• 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 5: Winds of the West

Chapter 5: Winds of the West

The train to Baltimare was noticeably absent from the Saraneighvo Central Station that morning. With the massive storm brewing on the southern horizon, where the clouds were just beginning to surmount the mountains, Twilight and Rainbow Dash wanted nothing more than to take the knowledge they had and retreat back to the warmth of the Equestrian mainland. Now, it seemed that the cursed snows were determined to trap them in Saraneighvo forever.

Despite the frightening amount of trains that missed their scheduled times as the day wore on, nopony in the station seemed particularly upset or surprised. Sure, there was much grumbling among the commuters, but none seemed to question where the trains were. It was not until Twilight decided to assault an off-duty conductor with questions did she finally get an answer.

“Один поезд в неделю.”

“Pardon me?” was Twilight’s response. She tried to string a Stalliongradi sentence together, though without her books, such was impossible. “Uh… Я не... говорить... Stallion-градский хорошо.”

The conductor, a large pony the color of coal dust with an ashy mane, rolled his eyes. “Is January, Equestrian. Train no run on time but once week. Weekly storms blocks rails. Must clear before engines run.” Swishing his tail, he quickly trotted away from them to find someplace quiet and have a drink.

Exasperated, Twilight growled and stalked back towards Rainbow. The pegasus was occupying an entire station bench by herself, with her powdery blue wings spread the length of the back. She had already fallen asleep in the predawn hours, and her nose twitched as flakes of snow landed on its surface and promptly melted.

Twilight sighed and sat down next to Rainbow, muttering obscenities and curses under her breath that she would never otherwise say within eight hundred miles of Celestia. Luckily, Saraneighvo was exactly 829.6325 miles from Canterlot, and assuming the Princess hadn’t traveled any good distance to the east lately, Twilight was safe.

She was content to sit there for the next five minutes, until Rainbow’s snoring started to rattle her teeth within her skull. Leaning over, Twilight gently prodded her friend’s side until the pegasus began to stir. It took an incredible amount of effort to get Rainbow to become aware of her surroundings, and even then, sleep still preyed on the pegasus’ tired mind.

“Nnngh… what is it, Twilight? Is the train here?” Blue hooves rubbed at magenta irises as Rainbow fought to scrape away her sleep, and she folded her wings against her sides as she began to shiver.

“Unfortunately not, Rainbow. The storm blocked off the line from Stalliongrad. The conductor said it would be another week before we can get to Baltimare.”

Rainbow Dash groaned and sunk her head over the back of the bench in despair. “I thought we were going to get out of this frozen Tartarus-hole and finally get to someplace mildly warm.” Slapping a hoof against her face, Dash pulled on her cheeks and looked towards the gray sky visible through the cracks in the roof. “I was supposed to help Applejack move some old equipment out of her barn or somecrap like that this week. Now I’m going to leave her hanging.”

Although appalled that she would be letting her friends down, Rainbow at least knew that it wasn’t her fault and there was nothing she could do about it. Her mood brightened, and as she came more and more to her senses, she began to pace around the train station. When her wings twitched for use and she couldn’t take it anymore, the pegasus began to fly intricate and tight loops in the ample space the high ceiling of the station provided her. Many ponies who had no better place to be stopped to watch the amateur stunt-flier as she flew laps around the station. Although Stalliongrad’s Tsar was an alicorn and one of his sons was a pegasus, winged ponies were still a rare enough sight in the Domain of Stalliongrad that Rainbow’s performance inspired wonder and awe in her observers.

When she felt that she had finally gotten the exercise her wings had sorely missed the past few days, Rainbow fluttered down onto the tile floor next to Twilight and bowed to her impromptu audience. Then, turning and flicking her ears in one last gesture of appreciation, she led her companion out of the train station and back to the center of Saraneighvo.

The two Equestrians returned to the ramshackle inn that they had stayed the night before and rented their room again. The innkeeper was surprised to see them return so soon, but when Twilight explained that the trains had not come and they were running low on bits, the pony was kind enough to rent them their quarters at a discounted price. Happy that she didn’t have to pawn off one of her books for money, Twilight would have spent the rest of the morning thanking the innkeeper had Rainbow Dash not gently led her away and into their room.

The room was exactly how they had left it when they departed two hours prior. Rainbow’s bed was still unmade and her side of the room was surprisingly cluttered with what little there was to clutter it with, while Twilight’s side was in neat and perfect order, her bed perfectly made and folded at right angles. Even the pillow had been fluffed for optimal head-cushioning without sacrificing its shape.

All that work was undone as Twilight collapsed onto her bed and began to moan. She hated the cold, hated the dirty city of Saraneighvo, hated the Celestia-damned trains for not running on time. Why did she pick January, of all possible months, to go on this expedition?!

Oh, wait. Because she had found out the crypt’s location only four days ago and couldn’t control her enthusiasm. Still, she could have waited for the warmer months of June or July, even though ‘warmer’ was a subjective term. Despite the continuous winter that Stalliongrad and the surrounding wastes suffered through the whole year, the temperature noticeably inclined during the summer months. Sometimes it would inch above freezing, and the snow would melt for a week or two. Just the year prior, the sky cleared for an entire day and the temperature spiked into the low-sixties, offering the Stalliongradis their first experience with warm weather. The blame, of course, fell on weather pollution from the foundries in Cloudsdale.

Rainbow Dash was far less concerned about the cold outside, taking no notice of it other than to wedge a sheet of newsprint in a gap under the window to stop a draft. For her, the extended stay in Saraneighvo meant more boredom and less time to fly. It was not like she could just go down the streets and tour the city. First off, hardly any of the locals knew Equiish, and second, there was nothing to see in the snowy town. Unless she decided to watch the glaciated coast and look for whales breaking through the frigid water, there was nothing for her to do. Well, almost nothing.

“Hey, Twilight. Can we look at Hurricane’s journal thing some more?”

Twilight promptly sat up on her bed, happy to have something to do. “Sure, Rainbow. Let me just get it out.” Her horn lit in a fuchsia aura as she levitated her bag over to a table and began to peruse through the contents. After carefully depositing several books in neat order on the table, she finally located the mighty pegasus’ work and brought it over to herself. Her mattress shook on the bedsprings as Rainbow unceremoniously plopped down next to her.

“Now, where were we…” Twilight began as she started to page through the journal. Her bookmark had fallen out in the bag, and she had to sort past the twenty years prior to the Hearth’s Warming event, and then another sixty or so pages deeper just to get back to where she was at.

“We were just past the big meeting thing,” Rainbow offered. “You know, the one that we did in the play. Hurricane’s account is a lot more dark and tense than the one I acted out with Pinkie and Rarity.”

“That would be because actual politics were at play,” Twilight countered. “You don’t get anything done in negotiations when you try to bludgeon your way through them. Trust me, I sat in on a few of Celestia’s important meetings when I was a little filly, and even though I was bored to tears I still learned a thing or two. Besides, the ‘official’ story that we use was written by Clover the Clever some years after the event itself, and she was an infamous sentimentalist. She loved writing foals’ tales in her spare time, and I think her bloodless and over the top interpretation of this event was written to teach the lessons of friendship to her readers.”

Rainbow’s eyebrows scrunched as she thought. “So, what you’re saying is that every pony, young and old, for hundreds and thousands of years, has been listening to a fairy tale and taking it as fact?”

“Essentially,” Twilight nodded. “Although the story itself is based on actual facts that Clover lived through, the actions of the characters in it are, well, about as real as the griffon Santa Claws.”

Rainbow snorted and released a few short chuckles as she leaned back on the bed. “Gilda told me about that back when we were kids. It’s so ironic that the griffons would have a figure like that.” She coughed once or twice, a raspy, hacking noise as the unbearably dry air cut at her throat. She had to stop sleeping with her mouth open; she lost too much moisture that way.

Clearing her throat again and getting some water from the bar, Rainbow Dash was finally able to kick back with her forelegs crossed behind her neck as Twilight found where they left off. The unicorn ended her spell and released her hold on the book, carefully brushing away a stray piece of dust or ash before laying it out in front of her and beginning to read.

“Alright. Well, I imagine this here would be when the leaders decide to go and find a new land to settle. This account’s surprisingly thick; Hurricane must have gotten input from the other leaders themselves. So, here we are; the Twenty-Fifth of Bare Trees, Four Hundred and Twenty-One After Empire.”

-----

Even high above the earth, the winds tore through the city of Cloudsdale with a fury not seen for thousands of years. The very foundations of the city shook, and quite violently so. Several small and flimsy houses outside of the city’s strong walls caved to the gale, separating into massive blocks of cloudstone that shattered against the ground with a dull thud and a splash of water.

Weather teams had been dispatched to gather as much stratus and cumulus as possible to fortify the city’s foundations, but the storm fought back, killing five and wounding several dozen more. Grabacr would not be defeated so easily, and any of the offending heretics who ventured within range of his wrath would be swatted down like flies and crushed against the stony walls of the mountains. To compound to the difficulties was the dire shortage of food, and even the strongest of stallions in the mighty Legion were beginning to suffer from malnutrition.

In the midst of the gale, Hurricane knelt before a single statue in the very center of Town Square. Cast out of pure stratus skysteel, the figure’s coat was as silvery as it had been in life. The larger-than-life depiction stood five-foot tall on a pedestal of another two feet, and its gaze was fixed far to the east, in the direction of skies long lost, but not yet forgotten. One wing was flared and armed with lethal iron scales; the other hung by its side, broken and twisted. Despite the pain on the soldier’s helmetless face, his body supported the Imperator’s armor as if he was born in it. Finally, clamped tightly between his teeth, a sword of pure silver glinted in the dim light from the east.

Hurricane had sat in front of that statue for several hours, cold and alone, but he didn’t care. His cheeks were wet but his eyes were shrouded under his helmet, so anypony that passed by could not tell if he was crying or if it was snow that had melted on his face. His sword had been laid bare in front of the statue’s hooves, and the Commander had traced sad scratches into the ice around its base. What messages they contained would soon be lost forever as the snow continued to fall and cover them.

Sniffling at either the cold or his tears, or perhaps both, Hurricane turned his weary face towards the head of the soldier standing above him. With a sigh, he bit his lip and shook his head. He didn’t know what to do, and there was nopony to guide him. Perhaps that was why he sought consolation in the statue’s presence; that pony was the only one in life who seemed to have the answers to Hurricane’s questions, and the black stallion sought those answers now.

“I just…” he stopped, choking on a weak sob. “I’m lost, Silver. I thought I’d be able to build a home for Cirra here, and to capitalize on what you gave for us. But what have I done? Twenty years of surviving with the other races in spite of each other, rather than with each other.” His body shuddered, and he lowered his head towards the ground. “Cirra is falling apart again, Silver, and now Grabacr’s leading the charge. How am I supposed to stand up to a God?”

Whatever words the silent statue of Imperator Silver Sword had to offer to his closest companion, they were only audible to Hurricane himself. Even then, the mighty Commander only placed a hoof to his forehead and mumbled in despair.

“I thought I would never have to go through that again. Magnus and Gryphus chased us from our home and sent us fleeing across the sea like so many frightened foals, and I hoped that we could use this time to rebuild and regroup and maybe, just maybe, take our home back one day. I’ll be damned if I have to run again.”

Silver Sword only imparted calm indifference to Hurricane, and the Commander shuffled his hooves in response.

“Right. You’re right. Maybe there is nothing else to do. The storm isn’t going to break, as far as I can tell. The prophets foretold that his descent would be terrible and all-consuming, and that his wrath would spell the end for all of ponykind. I see no reason to argue with them now.”

Following the statue’s gaze to the east, Hurricane shivered and flicked the ice crystals off of his feathers. “Were it so that we could return to our home. The pegasi were not born here; these skies are not the skies our fathers, and their fathers, flew under hundreds of years ago. Stratopolis does not grace the heavens with its presence here; Nimbus does not guard the east, standing as a bastion for the mightiest of races and the judgment its military wields.” He shuddered, and bit his lip as memories of burning houses and scorched fields came back to him. “These lands are not our home, and Zephyrus only lies in burnt wastes far from here. Were it so that we could honor those who died, and lay their corpses to rest for Garuda to guide to the afterlife.” Holding his sword between his hooves, Hurricane shook his head. “But it will never be so, and maybe this is the end of Cirra. An empire that once ruled the world, dispensing fortune and death in equal measure. An empire that challenged the very majesty of the skies until we bent them to our will.

“An empire that fought through so much, but in the end, fell not with the herald of trumpets and the cry of conquest, but with a whimper, as she slowly starved to death.”

Silver Sword’s statue creaked, perhaps with disappointment. Whatever it was, it seemed to snap Hurricane out of his melancholy. Gnashing his teeth together, the black pegasus straightened up and returned his sword to its scabbard. His magenta irises burned with a passionate focus, and he knew what he had to do.

“No. I won’t let Cirra fall. Not again. Not after everything that we went through together just so that it would have a future.” Eyes fixated on the west, Hurricane saluted Silver Sword and began to walk towards the palace. If Cirra could not have a future in the east and could not have a future with the other tribes, then the proud nation of pegasi would travel ever-westward until they found a home to support and sustain them. A home where they could have peace and prosperity, thus far denied to them for over two decades.

And it was a wonderful thought that accompanied him as he rose to the height of Cirran government, prepared to venture out and give his life if he must to make it possible.

-----

The carriage bringing Princess Platinum and her train back to River Rock nearly fell off the cliffs of the valley twice in its journey, the roads were so poor and the snow so thick. They even missed the descending road into the valley, and had to backtrack fifteen miles to find it and enter the city proper.

River Rock was suffocating in snowfall, and the river that gave the city life was completely frozen over. The Diamond Guard had done their best to clear the streets, but even then, some parts of the city were inaccessible with the high snowfall. Buildings of stone listed heavily under the weight of the snow they carried on their roofs, and the blustery city walls had been all but abandoned as the soldiers sought warmth and comfort. Despite the reputation the Guard prided itself on, as it had need to do when trying to compare to the impressive Cirran Legion, its soldiers were more or less nobles who were willing to get their hooves dirty for their Kingdom, so long as they didn’t get too mud stained.

It took twenty frustrating minutes to get from the northern gate of River Rock to the entrance of Castle Burning Hearth, as the cobblestone streets were blanketed in a sheet of solid ice. With the castle situated on an incline from the gates, walking up the ice was nearly impossible. Going down was much easier, as several foals discovered. The young unicorns slid along on their stomachs from the top of the street to the bottom, forgetting about the cold and the gnawing hunger in their chests for a short while.

In stark contrast to the frozen waste of a city outside, the interior of Burning Hearth lived up to its namesake in all its lavishness. Warm sheets of orange and red crackled in every fireplace, and soft music tinkled from the great dining hall, buried deeper in the royal castle around walls of the strongest stones and hallways filled with the most impressive works of art. The smell of greens and freshly-baked bread wafted from the kitchen towards the Princess’ nose, which she greedily inhaled. But before she could dine on her well-deserved meal, she had to get cleaned up first. There was no way she would ever appear at a meal in anything less than absolute perfection of body and mind.

“Clover!” she called into the halls as she diverted off towards her personal quarters. When nopony materialized in the five seconds her patience lasted for, she stomped her hoof on the ground and called again. “Clover! Where are you, dear, I need some hot water for my hooves.”

“Coming, Princess!” was the reply as it echoed down the stone hall, accompanied by galloping hoofsteps that clacked on the solid floor. The unicorn was a pistachio-green mare who wore her curled, dark green mane conservatively around her forehead and horn. Purple eyes averted themselves from the Princess’ form as she lowered the bucket of hot water she carried with her at her master’s hooves. Grabbing a shawl from a nearby hook on the wall, Clover carefully wrapped Platinum to help her maintain her preferred temperature.

“Ah, Clover, there you are,” the Princess purred as she set her forehooves down in the water. “I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I left that wretched courthouse in Amber Field. I’ve oft done the impossible in my many years as representative of the Diamond Kingdom, but that was by far the most difficult challenge I’ve ever come across.”

Clover rolled her eyes at Platinum’s extreme exaggeration of her political usefulness, but she made sure that the action was hidden from the Princess’ sight. Adjusting her rags around her form, a simple four-leaf clover barely revealed itself against her flanks as she grabbed a comb from Platinum’s bed to help stylize her princess’ luxurious purple mane. “Did the other pony tribes see reason as I predicted, your Highness?”

“Absolutely not!” the white unicorn exclaimed with a twinge of horror. “Those other tribes are impossible! I, for one, can no longer bear to be anywhere near those lowly creatures. The unicorns are noble, and majestic! We will no longer consort with the likes of them.” The last word was delivered with an angry stop of hooves, and Clover had to shield herself from the splash of water it produced.

“Really? But the meeting should have worked! If all of you had taken the time to gather together and discuss your problems—”

“Believe me, Clover, I tried many times to humbly advance the interests of the Diamond Kingdom, but each and every time I was interrupted by that foolish earth pony Chancellor, or that horrible Commander Hurricane! They refused to work together, and before I knew it, I was forced to defend not only my honor, but the honor of the entire Kingdom from their heretical slander!” Disgusted, Platinum stomped her hooves and only succeeded in splashing out more water. “How dare they challenge that we don’t raise the sun! Why, we don’t even need the pegasi, not really. The only thing they do is put their bit to the sword and mindlessly hack away at anything that crosses them. The Diamond Guard is more than capable of taking over their job, and they’d be much better at it, too. At least they understand decency and etiquette.”

Clover flicked her ears, but other than that little action she gave no response to Platinum’s hyperbole. Fifteen years of servitude had instilled in the mare of twenty-five the ability to suppress reactions her masters, especially the Princess, would find insulting. Instead, she set about rectifying Platinum’s mane with her favorite comb, and began to make subtle suggestions to guide her train of thought. “I’m sure your father would like to hear all about it. He always enjoys hearing stories about your diplomatic exploits.”

Platinum’s eyes brightened as she stepped out of the water and waited for Clover to dry her hooves. “Oh, yes, you’re right, darling, right as ever. No wonder Star Swirl calls you ‘Clover the Clever’. You know how to say exactly what needs to be said; nothing more, nothing less.”

Clover’s mouth twitched as she set the towel aside. When royalty came as simple as Platinum, it wasn’t hard for any half-intelligent pony to find what she wanted to hear.

The pair of mares walked towards the dining hall, two offset clopping rhythms as Platinum led and Clover followed. It was but a short walk to where the food lay prepared and waiting, but Platinum took the time to admire the myriad portraits and antiquities filling the castle as she passed. What splendor the Unicorn Kings of old had amassed! Adding to that wealth and helping it grow was a rite that every ruler of the Diamond Kingdom was expected to faithfully execute throughout their reign. One day, when Platinum became the first Queen to single-hoofedly rule the entire Kingdom in well over a hundred years, she would do more for that horde than any other ruler before her, and she would make her name legendary. Was it too much to ask for a little recognition?

The table in the Great Hall was absolutely filled with food. Rich loaves of bread, leafy layers of lettuce, and crunchy stalks of celery all tempted Platinum with their sweet aromas. The entire staff of the royal family was eating well, seemingly oblivious to the famine outside. Platinum was no different as she quickly trotted over to take her seat by her father’s side. Her plate was filled with lettuce and rhubarb, cobbled with a side of potato—her favorite! How she was ever going to eat all this food, she had no idea.

“Ahem…”

The cough stopped Platinum from digging into her dish, and she smiled and turned to face her father. King Lapis IV was an impressive unicorn with a flawless sapphire coat and thick fur around his fetlocks that gave way to reveal over two inches of solid hoof on each leg. His mane was a pure, dark blue in his youth, but as age took its toll it had slowly turned to white. Even his eyes were a light shade of steel blue, and they were filled with an alert and observant energy as he looked at his daughter. But there was pain in them, and a glance towards his forehead revealed why.

His horn, once a sleek and powerful thing that all in the Kingdom wished to behold, had become gnarled and blackened. Open blisters and scabs slowly oozed blood, despite the unwavering attention of his servants to keep them clean. Whatever feats of Arcana that horn had been capable of performing long ago were now lost to Lapis forever. “The Scourge of the Kings” the doctors called the sickening disease that deformed a once powerful ruler and afflicted him with such pain. Despite their best efforts, there was nothing they could do to cure it; in fact, they had never been able to cure it in all the disease’s storied history. The Scourge had stricken many of the most powerful of unicorns throughout the centuries, but cases amongst the poor were almost never heard of. It fed on Arcana, thrived on pure power, and left behind only a horn that rotted on its owner’s head when it was finished. Many believed the Scourge to be a curse placed upon the royal family, likely the doing of King Electrum when he looked into the future and saw things that should never had been known to him or the Kingdom until their appropriate time.

“Father!” Platinum began excitedly as she leaned over and embraced the King’s neck. “You look better than ever! The Scourge appears to be receding, by the looks of it.” It was a lie, so painful and blatant that Lapis saw through it. He raised a hoof to his rotting horn, and it came away with small spots of red and black blood on its shiny surface.

“I appreciate your efforts to comfort me, my daughter, but I am well equipped to deal with whatever the harshness of reality throws at my head.” He grunted as his aged spine cracked and popped with his stretching, and he clenched his teeth around a stalk of celery to give his muscles something to release their pain on. “I have lived on this planet for no less than sixty-nine years, and I have ruled for forty-seven of them. Bad news has been a part of my life for as far back as I can recall. I am no stranger to misfortune, so if there is more to be had, please speak it.”

Platinum cringed under her father’s glare, and she quickly occupied her mouth with salad as she prepared to break the news. When she swallowed and realized that Lapis’ stare had not faltered, she coughed nervously into her hooves and tugged on the curls in her tail. “The meeting was… less than productive, father.”

The King’s face failed to twitch in surprise, and whether the action was comforting to Platinum or not, the mare could only guess for herself. Exhaling, Lapis leaned back in his regal chair and tapped one hoof against the wooden table. The corners of his mouth were overcome with a twinge on occasion, but he remained silent.

The lack of a reaction frightened Platinum the most, and she was grateful when Lapis finally began to speak. “I see. That is rather unfortunate. But the shipments of food, they continue as planned?”

“Yes, father, I made sure that the deliveries were confirmed for the next month.”

“And the Cirrans, they devised a stratagem to clear the skies of this infernal blizzard?”

“It was difficult to get them to cooperate, but yes, they—”

“SILENCE!” the King roared, sharply cutting his daughter off. He lowered his aged face towards Platinum, his nostrils flared wide in anger. “I am not yet old enough to be lied to, Platinum. You made no such plans; you betray yourself with your own words. I know Hurricane; if the Cirrans could not clear the skies in the first days of the blizzard, then it is undoubtedly beyond their control. Brute force is their stratagem, and when it failed them, there was nothing, and absolutely nothing, that they could possibly do to fix it.”

Grabbing his plate with his hooves, he held it aloft for Platinum to see. “And you assure me that the shipments of food will come on time, just like you assured me that River Rock has enough food to last the winter. But not half an hour before, I find out from Archmage Star Swirl that the city is starving, and those who were barely scraping by in the weeks before the blizzard have nothing to go on now. The Guard also reports the first hunger-related deaths in the surrounding countryside from the tenants who work the fields. And yet here we are, feasting on food that we could not possibly hope to finish by ourselves!”

Lapis’ anger was not something to be trifled with, and Platinum felt herself cowering into her chair as he leered at her. Setting his forelegs on the table and placing his head between his hooves, the King sighed and chewed on his lip. “Will there be another meeting between the nations, one that perhaps I could attend instead of an incompetent diplomat?”

“We parted on not particularly hospitable terms, father. The other races will not work with us anymore, and neither shall we.”

“Humph. You disappoint me, Platinum. I knew I should have sent Star Swirl in your place.” Platinum could barely make out the drab coat of the archmage on the other side of the King’s regal body, but she could tell he was trying to appear disinterested in the conversation. Lapis leaned forward and cut off her sight, forcing her eyes to travel to his face. “Since you have already masterminded the plans for the Diamond Kingdom’s destruction, perhaps you could engineer its salvation?”

Platinum sucked air through her teeth and tapped on the table nervously. The farms were destroyed for the time being, the food would run out within a month, and she couldn’t trust the other two tribes to help out. Naturally, that left only one possible, logical conclusion.

“We could move somewhere else.” The words were spoken, and as much as Platinum wished she had sent that idea to the pits of Tartarus when everypony’s eyes fixated on her, she had to stand by it now and defend it. “I mean, the blizzard can only reach so far. The lands here are essentially dead for however long it lasts, and we don’t know if it’s going to end. We could move somewhere else without the earth ponies and the pegasi and claim rich and fertile lands to thrive upon!”

Rather than brush off her suggestion as foalish, Lapis actually rested a hoof under his chin and considered it. “That is a very… interesting proposal, Platinum.” Reclining in his seat, Lapis began to nod slowly, then with more vigor. “Very interesting. Actually, I think that could work.”

Platinum smiled and began to dig into her food. Now that that was over with, it was time to finally enjoy her meal—

“And I think you should lead the expedition.”

Partially-chewed lettuce and other foodstuffs flew from Platinum’s mouth faster than any diving pegasus could hope to travel. After sailing the short distance across the table corner to where Clover was sitting beside her, the salad struck the unfortunate mare’s face with such velocity that it caused her to topple out of her seat. Sputtering and wiping the saliva from her chin, Platinum turned her shocked expression towards her father.

“Wha-wha-WHAT?!! Father! Surely, you jest!”

“I never jest, Platinum.” Turning to his side, he whispered a few sentences to Star Swirl, to which the archmage nodded. Returning to Platinum, he wrapped a goblet in his hoof and held it before himself. “Your failure to save the Kingdom diplomatically forces me to have you save it through other means. Since finding new lands was your suggestion, it would only be right for you to fulfill it.”

Platinum grabbed her mane with her hooves and pulled. “But why, father?! Why would you do this to me?!”

Lapis only chuckled and sipped the wine in the goblet. “Because you are no use to the Kingdom in any other way. No matter what tasks I have assigned you to do in the past few years, you have failed every one, and blamed it on others. Perhaps you will learn something to prepare you for sovereignty.”

“But father…”

“If you do not do this, then you will be disowned. Your position and inheritance will be forfeit, and I will find an heir better suited to take the throne when I die.” Holding the empty goblet out in front of him, he flipped it on its head and set it on the table. “And that is final. Clover will accompany you. Now, make ready for your journey.”

The King and his pages all rose from the table and left to retreat deeper within the castle, leaving Platinum, Clover, and Star Swirl behind. The Princess took several more bites of her meal before stomping off to her private quarters. “The nerve… honestly…” she mumbled to herself as she left.

Clover was about to follow her princess, but a rough cough from the end of the table stopped her progress. Turning to see where Star Swirl was gently setting a goblet down on the edge of the table, she trotted over to him at his summons.

“Yes, Star Swirl? What is it?”

Star Swirl smiled and beckoned for her to walk to the windows with him. The archmage was already in his late seventies, and every step was a slow and painful process for the elder unicorn. But despite that, Clover admired his age instead of being appalled by it. How many miles had those withered limbs trotted? What sort of wonders had his eyes seen in his life? To live to such an age, and in such health, too, was something that the mare dreamt of.

The windows overlooked the entire city, and Clover gasped as she looked down on it. Hundreds of snow-covered rooftops were arranged in neat lines within the borders of the city walls, each with its own little plume of smoke rising out of the valley and into the sky. The clouds had barely parted down the middle to reveal the slightest trace of the stars beyond, letting their faint light illuminate the land below. It was an impressive sight, and Clover knew she would remember it for the rest of her life.

Star Swirl pulled his pipe out of his cloak and began to draw on it. As he released fine rings of smoke into the air, he smiled and sadly shook his head. “I suppose that this is our last lesson, Clover the Clever.”

Clover’s ears perked, and she turned a questioning glance to her mentor. “What do you mean, Star Swirl? I’ll only be gone a month.”

The archmage laughed, a wheezing sound as feeble lungs drew weak breaths around the smoke he inhaled. “That may be, Clover, but what happens when you come back? Even if the Diamond Kingdoms find lands elsewhere, you still have to move there. And that means walking hundreds, if not thousands of miles to do so. Frankly, I’m too old to make such a journey.”

“But… but master…” Clover blinked several times to clear the tears building in her eyes. Star Swirl was like her father, raising her from a young age when her mother died and her biological father disappeared into the night. She loved the old stallion deeply and with all her heart, and to hear him say things like that was wrenching the young mare’s soul. Wiping away the tears in her glistening eyes, she turned to face him, pleading. “There’s still so much left to learn…”

Star Swirl smiled softly and wrapped a foreleg around Clover’s neck, pulling the sniffling mare closer to his side. “I know, Clover, I know. But even now, in the prime of your youth, you know much more about magic than I did at your age. There’s much more out there that I can’t possibly teach you, and it’s up to you to find it for yourself. Let the sun and stars guide you, Clover the Clever, and be ever vigilant in your travels.” Stepping back, he planted both of his forehooves on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Bring back something to teach me, hm?”

Clover inhaled sharply to calm herself and nodded. The archmage then embraced her again, moving his mouth close to her ear. “No matter what Platinum thinks of you; no matter what you think of your life to this point, know you are more than just a poor servant to royalty. I can sense it in you; the spark of knowledge, the everlasting passion to learn. You are not called Clover the Clever without reason. You’re the smartest, brightest mare that I’ve ever had the honor to teach. And I know that in your heart, you know what’s best. Follow your intuition, and do not disregard the power of friendship. The world may be founded on hate, but it is guided and shaped by love. Where there is love, there is prosperity. Let it be your duty to bring the fire of friendship with you wherever you go.”

“Clover!” Platinum shouted from down the hall. The two unicorns were forced to end their embrace, and Star Swirl nodded for his apprentice to go. The green mare began to trot away, before stopping and turning to her mentor one last time.

“Thank you, Star Swirl. For everything.” Then she disappeared around the corner, her tail swishing one last time before it disappeared from sight.

Star Swirl sighed and wiped a tear from under his baggy eye. Then he drew on his pipe once more, gently blowing out the smoke as he watched the silent city below.

-----

Smart Cookie paced the floor for what must have been the tenth time that week. He was currently walking from wall to wall in Chancellor Puddinghead’s office, stopping every so often to look out the window or at some little trophy that the frivolous stallion kept to decorate his space. As far as the Representative could tell, there was no paperwork on Puddinghead’s desk, nor had their ever been, and that was the way he preferred it. The less direct input that the Chancellor had in the affairs of the Low Valleys, the better.

But that still didn’t mean that the Chancellor was not a necessary part of Smart Cookie’s life, for better or for worse. The stallion was fairly decent at inspiring morale for the usually down-trodden earth ponies, so long as nothing political was involved. The times when he did insist on involving himself in politics, things had a tendency to fall apart, fast. The Puddinghead-Platinum Accords, which the Chancellor had signed three years ago despite the protests of the Board of Representatives, had ceded ten percent of the Low Valley’s lands to the Diamond Kingdom in return for what amounted to little more than regular imports of trinkets and baubles that Puddinghead found to his liking. At least Smart Cookie, as Chairpony of the Board of Representatives, had been able to limit the damage after the fact.

Smart Cookie sighed again and adjusted the feather in his hat. Puddinghead was definitely not like his father, the beloved Chancellor Muffintop who died several years back from pneumonia. Muffintop had actually earned his position, and was a magnificent politician to boot. His participation in the Tri-Pony Compact had played off of Cirra to strengthen the Low Valleys against the economic domination of the Diamond Kingdom and had staved off the eventual annexation that the Kingdom was bound to attempt at some point. It was exceedingly unfortunate, however, that Muffintop let nepotism cloud his judgment, and his dying wish was for Puddinghead to take over as Chancellor once he died. Being the popular politician that he was, Muffintop’s last wish was faithfully executed, and in the chancellorship Puddinghead had stayed for four years.

There was a thump and rumble that seemed to emanate from the chimney, and Smart Cookie quickly straightened his collar and trotted over. Sure enough, soot fell from the brick, along with two brown hooves. The Representative sighed and placed a hoof to his temple. No matter how many times he thought he had seen it all, Puddinghead always found a way to surprise him.

As the brown stallion dropped out of the chimney with a thud, Smart Cookie coughed and waved away the soot and dust. The Chancellor had effectively ruined his formal political garb, and with all the rivers frozen over and firewood running low it would be a long time before the clothes were cleaned and straightened out again. And Puddinghead would expect him to find some way to clean it just so he could ruin it again. It drove Smart Cookie to absolute madness. He was the Chairpony of the Board, for Celestis’ sake! Why was he treated like a lowly secretary?!

Realizing that the Chancellor was staring at him with a goofy smile, awaiting the response that his entrance was sure to generate, Smart Cookie could only cough and put on a bored expression. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to use the door, Chancellor?”

Chancellor Puddinghead stood up from the piles of ash and char he had been sitting on to adorn his face with his trademark brain-dead smile. “Maybe for you, Smart Cookie, but I am a chancellor! I was elected because I can think outside of the box!” Taking a step back into the fireplace, Puddinghead drove his head straight into the lower bounds of the chimney. “Which also means I can think inside the chimney! Can you think inside a chimney?”

Smart Cookie pulled his eyes to the corner of his vision and angled his head. “Uh… I—”

“I didn’t think so,” the Chancellor smugly interrupted. He strode past Smart Cookie with an air of superiority and began to shake the soot out of his mane, taking the time to make sure his hat was in perfect condition.

Smart Cookie sighed and walked towards the window looking out over Mane Street. “So what are we going to do now? It’s not like the meeting got anything important done.”

“Well, those other tribes are just no-good selfish good-for-nothings!” Puddinghead fumed. “I mean, we tried to get stuff done with them in our own town of Amber Field, and what did they do? The commander of the pegasuses and Princess Paladin spent the whole time insulting each other, while I did my best to be reasonable!”

Rolling his eyes, Smart Cookie turned to address the politician. “With all due respect, your chancellorship, I don’t really think that you were doing all that hot yourself in those meetings.”

Puddinghead’s face twisted into an expression of the painfully obvious. “You don’t say, Smart Cookie! It was awfully cold in there! I definitely could have used another coat.”

Smart Cookie sat down in one of the chairs opposite the Chancellor’s desk and placed his hooves under his chin. “I mean that you didn’t make much progress with the others on the topic of the blizzard or the food shortages. Just what exactly do you plan on doing about those, anyway?”

A blank expression dominated Puddinghead’s face, and his head slowly began to list to the side as he thought at a painfully lethargic rate. Just when Smart Cookie was about to check if the Chancellor was still with the living, the brown stallion inhaled sharply and drew an enormous smile to his face.

“Oh my gosh! Hold on to your hooves, Smart Cookie! I am just about to be brilliant!!”

“That’d be a first,” Smart Cookie muttered under his breath as he avoided the Chancellor’s ecstatic features. “Please, do tell what it is that you’ve come up with, your chancellorship.”

“I have decided that the Low Valleys are going to go it alone!” Puddinghead leaned back with a hoof in the air, perhaps half-expecting fanfare and applause for his obviously ingenious idea.

Smart Cookie failed to supply it for him. Instead, the Representative seemed to droop from his stance and emit a low moan. “You mean you aren’t even going to try to repair relations with Cirra or the Diamond Kingdom?”

“Nope!” Despite being slightly put-off by the lack of zeal on Smart Cookie’s part, Puddinghead maintained his usual happiness and flair in his answer.

Smart Cookie growled in frustration, but he remembered to put at least some control into the action to keep it from offending the Chancellor. “But Chancellor, I was banking everything on being able to work with the others! Tartarus, we might still be able to recover some of the damage done in that last meeting if we could just talk again and actually develop some plans for how to deal with the coming months! Who knows how long this blizzard is going to last?”

“Pssh, don’t worry about them, Smart Cookie! We don’t need them anyways! We’re the ones with all the food, remember?”

“Uh, Chancellor? We’ll be out in about a week. We won’t be able to grow food again for at least two months, if not more, depending on the weather. Now, I know that schooling wasn’t really your thing, but I trust you understand enough about arithmetic to know what exactly that means.”

Puddinghead scratched his chin. “Hmm, I see what you mean. Oh well, then we can stop shipping out food to the other tribes. It’s not like they can do anything about it, right?”

The Representative rolled his eyes and pointed out the window to the north, where the distant spires of Cloudsdale were barely visible on the low horizon. “Chancellor, you do realize that to the north we have Cirra, and to the south we have the Diamond Kingdom. Do you really think it’s wise to anger the two nations that actually have a military force?”

“What, don’t we have a military of our own? I thought I had told you to get on that, like, two months back.”

“That may be, but it takes time to train a standing army. If you had told me to do that two years back instead of vetoing every resolution that the Board passed to raise our own military, we might have a force to hold our own against the Diamond Kingdom, even without magic. But even if you did, we couldn’t stand up to the Legion with five hundred-thousand soldiers. Even if we allied with the Kingdom, their Diamond Guard might provide numbers, but the Legion is built on skill. Ten thousand of their soldiers do the work of twenty or thirty thousand Diamond Guard. And right now, we pale in comparison with about fifteen thousand poorly trained soldiers against nearly a million Legionnaires spread across Cirra’s holdings, and in our own cities as well. Tell me, is that something that we want to go up against?”

It took an uncomfortable amount of time for Puddinghead to consider the facts, and Smart Cookie was worried that the Chancellor was going to stand by his original plan and risk getting the Low Valleys wiped out by their rivals. Luckily, the inane earth pony saw reason and managed to come up with some form of a compromise.

“Well then! If we can’t stand against them, then we’ll just have to go someplace else! Somewhere with rich and fertile lands, where we can grow whatever we want! Somewhere where we won’t have to deal with the other tribes pestering us for our food all the time!” Moving to the door, Puddinghead opened the capitol to the snow outside. “And with me as our fearless leader, what could possibly go wrong?”

Several feet of snow avalanched into the building, burying Puddinghead until only his hat remained visible above the drift. Smart Cookie groaned and placed a hoof to his head, squinting as he fought down the headache that he invariably received when dealing with the Chancellor.

“Where should I start?”

-----

The air in the palace was much warmer than the surrounding skies, even without the use of firewood. Hauling timber up to Cloudsdale was a difficult enough process in the summer months, and with most of the trees surrounded by four feet of snow it was impossible to cut them down. With the additional burden of timber supplies from the Diamond Kingdom being cut off by the snowfall, Cirra had to resort to burning Empatha to produce heat for its homes. It was through this technique that Imperator Cyclone had been able to heat Hurricane’s palace, and pairs of guards patrolled the halls with their wings ablaze to warm the air.

Hurricane could feel the frost begin to melt off of his feathers as soon as he shut the door behind him. It was always comforting to return to the palace, even if it was not the one he had ruled within as Emperor so many years ago. Still, that there was some continuity from the Cirran Empire of twenty years past to the surviving remnants of the day always helped ease his thoughts.

Soldiers of all ranks and divisions saluted him as he walked past, and Hurricane briefly acknowledged each one’s presence with a flick of his ears. Two Praetorians opened the doors to the throne room for him, and Hurricane climbed the short flight of steps that led to his seat where he presided over all of Cirra’s holdings. There, the ponies whom he wanted to talk to most were waiting for him; Swift Spear, Twister, Cyclone, and Typhoon.

He paused for a second before speaking, trying to predict their reactions and prepare a defense for his argument. He needed to do this. Cirra had no other choice, and their continued existence hinged upon Hurricane’s plan.

“I’m flying west,” he began. “To find new lands for Cirra. We can’t survive here for much longer, that much is certain. We’ll only die a slow and painful death from hunger and the cold. If we can move someplace warmer… we might stand a chance.”

There was brief silence before anypony spoke. “But why you, Hurricane?” Swift Spear pleaded. “Surely you could send somepony else in your place. Cirra needs you here to guide them through these dark and troublesome times, not soaring through uncharted skies far from home.”

Hurricane shook his head. “Twenty years ago, that may have been. But despite our appearance, Cirra has grown stronger since then. I now have ponies capable of leading in my absence, and perhaps do a better job at it than I. Swift,” he said as he ran a hoof through her mane, “I trust you to handle things for me more than any other pegasus in Cirra. In fact, you already do. I would not be able to get through the week if you didn’t help take care of the more sensitive political matters. Use what you know from your youth in Stratopolis, just like you always do, and you’ll get through this just fine.”

Twister grunted, but the expression of annoyance was insincere. “And what about me, you big oaf? I do more work than the both of you combined, even if I don’t know hilt from blade on a sword. Don’t forget that I helped you draft Cirra’s terms in the Tri-Pony Compact, even if I was only seventeen at the time.”

Hurricane smiled and nuzzled Twister’s neck. “Of course, Twist. You know that I value your presence every day of my life, especially since what happened twenty years ago.”

“Well, no need to go reopening old wounds,” she said softly, with a remarkable change of tone. “What happened then is done, no matter how much it hurts. I don’t oppose you going on this journey in anyway; in fact, if anypony was to do it, it would have to be you. A government holds no legitimacy if the first in command is not the first to try and solve their nation’s problems, even if that means putting your neck out on the line. You, Cane, you’re a regular at it; every time you lead the Legion into battle, every slash of your sword through an opposing commander’s neck, you put the Diamond Kingdom and the Low Valleys to shame. And now, while they’re bickering amongst themselves, you’re going to go out and work for our future.” She sighed, and stared forlornly out the western window. “In a way, I envy you. To travel and adventure has always been my dream, and even if I’ve seen more of the Compact lands than anypony else, there’s always more to see and do.” Giving her brother a hug, Twister leaned against his shoulder and embraced the cold armor on his back for all it was worth. “I remember all those years ago, when the Legion called for you to go fight Gryphus, and how we parted on that rainy day in Zephyrus. And now, though the griffons are far from here and war threatens us no more, here you leave again. Please, please be safe, Hurricane. You’re the only family I have left.”

Hurricane leaned back from Twister and returned his forehooves to the ground. “What about your own family, Twist? Your husband and foals?”

Twister punched Hurricane’s shoulder and shook her head. “You know what I mean, Cane.”

Nodding his head, Hurricane glanced at his hooves. “Yes, I do. Never forget that though they may be gone, Mom and Dad live on through us.”

“I’ve never forgotten, and I never will,” Twister whispered as she stepped away from her brother. Hurricane then angled himself towards Cyclone and Typhoon, and nodded approvingly at their posture and attention.

“It seems like just yesterday that you two were foals. To see you grown up, it warms my heart. I could not have asked for better children.” He glanced over to Swift Spear, who was faintly smiling from his side, before continuing. “It’s a funny, though tragic, thing that the Red Cloud War drove so many families apart, yet it brought your mother and I together. And now, twenty years since then, I see two of the finest pegasi Cirra has to offer, born to lead and inspire their soldiers from the skies to the earth which we return to. You never met your grandfather, Thunder Gale, but I can say that he’d be damn proud of you two. Just like I am now.”

Hurricane stepped closer to Cyclone, glancing at the red stallion’s shoulder plate and the weighty insignia it bore, gold etchings on a background of onyx and skysteel. “While I’m gone, you have full reign over the Legion, Cyclone. But you will answer to your mother, and direct them to best accomplish her orders.” The black pegasus sighed, and his eyes wandered off to late nights that only he knew of, nights that he and a map alone shared. “Power does not come easily, and directing the entire Legion will be a difficult task, but I see the tactician’s eye within you. Perhaps learn to curb your anger a bit, and you may find that it comes naturally.”

Cyclone nodded and draped one wing across his chest while holding the other out and straight. It was highest level of salute, and usually reserved only for the emperor in the days of old. The action swore fealty to the commanding officer, and promised that failure would be amply repaid with the soldier’s wing. Although the salute itself was hardly used since the Exodus, Cyclone felt it to be appropriate with his father trusting him to execute so great a responsibility. He would not fail Hurricane, and he would work to better Cirra in his absence.

Acknowledging the salute, Hurricane then walked towards Typhoon and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Typhoon, I’m especially proud of you. No other Legionnaire has climbed through the ranks as fast as you did, and you deserve your positioning. Watching you fight and practice is mesmerizing, to say the least.” Typhoon’s ears flicked, but she refrained from interrupting her father. “Although Cyclone may have control over the Legion, I want you to help him. Balance each other out, and make sure that rashness is checked by a level-head, and planning be executed with fervor.”

Typhoon likewise nodded and offered her wing to the Commander as Cyclone had done. Once again acknowledging the motion, Hurricane turned to address his family as a whole. “I will return within one month, letting my wings carry me as fast and as far as they can in that time. If I am not back by then, carry on without me, for though I may have cheated death in the past, it will catch up with me eventually. My only request is that Cirra remains united and strong upon my return. Everything else, handle as necessary.”

Giving one last salute to his family, Hurricane glanced towards the stained glass at the back of the throne room. There, just like throughout much of the palace, was a depiction of Silver Sword, this time in his final stand in Stratopolis. It gave Hurricane strength and inspiration, and the weary pegasus brought a small smile to his lips as he walked away.

The throne watched in silence as he disappeared out the doors, with Swift Spear close behind. For Typhoon, it only signified the beginning of what she knew would be the hardest days of her life. She glanced out the window, where the winds blew ever westward, ready and waiting for the mighty stallion that would conquer them and save his ponies.

And she knew that he would conquer them, and he would save his ponies, for no better reason than that he was Commander Hurricane, last emperor of the Cirran Empire.