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Prepare for War
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow
Carmine watched as the spiked figure of Sharptooth disappeared into the waning sunlight. She shielded her eyes with a wing, and clicked her beak worriedly.
"Spill it, C. I've seen you flapping around town," Beth said, "only place you could've been going is Sharptooth's place."
Carmine looked her friend in the eyes, "I've been watching those diamond dogs, B. They're all from the same pack, ain't they, Butch?"
Butch nodded, looking back briefly as the muted sound of hammers filled the air. A foal missed a swing, a window shattered. "The pack Elders don't like it. This is our packs' territory."
"Neither does our pride. Tribe Chief Solace has called Council several times. No idea what they've been talking about..."
"What do they want though?" Bella asked, her horned head swinging to a fro on her long equine neck as she searched her friends' faces.
"The dragon says they want a map, but the map's wrong or something. I don't know where it is, he hasn't told me, but he said they wouldn't believe him if he gave it to them and it'd cause more trouble if he did. I think they're looking for it anyway, and aren't going to leave without a fight."
"Then," Ruff, the smallest diamond dog spoke up, floppy ears folding down nervously as everyone turned to look at him, "how are they going to know where to look?"
"He's got a point," Penny said, "if you were looking for a map, where would you go?"
"The library!" Bella said, leaping in the air. She blushed and looked at her hooves as she landed, but raised her head again when she realised everyone else was nodding in agreement.
"Library's closed early today," Ruff said, then he looked embarrassed. He liked the Daring Do comics, and checked them all out regularly.
"I don't think they're going to ask." Butch said.
"We've gotta get there, then, warn them if they don't know, help if they need it," Carmine squawked, pattering away and half-spreading her wings for takeoff, "Beth and me, we'll head to the library. Diamond dogs can't fly, we'll be safe"
"We'll take the subway, they won't risk trouble on our patch." said Butch, grinning and flexing his forepaws meaningfully, "we'll pick up Thorn and check on Beryl."
"I'm not gonna run around through town with crazy diamond dogs!" Bella complained, stomping her hoof.
"Maybe you don't need to," Penny said, grinning, "I know where they keep the pegasus chariot, and I've been practicing."
The late afternoon sun blazed warmly, though the crisp chill in the air spoke of an approaching winter. It would be a cold night, as usual for the desert. Birds were circling lazily with not much to do. From a distance, this would have looked normal, peaceful even. For those who lived in Tacksworn, however, the atmosphere was distinctly off.
A non-descript diner stood on the corner of the high street; it featured large glass windows, pretty curtains and a flickering brightly-lit sign proclaiming 'good eats'. Again, from the outside, it was peaceful. The illusion was shattered when a two hundred pound diamond dog troll exited the building via said oversized windows in an explosion of shards that formed a tinkling rain, covering the sidewalk.
"Beryl is saying again! Your kind not welcome here! Thorn and Dozer, to be showing this one the door too." Beryl, the somewhat short and stocky diamond dog owner of the titular 'Beryl's Place' cafe, brandished one of her heaviest pots by the handle. In her thick claws, the large black pig-iron creation that could have almost cooked an entire pony became a crude but effective club. How good a club had just been discovered by one of the newcomer diamond dogs, though asking him how good the club was would have been rather difficult owing to the fact he was out cold, sporting a lump so large it was even visible under the thick coats said diamond dogs wore.
Thorn and Dozer picked him and heaved him through the shattered window after his friend. He landed in an unceremonious heap in the hard-packed dirt outside. Three more were cowering in the corner, whimpering, as Beryl's gaze moved back towards them. She slapped the pot-club against her oversized paw and growled
"Thorn, baby?" Beryl said, her steely gaze never leaving the strangers.
"Have never been liking booth number three. Whole table must go."
Thorn grinned, and nodded at Dozer. Together, they yanked the table out of the ground, bolts and all. Then they heaved it at the three diamond dogs in the corner. It and them, as they made a mad dash for the nearest window, exploded into the street. After a few moments of staggering and head-shaking, they got up and ran for their lives, yelping as they went.
"Am thinking they not come back in hurry," Beryl snorted. She fetched a wet rag from behind the bar. She ran it under the faucet and squeezed it out. Satisfied with the state of it, she yanked on Thorn's ear until, protesting, he bent down so she could dab at the scratches on his face. Beryl turned her son's head this way and that until she was happy, then let him go with a parting tap to his cheek. She then moved onto her adopted pack members and saw to their injuries as well. Luckily they'd been light, so far, but it didn't mean things would stay so fortunate. "Am to be closing shutters, youngsters. Will be no more customers today."
"I think they could use you at the school." Butch said, looking at Thorn and then back at Beryl, "Miss Calligraphy is..." Butch tried to explain.
"Mistress Calligraphy is having buck that makes wrong pony think twice," Beryl smiled toothily, "same trick is working on diamond dogs. But Beryl help. Will be travelling diamond dog metro." Thorn's mother headed into the back of the shop. The children in the front carried on tending minor wounds, Ruff and Digger keeping watch through the two faces of the restaurant respectively. Beryl yanked on a large switch that spat sparks as it connected, making the lights flicker and sending a smell of ozone wafting through the diner. With an odd buzzing noise from the windows, the night shutters came down, sending the cafe into semi-darkness.
"Out front door, Beryl is going out via basement. Must lock up."
Carmine and Beth circled the town warily, landing on clouds and peering intently at the ground. It didn't take long before signs of trouble manifested. A scuffle broke out around one of the two hotels in the area when a couple of the stranger diamond dogs were harassing a local, which of course brought in more locals and more strangers. The word "hotel" was a bit generous for "pub with rooms for the drunks to sleep it off in", but it was a favourite spot for the locals. Most of Tacksworn was a favourite spot for the locals. Foreigners tearing up the place didn't sit well. Tempers were flaring, and that wasn't all.
"Bloody shards, they've set it on fire!" Beth swore, pointing, as the side of the wooden building flared up in smoke and flames, belching out from inside. A group of ponies and diamond dogs spilled out into the streets, one of them pointing up at a window on the second floor, and screaming.
"mud-brained mongrels... don't they know there're kids in there!?" Carmine swore as she saw two little figures wailing, waving their hooves out through the window. "I'm... I'm going in. My dad's gonna kill me if I burn to death..."
"I'll go find the weather patrol, where in the nine bent beaks of the great egg mother are all the damned pegasi? And the fire-ponies?"
Carmine swore again, pointing at more plumes of thick, black smoke rising over the usually quiet desert town. "Busy."
Beth dived in search of pegasi that could hopefully scare up some rain, or at least funnel some water from the Tacksworn Reservoir. Carmine swooped down to where panicked shouting was turning to screams, before tucking herself up smashing through the window. The flames were starting to engulf the building, and there was precious time to waste.
She rolled to a stop and shook her head, "Hey kids," Carmine shook glass and wood fragments out of her wings, "anyone else up here?"
"Uh-uh..." The smallest, a unicorn filly, wiped her muzzle with a hoof, "b-but mama told us to st-stay in-inside but the f-fire..." She pointed at the door, which was closed. Smoke was pouring in under it.
"You two ever been flying? No?" Carmine looked at each one, giving them a grin, "Well, today's your lucky day." She picked them up, scooping them both under one forepaw, before backing up almost against the door. She squawked as the blistering paint sizzled her backside. Whipping her tail against the painful spot, she galloped awkwardly towards the window, and leaped.
"I don't think this is safe!" Bella shouted above the wind, cowering low in the small practice chariot.
"Course it is! Done this plenty of times!" Penny laughed, swooping and soaring in a maneuver that made the unicorn in back whimper.
"With a live passenger?"
"Well, with Chuck the rock. But I only dropped him once. Or twice."
"I swear by Celestia's bushy blue beard, Bright Pinion, if you drop and kill me I, Isabella Liriope, will never speak to you again."
"Ponyfeathers!" swore Penny.
"I mean it!"
"No, I mean, look, fire! We'd better go help!"
"Fire? They're burning Tacksworn?" Bella peered over the edge of the chariot, eyes wide.
"I don't know! But that's what we're out here for, right?"
"How good are you at hovering?" Bella hazarded.
"Then how are you at rooftop landings?"
Penny swooped past the building, a shop selling horseshoes, ploughs and an assortment of other tools. Most of them unfortunately made of wood, and classable as makeshift weapons. That, and the crowd gathered outside, was probably what led to it being torched. The building next door, a multi-storey apartment block, was thankfully mostly empty as the town was rather small. Unfortunately, that was only mostly. It was also on fire, having caught from the adjacent shop.
"Where the heck are the fireponies?" Bella shouted, "Some pony's gotta do something!"
Penny swooped around, "Firefighting, look at them all!"
Bella shuddered. Tacksworn was burning. "Whoever these diamond dogs are, they aren't very smart! They're looking for a map, maps are usually drawn on something that burns!"
"Whoever said 'smart' was a diamond dog trait?" Penny snorted.
"I've got an idea!" Bella shouted, horn glowing, as she leaped out of the chariot.
"Bella NO!" Penny watched, aghast, as the unicorn sailed through the air. The pegasus blinked; Bella was literally sailing through the air, as light as a feather. "What did you-?"
"Slow-fall, remember? Dad said I wasn't allowed up your eyrie without it. It doesn't last long, but it'll last long enough to get the people next door off the roof!"
Penny whooped for joy as Bella started shepherding ponies to leap off of the building, finally following them herself. Penny landed in a dusty cloud, shrugging herself out of the chariot to run up and hug Bella.
It was a chorus of growls that broke them apart, and only then did Bella and Penny both realise they were right in the middle of two warring parties. They both flinched, cowering.
"Boss said no move." one of the stranger diamond dogs chewed out, raising a large paw that was more of a claw, "Boss no like when not listen."
"There were folk burning in there! We were supposed to leave them?" shouted one of the earth ponies, ears flattening against his skull as he bristled, pointing with a hoof.
"No move is no move!"
"Boys, I think we've had enough of this. Get 'em!" a particularly stocky earth pony, large and brown with a glossy black mane and tail, roared, as he lowered his head and charged.
The diamond dogs, ready and waiting for a rumble, snarled and cracked knuckles or stretched their forepaws, dragging long furrows through the ground as it parted like tissue-paper beneath their claws. Tacksworn diamond dogs joined the battle alongside their pony and griffon brethren, and the two sides thundered towards each other.
Bella screamed, flinching, and her horn burst into light. Penny whimpered, hunkering down with Bella, until the sudden lack of rending and tearing made her look up. Odd shadows were passing overhead. It was the intruder diamond dogs, whimpering, kicking and clawing at nothing as their abnormally light bodies floated through the air in a leap that left them helpless..
The large brown stallion grinned as he picked up an axe-handle billy-club and addressed the townsfolk around it, "I think it's time for some piñata dog."
The spell wouldn't last long... but it would last long enough.
The train station in Stalliongrad was huge, mostly due to the amount of on and off-loading of goods. Not much grew so well in the mountainous regions surrounding the enormous city, and with the city being the largest population centre, it didn't make much food itself within the walls.
The evening had turned to night, but the seemingly perpetually foggy streets were still thronging with traffic. A lot of it seemed to be heading up to the remains of the erstwhile Irontail estate. Chip could see the flames even from this distance, lighting the sky in a sickly orange glow. The shouting of fire-ponies and spectators alike reached even here. It seems everypony loves a good show, he thought ruefully to himself. He glanced back at the subdued Silver Chalice and Sunshine Filigree. One was glaring at him, a very hard expression on his muzzle. The other looked simply worn and sad. Sunshine caught his gaze, but averted her eyes.
Chip sighed, "Pig Iron? Do you have a scroll and a pen and ink?"
Pig Iron raised an eye-ridge, but nodded, "Hairpin, do you mind?"
"Anything for my master." she gushed, fluttering her eyelids. Chip groaned, but took the proferred items gratefully in his mouth. Hairpin lingered longer with them in her muzzle on the hoof-over than was strictly necessary, causing Chip to blush as they brushed whiskers. She nickered in laughter as he bolted. Pig Iron raised a claw to admonish her, but she turned her flank to him, eyeing meaningfully at her changed cutie-mark. He scowled and she stuck her tongue out. At that, the dragon laughed before bowing solemnly. She wasn't his, and he knew the rules just as well as she did.
"You take such insubordination from your slaves?" grunted Silver Chalice, chewing off the last word angrily as Hairpin Turn fluttered to roost high up in the iron rafters of the station, keeping watch.
"I fear I spoiled her when I raised her, pet. She has always known where she stood, and it ever was just out of reach. Now she is Chip's tailache, much as I regret seeing her go." The dragon sighed softly, smiling, "I don't suppose..?"
"I can offer you a contract, a fine strong stallion like yourself is... worth a lot, to the right breeders."
"I have a fine mare of breeding age, a pegasus, Hairpin's sister-"
"I will never sell a foal of mine into slavery-"
"Again, at least."
"Quite." Silver Chalice glowered.
"Besides, I may not need that contract. She waits tables in my pet's bar." Pig Iron grinned, smugly, at the look of rage that flourished upon the unicorn's brow.
Chip returned, a rolled-up scroll in his muzzle, which he planted at the hooves of Sunshine. "Put this in Sharptooth's box. It will open for you, now, as it would open for me... but I ask you not to read it, not yet. Read it before I set you free, you'll want to make sure all of your stuff is out of that box before I do, otherwise you'll have to wait for me to come retrieve it."
"What is it?" Sunshine asked, searching Chip's face.
Chip grinned, his ears perking forwards, "A surprise. For now though, keep it under locks. Stay with Pig Iron, do as he says. He will keep you safe. And... I'd better take all my stuff. Never know when I might need it."
The train station was busy, packed with ponies loading the night freight. The mail-train was huge, maybe two or three hundred pony-lengths. There was a team of just six to pull it, set incongruously in front of a steam-engine. The teamsters were huge too, thick set Shires from the North Eastern farmlands, with iron-shod hooves that were as big as dinner plates. They each wore a harness that appeared to be made of thick leather - Chip had no idea what from, but it looked seriously designed - that encircled their powerful chests and broad shoulders. Hitching them up was relatively difficult as the harness itself was complicated. It featured a quick release system in case of trouble, a brake built into what amounted to a sled they could stand on for going down hills, and a buffer at the front that was apparently for removing snow or other obstacles from the tracks. Chip glanced up at his pegasus, who was eyeing them like they were her next meal. For all he knew, they were. He briefly had nightmares about being presented with a foal, and being expected to pay for 'services rendered' to every stallion from Mareicious to Ponbay. He shook his head, that sort of trouble wasn't something he'd have to worry about, was it? Again, he found it unsurprising that the feathered bundle of trouble had landed in his lap, metaphorically speaking. Oh goddesses, let it stay metaphorically.
"You'd better get on, lad." Pig Iron said, nudging Chip with a wing, "They'll be setting off soon, and the fewer who see you, the better. I know your uncle is dead, bastard deserved it, but you and I both know it's not going to stop there, is it?"
Chip shook himself, and nodded, as he double-checked his saddlebags before pulling their straps tight with his teeth. A few gems, the black square of cloth, the newly-borrowed writing implements - he'd totally give those back if he didn't think Hairpin would take advantage of the proximity again - and very little else apart from his armour.
"Ready?" Pig Iron asked.
"As ever. Hairpin, get down here. On the train. Pig Iron, please keep them safe. They're... not exactly on loan, but..."
"I will treat them as you would treat them, young dragon, as much as I disapprove of that idea. They are nominally still your kin, I will spoil them as rotten as I managed to spoil Hairpin, and work them just as hard. They may not want to leave."
"Take good care of them. I don't know how to repay you."
Pig Iron grinned, "I'm working on that, though your pet is strangely adverse to the idea."
"Oh?" Chip glanced at Silver Chalice and then down at Sunshine.
Pig Iron snorted in derision at that, "The filly? Shells, no! I doubt they'll be here long enough for her to mature. I am, however, sadly lacking in unicorns. The mare I have in mind for that ex-royal guard of yours is ever so pretty a pony, or so my other pets tell me. She's certainly pleasing to the eye enough for the crowd that visit my bar."
Chip rolled his eyes, "Absolutely not-"
Silver clopped forwards, angrily, "Now see here! I'll spend time with whomsoever I choose!"
"...Without his consent." Chip added weakly.
Pig Iron grinned wider as he neatly snookered the stallion, causing Silver to scowl more.
Chip turned solemnly to Silver, "I'm sorry."
"Whatever, Master." Silver Chalice spat, turning away.
"Sunshine, keep your father and yourself safe? Please? For me? And... I am sorry. I hope, one day, you can forgive me." Chip cast his eyes down, looking at his hooves.
Sunshine nuzzled the pony-shaped dragon on the poll of his head, "One day, maybe, when this is all over."
"I did it to save your lives." Chip whispered.
"By taking them from us," Sunshine replied, just as softly, "I'm glad I get to say that, but I'm not glad I have to."
"I hope, when you get my present... you'll forgive me." Chip tried to smile, nervously, flashing furtive glances at Silver, who was now a thundercloud of disapproval.
"Good luck, master." Sunshine kissed Chip on the forehead.