Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Chapter 24: Bloodstained (Part 16)

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Part 16

The sound of a hundred unicorns firing at will sounds remarkably like somepony popping a sheet of bubble wrap, only much louder. Instead of the disciplined and precise volleys drilled into the heads of soldiers by the likes of Major Starlit Skies, as prescribed by the weighty tomes of various tactical manuals and the sacred gospel that is Princesses' Regulations, the stallions on the ramparts of the castle were permitted to fire according to their own whims into the swirling mass of Changelings. With the enemy horde swarming around our tiny fortification, which increasingly felt like a foal's sandcastle about to washed away by the oncoming tide, it was all but impossible to miss. Even those not blessed with the ability to harness magic joined in by hurling anything that they could find that was not of immediate practical use, could be later exchanged for money or alcohol, or of sentimental value in the vague direction of the enemy. I saw earth ponies and pegasi tossing broken pieces of furniture, empty ration tins, buckets, stones - just about anything that they could get their hooves on. At one point I saw an antique chamber pot, dulled by dust and coated in thick layer of verdigris, likely looted from the repository of artefacts that some previous inhabitant of this ancient fortress had left behind, sail lazily through the rain-streaked sky to disappear over the edge of the parapets and probably brain a hapless Changeling below.

As I cantered around the desperately narrow chemin de ronde and the larger battlements, squeezing past the soldiers as I searched for Captain Red Coat, I too added my own meagre contribution to the fight by firing a few desultory shots in the vague direction of the swarm, probably hitting one or two of the Changelings just to give the soldiers at least some indication that I was doing something vaguely productive. Though I would like to think back and imagine that oh-so-heroically killing or maiming those few Changelings from about a hundred or so yards away and from behind the relative safety of an enormous stone wall might have tipped the balance in our favour, any casualties that our battalion had inflicted upon the enemy at this stage were likely to be negligible at best. At the very least, however, it did make both the unicorns and Bramley Apple's artillery ponies, who by now were pouring a nigh-constant barrage of explosive shells, shrapnel, and cannon balls into the horde that was as ineffectual against an enemy that cared naught for heavy casualties as it was impressive, feel a little more confident about their chances. I, for one, felt rather more sanguine about being on the correct side of our artillery for once.

"I got one! I got one!" exclaimed one excited soldier as I scrambled past him on that narrow walkway, his comrades pouring volley after punishing volley on the enemy. "We're slaughtering the bastards, sir!"

I hesitantly tilted my head over the edge of the parapet, fearing that somehow it might get blasted off my shoulders through means both contrived and implausible, to see that the horde had approached close enough that it no longer appeared as an indistinct black and green smear that stretched from horizon to horizon, as if some landscape artist had inadvertently sneezed while holding a brush loaded with black and green paint and ruined his latest masterpiece. At the front ranks of the unnumbered legion I could discern individual Changelings, their slick black carapaces, oozing with slime and ichor, grimly reflected the orange light of the dying sun and the cold white-yellow glow of the moon masked by the thinning cloud cover. Onwards they came, relentless and unceasing in their advance, uncaring of the casualties inflicted upon them by our unicorns and by our artillery, for the dead and the wounded were simply forgotten and crushed beyond all recognition beneath a thousand galloping hooves. Their cold eyes, devoid of any glimmer of sentience or understanding, nevertheless seemed to shine with the dark and forbidden magics of that sinister intelligence that propelled them forwards in a mad, suicidal rush straight into our guns and our horns. The advance was slow, as the torrential rains had turned the once dry and sun-baked dust into a thick, porridge-like quagmire of mud, through which the Changelings struggled. Nevertheless, their progress was frightening, and it would not be long before they would start to batter down the ancient main gate or swarm through the gaping breach in the walls.

I wondered briefly if they were not so different from the soldiers who stood around me, pouring volley after deadly volley of magical missiles, each a miniature star that stung the eyes in the encroaching night, or hurling random detritus over the edge of the walls in a desperate attempt to hold off the enemy. After all, the ponies of the Royal Guard too were forced into battle, perhaps against their own will and better judgement, by powers and forces unseen and perceived to be uncaring about their individual fates, and for reasons perhaps unknown to them.

The noise had now become deafening, with the constant crackle of magic missiles being discharged atop the stern, sharp barks of orders being relayed back and forth between officers and NCOs, punctuated by the thunderous roar of artillery, quickening in the increasingly rapid and desperate tempo of fire poured out by Bramley Apple's gun crews, all melding together into one unholy symphony of warfare. Underneath all of this racket, just barely audible to my hearing was a deep, low, and thoroughly evil-sounding hum emanating from just beyond the parapets that permeated the horrendous and violent cacophony that assaulted my ears; the sound of a Changeling horde on the march, one which I was to become much too familiar with in the course of my career that even the mere memory of it sends a cold, wet shudder down my spine as I sit here in my chambers and write about it.

Nevertheless, after a half-circuit around the curtain wall and generally getting in the way of the fighting ponies, I concluded that Captain Red Coat must either still be in the castle, likely hiding in a cupboard in his room as I might have done were I in his unenviable position, or down amongst the main bulk of the earth pony and pegasus platoons assembling in their infantry sections down in the courtyard below. I eventually came upon the breach in the walls, which had been filled rather untidily by the Horsetralian Engineers who had piled up as much of the rubble, debris, and assorted rubbish that they had found when the courtyard and inner castle had been cleared into the gap to form a steep, rocky slope leading down into the courtyard on one side and out into the plains on the other. Across this hill of broken stones and mortar, pieces of furniture and smashed timber, and the occasional strips of that sun-bleached fabric that made up what was probably once a thriving and bustling marketplace for the Diamond Dogs and their ilk, the Engineers, laden with dirty armour and equipment strapped to their bodies, stalked amongst the treacherous rubble.

"Oi, Commissar!" Southern Cross' curiously accented voice rang out, though muffled as it was by the intense and disorientating noise that filled the night. I glanced around, looking for him, and found that he was loitering at the foot of his creation. He waved a hoof and beckoned me down.

Though I was rather put off at being called down so rudely, and without the due deference that my rank, both military and social of course, demands, I was willing to let that slide; as a pony of that thoroughly unpleasant outer frontier of Equestria's overseas empire known as Horsetralia, he was likely ignorant of the complex social customs of our homeland and, perhaps due to the harsher environment in which he lived, simply did not care for it. That and I had rather more important issues to be concerned about - about fifty thousand or so issues relentlessly bearing down at us from beyond the castle walls to be more precise. [Blueblood is clearly exaggerating here. However, estimations of numbers is always a tricky issue when documenting the history of the Changeling Wars, as the Changelings had no need of the intensive record-keeping and bureaucracy of the Royal Guard nor of the complex and labyrinthine structure of formations within our armed forces and the propensity of some officers to exaggerate numbers in order to make themselves look good, the best estimates of military analysts and historians today place the size of the Changeling horde at the Siege of Fort E-5150 roughly between three thousand drones at their most conservative and seven thousand at their most generous. Needless to say, however, the flanking battalion here was indeed grossly outnumbered.]

Looking down the rather steep and hazardous slope that this immense pile of debris and rubbish had formed, I wondered how in the blazes I was supposed to descend down that. I briefly scanned my surroundings for a set of stairs to take me down but, finding none, not even a ladder, close enough for me to descend before the Changelings could reach our walls, I elected to try climbing down the slope.

My progress was slow, awkward, and very undignified. The earth ponies of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers were sure-hoofed enough to be able to skip and prance about on this highly precarious artificial hill; they were congregated around a small section halfway down the slope and were very animatedly working at the piled stones and debris there with an assortment of tools that I could only guess the purposes of. I struggled down this uneven, steeply inclined, and slippery surface, which felt as if it was about to give way at any time without warning. The slope was a damn sight steeper than I had first thought, and navigating my way down was made all the more difficult by the growing darkness; it would have been quite embarrassing to die walking down a small hill before the battle had a proper chance to even start. Once or twice a patch of compacted debris or a large stone that I had assumed to be completely secure gave way once I had laid a hoof upon it and shifted my weight, or my steel horseshoes would fail to find purchase on the slick wet stones, sending me scrambling frantically in the ensuing miniature rockslide until I inevitably hit something much firmer and drier.

Naturally, the engineers, who had no problem tackling this treacherous terrain as they carried on with whatever it was that they were doing there, found my problems absolutely hilarious, and my struggle to get to the bottom without injuring myself was made all the more frustrating by their loud and rather colourful jeering. It was all silenced, however, by a series of barked orders from Lieutenant Southern Cross compelling them in tones as vulgar as his voice was loud to get on with their job, followed by an exceedingly creative description of what would he would do to them should they not complete their task before the Changelings arrived. I struggle to recall it, but I think it involved a Parisienne scoop [more commonly called a melon baller] and employing it in a deeply unpleasant manner that I shan't repeat here, even if I could. The sappers, of course, seemed to take the threats in good humour, and few even laughed garrulously, but they did as they were told and stopped taunting me.

The relationship between the sappers and their commanding officer was very much different to what I was used to in the Royal Guard; for starters Lieutenant Southern Cross very much regarded himself as just being 'one of the blokes', much in the same style of leadership that comes naturally to Shining Armour, in the sense that he could converse and socialise with the soldiers under his command with little of the awkwardness that inevitably ensues if I or another traditionally-minded officer were to attempt that sort of thing. Rather than his small tirade being a threat, as is the case with some officers and their NCOs who prefer to command through fear such as Company Sergeant Major Square Basher, it was intended, and indeed taken, as a good-natured joke. It seemed to work for him and his stallions, despite my distaste for that particular manner of directing one's troops, so, as with Shining Armour, I simply left him to it. If anything, I was rather impressed, as in doing so both he and Shining Armour commanded the same sort of loyalty in their stallions that I could only dream of.

The thought of deliberately slipping and falling down this incline, thus injuring myself in some serious but hopefully not fatal manner in order to allow me to spend the rest of the battle sitting comfortably in the battalion's field hospital in the castle had occurred to me, though I dismissed the idea almost immediately. Not only would be far too obvious a ruse to actually work without arousing any sort of suspicion from both Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna as much as my fellow officers, if this battle did truly go horrendously badly for us - as our survival and deliverance was based entirely upon General Crimson Arrow being competent enough to marshal and deploy his forces as quickly as possible I could not say that I was entirely optimistic about our chances - then I would rather be in a position where I was capable of both defending myself and running away, which would have been rather difficult for me to do if I had broken a leg, or worse, my spine.

I reached the bottom eventually with rather less dignity than I had started, and found that the courtyard had finally been organised into some vague semblance of order; the earth ponies had been deployed very neatly in ranks of three, with the pegasi likewise organised just behind them to protect the rather more fragile flyers, robbed of their advantage of flight in this awful weather. [While flight is not impossible in the sort of inclement weather that Blueblood describes here, it is certainly exhausting on a pegasus, especially if they are expected to provide the sort of rapid air support required of them in combat and to fight. The tactical manuals of the Academy therefore recommend that pegasi remain grounded and support the earth ponies, which, while not ideal, is better than allowing them to drain themselves in the air and thus become more vulnerable to attack.] They were lit only by a small number of lamps held by some soldiers and burning braziers, some shielded from the rain under the same sort of tarpaulins I had been sheltering under just a short while ago and others hidden in the deeper recesses of the castle, which towered menacingly behind them like some great, daemonic horror as it receded into the almost infinite darkness that fell upon us. The rain intensified, though it might have just been my imagination, and by now the parched earth had drunk its fill of water and dark pools, reflecting only the orange pinpricks of feeble light cast by those torches, and the clouds, dark grey and tinged faintly with gold to the west, swirling ominously in the chill breeze.

As I surveyed the scene there was a peculiar and expectant hush, despite the abominable racket that the soldiers on the parapets and the guns in the castle towers were making, as if here in the courtyard we were cut off from the outside world by a vast glass bubble that muffled and diffused the horrid cacophony that I had experienced on the walls. It was peaceful, in an odd sense, as a quiet calm before all hell inevitably breaks loose. Illuminated by the flickering orange lights was the battalion's battle standard fluttering in the chill breeze. I shuddered as a cold breeze plucked at my soaked storm coat.

"Why didn't you just teleport down?" asked Lieutenant Southern Cross, joining me at the foot of the hill.

"I'm saving my energy for more important things," I said, not wanting to admit that I simply didn't know how to teleport, and I certainly did not want to run the risk of getting it wrong and becoming lost in the nether plane that lies betwixt realities, or, as was more likely, appearing next to Southern Cross with my internal organs on the outside. "Namely shooting and stabbing things."

Southern Cross gave a small, quiet chuckle and nodded his head knowingly. "I hear you," he said. He raised his roughly-shaven muzzle skywards, and I noted a strange sense of rugged nobility, much in the same way that a base and savage animal such as a wolf can evoke a sense of dignity beyond its low and bestial nature, in the manner in which he regarded the inky darkness above us. "The stars are all wrong," he said, apparently half to himself.

I followed his gaze up, and found that the skies were still overcast, with nary a star to be seen for the dense clouds, churning like an unsettled sea in a storm. They somehow felt oppressively low, as if the swirling morass of dark greys and subtle blues would suddenly descend and smother us all. "There aren't any," I said flatly, mildly irritated that he had apparently dragged me down here to make the same sort of fatuous comment that a five year old urchin would have made.

"Of course they're there," he said, snorting irritably and giving me a rather sour look. He pointed up at the grimy grey-black clouds with an equally grubby hoof, clad in a steel sabaton caked in so much mud, dust, grease, and Faust-knows what else stains that engineers collect throughout their normal working day. It was almost as bad as Cannon Fodder's usual state of cleanliness. Almost. "They're behind the clouds," he continued, "but they're still there."

"So, what makes them 'wrong'?" I asked, arching an eyebrow and silently wishing that he would start making some sense now.

"Horestralia's in the opposite hemisphere from Equestria, so the stars are different over here," he explained, shrugging his shoulders with a loud clatter of his armour plates and specialised equipment, and I pretended that I understood; science was never my strong point, along with just about everything else that does not involve lying, swords, pleasuring mares, or fleecing money out of impressionable and slightly drunk younger officers in the mess. He had an odd, quiet, and rather contemplative expression, which looked damned peculiar on a face that was more comfortable with a cheeky, Tirek-may-care grin that flouted the notions of authority and class and yet, despite my inherent dislike of such informality, I found to be rather open and welcoming. If anything it was rather unsettling, especially so in the flickering lights of a half dozen lamps and torches. His voice, when he spoke once more was hushed, as if he did not want anypony around us eavesdropping on our conversation.

"My name isn't just a matter of national pride. It's about my special talent: astronomy. Out in the bush I had to learn to navigate my way around using only the stars for guidance. Being under different stars..." His shoulders shrugged despondently, and his mechanical limb made a slight whirring noise at this small movement. "I dunno, mate, it just reminds me of how far away I am from home."

He tore his gaze from the skies above and shook his head, before that grin once more took its usual position stretching across his face, though this time it looked rather forced. Could it be, perhaps, that this colt, whom I assumed to be little more than a slightly dim-witted and vulgar pony of those far and inhospitable colonies, albeit approachable and charming in his own way, had more depth to him than this crude exterior might otherwise imply? Perhaps like me, he too hid his true self beneath a masque, though his was one of a relaxed self-assurance and the apparent inability to take such things as the hierarchical structure of the Royal Guard and its chain of command remotely seriously. If he did, however, I was all but certain he did so purely for the benefit of the engineers under his command, as with all good officers, and not for the same, selfish reasons of ensuring my own personal survival at the possible expense of that of others that I do.

Nevertheless, he indicated towards the pile of stones and refuse that I had just clambered down with his mechanical hoof, and I faintly wondered just how waterproof such prosthetics truly were and just how liable Southern Cross was to suffer some sort of short-circuit as the driving rain seeped into the intricate workings of his false limb. "We're preparing a lovely surprise for the Changelings," he said. "I hope they like it."

"And what surprise would that be?" I said, though the sudden itching in my hooves forewarned me that it was likely to be something deeply unpleasant and quite dangerous. I looked over to where his brass hoof pointed, equally dulled with dust as his armour though I took note that its mechanical works were still kept clean in accordance to the engineers' credo, and saw that the group of engineers on the breach had by now completed whatever it was that they were doing, and skipped down the jagged and precarious piles of rubble and stone with a sense of ease that almost seemed contemptuous of my previous clumsy attempt. It was rather difficult to see in the dark, as the myriad lamps and braziers made it tricky for my eyes to adjust properly to the gloom, but by virtue of my knack in navigating dark and confined places I could see that one engineer was trailing what looked like a cable behind him.

As the penny dropped with an awful clatter, I felt a sudden, horrid lurch in the pit of my stomach as if the oats I had for lunch were attempting to escape. I could literally feel the colour, what little there is of it, drain from my face.

"A present in the shape of several tons of TNT," said Southern Cross, with remarkable casualness.

In spite of this revelation I like to think that I collected myself rather admirably, and at least the darkness around us made it easier for me to mask my horrified expression. "I see," I said, keeping my voice slow and measured, despite the sudden and rapid spike in my heart rate. "And you didn't think to tell me about that before I walked over it?"

Southern Cross nickered quietly, apparently finding my discomfiture at very nearly being blown up and having my princely remains spread like strawberry jam all over the castle rather funny. The dim light of the torches reflected eerily on his toothy grin, which gave his smile, only growing wider and more earnest as I glowered at him with as much menace as I could muster, the unsettling appearance of glowing. "Do you think you'd have come down here if I told you about that first?"

"Of course I bloody wouldn't have," I snapped.

"It's perfectly safe," he said, and his words did very little to make me feel any better; judging from a small number of near-accidents that we had with the high explosives in our trek over the hills and the mystery of what had happened to his original left foreleg, it seemed that both he and his engineers had a rather different concept of what safety meant compared to what is written in dictionaries. "The explosive charges aren't wired up to the detonator yet, so there's no way to set it off unless there's a spark or a naked flame, which" - Southern Cross waved his hoof skywards, and the rain continued to fall - "doesn't look likely right now. But when it does go, it'll make whatever made the original hole in the wall look like a firecracker by comparison, and it should take out a good bunch of Changelings when it does."

"Assuming they fall for the trap," I said, pointing out one of the two main flaws in his otherwise masterful plan. The other, of course, was that he might over-estimate the amount of explosives needed and blow all of us into Tartarus - Changelings, ponies, castle, and all. "We didn't, remember?"

"It's worth a shot anyway," he said dismissively. "Anyway, I wanted to ask you something, sir."

I stiffened on reflex; Lieutenant Southern Cross almost never called me 'sir'. It was almost always 'Commissar', 'Blueblood', 'mate', and, on one occasion before we set out on this suicidal expedition where I think he and his comrades might have drank their entire month's ale rations in one night, 'Blueballs', but never, ever 'sir'; not unless he was being ironic or if he wanted something from me, at least. [Ordinarily, Blueblood would have taken great offense at that nickname, having already fought about five duels with ponies over it, but that he has let it slide on this occasion is likely due to some sort of grudging respect that he had for Southern Cross and/or recognition that maintaining a good working relationship with the Horsetralian Engineers was key to the success of this operation and his own survival.] His expression, when a stallion holding a lamp passed by so that it brought his shadowed face into the light, had become grave and serious, which to me looked rather unsettling. I had seen officers of his ilk pull this trick before, and indeed it was one of the oldest in the book and has a whole seven paragraphs dedicated to it in Princesses' Regulations; my old commanding officer and former Captain of the Royal Guard Stiff Upper Lip would present an image of charming eccentricity, or being relaxed and casual in the case of the stallion standing next to me, but when a situation arose that demanded a more professional level of conduct then they were more than capable of rising to it. If anything, it emphasised just how serious the situation was.

"Some of our explosive charges have gone missing."

My initial response, I admit, was to think 'so what?', and that with our brutal murder or slavery by the Changelings all but imminent this was hardly the best time to bring something like this up. It was probable that he merely miscounted the frankly extravagant amount of dynamite and TNT his engineers were forced to drag over the mountains, and even if a relatively small amount had gone missing, likely dropped or misplaced by a lazy sapper, what difference could it have possibly made? However, the seriousness etched in the lines that his frown had formed on his face, and intoned in his peculiarly-accented voice, soon destroyed that notion in my mind. Despite his outwardly lackadaisical approach to most things, he was rather fastidious about the actual business of military engineering.

"How much is missing?" I asked. The itching in my hooves flared up once more, as my paranoid hindbrain started scrambling in a vain effort to try and tell my conscious mind something important but, like a Neighponese tourist lost in the streets of Manehatten armed with only a poorly written translation guide and a map of Los Pegasus, it was just struggling to make itself understood.

"Only a few sticks," he said, "but that's still enough to cause quite a lot of damage. I'm not suggesting that anypony's stolen them, but if they fall into the hooves of somepony who isn't trained in their use, then... well, it doesn't bear thinking about."

The prospect of one of our soldiers, either through theft or by sheer accident, coming into possession of enough high explosives to blow a hole in the castle walls large enough to drive the larger of Celestia's royal chariots through was most disconcerting. At any rate, there was not much either of us could do about it right now, especially with rather more immediate concerns on our minds, so I gave Lieutenant Southern Cross an understanding nod and my assurances that, once the battle was over and if either of us were still alive, I would keep an eye out for his missing explosives and that if anypony had stolen them they would be punished appropriately. That seemed to placate him for now, and as I galloped away from the mine-laying operation as fast as my hooves could carry me I heard him once more attempt to cajole his sappers into hurrying up with the task with his usual mixture of colourful metaphors and threats of extreme violence.

I eventually found Captain Red Coat standing at the main entrance to the courtyard, and rather sensibly behind three ranks of earth ponies and further three ranks of pegasi. Cannon Fodder was waiting for me there too, and when I stumbled out of the darkness and into the light of the braziers burning at the rotten wooden gates he bounded over to take his usual place just behind my right shoulder with all the eagerness of a small puppy greeting its owner after having been left alone in the house all day. Red Coat, however, acknowledged my arrival with rather less enthusiasm, merely nodding his head in my direction before he beckoned me to come closer with a hoof.

The Captain looked utterly dreadful, more so than during the briefing. I don't know what had happened to him in the intervening time, but the skin beneath his shark-grey fur had turned a deathly shade of white, there was a slight tremor in his quick, nervous movements, like that of a startled rodent, and the dark rings around his amber draconic eyes gave him the thoroughly disturbing appearance of an exsanguinated corpse that had been left to rot for quite some time. I decided, for his sake, to pretend not to notice and hope that by presenting an image of being supremely in control of both myself and of the situation, despite inwardly feeling just as bad as Red Coat looked, if not worse, so that he in turn could derive from me some small degree of confidence.

The soldiers arrayed out on the courtyard were at ease under the watchful eyes of their non-commissioned officers, and they likely had a few more pressing matters weighing on their minds than what their commanding officers were getting up to. Along the way I had noted that a few were quite stricken by fear, and I recall to my distaste seeing one terrified pony dash out of his formation to relieve his bowels by the dead stump of a tree nearby, accompanied by the jeers and taunts from his comrades. Aside from that rather shameful moment, and a few others rendered quite insensible by their terror and who needed a quiet reminder from me about their duty not only to their country and the Princesses but also to the ponies standing next to them (I found that appealing to their desire not to let down their friends often worked better than soliloquising about patriotism), most of the troops remained as professional as one could reasonably demand of them.

As I approached he drew me cautiously to the side, away from the soldiers in their formation; closer to the wall and under the shelter of the stone parapets above. He glanced this way and that, apparently looking for any who might be eavesdropping. Cannon Fodder lingered around for a short while, but as my aide's blind trust in me had led him to deduce that, like most military matters, this was a matter that did not concern him, and if it did that I would probably fill him in on a 'need to know' basis, he had therefore sat in the opposite corner of the gateway to amuse himself with one of his gentlecolt's special interest magazines that he had secreted within his armour. I envied Cannon Fodder; he was easily distracted from such concerns by the most trivial and base of pursuits, whereas I could not.

"Scarlet Letter has gone missing," said Red Coat, his trembling voice barely above a hoarse whisper.

"He's missing?" I blurted out dumbly, loud enough to turn the heads of a few of the closer soldiers.

Red Coat nodded his head gravely. The nearby brazier hissed and spitted as a gust of chill wind swept through the courtyard. I muttered a curse most unbecoming of my regal station, and the young colt blushed slightly.

"Nopony can find him," he said. "His sergeant says the last time he saw him was when he went in the hall for the meeting. He's just vanished."

In hindsight I probably shouldn't have been quite so shocked at this development; the stallion had no stomach for warfare (not to imply that I do, of course) and it should have been a matter of when, rather than if, he would desert us, assuming that was what had happened to him. That said, the notion that Scarlet Letter would simply run away without getting caught - something that I had considered doing myself and dismissed long ago on the account that it was just too easy for me to get caught doing so - had not crossed my mind at all until that point, as I imagined that his little scheme to boost his waning popularity with Parliament and with his electorate would have been rather scuppered if he had been caught fleeing on the very cusp of his moment of contrived glory, or perhaps I had naively believed that my lecture at the briefing had inculcated at least some small shred of decency and sense of duty in that shrivelled-up husk that the average politician possesses in lieu of a soul.

The memory of Southern Cross' missing explosives made a very unwelcome entrance into my mind, followed by the disturbing implication that it could be related to the disappearance of Scarlet Letter.

"How rude of him," I said flatly, putting the rather unpleasant thought of mind and forcing a relaxed smile to my lips. "Don't worry about it, Captain, when this is over I will undertake a full investigation, and if he has deserted then he will be court-martialled and punished to the fullest extent of the Commissariat's authority. Just focus on winning the battle, and leave Lieutenant Scarlet Letter to me."

Red Coat looked up at me with those huge, saucer-like eyes of his and nodded his head. Damnation, but he was far too young to be in this position; he should have been worrying about which pretty, vacant-eyed filly he was going to invite to his high school prom, what he would study at university, going into the family business, and whatever else that colts of the lower middle classes think of, not of the burden of the lives of three hundred ponies and of the fate of Equestria. "O-of course, sir," he stammered out clumsily, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. "But right now we're missing one lieutenant, and I need somepony to command his unicorn platoon."

"What of Ensign Black Marble and Sergeant Cheque Book?" I asked, dredging their names up from some half-forgotten ledger that I had read weeks ago. It always paid to make an effort to remember a few names and give the impression that one knows absolutely everypony one is about to fight and possibly die beside. "Can they not command in his stead?"

"I don't think they're ready for it at all," said Red Coat, without a hint of irony inflicting his voice. To be fair, however, he did have a point, as what little I did know of the way that Scarlet Letter ran his platoon - former platoon, I should say - seemed to imply that he was rather against the notion of his underlings having any sort of power or autonomy under him (as indeed were most officers of the Royal Guard, but at the very least they tended to try and foster some semblance of competence in the lower ranks).

"It looks like I'll have to do it," I said, resigning myself to the inevitable. I had hoped to spend the battle firmly behind our stallions, giving moral support and checking for any lapses in duty, but with this unfortunate development it seemed increasingly likely that Captain Red Coat would have come to the same conclusion that I did. On balance, volunteering for something that one knows to be inevitable, or appearing to at least, rather than being forced into it will improve one's image greatly in the eyes of others. Commanding a platoon was something that I was already relatively experienced with, having served as a Lieutenant in the 1st Solar Guards Regiment during my late teens, though back then the actual business of commanding often took a back seat to the usual philandering and debauchery that my comrades and I often got up to.

Red Coat tapped at his chin thoughtfully with a hoof, and then shook his head. "I'd rather have you with me."

"Likewise," I said, earnestly enough; not that I particularly found his company to be enjoyable even if we weren't about to be thrust into the heart of a bloody battle, but I merely felt that sticking with the lad and dissuading him from doing anything foolish to 'prove' himself in front of everypony else was the best way to maximise the chances of survival for the both of us. "But I'm sure you don't need me breathing down your neck all the time. Besides, I'm sure Sergeant Major Square Basher will take good care of you."

"O-of course," he said, nodding his head with newfound eagerness. "She's a bit scary, though."

Red Coat glanced off to the side, and I followed his gaze to find that the old adage 'speak of Nightmare Moon and she shall appear' was somewhat accurate. There, Marezilla herself was walking up and down along the serried ranks of soldiers. Her head, clad in that dark mithril steel helmet emblazoned with the three embossed chevrons and a crown that marked out her rank, was visible above those of most of the stallions and mares that she (and I) towered over like an adult above foals. Once or twice she would stop to address one of her soldiers, and, to my surprise, she did so without once raising her voice, without the threat of or indeed the actual use of violence, and not once did she in any way demean anypony under her command. Instead she would offer a few quiet words, though I could not make out what they were, in a voice that had an odd, motherly tone to it despite the roughness of her crude East Trottingham accent, before moving on down to the next pony in the line.

At first I found such behaviour to be rather confusing, and greatly untypical of the loud, unsophisticated, and bullying Sergeant Major. Yet when I thought of my own job, to look to the fighting spirit of the regiment, I realised that while her rigid and inflexible enforcement of discipline was all well and good in making sure that everypony looked presentable and kept themselves out of trouble when there was nothing else to do, it was important that everypony knew that when it came to the horrid life-and-death struggle that was to come that they all had her firm and loyal support. Yes, she was violent and stubborn, and that earned her a lot of enmity amongst the ranks, but ultimately she proved herself to the soldiers to be harder and tougher than anything that the enemy could throw at them, and, more importantly, that all she had done was to help mould them and prepare them for war.

A loud cry came from the battlements above us, followed by another and another. The expectant hush that had fallen on the courtyard had been rudely broken as the soldiers on the outer walls scrambled down the tight and narrow steps and walkways to reach us. The troops already assembled appeared to stiffen at the sound, as the earth ponies were absorbed into their own platoons once more and the unicorns were quickly marshalled into a long, thin line, two ranks deep, like a ring of steel and gold around the earth ponies and pegasi. Almost as quickly as it had started, the noise had ceased, and silence ensued.

Silent, except for the unsettling low hum of the Changelings that had now reached the castle walls.

As the expectant hush returned, and somehow sharper and tenser than before, Captain Red Coat took on an expression of quiet resignation. The fear and anxiety that I had seen in the weeks building up to this battle had gone, to be replaced with a strange expression that I could only describe as 'peaceful', as of an old pony who had come to terms with the aging process and his inevitable death. He sucked in a deep breath and let out a slow, quiet sigh that seemed to carry with it all of the burdens and responsibilities of his command. When he spoke, his voice had taken on a calm quality that equalled the blank and empty look of his face.

"Scarlet Letter's platoon was detailed to cover the breach, flanked by two other unicorn platoons and half of our earth ponies," he said. "It's likely the Changelings will try to charge us through there, or go for the main gate. Either way, they'll be seeking to gain a hoof-hold in the walls. We've put a mine under the breach, so hopefully that'll take out a big enough chunk out of them to help even the odds."

I nodded gravely, and suppressed a shudder as I remembered how close I came to being blown to pieces. "Yes, Lieutenant Southern Cross told me about his little surprise."

"I need you to hold your fire until the mine goes off," continued Red Coat. "That way we can lure as many Changelings on top of it as possible and cause maximum casualties. I'll be with the earth ponies behind you."

"It's nice to know you're watching my back," I said, lying through my teeth of course; I would much rather our situations were reversed, but I could hardly back out now.

With little else to discuss I wished Captain Red Coat luck, to which he responded with a curt salute. I reciprocated with rather less enthusiasm, of course, and trotted off in search of my platoon.

Now, the firm, ingrained discipline of the Royal Guard was in effect, and each and every one of the guardsponies, whose formations I slinked through and around like some sort of cat burglar slinking through the city streets, stood to attention; rigidly still they were, every muscle and sinew taut, strained, and ready to explode into savage violence at but a single word barked by their officers.

The rain had finally ceased now, though the ground was still a soggy quagmire and the sky above devoid of stars. Only the moon, hidden by the dense cloud cover, was visible as a faint, lambent glow of sickly pale light trying in vain to make itself known. The light of the torches could only illuminate but a short distance from the outer lines of the unicorns, and the walls, tall and imposing, were almost invisible against the darkness. By this lambent orange glow the pools of rainwater that had collected across what was once a barren and empty courtyard appeared to have been made of molten gold, poured out across the earth.

At the wall breach, my platoon was waiting. Lieutenant Southern Cross' engineers had finished with their work, and were lingering out just behind the two ranks of unicorns facing the wall. A thin cable, barely visible in the darkness snaked its way across the sinking mud and up the hill, where the explosives that they had planted lay hidden underneath the pile of debris. The unicorns were arrayed directly opposite the breach, and their field of fire covered the broad expanse between this and the hundred or so yards to the keep itself, while behind them the earth ponies and pegasi stood by.

I took my position with Ensign Black Marble, a rosy-cheeked and youngish chap just barely out of high school, who held aloft the platoon's guidon [A smaller, swallow-tailed banner used to identify platoons in the Royal Guard. These are typically emblazoned with the heraldic device of the lieutenant commanding it, or, if no such coat-of-arms exists, a symbol as chosen by the platoon's commander and subject to approval by the regiment's colonel] with the same sort of reverence as if it were the colours of the regiment. I'm rather used to a wide variety of responses when ponies meet me face-to-face for the first time, but very rarely has the other pony been literally stunned into silence. I speak no hyperbole when I say this; the colt was so unbelievably happy that I, the famed Commissar Blueblood, supposed saviour of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and the alleged hero of Black Venom Pass, that he could only grin from ear to ear and jitter excitedly to himself.

Judging him to be of very little use besides holding the flag up and possibly taking a few Changeling fangs to the face in a misguided attempt to impress me, I turned to his more sensible companion Sergeant Cheque Book. He was an older stallion, a little quiet, unimaginative, and frankly rather dull company; certainly not the sort of pony one would expect to be a career soldier, but when the bank that he worked for as a low grade clerk had collapsed as these institutions are wont to do from time to time (as is my understanding of such things. I don't pay much attention to matters of money, having never been terribly short of it enough to cause me any worry) and his life in general fell to pieces around him he joined the Royal Guard out of sheer desperation.

With the pleasantries over I took my new place on the left of the platoon, and if anything they seemed rather pleased that Scarlet Letter was gone and I was in charge. The courtyard stretched out before us like a yawning abyss from whence a multitude of horrors was about to be unleashed; cold, impenetrably dark, and as malevolent as the near-silence that had fallen upon our scene. The artillery had ceased firing, not out of fear of hitting us, but Sergeant Bramley Apple wanted to time a vast salvo of all of his guns at the most opportune moment, and save for the rustling of the banners, the crackling of burning embers, and the occasional chime of armour upon armour as the restless stallions fidgeted there was an almost unbearable hush. And yet underpinning this, and still barely perceptible, the drone of the Changeling horde bore on, as relentless and as implacable as the vast army that this maddening sound accompanied.

Dear Faust, the wait was interminable. I could only stand there, staring into this darkened abyss, my eyes conjuring malevolent beasts and daemons out of the vague shapes half-glimpsed in the dim light, while I waited for the inevitable. The near-silence was becoming interminable, and the seemingly random background noises only exacerbated my frayed nerves, for each individual sound of steel sliding upon steel as one or more stallions fidgeted impatiently, or of the unidentifiable noises that seemed to emanate from beyond our tiny island of light, lost in the darkness, could only amplify the seemingly infinite lengths of time where there was naught but silence and that disturbing hum of thousands of Changeling drones on the march.

Glimpsed in the darkened gloom I saw movement, and the sound of a few small rocks cascading down the hill. At first I thought it was my imagination, driven mad by the fear, but then I saw another and another; shapes of black tinged with a sickly, malignant green as of gangrenous flesh, silhouetted against the black-blue night sky as they crested the debris hill. Very soon the breach was filled with them. Hundred, thousands? Numbers simply became meaningless when one looked upon the swirling black mass that scrambled and crawled upon its belly as a single, misshapen abomination with a million glittering green emeralds for eyes that filled its body. They descended down the slope that I had struggled down with an ease that was almost contemptuous, if such creatures were at all capable of such an emotion.

I held my breath as the horde approached at a frightening speed, and every rational fibre of my being was imploring me to give the unicorns the order to fire, as if our paltry little platoon would somehow stop this onslaught in its tracks. More and more Changelings cascaded down that hill like an avalanche, until the slope itself had become almost a singular, monotone black, somehow distinct and more malevolent from the darkness of the night, with the sheer density of the tightly packed mob that streamed through the gap. Lieutenant Southern Cross had to detonate the explosives now. He just had to. To watch the beasts regroup at the base of the mound, hissing and screeching at us, was maddening. I turned away from the sight, hoping to find the engineer and push that damned button myself.

And then, a rumbling, massive roar filled the sky, and the earth beneath the piled debris lurched upwards violently from the force of the explosion. A wall of hot air hit me in the face, followed by a rush of dust and smashed debris. Blood and torn body parts, smouldering bits of carapace and unidentifiable burnt flesh, rained down upon us, and the soldiers, unable to hold in their enthusiasm, cheered. Nopony stopped them; it would have been fruitless to even try. The cloud of smoke and dust lingered, and through the grimy haze I could discern figures stumbling around awkwardly, shrieking in agony, before collapsing and expiring.

Soon the dust cleared on the chill wind, revealing a charnel house. The carefully constructed blockage in the gap was completely gone, as if it had never been there, and in its place was a vast, yawning crater that smoked and smouldered. Broken bits of masonry and shattered furniture littered the scene, amongst which the bloodied and torn remains of what had once been at least a hundred Changeling drones lay strewed. The survivors scrambled and crawled through the wreckage; limbs torn off by the blast, chitin peeled away to reveal raw flesh, and green ichorous blood flowed copiously from open wounds into stagnant pools.

Any sense of triumph, however, was soon crushed; for almost as soon as the dust had been blown away and the ringing in my ears started to fade, yet more Changelings, seemingly greater in number than before, filled the gap. The real fight was about to begin.

Author's Notes:

Sorry about the delay again, but here's the latest chapter. Hope you enjoyed it.

Next Chapter: Bloodstained (Part 17) Estimated time remaining: 15 Hours, 3 Minutes
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