Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Chapter 50: Honour and Blood: Part 20

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As cunning plans go, this one wasn't exactly the best one I have ever come up with, but then again, the ones that I thought were so cunning that they had earned a doctorate in cunning from the University of Cunning Plans had usually ended in more pain and misery for Yours Truly, so perhaps just 'winging it', as Rainbow Dash would say, was actually the best option for me. However, I have almost always come out of these sticky situations more or less on top, which is to say that I survived with as much of my body intact and whole, so I still had that going for me. The plan itself was relatively simple, but it largely depended on Dahlia turning up as she usually did to change the dressings on my wounds, and on the guards' lackadaisical approach to security. Trusting in the ineptitude of your enemy always incurs a great risk, and it's usually safer to assume some base level of competence on their part, but here we had nearly a full platoon of trained and disciplined soldiers of the Royal Guard (and me) versus a mob of lazy peasants armed with pointed sticks, so one could forgive me for feeling a little too hopeful about our chances.

I don't know if it was something that Princess Luna had done to me in the dream, or if some kind of natural healing process had taken place, or if my improved mood, buoyed by the now-tangible promise of escape, had done it, but I felt rather better than I had prior to my sleep. A few experiments found that I could at least stand and move about, albeit with some pain and difficulty, but at the very least it meant that I was unlikely to slow everypony else down too much and therefore be left behind. Not that I imagine Shining Armour would even consider such a thing, being an officer who fully subscribed to the heroic if naive ideal of 'nopony left behind', even if that pony happened to be me. For the plan to work, however, I needed to continue to present an image of complete and total helplessness, like a sick Breezie, at least until the moment where we would spring into action, inasmuch as anything that the Royal Guard ever did could be described in quite so proactive terms.

Dahlia arrived rather promptly, her face full of concern and worry as I made the necessary moans of pain to provoke the appropriate feelings of sympathy. I lifted my head up, affecting to make the gesture appear much harder than it truly was, to see her approach, and flanked by the two guards as usual. The mare knelt by my side and performed the usual tasks of pouring water on my abused back, gently peeling back the soaked strips of bloodied cloth that she had placed there before, taking care so as not to tear out the scabs that had formed, and then re-applying fresh strips. She muttered quietly as she worked, which I assumed were soothing words, but I was only half paying attention to what she was doing.

My focus was instead aimed directly at the two guards, who had lost interest in what their charge was doing to me and instead focused their attention on watching the other captives. At least, that's what I thought they were supposed to be doing. The two guards seemed to be entirely caught up in their trite and meaningless little conversation, as pointless and meandering as it was, to pay attention to what was going on around them. If they were Night Guards and Square Basher caught them gossiping like that on duty, their bodies would have to be reassembled by expert Griffin taxidermists after she was through with them. Listening in, I had translated enough to understand that somepony's sister was with a stallion that they disapproved of, and they were trying to come to some sort of consensus about the correct course of action.

Well, that was just going to have to wait now, as I was about to introduce something rather more important for them to deal with. I looked to Cannon Fodder, gave a small nod, which he reciprocated. With a speed and agility that was at odds with the usual languid, torpid state that he existed in, he suddenly leapt forth and collided messily with Dahlia. The very briefest of struggles ensued, but my aide's mass and strength won out over that of the pampered lady's. He rolled her onto her front, and pinned her down beneath him with his body.

“That’s it!” I cried in triumph. “Hold her down, firmly now!”

The guards jumped at the sound of Dahlia's high-pitched shriek, but were too slow in reacting to be of any use. Caught by a split-second of indecision, and having accidentally wandered too close to the shackled soldiers, this allowed those closest to lunge out and seize them. It took only a few seconds for the two to be subdued, and with rather more enthusiasm on the part of the captured guardsponies than was strictly necessary, as they were pinned to the ground and their weapons taken from them.

"Good work!" cried Shining Armour. "Search them; they must have the keys."

"What?" Dahlia shouted in Equestrian, clearly trying to raise the alarm, for all the good that it would do her now. She sounded a little annoyed, as opposed to upset or fearful, but so elated was I at our success that I didn't pick up on that certain incongruity. "What are you doing?"

"Escaping," I said, as I rose to my hooves. The soldiers had completely disarmed and disrobed the two guards, who I imagine must have felt very foolish for committing such a lapse in duty that anypony reading this might consider this to be much too far fetched to be real. I tell you, it did happen, and ponies are capable of committing acts of great stupidity when they believe themselves to be completely in control of the situation and that any act of sabotage is utterly impossible. "What does it look like we're doing? Now be a dear and remove this damned ring on my horn, won't you?"

"What makes you think I can?" said Dahlia, wiggling under my aide's not-inconsiderable mass in a vain effort to try and get free.

"Your cutie mark is one of the symbols on it," I said, allowing a hint of well-deserved smugness to inflect my voice.

A victorious exclamation from one of the soldiers signalled that they found the keys to their relative freedom in the belongings of the guards, and set about unlocking their shackles with the sort of enthusiasm normally seen in poor orphan foals on Hearth's Warming. The keys were passed around quickly, like a hipflask of warming brandy around the survivors of an airship crash on a bleak mountainside, and soon I was freed too.

There was a brief argument about the weapons, too, which Shining Armour quickly solved by taking one spear for himself and giving the other to Corporal Slipstream. A dagger, a rather ornate thing studded with jewels that proved that either this tribe was capable of at least some independent artistry or that they were prone to common banditry, was given to Cannon Fodder, which, under my direction, he held threateningly but gratifyingly close to the soft curve of Dahlia's elegant neck.

"Do it," I hissed, "or I'll order Private Cannon Fodder here to slice your damn whore neck open."

"Blueblood, please." Dahlia looked up at me with wide, pleading eyes. I was having none of it, however; the mare would get no sympathy from me, not after the brutal flogging I had received for satisfying her animal lusts (and mine too, I must admit now that this could have all been avoided if I held my libido in check, but back then my blood was up and I was hardly thinking straight given the excitement and terror of the escape).

We needed her alive for this to work; a hostage, you see, with which to bargain our freedom. If she was clever, which I doubted considering her current track record, she might have worked out for herself that we needed her to be kept alive. The irony was not lost on me, but I was in no fit state to appreciate it, and I was getting frustrated by her sudden and unexpected reticence. I could hear hoofsteps and shouting coming from the corridor, muffled by the distance but growing steadily in volume.

“I’ll bloody well do it myself if I have to!”

I took the knife from Cannon Fodder, stood as close to him as my olfactory senses would allow me to, and held the blade against Dahlia's neck, close enough to give her a somewhat mediocre shave and certainly so she could feel the cold chill of the bronze on her skin. A little bit more pressure and her jugular vein would open and her blood would flow like champagne from a shaken bottle. As much as I was angry, determined, and in great physical and emotional pain, the thought still sickened me to my cowardly core, which, paradoxically, was a fact that I still found to be rather comforting in an odd way - it meant that I hadn't gone completely blood-crazy just yet. All that was necessary, however, was for everypony else, including her, to believe that I might be mad and stupid enough to actually do it.

Five or six of the natives blundered into the chamber, some carried weapons but a few among their number appeared to be civilians who were caught up in all the excitement and thought they might join in for whatever reason. I imagine there's not much to do around these parts when another pony isn't being flogged for their amusement. One, a large, heavy brute of a mare armed with what at first I took to be a club but later turned out to be a rolling pin, saw me standing there with a blade held to the throat of the wife of their ruler and let out an oath that I shan't repeat here in case a lady of good standing is reading (which, if you are, don't you have anything nicer you could be reading instead?).

"No closer!" I shouted, first in Equestrian and then again in a rough approximation of their language. "Or I return Dahlia’s spirit to the earth from which it came!" [Though the Badlands pony tribes share an animistic belief system, actual practices vary greatly. The Rat Pony Tribe revere the spirits of the earth the greatest, which Blueblood appears to have picked up on, despite not mentioning where he got it from.]

I was sweating like a sinner in church, and not just because of the cloying humidity in this dank, filthy hole in the ground. What if it didn't work? Perhaps they knew I hadn't got it in me to gruesomely murder a defenceless pony, and would rush us and it would all be over quicker than it started. A few of them galloped off down the corridor, while the big mare and the armed ponies backed away warily with weapons aimed in our direction. It seemed to be working then, and I suppose that I looked mad and desperate enough for anything; unshorn fur matted with foam and blood, the long lines of lacerations on my back that looked as though a maniac had used it to play noughts-and-crosses with a knife, and sporting what was probably a very crazed look on my face. I was terrified, truly, but I suppose that was easily mistaken for rage.

"Now get this bucking ring off me!" I shouted.

Except she couldn’t, what with Cannon Fodder on top of her and his unique ability preventing the unlocking of what was a magical lock. That I forgot all about that in my eagerness was a touch embarrassing, but I had a vested interest in keeping his status as a blank a secret as much as possible, given how useful it has been thus far. I shoo-ed him off Dahlia with a motion of my hoof. He gave a nod of understanding, apparently having come to the same realisation as me but dutifully kept it to himself as ever, and went to go and stand in his usual corner. With my free forehoof I held her pinned to the ground.

Dahlia made a whimpering noise, then her horn flashed with a sickly green light that seemed a little too familiar, though I couldn't quite place it at the time. The ring fell from my horn, and I felt magic, the primal forces of creation and destruction that underline the universe entirely, flood into my body as though I was an empty and dry glass, long forgotten at the back of the drinks cabinet, now filled with the most exquisitely balanced gin martini. After an entire day of feeling this blank numbness where that wellspring of power that lay just beyond the skein of reality should have been, to be able to tap into that same source once again was such a relief.

Whatever it was that Dahlia had done also affected the other unicorns in the cave, as they too were freed from those damned rings. Good, we would need all the firepower we could get if our captors recovered enough of their wits to remember that they had us severely outnumbered. Shining Armour's skill in defensive magic, his famous force shields, would certainly prove very useful in the tight confines of the caves and tunnels too.

Speaking of the natives, there was some sort of commotion amidst the group watching over us from the cave entrance. From what little I could tell, it was the sort of animated discussion that comes when a pony in a position of authority of some description comes along to help sort out a problem, but somepony else already present believes that they're in the process of fixing the issue and certainly does not require the assistance of another, thank you very much. I watched this proceed, trying to fight down the growing terror gestating in my gut like some sort of parasite ready to burst out. The jabbering intensified, almost turning into a heated argument, and I hoped that perhaps it might spill out into violence and solve one problem for us. Then, the newcomer had managed to force his way to the front somehow; Chipped Urn stumbled out past the big mare with the rolling pin, and found himself face-to-face with Yours Truly.

"You!" To say that I reacted poorly to his sudden appearance might be something of an understatement. I quickly forgot about Dahlia, as she was just some daft young mare who couldn't resist a bit of the old princely charm; Chipped Urn was the true architect of my misery, and I was going to make my displeasure completely obvious to all observing.

"Blueblood, what are you-" Chipped Urn didn't get a chance to finish that question, because I slapped him in the face with the back of my hoof. He staggered back from the blow, though it was probably more to do with the shock than any actual pain I might have inflicted [presumably having dropped the dagger, otherwise Blueblood might have stabbed him instead]. Nevertheless, he sat on his haunches and gingerly touched his cheek where I had struck him.

"Traitor!" I hissed, advancing on him while Cannon Fodder once again took on the duty of subduing Dahlia.

I moved to strike Chipped Urn once more, and he raised his hooves in front of his face in an attempt to ward off the oncoming blow, but somepony had seized me by the elbow. Shining Armour glared at me, and gingerly guided my forehoof back to its proper position back on the ground.

"Careful," he said, positioning himself roughly between me and the cowering earth pony, "you don't want to make it worse for you."

Damn him, he was right; the dull ache throbbing away across the surface of my back had swollen to a crawling, burning sensation as the scabbed-over wounds must have re-opened in all of that excitement. The unpleasant sensation of something wet and warm flowing over my already matted fur had returned, with the implication that I was bleeding again. A nod of his head towards the natives at the cave entrance, however, and I divined his other meaning. The natives were watching warily, but had advanced a little closer into the cave, their spears, swords, and horns aimed firmly in my direction. One wrong move from a single pony on either side would spell disaster, mainly for me, for even if we dealt with this obstacle we would still have an entire tribe of very angry ponies to fight through.

Shining Armour went over to help Chipped Urn back to his hooves, which the young lad accepted most eagerly. "Now, what's all this about?"

I explained, hurriedly, so that Chipped Urn would not have a chance to give his side of this sordid tale of betrayal before I did - how we had come across an elder of the Agave Tribe and her charge, who was assigned to be our guide for some peculiar cultural practice that I didn't quite understand, but had something to do with his coming of age from colt to stallion, and how he had sold us out to Earthshaker and his minions at our first meeting. It was this duplicity that led to our capture and my subsequent torture at the hooves of this hate-filled, petty-minded Chieftain, whose selfish desire for revenge over what was a horrendous misunderstanding placed his entire tribe in danger of an Equestrian intervention. I might have come across as naive in this particular telling of this story, but doing so would engender an element of sympathy in Shining Armour, knowing how highly he valued such things as honesty and trust amongst all equines.

Chipped Urn sat through all of this, forelegs crossed over his chest and glaring at me as though he was trying to make my head spontaneously catch fire with magic his mud-pony body did not possess. When I finished and I basked in the momentary sympathy projected from my colleagues, he had to ruin it all with six little words: "I know where your flag is."

"What?" Shining Armour blurted out, apparently forgetting about me and rounding on Chipped Urn. Damn that sand-dwelling, water-collecting, dust-eating heathen to Tartarus twice over; first for getting me into the infernal mess that whose greatest consequence was that I could never show my back in public ever again for the shameful scars that would mark it forever, and second by complicating our escape by reminding our honour-blinded Captain of the Royal Guard of his initial foalish goal of retrieving the Royal Standard. "Where? How?"

"It is in the treasure chamber of the Chieftain," said Chipped Urn, "along with your weapons and your armour. It is not very much far from here."

Shining Armour whinnied in triumph, all but prancing on the spot. A ripple of excited whisperings travelled through the assembled guardsponies like a wave, and I knew then and there that dissuading these ponies from this diversion would be impossible. Even Rainbow Dash was elated by the news, and let out an excited, "Aw, yeah! Now we're talking!"

"One moment, please," I said. "Let's not forget about the little fact that you sold me out. I'm still a tad miffed about that. Just a tad."

"I had to," was his laconic reply, and I boggled in utter incomprehension at him. "I had to make the Rat Pony Tribe trust me, so I presented Chief Earthshaker with a gift - you. Then I could safely find out where your flag is."

"But they flogged me!" I shouted. "Look at what they did to me! Look at it!"

Chipped Urn turned a sickly shade of pale when I turned and sat on my haunches, putting the criss-crossed red and black ribbons that decorated my back on full display. Let him stare, and the rest of them too, I'll have plenty of that when I return home to Canterlot and have to endure passers-by in the street, fellow nobles in court, or members of my club gazing accusingly at me in horror and shame, whispering to one another, 'what did Prince Blueblood do to deserve being flogged like a common delinquent soldier?'. Faust, I don't think I could ever stand it. If I ever made it home, at least; the initial excitement and hope of our escape was rapidly fading, to be replaced by the more usual feelings of dread and contemplation of the inevitability of failure.

He stammered out a meagre reply: "Do you not remember? I must help you if I am to be a stallion, but the path which I take to do that is for me to decide. I made Earthshaker stop before he killed you, which he surely would have had I not spoken up. And nopony forced you to rut his wife in the first place."

Oh, horseapples, the secret was out. Whatever, it was too late, and I would simply have to put up with Shining Armour, Mister Goody-Four-Shoes as always, glaring at me as though it's just been revealed that I kick defenceless puppies in my spare time. For pony's sake, he knew I've been up to worse in my time, though I supposed it was more the fact that he'd given me an awful lot of sympathy for something he just found out was a consequence of me fornicating with the wrong mare. Rainbow Dash stared slack-jawed at me, then looked to Dahlia who, pinned beneath my aide's bulk, appeared to be trying to bury herself into the stony ground out of shame, before pulling a disgusted face and covering her mouth with her hooves as though the very thought of me in flagrante delicto was going to make her vomit.

"Nice!" exclaimed Corporal Slipstream, drawing out the word lasciviously. He raised his hoof in my direction in a gesture I believe the younger ponies of this time called a 'hoof-bump' or a 'bro-hoof'. I duly ignored it.

“Don’t you judge me!” I snapped at, well, everypony around me. “I didn’t know who she was. It’s not as though she wears a crown like royalty ought to, or even a badge would have helped. She initiated it, and I followed along because it beat being stuck back here with you lot, by a long shot, I must add. Do you honestly think I’d have rogered her if I had the slightest inkling who her husband is?

“And you.” I rounded on Chipped Urn, who flinched when I directed my rant against him. “You could have told me your plan ahead of time and saved me a great deal of misery.”

"I had to make it look convincing," said Chipped Urn, and a little too damned casually for my tastes, given what I had just been through. "And it worked, up until you decided you just couldn't keep it in your sheath any longer. I will not be blamed for that."

Rainbow Dash let out a loud, exasperated sigh that mercifully cut through the absurd tension that had arisen in the cave, like opening a window after Cannon Fodder has entered a room. A few beats of her wings brought her to the fore, and with her usual lack of tact or subtlety simply forced past Shining Armour and myself, hovering in place like a large, angry hummingbird.

"We're wasting time with this stupid drama!" she shouted, waving her hooves wildly with such force she might have knocked either Shining Armour or me out if we leaned forwards a little too far. Looking up at her, hovering a few inches above the level of my head, I wondered if pegasi did that as another ridiculous means of trying to compensate for their stereotypical lack of height. "Who cares who bucked who? We can sort all of that out after we're back in Equestria. Besides, I just had breakfast and I don't want to lose it, what with all the mental images of His Royal Horniness here, ugh, doing 'it'."

Finally, the voice of reason, and it came out of Rainbow Dash's mouth, of all ponies. I ignored the insinuation that the prospect of a night of passion with me was something to be disgusted by, and put it down to either misplaced jealousy and lust or the possibility that she just didn't like stallions. The problem, however, was Chipped Urn, and I was well aware of the possibility of being led into yet another trap. We still had Dahlia as our hostage, however, and if this Earthshaker fellow truly valued his partner, though the relationship seemed to be more like that of a collector and an expensive vase than truly husband and wife, we should be able to get through this without too much of a hitch. With over two dozen soldiers, soon to be re-armed, of course, if our little helper from the Agave Tribe turned out to be duplicitous once more I could simply order them to run him through like the blackguard I imagined him to be.

Shining Armour had his heart dead set on retrieving the flag, and to be fair, getting the soldiers' their Royal Guard equipment back was probably a good idea, given the near-inevitability of everything coming crashing down upon me. If the Royal Standard happened to be in the same room as the sets of full plate armour, then fine, I decided I could afford this diversion just this once.

"Right," I said, and then jabbed at Chipped Urn's chest with the tip of my hoof, "but no more plots and deceit, I'm bloody sick of all of it and I am thoroughly done. Do you hear? The first indication that you're up to something, and I'll tear off your hide and sell it to a griffon as a blanket. Is that understood?"

The cowed expression on Chipped Urn's face was most satisfying. He nodded his head, eyes wide and looking to Shining Armour for support, but found little more than a sympathetic look. That, I thought, would work in my favour, if he was so afraid of my terribly empty threat then he would be more amenable to doing whatever he was told by the apparently nicer members of our group.

We moved out, with Chipped Urn leading the way. Dahlia and I stumbled behind him, and I held the jewelled dagger close to her throat, just to remind both her and the natives who were backing away from us down the tunnels what was at stake here. The dagger wobbled precariously in my telekinetic grip, which was likely due to the fact I was so filled with fear and pain that I could barely concentrate on the spell. The guardsponies formed two ranks, led by Shining Armour, and marched in drill ground fashion behind us, each synchronised hoofstep echoing down the stone tunnel like cannon-fire. Rainbow Dash took the opportunity to stretch her wings, and flew lazily above the formation as high as the ceiling would allow.

We carried on, through twisting tunnels interspersed with open galleries and caves, trusting in our guide to lead us to the right place. Corporal Slipstream trotted up to my side and informed me that a group of natives with spears was following us, meaning that we were completely surrounded. If it did come to a fight, we might be able to hold out, but attacked from the front and the rear in such close quarters and largely unarmed we'd be slaughtered in a matter of seconds. They kept their distance, however, and I was immensely thankful for that, and I hoped that they lacked the necessary coordination to pull off a simultaneous attack like that in the first place. Perhaps this Dahlia was rather more popular than I had initially considered, but reminded of her certain proclivities towards being rutted by just about any stallion she could get her hooves on, I suppose it made sense that the warrior class, being made up primarily of males as far as I could see, would be rather wary of the risk of losing their prize whore. [Like old Equestria, in many of these tribes mares held positions of civilian political authority while the military was usually the preserve of stallions, though this is by no means consistent across the various clans in the Badlands.]

My luck continued to hold, however, and we came into a modestly-sized chamber without getting massacred. A hole in the far wall provided some dim light, and looking out I could see a view of a wall of solid rock a short distance from it - the opposite wall of the ravine, I surmised. Chipped Urn described this place as the 'treasure chamber', and when I saw it and its contents I found that term to be more than charitable. Perhaps I, a prince of the realm, had my expectations spoilt by the great riches of Canterlot Castle and, to a slightly lesser extent, my own, but I had expected a bit more than a few sad piles of tarnished gold coins, dull gemstones, and the occasional sceptre. Judging by the reactions of the common soldiers as we all filed into the room (and I noted with a great deal of trepidation that there was no other way to get out, aside from leaping out of the window), it was still a great deal more than what they had seen in their lives before. There were also a few wooden boxes piled up in a haphazard manner, forming a sort of obstacle course around the room, but no obvious sign of the standard or the Royal Guard equipment.

"The penalties for stealing still apply, lads," I warned as we entered, not that I cared overmuch; any diplomatic incidents could be ironed out by the Foreign Office later. Besides, as far as I was concerned, these heathens owed us for sticking us all in that filthy cave and forcing us to mine, so I was willing to turn a blind eye to a few wandering hooves.

"Wouldn't dream of it, sir," said one soldier, staring transfixed at a pile of gold coins.

"But you get to take a mare back with you," whined another, pointing at Dahlia, who seemed to be at the verge of tears at the moment. It was at that moment that I started to feel a little bit guilty for how I was treating her, though the stabs of pain in my back, exacerbated by all that damned moving about and walking we had just done, soon put an end to those thoughts.

"She will be let go after we get back," I said, though mainly because I didn't want to see her again. Looking at those shapely flanks, however, and remembering how they felt beneath my hooves, perhaps there was some room for forgiveness in my withered, dried-up heart after all. "We're soldiers, not pirates."


I moved away to look for the Royal Standard, which, of course, was the entire reason behind this daft venture. Truly, it could have stayed there and be used as a tablecloth for all I really cared for it then; history and tradition are all well and good when it serves to keep the peasants in line and the nobility on top of it all, but not when it serves as a hindrance to such things. As I walked past Dahlia, however, she reached out and touched me on the shoulder. I considered pushing her away and leaving, but something in those huge, magenta eyes made me stop.

"Blueblood, would you really kill me?" she said.

"I'd rather it didn't come to that," I said, choosing my words very carefully. The last thing I wanted was her friends watching us over there thinking that I was too soft for it. "But that depends on your tribe's co-operation."

"I thought we..."

"Had 'something'?" I interrupted. I wasn't going to let her manipulation work on me. "I believe that's what ponies call it. No. It's remarkable how mares believe they're entitled to more from me just because I gave them a damned good rutting, and that's all it was and that's all it will ever be."

Dahlia's expression grew hard, and if it wasn't for Cannon Fodder standing nearby with a spear I would have wondered if I had gone too far. "You think too much of yourself, Blueblood. You were not my first choice, but that one" -she pointed at Shining Armour, who was busy shifting aside some wooden boxes to get at something, and appeared to be completely oblivious to our conversation- "said that he was married to 'the most beautiful mare in all of Equestria' and refused my offer."

"Second pick after Shining Armour," I said flatly. "I don't know what hurts more, that or the flogging."

"Actually, you're the third pick," said Rainbow Dash. She had perched herself atop a pile of gold coins next to me and had an insufferable grin on her face. "I was flattered, but I don't swing that way. Sorry."

My pride wounded beyond all repair, I skulked away to join the search for the Royal Standard. Of course, the only reason that I had been third in line was a matter of timing; Shining Armour and the others had already been prisoners for some time before I had even arrived, nevertheless the idea still stung. I consoled myself that after today we would never have to speak of it again, and I must admit the mental image of Rainbow Dash and Dahlia together in sapphic ecstasy kept me very entertained as I poked around the boxes and piles of alleged treasure.

There it was, around a wall of those useless boxes and tossed into the corner like a mouldy old blanket; the Royal Standard of the Two Sisters, this oriflamme that bore with it the long and bloody history of Equestria's founding and ascension to a great power, was bundled next to a large pile of Royal Guard uniforms, spears, and armour. Seeing it, the pale sky-blue with the seal of Equestria and the names of past glories emblazoned upon it, I took back all reservations I had about our quest to find it. My breath caught in my throat as I approached, and I tentatively reached out a hoof to touch its ancient cloth. It was like a spark of electricity - what I had told Dahlia about this mere object representing all that Equestria had done and the Harmony for which it stood was, perhaps, less of a lie than I had thought.

I took the pole and held it up. The banner itself hung limply, but the sight of it invoked a sudden sense of quiet reverence amongst the soldiers present. Everypony stopped what they were doing immediately to stand and stare, and a few even bowed and pressed their noses into the dirt before it. Feeling a tad awkward with nearly all eyes on me, I carried it back to the centre of the room and presented it to Shining Armour.

"We have what we came for," I said, a little too flippantly perhaps but I was eager to be off. I gave the standard to Cannon Fodder, not feeling up to carrying the surprisingly heavy thing as I had done years ago when I was a younger and much fitter ensign of the 1st Solar Guard. He accepted it with his usual lack of enthusiasm, apparently regarding the personification of the honour of the entire Royal Guard as little more than an extra little thing I wanted him to do.

Shining Armour grinned so damned wide his face might have frozen like that for the rest of his life if he wasn't careful. He reached out and seized me by the shoulders, which I was quite alarmed by, and exclaimed, "We've done it! Don't you see, Blueblood? We've saved the regiment!"

And your career and reputation, thought I, or what was left of either of those things. His forelegs wrapped around my upper body in a hug before I could protest, and the indignity of being embraced by Shining Armour was second only to the sudden stabs of pain as his hooves touched the half-healed wounds on my back. When I shoved him off me, he did at least have the good manners to look guilty as he saw the white fur of his fetlocks stained with my blood.

"Sorry," he said, and I wondered if I could get away with ordering his flogging when we returned to the fort. I'd already suffered under the lash, so why not make it an even two in the number of Equestrian princes doomed to go through the rest of their lives with scarred backs? "Don't know what came over me."

It took too long for the soldiers to don their armour, as I could see that our 'escort', the native guards watching over us, were growing more and more tetchy by the minute. Earthshaker himself even made an appearance, standing at the threshold of the chamber and glaring at me with a look that even a windigo would find withering. I made sure to return the gaze, still holding the dagger as close as I dared to his wife's neck.

By the time they had finished, however, I was immensely relieved by the sight of these armed and armoured guardsponies in full uniform; tarnished and stained golden plates glimmering in the wan light. Corporal Slipstream approached me, carrying a wrapped bundle under his armpit. Back in uniform, he appeared to slip into his 'persona' of the disciplined NCO as he snapped to attention and saluted, which, on subconscious impulse, I returned with as much professionalism as the stiffness in my back would allow me to.

"I believe this is yours, sir," he said, offering the bundle to me.

I took the bundle in my magic, and unwrapped the cloth to find that it contained Gliding Moth's rapier and scabbard. Something rose up my throat and I almost choked when I saw the last memento that I had of her; the perennial reminder of my failure to keep her safe.

"I'm just taking care of it for somepony else," I said, attaching it to my belt. The weight of the weapon on my hip felt reassuring, somehow, as though it had always belonged there. My uniform had been left behind in that cave with the chains, including that damned peaked cap, but I wasn't overly concerned about leaving that hateful thing with its grotesque imagery behind.


"Never mind. If everypony's ready, we can move out."

So far everything had gone well, better than that, actually, which set my hooves itching. If any venture goes according to plan, or even exceeds the expectations of said plan, then it is all but certain to go horrendously wrong. I call this 'Blueblood's Law', though I don't think the term is going to catch on in everyday speech. Though the Rat Pony Tribe had been curiously compliant with our demands to the point of arousing suspicion, I didn't think they would truly attempt anything while we had something precious of theirs at our mercy. Earthshaker was violent, aggressive, and impetuous, but I did not think he was stupid, at least by the standards of the Badlands natives; he wanted his wife back safe and sound, and ultimately he wanted to avoid a violent confrontation with Equestria, which was an admirable goal even if he went about it in the worst possible way. Whatever happened, as long as nopony on either side did anything daft or foalish, if every single pony present could keep their passions calm and controlled, then I was certain that Princess Celestia could iron out this little incident with the subtle art of diplomacy.

No, it was Dahlia who my paranoia was metaphorically grabbing me by the shoulders and screaming about instead, but wasn't being particularly clear about why exactly. Her reactions to what had been going on had been a little 'off', was the best way that I could describe. Oh, she projected the expected fear quite well, but now and again I would notice a certain scowl or frown when she thought I wasn't looking at her. I like to think I had some skill in 'reading' ponies, as it were, honed over years of lying and embellishing from when I was a small colt (I once convinced Auntie 'Tia that it was Philomena who ate an entire wedding cake, not me, despite having cake frosting on my blazer) [That conniving little...], and it was that same instinct that kept poking my hindbrain with a stick and tried to tell it in frustratingly vague terms that something was awry.

We were in the tunnels again, and I was getting quite sick of them too. The pegasi in our contingent, Rainbow Dash included, were getting twitchy about being enclosed in a tight space with no access to the sky, and though I had no comprehension of the unique sort of claustrophobia that afflicts our winged cousins even I was starting to sympathise. Though we were being led by Earthshaker and what looked like a section of natives, my special talent at least told me that we were heading in broadly the right direction, which was simply 'up'.

We reached another open chamber, quite large and roughly oblong in shape. I surmised this place must have served as a junction of some sort, judging by the number of other corridors that branched off around us and led to other parts of this vast underground complex. A few guards manned what I took to be a checkpoint of some description, though they displayed their usual lack of attentiveness in their duties until they saw their Chieftain march past them with us in tow. I could taste the fresh air, such as it was in this benighted portion of the realm, but compared to the stale and dank air of the caves, filled with the scents of so many unwashed ponies and the general filth that accompanies large urban conurbations, even the choking, humid air of the Badlands was sweet and refreshing by comparison. Hope dared to flare in my heart, only to be crushed utterly.

Dahlia had stopped. My fellow escapees fanned out in the room, the Royal Guard training having kicked in so they could cover the myriad entrances and exits to this place, while Shining Armour was making his rounds checking on everypony before we could set off once more. Cannon Fodder, Rainbow Dash, and I stood with Dahlia in the approximate centre of the room, between the Equestrian soldiers and the native guards. She looked angry, and she was staring directly at me.

"Dahlia?" I said.

"Stupid," she hissed. Those perfect, magenta eyes of hers had turned jade, and I realised that I had made another terrible mistake. "This has been fun, but you had to ruin everything by not dying. Now I’m getting tired of this game."

Her horn lit with a green aura, and a split second later a blast of that sickly emerald magic was projected in a rough, unfocused beam. It struck the rocky ceiling. Dahlia swung her head, carving a great rent into the rock, before the ceiling itself crumbled and broke.

The earth rained down upon us in great, heavy clumps that would have crushed us were it not for a green shield projected over the four of us. I saw a flash of purple as Shining Armour raised his own shield over him and his troops, but the collapsing chamber merely piled up over it until he and everypony else was gone from view. The cacophony of the falling rocks filled my ears with a wall of roaring noise.

"What are you doing?!" I shrieked over the sounds of the collapsing chamber.

"Oh, you still haven't pieced it together, Prince?" she said, stepping towards me with the sort of self-assured grace that comes with a pony who believes they have already won. She didn't raise her voice, yet I somehow heard it clearly despite the din. "Here, let me show you!"

Dahlia was engulfed in blinding green fire that stung my eyes to look at, but I forced myself to anyway. The flash of heat that singed my fur was like opening the door to a hot oven. Her silhouette grew to an unnatural size, almost that of an alicorn princess, and the 'shell' of a pony peeled away like a reptile shedding its skin. I knew what it was before the fire cleared, and I'm sure everypony reading this had probably worked this out for themselves long ago, and will likely feel very smug about themselves for having spotted the signs long before I did, but I tell you, right there and then, it was a dreadful and horrifying shock. Standing before me was a horror, an unnatural abomination that was rightly feared across the battlefields of the Badlands, the callous generals and enforcers of Queen Chrysalis' seemingly infinite armies - a Changeling Purestrain.

No two are identical, at least that was the prevailing theory at the time, save for their imposing size and the wicked intelligence smouldering in their penetrating green eyes. It was tall and broad, with thick chitin that seemed more like lacquered plate armour than the usual insect-like carapace normally seen on their kind. Even its head was framed by this thickened chitin, such that it appeared to be wearing kabuto, and even the jagged horn resembled a sort of elaborate crest [A helmet design favoured by the samurai warrior class of Neighpon, usually identified by a dome over the top of the head, a large, flanged neck guard, and a family crest]. Unlike the others that I had faced over the course of this war (and killed, I might add), this one seemed to possess a strange sense of nobility about it. It was not the sort of hideous, slathering monster that I had faced in the catacombs of Canterlot or in Black Venom Pass, but a stern, stately overlord that inspired a different, but no less potent, type of fear within me. Where the others would rip my body into gory shreds with their bare hooves or with raw magic, this one looked as though it would exact a precise sort of torture before killing me when it grew bored of my pain.

Oh no, thought I, I had sex with that.

The cave-in had stopped, mercifully, and the shield that had protected us disappeared with a quiet pop. A few pebbles fell from the shattered roof, but the dome of smashed rock had fused with the heat of the magical blast and held fast, for now at least. Cannon Fodder, Rainbow Dash, this Purestrain, and I were surrounded by the piled-up walls of rock, with the other ponies who were with us either behind them or crushed beneath, I couldn’t tell, though the glimpse of Shining Armour’s shield gave me hope that they had survived. Behind me was one of the tunnels, but where it led I had no idea.

"I am Odonata," said the Purestrain, its voice sounding distinctly feminine, if somewhat deep and hoarse, despite its appearance. I wasn’t sure if Changelings had genders at the time, or names for that matter, besides their ruler Chrysalis, of course. The fact that it was apparently important enough to have one only added to the sense of terrible majesty this creature possessed.

"I serve Queen Chrysalis, and she has taken a very special interest in your demise, Prince Blueblood. I intend to fulfil that desire of hers."

"I can't imagine why," I said, backing up a little to make sure that, whatever happened, I could still reach the tunnel. Rainbow Dash and Cannon Fodder both flocked to my side; the latter stood impassively, holding the Royal Standard high in apparent defiance of just how appalling our situation had become, and the former crouched low, stamping at the ground as if ready to charge. It would have been useless, for unless I could get my aide close enough for his unique abilities to take effect, we all would be reduced to piles of smoking ash before she could even say 'charge!'.

"I thought we 'had something', after all," I added.

Odonata followed our movements, always staying a few pony-lengths away from us, but it was a leisurely sort of gait that implied a complete and total assurance of victory. A cruel, fanged smile spread over its black lips.

"Funny," it said. "Always with the dry wit. But like I said, you were not my first choice in this. Shining Armour would have suited best for my plans, but his devotion to his wife is much too strong for even my allure. I can see why our Queen grew so powerful draining his love."

"Uh-huh." That's it, keep the Purestrain talking and make it think that it's won. I just had to get a little closer to that tunnel, then I could make a break for it. It was a thin sliver of a chance to survive, but as I've mentioned time and time again, I would always take the slimmest of opportunities over none. Never let it be said that Prince Blueblood would just lie down and give up, not when there is at least something, no matter how hopeless, that could be done to ensure the survival of his wretched, wasted life. "So after Rainbow Dash turned you away, you settled for me?"

"A prince of the realm, and I knew you wouldn't be able to resist me. Lust is a poor substitute for love, but I was so starved and you were so full of it - it was a veritable feast for me." The grin grew wider, showing more and more of those hideous fangs. I was almost tripping over my hooves trying to get into position, and once there it took nearly every ounce of what willpower I had left to keep myself from just bolting away. Not yet, I had to know more, and fortunately another trait these Purestrains all share is an overweening tendency to talk, as though they seek a sense of validation out of their victims that they just don't get from ordinary Changeling society, if such a thing even existed. I could scarcely imagine it coming from Chrysalis or any of their other peers, but I was happy to oblige here if it meant increasing my chances of survival.

"I intended for us to get caught," Odonata continued. "Earthshaker was supposed to kill you by flogging. A slow, lingering sort of death as befits a pony who has frustrated my mistress’ plans for too long. With you murdered by a Badlands pony tribe, Equestria would have no choice but to declare war. Your regiments would be tied up fighting a hopeless, endless conflict against a native population you could not possibly hope to subdue; exhausted and distracted, all we would have to do is mop up the mess and the way into Equestria will be open to our armies. But that idiot Chipped Urn had to ruin it."

"How did you know we would get captured in the first place?"

"I didn't," it said with a shrug. "I have been in deep cover here for a while now, gathering intelligence and love for the Queen. It was I that nurtured the chiefs' distrust of Equestria; you falling into my hooves was simply a stroke of good luck.”

“And what of Dahlia?” For some reason, I wanted to know; it was a strange cocktail of emotions I was feeling, and though the spirit of terror was strongest in this mix, I could not help but feel as though I had been cheated. Did the mare I lied with truly exist? And where was she?

Odonata’s grin grew wider, and a forked tongue slithered out to lick its thin lips. Its head tilted to one side, and it waved a hoof dismissively at me. “What about her? Hundreds of ponies and Changelings dying in this war and you’re worried about one little mare? Maybe she’s in one of our hives being harvested, or she’s lost in the Badlands after I cast her out. Or perhaps she never existed and I made her up for this operation. It’s not as though you’ll have anything to do with her ever again, what with the three of you about to die in the next few minutes.”

"Hah!" exclaimed Rainbow Dash, stomping on the ground with a hoof. "I'd like to see you try! We've all faced much worse than you."

Which, I should add, is one of the worst things one could say to a creature very capable and very willing to commit acts of great and extreme violence upon oneself. Purestrains rarely needed any sort of encouragement to do just that, anyway.

I nudged Rainbow Dash with my elbow, and whispered, "Follow my lead." She gave a nod of understanding, and braced herself to charge, wings flared to their fullest extent.

I drew my rapier, and held it before me in the en garde position. Despite my back complaining, I stood poised and ready to strike with a deadly thrust. My heart was racing, pounding in my ears, and sweat induced by pure terror soaked and foamed in my stained and matted fur.

Oh Faust, this was hopeless, I thought; the three of us - a crippled stallion, an insane stunt flyer, and a unicorn with no magic - against a thing that could only be adequately described in our language as a horror of perverse Changeling magic. Yet that was the hoof I had been dealt, and only an idiot soon to be parted with his bits believes that card games are solely down to what the dealer's given him. I always held an ace up my Prench cuffs, metaphorically and literally, and I was damned if the last mare I slept ever slept with was a bloody Changeling. There was only one chance for this to work.

I ran away. A quick about-face, I bolted down the tunnel as fast as my hooves could take me. Cannon Fodder was quick off the mark too, despite being weighed down by the standard and his armour, but he was soon firmly behind me at a fast gallop.

As the darkness of the corridor enveloped me, forcing me to ignite a feeble light in my horn to keep us from stumbling, I heard Rainbow Dash shout in exasperation, her voice echoing off the cold stone walls:

"Oh, come on! Seriously?"

Next Chapter: Honour and Blood (Part 21) Estimated time remaining: 1 Hour, 9 Minutes
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