Heart of Glass
Chapter One: Eternal Night
In the northern reaches of Equestria, nestled at the base of a snow covered mountain, sat the town of Frostmane. An idyllic settlement carved from the wintery terrain, Frostmane's structures mainly consisted of lodge-styled homes, dug somewhat into the ground and built from the evergreen trees that surrounded the town. Frostmane itself was surrounded by a wooden palisade, erected to keep the ponies within safe from the dangers of the northern wilds. Tonight, the Summer Sun Festival was in full swing – torches hung from nearly every building and a large bonfire roared in the center of town. The ponies within were dancing around the fire in a disorganized, joyful manner that spoke of the carefree attitude the inhabitants possessed. Outlandish accordion and fiddle music was played by enthusiastic stallions and mares, whose hooves darted along their instruments despite the cold of the evening. Those disinclined to dance conversed with their friends amongst the buffets and carts filled with home-brewed hard cider, occassionally laughing and breaking into song. Everypony present could feel a palpable warmth pervading the entire town. It wasn't the fires that gave them respite from the cold night, but the bond between their fellow party-goers. The camaraderie they shared with one another, even strangers and acquaintances, was a testament to the spirit of the ponies who worked together every day to etch out a life at their frozen home.
Not far from the celebration, four pegasi in thick brown cloaks and segmented leather armor cradled spears as they watched from above the town of Frostmane, each casting a longing gaze towards the warm festivities below. The dark night and the snow swept landscape made the rustic comfort of the settlement look rather inviting. As a particularly cold gust of wind pushed past the already shivering pegasi, one decided to break the silence, “We've been here for at least three hours, Scope,” rattled out the pony, “I don't think anypony down there is plotting to overthrow Equestria.”
Scope cast a disinterested look towards the pegasus, “That's Decurio Scope to you, Vigil. And I don't care what you think, the orders to reconnoiter this town came from the Legate himself. Our instructions were quite clear – Observe Frostmane and report any suspicious behavior immediately.”
Another of the four with a much softer, almost feminine voice spoke next, “Sir, with all due respect, I'm having difficulty seeing much of anything up here. Perhaps we would benefit from a close examination of the settlement and its inhabitants?”
Vigil's grin appeared beneath the hood of his cloak, “Quite right, Jog, quite right! We'll be able to tell what those traitors and rebels are up to if we take a closer look!” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
Scope sighed, not for the first time that night, “Rook, what do you think?” He looked to the last pegasus amongst the four.
The pony shifted his not-inconsiderable bulk around and spoke in a deep, rumbling voice, “I think I'm sick'a standin' up here in the cold, sir.”
Far Scope looked out towards the celebration and back to his comrades, his face a mask of thought. When the wind picked up again and blew another jet of cold upon them, he quickly made up his mind, “All right, we're heading down to the town!”
The three pegasi accompanying Far Scope each gave a silent thanks to Celestia and the group jumped from the cloud, spreading their wings and gliding towards the activity below.
On their way down to the settlement, Vigil barely managed to contain a laugh. Scope cast him a sidelong glance, as if to ask 'What?', but was met only with a rueful grin and a wave of an arm. When Vigil began to chuckle into his hoof, Scope sighed in obvious irritation at the pegasus, provoking a response from the laughing legionnaire, “Don't tell me you don't remember the time we took our leave in Manehatten!”
Scope cocked an eyebrow at Vigil, not at all in the mood for games, “We are not on leave, Vigil. Could you at least try to take our mission a little more seriously?”
The chuckling pony rolled his eyes from underneath his hood, “I'm taking our mission plenty serious, just trying to raise morale, sir. My horrendous conduct aside, Scope, you remember our trip to the Big Apple, don't you?”
Vigil's persistence managed to peak Scope's curiosity, “Yes, fine, I remember the time we took our leave in Manehatten. So what?”
Vigil flew up beside his commander before continuing, “And you remember that night club we went to?” he paused, thinking, “Do you remember what it was called, Rookie?”
Rook snorted at the sound of his nickname coming from his junior, but lowered his head in thought. After a few moments, an uncharacteristically wide grin broke out across his face, “The Bit and Bridle. You're an evil pony, Vig, that you are.”
At the sound of the club, Jog's smaller form flew up beside Vigil in a panic, “You promised you wouldn't tell a soul!”
Vigil wrapped a hoof around Jog and pulled him in close as he continued his recollection, “And you recall the poison joke that was being slipped into everyone's drinks, right Scope?”
Jog struggled to free himself from the stronger pony's grasp, to no avail. Far Scope wasn't thrilled with Vigil's conduct, but it was always easier to go along with it than fight it. So, he thought for a minute and nodded, “I remember something like that, yes. I also remember you trying to coax me into drinking something and Rook warding me off.” He frowned at Vigil, unamused at where the story was going.
Vigil coughed awkwardly before continuing, “And you remember the mare that our little Joggy hooked up with that night? Went home with, that night?”
Scope could see where this story was going and decided to cut him off before Vigil became obnoxious, “Let me guess, that mare with the lovely sing-song voice was actually a stallion looking for a coltfriend?” he sighed, again, “You have a deplorable sense of humor.”
Vigil, noticing his story had backfired on him as Rook and Jog snorted in acknowledgment, let Jog go and decided to end things with a lesson, “All I'm saying is that if, if you decide to jump into the arms of the mare of your dreams tonight, Jog, you're a little more observant this time.”
Jog Memory shot the self-styled storyteller a withering glare, “I'll have you know that all we did was discuss the sociopolitical structure of Canterlot in comparison to the developments in Manehatten in recent years.”
Vigil was taken aback, actually remaining silent for a few moments, “Really? Was that it?”
The smaller pegasus nodded an affirmative, before tilting his head to the side and rolling his eyes, “We also had tea and cookies.” The other three pegasi looked at Jog like he was an alien. “What? They were quite delicious. He was a very talented baker.”
Before Vigil could find some way to turn Jog's straight-faced answer into innuendo, Scope interrupted him, “We're here.”
As the four scouts landed at the entrance to the town, they found the gate to be open and unguarded. Brightly lit torches led down what appeared to be the main drag, lined by stalls and wagons filled with all the manner of food and drink. Even so far from the dancing and music from the center of town, they could hear the sounds of celebration clearly from here, a welcome change from the silence of the last several hours. As they made their way into Frostmane, they were greeted warmly by everypony they passed, who raised hooves and drinks in welcome.
“Welcome to Frostmane!”
“Hey soldiers, want a drink?”
“You stallions hungry? Plenty to go around!”
Vigil couldn't help but nudge Scope in his side, his grin returning with a vengeance, “What do you think sir, about to take up arms and usurp the crown?” Even with his hood still on, Scope could see that Vigil was enjoying some light humor at his expense. Still, Scope wasn't entirely convinced that these townsfolk weren't dangerous. He didn't doubt the serious undertones his orders carried, but in the face of such a friendly welcome to town he was beginning to doubt whether or not his orders were under the correct pretenses.
As the four pegasi cantered their way into the town plaza, they removed their hoods and wiped the frost from their cloaks, grateful to be near the warm glow of the bonfire. The crowd dancing about the area, while in total disarray, was made charming by the townsfolk. Dancing in pairs, in groups, and in some cases flailing wildly about all by their lonesome, it was hard not to be taken in by the liveliness that seemed to act as an undercurrent everywhere they looked. Word seemed to have made it around quickly that four newcomers had come into town, and the pegasi found themselves approached quickly by four mares who were all smiles and giggles. They planted white snow flower necklaces upon each of the soldiers, who looked on in surprise, astonishment, and in the case of Jog Memory: a heavy blush through his dark green coat. In the case of the mare next to Vigil, she seemed rather taken with his dashing soldierly appearance. She pawed at the dirt of the ground for a moment before smiling and looking back up to him, “Care to dance, handsome?”
The other mares laughed in good fun at their companion, and the other three pegasi found themselves with the prospect of a bit of company for the evening. Vigil looked up at Scope with stars in his eyes and a pleading expression on his face, “Oh please oh please oh please, sir Decurio sir! I promise never to question your orders ever again! PUH-LEEZE!”
Scope cast his gaze around the area, looking for any sign of ponies wearing dark cloaks and carrying daggers, or ponies with blood lust in their eyes and large weaponry held menacingly over terrified fillies, but could find none. No matter what light he cast them in, these villagers were no threat to Equestria. In fact, he suspected the biggest threat these ponies presented were a terrible hangover the next day. Despite the evidence right in front of him, Scope couldn't bring himself to completely disregard his orders, which was the reason he had been promoted to Decurio in the first place. However, it wouldn't do to deprive his subordinates of a little fun, so he decided to compromise. With a bit of an edge and irritation in his voice, “Very well, but I expect you to -”
He was cut short by an enthusiastic and grateful Vigil, “C'mon Jog, lets have some fun with our new friends!”
Jog was about to say something when the mare standing in front of him grabbed him by the hoof and began to lead him into the dancing crowd. Somewhere along the way, Vigil and Jog's spears found themselves in the hands of Rook, who added them to his. The mare looking at him expectantly was pretty, he mused, but someone had to keep an eye on those two. He gave a slight bow to his female companion and shook his head, and grumbled, “No thanks.”
The mare across from Scope seemed hesitant to offer him a dance, so he spoke up, “I'm sorry, duty calls.”
The two remaining mares looked at each other and shared a small giggle, before heading back into the crowd, waving at the two remaining pegasi. Scope couldn't help but smile a bit, relieved that his mission seemed to be much less dire than he originally anticipated. He shook his dark brown mane free from his cloak and cast his gaze at the ponies around him, lacking a critical and suspicious eye. There were still some nagging doubts in his mind, and he felt the urge to take a look around despite the receding reservations in the back of his head. He turned to his gruff subordinate, the authority in his voice subdued, “Rook, I'm going to take a look around. Watch those two, the last thing we need is two cotton-mouthed legionaries stumbling into camp in the morning, and giving the Legate all the reason he needs to throw us in the stockade.”
Rook stomped a powerful hoof to the ground, nodding at his superior officer. Far Scope was glad to have such a dependable stallion at his side, and decided to amend his orders somewhat, “Get yourself something to eat and drink, too. I think it's safe to assume these ponies don't mean us any harm.”
The powerful pegasus nodded his head towards Scope, a thin smile appearing on the edges of his mouth, “Thank you, sir.” Rook slowly started to make his way over towards the nearest buffet, the smell alone enough to guide him. The burly pony was hungry, he had to admit. Rook was used to legion rations of grass and hay bread, so the intoxicating scent of real food had him nearly drooling. It wasn't long before Scope lost sight of Rook in the crowd, and he suddenly found himself alone in a strange place. Having been raised in Canterlot, Scope was used to large groups of people doing all kinds of strange things, but for some reason he couldn't shake his unease at the thought of staying here. There was something imperceptible in the air, compelling him to investigate. Resolving to find the source of his anxiety (or at least distract himself from it), he found himself looking up past the bonfire at a large granite structure on the other side of the plaza. It appeared to be the oldest building in town, having been built from the rock from the mountain itself. The structure had an almost cathedral quality to it, and Scope began to wonder for what reason it had been erected. Without a second thought, he decided to begin his investigation, trotting into the crowd in the direction of the cathedral. He deftly maneuvered his way through the dancing townsfolk, giving the ponies as wide of a berth as he could. He spotted Vigil and Jog on his way through, dancing with their female counterparts. Vigil seemed to be having the time of his life, alternating between entertaining his partner with ridiculous dance moves like the “Ropony”, and sweeping her off her hooves in displays of strength and grace. Meanwhile, Jog was enjoying a much more subdued waltz as he conversed with the mare from before.
Once Scope found his way to the other side of the plaza, he had a much better look of the cathedral. There were a few cracked steps leading up to it, and several hardy plants grew alongside it. He was no architect or historian, but he could tell that the cathedral had been built quite a long time ago. Looking around, he would venture a guess that it was the oldest building in the entire town. His eyes eventually caught an older earth pony resting on the steps to the cathedral, watching the festivities with a warm look in his eyes and a comfortable smile on his face. His light gray coat and white mane were dulled somewhat by age, but his cutie mark of a glacier was a stark contrast to his old features. Scope was surprised that it hadn't dulled, but caught himself staring as the pony noticed him and waved him over. Scope cantered over to the old stallion and offered him a short, respectful bow, “Good evening, sir.”
The stallion offered a friendly grin to Scope, “What brings you to our town, son?” Scope's trained eye glanced over the pony again, looking for signs of hostility, and scolded himself for it.
Whatever danger is in this town, he thought, it doesn't lie with the townsfolk. Scope was raised to be respectful to his elders, and while he tolerated the rudeness of his subordinates on occasion, he was strict with himself when it came to manners. Still, I really shouldn't come out and say why we're here. Scope's expression softened and he spoke solemnly to the elderly pony, “We were out on patrol and spotted your town. It's rather cold out there this time of night, so I decided a little stop was in order to warm our wings.”
The stone-colored stallion nodded his head slowly, “Well, welcome to Frostmane. M'name's Cobble, and I'm about as close to a mayor as we have 'round these parts. What legion're you with, boy?”
Scope was surprised that the pony was familiar with military terminology. Most ponies simply took the army for granted, posted far away from central lands of Equestria. It was rare for anypony to be familiar with the legions. However, this was the northern border of Celestia's lands, and it stood to reason that the inhabitants in this region had a better familiarity with the military than the ponies of Manehatten or Fillydelphia. With barely disguised pride, Scope announced, “The 8th Legion, sir. We're camped not far from here.”
Cobble seemed satisfied, tilting his head as he seemed to recall a fond memory, “Mmh, the stalwart Nords of the North. Good ponies, one and all.” He cast a sly look to Scope, whose surprise had magnified at the old stallion's knowledge.
Scope relaxed somewhat in the company of the earth pony, “You know about the 8th? Did you serve with the Nords?” He was incredulous, never before having met a retired legionary.
The old stallion chuckled wryly at Scope's sudden curiosity before continuing, “I sure did. When I retired I was one in command 'o' the second Century of tha' legion. Was set to take over the first 'fore my goshderned back gave out on me.” Cobble's eyes seemed to glint in the light as he explained.
Scope was taken aback at his lack of formality in addressing his (albeit former) superior officer, and snapped into a rigid salute that would've made his drill instructor proud. “It's an honor to make your acquaintance, sir.”
Cobble waved his hoof at the zealous pegasus, hiding his amusement for the young soldier's benefit, “Now now, that's enough of that. I'm retired now, ain't needing any saluting or hoof-holding nonsense you're thinkin' of.” He waited until Scope relaxed again and craned his neck around to look at the Cathedral, “You seem awful curious 'bout this old thing. How about we take a look inside and ya can see for yourself?”
Scope had to admit, he was curious why such a place had been built. More importantly, he didn't want to disappoint his new found colleague, “Yes sir, I'd like that very much.” As he stepped forward to help Cobble up, he was stopped by the stallion waving him off again. After a few moments of creaking joints and stretching, Cobble lead Scope up to the wooden doors of the cathedral and pulled them open, leading him inside. The interior was not what Scope expected. There were no pews or ornate tapestries hanging from the walls, only torches lighting the spartan interior as steps lead down into the center of the room. The focal point of the cathedral's interior appeared to be a dark ebony stone, pot marked and coarse, surrounded by carefully constructed granite blocks. There was no inscriptions or pictures to relate why the strange rock had been entombed here, and Scope's expression properly reflected his confusion.
Before the legionnaire could ask, Cobble sagely spoke up, “About a thousand years ago, when my kin were out to settle in these lands, this here meteorite fell from the sky. Now, those ponyfolk were about as curious and superstitious as you'd expect, so they ventured out to the spot where this chunk of sky fell.” Cobble paused to cough for a moment, and to check if Scope was still listening. When he was satisfied he was, he continued, “After some deliberatin' and drinkin', they figured it was a sign they should settle right here at the foot of Frostmane Mountain. Hence the name 'o' the town, ya see.”
Scope was having a hard time paying attention to the old stallion as he continued recanting the history of the town. There was something about the meteorite that drew his attention to it, and he wasn't sure he liked what it was. The voice in the back of his mind had grew in volume as he examined the ebony rock, and he felt goosebumps working their way across his wings. He wasn't frightened of many things, but he felt the need to leave. Now.
As Cobble rambled on about something Scope wasn't paying attention to, he cleared his throat and spoke as calmly as he could, “Excuse me, Cobble, but I'm suddenly awfully hungry. And thirsty. Could we continue our conversation outside?” He gulped, resisting the urge to leave in a panic.
Cobble grunted a reply, “That's all right by me, sonny. I figure I could use some grub myself.” As the two headed for the exit, Scope glanced back towards the meteorite. He choked back a gasp as he caught sight of what appeared to be a mare's face on the rock, as black as night itself, and turquoise dragon-like eyes that stared directly at him. In his shock, he blinked – and the face was gone.
I must be seeing things, Far Scope hoped to himself, I need a drink to dull my nerves.
Scope and Cobble had no difficulty finding food and drink for themselves out in the town plaza. As Scope ate and drank his fill, he began to feel better about the dark rock. It wasn't such a frightening thing. After all, it was just a rock, right? He began to see the meteorite in a different way entirely. As he reflected on it, he realized how beautiful and majestic it was. The subtle curves and texture, the way it caught the light just so, it was remarkable that he missed it the first time he saw it. He looked around the plaza and spied his comrades eating and drinking their fill as well, laughing and carousing with ponies of all sorts. Even Rook had loosened up a bit, and was singing with a group of stout-looking earth ponies. He smiled. It was a great idea, he thought, to come down here and celebrate with these wonderful ponies. The nagging in the back of his head was silent, but it didn't matter to Scope. He was happy, his friends were happy, and that's all that really mattered.
As Summer Sun Festivals continued all over Equestria, only a single lavender unicorn looked up and watched as four stars approached the moon and vanished, along with the Mare in the Moon that had been upon it for a millennium. She could not have imagined that along the outskirts of Equestria, a dozen meteorites had fallen a thousand years ago, the last card played by a dark alicorn in a final bid for victory over the Sun Goddess. Nopony at any of the landing sites of the twelve meteorites took notice when tendrils of blue smoke, adorned with the countless stars of the night sky, began to snake its way from the very soil they stood upon. Nopony noticed, either, when they found themselves enveloped by it, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
It was not long, however, before their Queen bid them to wake.
And they woke.
She told them what they needed to do.
And they did.
For Night Eternal.
Legate Shining Silver was not a patient unicorn. He had sent out a small reconnaissance team to Frostmane hours ago, and they STILL hadn't reported in! The sun was going to rise at any moment, and he wanted to be prepared for what Canterlot assured was an enemy attack. When they returned, he was going to make sure they were banished and thrown into a dungeon at the place they were banished to! His advisors in the 8th Legion, the career soldiers, had assured him that the men they had selected could be trusted for accuracy and promptness in their actions. If this is what they called prompt, he would need to instruct them in matters of urgency. By Celestia's prismatic mane, he raged internally, if they don't return by sunrise I'll mobilize the entire legion and hunt down the slothful mules!
Leading the 8th was supposed to be an easy job, since there had been next to no armed conflict in the last 1000 years, Shining Silver assumed his role as head of the Legion pass by uneventfully, earning him the prestige to advance in court to a more prominent role. Governor of Canterlot Province, he fancied, the posh banquets, the grand parties, and the lovely fillies – oh yes.
The Legate was jarred from his revere by a sudden knock upon the post of his tent. “Enter!” he commanded with as much authority he could muster on short notice.
A unicorn bearing a sealed scroll with Celestia's mark upon it nearly galloped into his tent, out of breath, “S-sir... for... you.” She managed to gasp out, but only barely. It didn't help he kept his tent away from the rabble. He simply couldn't stand the smell of the soldiers. Perhaps if they bathed once in awhile they wouldn't smell like fetid diamond dogs.
Silver accepted the scroll and opened it without a word, reading the contents aloud to himself, “An alert to all Legates, worst case scenario is now underway, Princess Celestia has been banished by Nightmare Moon to parts unknown. The sun will not be rising – prepare for imminent battle...?” The Legate trailed off at the end, his face a mixture of terror and surprise. Celestia couldn't be gone, she was the Sun Goddess! What was he going to do? He wasn't a soldier, he was a noble, a stallion of the court! How could Celestia allow herself to be defeated? Weren't Goddesses supposed to be invincible?
Another legionnaire, this time wearing the headdress of a Centurion, burst into the Legate's now-chilled tent, “Sir, an army marches on our position. They appear to be comprised of the forces we were told to expect. They are all wreathed in stars and appear to be ponyfolk from the town of Frostmane. What are your orders?”
Shining Silver was shaking, his mind a confused jumble of thoughts regarding his escape route and how the stallions and mares of the court would laugh at him upon his return, thoroughly disgraced after abandoning his men and duty. He threw the message aside, unwilling to let that come to pass, and with wide-eyed terror his soldiers mistook for ardor, yelled in a high pitched voice, “Prepare the troops for battle!”
The 8th Legion, The Nords of the North prepared themselves for the first real battle they'd had in over a decade. Most of the ponies in the unit were freshly rotated regulars from around Equestria. While it was true that they were all trained and knew how to do their jobs, they were not a battle-tested army. Word had quickly spread throughout every Cohort that Celestia had been defeated by somepony named Nightmare Moon, and the sun wouldn't be rising this morning. To their credit, the Centurions kept their men together and prepared them for battle. The backbone of the Legion, the Earth Pony Centuries, formed a battle line at the front of the Legion. They all wore segmented metal armor, carried tall shields with Celestia's sun emblazoned upon them, and each wielded a gladius. In the center of the formation were the Clydesdalius, consisting of the strongest, most experienced ponies available to the 8th. They carried smaller, rounder shields and wielded long spears called hastae. The younger soldiers looked up to them, especially now as their first real engagement fast approached. As appropriate for their namesake, they moved without hesitation into position, dropping their spears into a phalanx formation. The other cohorts took their cue from the Clydesdalius, twisting their torsos and dropping their shields into position. Above and to the rear, the Pennae (Or wings) of the Legion took to the skies, wearing leather armor and carrying long spears, roughly half the length of the hastae the Clydesdalius carried. Their formations were little more than tactical blobs, ready to swoop in and strike quickly at the behest of their Legate – and more importantly, to protect the Legion from threats in the air. The smallest unit in the back of the formation, next to the Legate's bodyguard and advisors, were the Magi, a unit of 20 unicorns dedicated to the use of magic in battle. They carried no weapons or armor beyond their cloaks and arcane tools, and stood in a loose, irregular formation.
As Shining Silver gazed out upon the open, snow covered field at his men, he felt a sense of pride. These ponies are willing to fight for me, he fancied, I musn't flee, I must defend Equestria from these... these cretins that march upon us! He suddenly surprised himself as he found his voice, calling out to his soldiers, “Mares and Gentlecolts! Those impudent foals think they can best Celestia's 8th Legion in combat. I say that they need to be taught a lesson in the correct order of things!” he laughed a haughty and arrogant laugh, that some of his soldiers shared, “They face proper soldiers tonight, not some common rabble. Stand fast, Legionaries! We will show those braggarts that we are NOT to be trifled with!”
A cheer rose from the soldiers assembled, heartened to hear that their leader was confident in their victory. They dug their hooves into the ground, snorting freezing breath into the breeze as light snow began to fall on the field they stood in. Those who exchanged nervous glances before now looked ahead without trepidation as they waited for their foes. They didn't have to wait long.
The wind began to pick up, changing directions seemingly at random, until it began to blow into the faces of the gathered soldiers. As the pegasi struggled to maintain cohesion in the air, the snowfall increased, partially blinding the soldiers on the ground. No word came from ahead of the army as to where the enemy was. Instead, Shining Silver and his bodyguard jumped as a battered pegasus from the 8th crash landed in front of them, battered and bloody. His wounds were so numerous that the Legate couldn't be sure what they were all a result of. The bloody scout only managed to say one thing before being carried to the rear for medical treatment, “They're coming.”
Moments later, the call was given to all 4,500 soldiers to prepare themselves. An earth pony with particularly good eyesight was the first to spot the approaching horde. At first, he could only see the outlines of the townsfolk, but it wasn't long before he could see the unmistakable blue, starry aura that wreathed each and every one of them. None of them were carrying proper weapons, all of them were using tools improvised from what they had in town. Pitchforks, shovels, and even a broom sharpened to a point could be seen. The dark magic coating each of the ponies seemed to have carried into their makeshift weapons as well. While no one could say for sure, the tools simply looked deadlier. Even the Magi had never encountered a magic quite like this before, and could offer no counsel to the Legate, who had expressed concern over the auras.
The possessed ponies all shuffled towards the Legion perfectly in sync with one another. The eerie synchronization of each of their movements was unsettling, even to the disciplined Legionaries who practiced daily to perform the same feat. This was different, however, as the emotionless horde advanced on them. Each step, every movement was mimicked by every pony in their ranks. Before anypony had time to comment on it, a call went up the line. Someone had spotted young fillies and colts in the approaching army. The effect on morale was disastrous, some ponies announcing that they wouldn't fight, while others trying to convince them otherwise. While Shining Silver and the Centurions on the ground and in the air tried to restore order to the army, the Nightmare Horde began to charge, screaming in one voice at the 8th. The soldiers ceased their arguing and faced the oncoming wave of enemies, but they couldn't have expected what happened next.
One of the earth ponies on the right flank thought he saw something huge rushing through the forest just beyond the Nightmare Horde, but couldn't quite make out what it was until it was practically on top of them, the Horde galloping aside to make way for...
“HYDRAAAAAAAA!” shouted the terrified stallion. When his entire cohort spotted it charging directly at them, they all turned and began running. Before they could make it barely ten meters, the Hydra was already upon them, having been concealed by the blanket of snow rushing down. With a triumphant roar the heads smashed down into the tight formations of the Legion, biting and gnashing, throwing ponies into the air and into other cohorts.
Shining Silver could hear the screams from where he was standing, even above the blizzard that had suddenly formed around them. He could see the Hydra smashing around the ponies that had the courage to stand and fight it. He knew he should feel terrified, should probably be running away, back to the safety of Canterlot. Instead, he felt rage. Those FOALS brought a hydra into battle, did they? And they dare to savage MY soldiers? He began in his head, “I THINK NOT!” he bellowed, “To arms, TO ARMS! CHAAAARGE!”
His bodyguard, surprised by their leader's sudden ferocity, hurried after him and drew their weapons. Among the bodyguard, a unicorn shot brightly lit magic balls into the sky, which exploded much like fireworks. The Centurions in each of the units reacted to the signal, and all across the line on the ground and above, earth ponies and pegasi alike charge into battle to meet the enemy head on, screaming out their lust for blood, their previous inhibitions swept up in cries for vengeance. There was a horrible, ear shattering smash as the two armies collided as the battle was joined. On the right flank, the Hydra was still smashing around the battlefield, attacking ponies with reckless abandon. The earth ponies had little chance of besting the creature alone, and some began to seriously consider running. The Hydra was absolutely destroying any semblance of organization they had, and the Nightmare Horde smashing into their side was enough to shatter whatever sense of order they had left, turning the battle on that side into utter chaos. Before the flank collapsed, however, an entire cohort of pegasi appeared through the blizzard on the right side of the enemy, taking the Hydra and possessed ponies by surprise, diverting much of their attention to the new threat.
All but one of the Hydra's heads turned to bite at the annoying gnats flitting to and fro, spying a shiny stallion at the head of a group of charging ponies. It was awfully curious as to what a shiny pony tasted like, and decided to find out.
As Shining Silver charged towards the Hydra, he noticed one of the heads turning in his direction, looking at him directly. Silver tried to put on his most dashing expression, succeeding only in looking wide eyed and completely insane as he yelled, “Have at thee, you ruffian! I will skewer you upon my blade and plant your ugly visage upon my throne, after Celestia herself elevates me to Emporer for – eh?”
Silver noticed that his bodyguards were no longer at his side, but dodging nimbly to either side of him. One of them appeared to be reaching out to him, beckoning him over for reasons he couldn't comprehend. That's odd, he remarked, I wonder what they're looking at. The Legate turned his attention back towards the Hydra, and looked up. The Hydra was nearly upon him, mouth wide open and full of very sharp looking teeth.
“Oh.” he remarked calmly. That's going to leave a nasty stain.
Heart of Glass
Chapter Two: Polaris
Tribune Blueblood was panicking. How had it gone so wrong? The whole of the 8th was fighting a pitched battle against a horde of emotionless ponies wreathed in the night itself, bent on their demise. A Hydra was wreaking havoc all along their right flank, barely held in check by slowly thinning numbers of pegasi and earth ponies. Everywhere else, the legionaries were being pressed hard to hold their ground, never mind push the enemy back. The demons were relentless – imbued with unnatural strength and toughness that made even grazing blows potentially grievous, and the aura itself a kind of gelatinous armor, absorbing sword blows and deflecting spear thrusts. When a soldier managed to cut away enough of the foul magic and wound their foe, the fell ponies would persevere longer than any normal stallion or mare could endure, sustained by the dark vitality pumping through their veins. Worst of all, their foalish leader had gone and gotten himself eaten by the Hydra, the worst possible blow to the morale of the army. It didn't help that he had been screaming his inane fantasies for all to hear, either. Blueblood had attempted to convince Silver to abandon his reckless charge just before he was devoured, waving his hoof wildly and calling out to the late Legate in his final moments. At least, he thought gratefully, the blizzard seems to be relenting somewhat.
The legion was on the brink of routing, and Blueblood had inherited command from his short-lived predecessor. Those two thoughts ran continuously through the noblepony's mind, and he knew he had to come up with a brilliant plan in order to turn the tide of the battle. He knew he wasn't the smartest pony, or possessed the strongest magic, but he had charisma! If he could only come up with a well-thought out stratagem, he could deliver it with enough conviction to inspire his soldiers to greatness. As he considered his possible options, his eyes locked onto the cohort of Magi who remained stationary in the rear, awaiting orders. A pale light blinked on in his head: he knew exactly what to do.
At the front of the Magi was the Veneficus, a unicorn by the name of Wildfire. He alone was now responsible for the lives of the combat-trained mages under his command. The bright red pony ceased to lean his staff casually upon his shoulder, pulling it upright. The staff had been constructed of the finest oak, and hoof-polished to a near mirror sheen quality. Celestia's sun adorned the top, cut from the finest ruby. This signaled to the rest of the unicorns to prepare themselves to act. Eager to help their comrades, they all waited with drawn breath for the word to attack, some so incensed that their horns crackled and sparked with raw magical energies of different hues. When the orange orb shot into the air from the center of the acting-Legate's bodyguard and exploded, it cast a short-lived glow over the battlefield. The Veneficus's Lieutenant had watched the orb fly slowly overhead and pop, spurring him to action. He took in a deep breath of cold night air, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “MAGI! MAKE READY!” He needn't have said a word, the battle mages already restraining themselves from charging into the fray. A nod from his superior, and a simple incantation later, his horn glowed orange and fired another orange ball into the air in acknowledgment, causing another burst of color over the white landscape.
When a pegasus messenger arrived moments later, Wildfire felt ready for anything. In his twenty three years of service to the crown, he had never wavered once when receiving an order. He took pride in his unshakable spirit, his namesake reflecting his cutie mark: a wild and raging flame that he personified. No matter what he was commanded to do, he would carry it out to the very best of his ability. As the pegasus landed at the front of the Magi, Wildfire could tell something was amiss. The messenger didn't look Wildfire in the eye, which the Veneficus took as a sign that the new commander was about to ask him to do something very dangerous, perhaps even sacrifice his life. He glared hard at the messenger, prompting the pegasus to speak up quietly, “Uh, sir, your orders are... well...” The flier trailed off.
Wildfire's glare turned into a scowl, offended that the messenger was reluctant to relay orders when their comrades lives were in the balance. He looked down at the increasingly uncomfortable pegasus, who began to bow under the weight of the Veneficus's growing frustration. When he finally spoke, the pegasus quivered under his low, growling tone, “Speak our orders quickly, legionary. The lives of our friends hang by a thread!”
The messenger swallowed hard, looking up at the enraged mage meekly before finding his courage, half shouting, “You wouldn't believe me if I told you!” The pegasus looked ready to bolt at any moment. He nearly did when he found a hoof on his shoulder, a gentle but firm pressure.
“We will hear whatever the Legate has given you to tell us. Speak, and be on your way.” Wildfire said calmly, his passion quelled for the sake of the poor young pony, who had apparently found himself in an impossible position.
All his years of experience and service couldn't have prepared the Veneficus for what the messenger said next.
“Do something!” the pegasus managed to yelp out.
For several seconds only the battle could be heard, the cries of the wounded and the roaring of the Hydra being carried by the frosty wind. Wildfire paled through his bright red coat, unable to comprehend the series of events that led to such a desperate order. It had to be some manner of trick, the enemy had to be trying to fool him somehow. He studied the messenger with his carefully tuned senses, and found nothing amiss. Strange, he thought, I can't detect any magic at work here. He glanced to and fro, finally coming to rest on the only logical place he could think of.
His eyes had found the acting-Legate and his bodyguard, the origin of the order becoming clear. Smiling chivalrously with a rose in his mouth, Blueblood flapped his eyebrows twice towards the Veneficus. Wildfire nearly knocked himself unconscious with the speed at which his hoof met his face, missing the messenger hurridly flying back to Blueblood before the Veneficus gave him a message he may regret. Instead of expressing fury, Wildfire's expression broke into a joyful grin. He and his battle mages had just been let off of the proverbial leash. The Veneficus spoke to his lieutenant in a whisper, who nodded and took in a deep breath, preparing to relay orders. And relay he did, “MAGI! Skirmish formation!” The mages wasted no time running into a loose line to either side of Wildfire, some saying silent prayers for victory, others repeating spell-casting mantras in their heads. When their leader pointed his staff forward, the young Lieutenant called out again, “Magi, ADVANCE!” and quickly caught himself when he realized his superior was galloping out towards the line of battle, “Hurry, HURRY!” he shouted, as he and the rest of the unicorns struggled to catch up in the deep snow.
The Magi followed Wildfire out towards the Hydra, and having quickly caught up to their leader, they now advanced unwaveringly in the direction of the beast. They knew that they were the only cohort not yet engaged in battle with the Nightmare Horde, and each of their hearts burned in righteous indignation at the thought of their comrades being beaten back. None burned brighter than Wildfire's, however, as he brought his Magi to a halt dangerously close to the mythological creature. Just outside of the range of its gnashing heads and swiping tail, he gave instructions to his Lieutenant before slamming his staff into the ground in front of him, the ruby sun upon the top beginning to glow. The snow falling around their hooves began to melt under the growing heat the staff produced, Wildfire's horn washing alight in large red and blue flames. Then, the order came down from the Lieutenant, who bellowed, “MAGI! Target the beast! Use of level 3 incantations is AUTHORIZED!” The Veneficus's grin broadened at the rainbow of magic that lit up around him. The Hydra would rue the day it met the unicorn who once held the title of Dragon's Breath on the battlefield.
When the Magi began casting their spells at the Hydra, the cohort of pegasi cleared the airspace. While they trusted their brothers and sisters on the ground, they didn't trust their powerful magic to distinguish between ally and enemy at such close proximity. Their fears were realized moments after the last flier fled the airspace. Nowhere around the Hydra was safe anymore, as bolts of lightning, chunks of ice formed from the frozen air, and a particularly nasty ball of fire careened into the side of the monstrosity. The beast staggered under the intense attack of the Magi, scales and flesh being burnt and carved asunder from its hide. It smashed backwards through the Nightmare Horde, carelessly trampling some of the possessed ponies, crushing them underfoot as it fought to keep its balance. Others still were sent into the air by the Hydra's thrashing tail, which swung side to side as the Magi's spells found their mark. Taking advantage of the momentary break in the Horde's relentless assault, the remaining Centurions on the right flank reorganized their battered earth ponies into something approaching a battle formation before charging back into the fray.
As 'Legate' Blueblood watched the events unfold before him, a smug grin of satisfaction slowly spread across his muzzle. His brilliant plan was unfolding beautifully! The unicorns were giving that awful Hydra what-for, the line of battle had returned to an orderly state. Their wonderful pegasi were preventing their possessed counterparts from harassing the ponies on the ground, even diving in to attack the sides and rear of the Horde! One of the younger stallions, a fellow tribune from Canterlot, trotted up next to Blueblood with a hopeful expression and admiration in his eyes, “Sir, the tide of the battle has turned! It looks as though we're going to win!” Blueblood recognized the stallion, but could not place his name. Regardless, he was more than happy to accept praise.
“Mmm, yes, we're punishing those rapscallions rather well, aren't we?” The acting-Legate blew onto his hoof and buffeted his armor. The older legionaries in the back rolled their eyes at Blueblood's bluster, but the younger ponies began to flock around him. As they heaped on praise for his inevitable victory, Blueblood looked out towards the battle. It was progressing rather well, the earth ponies at the heart of the legion were successfully cutting down swaths of the Horde. The number of enemies had dropped significantly since the legionaries managed to reorient themselves towards the front, now that a Hydra wasn't threatening them from the right flank. The Magi had shifted into a position directly behind the Clydesdalius, tossing long range spells at the creature, inflicting terrible wounds. The phalanx of elite earth ponies provided the perfect shield from the uncoordinated Horde that threw themselves recklessly at them. Since they were well defended, the battle mages could coordinate much easier under Wildfire's orchestration. Half of the Magi had begun to focus on the neck of one of the Hydra's four heads, levitating large burning rocks into the air and hurling them at the wounded beast. The other half kept the creature pinned in place with well-placed electrified wrecking balls of ice. It proved to be an effective strategy, causing the Hydra to roar in agony as one of its bloodied heads fell into the snow with a thundering slam, casting snow in all directions. A cheer resounded throughout the 8th as the colossal serpent lost the battle with gravity and tumbled backwards into the forest just beyond the battle.
= = = =
“No, no, NO!” Nightmare Moon fumed from her ruined castle in the Everfree forest. She had already used up a significant portion of her power banishing the foalish 'Princess' Celestia to her beloved Sun, and activating the dormant spells in the thousand year old meteorites. Unfortunately, she hadn't been expecting such organized resistance. The armies of Equestria a thousand years ago were little more than unarmed militia: barely adequate to police the nation, never mind behead a Hydra and repel her pawns at the same time. She couldn't spread her attention between twelve different battlefields and expect to be victorious, not against the professional armies Celestia had levied in preparation for her return. She wielded the powers of an alicorn, it was true, but she was stretched far too thin. The gifts she had bestowed upon her pawns weren't as effective after such a prolonged engagement, and she was beginning to have difficulty concentrating on so many details at once. Her magic was beginning to run dry as well - defeat was inevitable if she didn't take action. She had to focus on one battle and break through at one point. It wouldn't be as fast as ridding Equestria of Celestia's sun-loving traitors in one fell swoop, but it was better than nothing.
She turned the possibilities over in her mind. The first engagement that wasn't a complete disaster was taking place near a quaint settlement named Appleloosa. No, that wouldn't do; She hadn't expected the local populace to arm themselves and assist the army in combat. Worse, when a stampede of buffalo slammed into the rear of her line, the battle had started to take a turn for the worse.
Nightmare Moon continued to scour each of the twelve battlefields for a possible breakthrough. She nearly decided to withdraw her remaining forces when she reached the last possibility. It was taking place in the middle of a blizzard in the frosty north, and more importantly, wasn't a battle nearly at its conclusion. As she assessed the battle's tenability, a wicked smile slowly played across her features. The ebony alicorn cut her magical links to the other 11 sites, focusing her attention on the cheering 8th Legion. Partially reinvigorated by a portion of her power returning to her, she assumed direct control of the battle. Nightmare Moon licked her lips in anticipation: there were still a number of resources she had at her disposal here. She reached out with her consciousness, manipulating her pawns with the finesse of a practiced puppeteer. Instead of charging in with reckless abandon, they began to coordinate with one another, attacking in tandem. Before, her minions would throw themselves against the shields of the legionaries. Now they feinted and dodged, attempting to create openings to exploit. Satisfied with the new tactics her loyal subjects were using, she turned her attention to the blizzard. While the alicorn could see the battle with perfect clarity, she knew the ponies fighting her pawns were not nearly as gifted. Feeling more than thinking, she manipulated the clouds above, whipping the slowly calming storm into a frenzy. In a final stroke, she brought her attention to the waiting ponies she had kept in reserve, concealed by the snow storm in the forest behind her thinned line. Nightmare Moon whispered instructions to the sleeping ponies, and they began to move. The alicorn was pleased when she returned her attention to Celestia's forces, savoring the moment to come. She would give them and their sun-loving faces a wonderful gift.
= = = =
The older stallions in Tribune Blueblood's bodyguard had started cheering as well when the line of the enemy had thinned to only a few ponies thick. Even the biggest pessimists in the group had begun to admit that the Nightmare Horde didn't have any fight left in it. Blueblood had begun to plan his victorious return to Canterlot. Firstly, he would be met at the gates by the royal guard, trumpeting his arrival for all the citizens to hear. There would be a parade, of course, and he would be showered by rose petals as he made his way towards the palace. Once he made it inside, there would be a gala held in his honor. Before his daydream could advance any further, a deafening boom shook him visibly.
“Was that thunder?” he thought aloud.
Above the legion, the clouds had grown dark and menacing, twirling slowly above the embattled ponies. Unnatural lightning began to crash down into the surrounding landscape, the bolts leaving gnarled black twists behind the soldiers' eyelids. The wind increased in strength as well, whipping the legionaries on the ground with sub zero temperatures, and rending flight near impossible for the pegasi. With the blizzard reducing the visibility on the battlefield to whiteout conditions, fighting in the air was out of the question. Unable to continue an aerial war, the two cohorts of Pennae landed alongside their grounded brethren and took to fighting a land war that had slowed to a standstill.
Meanwhile, Blueblood was starting to panic once more. He turned to his nearest subordinate, a delicate looking pearl-colored filly, wide-eyed and shivering in the cold. He questioned her sharply, confused inflictions in his voice, “What has happened? Why has the blizzard worsened? It was beginning to die down just moments ago!” The previously fawning mare could only shrug her shoulders in response, the acting-Legate's demeanor and the sudden change in weather frightening her.
In the back of the group a more seasoned, grizzled-looking cobolt mare spoke spoke up, “There must be some foul magic at work here, twisting the weather to its own end.” she snorted, “Sir.”
Blueblood's memory returned to the mandatory briefing Shining Silver had given before marching the 8th north towards Frostmane. The senior officers of the legion had been warned of the imminent return of Nightmare Moon, more commonly known as the Mare in the Moon. While most had dismissed the fairy tale out of hoof, Shining Silver had insisted with some fear in his eyes, that it was true. The career soldiers around the table that night had been nearly silent, speaking only in whispers and left before dessert had been served. Oh Celestia, he despaired, I should have paid better attention.
Blueblood had come to the abrupt realization that he wasn't simply fighting a horde of possessed commoners, but the army of a Goddess. As the facts of their situation finally sunk in, the ground itself began to vibrate subtly. The 'Legate' looked to his left and right for some sign as to the cause of the quake, and locked eyes with a grounded pegasus messenger. His wings were coated in frost and his breath visible as he gasped from sprinting. Before the messenger had a chance to speak, there was an ear-shattering smash, lessened somewhat by the raging blizzard. Blueblood wasn't a complete foal, he knew what that sound meant. He held up a hoof as the messenger caught his breath, and spoke for him, “The enemy brought up reinforcements, didn't they?” he croaked.
The pegasus nodded vigorously, “Yes Legate, that is correct. They were hiding in the treeline, obscured by the blizzard.”
Blueblood's words nearly caught in his throat, “How many?”
The violet messenger didn't miss a beat, “At least another two thousand. The line is holding for now, but enemy is attacking with renewed vigor! The centurions are asking for orders, sir.”
The acting-Legate was aghast, making no attempt to hide his surprise, “Two THOUSAND? How could they possibly hide two thousand ponies from view?”
The messenger had no answer for him, only bowing his head in respectful silence. The Tribune was beginning to rapidly buckle under the new sources of stress. He was completely out of his element. His two years of uneventful service had nearly been up, and he was going to return home to Canterlot and resume his duties as a Prince of the court. His worst worries were supposed to be how many noble-blooded fillies and mares he had to fend off after his return! Thunder punctuated his thoughts as the pegasus continued to wait at Blueblood's hooves for word to send to the legionaries at the front. The bodyguard watched on in growing horror as the unicorn remained silent, unable to find the words to command the legion. Blueblood had begun seeing shapes in the snow, and it sounded as if the battle was growing closer by the second. After precious seconds had been wasted, The acting-Legate shook himself from his stupor, coming to a conclusion. The rest of the ponies gathered fixed their attention to him, awaiting his orders. Blueblood's command was like a buck to the face.
“Sound the retreat!”
= = = =
The dark alicorn cackled maniacally as the battle shifted in her favor. Her remaining pawns had been rejuvenated with a fresh supply of magical power and had the unfettered mind of a Goddess to control them. Celestia's legion had begun to whither under her assault, their discipline the only thing keeping them together. It was only a matter of time now before she was victorious, and she was enjoying tightening the noose around the beleaguered ponies. I suppose I can have their mule of a General entertain me for now, she mused, He should provide me some amusement, at least.
She cast her long gaze to the forest surrounding the battlefield and found what she was looking for. Two Yeti, creatures normally confined to the high peaks of Mount Frostmane, had made their way to the outskirts of the snow-covered field the battle was taking place in, concealed in the thick blizzard. It was no accident, of course, that they were so far from their territory. Nightmare Moon's gentle hoof had lulled them to sleep earlier that night, and lead them a few hundred meters behind the main bulk of the Horde, waiting for the right time to strike. She cast her mind's eye to the sad little foal who was “leading” Celestia's army, into his mind. She was pleased with the chaotic and frightened state his mind was in, and the shadows of doubt it cast over the ponies next to him. She subtly manipulated their emotions, deepening the darkness on the edges of their vision, and creating phantoms in the white of the blizzard. She made the cries of the wounded soldiers and the sounds of fighting grow louder - ever so gradually - a looming doom approaching them from all sides. It was only a matter of time before they would succumb. A time that arrived sooner rather than later.
“I have you now, my little ponies!” she cried victoriously, as their foal Commander gave the order to sound the retreat. He was ready to flee the field, she could feel his fight or flight reflex starting to choke coherent thought from his – ha! - mind. He only required a soft push to send him over the edge, and she was more than happy to provide.
= = = =
Before the slowly freezing messenger could send word to the legion (since fireworks were useless in the whiteout), two furry behemoths came charging through the curtain of white encasing Blueblood and his protectors. The Yeti both let out a bloodcurdling howl that chilled the freezing ponies to their cores, approaching from both sides of the legionaries in a pincer movement that spoke of a higher intelligence. No one had time to comment on the tactics the hulks of rage possessed before the first of the two rammed into the center of the thirty soldiers from the right side, sending them tumbling into the snow. The second barreled down from the left, oblivious to all but its target. The messenger pegasus, frozen in horror, realized that the Yeti was signaling him out. The miniature colossus took the flier by the throat, with a grip so strong that it crushed his windpipe instantly with a wet popping sound. As the poor pony asphyxiated, the Yeti swung his limp form around like a equestrian mace, sending fumbling legionaries flying from the force of the blows. Each impact crippled the choking messenger with sickening crunches as his limbs impacted the heavily armored, segmented plate the earth pony bodyguards wore. The entire unit soon realized they had been scattered about the snow, any sense of cohesion lost. The younger ponies didn't bother drawing their weapons, deciding to gallop into the snow, fleeing in terror at the sight of the Yeti manhandling their forgotten comrades like a foal's dolls. The few veterans of the unit stood to put up a valiant defense, but they found their numbers had dwindled greatly, from thirty strong to a mere seven. Unsurprisingly, but disheartening all the same, the remaining stalwart few took note that their leader was fleeing the battlefield.
Prince Blueblood had been pushed far past his breaking point. Queen Meanie, Black Snooty, or whoever she was could have this freezing chunk of ice in the middle of nowhere for all he cared. The horrors he had seen played a constant macabre reenactment in his mind, driving the chivalry from his spirit and testing the bounds of his sanity. While he could hear the fading sounds of fighting behind him, he felt as though he was constantly being chased by white furry giants. He could hear their labored breathing as they gave chase after him, the snow crunching under their strange primate appendages. He dared not look back, lest he give his nightmare a physical form. Although shadows and darkness had a grip upon his conscious mind, something much more malevolent had taken root in the depths of his being. The seed of guilt had been planted there, not by the hand of Nightmare Moon, or the horde she commanded, but by his own hoof. It had been his decision to run, to abandon his ponies and escape alone into the snow. The guilt already began to affect his subconscious subtly, twisting his sense of self into that of a blameless hero, returning to the safety and security of the Capitol to receive his accolades for a job well done. The small part of the unicorn that railed against the creeping madness could not be heard, for Blueblood was unwilling to listen to that particular voice. It was too quiet, being drowned out by other, more comforting voices.
Everything will be all right, one soothed.
Warm food, and a warm bed – just a little further, another coaxed.
The adoring public awaits, dear Prince, the third crooned.
Blueblood was calmed by the whispers of compassion. He no longer paid heed to the cold, and he could feel some of the fatigue in his limbs slipping away. He started to suspect that he had made the right decision, that fleeing the battle had saved not only his life, but saved the citizens of Equestria the grief of having to mourn their beloved Prince. He was a special gift to the ponies of this land, a national treasure that was cherished by all. His very existence was a boon to those around him, and if he didn't preserve himself – for the ponies – who would bring them joy? There was no one more important, save perhaps Celestia herself, in need of royal treatment.
“When I return to Canterlot,” he gasped, “I shall make sure I am treated with the reverence a stallion such as I requires!”
The battle now left far behind him, the unicorn galloped towards civilization, disappearing into the frigid white.
= = = =
The Queen of the Night chuckled softly into her hoof as her Yeti broke the ranks of the legionaries. Her chuckles transitioned into a maniacal cackle as Celestia's General fled the battlefield in abject fear. She hadn't expected his courage to wane so quickly, and when the cowardly prince started galloping for his life, the alicorn was more disappointed than amused. Nightmare Moon had been looking forward to toying with her prey a bit, playing with Celestia's champion until she grew bored. The black horse sighed, resigning herself to leading the remaining bodyguards in a fatal waltz. She had considered allowing the messenger carrying the orders to retreat to reach the ponies at the battle line. It would have been a tactically sound decision to encourage Celestia's army to rout, but it wasn't in her nature to afford her foes the mercy of a quick death. They were resisting their new sovereign, and the punishment for treason was severe. A slow end, she decided, was appropriate for vexing her to this degree.
Before Nightmare Moon could plan in detail the fate of the 8th, she felt a slight pull on her mind, calling her attention elsewhere. Around the perimeter of the Everfree forest, she had placed a spell to alert her of any ponies who encroached on her temporary domain. Leaving the battle behind for a moment, she cast her attentions to the source of the annoyance. Entering the forest at a carefree trot appeared to be six ponies, some of which she recognized from her announcement of succession, at the quaint village Celestia had chosen to host her ridiculous festival. The thought of ponies celebrating the longest day of the year made her furious – but this was no time to indulge her anger.
She took stock of her situation. She had expended a great deal of magical power in fighting the rebel armies of Equestria, and while she was immune to the effects of fatigue, there was only so much she could accomplish with the pittance she had left. She hadn't thought to fortify her old castle with powerful magical defenses and servants in her haste to put down all the resistance to her rule, and she admitted to herself it could prove a dangerous oversight. She had a single unicorn's worth of magical power left (besides what she reserved to maintain her regal mane and tail), leaving her hard pressed to find options to aid in her defense. The alicorn scrutinized the forest more carefully, reviewing her options. A manticore along the path to the ruins, and a water serpent making its home in a great river. She didn't have enough power to possess the creatures to fight, but perhaps she could spark them to violence. Yes, she planned, a carefully placed rock-slide here, and several illusions here and here will no doubt send them scurrying home...
= = = =
High above the 8th Legion, above the malignant black clouds looming over the embattled soldiers, and higher still above the white peak of Mount Frostmane, the stars above twinkled unfailingly as they had for untold ages. One of four, missing since Nightmare Moon's escape, reappeared in the night sky. Polaris, the Light of the North, winked back into its place dutifully amongst the constellations. None of its countless brethren welcomed the tiny light's return, for stars are not often taken to speech, and took no notice when Polaris brightened for a time. Ancient magic as old as it was powerful stirred to life, acting on commands spoken in a language forgotten by time. Slowly, gently, Polaris cast its soft light onto Equestria. Lost in the comparative maelstrom of radiance the Moon beamed, the star shined down nonetheless, its purpose more complicated and delicate than reflecting light to illuminate a dark world. Hearts throughout Equestria and beyond trembled softly, an imperceptible melody playing on strings finer than starlight, interwoven between the fabric of those attuned to it. Polaris listened to the symphony of souls, sifting through the desires, hopes, pains, and memories that hearts often play.
After a time, less than a blink of an eye to the cosmos, Polaris found the tune it was searching for. A unicorn, half buried in the fallen snow and the still-cooling forms of other ponies. Unconscious but alive, the unicorn's mind wandered in old familiar places, in the memories of a happier, more innocent time. Polaris blinked and winked, twinkled and shone, in a flurry of action rather outrageous for a star. Satisfied, it calmed and settled in the sky, slumbering once more in the brilliant sea above, its tasks complete.
Undisturbed by the star's silent purpose, nor the machinations from a bygone era, the unicorn continued to dream.
= = = =
“Dad, Dad!” a breathless young voice called, “I found it!”
A colt with a denim coat and short blonde mane galloped to catch up with his father, a coal colored earth stallion with a mane of the same. He smiled gently towards the colt, reaching out to ruffle his mane with a hoof and speaking up in a deep, grizzled voice, “Right where I said it was, wasn't it?” The stallion's calm, dark green eyes peered down at the little unicorn.
The same eyes, although younger, looked back. The colt nodded vigorously, “It fell out of my saddlebags when we stopped for lunch! I'm really sorry.” The little pony scratched at the ground apologetically. The stallion's smile grew at his son's heartfelt apology.
Turning his attention up the dirt path they stood on, the coal pony started a slow trot downhill. The colt hurried momentarily to catch up with his father, his mistake wordlessly forgiven. All around them, tall pine trees caught the light of the afternoon sun, casting cooling shadows. The well-trodden path sloped lazily downwards, leading deeper into the forest. Birds called out all around, and a gentle breeze blew evenly through the pines, creating a soothing harmony of nature. The colt occasionally took in their surroundings, spying a slightly new variation of beauty with each passing tree. However, most of the time the little pony watched the dark stallion stride easily along the path, an expression of unconditional love on the colt's face. The light peeking through the pine trees gave his father a heroic look to him, framing an image in the colt's mind. The Father seemed to pay no attention to his one-stallion fan club, sometimes pointing out critters and comically shaped logs on their way along the path, the Son following every word and detail.
Eventually, the path reached a fork, and the pair stopped to consider their options. The stallion looked back to his young charge thoughtfully, “Let me see the map, little dude.” The colt enthusiastically dipped his head into his saddlebags and produced a piece of rolled-up parchment, passing it over. Dad unfurled the map and browsed it intently, “Hmm... if I'm reading this correctly, we need to go -”
“Right!” the denim colt announced eagerly.
Dad double-checked the map carefully, before looking at his son in subtle pride, “How'd you figure that out? Got another map hidden in your saddlebags?”
The little unicorn shook his head and smiled broadly, “I looked at the map on the way back, after I dropped it! It only shows the forest, though.” The colt's earnest behavior brought another smile to the stallion's muzzle.
“You know how to read this map, huh?” Dad asked, with feigned suprise.
The colt bounced up and down energetically, “Yep! It's called a topographical map, and it makes it really easy to find your way around!”
The coal pony offered the map to the colt, “Well, how about you take us the rest of the way there, then?”
The unicorn became a bit smaller at the suggestion, shying away, “But what if I get us lost? How could we find our way back?” He asked quietly.
Dad chuckled deeply, having a calming effect on the colt, “If we get lost, I'll just help you find our way back. All right?”
The little pony nodded tentatively as he accepted the map, examining it with intensity. The bemused stallion waited patiently as their new leader oriented himself, which he seemed to take very seriously. The colt began looking at the map, and back to the fork in the path, his brow lowered in concentration. Dad could barely suppress a laugh at the colt who was so sure, only moments ago, that the right fork was the correct way to go. He quickly steeled his expression when the little unicorn looked up, announcing triumphantly, “We go right!” The colt trotted, studying their surroundings more closely than ever, his eyes locked in determination. The stallion followed side by side, watching his son guide them along.
The forest continued on, the path winding and twisting with a mind of its own, splitting off into smaller trails now and then, and divurging into other paths with increasing regularity. Never questioning the direction they went in, the stallion quietly followed the little trailblazer, providing a safe, secure presence that kept the colt's anxieties away as he cautiously plotted their course.
As the sun dipped low in the horizon, the ponies exited the forest at the foot of a lake. The rays of light caught the surface of the water, creating a dazzling mirror of sparkles. The backdrop of the scene was a range of snow-sprinkled mountains, silhouetted by colorful blues and oranges to contrast the stark white and gray. It was breathtaking for both of them, nature's raw beauty plainly on display. Only one thing could tear the colt's eyes away from the landscape before him: a certain tingling on his side, marked by a moment of clarity. The little unicorn looked back, spying a shaded white compass rose, with small points of light on each of the cardinal directions, save for the letter N at the top.
“What does it mean?” the colt asked with wonder.
Dad smiled proudly at his son, “It means you'll never get lost, North Star.”
North Star looked up at his father with dawning realization, “Really? Never?”
The stallion laughed and looked out at the lake, “Not unless you want to, anyway. Now that we're here, though, there's something I need you to do for me, Starry.” He turned his attention back to the little pony, growing concern on his face.
Star looked worried, “What is it, Dad?”
“Open your eyes.”
Suddenly, everything became a lot more real.
Heart of Glass
Chapter Three: Pyrrhic Dawn
North Star's eyes shot open, and immediately shut as a throbbing pain made itself known along the side of his head. Instinctively, he raised a hoof to touch it, but found moving a great deal harder than he anticipated. Star grimaced and cracked his eyes open, finding that squinting made his head hurt less. Through blurred vision and somewhat numbed limbs, he took stock of his position. He was on his back, looking up at the sheet of white snow blowing sideways above him. Thunder boomed piercingly as blackened lightning landed nearby, unnaturally visible through the blinding conditions. Star flinched as the unexpected sound rattled his ears, rendering his hearing temporarily deafened. His pulse pounded away in his temples, and the ringing in his ears did little to dampen the sound of his heartbeat. That's a good sign, he thought drearily. He tried rotating his head and found that snow had settled to either side of him, making looking around a tedious affair. While pinned down, he wasn't going to see much of anything. Deciding to remedy that, he looked down at the source of his imprisonment. Two earth ponies were sprawled on top of him, eyes locked open in frosted, endless stares. Both were clad in segmented metal armor in varying conditions of disrepair. The mare on top had several deep, jagged wounds on her torso and limbs. The source of the trauma wasn't obvious to Star, and he didn't feel that debating it would help him very much. The blood had frozen to a stop on the topmost pony, leading North Star to wonder just how long he'd been unconscious. The second, lower pony's armor had suffered some kind of massive impact, the deep dent in the stallion's side hammered into a warped concave shape. To Star's growing pity, the poor stallion's armor had been bent so far inward that the metal plates crushed his torso, essentially killing the pony it was supposed to protect. Despite the sense of futility he felt looking up at his deceased comrades, the unicorn refused to believe these ponies died in vain. They saved my life, Star considered grimly, Depending on how long I've been out, I might have died from hypothermia laying in the snow like this. Even if it hadn't been for long, they had kept him warm. He gave silent thanks to his saviors and their actions, however unintentional they may have been.
Star's hearing began to return to him as the ringing died down. Now wise to the blasts of thunder being conjured nearby, he flattened his ears somewhat against his helmet. It hurt a little to do so due to his headache, but to do otherwise meant more potential deafness. To Star's mutual relief and anxiety, he could still hear fighting taking place nearby. “Don't have time to lay down on the job, Starry.” He managed to cough out to nopony in particular. Deciding to end his imprisonment before he froze to death, Star made a concerted effort to topple the tower of pony and snow atop him. Rocking side to side, the denim unicorn dumped his makeshift captors to his side and sat up slowly. Star blinked his eyes hard and forced them open wider, his head complaining mildly at his assertion. Twenty meters away – much closer than he estimated when buried in the snow – was the battle. Around him were fallen ponies, both from the 8th and the possessed ponyfolk they were fighting. Without the nocturnal aura that embraced them, the enemy looked no more harmful than the inhabitants of places like Fillydelphia or Stalliongrad. Save your sentiment for later, he gently told himself, legionary training taking over. He could properly address the fallen later, after the battle had taken its course. One way or another.
Star's first impulse was to ascertain how bad his head wound was. He carefully removed his red-plumed helmet and turned it upside down. Looking inside, much to his relief, he didn't see any blood or breaks in the metal around the dent. He lifted a hoof to again touch the bump on his head, but thought better of it. It wasn't life threatening, and as long as he didn't have a concussion, his headache could wait to be treated later. Sitting his helmet upon his head once again, he suddenly recalled how he had been knocked unconscious to begin with. They had just engaged the Horde emerging from the forest, when that blasted Hydra came out of the blizzard and smashed right into their flank. Unfortunately for Star, one of the many legionaries tossed into the air found his skull on their way down. He sighed in frustration and shook his head; there hadn't been any way to avoid the falling ponies due to how tightly packed their formation was. Convinced his head trauma could wait, Star searched his immediate area for his gladius and shield. There were many scattered about the snow covered field, but he had to find his own. The shield and gladius of a legionary are enchanted and bound to each individual, and while any unicorn worth their salt in the legion could rebind the implements of one pony to another, it required several items he didn't have. One of the tricks these weapons have in the event of being lost or stolen, is that they respond to the thoughts of the pony they are bound to. Anypony could do it, it was simply a matter of concentration.
Star thus concentrated on his weaponry, a familiar string of light connecting to something buried beneath the snow. He hoped it wasn't too deep now, digging too deeply in the snow would chill him to the bone. Fortunately, he didn't need to dig far before he saw the hilt of his gladius sticking up out of the white. Seated in the center of the hilt was a common gem (in his case, a lapis lazuli), the component of the weapon that housed the enchantment. More than helping ponies find their misplaced weapon, the enchantment enabled the user to command the gladius to twist and turn on all three axis. In this way, a pony could use a single limb to attack or parry with instead of their mouth. Star tested his gladius, making sure the gem was undamaged. He spun the blade like a buzz-saw along the side of his hoof, before giving it a few experimental slashes and stabs to make sure it wasn't going to fly off at the first sign of use. Confident the enchantment was still working properly, he dug a little deeper in search of his shield. He found it not far to the side of the gladius, but the gemstone was clearly cracked down the center. Several tiny pieces rolled around in the socket, and as a whole the gem flickered and sputtered at his call. Star grimaced, “Hayseeds! It must've been trampled after I dropped it.” Somewhat distraught over the loss of his shield, he spent no time idling over his broken equipment.
Himself now taken care of, Star turned his attention toward the line of battle and began trotting heavily through the deepening white on the ground. Many of his hoof-falls were not met entirely with snow or soil, but the bodies of the fallen. He tried not to think about it, focusing on the shapes in front of him that were slowly gaining detail. Without warning, one of his hooves fell into a particularly deep section of snow. Before Star pulled himself free, he found the familiar tug of an enchanted object on him. Pulling tentatively at his ensnared limb didn't result in anything except his increased irritation, so he took a deep breath and prepared himself for a more solid tug. He pulled hard, twisting his torso, resulting in a sudden snapping noise and falling onto his side. Glad to be free of the obstruction, he took note of the object in hoof. It was a long pole, from which a yellow and orange banner hung from the top. Stitched in a yellow outline at the top of the banner was Celestia's sun, and beneath it an elongated eight, stretching to the bottom. Atop the staff, not unlike the Veneficus's, was a large golden sun. The Phoebus-bearer had fallen, and the snapping sound he had heard was the harness he wore to carry the standard of the 8th without occupying one of his limbs. If the legionary carrying the Phoebus had been slain, they were either losing the battle decisively, the legion's tactics had become enormously chaotic, or both. For now, he carried the Phoebus on his left hoof, the enchanted ruby adorning it bound to nopony.
Anxious to reach the line and rejoin his comrades, North Star continued his trot forward. He couldn't manage anything better than his methodical pace, and it aggravated him to no end. As he trudged along, he heard a voice from behind. Glancing to either side and finding nopony besides himself, he turned to address the sound. Gasping not far behind Star was a small lime pegasus, whose longish mint colored mane flapped idly in the wind. Star was surprised when the flier looked up at him with sky blue eyes and a stallion's voice, instead of a mare's, came out, “Sir, please tell me that you're in charge! I've looked everywhere, but I can't find the Legate, or any of the Tribunes, or.. or anypony!” He said quietly, his voice soft, passionate, and on the verge of breaking down.
The first sign of tears had formed under the frostbitten pegasus's eyes, and as North Star examined the pony he noted his rather diminutive size. He was scarcely taller than a colt, nearly an entire head shorter than Star was. It struck Star how helpless and desperate the shivering pony was, his leather armor just a little too big for him. He held onto his spear more like a stuffed animal than a weapon, for comfort rather than protection. When the flier began shying away, North Star caught himself glaring, almost scowling, and quickly softened his expression. He needed information, and if his best possible source galloped off into the blizzard, he'd be no better off than he was a minute ago. More importantly, or perhaps more strongly, Star felt the urge to help his comrade and dispel his doubts and fears.
With calculated step and speech, he stepped towards the pegasus, trying on a comforting smile, and asked, “I'm Centurion North Star. What's your name, legionary?” He'd tried his best to keep his voice at a compromise between confident and compassionate.
The winged pony ceased to shrink away, and bowed his head slightly, “M-my name is W-Wind Weaver, sir. 4th Messenger, 3rd Auxilia.” Star nodded slowly as he listened to the messenger recite his memorized position and group. For the Auxilia to send our their fourth messenger was strange, it usually meant that the others were communicating with other, far away elements of the legion, or the first three had been dispatched to other parts of Equestria.
Star did his best to keep his voice as steady as before, “Wind Weaver, why are you out here at the battle line instead of relaying messages between the Auxilia?”
Weaver looked down at the hoof-prints in the snow, unable to meet the unicorn's gaze, “N-nopony came back, a-and we can't s-send signals in all this... this SNOW!” He finished as angrily as a pillow fight, stomping carefully on the white powder under hoof.
North Star turned over the available information in his head. The blizzard, the missing Legate and Tribunes, the lost messengers. Was it possible that the enemy had literally cut the head off of their legion? He needed more information, and looked back to Weaver with an edge in his voice, “Did you see anything on your way here? Blood, weapons, tracks in the snow?” Weaver nodded his head to all of the Centurion's questions, blinking in recognition.
He nodded to North Star, “Yes sir, I d-did see tracks in the s-snow, there were a l-lot of them. They s-spread out in all directions, a-away from the fighting.” Weaver paused, his eyes growing a little wider, “And blood, there was blood...” he trailed off, starting to look distant.
Star had seen that look before and drew Weaver's attention quickly by craning his neck down to the little pegasus's eye level and asking loudly, “What's your special talent, soldier?”
That seemed to do the trick, and Weaver winced at the sudden question, sputtering “Uhms” and “Ahhs” like filly to her foalhood crush. It might have been embarrassing or cute under other circumstances, but right now it was pertinent information that North Star needed. He relented his serious stare and raised an eyebrow towards Weaver. It had the desired effect, and in response the pegasus lifted one of the leather pads on his flank, revealing two sewing needles crossed over a dark cloud. He looked up with a meek pride to North Star, “I-I'm good at c-corralling storms.” He glanced aside bashfully, “The p-ponies back home said I'd be w-welcome on the weather p-p-patrol.”
Glad to see Weaver wasn't entirely demoralized yet, Star looked up thoughtfully. It appeared as though the enemy had used the cover of the blizzard to completely outflank the legion, rout the entire command cohort, and sever the vital lines of communication between the Auxilia and the legionaries at the front. The wounded weren't being carried to the rear, no orders were being given to the Centurions, no single part of the legion had any idea what the others were doing. For all he knew, the doctors, cooks, and other non-combat staff had all fled, fearing the legion annihilated. I need to move up to the line, he planned, find out what the legion is doing, and if necessary... he paused, tilting his head back down and looking to the hopeful Weaver, take command before we fall apart.
North Star rose up to his full height, pulling the Phoebus aloft and addressing Weaver with the authority of an officer, “Messenger! Stay by my side, I'll have use for you soon.” Star relaxed somewhat when the lime pegasus shook some of the settling snow off his back and clopped a hoof down in acknowledgment, shaky but stable.
The two began their push through the whiteout towards the shapes of ponies and the sounds of fighting. Moving through the snow was a tiring affair, even the naturally lighter Weaver struggled alongside North Star. Fortunately, the closer they moved to the battle the shallower the snow became, more recently packed down by the combatants. After several excruciating minutes Star and Weaver arrived at the heart of the 8th, the familiar backs and formation of the Clydesdalius a welcome sight. Resting directly behind the phalanx were the Magi. Most of them couldn't hold themselves upright due to exhaustion, now laying in a semicircle around the Veneficus who warmed the area around him and his ponies with a spell. The ruby atop his staff glowed like a warm camp fire, and had melted the snow in the immediate area around the battle mages. The Magi's leader was showing signs of fatigue himself, but was by far the least exhausted of the bunch. North Star looked to either side of the elite units, to survey how the legionaries – the workhorses – were faring. Unfortunately, he was unsurprised at the losses they'd taken while he'd been unconscious.
Overall, as he looked up and down the line, he estimated they were at less than half strength. To make matters worse, they had the same expressions of exhaustion on their faces their Magi brethren wore. The difference between the incapacitated magi and the legionaries was that the mages' fatigue was magical in nature, while the legionaries was physical. To many ponies it was simply semantics, but here on the razor's edge the difference it made was abundantly clear. North Star also noted with some anxiety that the few unicorns interspersed throughout the cohorts seemed to have been priority targets for the Horde. This also had the side effect of rendering many cohorts without leadership, a post typically held by a unicorn. As a result, the legionaries were mostly directionless, leading to reckless breaks in discipline as the ponies became more desperate. The usually orderly formations of the 8th had degenerated to packs of soldiers who were familiar enough with one another to fight with a degree of coordination, and individuals who could do little more than defend themselves from the increasingly intelligent Horde. Worse off were the grounded pegasi fighting on the flanks of the legion. The cohorts of Pennae were used to hit and run tactics from the sky; the uncoordinated fighting on the ground had diminished their numbers greatly. They will ill-equipped to fight a direct confrontation with the Horde, their shortened spears and leather armor doing little to protect them. The Pennae needed to be pulled back before they were annihilated or routed.
From Star's point of view, it didn't seem as though the enemy's numbers had fallen at all, but based on what he saw on his way to the battle, he had to assume that the Horde kept some of its strength in reserve. Unsurprising, North Star thought, The population of Frostmane was at least a thousand ponies larger than the 8th. He shuddered, not from the cold, but the reminder that they weren't fighting rebels or demons. They were possessed ponyfolk, who had not too long ago been celebrating one of the happiest holidays of the year. Star knew it was pointless to think about considering their circumstances, but it left a melancholy weight on his shoulders. It was difficult to control where his daydream was taking him, his feelings of disgust and anger bubbling over uninvited into his thoughts. So many had died already to no justifiable end. Lives irreparably shattered and lost over what he could piece together was little more than an ancient grudge. North Star was loathe to judge anypony, especially for something that happened in the past. Faced with the reality of it, however, did nothing to wash the bitter taste from his mouth. Trying not to dwell on the details and concentrate on forming a plan, he instead sourly lamented the 8th's fate through half-lidded eyes, muttering to no-one in particular, “None of these ponies should have to endure this.”
He was jarred suddenly from his brooding by Wind Weaver, who was worriedly peering up at him through falling snowflakes, “Are you o-okay?” His voice was a little softer than before, barely audible above the roar of the battle, “S-sir.” he added as an afterthought.
Star's eyes shot back open, and he forced a thin smile onto his face, “I'm fine, just taking in our situation.” He tried to sound matter of fact for the benefit of Weaver. Thankfully, he seemed satisfied with Star's explanation and resumed watching their surroundings carefully. North Star had to give his companion some credit for keeping his cool. He didn't think Weaver was a coward, only worried what kind of effect witnessing so much violence might have on him. To Star, the soft-spoken little pegasus was out of place on the battlefield. He considered sending Weaver far back to the Auxilia, but if the 8th were going to walk away from this, he'd need Weaver to make use of his talent soon. Best not to over-think your strategy, Starry. Time to take command. North Star began to canter towards the Veneficus and his magi, Wind Weaver not far behind.
North Star wasn't the most senior officer on the field as long as the Veneficus was alive, and he'd need his endorsement to ensure his orders weren't countermanded out of hoof. Since the battle mage didn't seem willing to take command, he didn't anticipate any problems. As North Star and Wind Weaver approached the Magi, they attracted very little attention from the strained unicorns besides a few glances of recognition. Wildfire was astonished to see the 8th Legion's Phoebus blowing in the wind, carried by a slightly battered looking centurion. The word was that the banner had been lost during the Hydra's initial attack on the line – a grave dishonor for the legion. It was an old tradition to protect the Phoebus, even to the legion's detriment. The sight of it warmed Wildfire's heart more than the light from his staff, and gave the unicorn carrying it a degree of respect from him for retrieving the standard. It was clear the legionary wanted something from him from the look in his eyes, and he could guess all too well that it involved the command of their remaining forces. It didn't take a genius to tell that the spoiled nobleponies had fled or been killed; there had been no orders or instructions for far too long, and their leader and his bodyguard hadn't moved in closer to see what was happening at the battle line. He'd been in Celestia's legions a long time, and while he was a talented battle mage and an experienced soldier, he had absolutely no talent for command. It was by sheer seniority and magical power that Wildfire led the Magi, a testament to his skill and strength having lingered on for so long. When it came to the leadership of his ponies, he left most of the details to his Lieutenant. Aside from his shortcomings, he was aware that his opinion carried a great deal of weight with the younger soldiers of the legion. Thus, he found himself addressing the wayward unicorn and his suspiciously small follower, “A bit young to be a centurion, aren't you?” he grumbled out.
North Star bowed quickly to the Veneficus and smirked when he saw the mirth on Wildfire's face, “Yes sir, something about a shortage of competent officers.” Star's words were calculated, but honest. His tone carried no hostility, only a humorous facsimile of modesty and seriousness.
Wildfire cracked a grin at Star's jest, chuckling roughly, “A sense of humor! Ha! A breath of fresh air in this grave business we find ourselves in. My lieutenant could learn a thing or two from you, sonny.” At hearing himself being spoken of, the Lieutenant managed to sputter out some nonsense and wobble his limbs ineffectively. Wildfire frowned and chided his subordinate, “You know better than to waste your energy talking back to me. Rest while you can, since I figure this pony here will have us on our hooves soon enough.” The Veneficus cocked a questioning look North Star's way.
Starry's expression hardened and he nodded to the bright-red unicorn, “With your permission, sir, I have a plan to bring the battle to a stalemate.”
Wildfire's impression of the centurion slipped somewhat. Initially he'd thought North Star was a dime a dozen centurion out for glory and honor, a cocky braggart looking to make a name for himself. Instead of proclaiming he could lead them to victory, the denim blue unicorn suggested a much more realistic possibility to him. Wildfire was interested now, and he felt the familiar sensation of hope rising within him, “A stalemate? That's a pretty grim outcome, son. In case you didn't notice, there are more of them than us. An explanation is in order, I think.”
Star was eager to explain, and he gestured out to their surroundings, “Yes sir. You can see clearly that despite the enemy's surprise Hydra attack and initial momentum, we've been pushing them back. This indicates that the weight of our heavier infantry give us control of the tide of the battle. Our main problem appears to be the disorganization of our centuries. The Horde has targeted our leadership as a first priority, and it worked very well. Therefore, the first thing we need to do is reorganize at a very basic level, to restore our normal fighting tactics. If we can manage that, the duelist strategy the Horde appears to be using will fall apart underneath our disciplined warhorses. Once we've accomplished that, we should be able to outlast them.”
North Star had attracted more attention now from the Magi on the ground, who were beginning to see the logic in his strategy. His words weren't lost on Wildfire, the Veneficus carefully considering Star's idea, “And then? The Horde hasn't sat still once we've taken the initiative before, I doubt they'll sit still and allow us to canter over them.”
Star had considered that, and responded without delay, “That's a good point, sir. We're going to nullify the enemy's greatest advantage – the blizzard.” He cleared his throat and looked down to Weaver, whose eyes had begun to widen with growing alarm, “Decurio Weaver will lead our remaining pegasi into the air and disperse the storm above us.” Before Weaver had the chance to object, he found Star's hoof shoved into his muzzle, “Which I'm certain he'll manage to accomplish.”
Wildfire was impressed by the young officer's plan. The Veneficus carefully sidestepped the issue of Weaver's ability, instead trusting in the assessment of North Star. He had only one question remaining, the most pertinent in his mind, “What would you ask of the Magi?”
At this, North Star paused and his expression darkened. He was about to ask them to do something very difficult, something he knew he had no right to ask any pony to do. Star was about to ask the Veneficus to sacrifice his life in the name of saving theirs, a valiant and honorable cause. He knew, simply knew the Horde hadn't played their last card. It was more than a gut feeling or the result of carefully considered outcomes. It was a part of his special talent, to always know what direction to take to arrive at his destination. In this case, the destination was an end that saved as many lives as possible. North Star didn't always trust these feelings, but this time his heart and mind came to the same conclusion. The Nords of the North would need to play their trump card as well when the time came. North Star resolved himself to carry the responsibility of giving this order, and all the orders that would follow it, I can endure it. This is mine to carry.
Star looked intensely at Wildfire and his Magi, raising his voice for all to hear, “I would ask you to make preparations to summon the Avatar of Sol, sir.”
Star's announcement drew a gasp from all of the unicorns present, all except Wildfire. He knew this was coming, as the battle wore on and their numbers lessened and lessened, he had already been preparing himself for this inevitability. With or without orders, the Veneficus wouldn't have rolled over for the Horde, instead choosing to use their last remaining option for his comrades. The ritual in question was a gift from Celestia to her twelve armies, a portion of ancient magic she shared with the Magi at the founding of the legions. The ritual was given with the understanding that it would only be used in the direst of circumstances, and only with the consent of the unicorn at the center of the spell. Other than the runes associated with the magic, there was one thing missing from the equation, “You understand that the ritual requires direct sunlight to be invoked, correct?” Wildfire asked with a degree of uncertainty.
North Star nodded, “I'm aware of that, yes. With any luck, I believe Weaver will succeed in opening up the skies.”
Wildfire's stare narrowed on Star, “And if we are greeted by eternal night?”
“Then this will all have been for nothing.” North Star shared the Veneficus's stare, an unspoken agreement passing between the two of them. Star would take responsibility for the 8th, and Wildfire would ensure the efforts of the legion weren't in vain. Before North Star left to enact his plan, the old stallion surprised him with one more article he intended to trust him with.
Wildfire reached into his cloak and withdrew a sealed roll of parchment, tossing it to the dried grass at Star's feet, “That letter is for my daughter, Gizmo. She lives on the outskirts of Stalliongrad. See to it that she receives it.”
North Star reached down and carefully placed the letter in a small pouch strapped onto his armored flank. The purpose of the letter was obvious, and he intended to deliver it himself if he saw the end of the battle, “Yes sir, I'll see to it personally. You have my word.”
The Veneficus snorted, the mirth returning to his expression, “Then lets see you prove its worth!” Starry nodded and saluted his superior crisply. Wildfire returned the salute proudly and waved the centurion along with a turn of his head. It was difficult for North Star to turn away from the pony he had just sentenced to death. He hoped dearly that he wouldn't have to give the order that would take away Wildfire's life, but his 'sixth sense' turned his thoughts to the enemy's response, the retaliation he had to expect was coming. He hoped dearly it was wrong, too.
“Lets go, Weaver.” Star turned and trotted off towards the legion's left flank. Wind Weaver offered a woeful salute to the Veneficus, who nodded encouragingly to the little lime pegasus. The newly minted Decurio galloped after North Star, stealing one final glance back to the Magi as he went. When they were out of sight, nearly concealed by the blizzard, Weaver heard Wildfire shout, and the shapes around him rose to their hooves.
“There's no t-turning back now, is t-there?” Weaver asked his companion.
“No, we're in this until the bitter end, my friend.” Star paused and looked down at his hooves. He then reached out and took the leather cap off of Wind Weaver's head, replacing it with a plumed helmet of a centurion, recently looted from the snow, “Are you with me, Decurio?”
Weaver didn't look enthusiastic about his new promotion. The pegasus hadn't done anything like this before, and he didn't really know what to do. He thought about all the ponies around him who were trying their hardest, no matter how bad it was. But, he thought, I'm just so... small. To Weaver, North Star and Wildfire were gigantic, leading and taking control of the legion in such a big, scary environment. He felt completely out of place, as if North Star and all of the other soldiers were protecting him. He didn't feel at all like he was part of the team, like he was useful to anypony. It was enough to drive him nearly to tears again. “Are you s-sure I'm the r-right pony for this, sir?” Weaver asked, desperation in his voice.
North Star could see the doubts playing across Weaver's face. He decided that for both of their benefit, he needed to speak his mind plainly to him. Star lowered his head to eye level with Wind Weaver and spoke, “Listen to me, Weaver.” He paused, making sure the pegasus was paying attention to him, “I need you to do this. The 8th needs you to do this. I'm not putting you in charge of the storm just because you happen to be a pegasus and your special talent happens to be weather control.” North Star stopped for a moment to let his words sink in.
Wind Weaver's brow bent in concentration. He still didn't understand. “Then... why?” he asked.
Star smiled confidently at him, “Because I trust you. I think you can do this; no, I believe you can do it. I know you're not used to taking charge, and I'm not promising clearing the blizzard is going to be easy, but you can do it. Even if you don't believe in yourself, believe in my words to you. Can you do that?”
Weaver's expression slowly changed from hopelessness to determination, and he clopped a fore-hoof down emphatically, “Yes sir! I w-wont let you d-down!”
Starry's own doubts were quelled by Weaver's show of courage. “Time to begin. Good luck.” He said, and turned to the battle line.
Star only managed a few steps before he heard Weaver call out behind him, “North Star?” The centurion stopped and glanced back, looking at his comrade with undisguised trust. Wind Weaver was smiling, to what his heart recognized, was a new friend. “Thank you.” He stated simply. North Star turned and trotted into the blizzard, becoming another silhouette. Weaver squared himself away extended his wings, taking off into a low flight towards the far sides of the line and the pegasi he would need to clear the sky.
North Star could see the line clearly now, the legionaries no longer obscured by the whiteout. The Horde was content to attack them head-on, the bulk of them simply waiting behind their possessed kin, motionless. With their numbers, they could easily envelop the remnants of the 8th completely. He could make out the Pennae on the side he was on cautiously skirmishing into the side of the Horde to little effect. Star's thoughts wandered momentarily, Either it would be too much effort to mobilize that many ponies at once, or the enemy commander thinks we're on our last hooves. We'll see about that.
After a moment's careful search, North Star spotted a unicorn with a centurion's plume of red feathers on his helmet, watching the soldiers in front of him with a wide, glass-eyed expression. The pony was clearly in mild shock, watching the movement around him with the twitch of a bird. Star regretted that he couldn't afford to coax the unicorn carefully from his state; nonetheless, he swiftly approached the soldier and bellowed, “Centurion! This entire cohort is in disarray!”
The twitchy unicorn turned to Star with the surprise of a pony encountering a cockatrice. Registering the Phoebus North Star carried and the unicorn's imposing demeanor, he rapidly concluded that he was in charge. The shell-shocked unicorn began to blubber, “It's not my fault! The enemy, the other centurions, it all happened so fast -”
In spite of the compassion North Star felt for his comrade, he feigned a very convincing expression of authority and smacked the unicorn across the muzzle with his hoof with carefully considered force, “No excuses, centurion! What's done is done, and make no mistake, we will correct what has been done! Are you prepared for orders, legionary?!”
The centurion's eyes focused and his jaw locked into place, hours of drill and training compelled into his consciousness. He stomped a hoof in acknowledgment and barked, “Yes sir! I await your command!”
North Star nodded firmly and his horn lit up in a dim green glow. Little orbs of light blinked behind the line itself, marking an entire section of legionaries, “You will take command of these legionaries. Do you understand?” The centurion's attention was undivided, and he clopped his hoof down once again in recognition. A faint smile appeared on Star's face as his eyes narrowed, “Good. Now, here's what I want you to do...”
Not far from North Star, Wind Weaver landed just behind the embattled pegasi of the 2nd Pennae. Not one pegasus took notice of his presence, for they were busying themselves at cautiously prodding into the side of the Horde, which seemed content merely to defend or outright counter the attacks made by the soldiers in displays of uncanny fluidity. He nervously took a few steps forward, unsure of what to say or do. He eventually coughed and said quietly, “Excuse me?”
When nopony turned to respond, he tried again, a bit louder this time, “Excuse me...!”
Weaver looked down and tried to think of what he should do if ponies weren't paying attention to him, recollecting on his training. Determined to be of help and live up to North Star's expectations, he took a deep breath, filling his lungs to capacity.
“ALL RIGHT YOU MANGY MANED FOALS, LISTEN UP, OR BY CELESTIA'S GRACEFUL FOREHOOVES I'LL...” The little pony launched into a vocal rampage so crude and unapologetic as to make his drill instructor blush. Those present could swear they saw the red in his eyes, and the more traumatized imagining horns growing upon his head and froth forming on the edges of his muzzle, “... NOW FORM UP BEHIND ME OR SO HELP ME THE SUN ITSELF WILL INSIST ON A CLOSED CASKET BURIAL!”
The pegasi had stopped fighting; even the Horde itself stood motionless in the face of Weaver's obscene tongue-lashing. Mouths of many a pegasus hung open in shock, awe, or a combination thereof, transfixed on the shrimpy looking flier whose verbal beat down transcended the very boundaries of what they believed was possible. Underneath their scrutiny, Wind Weaver blushed a deep red, turned away, and pawed at the snow anxiously. After a few tense moments, he looked back to the mesmerized ponies with upturned, innocent eyes and asked softly, “Please?”
To the last pegasus, every legionary present took to the air briefly and landed behind Weaver with disciplined precision. Thankfully, the stationary ponyfolk among the Horde didn't pursue, opting instead to return to motionless waiting. After a few still seconds of silence and careful observation, Weaver came to the conclusion that they weren't in any imminent danger and outstretched his wings, looking back at his new group of followers. They all raised their wings in preparation to fly wordlessly, any objections about flying in the blizzard unvoiced in the face of Wind Weaver's show of 'pizzazz'. Many faces stared ahead nervously, but a few among them looked to Weaver with respect. He still felt small, but he didn't mind it so much anymore. He was part of the team now. He smiled inwardly, North Star was right! I can do this, we can do this! I wont let you down, I wont let any of you down. You'll see!
Wind Weaver's outward show of determination gave the ponies following him confidence, and he had their collective attention when he spoke gently, but loudly, “L-lets move, ponies! Our other b-brothers are waiting for us!” Although used to the sound, Weaver jumped a little when the assembled pegasi clopped their hooves down synchronously. Like that, the remnants of the 2nd Pennae followed behind as Wind Weaver led them towards the other pegasi, the still-fighting 1st Pennae.
Minutes later, North Star stood at the center of the 8th, directly behind the Clydesdalius and to the front of the Magi. The battle mages had already begun preparations for the summoning, and burning runes had been carved into the earth. Wildfire stood at the center of the runes, supervising the preparations with both care and irritation – he had no patience for mistakes. Overhead, the shapes of pegasi could be seen flying upward into the storm. The legionaries to Star's side had become much more organized, if cumbersome. North Star split the legion into thirds; the center, which he was in charge of, and the sides, which he left to the command of other centurions. With the defense of overlapping shields and disciplined warhorses, the Horde was now hard pressed to inflict any casualties. The 8th, on the other hand, was free to hold their ground and strike at their leisure. Even though many ponies were tired, they continued to stand and fight nearly as well as they had at the onset of the battle. The hope of victory had been rekindled within the legionaries, something they wouldn't lose so easily this time. To either side of North Star were a pair of unicorns, horns aglow with magic, ready to fire orbs of light just over the heads of their comrades. He need only give the word.
“My Little Ponies!” The tension was torturous. No one said a word.
“EQUESTRIA!” They all cried, surging forth.
= = = =
“Impossible,” Nightmare Moon balked, “Those little foals made it past every single one of my traps!” With the repair of the bridge, the six mares now had a direct route straight to her location. Even in her wildest imaginings, Nightmare couldn't have imagined six little fillies bypassing both a manticore and a water serpent entirely. She refused believe their presence was a coincidence. Six little ponies, the six Elements of Harmony. She seethed through her clenched teeth, “I see your hand in this, Celestia. I will make you pay dearly for humiliating me in this way! I will... I will...” Her voice trailed off.
She turned her attention back to the battle in the snowfield. Two green orbs shot out along the center of Celestia's Army. From above, she could only watch in fascination as the armored ponies launched themselves forward with their shields ahead, right into her pawns. The 8th smashed itself wholly against the Horde, causing her few mobile subjects in front to stagger backwards under the combined weight of a legion. They fell backwards onto her stationary pawns, resulting in a domino effect. The possessed ponyfolk toppled onto one another over and over until the wave reached the back, blowing powder into the forest behind the Horde like a gigantic fan. Celestia's army stormed forward like a rising sun, stampeding across her minions, stabbing and stomping with impunity. She could hear their yells of righteous fury as one by one she felt her power being stamped out.
Nightmare Moon's pupils thinned to nearly invisible slits of rage as she whispered in barely restrained rage, “Who? Who among you dares to champion Celestia and spit in the face of the night itself?”
She found the stallion responsible, carrying a banner of Celestia aloft, shouting orders and stabbing with both his gladius and the pointed bottom of the Phoebus. Nightmare's eyes unfocused, and for the first time in a thousand years, she was afraid. It wasn't the violence washing over her subjects, or the grim visage of the unicorn leading the enemy army, but a feeling from within the core of her being. Nightmare Moon felt a very alien emotion growing within her, and it disturbed her greatly. It was doubt; doubt about what she was doing, doubt about her purpose, and doubt about the very reason of her existence. Luna was fighting her, even unconscious as she was. She was railing against her captor with a fiery passion. Nightmare Moon no longer cared about defeating Celestia's force. She would destroy the pony responsible for causing her so much turmoil. “And,” Nightmare calmly, icily remarked, “I will destroy the Elements of Harmony!”
= = = =
North Star's plan was working better than his wildest dreams. The Horde was scarcely putting up any resistance under their assault, having all been knocked over by the legion-wide shield bash. The blizzard was beginning to relent, making it easier to distinguish where the 8th was positioned, and he used the increasing visibility to its fullest, coordinating the three arms of the legion with the aid of his assistants. Properly, the air above the legion was now filled with exploding orbs of light as he directed the 8th to and fro, crushing the strongest pockets of fighters with overwhelming force. North Star was about to give the order to disperse into sections and 'neutralize' the remaining possessed ponyfolk, and put an end to the battle. As he opened his mouth to speak, Star and many others were surprised as the fiendish aura that engulfed the Horde's survivors coalesced into a whole.
North Star's reaction was immediate, “Order the legion to stop fighting, NOW!”
Bright colors once again lit the battlefield and within moments the 8th stopped its assault, many limping or staggering back to their rightful place in formation. All eyes were locked on the star-filled aura, hanging impossibly above them. Some couldn't stand for long, simply due to the fact that they were no longer moving, and collapsed onto the waiting backs of comrades who held them up without a word. North Star's sixth sense tingled constantly behind his eyes, filling him with a building dread. This is it, the moment I knew would come, he reflected. Star looked up at the now-visible blackened clouds above, still spinning and twirling. All he could do now was brace himself and wait.
= = = =
Nightmare Moon cackled maniacally as she raised her hooves and smashed the stone orbs carrying the Elements of Harmony into broken shards. Twilight Sparkle watched on in horror as her last gambit crashed and burned before her very eyes. Nightmare Moon glared at the cowering lavender unicorn, “You little foal,” she taunted maliciously, “thinking you could defeat me! Now you will never see your princess or your sun.” Her mane twisted and spun around her with growing confidence and excitement as she announced what seemed all too obvious, “The night... will last... FOREVER!” She laughed and laughed, now assured of her ascension. Now that the Elements of Harmony were destroyed, what did she care if a few paltry armies stood in the way of her? She need only wait until her powers had returned to her and she could begin her conquest anew!
Twilight couldn't bear to watch Nightmare Moon revel in her apparent victory, and she turned away in despair. Before she had time to wallow too deeply, she heard voices coming from the stairwell. From the crazy ponies who wouldn't let her come alone, and followed her all the way to the ruins of this castle despite grave personal danger. Ponies who had now, against all logic, come looking for her regardless of what awaited them. Her heart swelled, her throat burned, and her eyes twinkled with the greatest discovery she ever had.
Twilight turned back to Nightmare Moon with an unshakable courage beating in her chest, her despair burning away helplessly under her new found spirit. She could hardly contain her snarkiness as she began to explain to the ignorant tyrant, “You think you can destroy the Elements of Harmony just like that? Well, you're wrong, because the spirits of the Elements of Harmony... are right here!”
The shards of the stone orbs Nightmare Moon had shattered stirred at the alicorn's feet, rising into the air, aglow with an ephemeral light. “What...?” She could barely gasp.
Five other ponies had arrived, and encircled Twilight protectively.
Twilight continued, “Applejack, who reassured me when I was in doubt, represents the spirit of... Honesty!”
“Fluttershy, who tamed the manticore with her compassion, represents the spirit of... Kindness!”
The Dark Goddess knew what was happening, she had seen it all before. She needed an escape, to flee before it was too late! But where?! She thought, panicking.
“Pinkie Pie, who banished fear by giggling in the face of danger, represents the spirit of... Laughter!”
Nightmare Moon steeled her mind. There was one final option.
“Rarity, who calmed a sorrowful serpent with a meaningful gift, represents the spirit of... Generosity!”
It was now or never.
“And Rainbow Dash, who could not abandon her friends for her own heart's desire, represents the spirit of... Loyalty!”
Nightmare Moon concentrated on the spell even as she felt herself slipping away from her body. She could scarcely hear Twilight continue her speech as she left a part of herself behind, “The spirits of these five ponies got us through every challenge you threw at us!”
She rolled her eyes at the weakness in her heart as it voiced its concerns, “But, you still don't have the sixth element! The spark didn't work!”
Twilight narrowed her gaze at what was now simply Luna's prison, “But it did! A different kind of spark. I...”
Nightmare Moon heard no more of the insolent foal spouting her meanderings at her. Her spirit, her consciousness was now hovering above the barely standing 8th Legion. Even if I couldn't destroy the Elements of Harmony, I can still have my vengeance upon him.
It didn't go quite the way she planned.
= = = =
North Star galloped his way around the Clydesdalius to get a better view of the aura as it descended slowly. He suddenly realized its purpose when the monstrous magical cloud entered the body of the downed Hydra. The fallen beast writhed and contorted as Nightmare Moon possessed the creature with her essence. Her magic filled in the holes where the Magi had bore into the Hydra, casting a baleful black light around it. The 8th Legion could do nothing but stare in awe as the neck that once hosted the Hydra's second head was filled in by the star-filled smoke, a serpentine Nightmare Moon billowing from the hole. The eyes of the three other heads bolted open, completely white and featureless. The monstrosity slowly began to rise to its feet as its heads locked onto their target. North Star, helpless against the Nightmare Hydra, did the only thing he could think of to do.
He turned his head upwards and yelled hoarsely, “WEAVER!”
As if on cue, six threads of cloud-stuff shot out of the bottom of the storm with choreographed precision, arcing away from one another. The Gordian Knot began to unravel as the clouds in the tempest unfurled like a ball of wool.
The Hydra had nearly righted itself as sunlight broke through the rapidly untangling web of the storm, its rays breaking through like pillars of light. The sunlight did very little to slow down the Nightmare Hydra that had now risen to its full height. With steps that shook the earth, it began to build up speed – headed directly for North Star. Star couldn't think, his mind was gripped in terror.
So, he didn't think.
= = = =
Nightmare Moon, or what was left of her, forced the Hydra forward with the last of her magical power. She no longer had any coherent thoughts, she was merely the shell of a grief-ridden younger sister. She had no witty remarks or violent thoughts when her target, the stallion carrying the banner, charged forward recklessly at her. Her thoughts were elsewhere as well, when the rest of the army, seeing their leader valiantly dash forward, charged after him, inspired by his foolhardy bravery. Her thoughts were of Celestia, whom the wraith thought of as her older sister.
It was tired. A thousand years of anger and malice could do that to anything. The wraith was free of that now, no longer needing to carry out Luna's darkest wishes. While the Elements of Harmony were unable to destroy it, the effect the elements had on it didn't diminish over the distance from its body. The powerful magic had rid it of the rage and malice the wraith had harbored for so long, leaving behind the entity Luna had conjured from her anguish long ago.
The wraith continued to manipulate the Hydra forward, acting on instruction only. It didn't know what else to do but carry out the final directions it had received. It had no concept of right or wrong, of morality, or of the consequences its actions might have. It merely did as it was told, as it had always done. Something of Luna had survived within the wraith, however. It felt longing for Celestia, for her warm embrace, and for her company.
Time passed slowly for the construct, as the last bits of Nightmare Moon's power burned away. The wraith's vision slowly deteriorated, tunneling its vision. As it continued lurch forward, it cast its dying gaze past the legion, where a bright fire had begun to burn. It burned larger and larger, as tall as the Hydra the wraith had possessed. The flames took shape, folding and furling into the shape of a giant flaming horse. The wraith recognized the blazing, colossal pony as Celestia, whose horn and wings grew from the inferno. To the construct's joy, the fiery Celestia began to move, galloping towards it purposefully. For the first time, the wraith decided to disregard its task, and changed its course slightly to intercept the living star.
They met, and the wraith was filled with light.
I missed you so much, big sister.
= = = =
North Star was charging forward, screaming his defiance at the mutated, demonic behemoth that threatened to kill them all. All around him he could feel the presence of the 8th Legion, galloping after him, his ears filled with the sound of their defiance as well. Above him, he spotted Wind Weaver leading his ragged pegasi, dead diving towards him, his determined expression not faltering even in the severe winds that buffeted the little flier.
In the final inches from the colossus, North Star was blinded by a flash and launched backward as a flaming comet raced past him, exploding on impact with the once-Hydra. His eyes hurt from the sudden burst of light, and as he brought himself back onto his hooves, he noticed it was snowing again.
He frowned bitterly; it wasn't snow.
It was ash.