20th Autumn's Dawn
The sky was absolutely cloudless as Emerald Squad made their way to the mess hall for breakfast. As we shifted along the line of food, I grabbed two pieces of French toast - though ponies called it Prench - and some fried eggs with a glass of juice. I noticed the rest of my team grabbing extra food as we found an empty table, and I didn't blame them. It was the last day of training, and they were treating themselves.
The instructors had one final test in store for us. An obstacle course set up in the corner of the field behind the barracks would mark the conclusion of our training. We all knew what would be waiting for us; we had practiced on it so that we knew what we had to do. But this time was for real, and we were against the clock. If we completed it in the alloted time, we would be official members of the Royal Guard. One second over, and we failed. We would be given a second chance later on, but if we failed that too, then three weeks of training would have been for nothing.
We ate in silence, too focused on building our energy to talk, but I could see they were all thinking the same thing. They were pumped at the thought of finally completing their training and becoming real soldiers. But at the same time, they were worried they would fail, and either be backtracked to another squad or leave the Guard, and none of them wanted to do either of those.
The sun continued to light up the field as we stood in file in front of the course. I had my rifle strapped to my back, and my webbing was tied around my waist, filled with weight to make the course more difficult. Wingfleet was pacing in front of us, giving us a little bit of motivation before we started.
"This is it gentlecolts," he said, "The final test. Everything you've learned over the past few weeks will mean nothing if you don't complete the course under the time limit. I'm going to need you to give this thing everything you've got if you want to finish. Guardsmen will have twelve minutes to complete the course, officers will have ten. The officers will go first, starting with Lieutenant Shield."
An earth pony from Onyx Squad stepped forwards and began to climb the steps of the tower in front of us. There was a pause as he disappeared out of sight, coming back into view after a few seconds, hanging by his forelegs as he slid down a rope zipline, dropping to the ground when he reached the bottom and galloping round the corner.
After five minutes, I heard Wingfleet shout, "Lieutenant Jones, you're next, let's go!"
I heard Emerald whispering me words of good luck as I fell out and walked up to the tower. When I reached the top, a unicorn instructor beckoned me forward, handing me a short piece of rope. I hooked it round the zipline that would take me to the ground and waited for the command to begin.
Time slowed down, and after what felt like hours, the instructor behind me said, "Standby, go!"
I pushed off with my legs and slid down the rope towards the ground, making a buzzing noise as the ropes rubbed against each other. At the bottom, the rope I was holding on to caught on a metal claw and took away my speed, sending me swinging forward. I hung there for a few seconds, allowing myself to swing back again, before dropping down and throwing the rope to one side.
I ran across the gravel and headed towards the next section of the course, which looked like a playground for Tarzan. I climbed onto a platform thirty feet off the ground and grabbed a rope hanging from a metal bar above me, pulling it towards me and removing any slack it had. When it was tight, I wrapped my legs around it and swung towards a wall criss-crossed with ropes. As the swing reached its peak, I reached out and grasped the wall.
"Up you go, get climbing," I heard an instructor call from below, and I wasted no time ascending the wall, moving myself to one side and preparing for the next obstacle: two thin wires, one of which was about four feet higher than the other. I positioned my feet on the lower wire, and grabbed the higher one with my hands. Normally, ponies would have to hook their forelegs around the wire, but I found myself at an advantage as I shifted to the other side, pausing halfway so as not to lose my balance.
The next part of the course was a single rope, tied horizontally from one post to the other, with a crash net some forty feet below me. I knew what to do with the rope, all of our training had prepared us for this. I slowly lowered myself down, resting my belly on the rope with my arms in front; I hooked a leg over the rope behind me for additional support, and began to pull myself along. Ten metres later, and I set up on another pair of ropes, this time tied side-by-side. I started to crawl across them on my hands and knees, taking it slowly as the ropes swayed from my movement.
The next rope was at a decline, with its end point halving the distance between me and the ground. The pony in the tower told me to mount it backwards, pushing myself away from the tower as gravity sped up my descent. The rope rubbed uncomfortably through my clothes, and I could only imagine how bad it would be for someone who only had a coat of fur for protection. I couldn't see where I was going, so I simply kept going until I heard the next instructor saying, "Keep going, keep going, stop."
I rolled off the rope and looked at the thin plank that would serve as my next obstacle. Pausing for a deep breath, I ran across the plank, trying to gain speed whilst keeping my balance as I jumped a three metre gap and wrapped my arms around a second rope net. I began to climb the net, swinging myself over the top and lowering myself the rest of the way down to the ground, allowing myself some satisfaction as I felt the solid earth below me.
A wooden ramp now stood before me, with a fake vine that would carry me over a log beyond that. I jogged up the ramp and jumped at the vine, letting go as I passed the log. Because of my additional height over ponies, my boot caught on the log as I let go. I instinctively wrapped myself in my wings as I fell, grunting with pain as I landed on my side with the rifle sticking into my back.
I heard a pony shout, "Get back up! Keep moving!"
I got up and began running again, covering 400 metres of flat ground and heading towards a tunnel that had been shaped through a hill. Despite all the climbing I had previously done, I was still only at the halfway point, and I had no idea how long it had taken. I dived into the tunnel and scraped forward, focusing on the light twenty yards ahead. I reached it, and pulled upwards, my head poking out of the hole and I climbed out. The instructor from earlier had caught up and said, "That's it. Twelve foot wall next, move!"
I ran towards the wall and pulled on the rope hanging from the wall, lifting myself up. Upon reaching the top, I jumped down and extended my wings, slowing myself down enough to make the fall manageable. Another short run later, and I vaulted a smaller wall - only five feet, but without the rope - and got down onto my stomach to crawl under a net. The gravel I was lying on slowed my progress, but I kept going, determined not to lose momentum.
When I felt the gravel become grass once more, I stood up and began heading towards the second-to-last challenge. Two ponies waited for me, the water they were standing in reaching their torsos. Under the water was a short tunnel, and I was required to swim through in order to complete it. I got down onto my knees and took a deep breath before the instructors pushed me down and into the tunnel.
I gasped as the cold water hit me. It was pitch black, and I could only squint to stop the filthy water stinging my eyes. I slowly crawled through the tunnel, my wings scraping the roof as I grabbed the random obstacles in the water and pulled myself along. Just as the light of the exit became visible, I felt something snag and my movement was halted. I turned around as best I could and felt into the darkness to try and find the cause of the problem.
My lungs were starting to strain from the lack of oxygen, and I forced myself to move faster as I discovered my rifle sling had caught on an iron bar sticking through the wall of the tunnel. I twisted my body and pulled on the strap, willing it to come loose. I was beginning to panic now, my thoughts turning to how I would drown in a dark, murky tunnel just inches away from air.
"Get a grip," I heard a voice say, which I recognised as Valiant's, "Stop thinking like that and get a move on!"
I turned back to the sling and gave one final pull as it came loose. Without thinking, I pulled myself forward, my limbs working on autopilot as I clawed my way out of the tunnel and broke the surface of the water, taking in greedy lungfuls of air.
I felt the hooves of one of the instructors from the beginning of the tunnel pull me higher out of the water, "You ok? You were under longer than what's normal for a pony."
I forced a laugh to help raise my spirits, "Yeah, I'm fine." I picked myself up and began running again, heading to the final obstacle: a thirty foot wall, covered it footholds with a rope hanging from above. With my clothes still dripping wet, I grabbed the rope and pulled myself towards the top. Captain Wingfleet was waiting for me, and he shouted, "Let's go Lieutenant, I'm requiring more from you. Move it!"
I gritted my teeth and pulled myself up the final few metres. I reached the top and finally let go of the rope, giving a sigh of relief at the thought of the last stage of training actually being over. I had no idea if I had completed the course in time or not, and I would only find out when all the other recruits had completed the course.
"Well done Jones," Wingfleet said, "Get yourself dry and into formal clothes. Back here at 1330 hours."
"Yes sir." I jumped off the tower and glided towards the barracks, letting myself enjoy the cool breeze in my face. When I reached my dorm, I grabbed a towel and a fresh uniform and made my way to the showers, stripping off my soaked clothes as the hot water warmed my skin. As I washed, I felt a wave of heat that didn't originate from the shower wash over me, and I turned to see Valiant standing in the showers with me.
"Nice job on the assault course," he said.
"Thanks," I replied, then paused, "And thanks for getting me out of that tunnel."
He chuckled and smiled at me, "I wouldn't be a very good spirit if I let my host die, now would I?"
I returned the smile, "I guess not."
After the shower, I used my towel to clean the rifle of any mud or water that could jam up the working parts and carried it back to the dorm, putting my wet clothes in the steaming room to dry as I walked. When I reached my room, I sat down on the bed and noticed a letter had been left for me, so I opened the envelope and started reading it. It was from Twilight, telling me about everything that had happened while I was gone. I smiled when she mentioned Scootaloo's new organisation, and I wondered if I could help in that department.
I wrote a reply and took it over to the mail room. The pony behind the desk took it without a word and put it on a shelf behind him. I gave him my thanks and returned to my room. When I got there, Steel Sword was lying on his bed, and he looked up at me as I entered.
"Hey Dutch, how'd it go?"
"Pretty good. I think I've got a chance," I replied, "How about you?"
"I think I did well, but I guess we won't find out until later," a cheeky grin appeared on his face, "It was absolutely exhausting, but I suppose you wouldn't know anything about that, huh?"
I laughed, "Stop making me feel guilty, damnit!"
At 1330 hours, all the recruits were stood in front of the course in their seperate squads again, waiting for the moment of truth. Wingfleet and Bright Skies came walking towards us, the latter carrying a clipboard in her hooves, no doubt with our times written on it. There was also a unicorn with them, carrying a box with his magic. I was curious as to what was inside, and wondered if my hunch was correct.
"We're going to be calling out your times now," Wingfleet said to us, "Anypony who has not completed the course in time will be able to try again at the end of the week. Failure after that will result in you being removed from training."
Captain Bright Skies handed over the clipboard and Wingfleet began to read off the names.
"Diamond Squad. Lieutenant Ice Pick, 9:14, pass, good job. Guardsman Arcane, 10:27, pass. Guardsman Pepper Snap, 12:02, fail."
There was a groan of annoyance from somewhere down the line, but Wingfleet ignored it as he read off the remaining members of Diamond Squad. Pepper Snap was the only pony who failed from their squad, and Wingfleet continued to read out times to Ruby and Onyx Squad. Both teams had at least one pony who didn't complete the course in time, and I became worried that someone from my squad would suffer the same fate. Eventually, the Captains walked in front of us.
"Emerald Squad. Lieutenant Jones, 8:47, pass, fast time, well done."
I breathed a sigh of relief, I was in the clear. My thoughts turned to the rest of my squad and what their times were.
"Guardsman Steel Sword, 10:28, pass..."
One down, three to go.
"...Guardsman Thunderlane, 10:43, pass..."
"...Guardsman Rumble, 11:55, pass..."
"...Guardsman Shadow Breeze, 11:39, pass. Well done Emerald."
I had to try and suppress the grin that covered my face as Wingfleet moved on to address Sapphire Squad, and after what felt like only a few seconds, he said, "Everypony who didn't pass, learn from your mistakes and get ready for the rerun, dismissed. Those who passed, stay here."
Half a dozen ponies left the field and returned to the barracks. The unicorn that had accompanied Wingfleet set the box down and opened it, revealing small metal pins.
"Now, I'm sure you've heard the rumours about some sort of prize for the best performing squad, am I correct?" Wingfleet asked. There were a few nods, and he carried on, "Well, you were right. Throughout training, we were assessing each squad, noting how everypony performed with teamwork and leadership. While all of you had your flaws, we've manged to come to a decision."
The unicorn approached Diamond Squad and pulled out a pin, which shined in the sunlight, and pinned it onto Ice Pick's uniform. I focused on it, and I could make out the shape of a half-moon, meaning that he was now an official Lieutenant of the Royal Guard, and was no longer a recruit. The unicorn pulled out additional pins - this time a single sword - and marked the other members of his squad as Guardsmen.
When the unicorn reached Emerald Squad, he paused as he looked at me. It was odd though, as almost everyone had gotten used to my presence here. He looked over at the box and pulled out a pin, which floated over to me and attached itself to my chest. While he went to get a pin for my squad, and looked down at my new badge, letting the full moon shine in the light of Celestia's sun.
...Wait, full moon?!
My eyes widened, and I looked down at the pin again. Sure enough, it was in the shape of a full moon, identical to the one on Wingfleet's uniform. I turned my head to the rest of my squad, and saw the unicorn pinning a pair of crossed swords to the uniforms of Thunderlane and Steel, identifying them as Troopers, the rank between Guardsman and Sergeant.
Wingfleet seemed to notice my surprise, "Congratulations Captain Jones, your squad won."
After a celebratory lunch in the mess hall, we were now in our dorm, playing with a pack of cards that Rumble had brought with him. The cards had the regular hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades that human cards had, but this particular pack had very... erotic pictures on it. Rumble had seemed pleased with them, while I spent most of the games covering the picture with my hand, trying to focus on the value of the card more than anything else.
"Oh come on Captain, you've got to like them at least a bit, right?" Steel asked.
"No thanks," I replied immediately, "When it comes to things like this, I'll stick to my own species, thank you very much."
Rumble shrugged, "Whatever, your loss," he examined his hand - which ponies called a hoof of cards - and said, "I think this might be my favourite hoof yet."
Shadow cocked his head, "I thought your right hoof was your favourite."
We all laughed while Rumble scowled at Shadow, and continued with our game. Thunderlane threw down his hoof and triumphantly declared himself the winner. While Rumble collected the cards and prepared to shuffle them, there was a knock on the door, and a pony entered the room.
"Sorry to bother you sir, but Commander Ironhoof has asked to see you in his office... on the double."
I gave my cards to Rumble, "I'll be right there."
I stood up and was about to grab my rifle, when the pony stuck his head through the door again, "One more thing, the Commander asked that you leave your weapon here."
I frowned. I didn't like to be seperated from the rifle, but an order was an order, and while I didn't like Ironhoof, I had to obey him, "Thank you Guardsman." As I walked out the door, I could hear Rumble saying, "Man, Dutch had some really nice cards."
As I walked down the hallway towards Ironhoof's office, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. I should have felt safe, being in a military barracks, but after spending so long with my rifle, eating, training, even sleeping with it, I felt vulnerable and exposed. It was like I was missing a limb.
Two guards stood outside Ironhoof's office as I approached, and one of them eyed my rank as I came to a halt in front of them, "Yes sir, what can we do for you?"
"Captain Dutch Jones, reporting to Commander Ironhoof."
"Dutch Jones?" The other guard, a unicorn, asked, "What the hell kind of name is that?"
"Look who's talking," a voice behind me interrupted as Captain Bright Skies came up alongside me, "That's a pretty strange question coming from a unicorn named Hard Horn."
Both of the guards laughed, and Bright Skies waved me through the door, "Never mind those two, Dutch. They've got to find something to do on guard duty, go on in."
The human said, "Thanks," and entered the office with Bright Skies. Ironhoof was sat behind an oak desk, and looked up form what he was doing as Dutch entered, meeting his eyes. When he stopped, he snapped to attention and said, "Captain Dutch Jones, reporting as ordered, sir."
Ironhoof leaned back in his chair and chewed the quill in his lips. This was usually the moment that most officers would have said, "At ease," and the fact that he didn't was a clear indication that something was wrong.
Bright Skies circled round to Ironhoof's left, where she leaned against the wall and watched the scene through narrowed eyes. Her mane was cut unusually short for a mare so it wouldn't be an inconvenience during combat, and her tail was the same. She had green eyes, a slightly flattened muzzle, and full lips. It managed to be both a soldier's face and a mare's face at the same time.
Ironhoof dropped the quill, and when he spoke, it was as if he could read the human's mind, "I suppose you're wondering why I've brought you here and what this is all about. That's understandable, I'd be curious too, especially if I knew First Captain Shining Armour and Princess Celestia like you do. Loyalty is a fine thing, one of the many virtues the Royal Guard is known for, and a quality I admire."
He got down from his chair and began to pace back and forth across the room, "However, there is a chain of command, which means that you report to me and Wingfleet. Not to Shining Armour, not to the Princess, and certainly not to yourself. If I ask you to jump, I want you to ask, 'How high?' Do I make myself clear?"
Dutch stared for a moment and clenched his jaw, "Yes sir."
"Good. Now, one other thing. I've noticed you're wearing the rank of Captain, so you were the one who got the after-training promotion. That means that there are those who think you're a good soldier, and I respect that. That being said, you're also a freak. The only member of your kind in a world not made for you."
Bright Skies watched Dutch's face as Ironhoof lectured him. His human mane was short, though not as short as hers, and his hazel eyes had a serious expression. They could tell a story is somepony knew where to look. Bright Skies had always been good at reading ponies, and could tell Dutch was meant to be a soldier from the way he controlled his emotions and what he showed on his face. He was good at it, but Ironhoof's words still hit him like bolts of magic striking a target. Nothing overt, just a slight narrowing of the eyes and a small, involuntary twitch in one of his wings. She looked at Ironhoof, but if the Commander was aware of the changes, he didn't seem to care.
"When you go out there, don't think for a second that you're above everypony else. You will serve alongside your ponies, but they will be the ones who win the battles, not some outwordly creature who got lucky in training. Do you understand?"
Dutch thought for a moment as he remembered the rest of his species. His friends, his brother, his parents, the people he'd grown up with and loved, all labeled as freaks. He may have been required to follow orders, but not this time. He took a deep breath.
There was a long moment of silence as the pony and the human stared into each other's eyes. Finally, after a good five seconds had passed, the Commander nodded, "I understand. Ponies are loyal to their kind too, but that doesn't change the facts. You're on your own here Captain, so you might as well get used to it. In the meantime, I'll take every soldier I can get my hooves on, especially somepony who managed to take out an entire bandit camp by themselves."
Then, as if a switch had been thrown, Ironhoof's demeanor changed entirely. He said, "At ease," invited Dutch to sit down, and began to discuss what he had originally brought him to his office for.
While this was happening, back in Emerald Squad's dorm, the four pegasi continued to play cards. The game was going smoothly enough, but Rumble was getting distracted, constantly glancing at the rifle now lying on Dutch's bed. After a brief mental argument, he set his cards down and trotted over, picking up the rifle in his hooves.
"Rumble, what do you think you're doing?" Thunderlane asked.
"Relax, man, I just wanted to get a look at it. Dutch carries this thing around with him all the time and he's never told us what it is. I'm just curious is all."
"Maybe there's a reason for that." Shadow warned.
"Lighten up Mr. Explorer, I'm not going to do anything with it," he cradled the rifle as best he could and imitated the way Dutch held it as he lifted it into his shoulder, "You've got to admit this looks cool."
"Rumble, you don't even know what it does, let alone how to use it." Steel said.
"So? This lever here looks like it does something," after finding that his hooves didn't fit into the trigger guard, he shifted his wing in and pulled the curved lever. It moved, but nothing happened, "Huh, I could've sworn that would do something."
Thunderlane set down his own cards and joined Rumble, "Let me see that," Rumble tossed the rifle to him, and he caught it awkwardly in his hooves, "Man, this thing is heavier than it looks."
He was about to examine the weapon too, when the door opened and Dutch entered the room.
As I walked into the dorm, the first thing I saw was Thunderlane holding the rifle, with Rumble next to him. I only felt surprise though, as Thunderlane went wide-eyed at my presence and slowly placed the rifle back on the bed.
"Sorry sir," he said quickly.
"Yeah, we were only going to look at it," Rumble added.
I sighed, "It's fine. I should have shown it to you anyway. If I'm going to be working with you guys, you might as well know what it is."
Steel and Shadow had joined us as I walked over to the bed and sat down, picking up the rifle and resting it on my lap, "It's called an assault rifle. It's a weapon from my world, and the Princess built it using my memories. While I won't go into specific details, I can tell you a few basics on how it works."
I fished into my pack and pulled out one of the magazines, "Imagine this weapon is a wierd-looking crossbow," I removed a round from the magazine, "This is a round, and would be the bolt for the crossbow. When this is loaded into the weapon, I pull on the trigger here and it causes a small explosion inside here," I pointed at the casing, "And it launches this part out of the barrel faster than the speed of sound."
I pointed at the bullet, and Rumble laughed, "That little bit there? That can't do much."
"You'd be very wrong," I said, "If you got hit with this, it would go straight through you and leave a hole the size of my fist," I clenched my hand to show them, "And because it's faster than sound, it'll hit you before you even know it was fired."
Thunderlane let out a low whistle, "From the sounds of it, you could put a hole in Mare-Do-Well with that thing."
Rumble snorted, "Nothing can put a hole in Mare-Do-Well," his curiosity apparently satisfied, he changed the subject, "So what did Ironhoof want you for?"
I didn't want to make a massive speech about it, so I kept it brief, "A briefing. He's got a mission for us."
"Already?" Shadow asked, "We only passed training a few hours ago."
"Well I guess he thinks we're good enough," I said, "They'll be an airship waiting for us in the field at 2200 hours. Captain Wingfleet will be going with us, so at least we'll have him if something goes wrong. Get your gear sorted and get ready for an airdrop. Let's prove to Ironhoof that we've earned these badges."
They all grinned and said, "Yes sir," moving to their equipment and getting ready for the evening.
This airship was larger than the ones used in training, about half the size of a barn as we climbed onboard with our equipment. Wingfleet was already inside, and he led us to one of the walls, where a map was pinned.
"Glad you could make it Emerald. We recently recieved intelligence from a member of the Equestrian Secret Service that there is a bandit camp operating in this area," he pointed at part of the map, which was circled in red ink, "Tonight, we're going to be raiding it."
"So what's so important about this one camp? There are dozens around Equestria." Thunderlane said.
"The ESS agent reported that there was an ancient magical artifact inside the camp, something that's been around almost as long as the Princesses. Something like that is of great importance, and could contain vast amounts of power. We certainly don't want that in possession of bandits. Our objective is to airdrop in, retrieve the artifact, and get out, simple. In the event that we can't fly back out, there will be a team of unicorns that have been performing reconnaissance in the area. We can contact them and get them to teleport us out."
"What kind of opposition are we expecting?" I asked as I studied the map of the camp.
"Not more than a dozen ponies. Should be fairly simple to get past them, especially at night. They won't be expecting a team of Royal Guard."
"What are the rules of engagement?" Steel asked.
"Non-lethal. We will send a larger force to capture them at a later time, but only fire if fired upon. That means don't kill them Dutch."
I gave a deadpanned expression as I looked at Wingfleet, "Understood."
The airship moved slowly to prevent us being seen before we reached the camp, and a few hours after taking off, Wingfleet motioned us to stand up and check our equipment.
"We're over the target coordinates," he said, "Operation begins."
He handed us each a small gem, which glowed in the darkness of the night, "These will keep us together. They'll flash when we reach 150 metres, spread your wings when they do."
I strapped the gem to my wrist and watched the pegasi do the same.
"There's not much wind in the jump area. Deflection will be minimal. Keep an eye on your gems and descend steadily."
A unicorn walked up to us and lit up his horn, giving the ship a red glow.
"Check your equipment and get ready," Wingfleet called to us, and we checked the straps on our webbings. I pulled a magazine out of my own webbing and inserted it into the rifle, pulling back the charging handle but keeping the safety on. The pegasi had crossbows for their own defence, as we weren't expecting much resistance.
"Shadow, Rumble, open the doors!" Wingfleet commanded. The two pegasi pulled open a large pair of doors on the ship, and we switched to telepathic communication as the rush of wind drowned out our voices.
"Stand by the door and get ready to jump. Remember, we don't leave without that artifact." We waited for the signal, and after another ten seconds, the unicorn turned the light in his horn green.
"Alright, go, go!" We jumped out of the ship and straightened ourselves out, falling as fast as our bodies would allow.
"Keep together, don't spread to far," Wingfleet called to us, and I focused on the glow of my squadmates' gems, as well as my own. After several seconds of freefalling, the gem started to flash vigorously, and the pegasus Captain said, "Now!"
We spread our wings, and our speed lowered dramatically. We broke through the low cloudline and the camp came into view. There were a few lights inside some of the tents, and in the corner was a more solid building. Its concrete shell made it look like a bunker. If anything valuable was here, it would most likely be stored in there.
We circled the camp once to spot as many bandits as we could, before Wingfleet said, "Head for the structure in the corner." I lowered myself and glided down to the bunker, dropping into the dirt and keeping myself low, listening for any signs of movement.
The rest of the team landed nearby, taking cover behind a wall or a tent while Wingfleet planned our next move. I hugged the wall and moved to a corner to keep lookout. Just as I was about to peek out, I heard Shadow say, "Watch out sir, you've got one heading straight for you!"
Wingfleet, taking cover behind a green tent next to the bunker, said, "Jones, take him out quietly. The rest of you, get ready to stack up on the door."
I slung my rifle and listened for the sound of hooves getting closer. They slowly became louder, and when I saw a hoof come into view, I acted. Darting round the corner, I quickly identified the bandit as a unicorn. As his eyes went wide and his mouth moved to shout, I smashed a fist into his face and pulled him round the corner, wrapping one arm around his neck in a choke-hold and grabbing his horn tightly with the other. Upon finding my grip was preventing him from casting spells, he tried to scream, but his windpipe was sealed, and his eyelids slowly closed.
"He'll have a headache when he wakes up, but he'll be fine." I said as Emerald Squad left their hiding spots and moved to my position.
"Jones, Thunderlane and Rumble, hold here and keep watch," Wingfleet instructed, "Steel and Shadow, on me." He pushed the thick metal door open with a foreleg and moved inside, his crossbow raised. The other two pegasi followed him inside and out of sight. As they entered, the weight of the door made it slowly close itself. I was thankful that it didn't make any noise.
After a moment of silence, Wingfleet spoke again, "We've reached another door, and there are voices on the other side. We're preparing to breach."
"Copy that." I replied. There were a few more seconds of quiet, before a crash of wood as the door was bucked in. A muffled yell could be heard, before silence once again filled the camp.
"Room clear, two bandits down," Wingfleet reported, "There's a crate here, standby. Got it, the artifact is secure, repeat, the artifact is secure. Let's get out of here."
"Wait, what's that?" I heard Steel's voice this time, and there was a pause. Eventually, Wingfleet spoke again, "Jones, I'm sending Shadow up to take your place. Get down here, there's something you need to see."
"Oh man, why are you leaving us with Mr. Explorer?" Rumble asked, obviously annoyed.
"Now isn't the time, Rumble!" Wingfleet answered, aggression abundant in his voice, "Captain, get down here, now!"
Shadow came out of the door, and I announced I was coming down, descending the stairs and walking through a broken wooden door. Wingfleet and Steel were waiting for me, standing over two unconscious earth ponies.
"Over here." Wingfleet said, using his voice this time as he directed me over to a dark corner of the room. Despite the darkness, I could make out the shape of a creature lying on the floor, passed out. However, its appearance shocked me to my core.
The creature was almost six feet long from head to toe, and most of it body was covered in dirty, torn fabric. Blood was visible on its body, which was completely hairless, showing pale-tan skin. It had a flat face, its mouth and nose shorter than that of a pony's, and its expression was pained. As I looked up and down the creature multiple times, a single thought entered my head:
I guess I'm not alone after all, huh Ironhoof?