To be human is to be resourceful. For Saul this must hold true like never before. Alone in a land of warlike unicorns in an age beyond Equestria and devoid of harmony, Saul must make a life for himself in a world of mares, blood and cold iron. (RGRE)
Scion of Smoke & Fire
The siren call of conflict beckons in the Mournful Sea. Unicorn galleys harry the coastlines, pegasi barbarians swarm from the frozen north in desperation, and earth ponies dream of empire and deliverance from the depredations of the Unicorn Shore.
An age of total war brings with it the promise of power and glory. For a human stranded in a land of warlike unicorns, such an opportunity signals the only hope of escaping life as a glorified pet. Saul of Earth must seize this chance and rise or be forgotten, live or die by the strength of his arms and the sharpness of his wits.
But to do so will mean to juggle the ambitions of unicorn princesses, barbarians, and even his own. For ambition breeds animosity, and along the cold shores of the Mournful Sea enemies abound and danger lurks in every shadow.
The time is ripe for upheaval, and beyond the edges of the known world unseen threats stir in the shadows...
Succinctly described as: Reverse Gender Roles, low fantasy, early medieval/ancient Mesopotamian inspired adventure where a human must integrate in a world strongly linked to Equestria and use his knowledge of earth's history to rise through society.
Seawater filled his lungs with every desperate gasp for air. Panic urged him to push to the surface as fast as he could, but it was pitch black in that terrible coldness, and he had no idea which way was up. He only knew the impenetrable gloom and bone-chilling bite of the water around him. Salt-water, so thick and raw that every mouthful was like biting through snow.
Saul was a dead man. The realization struck him with a suddenness that unsettled him deeply. But with nowhere to go and no air to breathe, what else was there but to accept the cold embrace of inevitable death? The thought alone was enough to make his blood boil.
'This is not how it ends,' he thought to himself, jaws clenched shut, ears ringing as consciousness slowly faded away. His hands clutched at nothing but water, desperate for something to save himself before the end. But nothing came, or at least not fast enough. His fingers finally closed around the thick cord of a fishing net, just as the convulsions commenced. By the time his body was hauled over the side of the vessel his heart had stopped.
Ripples in the water. Sister Pearl watched from the forecastle of the 'Gaze of Sol' as the rowers sunk their oars into the murky waters of the Mournful Sea and stirred it up into foam and rippling trails, like long white plumes that hung from its stern as one might wear on a hat. These were speed and force—a brutish set of virtues that all but defined the mighty vessel, though one might not think so from the way it looked in that moment.
Her sails were brightly colored and all its oars were painted a different shade of crimson, while banners and ribbons streamed from its mast and rigging. Flower baskets were arranged every five paces with candles in between, and a cage of butterflies had been freed onboard just earlier that evening. The still wayward critters lazily floated between baskets, as though dancing to the beat of the flutes and lyres the band played in the background. It was almost enough to belie the true nature of the mighty bireme, but not quite.
Sister Pearl couldn't push it out of her mind. At the far bow of the bireme, flashes of light caught her eye every now and again and the buzz of magic drew her attention to the bronze-plated hull of the ship. She knew as little about the armorer's trade as she did of the shipwright's, but she knew enough to recognize the gleam of candlelight against the half-sunken ram, or the sound of the spellcraft used to reinforce the plating. War spells. The 'Gaze of Sol' was every bit a warship, though the princess wished to disguise it as a pleasure barge for the evening.
But the party was not enough to rid Pearl's mind of the memories that plagued her thoughts. Not two months had passed since the last pegasi raid, but the images were still clearly burned into her eyes. Wings over burning seas, the searing heat of a hundred fires and so many sounds melded together into one incoherent, primal screech in the dead of midnight... Ah, but it was the screams that stuck with her. The desperate wails that rose over the slave quarters all through the night, where none had bothered to stage a defense.
Pearl tended to the wounded for days after that. Her ivory coat, so pristine and well-groomed for the party, had been a mess. Caked in blood and rank with sweat and tears... she still remembered the flies. Clouds of them, thick as smoke, they’d crawled all over her and under her mane. The sound, the smells, it was all with her, and under the shimmering candlelight and all the brightly colored ribbons, all she could feel was a deep emptiness that pooled in her chest and did not let go.
"We can always raid for more," she muttered to herself, as she leaned over the crenel of the forecastle to stare into the murky blackness of the sea. They could, and they most likely would, but if the words of the Exalted Mother had been meant to comfort her, they had failed miserably.
"Sister Pearl." The voice woke her from her memories. "There has been an accident near the ovens. One of our guests has burned his fetlock."
"I'll only be a second, sister." Pearl quickly lit up her horn's magic to wipe away the moisture from her eyes. "Bring me water and light, if you please."
"Of course, sister."
Time to get to work.
"Ouch! Watch it, please..." the colt squirmed and winced at every low vibration of her healing aura. Pearl didn't terribly mind. It was a very simple spell and he didn't thrash nearly as much as... He was also a handsome young thing, which helped some, she had to admit. The process was so quick, so effortless, so mundane it was almost therapeutic. With a final turn of her aura around the burned fetlock, she extinguished the azure glow of her horn and turned her gaze back to the colt and his mother, whose watchful gaze had never left Pearl's ministrations in case she got hoofsy with her son, she supposed.
"It is done, Lord Palfrey," she offered with a charming—though hopefully not too charming—smile, and fully extinguished her horn in deference to his mother.
Glowspur, the Terror of Verdant.
All magical energy ebbed away from her horn, and it was left cold and numb, like a limb one sat upon for too long. Her aura was extinguished, and only after Glowspur nodded in acknowledgement did she allow the magic to flow freely once more. Like holding one’s breath.
"My lady," she continued, "the injury should be kept covered and the bandage be changed with some regularity, at least once a day, if it pleases my lady. It should not sting any further by the morrow."
"Thank you, sister." Lady Glowspur placed a hoof on her son's withers, whether affectionately or as a warning, Pearl wasn't sure. Though Palfrey was rumored to be her favorite.
"Pardon me, sister," the young colt asked through a gentle grin. He was handsome indeed, though there was none of the rugged looks of the baseborn equine in him. Palfrey was a slim and lithe creature with a beautifully kept silver mane and pale violet coat... the kind that a more reckless mare might not be able to keep from imagining being pressed tightly against her muzzle... finely toned muscles, as though sculpted from rock and polished to a shine... slender, exquisitely shaped form, like a dream one might have, where a more scatter-brained mare might picture him pinned beneath her own body...
"Sister?" he asked again, with the vaguest trace of amusement in his voice.
"Ah! Yes, of course. Sorry." Pearl quickly glanced at the mother. Oh, Celestia preserve her, the mother. Lady Glowspur was a bull of a mare, and the foreleg draped over her son was armored in a cold iron sabot that could break clean through most shields. Pearl didn't want to know what it could do to a silly unicorn priestess with her head in the gutter.
"I wished to know when I might stop wearing the bandage, sister." The grin on his face! That coquettish colt knew.
Not that anyone had ever accused Pearl of subtlety around the fairer sex, of course...
"Yes, I was just getting to that." She cleared her throat and made every effort not to look at Glowspur. "Three days, Lord Palfrey. No fewer, and Celestia-willing, no more. Do visit me if the swelling persists after that. If it please your lady mother, of course."
"We wouldn't wish to disturb your work, sister." Glowspur blew air out her nostrils like a raging boar. "We'll check with our house healers. May the sun shine on you."
'Visit me...? PEARL YOU BUCKING-'
"O-of course..." She just managed to squeak out a farewell, and Glowspur was halfway gone with her son in tow. Still, she couldn't quite miss the sly smirk he shot her way as he left, or the way his long, toned legs framed his...
'No! Why am I like this?!'
Sister Pearl shook her head to clear it of some very indecorous thoughts and quietly disappeared into the crowd. Around her, the cream of the Crimson Shore's noble families leisurely dined and chatted the night away. It was very late in the night and all the spectacles had been spent, and most of the beer was gone, along with the food. All that was left was the quiet as the 'Gaze of Sol' gently made its way back to port.
Still, some activities were still ongoing. Off the stern of the vessel some fishermares tossed their nets in hopes of catching a few more lemon-fish for themselves, and a juggler did her tricks for a couple foals and their fathers. By the main mast and propped on her litter, Princess Crimson Belle lazily munched on fruit and sipped from a bowl of beer while her personal guard and a big pegasus barbarian kept watch over her royal self. Pearl recognized the guard if not the barbarian, though the latter stirred the mess of memories that troubled her mind. Why the princess let her whims convince her to take on such a creature for a bodyguard, she couldn't tell. But it was hardly her place to criticize her, so she turned her gaze away.
The mood onboard the 'Gaze of Sol' quieted down a little more with every minute that passed, until the only sound to be heard was that of the musicians, the grunts of effort from the rowers, and the whispering caresses of the Mournful Sea against the hull of the bireme. Sister Pearl leaned against the starboard railing and sighed. Perhaps she might still get a chance to brood in peace, after all?
"By Luna's silver moon, what is that thing?!"
The shocked gasps and oaths to the Equestrian deities broke Pearl and half the ship from their reverie and festivities like a slap across the muzzle. Up on her litter, Princess Crimson Belle cocked an eyebrow and half-tilted her head towards the stern of the bireme, where a small crowd slowly grew in both awe and numbers. The murmurs rose like the tide.
"Mind the net, if it please my ladies," a fishermare called over the growing racket as more and more nobleponies gathered at the foot of the aftcastle, behind which the fishermares had hauled a seemingly huge catch of fish from the deep, only to find that the weight that had strained their horns wasn't fish at all. It was something else, something larger and if Pearl's eyes did not lie, it was something covered in cloth!
"Is it dead?" somepony asked. Pearl knew the answer before the fishermares confirmed it. Magic lit up her horn almost out of instinct and she read the creature's vital signs like a clay tablet... warm despite the freezing water, though all the heat had long since left its limbs to make its final stand deep in its core; no heartbeat, no cerebral activity, though she couldn't tell if its brain had starved of oxygen quite yet. Even if it hadn't, it wouldn't be much longer. Every second pushed the drowned beast closer to eternal slumber.
"Remain calm, everypony!" she called out, though it didn't help much. Almost as soon as she said it the creature began to convulse violently, perhaps for the very last time. Its long, oddly jointed limbs spasmed and twitched, and the many digits on its not-hooves twitched as though grasping for something. They were blue at the tips, she noted absent-mindedly, almost too shocked for pity.
But not quite.
"We only have a few minutes..." she said to the nearest fishermare. The unicorn looked at her with something between fear and surprise, and Pearl got the distinct impression that every instinct in her body wanted to tell her to 'buck off!', but in the end conditioning beat self-preservation, and the commoner lit up her horn to remove the net at Pearl's command.
"Everypony stand back," she called, and motioned for the second fishermare to keep the crowds back. Pale at the thought of ordering nobleponies around, the unicorn hesitated, and was promptly shoved aside by a grim-faced unicorn mare with her mane and coat tinted a deep crimson, and four heavy, cold iron sabots on her hooves.
"What, by Grogar's teeth, do you plan on doing, sister?" Glowspur growled as she and three other crimson-tinted mares in iron sabots formed a line between the creature and the crowd.
Pearl's horn was already aglow and hard at work before she had a chance to think of how to respond. When her thoughts finally caught up to the question, she realized she didn't know.
"I..." she stammered, clumsy with her words where her magical arts sharply coursed through the creature in search of anything that might resemble unicorn lungs.
"My son is on board this ship, priestess. If that thing so much as looks at him..." Glowspur said. Pearl had better sense than to remind her that her lord husband and two daughters were also there with them, and instead kept quiet and licked the mounting dryness from her lips.
'Just what in the holy buck ARE you doing?'
The crowd, though silent at first, quickly began to echo Glowspur's concerns as it became rapidly apparent that Pearl did not plan on returning whatever monster it was the fishermare's had dug from the deep back overboard. The cries rose high enough that Pearl began to hesitate.
She'd found the thing's lungs—massive in comparison to a unicorn's—and its heart. It was a simple matter of draining the first and kickstarting the latter... but should she? Sweat began to pool at the base of her horn. The voices around her grew louder. The poor animal had only a few more minutes before brain death set in... and yet, might that not be for the best? A quick glance at its powerful limbs spoke of some primeval strength, perhaps greater than a unicorn's. Could it wield magic? Was it venomous? She bit her lip hard enough that it hurt.
That's when the candlelight illuminated its face. His face, she realized with no little shock. A hard jawline set over the strangest, most delicate muzzle she'd ever seen on any being, with a short-cropped mane and eyes so ridiculously small... he was a colt! Like a creature of legend, masculine and mysterious, risen from the depths to tempt mares to their doom, perhaps? Pearl didn't know, and she didn't quite care.
Mother didn't raise no knave.
Against her better judgement and the judgement of everypony around her, Pearl cast her spell. The creature's lungs filled with air, his heart coursed with energy, and a torrent of water was expelled from its small, amusingly shaped muzzle to splash all over a terrified fishermare. It convulsed in a fit of coughing, not entirely conscious, before its breathing finally stabilized. The creature, draped in thick, heavy clothes now ruined by the brine and filth of the Mournful Sea, collapsed once more into a deathly sleep. But sleep nonetheless.
Pearl sucked in a deep breath and ran a final check of the colt-thing. Whatever the normal signs for a being of its size and type were, it seemed to be sufficiently within—or close enough to—a 'normal' range that she felt confident no further intervention was necessary. Or better said, there was buck-all she could do if anything else went wrong. Though oddly pony-like, the being’s insides were still weirdly arranged and she wasn’t sure it would react well to unicorn magic.
"It's Celestia's whim now," she muttered to herself. Then squeaked as Glowspur's heavy sabot pressed against her shoulder.
"You should have tossed him overboard," the Terror of Verdant grumbled. So she had noticed?
Pearl shook her head.
"What gentlemare might see a colt in need and not lend aid, my lady?"
"That thing's not even a pony," the mare replied, but Pearl noticed—or hoped—that some of the aggression had seeped from her words. Her heavy hoof and sabot left her shoulder and struck the floorboards with a dull thunk!
He really wasn't, but the similarities were obvious to anypony who cared to look. There was something almost... civilized about him, even in the way the creature's clothes were fashioned, though they were garishly excessive. As he lay there on deck, his chest slowly rising and falling to the rhythm of his breaths, Pearl noted with no little surprise that there was something enthralling about the creature. Glowspur must have felt it too, for there was no further call to harm him.
"What is he, sister?" she asked after a moment of silent contemplation. Pearl contained a sigh of relief at being referred to by rank once more, and took it as a sign that Glowspur wouldn't brain her with her sabots. At least not for the time being.
"I've no idea," she responded. "I don't believe there is a creature anywhere in the known world that might resemble this... whatever he is."
"Perhaps something from Old Equestria?" a new voice joined the conversation. A voice that made Pearl's spine tingle and made her fear for her life at the same time. Lord Palfrey stepped between her and Glowspur with all the curiosity of a newborn foal plainly on his adorable, beautiful face...
Pearl forced her eyes forward as Glowspur ground a sabot against the floorboards.
"Most likely not, my lord," she said, trying to drown her marely appetites in theology. "The blessed Alicorns have not sent anything through for centuries, not since the early tribes of pegasi and unicorns first came to this land. Might I suggest, Lady Glowspur, that the creature could be native to Verdant?"
The Terror chewed on the thought for a moment before she finally shook her head. Her heavy, braided mane tossed like a whip at the motion.
"Never seen anything of the sort. Mud ponies often make use of strange creatures to till their fields, but never anything like this. Yet it might be possible. Alicorns only know what chaos-begotten things lurk in the mainland of that savage continent."
"Yet he's clothed like a unicorn," Palfrey mused. "And he could not have come from Verdant, if you'll pardon me, sister. Why, he looks freshly drowned..."
"You're a clever colt, my lord." Pearl pressed a hoof to her muzzle and cast her eyes over the dark horizon. The blackness of the sea beyond the railing of the bireme was absolute, but for brief flashes of lighting to the far north, where some distant thunderstorm raged beyond the Unicorn Shore. "Indeed, this is a mystery. Perhaps he came onboard a raiding ship?"
"This early in the spring?" Glowspur's eyes took on a dark shade. "I'll have anymare of mine flogged who took able unicorns away from their farms if that's the case, sister. You can have that in clay."
"Maybe it wasn't one of ours..." Palfrey whispered. Neither mare replied immediately, and in Pearl's mind the thought that out there in the dark there may be more pegasi battle-barges sent a very different kind of sensation running down her spine...
"Go with your father, Palfrey." Glowspur said after a long moment spent with her eyes on the waves. "A colt has little business in the talks of mares. No matter how clever the colt may be."
Palfrey smiled and extinguished his horn in farewell, then left. Pearl tried not to seem too crestfallen about it.
“You’ve raised a fine colt, my lady,” she offered, and quickly sucked in her lips at the look the older mare shot her. “He’s clever! Very clever. His tutors must be so proud. A good education is key, after all.”
Glowspur grumbled some under her breath and turned to face the creature once more.
“This better not come back to bite us in the rump, sister.”
Whatever response Pearl might have come up with was quickly lost at the approach of heavy hooves against the floorboards. “The princess!” one of the crimson-tinted mares, Glowspur’s own Crimson Knights, muttered hurriedly and sent the entire ensemble into a momentary rush. Glowspur turned on her hooves at once, while the rest of her knights rearranged themselves to her left. The result left Pearl awkwardly placed out of line, much too far from either flank to form up in time.
“Your grace,” Glowspur hailed the princess as she extinguished her horn. The rest of her knights, and a very flustered Pearl—oddly left behind the others—followed suit.
Pearl waited with a numb horn as Princess Crimson Belle stepped out of her litter with the feline grace of the mythical cat from old Equestria. The unicorns that held it aloft didn’t have time to lower it before the princess of the Crimson Shore hit the floorboards with nary a sound.
“Subjects! Glowspur!” she announced, as though by her word they had only just materialized. “Light up your horns, mares. Go on! No need to bother with pleasantries, this is a party after all!”
She slid between Glowspur and the knight at her left with the ease of a summer breeze.
“I suppose this is my newest guest, then?” She giggled. “Courtesy of my healer... Pear! Did I get that right, Rainstorm?”
“Nay,” a new, heavily accented voice said from behind the line of Crimson Knights beside Glowspur. Pearl swallowed. There weren’t many unicorns along the Unicorn Shore who would dare say that to a princess... then again, the mare who said it wasn’t a unicorn at all. Pearl could only barely make out the messy green mane under bark-hide lion leather coif, or the cream-colored coat painted over in blue barbarian markings, but there was no mistaking the pegasus mare. The big pegasus mare, nearly a full head taller than Glowspur, and Princess Crimson Belle’s newest guard.
“Ah, darn it.” Crimson Belle pouted as she edged much too close to the unconscious creature. Every knight tensed and her own royal guard took a step forward, horns alight and spears tightly gripped in their magical auras. Rainstorm flexed her wings and yawned.
“I was so sure I’d got it right this time. Why must my subjects have such funny names?”
“If it please your grace,” Glowspur walked next to the princess. “This creature might still be dangerous...”
“So it might!” Crimson Belle nodded, as though sharing in some sagely conclusion to a long-standing philosophical query with her Crimson Knight. “What do you think, Rainstorm?”
“Brain it.” The pegasus shrugged, and Pearl felt a protest be born and die in her throat. “Yer fanciness won’t have to feed it then.”
“No no no,” the princess tutted. “We’re not in Windland, Rainstorm. Your barbarian ways aren’t our own. We have civilization!”
The pegasus rolled her eyes and flexed her wings. “Buck it, then.”
If the outrage that flashed across the face of every knight and royal guard present—and even Pearl herself—was shared by the princess, she didn’t show it. She merely pressed a hoof to her muzzle and hummed.
“Sister Pearl,” she called after a moment. The sound of her name shocked Pearl something fierce, but she stepped forward and extinguished her horn with practiced ease all the same.
“What is this thing on my beautiful warship?”
She explained as best she could that, well, she had no idea. But it wouldn’t do to simply admit it, of course. Pearl raked the creases of her brain for the words, the theories, the tales and legends of Old Equestria that might make some sense of what the creature was. She spoke of the fabled minotaur! or the legendary diamond dog! what had existed in the heavenly Equestria, the land of Alicorns where Unicorns and Pegasi had once been united as a single tribe... and Crimson Belle, to her credit, listened to some of it.
“Fascinating, truly.” She sat her royal rump next to the creature, much to the immeasurable chagrin of the guards oathbound to protect her life with their own, and giddily poked him in the cheek. “So you don’t know?”
“Ah,” Pearl grimaced, “that’s... a succinct way to put it, your grace. I’ve never seen anything like him.”
“Him?” she turned to look at her like a hunting trap snapped shut. “Oooh, now that’s interesting...”
“Your grace, if it please you...” Glowspur began, but the demeanor of the princess suddenly changed, and everypony felt it at once. Every guard stood a little straighter, every knight clenched their jaw a little tighter. Pearl herself had a new pressure in her chest that hadn’t been there a minute earlier, and even the wild Rainstorm seemed to sober up some.
“Many things please me, Lady Glowspur. I don’t think this is one of them.” She turned her gaze to Pearl and the unicorn priestess felt her heart wither and die in her chest. “That one of my priestesses decided to resuscitate something this foreign to both herself and my security on board of a merry gathering with half my court onboard, in particular, I find rather hard to be amused by.
“But!” She smiled, but there was little joy in the gesture. “This is a party, after all, and I’m willing to see this as a gesture of goodwill in honour of my victory over the barbarians. So! Sister Pearl...”
“Y-yes, your grace?”
Princess Crimson Belle practically bounced towards her. The gesture would have been rather amusing if she hadn’t been so terrified.
“Am I to understand that this exotic, masculine beastie is your gift to me, in celebration of my great victory over the accursed Storm Mane?”
Pearl swallowed hard. Crimson Belle’s eyes—red as rubies, like her coat, her mane, and the runes carved into her alabaster horn—drilled into her own like a war pick might puncture a helmet. Was it a trick question? Was she even supposed to answer? Sweat seemed to pour in rivers out of her head as she struggled to form a coherent thought. In the end, with every pair of eyes set on her, she managed a response.
“Yes,” she squeaked. A hastily added ‘your grace’ followed soon after.
Crimson Belle remained still a moment longer. Pearl’s heart stopped beating, her lungs froze still, and her brain boiled inside her skull as she struggled to understand what the right answer had been to the question she had just surely bungled...
“Goody!” the princess said instead, and turned away from the petrified unicorn to return to her litter. “Let’s get back to the food then. Do take care of my beastie, won’t you, Sister Pearl? I would so very much hate to lose him so soon, particularly after all the trouble it was to bring him back to life. Wouldn’t you say, Rainstorm?”
“Nay, I still say you ought to brain it dead,” the pegasus grumbled, and followed as the litter effortlessly carried the princess back to her spot by the main mast.
The crowd dispersed around Pearl, and left her alone to ponder on the sudden turn of events. Or mostly alone. Next to her, Glowspur snorted and turned to face the creature with four loud knocks of her heavy hooves.
"So why did you do it?"
Pearl swallowed. She had no good answer to that question, or at least, nothing different than the one she had already given.
"It just didn't feel right to let him die," she said.
Glowspur chewed on the thought for a moment. Before them the strange being lay sprawled on the floorboards while the fishermares gingerly tried to get him onto a stretcher without disturbing his slumber. He was almost three times the height of a regular pony, measured from hind hoof to head, and broad at the shoulders, with a barrel that could easily fit two ponies pressed side to side. His short-cropped mane was black, like most of his garments, and that ill omen alone should have been enough to mistrust the creature. But his face was so pony-like... In the end Glowspur did not immediately answer, but turned to summon one of her knights.
"Yes, my lady?"
The knight, a young mare in her late teens, painted over entirely in the crimson of her order but for the faintest traces of a teal horn, stopped a couple paces away from Glowspur. Pearl did not immediately recognize her until she spoke, the voice was almost a perfect copy of her mother's.
"Shimmer," Glowspur grunted. "Get Lancer, Rouncey, and... No, forget Rouncey. Get Bronzehammer instead. Tell them to armor up. They'll be guarding Sister Pearl's pet from now on."
"As you will it, my lady."
Glowspur's daughter, Shimmershield, nodded.
"My 'pet'?" Pearl's aprehension went unheeded.
"Good lass," Glowspur dismissed her with a gesture and turned back to the flustered priestess. Her eyes were cold, hard saphire in her otherwise red-painted body. "As for you, sister...
"This was a bucking mistake if ever I've seen one." Glowspur's expression was stone. "Why you decided to bring this thing back to life is beyond me, but so help me Luna and all her stars, if this creature so much as spits near a unicorn, I'll run it through with my own horn. Do we understand each other?"
Pearl did not consider herself a particularly brave mare, but a mare she was, and a unicorn priestess too. From somewhere in her body, enough courage mustered to let her meet that hard gaze with her own.
"We do," she said, but either stupidity or Discord's malice kept her lips moving. "As for the rest, whether to heal this or any creature is hardly within your purview, my lady."
Her heart hammered hard in her chest as she finished her sentence. Glowspur's expression did not change. The same iron eyes remained fixed on her, as though she hadn't heard her at all, but Pearl was certain that behind that cool front a fire raged in the older mare. The Terror of Verdant, however, said nothing more of the matter. She bid her goodnight, turned back to the party and was gone.
Alone with her creature—if Glowspur was to be believed he technically was, at least until the princess claimed him back—Sister Pearl sucked in a deep breath and held it for a full minute to stop the blood pounding inside her skull. When she finally sighed, it was like her very spirit left her body and returned to green Equestria, where sunny skies and pleasant waters wouldn't let Glowspur near her.
"Ah, sister?" a very uncomfortable fishermare asked.
Pearl looked up to see two unicorns holding the being aloft on a stretcher, their horns aglow and expressions pained from exertion.
"Do you uh... do you want us to leave him on your cot or...?"
The heavy clay tablets hit the desk with a mighty thud! There were over a dozen of them, scribbled on both sides with the tiniest horn-writing the unicorn priestess could conjure. Pearl had spent the entire night since the 'Gaze of Sol' had returned to port in the Temple of the Sisters, copying the ancient stone tablets of its venerable library, and scribbling furiously as very sleepy, and very elderly Mothers narrated all that they knew about Old Equestria.
But all that they knew was not enough.
Pearl groaned as yet another hour slipped by with nothing to show. The tablets and the wisdom of the elder Mothers were consistent, but useless. Grogar, Father of Beasts, who wrought from Tartarus the gryphon, the timberwolf, and the dreaded hydra never in all of unicorn lore created anything such as the creature that now slept but a few paces behind her.
"Any progress, sister?" Lancer asked from the threshold to her makeshift quarters. "I'd tease that you should hurry, lest the princess lose her temper and send you to the dungeon, but... well."
Her smile was fire to the timber of Pearl's exhausted tempers. As if it weren't enough punishment that she should now care for the beast, the princess had decided to relocate her from the home she shared with her Sister Priestesses and into the castle dungeon. With Glowspur's own daughter for a guard, to boot.
Pearl's muzzle scrunched up.
"It's a temporary arrangement," she grumbled.
"Of course, sister," Lancer said. The gleam in her emerald eyes betrayed none of her own tiredness, if she even felt any. Both Lancer and Bronzehammer had gone the entire night without rest, though their relieves were due to arrive soon. Pearl wasn't so lucky.
"Why," Lancer turned to the boulder at her side, the mare Bronzehammer. "Is that not the first light of dawn? Bron, do correct me if I'm mistaken, but I seem to recall a certain someone's duties to commence with the rising sun..."
Pearl's eye twitched.
Bronzehammer nodded wordlessly, none the wiser to her fellow knight’s quip, and turned to face Pearl. Her maille coif clinked softly every time she moved like so many little bells, though there was nothing little about ‘Bron’ herself. Even her breath was like a gust of wind against the iron muzzleguard of her conical helmet.
"Would you like me to fetch a courier to inform the Exalted Mother of your situation, Sister Pearl?" she asked. Her voice was gravel and tumbling rocks.
Pearl didn't answer immediately. She stared into the dying flamelight of her spent candlestick, at the pile of clay tablets that had given her a migraine—both from reading them and just carrying them around—and felt every muscle in her legs and rump ache at the thought of standing. Would it kill her to skip work just today?
A tiny sliver of light squeezed through the arrow slit of her cell to caress her mane with the first rays of dawn. The warmth of it spread through her and down to her chest. No, it probably wouldn't. But somepony else might get hurt.
'Blessed Celestia, has the sun ever not risen because you felt a little tired?'
"No, that's okay. I'm going." Pearl slid from her chair and pushed away from the desk that furnished her cell. With a yawn she levitated the white frock and hood of the sisterhood over to herself, and stepped onto her four wobbly hooves. She fastened the first over her chest, and pulled the latter over her head.
"May the sun shine on you both, my ladies."
Lancer and Bronzehammer echoed the sentiment and opened the door for her. Almost immediately Pearl regretted her decision. The staircase that towered over her at the end of the dank dungeon hallway held the promise of even more aches and pains, but at least she knew that the reward of honest work lay at the end of that bothersome road... With a very disgruntled sigh, Sister Pearl took her first step into that terrible task.
Lancer cleared her throat.
'Oh, by Discord's crooked fang!'
"Uh, Sister?" the knight asked, and was it just her or had her voice cracked a little? "Is this thing supposed to be moving like that?"
Pearl turned around with a start, but soon calmed down. On the far end of her cell, bundled under a pile of several pony-sized blankets that barely managed to cover him from head to hoof, the creature stirred and twitched—his powerful chest rising with every breath, like the bellows of some monstrous furnace—but remained fast asleep.
"It's only been a day, my lady. I doubt he will awaken before tomorrow."
'If at all.'
Pearl had resuscitated a few ponies before—some from far more grievous injuries—but those had been ponies. What this being's body could handle or how it would react to however long it had spent in the cold embrace of the sea... Well, she simply didn't know. But experience said to wait a day or two more before concern was justified.
"...and the fidgeting?" Lancer asked. By her side even Bronzehammer seemed a little on edge—her horn twitched, as younger unicorns might say—and the faintest trace of an aura could be seen on the spiked hilt of the warhammer strapped to her belt. Armed and armored as they were—very much to Glowspur's insistence and Pearl's chagrin—neither knight knew what to expect of the creature.
"...perhaps it can chew through iron maille? Might be its gaze is like that of the vile cockatrice, birthed from the primordial chaos at Discord's whim? Or it could be a relative of the siren! His masculine voice, seductive and irresistible, might have the power to force a mare to turn against her own, and then herself?"
'Wait did I...?'
"...sister what the buck?!" Lancer had her aura firmly wound around the haft of her spear, eyes wide and nostrils flared. Bronzehammer had a look of pure consternation plastered on her otherwise impassive features. Her warhammer floated freely now, between her and the beast. Both mares had backed themselves hard against the wall.
"Pardon me, my ladies. I was just musing out loud. Uhh..." Pearl winced. "The fidgeting is normal! He's totally unconscious now, and like I said, he won't be awake for at least a day or so..."
The two knights looked at her. She looked back out the door. The staircase and its many steps of tortuous climbing suddenly didn't look so unappealing...
"Gotta go, bye!"
Pearl was halfway up the staircase before the door slammed firmly shut behind her.
The inner city, built around the castle and ceremonial center, was alive with all the vibrancy of the rainbow. Blue-painted rooftops, lively-green canopies over merchant stalls, and murals drawn in gold and silver adorned the heart of the Crimson Shore. The smells of cooking fires and working kitchens flooded the air as stallions prepared breakfast all over the inner city, and accompanied Pearl as she made her way out of the castle courtyard and through the keep's main gate, on her way to the Temple of the Sisters.
The temple was a giant structure, almost fifteen unicorns in height, with sloped walls and a towering central sanctum with a conical roof, painted gold on its east face and silver on its west face. The rest of it was a deep crimson, like the rest of the city, with gold and silver accents along its outline edges. Most were simple patterns, but others held stories written in an olden script, forgotten by all but the very ponies who inscribed them however many centuries ago...
'What wonders lie hidden in such ancient words?'
She took a moment to bask in its aura, like she always did, every day since her mother gave her to the sisterhood as a filly.
Dawn's light cascaded over the horizon and the grim waters beyond the shore to bathe the temple walls and the homes around it in a warmth so pure and cozy it could only be born of Celestia's mercy. Pearl knew it to be true every time she saw it—no matter what the other schools of theology might say—that even if the physical manifestation of the White Alicorn was in Equestria itself, surely her spirit must also be with them in the Mournful Sea. Who else could be responsible for such beauty?
Pearl's ascent up the temple steps was shrouded in a silent awe. The central sanctum's entrance was flanked by two great pillars, carved to resemble the White and Dark Alicorns with their wings folded, horns raised high to the sky. Their expressions were stern and firm, but Pearl had never felt intimidated by them. Like all sisters, she'd never felt safer anywhere else, but under the mighty gaze of Sol and Luna.
She extinguished her horn and bowed deeply before the great Alicorns. So much so that her belly touched the flagstone of the sanctum entrance.
"Some mares might call that excessive, sister."
Pearl didn't acknowledge the voice immediately, but felt the beginning of a grin tug at the edge of her lips. A few more seconds passed before she rose and allowed magic to flow through her once more. She turned to face the newcomer.
"Some mares paint themselves bright crimson and beat each other with metal sticks," she replied with a wide smile. "Exalted Mother, I do not pretend to question the sanity of others."
The Exalted Mother chuckled. Her voice, dry and aged by decades of service to the sisterhood, still carried that motherly undertone that made Pearl's heart beat a little softer. She stepped forward until both mares stood side by side, minuscule before the mighty Alicorns cast in solar shade.
"You've become rather popular all of a sudden, my daughter," the Exalted Mother said. "Why, I don't believe I've had your name in my ears this much since that stallion came by-"
"Exalted Mother please no."
The old mare giggled like a filly, but relented.
"So what's this chit-chat about a 'monster', sister? To hear the initiates talk, you fished it from the depths yourself to present it to the Princess, like some pegasus barbarian hero."
Pearl let out the groan of groans, and explained as best she could. Naturally she didn't mention Lord Palfrey. The Exalted Mother needn't be bothered by such meaningless details, of course. Yes. Totally.
"...so now I sleep in the castle dungeon, Exalted Mother," she finished, then quickly added, "...but it's a totally temporary arrangement!"
The old mare tittered and brushed a strand of gray mane out of her amber eyes. Some of the tension that had built up along Pearl’s back and shoulders dissipated as the Exalted Mother pressed up against her side and winked at her, like old partners in crime.
“It better be, or I’ll have to pay the castle a visit.” Her aura tussled Pearl’s mane. “Can’t have my Pearl hiding around in dank old cellars, now can I? What would I tell half the colts from here to the outer walls?”
“I tease,” she said, and turned her gaze back to the temple entrance. No doors barred the way to the sanctum, but a great, ruby-colored curtain was draped over the open archway. It was so thick that not the mightiest gust of wind, nor the fiercest blizzard could make it budge. Yet it was not impervious to damage, and as the two mares drew closer, Pearl noted with regret the singed edges and charred spots along the lower ends of it. Remnants of Storm Mane’s great blasphemy.
The Exalted Mother and Pearl parted the curtains with their auras, and entered through the archway onto a great, single stone slab that dominated the sanctum floor. All around them the magnificence of the Temple of the Sisters extended itself high above and towards the conical ceiling, with enormous pillars that lined the walls, and skylights that bathed the sanctum's central altar in sun or moonlight as the time shifted.
Unlike the temple walls there was no mudbrick within the sanctum. It was all stone, hewn from the distant mountains beyond the Bay of Mangoes, and painstakingly brought across Verdant back to the Unicorn Shore. Within the temple walls, that stone had been carved and raised beyond its natural shape to glorify the might of the Sisters. Here, the stone pillars that held up the roof were painted in exquisite detail in only the brightest colors to depict the histories of the unicorn race in elaborate hieroglyphs.
The walls were murals in their own right, and the floor upon which the two unicorns walked—that single, great stone slab—was carved with the legends and myths of Old Equestria. But it was the altar that caught the eye. It was a white, solid marble slab rested upon a hardwood base encrusted with rubies, with the names of every Princess and Exalted Mother since the first unicorn barges arrived upon the Unicorn Shore, all carved into the wood and filled with gold and silver leaf.
Pearl swallowed hard at the sight. She'd seen it every day for the majority of her life, and yet... It was a room that exuded might. To a unicorn, any unicorn, it was living proof of the glory of the Sisters and their plan for the tribes. It was salvation. A future to believe in.
It was life itself.
"You're drooling, Sister Pearl."
Pearl cleared her throat and pressed a hoof to her muzzle.
"Ah," she said, "yes, well, I skipped breakfast..."
The Exalted Mother rolled her eyes and motioned with her head towards the altar. 'Let's hurry then,' she seemed to imply. The morning preparations went by quickly. As the Exalted Mother readied her morning lecture to the initiates, Pearl lit the candles, mixed the scented oils, and assembled the many pews around the great flagstone where their history lay carved. At the end of it she went and tied open the great entrance curtains, and set the censers by the door. With a spark from her horn, the incense was set alight.
"All set, Exalted Mother!" she called out. The older mare merely nodded from her seat behind the altar, where several clay tablets had been arranged but never glanced at. Pearl knew there was nothing in this or any temple the elderly priestess didn't already know by heart.
"Has the sun reached the towers, sister?"
Pearl glanced outside the temple. Beyond the crimson rooftops of the inner city, the secondary defenses of Crimson Shore shone with radiant light. The uppermost towers to the east, with their sentries on patrol behind the merlons, were hidden from view by the morning glare. Squinting, Pearl knew from her own experience it was almost time, and a foalish anxiety pooled at the base of her throat.
"Heh. Yes, Exalted Mother! Those fillies will be late unless they hurry."
The Exalted Mother shook her head.
"The generations of today... Tsk tsk."
But the fillies arrived, mostly on time and the lecture could commence. Pearl stayed for some of it, more out of nostalgic longing for the days of her own foalhood than any chance she might learn anything new. But duty called to all and spared none, and so, within the turn of the hour an acolyte entered with a clay tablet grasped in her aura, and Pearl’s name on her lips.
"Today's summons, sister," she said to her, once both had walked a few steps away so as not to disturb the lecture. The clay tablet she offered held three names only, and Pearl suspected the Exalted Mother had a hoof in that, though she could hardly begrudge it. She was tired.
"May the sun shine on you, acolyte," and she was gone. Pearl left the sanctum with just a brief nod to the Exalted Mother, and disappeared into the inner city to make use of Celestia's gift to her. She knew the way by heart, and had no need for the tablet, so her aura was free to pick up a snack on the way.
"It's on the house, sister!" the stallion behind her usual breakfast stall said. "My mother extends her gratitude, she's feeling much better!"
Pearl thanked him and bit clean through the pastry. It was a simple bun stuffed with boiled potatoes, steamed carrots, and chunks of raw lemon-fish mixed with a savory gravy, but to her empty stomach it was exquisite. It carried her through the streets of the inner city and to the home of her first summons.
"Sister, thank Celestia you're here," the young mare that opened the door ushered her past a very startled servant, whose aura had been halfway to the door but a moment earlier. "It's my dear father, sister. His ulcers have worsened and he can't eat without biting them. He's terribly distressed and I worry for the strength of his heart..."
Pearl listened, or made it seem like she did, and walked with authority into the room where the afflicted stallion lay on his very death bed, to hear his daughter speak. In truth the old colt was barely in his late fifties, and though lithe and frail as stallions were wont to be, he was in perfect physical condition, and if Pearl may say so, in even greater mental condition...
"My beloved daughter," the stallion said to the distraught mare that had waited diligently by the door while Pearl very pointlessly examined him, "won't you head to the market, to that stall I like by the fountain in the outer city, and pick out a few of those beautiful daisies I so enjoy?"
Pearl arched an eyebrow. The mare, however, took his wish as though it were his very final one.
"Yes, father! I-I'll take the litter, or, or maybe I can..."
She was out the door and harrying the servants before the sentence was done.
Pearl waited a few moments. Like the cycle of the sun, on point, the front door closed shut twenty-six seconds after the mare had left the threshold to the living room. The stallion, old Longstar, set his eyes on her.
"It's the furthest stall from here. We have at least an hour, sister..."
Pearl sighed. She probably shouldn't, but then again, her next summons wasn't until noon...
'Ah, buck it.'
Sister Pearl left Longstar's residence some five minutes after his daughter returned with enough daisies to adorn the entirety of the sanctum. The old stallion, a little exhausted after the... procedure, had retired to his bed already, but that hardly dampened his daughter's spirits at being told the old colt would be just fine. She sang Pearl's praises and swore house and banner to her aid should she ever need it, and gifted her a full bouquet of dandelions, sunflowers and a couple roses from their own garden. By the time the outer door finally closed behind her, Pearl was as sore in her ears as she was in her-
Her next summons brought her to the outer city, past the secondary defenses and the mighty bastions that guarded the inner gate, and out into the plentiful and populated homes of the common citizenry. There were no litters, no servants, and no nobles out here, and though the homes were decorated, the colors were almost all in cloth or curtains draped over crimson mudbrick, and the architecture was much more subdued. No great temples or ceremonial centers rose over the walls, except for the gatehouse to the city itself, which was stone and mortar like the inner defenses.
Pearl stuck to the main artery that wound around the homes and workshops on her way to the summons. Though it wasn't common for a Sister of the temple to be attacked by knaves, it wasn't unheard of and she didn't quite feel like giving up her beautiful new bouquet.
Or her life. She liked that too.
'Hopefully this is a more 'normal' kind of summons,' she thought as the house in question came into view just behind a carpenter's shop. 'I'm not quite sure I can handle another patient like Longshaf- AH! LONGSTAR! Bad Pearl!'
The unicorn priestess took a deep breath to get her head out of the proverbial gutter, and approached the house.
A young colt opened the door for her before she had time to knock.
"Sister?" the foal asked. He was a scrawny little thing, with more hair on him than meat, but still on the healthy side of thin. A pleasant aroma wafted out the door from the home's kitchen, and Pearl's stomach threatened to rumble. She nodded with a smile.
"Sunshine on you! This way!"
The colt led her through the entrance, what doubled as an indoor pen for the family's livestock, and through a cramped fusion between storage room and kitchenette where a wizened old stallion stirred the contents of a pot.
'Some kind of broth?' Pearl wondered, before the stallion caught sight of her.
"The Sister!" he said. "Hurry on in, please. My niece is just upstairs on the right."
"I'm taking her there, grandpa!" the colt called back, already two rooms ahead and bouncing in place. Pearl wasted no time with pleasantries. The acolyte hadn't specified any need for urgency, but the stallion's voice had put her on edge. She followed one step behind the colt on the way to the upper rooms where the mare in question lay on her side, bored out of her mind with her eyes glued to the ceiling.
"Auntie, the Sister's here!"
The first thing Pearl noticed as she entered the room was the smell. Living quarters in the outer city were not unlike her own back with her sisters, but after a full night by herself in the dungeons and after spending most of her morning out in the open air, the smell of, well, pony was rather strong. With almost a dozen cots strewn about the upper floor separated only by the thinnest of curtains, it was hardly a wonder.
But under that there was a subtler scent, one that immediately made her worry. There was a sweetness in the air.
"Sister!" The niece on the cot tried to sit up but grimaced almost immediately. A thick bandage ran around her left foreleg, from hoof to knee. "I'm sorry I made you come all this way..."
"Nonsense." Pearl shook her head. "Show me the wound, please."
The mare did as she asked and lifted her foreleg up to inspection. Pearl undid the bandage with care, all the way down to uncover a deep cut that ran from just above the base of the hoof halfway up to the knee. It was swollen a furious red, with specks of fresh blood where the bandage had ripped a few scabs. Pearl leaned in and sniffed it deeply.
"I was helping my ma' in her workshop yesterday night, sister," the mare said. "Got a bit distracted, and next thing I know I've got me hatchet cleaving out me own hoof."
Pearl nodded absentmindedly. The wound smelled of copper and fur.
"Was there rust in the hatchet?"
"No, sister! Never! I clean it meself on the daily, by Celesti- ahh..." She smiled sheepishly. "Beg your pardon, sister."
"It's a nasty cut," Pearl said. "Why didn't you summon the Temple sooner?"
"We tried, sister! Begging your pardon, but they told us they was busy on account of the Spring Festival. Moved us soon as they could, though."
'Right after the nobleponies, naturally.'
Pearl breathed in deeply, and there it was again!
"What's that sweet smell?" she asked, mostly to herself. If it wasn't an infection, then...?
"Oh! Pardon me manners," the mare said and levitated a bowl of beer from beside her cot. "Want some? Me pa makes it. It's got apples!"
Pearl looked long and hard at the beer. Pieces of fruit and herbs floated freely on the surface, where a wooden straw lazily rolled around at the whim of gravity. Her stomach rumbled.
"C'mon, sister!" the mare pushed it closer to her muzzle. "It's good! Promise!"
Pearl frowned. "You've barely touched it," she said.
The mare nodded sadly.
"Yeah, I've been feeling outta sorts because of the cut. I've been sipping it but I don't think I can hold it all down. It's very good though!"
"Because of the cut?"
"Never thought I was a squeamish pony, sister," she said. "But since I messed up my leg I've been feeling real nauseous, and my head's been killing me."
'Well that's weird.'
The more time Pearl spent in the room, the more used to the smells she became, and the easier it was to tell them apart. She looked around. In the far corner of the room, hidden behind a thin curtain she spied the chamber pot. Or pots, in this case. The smell of urine was strong now that she focused on it.
"Have you been urinating more often lately?" she asked.
"Uuhh... Yeah, a bit," the unicorn blushed, "I'd empty them myself, but..." She wiggled her hoof and earned herself a wince.
The priestess pursed her lips.
"...have you had your blood this month?"
Despite Pearl's insistence that a few more days were needed before they were certain, the family was ecstatic after a quick spell seemed to confirm their suspicions. The mare's mother was immediately recalled from her carpentry shop via messenger foal, and every brother, sister, cousin and relative was tracked down to be notified. Before the priestess could make her escape, a small feast of beer, bread, and fruits was laid out before her.
The entire household was there before long, and Pearl worried she might be crushed under the weight of all the gifts they gave her. A sack of grain, three jars of beer, a basket full of apples, dates and the odd peach... even a seeder-bird, fat and plump from their livestock. It was all neatly stacked onto a small hoofcart, which they also gifted her.
"Pour some urine on these," she told the mare, Dew, before she left, and gave her a few wheat and barley seeds from their storeroom. "If the wheat grows, it's a filly."
"Sunshine on you, sister! Thank you!"
After that farewell followed a full ten minutes of blessings, thank-yous, and endless crying, mostly by the mare's husband, his father, Dew's father, and so on... Pearl could only hope they wouldn't forget her instructions on how to properly clean the wound with all the hooting and hollering.
"Don't summon the temple if it gets worse," she'd told them before she left. "Come straight to me. Ask my sisters for Pearl, or go to the castle, and I'll come by as soon as I can."
By the time Pearl was finally free, the sun had long since left its zenith and was in swift descent westwards.
It was almost sunset when she reached the slave quarters.
She rolled her awkward little cartful of gifts past huts of mudbrick and straw, on a dirt path that snaked through empty fields on her way to the last summons of the day. The long shadows cast by the great walls shrouded her in darkness as she left the safety of the city behind, and entered the great, wide world beyond Crimson Shore. A world of cold iron, hard hearts and colder blood.
No colors greeted her this time. Collapsed huts, broken fences and a few carcasses of dead livestock littered the fields here and there, in small patches of devastation left behind by the sheer immensity of the cleanup task. Not two months had passed, and Storm Mane's hoofprint was still a scar on the land.
'Scourge of the skies,' she thought, brow furrowed, when a cloud of flies over a nearby ditch revealed the skeletal corpse of a wood-horn cow. 'Discord's every trick and Grogar's every beast be upon you.'
But it wasn't the barbarian pegasi that soured her journey beyond the walls. It wasn't the devastation of war either...
The little colony beyond the city came into view soon enough. Earthen walls, barely high enough to reach a unicorn's horn, encompassed the entirety of the slave earth pony community. Their huts and gardens came into view a little later, such as they were. The first were badly burnt, the latter had been trampled to mud when the pegasi barbarians swarmed over the puny defenses to wreak havoc.
Colts and fillies played freely on the fields beyond the colony, under the watchful eye of a couple unicorn guards and the foals' older brothers. Beyond, on the fields themselves, Pearl could see the earth pony mares slowly stream back into their communities for the night, now that their labors of the day were done.
Pearl closed in on the heavy wooden gate, but paused to cover her giftcart in a pale cotton sheet Dew's mother had gifted her. She was about to announce her arrival, when a guard called out from behind the earthen wall.
"A moonlit night to you, sister! I see you've brought the whole larder this time. " The priestess recognized her almost immediately. "Here to check on little Sunpeach?"
"Moonlight, Emerald!" Pearl called back, and the unicorn guardsmare jumped up and clung to the top of the wall to see the priestess eye to eye. She beamed at her, with the slightest blush of exertion on her face.
She wore the usual attire of the outer city guardsmares—a cloth coiff and thick cotton barding—but looked awfully silly in it. Her spear alone was almost twice her length.
"I didn't see her outside with the others. She's not still in bed, is she?"
Emerald pushed the gate open with her aura and a grunt of effort.
"Still there, I'm afraid," the unicorn shook her head and slid down from the wall to follow Pearl inside the earth pony community. "I've tried everything you said to do, but Discord's claw is on her, I swear. Nothing's done the trick."
"It's a terrible affliction." Pearl nodded as they walked. Side by side, the guardsmare barely reached Pearl's jaw. "Have any of the others been in close contact with her?"
"No, sister! I've kept a close watch on her personally. Foremare's orders."
They passed a guard post on their way to Sunpeach's home. Both unicorn guardsmares on duty paused to glance their way, but the moment they realized what they were talking about, they made themselves scarce.
The filly in question lived a few huts down the main path, just opposite a small bakery where her parents worked to turn the community’s grain rations into bread and beer that they could trade. Both of them waited by the door, grim and somber.
“I convinced the foremare to let them stay to watch over Sunpeach,” Emerald said as they approached. “Told her they might get the others sick. It’s contagious, isn't it?”
“It is,” Pearl said, perhaps a bit louder than necessary. “A more dangerous ailment we have yet to discover!”
Pearl and Emerald reached the filly's hut and took a quick glance around. No guards.
"Did you get everything?" Pearl asked.
The mother, Lilac, nodded. The father, Sunshine, opened the door to let them in. Once inside, all four ponies sighed a sigh of relief.
"Sister, you're here!" cried the filly from her cot. "Emmy, you were right!"
Sunpeach was a little bundle of yellow mane over a peach-colored coat. Wide, bright violet eyes went wider and got even brighter at the sight of the hoofcart the priestess carried behind her.
"Is that my present?!"
"Sure is, kiddo!" Emerald beamed. "Now cough a bit, for Luna's sake. You'll make a liar outta me!"
The filly forced two quick coughs out of her muzzle and shot up to her hooves. She had Pearl's foreleg in a vice grip but a moment later. The priestess returned the hug as best she could, while Lilac and Sunshine moved the hoofcart away and dug out a small bundle wrapped in cloth from under a pillow.
"Happy birthday, Sunpeach!" the four of them said in unison, as the wrapping fell away from around a freshly baked carrot cake, complete with six colored reeds stuck to its side.
It was all the filly could do not to scream in delight.
The party, such as it was, lasted for the length of a summons. At the end of it Sunpeach was fast asleep with a gentle smile on her face, her energy fully spent, and everypony else sat off to the side with a bowl of Dew's beer in hoof.
"We can't thank you enough, sister..." Lilac began, but Pearl shook her head.
"Thank Emerald," she said. "She's the mastermind behind the operation. I just paid for the cake."
The unicorn guardsmare shrugged.
"Nah, it was easy stuff. Barely an inconvenience." She licked her lips clean of leftover crumbs. "Just had to get the gate posting today, smuggle the cake through the guard post, convince the foremare to let you guys stay home and that Sunpeach really was at Celestia's doorstep...
"...total team effort, sister." She shrugged, a smug grin on her tiny, punchable muzzle. "You chose a heck of a cake, though."
"I could have smuggled the cake..." Pearl pouted.
Before the guardsmare could utter a retort, a pair of long, powerful earth pony forelegs wrapped around both of them. Pearl blinked hard, and the tiny unicorn guard practically changed color to a bright red.
"Oh, stop fighting, girls..." Sunshine said, and planted a peck on both their cheeks. "You're both pretty."
Lilac and Sunshine broke into a fit of giggles while the unicorns recovered, and the party went on for a little while longer.
Pearl and Emerald walked side by side out of the earth pony slave colony an hour or so past sunset, quiet and full after the plentiful feast. It was a silent, warm night around them, which was unusual so early in the spring. The gusts of winter wind still coursed through the open fields more often than not, and though the flowers had begun to bloom and the songbirds slowly returned to their perches along rooftops and trees, the cool bite of February still lingered in the air.
But not tonight.
"Will you be coming back soon, sister?" Emerald asked after a moment spent under the silverlight cast by the moon above. Pearl offered a playful smile.
"Miss me already, guardsmare?"
She glanced at the little unicorn, but found her staring intently up at the moon and its stars. The endless void extended itself for eternity all around those minuscule, little dots of light, like a vast ocean without shores. Islands of light in the darkness.
"Yeah," Emerald said, without the least bit of irony in her voice. "I think we all do."
Both mares bid each other farewell, and Pearl began the slow walk back to the castle. The odd earth pony or unicorn guardsmare glanced up at her from the fields, but it was late in the evening, and in the gloom it became increasingly difficult to make out horns or size, and for a brief moment it felt to Pearl as though every pony was one and the same, made equal under Luna's silverlight.
No, it wasn't the devastation of war.
She reached the carcass of the wood-horn cow much faster now that she didn't have to haul the heavy cart around, and freed from its burden, she took a moment to roll her shoulders and neck. It may have been the dungeon cot, the long walk to the slave quarter, or perhaps the weight of knowing that she still had much research to do before the night was done, but she felt terribly sore.
'Come on, girl,' she thought as her legs started back on the journey home. 'It's almost over. One last push, c'mon.'
Alas, it had barely begun. Pearl's ears twitched as a terrible sound reached her from on high, and her every muscle tensed. A shadow blotted out the moon and the priestess' heart stopped dead as all the blood in her body curdled and froze.
'Wings. Wings in the darkness.'
Every pony around her heard it too, and soon the fields were a mess of frightened cries and hurried hoofsteps. Bells sounded in the distance. Guardsmares rushed for cover, and every slave trembled at the memory of what horrors could sweep down from beyond ashen clouds. Wings, wings in the darkness, fire in the heavens... the earth trembled under Pearl's hooves at the very memory of her name.
'The Scourge of the Skies...'
Wide-eyed and shivering, rooted to the spot, Pearl was an easy target for any pegasus lancer or rock-lobber. But there weren't any. The lone shadow against the moon angled her wings into a dive and fell gracefully down to land a few paces ahead of the terrified unicorn priestess. A cloud of dust went up around her, and Rainstorm took a moment to shake her wings free of sand and dirt.
"You're the priestess." Fierce, wild eyes settled on Pearl. It wasn't a question. "Her royalness wants your flank at the castle."
The priestess struggled to breathe. All the air had been sucked out of her lungs, and all that was left was a horrible pressure that threatened to choke her. She steadied herself as best she could, but the pegasus—the beast in front of her—made her every movement a struggle. It was all she could do not to blast the creature away with a surge of magic and bolt.
"Wh-why?" she managed to say, through the memories of fire and carnage that so vividly danced before her eyes. Her frozen blood quickly came alive and sizzled against her veins. Screams thundered like echoes in her ears.
The winged animal tilted her head to the side, savage eyes fixed on the priestess as though waiting for an excuse to attack.
"You oughta know, priestess,” she said. "Yer monster just woke up."
Sister Pearl pushed through the castle gates with a choked cry of effort. Behind her the wind roared and the rain pummeled the earth with relentless force, as though the sky sought to drown everything that lived on dry land. But the castle was cold, bitter stone, and stubborn like the unicorn race that had built it in olden times. Enclosed within its walls and mighty bastions, the priestess knew she was safe.
She sighed as the doors closed shut behind her and her grim companion, the pegasus barbarian. Two guardsmares secured the heavy wooden gates with an iron bolt and extended a dry towel to the priestess so she could tend to the mess that had become of her mane. Though she wore her silver frock and hood tight around her body, the heavy rainfall had soaked clean through it all.
"Are you alright, sister?" a guardsmare asked.
"I've had worse," she replied and rubbed the towel over mane and coat. "Where are my guards?"
The main hall of the Crimson Castle, a bustling beehive of servants, courtiers and retainers, was still and silent that evening. Though it was well after sunset, the Princess much preferred to spend her nights being attended to in the grand space of her hall than in the solitude of her chambers or the gloom of her throne room. Yet now there was naught but the crackling of the fires in the great brazier that burned in the middle of the hall.
"Her royalness took them back," the barbarian said from beside the brazier, and broke the silence that had accompanied them since their meeting outside the walls. She extended her long, golden wings by the flames and shook them dry. Her mossy-green mane too, until puddles formed at her hooves and made the guards glower at her.
"She's called a War Flight."
"Her Majesty has called a war council, priestess," the guard responded. "Unicorns only."
By the brazier the barbarian flexed her wings and stretched. The toned muscles of her back tensed and relaxed with every movement, to twist and move the lithe, yet powerful form of the pegasus creature in a dance that was every bit as graceful as it was mesmerizing.
"Stupid name," she growled, and pushed her rump in the air to stretch out her spine. A series of gentle cracks! echoed through the chamber, followed by a low, guttural groan of satisfaction.
Pearl didn't realize she was staring until the guard poked her in the ribs.
"A flight council!" Err... "War council, sorry. Has something happened?"
The guards shook their heads. 'We don't know,' and the matter was buried in mystery. With the eerie silence of the main hall as their dreadful companion, the two mares continued to the dungeon with one guard as their escort and a rattle of keys as their marching tune.
The iron door scraped open against the floor and the darkness of the dungeon stairwell loomed ahead. Sister Pearl watched the stillness of the gloom with a growing sense of... something that was hard to place. An ache at the base of her stomach between excitement and dread. The guardsmare chewed on a thought for a moment before she let them in.
"...is it dangerous, sister?" she asked, and Pearl knew she had no truthful answer to offer. She wanted to say no, and yet...
"It's in the bucking dungeon, genius. What do you think?" Rainstorm shouldered her way past the unicorn priestess and took the first step into the dungeon’s maw. The priestess’ jaw tightened and the color rose to her ivory cheeks.
"He's my patient, y-you... barbarian!"
Rainstorm stopped and turned to face her, pine-green eyes alight under the candlelight. The cool, bored expression she wore belied the barbarity of her animal temperament, poised to maim and murder at the vaguest whim. A knot the size of a walnut clogged the priestess’ throat faster than she could register fear.
“Her royalness says my job here’s to keep yer heart pumping,” she said, with her muzzle close enough that Pearl could smell... mint? The hairs of her face brushed against the priestess’, and some distant part of Pearl’s mind registered that they were oddly soft. “That still leaves me quite a bit of wiggle room though. Get me?”
The barbarian took the first step down the long, iron stairwell with the bitter, professional resignation only a mercenary could show. Pearl followed with a final glance at the guardsmare and her aforementioned heart in her throat.
"I have to lock the door behind you," the guard said. Regret dripped from her voice, like she was about to close the lid on a coffin. It was anything but reassuring. "Luna's shield go with you, priestess."
The reality of the situation dawned on Pearl like it hadn't before. She was trapped in the lion's den...
The descent went by in agonized silence. The clip-clop of their hooves against the wooden steps echoed all around them, detonations of sound in the dark. Shadows danced on the walls, always at the edge of their vision where the gloom was deepest and the pale light of Pearl's horn failed to reach. The door was just ahead.
Rainstorm paused to sniff at the air. Behind her, the priestess almost bumped into her tail but managed to stop herself in time. She looked over the mare's shoulder—a feat that had her on the tips of her hooves—at the first door to the left of the long dungeon corridor where she had spent the night. Something was wrong.
"Did you leave the candles lit?" Rainstorm asked.
From under that wooden door the fiery candlelight shone feebly, cast across the cold, wet stones of the dungeon floors. Like the tide, the light rose and ebbed, flickered under unseen air currents, and regained its strength. Pearl felt a cold grip over her heart.
"T-there wasn't enough left to last this long," she muttered. "Did you...?"
The pegasus shook her head. They waited there for what felt like hours, a watchful eye always on that wooden door. It wouldn't have been left unlocked, not by the likes of the Crimson Knights, and especially not by one of Glowspur's own daughters. The door was locked and there was nopony left inside, so...
"How smart did you say this thing was?"
Pearl swallowed hard. She didn't know. By Tartarus, but she hadn't a clue. How strong? How fast? How potent in its magic, if it had any at all? Had she doomed them all by resuscitating that which had no name?
"Perhaps a servant lit the candle," she ventured.
"From behind a locked door?" The barbarian took a step back. "We should come back later. Armed."
Pearl felt a surge of relief flow through her. They could come back later, with a larger guard retinue, with shields and spears, chains and collars... They could come back with the entirety of the Crimson Shore's army in tow. Yet it wouldn't make a difference.
Pearl took a deep breath. Inside that room was a creature she had brought back to life, probably scared to death and in pain. The lack of thrashing, the absence of sound in any capacity, frightened her deeply. Moreso than any bestial growl. What if it needed her help?
"I am a priestess of the Great Alicorns and my patient is in that room," she said, though the words felt like somepony else’s. "I will see him now."
The pegasus did not turn to look at her. She did not say a thing. Seconds mounted and nothing but the flickering candlelight and Pearl's own hornlight existed in that dank hallway, they were so still. Then the barbarian folded her right wing to let the priestess through.
"Don't you dare die," she hissed as Pearl forced herself past her.
Every step was a prelude to disaster. Every breath, the last she'd ever take. She held the key she'd been given to the cell in her aura like the first time she ever held a knife over a patient, firm and steady, to belie the excruciating anxiety just beneath the surface. That train of thought led her mind to the memory of all the ponies she'd leave behind were she to die in that dungeon.
‘Will Longstar call another priestess?’
The key slid into the keyhole with an audible rasp of rusted iron. It turned quickly, activating the mechanism before Pearl had the sense to stop herself. The lock snapped! open with finality.
‘What would become of Dew's leg and foal? Was it a filly at all?’
Pearl opened the door a smidge. Just enough to let the light through the crack... A powerful smell of brine and dampness hit her like a sudden breeze.
‘Who would help Emerald smuggle Sunpeach's next birthday cake?’
"H-hello?" she asked into the void. The pegasus barbarian was right beside her, heavy hooves twitching for a fight.
"Is anypony in there?"
The door opened a little wider. The unicorn priestess ventured a little closer to the threshold. Behind her, the pegasus took a deep breath. Candlelight once more flickered at the new intake of air, and as the room breathed, so did the storm outside reach its zenith. Thunder bellowed from on high. Flashes of lightning preceded the roaring skies, and cast the cell in a different light. Shadows grew longer and blacker for a split second, and both mares saw through the widened entrance the silhouette of something alien, beyond ponykind...
Pearl gasped. Beside her the pegasus let out her breath slowly, perhaps to soothe her own nerves? Pearl didn't know, but anything that could unnerve a barbarian must surely spell trouble.
'You've seen this creature before.'
But the thought wasn't reassuring at all. She remembered his thick arms, nearly as large as a pony's neck; the powerful chest, twice the girth of any unicorn, and the rough features of his masculine face, carved on a reddish skin discolored by death. More frightening however, were the clothes on him. They could have meant anything when they first found him, but now, under the pale glow of a mysteriously lit candle, the explanations had dangerously narrowed...
"Can it speak?" the barbarian whispered. Pearl didn't get a chance to answer for him.
"I am here," a voice said from within the darkness of the room. Its sound was mighty, deep and penetrating, like the very thunder that hammered the heavens outside. It spoke to them calmly, perhaps too calmly. There was a deep strain to it.
Both mares froze solid. Pearl’s heart thumped! with desperation. The sound was in her ears and inside her skull, like bells and stomping hooves. At her side the barbarian fared no better... her own organ beat loudly, a war-drum of the frigid north. Her lips were so dry she could taste blood.
"Do not be afraid," the voice said. "I will not harm you."
Pearl and Rainstorm exchanged a glance, and in that look neither saw each other in the same light as before. They were two scared little fillies with nopony but each other in that deep darkness, alone with that powerful voice.
"B-bold words..." the pegasus answered. The tremor in her voice unsettled the priestess to her very core. "...for some creature locked in a d-dungeon!"
His laughter boomed through the tiny cell, vibrant and hearty, without the slightest hint of malice. It might have been soothing had they not been so frightened, or if the cramped space between dungeon walls had been more spacious. As it was, they recoiled and tensed at its intensity and the cavernous echo that surrounded them with its sound.
"Fair enough, ma'am," he said. "In any case, I am too sore to try anything, even if I meant to. Please, come in."
"I don't like this..." Rainstorm said. Once again she had stepped before the priestess, wings slightly flared as though they could do much within the dungeon. "We should go back."
Pearl once again felt inclined to agree. Under these new circumstances... the creature was conscious, he seemed alright... surely it would be best to return later, once they had... A series of coughs detonated within the cell. Wet, hard coughing, followed by a pained wheeze. Pearl’s thoughts and doubts faded away instantly.
"My apologies," the creature said, voice strained and tight. "I seem to have caught something..."
Gingerly, the priestess stepped closer to the door.
"...do you have a fever?" she asked. Her own voice sounded so tiny...
"No," he responded. "There is blood in the phlegm, however. You wouldn't happen to be a doctor, would you? I’ve been... it’s hard to describe. I’ve been seeing these strange little creatures roaming about. I think I’m unwell. I can’t quite recall..."
Pearl licked her lips to clear away the worst of the dryness, only to find her tongue just as painfully coarse. She looked at the pegasus, as though seeking permission. The barbarian’s answer was a stern shake of the head, 'no'.
She stepped through the threshold anyway.
The cell was as she left it. Straw lay strewn over the cold stone floor, the lone cot and blankets were at the far end of the tiny room, the latter all neatly folded. Her desk and her chair, however, and all the clay tablets were currently occupied by the sole creature in the room. A fresh candle from her spares had been lit.
The creature raised his head from between trembling claws, and his small, dark eyes to look at her in the gloom. Her own horn remained lit, and it illuminated those same, sharp features she still remembered from onboard the 'Gaze of Sol'. The being's dark mane was messy and black, like she remembered, as were his clothes. The smell of brine was pungent in the air.
Seconds turned to minutes in that room. All spent in silent shock.
"Good evening," he said at last. There was a deeply unsettled shake to his voice. "You're like the others... I don't suppose you are a hallucination, then?"
Pearl gently shook her head. He was even larger than she had thought, and he was merely seated. His frame dwarfed the chair, the desk... she doubted he could fully stand in the cell. He raised what passed for hooves among his kind to his face and rubbed his eyes with a tremulous sigh.
"Interesting..." was all he said.
Pearl tried to remember her training and abide by the familiarity of professionalism where sense and normalcy had failed. She cleared her throat and hoped it didn't come out like a panicked squeak.
"...you mentioned blood?" she asked.
The creature paused and focused on her once more. A series of emotions flashed through his eyes, too quickly and too subdued for Pearl to make sense of them—so small were his features in the gloom—but in the end they seemed to settle on amusement. Perhaps he had sensed her intention?
"Yes," he reached inside one of the pockets of his foreign wear, and produced a thin sheet of cloth, perfectly white except for the thick splotch of phlegm and fresh blood.
"The cough seems to be a new development. It first started earlier in the day, after the... Well, I suppose after the not-hallucinations in armor left." He smiled, and under the dim light of her horn Pearl saw perfect white teeth. Smaller than a pony's, and sharper still. "Though, like I said, no fever."
Pearl nodded and took another step forward, slowly easing into the routine of her profession and leaving aside the strangeness of the situation.
'He's just another patient... A very big and weird-looking patient, but a rose by any other name and all...'
"I assume you have no other respiratory issues? Nothing persistent?"
"No," he said. Pearl took yet another step towards him and reached with her aura for another candle, then a few more. She lit them one by one and gently placed them around the cell, while the creature watched in silent contemplation. Behind her, she felt a shift in the air as the pegasus slowly edged past the threshold into the room.
"That's a little better," she grinned, and dimmed the light of her horn. The being said nothing, but shared with her the oddity of that encounter, under the shimmering candlelight and the screaming thunder beyond the dungeon walls.
"The coughing is probably a normal side effect of the resuscitation," she continued, more at ease now that the cell was not as steeped in gloom. "Most likely your lungs reacted poorly to magical manipulation, so they've become irritated and inflamed. They should return to normal on their own, but this place..."
Pearl scowled. The damp, unclean dungeon was a certain way to catch an infection of the lungs, especially in the creature's condition. It wouldn't do, not at all.
"...I'll have to request that you're moved to different quarters."
She stopped when she noticed the hard look on his face. Ashen-gray where before his skin had a reddish tint, the creature watched her in a silence that was deeper than the Mournful Sea itself. Colder, too—and in the priestess’ eyes—much more dangerous.
“I was dead,” he said, with an intensity that made Pearl’s scalp tingle and made the hairs of her coat rise. “For how long?”
“A few minutes at most,” she said, and hurriedly added, “but it’s alright! I ran a few tests and vitals scans. You weren’t gone for long, and it doesn’t look like there’s any lasting damage...”
“Should have done us all a bloody favour and stayed that way...” Rainstorm growled. Pearl went pale. She watched the human, sure that he would take offense and strike them down! Those mighty arms, clawed and stronger than any sword, would grip them and tear them limb from limb...
The creature laughed. A low rumble, deep from within his chest that made the priestess jump and had the pegasus recoil. He pressed his face into his claws, still in the throes of mirth, and laughed until there was no laughter left in him. Perhaps it was her imagination, but when his face finally rose, Pearl thought she saw glistening droplets trail down his cheeks.
“You can’t be real,” he said, and reached for her with one of his front legs—alive with five protruding digits all straightened out in what Pearl recognized as a 'hoofshake'—like the earth ponies did. The priestess hesitated. It wasn't the strange limb, nor the odd gesture... Indeed, it was how familiar all of it was. How mundane, how inexplicably normal, and yet so very strange. Thoughts of sirens and mythical monstrosities not yet encountered by ponykind swam in her thoughts.
But in the darkness of the cell all movement was a viper in the grass.
"Keep yer bloody claws away from the priestess!"
Raisntorm’s wings flared, drool dripped from her bared teeth in a fierce snarl. Her eyes were wild like an animal's, and for a moment the priestess forgot who she was supposed to fear. The barbarian entered the cell room and pushed her aside with the shove of a wing. Pearl struggled to find something to say, anything that might calm the pegasus down. But her own mind was against her.
'Wings of death. Wings in the dark.'
Memories flooded her thoughts. The great blasphemy. The night raids, terror and blood in the gutters... She couldn't breathe. Her lungs were ice. Her vision tunneled, focused on those dreadful shapes in the dim candlelight, like homes ablaze on a midwinter night. The echoes of screams filled her ears.
The creature slowly lowered his claw. His features were impassive, as hewn stone or cold iron, and when they settled on the pegasus the effect was nigh immediate. Rainstorm withered under that terrible gaze, like a flower grown too close to a dormant furnace now awakened. Her wings, those terrible weapons of war and carnage, folded slightly. Her stance fell somewhat, and all the ferocity in her eyes was replaced by something else that Pearl could not quite place. Something primeval.
The creature placed both claws on his lap. Any trace of that gentle smile was gone from his features, and all that remained were those small, raw eyes devoid of any emotion. Impossible to read.
"I do not wish to hurt you," he said. "I apologize if I disrespected your priestess."
Rainstorm remained motionless. Pearl slowly regained control of her mind. The creature, impervious to his own powers, turned to face her, and in his face she saw a burning intensity that wasn't there before. His next words were not a question, but a command.
"Where am I?"
Water dripped from a hole in the wall onto the stone floor of the cell. Cockroaches scurried about, frightened of the candlelight and desperate to reach a crevice to hide. One such crevice, in pony size, would have been perfect for Pearl. She licked her lips and shuffled her hooves softly, so as not to disturb the mighty creature, the human, who sat in thoughtful silence by the arrow slit of his cell.
Rainstorm waited by the open doorway, silent as the grave, with all her feathers a ruffled mess. Her eyes never settled back into any semblance of normalcy, but remained savage and strange.
"Interesting..." the human muttered to himself for the third time since she had explained to him where he was. The Crimson Shore, the Mournful Sea, the land of the unicorns, home of all civilization... All these names and more were foreign to him, and even the very concept of ponykind seemed strange to the creature. He knew nothing of Windland, nor Verdant, or the Bay of Mangoes at the edge of the known world.
"You say I am in a dungeon." He suddenly turned to face them, and Pearl saw a glint in his eyes. The question caught her off guard.
"Ah, yes," she said. "...but it's only a temporary arrangement..."
Rainstorm's brow furrowed. She stepped forward.
"So I am not a prisoner."
"No! Of course not!" Pearl shook her head. "You are under my care for the time being. This is just... a precaution?"
His lips curled into an amused grin. Without warning he rose to his hooves, and his height was such that the ceiling forced him to bow. His body blocked out the candlelight almost entirely, and in the gloom his shadow grew to drown out the two frightened little mares. Pearl took a step back. Instinct overcame all, and both her and Rainstorm edged past the doorway before they took notice of their own actions.
"Then I will leave," the human said, and was at the door in one great stride.
Pearl gawped as the creature's claws grasped the threshold to the hallway, one after the other, and he pulled himself free from his cell. He emerged from the room as a mythical dragon might do so from its cave, only to meet the pegasus once more. The mare stood between the human and the stairwell at the hallway's end.
"Get back in yer cell," she said. Pearl stood behind her.
"Please, you can't leave," she said, trying to grasp at his filthy clothes with her aura. "You have to remain in bed, you've just gone through-!"
"I have slept enough!" The human entered the hallway. "Stand aside, please. I must see for myself... I have to know!"
"Back in your cell! Now!" Rainstorm gnashed her teeth and extended her wings fully, so that the entire hallway was blocked off. Pearl heard the sound of hoofsteps beyond the stairwell and the rattling of keys.
'Oh no. Oh, Celestia, this can't be happening!'
"Sister! Are you well?" came the cry from the guardsmares beyond.
"The beast is loose!" the pegasus cried back. "Bar the gate!"
Pearl's breaths came ragged. Wide-eyed, with her heart in her throat, she fought hard to regain her voice after such a powerful shout. But it had worked, and the panic that gripped everypony seemed to fall away for just a moment. Even the human had paused in his escape.
"H-he's with me," she stammered out. Her hooves trembled underneath her. She repeated herself, louder for the guardsmares outside, "...the human is with me! I am responsible for him, and I ask that you let him through!"
"Are you mad?!" Rainstorm all but howled, yet never turned her back to the creature.
"N-no! I am a Priestess of the Temple of the Sisters and this is my patient." She was hyperventilating. Her insides were jelly. "By my authority, I demand he be allowed some fresh air."
"The Princess said-" Rainstorm didn't get a chance to finish.
"The Princess said to guard me," Pearl said. "But he is my responsibility, and I say he must be allowed outside."
Rainstorm trembled with a rage that was unnatural to the civilized unicorn race, but relented. Her wings relaxed and folded, her head dropped, and she stood aside to let the creature through. Outside, Pearl heard the sound of the dungeon gates unlocking. The human looked her in the eyes. Those same, impassive features of stone relaxed.
Pearl felt so dizzy she was sure she would faint.
She led the way for her strange entourage, a barbarian at the far end, and the strange human behind. He had a graceful gait, agile in spite of his awkward anatomy. He leapt through the stairwell in leaps and bounds that devoured two, three steps at a time, and left both Pearl and Rainstorm in his proverbial dust. He was at the dungeon gate long before them.
The unicorn guardsmares stared with awe as the giant stepped through the dungeon gate and emerged into the hall in his full glory. Pearl and Rainstorm too had to pause and behold the beast, the human, as he rose to the fullest extent of his height. He was almost three unicorns in height, as measured from hoof to withers.
Then he stretched and if Pearl had found the pegasus interesting, this creature was on a league beyond fascinating. His long arms reached for the ceiling, raising his height to almost five, perhaps six unicorns. His legs alone had enough muscle in them to make them weapons all their own. Pearl saw out of the corner of her eye as the pegasus went pale at the sight of so much raw strength.
One strike of those limbs... Even a glancing blow might be enough to cripple a mare for life, beyond the skill of any priestess.
"Ah," the human groaned, as he pulled his upper limbs back to pop the joints at his shoulders. "That's the stuff."
He wasted no time after that. He stepped past Pearl, past the pegasus and the guardsmares. Nopony had the guts to tell him 'no'. Not anymore. He left the hall towards the gates where the rain hammered mercilessly at the bolted doors, and slid the heavy iron bar open with ease. He paused for the briefest moment then. His hands pressed against the double doors, brow furrowed, the human seemed to doubt himself.
Then he pushed them open, and before anypony could say a thing he stepped outside.
Pearl watched from the threshold as the human's world crashed to ruin around him. Any doubt he may have harbored died then, as he beheld the great courtyard of the Crimson Castle, and beyond its open portcullis the vastness of the city of Crimson Shore... and beyond that the great, terrible sea that had birthed him into this new world. Black and roiling under the storm above, the Mournful Sea seemed to scream and bellow in hateful wrath.
Unicorns stared from the ramparts in awe as the creature stumbled towards the main gate. They followed his every step with their eyes, until he fell to his knees under the rain, just beyond the great bastion that guarded the keep. Pearl saw his trembling claws clutch at the dirt and leave deep furrows in the wake of his digits. He remained there for a minute, eyes stuck to the city and the sea beyond, until a coughing fit and exhaustion overwhelmed him.
The priestess was by his side, her aura alight on his shoulder to help support his weight, which even his muscles could no longer lift. She struggled, but the creature managed to regain his hoofing on his own. He stammered out a quiet 'thank you', like a ghost of the voice she had heard before. She smiled as best she could manage, but the sight of him shook her deeply. His deep-red flesh was ashen-pale, his shoulders sagged with a terrible weight, and his eyes were so sunken and lightless...
It was hard to believe this was the same creature that had so terrified her.
"Let's get you back inside," she said, and pulled on his clothes back in the direction of the keep.
"I'm so hungry..." he managed to say before his legs gave out from under him. Pearl couldn't hold him, not alone... But she wasn't. Four hooves grabbed the human's clothes from behind as two mighty wings struggled against his weight. Rainstorm growled from the strain, but she held him long enough for the guardsmares and Pearl to regain their hold on him.
Together they hauled him back through the gates and carried him to his bed.
The human coughed violently. His lungs were on fire, his throat was a swollen mess, and blood came out in a drizzle every time the fits took hold of him. He was in a delicate state, though there was nothing delicate about him. Pearl monitored his vitals religiously, horn alight as she tried to get a sense for the speed of his heartbeats, the strength of his pulse, the depth and intensity of his breathing... It was all so magnified it was hard to believe it could be normal, and yet the creature was stable.
"The Unicorn Shore..." he muttered, half-conscious and shivering from exposure. As midnight drew ever-closer, the cold bite of the sea encroached all along the shoreline. Pearl could see mist in her breath.
"That’s where we are," she said to him, as she soaked a towel in hot water, hastily boiled and brought down by a very sleepy servant colt. "This is the city of Crimson Shore. You’re in the castle of Princess Crimson Belle. You’re safe."
“...in the dungeon...” He laughed, weakly, but it was a laugh nonetheless. If nothing else, his sense of humor at least seemed to be okay. Pearl sighed with relief before the words registered fully. She scrunched up.
Her ears and cheeks bloomed a bright red. It was temporary! Why must everypony tease her so?
The human’s grin widened slightly. He tried to sit up, but another bout of coughing dropped him on his back as he covered his clenched up fist in blood. Pearl quickly levitated the towel to his forehead and gently forced him back on his bed. This wasn’t the time to go exploring.
"Thank you," he said. The faint glow of candlelight cast a pale golden glow across his skin. Some of the color had returned, but there was little of that fierceness they had seen before. "Though... forgive me, but I seem to have skipped over proper introductions..."
"We can do so once you've rested," Pearl said, perhaps a bit more harshly than she’d meant to. Her features softened. “Don’t worry, we’ve asked the kitchen to bring some food down. It should be here in a few minutes.”
“I appreciate it... but I fear we may have started off on the wrong foot,” he groaned as he forced himself into a sitting position. His features strained against the blazing fires that must surely rage in his chest, and still he spoke. “I’m not... I don’t know what happened yet. Not exactly. But if it weren’t for you...”
His eyes, deep almond pools, settled on her for a moment and some of that intensity and fright returned to the little priestess. She forced herself to stand her ground.
“Thank you,” he said, and turned his gaze to the open doorway, where Rainstorm watched in silence. “Both of you.”
The pegasus said nothing, but remained still and framed by darkness against the shimmering candlelight. Stunned, perhaps, though Pearl wouldn’t have been surprised if her kind did not know the meaning of gratitude. She merely watched the human with those wild, barbaric eyes of hers and nodded.
The human did not remain awake to see his food arrive. The servant colt left it with her, and the priestess ushered the curious pony away before he had a chance to wake up the creature. She remained awake by his side for a while longer, and still wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.
Rainstorm was the only one awake when the monster stirred from his slumber. The priestess had passed out on her chair after twenty minutes spent looking at her mud tablets, and none of the princess' knights or guards had come to give her new orders. So the pegasus remained.
'Whatever happened must be bad if the War Flight is taking this long.'
She'd spent the night wondering about that, but it had all been fruitless. She knew nothing of the horned ones' feuds or rivalries, and it was too late in the year for her kin to raid south.
'The windherds must be home by now,' she thought as a light breeze flew in through the arrow slit to caress her face. Her wings twitched. She wished to fly again so bad...
'Longwing must be abuzz with fliers. The hunters probably already left for the frozen plains...'
She did nothing to betray her thoughts, but the permanent scowl etched into her muzzle deepened. The memories did that to her with a terrible ease, and she knew better than to entertain them. Yet they came all the same.
'Mother leads the formation into the north, my sisters are her wings, while father and my brothers bring up the rear with rope and spears to spare...'
She looked through the arrow slit. It was a tiny thing, a small window into the bright dawn that threatened to spill over the horizon line. Through it she could almost feel the wind currents, the mighty roar of heaven's breath, and she longed to be with them. To fly through that tiny gap in the stone and be free of...
'She's with them. At mother's right wing.'
Her expression soured and darkened, and it was only then that she realized she had smiled. For the briefest moment. Rainstorm breathed in to fill her lungs fully, slowly, so as not to betray the depth of the pit that had formed in her chest. She didn't dare raise a hoof to her eyes to check for tears, but she knew none had come.
'It's been years, Rainstorm. It doesn't bother you.'
Nothing did. She was Rainstorm, the barbarian! The warrior of the skies! Mares feared the stomp of her hooves, unicorns shivered at the beat of her wings, and colts trembled in her hard embrace. A different kind of smile crept to her muzzle, one she didn't care to let slip. It was a dangerous smile, a barbaric one, that she knew the unicorns feared as much as her scowl.
"A penny for your thoughts?"
She started. Her eyes tore away from the arrow slit to focus on the human, now awake and sitting on his cot. Dark, small eyes focused on her.
'Buck's sake, filly. Pay attention!'
"My thoughts are my own," she growled.
'Also what the buck is a ‘penny’ supposed to be?'
The human raised his claws, palms towards her. A peace gesture? A threat? The gentle smile on his face convinced her of the former.
"Of course," he said. “I just wanted to talk. It seems to me that we’ll be stuck together for a while, at least until my condition–” a coughing fit struck him, almost as if to prove his point, “...improves. Pardon me.”
Rainstorm eyed him harshly—the kind of look that made the yellow-livered unicorns scamper away at the market, whenever they got too curious or obnoxious—but the creature seemed to be made of sterner stuff. He merely held her gaze coolly, with eyes so small it was impossible to glean the slightest cue from them. Were all of his kind so difficult to read?
...were there more?
“You want to talk to me?” She sniffed and sat on her haunches. The strings of her bark-hide lion coif danced at the sides of her face.
“Let’s talk. Why haven’t you escaped?”
The human chuckled. That low, rumbling sound that thundered from his throat unnerved her something terrible.
“Why do you think I could, even if I wanted to?” he asked and waved a claw around him. “This does seem like a rather formidable castle.”
Rainstorm shook her head. “I’m not stupid, creature. One look at you tells me all I need to know. So if you don’t want to escape, why remain here? What is yer purpose?”
The human caught sight of the covered tray the servants had brought in for him by his bedside table. He looked at it inquisitively, and at a brief nod from the pegasus, he took hold of it and uncovered its contents.
Fruits to the far end of the platter; grapes, diced peaches, pear, an apple, and several cuts of sunfruit; to the near end there were toasted grains, nuts, and dried berries; on the left of it several cuts of roasted lemon-fish, marinated in a sweet sauce if the smell of it was any indication, and to the right there was a small vegetable salad over a bed of spinach and lettuce. Still on the table was a deep bowl of beer, and though it wasn’t the good stuff the princess drank, it was enough to make Rainstorm’s mouth water.
The platter held enough food for three grown mares, yet in the human’s claws it looked like barely enough for one of his kind.
“Is this... fish?” he asked, and gingerly picked up a cut of lemon-fish in his digits. “How curious. It doesn’t look like fish at all.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
The human bit into the lemon-fish and his features shifted from surprise to mild amusement, as though the taste had shared a joke. He shook his head and held up what remained of the cut to his eyes, like he was seeing fish for the very first time.
“How very curious. It’s consistency is almost like... boiled carrots? It’s hard to describe. How very, very curious...” He set the fish down and eyed the rest of the food. His digits danced over most of it, they sometimes stopped to pick up a grape or slice of peach, other times they entertained the sunfruit or went back to the lemon-fish.
“As for your question,” he said in between apple slices, “your mistake is to assume that I must have a purpose here. Though I can't blame you for being suspicious. I would be too. No, I’m afraid I do not understand my current predicament any better than you seem to.” He paused to glance at her. “I was hopeful that one of you might explain to me what happened.”
Rainstorm glanced at the priestess, fast asleep with her head on her desk, with a line of drool that dripped over the clay tablets. Her white frock and hood were now more a blanket than anything else. It was the pegasus’ turn to shrug.
“If the horned ones don’t know,” she said, “then it’s the mudpony’s luck to you. I’m not one for mud tablets or dumb chit-chat outside temple steps.”
“No,” the human said. “You don’t strike me as the type. In fact, and I mean no offense, I cannot help but notice how different you are to the others.”
“I am a pegasus of Windland!” The pride in her voice surprised her. It had been so long since she’d spoken of home to anyone who cared beyond the seasonal raids, the routes and rest stops along the way... It felt odd, but nice. Rainstorm extended her wings. It wouldn’t hurt to show off a tad.
“Creature, you say ‘different’ when you truly mean ‘stronger’. No mare in this or any unicorn mudfield can hope to best me, and the shadow of my wings is known from the Gilded Bay to the Sapphire Tower. I am Rainstorm of Longwing, and you had best remember that name.”
The human nodded in acknowledgement and extended a claw towards her, like he had done to the priestess. Rainstorm scowled at the gesture. Before, in the gloom of midnight she failed to recognize it, but now she realized what it was. She had been wrong to think of it as a threat, but it was no less an insult.
“Where I come from,” the human retracted his limb upon seeing her apprehension, “a handshake is a sign of respect.”
“We are not ‘where you come from’, human,” she said, but relaxed her expression. “This is the Unicorn Shore, and from end to end and in every city of the horned ones, a hoofshake is mudpony gesture. All it’ll get you is a buck in the teeth.”
The human raised his brow, but nodded his understanding.
“Very well,” he said. “Is there a better way I might show my respect?”
‘What in Cerberus’ three jaws have I done for him to respect me?’
Rainstorm frowned. She thought it over as she looked at the creature’s odd form.
“The unicorns do some buggery with their horns,” she said. “That’d be bloody hard for us both, so...” she hesitated a bit, but decided there was hardly any harm to it in the end, and crossed her wings over her chest so that her primary feathers formed an X before her, “this is a pegasus salute, at least on land.”
The human crossed his upper limbs over his chest, so that his claws were at shoulder level pointed upwards. It was a crude imitation and it pointed the wrong way, but Rainstorm supposed it worked well enough.
“It will do,” she said. The strangeness of the situation dawned on her then. There she was, teaching this odd creature how to do some bastardized version of the pegasus salute, while a unicorn priestess snored away off to the side. All of it in a dungeon.
Rainstorm cleared her mind and instead focused on the sudden curiosity that had befallen her.
“Are there more of you in the Pass of Rubies?”
The human shook his head as he picked up the bowl between his claws... his hands, he had called them. He gingerly toyed with the straw, poking and stirring at the floating husks of grain on the surface.
“Not that I’m aware,” he said, and took a sip of the beer. “This is very sweet. Not unpleasant, just sweet... Very thick. You say this is beer?”
The pegasus shrugged. If he had complaints he could take them up to the castle staff himself. On her desk the priestess stirred, snorted, then continued to sleep. A thin stream of drool flowed from her open mouth, down the tablets and onto the floor, to be lost amid the cracks in the stone.
“Where’d you come from?”
The human tutted. “It’s my turn to ask a question. The levitation... how do they do that?”
“Never said we were taking turns... Magic. Where’s yer homeland?”
The human raised an eyebrow. “Magic, truly? How interesting.” He put the beer down. “Can you use this ‘magic’ to return me home?”
The pegasus scrunched.
“Ah, of course.” He paused and covered his mouth with a bloody towel. The coughing fit came and went with ease, much lessened since yesterday when it had nearly felled him. Still, Rainstorm couldn’t help but wonder at all the blood on the towel.
“I come from a place called ‘Earth’,” the human continued, as he dabbed blood from his lips. “It is not of this world, however. My kind have extensively mapped the planet over more than two millennia... there isn’t a spot on the surface we have not discovered. Whatever it is that brought me here... I cannot begin to understand it.”
Rainstorm took a moment to digest that information. A part of her wanted to disregard it as lies—the world was untamed and free, endless in its expansity and limitless in possibility, and it extended forever unto legendary Equestria itself—but if this earth was a different world, perhaps it did have an end?
“The horned ones always speak of the ‘end of the known world’,” she said. “But they are grounded, slow and weak. We pegasi have travelled beyond this ‘edge’ and have seen it go on forever. I look at you, human, and I see the same thing that I see in the horned ones. Flightless and slow. I don’t believe you when you say you have seen it all, unless yer world is bloody tiny.”
The human merely shrugged. “Perhaps it is small in comparison to yours,” he said. “I have not seen enough of your planet to dispute this. But I know that you are wrong in one regard, Rainstorm of Longwing. I have flown before.”
The pegasus’ frown deepened. Her wings extended further, and she took a step towards the creature.
“You mock me, beast?”
He serenely shook his head.
“I can’t fly like you do,” he said. “I have no wings, nor the strength to defeat the forces that ground me. But I have flown before.”
The pegasus wasn’t sure what to make of that. Perhaps the beast was merely touched in the head? The priestess did say he had died for a moment or two. How much seawater had he swallowed? How much blood had he lost to that terrible cough? The more she thought about it the less insulting the statement was, and the more amusing it became. Perhaps she could convince him to jump off the walls?
“Prove it then,” she said.
He said nothing for a minute. The human took a long drink of his beer, then looked into the arrow slit, same as her. His face was as still as the stone of the wall itself, and those small eyes betrayed nothing as unknowable, alien thoughts coursed through his mind. Rainstorm had the sense that whatever memories he conjured within his head were as unbelievable as the rest of him, and she couldn’t help but wonder...
“The drop,” he said at last. His voice broke the pegasus free of her musings and brought her back to the cell. “The feeling of emptiness that grows in your stomach the faster you hurtle to the ground. The chills in your skin, like so many needles poking you all at once... The cold bite of the roaring wind, louder and louder still with every second that passes. Then, with the ground so close you can see every detail... pure exhilaration as you pull up back towards the sun.
“Then you see it,” he continued, eyes so distant they could only be in one place, and Rainstorm knew she had been there too, “the endless horizon as it stretches forever in every direction... the expanse of greenery, the trees like blades of grass so far below. People like ants, homes are little more than minuscule specks on the dust at those heights... Everything is so small, even yourself, as you become lost in a kingdom beyond reality, far up where the clouds are as castles in the sky.
“It is perhaps the freest one can be, so far removed from reality and everyone else. Alone where nothing can reach you, not even the birds with wings of their own. Silver clouds like snowy fields, aglow in the golden light that bathes them from on high. A different world. Surreal, peaceful, hidden away in plain sight for anyone who simply glances up at the sky...”
The human fell silent. His eyes remained there, wherever it was that those memories had come from, lost in the past and a world now forever denied, and all those wonders he had witnessed, she knew were now as thorns to him. What could she say to him that might help? The thought alone caught her by surprise. Why should she care for his well-being? He was nothing to her, though he had seen the realm of the pegasi, the endless fields of white where legends said they once had been able to settle and raise cities from the clouds.
‘Castles in the sky...’
Rainstorm said nothing else for a long time. The human ate in silence, the priestess snored peaceably on her desk and she remained on her haunches, eyes fixed on the stone floor while thoughts formed and died in her head. There was so much she suddenly wanted to ask, about the skies of this 'Earth', how he had managed to visit the realm beyond the clouds... but she did not. There was no point. This human was not her concern.
"I dunno if magic can send you home... What’s yer name, human?"
The creature removed his gaze from the arrow slit where it had come to rest. The empty plate shifted slightly on his lap, where not even crumbs remained. The empty bowl of beer he'd set aside a while ago, too. Food enough for a small group, gone in the blink of an eye. The pegasus begrudgingly knew she had to respect that if nothing else.
"I am Saul," he said, and in his eyes shone a flame like firelight. "Remember my name, Rainstorm of Longwing, and this promise: I will not die here. On the life I left behind, I swear I will return to my world or make this one my own."
Rainstorm would have laughed had anypony else made such a boast. She had no laughter in her now.
"Bold words for a creature on his deathbed," she said. But there was little truth in her own words and she knew it. Bedridden as he was, the human, this Saul, was no closer to death than she was. She had to wonder if he truly was sick at all.
Saul laughed that thunderous, hearty laugh that made the room seem to tremble. Rainstorm realized with no little shock that she too was smiling.
"Rainstorm of Longwing, I believe we will get along just fine," he said.
The silence that followed broke when a groggy priestess jumped to her hooves, awakened by the first light of dawn that touched her mane.
"Gah! I'm going to be late!"
The priestess was late but not to the event she had imagined. Not five minutes after she had frantically rubbed the sleep from her eyes, a guardsmare knocked on the door to the cell.
"Pardon me, sister," she said. "But Her Grace requests you bring her creature to the throne room."
Rainstorm watched the exchange with mild interest. To say she knew the unicorn princess would be an exaggeration, but to deny it would be a lie. Crimson Belle was a hedon, a ridiculous one at times, but a dangerous mare all the same. Though the same could be said of anypony with land and title to their names.
Still, any summons from the princess should not be taken lightly. The priestess clearly understood that, if her widened eyes and the stupid look of fear on her was any indication. But did the creature?
Rainstorm turned to look at him. The human seemed relatively unfazed, though it was nigh impossible to tell with any certainty. It seemed to her that only his most intense or exaggerated emotions could be read in those minuscule features. Still, he seemed anything but relaxed.
She took that to be a good sign.
"Can you walk, Saul of Earth?"
The priestess jumped a bit at the question. She turned away from the guardsmare to stare incredulously between pegasus and human, as though offended.
"I believe I can manage," he responded, hands pressed into the cot as he pushed himself onto his... hooves? Hands? Neither seemed correct any longer. "I would not wish to keep Her Majesty waiting, after all."
That crazy mare? Majestic? Rainstorm cringed. The horned princess was a lot of things, yet the pegasus could scarcely find one that was positive. Maybe ‘red’? Nay, it was a stupid color.
"Oh, good! But the proper style would be 'Her Grace', uhmm... Saul? Would that be correct?"
Rainstorm cleared her mind of idle nonsense and turned to face the guardsmare by the door. She was entranced with the human—a grown mare turned into a curious little filly—but the instant she caught sight of Rainstorm’s glare, she straightened up and returned to ‘guard’ mode.
"I will wait for you by the entrance, sister," the guardsmare said and turned to walk away. The low clip-clop! of her hooves on the stone faded as she drew further away down the corridor.
The human smiled pleasantly at the priestess. The priestess smiled pleasantly at the human. Rainstorm was getting woefully bored. Perhaps she’d thought too highly of the bloody creature? He could babble as much as the horned ones, for sure.
"It is. Sister Pearl, if I'm not mistaken? My apologies for the late introductions."
"Oh, not at all! It's fine! It's been a weird couple of days and... Right. Yes, we should probably make sure you’re well enough to move. How have you been feeling? Any pain? Is the cough still there-?"
“Oh for buck’s sake, you two! Get yer stuff and bloody trot!” Much to the surprise and horror of the priestess and the thinly-veiled amusement of the human, the pegasus poked and prodded until both were out the door and on their way upstairs.
The door closed behind them with a screech of its hinges and an audible thud!
Eyes followed them wherever they went. The servants, guardsmares, even landed noblemares and their retainers could do little more than slow down and gawp at the creature as he made his way through the lively main hall on the way to the throne room.
"My greatest regret is that I haven't had time to bathe or change my clothes." Saul said, and tugged at the hem of his massive coat. "I stink of brine and blood."
“The whole city stinks of the stuff,” Rainstorm said, more to herself than anypony else. Worse, even. The flightless horned ones hadn’t the bloody sense to piss or toss their droppings away from the very places they lived. “Reeks worse than a lair of pine-bears...”
“It’s not all bad,” the human responded. The pegasus had to do a double-take to make sure she hadn’t misheard a comment meant for the priestess. Nopony ever responded to her snide remarks! “The seabreeze can be quite pleasant. Just not... on me, I suppose.”
"It's no concern, Saul the Human!" The priestess yipped and yapped endlessly, like a timberwolf pup hounding at its mother's teats for a drink of milk. "I’m certain the princess will arrange for more comfortable lodgings once I’ve explained the situation. Or we can always ask the Exalted Mother! Or my sisters and I have a spacious enough..."
Saul chuckled as the unicorn babbled her tongue to dust at his side. His gigantic strides were almost great enough that Rainstorm had trouble keeping up at a leisurely pace, and the priestess was outright forced to trot by his side.
"Just Saul will do, sister," he said. "And thank you. I appreciate the hospitality."
The priestess scrunched.
"...would that be 'Just Saul' or 'Saul the Just'?"
The human laughed all the way to the throne room.
Crimson Belle's throne room was much smaller than her main hall. A mosaic floor dominated its center with its portrayal of a warrior mare in the nude, but for a spear held high in her aura. The Red Princess of unicorn legend, whose histories and myths were vibrantly painted on every wall, on every pillar and high above them. The Red Princess looked from all directions within her ancient throne room.
Her portrait on the ceiling glared down on all supplicants, and though her features had faded with time, there was no denying her eyes. Encrusted with rubies and polished bronze, the Red Princess' gaze was a smoldering, hateful scowl on all that stood beneath her. Surrounding her were many depictions of battles long-since forgotten, the taking of slaves from Verdant, and the ceaseless struggle against the pegasi barbarians.
Rainstorm had been in that room countless times, but for all her efforts she could never shake the dreadful feeling those eyes gave her. Like ice on her spine, or a raptor's shriek in the night. She entered the room with her gaze fixed on the throne instead, and ignored the Red Princess as best she could.
The throne itself was carved stone, polished to a shine. Its backrest was crested with cut onyx as large as a grown mare's hooves; both armrests had polished agates at their ends, alive with every color imaginable, and of course there were rubies beyond count. A system of bronze mirrors surrounded the throne. During midday, the light of Celestia's sun shone with such intensity behind it that none could look upon the princess directly.
All of it was elevated above the floor where supplicants would stand before her, by at least four pegasi in height as measured from hoof to the base of the wings.
But the throne wasn't where the princess waited for them.
The priestess came in behind Rainstorm, and the human behind her, followed by the sound of the closing gates as the guardsmares pulled them shut. Saul had to duck as he entered, though the gate was far taller than the largest earth pony mare. The pegasus wondered what he might think of the Red Princess... There was no shame in her discomfort, of course. Anypony who had ever seen the Tartarus-begotten glare of the horned monster felt likewise, and whoever claimed elsewise was a liar!
She stole a quick glance up at the human—the strings of her bark-hide lion cap dancing as she did so—and a pang of anxiety cut into her gut. Briefly, of course. To the depths with what the human thought... Still, some relief washed over her as his brow rose and his lips twitched. He had looked straight at the red scowl of the beast!
"Fascinating," was all he said. His eyes moved on and settled on the throne, then the walls, the pillars, and buck knew what other bucking nonsense...
All around them rose a low murmur. It was early enough in the morning that the skylights alone couldn't fight the encroaching gloom, and even the candelabra ensconced on the walls struggled to illuminate much around them, but there was no mistaking the human.
Even the royal guardsmares that lined the walls failed to remain impassive as Saul approached the empty throne. What few nobles, knights, and advisors were scattered about in private conversations of their own, all ceased their chatter. Everypony had eyes only for the human.
At Saul's side the priestess went on and on in soft whispers about how to properly greet the princess or some other wind-hog droppings, when a very familiar scarlet gust swept by the pegasus.
"Real spooky huh?"
Unseen to the group, hidden behind the mighty throne and pillars, were a series of wooden slabs that had been driven into the ancient murals quite recently. These led to a hidden perch high up in the ceiling where one of the older skylights had been saved from being filled, by the whim of a maniac. Rainstorm wanted to groan so bad.
The temperature in the air shifted ever so slightly as the unicorn did her horn buggery, but if the princess noticed or cared, she didn't show it. Crimson Belle, Princess of the Crimson Shore and lady of all the lands around it, sat on her haunches in front of the human and stared.
Her coat was pristine, the color of her namesake, and brushed to a shine. Gold and silver bells adorned her many braids, both on her mane and tail, and these danced and clinked! when she moved. The thin robe of spun golden thread she wore—all laced with polished bronze discs—shone intensely in the candlelight.
Rainstorm didn't bother with a salute. Saul did, however. He raised his hands to his shoulders as she had shown him, and offered a small bow as well. He seemed about to speak, but hadn't the chance.
"Celestia's rump, Sister Pear! You taught it to do that silly thing my barbarian does sometimes!"
The pegasus sighed deeply.
"Y-your grace, I did not..." The Sister gaped at the pegasus, shock and fright battling over control of her brains. "I don't know how he learned that, forgive me... I should have shown him the proper-"
"Oh don't be silly, Sister Pear. He doesn't have a horn!" The princess giggled. "It's as good as it gets, I suppose! Better a barbarian greeting than... Eugh... Let's not bother ourselves with alternatives. So!
"How is my beastie?" She beamed at the priestess. Behind her, Rainstorm noticed no fewer than a dozen guardsmares, armored in maille barding, with iron helmets and long, steel-tipped spears held in their auras. She recognized the royal guard easily enough, all painted in the darkest red and grim as death.
The priestess made to answer, only to be cut off by the deep, powerful voice of the human.
"I have seen better days, Your Majesty. Though I am grateful for your, and your subjects' hospitality."
A silence gripped the room. Rainstorm didn't know what she had expected, but it wasn't that.
The human remained impassive as always, and the pegasus could do little but curse that strange stoicity. She wasn't sure she'd have done the same. Not on her first meeting with the princess, by Grogar's guts... The priestess seemed to agree. Her face was the definition of panic.
The princess did not move, but looked at the human out of the corner of her eyes. Any emotion seeped from her features, and Rainstorm had no idea what to make of her anymore. Her face—a cold mask of ruby plaster—was in that moment as unreadable as Saul’s.
She pivoted on her rump to face him. He towered over her as he did anypony, but if the princess found him as intimidating as they all had, she showed no trace of it. She merely looked at him as a foal might a jar of sweetbreads high up on a shelf.
"I am normally addressed as 'Your Grace'."
"My apologies, Your Grace."
Seconds mounted. The slow trickle of each moment crashed into the next in deathly silence, and the buildup was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Then Crimson Belle broke into a smile, and Rainstorm realized she'd been holding her breath.
"No need! I am rather majestic, am I not? Maybe I should change my style... to be more... Huh..." The princess stood on her hind hooves—as tall as Celestia had willed her to be—and balanced before the human. She barely reached his waist. "Luna's mane, you're big!
"Lady Glowspur! Get down here, if it please you! I want to see what my three biggest subjects look like side by side. Could somepony go and get my angry barbarian?"
"I'm right here." Rainstorm frowned. "I’ve been here the whole bloody while."
"What a twist!" Crimson Belle leapt away, a red blur in the stillness of the throne room. A stillness that did not last.
"Come one, come all!" the princess called, and her echo filled every crack and crevice in the hall. From behind the pillars opened doors that led to corridors, which led to halls, and the veritable maze that was the Crimson Palace. Through those doors entered unicorns, armed and armored, clad in iron, in cloth, their horns alight with spears and crossbows in their auras.
Rainstorm tensed at the sight. Crossbowmares spread out to fill the gaps between royal guardsmares along the walls, while more royal guardsmares fell into line behind their princess. Crimson Belle herself had plopped down on a massive cushion, embroidered in silver thread, with rainbow-colored string all along the edges. Four unicorns levitated it off the ground as the princess stomped and fluffed it up for her royal rump.
Then entered the Crimson Knights in full panoply. Maille barding secured at the base of their necks and between back and loin with wood-horn cow leather belts; iron coifs under thick, conical nasal helms, and woolen cloaks heavy enough to stop an arrow. All of it over padded barding, and bright-scarlet from hoof to head.
In their auras they held a selection of weapons too varied for Rainstorm to recognize, but she needn't know their names to know she wanted no part of them. Nor of the mare that led them.
"At your command, your grace," Lady Glowspur said. Her eyes were fixed on the priestess, whose ivory coat had fallen into a paler shade of white.
"What the buck is going-?" Rainstorm began, but a sharp turn of the princess' head shut her down. Her eyes simmered in her sockets. Her smile shivered on her lips. Scarlet irises burned like the fires of Tartarus, pupils shrunk to pinpricks. The pegasus was rooted to the spot.
“My dearest subjects,” Crimson Belle said to the room at large, where nobleponies and their retainers watched in wonder and alarm as a veritable army surrounded them and moved to block the exit ways. Rainstorm counted ten times three guardsmares, a third of those with crossbows; two-score royal guards, and then Glowspur and her lot.
Rainstorm did not usually bother to learn the names of the horned ones, except for those she had to deal with daily, or the dangerous ones... The Terror of Verdant and the spawn of her loins were the latter.
Shimmershield, she knew. Lancer, she knew. Some of the others too—Bronzehammer, the twins Arrowberry and Barrow—and then more that she didn’t. Even some runty creature, impossibly awkward under all that iron at the far back of the lot. She’d never seen that one before.
“This day we received some rather... unfortunate news.” The princess continued from atop her cushion, as the servants who held her quietly bore the weight. It mustn’t have been hard. Rainstorm couldn’t believe something as fast and agile as the princess could weigh much.
By her side the human was more on edge than ever before. His hands opened and closed constantly, balling into hammer-like fists until the veins showed, swollen and angry under his dark skin. He remained still otherwise—his eyes fixed on the princess—statuesque, a bastion all his own. Though a dozen and more crossbows itched to set him in their sights... it was to him an afterthought. He had eyes only for the princess.
Rainstorm wondered if his flesh could halt a crossbow’s quarrel, like she’d seen the wind-hogs do... ...a vicious twang! a horrid screech, and the spurt of green blood from a flesh wound. Alive and enraged, the wind-hog charged...
She did not want to find out.
“The Sapphire Tower has sent word...” The princess spoke cheerily, but her eyes remained deranged. “Storm Mane has attacked anew. Princess Sapphire Dew,” she spat the word like an insult, “has... defeated her.”
Silence. Not the wind, not the songbirds, nor the crackle of the candleflame dared make a sound. Crimson Belle beamed at everypony in the room. She looked each and every one in the eye, until at last she settled on her. Rainstorm felt a cold, hard stone in her throat.
“...Sapphire Dew will not swear fealty to me.” Crimson Belle finished. “Oh, dear subjects, I have had a really bad day...
Royal guardsmares formed up to either side of the princess, crossbowmares slammed quarrels into the grooves of their weapons. Surrounded—with all exits but the skylights blocked by steel and mares—Belle's little mice huddled together and cast worried glances about.
'Well, most of them!'
All but one. He stood in the center of the great mosaic floor and watched her—strange and monolithic—an oddly placed, dark pillar in the middle of the throne room. His black, leathery hooves trod mud and dust over the mosaic floor, nearly as old as the unicorn race itself, and carefully maintained through centuries of both prosperity and strife. The thought that Mother would have gone into a rage at the sight made her giddy.
“Your grace,” the priestess extinguished her horn, a nervous grin on her face, “forgive me, but this many guards are hardly... I can assure you that Saul poses no threat at all!”
The shift in formation ended, and with it the clamor of armor and hoof against metal and stone. All her little pieces were in place, the board was set, and with some luck the show might even wash away the sour taste the war council had left in her mouth. From her comfy cushion, Crimson Belle shrugged her shoulders and offered Sister what's-her-name her best winning smile.
“Can you really, Sister Pear?” she asked. “Because to hear the little tune my guardsmares sing, this creature seems to have the run of my castle. Why, he just up and strutted to the front door!”
“Your grace, I... He just needed-” Pearl started, but soon fell silent. From between her and Rainstorm, the creature stirred. Like a titan of stone risen from the depths of the sea, he took one step forward and raised his claws, palms towards her.
The suddenness of the gesture pulled up every crossbow and leveled every spear in the room at the creature, yet all that steel and all that iron was naught to the one they called Saul. He had eyes for her alone, and bore himself steady and severe. He came to stand but four or five unicorns before her, and in that gaze she felt something she hadn’t felt in so long... an odd sensation, as though she stood naked before some creature long since buried in the recesses of her conscious mind...
“If I may, your grace,” he said, and his voice was cool and collected, yet accented by the intensity of his eyes. “I was rather ill and felt that some fresh air might help me feel better...”
Crimson Belle ran her tongue over the inside of her lips and remembered. Of the few memories of her fillyhood she had, there was one that lingered against her will. Murmuring thoughts spoke inside her mind, and they whispered of iron bars and snarling teeth, half-starved and crazed by the endless prodding of sharpened sticks. A villa, her sister Scarlet—beloved of Mother, gracious and wise—and long hours... endless, terrible hours, spent alone with the-
“...I’m afraid I left Pearl and Rainstorm little choice but to accommodate me...”
A cold, unwavering stare. Belle looked into those fierce, almond pools now, and felt a filly under the glare of such bestial eyes—ghosts of her foalhood, a cry born from behind those iron bars—so full of rage and defiance. A thrill coursed down her spine.
“...though I assure you, I never meant anyone any harm. This is all just a misunderstanding.”
‘You didn’t? A shame... we do wonder what those limbs can do...’
She held his brutish gaze until at last he spoke again. Every second felt an eternity.
"I hope," he added and there was no apology in his tone, but something that was nearly demanding, “that we can leave this incident behind us. I merely wish to return home.”
“Leave?” she asked. But he had just arrived! What fun was there in that? She had so many little questions that simply screamed at her for answers! How fast could he move? What strength lay hidden under those massive limbs wrapped in so much cloth? Did he bleed like a mare? Did he fight like one?
Could he die like one?
“But we haven’t played yet, dear subject!” She leapt from her cushion and sat before him, to the great agony of all her security. Their moaning and groaning could be quite funny! But she wasn’t afraid. Though the beast’s body exuded Grogar’s bestial might, in his eyes shone Discord’s guile. She beamed up at him and the beast’s composure cracked a little, the faintest trace of concern flickered on his face. She loved it.
“Play?” he asked, and Crimson Belle nodded enthusiastically. All her bells and discs clinked! like tiny, crystal raindrops shattered from a fall.
“Yes! It’s a tradition in my court!” It was no lie either, though it hadn’t been done since long before the Blasphemy. But Belle remembered the spectacle! The fanfare! The long, slavering teeth... Her grin turned into a smirk. “It’s fun, trust me. We don’t have lions anymore, but...”
Her eyes settled on Rainstorm. The pegasus stared back at her with that resigned, insolent glare that so characterized her impudent kind. The princess wondered.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to decline any kind of game that involves lions, your grace.” A booming, rolling chuckle filled the throne room. Yet the muscles of his limbs were taut, his huge legs were tensed. Like a cornered beast, he sized her up and the room at large. “I’m allergic to cats. Big ones, in particular.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You’re mine. I can do whatever I want with you, creature.”
Something shifted in his complexion.
"I am no creature."
His voice was thunder in the throne room. A low, rumbling growl that made the hairs on Belle’s neck rise, and had every crossbow and spear twitch in the auras of the guardsmares around them. The human took a single step toward her, decisive and unyielding, and the princess felt smaller than she'd felt in a long time. Her grin widened under his shadow.
“As for your games...” he continued, stern and stiff like a statue, but for his eyes. Where he now stood, his face caught the skylight in full, and those eyes that before were covered in darkness now shone plainly under the sun. Crystalline pools in a face like hewn rock. “My death may amuse you for a while...”
Under his towering stature, Crimson Belle struggled to pay attention. The scent of him was overwhelming... a mixture of salt, sweat, and blood, served to her senses over the gentle aroma of candle-smoke and the pleasant dampness of the seashore air. Her own perfume wafted to join the mixture, and her muzzle tingled under the assault. She edged a little closer.
Across his stern features, shadows and sunlight battled over the bridge of his aquiline nose. His lips twisted and thinned. His gaze hardened. His brow furrowed.
“There is something I can offer,” he said. “But for a single meal? A dungeon cell? What I’ve been given is not enough.”
Crimson Belle scrunched.
She flicked her ear and a quarrel shot out to hit the floor a few tiles in front of the human. The ominous twang! of the bowstring that loosed its deadly munition echoed across the room.
Rainstorm and the priestess recoiled at the sight. Crimson Belle didn't terribly mind. The human? It was like he hadn't noticed at all.
“I'm getting quite bored of this silly chatter. Was restoring your life not enough?”
“The one you now intend to take?” Saul pressed a heavy hand to his chest. “My life is part of it. But I want more.”
The princess frowned. This... was not how she wanted things to go at all! This was supposed to be fun, not full of chit-chat! Belle shook her head vehemently, a tiny whirlwind in the room. Her bells and discs sang in her mane.
“No deal! I’ve given you enough, monster. I am owed, and you will give me this thing you keep blabbering about...” she beamed, “or I can take it!”
The human crowed, without trace nor sign of fear or concern for his own safety, though Belle clearly saw the beads of sweat that pooled on his forehead. His meaty claws came to rest on his waist, where he hooked the thickest of his digits under a heavy leather belt.
“So you might,” he said. “But how much would you gain, compared to what you’d lose? There’s much that I know already, but even more that I only partially remember. Pieces, fragments, all so complex as to make the slightest alteration fatal to its replication. How many days might I withstand you? How much more after that would I survive?
“Torture and death will only get you so much, your grace. But I offer it all, if you’re willing to pay for it.”
‘So die then! I’ll take what it gets me and be none the worse for it!’
The creature was a pebble! What did it matter to her if his dumb knowledge was lost? Her realm was fine. She was okay. It was all just so very, perfectly, still... and she was princess of the Crimson Shore, if not the Sapphire Tower, as mother had been.
‘The realm is shrunk.’
Let the stinking Sapphire Dew rot behind her walls—solid as the mountain stone beyond the Bay of Mangoes, and taller than the masts of her galleys—they could be her prison. She could live the rest of her days beneath their shadows, encased while Belle’s armies circled her fortifications for years... eating away at her grain stores, forever away from the fields while the slaves grew wild and the pegasi roamed freely through the countryside...
‘The realm is lesser.’
Mother had fought tooth and hoof to keep her influence strong... but it didn’t matter! New princess, new rules! Step aside, everypony, Crimson Belle says we don’t need anypony else! The Crimson Shore is more than enough—and to be honest?—the best-looking city of the bunch. Frankly. Who needs any of those when you’ve already got the best one? But wow, this thing was really getting on her nerves! Belle’s teeth ground together and a low ringing filled her ears.
‘We are the realm, Belle. We are-’
“Listen to me, beast.” She giggled, but there was no mirth in her voice. Her eyes were hot in her sockets, and there was the faint taste of iron at the back of her throat. “This isn’t funny anymore, but you’ve piqued my interest. So tell me this powerful secret! and on Celestia’s mercy, I swear I won’t skin you alive.”
Saul held her gaze for a long time. Cool, unwavering eyes set to the placid color of freshly oiled wood stared into her own, and she knew the answer before he ever spoke. There was no room for anger in her heart, for it throbbed in her chest with such intensity...
“No,” he said, and Belle’s blood boiled in her veins. Her smile crept up once more, and though it was thinner and quivered with her quick breaths, she knew it to be genuine.
If nothing else, she’d have her fun.
Crimson Belle showed no emotion. Not when the human refused her, not when her glare failed to move him. She returned to her cushion and sat like the firstborn daughter of the world itself, undeniable, beyond the judgement of mortal beings... and still the human said ‘no’.
“Rainstorm,” she said at last. “Kill him.”
“Your grace please don’t!” the priestess shrieked. She threw herself in front of the human, legs splayed across the mosaic floor. Pearl’s eyes were alive with terror. “Please, I’m begging you. He meant no offense! H-he doesn’t know what he’s saying, doesn’t understand our culture, or who you are... please, your grace...”
Rainstorm heard the priestess but few of the words made it through the haze that had clouded her mind. Crimson Belle’s command rang loudly in her ears and deafened her every sense. She swallowed. Hard. The pegasus moved to the edge of the room and motioned at one of the nearby guardsmares...
“A lance,” she said. Her voice was hoarse.
Emerald and burgundy auras had Sister Pearl by the frock and shoulders, and Rainstorm saw from the corner of her eye as Shimmershield and Lancer dragged the priestess away with pursed lips and stern eyes. Even under all that metal the shame was plain on their faces.
The guardsmare put a spear in her hoof.
“Is this so, O Powerful Saul?” the princess sang. “Are you merely confused? Would you like a chance to apologize?”
The creature chuckled. Loud, clear, devoid of humor. It was like they were both mad and playing games, like life and death weren’t on the balance, and Rainstorm herself wasn't a part of that twisted game.
“Do your worst,” he answered.
Rainstorm extended her wings and faced the human. Faced Saul, thrice her height, and heavier than her by Luna knew how much... Saul, whose arms were thicker than her neck. Saul who had seen the realm beyond the clouds and whose only crime was to be at the whim of a lunatic...
She gripped the lance under her foreleg and compensated for the sudden imbalance, wings ready to jump at a moment’s notice. He faced her too, and in his eyes there shone that damnable glint of Luna-knew-what that she had seen before...
‘He’s big, he’s clumsy. Speed is the game.’
Crimson Belle watched from her cushion with a stupid grin plastered on her pretty face. Rainstorm wished she had the guts to run her lance through her belly instead...
‘No way he can move fast enough. Fly hard, fly true. Dip the lance at the last moment.’
Saul the Human opened his stance and wasted valuable seconds with sentimental nonsense. He did the salute she had taught him. The fool... the poor, innocent fool...
Rainstorm clenched her jaw. She opened her wings to their fullest extent, mighty weapons of the north that they were, and beat the air back with the force of the hurricane, of Great Luna beyond the skies, and all the rage of her foremothers. Eyes peeled, teeth bared, drool flowing...
Moments could speed by at a pace to rival lightning. They could stop too, like a waterfall in winter’s cold embrace. Sometimes time moved so slowly it was painful, and others it moved so fast... What happened next was—in Rainstorm’s eyes—the fastest and slowest moment of her life.
First was the air in her eyes. In every charge there was a moment of blindness, before experience and willpower overwhelmed the instinct to shut one's eyes against the rush of air. Rainstorm’s eyes closed halfway for a second. Then she must angle herself so her lance would pierce the human’s chest... this was easy, it was a large target.
Then came the surprise.
Saul's left hand reached inside his coat and gripped something. Rainstorm was too close now, going too fast to recognize it. The moments lost gave him the chance he needed.
Her eyes widened. Her wings twitched, fully extended behind her so as not to lessen her speed, and unable to alter her course. She had committed. She’d made a mistake.
Saul struck. A rock from the courtyard shot out towards the pegasus—hard and fast—it hit her muzzle and made her flinch. Blind, she continued her charge and dipped her lance with a scream of frustration in her throat.
She never had the chance to let it out.
A fist like iron rammed into the side of her head. She lost all control, dropped her lance, and felt her teeth rattle in her jaws. The taste of copper flooded her tongue. Thoughts jumbled together in her head... fear, rage, relief... she hit the mosaic floor and rolled hard over the tiles.
The room spun around her, a salad of colors and blurry images, dressed over in the coppery aftertaste of blood. She opened and closed her eyes, flexed her wings, and rolled her tongue over her teeth.
‘Luna’s mercy...’ she was whole.
She struggled to her hooves and turned back to face the fight, but the fight was over.
Huge, corded limbs like battering rams snaked around her neck and midsection. The scent of seawater and sweat flooded her nostrils, and all across her back and at the base of her wings she felt the softest fabric she had ever known... over the warm, solid body of the human. He lifted her up in his arms, and she had the briefest moment to notice all this. Then he tightened his embrace. Rainstorm screamed wordlessly under the pressure.
“I’m sorry, Rainstorm of Longwing,” his voice was soft in her ear, like a lover’s whisper. She gnashed her teeth, kicked her legs and beat her wings hard to break free. But she couldn’t.
Consciousness abandoned her.
“Aaamazing!” The princess clopped her hooves together from her cushioned seat. She smiled. Why? Orchid hadn’t a clue. It was her barbarian on the floor, beaten to a feathery mess. The crossbowmare swallowed her concerns. They didn’t pay her to care about pegasi or the princess’ doings... all she had to do here was put a quarrel in that... that...
‘Oh, dearest Celestia, guard us from this thing...’
Saul, he had called himself. Powerful Saul, the princess had named him. Horror, Orchid decided, was a better title for the beast in the center of the room. She watched as Saul wiped the pegasus’ lifeblood from his fist and picked up the spear she had dropped...
“I pity the fool that has to-” Orchid began.
“Guardsmare!” the princess called to her. “Drop that silly crossbow and kill the creature!”
Orchid howled like a mare possessed when she charged the beast with her mother’s mace in aura. The same Orchid howled like a foal when the creature cracked! the barbarian’s spear over her head with the ease with which one might break a twig underhoof.
She still reeled from the blow when the beast gave her a quick punt to the stomach, hard enough that all the wind left her lungs and something snapped! in her body. Orchid lay on the mosaic floor for what felt like hours. She sobbed, alone, and certain that it had been her spine.
When her fellow guardsmares dragged her away they found a broken rib and a hideous bruise that ran from one side of her body to the other.
Orchid thought herself the luckiest mare in the Unicorn Shore.
“What need is there for such senselessness?” the monster asked. “I’m just getting started, Saul Ironhoof!” the princess responded, giddy as she bounced in place.
Arrowberry brushed a thin strand of crimson-tinted mane out of her eyes. It was always the same strand, too! So unbecoming. What might anycolt say who saw her? Arrowberry, Crimson Knight? More like Squalorberry!
“Lady Glowspur,” the princess purred. “Saul thinks us weak. Mayhaps a demonstration of the Crimson Shore’s noble blood is in order?”
“As you command, your grace,” Glowspur replied. Oh, she was mad. Arrowberry could tell without looking, the old mare was properly pissed.
But would she say anything? Nope! Arrowberry had seen this play out so many times before, yet it always managed to impress her on so many levels. Lady Glowspur’s dedication to the throne, the resilience of her teeth—oh, but did she ground them together in her sleep!—and of course, the princess’ ability to get under her coat.
“Lady Arrow,” the Terror commanded. “You heard your liege.”
Arrowberry... didn’t quite expect that.
She brought her fauchard to bear regardless. Lady Squalorberry, perhaps. But Cravenberry? Never!
“By your will, my lady!” She stepped forward and offered her foe a twirl of her weapon and a gentle flourish of the horn. “Saul the Foul, as I live and breathe, by mine oath to the throne and the Alicorns of Old Equestria, lower thine weapons and submit to my steel!”
She braved a quick glance at the crowd. Ah, what luck! Sirs Lapiz and Topaz were among the spectators... mayhaps a visit could be arranged later on, should they be sufficiently impressed by her gallantry? Arrowberry offered the colts a gentle smile—perfect white teeth like pearls on her muzzle—and relished the delicate blushes that spread over their cheeks.
‘Arrowberry does it again. Heh.’
A heavy step on the mosaic floor disturbed her thoughts. Saul stood before her with half a spear in one of his claws and a guardsmare’s blunt mace in the other. His chest was big, and it rose and fell with rapid breaths that made it look all the larger. Then there was his face...
Arrowberry looked into those eyes and all good cheer left her. There was insult in them, and none of her own good spirits. There was something else, too. Something cold, dispassionate and... and real.
‘Oh,’ she thought.
The beast drove the spear hard into her chest. Metal scraped against metal, sparks flew and Arrow felt her body give way under the force of the blow. She lost her hoofing over the mosaic tiles and it saved her life... the speartip slid over the maille and scraped hard against her fore chausses.
‘It will bruise, girl. But you’ll live to see the morrow...’
Instinct took over and her aura twirled the fauchard hard against the monster. The heavy steel blade fell with force enough to cut through maille, but instinct had angled it to slay a pony.
Saul stepped back from the blow with an ease and speed that belied his clumsy form. The fauchard stabbed at the mosaic tiling right in front of Arrow, where its deadly blade surely would have slain any equine in its path...
Arrow knew from experience that it would take any attacker, even a unicorn, at least a few seconds to close a gap that great and attack anew. Arrow knew that she had that much time to rise to her hooves and mount a proper defense.
Arrow didn’t think much after a cold iron mace beat her muzzle in.
Lady Arrow heard her twin sister’s voice like... like a... she couldn’t think of a metaphor. She couldn’t... what was that horrid taste in her... her tongue felt so numb, and... were those rocks in her mouth?
Arrowberry rose to her hooves and shook her head to clear it, but the pain only worsened. Her aura gripped her iron helmet and lifted it free of her head... her coif came undone on its own, and... she opened her...
“Oh,” she said. “Oh Cedesthia...”
Teeth. Teeth like loose pebbles fell from her mouth to hit the mosaic tiles like so many pearls... perfect, beautiful little pearls coated in ruby tears...
Arrowberry screamed until she could scream no more.
The silence in the throne room was absolute. Bronzehammer and Lancer dragged Arrowberry from the hall, a mess of blood, tears, and teeth clutched in aura. Her sister wept in bitter rage at Lady Glowspur’s side.
And still the princess grinned.
“Who’s next?” Saul asked the room. The room had no answer it would willingly offer. All eyes were wide, somber orbs set on his mighty form... bloodied by two strikes, one from the pegasus’ lance where it left a long, ugly gash on his shoulder... the other from Arrow’s frantic slashes and wild stabs—all of which had missed—but one.
The cut ran from shoulder to navel and had ruined the creature’s black wear. A thin, red line marked its passing and stopped at Saul’s waist, where a thick belt had stopped the poorly aligned blade. Arrow’s rage had not been enough to hold on to the fauchard when the creature gripped it. Now he had the weapon and nopony dared to look at him with defiance.
“A most impressive display,” Princess Crimson Belle said from her cushion. “But you can stop now. Give me what I’m owed and you may keep your life.”
Shimmershield drew in a deep breath. She kept her mind free of thoughts. Focused on the creature. Her mother—she knew—would do the same. It was the knight’s duty to bleed and make bleed for the throne, whatever it was the throne demanded, and Arrowberry had done her duty. Anything else was beyond them.
Saul laughed. But in this bout of laughter there was something new—and if Shimmershield had to be frank with herself—it was deeply unsettling.
“I owe you nothing!” He stepped across the room with those terrible strides that had doomed Lady Arrow, until he stood but three unicorns’ length away from the princess. “But I have something to sell, if you can afford it.”
Small, sharp teeth shone under the rising sunlight as the creature grinned. Something in Shimmershield’s deepest instincts stirred at the sight.
“Saul the Bothersome,” the princess yawned, “I grow so very weary of you. You did not have so much as your own life when I found you, and you mean to tell me there is something in your possession right now that I should consider buying?
“Fool! I own land beyond reckoning. Armies muster at my vaguest whim, and the very sea shudders at the beat of my galleys’ oars! You are little more than a vagrant trespassing in my realm.”
“Then let me leave.” He pointed the fauchard to the door and the sea beyond from whence he had come from.
Now the princess frowned. Shimmershield did not pretend to understand her reasons, nor those of the creature. When called upon, she would answer. Her aura caressed the glaive leaned against her side.
“I have already offered your life!” the princess growled. “You’ve refused and annoyed me! So you can either give me this secret and live, or die!”
The beast snarled. “To live at your mercy? To be disposed of or made to battle wild beasts at your whim? I demand a guarantee.”
“And then what? You leave?”
Saul nodded. “Rainstorm spoke of magic. I have seen enough to believe it. Use your magic to return me to my world... and I will give you the power to break walls and make castles crumble.”
“Bah!” Crimson Belle curled up into a little red ball in her cushion. “If you have such power then save yourself! Lady Glowspur, I believe I gave a command?”
“Listen to me,” Saul hissed. “There is a compound... a mixture!”
“By your word,” mother said. Shimmershield could see the strain in her eyes... it was hard, she knew. But it must be done. “Lady Shimmershield, you heard your princess.”
“By your command!” Shimmershield said and levitated her glaive forward. She would not make Arrows’ mistake.
The monster’s shoulders sagged. For the briefest moment it seemed to Shimmershield he might relent... she saw the exhaustion in him. It was plain. Blood trickled from his wounds, from his mouth whenever he struggled against a recurrent cough. In his eyes shone a desperation now that wasn’t there before. She wondered if perhaps she should say something?
“Lower your arms,” she ventured. “Her grace is merciful.”
Saul’s eyes caught fire. His muscles tensed and the veins in his neck and arms pulsed with fury. The fauchard in his grip rose with murderous intent.
‘It was perhaps the wrong thing to say?’
They met in the middle.
Shimmershield felt steel cleave the air in two every time the creature swung. The fierce rush of it made her want to flinch, but she didn't dare. Fear was a powerful thing. Some mares detested the idea that they might feel it... But Shimmershield didn't. Fear was a constant companion of the knight.
"I have the secret to break armies." Saul spoke between swings, still in a verbal struggle with the princess. Desperation had seeped into his tone. Fear, perhaps? Shimmershield tried hard not to let her thoughts wander.
'Eyes on his weapon. His movements are limited by his limbs. Tired. Let him swing.'
His arms lifted Arrow's fauchard and brought it down with a strength that cracked the mosaic to pieces when she dodged. Shimmershield kept her distance. She angled her glaive and feinted a jab.
The creature blocked with a grunt. Shimmershield aimed low and cut. He sidestepped at the last second.
"There's a very loud buzzing in my ears!" the princess taunted. "Could somepony swat this little fly, pretty please?"
Shimmershield drew back her glaive in an exaggerated downward cut and allowed the beast to catch her weapon in a bind. She readjusted her aura's grip on the haft with practiced ease, and the head of her weapon slipped over the monster's block to cut straight for his head.
Saul pulled away with a desperate shout. Blood gushed down his face where Shimmershield's glaive left a deep cut down the side of his cheek.
"Walls will crumble!" he howled. "Armies will scatter before you, broken without a sword being drawn! Fire and smoke will fill the fields..."
Shimmershield pressed her attack. She thrust, she cut, she slashed and forced the creature back. A part of her hoped he would surrender... there was something in her conscience that bothered her deeply.
'...there is no honor in this...'
She breathed in deeply and batted aside a crude swing of Saul's weapon. He followed up with a rushed jab, aimed straight for her side.
Shimmershield let him connect. The fauchard struck and slid off the maille harmlessly.
"Mayhaps you'll rise again, Saul the Undying!" Crimson Belle giggled. "Just maybe we will get to do this all over again!"
The knight closed the distance before the creature could recover. She rammed the blunt end of her glaive into his gut... then brought it about in a downward swing and struck him across the back with the haft. Saul's legs quivered under him. He gasped and blood splattered the ground as another coughing fit threatened to overwhelm him...
Shimmershield clenched her jaws.
"I will not die here..." he said, eyes alive and fiery in spite of it all.
"Please surrender." She drew away from his reach and aimed her glaive at his neck. "There is no shame. You've fought gallantly."
"...and live as your plaything?" His eyes settled on her. The depths of the rage that boiled within were unfathomable. Shimmershield shuddered.
"If I die," he said to the princess, "my secret dies with me."
"If you die?" The princess took a long sip from a bowl of apple juice. She smacked her lips with delight. "How optimistic!"
"Lady Shimmershield," mother called. "End this."
Shimmershield drew in a deep breath.
'Dearest Celestia, you who are fair and loving, forgive your knight for this sin. Just and mighty Luna, make my punishment light in your glorious halls...'
Before her, Saul collapsed to one knee in a fierce coughing fit. He trembled under the force of the convulsions that wracked his lungs... Blood from his shoulder and mouth pooled over his hand. She leveled her weapon to his chest.
“You could have lived,” she said to him. He looked into her eyes.
“Life and nothing else...” He spat blood. “Worthless.”
Shimmershield leveled her glaive to his chest. His final words echoed in her mind even as she prepared to give him a soldier’s death...
A red aura gripped the weapon by the haft and shoved it aside to bite harmlessly into the tattered remnants of the creature’s clothes. Shimmershield staggered. Her weapon fell from her grip and clattered uselessly away, free of the mysterious unicorn’s magic.
‘Wait is that...?’
“Your grace?!” Shimmershield’s eyes shot wide open with shock. Lady Glowspur, still at her side and motionless, opened and closed her mouth like a silly lemon-fish. Yes, it certainly looked like her own aura...
She checked her horn. Yep. It was hers. She’d done it.
“What a twist...” the princess said.
There was a stillness in the room that had not been seen for years. Not since the day of her coronation, when Storm Mane's hosts ransacked the Temple of the Sisters, when they crawled like daemons into the castle to wreak havoc and slaughter... Not since the day mother died.
Crimson Belle remembered that silence like nothing else. She remembered the emptiness in everypony's eyes, the grayness that gripped her world. She remembered the worried glances they shot her way when the corpses were counted and identified.
‘They found Scarlet under a beam.’ Scarlet! What a beautiful mare she had been... so strong, too. But not strong enough to lift that which crushed her, and when the flames were done with her? Oh, proud and favored Scarlet! Beautiful no more... Shimmershield and Glowspur were talking. She didn't care what they had to say. Somehow her hooves had taken her to stand before Saul, and the beast rose to regard her... eyes alive with purpose.
‘Ruby Eyes... Half of her we found in her bedchamber,’ powerful claws parted the hairs of her coat and slid up her body to grasp her neck. Those long digits caressed her with a gentleness that belied the power behind them... though his limbs trembled with exhaustion, the raw promise of strength under his reddened flesh sent a shiver down her spine. She stifled a gasp, ‘...the rest we found in the sea...
‘...and little Velvet...’ Saul's digits tightened around her slender neck. She looked into his gaze and saw nothing. Eyes like furnaces, a snarl begotten from Tartarus itself, and yet the hatred within was so dull, so... controlled.
"You can't kill me," she said. The tightness in her chest said otherwise. The way her heart beat inside her body... so small in his hands, so very fragile... Her mouth was so dry.
Saul wrung his hands tighter.
"No," he said. "But I can make you queen of this world."
Crimson Belle smiled and kissed Saul's bloody forehead. The sweet taste of blood filled her mouth. She could see it... cities ablaze, their walls brought low and bastions razed to ashes... and at the end of the known world—with the lands of the mud ponies and the barbarians set aflame—all those who doubted her would bow their heads and call her queen... With her heart aflutter she realized that she knew that smile. It was the same smile she wore the day everypony died. The day they had to make her Princess.
"Make it so," she said, "and such wonders will be yours... when the day comes to choose between your world or mine... the choice will be easy."
They would howl. They would scream and curse the Sisters like they did the day she was made Lady of All. She didn't care. Let them scream! Let the world rage and thrash in fury! She was Princess, she was all, and all would be hers or burn!
"By the glory and might that is my birthright," she said to the world. "I welcome you to the Mournful Sea, Saul of the Brine, and into my service... to deliver what was promised...
"Now rise," she took Shimmershield's glaive from the ground and laid its blade against his shoulder. "Rise a knight of my Crimson Shore... and take it as your guarantee..."
‘...‘til death or failure part you from my side.’
He did. Though he trembled with pain and exertion, he rose to stand before her, her court and the world itself. An animal no longer—nameless and without worth—but a knight under her service. His first breath as such was deep and long, as though the air had a sweetness it never did before.
Lord Saul of the Brine cast his gaze across the throne room—severe and imposing—as if to challenge anypony there to deny him his prize. None did.