Heart Of Scales
Turn 10: Remains
The night sky hung over Canterlot Castle. Its place on the side of a mountain magnified the heavenly bodies to many times the size than they would be seen from the lands below. The light from the moon drenched the ground with pale silver light. Bitter winds passed through the courtyard but could not extinguish the emerald green flames that remained in the Royal Hall after the rampage of a dragon. Pieces of marble and glass littered the floor where there once used to be festivities and merriment. The entrance to the Royal Hall was left destroyed, leaving its large double doors in splinters as if something large had broken through it with much force. Bright emerald-colored lights can be seen through the windows from outside. Embers from the fire were still alight, raging furiously, but remaining strictly within the confines of the building.
Many of the medics stationed themselves at nearby venues, clearing the party tables and decorative sculptures to make room for tents where they treated they injured and distressed. As the news spread, there wasn't as many injured as they had expected. Most of the ponies that occupied the tents were only the paranoid that needed to absolutely make sure that there was nothing wrong with them, although they hadn't even been close to the actual danger. There were a limited number of tents and thus, had to be cleared for the ponies with more serious injuries, ponies that had been unfortunate during the panicked mass evacuation of the premises.
A few ponies stood in a line in at the foot of the stairs. Their thin armor gave them the appearance less of that of the royal guard, yet they were soldiers. Nonetheless, they were ponies doing their service in Canterlot's military. They were stationed to bar any entrance into the area until the proper professional unicorns arrived to douse the dragon fire that rendered any ordinary fire extinguishing means ineffective.
To the one soldier, stationed the closest to the stairs, it had been a particularly long night. The other soldiers that had been called to the scene had been off duty, resting somewhere at the barracks, while the event had been going on tonight. A few unlucky stallions had been chosen to provide light security around the more remote parts of the castle, making sure trouble makers or party crashers didn't even make it close enough to see the lights of the festivities. Unfortunately something larger than the average party crasher had found its way into the area. Fortunately he had been the one casted out into the woods, to patrol an area inhabited by nothing but "ferocious" bunny rabbits and "killer" squirrels. Yes, the very event was on the line, dependent on whether or not he could keep your everyday, average, vermin from crossing the line.
If only that had been true, this event would have been met with apocalyptic ends many times over. He had practically stuck his spear in the dirt and went off to a part of the castle that was even more off the beaten path than his assigned post. He had killed time with a few fellows he knew, eating stolen food, drinking punch, playing cards, basically enjoying some third class recreation to pass the time. At least event such as these allowed such opportunity to slack off in style. What more could and earth pony do? Trying to compete with unicorns and pegasi in the military, he often questioned his reasons for even trying. It was then that he reminded himself that he wasn't here to rise in the ranks. He had a beautiful position that blessed him with many openings to slack off while he pocketed the taxes of these insufferable Canterlot snobs. "In their faces!" he would say to himself before being left with a relatively empty feeling. He found it hard to accept that he was just as mediocre as his light brown coat and his dark brown mane was common to a pony as average as he was.
Tonight had slapped him back into alertness. There was a sense of diligence that he had never had to utilize before. Something had actually gone wrong as he was slacking off. He's had somewhat of a feeling. Somehow he knew. He had to leave early while in the middle of a get-together with a few of his friends in a moldy underground chamber at the flank end of the castle. This was because it was almost the time for his superior officer to come around his area and request to hear a report from him on how he was doing. He waited and waited, not allowing himself to fall to the temptation of the party he had just left. He had to wait until he was sure that his superior officer was convinced that he was doing his job and left to oversee his many other duties. He then would have plenty of time to go wherever he wanted. Little did he know that the next thing he was going to hear was that a dragon had ruined the Fashion Show and they needed every soldier they could find to control the crowds.
The soldier let out a small sigh, hoping that nopony would berate him for doing so on the job. He had gone unnoticed.
The years haven't done much but help nurture his sarcastic manner of thinking. He should, at least, be serious this one time tonight, instead of half-hearting it as he always did. Tonight had been the most eventful as far as his job as a soldier had been. Perhaps it was because of his attitude that he was never chosen for any sort of work that would lead to his possible promotion.
However, tonight, he might not have a choice.
"Heads up," the soldier heard his peers whisper to each other. It appears that there was somepony coming, a senior officer, or a celebrity? Perhaps even the Princess herself, come to see the site of destruction? The soldier craned his neck over the other guards, despite the fact they were all making an effort to stand straight.
He saw some dense golden armor and a sizeable shield with the princess's own emblem, a Royal Guard. He approached the stallions, who tensed as he came closer. His frame was as large as his armor; living up to his battle gear, filling it to its fullest. The Guard looked up into the Royal Hall, the fire of which was burning from within. There were a few ponies behind him, smaller unicorns. It was hard to tell when the Guard was blocking a few of them out with his size. They could be here to take care of the dragon flame, providing protection from it, if not. The first guard began to lead the group towards the stairs, with full intent of entering the fires of the hall.
The soldier's peers, as well as himself, quickly made passage, shuffling aside. The middle guard stopped just as he reached the first step of the stairs, turned around, examined his current party, and met eyes with the soldier who had been standing closest to it all his time. The one who had been cursing his luck from the moment he began watch in the middle of the woods.
"S-sir!" said one of the unicorns to the lead guard. Her appearance certainly didn't give away any ideas that she was the most timid of the group, but her voice sure did. Under her pointed hat she had a pale pink coat, silvery hair fell from behind her hat. The group halted at the foot of the steps, in front of the soldier.
"What is it?" The Guard turned and asked in a somewhat impatient voice.
"Don't I get a partner, sir?" she asked feebly. She was apparently not ready for the task of entering a building of roaring dragon flame without the company of a burly Royal Guardspony, despite her ability to use magic.
Poor thing, the soldier thought. Marching into the flame wouldn't be too pleasant for him either, but it was fate that passed her the short straw of destiny, one that he didn't expect to draw two times in a single night. He had thought too soon.
The Guard looked at the group, so did the soldier. There the unicorns had the guards outnumbered, four to three. There was an extra horn all right, that's what the soldier thought, but the Lead Guard had a different perspective of the universe. He didn't see an extra horn. No, he saw an extra soldier.
The Guard let out a chuckle, one lightly dipped in a small tub of sadistic sauce. Knowing how scared the unicorn was, and knowing how unintimidating and reliable the soldier looked, was kind enough to pair them together. This meant that the soldier, too, would be joining them in their fiery expedition.
"You can go with him." The Guard pointed at the soldier, whose body stiffed at the Guard's hoof being directed at him. "Explain to him what exactly we're doing here and make sure you two don't lose each other in the flames."
And it was decided just like that. He turned and continued up the stairs along with the rest of their group. The other guards remained impassive, while the other unicorns had some heart to spare looks of pity for their friend. The looks that the leftover unicorn received from her friends was combined and converted into one of utter pleading. She then turned to him and shot that look right into the soldier's eye sockets.
Did he really have to go? The Guard could have been joking when he told her to follow him, but the look. The look she gave him was one he couldn't turn down. Before he knew it, he was taking his first steps up the staircase while the unicorn meekly followed at his side.
The group entered through the broken entrance and stepped into the Royal Hall. Immediately, there was a wall of emerald green flame barring their path. One of the guards and his partner immediately began to draw a spell circle on a fairly wide area of floor, close, but separate from the fire. The other two pairs began opening a passage through the flames and disappearing into them.
The soldier, thinking that they shouldn't be standing there; watching the others get to worked looked to the unicorn for some sort of instruction. It took her a moment to get her words together before speaking.
"We were called here to extinguish as much of the fire as possible." The unicorn continued to look towards the fire as she spoke. "Along with that we're supposed to search for anypony that might be trapped or injured, and bring them to safety."
She had told him what the job was, but she wasn't getting started. Was he supposed to lead the charge? He had no magic for this dragon fire, no water, no nothing. She seemed to have something on her mind that she needed to get off before starting the job.
"Is something the matter?" The soldier asked.
"It's just that I didn't mean to drag you into this when I asked for a partner." The unicorn sounded regretful. "I should've just kept quiet and gone by myself. An escort isn't mandatory, after all."
"Don't worry about me. It's part of my job to do as I'm told. You'll be better off with me than without me, anyway." This was the complete opposite of what the soldier actually thought of himself. He was a slacker who did the exact opposite of what he was told, most of the time. His presence in the party would certainly be a minus. However, he wasn't about to show that part of him here, in front of a mare that clearly needed his support.
He gave her a nod and she stepped up to the flame. Her horn lit and the fire started retreat into itself, making a narrow passage that went in their direction. It was slow, but it was safe, no matter how much it didn't look as such. He barely felt the fires that were merely a foot away from his face. He was protected, somehow. They pushed their way through until the unicorn fell forward, breaking whatever magic that was shielding him from the flame. The soldier had just enough time to react and jump forwards before the narrow pathway became a swirling flame that almost swallowed him, erasing any trace of the passage.
They had reached the end of the first wall of fire. From the looks of it there was many more to come. The unicorn had tripped over a large rock that was difficult to spot in the flames. Feeling the immediate heat after the spell broke, the soldier feared that they would be burned and dragged the unicorn and himself further away from the fire, into a safe area free from it.
"Sorry! I'm so sorry! I wasn't paying attention." The unicorn sprang back up to her hooves and dusted her cloak off. "Are you hurt? Did the fires reach you?"
"I'm fine, are you?" the soldier was more concerned for the unicorn, who didn't seem to have the clearest mind at the moment.
The unicorn didn't answer. She was taking deep breaths, trying to calm herself down. It was just the nerves that were weighing down on her breathing. She seemed to be exhausted from getting past the first wall of fire.
"Magic isn't the easiest thing in the world, is it?" The soldier asked to set her mind on something else. Perhaps some casual conversation would be of help to her.
"Definitely, but I shouldn't be having too much trouble with dragon fire." The unicorn looked at the next wall of flame that was in front of them. "It's too hard to counter this fire. It'll take a much more complicated extinguishing spell to even put a dent in any of this. It's like battling two different kinds of fire at once."
The unicorn sat to recover her stamina. The soldier sat down beside her. It was the first time he had done so in a long time today. He felt a bottle pressing against his side, the one he had stored in the inner compartments of his armor. He had forgotten all about it, not since rushing back to his post from as soon as he heard that a dragon was on a rampage a few hours ago. He pulled out the flask of purple liquid inside and shook it. He had filled it up a generous amount before leaving the get-together with his friends. The unicorn took notice of it.
The soldier placed it at her side. It took a few moments before she finally uncorked it and tasted it. Coughing after a mistakenly taking a large indulgence.
"This is punch," she stated with another cough.
"What did you expect?" The soldier asked with a puzzled look.
"All the other Royal Guards carried replenishing elixirs or some kind of mana restoring potion." She sniffed the contents of the bottle as if double checking to see if her senses were still normal. "I just assumed…"
As a matter of fact, that bottle did used to hold some kind of potion of that sort. The soldier had nicked it some time ago, drank it, and spent the rest of the afternoon in a place he could not recall. Since then he's kept it as a personal keepsake to reminisce his time in the army after he left. That was some time ago, however. He still had it, it was far from unused to be just a keepsake, and he was still in the army.
"The Royal Guard greatly underestimated the severity of this fire." The Unicorn stared into the green embers in front of them. "This can't be done by a few unicorns and the Royal Guard."
The fires were indeed strange, but this idea was realized in a whole different way now that the soldier was actually seeing them this close, instead of watching the greenish glow from outside.
The soldier waited a little longer until the unicorn had finished the bottle, despite her seemingly disappointed response to its contents. She stood up after wiping her mouth, passing the bottle back to the soldier. She tilted her horn towards the flames and worked her magic once more. The fire receded into a passage and they traveled into it once more.
The flames twisted and entwined themselves into different shapes, creating a different maze with every passing minute. They were already too deep in to turn back, and the only sure exits were at the end of the enormous room, into the hallways that they hoped would be free of flames.
Sure enough, at the end of, they found that they were at the entrance to one of the hallways out of the Royal Hall. The two sat down to rest once more, wondering what had happened to the other groups that had ventured into the other parts of the hall. The flame had done a good job creating barriers to separate them. The trip to the end of the room was not easy as they had thought. The two of them have had to take a few detours themselves, lengthening the journey.
They sat near the wall facing the blackness of the hallway. The emerald light began to feel somewhat nauseating. They were sick of looking at it. There were a few lights down the hall, flicking lights. There were supposed to be lanterns that lined the ceiling of the wall. However, many did not seem to be working. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, the soldier noticed that there were pieces of wood and glass on the ground.
The wood came from door that used to separate the Royal Hall from the hallway there were resting in. Looking at the arch frame of the doorway that led into the hallway, there were still hinges remained attached on each side of the frame after the door had been completely broken through. The glass, the soldier found out, was from the first of the lanterns directly above them. Only the chains that hung them from the ceilings were all that remained. The flames ended here. However, the destruction did not. There was still more to be seen at the end of this hallway.
"You think anypony is down there?" the unicorn asked. "I was hoping not to run into anypony here. I don't think I have enough to jump back to the magic circle with more than the two of us. The dragon fire in between won't be of any good at all."
"Don't worry about that stuff now. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." The soldier replied. "I don't think this is any situation to be leaving these sorts of things unchecked."
Staring into the darkness any further won't help them figure out what lies at the end any time soon. The only way to find out was to traverse it themselves. Ending their short break, the two started down the tunnel. An illumination spell the unicorn cast lit the surroundings, the white light from her horn was easy on the eyes, compared to what they had been forced to look at in the royal hall. The light helped the dodge pieces of glass that were littered all over the floor. The occasional flickering lantern could be seen. There were scratches along the tiled floor. Paintings on the wall hung askew or just utterly knocked to the ground. The two felt all the more uneasy at the sight of all destruction. But they had not seen the worst of it until they reached the end of the hallway.
They were standing in the middle of a three way intersection, two paths going off to each side and the one they had come from behind them. They looked up in awe at the large crater that something had made in the wall. This could only be the work of a large creature. The light from the unicorn caused the rubble at their hooves to cast shadows on the ground. It did the same to the crater, making the scene look something like the surface of the moon.
"This must've been the dragon." The unicorn felt the depression in the wall. "The stone walls of the castle all have reinforcing magic cast on them by the very best magi in the land. Not to mention that this must have been one of the original walls that were built with the castle, it should be the hardest of all."
"Just how thick is it supposed to be?" The soldier asked.
"If there was a hole in the wall, I should well be able to reach to the other side with just my arm."
"Why would it come all this way? What was it looking for? It couldn't have stopped here could it? It must have gone one way or the other."
The two looked down the hallway that went to the left. All the lanterns were intact and functioning. They were untouched, which could only mean that they would have to go in the other direction to continue their trail. As expected, it was as dark as the hallway they had come from. This was what they were seeking, was it not? However, they were both hesitant to keep going.
This dragon's fire was no joke; it had caused a dent in stone strengthened by reinforcement magic. What was it that they were going to find at the end? Who was to say that they wouldn't run into this powerful dragon, in this narrow hallway? What could a near spent unicorn and a slacker soldier do against it? What could they do to escape it?
The soldier shook those thoughts out of his head. The unicorn watched him, waiting for his thoughts on what they should do next. The dragon would have fled the scene already wouldn't it? If it was chasing or looking for something, it would surely have found it by now, judging by how powerful it is by the traces left by it. If it's found what it wanted, why keep in the castle instead of returning to its home in the mountains? Surely, if its intention was one set on destruction, any creature of that sort would certainly have had its fill after what it's caused.
Without knowing it, the solder took a few steps into the darker hallway, as if it would allow him to see just a little further into it. His inkling had been incorrect. He needed the unicorn's light. He needed her to follow him. He turned back and gave her an inquiring look, as if asking if she wanted to venture into the unknown with him. Trusting his decision, the unicorn nodded and carefully followed behind.
They once again walked through the black, watching for pieces of lantern remains on the floor. They turned corners, twice. Soon they were able to see another light, apart from the unicorn's. Not too far down the hall, the last room, the doors of which were open, a disturbingly familiar green light emitting from inside. The two quickened their pace, having found a site of concern. Their fast walk became a gallop as they slid to a halt in front of the room, witnessing the scene inside.
The doors here were broken as well, pieces of it at their hooves. They were looking into a very large room. A large number of racks were against the walls, dresses hung from hangers filled them. Some far enough from the flames were unharmed. The unfortunate ones that were closer had been singed or burned entirely.
Tables were thrown aside, their organized array reduced to a disorganized mess as if something had plowed right through them. Sewing machines, coat hangers, burnt pieces of cloth, not once tonight, did they see a floor free of debris and pieces of things now broken. Sparks drifted in the air in a slow rotation of fireflies and smoke. The emerald flames were menacingly arranged in this room compared to the fires in the Royal Hall. Only the inner half of the room was ablaze. It covered a neat semi-circular area. The shadows of objects in the room, danced wildly on the walls, like savages around a fire. The flames reacted to their approach roaring in intensity as they grew cautiously closer. It hissed and crackled, whooshed and howled, spinning ever so violently, as if telling them something in a beastly language, a tempest of sorrow, crying. It was a noise they had never heard from the flames before.
The unicorn stepped closer to the fire, despite its growing ferocity.
"I don't think going into it will get us anywhere." The soldier felt that they were close enough to the fire as it is.
"There's something more than just fire at the end of this room." The unicorn tilted her horn ahead of her and began drilling into the inferno with her magic. "I'm not sure if I want to find out, but we can't just leave without making sure."
The soldier watched her enter the flames, hesitating before following her despite the fact that his stomach was telling him to turn back. If they were to reach the end of the room, all they would run into would be the wall, wouldn't it? They would have to turn back around having placed themselves right in the middle of the intense fire.
His expectations were proven wrong. The body of fire had not been what he had imagined, seeing it from outside. The two stepped into a small circular area, free of fire. As soon as they set foot within its perimeter, the fires fell silent, its heat could no longer be felt, the smell of burning dragon fire was no more. The fires only existed visually in this small clearing, no sound, heat, or smell passed into it. The unicorn dropped her spell, confused at the circumstances of how she no longer was required to use it. However close this finding was to being the most startling, this wasn't the biggest surprise of their entire search. The soldier as well as the unicorn watched with their mouths open.
There was a mare with a white coat, and a disheveled purple mane, in a singed, ruined pink dress, huddled in the center of the clearing, holding what seemed to be mound of ashes to her chest. She slowly looked up at them. Fresh tears covered her cheeks, spilling from her surprised eyes.