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Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

First published

The continuing adventures of Equestria's least willing war hero. Equine military fiction in the style of Ciaphas Cain and Flashman.

In the aftermath of the Changeling incursion of Canterlot during the marriage of Shining Armour and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, Equestria gears itself for war against the Changeling menace. Against a foe that can take the shape of anypony, assume their life, and undermine Equestria from within, the Royal Pony Sisters create a new institution to monitor their Royal Guard for any Changeling corruption, cowardice, and incompetence: the Commissariat. As total war rages across the land one hero stands out above the rest; Commissar Blueblood, Hero of Equestria. Or at least that's what the propaganda says. The truth, as ever, is far more complex, as the esteemed Blueblood is merely looking for an easy and sedate life. Unfortunately, fate has a habit of throwing him into increasingly dangerous and suicidal missions, which he must survive with a combination of self-preservation, lying, and sheer blind luck, even if doing so only fuels his soaring reputation!

Equine military fiction in the style of Ciaphas Cain and Flashman.

Cover art done by me.

Proofread and edited by the always dependable Setokaiva.

First Blood (Part 1)

FIRST BLOOD

Prince Blueblood and the Second Incursion of Canterlot

Prince Blueblood is a renowned war hero, who has served with distinction during the Changeling Wars and numerous other highly crucial military operations that have ensured the survival of our great kingdom. Throughout his extensive military career as a commissar of the Royal Guard he has proved to be a popular hero with soldiers and civilians alike, with a combination of inspired leadership, unrivalled courage, and quick-thinking that allowed him to turn many a near defeat into a glorious victory. As such, his worth as a propaganda figure is almost as great as his worth on the battlefield, with our recruitment centres being swamped with ponies wishing to emulate their great hero.

The truth, as ever, is always far more complex than its fiction. Those of us who knew him personally prior to his meteoric rise to fame generally believed him to be a boorish and unpleasant individual, utterly self-absorbed and arrogant to the extreme. The disparity between his public image of the noble hero and the Blueblood who once used a mare as a pony-shield has often confused me.

His memoirs, ‘To Serve the Princess’, were published a few short years ago, these are infamously inaccurate, having been written by a ghost-writer and the truth doctored to preserve the image of the all-conquering hero. As I was going through his personal effects I discovered a manuscript; a rather more frank description of his life, amusingly entitled ‘To Serve Auntie ‘Tia’, which provides a fascinating insight into the mindset of this popular public figure.

This manuscript provides a very candid appraisal of the events surrounding Blueblood’s life, showing him to be very much aware of his fraudulent reputation, and bizarrely, he appears to have been rather shameful of it. It appears that behind the boorish swagger of this high ranking noble lay an ingrained inferiority complex. Indeed, throughout the manuscript he seems to dismiss genuine moments of courage and selfless sacrifice as the actions of a self-centred coward.

Most of this manuscript appears to be written as a stream of consciousness, and often its tone makes it feel like a confession as much as memoirs. True to Blueblood’s self-centred personality, the manuscript tends to focus solely on his own thoughts, emotions, and actions. Where necessary I have attached extracts from other works to help explain the big picture of the circumstances around his life.

With the aid of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony and my sister Princess Luna, the ponies who perhaps knew him best, I have compiled this loose collection of memories and recollections into a publishable format. Where necessary I have added notes that we hope will clarify on certain points raised in this manuscript. These notes will be in parenthesis, in italics, and coloured red.

We hope, dear Reader, that this manuscript will illuminate you as to the true thoughts and feelings of Equestria’s champion, but above all we hope that you merely find it interesting.

Needless to say that in order to preserve Blueblood’s worth as a propaganda hero this document is classified as Top Secret. Unauthorised individuals caught reading this will be banished.

H.R.H. Celestia


If I were to pick a single moment that turned my entire career from comfortably sitting in my manor licking chocolate off mare’s flanks to being thrust repeatedly into many violent and life-threatening scenarios, it would have to be Fancy Pants’ benefit party of ’12. This was the moment where the seeds of my fraudulent reputation for heroics were first planted and subsequently snowballed.

The party was held in the aftermath of the first Changeling invasion of Canterlot, in which somehow nopony had noticed that Princess Cadence had been replaced by an evil doppelganger hell bent on sapping all of the love out of the city. Especially her fiancé, Shining Arsehole [evidently Blueblood’s nickname for Shining Armour, I recall Twilight getting most upset when he taught it to Spike], who probably should have noticed.

At any rate, the immediate aftermath of a hostile invasion didn’t seem the best time to host a benefit party for Canterlot’s elite. However, Fancy Pants was of the view that despite Equestria being in a state of total war we should continue with ‘business as usual’. This meant hosting another party for Equestria’s upper crust with the aim to raise money for rebuilding parts of the city that were ruined in the invasion. Naturally, as Princess Celestia’s nephew, I was invited.

Up to this point I was doing my utmost to avoid being drafted into the frontline infantry to be sent halfway across Equestria to the Badlands, where the Changelings were massing once more, and so far I had largely been successful. Having a military background (all members of the royal family are expected to serve in the Royal Guard) and being Canterlot royalty would have guaranteed me a role as an officer, however, I had no plans on risking myself getting killed or taken prisoner on the frontlines, so with a little wrangling I managed to secure a position as Commissioner for Supply in the War Ministry overseeing the all important supply lines. Granted, it was not particularly interesting, and if I ever had grandchildren they would not be impressed when they ask me ‘what did you do in the war?’ and I answer ‘signing requisition forms’, but at the very least I was guaranteed to live long enough to have grandchildren.

Of course, had I any indication of what I was getting into in this party I’d have grabbed up my sword, screamed ‘for Auntie ‘Tia!’, and personally walked across the accursed Badlands to Queen Chrysalis’ domain. Life, as I have learned, likes to play a little game called ‘Screw Blueblood’ in which every time I think I have everything arranged so that I’m not in constant mortal danger, fate contrives a way to bring it all crashing down upon me.

So I arrived at Fancy Pants’ estate fashionably late as usual, with my esteemed aide Cannon Fodder in lieu of a date. Sadly, despite being Canterlot’s most eligible bachelor there were no young, impressionable mares available at such short notice, and I would rather go and tell Iron Will he’s a pansy to his face than ask any of the desiccated old mares at the office to come with me.

As Royal Commissioner for Supply I was assigned an aide to assist me with the vast mountain of paperwork and requests I had to deal with on a daily basis, and as luck would have it I had to get a stallion for whom personal hygiene was something that happened to other ponies. He was a unicorn pony from the Royal Guard with a grubby beige coat, black messy hair, and two crossed spears for a cutie mark. I later found out that his coat is actually white but the accumulated mud and dirt had stained what should have been lustrous alabaster fur into a sickly shade of off-white. You may be wondering why I would associate myself with such an unkempt and unclean pony, but I found that his malodorous scent was outweighed by his knack for organisation, scrounging things, saving my life, and, perhaps most importantly, dissuading individuals who didn’t have anything truly important to discuss from annoying me.

That said, he was hardly the pony for Fancy Pants’ little soiree, but I brought him along as a little reward for helping me clear out a six month backlog of paperwork (requests for extra paperclips for Auntie Luna’s personal army of ghouls [The Night Guard obviously]). At the very least, Cannon Fodder was unimaginative and phlegmatic enough not to cause an embarrassing faux pas on my behalf. Also, I was relying upon his innate tendency to follow orders to the letter as I ordered him only to speak when he was spoken to this evening.

It had taken us hours to prepare, much of which was spent on trying in vain to get Cannon Fodder to look presentable. After a three hour bath and a failed attempt to remove the gravy stains from his Royal Guard uniform my maid announced that there was nothing more that she could do and subsequently quit her job, which was a shame because she had an amazing derrière.

Fancy Pants’ estate was magnificent, not as wonderful as mine obviously, but still very impressive for somepony who was nouveau riche. I watched disinterestedly through the window of our carriage as we were brought up the expansive driveway. The gardens were lavishly decorated, with a well manicured lawn and numerous bushes trimmed into pleasing shapes and a smattering of statues of ponies I didn’t recognise.

The mansion itself was rather understated compared to the garish designs of other such self-made millionaires, lacking the hideous classical minarets that Canterlotians find so attractive for some peculiar reason. Instead it was modelled on the delicate white curves of Canterlot Castle and, for once, not festooned with purple and gaudy chunks of gold. In fact, it was rather modest compared to the other palatial estates on this road.

The carriage stopped, and the door opened to allow us exit into the cold and dark night. I stepped off first, followed by Cannon Fodder, and I was amused when I saw the carriage driver turn his nose up in disgust at Cannon Fodder’s appearance and odour. I paused for a moment to adjust my own uniform in the reflection of one of the many gothic windows of the house, while the other party guests streamed past us to enter.

I had decided to wear my Royal Guard dress uniform since I would be representing the Royal Guard at this soiree, which consisted of a red tunic and brass buttons, a red sash, yellow epaulettes, and a sword strapped to my back. However, it did make me look rather dashing, and mares always love a stallion in uniform (Cannon Fodder excepted).

“How do I look?” I asked.

“Very good, sir,” answered Cannon Fodder in his usual laconic manner. He had chosen to wear his full plate armour and carried his trusty spear. I questioned why he, a mere office drudge now, was still expected to wear that but I chalked it up to bureaucratic incompetence as usual.

At any rate, I wasn’t likely to attract any ladies with Cannon Fodder hanging around, but that night I was feeling rather sorry for him. The poor guy had spent so much time going through all of my paperwork and sorting out the Western Front’s paperclip supply lines, so I felt compelled to reward him by giving him an insight into the upper class world in which I am most at home. He, on the other hoof, seemed to take my offer of a colt’s night out as a direct order rather than a mere suggestion. I had another motive for bringing him along, with the risks of another Changeling incursion I felt it necessary to bring along a bodyguard just in case things went pear-shaped, which they inevitably did.

Now ready, I entered through the great oaken doors into the mansion. The interior decor echoed the exterior’s design with its sleek lines and lack of gaudy ostentation, at least what I could see of the main entrance hall. The hall itself had been repurposed for the holding of parties; Fancy Pants’ usual venue of one of the many banquet halls of Canterlot Castle unavailable as they were being used as weapons stores for the army massing there.

While smaller than the Canterlot Castle banquet halls, Fancy Pants’ own entrance hall was still sufficient to the task. It was three storeys tall with a high vaulted ceiling reminiscent of a gothic cathedral and was supported by tall marble pillars. The ceiling had several windows which allowed Auntie Luna’s stars to shine down upon the party. The rest of the mansion was constructed around this lavish entrance hall in a ‘U’ shape, with balconies overlooking the hall.

I stepped inside, taking in the sights of the upper class at play. The hall was sparsely filled; however, as despite Fancy’s insistence that business proceed as usual, the majority of Canterlot’s aristocracy preferred to huddle in their estates in case of Changelings. I couldn’t blame them myself, if it weren’t for my social standing as the Princesses’ nephew I’d have probably retired to my room in the castle with a copy of Playmare magazine and a bucket of ice cream.

Despite there having only been about twenty or thirty guests in the hall the party was lively enough, though concentrated in a small area of the room. As I looked around at the enormous hall I could only wonder what Fancy Pants used it for when he wasn’t hosting parties, indeed even I thought this building was much too vast for merely one pony.

There were a few ponies I could recognise, admittedly since the last Grand Galloping Gala I haven’t taken part in many social gatherings. That was such an unpleasant experience which very nearly swore me off attending any parties, charity auctions, museum openings, or any activity where I would have to associate with a large number of ponies. As such I was unsure of the subtle movements in the delicate social hierarchy, indeed my own standing was put into some measure of disrepute in the aftermath of that shameful display, but I was confident I would be able to regain some of my waning reputation. The act of bringing Cannon Fodder, who was the most lower class individual I could find, would no doubt improve my standing in the eyes of Fancy Pants, who held a peculiar affection for the low borns.

The host was busy chatting away with his small group of hangers-on and associates who, in their efforts to appease the number one trendsetter in Canterlot, were sycophantically agreeing with every word he said. He was a unicorn who, despite his low birth, looked every bit the upper class host. His white fur was expertly groomed with particular attention paid to his cutie mark to make the three crowns printed upon his flanks shine as if they were gold. His suit was suitably starched, with not a crease to be seen. In fact, I was rather jealous; that particular suit was a finely tailored ensemble by the prestigious Hoity Toity fashion designer before their establishment was destroyed in the Changeling invasion and he snapped up the only remaining suit at auction before I could.

“Ah!” Fancy Pants detached himself from the conversation and approached us. “Prince Blueblood, it’s always a pleasure, I’m so glad you could come.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Fancy Pants,” I replied, slipping into my ‘party’ persona where I pretended to be somepony of wit and grace (last Grand Galloping Gala notwithstanding).

I always found Fancy Pants to be rather irritating. He was amicable enough, to the point where he could get on as well with the low born proletariat as he did with high Canterlot royalty such as me [It should be noted that technically Blueblood is only considered minor royalty, but as far as the aristocratic hierarchy is concerned he is among its upper echelons]. Yet it was that incessant cheeriness that I found to be rather grating, and frankly, why should somepony as he, who had just dragged himself out of the low born masses we rule over, continue to associate with them? However, I was at an important social event and therefore had to pretend that I liked him.

“And is this your date for tonight?” he asked jokingly, meaning Cannon Fodder. If he was the least bit shocked or confused over the dour guardspony’s presence, odour, or appearance he was doing a very good job of masking it.

“No, sir, I’m the Prince’s personal aide,” replied Cannon Fodder plainly as the joke clearly went over his head.

“Yes, I hope you don’t mind,” I said. “He’s been working so hard and I thought a night off would do him some good. Cannon Fodder, this is Fancy Pants.”

“Nice to meet you, sir.” Cannon Fodder extended a grubby hoof towards Fancy Pants, who regarded it with a fleeting expression of disgust at the unclean extremity before grudgingly shaking it.

“Yes, quite,” he muttered as he absently wiped his hoof on the marble floor. “Anyway, I do hope you enjoy the party, it’s for a very good cause.”

From there Fancy Pants turned to welcome the next batch of arrivals to his little soiree, leaving Cannon Fodder and I to mingle with the other party guests. Unfortunately it seemed that my reputation amongst the Canterlot elite was so low, or they were so repulsed by Cannon Fodder’s appearance and musk, that they seemed to be actively avoiding me. Attempts to start up conversation were met with increasingly transparent excuses to leave; Lord Flash Heart had left his oven on, Baron Shilling misplaced his wife, Lady Goldenrod was worried about her pet cat, and so on.

Eventually we gave up and found a spot to relax by one of the empty tables. At that point I began to regret bringing Cannon Fodder along, he was singularly ruining all of my chances at climbing up the social ladder. It wasn’t his fault of course, it was all mine; I took him way out of his depth and thrust him into a new and unfamiliar situation. On the other hoof he seemed to be enjoying himself, as he stuffed his face with cucumber and lettuce sandwiches with all the grace of a starved Diamond Dog. I reminded myself that this was for him, after all, without him I’d have drowned in all that paperwork weeks ago before being fired and sent off to the frontline to die in some pointless battle. [It’s possible that Cannon Fodder was the closest thing Blueblood had to a real friend at this point.]

It wasn’t that we were being deliberately ignored; indeed I caught a few furtive glances in our direction and a few snippets of conversation about me ‘slumming it’. Thankfully, it seems that Fancy Pants found Cannon Fodder to be ‘delightfully rustic’ and, like sheep following their shepherd, their opinions soon fell into line. At that point I wondered if any of my compatriots in Canterlot’s upper crust were capable of forming independent thoughts.

I noticed a familiar bright pink alicorn approaching me, Princess Cadence, my cousin and one of the living goddesses who rule our fair realm, though her grandeur was somewhat diminished having grown up with her and I will always remember the little filly who fainted in sex education classes. In the tradition of most royals she was rather naked except for her crown, breastplate, and shoes. Not that she needed clothes; she looked regal enough with her minimalist wardrobe.

“Blueberry!” she exclaimed as she approached me, and I cringed at the mention of my childhood nickname. “So good to see you.”

“Likewise,” I retorted, “how was your honeymoon?”

“Los Pegasus was wonderful,” she said as she levitated a canapé from a passing servant’s tray, “admittedly it was difficult to get some time to ourselves with the paparazzi around all the time, but Shining used his shield spell to keep them out of our villa.”

“Yes, quite, insufferable lot journalists are,” I said as I took a glass of wine from another servant. As expected, it was a fine vintage.

“Oh, they’re only trying to earn a living,” she smiled. Dear, sweet, innocent Cadence, she could find the best out of nearly everypony, which must be one of the reasons why she can tolerate my company.

“Where is Shining Armour anyway?” I asked, realising that he was nowhere to be seen.

Cadence looked sullen for a brief moment, before putting on her happy party face once more, “He’s working late drilling the new recruits for the upcoming war. I do hope he will be okay.”

“I’m sure he will; he’s a capable soldier,” I lied, but it was the sort of platitude she was looking for. As Captain of the Royal Guard, Shiny Armoire [Another one of his nicknames] could have just sat back several miles behind the front lines while the Royal Guard did all the fighting, but he had the strange and unwise tendency to lead from the front. It made him popular with the troops, but it was certainly not what I would have done.

“You’re right,” she smiled. “I suppose it’s only natural to worry.”

“Blueblood!” Fancy Pants cried from halfway across the party. He weaved his way through the mass of party guests towards me. “I would like you to meet somepony, a very important somepony!”

“Oh?” I asked, somewhat disbelieving of him. “I think I should know anyone who’s important.”

“Well, I must admit she’s rather new, but she’s fitting in wonderfully.”

My hooves started itching, which was always a sign that something bad was about to happen. I decided to ignore this warning; however, considering I was at a fairly sedate little party held by Fancy Pants, the host whose parties were least likely to end in disaster, so I felt that I could handle whatever fate had in store. Since the disastrous Grand Galloping Gala of last year I had learned my lesson. I concede that I acted in a less than chivalrous manner regarding a mare who was deluded enough to think I would instantly sweep her off her hooves and marry her right there, which resulted in both of our evenings being utterly ruined. From then on I decided to try and act with a great deal more tact, which, as it turned out, helped me develop my skills in lying and arse-covering that would prove so useful in later life.

Looking back on this relatively innocent period of my life, I can only long for the days where the greatest threat to my life was a very large cake and not insane generals who sought to get me killed in increasingly suicidal missions.

I made my apologies to Princess Cadence, placed my glass of wine on the table, and followed Fancy Pants across the hall with Cannon Fodder in tow like an obedient dog. The soldier did his best to walk and eat his sandwich with his hooves at the same time, but managed to do so without tripping or dropping his meal. Such was his complete and total lack of any magical ability, despite having the relevant anatomy in the form of the horn protruding from his forehead, that he was incapable of levitating anything at all. I theorised that must have been why he was discharged from the frontline infantry and sent to work with me in the never-ending battle against bureaucracy and paperwork.

I caught furtive hints of conversation discussing the ‘brave guardspony’ and all that he had sacrificed in the name of keeping Equestria safe, no doubt purely to impress Fancy Pants by agreeing with everything he said. Up to this point all Cannon Fodder had sacrificed in the name of Equestria was my sense of smell.

It was then that I saw the mare Fancy Pants was talking about and instantly I had flashbacks to the horrors of common carnival fare, improper protocol before one’s social betters, and vast amounts of cake frosting.

Standing before me was a white mare, whose pristine coat had been so thoroughly cleaned she looked rather like a shiny silver statue come to life. Her purple mane was expertly styled, no doubt by the best spa ponies in all of Equestria, and was of the same lustrous sheen as her coat. Yet what was most striking about her was her dress; not too overstated like the hideously garish designs that I’m sick to death of seeing the upper class mares of Canterlot wear, but instead it was rather subtle in its divine elegance. It accentuated her mare-ly curves but without coming across as too inappropriate for this high society event, it was of a deep maroon colour to compliment her hair and alabaster white fur and bedecked with shiny jewels that formed sleek lines down her front.

Her face wore a fleeting expression of surprise upon seeing me, but it was soon replaced by a serene look of thoroughly aristocratic aloofness that would make Auntie Celestia want to give up her throne. This was one of the six ponies responsible for ruining the last Grand Galloping Gala with their inane country bumpkin ways, great heroines of Equestria they may be but that is not enough to allow them the opportunity to wreck the single most important social in existence.

“Oh, Prince Blueblood, how lovely to see you again!” she said once she had regained her composure, her polite demeanour gave me hope that whatever resentment she held against me was gone.

“You two know each other?” asked Fancy Pants.

The mare’s right eye twitched slightly, but she kept her composure, “Why yes, Blueblood and I met at the last Grand Galloping Gala.”

“Indeed we did,” I said, trying to sound amicable and doing my hardest not to remember how much getting my suit dry-cleaned cost me; damn thing nearly bankrupt my entire estate.

It was at that point that I realised I had completely forgotten the mare’s name. I know it seems rather inconceivable, but it’s not as if I maintain a list of every single pony I have insulted and offended in my lifetime as such an endeavour would likely use up all of the parchment in Equestria. I wracked my brain trying to remember the mare’s name but strangely I was drawing up blank, and as the awkward silence settled across the entire hall I could feel hundreds of eyes gazing accusingly at me.

“Er... Fluttershy?” I said, saying the first name that came into my head that sounded mostly plausible.

The mare’s eye twitched again and she shook her head.

“Octavia?” I ventured.

She shook her head. The walls of her composure were rapidly crumbling as her right eye twitched more violently and the gentle smile on her lips morphed into a strained grimace.

“Spike?”

“It’s Rarity, you insufferable oaf!” she shrieked suddenly. “Honestly, Blueblood, after the way you treated me at the Gala the least you could do is remember my name.”

By now the awkward hush that fell across the hall had become incredibly uncomfortable. This was just perfect, now another embarrassing situation for ponies to use against me, no doubt I’d have my titles and land revoked and be reduced to a mere peasant pony.

Rarity blushed nervously as she realised she was causing a scene. “I mean, excuse us, there is something I must discuss with Blueblood, if you’d come with me please.”

Not wishing to argue with her and cause even more of a scene I followed her, accompanied by my aide and the quiet murmurings of the party goers as they no doubt chatted about how much of a cad I’ve been. It seems that in my absence Rarity had soared up the social ladder, which is remarkable for a simply country lady from the backwards little village of Ponyville. Unfortunately, it seems that she now outranked me. Ponies now looked to her as an example of how to behave, what clothes to wear, and what to find acceptable instead of me. I found it galling that a mere commoner; somepony who has to work for a living, who doesn’t own land, and who didn’t descend from a long line of great nobles, was more popular than me.

On the other hoof I wondered why I bothered trying to please these ingrates.

I followed Rarity up one of the many staircases that led to the first floor which ran like a ring around this party hall. Finding a room that wasn’t occupied by servants or a couple attempting to fornicate was rather difficult, but given the sheer size of the place it was only inevitable we found an empty room.

This was probably a servant’s room on account of its rather plain decor, though I wouldn’t know as I’ve never been anywhere near one before. There was a small bed in the corner by the window, with a bedside table which held a book and other personal effects belonging to whoever slept here. Opposite the bed on the other wall was a modest wardrobe with a small mirror on it. On the other remaining wall was a faded old poster of Sapphire Shores.

Rarity shut the door behind us and then turned to face me, her eyes glaring at me with enough intensity to burn holes in my tunic and her mouth contorted into a rictus grin.

“I thought I made it clear that I never wanted to see you again,” she spat at me.

“Don’t tell me you’re still upset about the whole Gala thing,” I said dismissively, not wanting to be dragged back into that ridiculous little debacle.

“Upset?” she said, looking rather shocked. “A lady does not get upset, but she can get offended by the loutish behaviour of a certain prince.” She then finally noticed Cannon Fodder standing there, dutifully consuming a canapé he picked up from somewhere, “And who is this?”

The guardspony’s mouth was stuffed full of food so I answered on his behalf, “That’s Cannon Fodder.”

“Blueblood!” she gasped and brought a hoof to her mouth. “How can you be so callous as to call a brave pony of the Royal Guard ‘cannon fodder’? They are risking their very lives to keep us safe!”

I smirked and shook my head, “No, no, that’s actually his name. Private Cannon Fodder, he’s my aide in War Ministry.”

“Ma’am,” he said, which caused a small trickle of crumbs to escape from his mouth. He snapped to attention and clumsily saluted Rarity.

Rarity flushed with embarrassment, “Oh dear, I am sorry Private Cannon Fodder, please forgive me.”

Cannon Fodder blinked a little in confusion before shrugging, “S’alright, ma’am, we all make mistakes.”

That little ‘mistake’ now put her on the back hoof, and I was about ready to press my attack when I heard the distinctive ‘snap’ sound caused by the displaced air of a magic missile being discharged. I froze, recognising that sound from my previous and uneventful career in the Royal Guard, while Rarity held that perplexed look on her face. Cannon Fodder's training as a guardspony snap into action as he ceased his gorging and took up a defensive position by the door and drew his spear.

I carefully approached the door, hearing the sounds of the panicking guests and more discharges of mage fire. With Cannon Fodder watching my back with his spear poised I drew my own blade and slowly pushed the door open a little. Through the crack I could see masked unicorns barge into the hall below, firing their magic missiles over the heads of the fleeing party guests. Earth ponies approached with their spears levelled, and from above pegasi soared down from the ceiling windows.

“What’s going on? Let me see!” Rarity complained as she barged against me.

“Shush! I think we’re under attack.”

“What? Is it the Changelings?”

“I don’t know, they look like ponies to me.” I only now realise the stupidity of that statement, if they were Changelings then of course they would look like ponies to disguise themselves.

“Of all the worst things that could happen, this is the! Worst! Possible! Thing!” Rarity shrieked and collapsed on the servant’s bed.

I rolled my eyes at the drama queen, though I had to agree with her assessment.

The invading army brought the crowd under control fairly quickly and herded them all into the centre of the hall. Fortunately, they were ignoring the first and second floors but I knew that wasn’t going to last, so if I was to make my escape it would have to be now.

“Right,” I whispered back at Rarity and Cannon Fodder, “we need to get to the cellar.”

Rarity widened her eyes in surprise, “What on Tartarus for? You can’t want to see Fancy Pants’ wine collection now of all times! Honestly, Blueblood, you never cease to provide me with new ways for me to despise you.”

I nearly slapped her, and in hindsight I probably should have, but I kept my irritation in check for the sake of my own survival. “So we can get into the Canterlot catacombs and escape to tell everypony what’s going on. All of these old mansions are connected to the network of gem tunnels that lie under the city; don’t you pay attention to anything here?”

To her credit, she held her tongue and didn’t turn this into a full blown argument that would have attracted the intruders, though I was wondering how these mooks would deal with an enraged Rarity on their hooves.

“It should be near here,” she said finally. “This is the servants’ quarter of the house and there’s a set of stairs a few doors down from here.”

I smirked, “Been here often then?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, unlike you Fancy Pants is a perfect gentleman!”

I could think of a few other ‘perfect’ appellations to describe Fancy Pants, but again in the interests of saving my own hide I ignored them for now. “Alright, can you teleport us?”

Rarity shook her head, “That’s Twilight’s domain. Can you?”

I couldn’t bear to tell her that I flunked Advanced Thaumatology in school so I just shook my head in response. If Rarity and I couldn’t teleport a short distance to this stairwell then Cannon Fodder clearly had no chance.

“Looks like we’re going to do this the hard way,” I said as I opened the door slowly, fortunately the invading ponies were focused on containing the party guests in the centre of the hall and hadn’t branched out to search for anyone hiding in the upper floors. Clearly these ponies were amateurs, I thought; if they were letting ponies like me, Cannon Fodder, and Miss Drama Queen move about unhindered in the floor above.

I did consider just surrendering there and then, but then I had no guarantee that these ponies would treat their prisoners well or even keep them alive. If they were seeking to take hostages to be ransomed back to their families then they should, in theory, keep them nice and safe, unless they were brutish thugs who didn’t for honouring deals. So, in the interests of not being tortured and/or killed I decided escape was my best option.

We slinked out of the room one by one, hugging the walls carefully and tentatively observing the scene below. The mysterious ponies said nothing as they moved amongst the stunned party goers, ignoring their increasingly vocal, and probably unwise, protests. Fancy Pants himself was rather livid at the interruption of his party and his persistent complaints earned him a backhoofed slap that sent his monocle flying, which I would have found rather amusing if it weren’t for the very real peril I was in.

They seemed to be looking for something or somepony, which might have explained why they were ignoring the upper floors for now. I hoped they would find whatever, or whoever, soon as to facilitate my escape. To their credit, it seems that my first analysis that the ponies were amateurs was clearly wrong; the terrorists were extremely professional. They were eerily silent and kept the crowd under control mostly through intimidation alone; their faces were concealed by black ski masks and their cutie-marks blacked out with what appeared to be paint to avoid any risk of identification. These were not mindless thugs gate-crashing an upper class party just to steal something and/or take hostages, they were professional and had a greater agenda than mere money.

“It’s here,” Rarity whispered as we approached a set of double doors.

From our vantage point above I could see the mysterious masked ponies grab Princess Cadence and haul her off down the hall. She didn’t resist, probably because she’d been taken prisoner before and was used to the ordeal or something. Anyway, I doubted there was anything she could have done, though alicorns’ powers are extremely potent, Cadence’s abilities were focused around spreading love. While much has been written on the power of love it would be useless in a hostage situation, unless you could make your captors engage in a sudden orgy [A gross (in every sense of the word) misunderstanding of how Cadence’s powers work, she does not make ponies fall in love but simply rekindles the love that already exists between two ponies].

I pushed the door open slowly, holding my sword in a telekinetic grip in front of me in case the enemy had wised up to our little escape plan and lain an ambush in the stairwell. To my surprise and evident relief it was completely empty, so I widened the door a little and stepped through followed by Cannon Fodder and Rarity.

The stairwell, much like the servant’s room we were in a short while ago, was plain and unremarkable. After a few tense moments of scanning the room for any signs of life other than ourselves we slowly headed on down the steps.

We tried to be quiet and Rarity and I were doing a pretty good job, but Cannon Fodder had chosen to wear his full plate armour and was therefore sounding like Pinkie Pie trapped in a china shop after being given an espresso. So it was with bated breath that we made our journey down the steps with weapons held ready for inevitable combat, yet each time we reached the end of a flight of stairs I was met with the relieving sight of nothing.

We reached the bottom without incident and were presented with another set of double doors that presumably led to Fancy Pants’ infamous wine collection.

“Cannon Fodder, take a look through the door,” I ordered. Somehow I had fallen naturally into the role of leader; either they were in awe of my non-existent leadership skills or simply saw no other alternative to following me. It was probably the latter, I think. Given the choice I wouldn’t follow me either.

Cannon Fodder did as he was told and stepped over to the door. He opened it cautiously and peered through the crack.

“There are two guards,” he whispered back, “and they’re standing by a big door.”

“Probably the entrance to the catacombs,” I surmised.

“Wait,” he ducked back inside and shut the door quickly. “There’s more coming and they’re bringing the Princess-Lady.”

I frowned, “Why would they want to take her to the cellar?”

“Probably taking her into the catacombs,” said Rarity, “It might be how they got in here in the first place.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me that the enemy might have used the very means of our escape as a way of getting in, but now it seemed that we might have been getting out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. Yet it was our only hope of escape, and as far as I was concerned a small glimmer of hope for survival was better than none.

I heard the sound of a door slamming shut. Cannon Fodder pushed the door open carefully to peer through.

“They’ve gone, but the two guards are still there,” he said in the same sort of voice he used to tell me that the 5th Regiment of the Solar Guard was late on their invoice paperwork again. “We’ll have to take them out.”

“Is there no way to sneak past?” I asked, hoping to resolve this without the risk of getting killed.

“No, they’ve got the entire room covered. We’ll have to fight our way past them.”

I was afraid of that. I had to admit since my tour of duty in the Royal Guard ended I had become increasingly out of shape and somewhat pudgy from an easy life eating cake with my Auntie Tia. Still, we had the element of surprise and weight of numbers on our side. Hopefully, by the time the guards were through butchering Cannon Fodder and Rarity they would be too tired to attack me.

“Can you fight?” I asked Rarity.

The mare stuck her nose up arrogantly and said, “Fighting’s not really my thing, I’m more into fashion, but I will if it means saving Princess Cadence.”

“Good, so you’re not going to be a whiny mare-in-distress after all,” I said dryly as I took my place by the other door.

“Hmmph! Just because I’m a lady does not mean I am adverse to violence, it simply means I do so with decorum.” She then pointed at me, “Can you fight?”

“Lady, I served in the Royal Guard, I think I can handle myself in a fight,” I said mostly for her benefit. In truth, when I was serving in the Guard our main duties revolved around standing next to the Princess and looking imposing and the greatest threats we had to face were errant cakes. Oh, how I miss those days of innocence.

I steadied myself by the door, trying to ignore the anxiety cloying in my gut as I tentatively flexed the blade in my telekinetic grasp. I am a competent swordspony, having been trained from a young age in the art of fencing. Unfortunately in the world of real combat, the thing trying to kill me tends not to adhere to the rules of fair play. [Another example of Blueblood’s inferiority complex; he is in fact an excellent swordspony and certainly more than just ‘competent’. Thus far he is the only pony to have defeated my sister and me in fencing. In fact, after one defeat Luna was heard to remark that Blueblood must have been born with a sword in his hooves and likely performed his own caesarean]

“Three, two, one.”

We forced the doors open and charged. Cannon Fodder reared on his hind legs and hurled his spear, as I darted towards the two guards I watched the spear overtake me and imbed itself in the closest guard with a sickening ‘squelch’ noise. The one remaining guard had a fleeting expression of disbelief on his face before he raised his own sword to block mine.

Steel met steel with an almighty clash. Holding the advantage I pressed the attack, thrusting my blade at the pony in series of overhead swings and thrusts in the direction of his chest. He reacted purely defensively; blocking my attacks capably but doing nothing to counter them. I noticed the glassy, vacant look in his eyes as if he wasn’t focused on me at all.

A blur of white flashed from my left side and slammed into the pony. I flinched back, not wanting to accidently hit Rarity, if I did I’d have one less body between me and whoever might try to kill me next.

The elegant fashion designer wailed into the guard mercilessly, but despite the abject violence of the onslaught she moved with the same grace she did when, well, doing anything really. The guard collapsed unconscious under the assault of hooves. Rarity stepped back, suavely readjusting her hair and dress.

Now that the immediate threat was over I could afford to take stock of my surroundings. Only a select few had been allowed to view Fancy Pants’ famous wine collection, indeed amongst some of the more impressionable high society ponies this was the closest thing to the holy land they had. The cellar was as large as the grand hall but without the height, and was filled to the brim with a veritable labyrinth of huge wine racks. It felt much like a library, but with bottles of wine instead of books.

The cellar was dimly lit by torchlight, which cast off deep shadows down the ‘corridors’ flanked by wine racks. The air was cool, as was the stone beneath my hooves.

“Sir,” said Cannon Fodder. He was standing over the first guard and tugged his spear free from the corpse, “I think you need to see this.”

I sheathed my blade and stepped over to see what the problem was, admiring Fancy Pants’ extensive collection of wine along the way. I wondered whether Fancy Pants actually ever drank this rare and expensive wine or merely collected like some posh version of a comic book nerd.

There, on the floor by his hooves, was a dead Changeling.

“Oh my,” was all I could say as I beheld the sickening form of the Changeling. It was distinctly insect in appearance but with the size and shape of a pony. It was armoured with thick black chitin, with glimpses of the dark flesh beneath, its eyes were huge and glassy. Sickly green ichor leaked from the wound on its neck onto the floor and flowed through the gaps in the flag stones.

“Oh, how horrid!” Rarity shrieked, the skin under her alabaster fur getting distinctly paler.

“Sir, we need to move quickly before the Hive Mind notices this one’s dead,” said Cannon Fodder blankly.

At this time in the war we only had basic theories on how Changelings worked, and the leading theory was that they operated according to a latent psychic Hive Mind that broadcast orders directly into their brains. Individually they were mindless, oversized, magic bugs, but under the control of one of the more intelligent subspecies of Changeling their efforts could be co-ordinated effectively towards an objective. [This is a largely accurate summation, however, once severed from the control of the Hive Mind, individual Changelings will eventually start to develop their own personalities over a long period of time. Therefore they are anything but ‘mindless’]

I nodded in response and pushed the door to the catacombs open, revealing a pitch black tunnel that led downwards into the earth.

“Wait, won’t there be more Changelings down there?” asked Rarity, which was a fair point. If the Changelings were taking Princess Cadence down there, then there were likely to be even more hiding amidst the gem tunnels.

I frowned, “Obviously, but it’s our only chance of escape.”

“But it looks so dusty and dirty in there,” she complained. “Oh, I spent so long on making this dress.”

I rubbed my temples with a hoof; I swear this lady could weaponise whining. What I should have done is merely march her back up to the hall where the Changelings were keeping the hostages and just let her whine until their heads exploded.

She looked down on the dead Changeling and cringed, “Well, I suppose needs must.”

Not wanting to waste any more time than we already had I headed through the door with Cannon Fodder covering the rear. Rarity followed tentatively, making each step into the dusty old cavern as if it was physically hurting her hooves.

“Ick! Dust!”

I shut the door behind us but there was no way to lock it or secure it. It would only be a matter of time before the dead Changeling would be noticed so, despite Rarity’s continued protestations we headed down the dank tunnel.

The air was surprisingly cool there, though there was a lot of moisture in it. The tunnel itself was wide enough for the three of us to walk abreast without much discomfort (the only discomfort being in close proximity to Cannon Fodder’s odour and Equestria’s biggest drama queen).

Rarity and I both flickered on simple light spells with our horns, illuminating the tunnel about ten feet in all directions. Beyond that was pure, untainted darkness that concealed all manner of Changelings and other beasts that call these dark catacombs home.

“So, Blueblood, I do hope you know where we’re going?” asked Rarity after a while of walking.

I puffed out my chest a little with pride, “My special talent is navigation.”

“Really? I’d have thought it was being rude and unpleasant.”

I ignored the snide remark, rather too focused on trying to keep myself alive than engage in verbal sparring. “Why do you think my cutie mark is a compass rose? When I was a colt some of the local foals thought it would be funny to convince me there was lost Alicorn treasure down here, so I went into the tunnels under the school and got lost.”

“Oh, how horrible!” I glared at her, but for once she wasn’t being sarcastic. “Foals can be just terrible sometimes.”

“It took a bit of trial and error,” I said, continuing the epic tale of how I got my cutie mark, “but I worked out how to ‘read’ the rocks and stone around me. It’s a little hard to explain but I just subconsciously know where I am and where I need to go provided I know where I started from.”

“Like a compass in your head?”

I nodded, “Something like that yes. You’re just going to have to trust me on this.”

Rarity sighed and shook her head despondently, and I can’t say I blame her. She was being forced to put her life into my hooves, and I could barely trust me with my own life these days.

The tunnel expanded, the rock walls becoming jagged and less smooth as we entered into the older parts of the gem mines. Glistening diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other brightly coloured gems could be seen peaking through the deep cracks in the walls where the old miners hacked into the rock with pickaxes. Rarity’s expression soon changed as she saw the jewels hidden beneath the mundane rock, her eyes sparkling with wonder.

I rolled my eyes; they were just shiny rocks as far as I was concerned.

“So what happened to you in the tunnels?” she asked as she finally tore her eyes away from the shiny things around her.

“I starved to death,” I said dryly. “That’s why I’m here now talking to you.”

Rarity kicked my hind leg lightly and wore a scowl on her face, and I could only grin in response which, in turn, simply made her scowl harder in a peculiar vicious cycle.

“Fine, I navigated through the tunnels on my own and found my way out through the secret escape passages under Canterlot Castle. I ended up in the castle ballroom as Auntie Celestia was negotiating a high profile trade treaty with the Gryphons. I was crying my eyes out but she still stopped the meeting to comfort me, then this thing appeared on my flank.”

The mare blinked a little disbelievingly, “The Princess stopped a meeting to help you. I can scarcely believe that she of infinite patience and love would deign to associate with one as crass and rude as you.”

I shrugged; there were more important things on my mind now rather than having to explain myself to her. Clearly she held a lot of resentment against me, no doubt inspired by the horrendous Grand Galloping Gala disaster last year. While I had no real desire to play counsellor to this deranged little mare I knew that if we were to survive this ordeal we would have to work together, so that there would be two bodies between me and the Changelings rather than just one and a stroppy Rarity, who might not lift a hoof to aid me.

We had been walking for about ten minutes or so in the darkness, and the bleak oppressiveness of our surroundings was starting to take its toll on Rarity. The only sounds were our own hoofsteps and our breathing, yet every so often we heard the scurrying of rats and other foul vermin. Cannon Fodder was being as phlegmatic as usual and regarded the immense amount of earth and rock above our heads with only a passing interest, while I was already intimately familiar with these mines.

After a little more walking in the direction I hoped Canterlot Castle was we came to a fairly large clearing with three tunnels branching off into the darkness. I wanted to keep on going but for Rarity’s sake I decided we should stop for a break, after all, if she was tired then she wouldn’t be able to fight effectively to save my own hide.

Rarity was looking rather despondent; her pretty dress was now covered in a thin film of dust and the elegant train was scuffed and ripped after being caught on jagged rocks. She sat down, her tired eyes glancing worriedly down the infinite darkness of the three passageways.

I sat next to her while Cannon Fodder stood guard, his spear levelled and ready to meet any onrushing intruder.

“I do hope Cadence will be safe,” I said, trying to make conversation.

“I didn’t think you cared about anyone except yourself,” Rarity bit back. I sighed and shook my head, deciding to put her hostility down to the stress of the situation.

“She is my cousin after all,” I shrugged. “Is this about the Gala?”

“Yes, of all the times you could have wanted to talk to me about the Gala you had to pick when we are trapped underground with a Changeling army after us. You have had plenty of opportunities to apologise to me for your behaviour, especially that time I grudgingly had to stand next to you to christen that new airship, but only now, when our lives are on the line and the fate of Equestria hangs in the balance, do you take that opportunity.”

I blinked at her in surprise. “You... you want me to apologise to you?” I said, doing my best to keep my voice quiet and level.

Rarity made a disgusted face, “Oh for Celestia’s sake Blueblood, you don’t even know why I’m mad at you. You didn’t even remember my name!” She looked away and down at the ground by her hooves. “It’s not just the cake, or the way you insulted my friend Applejack’s apple treats, or your loutish behaviour.” She suddenly looked up, fixing me with an intense glare that reminded me of seeing a Gryphon stalking its live prey in their hunting rituals, “It’s me, actually.”

“Pardon?” I blurted out, not quite expecting this turn of events.

“You see, for most of my life I have always wanted to live in Canterlot. I dreamed of meeting my ‘Prince Charming’ here. I, a little innocent mare from little old Ponyville, quite out of sorts in the bewildering city of such glamour and culture, but possessed of such poise and style to impress even the bluest of bluebloods in the city, would attract the attention of none other than Princess Celestia’s own nephew. At the Gala our eyes would meet across the hall, our hearts would melt...”

Already I could see where this was going, the poor deluded mare, so I raised a hoof to interrupt her long soliloquy.

“Except I didn’t meet your vision of perfection,” I said. “You fell in love with what I am instead of who I am. I dare say you’ve been reading too many trashy romance novels.”

“Humph, too right you didn’t meet my vision.”

I sighed, “Rarity, you are a commoner and I am royalty, my so-called ‘loutish behaviour’ was only a result of time-honoured social traditions that stretch back to the founding of Equestria itself. The very idea of a common pony even thinking they could converse with my royal person is just unheard of.”

She shook her head, “That does not excuse you. A true gentlecolt is courteous to all regardless of their social station. However, as I have said, it was partially my fault. I was naive to believe we would fall in love at first sight like a fairy tale and I paid the price for that.” Rarity tapped a hoof to her chin, then made a face when she realised she just smeared dust and mud on her face by accident, “I think something positive can be taken from that rather traumatic experience. I learned a very important lesson that day; my dreams won’t just happen overnight, but they will require hard work and perseverance.”

I nodded, but couldn’t think of much else to say. Yes, she was a mare of uncommon taste and elegance, but the class difference was absolutely insurmountable. A commoner could not mix with royalty any more than oil with water. It was rather a shame as the truth was I was starting to like her, but it was accident of birth that kept us separate. The more I thought about it the more I found it to be rather ridiculous.

This was not the time to be dwelling on such things, with an unknown quantity of Changelings out to kill me and a possible threat the very existence of the kingdom I think I had more important things to deal with than a certain mare’s emotional baggage.

“Sir,” Cannon Fodder spoke up, having been silent throughout the entire exchange, “there’s something coming this way.”

I clambered to my hooves, stretching my tired limbs before drawing my sword cautiously. Rarity too stepped up cautiously, flexing her legs in preparation for any further violence. In the distance out of the rightmost tunnel I could see the faint glow of magical light, probably from a unicorn’s horn, slowly emerging.

“Shouldn’t we kill our lights?” asked Rarity.

“No point,” answered Cannon Fodder. “Changelings can see perfectly in complete darkness.” [Not technically accurate, Changelings have the ability to see in the infra-red spectrum which, for all intents and purposes, means they can ‘see’ body heat]

“Can’t be the Changelings then,” I said.

“And why not?” ask Rarity.

I grinned as the answer was completely obvious, “If they can see perfectly in the dark then why do they need horn lights?”

That shut her up for the time being. Despite being certain that they weren’t Changelings I was still wary. The gem mines were supposed to have been abandoned, but if there were definitely Changelings down here then there could be all sorts of monsters and beasts inhabiting these ancient tunnels. Dragons, perhaps, drawn by the allure of the many shiny things hidden in the walls or maybe brigands and thieves hiding from the Canterlot law in the labyrinth under the city.

“Challenge them,” I ordered Cannon Fodder.

He nodded, adopting a defensive combat stance by lowering his spear towards the tunnel entrance and crouching low, ready to burst into sudden and bloody violence at the slightest provocation.

“Halt!” he cried, his gruff voice echoing through the tunnels. I winced, hoping it wouldn’t cause a cave in. “Who goes there?”

The most welcome sight imaginable stepped out of the dark gloom: a Royal Guard unicorn in full plate armour, followed by two earth pony Guards. They bore the same stern expression of all Royal Guardsponies; merciless and uncompromising in their sacred duties to uphold the laws of Equestria and ensure the eternal rule of the Princesses. Despite the dust their armour was perfectly shiny even in the dull light and gleamed warmly.

“Sergeant Spear Point of the 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard,” said the unicorn as he bowed low before my royal presence. “Prince Blueblood, it is an honour, Your Highness.”

I smiled and puffed out my chest in pride as the remaining two guardsponies bowed before me. Finally a pony who treats me with the respect I deserve, then again as a guardspony it was his job to do so. Rarity rolled her eyes and sighed in irritation.

“Rise, Royal Guards,” I said, and they complied.

“We were despatched in response to the hostage situation at Fancy Pants’ benefit party to ensure the safety of you and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza,” he said in the usual laconic manner of Guardsponies.

“It’s the Changelings,” I explained. The Sergeant tilted his head to one side. “They took her into these tunnels.”

“I see.” He motioned one of the earth pony guards towards him, “Return to the castle and inform the Captain of the Royal Guard of the situation.”

The earth pony snapped off a smart salute and galloped off down the tunnels. I wondered how he was expected to be able to navigate without a source of light, but at the time I put it down to superior Royal Guard training that allowed them to memorise routes. Perhaps he had a similar cutie mark and special talent to mine. Still, I noticed that my hooves were starting to itch rather uncomfortably.

“Your Highness, I would respectfully request your assistance in rescuing Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.”

“Of course!” exclaimed Rarity before I had a chance to say anything at all. Grudgingly I nodded in agreement, despite my growing desire to just go home and relax on my chaise lounge with a glass of fine port and a copy of Equestria Daily. I couldn’t very well tell everypony that; I had yet to earn my fraudulent reputation for heroics but I was still a Prince of the Realm with military training and therefore expected to lay my life down for Princesses and Country, lest I lose Rarity’s new but grudging respect for me.

On the other hoof having two extra, heavily armoured bodies between the Changelings and my handsome self was no bad thing.

“Lead the way, Sergeant,” I said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible.

Spear Point saluted smartly and directed us down the left most tunnel. We followed them, or rather Rarity did and I followed her and Cannon Fodder followed me.

First Blood (Part 2)

Something felt distinctly wrong as the itching in my hooves grew worse. As I thought about it I found that this was all rather too convenient; in the vast labyrinth underneath the city, hiding from shape-changing monsters that desire nothing but the complete destruction of our way of life, we come across a small squad of Royal Guard who just so happened to be patrolling through the same tunnel as we were. It was possible, I supposed, but highly improbable. It was the sort of deus ex machina normally found in dreadful action-adventure novels.

As we navigated through the tunnels the nagging feeling of ‘wrongness’ was growing stronger. How did this Guardspony know where he was going? The earth pony’s silence was rather unnerving too. At the very least he would have attempted to strike up a conversation with Cannon Fodder, a fellow comrade-in-arms. The more I thought about t the greater my suspicions grew. At this stage they were merely suspicions, nothing without any grounding in evidence. At this stage in my life I hadn’t learned to trust the odd signs my subconscious used to tell me that something was wrong.

I decided to try and test out my suspicions and trotted up next to Spear Point. Now, I’m a rather tall pony myself, probably due to my distant link with the immortal, giant goddesses who ruled Equestria, but the good Sergeant towered a full head above me. His coat was purest white, in accordance with the Royal Guard’s tradition of dyeing its members’ fur. His eyes, however, seemed impassive and emotionless like his facial expression, which I found rather disconcerting. They seemed glassy, as if lacking life; even Cannon Fodder with his permanently gormless expression seemed more animate than him.

“So,” I said, trying to make it sound like I was trying to make conversation, “the 3rd Solar Guard? It’s a good regiment; I served alongside them during my Royal Guard days.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he said flatly. “You served in the Royal Guard?”

I nodded, “1st Solar Guard, ‘Celestia’s Own’.”

“The best of the best,” he said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice and a slight smile on his lips. He certainly looked and talked like a guardspony, right down to the tense but friendly rivalry between the regiments. I decided to push him a little further, knowing that Changelings are very good at imitating but could theoretically be caught out when asked about specifics.

“Hmm, 3rd Solar Guard, that means you must come from the area around Baltimare.”

He nodded.

“I’ve always wanted to visit Baltimare, have you seen the Statue of Harmony there? Of course you have.”

The sergeant hesitated a little before he answered, “Yes, you can see it from all parts of Baltimare.”

Got him! I lifted my sword up, pretending to inspect the keen edge of the blade but in actuality bringing it to a more favourable position to strike at the doppelganger.

“The 3rd Solar Guard recruits from Trottingham not Baltimare and the Statue of Harmony is actually in Manehatten. Everypony knows that.”

He stopped, looking at me incredulously in dawning realisation of his embarrassing and costly mistake. The Changeling hissed and his maw opened to reveal rows of sharp fangs that dripped sickeningly thick saliva as he prepared to lunge at me.

I was quicker and rammed the sword deep into his neck to be rewarded with a spray of sickly green ichor.

“Blueblood!” Rarity shrieked, evidently thinking I’ve lost my mind and killed a member of the Royal Guard.

The Changeling hissed and gurgled in pain before finally expiring. It fell in a collapsed heap on the ground like a coat dropping from a hook, and with a flash of green energy his true insectoid form was revealed to all.

Not wasting any time I turned and swung my sword in an arch, slicing cleanly through the other faux-guardspony’s neck. It still bore the same expression of surprise as its head pitched forward and rolled to the ground like a dropped hoofball and its decapitated body slumped to the ground in a fountain of green blood. A brief shimmer of green energy and it too returned to its original form.

“They... they were Changelings?” gasped Rarity. “Oh Celestia, how could they have infiltrated the Royal Guard? Equestria’s last line of defence has been compromised!”

I shook my head, “We don’t know that, it could have just been these three ponies. But we need to keep moving.”

Rarity nodded, somehow growing even paler than her pure shade of white as she stared wide eyed at the bloodied corpses before her. I’d have thought that as one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony she would have been used to the sight of blood by now, but then again one as delicate and demure as she would probably never get used to it. Actually, I don’t recall the Bearers ever using lethal force in their adventures and instead preferred to use the power of friendship to overcome the odds. As far as I was concerned, a sharp blade did the trick just as well and without the uncomfortable process of having to form lasting attachments with people I can barely tolerate existing.

Rumbling emanated from down the tunnel, accompanied by the hideous sounds of chittering and shrieks of violence. Instinctively I stepped back to position myself behind Cannon Fodder and Rarity.

“What in Celestia's name is that?” Rarity shrieked over the din.

The Changelings came in a vast seething horde through the narrow tunnels as an unholy cloying mass of chitin, tattered wings, and razor sharp fangs.

Cannon Fodder stood firm, his face grim as he lowered his spear to meet the onrushing mob like an implacable rock before the incoming tide. He fought well, skewering the bug-like monsters on his spear and bucking like a mad horse. Yet despite his firm defence he was swallowed by the tide.

Rarity fared little better. Her face contorted in a mixture of fear and concentration as her horn lit with powerful magics. Gem stones from the walls around us were torn from their hiding places and circled in mid-air around Rarity, entrapped within a pale blue aura of magic. With a shout of exertion she telekinetically hurled the gems at the horde, felling a good number in the volley of lethally sharp jewels.

“Blueblood!” Rarity shrieked at me when she realised that I was standing frozen in terror. “Have you not a weapon? Then for Celestia’s sake I suggest you use it and FIGHT!”

I didn’t.

I ran away.

Yes, you read that correctly, the brave and noble Prince Blueblood, Hero of Equestria, bravely ran away in the face of almost certain death. I heard Rarity exclaim a stream of most unladylike language as I sprinted through the tunnels.

I don’t know for how long I ran, how far, or even where I ran to. All that was on my mind was preserving my own life. But after a while I gathered the courage to look over my shoulder and found no slobbering horde nipping at my tail. Exhaustion was starting to get the better of me; my coat was covered in a thick layer of sweat and grime and my legs were starting to burn with fatigue. I had no choice but to stop and recover.

There was a small alcove where I slumped down in an effort to hide myself, sucking in deep breaths of the stale cold air. I was lost. My special talent for subconsciously knowing exactly where I was and where I need to go wasn’t infallible; I needed to know my starting location and the approximate positions of local landmarks in order for it to work. In my flight I had lost track of everything and all of the tunnels and turnings blurred together in my panic.

I was lost, alone, and I had just abandoned the closest ponies I had to actual friends to almost certain death. The sensation of feeling guilt was unusual for me. I admit in my time I’ve done some rather unpleasant things; I was rude to Rarity in the Gala, I’ve duelled fellow aristocrats over the most facile of slights, and as a colt in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns I repeatedly bullied this purple filly egghead, but I’ve never once caused a pony mortal harm as a result of my selfishness.

I don’t know how long I sat there in the little alcove trying to recover, but it felt like several hours. Wiping my eyes on a fetlock I finally took a proper look at my surroundings. As far as I could tell, the way I was heading in my flight was going uphill. A thin draft emanated from that tunnel, hinting that there was likely an exit to the surface there. Feeling encouraged by this news and the promise of safety I pulled myself out of the alcove and picked up my sword once more before heading up the tunnel.

The chill of abject fear was worse now that I was alone. I even began to miss Rarity’s incessant whining and Cannon Fodder’s consistently unimpressed expression. My progress was slow as I placed one hoof in front of the other, peering around corners to check for waiting Changelings, and freezing at any out-of-place sound that reached my sensitive ears.

The tunnel turned to the left before levelling out. I followed my instincts, trusting in my special talent to guide me to safety. As it turned out, my special talent also hates me as instead of tasting the fresh Canterlot night air it led me through more winding passages, past crossroads and forks, before finally leading me to a small balcony area that overlook a large chamber.

If it weren’t for the mass of Changelings standing guard over a distraught looking Princess Cadence tied down to a sacrificial altar below me I’d have sworn loudly and profusely.

To this day I don’t know how my special talent for navigation quite managed it. Ponies tend not to have any conscious control over how their special talent works, with the possible exception of a certain purple, gifted unicorn I used to steal lunch money from. So it seems my special talent has a rather sick sense of humour; either trying to get me killed by leading me to the largest concentration of Changelings in the catacombs or trying to get me killed by encouraging me to perform some amateur heroics and try to save Cadence. [It is possible that, on a subconscious level, Blueblood earnestly wanted to make up for his previous cowardice but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to him]

I retreated a little into the tunnel, trying to avoid being seen. To my immense relief none of the Changelings so much as glanced up to see a rather frightened white unicorn in a ridiculous uniform above them. The chamber was fairly large, about the size of a medium sized classroom, with the altar on a raised podium in the centre. Half a dozen Changelings were congregated around the altar, chittering and mingling about doing whatever it was Changelings do when they weren’t actively engaged in trying to destroy Equestria.

The altar itself was a stone slab the approximate size of a pony. Princess Cadence lay bound by thick sturdy ropes. Beside the altar Rarity and Cannon Fodder were hogtied on the floor, looking injured and rather worse for wear but otherwise alive and well.

Rarity looked most indignant, as if the greatest problem she was facing was the fact that her dress was utterly ruined, her manestyle wrecked beyond repair, and her pristine white coat looking much like Cannon Fodder’s dirt-induced piebald colour. I noticed a ball gag lodged in her mouth, no doubt her attempt to coerce the Changelings into surrender through weaponised whining didn’t account for the fact they could render her mute with that simple device.

Cannon Fodder on the other hoof still had the same blank expression he always wore, as if his imminent death at the hooves of these monsters was nothing more than a slight inconvenience.

One of the Changelings stepped forwards. It was much taller than the rest, about the size of my Auntie Luna, and its eyes possessed greater intelligence and keenness than the mindless drones that surrounded it.

It was a Purestrain, one of the ‘commanders’ of the Changelings that broadcast the psychic web that bound them to the Hive Mind. They were intelligent, sapient, and, in my experience, rather irritating.

“You won’t get away with this!” shouted Cadence in impotent rage, though to be fair; there was little she could physically do at this stage other than shout clichés at the Purestrain. “My husband will be here, and he won’t be happy!”

“Save your breath, Princess,” said the Purestrain with a great deal of irritation in his snakelike hiss, as if he had been putting up with Cadence’s complaining for quite a while. No doubt with Rarity added to the mix he was very close to snapping.

“I thought our spell banished all of you from Canterlot!”

The Purestrain stepped up to the podium slowly and circled around the altar like a cat sizing up its prey, his draconic eyes fixed upon the shapely form of the Princess.

“Some of us hid under your puerile little city,” he hissed, “where the spell couldn’t affect us. Since then I’ve been planning for the return of my Queen to retake what is rightfully hers. Oh, she will reward me greatly for this.”

The Purestrain leaned in close to Cadence, and she turned her head away from his probably rancid breath. “You see, when my Queen took your image for your wedding it formed a firm magical bond between you two. You should be honoured, really, to have been touched by a true goddess. This magical bond still exists, though faint and fading, but with sufficient magic I shall bring our Queen forth from her throne to once more take your image and rule Equestria forever.”

In an abject fit of insanity I jumped. Perhaps motivated by some small sense of duty to Equestria and my goddess-like Aunties or more likely that the situation seemed so hopeless I was willing to risk my life for some vain hope. My life seemed forfeit either way, if I ran away I would be at the mercy of my now unreliable special talent and whatever other Changelings were still in the tunnels. Even if I did make it out nopony would believe my story; it would have to be my word against faux-Cadence’s who would most likely turn the accusation against me.

I landed on a surprised Changeling, the beast’s body crunched disgustingly under my hooves and it expired. I swung my sword in an arc, catching a second Changeling in a horrific laceration across its barrel. It hissed and chittered in pain before keeling over dead.

“Blueblood!” Cadence exclaimed in a mixture of surprise and relief.

There was only one chance. I had to kill the Purestrain and sever this Changeling cell from the hive mind. The hideous creature looked up in surprise, but soon a thin grin formed on its distorted face as I lunged forth with my sword.

I felt my stomach lurch as my momentum was arrested in mid-air. My blood-stained sword fell to the ground with a clatter as my legs windmilled uselessly in the air.

“I was wondering where you went off to,” the Purestrain said, his voice sickeningly sweet with smugness and sarcasm. “So good of you to drop in on us, I wouldn’t want you to miss this.”

I could only watch in pathetic, useless terror as the Purestrain’s jagged horn, a hideous mockery of a unicorn’s graceful organ, illuminated with a baleful green glow. He closed his eyes in concentration, and his ugly face distorted further in the exertion of the spell. The glow grew stronger as more and more magic fuelled the malevolent spell, tearing a distortion in the fabric of reality above Cadence.

The void hurt my eyes and my brain to look at, as the skein of existence itself was bent and torn in various unnatural ways in a swirling vortex of forbidden magics. The Purestrain grimaced in exertion, grunting monstrously as he fuelled more and more magic into this unholy spell. The tear grew wider and wider, and a hideous screeching sound of reality itself being torn asunder filled the chamber. Gazing into the bleak abyss I could make out two green glowing eyes with pure malevolent anticipation. There I gazed upon Chrysalis, the Queen of the Changelings, as she prepared to step through this ethereal bridge and a grim sadistic laughter echoed in the room.

I struggled frantically against the magical hold on me, but it was no use. I was secured as if tied by strong rope. All I could do was float there in mid-air and watch in impotent horror as the beast prepared to return to Canterlot and destroy it from within.

Pop.

The portal burst like a bubble. It disappeared as if it was never there to begin with. The horn-light evaporated too and I fell to the ground in a clumsy flail of limbs. It was all rather anti-climactic really.

“What?” the Purestrain shrieked in confusion. He suddenly locked eyes with me, “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” I protested. I was just as confused as the Purestrain; maybe he got the spell wrong. Unlikely, I don’t know quite how powerful Purestrains are with magic but it is likely that he spent a long time planning this operation and was therefore unlikely to mess up the spell.

The Purestrain leapt over the altar in a single bound. True to my first assumption, his hot breath was disgusting and smelt of rotten meat.

“Tell me how you disrupted the spell!” he shrieked louder.

“I didn’t! I can barely perform any spells at all!”

“It’s true,” said Cadence, there was a slight grin to her face as she saw her mortal enemy’s plans all turn to ruin before her, “he wasn’t very good in magic school.”

Well, that was hardly a fair assessment. Granted I wasn’t particularly good at the whole studying thing but I did reasonably well at sports such fencing.

The Purestrain scoffed, “No matter, I’ll merely take your place in Canterlot’s royalty and feed off your subjects’ love.”

“Good luck, he only loves himself,” said Cadence with no small degree of snark.

A green flash engulfed the Changeling commander, which soon faded to reveal an exact facsimile of me gazing back. I shuddered as I looked upon my perfect doppelganger; identical to the most minute details; even the little tiny imperfections in my fur and skin, my strong build, and devilishly handsome good looks. The faux-Blueblood grinned back at me, leaning uncomfortably close to my face.

“Eh, I’ve seen better,” I deadpanned.

I did something that in any other circumstances would be considered thuggish and unpleasantly brutal, something utterly below the holy station of my office as a Prince of the Realm and nephew to the living goddesses of Equestria. I head-butted him.

I heard a disgustingly wet ‘squelch’ noise as I found that, by fortunate coincidence, I had rammed my horn into the Changeling’s eye and buried it to the hilt. Something warm and sticky trickled down from my horn onto my forehead, staining my pristine white coat an unpleasant dark green. The faux-Blueblood shrieked in my voice and convulsed in frantic spasms, seeing myself in such pain was extremely disturbing.

I tugged my head back, but found my horn was still embedded in the creature’s brain. Feeling somewhat merciful I summoned a charge of magic and blasted through the monster’s skull. I have to admit that watching my own head explode in a spectacular explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments was deeply unpleasant. The headless corpse twitched and then fell to the ground, and I soon followed it as the magical grip on my body died with the Changeling.

My limbs were shaking and felt numb; my stomach churned and threatened to send up the canapés I had eaten at Fancy Pants’ party. It was peculiar how the relative warmth and comfort of the party felt so distant at the time. I picked up my sword with my magic and turned to face the Changelings congregating behind me.

The mindless beings reverted to instinctive behaviour, seeing the pony that just killed their leader they turned tail and fled down the tunnels.

“Blue-y, would you please be a dear and untie me!” Cadence shouted, waking me from my stupor.

I stepped over the still-twitching corpse of the Purestrain; thankfully his body reverted back to his natural form so I didn’t have to look upon my own dead body. Still splattered with Purestrain brains all over my face I must have made for a hideous sight, and all I really wanted at this moment was to take a shower.

Cadence was freed easily, who rewarded me by leaping up and enveloping me in a tight bear hug. Rarity and Cannon Fodder were next, the latter mumbling a thank you and the former wearing a harsh scowl at me.

“You ran away,” she said, her voice dripping with venom. “Once again Blueblood you showed your true colours as the miserable cur that you are, leaving me and this brave stallion to face the Changelings on our own! But most importantly, my dress is ruined beyond repair!”

“Rarity!” shouted Cadence; her weary features were fixed in an expression of surprise. “Blueblood just saved us, the least you could do is show a little gratitude.”

She sighed and her expression softened somewhat, “But, you did come back for us, and in the end you were very noble. Perhaps there is hope for you yet, Blueblood.”

I was far too weary and tired to even think of an adequate response. My legs felt like jelly and were about to cave in underneath me and, despite my fatigue, adrenaline kept my heart pounding against my ribcage. My stomach clenched uncomfortably and felt as if somepony had somehow tightened a vice around it. The bleak surroundings were starting to get to me finally, even after the main threat to our safety had just been eliminated, the claustrophobia of the tunnels and my enforced captivity with Lady Rarity was making short work of my limited patience.

Truth is I was still feeling rather ashamed of my flight earlier. Though it all worked out for the best in the end, I can hardly consider myself a shining example of Equestrian royalty after I had just left a mare to almost certain doom to save my own hide.

“Let’s...” I gasped, my head feeling rather light and woozy after so much exertion. “Let’s just go.”

Fortunately my special talent deigned to behave itself and actually led us to the courtyard of Canterlot Castle. After explaining our situation to the bewildered Night Guards stationed around, who also dragged a tired looking Shining Armour out of the castle’s war room to be with his darling wife.

In the pure darkness of midnight the castle was silhouetted against the brilliant night sky, and illuminated by the pale light of Luna’s moon. The castle itself was a vast compound built into the tall mountain to which the entire city clung like a limpet on the side of a ship. Vast towers reached into the sky; tall minarets of white marble with purple and gold accenting that disappeared into the light cloud cover above.

The courtyard itself was illuminated by a few torches and a spotlight. We had dragged ourselves out of a hatch in the centre of the well-manicured lawn. The courtyard was maintained by a vast army of gardeners who fought an eternal war against weeds, without whose efforts the courtyard would descend into chaos and anarchy. Bushes were cut into pleasing shapes, and night blooming flowers, probably planted on Auntie Luna’s orders, were on display. Looming over us was a huge statue of Princess Celestia looking down with her characteristically warm and motherly smile expertly carved onto the stone.

I cringed somewhat as the two embraced tightly, such displays of affection in public are most unseemly. Worse still, she started gushing to her husband about how I heroically dived into battle and fought off the entire Changeling horde and Purestrain single-hoofedly and somehow disrupted their unholy ritual with powerful magic.

Before Shining Armour could direct his inquisition upon me, Rarity and I made our excuses and left for my personal suite in the castle. Being the Princesses’ beloved nephew afforded me certain privileges, chief amongst which was having my own little part of the castle to call home. I invited her along, mostly because I didn’t feel like being alone that night. Rarity’s tired eyes sparkled at the prospect of staying in the castle. Cannon Fodder, however, was ordered away by Shining Armour and the last I saw of him he was heading back to the barracks.

The Royal Guard, at least what was left behind before Equestria’s military was mobilised for war, were starting to form up to deal with the stragglers I’d left behind at Fancy Pants’ party. I mused that saving their expensive little hides and averting disaster would help boost my ailing position in the social hierarchy of Canterlot’s high society.

We slipped away as the happy couple were distracted. I had to admit it had been a very long time since I had taken a mare home, and I was even more surprised that Rarity agreed to though I assume she was just as weary as I was. Therefore neither of us would be up for the sort of debauchery that usually happens when I have female company.

My personal chambers were modest compared to the abodes of Celestia, Luna and Cadence, consisting of a small living room, a master bedroom, and a small guest bedroom. Since I rarely ever used these quarters, instead preferring to sequester myself in my ancestral estate elsewhere in the city, it was sparsely furnished. Even so, it was comfortable enough and the servants kept it reasonably clean and ready for the rare occasion I have reason to stay there.

I retired to bed early, but only after a brief but vigorous scrub to get the dried remains of Changelings from my fur, as I was unwilling and incapable of playing the host that night given the circumstances. Besides, I had a full day of work to look forward to in the morning and no doubt the full investigation to deal with. Rarity too said little and slinked off to the guest room to do... whatever it is she does. Rest most likely, but that night I slept with one eye open in case she turned out to be a Changeling and come for me in the night.

As it happened I survived the night, which is how I’m currently writing this ‘confession’ that you are currently reading, whoever you might be.

I contemplated throwing a sick day; I certainly felt like I deserved one, but on the other hoof without my inspired leadership the Equestrian armies would lose out on their valuable supply lines. How will our brave stallions and mares on the frontlines survive without tiny pieces of metal to hold sheets of parchment together?

I went through my morning routine robotically; though it was difficult without the servants around to assist me in the basic tasks that should be beneath a noblepony such as me. Usually one couldn’t move in Canterlot Castle without being mobbed by servants, but with near-total conscription for the war effort being enforced, good servants were rather difficult to come across now.

I left Rarity sleeping in my guest room. I decided against waking her, as she was most likely not a morning pony. Hopefully she would have had the good sense to make herself scarce once she does drag herself out of bed.

Fortunately my office in the War Ministry was located in the castle, along with nearly every aspect of the Equestrian government. Not really the best idea, in my humble opinion, as it meant we were one airstrike away from decapitating the entire state. Then again, I’m only a Prince...

I was slightly groggy and not paying attention to exactly where I was going. I couldn’t find a servant so I had to go without my customary morning cup of coffee to jumpstart my sleep-addled brain, therefore I was merely relying upon my somewhat temperamental special talent to lead me to where I wanted to go. Without Cannon Fodder there to handle the bulk of the pointless, meaningless bureaucracy I dreaded to think what the office would look like. The mares there, bless them, did their best but on the whole seemed to believe that gossiping was more important than processing paperwork.

Inevitably I wandered straight into something as my nose bumped into the cold steel of an armoured breastplate. Yelping in surprise I dropped back on my rear.

“Watch where you’re going, peasant...” my admonishments died in my throat as I finally looked up to see the stern visage of my Auntie Luna gazing down upon me as an exterminator would on a nest of termites. “G-good morning, Auntie,” I stammered.

“You will address me as Princess or ‘Your Highness’,” she said coldly. I was thankful that she didn’t employ the use of the Royal Canterlot Voice, at this range I would have been rendered deaf permanently. At the very least she finally learned to stop speaking in Ye Olde Butchered Equestrian so I can actually understand a word she’s saying.

For those of you unfamiliar with the darker half of Equestria’s ruling royalty, Princess Luna is bloody terrifying. At this stage she had just started to loosen up a little, but she still maintained a stern adherence to the ancient protocols of royalty and a rather aloof detachment from the affairs of us mere mortals. [My sister was rather upset at her absence from the Battle of Canterlot as she was busy patrolling Equestria’s outer borders, which explains her sour mood at this time]

“Sorry,” I mumbled as I got back up. Well today had gotten to a good start already, it’s not even time for elevenses and I’ve just insulted the pony who can make the moon crash into the earth on a mere whim.

She was an unnaturally big pony, but not quite as large as her elder sister Celestia. Yet despite the slight disparity in size, Luna was infinitely more imposing. Where Auntie Celestia was warm and comforting in a motherly way, Luna always seemed cold and distant as if my mere existence was an affront to her regal sensibilities. [It should be noted that Luna refused to believe Blueblood was even slightly related to us for the following decade] I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it felt like for commoners when they spoke with me.

Her coat was a dark blue like a clear moonlit night, her body sleek and well defined with muscle, and her mane and tail had become ethereal in a dark imitation of Celestia’s rainbow. Peculiarly she was clad in armour, probably a ceremonial thing now that Equestria was at war. It didn’t help that her armour made her look even more like Nightmare Moon than usual.

“I have been told of your heroism,” she said, without breaking her seemingly permanent scowl. “I thought you to be a rather useless little colt; vain, arrogant, and soft, but you have proven me wrong.”

“Uh... thanks?” I said, not quite sure what to make of the thinly veiled insult masquerading as a compliment.

“Come with me,” she said.

I shook my head, “I have to get to work now, supply lines won’t manage themselves.”

“It was not a request,” she said coldly and turned about face to march off down the hallway. I sighed and followed her, not relishing the future task of having to explain my lateness to my immediate superior; the Minister for War.

Her iron shod hooves clopped loudly against the marble floor, drowning out my relatively weaker hoofsteps. I dreaded what she might have had in store for me, and if I had any indication of what exactly she had planned I’d have turned tail and ran and not stopped until I was safely across the sea in Zebrica. Evidently she had heard of the previous night’s misadventures, probably from Shining Armour who, in turn, got his evidence from Cadence and Cannon Fodder. If what I overhead last night was any indication, Cadence still believed wholeheartedly that I heroically waded in against impossible odds and freed her. On the other hoof, Cannon Fodder could be trusted to tell the complete truth, but then again I doubted the dim little unicorn was capable of understanding what was going on around him.

We stepped through into the War Ministry, through the vast nameless corridors that led off into offices and cubicle farms where hundreds of ponies spent all day going through the mountains of paperwork for military supplies to the frontlines. The office mares stepped out of Luna’s way, and I could imagine the sheer amount of gossiping and office politics that would go on after they saw their boss being carted away by the Night Princess. Oh, I’d never hear the end of it now.

“It has been centuries since Equestria last went to war,” said Luna finally, ending that damnable silence. “Even then they tended to be border skirmishes. The last great war we fought was against Nightmare Moon one thousand years ago.”

“Equestria will prevail,” I said, mindlessly parroting the latest propaganda phrase dreamt up by the Ministry of Misinformation. [A common nickname for the Ministry of Information, Equestria’s propaganda department]

“Indeed.”

We descended down some steps to an area of the castle I had never been before. Despite being practically raised here there were always parts of this ancient citadel that were off bars to me. As far as I could tell we were entering the bowels of the War Ministry, beyond the nice and comfortable world of supply management and into the meat of the grisly business of waging war.

In contrast to the bright and airy offices above, and indeed the rest of the castle, the war rooms were dark and foreboding. There were no windows, meaning the only light came from burning torches fixed upon the walls and iridescent magical orbs that floated about fifteen feet from the stone floor. Unicorn and earth pony guards snapped to attention as we passed them, looking as still as statues with the only signs of life from them were the slight swivel of their eyes.

“The Changeling threat is unlike any other our nation has faced,” Luna continued as she led me down the corridors. “Our armies are well-trained and well-equipped but inexperienced. We fight an enemy that has the ability to infiltrate our own, blend into the ranks, and therefore sow chaos and confusion amongst our armies. Morale is at an all time low. To this end my sister and I are creating a new institution that will monitor our armies for any Changeling infestation, will enforce strict discipline, and punish cowardice and incompetence.”

Which was all very good but what did it have to do with me? Already my hooves were starting to itch uncomfortably again, and I was rather getting tired of feeling that so frequently.

We came to a door finally, just as my legs were starting to ache with exertion. With a quick flicker of telekinetic magic, Luna pushed it open gingerly and revealed a room rather reminiscent of the interior of a fashionable clothing shop. It was a fairly large chamber with numerous mannequins arrayed like soldiers on parade, all wearing the same uniform I had never seen before.

“The Royal Commissariat,” said Luna proudly, waving a hoof triumphantly at the uniforms.

They were almost entirely black. Consisting of a black double-breasted storm coat with red frogs and lining, and opened up with wide lapels and a high collar. They had shiny brass buttons, crafted with the royal seal of Equestria’s diarchy. There was a red sash tied around the waist. Completing the ensemble was a high peaked cap, also predominantly black with red lining, but more noticeable was the winged pony skull badge in the centre.

“It’s all very nice, but why do you need me here?” I said.

Luna looked down on me and for the first time since she had returned to Equestria I saw her expression soften. “Last night you displayed the necessary qualities to become a commissar. You were loyal to your duties and courageous in the face of mortal danger; you were tenacious and didn’t give up; you were resourceful and employed quick thinking when it seemed all hope was lost.”

I hardly thought headbutting a Changeling Purestrain and accidently blowing out his brains counted as being ‘resourceful’.

“Furthermore, you proved to be remarkably level-headed. You could have stood your ground like any hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled ‘hero’ but instead you retreated so that you might strike the enemy when he was at his most vulnerable.”

She leaned her head down to my level, and I gulped slightly as I already worked out exactly what she had planned for me.

“I want you to be the first of the commissars,” she said, her voice quiet but laden with the full weight of what she was about to explain to me. “You will don the uniform and go to the frontlines to be attached as regimental commissar to the 1st Night Guard; they are a new regiment who require the stern hoof of the Commissariat to watch over them. You will be responsible for discipline and morale; you will inspire the weak and guide the lost. You will also punish the incompetent, the cowardly, and the treasonous. You will embody the divine will of the Royal Pony Sisters and provide a perfect example for your troops to follow. Is that clear, Blueblood?”

I nodded, not wanting to spend an eternity exiled on the moon or some other celestial body for disobeying the divine will of my Auntie Luna. I didn’t have much of a choice but to accept and be wrenched away from the relatively safe life I knew and loved.

“Well, go on, put your new uniform on,” she said with a hint of childlike glee in her voice. Judging from the big pony skull on the cap I assumed she probably had some hoof in designing it, from what I could tell from speaking with Auntie Celestia; Auntie Luna was always into rather morbid things like skulls and spiders.

Resigned to my unfortunate fate I did as I was told, casting off the red dress uniform I had just grown used to and putting on the slightly ridiculous black commissarial uniform. She must have gotten my measurements from somewhere as the uniform fit perfectly, which made a change from usual Royal Guard uniforms which tended to come in only two sizes: too big and too small.

I looked at the grinning pony skull on the cap. “Princess,” I said tentatively, “my hat has a skull on it.”

Luna rolled her eyes, “It is to inspire fear; fear ensures loyalty you see.”

I put the cap on and then set it at what I thought would be a jaunty angle. Despite the grinning skull and the morbid colour palette, once I beheld my reflection in one of the full length mirrors in the room I thought it started to look rather dashing on my regal self.

“Skulls,” I muttered, “we are the good guys, right?”

The moon goddess ignored my quiet complaints, “Come, there is something else.”

From there we stepped back into the corridors. I followed slightly behind her, lost in my own thoughts of where exactly my life was headed now. I had some experience of frontline Royal Guard duties, but I never saw action (unless you count the Great Canterlot Snowball Fight of ’05). For me, life in the Royal Guard revolved around sitting in the officer’s mess drinking myself into unconsciousness and getting into duels because I insulted some other toffee-nosed aristocratic officer. Yet now, with total war on our doorstep and the fate of Equestria hanging in the balance I was to be dragged into brutal conflict and not only that but I would be directly responsible for the lives and well being of thousands of ponies.

I had never been responsible in my life! I suppose you might think otherwise, given the amount of power and prestige that a prince of the realm should have. Not so, I had very little political power and my position was hereditary and symbolic more than having any real purpose, which suited me just fine. I could have all the wealth and glory of being a prince without the difficult task of actually ruling.

Perhaps if I did such a bad job of leading/monitoring this Night Guard I could be demoted and bumped back into a nice cosy desk job. Or maybe I wasn’t actually expected to do any fighting on the frontlines and could instead sequester myself a couple miles behind our troops in a relatively comfortable tent. I had to rely upon my ability to lie and weasel my way out of things to survive. Of course, at that point I wasn’t aware of the sadistic games that fate likes to thrust upon me; whereby any attempt by me to move further away out of obvious danger merely pushes me into less obvious but more calamitous peril.

We came to another room, this one apparently some sort of weapons R&D laboratory of some description. It was small, but that was merely because of the vast banks of machinery and equipment lined up against the walls. Huge banks of thinking machines, like vast bookcases, lined the walls. Pretty red and green lights flickered in a sequence only understandable to a select few of ponies capable of comprehending such information. Another machine vomited forth a steady stream of parchment, printed with graphs and esoteric symbols that hurt my brain just trying to comprehend it.

“Sir!” Cannon Fodder called out, and I finally noticed him strapped to a chair and buried amidst a small but growing mountain of that parchment. There was a bowl helmet on his head with numerous wires that led off into the machines around us. “This mare is crazy, please let me out.”

I frowned, looking around for signs of this mysterious mare.

“Who?”

“Me!” A lavender unicorn with purple hair with red highlights burst out of the parchment pile. I recognised her immediately, the crazed look in the eyes of Twilight Sparkle on a study binge seared into my soul from early childhood when we were classmates in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Her eyes were wide but the pupils shrunken into tiny points and her mane was even more unkempt than unusual.

“Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna, shaking her head. “I thought I told you to get some sleep and let our test subject rest.”

Twilight’s ear twitched and she cocked her head to one side. Her mouth was cracked into a disturbingly wide grin. “I know! But I couldn’t sleep because I had so many more theories and hypotheses to test out and I haven’t had a proper test subject in a long time!” The unicorn paced around an increasingly terrified Cannon Fodder, her voice babbling excitedly with barely comprehensible magical terms being thrown about the place haphazardly.

“Twilight,” Luna said more firmly, but the unicorn kept babbling and fiddling with Cannon Fodder’s bowl helmet.

Bracing myself for what was coming next I crouched down and plugged my ears with my hooves.

“TWILIGHT SPARKLE!”

The full force of the Royal Canterlot Voice sent the parchment flying to the back of the room along with the hapless unicorn. Two of the machines close to us started smoking and sending off sparks of electricity across their buckled surfaces. My ears were still ringing painfully as I pulled my hooves back and slowly stood up.

Twilight stumbled out of the parchment pile once more. Thankfully her eyes were back to normal and her expression was a little less manic than before; the Royal Canterlot Voice must have shocked her back into that strange new world called reality.

“Hehe,” she laughed nervously, “sorry, Princess, I got a little carried away.”

“Quite alright,” said Luna, her voice thankfully back at a reasonable volume. “You remember Prince Blueblood, don’t you?”

She finally noticed my presence and smiled insincerely, “Of course I remember Blueblood; we went to school together. You used to steal my Smarty Pants doll and play keep away with it.”

I was something of a naughty colt back in the day but a little schoolyard bullying was to be expected, especially on an awkward little egghead like Twilight. Yet now, years later, here she was with enough magical power in her horn to render me into small pile of ash with hardly any effort. She wasn’t the quiet, awkward, friendless little filly I remember but now a confident magic user who wielded one sixth of the most powerful artefacts in Equestria. Also rather attractive I might add, despite her low birth.

“I hope you don’t hold that against me,” I said, forcing a confident smile on my face. “Your brother did beat me up pretty hard after that.”

She smiled amicably enough, “That he did.”

Luna thankfully stepped forward before the situation could become any more awkward than it already was. “Have you confirmed our suspicions about this guardspony?”

I blinked, “Suspicions? Is he a Changeling?”

Twilight shook her head, “No, he’s a Blank. They’re extremely rare occurrences. It’s a one in a million chance that a unicorn is born with this ability.”

“What’s a ‘Blank’?” I asked in confusion. I had heard the term before, often used disparagingly to unicorns of poor magical talent like Cannon Fodder but never in the strictly scientific sense that Twilight was using.

“It’s a very rare genetic mutation,” Twilight continued, pacing around Cannon Fodder. “You see, the specimen here,” she pointed a hoof at Cannon Fodder who merely looked back with wide, terrified eyes, “acts like a magical black hole that absorbs the energy used for complex spells right out of the caster.”

“Meaning?”

Twilight rolled her eyes as if it should have been obvious. “Cadence told me what happened last night, but I was confused when I heard about the Changeling Purestrain’s spell just evaporating into thin air. I thought it might have been a miscast, but miscast spells usually expel the stored magical energy in the form of a violent explosion rather than just vanish inexplicably.”

I tapped my hoof to my chin thoughtfully, “So you’re saying Cannon Fodder disrupted the spell?”

She shook her head, “Not quite. Like I said, Blanks work like sponges that absorb magical energy when complicated spells are being cast, like the one the Purestrain tried to use to bring his Queen to Canterlot. Cannon Fodder simply sucked all of the magic out of the Purestrain’s spell before it could be completed.”

“I didn’t mean to,” said Cannon Fodder meekly, as a child would when being confronted over an accident he had caused.

“Of course you didn’t,” she smiled at her latest test subject, an act which only made the poor guardspony flinch in his seat. He had faced a Changeling horde without number, stared down a Purestrain, but trapped all night with Twilight Sparkle on a study-spree was a bit too much for him.

“Wait, if he sucks away magic then how can I still use my telekinesis and special talent?”

Twilight Sparkle reached up and removed the bowl helmet from Cannon Fodder’s head, to the guardspony’s evident relief. “The science isn’t exact, but such things like telekinesis and special talents are so common place and used so often we barely have to think about it to use them. Telekinesis is the first spell most unicorns learn and forms the foundation of nearly all further unicorn magic; therefore it’s become the most efficient spell in the book.

“The Blank’s abilities only seem to work above a certain threshold, as if telekinesis isn’t worthy of its attention. But when you start drawing on more magical energy above this threshold then the Blank just drains all of it away. From what I can tell in my research, the Blank’s magical null field has a radius of approximately five feet. It was very fortunate that the Purestrain happened to be close enough for it to take effect.”

As Twilight Sparkle removed the restraints Cannon Fodder leapt off the chair, his hooves skidding on the parchment and marble floor as he scampered towards us, though he soon regained his phlegmatic composure and bowed low before Princess Luna.

“Oh this was so exciting!” Twilight Sparkle squealed enthusiastically, clapping her hooves together. “Blanks are so rare and nopony’s ever written conclusively about them! Oh I wish you could stay, we can have such fun together experimenting on you!”

I had to feel sorry for poor Cannon Fodder there, reduced to a mere science experiment. Oddly, I had grown rather attached to this strange old stallion; he did save my life albeit in an entirely indirect fashion and without even being conscious of it. At the very least, wherever I was headed was bound to have a great deal of paperwork, paperwork being so prevalent in all areas of the Royal Guard, so having him around to deal with the deluge of parchment that was sure to come would be useful. That and having a magic-eater could prove useful if I ever came across a powerful mage.

Cannon Fodder merely looked up at me with pleading puppy eyes that seemed to say ‘please don’t leave me alone with the crazy purple one again’.

“I’d rather Cannon Fodder continue being my aide,” I said. I looked up at Auntie Luna, “If that’s acceptable?”

Luna nodded her head, and Cannon Fodder’s relief was palpable. “Very well,” she turned her attention to the prostrate Guardspony by her hooves, “Private Cannon Fodder, you will continue to serve as Commissar Blueblood’s personal aide and assist him in performing his important duties.”

The Guardspony nodded and slowly rose to his hooves, “By your command, Your Highness.”

“Aw,” Twilight’s ears wilted in disappointment as her new academic focus was now being wrenched away from her. “Well next time you’re in Canterlot we can have another study session together!”

“You will leave for the army gathering at Dodge Junction immediately,” said Luna to me, ignoring Twilight. “There you shall meet with the senior officers of the regiment; they will brief you on your new duties in preparation for the war to come.”

I nodded my head, sighing reluctantly and the new life thrust upon me because I had the good sense to run away from battle and accidently save the day. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad, I thought at the time, if I had any inclination of what a Commissar was supposed to do. All Princess Luna had done was give me some vague hints about enforcing discipline in the ranks, encouraging the weak and punishing the incompetent and cowardly. Well, frankly I’d probably have had to summarily execute myself if I followed those duties to the letter. They must have been truly desperate to recruit the likes of me; then again, little did I know just how desperate we were.

“When do I start?” I asked.

“Immediately,” Luna turned towards the door, “come, I shall brief you further on your new duties.”

Nodding my head in resignation I followed my Princess, trailed by a very relieved Cannon Fodder, down the hallway towards my new life. My entirely discreditable and life-threatening career had only just begun, and I had several more decades of being stabbed, shot at, punched, covered in green Changeling goo, and thrown off cliffs to look forward to.

Night's Blood (Prologue)

NIGHT'S BLOOD

Prince Blueblood and the Battle of Black Venom Pass

This next entry in the Blueblood Manuscript concerns his actions during the ill-fated Operation Enduring Harmony. If the incident at Fancy Pants’ benefit party was the genesis of his enduring fame, then it was the Battle of Black Venom Pass that solidified his reputation as a war hero.

Black Venom Pass and the apparent failure of Operation ‘Enduring Harmony’ has been the focus of much scholarly debate in recent years. In the wake of such a tragedy, many ponies seek somepony to blame; most notably the generals who commanded the armies, the politicians who gave the orders in the first place, and even themselves who cried out for vengeance in the wake of the Royal Wedding incident with apparent disregard for rationality and sense.

Likewise, ponies will always look towards somepony to deliver them from this dark menace; a figurehead who exemplifies the valour and sacrifice of the Royal Guard and who will always be there to save the day. This pony was Prince Blueblood, much to his irritation and horror.

This entry, therefore, is of particular interest as it shows that Blueblood most definitely does not see his actions on that fateful day as anything approaching heroic. Again, this is likely his insecurities and neurotic tendencies showing through, as even reading this spectacularly candid document should show that despite his insistence to the contrary, Blueblood did display a great deal of genuine courage.

Ultimately, this battle would have far reaching consequences for not only Blueblood, but for all of Equestria as well. To help set this particular entry in context and fill in any gaps left by Blueblood’s entirely self-centred account, I will continue to add annotations. For those ponies not familiar with Royal Guard battle drill I have prefaced this entry with an extract from von Pferdwitz’s seminal work ‘On War’ which will help provide the reader with a basic understanding as to contemporary Royal Guard battle tactics.

-H. R. H. Celestia

---

Extract from Von Pferdwitz’s ‘On War’ 6th Edition

[This work, first published in the wake of the Nightmare Heresy, is still required reading at the Royal Guard Academy. Its entries on battlefield tactics, strategy, and the political purpose of warfare are still highly relevant in modern warfare. Over the years the text has been amended to keep up with updates in weapons technology and developments in strategy. At the time of the Changeling War the Academy was using the sixth edition. The popularity of this work is, in part, due to its uncomplicated language, which avoids the florid tones and technical words of many other military texts, and is thus understandable for the lay-pony.]

As the principles of Harmony pervade Equestrian civilian life, so too do they work in our military affairs. In the civilian sphere each subspecies of pony provides certain skills that ensure there is plenty of food and goods for us all. The earth ponies grow, nurture, and harvest food; pegasi manage the weather to provide optimal growing conditions for crops; while unicorns employ magic to make all of our lives easier and more comfortable. So too on the battlefield does this harmonious interplay exist.

The most basic unit in the Royal Guard is the regiment. A regiment, in order to be effective, must contain earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns in roughly equal proportions. Each subspecies is organised into separate companies, so the earth pony company will consist of nothing other than earth ponies, the pegasus company should only have pegasi, and likewise the unicorn company will only contain unicorns. Yet on the battlefield an army should still consist of roughly equal proportions of subspecies.

To continue the civilian analogy, each subspecies has its own particular place on the battlefield. To the earth ponies falls the most important and the most brutal of tasks. As in the civilian sphere they have the most important role of growing food, and all other ponies merely assist the earth ponies in their sacred duties, so too does this arrangement exist in war. They are the mainstay of the Royal Guard; they are the ponies who will do the bulk of the actual fighting. They shall use their superior strength and endurance in the brutal struggle of close quarters combat, and it is here that ultimately battles are won and lost.

However, a detachment of just earth ponies will find itself outflanked by the airborne pegasi or blasted apart from a distance by unicorns. Therefore earth ponies must operate in harmony with pegasi and unicorns in order to succeed.

Pegasi should use their ability of flight to guard the vulnerable flanks of the earth ponies. Their superior speed will allow them to be used as rapid response units, used to plug gaps in the frontlines or exploit breakthroughs and run down fleeing enemies. However, one must be wary as pegasi stamina is not the equal of earth ponies, and therefore they cannot dedicate themselves to the same sustained fighting expected of the earth ponies. Therefore it is often wise to employ earth ponies as the ‘anvil’ upon which the enemy will become mired in close combat, and use pegasi as the ‘hammer’ to strike at the pinned enemy’s rear.

Unicorns, by virtue of their abilities in magic, should be employed to cover the earth pony’s advance. Arrayed carefully by an intelligent commander, a unicorn company can unleash devastating fusillades of magic missiles at the enemy. Inflicting a sustained barrage upon an advancing foe will invariably damage their morale and inflict losses upon them, which will help when it comes to the earth ponies’ business of close combat. Commanders who are prone to take risks may even employ unicorns to shoot accurately into the mire of close combat, but this is unwise as it may result in friendly fire incidents. One should not over-estimate the strength of unicorns, though the ability to strike the enemy from afar is appealing to many, they are still very much vulnerable to attack. Many a company has been routed when a missile barrage did not result in the destruction or flight of the enemy, but instead they were able to weather the losses and charge in.

A good commander, therefore, will employ the use of all three pony subspecies effectively and harmoniously in battle. Use earth ponies as a blunt instrument to batter the foe into destruction, use pegasi as precision scalpels to target enemy weak points and guard the flanks, and use unicorns to provide long range fire support as the two armies close in for battle. If a commander can understand these precepts and use them well in battle, then he shall almost certainly prevail. Harmony is what has made Equestria so prosperous and it is what shall make Equestria undefeatable in war.

Night's Blood (Part 1)

Life in the Royal Guard is ninety-nine per cent boredom and one per cent trouser-ruining terror. That’s what Colonel Stiff Upper Lip told me on my very first day in basic training when I performed my mandatory Royal Guard service some five years before my induction into the Commissariat. Quite how and why exactly he wore trousers was a conundrum that I didn’t particularly want answered, so I just chalked it up to the usual eccentric senior officer nonsense that seems to be so prevalent in everypony with a rank higher than Second Lieutenant.

As I sat in my first class cubicle on the lengthy train journey to Dodge Junction, gazing listlessly out as the dull Equestrian countryside flittered past me at an obscene speed, I couldn’t help but think on those words and ponder just how accurate they were. Despite Stiff Upper Lip’s rather insane eccentricities, which included taking staff meetings while immersed in a bath carried by earth pony guards like a palanquin, he was rather insightful as to how life in the Royal Guard was lived.

Yet what he didn’t say was how that ninety-nine per cent was also spent in anxious anticipation of the one per cent. Considering he served when the purpose of Equestria’s armed forces was simply to stand next to Princess Celestia and prevent paparazzi from taking photographs of her consuming unholy quantities of cake [That happened precisely once and it seems nopony will ever let that go] and the occasional border dispute with Gryphons, the exact ratios of boredom and trouser-ruining terror may have changed somewhat since then.

I enjoy train journeys. They give one time to reflect and think, catch up on reading, or just ponder the great mysteries of life. All this provided you can secure a nice first class cubicle like me, if you’re packed into the cattle cart of third class then you can forget about that and instead concentrate on avoiding catching some hideous commoner disease. I, on the other hoof, took this opportunity to ponder where exactly my life had just taken a turn for the worse.

Even after only one night the newspapers were all filled with images of my handsome face, all proudly proclaiming me the hero of the hour who defeated another heinous Changeling threat to destroy Equestrian Harmony and steal all of our love. Bizarrely, even the Foal Free Press from Ponyville managed to snap a shot of me scrubbing Changeling innards out of my fur. While the attention was nice, and for once it was positive as opposed to having fruits in varying stages of decay hurled in my direction, I still felt a general sense of unease about it. Even then I had the lingering sensation that if I didn’t nip this trend in the bud ponies will expect more amateur heroics from me, and therefore foolishly force me into situations to demonstrate this alleged heroism. However, I still did not have any indication of where exactly my fraudulent reputation would take me, and if I did I would have done something about it rather than merely go along with the flow.

I had been stuck inside this train for several hours now, watching as the green and pleasant fields and forests of central Equestria slowly transformed into the sweltering plains and deserts along its south east border with the Badlands. Trees gave way to cacti, grass to sand, and herds of cows to roving tribes of buffalo. Cannon Fodder was in the buffet car, no doubt giving the other passengers a fright with his horrendous odour and insatiable appetite. I let him use my prodigious commissarial expense account, mostly because I wanted to be left alone for a while to brood.

It then occurred to me that with the warmer climate in the Badlands his body odour would become all the more fragrant.

I wondered if this latest venture was merely Auntie Luna plotting my death in an unusually elaborate way. As diarch of Equestria she could have just had me executed then and there; probably involving fire and brimstone from the heavens or the very earth swallowing me whole for whatever sins I dared to commit in her eyes (probably just merely existing). But no, it seems she wanted me to suffer by thrusting me into a new and frightening situation of which I knew nothing about.

On the wooden table before me were the briefing papers that Auntie Luna and her new Commissariat had so helpfully provided me, along with a drained cup of tea and the scattered remains of Cannon Fodder’s previous culinary escapades. It was an inch thick wad of parchment, written entirely in dense legalese that would have made even the most intelligent and studious lawyer give up and quit his job.

For the most part I had simply skimmed over it and found nothing that Auntie Luna hadn't already explained to me: the purpose of a commissar is to monitor a regiment for Changeling corruption, enforce discipline, maintain morale, oversee senior officer command decisions, and ensure that the political aims of the war are being followed. Exactly how I was supposed to accomplish all of this, however, was still a mystery. I suppose that was to be expected when I am the first of a completely new institution and given minimal training.

The first duty was easy. Before I grudgingly left the castle, Auntie Luna and Twilight Sparkle taught me a simple spell that would disrupt the illusionary abilities of a Changeling and show them for who they really were. I imagined it would simply be a matter of creating a schedule of mandatory scanning with this spell and teaching it to unicorns.

Enforcing discipline and maintaining morale would be infinitely more difficult, and the two duties I least looked forward to. I’m not exactly a people pony; I have trouble remembering names and I could barely manage my small staff of personal servants and maids on my estate let alone an entire regiment of nine hundred ponies. I supposed it was a matter of making the occasional motivational speech and doling out extra latrine duties for any naughty stallions. Probably something I could handle with reasonable enough confidence.

Overseeing senior officer command decisions was more complicated, seeing as how what I knew about military tactics and strategy could have fit on a postage stamp. As I understood it, however, from the vast tome before me and Luna’s ramblings I would simply be taking a supervisory and advisory role. That I probably could do better as it is far easier to sit back and criticise somepony for their decisions than to make those decisions.

As for upholding the political aims of the war, I was far less happy about that. Of course, had we known then what we now know about the true nature of Changelings we would have been far less sanguine about consigning an entire race to extermination. Hindsight, as the old saying goes, is always perfect and looking back upon this stage in the war, when ponies were baying for Changeling blood in vengeance for the attack on the Royal Wedding, it’s all rather embarrassing. The fact is that throughout this wretched war, the political aims kept changing on the fickle whims of politicians and the Equestrian public. This tended to make my job of making sure the troops knew exactly why they were sent halfway across Equestria to fight and die on some Celestia-forsaken desert rather difficult, as more often than not I had no idea either.

Despite mentally reassuring myself that everything would be perfectly fine my stomach still felt oddly hollow, as it was wont to do when I’m anxious. It’s an unpleasant, cloying, nauseous sensation in my gut that at once makes me feel hungry and sick at the same time.

Cannon Fodder returned from the buffet carriage just as we were entering Dodge Junction, his pouches and pockets stuffed with sandwiches, hay, and other snacks he had pilfered from the unsuspecting waiting staff there. Perhaps they were bribes to make him go away.

I watched as the rustic buildings of this tiny frontier town drift past us with a mixture of relief and heightened anticipation. While the train journey had given me some much needed time and space to myself, it was rather dull and strangely exhausting; sitting still and doing nothing for several hours except fret about how I’m about to die horribly is oddly taxing on a pony’s body. Above all I merely wanted to stretch my tired old limbs.

From my brief skimming of the briefing papers so helpfully provided by the War Ministry, I learned that Dodge Junction was a relatively new frontier town constructed precariously close to the Badlands. It was populated by a small number of ponies, probably all related to each other by this point, and had a slowly growing industry in the production of cherries. The fact that this town still existed was either testament to either the ingenuity of ponies to survive in the most inhospitable of environments or their sheer stupidity.

Army Group Centre was encamped on its outskirts, judging from the maps in the briefing files the encampment was approximately twice the size of the town and likely contained at least five times the amount of ponies. The encampment would be serviced by long supply lines that stretched across Equestria like arteries towards the heart. No doubt our rations would be supplemented by many, many cherries.

The train finally pulled to a halt at the station and the tinny voice of the announcer proclaimed that this was the end of the line. It certainly felt like it for me as I dragged myself off my seat, my joints clicking and cracking from several hours of disuse. My flanks were feeling somewhat numb after having sat upon it for so long, and was thus forced to perform a bizarre little dance to try and restore feeling in my rear and extremities.

If Cannon Fodder was even the slightest bit concerned by me flailing my limbs he made no sign and instead busied himself by fetching my luggage. It was rather difficult for him, lacking any magical ability at all, but after a brief fumbling with my trunk he managed to drag the large box out from under the seats and balance it upon his back.

“Ready?” I asked, getting somewhat impatient. I was to meet with an officer from my new regiment at the station and was eager to the get the invariably messy business of first impressions over with. Judging from my previous experience with the close-knit nature of the Royal Guard regimental system I was unlikely to be seen as anything but a meddlesome outsider. [The Royal Guard operates on the regimental system, meaning that the regiment is the basic unit of the military. Regiments generally recruit from a single geographical area, for example, the First Solar Guard recruits from Canterlot, the Second from the area around Ponyville, the Third from Trottingham etc. This helps soldiers form a close attachment to the regiment through a shared heritage and origin. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of creating inter-regimental rivalry and a distrust of higher authority beyond the regiment, particularly commissars.]

“Yes sir,” he replied blankly.

I shook my head and stepped out of my cabin. With non-essential travel greatly discouraged by the Equestria government I had the entire carriage to myself. There were a few individuals disembarking from the third class carriages behind us; probably either government bureaucrats or journalists I mused. I didn’t look forward to dealing with the press, but as political officer I wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

I stepped off the carriage and onto the platform, and straight into another stallion wearing steel plate armour.

“Ooph, that’s one way to make an introduction!” the stallion said in an obnoxiously cheery voice as he stepped away and allowed me my personal space.

I straightened my neck to look as tall and imposing as I could, which wasn’t difficult given my stature and the death-black and blood red uniform complete with its leering skull. I put on my best stern expression and glared down at him. As royalty I have had plenty of experience in perfecting the ultimate look of complete and total condescension.

Unfortunately, it didn’t faze him the slightest.

He was a young earth pony, probably still in his late teens judging by his youthful good looks and peppy demeanour, shorter than me and wore a permanent grin on his face that I found rather insufferable. Not because of its relentless cheeriness, mind you, though it was tiny part of the reason, but rather the grin showed off his razor sharp piranha teeth. These were the results of Princess Luna’s blessing which she bestows upon all of her Night Guards, along with the uniform grey fur and the creepy draconic eyes with slit irises.

Luna evidently had a thing for eyes, for there was one upon the Night Guard’s breastplate gazing up at me in a most disconcerting manner. Despite the creepy baroque armour, sharp teeth, and unnatural eyes he looked like a regular youth. At first I took him for a mere ensign, the lowliest commissioned rank who have the dubious honour of carrying the regimental standards into battle, but I saw the rank pips on breastplate and saw that he was in fact a captain.

I noted that his cutie mark, like all of the Night Guards, was concealed by his armour.

“Uh, do I call your Commissar Blueblood or Prince?” he said, nervously rubbing the back of his head with a hoof. “Or even ‘Your Highness’? Or is it ‘Your Majesty’?”

I shrugged, to be honest I didn’t even know the correct etiquette, but at least this young idiot was making a clumsy effort to show deference to his social betters, “Either is acceptable, Captain...?”

“Oh, sorry!” The young captain snapped off a clumsily salute by smacking his hoof against the front of his helmet. “I’m Captain Red Coat of the 1st Night Guard, I command the Earth Pony company. The other senior officers can’t wait to meet you.”

Of that I had no doubt, but whether they would actually like me was another matter. Red Coat seemed naive enough to believe we’ll get along like one big happy regiment, but I doubted that the other officers and the nine hundred-odd ponies they commanded would warm to me quite so well. Granted, commissars like me weren’t as feared and universally reviled by the rank and file as we were much later (largely as a result of a few of my over-zealous colleagues), but my apprehension was only growing.

I bade him to lead me to the encampment and my new life, and he did as he was ordered with his usual energetic aplomb. Cannon Fodder dutifully followed me with my trunk, being ignored as usual but phlegmatically unconcerned with his apparent invisibility. Fortunately, he travelled light that day; he was already wearing his armour and had very little personal effects save for his collection of gentlecolt’s specialist literature and a small photograph of his mother who, to my eternal surprise, turned out not to be a walrus.

The inbred yokels who inhabited this tiny village gave us a wide berth as we stepped through their little settlement, watching us wearily with tired eyes. As I learned through experience where a large army makes its camp there comes opportunities and misery in equal measure for anypony unfortunate enough to live nearby. Businesses can make more money by selling things to the soldiers, but the influx of thousands of bored troops tends to send the crime rate soaring.

I only half listened as Red Coat exposited much of his life story to me. From what I can remember he explained that he came from a relatively well-to-do family in Trottingham, which compared to my glory and wealth meant he was only a slightly more wealthy form of commoner. He had always dreamed of a career in the Royal Guard but his family could only afford to buy him a commission in the Night Guard, which tended to go much cheaper than the Solar Guard. [At this point the Equestrian military still employed the dubious practice of the sale of commissions, by which entry into the officer class and subsequent promotion could be paid for in bits. This ensured a largely aristocratic and socially exclusive officer class who later found out the hard way that wealth does not equate to military competence.]

Nopony liked the Night Guard, especially not me; they were an entirely new corps created by Princess Luna as a resurrection of her ancient personal bodyguard from before the Nightmare Heresy and therefore lacked the thousands of years of tradition that the Solar Guard possessed. Their disturbing baroque armour and the creepy side-effects of Luna’s blessing only made them even less desirable. The immutable laws of supply and demand were in effect; nopony wanted to be an officer in the Night Guard, ergo the prices were dirt cheap, and so they had to make do with Captain Optimism.

As we walked through the town I noticed new propaganda posters pasted to ramshackle buildings. A particularly intimidating drawing of Celestia’s face implored us all to ‘OBEY’, while a simple red poster advised us all to ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’, and a third commanded us to report anypony suspected of being a Changeling spy to the relevant authorities.

It was not long before we came to the encampment itself. It was a vast sprawl of large tents constructed on the immeasurable empty plain outside the town. The tents themselves were positioned rather sparsely, serving mainly as temporary residences for the officers, meeting halls, war rooms, stores, administrative offices, and field hospitals. Most of the rank and file slept under the stars in a large field pockmarked with various stakes in the ground where individual guardsponies claimed a spot to sleep. Presumably the weather pegasi ensured that they did not get soaked during their slumber.

The camp itself was alive with frenetic activity. I had never seen so many ponies in a single place before, not even the Grand Galloping Gala, on the rare occasion that it all went according to plan without any cake or animal related disturbances, could compare to it. Literally thousands upon thousands of ponies lived across this plain, calling the scrap of earth they slept upon at night home. Solar Guard in their gleaming golden armour and pristine white coats marched drill in complete synchronicity and discipline to my left, while above I saw pegasi practicing aerial combat manoeuvres which left white contrails streaking across the cloudless sky. To my right I witnessed scores of unicorns practicing war magic upon cardboard cut outs of Changelings; blasting them apart with iridescent magic missiles.

War has a distinct smell. Even when there is no battle fought there is still that unique scent in the air. Actually, it’s not just one scent but rather a mixture of many unpleasant smells that combine to make one ungodly odour; the sheer number of so many ponies congregating in one single place for a long period of time tends to cause a few hygiene problems. It smells of blood and sweat, gunpowder, rotten meat, anaesthetic, ozone, and bodily waste, and despite everypony else getting used to it I never did.

More Solar Guard troops were chatting loudly around a campfire; some more were engaged in a tense game of Go Fish, while a group of aristocratic officers watched me with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. They probably recognised me; there were probably very few ponies who didn’t recognise the esteemed Prince Blueblood, nephew to the Princesses and most eligible bachelor in all of Equestria. It was most likely curiosity over the brand new uniform I was wearing, and disdain over my blissfully unaware Night Guard companion.

“They say this is the largest army ever assembled,” said Red Coat confidently. I highly doubted that, the Changelings were probably massing an even larger army just beyond the mountains that separated Equestria from the Badlands.

“It’ll all be over by Hearth’s Warming,” I said with false confidence, merely parroting the general optimistic feeling that the whole war will be a cakewalk. A couple of glorious battles and then we’ll all be sipping tea in Queen Chrysalis’ palace. Even a cursory glance at a history book would inform you that wars tend not to be that simple and involve quite a lot of misery and bloodshed.

“Well, I just hope it lasts long enough for us to get some of the glory, eh?” he said with a big, eager grin on his face that would have served well as the subject for a poster on a recruitment centre.

The 1st Regiment was the only Night Guard contingent in this army and had sequestered itself in a small dank corner of the encampment from which the Solar Guard regiments, of which there were three plus a Royal Artillery regiment, kept a wide berth from. It was, however, quite near a rather large and impressive tent that I assumed served as general headquarters for the duration.

The Night Guards themselves were either milling aimlessly around their side of the camp, engaging in the garrulous idle banter of soldiers or engaging in gambling activities. The ones on active duty were taking part in numerous training activities; the unicorns were practicing combat drill formations, changing positions at the command of an aggressively voiced sergeant to present the maximum firepower against the imaginary enemy. The earth ponies were testing their great endurance and strength with a hike around the circumference of the entire encampment and the town, while the pegasi were overhead.

I became aware of hundreds of pairs of yellow draconic eyes staring at me, like an electric feeling over my fur. I stiffened instinctively, doing my best to avoid their piercing gazes. It became eerily quiet as we stepped across the hard, dry earth; not completely silent, mind you, as the constant sound of frantic activity, chatter, and sergeants bellowing orders was always present, but simply subdued as I awkwardly became the centre of attention.

“Carry on, carry on,” said Red Coat to his troops, trying to diffuse the rather awkward situation. A handful went back to whatever activity they were performing before my arrival, but the air of tense scrutiny remained. I was the rank outsider; an officious bureaucrat sent from Canterlot to make sure everypony was doing their job correctly.

There was a group of three Night Guards congregating outside a tent. They were officers, judging by the silver and gold ornamentation on their baroque plate armour, who regarded me with varying degrees of hostility and curiosity.

“Is this him?” the closest one asked with a voice like sandpaper. He was a dangerous looking pegasus despite his slight physique and small stature. If it weren’t for the masculine blocky face I’d have probably mistaken him for a mare. Of course, if I did I probably wouldn’t survive the beating he’d give me. The air of menace about him was only worsened by the grotesque bat-like leathery wings upon his back, like a hideous mockery of a pegasus’ graceful feathers. The stallion moved like a cat; slow, deliberate, and extraordinarily gracefully, like he was ready to explode into sudden and terrifying violence at the slightest provocation. I despise cats, I think they’re creepy little beggars and I dislike individuals who happen to look like them even more.

I nodded in response, doing my best to meet his intense and emotionless stare. The chilling amber eyes seemed to penetrate through me, and I could tell he was sizing me up; analysing my physique and looking for weak points.

“If you mean Blueblood,” I said dryly, “then he has arrived.”

The stallion coughed out a word that sounded something like ‘ponce’, but I elected to ignore it.

“This is Captain Blitzkrieg of the Pegasus company.” said Red Coat amicably, pointing out the stallion helpfully with his hoof.

“And Major Starlit Skies of the Unicorn company.”

Red Coat indicated towards the second officer, who was an elderly unicorn more focused on the book levitating in mid-air in front of him than he was me. I cleared my throat, causing him to glance up from his raggedy old tome at the pony that dared to interrupt his reading time. His expression changed rapidly from irritated disdain to sudden slack-jawed anxiety, which made his thick bifocals shudder precariously on his snout.

“N-nice to meet you,” he stuttered anxiously, dropping the book to the dusty ground with a heavy thud.

“Likewise,” I replied.

Starlit Skies looked a little more relieved and picked up his book, grumbling in irritation over the dust covering the hardback canvas covers. I watched him with vague amusement as he retrieved a small cloth from the recesses of his armour and proceeded to very carefully wipe down the now dusty surfaces.

“Oh blast it, I’ve lost my place!” he despaired as he frantically flicked through the pages to find his lost position in whatever tome he was buried in.

I left him to it and approached the third and final senior officer of the regiment. He was a big, imposing pony that towered over me by a good number of inches. His entire body, from what could be seen under the impressively ornate and baroque armour, was a veritable mountain of impressive muscle that put any stallion to shame. At first he appeared to be sneering condescendingly at me, indeed the way he carried himself had a certain aristocratic air, but then I caught sight of the left side of his face upon which was a grotesque scar that marred his once handsome features. The puckered scar tissue had pulled the left edge of his mouth up, so as to give the impression of a malformed grin.

“Colonel Sunshine Smiles,” announced Red Coat.

“Ah, we’ve been expecting you,” he said, his voice surprisingly warm and welcoming with hints of the refined upper Canterlot speech, he even held out his hoof to shake, which I did. “Can’t say I’m entirely sanguine about your presence here, I’ve worked hard to ensure that the regiment is an effective fighting machine, but what the Princess wills we obey.”

I nodded; I wasn’t feeling particularly sanguine about this arrangement either. Actually, I was rather surprised that he used the word ‘sanguine’; guardsponies brought up from the rank and file tended to have rather limited vocabularies.

“I’m sure you have,” I said, looking around at the guardsponies around us and nodding in mock approval. “I think the Princesses want to test out their new institution on a good regiment before letting us loose on the Solar Guard. You have a fine body of troops.”

That seemed to placate him, and he smiled genuinely this time. I breathed a sigh of relief, wondering how many more lies and platitudes I’d have to produce to get out alive with this job.

“Aye, soon to be fine bodies of troops,” said Blitzkrieg derisively, and to my surprise the other officers chuckled at the morbid display of gallows humour. I joined in, if only to ease the tension.

***

All in all, I didn’t think the introductions went too badly, except for Captain Blitzkrieg who always looked at me as if he was planning the best position to stick a blade in my back. After a while Red Coat showed us to our tent and then left us to get settled in.

Looking at the interior of an officer’s tent brought back memories of my previous life in the Solar Guard. It was not particularly well furnished or elegant, but it was comfortable and that’s what mattered. The tent was spacious, intending to serve as my office as much as my sleeping quarters, and was divided down the middle by a long piece of cloth with a slit cut through the centre to allow entry beyond. This was the ‘front of office’ section with a large foldable writing desk dominating it, a collapsible filing cabinet up against a ‘wall’, and a bedroll for Cannon Fodder to sleep on. Excellent, not only would I have to contend with his scent and messy eating habits I’d also have to put up with his snoring too.

As Cannon Fodder busied himself unpacking everything and arranging his little area of the tent to his liking, no doubt concealing his pornography collection somewhere where I or some innocent clerk will stumble upon it, I went through the slit in the fabric to my quarters.

They were comfortable enough, if sparsely furnished. Of course, the nature of these encampments is that they’re designed to be temporary, so everything was constructed to be able to be folded away and carried easily when the army was to inevitably march into Changeling territory and begin this war in earnest. There was a sizeable cot for me positioned against the far wall, a decently sized wardrobe to be filled with all one of my uniforms, and a smaller writing desk in the corner.

I was grateful for the near solitude, disrupted only by the sounds of Cannon Fodder fiddling with his meagre luggage and exploring the environs of his new office.

As I had discussed with Auntie Luna and as described in the accompanying guidelines, this job was to have a lot of paperwork. I was to be singularly responsible for the discipline and emotional well-being of nine hundred stallions and mares. As I have learned through my previous employment in the War Ministry one can’t so much as cough in the Royal Guard without having half a dozen forms shoved under one’s nose to be signed in triplicate and sent back to the Ministry for processing, only for it to be lost, filed in the wrong place, or accidently immolated.

That was why I had elected to bring Cannon Fodder. His nigh-supernatural ability to process large amounts of paperwork effectively and accurately, probably due to his literal-minded personality and tendency to obey all of my orders as if Princess Celestia herself flew down from on high and delivered them, helped alleviate much of the burden on me. His offensive smell and slovenly appearance coupled with his dull personality ensured that only ponies with truly important things came to me.

I levitated my trunk over from where Cannon Fodder had unceremoniously dropped it off in the corner. Given our proximity to the frontlines I had elected to travel light, bringing only things that could be replaced or I wouldn’t mind missing if Changelings had burst into our encampment and, for some reason, decided to burn down my tent. Most of my possessions were irreplaceable; nobility does not buy new things, but instead we tend to inherit our possessions. My estate, for example, and most of its contents has been in my family for over a millennium. The only things I possessed that could truly be considered mine were my clothes; as much as I enjoy the time honoured traditions of inheritance I didn’t fancy wearing something that my great-great-great-great-grandfather died in.

I popped the trunk on the cot and opened it, levitating out a few books on Equestrian military history onto the desk along with my writing equipment and a handful of random trinkets I had some emotional attachment too.

There was a blue bow-tie. A rather silly little old thing, but it was something that my Auntie Celestia had given to me when I finally graduated from her School for Gifted Unicorns. I put it on nevertheless, supplementing my rather sombre uniform with a dash of bright colour and class. I also found a rose, preserved forever with a magical enchantment to never wilt and die. It was the one that Rarity had picked out for me at the Grand Galloping Gala [Rarity describes this event in rather different terms]. I still thought of that mare, and I realised at that point that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her before Auntie Luna unceremoniously threw me on a train. Compelled by some similar sense of sentimentality I secured the rose to my lapel.

It was already starting to grow dark, as the train journey here had taken up the bulk of the day. I was feeling weary and exhausted in the only way an extended period of sitting down doing nothing can be. There was nothing more I wanted to do than lie back on my cot with a good book and a bottle of fine wine to wile the evening away, alas, that was not to be.

As I had finished arranging the various items on my desk, the sudden stench of body odour alerted me to Cannon Fodder’s arrival in my half of the tent.

“Sir, there’s somepony to see you,” he said, before pulling back through the partition.

I sighed, looks like I wasn’t going to get a moment’s rest after all, so I reluctantly followed my esteemed aide out into the front office area of the tent.

Standing by the desk was a unicorn stallion I hadn’t seen for at least five years.

“Crimson Arrow!” I said.

We had gone through officer training together and then served side-by-side in the 1st Royal Guard regiment. His deferential nature to me and eagerness to please his social betters was naturally endearing, though I have to admit I may have abused our friendship to gain certain favours or avoid performing duties I didn’t like.

He was of decidedly average build; his fur dyed a pure white just like the majority of the unicorns in the Solar Guard, and he bore a constant friendly expression that reminded me of an overly excited puppy. Then I noticed his uniform, it was the crimson tunic of an officer’s dress uniform, but the gold braid and metal pips along his collar marked him out as an officer of the general staff.

“It’s General Crimson Arrow now,” he said, still with that friendly grin on his face.

“Whoops, so you are,” I said jokingly, before snapping to attention and performing a curt salute.

Crimson Arrow’s grin only grew wider, “Bah, no need for that, technically I should still be bowing to you, Your Highness.”

“A general, how the bloody hell did they let you become a general?”

He tilted his head to one side curiously, “Oh, it’s not that hard to believe, I had the right connections and enough money to buy my way up the ranks. It’s a shame you left when your four years of service was up, you could have been Field Marshal by now.”

Ah, the usual mix of nepotism and money then.

I had to admit that ‘Field Marshal Blueblood’ had a nice ring to it, and the uniform did look nice, but I had enough of life in the Royal Guard and wanted to get back to my usual routine of doing precisely sod all in complete and total safety. But, as I had just recently learned, once the Royal Guard get their hooks in you they’ll always find a way of dragging you back.

“Anyway,” he continued, “Field Marshal Iron Hoof is hosting a small dinner party for the senior officers of Army Group Centre, so when I learned that my old buddy Blueblood was here I insisted you be invited.”

A dinner party with the Field Marshal? I couldn’t possibly turn that down; perhaps all I really needed after the past few days’ nonsense was to engage in the one thing I’ve been any good at – hobnobbing with my fellow aristocrats and high borns.

I instructed Cannon Fodder to hold the fort here, and after a brief explanation that it was only a saying and I didn’t want him to literally hold the encampment he nodded blankly and got back to work arranging his desk to his liking.

The Field Marshal had sequestered himself and the general staff of Army Group Centre in the town hall, having evicted the mayor and the town officials to make room for his own administrative team and commanders, which effectively put the whole town under martial law. It was quite some distance away in the centre of town, but the long walk allowed Crimson Arrow and me to catch up on lost time.

It seemed that Crimson Arrow had done pretty well for himself; his position in the Royal Guard had afforded his aristocratic family a great deal more pride and glory, elevating the Arrow estate from a minor family with little influence to one that was greatly expected among the Royal Court of Canterlot. They were an influential family which owed its success to me, in some convoluted way that, thankfully, Crimson Arrow wholeheartedly believed in. Subsequently, having the support of this now influential family would do wonders for my own standing back home, assuming I would ever survive for long enough to return to Canterlot.

Inevitably our chat turned back towards our time together in the Royal Guard. We laughed as we exchanged old anecdotes and memories of the not-strictly legal things we both got up to during our term of service. This, you see, was when the officer corps of the Royal Guard was nothing more than an institutionalised gentlecolt’s club masquerading as a military force. There was the time we sneaked into the 2nd Solar Guard Regiment’s barracks and stole all of Major Star’s medals.

“I wonder what happened to Stiff Upper Lip,” I asked as we finally reached the town.

“Dead,” he replied, “he led a charge into an erupting volcano.”

There was a rather awkward silence as I pondered the passing of one of the foremost and most insane minds in Equestrian military history.

“It’s what he would have wanted.”

It was pitch black by the time we reached the town hall. With a mandatory curfew in effect there was nopony out in the streets save for a few of the local militia standing guard and doing their hardest to look intimidating with their silly Stetson hats and home-made spears. [On the contrary, the Dodge Junction Militia has proven to be a rather effective civilian army. As a frontier town they are already experienced in defending their homes and livelihoods from hostile raids. Like many in the Royal Guard, Blueblood is rather dismissive of the civilian militias.]

Much like the other town houses and shops here, the town hall was a dilapidated old thing constructed with no regard to aesthetics or permanence. It was crafted out of wood and looked as if it was about ready to collapse. Overall it was a depressing affair, but still it was the largest single building and the inbred yokels who inhabited this town were probably rather proud of it. As Fancy Pants might have put it, it was ‘delightfully rustic’.

I was grateful to get inside though, and I was pleasantly surprised by the interior decor. Granted, it wasn’t anything on par with the grand ballrooms and estates of Canterlot that I was used to, but after that train ride and my time seeing nothing but tents in the encampment, some small amount of luxury was more than welcome. What was once the main meeting hall was repurposed into a war room which, in turn, was repurposed to a dining room for the dinner party.

A massive oak table dominated the chamber, upon which a large piece of fabric probably once used as part of a circus tent was draped in lieu of a table cloth. Plates and utensils had been set out, naturally, but the centrepiece of the whole ensemble was a small marble statuette of Princess Celestia standing triumphant over a beaten and cowering Changeling Queen. Apparently everypony here was absolutely confident of our victory, I, on the other hand, was rather more cautious about declaring our invasion a success before we’d even set foot in the Badlands.

The bare and barren walls of the chamber had been tastefully adorned with tapestries and banners of the regiments of Army Group Centre. I noticed how the 1st Night Guard’s dark and foreboding regimental standard stood out from the bright and colourful banners of the other regiments. For starters it was black, with a pale crescent moon tipped on his back and flanked by a set of pegasus wings, and the slogan ‘Virtutis Gloria Merces’ [‘Glory is the reward of valour’ in Ancient Equestrian] emblazoned upon it.

The senior officers of the three Solar Guard regiments plus the artillery regiment were already there, mingling amicably along to a pleasant soundtrack provided by a gramophone in the corner of the room. My hooves clopped loudly on the polished wooden floor as I stepped inside, and the idle chatter ceased.

Crimson Arrow stomped his hoof thrice and announced, “May I present His Royal Highness Prince Blueblood, and Royal Commissar to the 1st Night Guards Regiment.”

I puffed out my chest proudly and stood as regally impressive as I could. The effect was instantaneous, despite the grim uniform I was wearing, and the officers bowed or dipped their head down towards me. All of them bar one; standing in the corner of the room was a thin, wiry stallion of middle age. He wore the crimson of the Royal Guard dress uniform, but the white sashes and gold braid marked him out as Field Marshal: the supreme commander of Their Highnesses’ Armed Forces. His expression, from what could be seen behind his impressively enormous handlebar moustache was stern and emotionless, his eyes, however, were fixed upon me; judging and analysing me. I suppressed an involuntary shudder when I momentarily made contact with those intense, cold, blue eyes.

“Field Marshal, I assume,” I said finally, trying to diffuse the slight anxiety welling up within me. I saluted anyway.

The stallion nodded, “I am Iron Hoof,” he said in a refined Trottingham accent. “You must be this Blueblood fellow I’ve heard so much about, good show.”

There was something about that stallion’s character I found to be rather chilling. I couldn’t place my hoof on it at the time, and I had yet to learn that my gut instinct has the nasty habit of being right. Therefore I tried to push it out of my mind and slip once more into my refined dinner party persona that I had spent a lifetime cultivating.

I was in my element amidst the rarefied company of my fellow upper class ponies. Here was a society of elites, bound by the innumerable social laws that kept everything orderly and refined. There were no true friends here, however, merely tools to advance one’s social ambitions. Crimson Arrow, for example, in my tour of duty in the 1st Solar Guard I took him under my metaphorical wing and nurtured his family into one with considerable political clout, therefore he was beholden to me for his increased prestige and I could rely on his grateful support in future. In the facile parlance of modern middle management, it was time to ‘network’.

Unfortunately we had arrived rather late and there was no time for mingling. A bell was rung and we took to our seats, while servants, presumably in Iron Hoof’s employ, streamed through the door to serve dinner. They bore silver platters, upon which were a wide variety of fine foods and culinary delights – finest hay from the golden fields of the Mid-West Equestria, cherries from the cherry fields near Dodge Junction, apples from Sweet Apple Acres, and I even spied exotic guavas and kiwis imported from darkest Zebrica.

I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this wealth and opulence was appropriate in this state of total war. Granted I am the last pony to be preaching on the virtues of temperance, having recently just bought a solid gold statue of myself for my front lawn but in my defence at the time of writing this we are no longer fighting for our very survival.

At this stage in the war, the very early stage before we had even fought our first battle, it hadn’t quite sunk into our collective psyche just what total war means. For many of us, our only frames of reference were adventure stories written about the ancient wars of old Equestria or ancient texts. I had some inkling, but it was motivated by my primal need to stay alive and the vague feeling that wars are generally a bad thing.

I took my seat in the corner, next to Crimson Arrow on my left and Iron Hoof who sat at the head of the table. Opposite me was a young earth pony mare in an ill-fitting crimson dress uniform, judging by the rank pips on her shoulder straps she was a Captain in the 5th Solar Guard Regiment. Beside the mare, and diagonally left to me, was an older stallion of fine aristocratic breeding (i.e. inbred to the point of idiocy) whose rank pips signified him as the Captain’s commanding officer.

As we tucked into the first course of fruit salad, which was delectable as expected, I briefly glanced around the table to notice that a set of rather important ponies were missing.

“Are Colonel Sunshine Smiles and the others not joining us then?” I asked Crimson Arrow as the servants began clearing the dishes away and bringing in the main course of finest sun-dried hay.

“Oh, they never attend these social functions,” said Crimson Arrow, his mouth salivating a little as a plate of fresh hay was placed on the table before him. “We only ever see them during staff meetings, strictly business and no fun at all.”

“Besides,” the mare opposite me piped up suddenly, her voice cheery but refined, “could you just imagine what those ruffians would be like here? They clearly don’t belong.”

I tilted my head to one side curiously, idly curling some hay about my fork in the graceful manner taught to me by my regal Aunt. “Do you not send them invitations?”

“Oh we send them invitations alright,” she said, tossing her luxuriously blonde mane out of her eyes. “But we make it clear that they’re not welcome here.”

Arching an eyebrow, I decided it was best not to press further before I become embroiled in the class war brewing in the higher echelons of this army. At any rate, it seemed I was now representing the 1st Night Guard for this and, most likely, any future social events.

“They’re all commoners, you see,” she continued. “I’m sure you recall the last Grand Galloping Gala, how the most important social event of the entire year was ruined by those… those ragamuffins from country.”

“It was hardly their fault,” I said, “you can hardly expect commoners to understand the social mores of high society any more than you can expect a dog to. They were simply taken out of their comfort zone.”

The Captain nodded her head, pushing the hay around on her plate thoughtfully with her fork. “Which is why we can’t allow those brutish Night Guards here, we might be on the same side, dear, but that’s no reason to disregard the traditions of social class – the traditions upon which Equestria is built.”

“I don’t think I caught your name, Captain,” I said, trying to change the subject.

“Royal Lace,” she said, inclining her head towards me. “And I know who you are, Prince Blueblood, I dare say everypony should know Equestria’s premier bachelor.”

Oh dear, she was going to start flirting with me. In any other situation where my life was not in abject peril, and the anxiety of said peril not sitting in my stomach like a lead weight, I’d have happily taken advantage of this young and impressionable mare. The severity of my own situation coupled with my abject confusion over what I was exactly here for had put me off pursuing any such debauchery. Fear for one’s life rather helps put things into perspective, I find, and clarifies the mind greatly.

“Besides,” she continued, elegantly washing her meal down with the fine wine; Chateau le Chateau ’82 vintage if I wasn’t mistaken, “I hear that one of their number is a known criminal.”

“Really?” I leaned forward, for the first time actually interested in what she had to say. I probably should have looked at those briefing papers a little more closely beforehand if one of my colleagues was actually a lawbreaker.

She nodded, “Oh yes, the captain of the Pegasus company, I forget his name.”

“Blitzkrieg.”

“Yes, that’s it, such an ugly name. I heard that he was a gang leader in Trottingham, and when he was finally arrested they gave him a choice of either prison or serving in the Night Guard. I tell you, the Royal Guard is going to the dogs if we’re letting common criminals become officers.”

I nodded my head. From the very first moment I laid eyes upon Blitzkrieg I thought him to be a criminal, while I tend not to associate with the violent underworld hidden beneath some of the more densely populated cities there was an air of fierce menace about him. It wasn’t something I can exactly describe, but it was in his odd feline-like movements and the cold look in his eyes that implied that he had seen and perpetrated some awful things.

“Then there’s their Colonel with the ugly scar,” she rambled on. “There’s a rumour going around...”

“Come now,” said the Colonel next to her, thankfully interrupting her small rant, “it’s not nice to gossip about others.”

“Oh what utter rot, they’re only commoners, sir, these are the sort of ponies who eat fritters and hay fries and watch hoofball,” she said dismissively. The Colonel, rather than disciplining his young and naive subordinate, turned his attention back to the pony opposite him and continued their thrilling debate about cricket.

“Anyway, the Colonel with the ugly scar is rumoured to be ex-Solar Guard and a former noblepony, but something terrible happened and he was given a choice: accept a transfer to the Night Guard or be cashiered.” [Cashiered means an officer is stripped of their commission; since commissions cost a fair bit of money cashiering means the officer in question loses a considerable amount of bits. In theory, this was supposed to ensure that officers perform their role properly]

It made a degree of sense; it explained Smiles’ unusually aristocratic manner and possibly even the hideous scar upon his face. But my duties as Commissar probably involved quashing the spreading of such rumours, though I doubted that they would actually pay attention to any such edict I give out. These officers were already in a world of their own; nice, warm, and safe from the horrors they were about to be immersed into.

I tried to keep the conversation light, inquiring into the young mare’s life and background. She was from Vanhoover on the West Coast of Equestria; a cold and frigid place inhabited by a hardy stock of ponies with peculiar accents, I had the misfortune of visiting there once and I shan’t make that mistake again. Her father, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was Baron Gold Acre, whose noble clan was in a tenuous alliance with mine at the time. He bought her commission into the 5th Solar Guard as a Hearth’s Warming present. Well, I could think of many things which would make more suitable gifts for Hearth’s Warming, but she seemed very happy with it.

As we continued eating and making small talk I felt more and more unease about the luxury around us. My thoughts soon turned to my own life. It was not a matter of if but when we would be sent into battle, to be baptised in the crucible of terrible, bloody war. Everypony else talked about it in animated tones; they were excited, as if a disturbing lust for violence, long repressed, had been awakened from deep within the pony psyche. The sensation of feeling that I was the only sane pony in the room, the only one who felt the true enormity of what we were about to undertake, was disconcerting.

The pony next to her was Colonel Imperial Blue, whom I recognised as being of one of the many offshoots of my own noble clan (the Blood clan). The Blue clan was just as powerful and notable as mine, and in past centuries had alternately been staunch allies and better enemies of the Bloods. In recent years it seems that the Bloods have been superseding their old rivals in terms of prestige, seeing as how we avoided the deleterious practice of inbreeding to preserve bloodlines, thus ensuring that we did not devolve into drooling morons. [Blueblood evidently has never had a close look at his own family tree then] His manner, however, was much like Royal Lace’s with his approach to the war; an almost foal-like enthusiasm for it that, frankly, worried me.

Field Marshal Iron Hoof, on the other hoof, was cold and distant and spoke little of himself. When he did utter phrases of more than three words it was solely on the war. He spoke of strategies in a dull monotone that I absolutely could not follow or pay attention to. Fortunately, I had mastered the practice of pretending to pay attention after many hours spent in dull meetings with bureaucratic officials and Auntie Celestia. It was merely a matter of nodding along and saying ‘how fascinating’ and variants thereof at appropriate points in the ‘conversation’.

The main course came and went, our plates polished clean of the fine hay. With our bellies stuffed full of expensive food we all relaxed, except Iron Hoof who remained as aloof and distant as usual though nopony seemed to particularly mind. Servants produced a crystal glass decanter of port, the dark crimson liquid sloshed in the cut glass receptacle as it was placed down upon the table. As the servant poured out the fine beverage in our glasses, and others gave us a fine chocolate cigar each, I mused that this must have been where all the servants in Canterlot had gone; Iron Hoof had pilfered them all.

Getting more than slightly drunk on fine wine and port, the atmosphere only grew more congenial and relaxed. It was not long before Crimson Arrow and I began regaling everypony else with anecdotes of our time together in the Royal Guard, mainly focusing on old Stiff Upper Lip’s eccentricities, which were rewarded with uproarious laughter. We talked about nothing of any particular worth; things I couldn’t possibly remember now even if I tried. Looking back it just feels so distant; looking back on my past life after all that I have been through and experienced feels like trying to remember a dream – thoughts are unclear and indistinct, swimming together to form merely vague ideas and feelings.

I don’t know whether it was the effect of the alcohol, but I felt I was starting to finally relax after a full night and a day of terror and cloying anxiety. I was even enjoying myself. This was a return to my old life; a life of luxury where the biggest threat to me was a simple social faux pas that could easily be amended by appearing at an appropriate charity or benefit event. It was a good life; filled with good food, good wine, expensive things, and good company. Well, perhaps not the last one so much, but the fawning adulation of lesser nobles was sufficient enough for me, if a little lonely.

Yet there was still the nagging feeling that this was merely temporary. Even through the slight haze of intoxication I knew that in the morning I would be sober, probably with a slight hangover, and there would still be a war on. No amount of alcohol and fine food and empty platitudes would change that fact.

So I left feeling rather empty. We walked back together and continued our banter, though we left Iron Hoof in the town hall.

The night was eerily beautiful. Out here, in the back end of nowhere where even streetlights are considered an expensive extravagance, the full glory of Auntie Luna’s night sky was made evident. The moon shone its baleful yellow glow down upon us, while billions upon billions of stars formed a glorious mosaic above us. I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole Nightmare Moon incident one thousand years ago could have been avoided if ponies had bothered just to look up once in a while, then again Luna was a relative teenager at the time and ponies of that stage of development tend to have their own unique, selfish view of reality.

We said our goodbyes and parted, making assurances that we ‘must do this again sometime’. Again, my sudden maudlin mood swing was probably just a result of the alcohol coursing through my veins, but I was feeling rather dejected as I picked my way around the sleeping guardsponies curled up on sleeping mats on the ground. In the grim moonlight they looked disturbingly like corpses, if corpses could snore.

After navigating my way around the sleeping ponies I reached my tent with little difficulty, except for one Night Guard who suddenly embraced my hind leg and wouldn’t let go until I kicked him awake. He apologised profusely when he recognised the menacing skull upon my cap and did his best to return to slumber, most likely doing so with one eye open from now on.

There was a warm, welcoming orange glow in my tent, which made the various objects inside cast black silhouettes upon the beige fabric like a Neighponese shadow puppet show. I could see two figures sitting together, one of them probably Cannon Fodder by the silhouette of his grubby uniform and peculiarly malformed crest upon his helm, and the other a Night Guard judging by the creepy dorsal fin in lieu of a Solar Guard’s crest.

I pushed my way through the flap into my tent, rather curious as to what was so important as to disturb Cannon Fodder during lights out. I also pondered the wisdom of using candles in a tent made entirely of flammable material, but then I realised that Cannon Fodder, being a Blank, has no magical ability whatsoever and therefore cannot summon even the simplest of light spells.

Cannon Fodder was sitting on his haunches upon the floor next to Colonel Sunshine Smiles. The two were in the middle of a friendly conversation when I blundered inside.

“…so the doctor said I’ll never be able to use my horn ever,” said Cannon Fodder, apparently explaining his entire life story to the Colonel who, against all reason, didn’t look like he wanted to end his life then and there. “They even said I should get it removed and live the rest of my life like an earth pony, but it just didn’t seem right.”

“Nothing wrong with being an earth pony, is there?” said Sunshine Smiles, his friendly grin made hideous by that malformed scar.

“Can I help you, Colonel?” I asked, noticing for the first time that my words were slurring together clumsily. I must have been a little more drunk than I first realised.

“No, no,” he said as he slowly stood up, “I was just having a nice chat with your assistant here, very interesting.”

Cannon Fodder smiled at the praise and nodded his head gratefully, while I blinked gormlessly; ‘very interesting’ is not a phrase that’s readily applicable to the quiet and thoroughly unimaginative colt here. Indeed, I selected him as my aide for those two precise reasons, among others such as his ability to soak up powerful magics like a sponge.

Sunshine sniffed at the air, “Chateau le Chateau wine, my, you have been having a good time, Blueblood.”

I arched an eyebrow, or rather I tried to. Given my slight intoxication it was a rather difficult gesture to do. The Colonel was full of surprises; not only did he have the necessary intelligence and education to understand and use the word ‘sanguine’, he was apparently enough of a wine connoisseur to tell what wine I had been imbibing through scent alone. Or perhaps I was so liquored up that I practically reeked of the stuff, far more than Cannon Fodder does of his usual dirt-induced fragrance.

“You should have come with us,” I said, taking my cap off and placing it on the desk. A quick glance at the clock there showed that it was approaching midnight.

He shook his head in response, “No, no, I know I’m not welcome there anymore,” he said somewhat forlornly. “You want to know how I got it?”

I blinked, “Pardon?”

“My scar.”

I hadn’t realised I had been staring at it. I flushed a little with embarrassment at having been caught in such an act of discourtesy, but then it was rather hard not to stare at the puckered, damaged tissue that ruined what might have been a handsome face at one point.

“Shaving accident?” I said and instantly regretted saying it. I cringed and looked away, expecting a slap or some torrent of abuse. Instead, the Colonel merely smiled back; a genuine smile that still looked rather sardonic thanks to the scar.

“That’s it, I cut myself shaving,” he said amicably with a slight, albeit forced, chuckle. He patted me on the shoulder as he made to leave, “Good night, Prince.”

He then left, leaving me and Cannon Fodder alone in the tent. My aide crawled onto his sleeping mat and fell asleep almost instantly. I, on the other hoof, found sleep rather more elusive. It might have been the alcohol muddying up my sleep cycle, or the constant, unending anxiety that kept my brain turning when it should be resting.

There was a known criminal and fallen noblepony leading the regiment and me; a useless, talentless, cowardly hack who once accidently saved the day once while trying to run away. With that combination of inspired leadership I didn’t have much hope for the future of the 1st Night Guard regiment. In fact, I didn’t have much hope for the future of the entire Royal Guard itself. I didn’t know much about the average soldier, but on the whole they appeared to be well-drilled, well-equipped, and well-trained, but their leaders were an unknown quantity. At the dinner party I saw an officer class that was wholly inept and even unconcerned about the business of leadership; to them war was a game, and they were unaware, as I was, of the brutally high stakes that were to come. They existed in blissful ignorance and I envied them. It was a formula for military disaster; one didn’t have to be Neighpoleon to understand that.

Sleep that night, when it did eventually come, was restless.

Night's Blood (Part 2)

The following day I attempted to settle into a routine, though it was made rather difficult with the slight hangover I was experiencing. It felt like there was a small family of Diamond Dogs living within the confines of my skull and they weren't being particularly good house guests. With this in mind I set about trying to work out what exactly I was supposed to be doing.

I left Cannon Fodder once more to look after the front office, and he seemed rather happy to get on with his duties. In the absence of any particular orders I had decided that the best use of my time, other than lying on my cot and praying for the end of this headache, was to follow and shadow the senior officers. That way, I had hoped, I would be able to understand how the 1st Night Guards regiment operated. Most importantly, however, I thought it would be the option would look as if I was actually doing some work while putting the minimum amount of effort into it.

The encampment was in the process of dragging itself awake. Tired ponies who were on guard duty over the night slumped back to be replaced by fresh and alert guards. A few paused to exchange the sort of rough and vulgar banter the rank-and-file love to indulge in, before returning to their duties or crawling back onto their assigned bedroll to make up for lost sleep. The majority of the troops were lining up at the canteen tent to receive the first of their daily rations; a breakfast of oats in a feedbag.

The early morning sun was just cresting over the eastern horizon, over the vast flat plains that characterised this wretched little corner of our beatific realm. The sky itself was tinged a lustrous orange and gold, giving away to light blue, and finally darkness over the west where Luna's moon was making its descent over more empty and boring plains. The cool morning air helped clear my head slightly, though it still felt like my brain was immersed in a tank of thick, viscous fluid that was attempting to leak out of my ears.

I grabbed a quick feedbag of oats from the canteen, which was basic, nearly edible stuff in stark contrast to the opulent dinner I had the night before. The sight of me queuing up with the rank and file probably made for quite a sight, and indeed many of the soldiers stared in slack-jawed amazement as I, Prince-Commissar Blueblood, had deigned to line up with them for my daily ration of oats. In actuality I was cringing inside for being so close to so many unwashed commoners for an extended period of time, but I was rather hungry and I couldn't find the officer's mess. At any rate, showing the common guardspony that I was willing to tolerate their company and food for even a short while would evidently improve my standing in their eyes. This would prove useful later, for in the bloody crucible of war the troops were more likely to try and help me stay alive if they felt they liked me.

My hunger sated for now I went for a long walk around the Night Guard's portion of the encampment. The breakfast had helped in some small way to ameliorate the hangover, but it still felt like my brain was attempting to escape via my eye sockets.

A platoon of unicorns was performing magic missile drill, so I went over to take a look. They were arrayed out on a firing range, which was just a large space cleared out and surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron in a bid to prevent any stray shots from hitting any wandering ponies. The firing range was built in a way so that the unicorns would be aimed out of the encampment, so in theory if there were any misfires or if somepony accidently punctured a hole in the corrugated iron shielding the missile just go straight across the plains and harmlessly run out of energy or hit a cactus.

By the side of the firing range was an array of clay pigeon traps, the sort of machines that fire small discs into the air and one has to try and shoot them out of the sky. I attempted this ‘sport' a while ago and failed miserably; my horn-to-eye co-ordination is pretty terrible and I accidently shot the head off one of Auntie Celestia's statues the first time I tried my hoof at it in the castle gardens.

The unicorns came up to the firing line in groups of five at a time, where they did their hardest to shoot the flying discs out of the sky. Results were varied, I guessed about three out of the five could hit their target before being sent to the back of the queue. I spotted Starlit Skies sitting off to the side next to the clay pigeon traps, still engrossed in his dusty old book while a Lieutenant and five other guardsponies worked the machines. With little else to do I approached him.

"Still reading that old book, Major?" I asked and the poor old pony practically jumped out of his fur, though this time he kept a hold of his book.

"Oh, Commissar, it's you," he said and inclined his head towards me in a sort of half-hearted bow.

"What is it anyway?"

The old unicorn wiggled his nose, which made the glasses perched upon his snout jitter until they had been adjusted into a more comfortable position. This odd gesture, combined with his friendly expression and calm demeanour, was very much disarming and helped alleviate much of the anxiety I felt about his appearance as a Night Guard.

"It's ‘Fancy Mathematics' by McIntosh," he said as he held up the book for me to read the faded title on the spine of the book. "It's a fascinating book; McIntosh's insights into the application of mathematics in everyday life are most interesting, revolutionary even! There's an entire chapter dedicated to working out how many apple trees a single pony can harvest in any set period of time, the formulae even factors in such concepts as exhaustion-induced insanity."

I nodded blankly. Truth was I didn't care much for maths, or indeed anything remotely cerebral as I must admit that I'm not a terribly bright stallion. My understanding of mathematics never truly progressed further than ‘I have five apples and eat three, how many apples do I have left?' The answer, in case you're wondering, is ‘not enough for your pastry chef to make an apple pie'.

"Not exactly required reading for the Royal Guard, is it?" I asked. "Shouldn't we be concentrating on our duties?"

He looked up, his normally whimsical expression growing rather grave as he slammed his book shut dramatically and I wondered if I may have over-stepped my mark a little. Mirthless amber eyes glared at me through the distorting lenses of bifocal spectacles.

"Mathematics is the foundation of all knowledge," he said in the manner of a teacher lecturing a particularly slow young colt. "All of the laws of science and philosophy all rely upon the irrefutable fact that two plus two equals four, from there, all understanding flows."

I frowned at him and cocked my head to one side curiously, looking at the strange old stallion sceptically. I'm not a particularly deep thinker, as many ponies will readily attest, despite my expensive education in the most prestigious school in all of Equestria, so epistemology is hardly something I could get my head around.

"Don't believe me? I'll show you." He turned to the Lieutenant in charge of the stallions operating the machines, "Mind if Blueblood and I have a go?"

The Lieutenant, a young unicorn mare who would have been otherwise attractive if it weren't for those infernal shark teeth and eyes, nodded and barked some orders at her stallions. The firing line was cleared of ponies in short order, so I reluctantly took my place there just to go along with whatever point that Starlit Skies was trying to prove to me.

"Pull!" he cried, and a clay disc was sent hurtling through the air.

I adopted the stance; legs spread wide to absorb the recoil, and summoned the magical charge in my horn. I took aim, fired, and missed completely.

"A worthy effort," he said, lying through his teeth as I missed the stupid thing by a country mile. I wanted to blame all of the Night Guards around us giving me stage fright or the throbbing sensation in my head, but I knew deep down it was all down to me being a rather terrible shot. Besides, I couldn't see the point in focusing so much on accuracy; unicorn battle doctrine focuses on massed sustained fire on a large formation of enemies, not accurately shooting any small, flying discs of clay that the Changelings might suddenly decide to hurl at us. I supposed practicing precision shooting helped encourage discipline and hone a unicorn's control over his magical abilities.

I looked behind my shoulder to see him drawing complex equations and sums in the dirt with his hoof.

"Pull!"

I snapped back to the task at hoof. The disc sailed lazily through the air above me, so I let loose with a salvo of shots in the vague direction of the flying disc and was rewarded with seeing shatter into tiny pieces with only the fifth shot or so. Feeling rather pleased with myself I looked back to see Starlit Skies trotting up next to me.

"Not bad," he said, "but you guessed; you didn't think. You just pointed your horn in the vague direction of the target and hoped for the best. But if you bothered to take in such variables like the speed and direction of the target, wind strength and direction, gravity, and even the curvature of the earth into the equation then you can hit the target every - pull!"

A disc soared into the air. With supreme confidence Starlit calmly took aim and fired, blasting the target out of the sky.

"...single - pull! ...time - pull!"

Two more discs were similarly hurled into the sky and they too were blasted out of the sky with frightening precision. The crowd of guardsponies cheered and stomped their hooves in applause, which made Starlit Skies grin widely and bow graciously to his ‘audience'.

"How did you..." I muttered, for the first time in my life I was completely and utterly speechless. I gave up trying to complete the question, instead letting my jaw hang and flap uselessly. It must have made for a rather embarrassing sight, but I wasn't at all worried about that for the moment as my hangover-stricken mind ground to a halt trying to comprehend how this old stallion could perform such a feat of perfect shooting accuracy.

He merely smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder, "Maths, lad, maths."

I turned to leave in an irritated huff, ever the sore loser, but stopped just short of Starlit Sky's scrawled diagrams and calculations marked in the dust. I might as well been staring at Haygyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense it made to me; arcane symbols were interspersed with large numbers and peculiar squiggles that looked as if they were part of some eldritch spell to reawaken the Old Ones as much as a simple mathematical formula. Shaking my head I trotted off, stamping over the drawings as I went.

As I wandered aimlessly around the camp, doing my best to look as if I knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. Fortunately, I managed to stumble across the quartermaster's store room in the course of my meanderings and decided to address a situation that had just started bugging me. Since my unexpected and unwelcome induction into the Commissariat I had yet to be issued with my armour, meaning I had to trudge around in this ridiculous dress uniform that, while stylish, would offer no protection from the rending claws of the Changeling hordes.

The store room was simply a massive tent filled with enormous racks of Night Guard plate armour, spears, kitbags, and various other detritus and equipment that a Night Guard might need over his long career. In front of all that was a simple wooden desk, at which a unicorn stallion sat hunched over a massive stack of parchment. Ah, the joys of mountains of paperwork, I knew them all too well.

Confidently I stepped up to the desk, smiling politely but not too friendly, and he ignored me. Instead he was intent on scribbling something down on the parchment in an illegible script that looked as if a spider had been dipped in ink and left to thrash out its death throes on the paper. The pony was wearing full Night Guard plate armour, though it was covered in messy splotches of ink, despite his non-combatant status as a mere office drudge worker. The Royal Guard's tendencies to make its white collar administration workers wear the same combat gear as frontline infantry is a little perplexing. [There is some reasoning behind this convention; if the encampment were to come under enemy attack the ‘office drudge workers' would be capable of defending themselves]

I cleared my throat and the quartermaster looked up. "Can I help you, sir?" he said in a voice that implied that whatever I had just interrupted was of the utmost importance and therefore my interruption was a grievous sin. It was probably just that shipment of paperclips I had been working on before my transfer out of the War Ministry.

"Yes, I'd like to collect my armour," I said.

He looked up and down at me, "You're wearing it."

I blinked at him incredulously, wondering if he was genuinely afflicted in the head or being deliberately obtuse; either seemed probable. "No, I'm not."

He shook his head, "Yes you are."

"Look here," I said, tapping my hoof impatiently on his desk, "have you not eyes? Can you not see that this is my dress uniform for ceremonies, semi-formal functions, and other fancy occasions? Now, I'm sure you understand, it's only a matter of when rather than if I go into battle and I would much prefer to do so safely encased in shell of steel armour."

"Hooves off the desk, please," he grumbled in irritation and pushed my hoof back. He then grabbed a sheet of parchment from the mass upon his desk, cleared his throat as if he were about to speak sacred words of wisdom from a holy text, and read aloud, "A Commissar's combat uniform consists of one black double-breasted storm coat with red frogs and yellow epaulettes; one crimson sash tied about the waist; one black peaked cap with a winged skull insignia upon it, and one Pattern ’12 sabre."

"I see," I hissed at him, slowly removing my cap with my magic and holding it out in front of the little bureaucrat in front of me. "What's your name?"

"Uh... Pencil Pusher."

"So, Pencil Pusher, you're telling me that when I wade into combat the only thing stopping my royal skull from being cracked open and my princely brain being scooped out is this piece of starched cloth?"

He shrugged, "That's what Princesses' Regulations say."

"Well, I'm a prince," I said, putting my cap back on carefully upon my head and standing as tall and regally as I possibly could. "I demand a suit of armour."

"Sorry, the Princesses outrank you, no can do."

Of course they did, I was forever living my life in Auntie Celestia's shadow. Until that precise moment I was rather happy with my station in life, providing the perfect compromise between the prestige and grandeur of minor royalty but with relatively little actual responsibility. It was only in dealing with the omnipresent and all-powerful ‘Princesses' Regulations' did this become rather grating, especially in the face of common sense.

A small queue of guardsponies was beginning to form up behind me, some waiting rather impatiently to get their uniforms mended.

"Well," I said, trying to come up with another argument, "I am the Commissar assigned to this regiment and therefore represent the divine will of the Princesses, and for all intents and purposes I am the Princesses so on their behalf I order you to give me a set of armour."

The guardspony behind me snickered, "The Commissar is a princess."

I looked over my shoulder and shot the Night Guard a harsh glare, which caused him to whimper and flinch away from me as if I was about to smite him with holy fire.

"Sorry, doesn't work that way," said Pencil Pusher as he shook his head apologetically, a gesture I took to be insincere. "You embody the divine will of the Princesses in spirit only, not physically. Regulations say you wear what you're wearing now into battle and nothing more."

"Not even a helmet?"

The quartermaster glared at me, and I stiffened in response. I was not used to a pony saying ‘no' to me, unless they happened to be either my mother or Auntie Celestia, and quite often pulling rank on any imbecile foolish enough to contradict me or deny me was enough to make them see sense. Quiet indignation rose within me at this irritating little pony and I wanted nothing more than to reach over and ram my silly hat down his throat, but I relented.

It was official; Princess Luna wanted me dead in the most contrived way possible. Oh, it was not enough that she could simply vaporise me, she wanted me to suffer while maintaining the pretence that I would die for Princesses and Country and thus keeping her bloody hooves clean.

"Now if you'll excuse me, Prince, there are other ponies who require my services." He shooed me away with irritated gesture with his hoof and went back to scribbling down on his parchment.

I left in an irritated huff, resigned to the fact that in order to survive I would just have to stand behind all of the heavily armoured ponies and pray that they last long enough. Perhaps I could conceal a small breastplate beneath my tunic and somehow line the inside of my cap with steel, but then again tampering with my uniform might be against Regulations and I would therefore be punished for trying to protect my own life. Such was the peculiar hypocrisy seen only in the Royal Guard.

I trudged back to my tent and whiled the rest of the morning by going through the paperwork that Cannon Fodder had deemed worthy of my attention. There were a hoofful of routine reports; a few letters from the War Ministry in Canterlot congratulating me on my promotion, and a few incident reports I had to process. They were all very everyday things; in any situation where a large number of young ponies, barely out of their teens, are forced into constant contact with one another and are left bored for extended periods of time there's bound to be a few behaviour issues. They were largely harmless, nothing that would negatively detriment the war effort: instances of gambling, a drunken brawl, general insubordination. If these things weren't happening on a daily basis then there would be cause for concern.

Lunch finally came at noon just as my stomach started complaining noisily about empty void within. I had still yet to find the officer's mess; a haven of peace and relaxation from the daily grind and monotony of work, where the aristocratic officer class can indulge into a little luxury. My instinctive knack of subconsciously knowing where I needed to go at any given moment pointed me towards the canteen where I had retrieved a basic breakfast from, so I theorised that the mess was within that general location. It made some sense, despite being in rather close proximity to the commoners it was also rather close to vast food reserves.

When I told Cannon Fodder he could go for lunch he shot off towards the canteen like a rocket, leaving me to take yet another leisurely walk in the vague direction my special talent was telling me to go. The canteen became a veritable bustle of activity as the lunch troughs were brought out. Hundreds of rows of troughs stood outside of the main kitchen tent, while members of the Catering Corps shovelled oats, grain, and other unidentifiable vegetable mush into the waiting troughs. Upon being filled Night Guards dashed hungrily to the troughs and proceeded to gorge with all the grace and poise expected of such low borns, though I couldn't blame them; basic food that is filling and also tolerable is the fastest way to make a soldier relatively happy.

I circled around the canteen for a bit, watching the Night Guards eating. With their menacing fangs and amber draconic eyes they reminded me too much of predators attacking a huge meat beast. They chattered loudly, and I caught snippets of conversations about the war, Changelings, a game of cards that was scheduled for tonight, and, rather touchingly, of home and those left behind.

I thought of those I had left behind; every soldier inevitably has to leave somepony behind as they're shipped off to the frontlines. There were the obvious faces in my mind - my mother, sisters, Auntie Celestia, even Auntie Luna though she would never admit to being part of my family until much later; but oddly I saw Rarity amongst them. I berated myself mentally for letting her go; for my boorish and snobbish nature towards her in the Grand Galloping Gala had all but scuppered any chances of me developing any sort of lasting relationship with this mare. It occurred to me that I never got the chance to say goodbye to her before shipping out, I never got the chance to say goodbye to anypony except Luna.

"Oi, Blueblood!" a harsh Trottingham accent awoke me from my stupor, and I looked up to see Captain Blitzkrieg with the entire officer class of the 1st Night Guard digging into their own separate trough.

Feeling a little perplexed at seeing officers dining with the common troops, I trotted on over towards them.

"Was the ground really that interesting?" Blitzkrieg asked jokingly with a none-too-friendly grin on his sunken features.

I shook my head, "No, no, I was just thinking."

"Ah, contemplating our navels are we? Well don't strain yourself too hard; the Royal Guard doesn't like its members thinking too hard, not good for morale you see."

Colonel Sunshine Smiles was next to him. He glanced over his shoulder to see me and then scooted along a bit to allow me room. I could only stand perplexed at the sight before me. Officers, the ponies meant to be gentlecolts as much as military leaders and fighters, were amongst the common guardsponies and eating from the same troughs as they were.

"Aren't you joining us, Commissar?" asked Smiles, his muzzle was covered in crumbs.

"Where is the officer's mess?"

"You're looking at it, mate," said Blitzkrieg with his mouth full of feed, I cringed a little at the sight of the partially chewed food dribbling down his angular chin.

"We prefer to eat with the stallions," said Sunshine with a nonchalant shrug.

"I must say…" I paused, struggling to express my discomfort in an as tactful manner as possible to avoid turning my new colleagues against me, "…this is most irregular."

"You mean it's not the namby-pamby, wine-sipping, fairy prince things you're used to," said Blitzkrieg derisively. "Celestia forbid you have to live like a real stallion for once."

I moved closer, ready to ram the impudent little pegasus' head into the trough before Sunshine turned and raised a hoof to stop me. Had I been able to get closer to Blitzkrieg he'd have likely snapped my neck or sunk a blade into me before I even had a chance to place my hooves on his disturbingly skull-like head.

"Blueblood, I understand that this might be a bit of a culture shock to you," said Sunshine sternly, as if explaining this to a child. I huffed in irritation. "I understand that you're used to a life of luxury where ponies go out of their way to appease you. But you're in my regiment now and prince or not everypony shares in the same hardships."

With a sigh I shook my head despondently and approached the trough. I supposed it wouldn't be so bad, and thinking about what the Colonel had just said made a degree of sense; if the stallions see that their officers are sharing in their same hardships, if somewhat superficially at least, then it would raise morale. As political officer it was my duty to maintain morale, so this cheap little publicity stunt should go in some small way in helping the troops feel as if I was one of them.

I did not, however, shove my muzzle into the trough and gorge like a common mud pony [A rather outdated derogatory term for earth ponies, I have frequently asked Blueblood to stop using it] but instead levitated each morsel of the thick, grungy feed and nibble upon it with the grace and elegance that only a unicorn can muster. It still raised a few eyebrows amongst those around me who preferred the more direct route, but even in total war I would not sacrifice good table manners.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Brown stew,” said Sunshine Smiles, wiping his muzzle with his hoof.

I arched an eyebrow, “What’s in it?”

“Brown,” he said laconically. At that point I decided I was better off without knowing.

***

From there I managed to settle into a comfortable daily routine. It was primarily dominated by conducting vast amounts of paperwork; again usually processing and passing judgement upon a few miscreants. Sometimes I would be brought out to deal with a matter personally, for example there was the incident when one of the stallions had been caught sleeping with a married mare from Dodge Junction who was then punished by flogging him in front of the entire regiment.

I intended to run a disciplined regiment, and Sunshine Smiles supported me on this despite his rather lackadaisical approach to tradition. We had agreed on a ‘carrot-and-stick' approach to maintaining order in the regiment: the stallions would be rewarded for good behaviour and for working hard so I instituted extra rations and time off for those who excelled; but those who broke Princesses' Regulations would be punished to the fullest extent possible. That is, without resorting to my powers of summary execution.

The idea of summary execution appalled me and likewise the other officers, so we quietly agreed never to discuss it except in the most grievous of circumstances. As for me, I couldn't think of a worse way to endear myself to the rank-and-file than flaunting my authority to kill any single one of them for whatever charge I felt appropriate. While I was not there to make friends with the common soldier, I wanted them to at least like me enough to try and protect me when the shrapnel and magic missiles start flying.

I brought up topic of the risk of Changeling infestation in the ranks, and the officers were understandably worried about that. Therefore I taught the Changeling illusion-breaking spell to Major Starlit Skies and the rest of the unicorn officers with minimal trouble, aside from one small accident where Ensign Gleaming Spear was temporarily turned into a chicken. We then set up a weekly screening schedule for everypony in the regiment, starting with me to reassure the stallions that the effects of the spell were harmless. I was relieved to find out that I'm not secretly a Changeling.

Another one of my new duties was educating the soldiers about their role in the wider war, one that I did not launch myself into with any particular relish. The stallions were rather ignorant of the aims of the war and, I confess, so was I. In our daily sessions where I held large seminars we all agreed on the vague goal of ‘punishing the Changelings for attacking Canterlot', but beyond that we could come to nothing else concrete. The Ministry of Misinformation tried to be helpful by giving me a load of pamphlets and reading material to hoof out and discuss, though I suspect these ended up being used as toilet paper. Not that I could blame the soldiers exactly, as the pamphlets were full of hilariously bad mistakes and lavatory paper was always in short supply. I recall one pamphlet described the Changelings as being ‘scared of loud noises' and another about how they will sacrifice our foals to their dark queen-goddess. Even the common uneducated hoof-soldier could see this as the transparent, empty propaganda it truly was.

After a while I gave up on these seminars. Either through my ineptitude or the incompetence of the reading material given to me it became clear that these just weren't working. Instead, I transformed these seminars into a free and open platform for the troops to voice any concerns they might have to me. They were rather shy at first, not trusting the bizarre prince in a ridiculous uniform asking them ‘how does the war make you feel?' but eventually they began to open up to me and I did my best to address their concerns and questions. Besides, I supposed the best way to accurately gauge morale is to actually ask the troops. The officers of the regiment were largely receptive when I approached them with my findings on the troops’ morale, as most had a close relationship with their troops anyway. All of the officers, that is, except Captain Blitzkrieg.

It was after the first week when the incident happened. The novelty of being the first Commissar had worn off for all involved by now and, while I wasn't fully integrated into the regiment, the vast majority of ponies didn't regard me with barely concealed contempt any longer. The officers were especially pleased when I took over the discipline roles from them, allowing them to concentrate on the more important task of preparing the troops for battle.

On a balmy Monday morning I was dictating a letter to Cannon Fodder to send to Princess Luna, complaining about the poor quality of the latest batch of ‘educational' pamphlets that had been delivered to me to disseminate amongst the troops.

"…the poor quality of these pamphlets extends not only to their content but also in their presentation," I said as I paced up and down the front office area while Cannon Fodder furiously scribbled down the words with messy mouth-writing, "in ‘On the Barbaric Ways of the Changelings' I have counted no fewer than thirty-seven spelling errors. I have enclosed a copy of the said pamphlet with this letter with the errors clearly marked out in red pen. Such poor workhorse-ship is most unbecoming of Their Highnesses' Royal Guard…"

"Commissar!" a Night Guard Pegasus blundered into my tent in a flail of hooves and batwings. He arrested his movement just before he could barrel into me, and snapped off a clumsy salute.

I yelped in surprise and flinched back, knocking over the table. As Cannon Fodder quietly righted the desk and scooped the papers, quill, and ink pots I regained my composure quickly and looked sternly at the intruder.

"You must have a good reason to interrupt me," I said, making my irritation as obvious as possible.

"Sorry, sir, it's very urgent," he said. The pegasus' amber eyes flittered back and forth between me and the entrance flap nervously, his heaving chest and heavy breathing, coupled with the rank sweat pouring down his coat, implied he must have rushed to get here so I was therefore inclined to believe him.

"Well spit it out then!"

"Captain Blitzkrieg," he gasped between sucking in deep breaths of air, "he's arguing with one of the Solar Guard officers, sir, thought I should fetch you; seemed important."

I swore loudly, which made even the pegasus blush. Yes such language was conduct unbecoming of an officer, a gentlecolt, and a prince of the realm, but I had been dreading this moment ever since I had lain eyes upon Blitzkrieg. Every regiment has its own gang of troublemakers, usually they're resigned to a small group of malcontents in the rank-and-file who need a good flogging to beat some sense and discipline into them, but to have one as a senior officer was dangerous.

After apologising for my language I ordered Cannon Fodder to finish drafting the letter to Princess Luna, a task which would take him quite a while considering he didn't seem to particularly understand the meaning of the letter, before ordering the pegasus to take me to Blitzkrieg. I had to prevent an incident between the Solar Guard and the Night Guard, one which could spell disaster for Army Group Centre before we had even packed up our things and marched into Changeling country.

The pegasus, whose name I found out to be Storm Rider, gave me an a précis account of what happened. Apparently there had been some altercation between Blitzkrieg and the unicorn captain from the 3rd Solar Guard regiment, Clear Heavens, which invariably led to blows being landed. Clear Heavens insisted that it was too difficult to tell who had thrown the first punch, but I was reasonably certain it was Blitzkrieg. The pony was a powder keg, if you pardon the cliché, though compared to the other officers I spent little time with him I could tell he had a significant attitude problem with outside authority. Coupled with the vocal elitism of the Solar Guard it would have only been a matter of time before it all broke out.

We came to the edge of the Night Guard area of the encampment where a large group of ponies were congregating. They were cleanly divided into two groups; the bright and shining Solar Guard and the dark and mysterious Night Guards facing off with one another. Storm Rider barked a few orders and pushed ponies out of my way, apparently taking my order to bring me to the scene of the altercation as bestowing commissarial authority upon him. At any rate, upon seeing my stupid peaked hat the crowd soon parted to let me through/

At the centre of this crowd was Blitzkrieg and Clear Heavens being held back by their respective guardsponies. Clear Heavens had blood leaking out of his nose and staining his white coat and golden armour a crimson red, while Blitzkrieg snarled at his opponent like a caged animal and screamed for his stallions to let him go. Thankfully, the pegasi had more sense than that.

The baying crowds fell silent, save for Blitzkrieg who was still crying bloody murder, as I approached.

"You have two minutes to explain before I have the both of you flogged," I said slowly, allowing the full weight of my words to sink in. "One hundred lashes, each." It was a veritable death sentence for anypony unblessed by the Royal Pony Sisters, but it would be excruciatingly painful for the both of them. [The blessings my sister and I grant to all of our Royal Guard not only change how a pony looks but grants them superior strength and endurance, allowing them to survive things that might kill or maim any other unblessed pony.]

Blitzkrieg responded by spitting bloody saliva on dusty earth by my hooves. "Do your worst, I've been flogged harder than any of you pansies for less."

I sighed and shook my head, "Blitzkrieg, why don't you just tell me what happened?"

The pegasus pointed an accusing, unshorn hoof at the bloodied Solar Guard officer before him, "He called Princess Luna ‘Nightmare Moon'."

There was an awkward pause as I tried to digest what exactly was going on. This fight was over a bit of foalish name calling?

"So?" I asked.

Blitzkrieg spat again. "I knew you'd take his side, you snobs are all the same. The Princess saved me from a life in jail. I was a bad colt before I joined up; rape, murder, extortion, drugs, you name it I've done it, dealt it, or bucked it, or all three at once. Then they caught me, they were going to lock me away forever, but Princess Luna came to see me when they passed judgement and told me I can either go to prison or have a second chance by serving in her armies. So I served here, it took me two bucking years but I made it, two years of gits like you and this dickhead [Derogatory term for unicorns, since their horns are supposedly phallic symbols] looking down on me. I owe her my life, she saved me"

So, the rumour was true after all. I was not only dealing with a known criminal, but a rogue and blackguard of the highest order. I don't know what Luna was drinking or smoking when she thought that this was a good idea, possibly she was incredibly desperate for new recruits given the historical unpopularity of her Night Guard compared to the golden Solar Guard. Perhaps she saw something within this beaten old Trottingham pegasus that could be used as potential for a good officer.

I nodded, trying to keep my expression friendly but otherwise neutral. "So you hit him?"

"Yeah but he hit me first, slapped me around the face like a filly. I've been hit harder by whores."

"Is this true?" I asked Clear Heavens.

"I challenged him to a duel," he said, wiping the blood from his nose. "And mark my words, Your Highness, one day Nightmare Moon's going to be all ‘the night will last forever' again and these animals, her flunkies, her slaves, will turn on all of us when we least expect it."

"You challenged him to a duel?"

Blitzkrieg blinked gormlessly, "What's a duel?"

"See?" Clear Heavens shrieked incredulously. "How can you claim to be an officer in Her Highness's Royal Guard if you don't know what a duel is? He insulted my honour and that of my regiment; I will not lower myself to repeat his hateful words."

"It's a fight to resolve matters of honour," I explained, trying to use as simple terms as I could, "it's a tradition amongst officers of Their…" I pointed a hoof at Clear Heavens and he paled a little, "…Highnesses' Royal Guard."

"Oh, a fight, I can do that!" said Blitzkrieg with sudden enthusiasm, like a child learning a new word.

"You imbecile," said Clear Heavens, "it's not a simple brawl, it's a refined tradition to restore honour. You have insulted the honour of the 3rd Solar Guard regiment, and I demand satisfaction."

I applied hoof to forehead and rubbed my aching temples. A duel, that's just what we needed. I had no doubt that in a brawl Blitzkrieg would invariably come out on top, I had seen him training before on the parade ground and he was quick, brutal, and had no compunction about going for areas considered off-limits by other, more sporting stallions. But in an honourable duel he would be wiped out. Clear Heavens was a fencer and would most likely pick swords, as a unicorn he would have the advantage over the pegasus' unfamiliar mouth-held blade.

Despite my misgivings about him, with the offensive into Changeling territory looming fast I couldn't afford to lose the regiment's pegasus captain. Reluctantly I stepped between them.

"Captain Blitzkrieg is in no condition to fight a duel with you, I will take his place," I announced clearly.

[It seems rather incredulous for ponies these days that officers of the Royal Guard were allowed to duel one another to the death. As Blueblood had explained previously, the Royal Guard, up to this point, was more like a socially-exclusive club for young aristocrats to spend their early adulthood while pretending to perform duties to the Twin Crowns of Equestria. Before the abolition of duelling in the subsequent Twilight Sparkle Reforms (which will be examined later in this manuscript), the practice was even enshrined in Princesses' Regulations. Since the matter was of regimental honour, it was perfectly legal for Blueblood to stand in for Blitzkrieg.]

"You what?" Blitzkrieg blurted out. "Listen, mate, I appreciate you trying to help me now but I can handle my own fights."

I shook my head and approached the restrained pegasus. "No, this isn't some pub brawl. You don't know how to use a sword, you don't know how to fence, and he's likely going to kill you."

He glowered at me, and those intense amber eyes seemed to burn into my soul. I flinched back slightly, unable to meet the harsh glare. "This is my fight," he said, slowly and calmly but with brutal venom behind those words, "this is my fight, not yours."

"You're in the 1st Night Guards, this is our fight," I said. "Listen, you said Princess Luna gave you a second chance, do you want to disappoint her by throwing it all away in some stupid fight you can't possibly win?"

Blitzkrieg bowed his head and stayed silent for a moment, apparently deep in thought, though the scornful expression on his face never faded. After a while he looked up and stared at his opponent, who was already picking out thin rapier blades offered to him by his orderly. "You think you can win?"

I nodded, while in reality I sincerely doubted it. I was out of shape and it showed, despite my new exercise regimen to bring me back up to the peak of physical fitness I was still showing an embarrassing amount of pudge. Yet out of all of the officers I was probably the most experienced fencer available, I wasn't sure about Sunshine Smiles but again his lack of telekinetic magic to hold the thin rapiers would put him at a massive disadvantage. Naturally, in accordance with the way fate tends to conspire against me, it fell upon me to uphold the regiment's dubious honour.

"Alright," said Blitzkrieg finally, "fight like a Night Guard and show me what a namby-pamby, wine-sipping, fairy prince can do."

The crowd formed a ring around us; the field of honour where this rather silly little argument would finally be sorted. I didn't want this, but not even I could very well disregard the sacred traditions of duelling. To use my commissarial authority to call off this farce would only breed further resentment with the Solar Guard, who would feel that I cheated them of their honour. Irritatingly I found myself trapped once more in the social traditions that bound the upper class together, rather than using them for my own advancement.

Therefore I reluctantly took my place on the field of honour and disrobed. The ancient strictures of unicorn duelling dictated that no armour and no clothing of any sort be worn on the field of honour, as doing so might give one unicorn an unfair advantage. Combatants were also forbidden from using any magic other than that necessary to hold our weapons aloft and use them. Anypony unscrupulous enough to use any other spells would be branded a dishonourable cheater forever, a fate akin to death for the prideful aristocracy to which I belonged. The idea behind all of these rules was to ensure an as fair a fight as possible, with only the combatants' skill the deciding factor.

My discarded clothes and cap were given to Storm Rider, who held them reverently as if they were the sacred vestments of Princess Celestia herself. Clear Heavens' adjutant offered me a rapier, which I enveloped via the hilt with my magic telekinetic aura. I gave the blade a few testing swings with my magic. As expected it was a well-balanced blade constructed perfectly for the refined art of duelling, in a real battle the needle thin blade would snap far too easily and couldn’t possibly penetrate steel armour or Changeling chitin.

Clear Heavens removed his armour and took his position opposite me, holding his weapon in a soft green aura he brought it up to his face and kissed it. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous, clichéd gesture and simply raised my sword in a guarded defensive position.

Without his armour Celestia's Blessing faded away; his pure white coat returned to its natural pale blue colour, and his white mane exploded into a luscious blond. I suppose he might have been considered a rather handsome young stallion, if it weren't for the scuffs on his face, the blood dribbling out of his nose, and the expression of pure, aristocratic contempt. His cutie mark was a sun emerging from behind a white, fluffy cloud.

As far as I could remember, he was of a minor aristocratic clan that owned a small scrap of land around Los Pegasus, his father was probably a baron or some other low rank of some description. In peacetime he wouldn’t have been worthy of my time and attention, unless he had insulted me directly or had powerful ‘friends’. He was just another upstart minor noble; a bottom feeder amongst us sharks. Unfortunately, this was not peacetime and I simply couldn’t ignore this duel – honour had to be satisfied.

"We will duel to the death or until one of us submits," he said gravely.

"In accordance with tradition," I replied. I'd rather it didn't come to killing, and I didn't particularly want to die at the end of some impudent minor aristocrat's blade over some trivial little argument like this. Dying at the hooves of this upstart whelp would have been as embarrassing as it was inconvenient. Come to think of it I didn't want to die at all, which made me one of the rather more sane officers in the Royal Guard at the time.

Captain Royal Lace of the 5th Royal Guard stood in for a referee to ensure a good, clean, honourable fight. The young mare's infatuation with me had rather grown, though it merely extended to displaying certain subtle hints that I pretended not to notice. Unfortunately, it seemed that she had taken that to mean I was playing ‘hard-to-get' and redoubled her efforts. Even on the duelling ground she winked and batted her eyelashes at me. At least it meant she was on my side, whatever good that would do me.

Of course, my possible imminent death at the hooves of this duellist was of more concern at that moment. From the way he held his sword I could tell he was intimately familiar with it, probably trained from a young age in the rare art of fencing. Though I was a keen fencer, if somewhat out of practice, I had never fought a proper duel before. Fortunately, my standing as Princess Celestia's nephew tended to dissuade the more pompous upper class nobility from offending my honour. Here, however, duelling was a firm tradition amongst the officer class, even a method of promotion in some extreme cases.

Royal Lace held a small, white hoofkerchief and I watched it nervously out of the corner of my eye. Internally I was berating myself for even getting involved like this; it might have all just blown over if I hadn't interfered. Sure, there might have been a big brawl, some ponies would end up hospitalised for a bit and I'd have to order floggings all around for everypony involved (once they recovered and were discharged from the field hospital), but it wouldn't have involved me getting into any mortal danger.

The thin square of white fabric wafted delicately down to the ground, signalling the duel had begun.

Clear Heavens leapt towards me with unexpected ferocity, blade thrust towards me to impale me upon its length. I barely had enough time to bring my own blade up to deflect the attack. His blade clashed with mine in a shower of sparks as steel met steel, and I pushed his weapon to the left. It was too predictable a move and he saw that; rather than resisting me by pushing back on his weapon he suddenly pulled back, causing me to stumble forward in surprise, before lashing out with a wide sweep.

I darted back but the tip of the blade nicked me across the chest, leaving a long but shallow wound that wept blood onto my white fur.

It suddenly became very hot, and sweat trickled over my nude body and matted my previously clean and sweetly scented fur. In the heat, either from the oppressive sun or my own fear, my blond mane became matted and fell across forehead and eyes in bedraggled clumps. I felt sick, with a nasty hollow feeling in my chest despite my heart hammering away behind my ribcage. I wanted nothing more than to pull away and vomit in peace.

With a bestial whinny of rage he lunged forward again and again, and each time I barely managed to block the onslaught of thrusts and slashes against me. From the crazed look in his cold blue eyes and the menacing snarl upon his face I knew he truly meant to kill me. Such was the wrath of a minor noble scorned, desperate to wash away Blitzkrieg's insult upon his honour with my blood.

His thirst for revenge was to be his downfall; he grew over-confident, hacking and slashing with little refinement or thought behind his assaults. I reacted defensively, stepping back closer to the baying crowd of roaring guardsponies, to lull him further into his confidence. It was a dangerous tactic to encourage such ferocity in my opponent, for I feared I would not be able to keep up with the brutish tempo of his onslaught of thrusts and slashes.

His attacks became clumsy, no doubt feeling the magical strain of thrashing his weapon around like that. He swept his blade wide and I saw my chance. I dived under the sweeping arc and rolled to the right, before lashing out with my blade and striking his unprotected chest. The blow was shallow and by no means fatal; I didn't want to kill him, though I could have easily forced the blade between his ribs and punctured his lung and heart.

My opponent hissed and flinched back, swinging his blade down, which I blocked easily. Leaping to my hooves I pushed my weapon away and then violently reversed its momentum. The sudden burst of magic to change the sword's direction of movement sent a sharp, stabbing ache into my horn. The hilt of my sword smashed into Clear Heavens' horn, shattering his attention with the sudden agony known only to unicorns. [For the benefit of pegasi or earth ponies who may be reading, a unicorn's horn becomes extremely sensitive when ‘lit' with magic. It is said that being struck in this manner is the worst pain imaginable, often likened to childbirth or being kicked in the groin.]

Clear Heavens recoiled back and his concentration faltered enough for the magical hold on his weapon to disappear. Seizing my chance, I grabbed up his sword in my aura and held both blades threateningly at his neck. When he had quite recovered from my rather underhanded attack he stiffened at the sensation of two, needle sharp points pressing against the nape of his neck. History seems to forget about that particular cheap blow, Celestia forbid that ponies learn that their favourite hero had to resort to a vulgar horn attack to save his own wretched life.

He glowered at me, looking battered, bruised, and exhausted from the brief fight. Closing his eyes he stiffened and awaited for the inevitable to come, muttering a prayer to Celestia to receive his soul.

"Do you yield?" I asked, not wanting to kill an unarmed pony.

He remained quiet, silently murmuring his prayer.

I flicked one of the blades up, slashing a thin red line upon his left cheek. The stallion gasped at the sudden pain. "Do you yield?" I asked again more forcefully.

He opened his eyes and stared into mine, blood trickled down from the open wound in his cheek. "Is this what has become of you, Prince Blueblood? Associating with criminals and wretched commoners with ideas above their station? Look at them, they are the worst dregs of Equestrian society, deluded to believe that they are worthy of serving alongside us. Worse still they follow the Princess of the Night; Nightmare Moon, and mark my words ponies, it will only be a matter of time before she turns on our beloved Celestia..."

I had quite enough of the rant, so I slashed his other cheek with the other sword. He yelped in pain, touching his hoof to the wound.

"Do. You. Yield?" I growled, and pushed the two blades a little more forcefully against his neck, not enough to break the skin mind you but just enough to give the illusion that I was quite prepared to kill him.

"Y-yes," he finally gasped, bowing his head low in defeat.

With an audible sigh of relief I dropped my weapons to the dusty ground as a wild cheer rose up from the Night Guards behind me. Honour satisfied, the Solar Guard dispersed back to their duties with only Clear Heavens' adjutant remaining to collect the discarded weapons.

Royal Lace gave a graceful, feminine giggle of approval and clapped her hooves together. She trotted over to give me, the victorious stallion, a kiss on the cheek with a vivacious chuckle before cantering off once more. I was rather too exhausted and happy to be still alive to notice or care at the time.

My legs felt like jelly as relief washed over me, and all of the aches and pains that had been suppressed by the primal need to survive came flooding in as they do after every fight I've been in. My shoulders ached, and pain flared there when I tried to move my front limbs. There was a stinging pain across my chest where I had been slashed, and only just then did I look down and realise that the wound I had suffered was a damn sight more serious than I had initially thought. It was bleeding quite a lot now, and I felt rather woozy just looking at the crimson fluid staining my white fur.

"You sure showed them, Blueblood," said Blitzkrieg, patting me on the shoulder with enough force to almost send me toppling over. "Maybe you're alright, for a ponce, oh..." his jovial expression suddenly turned serious as he saw the rather large wound on my chest, "... I'm taking you to the hospital."

"It's-it's," I gasped between ragged breaths, "it's only a flesh wound." I despise that cliché, but it sounded like the sort of thing a hero would say at a time like this.

Blitzkrieg shook his head, "Well, they're all bloody flesh wounds, ain't they? Come on, best get it looked at, sir."

The thin, wiry pegasus sudden crawled beneath my undercarriage and, with unexpected strength, lifted me up before I could protest. I flushed with embarrassment as he carried me, much like a mother carries her foal, to a huge tent marked with a red cross that served as the regiment's field hospital. The Night Guards swarmed after us, congratulating me on my victory, a few of the braver ones shaking my hoof. I tried to look dignified, accepting their praise with well-practiced false modesty, but it was rather difficult to do so when carried in such a way.

The hospital was welcoming and an attractive nurse with a shapely flank led us to an empty bed for me in the main ward, though Blitzkrieg still insisted on carrying me. If it weren't for the exhaustion and possible blood loss I would have found his newfound dogged attachment to me rather strange, having leapt from vocal resentment of my very existence to willingly carrying me over for medical attention in the space of a few minutes. Then again, as a former violent criminal he probably just admired my fighting prowess.

I was attended and treated quickly; the nurse declaring it to be ‘just a flesh wound' barely worthy of her attention and applied a quick healing spell before bandaging me up. Despite this, I was instructed to remain in the hospital for a short while as the spell slowly repaired my damaged body.

The field hospital itself was mostly empty, with the vast space of the main ward inhabited by a small hoofful of guardsponies who had been injured in accidents. I felt a pang of despair when I thought of how much longer this relative quiet here would last, as sooner or later, when this war starts in earnest, the empty beds would be filled with the wounded and dying.

Blitzkrieg sat by the side of my bed, with an oddly soft expression on his usually hard features. The pegasus Storm Rider appeared bearing my uniform, which he placed on the end of my bed and left to return to his duties. Captain Blitzkrieg smirked and picked up my absurd cap with his hooves, examining the ridiculous thing.

For a while we sat in an awkward silence, neither of us quite certain what to say to one another given the rather intense events we had just been through. The pain in my chest started to dull, though the ache in my joints and muscles was still prevalent. I remember wanting a shower, for some reason the fact I was covered in a grimy mixture of sweat, dust, and blood made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

"You don’t have to stay here with me,” I said when the silence started becoming too unbearable.

“Pfft,” Blitzkrieg shook his head and tossed my cap back on the bed, “I want to make sure you’re alright.”

“I didn’t think you cared,” I spat with no small degree of venom. I didn’t like the stallion and I made little to no effort to hide it other than that strictly necessary to continue doing my job. He was a criminal. He might have been given a royal second chance by Princess Luna, but I wasn’t about to trust the judgement of a madmare who had been locked up in the moon for a thousand years. The last time she practiced jurisprudence dunking mares in rivers and seeing if they drowned was an acceptable way of finding out if they were witches.

The stallion was a killer, a scoundrel, and a rogue, and as far as I was concerned there was nothing he could do to change it.

If he detected my hostility he didn’t show it, but instead patted me on the shoulder as if we were the best of friends. “You might be a pompous, stuck-up, fairy prince, but you’re our pompous, stuck-up, fairy prince now.”

I blinked gormlessly back at him, not quite sure what to make of the frankly bizarre statement. “Uhh... thanks?” I said blankly.

“We look after our own here.” He looked like he meant it, as there was an oddly sincere look in his amber slit eyes. While I’m not the best judge of character, I supposed there was some primitive loyalty at work with the criminal pony. A peculiar, ancient, tribal mentality that meant just because I fought and humiliated a rival I was somehow accepted into his ‘gang’. Then again, such primitive camaraderie was how the Royal Guard’s regimental system operated; I suspected that he merely swapped his old gang for the 1st Night Guard Regiment.

Cannon Fodder appeared, much to the consternation of the nursing staff who probably assumed that his distinctive scent carried with it all manner of diseases and pestilence. He slogged lazily up to my bed with in his usual manner of not appearing to be even vaguely aware of the rest of the world around him, upon his saddle he carried a sheet of parchment I took to be the letter I left him to work on. My clumsy adjutant pushed his way past stunned nurses moving to and from patients, proudly announcing he was on ‘commissarial business’ and couldn’t be detained. Somehow, along the way, his bull-headedness and literal-mindedness helped him to decide that being my assistant meant he was part of the commissariat and therefore possessed of the same privileges I was, or at least the privileges he thought would be useful to him in carrying out his duties. His duties, of course, were doing whatever I told him to do.

“Sir!” Cannon Fodder snapped a relatively smart salute as he approached the bed. “Colonel Sunshine Smiles sent me to tell you that...” he paused, his brow furrowing in concentration as he struggled to remember whatever it was that the Colonel told him to say, “...that Captain Shining Armour and the 1st Solar Guard have arrived at Dodge Junction and that you need to come for a big meeting with the General Staff.”

So, it had finally begun. The moment I had been dreading since I first read of Equestria’s formal declaration of war in the newspaper some weeks earlier; I was to be going into battle very soon. The arrival of the 1st Solar Guard, the so-called elite of Their Highnesses’ Armed Forces and my former regiment, meant that the mobilisation of the Royal Guard was finally complete and the war can finally begin in earnest.

It was to my eternal surprise that the War Ministry had managed to mobilise the army in such a short space of time. My own conservative estimates ranged from about a month to several years, but evidently this had been planned for in the darkened recesses of the Ministry’s dungeons for quite some time now. It was rare in the military for something to go according to plan this way, but, as I later found out, plans always go wrong in the army but only after lulling everypony involved into a false sense of security by making us think that the plan is working. Victory, it seems, merely belongs to the side that can recover the fastest after things inevitably go pear-shaped.

I remember feeling oddly excited, which was strange given my cowardly nature and concern over my general well-being. Perhaps I was merely looking forward to hearing the suicidal ‘Grand Plan’ that Field Marshal Iron Hoof had been concocting in his lair, or just eager to get the whole messy business over and done with so I could go home and pretend this all never happened.

Ignoring the pain in my chest and the verbal protests from Blitzkrieg and the nurse I dragged myself out of best and dressed myself rather clumsily. I wanted to look at least slightly presentable despite still being covered in sweat and dust, my hair matted and uncombed, and my fur dirty and un-brushed. It would have to do.

“No, I don’t need to be carried this time,” I said, warding Blitzkrieg off with a hoof.

The pegasus chuckled and shook his head, “I ain’t doing that again; you’re bloody heavy, you are.”

I started to limp my way down the ward, when I remembered the letter on Cannon Fodder’s saddle.

“Cannon Fodder,” I called and he snapped to attention. “I want to add a postscript to the letter, ‘PS. Duelling is a bloody stupid tradition that must be abolished immediately’.”


A/N - Another chapter, not particularly happy with this one but here it is. Part three will come later and will hopefully be better than this one.

Night's Blood (Part 3)

If there’s one thing that the Royal Guard does extremely well, and it is the only thing mind you, it’s putting on a show. The 1st Solar Guard arrived in style, marching down the main thoroughfare of Dodge Junction with all the pomp and grandeur as if they were parading through the wide streets of Canterlot.

I had joined Field Marshal Iron Hoof, General Crimson Arrow, and the senior officers of Army Group Centre in front of the town hall/general headquarters as the Regiment paraded past us. Approximately nine hundred ponies, their coats pure alabaster white and their golden armour gleaming in the bright noon sun, marched past us.

The procession was lead by the regiment’s ensigns; the lowest of the commissioned ranks and given the honour of carrying the regimental banners, thus making them excellent targets. At the head was the flag of Equestria itself, which displayed a stylised Princess Celestia and Princess Luna chasing one another around a sun and moon. The cerulean banner was the largest one carried and it fluttered proudly in the quiet midday breeze. As the most prestigious regiment in the Royal Guard they were allowed to carry the flag of the kingdom into battle, symbolising the unconquerable spirit of Equestria or something to that effect.

The banner of the regiment was carried just behind the first one; it bore the device of the blazing sun cradled in a crescent moon fixed upon a white kite shield which was upon a field of crimson red looking much like the colour of dried blood. Stitched upon the flag were many scraps of parchment, upon which the many battle honours of the regiment were scrawled upon in fading ancient ink. To read the names on the flag was to read of the greatest battles in Equestrian history that have ensured the survival of our great nation and its dominance upon the world: Ghastly Gorge, Canterlot, Gryphonburg, Horse’s Drift, Hollow Shades, Canterlot again, and dozens of other words that would make Twilight Sparkle squeal with excitement and dash to the library for a forty-eight hour history-studying binge. The regiment’s motto, ‘Solaris Irati’ [Fury of the Sun], was emblazoned around the sun/moon device.

I had carried that same banner four years ago, upon purchasing my commission after completing basic training. My ‘official’ autobiography goes on at length at how much of an honour it was to carry the very symbol of the prestige of the regiment, to the extent that this single entry takes up an entire chapter, but in all actuality all I can remember was how monstrously heavy that damned, infernal flag was.

Behind him still were two more ensigns who carried long pennants that bore the cutie marks of former Captains of the Guard, some of which were thousands of years old and dated back to the first founding of Equestria when the Royal Guard was established by Commander Hurricane. Captain Shining Armour’s kite shield cutie mark was the latest addition to the banner. [It should be noted that the 1st Solar Guard has a rather unique rank structure. While it clearly follows that of the rest of the Royal Guard, the commander of the regiment, normally known as a Colonel in other regiments, is called the ‘Captain of the Guard’. This represents his unique status as not only commander of the regiment but also the ceremonial commander-in-chief of the Royal Guard and head of my personal bodyguard. The Changeling Wars represents one of the very few times that the Captain of the Guard left my side and led the regiment into battle. This little fact tends to confuse popular historians and armchair generals.]

Behind them was the regimental band, the 1st Solar Guard being one of the few regiments considered important enough to have one. Two dozen stallions from all three pony races performed a rousing rendition of ‘Rule Equestria’ on a wide assortment of brass instruments. Well, they didn’t so much perform the song as much butcher it utterly but they made up for their lack of musical skill with sheer exuberance, much like how most of the Royal Guard does everything else actually.

The soldiers marched on past us. In a large city like Canterlot such an event would have been greeted by packed crowds waving little Equestrian flags and singing ‘Faust Save The Princesses’. Here, however, the population was barely in triple figures and the majority of them were out working the cherry fields, enjoying a hoe-down, fornicating with relatives, or whatever it is these rural inbred folk do for fun. There were only about half a dozen tired looking militia ponies watching how the real soldiers do their work, before they apparently got bored and wandered off to do something else. They probably had an all-important barn full of cherries to guard.

The procession halted and thankfully so did the music. Shining Armour, looking resplendent in his imperial purple armour with gold highlights, stepped out from the formation with his Major and two Captains in tow behind him. He marched towards, halted, snapped to attention, and saluted us.

“’Celestia’s Own’ is reporting for duty, Field Marshal!” said Shining Armour with his usual youthful enthusiasm.

He was a stallion roughly my age, though probably a few months younger than me, but he often acted like he was in his late teens. Being Canterlot’s resident pretty boy it was only natural he became the poster child for the Royal Guard, at least until I came along and supplanted him as the face on the recruitment posters.

Quite how this young commoner was hoof-picked by Celestia herself to command the most prestigious and elite of regiments in the Royal Guard was beyond my reckoning, far be it from me to doubt Auntie ‘Tia’s judgement but he was hardly officer material. [Naturally it hadn’t occurred to Blueblood that I selected Shining Armour purely on his merits as a commander and not because I gave a distant ancestor of his a scrap of land to own.] Granted he had married his way into royalty, earning himself the title of prince but never actually using it, and his younger sister was Celestia’s favoured personal protégé, but as far as I was concerned a commoner was always a commoner. The fact that we regularly got into schoolyard fights when we were just colts might have shaped some of my resentment towards him, as well as the fact he made off with my regal cousin. This, of course, was before I discovered that he more than earned his commission and status, and before that fracas with the Crystal Empire. [I would hardly call what happened with the Crystal Empire a mere ‘fracas’.]

Field Marshal Iron Hoof saluted in response. “Welcome to Dodge Junction, Captain,” he said with little to no inflection.

“Indeed!” said Crimson Arrow exuberantly, stepping forward to shake Shining Armour’s hoof. “We’ve been waiting so long for you, can’t get this show started without my old regiment, eh?”

“So sorry to have kept you all waiting then!” replied Shining Armour, grinning widely. “We had some trouble with Changelings in Canterlot before mobilisation. Blueblood sorted it all out for us, didn’t you?”

He suddenly fixed me with an oddly ambivalent expression on his face. I couldn’t blame him, however, as on the one hoof I was once the colt who mercilessly picked on his beloved younger sister to the point of tears, while on the other hoof I had accidently saved his wife. Hopefully he would remember the ‘saving his wife’ part more.

“I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time,” I said, telling the truth for a change though not mentioning the part when I ran away to save my own skin; that would not look good in front of all of the guardsponies and officers. “How is my cousin doing? Is she taller than you yet?”

The Captain of the Guard snickered, “Not just yet! Princess Celestia said it would a few more years though; alicorns don’t really stop growing, do they? She’s doing as well as can be expected, it’s a shame I’ve had to leave after such a short time but duty calls. She asked me to deliver a message to you.”

“Oh?” I cocked my head to one side curiously, and Shining Armour grinned back at me.

“She said ‘look after Shining Armour for me, make sure he comes home’.”

I snickered in response, “Oh, I don’t think the brave and dashing Shining Armour needs somepony like me watching his back all the time.”

“Yeah, but you know what she’s like; worries about everypony and everything.”

One of the draws of joining the Royal Guard, according to the ponies who run the recruitment offices dotted around Equestria, is to experience brand new things that one would never be able to experience in the civilian sphere of life. At that precise moment the Royal Guard had enabled me to experience something I would never have been able to as a civilian; tolerating Shining Armour’s company. Usually he’s very hostile around me, yet now he was being friendly and approachable. He even appeared to be speaking to me as an equal; I supposed that after marrying Princess Cadence he was technically equal to me.

“While I’d love to allow this happy reunion to go on,” said Iron Hoof with a very slight inflection of annoyance creeping into his unnervingly monotone voice, “we do have a war to plan, if you’d all like to follow me please.”

Shining Armour grunted in annoyance and turned back to face Iron Hoof, “Of course, the sooner we can get this war over with the better. Lead the way, Field Marshal.”

Looking somewhat relieved, the moustachioed Field Marshal led his officers inside. I overheard Red Coat muttering something about ‘hoping it wasn’t over too soon’ but I ignored it, soon enough he would be eating those words. Shining Armour paused to instruct one of his lieutenants to lead the regiment to the main encampment and await further orders.

Shaking my head despondently I stepped inside and took my seat roughly in the middle of the central table where I had previously dined so opulently with the other officers. Much of the decoration that was there the previous week was gone; the table was bare, the triumphal statue of Princess Celestia was absent, and the banners returned to their respective regiments.

Shining Armour, to my surprise, took the seat on my right, while Sunshine Smiles sat down to my left. Opposite me was Colonel Rising Star of the 3rd Solar Guard, whose subordinate I had just duelled not an hour earlier.

Most of Rising Star’s face was covered by an impressively bushy moustache and mutton chops, while his eyes were covered by the brim of his battered old pith helmet. He was an elderly earth pony, judging from his greying facial hair and mane, and from what I had heard he was he was a veteran of the Zebrica frontier wars against the Gryphons, which would have put him in his mid 70s at the best estimate.

I noticed that Clear Heavens was conspicuously absent, and instead a young lieutenant was sitting in his place.

“Are you alright, Blueblood?” said Shining Armour, looking over my somewhat battered and grubby form before his eyes settled on the bandages just visible under my open collar.

“Fought a duel,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Regimental honour, you see.”

Shining Armour made a disgusted face, “I don’t like duelling; too many good officers get themselves killed that way.”

I smirked, nodding my head. “Yes, I agree, but I didn’t have much of a choice this time; Princesses’ Regulations you see.”

The Captain of the Guard looked surprised; I was agreeing with him on something! Tartarus had just frozen over and pigs all over Equestria had just sprouted wings and were performing sonic rainbooms. I have to admit seeing that expression on his stupid ruggedly handsome features was well worth having to sit next to him. It wasn’t a face he made often, for most of the time he just grinned inanely.

“Bah, Clear Heavens was a fool and a rather vulgar colt,” said Rising Star, his moustaches quivering and flapping with every movement of his upper lip. I caught myself leaning forward to see if I could see crumbs and bits of food stuck in that impressive yard brush on his face. “Doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, eh? But the stallions like him and he keeps a relatively good company. His father’s a baron, you know.”

I nodded silently in agreement, thinking that this Rising Star fellow probably should have retired from the Royal Guard a few decades ago. I couldn’t imagine the poor old sod leading a troupe of filly scouts on a cookie sale around the Canterlot suburbs let alone an entire regiment into battle.

“But he’s eager,” he continued. “Eager to give those damned Gryphons a good thrashing, eh? I wager we’ll be sipping tea with the Princess in Gryphonburg before the month is over.”

“But it’s the Changelings we’ll be thrashing,” said Shining Armour in exasperation, “not the Gryphons. They’re our allies now, remember?”

The elderly stallion looked confused for a moment, as the gears in his mind creaked into life and he suddenly remembered that he isn’t sitting on the frontier of some Celestia-forsaken jungle in Zebrica fighting over some red line on the map. My heart sank as I watched him, not only was his body old and decrepit but also his mind was senile. He shouldn’t have been there. I ventured that over half of the officers sitting at this table were unfit to be in charge of even a foal’s lemonade stand.

Shining Armour shot me a look. It’s strange how much information could be shared in just a look; the expression upon a pony’s face can say much more than words ever could. The weary expression in his eyes said ‘I know, Blueblood, I know how you’re feeling, and there’s not a damned thing either of us can do about it now’. He probably had to put up with this abject insanity for the entirety of his military career, and I was surprised and relieved to discover that the near decade he spent amongst these imbeciles hadn’t eroded the stallion’s sanity. It was strange how ordinarily I’d have joined in with their aristocratic posturing, being a noblepony par excellence myself, yet my painful awareness of the dangers we were about to plunge into, largely a result of my selfish desire to preserve my own life, meant I couldn’t take part in their blissful ignorance.

At the far end of the huge table was a large white screen propped up like canvas on an easel on wooden planks. Field Marshal Iron Hoof and General Crimson Arrow took their positions either side of this screen, and as the gruff Field Marshal cleared his throat an expectant silence fell across the hall. I leaned forward in interest; finally I was to know what on Tartarus we were doing on this forgotten scrap of Equestrian soil.

Iron Hoof’s horn lit with a pale green aura and the screen rippled with colour, before settling into a map of the south eastern border of Equestria and the Badlands. I had heard of this particular spell before, apparently it was popular with school teachers, lecturers, and middle management in corporations as a means of displaying presentations through pictures and text projected onto a white screen. I had no idea how it worked, of course, but knew it revolved around something called ‘power points’.

“Mares and stallions,” Iron Hoof said gravely, “welcome to Operation: ‘Enduring Harmony’.”

For the second time that day I applied my hoof to my forehead. ‘Operation Enduring Harmony’, that’s what this invasion was going to be called? It was a bloody stupid name concocted by politicians back in Parliament probably, who, as ever, wanted an impressive sounding name to this military operation to galvanise the support of the masses behind them. They were turning this infernal war into a PR exercise, and no doubt they’ll take the credit when we inevitably drag Chrysalis’ rotting, bloated carcass back to Canterlot. They probably needed an entire select committee of at least thirty PR specialists, each paid in enough bits to fund a scholarship for a foal in Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, just to come up with the damned silly name in the first place.

That’s what happens when you dabble in democracy, ponies elect morons. [But unlike aristocratic ‘morons’, they get unelected just as easily.]

“The invasion and pacification of the Badlands will take place along three fronts, East, Centre, and West, and spearheaded by their respective Army Groups.” Three red arrows appeared on the map. “The main offensive will come from Army Group Centre, that’s us, through Black Venom Pass, while Army Groups East and West will guard our flanks from the Hayseed Swamps and Appleloosa respectively.”

The image on the screen flickered and zoomed in on the larger centre arrow symbolising us. The Badlands were protected on all sides by a vast mountain range, except the south but one would have to cross the treacherous San Palomino Desert to bypass these nigh impassable mountains. An invasion force would therefore be forced to use one of the many narrow passes and valleys between the mountains in order to penetrate into Changeling Country.

“Our first objective is to capture this: Black Venom Pass.” A red circle appeared over the said pass. “This is the only path wide enough for any army large enough to conquer the Badlands to go through, all others are simply far too narrow or too treacherous to even consider crossing. The army that controls this pass controls nearly all troop movement between southern Equestria and the Badlands and it is therefore imperative that we capture it immediately. Once a hoof-hold here has been secured and supply lines have been established we can strike inwards to the Changeling hives and eradicate them one by one. Victory, therefore, hinges upon us seizing and holding this pass. From there, the annihilation of the Changeling threat is all but assured.”

The screen flickered once more, and zoomed in even closer to the pass to show an aerial photograph of the pass itself. It was only a few miles long and a couple of hundred yards wide, flanked by steep inclines to the east and west and opening up to the south into the harsh wastes of the Badlands. The inclines were by no means uniform, and often broke out into numerous ridges and cliffs. At the northern mouth of this pass was a large structure built into the side of this cliff, while at the opposite southern end was a massive black smudge that looked ominously like an enormous formation of Changelings.

“This is the citadel of Maredun,” he said, illustrating the structure, “an ancient castle built by the pony civilisation that used to live in the Badlands before the Changelings, now derelict. Pegasus reconnaissance has shown the castle to be mostly intact and certainly defensible by a large army, and records indicate the underground barracks large enough to support a single regiment of the Royal Guard.

“This operation will be led by General Crimson Arrow, and conducted by the 3rd Solar Guard, the 16th Artillery Regiment, and the 1st Night Guard. The 1st Solar Guard will act as the strategic reserve. The 3rd Solar Guard will advance to the southern mouth of the valley and clear the Changeling army there. The 16th Artillery will set up its cannons along this ridge here...” another red circle appeared on the western ridge, “... to cover the advance of the 3rd Regiment, while the 1st Night Guard will be positioned further down the incline to protect the artillery or provide reserves for the 3rd Regiment if required. The 1st Solar Guard will be stationed here at Maredun, where General Crimson Arrow will set up his headquarters and direct the battle from there. Any questions?”

[It should be noted that Blueblood is not blessed with a particularly long attention span, especially when the topic of discussion is not directly about him. While his summation of Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s plan for the war and for the Battle of Black Venom Pass is largely accurate, he does miss out on much of the finer detail on the plans themselves. This description, however, is sufficient for the narrative of Blueblood’s memoirs. Readers who wish to learn more are welcome to read the minutes of this meeting in the Royal Guard’s archives provided one has sufficient security clearance.]

The officers posed their questions, and I remained silent for a moment. At the time it seemed like a reasonable plan, if somewhat overly cautious. Holding back the 1st Solar Guard as reserve seemed somewhat peculiar to me, as being the so-called ‘best of the best’ they should have been sent in to spearhead the attack. Then there was the absence of the 5th Solar Guard, who presumably would remain behind at Dodge Junction. Surely, considering the apparent importance of this operation to the entire war effort, one would want to commit the entirety of their force to ensure complete and total victory. At any rate, Iron Hoof seemed supremely confident in his plan and for a time it did well to assuage my fears.

The questions were fairly mundane, asking about the exact troop movements, projected casualty numbers, estimated resistance and so forth. There was a quiet ‘buzz’ about the place, as if an underlying tension in the air. The ponies around me were all excited, except for Iron Hoof who never got excited about anything and Sunshine Smiles who seemed rather deep in thought, the event they had been waiting for and looking forward to was finally coming; we were going to war.

Then it all took a rather ugly turn for the worse. At the far end of the table closest to the projection screen were the officers of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment. Unlike the Solar Guard they were clad in black lacquered armour and their fur was a pale grey instead of purest white, since their trade revolved entirely around things that explode with a lot of smoke it made sense they didn’t operate wearing gleaming gold armour that would be easily stained by soot. Colonel Shrapnel, who seemed rather aloof and distant, even more so than is standard for a Royal Guard senior officer, stood up.

He was an earth pony, as were most of the artillery crews as earth pony strength and endurance was needed to haul the heavy iron cannons and their ammunition around, with a strong muscular body. His fur was patchy, and the skin underneath lined with horrific burn marks from when an improperly loaded cannon exploded. Dangerous business, cannons, just as likely to kill their handlers as they were the enemy if they weren’t careful.

“I want to voice our concerns,” he said in a voice that sounded like sandpaper rubbing on wood, “about the presence of the Night Guards operating as our picket line.”

After some slight hesitation, Colonel Sunshine Smiles rose to his hooves. I saw the ponies around us grimace at his fearsome visage, for the scar upon his face made the stallion rather more intimidating even if it weren’t for his armour and fangs.

“I can reassure you all,” he said slowly, “that our regiment is highly trained and prepared for combat, the 16th Artillery needn’t fear Changeling assault with the 1st Night Guard watching over you.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt as to your fighting prowess,” said Shrapnel, tapping a hoof on the table, “I’m more concerned about where your true loyalties lie.”

“Aye!” Major White Castle of the 3rd Solar Guard, who sat opposite the Night Guards officers, pointed accusingly at our direction. “Nightmare Moon! They’ll betray us all again!”

Captain Blitzkrieg snarled and lunged over the table, only for his forward momentum to be arrested as Major Starlit Skies seized the pegasus’ tail and dragged him down onto the desk. He hit the wood with a surprised yelp and with a flail of limbs and black leathery wings.

“You take that back!” he growled at the Solar Guard Major, who shuddered at the sight of the pegasus’ fangs. “Nopony insults Princess Luna! Nopony!”

“Calm down, kid,” snapped Starlit Skies in the manner of a school teacher admonishing a student as he hauled the limp Blitzkrieg back over the table to his seat.

I had quite enough, so I stood up and planted my hooves on the table. “In case you ponies haven’t noticed we’re all on the same side here.”

“Aye, that’s what they want us to think,” scoffed White Castle. “Maybe they’ve gotten to you too, Prince, you are, after all, Nightmare Moon’s beloved nephew.”

I blinked back incredulously, “I’m Princess Celestia’s nephew too.”

To my eternal surprise, Shining Armour stood up next to me and slammed his hooves on the table, causing the ancient antique furniture to wobble precariously. The ponies around us gasped in shock at such a scandalous and vulgar display from the Captain of the Royal Guard. His chest was heaving with barely controlled indignation as I saw a near decade of having to put up with this petty bickering finally coming to a boil.

His face was contorted into a rictus-like scowl similar to the look I saw him give to his younger sister when she was doing her best to ruin his wedding, though to be fair on Twilight she was right. A vein on his forehead throbbed as he snorted aggressively, glaring at each and every officer in the room who cowered under the gaze of their ceremonial commander-in-chief.

“You’re all behaving like foals!” he shouted, stamping a hoof on the table to punctuate the statement.

“We don’t have the time for this,” said Field Marshal Iron Hoof firmly.

Shining Armour glowered at the Field Marshal before relenting and slinking back into his seat, snorting in indignation and sulking like a foal denied his favourite treat. The other officers looked apologetic and muttered under their breath as they retook their seats, except for Shrapnel who continued to stare in our direction.

There was something off about that particular stallion, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it. In hindsight I can remember the glassy, vacant look in his dark eyes as being massive warning signs, but at the time I ignored it. To this day I wonder if disaster could have been averted if I had voiced what the tingling sensation in my hooves was telling me, but I also fear that it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Iron Hoof clopped his hooves together and his servants, who were waiting in the recesses of the room, handed out thick envelopes to each officer in the room. These were the official detailed orders, listing exactly what each unit was to do at any given time according to a strict schedule. Such was Iron Hoof’s style of command; he loved his timetables and wanted everything to go according to his grand plan. As I have alluded to earlier, things never go to plan in war.

We left hurriedly, with officers darting back to the encampment to enact their orders with their usual enthusiasm. The feeling in the air was electric; it was finally happening, the battle that would decide the fate of Equestria, the thing for which we had been preparing for so long, and I couldn’t join in with that excitement. As I briefly looked over my orders I started getting that sick feeling in my stomach and the itchy feeling in my hooves once more. This would not end well, I thought.

Before I left, though, I saw Iron Hoof take Crimson Arrow to the side and tell him that, in no uncertain terms, the success of this mission relied upon following his plan to the absolute letter and with no deviations.

My orders were relatively simple; just stick with the Night Guards and make sure they do their job properly. It had occurred to me that if the regiment had wanted to rebel and throw their lot in with Nightmare Moon they could easily just kill me; though quite why they would want to throw their lot in with a mostly dead part of my Aunt Luna’s psychosis was something that eluded me, yet a seemingly popular belief for the Solar Guard.

Red Coat was ecstatic, looking much like a foal on Hearth’s Warming who had just seen a suspiciously scooter-shaped present under the Harmony Tree. He practically skipped merrily along back to the camp, chatting happily to Colonel Sunshine Smiles who, to his credit, did not cave in the irritating youth’s skull with his over-sized muscular hooves. The Colonel seemed a little more quiet and pensive, and I noticed that his facial muscles around his scar twitched.

I saw Starlit Skies taking sheets of parchment out of his envelope with his magic, inspecting the orders carefully and checking a gold pocket watch carefully. Warfare, as he would later explain to me in another one of his lectures, is all about timing; the movement of regiments, companies, platoons all according to a strict schedule, and waiting for the opportune moment to strike when the enemy is at its weakest. His pocket watch, I noticed, was an incredibly complicated affair filled with assorted dials and numbers that made sense only to him.

Blitzkrieg was oddly jittery, not happily excited like Red Coat yet not introspectively quiet like Sunshine Smiles and Starlit Skies but merely anxious. His thin body was tensed under his armour, and I could see that rather than being mere skin and bone his body was in fact packed with toned but slender muscle. He looked like an elastic band ready to snap.

“Bah, it’s a shame I’m going to miss out on all the fun,” said Crimson Arrow as he stepped up alongside me.

I frowned back at him, “Fun?”

“The fighting, Blueblood, you’re going to be there in the thick of it and I’ll be stuck in that wretched old ruin watching from afar.”

Oh how I envied that poor bastard. He was going to be sitting there in relative comfort and safety while I risked my life for Princesses and Country, and he thought that he was the one who had gotten the short end of the stick. I considered suggesting we swap places, or that I keep him company in that dreary ruin, but I couldn’t think of an appropriate justification for doing so at the time.

“You’ll still get the credit, of course,” I said amicably.

“Oh yes of course, but it’s not quite the same is it?” he said in annoyance. “At any rate, I should invite you for a celebratory dinner once we achieve victory in the field, but I must dash now, toodles!”

As he trotted off to... wherever it is he was supposed to go I resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I could possibly worm my way out of this. I supposed I might be able to attach myself to the unicorn company; they typically spend battles flinging magic missiles at enemies from a comfortable distance. Considering that the regiment’s unofficial motto was ‘get stuck in’ I didn’t think that doing so would last that long, sooner or later I’d be finding myself in the brutal maelstrom of close quarters combat. At least in this case I’d have numerous heavily armoured ponies guarding me, and not a whining seamstress who faints at the sight of dirt.

***

The army mobilised fairly quickly, which was to be expected given the obviously temporary nature of the Dodge Junction encampment. It had taken them only a full day of preparation whereby equipment was checked, final letters to home were written and sent off, and much revelry enjoyed by all. Indeed, despite my advice not to, Colonel Sunshine Smiles had decreed that the ponies be allowed to have beer imported from Trottingham before the battle to keep their morale up. Trottingham ale, if you are lucky enough never to have tried it, is served at a lukewarm temperature and is also the colour of mud, so I respectfully declined. The night, however, did become interesting when I had to deal with the after-effects of such revelry when a couple of guardsponies somehow received more beer rations than they were allowed to and embarked on a night time raid of Shining Armour’s tent. I offered to have them all flogged for this, but the Captain of the Royal Guard insisted that ‘colts will be colts’ so I just put them on extra latrine duty instead.

I had elected to spend the rest of what could have been my last night alive alone in my tent anxiously fretting about how to get myself out of this. I came out blank; the orders given to me were clear and there was no arguing with a pony as bull-headed as Field Marshal Iron Hoof, who would broker no alterations to his precious plan. Crimson Arrow, however, simply didn’t want to deny me the pleasure of risking my life for Equestria when I offered to stay with him and provide ‘tactical advice’ for the battle.

We moved out in the morning as a long snaking column, with the unicorns taking up the front and rear while the earth ponies took the centre so that, in theory, they would be protected from ambush by the unicorns who would mow down any would-be attacker with magic missiles. The pegasi ran aerial reconnaissance, using their speed and ability of flight to range far ahead of the advancing column and report back on the terrain and possible enemy action.

The journey was quiet, though the atmosphere was still tense. I marched with Colonel Sunshine Smiles and Red Coat at the head of the regiment. With their superior earth pony strength and endurance they were hardly breaking a sweat, while the two hour march had left me with a burning ache in my legs. All of my efforts in cleaning myself before battle (so that I might look pretty when I die), scrubbing the sweat and dust, rubbing fragrant oils into it [And Blueblood wonders why ponies call him a ‘ponce’], and styling my mane, was wasted as once again I was covered in mucky sweat and dust kicked up by thousands of pony hoofsteps.

The afternoon sun beat down upon on us, and the heat was becoming almost unbearable which made the day’s march all the more difficult. I was even becoming thankful for my ridiculous cloth ‘armour’ as the plate armoured ponies around me looked as if they were suffering more from the heat than me, though given the choice between temporary dehydration and permanent death I think I’d still pick sweating under thick steel plates any day.

Cannon Fodder was quiet, taking the impending battle as if it were a pleasant day out. Nothing, except for Twilight Sparkle, seemed to faze my phlegmatic aide, and I started to envy the poor sod. He was a pony for whom things just happened; there was no consideration as to the reason why these things happened or any attempt to change his fate, but merely a quiet and resolute acceptance of it. Unlike me, who fretted over every single decision and event because of my utmost desire to not die.

The mountains loomed heavily over us. Looking up we could see them stretching up into the sky, forming a natural barrier between civilisation and the dark barbarism of the Changeling race. Their steep inclines, snow-capped peaks, and treacherous jagged rock formations would stop any advancing army foolish enough to attempt to cross the mountains, all except for Black Venom Pass.

The pass appeared as a cleft in the mountains, like a tunnel carved out of the immortal rock by some unknown and eldritch power. It was said that an ancient pony civilisation once lived in the territory that we now know as the Badlands, and it was they who had cleaved the pass in the first place and built the citadel which General Crimson Arrow and the 1st Solar Guard would appropriate for their uses. Quite what happened to this ancient civilisation and where the Changelings had came from was not known at this point, but if we had known the truth then perhaps we would not have been so eager for war.

The citadel was built into the side of the mountain range, upon one of the many ridges that lined the valley. Tall, forbidding walls built out of grey stone rose from the ridge, forming numerous courtyards surrounding the keep built straight into the side of the mountain. There were a number of tall towers, many collapsed or on the verge of collapse, from which artillery and unicorns could direct fire down into the valley below. Castles of this period were built according to the principle of luring the enemy into killing zones in these courtyards. The aim, therefore, was not necessarily to keep the enemy outside the walls, though it would certainly help if they were, but to force them into these areas where they can be whittled down by artillery fire and infantry before they can reach the keep.

The 1st Solar Guard, along with Crimson Arrow and his general staff, peeled off from the formation to ascend up to the castle. Despite the relatively expansive width of the valley, I found the tall mountains either side of us to be rather claustrophobic. A Royal Guard army would never be able to march over the mountains, but I was not so certain that the Changelings would encounter quite the same difficulties. Travelling in this column formation made us incredibly vulnerable; a lightning assault down the middle would divide the army into two, cutting off the two halves and allowing each to be encircled and destroyed at ease. The fact that the pegasi continued to report that the mountains were clear and the Changelings had yet to move from their position at the opposite end of the pass was rather unnerving. Surely they would have made their move now; strike us down at our most vulnerable.

Yet they didn’t. The plan was going without a hitch, which I found to be rather more disturbing than if the Changelings were to suddenly charge upon us.

We came to the ridge, which was more of a large plateau with a slight upwards slope. Climbing up the mountain side to reach this plateau damn near killed me as I dragged my unfit, flabby body up the steep incline. I remember thinking that I had to be the absolute pinnacle of pony physique by the end of the day, considering the massive workout I just had and assuming I would survive the battle, and I wished I’d inherited more of the tough earth pony stamina from Celestia’s bloodline. [Though the alicorn bloodline has been somewhat diluted in Blueblood’s case, there are still definitely elements of earth pony and pegasi traits in him (since alicorns such as I possess traits of all three races). In fact, Blueblood is being rather tough on himself, being rather stronger, larger, and tougher than most other unicorns.]

As we reached the edge of the plateau, overlooking the 3rd Solar Guard marching through the valley below us, the 16th Royal Artillery lumbered further up the plateau to their firing positions. The plateau itself was on a shallow slope that led up to a ridge upon which the artillery was to be deployed, thus giving them a commanding view of the battlefield below.

With a feedbag of oats over my muzzle and a mug of strong tea I watched the 3rd Solar Guard below us stop and then adopt the standard battle formation; unicorns arrayed at the front across the entire width of the valley and earth ponies behind, the pegasi had landed and taken up formation on the flanks and rear of the earth ponies. The idea behind this was the unicorns would lay down a fusillade of magic missiles upon the enemy and would continue to do so until the foe ran away, got too close, or the unicorns got too tired, at which point the earth ponies would wade in and finish off the Changelings left alive. At least in theory, but thus far in Equestrian military history this fairly standard infantry tactic had worked quite well against an opposing army polite enough to simply line up and let themselves get slaughtered.

Presently, sergeants barked orders to their squads and the ponies scrambled to their hooves and returned to formation. The 1st Night Guard took up a similar formation to that of the Solar Guard down in the valley below; unicorns at the front, earth ponies somewhere in the middle, and pegasi guarding the flanks, all aimed down at the valley below. I reluctantly dragged myself off the ground like a teenager being told to wake up and go to school, and then rejoined the senior officers congregating at the heart of the Night Guard’s formation.

The plateau was perfectly positioned, as from here we could see the entirety of the battlefield. At the southern mouth of the valley lay the Changeling army, looking much like an ugly black and green smudge on the sandy landscape distorted by the haze and mirages. They couldn’t have been more than a thousand yards away from us, and well within range of the cannons and mortars being lugged into position behind us.

“Remind me why we’re needed here,” asked Red Coat. The young earth pony couldn’t keep still; he was always fidgeting anxiously as if he urgently needed the toilet.

“In case the Changelings sneak around and attack the artillery up there,” explained Sunshine Smiles. “I know you’re eager to be down there, but we have our orders.”

The young stallion stamped at the ground in irritation, “I know, I just don’t want to miss out.”

As if on cue the artillery behind and slightly above us opened fire, sounding like the rumble of nearby thunder as the iron cannons spat flame and iron at the enemy. I winced as I saw the cannon shots scream over our heads and impact into the mountainside opposite us, sending up clouds of dust and dry earth. I also noted how precariously close they were to the rear ranks of the 3rd Solar Guard. My hooves itched uncomfortably; something was most definitely wrong.

“The artillery isn’t supposed to start for another fifteen minutes,” said Starlit Skies as he trotted over towards us, checking his over-sized and overly complicated pocket watch. He gently tapped the glass as if that would somehow make the relevant dials make sense. There was a concerned expression on his normally calm and friendly face, which I found rather unnerving.

“Maybe they’re just calibrating their guns,” I said with a shrug and a nervous glance over my shoulder at the artillery positioned just behind us. I hoped, prayed, that I was right.

“Aye,” said Sunshine Smiles, “the cannons haven’t been used in decades, probably just warming the barrels up or something.” That helped alleviate some of my concerns, though the sickening sensation of anxiety refused to go away. I knew very little of how artillery worked, though I knew there was probably more to it than simply loading the cannon, pointing it, and then firing it. It had something to do with maths, physics, or something else I couldn’t possibly comprehend, but I was sure Starlit Skies would be able to give me a lengthy and in-depth lecture on the subject later.

The cannons fired again. I watched in horror as a cannon ball ploughed straight into the rear ranks of the 3rd Solar Guard’s pegasi, killing a couple and sending the formation scattering in panic. A few more impacted harmlessly into the cliff side, but another bounced straight into a platoon of earth ponies. The regiment lost all semblance of coherency as the rear ranks surged forwards to try and escape the artillery fire, forcing the other ranks forwards into the waiting jaws of the Changeling horde.

I turned, rearing on my hind legs and waving my forelimbs at the artillery regiment. “Adjust your aim!” I shrieked at them pleadingly. “Friendly fire! Adjust your bucking aim!”

Another cannon fired, the sound of its roar carried along the wind, and I was hurled to the ground by a rough force from my left. I grunted as I hit the ground and Cannon Fodder, who had shoved me out of the way, landed on top me. The iron ball hit the ground a few feet away from me, showering me with dirt and dust, and then bounced straight over me to bury itself in the dry earth just behind my cowering form.

“They’re firing on us!” I screamed, stating the blindingly obvious but I think I could be forgiven for that given the circumstances. Cannon Fodder, his expression only showing a slight bit of concern, rolled off from on top of me.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, and I blinked at the bizarre little apology for saving my life.

Another shot smashed into a platoon of earth ponies a few hundred feet away, mangling bodies and reducing them to offal and scraps of meat. I heard whinnies of pain and the voices of gruff sergeants and officers as they struggled to keep the survivors under control and restore order. There, as I struggled back up to my hooves and gazed up at the cannons pointed straight towards us, I saw the treachery that wormed its way into the heart of Army Group Centre – the 16th Royal Artillery had been infiltrated by Changelings.

The senior officers were frozen by fear and indecision. The Colonel was shivering slightly, his muscles tensed and quivering underneath his armour and his mouth gaping wide open in abject disbelief. I grabbed my fallen cap from the dusty ground and placed it on my head before cantering up towards him.

“Orders!” I shouted in panic. “Your orders, Colonel!”

Sunshine Smiles didn’t appear to hear me; instead he only stared up at the cannons spitting death in our general direction. Despite their few lucky shots before, it became obvious that the Changelings that had obviously infiltrated the artillery regiment’s ranks had little to no idea how to operate their cannons. Most of the shots went wide or fell short of us, and I witnessed one cannon exploding due to improper loading.

“Bucking do something!” I shouted, forcing my face against his.

The big earth pony blinked at me a few times, before shaking his head as if to shake the stupor out of his mind. He pushed his way past me with the confident swagger of a born leader, with determination in his eyes where there was once doubt.

He called the senior officers over to him, but I couldn’t help but think that all it would take was one lucky cannon ball to singularly wipe out the top leadership cadre of the whole regiment in one go. Reluctantly I joined in the huddle.

“We need to take that ridge,” he said authoritatively, even if he was stating the obvious. “The earth ponies will advance with me and Red Coat. Starlit Skies, I want the unicorns to maintain a constant rate of fire on the artillery to keep the gunners away from them, but make sure you don’t accidently hit us when you’re firing over our heads. Blitzkrieg, keep the skies clear, if you’re feeling confident you can take a platoon to harass the gunners but make sure you keep out of the unicorn’s way. Is that all understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Aye!”

Starlit Skies and Blitzkrieg both saluted and then cantered off to their respective duties. Orders were disseminated down via lieutenants, ensigns, sergeants, and corporals, and soon the first fusillades of iridescent white missiles were hurled in the general direction of the artillery. The regiment’s pegasi took to the skies and circled above us protectively, while the earth ponies were turned around to face the enemy.

The artillery fire became more sporadic, coming in volleys of twos or threes that mostly fell short. It seemed that the unicorns’ firepower was doing its job in forcing the Changelings to take cover. Then again, the average Changeling drone had very little in the way of self-preservation instincts when under the thrall of the tyrannical Hive Mind.

“Commissar,” he said, turning to me. “I’d like you to stick with the earth ponies.”

I blinked, “But I’m a unicorn!” I protested, tapping the obvious horn upon my forehead.

“Aye, but I think the earth ponies would benefit more from your inspired example if you’re there to lead them into the fight.”

“Very well,” I said, internally disappointed that I wouldn’t be spending the battle a nice and safe distance away from the slathering hordes of over-sized magic bugs. This was it, no more worming my way out of it, no more lies, excuses, and dissembling; I was going to fight.

“Sir,” Red Coat muttered. The young stallion’s face had blanched to an unnatural and unhealthy pale colour beneath his ashen grey coat, his eyes were wide with pupils reduced to the size of pinpricks, and his body trembled uncontrollably. “I-I...”

Sunshine Smiles patted him on the shoulder, “Just stick with me, lad, and I’ll promise you’ll be okay.”

He nodded tentatively in response and then trotted off, stumbling once or twice as his legs gave way to his fear, to deliver his orders to his subordinates.

My mouth had suddenly become incredibly dry as I stepped away and took my place by an earth pony platoon close to Red Coat. Cannon Fodder took his usual place next to me, and I decided that with his unique ability to suck out a unicorn’s magic that staying with the earth ponies was probably for the best.

“Company advance!” the Colonel cried out, wasting no time with giving any of those ridiculous speeches that films and books seem to think happen with every battle. A heroic speech in the midst of war certainly looks and sounds impressive, but simply leaves more time for the enemy to reload their cannons and shoot us. "Get in close as quickly as possible and start killing. Disperse formations! Do not bunch up! For Luna’s sake, do not bunch up!

A drum sounded somewhere in the formation, rolling out a steady marching rhythm, and the regimental banners were unfurled and held aloft by the ensigns. As one the company marched forwards, the platoon formations spreading out somewhat until there was at least one pony length between each guardspony, which would minimise casualties from cannon fire.

We moved damnably slow at a standard marching pace to the tune of that distant drum. The enemy was only a few scant hundred feet away, almost close enough to smell the sickening ichor and corruption of the Changeling race wafting on the light breeze, so bloody close and yet so damnably far. Each step brought us inexorably closer to the foe, but it felt like an eternity. It has always been said that the advance was the hardest part of any battle, and I’m inclined to agree. In the brutality of close quarters combat there was no time to think or consider mortality, but here, as we march so slowly into the killing ground, there was every opportunity to consider that in the next instance I could be dead with a cannon ball where my pretty head once was.

The guardspony next to me muttered a prayer over and over, growing in intensity and volume as we neared the enemy. “Princess Luna, Mistress of the Night, deliver me not unto the fires of Tartarus but unto Thy Eternal Night. Princess Luna, Mistress of the Night, deliver me not unto the fires of Tartarus but unto Thy Eternal Night...” he intoned again and again until a sergeant told him to shut up and ‘stop annoying the Commissar’. [It should be noted that ‘Eternal Night’ in this prayer, which predates Nightmare Moon by a good few centuries, is a poetic description of spending the afterlife in the embrace of my sister and I.]

The unicorns’ missile fire settled into a consistent barrage, with simultaneous blasts of destructive magic hurled at the enemy’s direction; such was the mathematical precision drilled into Starlit Sky’s unicorn company that I heard the distinctive ‘snap’ sounds of the air being displaced by the magical discharge as a single heavy reverberation, rather than as a series of individual discharges. The barrages came like clockwork every fifteen seconds, and they certainly did their job by keeping the Changelings’ heads down but to my rising terror I saw that the enemy had learned to time the loading and firing of their weapons in the fifteen second gap between the fusillades.

I could make out the pony-shaped insects, having shed their now useless disguises, packing their stolen cannons with magically charged gunpowder and heavy iron cannon balls. They were clumsy, only having a basic idea of how these weapons worked, yet as we marched closer and closer it mattered less and less how well they could aim their guns. My heart sank when I saw them load one of the most heinous weapons ever developed by ponies: canister shot. [Rather than being loaded with a single round shot, the cannon is instead packed with a large number of ball bearings and shrapnel. While inaccurate, canister shot has a horrific effect on large infantry formations.]

Ahead of me I saw the black barrel of a cannon levelled down towards me. The gunner lit the fuse and the gun spat fire with a thundering explosion that shook the earth beneath my hooves. I hissed as I felt a sliver of shrapnel scrape along my shoulder, mangling a rather ugly wound in me. The pony next to me virtually exploded and showered me with a spray of blood and flesh.

He simply collapsed in a bloodied heap, like a marionette that had been severed from its strings. The mangled remains of the pony who, not a few minutes earlier, was praying so fervently for my Auntie Luna to accept his soul, lay in a crumpled pile amidst his shattered and buckled armour. The face was unrecognisable; the flesh virtually stripped from the shattered bone, his chest torn open where the armour had failed to protect him.

The platoon marched on.

I vomited.

There, lying before me, I saw that all a pony ever was, and will be, is blood, organs, flesh, and bone wrapped up in a fragile sack of skin. All the stuff that had previously seemed so valuable to me; social class, hierarchy, manners, parties, and all of that upper class aristocratic nonsense was once my very reason for living, all of that just didn’t seem so important anymore. Gazing down at the broken and mangled pile of meat that was once a pony, everything else around me seemed to fade away. The roaring thunder of cannons became unclear and indistinct, as did the cries of the wounded and dying and the shouts of officers trying to keep order, as if I was suddenly immersed underwater.

With the sick dribbling down my chin and the bitter taste of vomit stinging my dry throat I looked up, dazed and confused as the ponies continued to march towards their deaths. I saw an earth pony decapitated by round shot and another platoon’s entire front rank was eviscerated by shrapnel, yet still they marched onwards over the bloodied remains of their comrades.

“Commissar!” Cannon Fodder yelled at me. I glanced up, seeing him waiting a few yards from me and waving a hoof.

I stumbled forth after him, breaking into a weak and clumsy trot to try and catch up with them. Bodies littered the field; their features shredded beyond all recognition.

A wounded pony cried out and I stopped. His face was an utter ruin, but still he cried out for a medic, Princess Luna, his mother to save him before finally expiring in a pool of blood. The last thing that pony saw before ascending into Luna’s Eternal Night was my face and that sick, grinning skull on my cap.

As I write this I cannot recall their names or remember their faces, and it shames me.

Leaving the bodies I cantered back to my position with Cannon Fodder by my side. Bloodlust was reaching a boiling point in the earth ponies; for they had been subjected to this artillery bombardment with no capacity to respond in kind. They snorted and growled, stomping forth as if having to restrain themselves. They wanted vengeance and they wanted Changeling blood. I wanted it too. I wanted to get close, I wanted to kill and kill again. I wanted to avenge those two ponies. It seems incredulous given the normally placid, harmonious, herbivore nature of ponies, but the most animal, base instinct within us had been stirred.

To paraphrase an important pony, for he must be important if his words were recorded for posterity, ‘artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl’. Well, I now pray nightly that the immortal soul of whoever said that is burning in the eternal fires of Tartarus, for I had seen the effects of artillery upon a pony’s physical body and concluded that there is absolutely no dignity to it. [The words are attributed to General Crack Shot, whose bombardment of the city of Gryphonburg during the thirty minute war successfully forced the Grpyons surrender at the cost of dozens of Gryphon civilians. This is not an event I remember with any particular pride.]

We were close now, damned close. Close enough to see the glassy, vacant eyes of the Changelings. The unicorns behind us ceased firing lest they accidently hit us. The smell of ozone, blood, vomit, gunpowder, sweat, and excrement assaulted my nostrils and made me gag. The smoke wafted down towards us, stinging my sore eyes and thankfully concealing parts of our formation.

Sunshine Smiles darted forth, rearing on his hind legs and flailing his fore hooves and whinnying in rage. “Into them! Charge!


Author’s Note: This was originally going to be a single chapter, but I’ve had to split it into two. I’ve never written a battle scene before, so I’m hoping I’ve pulled it off. Not sure if this warrants a gore tag, though. I probably need to get myself an editor at some point

Night's Blood (Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Buck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What exactly happened here?” asked Sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent, carry on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Starlit Skies.”

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

“Can any of our unicorns teleport?”

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

“Go and fetch an earth pony runner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smirked, “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Acceptable losses,” said Crimson Arrow coldly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not run, as far as I could see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night's Blood (Part 5)

The 1st Solar Guard mobilised quickly, and within only ten minutes the entire regiment was marching down the valley. Shining Armour’s plan, as much as I could remain actively alert and listening when he explained it, was for his regiment to link up with the 1st Night Guards currently stationed on the ridge. Once there, the unicorns of both regiments would set up with the artillery to provide long range fire support, while the earth ponies would mass in the valley, adopt the chevron formation, and charge straight into the Changeling army. The idea, however, was not to get bogged down into a battle of attrition as the 3rd Solar Guard had, but to punch a hole in the Changeling lines through which the beleaguered 3rd Regiment could retreat through. [What Blueblood is referring to is known as the Equestria Charge, which is a battlefield shock tactic that resembles more of a stampede than an ordered military stratagem. The idea is to use sheer speed and brute force to shock the enemy; it isn’t particularly subtle but its psychological impact more than makes up for it.]

As plans went, it was probably the best possible one we could think of except for ‘run away’, which would have simply left a large Changeling army to rampage around southern Equestria. That and Shining Armour, after my display at Maredun, fully bought into the image that I was somehow a noble hero willing to risk life and limb for Equestria. I didn’t particularly want to disappoint him, especially since he was starting to forgive me for making his younger sisters life a living hell in school all of those years ago, so, rather naively, I agreed to tag along back to my regiment.

Speed was of the essence, as it would only be a matter of time before the Changelings would discover our stratagem and move accordingly to counter it. However, we seemed to have been particularly blessed that day, as the 1st Solar Guard reached the ridge without any problems. I pondered that the Changelings were somehow ignorant of our presence their focus instead upon the besieged 3rd Solar Guard Regiment instead of the far larger army massing just north of their position. [Blueblood’s hypothesis does seem likely; it is entirely possible that the Purestrain leading the Changeling army would have been leading from the front, if so then it is unlikely that it would have even been aware of Shining Armour’s manoeuvres. However, considering all of the Changelings are linked by a Hive Mind broadcasted by the psychic powers of the Purestrains, it is difficult to believe that no single Changeling could have seen them. Either the Purestrain was supremely confident of crushing the 3rd Solar Guard that what Shining Armour was doing appeared to be of little consequence, or was so preoccupied with orchestrating the fighting efforts of thousands of drones that it was physically impossible to manoeuvre his army in time to counter it. With the lack of any written records on the Changelings’ behalf it is impossible to tell.]

I marched alongside Shining Armour, with Cannon Fodder and Marathon in tow behind me. Behind us the entire regiment, nine hundred ponies armoured in brilliant gold-plated steel that scintillated in the bright afternoon sun, marched. Their rhythmic hoofsteps came as distinct, single tremors that shook the dry ground beneath me.

As a precaution we had attached unicorns from their parent company to the earth pony platoons to dispel any Changeling illusionary magic. We knew from the Battle of Canterlot that a favourite tactic of the Changelings was to disguise themselves as our comrades in the field of battle, which naturally made things rather difficult for us in determining friend or foe. It was rumoured, though not officially verified, that the majority of the Royal Guard casualties in that battle were a result of ponies turning on their comrades who they believed to be Changelings in disguise, only to find the truth that they had just murdered their friends after the fact. Shining Armour was determined not to allow this to happen again.

It felt strangely nostalgic to be with my old regiment once more, though back then the only time the 1st Solar Guard came out in force was on a military parade down the streets of Canterlot. I recall the last one I had taken part in was during the Summer Sun Celebration, which took place during a great heat wave and no fewer than fifty guardsponies fainted from heat exhaustion and dehydration. We must have made for a rather sorry sight standing to attention with unconscious ponies in our midst and medics moving to aid them, all of us silently begging for Princess Celestia to hurry up and get on with it.

The sounds of distant battle were just becoming audible, sounding much like the odd background noise of a large crowd at a major sporting event. The mood was tense. The Regiment had long been considered to be the greatest of all in the Royal Guard and now, for the first time in the one thousand years since the end of the Nightmare Heresy, they would have to prove themselves worthy of that heritage. I supposed the Night Guards were somewhat lucky in that respect; the original Night Guard Corps had been disbanded after the Nightmare Heresy, so with no direct continuation between the current 1st Night Guard Regiment and the one that served one thousand years ago, other than their name, there was no proud legacy for them to live up to.

Colonel Sunshine Smiles had taken the liberty of mobilising the earth pony and pegasus companies at the base of the hill, but left a platoon and a squadron up on the ridge with the artillery just in case things went pear-shaped, which they inevitably do in the course of war.

With a few barked orders the 1st Solar Guard Regiment came to a halt with the simultaneous slamming of a near thousand hooves, which sent a small tremor through the ground. The two regiments faced each other across the plain, with the resplendent and glorious golden Solar Guard arrayed against the dark and mysterious Night Guard the difference appeared to be as clear as night and day. For a while the two regiments faced off one another, like two gangs of common street thugs sizing each other up before a brawl. I heard mutterings from the Solar Guard behind me, catching snippets of words like ‘ruffians’, ‘commoners’, and ‘monsters’.

Shining Armour stepped forwards and I followed. Marathon scampered off to rejoin her own platoon and disappeared into the serried ranks of the Night Guards, while Cannon Fodder took his usual position just behind me and slightly to the right. Fortunately for me, this time we were downwind of him so this rather historic moment wouldn’t be tainted by everypony involved gagging on his scent which, over the course of the day, had only grown worse.

Sunshine Smiles stepped out alone from the formation of Night Guards, looking rather tired but otherwise ready for battle. Curiously, he bore the cannon he had been using as a club upon his back, and I surmised that the 16th Artillery had declared that gun to be too damaged for proper use and allowed him to keep it as a morbid souvenir. His piercing amber eyes were fixed upon Shining Armour, which caused the normally unflappable Captain of the Guard to shudder slightly under their gaze. The myriad scratches and gouges upon his armour, and the messy splatter of Changeling ichor, only added to his normally fearsome appearance.

We met equidistant from the two regiments and stopped. The two officers saluted one another simultaneously.

“Colonel Sunshine Smiles,” said Shining Armour quietly, “it’s good to finally meet you, though I wish it was under better circumstances.”

The enormous earth pony nodded his head. “It’s about damned time you showed up,” he said bluntly, which made the young unicorn blink in surprise, “we’ve been waiting for you, so perhaps we can save the pleasantries for after we’ve all been slaughtered.”

“Er, yes, of course,” stammered Shining Armour, quailing a little before the imposing pony. He flopped down on his haunches and began to draw out a rough map of the gorge with his hoof in the dusty earth. Sunshine Smiles looked on as Shining Armour explained his plan to him in thankfully short, succinct sentences. I already knew the plan so I admit I ceased to pay complete attention to what Shiny Arsehole was saying, though Sunshine Smiles seemed enraptured by the plan.

“And what happens after we pull the 3rd Regiment back into the valley?” asked the scarred Colonel, which was a sensible question which I, in my haste to get this messiness over and done with, had neglected to ask.

“We fight,” replied Shining Armour as he stood up. “The Changelings’ advantage in numbers will count for nothing in there, and the horde will be under constant artillery and unicorn fire. It’ll just be a matter of time before they break.”

“Very well,” he nodded. “And where will you be?”

Shining Armour shrugged, “Leading the charge with the earth ponies of course.”

The Colonel cocked his head to one side curiously as Shining Armour wiped the dust from his purple and gold armour. “And not with the unicorns?”

“And miss out on all the fun?” he said, grinning widely. “Besides, I’d never order my stallions to do something I wouldn’t do myself, even if it is riding into the depths of Tartarus.”

Sunshine Smiles smirked and nudged the Captain of the Guard with a hoof in that characteristically friendly gesture he always gave to somepony he liked, though Shining Armour virtually toppled over with the strength of the nudge. “A stallion after my own heart, I think we’re going to get along just fine.”

I was never a particularly religious stallion. You see, it’s rather hard to believe a pony is truly divine if you’ve witnessed her chasing her younger sister around the palace, screaming obscenities, sending servants diving for cover, and crushing furniture beneath their hooves just because the latter had committed the juvenile ‘immerse-a-hoof-in-cold-water-when-they’re-sleeping-so-they-wet-the-bed’ trick. But despite my misgivings on the alleged divinity of my Auntie Celestia, I found myself silently praying to her as I followed Sunshine Smiles back to the regiment. Far be it from me to be arrogant enough to assume that Auntie Celestia, Goddess of the Sun and Sol Invictus, was bothered to listen to me pleading for my worthless little life, after all she does have rather more important things to do like stopping the sun crashing into the ground and wiping out all life.

[Despite her rather serious demeanour in public, my younger sister is an incorrigible prankster behind closed doors. The incident Blueblood describes is indeed true, and any mention of it in public (and I will know of it) will result in banishment for all involved. As for my divinity, I prefer to allow my ponies to freely believe what they will. I will neither confirm nor deny my divinity; however, it is not my place to tell ponies what they should believe. With regards to crashing the sun into the ground, that has only ever happened once and it is the reason why the dinosaurs went extinct.]

Still, my prayers did offer some consolation for me as the regiment assembled for the charge. The earth ponies stamped at the ground in nervous anticipation for the oncoming slaughter, their newly acquired spears glinted in the fading daylight, while the pegasi flew combat air patrols just above our heads. To our left the 1st Solar Guard set themselves up in a similar fashion, though the wait was interminably long. I remember standing there, being hoofed endless mugs of tea and oats rations from my venerable aide, as I counted the seconds for them to manoeuvre such a vast number of ponies into position. Not that I was particularly looking forward to it, mind you, but I was merely feeling the same tense anticipation one feels when one is about to go into a dentist’s surgery to have a root canal conducted.

The earth ponies arrayed themselves out in an arrowhead formation, with the Night Guards making up the right half and the Solar Guard on the left to produce an even split between the middle. Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles stood together at the very tip of the formation, and I was not very far behind them with Cannon Fodder and Red Coat. The young captain probably wasn’t in the best position to fight, seeing as he was half-blind by the large bruise on his eye and his body covered with small cuts and bites, but I resolved to stick close to him in the hope that the Changelings would attack him, the weaker and more injured pony, first instead of me.

“Finally ready?” asked Sunshine Smiles somewhat impatiently.

“Only if you are,” replied Shining Armour. He took a glance over at the enemy in the distance, which was only visible as a blackish-green smudge just on the horizon where the valley opened up into the vast deserts beyond. Only then did I realise that we were going to have to gallop that entire distance, and I once again cursed my lack of that earth pony stamina.

“I’ll race you,” the Colonel quipped to the unicorn at his side.

Shining Armour blinked gormlessly for a few moments, and then his mouth formed into a wide grin, “Last one there’s a mule.”

Fantastic, I thought to myself, we were being led by a pair of schoolcolts.

I took one furtive glance up to my right at the artillery positioned on the ridge, praying that this time they were firmly pointed in the direction of the enemy and not at my own head. I was not keen to face the savagery of an artillery bombardment once more, but was thankful to have it on my side for once. There was a rumble, like distant thunder, and I watched as a puff of smoke flared out of one of the cannons like dragons’ breath. To my eternal relief they had missed us entirely however, to my subsequent chilling terror that also signalled the start of the charge.

Sunshine Smiles shrieked a bestial cry of rage that was carried through the Night Guards’ ranks before, as one, we surged forth into a gallop. I tried to slow down in order to get into the centre of the formation, which I guessed to be the safest position, but in the dense press of bodies I had no chance of getting there without getting trampled by our own stallions.

Trapped in the mass of sweating, stampeding, bloodthirsty stallions was oddly exhilarating, despite the eye-watering stench of unwashed ponies that nearly made me gag and the thick dust kicked up by the hooves of those in front of me. Either side of me I felt cool steel armour and warm bodies press against my sides, while the pony behind me periodically rammed straight into my hindquarters in a vain bid to make us somehow go faster, and ahead of me were rows upon rows of bobbing heads, pounding hooves, and armour-clad flanks. Between gaps in the dense dust cover I could see our cannons spitting hot iron death at the Changeling horde between them, and the reek of sweat and clogging dust was soon joined by the familiar ozone of unicorn mage fire as they commenced their volleys. The dust obscured most of the results of such, so I could not verify their effectiveness, but I could see the clods of dry earth thrown up by round shot and the spectacular light show of magic missiles. Above us the pegasi circled in elegant and majestic sweeps shimmering glints of shining cold and cold steel in the warm afternoon sun, reminding me of flocks of phoenixes and bats alike.

Braying madly for violence and bodies streaked with sweat the earth ponies charged onwards down the valley. Shining Armour, who was just ahead of me and to the left, seemed to be doing well on maintaining his earlier promise by keeping up admirably with the earth ponies, which was something I was rather struggling to do.

The rumble of cannon fire and magic missiles ceased abruptly to avoid hitting us just as, like a weakened dam bursting, the Changeling line crumbled under the onslaught of the pony-wave. The malevolent beasts chittered and shrieked as they were impaled upon an unstoppable wall of spear points, though their shafts were shattered by the force of the initial impacts. The armoured bulk of hundreds of ponies, however, proved more than sufficient to drag the startled Changelings under our hooves. Their bodies were mashed and stomped beyond all recognition in the stampede, turning into unidentifiable pulped flesh and shattered chitin. The pegasi shrieked ahead of us into the swirling aerial ballet above our heads. Glancing up I caught fleeting glimpses of shining gold and dark steel darting around like dragonflies on a hot summer’s day, duelling with the nimble and flitting Changelings who resembled ugly swarms of midges. Sometimes, the dragonflies and midges would clash and one would fall like a stone into the armies below locked in combat.

We did not have it all our own way, however, for inevitably the stampede began to lose its momentum and slowed. The Changelings, now dreadfully aware of our presence, immediately turned away from the 3rd Solar Guard to deal with this new threat, and once more we became bogged down in the brutal slog of close quarters combat. Yet this time, we had the advantage of long range artillery and unicorn mage fire on our side. In an expert display of gunnery, the remnants of the 16th Artillery averted their aim to just beyond our position to fire into the sides of the Changeling formation where they swept around the beleaguered 3rd like the tide around an island, which did much to stem the flow of Changeling reinforcements.

It was still brutal, however, as Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles drove us ever forwards. I drew my blade into a telekinetic grasp and waded into the melee; the cloying mass of Changelings surged against us only to be hacked down by swords, spears, hooves, and, in the Night Guards’ case, fangs. I remember very little of the charge, only viciously hacking my sword left and right at the sight of any green and black in an incoherent blur of violence. Despite the lapse in memory, I vividly recall the sheer exhaustion that began to take over me, even such that the adrenaline coursing through my veins, invigorating my body and pushing me to feats of violence I would never have thought myself capable of, could not counteract it. It was magical exhaustion; though telekinesis is one of the most ‘efficient’ spells that a unicorn learns, the act of swinging a heavy lump of steel back and forth for so long took its toll upon my concentration. Then there was the noise; a vile, hateful cacophony of screams, roars, and the sickening squelch of torn flesh.

We were succeeding in driving them back, however, as despite their weight in numbers they could not fully bring that advantage to bear in the tight press of the valley, meaning that the Royal Guards’ superior training, weapons, and heavy plate armour would inevitably pull through. In the slog of combat I lost all track of time, but it felt like decades had passed before we’d finally forced the enemy back far enough for us to rendezvous with the remnants of the 3rd Solar Guard. In the course of the fight I’d received an additional bite to my leg, and despite my best efforts the shrapnel wound on my shoulder had reopened [We can assume that Blueblood found a medic at some point and neglected to include this admittedly unimportant note in his narrative], so I limped, or maybe dragged myself, over as the earth pony platoons worked on widening the gap.

The ponies of the 3rd Regiment looked exhausted, but defiant. Their once shining armour was covered in so much pale dust that they looked like ghosts, and the vivid splatters of blood and gore did little to help that morbid image. They had a haunted look to their eyes, weary but determined to continue fighting. All semblance of the Royal Guard command structure seemed to have vanished with officers and NCOs dead, wounded, or otherwise taken out of the fight, ad hoc platoons and squads were formed out of the survivors to try and maintain some semblance of cohesion. Despite their captain and colonel being blithering idiots with the collective intelligence of an apricot, the lower echelons of the 3rd Solar Guard proved to be rather effective in performing their duties. I was beginning to think the sale of officer commissions was not necessarily a good thing.

The first mob, for lack of a better term, of 3rd Solar Guard ponies we ran into were a scratch platoon of mostly unicorns and the odd earth pony who had become separated from his own unit. They were led by a unicorn sergeant, who greeted me with a mixture of relief and elation and seemed to be struggling to restrain himself from embracing me in a well-deserved hug. In the end he went for a simple parade ground salute.

“Where’s Captain Clear Heavens?” I demanded.

“Down there, sir,” he said, jerking his head to indicate just behind him. “Forgive me, sir but are we pulling back?”

I nodded my head, “Yes, prepare to organise an orderly retreat into the valley.”

The sergeant grinned, “Finally, somepony with a lick of sense. Guardsponies! Prepare to move out!”

I pushed my way through the press of weary and battered guardsponies, passing the wounded and dying as the sea of ponies parted to allow me through. The overwhelming smell of Cannon Fodder’s body odour reassured me that he was still alive and by my side, and, oddly, I found was more tolerable to the reek of blood and bodily waste that surrounded me. I saw medics attending to injured ponies, one of them thrashed and shrieked in agony as he was held down for an emergency amputation, the sight of which made me feel quite queasy and faint.

Shining Armour trotted up to join me. True to his name, his armour had somehow remained mostly unblemished despite the fact we had just ridden through the gates of Tartarus, which left me to believe that either the Changelings wouldn’t dare touch him, or he was canny enough to avoid the fighting. [Shining Armour’s after action reports indicate he was at the thickest of the fighting; the apparent cleanliness of his armour is likely down to a magical enchantment.] He had taken his helmet off and held it under his foreleg, thus forcing him to walk in a bizarre three-legged limp that seemed no more dignified than my own wearied stumbles.

You!!” A familiar voice abruptly began to pluck at my remaining nerves. Clear Heavens forced his way through the mob of injured ponies, much to the irritation and anger of his medics. The two cuts I had given him after the duel had left two thin scars on either cheek they did little to mar his handsome visage though and I’m sure any mare would be swooning over him to tell them the heroic tale of how he earned them. “What are you doing here?!” He yelled at me above the din of battle, his face contorted into an expression of utmost indignation.

Trailing behind him was a lieutenant, his second in command probably, who looked about ready to give up. Like the other guardsponies his armour and fur were covered in a film of dust, which stuck to the splatters of blood and clotting open wounds on his body. He kept his expression impassive in that old aristocratic tradition of not displaying any emotion in the face of danger; whoever he was, he had clearly been trained well.

“Delivering your orders, Captain,” said Shining Armour. “You’re to pull back to the valley.”

He blinked incredulously, and his eyes looked about ready to burst out of his head. “Retreat? Retreat! The 3rd Solar Guard does not know the meaning of that word! And we certainly don’t need your ‘help’ in defeating the Changelings, our victory is certain.”

Well, that decided it he was clearly delusional as well as incompetent.

“Sir,” said the tired Lieutenant, the strain creeping into his refined Canterlot accent bore the weight of what he had just been forced to endure, “perhaps it might be prudent to withdraw; our casualties are becoming insurmountable and we will be overrun soon.”

Clear Heavens suddenly swung around, striking the young Lieutenant in the snout with a back-hoofed slap. The colt stumbled back from the force of the blow, but true to the old aristocratic adage of maintaining a stiff upper lip and grace under pressure, merely straightened up and looked his superior square in the eye as the insane Captain ranted and blood trickled down from his nose.

“I will not tolerate defeatism, Lieutenant Fine Vintage!” he shouted. “There will be no retreat, and I’ll have anypony who even thinks of the word flogged. The 3rd Regiment will not suffer such dishonour, not while I’m in command. For the Princess!!

Clear Heavens reared up on his hind legs and pointed dramatically in the vague direction of the Changeling army, striking a heroic pose that would make any propaganda artist practically explode with patriotic glee, and looking as if he believed himself to be the star of his very own war film. Well, whatever movie was playing in his mind was probably better than that horrendous motion picture biopic about me. [‘Blueblood: A Commissar’s Life’ starring Tom Flanks as Prince Blueblood, my faithful student counted no fewer than three hundred factual and historical errors ranging from incorrect uniforms to the complete absence of Cannon Fodder.]

Shining Armour grunted in frustration, “Please, listen to reason, you’re exposed and surrounded out here we need to fall back to a more defensible position.”

Clear Heavens blinked at him gormlessly. “Defence? But we’re on the offence.”

I snapped. With the day I’d just been having, running back and forth down that infernal valley being shot at, bitten, and then contending with General Crimson Arrow’s gross inability to command effectively I was in no mood to put up with Captain Clear Heavens’ enthusiastic and suicidal incompetence.

So I punched him.

"I don't have time for this!"

The unicorn was quite surprised by this sudden and bold move, as were Shining Armour, the Lieutenant, and I. Clear Heavens stumbled back a little, clutching his head as he blinked back in shock at what had just happened. I reached out with my magic aura, wrapping my telekinesis around the gold rank pips on his armour and wrenched them off to throw them in the Lieutenant’s direction, who caught them with his hooves as a bewildered expression overtook that aristocratic implacability.

“Congratulations on your promotion Captain Fine Vintage,” I said, and the newly appointed Captain blinked down on the pips that rested on his hooves as if they were radioactive and might explode at any moment, “now organise an orderly retreat! That's an order!

I turned on my hooves and marched back to my regiment, feeling thoroughly disgusted with the way some of my aristocratic brethren in the Royal Guard had been behaving. I knew this would happen, but at the time I felt that running around shouting ‘I bucking told you so’ would not be conducive to getting out of this alive, regardless of how satisfying it might have been at the time. Fine Vintage, however, proved to be a reasonably effective officer and, with the aid of Shining Armour, managed to organise a fighting retreat into the valley in short order. The famed discipline of the common Equestrian soldier came into its own as the ponies slowly pulled back into the valley we had just erupted out of; such discipline, however, did not seem to translate over to the officer corps as well as it should have.

I, on the other hoof, believed my work to be done and managed to slide my way through the press of bodies, injured ponies, and corpses back to where the Night Guards were doing an admirable job in holding back the Changeling hordes to provide a ‘tunnel’ through which the 3rd Solar Guard could pass through back into the valley. I made the excuse that I was looking after the wounded, which placated Cannon Fodder who asked me why we were moving in the opposite direction to the fighting. This, however, would only contribute to my fraudulent reputation by appearing to care for the safety of those wounded ponies. I reassured them with the false platitudes that the Ministry of Misinformation and the Commissariat had so thoughtfully provided for me, despite their abject transparency to my ears they proved enough to reassure everypony else.

My hooves began to itch just as I reached my regiment, though the ponies of all three were starting to mix as they worked, fought, and died together, and I began to realise that this was going much too well for the kind of cock-up that usually plagues my life. Granted, the problems with Clear Heavens and Crimson Arrow were irritating, bordering on disastrous, but they were each resolved in a short amount of time so as not to cause too much damage (at least, that's what I thought at the time; as it happened not summarily executing them on the spot, however unpleasant that might have been, would turn out to be a mistake). Had I any indication of what I was stumbling into as I moved away from the more obvious danger of the battle, I’d have probably stayed out at the front line instead.

True to form, the Changelings followed us straight into the valley where, to my vague surprise, Shining Armour’s plan seemed to be working in blunting the Changelings’ advantage in numbers. The odds were moved further in our favour when the artillery and unicorns on the ridge began pouring an obscene amount of firepower at the mouth of the valley where the enemy was forced to funnel in if they were to reach us. If we could hold them there, while the artillery withered down their reinforcements, then victory, or at least survival, was all but assured.

I found Captain Red Coat sitting on his haunches, supervising the transport of the injured. He held a thousand yard stare in the general direction of the ponies carrying the wounded on stretchers in a long line back to Maredun for treatment in the makeshift field hospital there. The horrid wailing and sobbing of the wounded ponies was quite disconcerting, and I did my best to try and ignore it. Keen to look as if I was actually contributing to what was going on, rather than just bossing other ponies about, I trotted on over.

“What’s the situation?” I asked him.

The young Night Guard Captain blinked up at me, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I was just speaking with you, remember? The Colonel told me to supervise the movement of the wounded back to Maredun.” he said, which made the itching in my hooves get worse, though I put his confusion down to shell shock or stress.

I shook my head, “No, I just got here; I was over with Shining Armour and Captain... uh, former captain Clear Heavens.”

“That can’t be right, I was just...” he stopped mid-sentence and stared over my shoulder at something behind me. Now, experience has taught me that whenever a pony does that, it means there’s something very dangerous and bloodthirsty just behind me and I should run away as quickly as possible, but I was young and naive at the time so I merely turned around to see what exactly he was staring at. As a precaution I drew my sword.

It was me, or rather a Changeling disguised as me. The doppelganger, whose guise was nearly perfect yet conspicuously missing the wounds I had sustained in the battle and not covered head to hoof in a thin film of dust, was standing a short distance away with a group of Night Guards and Solar Guards. I couldn’t overhear what exactly was being said, but whatever it was resulted in uproarious laughter from the soldiers. It was probably just a result of all of the stress I was feeling at the time, but the first thought that came into my tired old head was that this Changeling doppelganger seemed to be doing a far better job of maintaining morale than I was.

Behind me I could hear Red Coat clamber back up to his hooves and seize his spear, which had somehow survived the initial charge, in a loud clatter of armour plates that sounded like a pile of pots and pans falling. Not wanting to be mistaken for the doppelganger and find myself on the receiving end of that unbroken spear I pushed my way forward, charging my aching horn with the necessary magics before casting that spell I had been practicing for just over a week now.

The disguise was stripped away instantly in a flash of sickly green light to reveal something rather more monstrous in its wake. It was a Purestrain, one of the commanders of the Changeling hives that project the latent psychic hold of the Hive Mind upon its numberless hordes of mindless thralls. I had fought one before and won largely as a result of a fluke and the as-yet undiscovered unique talents of Cannon Fodder, but this one was far more horrifying in its appearance than its deceased brother.

I still shudder as I recall the hideously mutated form of that particular Changeling Purestrain. There it stood before me, surrounded by gawking guardsponies, nearly twice my size and girth bloated with whatever sickly mutations gifted unto the beast by its debased Queen, with a long sinuous neck that led up to an insectoid head shaped in a pale mockery of that of a pony. As with all Changelings, the extremities of its limbs were riddled with holes, but in this case they were decayed and riddled with maggots and fat bodied flies.

It stopped in mid-sentence as the glamour faded, and in that instant exploded into a spectacular display of obscene violence. Its slathering maw, which contained far too many fangs as to be considered safe for a mouth to hold, lashed out and tore the throat from a Night Guard, while it bucked its hind hooves into the chest of a Solar Guard and sent him flying back with a horrible crunch of smashed bone. The malformed and jagged horn upon his forehead glowed with baleful green energies that hurt my eyes to look upon, and with a blinding flash half a dozen ponies were reduced to ashes.

About a half dozen of the injured ponies carried on stretchers suddenly sat up; their bloodied injured forms were suddenly engulfed in a flickering green glow that revealed their horrid forms for all to see. The newly revealed Changelings hissed and turned on their former comrades, felling the surprised guardsponies with rending bites to throats and exposed flesh. A cry of alarm echoed through the ranks and the guardsponies were spurred into action to meet this new threat.

To say that I was terrified would have been a severe understatement, and my horror only grew when the Purestrain fixed his malevolent green eyes upon me and licked his drooling lips with a forked tongue. The ponies around me flew into a blind panic when presented with this and, agreeing that this course of action was the most sensible at the time, joined them in turning on my heels and fleeing. Cannon Fodder, being the dutiful aide as ever, followed me in my flight. I didn’t need to run fast, just faster than Cannon Fodder so that while it was busy munching on my aide I could quickly stab it in the face and claim victory.

We weren’t fast enough. I dared to glance over my shoulder and saw the beast dive towards us with its fangs bared. The obese mass of the monster shoved Cannon Fodder to the side, and sent Red Coat tumbling head over hooves with a wide swing of his hoof. With my sword already drawn I turned and stopped to swing my blade in a wide downward arc to bury it in my opponent’s skull. The abomination’s horn lit with dark magicks as I lunged in for the kill. The thing moved with sudden speed and deflected the attack with that malformed, jagged protrusion. There was a flash of green light and a snap of air being displaced as I was thrown backwards, my sabre torn from my grip and sent clattering to the ground beside me.

“This was just too easy,” he said with a voice that sounded like the crackling of embers. The Purestrain stepped towards me its dinner plate sized hooves fractured the ground beneath its monstrous bulk. It opened its maw, running a slithering grey tongue along its rows upon rows of sharpened fangs. Those keen eyes glimmered with the malevolent intelligence of their kind cunning, manipulative, but a slave to the will of their fallen Queen.

I crawled on my back, struggling to get away from the monster and closer to my weapon. Two earth ponies charged at the beast, bellowing cries of rage and warning me to get out of the way. I watched in impotent horror as the Changeling Purestrain glanced up in their direction. His horn flickered with green energy, swirling and coruscating as power flickered across its jagged length before it discharged with a crackle of displaced air, followed by the stench of ozone and melted flesh. There, where two brave ponies had once stood was a pile of ash and cinders.

It laughed, moving in closer until he was virtually straddling me and swung his hoof down across my face. Stars exploded across my vision and the right side of my head ached terribly with the strike. Something warm began to trickle down into my mane and my cap had fallen off.

“Pathetic,” spat the Purestrain derisively. “Is this Equestria’s last line of defence? We conquered your miserable city in ten minutes, we laid low your so-called Goddess, we had you at our mercy.”

The creature grinned as its horn illuminated once more with baleful energy and I closed my eyes for the end.

It didn’t come.

Of course it didn’t kill me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this bloody thing, would I?

The creature suddenly hissed in pain and I dared to open my eyes. I saw the Purestrain, his face contorted into a rictus of agony, flinch away from me suddenly. A spear was buried in a vulnerable chink in the chitin armour on his hindquarters approximately where a pony’s cutie mark would lie. Cannon Fodder emerged galloping with his horn levelled low to charge into the Purestrain’s side.

The Purestrain turned, apparently forgetting me for a while, to face this new threat. So focused was he on toying with me that he had completely forgotten about Cannon Fodder’s existence, though I couldn’t imagine why given my aide’s memorable odour, and the greater battle around us. The Changelings who had masqueraded as injured ponies had been dealt with, though at some disproportionately heavy losses as many guardsponies were slain before they had a chance to react. The Night Guards circled around us with whatever intact spears they could find levelled on the Purestrain, trapping him like a wild animal. Despite the monstrous face I had to admit that seeing his expression of dawning horror was most satisfying, as the creature undoubtedly realised that his little gambit in trying to take my place had left him isolated and completely surrounded by very angry and vengeful ponies.

I struggled to my hooves and grabbed up my sword. The Purestrain shrieked stamping its hooves in frustration and anger it lit its horn with baleful magical energies and then... nothing the Purestrain was now in range of Cannon Fodder’s Blank field. He shrieked in impotent, pathetic rage. His horn sparked uselessly with sickly green light as he tried to summon magical energy that simply wasn’t available anymore.

That didn’t deter him from fighting on. Cannon Fodder lunged, and the Purestrain spun on his hooves and delivered my aide a buck to the chest that sent him flying into the air.

It turned quickly to strike at me with its maw open, ready to bite into my tender flesh and rip me apart. I was quicker. I rammed my sabre home, driving the blade into that open mouth. The Purestrain stopped and began wobbling on its hooves, gagging on its own blood that trickled down its throat.

“You conquered our city,” I said as I twisted the blade and gazed with defiance into the dying eyes of the monster before me, “you laid low our Goddess, you had us at your mercy; but you still failed.”

I gave the sabre a shove with my magic, driving it further into the back of the beast’s mouth until the tip of the blade protruded from the base of his skull. As I ripped my sword free the Purestrain collapsed in a heap, his spinal cord severed by the blade, and his malformed body twitched as it struggled to cling to its mockery of life. I beheaded the abomination just to make sure.

I gingerly stepped over the body and the expanding pool of foul smelling ichor to retrieve my cap which, for some peculiar reason, had become rather important to me despite my abject dislike of the bloody thing. As I placed it upon my head, my limbs still trembling from the fight and my breath quick and shallow, I looked across at the large mob of guardsponies around us. Captain Red Coat and Cannon Fodder were seemingly fine, if a little battered and damaged, but at least they were still alive.

A medic tended to them as I limped on over. Red Coat was the most fortunate and suffered only another set of light bruises on his shoulder to add to the patchwork of blue and purple on his body, while Cannon Fodder seemed rather worse for wear. I felt an odd sensation of concern as I watched a medic, a unicorn identifiable by the white circle and red cross in lieu of the eye on his armour, use his telekinesis to undo the myriad straps on my aide’s breastplate and peel the crumpled steel from his barrel, thus revealing two rather large hoofprint-shaped bruises.

Cannon Fodder fidgeted a little in discomfort as the medic projected a pale yellow aura from his horn onto my aide’s chest, which I noted to be covered in a slightly darker shade of grubby beige fur than the rest of him which implied he very rarely bothered to take it off and thus all manner of interesting skin and fur diseases might be festering there. The medic also seemed to be holding his breath as he leaned in close, Cannon Fodder’s odour apparently being much too strong to bear for a pony who had been through medical school and had to build up a resistance to all manner of foul reeking horrors.

“Sorry about that, sir,” said Cannon Fodder.

I cocked my head to one side curiously, “For what? Saving my life again?”

He shook his head and grinned, looking rather proud of himself, “For missing, sir; I was aiming for the bastard’s head.”

I chuckled, mainly as a way of relieving the tension that had been building up throughout this disastrous day. The medic stood up and announced that the wounds were only superficial and should heal naturally, advising that Cannon Fodder be put on light duties for the time being before trotting off -- with an unmistakable look of relief on his face -- in search of the next pony who needed his valuable skills.

Of course, ponies would conveniently omit Cannon Fodder’s contribution to the battle, and instead crediting only me with the death of the Changeling Purestrain that had disguised itself as me; rather foolishly, I might add, considering I was very much alive. Admittedly, Cannon Fodder wasn’t the sort of pony one would want cluttering up the perfect image of the noble hero.

As I sat there with the two, my breath coming in ragged gasps that made my bruised ribs sting with every inhalation, I felt a strange sort of relief. The wounded ponies were continuously streaming past us now on their way back to Maredun and I overheard rumours, later verified, that Shining Armour’s brilliant plan had actually worked and the Changelings were in full retreat. What surprised me, however, was that Shining Armour had ordered the Royal Guard to retreat further back to Maredun. We hadn’t won the battle per se, history would later record the Battle of Black Venom Pass as being ‘inconclusive’ as the Royal Guard had failed in its objective to seize the southern end of the pass, and Shining Armour was reluctant to even attempt to give chase to the fleeing Changelings lest he lead our army into yet another possible trap [A decision that continues to generate much argument to this day. I, for one, believe that his caution was quite justified under the circumstances, as any further attempt to take the southern pass would likely have resulted in another encirclement, especially considering that the 3rd Solar Guard was in no condition to continue fighting and the 1st Night Guards were becoming exhausted]; yet I had survived and as far as I was concerned that was victory enough.

“I didn’t think it would feel like this,” said Red Coat wistfully after a moment of uncomfortable silence. “You know...? All the stories talk about the glory and the fighting... but they don’t tell you how they make you feel once it’s over.”

“How do you feel?” I asked him in a knowing, comradely tone.

The young captain shrugged his shoulders and idly kicked at the dusty ground. He didn’t look at me when he spoke, but rather at the spot of ground just between his front hooves.

“Sick,” he said after a moment’s consideration, before finally looking up in my direction. I suppressed a shudder at the haunted look in his eyes the unwavering gaze of a young stallion who had just seen and experienced things no pony of that age should be forced to. “Was your first time like this?”

I frowned. “My first time?” I considered making an inappropriate joke there about how losing my virginity also made me feel ‘sick’, but for the sake of not upsetting Red Coat I held my tongue.

“I mean your first time in battle, sir.”

I shook my head and grinned, which made him frown in confusion. “My first time in battle was the Great Canterlot Snowball Fight of ’05; I took a snowball to the head and caught a cold, so yes I did feel sick afterwards.”

He chuckled quietly and fell silent, gazing listlessly out at the guardsponies who marched past us. It was the kind of quiet stoicism that ponies expected out of their officers; they wanted to believe that we are invulnerable, perfect, and somehow immune to the psychological stresses and strains of war. Looking at Red Coat I knew he wanted to cry and run home, and I couldn’t particularly blame him for that, but to his credit he held that facade of quiet detachment rather well given his inexperience. As for me, well, I had my discreditable reputation to hide behind, and ponies seem to have a rather selective memory as far as they are concerned about my status as a hero.

The atmosphere was ambivalent at best. We hadn’t won, so there was no jubilant cheering and celebrating as usually occurs, but we hadn’t particularly lost per se either. It was a stalemate, with no sense of finality to it, only the implication that this was merely the first of what would become a gruelling, unpleasant war. The convoy of wounded soon passed us, protected by weathered platoons of earth ponies and squadrons of pegasi, while the remainder of the Royal Guard began its wary and careful retreat back to the apparent safety of the fortress.

The three of us sat there in silence for a while, watching as the three battered regiments the 3rd completely shattered and the Night Guards weary after a full day of fighting, assembled by platoons and stalked back. We shared in the mutual unspoken relief that, against all of the odds and the brutality of war, we had survived, and in the dawning, horrific realisation that this was merely the beginning.


[Blueblood’s entry ends rather abruptly here as his involvement in the battle came to an end. To better set the events in a historical context I have included a short extract from the noted historian Paperweight’s seminal work ‘A Concise History of the Changeling Wars’. While admittedly lacking in detail, Paperweight’s work provides a clear and succinct description of the wars. For those looking for a more detailed account, then I can recommend ‘Blood in the Badlands’ by my Faithful Student Twilight Sparkle which, at thirty-seven volumes, provides an unparalleled description of the war down to the tiniest details, right down to what I was having for breakfast each morning.]

Extract from Paperweight’s ‘A Concise History of the Changeling Wars’.

The Battle of Black Venom Pass might have been inconclusive in pure military terms, but the implications of this battle for the entirety of the war effort cannot be denied. The Royal Guard had failed in their primary objective to take the pass in its entirety and seize a hoofhold in the Badlands with which to launch a full invasion; however, the ancient fortress of Maredun was firmly in Equestrian hooves and would provide a bulwark against further Changeling incursions. A combination of Changeling infiltration of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment and strategic incompetence had resulted in the over-extension and complete encirclement of the 3rd Solar Guard, and General Crimson Arrow’s callous disregard for the lives of the soldiers under his command nearly resulted in the complete destruction of the regiment. It was only through the actions of Commissar Blueblood, who should really need no introduction here, in rallying the confused 1st Night Guard regiment and then removing the incompetent General Crimson Arrow from command that saved the regiment.

The 3rd Regiment, however, would cease to exist as a cohesive fighting force until much later in the war, suffering over two hundred killed and five hundred wounded. It was only by some miracle, possibly due to the propaganda being spread around at the time that capture by the Changelings was a fate worse than death, that they did not completely give up. Casualties suffered by the 1st Night Guard and 1st Solar Guard were relatively light, as it seems the Changelings were not expecting them to be so bold as to mount a rescue. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what the Changelings were thinking, given the complete lack of any written records or subjects to interview, but it is likely that they assumed that the Royal Guard would remain in Maredun, which indeed was what Crimson Arrow’s initial plan was.

The battle would ruin the careers of three leading officers in the Royal Guard; Crimson Arrow, whose callous disregard for his ponies' lives would so shock the general public that they would demand his dismissal; Rising Star, who should have retired decades ago; and Clear Heavens, whose refusal to retreat resulted in his cashiering by Commissar-Prince Blueblood. Its ramifications, however, would extend further. The Royal Guard was believed to be invincible, but the battle had shown clearly that this was not the case. We believed, in our arrogance, that the war would somehow be easy. The relative ease at which the Changelings were first expelled from Canterlot had lulled us into a false sense of security, and we assumed that we merely had to march into the Badlands and exterminate them as pests. Black Venom Pass revealed that we faced a foe that was cunning enough to set up ambushes and conduct espionage, and that our own forces were woefully inadequate to face them.

Shining Armour has been both praised for leading the charge that saved the 3rd Solar Guard and chastised for not pursuing the retreating Changelings into the Badlands.

The individual guardspony cannot be blamed, for they were well-equipped and well-trained. After action reports from the battle imply that the Royal Guard fought tenaciously and viciously in the face of the enemy, and that Changeling casualties were far in excess of those suffered by Equestrian forces. Blame, therefore, was placed upon the commanders, whose incompetence in preparing and leading the battle nearly resulted in abject defeat, were it not for Commissar Blueblood intervening. It seemed to prove the efficacy of Princess Luna’s experiments with the Commissariat, and soon commissars would be attached at all levels of the Royal Guard. An inquiry was set up under Twilight Sparkle to investigate the problems of the Royal Guard’s command structure and how they could be solved.


A/N – Phew, I’m glad that’s over, really struggled with these two chapters. Again, I can’t say I’m entirely happy with how they’ve turned out, but hey, here they are. Originally they were going to be a single chapter but I couldn’t squeeze all of it in without making it seem rushed. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them more than I did writing them.

A/N #2 - Fixed the massive punctuation errors, these were a result of some problem in converting the .docx file I was working on.

Bloodstained (Part 1)

Bloodstained

Prince Blueblood and the Siege of Fort E5150

I must admit the popularity of these Manuscripts, which I have been dutifully compiling and editing from the hodgepodge of rough notes and scribbling that I found scattered inside Blueblood’s safe, is rather surprising despite their rather limited circulation. What had started as a small hobby for me to while away a particularly boring weekend has now developed into a fully fledged project, with aims to collect and publish Blueblood’s memoirs in their entirety within our rather close circle. Though I do have aims to release these texts to the general public once all living memory of these events has passed, excepting myself and my fellow immortals naturally, which should be within the next couple of centuries or so.

To this end I present the third entry in the Manuscript, which details the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Black Venom Pass and the Siege of Fort E5150 (colloquially known by its nickname as ‘Fort Nowhere’). This particular text neatly rounds off the ‘trilogy’ that describes Blueblood’s meteoric and rather unwanted rise to fame, which culminated in the climax of this siege which has since passed on into myth and legend. Indeed, the image of Blueblood standing triumphant amidst the destruction of the battle, and putting himself in harm’s way between mortal danger and a pony very dear to my heart (in typical fashion he says this was entirely accidental and done in the heat of the moment), has formed an enduring propaganda icon that has burrowed its way into the Equestrian subconscious.

It should be noted that Blueblood is not necessarily the most reliable of chroniclers; however, I am inclined to accept his depiction of these events as absolutely true for the most part, and therefore have largely left the original text alone. As per the previous entries I have annotated this entry to clarify certain points or expand upon the historiography of the events described, considering how he tends to focus entirely upon things that concerned him to the exclusion of virtually all else around him. Despite the involvement of myself, my sister, and my faithful student Twilight Sparkle in the events described I have resisted the foalish urge to edit the text to make myself appear better.

-HRH Celestia, Princess of Equestria



Part One

If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the course of my long and fraudulent career, other than that I am in a small minority of ponies who aren’t utterly and irrevocably insane, is that any military operation advertised as being simple and easy is very unlikely to be so. The senior echelons of the Royal Guard were still plagued with the sense of rather irritating and misplaced optimism, even after the near annihilation of the 3rd Solar Guard Regiment in the Battle of Black Venom Pass, which they regarded as merely being a slight setback. Field Marshal Iron Hoof and his subordinates were still under the peculiar misapprehension that the war was not only winnable, but could be done so within the vague timeframe of ‘before Hearth’s Warming’.

It was roughly a week since the battle, and the Princesses were coming on an official royal visit to the encampment at Dodge Junction, which would entail a tour of the encampment and a delightful tea party for which all of the senior officers of the five regiments there were invited (at least, the ones who had survived were invited). I had been given the somewhat unwanted pleasure of forming part of the honour guard to greet the Royal Pony Sisters, which, as far as I could remember from my previous service in the Royal Guard, involved everypony dressing up in a pristine uniform and standing very still as Auntie Celestia compliments each and every guardspony on how smart and wonderful they look. It was a particularly warm day too, with nary a cloud in the bright blue sky to provide any cooling shade from Celestia’s sun which, in its mercy, was in danger of giving the guardsponies heatstroke as we waited in the parade ground.

Compared to the usual display of pomp and circumstance that occurs with most normal royal visits, ours seemed to be rather lacklustre, but I assumed we could be forgiven due to the unpleasant heat wave, the fact we had only been given a day to prepare, and, of course, the fact that we’re still in a state of total war. The Changelings had been rather quiet recently, but in a rather uncharacteristic display of sensible caution Field Marshal Iron Hoof was taking no chances. The garrison at Maredun remained on high alert, gazing watchfully down through the valley for signs of an approaching Changeling horde, while the Dodge Junction Encampment remained in a permanent state of readiness to provide much needed reinforcement if it looked as if the castle might be overrun.

I was feeling rather impatient, fidgeting nervously and awkwardly on the parade ground as I watched the thin sliver of gold that was the Princesses’ royal chariot approach with an agonising slowness and blatant disregard for urgency. Sweat was pouring down my body, forming rather unsightly stains in the folds of my uniform and sticking to my matted fur. I had long since given up with my normal grooming regimen beyond what was mandatory for a pony in the Royal Guard to maintain a basic level of sanitation, largely because I no longer had an hour of free time a day to bathe and clean myself, but also the oppressive heat and my daily exercise and training made my daily ablutions rather pointless, for in a few hours my efforts would be nullified by the grime and dirt accumulated as a result of that.

The honour guard was formed of two platoons; one from the Night Guards and led by Captain Red Coat, and the other from the 1st Solar Guard and led by Shining Armour, which were arrayed three ranks on the parade square. An ensign from each regiment held aloft their regimental standards, which hung limply in the still air. The ponies wore their dress uniforms; a crimson red tunic with white sashes for the Solar Guard, a midnight blue tunic with white sashes for the Night Guard. I was unique in this respect, for my dress uniform just so happened to be exactly the same as my combat uniform, mess dress, and off-duty dress, which, while it did save on time getting dressed for different social events, was not especially practical when it came to combat.

Traditionally, the Night Guard contingent should have been led by Colonel Sunshine Smiles, but considering Red Coat’s rather fragile emotional state I thought it best to give him something that was relatively important but also rather simple to do to help rebuild the lad’s confidence. The adolescent officer, who, at just seventeen years old, I believed to be much too young for the Royal Guard let alone being given a position of authority, stood next to me and watched the skies intently. Since Black Venom Pass he had become rather more quiet and withdrawn, prone to ‘spacing out’ as it were, but still maintained the facade of cheeriness and youthful exuberance. Ordinarily I’d have left him to it, but looking after the soldiers’ wellbeing was my responsibility and it would not have been conducive to my continued existence if he were to have a breakdown in the middle of combat.

At the moment he seemed to be coping well, perhaps even a little excited at the prospect of meeting the Princesses for the first time. I couldn’t blame him, even I was looking forward to seeing my dear Auntie Celestia again, Luna perhaps less so but I had hoped that my recent alleged heroism in Black Venom Pass had at least made her tolerate my presence, but I like to believe I was doing a better job of maintaining that aristocratic detachment expected of all officers. Red Coat, however, couldn’t seem to stand still and instead jittered from hoof to hoof as if he was in desperate need of the loo.

“Have you ever met either of the Princesses?” I asked, if only to alleviate my own boredom.

Red Coat thankfully stopped hopping like a constipated foal and shook his head, “Not in person, no, but Princess Luna did deliver a speech when I graduated from the Academy with my commission.” He rubbed at his floppy ears with a hoof, “Do you think I should have brought my earplugs?”

I chuckled, “I don’t think that’s necessary, she’s learned to use her indoor voice now.”

The speck in the sky was now close enough to be identifiable as a large chariot pulled by a team of four pegasi. The golden chariot banked lazily towards us, circling above the town and gradually losing height in preparation to land. I questioned the reason why my aunties, the both of them being alicorns and possessing fully functioning wings, needed the services of a sky chariot. I supposed it was to make some sort of grand regal entrance, but it just came across as being rather lazy to me.

“But we’re outdoors,” said Cannon Fodder, who had hitherto been silently standing at his usual position just behind me and slightly to the left or right. I glanced over my shoulder to see the same gormless and blank expression on his face that implied he was, in fact, being sincere and not trying to be facetious. Of course, he was entirely incapable of using or even recognising sarcasm.

The royal chariot drifted down towards us gracefully with a gentle flutter of the four pegasi’s wings. The ornate craft, built out of gold and studded with glistening jewels and gem stones, descended and landed gently upon the flat dusty ground before us. Though they were likely exhausted from their flight, the pegasi charioteers pulled the heavy vehicle forth proudly, their powerful muscular bodies heaving and panting with the exertion.

As with everything involving my dear Auntie ‘Tia, the craft was ostentatious to the point of vulgarity. For starters it was almost entirely made out of burnished gold, which scintillated in the burning midday sun, and the myriad gem stones embedded across its prow cast bright multi-coloured light into the assembled array of the honour guards. The ornate prow was emblazoned with the ancient coat of arms of Equestria that illustrated the union between the sun and moon; the golden sun, carved out of amber, lying in the embrace of the crescent moon, here represented by a curved sliver of diamond that reflected bright light rather painfully into my eyes. From this armoured prow, a pair of wings swept gracefully over the fuselage of the chariot, though in my humble opinion the effect was somewhat ruined by the gems placed in a seemingly haphazard manner. Of all the chariots in the Royal Chariot Fleet that she had to use, it had to be the one most likely designed by a blind pony for whom sartorial elegance and practicality was only a suggestion.

[My chariot is not made out of solid gold, but is actually gold-plated. If it were made out of solid gold it would be far too heavy for my pegasi to pull. I must admit, that particular chariot is not one of my favourites, but it is the only one large enough to accommodate myself and my sister.]

Princess Celestia, diarch of Equestria and Goddess of the Sun, sat at the reins of the chariot with an expression of serene regal detachment on her face. By her side sat Luna, who, as ever, wore that permanent scowl on her face as if she had just bitten into an apple and discovered half a worm inside.

“Honour guard!” cried Shining Armour as the chariot touched down before us. “Ah-tenn-SHUN!”

Behind me I heard, no, ‘felt’ is more appropriate a word, dozens of hooves slamming into the ground behind me. The quiet banter and laughter was silenced as the guardsponies snapped to attention, the well-ingrained discipline of their training over-riding their ‘normal’ behaviour. The only sound audible was the faint, ever-present murmur of activity in the encampment beyond, and the impatient stamping and whinnying of the four pegasi pulling the chariot, who could probably have been excused from making the necessary obeisance to the Princesses after having dragged them across Equestria for the past couple of hours.

“Honour guard! Kneel!”

As one the assembled guardsponies prostrated themselves before our Princesses. The ensigns respectfully lowered their regimental standards to the dusty ground before royalty, as tradition dictated. I knelt too, though technically as a member of the Royal Family a simple nodding of my head in their general direction would have sufficed, I felt that I should give the appropriate reverence required of our two Goddesses. Besides, I didn’t want to stand out by being the only one still standing up, so like everypony else knelt down and pressed my nose into the dust.

The reverent and sacred mass obeisance before our Princesses, however, was rather rudely shattered by a certain purple baby dragon.

“Finally!” I heard him shout, and I dared to raise my head prematurely to see Twilight Sparkle’s pet baby dragon, a lizard-like beast roughly the size of the average dog, leap over the side of the chariot and fall face-first into the dust. “We’ve been on that chariot for hours, I really need to pee.”

Spike!

Twilight Sparkle’s head popped up just between the two Princesses and followed her irritating little purple pet over the side of the chariot, though she managed to avoid embarrassing herself with a similar face-plant and instead managed to land dextrously on all four hooves next to the squirming baby dragon.

I exchanged a confused glance with Captain Red Coat as the guardsponies behind us lifted their heads one by one and stared incredulously at the sight of the Princess’s esteemed faithful student shouting at her assistant. A few chuckled and jeered at her, but were quickly silenced with aggressive admonishments and blows to the head from their sergeants, and the young unicorn flushed red with embarrassment. Princess Celestia was suppressing a giggle and held a hoof in front of her mouth, while Luna merely scowled harder, if she frowned any more she’d probably have ruptured a blood vessel in her forehead, assuming that she actually has blood. [She does.]

Shining Armour shook his head and chuckled as he stepped forwards out of the formation. He waved a hoof in the general direction of the latrines, “Over there, buddy.”

The baby dragon muttered a quick ‘thanks’ and darted off to the latrine shacks as if Tirek himself was on his tail.

“Ugh,” Twilight sighed in exasperation, “I’m really sorry, everypony; he’s usually better behaved than this.”

I could only cringe at the atrocious disregard for the great social traditions which Equestria is built upon, and wanted nothing more than to bury my head in the ground and pray that this horrendously embarrassing affair was nothing more than a fever dream brought on by sunstroke or shellshock. But no, and typically Auntie Celestia seemed to find the whole thing hilarious as she giggled away in the chariot, though I suspect after having a millennia long lifetime to deal with all of this pomp and ceremony she was rather tired of it, and thus prone to sabotaging as many royal events as possible for her own amusement (yes, Celestia, if you’re reading this, I know all about the Grand Galloping Gala). [He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, I would never sabotage such a dry and boring event like the Gala by inviting the six ponies least qualified to attend and allowing them to run riot.] I shared a glance with Auntie Luna, whose expression of pure disdain at what was going on implied that, for quite possibly the first and only time in my life, we agreed on something.

“You must learn to control your bondservant better, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna, leaning over the edge of the chariot. “I suggest beating him harder.”

I suppressed a snicker. It seemed despite Princess Luna’s attempts to adapt to modern life, the closest thing she could approximate ‘personal assistant’ as was ‘bondservant’, which, to give credit where credit is due, is a step up from what she used to do the previous year by referring to Spike as a slave or a pet.

“Luna,” said Twilight through set teeth as she looked at the Night Mare over her shoulder, “I am not going to beat Spike.”

“Don’t worry, Twiley,” said Shining Armour as he stepped up and rubbed his hoof roughly on his younger sister’s head, thankfully interrupting the already awkward situation before it could erupt into an argument between the all-powerful Goddess of the Night and the bearer of the Element of Magic. “If he’s lucky he might not even have to face the firing squad.” [Shining Armour is obviously exaggerating here; the practice of execution by unicorn firing squad was discontinued several centuries prior.]

Twilight snorted and flinched away from her brother, looking not at all impressed by the somewhat inappropriate cheeky remark, “Very funny, Shiny.”

By now the two Princesses had disembarked from their chariot, and the guardsponies quickly recovered from the distraction and snapped back to attention. Celestia was still chuckling to herself, while Luna merely glowered at Twilight with all the disdain she could possibly muster. The young unicorn mare winced and ducked behind her mentor as a foal would with her mother, though refrained from embarrassing herself further by trying to hide beneath the sun princess’s undercarriage.

“Be nice, sister,” said Celestia, her voice as motherly and warm as ever even when quietly admonishing her younger sibling. “We did spend three hours in the air and, well, he is only a baby dragon after all.”

“Let us just get this over with,” Luna snapped.

With that embarrassment out of the way the ceremony continued, though with the added addition of Twilight Sparkle doing her best to hide from Luna’s judging stare. Shining Armour stepped back into formation and stood to attention as Princess Celestia inspected him and his Solar Guard. Though he was technically family now through his marriage with my cousin, Princess Cadence, they maintained the formality of this austere procedure by only exchanging a few terse, polite words with one another as Celestia complimented him on the discipline and appearance of his troops, despite the fact that climate conditions here meant everypony’s fancy dress uniform was covered in a thin covering of pale dust.

Shining Armour flushed with pride, puffing his chest out and standing tall like a new officer recruit on graduation day who had just received his commission. As Celestia and Luna moved onwards, he winked at Twilight, who followed her teacher dutifully.

Red Coat looked up in quiet awe at the two giant-sized alicorns as they approached, both standing head and shoulders above him. As he shivered from the sheer anxiety of it, the perspiration dripping down his face in rivulets not entirely due to the hot weather, I wondered if allowing him to lead the honour guard was a bad idea.

Princess Luna stood before us, wings flared out menacingly and looking rather more like an ancient nightmare beast of myth than a serene Princess of the Realm. For a rather long and awkward moment she glowered down at poor Red Coat in the same manner as a judge preparing to sentence an obviously guilty criminal, or a predator about to devour a helpless prey animal. To his credit, Red Coat didn’t run away screaming as many a poor stallion had done when subjected to my Auntie Luna’s patented awkward stare, despite his obvious anxiety and nervousness, but merely did his best to meet her gaze.

Vivas Noctus!” screamed Red Coat suddenly, as if suddenly struck mad [‘Long live the night’ in Ancient Equestrian, an old battle cry of the Night Guards].

Behind me the stallions reared up on their hind legs and then slammed their fore hooves into the dusty ground, sending a small tremor through the earth.

VIVAS NOCTUS!” they roared in unison, which made a handful of the normally stoic and disciplined Solar Guard flinch and stare at their darker brethren in abject confusion before returning to attention. I winced, my ears still ringing after having thirty or so stallions screaming into them.

Luna smiled, which was an extremely rare but not unwelcome occurrence, before laughing heartily at the display. Twilight Sparkle slowly emerged from behind her mentor’s long graceful legs and blinked as the assembled Night Guards snapped back to attention as if nothing untoward had happened at all. I merely settled on my haunches and rubbed at my ringing ears and hoping to get some of my hearing back; after enduring my Auntie Luna’s Royal Canterlot Voice for over a year and now this it’s a miracle I wasn’t struck deaf.

“Glorious,” intoned Luna, smiling widely at her stallions. “You are to be commended, Captain, it does my heart good to see the old ways of the Night Guards Corps still yet live after one thousand years.”

Red Coat beamed proudly, looking much like a schoolfoal who had just aced his spelling bee contest and was about to be treated to ice cream.

“T-thank you, Your Highness!” he stammered.

“And Prince Blueblood,” she said. All of the mirth and joy immediately evaporated from her face, only to be replaced by that same chilling expression of supreme condescension she always wore when having to lower herself to speaking with me.

“Princess Luna,” I nodded my head respectfully towards her.

“I am...” she paused, trying to think of the correct word, “...pleased that you are still alive.”

“As am I,” I said dryly as I shrugged my shoulders, which I instantly regretted as the shrapnel wound I received there at Black Venom Pass was stinging rather painfully at the relatively simple gesture. Irritatingly, the ache there would never go away, becoming quite unbearable in the cold winter months. “And all things considered I’d quite like to keep it that way.”

Princess Celestia chuckled melodiously; her warm smile did much to ease the awkward and tense atmosphere that seemed to cling to her darker sister like a body odour does to Cannon Fodder. She walked around Luna gracefully, the golden vestments of her office, the breastplate and her crown, shimmered brightly in the harsh light, and her golden horseshoes kicking up only the faintest amount of dust with every slow and deliberate step. I returned the smile, feeling much more relaxed by the familiar visage of the mare who had practically raised me after Father had gotten himself lost forever exploring the Zebrican jungles and Mother subsequently lost her marbles and was locked away. [Though I was a major part of Blueblood’s early life, much of his raising after the loss of his parents was done by a succession of governesses and nannies who probably did more to instil the toxic ideas of social class and hierarchy in him than anypony else. My involvement in his upbringing was cut short when I took on Twilight Sparkle as my personal student.]

The difference between the two regal sisters was like night and day, if you would pardon the unforgiveable pun. Where Luna was cold, distant, and aloof, Celestia was warm, loving, and motherly. The greatest difference, of course, lay in their physical appearances. The taller sun Goddess, for those of you who have been living under a rock for your entire lives and thus have no idea what she looks like, is pure alabaster white with a shimmering rainbow mane that wafts ethereally on a non-existent breeze, which contrasted with the rather chilling malevolent air that was invoked by her younger sibling’s countenance. Of course, it didn’t help Luna’s case that she happened to be wearing her silver and black lacquered armour, which had the rather unfortunate side effect of making her look more like the nightmarish half of her psychosis than she might have wanted.

“Quite so,” said Celestia, lowering her head down to my level so I wouldn’t have to crane my neck back, “though I fear so many of my little ponies were not so lucky.”

“Their sacrifice will be remembered,” I said, giving my words the appropriate amount of gravitas. I turned my gaze to Twilight Sparkle, who had by now emerged from the apparent safety of clinging to Celestia’s legs like a foal. The formally shy and socially awkward filly I remembered from high school was replaced by somepony altogether more confident and mature, though traces of her anxiety around new situations were evidently apparent as she seemed rather intimidated by the imposing guardsponies and still embarrassed by Spike’s behaviour. What hadn’t changed, of course, was the insanity that descended every time she was presented with something brand new to study, which this time just happened be my unfortunate aide, Cannon Fodder.

“Lady Twilight Sparkle,” I said, using her formal title as the austere surroundings of the official ceremony demanded it, “I didn’t know we would have the pleasure of your company today.”

Twilight flicked her rather unkempt mane away from her eyes. “The Princesses requested I help lead an investigation into how the Royal Guard can be improved,” she said plainly and somewhat awkwardly, “and where better to start than right here?”

Well, I couldn’t fault that logic, though I wasn’t particularly happy about that arrangement. It implied that she would be staying there, which, as political officer, would only make my already complicated life that much more difficult. Military and civilian personnel tend not to mesh particularly well, especially when said civilian has had very little experience of how the Royal Guard works, or doesn’t work as the case may be. Though I suppose I had little to fear, after all, her irritating older brother was Captain of the Royal Guard and a career officer, despite his rather ignominious beginnings as a private soldier, so she probably had some knowledge of what to expect. Honestly, however, even though I knew what she was capable of and what she had done to save Equestria many times before, I could not shake the image of the scared filly I used to make cry on a regular basis.

At any rate, it seemed that my problems, actually, would come from the Royal Guard side, as the military tended to resent what they saw as civilian interference in how they do their job; the fact that many of them can barely perform their own duties without it resulting in a massive cock-up and she was only trying to help notwithstanding. Not that I could blame them, really, as despite their massive incompetence and blind adherence to the outdated traditions of the Royal Guard, it’s rather galling to a stallion for some strange, adolescent and slightly psychotic mare to turn up one day and tell him that everything he had been doing for most of his adult life was absolutely wrong.

“So you’ll be staying here for a while, then?” I asked with no small amount of trepidation. On a more personal level, I somewhat feared that the filly I used to go to school with would begin undermining my tentative authority and sabotage the nascent beginnings of my heroic, but discreditable, reputation by telling everypony about all of the rather unpleasant things I used to do to her.

“I hope that’s not too much trouble, nephew,” said Celestia. “Twilight Sparkle will only be observing and interviewing ponies in preparation for her report.”

I arched an eyebrow at the strange purple mare, “I suppose if she doesn’t mind sleeping rough; we’re not exactly running a hotel here.”

“And I get to spend more time studying Cannon Fodder!” Twilight squealed suddenly, clapping her hooves together excitedly. “Oh, it’s a shame I left all of my equipment in Ponyville.”

I glanced back to see Cannon Fodder stiffen almost imperceptibly at Twilight Sparkle’s glee at the prospect of subjecting him to another battery of tests and experiments. I knew she wasn’t deliberately malicious, but previous experience had taught me that whenever Twilight is presented with something that is beyond her current understanding she will do absolutely everything in her power to change that, occasionally forgetting that little thing called ‘ethics’. As I saw Cannon Fodder’s slight discomfort I recognised the opportunity to win a few brownie points over my foalhood nemesis, petty though it may have been, but one must remember I was rather younger and less mature than I am now, that and using snide remarks to gain a modicum of social prestige over a rival was something that just came naturally to me as a senior member of the ruling elite.

“Cannon Fodder is a soldier of the Royal Guard, not a guinea pig,” I said carefully and loudly so that everypony could hear me. “Don’t you think he deserves a little dignity?”

Twilight shrank back a little, her ears folding flat against her head in embarrassment. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

I suppressed the urge to grin inanely. A niggling part of my mind warned me I was being too cruel by embarrassing her in front of Equestrian Royalty, though a far larger and more rational portion told me that it was not entirely advantageous to me maintaining my favourite hobby of breathing to upset a mare who had enough magical power and expertise to render my physical body into its component parts. However, a quick glance around indicated that the guardsponies approved of what I had just said, as even though technically Cannon Fodder was not part of the regiment, he was still a fellow guardspony, and it showed that I was looking out for their best interests. This was probably the only part of my fraudulent reputation I actually wanted to maintain, the rest of it being sustained purely out of necessity, as giving the impression that I care about the common guardspony tends to make them much more willing to help protect me when things inevitably go pear-shaped in battle.

Twilight Sparkle recovered quickly though; her excited expression returning to her face as she looked up into the concerned visage of her ancient mentor. “I can’t wait to get started with my research!” she said, waving her little hooves animatedly with all the exuberance of a schoolfoal relishing the chance to impress their teacher. “I’d like to start by examining the Night Guards first, if that’s okay, Blueblood?”

I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. But wouldn’t you rather be with your older brother?”

“Of course I’d rather be with my BBBFF [Big Brother Best Friend Forever],” she said, glancing over at the eponymous Shining Armour who winked at her before returning to attention. “But having a family member involved in the very thing I’m studying just wouldn’t be good practice; I would invariably be biased by my familial relationship with the subject and the integrity of my results may be compromised, which is why I shall be avoiding studying the 1st Solar Guard and instead allow another researcher to conduct the study in my stead.”

I nodded my head, only half paying attention to Twilight Sparkle’s small lecture, but I got the general gist of it. I inwardly cursed my luck as undoubtedly I’d be saddled with looking after the civilian as she sticks her nose in where it’s not wanted and makes a general nuisance of herself. I supposed that if it led to a widespread reform of the Royal Guard to make it at least somewhat more competent, then a few weeks or months of irritation would be worth it. If anything ‘protecting the Princess’s favourite pet’ might make the perfect excuse to stay away from the frontlines and the horde of Changeling horrors massing in the Badlands, but I didn’t count on Twilight Sparkle’s almost suicidal urge to gather new knowledge.

“There’ll be plenty of time for studying later,” said Celestia, extending a wing over her young protégé. “Shining Armour is giving us a tour of the encampment and then we’re meeting with the officers for tea.” Please excuse us Blueblood and Captain.”

I bowed curtly as Celestia and Twilight stepped back towards the waiting Captain of the Guard. Princess Luna glowered at me for a short moment longer, as if trying to dream up some brand new and extravagant way of getting me killed in her glorious name right then and there. Apparently she came up blank as she just turned and followed her elder sibling without another word.

I breathed a sigh of relief as she was gone. Princess Luna always made me feel anxious, as she did with just about everypony else aside from the very few of us mortals she deigns to consider friends. We watched as Shining Armour led the small royal entourage deeper into the encampment, which was still little more than a collection of tents of varying sizes and large cleared out spaces for the soldiers to bivouac in [A fancy word for ‘sleeping outside without a tent’]. No doubt the Royal Pony Sisters would be thrilled to see the various important tents around here; they who moulded the world from dust and raised the entire pony race from nothingness, fought daemons and numerous unnameable horrors from beyond the Veil, and whose statesponyship and skills in war have built Equestria into the sole superpower in the world. Somehow the organisers of this little event believed these veritable goddesses would be suitably impressed by a collection of tents.

At any rate, it gave us a little more time to prepare for the tea party, which I was very much looking forward to. Auntie Celestia and I had grown rather distant over the years since I became old enough to claim my birthright as prince of the realm and heir to the Blood Clan, probably in no small part to my admittedly loutish and un-chivalrous behaviour in recent years. A nice social gathering would be perfect for me to rekindle my somewhat strained relationship with my aunties, at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Naturally, things didn’t go to plan, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

With the Princesses and Twilight leaving, the honour guard was dismissed. The arrayed ranks of soldiers dispersed noisily as they returned to whatever duties they were required to perform at this time. I assumed Spike would be picked up at some point and not left alone in the latrines with the stallions; they were not exactly the best ponies to leave a young child around if you didn’t want him to pick up some colourful language and an advanced knowledge of a mare’s anatomy and what to do with it. I was about to leave for my tent for a long and intense bathing session to get myself looking presentable for the tea party, when I noticed Captain Red Coat lingering and staring at the retreating forms of the Princesses and their escorts.

“Hot,” he said breathlessly.

I stood next to him, watching the swaying flanks of the Royal Pony Sisters as they followed Shining Armour. I shrugged my shoulders; a lot of ponies seem to have a rather peculiar attraction to my divine aunties, but not me. I, for one, prefer my mares not to be twice my height and, more importantly, not related to me.

“Celestia or Luna?” I asked out of morbid curiosity.

Red Coat shook his head, “Not them, I mean Twilight.”

I followed his slack-jawed gaze to Twilight’s sashaying rump. She was a little pudgy and rather too bookish for my tastes, but evidently she had an effect on the hormonally imbalanced teenaged mind. Then again, at seventeen years old colts are wont to become infatuated by anything female and still breathing.

“Hey, Commissar?” he said, finally taking his eyes off the swaying flank as it disappeared into the crowd of guardsponies milling around the place. “Do you think I have a chance?”

“I think you have about as much as I do,” I said blankly, not quite sure what to make of this interesting turn of events, though I felt the best course of action was to try and nip this in the bud before Red Coat’s sudden lust for the Princess’s protégé would result in an incident which would end with his banishment to a celestial body. “You know, it’s not a good idea to get infatuated with civilians,” I said, trying to sound like I had been there and done that, as Red Coat seemed to be under the mistaken impression I was some battle-hardened veteran.

The young stallion shrugged his shoulders and muttered something that sounded like ‘I guess so’.

With that done I left for my tent, knowing that in reality it would do little to dissuade him from pursuing his rather foolish courtship. Actually, looking back on this it’s rather amusing, but I had rather more important things on my mind at the time than to dwell on that, namely getting Cannon Fodder and I to look suitably neat and tidy for this tea party.

As we made our way through the mob of off-duty guardsponies milling around, chatting, drinking, eating, and playing card games, my hooves started tingling slightly as I thought about the upcoming social event; why would the Princesses come all this way just for a tea party? Granted, as royalty, attending social functions with high ranking members of the Royal Guard and aristocracy was just what was expected of them, and visiting the soldiers on the frontlines was obviously there to boost morale, but I had the rather distressing notion niggling in my hindbrain that there was an ulterior motive behind this visit. Whatever it was, I sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t involve me. But as always, things very rarely go according to plan.

Author's Notes:

Woo, new instalment.

Anyway, hope you guys like it. Trying to go with shorter chapters to facilitate faster updating, though I'll be taking a short break until the New Year perhaps.

'Vivas Noctus' is, of course, a tribute to Aegis Shield's Lunar Stallions stories, which have been a major influence on my work.

Also, fast running out of titles with the word 'blood' in it, may have to abandon this naming convention.

Bloodstained (Part 2)

Cannon Fodder’s brand new dress uniform lasted for approximately thirty minutes before the residue of muck, grime, and assorted unidentified stains in his fur seeped through into the dark blue fabric of his tunic. It was some small mercy that the dark colours of his new uniform managed to hide most of the accumulated unpleasant substances, though the ungodly stench of body odour and flatulence was only slightly muted by the fresh change of clothes. However, considering how long everypony else in this tea party had been living in the Dodge Junction encampment, surrounded entirely by thousands of stallions and mares with access to only the most basic sanitation, I doubted that my aide’s charming bouquet would be quite as noticeable to them.

As for me, I like to believe I cleaned up rather nicely despite the rather meagre facilities on hoof and only having about an hour to use them. It’d probably have taken a full day at the spa, tended on by a small army of attractive spa mares trained in the delicate art of male grooming and armed with the finest lotions and shampoos available, for me to feel anything approaching clean. Fortunately, Cannon Fodder’s incredible skill at scrounging things for me had borne fruit in the form of real soap; as opposed to the bars of unidentifiable origin that the Logistics Corps seem to think make an adequate substitute. Quite how he managed to procure such a rare item in the Dodge Junction encampment was probably something I was better off not knowing, but in the interests of getting somewhat clean I was more than willing to turn a blind eye to whatever suspect means Cannon Fodder had employed.

The tea party itself was held in the Dodge Junction town hall, which had been requisitioned by Field Marshal Iron Hoof and his general staff for his combined headquarters and venue for social events. The town’s mayor and his small cadre of petty civil servants had been forcibly ejected from their municipal offices and forced to take up residence in a small barn on the town outskirts. What the mayor thought about this rather one-sided arrangement is not recorded by history, as historians naturally tend to ignore such trivialities, but I recall the grizzled old ex-cherry farmer being rather livid when his repeated demands to be allowed back in the dilapidated town hall were denied.

I was feeling rather confident as I made my way with Cannon Fodder through the encampment, though my efforts in making myself look presentable were slightly ruined by the ever-present dust that was kicked up by the hooves of thousands of ponies living and working in the camp. Evidence of the Princesses’ passing was evident in the peculiar wreathes of pretty flowers scattered across the parade squares and sleeping grounds and the garlands hanging decoratively over the ubiquitous armour and weapon racks. Actually, as I stepped past them, making my way through the areas cordoned off for the use of other regiments of Army Group Centre, the guardsponies were busy clearing up after them. In all likelihood, the garlands of flowers imported at great expense from the far reaches of Equestria would be recycled as part of our daily rations of the mysterious brown stew; a delicacy that we have yet to learn the component parts of.

We were late, though not so late as to be inconvenient, just enough to be considered ‘fashionable’ by the noble socialite dilatants that made up the bulk of the officer class of the Solar Guard, who would in turn be the majority of the party guests of this little soiree. Come to think of it, arriving ‘fashionably late’, as it were, was beginning to sound increasingly vulgar to me, as it was the sort of thing that the poseurs with pretensions to class and sophistication do to try and impress the social elite of Equestria’s hierarchical class structure. The sad thing is that it quite often works for them.

The rather run-down old building was guarded by two of Celestia’s pegasus guards, with the other two presumably inside guarding her person in the party. She didn’t strictly need guarding, of course, being a physical goddess and therefore impervious to all mortal-made weaponry, and surrounded entirely by loyal guardsponies. [Not strictly true. Like many mortals, Blueblood has conflated immortality with invulnerability.] Their presence, therefore, was purely decorative. Until recently, mind you, standing still and looking imposing was the most strenuous part of being in the Royal Guard and, if I had my way, it would remain so.

The subdued sounds of a polite tea party could be heard through the ramshackle doors and smashed windows – the light bubble of polite conversation intermixed with the clinking of fine porcelain and glass, a polite chuckle, and Twilight Sparkle screaming at Spike to behave himself in front of the Princesses.

The pegasi saluted as I stepped between them to get to the door, but as soon as Cannon Fodder approached to follow me their wings became suddenly erect, spread so that they formed a barrier between him and the door. My aide, unflappable as ever, walked straight into the wall of wings and bounced off them, looking somewhat more confused than usual at the two stallions barring him.

“Halt!” the one on the right shouted, glaring down at my assistant.

“Access is restricted to authorised guests only,” said the left guard sternly.

Cannon Fodder looked rather bemused at this turn of events, looking up at the two pegasi with his usual gormless and confused expression that implied he was barely aware of what was going around him. I stopped short of opening the door, glancing over my shoulder to watch the two pegasi turn their noses up at the dishevelled unicorn, and wrinkling them in disgust at his pungent odour.

“My job is to follow the Commissar everywhere he goes,” he said, and then looked over at me just behind the barrier of feathers, “unless he says otherwise.”

I did consider just leaving him there outside to wait for me, as he would be rather out of his depth at this refined tea party with the Princesses as he was with Fancy Pants’ benefit party a few weeks ago. However, I was growing rather reluctant to being separated from him as he had developed a very useful knack for saving my life and getting me out of sticky situations. I did not expect anything to go so drastically wrong that it would require his unique abilities as a Blank or stabbing things with spears, but one can never be too careful when the enemy is only a few miles away and happens to have a particular aptitude for underhanded warfare. Furthermore, I knew that the officers of the Night Guard would be present, including Blitzkrieg, who was most likely the most improper guest for a high society get-together in all of Equestria, and Twilight Sparkle’s beloved assistant Spike, who came in a close second, so Cannon Fodder would not be alone in being snubbed by everypony else.

The two guards looked at me sceptically, lowering their wings slightly.

“His security clearance is as high as mine,” I said.

They shared a confused glance before reluctantly lowering their wings and allowing my aide to follow me. Cannon Fodder gave an unconcerned shrug as the obstacle was cleared and started forwards.

Satisfied that we could finally continue, I pushed the door slightly open with my telekinesis, and the previously muffled sounds of the tea party became much louder and clearer. The party itself was in full swing already, and through the narrow gap between the door and the jamb I could see that the main hall was filled with mingling party guests. The large table, which had seen both opulent banqueting and intense military strategising, was still there and this time it was supporting a veritable mountain of cakes, biscuits, gourmet crisps [Blueblood means ‘potato chips’; he picked up some elements of the Trottingham dialect and traces of an accent due to his long association with the 1st Night Guards, much to the amusement of his compatriots in the Royal Court], and other assorted confections that were liable to disappear shortly if nopony could restrain Princess Celestia.

“Twilight Sparkle will be there, won’t she?” said Cannon Fodder sheepishly, bobbing his head around comically to try and look past me.

“I expect so,” I replied, glancing back into the hall and spotting a certain lavender-coloured mare bombarding her elder brother with a plethora of searching questions about his recent activities and urgent reminders not to do anything stupid, which was something I couldn’t count the overly enthusiastic Captain of the Guard to adhere to.

“Maybe I should wait out here for you.”

I shook my head. “There’s a free buffet table in there,” I said, knowing that Cannon Fodder’s distrust of Twilight Sparkle, which I surmised to be linked to his equal fear of doctors and dentists, was nothing compared to his voracious appetite. The effect was instantaneous, as he suddenly pushed his way past me, lightly knocking me into the door as he made a beeline towards the vast array of cakes and sweets on the table.

Straightening my uniform and dusting off a few biscuit crumbs that had migrated from Cannon Fodder as he unceremoniously barged past me, I entered into the hall. The other two pegasi guards were revealed to be standing on the other side of the door, and they bowed their heads respectfully and shut the door behind me.

The atmosphere was congenial, if somewhat forced and awkward, as is standard on all of my Aunties’ royal visits as everypony drives themselves into yet higher states of anxiety to make sure that they are all having a good time. There was a reason members the official Royal Party Planners Guild had a higher likelihood of developing high blood pressure and heart disease, and it was rather worrying that these morbid statistics started to get worse as the bearers of the Elements of Harmony started attending royal functions. The red-clad officers of the Solar Guard were busy mingling and engaging in idle banter, while the midnight-blue officers of the 1st Night Guard stood in their own little corner of the room and venturing out only in search of party snacks and drink.

The Princesses themselves were sitting at the head of the table, with Twilight Sparkle by her mentor’s side, and chatted pleasantly among themselves. Some of the braver party guests would approach, bow, and exchange a few polite words with them before trotting back and feeling proud of themselves. Naturally, most of the attention was heaped upon Princess Celestia, who handled it with her usual regal grace. As for Princess Luna, well, I didn’t think it was possible to drink tea angrily but she somehow managed it. Eventually, once they had plucked up the courage after imbibing strong tea and, in Captain Blitzkrieg’s case a surreptitious hipflask full of illicit moonshine, they came to their dark matriarch’s side to keep her company.

The hall itself was hastily decorated and it showed. With only a few days to repair and rather more pressing matters to attend to, Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s staff had simply strewed bunting about the place. Brightly coloured flags of red, white, and blue were hung above us on rope that stretched from wall to wall.

The regimental banners were back, and the dark battle standard of the 1st Night Guards stood out amidst the brightly coloured flags. The standard was still tattered and ripped from the battle, with numerous rips from shrapnel shot in the fabric, but Colonel Sunshine Smiles had remarked that the ‘wounds’ the flag had suffered were a far more appropriate tribute than the more conventional battle honours stitched into the other banners. The guardsponies, however, were taking bets on how long until the standard became so damaged that the Colonel would be forced to eat his words and have it repaired. At any rate, the first official battle honour had been applied to standard – a small scrap of embroidered silk that bore the words ‘Black Venom Pass’ had been stitched into the midnight blue cloth.

A quiet hush descended as I entered, which only made me feel a little more tense than usual. The reaction of the party guests was ambivalent; the older, more dyed-in-the-wool traditional officers turned their noses up at me, while a few of the younger officers, particularly the survivors from the 3rd Solar Guard Regiment who credited me with saving their lives from General Crimson Arrow’s incompetence, clopped their hooves in applause. My falsified reputation for heroism had yet to take on the universal appeal it would have later in my distinguished career. Therefore the Royal Guard was split down the centre into two camps – those who fully bought into my nascent status as the hero who slew a Changeling Purestrain in single combat and single-hoofedly saved an entire regiment from destruction and those who thought I was an interfering civilian bureaucrat sent from Canterlot with dangerous ideas about egalitarianism and appointment of officers by merit over birth and social status, both being rather distant from the truth.

Field Marshal Iron Hoof and General Crimson Arrow were together in a corner of the room, apparently having been conversing together before Cannon Fodder and I had blundered clumsily into the hall. Iron Hoof looked at me blankly, as he always did, before suddenly finding a painting of some country yokel’s grandmother incredibly fascinating. As for Crimson Arrow, my former friend and colleague, he glowered at me with a look of pure, unadulterated hatred for having betrayed him.

It was the first time I had seen Crimson Arrow since the battle; he had spent the intervening week sulking away in his tent. Any attempts by anypony to speak with him had been met with either frustrating silence or violence in the rare occasion a more courageous officer blundered in and demand he actually perform his job as commander of Army Group Centre. He looked gaunt and thin, his formerly handsome face now looking rather like a skull that had been flensed of its meat and the skin clumsily stretched over it, and dark bags visible under his hate-filled eyes. I suppressed a shudder when I saw the intense expression of betrayal in those eyes.

I looked away, unable to meet his gaze. I reminded myself that we were at war, and such things as personal friendship were entirely secondary to the prosecution of that war and achieving final victory over the Changeling menace. Looking back, however, I fear I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I had said ‘I’m sorry’. Unfortunately, things in life tend not to be that simple, and on a second reflection it is likely that he would have rejected my apology and the course he had set himself upon would be unaltered.

I noticed Spike was at the table with Cannon Fodder and gorging upon a sapphire and emerald cake roughly twice his size, though it seemed that by the way he was eating it much of the cake ended up smeared over his face and on the floor. I watched with vague amusement as Bramley Apple from the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment informed the dragon child that he’ll make himself sick eating like that, to which Spike demonstrated his rather tentative grasp on the concept of causality by explaining that it was a problem for ‘the future Spike’.

“Howdy, sir!” Bramley waved enthusiastically at me as I approached.

“Hello, Sergeant,” I replied, noticing the extra stripe added to his rank insignia. I was rather perplexed as to why he, a non-commissioned officer, was present. Then I recalled all of the commissioned officers of his regiment were either killed or missing in action, thus making him the effective commanding officer until a replacement could be found or buy his way in. “Congratulations on the promotion.”

The War Ministry was likely going through a small bureaucratic nightmare as it struggled to find a way to fix the leaderless and ungodly mess that became of the 16th Royal Artillery. Ordinarily, I supposed, the entire regiment would have been disbanded and the survivors amalgamated to form the core of a brand new regiment or reassigned to other regiments. However, the chaos of war tends to make an almighty mess of the neat and ordered bureaucracy that is the War Ministry, though the Ministry is more than capable of entangling itself with red tape and paperwork by itself during peacetime. In the ensuing confusion and collective arse-covering that occurred after the Battle of Black Venom Pass the regiment seemed to have been forgotten. As with many things in my increasingly complicated life, it hinted towards something rather unpleasant in my future that only became obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

“Ah thank ya,” Bramley saluted. “Ah’m a little bummed out Ah didn’t get a commission, if’n Ah’m honest. Ah’m feeling a might outta place ‘round all these fancy-schmancy officer ponies.”

I levitated a small fondant fancy with pink frosting up to my mouth and nibbled on it delicately, eyeing Spike and Cannon Fodder over Bramley’s shoulder as they seemed to be engrossed in an ill-advised cake eating contest.

“I’ll see if I can’t pull a few strings with the War Ministry,” I said between mouthfuls of the small cake, with no plans on actually following through with my proposal. While I knew him to be a capable leader, as Major Starlit Skies attested to during the Battle of Black Venom Pass when Bramley Apple rallied the remnants of the 16th Artillery, I was reluctant to upset the proverbial apple cart any more than I already had in removing not only an officer but a general from command. By circumventing the ponderous bureaucratic machine of the War Ministry, and annoying the aristocratic dilettante officers, I would only make more enemies.

It felt like a damned shame.

“Don’t worry about it, sir,” he said with a shrug. “Ah ain’t no proper gentlecolt, all Ah knows is how to fire cannons and yell at stallions.”

“I think you’d be a great officer!” said Spike enthusiastically, crumbs and spittle spraying as he spoke with his mouth full.

Bramley smiled and rubbed the top of Spike’s head with a hoof in a rather unbecoming affectionate gesture that expertly illustrated why he would never become an officer, unless the existing officer class suddenly have a long overdue revelation and realise that grace and sophistication in social gatherings is rather secondary compared to genuine leadership skills, tactical ability, and fighting prowess – particularly when ponies lives are at stake.

I arched an eyebrow cynically, wondering at what point in Spike’s career, between running errands and fetching things for Twilight Sparkle and being left behind to fend for himself when his mistress and her friends were off saving Equestria again, he managed to squeeze ‘armchair general’ into his hectic schedule. The sad thing was that I agreed with him, which I found to be deeply troubling.

“Ah thank ya, Spike, but Ah ain’t lookin’ to be no officer. Shoot, Ah ain’t lookin’ to spend mah whole life in the Royal Guard anyhow. Apples’ are in mah blood.”

A quick glance at his flanks, not that I’m particularly oriented towards checking out the rumps of other stallions, informed me that his cutie mark was indeed of an apple. Though, the fact that the apple seemed to be fired out of a large howitzer left room for a lot of interpretation. [Bramley Apple acquired his cutie mark during his first Apple family reunion in Ponyville, where it is reported he destroyed the Sweet Apple Acres’ barn with a home-made mortar.]

“If ya’ll will excuse me, sirs, but Ah’d like to talk to Miss Twilight for a bit, Ah hear she knows mah cousin Applejack out of Ponyville.”

With a slight bow of his head in my direction he trotted off towards Twilight Sparkle and the Princesses, earning a few disapproving glances from some of the more stuffy officers who evidently believed that a mere nom-com such as he shouldn’t even be allowed to breath the same air as the Princesses, let alone approach them. As it happened, from my somewhat distant vantage point at the other opposite end of the room, it seemed that Princess Celestia rather enjoyed Sergeant Bramley’s company long after Twilight Sparkle drifted away to mingle with the other guests.

“You know,” said Spike as he clambered up on a chair so he could reach the cakes better, “I’ve been thinking.”

I highly doubted that, but for the sake of trying to get through this tea party without having yet more cake hurled in my direction like sweet sugary cannonballs of confection I decided to humour him.

“About what?”

“Well, I was just thinking. Twilight’s basically my big sister now, and her, I mean our, brother is married to Princess Cadence, your cousin. I think that makes us family now!”

Resisting the urge to pick up the moronic dragon and throw him head-first into a large, three-tiered frosted cake took a herculean effort on my part. However, I realised that if I could not get away with using Rarity as a pony-shield I probably couldn’t get away with abusing Spike in such manner, especially in front of his legal guardian, the princesses, and the vast majority of the army’s core leadership, regardless of how much he deserved it. So I merely forced a smile to my face, probably the sort that air stewardesses on airships perform when greeting the customers they were to be trapped with for the next few hours. I had the feeling I’ll be using that smile quite a lot that day.

“In a sense... Excuse me, I have to go and get some tea.”

“Pfft, whatever, cousin.”

I glowered down at Spike, and he just smiled that insufferable smug grin of his before stuffing it full of yet more cake. With a disdainful ‘hmmph’ I turned on my hooves and made my way around the large antique table, weaving my way around the chattering party guests, to the small portion of its surface devoted to drinks. As I left I heard Cannon Fodder loudly announce that he won the cake eating contest.

In truth I felt the need for a little solitude, which was something of a premium in the Royal Guard and certainly not to be found at this party. For when I stepped away from Spike I was assaulted by admiring fans – young ensigns, lieutenants, and even a captain wishing to congratulate me on my recent success. Naturally, I saw through their obviously shallow attempts to ensure the safety of their very expensive commissions and politely brushed them off with equally vapid platitudes – something that I learned from years spent amongst the social elite of Canterlot.

Over at the other side of the room I could see Captain Red Coat cautiously eyeing Twilight Sparkle, who, like me, was busy mingling amongst the party guests and making polite conversation. After a few fortifying glasses of wine and a sip of whatever illicit alcoholic, and quite possibly toxic, liquid was kept in Captain Blitzkrieg’s hipflask, he summoned up the necessary courage to try to speak with her. I paused, briefly, to watch the train wreck in all of its beautifully hideous glory from the apparent safety of the central table. Evidently, Red Coat had been getting dating tips from Blitzkrieg, and while his arsenal of pickup lines might have worked wonders on the ten bit whores who ply their trade in the Trottingham slums, they failed spectacularly against the more refined mare. Twilight Sparkle was either remarkably tolerant or oblivious of Red Coat’s intentions, though knowing her and her chronic lack of success with stallions I suspected it was the latter. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and after one mangled and particularly vulgar pickup line too many (‘is that a horn on your forehead or are you just pleased to see me?’, which, to this day, the meaning of which still eludes me), Shining Armour, who had been monitoring the situation from close by, could take no more and clipped Red Coat around the ear, barked a few harsh words in his face, and sent the adolescent scurrying back to Princess Luna with his tail between his legs. Naturally, most of his comrades found this hilarious.

With that fiasco over with, I gracefully slid past the assembled mass of party guests to the section of the table allocated for drinks. As expected, there were a wide variety of teas, coffees, and even wine on display. The tea cups, mugs, and wine glasses were arrayed out in neat little lines like soldiers on parade. The smaller assembly of tea kettles, coffee jugs, milk, and wine glasses were situated just behind them. I briefly overheard Captain Blitzkrieg complaining that there was no ‘proper Trottingham tea’ to Princess Luna just behind me. I, on the other hoof, was looking for something a little more tasteful than the sort of mud-like beverage so ubiquitous to the Trottingham underclass, so I settled for a cup of lapsang souchong.

I poured myself a cup, briefly noting that the kettle was the expensive sort with a magical enchantment to keep the liquid contained therein at a steady hot temperature. The warm, smoky aroma of the unique blend helped sooth my fractured nerves, and I was about to take a relaxed sip before I was interrupted by a pompous-sounding voice beside me.

“The Royal Guard has gone to the dogs, I tell you, sir!”

The speaker was either a very ugly unicorn or a very handsome pig dressed up in a Solar Guard dress uniform. The uniform itself was absolutely immaculate – the tunic was a brilliant crimson red that had yet to be faded by exposure to the bright sunlight and the nigh-constant dust around, and so utterly devoid of unsightly creases it must have been starched so stiff as to restrict movement. The high collar seemed to be restricting the blood flow to his head, for the skin on his face beneath his white fur was tinged red and, rather disturbingly, throbbing purple veins were visible on his neck and forehead.

“Pardon?”

“The Royal Guard, sir!” he blustered. Every syllable that escaped his somewhat malformed mouth made the thick jowls on his cheek wobble as if they were made of jelly. “It’s an absolute shambles, is what it is.”

I took a sip from my cup warily, savouring the distinctly smoky flavour of the fine tea. “Forgive me; I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you before.”

A broad, sickly sweet smile came to the unicorn’s face as he puffed his chest out proudly and stood tall. Well, as tall as the rather diminutive stallion could stand; despite holding his shoulders back and his neck held high he was still a full head shorter than me. Small red eyes, like those of a rat, gazed up at me from their sunken sockets and twinkled with a smug sense of superiority.

“Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter,” he said slowly, as if he enjoyed the sound of his name as much as he did his voice, “of the ‘Celestia’s Own’ 1st Solar Guard Regiment, sir!”

“Commissar Prince Blueblood of the 1st Night Guards,” I replied. I couldn’t help but wonder which idiot granted this pony a knighthood, but considering how knighthoods might as well have been given free in boxes of cereal for what they were worth these days it shouldn’t have surprised me. [Sir Scarlet Letter MP was knighted on a recommendation from the House of Commons for his services in the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Regulation of the Sizes of Stamps, which, after five years of intense deliberation and billions of bits spent in research, decided that postage stamps were the right size for the job after all. To ensure that no undue blame is apportioned either to me or my sister, I wish to make it absolutely clear that it was Princess Cadence who approved the absurd request.]

Scarlet Letter chuckled and patted me on the shoulder, and I instinctively flinched away from the well-hooficured hoof. “Of course I know who you are, sir! Saved Princess Mi Amore Cadenza’s life, foiled a Changeling plot to invade the city, and...” he looked over to where Crimson Arrow stood sulking in a darkened corner of the room, “...burning the dead wood from the Royal Guard. I daresay you’re making quite the name for yourself, the common pony seems to think you’re some sort of bally hero.”

“I was merely doing my duty,” I said with the verbal equivalent of a vacant shrug. Annoyingly, it was that exact sort of modesty that perpetuated my undeserved image, but for the time being it was serving me well and I didn’t particularly feel like talking to Scarlet Letter. It didn’t take a master of pony psychology to work out what he was doing, it was as plain as the irritating friendly smile on his face – he was trying to butter me up, befriend me, and hope that I wouldn’t treat him too harshly should I find him wanting on the battlefield.

“Of course, of course.” He stepped to the table and prepared a cup of coffee for himself. “Personally, I think you’re rather wasted here. I mean, you’re the Princesses’ nephew for Faust’s sake, you should have Iron Hoof’s job.”

I shook my head and smiled as best as I could, indulging in this little stallion’s pleasing fiction that he was acquiring my friendship, if only out of morbid curiosity to see what exactly he thought he could get out of me. Naturally, being so high up in Equestria’s aristocratic hierarchy made me subject to this sort of behaviour, and I had come to accept it as one of the more irritating drawbacks of my noble lifestyle. Ponies would often come to me, offering false promises of friendship and alliance in a bid to gain something they believed I could acquire for them. For the most part it was supporting some piece of legislation that was being sent to the Princesses for approval, or putting my not-inconsiderable influence behind a certain pony, or in Rarity’s case a chance to enter into Equestria’s upper classes.

“And be stuck five miles behind the frontlines buried beneath a mountain of paperwork and miss out on proper soldiering? I think not.” It was a lie, naturally, as there was nothing I wanted more than to be five miles behind the frontlines, where the biggest threat to my life was a paper cut and not hordes of bestial, angry Changelings intent on tearing me into tiny pieces.

“Quite right, old chap, quite right,” he patted my shoulder again and grinned irritatingly. “But it must be galling for you, dear boy, to be surrounded by that low born scum who dare to call themselves officers of the Night Guard.”

He jerked a hoof in the direction of the said officers, who were conversing happily with both of the Princesses. I couldn’t quite hear them over the gentle murmur of dozens of gossiping party guests, but it seemed evident that all involved were having a good time of it. To my surprise, Captain Blitzkrieg was chatting quite amicably with Princess Celestia, who smiled with genuine warmth and affection at the gruff pegasus. I have always secretly admired my Auntie Celestia for her ability to relate to the common pony and make each of her individual subjects feel uniquely blessed and loved, which is something neither I nor Princess Luna have quite managed to achieve yet. Though frankly, in my case I just didn’t bother trying until much later in my life.

“They’re good soldiers,” I said blankly before taking another sip of my tea, resisting the urge to throw the scalding hot liquid over the impudent little Lieutenant’s face. I decided instead to go for the bluff old soldier routine, despite the fact I was much too young to pull it off effectively at the time.

“Yes, they might be good soldiers but they’re far too unrefined and vulgar to be officers.” He leaned uncomfortably close to me and said in a suspiciously low and quiet voice, “They’re not gentlecolts. We’re both officers of the old school and we both know that officers need to act with a sense of decorum. After all, sir, it’s what separates us from the brute beast that is the common Equestrian soldier. It’s a shame that a pony of your great and noble standing has to lower himself to the level of these base animals.”

I grimaced, but managed to hide my facial expression behind my rather dainty little teacup. A few weeks ago, before my baptism of blood in Black Venom Pass, I’d have naturally agreed with him, but after having fought alongside those ‘base animals’ and ‘brute beasts’ my viewpoint had been rather corrected. I even began to feel some small measure of affection for this band of misfits and social rejects, though that might have just been a result of my innate paranoid streak that told me I had to form a bond with these ponies if I were to survive.

“I have a brother high up in the War Ministry and a few friends in the House of Commons,” he said, sipping from his cup of coffee. The rising steam from the hot liquid formed a wreath around his rotund face with its sickly sweet smile, and he licked his thin lips in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of a lizard. “All I have to do is send off a few letters to some very important ponies, a quiet word here or there, and I can have you assigned to a regiment of your own choosing. Who knows? I might even get you out of that ghastly uniform and into a Colonel’s.”

I have to admit that I found it all rather tempting at the time, but I knew that underneath all of that faux-affability and smarmy friendliness laid the hidden truth that he expected me to do something for him too. I doubted that whatever it was that he had in mind was particularly pleasant or easy, and in all likelihood it probably would have ended up causing more trouble for me than it was worth. Call me unhealthily paranoid, but when a pony goes deliberately out of their way to try and become friends with me, to the point that they’re becoming rather creepy about it, they’re obviously up to no good, particularly when politicians and the Royal Guard are involved. [I find a degree of paranoia about what my politicians are doing to be rather justified in most cases.] A near lifetime of dealing with these sycophantic social climbers had shown me that these ponies rarely, if ever, want something for nothing.

“Have a think about it, Your Highness.” With that he patted me on the shoulder and slinked away, melting into the crowd of ponies around me, and then he was gone.

I was relieved to be finally rid of him. Initially I had thought it best to put it out of my mind, after all, with Changeling-held territory not more than a few miles away to the south and a number of military commanders of questionable sanity and competence dreaming up ways to get me killed in the name of Princesses and Country, I had rather more important things to worry about.

“I see you’ve made a new friend,” said one of the few voices I was actually pleased to hear. The newly promoted Captain Fine Vintage, who had been quietly observing from the sidelines, approached me and took up position by my side.

He wore his new rank pips with obvious pride, as evidenced by the slight smile on his thin lips and the self-assured manner in which he carried himself, which was a far cry from the exhausted and beleaguered junior officer I had seen in the Battle of Black Venom Pass. As Scarlet Letter might have put it, he was an ‘officer of the old school’; meaning he was of aristocratic descent and had paid for his commission and subsequent promotion into Clear Heaven’s vacant position with a not-inconsiderable number of bits. Unlike Clear Heavens and many other such officers, however, he was actually rather competent in his job and pragmatic enough to realise that noble birth is not an adequate prerequisite for military and that if he wanted to succeed in his job he had to actually put the work in.

“That pony is an idiot,” I said derisively, draining the last dregs of my tea before gently floating the empty tea cup back to the table. “I can’t imagine why Shining Armour would allow somepony like him hold the Princesses’ commission in his regiment.”

Fine Vintage smirked and shook his head. He held a half-filled glass of red wine in a pale telekinetic aura just underneath his chin, and as he swished the glass around, making the dark crimson liquid disturbingly reminiscent of blood slosh swirl and slosh about inside, he looked thoughtfully into it as if the answer to that quandary lay at the bottom of the glass. Considering his special talent, the manufacture and appreciation of fine wines as denoted by his cutie mark of a wine bottle decanting its dark red contents into a glass, I was not surprised that he adhered to the ancient proverb ‘in vino, veritas’ [In wine, truth]. Despite the substantial proportion of Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s wine cellar he had been sampling throughout the party, the young Captain remained remarkably composed and clear-headed for most of the afternoon.

“Leverage,” he said, after some consideration. “He’s not an idiot, Blueblood, he’s a snake. If he comes off as foolish to you, it’s because he wants you to.”

“What do you mean by ‘leverage?” I asked.

“Shining Armour is dancing on a knife edge,” he said quietly, glancing around to check that nopony was eavesdropping on our conversation. “He lost the entire city of Canterlot to a Changeling invasion in less than ten minutes. Granted, it wasn’t entirely his fault; he was under Queen Chrysalis’ mind-warping illusion spell, but a lot of ponies question whether he should still be Captain of the Royal Guard.”

“Hmmph,” I snorted in contempt. “It shouldn’t matter what those ponies think; if my Auntie Celestia wants him she can damn well have him.” [One of the rare occasions I agree with Blueblood on political matters. Equestrian democracy was at a rather nascent stage of development at that time, and Parliament often created more problems than it solved.]

Captain Fine Vintage smiled and took a small sip of his wine, taking a short moment to savour the complex flavours before finally swallowing. I’ve never understood oenophiles, while I do enjoy a good glass of fine wine every now and again and I am not exactly a philistine when it comes to appreciating the art of a particularly good vintner; there are some ponies who seem to revere the grape as much as they do Celestia, Luna, and even Faust Herself. Besides, I was more of a whisky fan myself.

“Quite right, Blueblood, but sadly even the Goddess of the Sun must acquiesce to the facile demands of Parliament from time to time. As it happens, Parliament is split between those who support Shining Armour and those who want his dismissal. It is only by divine providence that both chambers of Parliament are marginally in support of Shining Armour, due in no small part to the Lieutenant’s efforts in encouraging certain members of Parliament to seeing reason.”

“I see; Shining Armour is beholden to Scarlet Letter for saving his career.”

I didn’t state the obvious, but a quiet nod from Fine Vintage confirmed that I was thinking along the right lines – Scarlet Letter was using his influence to keep Shining Armour’s flagging career alive despite criticism from Parliament and the Royal Guard itself in return for a boon of some description. I had already known that Shining Armour’s performance in the Battle of Canterlot had severely damaged his reputation, but I was prepared to cut him some slack considering he had what little remained of his mind under the magical thrall of a dominating mare – much like his current marriage.

What Scarlet Letter wanted in return, however, was still an abject mystery to me. While it was certainly possible that the irritating little stallion might be content with being a junior officer in the Royal Guard’s most prestigious regiment, no doubt winning a good number of brownie points over his friends and peers back at Parliament, I feared that his ambitions lay a damn sight higher than that. Then it hit me; he wanted Shining Armour’s job. Naturally, I didn’t have the slightest bit of evidence other than a gut feeling, but my innate paranoia has the incredibly irritating tendency to be right about these things, and when I factored that into the equation it started to make much more sense. However, this revelation did bring some smidgen of hope for me. Shining Armour was not a complete fool, appearances being deceiving and all that rot, and though Scarlet Letter had managed to establish himself on the 1st Solar Guard Regiment’s chain of command and ready to work himself up to that esteemed position of Captain of the Royal Guard, he was exactly where Shiny Arsehole could keep a very close eye on him.

Regrettably, it did little to assuage my worries enough to suppress the gnawing paranoia in the back of my mind. That same paranoia which had the irritating tendency of being right nearly all of the time, and as it happened I might have saved myself a lot of trouble later in my career if I had managed to organise an unfortunate and very messy accident involving him and one of Bramley’s sixpounders that we might have ‘forgotten’ were fully loaded.

“I say,” said Fine Vintage, interrupting my thoughts, “is that General Crimson Arrow over there? I assumed that he had returned to Canterlot in shame.”

I glanced momentarily at the General, who had, by now, ventured out from his self-imposed seclusion in the corner of the room to chat with the few officers who had chosen to support this with equus non grata. He seemed a shadow of his former, outgoing self, and looked ashamed to even be in the company of other ponies.

“The same reason Colonel Rising Star is allowed to command your regiment,” I replied, “War Ministry whitewash. One can’t just get rid of a general or a colonel; they both have too many supporters within the Ministry, so Clear Heavens was made the scapegoat.”

There was very little time to dwell on the matter, however, as the chiming sound of a teaspoon tapping delicately against an empty wineglass cut through the gentle hubbub of conversation around us. Everypony turned their heads towards the sound, ears forward and attentive, to see that the origin of the universally accepted gesture that somepony wants everypony’s attention was Princess Celestia.

The supreme Diarch of Equestria stood, spoon and glass in her golden telekinetic aura, and waited patiently for everypony’s rapt attention. A couple of soldier-servants appeared from the darkened alcoves of the room and cleared the table of leftovers with military precision and speed, much to Cannon Fodder and Spike’s dismay, to ensure a clear line of sight between the Princesses and their audience. It may have been my paranoid streak acting up again, but I glanced over my shoulder behind me to see the two pegasi guards that had accompanied the Diarchs secure and bolt the door, thus ensuring that the audience was very much a captive one.

I thought it was rather early to end the party after just half an hour, and I was feeling rather disappointed that I didn’t get to speak with Auntie ‘Tia, though I consoled myself that there would be plenty of time later once she had gone through the motions of thanking everypony for such a lovely, if short, party.

“I would like to thank each and every one of you for welcoming my sister and me so warmly today,” she began, which resulted in a polite and restrained ripple of applause from the assembled mass of officers, and an excited whoop from Bramley Apple.

“However,” she continued without bothering to wait for the sound of clopping hooves on the rough wooden floor to die down, “I would also like to say that my sister and I are very much disappointed in you all.”

Author's Notes:

A bit of a filler chapter, admittedly. Hope you enjoyed it.

Bloodstained (Part 3)

The gentle rumble of applause was cut short immediately, as if the needle of a gramophone was suddenly wrenched from the spinning record, to be followed by an intense and oppressive quiet. Behind me I heard a fine porcelain teacup drop and shatter expensively on the hard wooden floor. Next to me, Fine Vintage had momentarily lost his telekinetic grip on his glass of wine and spilled a great deal of it on his front before he could catch the falling goblet, the crimson liquid staining his red tunic black and his white sash scarlet.

Looking back on this turn of events, as I sit here with my battered old typewriter and a tumbler of vintage single malt, I shouldn’t have been particularly surprised. In fact, I felt a slight sense of elation at the vindication of my initial suspicions about Celestia’s ulterior motives; Auntie ‘Tia always had the rather irritating tendency to mask her true intentions behind something seemingly innocent and harmless, and I’m not just talking about when I was nine years old and a much-anticipated trip to the Daring Do World theme park turned out to be a visit to the dentist to have new braces painfully fitted. Despite her rather underhanded tactics, I must concede that, for the most part, the ends do justify the means. Unfortunately, it left me with a chronic distrust of everything she did, and even worse for me, it often resulted in the placing of my vulnerable, squishy, un-armoured body in harm’s way far more times than I’m comfortable with.

Princess Celestia swept her cold, unflinching gaze across the entire room. The motherly expression on her face was gone, to be replaced by the cold and stern countenance of an experienced elder states-mare. Her lips were a thin line across her elegant muzzle, and were turned ever so slightly downwards at their ends. Her violet eyes narrowed and were utterly devoid of all of the love and warmth she normally holds for her beloved ponies, and instead they were filled with nothing but silent contempt for everypony in this room. As her chilling eyes tracked across the room slowly, occasionally pausing to single out one or two ponies for her particular attention, the assembled equines shuddered and flinched from her steely gaze. The effect was completed by the fact that her wings were spread erect to their fullest span, making the already monstrously tall alicorn princess appear even larger than usual.

I looked over to the Night Guard officers, who stood relatively close to the two Princesses. The majority of them seemed to be taking it with the usual passive stoicism and aloofness stereotypical of ponies from Trottingham, though I noticed that the left side of Colonel Sunshine Smiles’ face, where the hideous scar mangled his once attractive features, was twitching rather violently as it was wont to do whenever something unpleasant was happening. Captain Red Coat looked like a foal who had just been told Princess Celestia doesn’t personally deliver presents to good little colts and fillies on Hearth’s Warming Eve night [Apologies to anypony under the age of ten years who might be reading this]; likely due to the rather copious amounts of alcohol the teenager had drank throughout the party coupled with his very public embarrassment at the hooves of Shining Armour over Twilight.

Celestia’s long and spiralled horn ignited with the same warm glow of the sun on a fresh spring morning, and a sheaf of papers materialised into the space just before her head. Holding the inch-thick wad of papers within her yellow telekinetic glow she flicked through the files with deliberate slowness, seemingly taking her own sweet time in order to prolong everypony’s nervous anxiety as much as possible. The long, awkward moment of silence dragged out interminably and was made worse by the incessant ambient noises that seemed amplified both by the hush and my own anxiety. The constant and unremitting ticking of the infernal grandfather clock in the corner, as if counting down the remaining seconds of life for everypony in the room, and the gentle ruffle of paper sliding across paper, coupled with the fact that everypony seemed to be coughing and breathing much too loudly only heightened the nauseating anxiety I was feeling. Judging by the uncomfortable body language and nervous movements of everypony else in the room, I wasn’t alone.

My anxiety, however, was not helped by the notion that it would take one single lightning strike by the enemy to not only incapacitate the entire senior command of the Royal Guard’s Army Group Centre but also completely decapitate the leadership of the Equestrian state and thus leave Cadence as supreme overlord of the country. Needless to say, I am eternally thankful that the Changelings did not even attempt such an audacious plan; if my cousin Cadence, as friendly and gentle as she is, was to become sole ruling monarch of Equestria I’m not certain I would have wanted to survive the attack to see what kind of unremitting horror would ensue as a result of Cadence’s reign.

Whatever effect Celestia was trying to go for was instantly ruined by Spike.

“But I didn’t do anything this time!” he blurted out impetuously. The baby dragon sat on the table, legs dangling over the edge and his little face was smeared with brightly-coloured cake frosting. He looked around with a blank and slightly confused expression on his face, while the ponies around him reacted with the same sort of silent shock and incredulity.

I caught a fleeting glimpse of a smile on Celestia’s face before her scowl returned, as if a mask had slipped from her face to allow us a glimpse of the true pony behind it before being hastily reapplied again. She recovered quickly, in stark contrast to her younger sister who rolled her eyes and buried her head in her forelegs in embarrassment.

The wad of papers dropped, making an audible ‘thump’ noise that rapidly restored order by cutting through the general background noise of ponies coughing, breathing, and quietly whispering around me. I heard Spike yelp at the noise, but thankfully there were no further outbursts from him; Twilight Sparkle had instructed him to start jotting down minutes of the meeting on paper to be recorded for posterity. [The minutes are, of course, kept in the Royal Guard Archive. It is not necessary to read them, as Blueblood’s description of this meeting is actually more accurate than Spike’s, which is mostly made up of how delicious the treats were.]

“Over three hundred of my little ponies were killed as a result of your collective incompetence,” she said with no small amount of venom in her voice. [This is the early estimated death toll of the battle, which was later revised to four hundred and thirty-seven.] Her hoof, clad in a golden horseshoe that scintillated in the bright sunlight streaming through the cracked and broken windows, tapped on the pile of papers before her. “Explain.”

Nopony did.

Not that I could blame them; nopony wanted to be subjected to the torrent of verbal castigation in front of all of their friends, rivals, and peers, however justified I knew it would be. A couple of the braver ponies, or more cowardly depending on how one looks at it, tried to make a break for it through the doors, only to find their passage blocked by the two fearsome pegasus soldiers standing guard over it. No amount of ranting and raving, pulling rank and threatening all manner of unpleasant but still legally sanctioned punishments, would dissuade them from their sacred duties as the Princess’s personal guard. [To elaborate on this point, the personal bodyguards of my sister and I are drawn from the Royal Guard regiments, during this time they are considered to be outside the usual Royal Guard rank structure and take orders only from members of the Royal Family.] I had already checked out the possible escape routes beforehoof, and discounted that one for the aforementioned reason. The only alternatives were the windows, which were much too high for me to climb out of and the shattered panes still contained broken shards of glass for anypony stupid enough to attempt it to impale themselves upon, or to somehow burrow my way through the old wooden panels into the cellar.

“Come now,” she said, tapping her golden hoof on the table before her impatiently, “I want to hear your excuses.”

“Acceptable losses,” said Field Marshal Iron Hoof, a twinge of anxiety inflecting in his normally expressionless monotone. Despite being taller than most ponies in the room I still had to rear up slightly on my hind legs to catch a glimpse of the khaki-coloured pony in the corner of the room. His facial expression was the blank rictus of a well-practiced poker face, at least what little of it could be seen past the peaked cap pulled so low as to cast his eyes in shadow and the enormous bushy moustache like two small, furry voles had taken up residence on his upper lip, which began to twitch nervously.

Celestia turned her head slowly, her ethereal mane wafting gently on the invisible and intangible solar winds as she did so. She arched an eyebrow imperiously and tilted her head back slightly to look down her long muzzle at the Field Marshal in a slow and deliberate piece of theatre. That was what all of this was, thought I, as I observed the normally stoic and emotionless Iron Hoof, supreme commander of the Royal Guard, very gradually begin to lose his nerve and break down.

With a gentle wave of her golden hoof Celestia summoned a soldier-servant from their hiding places in the dark corners of the room. A nervous mare, probably in her mid-teens and therefore only doing this as a means of fast-tracking her way to earning a commission on recommendation from the Field Marshal, trotted on over. She tripped occasionally on the rough and pitted floor as she approached, before bowing low and graciously before the Diarchs.

“Would you be a dear and fetch a fresh pot of tea for my sister and I, please?”

The maid mumbled a response, and then scampered off through a set of doors I presumed led to the kitchen area. As I watched, I yearned for Celestia to just get on with this ridiculous and uncomfortable posturing.

“Now,” she said, finally deigning to continue, “what did you just say?”

“I-it’s a matter of ratios,” Iron Hoof stammered, speaking more to the floor between his forelegs than to the Princesses. “In order to maintain parity with the Changelings our stallions have to kill ten drones for every guardspony we lose. Our best estimates for the Battle of Black Venom Pass indicate that we have achieved—”

“Ratios?” Celestia arched an eyebrow imperiously as she interrupted the stallion. The soldier-servant returned with her teeth clamped around a tray. Upon this tray were a teapot and two dainty cups as requested, all made of fine porcelain with a delicate pink and sky blue flower motif. Steam rose from the teapot’s spout, which had been cunningly crafted to resemble a dragon’s head and neck so that, when poured, it would look like the dragon is vomiting tea. I personally thought it was rather hideous, but it seemed that the Field Marshal liked it; evidently whatever skills Faust had bestowed upon him to make up for his singular lack of imagination and poor social skills, sartorial elegance was not one of them.

The maid placed the tray on the table in front of the Princesses, avoiding the small pile of papers. She was dismissed, much to her obvious relief, with a quiet ‘thank you’. Celestia set about pouring the amber-brown liquid into the cups provided, and as she did so, she continued speaking.

“This is war, not accountancy; the lives of my little ponies are precious to me, and they are not resources to be wasted. I will not allow you to drag Equestria into a war of attrition that we cannot possibly hope to win.”

“Ma’am, with all due respect,” he continued, using that all too familiar phrase all soldiers use with their commanding officers to mean ‘with absolutely no respect’, “You cannot afford to be so weak-hearted and naive. No amount of skill on my part or any of the officers, nor the quality of our equipment and the training of the guardsponies, will enable victory without the sacrifice of ponies’ lives. You and the nation must learn to bear such loses if we are to win this war.”

Princess Celestia quietly sipped her tea, which in the ensuing silence that followed the Field Marshal’s short monologue seemed eerily loud and awkward; as if she were deliberately slurping in that same uncouth manner most uneducated ponies do when presented with a cup of tea. Naturally, Celestia is utterly incapable of performing any act without a supreme sense of decorum and grace (except when she thinks she is alone with a very large cake); having pretty much invented the concept of etiquette in the first place, so I simply put the ill-mannered noise down to my own heightened nervousness.

So when Princess Luna finally spoke up, it was quite a shock to us all.

“You dare?” she hissed, her voice felt rather than heard, as if it came from within my own head and scratched at the walls of my sanity.

The Night Mare rose and planted her forehooves on the table, her steel sabatons gouging two great U-shaped grooves into the antique wood. Her eyes flickered with unearthly light, like the baleful glow of the full moon on a cloudless night, as she swept her predatory gaze over the assembled mass of ponies before her. Knowing what was coming next I crouched down and put my hooves in my ears as a necessary precaution, and gently nudged Fine Vintage and indicated that he should do the same. The austere and proper officer looked as if I had just recently gone insane before he finally worked out my meaning and followed suit.

“YOU DARE PRESUME TO LECTURE US ABOUT WAR?”

The Royal Canterlot Voice blasted through the hall, the sheer concussive force of her voice made the rickety old beams and wooden walls of the ramshackle structure shudder and quiver in a way that I felt was not conducive to the immediate survival of everypony in the room. I believe it is only by Faust’s own divine intervention that saved us, and certainly not the architectural skills of the inbred country folk who built this thing, for whom health and safety guidelines in the construction industry are, at best, to be taken as a polite suggestion.

My cap was blown off my head and my mane, which for the first time in a fortnight was coiffed and styled into something approaching ‘smart’, was now completely and utterly ruined. I felt something lukewarm splatter onto my face, and tentatively peeking up to see what it was I was at first shocked at what initially looked like blood hit me, but on closer inspection it was revealed that Fine Vintage’s wineglass had been shattered by the force of Luna’s voice and sprayed its contents over us [This is unlikely, as sheer volume alone is not enough to make glass shatter. It is more likely that Fine Vintage accidently crushed the glass with his own magic]. Thankfully, he regained enough of his concentration to catch the shards of glass before they shredded my face into ribbons.

Princess Luna was apoplectic. Her body shook with barely controlled rage, ears angled forward aggressively, and her wings spread to their fullest span, as if she was struggling to keep herself from leaping over the table and tearing everypony apart in the room with her bare hooves. To this day I am not certain whether it was simply a trick of the mind or whether it was actually happening, but it seemed as if all of the light and colour in the room was being drained away from it.

Her face twisted into a snarl of pure, unadulterated anger as she swung her hoof forth in the Field Marshal’s direction, who, to my eternal surprise, stood stoically before the nightmarish vision before him with only the faint quivering of his upper lip to betray any fear he might have been feeling. She sucked in a deep breath, and as her lungs filled with air the armour plates strapped across her barrel and chest clanged together like an oversized wind chime in a hurricane.

I pre-emptively put my hooves in my ears once more, though I feared it would not provide adequate protection from the full force of the Royal Canterlot Voice. While it would be rather unfair to blame the tinnitus that would come to affect me later in life solely on Princess Luna, standing close by to a cannon going off one too many times probably having more to do with it, I still can’t help but wonder if she didn’t inflict the Royal Canterlot Voice on me quite as much in the early part of my career I would not have to contend with this irritating and nigh-constant ringing in my ears.

When the expected aural assault did not come I felt rather foolish for having ducked and plugged my ears as if taking cover from an artillery strike, but that feeling soon passed when I realised that practically everypony was doing much the same thing. Cannon Fodder was the exception, as usual, and trotted up to me with an unusual expression on his face that I could only describe as ‘dull surprise’. In his mouth was my cap, which he had evidently retrieved shortly after it had been blown halfway across the room.

The only other ponies who weren’t cowering, hiding, or making some sort of obeisance in a vain attempt to placate her, were Twilight Sparkle, Cannon Fodder — who looked decidedly unimpressed with Luna's display — and Princess Celestia. The latter touched her armoured hoof to Luna’s foreleg, rubbing the dark velvety fur reassuringly while looking up with a sympathetic yet somehow firm expression, while the former simply trotted up to Luna’s side with the same sort of suicidal determination normally reserved for insane stunt pilots.

“Princess,” she whispered, though the distinct lack of excess noise around us made her quiet voice seem rather loud and clear, “Remember what we taught you — use your inside voice when addressing your subjects!”

Luna gave an abrupt ‘harrumph’ of contempt before sitting down, idly brushing off her elder sister’s hoof as she did so and shooting an uncompromisingly harsh glare at Twilight that seemed to say ‘that’s it, you’re now on the list’. We all watched anxiously as the dark alicorn sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes, as if trying out one of those fatuous New Age methods to calm one down and eliminate negative thoughts. The assembled ponies slowly drifted, as if by natural magnetism, towards the far end of the room closer to the only obvious exit. Those unfortunate enough to be too close to the Princesses instead gravitated towards Celestia, with the exception of most of the Night Guard officers, as if the Princess of the Sun would protect them from the wrath of the Princess of the Night.

It seemed like a game of good cop/bad cop, or to be more accurate, ‘good princess/psychopathic bitch-queen princess’. The damnable thing was that this cheap little trick, normally reserved for small-time police officers who have seen far too many cop films to use on juvenile petty criminals, seemed to be working wonders on the experienced veteran officers around me. Indeed, I recall that same technique used on me by two novice members of the Gryphon secret police who were so comically inept at it they ended up incriminating themselves [Blueblood’s involvement in the Gryphonburg Conspiracy, while fascinating, need not trouble us here]. In allowing Princess Luna to, well, be herself in this meeting, the officers would automatically look to Princess Celestia for protection and comfort, thus making them all the more malleable to manipulation. I supposed its success here was down to the rather unique place Princess Celestia holds in the minds of just about every pony in Equestria, such that the very idea of doing anything to make her even the slightest bit upset is so utterly repellent that most of us tend to bend over backwards just to try and please her. [Blueblood is mostly accurate in his summation. However, make no mistake, I do this because needs must and not because I enjoy it; sometimes my little ponies need a quiet nudge in the right direction.] At any rate, despite my misgivings about her technique, which I found to be as transparent as it was tasteless, but then again a lifetime of dissembling and arse-covering allows me to spot when another pony is doing it just as easily, I could not doubt its effectiveness.

“How can so many of you have forgotten your history?” said Luna, her voice thankfully back to what could be considered safe for everypony’s hearing, though it had lost none of its power for it. “Equestria was forged upon the anvil of war, its foundations are the bodies of the fallen, their blood its mortar that binds it together, and it was the Royal Pony Sisters who led our forces into battle. For over one thousand years since the Three Founders of Equestria, Princess Platinum, Commander Hurricane, and Chancellor Puddinghead, raised the flag on what would later be known as Canterlot to my banishment for my crimes in the Nightmare Heresy, Equestria has known only constant and unrelenting warfare for its survival. Equestria has only endured those dark times through the courage and sacrifice of the Royal Guard, whose exalted members my sister and I were honoured to stand and fight shoulder to shoulder with.

“What would they say if they could see you all now? They who held the line at Ghastly Gorge, who stormed the sheer cliffs of Vanhoover, who were forced to fight against me, their very own Princess whom they loved and adored, when I fell to the Nightmare? What would they think to see that the peace for which they had martyred themselves for would breed officers and leaders of such incompetence? They would be ashamed of you!”

She paused for dramatic effect, casting her stern and chilling gaze over the mass of assembled ponies before her, most of whom cowered and looked away rather than meet her eyes. Naturally, I did not want to be seen as anything less than the absolute pinnacle of stallionhood and pride, despite my stomach twisting itself into all manner of interesting and intriguing shapes that would keep a geometry teacher entertained for many hours, so I pretended to be busy with Cannon Fodder and my hat. He left some residual drool, cake crumbs, and some icing on the visor where he had been holding it with his mouth.

Naturally, most of us expected Princess Luna to unleash the Royal Canterlot Voice upon us once more and just destroy everypony’s sense of hearing in one fell swoop. Indeed, a few of the ponies took to sheltering under the large table with their hooves on their ears as if taking cover. I attempted to look as nonchalant as possible as I wiped the mess from my cap, and it seemed that a few of the ponies nearby, including Captain Fine Vintage attempted to copy my example.

So when she spoke again after that long pause in a soft, quiet voice, barely louder than a whisper, we were all quite surprised.

“War is about willpower, Field Marshal, not about balancing casualty lists; the numbers that are dead is no indication of triumph or failure. Defeat is merely the destruction of the ponies’ determination to continue fighting, and nothing will do more to erode the willpower of the Equestrian ponies to prosecute this war than the wastage of lives for very little gain. If ponies are to die in this war, then you are to ensure that their lives are spent for meaningful goals, not thrown away for hopeless endeavours mired by the incompetence of the officer class. Is that clear, Field Marshal?”

Defeated, Iron Hoof bowed his head in reticence and nodded his head, mumbling a very quiet, “Yes, Your Highness.”

“If we are to speak in the crass terms of pure mathematics,” said Celestia, idly munching on a sugar cube as she did so in a calculated, and rather transparent if you ask me, disarming move to ease the tension somewhat, “Then the numbers are against us, anyway. The Changelings can muster an army that numbers in millions, and while a Changeling drone is no match for a highly trained and dedicated guardspony, they can recuperate their losses far more quickly than us. A war of attrition with the Changelings is doomed to failure from the very start.”

“Y-yes, Your Highness, I understand.” Naturally he was lying right through his big bushy moustache, though nopony had any idea about that until years later when we became mired in trench warfare and forced to clear Changeling hives tunnel by bloody tunnel. I wonder now if the venerable old Field Marshal had picked up The Big Alphabet Book of Military Strategy during his time in the Academy and only got as far as reading ‘Chapter One: A is for Attrition’ before getting bored and picking up a Playmare magazine instead.

“General Crimson Arrow,” she said, turning her attention to the quiet and subdued General in the corner of the room who seemed to be doing his hardest to try and melt into the wooden walls behind him, “You, above all others, bear the greatest responsibility for this. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I did my duty,” he said flatly, his normally jovial and friendly tone of voice now emotionless and devoid of inflection. He also sounded raspy, as if dehydrated, and much quieter than usual, such that I had to strain even in the tense silence in order to hear him clearly.

“Of course you did,” said Celestia dryly, her voice veritably dripping with barely concealed sarcasm. “But it was your intransigence that very nearly spelt disaster for the Royal Guard. Were it not for the intervention of my nephew, Prince Blueblood, the entire 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard may have been utterly destroyed and the fortress of Maredun overrun.”

I noticed that everypony was suddenly looking at me, expecting me to say something. I realised this rather belatedly, I admit, so fixated was I in cleaning my cap and placing it on my head. Fortunately for me, eyewitnesses tend to recall my austere and princely bearing more than me not paying enough attention to what was going on around me.

“I merely did what was required of me,” I said, once again indulging in that false modesty that ponies seem to think befits a great hero. “The praise belongs to the brave stallions and mares who fought so well in the Pass.”

It was a clichéd line certainly, and far too reminiscent of the rather corny slogans that adorn the many propaganda posters that blighted Equestria’s streets, but sadly it was the best I could come up with on such short notice. It worked, however, judging by the rumble of polite applause and general murmurs of affirmation that rippled through the ponies around me.

Auntie Luna’s response was rather more interesting; her eyes were wide and her jaw hanging wider and flapping uselessly, giving the rather startling impression of a hungry guppy fish at feeding time. She rapidly regained her composure, and as the noise of the crowd around me started to die down I could hear her whisper to Celestia in Old Equestrian, the ancient language of the Goddesses, “Who is this stallion and what has he done with our syphilitic, waste-of-space nephew?”

I ignored the comment, mostly, though I confess to feeling some small measure of pride at the fact that, despite the rather vulgar insult which the good Princess probably should have kept to herself, given that most of the officers present here probably had a classical education and therefore reasonably fluent in Old Equestrian, she had finally acknowledged the fact that we are related by blood. Princess Celestia too ignored Luna’s comment, and instead fixed me with a rather intense glare as she took one more sip of her tea. Her expression was rather quizzical, with an eyebrow arched imperiously, and I feared that she looked past the unwanted facade of the noble hero I was now struggling to maintain and saw the truth. If she did, I could at least count on the fact that my dear Auntie would not be so vindictive to ‘out me’ in front of everypony. [I found Blueblood’s unexpected reputation for heroics to be rather useful in later endeavours, much to his evident irritation, which will be described in detail in later entries of this manuscript.]

Celestia poured herself a second cup of tea from the pot. “I think it might be best if we start from the beginning,” she said, in the rather condescending manner of a schoolteacher trying to get a class of particularly slow foals to understand. “Can any of you tell me why Canterlot fell in a mere ten minutes?”

Stony silence ensued once more, save for Twilight Sparkle who thrust her hoof high in the air and jumped up and down on the spot, making some rather foalish noises unbecoming of the Princess’s personal student. There was a broad, manic grin to her face, and her eyes sparkled with the need to educate and lecture ponies around her, sparking barely-suppressed memories buried in my psyche of our shared classes in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, where her ten minute presentations on magical theory tended to last several days. [Despite being two years older than Twilight Sparkle, Blueblood did indeed share classes with Twilight Sparkle. Blueblood had to be kept back a year after poor test scores, and Twilight was allowed to enter the school one year early.]

Despite silently willing for somepony else to answer and thus spare us from being subjected to a lecture that would outlast the entire war itself in terms of its length, everypony around me remained utterly silent. Instead, rather cowardly I might add (though it’s what I would have done in their position), they took relief in the fact that they would escape the intensely awkward and psychologically scarring inquisition from the two Royal Pony Sisters, which they had just witnessed being inflicted upon Field Marshal Iron Hoof moments before.

The serene Princess of the Sun let out a sigh of exasperation, clearly feeling much the same as I did, before she reluctantly waved a hoof and said, “Very well, Twilight Sparkle.”

“And do try to keep this one under five minutes this time,” said Luna dismissively.

Luna’s warning did nothing to dampen Twilight Sparkle’s newfound enthusiasm, for the normally rather shy mare had beamed brightly at the opportunity to bore us all with her vast knowledge and thus prove herself worthy of being Auntie Celestia’s personal lapdog. She cantered up, almost skipping, between the two Princesses and cleared her throat.

“The exact reasons behind the Fall of Canterlot are many and varied,” she began; her voice became clipped and rather formal as she delivered the lecture. I instantly wished that I had acquired several glasses of wine before they were all taken away, for I had no desire to endure a Twilecture sober. “The primary reason, however, directly involves the Captain of the Guard, Shining Armour, and how his command of the defence of Canterlot was severely compromised from within.”

“Yeesh, Twiley,” said Shining Armour, blushing slightly and looking uncharacteristically awkward, an expression I took no small measure of enjoyment out of. “You’re making me look bad in front of everypony.”

“He’s quite capable of doing that by himself,” I whispered dryly to Fine Vintage, who chuckled quietly at the little joke. Fortunately, nopony around me seemed to have heard that, or at least they chose to ignore it.

“Don’t worry, BBBFF, I’m going somewhere with this.” She smiled sweetly at her highly embarrassed older brother, before turning her attention back upon her thankfully rather brief lecture, “Shining Armour was the weak link in the Royal Guard’s command structure, though not of his own will. Firstly, the War Ministry had very little intelligence about the exact nature of the threat against Canterlot, and so prepared for a long and protracted siege against ‘conventional’ forces. The timing of the threat was nearly perfect; coinciding with the much-anticipated wedding between Shining Armour and Princess Cadence, so the Royal Guard found itself torn between its primary duty of maintaining the defence of the city and providing additional security for the wedding.

“Secondly, with everypony’s attention focused on the wedding and on the threat from without, nopony could have foreseen Queen Chrysalis’ infiltration of the city and her foalnapping of Princess Cadence. With the leader of the Changeling invasion force intimately close to the commander of Canterlot’s defences, she had full and unrestricted access to every single facet of the Royal Guard's defence plans. As Shining Armour’s willpower was sapped by Chrysalis’ increasingly powerful psychic domination he became ever more suggestible to her poisonous influences. The defences, already severely compromised by the enemy’s knowledge of them, were further damaged as Chrysalis influenced several crucial command decisions — the decision to move the bulk of the Royal Guard contingent out into the Canterlot Province hinterlands being the most strategically important. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Royal Guard remnants in the city were overwhelmed so quickly.”

[Again, even with Blueblood’s remarkably precise long-term memory, he is only mostly accurate in replicating Twilight Sparkle’s lecture. Unfortunately, this remains the most complete transcript of this lecture, as Spike was incapacitated by a debilitating stomach ache halfway through the speech.]

Celestia slurped her tea once more. “Do you now see? My little ponies, the Fall of Canterlot had proved that the Changelings are a dangerous enemy who will employ the use of great cunning and subterfuge to achieve victory. You believed that this war will be easy; that you will win a few great battles and it will all be over and then you can return home and bathe in the glory of victory. You have underestimated your enemy and you have failed to learn from past mistakes, and in doing so you have committed the two greatest sins possible in warfare.”

Princess Celestia placed her now-empty cup back on its saucer with a hollow ‘clink’ of porcelain on fine porcelain. “We are not in a surplus of officers,” she said, dabbing at her mouth delicately with a small white napkin, “and if it were not for that fact, we would have cashiered most of you instantly and have you replaced with ponies of greater competence and intelligence than you. As it happens, we are willing to give you a second and final chance, which is why we have set up a Royal Commission headed by my personal student, Twilight Sparkle, with aims toward wholesale reform of the Royal Guard.”

A murmur of dissent rippled through the ponies surrounding me, though it never really developed more than a few hushed whispers complaining about civilian interference in military matters, and that it was patently ridiculous that they should be subjected to the scrutiny of a silly little mare who did not even come from a good family even if she was Celestia’s prized pupil and her brother was Captain of the Royal Guard. I did sympathise with them, but that little voice was rapidly silenced by the altogether more rational notion that the Royal Guard was certainly in need of reform if I was to avoid being martyred.

Celestia held up a hoof and the bickering died down. “The Royal Guard must change if we are to achieve final victory over the forces of Queen Chrysalis. Each of you now faces a choice; you can either embrace this change, or instead foolishly cling to your outdated and parochial ideals, and thus condemn yourselves to stagnation and finally defeat.”

“Furthermore,” said Princess Luna, “In light of Commissar-Prince Blueblood’s success with the 1st Night Guards, and the staggering incompetence we have seen from the rest of you, we shall be introducing commissars across the Royal Guard at a regimental level and in the General Staff very soon. They will be our divine will incarnate; they will inflame the weak, guide the lost, and advise you in all command decisions. They will be utterly without mercy to punish officers who are incompetent or cowardly; for it is your actions that will mean life and death for the ponies under your command. If you perform your duties with the valour and dedication expected of officers of the Royal Guard then you have nothing to fear from them, if you do not...”

She left the remainder of that threat unspoken, but judging by the fleeting and worried glances in my direction nopony was having any difficulty in imagining what sort of heinous and medieval punishments I might have in store for them should I or my future colleagues find them unsuitable for command. The ignominious end of Captain Clear Heavens’ career and the temporary removal of Crimson Arrow from command had conclusively proved to everypony, myself included, that I was prepared to use the power and authority unwillingly bestowed upon me. Though only I knew, and perhaps Auntie Celestia, just how reluctantly.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to cut this tea party short,” said Celestia, rising to her hooves and placing her soiled napkin back on the table with the empty teacup, “my sister and I must be in Appleloosa before sundown. Thank you all for your kind hospitality, I pray that our next visit will be under happier circumstances.”

The two alicorns moved to leave, with Twilight Sparkle tagging along behind them like a stray cat following a potential new owner home, and Spike draped across her back and groaning in pain as his bulging stomach inflicted painful retribution on him for his wanton indulgence in diverse, saccharine confections. The crowd of ponies parted to allow them to leave like oil through water, and the doors slammed shut behind them with a tense and resonant finality.

Author's Notes:

Well, this one was probably the most difficult chapter to right so far, which is why it's rather late. Hope you all like it anyway.

Bloodstained (Part 4)

Subsequent attempts to revive the tea party fell flat, the mood having been completely and irrevocably killed by the unremitting verbal broadside from the two Princesses. Many ponies simply left, leaving the Field Marshal and a few hangers-on alone in the town hall like the most unpopular foal in school on his birthday party with the handful of ‘friends’ forced to attend by their parents. I lingered for a while, to see if I could scrounge some more free food and drink out of the Field Marshal, before leaving when I noticed that the Night Guard officers had already gone. After that I left hurriedly, claiming that I was needed to help Twilight Sparkle settle into her new surroundings, though really I just wanted to get out of that wretched party and spend some quality time with my Auntie ‘Tia instead. Cannon Fodder swiftly followed me, but only after stuffing the myriad pouches and pockets that festooned even his dress uniform with cake and biscuits until they were bulging and overflowing with confections.

I was bitterly disappointed that I did not have the chance to speak with Celestia during the party, and as I trudged my way back to the encampment, Cannon Fodder following me like the dutiful assistant he always is, I prayed that I would not be too late. The all-too-frequent confrontations with my own mortality had helped put my mind into a rather new perspective, and I felt the need to try and repair the bridges I had burned down with my foalish and arrogant behaviour. Luna, however, I felt was a lost cause and would never, ever even begin to like me. Although her attitude towards me had started to soften by that point, I believed, back then, that even with the gradual thawing of our relationship it would take far longer than my natural life span [which was rather long compared to that of most ponies, owing to his weak alicorn heritage] before we could be considered on friendly terms. Still, getting her to accept our tentative blood relation was some small step in the right direction.

I confess to feeling somewhat elated after the party, though everypony else was downright miserable. I had hoped that they would take Celestia’s and Luna’s words to heart and begin prosecuting this war in a proper and sensible manner, particularly Iron Hoof and Crimson Arrow, which would mean I could get this unpleasantness over and done with as soon as possible and return to some semblance of a normal life. But then again I was not looking forward to being forced to endure Twilight Sparkle’s company for any extended period of time, particularly if we were to go into battle once more. The prospect of avoiding said combat by having to foal-sit Celestia’s favourite pet only narrowly outweighed the disadvantages of being subjected to her obsessive attention to detail, incessant logorrhoea, and occasional bouts of crippling insanity.

Cannon Fodder and Spike had bonded over the course of the failed tea party; both sharing the same interests in downing vast quantities of sugary confection, especially if it’s free, and both seeing themselves as number one assistants to very powerful and influential ponies. Spike even spoke of forming a trade union of Number One Assistants, though he only had a tentative grasp of what a trade union actually does and seemed to think it was some sort of social club, as opposed to the venomous tendrils of Collectivism infesting the lower orders of industrialised Equestrian society.

Despite the hope that welled within in me that we might conceivably win this war and, more importantly, that there was a decent chance that I might actually survive long enough to see its end, Princess Luna’s final warning about the expansion of the Commissariat worried me. They were a completely unknown quantity, and beyond some terse correspondence between myself and the Commissar-General in the War Ministry I had absolutely no contact with any other member of the organisation. While I believed I would be able to act rationally when it came to exercising the rather absurd amount of power that lay in my hooves, I feared that my future colleagues and brothers-in-arms would not be quite so sensible when it came to enforcing discipline. Nevertheless, I was reasonably confident that any rational officer would learn to behave himself with the omnipresent gaze of the Commissariat lingering over him and therefore any unpleasant confrontations between the Ancien Régime and the new guard would be avoided. If anypony who happens to be reading this has been paying attention, they will know that reality has an increasingly nasty habit of taking my hopeful expectations out behind the scooter shed and bludgeoning them to death with a sledgehammer.

It was late afternoon as we commenced our journey back, following a gentle trickle of officer ponies, all in similarly disheartened spirits, as they made their way back to the encampment, no doubt to sit in a darkened tent with a bottle of strong alcohol to contemplate where exactly their lives had gone wrong and what they could do about it. The sun, fat and yellow in the clear blue sky, was halfway through its descent into the western plains beyond the horizon. The blistering heat and muggy humidity that is the bane of my existence here in the Badlands was slowly starting to fade away into the horrid chill of the cold desert night, which I found to be marginally preferable to sweating through my shirt all day. The ungodly stench of war would linger on, however, and only grow worse with the coming heat of the new day, and with it so would the vermin: disgustingly fat-bodied flies that seemed to get everywhere, especially in one’s food, tiny mosquitoes that would sneak in unnoticed to feed off ponies’ blood and leave irritating bites in their wake, and legions of rats that were slowly driving the Catering Corps to insanity.

“I think that went pretty well,” said Cannon Fodder abruptly as we cleared the town and crossed the short expanse of wasteland to the encampment.

I cocked my head to one side in confusion. “By what measure can you possibly judge that as having gone ‘pretty well’?” I asked incredulously.

“The food was nice,” he replied with a vacant shrug, “and there were no Changelings like the last party we went to.”

“Touché.” I had to concede that he did have a point in that respect; seeing as how the previous two parties I had attended resulted in my life thrust into terrifying and mortal danger, first from a very large cake and the second from a rabid horde of Changelings, while being accompanied by a certain mare whose shrill and incessant whining could alone conquer the Pits of Tartarus itself. Perhaps I should have sent a letter to the War Ministry requesting that we fire Rarity out of a cannon into Queen Chrysalis’ hive and then sit back and wait for their inevitable surrender.

We trudged through the outer picquet lines, and the soldiers on sentry duty only made a token effort to stop us and check our identification papers to ensure that we were not Changeling spies. The fact that when a Changeling assumes a pony’s identity they usually go out of their way to steal their personal effects to complete the illusion apparently hadn’t occurred to them. While I was thankful that we had managed to get through with the minimal of hassle, for I did not want to waste any more time than strictly necessary and risk missing Auntie ‘Tia completely, I made a mental note to speak with the provosts [the military police] and the General Staff later about the importance of maintaining base security and a gentle reminder about how things very nearly turned to disaster in Black Venom Pass as a result of Changeling infiltration. However, as we crossed into the encampment, that notion was swiftly pushed out of my mind.

Celestia and Luna were still there, thankfully, as we reached the parade ground where their chariot had touched down a few long hours earlier. The vehicle was still parked in the middle of the busy square, and could be glimpsed briefly between the marching formations of dust-covered Solar Guard ponies, a few hundred feet or so from the edge from which we had approached. The four spoked wheels of the opulent carriage had gouged two great furrows in the ground’s uneven surface, and the iridescent gold reflected the glorious rays of the setting sun like a miniature simulacrum of the bright solar orb itself. The two Princesses, one as magnificent and bright as a warm spring day and the other as dark and mysterious as a completely cloudless night, stood by their craft. Next to them, their four pegasus bodyguards and personal chauffeurs tended to the chariot, inspecting the wheels, harnesses, and limbers and performing the usual twenty-point check before they could take flight again.

At first I feared I was too late, and thus broke into a brisk trot in an effort to at least say ‘goodbye’ properly to Auntie Celestia before she left, which was something I was unable to do when I was unceremoniously dragged out against my will and shipped off to this Faust-forsaken part of the world. Irritatingly, the parade ground was still in heavy use despite the Princesses’ visit, as sections and platoons of the 1st Solar Guard Regiment practiced square bashing [military slang for drill]. Sergeants and corporals berated their soldiers’ alleged inability to march in perfect synchronisation by screaming obscenities and questioning the guardsponies’ sexual preferences in increasingly louder voices, and all of this to the tune of the regimental band attempting to play ‘I Vow To Thee, My Equestria’ with their habitual enthusiasm and distinct lack of anything approaching musical talent.

I weaved my way around the marching formations like a lost dog dodges the heavy Manehatten traffic, leaving scattered formations of confused guardsponies who were torn between stopping to salute me as I passed them or ignoring the distraction and carrying on marching regardless. Whatever they did earned them a torrent of further vocal abuse and threats of bloody violence from their NCOs regardless of their actions being right or wrong. I ignored them, hell-bent as I was on making sure that I at least have a short conversation with my beloved Auntie, and thus leaving a trail of mayhem and chaos in my wake that was further compounded as Cannon Fodder barrelled through the confused formations with his usual single-minded determination to stay by my side at all times.

That if the Princesses were preparing to leave they would have cleared out the parade ground so that their pegasi would have enough space to build up speed for a decent take-off had not occurred to me at that point, and if it had I probably would have taken a rather more leisurely pace that did not interfere with the Solar Guard’s drill practice. At any rate, it was all inconsequential; the ponies might have taken a bollocking from their NCOs for daring to do anything without their express permission but ultimately they would recover from the peculiar distraction and get on with yet more drill.

The Princesses and the carriage had a small space cleared for them in the centre of the parade square, which was cordoned off with a barrier made of short sticks placed a few feet from each other and connected by long hemp rope. While I initially doubted that such a barrier would be effective against any intruder, as I was able to simply step over it, I realised that it was just there as a guide to prevent the marching troops from wandering into the chariot. To march sections and platoons straight into walls and other solid objects, sometimes straight into other ponies if a drill instructor is feeling particularly cheeky, and watch the hapless ponies continue to march on the spot in front of the bemused obstruction to the vague amusement of all observing is a fairly common trick used by NCOs, so I just assume now that it was to prevent some sergeant or corporal trying that out with the royal chariot and the Princesses. [Actually, a few did attempt just that.]

The four pegasi bodyguards tended to their craft; checking the various harnesses and joints fastidiously for any faults or problems that might put their lives at risk. I say ‘their lives’ as two alicorn demi-goddesses they were to escort to Appleloosa were made of much sterner stuff than the average pony, being able to shrug off injuries that would likely kill you and me as if they were mere paper cuts.

Twilight Sparkle was beside the carriage tending to her luggage, which consisted of a number of large wooden trunks and a chest of the style that is normally seen being dragged out of the ground by surly pirates. Being the fastidious little pony that I know and can barely tolerate even existing, she had her checklist out and was partway through verifying the contents of her luggage against the enormous list in front of her. Ordinarily, I supposed, she would have employed the aid of her ‘number one assistant’, but he was still paying the price for his over-indulgence and lay groaning in pain on the ground, obviously in no position to lend a claw in aid.

“Uhhrr... never again,” he groaned, and his stomach made a hideous gurgling noise like a caged animal.

Twilight popped her head up from her checklist. “You said that last time, and the time before that. I think you might have a serious problem!”

“Nuh-uh! I can quit whenever I want to!”

“You said that before, too.”

Captain Red Coat stood off to the side of the chariot and quietly observed Twilight as she tended to her luggage. He looked rather sick, with a haggard appearance and a rather green tinge to his cheeks underneath his grey fur. Evidently, he was still rather inebriated, though seemingly now stuck in the melancholy stage after his very public embarrassment at the hooves of Shining Armour. I later learned that this was the lad’s first experience with alcohol, and at a mere seventeen years old he shouldn’t have been allowed near the drinks table in the first place.

“Captain,” I said, injecting as much authority into my voice as possible, as I trotted on over to him. “How are you holding up?”

Red Coat shrugged. “I was so stupid, and now she’s probably never going to want to speak to me again. Besides, she’s the Princess’s personal student; she’s not going to be interested in some grammar school oik and the son of a minor accountant.”

The poor lad looked thoroughly despondent, and I feared that it would have some negative effect of his leadership of his company. Any organisational stratum of the Royal Guard, from sections through platoons, companies, regiments, armies, and the administrative staff, is only as good as the officer who commands it. An officer’s personality and his own state of mind reflects positively upon the stallions he commands, and in the interests of keeping myself alive by ensuring that the wall of heavily armoured ponies I intended to hide behind were in a suitable mental state to do so, I decided I’d lend him a hoof. After all, I did not want in a battle situation for him to suffer a sudden bout of despair, specifically the sort that melancholic romantic poets and modern ‘break-up’ pop songs fixate upon.

The teenage mind being as it is, constantly starved for sex but also very much incapable of holding its attention on one thing for any extended period of time, I considered just letting him borrow a few items from Cannon Fodder’s extensive library of specialist gentlecolt’s literature. Though I doubted that would be a good long-term solution, as I would not want to encourage that certain practice and Cannon Fodder would be rather unhappy with being forced to part with even a small part of his collection. I supposed giving him a little nudge in the right direction, even if his attempted relationship with Twilight Sparkle was doomed to failure, would at least help improve his self esteem for the time being.

“Go and help her with her luggage,” I suggested, and vaguely wondering at what point in my hitherto short but unexpectedly ascendant career my already prodigious job description included ‘regimental matchmaker’. Despite my proven track record when it came to meeting and bedding pretty young mares, I was hardly the best colt to be giving advice on doing so. My prey tended to be very impressionable and very bored daughters of minor aristocrats, and I merely had to say 'I am Celestia's nephew' and they were mine for the night. It rather took the sport out of it.

“But she’s a unicorn!” he protested. “I think she can handle all of that herself.”

“She’ll appreciate the effort anyway, Red Coat, and besides, it’ll give you a chance to talk to her. Just don’t use any more of Captain Blitzkrieg’s chat-up lines.”

“Well, okay, if you think so...”

I gave Red Coat a friendly pat on the shoulder and wished him luck before he trotted off to ‘help’ Twilight, whether or not she actually wanted or required it. It struck me as rather disturbing at how most ponies were often willing to just blindly follow whatever vague suggestion I put forth, though I usually find that many of my proposals tended to be the one obvious, unpleasant, but very necessary solution to our survival but nopony wants to admit it. But even I would think twice about following my own advice.

I shook my head despondently and left Red Coat with his latest attempt to seduce Twilight Sparkle, though I knew he had about as much chance of succeeding as Cannon Fodder winning the Miss Equestria beauty pageant. Still, being let down gently by the object of his affections would be better for him that being beaten to a bloody pulp by her over-protective elder brother.

Putting this latest insanity out of my mind for the time being I decided to focus on my original goal of seeing Auntie ‘Tia, so I bade Cannon Fodder to make sure that Captain Red Coat did not do anything untoward with Twilight. My veritable aide complied with his new duties as chaperone with his habitual stoicism and quiet obedience.

The Princesses themselves were standing away from the chariot, quietly conversing in Ancient Equestrian as I approached them. It appeared that they were having an argument of sorts, but speaking sotto voce [low voice] and in Ancient Equestrian implied that they did not want to be overheard. I wanted to respect their wishes, following Twilight’s example; not wanting to get involved in the affairs of alicorns which would no doubt lead to something unpleasant and possibly dangerous, but given the natural curiosity of ponies and my personal paranoia that anypony not wanting to be heard is invariably up to something sinister I just couldn’t help myself.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Luna, hissing through set teeth, “I cannot believe you’re suggesting we stand back and do nothing!”

“I am suggesting nothing of the sort,” said Celestia calmly and soothingly, as one would with a petulant child. “We will guide and advise our little ponies, but no, we cannot dictate and rule as we have done in the past; Equestrian society has moved on since your banishment.”

“I know,” she hissed, stomping a hoof in frustration and kicking up a small cloud of dust that wafted away in the warm breeze. “’Equestria’s government system has developed so much over the last one thousand years’,” she said, mimicking Twilight Sparkle’s rather studious and nagging voice when she delivers one of her infamous Twilectures, “’The old system of vassalage whereby feudal nobility swear fealty to one another and are subject to the divine autocratic personal rule by the two Warlord-Princesses has gradually developed into a constitutional diarchy, in which the executive and legislative power of the Crowns is exercised by the office of the Prime Minister and the Houses of Parliament respectively’.”

“Then you know we cannot undo one thousand years of political evolution. I apologise, sister, but an Act of Parliament forbids any alicorn Princess of Equestria from personally commanding any ponies under arms, and I have no intention of inviting a constitutional crisis by allowing you to break this edict.”

“An edict that was passed by short-sighted and ephemeral mortal ponies while I was exiled upon my moon and while you had lapsed into a coma following our fight...” Luna stopped and made a sudden pained expression, which disappeared as abruptly as it had formed upon her face, “...your fight with Nightmare Moon. This whole mess would have been avoided had we personally taken command of our armies and brought the fight to Chrysalis. I will not stand idly by while ponies’ lives are wasted by incompetent foals!”

“Don't forget, Chrysalis nearly killed me." Celestia stared into Luna's eyes with a soft, yet determined expression. "I cannot risk the same happening to you.”

Luna shook her head emphatically. “No, she only defeated you because you were holding back; you did not want to risk harming our subjects by unleashing your full power. The government be damned, sister; I don’t want to spend the war wasting away in Canterlot Castle with all the bureaucrats and their blasted red tape and toilet paper! I want to fight!"

I cleared my throat in the noisy manner one does when one wants to attract attention, and the two Princesses stopped and looked at me in surprise.

I had decided I had overheard enough, and did not want to earn the ire of both princesses for having listened in too much on what they had obviously intended as a private conversation between them, largely because I did not think that I could adequately pretend not to be eavesdropping; one who tries to affect nonchalance usually looks more suspicious as a result. Though what they were discussing did make me feel somewhat uneasy, I resolved to put it out of my mind. The edict of which they spoke of (as if I need to explain the post-Heresy Reconstruction, but judging by the declining standards in history education in Equestria’s state schools I probably have to, assuming the reader happens to be a low-born, state-educated commoner) was intended to ensure that the immense destruction caused by the Nightmare Heresy would never be repeated by delegating the command of the vast Legions across numerous officers and commanders, as opposed to being vested entirely in one individual who may or may not fall prey to feelings of jealousy and personal inadequacy and try to take over the world.

Celestia forced her usual kindly smile to her face.

“We will continue this discussion later, Luna,” said Celestia in modern Equestrian, apparently giving up any efforts to hide their conversation.

“Your experiments with democracy will bring Equestria nothing but ruin,” said Luna, and for perhaps the first time since her return to Equestria I agreed with her on something. She gave a snort of utmost contempt, matched only by the scowl on her face, as she climbed onto the chariot and watched the marching ponies.

Celestia breathed a heavy sigh of exasperation and shook her head in dismay as she watched her sister go, once more allowing me a glimpse of the pony underneath the regal façade she always wears like a shield. I found it rather disconcerting to see the two goddesses of Equestria, in whom we all look to for safety and guidance in trying times, behaving more like two bickering siblings than the serene deities they were supposed to be. As she turned her gaze back towards me, her habitual gentle smile returned once more to her face.

“Your Auntie Luna can be rather trying at times,” she said softly, “she does her best, but it is difficult to adjust after such a long absence. She’ll learn.”

The divine goddess of the sun, ruler of all Equestria and her territories and dominions overseas, stepped forth and bent her long, swan-like neck down and nuzzled me gently, which I returned tentatively and, frankly, I felt rather embarrassed by the open display of familial affection in front of everypony. Fortunately, everypony was rather too busy to pay much attention to us.

“I’m sure she means well,” I said, stepping back a little to allow myself some modicum of personal space again, as much as I love my Auntie Celestia, her tendency to show affection in public can be rather grating. “I think her taking command of the Royal Guard might be best, however.”

I was being earnest for once; Princess Luna would certainly do a far superior job of leading the Royal Guard to victory than Field Marshal Iron Hoof. Then again, in my opinion a boiled potato was more suited to command an army than the Field Marshal, and possessed a more interesting personality than him too. However, I knew the political fallout would be immense, and not many ponies would be particularly happy about a pony who was once the single most notorious war criminal in Equestrian history, whose armies slaughtered, burned, and raped in a vast swathe of destruction across the land to the very gates of Canterlot Castle, once again in charge of a large number of heavily armoured ponies. As getting trapped in the subsequent political turmoil was inimical to my overall goal of living an as stress-free and ultimately safe life as possible, given the rather precarious situation my unwanted reputation had forced me into, I then decided that perhaps it just was not worth it. Naturally, I would later be forced into said political turmoil regardless of what I wanted, so it made no difference in the end.

“I do not doubt her ability to command,” said Celestia gravely, no doubt having experienced her younger sister’s fighting prowess and tactical acumen on the battlefield during those dark days of the Nightmare Heresy. [I only faced Nightmare Moon once in battle, and that was during the Siege of Canterlot. And while Princess Luna was certainly a capable military leader, who led the Royal Guard to many great victories in the wars for Equestria’s unification, as Nightmare Moon she had lost all semblance of military sanity and relied heavily upon massed infantry charges that, while undoubtedly successful against the Loyalists in the opening stages of the Nightmare Heresy, were unsubtle and resulted in monstrous casualties that contributed to her final defeat at Canterlot.]

Celestia shook her head and said, “Never mind, she’ll understand eventually. Your Auntie Luna always hated politics; she seemed to think it got in the way of getting things done properly.”

Once again I found myself in that rare situation of agreeing with Luna. I vaguely wondered if Tartarus was freezing over at the same time.

“Do you really have to leave so soon?”

“I’m sorry, but there’s another dispute over land ownership between the settler ponies in Appleloosa and the buffalo tribes.”

“I still think you should...”

“No, Blueblood,” Celestia interrupted me by placing a hoof on my shoulder. Despite being clad in shimmering metal, it did not feel cold to the touch. “For the last time, I’m not going to evict the buffalos from their land and force them into reservations.” [Sadly, Blueblood’s proposal did garner quite a bit of support from Parliament, but I am thankful that he was rather too lazy and apathetic to put any serious effort into seeing it passed and that the opportunity for a more peaceful solution to the ongoing land disputes presented itself.]

I gave a vacant, nonchalant shrug that would have done Cannon Fodder proud, had he actually seen it; my venerable aide was rather preoccupied by watching over Red Coat struggle to lift up and arrange the grossly over-sized suitcases that Twilight had brought with her. I turned around to observe them, aware of my regal auntie stepping to my side, towering over me in a manner reminiscent of a mother over her foal, and then stretching a long and graceful wing over my comparatively smaller body. With the warmth emanating from her, like basking in the sun in a pleasant summer’s afternoon, I could not help but be reminded of the days of my late childhood and early adolescence when I lived with her.

We walked back towards the chariot slowly. With the airy feeling of nostalgia filling my mind I began to feel somewhat less discomfited by Celestia’s outward displays of affection, though I reminded myself that she was like this with just about everypony. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of smugness when I saw Twilight Sparkle glance up at us from her ubiquitous checklist and, for a fleeting moment, I saw what I hoped was a small degree of jealousy on her pudgy little purple face.

“Blueblood, I want you to look after her,” said Celestia.

I blinked up in surprise at her, rather perplexed at the idea that Celestia would think that Twilight Sparkle, the mare who defeated Nightmare Moon, Discord, and numerous other threats to Equestria’s existence could possibly require looking after. Granted, this was before her controversial coronation as yet another bloody Princess of Equestria and ascension into our nation’s divine pantheon, but I’ll come to that later.

“Of course,” I said, “the Royal Guard can be an intimidating place for a young innocent mare such as her. Private Marathon and Corporal Hooves are both from Ponyville; I’ll assign them as her bodyguards.”

Celestia chuckled warmly, and hugged me closer to her side with her wing as we walked towards the chariot. There, Red Coat sat patiently as Twilight Sparkle continued to run through her checklist, which I assumed was merely a large list of assorted sundry items that she had brought with her. Knowing her as I did, they would likely be lots and lots of books. Fortunately, the studious little mare was rather too focused on her monstrously long checklist to pay any attention to what we were saying about her, or anything else going around her for that matter.

“You misunderstand me; I want you personally to watch over her.”

I blinked. “Pardon?”

My divine Auntie stopped as we reached the chariot, removed her wing from my back and stepped around to face me. As she loomed over me, her stern but motherly expression framed by the soft pastel shades of her flowing mane and her scintillating gold regalia, I could not help but feel rather small and insignificant. I suppressed the urge to prostrate myself, though I confess I found it difficult to look her in the eyes.

“I know you and Twilight have a...” she paused, as if trying to think of a more appropriate word, “...a history together, but I hope you two can be grown up enough to put that aside.”

I nodded my head. “Of course, Auntie.”

“Then hear me. The results of Twilight Sparkle’s commission will affect the military and political careers of many aristocratic and moneyed officers across the Royal Guard, many of whom fear that they will be found wanting when she publishes her findings for all of Equestria to see. I pray that such ponies will see this as an opportunity to amend their ways or retire their commissions gracefully. But I fear that there will be many who will want to affect the results of the commission to appear more favourable to them, by manipulating or threatening Twilight Sparkle herself. I do not wish to see her come to harm as a result.”

“I see,” I said pensively.

“Please, Blueblood, you and Shining Armour are the only ponies I can trust to protect her. My faithful student is a wonderfully intelligent mare, but she can be rather naive of such things. I have tried to shelter her from the political mire of Parliament and the Royal Court so that she may concentrate on her studies into the Magic of Friendship. You, however, are much more experienced in the cutthroat affairs of the aristocracy, and therefore ideal for this purpose.”

Well, technically I was most experienced in avoiding the tangled webs of lies, deceit, and backstabbing that plagues all strata of the rich and powerful in Equestria, but I supposed even that made me perfect for looking after Twilight. It was not something I was going to look forward to, but it was impossible to ignore a directive from Princess Celestia of all ponies. Granted, she still used that insufferable technique of masking what is in fact a direct order behind the alluring facade that I might actually have a choice in the matter. At any rate, I believed that protecting Twilight from the more politically minded and, frankly, insane ponies around us would be rather easy; a simple matter of imposing my supreme commissarial authority to block any who might be trying to cosy up to her for malicious ends or simply threaten her.

Oh how wrong I was, but I’ll come to that later.

“Of course,” I replied, tipping my head in respect and laying a forehoof over my chest. “On my honour, no harm will come to Lady Sparkle.”

“Thank you, Blueblood.” Celestia smiled and gave me a quick and gentle nuzzle before she stepped gracefully onto the chariot itself. The four guardsponies, apparently now satisfied that their vehicle was appropriately airworthy, set about securing themselves safely to the four yokes.

“How long will she be staying here?” I asked.

“As long as necessary.”

I gestured towards the gilded carriage. “Do you not want the honour guard to give you a proper send-off?”

Luna, to my surprise, snapped out of her sulk and said, “Nay, ‘tis better that we leave discreetly; we wish for those officers to think well upon our words and reflect upon their own performance. Besides, it would not do well to indulge in such pomp and circumstance in these troubled times.”

I had to disagree, but I kept my objection silent as I was rather not in the mood to get into an argument I would surely lose. If anything, giving the Princesses the proper royal send-off that they deserve would invariably give the ponies here a much needed morale boost after the rather lacklustre showing at Black Venom Pass. Morale is a fickle thing, and despite the infinite complexity of making large groups of young, hormonal stallions and mares happy for an extended period of time to keep them useful, sometimes it is rather small things like little ceremonies that can perk their spirits up, if temporarily at least.

The four pegasi stamped and snorted impatiently, stretching wide their long wings and flexing their powerful dorsal muscles in preparation for another long haul flight. Ahead of them the swarming formations of marching ponies had parted to leave a small runway, though the drill practice had certainly not ceased as their NCOs would be loathe for even royal ceremony to interrupt what they saw as the backbone of all Royal Guard operations.

As I took a few steps back away from the chariot to allow it free room to manoeuvre, and more importantly out of the way of the huge spoked wheels, Twilight Sparkle had apparently elected to rejoin us in the real world and abandoned her checklist to Red Coat and Cannon Fodder. She trotted up merrily to her side, beaming brightly at the prospect of her latest academic venture and simultaneously giving me a glimpse of what the next few months of my life might be like.

“Everything is double- and triple-checked, Your Highness!” said Twilight excitedly, bringing her hoof up to her forehead as she did so in a sort of clumsy salute. “I hope I have everything I need to get started; I have every history book I could find in the Golden Oaks Library about Equestria at war, plus plenty of parchment and quills. Ohhh, I just can’t wait to get started on this research project!”

Celestia chuckled, and I rolled my eyes in mild irritation. “Your enthusiasm is to be commended Twilight,” she said, “but remember; your findings here may mean the difference between victory or defeat and life and death for many of my little ponies. This is a very serious undertaking, but I can think of no mare better suited to this task than you.”

“I won’t let you down, Your Highness!” Twilight positively beamed with barely-contained pride at her mentor’s approval.

“Good luck, my faithful student; and to you, my nephew.”

At the stamp of her hoof the chariot lurched forwards awkwardly. The four straining pegasi pulled on their yokes, gathering speed and beating their powerful wings faster and faster. We watched patiently as the ungainly and inelegant craft, its garish luxury still somehow unmarred by the perennial dust and sand that tends to stain everything within a few minutes of arrival, careened down the runway faster and faster. The pegasi leapt into the air, muscles straining with the effort, and were then born aloft by their innate magical abilities of flight. The chariot, against all of the known rational laws of aerodynamics and common sense, followed suit.

Despite their desire to leave with as little fanfare as possible, many of the Solar Guard out on parade stopped to cheer the two Diarchs as they departed. Not that they seemed to mind, really, as I could see two hooves, one gilt in gold and the other clad in silver, waving down at the whooping crowd below them. I supposed that the rather more natural and spontaneous display of affection for their Princesses, especially when it happened to be against direct orders from their immediate NCOs and drill instructors, to be a rather more suitable send-off than gathering the honour guard once again for a contrived and forced ceremony. As the airborne chariot flew onwards, shrinking from my view until it became a tiny golden speck flittering through the reddening sky, the cheering died down as officers restored order to continue with their drill practice.

With the Princesses gone and with little else to do with the day, we all gathered up Twilight’s luggage; Red Coat and Cannon Fodder precariously balancing huge piles of luggage upon their broad backs while Twilight and I carried the remainder with our magic. Spike was still in no fit state to walk, his stomach grossly swollen and distended in a way hitherto thought impossible by all medical science and making ghastly noises as if it were a dying beast, and so he hitched a ride on Twilight’s back.

“I trust that your accommodation has been prepared for you?” I asked, eager to get back to my own tent and while away the rest of the afternoon and evening with naught but a bottle of finest single malt that I had negotiated out of the Quartermaster’s store for company.

Twilight nodded. “Colonel Sunshine Smiles was gracious enough to give me an empty tent.”

“I’ll help you settle in, then,” I said, reasoning that providing a little extra hospitality for our irritating guest might help me look a little more favourable in her eyes. Though I had little reason to fear from her scrutiny, as much of Equestria was under the false impression I was somepony of good moral fibre, a little extra insurance wouldn’t hurt.

“This is heavy!” said Red Coat, the chest and the small pile of suitcases wobbling precariously on his back. “Is this all books?”

“Mostly,” said Twilight. “I’ve packed every book I can find about warfare; On War, The Magic of War, the journals of Neighpoleon of Prance to name a few.”

“Oh, I read that in the Academy! Ooph, who knew paper could be so heavy?”

“Welcome to my world,” groaned Spike, but nopony paid much heed to him.

We made our way back to the Night Guards’ camp slowly, drawing a few odd and wary looks from guardsponies and officers alike. Red Coat and Twilight continued to converse politely about their mutual love of books, though Red Coat’s seemed to vary somewhat from Twilight’s as he had a rather odd fascination with Neighponese comic books, but their conversation was pleasant, at least. I, however, tuned much of it out and pondered my ever-changing circumstances. The coming weeks would become very interesting for me, and not in the way I hoped for.

Author's Notes:

Hello~ Another chapter completed behind schedule again, sorry about that, but I'll try to keep to my goal of one new chapter a month as best as I can.

Anyway, I've been considering commissioning an artist to draw a cover image to replace the rather crappy one I drew myself up here. So if anyone can point me in the right direction I'd be most grateful.

Bloodstained (Part 5)

There was a little game I liked to play every morning, if I could, and it was called ‘pretend I’m not really here’. It was a deceptively simple sort of game, in the sense that the rules were elementary to learn but it was actually completely impossible to actually win. Since my unwanted return to military life, I had developed the tendency to wake up about five or ten minutes before the morning reveille, which I had learned to take advantage of. So each morning, after I had dragged myself out of my cot and before those damnable bugles were blown, I would sneak out behind my tent where nopony could see me and just sit there, look at the morning sky, and pretend I was somewhere else.

‘Somewhere else’ tended to vary according to my fleeting whims and moods: sometimes I would imagine I was sitting in my mansion’s garden on a hot summer’s day; or perhaps I was holidaying in balmy Los Pegasus; or, if I was feeling particularly imaginative that morning, I was the guest of an exotically dusky daughter of some rajah in the far off Land of a Thousand Gods [an archaic term for Coltcutta; Blueblood’s father was once Viceroy of that region]. Wherever it was, it was certainly preferable to the stark horror of the Badlands and of the war. As I’ve mentioned, this game is utterly impossible to ‘win’, for the simple illusion of being someplace else is instantly shattered the moment I accidentally take my eyes off the blue skies. For even the slight glance down or to the side would reveal the vast array of tents, parade squares, flags, weapon and armour racks, and the strewed mass of sleeping soldiers that always looked disconcertingly like the fallen corpses left behind after that terrible advance up the ridge.

At six o’clock, just like every day in the Royal Guard, my idle escapism was rudely disrupted by a single bugle call, muffled by the distance, which was then joined by another and another to form an offensively loud chorus that seemed to drill into my brain via my ears. The awful sound, which to my tired mind sounded like the trumpet call Tirek uses to call the daemonic minions of Tartarus to his side, reverberated through the encampment. At once, any illusion of peace and quiet was shattered as the encampment struggled into life like a depressed office worker at the sound of his morning alarm clock. Soldiers pulled themselves out of their bedrolls, some having to be kicked awake as they had somehow managed to sleep through those infernal bugles, and the preparations for the day’s work began in a frenzy of activity.

That morning was different; in addition to the dawn chorus of bugles and griping soldiers struggling to wake up, I heard a high-pitched shriek that was undoubtedly Spike being woken up against his will.

I perked my head up, still reluctant to pick myself off the ground, which to my tired, sleep-deprived mind felt like the most comfortable patch of earth under Celestia’s sun. With just the sort of bad luck that plagues my unhappy life, Twilight Sparkle’s tent had been erected on the empty patch of dirt right next to mine, where I had vaguely thought about growing a small Zen garden. A side effect of this was that I now had to contend with two noisy snorers as I tried to sleep, as if Cannon Fodder’s nocturnal drones weren’t bad enough.

I saw small paws grasp at the cloth in panic, and the vague squat shape of Spike flailing against the tent. Inevitably, the cloth tore and Spike fell straight through it and landed face first into the dust.

“What’s that noise?” he shouted, looking around at the ponies frantically. “Are we under attack?”

“Spike!” exclaimed Twilight Sparkle as she emerged from the hole and stepped gingerly around the prostrate baby dragon, apparently doing her best to ignore me and the small crowd of snickering, jeering soldiers that gathered around them.

“Is it the Changelings? Why is everypony looking at us like that?”

“It’s just the morning wake-up call. The Royal Guard has to operate according to a strict timetable to ensure the maximum efficiency of each soldier is fully utilised for the war effort.”

I sighed, Twilight’s short little Twilecture giving me a brief but vivid glimpse of my imminent future. I steeled myself for a long day supervising Princess Celestia’s favourite pet and making sure that no harm would come to her, or, to be more accurate, ensuring that she caused no harm to anypony or anything around her; the last thing the war effort needed was the sort of chaos and insanity that only an unrestrained Twilight Sparkle mental breakdown could bring, and the unpleasant memories of the Great School Chemistry Lab Disaster were still vivid in my mind. [In the course of basic class exercise to measure the boiling point of water, the young Twilight had somehow managed to form a miniature black hole that levelled much of the science block.] So, as I forced something approximating a happy and care-free grin on my face, I rose to my hooves and stepped on over towards the two.

The troops rapidly dispersed as I approached, evidently reasoning that invoking my wrath by teasing the ‘soft civvies’ was not worth it and scampered off to find some breakfast. I supposed that punishing them for being rude to a lady might have earned me a few extra bonus points in Twilight’s eyes, but as she stretched the definition of the word ‘lady’ so far as to render the word completely meaningless I decided to let it pass. Colts will be colts, after all, and I could hardly reprimand them for that.

“Good morning, Twilight,” I said as cheerfully as I could.

The young mare flinched at my approach, in a manner startlingly reminiscent of the same way she would do so in the school playground when I and my small pack of cronies used to tease her relentlessly for her low birth and take her lunch money. I have to admit that I found her response to be quite worrying, and for a tense moment I feared she may yet still harbour some resentment, and maybe even fear, of my rather shameful treatment of her as a teenaged colt.

Fortunately, she recovered quickly, and I put her reaction down to only having just woken up.

“Sleep well?” I asked, inclining my head respectfully towards the mare.

“Oh, good morning, Blueblood,” said Twilight, shrugging wearily. Judging by her bloodshot eyes and the dark rings that framed them it was most certainly obvious that she hadn’t. I had vaguely wondered what she and Red Coat had gotten up to the previous night; I had to leave the two of them alone as I had a mountain of paperwork to catch up on, and though I was wary of what Red Coat might attempt to do while left alone with her for an extended period of time, I correctly reasoned that his fear of Shining Armour was sufficient to keep his teenage lusts in check.

She stifled a yawn. “I was so excited about this new research project I could barely sleep. And Red Coat was gracious enough to help me organise all of the books that I bought.”

I wagered they were doing a lot more than simply organising books, but being the gentlecolt that I am, or at the very least pretend to be, I kept my thoughts on Red Coat’s indiscretions to myself. [Twilight Sparkle assures me that their relationship, such as it was, was strictly platonic, and I am inclined to believe her.] Glimpsing through the hole that Spike had made earlier, I could see that Red Coat was absent, or at least not visible through the small gap. What was visible, however, were the fruits of their labour as, somehow, Twilight had set up a half dozen small bookcases filled with enough books, tomes, and scrolls for me to suspect a great shortage of reading material across Equestria would ensue. Where she got those bookcases from was a bit of a mystery; she could not have possibly brought them with her as they certainly would not have fit in her luggage cases, and that officious bureaucrat Quartermaster Pencil Pusher certainly would not have allowed her to procure such frivolous items from the Logistics Corps. [Twilight had indeed brought the bookcases with her, but used a complex miniaturisation spell to transport them.]

“Hey, Blue,” yawned Spike, waving a hoof vaguely in my direction. I resisted the sudden urge to correct him for using the familiar form of my name with the back of my hoof. “I’m going to have another lie-in. I don’t know how you guys can cope with this.”

He turned to enter the tent via the hole he had just unceremoniously torn his way through, but Twilight had thrust a foreleg out to block him and he sleepily walked straight into the extended appendage.

“Sorry Spike,” said Twilight as she gently pushed Spike away from the tent. “Princess Celestia is counting on me to produce this report and I can’t do it without my Number One Assistant by my side.”

“You’ll get used to it,” I said, patting the odious little reptile on the head and then surreptitiously wiping my hoof clean on my jacket. “The first few nights are always the most difficult.”

Twilight smiled. “That’s what my brother said when he first signed up. I didn’t think it would be quite this bad.”

“So, what’s on the agenda today?” I asked, eager to get this over and done with as soon as possible.

“I’d like to start with some preliminary observations,” she said. “I’ll try to stay out of everypony’s way and just observe the regiment on a normal day, that way I can see how the Royal Guard operates on a daily basis, and then I would like to perform a few interviews with the soldiers, if possible. Using my findings from there I can then determine the best avenues for more vigorous, targeted investigations.”

Her stomach rumbled noisily and, it may have been my imagination, but I think I saw her podgy belly quiver too.

“Oh,” she laughed nervously and blushed, “and find some breakfast.”

I nodded my head dumbly. Whatever it was she was planning made little sense to me, and I confess to not paying much attention what she was saying at the time, though it was unlikely that I had missed anything of any actual worth to me. As far as I could gather, with my sleep-deprived mind in desperate need of some breakfast and that revitalising Trottinghamshire tea, my own role in these investigations would merely be restricted to part-time chaperone as she wandered around the camp with Spike taking notes and perhaps sitting in while she interviewed various serviceponies. It seemed simple enough that I could do it without screwing up too badly.

Princess Celestia’s warning still troubled me greatly, as it further complicated my already difficult life, but I had hoped that I might be able to hoof this duty off onto somepony else. After all, Princess’ Regulations dictated that whenever a lady takes up residence in a Royal guard camp, she must be accompanied at all times by an officer of good moral character. Granted, ‘good moral character’ automatically invalidated just about everypony in the officer corps of the entire Royal Guard, especially me, but still I believed that the best course of action was to create some sort of rota for the Night Guard officers to foalsit her for a while each day. At any rate, Twilight would likely consider that to be a good idea, as it would mean further opportunities to investigate the officers and discern further information from them for her research project, provided that she did not drive them away first.

Nevertheless, I had a great many routine tasks and things to perform irrespective of Twilight’s investigations. At the very least, I supposed that if Twilight’s research was based upon quiet and dispassionate observation with only an occasional interview that could be conducted on the interviewee’s off duty time, then the actual disruption to the normal day-to-day running of the regiment would be kept to a bare minimum.

“The canteen is over there.” I pointed yonder to the large tent the array of troughs around it. “One of the Night Guard officers will help you get something to eat.”

“You’re not coming?”

“I have some important business that I need to attend to first,” I said, only half lying this time as, though I did not relish the idea of breakfasting with her as I found her company quite tiresome even at the best of times, I did actually have one rather important duty to perform before eating.

The regiment’s mail-mare would be making her rounds by now and official protocol demanded that I personally accept whatever super-top-secret, classified-confidential, for-my-eyes-only documents that were addressed to me, rather than simply allow Cannon Fodder to do it on my behalf. Well, to be more accurate, I would merely accept the papers, make a show of flicking through them for the benefit of the mail-mare, and then pass them onto Cannon Fodder for subsequent processing and thus satisfy the letter of the law if not its actual intent. It was not strictly legal, but I correctly trusted in my esteemed aide’s rather foal-like belief that absolutely everything I did was for the greater benefit of Equestria. Besides, his unique position as my personal aide (which was a post that was never really fully ratified in Princess’ Regulations but nopony seemed to notice, or if they did then Cannon Fodder’s obstinate personality and his poor personal hygiene dissuaded them from questioning it) theoretically afforded him the same security clearance as me. [Not quite true, as all officers, including commissars, were allowed to keep a personal servant, or ‘batpony’ as they are known in Trottinghamshire regiments, if they could afford to pay one, which was what Cannon Fodder was officially listed as on the regimental books. Blueblood, however, is correct in stating that the post of an official commissarial aide was never fully ratified, but since Cannon Fodder never achieved any rank higher than that of private, his security clearance was in fact the lowest possible grade for the Royal Guard. As Cannon Fodder’s unique gift became all the more valuable to us, my sister and I found it expedient to ensure that this bureaucratic anomaly went uncorrected.]

“Oh, okay,” said Twilight, sounding oddly disappointed at the prospect.

I guessed it was a manifestation of her social awkwardness, which, despite her apparent success in researching the Magic of Friendship, still afflicted her. Then again, anypony would feel quite shy and vulnerable when forced into a vast Royal Guard encampment, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of complete strangers, most of whom are heavily armed and understandably suspicious of any outside intrusion into their daily lives, added to which her academic mindset would preclude her from forming any sort of friendships here lest they affect the results of her research. Naturally, she would cling to very few ponies she was already familiar with, even I, her childhood tormentor.

“I shan’t be long,” I said, trying to mollify her. “I’ll meet you there as soon as I’m finished. And you might want to see Pencil Pusher about getting a new tent, but fair warning; he isn’t going to be happy about it.”

With that, I bade them farewell and trotted back to my tent. I found Corporal Hooves, the regiment’s mail-mare, waiting for me inside the ‘front office’ area, while Cannon Fodder sat at his suspiciously well-organised desk and munched messily on one of those muffins the Corporal somehow found the time and resources to bake for virtually everypony.

“Good morning, sir!” she said cheerfully, performing a clumsy salute that nearly knocked off a helmet that was at least two sizes too big for her head. She reached into one of the voluminous saddlebags strapped around her armoured barrel and produced a thick wad of papers and envelopes. “Mail for you!”

“Thank you Corporal,” I said, accepting the packages in my telekinetic grasp. Cannon Fodder appeared by my side a second after his pungent odour filled my nostrils, bearing a hot mug of tea which I accepted gratefully.

I took a few sips of the hot drink as I idly flicked through the envelopes to sort out which could be given to Cannon Fodder for processing and which required my own personal attention. The majority of which were the usual sort of paperwork that makes up the bulk of my duties; forms, lists, letters, discipline reports, propaganda literature to be disseminated amongst the soldiers, requests for meetings, proposals from the RASEA [The Royal Armed Services Entertainment Association, which provided entertainment for Equestrian military personnel. Though many talented entertainers started their careers working for the Association, much of the entertainment was of substandard quality, which led to the more popular translation amongst the troops of the acronym RASEA as ‘Really Awful Shit Every Afternoon’], and a myriad of other important yet onerous things.

What many civilians, and indeed many soldiers and officers, fail to realise is the sheer amount of paperwork required to keep the Royal Guard functioning to at least some degree of efficiency. For every fighting stallion there are at least a dozen petty functionaries, administrators, and bureaucrats completing, processing, and signing hundreds of lists and forms. Each individual soldier constitutes a drain on resources; he has to be fed, watered, clothed, armoured, armed, and half a dozen other things required ensuring that he is in a fit physical and mental state to fight effectively. To ensure that his needs are met requires that such resources are to be brought from all across Equestria: oats and hay from the central fields of Equestria, armour and weapons from the great factories of Trottingham, and so forth; each constituting a significant administrative burden to requisition, transport, and distribute these things. Ultimately, this all trickles down from the non-combatant administrative staff to commissioned and non-commissioned officers and, more recently, to the political officers of the Commissariat. If I didn’t know any better, I was sure that many of these officers were simply unloading as much of their paperwork onto me as they could, as if I weren’t drowning in paper to begin with.

Technically, much of this could have simply been completed by unit commanders and signed off by that officious little bureaucrat Quartermaster Pencil Pusher, but as political officer it was beholden unto me to examine these cases and approve, reject, or amend them according to the wider political aims of the war. That the wider political aims of the war were a somewhat nebulous concept in the beginning had, essentially, turned this facet of my job into that of a proverbial rubber stamp. There were a few other things, mind, pertaining to the education, indoctrination, and loyalty of the soldiers in the form of written reports from officers, organising punishment details, rewards, and the increasingly lamentable pamphlets and booklets supplied to me from the Ministry of Misinformation.

Buried amidst the things actually salient to my job, though I questioned the actual veracity of most of the bits of paper levitating before me, was the usual array of junk mail that was somehow redirected hundreds of miles away from my home to here. Even on the frontlines, with the fate of all of Equestria and the free world hanging precariously in the balance, there was still no escape from endless Cathayan takeaway menus and hoax letters informing me that I have won a free holiday to Los Pegasus.

The last item was the most interesting of my mail, though not necessarily for the right reasons. For as I quickly sorted out which items could be safely assigned to Cannon Fodder for completion and those which, regrettably, required my own personal attention later, I found a brown parcel embossed with the winged alicorn skull seal of the Commissariat. I opened it up neatly to find it contained a handsome black chapbook and a note scrawled on a sheet of paper. On the front of this book the winged alicorn skull motif was repeated again, but embossed in silver above the gothic symbol were the words ‘The Royal Infantrypony’s Uplifting Primer’. The small note revealed that this was the first draft edition of the book, which the powers that be were planning on issuing en masse across all enlisted service personnel in the Royal Guard. They were, however, gracious enough to send me an advanced copy for approval, though given the rather poor quality of the earlier literature they had dispersed to the troops I didn’t hold out much hope for this one.

It was at that point that I noticed that Corporal Hooves was still standing in front of me with a happy, gormless smile on her face and only one of her infamously mismatched eyes actually looking at me.

“Was there something else, Corporal?” I asked, with the subtle hint that she should leave.

Corporal Derpy Hooves was an odd one. I’m not certain how the Royal Guard recruiting sergeant who signed her up came to the conclusion that this wall-eyed, perpetually cheerful, sweet, innocent little mare was the perfect addition to the 1st Night Guards Regiment. At the very least, I supposed, she was given a non-combatant role assisting the Quartermaster with the regiment’s mail. That said, despite her disabilities, or, perhaps, because of them, she was universally loved across the whole regiment, and often soldiers would go out of their way to protect her from those who might take advantage of her trusting and naive nature.

“Oh! General Crimson Arrow says there’s an important meeting he wants you to go to at oh-seven-hundred hours at his command post.”

I placed the mail items down for the time being. Seven o’clock, for those not au fait with the military’s unique method of telling the time, was less than an hour away and this was the first I had heard of this supposedly important meeting. Instantly, I feared the worst, though the lack of itching in my forehooves that usually precedes something dangerous and life-threatening that my subconscious has picked up on provided some relief. The General had become a virtual recluse after his shameful performance in the Battle of Black Venom Pass, and even then, I would have assumed he had the common courtesy to give far more than fifty minutes warning before whatever high-level briefing he had planned. So either whatever he wanted was of the utmost importance that I had to drop absolutely everything now and attend to him, or he had just lost even more of whatever social skills he had left.

“That’s silly!” said Corporal Hooves suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “How can you have seven hundred hours? There’s only twenty four of them in a day.”

“It’s the military, Corporal; don’t expect it to make sense.”

Breakfast with Twilight was going to have to wait now.

***

The General’s command post was at the centre of the encampment. It consisted of a single tent, which, while much larger than mine, was quite small compared to the town hall used by the Field Marshal. Around the main tent, where the Centre campaign was supposedly planned according to the greater strategic goals set by Iron Hoof and the ever-changing political goals set by those fools in Parliament, were numerous smaller tents which served as offices for Crimson Hoof’s administrative staff. While the fortress of Maredun had briefly served as his headquarters, with the bulk of Army Group Centre still ensconced in the Dodge Junction encampment and the proximity of the fortress to Changeling country the General had made the logical decision of relocating safely behind the frontline. A sentiment I could understand perfectly.

The tent itself was about the size of a tennis court, and like Iron Hoof’s headquarters it was dominated by a huge table in the centre. Upon this table, which the senior command officers of the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards, Sergeant Bramley Apple, General Crimson Arrow, and a strange unicorn officer I had never met before had crowded around, were a vast assortment of maps, scraps of paper, quills, ink wells, pencils, and other office detritus. Around the walls of the tent were numerous smaller desks, each stacked up with piles of paper and files, and bookcases crammed full rolled up scrolls and documents. In addition to the dense bouquet of war that pervaded the entire encampment there was a lingering scent of musky old paper, ink, and stale coffee.

As I had made the mistake of stopping by the canteen along the way to pick up a small feedbag of oats for breakfast, Twilight and Spike had elected to tag along, much to my irritation. The annoying thing was that despite my status not only as a Commissar of the Royal Guard, but also as a Prince of the Realm, Twilight Sparkle outranked me. She had been given absolute carte blanche by Princess Celestia and Princess Luna to do whatever is necessary for her research paper [within reason, of course. Twilight can get a little carried away at times] and, for all intents and purposes, was therefore the highest-ranking individual in the whole encampment. There was some solace to be taken, however, as she and her pet dragon would merely be observing the proceedings. Or so I had thought.

“You’re all probably wondering why you’re all here,” said Crimson Arrow as I ducked under the tent flap and squeezed past his two personal bodyguards, who were uniquely identifiable by their ostentatious and blindingly bright dress uniforms.

The General stood at the far end of the long table, reared up on his hind hooves and his forelegs planted on the table. As I took my position directly opposite him and next to the unknown officer, our eyes met for an uncomfortably long moment as he regarded Twilight and I with the same level of disdain as he would something unpleasant he discovered sticking to the underside of his hoof. Despite still looking quite undernourished and exhausted, the small pile of half-empty mugs of coffee piled up on the desk around him bore testament to his lack of sleep, there was a newfound energy in those previously dead eyes that simply wasn’t there before.

“A question that has plagued philosophers since time immemorial,” I said, grinning widely. It was a silly pun, calculated to lighten the somewhat tense mood, and I was glad to see that it had worked somewhat as it garnered polite chuckles from most of the assembled officers and even elicited a very brief smile from Crimson Arrow. “I hope I haven’t missed anything now.”

“Twiley!” Shining Armour bounded over like the over-grown excitable foal he was and fired a veritable barrage of questions at Twilight who, to her credit, seemed to take it all in her stride, but I supposed that she was used to such overbearing behaviour from him before. “Did you sleep well? Was it too cold? Do you need an extra blanket? Did they post enough guards at your tent? Did Red Coat behave himself?”

Red Coat winced visibly at the mention of his name, and withered under the threatening glare Shining Armour shot at him from across the table. The young stallion looked positively dreadful, with bags under his bloodshot eyes which were each outlined by black rings and rheum. Apparently suffering from a severe hangover, if the quantity of alcohol he had downed at the party and his obvious inexperience with being drunk were any indication, he tried to hide from the irate Captain of the Royal Guard behind Colonel Sunshine Smiles’ massive bulk. The Colonel himself looked rather displeased at his subordinate’s behaviour.

“He was a perfect gentlecolt,” said Twilight, flicking her uncombed and matted mane from out of her eyes, “until he fell asleep and I had to carry him back to his tent.”

Crimson Arrow and the other officers looked at Twilight suspiciously, but if they protested to her presence here then they made no effort to vocalise it, though the distasteful expressions of the Solar Guard officers and the General made their thoughts on the matter quite obvious for all to see. Crimson in particular looked like a pony who had discovered his milk had gone off only after pouring it on his breakfast cereal. The Night Guard officers, apparently feeling as if they had nothing to fear from her scrutiny, seemed rather more at ease with the exception of Red Coat, but that was for a completely different reason altogether.

“Now, Shiny,” continued Twilight, “it’s important that while I’m here conducting my research that you don’t communicate with me in anyway unless I ask a question, and that goes for the rest of you too; I want to create a snapshot of how the Royal Guard lives and works without any outside interference. So for all intents and purposes, I don’t exist.”

Spike, the little dragon sitting on her back with pen and quill at the ready, made a concerned ‘yelp’ sound. “But if you don’t exist, then whose back am I sitting on?”

“You don’t exist either,” said Shining.

“I... I don’t exist?”

The sound of Crimson Arrow’s bare hoof tapping on wood interrupted Spike’s first existential crisis.

“Now like I said,” the General sighed in exasperation, he had obviously rehearsed this little procedure earlier and seemed exasperated at the fact that ponies, as ever, were not following the neat little script he had in his head. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve brought you all here.”

“Something that requires the expert skills of me and the lads,” said the strange pony next to me, or at least, that’s what I think he had said.

He was a unicorn pony of average height and build, but his virtually impenetrable accent and strange manner of dress marked him out as a pony not of the Equestrian mainland. He wore a blue tunic that may have once been a brilliant shade of ultramarine, but had faded to a sky blue tone over the years from exposure to the harsh sun of wherever he had come from, and was festooned with clumsily sewn-on patches of varying colours where the fabric had worn through. Upon his head he wore a wide-brimmed hat, with the right side of the brim pinned up against the side. At first I took him for one of the civilian specialists that the Royal Guard sometimes took in to help out with some dull administrative task, quite like Twilight Sparkle but without so much power and responsibility, but the military badge on the front of his hat certainly marked him out as a guardspony of sorts. In hindsight, the axe that was strapped across his back might have been a bit of a giveaway too.

The foreigner turned to me and said, “About bloody time you got here, mate, I’m parched. Get me a cuppa.”

I blinked vacantly at the odd stallion.

“I beg your pardon?” was all I could manage to say. As a Prince of the Realm I had grown quite used to a wide variety of different responses from ponies when they first meet me, even before I had donned the scarlet sash and my reputation grew beyond all reason, but I have to admit that this one took me by surprise. Reactions usually ran the gamut between slack-jawed amazement, defiant refusal to be impressed by me, and, more common in the earlier part of my career, barely concealed contempt for my very existence. As he looked up at me with a vaguely impatient expression on his face, which I returned with one that probably resembled a fish that had been dragged unwillingly out of the water, I realised that he had, quite earnestly and innocently, failed to recognise me. As perplexing as that sounds, not only being the Princesses’ nephew, Canterlot’s most eligible bachelor at the time, and, more recently, a Hero of Equestria, I actually found it fairly refreshing.

“For the benefit of those who have only just arrived,” said General Crimson Arrow, shooting Twilight and I another one of his disapproving glares, “this is Lieutenant Southern Cross of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers Corps, who has just arrived here via airship from Horsetralia.”

Horestralia, that explained it; a distant Equestrian colony more accurately known as ‘the land where absolutely everything wants you dead in the most horrible, painful, and humiliating way possible’.

“G’day.” Southern Cross touched the brim of his hat with a hoof which, I had only just noticed, was a magi-mechanical replacement built out of dull brass and made a faint humming noise every time he moved it.

“And may I introduce to you,” Crimson Arrow continued in an oddly grandiloquent tone that, come to think of it now, had quite a mocking quality to it, “His Royal Highness Prince Blueblood, Duke of Canterlot, Member of Their Divine Highnesses’ Most Honourable Privy Council, Aide-de-Camp to the Royal Pony Sisters, and Commissar...” –he said that word as if it were the name a particularly nasty strain of flesh-eating virus– “...attached to the 1st Night Guards Regiment.”

[That was Blueblood’s full style of address at the time, and by the end of his career he would accumulate so many titles and medals that, rumour has it, if he ever turned up late for an occasion the announcer would simply keep on reading them until he eventually arrived.]

I confess to taking no small amount of satisfaction at seeing the realisation slowly dawn on his face, looking as his pale grey eyes widened in shock and he seemed to lose all motor control over his jaw muscles. He recovered his composure with commendable alacrity, forcing a cheerful grin to his face as he then leaned against the table, resting a foreleg on it.

“Bloody hell,” he said, “I’ve really stuck my hoof in it this time. It’s the little bowtie, mate; makes you look like a waiter.”

“And my uniform didn’t dissuade you of that notion?” I said jokingly. I offered a smile to show that there was no offence taken, despite the slightly more irrational part of my mind wanting to invoke the ancient laws on lèse-majesté and have him thrown in a dungeon somewhere. [Lèse-majesté refers to the crime of injuring or offending the dignity of members of the royal family. Though it remains on the statute books as law, it has not been enforced since the end of the Reconstruction era, despite many unsuccessful attempts by Canterlot royalty to do so.]

“Gimme a break, I’ve been stuck on an airship for the past two days.” He rubbed his dark-ringed eyes with a hoof and hesitated for a moment. “I don’t have to kiss your bloody hooves now or something, do I?”

I chuckled. “Please don’t; it’s very unhygienic and not to mention quite undignified for all involved.” I do so hate it when ponies tried to do that. After all, there is a difference between basic respect towards one social betters and outright sycophancy, and the last thing I wanted was slobber all over my nice and clean boots. I have to admit that I found the engineer’s good humour quite infectious, in spite of my lack of sleep, his less-than-deferential manner towards me, and the chronic paranoia gnawing at the back of my mind telling me that I would not find the results of today’s meeting to my liking. Nevertheless, I found his company to be at least more tolerable than that of most of the ponies in my usual social circle. At the very least, his friendliness appeared to be genuine, as opposed to the rather more cynical attempts by elements of my clique back in Canterlot trying to gain my friendship in exchange for power and influence.

My unusually good mood, however, would not last particularly long as Crimson Arrow cleared his throat in an obvious attempt to draw attention back to him. He was always like that; forever in the shadow of other ponies, myself included, which I think explained his intransigence in accepting the advice of other ponies in the Battle of Black Venom Pass. However, any sympathy I might have felt for him quickly evaporated when I vividly remembered the bodies scattered across that cratered ridge, blood and viscera smeared in great streaks across the ground, and how close we came to defeat as a result of his inflexibility.

“Ladies and Gentlecolts,” he said clearly and evidently trying to inject as much authority into his raspy voice as possible, “if I might be allowed to begin.”

[Again, though Blueblood is largely accurate in describing how this meeting took place, he still tends to gloss over some of the smaller details. If the reader wishes for a complete transcript of the meeting, then Spike’s minutes are currently stored in the Canterlot Archives. When free from any distractions such as his favourite confections, Spike proved to be a superb ‘number one assistant’ for Twilight.]

He glared around at us, daring anypony to interrupt him once more. None did, and when he was apparently satisfied that none would do so again he pulled up one of the large maps from the table, scattering a few of the smaller sheets and some quills onto the ground around our hooves. I leaned forward to get a better look at the miserable scrap of land that we would be fighting and dying for and, in my case, running away and hiding from. To my complete lack of surprise, it was Black Venom Pass.

Upon closer inspection, the map turned out to be a composite of innumerable aerial reconnaissance photographs cut and pasted together to create a single large representation of the Pass and the surrounding mountainous terrain. Indeed, as I swept my eyes over the image, trying to discern any clues as to Crimson Arrow’s plan, I could make out the subtle lines in the shadows where the smaller individual photographs were stitched together.

The rocky and barren landscape, which looked even more desolate from above than it did from the ground, seemed as though Crimson Arrow had rolled up the sheet of paper and then attempted to flatten it out once more. The entire band of hilly terrain was riddled with ridges, rocky outcrops, and undulating troughs and peaks was split in half by the thin wavy band of Black Venom Pass, and looking straight from above I could see how its serpentine form had lent the pass its nickname. The fortress of Maredun was visible at the northern end of the pass as a dark, blocky structure clinging to the side of the ridge, while looking at the southern end I could discern tiny black spots which I took to be the bodies left after the battle. [This is highly unlikely, as the bodies would have been recovered and returned to Equestria for burial. Even then, at the altitudes pegasus aerial reconnaissance flights usually operate at and keeping in mind the relatively low resolution of cameras at the time, individual ponies, dead or alive, would not be visible. It is probably that Blueblood merely saw indistinct collections of boulders and his imagination filled in the gaps.] What was most interesting about this map, however, were the thin lines drawn in blue ink that weaved their way around the ridges and contours of the hilly terrain either side of the Pass. I didn’t know what they meant at the time, but knowing the Royal Guard as I did, I doubted that they indicated anything pleasant. What was absolutely plain to all of us, however, was the big blue arrow that left very little room for interpretation as it swept southwards straight through the Pass and into Changeling territory.

“The Changelings' main strength is cowardly deception,” said Crimson Arrow after we all had a chance to examine the map. “If robbed of this advantage, they are weak and easily defeated.” Well, I wasn’t too sure of that. Granted, in a straight one-on-one fight a well-trained and disciplined soldier will almost always triumph over a single Changeling drone, but the fact of the matter was that one never encountered a drone without a thousand or so of his best mates and a Purestrain or two to back him up. Overwhelming numbers and a complete disregard for casualties, while not a complete guarantor of victory, still tended to tip the odds in the Changelings’ favour when it came to set piece battles. Anyway, I was rather interested in what Crimson Arrow had planned; he seemed to have all of this worked out already, which was at once reassuring and disturbing at the same time.

“It is my aim, therefore,” he continued, “to force the Changelings into a battle of annihilation, where they will be completely and utterly destroyed. Once that has been achieved, we can secure a hoof-hold around Black Venom Pass and begin the invasion of the Badlands.

“Ladies and gentlecolts.” He paused in a manner he must have thought was very dramatic, his warm amber eyes sweeping over each and every one of us. No doubt he imagined himself as playing the leading role in a cast of millions, and as he fixed his gaze upon me and I stiffened in response, I silently begged him to just get on with it. He cracked a small, smug smile, and said with all the gravitas of a classically trained actor, “Welcome to Operation: Equestrian Dawn.”

This was not going to end well.

Author's Notes:

Here it is, a little late again I know. Not much else to say about this chapter, aside from the fact that I had written about half of it before deciding it was rubbish and starting all over again. I had booked a whole week off work to try and write, but it didn't turn out so well. I've come to the conclusion that I need to be completely and utterly bored in the office, and therefore having to resort to using my imagination to work out this story, in order to write properly.

A little note about Southern Cross. I've had an Aussie friend of mine check out the character's dialogue, mainly so I don't cross the line between affectionate parody and into Crocodile Dundee/Steve Irwin stereotypes.

And now you know where Derpy was for most of Season 3. Originally I had planned on Derpy filling in for Jurgen, instead of making an OC in the form of Cannon Fodder, but decided against it. Derpy is far too sweet and innocent for the role.

Bloodstained (Part 6)

“We are going to assault Black Venom Pass again.”

It should have come as no surprise to me; our strategic options were extremely limited by the nigh-impassable terrain that separated us from our enemy, but to hear Crimson Arrow say those words with the same blitheness as he would if he were to announce that he was nipping off to the canteen to get some breakfast was most disconcerting. In spite of the unpleasant heat that was just starting to build up that morning, a mere prelude to the scorching temperatures that would peak around midday as it was wont to do, I felt a sudden and unpleasant chill crawl and slither, like some icy wet reptile, across my back and shoulders.

It was a chill that was in no way ameliorated by the hot breeze that wafted through the tent, which made the loose cloth fabric flap and threatened to scatter the myriad papers on the table if it were not for the strategic placement of numerous ornamental paperweights. The morning sun filtered through the relatively thin tent cloth, casting the scene in an eerie yellow and orange glow. Where the pure sunlight penetrated through the small gaps in the fabric, bright beams of hot white light were cast periodically through the tent and cast whatever they touched into stark relief amidst the more sombre surroundings. In these beams the ever-present dust motes shimmered like millions of tiny stars around us, which drifted lazily on the light breeze and gave the proceedings a strange ethereal quality to it.

The sunlight fell harshly on General Crimson Arrow’s face, illuminating his neatly-trimmed white fur so that it appeared to glow with a luminescence all its own. This light, however, only emphasised the haggard lines that now etched over his once-attractive face. The visor of his peaked cap had cast his eyes into a deep shadow that was emphasised to a terrible degree by the dark bags beneath them. For the first time since I had seen him during this campaign he looked as if he belonged in the uniform. Even in our days in the Academy in Canterlot he always resembled a young colt playing dress-up more than an actual soldier, and this only grew worse as he rose up through the ranks and culminated in the venerated and austere position of General. Before, the crimson red dress uniform, peaked cap, epaulettes and aiguillettes, pretty gold lace, and shiny medals looked quite ridiculous on the young stallion – his tunic did not even fit him properly – yet in the intervening nocturnal period between the tea party the day before and this meeting there came a definite transformation into the determined commander that now stood before us.

Behind me, I heard the sound of quill scratching on high quality paper – a sound that would rapidly become the soundtrack to my misery over the coming months – as Spike the Dragon, who was still seated upon Twilight’s back, began his task of taking notes on Twilight’s behalf. One of Shining Armour’s subordinates stifled a yawn, while another slurped noisily from a large mug of the thickest, blackest coffee I had ever laid eyes on. Major Starlit Skies was busying himself filling up a pipe with tobacco, going about the business with the same level of fastidious attention to detail as he did with just about everything else. The tension in the room amplified these noises and the external sounds of the encampment at large to a great degree.

“My plan is quite simple,” said Crimson Arrow finally, such that it was a relief to hear his voice. The words, however, did very little to engender any sort of hope in me. In fact, they had rather the opposite effect.

I looked down on the large map before us and could not help but be reminded of the old saying ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’, which might apply for relatively simple and harmless things like baking a cake or attempting to construct flat pack furniture (or getting one’s servants to do so, in my case), but when it came to military strategy attempting to do the exact same thing more than once tended to result in utter disaster. If underestimating one’s enemy and failing to learn from past errors were the two cardinal sins of war as described by Princess Celestia the day before, then being repetitive and therefore predictable was the completed trinity of military incompetence. The sad thing was, we did not have any other option than to try and take the valley once more, it being the only passage large enough to support an army of any considerable size and, perhaps just as important, our supply route once we secured a hoof-hold in the Badlands.

I was, however, willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he had planned. Partly out of vague curiosity to see what he had been doing in the one week of his self-imposed exile, but mainly because I was safe in the knowledge that I could simply veto whatever it was if I found it to be objectionable. Then again I found just about everything the Royal Guard did objectionable, but in the interests of maintaining my fraudulent reputation and the continued waging of this war I decided that I best be lenient. The thin blue lines that snaked their way around the ridges and contours of the Macintosh Hills on the map, however, indicated that he had planned something rather more complex than just another suicidal charge into the breach. Quite morbidly, they looked to me like a medical diagram of little veins and capillaries.

Crimson Arrow’s horn glowed, and with his magic he brought over an officer’s swagger stick from a writing desk in the corner of the room. It was a short cane of highly polished wood and capped at one end with a silver ornamental head engraved with the crest of our old regiment: the 1st Solar Guards. The orb glinted brightly in the sun as he levitated the stick above the table and indicated with the pointy end the enormous blue arrow on the map.

“The main assault on the south of the Pass will be made by the 1st and 5th Regiments of the Solar Guard and the 1st Regiment of the Night Guard,” he continued, “with the 9th Royal Artillery due to arrive next week providing fire support and the Dodge Junction Militia acting as a strategic reserve.” Well, a fat lot of good a bunch of imbecilic, lazy cherry farmers would be if things inevitably take a turn for the worse, if they could be bothered, what with their hectic schedule of sitting around in the sun and occasionally whoring their daughters out to the soldiers in the encampment for a quick bit, to pick up a spear and actually contribute to the war effort. I suppose, with hindsight, it was good that these clumsy amateurs stayed out of the way and allowed the real soldiers to get on with their jobs, and judging by the derisive snort from Blitzkrieg and one of the Solar Guard officers shaking his head, I was not alone in this opinion. [Royal Guard personnel tend to look down upon the militias as being amateurs, with some small degree of truth to that. However, it should be noted that the militia guards tended to acquit themselves rather well despite their lack of training and equipment. Of particular note is the Ponyville Militia during the Battle of Ponyville later in Blueblood’s career, which is described in another entry in this manuscript.]

“In preparation for the main assault, a smaller force will need to take and hold this position here.” Crimson Arrow indicated to a small, indistinct grey smudge in the south east area of the map with the end of his cane, and I belatedly noticed that the majority of the aforementioned thin blue lines seemed to converge upon this singular spot. It was a pony-made structure, at least as far as I could discern from the blurry image, which to me looked like a squashed insect on the paper more than anything else. As to its actual shape and architectural design, it was completely impossible to tell. Whatever it was, my initial thought was just how isolated and exposed it seemed; though only a few miles deep into enemy territory just beyond the Macintosh Hills that separated us from the enemy like a barrier, it looked extremely vulnerable to encirclement.

“This has been designated Fort E-5150,” he continued, tapping his cane lightly on the dark smudge. I wondered vaguely who had bestowed such a dull and utterly bland name upon that ancient fortress: the faceless desk-monkeys deep within the War Ministry’s dark and forbidding cubicle farms or Crimson Arrow himself? Say what you will about giving military installations, projects, and crafts overly dramatic and vulgar names like ‘Vengeance’, ‘Indestructible’, and ‘Arse-Kicker’, at the very least they are memorable. All I could foresee was a bureaucratic nightmare about to unfold as a result of some desk clerk’s hoof slipping on a typewriter, Faust knows what chaos might ensue if a fort was denied its monthly shipment of paperclips.

“The pony civilisation that built Castle Maredun also constructed a series of smaller fortified outposts along the Macintosh Hills, presumably to prevent pre-Equestrian raiders from bypassing Black Venom Pass and going straight over the hills. A battalion [an ad hoc formation consisting of two hundred and seventy ponies, consisting of three platoons from each company, and often used for when smaller fighting formations might prove to be more tactically advantageous than committing an entire regiment to the battle] made up of platoons from both the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards and backed up with artillery support from a 16th Royal Artillery scratch battery will advance in small groups through the passes between the hills and then take and fortify the outpost. When Army Group Centre makes its assault on the Pass the battalion will be in a prime position to outflank and encircle the Changeling army, thus ensuring its complete and total annihilation on the field.

“Like I said, sirs, quite simple really.”

I have to admit that it did seem like a perfectly reasonable plan. Granted, it wasn’t even in the same league as, say, Neighpoleon and his arch-nemesis the Iron Duke of Trottingham, but still it looked as if it might actually work. Like most military strategies, however, it relied entirely upon the misapprehension that the enemy was going to behave in a predictable manner. If anything, the point of strategy was to try and act in a manner contrary to the opponent’s perceptions. Despite this, assuming that the Changelings did as they were damn well expected to do, it might have a chance of actually working.

There was, however, one huge flaw with this plan that I picked up on almost instantly. I hid my immense discomfiture with considerable effort, being a proverbial stone’s throw away from running out of that tent, digging a small hole, and then ordering the closest guardspony to bury me in it. Encircling the Changeling army meant sneaking through the mountains undetected and taking that fortress, and this was entirely dependent on the assumption that the Changelings would simply not notice formations of armoured ponies marching through these small passes like thin trickles of water flowing around stones in a stream. We would be advancing through those tight, narrow passes, where our progress would be made difficult by the meandering paths conforming to the natural passes forged by nature, thus funnelling us all into indefensible choke points ripe for Changeling ambush.

I’ll grant him that the great generals of the past often had to make blind leaps of faith to achieve victory. It strikes me as odd how sometimes, though not all of the time, the difference between a commander remembered for his skill and one remembered for his incompetence is often down to fickle whims of Lady Luck. The genuinely useless ones, however, are rightly committed to posterity for their idiocy. At any rate, I resolved myself to keep myself as far away from this risky flanking move as possible, thought it certainly meant that I would be joining in with the main attack. At the very least, I would have a veritable horde of heavily-armoured ponies to hide behind and a clear line of retreat.

“Is the fortress garrisoned?” I asked. I had dredged up some vaguely remembered fact from high school classes about how assaulting fortresses tended to result in massive casualties for the attacker, though I was safe in the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I would not be taking part in this suicidal excursion. Showing at least some sort of interest, however, would at least endear me further to the ponies I would be fighting with shortly.

Crimson Arrow responded by inclining his head towards me, and the harsh light only made him look all the more disturbing as the light glinted off his amber irises, and as his eyes were cast in deep shadow by the visor of his peaked cap it gave them the unsettling effect of appearing to glow. He shuffled at the papers on the desk before his hooves, and when he answered my question after a moment’s thought he seemed to speak more to the map between us than he did to me.

“Military intelligence reports indicate that it is inhabited by a small tribe of Diamond Dogs,” he said. “They probably use the tunnels beneath the fort to mine the gems their kind lust after.”

“What are the rules of engagement?” asked Colonel Sunshine Smiles. His scar twitched slightly.

Crimson’s horn illuminated once more, and a small wooden chest levitated over towards us from its hiding place near his desk in the corner. The locks on the chest opened with an audible ‘click’ sound each, and as the lid swung back to reveal its contents the whole tent was suddenly bathed in dazzling beams of multi-coloured light. Inside this chest was a spectacular collection of highly polished and masterfully cut gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topazes, zircons, sapphires, and probably more varieties of shiny, pretty stones than I can remember now. As the thin but intense beams of morning sunlight struck each and every one of those precious gems the light was refracted, coloured, and intensified within to give the vague impression that they each burned with a fire of their own. A few reflected beams of coloured light, giving the peculiar impression of being inside a very underwhelming discotheque, and as the multicoloured light was cast upon the pristine white coats of the General and the Solar Guard officers they looked as if they had been caught in an explosion at a rainbow factory. Behind me, I heard Spike make the same slavering noises as a dog when it hears a tin of dog food being opened or Celestia when she detects cake in the vicinity.

“You may use these to barter for possession of the fort,” he said. I vaguely wondered where he had acquired all of these gems from, though precious stones being as ubiquitous as they are in Equestria I suspect he probably just bought them all from a shop (or, more likely I suspected, he had ordered an underling of some description to do so on his behalf).

“And if the negotiations were to fail?”

“Kill them all.” With those cold words the lid of the chest slammed shut with a sudden and resonant finality as if to punctuate that point. A few of the stallions jumped or shuddered in shocked surprise at the sudden loud noise, and the irritating multicoloured light that had reflected from its precious contents dissipated just as quickly. As the chest was levitated back to its resting place by Crimson Arrow’s desk, I exchanged a few worried glances with Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles; the former was decidedly nonplussed by the implication that we should slaughter a load of Diamond Dogs just to capture some fortress while the latter bore an expression of mild distaste at the prospect.

I did not know much about Diamond Dogs at the time; I had never seen one before, except for a few diagrams in biology textbooks and some vague memories of hearing my father describing his various adventures with them in the far-off places of the world. From what little I knew, they were dim-witted, unintelligent, territorial, and avaricious to a fault, though nature, being the troublesome mistress that she is, had probably made up for such deficiencies by granting them superior upper body strength, sharp claws, and a violent temperament to match.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” said Crimson Arrow, shrugging his shoulders blandly. “We don’t want to antagonise the entire population of Diamond Dogs here; the very last thing we need is an unknown quantity of partisans disrupting the war effort from behind our frontline. Negotiate for a peaceful hoof-over of the fortress if possible, but if they refuse you are permitted to use lethal force to take it. Capturing E-5150 is absolutely paramount to the success of this offensive, and I am allowing you to use any means necessary to do so.”

I winced at the thought of Diamond Dogs waging guerrilla war behind our lines. It was one thing to be slain on the battlefield, but quite another to be murdered when one believes oneself to be safe and secure behind the frontlines. The mental images of these hulking beasts who, despite their manifest stupidity and distinct lack of personal hygiene, knew this treacherous landscape like Auntie Luna knows the stars and constellations themselves, and would easily be able to sneak and burrow their way past our forward pickets to attack us at our most vulnerable disconcerted me to no end. I glanced at the ponies around us, wondering if any of them could be trusted not to accidentally commit a massive faux pas. Shining Armour, I supposed, was quite an affable pony, though in a manner that disregarded the niceties of social class that I found to be quite irritating, and given the similarities between him and the quasi-bipedal slavering mutts he might get on well with the dim creatures. The Night Guards, however, while being excellent and dedicated soldiers I found their skills in the finer arts of diplomacy to be rather lacking. I know I’m hardly a stranger to the occasional gaffe, but usually when I make a faux pas the very worst that happens is I receive a glass of expensive champagne in the face, as opposed to accidentally starting a war. [He seems to have forgotten the time he nearly started a war with Saddle Arabia by insinuating at an ambassador’s dinner party that the Sultan was inclined towards sleeping with the dead.]

“Excuse me, sir,” said Bramley Apple meekly, snapping instantly to attention as Crimson Arrow swivelled his head towards the NCO’s direction. Bramley swallowed reflexively in his nervousness, and settled on the age-old sergeants’ trick of dealing with an officer by fixing his gaze on the empty space a few inches above the General’s head. “Pardon me for asking, sir, but as sure as the sun rises every morning there’s no way in Tartarus the boys can pull our guns over that rocky ground, sir. Lands’ sakes, sir, we won’t get more than a hundred yards in that terrain before somepony breaks an axle or a wheel, and Ah can tell you, sir, when that happens the gun has to be abandoned. No way to transport a gun once its carriage has been broken, sir, no way.”

“Yes, I had considered that,” said Crimson Arrow with a hint of irritation entering into his voice, as if he wanted to suffix that statement with the short phrase ‘of course I have, you idiot’. “That is where Lieutenant Southern Cross and his ‘lads’ come in. As the battalion advances through the valleys, the engineers will clear a path for your gun carriages.”

The engineer pony next to me nodded his head and grinned. “That’s right, sirs. If you want something built or blown to kingdom come then we’re the blokes you need.” A surreptitious glance at his rear revealed that his cutie mark was, rather worryingly, a red stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. I made a mental note to stay as far away from him as possible in the battlefield, lest I find my component parts scattered over a wide area.

“Well,” said Bramley Apple, finally taking his gaze off the vacant space above Crimson Arrow’s head to regard the Horsetralian officer next to me. His expression was rather quizzical and sceptical as he appeared to be studying the odd pony’s features, before he eventually relented, probably deciding that it was not appropriate for a pony of his lowly station to argue with an officer, and shrugged his shoulders. “If y’all say so, sirs.”

I have to say that I shared his concerns, but as I was confident of the fact that I would not be participating in this rather foolhardy venture and would instead be firmly in between a steel wall of heavily armoured ponies to the front and a clear route of escape to the rear I felt it rather unnecessary to voice them further. Besides, the other ponies seemed rather positive, and even if I could not be precisely one-hundred percent convinced of the efficacy of this risky plan, I must admit I was starting to find Crimson Arrow’s self-assurance to be quite contagious. However, I did not envy the poor ponies who would be traipsing through those hills, their already slow progress further retarded by having to guard not only a full battery of artillery, guns and limbers all, but also a unit of sappers hewing their way through the rocky, unforgiving landscape with liberal application of high explosives and the threat of ambush constantly over their heads.

I suppose I had one thing to look forward to: I would be free of Twilight Sparkle and Spike for a short time.

Crimson Arrow snorted, apparently some sort of signal that we were to move on. He turned his head to face Shining Armour, who throughout this meeting had divided his attention between listening to what was being said and making silly faces at Spike. “Lord Captain [a rather archaic form of address for the Captain of the Royal Guard, for when his full title is too long but when the speaker wishes to avoid the confusion and possible offence that might occur when referring to him merely as ‘captain’],” he said, “you will command the main assault on Black Venom Pass.”

Shining Armour responded by beaming brightly like a colt scout having just been awarded another badge for his already extensive collection. He saluted in a rather clumsy manner, grinning as he did so with his usual lack of deference for authority, “I won’t let you down, sir!”

“See that you don’t, Shining.” The General then turned his head towards Colonel Sunshine Smiles, who returned his gaze with an equally intense, if not more so, stare of his own. “Colonel,” he said.

“Sir.” Sunshine’s refined accent and deep voice seemed to resonate about the tent.

“You will lead the bulk of your regiment with Shining Armour into Black Venom Pass. As such, I will leave it to you to nominate one of your senior officers to command the flanking battalion.”

Were I in Sunshine Smiles’s armoured horseshoes I would probably have picked Major Starlit Skies to lead the attack. His bordering-on-obsessive care for the most minute details and general calm, unflappable demeanour suited him well to this sort of complex operation, at least in my mind, and out of the three possible candidates he was the least likely to do something reckless and get everypony killed. Red Coat was far too young and his opinions on military strategy and leadership were limited by the diktats, dry literature, and outdated teachings of the Academy. His naive and puppy-ish eagerness to please everypony, though oddly endearing in a child, would certainly leave him vulnerable to easy manipulation by his subordinate officers and NCOs. As for Blitzkrieg, well, though I could not doubt his prowess in the air and this leadership of his company, I simply did not think he had the adequate organisational skills to command an entire battalion plus an artillery battery and an additional platoon of engineers. Not to mention his rather abrasive personality would certainly put him at odds with the Solar Guard lieutenants. No, Starlit Skies was by far the most obvious choice, and one would have to be a fool to think otherwise.

So it was quite a shock to me when, after a brief moment’s thought, Sunshine raised his hoof and placed it on Red Coat’s shoulder.

“I nominate Captain Red Coat,” he said.

Red Coat’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and his pupils shrank suddenly to mere pinpricks. He made an odd, spluttering noise as if he was choking on something, his own saliva perhaps, as he blinked up in confusion at his commanding officer. His jaw worked uselessly for a few moments, only producing that peculiar coughing and wheezing noise interspersed with the odd surprised squeak, before he could finally articulate a single, flat, “What?” At the time I thought that his odd response was merely the result of his hangover and the fact he had not been paying close attention to the proceedings, though I can sympathise with him on the last point, but looking back now I can now see that it was a far greater, more primal emotion behind his comical reaction: fear.

One of Shining Armour’s comrades, Major Puff Pastry of the earth pony company if I recall correctly, made a loud ‘harrumph’ of contempt. “Him?” he blurted out disbelievingly, and I felt I had to physically restrain myself from repeating his incredulous cry. “You must be joking, sir.”

“I never joke about my work,” said Sunshine Smiles.

“He’s only a child,” Puff Pastry replied blankly. He lazily swung his hoof to point at his opposite number directly across the table. “My stallions will never take orders from a little whelp who doesn’t even need to shave.”

Red Coat flushed a deep red colour beneath his ashen grey fur and looked decidedly uncomfortable with what was going on. He anxiously touched his acne-covered chin and cheeks with a hoof. “I do too have to shave,” he protested quietly, though by his body language and tone of voice he appeared to be trying to convince himself of that rather than the pony opposite him.

“They will do as they are damn well told,” snarled Sunshine Smiles. “And you forget your place, Major.”

“Forgive my rudeness, sir,” said Puff Pastry, bowing his head a little in deference to the superior officer. “But I refuse to put my stallions’ lives at risk by placing them under the command of an inexperienced officer, especially on a mission of this great complexity.”

“And that is why Commissar Prince Blueblood will accompany Captain Red Coat.”

Oh, thank you very much, Colonel Sunshine Smiles. I wanted to strangle him right there, to just leap straight over the map-strewn table and wrap my hooficured hooves around that imbecile’s neck and squeeze until his eyes burst like balloons, but that might have been considered impolite in the circumstances so I relented. I like to feel that I kept my irritation in check at having my plans scuppered so completely, though I could not help but feel the ends of my lips tugging downwards and my brow furrowing into a frown. As all eyes turned to me I forced a decidedly fake smile to my lips that I hoped looked sufficiently cocky enough to fit in with their idea of the sort of thing I’d do, all the while I tried desperately to think of a way to get out of this suicidal plan without appearing to lose face.

It was an already difficult task that was made completely impossible with everypony staring at me, waiting for an answer. Especially disconcerting was Red Coat, whose gaze at me from over the desk with those huge, pleading, puppy-like eyes of his which, when combined with his sullen expression and the ravages of his drinking yesterday, made him look so pathetic it was difficult to say ‘no’. I came up blank; there were no lies, half-truths, deceptions, or tricks left in my arsenal that would have gotten me out of this situation with my reputation intact. It was then that I decided my best option, objectively, was to simply go along with it and then take measures to ensure my own survival in this mission.

“Oh, I don’t think the lad needs any help,” I said, taking step one in plotting my survival. “He’s a perfectly capable officer who graduated from the Academy with top marks if I recall correctly.” I recalled that minor factoid from some half-forgotten conversation I must have had with him some time ago, or probably dredged it up from some record or scrap of paper. Not that the slightest bit of difference, as what the Royal Military Academy believes an officer should be and the reality are quite dissonant concepts. After all, even I had managed to scrape a passing grade all those years ago. Anyway, that helped to boost his confidence slightly, which was sorely lacking, and would also mean he would try that little bit harder to avoid disappointing me.

I shrugged my shoulders, affecting to look as if putting my life in danger was no real issue for me, despite the fact that my heart was rapidly turning into a frigid ball of ice beneath my ribcage. “I’ll be more than willing to offer my assistance to him if needed.”

That seemed to mollify Captain Puff Pastry and Captain Red Coat a bit, as a little bit of colour started to return to the latter’s skin. This bloody issue was going to irritate me further, but I decided that I would worry about it later. It might not be all that bad, I told myself; if we were careful we could reach the fort unmolested, happily exchange it for a few shiny baubles, and then launch the flanking attack on the Changelings’ rear. At least there we would not be facing the full frontage of the Changeling army, but rather their exposed flanks. Despite all of these assurances my hooves began to itch once more.

Terror, however, soon gave way to boredom as the meeting continued to drag on. From what little I can remember of the remainder of that briefing, and even if I could recall more I would have spared my dear reader (whoever you are) from the sheer banality of what was being said, the conversation soon drifted towards the exact military formations that would make up the two prongs of the attack. While it was obvious that the main bulk of our two regiments would be committed to the frontal assault on the Pass, the issue of which platoons to assign to the battalion was a rather more difficult task. It had been decided, much to my confusion, that both the 1st Night Guards and the 1st Solar Guards regiments would contribute their platoons to form an inter-regimental battalion. It was a nice enough idea in theory, and thankfully Shining Armour was able to beat a little sense into the more snobbish of his junior officers.

I had to admit that the previous collaboration between our two corps had worked out reasonably well in Black Venom Pass, as battle and shared mortal danger tended to have quite the levelling effect on most ponies. Nevertheless, from what I could tell, despite my attention still wavering between the listening to the officers discussing dull numbers and statistics and my own daydreaming about sharing a bath with Fancy Pants’ attractive and highly promiscuous trophy wife, two thirds of the flanking battalion would be made up of Night Guards platoons. The remaining third would naturally be formed up of three platoons from each company of the 1st Solar Guard, and it was quite a shock when I heard Scarlet Letter’s name announced to lead the unicorn platoon. It was enough to pull me straight out of my pleasant, erotic fantasy to crash unpleasantly back in the grim real world – the mental equivalent of being awoken from a deep sleep by having cold water splashed on one’s face.

Of all the ponies I had met in his regiment, Scarlet Letter seemed to be the least suited to be in charge of any group of armed ponies, in fact I barely trusted him to perform his day job as a Member of Parliament adequately. My dislike of him was not entirely rational, I’ll admit, and for all I knew he could have been a perfectly competent officer. Yet there was something about that scrawny little pony that just put me off; at the risk of sounding shallow I found his physical appearance quite repellent, but that was hardly his fault, yet there was something in his manner, the idea that he was trying to gain my friendship merely as a means to an end, that just disturbed me. I had mostly forgotten about him and his rather amateurish attempts to ingratiate himself with me in the intervening time between the tea party and this meeting, but those incredibly snobbish and derisive terms he used to describe the same ponies I had fought with and seen die did not sit well with me.

Despite my objections, I decided that it was not worth interrupting the meeting merely to voice my unproven paranoia about this particular pony. I made a mental note to speak with Shining Armour about it at a later date, though I suspected that Shining merely wanted the scheming little unicorn as far away from him as possible in the battlefield. If Scarlet Letter could be trusted to shut up and keep his views to himself, especially when surrounded by over a hundred of the so-called ‘base animals’, then there shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Following that we came to the most onerous part of any meeting, the question-and-answer session. As the officers posed their questions to General Crimson Arrow, who did his best to answer them despite the rather nascent stage of planning here, I noticed a distinctly different atmosphere in this meeting compared to the last briefing I attended. A week earlier there was a sense of excited anticipation, as foals feel on Hearth’s Warming Day morning before they rush in to tear open their presents, whereas now one got the impression of the utmost professionalism. Questions were short, terse, and wasted few words, and their answers were suitably punctilious, if dull.

The meeting dragged on past an hour and my legs were starting to ache from standing in one place for so long. Though I had been trained in the subtle arts of standing perfectly still for extended periods of time by virtue of my previous and lacklustre career in the Solar Guards, the intervening time being spent in idle luxury must have done much to erode what little remained of that. I gently flexed each of my legs in turn to maintain the circulation and avoid fainting, which would have been most unseemly for one of my austere station to do so. But with my mind wandering and my limbs getting ever number each passing minute I silently begged them to stop asking so many damned questions and let me go.

After what felt like an eternity the questions soon began to dry up, probably because the other ponies were getting as bored as I was. I, however, was sufficiently skilled to maintain the illusion that I was paying rapt attention to what was being said, with judicious and frequent nods of my head and making noises of general assent whenever it felt necessary.

Crimson Arrow gathered up some of the papers in his magic and began to shuffle them neatly on the table in the universally accepted sign that business is concluded, and not before time. Unfortunately, I heard an excited gasp from behind me, and instantly that high-pitched sound brought back distressing foalhood memories of being stuck in thaumatology class and a certain purple filly wasting everypony’s time by asking so many irritating, but admittedly academically valid, questions so that we all missed our break time. So ubiquitous was that sound in all classes that I shared with her that it had become so ingrained in my memory, I did not have to turn my head back to see that Twilight Sparkle was holding a hoof in the air and likely waving it anxiously.

The General glanced up from his papers and frowned in a peculiar way. “Yes, Lady Sparkle?”

Giving up all semblance of trying to appear at all regal, relaxed, and as if I actually wanted to be here, I let out an irritated groan and sat down on my haunches. What Twilight actually asked was rather more unexpected and all the more horrifying than having to sit through a veritable barrage of questions.

“Can I come, too?”

Faust help me.

Author's Notes:

Lots and lots of lovely exposition here, sorry guys but I hope I've at least made it entertaining for you all.

Bloodstained (Part 7)

To say that the notion of Twilight Sparkle tagging along to view a battle did not sit at all well with me would have been a gross underestimation of just how I felt about it. As if I did not have enough to worry about with the threat of ambush; a possible siege against Diamond Dogs; the presence of Scarlet Letter; and, of course, millions of Changelings each with a vested interest in wearing my pelt like Rarity wears a fashionable new scarf, Twilight Sparkle had apparently lost all rational sense of self-preservation. Judging by the varied reactions of the ponies around me, I was not alone in thinking this. Indeed, something quite historic had just happened; the collective opinions of myself and a dozen ponies of different ranks, regiments, corps, and walks of life were in a sort of uneasy consensus; Twilight Sparkle was completely out of her bloody mind.

Captain Red Coat, who had somehow fallen asleep during the long and dull question-and-answer session, awoke with a jolt and lifted his head wearily from a small puddle of drool on the table. His esteemed associate, Captain Blitzkrieg, had taken to lying on his belly next to his earth pony comrade and was idly scratching his name into the underside of the wooden desk with one of his many wickedly-sharp stiletto blades. The thuggish pegasus perked his head up, pricked ears twitching like a guard dog on alert, as he heard something that likely finally interested him. On the other side of the debris-strewn desk, the officers of the 1st Solar Guard looked uneasily at one another as their commanding officer appeared to be having a small seizure. The only ponies who seemed unfazed by what was going on were Sergeant Bramley Apple, who, because of his low status as an NCO, was not allowed to express anything other than blind obedience, and Lieutenant Southern Cross who seemed more amused than anything.

As I turned my head to look down at her, my sincere promise to look after her echoed loudly through my mind. How was I supposed to ensure her safety if she insisted on putting herself in mortal danger? My fear that the greatest threat to her continued existence would not come from, say, a disgruntled and politically-minded officer out to save his career or from Changeling infiltrators, but from her own determination to acquire knowledge and her own naïveté about what a battle is actually like was turning real. More importantly, my irritatingly vivid imagination was conjuring all sorts of divine punishments that Auntie ‘Tia might mete out on me for failing my sacred oath; perhaps hot, molten gold would be poured down my throat and the resulting cast of my digestive system be cut out to serve as an example to all who forsake their vows.

Some ponies looked directly at me as if waiting for an answer; word had somehow spread – as it often does in the Royal Guard, for despite the perpetual need for secrecy ponies can and will talk – that I was apparently responsible for her. I suppose it made sense; even without any knowledge of Princess Celestia’s little chat with me it would have been obvious that I as the principal political officer here, and therefore the link between the military and civilian spheres of life, it was beholden unto me to ensure her safety.

“Pardon?” I said flatly.

Twilight’s hoof scuffed at the ground nervously, kicking up a little cloud of dust and gouging a small trough as she seemed to become acutely aware of suddenly becoming the centre of attention despite her earlier assertion that she would merely be ‘observing’.

“I want to observe the battle for my report.”

“No. Out of the question.”

Twilight looked positively crestfallen; her ears wilted and she pouted like a spoilt foal being denied a new toy. “How am I supposed to write this report for the Princess about the Royal Guard if I can’t even observe how a battle is fought?”

I have to concede that she may have had a point there, as despite her extensive preliminary reading those history books and ancient texts generally do not provide one with an adequate description of what a battle is actually like. If anything, the dry statistics and reporting of facts and figures from history books and the rather dubious authenticity and self-aggrandising nature of Pre-Heresy Era primary texts paint a highly misleading image of warfare; one where a battle is a quick and somewhat civilised affair, with plenty of glory for all who survive – especially generals and leaders – while the dead and injured are quietly swept under the rug as mere numbers at the end for the bean counters, if they are acknowledged at all. [It should be noted that some of the ancient texts on war that Twilight had brought with her were, as Blueblood described, not entirely accurate and often heavily biased in favour of whatever cause or faction the writer belonged to. Though I have done my best to make myself and my memories available for historians, any reliable testimony I can give is limited to those events which I had witnessed or presided over. This unfortunately led to a vague and incomplete historiography of the Wars of Unification and the Nightmare Heresy which was only corrected by the return of my sister, Princess Luna.] Of course she was intelligent enough to know about all of this, but, knowing her as I do, it was that same deficiency of knowledge that was likely driving her curiosity here. A certain proverb about cats and their deaths thereof sprung to mind.

“It’s a really bad idea, Twiley!” Shining Armour exclaimed, shaking his head emphatically. “Battles are very dangerous! You might get hurt!”

With such insight into the supreme art of strategy it became obvious to all attending just why Auntie ‘Tia, in her divine and infinite wisdom, had hoof-picked this lower-middle class oik to be Captain of her Royal Guard and her personal defender. Sarcasm aside, Shining Arsehole’s rather idiotic outburst was understandable in hindsight, given that his younger sister appeared to have taken complete leave of her senses. The other officers and I were at least polite enough not to show our derision of his behaviour, aside from a frustrated snort from Blitzkrieg that indicated, like me, he wanted this nonsense over and done with as quickly as possible.

At the very least, Twilight’s response to Shining’s comment indicated that we both in agreement on something for once; she rolled her eyes and sighed as she paused to collect her thoughts, the exhalation of her breath causing the minute golden stars of dust to swirl violently before her as if on invisible cosmic winds.

“I know that,” she said rather quietly, but in the stillness of the room her voice felt somehow amplified against the background noise of the encampment.

“I implore you to listen to your brother,” said Sunshine Smiles gravely. He attempted to pull what I could only assume what was intended to be a sympathetic smile, but that scar of his transformed what should have been a gentle expression into a grotesque and sardonic grin. “The battlefield is no place for a young lady such as you.”

Twilight frowned at the rather condescending remark. “It’s not like I’ll be taking part in any of the fighting. I’ll just be observing.”

Shining Armour shook his head again, though this time he appeared to have recovered somewhat from the initial shock of hearing Twilight’s request and no longer resembled a poorly-stuffed dog with bugged-out eyes and a hanging lower jaw. “It’s still too risky,” he said. “A lot of things can go wrong in a battle.”

“Shining...” whined Twilight.

“Oh, don’t worry Lady Sparkle,” I said, partly to mollify her enough so she no longer looked like an abused little puppy, but mostly because I just wanted to bring a quick end to this insanity. “You may have access to all AARs [After-Action Reports, the military does love its acronyms] and interviews with soldiers and officers once the battle is over. Would that be sufficient to your needs?”

She paused, thinking it over. “I suppose that would be okay,” she said, but her tone of voice and the petulant sulking expression that she wore implied that it was most certainly not ‘okay’. Her disappointment, of course, was not matched by the other ponies around us, as a palpable sense of relief seemed to flood through the tent around me, especially Shining Armour who looked like a condemned criminal who had just been granted a stay of execution. Whether the rest of them were genuinely concerned for Twilight’s safety or, like me, they just wanted to leave and do something (relatively) productive I could not say. However, it was not to last as before General Crimson Arrow had the chance to even think about proclaiming that our business was concluded and arrange for the next strategy meeting to sort out the dull specifics of the operation, he was interrupted by a short, loud, violent exclamation that came from just next to me.

“Hey!”

Spike suddenly vaulted himself over Twilight’s head and onto the table with surprising dexterity, considering his clumsy and ungainly appearance.

“Spike!” Twilight regarded him with shock. “What are you doing?”

Spike ignored her, and the rest of us were so utterly paralysed by indecision that nopony could do more than stand and stare vacantly at the bizarre spectacle. Of course this was utterly inappropriate that he, a mere child, should even be present, let alone make such a mockery of this highly sensitive strategy meeting. However, as he was under Twilight’s care and, more importantly, he was capable of shooting searing flames from his maw, none of us really knew whether we should attempt to intervene.

“This is Twilight Sparkle we’re talking about!” he cried, looking remarkably like some sort of reformist demagogue reciting his ridiculous creed to an assembled mass of ignorant peasants, gesticulating with his hands and scattering scrawled bits of paper and detailed survey maps beneath his clumsy feet. “She’s the most powerful unicorn in all of Equestria and Princess Celestia’s personal student and a bearer of an Element of Harmony!”

He turned around to face me, and I felt the tremendous urge to introduce his obnoxious little face to the back of my hoof, though I knew Twilight, whose cheeks were by now blushing a brighter shade of red than the scarlet sash tied around my waist, would likely not approve of it. So there I stood, rather paralysed by the absurdity of what was going on and morbidly interested to see what exactly he was trying to prove with this ludicrous display. He jabbed a finger against my chest, and instantly I felt the familiar aristocratic indignation rise within me.

“If anything, you should be taking orders from her!” he shouted.

“Spike.”

“She defeated Nightmare Moon!”

“Spike!”

“And Discord, and an Ursa Minor!”

Spike!

“She gave me an awesome moustache.”

SPIKE!

The sound of Twilight’s voice, like a mother telling her foal to behave in public, brought Spike’s little tirade to a crashing halt. He stood there, his stubby finger pressed against my chest as I gave him my patented disapproving commissarial glare, and his previously indignant expression gradually gave way to vacant-eyed confusion as if he was somehow incognisant of what he had just done wrong. Around us, the assembled ponies watched on with expressions that varied between disbelief and stern disapproval; though whatever effect Colonel Sunshine Smiles and General Crimson Arrow were trying to achieve by glowering at Spike was utterly destroyed by the infantile snickering of Shining Armour and Lieutenant Southern Cross.

“Get down from there!” implored Twilight.

With a small burst of telekinetic magic I pushed Spike away from me. Not hard enough to cause him any damage, mind you, but just enough force to knock him on his rump. He bounced slightly as his backside hit the paper-covered table. I smoothed down the slight crease he had made in my storm coat which, admittedly, looked as if had seen better days. I looked down, and Spike met my flat gaze with a ridiculously adorable expression of mild confusion that made me want to vomit. Of course, my every impulse was to pick him up and drop-kick him out of the tent as hard as possible, but I doubted that anypony present would have taken kindly to seeing their supposed hero abusing a child even if the runt did bloody well deserve it.

In the awkward and embarrassed hush that ensued, Captain Blitzkrieg skulked away, only pausing to tell me that he was ‘only going for a piss’ as he passed me on his way out of the tent. I did not see him again until much later that day. If I did not have such a significant stake in this, as it was my sworn duty to ensure that Twilight does not do something desperately suicidal just because her enissophobia [fear of committing some unpardonable crime or sin, in Twilight’s case he probably means ‘failing me’] had over-ridden her sense of self-preservation, I would have likely followed him.

Looking rather sheepish, Spike scrambled off the table, sending more papers flying as he did so, and retook his usual position perched upon Twilight’s back. “I was only trying to help,” he muttered as Twilight made a few apologies to the assembled ponies for Spike’s behaviour.

“I’m sorry, Lady Sparkle,” I said, trying to sound as sympathetic as possible despite my growing irritation. “But it is because you are a bearer of an Element of Harmony that you cannot be allowed to risk your life like this. Try to think strategically; the Elements of Harmony are amongst the most powerful magical artefacts in Equestria’s arsenal, and key to defeating Queen Chrysalis. Please, for the good of Equestria, I implore you to reconsider your request. If you were to be injured, captured, or, Faust forbid, killed in battle then it would as severe a loss to us as the destruction of an entire regiment. Think, where would Equestria be without the bearer of the Element of Magic?”

I thought that little speech would have been the end of it. However, despite her earlier acquiescence, Twilight had somehow been emboldened by Spike’s short but impassioned rant. She no longer seemed to be trying to hide from the sea of mostly disapproving faces behind the table, but, as if she had just become cognisant of the fact that, yes, she was a bearer of an Element of Harmony and therefore worthy of at least some respect, she stood tall with her head held high and her chest puffed out confidently; a far cry from the meek little mare I used to relentlessly tease and bully some ten years ago.

“But this is something I really have to do,” she declared. “My commission will ultimately shape how the Royal Guard will be reformed into a more effective and efficient fighting machine, and if putting my life in danger means I may be able to save the lives of your soldiers then so be it. Princess Celestia has personally asked me to lead this commission, and I’m not about to let her down by not giving her a complete picture of the state the Royal Guard is in.”

The mention of Princess Celestia’s name put the fear of Her into my colleagues, as a stony, awkward hush once more descended over the tent. It was silent save for the nervous coughs of a few of Shining Armour’s comrades and the irritating scuffle of hooves on the dusty ground.

I wondered how long it would be until Twilight Sparkle pulled the ‘I Am Princess Celestia’s Most Faithful Student And I Can Do Whatever I Want’ card, though I am no stranger to using Her divine name and my rather loose association with it to get what I wanted (namely persuading the palace kitchens to give me treats when I was a colt or seducing mares when I grew up). Seeing Twilight use it, however, was still rather jarring, considering she seemed to be under the rather endearingly mistaken assumption that one can succeed in life on pure merit alone, without noble birth or the appropriate connections with powerful ponies. Looking back on it now, after these decades, her rise to power and later coronation as a princess of Equestria a year after this meeting might have been viewed as a striking a blow for egalitarianism by some of the rather more naive ponies in our fair land, but one must not forget that she had only risen to such a lofty position by dint of her close association with the one pony highest on the metaphorical totem: Princess Celestia. [One of the more frustrating of Blueblood’s faults is his tendency to assume that the world and everyone in it operates on the same cynical mindset that he does. Contrary to what this paragraph suggests, Twilight was crowned princess based on her sterling work in the study of the magic of friendship and steadfast defence of Equestria against many threats, and not mere nepotism.]

Despite it not being stated overtly, the threat behind Twilight’s words was obvious to all; do not obstruct my work or you will answer to Princess Celestia. Once again I found myself trapped in that infernal self-contradictory labyrinth of circular logic unique to the Equestrian military. My duty was to protect Lady Sparkle so that she may proceed with her investigation; the Royal Commission on the Royal Guard as it was now called. [Its full title was ‘The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Reform of Their Highness’s Armed Forces with Special Reference to the Battle of Black Venom Pass’. Unsurprisingly, most ponies simply refer to it as the Twilight Sparkle Commission.] If she was to place herself in any sort of danger in the course of her research, as she was proposing now, then naturally I would have to step in and put a stop to it for her own good. However, in doing so I would be obstructing the Royal Commission and therefore liable for prosecution. Were I to allow Twilight to go it would constitute an unacceptable risk which would, in turn, compromise the integrity of her research. Research projects tend to be very much compromised when the researcher is wounded or dead.

As much as I wanted to be as far away from the irritating little mare as possible, considering I would much rather go into Dodge Junction and attend a hoe-down than suffer Twilight’s presence for any longer than I felt was strictly necessary, it seemed that the best course of action was to allow her to accompany me to Fort E-5150. I could keep a better eye on her, for one, and ensure that she did not do anything too reckless in her relentless pursuit of knowledge or, as Auntie ‘Tia had advised me, keep the more politically-minded officers from trying to skew her research in their favour. The fact that it would provide a perfect place for me to attend the battle without actually having to place myself in any sort of danger, as I would be relatively safe foal-sitting Celestia’s little pet when the tides of blood and steel and chitin clashed was, of course, merely an added bonus for me.

“My commission has the backing of the Royal Commissariat,” Twilight added, when it became evident that nopony was going to speak up. At once, all eyes turned to me for guidance, and I silently cursed her for putting me on the spot like that. I looked around at the sea of expectant faces, each demanding that I settle this insanity for once and for all.

“As the Princess wills, we obey,” I said, reciting a common platitude I had picked up from the common soldiers. It was the verbal equivalent of a vacant shrug; one given as a reluctant acceptance that things are not going quite as well as one would hope but that there is not a lot that could be done about it, which perfectly matched how I felt then. “Are you absolutely certain you want to do this?”

Twilight paused, and then nodded her head energetically. “Absolutely!”

“Very well, then.”

I looked to Shining Armour and Sunshine Smiles; the two ponies most likely to object to this arrangement, judging by their earlier vocal objection to the very idea of Twilight being anywhere near a battlefield. In theory, I could have simply pulled rank and slammed my commissarial authority upon them, and that would have been the end of the discussion. That, however, was unlikely to have gone down particularly well with my colleagues, and considering that I had to work, sleep, and fight alongside these ponies I thought it best not to antagonise them. A thought, by the way, I do my best to instil into the commissar cadets I now train, in the vain hope that any mortal wounds they may suffer after graduation are at least inflicted by the enemy and not by disgruntled soldiers and officers with scores to settle.

“You will require an escort,” I continued, putting the plan that was hastily formulating in my mind to appease the two officers into motion.

“I’ll look after her!” exclaimed Red Coat suddenly. The young officer looked suddenly sheepish, glancing up at Sunshine Smiles for support that never came, before he muttered an embarrassed apology and sank beneath the table.

“Ahem, I will look after her.” I looked to Shining Armour. “If that is acceptable?”

Shining Armour looked at me with a decidedly ambivalent expression; though he appeared to trust me now since we had both spilt the blood of Equestria’s enemies in Black Venom Pass, it seemed we still had rather a long way to go when it came to his sister. I could not fault his trepidation over the prospect of leaving his beloved sister with the pony who had once reduced her to a sobbing wreck, but thankfully reason prevailed, albeit rather slowly as it seemed to take him quite an embarrassingly long amount of time for him to think about it. I suppose he was quite unused to the concept of using the organ located between his ears, however small and withered it might have been.

“When Twilight gets an idea into her head, it’s hard to talk her out of it,” he said, grinning like an idiot. “You will look after her, Blueblood?”

I nodded solemnly. “I swore an oath to Princess Celestia that no harm will come to Twilight, and I’m not about to renege on that.” And, more importantly, keeping that promise would provide a suitable pretence for me to find a nice, safe, and preferably comfortable little cubby hole deep inside the fort for me to hide from the Changelings in.

Anyway, that little act of alleged chivalry seemed to placate Shining Armour, and he brokered no further objections to this plan. Judging by the rumbles of general assent from most of the ponies around me (especially Red Coat, who was no doubt enthused by the idea of spending even more time with Twilight) that statement had gone down particularly well with them. The irony of further cementing my fraudulent reputation for heroics by actually arranging to have myself as far away from any opportunity to show off said heroics was not lost on me, and it took a not insignificant amount of willpower to avoid grinning smugly to myself. I hoped I succeeded.

With Shining Armour satisfied for now, I turned my attention to Sunshine Smiles. The flesh around his scar twitched violently as he looked down his sharp, refined muzzle at me.

“Colonel,” I said, “do you have anything further to add?”

“On this occasion I will defer to the Commissar’s judgement,” he said, narrowing his amber, draconic eyes at me. The implication lurking behind those words like a dagger concealed within a dark cloak was not lost on me; if something were to go wrong I would be held personally responsible in his eyes. “However, I must say that I am not entirely happy with this arrangement.”

Truth be told, I was not particularly happy with this arrangement either, but the only thing that would make me truly happy was to be allowed to go home with a nice bottle of Pol Roger champagne and some bored and highly impressionable Prench noblemare willing to entertain me for the night. Sadly, sticking with Twilight seemed to be the best way of maximising my chances of survival, barring desertion, of course, which was not an option as having one of the most recognisable faces in all of Equestria would have made hiding rather difficult.

The Colonel gave a vague sort of shrug, apparently recognising, like me, that this was all beyond his control and that it was simply best to go along with it. “I want her to attend some basic Royal Guard training,” he continued, and I noticed that he was speaking to me as if Twilight was not present in the tent at all, “and she will be given a suit of armour to wear."

I decided that it would not be entirely politic of me to voice any objections to this entirely unfair arrangement—that the civilian non-combatant received a full set of Night Guard steel plate armour to wear while I still had to prance about dressed like some bloody Saddle Arabian dictator—as everypony was much too tired anyway to tolerate any further interjections. I merely nodded my head in agreement with Sunshine Smiles, and prayed to Faust that nopony else would have anything further to say.

The meeting wound down to a close once more, and not before time; a surreptitious glance at my pocket watch revealed that I had been trapped in this tent for little more than one and a half hours, and I was rapidly feeling that sense of artificial exhaustion that one generally feels after the first hour or so of a meeting. With nothing else constructive to add from anypony else in the room, General Crimson Arrow tapped a muffled tattoo on the paper-covered table with his swagger stick to draw attention to himself. He had been conspicuously silent since Twilight had voiced her proposal, in stark contrast to his prior verbosity in explaining his master plan. It was as if he did not want to get directly involved with Twilight, though I suppose his sudden shyness was quite understandable, considering that she is yet another pony present who, in addition to me, held the power of life and death over his flagging career.

“I hope you made the right decision,” he said, addressing me. As with Colonel Sunshine Smiles thinly-veiled threat, the implication of whose lap blame will be placed into should things go pear-shaped was starkly apparent. I wondered if I had made the correct choice, but it was far too late to back down now. “Well, before we wrap up, does anypony else have anything to add?”

Red Coat put his hoof up in the air, and I barely restrained the urge to dive across the table throttle him.

“Can I have an awesome moustache, too?”

General Crimson Arrow glowered down at the simpering adolescent for a few seconds, his elegant swagger stick held aloft menacingly in a pale red glow as if ready to strike Red Coat across the cheek. “Get out,” he snapped. “All of you.”

Despite his brusqueness, a few ponies mumbled their thanks to the General and even fewer offered half-hearted salutes, except for Bramley Apple who performed his so perfectly that it would have moved any tough-guy drill sergeant to hot tears of joy. One by one they began to shuffle out of the tent, and as they did so I clumsily clambered up to my hooves and moved to intercept Shining Armour as he walked past; there was still the matter of his choice of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter to command the Solar Guard unicorn platoon in the flanking battalion that I wanted to discuss with him urgently.

“Not you, Blueblood,” said Crimson Arrow suddenly. “I’d like a word with you. Alone.”

I snorted in irritation, but there was little else I could do about it; when a general officer requests one’s presence for whatever mysterious reason and, just like the meeting this morning, absolutely everything else is put on hold until the matter is resolved. Inwardly, I cursed him twice; first for denying my chance to confront Shining Armour, and second for making me stay behind in this tent longer than I felt I strictly had to. Luckily, I caught Shining’s eye as he walked past me, and, somehow divining my intentions, he nodded his head towards me with a solemn expression on his face. “I’ll catch you later,” he said, before leaving through the tent flap just behind me.

The last of the officers silently vacated the tent [Including Twilight Sparkle and Spike, presumably], and I was left alone with Crimson Arrow. I felt quite awkward in the presence of my former friend, though I hid my discomfiture behind the habitual masque of cold, contemptuous, aristocratic aloofness that had served so well in protecting me, like a shield, from the worst consequences of my actions. I admit that I often wonder these years, decades after the events which I am describing here, where that facade ends and the true Blueblood begins, if one such beast actually exists after all this time. The awkward hush that descended around the tent became interminable, and yet somehow I could not think of anything to say.

We were separated by a gulf of paper; maps, communiqués, lists, and hastily scribbled notes that, like the sea, seemed to have waves, eddies, and currents in the swirling morass of scattered sheets. Yet the greater and more tumultuous gulf between us was one of betrayal, or, rather, my perceived betrayal, which still seemed to cut Crimson Arrow deep. Of course, I was completely and utterly justified in my decision, at least in the eyes of the Princesses, soldiers, my peers, the press, and the greater masses of Equestrian society, and, by dint of my rank and title, beyond any reproach for it, but whispers of doubt still echoed in my mind.

“So,” he said finally, his halting voice dry and cracking.

“So?”

“How are you?”

“Fine, thank you,” I replied automatically. “And you?”

He shrugged vacantly, but gave no verbal answer. None was needed, of course, as I could tell by his dishevelled appearance and awkward body language exactly how he was feeling. He shuffled nervously on his hooves, kicking up dust as he did so, and his cold, glimmering eyes, deep in the shadow cast by his peaked cap, darted around the tent at everything except me. His voice, when he finally summoned up the courage to speak once more, was quiet and stammering, compared to the rather more confident and impassioned explanation of his master plan about an hour earlier. The difference, I found, was quite startling and a little disconcerting.

“Can I... can I get you a drink?” he asked after a moment’s pause. A flicker of magic from his horn opened the small drinks cabinet, hitherto unnoticed by me, located just next to the writing desk nestled in the corner of the room. Contained therein were a number of cut crystal glass decanters, each filled to varying levels with amber, clear, or dark red liquids. Where the harsh morning light slipped through a small hole in the roof and struck the now opened cabinet, the expensive and finely wrought crystal, probably modelled on some ancient artefacts of the long-dead Crystal Empire [the Crystal Empire was restored as a vassal state after its return one thousand years after its disappearance and shortly after the completion of Operation Equestrian Dawn and the events Blueblood was describing, the consequences of which are described in later entries. Prior to its re-appearance, there was significant archaeological interest in the Crystal Empire, and luxury items styled upon ancient Crystal artefacts were very much in vogue] sparkled brightly and gave the myriad fluids these vessels bore a lustrous glow. Situated above these decanters on a separate shelf were a number of tumblers, goblets, and port glasses, all styled in that same, quite gaudy, style.

“It’s a little early in the morning for that, isn’t it?” I said dryly, though after that meeting I certainly felt I could do with something of sufficient strength as to wipe my memory of it.

Crimson Arrow did not answer, but instead trotted off towards his beloved drinks cabinet and chose a clear crystalline decanter a quarter filled with a deep amber-red liquid. He lifted it up, his pale blue aura wrapped around the rectangular glass vessel carved with diamond patterns, and examined it carefully before selecting two wide-bottomed brandy snifters decorated in the same design.

“I was saving this bottle,” he said as he pulled the spherical stopper from the decanter and placed it delicately aside. “Hors d’age brandy; hoof-crafted by the Prench monks of the monastery of Saint Ivrogne.”

I snorted. “How the devil did you get your hooves on that? I’ve been trying for years!” It was purported to be the very best by those very few ponies lucky enough to have actually sampled this incredibly rare beverage. Sadly, despite my esteemed position in the hierarchy of Equestria’s ruling class and my extensive network of vassals across the heartland of Canterlot, I found it nigh impossible for me to secure even a single bottle, which, for a time, led me to believe that there was some sort of conspiracy mustering against me.

A sly grin formed on his lips as he looked at me over his shoulder. “Anything is possible with the right connections,” he said vaguely, “you should know that.” He turned his attention back to the bottle and began decanting it into the two prepared snifters.

Holding the two goblets in his telekinetic grasp, each containing a measure of the dark amber-brown liquid that sloshed violently with every movement, he stepped cautiously towards me and offered a glass. “It was quite difficult to get this bottle, and I hoped that the two of us would be able to toast our victory together after Black Venom Pass. Well, we all know how that turned out.”

“Yes, quite,” I said, quite unsure of what to say. Nodding my head, I accepted the proffered glass, and his pale white aura surrounding was replaced by my deeper blue. I made a show of holding the drink up to the light, watching as the bright morning sun made the deep amber-brown liquid sparkle and shimmer as if diamonds had been immersed within.

“Today seems like as good a time as any,” he said, shrugging. “We may not get another chance now.” He held his glass up and tapped it against mine with a bright, chiming ‘clink’ noise. “To victory.”

“To victory.” I took a small sip of the brandy, taking the time needed to fully appreciate the distiller’s art. The aroma, which reached my nostrils a full second before this so-called ‘eaux-de-vie’ touched my lips, was strong, heady, and slightly reminiscent of vanilla. The drink itself failed to disappoint; it was smooth, luxurious, with a surprisingly complex taste which echoed dry fruit and strong finish that lingered pleasantly on my tongue. Absolutely divine; like kissing an angel.

As the pleasant warmth of the drink filled me—said to be magically enhanced to protect the imbiber from the effects of extreme cold which were obviously not needed here—I watched Crimson Arrow take a sip, too much and much too quickly, and as a result broke out into a violent fit of coughing and wheezing. It took him a while, but after briefly screwing up his face as if he had just bitten into a particularly sour orange that he was assured was perfectly sweet, he recovered admirably.

Crimson Arrow was the sort of stallion who fancied himself as one not only capable of holding his drink, but able to do so in a polite, refined, and classy way; the sort who can quite casually drink a shot of exceedingly strong and quite expensive liquor without appearing to choke on it, and the subsequent effect of which does not reduce one’s behaviour to what an uncouth commoner might call ‘shit-faced’. Sadly, the truth was rather different, and, as I watched him struggle to contain the burning sensation rising up his throat, the fond memory of having to carry him back to his billet from the officers’ billet after he had partaken of far too much port again brought a small smile to my lips.

“I’ve something to tell you,” he said as he placed his drink aside on the table, breathing a heavy sigh as he did so. He removed his cap, placed it on the table next to his drink, and smoothed down his dyed blue mane anxiously with a hoof. Licking his lips, he said, in a quiet voice as if he was trying to force himself to say something deeply unpleasant, “I’m leaving.”

Author's Notes:

Huzzah! Finally, another chapter!

Edit: fixed the colour formatting issues.

Bloodstained (Part 8)

“You’re leaving?” I echoed dumbly.

“Yes,” he answered flatly.

I took another slow and measured sip of my brandy as I tried to understand the full consequences of that statement, and put to order the chaotic mess of thoughts and emotions that raced through my mind. As I did so, General Crimson Arrow, who suddenly found one of the many maps on the table to be far more interesting than me, appeared greatly misshapen by the distorting effects of the wide, bowl-shaped glass levitating just before me. The notion took quite a while to sink in, and its subsequent ramifications for the war effort and, more importantly, my own safety, took even longer. Fortunately, taking that long, luxurious mouthful of the utterly perfect brandy did much to buy me time to organise my mind and formulate a response; a trick that I had learned from many a dull high society ball. At first I did not know what to make of this development, but my initial gut-reaction was one of relief; I had expected him to be as difficult to remove from his position as it is to extricate Auntie ‘Tia from a well-stocked pâtisserie, but rather he had appeared to be doing the honourable thing and resigning, seemingly of his own free will.

“When?” I asked finally.

“Don’t know. A few weeks, maybe.”

“May I ask why?”

“Politics,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Ah, I never tread there.” [Not strictly true, as Blueblood was a member of the House of Lords, though his actual attendance record is quite poor]

“The Foreign Office believes the Gryphons may take advantage of the chaos here and try to seize our holdings in Zebrica, so the Secretary of State for War’s suggested I voluntarily resign as commander of Army Group Centre to take command of the EEF [Equestrian Expeditionary Force – a Royal Guard formation set up to defend Equestria’s overseas colonies and allied native tribes in Equestria from possible Gryphon expansion] and Native Auxiliaries there. Of course, the Secretary of State for War knows about as much about war as she does about the concept of marital fidelity, which is sod all.” He frowned at me. “You worked under her when you had that desk job in the War Ministry.”

“Indeed I did.” I chuckled warmly, offering a knowing grin as I recalled fondly my brief time working under the Right Honourable Silk Sheets MP, Secretary of State for War at the time, and remembered with greater pleasure the not infrequent, but much more interesting, late night sessions where I was allowed to be on top. Though I did so with a slight pang of regret at the loss of such a carefree existence, one where I merely had to conceal a few youthful indiscretions with a combination of bribes and the threat of violence (from hired goons, of course; I’d prefer not to get my own hooves dirty), rather than my current situation of having to hide behind a dense tapestry of lies, dissembling, and arse-covering to avoid being exposed as the craven bastard that I truly am.

As I lowered my glass, peering into the deep amber drink that sloshed and churned with the gentle swirling motion that I applied to it, a common saying popped unexpectedly into my head: better the devil you know. Do not misunderstand me, dear reader, Crimson Arrow was a poor general; singularly deficient in the personal qualities and the organisational skills necessary for a general officer of his rank to prosecute a modern war, though, judging by the determination he had shown in organising this new offensive and his newfound openness to the opinions and suggestions of other, more experienced officers, he at least showed that he was willing to learn from his mistakes. I was happy to see him leave, and to do so quietly and without fuss so as to maintain what modicum of dignity he had left, but I feared that the pony who would replace him could be worse. Those fears, of course, would later prove to be well-founded, but, as the history books would attest, at the very least his replacements went through the metaphorical revolving door of commanders of Army Group Centre with sufficient rapidity so as not to cause too much lasting damage to the war effort, despite each coming up with new and creative ways of having me martyred for Equestria.

“You know,” I said carefully, pausing for a moment to try and select my words as diplomatically as possible. “That might be for the best.”

“Of course, of course.” He exhaled deeply, like a deflating balloon, and the mental image was made all the more apt as his shoulders slumped and his head hanged as if he had suddenly lost all motor control of his neck. Raising his head, he looked away from me, apparently out of a small gap in the tent fabric out at the soldiers milling around outside. “We both know what that really means,” he said, an inflection of defeat creeping into his normally refined accent. “They want rid of me without actually getting rid of me, so they simply transfer me to a dead-end post where I can leave and then simply fade away.”

His despair relented; his expression hardened and became, like mine, a mask of aristocratic detachment. Though outwardly, to the untrained eye, he appeared as a pitiful, broken wreck, a mere hollowed shell of the former outgoing and warm personality of a youthful stallion eager to please his betters and gain their acceptance, now made bitter and resentful for what had happened to him; if one looked closer beyond his tired, haggard appearance one could discern a hidden drive and determination that propelled him forth.

“I told the Princesses that I had done my duty,” he continued, “but the truth is that I simply didn’t. A soldier’s duty, your duty, is to follow orders to the letter and to fight like demons, and that’s it. Even in defeat, so long as a guardspony has done those two things he can take solace knowing that he has done his duty. A general’s duty is victory, pure and simple, and I failed to bring victory. There are two types of generals that ponies remember: good ones and bad ones; those that win battles, and those that lose them.”

Crimson Arrow enveloped with his magic the snifter of brandy, which he had left on the table beside him, and brought it just under his nose. I watched him carefully as he nursed his drink, gazing into it thoughtfully in the same manner as a fortune teller con artist does with a cup of stale tea for gullible tourists, and wondered vaguely where he was going with this impassioned speech.

“You don’t want to be remembered as a bad general,” I prompted, eager to get this awkwardness over and done with.

“Precisely.” Crimson nodded his head, and then took another sip of his drink. His face briefly screwed up at the burning sensation that all inexperienced drinkers feel when they swallow strong spirits too quickly, but this time he recovered with greater alacrity than before. An iron-clad hoof swept dramatically at the mass of maps and scrawled notes just beside us. “I want to put things right; one last opportunity to balance the books, as it were. Who knows? Maybe they’ll let me stay here.”

“Did you plan all of this by yourself?” I asked, indicating towards the mass of papers, notes, maps, and reports scattered across the table next to us.

He snorted in irritation. “Of course I did, what did you think I was doing for all this time?”

I gave a vague grunt of approval, though merely out of a complete lack of anything useful to say. I should, perhaps, have offered some small words of encouragement; trot out one of the useless, fatuous slogans dreamt up by the desk-bound lackeys in the Commissariat in the vain hope that would cheer him up, but the words seemed to choke and die in my throat before I could give voice to them. Anything I could have said to encourage him, to tell him that this was a marvellous plan that was certain to work and, once victory in Black Venom Pass had been finally achieved, the War Ministry’s small army of clerks and bureaucrats will prostrate themselves before his undoubted military genius, would have been unsettlingly premature. Despite the morale value of reassuring everypony that everything will turn out just fine and dandy, I often find, probably as a result of some sadistic clause in whatever rules of the universe Faust had written up during its creation, that upon such uttering such words everything goes massively pear-shaped.

Pear-shaped it did indeed become, regardless of my silence, but I’ll get to that later.

“As the Princess wills,” I said, for a lack of anything better. I don’t know whether it was merely a result of having been around the common soldiery for so long that I picked up that oft-used cliché, or whether it was that I have been thrust into so many situations that warrant the use of that particular phrase, but it seemed to me that I had started saying that quite a lot recently. I suspected, quite accurately, that I would be using that damned expression more and more in the future.

Feeling increasingly awkward, and in that rare situation of wanting to go and actually get on with my work, or, at the very least, appear to be doing so, I made an extravagant show of checking the time on my wristwatch. “I hate to cut this short, Crimson,” I said, stressing the informal use of his name, “but I have a few things to take care of today.”

Crimson Arrow gave a vague sort of shrug, idly swirling the brandy beneath his nose as he did so to coax the distinct aroma to collect in the bowl-shaped glass. “I expect you have more important things to do now,” he said, with a slight hint of sarcasm in his voice that was not entirely lost on me, though I decided to be diplomatic and not call him out on it.

I did indeed have some quite important duties to perform: taking care of the spiritual, moral, and ideological health of the regiment, weeding out the weak and incompetent, and making sure that Twilight Sparkle did not make too much of a nuisance of herself in pursuing her little research paper. Nothing too taxing, of course. Naturally, though I was open to any and all opportunities to getting out of doing any real work, especially if said work involved placing me in any sort of mortal peril, I knew that if I had spent all day with my former best friend, slowly getting drunker and drunker on a bottle of fine liquor that no doubt cost many times more than what a single guardspony earns in a year, minus stoppages, would not have done well to improve the slightly more egalitarian image I was trying to cultivate.

[During the early Changeling War, a private soldier of the Royal Guard was paid quite a handsome wage for the day. However, though it looked attractive on paper, and did much to entice needy and desperate recruits, this tidy sum was subjected ‘stoppages’ for their daily rations, clothing, armour, weapons, medical services, and so on. What was left after these stoppages varied according to regiments and the levels to which some unscrupulous officers and NCOs abused the system to steal soldiers’ wages, but for the most part it was rather paltry by contemporary standards. The practice was gradually phased out following the Twilight Sparkle Reforms, and fairer system of pay was put in place.]

I drained the last dregs of my brandy too quickly to properly appreciate the distiller’s art, but I felt it would have been a far worse crime to have not drunk it at all. “We must do this again sometime,” I said, the heady aftertaste of the drink still strong on my breath. “When all of this,” –I waved my hoof around at the trappings of military life around us; the maps, reports, paperwork, armour, weapons, and other army detritus– “is over.”

Only now, decades after, do I realise the foolishness of even contemplating that any of ‘this’ would ever be over. As young and immature as I was back then, though I had already developed that habitual cynicism that would save my wretched life again and again, I still held out false hope that when this war was over I could simply return to the life of indolence and idle luxury that had preceded it. Of course, that was not to happen; my military career would have no end, not after this war nor the wars that followed it until it began to utterly consume my life until there was nothing left but war. Even in my sleep, the only time I could truly let down that facade of heroism and become Blueblood again, withered and shallow as my true self had become over the years behind the masque, I was ever haunted by the numerous horrors that I had witnessed over the years; the faces of those unremembered fallen who had fought beside me, whose names and faces I cannot recall but forever appear in my dreams to judge me for having survived when they could not. [Princess Luna informs me that, like many veterans of wars, Blueblood suffered from severe nightmares. It is possible that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder in some capacity or survivors’ guilt, but if he did he seemed to be most adept at concealing it from those around him.]

Nevertheless, the younger and more naive version of me was very much looking forward to a return to some semblance of a ‘normal’ life, if one could consider any part of my life as being ‘normal’, and apparently Crimson Arrow was under the exact same misapprehension that I was. “I’d like that,” he said, as a thin smile crept over his dry lips. It was probably the first time that I had seen him in a state approaching genuine happiness since just before the Battle of Black Venom Pass. He paused, stammering as his lower jaw and lips worked to try and articulate whatever it was he wanted to say, but failed and finally just settled on, “Good luck out there.”

I thanked him, both for the much-needed luck and for the chance to sample that exquisite drink, and bade him good morning and farewell. Placing the now-empty snifter on the table, next to a small pile of broken quills and an ink pot that had been knocked over and spilt its contents over a relief map of the Macintosh Hills, I turned and ducked through the tent flap into the bright morning sunlight.

Blinking at the intense glare from Celestia’s sun, still fairly low on the horizon as it was still in the early stages of its daily journey across the skies, I sucked in a deep breath of the hot and muggy morning air. I felt quite ambivalent about what had just happened, and wondered whether or not I should have said or done anything different. Should I have done more to reassure him? Should I have offered him more aid? I don’t know, and looking back now I don’t think there was anything else I could have done to make the situation better; the matter of Crimson’s career was firmly out of my hooves and into the distant laps of unseen ponies hundreds of miles away, and anything else I could have said would have had very little practical value. The both of us were stallions quite unused to this modern fixation of constantly talking about one’s problems and emotions; raised as ponies of the upper class to be above the vast masses of commoners, our personal problems and issues could never be seen to be interfering with our duties as stewards of Equestria lest we lose face. To our kind, ‘face’, by which I mean prestige and honour, was everything, and to lose it by displaying any sort of weakness was to expose one to the circling sharks that infest the higher echelons of Equestria’s elite.

I shook my head, as if trying to shake these ridiculous thoughts out of my head; such self-indulgent introspection was not productive and there were far more important and more immediate things for me to worry about, like finding Shining Armour, making sure Red Coat was in a fit enough mental state to command, and the highly disturbing fact that Twilight Sparkle and Spike had been left in the encampment unsupervised. So focused was I on speaking with Shining Armour on the matter of his ill-advised choice of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter that I had completely forgotten about Twilight and Spike as they left the tent. It seems rather improbable that I would have lost track of something so important, especially when one considers just how much I’d fretted over the issue, but I believe I can be forgiven for such dereliction of duty given the great number of problems taking up space in my mind like overfed Neighponese sumo wrestlers jockeying for elbow room on a small dining table.

Well, it probably wasn’t that much of a big deal, I thought. Knowing Twilight as I did, she would likely have returned to the Night Guards' camp to pursue her research in earnest, probably with Captain Red Coat, so she was in a moderately safe pair of hooves for the time being. Resolving to head there to look for her, I stepped away from the relatively cool shade cast by the tent and into the swelteringly hot furnace that was mid-morning in Dodge Junction. The sun beat relentlessly down from a cloudless sky, which bore all the hallmarks of yet another uncomfortably warm day and an equally unpleasant cold night.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Shining Armour loitering nearby, leaning casually against the chest-high wall of sandbags that surrounded the command tent and making idle small talk with one of the sentries on duty there. From what I could understand, they chatted amicably about popular sports; a topic which I am most ignorant of, but I believe they discussed something about the Canterlot Canaries signing on a stallion who had scored more home runs than some other pony I had never heard of from the Manehatten Manatees [This is unlikely to be true, as the Canaries are a hoofball team and the Manatees played basketball. Blueblood’s taste in sports was mainly limited to fencing and croquet, as he often performed very poorly in team games in gym class]. I could not help but admire and, though I am loathe to admit it, envy the way that the Captain of the Royal Guard was able to ‘connect’ with the common soldiery on a level I could barely hope to imitate.

The sentry with whom Shining Armour was speaking showed none of the stilted awkwardness that enlisted ponies often exhibit on the rare occasion when an officer deigns to speak with them, especially one as senior as the Captain of the Royal Guard. He too leaned against the sandbag wall, legs crossed, and his spear resting in the crook of his foreleg in a manner that would have earned him many colourful threats from his sergeant that would have been both graphic in nature and anatomically improbable to actually follow through with, were he there to see it.

“Ah, Prince Blueblood!” greeted Shining Armour as I approached. “What hoofball team do you support?”

“East Trottingham,” I replied automatically; most of the soldiers of the 1st Night Guards supported them, often to the point nearing religious fervour, and I found it a damn sight easier to simply pay lip-service to their inane sports tournament rather than try and explain to the disbelieving ponies that I have about as much interest in their ‘beautiful game’ as I do in the complex workings of Canterlot’s ancient sewage system. I only had some small idea of how hoofball worked, but from what I could tell it involved two groups of fans of opposing teams coming together in a stadium for a brawl, and at some point during the riot, when the local militia moves in to restore some semblance of order, a hoofball match may break out.

[I should point out that Blueblood appears to have confused hoofball with soccer, which is understandable as Trottinghamites insist on referring to what the rest of Equestria calls soccer as hoofball. As I do not wish to get dragged into that argument, I shall refrain from revealing which definition I feel is correct.]

“Please excuse us,” I said, addressing the sentry, “but I need to borrow the Captain of the Royal Guard for a moment.” I offered a smile calculated to put the bewildered and slightly terrified pony at ease, but it was met with limited success; the relaxed and casual attitude that Shining Armour had so effortlessly induced in the guardspony had been completely and utterly ruined by my presence, and I could not help but feel slightly guilty about it. It appeared that Shining Armour too, like my divine Auntie Celestia, possessed that unique common touch that I so lacked and struggled to adopt.

Anyway, it was not like the stallion was in any position to refuse my ‘request’, not unless he had a death wish, so I discreetly tugged Shining Armour away by the hoof.

“So what did Crimson want?” asked Shining as we wandered away from the command tent. Both of our appointed areas of the encampment were in roughly the same direction, so, despite my internal misgivings about having this rather delicate conversation within earshot of scores of ponies, we walked and talked.

“He just wanted to run his plans by me,” I said, lying through my teeth. Rumours in the Royal Guard spread just as rapidly as venereal disease in the Trottingham slums, and I could foresee all sorts of turmoil creating even more headaches for me if anypony else had even gotten wind of Crimson Arrow’s resignation, especially if a politically-minded officer decided that he might take a stab at securing that now-vacant post. “From a commissar’s perspective, of course, to see if the operation fits with the greater political and ideological aims of the war.”

“Hmm, I see,” he said, in a manner that suggested that he did not quite believe me, and I faintly wondered if the smell of liquor was strong enough to be noticeable on my breath. If Shining Armour had noticed he was polite enough to keep it to himself. “And did it?”

“I could think of no objections.” We stepped out of the small cluster of tents that made up the administrative hub of Army Group Centre, ringed by labyrinths of sandbag walls and entrenchments, and into the small area of wilderness that formed a ‘no pony’s land’ between the Crimson Arrow’s small paperwork factory and the regimental camps, surrounding the command sections like a moat around a medieval castle. There, we could afford some small modicum of privacy from eavesdroppers, save for a few patrols and the occasional runner. “What do you make of it?”

Shining Armour shrugged, which made his gold and purple-lacquered armour clatter noisily. “It’s bold. If we can pull this off I might think about forgiving that bastard for leaving the 3rd Regiment out to die like that.”

I nodded, hearing the undertones of resentment plain in his voice. Shining Armour was never a pony to mince words, though I largely suspected that was merely a result of his somewhat limited grasp of the Equestrian language as much as it was his forthrightness and uncompromising dedication to the ponies under his command. Though in the case of his autobiography it would be more accurate to say that he liquified words rather than minced them. “Speaking of the offensive,” I said, trying to awkwardly segue into what I wanted to see him about in the first place. “Lieutenant Scarlet Letter.”

“What about him?” Shining Armour frowned, looking remarkably like some sort of primitive simian trying to comprehend the concept of written language as he did so.

I sucked in a deep breath through my teeth, and idly kicked away some tumbleweed that had dared to block my path, as I tried to think of a way to explain to him that I thought that his choice of the officer commanding the unicorn platoon was completely and utterly moronic, but not quite so bluntly so as to avoid hurting his feelings.

“It’s not my place to critique your command decisions,” I said, knowing damn well that the ridiculous hat resting upon my head and the scarlet sash tied about my waist most certainly made it my place, no, my duty to do so, but I’ve found that other ponies tend to feel better about something if they think that they have some say in the proceedings. “But when I had the pleasure of meeting him yesterday, he made some rather off-colour remarks about the ponies of my regiment. I fear that in this coming offensive his attitude problem may lead to greater friction in the flanking battalion, which will compromise the close co-operation between our respective regiments vital to the success of this operation.”

Shining Armour snorted and shook his head emphatically. “I like to think I know my own subordinates,” he said, but despite his words there was little venom or malice in his voice. His usual cocky grin allayed my fears that I may have overstepped my mark with that bit of rambling politico-speak. “But no, you’re right; he does have an attitude problem, which is exactly why I’ve put him forward for the flanking battalion in the first place.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your logic.” I arched an eyebrow quizzically, wondering if the Captain of the Royal Guard had been out in the sun with his armour on for too long and the heat had boiled what little brains he has.

“What better way for him to overcome his stupid prejudices than fighting alongside the ponies he looks down his perfumed nose at? Besides, you’ll be there to keep him on the straight and narrow. One hoof out of line, and... well, I’ll leave that one up to you. I can’t think of better ponies to mould him into a proper and dutiful officer than you and your Night Guards. Besides, he expressed a keen interest in working with you.”

“Hmm, did he now?” I intoned sceptically. Perhaps Shining Armour was right; if the ordeals of battle had forced me to re-evaluate my opinions on social class, then it was just as likely that a similar such experience would prove sufficiently horrifying as to effect the same change in Scarlet Letter as it did in me. There was, however, one fatal flaw in Shining’s idea, other than his rather misguided faith in my abilities, of course, but I was not about to blow my cover by telling him that. “That’s assuming things will go well,” I explained, “there’s always the chance that they won’t.”

“Then he’ll have no choice but to keep quiet,” said Shining Armour, with a slightly conspiratorial edge inflecting his voice. Despite the apparent seriousness of our conversation, the cocky, self-assured grin that had graced the thousands of recruitment posters pasted up on the walls of Canterlot’s streets remained affixed to his face, as if it was some sort of permanent deformity that just happened to send the volatile hormones of young mares into a lust-fuelled overdrive on sight. “If he’s found wanting then we can simply have him cashiered, or executed. That is your job, after all, Commissar.”

I chuckled, recalling the words that Auntie Luna had spoken to me when I first donned the skull-faced cap: ‘fear ensures loyalty’. The prodigious amount of power now available at my hooves did have its advantages, I suppose; it was merely a matter of learning how to use it properly without making too many enemies. Despite the rational, intelligent part of my mind agreeing totally with Shining Armour, which in itself was an extremely rare occurrence that worried me not inconsiderably, the itching in my hooves had refused to go away. There was always that nagging, irritating little voice telling me that it was all going to go ‘royally tits-up’, as Major Starlit Skies would have so eloquently put it.

The short gulf between the administrative hub and the main body of the encampment had been crossed by now, and soon we were weaving our way around the myriad tents, armouries, bivouac sites, and parade grounds that made up this vast sprawl in the desert. We passed few ponies; only a few sentries on patrol and a couple of runners relaying important messages and many more unimportant ones between officers, but at this time of the morning most of the soldiers would already be well into their morning routines of training, drill, and indoctrination.

I stepped gingerly around a small mound of scrap metal, broken swords and shattered armour plates, piled haphazardly by an armoury ready to be melted down and re-forged so as to be of use to the war effort once more. The discarded armour, strewed out on the dusty ground by the open tent flap, was for the most part broken and probably irreparable; they were cracked, crumpled in by bucking Changeling hooves or ripped apart by fangs, and in some cases appeared to be covered in a thick layer of dark brown rust. Upon closer inspection, however, I saw that it was not rust, but rather dried blood, and only then did I realise that the armour and weapons had been taken from the dead.

[The metal used in Royal Guard armour and certain weapons is a magically enchanted high grade steel alloy. The exact spells and forging processes used are a national secret, the entirety of which is known only by a select few ponies in the War Ministry and the Royal College of Magi, and regimental armourers are taught only that which is sufficient to their job of maintaining arms and armour. As the manufacture of new armour and enchanted weaponry is such an involved and lengthy process, the Royal Guard places a great emphasis on re-using and recycling old and worn-out armour. A guardspony’s armour may therefore contain components hundreds if not thousands of years old, previously worn by countless soldiers before them.]

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” I said, trying to ignore the morbid sight before me. “But you do rely on his support in Parliament.”

Shining Armour suddenly stopped, and the grin on his face vanished to be replaced a deep, worried frown, and I wondered for a brief moment if I had crossed a line there. I did not know just how public his troubles with Parliament were, as I assumed that everypony knew about it, but then again, the House of Commons seemed to operate on the theory that they will earn more support from their electorate if nopony had any clue what they were up to. Not that it truly bothered me, as the post of the Captain of the Royal Guard was inviolate, appointed solely by Princess Celestia, but the idea that we could lose one of the few officers actually capable of performing his role properly to the infantile politicking of power-hungry demagogues, the majority of whom wouldn’t know what a war was if one turned up and gave them all haircuts, was most disconcerting. Nevertheless, I warily glanced around to make sure that nopony could overhear us, which would have been a daunting prospect at the best of times considering the endless cacophonic background noise that pervaded this encampment, and then pulled him gently behind the armoury.

“You have my full support,” I said, trying to help reassure him, for what good my support would have actually done him. The shade of the armoury, from which the sound of iron hammers pounding on hot steel resounded with the low hum of magical enchantment, provided some much-needed respite from the heat of the sun.

“Thank you,” he said awkwardly, apparently finding the fact that the two of us could bear each other’s company for more than five minutes without coming to blows just as confusing as I did. “But if all goes well, I won’t be needing his support, or yours, for that matter.”

“Oh?” I cocked my head to one side. “Why’s that?”

Shining Armour leaned in uncomfortably close to me, as if to impart some highly secret piece of information, and I instinctively stepped back away from him to allow myself some much-needed personal space. “Equestrians love a good winner,” said Shining Armour. “When we give the ponies the victory they crave, they’ll forget all about the mess I made of the defence of Canterlot.”

I snorted contemptuously. “Canterlot was not your fault,” I said sotto voce.

“Heh, you know... it doesn’t matter how many times ponies keep telling me that, I still can’t quite convince myself of it.” He shook his head, twisting up his face into a slightly pained expression before his habitual irritating yet charming smile returned to his lips, and waved a hoof dismissively. “Never mind all that garbage, it’s not important. Don’t you worry about me, Blueblood, victory wipes away all dishonour. I’ll catch you later, if Twiley doesn't have you run ragged trying to keep up with her.”

With that, Shining Armour snapped off a parade ground-quality salute, which I reciprocated without nearly as much alacrity and precision as he did, before he cantered away to do whatever duties the Captain of the Royal Guard was supposed to perform at this hour. As I watched him be subsumed into the amorphous mass of white fur, gold armour, and canvas tents that made up this vast, sprawling encampment, I took a brief moment to straighten up my uniform so I looked at least halfway presentable. I was feeling a little pensive, with that strange sort of lethargy that comes with the knowledge that one’s fate has been placed firmly out of one’s control, like a jar of biscuits placed on a shelf just out of one’s reach, and I contemplated simply wandering out into the desert to live as a hermit subsisting on tumbleweed and cactus juice.

I confess I was rather more stunned by the notion that Shining Armour was perhaps more intelligent than his appearance and behaviour would otherwise imply, as not only was he cognisant that Scarlet Letter, either through incompetence or malice, may end up jeopardising the success of this mission (and, more importantly, my hopes of living a long and happy life) but appeared to have adjusted his plans to either redeem Scarlet or at least keep him in line. Granted, I still thought it was a staggeringly daft plan that relied upon the two dubious assumptions that the operation would proceed without any major hiccups and that Scarlet Letter was of sound mind and rational bearing, but, considering that I had failed to come up a suitable alternative, I felt I had very little choice but to go along with it. Of course, I could have pulled rank and forced Shining Armour to do my bidding, but the fact was that my dislike of Scarlet Letter was based on a personal, paranoid distrust of the pony and not a professional critique of his competence as an officer; he could have made an excellent officer, for all I knew. While Shining Armour would have likely acquiesced to that demand, I was all but certain that Scarlet Letter would use his many connections in the higher echelons of the War Ministry and the Commissariat to make my life very difficult. Well, more difficult than it was already.

I decided that Scarlet Letter was just not worth getting so stressed over, not when I had far more important threats to my life to contend with, like Twilight Sparkle. It was probably best to find her as soon as possible, lest I come back later and find a large smoking crater a mile wide where the Night Guards’ camp used to be. So, reluctantly, I walked away from the cool shade and into the burning sun, and straight into a soldier who had been lurking just around the corner.

“Ooph!” The pony bounced off my chest and fell on her backside with a clatter of armour and flailing hooves. She was a unicorn mare of the Night Guards, and probably quite an attractive little thing underneath all of that armour and without those fangs, eyes, and other morbid accoutrements that Auntie Luna seems to like. Despite failing to recognise her, as there were nearly a thousand or so ponies in the whole regiment and I could not possibly remember the names and faces of each and every one of them (though it is prudent for a commissar to give the impression that he does), there was something very familiar about her, but for the life of me I just could not put my hoof on it.

“Sorry about that, guv’nor!” she exclaimed, her accent sounding curiously fake. It was the sort of accent that a pony who has never been to Trottingham fondly imagines what ponies from that great metropolis sound like; for starters, nopony there has ever called anypony else ‘guv’nor’ for hundreds of years, unless they were trying to squeeze more money out of tourists.

“Do watch where you’re going,” I snapped, gently pushing the mare aside with a hoof as I stepped around her. Feeling a more than a little embarrassed at having so carelessly walked into her, and wanting nothing more than to get away before the scene escalated, I left her sitting on her rear in the dust and continued my journey.

“Toodle-pip!” she called out as I departed.

Ordinarily, I would have paid the event no further mind, but the itching in my hooves forewarned me that things were definitely not what they first appeared, which, of course, would vindicate my suspicions later that day. There was the issue of her accent; having spent quite a significant amount of my time over the past few weeks surrounded by ponies from Trottingham, I like to think I had by then worked out their odd and idiosyncratic manner of speech, particularly in their dialect, as I recall one highly embarrassing incident where I learned that to them the word ‘fanny’ pertains to a lady’s front bottom. Of course, there was a rational explanation for this – she could have been from Ponyville and merely putting on that accent, quite unsuccessfully, in a misguided attempt to fit in. [Though the 1st Night Guard is supposed to recruit only from the Trottingham area, a lack of new recruits meant that the recruiting sergeants often had to resort to using the city’s many prisons or range further afield to the surrounding towns and villages such as Ponyville. This lack of recruits, however, would not last long, as Blueblood’s fame meant an influx of ponies signing up to fight alongside their hero.] What she was doing this far away from the regiment, I don’t know, and frankly I did not care.

Safe in the knowledge that things could not possibly get any worse, I kept walking. Little did I know, however, that things were only just starting to go wrong.

***

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Twilight had behaved herself while I was gone, which, in itself was doubly surprising; anything pleasant happening that involved Twilight was an extremely rare occurrence. There were no magical mishaps, incurable curses, hexes, cantrips, or any repeat of the nameless horrors of her fifth grade chemistry set awaiting me as I cantered back to my tent. No, when I found them, she was quite happy sitting outside of her tent with Spike, who most certainly was not happy, observing as the soldiers performed their drill meticulously to the loud directions of a sergeant intermixed with colourful threats of obscene violence.

The rest of the day proceeded as normal, albeit with Twilight lingering around me as if we were joined at the hip. I did my best to ignore her, but I must admit that finding her continual presence, and that of Spike and the ever-present sound of his quill scratching on paper and his occasional complaint about how boring things were, to be quite grating. After taking a particularly dreadful show put on by the RASEA in the afternoon, which the two researchers decided not to attend, not that I could blame them considering the abysmal quality of the entertainment on hoof, I retired to my tent for the evening to start work on my letters.

A not-insignificant amount of my work was generated by receiving, reading, and responding to letters. The majority of my letters, I’m sure, had probably vanished in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the War Ministry, to be found centuries after my inevitable death and then burnt for kindling. However, with Spike present, the odious little reptile finally proved himself to be useful for once in providing a means for me to communicate directly with the two Princesses. As vindictive and passive-aggressive as it might seem, I had elected to give voice to my frustrations at being forced into this unpleasant situation by using him to send as many letters to Princess Luna as possible. [Contrary to what he has just written, his correspondence with the War Ministry and Princess Luna, the majority of which merely pertains to the bureaucratic minutiae of the Regiment, was received and collected for posterity. Readers wishing to illuminate themselves further will find these letters stored in the Canterlot Archives.]

It was just starting to grow dark as I dictated my latest letter to Princess Luna, and the mosquitoes were out in force once more. The light, gently tinged with a slight amber hue, flooded in through the open tent flap as I paced up and down the front office area and dictated to Cannon Fodder, who sat at his desk. Twilight, too, was there, lying on her stomach as she looked over the reams and reams of notes she had made that day, while Spike appeared to be passing the time by doodling in the sand with a claw. From what I had heard, he most certainly wasn’t enjoying his time here, which cheered me up immensely. Ordinarily I might have closed that tent flap to afford myself some modicum of privacy, but the heat had grown so unbearable that day that I was quite willing to sacrifice that to get some air in, despite feeling like I had been put on display like a prize on a game show. Just outside, the soldiers milled about aimlessly during their off-duty period; relaxing by camp fires, drinking tea, smoking, and indulging in card games and the sort of raucous banter that the lower orders enjoy.

“ ‘...as such, owing to the extremely poor quality of writing in the Royal Infantrypony’s Uplifting Primer, even by the abysmally low standards of the Ministry of Information’s recent outputs, I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend this book for publication and dissemination.’” Cannon Fodder frantically scrawled down my words on some yellowed paper with his usual disregard for legibility. “ ‘Yours Sincerely’... well, you know the rest.”

I stopped pacing and looked over his shoulder to make sure that he actually placed my name there, for his unyieldingly literal interpretation of orders meant that there was a very real chance he would sign that letter ‘Yours Sincerely, well, you know the rest’. Fortunately, he appeared to have learnt his lesson from last time and had scrawled ‘H.R.H Commissar Prince Blueblood’ there.

“Oh, and put a postscript at the bottom there,” I said, suddenly recalling some other important point that I wanted to make. “ ‘Please pass this onto the director of the Royal Armed Services Entertainment Association: the entertainer known as the Great and Powerful Trixie is to be henceforth banned forever from all future RASEA entertainment events following an incident today that resulted in the Horsetralian Engineers voicing their displeasure of her act by attempting to burn down the stage. Those soldiers have since been commended by their commanding officer, a sentiment which, if you have had the great misfortune to have seen her act, you will understand perfectly. I can confirm that Trixie has survived the ordeal, but she appears to have fled and her whereabouts are unknown.’”

Cannon Fodder added the finishing touches to the letter, dotting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s’, or the other way around as he sometimes got the two letters mixed up. Apparently satisfied with the legibility of the letter he passed it over to me, and thus ensuring he got a good amount of his saliva as he picked it up with his mouth. Taking it gingerly with my magic, I rolled it up neatly and tied a ribbon around it, before affixing a wax seal bearing my family crest, a single drop of blood within a kite shield. Satisfied that it looked halfway presentable, which is the most important thing when it comes to sending letters to royalty, I offered it over to Spike.

“Direct to Princess Luna, please,” I said.

Spike snorted, making no attempt at disguising his boredom or displeasure at being trapped with me for an extended period of time. Not that I could particularly blame him; even I found my own company to be rather tedious at times. The feeling, of course, was more than mutual, but at least I had the courtesy to feign politeness; the memory of the time he ate my homework, which, admittedly, I had forced Twilight to complete for me, was still quite fresh in my mind at that point. “Fine,” he said, his voice positively dripping with unconcealed irritation as he grabbed the scroll from my telekinetic grasp, but not before muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘who knew war was so boring?’.

Having never seen the magical transmission of mail through dragons’ fire in action before, and curious to see the one and only thing that Spike was actually useful for, I watched with mild interest as the lambent green fire issued forth from his maw and enveloped the scroll, apparently without burning himself [dragons’ skin, of course, is very resistant to fire]. The paper was immolated utterly; the resultant ashes swirled in the air, coalescing into a vague sort of cloud, and were swept on whatever arcane means Spike uses to direct these letters to and from the Royal Pony Sisters. [The exact mechanisms on how dragons’ breath works is far too complex to explain in these annotations, and quite inconsequential to the analysis of this text. Those curious, however, are encouraged to read chapter seven of Scientific Method’s authoritative but unfinished work ‘Treatise on the Biology of Dragons and Dragonkin’, published posthumously after his unfortunate death by immolation when testing the hypothesis that living creatures could be transported in the same manner as paper.]

The letter, however, seemed to have other ideas, and materialised inches in front of the surprised face of a seemingly random soldier, loitering a few feet away from my tent flap. She yelped in surprise, flinching back slightly as the scroll dropped to the dusty ground at her forehooves.

I did not know much about the magic of dragons’ fire breath, though for that matter I did not know much about magic full stop, but I had sufficient knowledge to realise that should not have happened. As Spike scrambled to his feet in a clumsy flail of stubby limbs, the look of abject surprise on his face indicated that, for once, we were in complete agreement. Reluctantly, with nopony else available to ask for an explanation as Twilight was in the middle of a study binge and therefore completely isolated from the external material world save for the parchment laid out before her, I looked to Spike for an answer.

“That’s not supposed to happen!” he blurted out, his ability to state the blindingly obvious in no way compromised by the intense heat of the day or his boredom. “I mean...” He frowned, looking remarkably like a ruminating bovine as he did so. “I mean, it should only go to Princess Luna because I told it to. And only the Royal Pony Sisters can receive mail like that, so...”

“That must be Princess...” I stopped, unable to finish that sentence for to do so would imply something quite horrible, but nevertheless the evidence there and, if Spike was correct, completely irrefutable. It should have been impossible; I saw both of my divine Aunties leave on their golden chariot just yesterday, but as both are beings of immense magical power, such that none but they and their kin can even conceive of the eldritch nature of their magics, the word ‘impossible’ more often than not just did not apply to them. It was not beyond the realms of believability that Princess Luna could mask her shape and form, for I was well aware of her new annual tradition of taking the appearance of the hated Nightmare Moon and scaring ponies for what I could only imagine as foalish amusement, but if whether she could at the same time create an illusion great enough to fool Auntie ‘Tia was another matter entirely.

“Uh, Blueblood?” Spike poked me in the foreleg, and the frantic, panicky thoughts that had flooded my mind in a vain attempt to understand it all ceased.

I looked at the mare, who, to my surprise, was still there. I recognised her belatedly as the pony who had bumped into me from the way back from my conversation with Shining Armour, and as I saw the stern and condescending expression on her face, and the menacing demeanour of cold and calculating superiority in her posture, I knew it could be nopony else. She picked up the letter with her magic; the aura that surrounded the scroll was one that I had seen many times before, most notably enveloped around me as I was suspended upside down, while Luna bellowed in my face for having groped the flanks of a passing servant mare.

There was only one way to find out for sure, though, so I darted through the tent flap and seized her. The mare emitted a high-pitched yelp of surprise as I wrapped my forelegs around her, and squirmed slightly. The lack of more vigorous resistance was a little surprising, but as she tilted her face up towards mine I saw a slightly defeated and guilty look to her. A part of me hoped that I was correct, because if anypony else was watching it looked as if I had just abducted a random mare.

I pulled her back into the tent. By now, Twilight Sparkle had torn her attention away from her research notes and looked at me with a decidedly bemused expression that implied that she had only just started paying attention to what was going on, and just saw me dragging in a mare without any context at all.

“So it’s come to this? You’re just foalnapping mares... now...”

Twilight’s words died away in her throat as I stepped through the threshold into the tent, and within a sufficiently close distance for Cannon Fodder’s magical null field to take effect, and thus vindicate my suspicions. A flash of light, and almost instantly the mare held between my forelegs grew considerably and, though I am certain she will not find it particularly flattering, much heavier too. Dropping her, and stepping back to close the tent flap from prying eyes, I beheld Princess Luna, sans armour and regalia, sitting there and looking about as guilty as a small puppy next to a pair of chewed slippers.

“You’re nicked, chum,” I said in a clumsy imitation of her false Trottingham accent, unable to resist the urge to tease her a little.

Luna offered a slight, awkward, and guilty smile as she shuffled nervously before me. “It’s a fair cop, guv’,” she said, again with her fake accent, “you’ve got me bang to rights.”

Author's Notes:

In the course of writing this, I have discovered that the optimum amount of alcohol to drink while writing is just under two glasses of red wine, any more than that and it just becomes impossible.

Bloodstained (Part 9)

Part Nine

Of all of us in that tent, which was starting to feel more than a little cramped with three unicorns, an alicorn, and a baby dragon sharing the same space as a fold-out desk and a few haphazardly strewed piles of paperwork and barely-hidden pornographic magazines, it was Cannon Fodder who appeared to be the least perturbed. Indeed, the only indication that he was even the slightest bit concerned about the sudden appearance of Princess Luna in our tent was the slight dislodgement of a few flecks of grime on his forehead, caused by his brow knitting together in a sort of confused frown. He looked to me, then to Luna, and then back to me. Upon deciding that, like everything else, I had all of this under control (which I most certainly did not), he asked, “Would the Princess like some tea?”

Princess Luna looked taken aback by the question, as, I admit, was I. She inclined her head towards my aide, and a soft smile came to her elegant muzzle. “Yes, thank you, Cannon Fodder, that’s very kind of you.”

Looking inordinately proud of himself, and quite oblivious to the disturbing implications of Princess Luna having run away to join the Royal Guard that were racing through my mind like a mob of excitable and very loud terriers, he retrieved a standard ‘Guard issue vacuum flask’ from one of the many non-regulation pouches and bags that festooned his ill-fitting armour. [Customisation of Royal Guard equipment is firmly against Princesses’ Regulations; however, it is rarely enforced by any but the most pedantic of officers. It is unlikely that any officer would have had the necessary confidence to confront Cannon Fodder about it, anyway, much less in his capacity as the Commissar’s aide.] As he busied himself decanting the murky brown fluid that passes for tea here into a stained mug, I shuffled anxiously from hoof to hoof as I stood before a very embarrassed Princess Luna.

To say that I was uneasy about this entirely unexpected development would be like saying Princess Celestia is only just slightly taller than most ponies; it felt as if a snake, ice cold and slimy, had wormed its way around my guts and was squeezing for dear life, and then gnawing upon my rapidly beating heart for good measure. Of course, the mere presence of the darker of my two divine aunties invariably has that effect on most ponies; being fully capable of reducing grown stallions to sobbing wrecks, though the aura of malice that usually accompanies her like the stench of body odour around Cannon Fodder was somewhat muted by uncharacteristically sheepish demeanour. Exactly how and for what purpose she had decided to grace us with her presence I knew not, but my initial gut reaction, which has an irritating tendency to be right far too often to be comfortable, was that it was all something that I should certainly be afraid of. The thought that she might have decided that the Changeling army was taking far too long to rip me limb from limb, and that she would rather come here and do it herself, made a very loud and unwelcome entrance into my mind.

“Puh... Princess Luna?” said Twilight dumbly, her eyes so wide open that I feared they may drop out of her skull and onto the dirt by her forehooves. “Is that you?”

Princess Luna arched an eyebrow imperiously, and inclined her head towards her elder sister’s prized pupil sitting just slightly behind her. “Of course,” she said, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “Who else might I be?”

“Nightmare Moon?” posited Spike, tactful as always.

Luna scoffed, but otherwise ignored Spike’s outburst. She enveloped with her dark aura the mug of hot tea that Cannon Fodder offered her. “Thank you,” she said with a grateful smile, causing my aide to blush, or rather, the muck on his face to be tinted a slightly red colour, as he retreated back behind his desk. The mug was held just before her lips, and the hot steam that coalesced in ghostly wisps around her elegantly proportioned face, wreathing around her muzzle and disturbing the gentle wafting of her ethereal mane, gave my Auntie’s usual haunting, otherworldly nature a rather more daemonic appearance that did little to help quell my anxiety. Summoning what tiny iota of courage that I had left within the shallow husk of what remains of my withered soul, I stood before her and pulled what I hoped was a suitably stern expression, like the sort I make when a servant has failed to shine my shoes to an appropriately high sheen.

“I think I’d like an explanation now,” I said, trying to present the sort of calm poise and quiet self-assurance that everypony seemed to expect of me, but which I very rarely actually felt.

“Please don’t tell my sister,” she said, a tremor of anxiety inflecting her normally refined voice. I was rather taken aback by this, but I suppose it should really have come as no surprise to me that the one pony that Luna might fear, or, at the very least, respect as an equal or greater, was her elder sister; except, of course, Faust, but considering how our deity has been rather silent concerning the affairs of mortals and that matters of theology were far beyond my understanding, or caring, I dismissed that thought. To see her so shaken, however, in contrast to the supreme confidence and the arrogant, superior condescension that she otherwise exuded from every pore of her immortal body, if she indeed had them, was quite jarring for me and, if anything, put me completely wrong-hoofed. Indeed, I was so flummoxed by the concept that Luna would be disconcerted by anything at all that I struggled for a moment to think of what to say next.

I hope, dear reader, that you will at least empathise with me when I say that, for a brief second, I felt some small amount of foal-like glee at this sudden reversal of fortunes, especially when one considers my past animosity with her, which was based almost entirely upon her peculiar objection to me even daring the share the same plane of existence as she did. With but a single letter to dear, sweet Auntie ‘Tia, then still immersed in negotiations with the native buffalo near Appleloosa as far as I was aware [I was chairing the discussions between the buffalo chieftains and Appleloosa officials for what would later become known as the Treaty of Appleloosa, which definitively settled the Buffalo Question], I could single-hoofedly ruin Luna’s insane plan, whatever it was. Exactly what scheme Auntie Luna had in mind I did not know, but whatever it was it could hardly be conducive to my continued mortal existence. Of course, the thought that she could have me murdered quite gruesomely (and legally, though I’m sure Celestia might want to give her a stern talking to) before I could even open my mouth to dictate that letter to Cannon Fodder had occurred to me, so reason prevailed and I decided against that idea until I could ascertain by just how much Luna’s plan was going to put my life in peril, and whether risking Luna’s wrath was truly worth the modicum of satisfaction I would have received.

“Does she know that you’re here?” I asked at length. The question was a stupid one; of course Princess Celestia did not know that she had run away, if she had found out, I like as not would not be having this conversation in the first place. Or so I thought, at least.

Luna shook her head. “She believes I have flown back to Canterlot to ‘sulk’, as she put it.”

“And what happens when the guards at Canterlot report to Celestia that you still haven’t arrived?” I asked, unable to resist sounding smug as I did so. “Did you consider that?”

“Actually, I arrived at the palace this morning,” said Luna, taking a sip of her tea to conceal a knowing, enigmatic smile that started to unsettle me, “and I’m still there, after a fashion.”

A quick glance in Twilight’s direction confirmed that, like me, she too was rather perplexed by Luna’s answer, which was actually quite reassuring in an odd way; if the pony purporting to be the most intelligent and magically proficient mare alive was having as much difficulty comprehending something as I was, then surely it was not my fault for not having paid enough attention in school.

When Luna lowered her mug of hot tea, and in the dimming light of dusk and the soft blue glow of her magic the steam emanating from her drink took on an increasingly sepulchral look reminiscent of the smoke created by burning joss sticks in Cathayan funeral rites, her smug grin was replaced by a concerned frown. “Are neither of you at all familiar with the simulacrum spell?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Twilight tapped a hoof to her chin thoughtfully, frowning in concentration as she did so. “It sounds familiar,” she muttered, half to herself. “I think it’s referenced in the texts of Starswirl the Bearded, but so much of his work has been lost in the Nightmare Heresy,” [Specifically, the Great Library of Canterlot was burned to the ground during the siege by the Legions of the Nightmare, and in the conflagration a great many irreplaceable ancient texts and treatises were sadly lost, including the complete works of the great scholar Starswirl the Bearded, of which only a few disjointed fragments remain.] – Luna noticeably stiffened when that particular sad event was mentioned – “but nopony has been able to find enough of the fragments of the spell to make it work, and nopony’s even completely sure what it does. The academic consensus is that it’s a very elaborate illusion spell; completely impossible to tell apart from the real thing.”

Luna chuckled, swilling her mug of tea just before her elegant muzzle. “Very good,” she said, and Twilight’s face lit up with that same broad smile I remembered being on the receiving end of many a teacher’s compliments, “but wrong.”

The smile vanished. “Huh?”

“A simulacrum is most certainly not a primitive illusion; it is a physical construct given flesh and form by magic, and commanded by a powerful mind as if it were merely an extension of one’s own body. It is little more than a marionette, propelled by strings of magic to resemble the real thing so perfectly as to be nigh impossible to differentiate between the simulacrum and its master. The Princess Luna that you saw boarding the royal chariot yesterday was one such construct, and it is that construct that is now staring vacantly into space inside my personal chambers, and will then attend a meeting with the Neighponese ambassador tomorrow.”

Well, it sounded plausible, but as I was hardly the right pony to judge whether such a thing could even be attempted outside of the insane fever dreams of the most unbalanced scholars of the College of Magi, as far as I was concerned Luna could have been talking complete and utter nonsense and I still would have bought it. Judging by the enraptured expression on Twilight’s face, however, like a filly being presented with a little puppy for Hearth’s Warming, it must have been at the very least possible. Either that or she was just as gullible as I was. At any rate, exactly how Princess Luna came to be here while somehow fooling her elder sister, assuming that she wasn’t in on this whole affair in the first place, was quite irrelevant; the fact of the matter was that she was right here now and I should probably do something about it.

So I gave a vague sort of shrug, as if all of this had somehow made sense. “That explains how you’re here,” I said, wanting to get to the real issue here before we could get sidetracked further by an entirely pointless, albeit intellectually stimulating, academic discussion on ancient magics. “But it doesn’t explain why.

The thought did occur to me that Princess Celestia had sent Luna here to keep an eye on Twilight and I, but that theory just did not add up in my mind, especially considering the awkward body language that most certainly implied that she was most anxious about being caught by her elder sister, unless she happened to be a tremendously good actress. I like to think that all the dissembling and arse-covering that I’ve been doing since my early teens to avoid getting into trouble has meant that ‘reading’ other ponies trying to pull the same trick on me is one of the very few things that I’m actually good at (not getting lost easily underground, seducing mares, lying, and an odd gift for picking up languages being chief amongst my very limited repertoire of useful skills). [Blueblood spent most of his early childhood with his father, who ruled as viceroy of various Equestrian colonies and often went on exploring expeditions into the unknown. Therefore, he has become quite proficient in the varied dialects of Zebrica, Coltcutta, and Gryphon.]

“I was bored,” Luna said flatly, inspecting a hoof with a casual disinterest as she did so. “I am a mare of action, and I tire of waging war from afar with forms and meetings and petty bureaucracy. I desire to see this war up close, as I have done in ages past.”

“Bored?” I echoed, a little too impetuously, but only in a vain effort to try and convince myself that she had actually said something that staggeringly daft. A gentle nod from her confirmed it. I looked frantically to Twilight, Spike, and Cannon Fodder to check if I had just lost my mind, which was becoming increasingly likely as this war dragged on. “Most ponies,” I continued slowly, licking my dry, parched lips, “usually pick up a hobby when they’re bored. They don’t run away to join the bloody army!”

“It’s not like you’re going to find anything fun here anyway,” grumbled Spike.

Luna scowled at me, apparently not used to being snapped at in such a disrespectful manner, and, frankly, I was quite surprised myself at having done so, as normally my sense of self-preservation is strong enough to stop me doing stupid things like that, but considering that this insane mare was perfectly happy to put the lives of thousands of ponies here and the fate of the war itself at risk just to alleviate a vague sense of ennui was the culmination of what had been an exceedingly unpleasant day for me I think I can be excused for such behaviour. Looking back, it was the sheer flippancy of her explanation that truly vexed me; it implied that she either did not care about the effect her little escapade would have on my life or the thought just never occurred to her. Under that contemptuous scowl, the metaphorical spine that I had spontaneously grown withered and died, and I was left once more like a frightened foal in front of a monster.

“Forgive me for my rudeness,” I said, the rapid apology stumbling awkwardly from my mouth. I knew from previous experience that the best way to defuse Princess Luna’s rather short temper was to apologise as quickly and profusely as possible; it doesn’t even need to be sincere. I was, however, doing my utmost, once more, to not let Princess Luna know just how scared I was of her. “But it comes from a deep concern for your safety.”

“I’m touched,” she said, her voice positively dripping with sarcasm. “But I can take care of myself.”

“If the Changelings discover you’re here within spitting distance of their armies, they’ll stop at nothing to get you. You’re putting the success of Operation: Equestrian Dawn and all of Army Group Centre at risk just by being here.” And my life too, for that measure; I had no desire to throw it away on her account.

If they find me,” she insisted in her most imperious tone. Her horn flickered with her dark aura, briefly illuminating the darkening atmosphere of the tent with his cold blue light, but whatever it was she was attempting had failed and the light died. She pulled an irritated face in Cannon Fodder’s direction, who sat behind his desk picking his nose, oblivious as usual to the effects of his unique powers on those around him. “Private, please leave us.”

Cannon Fodder looked oddly hurt as he skulked away from his desk, so I felt compelled to tell him to get some feedbags for our guests and anything else he fancied for himself from the canteen in an effort to cheer him up. As he left through the tent flap, I looked back to Princess Luna, whose horn was once more illuminated. Her eyes glowed with a stark, bright, white light that pierced through the gloom, and the cold aura enveloped her body until it she looked to be a being made purely of moonlight. I shut my eyes, but the actinic glare burned through my eyelids, and I feared that somepony outside might notice the sudden light display from within my tent; I could always blame it on Twilight Sparkle testing something.

The light vanished quickly, a mere flash, and I opened my eyes, blinking away the after-images burned onto my retinas, to see that Luna had once more taken the shape and form of a young mare of the Night Guards. She snapped to attention, or, at least, some semblance of it, and slapped her hoof noisily against her ill-fitting helmet in a clumsy approximation of a salute.

“Private Midnigh’ Rider reportin’ fer duty, sah!” she said with great enthusiasm, though her attempt at a Trottingham accent was still just as atrocious as before, if not worse. Even Spike thought so.

“Seriously?” he said, his voice curiously deadpan as he crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s, like, the worst accent I ever heard! It doesn’t sound anything like them!”

“You wot, mate?”

The faux-guardspony blinked in confusion at Spike, and I now understood that she was under the charming delusion that her disguise was completely and utterly perfect in every way shape and form. Well, in the physical sense, it was perfect, as far as I could tell; the illusion had no blemishes or glitches to it, though if one examined her closely one could detect the same aquiline and patrician features that Luna possessed, as indeed when one spends as much time as she in cultivating an expression of total condescension I imagine it’s rather difficult to shake it. The voice, however, was singularly terrible, and I was glad it was Spike that brought it up; better his hide burned to a cinder than mine.

“What he means,” said Twilight, chuckling awkwardly and admonishing Spike with a nudge from a hoof, “is that your accent is not one hundred per cent convincing.”

The accent was not even one per cent convincing, thought I, but I kept that to myself. Spike grumbled, and I overheard him mutter something about a pony named Pipsqueak who would be so offended if he was here to hear the Princess mangle his native dialect so. The Princess in question, though, huffed indignantly and stomped a hoof, still convinced that her creative interpretation of how the majority of the ponies in my regiment spoke was uncannily accurate.

Luna complained that one thousand years ago ponies from Trottingham all sounded like that, which, even if true, would still not have done her much good. Her body flashed with light once more, and after I blinked away the bright yellow stars that suddenly swarmed across my vision, I was met with the image of yet another mare. On the surface, I suppose, she appeared to merely be Luna in miniature; a small, svelte, lithe little thing with fur of a lighter blue than normal, and her ethereal mane replaced by one of actual hair, which framed her face with sky blue locks. Her face was still identifiable as Luna’s, though rounder, softer, and less aquiline, and yet those piercingly cold eyes remained.

The uniform that she wore, however, was of greater interest, for it was something that I had only ever seen in the faded annals of my revered family’s history. It was an archaic suit of armour of a style and make not found outside of a museum or a reference book or a historical re-enactment society since the Nightmare Heresy; it consisted of a simple breastplate which was little more than a single sheet of steel cast and moulded to fit a pony’s barrel. Absent was the fine filigree and decoration of modern armour, though lacquered a dark and rusty shade of red, like that of dried blood. Iron sabatons guarded her hooves, and an armoured saddle and barding of similarly-shaded lacquered metal protected her midsection and flanks. The only insignia that adorned this suit of armour was a blood red ruby centred upon the exact middle of the breastplate, where the blue star would be on a Solar Guard’s uniform, carved into the shape of a teardrop.

“I am Cloudless Sky,” she said, thankfully no longer attempting that awful accent, “Servant of the Blood, personal retainers to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Blood.” The mare bowed before me, and pressed her nose into the dirt. As satisfying as it was seeing Princess Luna prostrate herself before my regal glory, such that it was, I still felt compelled to point out another obvious flaw in her plan.

“Nice try, Princess,” I said, shaking my head, “but that title and our private army was revoked from our family by Princess Celestia, after great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Coldblood poisoned nearly everypony in the family and seized the title for himself.” Evidently, she must have missed that part when reading up on what happened during her long absence, if anything, though, I thought that this unhappy chapter in my family’s long and bloodstained history was the main cause behind her antipathy towards me. Credit where credit’s due, the disguise itself was masterful, but I expected that from the Princess whose power pertains to the night, darkness, illusions, and deception (aside from affecting accents).

Luna raised her head from the dirt and looked at me. “And who else will know about it?” She then glanced over at Twilight, who looked as if she was about to say something. “Aside from you.”

I looked at her sceptically, and I supposed, perhaps, that it might be possible to keep her a complete secret from the Changelings. I doubted that they would take much personal interest in me and my various hangers-on, though a great many of the enemies that I have faced over the years appeared to think that I was the most important cog of the Equestrian war machine, and therefore operated under the mistaken belief that if they killed me the entire Royal Guard would be gripped by a sudden sense of despair at my loss and just give up and go home. [Blueblood is understating his value a little here, for his loss would likely have had a severe impact on the morale of the Royal Guard.]

“Auntie Celestia will,” I said at length. Then, addressing Spike, “Take a letter, please: ‘Dear Princess Celestia...’”

“Desist.” Even though she was now smaller than me, I could not help but feel cowed by the sheer weight of power and authority that her voice carried. Nevertheless, my path was set, and as I looked to Twilight Sparkle and saw the doubt and confusion etched in the lines on her face, and the fact that Spike had somehow produced a sheet of paper and a quill from seemingly out of nowhere with far greater alacrity than one would normally expect of the slovenly, simple-minded dullard that he is, I was not alone in thinking that this was the right choice. “Put that quill down, Spike.”

“Spike...”

The baby dragon shook his head emphatically. “I never, ever thought I’d say this, but I’m with Blueblood.”

I blinked. “What?”

“Yeah, I know, I’m just as confused as you are, but I just think we should let Princess Celestia know about this.”

“I don’t like lying to Princess Celestia either,” I said. And neither did I like the sorts of horrific punishments that she would undoubtedly inflict upon me should I be found complicit in her younger sister doing something mind-bendingly stupid; I’ve seen the torture implements stored unused for centuries in the palace basements, and I had no desire to be given a practical demonstration of them. [This is preposterous; there is no secret inquisitorial torture chamber underneath Canterlot. Anypony found spreading such rumours will be subjected to questioning by the Royal Inquisition.] I looked to Twilight for support, hoping that her dogged devotion to Princess Celestia would win her over to my side. “Lady Sparkle?”

“I am my own mare,” snapped Luna before Twilight could answer. She rose to her hooves and fixed me with a malevolent glare. “And Princess Celestia is not my keeper. I will do as I wish.”

I considered pointing out that the last time she thought like that, she was possessed by the Nightmare and the bloodiest and costliest war in all recorded history broke out, but to save my own skin I decided against it.

“And Twilight,” she continued, gazing down her elegant muzzle to the young purple mare beside her, “I will teach to you the simulacrum spell in exchange for your silence.”

“One of Starswirl the Bearded’s lost spells?” Twilight gasped, her face split open by a rapturous grin. I knew that right there I had lost her forever, for her lust for the lost knowledge of her favourite long-dead unicorn would most certainly override what slender remnants of common sense yet remains in that over-filled head of hers. The serpent coiled around my stomach squeezed tighter.

“But what of Parliament?” I asked quickly, hoping to seize the initiative.

She took a sip from her drink, and glared at me archly from behind her mug. “What of it?”

I waved a hoof dismissively, finding her casual attitude to be rather grating. “Just you being here invites a constitutional crisis; no alicorn princess may command ponies under arms.”

“I am not bound by Parliament,” she said, again, irritatingly casual about the whole affair; as if plunging Equestria into, at best, the greatest political buck-up since the last one she started one thousand years ago, and at worst, the greatest civil war since, well, the last one she started one thousand years ago, was an entirely trivial affair that was hardly worth her time. “My power derives from Faust Herself, and by Her Grace I am appointed to rule Equestria in Her name. I answer to no temporal authority on Equus, elected or not.”

I wondered if the whole concept of the divine right of royalty was perhaps intrinsically flawed, somehow, especially if it allowed the apparently divinely-appointed rulers of the most powerful nation in the world to go gallivanting off to warzones on a mere whim; my own use of that particular doctrine to excuse some of the more distasteful and illegal things that I had done in my youth notwithstanding, of course. Looking at Princess Luna and Twilight Sparkle, I wondered if the concept of self-preservation was just some sort of mental illness that only I was afflicted with.

“Besides,” she continued, “the edict states that no alicorn princess may lead ponies under arms. There is nothing to say that I may not accompany them into battle. The letter of the law will still be obeyed.”

“If not its spirit,” I retorted.

Princess Luna snorted condescendingly, and placed the now-empty mug of tea to the side. Standing face-to-face with me, or, rather, her face to my chest now that she was the size of an average unicorn mare, her eyes narrowed as they fixed onto mine with a glare of such intensity that I failed to suppress a small whimper. Regardless of the disparity in size, those cold, intense eyes of hers and the haughty, proud scowl on her face was enough to turn my bowels to water.

“You would not dare disobey a direct order from your Princess, now, would you?” she hissed. “Worry not, your dedication to my sister is admirable, but please allow me to deal with her. You are a soldier, Blueblood, and you will obey me without question.”

Defeated, and realising that there was simply no arguing with one so stubborn as her, not least of all due to the fact the alicorn in question can just as easily render me into a small pile of dust to be cleaned up by Cannon Fodder when he comes back, I simply gave up. It wouldn’t have been the first time I just surrendered in the face of Luna’s insane stubborn streak, and as sure as Tirek lies chained in Tartarus it would not be the last. [This phrase indicates that this entry was written just after the first time he retired, before Tirek was unbound from his daemonic prison and Blueblood’s return to active service]

Truth be told, I was simply exhausted; I suppose I could have argued with her further, but I believed my position to be untenable in the face of her overwhelming bullheadedness and thus I bid a hasty retreat, preferably before I was reduced to a messy stain on the ground. The events of that day – the upcoming mission, Twilight Sparkle, Crimson Arrow’s resignation, my confrontation with Shining Armour – after all of that I felt an intense fatigue I had not known since the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Black Venom Pass. Military life often leaves one at the very edge of physical and emotional collapse, and Luna’s appearance was most certainly an unpleasant shove in the direction of that precipitous drop to a breakdown.

Spike tugged at my sleeve. “Uh, Blue? You okay there? You kind of zoned out.”

“I’m fine,” I said, despite my imminent meltdown. I was doing my utmost not to grab Princess Luna by the ears and scream into her irritatingly smug little face that this was all a bad idea. “I just remembered that there’s something very important I need to do. Cannon Fodder will take care of your needs until I return.”

I left hurriedly, their feeble protests barely registering as I ducked through the tent flap and into the cool of the early evening. Wanting nothing more than to escape to some semblance of solitude, I picked a direction seemingly at random and started walking, hoping the nocturnal perambulation would help clear the tumult of thoughts swirling like a hurricane in my mind. The ponies gave me a suitably wide berth as I stalked between the tents, armouries, and parade grounds, no doubt the scowl upon my face indicating that I was most certainly not in the mood for idle conversation, should anypony feel particularly suicidal enough to approach me for that.

If Princess Luna wanted to play at soldiers, so be it, I thought. I shan’t risk my life unduly for her sake. I kicked at a stray dog unfortunate enough to cross my path; the damned things were becoming endemic in the encampment, no doubt fed scraps and kept as pets by the more sentimental of the soldiers here. The dog yelped and sprinted away from me.

Darkness descended, and Princess Luna’s moon loomed fat and yellow in the star-flecked expanse above, as if she was mocking me with it. I crossed into Dodge Junction, and there I wandered listlessly into the district given over to the less wholesome activities a soldier on leave might waste his monthly pittance on. I found a brothel frequented by many off-duty personnel of all regiments – a dank, sordid little place, lit darkly by a small number of dim gas lamps that illuminated the prostitutes entwined with their clientele like grotesque, multi-limbed monstrosities, obscured by a dense haze of tobacco smoke that lingered like a fog. I caught glints of steel and gold mixed with elegant silks and velvet, and of eyes watching me with a mixture of alarm and distaste. Ignoring them, I sought comfort by procuring the services of one of the many painted, pretty mares from a slovenly, fat, greasy little stallion, presumably the proprietor of this establishment.

I indulged in a night of rough passion, a far cry from the skilled and refined courtesans I was used to, but when the morning came the next day, a sickly feeling of guilt and shame for having sunk so low added to my already troubled nerves. I settled the bill by tossing a purse full of bits onto the bed, and walked back to the camp hoping nopony would notice my indiscretion.

***

The preparations for the upcoming offensive proceeded with the usual precision and efficiency expected of the Royal Guard, that is to say, with none. The weeks that followed Luna’s arrival on my doorstep, or tent flap to be more accurate, were a confused mess of muddling through the various problems and issues that arose in trying to marshal the necessary formations, supplies, and resources required for this complex operation. Much of these were conducted in a series of ad hoc meetings with General Crimson Arrow, as and when he felt like it, it seemed. We often went days without hearing from him; the apparent mastermind of this audacious, if suicidal, plan remained ensconced within his tent alone, only for a flurry of frenetic activity to follow as I and half a dozen other officers would rush to his call to discuss some seemingly trivial aspect of the attack. As tedious as these meetings were, at the very least military personnel tended towards brevity in their discussions, as opposed to the meetings I attended when I worked at the Ministry of War, where civilian managers could somehow say so little of actual worth with so many words in a manner that was as impressive as it was irritating.

Though these meetings and the dozens of other, minor things that demanded my attention were onerous in the extreme, I threw myself into these new duties in a vain bid to remain as far away from Princess Luna as possible. Twilight Sparkle’s presence was annoying enough, but at the very least I was not often the subject of her attention, and more often than not I merely acted as her chaperone as she observed or interviewed soldiers. When ‘Cloudless Sky’ stood by my side (remaining a judicious distance from Cannon Fodder) I could not shake the uncomfortable sensation that she was observing and judging me.

Her disguise itself worked perfectly, and Cannon Fodder could be trusted to do as he was told and keep quiet, and as for Spike, well, foals tend to be very amenable to bribes so his silence was bought by a large helping of ice cream with extra sapphire sprinkles. To my dismay, I had hoped that perhaps Major Starlit Skies, a proficient magic user in his own right, might have been able to spot some holes in the illusion. Alas, my colleagues, the senior officers of the regiment, only took a passing interest in the new arrival, who I tried to explain as having been sent by the family matriarch, my dear old mother, in one of her more lucid moments, to act as my personal bodyguard. [After the disappearance of Blueblood’s father in unexplored Zebrica, his mother was sent by distant members of his family to a mental hospital on the dubious pretence of being ‘overcome with grief’. He is rather private about that affair, and I do not wish to insult the memory of my nephew by disclosing the specifics here.] The exception, however, was Captain Blitzkrieg, who winked at her lecherously and lamented that nopony ever sent pretty mares to him anymore, which left both I and Luna quite speechless. Nevertheless, I actually saw precious little of my auntie in those weeks, save for the few token appearances masquerading as my personal retainer and her loitering about my tent as I tried to do paperwork, thus eradicating the last vestiges of what little privacy I had left. What she got up to when I didn’t see her, I don’t know, and neither did I particularly care, but the notion that she had taken on the form of a black, amorphous, star-speckled cloud and lingered in the shadows, just beyond my sight, could not be shaken.

The majority of my work, however, was spent working as liaison officer between the four arms of the Equestrian Armed Forces that would form the flanking battalion – the 1st Night Guards, the 1st Solar Guards, the 16th Royal Artillery, and Southern Cross’ motley collection of Royal Engineers. What this actually meant in practice, of course, was that I had to sort out any arguments and conflicts that would arise between the four while trying to give the impression that I was being as fair and even-hoofed as possible, which made me feel like a kindergarten teacher most of the time. As a result of the close co-operation required between the officers of these disparate organisations, each with very different mindsets and viewpoints on just how things should be done, disagreements and arguments were all but inevitable, but fortunately all of the officers were possessed of sufficient will and drive to see this endeavour through without causing too much of a hassle. Regardless of their personal opinions of each other, for I suspected that many of the Solar Guard still held reservations about their darker cousins in service to the former Nightmare Moon, they were mature enough to form working, professional relationships between them with only a little direction and relatively few threats of violence from me. There was, however, one notable exception, and you, dear reader, shall receive no prizes for guessing who that pony was.

Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter appeared to have made it the goal of his hitherto short and undistinguished career in the Royal Guard to make my life as difficult as possible; it was he, and not Twilight Sparkle, or Princess Luna, or even Spike, as irritating as the infant dragon was, who contributed the greatest to my misery over that week and the weeks to come. I do not think that he truly intended any malice towards me, as he was under the charming delusion that the two of us were friends and he would therefore take every opportunity to try and ingratiate himself with me despite my increasingly unsubtle attempts to distance myself from him. The problems arose from his distinct inability to get on with anypony else, and he frequently butted heads with Captain Red Coat and Lieutenant Southern Cross over matters which I felt to be quite trivial, necessitating me, as political officer, to come in and definitively settle the issue.

One such argument arose over the proposed marching order of the column. Scarlet Letter insisted that it should be the 1st Solar Guard, being the oldest and most prestigious regiment in the Royal Guard, and his platoon specifically, that should have the dubious honour of the battalion sent to certain doom in the valleys and gullies of the Macintosh Hills. Ordinarily, I might have allowed him that privilege, as placing him at the head of the column would have invariably exposed him to the greatest amount of danger, were it not for Southern Cross’ equally vociferous insistence that the engineers lead the column. The engineers’ reasons, of course, were purely practical; if they were to clear a path through the rough ground for the battalion with its artillery and baggage train, then it made sense to place them at the head of the column. Naturally, reason prevailed, by which I mean I put my hoof down and told Scarlet Letter to shut up, and the Horsetralian Engineers would lead the way.

That example was typical of the sort of fiasco that invariably followed Scarlet Letter wherever he went, like hoofsteps in the snow. I like to think that I had done all that could be reasonably expected of any sane pony in that situation, save for throttling him with my bare hooves. Looking back, however, if I had done that right there I might have saved myself a great deal of trouble, and probably earned the Medal of Harmony a few years earlier than I actually had done. But as the weeks wore on and my patience wore thinner and thinner, the thing that I recall giving me the most grief, aside from the thoughts of my imminent and messy death in a Changeling ambush, was a rather insidious rumour that began to infect the ranks of the platoons forming the flanking battalion.

It was a simple enough rumour, as the most insidious ones tend to be; Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter had been drilling his platoon all day in the hot sun, when, to the surprise of nopony but him, two soldiers had fainted from heatstroke, for which they were to be flogged. Whether there was any truth to this, I didn’t know, but regardless of its veracity the rumour spread, as they inevitably do, and filtered through the ranks and strata of the regiment and was thus embellished with every telling – the soldiers did not suffer from heatstroke but of chronic dehydration and malnutrition, and they were not to be flogged, but hanged. Ordinarily I would have simply ignored it, knowing that even the simple act of denial only adds credence to that rumour in the minds of the more paranoid of ponies, however, if left unchecked I knew it could erode the trust that I had spent the past week or so trying to build between the two regiments. What most ponies fail to realise is that good discipline is built upon a foundation of trust – soldiers obey orders because they trust in their officers’ ability not to get them killed needlessly in combat, and likewise officers trust in their soldiers’ ability to carry out those orders professionally. To erode that trust, even between different regiments and formations, is to invite defeat. Whatever I thought about Scarlet Letter was irrelevant if the common guardspony, standing shoulder to shoulder with his comrades, had absolutely no faith in the abilities of the ponies in the next platoon over.

“He only threatened to have them flogged,” explained Shining Armour when I confronted him about the matter over our habitual game of chess. I had taken to visiting the 1st Solar Guard Regiment’s officers’ mess regularly so that I might ‘liaise’ with their officers in a more relaxed and casual setting, at least that is what I told Colonel Sunshine Smiles, in actual fact most of my liaising was done with their well-stocked drinks cabinet of fine liquors and the younger officers, all of whom under the charming misapprehension that games of chance had more to do with sheer blind luck than the pair of aces that I kept concealed up my sleeves. The Lord Captain himself seemed to tolerate my company here, and on occasion we would indulge in a few games of chess to while away the remainder of the evening, though most likely for professional rather than social reasons. [The idea that Shining Armour might have simply enjoyed his company does not appear to have occurred to him. Shining Armour’s own memoirs imply that he considered Blueblood to be a friend, or as close as their respective ranks could possibly allow.]

Also present was Captain Blitzkrieg, who sat at our table nursing a pint of lukewarm Trottinghamshire bitter. Like me, the Night Guard’s officers too had taken to visiting the mess, apparently for the same reasons as I, though far less frequently and usually only if I was there to accompany them, and it appeared this time that the vulgar pegasus company commander had drawn the shortest straw. Despite my fears and reservations, he had yet to offend anypony; if anything he had become quite shy and reserved, though I put that down to a concerted effort not to embarrass himself or me in front of his social betters. At any rate, he was quite content sitting quietly with his brown beer and watching Shining and I play chess, occasionally picking up one of the defeated antique pieces to examine them.

The mess itself was a very large tent, far larger than General Crimson Arrow’s headquarters, and more luxuriously furnished, too. Plush, faux leather-backed seats, so soft that sitting upon one felt like sinking into a pleasantly warm marshmallow, surrounded by darkly-varnished wooden coffee tables, around which the many officers of the 1st Solar Guard and their guests would relax after a day’s work with idle conversation and drink. A few officers had brought mares, farm girls they had seduced while on leave, perhaps, and they danced in a vain approximation of a high society ball to the inoffensive, tinkling tune of harpsichord played by a young ensign. Above us, the accumulated smoke of dozens of fine cigars and tobacco pipes formed a visible fog, looking much like the clouds on an overcast Trottingham day, and promised woe for anypony concerned about the health of their lungs.

“But he didn’t go through with that threat?” I asked, looking over the chess board that separated us. It was Shining’s turn, and I watched with only a vague interest as he considered his next move. As he did so, one of the few pieces he had left on the board would be illuminated by a gentle blue glow, before he would decide against it and select another, and then another. His vacillation didn’t bother me overmuch; for the first time in weeks I was actually enjoying myself, and I had set myself up for a comfortable win in a few more turns and all he could do was delay the inevitable, though I suspected that he was merely allowing me to win out of politeness.

Shining Armour shook his head. “No, the two soldiers were taken to the field hospital. I doubt he would have gone through with it anyway.” At length, he finally selected his prince and moved it forwards; a bold move that had me worried for a brief moment, before I took another sip of my drink and re-adjusted my strategy.

“I see,” I said, nudging a pawn forth with my hoof. Just over Shining Armour’s shoulder I could just about see the pony we were gossiping about, sitting on another one of those luxuriously plush chairs and surrounded by a small mob of officers, some of whom I noticed were from the 3rd Regiment of the Solar Guard, and was apparently halfway through telling some sort of anecdote about his time in Parliament. I spotted Captain Fine Vintage amongst them, looking distinctly bored as the aristocratic officer did not appear to even attempt to look the slightest bit interested, and only lingered out of a sense of dim politeness.

“He’s a politician,” said Blitzkrieg suddenly, nodding his head in Scarlet Letter’s direction, “ain’t he?”

“He’s the member of Parliament for East Trottingham,” answered Shining Armour. As he considered his next move he picked up his glass of lemonade – the straight-laced Captain of the Royal Guard was not one to indulge in the ‘demon drink’ – and took a sip.

“Well, he’s certainly a member, alright.” Blitzkrieg frowned, and swirled what little remained of his dark amber drink in the glass. “Well, I didn’t bloody vote for him.” [Captain Blitzkrieg was, of course, a resident of the constituency of East Trottingham.]

I chuckled. “Of course you didn’t,” I said, “you aren’t eligible to vote.”

The puzzled expression on his face grew a little more intense as he struggled to work out the convoluted mess that was Equestria’s political system at that time, what with democratic reform still languishing in its infant phase of development, and how that slotted in with his rather primitive and one-sided view of the world. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought that this was the first time he had even considered how this country is run, or not run, as seems more likely. “But why not?” he asked, after a moment’s pause.

“You need to own an expensive enough property before you’re allowed to vote. Parliament seems to believe if you can look after a moderately large house, you’re intelligent enough to vote for somepony sensible, which means that hardly anypony can vote.” [Prior to the widespread electoral reform that followed the Changeling Wars, it was estimated that less than five per cent of the total population of Equestria could vote, though this was by no means uniform across the country as the necessary prerequisites changed from borough to borough.] And therein lay the main flaw with democracy, or, at least, that’s what I thought, for as the last century started to progress out of its infant stages my views were becoming less and less popular; the crux of the issue lies with the choice of prospective representatives with which to invest legislative and executive power over the state, and democracy tends to only attract those who actually want power and are willing to pursue whatever ruthless means necessary to get it. In my personal experience, it is those sorts of ponies that one should look out for, and, more importantly, should never be allowed to receive that power.

“But I owned lots of properties,” insisted Blitzkrieg. “Pubs, bars, gambling dens, opium houses, brothels...”

“He means owned legally,” said Shining Armour, offering a friendly smile. He moved his prince forwards and took my pawn, which I had sent out as bait, and while his piece remained unsettlingly close to my unguarded princess I remained confident that I could pull off a tidy victory here. “I used to have the vote, until I married Cadence, that is, and became a prince.”

“And East Trottingham is a rotten borough,” I added, considering my next move.

“Well, sir,” said Blitzkrieg, looking slightly offended, “I know it ain’t Canterlot, but Trottingham ain’t that bad.”

I begged to differ, having visited the destitute east end of that miserable little metropolis before with its disease-ridden slums and poverty-stricken rookeries, but as I did not want to run the risk of waking up with one of his stiletto blades embedded in my neck I refrained from voicing it, and instead tried to explain the corruption that lay at the heart of Equestrian politics, “No, no, a rotten borough is a constituency where the MP controls the small number of voters that live there.”

Voter,” corrected Shining Armour, leaning back in his seat and taking another sip of his lemonade. “East Trottingham has only one voter, and that’s Sir Scarlet Letter’s wife.”

Nearly snapping my knight in half in my telekinetic grip, I blinked up in surprise at Shining Armour, and then stole a sidelong glance at the pony we were gossiping about. The idea that a mare could have tolerated his company long enough for them to exchange vows, or worse, copulate with him, was profoundly disturbing, but then again, my mother married my father, of all ponies, for purely political reasons, so I supposed it must have been possible.

Blitzkrieg frowned and then shook his head, deciding that, as all commoners should, that issues of state and power are far beyond his meagre reckoning, and downed the last mouthfuls of beer in one big gulp. Wiping the residual drops from his now sopping muzzle fur, he once again indicated Scarlet Letter, this time by pointing his empty pint glass at him. “So, I’m guessing being an MP’s fairly prestigious and well-paid and all, right?” he said. “What I don’t get is why he’s decided to join the Royal Guard as a lieutenant.”

“He’s fallen out of favour with the Prime Minister,” said Shining Armour, leaning forward conspiratorially, his voice low so as to be almost drowned out by the vapid, bland harpsichord music and the equally inoffensive ripples of polite conversation around us. In spite of myself, I could not help but lean over the chessboard too, and neither could Blitzkrieg, apparently. “He used to be the Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, but in the last cabinet reshuffle he lost out, and he’s been sitting on the back benches for a few years now.”

I moved a knight forward and took Shining’s prince, and then tapped my chin thoughtfully. “I see. He thinks a short spell in the Royal Guard, earning a few shiny medals and a couple of impressive but ultimately cosmetic scars, will resurrect his flagging political career.”

“Eh, good luck to him,” said Blitzkrieg blandly, shrugging his shoulders casually, “a hoof out of line, though, and he’ll have to answer to the Commissar here.” Well, that was the theory at least. I wished it was that simple, but Scarlet Letter did not strike me as the sort who would be cowed into submission either by fear, as the Commissariat recommends, or by reason and out of a sense of duty, as I had been trying to instil in the officers I work with. Shaking the thoughts from my mind, which were becoming less and less coherent the more I drank from my glass, I noticed belatedly that Blitzkrieg had thrust his empty glass, with residues of foam coating the inside of the vessel, under my muzzle. “Speaking of which, it’s your round.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Come on, mate, how about a bit of that noblesse oblige, eh?” [Prench for ‘nobility obliges’; it refers to the concept that those lucky enough to have been born into the nobility have certain obligations and responsibilities to those less fortunate under their charge. Needless to say, Blueblood tended to find this idea an annoying hindrance at the best of times, though he often made pains to be seen adhering to it.]

As I took that glass and dragged myself reluctantly to the bar, I made a small mental note to find the pony who had taught him about that concept and have the unscrupulous bastard flogged, for I knew the good Captain would now take every opportunity to squirrel as many treats out of me as possible under that spurious pretext. Anyway, shortly after I returned with fresh booze the game ended in victory for me, as predicted, though Shining Armour seemed rather distracted for most of the remainder of it. Nevertheless, the alcohol flowing through my veins had made me feel proud of that victory, though I suspected that it had been quite unmerited.

Following that, I decided that it was time I retired for the night, and bade my farewells to the Captain of the Royal Guard. With Blitzkrieg with me I made my way back to the Night Guards’ camp, where I had hoped to sleep off the effects of the whisky. Had I known what lay there when I eventually arrived, I might have gone back inside for a few more drinks to help soften the blow of what would come next, but, innocently, we wandered back to our camp, and I had to make awkward small talk with the pegasus captain. Once out of earshot of the mess tent, or, at least, what he fondly believed to be out of the earshot, Captain Blitzkrieg returned to being his usual cocky, crude self, and almost immediately began to cast aspersions on the lineage of a few Solar Guard officers who had been rude to him, though he was somewhat justified, I might add; he had actually behaved himself quite well this time.

“Shining Armour’s all right, though,” he said, once he had finished his tirade, “and that Fine Vintage bloke.”

I chuckled; Fine Vintage had attempted, unsuccessfully, to impress his love of all things vinous on Blitzkrieg, and after one taste of a particularly rare white wine, the pegasus announced that it ‘tastes of cat piss’. Now, I recall hearing of a rumour that Fine Vintage had quite savagely assaulted a young ensign who requested that his pinot noir might be better served chilled, so I feared that Blitzkrieg might once again land me in another duel. Luckily, Fine Vintage merely chuckled and joked that ‘it’s not on the tasting notes’, and from then on the two had got on surprisingly well.

As we reached our tents, Blitzkrieg said ‘goodnight’ and departed. I noted, just before I ducked through my tent flap, that a warm glow of candles emanated from Twilight’s tent next to mine, and the silhouette of a small, slightly chubby unicorn lying on her stomach, legs tucked neatly under her frame, and of a hovering book was projected onto the cloth. Inside my tent, however, I found that Cannon Fodder had already gone to sleep, snoring loud enough to wake the dead, while Spike had curled up in what looked suspiciously like a dog basket at the end of the desk, also asleep and with plugs in his ears. Evidently, he could not tolerate another one of Twilight’s all-night study binges and stole away into my tent for some peace.

Wanting nothing more than to follow them into the realm of dreams, I stumbled into my ‘room’, and there, resting on my pillow, I saw a small brown envelope and a muffin – Corporal Hooves had probably visited with the mail. Luna was absent, off doing whatever it was she got up to at this time of night. Placing the muffin aside to enjoy later and, hopefully, sober, I picked up the envelope and opened it curiously. What was contained therein was enough to wash away the fog of drunkenness and bring me back to cold, hard, unforgiving sobriety. Ultimately, it was a fairly innocuous thing; a sheaf of papers bound together in red string and a red seal bearing the coat of arms of the Royal Guard. They were orders.

We were to muster at the staging ground tomorrow afternoon, and the attack that I had been dreading these past few weeks would finally begin.

Author's Notes:

In case any of you are wondering, Luna's fake Trottingham accent sounds like Dick Van Dyke's murder of the Cockney accent in Mary Poppins.

I want to add a disclaimer here, I shouldn't have to, as you're all intelligent, sensible people, but on the Internet one cannot take chances. This chapter dabbled a bit in politics. Needless to say, Blueblood's views aren't mine, and the politics is simply there for the purposes of world building. In fact, I've deliberately picked an archaic form of democracy as a way to avoid any possible inferences to modern issues. I'm here to have fun, and if I really wanted to make some sort of political point I would have picked a better medium than fan fiction.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the chapter!

Bloodstained (Part 10)

Part Ten

In some strange and quite twisted manner I was actually looking forward to the offensive, but only in the same way that one looks forward to having painful dental surgery; one merely wants to get the whole unpleasantness over and done with as soon as possible so as to alleviate the cloying anxiety that is often far worse than the ordeal itself. Nevertheless, it had imbued me with a sense of impatience as I waited with my fellow officers, General Crimson Arrow and his staff, Twilight Sparkle, and ‘Cloudless Sky’ for Lieutenant Southern Cross and his merry band of Horsetralian Engineers, on which the success of this operation so depended.

Much of the previous night was spent lying stone cold awake and in varying stages of sobriety and drunkenness on my cot, shivering beneath my covers and gazing up at the worn, moth-eaten ceiling of my tent as my mind frantically searched for a way to get out of this hateful predicament short of shooting myself in the hoof or eating gunpowder (I had recently punished a few ponies attempting to be invalided back home by doing that, so it would not have done my false reputation any favours by trying the same thing). [Gunpowder contains nitrates, charcoal, and sulphur, and in large amounts it is extremely poisonous. However, in small doses it induces stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and shakes, and could therefore be used by the more cowardly of soldiers to feign illnesses. That it was such common knowledge, especially to the commissars and provosts, dissuaded its widespread use as a means of deserting except in the most desperate of deserters.]

Predictably, my alcohol-addled, distraught, sleep-deprived mind had failed miserably to come up with anything even remotely productive, which in turn did very little to improve my already plummeting self-esteem. Though on a rational level I knew that guarding Twilight should keep me free from the hardest of the fighting, I fear, however, that I was in a dreadful funk that night, and on occasion broke into foalish wails as I lamented my unavoidable fate. I was fortunate that the combined snoring of Cannon Fodder and Spike helped to drown out whatever pathetic noises I was making.

It is a relief to know years later after the event that all that ponies remember is my stern, sober, and generally heroic demeanour, looking oh-so-dashing and noble as I gazed out wistfully at the treacherous landscape which we would be fighting over for the foreseeable future. If only they had known that I had spent the night before weeping pathetically into my pillow. It’s all immaterial, anyway; what ponies remember, or what they want to remember, rather, is far more important. I like to think I had gotten over that anyway when the hangover started to set in at about the same time Celestia’s sun started to rise; it felt as if my brain was pounding against the confines of my skull with every heartbeat. That said, as I looked around at my heavily-armoured colleagues I was thankful I did not have to slog through this unbearable heat while wearing seventy pounds of enhanced steel plus equipment and rations, though a glance back at the jagged hills to the south, beyond which lay endless hordes of Changeling drones did much to dissuade me of that notion.

Twilight Sparkle sat nearby, a little off to the side of mob of officers, with a small notepad and pencil hovering steadily in front of her muzzle as she would watch and take notes. She was clad in some spare Night Guards’ armour that was in portions too big and too small for her; the saddle was bound tightly across her midsection in a way that had to be quite uncomfortable, and the helmet in particular would frequently drop over her eyes without warning and jab painfully into the bridge of her muzzle, forcing her to readjust it periodically. Flanking her was ‘Cloudless Sky’; Shining Armour (who, like everypony else, was completely oblivious to the true identity of the pony standing not more than three feet away from him); Spike, who was looking thoroughly bored and dejected that he would not be following us on this mission (I had personally vetoed that idea, as while Colonel Sunshine Smiles’ insistence that the battlefield was no place for a ‘lady’ was ignored, all would agree that no child should be exposed to its horrors. That, and his continually irritating habits would have forced me into performing acts upon his person that would have made anything he might have witnessed in war look like a picnic in comparison); and Captain Red Coat’s second-in-command, Company Sergeant Major Square Basher who had been assigned to train Twilight Sparkle in the use of her new armour and how to keep her head down when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

“He’s late,” said Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter for the umpteenth time, referring to the missing Southern Cross. Like the rest of us, the irritating little unicorn was positively dripping with sweat, such that it seemed to pool in the crevices of his armour plates whereas mine simply soaked into my uniform to leave unsightly dark patches in awkward places. He attempted to cool himself by wafting before his face a small, elegant silk fan, which was decorated with some delicate Cathayan calligraphy that he must have believed was some beautiful and inspiring poem about cherry blossoms, the fleeting ephemeral quality of life, or some other such rot, but with my limited understanding of their impenetrable language I could more accurately translate the script into Equestrian as ‘buck the eighteen generations of your ancestors’. [An insult considered to be very offensive in Cathay, as ancestor-worship is considered a very important part of their religion and culture.] It was, however, my only source of amusement as I waited for what seemed like decades for Southern Cross, so out of that and a slight sense of vindictiveness I decided not to tell him.

“Saying it five times in a row won’t make him appear,” I snapped, fast losing the will and the inclination to mask my irritation. Luckily, the ponies around me took my sour mood as frustration at not being in the thick of battle yet born out of an eagerness to get ‘stuck in’ with the enemy, as opposed to being generally upset that my life was not turning out quite the way that I had planned.

“We’re still early,” insisted Major Starlit Skies. He checked his pocket watch, and as he did so, he wiggled his nose in that peculiar, disarming gesture of his that settled his small pince-nez spectacles into a more comfortable position. His presence was not strictly needed, and neither was that of Colonel Sunshine Smiles, and Captain Blitzkrieg, as they were not joining us in this insane expedition to certain death, but apparently those three felt the need to come and publicly wish me and everypony else unfortunate enough to have been selected for this mission good luck. We would need it, though frankly I never put much stock in the common soldier’s superstitious adherence to Lady Luck; I prefer to take more pragmatic steps to ensuring my survival than in the fickle whims of a bored personification of random chance, though, needless to say, the amount of times that I have owed my survival to the metaphorical roll of the die is quite disconcertingly high.

The distinct aroma of unwashed underwear forewarned me of Cannon Fodder’s approach a full second or so before he swam into view, bearing one of the many enamel mugs that he had somehow secreted amongst his armour. I accepted the tea gratefully, though mindful of drinking something hot in this positively scorching heat, some more fluids would undoubtedly help towards alleviating my pounding hangover, so I sipped slowly as I scanned the indistinct horizon, which appeared to have turned to quivering jelly by the haze of heat rising from the dust.

“The inspection is not due to start for another few minutes,” the Major continued. He snapped shut the gilded cover of his pocket watch as if to punctuate that remark, and tucked the antique timepiece back into the recesses of his armour. Cannon Fodder offered the older stallion one of his many mugs of tea, which he accepted gratefully, but only after wiping down the sides and rim of the enamel receptacle with a hoofkerchief, and blowing on the surface of the tea contained therein to try and cool it. “Thank you.”

“That’s no excuse,” grumbled Scarlet Letter, apparently oblivious to the hint that he should shut up for once, but it seemed that he was as immune to taking hints as my aide was to taking baths. He sponged at his sweaty, dripping brow with a pristine white hoofkerchief, which he had somehow secreted within his uniform without getting it creased or stained in some manner.

I shook my head, and soon regretted it as the pounding of hammers against the inside of my skull intensified briefly. Returning my gaze to the quivering horizon, where the bland yellow ground met the equally uninteresting clear blue sky, I noticed emerging from the haze of heat that rose from the parched earth a large, amorphous grey smudge, accompanied by the distinctive, percussive beat of dozens of ponies marching in step. Well, about bloody time, thought I, as, dispensing with all attempts at maintaining what shred of dignity that I had been hoping to present, simply sat my princely rear on the dusty ground to watch. The smudge soon coalesced into shapes vaguely identifiable as ponies, as the rhythmic sound of iron-shod hooves, which seemed to beat in time with my throbbing headache, grew louder and more distinct, and soon they became identifiable as formation of sappers, their bulky, armoured forms made to look even more ungainly by the sheer amount of equipment strapped to their bodies, marching towards us.

“They’re a slovenly bunch, these colonials,” said Scarlet Letter as he watched the formation of ponies emerge from the haze towards us. “Can you believe these uncouth peasants want to rule themselves and that worthless scrap of land they call home, sir? Ridiculous! I dare say they’ll all be ruined within a half a week if we grant them self-rule!”

“On the contrary,” I said, “devolving power to the colonies will alleviate the administrative and logistical burden on Canterlot.”

Scarlet Letter briefly pulled a face as if he had just walked in on his mother fornicating with King Sombra. “O-of course, sir,” he stammered, in what was perhaps the fastest display of back-tracking that I had ever seen in a pony. “How foolish of me,” he continued, laying on the sycophancy so thick I that could have spread it like brie on a cheese cracker. “I did not consider the greater implications, but certainly a pony of your experience in power must have clearly seen the bigger picture vis-à-vis the administration of the colonies. It is fortunate that we have leaders with such clear vision and insight, sir!”

As the words tumbled out of his mouth in a frantic rush, such that I half-hoped that they would become clogged in his fat neck and choke him, I scanned his voice for any tones of sarcasm. Sadly I found none, for if he was being sarcastic I would have still found it far less insulting than his absurdly transparent attempt at toadying. I still don’t know what I found more offensive; the sycophancy itself or that he believed I would be fooled by such a clumsy attempt to do so. I was too tired and hungover to have done anything about it, except to wave a hoof dismissively in his direction and make an annoyed ‘grunt’ sound in my dry throat. However, he appeared to have taken that as an invitation to continue talking; I soon wondered if I could shove him in the way of Southern Cross’ engineers to be trampled to death, and claim that he had tripped over on a rock.

“But that Lieutenant Southern Cross’ impertinence makes my blood boil, sir!” He stamped a hoof at the ground. “He speaks to superior officers and to common soldiers as if he is their equal, with no regard to the rank structure and traditions of Their Highness’ Royal Guard. He has no courtesy, no manners, and takes nothing in this business of war seriously! It really is infuriating, sir!”

“He’s a little rough around the edges, true,” I said, watching the formation of engineers slowly becoming clearer and more distinct, as if emerging from the fog. Compared to the average guardspony they were positively laden with equipment, such that underneath the pouches, saddlebags, lengths of rope, spades, pickaxes, axes, and Faust knows what else strewed about their bodies, it was nigh impossible to see the steel grey armour beneath. The noise of their hooves pounding against the ground was joined by that of all of this equipment clattering against itself and the armour it was lashed to, sounding like someone had hurled the entire percussion section of the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra off a cliff.

Scarlet Letter snorted condescendingly. “That’s putting it mildly, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir. He was raised up from the ranks, I hear, and their sort are often ill-disciplined and discourteous.”

As was his commanding officer, Shining Armour, thought I, glancing over my shoulder to see the Captain of the Royal Guard himself chatting amicably with his younger sister, and though I could not hear their conversation over the background noise surrounding us, judging from Twilight’s irritated expression her brother was fussing unnecessarily over her safety. “They often are,” I conceded, remembering the old adage that common soldiery promoted to the officer caste simply do not fit in amongst the rarefied company of their social superiors. “But nevertheless I’m sure that he is a fine officer.”

Then, as if they had been waiting for the opportune moment to embarrass me, the advancing platoon of engineers, which were now no more than ten or so feet away from us, suddenly burst into song.

“♫We’re happy little vegemites,♪” sang Lieutenant Southern Cross, who led his platoon from the front and twirled his axe like a baton. Thirty gruff, heavily-accented voices joined in as the engineers marched past, and their leader had the sort of ridiculously wide grin on his face that implied he had been planning this stunt for quite some time now.

“♫As bright as bright can be,

We all enjoy our vegemite,

For breakfast lunch and tea,

Our mummies say we’re growing stronger,

Every single week,

Because we love our vegemite,

We all adore our vegemite,

It puts a rose on every cheek!♪”

The song itself was cheerful, and the tune itself was of a martial rhythm as the ponies marched in step with it, even if the lyrics were of a decidedly silly nature that probably little to no sense to anypony outside of their backward little island commune. [The song is in fact a popular advertising jingle for a Horsetralian condiment known as ‘vegemite’. The recipe for it is rather obscure, and personally I cannot stand the taste of it, though my sister is rather fond of the stuff.] The odd spectacle had the effect of silencing the gentle bubble of polite, and somewhat forced, conversation around me, as the officers, and, indeed, some of the braver guardsponies who conveniently forgot that they were at attention, stopped whatever it was they happened to be doing and watched with expressions of varying levels of incredulity; from the imperiously-arched eyebrows and vague looks of condescending disdain, as if finding a foal has just stolen all of your biscuits, to the bug-eyed, slack-jawed idiocy that I was fast becoming used to around here.

The one exception to this parade of stunned faces was Scarlet Letter, who looked at me with an expression that I could only describe as smugness triple-distilled into its purest form by the most skilled alchemist of the Royal College of Magi. It took a not-inconsiderable amount of will and personal discipline, which was in increasingly short supply here, not to try and punch it out of him, but thankfully I succeeded. Laying hooves upon fellow brother-officers of Their Divine Highnesses’ most honourable Royal Guard is generally frowned upon, unless it’s a duel, of course, in which case one is free to simply murder one’s opponent. As I had little to no desire to sully my hooves anyway, I simply shrugged and muttered some empty platitude about how a little levity now and again can improve the morale and fighting spirit of the soldiers.

“If you say so, sir,” he muttered, evidently unable to resist rubbing it in.

When the song ended as abruptly as it had broken out, Lieutenant Southern Cross peeled away from his unit, which marched off to take its pre-arranged position at the vanguard of the battalion’s marching column, and walked towards our small group. There was a definite swagger in his step, which was matched in its cocky self-assurance only by the same big grin that every serial prankster wears now plastered on his face, as the other officers stepped to the side to form a small tunnel for him to reach General Crimson Arrow. Glancing around, we had all appeared to have taken to the unspoken consensus that it was best to pretend what we had just witnessed simply did not happen, and proceed accordingly.

With everypony present and correct, finally, we proceeded with the inspection. It was more of a formality than a strict necessity; Company Sergeant Major Square Basher had already taken the liberty of conducting a full inspection of the entire battalion a few hours before. It is a very rare occasion that I encounter a mare able to look me in the eye without first rearing up on her hind legs, standing on a box, or first being in possession of both a horn and a pair of wings, as I am quite tall myself, but CSM Square Basher of the earth pony company, affectionately known as Sergeant Bash or simply ‘Marezilla’ owing to her intimidating size, build, and temperament to match, was one of those few. She was a non-commissioned officer of the old school, by which I mean she seemed to believe that victory in war had less to do with inspired leadership, superior strategy, and good logistics, but everything to do with how loud one can shout. Watching her unleash invective after colourful and creative invective at those ponies for having committed a few minor infractions with their uniforms a few hours before had provided some element of amusement for me.

Nevertheless, the officers of the Royal Guard were sticklers for tradition, and I, being a pony who owed his lofty position on the Equestrian aristocratic hierarchy to the great and noble traditions that this nation is founded upon, could not be seen to disapprove of this, regardless of how onerous I found the concept of examining the uniforms and equipment of over three hundred ponies. The inspection itself was to be led by Captain Red Coat, but given his youth and relative inexperience with, well, everything, frankly, he relied upon his Company Sergeant Major to help direct him as the senior officers, plus Twilight, Spike, and both of my hangers-on sifted through the serried ranks of guardsponies. Once or twice, every few moments, an officer would make some light comment about the standard of dress of the soldiers, and everypony else would titter in agreement.

“You have a fine body of troops, Captain,” said General Crimson Arrow. I could tell by the uninterested tone of his voice and the equally bored look in his eyes that, like me, he was merely going through the motions and would much rather be someplace else. He paused and indicated with a hoof to one of the soldiers, who stood as a perfect facsimile of the other two standing either side of him; stock still and as unmoving as a statue. “You are to be commended.”

Captain Red Coat’s cheeks flushed red. “T-thank you, sir,” he said, grinning inanely as if he had just been given a boiled sweet from an elderly relative. “But I think Sergeant Major Square Basher deserves most of the praise, sir.”

Sergeant Bash probably deserved all of the praise, thought I, as I looked over at the rigid forms of the soldiers around me, which gave me the unsettling impression of being trapped in a giant chess set and surrounded by exquisitely crafted pawns. I could hardly imagine Captain Red Coat, as enthusiastic and eager to please as he still was, bringing a full battalion of three hundred ponies into line all by himself; the soldiers, many of them having already served in the Royal Guard when their commanding officer was struggling with the three times table, would have eaten him alive were it not for ‘Marezilla’s’ presence.

“I was only doing my job, sir,” said Square Basher flatly. Her voice was calm, deferential, and even had a tone of timidity about it, which was in stark contrast to the highly aggressive torrent of violent and highly creative profanity I witnessed being unleashed on the enlisted ponies just a few hours before. Nevertheless, her chest puffed out with pride, which only did more to emphasise her intimidating bulk.

“That’s what Sergeant Majors are for,” said General Crimson Arrow off-hoofedly, and waved a hoof at the nearest soldier, “somepony needs to keep the scum in line.”

There were a few general mumbles of assent from the other officers, and we started to wander onto the next platoon before we were all interrupted by a certain quiet, inquisitive little voice.

“Excuse me,” said Twilight Sparkle, and I noted that General Crimson Arrow emitted a none-too-subtle sigh of exasperation at the slightly nagging sound of her voice. The young mare had since given up on wearing her helmet, as the nose plate of which had by now formed a rather unsightly bruise in the shape of a crescent moon a few inches across on the bridge of her muzzle, and had instead taken to tying it by the chinstraps to the buckles on her saddle so it dangled awkwardly around her midsection. I vaguely mused that if she didn’t want it then maybe I could have it. “Did you just refer to the guardsponies as ‘scum’?”

“Yes I did.”

Twilight hummed thoughtfully for a moment, and then scribbled down something resembling a long stream of squiggly lines on her ubiquitous notepad. “Could you elaborate, please?”

“May I, sirs?” said the CSM, much to the General’s evident relief. She glanced over to Captain Red Coat and me as if silently asking the both of us for approval. I gave a well-practiced, reassuring nod, while Red Coat appeared to have been inflicted by that sense of shyness that often ensues when he is in the presence of Twilight Sparkle, and he probably believed that such behaviour was regarded as ‘endearing’ by those of the opposite sex. Apparently satisfied, and probably relieved too, that she had been granted permission to do whatever it was she had in mind to prove her point, she then turned away and marched towards the closest soldier.

“Name and rank!” she bellowed, her face a mere few inches from the guardspony’s face and yet he did not flinch even in the slightest.

“Private Shield Warden, sir!” The stallion punctuated his response in the time-honoured fashion of raising his right forehoof and then stamping it into the ground as if it were the exclamation at the end. [Non-commissioned officers are generally not referred to as ‘sir’; however, there are a few exceptions to this rule which include sergeant majors and Royal Equestrian Marine Corps drill instructors during training. Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect, female officers in the Royal Guard are not addressed as ‘ma’am’, but as ‘sir’.]

“What were you before you joined the Royal Guard?”

Shield Warden hesitated. “A criminal, sir!”

“What were you?” she bellowed louder, moving her face just slightly closer to the guardspony, who bore this invasion of his personal space with the same stoicism and nonchalance as the drill manual (a sacred tome for all non-commissioned officers) demands of him during parade. The only indication that he gave of even being slightly affected was a moment or two of slightly more rapid blinking than usual, as flecks of spittle sprayed in an unsightly manner over his face.

“I was a thief, sir; I mugged ponies to pay off my gambling debts. They gave me a choice between the workhouse and the...”

The slightly wordy stallion didn’t get a chance to finish detailing his life story.

“You were scum!” interrupted the Sergeant Major, and the amplitude of her voice leapt a good few decibels, which elicited a quiet, impressed noise from ‘Cloudless Sky’ just behind me. She had all but head-butted Private Shield Warden as she proved once again that personal space is as alien a concept to NCOs as politeness is to Manehattenites, and pressed her bulky muzzle against that of the guardspony’s with a dense ‘clang’ of metal hitting metal. The soldier flinched slightly, but otherwise stood his ground admirably. Nevertheless, that slight movement was noticed by the aggressively fastidious Square Basher, who told him, in a much quieter tone that was somehow even more menacing than the unremitting torrent of invectives she was known for, to stand up straight and proud like a stallion.

“You were pathetic!” the Sergeant Major continued, more than living up to her nickname. “Useless! You were nothing!” Panting heavily with exertion, and the skin beneath her dyed grey fur flushed a deep crimson with large, distended veins snaking across her temples, she took a step back, and I could see a tiny flicker of relief flicker across the blank, masque-like face of Shield Warden. “But what are you now?”

The guardspony hesitated for a brief moment, mulling the answer over. In the rather interesting movement of muscles in his brow I could almost see the gears and levers turning in his mind as he sought the wisp-like phantasm of the answer that was least likely to result in him getting shouted at further. “A soldier, sir?” he ventured.

Sergeant Major Square Basher nodded her head, and a thin smile – that most rare of facial expressions amongst those who hold her rank – tugged at the corners of her thin, grey lips. “Well done, Private!” she said, and though I searched the tone of her voice for any hint of sarcasm or irony, I found none and believed it to be one of the few times she and her ilk were genuine in their compliments. Apparently satisfied that she had proven her point, she turned to address Twilight Sparkle. “You see?”

Throughout the Sergeant Major’s display, there was the muffled sound of wood tapping against a thick wad of paper, as Twilight Sparkle drummed out a regular tattoo with her pencil. “I still don’t follow,” she said, rather meekly.

“I think I can answer this one, Lady Sparkle,” I said, hoping to end this ridiculous farce; it was bad enough that we send these poor sods charging straight into Changeling jaws without having to add public humiliation into the bargain. That and I hadn’t said much in a while, and I felt that it was high time that I should. “The Royal Guard takes those ponies that the rest of us would rather pretend simply didn’t exist; the poor, the destitute, the wastrels, and the criminal classes, and they are fashioned into steel and fire. We take that purposeless anger each of these youths feel, and ponies such as the Sergeant Major here and me forge it into something useful, for the good of Equestria. For many of these ponies, their term of service in the Royal Guard will be the first time they have had discipline applied to them in a consistent manner, and with that martial discipline we will instil constancy, proper respect for their betters, and that which is most lacking in these times: a sense of duty to their country and to their princesses. In short, we make something out of nothing.

I left out the part about what we did with these ponies when their terms of service were over, however long we required them for, or rather, what we didn’t do with them. For upon their completion of their term of service, should they survive, of course, they were simply let loose back into Equestrian society with no further means of support. I expect many would simply return to their previous life of crime, or perhaps other more idealistic or luckier ponies might actually turn their lives around, but many yet would simply re-enlist with the Royal Guard with naught else productive to do with their lives. I wasn’t about to tell her that, of course, but I’m sure being a smart filly she’d be able to work it out for herself at some point. Twilight made another, vaguely intelligent-sounding ‘humming’ noise and jotted something unintelligible down on her notepad.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself, sir!” said the Sergeant Major, though I was uncertain as to whether she was being sincere or sycophantic.

“That is what I’m paid to do,” I remarked dryly, half to myself, though inwardly I thought the pittance I receive monthly was not nearly enough for the amount of mortal terror this job forces me into.

I felt we had wasted enough time, so I cleared my throat in what is the universally accepted sign that all business has been concluded, and turned around to catch up with the other officers, most of whom had trotted away over to where the Solar Guard contingent of the battalion stood in gleaming lines that coruscated in the bright sunlight. However, it was to some sense of vague disappointment and slight dread that, upon glancing over my shoulder, I saw that only Cannon Fodder and ‘Cloudless Sky’ had followed me. There, Private Shield Warden stood stock still at attention and gazed unfocused at the back of the pony in front’s head, though his view of this wondrous sight was blocked by the ungainly forms of Twilight, Square Basher, and Spike. The first of those three had taken to interrogating the second, much to my irritation and that of the third member of their little group, though I like to think I was much better at concealing it.

The flow of searching questions was probably very interesting from an intellectual standpoint, I might imagine, but this was hardly the place and time to voice them, and was interrupted when Square Basher raised a large, armoured hoof and poked hesitantly at the helmet that dangled awkwardly from Twilight’s midsection. The offending piece of armour jangled noisily against her saddle. “Why aren’t you wearing your helmet?” the Company Sergeant Major asked.

“Huh?” Twilight looked startled for a moment, as if the sudden stoppage of question and answer had left her momentarily disorientated, before glancing around at the offending piece of armour. “Oh, it didn’t fit properly.”

“Helmets are very important,” said Square Basher, and as she did so I noticed that she carefully removed the pace stick that she had always carried sheathed like a sword underneath her left armpit. [A long stick carried by warrant officers and senior NCOs of the Royal Guard. It consists of two lengths of polished wood, hinged at the top so it can be opened like a drawing compass, and is used to accurately measure out certain lengths, such as that of a single pace or the distance between ranks of soldiers, for the purposes of teaching drill] Her voice was curiously quiet, level, and calm, which, in personal experience having gone through officer training at sixteen years old [after he had been expelled from high school for poor grades and behavioural issues, Blueblood had almost immediately bought a commission with his considerable inheritance and joined the Royal Guard as an ensign in the 1st Solar Guard] usually signified something rather unpleasant and quite violent in one’s immediate future. “Do you know why?”

“Uh...”

There was a loud and distinctly unpleasant ‘crack’ of polished wood striking what could only have been a skull, as Square Basher had swung the pace stick down upon Twilight’s head. She flinched under the blow, her forelegs giving way as she reached up to clutch what would likely become a rather large bump that would likely make it even more difficult for her helmet to sit properly on her head. Despite my antipathy towards Twilight, and having inflicted similar blows to the head during our foalhood when I was roughing her up for lunch money or to alleviate my boredom, I felt the first inklings of what I suppose is called ‘sympathy’ by other ponies. It was rather unpleasant.

That’s why,” Square Basher snapped. She had yet to learn that while beating soldiers is considered to be not only acceptable but actually quite beneficial in correcting their behaviour and moulding their psyches into correct and proper military discipline, doing so with civilians tends to be something frowned upon lest the gutter press start moaning about military brutality and all that rot.

Spike protested loudly, and tried to force his way between his wounded mistress and the intimidating mare, but was simply brushed aside with a hoof. With surprising tenderness that was in stark contrast to her sudden display of violence, the Company Sergeant Major helped Twilight back to her hooves. “If I was a Changeling,” she said, taking the helmet and fiddling with the internal supporting straps, “then your skull would have caved in, and all those big, fat brains of yours that make you Princess Celestia’s personal student would be spread all over the ground like strawberry jam. Got that?”

Twilight nodded rapidly, and winced slightly as Square Basher placed the helmet on her head and began fussing with the various straps and harnesses to fix it around her chin. “Helmets protect your head,” said the Sergeant Major as she worked. “You might want to make a note of that, Spike; helmet protects your head.”

If helmets were so bloody marvellous, then why didn’t I get one? As I watched Square Basher faff with Twilight’s helmet straps until it was sufficiently tight for it to stop falling forwards with every slight movement, I pondered this eternal question further, and even considered lining the inside of my cap with the same enchanted steel that standard Royal Guard armour was crafted from, should I be lucky enough to source some. I had actually confronted Princess Luna about this, on the off-chance that she had found a gap in her hectic schedule to do Faust-knows what to grace me with her dark presence as I worked on paperwork, but only after drinking half a bottle of fine brandy that Cannon Fodder had scrounged up for me from somewhere. She explained in rather condescending tones, as she normally does with just about everypony, that one of my many duties was to inspire the troops by example as well as rousing speeches, and what better way to boost the fighting spirit of the regiment than to show utter contempt for the enemy’s abilities by not wearing armour?

I thought that the best way for the troops’ morale to be utterly ruined was to see my heroic head caved in like a chocolate egg, but I kept that to myself. Besides, given the dark, gallows humour prevalent in this regiment, I’m certain most of the soldiers would have found that to be rather funny.

“Helmet... protects... your head,” Spike mumbled as he scribbled down the note as bidden. He arched an eyebrow sardonically. “Huh, even I knew that one.”

“You’re gonna go far, kid.” A deep, throaty chuckle reverberated from Square Basher’s lips, and she ruffled the stiff spines on Spike’s head with her steel hoof, from which Spike flinched from. “You’re going to be a field marshal one day,” she joked, blissfully unaware as we all were of just how terrifyingly prophetic her words would become. [Spike would later join the Royal Guard upon maturing as an adult dragon, and would eventually reach the rank of field marshal. Prince Blueblood would later go on to serve as an independent commissar attached to his command staff, and if Spike’s own memoirs are any indication he regarded my nephew as being something of a mentor and guiding force throughout his career; an idea that Blueblood was in equal parts amused and terrified by.]

We caught up with the other officers and proceeded with the inspection. The Solar Guard platoons were absolutely immaculate, and nopony would have expected anything less from ‘Celestia’s Own’; their neatly trimmed and bleached fur and scintillatingly-bright golden armour hurt one’s eyes to look upon in this intense sunlight. We passed without much further comment, aside from the compliments paid by the General to the respective commanding officers. Scarlet Letter, however, almost could not be stopped from gushing in the most sickly sweet and transparently sycophantic terms about how honoured he was to receive such gracious compliments, and it was to my discomfort that I found that Crimson Arrow responded most agreeably to that; he always had quite a fragile ego that required constant nurturing lest it wither and die like a delicate, rare orchid given as a birthday gift to one’s beloved aunt and then forgotten about. [Blueblood, I am so sorry about that.] Conscious of the time, however, I got him to shut up in time to move onto the Horsetralian engineers.

The difference between the spotlessly clean and utterly perfect turnout of the 1st Solar Guard platoons and the rather more grimy engineers was readily apparent to all; the single platoon of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers were caked utterly in a thick film of dust, such that their armour appeared to be of the same yellow-ish colour as their fur. I assumed it might be laziness on their part, and thus affected a suitably disapproving expression as I and my fellow officers scrutinised their appearance, but nevertheless I told myself that, should it come to the point that I would have defend Lieutenant Southern Cross, it would make an effective camouflage in amongst that omnipresent tan-coloured dust.

“They’re looking a bit scruffy, sir,” said Cannon Fodder, without the faintest hint of irony.

General Crimson Arrow pulled an odd face that looked as if he was trying to keep himself from appearing too disgusted. “Well,” he said, his voice strained as he tried to word it properly, “they are a little unkempt.”

“Soldiers are dirty,” said Southern Cross, who had been standing alongside his comrades. He was grinning inanely as usual, as if he was still amused by the ‘prank’ he pulled a few hours ago. “Equipment is clean. Look closer, mate.”

We did, and saw that he was indeed correct. Their equipment – spades, axes, knives, lengths of rope, and a myriad other curious items that I could not possibly identify the use of – was absolutely spotless. Upon closer inspection their dirtiness was nowhere near the level of that of my erstwhile aide, replete as he was with unidentifiable food stains and Faust knows what else caked over his armour and non-regulation facial hair, instead theirs was simply the result of a more utilitarian approach to the strictures of uniform maintenance; their armour was purely functional, devoid of the shiny accoutrements that adorned that of their fellow brothers-in-arms from the Equestrian mainland, and thus indicative of Lieutenant Southern Cross’s strictly practical approach to soldiering. Crimson Arrow snorted uninterestedly.

“Even the spades?” I remarked as I examined one such example strapped amidst the array of baggage and tools to an engineer’s back.

Especially the spades,” he answered. Then, turning to address his troops, he called out, “Engineers! Present spades!” In a series of deft, well-practiced movements that proved they had all been drilled effectively, his engineers had unstrapped the aforementioned tools and planted them handle first into the dust, supporting the wooden shaft with a foreleg to hold the spades perpendicular to the ground with the bright metal tips aimed towards the skies.

“The spade is an engineer’s best friend,” he said, taking one from a guardspony. “It will dig trenches, foxholes, fortifications, latrines; clear minefields and obstructions; and in a pinch it’ll serve as a deadly weapon. Look after your spade, or one day it’ll dig your grave for you.”

The Engineers having passed (not that we could have failed them at this late stage, as doing so would invariably delay the offensive, though the thought had crossed my mind), we moved onto the final contingent; the remnants of the 16th Royal Artillery. The guns and their respective crew were arranged in a long row, with the artillery pieces placed in order of size of calibre; long-barrelled cannons, howitzers positioned at a precise forty-five degree angle in some semblance of a salute (and would probably annihilate some peasant’s outhouse a few miles away if they were fired), mortars that resembled squat, fat chamber pots on wooden supports, and probably a half-dozen other sorts of guns whose differences were likely only appreciated by pedants.

Such things did not interest me much, as I’d rather leave what I don’t understand to those ponies who do, and so I only assigned enough brain power to keep myself moving forward at a steady pace behind Twilight Sparkle and mutter the occasional encouraging platitude, and the rest to admiring the callipygian sight before me. Sergeant Bramley Apple, acting commander of the reformed battery, discussed in animated tones with Major Starlit Skies about how with the correct application of the appropriate sums his cannons could strike a watermelon perched upon a pony’s head a mile away without causing any injury to that individual. I jokingly suggested testing that theory on Spike, to Bramley Apple’s and Spike’s mutual enthusiasm, which earned me a stern glare from Twilight that only grew more intense as my facetious grin widened involuntarily.

Despite my inattention, I noted that all of the guns had name plaques nailed to their side, all lovingly polished to a high degree of shine so as to stand out against the darkened steel of the weapon it adorned: ‘Bertha’, the impressively sized 25-pounder howitzer I had seen in the previous battle; ‘Dora’; and ‘Maribel’, for example. The artillery ponies always held a peculiar reverence and affection for their weapons, one that was quite alien to me as I noted that these guns tended to explode violently and injure their crews with alarming regularity.

“It’s an Apple family thing,” explained Twilight, when I off-hoofedly pointed it out to her. “Applejack names all of her apple trees. She says it encourages them to produce juicier apples, but I haven’t had the time to test that hypothesis yet.”

The inspection of the artillery culminated in the viewing of the powder magazine, which was a small area nearby where the barrels of gunpowder and the ammunition had been piled up on ruggedly designed carriages ready for transport. Upon our approach Sergeant Bramley Apple, who was leading us past the guns and their crews arrayed for our perusal, stopped suddenly and from one of the many pouches that adorned his armour he retrieved a number of small horn rings that appeared to be hewn out of darkest obsidian.

“Begging your pardon, sirs,” he said, though he appeared to have been overcome by his habitual sense of shyness when speaking with officers and was instead addressing the area of empty air just above General Crimson Arrow’s head, as opposed to the area of empty air inside his head. “Ya’ll unicorns are going to have to wear these nullifier rings before coming any closer. One errant spark or flame and the entire camp will be blown sky-high, so, uh, you’re going to have to sit this one out, dragon.”

Spike groaned in annoyance, folded his little arms indignantly, and muttered something about being left behind again, but otherwise I ignored him and took the ring. As I placed it upon my horn, I felt a sudden ‘deadening’ within my very being that I expect would be quite difficult for those ponies not blessed to have been born unicorns to understand. I suppose the closest description to the other two thirds of Equestrian subjects would be like a pegasus losing his wings or an earth pony losing his ability to grow plants, or something. I don’t know. Anyway, it was a damned unpleasant, cold, nauseous sensation that made me shiver despite the intense heat beating down upon us. My headache intensified.

Having left Spike under the supervision of the gunners, we were encouraged to view the barrels of gunpowder and the variety of ammunition; from the standard round shot to explosive shells, shrapnel shot, and canister shot. I don’t know if it was the uncomfortable feeling of the ring upon my horn, being as a dense weight pressing down on my skull that was in no way helped by my hangover, but I felt a distressing chill and a wave of nausea as Bramley Apple proudly unscrewed the top from a canister shell, like an oversized jam jar, so we could examine the deadly shards of ragged metal and ball bearings packed within. The remainder of the inspection proceeded with my usual lack of attention as the acting commander of battery rambled on about something, though I effected on occasion to appear to be very much interested in the cannon balls stacked neatly in a sort of pyramid shape, and as we stepped back to what the gunners had informed us was a safe distance I returned my nullifier with barely-concealed relief.

The sight that greeted us upon our return did much to improve my mood, albeit temporarily. For wedged in the barrel of Bertha was Spike, with his head and upper body swallowed up inside the gun’s gaping maw and thus leaving the lower half of his body, stuck by his fat belly, exposed with his stubby infant legs and tail flailing manically in a desperate effort to free himself. From within the gun barrel, muffled by the inches of thick steel, one could hear his barely audible cries for help. Naturally, I found this utterly hilarious and could not help from chuckling, and the gun’s crew thought so too and were paralysed in fits of raucous laughter. Shining Armour burst into lively guffaws in a manner quite unbecoming of the Lord Captain of the Royal Guard, and he leaned on my withers for support. Indeed, the only pony who did not amused by this (even Princess Luna raised a wry smile), aside from Twilight, who rushed over to her assistant’s aid, knocking over one of the stallions in the process, was Sergeant Bramley Apple.

“Land sakes!” he bellowed, anger etched in the ragged lines that creased his face as it twisted into an expression of utmost rage, the effect of which only made Shining Armour’s already exuberant reaction even more enthusiastic. Surreptitiously, I gently brushed the Shining off me and let him collapse in a giggling heap on the ground. “Ah leave y’all alone with him for five seconds!

Bramley Apple chased after Twilight and in the finest traditions of the NCO caste of the Royal Guard beat some semblance of martial discipline and sense into these soldiers, paralytic with laughter, quite literally with howitzer’s ramrod. “Ya’ll better have a damn good explanation as to why Big Bertha’s blocked!”

“Uh, Big Bertha ate Spike,” said one of the stallions, battered and bruised but still filled with mirth. At least, he was until he was given another blow to the head with the ramrod.

“We dared him to, sir,” ventured the other. It was a fair enough reason, I suppose.

Bramley Apple sucked in a deep breath through his teeth, and then tapped at the gun with the tip of the ramrod. “Well, how do y’all propose on getting him out of there?”

One of the gunners raised a hoof. “We could load a charge of gunpowder there and fire it. That’ll clear the blockage.”

“What?” shrieked Twilight. She had seized Spike’s legs tightly in her purple magical aura, and was struggling in vain to free him from his gunmetal prison. “Are you crazy? You’ll blow him to bits!”

“Y’all call yourself gunners?” said Bramley, his voice a few decibels lower now and slightly calmer. “This here howitzer’s a muzzle-loader, so there’s no way in Tartarus y’all are going to get a charge of gunpowder in there. We’re going to have to grease him up like a pig at hog wrasslin’ and ease him out. Go to the canteen, they should be swimming in grease.”

Spike, I am sure you will be pleased to know, was eventually freed, and was not too terribly upset by his ordeal. Looking back, he seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention for once, despite being a little shaken. Nevertheless, it was to this happy memory that I clung to for comfort, like a security blanket or a cuddly toy, when I found myself skulking with the battalion through the dark ravines and valleys of those infernal hills. Once he was freed and appropriately fussed over by Twilight before being hoofed over to one of the officer’s wives appointed as his nanny, the inspection wound up to a natural conclusion on account of there not being anything else that needed inspecting. [It was not unknown for officers and some soldiers to bring their families on campaign with them, and often they would perform administrative work for the regiment. For the sake of completeness, Twilight Sparkle has informed me that it was Captain Fine Vintage’s wife, Ruby Claret, who looked after Spike.]

We wrapped up the end of the inspection; the earth ponies and unicorns took to their pre-arranged positions in the column surrounding the baggage and supply train, the pegasi took flight and went through their standard combat air patrols, while the gunners were lashed to their guns and ammunition carriages. In matter of a few short minutes we were ready, and it was with a hollow pit in place of my stomach that I looked forlornly out at those mountains once again and moved to take my position by Captain Red Coat’s side, and once again plunge into the breach entirely against my will but with no other recourse to save my hide that would not result in my reputation being shattered beyond repair.

“Blueblood,” someone called out, and I turned to see General Crimson Arrow behind me, having approached me during my brief reverie.

“Crimson,” I replied. Standing either side of him was his usual coterie of aides and staff officers, each with identifiable by their dress uniforms with the red band around their peaked caps, and all with an expression on their faces that seemed to indicate that, like me, they would much rather be elsewhere. A generals’ staff, I mused, was simply not used to being this close to the enemy.

“I, uh, wanted to wish you good luck,” he said, extending a slightly dusty but well-trimmed hoof at me.

I took the hoof hesitantly and shook it, if only because I was wary of the hundreds of pairs of eyes that might have been watching me at this moment and I felt it best to be polite, despite my unease. “Thank you,” I said, trying to inject a little confidence in my wavering voice. I feared for a moment that he might have noticed that my handshake was rather weaker than usual, but if he did he gave no indication. Nevertheless, I made up for that by looking longingly at the ragged, broken chain of hills that loomed over us ominously like a frozen tsunami moments before impact, and adjusted my cap in a manner that I hoped appeared most heroic and noble. “Keep that bottle of brandy safe for me; I shan’t be long.”

We saluted one another, and then, as a drop of rain is absorbed into a greater puddle, I took my place in the marching column, off to war.

***

Given any other circumstance I might have found this terrain rather beautiful, or even romantic. The desolation provided one with a sense of quiet and peace about it, emphasised by the lack of the trappings of Equestrian civilisation or indeed anything that appeared to be alive aside from some desiccated-looking shrubs and a rodent or two, so I expected it would have been perfect for a weekend break of quiet introspection were it not for the billions upon billions of Changelings not more than a few miles away all wishing to drain one of love. The hills towered over us menacingly, making me all too aware of just how trapped we were. The myriad crags, crevices, hillocks, valleys, boulders, caves, and dry shrubs could have concealed the entirety of the Changeling army and we would have not known until it was far too late and with no means of escape. From the gaps between those rocky peaks sunlight peaked through in thick rays, as if one could reach out and touch them, to illuminate seemingly random spots across the darkened valleys, giving the impression of being inside a vast cathedral as light pours in through the stained glass windows.

As we trudged through the valleys at a snail’s pace, my imagination dredged up all sorts of horrors that could be hidden within the darkened shadows, made worse by every slight flicker of movement both real and illusory, watching and waiting for the opportune moment to strike down from their vantage point and eliminate me, singled out as somepony special by my ridiculous uniform. I would look up from time to time at those broken, ragged peaks towering above us all, and I felt as if the hills themselves were crouched in ambush against us.

It should have been no surprise for you, dear reader, to learn that our advance through those hills was not exactly a pleasant walk through the gardens of Canterlot with your best mare by your side; anypony with sufficient mental capacity to understand the Equestrian language reading this should have worked that out by now. No, what I endured was a gruelling march over the harshest, roughest terrain this country has to offer – entirely inimical to the transit of ponies and of wheeled pony-drawn vehicles – and surrounded entirely by dour, tired, frustrated, complaining soldiers and a firm contender for the ‘most irritating unicorn in Equestria’ competition (beaten only by Rarity, my sisters, and myself). A journey that would have been over in a few short hours over flat, clear terrain was projected to take the entirety of this afternoon and the following morning, with an uncomfortable overnight stop where I feared we would be at our most vulnerable.

Our progress was slow and halting; necessitated by the terrain over which we travelled. Every few steps or so we had to pause and send out pegasus patrols to scout out the most viable paths through the valleys ahead, while Captain Red Coat and I poured over the latest aerial reconnaissance photographs to try to make sense out of the grainy images and apply it to our own limited, myopic view of things down here. Were it not for my special talent of navigation we would have certainly found ourselves dreadfully lost in there. Upon discovery of a viable route, which in itself took an inordinate amount of time to do so, the engineers would have to be sent forth to clear the route of any obstacles with spade, hoof, and, much to Southern Cross’ enjoyment, judicious use of high-explosives. Even then, the going was still rather tough on the earth ponies dragging the baggage trains and the artillery, who oftentimes would find a wheel stuck in a pothole or trapped in rocks or simply find that the path was not wide enough, necessitating further valuable time spent trying to free them.

About a few hours into our unhappy journey, in which the cool shade of the hills providing some small respite from the relentless heat was the only relief in this cavalcade of utter misery, Twilight Sparkle complained of headaches. I found that she had already consumed her entire day’s ration of water and was starting to feel the effects of dehydration. She was given some painkillers for the headache by one of the medics and told to take smaller sips from her canteen regularly rather than gulp it all down in own go.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, taking a sip from my own water canteen that I had so graciously allowed her to borrow. With water being so strictly rationed here, at least until we could get to that damned fortress and hopefully find the well there still in working order after all these years, I had allowed her to drink from my own water ration just this once. Despite most certainly not wanting to, the gesture would have been appreciated and I hoped that it would go some way in making me look good for her report.

“For what?” I asked. We had taken yet another one of our breaks as the pegasi were reconnoitring the route ahead, and as the sun was starting to set, casting the sky in a lambent orange glow to the west and a darkening blue to the east, it would not be long before we established a camp for the night. Captain Red Coat was up ahead with Lieutenant Southern Cross, discussing how to remove the latest blockage. On this mission I wanted him to concentrate so I tried to keep him away from Twilight Sparkle as much as possible.

“I should’ve known better.” Twilight returned the canteen to me, and I rubbed clean the mouth of the bottle with my sleeve before taking a sip myself. “I did so much research and preparation before setting out on this report, and not just on the Royal Guard but also on survival in arid climates. I read books, I read journal articles, I read ancient scrolls from the Canterlot archives about the Badlands theatre of the Nightmare Heresy, I even planned on taking an airship to Saddle Arabia, but Spike told me I wouldn’t have time to make it to Dodge Junction after. I really should have known better than to drink all of my water ration in one go!”

“We all make mistakes, ma’am,” said Cannon Fodder, who had hitherto remained silent by my side. He noisily munched on one of the ubiquitous ration bars that always had a suspiciously unidentifiable taste.

“I-I’m not allowed to make mistakes!” exclaimed Twilight. “I’m Princess Celestia’s personal student and she’s entrusted me to help reform the Royal Guard, I can’t afford to make stupid mistakes like that!”

I removed my cap and rubbed at the sweat that had accumulated around the hat band and then made some vain attempt to smooth the blond mop of my mane back into something resembling a style. “I imagine that’s the problem with preparing for war or survival; there’s always bound to be something that you can’t prepare for or you’ve forgotten about.” And it was that which tended to get one killed rather messily, thought I.

A sudden rumble and a burst of debris and smoke erupted without warning from further along at the head of the column, followed by a loud cheer from dozens of accented pony voices. Twilight flinched slightly in alarm at the sound. I, for one, was rather more concerned about the noise attracting unwanted attention, but the brains behind this operation and the engineers had all agreed, without consulting me I might add, that the use of very loud explosives was the quickest and easiest way to clear a path for the artillery.

Twilight chuckled anxiously as she recovered, seemingly rather lost without her number one assistant to keep her grounded. All around us the soldiers of the battalion, those who were not on patrol or on the picquets and were therefore using the opportunity to banter with their friends, gamble, or try to catch up on some much needed sleep, scrambled up alert and readied themselves for the signal to advance.

“Do you think we’ll win?” she asked, gazing out at the stallions as they each checked their equipment and armour and assembled into a marching column under the direction of their officers.

I arched an eyebrow at the question; it was not as if I could answer it truthfully, as Princess Luna still lingered nearby, falling into the traditional role of the passive, emotionless bodyguard with about as much animation as a piece of furniture perfectly.

Seizing the opportunity to score a few extra brownie points with the guardsponies I had been trying to endear myself to, I gave a vague sort of shrug and said, “I don’t know, Lady Sparkle, but perhaps we should ask the stallions what they think.” Then, I turned to address the battalion, or, at least, what part of it happened to be within earshot of me. The soldiers had arranged themselves into platoon marching order, in files of three as a long, snaking column that would wind its way like snake through these narrow valleys. Each of them looked tired, as soldiers often do on campaign; already covered in dust and dirt despite having spent hours cleaning themselves and their uniforms for the inspection not a more than a few hours previous, though to me it felt like an eternity away.

“Lady Sparkle wants to ask you all a question,” I said, projecting my voice clearly so that it echoed around the valley. If the enemy could hear me, they would probably have been alerted by the small chain of explosions that preceded our advance anyway. “She wants to know if we’re going to win! Well, what do you all say to that?”

The soldiers responded with a single, wordless roar that filled the entire valley and answered her question perfectly. Despite their frustration at their slow progress and at the harsh terrain they marched over, they were all without exception in high spirits for they were doing something that worked towards what they thought was an achievable goal after weeks of doing nothing seemingly productive following that inconclusive battle in Black Venom Pass. I, however, could not share in their enthusiasm, and as I rejoined the column with Twilight Sparkle, Cannon Fodder, and the disguised Princess Luna by my side, I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling that we were being watched.

Author's Notes:

The 'Vegemite Song' is indeed a real advertising jingle. I had an Aussie co-worker who would sing that damned song when he spread his imported Marmite knock off all over his toast every morning. If you're really curious to hear it I'm sure it's on YouTube.

Anyway, a silly, throw-away gag aside, here is the next chapter. This one was a bugger to write, but just like everything out there I just had to keep bashing it until I came out with something to post. I don't know how other writers manage to pump out 10,000+ word chapters, proof-read and of very good quality writing, in a matter of weeks, and I'm stuck struggling to write 100-200 words a night. Of course I'd like to imagine there's some sort of 'knack' or secret to it, but the reality is I'm probably just a lazy git.

A more serious note which I would like your input on, and it's about swearing. For now, I've been substituting the word 'buck' for the F-word like some other writers I've seen here, and I'm considering dispensing with that. I have to admit ignorance over exactly how ratings work and where exactly the border between Teen and Mature lies, so I'm not sure if I go back and change every single instance of 'buck' (there aren't many, I've checked) will force me to increase the rating of this story from Teen to Mature.

Bloodstained (Part 11)

Part 11

All-in-all, everything had gone according to plan; we hadn’t all died yet, and we had reached the pre-appointed stop-off point roughly halfway in our unhappy journey only two hours later than we should have done, which meant that, at Captain Red Coat’s stubborn insistence that we keep to the plan, we had to blindly grope our way through the rough terrain and narrow defiles in the dark like a drunkard struggling to navigate his way home from the pub through a narrow alleyway. A number of guardsponies had stumbled over rocks in the dark, spraining their hooves and incurring a few bruises, though the latter was mostly due to Company Sergeant Major Square Basher’s rather ‘hooves-on’ approach to making sure that those soldiers had learnt their lessons of watching where they were going. Some of the cannons had broken their wheels over the course of our journey, which was something that we had all expected would happen, and thankfully the damage caused by dragging these guns over ground that was less than ideal for them was not irreparable.

Though my anxiety was strong during the daylight hours, it only grew worse when night fell; when we had set up the temporary camp, which consisted of little more than a small plateau area where the soldiers would bivouac and the officers would sleep in the tents that had been brought, the notion that we were now at our most vulnerable continued to nag at the back of my mind. Twilight Sparkle, thankfully, had retreated to her own tent to eagerly process all of the notes that she had made since the last batch that she had produced, Cannon Fodder was content sleeping in his portion of my tent, and Princess Luna was, unsurprisingly, nowhere to be found. It was by the dim light of a single flickering candle that I was granted some much needed time alone, though the constant sound of snoring from beyond the partition and the bubble of rowdy banter from outside the tent reminded me that I was never truly isolated here, and though I tried to busy myself with some pointless make-work, I still found my mind drifting back towards the very real peril in which we found ourselves.

Though Captain Red Coat and the other officers appeared to be entirely unconcerned by the ever-present threat of ambush, as all of the pegasus reconnaissance flights that ranged even beyond the hills themselves indicated that the enemy remained completely unaware of our secretive approach, I was not so sanguine; In fact, I had already seen flickers of movement from up the peaks that entrapped us within these narrow valleys. On a conscious level, I could explain such things as simply being the beasts that inhabit this desolate land, but the itching in my hooves still could not be calmed. Naturally, I could not allow the ponies around me to know of my paranoia; if the pegasi were adamant that the Changeling Army remained massed at the mouth of Black Venom Pass and that none of their scouts could possibly have come within five miles of us without their knowing, then I could not be seen to be getting so worked up about phantasms, which, for all I knew, could only be tricks my damned paranoia was playing upon me. Therefore, I sought to emulate the sort of stoicism and sangfroid expected of the Royal Guard officer class, and hope that Captain Red Coat et al would take from my example, however false it was, and act accordingly should what I fear actually transpire.

It is a little known fact amongst ponies that neither of the two Royal Pony Sisters actually needs to breathe; Princess Celestia is polite enough to go through the motions, but it seems that Luna simply doesn’t bother with such niceties. This unique facet of alicorns, being more accurately described as metaphysical concepts such as day, night, love, and friendship taking the physical forms of ponies to varying degrees of success, is not something that one picks up on immediately, yet one’s subconscious invariably takes notice, which merely adds to the overall feeling of ‘wrongness’ that Luna inevitably invokes in most ponies. Whether this is deliberate or not, I cannot possibly say for certain, but I would not put it past her to simply refuse to do so out of sheer stubbornness to lower herself to an activity only we mere mortals do, or a deliberate attempt just to make me feel as uncomfortable around her as possible. If it was the latter, then she certainly succeeded in her endeavour. [The metaphysics of alicorn biology are, unfortunately, beyond the limited understanding of mortal minds; suffice to say that what Blueblood has described is true to a certain extent.]

One can understand, therefore, as late that evening as I was catching up with some paperwork that had inexplicably found its way onto my desk despite being miles deep within what is considered enemy territory (bureaucracy will always find a way), and which Cannon Fodder had failed to deflect from me with his usual combination of bull-headed obstinacy and rank odour, that I completely failed to notice the presence of Princess Luna, sans disguise, until I was by chance distracted by some noise outside and turned my head to the left to find her face just inches from mine, apparently looking intently over my shoulder at my work. Needless to say, I reacted about as well as one might expect; I let loose an involuntary gasp of surprise as I flinched away from her reflexively, nearly falling off my cushion, and with a clumsy flail of my hooves as my primitive hindbrain tried to engage the ‘flight’ portion of pony’s self-preservation instinct I inadvertently threw a good portion of my neatly ordered piles of paperwork onto the ground. However, I like to imagine that I recovered from my initial shock with admirable alacrity, or at least I tried to give the impression that I had done, as I attempted to reassert my habitual demeanour of regal aloofness despite the surge of adrenaline rushing through my veins making me feel both twitchy and nauseated. [Princess Luna describes this event rather differently; saying that Blueblood ‘screamed like a filly’, fell out of his seat, and spent the next five minutes on the ground gasping for air ‘like a beached narwhal’. I cannot say whose account is accurate, due to a lack of corroborating evidence.]

“Auntie?” I gasped, between short, ragged breaths and some reflexive swallowing to try and quell the sudden infestation of butterflies that had broken out within my stomach.

“Princess,” she insisted through set teeth.

“Your disguise! What if someone sees or hears you?”

“They won’t,” she replied. Her tone of voice and peculiar choice of words did very little to help me relax.

The Night Mare was close, uncomfortably so, as if she had no concept of personal space, yet I felt no body heat radiating off her and no exhalation of breath stirred the sweat-matted fur on my skin. It was all very unsettling. She tapped the papers on the desk with a hoof the size of a dinner plate. “What are you doing?” she asked, entirely unconcerned with the near-heart attack I was still recovering from. I suppressed a small shudder; it felt as if the hide on my back was trying to pull itself free from the raw flesh it concealed.

She picked up a few of the sheets of paper that I had thrown to the ground during my brief panic attack – some more of the horrendously written pamphlets sent to me by the Ministry of Information for dissemination amongst the common soldiery, if I recall correctly – and studied them curiously. As I watched, my heart pumped frantically in my chest, and as her ears pricked and flickered I briefly entertained the notion that she could hear it as clearly as I could.

“Paperwork,” I said at length, surreptitiously concealing with a hoof a foalish doodle of Daring Do punching Queen Chrysalis that I had scrawled in the margins of a disciplinary report form as I did so. I was in no mood for small talk, especially not after the fright she had just given me, but I must admit that I was rather surprised by the idea of the Princess taking a personal interest in my work; for the most part she regards me with the same sort of quiet disdain as she would for some horrid creature that had just crawled out of an open sewer.

I had hoped that my short, terse answer would be enough to make her go away, and to further encourage her to pick up on that hint, I picked up my quill, which, in my panic, I had hurled with some violence at my desk where it had scrawled a large spiders’ web over a page of an open copy of Princesses’ Regulations, and pretended to scribble some notes in the margins of a form. Alas, as her social skills were still sadly lacking at this stage of her readjustment to Equestrian society, Princess Luna either failed to notice the cue to leave or simply ignored it. Mercifully, she stepped back and allowed me some breathing space, though I don’t suspect for a moment that she did so out of any concern for my comfort, and flicked through the pamphlets she had picked up.

“Why?” she asked at length, her brow furrowing into a slight, disapproving frown.

Well, that was the question I had been asking myself ever since I first scrawled my signature on a dotted line in triplicate. I shrugged my shoulders, despite the inevitable stab of pain from my shrapnel wound. “Because it needs to be done,” I said, providing what was probably the best explanation of the convoluted, labyrinthine bureaucratic framework that underpins not only the Royal Guard but all of Equestrian society as one could possibly give without Twilight Sparkle on standby to provide one of her trademark lectures.

Luna tossed the small wad of pamphlets down upon my desk and looked at me with an expression that was quite unreadable. Her permanent scowl deepened, and her lips set into a thin line, tugged slightly downwards at the ends across her long, elegant muzzle. Despite this, there was little of the condescension inherent in her whole demeanour, and indeed without her armour and regalia the mare standing before me looked uncharacteristically vulnerable and, well, like a pony, I suppose.

“This is what is wrong with Equestria these days,” she said, instead taking the cue to leave as an invitation for a rant. I noticed that this sort of thing had been happening to me a lot lately. “I thought I had escaped such nonsense when I came here, only to find the same rot that had infested the Ministry of War has spread to the frontlines.”

“War changed,” I said blandly. “A lot changes in one thousand years.” I contemplated pointing out that the last time Princess Luna went to war over a millenia ago ponies had yet to discover the link between diseases and drinking out of the same body of water one uses as a latrine, but I decided against it. I did not make it this far in life by saying every stupid thing that came to my head, instead I merely let that thought fester to write it out decades later in a document that nopony will read.

My auntie’s face become unreadable; an odd sort of grimace, slightly pained, flitted across her sharp muzzle, before the frown on her brow intensified and she fixed me with an odd glare. “War never changes,” she hissed, her voice barely above a whisper. “It’s the one thing in a thousand years of exile that has remained unaltered.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, and immediately regretted it. I don’t know what compelled me to try and stand up to the one pony in Equestria that one cannot stand up to, especially since I have seen first hoof what happens to those ponies who have tried to (primarily me and the palace servants during the first few months of her return to Equestria, and the subsequent problems they had trying to cater to her rather esoteric needs), and I had very little desire to subject myself to such treatment here of all places. But as I was pleasantly surprised that I had not been subjected to the full force of the Royal Canterlot Voice, which would have likely uprooted my whole tent and sent it flying down the valleys like a discarded newspaper caught in an stiff breeze, and that I wasn’t being throttled to the brink of passing out, I dared to look up from the ground between my forehooves and saw that Princess Luna was lying on my cot with her long, sinuous limbs folded underneath her slender body.

“You don’t?” she said, her tone imperious. She waved a hoof, as if encouraging a foal to read the next line out of a picture book, and her eyebrow was arched sceptically. “The purpose of war is to force the enemy into performing your will through the use of violence. That is the principle act of warfare and it will never change.”

“That’s what war is for,” I said. “How we fight it has changed.”

“No.” Her voice took on an edge of steel to it that made me shudder involuntarily. Anxiously, I placed a hoof on the desk behind me to steady myself, as if somehow the flimsy wooden fold-up structure would protect me in some manner. The papers on the desk and the copy of Princesses’ Regulations, a faux-leather bound tome about the size of a phone book and about seven times as dull to read, became suffused with her deep blue aura, were lifted from their resting places, and presented before me one by one until I was presented with what appeared to be a wall of paper.

“It is not enough,” she began, and the papers began to swirl around my head in a dizzying vortex that made me feel quite nauseated, “that a soldier is willing to risk his life out of a love of his Princesses and his country. No, there must be forms to fill in, tests carried out, procedures followed to the letter, meetings to be had, discussions, fetching, foraging, bureaucracy, punishment details, digging latrines. The Ministry of War be damned to Tartarus for all eternity for having turned soldiers into mere clerks. This. Isn’t. War!”

The forms, pamphlets, letters, and even the book of regulations that were circulating about my head as if I was trapped in the centre of some bureaucratic washing machine suddenly exploded into clouds of white confetti. I flinched, bringing my hooves up to cover the same handsome face that sent the ladies of Prench nobility swooning in their corsets, and there is no shame in admitting that I might have yelped slightly. I’m not quite sure how long I spent in that foetal position; it can’t have been too long but it certainly felt like it at the time, and as I lowered my hooves, which were still itching damnably since we stepped hoof in those hills, I saw all the work that I had done that evening lying like Hearth’s Warming snow around me.

Indignation rose within me; an emotion that one does not express before Princess Luna unless one has a death wish, but once again I felt the frustration and anger that I had been forced to suppress for the good of the war effort and my own false reputation rise within me. It was not that I was particularly upset that the work that I had done had been lost irreparably, for in truth I had been dawdling as usual and making every effort to indulge in the same sort of foalish procrastination that I did with school homework a decade ago. No, my anger rose from the principle that my work, however poor and incomplete as it might have been, had been destroyed by her, and that she would come here, from thousands of miles away to risk my life and that of thousands of others of ponies just to indulge in some stupid, fantastic nostalgia of hers when she led the armies of Equestria into battle. That she continued to lecture me as if she was an elderly mare regaling the younger generation with how utterly wonderful ‘her time’ was, despite such things as the Magna Carta Equus [‘The Great Charter of Liberties of Equines’; a document written by the first Parliament and signed by myself in the aftermath of the Nightmare Heresy. It is notable for, amongst other things, laying down the foundations of the Equestrian rule of law by stating that the will of the Princesses is not arbitrary and that no free pony of Equestria may be punished except through the law of the land. It should also be noted that it would be several years after her return from the moon until Princess Luna would acquiesce to signing the charter] and the concept of regular bathing were considered to be very progressive and highly dangerous ideas at the time, was sufficient to push me over the edge.

Luna’s face was a masque of pure detachment; as if it were merely a sort of working prototype of what a pony’s face should look like and whoever had crafted it, Faust most likely, had yet to inject even the slightest spark of life and animation into it. Indeed, only the gentle wafting of her ethereal mane fluttering on an invisible breeze and the stars within that flickered and rearranged themselves into simulacra of the myriad constellations of the night sky at her fickle whims were the only indications that I could see that she had not been hit with a petrification spell. I did my best to imitate it, but I soon found out that I was dealing with the pony who probably invented the whole concept of concealing one’s feelings beneath an impassive facade and gave up trying.

“Well, what do you think war is?” I blurted out, brushing the torn remains of the paperwork from my shoulders like dandruff. The Princess looked rather taken aback by my outburst, as, I must admit, so was I. There was no turning back now, I supposed, if I was to be torn limb from limb anyway I might as well go out proving my infernal Auntie wrong about something for once, so I continued: “The Royal Guard consists of forty-one thousand ponies-at-arms in forty-one Line Regiments of Hoof, plus the artillery, plus the engineers, plus the special forces, plus the Marines, plus the militias and the colonial auxiliaries. How in Faust’s name are we to get them to the frontline? Lists! How do we train them? Lists and paperwork! How do we arm them? Lists! Armour, food, water, ammunition, recruitment... all of it is done through lists! You can’t just round up a couple of your aristocratic favourites and conscript some peasant levies and call it an army, anymore; you need rules, you need orders, you need ponies to write this stuff down, otherwise nopony knows what in Tartarus is going on!” I paused for a breath. “And Faust help us all if nopony digs the bloody latrines.”

As she listened to my short tirade, her expression did not change. Only when I had stopped, somewhat out of breath and still running on a potent cocktail of adrenaline, fear, and polite, aristocratic indignation, did I notice that the ends of the thin line across her jaw that was her mouth were inclined slightly up in a smile. Panting slightly, I involuntarily gripped the firm cushion my regal behind was perched upon and awaited my immediate dismemberment and/or immolation. Instead, her reaction was almost the precise opposite of what I expected; she chuckled softly, which at first I found confusing and then, as it grew louder and more mirthful, I found to be quite terrifying.

“So, the ‘Prince’” –I somehow knew that she had placed sarcastic quotation marks around my title as she said it– “has a backbone after all. Perhaps my choice was not as ill-founded as I thought. Mark me, Blueblood, you shall be thankful that you yet have soldiers and not clerks standing by your side when you march into battle once more. You have given me much to consider, nephew.”

With that rather ominous statement, Princess Luna rose from my bed and stood before me, with that smile of hers never leaving her face. She dissolved before my eyes into an amorphous cloud of black-blue smoke and sparkles, like her mane, though to my eyes it just reminded me of a giant daemonic amoeba, and slipped noiselessly through the gap between the tent and the ground and into the darkness beyond.

Relief washed over me when she left, though not completely as the knowledge that she was still out there doing Faust-knows-what coupled with the underlying apprehension that very soon we may all die very horribly and very messily continued to nag at my mind. Nevertheless, I knew that it was probably time that I got some sleep, or, at least, pretended to, as I was certain that the fractured remnants of what once passed for nerves would not allow me to do so. I belatedly noticed that Cannon Fodder had poked his head through the tent flap and was regarding me with his usual expression of mild confusion and blankness. The overall effect made him look disconcertingly like one of those mounted trophy heads that Gryphon hunters seem to believe are ideal for decorating one’s home with.

“Is there anything the matter, sir?” he said, implying that he had, somehow, not heard what just transpired from beyond a flimsy drape of fabric. [It appears that Luna had placed a zone of isolation around Blueblood’s portion of the tent, which only lifted when she had left.]

I glanced down at the debris strewed about my hooves, and the little white flakes that settled over my slightly faded coal-black uniform, and, for the briefest of moments, considered telling him the truth. Instead, knowing that such an exercise would be fruitless at best and utterly detrimental to the somewhat messianic faith that he and his comrades placed in me, I merely shook my head. “Couldn’t sleep,” I said, forcing a smile to my face for his benefit, “thought I’d catch up on some ‘homework’, but my horn” –I tapped the bony protrusion on my forehead– “backfired on me.”

Cannon Fodder chewed thoughtfully, but otherwise said and emoted nothing. We stared at one another for a single, uncomfortable moment before I realised what I had done wrong.

“You may go back to bed, Cannon Fodder,” I said.

“Thank you, sir.” He nodded his head in some clumsy semblance of a bow, before it disappeared once more through the tent flap.

I looked to the cot, which no longer looked quite as inviting as it should have been with my level of fatigue, as somehow the fact that Luna had occupied it so recently made the idea of climbing into it quite unpalatable. I therefore took the rough, itchy woollen sheets from the bed and a rolled-up storm coat that I had been using for a pillow and tossed them lackadaisically on the dusty ground, and settled there for some sleep.

***

It was to my eternal surprise that I actually managed to sleep that night, despite being on the hard ground, and I was even more shocked when I woke up to find that all of my blood was still safely contained within my veins. I expect that one gets used to this sort of thing after a while; I had noticed that the common soldiery had, after basic training and a month or so into their terms of service, all evolved the ability to sleep at any time and any place and awaken alert and ready for combat, if needs be. Though I was far too soft a pony to have acquired that same ability at quite that level, the fact that I had managed to sleep for more than an hour, was able to stumble out of my tent the following morning without feeling that my brains had been somehow scooped out through my ears while I was unconscious, and that I only required just one cup of sludgy black coffee in order to feel the closest I had ever felt to ‘fully awake’ since my military career received its unexpected and entirely unwanted reboot, was all rather encouraging. At least, it was until I was sufficiently conscious enough to remember where I was and why.

As the camp stirred to life at the sound of the morning reveille, the refrain of which echoed around the valleys so as to give the impression that single bugle was merely one of a large chorus and no doubt alerting all Changelings within earshot of our presence, I stumbled out of my tent to find that ‘Cloudless Sky’ was standing sentry just outside of the tent flap. The sight of my disguised auntie so early in the morning gave me quite a shock, for I had clung to the very slim chance that the discussion we had the previous night might have encouraged her to re-assess her insane scheme and just disappear back to Canterlot. Nonetheless, there she was, ‘in-character’, as it were, as the cold and detached life guard of my most regal body, and once that I had gotten over that surprise I felt it best to get on with the task at hand.

I made my rounds, checking up on the soldiers, their NCOs, and the platoon officers, and where needed dispensed the necessary platitudes and slogans that some committee of middle managers in the Ministry of Information a thousand miles away in Canterlot must have fondly believed were inspirational but to me merely sounded insipid and facile. Nevertheless, on the whole the soldiers all seemed rather content, motivated even, by my empty words, and as I rambled them off by rote I mused how my role in this regiment had effectively been reduced to that of a talking head. More importantly, however, Princess Luna seemed to be relatively content with my showing, for as I said ‘the Princesses protect’ for the umpteenth bloody time that morning, having said that infernal phrase so many times in my career that those words have lost all meaning, a few glances over my shoulder at her showed she was smiling slightly. Either that, or she was merely amusing herself by imagining twisting my head around with her hooves like a bottle top until my neck snapped. Who knew what thoughts revolved in that unfathomable mind of hers?

Dawn had only just broken, but Celestia’s sun was still concealed from us by the tall peaks that towered over us, and our little camp was blanketed in darkness. As we were nestled in the cleft between two sheer cliffs, the route to our objective and even more misery (and almost certain death), and the one that led back to Equestria and civilisation, appeared to me as a tunnel stretching endlessly into the darkness, albeit with the clear, orange-tinted sky above and no comforting light shining from either end. In accordance with the plan which we were all supposed to be adhering to, once the whole business of waking, ablutions, breakfasting, and the relieving of the picquets was taken care of the camp burst into a frenzy of being torn down and packaged neatly for transport. While I was making my rounds, Cannon Fodder was hard at work dismantling my tent and preparing it and the contents contained therein for transport, and no doubt making sure that Twilight Sparkle is awake and ready in time; it would not have reflected well on us if we left her still asleep in her tent halfway into Changeling country.

It was only a matter of time before we came across Captain Red Coat, the officer in charge of this insane expedition, on my aimless wandering. The young officer was observing Company Sergeant Major Square Basher conducting an impromptu inspection of a section [more commonly referred to as a ‘squad’, an infantry section consists of between eight and twelve soldiers led by a corporal and is the most basic organisational unit of the Royal Guard] of Night Guards that were unfortunate enough to have been the closest to her at the time. Indeed, I had heard the CSM’s harsh, heavily-accented voice cutting above the general background cacophony that always accompanies an army on the march from the opposite end of the camp. Red Coat was seated on his rump with his back to me. In one hoof he held an enamel mug and with the other he appeared to be working furiously at something around his mouth, which, as I got closer to him, turned out to be a toothbrush.

As I approached Red Coat turned his head, the toothbrush wedged between his teeth and his check, and he nodded a greeting, which I reciprocated by muttering ‘good morning’. The Company Sergeant Major, however, was so fully engrossed in her task of inspecting the troops that she did not notice me, or simply did not care either way. She stopped in her inspection of the front rank by a soldier who she towered over by a clear hoof or so, and rested her pace stick upon the shoulder of that unfortunate guardspony.

“Private!” she barked, and then brought the brass-tipped wooden stick with sudden violence against the soldier’s cheek piece armour with a dense ‘clang’ of metal. The soldier flinched slightly, but otherwise appeared unhurt by the blow. “You have sleep in your left eye; the corner of! How dare you appear in front of an officer with sleep in your eye!”

“Sir!” The guardspony stamped a hoof and then proceeded to rub at his left eye to remove the rheum that had so offended the Sergeant Major. I exchanged an odd look with Captain Red Coat, who merely shrugged and continued with his morning ablutions.

“Faust almighty,” muttered Square Basher in exasperation. “At ease, you miserable lot.” The imposing mare stepped back from the infantry section, much to their evident relief that the end to their torment was in sight, and then cleared her throat noisily. “If I were a Changeling,” she said, addressing the section as a whole, “and if I was unlucky enough to be facing the bucking Night Guards in battle – the hardest, most bloodthirsty bastards in the entire Royal Guard, and unlike the bucking gung-ho pansies in the Marine Corps, we’re hard enough to back up these claims – then I would be downright disappointed, offended, even, that I was going to be killed, murdered, ripped into bloody shreds by the scruffiest, shabbiest, most wretched bunch of half-arsed amateurs in Their Highnesses’ Royal Guard I have ever seen, who have now disgraced themselves in front of me and the Captain and now the Commissar and his pretty filly. But by Princess Luna’s sparkly blue arse” – the real Princess, standing not more than ten feet away from the completely oblivious Sergeant Major, blushed hotly at that remark – “I will make all of you into proper soldiers that will make those so-called ‘fearless’ Changelings shit themselves in their chitin at the mere thought of facing you in the field of battle! You are dismissed!”

The soldiers all snapped to attention, saluted the Captain, who was still engrossed in tending to his oral hygiene, and then dispersed to do whatever it was they were supposed to have been doing before Square Basher had decided to have a little bit of fun with them. Their tormentor turned upon her hooves, marched up to her commanding officer, and snapped to attention with a stamp of her hoof. It might have been my imagination, but I think I felt a slight tremor reverberate through the ground and up my hooves.

“With your leave, sir,” she said, her voice now back down to a rather more comfortable volume, “I’ll go and check on the readiness of the other platoons.”

He removed the toothbrush from his mouth and spat on the ground before rubbing at the frothy toothpaste puddle with his sabaton. “Very good,” he replied, returning the salute. “I want us to leave in ten minutes, Sergeant Major. Tell them that; we leave in ten minutes.”

“Sir!” Square Basher stamped her hoof once more, saluted, and then cantered away to be subsumed into the swirling morass of grey fur, dark steel armour, and pale dusty that surrounded us like a vortex. Now that we were alone, after a fashion, I approached Captain Red Coat, who was sipping at his tea thoughtfully. Upon hearing my approaching hoofsteps, he inclined his head towards me and nodded a greeting.

“Morning,” he mumbled, suppressing a yawn and then pocketing his toothbrush back into a pouch on his breastplate.

I reciprocated the greeting and sat next to him, while my ‘life guard’ stood by my side and watched the ponies around us with her usual impassive stare. “Did you sleep well?” I asked; I was not particularly in the mood for small talk, in fact, I seldom am if I’m truly honest, but as whether or not I would be around to see my twenty-third birthday depended upon the good Captain’s ability to stay level-headed when we inevitably get into battle, I thought it was best to try and give the impression that I was interested in his well-being for reasons that weren’t entirely selfish.

“Not bad,” he said, taking a sip from his mug of tea. Considering he had only just brushed his teeth I couldn’t imagine drinking tea straight after would taste very good, but he didn’t seem to mind at all. “A little tricky getting off at first but, but when I did I had this weird dream with Princess Luna and she was introducing me to all of the great military leaders of history. Then I dreamt I was a magic hamster flying through space.”

“I see...”

I glanced over my shoulder at the disguised Princess Luna lingering ominously by my side, and she returned my look with a knowing smile. Her ability to invade one’s dreams and interfere with them, usually to dispense some sort of helpful advice or impart a valuable lesson about friendship or some other such nonsense, was already known to me; a few months prior to these events I was enjoying a very pleasant and highly erotic dream involving Fancy Pants’ trophy wife, Fleur-de-Lis, and in mid-copulation Luna had burst in, denounced me as a perverted blackguard, at which point Fleur then transformed into one thousand scorpions. Needless to say, the experience was all rather harrowing and put me off the very idea of sexual intercourse for a good few weeks.

From another pouch Red Coat retrieved the rather beat-up old map that we had been using to navigate our way around this Faust-forsaken blight on Equestria, opened it up to its full size like a small table cloth, and spread it on the dust before us. There was a large tear in the upper left corner which removed precisely nothing of any value from the map, a few brown circles and blotches, some overlapping one another, where ponies had placed and spilt their mugs of tea, and what appeared to be a cigarette burn approximately where Dodge Junction was. Amidst the rippling, rolling contours of the hills that made up the bulk of this map were hundreds of hoof-written notes scrawled to the point of illegibility and a thick blue line that marked our progress. As Red Coat smoothed the map out and placed stones at the four corners, I stared at the vague shapes described by the blocky lines and transformed that in my mind into a three-dimensional shape to plot our route to our objective.

“We’ve made good progress so far,” he said, tracing the blue line with his hoof.

I nodded in response; the sooner we were out of here the better.

Red Coat then moved his hoof to a dotted line that I had drawn the previous day to show what I thought was the best route. “Are you certain this is the best path to take?”

“It looks like it,” I said. “My special talent seems to think so, at any rate. It looks wide enough for our carriages and our guns, and there aren’t many twists and turns to it.” What I did not add was the rather disconcerting notion that had only just occurred to me; as I reviewed the route in my mind I noted that, by comparison to the path we had dragged ourselves through just before, much of this new route looked as if it had been built to a design than created by the random whims of natural erosion. The idea set my hooves itching once more, and though I could rationalise that thought as it simply being marvellous good luck that we had stumbled across a path half-built by the ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation that lived here (perhaps they hired Prench contractors who went on strike halfway through construction), the idea that it might still be in use by Changelings or some unknown presence did not sit well with me at all.

“What about obstructions?”

“My special talent isn’t prescient,” I said, shrugging a little, “it’s just telling me that’s the path we should probably take. If there’s anything in our way, I’m sure Lieutenant Southern Cross will blow it up with judicious amounts of explosives. He’ll enjoy that.”

“Hmm.” Captain Red Coat stroked his chin thoughtfully as he regarded the map before him. As I observed him quietly, I noticed that there was a sense of maturity about him that simply was not there before; though his youthful good looks were still marred by the outbreaks of acne that had blossomed over nearly every part of his face that was not previously occupied by an eye, a nose, or a mouth, or any other facial feature of note, the way that he carried himself seemed to convey a rather more intangible sense that the wide-eyed, idealistic, eager young colt that had bumped into me as I stepped onto the platform at Dodge Junction station was hardened somehow by his experiences in war. He was growing up.

“How are the troops?” he asked as he removed the improvised paperweights from the map and started the laborious process of folding it up again.

“Morale is as good as can be reasonably expected out of them,” I said. “They’re eager to take the fight to the enemy, and the Princesses willing, we will, but they’re frustrated by our lack of progress.”

Red Coat took the now folded map from the ground and placed it back inside his pouch pocket. “Aren’t we all?” he said, smiling in a manner that looked rather forced to me. Well, I certainly was not ‘eager to take the fight to the enemy’ in the slightest. ‘Eager to run home, lock myself in my room, and have a good, long cry before indulging in far too much ice cream and champagne to be considered medically safe’ was rather more like it. At any rate, such an idea was hardly feasible, so I merely nodded my head in a manner that I hoped looked suitably grave and terribly commissarial.

“Please excuse me,” he said, “but I need to speak with the Engineers; they’re using up through our supply of gunpowder a bit too quick for my liking. Could you make sure the troops are ready for me, please?”

“Of course,” I said, effecting a friendly smile.

He saluted, which I returned half-heartedly, and then turned and cantered away.

As I wandered back in the vague direction of my tent, now most likely packed away with its contents on the back of a pony-drawn carriage, I noticed that the soldiers themselves had rallied themselves into some semblance of good, martial order. The baggage, guns, ammunition, and other supplies were lashed to the earth ponies, and already the pegasi platoons had taken flight and were circling above us in standard ‘V’ formations, which for all the world looked to me as if we were about to suddenly be assaulted by a vast mob of geese. Twilight Sparkle, as far as I understood, was already making a nuisance of herself by asking questions and sticking her nose in where it probably shouldn’t be, but as she was safely surrounded by guardsponies and their officers I was not unduly concerned for her safety; rather, I was more concerned about the safety of those ponies around her.

I stepped back from the ponies, with my tail, which had since been cropped in the military fashion [Guardsponies are required to wear their tails short to prevent an enemy from grabbing hold of it in battle. This is not mandatory for officers, but most invariably follow suit], and my hind legs against a the sheer, almost vertical, rock wall that loomed about fifteen feet above us and terminated in a small ‘shelf’ and a rising slope to the hill peaks. Affecting to look as if I was supervising the ponies as they quenched fires, packed their bedrolls, and munched hungrily on feedbags, and satisfied that everypony within earshot was too fully engrossed in whatever it was that they were doing to eavesdrop, I leaned in close to my disguised Auntie and said sotto voce: “Might I be correct in assuming you’ve been helping Captain Red Coat in his dreams lately?”

Princess Luna smiled knowingly and nodded her head. “It is my duty, after all; Red Coat has the potential to be an excellent leader of ponies, but it is his youth and his lack of confidence and experience that are holding him back. With our guidance, I in dreams and you by example in war, we shall mould this foal into a capable officer.”

I snorted contemptuously, but I think I managed to mask that gesture by appearing to be clearing my sinuses of the clouds of dust that the soldiers’ hooves had been kicking up incessantly. Rubbing at my nose, I also concealed the rather irritated snarl that tugged at my lips. “And what was the flying space hamster in aid of?”

“I’m allowed to have a little fun, aren’t I?” replied Luna, grinning inanely. Such an expression did not suit her, thought I.

“Well,” I said, watching with a sense of growing dread as the ponies arranged themselves neatly into the marching column with effortless ease, as they had practiced these manoeuvres over and over until the memory was ingrained more in their minds than that of their first kisses. Resigning myself to the fact that the new day had brought only fresh opportunities for me to die gloriously for the peculiar mare standing beside me and her elder sister and the country that they ruled, I adjusted my cap to what I had hoped was a suitable rakish angle and moved to join the column. “I think all of us will be gaining some experience before this is all over.”

Author's Notes:

As everyone suggested, I shall be writing shorter chapters to update more frequently. Hopefully this will all work out. Anyway, hope you enjoyed this chapter.

Bloodstained (Part 12)

Part 12

I would say that the rest of our journey through the Macintosh Hills passed without serious incident, and I would not be in any danger of being contradicted by my former comrades in the Royal Guard or by military historian eggheads if I did so, but that little phrase may give you, dear reader, the impression that it was in any way easier than the first half. Back then, of course, I had no way of knowing for certain that we would all eventually stagger out of those blasted valleys and into the barren empty fields of the Badlands alive and relatively all in one piece, so I was still under that constant, nagging paranoia that sooner or later, without warning, a horde of ravenous Changelings will crest over the nearest hill and descend upon us like piranhas attacking a dolphin.

This paranoia was only made worse when the pegasus reconnaissance flights reported sighting small patrols of ponies, each consisting of no more than three or four ponies, tailing us in our grinding slog through these hills. The damnable thing was that whenever our pegasi attempted to give chase to these mysterious ponies or even just wave at them from a few hundred feet in the air, our watchers would simply disappear, apparently into thin air but it was theorised by Twilight Sparkle, ever eager to posit a hypothesis, of course, that they had escaped via tunnel entrances cunningly concealed in the cliffs and gullies around us. I myself had caught sight of them briefly; small figures standing upon the edge of a cliff overhanging our vulnerable formation, clutching spears in their hooves and clad in rough cloths that appeared to be of the same colour as the earth upon which we trod. They had watched us intently for a few moments, and it felt as if they singled me out specifically on account of my big stupid hat identifying me as somepony important who must be killed immediately, before disappearing once more never to be seen again.

The other officers did not seem overly concerned about them. Apparently they were harmless; the nomadic tribes of ponies that shared this bleak land with the Changelings and Faust-knows what else horrors that lurked within those hills, and believed, later confirmed, to be the remnants of ancient pony civilisations that had pre-existed Equestria and the rule of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, and who had refused to accept the divine authority of the Royal Pony Sisters over them and thus fled to this inhospitable, useless scrap of dirt. They were welcome to it, thought I, if they were under the bizarre impression that their liberty was worth living in this thoroughly unpleasant part of the world. I also thought that it would have been nice if somepony else had actually told me of these nomads before I started getting all worked up about the robed ponies standing on a hilltop and silhouetted against the empty blue sky; it was mentioned in a few of the briefing notes, and recommended that we simply do our best to avoid them and any unnecessary complications in what was already a messy war, but when I skim-read those notes earlier I must have either not noticed or not cared.

“It’s actually a good thing they’re here,” said Captain Red Coat, once we had reorganised the unicorn platoon that I had called into a square back into the battalion marching formation. [The square formation is the primary defence for ground-based infantry against airborne attack; in such a densely packed formation, unicorns can unleash a withering hail of fire into the sky and earth ponies can present a bristling wall of spears upon which any pegasus or gryphon would impale themselves before they could get close enough to strike.]

I frowned at him sceptically. The grin on his face was a little too smug for my liking. “And why is that?”

“They wouldn’t be here if the Changelings were nearby.”

He had a point, I suppose, but my paranoia failed to be assuaged by his words. Who was to say that they were not in league with the Changeling enemy, or were in fact disguised Changelings themselves? Thus far they had proved to be entirely passive, and somewhat elusive; content with merely standing upon their peaks and watching our slow, clumsy movement, so perhaps they were providing reconnaissance for the enemy? At any rate, Captain Red Coat was keen to press on as quickly as possible, which was a sentiment I agreed with entirely, for the longer we spent in these hills the more vulnerable we were to attack, and we hadn’t the time to waste chasing after such phantoms.

We eventually cleared the hills at around lunch time, and immediately, as the battalion stopped by on the gentle slope of a hill leading down into the vast open space that was the Badlands proper, I was hit by an instant sense of complete desolation. From my perch at the head of the formation, standing by Captain Red Coat and Twilight Sparkle, I surveyed the demesne of the enemy. The landscape itself was almost entirely featureless; a flat plain, populated by dark yellow rocks and the occasional dry shrub or cactus with branches like claws grasping blasphemously at the sky. The ground was pitted and rough like the surface of coarse sandpaper or a particularly amateurish attempt at making a crème brûlée, and it stretched forth seemingly into infinity where it met the pale blue horizon in a quivering, blurred haze. The overall effect was like that of standing on a cliff’s edge and gazing out at the endless ocean. Aside from a few scraps of desiccated vegetation eking out a bleak existence in his inhospitable realm and the vultures circling portentously overhead as if in anticipation of the slaughter to come, I could discern nothing else living before me and yet somewhere, out there, the unnumbered hordes of the Changelings stood poised to strike out at our realm.

Fort E-5150 was the only landmark visible in this vista of utmost emptiness, like a lone ship in a vast sea. The fortress that I had previously seen only as a large dark smudge on blurry aerial reconnaissance photographs stood below less than an hour’s march away from us. It was a large, sprawling structure that greatly resembled a flat-topped hill; sheer cliffs rose from the flat plains to form an oval-shaped structure that reminded me of a table, crested with crenulated walls that crumbled into ruin in places, encircling a central courtyard area that seemed to be the hallmark of the ancient forts built here. At one narrow end of the oval, the main keep rose about three storeys above the fallen walls as a sprawling mess of crippled towers. In places there were great holes ripped into the sides of the keep that were patched with flimsy blocks of sandstone or simply covered with cloth, probably by the Diamond Dogs that inhabited this decaying fort. The opposite end was occupied by a large gate; two vast slabs of clumsily-cast and beaten iron, each made up of smaller, roughly crafted slabs of metal welded and bolted together with no regard for any sort of architectural niceties, rested on suitably blocky-looking hinges, and covered entirely in a thick, splotchy patina of brown and orange rust. The approach to the gates was quite steep, so a winding path had been cut into the rock. There appeared to be no way of opening those gates from the outside.

In an odd way, it reminded me of home. [Blueblood’s ancestral estate in Canterlot, known as the Sanguine Palace, was, and still is, in a state of constant disrepair.]

Our approach to the fortress was slow and cautious, both for our own sake so that we might adopt a suitable defence if things rapidly went pear-shaped and for the benefit of the primitive canine inhabitants to avoid scaring them into doing something that they would likely regret. Nevertheless, I was all but certain that the sight of a full battery of artillery ready to reduce the structure into a big, albeit impressive, pile of rubble would be enough to dissuade them; Diamond Dogs may be a somewhat backward species, but they aren’t quite that stupid (destroying the fortress would have been counter to our mission objectives, but they wouldn’t know that). Captain Red Coat and I stood at the very head of the column in front of the battalion’s earth ponies arrayed in standard battle formation. A young ensign joined us, and in place of the proud standard of the Night Guards he normally carried around with him, he held aloft a white flag. Actually, it was a rather dirty, mucous-stained hoofkerchief belonging to Sergeant Major Square Basher, for, as she proudly told me, only the Prench regiments of the Royal Guard had white flags. Given the historic rivalry between the two provinces of Trottingham and Prance I decided it was best to keep secret exactly where my mother was born and her family lineage.

We stopped a short distance from the tall walls, close to an area where part of the structure had collapsed and the ensuing rubble had formed a large, rocky slope that led up into a gaping hole large enough to park an airship. The ensign, a young, acne-ridden lad whose voice was still rather hesitant about breaking, reared up on his hind legs and waved the white hoofkerchief proudly, while Captain Red Coat announced in what he must have thought was a firm, authoritative tone that he wished to parlay with whoever was in charge of this outpost.

There was no answer.

Fearing a trap, I positioned myself behind Red Coat and the flag-wielding ensign, and scanned the crumbling battlements for any suspicious movement. Aside from the fluttering of torn, ragged banners daubed with crude and garish symbols in the gentle breeze, there was absolutely nothing moving I could see in the fortress itself. Something was wrong; I had yet to face Diamond Dogs in the field of battle, but I knew from firsthoof accounts that, while they might be simple creatures, they were all of the belief that fair play was something only losers whined about (if they survived the encounter first). Were I in their paws and I wanted that menacing army camped outside my doors gone I would have lured the battalion through that invitingly large breach in the walls and then ambushed the disorganised mess of troops as they clumsily blundered into the wide courtyard area.

“Maybe they’re just shy,” I said, trying to lighten the mood slightly. “Perhaps they might be more obliging hosts if we show them the gems.”

Red Coat nodded, and at a single barked order from his Sergeant Major, two soldiers carried the large chest that they had been guarding throughout our unpleasant journey, and placed it at the officer’s hooves. The lid was opened, revealing its contents that scintillated in the dazzlingly bright sunlight and cast kaleidoscopic reflections upon the ground before us for several hundred feet. [Blueblood is likely exaggerating here] As cunning and devious as the common Diamond Dog might be, they were still ruled by their baser instincts, and like many animals and young foals they can be easily coerced with the promise of food.

There was still no response from the castle, and Captain Red Coat was getting visibly anxious as the carefully-laid plan that we had spent weeks and weeks bashing out through long meetings began to unravel. He shuffled nervously on his hooves, incapable of standing still, as he looked longingly up at the fortress walls as if he could coerce the appearance of its inhabitants through sheer willpower alone.

A pegasus section was soon sent to reconnoitre the fortress, though they were instructed not to drift too close to the structure lest their harmless expedition be taken for an offensive military action. The corporal reported seeing tents, piles of gems, armour, rags, and all sorts of random detritus scattered around the courtyard, as was to be expected, but neither he nor his section could identify any of the fortress’ inhabitants or indeed anything else alive down there. Having reached an impasse in the negotiations on account of the second participant simply not being there, the Night Guards decided this was an excellent time to break for afternoon tea and soon the fires were lit and the kettles boiled, much to the continued amusement of the platoons from the Solar Guard, who regarded this behaviour with an understandable sense of bafflement and slight resentment, while the officers moved together for a brief confab. Naturally, Twilight Sparkle was there taking notes as usual.

“We might as well,” I said, taking a sip from my mug of tea when Lieutenant Scarlet Letter made a rather unpleasant comment about the Trottinghamites, the very ponies he claims to represent in Parliament, mind you, apparently wasting time. “We’re not doing anything productive until the Diamond Dogs show their faces, and we don’t know how long it will be before the next chance comes up. Besides, it’s good for morale.”

Scarlet Letter merely snorted in derision, but otherwise said nothing and turned his uninterested gaze up at the fortress looming above us.

“Anyway,” I said, pointing a hoof rather dramatically at the shattered breach in the castle walls, “our orders are to take this fortress by any means necessary; up to and including the use of force.”

“I really hoped it wouldn’t come to that,” said Captain Red Coat. The skin beneath his grey-dyed fur had turned very pale, a rather unhealthy shade of that too, and those chilling yellow slit-eyes seemed to be staring right through me, which gave him a rather disconcertingly vampiric countenance.

I gave a vague sort of shrug, hoping to mask the same sort of inchoate terror welling up within me that Captain Red Coat had done a rather poor job of concealing, for I knew that a poorly phrased sentence here or there would invariably send me charging into the gaping breach just behind me and into certain death. “Neither did I,” I said, being in that very rare situation of telling the truth for once in my miserable life, “but right now we don’t have a choice. Orders are orders, Captain.”

“Well,” he said, licking and smacking his dry lips in a gesture I took to be a nervous tick, “if I remember what I was taught at the Academy right, there’s three ways to seize a castle; starve out the defenders, assault through a breach, or mount an escalator.”

“Escalade,” corrected Twilight almost immediately, not even bothering to cease in her note-taking as she did so. [Probably the most direct method, and certainly one of the riskiest and most costly, of attacking fortresses, an escalade involves scaling the defensive walls with the aid of ladders.]

A slight blush returned a bit of colour back to Red Coat’s sickly pale cheeks. “Uh, yes, that’s what I meant.” He cleared his throat sheepishly and pointed at the vast mound of shattered and broken masonry that led to the gaping rent in the castle walls, and already I could envisage the good Captain here requesting that I lead some sort of glorious forlorn hope into a breach that likely had a large mob of Diamond Dogs lurking just out of sight ready for ambush. “There’s already a hole in the walls,” he said, renewed confidence inflecting his voice slightly.

“Uh, I hate to interrupt you there, mate,” said Lieutenant Southern Cross. The engineer was leaning casually on his axe, with the viciously sharp and spotlessly clean (one of the very things about him that was not covered in a layer of dust thick enough to qualify as an extra layer of clothing) planted in the hard, rocky ground and with his foreleg resting atop the upright handle. A few of the other officers looked aghast at the Horestralian’s casual use of the word ‘mate’ in addressing a superior officer, and had they monocles they would have surely popped out of their eye sockets in shock, but given the seriousness of this situation they seemed content in letting his odd verbal tic pass. “If the defenders have any sense in them they’d have planted a great big mine underneath that pile of rubble to blow us all sky-high if we cross it. It’s what I would have done.”

I nodded my head in agreement. “In war, the most obvious solution is often just a trap.”

There were a few murmurs of polite, if somewhat grudging, assent from the officers around us, save for Captain Red Coat, who was busy gazing at the fortress walls and chewing on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully. “So we can’t go through the gap, and obviously we can’t just sit here and wait for the defenders to surrender.”

“And we can’t blow another hole in the wall,” I said. Red Coat cocked his head to one side in mild confusion, which made him look like some form of possessed puppy, so I explained for him: “We may need to defend this place against attack, which might prove tricky if we’ve already blasted several breaches in it for the Changelings to swarm through.”

“Right, right. So that just leaves escalading over the walls then.”

Fortunately, in our planning we had sufficient foresight to procure a number of ladders precisely for this purpose. Together, we hashed out a vague sort of plan (or ‘everypony else discussed the plan and I just nodded my head and made some thoughtful noises at appropriate points to give the impression that I was participating’ to be more accurate a description of how things proceeded) that involved sending a full platoon of earth ponies over the wall, who, assuming that enough of them would survive to actually make to the top of the walls, would fight their way down into the courtyard, assuming again that there was actually anyone there to fight, and open the gates for the rest of the battalion to march through and seize the fort. At the same time, the pegasi would provide close aerial support for the lone earth pony platoon, and the unicorns and artillery were deployed nearby to fire on the walls to keep the defenders away from them.

As the preparations were made for the escalade, I took especial care to remain as close to Twilight Sparkle’s side as physically possible, not out of any particular fondness for her company, mind you, but merely to remind everypony around me that while I would absolutely love to take part in storming the castle, a military operation whose distinguishing feature is that the attacker almost always gets slaughtered, especially in the first wave (which, given the relatively small size of our battalion, would probably be the only wave), I was motivated by my sense of honour to protect this vulnerable young mare, the apprentice of Princess Celestia and a genuine heroine of Equestria, from harm. That I was actually motivated more by my sense of self-preservation need not be mentioned; you were probably aware of that anyway, and likewise it would just as superfluous to mention that my carefully constructed scheme to keep royal head firmly attached to my neck instead of, say, impaled on a spike in some Diamond Dog warlord’s drawing room, completely fell to pieces.

“The escalade platoon is a little jumpy,” said Captain Red Coat, looking rather sheepish and doing his hardest not to look me in the eye. The platoon in question had already assembled at the base of the wall, grouped into three sections each with a long and rather disconcertingly rickety-looking ladder. “They might try a little harder if you were there to keep an eye on them, I mean, if you think it’s a good idea.”

“I really wish I could,” I said, inclining my head towards the little purple mare sitting beside me. Twilight was so intent on scribbling some nonsense into her notepad that she barely seemed to register Captain Red Coat’s presence, which, mind you, was not exactly difficult as the young stallion tended not to radiate the same sort of forceful leadership that Colonel Sunshine Smiles or Shining Armour possessed, and which I pretended to have. A furtive glance over my oblivious ward’s shoulder revealed that her hoof-writing was just as bad, if not worse, than Cannon Fodder’s; my aide tends to make some small attempt at legibility, and at least he has the excuse that his motor skills are rather limited by his complete inability to use any form of magic at all, but Twilight’s was nothing more than a complete mess of scribbles that looked as if it belonged in a modern art gallery. [Twilight Sparkle was actually writing in short-hoof, which Blueblood cannot read.]

I effected a heavy sigh that I hoped sounded disappointed enough for Captain Red Coat’s ears, and placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder protectively, from which she recoiled slightly from the exaggerated gesture and shot me a glare that conveyed in no uncertain terms was I to attempt that again. Shrugging, I pulled my hoof back. “I gave Lord Captain Shining Armour my solemn word that I would protect his little sister from anything that might harm her. I truly wish I could join the troops in this battle, but my sense of honour compels me to sit this one out. Besides” –I flashed a warm grin– “I’m sure you can handle it yourself.”

“What if your bodyguard stays and looks after Twilight instead?”

Damnation, the thought hadn’t occurred to me at all. In fact, I had all but forgotten the presence of my ‘life guard’ standing at my shoulder for most of the day, my disguised auntie having been all but completely silent the whole time, but nevertheless here she was once more to ruin my chances of making it out of this war alive as if she had some sort of personal vendetta against me. There was a sudden, unpleasant lurch in the pit of my stomach as I saw my carefully-constructed plan to keep myself out of danger crash spectacularly into pieces before my very eyes, like a skilled artisan placing the final pane of stained glass into an intricately designed and beautifully crafted window in Canterlot Cathedral depicting a key point in the life of Princess Celestia, only for some bumbling imbecile to nudge it with a hoof and cause the entire thing to shatter into a thousand tiny shards, likely ripping the artist to shreds as I would be very soon unless I thought of something very quickly.

Standing there, I stammered uselessly for a few seconds as I struggled to find something, anything to get me out of this mess, but alas I came out completely and utterly blank. I looked to Princess Luna, as if pleading with her to find some way to help me, but instead she merely smiled and nodded her head.

“From birth to death I serve the Blood,” she said robotically, reciting the ancient creed of the Servants of the Blood, which sounded quite chilling in my Aunt’s cold, refined voice. [It sounds much better in the original Old Equestrian.]

Red Coat blinked gormlessly at her. “Ohh-kay.”

“Thank you, Cloudless Sky,” I said, though I fear I could not entirely stop myself from injecting a small amount of sarcasm into my voice. That was that, I supposed, and with little other recourse besides embarrassing myself in front of Twilight Sparkle, Captain Red Coat, and Princess Luna by running to the hills I forced that cocky grin to my face that had somehow become my trademark over the course of my nascent career, despite feeling as if somepony had just torn all of my guts free from my belly and left a huge, gaping wound where they once lay safe and coiled within, and cantered over to the platoon with Cannon Fodder silently following me.

It was only with great personal effort on my part that I reached the small, disorderly mob of thirty ponies without passing out from sheer terror, which probably would not have helped my reputation for casual heroism one bit. The officer in command of the platoon was a young, pimple-faced lieutenant with a nervous stammer, and whose eyes seemed on the verge of popping free from their sockets like champagne corks when he learned that a ‘genuine’ war hero would be accompanying him. Fortunately, it was that same eagerness to get into the fray as quickly as possible that meant that I was not to be the first pony ascending those ladders, as once everypony else was in position at the base of the walls and the ladders themselves were raised slowly, like the pagans of old giving praise to the sky, to rest against the crenulated battlements, the lieutenant cried, “Who w-w-wants to live f-f-forever?” as if he was trying to impress me—if he was, then he had failed miserably, as his stammer had rather robbed his clichéd battle cry of any power it might have otherwise had and he seemed to be of that sort of courage that is nigh indistinguishable from stark-raving lunacy—and then scrambled up the closest ladder like a squirrel up a tree.

I was up next, and as I stumbled to the base of the ladder and looked up at the dizzying heights receding into the distance while fighting a sudden wave of vertigo that brought the bile rising up my throat, and the slowly diminishing sight of the Lieutenant’s backside, I wondered if now was the time to tell everypony that I very much did not like heights. It would not have worked, anyway. Nevertheless, a glance over my shoulder at the two mares observing the proceedings (Captain Red Coat had since left to take charge of the units preparing to assault the gates) provided sufficient motivation for me to start climbing; I feared that whatever punishments Princess Luna had in store for me should I fail to live up to her exacting standards would be far more severe than anything the Changelings could inflict upon me, likely making the famed cruelty and sadism of Queen Chrysalis feel like a sunny day at a petting zoo by comparison, and it was that fear that propelled me to take my right forehoof and place it upon the first rung of the ladder.

If I thought that the ladder looked unsafe from some distance away, then my fears were completely and utterly vindicated, surpassed even, when I found myself face-to-face with the flimsy wooden structure. As I transferred my not-inconsiderable weight –the symptoms of having had too many pies and not enough exercise as a youth– the old and rotted timbers creaked ominously. With no other option, I sucked in a deep breath in a vain attempt to quell the frantic writhing in my gut, placed my rear hooves on the bottommost rung of the ladder, and after bending my hind legs a little to test its integrity, I began to ascend the ladder. Moments later, the ladder lurched suddenly, which told me that my aide Cannon Fodder was right behind me.

My progress was slow, damnably so, for it felt as if I was climbing for an eternity. Part of me wondered if I was in fact dead, and that to endlessly climb this ladder, always below the arse of another stallion in some peculiar, was some form of metaphysical punishment for all of my debauchery and philandering, in the vain hope of salvation and an end to my torment was to be my eternal punishment. At the very least, I supposed, the Lieutenant was in full armour so I was spared that rather unpleasant sight, though the same could not be said for Cannon Fodder directly beneath me, and almost on reflex I tucked the small tuft of hair that remained of my tail between my hind legs to try and preserve my modesty. It was rather odd that my thoughts turned to rather trivial, and I must admit rather juvenile, themes during that climb, but when one considers that the alternative was to think of just how high I had climbed, how far it was to the hard, unforgiving ground below, and how far I had yet to go, I believe I can be excused for that.

Left forehoof, right forehoof, left rear hoof, right rear hoof... over and over again, ad infinitum. It was only by concentrating on the cold, hard mechanics of gripping one rung at a time and pulling myself up only to repeat the process again that I had acquired the mental fortitude to keep myself going. My muscles and limbs ached with exertion, and the shrapnel wound in my right shoulder flared with particularly excruciating pain with each and every single step upwards. The sweltering heat sapped what little strength remained in my limbs, until climbing each rung had become an ordeal of itself, and the sweat ran in rivulets from my much-abused mane and streaked across my hide to form unsightly dark stains in my faded uniform. Glancing down, however, at the sheer drop to the rocky ground below, cracked, parched, and made hard by the hot, dry climate of this region, gave me enough impetus to keep going, if only because falling would have been the most immediate threat of death to me, but if I actually made it to the top then at least I had some small chance, no matter how miniscule, of survival.

The defenders, if there were any hiding up there, seemed content to let us scramble up their walls unmolested. Naturally, my paranoia had decided to take the fact that I had yet to have boiling oil poured straight into my handsome face as proof that the enemy, whoever they were, was leading us directly into an ambush.

Ahead of me the Lieutenant had stopped suddenly, and I had all but rammed my horn against his rear barding. I thanked Faust that he was armoured, otherwise that might have gone much worse for all involved. It was, however, to a sense of both immense relief and growing dread that I realised that meant that we had reached the very top of the ladder, and that somehow I had managed to ascend this far without the likely rotten timbers snapping beneath my weight. With bated breath I watched as the Lieutenant turned his head, grinning, and pulled from the scabbard strapped around his back with his mouth his Pattern ’12 sabre and held it clenched between his teeth about the modified handle for earth ponies. With a muffled cry of rage, or perhaps terror, he vaulted himself over the top and disappeared.

I fully expected to have the Lieutenant’s bloodied and broken corpse thrown back at my face, but against all expectations he popped his head over the side of the parapets, that damned cheerful grin formed a thin line of white that split his face in half, and he waved a hoof down at me as if this was a pleasant day at the funfair. “It’s clear, sir!” he called out, and a cheer rose up from the stallions below me. Either side of us, on the other two ladders, the first stallions of those sections too scrambled awkwardly over the crumbling battlements with all the grace of an obese mule struggling out of the bath.

Well, there was no point putting this off. I pulled myself over the pile of rubble that several hundred years ago might have been the castle battlements and fell clumsily on my backside onto the chemin de ronde [Prench for ‘round path’ or ‘patrol path’, this refers to the protected raised walkway behind castle battlements] with a mad flail of my legs, letting loose a string of expletives that thankfully nopony seems to remember anymore. Despite my limbs protesting painfully, I staggered to my hooves and stepped to the side to allow Cannon Fodder room to follow me in clambering over the small pile of rubble with his usual silent indifference to hardship. It was immensely reassuring to feel solid, hard rock beneath my hooves, and were it not considered unseemly for a pony of my social status to do so I might have kissed the ground.

As the rest of the platoon ascended the ladders and spread out across the wall, I stood as close to the inside edge as I dared and peered down at the central courtyard. As the pegasi attested, I could see nothing alive therein, but everywhere I saw evidence that this place had been inhabited not long before we had arrived. The area could best be described as a sort of marketplace; a sprawling mass of tents, gazebos, and marquees, each made out of a patchwork of brightly coloured but ripped and torn fabrics stretched across flimsy wooden poles, no two identical, filled the courtyard with a riot of sun-bleached colour, each half over its neighbour until they rose up and against the walls of the great keep like a wave crashing against the rocks. There was, however, a central boulevard that led from the still-closed gates to the keep, but even that was by no means neat and orderly, for the small tent structures often encroached on what would an Equestrian road planner might have designed as a perfectly straight lane. Amidst the tents lay all manner of detritus strewed out haphazardly in the narrow alleyways between them, and from my vantage point I could discern piles of broken crockery, spilt bowls of food, sacks of grain, piles of gems, and assorted useless trinkets that the inhabitants of this fort traded with the other societies of this barren land scattered everywhere.

“There’s sod all down there, sir.” Private Marathon, who had served as the regiment’s runner in the previous battle, materialised at my side. She peered over the edge and spat down at the multi-coloured mess of tents below, watching as it made a small, wet stain on the dust-covered fabric of an offensively yellow gazebo that covered a number of barrels stacked upon one another.

“Is that the technical term?” I asked wryly.

“No sir; that would be ‘buck all down there’.”

She grinned inanely, and I let the comment slide for now; it was better to tolerate the rather unrefined badinage the soldiers tend to indulge in, and even take part in it if one feels sufficiently confident to do so, than to do as some of my comrades might have done, and indeed as the big commissarial rulebook instructs, and clamp down on it and be seen as a mean-spirited sort of pony whose personality might be improved by the addition of a spear between the shoulder blades when nopony’s looking. At any rate, there were rather more important things to worry about at the moment.

The platoon, now marshalled along the walls, advanced cautiously around the chemin de ronde towards the gatehouse, beyond which the rest of the battalion waited. With the narrowness of the walkway we marched two abreast, then to single file as we came to a set of stairs that led into the courtyard. One stallion had slipped on some loose paving and crashed into the tents below. Fortunately, his fall was cushioned somewhat by the tent and he suffered no worse injuries than a sprained ankle and wounded pride. We suffered no further casualties, however, as we eventually reached the courtyard. Our hosts, the Diamond Dogs, still had yet to make themselves known, and as we observed the mess of colour that lay before us like a the results of an explosion in an artists’ studio I felt an overwhelming sense of ‘wrongness’ about the scene that was quite impossible to describe in the simple terms of the lack of Diamond Dogs or the stark silence in what should have been a very busy place.

It was then that I noticed the signs all around us that a fight had occurred here very recently.

Splashed by my hooves was what were unmistakeably the dark rust tones of dried blood streaked across the ground in an arterial spray, and as I scanned the disorganised mess of tents I saw that great rents had been torn in the fabric, as if pierced by sword or spear or claw, and in places framed by a ring of blackened ash that indicated a magic missile discharge. Gazing up the boulevard, I now saw that the ripped tents and the scattered piles of broken detritus were not the fault of any inherent messiness on behalf of the Diamond Dogs and whoever else happened to be around, but as collateral damage from a violent battle that must have occurred here not long ago. The destruction that I saw was by no means complete, and quite unsettlingly I noticed that the attacking force, whoever they were, had not indulged in the rampant looting that usually follows a particularly vicious fight and left the many useless trinkets and gems either still in the market stalls or scattered and broken in the dust and the food left to spoil in their barrels. Indeed, I noticed that a few of our soldiers could not control their own impulse to loot and had surreptitiously pocketed a few baubles and cabbages. The thought that the attackers had simply faded back into the Badlands after their slaughter, not even pausing for the traditional post-battle rape-and-pillage festivities, was most unsettling; it implied that their attack was not motivated by strategic concerns, as was ours, or a simple raid, but merely to kill.

We came to the gatehouse, still wary as the platoon adopted a defensive semi-circle formation around the iron gates in case whoever had massacred the Diamond Dogs still lurked either in the keep or lay hidden in ambush within the mess of tents and debris. Now that I was closer to the gate I could see that in addition to the rather slipshod method of manufacture, which was confirmed to be merely large sheets of rusted iron many times larger than the average pony bolted together with crude implements, there were great, horrendous rents scratched into the metal, ripping open the layer of rust and exposing the bright iron that lay beneath. Across the lower half of the gate, where the two doors met, were a number of claw marks and dents, as if somepony or something had been trying desperately to tear them open. Here and there were dark, black scorch marks, and areas where the metal had melted under some intense heat and dripped like candle wax. The implication that the enemy had something that could generate that sort of heat and apply it as a weapon made me shudder involuntarily.

There was a tense moment of waiting as the Lieutenant and a small group of soldiers had disappeared inside the gatehouse to search for a way to open the gates, and during this time the only sounds audible were the faint rustling of fabric being stirred on the hot breeze and something that sounded like a small wind chime. I strained my ears, trying to find something, anything that might have indicated the presence of another, but aside from the aforementioned background noise was absolutely nothing. Abruptly, the gates behind me opened with a series of drunken, halting lurches with a scream of abused gears and pulley systems, as whatever aged, rusted, and poorly maintained mechanism contained within the gatehouse awoke with all of the efficiency and smoothness of the Equestrian Revenue Service.

The flanking battalion poured through the open gates. A quick sweep of the courtyard was conducted but found nothing of note; no Diamond Dogs or Changelings hiding in ambush, no survivors of whatever had happened here, but only more of those gaudy trinkets and random knick-knacks for sale, though I did have to destroy a few bottles of moonshine that the stallions had uncovered in their search. The door to the keep, however, was wide open, almost invitingly so for all its forbidding darkness as the cool, shaded stone promised a respite from the oppressive heat.

I accompanied Captain Red Coat and a few scouting parties into the keep, while the remainder of the battalion worked with the Engineers in clearing out the courtyard and returning it to its proper military purpose. The gates to the keep were small, and clearly designed so as to bottleneck an advancing army, should they have been fortunate—or unfortunate—enough to make it this far, and as the attackers would queue up to squeeze through the doors they would be vulnerable to all manner of projectiles hurled from the high towers of the keep from above; like shooting fish in a barrel, as the old saying goes. The first room was a large entrance hall, which, as the light shone through shattered gothic windows and through holes and rents smashed into the sides of the great walls in bright beams that pierced the gloom, had an almost reverent feel to it. The overall effect was like that of stepping into an abandoned church, with the high, arched ceiling supported by simple and bare stone pillars that gave one an impression of stepping into a vast, open space. The entrance hall receded into darkness, such that I could not possibly make out what lay beyond those beams of light, which, when contrasted with the shadows around them, looked solid enough to reach out and touch. This ambience, however, marred by the most appalling stench that assaulted my nostrils the second I stepped through the threshold.

“Dear Faust!” shouted Red Coat, taking a hoofkerchief to his nose in a vain effort to ward the smell off. The other soldiers around us gagged and protested in rather more colourful tones at the odour, though only Private Cannon Fodder seemed entirely unconcerned. I remained rather close to my aide, for though his aroma was no better I was at least more used to his. “What is that smell?”

“It wasn’t me,” said one of the stallions, who looked sheepish when his attempt at a joke was met by disapproving glares from his comrades and a well-deserved clip around the ear from his corporal.

I shrugged, deciding to ignore it. “Probably the Diamond Dogs,” I said; the stench could be best described being of death, body odour, and raw sewage, which was probably rather apt when one considers who inhabited this castle, or used to, to be more accurate. Against my better judgement, it was decided that it was best that we split up to explore the castle; Captain Red Coat apparently felt reasonably certain that whatever had murdered all of the Diamond Dogs was likely long gone by now, probably having got what they wanted from the fortress in the first place, but I was not so certain. Nevertheless, I was aware that we were rather pressed for time, and the sooner that we could declare this place secure the better, so I stuck close with Red Coat, making sure that he was always in front and that I had a clear route to escape behind me, and followed.

The smell only got worse as we passed through the hall and into the fortress proper, where the innards of the fortress split into a series of long, meandering corridors that seemed to be deliberately designed to leave one as disorientated as possible (unless one happens to have a compass rose for a cutie mark, like me). The corridors would sometimes break off to lead into rooms, which had been converted into warrens or store rooms or, in some places, a makeshift latrine, and with the torches in the wall sockets long since dead we relied on the bright glow of horn lights to guide our progress. The actinic glare illuminated the cold, dripping sandstone walls, but only for a short distance before the all-encompassing darkness swallowed our tiny flickers of light. Nevertheless, what was briefly revealed by our light was chilling, for everywhere I could yet see the signs that much slaughter had taken place here, and not too long ago either; dried blood was splattered across the walls and the floors, sometimes pooling into great cuts scratched into the rock where weapons had swung, missed their target, and smashed into the walls. There was, however, something quite obvious that was missing, which I did not even notice until Cannon Fodder had blurted it out.

“Where are the bodies?” he asked flatly.

Our section [Blueblood does not explain how the battalion was split up to explore the fortress, but from this comment and the testimony of others we can determine that each exploring party was made up of a mixed section. That is to say, an ad hoc infantry section made up of roughly equal parts earth pony, pegasus, and unicorn] came to a sudden, abrupt halt. How could I have missed it? How could any of us have missed the distinct lack of rotting corpses strewed about the place? If this was a hit-and-run attack aimed at just causing as much death as possibly upon the helpless Diamond Dogs then they probably would not have stuck around to helpfully remove all of the bodies. The implication that the enemy merely wanted their meat and nothing else was all the more disturbing, so I tried not to think about it.

Had I any sort of inkling of the true nature of the threat that lay dormant beneath our hooves I would have ordered Lieutenant Southern Cross and Sergeant Bramley Apple to cram this wretched fortress full of explosives and blow it sky-high. But the enemy that lay dormant beneath our hooves did not make itself known for several years after this battle in an attack that has since frequented my nightmares, and thus I remained in blissful ignorance of the horrors to come. [Please note that all evidence pertaining to the truth around the destruction of Fort E-5150 and of the so-called ‘Shards’ is classified at the absolute highest level by the express orders of myself and Princess Luna. Suffice to say, the events that Prince Blueblood has touched upon in this paragraph is described in greater detail in a later entry in his memoirs and are of little help in understanding his place in the history of Operation: Equestrian Dawn.]

“Maybe they ate them?” I posited.

We proceeded warily, our hoofsteps echoing down the corridors, reverberating against the cold stone of the walls, and in the silence even our breaths seemed far too loud. Once or twice, my pricked and twitching ears would hear hoofsteps in the distance, or what sounded like voices and the clatter of metal, which would send my heart hammering against my ribcage and the fur on the back of my neck prickling. The corridors felt very confining, despite my affinity with confined areas underground, and my growing claustrophobia was not helped by the presence of the other stallions around me. Judging by the wide eyes and awkward, jerky movements of the soldiers, it seemed that I was not alone in allowing my nerves to get the better of me; several times Captain Red Coat shrieked in fright, sabre drawn and ready to strike, only to find the half-glimpsed monster lurking in the dark was merely a dancing shadow cast by our horn lights upon something innocuous like a chair.

Branching off from the endless corridors were a series of rooms behind doors, most still swinging gently on rusted old hinges. There, we found the rather poignant evidence of ordinary life for the Diamond Dogs disturbed by sudden and brutal violence; food was still found in primitive pots and plates and arranged upon slab-like tables for meals, tools for mining, clothes, jewellery, children’s toys, and other personal possessions lay strewed across the floor; silent witnesses all to the slaughter that must have occurred here.

Something about the main gates irritated me, and the thought, incomplete and nascent, scratched at the back of my mind, desperate for my consciousness to give shape and form to that idea. It was as we were taking a short five minute break as we trudged through yet another nearly-identical dark, stifling corridor, identifiable from the others only by the rather large claw marks in the floor and walls as if something very big and covered in sharp things tried to squeeze through the narrow passage, that the proverbial penny dropped with a clatter that seemed to echo loudly through my head.

“The gates were damaged from the inside,” I blurted out, half to myself as I involuntarily gave voice to the thought.

“So?” snapped Red Coat, sitting by my side with his helmet tucked underneath a foreleg. The strain of scouting the corridors was clearly starting to get to him, as evidenced by his timid, twitchy movements and haggard expression around his eyes, so I decided I’d let his brusqueness slide for now.

“Don’t you see? It means that the damage was done not by an invading army trying to get in, but by the defenders trying to get out; whoever attacked the fortress did so from the inside.”

From behind came a rhythmic patter of galloping hooves upon stone, and at once the section, previously just sitting around doing nothing, leapt instantly into formation, spears and charged horns aimed down at the black abyss of the corridors. The sound of hooves was joined by clanging metal, armour most likely, and we watched, waited, for a single, horribly drawn out moment as our eyes strained into the darkness to finally see the bulky shape of a guardspony of the Solar Guard, his golden armour glinting brightly from the horn lights projected by the unicorns of our section, coalesce from the gloom. There was an audible sigh of relief from the Night Guards, and not least from me, as I wiped the cold sweat from my brow.

“Sir!” said the Solar Guard between ragged gasps of breath, and snapped a hasty salute. “We’ve found one, sir! A Diamond Dog! He’s in pretty bad shape, but you’ll want to see him.”

Finally, thought I, we would get some answers.

Author's Notes:

Delayed slightly due to a conference I had to attend for a few days. The delay, however, was worth seeing my boss getting utterly plastered at the open bar there.

Bloodstained (Part 13)

Part 13

At the heart of this fortress, cocooned within a shell of labyrinthine corridors and rooms the original purposes of which could only be guessed at, and above a veritable rats’ nest of tunnels and mines that descended Faust knows how far into the earth below my hooves, was a large, open hall which, millennia ago, might have witnessed many great and noble martial ceremonies held beneath the high vaulted ceiling, but it appeared to have been more recently used as a sort of communal dining area, throne room, and ad hoc sports arena; at least until the Diamond Dogs all got slaughtered, that is. As was typical of just about every room that I had looked into in this thoroughly miserable little castle, it was a complete and utter mess that belied the ancient military purposes of this fortification; at the far end of the hall, from the main entrance where I stood and surveyed the chamber, was a raised dais where ages past a king or noble or some petty warlord might have sat upon a jewelled throne and held court, and from the walls that stretched to many times the height of a pony hung ancient, torn tapestries the designs upon which had faded centuries before.

It was decided that this would be the ideal place to set up both the billets for the soldiers and Captain Red Coat’s centre of operations. Therefore, when the sweep of the castle had been completed and the troops were preparing to scout the complex maze of tunnels and mines upon which this fortress was built, small teams of pegasi were busily sweeping away the piles of rubbish and preparing the hall and the multitude of rooms here fit for pony habitation once more, despite their constant griping that this was ‘mud pony work’. [Presumably because their powers of flight would be quite limited in tunnel-fighting] Others flittered in the air across the great open expanse of the hall, darting like sparrows in the garden between the great pillars that held up the high, gothic-arched ceiling that appeared by some cunning illusion to stretch far higher than the cramped confines of the castle would allow. Upon its surface one could discern the faded, cracked outlines of what might have been an elaborate fresco depicting cherub-faced pegasi dancing amongst the clouds. As I stepped into the hall, my hooves stirred the ancient dust that coated the floor, and the sound of my iron horseshoes striking the cold, hard stone rang out clearly and reverberated across the empty space. I took a few moments to pause and survey the hall, turning my gaze over the groups of pegasi who busied themselves collecting, piling, and removing the unidentifiable bits of refuse that once blanketed the floor of this hall, and in doing so I pulled what I hoped was an appropriately heroic and commissarial expression in order to further instil their somewhat warped image of me being the supposed exemplar of martial perfection.

There, in the dark and dingy far corner of the room where the light of a half dozen or so candles scattered haphazardly in seemingly random spots on the floor could barely illuminate, was a small, hunched figure in dirty rags for clothes being tended to by an earth pony soldier. Captain Red Coat had suggested that I join the earth ponies and unicorns in plumbing the depths of the tunnels, as my skill in navigating underground tunnels and alleged ‘inspiring presence’ would undoubtedly be of benefit to the troops, I managed to convince him – while Princess Luna was busy elsewhere on Twilight-watching duty for the time being – that getting some answers out of the only Diamond Dog survivor found thus far took priority. After all, it was my role to liaise with civilians wherever we encountered them so that the officers could focus on purely military matters, and especially so if it meant I could worm my way out of potential mortal danger again.

As I entered the hall, with Cannon Fodder by my side as usual, I became strangely self-conscious about the manner in which my hoofsteps echoed throughout the chamber; it felt as if the mere act of stepping upon these stones was in some way an act of sacrilege to the ancient ponies, whose civilisation predated that of Equestria and perhaps even ruled this once verdant land longer than our realm has even existed, who had first built this place, desecrated thought it was by the Diamond Dogs who until very recently squatted within these halls. Or perhaps it was merely an acute form of home-sickness – for the thick, tall columns, moth-eaten tapestries, general sense of decay, and the schizophrenic mix of wide open halls and tight, narrow corridors, each crafted by ponies long since dead and apparently possessed of the notion that the concepts of ease of use, of personal comfort, and of a single cohesive building style were of secondary importance to each giving life to their own individual architectural visions, bore an eerie echo of sepulchral confines in which I was born and raised. As thoroughly miserable as the Sanguine Palace is it was home, of a sort, and I found myself missing the cold emptiness of the stones and the claustrophobic feeling of the weight of history upon one’s shoulders. There, however, I was the inheritor, a scion of one thousand years of the Blood, but here I felt as if I was merely an intruder breaking into somepony else’s legacy. It felt as if the ghosts of the long dead were offended by my presence.

“Sir!” The guardspony snapped to attention when he saw me, swinging one forehoof in a wide arc to clang against his helmet in salute and stamping the other upon the floor, which made his ward jump slightly and spill some of the smaller gems onto the floor.

“Stand easy, Private Stainless Steel,” I said. Few things help improve one’s image in the eyes of the common soldiery more than remembering their names, or at least giving the impression that one makes an effort to do so, which is not exactly difficult given the embossed name badges attached to the breastplates of their armour. Besides, Stainless Steel was always rather easy to identify as his armour tended to be curiously shinier than everypony else’s; even after two days of solid marching in the ever-present dust the cold iron reflected darkly the flickering candles as motes of yellow dancing across the metal plating.

“Thank you, sir.”

The soldier relaxed a little, letting his spear rest against his shoulder as he in turn returned to his previous position of leaning casually against the wall, which, I belatedly noticed, was positively covered in graffiti scratched in a wide variety of different languages, some that I understood and some which had been quite dead for some time, into the pale yellow stone walls. As he stepped back slightly the thick, orange light from a nearby sconce illuminated his face, which had been cast in shadow when he was at attention, and revealed across the exposed part of his muzzle three claw marks that were crusted over with dark red scabs. He appeared to have noticed me looking at them, as he rather self-consciously touched an armoured hoof to the crimson lines that marred his large, blocky muzzle and grinned inanely.

“He gave me these when I stumbled across his hiding spot,” he said, his tone of voice remained rather jovial despite having been attacked. “Gave both of us a fright, it did, sir, but he’s only a lad and seeing what he’s just been through I can’t really blame him for that, can I? But just between you and me, if anypony asks it was a Changeling what did this, and there were at least ten of them.”

“Of course,” I said flatly, having no inclination to take part in any sort of light-hearted banter with him, not with the unanswered questions as to what exactly happened here still gnawing away at the back of my mind like a nasty rash. I feared, however, that whatever answers that I would get out of the sad, broken wretch that sat sullenly before me would do very little to help improve my mood. “I need to ask him a few questions; if he knows anything about what happened here it might help us should the enemy attack once again.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, not that he was in any position to say ‘no’ at all. He gave the Diamond Dog a little pat on the shoulder with one hoof and indicated towards me with the other. “This is my ‘boss’. He just wants to ask you a few questions, alright?”

The Diamond Dog did not look up, and instead continued to stare sullenly into his bowl of food. I felt rather at a loss as to what to say; for the most part I find speaking to be rather easy, indeed it’s one of the very few things that I count as one of my skills, and as long as one says something with sufficient confidence and in the correct tone of voice one can gain anypony’s trust with but a few sentences, but when I was confronted with this picture of very real grief and shock I struggled to think of how to begin. Nothing that I, a total stranger and not even of the same species, could have said would help heal the emotional wound within this beast’s soul; as real and as painful, if not more so, than those which scarred his flesh.

I removed the peaked cap from my head, deciding that the questioning that was to follow would be better conducted if the grinning face of death was not leering down upon the poor thing from the very pony purporting to aid him, and sat down on my haunches before him. He was young, damnably so; only a child if my guess was correct, and he would have reached my shoulders if he were standing straight. Instead, the creature was hunched over, as if he was trying to tuck his head in between his own shoulders, and those large paws, clearly built for digging and burrowing, idly fiddled with a small bowl of shiny gems that lay between his crossed legs. His grey fur was matted with sweat and filth, and in places it had moulted to leave patches of raw pink skin, bruised and covered in small cuts and scabs. Clearly undernourished and having been so for some time, one could discern the grim outline of his skeletal structure impressing on his skin.

I did my best to look as sympathetic as possible, which, mind you, is not particularly easy when one is dressed in a uniform that is explicitly designed to project cold, unfeeling authority and dread, and cleared my throat noisily.

“I am called Blueblood,” I said, at length. “I am a prince of Equestria and the commissar attached to this battalion of Their Divine Highnesses’ Royal Guard. Might I ask your name?”

It was a fine start, thought I, as the Diamond Dog slowly raised his head towards me and stared with wide, bloodshot eyes like coals that smouldered from within their sockets. It had occurred to me somewhat belatedly that while the average laypony would be suitably over-awed by the string of epithets attached to my name, like hangers-on trailing the celebrity of the moment at some fatuous social event, to a Diamond Dog, whose society was ordered primarily upon the doctrine that the principles of good leadership are being able to punch the hardest and the drink the most without incurring irreparable damage to one’s liver, such grandiloquent titles, of which I was to garner a rather obscene number later in my career, were likely completely and utterly meaningless to him. [This is a rather simplistic and quite stereotypical representation of Diamond Dog society which, as Blueblood readily attests to, is based upon his very limited prior exposure to their culture. Social status within a clan is decided upon a variety of different measures, though physical strength and tolerance to large quantities of alcohol do indeed make up part of it, but these are generally considered merely to be symptoms of good leadership rather than cause.] The youth looked at me with a blank, unreadable expression on his face, and as a warm draft from some unseen crack in the walls sent the candle flames flickering and their pin-prick reflections in those accusing, penetrating eyes of his dancing like fireflies lost in the inky darkness of a moonless night, I suppressed a small involuntary shudder up my spine. He then turned his head up to Stainless Steel, who offered a kind smile and a reassurance that I am quite safe and trustworthy (two things which I am most certainly not), and then looked back to me.

“I’m Rex,” he muttered quietly.

Odd name. “Thank you, Rex.” I have never felt entirely comfortable when speaking with foals; their inherent volatility and immaturity always makes choosing the correct words to engender the correct reaction from them, and judging their reaction in the first place, rather difficult for me, but I also have this entirely irrational fear that due to their questioning natures and the fact that, unlike the adults that they would later become, they do not have any sort of pre-conceived notion of who I am and what I should be like, that it would be a child who will uncover the truth behind my entirely false reputation.

“We want to help you,” I said, after a few moments of thought. Those five words, however, are probably the most horrifying words one could hear from an officer of the Royal Guard, not least of all from me. “We need you to tell us everything about what happened here.”

“I-I don’t want to talk about it.” The gems in the bowl clattered as he fiddled with them, and I contemplated taking them away if he wasn’t going to answer me. That, however, would have probably upset him and annoyed Stainless Steel, so I decided upon a more tactful approach.

“Please,” I said, leaning forward towards him, “it’s important; I have to know what happened here if I’m going to keep my troops safe and so we can bring whoever did this awful thing to justice. I need you to be brave and tell me, alright?”

“They...” He shuddered, tears welling up like glittering gems in the corners of those over-sized eyes of his. After taking a brief, albeit tense, moment to collect himself, he seemed to gather up his courage and wiped his eyes with the large, slab-like palm of his hand. “They came out of the tunnels,” he said, staring at the bowl of gems in his lap, “we dug too deep and they came out of the tunnels.”

The hall had become almost completely silent, quite unnervingly so, as he spoke, aside from the beating of pegasi wings and of the noises beyond the confines of the stone wall, and I became aware of dozens of pairs of eyes affixed upon Rex and I. As the knot within my stomach grew tighter as my fears were slowly becoming vindicated – that we were all standing atop something completely and utterly terrifying just waiting for the prime opportunity to murder us all – I questioned him further, though uncertain as to whether I truly wanted to hear his answer:

“Who did?”

“Ponies,” said Rex. “Ponies made out of black crystal. They... they came from out of the gem mines.”

“Crystal ponies?” I blurted out dumbly, and then shook my head. It was impossible; one must remember that this happened a full year before the return of that rather vulgar little ‘empire’, little more than a small city-state inhabited by absurdly shiny ponies with mad pretensions to greatness now, and besides, being this far south I thought it would be highly implausible that we would find any indication of their once-vast empire here of all places, or so I had thought. “Do you mean the Changelings?” I said in exasperation. “Was it the Changelings who did this?”

“No!” he shrieked suddenly. I flinched slightly at the voice, filled with the power of the raw horror that he must have witnessed, and I felt rather embarrassed at my mishandling of this questioning. I took a few steps back to allow him some space as he, for the first time since he started speaking, lifted his head to look at me. “I know what I saw! They were... they were like black crystal, and they... and they killed everyone here with magic. I watched them from behind the walls, and they were silent as they killed us all!”

It was over; the Diamond Dog suddenly broke into wracking sobs as the metaphorical dam holding back all of his grief broke. He clung to Stainless Steel’s chest, weeping into the cold steel of his breastplate, as the soldier attempted to comfort him by stroking his head and all the while looking at me with a slightly hurt expression. I made an awkward apology and left; I had gathered all the information that I felt I needed, though incomplete and I was certain a more compassionate individual than I could have handled all of that a damn sight better, it was enough for me to know that as long as those mines and tunnels were left open we were not safe.

The mention of ‘crystal ponies’ did not bother me overmuch at the time, and in truth I did not pay much heed to the Diamond Dog’s outburst; a foal is often blessed with great imagination, and I could only have guessed that he had seen the shiny black carapaces of the numberless Changeling hordes pouring from the tunnels and, since his entire life must have revolved around the acquisition and consumption of gems, merely conflated those with crystals. Still, even then, in my ignorance of the truth, the thought continued to nag at me that there was something else entirely unknown down there. Nevertheless, the idea of vast mobs of Changelings pouring out of those mines like an unstoppable wave of chitin to kill us all while we slept was thoroughly unnerving in its own right, and so with Cannon Fodder behind me and bearing all of this with his unique brand of quiet stoicism I galloped down maze of corridors, relying upon my preternatural skill with navigation to guide me.

We blundered past teams of guardsponies clearing out the rooms to make them ready once more for pony habitation, and the sound of profanity followed in our hoofsteps from those we had rather inconvenienced. From one corridor we took a flight of stairs, twisting and turning this way and that in a manner which suggested that the architect had fallen asleep halfway through drawing the blueprints, left a large squiggle where the stairwell into the basement should have been, and being a rather lazy sort of pony did not bother to correct the mistake. As we descended the air became dank and cool, but still muggy with a strange, thick, soup-like consistency to it, and soon the disorientating spirals of steps deposited us into a broad, underground chamber. The ceiling was quite low; comfortable enough for most ponies, but one of my stature would have had to bend their neck down at quite an uncomfortable angle to avoid banging their head, and very soon I developed quite an unpleasant crick there. The room was mostly empty, though evidence of its use by the Diamond Dogs and the recent passage of the guardsponies through it was plain to see in the hoof and paw prints disturbing the thick layer of dust on the floor. There were blocky square pillars, quite bare and functional compared to the ones that held up the high ceiling of the main hall, from which ancient chains and shackles, long since too rusted to be of any use now, creaked with the sound of hooves upon a blackboard in the thin draft. This place was a dungeon, the aged shackles bearing witness to the brutality that must have occurred here both in past too distant to imagine and too soon to be comfortable.

Acting almost on instinct I slowed as we entered this room and drew my sword, for the light was dim and the deepened shadows retreating into a formless black abyss could conceal all manner of horrors, and we advanced cautiously. Between each hoofstep my ears strained to hear anything, but aside from the incessant ‘drip-drip-drip’ of water splashing down in some unseen corner and the murmurs of conversation and activity muffled by thick stone walls, there was nothing immediate save for the scuffle of our hooves upon the dust and of our laboured breaths. That the time between each drop of water was by no means uniform was becoming quite maddening.

No, amidst scuffling of our hooves I could discern faintly the sound of a quill scratching on paper that had haunted me for the past week or so, and from the gloom a voice called out that seemed to hold more terror for me than anything else those tunnels could have possibly concealed.

“Hello?” Twilight’s voice called out, sounding remote and diffused in the thick, clammy air as if the humidity itself was somehow deadening the sound. I intensified the light of my horn, and the fur upon the back of my neck bristled at the sight of the small, purple unicorn mare stepping out from the blanket of utmost darkness. Held aloft before her were her ever-present companions, the notepad and quill; and I then noticed that her eyes glowed a subtle shade of magenta, before a short flurry of rapid blinking returned them to their normal hue. I thought about questioning that strangeness further and inquiring as to what she was doing here alone in the dark, but when Princess Luna, still disguised as a Servant of the Blood, materialised like a phantasm rising from its tomb and a sudden chill shuddered down my spine I was soon dissuaded of that notion.

“Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Twilight a little too happily for my tastes. Cannon Fodder had noticed the somewhat manic look in her eyes and retreated a little behind me. “Come, I’ve found so many interesting things in this chamber.”

She cantered away once more into the darkness, and after sharing a look with Luna, which she returned with a rather tired, exasperated expression across her aquiline features, I followed tentatively. I was aware that this would likely be a waste of time, but previous experience with Twilight Sparkle had told me that unless this sort of behaviour was nipped in the bud early it could very well spiral out of control and very soon she would have the entire battalion taking brass rubbings of various monumental plaques. As I groped my way through the darkness, pushing as much magic into my horn to illuminate the gloom as much as I dared without giving myself a crippling migraine, the sound of her voice delivering one of her infamous Twilectures guided me.

“This fortress was built by an ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation upon an even older structure built by an even more ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation called the Haygyptians. It might even have been a trading post of the Crystal Empire judging by the pictograms I’ve discovered; at its height it ruled all over the east coast of modern Equestria, so it’s not only possible that they could have placed colonies and trading posts all over the continent but it’s very, very likely that they did so. And here we are, standing on top of what is probably the best preserved ancient Crystal Empire site in Equestria. There’s just so much we can learn from this place!”

“Lady Sparkle,” I said through set teeth, starting to lose my patience with this increasingly irritating diversion, “you are here on orders of the Princesses to survey the Royal Guard; I would advise you to stick with one project at a... time...”

My voice trailed away as for the first time since I had stepped hoof within this chamber I saw the walls. The effect was rather startling, such that I had temporarily forgotten how tall I am and bashed my horn quite painfully against the ceiling; I briefly lamented the fact that the world around me seemed to be built by midgets. Scratched upon every inch of the stone slabs that made up the walls was row upon dizzying row of writing, like how one imagines the chambers of a murdering psychopath might look like. The language was nothing that I recognised; comprised mostly of pictograms reminiscent of the chicken-scratch scrawl of Cathayan and Neighponese, albeit with a greater sense of structure to it. Circles and lines bisected one another, branched off, and connected other pictograms to form what could have been compound words or sentences. Intriguingly, I noticed interspersed amongst the mess of arcane symbols were the much more recognisable and rather saner hieroglyphs used by the ancient Haygyptians, though that only added another layer to the mystery of this strange complex. It was maddening to even consider the sort of culture that would have considered such hypergraphia to be even remotely appealing. This most unsettling development was only made worse when I turned my head and illuminated the next slab on the wall to reveal a faded, chipped fresco painted there which, even in its decayed state, was unmistakeably that of a stylised pony skull. Surrounding this skull was a circle carved into the rock, from which three lines emerged from its underside like a comet with three tails rising up from below.

Twilight emerged into view once again, and apparently she hadn’t heard me as she continued babbling half to herself. I vaguely wondered how she had been conducting her work in the complete and total darkness, and decided that Princess Luna must have had something to do with it. [Note that the passages imply that nopony had thought to suspend mage-lamps in this chamber and that Twilight was not using her horn to emit light. Therefore, we can assume that she was conducting her work with the use of a night-vision spell so as not to expose the fragile artwork to artificial light that could potentially damage it. The aforementioned glowing of her eyes adds further credence to this theory.] Scattered around our hooves was a veritable forest’s worth of papers scribbled with notes, arcane diagrams, copies of the pictograms, and charcoal rubbings of a few of the more complicated markings.

“We know this to be a Haygyptian temple-tomb complex,” she continued. “It was probably built during the reign of Hamon Rei judging by the images presented on the bas reliefs, and then when the Haygyptian Empire broke apart a fortress was built directly on top of it. The tombs might already be looted, but their burial sites were very complex structures with hidden chambers and traps so there’s still the possibility we can find something interesting down there. I haven’t had the chance to take a look at the rest of the complex, but it could extend miles and miles underground.”

She stopped, and followed my gaze to the ghastly mural before me. “Oh, this?” she said. “I’ve found this motif everywhere in this chamber, and it’s very common in other Haygyptian sites just like this one. It stands for resurrection; the ancient Haygyptians were obsessed with death and the prospect of life beyond, and their pharaohs were specially embalmed so that one day they may be returned to life. My preliminary analysis of these writings suggests that the Haygyptians were trying to harness forbidden alicorn magic to find the secret to resurrecting dead ponies, which, of course, is completely impossible as any student of magic knows that the concept of resurrection violates the second law of thaumodynamics.” [Those looking for further elucidation on the topic of repeated failed attempts by mortal ponies to unlock the secrets to eternal life one can look no further than the seminal work ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’ by Hail Fjord]

“That’s, uh, that’s all very fascinating, Lady Sparkle,” I lied.

“Please, call me Twilight.”

I frowned at her and shook my head, my horn scraping a line noisily against the rough ceiling. “That would be improper of me. Anyway, have you seen Captain Red Coat?”

Twilight Sparkle pointed further into the darkness, where I presumed the chamber opened up into the mines. A soft lambent glow of horn lights and magical lamps could be seen from that direction, framing the square outline of what was probably an open doorway, but it seemed diffused and muted in the inherent mugginess of this room. “He went down there with his troops. I hope they don’t break anything down there; I’d really like to study more of this complex.”

She was rather welcome to do just that, provided that we bricked up the tunnels behind her, though naturally that would have put me in rather poor stead in the eyes of my divine Aunties so I shelved that thought for a later date for when I might feel a bit depressed again and needed a bit of cheering up. I feared, however, that I had come too late, and that Captain Red Coat might be so deep into the mines that I might either lose him or that he might stumble across the Changelings that I assumed wiped out the Diamond Dogs. Nevertheless, I was hopeful that he had not proceeded too far into the tunnels, but I was wary of the fact that every second wasted chatting aimlessly with Twilight Sparkle increased the risk of very messy and violent death for all concerned.

“Lady Sparkle,” I said, trying to inject some tone of authority to my voice which, to my mind, sounded as if it was starting to waver disconcertingly, “I need you to head upstairs with Princess... uh, Cloudless Sky immediately.”

I turned and was about to begin my grim task of locating Captain Red Coat and ‘advising’, which, translated from commissarial-politico-speak, meant ‘giving him a direct order but pretending that he had some say in the matter’, to withdraw from the tunnels and prepare to work with the engineers in finding a way to collapse them, permanently if possible, when Twilight Sparkle’s nose bumped into my chest.

“What’s going on?” she asked, cocking her head to one side quizzically.

“There’s been a change of plans,” I said, wishing that she would just get out of my way while I was busy taking something seriously for once in a lifetime of trying to avoid doing just that. Well, taking something that actually mattered seriously, to be more accurate. “We’re not exploring the underground complex; instead we’re going to withdraw to the castle and seal them off completely.”

Her brow knitted together in a small, slightly disappointed frown, and she chewed on her lower lip thoughtfully. I had thought the matter resolved there and then, as most ponies tended to take whatever I say as profound military gospel completely and utterly without question, despite being severely under-qualified to dispense any sort of tactical and strategic advice as my time in the Royal Military Academy was primarily spent on a varying combination of gambling, drinking, and fornicating. I therefore stepped around Twilight Sparkle and headed towards where I thought the entrance to the mines were, and as I did so I projected the light from my horn into a narrower, more penetrating beam that illuminated a small archway in the direction that she had pointed towards earlier. Unfortunately, I had not taken into account her irritating propensity to question.

“What?” she said suddenly, and I cursed that my own cautiousness in approaching what looked to me as a mouth of immense darkness meant that I could not have fled before the inevitable tantrum. The young mare trotted before me once more, an expression of outrage twisting her face, and then jabbed at my chest with a dusty hoof. “’Seal them off’? What do you mean by that?”

“The Changelings that killed all of the Diamond Dogs here came up from the gem mines,” I said calmly, pushing her hoof away from my breast and smoothing down the print and the creases that she had made in my storm coat. I thought it best at this point not to reveal what Rex had told me about the so-called ‘ponies made of crystal’, as no doubt it would only increase her urge to go down there and start indulging in some more amateur archaeology down there. “The risk that they may attack us in exactly the same way is too great to just ignore.” I shone my light upon the exit; it was a large archway, sans any sort of door, and upon its surface it echoed the chilling motif of the rest of the room in the brutally simplistic pictograms scratched into the polished stone slabs.

“But there’s a chance that they might not!” she said suddenly, the grin over her face cracked wider than I thought possible on a pony’s face, and leaned in uncomfortably close to me. Pinprick pupils regarded me with a manic, hysterical gleam that I found quite unsettling. “A-after all, not doing the same thing twice is one of the most basic rules of fighting a war and the Changelings have proven themselves to have a good grasp of basic strategy, so there’s a reasonably good chance that the rest of the underground complex is safe enough for a small archaeological expedition. This might be the most significant discovery in our lifetimes with all of the knowledge and power of the ancients, and there might even be clues about why the Haygyptian Empire collapsed so quickly—and you just want to brick it all up?”

Twilight!” I snapped, stressing the familiar use of her name to try and impress upon her the severity of the situation. I looked directly into her eyes, stressing over every word. “We are at war, and I will not place the lives of these soldiers at any undue risk just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Is that understood?”

That seemed to do the trick; the self-righteous outrage at my presumed cultural vandalism was wiped away from her face to be replaced by an expression of quiet embarrassment, as her shoulder slumped, her cheeks flushed crimson, and an uneasy, awkward smile came to her lips. “I, uh...” she muttered quietly to the ground between my hooves, “I didn’t think of that.” Cautiously, she stepped out of my way, and as she slowly backed away from me with defeat written not only in her face but also in every subtle movement and in her posture I held the most uncompromisingly harsh glare that I could possibly muster. I waited for a few moments, just long enough for that stare to fully sink in, before turning upon my hooves and heading with some trepidation towards the doorway.

“Don’t worry, Lady Sparkle,” said Cannon Fodder, who had hitherto been silent and staring uninterestedly at the rather ugly skull on the wall as if it were merely a poster detailing the health and safety procedures in a train station, “the tunnels will still be there when this war is over.”

If this war is ever over, thought I, but my aide’s words seemed to cheer Twilight up slightly, and she smiled a little more earnestly. “Sorry,” she said, a little more confidently, “I guess I got a little carried away there.”

Well, that was putting it mildly, though I had to concede that as far Twilight Sparkle mental breakdowns go this one was relatively understated compared to the ones that I recall with dread from high school; it was over quite quickly and nopony actually got seriously hurt this time, not least of all me. Nevertheless, as I crossed the threshold from the improvised dungeon area into tunnels carved into the sun-scorched earth and I heard the patter of Twilight’s hooves trotting away into the darkness, the unsettling thought that there was something greater at work here than mere Changelings continued to nag at me, and that it would not be by their fangs and their hooves that I was to meet my untimely but inevitable demise but from Twilight’s own blundering. She was, and still is, a supremely intelligent mare with a fantastic ability to just consume knowledge like Cannon Fodder stuffing his face at an all-you-can eat buffet; the only issue with this is that her same fanatical desire to learn tends to come at the expense of her common sense as she would dive heedlessly into these ‘projects’ with little to no thought about the possible unintended consequences of such behaviour.

I dared to glance over my shoulder, and there, illuminated just barely by the pale light of my horn, stood Princess Luna now stripped of her disguise. A sudden chill crept up my spine at the sight of her; dark and mysterious, and in the dim light the distinction between the alicorn and the darkness surrounding her was fuzzy and indistinct, as if she was somehow an extension of the inky blackness that receded from my light. What surprised me most, however, was her expression, for her aquiline features bore something that was most strange and rare – a smile. It was genuine, so far as I could tell with my aunt’s rather vague and slightly amateurish attempts at imitating the facial expressions of ponies, which often looked as if she had only heard of the concept of a smile as described by a Neighponese tourist with a very limited grasp of the Equestrian language, and despite its apparent warmth the fact that I could not recall a time when she had smiled at me before only made this feel all the more disturbing. Suppressing a shudder, I turned and headed down a single, black passageway, and did not look again.

Author's Notes:

Another chapter completed, despite my job's best efforts to stop that by forcing me to work overtime.

Bloodstained (Part 14)

Life in Fort E-5150 eventually settled into some semblance of normality in the days following our arrival, inasmuch as anything in the Royal Guard can be considered as ‘normal’. Despite being deep within what was considered to be hostile territory, isolated and alone, and living in less than ideal conditions where what little bodily remains that the previous inhabitants had left behind when they were slaughtered not too long ago had only just been washed from the walls very recently, the average guardspony could be trusted to get on with the gruelling business of soldiering with little or no complaint beyond the usual, sarcastic griping that the lower orders tend to indulge in when being given a task that they feel is pointless. I, on the other hoof, being more cognisant of the very real peril that we were in but not enough to properly voice it, was slowly reaching the end of my tether, and I feared that sooner or later the masque I hide behind so skilfully would shatter under the pressure, and the inchoate terror that lay hidden behind it would overwhelm me. The tunnels below had been sealed by using Lieutenant Southern Cross’ dynamite to bring down the incalculable tons of rock, such that no force in the world would be able to clear it any time soon. The first chamber, with its grisly chains and unsettling display of glyphs and pictograms was left open for Twilight Sparkle to investigate to her heart’s content.

Cannon Fodder had managed to secure for me a suite of spacious and relatively clean rooms on the third floor of the building, which I then had converted into my own private office and bedchambers. My aide and Twilight Sparkle both took a room each either side of my own, and I felt a damn sight safer with a thick wall of solid rock separating me from the slightly unbalanced mare. The room itself was sparsely decorated, but that was simply because nearly all evidence of the Diamond Dogs’ use of it had been cleared away and disposed of. I was surrounded by bare stone walls, and a high ceiling twice the height of the average pony from which hung an ancient chandelier on a rusted chain and decorated morbidly with spikes. In one corner I had placed my cot and in the other was my writing desk, and between those was a large, open window that commanded a lovely view of precisely sod all, leaving a fairly wide, empty space about half the size of a tennis court for me to enjoy. It was this place that I called home for those intervening days between our arrival and the battle, and in some odd way I even found it to be rather comfortable at times.

As for Twilight Sparkle, it appeared that the dressing-down that I had given to her in the catacombs had the desired effect and she appeared to be a bit more quiet and subdued than the irritatingly enthusiastic demeanour that I’m more used to seeing in her. Of course, it might have had more to do with the fact that the full gravity of the situation had finally dawned upon her, and instead of treating her Royal Commission as some small side project, she now threw herself fully into its pursuit. She therefore continued to make a nuisance of herself, generally getting in the way of the guardsponies as they went about their duties of drill, sentry, and conducting basic repairs to the castle to make it at least slightly more defensible than before, though her meddling was certainly not to the same exacerbating levels as the previous few weeks or so since her unexpected arrival at my hooves. That she was in fact frightened – being alone and surrounded by three hundred strange and intimidating ponies, and one even stranger and downright terrifying alicorn – and simply putting on a brave face for the benefit of everypony else around her was certainly a possibility, and upon reflection that seems like the more plausible explanation for her change in behaviour than her, or indeed anypony for that matter, actually listening to anything I say. Perhaps then the two of us were not quite so different, after all.

Despite all of this, I did my best to simply carry on in the best traditions of the upper classes, most of whom believed wholeheartedly in the pleasant fiction that emotions as fear, worry, or even slight concern for one’s own safety were supposed to be anxieties that only the lower orders experienced. With very little of the usual distractions of fine alcohol, impressionable young officers naive enough to think that the principles of fair play apply to gambling, and pretty mares who just find a commissar’s uniform and its contents to be utterly irresistible to help me keep my mind off the fact that very soon I might find my bodily remains being scraped off the walls in the same way that the Diamond Dogs’ had just been, I concentrated on my work. Not that I particularly enjoyed the usual business of filling in paperwork and dispensing ‘inspirational’ pleasantries to everypony I meet like some sort of motivational vending machine, but at the very least, I supposed, it was more productive than simply brooding; if the battalion was to become the highly effective fighting machine that I needed to hide behind when Shining Armour finally got his own affairs in order and the battle would commence, then it was simply logical that I would take steps to ensure that by actually doing my job for once.

Doing so had the additional benefit of keeping my contact with Twilight Sparkle to a bare minimum; I was not overly concerned about her safety here, though, as containing her in a smaller, more constrained, and better regimented environment than the sprawling mess of the Dodge Junction encampment meant that her capacity to get in the way of things was a little more restricted; at least in theory. The absolute worst that happened, however, came late one evening after I had sat through a tortuously long and mind-numbingly dull meeting with Captain Red Coat and the other officers about our meagre supply of oat rations, when I decided that I would pay Twilight Sparkle a visit. It was not a social call, mind you, as I was too tired and irritable (well, more than usual) to spend my time entertaining her, as I find her company to be quite tiresome even in one of my rarer good moods, but merely to check how she was coping so far. You, dear reader, cannot even begin to imagine the horror that took me when I pushed open the door to her room with a small burst of magic to find two of her standing side-by-side in the centre of her room.

“Hi!” they chorused together. It took all of my willpower not to bolt out of the door right then and flee.

It appeared that Princess Luna, who stood a little off to the corner of the room with an expression of quiet satisfaction tugging upwards on the end of her thin, bloodless lips, had delivered on her promise to teach her sister’s faithful student the ancient secrets of the long-lost simulacrum spell, much to my horror. Most common illusion spells tend to have one or two subtle ‘tells’ that give them away; perhaps the light reflecting off the soft fur of a well-groomed mare is not quite right, or maybe the colour of a blood-red rose adorning the mare’s mane is just not vibrant enough, or, as is the case when I attempt these sorts of spells, this illusionary mare is missing one or more of her limbs. Standing before me was a nightmare dredged up from the darkest days of my youth; two Twilight Sparkles, apparently identical in every way such that I could possibly tell which of the two was born of flesh and blood and which was crafted and moulded from primal, forbidden magics. If one had not seen or even heard of Twilight Sparkle before (having spent most of one’s life living in an isolated cave just outside Timbucktoo, of course), then one would have sworn that the two mares standing before me were identical twins. The two bore matching smiles that were relentlessly cheerful in such a way that inspired in me such subtle, terrible horrors. They parted and stood either side of me, flanking me, and I could not help but take a few, furtive steps back towards the door.

Most horrible, however, was that they reminded me of my own twin sisters, right down to the disconcerting manner in which they spoke in short, truncated sentences, one after the other in rapid-fire succession. [Prince Blueblood has two twin sisters younger than him, Duchess Sangre and Duchess Azul, both of whom have married into Prench nobility.]

“Isn’t this spell just amazing?” said the one on the left.

“Just think of all of the extra studying I could get done!” said the one on the right.

“While I shadow you and the officers around, taking notes as you do your job for Princess Celestia’s commission on the Royal Guard...”

“...I can be downstairs studying the entrance hall to the tomb!”

“Oh, I can’t wait to start!”

A low, melodious chuckle came from Princess Luna, and I looked up into the dark corner of the room that she always tended to gravitate to for some reason known only to her. “Twilight has been making such great progress,” she said. “I don’t think I have seen anypony else could have mastered such a complex spell so quickly. I am impressed.

“I—” I stuttered uselessly for a moment, glancing between the mare in the shadows and the two duplicates standing beside me, doing my best to try and articulate the horror I was feeling. One Twilight Sparkle was bad enough, albeit more manageable most of the time these days, but to have two of her, or at least her having the ability to project herself via this artificial, magical construct which was more or less the same thing in my eyes, was downright terrifying.

It was also rather shocking to once again be a witness to that extremely rare occurrence when Princess Luna pays somepony a compliment. [Princess Luna does not give such compliments lightly, but in this case I agree that it is well-deserved. The simulacrum spell is one of the most difficult known to unicorns, and its continuous usage inflicts significant mental and physical strain on the user. That Twilight Sparkle had learnt much of this spell is such a short amount of time is a testament to both her mental willpower as much as her prowess in magic.]

“I’m sure you are,” I said, at length.

It was at that point that I quickly made my excuses and escaped into the relative safety and comfort of my own room, with little more for company than some much-needed solitude and an excellent bottle of fine Scoltish whiskey that Cannon Fodder had somehow procured for me by methods best left unknown (I can only assume he found it amongst the detritus left behind by the Diamond Dogs), which I then downed with a speed that made a mockery of the fine art of the distiller who crafted this rare drink. Dear merciful Faust, this was almost as bad as the time she presented her high school book report on the Necronomicon. My fears, for once, proved to be somewhat ill-founded, for when Twilight had some degree of direction to her insatiable lust for knowledge she will quite happily pursue it to the exclusion of everything else, at least until something more interesting happens to cross her path. Luckily, that was quite unlikely in this barren, desolate wasteland and thus Twilight was content in using this spell purely to divide her time between her two current projects.

Nevertheless, having four solid walls and an equally sturdy wooden door provided me some measure of privacy, which I took advantage of at every opportunity. Not that there was much opportunity to do so, with my work taking up a large bulk of my time and the fact that being alone and bored invariably led to a lot of idle brooding, and even then what little time I had to myself was often disrupted. Captain Red Coat would often blunder in unannounced, eager to discuss something with me, and he would thus take up a large amount of time that I would have otherwise dedicated to such fulfilling activities as finally getting around to reading the journals of Neighpoleon, albeit with a lingerie catalogue carefully concealed within its pages, or simply gazing out of my window into the vast emptiness that lay beyond and despairing. Of course, these discussions tended to be long, rambling, and never went anywhere in particular, so I shan’t bore all of you here by recanting every single one. The majority of these ‘fireside chats’ (a bit of a misnomer, as I wouldn’t trust the large hole in the wall purporting to be a fireplace within an inch of its miserable life, that and it was far too bloody hot for one anyway) of course gravitated towards military matters and the burden of command, to which I merely parroted a few more quotes that I had picked up from here and there in an effort to sound vaguely intelligent, and he would toddle off thinking he had learned something. It made him happy, I supposed, aside from the time he wanted me to help me compose a poem dedicated to Twilight Sparkle, and that his muse was having great difficulty in finding a rhyme for ‘purple’. I quickly vetoed the idea, for the sake of what little remained of the lad’s dignity.

[Though Blueblood is dismissive of these discussions, Captain Red Coat explains in his own extensive memoirs ‘Through the Fire and the Flames: A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes or an Account of the Re-Establishment of the Night Guards from the Perspective of a Senior Officer’, which I cannot recommend due to its excessive purple prose to the point of rendering the text quite unreadable, that he found such discussions to be quite valuable. Whether this question can be answered by Blueblood’s own self-loathing or by Red Coat’s impressionability at the time I shall leave to your own interpretation.]

Occasionally I used my free time to practice fencing, though I knew that Changelings were hardly ones to pay any heed to the list of complex rules and regulations surrounding what was perhaps the only sport that I ever showed any promise in, aside from croquet, it never hurt to at least ensure that I maintained some familiarity with the large, cumbersome sword that I wielded. Though I would have preferred the large, open spaces of the many fencing halls that I once frequented as a youth, the relatively wide expanse of my personal chambers provided ample room for me to reacquaint myself with the rudimentary basics of the usual cycle of thrust, parry, and riposte, supplemented of course with additional techniques of lunging, feinting, and counter-attacking. Of course my rather clumsy swings of the huge, brutish Pattern ’12 sabre would have given my elderly fencing instructor his fourth and final heart attack were he around to see it, being a weapon designed for hacking and slashing than the refined, precise, and almost delicate movements demanded of the needle-like rapiers that I was used to. After a few more practice sessions chopping away at what is generally referred to as a ‘shadow opponent’, I soon became accustomed to the heavier and more ‘solid’ feel of the larger sword and it was not long before I was able to wield this unsubtle weapon with as much deftness and skill as I would with a rapier blade.

It was late one afternoon that I had an unprecedented one hour of uninterrupted practice, which I found to be slightly disconcerting as not having somepony blundering into my room to demand my input in some command decision, no matter how small and pointless, seemed to imply that something had gone wrong. Well, that was not strictly true; if something had gone catastrophically pear-shaped then the first thing anypony would do is run to their commissar and pray that he is in a good mood. And as my room was bathed in a lambent orange-red flame that made the walls look as if they were drenched in fresh blood, I stopped, panting heavily as I stood still, sweat running over my matted fur and with my blade held before my muzzle, pointing directly at the ceiling to salute the imaginary opponent that I had so heroically vanquished and bowed my head in mock respect.

“Impressive,” a quiet, imperious voice intoned softly from behind me. It was the voice that I had least wanted to hear in my personal sanctuary of all places, aside from that of my mother, and I jerked my head around suddenly to find Princess Luna observing me from atop my cot, her long, gangly limbs folded beneath her sleek body and her ethereal mane and tail flowing in a manner that was quite contrary to the direction of the draft from the open windows. There was a somewhat unreadable expression on her face; quiet, thoughtful, contemplative, and yet still filled with the supreme and unbridled arrogance that was forever etched upon her facial features like a disfigurement. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said.

“No, no, not at all, Princess,” I lied; her presence here was about as welcome as an erection at a funeral (yes, reader, I think things I would never say). “How long have you been here?”

“Long enough,” she said, shrugging her shoulders gently. “Your technique is quite impressive.”

I stumbled over to my writing desk, tossing my sabre down atop its surface and taking a small, slightly damp piece of cloth to wipe the perspiration streaking down my face from my matted blond mop, and regarded her cautiously. “Uh, thank you,” I said, already trying in vain to formulate a way of encouraging her to leave without appearing too rude and thus resulting in my inevitable dismemberment.

Of course, she never gave me a chance. With a few graceful movements she rose from my cot and stepped, no, ‘glided’ is a more appropriate word to describe the way that she walks, towards me, her bare hooves tapping quietly against the rough, bare stones. It took some effort on my part not to flinch from her as she looked down upon me, cold eyes narrowed slightly and with a slight smile on her thin lips. She took my sword from the desk with her magic, and raised it to her muzzle to examine it.

“This is a fine sword,” she said. Her cold, dark eyes ran along the curved length of polished, unadorned Equestrian steel, forged and stamped out with thousands of its identical brethren in vast steelworks of Trottingham, Detrot, and Manehatten to be given to officers across the Royal Guard. Stepping back slightly, she took a few practice swings of the blade, and though I was close enough to feel the air displaced by the sharpened steel slicing through it as a gentle breeze her control over this unfamiliar weapon was good enough that I was never in any real danger. Nevertheless, the thought that she might disembowel me and make it look like suicide or a tragic accident, having tripped over a loose paving stone and fallen on top of my own sword, did occur to me.

“It is amusing that ponies believe that it was I who invented the sport you now call fencing,” she continued, proffering the blade to me hilt first, which I tentatively took and placed it back in its sheath on the desk. “In the rare moments of peace between the wars for Equestria’s unification, I set up tournaments for ponies-at-arms to practice their swordcraft, and after one thousand years of absence I see that the nobility has transformed this martial art into an effete little ‘sport’ for their own amusement.”

I could only quietly nod in agreement at the small tirade, and hope that I could come up with some sort of excuse to leave hurriedly; perhaps Captain Red Coat might need my assistance in whatever it was that he did at this time of the day, writing more awful poetry, perhaps, or Lieutenant Southern Cross might have gotten up to more mischief. Nevertheless, Princess Luna clearly had other ideas, as her horn flickered with a dark aura and seemingly from the thin air clouds of the utmost darkness coalesced into the cruciform shapes of two blades. Watching with no small degree of apprehension, I backed up until my rump hit the writing desk and watched in quiet awe as the vaguely-sword shaped black clouds, like small imitations of her flowing mane and tail, were slowly given shape and form by her magic, solidified, and became twin imperfect simulacra of the battered old Pattern ’12 sabre that I had been practicing with just before.

One such blade pivoted about upon its axis, hilt aimed towards me. “Would you do me the honour of allowing me to spar with you?”

Hesitantly I accepted the phantasmal sword, and was surprised to find that it had the same heavy and solid feel of a real blade, though the fact that it was a mere illusion woven by magic was easily given away by the fact that the light from the setting sun did not reflect in the same manner as one would expect it to and instead the steel seemed too dull and grey. “Right now?” I asked, taking a few short swipes through the empty air with the non-existent weapon to get a feel for it. I was not particularly in the mood for a sparring match, feeling quite drained as only a life working in the military can leave one, but as I already counted her elder sister as one of my regular opponents on the piste [The technical term for the fencing playing field] I was curious to see how I would fare against the pony purporting to be the one of the greatest warriors in Equestrian history (at least, she was over a thousand years ago, as her presence here, hiding away out of sheer boredom, standing defiantly in the face of all military logic and common sense had sullied her reputation somewhat).

“I don’t see why not,” she said, shrugging her shoulders casually in a manner quite unbecoming of her regal and divine status. “Besides, we might not get the chance to do so again.”

The implication that the very reason we might not have another chance was that I would probably be dead fairly soon was not lost on me. It appeared that Princess Luna had that same irritating tendency as Princess Celestia to phrase an order in such a manner that implied that one had a choice where none existed. I have to admit, however, that in terms of Luna’s personality it was something of an improvement, as usually she would simply shout and scream and generally throw a small temper tantrum until she got whatever it was that she wanted or somepony got seriously hurt.

Nevertheless, I reluctantly nodded my head in agreement. The smile on Luna’s lips grew wider, and, as far as I could tell, seemed more earnest than the unsettling imitations of a smile that she tended to use in the past. “Good!” she exclaimed, all but clapping her hooves together with joy. Almost skipping, she trotted away from me to the relative centre of the empty space that made up the bulk of my room, and grudgingly I followed suit and faced her.

“You needn’t worry about injury,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Though this illusion looks and feel real enough, the blades will simply pass through flesh as if it were not there. Observe.” My Auntie demonstrated this by raising her hoof and impaling it upon her blade by the soft, tender parts underneath, and I could not help but wince as I watched the weapon phase harmlessly through her flesh as if it simply wasn’t there. Well, technically speaking it wasn’t there at all, being just an ethereal projection of light and magic to fool the eye and the mind into perceiving something that simply does not exist at all.

“You see?” she continued, jiggling the illusionary blade around in her hoof. “You will be perfectly safe. I fear the days of declaring the victor to be the first pony to draw blood from the torso of their opponent is not something that today’s society would approve of, and the battalion would certainly suffer if I were to deprive it of its commissar, so I hope that these will provide an adequate substitute.”

The term ‘perfectly safe’ did little to comfort me, particularly when it came from Princess Luna of all ponies. Not for the first I wondered how she had managed to talk me out of a very boring albeit quite safe job behind a desk, where the greatest danger to my life was failing to make the tea for my idiotic co-workers on time, and into that of a commissar. Nevertheless, she seemed excited by the idea of sparring with me, and, perhaps for the very first time since I had first met my dark Auntie, the two of us found some sort of common ground.

I took the en garde position, with about ten feet separating the two of us, and Auntie Luna, once she had finished amusing herself with her sabre illusion, followed suit. Our sabres rose simultaneously in salute and our heads dipped slightly in deference to one another, and with those formalities over with the fight began.

We each started cautiously with a few experimental attacks that were easily blocked, sizing up our relative strengths and weaknesses. Princess Luna had almost every advantage over me in terms of her size, strength, speed, and stamina; whereas I had had some small advantage in being agile enough to dodge her attacks and the rather dubious benefit of being just short enough to duck under the wide sweeps of her blade. The room was soon filled with the sound of steel striking steel, which sounded damnably realistic despite the weapons we used being mere illusions, and each time I parried a blow the greater magical strength behind her blade was enough to force mine away with contemptuous ease. Nevertheless, I trusted my reflexes enough to at least deflect the great blows of her sword away from me, and at least here I did not have to concern myself with the weapon shattering under the immense force of her attacks. Yet as we slowly began to get the measure of one another the rhythm of our strikes and parries steadily increased in tempo, until I was under a veritable onslaught of slashing blades and flailing hooves.

Princess Luna’s fighting style was very different from that of her elder sibling; Celestia tends to adopt a cool, disciplined, and calculating approach to fencing, relying upon a distinct set of well-practiced and superbly executed moves studied from the vast array of manuals written about the sport and honed to perfection, whereas Luna most certainly does not. Her attacks came as a series of frantic, energetic slashes with none of her sister’s elegance or grace, but for her complete and total lack of any sort of subtlety, not even attempting any of the fancier techniques such as feinting, it seemed that pure sociopathic aggression was more than enough to make up for it. My own strategy centred around trying to physically dodge her attacks instead of parrying them, which was something much more easily said than done, as while her attacks were entirely predictable and telegraphed to the point that I could ‘read’ what she was going to do at least three moves in advance, the sheer blinding speed and ferocity of the onslaught of illusionary steel and her own deftness in turning back my own counter-attacks meant that I was permanently on the back hoof. I had hoped to tire her out and strike when she was exhausted, but given her nigh-limitless stamina this proved to be a very bad idea.

Lips curled back in a snarl, Luna shrieked in rage as she brought her blade down again and again, prevented from smashing into my skull only by my own sword. Yet each blow pushed my guard down further and further, filling the room with noise such that I feared anypony lingering outside must have heard, until with a burst of energy I forced my blade back and just managed to push Luna’s off to the side where it phased harmlessly into the stone floor. With my horn throbbing painfully from exertion I scampered past her with my tail between my legs to the other side of the room, and even though I knew that the swords could not inflict any actual damage upon me, the same could not be said of the alicorn herself, who I feared may forget that this was only intended to be a ‘friendly’ sparring match.

My opponent spun upon her hooves to face me, murder in her eyes, and stamped a hoof in angry frustration upon the stones. A thin spider’s web of cracks spread across the paving slab. “Stop dancing away like a fairy and fight me!

Originally I had planned to just throw the fight and be done with it – I would put a brief struggle, lose graciously, and then Luna can leave me alone once more – but as the fight wore on I had become put off by the idea of losing to her of all ponies. I am not a terribly competitive stallion, especially when I know that being in the limelight tends to result in somepony else taking note and dreaming up another highly creative way for me to die in the name of Equestria, even in sporting events, but for some peculiar reason the idea of having to lose to her without at least putting up a decent fight simply felt wrong to me. Maybe it was merely the adrenaline flowing through my veins, energising my system and clouding my mind with bloodlust, or perhaps I merely saw this as the perfect opportunity to vent all of the built-up frustration and suppressed anger that I held towards her without the additional risk of divine retribution, or that I just wanted to prove her wrong for once and that the only way I could achieve this nigh-impossible feat was simply to win.

“Then try harder to bloody hit me,” I snapped. There was one chance for victory, however slim and risky, and it relied on exploiting Luna’s exuberant fighting style; she, like many other opponents that I have faced, was very much a pony given over to her baser passions, and, in theory, if I were to push her far enough she may make a mistake. “I heard Princess Luna was a mighty warrior, not this pansy standing before me!”

My words certainly had an effect, as she paused, staring open-mouthed in apparent shock as her mind appeared to be struggling to process the idea that somepony had dared to insult her. “Foal!” she shrieked, lunging forth suddenly with her blade aimed squarely at my head, as I guessed she might. I rolled out of the way, but not quick enough as I felt the disconcertingly real brush of air being displaced by the wide arc of her swinging blade, and I had barely enough time to scramble to my hooves and raise my sword to block a veritable barrage of blows. The last one stuck, and inch by horrible inch she forced her blade down upon mine, and all the while her snarling face stared down with hollow, pinprick eyes burning.

“Before the first of your lineage was even conceived I was named Warmistress of Equestria; thousands upon thousands of soldiers were at my command and where Celestia’s silver-tongued diplomacy failed I personally brought fire and death upon those ponies foolish enough to think they could resist Equestrian domination!”

[The ‘Warmistress’ or ‘Warmaster’ is the absolute highest rank in the Equestrian military, superior to that of Field Marshal, and thus far has been held only by myself, Princess Luna, and the Iron Duke of Trottingham. Historically, this rank was only bestowed specially during times of total war, such the Unification Wars, the Nightmare Heresy, and the Gryphon invasions of Equestria, in which the entire Equestrian state and its ponies must be organised to fight for their very survival under the command of a single, all-powerful leader.]

The stabbing pain in my horn grew with the exertion that drained my magic, and it spread through that bony protrusion and into my brain like a hot poker straight through the eye sockets. I shouted in pain, and it might have been my imagination but it looked as if Luna was enjoying seeing me suffer. There was but one chance for me to get out of this, and after sucking in a deep breath I snapped my head to the side towards the door, affecting to look as if somepony was intruding upon our fight. Luna’s grin was replaced by a slight, worried frown, and she turned her head to follow my gaze. With my opponent thus distracted I seized my chance and dove to the right, the swinging blade missing me by scant inches. I had barely enough time to thrust forth when she turned and swatted my sword aside with contemptuous ease.

“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I said, taking a few steps back to put some distance between myself and the enraged mare.

Luna shook her head indignantly. “No, what could possibly have given you that impression?” she said, her words positively dripping with sarcasm.

“Can I ask why?”

Slowly and cautiously, with her sword levitating in the en garde position just before her, she stalked forth like a sleek panther approaching its defenceless prey. “What do you know of your own lineage, Blueblood? Of the so-called House of Blood?”

I gave a vague sort of shrug, but not letting my guard down for a moment. There came a lull in the fighting, which I took full advantage of in trying to get my breath back. My chest felt tight, abominably so, and I wondered if today might be a good time to finally give up my cigar habit, assuming that I survived this sparring match first. Sweat soaked into my black jacket, which then stuck to my fur in a manner that felt most unpleasant, and I did not relish the prospect of having to unpeel myself from it later; if there was a later. I probably smelt bad, too. “We’re one of the oldest aristocratic families in Canterlot, having ruled there since—”

“I speak of the first of your line,” Luna interrupted. She now stood close enough for me to be able to touch my sword to hers, but, by some strange, unspoken accord between us the fight had been put on hold so that she could sermonise to me about something. Nevertheless, my plan appeared to be working, though somehow I felt that stabbing her in the face while she was still haranguing me would be quite inappropriate, not out of any sense of chivalry, mind you, but out of a fear of what she might do if I had so cheated to win. “Princess Hotblood, one of the foremost generals of the Royal Guard in the wars for Equestria’s unification. No matter how bleak the situation looked, she was always there leading from the front, not afraid to sully her hooves in the blood of our enemies, and always inspiring our troops forward to greater feats of valour with her powerful rhetoric and undiminished fighting spirit.

“When I was consumed by Nightmare Moon, she remained steadfastly loyal to Princess Celestia, and when I fought with my sister in the Battle of the Everfree, she had put herself directly between us. This lone pony, a unicorn only just elevated to an alicorn, stood before me, the corrupted Princess of the Night with all the Legions of the Nightmare and the daemonic forces of Tartarus fuelling my power, and pleaded with me to end this insane war and to spare Celestia. She said that even after all the horrors that Nightmare Moon had inflicted upon Equestria in the name of Eternal Night there was still some good left in me, crying out against all that I had done. Nightmare Moon...” – she paused, and shook her head as a pained expression pulled at her face – “...I killed her in cold blood. Her sacrifice proved to Celestia that I had fallen completely to the Nightmare, body and soul, and that the only way to save Equestria and was to use the Elements of Harmony and banish me for one thousand years until I could be cleansed.

“And now one thousand years later I find her memory all but forgotten by her descendents, who are nothing more than a corrupt family of soft, decadent, disgusting nobles more content to wallow in their own depravity and excess than doing their duty for Princess and Country, as Hotblood had done so before. But you, Blueblood... I think you might be better than that.”

So I did not live up to her absurdly high standards set by somepony who lived and died over one thousand years ago and is only tangentially related to me. I found this to be a little underwhelming, and quite insulting actually; the majority of ponies who actively dislike me (who became an increasingly smaller minority as my reputation ballooned beyond all proportion, but at this relatively early stage of my life if my list of enemies and their grievances with me, which usually involved various acts of debauchery with many a noblepony’s impressionable daughter or significant amounts of money lost in gambling, were to be published it would have to be spread out amongst more volumes than the entirety of the Encyclopaedia Equestria) did so simply on my own merits and not those set by a long-dead ancestor of mine, but in Luna’s case it appeared to be done so through the lens of how everything about modern Equestria offends her somehow.

No, it couldn’t have been just that; the uncharacteristically quiet and pensive look on her face showed that she must still feel immense guilt at murdering her adopted sister, which, in her own peculiar way of dealing with such things, she was taking out on me rather than confronting the issue directly. She was a pony still stuck one thousand years in the past; either unable or unwilling to adapt to a world that has changed beyond all belief. Well, if there was any progress to be made, I’d have to force her to, somehow...

I chewed my lower lip thoughtfully, internally debating my next move. We could not remain at this impasse forever, but when the fighting would resume I wanted it to be entirely on my terms and to my advantage, and that meant enraging her to the point where she would make a mistake. Yes, it was very risky, and once again the thought of simply admitting defeat crossed my mind; there was no shame in losing to a better skilled opponent, particularly if she happened to be as temperamental as my Auntie Luna, but, with my gorge rising, it felt that if I admitted defeat here then I would do so with everything that she had inflicted upon me over the past two years, especially the more recent insanity of following me here.

“She was an idiot,” I said, inflecting my voice to sound as offensively flippant as possible, which was something that seemed to come naturally to me. “She got herself killed pointlessly.”

“She gave her life for her country!” snapped Luna, and she lunged forwards, her sword aimed directly at my chest. Having expected this, I darted to the side and pushed her blade away with my own. “There is no higher honour than to die for your country!”

With her face twisted into an outraged snarl, she pressed the attack, seeking to remove my head from my shoulders with a wide sweep, which I dodged by leaping backwards. I landed on my cot, though it very nearly ended in disaster as my flailing hooves struggled to find purchase on the soft surface of it.

“That’s very easy for you to say,” I said, wiping my bedraggled mane from eyes, “you’re immortal.

“What would you know?” she shrieked, her voice raw with emotion. “All I ever wanted was to atone for my sins, but how can I when nopony will give me the chance, and least of all Celestia! I want to cleanse my soul in the fires of battle, but no! I am to stay behind in Canterlot, locked away while others die in my stead, and I refuse to let that happen!”

“Have you tried saying ‘sorry’?”

“One word will not wash the blood from my hooves!”

“Have you even tried?”

Luna frowned for the briefest of moments, considering my words. I saw my opportunity and, knowing I was not likely to get another, I dived forth off my cot. She stumbled back, swinging her blade wildly, but it was far too late. I hit the ground between her forehooves and, with her weapon still raised above me, I rammed my sword straight into her barrel. The blade phased through skin harmlessly, but nevertheless the mare shouted in barely-contained frustration.

“You cheated!” she shrieked indignantly, her dinner plate-sized hooves scrambling away from me as if I was something unpleasant that she might step on, which, given the damage she had done to my floor just moments before, looked like a distinct possibility.

I slowly dragged myself to my hooves and looked to my opponent, who, while not quite as angry as I feared she might be, still looked very much displeased. Her sword evaporated into the ether, and so did mine. “I used psychology to my advantage,” I said, stumbling back over to my desk to retrieve my towel, “in order to make up for my disadvantages, of course. If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t mean any of the words I said.” Well, that was a bare-faced lie, of course, but I didn’t feel like telling her.

Her response was another one of those trademark glowers, which I did my best to avoid by wiping the sweat and muck from my face. My limbs and horn felt as if they had been filled with acid, while my brain swam disconcertingly in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a hangover without the memory of having a good time prior to it, and I felt oddly nauseated by the whole experience. Winning, it seemed, was not all it was cracked up to be, especially when one over-exerts oneself as I had just done, nevertheless, even with my ‘cheating’, Luna seemed content enough to consider that victory well-deserved, and her sour expression developed into a wide, broad grin. I desperately needed a drink.

“I didn’t expect you to fight so well,” she said, and to my surprise she actually bowed before me, “or employ such a clever stratagem.”

“You’ll find I’m full of surprises like that,” I said, truthfully enough.

“Yes, victory provides its own justification. Nevertheless, you’ve taught me an important lesson – never underestimate an opponent, for even the softest, most effete of exteriors can conceal a will of iron.”

“Uh, thank you.” I thought that was a compliment, it was always rather difficult to tell with her.

Her smile widened, and she stepped to my side and, hesitantly at first, stretched a vast wing protectively over me, in imitation of Celestia’s quite affectionate displays. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable with that, but being rather exhausted and not wanting to upset her relatively good mood I allowed it.

“All warfare is about willpower,” she continued the lecture, “from the highest level of command to the civilians that support Equestria’s war machine to the individual soldier fighting for his life on the field. The sharpest blade in the arsenal is useless without the willpower and the discipline to use it effectively in combat. In you I see the indomitable spirit of Princess Hotblood still survives; against a far superior opponent you remained calm, developed a strategy, and used it to great effect. You used your mind as much as your blade against me, and that is the reason I named you commissar.”

I was about to make my excuses and leave, hoping to take a breath of fresh air and some much needed time to myself on one of the many castle’s battlements when I was interrupted by three heavy knocks on the door, and in an instant Princess Luna was replaced by the smaller form of my personal life guard. The door swung open drunkenly, and in stepped Cannon Fodder, who looked at me with his usual vacant expression for a few awkwardly long seconds, apparently having noticed that I was in rather a state, before deciding that I had everything under control.

“Captain Red Coat has called an emergency meeting for all officers,” he said, in his usual flat monotone. “The enemy has been sighted and is advancing towards us.”

I darted to my window, as if possessed by some strange desire to prove my aide wrong. Yet there, the bleak, empty plains that surrounded this wretched little structure in the middle of nowhere were marred by what looked like a huge black coffee stain on the quivering horizon. There was only one thing that could possibly look like that here, and it was the same sight that I had seen on the side of the Macintosh Hills at Black Venom Pass; a vast horde of Changelings massing, and, like a black tide of chitinous horrors, advancing inexorably upon our exposed little fort, ready to wash it away with sheer numbers. The plan, it seemed, was starting to go awry.

Author's Notes:

Yes, I know this one is a little late, but I've been out of the country for the past week or so in Italy. It's a lovely place; we stayed in the city of Pisa where, yes, everyone was trying to do that forced perspective 'leaning against the tower' thing.

Anyway, there's more background fluff in this one. I've been mentioning the Nightmare Heresy for quite a while now, and perhaps it might be time to explore that in greater detail. Perhaps a series of stories set during that period? We'll see.

Bloodstained (Part 15)

Part 15

It occurs to me that thus far in my ignoble career I have spent more time attending meetings than I have actually on the battlefield. Not that I am complaining, as I think most sensible ponies, of which there appears to be an ever-decreasing number in Equestria, can agree that it is far better to be merely bored for a few hours than to be in constant mortal danger. But meetings tend to make for rather onerous reading and are even more tedious for me to write about; and as I fear that these writings will one day be read for the purposes of light entertainment amongst ponies with nothing better to do than waste their own time reading the inane ramblings of Equestria's biggest fraud than the sort of serious, scholarly interest that I had originally intended, for the benefit of you, dear reader, I shall gloss over the following as best I can without depriving you of any salient information.

This emergency meeting was held upon the raised dais in the Great Hall, where the dilapidated old throne, its various accoutrements, and the surrounding piles of debris had been cleared and the area repurposed into a makeshift planning centre for Captain Red Coat. In the place of the aforementioned mess was a large wooden table, and piled atop this was the usual array of maps, papers, notes, drafted orders, requisition lists, orders of battle, and other examples of every conceivable sort of paperwork that the Royal Guard accumulates during the average offensive operation. In hindsight, it was rather amusing; the soldiers had worked so hard to clear the rubbish left behind by the Diamond Dogs, the sturdier items of which had been thrown into a large pile where a large, gaping hole in the fortress walls had been torn centuries before in a vain effort by Lieutenant Southern Cross to make it defensible once more, only for the officers to move in and make another mess with their papers and assorted stationary to be cleared up by those same luckless soldiers, should they survive the coming battle, at a later date.

All of the officers of the battalion and Sergeant Bramley Apple of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment crowded around this non-descript slab of wood, probably a door purloined from elsewhere in this castle, propped up on four piles of bricks, and each stared intently at a rather large chart draped over it like a cloth over a dining table. It was simply a map of Black Venom Pass and its surrounding environment, one of thousands of identical standardised charts printed out and delivered to officers upon their arrival to the frontlines; indeed, I had a smaller copy of this tucked into my coat pocket, another pinned up on a wall in my chambers just above my cot like a poster of some vapid idol of a teenager’s lust-filled fantasies, and one more having served as an impromptu hoofkerchief when Cannon Fodder suffered from a particularly nasty and very messy bout of hay fever. We were all separated from the Great Hall and the off-duty soldiers relaxing by a series of large blank wooden panels erected around the dais, rather like modesty screens seen in the boudoirs of mares for the purposes of changing into some enticing lingerie, though any such attempt at maintaining the secrecy of this meeting was somewhat foiled by the fact that this screen did not block sound, which was proved by the abominable racket that the off-duty soldiers made as they relaxed after a long day of work. At any rate, complete secrecy was probably not an issue here, as the common soldiery would be informed of the impending slaughter in due course. [That the need to set up this meeting as quickly as possible outweighed the commanding officers’ need for privacy is probably a more plausible explanation behind this lack of secrecy.]

Twilight Sparkle and ‘Cloudless Sky’ were also present; the former was quite content to sit in the corner of the room and observe quietly as she was wont to do at such things, while the latter hovered silently by my shoulder as usual. The other officers appeared to have accepted the presence of those two, even if I did not, and though they continued to treat both Twilight and my disguised Auntie as being merely pieces of furniture that occasionally talked and required regular feeding and bathroom breaks (though, to be frank, I was not so sure that Princess Luna even needed those) it was still a relative step up from their previous barely-concealed hostility in the case of the former and their complete indifference in the case of the latter. As for Cannon Fodder, my erstwhile aide, he stood guard by the wooden partitions, relying upon his usual obstinate personality, messy appearance, and ungodly odour as usual to dissuade anypony from trying to spy on our meeting.

The officers wandered into the room one by one, and the forced attempt at small talk made by some of the other officers already present had failed to lighten the mood. An awkward and heavy silence had thus fallen upon our little gathering, as together we each silently contemplated upon what was to be done now that the plan, which in its initial phases had been going fairly swimmingly as far as Royal Guard battle strategies were concerned, was now about as useful as a chastity belt made out of chocolate. The map before us told us in no uncertain terms exactly how royally bucked we were about to be; our position was marked by a small flag depicting the battalion’s standard, the Changeling hordes were represented by a single black flag, entirely devoid of any symbolism for their unimaginative kind has no need for such frivolous things, planted disconcertingly close to ours, and representing the rest of Army