew over the fighting ponies below, swerving left or right to avoid a few arcane bolts fired in his direction. Around him, a cloud of speeding pegasi pressed the castle, flaring their wings to slow down only at the last second before landing on the staircase in front of the ruined doors leading inwards. There they fought in brutal melee with the treacherous pegasi holding the stronghold, while unicorns rained magical death down on them from above.

Instead of flaring his wings as he came closer, however, Hurricane tucked them against his sides and dived straight into a cluster of unicorns. They shouted as they saw him approach but were too slow to scatter, letting Hurricane plow through them like a speeding arrow while his exposed wingblades clipped those nearest him. Gurgling cries of death were left behind him when he finally came to a stop, and Hurricane turned to see three unicorns clutching at their throats while they stumbled to the ground, spreading pools of blood around them where they lay.

The surviving unicorns scattered and began to ready spells, but Hurricane wasted no time getting right back to them. Swinging his sword, Hurricane dropped several unicorns before rolling out to the side over a volley of Arcana and continuing the assault on the next targets. The traitors screamed in pain and fear as Hurricane cut them down, sending their bodies tumbling down the stairs. Splitting one more unicorn from jaw to collarbone, Hurricane glanced across his armored back to see a group of eight unicorns preparing to barrage him with spells. Quickly bringing up his hind legs, Hurricane kicked out at them, releasing a bolt of raw lightning that struck the centermost among them. The electricity chained to the rest of the group, ultimately cooking them alive within their armor. They dropped to the ground as smoking and charred heaps, leaving the entrance to the castle clear.

Turning around, Hurricane looked back out over the melee in the plaza. He squinted, searching for a familiar yellow face, until he finally saw him in the middle of a thick engagement. His heart dropped as he watched Pan Sea, Pathfinder, and Iron Rain fighting back to back against an overwhelming swarm of traitors. They were completely cut off and outnumbered, and unicorns on nearby rooftops peppered them with Arcana and kept the skies ablaze, denying them their flight.

Hurricane stepped forward and opened his wings, prepared to fly back and bail out his friends, until he was suddenly yanked back with telekinesis. Snarling, Hurricane whirled around, ready to put his blade through the traitor holding him back, until he saw that Chiseled Gem had his horn lit up. He was standing on the staircase, holding Hurricane back, and his brow sweated profusely as he struggled to fight against the void crystals weakening his hold on the pegasus.

“Commander… please,” he grunted, squeezing his eyes shut and pulling back with his neck for leverage. “You can’t do anything for them! This courtyard’s going to be overrun in fifteen minutes by the traitors unless we can kill those responsible! We ain’t got time to waste!”

“They’re my soldiers!” Hurricane shouted back at him, still struggling to break free. “They’re my friends! I won’t let them die!”

“This is war, Commander!” Gem cried back. “Ponies die, and sometimes they’re your friends! You of all ponies should know this!”

For a second, an old scene played before Hurricane’s eyes. It was a throne room with a red and bloody sky outside its glass windows. Within the room were several Praetorians and Legionnaires huddled around columns, all facing a heavy iron door. As Hurricane watched, a silver pegasus turned towards him and began to shout.

Gritting his teeth, Hurricane shook the horrid memory away. “I won’t let any more of my friends die! Too many have died for me!”

“If you stop here, sir, everypony dies!” Gem’s grip on Hurricane’s wings flickered, and he clenched his teeth even harder in stress. “Your son, your daughter, your friends, and thousands other ponies will die unless we stop this now!”

Hurricane still struggled, albeit lightly, as dismay filled his features. He watched as Pathfinder bobbed and weaved around a series of attacks that three pegasi and a unicorn were sending his way. He watched as Iron Rain let loose all around her, dropping traitors left and right, but still they pressed against her and attacked her sides. He watched as Pan Sea stumbled backwards, blocking blows from a pair of ponies until he tripped over a body and fell onto his back, leaving his stomach exposed to their onslaught.

The two pegasi locked eyes. There was fear in Pan Sea’s, and he reached out to Hurricane as blades plunged towards him.

Red.

Hurricane blinked as bodies swallowed up Pan Sea. Friendly reinforcements were making their way into the fight, but it was too late for the ponies in the middle. Slowly, steadily, Hurricane turned around on shaking hooves and trembling limbs until he was facing Chiseled Gem. After a moment’s hesitation, the unicorn released his grip on Hurricane, and he saw the emotions in the pegasus’ eyes. “Commander, I…”

“Nopony more needs to die today,” Hurricane said as he walked towards the door. “But they still will die, and I will be responsible for some of them. Let’s hope that through more bloodshed we can ultimately stop it.”

Then he marched into the castle, leaving the fight to come to its own conclusion.

-----

Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.

Typhoon opened her eyes and moaned in pain. Her heart was roaring in her ears, weak and fluttering as it was. The world before her was blurry and red against a backdrop of black and white. Flashes of light and tinges of shadow danced across her vision, and she felt like throwing up.

She weakly fluttered one of her wings and attempted to get off of her side. As soon as she put weight on her hooves, she grunted in immense pain and collapsed back into the pool of blood around her. She could taste it on her muzzle and feel it bite into her eyes. It soaked her mane and coat, making them hot and sticky. Like glue, it held her to the floor, even as more drained out from the wounds all across her body.

Another wave of pain wracked her, and Typhoon screamed in silence as she felt the hundreds of shards of skysteel that lacerated her coat embedded in her skin. Across her face and neck and chest, it felt like thousands of scalding needles digging into her flesh. They sapped her strength, and her hooves tingled in numbness as she lost more blood.

A raspy grunt sounded off behind her, and Typhoon slowly slid her head across the tile and blood until she could look around her limp body to find it. There was Cyclone, painfully forcing his way onto his hooves. He stumbled once and slammed his jaw into a similar pool of blood around himself before trying to stand up again. His left wing dragged in the blood, the crimson feathers saturated with all the color they could hold. Blood streamed from his face and neck, and rivulets ran down his muzzle before dripping onto the ground around him. He coughed, wetly and painfully, and spat out a thick glob of blood onto the ground around him.

Looking ahead of her, Typhoon could see the hilt of her shattered sword lying about two feet away. The ground around it was covered in frost, and the blood of hers that got too close to the sword congealed into a heavy mess of frozen scarlet. Tiny shards of skysteel lay scattered around it, casting thin, wispy lines of frost into the air as their intrinsic Empatha bled dry and the steel reverted to cloud form.

Gritting her teeth so hard against each other that her jaw nearly locked, Typhoon fought through the pain and began to stand up. She nearly fell again, but this time she pressed a wing against the ground for support until she could get her legs underneath herself again. Blood flowed freely from the wound in her side, but she couldn’t summon the fire Empatha to cauterize it. Glancing to where Cyclone stood and panted, Typhoon figured he was just as worn down as she was.

With one slow, uneasy step after another, Typhoon panted her way over to the hilt of her sword. There was little more than a foot of shattered steel remaining of its once-proud blade; the rest was on the ground or embedded in hers and Cyclone’s bodies. She could feel her brother watching her, his own mouth clenched around the remains of his gladius. The hilt was quickly becoming red with the blood from his mouth, and his body trembled visibly from exhaustion and blood loss. His face was contorted in the dull ache of pain, yet it would have been more if his own blood loss had not dulled his nerves.

Stopping in front of what was once her weapon, Typhoon looked down at the blade. There were red spots along what remained; blood from herself and her brother, the blood of Commander Hurricane’s family. She remembered how proud she was of this sword when she made it many years back. A magnificent cirrostratus blade, a weapon that would bring honor to her family and to the Legion, always strengthening Cirra. It had done that for four years, from when she was a filly drilling against her newly-enlisted brother through her years in the Legion and finally as a Praetorian Commander.

Now, in its final battle, she had tried to use it against her brother, and it had shattered. Perhaps that was best for it, that it die here rather than kill her only sibling. She wouldn’t want to dishonor it in that way.

But still she picked it up and turned back to her brother. They both watched each other for the longest time, blood pouring from their wounds, while the Praetorians fidgeted in the background. The world was still black and white and red, but that only helped Cyclone’s crimson coat stand out against his surroundings. Even with a broken sword, Typhoon would fight to the end, one way or another. So long as she didn’t die of blood loss beforehand, she would either kill Cyclone or die trying.

Unless they both died of blood loss, which was an alarmingly real possibility at this point.

Wordlessly, Typhoon began to stumble towards her brother. Every step to the right nearly made her black out in pain, and it took all her focus to not fall over with each and every limp. The whole time, however, she kept her eyes on her brother, noting the sad conviction and pain in his face that she mirrored with her own.

Cyclone stood his ground, breathing heavily and trying to get oxygen to his sore limbs with what little blood he had left. Narrowing his eyes, he took a step forward as Typhoon approached and raised his sword. Typhoon did the same, feeling dizziness come to her as she put further strain on the arteries in her neck, and together the two swords came down on each other. A dull yet forceful ring filled the throne room, and both pegasi stumbled back, nearly tripping over their own hooves as they recoiled from the blow.

When Typhoon stopped her backpedaling, she paused to catch her breath. The two siblings were less than ten feet away, offering each other the first good look at their features and wounds since the fight started. They were both covered in scars, scratches, bruises and open wounds. Both could barely find the strength to keep their heads up. Both had suffered crippling wounds to their sides. Both had broken their swords. Both had the mirror image of a scar across an eye, and both were covered in the sweat and blood of the other.

If they were so similar, even of the same blood, why were they doing this?

That was the question written across each sibling’s face and whispered in hushed conversation between their minds and their hearts. Pain, much more so emotional than physical, dominated their faces with sad eyes and gritted teeth. But that pain was what kept them going, and what stayed the shattered remains of their swords between their teeth.

Looking at each other again, brother and sister raised their swords and struck out. The weapons were slow and easy to follow, and they met in the middle with the same force as before. Cyclone took a heavy step back, and Typhoon took two. Struggling to breathe with the hole punched into her armor and the deep, deep wound to her ribs on the right, Typhoon fought back the darkness creeping into her vision. She could hardly hear her heart anymore, and it was much slower than before. She nearly stumbled over her hooves as she turned around. They were rapidly bleeding dry of sensation. In a few more minutes, it might very well be impossible for her to stand. Seeing Cyclone trip but catch himself at the last possible moment showed that he too was struggling to fight off unconsciousness.

Taking deep breaths to ready themselves, both siblings delayed for as long as they could before they swung again. This time when the shattered swords met, they locked together, leaving them face to face as they pressed with what little strength they had left.

Both blinked as they pressed, mere inches from each other. They were so close that they could count the individual hairs on the other’s muzzle. They were also close enough for Typhoon to see the hurt in Cyclone’s eyes, and for Cyclone to see the tears barely held back in Typhoon’s. With a long, drawn out breath, both ponies pushed against each other one last time before separating and tripping backwards.

Panting, Typhoon steadied herself and moved back faster, to which Cyclone responded with equal speed. Their swords once again met and locked, sending chattering vibrations down each other’s jaws and only adding to the tingling numbness they felt in their faces. Breaking the lock, both ponies drew back and slashed forward again only to meet in another. With a few seconds of exertion, they broke off and returned yet again, first high, and then low. As they fought their dying battle, their foreheads brushed against each other, mixing blood and sweat and feeble warmth.

There was some shouting behind them, towards the door leading out into the hall, but they both ignored it. Panting, they pulled back several steps and tried to recoup their strength. Both pegasi held their wings loosely by the ground; Typhoon realized that she couldn’t feel hers anymore. She tapped a hoof against the tile, and other than the dull thud that echoed in her ears, she could hardly feel the vibrations that traveled the length of her leg. But it wasn’t over yet, and so she advanced again.

The two siblings crossed swords yet again. The blow almost knocked Typhoon’s from her mouth, and she had to recoil slightly to hold onto it. Cyclone failed to press his advantage, and if it was either from fatigue or something else, Typhoon couldn’t tell. Reaffixing her grip on the weapon, the mare swung back at Cyclone, knocking her brother’s head to the side. She tried to strike out at him, but she lost the force as she extended and only lightly brushed the side of his neck. He retaliated with a head-butt that left both of them reeling and clutching at their foreheads as they retreated.

It took Typhoon much longer than she would have liked to recover from that. Cradling her forehead with a hoof, she gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut as she waited for the pain to dissipate. When she opened her eyes, tendrils of black shadow flickered across her vision, and she shook her head to try and clear them. The weight of the sword remnants in her grip nearly toppled her, and only by balancing on two legs did she stay up.

With one final, exhausted stare, both ponies, Typhoon and Cyclone, watched each other and began to advance. Raising their swords high and with darkness creeping over them, they both put everything they had into what they assumed would be their final swing. The broken blades whistled as they sliced through the air, each aimed perfectly at their targets.

Two swords missed each other. Two blades pierced flesh. Two bodies collided and locked there, frozen in pain.

Typhoon grunted as her chest slammed into Cyclone’s, putting their necks past each other in a deathly embrace. She could feel the sword jammed into her side just as she could see the sword jammed into Cyclone’s. Both ponies stood in place, breathing very, very slightly, unmoving.

“Typhoon,” Cyclone whispered. His voice crackled with blood, and he wheezed the words out.

“C-Cyclone,” Typhoon quietly answered, finding it incredibly difficult to speak with the sword jammed into her chest.

“I… I’m proud of you.”

“…Thank you…”

The two ponies slowly began to fall, slumping into each other’s embrace. When their knees touched the ground, they gasped together, unable to pull away.

Typhoon managed to move her head enough to look into Cyclone’s eyes. Sadness, regret and remorse, and happiness filled them. She was sure there was a similar mixture of emotions in her own.

“…Cyclone?”

“Hm?”

“I… I love you.”

“More… more than you’ll know, sis.”

Brother and sister leaned together for one last hug before falling together towards one side, unconscious and oblivious to the cry of dismay behind them.

-----

Hurricane slowly walked into the main hall of Castle Burning Hearth. Dozens of pegasi and unicorns alike streamed in through the ruined doors behind him, taking up positions around the edge of the hall and checking for nearby enemies. When they were sure the room was secure, they waited along the walls and on either side of the massive hallway leading deeper into the castle.

“No Praetorians here,” Chiseled Gem commented as he trotted in next to Hurricane. Sighing, he stopped and knelt down next to the mangled body of a unicorn. “But these are my stallions. Damn it all! The poor saps didn’t stand a chance against Celestis-damned Praetorians.”

“They’d have taken positions deeper within the castle to lock down choke points,” Hurricane dully said. “We should expect to see a good sum of them by the throne room, while the rest will be clearing out the castle.”

“I hope Star Swirl’s doing alright,” Gem muttered.

Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “Star Swirl’s here?”

The captain nodded. “Good thing too. His house was blown to smithereens as soon as the invasion started. Plus, he knows this castle like the back of his horn. He can handle himself.”

“Praetorians hunt in groups of five. I’m not sure even a mage as gifted as him could take on that many elite.”

“I tell you, the stallion’s fine,” Gem insisted as he began to trot down the hallway. “Trust me. He’s not River Rock’s archmage without reason.”

Accelerating to a quick canter, Hurricane and Chiseled Gem led their coalition force down the hall, where it made a sharp turn to the right. Raising a wing, Hurricane ordered Gem to hang back while he scouted it out.

Rounding the corner, Hurricane saw exactly what he expected to see. Behind a wall of onyx stone were twenty Praetorian Guards, each with a shield braced against their foreleg placed in front of them. Their swords were drawn and bloodied, and they watched Hurricane with a cold and emotionless gaze. He knew they recognized him, and he also knew that only their commander would answer him.

Walking closer, Hurricane kept his sword sheathed—for now. Still, the latch was loosened, and the tiniest hint of skysteel gleamed with light cast off by the torches in the hall. His wings flexed in anticipation at his sides, the bloody scales on the wingblades stiff and squeaking against each other as they twisted. When he was about fifteen feet away, Hurricane stopped and erected his shoulders as straight and tall as possible.

“Soldiers of the Praetorian Guard! I, Commander Maximus Hurricane, order you to stand down and let my companions pass. Do this, and your lives will be spared, and you will be granted amnesty for your treachery. Refuse, and I will have no choice but to answer with force.”

The pegasi refused to move, as Hurricane expected. His attention was focused on the back of their line, searching for the Praetorian Commander. Soon enough, however, the line parted, and tree pegasi stepped forward, one with a large lightning bolt of gold emblazoned across his chest.

The Praetorian Commander approached Hurricane while the two bodyguards flanked him, their weapons drawn. When they were almost nose to nose the Praetorian stopped and examined Hurricane closely. Hurricane eyed him back, refusing to blink or flinch when the commander flexed his wingblades.

Behind him, he heard Chiseled Gem growling and the clopping of hooves as the rest of his company moved into the hallway behind him, yet Hurricane did not turn around. To take his attention away from the commander was a weakness, and he needed to be strong now. Behind the commander, a wall of blank stares regarded the general space in front of them, which Hurricane only happened to be in.

The commander narrowed his eyes and frowned before taking a step back. Hurricane felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, and his right hoof shifted a fraction of an inch wider. His eyes were glued to the commander’s, knowing they would state his intentions.

Then, the Praetorian kneeled before Hurricane and drew his sword, laying it flat across the tile at the black pegasus’ hooves. “Commander Maximus. We are yours.”

Hurricane released the breath he didn’t know he had been holding and dipped his head. “Up, soldier.”

When the commander did as he was told, Hurricane stepped alongside him. “Tell me everything.”

The Praetorian nodded, not needing the question clarified to know what Hurricane meant. “The Guard lost six hundred in the march to the castle. We lost another four hundred more clearing the first floor. Imperator Cyclone held onto five hundred of his own and set the remainder to clearing the higher and lower floors of the castle.”

“Can we expect any more help?”

“There are some who still honor the code like us,” the Praetorian answered, “but there are those who believe Imperator Cyclone to be the true ruler of the Empire. They will not abandon him as we have when they realize you are not dead.”

“I see,” Hurricane said. “And Imperator Typhoon? Have you heard any news on her?”

The Praetorian shook his head. “No, sir. I have not.”

Hurricane pursed his lips. “Right. We need to move, though. Is Cyclone still in the throne room?”

“I would imagine, sir. My stallions and I will escort you, but do not expect to pass this easily each time.”

Nodding, the Praetorians fell in line behind Hurricane, filling the hall in rigid formation while the Legionnaires and Diamond Guards cautiously kept their distance. After all, those same ponies had until recently been slaughtering their companions. Yet none dared speak or strike out against them for fear of the same quick death.

The coalition passed by more dead bodies and bloody walls. Unicorns split open, pegasi covered in scorch marks, and limbs of unidentifiable race were strewn across the halls or slumped over in corners. A torch knocked from its sconce smoldered on the ground, and the flames latched onto a bannister, sending tendrils of flame crawling up the fabric. Walking past the pyre, Hurricane shielded himself with a wing and trotted around a corner to find another group of Praetorian Guards in his way.

Clearing his throat, Hurricane stopped in the middle of the hall again as the rest of his soldiers filed in behind him. “Soldiers of the Praetorian Guard! I, Commander Maximus Hurricane, order you to stand down and let my companions—”

“Come no farther!” a gruff voice commanded from the line of soldiers. Another Praetorian Commander edged out of formation and advanced, his sword drawn and his wings held high. “Turn and leave now, heretics! The Empire has no place for your kind!”

Scowling, Hurricane took a step forward. “I am your Commander and you are vowed to serve me, not the usurper Cyclone! Stand aside if you have any shred of honor left!”

“Honor does not win wars, it makes corpses of stupid ponies,” the Praetorian seethed at Hurricane. “Emperor Cyclone promises us our land back, and we will kill those who stand against us! The Gods smile upon us, for we—!”

His words were cut apart as Hurricane’s sword ripped through them. The other Praetorians flinched; in one moment, the sword had been in the black pegasus’ scabbard, and in the next it was sheathed in their commander’s throat. With a roar, Hurricane kicked the body off of his sword and leapt forward to engage the Praetorians around him.

With the cries of battle, the loyalists slammed into the shield wall of the Praetorians holding the hall. The Praetorians pushed back and jabbed with their gladii, skewering the necks of the Legionnaires plastered against their shields and shaking the corpses off with a flick of their foreleg. Hurricane rammed his shoulder into the shield of the nearest Praetorian, causing the pegasus to stumble backwards, and attempted to hook a wing under the metal to strip it from the Guard. The soldier yanked back on his shield to try and destabilize Hurricane’s wing and simultaneously lashed forward with his sword at the Commander’s neck. Hurricane rolled out of the way and backpedaled, looking for an opening. The wall of shields remained resolute, and there was too little space to fly over them.

Then, the shield in front of him glowed in a blue light, and the Praetorian yelped when he was suddenly dragged forward by his foreleg. As he began to pass, Hurricane wrapped a foreleg around the soldier’s neck and flipped him onto his back, shaking the shield free from his leg. The soldier tried to kick Hurricane off, but he jumped out of the way and rammed his wingblade down on the pinned Praetorian. The crest hit his skull just above his nose and plowed through bone and cartilage before coming to a rest in his brain. The Praetorian twitched and spasmed once before slouching against the ground.

Wrenching his wing free from the body, Hurricane looked for his next target. The Diamond Guard loyalists in the rear were making excellent use of their magic, pulling on Praetorians’ shields or otherwise destabilizing them for the Legionnaires and Hurricane’s Praetorians to make quick work of them. It didn’t last for long, however, as the traitors split the leather straps holding their shields in place with their gladii and whirled the heavy skysteel and onyx devices into the advancing line of loyalists. Screams and crunches of skulls punctuated the hall, and a head cleaved off by a shield bounced before Hurricane’s front hooves. Without their shields, the defending Praetorians could fight freely in close quarters and left the unicorns in the back with little to grab onto.

Plunging through the gap in their lines, Hurricane attempted to maneuver around the nearest Praetorian and stab him in the back. The soldier was currently dueling a Legionnaire, and was putting the younger pegasus on the ropes with his ferocious attacks. When he extended himself towards the Legionnaire, the stallion barely managed to step away from the attack. Yet it was the opening Hurricane needed, and with a yell he plunged his skysteel into the Praetorian’s side. There was a hiss of flesh as the weapon discharged its Empatha, and the traitor screeched once, falling over dead.

The Legionnaire nodded to Hurricane and was about to mouth his thanks were it not for the sword that cleaved the young pegasus’ head from his body. Blood showered Hurricane’s face, and he had to flop backwards to avoid the weapon as it continued on its lethal trajectory and passed over his head. Rolling onto his hooves, Hurricane found himself face to face with a bloodstained Praetorian pressing him hard.

Raising his sword, Hurricane caught the next of the Praetorian’s attacks, feeling the shock travel through his teeth and forcing him to recoil slightly. It was probably the hardest block he had made all day, and it was followed up by even more damaging blows. Carefully stepping backwards, Hurricane made room for himself without allowing his opponent to force him back and away from the fighting. Quickly whirling his wings, the Commander managed to expertly block several downward smashes from the Praetorian’s wingblades and returned with a slash of his own that struck the traitor across the nose.

The Praetorian cursed and stepped back as blood dripped from his muzzle, but he soon pressed Hurricane again with renewed vigor. Hurricane countered most of the attacks with slashes of his own, and bobbed under the heavier blows. With one such attack, Hurricane dived hard to the left as the blade whirled over his head just in time for the Praetorian to lash out at him with a powerful buck. The blow connected across his face and sent Hurricane flopping backwards with stars dancing across his eyes. When he came to a stop against the opposite wall, he groaned and pressed a hoof against it to help himself up.

He had little time to, however, and the Praetorian was soon upon him, pressing him against the wall like a cornered animal. Hurricane blocked out the lights blinding him and managed to respond to each of the Praetorian’s strikes before hooking his wingblade under the soldier’s sword and throwing it to the side. As the Praetorian came off balance, Hurricane brought his sword down on him, to which the stumbling pegasus responded by blocking with a wingblade. Rebounding off the strike, Hurricane raised his sword again and continued to hammer away at the single wing. Each successive blow forced the Praetorian against the ground until he was using one wing to hold himself up against the floor and the other to block Hurricane. Raising his sword high, Hurricane reared up onto his hind legs to drop the steel with all his weight.

The resulting blow hit the Praetorian’s wingblade so hard that it crushed the scales underneath it, the mere tension popping the skysteel from the assembly and launching shards of metal in every direction. The Praetorian screamed in pain, and Hurricane drew back only to attack the broken notch again with his sword. This time to blade cut through the rest of the wingblade as well as half the pegasus’ wing before splitting open his ribs. The traitor stiffened and gurgled out one last cry until he drowned in his own blood and died.

Looking around, Hurricane saw the last of the treacherous Praetorians make their final stands against one side of the wall. At some point in the fight, some of their allies had switched sides again and returned to the loyalist’s coalition, where the friendly commander had set about organizing them into his formation. Turning around, Hurricane could see the throne room doors battered open about a hundred feet down the hall. The tinny ringing of swords echoed out of the room, however hard it was to hear over the final scuffles of the battle behind him.

Taking a deep breath, Hurricane braced himself for the fight to come. Cyclone must be mopping up with his personal Guard; it was probably far too late for King Lapis by this point. If he could just get some of Cyclone’s soldiers to turn on him, he had a good chance to win. If not… well, he didn’t know whether his son would show him the same mercy Hurricane had planned to.

“Soldiers!” he shouted, grimacing as the dry air grated against his hoarse voice. “We’re almost there! One last push! One more fight! Come on!”

His sword held in his grasp, Hurricane galloped down the hall with the few hundred soldiers he had managed to rally behind him. It was definitely not the five hundred Cyclone supposedly had, and he’d need a little help converting some to his side. Once he got a look inside, he’d be able to make more concrete plans. Lowering his head, Hurricane charged towards the doorframe and slid to a stop in the center.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.

The clatter of his discarded sword against the ground was enough to notify the Praetorians nearest him that there was someone behind them. They quickly turned about only to receive light blows to the face from Hurricane’s wings as he leapt over them and sped towards the center of the room.

“No! Gods, no!! Gods!!”

Hurricane nearly slammed his face into the stone as he came to a hurried landing in the center of the room. He was surrounded on all sides by potentially hostile Praetorian Guards, sure, but he didn’t care. His attention was entirely devoted to the two ponies bleeding out together on the floor in front of him. One with a red coat and a black mane, and the other with a blond coat and multicolored mane. Both his children, each with their swords deep in each other’s side.

“Typhoon! Cyclone!” Hurricane collapsed onto his knees next to the two of them and placed his hooves on their chests. They were both unresponsive, and there was a frightening amount of blood on the ground. He could see the shallow breathing of their chests; they were alive, but barely. Blood burbled out and around the sword in Typhoon’s side with every breath, and it flowed in bursts and stutters out of Cyclone’s mouth and nose. Their faces were scarred, and several tiny razors of skysteel poked through their coats from their heads to the collars of their broken armor.

“This can’t happen!” Hurricane screamed, trying to hold his children’s heads up. “No! I won’t lose my entire family in one Gods-damned day!” Looking up from his children, Hurricane scowled at the nearest Praetorian Guards. “You! I don’t care who you fight for, stop standing around and get a damned medic in here! They are not dying today! They are not!” As the soldiers quickly began to try and locate a combat medic, Hurricane looked down at his dying children and whispered to himself again, “They are not…”

Hurricane cradled his children closer, feeling their fur against his coat, watching as their breathing only continued to get quieter and slower. He bared his teeth in anger even as tears streamed down his face. “This is my fault. This is all my fault. I should never have left. Never. Forgive me. F-Forgive me…”

The world moved by Hurricane in a blur. The Praetorians around the edge of the room began to move in different directions, following somepony’s orders that he didn’t hear. A few soldiers on different sides butted heads, but no fights broke out. At some point a pair of Legionnaires with red crosses painted onto their shoulder plates showed up and began to bandage Cyclone and Typhoon while two Praetorians led Hurricane away. They sat him down near the edge of the room, where over the course of the next fifteen minutes centurions and legates came up to him, giving reports on the status of the battle. Learning about their leader’s defeat, the Praetorian Guard inside of Burning Hearth had surrendered to Hurricane and had set about bringing the battle outside to a close. Reports then started to trickle in, saying which regiments and where had laid down their arms and turned back to the Legion, and which regiments continued to stubbornly fight. It was basically over now, and the only thing left to do was count the bodies.

Chiseled Gem stood by Hurricane’s side as the two of them watched a pair of Diamond Guards lift King Lapis from his bloody throne. Hurricane couldn’t tell at this distance whether the limp body was alive or not; not that he really cared anymore. He was beaten and bent, and on the verge of being broken. Too many good ponies, too many ponies he loved, had died today.

“I know how you’re feeling,” Chiseled Gem whispered to Hurricane. Grunting, the unicorn sat down and slowly took off his helmet. “Some of my lieutenants just came and… came and saw me. They said…” He sighed and look away to hide the tears in his face. “They said they found my son’s body. Shattered Gem. Jewel, as he was fond of calling himself. I’ll never know why.” Chiseled Gem coughed, clearing his throat, and wet his lips with his tongue several times before nodding to some distant and invisible figure. “Dead on his own sword. But that’s… not the worst of it. The traitors in the Guard are saying that he was their leader. He started this in River Rock. This is as much his fault as it is your son’s.”

“And how do you feel,” Hurricane flatly stated, not even bothering to put the inflection on it to make it a question. “Does it make it better?”

The unicorn was silent for a long while before answering. “No, sir, it doesn’t. Traitor or not, blood’s blood. He’s my son.” He looked away and spoke over restrained tears, “And now he’s gone.”

Hurricane sighed and brushed him with a wing. “I lost my wife today to this stupid coup. I lost my friend, Pan Sea, and many good ponies I dragged into this fight with me. If I lose my children now…”

“They’re strong kids,” Chiseled Gem assured him. “They’ll be fine.”

Hurricane looked blankly at him for several seconds before nodding. “Yes. Right. Sure.” Any other words he had to say were lost in sad silence.

A legate trotted up to Hurricane and saluted with her wing. “Sir, the other legates just confirmed that the fighting in the city has stopped. It’s over now.”

The tired stallion nodded like a pony twenty years older. “Good. Tally our dead. Their families should know, regardless of who they fought for.”

The mare nodded and stepped back. “Right away, sir.”

Hurricane and Chiseled Gem watched her leave. “I should be going,” the Captain said, standing up on sapphire limbs. Using his Arcana, he levitated his helmet back around his horn. “I’m sorry for your loss, sir. I truly am. When this whole thing’s sorted out, drinks are on me.”

A new voice answered him from the doorway. “Heh! I’ll drink to that!”

Hurricane looked up to see Pathfinder limping in, his left wing held in a sling and dried blood streaked through his matted mane. Plaster bandages covered his side, and a long laceration still oozing blood cut across his thigh. Yet there was a smile on his face, a spark of hope that had yet to be crushed.

“Pathfinder?” Hurricane remarked, finally standing for the first time in nearly twenty minutes. He blinked a few times to make sure the centurion was actually there. “How did you survive that?”

“Three things,” Finder said, approaching Hurricane’s side before sitting down painfully on one flank. “First, your reinforcements proved timely as ever. Second, my wife’s a Gods-damned menace on the battlefield. And third,” he paused, lowering his head in embarrassment, “playing dead helps sometimes. This bruise on my face, that’s when a unicorn tripped over my ‘dead’ body. Stabbed him in the gut as he fell, too.”

Hurricane nodded thoughtfully. “Hm. Your wife? How about her?”

Finder shrugged his shoulders. “Seeing the medics. There’s only so much you can do in close quarters with a buck knife and two wingblades. Some bastard skewered her flank good, and for once it wasn’t me.” He breathed a short chuckle to himself before continuing. “She was terrifying to behold, though. I don’t think there’s a single white hair left on her body.”

“I can imagine,” Hurricane said. “Thank you, centurion. I’m glad you’re alright.”

Pathfinder nodded, then furrowed his brow. “You didn’t ask about Pan Sea.”

Hurricane tensed up. “I saw him, Pathfinder. I saw him get cut open. I already know.”

“Pardon me, sir, but you don’t know anything,” Pathfinder retorted. “If you had hung around for a little while longer you’d have seen that they didn’t kill him.”

“…What?”

“He’s beat up, sure, but I think he’ll be fine,” Pathfinder said. “I’ve had worse.”

Just then, Iron Rain fluttered into the throne room, devoid of armor. Standing up, Finder nodded to her. “Hey, you’re done early. I was just talking with the Commander about Pan Sea.”

“The only real problem I have is my flank,” Rain answered. “The medics want me to keep off of my left hooves, so I have to either rest on a cloud or hover all the damn time.” Then she turned to Hurricane, and there was a sad conviction in her eyes. “About Pan Sea; I’ve only seen one pony that’s survived a wound like his,” she commented as she looked at Pathfinder and the old scar along his side. “And he was a lot younger then.”

Finder shrugged his shoulders. “I was just trying to be optimistic.”

“So what you two are saying is…?” Hurricane asked.

Rain nodded towards Hurricane as she hovered in place. “I’m saying you should make your peace now, Commander. Just in case.”

“How are your children, sir?” Finder piped up. “I haven’t seen them around.”

The look on Hurricane’s face said everything.

“Maybe we should all make peace with fate,” Rain said, grimly. “And despite who lives or dies, history will long remember this as the blackest day of our lives.”

Author's Note:

Whew! Who knew that life would throw pretty much everything it had at me after posted 17. Really good thing I divided it into two chapters, eh?

I'm happy yet also sad to say that 18 marks the last of the real "progression" chapters in Snow and Shadows. All that's left now is for cleanup, either through a series of epilogues or one final Chapter 19. We'll see how that goes when it gets to that part.

My special thanks to Ruirik and LoyalLiar for helping me edit this monster. I couldn't do it without you guys.

Expect to see more of this in the next few weeks. College is starting up for me on the 20th, and I look to be pretty much done before then. I can type 2k words in a single day on average if I'm not distracted, and I've been able to do around 6k at once if I'm really in the zone. Hopefully with summer winding down I'll find the time to write effectively.

It's been a wild ride. See you guys for the last hill before the roller coaster pulls back into station.

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