She was the greatest warrior of her generation. But her greatest challenge wasn't anything she could fight with hoof or spear.
They called Gusty 'the Great' when she was safely dead, and gone from the world's stage. But I knew her when she was alive, and vibrant, and deadly, and the most beautiful mare I have ever seen in my long, badly mis-spent life. She fought for the right, and for justice, and against monsters, thieves, slavers, and the evil which walks in pony guise. She was, in a word, glorious.
I fear if she was alive today, she'd be right out there, outside my gates, besieging my walls, waiting for the opportunity to call me to account for my many crimes. Stars, I wish she was out there right now, screaming my name, calling for my head. I miss her so much.
The first time I saw the little sparrow she was plunging out of the sun in the midst of a rain of javelins, screaming like all the hosts of Tartarus let loose. Centurion Gusty and her squadron of Pegasopolitan exiles were riding to our rescue. The Hammers had gotten our flanks into trouble, ambushed by a particularly clever band of diamond dogs who knew the terrain like they’d built warrens under every single square foot of it, which they had. We wouldn't have gotten ourselves out the trouble we’d found ourselves in, if not for her and her valkyrie scream, and the hard-bitten pegasus avalanche that followed in her wake. The clever diamond dog tribals into whose snare we had trotted would have barbequed our joints over cheery fires in the heart of their shadowy underground towns, and celebrated with a leg of unicorn or a crystal steak, celebrated their victory over the tasty, tasty interlopers and invaders.
We well-earned our risible nickname among the other warbands on that day. The ‘Glass Hammers’ broke like a dropped figurine when Magus Shard Scry fell, his head caved in by a small boulder, flung from the heights overhead by some canine savage. They had us pinned rear and flank, and the rout would have left us in the paws of the tribes for sure. It was only later after the dust had settled and puddled with the blood of dog and unicorn that we figured out that I was the senior most unicorn in the warband, and had inherited command, such as it was. We were headless, unled, and ready to scatter.
And that’s when Gusty the Great appeared. Oh, yes, her. More and more I hear stories about this unicorn heroine, the great war-unicorn, the savior of the west, the beau ideal of the horned tribes… I can’t understand where it comes from. Who tells these stories? Who invented them in the first place? Who ever heard of a unicorn named after a gust of wind? Were we to take from it that she was gassy and had intestinal issues? No, no.
Gusty was a pegasus, like all great warriors are. We unicorns are many great things, clever, intellectual, powerful in magic, in ritual and spell we are without rival. But we’ve always been terrible in the field, in the battle, in the fight. A unicorn under arms is an unbalanced load, a lean-to, a house of cards. One push, and we fall to pieces. No unicorn is ever truly in the moment. In the fray, we are still in our heads, distracted by panic, distracted by thoughts and plans.
If ever we breed a nation of unicorns who can feel like a pegasus, that nation will conquer the far corners of the globe, and sweep all in front of its marriage of power, passion and control. But a nation of unicorns like that will basically be wingless alicorns, and we lesser beasts will by need and right bow our inferior heads before their power and prestige, and that was not the case in the days when Gusty, my little sparrow, was in her prime.
Like that day.
The little sparrow was glorious on that day - like salvation from the skies. Her pegasi hit the ambush-lines like an avalanche, and they didn't hold back one single dog-killing warhead. They expended every single javelin in our defense, and the shock of that steel hailstorm shattered the tribal lines, sent them fleeing ahead of us. Our headlong flight turned into an inadvertent pursuit, and those of us who'd witnessed the attack, the turnabout, the dogs breaking - we found our hearts, and we rallied to add to the enemy's discomfit.
To make them pay.
I found myself fighting with two blood-soaked javelins ripped from some groaning dog's back, slashing with them as if they were foreshortened spears in my red hornglow. I suspect the wild-eyed loss of control that I displayed on that stupid little battlefield was what made the older unicorns accept my seniority afterwards, despite the fact that said seniority had more to do with the deceased Shard Scry having named me to a sergeancy based on a five-minutes-apprenticeship with the famous Star Swirl. Not that I ever misled anyone about the substance of my brief tenure with the great wizard, and how he'd taken one look at my intrinsic magic and turned around on a dime, threatening to banish my monstrous self to Tartarus. In those days, I thought it made me sound like a badflank, dangerous. But then, I was young, and foolish, and more than a little fey from a lifetime of rejection from figures of authority.
The Hammers and the rest of the mercenary warbands with which we had been wandering the badlands had gotten ourselves into that no-win situation by the machinations of the principalities, and the greed of mercenary commanders. But then, that could describe life in the warbands on any given morning of a mercenary’s life, so I can't say that it explains this particular situation properly. Or the campaign in general, if you could be so generous as to call that headlong flight back towards civilization as a ‘campaign’. As I said, in that year a number of the best-situated principalities in the north and west came to the simultaneous conclusion that their interests would be best served with the absence of the major warbands in some distant land. They backed the plans of one Prince Cyril, an Anugyptian exile who was trying to overthrow Pharoah Hisan. Hisan's protector and banner-carrier had disappeared, and left Anugypt unsettled and open to a change in leadership. Cyril made the rounds of the northern and western principalities, and had collected a significant following of discontented Anugyptian nobility and second daughters and the like.
I knew that the Sirespire had paid old Shard Scry a bribe to go and take Cyril's silver stags; later when talking to Gusty, I learned how she'd been encouraged by the council and doge of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover to take her exiles south in the service of the Anugyptian prince. And for a time, it looked like we had hired onto a winning campaign, and we'd swept up every little militia-muster that formed in front of our advance. Our burgeoning host had covered the rolling plains as we moved southward into the medium-sized empire which Hisan had made of his little Somnambulan revival of old Anugypt.
The campaign had seen very few actual bloodlettings on the march, and if Cyril's money hadn't been good, I think some of the mercenary bands might have become restless with the lack of plunder we saw. Those ambitious and bloodthirsty stormcrows got all the distinction their savage hearts desired, though, when Cyril's diplomatic efforts turned suddenly tragic. While we were encamped around a little town built beside an enormous natural salt lick, Prince Cyril met with some tributaries of the Anugyptian throne to bribe them into his following with the usual promises.
Somehow, during the talks, somepony managed to poison our paymaster, the would-be pharaoh. I never did figure out exactly what happened, because the feast turned into a mutual slaughter, and Cyril's shocked, horrified followers struck down his poisoners and indeed, everypony else they could get their hooves on. The initial killing fury subsided quickly, and without a figurehead to lead the herd, they turned on each other. Some of those followers who’d lost their pony to follow were sketchier than the average, as was to be expected even in the best of times. But some were worse even by the standards of those fallen times, and I strongly suspect at least some of those who reconciled with the ruling pharaoh afterwards were the ponies who’d actually put the yewweed distillate into Cyril's mead.
You never know how long the con is, until it pays off, and the robe comes off.
No matter who actually did the deed, we found ourselves no longer the core of a conquering host, but, quite suddenly, a collection of alien warbands in the middle of a fraternal squabble, was in the heart of a hostile country. Every hoof turned against us, and we might have been devoured by the chaos if the commanders of the major warbands hadn't formed an emergency pact and voted for a rapid armed retreat. They called it the Column, and its command rotated between the self-appointed commanders on a daily basis. We didn't offer battle to the various quarreling militia bands, but maintained an armed neutrality, falling back whenever we weren’t directly threatened. We extracted fodder and supplies from the peasantry and the walled towns as we sidled with all alacrity away from the centre of the chaos.
Others have told the story of that great march out of Anugypt, across the central badlands and back north into the pony heartlands. It's been celebrated in song and epic, and Gusty's part in it has been told by better ponies than I. And some quite worse than I, including the increasingly popular variants that paint these bizarre unicorn-hero fables about the little sparrow. I cannot understand how anypony who has ever laid eyes on the towering pegasus could tell afterwards stories of a plucky little unicorn war-leader, but then, I am no bard, no sedate writer of scrolls.
I’m just the pony who was there.
I'm not sure whether the way I barely figured in the popular tales of the March Up Hill is a blessing, or an insult. But admittedly, my leadership role in the March came late in the tale, during the last, desperate scrabbles which saw the heroic destruction of the Stormcrows in another tribal ambush, and the controversial conquest of Cherrywood by the Mustangs and the Little Helm. And I spent that time as the lackey of Gusty, following her lead in every particular, every vote, every hoof-step along the way.
Because I owed that mare my life.
But all that was long after I first met the little sparrow. In the moment, the heated, bloody, moment, in darkness, in danger… I had, to my embarrassed shame afterwards, sort of led our half-panicked, unbalanced pursuit of the routed diamond dogs. Insofar as anypony led the Hammers at that moment of poor judgment and terrified fury, it was I who led some of the Hammers into the entrance-tunnels of the nearest warren-town, where even the most cowardly of dogs would turn and fight for hearth and burrow. I am ashamed to report that I was in the van of this foolish pursuit into the heart of their warrens, and I found myself trapped again, the rest of the Hammers nowhere to be seen, as I and three others who I could find, tried to form up and fight our way back out into the sun.
I didn't have as much trouble as some in the diamond warrens, as my darksight has always been, if anything, better than my sight in the light of day. But the two crystal ponies and the other unicorn who I had been able to form up with were damn near blind in that sudden darkness, and my magic was strained to the utmost as I tried to keep the rankers from being clawed down from behind by sneaking dirty dogs. The crystal stallions were too panicky and confused for our usual focus-chorus methods to have a hope of working, so everypony was fighting on their own hook, less a squad than a gang of soldiers striking out into the darkness. Only I could tell which direction the exit and salvation laid, and I was confused and afraid of my own mistakes, the mistakes which had led us all into trap after trap.
And then into my darkness came a blazing light, and a charge of hooves down the tunnel, and a pegasus holding a burning torch. She was tall, taller than I, and I was large for a unicorn. She stood at least a frog’s length taller than the sharp and curved end of my horn, and she rippled with muscle under that warm tan coat. Her wings were wide and strong, and she habitually wore heavy wingblades with which she carved a bloody path through our enemies. Her brown eyes flashed in her torch-light, and her grin was infectious.
"Hello, boys, did you get lost? How many times do I have to save your flanks before you stay out of trouble?"
The little sparrow trotted up to me, her burning torch held in her left wing in that impossible way that some pegasi grasp their instruments. "Hey there, big boy! You ready to come back out into the light, or do you just like to blend into the darkness? What do I call you, Blackie?"
"B-Black Crystal," I lied.
"Blackie it is! Come on, boys, we have miles to go, and you slackers can't fly ‘em like we can, chop chop!"
And that was the day I met Gusty the Great, the little sparrow, the greatest pegasus, no, the greatest pony of her generation, bar none.
No, not even those upstart alicorn princesses, damn your eyes.
She got us out of the trap we’d found our way into, and helped me recover my ponies one by one, group by group, as we clawed our way back into the fading sunlight. Only a fragment of the foolish Hammers had followed me and a few other sergeants into the dog-tunnels, and we found most of them before they could be added to the canine tribes’ larders.
By this time, the rest of the Column had rallied upon its ambushed segment, and when we emerged into the light with most of the warband intact, we were in the midst of an army under arms. The diamond dogs didn’t come back out to challenge the host’s might, and the other warband commanders decided that we’d lost enough without attempting to sack the impoverished dens of dogs without a bone to pick their teeth with.
The Column moved on.
It wasn’t the only battle of that long march, but it was the one which made the Hammers, and forged a connection between us and Gusty’s Warsparrows. She sort of adopted us in the aftermath, and I clung to her fetlocks like the wetmaned novice that I was.
We weren’t the only warband which cleaved to Gusty’s leadership. The Ironmongers, or Steeljack’s Forge were an earthpony band that specialized in tactical engineering and siegecraft. They and the Warsparrows made for strange stablefellows but Steeljack knew a leader when he saw one, and he was, if anything, more loyal to the little sparrow than I by the time the Hammers came belatedly into the brotherhood.
Ah, the Warsparrows. Gusty's band of former legionaries didn't really have a steady name. They’d once been the third cohort of the VI Legion, and if you asked the little sparrow, she'd have told you they were the III/VI detached. Not that the Cyclone Empress’s armies didn’t have a new third cohort, and an intact VI Legion, but as they began, so Gusty maintained. Even though she was loyal to a long-dead commander, and the pegasus republic which fell with the flight of its last commander. Others called the band of hard-striking pegasus warriors the Warsparrows, and it tended to stick. Gusty didn't like that, any more than she liked being called Little Sparrow, but names in the mercenary trade are given more than they’re taken.
The Column broke apart towards the tail end of the long march, when the Mustangs and the Little Helm rose up against the decisions of the commanders’ meeting, and rode off to become warlords and bandits. Steeljack and I followed Gusty, and our own warbands formed one of the major fragments into which the broken Column scattered.
Gusty the leader of ponies was as impressive as Gusty the pegasus-under-arms had been. She was embarrassed about her tan coat and brown mane, and thought they were plain among the jewel-like coats of her fellow pegasi. Personally, I thought her earthtones made her more distinctive, brought out her perfect physique, her almost impossible stature. She was built like a Saddle Arabian, or a northern elk - half a head taller than the next largest mare I'd ever met, barring those alicorn monstrosities. In a race of small, wiry ponies like the pegasi, the little sparrow was a giant, a roc among budgies. She could fling a bollard like it was a dart, and I once saw her smash a mantlet with her forehoof as if she was crushing an apple on a bar-bet.
The little sparrow was made for war, and leading ponies. Her voice carried for miles, and you could hear her from one side of a battlefield to the other, no matter how much battle-rattle, screaming and dying was going on in between. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Column, I determined to cleave to Gusty's little legion-fragment, and never let go, not as long as I had two other unicorns to make a spell-chorus.
Gusty made me drill my ponies ruthlessly, and such was my sentiments that I plunged into her discipline with all the fervor of a convert. The Hammers had always been a fractious and foolish collection of smug individualists, and we'd always suffered unsettlingly high casualty rates. Our collective magic made us a terrifying force at the beginning of a fight, but any single distraction or disruption could turn our chorus into a cacophony of useless ponies milling about, or fleeing in terror. She had me train my survivors into six-pony mini-choruses, and those smaller units made us less overwhelming in the attack, but more capable of taking a hit, and more resilient in the face of opposition.
By the time we emerged into the central principalities, we were a well-drilled, cohesive force. Steeljack and my ponies had become Gusty’s ponies.
Gusty liked to come across like a typically flighty and easy-going pegasus, but she was a legionary, heart and soul, and that ranker’s bluster and boast covered a disciplined heart which was never happy with inaction, sloth, or disorder. She rarely slept, and when she did, not for long. She burned her candle at both ends, and there was an amazing amount of candle to burn, so much so that I rarely if ever saw her exhausted.
Strange Voice made himself the hero of the great march upcountry, and his cronies figured large in his telling of it, but Gusty was the saving of the Column in those long, thirsty days that saw us fight our way across the northern wastes, and Strange Voice to his destiny in Cherrywood and distant Manehattan.
The Column effectively disbanded at the northeastern fringe of the wastes, during that storied council-meeting when Strange Voice and his cronies tried to lure us into his political plans for home. I had already become Gusty's strongest supporter in the mercenary-council, and I suppose that from Strange Voice's account, you'd conclude that I was Gusty's crony. In his telling of it, we were trying to turn the whole band of bands into a conquering army to go back to the northwest and do - I don't know what he thought we were planning. He wrote his March Up Hill long before I became famous for my own activities, so he didn't know to make me, personally, the villain of that council, and he tried to make Gusty that schemer and plotter.
I’d credit him with not having characterized Gusty as a unicorn, but to be honest, I think a lot of those later accounts sprung from his tendency to not talk about the tribes of his contemporaries, excepting in their allegiances and their associations, and he never mentioned Gusty except in the context of her 'pet unicorns'.
As far as I'm concerned, Strange Voice was the villain of our story, the true snake in the garden of the Column. I learned a great lesson from that earth pony with snakes in his head - to make sure I write the histories, so that I can be sure I will be the hero of my own story.
This account is my first installment on that intention, if only I had more time to put quill to parchment…
Gusty took those warbands who followed her lead out of the council that sundered the Column, and the rest went their respective ways. We marched two weeks northwest, and fetched up in a no-name collection of hamlets along the western verge of a crazy dangerous dark forest, where we earned our keep for that season by patrolling the edges of that forest, and trained together. Not all of the warbands who left with us stayed in the Everfrees, but the Ironmongers, the Hammers, and Gusty's cohort stayed, and trained, and began to come together in something approaching a single, cohesive force.
This is where I put into place Gusty's notions of how to organize unicorn battle-choruses, and she helped me experiment with the crystal pony innovations which had been Shard Scry's contribution to warfare and tactics. It's rather ironic that I had nothing to do with Shard Scry's idea, though I had been a unicorn born and raised in the Crystal Empire. But once I’d had it explaind to me, and he’d outlined his theories, I'd taken to it like a duck to water.
The basic idea was that crystal ponies' core magical value laid in focus, direction, and resonance. You can pour magic into, or through crystal ponies, and if they're trained properly, they can enhance your magic, or redirect it, or apply it to work. Loosely speaking, crystal ponies are a subspecies of earth pony, but where earth ponies are active, and work with the deep magic of the land - the soil and the stone - crystal ponies are primarily passive, prisms. They don't produce much more than the average pony, but they have a vast capacity for absorbing, concentrating, and redirecting magic all around them.
If you take a crystal pony, and make her the focus of five unicorns, you can light her up like the sun, fill her full of all the power of those magi, top her off like a battery. Let all of that energy loose via a unicorn’s direction, and you have an energy beam that can blast a hole straight through the thickest wall earth pony magic can erect; a hammer that can shatter the shieldsong of a unicorn chorus twenty or thirty times the size of that six-pony array.
Trying to make an entire battalion of unicorns focus through a couple of crystal ponies was where Shard Scry went wrong. He kept adding additional crystal ponies to the grand battery as if he could make it work better if only he could spread out the burden, but all that ever did was waste our excess energy and it retained the central vulnerability of the grand battery. Once the grand battery was disrupted, the chorus was worthless, and we often burned out our foci in the inevitable backlash.
The Hammers developed a reputation for pony sacrifice and a hard-luck posting for crystal ponies due to our high loss rate when it came to those unfortunates. After a while under Shard Scry, only the craziest and most wildly self-sacrificial crystal exiles would take a contract with us. It got better after I took over, and implemented Gusty’s common-sense adjustments, but we retained that evil reputation for a long time afterwards. To this day, if I had to be honest.
You can be sure my presence in the Hammers wasn't a selling point, either. I’ve always had a reputation in the Crystal Empire. But at that point, I wasn't as infamous as I am today, and mostly what ponies from home remembered was a certain collection of nasty rumors and the general impression that the queens didn't like me all that much. I didn't really go around trumpeting Princess Amore's accusations and prophecies, after all. Well, not after my first few months with the Hammers.
But all that meant that the crystal ponies who did serve with the Hammers were true believers. We had forward-thinkers who believed that our techniques would eventually revolutionize the homeland, that we were making technology breakthroughs, progress - the future! And it is true that Gusty's ‘gang chorus' technique made something other than a great blundering lightshow out of Shard Scry's crystal-focus theories.
If only we had enough crystal ponies to build more than a half-dozen gang-choruses.
Steeljack’s Ironmongers set up as a sort of season-long smithy-market in the Everfrees in those training-days, and supplemented our thin contracts with the hamlets by selling their skills to the locals and the neighboring baronies. It was about this time that the heavenly processions had begun to fail in the skies over Equestria, and that was a particularly thin season for everypony.
Up in New Unicornia, the high chorus that regulated the heavens had begun to fail, and the nights grew longer and longer as the aging hero-princess Platinum struggled to find enough unicorns to feed into the sacrificial maw of that failing institution. I had to drive away Canterlotian recruiters on a number of occasions from our camp, and they didn't want to take ‘no' for an answer. This bad blood between the Hammers and those pious practitioners of actual pony sacrifice lies at the root of my infamous inability to get along with today's Equestrian empire, and the mutual distrust and disdain that stands between me and those damnable Royal Pony Sisters. But they were still fillies in that season, and their apotheosis wasn't until later that winter.
In the meantime, everypony got colder, and some of the crops started to fail. Fishing the streams just outside of, and just inside of, the forest for which the Everfrees were named became a survival tactic. In those days of sunless mornings and moonless twilights, Gusty, I and dozens of other mercenaries spent many halflit hours sitting here and there along the shaded banks. We idled over our rudimentary fishing rods, and occupied ourself talking about training, logistics, families, foalhoods, or where the next meal was coming from.
I told her things about my past that I’d never shared with any other living pony. About growing up in the Empire, what Star Swirl had really been like, and the filly who had been my world before she died of a fever. And in exchange, she opened up over the hooks, the wriggling worms, and those slow-flowing fish-rich waters that trickled out of the deep dark woods uphill from our camps.
I has assumed that a pegasus of her broad, cheerful personality and bonhomie must have come from one of those large, lusty pegasus families, boisterous and quarrelsome and tough. I had been mistaken. Gusty told me during one of those lazy fishing-evenings about the intimacy that she had emerged from, that tight, guarded, happy little home. She'd grown up an only child, her mother's darling filly girl, the center of that mother’s world.
"Until I was six, around about when I got my cutie mark, she got pregnant again," Gusty sighed over her rod, looking back at the sigil of sparrow-wings folded over a small nest and egg. It was the cutie mark which had birthed her nickname, that ironic, nonsensical mark of hers, that destiny which said nothing about war, service, or bravery. The mark of a forester, a homebody, a bird-lover, or something else peaceful. The sparrow’s-dream.
"I'd never understood why we didn't have a full house like the others on the cloudbank. Mom always would say that I'd understand when I was older, but by the time I was old enough, she wasn't around anymore. That pregnancy killed her, Blackie, and I think she knew it would. But she loved her new stallion, and she wanted him to have something of his own. And I saw that look on her face, and I saw something there that blew my mind, that made me want to be - something bigger than what I was. I wanted so much to be a big sister. She looked so proud of me when my mark came in. And then she died… her and the foal, both. I had...
"I didn't have any aunts or uncles, either. When Mom died, I went to a third cousin once removed, but damn if Aunt Claribelle didn't grab hold of me like I was a northbound zephyr. Foals are just too rare in our family. We don't carry well, Aunt Claribelle said, and those that don't miscarry five times out of six, are killed more often than not by difficult births. Mom was one of the latter, and when the foal didn't survive the birthing, either, well...
"S'why I'm still a virgin, Blackie. Twenty-six years old, twenty since my mark, and here I am, a spinster aunt in training. Except I don't have any siblings. Aunt Claribelle was one of the ones who lost all of her youngins to miscarriages, except that last one, who didn't make three summers before the cold and the flu carried him away.
"I'll lead a charge against foam-mouthed diamond dog berserkers, or fly into a darkened cave's mouth, but I'm scared to death of going like Mom did, screaming her life out on a foaling bed, with nothing but a broken little stillbirth to show for it. Terrified of it.
"Ah, damnit, let's talk about something more cheerful, like how we're all going to freeze to death in the darkness. Oh, hey, look! You caught a catfish. We eat well tonight!"
Not all of those conversations were so heavy - there was a lot of competitive lying about our cutie marks, of course, which was a tradition of long standing among mercenaries, and bragging about great feats of magic, also largely composed of falsehoods, and - well, lying about romantic conquests was right out, when it came to Gusty.
Come to think about it, I'd wager that roughly 70% of the niceties among the warbands had to do with the social use of lying. This was, perhaps, the one point upon which the little sparrow came short. If she was not the perfect and absolute paragon of the Equestrian cavalier, it was that she was a terrible liar. It meant that her contracts were generally poorly negotiated, and inequitable to her ponies.
At least until she started letting me do the negotiating. ‘Old Blackie’ was left to do the arguing and the dickering, and suddenly we were getting a good fifth better terms when it came to wages, and more equitable opt-out clauses, and contracts written in something more durable than wind and promises.
Such as blood. I was a strong believer in blood contracting. Spooked off a couple would-be employers, but from the rumors of catastrophe I'd later hear about the warbands which did pick up contracts from those squirrelly city-councils, it was probably for the best. If an employer isn't willing to put her blood and spit on a promise, it isn't worth the blood you'd contracted to spill for it.
But again, that was in the future. In that twilight season beneath the outermost eaves of the dark forest by the Everfrees, the Canterlot recruiters continued to sniff around my magi and my rankers. The recruiters cursed me to my stubborn face, and called me selfish, and stubborn, and a villain. But the little sparrow backed my play, and simply said that they couldn't pay us enough to destroy our ponies upon their thirsty ritual circles.
I theorized to Gusty about what I thought was going on. The world had spun round for time out of mind before Old Unicornia had seized control of the heavens. However they'd broken the skies, they'd done so in such a way that it was wreaking heaven's vengeance upon them, their progeny, their lineage, their posterity. It was my theory that when the last of the Unicornia royal line poured out their heart's-magic upon their ritual floor, the sun and moon would return to their natural courses, and this long gloaming would dawn upon true day, perhaps for the first time in a thousand years.
The nights continued to get longer and longer, until one day, the sun never rose at all.
And while that last night stretched on, and on, and looked like it would never rise again…
Gusty and I eventually came out into the training yards, and sat in the darkness. As we waited for the truant sun, other ponies got tired of their long, cold slumber, and came out one by one and in pairs. They came from the tents, and from the lean-tos, and from the gemlike shacks the crystal ponies liked to conjure out of the bones of the earth, up out of the soil like little faceted remembrances of home. The hardest bitten mercenary ponies on that continent gathered together in milling herds, looking out across the fields and groves, and waited for the horizon to lighten.
Waiting to see if the sun would ever show her face again.
We waited a long time, and I thought about the stories of aged Platinum, the last of the heroes of the Great Freezing, whose little gang-chorus had defeated the windigo menace, had saved the world, or at least, so claimed the Equestrians who revered Platinum and her peers.
In the darkness, I thought about how that brief empire had spread, almost to the edge of my homeland's outermost dependencies. How they'd proclaimed the universal kingdom, union among the tribes, among the different ponies that creation had seeded across this divided continent. Unicorns, and pegasi, and earth ponies, all together, in concert, in union, in harmony. They'd made a religion of that unity, and for a brief season, it had conquered in that sign.
And then Commander Hurricane had wandered off on some quixotic quest, leaving his responsibilities behind, and disappeared from the mortal ken of ponies. Nopony knows where he disappeared to, but in the Crystal Empire we tell tales about the little pegasus warband that followed him, up into the yeti-haunted mountains east of the Yak homelands.
They say Puddinghead ate himself to death. Or that he was poisoned by Smart Cookie, although don't tell that story to anypony from the Earth republics, they take that sort of talk poorly. Smart Cookie had been the oldest of the six, and died of old age not long after taking in Commander Pansy when she was driven out of Pegasopolis by the partisans of the Cyclone Empress. Gusty and her ponies had been followers of Pansy, and had been loyal to the last commander-in-exile until that sad, weak mare died of her broken heart.
They say Pansy was never the same after Hurricane didn't come back; perhaps she'd been a dead pony walking even as they'd seated her on the pegasus imperial throne. It's for certain that it didn't take much to push her out of power, no matter how many loyal ponies like Gusty followed her.
It was never a good idea to bring up the Cyclone Empress in Gusty’s hearing, I've seen the little sparrow kick through an oak table like it was tissue paper at the mere mention of the tyrant who ruled her old home.
Clover was the last but one of the Six to be consumed by the windigoes' curse, if it was a curse. He fought endlessly against the failing of the heavenly magics which was foundation of Unicornian power and prestige. Although everything else failed, Clover and the mayfly choruses he built had kept the dream of a unified Equestria alive. Until he died.
Clover's premature death had begun that season, that Long Twilight which had led, slowly, inevitably, to that last, long, cold morning without a sun. They say that Platinum herself couldn't sustain a chorus without burning out part of the array, sometimes, even often, fatally. Her followers and subjects fled in droves, hiding from her press gangs.
In fact, the Everfree anarchies hid hundreds if not thousands of draft dodgers, a pool of the desperate from which we had been quietly if determinedly recruiting ourselves. When the press gangs and the New Unicornian recruiters came around, we claimed those ponies had been with us before the March Up Hill, and they were carefully coached in the stories they were to tell the recruiters and press-sergeants about how they'd fought through the diamond dogs with the rest of us, and no, ma'am, of course I'm not Unicornian, I'm Sirean. Born and bred in the shadow of the Sirespire!
I have to confess, sitting there next to Gusty, watching for a sun that refused to rise, huddling next to her blast-furnace body-heat, I wavered. I thought about breaking down and taking my best casters up into the mountain, to give in to that pony-devouring magic which might bring just one more morning, one more glimpse of the sun…
Then I felt Gusty's wing wrap around me, and she whispered in my ear that it wasn't my time, wasn't my fight.
"Blackie, if the world wanted to you to burn yourself out to bring back the sun, Harmony would have burned a sun onto your flank. You belong here, with your ponies, with your crystal promises. You exist to hold together what was broken, and keep it shining despite the cracks. Don't worry. Harmony will provide. It always does."
And while Gusty was holding me back, keeping me from giving in and selling my ponies to that old witch on the mountain and her damned curse, there was a glint. A warming on the horizon.
A blooming glow.
The muttering in the crowds around us rose, and became a tumult. A roar. And the mercenaries and deserters and ponies of the Everfrees raised up a joyous shout as the dawn finally broke through the deep darkness, and something great and mysterious spared us from the Unicornian curse. A new sun, a greater sun, stronger and brighter and more colorful. You who live today have no idea how weak and watery the old Unicornian sun was in the days before this first of all days. No idea of how the rays of the dying sun had grown darker and redder, softer and less warm week by week, month by month, until in the end we thought it was just what the sun looked like, just the way things were.
That new sun burned like the hope of a renewed world.
Or so we thought. Turned out, it was just another monster with delusions of sovereignty. Some filly protege of my damnable five-minutes-mentor, Star Swirl. Some weird Harmonist project of his, that created hybrid monsters, not earth pony nor pegasus nor unicorn, but a chimerical blend of all three.
The Sun Tyrant took the anarchies by storm, coming out of the mountains where she had promised salvation to the aged Princess Platinum. The dowager princess, now, who had given up her crown in gratitude to a pony who could replace all of her costly, horrible choruses. To the winged freak who could spare her subjects from the daily decimation of raising the sun and the moon with their own hooves. The Sun Tyrant, Celestia Unconquered, proved that she could move the heavens by her own will, by her hoof alone. And she was all three tribes in one! Harmony in one coat, the union personified.
Tartarus, how much I hated her. Especially when she loomed over Gusty like Gusty loomed over normal ponies. I was so afraid that the little sparrow would bow her head like all the rest, and pledge herself to the new Equestria, that she would fall in line and become just another courtier to the big white mare.
I still don't understand the thought process which made the little sparrow reject the Sun Tyrant's approach, her service, but she did, she did, she told Celestia no. We followed Gusty as she left the Everfrees, which were becoming the heart of the new dominion, and the little sparrow led us out of the central principalities as one by one their princesses bowed their heads to the new Princess of the Sun, and cast their crowns at her hooves.
We marched into the setting sun, to fight in the wars among the republics and warlords of the west.
By the time we had crossed over the eastern passes of the Unicorn Range into the Vale of Clouds, the officers decided we ought to call ourselves Gusty's Legion. Gusty disagreed. She insisted that a legion was a specific thing, owing allegiance to the Commander of Pegasopolis, and placed under legionary discipline. While our outfit's discipline was based on the legionary code, it wasn't exactly the same thing, and she was nobody's idea of a legate. The fact that if Pansy had stuck it out Gusty would have been a legionary legate or possibly a proconsul by now, sailed right over her head. Pansy hadn't, Gusty wasn't, that was the end of it.
Also, she demanded to know if we were going to give her the right to beat ponies to death with a vinestaff, or to order entire platoons decimated on her say-so. I thought it was a glorious idea, but Steeljack and North Wind balked, and that was that.
Gusty insisted on calling us the Forge, and every time she talked for her command, instead of letting me do the talking, that particular conceit escaped a little bit further. We ended up signing a couple short-term contracts to this city-state or that pocket duchy, marching and occasionally fighting as we made our way west. We generally recruited more than we lost, and if we collected more than our share of starry-eyed pegasi escaping the despotic rule of the Cyclone Empress, Gusty didn't kick up a stink.
The little sparrow was making a name for herself, throughout that fall, winter, and the next spring. We never did stop to go into winter quarters, if only because the bad harvests of the previous year meant that no place was rich enough to be willing to host a pack of dirty mercenaries. In general, they preferred to sic us on their neighbors, or if they were particularly rich, to pay us to go away entirely. We fought a dozen skirmishes, and cracked open two little blockhouses that the locals referred to, grandly, as ‘bandit fortresses'.
One of those blockhouses belonged to a local barony. When we broke the walls, the baroness died of a heart attack, right as we were marshalling to rush the breach. The resulting chaos made it difficult to tell if they had surrendered, or had just decided to lay down and give up. Gusty showed her soft-heartedness by sparing the new baron and his battle-shocked retainers. Once we determined that there were no prisoners inside that fortified baronial mansion, we took a bribe to let them go. Gusty gave the wet-behind-his-ears unicorn a good talking-to on the subject of taking in runaway serfs without squaring it with his bigoted neighbors, and left it at that.
Suffice to say we didn't get a bonus on that job.
The second blockhouse, on the other hoof, we had to blast wide open, and Gusty led the storming of the breach at the head of the Ironmongers, slaying every bandit that stood and fought. We found out once we got inside why they fought so hard to keep us out - a hall of horrors, tortured prisoners, and storerooms full of loot and foodstocks. We hung the bandits, freed the prisoners and returned them to their sobbing families, and took the loot, and half of the foodstocks.
The Ironmongers showed off by leveling that blockhouse until you couldn't see where the walls had stood - they got the local earth ponies to plow topsoil over the foundations. I heard through the grapevine that the locals eventually turned the whole thing into a pine spinney, but that might have just been a pony’s tale.
By late spring, we passed out of the Vale of Clouds, over the central passes, and down into the rich farmlands around the Republic of Tall Tale. This was a contested country, divided between that stubborn oligarchy, the archons of the Sirespire, three different little duchies, and a number of small cities semi-unified under the banner of the Trade League. This latter nullity was actually a puppet, a bit of felt and cloth under which lurked the barely-gloved hoof of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover.
I talked the little sparrow into letting me negotiate the first major contract in the Vale of Tail, as the Talltails liked ponies to call it. The archons preferred the Sirelands, and the ponies who took refuge with the agents of the Serene Republic mostly bowed to their distant patrons by calling it the inland provinces. We signed up with one of the small cities in the orbit of the Serene Republic, and those Van Hooverian lickspittles became a major player just by having signed a strong mercenary force like the one Gusty had forged from our shoddy materials.
She insisted I call us the Forge in the contract.
The Coltington contract was a frustrating one, and we did little more than march and counter-march, threatening to destroy this fortification or that, without ever actually doing anything about it. We marched in the company of a delegation of Trade League Van Hooverians, with one cowed Coltingtonian all but dragged behind them on a leash. After a while, the Trade Leaguers started talking as if the Serene Republic was paying our silver bits, and I had to take aside their pocket Coltingtonian to find out if they were blowing smoke up our plots.
Gusty sat me and the other officers down in her tent for a little come-to-Star Swirl meeting. The little sparrow didn't care to discover we'd been tricked back into service with the Serene Republic. They’d tricked her into sending her ponies off to die in Anugypt, and she was inclined to resent that. I personally wasn't amused by the fact that the Coltingtonians had signed a contract under false pretenses, and made me look like a fool.
We ended up exercising the termination clause in the contract I'd created, and walked away free and clear, leaving behind only two months' worth of payments. To say that the Trade League weasels were not amused is to lowball the situation. Those pegasi were pretty damn wrathful, but seeing as we'd been their biggest military asset in the so-called inland provinces, they couldn't do much about it other than block us from getting contracts with their other client states in the Vale of Tail.
As if we wanted to be beholden to some other griffon’s paw of theirs.
We ended up signing with a little duchy you've probably never heard of, and for good reason. The duke was an earth pony in a region largely dominated by unicorn nobles and the occasional delegation of Trade League pegasi, a stallion named Jute Bale. He was looking to improve his revenue and to try and build up his negotiating position with his clients, the local cities that belonged to the Trade League, and to improve his prestige among his fellow-dukes and his status with the oligarchs of the Republic of Tall Tale.
To be honest, the little duke couldn't afford us, but Gusty had been pissed with our previous employers, and we cut him a deal. We went into winter quarters on his land, and kept the Talltails and the Trade League from his door, and dealt with another collection of bandits and outlaws that had collected along the back-roads away from the routinely patrolled roads for which the Trade League nominally existed.
I strongly suspect that the Trade League had a deal with at least some of the larger gangs of outlaws. That suspicion was sparked by the way the continuous predation of bandits along the non-protected roads drove traffic towards their ‘protected' roads and inns, but I never found any direct evidence of this while we were working for Coltington. And I never found any evidence along those lines in the duke’s employ, either. No letters laying helpfully about the bandits' holes we burned out in the year we worked for Jute Bale, no bandits willing to implicate Trade League collaborators, nothing. Later in the season Gusty managed to talk the duke into a coalition with both of his rival duchesses and two unassociated walled towns who had neither been able to afford the Trade League's dues, nor tolerate the expensive patronage of one of the oligarch families of Tall Tale.
That year of bandit suppression eventually led to us blockading a member of the Trade League, a small market-town which had grown fat on what, exactly, we couldn't determine, besides its proximity to some of the most bandit-infested roads along the southern fringe of the Vale of Tail. The appearance of a small army from the Republic of Tall Tale threatened to turn our bandit-hunting blockade into a full-bore siege. This was brought to a stop by the approach of another large mercenary band in the van of a collection of League militias, and Duke Jute and the duchesses couldn't spare their own militias in the field with the harvests rapidly approaching.
We made peace with the no-longer-all-that-fat burghers of Smoke's-Gate, who swore upon a stack of Harmony tracts that they'd never, ever give sanctuary to bandits, or fence their ill-gotten gains. We left the backroads liberally decorated with the decomposing, hanging corpses of bandits at every crossroads in the south of the Vale, and went back into winter quarters among the rich harvest of a year beyond all comparison. The prosperity had been equally distributed among all of the little dependencies, cities, and pocket sovereignties. For once, everypony ate well over the winter.
That second year in the Vale of Tail was the fattest I'd ever seen, and the granaries and storehouses grew packed to overbursting with the fruit of the New Sun. Which of course just meant that there was more surplus for fractious ponies to bully each other over.
My old compatriots from home made a brief appearance in the north of the Vale while we were bullying the ponies of Smoke's-Gate that fall. They had come over the highlands and around the Galloping Gorge to expand the Crystal Empire's arc of tributary states and alliances beyond the McClouds, and their threats and blandishments fell upon the reclusive and hostile unicorns of the Sirespire, they being the statelet furthest to the northeast in the Vale, and closest to the passes leading into the Crystal Empire. Nothing came of it in that first brief fall foray, but they returned in the spring with a large army of crystal ponies, and it then became very much our problem.
The spring of our third year in the Vale saw a lot of politicking among our employers, our would-be employers, and those we had campaigned against. To be honest, the mercenary's life in the disputed lands between Van Hoover and Tall Tale had been almost idyllic up to that point. We got exercise, kept up our discipline, were moderately well-fed and if we weren't especially well-paid, well, there was some recompensence in doing Harmony's work, clearing the roads of banditry, keeping the weak from being bullied by the strong, the strong from being taken advantage of by the sly, weak, and treacherous.
The Crystal siege of the Sirespire put an end to that. Everypony else in the Vale was threatened by the sudden appearance of an army of aggressive ideologues with strong magic, bound and determined to destroy a group of ponies which, if reclusive and peculiar, were still not inclined to prey on their fractious neighbors. Or so was the general tenor of opinion across most of the otherwise-divided polities of the Vale.
But those neighbors were still never the less fractious and bitter, and it took months of squabbling before an alliance was assembled from two of the three duchies, a half-dozen cities - some League, some not - and the Republic of Tall Tale herself. Nopony really contributed all that much other than a few battalions of militia and an agreement to pay the Forge's wages for the campaign season. A campaign season which they'd half-pissed away with those endless negotiations.
But, once they set us loose, Gusty charged forth with velocity. She set me over the levies from the various unicorn city-states, and I folded them into the Hammers, pairing them up where I could with earth ponies from the duchies. It wasn't quite the same as our patented crystal focus-choruses, but it made for an offense/defense pairing which promised to make them tactically superior to everything they might face other than, unfortunately, a crystal tercio.
"Blackie," said the little sparrow, looking at the maps she'd gotten from the neighbors of the Sirespire, "I don't see how we break the siege without assaulting here, along the back of this ridge."
I looked over the terrain she was looking at on the map, and hoped the map actually represented something real.
"Commander," I started, because this was in conference before a number of militia officers who might have gotten the wrong idea from any casual form of address used in front of them, "I can see why you're worried about this high slope here, and the chances they've fortified along here-"
"Not chance, fact. Their anti-flyer defenses are strong, but they can't keep our scout patrols far enough out to not see what they’ve done. Not without their own air skirmishers. Fortified lines and bastions along here, here, and here. They only have gaps right in the middle, and here to the left."
"We could try and break a bastion or two by spell-chorus force."
"Are you that eager to make it a coup de main in the face of crystal shielding and the-"
"Heartstrikes, yeah. No, you're right. They punch back hard, my old countrymares. Damn shinies, if you give them the high ground, they'll roll tartarus downhill over your manes."
And so on, the two of us plotting while the militia captains, the strategos from Tall Tale, and my fellow officers from the Ironmongers and the Warsparrows watched, respectfully silent as we argued it out between us.
In the end, I was more proud of the breaking of the siege of Sirespire than some of our later victories, if only because I was so heavily involved in the planning. As Gusty matured as a commander, she became more decisive, and frankly, more authoritative. By the next campaign season, I had as little to say to her plans as her other minions, and the execution of those plans were often proof positive that she didn't need anypony else to perfect her deployments.
The battle for the investment lines in front of the Sirespire was bloodier than ponies of the Vale prefer, and if we hadn't been there to stiffen the assaulting formations, I think they would have shattered, fallen back, and given up on keeping the crystal ponies out of the Vale of Tail. As it was, Gusty used the Ironmongers to keep the militia companies from breaking and running, while the Warsparrows and the Hammers smashed in the Crystal Expeditionary Force's left flank. The pegasi vertically enveloped the Crystallers’ flankers and skirmishers while I and my ‘Glass Hammers' cracked open their westernmost bastion like a softshelled egg.
The Sirespireans we were there to relieve didn't sally forth until the very end, not until the crystal ponies, their flank stove in and their unity shattered, fell back in disarray, giving up their elaborate line of entrenchments. Whoever was commanding the Crystallers - afterwards I was able to put a name to that clever pony, a gentlecolt named Glittering Stone, who much later in life gave me some further hornaches - he was on the ball, and he managed to keep that measured retreat from becoming a rout. The Vale alliance army kept pressure on the northern interlopers, and we spent two weeks harrying their defeated but not destroyed force as it fell back in stages, half-march by half-march.
We left the Ironmongers and some of the earth-pony militias to post the passes north over the westernmost range of the McClouds, while the rest of us returned to the battlefield outside of the Sirespire, and presumably the demobilization of the alliance army. Halfway home, we were greeted instead by Gusty and the Warsparrows flying Hades for feather, riding hard on a bitter wind.
Gusty and her pegasi had returned earlier, in a much more sedate manner, to attend a series of diplomatic meetings. The leadership of the city-states and the nobles who had contributed the resources and the soldiers of the alliance army which had rescued their reclusive neighbors were determined to talk with the archons the Sirespire, who up to this point had generally avoided treating with their neighbors directly. There were many basic matters which, if not generally important in the grand scheme of things, had been left to fester unaddressed for generations.
This strange little city-state had kept to themselves for generations, even centuries, and aside from some local baronages who fed them with truck crops and grain deliveries, had scarcely any commerce with the outside world. Even their borders and the forest-rights of the treelots and woods between that polity and their neighbors were governed more by inertia and assumptions on the part of said neighbors than any actual agreements to speak of.
During the first week of what looked to be a protracted period of diplomatic teeth-pullling, one particularly restless and adventurous Warsparrow decided to amuse herself via inventive trespass. She took advantage of the break in that perfect isolation of the Spire during the talks, when there were perhaps more doors open in that tightly-bound fortress of solitude than was usually the case. And scrappy, sly little Nightly Doo, who suffered from an imp of the perverse and an irresistible itch of curiosity, crept into places where more cautious or courteous ponies would have never have set hoof. And what she found was enough to change the world forever, at least for the ponies of the Sirespire.
The living ones, anyways.
When a palid, hollow-eyed Nightly Doo reported her illicit findings to Gusty, it took all of that pony's not-especially-copious skills of restraint and deception to not immediately beat the next batch of Sirespireans she saw into a bloody, bone-flecked pulp. But she endeavoured, she waited, and the next chance she saw, she led the entire warband back to our army, to collect us, and return in force.
Because little Nightly Doo had looked behind the wrong door, and found her way into the inner sanctums of the Sirespire, and discovered there the charnelhouses which lay inside of that proud, whitened tower. The clotted gutters, the bloodstained altars to unequine deities, the implements of torture and immiseration… it was really quite impressive that the warlocks of the Spire had hidden what they were for so long. A white tower, visible for dozens of leagues, as plain as the nose on your muzzle, and nopony noticed.
Gusty led us back to the Sirespire, and had us occupy the abandoned crystal expeditionary fortifications. Messengers extracted the diplomats from their pointless negotiations, and the siege was resumed under new management as our own employers screamed bloody murder at Gusty’s insubordination. Meanwhile we sent back to the passes for the Ironmongers to return, with every volunteer that Steeljack could lure to our banner. Gusty herself gave a glorious speech which bound at least half of the levies from the alliance signatories' militias and hirelings to our cause, and formed them into fresh formations with no differentiation between Talltailians, Leaguers, or ducal subjects.
Perhaps half of the diplomats and Very Important Ponies accepted our claims, or rather, withheld judgment and didn’t storm off in disgust like the others.
The Sirespireans sent ponies under the flag of parley to find out why they had been suddenly sealed away by their neighbors and just-made friends, and Gusty, who was tired of equivocating and making nice with the necromancers and the butchers, bluntly informed them that she intended to see the Sirespire torn down, its bloody foundations purified by fire, and its priests drawn and quartered.
It was not the most artful display of politesse ever seen on a battlefield, but it impressed the Tartarus out of me.
The Sirespireans were not amused. The ‘diplomats’ attacked her under that flag of parley, and might have cursed her dead if I hadn't been there to divert the attack. I took their worst shot, absorbed it, and, having conquered their dark magic with my own considerable talents, returned it to them threefold.
What their own spell did to those diplomats, I don't care to put down on paper. Even now, as I am today, it sickens me. And I let it flow through my hooves, through my veins, and across my aching horn. The dark magic didn't leave me unaffected - ever afterwards, my horn had a distinct and savage hook and point to it, as if I had been born an Eastern unicorn. The taint it left upon me… after that, nopony would ever question those old rumors that hypocritical witch Amore spread about my destiny and my innate monstrosity.
Gusty never forgot what I’d done, though, what I’d paid for with that warping I’d taken in her defense.
We held the entrenchments against the small forces the warlocks of the Spire could sally out against us, until the Ironmongers and their scattering of volunteers rejoined us. After the remnants of the alliance army were reunited, we were able to begin regular approaches to the great tower. This process took a month and a half, and the very best days of what was a long and luxuriant campaign season. The last three weeks of those approaches were punctuated with regular bombardments of now-familiar dark-magic, projected from little horns jutting out of the otherwise-featureless Sirespire. After a while, I worked out with my Hammers how to destroy those projectors with our own counterattacks, and we worked our way around the circumference of the great tower, burning away their defensive works while we cowered behind enhanced mantlets built by our own engineers.
Finally, the Sirespireans’ capacity for resistance to our forces was at an end, and we were able to begin battering holes in their physical walls. The first several attempts were stopped up by internal defenses built by the warlocks of the Spire, who struck down the engineers and assault troops who tried the initial breaches. While we poured counterfire into the breaches and did our best to roast unwary warlocks defending those holes in the Spire's defenses, the surviving engineers worked around the circumference of the tower once again, and created further breaches.
In the end, there were more of us then there were of them, and the warlocks of the Spire ran out of defenders before we ran out of campaign time. It helped that yet another fat year had meant that our volunteers hadn't been needed at home for the harvest, and families who had lost members to ‘bandits' or ‘outlaws' over the years were especially keen to keep our renewed siege well-supplied. Not all of the oligarchs and the nobles believed our stories of what had been seen inside of the Spire, but to the common pony, the logic was unassailable, and enough civilian ponies had come close enough to the siege to observe the abominations which the warlocks set loose upon us.
Only ponies who were determined to not see the plain truth preserved their ignorance, mostly by staying far away from the siege.
A week before the winter snows came, we found them so spread out in their defenses as to be vulnerable, and Gusty ordered the assault. Many died at the breaches in the initial push, and the fell magics the warlocks mustered in their desperate defense claimed a high price among the assaulting army.
But there were a lot of us, and not that many warlocks in the grand scheme of things. They were overwhelmed, surrounded, and slaughtered at one breach after another. A dozen little breach-battlefields filled up with our dead, and the warlocks’ stinking carrion. Nopony was willing by this point to take prisoners, and the terrible magics they'd used in their own defense had left nopony with any illusions about the truth of Nightly Doo's testimony about the terrible temples hidden inside the walls of the Sirespire.
Eventually, after the defenders were slaughtered, and their high priests ridden down by Gusty and her valkyrie guard of pegasi, everypony got a look at the butchershops these warlocks had called their ‘houses of the holy' in their blasphemous books and scrolls, most of which we ended up burning afterwards.
Nopony was exactly sure how many captives disappeared within those bloody walls over the years, or how many bones were hidden far below in the artificial cenotes the warlocks' fell magics had hollowed out below their whitened fang of a Spire. We tried to purge the Spire with fire, but it was too tall, and stone wouldn't burn, not at the temperatures we had available to us.
In the end, we sent to the Crystal Empire and the growing kingdom of New Equestria for skilled rock-ponies and crystal ponies specializing in construction, who consulted together and figured out how to bring down the blighted, fell abomination which had been once called the Sirespire. With some aid from strong-horned unicorns, the rock ponies and the crystal ponies triggered an ‘implosion' and let the Spire's own destabilized weight to collapse into itself, dropping down into the enormous hollows carved out below its heavy stone walls.
But ever after, they say that nothing healthy ever grew among the rocks and scree that we left over the collapsed ruin which was left after Gusty's ponies put down the warlocks of the Spire.
Sirespire was the making of the little sparrow. The cities and the nobility of the Vale were terrified of her. She had defeated a major imperial army in the field with a patched-together coalition force, and then in rapid succession turned against the very polity she'd saved, mounted a technically challenging investment and siege, and stormed a terrifyingly well-fortified nest of dark magicians with relatively low casualties. This is the sort of mercenary captain performance that in the past had eventually led to the conquest of vulnerable city-states and the founding of new dynasties.
The ponies of the Vale loved her for it, of course, because the fall of the Sirespire solved many mysteries that had haunted that region, and gave closure to hundreds of bereaved families. The Sirespirean warlocks had hidden in plain sight for generations, and fed the banditry problem by subsidizing the outlaw market with their purchase of captives and the underwriting of kidnappers.
Without the Spire, the bandit gangs stopped re-organizing, reappearing, and regenerating. It was yet another illustration of a sad, terrible fact within the economy of violence - incentives matter. Money matters, and so do rewards. All the good intentions in the world are meaningless so long as ponies are willing to pay ransoms, buy stolen goods at a discount, or worse - buy captives. Hang enough receivers of stolen goods, hang the purchasers of slaves and captives, and you pull the weed up by the roots. Everything else is just grazing on the bitter leaves.
But as much as the common ponies loved Gusty, the contracts started drying up as well, because the instability of a perpetual banditry problem took with it a lot of the incentive for the duchies and the small cities to pay big premiums for mercenaries. Without that need for professionals to patrol their roads, burn out nonexistent bandit nests, and deter their overproud and angry neighbors, they could no longer justify our overhead. The summer after the destruction of the Spire, Gusty's Forge was compelled by the sparse offers on hoof to move onwards.
It hadn't helped that diplomats from the new empire to the east and south had been sending emissaries into the Vale to lay the groundwork for peace between Tall Tale and the Republic's once-fractious neighbors. The Royal Pony Sisters were aggressive practitioners of pugnacious diplomacy, and from all accounts were making impressive inroads in the Vale of Clouds to the east, dismantling the aging Cyclone Empress's despotism around her weakened ears. When they were done absorbing Pegasopolis into their 'New Equestria', it would be Tall Tale's turn, and the Talltails seemed almost eager to be dissolved in the belly of the new beast.
Harmony is a hades of a drug, it seems. Especially with the negative example of something like The Sirespire as a salutary lesson in disharmony and the evil that lurks in the world for those that go it alone.
So we moved westwards, and out of what the agents of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover called 'the inland provinces'. Gusty had bad history with the Serene Republic, but was willing to break bread with those that had done her and the Warsparrows wrong, in exchange for a new start for the Forge and a new venue somewhere far away from the upstart alicorn sisters and their romance of the damnable Cyclone Empress.
We left the Vale of Tail with more crystal ponies than we'd entered it, despite all of our casualties and losses in the Sirespire campaign. The Crystal Expeditionary Force had lost a great deal of prisoners when we'd broken its field army in the investment fortifications, and later, when we returned most of them as part of the deal for the exchange of engineering expertise in bringing down the ruin of the Spire, a number stayed with the Hammers and the prospect of an active, heroic life far away from the corrupt and suffocating rule of the Crystal queens.
I'm not sure exactly what the thought-process was that led to several of the crystal engineers, who had helped implode the Spire, joining up with the Forge, but the Ironmongers welcomed the construction expertise of ponies like Radiant Stanchion and Jewel Joist. For my part, I generally get along with ponies from home, but there was something I didn't like about Radiant Stanchion. His name reminded me painfully of an old girlfriend from the days before that damnable witch Amore drove me out of my childhood home, and his repulsively handsome muzzle set off all sorts of subconscious alerts in my jealous soul.
The little sparrow smiled too often when she laid eyes on Radiant Stanchion. And he often was there to be looked at, making unnecessary appearances in the command tent, or lurking about, trying to weasel his way into her presence. I could tell he would be trouble.
But in the short term, the additional crystal ponies meant that the Hammers became the dangerous, well-integrated force multiplier that Gusty always knew we could be. Our six-pony crystal focuses became tightly-drilled wrecking balls, pry-bars, mobile striking units. With the aid of the Warsparrows and the heavy chariots the Ironmongers built for us, we could advance rapidly by air, dismount and form up to blast open vulnerable fortifications before the enemy could consolidate and defend their positions against the lightning assault.
Our contract with the Serene Republic resulted in a dizzyingly rapid advance of Van Hooverian domination along the shores of the Northern Lunar Ocean, from the Bight of the Setting Moon all the way westwards into the capes of the far north-west. Two campaign seasons consolidated the Serene Republic's dominion over the whole of the northern littoral. The Grand Doge of Van Hoover was racing to consolidate his authority and power in anticipation of diplomatic offensives by the still-distant Royal Pony Sisters, and figured that unification was the way to repel their advances. Thus, the Serene Republic's kinetic wooing of its more recalcitrant neighbors. And as a primarily naval power with many little coastal enclaves built around most of the ports of the North Lunar, the Serene Republic had many, many recalcitrant neighbors.
We were kept quite busy for several years threatening the enemies of the Serene Republic, and occasionally cracking open a hostile fortress or two. And ponies had started to forget that Gusty and her ponies had expertise in something other than rapid siege and assault operations.
Until Grogar and his cloud fortress began their reign of terror across the face of western Equestria.
Nopony's exactly sure where the Demon Ram came from, exactly. There are ancient stories of a villainous sheep of the same name who conquered a city named Tambelon centuries ago, and briefly ruled an empire of terror throughout the central principalities which eventually became Unicornia. This was many generations before Platinum's family dynasty established their sovereignty over the unicorn tribes, of course. Even today, you can feel the terror and despair that Grogar had wrought upon the ponies of the hollows of the Unicorn Ranges and Dream Valley, a unicorn-settled region which seems to have corresponded to what is now the Vale of Clouds, in the days before the pegasus migrations.
The books say that he was defeated by a great but mysterious heroine named May Gain, which the accounts insist was neither a unicorn, nor even a pony. My reading is that this heroine was some sort of minotaur, those semi-legendary half-monstrous bipedal bovines with strength greater than earth ponies, and clever claws and dexterous digits. May Gain and her army of rebellious unicorns sealed away Grogar in his fortress-city of shadows, and dread Tambelon was wiped from the face of the world by a terrible magic known as the Dark Rainbow.
The rumors of his return to this modern, fallen world were contradictory, but the one which I found most compelling claimed that pegasus explorers piloting a mobile cloud-fortress known as Cloudsdale found a ruin somewhere deep in the Smokey Mountains, and awoke something they shouldn't have. What is true is that Grogar next appeared in command of said cloud-fortress, now a blue-black thunderhead of terrifying aspect. Corrupted pegasi sallied forth from this piratical city in the skies, and raided the struggling, poverty-stricken earth ponies in their scattered settlements throughout the Smokey Mountains region, which is still full of monsters and feral dog tribes even to this day.
Refugees fled the depredations of Grogar and his pegasus raiders, and those ponies flooded the south-western provinces of the Serene Republic's back-country. This concerned the Doge and his court, of course, but it wasn't until the Cloudsdale pirates sacked a Van Hooverian tributary that the Serene Republic terminated our latest pacification campaign in the north-west, and sent Gusty and her Forgesmiths south to deal with the problem.
The problem of dealing with a highly mobile raider like Grogar and his cloud-city was similar to those that ponies have had to deal with ever since the pegasi came out of the far east some thousand years ago. The unicorns, earth ponies, and other land-bound peoples were highly vulnerable to bands of aggressive warriors who could fly over any wall, bypass any mountain pass, and flit scores of leagues ahead of any pursuing force that might object to their thefts and depredations. The thieving, slaving pegasus tribes had hit Ponyland like a thunderbolt, and for all of Grogar's first reign of terror, it had faded in memory before the immiseration which had been the great pegasus migrations that came after the fall of Tambelon.
The first and simplest solution to dealing with a pegasus tribe incursion was to simply buy them off. Paying the pegageld had quickly become a tradition among the neighbors of any given pegasus tribe, and the pegageld became the bedrock foundation of Pegasopolis's power and prosperity. But Grogar and his flock of dark pegasi didn't try to extort their victims, they simply appeared, slaughtered, captured, burned, and left. There was no opportunity for buying-off - there was nopony that could be bought off, they didn't stop for parleys, or to make demands. No, the pegageld was off the table.
The second solution to be found in the 'how to deal with wild pegasi' playbook was to hire a rival tribe of pegasi to bring their mustang cousins under control, and this had become the second supporting wing of Pegasopolis's domination of the region. These two ‘wings’ carried the prestige of the Pegasopolitan commanders upon the prevailing winds, and they built this prestige upon raider suppression and the collection and redistribution of the protection tribute from the land-states below. The power this both represented drew most of the old, wilding clans to gather under the mighty wings of proud Pegasopolis.
The Serene Republic found that they couldn’t appeal to Pegalopolis's traditional role of wildling suppression for the very good reason that there wasn’t, for the moment, a Pegalopolis to speak of. The Cyclone Empress died before Grogar's incursions began, and the pegasus clans swiftly fell into chaos and civil war as the despotate fell apart in the absence of any strong claimants to the throne. Ponies demanding the revival of the old military republic fell into armed conflict with each other and those Cyclone ex-loyalists who cleaved to this distant cousin or that jumped-up courtier. The end result was a collapse of authority and cohesion. The Vale of Clouds fell into bloody chaos.
In fact, Gusty had been approached by some republican revivalists about the same time as the orders from the Doge had come down to head south and take over the anti-raider campaign. She'd been tempted by the chance to return to her homeland and redeem the good name of her late patron, the last Commander, the hapless 'Private Pansy'. But the fact that our little sparrow had grown into a commander of mostly wingless hosts meant that the basis of her power and prestige was largely land-bound, and we would have been at a disadvantage among the airborne flocks that filled the armies of the air which were contesting the control of Pegasopolis. Also, she told me that she expected the Royal Pony Sisters to rush into the mess and pick up the pieces. We hadn’t yet learned that the alicorns were obsessed at the time with the antics of that enormous pain in the flank, the Lord of Chaos. News moves at its own pace, and our knowledge of the situation in the eastern principalities was often months out of date. Nopony in the far west had yet figured out that the attention of New Equestria would be focused eastward, nor that they would be leaving Pegasopolis to its own fratricidal devices for seasons yet to come.
And so, the Serene Republic sought out the nearest approximation of a 'rival tribe of pegasi' they could find, in the person of Gusty and her Warsparrows. The rest of us in the Forge tagged along to keep from breaking up the legion. The Serene Republic regarded us initially as nothing more than an anchor that weighed down the response of the Warsparrows, and our employers had tried to talk Gusty into breaking up the Forge rather than waste all of that time displacing the whole mercenary army southward across the heart of the North Lunar Ocean. There was much bit-pinching and complaining from the paymasters of the Serene Republic when we tied up half a flotilla of galleasses shipping our siege train and chattel along with the whole body of Ironmongers and Hammers. The Doge's ponies couldn't understand why Gusty needed all of these encumbrances - and with this jab, they'd stared directly at Steeljack and I, making clear that the encumbrances in question were Gusty's wingless minions.
Gusty didn't care, and all of her ponies came with her on the Grogarian suppression campaign. In the end, it turned out to be a very good thing. Because when we arrived in the region, we'd found that another 'pegasus tribe' had tried to stop the Cloudsdale menace, and had been - we couldn't figure out what exactly had happened at first.
There was a scattering of deserter pegasi hiding here and there in the towns of the region. There had been a clash somewhere nearby that had occurred while we were mid-ocean, vomiting up whatever food we'd been able to choke down, bobbing up and down and in general ruing the day that ponies decided to start floating wooden toys in bath-tubs. A cohort, possibly two cohorts of one of the royal legions had deserted in the aftermath of some betrayal or clash in the Vale of Clouds, and wandered westwards. Attracted by news of the renegade cloud-city raiding the towns and hamlets of the far west, they decided to try their hooves at the mercenary trade. Their leader had led this fragment of the XVI Legion against Grogar's sky-city, and the Pegasopolitan ponies had been - it's hard to say what.
The double-deserters claimed they'd been hit by some sort of dark magic, a great wave of fear which had caused an overwhelming desire to flee, to hide, to abandon their fellows. You'd expect that of ponies who had abandoned their duty, not once, but twice. But. In interrogating the prisoners, I found that their minds showed the distinct traces of very strong mind-control magic, something brutal enough and careless enough that it had permanently warped their biochemical balance. Those ponies would never be warriors again - they'd been broken at a fundamental level. Whatever Grogar did, it was permanent, scarring, and deeply unsettling.
I counseled Gusty to keep our forces at a distance, and not try to confront the enemy main force until I and my ponies could come up with a shield or counter to keep this Demon Ram from destroying any force that approached him. I had images of the Warsparrows wiped from the skies, my little sparrow reduced to a drooling imbecile, pissing herself in fear at the sight of a housecat.
I begged for custody of the pegasus prisoners and set up a lab to experiment on Grogar's victims. I put my executive officer into field command at Gusty's pleasure, and detailed the more… morally flexible of my unicorn subordinates to aid me in figuring out how Grogar's magic worked, and how to counter it. And so, while the rest of the Forge trailed the track of destruction and misery which corrupted Cloudsdale left in its wake, I and my minions tore apart those morally crippled pegasi, and put them back together.
And then I did it again, to prove to myself that I understood and had mastered Grogar's mind-control magics. They were fiendishly fashioned, really, fear-based. Sort of dark, but not the sort of magus-destroying dark which consumes the caster completely. A master could control entire armies using this trick, and not fall into his own darkness. At least two of my minions lost their taste for the experimenting while we weren't even halfway through the work, and asked for transfer back to the front lines. I let them go. I had no use for ponies without the stomach for the work which needed to be done.
After experimenting thoroughly with my subjects, I had figured out the trick, and more importantly, one of my minions made the breakthrough of how to block the trick. A simple ray-based countermeasure, one low-energy enough and so suitable for broadcast that a single six-pony crystal focus could protect an entire army under arms. Presuming that they kept together in close order, of course.
We dumped the expended experimental subjects on a local sanitarium, and returned to the Forge, where Gusty and the rest of her ponies had been tracking Cloudsdale. The raiders’ fortress-city had worked its way back eastwards, into our old stampeding grounds, the Vale of Tail. Gusty had found and recruited another wayward cohort from the Pegasopolitan civil war while my minions and I had been analysing Grogar's fell magics, and between the old Warsparrows and the new II/XI, they'd started building a series of wind-walls that had, by the time I'd returned to the field, penned Grogar and his corrupted pegasi into a cul-de-sac southeast of Tall Tale.
Once we'd reunited, the plans almost made themselves. The trapped cloud-fortress circled at the mouth of a shallow mountain valley with steep slopes it couldn't rise over, penned in behind Gusty’s wind-walls. I had my research-minions form a pair of crystal-focus choruses to defend our forces, while the engineers built an assault-ramp out of a nearby high hill. Gusty's now-numerous pegasi couldn't closely approach fallen Cloudsdale while they'd had no defense against Grogar and his mind-control terror-magics, but now that we could direct counter-resonance beams along the expected vector of the fighting, they could engage them more closely.
Our superior numbers overwhelmed the enemy flights, and they were driving back inside their walls. Gusty and her pegasi wrapped the enemy fortress in their wind-magic, and brought it inexorably closer to the 'hill' the engineers had built. I and my Hammers worked our way through the militias and the Ironmonger assault elements, casting cloud-walking spells on every warrior's hooves. By the time we were done, Cloudsdale's defenders had been driven back inside of her high mist-walls, and she had been pushed almost up to the lip of the assault-ramp 'hill'.
Steeljack and his pioneers charged in the van, carrying enchanted ladders and bridge-segments they used to bridge the gaps between the rammed-earth ramps and the top of the walls of trapped Cloudsdale. The rest of the assault elements followed the pioneers, charging across the precarious ladders and narrow bridges, while the Hammers' crystal focus choruses bombarded the exposed defensive bastions of the fortress-city. Grogar's pegasi barely put up any resistance as we forced their walls, and those ballistae and bolt-throwers they managed to pony were quickly battered into scrap and flaming kindling.
To be honest, the warlocks of the Sirespire put up more of a fight than Grogar and his mind-controlled troops. Active, participatory evil is more effective than zombified victim-slaves when it comes to defending a breach, it would seem.
Grogar himself put up more of a fight, and Steeljack lost a good many ponies trying to force the entrance to his throne-room-cum-warlock's sanctum. Gusty and I eventually got ahead of the rest of the troops, and led the last heavy-hoofed push into Grogar's shattered final defense. The two of us beat him into submission, she with her hooves and her wing-blades, and I with my magic. Grogar himself was no weak-limbed wizard, but rather was a great roaring beast, a menace. He was nearly a monster in his own right, half again as tall as the little sparrow, who was still the biggest pony in our entire army. He fought hard, and knocked us around more than a little before he went down before our blows.
We found that we couldn't kill Grogar. We beat him down again and again. Gusty cut slices off of him like a griffon carving a boar for a feast, and I flash-fried him more than once, turning his outer layers into blackened charcoal. He just kept regrowing whatever we burned or chopped off of him. Whatever dark pacts he'd made with the infernal depths, they kept him from dying. The best we could do was put him into stasis, and that took a full crystal focus chorus to keep in place.
With that we'd won, and we took away the magic bell which he’d used like a focus. With that separation between wizard and artifact, the waves of fear, terror, and compulsion came to an end. It took a while for his mind-controlled slaves to come to their senses, but once they did, all sorts of chaos broke out. In retrospect, I'm vaguely surprised that it didn't attract Discord himself, but I understand that the Royal Pony Sisters were in the process of chasing him down in the far east around about this time, so you can understand that he was a bit distracted at the moment.
Gusty's hooves were full with keeping the celebrations of the freed captives, slave-guards, and guarded slaves from degenerating into riot and retribution, for the later captives blamed the earlier victims for their degradation, and the latter refused to simply be beat down for something that had neither been their idea, nor, in their minds, their fault.
I and my focus-choruses of ponies were kept busy keeping Grogar from reviving and starting the whole damned process all over again. We came to the conclusion that we would have to put Grogar somewhere more secure, someplace that could deal with his undying malice. So I told Gusty that we were talking him to Tartarus, to let the eternal guardians of that dark realm deal with him.
My little sparrow was busy with her own problems at the moment, so she simply nodded her permission for our journey eastward. The Mouth of Tartarus lay in the heart of the Unicorn Ranges. I and my ponies marched into the east, to make bargain with the Lords of Tartarus for Grogar's fallen soul. As I turned to leave for Tartarus, my eyes passed over the infuriating masculine beauty of Radiant Stanchion, who had somehow attached himself to Gusty's command group as they worked to keep the freed prisoners and slave-guards from killing each other. Looking back, I wish I'd killed him right there, right then.
I could have, if I had only known. But I fear that my little sparrow would never have forgiven me for committing unprovoked murder right in front of her. If, if, if… if I had known, she might still be alive today, no matter what else might have come to pass.
When I returned from my little errand, it wasn’t immediately obvious that everything had changed. I had left my charge and his trinket in the capable hooves of the Hecatoncheires, the Lords of Tartarus; they had been more than willing to take Grogar off of my hooves. By the time I returned, the post-capture riots had long since burnt out in battered Cloudsdale, and a sort of eerie peace had taken hold in a place which was trying to put their piratical career as a raider base as far into the past as they could shove it.
I had to patch together fragmentary accounts from various ponies who honestly didn’t want to talk about what exactly had happened in our absence. Eventually I bullied enough witnesses to work out that the leadership had settled the problem by less than reputable means. In plain Equuish, they'd induced a city-wide orgy to put an end to the recriminations and outbursts which burst again and again into riot and slaughter. They'd opened up the casks, spread the food around with a liberal hoof, and had the crystal ponies circulate among the outraged freedponies. My manipulative compatriots redirected the passions via that emotion-magic which so many of Crystallers indulge in. I eventually put together that the crystal ponies were right in the middle of the disgusting excesses that followed, and I was not at all surprised when many a pegasus mare bore a crystal foal eleven months later, the so-called ‘jewels of the liberation' as they called it in re-built Cloudsdale.
All I knew at first, though, was that when I came back, Gusty and that sleazy bastard Radiant Stanchion were inseparable, and Gusty was glowing like a goddess descended from the heavens. I truly think in that season that we could have made the little sparrow Queen of the Vale of Tail, or carried her eastwards like a battle-banner and conquered divided Pegasopolis, made her Empress or Commander or Lady High Protector of the Skies. She just had that… aura about her in those days before we really put together what was happening.
But no, she didn't want any of that, and really, barely wanted to do anything other than garrison the Trade League fortress-inns. She left me to take over the negotiation of what eventually turned into a slow-motion dissolution of our contract with the Serene Republic of Van Hoover. Technically we were still the Doge's employees, but Gusty didn't really feel like heading back west. Nor did the rest of us long to return to the persecution and abuse of stubborn back-country barons and jumped-up market towns for the commercial interests of the merchants of the Serene Republic and the imperial ambitions of the latest Doge. Likewise, the new Doge and her advisers didn't want a victorious Forge anywhere near their capital, the seats of power. Nor did they want us inspiring a spirit of rebellion among their ponies, or subject to the temptations of conquest, and the possible overthrow of that ancient oligarchy. They were well satisfied that we laze about in garrison in the ‘inland provinces', far away from them and their wealth, a little trickle thereof sent eastward being our payment for causing no trouble.
Gusty spent months being feted by the local cities, the duke and his two rival duchesses, and the Talltails. Peace spread across the face of western Equestria, and the winter of our discontent was made glorious summer by this sun of sparrow.
But not for me, because I was on the outs with my little sparrow. She never had time for me anymore, and instead spent her evenings feasting with her ponies, chief among whom was that usurper, Radiant Stanchion. I saw them eating, and drinking, and carousing, and I just couldn't sit and enjoy the party like a peaceable pony.
More and more, I spent my time in the lab. I had it built in the fortress-inn my warband had taken for winter quarters, which turned into spring quarters, and then we gave up and just started call it our barracks. I was fascinated with the magic I had discovered in my research during the campaign against the Grogarian menace, and spent a great amount of time experimenting with animal subjects. Fewer and fewer of my minions showed any interest or aptitude for the research, but I knew it was important, and that I needed to keep at it. The world was full of monsters, and they just kept coming. The news from the east about the Royal Pony Sisters and their interminable quest to put an end to the Lord of Chaos reinforced that lesson, for sure.
And then came that moment when Gusty sent a messenger to me, requesting my presence in that fortress-inn one day's march east of where I and the Hammers had our quarters. I reported to my little sparrow, and found her even less of a ‘little sparrow' than she had been the last time I had laid eyes on her. At first, I thought the endless feasting had ruined her figure, and caused her to bloat up with dissipation. But then I saw more clearly, and my soul died.
She wasn't fat, she was increasing. The worst possible thing had happened to my little sparrow, the thing she once had told me was the only thing in this world that she feared:
"When?" I asked, sadly, my face a mask without emotion.
"Oh, Blackie, I knew you'd look like that. Please, don't think less of me, it… it had to happen, eventually. I couldn't be selfish forever…"
"Who?" I demanded, my heart hardening to hear herself blame herself like that.
"Oh, come now, don't look like that, this was nopony's fault-"
"Where?" I demanded more loudly, insistent, looking around for the only possible culprit, the shiny bastard who had been sucking up to her ever since his glinty flank had appeared in our camp before the Sirespire.
"Now, Blackie, really, it isn't anything you can just kick into submission-"
I left the seven-months-pregnant commander of our forces wittering on her stool, struggling to get up as I raced out of her presence, searching for the villain who had knocked up my little sparrow. The damnable stallion who had gotten pregnant a mare who was not built for carrying foals, whose family tree was a collapsing top-heavy inverted pyramid of stillbirths, dying mothers, and only children.
I was going to kill him.
Several ponies tried to stop me, but they didn't account for my ongoing research. I left a trail of mind-controlled zombies walking slowly in my wake. I remembered later to take the whammy off of most of them, but I'm afraid to admit that in the heat of the moment I left a few mindless and aimless for hours before I recalled what I had done.
A very few, for days.
The bastard was packing his shit when I caught him; I think he'd thought he had more time before I came for him, thought she'd delay me long enough for him to disappear into the great empty, flee, return to his paymasters. More fool him. He was brainlocked in a flash, and I left him standing like a statue as I tore through his half-packed bags and files. He’d scattered everything, pulled all sorts of secret materials out of their hiding places in his hurry. I don't think I'd have found his correspondence if he hadn't been good enough to take them out of hiding by his own hoof.
So I found the whole thing, entire. It didn’t matter that it was all encrypted, because it was sitting right beside the very code books he used to encrypt everything. His notes. Plans, insofar as he had committed them to paper. A correspondence conducted with the crystal queen, who in those days was no other than my old bete noire, that witch Amore. So I stood, and looked, and decoded his encrypted orders and letters and journals, and I encompassed his scheme entire, from stern to stem, complete.
It was a squalid tale, one without honor or thought for other ponies. They'd originally inserted Radiant Stanchion into the Forge as a asset, a source. He reported our activities to the Imperial Foreign Service, kept tabs on our movements, and used his place with us to evaluate the political situation of those regions we were posted. But he got ambitious, and decided to turn Gusty, control her, guide her to Crystal Imperial purposes. And so he took the opportunity to seduce her - literally, in the aftermath of the defeat of Grogar.
And she fell hard, fell for his pretty face, for his pretty words, and his sly social skills. I wasn't the only captain or minion of Gusty's who had been locked out of her good graces by the crystal parasite. And all of this was infuriating, and it was enraging, and I'd have made him a brain-dead slave for me in perpetuity for having dared to have laid a hoof on my little sparrow for that alone. But worse, far worse, was how he made her his brood-mare, and he did it deliberately, sabotaged the birth-control measures she'd gotten from somewhere - not from me, I would have made sure that they were rock-solid, unalterable.
If she'd only asked.
I marched the villain back to her quarters, and chased out the others, all the others, and locked the door on me, my slave, and my little sparrow. And I made the slave sing, I made him confess, in detail, in his own voice, without any lacunae or gaps.
She cried. She sobbed. She begged me to let him go, begged me to make him stop.
But I didn't. She had to understand, she had to know.
And after the second repetition of his emotionless confession began, she finally gave in, and acknowledged it, agreed that it was what had been, what it had always been. It wasn’t love, it was a plot. A lie.
The tears dried before she stopped sobbing, and I had to summon a pitcher of cold water lest she become dehydrated.
We agreed that he deserved life imprisonment for his crimes, and I vowed to make that a reality. He would not die by my hooves, or anypony else's. He would live a long life in service to the ponies he betrayed. In later months, later years, he became my constant shadow, my shield-carrier, my preferred crystal focus.
All the while, Radiant Stanchion's consciousness lurking behind those glassy eyes. I sometimes let him the use of his mouth, when we're alone, and I want to remember. He doesn't make much sense these days, his mind broke a very long time ago. But sometimes the memories emerge from the madness, and he sobs and begs for forgiveness, and my mind is at ease for a little while, thinking of my little sparrow, and what might have been if this bastard hadn't come into her life.
I tried to talk Gusty into an abortion, did my level best to keep this doom from her door, but she was stubborn, and though she had given into my demands when it came to the monster who had impregnated her, she refused to let me end the prospective life of a complete innocent. No matter how hard I argued, how long we quarrelled, she insisted on carrying to term.
The Forge fell apart a bit with its commander suffering through a long, difficult pregnancy, and although everypony still respected the sacker of the Sirespire, the conqueror of Grogar the Undying, many of our ponies were ambitious and adventurous, and wanted to leave for bloodier pastures. I and the other captains let them go, all but the crystal ponies.
The crystal ponies, the ones that wanted to leave, they got put to the question before we let them go. Grogar's witchcraft proved highly useful for interrogation purposes, and I found two other spies among our crystals who tried to flee Radiant Stanchion's discovery, some more cleverly than others.
Both of them went into our new form of incarceration, a better fate than the customary method for dealing with spies. Better to be enslaved and put to use, than hanged at a crossroads, or sent to the altars of the Spire.
Gusty left her bed less and less often as her months wore on, and the nausea and morning sickness never came to an end. The surgeons weren't experts in obstetrics, and although we brought in Talltail obstetricians, the Vale of Tail was nopony's idea of a medically progressive region.
I've been intending to found a school of medicine here in my domain, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, but I haven't yet had a free moment. There's always some other priority taking up my scarce time. The burdens of leadership - Gusty always made it seem so easy.
As the last days wore on, she got weaker and weaker. I hoped in my most secret of hearts that the fetus would spontaneously abort, that it would be stillborn, premature, a nice, safe miscarriage.
Fate mocked my selfish hopes. She carried to term, she had it, she had her. And Gusty was sly, and clever, and painfully, painfully earnest. She named the foal long before it was born, every time she talked about the fetus, she called it by name. She named it something my little sparrow knew I could never, ever raise my hoof against.
My little sparrow used those stories I told her, so long ago over fishing-rods in that halflight idle beside the waters of the Everfrees. My romantic recollections about the filly who died, the filly whose death sparked my exile from the Crystal Empire. Poor, pure, sweet-souled Radiant Hope, who was too good for the damnable crystal ponies, too good for the Crystal Empire, too good for this world. More than a little part of my soul left with Radiant Hope when that fever took her away, more than a little of myself.
A piece which was regrown the moment I laid eyes on my little sparrow, or so I thought.
Gusty’s foaling was Tartarus on earth, terrible, soul-rending. I have seen the depths of Hades with my own damned eyes, I have spoken with the hundred-eyed Hecatoncheires, cringed away from the three-headed Cerberus, and condemned an undying warlock to that dark realm. And nothing I have ever experienced was as dreadful as watching the mare I loved push her own life out of herself, giving that life to a little squalling crystalline scrap of foalhood. I watched as the last life ebbed out of what had once been the mightiest, most powerful, most awesome mare in the world, and my heart broke in as many pieces as the shattered crystal which hades-spawn fate and destiny inscribed on my pitch-black flank.
Thank that damnable fate and destiny that there was a midwife there to take up little Radiant Hope, and clear her air passage, and tie off her umbilical cord, and close the eyes of my dead little sparrow, because I was utterly useless for half a day after Gusty died. I just sat there, cradling her cold, cold head, and wept until I had no more tears.
Eventually Steeljack came into the foaling room with said squalling brat, and gently took Gusty's remains out of my hooves, and replaced her with the thing she died to bring into this world.
I've tried to love her, this little crystal pegasus, as Gusty would have, to love this new Hope as if she were that breathing sliver of my little sparrow that is left in this world, because she is, and I know this. I tried to have Hope, and be satisfied. And eventually I did grow fond of her, and I like to think I've been a good uncle to our little Radiant Hope.
But she isn't Gusty.
What she was, though, was an uncrystalled crystal foal, and there were certain… conditions built into the otherwise impenetrable shield-walls that the damned Crystal queens have hidden behind for generations. They've spent decades, even centuries sallying forth with their ruthless expeditionary forces, and retreating behind those unconquered walls when the fortunes of war turned against them. Smug. Arrogant. Corrupt.
But I was a son of the Crystal Empire, and I knew the secret, the one way through the barrier which they couldn't lock, couldn’t seal, couldn’t weld closed. Not without breaking the Crystal Heart.
An uncrystalled infant crystal pony. The ritual of crystalling, which cannot be denied. My… little skeleton key.
I led my ponies, who were the members of the Forge who loved Gusty the most. The ones to whom I had exposed the plots and the corruptions which had led to Gusty's death, shown the sly trap which the Crystal Empire laid for their beloved leader. These were the ones who were most willing to follow me, Gusty's most loyal and faithful servant. I was the Black Crystal, the stallion who helped her strike down Grogar the Undying, who helped her pull down the Sirespire, who sat with her in her final, desperate agony. Of course they followed me. And we shattered that rotten, enfeebled city-state into shards.
Shards which I picked back up, and put together in a new configuration, a new kingdom.
For the memory of my little sparrow, I retook my birthright, took back my birth-name, accepted, at last, my destiny.
For her memory I became Sombra, King of the Crystal Ponies. Conqueror of the North.
I have done everything I threatened, fulfilled every dark promise. Amore is dead, at my hooves, her throne and power are in my hooves, and lo! her prophecy is fulfilled. Look at me! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
I miss my little sparrow, I miss her so much. I look at what I've done, and I know she'd hate me for it. I know that if she were here with us today, she'd be right out there, outside my gates, encamped with an army, besieging my walls, waiting for the opportunity to call me to account for my many crimes.
Stars, I wish she was out there right now, screaming my name, calling for my head. I miss her so much.