By Dusk Quill
Flickering candles lit the large library annex of Canterlot Castle, throwing dark shadows across the walls and floor in every direction. The dim orange glow barely lit the room, the night engulfing the structure like a thick blanket. Not even the moon shone through, a thick layer of clouds darkening the nighttime sky, blotting out the celestial heavens above as it dropped a steady rain across the sleeping city.
Towering oak bookcases filled with ancient texts and lore reached the high vaulted ceilings, looming over the sole occupant of the room. The lone pony stood at one of the many large tables in the library, a collection of books and scrolls strewn about the wooden surface. Pale magenta eyes weighted down with great burden scanned across every item, a mournful look glinting in those eyes.
The rhythmic sound of rain against stone and glass was broken only momentarily as the library doors opened mutely, followed by the soft clop of hooves on the floor. A pale yellow Unicorn pony walked up beside the statue-like Alicorn standing sentinel at the desk, the way she had been when the Unicorn had left her last. Her horn glowed a bright purple as she levitated a cup and saucer over to rest on the table beside a stack of books.
“Your tea, your highness Celestia,” she said plainly, dismissing herself at the Alicorn’s acknowledging nod.
Princess Celestia waited until she heard the doors open and close again before she let her mind focus on her work before her again. In the low light, she looked tired, weary with the weight of a thousand decisions, a calm yet sad frown touching her lips. She knew what each of these scrolls, reports, and books contained; they would all be the same, with the same ending. But try as she might to deny it, she knew the outcome wouldn’t change, no matter how much she hoped differently.
A golden yellow glow of magic surrounded the cup filled with piping hot tea as Celestia lifted it to her lips, taking a long swallow of the soothing, strong liquid. It comforted her, but only for a moment. A flash of lightning illuminated the archives as she placed her hoof upon the nearest book, a non-descript basic brown leather journal, and dragged it closer. No title was inscribed across the cover, nor was there any trace of it being anything more than a commonplace diary.
But she knew better than to judge a book by its cover – especially this book.
Swallowing hard to keep herself collected and together, Princess Celestia flipped open the cover. Inside, the first page had no publication information, but a short segment of text scrawled across the center of it. Her eyes danced across the words slowly, memorizing each and every one as if they meant the world.
Personal Journal Belonging to:
3rd Company, Royal Canterlot Reserve
If found, please return.
A deep breath, another sip of tea, and Celestia steeled herself to continue. Turning the page, she came across a larger mass of text: the first entry of who knew how many. Her regal face still as solemn and still as an effigy, she continued on, only her eyes and the flames of the candles wavering back and forth.
I’m writing in you for the first time ever! Well, mostly because this is the first day I’ve ever had you, but still, it’s the excitement that counts, right? My good friend Skychaser gave you to me as a present for graduating boot camp. Oh yeah, I’m in the Royal Guard! Well, okay… Royal Guard Reserve, technically, but it’s pretty much the same thing. It just means I won’t be going around protecting Princess Celestia or standing like a statue around Canterlot. I’ll be patrolling around Equestria instead wherever they decide to garrison me, and you’ll be coming along on all my adventures. Finally, I get my chance to live my dream and serve my country. Brace yourself, Journal, here we go!
The sound of rolling waves surrounded the vast shore along the coast of Equestria. Celestia’s bright sun threw warm rays of golden light across the land. The sky was a clear, solid cerulean, and the peace was broken only by the occasional call of gulls. It was the definition of a tranquil seaside.
Two ponies walked side-by-side along the only road within miles – a single dirt trail that ran the length of the beach. Both ponies wore a suit of lustrous golden armor, glistening in the sunlight, and both had coats of pure white and ice blue eyes, as was the royal mandate for active duty soldiers. A long, wood and metal rifle was slung through the saddlebags on their backs, the bags filled with scouting supplies and ammunition. The only noticeable difference between the two of them was their bodies themselves: one being a Pegasus, the other a Unicorn. Otherwise, they looked like identical twins.
“Did we luck out or what?” the Unicorn said, nudging his partner with his shoulder and grinning from ear to ear, “Guard duty on the eastern shore! What could be better?”
“Maybe actually doing something instead of going on a hike?” retorted the Pegasus, clearly disheartened. The Unicorn nudged him again.
“Hey, c’mon, Fleethoof. You’re still doing what you want, buddy. You just get to enjoy the beach while you’re at it!”
“No, Steel, this isn’t what I wanted,” Fleethoof corrected, staring bitterly at the ground as they made their way along their route, “I wanted to be stopping crimes, or fighting bad guys, or doing something useful to protect Equestria! This is just… just… a nature walk! Busy work! We aren’t doing anything!”
“It’s not really that bad-”
“Yes, Steel Shield. It is.”
The Pegasus’ reply had been so sharp and sudden, it cut Steel Shield off and took him by surprise. The two ponies walked along in silence for a moment longer, Steel trying to think of some way to cheer up his friend. After a few moments, the Unicorn pony stopped where he stood in the middle of the road, looking up to his friend once he came to a halt a few paces ahead.
“What?” Fleethoof asked, a confused look across his face.
Steel was quiet for a moment before speaking up, “Would you mind helping me learn to… ya know… hold our guns?” Fleethoof stared in surprise for a few seconds.
“Again? Really?” The sheepish nod from his partner denied his assumptions that this was a joke. “We went over it dozens of times in boot camp!”
“I know! It’s just… hard…”
Fleethoof had prepared a sarcastic remark questioning how Steel Shield had gotten past basic training, but couldn’t bring himself to make it. Seeing his longtime friend actually admitting vulnerability and naivety was definitely out of character. But if he was going to stay alive in the Royal Guard, he was going to need to learn.
“Okay, okay…” he agreed with an exasperated sigh, sliding the rifle off of his back and into his hooves, sitting back on his haunches, “But only once more. Next time, you ask the captain.”
Steel Shield smiled and nodded in agreement, his eyes lighting up as he drew his weapon and fell to the same position as his friend.
“Okay, you know how to load it, right? Sit down, get a good grip on the stock, push the mag into the slot…” Fleethoof ejected his magazine and jammed it back in for demonstration, nodding as Steel followed his instructions, “Then slide the bolt back to chamber a round and slide it back into position.” Again, the young Pegasus demonstrated by sliding the bolt of his weapon back, revealing a shiny brass bullet in the chamber, then sliding it back into place.
“Yeah, I got that part. It’s the standing I can’t do,” admitted a very timid Steel Shield, ears folded back in an abashed way. The Pegasus soldier just rolled his eyes.
“It’s just like how musicians play their instruments, like cellos, violins, that sort of stuff. You just rise up onto your hind hooves, shift your weight back, and hold it,” explained Fleethoof, rearing up on his hind legs to a standing position, leaning on his rifle for some support before raising it up and leveling it out, “Then you take aim and squeeze with your hoof around the trigger.”
Steel Shield clumsily rose up on his hooves and shakily lifted his gun, taking aim down the barrel off into distant nothingness. He only lasted a couple of seconds before collapsing face-first into the dusty road, coughing and sputtering. Fleethoof fell back to all fours and facehoofed, shaking his head disparagingly.
“Don’t laugh,” came the muffled response of one facedown pony.
“I think this is past laughing,” he rebuked, still unable to keep a smirk off his face, “Steel, you’re a Unicorn. Just use your magic like they showed you in training.” Steel Shield lifted his head quickly, eyes narrowed and burning with determination.
“No way! That’s the easy way out! I wanna learn it the proper way.”
“The proper way is going to get somepony killed,” warned Fleethoof.
“Yeah, the enemy!”
“There is no enemy, Steel.”
All Fleethoof could do was look down incredulously at his dirtied up friend before walking back off down the road. He could hear the scuttling and scraping of hooves on dirt behind him, followed by a burst of magic, and Steel Shield was back next to him again, grinning like an idiot.
“Needed a teleport to catch up? Am I THAT fast?” Fleet asked with a joking smirk.
Steel snorted and rolled his eyes. “Hey, if I’ve got the magical advantage, I’m gonna use it!”
“Except when it comes to fighting.”
The next thing he knew, Fleethoof was the one down in the dirt, courtesy of an extra firm shove from his partner. Before he could even grasp what was going on, the Unicorn was smiling and laughing, all while galloping away down the road. Fleethoof could feel his face go hot in embarrassment. Thank Celestia their commanding officer wasn’t around. They might have been fresh out of training, but even this foaling around would’ve gotten them kicked out. But it was all games with Steel Shield; it always was. And since their commanding officer wasn’t around…
“Oh, it’s on!” Fleethoof called out, wings extended out and flapping hard as he took off after his ‘mutinous’ partner. Both ponies pursued each other, one flying, one teleporting away, in a game of cat and mouse until their reached the end of their patrol route. Just as the sun began to set, the two friends and soldiers walked in unison back into their camp, as stern and attentive as ever – but with plenty of dirt covering their once white coats.
It’s me, again! Duh, who else? I got stationed out by Horseshoe Bay, at a military camp along the coast. It’s really pretty out here, but I’m focusing too much on my duties to really pay much attention to it. Steel Shield, one of my good friends from boot camp, is here with me too. He’s been assigned as my patrol partner, and we’ll be keeping the shore safe for everypony. How exciting, right? We’re guarding SAND… Not even Baltimare! Well, I guess you gotta start out small before you do anything big. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I’m transferred elsewhere, or something happens. Here’s hoping!
Oh yeah, we got chewed out today by Captain Phalanx for messing around while on duty. Thankfully, he didn’t kick us out (praise Celestia!) and just gave us kitchen duty for the week. Ugh… but better than being out of the job! Maybe now Steel Shield will start to take his duty more seriously too (yeah, AS IF). Write in you soon, Journal!
Today didn’t go so well. Actually, today went pretty horribly. My heart is still racing from what happened even as I’m writing this. I hope my hoofwriting isn’t too shaky for me to read later. Me and Steel Shield were patrolling our usual route along the beach when we heard something. We went to investigate, and… well… things got out of control – FAST…
“Come on!” whined the Unicorn.
“Aw, come oooooon!”
“What part of ‘no’ have you not been understanding the last twenty times?” Fleethoof snapped, irritation coloring his tone. Steel Shield rolled his eyes and huffed.
“It’s a dare! You have to do it!” the Unicorn challenged.
Fleethoof groaned and shook his head, knowing there was no getting off the subject unless one of them gave in, and he knew it wasn’t going to be Steel Shield. Reluctantly, he pulled his helmet off. The magic imbued in the armor now broken, the Pegasus’ coat began to change from a pure while to a deep crimson, his golden mane falling off down his neck in a messy wave. His eyes darkened from ice to sapphire, a deep blue standing starkly out against the blood red.
“Happy?” he muttered out, tucking his helmet into one of his saddlebags. Steel was grinning like he’d won the lottery.
“You’re a foal! A little foal!”
“I’m just trying to have SOME fun.”
“This is the Royal Guard. What did you expect, fun and games?” asked Fleethoof, looking over his shoulder at his pouting comrade with a look of disbelief in his eyes.
“No. But I wasn’t expecting completely silent patrol. Every. Single. Day.”
Fleethoof had to admit, this was quite possibly the worst and most boring guard station in all of Equestria. Hay, even the Trottingham Guard was probably more active than they were. What was so important about this coast anyway? Why had Celestia put a unit here? Either way, they had a duty to do, and he was going to see it through, even if that duty was nothing at all.
“I know, my friend, but that isn’t our call. We have to do what we’re told to do.” He could see the relenting look in Steel’s eyes, knowing Fleet was right, but not wanting to admit it. “Now come on, let’s finish our route so we can get back to camp and relax or play a game or something.”
Steel Shield grumbled something unintelligible before sulking along behind Fleethoof. The Pegasus just rolled his eyes and carried on. Their job wasn’t supposed to be fun. It was hard word and dedication. Not any pony could just do it.
Just as Fleethoof opened his mouth to suggest they request a transfer to another unit, a sharp crack like a firecracker was heard off in the distance. Both ponies stopped in their tracks, ears perked up as they looked around.
“Did you hear that?” Fleethoof asked his partner, receiving a nod as an answer.
“Yeah, it sounded like it came from over there,” replied Steel Shield with a motion of his hoof over a nearby hill.
The two guards made a beeline for the hill, hooves galloping across the soft, lush grass as they made their way to the top. When they hit the summit, Steel motioned to stay low, and both ponies lowered their bodies to a crawl across the grass. Down below, past the hill and a short distance away, they could see a group of three griffons surrounding a pony. The pony was lying in the grass, the green stained a heavy red, while two griffons loomed over something in their talons. Another held a small firearm in his grasp.
Fleethoof’s eyes widened in terror and shock as he realized what was going on, and what that sound had been. The first murder in his life, possibly in centuries, and it was right before his eyes. For a moment, he was frozen in shock, heart beating in his chest, mind racing with scenarios of what to do.
“Steel… Keep low… Let’s get out of here,” he whispered to his partner, “Get back to camp, tell Captain Phalanx… Let’s go, now…”
“To Tartarus with that!” Steel Shield hissed out, and Fleethoof heard the distinct sound of a gun bolt locking into place. His head snapped quickly to his side just in time to see the Unicorn rise up and lift his rifle.
“Steel, NO!” Fleet cried out, eyes wide as he reached to lower his friend’s gun, but it was too late. The sound of a single gunshot exploded next to the Pegasus pony’s ear, leaving a ringing in it and deafening him momentarily.
The ground beside one of the griffons exploded in a hail of grass and dirt, and all three tensed and dove to the ground, yelling out to one another as one pointed up to them atop the hill. ‘Oh horseappl-‘ crossed Fleet’s mind right before shot after shot ripped through the air past them, two griffons opening fire on them. He pushed Steel backwards onto his back and out of sight before running off back for the road.
Steel Shield was right behind him, and behind them the griffons had taken to the air, hearing their calls and taunts as they took potshots at the fleeing soldiers. There was a distinct lack of cover along the shore, the area as open as anything. The nearest shelter was a small group of trees a fair distance away, and beyond that the camp.
‘Not going fast enough not gonna make it we’re dead we’re dead oh dear Celestia we’re dead!’ raced through Fleethoof’s mind as they ran, unable to turn and return fire thanks to their unit’s lack of sidearms. If they could make it to the trees, at least then they’d have some cover for the time being. But could they make it?
As if a cruel ironic answer from the universe, a bullet flew right by the Pegasus’ ear, making him yelp in terror and run all the faster, adrenaline coursing through his blood urging him on. He turned to see how close they were – very – and to make sure Steel Shield was still beside him. Panic covered his friend’s face, along with a look of ‘oh horseapples, what have I done?’
“The trees! Go!!” Fleethoof yelled to his partner, flaring his wings and turning suddenly as an idea came to him. With a quick flurry, his wings kicked up a wall of dust and dirt into the air. Now provided with a temporary smokescreen, he took off, gliding above the ground as he watched the griffons crash to the ground, unable to fly through the dust. He grinned triumphantly, proud of his plan for all of two seconds before another couple of bullets came at him.
Steel reached the trees first, Fleet a moment after. Both ponies were panting hard, brows slick with sweat and eyes filled with fear. The Unicorn looked to the other pony, the age-old question in his gaze. What did they do now?
“Get your gun,” Fleethoof simply said, drawing his rifle from its strap on his back and checking to make sure it was loaded. Leaning up against the tree, he closed his eyes and prayed a silent plea to Celestia, hearing his friend chamber another round. He shut down, tuning out the ocean in the background and the sound of his own breathing, hearing only his heart pounding in his head. One. Two. Three!
Eyes snapping open, he pushed off and rounded the tree, rifle level and taking quick aim at the nearest griffon. Then he pulled the trigger. The force felt like he’d been bucked in the chest, and the sound was reminiscent of thunder. It felt nothing like boot camp – in a life or death scenario, with adrenaline in him and his existence on the line, everything felt tenfold.
He watched as the griffons veered back in midflight, eyes widened in surprise at the counterattack as they scrambled to find their own cover. None of them seemed hurt, and Fleet muttered a silent curse under his breath. There was another gunshot beside him, and he saw two griffons split off. Steel must’ve been aiming at one of them.
As fast as his shaking hooves could manage, Fleethoof ejected the spent round and loaded another cartridge, his eyes already seeking out another target. He picked one of the griffons, turning in flight and raising a pistol toward his Unicorn friend. Inhaling through clenched teeth, the pony lifted his gun again, aiming down the crude sights, and firing again. This time, as he was nearly blown back, he watched the griffon jerk backwards, and then fall out of the sky, crashing to the ground in a crumpled mass of feathers.
Fleethoof stared in disbelief, even as a second and third shot erupted beside him, waiting for the fallen enemy to get back up. He didn’t. Everything suddenly sounded distant and muffled, his ears ringing loudly like a thousand bells were inside them. He was vaguely aware of somepony mutely calling out his name to his side, but in the fog he was in, he could barely make it out.
And then the bark beside his head exploded and he felt somepony grab him and push him down. He blinked rapidly, coming back into the moment just as the griffons came back around for another pass. He heard Steel Shield start to say something to him, then heard a gunshot and felt the pressure of his friend’s hoof on his back disappear, followed by a cry and a dull thud.
“Steel!” Fleethoof called out, turning around to see said Unicorn on his back, clutching at his shoulder and wailing out in pain as blood ran down his leg.
Fleet grabbed his friend by the back of his metal breastplate and dragged him back behind what little cover they had. All around them, he could hear the taunting calls of the griffons. Cowards, chickens, a slew of insults coming at them from every direction. But at least the bullets had stopped for a moment.
“Steel Shield, listen closely to me. I need you to focus and put up a shield, okay?” Fleethoof said to his wounded partner, using all his strength to keep his words from trembling, “You hear me? You need to do it now; right now.”
Steel Shield whimpered in agony, then took several deep breaths and strained, his horn stuttering and faintly glowing as he attempted his spell. The sound of feet touching the ground hit fairly hard beside them, and Fleethoof turned to see one of the griffons just a few yards off from where they were, racking his pistol. The Pegasus felt his heart drop. This was the end.
Then, just as their enemy fired a shot, Steel’s shield formed around the two ponies, and the sound of metal hitting glass was all that happened. Fleet laughed breathlessly in relief as he stared at the infuriated griffon, who was now pounding on the magic bubble. They’d been saved by the skin of their teeth.
“Come out, you cowards! Die like the little ponies you are!” the griffon shrieked, his partner landing on the opposite side of the dome, “Maybe we’ll even make it quick for you!”
Fleethoof glared at the two avian creatures, standing protectively above the downed Unicorn at his hooves, even as he shook in fright. He didn’t know how long Steel’s magic would last, or how they were going to get out alive… but he was prepared to give his life to protect Steel Shield, and Equestria, from these murderers.
‘Celestia help us…’ he silently prayed. A miracle was what they needed. And that miracle came in the form of a distant gunshot. The shot struck one of the griffons square in the head, toppling him over beside the shield. Fleethoof blinked in shock, then he and the remaining griffon pivoted to see several ponies of 3rd Company charging down the road towards them, many already taking aim at the last standing enemy.
The griffon screeched in terror and took flight, making it about a dozen yards out before another sharpshooter took him down with one precise shot. By the time the other soldiers had converged on them, Steel’s magic had run out, and their shield was lowered. Several ponies rushed to get the injured Unicorn up and back to camp, while Fleethoof sat where he was, too much in shell shock to do anything. Through the crowd, Captain Phalanx made his way toward the stunned Private, looking over the pony, then the scene.
“What happened, Private?” he asked, voice stern and serious. Fleethoof didn’t respond, still staring blankly down at his own hooves as he caught his breath. He'd finally let himself break down.
“Private.” Fleethoof looked up. “What happened?”
“I… I… I don’t… know, sir…” he managed to blurt out, “Steel Shield… W-we… We found these griffons… They… killed a pony, sir… O-over past those hills. And… and then we ran… and they chased.”
The Captain pursed his lips and tersely ordered the lingering ponies to investigate Fleethoof’s claims. Once everypony was doing something, he turned his attention back to Fleet.
“Private, was that all?” he pressed, “This is important. Was there anything else?”
Fleethoof racked his brain for a moment, trying to recall every detail, no matter how insignificant.
“H-he had… something…” he added, pointing to the griffon he’d killed.
Captain Phalanx looked over the body, then went over and examined it, searching through the body’s satchel. He produced a few scrolls, unraveling each one with his magic and skimming through them. With each line he read, the commanding officer’s eyes grew wider with understanding.
“You took this one, did you, Private?” he asked as he stowed the scrolls in his saddlebags.
“I... Y-yes, sir… I did…”
Captain Phalanx walked back over and placed a hoof on the young Pegasus’ shoulder. “You did good, son. Very nice shot.”
“Everypony, back to camp! ASAP! Gather the bodies!” he called out to his troops, then turned back to Fleethoof, “And, Private… where is your helmet?”
Fleethoof gave Phalanx a confused look for a moment, then touched his hoof to his head. He had forgotten he’d taken it off. He had been more vulnerable than he had realized. Cheeks burning with embarrassment, he shakily slipped his helmet back on, his coat transforming back to the uniform white, and made his was back to camp, still trying to grasp what the hay was going on.
Steel Shield wasn’t too badly wounded. The doctors say he’ll be back up and walking on his own in no time. He didn’t see it that way, of course. I can’t get today out of my mind. All I keep seeing is me killing that griffon. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about that… Sad? Angry? I just feel numb. I didn’t even think. Does that make me a bad pony, Journal? Maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of life…
Whatever that griffon was carrying with him has been keeping the Captain on edge. I don’t know what’s on those papers that are so important, but he’s told me that I’m to accompany him to Canterlot tomorrow to deliver them to Princess Celestia herself. Obviously, they’re so important that the Princess has to see them immediately. I don’t know whether I should be excited or terrified… I guess I’ll find out soon enough…
Canterlot Castle never failed to awe Fleethoof. The massive corridors, expert stonework, and intricate detail woven into every nook and cranny of the monarchial structure were almost too much for him to take in at once. This was only his second time he’d ever been inside the castle itself, the other being his graduation ceremony. But this time, the castle wasn’t so extravagantly prepared; no band greeted his entry, no crowds applauded, and nopony seemed happy to see them.
Whatever they were here for, it wasn’t good.
He followed briskly behind Captain Phalanx, keeping close to his commanding officer, lest he fall behind and get lost in the labyrinth of hallways and rooms. The Captain was walking so fast, Fleethoof was having difficulty keeping up. Were they late? No, they’d made sure to arrive with plenty of time. What was going on?
Up another staircase, down another hallway, a couple nods from the stationed Royal Guards, round a corner, up some more stairs, more hallways – it never ended. Finally, another pony came up and walked alongside them, dressed in the same silver armor Captain Phalanx wore to signify his authority.
“Captain Cuirass,” Phalanx greeted with a solemn nod.
“Phalanx, you’re right on time,” the second officer greeted, glancing back at Fleethoof, “Your bodyguard?”
“The pony behind this discovery. I figured he deserved to be present for this matter.” Cuirass shook his head sternly.
“You know only officers are allowed in the Situation Room, Phalanx.”
“Then yes, he’s my bodyguard,” Phalanx corrected, drawing a wry smirk from Cuirass.
“Just through here, then,” replied Cuirass, leading them through a set of solid doors, four guards posted outside. Fleethoof entered slowly behind the two officers, and stared in awe.
The Situation Room was a large domed room, easily enough to rival the Cloudsdale stadium. The room was entirely stone, but it wasn’t the same as the castle. It was dark, natural looking rock, illuminated by large chandeliers hung overhead. Bookshelves and cabinets lined the walls of the room, filled with various scrolls and military accounts. At the center of the room sat a large circular table on a raised tier, a giant map of the world rolled out across its surface.
Ponies hurried about everywhere, taking and replacing books, writing on parchment after parchment, talking in hushed voiced back and forth. The ponies who sat around the central table all wore ornate armor and medals, clearly ponies of great importance. At the table sat Princess Celestia herself, her usually pleasant smile replaced by a look Fleethoof had never seen a royal wear before. The emotion in her magenta eyes was impossible to read.
“Come on, son,” Phalanx muttered to Fleethoof, nudging him gently to snap him out of his stupor.
“Where are we?” Fleethoof asked as he was pulled back into reality.
“The Situation Room. Where all of Equestria’s military intelligence is stored, and the officers of the Guard meet to discuss everything,” the Unicorn officer explained, “It’s built into the mountain Canterlot Castle is set on to keep it hidden and protected from enemy attacks.”
Both ponies walked up the stone steps and joined the others at the table, Fleethoof apprehensively taking a seat beside his Captain, keeping his head low. He felt out of his element. He didn’t belong amongst his superiors; he was just a soldier. But he did want to know what was happening, and his curiosity beat his humility.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, we have a very grave situation in our hooves,” Celestia said suddenly, beginning the meeting, “Yesterday, we received reports of griffon activity along our coastal border, including hostile activity. The griffons murdered one of our civilians in cold blood and opened fire on our soldiers.”
“Were the griffons apprehended, your majesty?” asked one of the officers. Celestia shook her head.
“No, they were killed in combat. We were unable to safely arrest them and interrogate them.”
“Do we know if they were simply bandits? Outlaws?” Captain Cuirass asked, putting a theory out on the table, “I would hate to think this was a deliberate act of violence by the griffon nation.”
Several other ponies at the table murmured in agreement. Celestia sighed heavily, and then levitated a document with her magic, passing it to Cuirass. His eyes scanned its contents quickly, and then his eyes went wide and jaw dropped.
“I wish they were just outlaws, Captain. They were not,” Celestia said grimly, eyes darkening, “If everypony would take a look at the documents in front of you now, it should all become clear.”
Simultaneously, everypony at the table opened the sets of scrolls before them. Captain Phalanx opened each one with his magic, laying them out on the table for Fleethoof to see. Despite trying his best to remain out of the matter, the Pegasus glanced over at their contents – and felt his face react the same way Cuirass’ had.
The scrolls were covered in notes and observations about the coastal cities of Equestria: population, military presence, nearest settlements, where their supplies came from, and more. Included were diagrams of soldier patrol patterns and photographs of the cities and military camps. Fleethoof recognized one of the diagrams as his station, including his patrol path with Steel Shield.
They were espionage documents. And each one bore the letterhead of the griffons’ king.
“As you can all see, these griffons were spies for their government, which means we can only conclude that this was deliberate and preparations for attack.” Celestia placed her hooves on the table, leaning across it slightly, “Fillies and gentlecolts, we need a plan.”
“Who was the pony the griffons killed? Was it circumstantial, or is that important?” Phalanx asked.
“My company has been investigating into it, but so far all we could pull up was that she was a fanatic with griffon history and lore,” one of the officers answered, “Without knowing too much more, I think we can safely assume she was a willing spy for the griffons who were tying up loose ends when they were finished.”
“A pony spy for the griffons would be less expected than seeing a bunch of giant birds taking pictures of everything,” Phalanx agreed, and Captain Cuirass nodded assent.
The table was quiet for a moment as everypony recovered from the initial shock and began thinking of strategies. Fleethoof was silent and still, finding it difficult to breathe as he took everything in. A few days ago, he would have given his left hoof for something to let him be an actual soldier. Now that it was happening, all he could feel was anxiety and worry. What had he discovered? What had he done?
“Have we sent emissaries to the griffons yet?” Phalanx asked after a moment.
“Yes, as soon as I received your letter yesterday, Captain,” Celestia said with a nod, “They should return any hour now.”
“Well, I think it’s obvious what needs to be done,” Captain Cuirass said, straightening up a bit, “We need to launch a counter offensive against the griffons. We can’t let them know we know what they’re up to and let them get away with it.”
“A war would terrorize the public. Equestria would be in pandemonium in a matter of days,” somepony retorted.
“If we don’t do anything, the griffons could launch a full scale attack on us now. We’d have to fight them on our shores and risk our civilians’ lives,” Captain Phalanx pointed out, “They’re gonna know we caught them. If war is on their mind, they’ll have nothing to lose by striking at us.”
One of the officers put his face in his hooves and shook his head in disbelief. “The griffons have never shown hostility towards us before. Why start now? What do they have to gain?”
“Equestria,” Cuirass simply stated.
“Long ago, the griffons owned the coastal regions of Equestria. They used them as fishing farms,” explained Phalanx, “When Equestria was first settled, the griffons didn’t take to ponies well at all. Our ancestors fought them, and drove them back into their homelands. This has to be their gambit to take back what they lost.”
Discussion and debate broke out amongst the officers. Fleethoof just continued to sit in silence, looking around at the chaos. Was this how war began? He looked over to Celestia, surprised to see the Princess with her head hung low, eyes sad and tired, like a pony that knew what the outcome was. She probably did, too.
After a long while of arguing over what course of action to take, the doors to the chamber opened, and in flew a light gray Pegasus pony with a bright gold mane and yellow eyes. She flittered through the air in every direction before coming to land on the table. She then smiled and briskly trotted across the map toward Celestia, pulling a scroll out of her saddlebags and handing it to her before flipping back into the air and gliding into the wall beside the door. She shook herself off, and darted back out.
Celestia smiled softly as she watched the pony fly away, then opened the scroll and lifted it to read. The entire room fell deathly silent as everypony watched the Princess’ eyes move across the text on the page, Fleethoof unconsciously holding his breath as he waited for something to happen.
Finally, Celestia rolled the letter back up and set it down, tears in the corners of her eyes as she cleared her throat.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, as of now, we are at war with the griffon nation.”
All at once, the room erupted into chatter and activity. The gravity of what was happening finally hit Fleethoof like a ton of bricks. The Pegasus’ heart was pounding in his chest. War; he had just witnessed Equestria officially go to war.
“A counter offensive is the only thing we can do now,” Cuirass pushed, pointing at points across the map, “The griffons have shown they have no problem attacking us, and now they’re going to. If we let them come to us, they have an entire coast to attack, and we have to spread our troops thin. But if we bring the fight to them, they know there’s only one place to go, and we can concentrate our forces there.”
Phalanx looked visibly concerned. "Bringing a fight to the Griffon Kingdom is going to cripple our army. Their lands are imbued with Arcanate, and we haven't included exposure to that stuff in our training for years."
"But letting the griffons come to us so we can be at full strength will put us at an instantaneous and greater disadvantage. We'd have no space for retreat if we needed the breathing room."
Several ponies nodded and voiced their agreement. Celestia remained silent. Phalanx and Fleethoof’s eyes roamed across the map before them.
“So, we should release an announcement to the public, so we can-”
Everypony looked up at Celestia suddenly. Cuirass continued, plainly questioning, “No, your majesty?”
“No, we aren’t releasing an announcement. I agree, we must fight back, but I also agree that worrying the ponies of Equestria and putting fear and doubt into their hearts will only lead to discord, and we CANNOT allow that at any cost,” Celestia stated, then looked upward at the ceiling, “Especially if anything else were to happen… I fear my little ponies would lose their harmony.”
“How do you plan to keep an entire war hidden from everypony in Equestria?” Cuirass inquired, leaning across the table toward his monarch, “Almost everypony in the Guard has family. How are we going to explain their sudden departure or deaths to them if there is no war?”
“I’m going to send everypony a letter,” said Celestia. Cuirass looked at her in confusion for a moment, then in surprise.
“Your highness, you’re going to use that magic again? We all agreed that it is completely unethical.”
“I understand, Captain, but if it will protect my little ponies and the peace in Equestria, then despite what I think of it, I will use it.” The look Princess Celestia gave her Captain with those final words emphasized that the discussion was over.
“Very well, your majesty…”
Celestia sighed, and then stood up. Everypony at the table followed suit, and rose as well.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, thank you all very much for being here today. I am sorry it had to be under these circumstances. Go, and prepare your soldiers. We will begin distributing the new weapons immediately in Fillydelphia, Manehatten, and Baltimare. All summoned troops are to report to any of those cities for deployment,” declared Celestia in conclusion, “Please, be careful, everypony, come back safely, and take care. You all carry the fate of Equestria with you now. Dismissed.”
Everypony gathered their belongings and began to head out – save for Captain Phalanx, Captain Cuirass, and Fleethoof. The two Captains looked at each other in dark understanding, and Cuirass crossed the room and pulled Phalanx into a hug.
“Take care, my friend,” he muttered, “I’ll see you out there on the battlefield.”
“Likewise, Cuirass. Take care of your soldiers, and look out for yourself.”
The two exchanged one more smile before Captain Cuirass saluted and walked slowly out of the Situation Room. Fleethoof watched the officer leave, then looked to his Captain, surprised to see a few tears touching the eyes of the hardened pony. Phalanx took a deep, steadying breath before turning to the young Private.
“Fleethoof, right?” Fleethoof nodded. “How’d you like your first wartime meeting?”
“I… don’t know, sir? It was… informative?” Phalanx laughed at the Pegasus’ naivety, then looked past his shoulder and saluted. Fleethoof turned around, and nearly fell over when he saw Princess Celestia standing behind him.
“Are we bringing new recruits to officer meetings now, Captain? I must have missed that memo,” Celestia remarked, the gentle smile touching her lips indicating her joking demeanor.
“Only when they start wars, your highness,” Phalanx returned the joke, making Fleethoof cringe slightly in guilt, “No, this is the pony who made the discovery on the griffons. I thought you would like to meet him, and I thought he deserved to know some of what he discovered.”
Celestia looked over the young pony, and smiled at him, but behind her smile, Fleethoof could see the sorrow and sympathy in her eyes for him.
“You are very brave, young soldier. You have done such a good deed for Equestria. What is your name?”
Fleethoof was stunned silent for a moment, before forcing himself to untie his tongue. “Fleethoof, your majesty. Private Fleethoof.”
Celestia blinked in surprise. “A Private? Such a new soldier made such a tremendous discovery? And still a Private?” she asked, and looked to Captain Phalanx, “Captain, I think this pony’s service has earned him a promotion, don’t you think?”
“I agree wholeheartedly, Princess.”
“It’s settled then!” the monarch decreed, “Congratulations, Corporal Fleethoof.”
Fleethoof could feel his mouth hanging open, but couldn’t bring himself to close it. Or blink. Or breathe. He finally managed to give a shaky salute, making the Princess laugh softly.
“Please, be careful out there, gentlecolts. The griffons are not to be trifled with lightly,” Celestia warned, “Come home safely, my little ponies.”
Her goodbyes said, Princess Celestia walked out as well, leaving a shocked Fleethoof and amused Phalanx to gather their belongings and head out. The two ponies were silent for most of the walk out of the castle, even though Fleethoof’s head buzzed with questions. It was only once they neared the foyer did he finally bring himself to speak.
“Captain… what’s happening?” he asked, not entirely sure how to phrase his question.
“We’re being deployed, Corporal. Tomorrow, everypony in the Guard will meet at the coastal cities and we’ll travel to the griffons by boat,” Captain Phalanx explained, “And when we get there, we show the griffons why no creature, pony or otherwise, threatens Equestria.”
“I… get that… But where are we going? That other Captain… Cuirass, he said there was only one place we could go.” Phalanx nodded and glanced at the Pegasus beside him.
“Have you never seen a map of the griffon kingdoms?” he asked, and then continued when the Corporal shook his head, “The griffon coast isn’t like ours. Their entire shoreline is mountainous, like their mainland. It’s sheer, and impossible to climb unless you can fly. But there’s one point on the coast, a city, where the mountains break and the land slopes gradually to the water. That’s where we’re attacking, since everypony can get up that beach.”
Fleethoof was beginning to get the idea, he thought. “And what is that city, Captain?”
“Skyfall. Named for where the high mountains fall into the ocean.”
Skyfall. Fleethoof committed the name to memory. If it was going to be his first major battle, he never wanted to forget it. Two other things bothered him though, and as they walked across the main foyer, he worked up the courage to ask them.
“What was Princess Celestia talking about, not telling the public and writing them letters?”
Phalanx looked at Fleethoof very seriously for a moment, scrutinizing his expression closely. The severity of the look in the Unicorn’s eyes shocked Fleethoof for a moment, and he regretted asking anything at all. The Captain waited until they had stepped outside before speaking.
“It’s a magic the Princess uses on letters she writes. It makes the readers believe whatever is written without question,” he explained in a hushed tone, “She’s only used it once before, during the Frozen North Offensive. She simply sends a letter to every soldier’s family, saying they’re being transferred to duty in some far off place, and they believe it. They think their son or daughter is guarding some barren place when they’re actually fighting a war.”
“I’ve never heard of the Frozen North Offensive, sir.”
There was a moment of silence between the two.
“But… what happens if they… die…?”
“Then it gets tricky…” muttered Phalanx, and sighed, “I’m not exactly sure the specificities of that, but she handles it in some form. She probably tells the family that there had been an incident, a bandit attack, or something, and they were lost. If too many die, I don’t think she could hide it then.”
"And, what is... Arcanate?"
Phalanx's eyes darkened and a small frown touched his lips. "Do you know how Unicorn magic works, Corporal?"
A chuckle left the Pegasus, who flapped his wings exaggeratedly to make a point. "I can't say that's something covered in Cloudsdale Flight School, sir."
"All across our world, there are reserves of mystical energy, called aether pools. These pools are like lakes of energy all over the world, and they are connected by rivers of this energy called ley lines. This is how our world is enveloped in mystical power," explained the Unicorn Captain, "Unicorns have the ability to tap into this energy. Our horns are sensitive to this stuff, and act as conductors for the aether. Depending on how we manipulate it, this is how we can cast different spells.
"Now, Arcanate is a mineral in the ground, found only in the Griffon Kingdom. For whatever reason, it acts as a buffer for this aether. The greater the amount present, the weaker a Unicorn's magic becomes, until it is rendered useless. The Griffon Kingdom is practically covered in Arcanate, and has no aether pools and no ley lines running across it. It's a magically devoid land. Now picture trying to cast even the simplest spell there when the ground you're walking on is practically solid Arcanate."
Slowly, Fleethoof was beginning to grasp the concept. "So Unicorns can't cast magic there?"
"Nope," Phalanx said with a shake of his head, "Well, not exactly... We used to have a training regiment in the Guard that taught Unicorns how to focus energy around it. Of course, our spells were much weaker, and were usually only effective to the caster, but we could do it. Now, for whatever sagely reason, they cut it from the program. Deemed unnecessary, I suppose, and saved on the budget..."
"So only some of the Guard can cast spells in the Griffon Kingdom?"
"Precisely. Only the few who were enlisted prior to the cut, and even then they would be limited to weak personal shields and short-range teleports at best."
In the timeframe of one conversation, Fleethoof had found himself very grateful for being born a Pegasus. He could only imagine how the Unicorns were going to take to being stripped of their magic. They'd truly have to rely on their strength and accuracy.
Silence passed between the soldier and the officer again. They stepped through the foyer and past the threshold, back out into Canterlot.
“I wonder why she said she was worried something else would happen… like she knew something would,” Fleethoof speculated out loud. It had since turned night, and he glanced up at the moon overhead, the pony head shaped craters a familiar sight across the surface.
“The princess works in mysterious ways, like she knows things, but pretends not to know them… Don’t worry yourself about the politics of the matter too much.”
“I’m confused, Captain…” Captain Phalanx smirked at Fleethoof as they boarded their carriage back to camp.
“Welcome to war, Corporal… Get used to it.”
3rd Company, Royal Canterlot Reserve
This is it… As of today, we are officially at war with the griffons – and I’m scared, Journal. I am so very, very scared. We were all given new weapons today in Baltimare. A bunch of officers went around handing them out. They’re rifles, but designed differently, and they can fire multiple shots just by pulling the trigger. I don’t know how that works, but it does. No more bolt reloading, so they’re faster. That’s good, right? We also got pistols and new armor. The armor we got is still pretty much the same, but lighter, more form fitting I guess, and it’s gray instead of gold. I guess it works better for camouflage in the mountains? I don’t really know.
I’m worried, Journal. What if I’m not good enough? What if I get killed as soon as we hit the shore? I keep thinking of my parents, what would they do? How would they react if they got a letter saying I wasn’t coming home? I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous in my life – but I knew it was coming, sooner or later. Tomorrow morning, we’re sailing across the sea to the city of Skyfall. I’ve written that name down in you about a dozen times now. I just can’t believe it’s going to be the first battle of a big war and nopony will ever know about it…
Oh, Steel Shield won’t be coming with us. At least not into this battle. He’s still recovering and can’t fight just yet, so I have to do this without my friend. Thankfully I still have Captain Phalanx to guide us. I trust him; he seems to have a lot of experience and know what he’s doing. I guess I’m going to see just how he got to be a Captain tomorrow.
If I don’t write in you anymore, Journal, it means I died I failed, and I am so sorry. Mom, Dad, I love you both. Just know I did what I loved, and I don’t have any regrets. Goodbye, Equestria. Maybe I’ll come home.
The next morning was one of the quietest Fleethoof had ever experienced. Not a single pony spoke as they boarded the ships at Baltimare Harbor. Only the sound of marching hooves filled the early morning air. A dense fog had settled over the ocean, making sailing a slow going process. Even the sound of the waves against the ship seemed mute and distant.
That had been hours ago. The sun hadn’t even been up then. Now, as they neared the shore of the griffon territories, morning light began to seep over the horizon, illuminating the fog barely above a dull, thick gray. Nopony spoke still. Some cleaned their firearms. Others looked at books, photographs, letters, or other mementos.
Fleethoof clutched his rifle tightly to his chest, focusing on keeping his breathing even and steady. His eyes always stayed fixated ahead, trying to see the first glimpse of the shore through the mist.
The magic on their armor had been turned off, so each pony had their respective coats, manes, and eyes. There was no need for superfluous uniformity outside of Equestria. It was also the first time Fleethoof had seen the Royal Guard like this. Everypony was somepony unique now, no longer just a uniform face in a sea of copies. It really hit home that every single pony lost today was somepony special.
Constant hoofsteps on the wooden deck were the only consistent sound beside the waves as Captain Phalanx walked up and down the rows of soldiers. He looked focused, calm, and ready, always turning to look forward on the minute. He was anxious to find the shore too.
Seconds seemed like minutes. Minutes dragged on like hours. Hours felt like centuries. Fleethoof’s stomach was in knots. How long was it going to take them to get there?
Then, just as he thought that, the Pegasus got what he wanted. Tall, looming silhouettes of mountains became visible through the fog, a darker gray against a gray canvas. Simultaneously, he and several other ponies perked up, realizing what they were seeing. In a matter of minutes, the entire ship had become aware, and the tension thickened tenfold.
“You see it, everypony. There, before you, is the home of the griffons, the very creatures that would see you all dead to take what they want,” Captain Phalanx shouted out, pointing towards the shore, “They do not care if you are a colt, filly, or foal. All they see is their own greed, and lives have no value to them. They would see ponykind pushed off the world if they had their way.”
Behind Fleethoof, a couple ponies shouted in agreement, voicing their support. The Corporal could see the eyes of some burning with anger, some with passion, ready to get off the ship and defend their homes. He just felt sick, his brow covered in nervous sweat. The cool ocean mist helped only a little.
“I can see worry in some of your eyes. But let me tell you, they are more worried over there, behind their high walls. Do you know why? Because they know the Royal Guard, Equestria’s elite, are coming for their tail feathers!”
Again, ponies called out in pride, some pounding their hooves in sync against the wood. Fleethoof could feel his spirits lifting from worry with each call and response of unity and support around him.
“Today we show the griffons that ponies are not pushovers. Today, we let them feel the strength of Equestria. And today, we strike back for harmony, security, and justice! Today we defend Equestria!”
Fleethoof’s eyes narrowed in determination as he lifted his head a little higher. With these ponies at his back and side, he felt secure in their strength and skill. They could do this. They would protect Equestria. The shore got closer and closer, only a few minutes away now.
“Lock and load, everypony. Today we prove ourselves as stallions and mares of Equestria. Today we take Skyfall!”
All around the ship, ponies began loading magazines into their rifles, prepping them for battle. Once Fleethoof had chambered a round in his rifle, he took a moment to look around him. Everypony else looked as ready as he did. Some kissed photos before slipping them into their helmets while others muttered quiet prayers. Beside him, a Unicorn was taking a long look at a photograph. Fleethoof looked over the picture of three ponies, two mares, one pale gray and one purple, and a blue stallion.
“Your family?” Fleethoof asked, breaking the silence, mostly to make himself feel better. Talking seemed to ease his nerves. The white unicorn looked up at him, and smiled as he nodded.
“Yeah. My parents and sister. They’re waiting for me back in Equestria,” he answered, slipping the photo into his helmet, “Do you have anypony back home for you?”
“My parents, back in Cloudsdale,” Fleethoof replied, “Are you from Canterlot then?” The Unicorn nodded.
“Yeah, that’s where they are – well, my parents at least. My sister just moved away to start her own life. I don’t even know if they know I’m out here…”
“Yeah, I wonder…” said Fleethoof, putting on his best poker face, “2nd Company?”
“1st. Out of Canterlot,” the Unicorn corrected, pushing his messy blue mane out of his eyes, “Yeah, I got pretty lucky out of boot camp.”
“I’ll say. I shot for that position, but got 3rd.”
“It’s not that bad. Canterlot gets kinda boring sometimes,” the Unicorn lied badly.
“Spare me,” Fleethoof returned with a smirk and a roll of his eyes, then extended his hoof to the pony, “I’m Fleethoof, by the way. Corporal, 3rd Company.”
The Unicorn pressed his hoof back against the Pegasus’. “Shining Armor, Corporal, 1st Canterlot Company. Nice to meet you, Fleethoof.”
“Likewise, Shining Armor,” Fleethoof said, glancing forward to see the shore just within reach, “Are you gonna watch my back?”
Shining Armor smirked and gave a sideways glance to Fleethoof. “As long as you’ve got mine.”
“Promise.” Fleethoof couldn’t help but smirk as well. Then the ship lurched suddenly, and everypony looked as shocked at he did.
“Get ready, fillies and gentlecolts! On my signal, we take the beach!” Captain Phalanx called out, the ship lurching again, and then the front of the ship hit the sand and the gangplanks were lowered, “Go! Go! Go! For Equestria!”
Everypony on board gave a war cry as they surged off the boat, Unicorns and Earth ponies rushing down the gangplanks or rappelling down the side of the ship with ropes. Pegasi took to the air, already making their way down the beach. Further down the shore, more battle calls could be heard as the other ships moored.
And then the shooting started.
A hail of shots was heard through the mist, tearing through the dense fog in every direction. Fleethoof took to the sky and landed on the beach, the soft sand giving way beneath his hooves as he followed the crowd and charged in the direction of the shots. Up ahead, he could hear the sound of their new rifles firing; they had found the enemy already.
More yells and screams could be heard amongst the fighting. Ponies were dying. The realization gripped the scared Fleethoof like a cold vise, but still he advanced with the others. He couldn’t let his fellow soldiers down. He couldn’t let Equestria down. This is what he wanted to do. Biting his lip, he swallowed hard as he got closer and closer.
A few dark masses were visible through the dissipating fog, strewn out across the beach. He recognized them as ponies as he passed by each one, lying dead on the ground, the gray sand stained darker with blood. Fleethoof stopped and stared at them for a moment, trying to comprehend that the ponies were dead and gone. The gunfire stopped up ahead, and for a moment, he paused, wondering what had happened. A burst of magic appeared up ahead, and suddenly Captain Cuirass was there.
“We pushed them back to the city! Advance on, don’t let them get away!” he called out, ushering everypony on.
Fleethoof took a deep breath and took to the air, flying ahead of the bottlenecked crowd. He could see how Skyfall was set up now: the two mountain ranges converged at this point, with a gap between them about twenty ponies wide. Up ahead must have been the city.
Coming to a land nearer the front, he marched on, watching as a group of Pegasi cheering and yelling loudly flew on ahead. Finally, the fog thinned out enough to see through. Before them, a massive stone wall ran from mountain to mountain, gating the pass. Behind it, the towering city of Skyfall could be seen running up the rise of the mountains. Towers lined the wall and gatehouse, but no griffons could be seen manning them. Only the remaining ones fleeing from the beach were visible flying over the wall.
Something felt wrong, but Fleethoof couldn’t put his hoof on it. Then, as the Pegasi group got closer, a mass of griffons popped up from behind the wall. They had been hiding behind the battlements, waiting for the unsuspecting Pegasi. All at once, the entire wall was garrisoned, and before the flying ponies could do anything, the wall lit up with hundreds of muzzle flashes, and the gunshots echoed all around.
Every Pegasi dropped from the sky, clearly dead, while other ponies at the front of the army jerked and collapsed as well. They were caught in a bottleneck pass with the griffons opening fire on them. Fleethoof’s heart dropped into his stomach. It had been a trap from the beginning.
Gunfire sounded around him as some ponies returned fire, but were unable to strike the griffons behind their wall. Fleethoof raised his rifle, taking aim at the battlements and firing a few shots as well, but was unable to find a mark either. Again, the griffons fired, taking down another line of ponies where they stood, and suddenly everypony seemed terrified.
“Don’t give up! Aim for the tower windows!” came a familiar voice from behind them, “Charge the wall! Let the demolitionists through!”
Fleethoof looked back to see Captain Phalanx leading a group of Earth ponies above the crowd, rushing the wall. They swerved and zigzagged in serpentine ways as the griffons shot at them, trying to hit them. The rest of the army watched with pride and awe as almost every pony made it to the wall, safe from fire. The ponies dropped a saddlebag each along the gate, then stood by Phalanx as he teleported them out.
For a moment, nothing happened – and then the gate exploded in a massive fireball. The gatehouse was torn asunder, debris and griffons flying everywhere as the wall was breached. Morale back up, the Equestrian army cheered and chanted as they rushed forward, still returning and taking fire, but making much faster progress.
Fleethoof saw more Pegasus ponies flying toward the wall, and took flight with them, rushing the battlements. The now distracted griffons had too many targets to hit, and the Pegasi were able to make it to the wall safely. The griffons screeched in surprise as the flying ponies attacked, Fleethoof bucking one of the griffons off the wall in mid flight before landing where he had stood.
An enemy beside Fleethoof roared with fury and drew a knife, swinging wildly at the Pegasus. Fleethoof winced and backpedaled out of the way, firing his rifle from the hip a couple of times and seeing the shots find their mark in the griffon’s chest. He collapsed, dead, and Fleethoof took aim at the next griffon, and the next, and the next, dropping each with a quick burst of shots. The rest of the Pegasi had adopted the same tactic, dropping the griffons in quick bursts. Fleethoof marveled at how accurate and easy to use his rifle was compared to his old one. The recoil was much easier to handle, and was such a smooth shot.
Thoroughly confused, broken, and routed, the griffons tried to flee from the wall, and were easily cut down at the main army made their way through the breached wall and into the streets of Skyfall. From the wall, Fleethoof could see the city much better now. The city had four leveled tiers like steps on top of one another. The lower half looked like residences, the third level appeared to be filled with businesses and other larger buildings, and at the top stood what looked like military barracks and possibly government buildings.
Fleethoof was snapped out of his observation when a Pegasus beside him took a bullet to the head, Fleethoof cringing and diving down off the wall to join the ponies below. The griffons had set up barricades throughout the city streets, and were trying to repel the invading ponies form behind them. Fleethoof and the rest of the Pegasi from the walls flew over the streets, taking shots at the griffons from above with each pass.
Down the main street of Skyfall were the most barricades, preventing the mass of the army from advancing very fast. The Pegasi aerial force swerved and flew down the road, repeating their same tactics. However, the griffons were prepared this time, and concentrated their fire of the flying ponies, taking out several more of them.
Fleethoof grit his teeth as he narrowly dodged two bullets, and then cried out as he felt a white hot flash of pain rip through his wing. He tried hard to stay in flight, but with every beat of his wings, the pain grew more and more intense. His vision burred and the next thing he knew, he felt cold stone smack up into his body, and then he was lying still.
Panting for breath, the only things the downed pony could hear was indiscernible yelling back and forth and hundreds of bullets being fired. He grunted as he slowly righted himself, blinking past the tears of pain and looking around. He was past the barricade – on the enemy’s side. No sooner had he realized where he was, a griffon saw him and began advancing on the fallen soldier. Fleethoof scrambled backward, looking for his rifle. It had landed a short distance away.
Taking a deep breath, Fleethoof dove for his gun – but was forced back to the ground by a sudden pressure on his back. He looked back and saw the griffon with one talon on the back of his armor, pinning him down. The Corporal glared up at his foe, his hoof shooting down and gripping his pistol, but the griffon was faster, and before Fleethoof could draw his firearm, he felt the barrel of a rifle pressed to the back of his head.
He realized very suddenly that he was done, and closed his eyes.
And then a dull thwack was heard and he felt the force disappear from his back. He opened his eyes again and saw the griffon collapsed beside him, blood running down its head from a fresh wound. Fleethoof was breathing fast and hard when somepony grabbed him by the shoulder and picked him up.
“Hey, get up! You okay?”
It was the Unicorn from the boat, Shining Armor. Fleethoof nodded, standing up straight again. Shining Armor’s horn lit up as he levitated Fleethoof’s rifle back into his hooves, then motioned down the road. The army had broken past the barricade, and was forcing the griffons up to the next level.
“Come on, we’ve gotta keep pushing them back!” he said, and ran back to join the soldiers with Fleethoof close behind.
Forcing the griffons back by sheer numbers, the ponies made their way to the second level. There were no barricades set up on these streets, and the fighting pressed its way all the way to the third level. Many of the stores and businesses had multiple floors and glass fronts, forcing the advancing ponies to check their corners at all times.
Just as the army was making its way into the square of the tier, gunfire lit up from every surrounding business. The griffons fired through the storefronts and from rooftops at the unsuspecting ponies, killing many in one fell swoop.
“Stores! Windows! Eyes high!” Captain Cuirass called out from the front, firing several shots at a couple aerial griffons. The army quickly recovered and returned fire, teams breaking off to clear out the stores.
Shining Armor and Fleethoof had joined up with a group working their way around the outside of the square, listening to all the gunfire just down the road. A few shots and breaking glass caught them off guard and made everypony drop to the ground. When the gunfire stopped, Fleethoof looked up. The window to the store they were beside had been shattered, and half of the ponies in their group lay slain.
“They’re inside!” Fleethoof said.
“Let’s get them!” Shining Armor remarked, loading a fresh magazine into his gun and leaping through the smashed window. Fleethoof followed in behind him, flanked by the remaining few ponies they were with.
The store looked like an office of sorts, with desks lining the walls, and scrolls and parchment all over the place. A quick search of the ground level revealed nothing – until they all heard a footstep from above them. Fleethoof and Shining’s eyes had turned skyward before meeting, the Unicorn nodding assent.
The small team made their way to the only staircase in the building, quietly making their way to the second floor, rifles leveled and ready. Shining Armor had point, with Fleethoof right behind him, both checking corners as they rounded the stairwell into a small hallway with several doors along one side. They slowly made their way down the hall, listening closely. Fleethoof glanced down at the space between the floor and each door, checking for shadows.
Suddenly, a soft sound was heard in one of the doors they passed. They all turned and stared at it, the pony nearest it gripping his rifle tight as he stepped toward it and turned to buck the door open, his leg making contact with the wood.
And then a burst of gunfire exploded through the wood, tearing into the pony and killing him instantly, blood splattered against the back wall and floor.
“Move! Move!” Shining Armor called out, just as the door he was standing by flew open and a griffon lunged out at him. The Unicorn gasped as he was grabbed by the throat and forced up against the wall.
Fleethoof went to raise his rifle, but another griffon rushed out of the room and slammed into him, knocking them both to the ground. The other ponies had taken cover in an adjacent office, trying to return fire through the wall at their first attackers. Fleethoof grunted as he tried to push the griffon off of him, delivering a swift right hook to his foe’s face. The griffon growled and punched the Pegasus back, then drew a blade and brought it down on him.
Fleethoof’s name wasn’t just for show, and his hooves swiftly grabbed the griffon’s talon just before the knife made contact with his chest, both fighters glaring and grunting as they fought against one another’s strength. Past him, the Corporal could hear Shining Armor choking and gasping for air. He had to do something; he’d made a promise to him on the boat.
Rounding up a burst of strength, the Pegasus forced the griffon’s talon back enough for him to get a back leg in between them and deliver a harsh kick to the bird’s stomach. The griffon was winded, and that was all he needed. Fleethoof twisted his opponent’s wrist around and pushed the knife into his chest, watching as the griffon’s eyes went wide and he gave a choking gasp. Fleethoof hurriedly drew his sidearm and put a single round into the dying creature’s chest for good measure before pushing him off and taking quick aim at Shining Armor’s assailant. One good shot and the griffon’s head burst with a red mist before he fell dead as well.
Shining Armor gasped and coughed as he tried to catch his breath. Fleethoof got back to his hooves and made his way to the bullet-riddled door, breaking it open with his shoulders, finding three griffons crammed in a small office with their rifles aimed at the wall the ponies had been shooting through. Caught off guard, the Pegasus finished them with a few precise shots from his pistol.
As he lowered his weapon, Fleethoof heard a yell to his side. A fourth griffon had been in the room, hiding behind a desk and out of Fleethoof’s sight. He turned quickly – but not quick enough. The griffon grabbed his hoof and jerked, causing the pony to cry out in pain and drop his gun as the griffon caught it and pressed it to his head.
A single gunshot rang out outside the office, and the griffon screeched as blood ran down his shoulder. Shining Armor took aim with his sidearm again and fired, striking the griffon in the chest twice before letting him fall dead. The two ponies locked gazed and nodded to each other again.
“I’ve got your back, remember?” Shining said, breathing hard still.
“Yeah, and I’ve got yours,” he replied, gathering up his pistol and rifle again, “Come on, we have to keep moving.”
“Wait,” Shining said suddenly, stopping the pony with a hoof on his shoulder, “Let me take a look at that wing.”
Fleethoof glanced back at his right wing, seeing the feathers matted and dripping with blood. He hadn’t noticed the pain in a little bit since he’d stopped using it. Reluctantly, he sat down as the Unicorn produced a roll of gauze from his saddlebag.
“It doesn’t look that bad,” he stated, wrapping the wound up.
“How reassuring,” Fleethoof remarked, looking back into the office at the dead griffons.
He could still feel his heart pounding from the adrenaline and rush of combat, but he realized he was beginning to feel less and less bad about taking their lives. Was it because they were at war now? Had he really become so desensitized?
“There, good to go!” Shining said, patting him on the back as he gathered up his stuff, “Okay, let’s go rejoin the others. They might need our help.”
He stepped past the seated Pegasus, ushering the other ponies down the stairs. Fleethoof didn’t move. He just continued to sit there, staring at the bodies. His gaze turned to the dead pony in the hall, wondering why he hadn’t gone into shock or anything.
“Hey, are you okay, Fleet?” Fleethoof looked up at Shining Armor. The pony had come back over beside him.
“Why don’t I feel anything?” he asked, “Why aren’t I sad, or shocked, or traumatized or something? Am I just a killer? A pony meant to kill and feel nothing?”
“That’s the adrenaline keeping you going right now. Your body isn’t reacting because it isn’t allowed to,” Shining Armor explained, “Trust me, you’re not a bad pony. When you get a moment to relax, you’ll realize it. But we have to go, Fleet, now.”
With a firm tug upward, Shining had Fleethoof back up on his hooves and heading downstairs. The fighting in the square was still going on strong; the griffons were putting up a tough defense now. Yet the ponies continued to run down the back streets, breaking into store after store from behind. Every so often, they would sneak up on a few griffons firing out at ponies. They were all dealt with the same way.
In the matter of hours, the entire market district had been taken, and the buildings were almost all cleared. Fleethoof and Shining Armor made their last rounds with another group, gunning down a couple griffons as they tried to flee to the next tier. With each battle, both ponies had begun to get more proficient with their new weapons, keeping each other safe through their fights. When all the fighting was done, everypony stood before the final gatehouse. Captain Cuirass stood at the head of the army before the final gate, staring up at it while the ponies blew it open.
“This is it, everypony! One more level of city and we drive the griffons out!” he called out, “Now we take Skyfall!”
With shouts and cheers, the Equestrian army charged up the last ramp into the government district. Inside, a line of griffon soldiers stood at the steps of the large, columned building in the center of the level, opening fire as soon as the ponies were visible. These griffons were different, clad in bright gold armor, and much more accurate.
“Griffon elite!” somepony called out before the gunfire started up from both sides.
Then the sound of rapid gunfire was heard, and bullets flew like a swarm of angry bees into the lines of ponies, taking them down dozens at a time. Fleethoof had never heard nor seen anything as terrifying, and quickly looked for another way in. He spotted his solution, and nudged Shining Armor to get his attention. A drainage pipe was set into the wall a few hundred yards down the wall.
Shining nodded, and motioned to a bunch of other ponies. The team broke formation and ran alongside the wall, climbing up into the pipe once they arrived. It was small, much too narrow to stand in, but with just enough room to crawl through. Shining Armor led, his horn glowing a deep rose as he illuminated the way. Above them, the dampened sound of gunfire and explosions could constantly be heard, grimly reminding them that ponies were dying above their heads.
A short distance down the pipe, the team came across an opening leading upward. A grate blocked the way, but was quickly pushed aside. Shining Armor poked his head cautiously out, looking about.
“It looks like another office,” he said down to the others, “It’s clear, though. Let’s move.”
Everypony climbed out one by one, slowly slinking their way through the office and out the back. The rapid gunfire could still be heard going on from one of the nearby buildings.
“What the hay is that?” Shining asked.
“Only one way to find out,” remarked Fleethoof, “It’s coming from that building over there.”
The small team moved through the shadows to the building in question. The doors were all solidly locked, so Fleethoof broke a window as quietly as possible with his gun. Slipping inside, he unlocked the door for the others before advancing. It was another office building; griffon flags hung everywhere, clearly a building of some importance.
The nonstop gunshots could be heard like thunder overhead. Motioning with his head, Fleethoof took point up the stairs to the third floor, now hearing the shots level with them. The building was oddly empty, except for whatever was making that noise. The ponies snuck down the hall till they came to the door the loud noise was behind.
Taking position on either side of the door, both Shining and Fleet bucked the door down, knocking it clean off its hinges as everypony rushed in. A half dozen griffons occupied the room, and were quickly cut down by the dozen ponies surging in. In one of the open windows sat a large metal cylinder with what looked like ten gun barrels and a belt of ammo being fed into it.
“What in the name of Celestia is that?” Fleethoof asked, trotting up to it and looking it over.
“I have no idea, but look at what it did,” said Shining, pointing out the window in horror.
Fleethoof looked outside – and felt like he was going to be sick. What had to be hundreds of ponies’ bodies lay slaughtered at the broken gatehouse, blood completely covering the ground. It was a massacre. Fortunately, the army could now advance up without getting killed, and swiftly opened fire on the remaining griffon elite soldiers.
“At least nopony else is gonna get killed by this… thing,” Shining Armor said in disgust, glowering at the device.
“You might wanna hold off saying that for now,” Fleethoof said as a mass of more armored elite troops rushed out of the massive building to stop the ponies, “Let’s give them a taste of their own medicine.”
“Uh, do you have any idea how to use this?” the Unicorn asked, lifting the belt of ammo with his magic to inspect it.
“No, but it’s only got one handle.”
Fleethoof turned the machine to point at the newly arrived griffon troops and began to turn the crank. The cylinder began to spin faster and faster, and then it lit up and gunfire started up endlessly again. Everypony stared in awe as the belt of ammo ran through it, emptying with each flurry of shots, and with each flurry of shots, dozens upon dozens of griffons dropped dead in their tracks.
The griffons down below looked shocked and horrified, and quickly broke rank in an attempt to get away. What troops the machine gun didn’t get were picked off by the rest of the army, hundreds of Pegasi swarming around the air to kill any stragglers. Outside, the Equestrian army roared with cheers at the group of ponies on the machine gun as they charged into the government buildings.
“Whoa…” Fleethoof said, stepping back from the weapon.
“That thing is evil,” one of the ponies said. Shining Armor just nodded in agreement, then turned to the others.
“But I think it just won us Skyfall.”
Marching into the griffon’s city hall felt strange and unnerving to Fleethoof as he and the others rejoined the bulk of the army. The interior was large and spacious, and like the rest of Skyfall, it was built out of the dark stone pulled from the mountains. Dead griffons littered the floor in the foyer and up the grand staircase while the ponies cleared out room after room. Most of the fighting had ended, with the occasional shots or firefight being heard. But for the most part, the griffon garrison had either been captured or killed. None of them had opted to flee.
Fleethoof walked slowly down the upstairs hallways, taking in the sights of the sacked buildings as ponies broke into each and every room, searching for any remaining troops. The entire city had been evacuated, they found out; the griffons had known they were coming.
A short burst of gunfire and screams came behind him, and the Pegasus turned to see a couple ponies walking out of a room, covered in blood. He looked down at himself, noticing he had splatters of blood across his coat and armor too. He hadn’t noticed that before. He also hadn’t noticed the little cuts and bruises across his hooves either.
The sound of purposefully marching hooves caught the Corporal’s attention. Captain Cuirass was walking sternly down the hallway, a few soldiers flanking him, passing by every room. Fleethoof grabbed his rifle and followed behind them, wanting to know what was going on. The Captain walked through the halls till he came to a set of doors, the plaque on them identifying it as the mayor’s office. With a swift, hard buck, the doors flew inward.
As soon as the doors opened, shooting started up again, bullets flying out at the ponies. Fleethoof grit his teeth and hit the floor as several ponies slumped to the ground, a couple others firing back. Fleethoof took a moment to assess the situation. The mayor’s office had a few griffons inside, taking covered positions behind desks. He took a couple of shots, striking a griffon in the neck and watching as he gripped his throat and choked before falling over.
He turned his aim to the next griffon, and another pair of shots found their way through his head. The last pony in his group fell dead, leaving him with two remaining griffons. He lay still for a moment, forcing himself to remember to breathe. After a moment, he heard movement, and saw the two griffons stand up, inspecting the bodies lying on the ground. One took his helmet off and laughed as the other went over to high-five him.
Fleethoof jerked his rifle up again and shot one round through the vulnerable foe’s head, watching his skull jerk back with a spray of blood, then turning his aim to the last shocked griffon and putting three rounds in his stomach. The griffon doubled over onto the floor as Fleethoof stood up, watching the dying griffon squirm in pain.
A soft groan from one of the bodies caught Fleethoof’s attention. Captain Cuirass was still moving, his foreleg covered in blood and part of his ear missing, but alive. He winced as he rolled to his hooves and tried to stand up.
“Captain, maybe you should sit down. Um, you’re… kind of in bad shape,” Fleethoof suggested. Cuirass pushed passed the Corporal and stood over the injured griffon, drawing his sidearm revolver.
“No! Wait!” the griffon begged, but was cut short by a single gunshot to the face.
A shell-shocked Fleethoof stood in the doorway, staring in stunned stupor at his commanding officer. He had just killed a griffon in cold blood. Right before his eyes. Or did he put him out of his misery? Where was the fine line between that in war? He didn’t know. He was suddenly aware of the Captain saying something to him.
“Uh, w-what?” Cuirass rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“I said that was some good shooting. Was that you on the big gun outside?”
“Um, y-yeah, that was me,” Fleethoof said with a few nods. Cuirass nodded and stepped past the young soldier.
“That was some good work out there too. I think everyone in that room is in line for a promotion after this.”
The Captain walked past him and back down the hallway. Fleethoof looked between the bodies of the ponies and griffons, his gaze lingering on the one Cuirass had just shot. It was only then that he realized the griffon’s armor was different. The design was more ornate, and there were stars etched into the metal. Fleethoof’s eyes went wide. He was an officer; Cuirass had killed the commanding officer of the griffon force.
The evening found Fleethoof sitting outside city hall, around a campfire the soldiers had set up. Many of them were talking, discussing the days events. Some were in quiet contemplation. Many ponies had been lost that day. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers… Friends. Fleethoof removed his helmet and stared into the flickering fire, still hearing the gunshots ringing in his ear. He could still see the faces of the dead running through his mind.
“Hey, there you are.” Shining Armor sat down beside Fleethoof, placing a hoof on his shoulder, making the Pegasus jump. “Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you!”
“No, it’s… it’s fine… I was just thinking, is all,” Fleethoof said. The Unicorn nodded, pulling his helmet off and setting it beside him.
“Yeah, now here comes the shock,” he mused quietly, “The first battles are always the hardest.”
Fleethoof got a confused look and turned to Shining Armor. “How did you know this was my first battle?”
“Because you didn’t know if you were gonna feel anything or if you were a bad pony,” he explained, “Once you’ve been past your first fight, it gets easier and you question it less. You run more on survival instinct, I guess.”
Fleethoof simply turned and looked back into the fire. Both ponies were silent for a moment, the Pegasus just thinking to himself and the Unicorn turning the picture of his family around in his hooves.
“You’re gonna do fine, Fleet. You’re a good Guard,” Shining Armor said after a moment, giving him a little smile, “You kinda remind me of me.”
Fleethoof couldn’t help but chuckle and give a half smile. “Thanks. At least I know that means I’ll survive.”
“Don’t worry, it does get easier. Promise,” Shining replied, patting the Corporal’s shoulder reassuringly before standing up, “I’m glad you had my back today. I’d go into battle with you anytime.”
The Unicorn grabbed his helmet in his mouth and began trotting off. Fleethoof turned his head back toward his new friend.
“Shining,” he called out, getting the pony’s attention, “… Thanks for having my back too.”
Shining gave the best smile he could around his helmet before walking off. Now left to his thoughts again, Fleethoof pulled his journal out of his saddlebags, the cover slightly mangled from combat. He looked over the little book for a moment before letting a few tears run down his face, feeling himself crash from the stress of the day.
3rd Company, Royal Canterlot Reserve
The battle went really well today. At least that’s what all the officers are saying, anyway. We lost a lot of ponies today, but nowhere near as many as they thought we might lose. Skyfall was already evacuated and not very heavily garrisoned. It’s almost like they wanted us to take it – like they were testing us, or something. I don’t know.
I’m sort of glad Steel Shield wasn’t here today. He’s my best friend, and I would have loved to have him by my side, but he’s still too much of a goof, and I’m afraid he would’ve been killed in real combat. I saw so many ponies die today… I don’t know how to feel or how to take it. So much blood all over the place, and all the griffons… Some of them died right in front of me… I have to stop now.
I made a new friend today. His name is Shining Armor. He says it gets easier after my first battle, so I guess we just have to wait and see. Forgive my shaky hoofwriting; I’m still kind of rattled from today. I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. I probably won’t…
They’re deploying most of us out again tomorrow. Captain Phalanx says we’re leaving a small garrison here to hold the city, and Captain Cuirass is staying here too, since he got shot. Phalanx wants a quick, clean strike through all of the griffon cities to subdue them as fast as possible with as few casualties as possible. I like the idea, and I hope I get placed with him. He’s a good officer.
But here I am, Journal. I’m still alive. By some miracle, I’m still alive. I’m going to try to keep it that way. Wish me luck
Morning came slowly to the weary Fleethoof. The pony sat at the edge of Skyfall, staring out at the highland plains that led across the griffon territories as the morning sun rose across them. Sleep had avoided him the night before; the silence was too unsettling after the sounds of battle, much as how the silence of the morning made his stomach twist now.
Behind him, the Equestrian army had just begun to stir, gathering up their equipment and getting ready for another day of war. He could hear friends separating, bidding goodbye and good luck to one another, vows of buying rounds of cider when they returned going about.
But he could still hear the worry and doubt in their voices – not everypony knew they were going to make it back. Fleethoof sighed and picked up his rifle, returning the rejoin the group. Many had already been divided up between the officers and sergeants into smaller platoons.
Shining Armor’s voice caught the pony’s attention. The Unicorn was flagging him over to where a mass of ponies stood, Captain Phalanx and Cuirass addressing the soldiers. Fleethoof trotted over to stand next to his friend, hoping he hadn’t missed too much.
“Everypony else, listen for your names and who your C.O. will be. This will determine where you are heading today,” Captain Phalanx called out, levitating a long scroll to his face.
One by one, the Captain ran through the list of names, and one by one, the ponies went off with other groups. Fleethoof watched as each group left the city, headed off to battle, surprised by just how many places they were planning to attack. Gradually, the mass of the army was dispersed, until only a small group of about sixty ponies were left.
“… Private Valiant, Corporal Shining Armor, and Corporal Fleethoof, you are all in my outfit. The rest of you will remain in Skyfall with Captain Cuirass and hold the city,” Captain Phalanx decreed, “Reinforcements will arrive within a couple of days, but you should all be fine. You’re the best of Equestria.”
Fleethoof separated himself off with the rest of his group, doing a quick head count. Twenty ponies, including himself; just twenty ponies. What were they going to do with such a small group?
“Alright, everypony, we’re pushing deeper into the griffons’ land. Expect the Skyfall welcome everywhere we go,” Phalanx said, leading the group out of the city’s eastern gate, “We’re taking the east road to Midgard, and from there we’ll proceed north to the capital of Asgard. 2nd Company will arrive at Midgard before we do, and we’ll clean up their mess and regroup with them before we take the capital. Understood?”
Everypony gave a hurrah in response. As they passed through the gate, a single cart was handed off to them, filled with weapons, ammo, and supplies. Before the group, Fleethoof could see an expanse of wide, hilly grasslands, surrounded on all sides by a never-ending mountain range. The air was cooler on the highlands, with hints of moisture on the wind as it rolled across the land. Everything was so calm and quiet; it put the pony on edge.
“Alright, squad. Let’s move! We’ve got miles to go, and not a lot of time!” the Captain called out, and then they were on the move.
Two ponies pulled the cart while the rest marched along in front of and behind it, hooves clopping rhythmically against the old cobblestone path beneath them. The road spun off in several different directions, like cracks in glass. Off in the distance, Fleethoof could just make out the dispersed Equestrian army, heading off every which way. He may have been new to the war scene, but if they didn’t need the army sticking together en masse, he guessed the griffons’ homeland wasn’t that large.
For a long time, nopony said a word. They all marched in silence; Unicorns, Pegasi, and Earth ponies side by side. Fleethoof guessed the first battle must’ve still been taking a toll on them. Eventually, a few ponies would start a song or a chant, and one by one, the rest of the group would join in. Then bouts of silence would return. Then more song or chatter. And on the pattern went for the rest of the morning.
“It’s the Summer Sun Celebration back home today,” Shining Armor said after some time, receiving multiple murmurs of remembrance from the other soldiers, “Everypony’s gonna be celebrating today while we fight to keep them safe.”
“We have Celestia’s blessing with us today. We’ll do our families proud,” Captain Phalanx remarked. Fleethoof nodded - that they would.
But one thing continued to trouble Fleethoof, and it worried him every time he glanced back at the ponies he was with.
“Captain,” he began, approaching his officer so as not to alert the others, “Why did you choose so few ponies? There are only twenty of us. We can’t do anything significant.”
Phalanx caught the Pegasus off guard with a quick stern stare.
“I chose the soldiers I knew perform the best,” said the Captain, “There is plenty we can do with twenty ponies. One pony can change an entire war. One pony can be the difference between victory and defeat, and don’t you ever think otherwise.”
Fleethoof was too surprised to say anything. When he didn’t get a response, the Unicorn officer continued.
“You’re young, Fleethoof. You haven’t seen enough yet to know that everypony and everything matters. You still have much to learn if you’re going to be an officer.”
Fleethoof furrowed his brow. “What do you mean, sir?”
“Weren’t you to be promoted? Did I hear Cuirass wrong?” he asked, casting a knowing smirk to the Corporal, “If you want to be an officer, prove that to me. Stop thinking negatively. Put some trust in your fellow soldiers. At the end of the day, they’re the only ones watching out for you.”
Fleethoof let that process in his mind, falling back into line with his comrades as they marched ever onward down the road. The hills rose and fell around them, distorting the horizon. He didn’t know how far they’d travelled, but it had been a few hours, that was certain.
An unexpected nudge to his side caught Fleethoof’s attention. A sandy brown colt was beside him now, smiling a little. His deep, purple mane hung down over his teal eyes slightly, but he could make them out. The pony was a Pegasus was well, his wings folded against his sides. At his end, Fleethoof could just make out a silver heart on his flank.
“I just wanted to say thanks,” he continued, smiling all the while as if it was a completely normal conversation. Fleethoof gave him a puzzled look, hoping he’d get some sort of context clue. “You, uh, you saved my life yesterday. Indirectly, but you did. So, thanks for saving my life. I owe you one.”
“Oh, you’re welcome,” Fleethoof replied, still as confused as ever, “When did I save you, exactly?”
“You stopped that big gun in the plaza yesterday,” the pony explained, Fleethoof’s eyes lighting up as realization came over him, “I was part of that group way at the front. I would’ve been killed for sure if you hadn’t stopped them.”
“I really can’t take all the credit for that. I had a lot of help,” Fleethoof admitted with a sheepish grin, “I’m glad I could keep you safe. What’s your name?”
The pony beamed and saluted. “Private Valiant, at your service!” Fleethoof laughed and saluted back.
“Corporal Fleethoof, at yours.”
“If there’s anything I can ever do to repay you, Fleethoof, you let me know!”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The rest of the day passed between idle conversation and walking – lots and lots of walking. The cities were much more spread apart than Equestria’s were. That, or the griffons just didn’t have many metropolises.
Just as Fleethoof was beginning to wonder how far away they were, the squad reached the crest of a hill, they saw a valley below, nestled between the hills. A gorge ran the length of the gully, vanishing between the hills, and the sound of a river flowing could be heard. A stone bridge crossed the gorge, and a small town sat between the ponies and their path. Below, griffons could be seen about the village.
“Steady, colts,” Captain Phalanx called back to them as they made their way down the path towards the town, “We don’t know if there’s any hostiles here yet. Keep your guard up and eyes high.”
Everypony suddenly fell completely silent; several of them even making sure their weapons were chambered. Fleethoof held his rifle tight as they came into the town, giving a quick glance to Valiant and Shining Armor. Both ponies looked just as on edge as he felt.
The moment they crossed into the town, the griffons stopped everything they were doing and stared. Conversation died, and it was unsettlingly quiet. Glares came at them from every side as mothers pulled the little griffons indoors. Fleethoof glared back at them, and noticed some of the other ponies were doing the same, just waiting for one of them to make a move. They were very obviously not welcomed.
“Sir, I don’t like this,” somepony nearby muttered.
“Steady, soldier. Remember, we do nothing unless provoked,” Phalanx said, his voice cool and steady – the voice of a veteran who had been in this situation before.
Fleethoof swallowed hard and continued down the road, trying his best to keep his eyes forward. But all around him, he could hear the almost inaudible mutterings of the griffons as they walked by. Silent slanders and quiet curses were muttered under their breaths as the squad pressed on.
“Hey losers! Why don’t you save yourselves the trouble and give up now? Maybe then you’ll all make it back alive!” a griffon called out from somewhere in the crowd.
“You’re Equestria’s army? I’ve seen scarier things in my back yard!”
“Happy Sunny Sun Day, or whatever, dweebs! Is this when you all kiss your princess’ fat, lazy ass?”
A sudden scuffling sound caught Fleethoof’s attention, and he and the rest of the squad turned to see two ponies being held back by their friends, seething and snorting as they tried to charge the griffon that uttered that slander.
“You wanna say that to my face, featherbrain?!” one of the enraged ponies shouted back. The griffons laughed and jeered.
“Back in line!” Captain Phalanx yelled out, glaring at the two as they struggled for a moment more, then relaxed and reluctantly returned to formation.
The squad was now halfway through the town – just a little bit more and they’d be free and clear. As they crossed through an intersection, two large male griffons walked from the sidewalk and blocked the path, crossing their arms defiantly. The group halted, everypony tensing up. Phalanx just held up a hoof to signal them to stop, then walked up to the two till he was right in their faces.
The entire town was deathly silent as they faced off. Ponies gripped tightly to their guns, putting all their trust in their officer. Fleethoof felt his breath coming in fast and shallow as his eyes darted around, looking for any threats. Not a single word was said. Captain Phalanx glared into the eyes of his opposition, fire burning in his irises as their wills collided, a hoof subtly placed on his sidearm.
Fleethoof saw the feathers of one of the two ruffle slightly, and a moment later he backed down. The Captain then turned his steely gaze to the last remaining one, and he folded like a house of cards as well. He turned back to his soldiers and motioned for them to proceed.
The squad pressed on down the road, making it out of the town a few minutes later. The ponies at the rear watched their flank as they approached the bridge. A couple of griffons had gathered at the edge of town, watching them as they began across the gorge, but did nothing in defiance. Fleethoof breathed a sigh of relief as they crossed the gap. They’d made it out without incident. Beside him, Shining Armor exhaled deeply as well.
“You know, for a moment, I was su-”
The bridge shook violently and lurched upward before falling apart beneath their hooves. Fleethoof was knocked back before he scrambled backwards, just barely grasping onto the edge of the now destroyed bridge. Below him, he could hear the screams of ponies as they fell, risking a glance down to see a few of his fellow soldiers falling down, down to the river at the bottom. To his side, Shining Armor and another also held on for dear life.
“Everypony get back! Back away from the edge! It could still collapse!” Captain Phalanx ordered, and then a couple of gunshots were heard.
“We’re taking fire from the rear!”
“Return fire!” the Captain hollered, and then louder gunfire erupted on the bridge.
Fleethoof grunted as he tried to pull himself up, struggling a little. If he fell, he was done - his wing was still too wounded to fly. Shining Armor managed to hoist himself up, helping the other soldier get back to his hooves. Fleethoof pulled himself up again – and felt his hoof slip off the cobblestone, leaving him hanging on by one hoof. He cried out, staring down at the rushing water so far below.
“Hold on, Fleethoof! I got ya!”
Fleethoof looked back up as Valiant landed at the edge, grasping his hoof and tugging him up. The Corporal managed to get his other hoof back up, and with the assistance, was back up safely. The scene on the bridge was chaos. Ponies had taken up defensive positions behind the cart and in the open, keeping their eyes on the town. A couple more had been shot and lay across the ground.
“I don’t see them anymore, sir!”
“They’re in that town, and we have to go back through it,” Phalanx growled bitterly, “Everypony back through the town, quickly! Keep it tight, check your corners.”
Fleethoof was breathing heavy now, his forehead slick with sweat from fear. He clutched his rifle close to his chest, feeling and hearing his heart pounding like a drum. The squad, now greatly diminished, advanced into the town again, guns up, ready. The civilians had abandoned the streets now, and doors and windows were shut. The active town had suddenly become a ghost one.
The wind ran noisily through the empty streets, making Fleethoof’s feathers rustle anxiously. His eyes scanned the buildings ahead of them. It was way too quiet. A door slammed shut behind them, and he and several other ponies spun around nervously, guns aimed in various directions. Nothing was there. They were messing with their heads.
They had reached the town square again, crossing the abandoned and very vulnerable intersection. A shot went off behind them and high, and the Pegasus pony turned just as a series of shots were returned, seeing a griffon up on a roof collapse and fall to the street, a revolver clutched in his talons. It was one of the griffons the Captain had faced off with a moment ago. The civilians were openly fighting them too.
Phalanx motioned with his head to move onward. The troops moved a little faster down the stone street. They were all very eager to get out of the danger zone and keep moving. Fleethoof’s ears perked up when he heard a set of door hinges creak to his side, and turned to see a griffon emerging from the back door of a store. He leveled his assault rifle, and the griffon flinched and dove back into the building. The Pegasus breathed out and lowered his weapon a little. False alarm.
Two more bullets were fired from above them. One pony called out while another one fired two shots back. The griffon dove to his belly on the roof, out of view. Valiant and another Pegasus flew up to the roof. A surprised cry came from the roof, and then another duo of shots before the ponies returned to the squad.
They were now almost completely out of the town, just a few dozen more meters were left. Just as they passed by a couple more side alleyways, a soldier in front of Fleethoof hesitated, looking around cautiously. Fleethoof, paused, and another gunshot broke the silence. The head of the pony in front of him exploded in a red mist before jerking to the side, and then his body dropped. Fleethoof turned on his hooves and saw a griffon turn to dash down the alley. He fired three shots into the enemy’s back, watching as he jerked with each shot before falling to the ground dead.
“Pony down!” somepony called out, and Fleethoof dropped next to the body of his fallen comrade, holding out hope that he was okay, but much to his grief, the pony was very much dead, a pool of blood forming beneath him.
“Grab the body, put it in the cart with the others,” Captain Phalanx ordered, gripping his pistol tightly as he scanned the rooftops.
It took Fleethoof and another pony a couple of minutes to load the pony into the cart, Fleethoof staring at the bodies inside. More had fallen than he thought had. The cart suddenly lurched forward, snapping the Pegasus out of his staring. They still had to get out. The squad carefully made their way out of the silent town without another incident before taking off back the way they came at a gallop, very eager to get away alive.
By the time the sun had set and the moon had made its ascent, the battered squad had made their way back onto the right path, well on the way to Midgard. They were a few days' journey outside of the city, having lost some time with the direct route cut off. The tired ponies had set up camp, a roaring fire burning bright in the darkness of the highlands to keep them warm from the chill of the mountainous night.
Fleethoof sat huddled close to the fire, eating his dinner slowly. His mind processed the day’s events, coming to term with them easier than the day before. He had seen ponies killed today, but it wasn’t upsetting him like it had. He had killed, but without a second thought this time. Shining Armor had been right: it did slowly get easier.
“Valiant…” Fleethoof called out after a minute, getting the Pegasus’ attention from across the fire, “You saved my life this time. I think we’re even now.”
Valiant smiled and chuckled softly, turning a book about in his hoof. “Yeah, I guess we can call it one-to-one now. I’m still keeping count though.”
That brought a smile to the Corporal’s face. He looked around the camp. The squad had dwindled down to twelve ponies now. His heart ached as he thought of the eight that had been lost today. A hoof placed on his shoulder made him glance up, seeing Captain Phalanx standing beside him.
“Corporals Fleethoof and Shining Armor, I had been putting off your promotions until we had taken Midgard… but after today’s surprise, I realize it was careless to underestimate the griffons, and anypony could have been lost today,” he stated, looking between the Pegasus and Unicorn respectively, “So to be fair, as of tomorrow, you both receive your promotions to the rank of Sergeant. I’m sorry.”
“Get some sleep, everypony,” he finished, “When we reach Midgard, we regroup with 2nd Company and get right back at it.”
Fleethoof followed the Captain with his eyes as he trotted over to the cart and leant against it, his posture tense and his head hung low. He hadn’t seen the Captain like this before. He was in grief, clearly blaming himself for the ponies lost today. He swallowed hard, fighting back the emotion welling up inside of him, reaching for his journal in his bags with shaky hooves.
Nopony noticed the moon overhead, or its sudden lack of pony-shaped craters.
Happy Summer Sun Celebration.
We left Skyfall today, heading for Midgard. It’s apparently one of the griffons’ larger cities, and a main hub for their commerce and roads. My squad has had twenty ponies in it, but… we were ambushed. On the road to Midgard, we had to pass through a griffon settlement. At first, they just acted hostile, making comments and taunting us. It wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle.
But then they blew up a bridge underneath us.
I can still see the ponies falling beneath me. I can still hear their screams, and it terrifies me. That could have been me. That could have been me and I wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it with my bad wing. I watched a pony get shot in front of me. It keeps hitting me… I could have died so many times today.
If it hadn’t been for Valiant, I would’ve fallen to my death on that bridge. If it hadn’t been for that pony in front of me, I would’ve been shot. I didn’t even know his name. I think my mortality is starting to get inside my mind, Journal. But it’s so strange… I’m beginning to get used to the idea of death and fighting. Is that weird? I don’t know yet.
Soon we'll get to Midgard. Another big city… another big fight. Celestia protect me.
The road to Midgard was shorter than Fleethoof had been expecting, arriving by mid afternoon the day after. The small squad had rose at the crack of dawn, a blood red sun rising across the land. He found it hard not to take it as an omen. Perhaps Celestia had been honoring the fallen over the past few days.
The expansive city looked similar to Skyfall, but wider instead of stacked, and built of different stones. It sat on one of the flat plateaus of the highlands, with several main roads connected at the city, spanning in each cardinal direction from it. The sky around the metropolis was hazy with smoke, and the smell of gunpowder and burning debris filled the air. Dark storm clouds had begun to gather overhead.
Two things struck Fleethoof right away: one was the lack of combat going on, and the other was the lack of anything living.
Bodies littered the fields outside the city, and he could only imagine what the inside of the city looked like, but there were no soldiers fighting, no ponies running about or griffons in the air. Everything was quiet, as if the battle had ended long ago. It was abundantly clear that 2nd Company had decided not to wait for them. They were too late.
The squad sat atop one of the hills surrounding the city, gearing up as Captain Phalanx finished fixing a second silver band to both Fleethoof’s and Shining Armor’s outfits with his magic. He stood up and walked over to the cart, grabbing his helmet and a rifle.
“It seems like we missed quite a party, everypony,” he said, loading a magazine into his rifle and chambering the first round.
“Some party…” Valiant muttered, shaking his head as he observed the city.
“Where is everypony, Captain?” Shining Armor asked, “I thought we were supposed to meet the others here.”
“We were. They’ve already gone about their business, it seems,” Captain Phalanx stated, placing his helmet on, “They probably began the assault yesterday. But we still have a job to do here. Let’s make sure the city is clear, then move on to Asgard and meet up with the others.”
Phalanx set off down the cobblestone road toward the city, everypony else following loosely behind him. The sight before them was dark. The grass was stained red almost everywhere, the walls were damaged, and the gates were blown apart. Inside, flickering flames could be seen across the city as buildings and homes burned.
Fleethoof tried to hold his breath as they slowly made their way into the city, the stench of the dead filling the air around the fields. Inside wasn’t much better. Corpses of every kind lay strewn about the plaza by the gate, more griffon than pony. The houses around them made of wood were either badly damaged or burnt to the ground already, the blackened, smoldering skeletons of wood left in their wake.
The squad slowly progressed down the main thoroughfare, covering all sides as they moved. They stepped carefully past any fallen on the ground. Fleethoof was surprised that 2nd Company had left their dead behind and abandoned the city in such a hurry.
‘What could have caused them to take off like that?’ he wondered to himself.
The soft sounds of their hooves on the stones mixed with the distant fires crackling, making the entire atmosphere creepy and unsettling. A sudden loud crash beside them made Valiant jump and everypony quickly turn, weapons raised, as they watched a burning house collapse in on itself. Fleethoof breathed a sigh of relief, and then carried on.
The road was long, with lots of houses and structures on either side, before they finally came to a massive plaza square, spanning yards across. Tall buildings dominated the area, glass storefronts smashed in and the stonework chipped and destroyed. Doors were broken into, and dead bodies lay across the cobblestone and through windows, scattered everywhere and anywhere they looked.
“Check some of the stores. There might be some stragglers scavenging for supplies,” Captain Phalanx ordered, “And be careful. We don’t know what’s out here.”
Fleethoof broke off from the group with Valiant and another pony at his side. They walked past a couple stores, looking through the broken windows as they went. They came to one that was completely boarded up, its door still intact and unharmed. Fleethoof motioned with his head, and Valiant and the pony took up position on either side of the door. With a swift buck of his hind legs, the door broke inward, and the two rushed in, guns raised.
A set of screams came from inside, and as Fleethoof entered, he saw three griffons huddled behind the counter of the store, holding each other close. One couldn’t have been older than a couple of years. Clearly they were the family that owned the store.
“P-Please, don’t hurt us!” the male begged, raising his talon defensively to shield his family.
“Lower your weapons,” Fleethoof said, and the two obeyed. He blinked for a moment. Had he just given his first order? He shook it off. “Let’s keep moving. Leave them be.”
“There’s still some civilians in the city, Captain!” Fleethoof called out to Phalanx once they had stepped outside.
“Check your fire, everypony!” Phalanx shouted out.
The search resumed, but all that turned up was more bodies and destruction. The squad regrouped, all wearing the same look of concern and confusion as one another. They were losing daylight, and knew 2nd Company had surely moved on, leaving them Celestia knows how far behind.
“So what do we do now? Keep searching the city?” Shining Armor asked.
“I think we’ll just find more bodies and scared civilians,” Fleethoof commented. Phalanx pursed his lips, eyes distant, clearly deep in thought.
Just as the Captain himself was about to give up on Midgard, a volley of shots was heard across the city. Fleethoof’s ears perked up; he recognized that kind of gunfire. Those were their rifles – that meant there were still ponies in the city.
“Did you hear that?” Valiant asked.
“You bet I did,” Captain Phalanx said, “Squad, move! Get over there, double time!”
“They came from this way!” one of the ponies stated as he took off towards the sounds, everypony else close on his tail.
For once since they’d left Skyfall, Fleethoof began to feel a glimmer of hope in his heart. Other ponies meant that there was a chance 2nd Company was still around. That meant they’d have reinforcements, and they could press onward, away from any hot spots.
The ponies followed the main street again, trying to get their bearings and figure out where the shots had come from. More bullets were fired, much closer this time. Phalanx took off down one of the side roads, leading the others. Fleethoof felt his spirits begin to lift. It was the first time he had ever been excited to hear shooting before.
Down the road, around another corner, more road, and down another road. The group finally came to a pile of smoldering stone rubble. A powerful explosive force had destroyed the building. Everypony stood still, breathing hard, but listening all the while. It was quiet again. The Pegasus closed his eyes, silently begging for one more round to go off. They were so close.
The sound was from the opposite side of the rubble. Shining Armor was the first to act, quickly surging forward and climbing up the debris as fast as he could. Fleethoof took off after him, followed by Valiant, then everypony else. It wasn’t too much of a struggle to reach the top of the pile, no more than hanging from a bridge had been. Valiant arrived at the peak first, his wings giving him an advantage.
“I see them! Seven ponies!” he called down to the other ponies as they clambered upward.
Reaching the top, Fleethoof was finally able to get a view of the situation – and of the city. Houses and buildings ran in a gridlock pattern all around. Off a few blocks away, a church sat unscathed, its tall tower reaching well above the other establishments. He’d never figured the griffons to be religious, and curiously wondered what they worshipped. Below them ran a waterway, a bridge spanning across its length to another street.
On that street opposite of them were seven ponies, armed to bear.
“HEY! OVER HERE!” Valiant called out to them, waving his hooves to get their attention.
“Shining Armor, take two ponies and go lead them around to us,” Captain Phalanx said.
Shining Armor nodded and motioned to two ponies nearest him, sliding down the rubble to the street below. Fleethoof swallowed hard; he didn’t like bridges anymore, and was glad the Captain hadn’t asked him to go.
“HEEEEEEY!!” yelled Valiant, louder this time. That got their attention.
Shining Armor and the others had just reached the bridge, and were galloping across it. The ponies energetically waved their hooves, and shouted something back, but they were too far away. Phalanx mimed the action of not being able to hear them, and they shouted again. With a groan of frustration, he tugged his helmet off and put a hoof to his ear.
“IT’S A TRAP!!”
Fleethoof recoiled slightly as the bridge exploded before their eyes, feeling his heart sink and his blood run cold. Thick smoke blocked their vision, making it impossible to see what had happened down there.
“Shining!!” Fleethoof called out desperately, “Shining Armor!!”
He looked anxiously to Captain Phalanx, waiting for some kind of reassurance or direction. The Captain’s eyes were wide, and he simply stared in horror, guilt darkening his eyes.
Then the smoke began to dissipate, and all three ponies could be seen on the other side of the destroyed bridge, rising to their hooves, albeit slowly. They were all still alive. Fleethoof gave a weak, relieved chuckle and a shallow inhale, smiling a little. The other ponies rushed over to help them, getting them back up.
Captain Phalanx opened his mouth to say something, when more shooting suddenly started up, bullets ripping through the air and striking the ground near the ponies across the waterway. They returned fire at their unseen foes, but the gunshots were unmistakable. There were still griffon troops in the city.
“Everypony, listen up,” Phalanx said urgently, “We need to-”
A distant crack was suddenly heard, and the Unicorn’s head shot backward with a splatter of gore. His body went tense before weakly collapsing to the rubble. Fleethoof felt his heart stop beating. He stared down at his officer, too shocked and stupefied to do anything. A bullet wound ran straight through the pony’s forehead, blood pooling out beneath his skull. His eyes stared up at the sky, glassy and empty. Captain Phalanx had been killed.
Fleethoof could feel his lungs aching, and realized he wasn’t breathing anymore. The sounds of a firefight were distant again, lost in a haze. He just couldn’t stop staring at the body of his Captain. What had just happened?
“Sniper!” Valiant yelled, tackling the immobilized pony down as everypony dove behind the rubble for cover, just as another bullet hit near them.
Fleethoof finally snapped back into reality, collapsing beside the corpse of Phalanx. He shook him gently, trying desperately to get him back up.
“Captain! Come on, Captain, get up! You have to get up!” he cried out, shaking him a little more forcefully, “Captain, we need orders! We need you! You have to get up now!”
Fleethoof received no response from the body. He could feel wetness welling up in his eyes as cold fear gripped at his soul. His stomach twisted into knots again, and he shook the body violently.
“Captain! Captain Phalanx!! Get up! GET UP!!” he shouted, tears running down his face freely now, “You have to get up!”
“Fleethoof-” Valiant started, reaching toward the distraught pony.
“We’re not leaving you, Captain! Get up! Tell us what to do!”
“FLEETHOOF!!” Valiant grabbed the Pegasus by the shoulders, jerking him around to face him, “He’s gone! I’m sorry, but he’s dead! There’s nothing we can do for him now!”
“But he can’t be! We need an officer!” he replied, voice choking up a bit.
“You’re in charge now, Fleethoof! You’re the highest rank here, so you’re the officer now!”
All at once, Fleethoof felt a pressure weigh down on him, crushing his heart and spirit. His breathing stopped again, and he looked around at the other ponies. Valiant was right – they were all Privates and one Corporal. He was the highest rank as of today – he was the new commanding officer.
“What do we do now, Sergeant?” Valiant asked, gripping his rifle and giving the shaken pony a look of pure loyalty.
Fleethoof looked around at each pony’s face, some burning with the want to act, others as shell shocked as he felt; all of them wore the same worried look, though. He was now responsible for every face; every life was now in his hooves. He felt like he was going to throw up. His hooves were shaking, and he’d broken out into a cold sweat. All around him, the sounds of combat echoed.
One simple instinctive reflex burned into his mind. The natural fight or flight response. He had to protect everypony. He had to protect himself. But the ponies across the waterway needed his help. They were in danger, and they could end up like Captain Phalanx at any moment.
He felt hooves tugging him back down the rubble until his hooves hit the street below again. His mind tried its hardest to process what was happening, and that he was now in charge, but it was struggling. He felt violently sick and unstable. Fleethoof stumbled over to a structure, resting his hooves against a broken window for support as he dry heaved a few times, breathing hard as he tried to steady himself.
He had responsibilities now. Grave responsibilities. He had to get everypony out, and that meant everypony, alive. He knew what he had to do, even as he took another long look at the faces before him. Another sniper shot ricocheted off a slab of rock beside his head, making everypony cringe back in fear. He could see the fear in their eyes; they were just as scared as he was. It wasn’t about him. Alone, he didn’t matter. He had to be brave – for them.
“W-We have to get behind better cover. Work our w-way around to the others,” he said, trying to keep his shaking voice as steady as possible, “We’ll come back for the dead, but we have to g-get out, right now!”
“Yes sir!” a couple of ponies shouted as the broken squad made their way back down to the street below.
Fleethoof took one last look at his fallen Captain, swallowing back his terror, and making his way toward his troops. The ponies were waiting for him, always looking to him for direction. Fleethoof motioned back the way they had come, and they took off down the street, hugging the walls of the buildings as they went and checking every corner. Each time they got a glimpse of the waterway, they could see the other ponies running from cover to cover, returning fire and fighting for their lives.
The sight urged Fleethoof on. He didn’t have time to care about his fear anymore. Ponies needed him, and he had to get to them at any cost. He was a soldier of Equestria, and he was going to do his nation proud. The squad made their way down the street until they came to another bridge. The Pegasus froze in fear for a moment, but took a deep breath and forced himself to run across it, his team following apprehensively behind him.
Another distant crack was heard, and the cobblestone beside Fleethoof exploded in a cloud of dust. He grit his teeth and pressed on. Halfway across now. Another gunshot in the distance, and Fleethoof felt a sudden pressure hit his head and knock him off his hooves. He grunted and gasped as the wind was knocked from him, his helmet ringing and rattling his brain. Everything was blurred and spinning, and the Sergeant was suddenly very dizzy. He could see shapes of ponies rush past him to the other side.
“Get up! C’mon, get up, Sergeant!” Valiant’s voice was beside him, and suddenly he was hauled to his hooves again.
The sandy pony was beside him, and tugging him along as they ran safely to the other side before Fleethoof collapsed against the side of a building. He pulled his helmet off and inspected the side, noticing a new, deep dent in the side of it. The sniper had landed a perfect headshot, but to no avail. What Phalanx had removed had just barely saved his life.
“Buck, that hurt…” Fleethoof muttered, rubbing the aching side of his head, his heart beating so hard he thought it might burst.
“That was a close call,” a pony mused, “You okay, Sarge?”
“Yeah, I-I’m fine,” replied Fleethoof, slipping his helmet back on and grabbing his rifle, hearing the sound of gunfire close by, “Come on, we gotta get to the others, now!”
The ponies were off again, bolting down a nearby alleyway and down a parallel side street. The more they ran, the louder the shooting became, until they were right up on it. Fleethoof motioned to a door, and Valiant quickly bucked it in. It was the stockroom of a store. The soldiers swarmed in, rushing around to the front. Fleethoof leapt over the counter, seeing the attacking griffons just passing by the storefront, and gave the only command he knew.
“Open fire!” he ordered on reflex, hearing the sound of rifles cocking behind him as they fired through the glass into the griffons on the street.
The griffons recoiled, screeching and crying out in surprise as they dropped one by one, until only a couple survivors took to the air, out of sight.
Fleethoof burst through the door to the street, watching as the other squad picked them off before they could get away. He looked down at the corpses, the familiar numbness coming over him. He’d ordered their deaths… but he had to. His friends, other ponies, would’ve been killed otherwise. It didn’t matter how he felt.
“Is this everypony that’s left?” he asked, “Who’s in charge in this squad?”
“I am now,” Shining Armor said, “They’re a recon team from 2nd Company, sent to find us. Their C.O. was picked off when we heard the shooting way back.”
“The company was heading up toward Asgard,” one of the ponies from 2nd Company explained, “There was only a small force here, so the Captain thought most of their troops were holed up at the capital.”
Fleethoof nodded, then looked at Shining Armor as he searched their squad, looking at every face.
“Where’s the Captain?” Shining Armor asked. Fleethoof didn’t say a word, but his dark eyes told the entire story. “Oh…”
“We have to get out of this city, meet up with 2nd Company,” Fleethoof stated, “But that sniper’s got the city locked down. We can’t get out unless we get rid of him first.”
“I can take care of that.”
A new voice caught Fleethoof’s attention. A slightly smaller, blue Unicorn pony from 2nd Company stepped forward, a wry, cocky smile on his face. Sunglasses rested above his brow. A single red crosshair was his cutie mark.
“The name’s Shot, Sharp Shot. Corporal, 2nd Company, and it’d be my pleasure to make that griffon dead,” he introduced himself with a casual salute.
“That griffon’s a good shot,” warned Fleethoof. Sharp Shot grinned a little wider and lifted his scoped rifle up.
“I’m a better one.” His ego surprised Fleethoof, and he was doubtful. He’d seen enough ponies die.
“We don’t even know where he is.”
“That’s why it’s your job to flush him out,” Sharp Shot said dryly, catching the Pegasus off-guard, “You just start making your way out of the city. When he shoots, I’ll find him, and I’ll get him.”
Again, Fleethoof looked to Shining Armor, a questioning look in his eyes. Shining Armor just shrugged.
“We don’t have much option,” he pointed out.
Fleethoof took a deep breath, and reluctantly nodded.
“Alright, Sharp Shot. Let’s see what you can do,” he agreed, “What do you need us to do?”
“Just start running. I’ll find a good spot and cover you,” Sharp Shot explained, and then took off down the road.
“Okay, Fleet. You wanna head one way, and we’ll go the other? Keep him distracted until he’s gone,” said Shining Armor, giving his confident smile and determined gaze, “We’ll make it for the north gate, and you head for the west, where we came in. You can pick up Sharp Shot then, and we’ll all meet up back at Asgard.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Fleethoof said, then paused before continuing, “Shining, watch yourself out there. You’ve got a family to go home to, remember.”
Before he could react, Fleethoof felt himself pulled into an embrace with the white Unicorn. He smiled and hugged his friend back, his worries vanishing for one brief moment.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m always careful,” he remarked, “You take care of yourself, Fleet. You’ve got others to look after now.
“You do too, my friend,” Fleethoof said as the two pulled apart, “Now, go! We’ve got your backs!”
Shining Armor nodded, and took off down the road away from him just as rain began to fall from the sky. Fleethoof watched him go for a moment before leading his squad the opposite way, hugging a turn and running out into the open. All at once, he heard another far off gunshot, and saw a piece of stone fly up past his face. He winced, but kept on running.
“Come on! Move faster!” he called back to the others, as another gunshot broke off a piece of the fence he was running past.
And then he was back behind cover, safe – for the moment. One by one, everypony else caught up, hiding behind overturned carts, broken pieces of building, and walls. They heard another shot, and then another. The sniper was shooting at Shining Armor now.
“Keep moving! Go! Go!” he ordered, ducking out of cover and bolting down the road.
There was a lull in the shooting, and then another bullet whizzed by his ear. He could feel it tear through the air beside his head. He ducked lower and slid across the wet ground behind a statue. He watched the rest of his squad run past, motioning for them to keep going.
Each pony made it behind another row of buildings a block away. They were safe. Fleethoof’s blue eyes scanned the rooftops, feeling his heart race. Where was Sharp Shot? The shooting resumed. He broke from cover, and the shooting turned his way again.
Sharp Shot grunted softly as he pushed open the hatch to the store’s loft, climbing up into the dark, dusty attic. This building had been one of the few with an actual attic, and it provided the best view of most of the city. He’d been listening to the griffon sniper shooting, each bullet making his heart drop. Each one meant somepony could’ve been killed, and it meant one more failure for him.
He crawled over through the narrow space to one of the small windows, breaking it open with the stock of his rifle. He rested his weapon against the windowsill, keeping it steady, as he lay prone, listening and watching closely.
“Where are you, you son of a bitch…?” he muttered quietly to himself, green eyes looking around for where he would have picked to shoot from.
There were a couple of good locations, but only one offered perfect command of the city: the church tower in the center of the city. No sooner had he thought that, he heard another shot, and saw a brief flash from one of the windows. His eyes widened, and a grin spread across his lips.
Sharp Shot took aim through his scope, finding the church tower again. There were only two windows, so finding the one was easy. He waited, watching the window, taking deep, slow breaths to keep his hooves steady and calm. Another shot fired. This time he could see the muzzle flash in the window through his scope. He had the griffon dead to rights. But all he could see was the enemy’s weapon.
“Come on out… Just a little…” he whispered, “Stick your head out, you buzzard bastard… Come oooooon…”
Fleethoof and his squad once again rushed out into the open, charging down the barren street as fast as they could. They’d made it a good way, but with each block they went, he began to feel more and more paranoid. The griffon’s shots were getting closer, like he was unhindered by the rain. He’d almost clipped his flank, and had scuffed Valiant’s armor. They couldn’t do this forever.
They made it behind some cover without a single shot fired at them. Fleethoof bit his lip, worried. Was the griffon picking his targets more closely? Was he taking more precise aim?
“Keep moving!” he ordered.
But as he stood to run again, the ground before him kicked up in a burst of dust and dirt. The griffon had him pinned. He winced and recoiled back, watching as his squad took off without him. He was trapped.
“Move… Do it… Move… Just a little bit…”
The griffon’s talon had become visible now, clutching at his rifle. Just a little more, and Sharp Shot would be able to see the griffon’s torso. Maybe not a perfect kill shot, but it would have been good enough. As it was, he was to go wanting.
The Unicorn licked his dry lips, feeling his brow damp with sweat as he concentrated on the window. He was so close! What was the griffon waiting on?
Then, without warning, the griffon fired another shot, then leaned out the window. Sharp Shot was surprised, but quickly realized: the griffon was stabilizing himself, getting a better shot. Whoever he was aiming at, was sure to be dead.
Hooves moving quickly, he swiveled the rifle until the crosshair was across the griffon’s head. A triumphant smile replaced his grin as his hoof found the trigger again.
“Bye bye, birdie…”
Fleethoof sat pinned behind what little shelter he had. The statue of some important griffon figure only offered so much protection, and he didn’t know how visible he was. He realized he only had two options: take a chance and run, or cower and die.
Taking a deep breath, he rose to his hooves, and leaped out into the open.
A distant gunshot, but in the wrong direction of the others. He didn’t stop to ponder on it though. He heard gunshots further down in the city – it must have been his team. He ran right for cover, rejoining the rest of his squad. They had made it back to the main thoroughfare, and were running back to the western gate, out of the city.
But he couldn’t leave yet.
He pulled a small flare out of his saddlebag and ignited it. The red light burned brightly in the rain. He waved it about for a bit before setting it down in the road and taking cover in a nearby building. He waited, and waited. Surely Sharp Shot had seen that.
Minutes passed that felt like ages. It grew darker outside as the rain grew heavier. Fleethoof shivered a little, chilled to the bone from grief and cold. Before long, he saw a silhouetted shape appear around the flare, and he made his way out to the street – only to hear a gunshot to his side.
He jumped back in shock, and leveled his rifle at the shooter. At the other end of his barrel stood Sharp Shot, handgun in his grip, illuminated by the flare’s glow. He looked back to the other figure in surprise, and saw a dead griffon. How many of them were there left in the city?
“Thanks for waiting for me,” Sharp Shot said, smirking a bit, “I told you I’d get that griffon for you.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Fleethoof replied, not really sure what else to say, “Come on, we have to get out of here.”
“I saw some more griffons around when I was making my way over here.” Fleethoof nodded.
“Let’s keep it low and quiet then,” he said, flicking his head in the direction of an alley, “Let’s go.”
The two ponies made their way alongside the street through alleyways, the darkness and rain masking their movements. The city was completely quiet again, spooking Fleethoof. He didn’t like the silence anymore than he liked bridges.
Making their way to the gate wasn’t difficult, but once they got there, they found a trio standing guard at the gate. Two more patrolled the square, looking for the ponies, no doubt. Their golden armor glinted faintly in the light from the streetlamps: elite soldiers.
“How many did your company leave alive?” asked Fleethoof, giving Sharp Shot a condescending look.
“Why don’t you ask how many I personally left alive?” he offered in rebuttal, “None. Zero. Zip.”
“Well good for you,” Fleethoof mumbled, “We’ve gotta get past them somehow…”
Fleethoof thought for a good, long moment, analyzing his surroundings and every option. They were greatly outnumbered, but right now they had the element of surprise. All the Sergeant could think of was one solution.
“Wait for my signal, then make a break for the gate,” he whispered to the sharpshooter, then pulled at the bandages wrapped around his wing till they gave way. The cool rain felt nice against his feathers after their time under wraps. He then slowly rose to his hooves and stepped out of their hiding spot.
He could hear Sharp Shot faintly hissing something at him – probably trying to get him to come back – but it was in vain. The Pegasus pony stepped onto the street and into the light, his hooves shaking with each step. He was fully aware that each step could be his last. But he had to face his fears, and he had to find some courage.
This was war. The time for him to stop acting like a foal was now.
The griffons had spotted him by now as he came within a couple of meters, turning and staring in disbelief.
“Hey! You! Pony!” one called out, drawing his sidearm and turning menacingly toward him, “Where do you think you’re going?”
Fleethoof stared the griffon down as his allies turned, taking a deep breath as he tried to act like Phalanx had. He had to be like the Captain now. No more excuses, despite his fear.
He quickly leveled his rifle and fired two shots into the griffon as his enemy tried to raise his pistol, felling him instantly. That caught the attention of the others immediately. He fired two more shots into another before taking off into the air, hearing the shouts behind him and a couple of shots.
Putting all of his faith into his wing, Fleethoof flew through the dark air, navigating mostly by the streetlamps down below. His wing ached a little, but it didn’t hurt to fly anymore. He smiled; the feeling of being airborne again felt liberating, and the cool mist of rain against his coat washed the sweat from him and refreshed his body.
And then he heard another gunshot behind him, and felt a bullet rip past his ear, reminding him of the peril he was in. A quick glance back confirmed his suspicions: the three griffons were pursuing him through the air. He grit his teeth as another bullet rushed by, much too close for comfort, and beat his wings harder, trying to get away.
He was fast, but the griffons were faster, and were quickly closing the distance between them. He zigzagged around buildings and ruins in the dark, narrowly dodging fallen columns as he took off through the labyrinth of streets. He was afraid to fly above the buildings; going into open air would make him extremely vulnerable. He put all of his faith into the gridlock of the city, and in his aim.
Turning over in midair wasn’t an easy feat – in meant Fleethoof wouldn’t be able to see where he was flying. But another close bullet left him with no choice. He flipped over, facing his pursuers, and fired a volley of bullets at them. Several times he heard the sound of metal hitting metal, but not once did they go down. He clenched his teeth; he had forgotten they were all clad in heavy armor.
He turned back over just in time to see the black silhouette of a building veering closer. He took a sharp turn in the air and rushed down another street, hearing the griffons call out behind him. The rain was getting heavier; it was quickly becoming blinding at this point. Dangerous flying weather, but he had no choice.
Fleethoof rolled over again and fired until his magazine went dry. This time, as he fired his last shot, he heard the agonized screech of a wounded griffon, and saw one of his enemies spiral out of control, crashing head first into a building, most certainly dead on impact. He grinned – then lost his victorious smile. There was only one griffon on his tail. Where was the other one?
A roar above him answered his question. He looked up in time to see a griffon dive-bomb him, sending both creatures spiraling wildly in midair. Fleethoof grunted a she tried to push the griffon off, hooves struggling against talons as they fought each other’s might. After what felt like hours of struggling, he managed to slip a hoof free, and delivered his hardest blow across the griffon’s beak. He heard his opponent caw, then felt a hard skull smack into his. The griffon head-butted him.
Fleethoof saw stars as they spun in the air, and then a powerful punch across his jaw sent his mind reeling into darkness momentarily. When he snapped back, a brief flash of lightning illuminated the area for him. He was still grappling with the griffon – but he could see a building behind him, and they were headed right into it. He braced himself just as they made impact, hearing glass shatter and then felt his shoulder smack into solid ground. The griffon was torn away from him, and he tumbled about for a bit before coming to a stop on his side.
Another lightning bolt lit up the building. It looked like a library of sorts. The Pegasus grunted as he struggled to his hooves, his entire body aching and sore. The library was dead silent, only the rhythmic rainfall breaking the quiet with white noise. Thunder rumbled overhead as the pony got back up, breathing hard and trying to look around while his eyes adjusted to the dark.
No sooner had Fleethoof gotten up, he felt a strong, muscled arm wrap around his neck from behind and squeeze, hard. He gasped and choked as his airflow was cut off and he was lifted off the ground, his hooves kicking in the air in a panic. His forelegs grabbed at the arm holding him in a chokehold, trying desperately to pry himself to freedom as his lungs burned for oxygen.
“Shh, shh… Just give in, pony…” a cold, snide voice whispered into his ear from behind, “It’ll all be over soon… Just… grr, just sleep…”
Fleethoof’s heart pounded in terror, and adrenaline rushed through his veins, fighting to keep him conscious and alive. His vision was beginning to blur badly, and his body was overcome with a tingling numbness as his brain slowly began to shut down. He felt the arm around his throat squeeze a little tighter, and he knew the end would be coming soon.
Just as the Sergeant’s heart started to slow, he let a hoof drop from its frantic struggle, down to his waist, feeling around until he bumped the cold grip of his handgun. Fighting just to stay awake now, he struggled to draw it a few times before it finally came out of its holster. He lifted his hoof, pressing the muzzle of the firearm into the griffon’s elbow, and with the last of his energy, squeezed the trigger.
A satisfying gunshot rang out in the quiet library, followed by a screech of pain, and Fleethoof felt the pressure around his neck disappear as he crashed to the floor. He gasped, drawing in a huge lungful of air, coughing and choking as he scrambled away from the griffon. His chest felt like it was on fire, and his lungs hurt with every breath – but he was alive.
The griffon growled and roared. The pony heard heavy footfalls pounding across the floor, and looked up. The griffon was charging him. He lifted his pistol, but the griffon got there first, pinning the pony’s hoof as he fired a shot harmlessly into the floorboards and then tossing the pony clear across the room. Fleethoof cried out in pain as he smacked into a bookcase, then fell to the floor, books falling all across him.
Again, the griffon growled as he grabbed the pony’s fallen pistol, racking it and turning to approach his opponent. He could see the pony crawling across the floor, behind a desk near where they had originally crashed. He grinned – he had him now.
“I gotta give you credit, for a loser, you’re pretty tough,” the griffon menaced, enjoying his moment of victory, “But you’re still a worthless, pathetic loser. And now it’s time to lose.”
He approached the desk, just a few steps away – and saw the Pegasus leap up out of cover. In his hooves, Fleethoof clutched the griffon’s fallen rifle. He fired a single shot into the griffon’s chest, and his enemy lurched backwards, collapsing atop another desk, and slowly dying. The Sergeant dropped the enemy’s weapon with a heavy sigh, approaching the body and prying his handgun out of its talons with some effort.
Down beneath his hooves, Fleethoof heard wood smashing inward, and glanced down at the floor. Muted sounds of footsteps and talons on wood came form the floor below, making their way around. Fleethoof held his breath. It was the last griffon, looking for them. He stood perfectly still, trying to keep quiet while listening as the griffon stumbled about downstairs for a while.
And then everything went completely silent. No movement was heard from downstairs, and Fleethoof was scarcely breathing. His body was tense, taut up in an attempt to stand as still as a statue. Time passed by like eons. Nothing but the rain could be heard.
Fleethoof nearly jumped out of his skin as something made a noise beside him. He turned quickly and saw the griffon’s body now slumped across the floor. He must have been sliding off the desk when he’d retrieved his gun.
Below him, he could hear the sound of footfalls again, moving quickly about, and then pounding vertically. The griffon was coming up the stairs. Fleethoof bit his lip anxiously as he bolted across the room, darting through a section of bookshelves and pressing his back up against them, and waited.
He heard a door on the other side of the room break in, followed by the inevitable sounds of something heavy walking in. He kept his breathing fast and shallow, so as not to make too much noise. Pistol clutched tightly in his hooves, he waited and listened. His rifle was still somewhere out there on the floor. Without it, he suddenly felt very, very vulnerable.
The griffon made its way across the floor, strafing as it went. Then a bout of silence fell over the library. Fleethoof tried to figure out what was going on. A snarl, and then the sound of a bolt locking into place was heard. She must have found the body of her comrade.
“I know you’re in here, pony,” the griffon hissed out, her voice low and deadly, “I heard you. I’m gonna gut you for what you did to my friend.”
The footsteps were slower now, each one more deliberate. She was hunting him down methodically - all while trying to get inside his head.
“You think you can get away from me? Do you know how many of your pony friends I gunned down?” she continued to jeer, moving down through the rows of bookcases now, “Do you want to know how many of then cried? How many begged for mercy out of fear?”
Fleethoof bit his lip, feeling bottled emotions welling up inside of him. His grip tightened almost painfully around the grip of his gun. He had to stay calm.
“We’re going to win this, you know. You’ve already lost. And when we kill you all, we’ll take Equestria, and every single worthless pony with it.”
The pony’s eyes screwed shut, breathing deep and counting numbers in his head. He listened to each footstep. She was only a row or two down now.
“We’ll kill all of them. The stallions, the mares, and all the foals. They’re all going to die, because you were nothing more than a bunch of sniveling, crying cowards.”
One more row…
“And they’re going to die... just like you…”
Fleethoof’s eyes snapped open as he heard the griffon come round the corner. He gave a loud battle cry and charged her, catching her off guard as he barreled into her chest. Both creatures went hurdling backwards. There was smashing glass again, and the coldness as they were back out in the rain, gravity kicking in as they fell.
Fire burned in the Pegasus’ heart as they both flared their wings and took off into the sky again. The griffon shot up like a rocket, and Fleethoof had no qualm following her. They were the only two combatants left; open-air combat didn’t scare him anymore.
Just above the skyline, she swerved in midair, turning to get a shot off at him – but Fleethoof had been faster than she imagined. As soon as she turned, the pony collided with her, her gun going off and firing a shot into black nothingness. Fleethoof landed a swift right hook across her face and bucked off her chest, sending the avian spiraling through the air and knocking her gun from her grip.
Stunned and dizzy, the griffon took a moment to right herself again, but that was all Fleethoof needed. Charging into her again, he hit the griffon below her ribcage, knocking the wind from her and sending the two crashing down onto the rooftop of a building. The force knocked them apart, but only Fleethoof was left standing after the fact.
He stood over his fallen enemy, jamming the barrel of his gun to the side of her head, pressing her skull firmly against the shingles of the roof. Cold rain poured down across their bodies, a flash of lightning lighting up the anger in the pony’s dark blue eyes.
“Do it, you pony bastard! Kill me!” the griffon spat out, eyes glaring up at him, “Pull the damn trigger!”
Fleethoof felt his jaw clench and teeth gnash together, pressing the gun harder against her head. Even the freezing rain couldn’t cool his anger. All the emotions he’d been bottling up since his arrival at Skyfall came to a boiling point and were spilling out. Rage, fear, worry, hate, and sorrow.
“What are you waiting for, coward?! Just get it over with!”
He could feel warm tears on his cheeks, a stark contrast to the raindrops. It would be so easy to just pull the trigger and end it all. The griffon would be dead – just another casualty of war. Ponies everywhere would be a little safer. He could kill her right now; he should kill her right now.
But he couldn’t… Not like this…
He was no murderer.
“No,” he muttered, voice hoarse and just barely audible over the rain, “I’m not going to kill you like this. I am a soldier, but I’m not that kind of pony.”
Fleethoof slowly dropped his gun from his foe’s head and sighed heavily, seeing confusion and apprehension in the griffon’s eyes. Just as he started to move off of her, he felt a sharp, stinging pain rip across his chest, and he cried out in shock. He stumbled back and looked down: his armor had been sliced open, and a long, shallow wound was trickling warm blood across his chest. The griffon rose up, clutching a knife in her talons.
“Well I AM that kind of griffon!” she yelled, and rushed at him.
Fleethoof fell backwards onto his back and caught the griffon square in the chest with his hooves as she leapt at him, bucking her forwards and tossing her off the edge of the roof. The griffon screeched in surprise as she flew forward, smashing through the dilapidated roof of the neighboring building.
Slowly making his way to the other roof, gun drawn, Fleethoof looked down the fresh hole in the ceiling. The griffon lay across the floor, a large piece of a broken beam jutting through her chest. She was dead.
Fleethoof was breathing hard as he came down from his adrenaline rush, suddenly feeling very tired. His body hurt all over, and his chest burned with pain. He gently lowered himself into the building, shaking the rain from his coat the best he could. With the weather the way it was, it was much too dangerous to try to fly out of Midgard. He’d have to wait out the storm…
A quick examination of the building revealed it to be someone’s home. There was a lack of personal mementos and belongings, leading Fleethoof to assume the occupants had evacuated prior to the battle. He made use of the house, finding a first aid kit in the bathroom to patch up his wounds, and some food left in the kitchen. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have agreed with taking others’ supplies, but the situation was anything but ordinary.
Making his way to a bedroom, the pony collapsed onto the mattress, curling up in a blanket as his wet coat started to make him shiver. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled as the torrential downpour continued outside. He wondered where his squad had gotten to, and if they were waiting for him just outside the city. Tired and beaten, Fleethoof lay down with his journal as he waited for the rain to let up. Somewhere between waiting and writing, he passed out into a fitful sleep.
By the time the storm had moved on, the morning sun had broken the veil of night. Dawn cascaded over the horizon in hues of deep purples, maroons, and gold. A small band of ponies sat atop one of the many hills surrounding the city of Midgard, canvas tents set up as their shelter from the downpour.
They had waited all night for their commander to return to them.
For a while, they had believed their hopes had been for naught. The sound of gunfire in the city had ended long ago, well after Sharp Shot had returned to them, telling a fanciful story of how the Sergeant had stood toe-to-toe with the griffon elite and got away. Now, they were living on a prayer, waiting to see if it was time to give up and move on.
Valiant sat watch at the top of the hill. He hadn’t moved much throughout the night, except to swap out watch with somepony else. He still held hope. He didn’t want to believe they’d lost two leaders in one day.
But he was beginning to…
“Well, I guess that’s it…” he mumbled blandly, his face expressionless as he stood up, grabbing his rifle, “I guess we’re on our own now, everypony. Let’s pack up camp and go meet up with 2nd Company.”
“Wait!” Sharp Shot suddenly shouted out, pointing to the top of a hill.
Off in the distance, a single pony silhouette approached them. His golden mane ruffled gently in the morning breeze as sunlight lit up his scarlet coat. Life returned to Valiant’s eyes as he saw the figure, and a huge smile spread across his face.
“Sergeant Fleethoof! He made it!” he cried out as the Pegasus approached the camp.
Cheers rang out from everypony, and even Fleethoof couldn’t keep a small smile off his lips. He looked around at each pony. Despite the loss of their Captain, nopony else had been lost in the crossfire. He’d done his job.
“How?” Sharp Shot asked incredulously, “How did you get away? Those were griffon elite soldiers. You should have been killed!”
Fleethoof shrugged a little, trying to repress the images flashing in his memory.
“It wasn’t easy, but I guess I’m just lucky. My armor didn’t even hold up though. What kind of armor doesn’t even stop a knife?”
“I think it’s more of a uniform than functioning armor,” Valiant mused, pulling at the material of his own uniform.
“Then I’m definitely bucking lucky.”
“No way that was luck. You’re a natural killer, Sergeant!” one of the ponies said, and Fleethoof tried not to cringe, “You’ve got skills as a soldier.”
“I don’t think I’m that good, guys. But thanks,” he remarked, “We should get going. We’ve lost a day, and we need to catch up to the rest of the army, before they-”
An unexpected female voice caught the attention of everypony; some startled enough to turn with their weapons raised. A light gray Pegasus pony with a mailbag flew down to them. Fleethoof recognized her as the emissary who brought the news of war. What was she doing here?
No sooner had the question passed Fleethoof’s mind, she stepped up to the group, her uneven, golden eyes looking around at all the ponies.
“Um, which one of you is in charge?” she asked. Fleethoof hesitated, then slowly raised his hoof.
The filly smiled and pulled a newspaper and letter from her bag, handing them to Fleethoof. She then gave a mock salute and took off into the air, heading off northward. Fleethoof watched her go for a moment before looking down at the two things he had just received. The first he opened was the newspaper, reading the headline with wide eyes.
PRINCESSES REVEAL TRUTH: WAR!
“Earlier yesterday morning, Princess Celestia and the newly returned Princess Luna revealed growing tensions between Equestria and the Griffon Kingdom,” Fleethoof read aloud to his soldiers, “In a press conference to Canterlot, Celestia is quoted as saying, ‘Recent threats on the griffons’ behalf have led us to take action in protecting Equestria. With the imminent rise of Nightmare Moon and the return of my sister, I did not want to cause panic.’ While many ponies are upset by the fault in leadership, earlier festivities had kept moods high, with Equestria calling for one thing in recompense…”
Fleethoof lowered the paper, reading the last line slowly, and with emphasis.
“Bring our ponies home.”
Murmurs ran between the soldiers for a moment as Sergeant Fleethoof finished off the article.
“Princess Celestia had assured everypony that this is not a war, but missions abroad for peace between the nations, and that diplomatic negotiations will be beginning today.”
“Diplomacy begins today?” Valiant asked, looking suddenly more intrigued than ever, “How? We’re in the middle of a war?”
“It’s not a war – according to Celestia,” somepony joked.
Fleethoof took the moment to open the scroll, sealed with the official mark of the Princess, and began to read it. Everypony waited in silence as they watched their commanding officer’s eyes run across the parchment.
“Our troops have the city of Asgard surrounded. Princess Celestia is sending emissaries to the other officers ordering them to hold the attack, so she can speak with the Griffon King,” explained the Pegasus pony, “She’s trying to honor Equestria’s demand to end the war and bring us all home, so she’s opening negotiations with them before it becomes a bloodbath. As of right now, the war is in a ceasefire.”
Everypony was silent for a long while.
“So what do we do now?” asked Valiant, finally breaking the silence. Fleethoof rolled up the scroll and stowed it in his saddlebag before trotting over to the cart and grabbing a rifle to replace his lost one.
“We head to Asgard. Princess Celestia has requested every commanding officer to be at the negotiations, and since I have to take over for Captain Phalanx, I need to be at that meeting.”
He looked up at everypony for a moment, a nervous smirk playing on his lips, and a terrified look filling his eyes.
“Gentlecolts, I’m going to meet the Griffon King.”
3rd Company, 1st Squad, Canterlot Royal Reserve
Midgard, Griffon Kingdom
Forgive the tearstains on you before I’ve even written anything. It’s been a trying few days for me, and the next sentence I write should explain it all. Captain Phalanx is dead. He was killed in combat by a sniper during our raid of Midgard today. He just… went down, and didn’t get back up. I still can’t believe it, Journal. I keep looking around for him, waiting to hear for his orders.
And then I remember: I’m the one giving orders now…
I don’t even have Shining Armor to help me anymore, Journal. We split up in Midgard to get out alive, and he’s probably miles away with his squad now. I miss having him around; his presence made me feel safe somehow. Like nothing could go wrong. But he’s gone now. I pray for his safety, and I hope I’ll see him back on that boat going home, and not on the ground of some battlefield.
I never asked for this, Journal. I never expected any of this to happen to me. But what can I do now that it has? I have a responsibility as a soldier to fight for my country, and a responsibility to my fellow ponies now that I’m their leader. But I’m afraid I’m going to screw up. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong and ponies will get hurt because of me. But isn’t that what every commander has to do? Take charge when others won’t, even with such great risks?
Midgard was awful. The entire city was in ruins, and bodies were everywhere. It’s different when you’re involved in the fighting; you don’t notice them as much. When you walk through the streets afterwards though, and you get to take a good look at all the damage and death, that’s when it gets to you. I nearly died a couple of times in Midgard, but… I don’t want to talk about that. I’m just glad it’s over.
We’ve been travelling all day today. The road to Asgard is long, and we have a week to get there for the negotiations. I wonder if Princess Celestia honestly wants to make peace with the griffons? From her demeanor that I’d seen before, I wouldn’t think she’d just roll over and give up when Equestria was in danger – but maybe it isn’t in danger anymore? Maybe we weakened the griffons enough that she doesn’t see them as a threat? Or is she just doing this to please everypony back home?
Whatever it is, word is out. Equestria knows we’re over here, doing our duty, and keeping the griffons at bay. They don’t know the severity, of course – they just know we’re here. Celestia wanted to keep it quiet, because apparently something big went down back home, and she didn’t want to cause uproar. I don’t know what happened, but it must’ve been pretty massive to worry an Alicorn like that. I wonder how my parents are taking the news…
Anyway, Journal, that’s all I can think of to write at the moment. I’ll let you know if anything else happens, but it should be a pretty clear – and long – road to the griffon capital. I’ll write back when we arrive. Until next time.
Princess Celestia set the weathered journal down on the table before her, covering her face in her hooves as she breathed deeply. Her body was trembling gently as she fought against tears. She could physically feel the emotion pouring forth from each page, each word spilling the writer’s sorrow and pain into her very soul.
She lifted her head up, staring down the dark rows of bookshelves as she let herself calm down. A flash of lightning illuminated the entire archive momentarily, and a deep rumble of thunder sent her mind traveling to Midgard. It was almost exactly like the battle the Sergeant had described.
Knowing the war inside and out, she knew what was happening – and what was coming next. She had been a part of it, after all. Her eyes moved across the map of the Griffon Kingdom, trailing the road from Midgard to the capital, and lingering on Skyfall for a moment before ending on a single sheet of parchment. A photograph sat atop it: the portrait of the late Captain Phalanx. It was his obituary from the funeral after the war had ended. Celestia’s eyes returned to the journal. She had just reached that part now.
But there was still more to go.
Taking another deep breath and swallowing what remained of her lukewarm tea, the sovereign Alicorn steeled herself to finish the journal. Her horn ignited, and she gently opened the battle-worn cover, handling each page as if it were a priceless artwork. Passing the point she had stopped at, Celestia was surprised to find not journal entries, but games.
Hastily scribbled games of Tic-Tac-Toe, Capture, and Hangmare covered the next few pages, along with silly little notes regarding cheating and other ponies’ mothers. Celestia couldn’t help but smile. Even at war, the ponies were making friends and having fun when they could. She turned the page, and was again surprised to find a poem, autographed by Fleethoof.
She turned the page, and found a sketching of a landscape. A wide road ran through rolling hills, mountains lining the horizon in the distance. She turned the page again. Another sketch, this time of a pony in uniform, posing with his rifle. The drawings were fairly good; the artist had obviously devoted some time to them. Musing at the creativity war could breed, she turned the page, and saw the looming walls and towers of Asgard staring back at her, and across the spine of the book lay an all too familiar line.
Over the course of several weeks, hostilities between the ponies and griffons descended, settling from all-out warfare to a bitter truce. It was as if the world had come to a complete standstill in the Griffon Kingdom. Tension ran like electricity through the air as soldiers occupied cities and towns, waiting for the ceasefire to be lifted, or the war to end.
The tawdry stalemate was best described in one sentence.
We have Asgard surrounded, but nopony can do anything – it’s driving us all mad.
Fleethoof pursed his lips as he closed the journal and tapped his quill against the cover idly. For the past three days, he’d tried to write an entry, but when nothing happened, nothing could be written. Many of the pages in his journal were now filled with little poems, games he had played with Valiant and the others, or sketches - only the occasional entry here and there. Every so often he would write a little note here and there, detailing the morale of the troops, their behavior, incidents that broke out, and daily events.
Princess Celestia had been due to arrive any day now. But for the better half of a month, he had nothing to do. Like everypony else, he sat, and he watched, and he waited.
He turned his gaze back out across the military camps. Most of the army had collected in the plains just outside the city. Tents stretched as far as the eye could see, and ponies milled about idly. Valiant sat beside him, disassembling his weapon and cleaning each part. Even though they’d been here for some time, he still hadn’t found Shining Armor again. It worried him, but he assured himself that he had to be fine.
Fleethoof’s eyes turned over towards the city of Asgard. High walls wrapped around the citadel, set into the side of a dip in the mountain range that surrounded the territory. The city was built upon seven levels rising up the mountain, the white stone walls and buildings glistening in the morning sunlight. Towers rose from all over, their spires piercing the open air. The city loomed above them, almost twice the size of Canterlot, making the Pegasus pony feel very small.
Griffons could be seen flying around the towers and skies, practically mocking the ponies by making themselves so visible and vulnerable. A few ponies had taken potshots at the griffons during the ceasefire, and were dealt with by officers swiftly. It was maddening – for both sides. The griffons could see the invading force just outside, and the ponies could see their enemies before them, but neither could do anything in retaliation.
Flipping open his journal to a blank page, Fleethoof pressed the quill to the page and began sketching the scene before him: the looming towers and walls, the pallid structures, and griffons in the air and along the parapets. He wasn’t an artist by any means, but drawing helped him pass the time, and with a lack of a camera, it was his way of recording what he saw.
“Hey Sarge, what’re you up to?” Valiant asked, putting his weapon back together piece by piece.
“Drawing the city,” Fleethoof simply replied, continuing his work as he outlined the wall.
“Do you think Celestia’s gonna get here today?”
“I don’t know, Private… I really don’t know…” sighed Fleethoof, and the conversation ended.
After an hour or two, Fleethoof heard a commotion and cheers from further down the camp, catching his attention. Trumpet fanfare started, and more cheers and hoorahs erupted. He closed the cover on his recently finished drawing, hoping the ink was dry, and stashed his journal back in his saddlebags. Valiant rose with his officer, and everypony began making their way towards the noise.
A path had been made through the throng of soldiers, and a parade of golden armored Royal Guards marched towards Asgard. Behind them, a chariot was towed by a few soldiers, bearing the regal Princess Celestia, as well as a sight Fleethoof hadn’t been expecting: her sister, sovereign of the night, Princess Luna. All around them, ponies cried out praise and joy.
“It’s the Princess!”
“The war is over!”
“Hail the Princesses!”
Fleethoof swallowed back his nervousness, then turned to Valiant.
“Guess it’s time,” he said with a shrug, “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck, Sarge. Give that King a good kick in the tail feathers for me.”
Fleethoof scoffed and rolled his eyes before breaking through the crowd, spotting a few other officers making their way out towards the chariot. They followed behind their leaders, approaching the capital city.
A voice beside him caught Fleethoof’s attention. A mare suited in the traditional silver armor of Captains was looking him over, clearly trying to sum him up.
“Who are you?”
“Sergeant Fleethoof,” he introduced himself, ignoring the scrutinizing look the Captain was giving him, “I’m the C.O. of 3rd Company, 1st Squad.”
Her look of perusal deepened.
“Captain Phalanx was leading us.” The mare’s eyes lit up in recognition at that name. “He fell in battle, and I had to take over my squad in his stead. I got his summons to this meeting.”
There was a long bout of silence as Fleethoof watched the light in her eyes die. “Were there no Lieutenants to take the reigns?”
“No, ma’am. I was the highest rank present.”
“Well, Sergeant, I’m sorry I doubted you,” she apologized, flicking her mane out of her face and smiling at him, “You’re a little young to be an officer, and leading a squad.”
Fleethoof tried to shrug it off, ignoring the nervous knots in his stomach. “I’ve done a lot in my short career, and I’ve been learning a lot too.” She laughed.
“Well, if you ever find yourself wanting some more teaching, come find me,” she offered, “I’m Stratagem, Captain of 4th Company. I can help keep you alive a little longer.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, thanks,” Fleethoof said and smiled back.
The ponies had just about reached the gates of Asgard, two massive wooden doors keeping them out. The precession came to a stop, waiting for entry. Princess Celestia looked up at the griffons on the wall, glaring down at the ponies from above. Her eyes narrowed, and the griffons disappeared behind the battlements again. A moment later, the doors began to creak and groan as they opened inward.
Behind them, the hundreds of ponies erupted into roars of applause and cheers. Celestia turned and waved to everypony as they began to enter the city.
Fleethoof kept his breathing steady as he stepped over the threshold and into the metropolis. The city of Asgard was beautiful. Everything was a clean, bright white that sparkled in the sunlight, as if the rock was infused with tiny diamonds. The architecture looked ancient and deliberate, with detail carved into the roofs and columns of each structure.
Since the beginning to the war, he had wondered where all the griffons had gotten to, and now he had his answer. The city was full of civilians, crowded around stores and street corners, staring them down as they proceeded through the streets. Evacuees from all over the nation must have been gathered in the capital for its security. But even still, Fleethoof was surprised by the low amount of griffons there were present. He’d been to Manehattan and other major cities in Equestria; all of them were full of ponies.
The group was intercepted by a small band of armed griffons, preceded by one dressed in an ornate cloak that bore the emblem of the Griffon Kingdom. He spoke to the Princesses momentarily, and then led the precession down the street. He must have been their guide.
The city was much larger behind the walls. Each tier was built like that of a cake: stacked upward into the face of the mountain, each level growing smaller and smaller. Large ramps ran from the main street of each tier to the next, gatehouses of stone and iron standing guard over each one. More griffon soldiers than he had ever seen before stood guard everywhere, patrolling the streets en masse. Getting through Skyfall had been a slow, arduous process; Asgard was going to be a nightmare to take.
When they had finally reached the highest level of Asgard, Fleethoof discovered the reason for all the security. A large white fortress stood proudly over the citadel. Botanical gardens and fountains lined the plateau, and a marble statue of a griffon stood on a pedestal in front of the stronghold. Stained glass windows covered the façade, and antique-looking doors signified the entrance. Everything about the structure emphasized power and presence.
‘How fitting…’ Fleethoof thought to himself as they trotted up the steps onto the front terrace. Two guards stood beside the doors, opening them for the Princesses as they ascended the staircase and stepped inside, followed by their entourage.
Having only been inside one other castle in his lifetime, all Fleethoof could compare this to Canterlot Castle – and they were starkly different. Where Canterlot had a charming, warm appearance, Asgard’s lacked the lavish decoration and comforts. There were no plush carpets or brightly burning fires in the heaths. The chandelier overhead was wrought iron, not gold, and everything had a cold, hardened feel. Portraits of past kings were the only decoration on the white walls. Elite guards stood sentinel everywhere, presenting an imposing presence.
Steps were heard descending the stone stairwell before them, and several griffons approached the ponies in the foyer. At the head of the pack was a griffon with light goldenrod feathers and eyes as black as the night, a flowing red cape around him, and an obsidian crown fitted with precious stones. He stood slightly taller than the other griffons, and his cold, calculating expression sent chills down the Pegasus’ spine.
This had to be the Griffon King and his generals.
“Welcome, Princess Celestia – and Princess Luna as well! You have returned to the world again,” the King greeted, a wolfish grin across his face.
“King Alaric, it has been some time,” replied Princess Celestia in a flat tone, “Your kingdom seems to be doing well for itself.”
Alaric’s grin faltered to a scowl, an emotion Fleethoof couldn’t quite read flashing across his eyes. “Spare me, Princess.”
“But I mean it. How quickly you have grown, to be able to wage war so confidently against one of the largest nation in the world,” Celestia stated, her words double-edged deliberately while retaining some grace, “You must be so proud of your country.”
“And you must be so proud of yours, your highness. You’ve truly bred a powerful, relentless military,” he rebuked, smirking when Celestia flinched a little bit, “Oh, I’m sorry, does the truth hurt a little?”
“Enough. We are here on behalf of all the ponies of Equestria. Regardless of how I feel, I represent them, and they want this to end, Alaric.”
“Yes, of course… The ponies…” He sneered on the last word, but swiftly recomposed himself and smiled to the sovereigns, beckoning them down a hall, “If you’ll accompany me to our Delegation Chamber, we can discuss these matters further.”
Both Celestia and Luna nodded in unison, and followed the griffon out of the foyer. Fleethoof and the rest of the officers followed shortly behind. Fleethoof kept repeating in his head to remain calm, keeping himself in check. He was about to witness history, and he couldn’t let a giant bird’s demeanor unnerve him. He’d seen worse – much worse.
“Brr, is it just me, or did it suddenly get a lot colder in here?” Captain Stratagem said jokingly, looking at Fleethoof. It made the pony smile a little.
“Yeah. If it gets much colder, it might start snowing,” he remarked, encouraged by the Captain’s soft giggle, “We might need a Winter Wrap-Up by the end of these meetings.”
“Don’t be afraid of him. You’re tougher than he is,” she said encouragingly.
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re a Sergeant in the Equestrian Royal Guard. That makes you stronger than any griffon any day.”
Fleethoof glanced over at Stratagem, and chuckled a little. It was cliché, but it did make him feel better. She reminded him of Captain Phalanx a little – and suddenly Fleethoof felt his heart drop. He had to be tough now, for his fallen ally. He had to take his place as best he could, in all regards.
They soon reached another set of doors, guards at either side. They opened the doors for them, and permitted them entrance. Inside was a long rectangular room, panoramic glass windows on the side and furthest wall, looking out across Asgard. A long table sat I the center of the room, tall chairs on all sides. Two chandeliers hung above them, and a fire burned in the fireplace.
Everypony took a place at the table. Fleethoof sat himself beside Stratagem, still not entirely feeling comfortable joining the Captains at the meeting. King Alaric sat at the head of the table with two others to his side, and Celestia and Luna chose the opposite end, both sides now staring the other down.
“Who are you?” Fleethoof looked across the table to see one of the Captains pointing a hoof at him, and then turning to Princess Celestia, and his heart fell, “Who is he?”
“My my, Corporal Fleethoof, how good to see you,” she greeted with a smile.
“Likewise, your majesty,” he said with a smile and nod of his head. He had always felt safe around his sovereign, “But I’m not a Corporal anymore. I’m a Sergeant.”
“Well, that’s wonderful. Good work, Sergeant!” she said, “But, why are you here, Fleethoof?”
Fleethoof swallowed roughly for a moment before finally speaking. “Captain Phalanx was killed. I got his summons and took his place.”
“Oh…” He saw Celestia’s eyes darken and expression fall. “I see… I am so sorry, Sergeant. Please, keep your seat here.”
The other Captain sputtered in disbelief for a moment. “But, your majesty-”
“Hey! Cut it out, Saber! He’s earned a place here and he’s filling in for our fallen friend,” Stratagem cut in, glaring at her colleague, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door. We’ll offer him your seat instead.”
The Captain stared at her for a few moments, and then to Celestia, then gave up with a huff, falling back to his chair. Fleethoof couldn’t help but smirk a little bit. He was liking Stratagem a lot, and was happy Celestia had even supported him being here.
“Well, here we are…” Alaric mused, resting his elbows on the table and folding his talons in front of his face, leaning into the table, “You wanted this ceasefire, Celestia. I’d suggest you make good use of it. What do you want?”
“You know what I’m here for.”
“Right to the chase… But I’m afraid I don’t. All I’ve been able to focus on was this war that was thrown on my doorstep,” he hissed.
Celestia’s magenta eyes narrowed in a way Fleethoof had never seen before.
“Don’t play games here, Alaric. Ponies have died. We both know you had been spying on Equestria for some time with the intent to attack.”
“Such harsh accusations, your highness. How very unladylike,” he cooed, grinning that predatory smile again and resting his head on his talons, “What proof do you have to back up this little theory of yours? All I ever got was your letter a month ago saying we had committed an act of war on you and asking for an explanation.”
“We found your spies in our lands. We have all the information they gathered under your command, with the official order you gave them,” Celestia accused. Alaric’s grin widened a little, and his eyes flashed goadingly.
“And they told you all this?”
“They were killed. We have the papers with your signature on them.”
“And we detained the last of your spies in Manehattan last week.”
Alaric’s grin disappeared. Fleethoof perked up. This was news to him. There had been more spies?
“Release them, Celestia,” he demanded. The Alicorn merely closed her eyes and shook her head gently.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, your majesty. They’re too dangerous to let go right now, or to strike deals with,” the Princess replied, her words soft as ever, but the Pegasus could feel the ice in them.
“Then why are you here?”
The question lingered in the air for a moment. The electric tension Fleethoof had come to know so well out in the field felt ten times stronger in the room now. He looked around the table, observing the others at the meeting. The griffon generals sat in stony silence, barely moving at all, always staring at the two Alicorns. The other Captains were looking back and forth between the parties; one had his hooves folded and was staring at the table in boredom. Stratagem had a piece of parchment out and was taking notes.
“Luna and I are here because my little ponies want me to end this war. They want me to bring the brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and loved ones outside your city back home,” Celestia declared sternly, but calmly, her eyes steely and focused, “I do not want another creature to die unnecessarily in a war that does not need to continue. I had hoped you would feel the same, King Alaric.”
The Griffon King was silent for a few moments. His generals finally turned to him, looking for his answer. His eyes studied the patterns in the wooden table for a moment before turning back to the ponies at the other end of the table.
Both Celestia and Luna looked surprised. “What?”
“No. You invade my kingdom, force my griffons from their homes, kill my soldiers, burn my cities, and expect me to fold to a faux peace? You insult me, Celestia,” he sneered, “We were a dying race to begin with. We were beginning to grow. And you bring this war to us and bring us to the cusp of extinction again.”
“That was your doing, Alaric. Do not blame us for that!” Celestia retorted, her voice rising slightly, “You had every intent to invade Equestria, do not even try to deny it. You refused any diplomatic communication. We had no choice but to attack to protect ourselves.”
“You’re right, Princess. We were going to invade – to take back what is rightfully ours. The griffons owned that land long before ponies did, and it’s time we took it back!”
“That was before either of our time, Alaric. You cannot take petty revenge on us when we have committed no crime,” Celestia spoke, her voice softening again in an attempt to defuse the situation. But the damage had been done.
“Can I not? I seem to be doing it efficiently,” Alaric pressed, refusing to back down, “You act innocent, but you will hold the blood of my forefathers on your hooves forever, and I can’t let that go.”
Celestia was getting exasperated. “Alaric, please, listen to me-”
“No, YOU listen to ME now, Princess!” he snapped, pounding his fists onto the table, “The ponies have to answer for their crimes! One way or another, I will break your army. I will take back what is ours. And I will kill any pony who tries to get in my way of justice!”
“THOU ART MORE FOOLISH THAN WE ANTICIPATED!!” Luna yelled suddenly, rising from her seat and catching everyone, even Alaric, by surprise, “OUR PONIES WOULD STOP THY EFFORTS TIME AND TIME AGAIN, VILLAIN!!”
For a long moment, no one said a word, too shell-shocked by Princess Luna's outburst to say or do anything at all.
“Luna, please… Sit down…” Celestia muttered, gently urging her sister back down.
Fleethoof’s eyes were wide in shock, his heart hammering in his chest. He looked across the table; the other Captains were the same way, some leaning backwards and away in their chairs. He looked back at Stratagem. She looked blown away too. Alaric slowly lowered his posture and sighed heavily.
“This meeting was a waste of time…” he growled, clawing at the table’s surface.
“What do you want, Alaric? Can we not agree on a compromise to end the hostilities?” Celestia asked, almost pleading.
Alaric shot a dark look at the Princess.
“I want the coastal lands of Equestria back under the Griffon Kingdom rule, and griffon rule alone.”
The white Alicorn shook her head again.
“You know I can’t do that… I cannot force hundreds of ponies out of their homes.”
“Then we’ll just take it back,” said the griffon darkly, rising from his seat, “This war is still on, your majesties.”
Celestia rose to her hooves as well. “These negotiations aren’t over until both of us call them off. I want this to end.”
“Come back tonight then. I’m done for now,” Alaric replied, brushing it off as he made his way to the door.
Princess Celestia sighed heavily and stood up as well, everypony else following suit. They made their way back to the foyer, then out of the citadel. Fleethoof cast one last look over his shoulder, seeing the Griffon King glowering at them from a balcony. The pony scowled back, then kept his head high as he walked through the city. He wasn’t going to let the griffons intimidate him. But even still… he wanted to be as prepared for warfare as possible.
“Stratagem?” he called, catching her attention, “I think I’d like to take up your offer on some war lessons.”
Stratagem smiled proudly at the Pegasus. “It’d be my pleasure.”
“Welcome to my humble abode.”
Fleethoof pushed through the fabric into Stratagem’s tent. The second attempt at diplomacy had ended just as miserably as its predecessor, and he was eagerly looking forward to learning something to take his mind off the squabbling. A quick look around and he got the sum of everything. Weapons lay on top of a chest. A makeshift table held a map, a couple of books, and an assortment of scrolls. She’d been keeping busy with studying and planning for the imminent battle.
“Cozy,” he remarked. She laughed and walked over to the chest.
“It suits me just fine,” came her reply and a clatter as she pushed the guns from the lid, “Now, what kind of military education do you have so far?”
Fleethoof shrugged sheepishly. “Just what they teach in the academy, and boot camp, and what I learned in this war.”
Stratagem scoffed. “So basics and rookie stuff. Okay, square one it is then!”
The filly produced two large books from the chest and tossed them onto the table with dual resounding thuds. Fleethoof’s eyes scanned the titles. The Art of War by Sun Tzhoof, and The History of Warfare by several names Fleethoof recognized from basic training. As he began to gently open the cover of the first book, he felt the text being pushed further into his hooves.
“Start with Sun Tzhoof. He’s the groundwork of all military tactics and actions. What you learn there, you’ll take with you forever,” Stratagem explained, opening to the first chapter, “There’s more to war than just killing. A lot more. Let’s get started.”
Fleethoof looked down at the book, and read the heading out loud. “Chapter One: Initial Estimations… What?”
“It means laying down plans and ideas,” Stratagem clarified, “Before any battle, big or small, you must always assess the situation you’re going into and find the best and most clever course of action. It could save your life, and the lives of your soldiers.”
Long into the night, Fleethoof read the text with Captain Stratagem. He would finish a section, and she would then explain it to him again in simplified terms, giving him practical uses and mock situations where he would employ each lesson learned.
“I think that’s enough for one night. We have to be up in the morning for more banter with the Griffon King,” Stratagem said, her voice drawing out in a groan at the end, “You can hold onto the books. Read them in your spare time, and come see me when you’re ready for more lessons.”
“Um, okay,” was all Fleethoof could say in response, tucking the books safely into his saddlebags, “Thanks, Captain. I really appreciate the help.”
“Don’t mention it. Goodnight, Fleethoof.”
“Goodnight,” he replied, getting about halfway out the tent before stopping and turning around. He had to know something. “Why are you helping me so much?”
Stratagem turned around, staring at him in confusion. “What?”
“Why are you tutoring me, and not one of your Lieutenants, or somepony else – anypony else more qualified than me?” he asked her, “I’m not special or important. I’m just another pony in the army.”
Stratagem was silent for a moment. Her expression grew grim and serious, and she turned to face her entire body towards him. Fleethoof could feel a lecture coming on.
“Sergeant Fleethoof, never think you aren’t important. Everypony is important in an armed force.”
He chuckled weakly. “That’s what Captain Phalanx used to say…”
“Who do you think I learned that from?”
Fleethoof locked gazed with her again, shocked and taken aback.
“Phalanx was one of my first true friends when I joined the Royal Guard years ago. We trained together, grew up together, even fought together. I took everything he told me to heart. I trusted that stallion with my life,” she went on, looking down at the ground for a second, “He saw something in you, Fleethoof. I don’t know what, but he did. And he was willing to protect you to the death for it.”
“With all due respect, Captain, I don’t have much to offer. Captain Phalanx died suddenly, I don’t think he had any big plans for me…”
“Phalanx always had a plan, whether you think he did or not…” Stratagem cut in, pausing for a moment before asking, “When did he promote you to the higher rank in the squad?”
Fleethoof had to think back for a moment. “A couple of days before he… before we arrived in Midgard.”
“And what happened prior to that?”
“We were jumped by griffon pyrotechnics in a town… We lost some good ponies…”
Stratagem gave the Pegasus a questioning look. “So do you really think it’s just coincidence that your Captain promotes you to the next in command right after and before two ambushes? Don’t you think it’s more likely he was hedging his bets and making sure he put who he trusted in charge in case anything happened to him?”
Fleethoof was silent. He had nothing to say in rebuttal. She had a point; he hadn’t even considered that possibility. But Shining Armor had been promoted to Sergeant as well. He must have had high hopes for both stallions.
“I’ve known Phalanx almost all of my life. He isn’t the kind of pony to throw around rewards willy-nilly. He wanted you to be where you are now, and if I had to guess, I would say it’s because he wanted a Plan B in case something happened to him. Something did – and now you’re in a position of command, being surrounded by some of the greatest military minds in Equestria.”
Fleethoof’s head lowered, staring off into space while his mind reeled, trying to comprehend all of this information at once.
“I think he wanted you to have access to the best he could offer in case he died.”
Finally, the Pegasus pony brought himself back into reality. His eyes met the Captain’s again, seeking answers. “But why? What could he have possibly wanted me to do? I’m nopony. This is my first real war. What could he have ever seen in me?”
“Potential.” The single word left Fleethoof speechless again. “I look at you, Fleethoof, and I see a young Phalanx – and a bit of me in there, too. You’re green, but you’ve got spirit and courage. You’ve got a fire in your eyes and your heart, and I think Phalanx saw that too.”
“But…” Fleethoof’s ears folded back against his head, feeling the uncertainty and anxiety creeping up on him again, “I’m just a Sergeant… but I still feel like a Private…”
“That’s why I’m helping you now,” said Stratagem in a calm, soothing tone, “Phalanx’s first taste of combat was in the Wild West, at the struggle over the founding of Appleloosa. It was rough – rougher than Skyfall. Do you know what rank he was? He was a Private, one month out of basic when he was thrown into that. Do you know what he was when the fighting was done?”
Fleethoof waited with bated breath.
“He was a Lieutenant, well on his way to Captain. So don’t stand there and tell me being a Sergeant means you’re nothing, because the way I see it, you’re not nothing – you’re well on your way to becoming a Captain too.”
The pony’s heart stopped for a moment as realization finally grasped him. All this time, he’d thought he meant nothing – that he was just another nameless number in the throng of soldiers. But every soldier did mean something. Every soldier had potential. Seeing his Captain in this new light brought new meaning to his passing, and to Fleethoof’s current situation. Phalanx had set him up with all the opportunity he needed – and he would be damned if he was going to let that sacrifice go to waste.
“Goodnight, Sergeant. You’re dismissed.”
“Goodnight, Captain,” Fleethoof said in parting with a salute, glancing over his shoulder as he turned to leave, “… And thank you.”
Stepping out into the cool night air, Fleethoof could have sworn he heard soft sobs coming from within the tent. He swallowed down his emotions, and walked back to his squad, holding his head proudly on his own for once. He vowed then and there to make his fallen officer proud. He didn't even notice the warm sentimental tears running down his cheek.
3rd Company, 1st Squad, Canterlot Royal Reserve
Asgard, Griffon Kingdom
The negotiations between Princess Celestia and the Griffon King Alaric started today. I was there, watching everything that happened – and, well, didn’t happen. Negotiations didn’t happen. It was more like they were getting their first blows on one another, letting their steam out, and getting a feel for each other. I’m not a politician; I don’t know how this works…
Either way, I hope the summit goes well. Ponies all over the camps are saying that it’s the end of the war, and are already looking forward to going home to their loved ones. I really hope this is the end… for everypony’s sake. I’d rather see more ponies go home safely than lie lifeless on a foreign field. But I trust the Princesses. They know what they’re doing. I’m certain this isn’t their first international incident they’ve had to deal with.
I’m beginning to feel more like an active officer than just another soldier now. Ponies are starting to call me by my title, and some even give me salutes when I walk by. That still makes me feel weird, but I guess I’m going to have to get over it if I plan to keep this military thing my career. Being around the Captains is strange too, but educational.
I met Captain Stratagem today. She’s the C.O. of 4th Company. She’s very clever, and genuinely wants to help me succeed, it seems. She says I remind her a lot of Phalanx when he was younger, and that I have a lot of potential in me. I guess that’s a good thing, since Captain Phalanx was the best role model I had in my life. I doubt I could ever fill his boots, but if I can try, I’ll do my best for him, and all the ponies counting on me now.
Stratagem’s been teaching me new military tactics and passing on her knowledge to me. She’s one of the most brilliant military minds I’ve known – even better than a lot of the published authors I read in boot camp! Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true! I feel like I’m understanding warfare in an entirely new and different perspective than before. I can really feel myself growing with each new lesson.
I don’t know how the future looks right now, Journal… It’s all shades of gray right now. But I need to stay brave and keep hope alive. It’s all that’s keeping me going, and I’m all that’s keeping my soldiers going.
Please, Princesses… Get us out of here.
The next few days passed uneventfully. Each day, the negotiations would continue in the morning and end fruitlessly by late afternoon. Some days were more civil than others, however. Sometimes, legitimate policies and politics would be discussed between the two parties – and others would degenerate into yelling and arguments. Fleethoof couldn’t tell if any progress was being made at all, but something had to be happening.
If nothing else, he was steadily going mad from it all.
It also gave him ample time to catch up on his reading. Whenever fighting would break out at the summit, he would whip out his books and continue studying. He stayed up during the nights, taking notes, and returning to Stratagem for advice, tests, or clarification on some chapters. By the end of the first week of negotiations, Fleethoof had filled half of his journal with notes and ideas, and had completed both books, returning to his tutor for more.
Even if the negotiations weren’t making any progress, Fleethoof sure was.
Bit by bit, the pony had begun to absorb a variety of military and political knowledge by osmosis. Being surrounded by the leaders of two great nations and the commanders of the Equestrian armed forces was one of the greatest hooves-on lessons he could have imagined. Finally, he began to understand what the Captains were talking about without needing a translation. Each policy that was discussed was analyzed and deduced in his mind.
Everything was beginning to become so much clearer to him. Each piece of information he retained felt like it was unlocking doors in his mind, like they were things he was meant to know. Military skill was his special talent, after all. Perhaps what Stratagem had said had been true; perhaps he was meant to be here.
But despite all that Fleethoof had tapped into, the war remained in limbo… but it wasn’t to last.
The long table shook violently as King Alaric slammed his fists against the surface, knocking over several glasses of water and snapping Fleethoof out of his book. The Pegasus blinked in surprise, looking swiftly back and forth to catch up with what was happening. The Captains looked either as surprised as he was, or troubled. Celestia and Luna looked as solemn as they had when the summit began.
“I’ve had enough of these childish games,” Alaric declared, “We have been here nearly two weeks, Celestia! You waste my time and my patience when it is clear that no treaty can be agreed upon.”
“If you would please come to reason, Alaric, we could work on a truce-”
“No, Celestia. Time is up,” growled the griffon, “Negotiations are ended, and will remain ended. The war resumes today, and I will begin wiping the inferior pony race off the map.”
“And you, Princesses, will be powerless to watch as your nation burns and your loyal subjects die, all because of your stubbornness and pride.”
“Enough!” one of the Captains interjected, glaring down the length of the table at the monarch, “You do not threaten our country and our leaders in such a way!”
Alaric’s steely, narrowed gaze turned toward the pony. “I think I’ll start with you, Captain.”
The griffon and the pony rose at the same time, both drawing handguns on each other simultaneously. Fleethoof reacted on reflex, standing as well with his hoof on the grip of his pistol as he took aim at the avian monarch. The two griffon generals rose to defend their king, drawing down on him. Stratagem and the other Captains rose, weapons in hooves as well. All at once, the delegations had degenerated into a standoff. Fleethoof could feel the electric tension in the air again.
“Please, everypony, lower your weapons,” Princess Celestia pleaded her officers, hoping to resolve the conflict.
Nopony moved a muscle.
“You’re awfully brave, Captain… Pointing your gun at the leader of the Griffon Kingdom,” Alaric jeered, then looked to Fleethoof, “Especially you - a Sergeant with such gall. I hope you live long enough for me to watch you die.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, your majesty, but I have no intention of dying out here,” Fleethoof remarked, his hoof never wavering, his aim steady on the face of the griffon.
King Alaric scoffed. “We’ll see about that…”
“Lower your weapons,” Celestia ordered, her voice taking authority, enunciating each word slowly, “NOW.”
There was a lingering moment of hesitation before the ponies reluctantly obeyed, lowering their guns slowly. The griffons remained stubborn, Alaric’s talon twitching lightly against the trigger, itching to fire.
“You too, Alaric. This is a peaceful meeting, and it will remain that way.”
“The meeting is over, Celestia,” he argued, but lowered his arm as well. His generals followed suit. “Leave my castle now, or you will all be killed. This war has resumed. Now, be gone.”
Princess Celestia opened her mouth to argue, but a gentle hoof on her shoulder stopped her. Luna looked at her with despondent eyes, shaking her head slowly. She knew the truth of the matter, but didn’t want to admit it to herself. Negotiations had failed, and were done.
“King Alaric, the ponies of Equestria want this war to end.”
“Then win,” Alaric challenged, “You can return to your Equestria and tell your subjects that the war will end when one of us lies dead. But mark my words, Princess: prepare yourself, for I will make this the worst experience you have ever endured in your long life.”
Celestia bowed her head, her flowing mane covering her eyes for a moment. She rose to her hooves, looking across the table at Alaric, a look crossed between sorrow and resolution in her magenta eyes.
“I’m sorry, Alaric, but if I cannot reason with you, then I have no other choice,” said the Alicorn morbidly, “I have to protect my little ponies, at any cost. I beg you to reconsider. Enough is enough.”
Alaric’s black, soulless eyes burned into Celestia’s. “See you in Tartarus, Celestia.”
“I’m so sorry, Alaric…” the Princess murmured before turning and heading for the door, her sister at her side and Captains in tow.
Fleethoof lingered back, packing up his journal and book. He glanced over at King Alaric. The griffon was watching him, his eyes like a hawk, studying the pony’s every move. The Sergeant narrowed his eyes slightly, and time seemed to slow as the two enemies stared each other down. And then he felt a pressure on his shoulder.
“Fleethoof,” Captain Stratagem said, her hoof on his shoulder, gently urging him away, “C’mon, let’s go.”
Still, the Pegasus held back, eyes meeting the griffon’s one last time. He could end the war right now. One quick draw and shot, and the tyrannical monarch would be dead. It could all be over.
“Sergeant. Let’s go. Live today, fight tomorrow.”
With a nod, Fleethoof turned and made his way out with Stratagem, following shortly behind the others. His blood ran cold through his veins. The war was back on. He had such high hopes that Celestia would end the fighting, and that they’d all be able to go home safely. But such wasn’t the case in war.
As they left the stronghold and made their way through the city, the Sergeant noticed how many soldiers had taken to the streets already. Weapons and ammo were already being distributed, and positions were being taken. The griffons were ready and anxious to get back to the fighting. Alaric had truly instilled a deep hatred of pony-kind in each creature. It made the pony feel sick.
“I’m sorry, everypony,” Princess Celestia said to her entourage as they made their way out of the gates of Asgard, unable to look at anypony in the eye.
Fleethoof held no animosity toward the Alicorns for the failed negotiations. They had done their best to end hostilities between the two warring nations. Unfortunately, the griffons seemed to have their minds set on invasion. If that was the case, the only solution was to eradicate their armed forces, and the government that had planted the seeds of hate in their souls.
Many of the ponies outside looked to them as they left the city for the final time. Fleethoof couldn’t bear to look at them either. He couldn’t take seeing the looks of hope in their eyes and knowing they wouldn’t be getting their wish. He swallowed hard, keeping his eyes on the ground in front of him as he walked.
“Stratagem?” His sudden call caught the attention of the Captain beside him. “I know warfare gets easier with time, but… does it work the same with disappointing your soldiers?”
Stratagem looked at the young Sergeant with an empathetic look, placing her helmet on her head.
Fleethoof nodded slowly. He’d figured that would be her answer. After a minute, he forced himself to look up and face the army. Everypony’s face held questioning, hopeful looks, just as he knew they would. The light of faith lingered in their eyes. How was he supposed to tell the ones that had counted on him to save them that they were going back to war?
From all around them, calls to the Princesses rang out. Questions of results and the end of the war were thrown around the air, making the Sergeant cringe a bit. The regal Alicorns didn’t say a word as they were carted out through the rows of soldiers. Celestia kept her head hung. Luna looked out apologetically at each pony they passed. Even the Captains didn’t respond, everypony taking the blame for the day’s events.
“Fleethoof,” Stratagem said suddenly, the colt turning to face her, “Gather your squad and meet in my tent at sunset. I have a plan to share with you.”
And then she vanished into the crowd of soldiers, headed back to her company. Fleethoof saw the others merge with the rest of the army, and followed suit, getting one last glimpse at the Princesses as they disembarked from their chariot to speak to the army. The Pegasus took to the skies, flying just overhead back to where his squad had made camp. As he had every day, Valiant was sitting in wait for his officer to return, his eyes lighting up when Fleethoof landed.
“Sarge! How’d it go today?” he asked, as had become his daily routine.
Fleethoof’s deep blue eyes met the pony’s teal ones. That same glimmer of hope illuminated his irises. The rest of his squad began to gather around him, their eyes glistening the same way. They wanted an answer he couldn’t provide for them. He took a deep breath, deciding it was best to do it fast, like ripping off a bandage.
“Everypony, listen up. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just gonna get it over with,” he started, letting his troops form around him, “The Griffon King has ended negotiations with us. He won’t stop until we’re all dead and Equestria is under their control. They won’t make any treaties with us.”
Everypony was silent, looking around at one another.
“I’m sorry, everypony… As of today, the war is back on.”
Off around the camp, shouts and cries of anger and disappointment rang out in pockets of ponies. The information was clearly being spread fast. Fleethoof looked around at each face around him. Most looked confused. Sharp Shot simply looked dazed. Valiant’s eyes darkened and his expression fell as the light of optimism died in them.
Fleethoof felt his heart drop when he saw Valiant’s hope die.
“Do we start fighting now?” one of the soldiers around him asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied, looking out towards to towering white wall of Asgard, “We’ve been requested to meet at Captain Stratagem’s tent when the sun goes down. We’ll know what the plan is then.”
By the time the sun had reached the western horizon, the army was well into their preparations for battle. The Princesses had long since departed for Equestria, weapons were being prepared, and the soldiers were getting ready for the long night ahead. Beneath the burning blood-red sky, Fleethoof’s small squad of ponies made their way across the would-be battlefield, uniform silhouettes of soldiers moving like shadows across the field.
They entered the canvas tent one by one. Inside, Captain Stratagem and another pony stood around the map, murmuring to one another as they shifted little figurines about on the paper. The filly looked up when the ponies entered her tent, smiling when Fleethoof entered last.
“Sergeant Fleethoof, right on time,” she greeted, “I’d like you to meet my lieutenant. He’s here to help me organize. Now gather round, everypony. This is something you all need to see.”
Fleethoof and his squad crowded around the small table, eyeing everything before them. The newly added figurines made sense to the Sergeant and his new military knowledge. He could see two figures set on Skyfall, a few others scattered about in other cities, and a mass surrounding Asgard.
“What have you got for us, Captain?” Fleethoof asked, placing his hooves on the table and studying everything – literally everything.
“This is phase one of our plan to take Asgard,” Stratagem explained, shrugging a little, “I say ‘our plan’, but it’s really my plan.”
“Okay… Why are their two units set on Skyfall?” he asked.
“Well, that’s not really relevant, but that’s a good eye. It’s because reinforcements arrived at Skyfall about a week ago. The reserves that were left behind from our first invasion made it over.”
Fleethoof nodded in understanding. “Okay, that’s good to know. So, what’s the plan of attack?”
“As you’ve seen from our time in there, the city’s virtually impenetrable. Asgard is a fortress to be reckoned with,” continued the Captain, “There are no storm drains that lead out to the fields - only the ocean – nor any tunnels beneath it. So we made our own.”
She giggled under her breath when Fleethoof shot her a curious look.
“You made your own tunnels?”
“Yes we did,” she answered, placing a piece of paper on the table for them to see, “This is a diagram of what my troops have been doing while we were at those meetings. They dug a tunnel underneath the field that spans all the way under the city wall. It lets out in a warehouse somewhere in the city, though we’re not exactly sure where.”
Fleethoof took the tunnel diagram in his hooves and looked over it. “How long has this plan been in the making?”
“Since the summit was started. I decided to cheat a little and use the ceasefire to my advantage,” Stratagem admitted, a proud smirk on her face, “My company was all too willing to get a sneak attack in on the griffons.”
“This is brilliant, Captain. But the tunnel isn’t that large – barely big enough for a pony to stand in. How are we going to get troops through it in great numbers?”
“Oh, we’re not sending the army through there, Sergeant – just you and your squad.”
Fleethoof blinked in surprise, looking up at her. “Say what?”
“Oh, don’t play coy, Sergeant. I’m sending your squad through the tunnel into the city to infiltrate and get the gate open, as well as do some damage to some key structures. As of now, I’m assigning your squad to special operations for the extent of the war.”
“S-Special operations? Spec ops?” Fleethoof repeated interrogatively, surprised by the responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders, “Captain, are you sure? That’s a tremendous duty… Wouldn’t we work better as a part of the main force?”
“A squad as small as yours, Fleethoof, would only get lost in the mix. You can make a bigger difference by doing smaller, specialized missions. You have less of a risk of getting caught in a bottleneck, crossfire, or just lost in the masses,” the Captain reasoned, “I have faith in you, Fleethoof. You’re a very promising officer, and if Phalanx had such trust in your skills, then so do I. I know you’ll accomplish your mission without a hitch.”
Sergeant Fleethoof was silent, taking in all the information he had been hit with. He glanced over his shoulder at his squad. The ten ponies that remained were as quiet as he was, looking between one another. They all looked as uncertain as he felt. But he had been through so much with these ponies; he trusted them with his life.
“Okay, Captain, we’ll do it. What are our targets?”
Stratagem grinned, and pulled a detailed map of Asgard out across the table. Twelve red X’s marked places within the city.
“Now, we don’t exactly know where the tunnel lets out, but it’s definitely on the first level of the city, somewhere around the west district,” the filly officer explicated, “You and your squad will sneak into the city in the night carrying saddlebags filled with satchel charges and plant them at the red X’s here and here, at the main gate and the gatehouse to the next level.”
Her hoof moved over to the next level of Asgard, pointing to the next X, and up to the next level, repeating this for the second, third, and fourth tiers.
“You’ll have to sneak up to each level through the storm drains in the walls if the gates are closed. They’ll be over in this vicinity. Once you reach the fifth level, you’ll also plant charges here and here, at the two watchtowers on the wall. Up on the sixth level, you’ll also have to put charges in the barracks, the armory, and the bunkhouse. This will take out a good chunk of the opposition before the fight begins.”
“Okay…” Fleethoof murmured, nodding as he absorbed the details of their mission, trying to memorize the locations they needed to attack, “Seven gates, two towers, and three buildings. Got it.”
“You can take this map with you to help you ID the targets,” offered Stratagem, “I highly recommend using stealth and avoiding confrontation to keep yourselves invisible. Use the darkness to your advantage. We even have a little help coming from your hometown, Fleethoof. Cloudsdale has sent a coastal storm across the ocean, due to hit us tonight, so you’ll have rain to cover your work as well.”
Valiant raised his hoof from where he stood. “How are we going to be setting twelve charges off all at once from a safe distance? We don’t have that many ponies.”
“You don’t have enough ponies to do it manually, correct,” Stratagem answered, producing a small remote with two red buttons on it, “That’s why you’ll be using this. There’s a magical energy connection between this remote and the charges I have for you. The first button primes the explosives; the second one detonates them. All triggered by one pony.”
She cast her gaze back to the Pegasus Sergeant, sliding the remote across the table to him. Fleethoof caught the remote, turning it around in his hooves for a moment before tucking it away in his saddlebags.
“When are we detonating the charges?” Fleethoof inquired.
“At the crack of dawn, when the first rays of light break over the horizon. It’ll give me enough time to brief the other Captains and officers, and inform the troops of our plan.”
“And where do we set them off from?” he continued.
“The remote only has a certain effective range. Any charges beyond that will not explode, so you’ll have to activate them no further than the first level. I’d recommend blowing them right before you duck back down into the tunnel.”
Fleethoof chuckled and shook his head in disbelief.
“Any more questions, gentlecolts?” the Captain asked, looking between everypony.
When nopony spoke up, she wrapped things up.
“Alright, let’s get the charges loaded into your bags and get you kitted. You’ve got a long night ahead of you.”
The night was starless and dark over the Griffon Kingdom, a heavy blanket of clouds blocking out the sky. Thunder rumbled overhead, a signal of things to come. The meager squad stood inside a tent, surrounding a deep hole in the ground. The bottom couldn’t be seen, even with the lamplight from the lantern hanging overhead. Fleethoof and Stratagem had finished doing a double check on everypony’s equipment, making sure they had enough explosives and ammunition to go around.
“Okay, is everypony ready?” Captain Stratagem asked. Several ponies nodded, while others merely locked and loaded their weapons. “Good luck, squad. We’re counting on you.”
“Okay, colts, let’s go. Everypony’s waiting for us to start the party,” said Fleethoof, grabbing a lantern in his mouth while Valiant grabbed one as well.
He made his way to the edge of the hole, peering down it cautiously. A rope was tied around a post next to the opening, leading down into the abyss. The Sergeant carefully wound it around his hooves, and slid into the hole, back hooves against the sides to rappel down.
“Sergeant,” Stratagem called out, catching his attention just before he vanished, “Come back in one piece.”
All Fleethoof could manage was a nod and a slight smirk around the handle in his mouth, and then he was down the hole.
The tunnel was further down than Fleethoof had originally thought. It took him a good few minutes before he reached the bottom, and when he finally had, the light back up at the top seemed so distant. He whistled up to the others, and began to see silhouettes of ponies descending one by one.
Taking the lantern in his maw again, he set off down the tunnel slowly, lighting the way for the others. He had thought the diagram made the passageway look small, but it was even more cramped in reality. He had to crouch and crawl his way through the dirt to avoid hitting his head on the top and causing a cave in. Behind him, he could hear more hooves on the soil, glancing back to see the rest of his squad with him. The light at the back let him know Valiant had taken up the rear, keeping them all evenly illuminated.
The crawl through the dark tunnel was far from easy. The air was thick and stuffy, and the tight space was extremely uncomfortable. He said a silent prayer thankful he wasn’t claustrophobic. Progress was sluggish and arduous, but they were too far in to stop now – not that they could turn around if they wanted to. But they had a mission, and they had to see it through.
Fleethoof wondered just how far underground they were. He couldn’t hear anything from the surface, not even the hooves of the soldiers on the battlefield. They must have been fairly deep.
‘Thorough work, 4th Company…’ he thought to himself as they plodded onwards.
He lost track of time through their trek. Without any idea how long or how far they’d been crawling, all Fleethoof could hope was that the end was near. All that his lantern illuminated was more and more tunnel. Everything was so quiet. Even his ponies were completely silent, following their officer on blind faith alone.
Finally, the end of the tunnel came into view. The Pegasus pony breathed a sigh of relief as he approached it, trying to find the way up. 4th Company had cut hollows up the side, like a ladder built into the tunnel wall. Climbing back up felt even longer than it had coming down, and there was no light at the top, like the other end. He had no clue where the end was.
And then, a stone block was seen and the tunnel ended. Fleethoof balanced himself against the sides of the hole as he pushed up against the stone, grunting as it gave way and he pushed it aside. The sound of stone grinding against stone was heard, and then cool air rushed down into the tunnel. A flash of lightning showed the interior of a building. They had made it.
Fleethoof climbed up into the warehouse, taking a cautious look around for any guards. The large room was empty, filled only with crates and silence. He motioned for the rest of his squad to join him as he set the lantern down, extinguishing the flame to hide their presence.
“Is everypony here?” he asked as Valiant climbed up, doing a quick head count, “Okay, lock and load. Keep low and stay quiet. Remember, we can’t be noticed.”
He received a few noiseless nods as everypony checked their weapons and Valiant put his lantern out. The Sergeant slowly led the ponies through the warehouse, looking for an exit. Through the large windows, they could see the rain had started to fall. The streets of Asgard were dark and empty, devoid of all life, the streetlights out. They were hiding from the pony army.
“This way,” he said quietly, leading them through an office annex.
It didn’t take them long to find the front door, unlocking it and slipping out into the cold, rainy night. The water felt good against the pony’s dirt-covered coat, refreshing him as they slunk through the streets, hugging the walls as they moved.
Another flash of lightning lit up the city long enough for Fleethoof to get his bearings. He recognized the street they were on; he had passed it several times from the main thoroughfare. He led his squad down the road, and sure enough, they were on the large road running from gate to gatehouse. Griffons patrolled along the cobblestone street in groups, too many to even consider taking on.
“Alley over here, Sarge,” somepony said in a hushed tone behind him.
“Everypony down the alley, quickly,” he commanded, taking point as they rushed down the alleyway between streets, their hooves making soft, wet clops as they ran.
The back streets took them parallel to the main road, shadows of buildings and rain providing enough cover for them to move undetected. Fleethoof ran up to the gigantic outer wall and pressed his back to it, watching the griffons’ patrol patterns and waiting for them to move away. When they did, he and his squad ran alongside the wall to the large wooden gates.
“Charge,” Fleethoof requested, his voice ever quiet. The pony nearest him levitated a charge out of his saddlebags with his magic, placing it carefully in his officer’s hooves.
“Keep the magic to a minimum,” he reminded the soldier as he fixed the charge against the frame of the gate, “Another.”
Placing a second charge against the other section of the gate, he motioned to move, and the squad rushed off the street just as the griffons began to make another pass. The ponies moved with the shadows, scarcely breathing for fear of attracting attention. Though there weren’t as many soldiers as Fleethoof had seen in the city before, there was still way too many present for ten ponies to take on and hope to live.
Taking their time, the squad made it to the gatehouse. Much to Fleethoof’s fears, the gates were closed. He huffed and grit his teeth; they’d have to go around.
“We’ve gotta find that storm drain,” he muttered, looking along the wall, “Stratagem said it should be around… there, somewhere.”
A little bit of searching turned up a small culvert in the wall. Two griffons patrolled alongside the wall, blocking their way of getting past unseen. Fleethoof chewed on his lip for a moment as he tried to think of what to do. They couldn’t just open fire. Now was the true test of everything he’d been learning.
Then a plan came to him.
“Valiant, you come with me and do as I do,” he ordered, then pointed to another soldier, “You go and make some noise around the corner from the guards. Everypony else, stay in the shadows and don’t move.”
The ponies broke off, taking position. Fleethoof and Valiant stood around the corner of a building, watching around the edge as the guards made their rounds. From a nearby alleyway, the sound of knocking and hooves on stone was audibly noticed. The guards turned sharply and began to make their way towards the noise – away from Fleethoof and Valiant.
“Now,” the Sergeant hissed, and both ponies rushed around the corner behind the griffons.
Fleethoof grabbed one of the griffons from behind around his neck. The griffon choked and struggled for a moment before the pony grabbed his foe’s head and jerked his hooves in opposite directions. A sharp snapping was heard, and the griffon went limp in his grasp. Beside him, Fleethoof heard the sound of flesh being torn, and saw Valiant driving his knife through the griffon’s chest, killing the second guard.
“Nice work,” he said to his two accomplices, beckoning to the other ponies just down the road.
Once the squad had regrouped, it was an easy climb up into the culvert, and on to the next level. The ponies worked their way along the wall, just like before, and placed more charges against the first gatehouse, and were on their way.
The second gatehouse was easier. The gate hadn’t been shut, and there were fewer guards at this one. The griffons had obviously placed most of their security at the front in an attempt to intercept the invading ponies, should they try to attack. Fleethoof smirked to himself; they hadn’t anticipated a sneak attack, clearly.
Leaving another set of charges and moving on, the ponies worked their way to the fourth level. The gate was also open, and more charges were easily set. Then they came to the fifth level. The two lofty towers loomed overhead, and were easy targets to pick out in the storm.
“Split up. You five place two charges at the base of the east tower. You four come with me to the west,” directed the Sergeant, and the small team set off to work.
They were making great time. Coming up to the tower, the Pegasus spotted a single wooden door set into it. He slowly opened the door, drawing his handgun just in case. A quick sweep of the base revealed all was clear. All that was in there was a small hearth with a dying fire, a couple of chairs, and a staircase spiraling up the tower. A single griffon guard slept in one of the chairs.
Fleethoof motioned to the griffon, and slid his hoof across his throat. A pony nodded and drew a knife from his saddlebag, sneaking up on the griffon. The Sergeant could hear the gurgling death rattle of the griffon behind him as he set a charge against the tower wall and another on the opposite side. Their task complete, the five began to make their way out – just as the door opened inward.
A single griffon stepped in out of the rain, right into Fleethoof. Both creatures grunted on impact, but the pony reacted first, grabbing his opponent and hurdling him through the air and onto the ground. Just as the griffon was recovering from the sudden impact, he saw a pony toss a knife to Fleethoof, and squawked in surprise as the Pegasus brought the blade down into his chest. The avian struggled for a moment, but a second stab ended his life with a spasm.
“Thanks,” Fleethoof remarked as he handed the knife back, “Come on, the others are waiting.”
Sure enough, the rest of the squad stood outside, waiting for them. The ponies moved up to the sixth level, leaving more explosives at the gatehouse, as per usual, their stock beginning to dwindle. The sixth level consisted mostly of military buildings, and Fleethoof was sure most of the army had to be here. As he had predicted, more guards strolled around the plazas on this tier.
“Keep it tight, squad,” he whispered to his ponies, sneaking around behind a few buildings, and producing his map quickly, “Three buildings on this level. There, there, and… there. Those three.”
“What’s the plan, sir?” Sharp Shot asked, looking between the buildings he had pointed out, “Stick together or split up again?”
“Let’s split up. There’s lot of griffons here, and we’ll be more noticeable if we’re one large group,” stated the Sergeant, “Groups of three, three, and four. Valiant, you take two and go to the armory. Sharp Shot, you and three others hit the bunkhouse. You two are with me, we’re on the barracks. Meet back here in one hour, max. Take your time, be careful.”
The ponies all nodded, then split up into their respective groups and went their separate ways. Left with his two ponies, Fleethoof motioned to move with a flick of his head. The trio made their way back across the main street to the other side of the city, following the map most of the way. Fleethoof wasn’t entirely sure how to identify the barracks – until he came to the spot on the map.
Before him stood a large, elongated structure with decorative columns spanning its length. Statues of griffons in suits of armor and bearing weapons lined the front of the building. This must have been the barracks.
The barracks was dark and quiet as Fleethoof peered through a window on the first floor, looking for a way in. The front door had been ruled out as a safety precaution. The room he was spying in on looked like a mess hall. Three rows of long cafeteria-style tables filled the enormous room. All the lights were off, and the tables were cleared and clean.
Taking a quick glance from side to side, the Pegasus smashed a pane of glass inward with his hoof. Reaching through the new hole in the window, he unlatched the window and opened it, slipping inside the building with his two partners. The warmth of the building felt good in contrast to the cold downpour outside, and the darkness made him feel safe.
“The barracks is pretty big, so we’ll have to use most of what we have left here,” he explained, “Let’s put a charge in the foyer, one in the west wing, one in the east wing, and one on the support beam.”
“Gotcha, boss,” one said with a salute, heading off down the west wing.
“You, with me, I’m gonna get the east wing. You take the foyer and supports. Let’s move,” Fleethoof ordered, heading off out of the mess hall and into the adjacent hallway.
The long hallway spanned from one end of the barracks to the other. Doors lined the hall, and Fleethoof shuddered to think if there were weapons or sleeping griffons behind the doors. That was one guessing game he didn’t want to play tonight. The two ponies moved slowly to remain stealthy; the floors were made of tile, and their hooves clopped noisily regardless. Overhead lights dimly lighted the hallway, every other one switched on, casting the passageway in eerie light.
Fleethoof held his breath as they moved, hearing his heart pounding in his head, anxiety taking over. The silence was almost palpable, as was the tension. A deep clap of thunder sounded overhead, making the pony jump slightly and sigh in relief. He was wound up enough as it was. When they finally reached the end of the hallway and went through the door at the end, the two ponies found themselves in the dimly lit concourse.
“Okay, plant a charge up against the wall, then head upstairs and find the support beam. It should be near the front here,” the Pegasus directed, “I’ll be in the east wing. Meet back in the mess hall when you’re finished.”
With a salute to one another, the soldiers separated. Sergeant Fleethoof rushed down the east hallway as the other pony began to set up the explosives. The east corridor was just as creepy as the west, with the same eerie lighting. Despite it being scary and unsettling, the barracks were much easier than he had expected.
No sooner had that thought passed through his mind, the door in front of him opened up. Recoiling in surprise, the Sergeant pressed his back against the wall beside the door, watching as a griffon stepped out and headed in the opposite direction he had gone. Making his move, Fleethoof took to the air and dive-bombed the griffon, taking him down to the ground with a dull thud.
“Ow, what th- Mmprgh!” the griffon cried out, his words muffled as hooves wrapped around his neck and beak.
Fleethoof grit his teeth as he fought against the thrashing griffon, putting all the pressure he could manage around his enemy’s windpipe. The griffon’s wings beat fiercely in the air, trying to flip them over. The Pegasus’ wings flapped in the opposite direction, keeping them steady as they struggled against one another.
Steadily, he could feel the griffon’s efforts begin to weaken, slow, and get more confused. Getting a second wind, Fleethoof doubled the effort he put into his chokehold. Within another minute, the griffon collapsed to the floor, lying defeated and dead.
Fleethoof was breathing heavily, sweat slicking his brow. He looked up and down the hallway, listening to the silence in the building, and the heavy rainfall outside. No other griffons had woken up; his cover was safe. He grabbed the griffon’s body and dragged it back into the room he had come from. It was a small bunkroom, built for one. He wouldn’t be discovered.
Taking the combat knife the griffon had on him, the Sergeant set off down the hallway again, heading about halfway down the corridor. This was as good a spot as any. Doors were on both of his sides. He checked the left first – and flinched when he saw a sleeping griffon in the room. He very carefully closed the door, and checked the other one. It was a closet filled with rows of griffon armor. He grinned to himself – perfect.
Closing the door behind him, the Pegasus pony reached into his saddlebags and pulled out one of the satchel charges. He looked around for the perfect spot, and then set it up on a shelf above a set of armor. He was good to go. Stepping back out into the hall, he took off back towards the foyer. But when he reached the door and opened it, he froze in the doorway and felt his blood run cold.
A griffon guard stood over the fallen body of one of his ponies, standing back up over him. The avian was turning a satchel charge over in his talons, inspecting it. He must have caught and killed the soldier when he was setting up the charges in the front of the barracks. Fleethoof’s eyes narrowed in fury, drawing the knife he took from the griffon and snuck up behind the griffon.
“Excuse me.” The griffon turned around when he heard the hostile tone of voice – and gasped as a blade tore through the air and sunk into his throat.
Fleethoof clenched his jaw as he tore the knife through his enemy’s throat, ripping it open and halfway decapitating the griffon. He watched as the avian collapsed to the floor, gurgling and sputtering through the gouge in his neck until he bled out, his eyes glazing over as life faded from him. He didn’t bother trying to clean up the mess; it wouldn’t matter soon anyway.
He trotted over to his fallen comrade, kneeling beside the body. He had been stabbed three times in the chest, and once in the back. His eyes stared at the wall blankly, locked in the icy gaze of death. Fleethoof swallowed back the bile rising in his throat, and gently closed the pony’s eyes with a delicate hoof.
“I’m sorry…” he whispered, “I would’ve saved you if I could, but I can’t even take you with me… I’m so sorry…”
A flash of lightning through the window made Fleethoof look up. Outside, the rain had slowed greatly, and thunder was no longer heard. The storm was ending, and so was their cover, and time. He slowly rose to his hooves again and made his way back to the mess hall. His other soldier sat at one of the tables, waiting for him, looking up when he walked in.
“Where’s Dauntless?” he asked.
Fleethoof gave him an apologetic look, then glanced away. The ponies said nothing, understanding passing between them. They snuck back out the windows out to the clear night. The rain had subsided, and the clouds were beginning to break and pass overhead.
“Sarge…” the pony muttered, tapping on the Pegasus’ shoulder and pointing over to the horizon.
Off to the east, the black night sky was turning deep blues and purples, a sign of the coming sunrise.
“We’ve gotta find the others and move fast,” Fleethoof instructed, “We’re almost out of time.”
Traversing the streets of Asgard without the audible and visual cover of the storm was much more dangerous. Both ponies had to take more time being vigilant of their surroundings than just moving about under cover. With the risk of being caught even greater, they all had to move fast and precise. Gradually, they worked their way through the maze of roads and alleys, until they finally made it back to the rally point.
“Sergeant Fleethoof, over here!”
The sudden call caught Fleethoof’s attention. Everypony else was already gathered in the shadows of a building, waving to him.
“Is everypony here?” the Sergeant asked, doing a quick head count, and his expression began to drop, “We’re missing another one.”
“We lost him in the armory,” Valiant explained, sighing heavily, “We were jumped by a couple guards on patrol.”
Fleethoof stared blankly at the ground for a moment, then nodded. “I see.”
“Are we done now?” asked Valiant.
“Not yet. We still have to hit the last gatehouse before we can leave,” the Pegasus responded, looking out at the sky again, “And we’re losing time fast. We have to move, now.”
The dark sky was brightening at an alarming rate, worrying Sergeant Fleethoof. Thankfully, his squad was already setting up the last of the satchel charges. The eight pony group stood underneath the arch of the gateway, setting up the final two charges on either side of the portal.
“How are we doing, squad?” he called quietly back to his team as he watched the colors and shades shift and change in the sky.
“Almost done, Sarge.”
Fleethoof tightened his grip around his rifle, hoping they wouldn’t run out of time and they’d have to fight their way out of the city. Behind him, he could hear the ponies shuffling about.
‘Come on, everypony… Hurry up…’ he thought nervously to himself, shifting his weight uneasily.
“They’re set. Let’s get out of here!” Valiant declared.
“Alright, everypony move!” Fleethoof ordered, and the squad began making their way down the ramp again.
Yet as they reached the base of the ramp, a griffon patrol unexpectedly rounded onto the thoroughfare. Fleethoof skidded to a halt, his mind reeling, not exactly sure what to do. The unit turned and looked up at the ponies. There was a moment of hesitation between the groups. Time seemed to stand still.
And then a gunshot exploded behind Fleethoof’s head.
One of the griffons’ heads jerked backwards with a splatter of blood, and his body fell to the cobblestone street. The deed had been done, and the consequences had to be suffered now. Stealth was gone. It was time for war.
“Weapons free!” Fleethoof ordered, raising his rifle and felling another griffon with a single shot to the head.
Behind him, two more shots were fired, and the last of the griffons were killed without getting a shot in edgewise. Around other parts of the city, voices began shouting out, breaking the early morning silence. Their cover was blown.
“Move! Move!” Fleethoof shouted, charging down the street with his squad on his heels, “Get back to the exit, now!”
A shout came from their sides as two griffon guards made their way onto the street, only to be cut down in a quick burst of gunfire. An alarm began to sound behind them as they charged down to the fifth level of the city. Fleethoof’s lungs burned as they sprinted as fast as they could before the guards could rally to arms.
Ahead of them, the horizon began to glow with bright gold light as the sun made its imminent approach known. Their time was officially up – but they were so close. They bolted down the ramp to the fourth level. Shots were fired behind them, hitting the ground around their hooves as they ran. Guards had taken to the towers and were opening fire on them.
“Just keep going!” he yelled back to his soldiers, “Dodge and weave!”
The squad broke formation, running in zigzag patterns across the road to make themselves harder targets. The shots became more frequent as they tried to take out the team. Fleethoof’s heart hammered in his chest, pumping pure adrenaline through his veins. They had to get out.
A cry came out from behind him, and Fleethoof glanced over his shoulder to see one of the ponies in his squad go down, bullets hitting his fallen body. There was no need to check if he was still with them. His heart stopped for a moment, and a moment of sorrow came over him for his lost ally. But he had no time to mourn now. He still had seven living ponies to save.
They had reached the third level now, and the shrill cries of griffons rang out behind them en masse. They were almost free! A sudden creaking caught the Sergeant’s attention. Up ahead, the griffons had begun to close the gates on them. His eyes went wide in fear. They’d be trapped if they couldn’t get out.
“Go! Faster! Faster!”
Fleethoof ran with all his might, pushing himself past his limits. His limbs ached, his body was sore, and his lungs felt like they were on fire. But he had the satisfaction of bolting through the closing gate. Looking back again, he saw the other six ponies slip through just before it slammed closed. He grinned triumphantly. Second level. Not much more to go.
And then he looked ahead, and his heart dropped.
He had forgotten the gate they still had to get through had been shut, trapping them on the second level. A line of griffon soldiers stood before the closed gate, taking aim at the ponies as they approached. Fleethoof skidded to a halt, trying to stop himself and turn on a dime down a nearby alley. Gunfire erupted in front of them, and two ponies recoiled in pain; one fell and never got up again.
“This way, everypony!” Valiant called out as he hoisted his wounded comrade on his back.
Fleethoof led what was left of his squad down the alley and through the back roads. There was only one more way out: they had to get to the culvert they had used to get up. He dashed through the streets, the white stones now glowing a faint pink as the sunlight reached over the city.
‘Time is up, time is up, we have to leave NOW,’ the Pegasus pony thought hurriedly to himself.
And then there it was: the culvert, up ahead! Fleethoof’s eyes lit up as he sprinted for it and dove into a slide underneath it. He crawled the rest of the way beneath it and slid down to the first level. They were only a couple blocks away now. They were almost home free!
He helped everypony climb down from the culvert as they slipped through one by one, and then followed them through the city streets by memory. There were a few warehouses, and Fleethoof wasn’t sure which one was the right one. Above them, griffons were screeching and circling in the air, looking for them. The ponies stayed low as they ran, praying they weren’t seen. Fleethoof stopped for a moment to pull the map out again, double-checking the buildings.
“That one, there!” he called to his soldiers, pointing out the one that led to freedom.
A single gunshot struck the ground next to Fleethoof, making him recoil and yelp before taking off on a chase again. The warehouse was in sight; it was so close! Valiant was in the lead, heading right for the building. He threw his shoulder against the door, breaking it inward, and everypony rushed in.
“Everypony, down into the tunnel!” Valiant said, motioning each pony down before him.
Fleethoof stood in the doorway of the warehouse, staring out at the enormous main gate to Asgard. Valiant looked to his officer, trying to see what he was doing. The Sergeant was turning the small remote around in his hoof, watching as the sun began to peek up across the land. He pressed the first red button, and a soft beep resonated from the device.
“How’s this for gall, Alaric?” muttered Fleethoof, and pressed the second button.
A massive explosion shook the ground beneath his hooves as fire consumed the wall. Large chunks of burning wood and charred rock flew through the sky in every direction. Multiple similar explosions could be heard throughout the city, lighting up the early morning with bright orange fires. A small smirk made its way across Fleethoof’s lips as he watched the wall begin to crumble around the explosion.
Whistling in the air was heard as burning pieces of rubble and rock fell around the city, smashing into nearby buildings. The collateral damage was nearly as bad. Satisfied with what he had witnessed, Fleethoof turned and followed Valiant down the hole back into the tunnel. The earth shook around them gently, dust and dirt falling from the top. It was nothing short of a miracle that then tunnel hadn’t collapsed or flooded.
Both ponies crawled hurriedly through the tunnel, the rest of the squad much further ahead than them. Every time a large piece of debris would make contact with the earth above, the tunnel would quiver around them. Fleethoof prayed to Celestia that it wouldn’t cave in around them.
‘Oh please, dear sweet Princesses, just let us last five more minutes… Don’t let us die like this…’ he pleaded in his head.
“Come on, Sarge! Faster!” Valiant encouraged from up ahead.
The two soldiers crawled as swiftly as the small passage allowed. Thunderous pounding from above startled the Sergeant. The army must have been charging the city now that it was so vulnerable and shaken up. The next thing he knew, Valiant was at the end and climbing the rope upward. He stood up once he could and began to arduous climb back up to the surface, smelling fresh air the closer he got to the top.
Light blinded the Pegasus pony when he finally reached the top. Hooves grabbed at him from all over, helping to hoist him up out of the hole and safely onto land. Blinking to let his eyes adjust to the bright morning light, he took a good look around. All six of his squad had made it out safely. Captain Stratagem was smiling widely, and took his hoof to help him stand again.
“Well done, Sergeant! The walls are breached, the griffons are in disarray, and the army is making its way inside!” she congratulated, leading him out of the tent to show him his handiwork in action, “The fight will still be the toughest we’ve ever had, but thanks to your team, we have a tremendous advantage!”
Fleethoof looked out across the field in bewilderment. The entire Equestrian army had unified into one solid mass, and was surging across the field into the city. The once proud wall and intimidating gate now stood crippled and demolished. Beyond it, the city was covered in smoke, and fires burned sporadically. The noble, powerful citadel of Asgard looked broken.
“That was some impressive work, Sergeant. I’m very proud of you – and I know Captain Phalanx would be too.”
Fleethoof forced a smile, and nodded once. “Thank you, Captain. We lost some good ponies though.”
“I know, and I am very sorry,” the Captain replied, sighing softly, “But I’m afraid your work isn’t quite done yet.”
“Oh, I know,” Fleethoof remarked, unslinging his rifle from his shoulder, “We still have a battle to be getting to.”
“That’s not what I was referring to, Sergeant.”
The colt looked at Stratagem with confusion in his eyes.
“What do you mean, Captain?” he asked.
“While you were in the city, we received an urgent report from Skyfall,” she began, pausing for a moment and shaking her head with a weak chuckle, “I should’ve known it was a trap. It had all been too easy…”
“Captain. What happened?”
“An elite griffon force attacked Skyfall two days ago. We only received word now, because it’s a two day journey to the city from here,” Stratagem explained, “The ponies we had garrisoned there were overwhelmed. We lost Skyfall, Sergeant. It’s our only way out. The griffons let us take it so they could trap us in their own lands.”
Fleethoof could feel his expression drop with his stomach. Cold understanding gripped his heart and soul. If Skyfall was lost, then their only way out was blocked. They were trapped like rats.
“They attacked Skyfall two days ago? But… But the ceasefire-”
“They broke the ceasefire.”
Fleethoof scowled. Those treacherous griffons…
“But that’s not the worst of it.”
“There’s more? How could it get worse?!” Fleethoof inquired.
“During our negotiations, Princess Celestia had sent a summons back to Equestria, requesting our ambassador and a VIP delegate to attend the summit as well, in an attempt to quell the hatred Alaric had put in the griffons’ hearts. They arrived in Skyfall – two days ago. They’ve been taken hostage.”
Gunfire started over at Asgard – lots of gunfire. But Fleethoof barely paid attention to it. He was too busy focusing on the new information he was receiving. Things had really gotten hectic in a matter of hours. And even though he knew what her answer was going to be, he had to ask the question anyway.
“What do you want my squad to do, Captain?”
“I’m sending you to Skyfall, to assess the situation, see if the city can be retaken, and to liberate the hostages. One is a very important pony, and must be rescued and kept alive at all costs. Get them out of the Griffon Kingdom and safely back to Equestria, Sergeant.”
The Pegasus blinked in surprise. “Back to Equestria? You just want me to abandon the war like that? With all due respect, Captain, you must be joking!”
“No, Sergeant, I’m not,” Stratagem remarked with a slow shake of her head.
“You can’t be serious!” Fleethoof laughed incredulously, “The most important events are here! We’re needed here at the front lines! You can’t just send us home!”
“I’m not sending you home, Fleethoof, and yes, I do expect you to follow my orders and get those ponies out of here,” the Captain said sternly, scolding Fleethoof, “Every part of the war is important. You should know this. And right now, I need you to do this and only this, and then wait for further instructions.”
A long moment of tense silence passed between the two officers as they stared at one another. Despite his passion, Fleethoof’s will bent first. He sighed and nodded reluctantly.
“Who’s the VIP?”
Captain Stratagem shrugged. “Don’t know, the report didn’t say. Just one ambassador and one VIP.”
“So it’s not the Princesses?” asked Fleethoof for clarification, “How did they get out of the Griffon Kingdom if they didn’t pass through Skyfall?”
“Who knows? They probably teleported, or flew. They can do both, you know. You should keep an eye out for their entourage along the road if they did evacuate – they’ll be able to aid you.”
Fleethoof took another deep breath and heavy sigh. “Alright, Captain… We’ll go to Skyfall. But I will return to do my part, I swear it.”
“Oh, you’d better,” Stratagem remarked, smirking a little, “But Asgard isn’t your fight, Sergeant Fleethoof, not today. Skyfall is.”
He nodded, and turned to his squad. Everypony looked as visibly distressed and shaken as he felt. He could empathize, but now was not the time to be bitter about the course of events. Ponies needed their help, ponies of great significance, and they had to go.
“Everypony, get your belongings together on the double!”” he ordered, “Move, colts! We have to get back to Skyfall – NOW!!”
Negotiations died yesterday. I would have written in you about it when it happened, but I’ve been a bit… preoccupied. Griffon King Alaric refused to give any leeway in the war, so the fighting is back on now. The Princesses seemed really distressed about the whole situation – I can’t blame them. I had been hoping for a happy end to the war too.
But this is war, and happy endings have no place here…
I’ve been learning a lot from Captain Stratagem, but I’m sure you’ve seen all my notes in you. I really feel like I’m coming into my own now, Journal; like I’m really figuring out who I’m supposed to be, and what I have the potential to do. It’s really neat being able to fully grasp and understand theories, plans, and concepts I never knew before!
But sadly, Journal, that is all the good news I have to report. The rest is dark… very dark. My squad and I have been appointed to special operations tasks. We snuck into Asgard last night and set up explosive charges at the gates and key points to sabotage the griffons before they could make the first move. I lost four good, loyal ponies in there… They gave their lives bravely to serve the greater good of the army.
Asgard is crippled and weakened now. Alaric is going to wake up and find his city burning and invaded by the might of Equestria’s finest. I wish I could see the look on his face.
We’re headed back to Skyfall now. Apparently a griffon task force attacked our garrison there during the ceasefire, when they were at their most vulnerable. Even with reinforcements, they were overwhelmed. It makes me wonder just how inexperienced our troops were, or how many griffons we’re going to run into. There were two civilians caught in the attack: the Equestria ambassador and an unnamed VIP.
Our mission is to scout out Skyfall and assess the damage done to the city. We have to figure out how to take it back, or else the army will be trapped in the Griffon Kingdom between two fronts. We also have to get the two hostages out of there and back to Equestria. It hurts me to leave the war behind, and all the ponies that could use our help, but Stratagem is right – as much as I hate to admit it. We’re needed elsewhere right now, and we have a job to get done.
Looks like I’ll be seeing Equestria again sooner than I expected. But first, it’s time to pay Skyfall another visit.
Darkness blanketed the sky above Skyfall. The war-torn city lay quietly in the distance, dying fires emitting clouds of smoke into the smog-choked atmosphere. But despite the obvious evidence of combat and death, the entire area was completely silent. Not even a light breeze disturbed the quiet.
It sent a chill down Fleethoof’s spine.
Two groups of ponies sat atop one of the hills surrounding the city, staring across the distance at their destination: the small military squad and the gold-armored Royal Guard that had been left behind. Fleethoof and Sharp Shot held binoculars in their hooves, scanning the parts of the metropolis they could see from their position. Nothing could be seen – no ponies, no griffons, no bodies – nothing.
“Skyfall…” Valiant muttered to himself, staring at the dark stone city, “I can’t believe it’s been months since we were last here.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Sharp Shot remarked sarcastically. Valiant gave a deadpan laugh, rolling his eyes at the sniper.
“Looks like the saying became real… Days are dark,” said one of the Royal Guards.
Fleethoof dropped his binoculars from his eyes, his brow furrowed and a confused expression on his face. He turned to the golden guard seated beside him.
“What was that?”
The pony looked at him in surprise. “Oh, haven’t you heard the old saying about Skyfall?”
Fleethoof’s blank stare was the best answer he could express.
“There’s a saying – well, more of a nursery rhyme – around the city,” he explained, “Skyfall: where worlds collide, and hope is stark. Where soldiers die, and days are dark. Go forth, my son, fight to be free. But dear, I ask, return to me. For in those walls, heroes are slain; to end the tyrant’s fearful reign.”
Sharp Shot glanced up from his binoculars as well. “When was that nursery rhyme invented? They practically predicted what’s happened now.”
“It’s archaic, created by the first settler ponies of Equestria,” one of the Royal Guards explained, “They fought the griffons back to Skyfall as well, but that was where their war ended. Didn’t you take any military history classes?”
“Must’ve skipped class that day…” the Unicorn retorted.
"History has a way of repeating itself," a Guard mused.
Fleethoof scoffed at the ridiculous expression and returned to surveying the city. “Are you seriously going to base our military strategies on a foal’s nursery rhyme from centuries ago? What does any of that mean anyway?”
“The pony world and the griffon world met here,” Valiant pointed out, “It’s where our armies collided for the first time. Maybe that’s what it meant.”
“Possibly…” the Sergeant muttered monotonously, clearly uninterested.
“Or there could be more world colliding in the future that hasn’t happened yet,” Sharp Shot added, looking between the two ponies, “Maybe we’ll collide into another world right now!”
Fleethoof hit the sniper’s shoulder to shut him up, earning an exaggerated whine from the dramatic pony. That was enough sarcasm for one moment. They had a job to do, and with innocent lives on the line, the Sergeant wanted to make sure everything went off without a hitch. Nothing could go wrong.
“Alright, so what’s the plan?” one of Fleethoof’s soldiers asked.
“We’re going to have to wait for nightfall before we do anything, so we-”
“Excuse me,” the Royal Guard leader interrupted Fleethoof, leering at him, “I’m the highest rank here, Sergeant. I’ll be taking over from here.”
A few calls of disapproval rang out from Fleethoof’s squad. The Sergeant silenced them with a gentle wave of his hoof, turning to engage the Lieutenant.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant, I didn’t mean to step out of line,” he replied in a passive aggressive tone, smiling pleasantly at the Unicorn in gold armor, “You take the lead, by all means. I’m sure you’ve done plenty of rescue and stealth missions in your career.”
The Lieutenant fell silent, his ears pinned back against his helmet. The proud, confident look in his eyes began to fade. Fleethoof knew he had him.
“Wait, you haven’t?” he continued in a shocked tone, his soldiers beginning to snicker behind him, “But… But how are we going to accomplish this mission and save two very important lives if you’ve never done this before?”
The Royal Guard officer’s jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed, a red flush filling his cheeks.
“Look, Lieutenant, with all due respect, let’s not make this a pissing match and pull rank on each other. We have to work together if we’re gonna get out of here alive.”
“I agree,” one of the Royal Guard ponies spoke up after a moment.
The Lieutenant took a look around at his mutinous troops, then back to Fleethoof. The Sergeant saw something break in the pony’s eyes, and he heaved a reluctant sigh.
“Fine. What would you suggest, Sergeant?”
Fleethoof smiled and nodded. “We’ll wait until dusk, and then we’ll slip into the city. We have to locate the hostages and free them with as little conflict as possible so we don’t attract attention.”
“Skyfall’s a big city, Sarge,” Valiant stated, looking back to the said city, “How are we gonna find two ponies in there?”
“We have all night,” said Fleethoof with a shrug, “Or we could interrogate some griffons, see if they know anything.”
“That sounds risky,” a Guard observed.
“It is – but this whole mission is risky.”
“And once we free the hostages, how are we getting out of Skyfall and back to Equestria?” Valiant continued, and several others murmured in agreement with the question.
Fleethoof exhaled deeply and ran a hoof through his mane, pushing it out of his eyes. This was the part of the plan that was sketchy.
“There’s only one way out… the boats.”
“The boats? You mean the massive ships we took over here?” Sharp Shot asked incredulously.
“We don’t really have another choice, Corporal…” the Pegasus remarked, shaking his head.
“We could take the yacht we came over on with the Princesses,” the Guard Lieutenant suggested, “It’s smaller, faster, more maneuverable, and takes far less ponies to sail it.”
“That’s perfect!” Fleethoof exclaimed, his eyes lighting up, “How many ponies does it take to sail?”
“About eight, at the least. A dozen ideally, but eight can make it work.”
“Okay, and we have thirteen right now, so we’re golden,” Fleethoof noted, “With any luck, the griffons haven’t burned our ships down yet. Hopefully they’ve been too busy with holding the city to get around to it.”
“I dunno, Sarge… There’s a lot of smoke coming from there…”
The Sergeant’s eyes turned to follow Valiant’s out to Skyfall again. Everypony looked out across the dead, smoking city in silence. Fleethoof pushed back the lingering doubt in his mind, and reached back to grab his rifle.
“We have to hope, Private…” he said simply, double checking his weapon, “For all our sakes, we have to hope…”
As the blood red sun began to set over the western horizon, casting the orange sky into a sea of fire, the team of ponies crept along the outer wall of Skyfall. The soft sounds of the waves in the distance could just barely be heard now, the smell of smoke and death lingering in the salty air. Gulls cried in the air above their heads, finding places to roost for the night in the desolate city.
Keeping to the long, dark shadows, the ponies slunk alongside the large stone walls until they reached the gate. The wooden barriers had been blown apart, the remnants charred and hanging pathetically on their hinges. The griffons that launched the counterattack had clearly meant business.
The upper level courtyard was a grim sight. The bodies of ponies lay scattered and broken as far as the eye could see, the cobblestone stained a dark hue of red with the dried blood. In the fading afternoon light, the bodies seemed to give off a golden glow, as if their spirits were still dying inside – though Fleethoof knew the life had left them long ago.
Behind him, somepony gagged. Even he had to admit it was macabre. The griffons didn’t even have the decency to clear the corpses from the streets, choosing instead to leave them to rot in plain sight. The Pegasus shook his head in disgust, and tried not to breathe through his nose.
“Keep moving…” he muttered in a hushed tone back to his soldiers.
Leading the team slowly through the open courtyard was a tense situation. At any moment, they could be attacked from any side, with no defense. They would become just another group of bodies left to decay on the ground. Fleethoof forced the thought from his mind and pushed on. He wouldn’t let fear get the better of him, not when he was so close to saving those who depended on him.
The ponies stuck to the long, dark shadows cast by the late afternoon sun, making their way across the courtyard. The city was as dead and silent as it had seemed from a distance. No griffons, ponies, or any signs of life could be seen, save for the remains of the battle that had occurred. Bullet casings littered the cobblestone street, ashes and scorch marks from explosions spread sparsely around. One of the buildings was completely destroyed, nothing left standing but the skeletal outer walls and rubble. Part of city hall had been blown away, revealing the interior, parts of the structure still burning with dying fires.
“Sarge…” Valiant whispered to his officer, tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention.
Fleethoof looked back, and saw what Valiant was directing him to. A lone griffon guard patrolled along the rooftop of city hall, and through the windows and destroyed walls, several silhouettes could be seen moving in and out of view. The city was still very actively occupied. All the griffons were in hiding. Suddenly, a group of griffons made their way out of city hall, descending the stairs to the courtyard.
“Take cover,” Fleethoof ordered quietly, and everypony scrambled behind low walls, around corners, or behind anything they could find.
From his hiding spot, the Pegasus watched the griffons troop across the plaza, studying them closely. They were different from all the other griffons he had encountered in his time in the Griffon Kingdom. They were garbed in matching black uniforms, each one bearing a peculiar emblem embossed on the breast. Each one carried a rifle Fleethoof hadn’t seen griffons with before. It took him a moment before he realized he did recognize those guns – they were theirs!
The griffons had looted the guns from the ponies they had slain.
He watched the griffons as they descended through the gate to the next level and vanished from sight. Including the one on the roof and the silhouettes he had seen, he counted twelve griffons. But surely there had to be more around the city somewhere. There was no way such a small squad of them had taken over the city.
The Guard Lieutenant shifted from his position, moving closer to Fleethoof. “There may be some info on the hostages in city hall if they’re using it as a base.”
“You’re probably right,” the Sergeant agreed with a nod, “Let’s break into two teams and search. Your soldiers take the right wing; we’ll search the left. Try to keep it as quiet as possible.”
The Lieutenant nodded, then moved to rejoin his soldiers. Fleethoof motioned with his hoof to his squad, and the ponies broke from cover, making their way across the courtyard perimeter, sticking to the buildings the entire way. No more griffons emerged form the municipal building, meaning there was still some resistance left inside.
“Valiant, roof,” Fleethoof called back to the Pegasus.
Valiant nodded, wings flaring as he took off into the air. He shot towards the griffon patrolling the rooftop as the other ponies made their way towards the stairs of city hall. The griffon caught a glimpse of the mobile force – then cried out in surprise as she was tackled to the ground. Valiant pinned his enemy under his weight, knife in hoof as he drove the blade deep into the soldier’s chest. The griffon struggled for a moment, then lay still.
Fleethoof nodded up to the pony, Valiant flying down to rejoin the soldiers as they marched up the steps into the dilapidated hall. The building lay the same way Fleethoof remembered leaving it in over a month ago. It haunted his mind like a violent dream. Bodies of ponies lay about the large open lobby, freshly slain and left about like the ones in the plaza. It made the Sergeant grimace.
“Remember, everypony, keep it quiet and quick. Any information on the hostages is useful, so check every room and everything,” Fleethoof explained, leading his squad off towards the left wing of the structure, “Meet back here as soon as possible.”
The two teams split up, Fleethoof’s squad dividing even further to check both the ground and upper levels concurrently. Fleethoof, Valiant, and two other soldiers took to the upper level, marching up the stairs and down the corridor. Their hooves gripped their rifles tightly, eyes scanning the empty hallways as they passed several disheveled offices.
One by one, the ponies searched each and every office space, coming up empty hoofed. The offices were wrecked, with useless papers, documents, and memorandums littering the floors and every surface available. With each disappointing turnout, Fleethoof could feel his heart drop more and more. He glanced out a window. Twilight had taken over the sunset, and deep, dark purples colored the sky as light faded outside.
They were running short on time. At any moment, the griffons could discover them and terminate the hostages. His eyes narrowed as he focused himself. He wasn’t going to let them have that chance.
After running through every office they could find turned up nothing, the four ponies rounded a corner – and saw the double doors to the mayor’s office, two guards standing before them. Fleethoof flinched and recoiled backwards, the ponies quickly backpedaling around the corner again. But the damage had been done.
“Hey! Stop!” one of the griffons called out.
The sound of rifles loading was heard around the corner. Fleethoof’s heart was hammering in his chest. He glanced back at Valiant, seeing the scared look in the Pegasus’ eyes. Then his eyes drifted down to the knife sheath on the pony’s chest. Grabbing the hilt of the knife, he brandished the weapon just as the griffons turned the corner.
With the momentum of his turn, his hoof slammed into one of the griffon’s chest, tearing through the black fabric uniform, right into his heart. The griffon exhaled heavily, and didn’t breathe again as he doubled over, Fleethoof brining the knife around into his back and letting him collapse. The second foe had already begun leveling his gun. Fleethoof grabbed the barrel of the rifle and pulled the griffon closer to him, spinning on his hooves and bringing the blade around for a second pass. The knife sliced through the thin skin on the griffon’s throat, blood splattering across the walls and pouring down the creature’s chest. The griffon gurgled and sputtered as he gripped at the wound in his neck, falling against the wall and sliding down in a mess of gore.
“Whoa, Sarge… Where’d that come from?” one of the soldiers muttered, watching as the dying griffon slowly bled out on the floor, his eyes looking desperately between the ponies looming over him.
“C’mon, we have to move fast,” Fleethoof ordered, handing Valiant’s knife back and casting one last look to the griffon as his enemy’s eyes glazed over and dimmed, the life fading from him.
Making their way back to the mayor’s office, Fleethoof kicked the doors inward. The large office was empty, but it wasn’t lacking results. Maps were hung across the walls and rolled out over tables. The floors were completely covered with papers. This was obviously the nerve center for the griffons’ operations within Skyfall.
There had to be something here…
“Search everything. Start with what’s on the tables, it has to be the most recent stuff,” the Sergeant said, rushing over to the mayor’s desk.
A quick survey of the contents held a few books, maps of Skyfall, the Griffon Kingdom, and Equestria, and a dozen documents. He skimmed through each one quickly. A field report, field report, an order from Asgard… and a letter. Fleethoof’s eyes scanned the contents of the letter quickly. It was addressed to King Alaric, from a Field Officer Bronzebeak.
“I’ve got something,” Valiant called out behind him, “They actually have three hostages now. They kept Captain Cuirass alive, and they’re holding them in a building on the second tier.”
“They’ve been moved,” corrected Fleethoof, rereading the letter in his hooves, “The griffon officer was afraid of security risks, so he had them moved to Skyfall Tower, the largest tower overlooking the city. I’m guessing none of the hostages can fly, or they’re being heavily guarded.”
“Is it too much to hope for the first option?” a soldier joked. Fleethoof smirked a little.
“We can always hope. Come on, let’s get back to the entrance and meet up with the others. We don’t have a lot of time to work with.”
The four ponies rushed back to the foyer quickly. Fleethoof was eager to get to the hostages, so he’d at least have the peace of mind knowing they were safe in their custody. As they made their way down the stairs to the ground level again, the other half of Fleethoof’s team emerged and rejoined them. Shortly later, the Royal Guard returned.
“We didn’t find a thing. Just a couple griffons we had to deal with,” the Lieutenant reported.
“We found out where the hostages are being held. They’re in Skyfall Tower. According to a map I saw, we should be able to access it from this tier of the city,” explained Fleethoof.
“Then we should get moving on the double!”
The squad made their way out of city hall and down the steps to the bloody courtyard. Fleethoof could see the silhouette of Skyfall Tower looming in the darkness, a few lighted windows dotting its surface. It must have been used as a lighthouse or a reconnaissance lookout. Following what little he remembered or the map and his reasoning, Sergeant Fleethoof led the troops through the dark streets of the city towards their destination.
No griffons were patrolling the streets on this level. It made Fleethoof uneasy. Where could they all be?
Passing through a small plaza illuminated by a burning fire, the squad came across another grim sight that made them all stop momentarily. In the center of the plaza stood a crudely built gallows, seven ponies hanging limply from it by their necks, their bodies swaying gently in midair. Around the square, more bodies of fallen soldiers lay scattered. Fleethoof could feel his stomach churn and his throat tighten. Behind him, somepony began retching.
“They’re monsters…” a soldier spat in disgust.
“How could they do such a thing?” asked Valiant in shock.
“Alaric has instilled such a deep hatred for ponies in his subjects. It’s like their sole purpose is to despise us now,” Fleethoof explained, unable to tear his eyes away from the dark sight.
“There has to be some sort of laws or codes against this though,” Sharp Shot insisted, “Surely this can’t be allowed. He has to be a war criminal for this!”
“He is…” the Guard Lieutenant muttered darkly, “He’s violated several wartime codes of honor… He just doesn’t care…”
“He’ll win by any means necessary…” agreed Fleethoof, “Come on, we can’t dawdle. Let’s keep moving.”
Everypony began to slowly tear themselves away from the spectacle before them, making their way across the plaza. Fleethoof let his gaze linger a moment longer, then began to turn away – when something in the flickering light caught his eye. His breath caught in his chest as he did a double take, confirming what he had noticed before. Trotting briskly from the shadows into the open air, he approached the gallows.
“Sergeant! What are you doing?” a soldier hissed out, trying to keep his voice down.
Fleethoof didn’t respond. Once he reached the scaffold, he looked up at one of the hanging bodies, studying it closer in the light. His heart dropped into his stomach, and he felt a cold numbness set in.
“Sarge?” Valiant asked, approaching his officer with a couple of soldiers in tow, “Sergeant? Fleethoof, are you alright?”
“Give me your knife, Private,” Fleethoof said tersely, his voice monotone and flat.
“Knife!” he ordered sharply, turning slightly, eyes narrowed and hostile.
Valiant shrank back for a moment, but obeyed, albeit hesitantly, drawing his combat knife and handing it to the Sergeant. Fleethoof took the knife quickly and flew up to the overhanging beam, cutting through the noose’s rope with a swift jerk of the blade. The body dropped to the cobblestones below, and Fleethoof collapsed next to it.
“Cut the rest of them down,” he commanded, placing the knife back in Valiant’s hooves.
Valiant looked back to the soldiers with him, all looking uncertain and worried. Behind them, the rest of Fleethoof’s squad and the Royal Guard lingered, watching them. One by one, the soldiers began to cut the corpses down, laying then gently on the ground.
Fleethoof sat beside the body he had freed, staring down at it with blank, dead eyes. His expression was unreadable. His mind was empty, void of any conscious thought. His hooves gently held the dead body of the pale blue Unicorn beside him, his body cut and marred, coat mottled with bloodstains. The pony’s deep green eyes stared up at the night sky, though they saw nothing, open in the eternal gaze of death. Fleethoof’s lip quivered slightly as he fought back a choking sob, his eyes running down to the colt’s flank – to his Cutie Mark.
A pale gray shield adorned his flank, stained red from his injuries. Even without it, Fleethoof recognized this pony clear as day.
It was Steel Shield.
Fleethoof’s heart ached in pain as he stared at the remains of one of his closest friends. His hooves shook as he held onto him, unable to speak, unable to breathe. His mind refused to acknowledge the sight, even though his soul knew it to be true. Simply staring into his friend’s lifeless eyes made the pony feel like he was coming undone at the seams.
“Sergeant…” Valiant called to him, his hoof touching the pony’s shoulder carefully, barely catching his attention, “We have to keep moving.”
For a while, the Pegasus didn’t respond. Valiant shifted his weight uncomfortably.
“Give me a minute,” Fleethoof said.
Valiant hesitated, a confused look crossing his features. “Sir, we can’t just wait. The hostages need us.”
“Give me a minute.”
“But Sarge, we-”
“Private,” Fleethoof said sternly, turning his hardened gaze to the Pegasus pony behind him, “I said, a minute.”
Valiant froze for a moment, and then reluctantly backed off, returning to the rest of the squad. Fleethoof watched him trot off before turning back to the body in his grasp.
‘He wasn’t ready… I knew he wasn’t ready for battle…’ the Sergeant thought to himself, shaking his head slowly, ‘He just… wasn’t ever ready…’
“You silly fool… Look what you’ve gotten yourself into now…” Fleethoof whispered to his deceased friend, chuckling softly and shakily under his breath, “You were always getting into all kinds of trouble in boot camp… I told you, one day you’re gonna get in too deep. I told you to get out while you can, because I couldn’t always be looking out for you… I bucking told you…”
Fleethoof choked back another sob. His vision was beginning to get blurry with crystalline tears. He waited, waited to hear a witty comeback from the wisecracking pony he’d befriended in basic training. Only silence answered him back.
“The one time I couldn’t be here… I tried to protect you, from everything! Drill sergeants, our C.O., soldiers you pranked, even yourself… I said I’d always have your back…” he continued, the warm tears slowly falling down his face, “But you had to stay in the Guard, because you were too bucking stubborn to leave your friend behind…! And you got involved in the one thing I couldn’t protect you from…”
Another pause as the Sergeant took a heavy, uneven breath. He held the pony closer in a tight embrace. The tears fell from the end of his nose and landed softly on the coat of Steel Shield.
“I’m sorry, Steel… I’m so sorry… I couldn’t protect you – not from this…” Fleethoof sobbed quietly, “The one time you needed me the most… and I wasn’t around to protect you… I’m sorry…”
The Pegasus slowly lifted a hoof and gingerly closed his friend’s eyes, giving him his final rest. He leaned closer and planted a soft, farewell kiss on the Unicorn’s forehead before gently laying him on the cobblestone.
Fleethoof rose to his hooves, sniffling back another wave of tears, and swallowing back his sorrow as best he could. He gave Steel Shield a final salute, then turned on his hooves and marched back to his soldiers. Sorrow and anger burned in his heart. Nopony said a word to the grieving Sergeant.
“Let’s move…” he muttered, not breaking his gait as he strode past the soldiers, heading in the direction of the tower. All he had on his mind now was getting the hostages out and avenging his fallen friend.
The entrance to Skyfall Tower was a small, unassuming building that looked identical to the ones around it. The only hint that gave it away was the guards patrolling out front. Two Royal Guards swiftly and silently eliminated them. The house served only as a portal to the tower. No furnishings were present, just a single hallway that led to a winding stone staircase.
The ponies marched up the long spiral stairs with purpose, not entirely sure where they were headed yet. When they arrived on a terrace alongside the tower, Fleethoof knew they had arrived. The terrace led alongside the mountain right to the door of Skyfall Tower. One sleeping griffon sat outside the door. The Sergeant grabbed the griffon round the neck, pulling him to his feet, and then dropping him with a swift twist of his neck.
The Guard Lieutenant opened the door as silently as he could, peeking inside for a moment before pushing it open fully. The tower was as barren as Fleethoof had expected. A staircase spiraled along the wall all the way to the top. No guards were in sight – yet.
“Stay alert,” the Lieutenant called back to everypony, making his way up the stairs first.
The soldiers hurried up the steps. Fleethoof’s eyes remained upwards the entire way, watching the ceiling get closer and closer, until the stairs wrapped around, and they arrived at the top floor. A single guard stood in front of a wooden door at the top, turning to face the ponies when he heard the approaching steps. He squawked in surprise when the Lieutenant charged him, slamming him back against the wall and drawing his pistol.
“Wait!” Fleethoof hissed, but a single gunshot echoed through the tower as the Lieutenant fired too fast to be stopped.
He let the dead griffon drop, turning to face Fleethoof with a look of disregard and a shrug.
“He’s dead, what does it matter?” he asked, opening the door slowly and peeking inside.
Everything was silent for a moment, and then the Lieutenant opened the door and stepped inside, the Royal Guard behind him following closely. Fleethoof hesitated, lingering by the door as he watched the two ponies step into the room. The top of the tower was dark, with every light extinguished, and only the moonlight pouring in through the large windows.
Fleethoof slowly stepped in after the two, the rest of the soldiers right behind him. He had been certain there was a trap set up at the top, but it just seemed empty and abandoned.
And then two gunshots fired, and Fleethoof watched the Lieutenant and Guard fall limply to the ground.
“To the left!” he shouted, everypony turning on their hooves.
Two griffons stood in the dark corner of the room, turning their aim to the rest of the ponies. They didn’t have the chance to fire again as the squad lit them up with a short barrage of gunfire.
“Get the hostages, now!” Fleethoof ordered, looking to a couple soldiers, “You three, barricade that door! The others will have heard the shots and be on their way.”
“What about the windows? They do fly, Sarge,” Valiant asked.
“Sharp Shot, keep an eye outside,” the Sergeant continued, “If you see any griffons, shoot them.”
Sharp Shot got a wide grin, unslinging his rifle from his shoulder. “Yes, sir!”
Fleethoof made his way across the small room to the only other door left. The hostages had to be behind there. Gripping his rifle tightly in his hooves, he took a deep breath to steady himself – and felt a hoof on his shoulder. Glancing back, he saw Valiant nod to him, his handgun drawn and aiming past his officer, and behind him were the rest of the squad. They had his back.
With a swift, powerful kick, the door flew inward. The second room was completely illuminated with torches, making it easy to see the three griffons diving for cover. Fleethoof and Valiant opened fire, taking out their enemies with accuracy and speed.
“Clear!” Fleethoof called out, sweeping the room as Valiant checked the bodies.
“Oh please, don’t kill me!” a pitiful voice cowered from the far wall, “Wait, you’re ponies. Well, it’s about time!”
Turning, Fleethoof saw three ponies chained to the wall by their hooves. One he recognized off the bat: Captain Cuirass. Another hostage was a white Unicorn with a flowing golden amber mane. He wore a long velvet cloak and bowtie, clearly dressed for luxury and appearance. Fleethoof didn’t recognize him. The last of the hostages was an Alicorn, light pink in color, with a tri-color mane. She looked both beautiful and disheveled, and the happiest of all three to see the soldiers. He recognized her.
“Princess Cadence!” he exclaimed in surprise, “Valiant, get the Captain.”
“What about me?!” the Unicorn cried out, squirming pitifully against his shackles, “Get me out of these dreadful things! Do you know who I am?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t,” Fleethoof remarked, turning his attention to the Princess as he released her, “Princess Cadence, are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you, soldier,” she replied as she dropped down to her hooves, flexing her legs to return circulation to them.
“You, soldier! Let me down at once! I am Prince Blueblood, nephew to the regal Princess Celestia, and I demand you free me NOW!”
Rolling his eyes, Fleethoof gave a mock salute and freed the Prince, fighting back a snicker when the Unicorn yelped in surprise and collapsed to the floor. Outside, a loud gunshot rang out, making the soldiers turn, and Cadence recoil in terror.
“It’s alright, your majesty. That was one of ours,” Fleethoof assured her, another shot going off in the next room, “What are you two doing here? You’re royalty. Shouldn’t you be back in Canterlot?”
“We were, until Aunt Celestia asked me to join her at the negotiations,” Cadence explained, “She said she needed help spreading love to the griffons. Something about them being possessed with hate.”
Fleethoof nodded. It made sense. Celestia had planned to fight Alaric’s propaganda of hatred with Cadence’s magic of love. He glanced over at Blueblood, who was busy brushing the dust from his coat and cloak.
“And why is he here?”
“Alaric refused to speak to any of our diplomats – only members of the royal family. Celestia thought he could use some ‘real world experience’, but I think it was mostly to get him out of Canterlot and doing some good,” Cadence said with a wry smile.
“So which one of you is the ‘ambassador’, and which is the VIP?”
“I think I’ll let you decide that one, soldier.”
Fleethoof smirked and scoffed. A sudden hoof on his shoulder caught his attention. Captain Cuirass was beside him, nodding to the Sergeant as he loaded one of the griffon’s rifles.
“Well done, son. Great rescue attempt,” he stated.
“This was ‘great’? I was chained to a wall for four days!” Blueblood whined.
“One more word from you, ‘your highness’, and I’ll knock you out and drag you back myself,” Cuirass threatened, earning a shocked and insulted look from the aristocrat, “So, fill me in, colt. What’s this plan of yours?”
Another shot was fired, and another. Sharp Shot was clearly meeting some resistance.
“We have to get the prince and princess out of here and back to Equestria before we do anything else,” the Pegasus explained, “We work our way through Skyfall to the beach and take the yacht Princess Celestia and Princess Luna left behind.”
“Short and simple; I love it,” Cuirass approved as Cadence and Blueblood gathered up their confiscated belongings, “So we fight our way out through the griffon special forces, right?”
Fleethoof nodded. “Right.”
Smashing glass was heard in the adjacent room, followed by a loud, intense, and brief firefight. Fleethoof and Cuirass rushed into the adjacent room, watching as the ponies finished off a couple of griffons that had brashly invaded the tower.
“Um, sir…?” Sharp Shot called from the window. Cuirass stepped over beside the sniper.
“One question, Sergeant,” Cuirass asked as Fleethoof joined them at the window, “How are we going to fight through that?”
The Sergeant’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Outside the tower, at least two dozen griffons circled in the air. A few shots were fired at the ponies, breaking through the glass windows. Everypony hid under cover, a couple bracing the door as it shook violently. The griffons were trying to break in.
“Oh, dear, sweet, aunt… We’re dead, aren’t we? We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re all going to die!” Blueblood shrieked from the doorway. Another bullet smashed through the glass and struck the wall near the Unicorn, making him squeal and run back into the back room.
“Is there no other way out?” Cadence asked, approaching the two officers.
“Your majesty, I’ve been stationed here for a month. I’ve checked every part of this city. There’s no other way out of this tower,” said Cuirass in a matter-of-factly way.
The door shook again, knocking the ponies holding it in place backwards. Two more joined the effort to keep it stable, while another joined Sharp Shot at the window, taking potshots at the airborne griffons. Another volley of bullets ripped through the windows, missing the ponies by miles. Fleethoof grabbed Princess Cadence and pulled her down to the floor until the gunfire had subsided again.
“We have to do something!” Valiant cried out, loading his rifle and taking a position at the windows as well.
“What else can we do?” Sharp Shot retorted.
“I don’t bucking know!” shouted Cuirass angrily.
“Well, can we think of something fast?! This door isn’t gonna hold much longer!” a soldier at the door yelled back.
“They’re coming around for another pass!” called out Valiant, “Everypony get down!”
No sooner had Valiant said that, another round of shots tore through the tower in all directions, none towards the ponies. Fleethoof covered Cadence; she had to survive, he didn’t. The ponies at the windows returned fire as best they could until the griffons flew out of sight again, circling around the tower.
“That’s it! We’ll go out through the windows!” Fleethoof suggested.
“Have you gone completely mad?!” Sharp Shot asked, looking back at his officer in concern, “We’d be butchered alive!”
“Not if we lead the griffons away! Every Pegasi left, myself included, can lead them on a chase around the city while you rappel down the tower.”
“That’s suicide!” exclaimed Valiant.
“Do you have a better idea?” the Sergeant challenged.
Nopony spoke up.
“There’s only three Pegasus ponies here,” Cuirass noted, “You’ll have to be quick and careful.”
Fleethoof gave the Captain a confident grin. “Quick and careful are my specialty, Captain.”
“Alright, we’ll do it on the next pass,” the Captain said with a nod, “Every Pegasi get ready to go.”
Cuirass traded out spots with one of the ponies holding the door. The three Pegasi gathered together, waiting near the windows for their opportunity. Fleethoof could feel his heart racing, the familiar rush of adrenaline running through him.
“Please be careful, soldiers,” Cadence called out to them.
Fleethoof glanced back at her and nodded once. The griffons flew by the window, the ponies opening up a heavy spray of suppressive fire to keep the return fire to a minimum.
“Now! Go, go, go!” Fleethoof called out to his partners as the ponies rushed the windows.
In a spray of glass shards, Fleethoof was outside and in flight. He could feel the shrapnel leaving small cuts across his hooves and body, but ignored the stinging. The cool night air felt wonderful on his sweat-covered skin. As soon as they were out, he saw the aerial griffons turn, banking back towards them. More had joined the battle, most likely having given up on the door.
“Fly down low, keep to the rooftops and streets,” he ordered, and the trio shot downward into the city. Behind them, gunfire from the ponies covered their descent.
The Pegasi glided over the rooftops of Skyfall, the shots above and behind them letting them know the plan was working. The griffons were in hot pursuit and they had taken their attention away from the hostages. Fleethoof risked a backwards glance, and wished he hadn’t. A dozen griffons were right on their tails, and were out for blood.
“Split up! Just keep them busy for a little while longer!” he called to the others, and they broke off in three different directions.
Confused, the griffon horde hesitated for a moment before taking off after each pony in groups of four. Fleethoof flew as fast as his wings would take him, the bullets ripping through the air past his head encouraging him on. He zipped down through a street, taking the network of roads and buildings, leading the griffons on a wild chase.
A stray bullet came too close for comfort across his side, grazing his skin and making the pony jerk to the side in recoil. He flinched as he almost crashed into the side of a building, veering up to try and right himself – but he was now in the open air. Bullets came at him from multiple directions, terrifying the Pegasus as he dove back down into the safety of the city.
Fleethoof glanced up towards Skyfall Tower. He could see the silhouettes of ponies rappelling down the tower. The plan was working! The griffons were too spread thin and distracted. Grinning to himself, Fleethoof returned his focus to his flying – and cried out in surprise at the building suddenly in front of him.
He pulled up, but it was too late. The pony ended up crashing through another window, soaring through the room he had broken into, and smashing back out through a second window. The cuts stung, and he could feel warm blood running across his hooves, face, chest, and wings. He had to keep his wings safe otherwise he was done for.
The all too familiar sound of a gun firing rang out behind him, and Fleethoof decided it was time to turn the tables. Drawing his sidearm, he twisted in midair, firing three rounds back at his pursuers. The griffons broke formation; that was all the time he needed.
Dodging and weaving his way down an alley and another street, Fleethoof broke away from the chase, watching as the griffons circled aimlessly around, looking for him. Lifting his gun, Fleethoof fired a few shots, killing two of his pursuers, and sending the others scattering in fear. He chuckled, and looked back to the tower. No more ponies were descending the rope. They had made it out!
Taking flight back up to the tower as fast as he could, Fleethoof returned back to make sure everypony was gone – and was surprised to see Captain Cuirass and Princess Cadence still there, bracing the door.
“What in the name of Celestia are you doing?!” he cried out, rushing over and throwing his weight against the buckling door, “You were supposed to get out!”
“Little Miss Loyal Royal here wouldn’t leave,” Cuirass growled through gritted teeth as the two soldiers’ combined strength forced the door shut again.
“Not until everypony else was safe first, the Captain and yourself included, soldier,” Cadence remarked.
“Now is not the time for noble sentiments, your majesty,” Fleethoof retorted, “You are the one who has to get out of here unharmed, not us. Now please, go!”
Still, Cadence refused to move. “A princess’ loyalties are to her ponies first.”
“And her soldiers’ are to her first. Now go!”
A chunk of wood suddenly flew off the door as a griffon talon smashed through the wood, making the Alicorn scream shrilly in surprise. The talon retracted, and then returned, feeling around the door. Fleethoof slammed his hoof into the claw, and a shriek of pain was heard from the other side of the door.
Another talon broke through, wielding a revolver as it aimed blindly around. Captain Cuirass let out a roar of fury, grabbing the griffon’s wrist and twisting, a snapping sound heard, and the avian dropped its pistol. The Captain grabbed the fallen weapon and let out a loud battle cry as he stuck it back through, firing off every round blindly at the griffons.
Claws scrambling against stone and flapping wings were heard, followed by calls to fall back, and then silence.
“We need to go,” Cuirass muttered, tossing the spent firearm aside.
“Why haven’t they shot us?” Fleethoof asked, looking at the door.
“Um, they just tried to,” the officer corrected the Pegasus.
“No, I mean, why didn’t they just shoot through the door in the first place?” he added, “They didn’t just light us up when they were flying around either. What’s stopping them?”
Nopony spoke for a moment. Fleethoof looked around the tower quickly, searching for a reason for the immaculate precision and caution in the griffons’ retaliation. Aside from the hostages, there was nothing of value in the tower. Just some cheap wood furniture, a mostly empty bookcase, barrels stacked around the walls…
“What’s in those barrels?” the Sergeant asked, pressing his ear to the door, listening for the returning enemies.
Captain Cuirass grabbed a knife from one of the fallen ponies, quickly stabbing the nearest barrel and cracking a hole in the wood. A soft hissing sound filled the tower as a stream of fine black powder poured to the floor. The pony knelt beside the barrel, catching the powder in his hoof and sniffing it, studying it – and his eyes darkened.
Fleethoof’s eyes went wide just as the sound of steps approaching the door came closer. They lingered outside the door, no longer pounding on it – just waiting.
“You want your Princess so badly, fine! You can all have it!” a griffon shouted from outside the door.
“Okay, time to go,” Fleethoof said, nudging Princess Cadence towards the windows as Cuirass took position at the rope.
“After you, your majesty,” Cuirass said with a wave of his hoof, handing the rope towards Cadence.
“No, Captain, I insist.”
“Are you bucking kidding me?” Fleethoof asked incredulously.
“Princess Cadence, I’m not asking any more. I’m ordering you, your highness, get down the rope, before-”
A soft metal clanking was heard as something flew through the holes in the door. Everypony turned and looked, watching two small, gray canisters roll in, landing beside a stack of barrels.
“Too late, jump!” Fleethoof cried out, leaping for the window and tackling the Princess in the same motion, both ponies diving out the window as Captain Cuirass leapt out of the window behind them, the rope wound between his hooves.
No sooner had they made it into the air, an explosion burst behind them, and the tower was engulfed in flames. Fleethoof could feel the heat of the fire licking his skin, singing his tail slightly as they freefell down the tower, the apex completely lost in an inferno. The griffons weren’t playing around any longer.
“Fly!” he shouted to Cadence as he opened his wings, the fall jerking into an uneasy glide.
Flying while trying to support the added weight of the Alicorn was a difficult feat. Fleethoof strained his wings as they glided over the rooftops, veering upward and avoiding death. One airborne again, he released Cadence, her wings flaring as she took to the skies right behind the Sergeant. Across the city, the sound of gunfire echoed, and a distant explosion lit the night. The ponies were fighting their way to the boats.
“This way!” the Pegasus yelled back to the Princess, flying down the levels of Skyfall, trying to keep as low to the roofs as possible so as not to attract any fire.
Shots sounded below him. He glanced down, and saw a couple of ponies taking cover by a building, opening fire on a griffon. He banked downward, and came to land just behind them. He looked up, looking for Cadence – and heard her land behind him. The pony sighed with relief. That had been much too risky for his liking.
“Are you alright, your majesty?” he asked. He didn’t notice any visible injuries on her.
“Don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”
“Sarge,” a soldier called to him, “Where are the others?”
“If we’re lucky, Cuirass is leading them down to the beach now,” Fleethoof said, looking to the higher levels of the city, listening to the firefights breaking out there, “We should get to the boats first and secure them for launch. We need to get out of here sharpish.”
The two soldiers nodded, reloading their rifles as the group made their way through the streets of the city. It sounded like all the combat was occurring further into the city, and there weren’t any enemies around them. Even the main gate was clear and undefended.
The ponies charged through it, and out of Skyfall. The instant his hooves hit the sand, Fleethoof felt a wave of solace come over him. They were so close; it was almost over. Running through the cove to the shoreline felt like an eternity, as if time was moving in slow motion. Every so often, the Pegasus would glance back, making sure they weren’t being pursued. His priority was still Princess Cadence’s safety – that was his mission.
“Sergeant! The boats!”
The cry of horror caught Fleethoof’s attention, and the sight made him skid to a halt. Many of the ships remained intact, save for the ones presently being burned by a couple of griffons.
They were trying to cut off their escape.
“Stop them!” he ordered, bringing his rifle to bear as his troops opened fire.
The sudden firing caught the griffons’ attention, and they attempted to scatter. The lack of cover on the beach proved to be their undoing as the ponies tore them apart.
“This way!” a Guard called from behind them, another small band of ponies rushing onto the beach behind them.
Fleethoof and his group turned and ran after them down the beach, following the rows of ships. At the very end lay a small, ornate wooden ship, moored securely and waiting for them. The sight was almost enough to make the battle-weary Pegasus cry.
He was one of the last to get on the ship, letting the soldiers board first to make ready the ship, and following behind Cadence to ensure her safety. The boat was in perfect condition, without even a scratch on the hull. Already, the ponies had set about to work, lighting torches and lanterns to provide light and signal their allies.
A loud explosion from the direction of Skyfall made everypony duck in reflex reaction, Fleethoof turning sharply around to see what had happened. The city lay behind its protective mountains now, and he could no longer see anything. A moment later, another explosion detonated, and he grit his teeth as he stared down the beach anxiously, waiting for the rest of his squad.
Moments passed by like hours, each one making his stomach twist and churn. He pressed his hooves to the railing tensely. Staring was all he could do, scarcely able to blink out of worry.
‘Come on, everypony… Where are you…?’ he wondered fretfully to himself.
A couple of ponies had joined him at the side of the ship now, Cadence coming over beside him to wait and watch as well. Nopony said a word. Fleethoof was unconsciously holding his breath, putting himself under immense pressure.
And then the first pony emerged through the darkness, running like his life depended on it towards the boat. Behind him came another, and then another, and another. And then the entire squad of ponies appeared, rushing to the ship and trying to push it back into the water. Prince Blueblood ran on deck, whimpering and crying the entire way before he collapsed, covering his head with his hooves.
“Cast off, now!” Cuirass yelled at the top of his lungs, “Set sails, go, GO!!”
“Move! Move!” a soldier called out, tugging at the rigging.
“Let’s go! Now!”
“Put your backs into it!”
The calls of griffons from further down the beach echoed in the darkness, chilling Fleethoof’s blood in his veins. He grabbed a torch in his mouth, moving to the bow of the ship, and tossing it out onto the beach as far as he could. The light further added to their field of vision.
“Get below deck, Princess…” Fleethoof ordered gently, jamming a fresh magazine into his weapon.
No sooner had Cadence gotten out of sight than a couple of griffons came into sight, illuminated by the burning torches. Anger burned in the pony as thoughts of Steel Shield flashed through his mind’s eye. A pony called out in warning, but Fleethoof already had his weapon up, firing a burst and hitting his mark in the chest, felling the other with a two-shot burst.
More griffons came into view, and a couple other ponies began fighting back, protecting the ones of the beach trying to get them in the water. Fleethoof focused his breathing, keeping his hooves as steady as he could with each shot. Every bullet mattered. He killed another griffon, and then another with one clean shot to the head.
Bullets began hammering the side of the ship, taking out one of the soldiers onboard. Cuirass stepped over the body and began firing back. The tense firefight through the dark continued blindly, the Sergeant following the muzzle flashes of the enemy to find his targets.
And then the boat lurched and rocked for a moment.
“We’re mobile!” somepony called out, “Release sails and bring her about!”
“Get us the buck out of here!” Cuirass yelled, emptying his magazine into the darkness and reloading it again.
“Think I’d let you have all the fun?” a familiar voice asked Fleethoof, a pony taking up position beside him.
“Good to see you too, Valiant,” said Fleethoof, “You’d better give them your best shot if you wanna catch up to me.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Valiant remarked, grinning as he opened fire wildly at the griffons.
With the ship moving, it was more difficult to land a shot. Fleethoof settled into laying down suppressive fire, covering their departure rather than going for kills. The Guards had been right: the yacht was fast, and before he knew it, they were leaving the shore behind them. The griffons seemed to have given up, screeching and roaring in rage as they hid in the darkness. The ponies cheered and shouted in victory.
Fleethoof smirked and heaved a sigh as he fired the last bullet in his gun, ejecting the magazine – when something landed on the railing in front of him, obscuring his view.
“Fleethoof, NO!!” he heard Valiant cry, and then suddenly he was knocked off his hooves and was on his back.
A single gunshot rang out near him, and Fleethoof saw the Pegasus jerk backwards as a spray of blood bursting from his chest. A griffon stood on the railing, a revolver clutched in its talon, a thin strand of smoke flowing from the barrel.
“Valiant!!” Fleethoof cried out in horror.
The griffon turned to face him, and Fleethoof demonstrated his namesake. He drew his sidearm in a blur, firing two rounds point blank into his enemy before the avian could even lift his pistol. A deadly focus took the Sergeant over as his anger spilled over, rising to his hooves and firing every last round in his sidearm into his enemy until he ran dry. The griffon recoiled in pain, and fell off the side of the ship, crashing into the ocean with a loud splash.
“Pony down!” somepony called out.
Fleethoof turned and fell to Valiant’s side. The Pegasus was staring up at the sky, wheezing and gasping for breath as he coughed hard. Blood stained his uniform, pouring down his side. The bullet had missed vital organs, but had still caused plenty of damage.
“Don’t move, Valiant,” the Sergeant ordered, his hooves keeping pressure on the wound, “Somepony get medical supplies, right now!”
“Step back, I’ve got some medic training,” a Guard said, crouching besides the injured pony and removing his helmet. He reached into his saddlebags, producing a roll of gauze, cotton pads, his knife, and two small bottles.
“Now Sergeant, when I tell you to, move your hooves.”
Fleethoof nodded. The Guard cut open Valiant’s uniform with his blade, revealing the wound, and placed the knife in an open lantern. He opened one of the bottles and poured a clear liquid onto one of the cotton pads, then opened the other.
“Drink this,” he told Valiant, lifting his head to help him, “It’ll dull the pain.”
“D-D-Dull the… the pain… of wha-” Valiant began to ask.
Fleethoof quickly moved his hooves aside, and the Guard pressed the soaked cotton pad to the open wound. Valiant winced and tensed up, his face contorting in agony.
“Oh BUCK! That… didn’t do… anything…!” Valiant hissed through gritted teeth.
The Guard shrugged a little. “I lied about that. It was more to help with this next part.”
“Hang in there, my friend,” Fleethoof said to the Pegasus, “You’ve come too far to give in now.”
“Wasn’t… planning… on it…” Valiant said between heavy breaths, chuckling weakly, and then screaming in pain as the Guard took the heated knife and pressed the blade to his wound, cauterizing it instantly.
Fleethoof stood up again and turned away, walking to the railing and leaning against it. He couldn’t watch his friend suffer any more. The screams behind him continued for a few moments longer, making the pony’s chest tight and breathing a difficult task. He felt physically ill, his skin sweaty and clammy.
And then it was silent again.
“Get him below deck to rest,” the Guard said, looking to Fleethoof as the Sergeant turned around again, “He should be fine for the trip, but we need to get him to a proper hospital. He’ll live, Sergeant.”
“Thank you…” Fleethoof murmured, nodding slowly, “What’s your name, soldier?”
The Guard smirked and motioned towards his flank, a solid blue shield marking it, and sarcastically said, “Take a wild guess, sir.”
Fleethoof gave a little smile, then turned back to look out over the dark ocean. The silhouette of the Griffon Kingdom was steadily fading into the distance, the sleek ship cutting through the waves with swift ease. They were going home.
For a long while, Fleethoof stood in the same place at the side of the ship, staring off into space. It felt odd, leaving the war. For the first time in two months, he didn’t have to worry about war, or enemies, or killing, or being killed. It made the pony feel numb and hollow, especially as images and memories flashed through his mind.
Cadence’s soft voice behind him didn’t even faze Fleethoof. The Pegasus just continued to stare out into dark nothingness. When he didn’t respond, Cadence took a few steps closer, joining him at the railing. She studied his blank expression for a while, trying to read him.
“Soldier… Sergeant… I wanted to thank you, for rescuing us from the griffons,” she continued, “Not many would have done what you did. You risked a lot for us. It was very courageous of you.”
Fleethoof remained quiet, finally murmuring a soft, “Thank you.”
“He’s your friend, isn’t he? The Pegasus who was hurt,” Cadence pressed on, “I could tell. I can feel the love you two have for each other. It’s strong, and touching. His friendship means a lot to you.”
“He’s been by my side since the beginning,” Fleethoof explained, “He had my back through everything, and never doubted me once. He’s saved me on multiple occasions. It’s because of him that I’m still alive now. I owe him my life.”
“He hasn’t been your only friend in this, though – right?”
Fleethoof froze up, swallowing hard as visions of Captain Phalanx, Shining Armor, and Steel Shield flashed through his mind.
“You’ve lost somepony close to you…”
That was what it took to get Fleethoof’s gaze from the night onto her. “You don’t know that.”
“I can feel the sorrow in your love. Even when they’re gone, friendships leave a lasting impression on your heart,” the Alicorn explained.
Again, Fleethoof was quiet, but his eyes didn’t turn from Cadence’s this time. “It’s war. Ponies die. It’s inevitable. I shouldn’t have expected any differently…”
“But you didn’t expect it to happen to you, so close to you.”
Cadence had hit the nail on the head, though Fleethoof would never admit it. His gaze faltered, falling to the floor, and then back out into the void of black. He didn’t respond. That was response enough. He knew war for what it was. He had been trained as a soldier. It was his lifetime dream. But even still, nothing could have prepared him to lose a friend, let alone three. He didn’t even know if Shining Armor was still alive.
“Who was it?” she asked after a moment of silence, “The pony you lost?”
“Steel Shield…” answered the Sergeant, “His name was Steel Shield. He was my best friend.”
“For a while?”
Fleethoof nodded. “From the beginning, before all of this… mess… Before the war…”
Silence fell between the two ponies again. Only the soft lapping of the waves against the hull of the ship and the hooves of the few others on deck could be heard. Cadence looked away at long last, staring down at the black water. Her eyes turned back towards the Pegasus after a little while.
“If you feel the need to talk, I’d be more than happy to-”
Cadence was caught off guard by the abruptness of his answer. “Okay then…”
The Princess dropped down from the railing, turning and walking away. Fleethoof listened to her leave, her hoofsteps stopping a few paces away. She was lingering.
“Could I at least know the name of my hero?” she asked, looking back over her shoulder at him.
Fleethoof turned his head towards her without directly looking at her.
“Fleethoof. Sergeant Fleethoof.”
“Thank you, Fleethoof, for saving me,” said Cadence with a small smile, “Goodnight, Sergeant.”
“Goodnight, your majesty.”
Still, she lingered for a moment. He heard her sigh behind him, the noise barely audible above the waves. But what she said had already gotten under his skin, and he could feel something in him boiling over.
"Why do you want to talk about what I've seen?" Fleethoof asked abruptly, his voice hard as he spoke, turning on his hooves to face the Princess, "What do you want to hear? How many ponies I've seen bleed and die? How I listened to the screams almost daily? How many times I could have died lost in some foreign land with nopony to care? Or maybe how I've killed more griffons than I can count?"
Princess Cadence looked almost sympathetically at the soldier. "I want to hear how you're feeling, Sergeant."
"Why? What good would that do you?" he snapped, not sure what was going on, or how to handle what he was suddenly feeling.
"Me? Probably none," she answered honestly, a soft smile touching her lips as she returned to standing before him, "But it's already doing you good."
She lifted a hoof and gently pressed a hoof to his cheek, wiping something away. Fleethoof blinked in surprise, looking at the glistening moisture on her hoof. He was... crying? He was crying. What was going on?
"You don't have to keep your emotions locked away, Fleethoof... Being a soldier doesn't mean you can't feel... Sometimes all you need is somepony to let them out to..." Cadence stated, turning and walking away again.
Fleethoof counted her steps as she walked away. He stared after her as she disappeared below deck. Talking with her had brought up a strange mix of emotions: relief and closure for the trauma, but sorrow and pain for the memory. His heart ached, and his soul felt heavy. Cadence had gotten underneath his armor, seeing past the façade he had put on, and breaking the bottle he had put his emotions in.
Facing out over the railing again, Fleethoof stared up at the stars and let the memories come over him again - and for the first time in a long while, let the emotions out. The brushes with death, seeing so many ponies die in horrific ways, watching families torn apart on both sides… He didn’t even feel the tears as they ran down his face, getting lost in the endless black sea.
We rescued the hostages from Skyfall, and are sailing back to Equestria as I write. Princess Cadence and Prince Blueblood were the captives, along with Captain Cuirass. Our mission was accomplished successfully, with minimal casualties. I suppose that counts as a victory.
But for me, this was a mixture of triumph and loss. Every pony lost is a tragedy in itself, but this one hit me closer to home than most. Forgive my hoofwriting and the tearstains, Journal… I found the body of Steel Shield in Skyfall. The griffons had killed him without prejudice and without mercy. They took a bright, beautiful life from this world without leaving a shred of dignity. I’ve never felt angrier in my entire life. I’m heartbroken, Journal… You know how close Steel Shield and I were. It feels like a physical part of my past died along with him. I don’t know how to handle this…
Valiant was wounded badly in the line of duty. He fought bravely as we were casting off under heavy enemy fire. He saved my life – again – and took a bullet that probably should have killed me. I could only watch as he writhed and screamed in pain while the medic tried to save him. I only pray he makes it through the trip back to Equestria, so we can get him to a doctor. If I lose another pony close to me, Journal, I’ll just lose it. I’ll just give up… I don’t know what I’ll do.
Princess Cadence spoke with me tonight, and tried to comfort me. It helped – sort of. It made me feel… weird. I’m not used to being able to talk openly about how I’m feeling or anything like that. It just doesn’t seem like something an officer in the Royal Guard would do. But she broke me so easily. She brought out all the emotions I’d kept locked away with only a few words. I don’t understand how she did it. I guess it’s her magic and her talent, dealing with the matters of love and the heart, and such. I don’t really know.
I’m not sure what the future holds in store for me now, Journal. I don’t know if I’ll remain in Equestria, and this might be your final entry, or if they’ll send me back into the fray. I guess we’ll have to wait and see when I deliver the royals back to Canterlot in one piece – although if Blueblood whines one more time or calls me a peasant again, it might be more like two pieces, or four, or a dozen… Ungrateful brat… But nopony said this job was going to be easy.
I'm ready for this to be done. I never asked for this. I wanted to do something good for my nation, but... this is too much. I'm tired, Journal. I’m off to get some sleep now. It’s been too long since I could truly sleep without worrying I’ll be killed.
The train car gently rocked to and fro as it made its way down the tracks. The world outside passed by in a blur to Fleethoof. It had been some time since he’d been on a train. When was the last time? When he started basic training? The luxury felt… alien.
The stallion rested his cheek against the cold glass window, staring out at the landscape of Equestria as they chugged along. He almost didn’t recognize where he was anymore. The encapsulating mountains and rolling hills of the griffon highlands were gone, replaced by fields and plains and rivers and forests. He had to admit, Equestria’s countryside was beautiful. It was no wonder the griffons were fighting tooth and nail to reclaim it.
He was instantly very much aware of the silence in the passenger car. Tearing his gaze away from the idyllic scene, he looked out across the rows of seats. The ponies still left alive in his squad sat scattered about, every one as quiet as he was. Everypony was silently reflecting as well. The entire car had been privately given to them, courtesy of the train company for the returning war heroes and royalty.
War heroes… Fleethoof’s stomach turned at that term. He certainly didn’t feel like a hero…
Across the row from him, Cadence silently stared out the window. The city of Canterlot was visible off in the distance, still a ways away. Mixed emotions toyed with the Pegasus’ soul. He was glad to be back, and glad to have the members of the royal family home safely.
But being home felt wrong – the silence mocked him with dark memories of gunfire and pain. Faces and images of bodies flashed in his head, pony and griffon alike, haunting him. For the first time since he’d been deployed, the gravity of the situation was coming back to him. He felt a twinge of remorse for his actions… but they had all been necessary for survival. Surely that justified them, right?
Fleethoof looked down as his hooves, contemplating that conundrum for a while before turning to stare blankly out the window again. Without anything to do to occupy himself, his memory ran rampant…
The air was cool, and smelled faintly of salt and city as the yacht pulled into the Manehattan Harbor. A thin fog had veiled the city in the morning hours, casting an eerie feeling across the entire metropolis. Even before the shipyard was in view, the sound of ponies could be heard – a very familiar and welcome sound.
Fleethoof stood at the bow of the ship, watching as they slowly veered towards a vacant space along the docks. Soldiers scurried about the deck, stowing the sails and making ready to moor and disembark. The two other Pegasi flew to the pier as the yacht drew nearer, tethering it as the ponies aboard dropped the anchor, and the ship slowed to a stop.
They had arrived in Equestria.
Almost immediately, the gangplank was lowered to the pier, and the soldiers filed off one by one. A path was cleared for two ponies carrying Valiant to disembark, the young pony sedated, as he had been for most of the trip, to deal with the pain. Fleethoof watched mournfully as his friend was carried off down the docks. There was nothing more he could do; the doctors in Manehattan General would tend to him.
The Prince and Princess made their way onto the deck, Cuirass following behind with the remainder of the troops. The Sergeant gave Princess Cadence a weak smile as she glanced at him, then watched as they disembarked, following behind last. Everypony regrouped on the wharf, the soldiers looking dazed, tired, and lost. Fleethoof could sympathize.
“The Guards will take Valiant to the hospital to receive medical care. They can remain here,” Blue Shield told Fleethoof. The Sergeant nodded assent.
“We need transport to Canterlot. The faster, the better,” he explained, “We should stop by the train station and check their schedule, see if we can’t find one leaving soon.”
The soldiers proceeded slowly through the Manehattan streets, making their way from the seafront into the downtown district. Ponies they passed along the way stopped and stared. They clearly hadn’t seen any soldiers come back this way, and for good reason. The stares made Fleethoof feel a little awkward, but he tried to stay focused on finding the train station. Surely it couldn’t be missed.
The sudden sound of clapping caught his attention. He paused in mid-stride, glancing over at the sound. A stallion stood on the side of the street, nodding at the soldiers and clapping. One by one, ponies around him began to join in, until the applause came from all sides.
“Keep going,” Fleethoof muttered to his squad, continuing down the street.
Each pony they passed either nodded at them, applauded them, or even saluted them. Fleethoof guessed they were the retired veterans. The awkwardness intensified. He really didn’t want this attention, not in such vast amounts. He hadn't earned it yet. The other soldiers seemed to be enjoying it though, smiling back at the ponies, a couple nodding their heads humbly. Cadence would smile and wave at a few. Blueblood was soaking it up like a sponge, beaming like a superstar at a premiere, his head held high.
“What’s wrong, colt? You look more miserable to be back than dodging bullets,” Captain Cuirass asked, nudging the Pegasus with his shoulder.
“I just… wasn’t expecting… THIS, sir,” he explained.
“Enjoy it, like the others,” the Captain remarked, “You’ve earned it, soldier.”
Fleethoof didn’t respond. The train station had come into view, and all he wanted to do was get on board and let his mind settle down. He felt unstable, and he didn’t like it. He walked briskly into the train station, and approached the ticket counter.
“Excuse me,” he started, getting the clerk’s attention away from a book, “Could you tell me when the next train to Canterlot leaves?”
“Oh! The soldiers are home!” the mare in the small office exclaimed, her eyes lighting up, “And with royalty escorting them! Oh my! Thank you so much for your service, sir!”
Fleethoof felt his face go warm. “Thank you for your kind words, but I really just need that schedule, ma’am.”
“Oh yes, of course! I’m afraid the next train doesn’t leave for another forty minutes, but I can reserve you all tickets, free of charge of course, for the brave ponies protecting our freedom.”
“That’s… That’s very kind of you, ma’am,” Fleethoof remarked.
“And I’ll be sure to reserve you a private car for everypony to relax in.”
That took Fleethoof off guard. “That’s really not necessary-”
“But I insist!” the mare continued, beaming from ear to ear, “It's our policy. Anything for the returning war heroes!”
Her words froze Fleethoof to the core, and he felt his heart sink a little. War hero? He hadn’t ever thought he’d hear that before. He certainly didn’t feel like a hero. What were heroes supposed to feel like? Accomplished? Proud? All he felt was tired and lost, like he didn’t belong where he was.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said flatly, taking the tickets to distribute amongst the group.
“What are you thinking about?”
Fleethoof blinked several times in quick succession as he snapped back into the present. He glanced over his shoulder at the pink pony now seated beside him. When had she switched seats? He certainly hadn’t heard her come over.
“What is so interesting about what’s in my head?” he asked the Alicorn.
“Maybe you’re just an interesting pony,” Cadence replied, giving him a wide smile.
“Uh huh…” Fleethoof uttered with a dubious expression, “You’re not a very good liar, Princess.”
Princess Cadence rolled her eyes, then gave in.
“You looked troubled. That’s why I came over,” she answered earnestly, “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s on track and we’re right on schedule to get you home by supper,” Fleethoof stated. Cadence gave him a flat, deadpan stare.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know what you meant,” he said, looking back out the window, “I don’t know if I want to tell you.”
Cadence shifted in her seat, leaning forward to try and see him better. “Why not?”
“Because you have a habit of making me feel odd.”
“And that’s… bad?” she pressed.
“It makes me open up, feel things I didn’t before, and I don’t know what to do with them.”
“Those are called emotions,” Cadence explained sarcastically with a giggle, “You express them. A lot of artists and writers do it, you should talk to one.”
“I don’t know why you keep coming over to talk to me, your majesty,” he muttered, “I’m not anypony important, and I never will be. I’m just another soldier.”
Fleethoof hesitated a moment, then turned to face her again, a confused look on his face. “Excuse me?”
“Cadence. Just Cadence is fine. No ‘your majesty’ stuff if you’re letting me call you Fleethoof,” she said softly.
“That… doesn’t make any sense,” replied Fleethoof, “You’re a member of the royal family. You’re free to call me whatever you want.”
“And you’re free to call me Cadence now.” Again that wide smile formed across her face.
"But that's not prot-"
"Cadence," she said insistently.
“Cadence…” Fleethoof said slowly, enunciating each syllable as if trying to learn a new word, “Alright, if you insist… Cadence.”
The Alicorn smiled happily and nodded. “I do. And I also think you’re wrong.”
Again, the Pegasus looked at her with a confused look, prompting her to continue.
“I think you’re important, Fleethoof. You saved my life, you’re fiercely loyal to Equestria to a fault, you care deeply for others, and you’re a wonderful – albeit troubled – pony.”
Fleethoof’s eyes narrowed a little bit. “I’m not troubled,” he muttered.
“Fleethoof, you were crying on the ship,” Cadence retorted, her expression skeptical, "I might not be a therapist, but that isn't too hard to figure out."
“Only because you made me, with all the talking and opening up and emotions and… and… whatever else that was! I’m not troubled!”
The Princess smiled a little, a victorious look in her eyes. “Then why are you getting so upset?”
Fleethoof froze, eyes locked with hers as he realized she was right. He was working himself up, and he didn’t even know why. With a groan of frustration he turned away from her again, hiding his face in his hooves. He felt a soft touch against his shoulder.
“Why is it so difficult for you to just let it out?” Cadence asked in a soft, hushed tone.
“I’ve never done it before, your maje- Cadence… I've always had to be tough. I'm a soldier. We’re not supposed to show weakness,” he mumbled into his hooves.
“It isn’t a sign of weakness to have emotions. That means you’re alive and well.”
“What am I supposed to do with all of this then?” the Pegasus asked, lifting his head up and staring at the seat in front of him, “I feel so angry and hurt and upset and sad, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing about it.”
“You just came back from a war, Fleethoof,” Cadence explained slowly, letting the severity of that fact sink into his mind, “You’re probably traumatized from what you endured. The pony mind isn’t built to handle overwhelming grief and sorrow. That’s why you let it out. It keeps you sane and saves you from yourself.”
“How am I supposed to do that? Just lie down and cry?”
“Yes,” she said, “Cry, talk about it, write a book, paint a picture, whatever helps you feel better. Nothing makes it go away, but releasing those emotions instead of keeping them bottled up will help soothe it. Soldiers aren’t soulless creatures, Fleethoof. You’re a pony, just like everypony else – even me.”
A silence fell over the two ponies. Fleethoof just sat there with the thousand-yard stare, letting his mind process the new information while Cadence gently rubbed his shoulder, supporting him. He swallowed hard, feeling his insides knotting up. He was stressed, and Cadence had said he was most likely traumatized by the war. All at once, now that he had come down from his combat high, Fleethoof felt broken.
“I do write down what I’ve been through,” Fleethoof said after a while, surprising Cadence with the sudden break in silence, “I have a journal.”
Cadence’s eyes lit up at the revelation. “How long have you been keeping it?”
"For some time now."
"And it has all of your experiences in it?" she clarified.
Fleethoof nodded. Cadence was silent for a minute, and then continued.
"Would you mind if I read it?"
The question took Fleethoof aback. Could she… read it? Somepony actually reading the personal words he had written? His immediate reaction was to go on the defensive, to deny her and protect himself.
‘No… I’ve got to try opening up… Just try…’ he thought to himself, and nodded slowly.
“My saddlebags…” he mumbled, feeling Cadence begin to sift through the contents of the one closest to her, “Other saddlebag…”
He leaned forward, allowing her to reach over behind him to the bags strapped to his uniform. She rifled about in them for a moment before finally producing the small leather-bound book. Out in the open in somepony else’s hooves, Fleethoof began to take notice to just how beat up and worn the little log had become over the months. The cover was bent and discolored, the spine was beaten and nearly completely broken, just able to hold its pages together, and the pages themselves were wrinkled, frayed, and stained.
“And I’d… I’d like to talk about it… I guess...” he added, catching Cadence’s attention and surprise again, “If it'll help... And if that’s alright… with you…”
The Princess simply smiled softly and opened the cover. Her muzzle scrunched slightly as she scrutinized the stained pages, looking them over briefly.
"What happened to it?" she asked.
"Oh, that's blood," Fleethoof stated, then quickly sat up and raised his hooves defensively at the Princess' alarmed look, "Don't worry, it's not mine."
Princess Cadence's eyes widened further, and she just shook her head in disbelief. Being very careful to not touch any of the stains, she turned the pages with her magic, opening to the first entry.
Bright orange light flowed across Canterlot by the time the train began to pull into the station. Cadence and Fleethoof had spent the rest of the ride discussing the war, from both the perspective of a sovereign and the eyes of a warrior. The conversations had been both light-hearted as well as deep and melancholy, depending on which chapter of his life Cadence reached.
Having somepony else reading his personal journal and talking about his life was something the pony wasn’t used to, nor ever expecting to happen. It brought up so much Fleethoof hadn’t been ready to deal with – but Cadence was gentle, and supported him, talking him through each experience and trauma, like a therapist. Matters of the mind were often tethered to matters of the heart, she had said.
As much as he might have hated to admit it, the Princess was right. Talking through everything that had happened and sharing it with somepony else helped in a way he didn’t think it would. It made him feel less alone in the world. He cried as he spoke of battles and loss, and he laughed as he shared the good memories of his friends and allies. And it all felt good.
As the train slowed to its final stop, Princess Cadence closed the cover on the final entry and slid the book back into the trooper’s saddlebags.
“Thank you for letting me read that, Fleethoof,” Cadence said, rising out of her seat, “I'm always here to help if you need it. I know that couldn’t have been easy for you.”
“Thank you, Princess Cadence, for making it easier,” he remarked with a little smile, wiping away some lingering moisture from his eyes, “Now come on, let’s get you home.”
Stepping off the train and onto the station, Fleethoof found himself face-to-face with a dozen Royal Guards, all patrolling the platforms. The excessive amount of security surprised him, and from the sounds the other soldiers made disembarking, he guessed they were just as surprised too. Then again, they were at war.
A couple of Guards noticed the ponies’ uniforms and nodded to them, all of them saluting when they saw the royalty they were escorting. Fleethoof nodded back to each pony, thankful they weren’t regaling them as heroes like the civilians had. They understood better than most what it was like to serve, and they simply nodded – they knew. The travel weary ponies left the train station, a large overhanging sign welcoming them to Canterlot.
The city was alive bustling with activity. Stores were beginning to conclude their business as restaurants were preparing for most of theirs. Clubs and upscale bars were opening while the quaint cafes shut for the night. No matter the time, Canterlot was always going.
Most of the ponies they passed on the streets on the way to Canterlot Castle didn’t even spare them a passing glance, and the ones that did were focused solely on the Princess. Nopony approached them, letting them pass unhindered all the way out of the city proper to the gates of the castle. The Guards standing sentinel recognized the royals, and eagerly joined the group.
“Sergeant Fleethoof, returning the Prince and Princess safely to the castle,” Fleethoof reported to the approaching guards.
“Of course, sir. We’ll take you to Princess Celestia,” one responded, both turning in unison and leading the group up into the castle.
Walking into the foyer of Canterlot Castle felt like a distant memory, the sights familiar, but subtly altered. Guards stood posted in greater numbers than when the Sergeant had previously been here, back when he was still a green recruit. That moment seemed years ago, from another life. The ponies were led down the front hallway, the same path he had walked with Phalanx. Ghosts of memories made themselves present in the Pegasus’ mind, echoing to him through time.
‘Captain… what’s happening?’
‘We’re being deployed, Corporal. Tomorrow, everypony in the Guard will meet at the coastal cities and we’ll travel to the griffons by boat. And when we get there, we show the griffons why no creature, pony or otherwise, threatens Equestria.’
The recollections made Fleethoof’s heart break for his departed Captain. But he remembered what Cadence had said to him on the train. It was possible to use his emotions and his loss to his advantage, like artists do. He took the pain, and let it drive him. It fueled the fire in his spirit, urging him onward down the hall to complete his mission.
The group passed several doors down the seemingly endless hallway. Their hooves made no noise against the red carpet running the length of the corridor, leaving an unsettling silence in the castle. Fleethoof silently wondered where Celestia was, and where they were being led.
‘I’m confused, Captain…’
‘Welcome to war, Corporal…’
The voices from the past rang in his ears. He felt like an entirely different pony from what he had been then. He had gone so far. His thoughts were interrupted as they came to a stop in front of a set of doors, the Guards opening them and standing to the side. The ponies filed into the room, aweing at the splendor. They were in a large dining room. A decorative rectangular table stretched almost the length of the room, covered in a fine white tablecloth. A fire burned in the hearth, and candles and chandeliers brightly lit the expanse.
“Come in, my little ponies, come in!” a warm voice greeted from the other end of the room.
Princess Celestia sat at the opposite end of the table, Luna sitting closest to the ponies at the other head of the table. They were in the middle of eating dinner. Fleethoof immediately felt embarrassed for having barged in on the Princesses like that. Celestia, however, quickly rose to her hooves, gasping, her eyes wide when she saw Cadence and Blueblood in the group.
“Cadence! Blueblood! You’re safe!” the white Alicorn cried out joyfully, rushing across the room to embrace her nephew and niece, “I’m so thankful to have you back with us again!”
“I’ve missed you too, Aunt Celestia!” Cadence said, hugging Celestia back, both ponies smiling happily.
The sight made Fleethoof smile himself. He glanced past the two at Luna as she rose as well, their eyes meeting for a moment. Recognition lit up in the Princess’ eyes, and she gave the Sergeant a small smile and a nod.
“We thank thee, Sergeant, for thy upstanding service,” Luna said to him, surprising the Pegasus again with her mannerisms.
“Thank you very much, your majesty – but why are you talking like that?” he inquired, cocking his head curiously to the side.
Luna looked puzzled. “Dost thou wish us to speak in the Royal Canterlot Voice? Our sister has been educating us, and has explained that we do not need to use such a tone with our loyal soldiers.”
“No, no that’s not what I meant,” Fleethoof quickly corrected himself, not wanting to get the Princess to start shouting again, “I mean, why the old words? Why not just say ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’?”
“We could do that? That is the manner of the time?” Luna asked, looking more bewildered than ever, “Is thou trying to trick us, sir Sergeant? We would be most displeased if that is thy intention.”
Suddenly, Fleethoof could see why Celestia was taking it upon herself to reeducate her sister. Princess Luna had been gone for so long – how did that story go? A thousand years? Was all of that fairy tale really true? The evidence was standing right before him, staring at him like he was mentally ill. He felt like perhaps he was.
“No tricks, your majesty. I would never,” he promised, and then apologized, “Forgive me, I didn’t meant to confuse you. I think I’ll let Celestia fill you in on everything.”
“Regardless, thou art very courageous. This is not thy first act of valor, is it not?”
“No, Princess Luna, it’s not,” he answered.
“Thou art an impressive warrior, Sergeant, and a commendable pony,” the Princess commented, “We would wish to have thou in our Royal Guard outfit, if thou desires.”
Fleethoof smiled and chuckled a little under his breath, not exactly sure how to respond to that offer.
“Thank you for the generous offer, your majesty, but I’m needed elsewhere at the moment.”
Luna nodded once, pausing before asking, “The war?”
“Such loyalty and duty is uncommon in many ponies,” stated the Alicorn, “As you wish, Sergeant. My offer stands for thy return, should thou develop a change of heart.”
Luna stepped aside then to go welcome the returned nobles, and Celestia took her sister’s place, smiling proudly at the Pegasus. Even though he had been in Celestia’s presence several times now, Fleethoof was still in awe of her majesty and regality.
“Thank you, Sergeant Fleethoof, for returning them to us,” Celestia graciously said, glancing over at the Prince and Princess, now seated at the table for dinner, “I could expect no different from such a talented, promising pony. I’m very proud of you.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Fleethoof responded with a humble bow of his head to his leader.
“Are you happy to be home after being gone for such a long time?” she asked.
Fleethoof hesitated, his mouth hanging open in mid sentence as his brain tried to form words. “Actually, your highness, I’m not home yet.”
“What do you mean?” queried Celestia curiously.
“The war isn’t over yet, and there are ponies back in the Griffon Kingdom who need help,” he explained, “I’d very much like to return to help bring them all home faster.”
A surprised look crossed the Alicorn’s face, and then a bemused smile touched her lips. Fleethoof looked at her curiously, confused. Was it something he had said?
“You haven’t heard the news, have you, Fleethoof?” she asked.
“The news of what?”
Celestia’s smile grew a little as her horn began to glow. From across the table, where she had been sitting, a newspaper levitated towards them. Fleethoof caught the paper in his hooves, reading over the title, his jaw dropping and eyes widening.
PONIES TAKE ASGARD
“When did this happen?” Fleethoof asked, skimming through the article.
“Two days ago. This was printed yesterday,” Celestia stated, “The siege at Asgard was slow, but it was successful. Alaric fled the city, and most likely the Griffon Kingdom entirely. Now that the army ousted him, the griffons will need a new leader, as Alaric has no heirs. The only one who is brave enough to step up is the griffon chancellor. He’s been a good friend of mine for some time, and greatly values the relationship between the griffons and us. I have no doubt that he’ll end the hostilities between our nations, and our ponies can come home.”
Fleethoof could feel a smile slowly creeping its way onto his face. He glanced down at the paper in his hooves again, crinkling it a little to make sure it was real. The war was just about done.
“We should keep an eye on the griffons, just in case they don’t take to their new leader,” Fleethoof suggested.
“And we shall, but from afar. We won’t occupy and drive them to an allegiance with force. They have to grow on their own,” Celestia replied.
Fleethoof nodded, then glanced down at the pictures on the front page. An image of celebrating soldiers lay beneath the headline, and above it was a banner photograph of a pony lowering Alaric's tattered flag above the Asgard citadel. Fleethoof froze for a moment, staring at that picture. He brought the paper closer to his face, scrutinizing the detail. That pony… That white Unicorn with a disheveled blue streaked mane. Fleethoof grinned widely. It was Shining Armor lowering the standard on Asgard.
“I need to go back regardless, your highness. The griffons burned several of our ships at Skyfall, and they’ll undoubtedly have finished the job by now,” he explained, “Our troops will be stranded there, and if there’s still rebel soldiers and insurgents in the area, they’ll cause some significant casualties. Sending reinforcements, at least a few, will help secure the city for evacuation, and hopefully remove any further resistance.”
Princess Celestia simply stared at the Pegasus for a while, and then slowly smiled.
“Listen to you, Sergeant Fleethoof,” she said, “Only a couple months ago, you were a Private, scared by the mention of war. Now you’re talking like you belonged at that meeting all along. You’ve come such a long way in so little time, Fleethoof. You’ve truly grown so much.”
The embarrassed Sergeant could merely smile and bow his head humbly. It was his pleasure to serve so dutifully, regardless of the immense personal sacrifice it required of him. For his country, he would give everything.
“This is truly your wish then? To return to the war?”
Fleethoof nodded, and replied, “It is.”
Princess Celestia nodded slowly in understanding, then looked past the pony. He followed her gaze curiously. Luna and Cadence had both stopped eating, staring at them. They’d been listening in the whole time. Luna’s expression was unreadable, but Cadence’s was a straight look of concern. Fleethoof swallowed a lump in his throat. He knew why she was worried for him. She didn't think he was ready to return.
“Very well, Sergeant. Take a train to Fillydelphia tomorrow. We’ve been reconstructing our fleet there, with a garrison of reinforcements waiting for deployment,” the sovereign explicated, “I want you to lead the attack and reclaim Skyfall long enough for our troops to make it out safely.”
A sudden spitting and choking came from behind Fleethoof. Everypony turned to look at the source of the sound. Captain Cuirass had spit his drink across the table in surprise, wiping the remainder from his mouth as he stared incredulously at the Princess.
“You want a rookie Sergeant to lead a second attack on a major griffon city when it’s occupied by Special Forces soldiers?” he asked in shock, “Forgive me, your highness, but you must be insane.”
“I assure you, I’m not, Captain,” Celestia remarked, “Fleethoof has demonstrated impressive tactical prowess in the past, from what I’ve read in the reports, and has successfully delivered three hostages from enemy territory back home. If there’s anypony left in Equestria more qualified than him, I have yet to think of the name.”
“What about the Captain of the Guard? Or even myself?” the livid Captain pressed on.
“You know very well that we don’t have an active Captain of the Guard currently, and I’ve seen your abilities to command and hold positions, Captain. Did Fleethoof not just rescue you from the griffons after you lost nearly an entire company of ponies?” Celestia pointed out, her tone scolding, but still maintaining that gentle complexion, “So forgive me, Captain, if my faith in your capabilities has been shaken.”
Captain Cuirass said nothing. He stared intensely at Princess Celestia, fury and indignity smoldering in his eyes. Slowly, reluctantly, he slouched back into his seat, staring blankly at the plate before him. Fleethoof was taken aback. He’d seen the Captain lose his cool before on several occasions, but had never thought he would lose his temper with the Princess of anypony. It was no surprise he was reprimanded.
“Sergeant,” the Alicorn said after a moment, getting the Pegasus’ attention again, “Won’t you join us for dinner? I have a gift I’d like to give you afterwards before you return to duty.”
Fleethoof smiled graciously, and opened his mouth to immediately decline the generous offer – when his stomach growled loudly. He smiled sheepishly, even as the Princess stifled a laugh. The food did smell good, and he wasn’t going anywhere till the morning. He could afford to live like a normal pony for one night.
“Thank you, your majesty. Dinner sounds lovely…”
The silent hallways echoed with the clopping of the ponies’ hooves as they walked along the corridor. Fleethoof wasn’t sure where they were going, and followed close behind Princess Celestia, not wanting to get lost in this labyrinth of a castle. The old stronghold had a cozy feeling at night, warm light filling every hall and room from overhanging chandeliers, brightly illuminating the interior. Canterlot Castle was remarkably beautiful; he loved it.
They had left the main body of the castle now, and had ventured into an annex he had never been to before. Granted, he hadn’t visited most of the castle. There were fewer guards posted around this wing. They passed through an empty lounge, Fleethoof eyeing the velvet chairs and sofas and quality pine furniture. Whatever was living here was comfortably settled in.
“Here we are!” Celestia said, stopping in front of a single, unassuming door.
“Where are we, Princess?” asked Fleethoof as Celestia knocked on the door.
“It’s open,” a voice form the other side shouted.
Celestia’s horn ignited in a golden glow, and the door opened inward. The Alicorn stepped inside, a hesitant Fleethoof stepping in behind her and looking slowly around. They were in a large office, candlelight dimly lighting the room. Bookshelves covered the walls from floor to ceiling, all filled to overflowing with books. Three desks sat in a U-shape in the center of the room, a chalkboard covered with work and notes behind them. Various crates lay haphazardly about.
A Unicorn pony sat at the desks, face buried in paperwork and books as he levitated a quill, scribbling swiftly with precise flourishes across a scroll. He glanced up, and Fleethoof got a good look at the pony. He was a stallion with a cream colored coat and a chestnut brown mane. An untied bowtie hung around his neck and he wore a gray tartan sweater. He peered with lavender eyes over the thin wire-frame glasses perched at the end of his nose, recognizing the Princess immediately, and his expression lit up like a light.
“Princess Celestia! Come in, come in!” he exclaimed joyfully, shooting up form his seat and grabbing hooffuls of papers, stuffing them into books and folders, “Please forgive the mess, I’ve been very busy lately – well, you know all about it.”
“I do, Quarter. It’s quite alright,” Princess Celestia replied, approaching the desks with the Sergeant on her hooves, “Fleethoof, I’d like to introduce you to Quarter Master. Quarter, Sergeant Fleethoof.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Fleethoof smiled and offered his hoof.
Quarter Master shook his hoof and nodded to him. “Charmed, Sergeant.”
“Quarter Master is our resident head of research and development here in the castle,” explained Celestia, the Unicorn smiling proudly and looking away sheepishly, “He oversees and designs many of our projects in his division.”
“And what division is that, exactly?” Fleethoof asked, looking between the two ponies. Celestia didn’t respond right away.
“Weapons and technology,” Quarter Master answered, “Princess Celestia isn’t exactly proud of our little segment of research, but it does benefit Equestria – now more than ever. I’m sure you can appreciate that, Sergeant.”
“I just wish we didn’t have a need for it,” Celestia remarked, “I have nothing against you or your work, Quarter.”
“I understand, your majesty. No need to feel poorly,” he assured the sovereign.
“So you designed the weapons we’re using over in the Griffon Kingdom?” Fleethoof inquired, suddenly very much interested in the scientist’s work.
“Well, I didn’t invent the archaic bolt rifles the Guards are using here on the mainland, but the rifles and carbines the Army has, yes, I helped create that design,” explicated Quarter, “I personally came up with the design for the satchel charges, and my team collaborated on the new design for the warships. Have you seen either in action?”
“Oh yes, I’ve worked hooves-on with your charges, Quarter,” Fleethoof stated with a chuckle, “But the warships I haven’t seen yet.”
“You will, tomorrow. You’ll be taking them on their maiden voyage back to Skyfall,” Celestia said.
“How wonderful! Do tell me how they fair,” Quarter Master said excitedly, then leaned across his desk towards the Pegasus, “And tell me… how do my charges work in the field?”
“Like a dream,” the Sergeant responded with a smirk, “Took the griffons’ walls down in Asgard like they were made of clay.”
Quarter Master’s eyes visibly lit up with life. “And the detonator? Did it work?”
“Went off without a hitch.”
At that answer, a huge grin spread across Quarter Master’s face and he clapped his hooves ecstatically together. He quickly turned on his hooves and trotted to the chalkboard, levitating a worn out piece of chalk and began taking short notes beside a couple drawings and formulas.
“Oh how exciting! This opens up a whole new world of possibilities! So many things can be created now,” he cheered, turning to face the now quite surprised ponies, “And it’s all thanks to you, Sergeant Fleethoof! Marvelous! Simply marvelous!”
“Um… you’re welcome?” Fleethoof simply replied, confusion tinting his voice.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to dampen your enthusiasm, Quarter Master, but I came to ask a favor of you,” Celestia interrupted after a moment.
The eccentric Unicorn turned away from his board again, his tie nearly flying off his neck at the speed of his swivel.
“Of course, your majesty. What can do I for you?”
“I was hoping I could give one of your inventions to the Sergeant to take back into the field with him,” said the Alicorn, “To give him a slight edge, and to provide you with some feedback to use.”
Quarter Master looked like Hearth’s Warming Eve had come early for him. He practically sprang back to his desk, grinning from ear to ear.
“Oooh, what toy is the Sergeant going to get to use?” he asked.
“The rifle you demonstrated to me last week, if you don’t mind.”
Quarter laughed excitedly and turned around, walking over to a couple of boxes in the corner of his office. He flipped the lids off of them with his magic, rummaging through one, and then another. Fleethoof waited anxiously, stretching his neck to try and see what the Unicorn was searching for. After a few moments, he let out a triumphant cheer and levitated a rifle out of the box and carried it back to the desk, laying it carefully down before the Pegasus.
Fleethoof stared at the gun for a moment, studying it. It had the same form as his previously issued rifle, but with several noticeable differences. The receiver had small rails running along the top and bottom of it. A grip had been attached to the front of the rifle, right where he would have held it with his hooves. A raised rectangular object sat on top of the gun, attached where the sights were. The rear grip looked like it had been molded differently from what he was used to as well.
“Well, go on! Don’t be afraid; pick it up! Feel it!” Quarter Master encouraged, still beaming like he’d just won the lottery.
Fleethoof slowly gripped the weapon in his hooves, lifting it up. It felt different grabbing the gun by the grip instead of the receiver, but instantly he felt more control and balance. The grip had been different, and felt more natural and easy to hold in his hoof. He lifted the rifle, bringing it to bear and aiming it at a bookcase. The rectangular object was some sort of sight: transparent, save for a red dot hovering in the center.
“What do you think? First impressions?”
“It’s lighter,” Fleethoof noted, raising and lowering the gun a few times, “And… shorter?”
“You are correct, my good Sergeant! We found a new metal to use in the gun’s frame. The way we treat the metal makes it lighter, but without any compromise in durability or reliability to the carbine,” explained the enthused Unicorn, “We also made the entire design a little smaller in addition to reducing the weight. It makes it easier to carry, and less cumbersome in close quarter conflicts.”
Fleethoof marveled at how much attention went into the firearm, turning it over a few times. “The grip is different too. What did you do with it?”
“The front or the rear?”
“Both,” Fleethoof answered with a chuckle.
“We just changed the way the grip was molded. Instead of being a straight cylinder, it’s now more form-fitted to the way a pony would put pressure on it when holding the gun to fire,” Quarter Master lectured, pointing to the foregrip next, “The foregrip is an entirely new innovation of mine. It provides greater stability from recoil when firing.”
“And the sights?” Fleethoof queried, looking down it again.
“Ah, that one I’m especially proud of. The dot sight is an optic weapons sight that replaces the old iron ones for much greater precision and faster acquisition of targets. A red light is refracted through a curved lens and projected onto the glass in the sight, providing the red dot you see there. It’s almost infinitely accurate and parallax free.”
Fleethoof stared blankly at the Unicorn for a moment, and Celestia snickered softly behind them. “Um… what?”
“Basically,” Quarter began with a sigh, “A little red light is refracted into the sight for you to see, and it is accurate to anypony, despite height, angle, perspective, the lot. It is one fundamental place to aim to hit your target, although you do still have to account for bullet drop.”
“Oh,” said the Sergeant blandly, “How is the light there? How in Equestria do you supply power to it without combustion or electricity?”
“And this is where you unlocked millions of possibilities for me,” said the pony, opening the side of the sight, and pulling a small purple crystal out of it, “This is what I call a Power Crystal. It’s infused with the energy of Unicorn magic, which allows devices like this and my remote detonator to work without depending on another energy source.”
“You created a portable energy source,” Fleethoof surmised, staring in awe. Even Princess Celestia stepped closer to investigate Quarter’s new invention.
“Indeed I did. Oh, this is going to allow for such possibilities! Imagine what we can create without relying on fuels or electricity. And each crystal can be recharged by any Unicorn.”
“Quarter Master, this achievement is revolutionary!” Celestia commended, “How long does each crystal’s power last?”
“I need to run some tests on them, but I'd guess it depends on the crystal, and the device using it,” he explained, “I created the remote charges before the war, months ago, and if they just worked now in Asgard, they lasted a while. I just put this one in the sight, hoping it would work, and look! It did!”
Fleethoof checked the action on the rifle, then set it back down on the desk. “That is a very impressive weapon, Quarter Master - if it lives up to its expectations.”
“And that’s why you’ll be taking it for its premiere into battle with you, Sergeant Fleethoof,” the Unicorn remarked with a proud smile, “I want you to take it for a trial by fire, quite literally. Break it in. Put it to the test. Just please don’t get killed, so you can bring it back and tell me how it fairs to your standards. If it surpasses them, then this will replace every weapon in the Royal Guard and Army.”
“So no pressure,” Celestia added humorously.
Fleethoof chuckled, and then slowly picked the rifle up again. He felt lucky to be given this privilege to be the first pony to test this gun out. But it came with some concerns. What if it jammed, or malfunctioned in the field? It could cost him his life. He glanced up from the tool of modern warfare to the pony that had created it. This pony had created so many things that he relied on before, why wouldn’t he trust him now?
“Alright, I’ll give it a go,” the Pegasus agreed, slinging the rifle's strap across his shoulder, “I’ll be sure to give you a thorough report when I get back, Quarter Master.”
Quarter smiled at the Sergeant. “I’ll be looking forward to it, Sergeant. Oh, and one more thing.”
He shuffled through a pile of papers on one of his desks, looking for something. When he had finished searching that one, he turned to the next, skipping the awkward hunting and tossing the papers off the surface, scattering them across the floor.
“Aha! There it is!” he chimed, levitating a knife in a black leather sheath over to Fleethoof, “Test that too while you’re out and about if you can.”
Fleethoof drew the knife out of its protective pouch, turning it about in the candlelight. The blade was black, with a slightly blued straight edge. Other than the material it was crafted of, it seemed like every other combat knife he’d seen.
“Thanks, I needed a blade,” Fleethoof replied, tucking the blade back into its home.
Quarter Master looked confused. “What do you mean? You didn’t get a knife in your kit?”
“Oh, those idiots!” the Unicorn muttered to himself, throwing his hooves in the air, “Honestly, knives are the most basic thing to mass produce! What, are they rationing out melee weapons now? For crying out loud…”
“So…” Fleethoof reiterated, “Thanks again for giving me one. I could’ve really used it before.”
“You’re quite welcome, but that’s no ordinary knife,” Quarter continued, “The blade is the first one in Equestrian history to be cut and sharpened by diamond. It’s guaranteed to remain sharp for quite possibly your entire lifetime. So do be careful when handling it.”
“Oh, wow!” the Sergeant exclaimed, now much more thankful to have it in his arsenal, “Thank you again, Quarter.”
“Just please remember that they are prototypes. They’ve been tested in our labs and training courses, but you’ll be field-testing them. I don’t expect anything to go wrong, but it is a possibility,” he reminded the Sergeant, “And do try to bring them back in working order. Don’t lose them to the griffons.”
Fleethoof scoffed and gave a crooked smile to the scientist. “I don’t intend to.”
Celestia stepped closer into the conversation, placing herself between the two ponies. She smiled and rolled her eyes. Boys with their toys…
“Thank you, Quarter Master. Hopefully Fleethoof will have some useful information for you when he returns,” she interrupted gently, turning to the Pegasus in question, “You should get some sleep, Sergeant. You have a busy day tomorrow.”
“You’re right, your majesty,” he agreed with a nod, shaking hooves with Quarter Master again, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Quarter Master.”
“Likewise. I’m sure we’ll be in touch very soon,” replied Quarter, “Good luck, Sergeant.”
Fleethoof nodded to him, and then turned towards the door with Princess Celestia at his side. Carrying his new equipment, he felt like a whole new soldier. He was being trusted with prototype weapons. He was being trusted to command the reinforcements in recapturing Skyfall. Responsibility crashed down on the pony’s head, and he was very nervous. He felt like he was being tested. It was like going into the battle for the first time all over again.
The walk back to his chambers seemed to take a long, lengthy eternity. Princess Celestia had been more than gracious to offer him accommodations in the castle for the night. Each step and each second brought him closer to returning to the Griffon Kingdom – to the war. And though he had confidence in himself and his fellow soldiers, it terrified him. Cadence’s voice echoed in his head. It was natural for him to be scared. Her words gave him solace. He had left Skyfall a damaged pony, but he would be returning an enlightened warrior.
The darkness of his room enveloped Fleethoof. The silence taunted him like a jester, mockingly reminding him of what he had left behind. The blood and burning and battle. Cool night air flowed into the bedroom from the open balcony. It felt good. Trudging wearily through the dark to the bed, Fleethoof let his body give way to gravity, and collapsed onto the mattress.
He was asleep before his head even hit the pillows.
The train whistle blared in the early morning hours. Celestia had just finished raising the sun, light spilling over the horizon and chasing away the night. Fleethoof stood on the station platform, staring at the train until the noise subsided. The engine chugged, eager and waiting to begin its voyage.
Fleethoof tore his gaze away from the locomotive toward the small entourage gathered to see him off. Everypony from his squad stood around, no longer in uniform or on active duty, smiling and giving him words of encouragement. Princess Celestia and Luna stood a little further back, seeing him off. Princess Cadence stood in amongst the seasoned soldiers, looking the soldier over before her and nodding in approval, though her eyes were sad and held a silent plea.
“Good luck, Sarge.”
“Go get ‘em, Sergeant!”
“You can do it!”
“Bring our buddies home, Sarge!”
The troopers’ calls made Fleethoof smile. Their liveliness and enthusiastic support amused and touched him. Even after all the horrors they had endured, they still looked up to him, supporting his calls. His attention turned to the pink Alicorn Princess now, who had yet to say a single word to him.
“No words of wisdom?” he asked her jokingly, cocking a half smile at her. Cadence mustered up a small smile, though it faded quickly.
“Just be careful, Fleethoof. Enough ponies have died in this senseless war. Please don’t lose yourself,” she implored.
Fleethoof’s smile turned into a charmed grin. “Is that an order, Cadence?”
“Yes, it is,” she remarked, standing tall and authoritative as she spoke, “Sergeant Fleethoof, as Princess, I order you to take care and come back safely. I'm not finished with you yet.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the Sergeant said, standing at attention and saluting.
Before Fleethoof could react, or even lower his salute, he felt something hit him and hooves tightening around him. He gasped in surprise at the sudden force, looking down at the Princess embracing him. He smiled, and hugged her back for a lingering moment before they both pulled back.
"Will you be alright?" he asked the affectionate Princess with a chuckle.
"I'll be fine. I have a few more troubled soldiers I can help to pass the time until I can fix you again," Cadence said, glancing to the nearby troops.
“Cadence, could I ask a favor of you?” he murmured in a low voice.
“Of course,” she replied with a quick nod.
Fleethoof took a deep breath and slowly reached into the breast pocket on his uniform, pulling out a slightly wrinkled letter. He placed it delicately in her hoof, making sure she held it tightly before removing his hoof from hers.
“Could you deliver that to my parents when the time is right?” he asked, “You’re the first pony I could think of with this matter. You understand.”
Cadence looked down at the letter in her grasp, then back into the Pegasus’ eyes, and asked lowly, “How will I know when the time is right?”
“It isn’t sealed,” explained Fleethoof, a rueful smirk touching his lips, “Thank you, Cadence – for everything… Literally, everything…”
“Stop talking like this is the end. This isn’t goodbye. You’re going to come back fine.”
Fleethoof chuckled under his breath, glancing down for a moment, and then looking up at her. “I prefer to cover my bases… Goodbye, Cadence…”
Still smiling sadly, Fleethoof turned just as the train let out another earsplitting whistle. Behind him, cheers and chants of his name rang out from his soldiers. The pony chuckled to himself, shaking his head. How he loved them…
He approached the train slowly, each step taking such an effort to make. Part of him wanted to return, to finish the job he had started, and to see the safety of everypony through. The other part of him begged him to stay with his friends, safely at home. His war was over. He didn’t have to return. But in his heart, and mind, and soul, he knew the truth.
He had to go back.
Boarding the train was a tense experience, and looking back through the doorway at everypony was even worse. They were waving now, his ponies, even the Princesses. Cadence was putting on her bravest face, and even Celestia and Luna looked distressed. He forced a smile and waved back before disappearing into the train car.
He took a seat beside the window, looking out at the ponies milling about their daily lives, and at Canterlot. The realization that this could be his last time seeing normality hit him like a ton of bricks. It was still very possible that he might not return this time. He was pushing his luck when he had already been handed an escape. But his damned sense of loyalty and duty was driving him stronger than his cowardice now. Fear chilled him, but it had no hold over him. It simply lay in his heart, like an itch he couldn’t reach, driving him mad with its presence. There was only one way to get over it though…
Fleethoof heard somepony sit down beside him, and took a quick glance over – and then a double take.
“Captain Cuirass?” he asked in astonishment, “I thought Princess Celestia told you not to come on this?”
“She said I couldn’t lead it, Sergeant, not that I couldn’t participate,” Cuirass corrected, looking at him with a deathly serious expression, “I’m coming with you to finish my fight. Everything that happens now, that’s all on you. Don’t buck it up.”
Fleethoof was frozen in shock and worry for a moment, swallowing tensely. The train lurched forward, and then began its slow acceleration down the tracks, pulling away from the station. The Sergeant glanced out the window at Canterlot one last time. The squad he had led was running down the station, waving wildly and cheering him on. At the edge of his vision, he could see Princess Cadence beginning to slowly open his letter.
And then the city vanished from his view.
For Jetstream and Nightingale
From Sergeant Fleethoof, 3rd Company
My dearest mother and father,
If you’ve gotten this letter, then you know what it means. I have perished in the Griffon Kingdom. That’s the fact. But I’m not writing to you to inform you of a truth you’d learn from a telegram in a day or two. I’m writing you this final letter because I want you both to know my truth – the truth you won’t find in any history book, or newspaper, or magazine.
I am a soldier. I knew what I was getting into when I got my Cutie Mark. I can still remember your faces when it popped up on my flank. I knew what I was getting into when I set out for basic training. Your letters of support kept me going all the way through it, no matter how tough it was. I knew what I was getting myself into… at least I thought I did.
In all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. War is horrifying, Mom and Dad. We always hear it, or read about it, but you can never understand how truly life-threateningly terrifying it is until you’ve been under enemy fire. In the past few months, I’ve been attacked, shot at, beaten, and nearly blown up. Each time, I kept telling myself it would get easier. It never did.
I was terrified. I was scared almost constantly. But I want you to know I didn’t die afraid. If anything, I died proud and strong, fighting for what I believed in. I didn’t know what war was really like, but I knew it would really cost me my life, and that I was giving it up for the liberty of Equestria. That’s exactly what I did, Mom and Dad. I died brave, standing up for my home, and the ponies I love. I died on my hooves so nopony would have to live on their knees. I died so when ponies recite the anthem to our flag, you could smile, sing along, and say “Our son kept us free”.
Please do not harbor any ill feelings towards Princess Celestia for the war. There are factors involved far beyond just her alone. She is a good, just leader, who cares for everypony – especially her soldiers. Please do not blame yourselves. There is no fault on either of you. You raised me the best you could, and you did wonderful.
And above all, thank Princess Cadence, for delivering this letter to you, and for teaching me how to feel. I had been broken and scarred from the war, bottling up and hiding my emotions away. It was killing me inside, and I didn’t even realize it until we stumbled across one another. It’s because of her that I can feel alive and like a normal pony, even in these dark times. I owe her so much, and I can never repay that debt.
Do me one last favor, Mom and Dad. Live. Live your lives to their fullest, not lingering around my passing. Know that everything I did, I did for you, for everypony, and for Equestria. I love you both so much.
With all my love, forever and always,
Fleethoof gently ran his hoof along the polished railing of the massive ship, taking in every finer detail of it. Quarter Master had been right: no expense had been spared with the new warships. They were larger than the transports they had taken over in the first invasion. Two decks of cannons had been installed in each vessel, a dozen cannons on each side. Everything about the ships screamed of power and dominance. It made him feel better about attacking the griffons again.
“Sergeant Fleethoof, sir.”
He glanced back over his shoulder at the pony addressing him. The pony was a young Pegasus, younger than even he was. He was dressed in the same uniform Fleethoof was, albeit a lot cleaner from the lack of combat it had yet to see. A single band on his sleeve marked his rank.
“The ship’s loaded up, and the other is just about done as well,” the Pegasus Ensign reported, standing at attention, “All the soldiers are boarding now. We’ll be ready for departure in a few minutes.”
Fleethoof couldn’t help but smirk. The pony was definitely green, and reminded him of himself.
“Thank you, Ensign. Tell the stallion at the helm to prepare for immediate departure,” he ordered.
The pony saluted, and then scampered off, eager to do his officer’s bidding. Fleethoof watched him go, then returned to staring off past the bow at the open ocean. It was there… somewhere. Waiting for him to return.
‘Here we go again…’ he thought to himself, pursing his lips at the thought.
Hoofsteps approached him again. He looked back; it was Captain Cuirass.
“Cast off!” somepony called behind him, “Raise anchor and release sails!”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Cuirass muttered as the ship began to sail away from Fillydelphia Harbor, the second warship just shortly behind them.
Fleethoof’s eyes didn’t stray from the horizon.
“So do I…”
One more time. Just one more round.
It’s almost over.
Distant explosions ushered in the morning the following day. Even from their distance, the battle could be heard from the ships on the open sea. Fleethoof rushed up above deck, soldiers already congregating on the deck. Ahead of them lay the Griffon Kingdom, the endless mountain range all too familiar to him. Skyfall sat in its valley, fresh smoke billowing from it. Gunshots could just barely be heard over the swell of the sea. Skyfall had become a battlefield again.
Captain Cuirass charged onto the deck just behind Fleethoof, skidding to a halt as he stared off at the city. Fleethoof turned and rushed up the stairs to the helm to elevate his position, pulling out his binoculars. He couldn’t see much from where they were, but he could see ponies and griffons in the air – a lot more than there had been occupying the city before.
The Equestrian Army had made it to Skyfall, but it didn’t look like the griffons were going to let them leave without a fight.
“Pegasus!” a pony in the crow’s nest shouted.
Fleethoof looked up into the sky. Sure enough, a lone green Pegasus pony was flying by at breakneck speeds. The soldiers on deck called and signaled to the pony. The Pegasus veered down towards them, heading for the deck – way too fast. The troopers barely had enough time to get clear as the pony crash-landed onto the ship.
Fleethoof rushed down the stairs again, making his way through the crowd of soldiers surrounding the downed pony. A couple had already helped the Pegasus up, and he was looking around in a daze. His wings were bent at odd angles, clearly broken. Fleethoof winced, and took a place beside the pony.
“Are you alright, soldier?” he asked, “What happened?”
“Skyfall… Griffons… Lots of griffons…” he panted heavily, “Blockade… Can’t get through…”
“Catch your breath, soldier,” ordered Fleethoof, “How many griffons, and how did they all get here?”
“A lot, sir… Maybe a hundred… They locked the city down, barricaded the gates… The Army’s there, fighting their way through, but it’s slow and rough…” the Pegasus explained, “They’re loyalists, sir… Still fighting for Alaric, even when he’s gone. And they’re tough, well organized, not afraid to die…”
Fleethoof nodded in understanding, patting the pony on the shoulder. “You’re safe now, soldier. Get below deck, have somepony look at those wings.”
Standing up again, the Sergeant looked out across the ocean at the fast approaching city, the gunfire and battle sounds becoming more distinct with every passing minute. If the griffons wanted one last fight, he was going to give them hell.
“Battle stations, everypony! Full sails, and load the cannons!” Fleethoof shouted in command, “If they want a fight, we’ll give them one!”
The soldiers chanted in unison and rushed about the ship. Taking position back at the helm with Captain Cuirass, Fleethoof continued to watch the Griffon Kingdom get closer and closer. His blood ran cold, a shiver going up his spine. Switching between observing and giving direction, the Sergeant bided his time, just waiting for the warships to get close enough.
From their position, Fleethoof could see the charred skeletons and burned remains of the previous ships on the shore. He had been right about the griffons destroying their only escape. Thank Celestia for his intuition. Within the hour, the ships had drawn much closer now, the sounds of battle so close they were almost in it. He could see the outer wall and gate, barricaded with logs and crude makeshift fences.
“Bring the ship around broad side, “ Fleethoof ordered the helmsman.
At his command, the ship began to turn, the starboard side of the ship lining up parallel with the walls of Skyfall. From the city walls, small muzzle flashes could be seen, and bullets began to haphazardly strike the ship’s hull.
“How cute. They’ve opened fire,” Cuirass mocked, smiling at the Sergeant. Fleethoof couldn’t help but smirk.
“Ready cannons!” Fleethoof shouted, waiting a few moments as the ship lined up with the city, “OPEN FIRE!!”
Several loud explosions filled the air as the cannons fired. Fleethoof watched in awe as a dozen cannonballs sailed through the air, smashing into the walls of Skyfall. He could hear griffons shrieking and screaming in terror, some fleeing from the battlements already as the stonework began to crumble like dry bread under the assault. It wasn’t quite enough to break through, but it had done significant damage on its own. Behind them, Fleethoof could hear the other ship firing as well, cannonballs striking the walls again, a few sailing high and destroying some unfortunate buildings within the city.
“FIRE AT WILL!!” the Sergeant commanded, and the cannons fired again, and again.
Under the heavy cannon fire, the griffons routed back into the city. The barricades were torn to shreds, and the walls slowly began to fall apart. Once he was sufficiently pleased with the damage done and the lack of opposition facing them, Fleethoof halted the attack. They had broken through, and it was time to help the Army.
“Everypony to the longboats! We’re going ashore!” he said, making his way to the rows of longboats hung around the sides of the ships.
The boats were quickly filled. Fleethoof took his place in one as they were lowered to the water. Four ponies rowed towards the shore a short distance away, but that gap felt like miles as the ponies were forced to listen to the battle raging on ahead of them.
Fleethoof loaded a magazine into his new rifle and chambered the first round, switching the safety off. They were halfway to the beach now. He glanced back. The other boats were scattered about behind them, and the longboats from the other warship were making their way to shore now too. They were in the lead.
Suddenly, a couple of shots hit the water near the boat, making everypony jump and Sergeant Fleethoof turn forward again. A half dozen griffons flew over their heads, firing at the longboats they passed.
“Open fire! Open fire!” Fleethoof ordered, taking aim down his sights and engaging the hostiles.
Several other ponies in his boat, as well as the rest, returned fire. The griffons fell one by one in quick succession. Fleethoof took aim at one, and then another, killing them with a couple shots. The dot sight was lethally accurate, so much so it floored the Sergeant. A few more bullets ripped through the air at them, striking one of the ponies in his boat and killing her instantly.
“Covering fire!” the Pegasus called back, and heard another pony in a different boat give the same order.
Under the hail of bullets, the brash griffons stood no chance. But Fleethoof reminded himself that these griffons weren’t trying to win – they were trying to kill and get killed. They wanted to cause as many casualties as they could. This was the last ditch attempt of a broken army for a fallen tyrant.
The fight to the shore continued for a little while longer, until the boat finally washed up onto the sand. Fleethoof immediately jumped out, rushing up the beachhead with his soldiers behind him. One by one, the rest of the boats hit the beach and the troopers charged towards the city, the army of reinforcements shouting their battle cry at the top of their lungs.
As they approached the walls of Skyfall, gunfire opened up again. Griffons had taken their places at the battlements again. Fleethoof winced as a few bullets barely passed him, charging as fast as he could towards the gates, hoping speed would avoid the bullets.
A couple of ponies ahead of him were hit, one flying backwards, clearly dead, and the other collapsing to the sand as her leg gave out beneath her, crying out in pain. The Pegasus rushed across the sand towards her, just as the beautiful sound of cannon fire started up behind him again. The cannonballs whizzed over his head and smashed into the walls again, toppling most of the upper section and sending griffons falling in every direction.
“Get up!” Fleethoof called to the pony, lifting her up with his body, “Come on, get up!”
The two ponies slowly made their way towards the walls. More soldiers joined their side, a mass of Equestrian soldiers surging through the gates. A band of griffons suddenly jumped out at the other side, opening fire on the invading force. Fleethoof dropped to the ground with his wounded comrade, bringing his rifle to bear and acquiring his first target in a heartbeat. He fired one clean round through his foe’s head, then the next, and the next, the other troops firing bursts into the remaining enemies.
“Keep moving!” he shouted to the soldiers as they ran past him, helping the injured soldier sit up, “Can you walk?”
“I… I think so. It's just grazed,” she muttered, shakily getting to her hooves. They supported her weight, and she nodded to her officer.
“Good. Let’s go meet our friends,” he replied with a grin.
Charging back into Skyfall felt like déjà vu. Glimpses of his first ever brush with battle and death flashed through his mind as the Pegasus ran down the sides of the main road with his little army. The soldiers hugged the buildings for cover as they advanced. Above his head, dozens of Pegasus ponies flew into the aerial fray to aid their allies, gunfire popping everywhere around him.
A griffon squad charged onto the road, opening fire on the surging ponies. Fleethoof skidded to a halt, his sleight of hoof brining his weapon up fast and emptying his magazine into the soldiers, along with a half dozen other soldiers. The enemies never stood a chance.
He reloaded his gun on the run, the soldiers cut through their opposition on the first level, moving to the gatehouse to the second level. True to the Pegasus’ report, barricades had been set up here too. Except now they didn’t have their cannons.
“Move! Move! Move!” somepony shouted form behind him.
Fleethoof turned, and barely had enough time to get out of the way as two ponies rolled a barrel up to the roadblock. They fell back a short distance, then opened fire on it. The barrel exploded in a fireball, taking the wooden barrier with it. Several soldiers cheered, and Fleethoof grinned widely. The gunpowder that had nearly killed him had proved useful after all.
“Move! To the second level!” Fleethoof ordered, then stopped as griffons began making their way down the ramp towards them, firing blindly at the ponies, “Open fire!”
The griffons were lit up in a volley of bullets, falling where they stood. Fleethoof lowered his weapon and made his way up to the second tier with his soldiers. Behind him, more shooting rang out as the ponies swept the buildings. Throughout the streets of the higher level of the city, the griffons were already engaged in heavy fighting – with the main body of Equestria’s military.
“Check your fire! Friendlies present,” Fleethoof called back to the soldiers galloping up, “Clear the city!”
Fleethoof ran with a small group of soldiers down one of the side streets. They flanked behind a unit of griffons, firing on ponies from behind cover. The ponies took aim and opened fire, Fleethoof claiming three kills for himself. He beamed as he looked at his rifle. The additional grip kept his shots tight, and the sight was a dream. He loved this weapon.
The team moved through the side streets, sweeping through the griffons distracted by other fights. Now trapped and engaged on all sides, the griffons were crushed. The battle was going very well.
An explosion burst on the next level up, catching Fleethoof’s attention. Something was going on up there. With the fighting going very much in their favor here, he led his team towards the next gatehouse, killing several more griffons along the way. As they turned towards the gate, Fleethoof ran headfirst into an enemy, two more griffons behind him.
“Wait!” the griffon cried out as he stumbled backwards, dropping his rifle and throwing his talons up as the ponies took aim, “We surrender! We surrender!”
Fleethoof watched in surprise as the other two griffons dropped their weapons and surrendered as well, dropping to the ground. He glanced back at his troops, and saw the questioning looks on their faces as well. They didn't have a protocol for prisoners of war. He looked to the griffons, and then searched around the alley.
“Bind their talons with this, and take them back to the ships,” Fleethoof ordered, tossing a coil of rope to one of the soldiers, “Pass this order on to the others: if any griffon surrenders, they are to be taken alive, not harmed.”
“The war is over, soldier,” Fleethoof interjected, eyes stern and adamant, “Those who surrender will not be killed. Understood?”
The ponies were silent for a moment, but nodded.
“Good. Now take them back to the beach,” he said, making sure they set to binding the griffons before heading off to rejoin the battle.
Making his way up to the third level wasn’t easy. The griffon barricade had been destroyed, but griffon elites formed a living blockade on the ramp, firing on anypony who got close. From the side, Fleethoof killed several of the griffons, drawing their fire long enough for other ponies to join in. Within moments, the elite soldiers were all dead.
As the Sergeant made his way up to the third level with another squad behind him, he saw the reason for the explosions. If the second level had been conflict, the third level was war. The masses of the griffon and pony forces were here, shooting from any and every direction. The entire city tier was a battlefield.
“Go! Go!” Fleethoof ordered as several stray bullets struck the walls and ground near them, the ponies rushing around a building and down an alley.
The ponies ran down the gridlock of streets, skimming the outskirts of the battle. They eventually came across a small plaza – stumbling from a run to a halt when they saw the group of griffons standing there. Several stood in a line at attention while one marched back and forth in front of them.
“This is your last chance for glory,” the pacing griffon declared, “Kill as many filthy ponies as you can. Death for the great King Alaric will be the greatest service you can perform.”
“But… Officer Bronzebeak… Alaric betrayed us,” one of the soldiers muttered, “He fled and left us to die. He brought this on us. The war is over, sir.”
The griffon officer stared at the soldier for a moment, then drew his pistol and shot the avian in the face. Fleethoof’s jaw dropped as he watched the body crumple to the ground.
“Anyone else feel this way?” he asked, receiving no response from the terrified soldiers, “We may not win the battle today, but we will have our retribution!”
A single gunshot rang out as Fleethoof put a round through the back of the griffon officer’s head, his body collapsing limply to the ground as blood sprayed across his horrified troops. The Pegasus pointed the smoking barrel of his handgun to the remaining griffons, the ponies behind him aiming their firearms as well. Almost immediately, the griffons threw their talons in the air, weapons tumbling to the cobblestones.
“Please, don’t kill us!” one griffon begged desperately, “We don’t even wanna fight anymore, right guys? We’re being forced to, by that crazy Alaric!”
The other griffons gave various responses and nods in agreement. Fleethoof’s brow raised in interest. Alaric was forcing them to fight against their will? Perhaps he was in Skyfall then.
“Bind their talons, leave them here until we can safely get them out,” the Sergeant ordered, holstering his pistol and giving the surrendering enemies a deathly serious glare, “If you do anything stupid, you’ll all be shot. Get it?”
The griffons nodded rapidly. “Got it.”
“Good. The rest of you, on me,” Fleethoof commanded, leading the rest of the squad back down the alleys.
The ponies burst out onto the main thoroughfare from the side roads, into the heat of the battle. Fleethoof raised his rifle to a small cluster of griffons, lighting them up and draining his magazine into the enemies. Beside him, an explosion burst forth again, sending a mass of screaming griffons sailing through the air. The ponies recoiled momentarily, Fleethoof raising a hoof to shield his face.
“Kill them! Kill them all!!”
‘That voice…’ That all too familiar voice.
Fleethoof looked up toward the shouting, spotting the fallen King Alaric standing on a rooftop, shielded by black Spec Ops soldiers surrounding him, and shooting at the ponies from above. The disgraced monarch wore bright gold armor, firing a pair of pistols at any pony he could see. He had degenerated from a twisted leader to a desperate madman, driven to the brink.
“Up high! Two o’ clock!” Fleethoof shouted, shoving a magazine into his weapon while his ponies turned with him.
Seeing his opportunity, Fleethoof took aim and opened fire. His shots fell low, killing one of the soldiers near Alaric. The rest immediately formed on their commander, protecting him. The ponies beside him fired on the group, dropping them gradually one by one. When only a couple remained, Alaric took off, darting away from the combat.
“Damn it! Bastard!” Fleethoof spat out, “Fight through! We have to get after him!”
The ponies jumped into the fray, fighting in every direction at the nearest enemy they could find. Fleethoof killed one griffon, and then another, and another. It was like shooting targets back in basic training now – except they shot back. The mass of the Equestrian Army had surged forward more, the remaining griffons falling as far back as they could. Ponies ran past Fleethoof, cornering and squashing the enemies between two fronts.
“Take any that surrender,” Fleethoof shouted his order to the passing ponies, “Do not harm the unarmed.”
Now clear, the Pegasus pony charged across the street, following after Alaric. He had lost the griffon’s trail, but this had been the right direction. It was just a matter of finding him again. He ran down the roads and alleys, passing a couple of enemies as they surrendered and were taken captive. A few fired at him, and were picked off. Most of the opposition had already fallen or surrendered. The battle was practically won.
Up ahead, volleys of gunfire could be heard. The Sergeant hesitated, listening for the direction, and then bolting off after it. He ran into a small plaza in front of a small home. Ponies took cover behind debris and walls, firing at the doors and windows. Muzzle flashes lit up in the openings, returning fire at the ponies.
Fleethoof surveyed the situation, then ducked down one of the winding streets, taking him around behind the house. A griffon stood at the back, firing around the corner at the ponies in the front. It was too easy as he took the foe down with two shots to the torso. Charging to the back door, he broke in, tackling a griffon in his entry and pinning him against the wall. He pulled his new knife out, shoved the blade into the griffon’s stomach, and then drove it into his chest before letting him collapse, dead.
Before he could do anything, another griffon ran around the corner. Fleethoof reacted on reflex, tossing his knife at the griffon. He heard the strike, and saw the hilt embedded into the avian’s chest. The griffon grunted, stumbled to the side, and slid down the wall. He retrieved his knife again, just as the sound of smashing wood was heard ahead of him.
Fleethoof lifted his rifle, slowly sidling along the wall towards the next doorway. He could hear a quick volley of assorted gunfire, watching the flashes around the corner – and then silence. He was breathing hard, gripping his rifle tight as he approached the doorway. Taking a deep breath, he turned the corner, gun raised – and saw the barrel of a rifle pointed in his face as well.
Neither side moved for the longest time, Fleethoof focusing on his opponent through the weapon’s sight. Snow white fur obscured most of his vision, and the gun at his head was Equestrian in origin. It wasn’t a griffon he was aiming at. Pulling his head back a little, his eyes met cerulean ones, and he recognized the face immediately.
“Shining Armor,” he breathed in relief.
“Fleethoof?” Shining asked incredulously, both ponies lowering their weapons, “I can’t believe it! It’s really you!”
“I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again, my friend,” Fleethoof said, looking back at the other ponies with the Unicorn, “All of you.”
“I saw you at those summit meetings in Asgard, but I lost you after that,” he explained, “I thought you’d been lost.”
“I saw you taking down the flag at Asgard,” remarked the Pegasus with a laugh, “I thought you were gone too!”
A few gunshots above their heads on the next floor cut through the conversation. Both ponies looked up at the ceiling, then back to one another. Shining Armor loaded a fresh magazine into his rifle and nodded to the Sergeant.
“You got my back?” he asked, alluding to their first meeting.
Fleethoof grinned and reloaded his weapon as well. “As long as you’ve got mine.”
Both soldiers made their way toward the stairs, marching swiftly up them. The upstairs was a small hallway with only two doors. Shining Armor ran down to the furthest one while Fleethoof took position at the closest. They exchanged a look, and nodded.
Fleethoof kicked the door inward, splintering the wood under the force. A griffon inside stumbled backwards as shards of wood flew at him, another turning away from the window he was aiming out of. Fleethoof shot both quickly with clean precision, sweeping the small room as fast as he could. It was empty.
Next door, Fleethoof heard glass shatter and a few shots go off. He ran out into the hallway and into Shining’s room. Shining Armor stood staring out a broken window, two more dead griffons lying across the floor in growing pools of blood.
“Buck! He got away!” Shining Armor cursed, glaring at the fleeing form of a griffon high in the air.
“Move!” Fleethoof called, climbing into the window frame and flaring his wings.
“Go get him, Fleet!” Shining shouted as the Pegasus took off after him.
Fleethoof flew as fast as he could after Alaric, catching up to the king in a matter of seconds. High above the fourth level, pony collided with griffon, the avian shrieking in surprise as he was tackled. The two spun around in the air for a moment before they separated, Alaric glaring at his opposition.
“YOU!!” he spat, and bolted back off through the air.
Fleethoof took aim at the retreating griffon – and felt a few bullets just barely miss him. He flinched, and flew away. Stopping in the air was not a good idea right now. With the aerial battles still going on, the pursuit after Alaric was intense and confusing. Even when he was hot on his heels, the griffon would dart one direction, and Fleethoof would lose him amongst a group of griffons, only to spot him again further away.
Finally, the Pegasus was able to catch up to his enemy again, dodging bullets as he grabbed the griffon around his waist. Alaric glared down at the pony, his weight dragging him down. He delivered a swift, hard kick to the Sergeant’s face, fazing him, and then knocking him off with a second. Fleethoof cried out as he was knocked backwards, his rifle falling from his shoulder and spiraling toward the ground.
‘Horseapples, Quarter Master’s gonna kill me,’ he thought as he took off behind Alaric again.
He watched as the dethroned monarch weaved through a couple of buildings, dodging a hail of gunfire. Fleethoof shot up over the buildings, and then dove downward, right on top of the griffon. Again, he tackled Alaric, both fighters spiraling chaotically through the air for a few moments, smacking into griffon and pony alike. Alaric drew his sidearm, and then both combatants crashed into a rooftop, falling away from one another as the griffon’s gun was knocked from his grasp.
Fleethoof skidded across the roof, sliding off the edge and grabbing it with his hooves. He quickly hoisted himself up – and felt a talon wrap around his neck. He gagged as he was lifted into the air, Alaric squeezing down on his windpipe. A second talon gripped his left wing and jerked it away from his body. Fleethoof heard and felt something give, and a blinding pain filled him, the pony giving a choking cry. A deep-seated rage burned in the griffon’s pitch black eyes.
“You filthy, insignificant ponies thought you could just stop me like that?!” he snarled, shaking the flailing Pegasus violently, “This war will never end so long as I live. I will avenge my forefathers. Equestria will burn. And you, foolish soldier, will die.”
Fleethoof’s head began to spin, the disoriented pony trying to keep the talon around his neck from snapping his neck while feeling about his chest. His hoof eventually nudged the soft leather pouch he was looking for. Brandishing his knife, he brought it across the griffon’s arm, the blade slicing through skin and flesh like it were butter. Alaric screamed in pain and dropped the pony. Fleethoof quickly drew his sidearm, but Alaric was faster, bringing his knee into the Pegasus’ jaw. Fleethoof saw stars – and then saw cobblestones as he toppled over the edge of the roof.
Gritting his teeth in fear and shock, he reached out to grab something – anything. His hooves found purchase on a window ledge, stopping his fall short. He looked down, watching his handgun fall to the ground, and looked up to see Alaric taking off again. Grunting, Fleethoof pulled himself back up onto the rooftop, his entire body aching and his wing burning. He grabbed his knife, placing it between his teeth as he tried to flap his wing. It moved, weakly, and painfully, but it wasn’t broken. Cautiously, Fleethoof gripped his wing, then jammed it back into place, giving a muffled scream of pain as the joint set back into place.
His sapphire eyes shot back to the sky, picking the golden armor of Alaric out of the sky. Flapping his wings, he took off after him. It hurt to fly now, but adrenaline drove him onward. Alaric was flying slowly. It confused the pony – until he got closer, and the griffon turned to face him, his second handgun in his claws.
Fleethoof weaved his flight pattern, dodging a couple of bullets before colliding with his enemy. The two tumbled through the air again, back towards the battlefield. Fleethoof slashed wildly at the griffon with his knife, Alaric swerving and jerking his movement, barely dodging the attacks this close to him. He grabbed the Pegasus’ hoof holding the knife, the two struggling against each other’s strength, until Alaric swiped with his free talon across Fleethoof’s side. He winced out of reaction. Alaric hadn’t broken the skin, and had simply torn his uniform, his equipment and saddlebags falling to the earth below.
A sharp kick to his stomach had Fleethoof doubling over as the wind was knocked out of him. A right hook to his jaw sent the Pegasus spinning through the air again as Alaric broke away, trying to put distance between them. Fleethoof clenched his aching jaw, seeing through the black fog clouding his vision to continue the pursuit. He gripped the hilt of his knife tighter. He was going to kill him this time.
Gaining on Alaric fast, Fleethoof drew his hoof back for the strike. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the griffon turned again, intercepting the pony’s attack, claw gripping his hoof again before the blow could land. The knife hovered dangerous inches away from the griffon’s collar, shaking as the two fought between life and death. Fleethoof put all his strength forward, the blade pushing an inch closer. He was so close. Another surge of strength, and the tip of the blade began to break the downy feathers on the griffon's neck. And then Alaric gave him a cruel, wicked grin.
Fleethoof’s eyes went wide as he felt something tear through his wing. He screamed in pain, his strength sapping all of a sudden as the agony drained him. Alaric brought his leg up to the Sergeant’s stomach, releasing his hoof and kicking him away. The Pegasus fell down through the air, seeing the griffon clutching his second pistol in his claw and laughing as he tumbled downward.
Below him, Fleethoof could see the ground quickly coming up on him. He tried to right himself in the air, wings flapping urgently. He cried out again as his left wing burned worse than before, the pain nearly making him black out, tears welling up in his eyes. His wing had been shot; he couldn’t fly.
He settled for a glide, no longer completely falling, but still coming in too hot. Steering was difficult, and veering between buildings was impossible. Bracing himself for impact and screaming in terror, Fleethoof flew right through a window, the glass cutting up his body again. The last thing he saw was a wall heading right at him, and then he blacked out on impact.
“I think he’s coming around, Sergeant.”
“Look, he’s twitching!”
“Everypony move! Fleet! Fleethoof, can you hear me?”
Fleethoof groaned weakly as he strained to open his eyes. The process was slow, but blinding light eventually flooded his vision. He squinted against the glare, letting his eyes adjust. Eventually they settled, and he could see the sky. And then Shining Armor. Shining Armor was standing over him. He was lying down.
He looked around, confused. He was lying on a stretcher, two ponies carrying him out of the gates of Skyfall. Shining Armor was trotting alongside him, another pony on the opposite side. They must have been the field medics.
“What happened?” Fleethoof grumbled.
“We found you passed out in a building,” explained Shining, “You’d taken quite a beating. The doc here said you were lucky. If they didn’t patch your wing up when they did, it might not have been usable ever again.”
Fleethoof looked at his wing, seeing the splint and bandages wound around it. The pain has subsided slightly, still burning and throbbing every few seconds. It was at least tolerable now.
“What happened to my wing?” he asked, wincing as he gingerly touched it.
“It’s broken. Just take it easy,” the Unicorn said, smiling gently at his wounded friend, “Oh, I think this belongs to you.”
Shining Armor’s horn lit up as he levitated a small, beaten book out of his saddlebags. The book came to rest on Fleethoof’s stomach. He picked it up, smiling a little.
“It was the only thing of value I saw when I watched your bags fall,” Shining Armor remarked.
“Alaric…” the Pegasus mumbled.
“Don’t worry about him. It wasn't our objective to kill him. He’s gone now, and he can’t do anything anymore,” Shining Armor stated, “It’s over, buddy. The war’s over. We’re going home now.”
The ponies were walking along the beach now, heading for the multitude of longboats. Several had already made their way across to the ships, transporting ponies out trip by trip. The griffon captives stood in a cluster off to the side. Several soldiers stood around them, keeping guard. There were more than Fleethoof had expected. Even the griffons didn't want to fight any longer.
“What’s all this?” the voice of Captain Cuirass called out. Fleethoof saw the Captain circling the group of prisoners.
“Prisoners, sir. They surrendered,” one of the soldiers reported.
“I wasn’t aware we were taking prisoners,” Cuirass said, “Were you, soldier?”
“No, sir. This order was passed around. Any griffon who surrenders is to be spared.”
Cuirass nodded slowly, looking out over the griffons. “Everypony into the boats. Then we’ll set sail.”
“Sir,” the soldier interjected, “What are we doing with the survivors?”
Captain Cuirass paused, looking at the griffons once more, then back to the soldiers.
“I don’t see any survivors.”
Fleethoof’s attention was caught, his eyes narrowing in concern. He sat up a bit, watching the scene. The soldiers seemed just as startled as he was.
“Sir?” one of them questioned.
“I said I don’t see any survivors,” Cuirass repeated, his tone cold and harsh, “Do you, Corporal?”
The soldier hesitated, staring at his officer. He looked out at the terrified griffons. Fleethoof watched in alarm. Even Shining Armor had turned to stare.
“Corporal, I asked you a question. Do you see any survivors?”
The soldier looked positively terrified. Cuirass’ hoof rested on his sidearm intimidatingly, eyes burning into the younger soldier’s.
“Not if you don’t, sir,” he answered after a moment, his voice low and defeated.
“Good,” Cuirass replied, drawing his pistol.
Fleethoof watched in horror as the soldiers lined up, loading their rifles and taking aim. The griffons had just begun to plead and protest when the ponies opened fire, Captain Cuirass taking the shot that started the slaughter. The Pegasus’ mouth dropped open, eyes wide as he watched the griffons fall rapidly, screaming and crying as they died. It took a full minute of fire before they were all dead.
Captain Cuirass holstered his weapon, and then made his way into a longboat as it shoved off from the shore. Shining Armor turned to look at Fleethoof, his expression filled with the same dread he felt. The stretcher rocked slightly as the ponies loaded the Sergeant into a longboat, his Unicorn friend sitting down beside him. Neither of them said a word as they made their way back to the ships.
Once every last pony had been loaded onto the ships, they began to sail back towards Equestria, leaving the Griffon Kingdom far behind. Fleethoof slowly walked across the deck of the ship, trying to work his strength back up. Shining Armor walked alongside him, ready to catch his friend every time he stumbled. Captain Cuirass stood at the helm, overseeing the transport back home.
“Captain,” Fleethoof called out bitterly, approaching the pony through the crowd of soldiers on deck, “What the hay was that on the beach?”
“What, you mean securing the safety of Equestria?” he asked innocently.
“You killed dozens of unarmed prisoners,” Fleethoof accused, his voice rising in anger.
“They were enemy soldiers. They were too dangerous to be left alive,” rebuked the Captain.
“They were innocent griffons caught in a hopeless battle, forced to fight against their will by a tyrant.”
“That was me protecting Equestria’s future.”
“That was genocide!” shouted Fleethoof, eyes burning with anger.
Captain Cuirass scoffed and shook his head. “This is why I told Celestia not to trust you. You’re too weak, Sergeant. Too soft. You’re not fit to lead. I don’t know what that Princess on the train did to buck you up so bad, but you’re no soldier.”
Fleethoof reached around, grabbing Shining Armor’s pistol and drawing it on the Captain. Several soldiers took steps back, grabbing their weapons and watching the situation unfold. Cuirass cast a sideways glance at the Sergeant, chuckling, eventually evolving into a laugh. It chilled the Pegasus to the core.
“What? Are you going to shoot a Captain? Your officer?” Cuirass asked snidely, “Go ahead, do it. See how that plays out. See what happens.”
"Soldiers, place the Captain in custody," Shining Armor ordered, seeing the blinding anger in his friend. Nopony moved, but a couple did lower their weapons obediently, and then took a couple steps forward.
"Stand down, stallions, or I'll have you all court marshaled with the Sergeants!" Cuirass snapped, freezing the confused soldiers where they stood.
"I have command over these ponies, Cuirass, not you," Fleethoof seethed, his aim unwavering, "You have no authority."
Cuirass laughed again and motioned around. "Look around you, Sergeant Fleethoof! This isn't your little force of recruits anymore. This is the body of the Army! I still have my authority here - and I still outrank you. So unless you want to be the one going to prison, drop your weapon now."
"Soldiers!" Shining Armor ordered, and guns were raised again.
Across the deck, the Army still loyal to Cuirass' authority raised their weapons to the reinforcement troops, looks of shock and bewilderment in their eyes. They had no idea what was going on. As much as Fleethoof resented the idea, Cuirass was right. Celestia had put him in charge of the reinforcements and rescue operation. The operation was complete, and these weren't his soldiers.
Hoof gripping the gun tightly, Fleethoof snorted once, breathing heavily while anger filled his heart. He trained the sights on the murderous pony’s head and cocked the hammer. It would be quick. Justice would be done, and the griffons’ murders would be righteously avenged.
But it wouldn’t be right. Not by his code.
Slowly, Fleethoof lowered the gun, exhaling hard. He handed the gun back to Shining Armor, deep blue eyes still smoldering with rage. He couldn't act without starting a fight on the ship, and he wasn't about to be responsible for a civil conflict. The confused soldiers around him looked between one another, and lowered their guard as well. Cuirass chuckled and shook his head.
“Brave enough to draw a gun on your superior, but no balls to carry through with it,” the Captain muttered, “You disappoint me, Sergeant. Get out of my sight.”
Fleethoof snorted again, slowly stumbling back down to the deck below. One way or another, he would make sure Cuirass paid for his crime…
Thunderous applause and screamed cheers welcomed the weary soldiers into the Fillydelphia Harbor. The ships had just moored to the docks, and hundreds of soldiers made their way on deck to wave back to the ponies below. Confetti and flower petals flew through the air. Signs and banners honored the returning troops as heroes. Civilians flooded the streets and wharf, trying to get glimpses of friends and family members. The Royal Guard had cleared a path for the troops, saluting every pony that walked by.
Fleethoof slowly made his way across the crowded deck, Shining Armor at his side. The recognition had made him uncomfortable before, but now, as he watched so many homeward bound ponies stepping back into Equestria with him, he felt peacefully content. Their job had been done, and now they could enjoy their recompense. Taking that first step off the gangplank and onto the dock felt relieving. He was home again.
The pony smiled and breathed a heavy sigh. Now he felt the accomplishment. Now he felt proud. Now he felt like a hero.
Across the sea of ponies, Fleethoof saw several break from the line, embracing and kissing loved ones in the crowd. Tears ran down their tired, dusty faces, the relief and joy of being home hitting hard. It made the Sergeant smile happily. Everypony had more than proved their merit, and they deserved this.
The homecoming parade ran through the city streets, following a familiar path to the train station. Ponies crowded the sidewalks, and all carts and carriages had been pulled to the sides of the road to permit passage to the soldiers. The show of love and admiration they were receiving was enough to make Fleethoof tear up a little, moisture blurring his vision momentarily till he blinked it back.
But not everypony was happy with the return of the soldiers. A small group of ponies stood on a street corner, booing the troops as they marched by. Signs they held berated their actions. Words of murder, genocide, and warmongers scrawled across them, accusing them of an unjust war. Fleethoof paid the protestors no attention.
Entering the train station felt like a dream. Fleethoof looked around at the familiar surroundings, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells. So this was what victory felt like. Fleethoof felt light as a feather, like he was walking on air. All the stress of war seemed to slowly melt away, even if just for the moment. Temporary or permanent, he felt like a champion.
In the station, warrant officers divided the line of soldiers depending on their companies. Papers were handed out to each soldier as they passed and boarded their respective trains to a destination of their choice. Fleethoof was next in line, the officer approaching him and glancing up at the Pegasus.
“Name and rank?”
“Sergeant Fleethoof,” he replied.
The officer rifled through his saddlebags for a moment, searching through the documents. After a few moments, he pulled out a scroll and handed it to the Pegasus, nodding to him.
“Welcome home, soldier,” he said, then proceeded to the next pony in line.
Fleethoof smiled in return, then boarded the nearest train to Canterlot. The train car was full of hooting and cheering ponies, celebrating their victory. A bottle of cider was popped open somewhere in the car, and everypony shouted in joy. The Pegasus grinned, his spirits lifted just from the mood alone. Taking a seat, he slowly broke the binding of the scroll and opened it up.
Official Discharge Order for:
Sergeant Fleethoof, 3rd Company
For service and duty in:
The Griffon War
Thank you for your service, patriot.
By royal order of her Majesty, Princess Celestia, and her Majesty, Princess Luna.
~ Princess Celestia
~ Princess Luna
Fleethoof smiled and rolled the discharge papers back up, clutching them tightly in his hooves. The train whistle blew, and the locomotive began its departure away from the station. He watched as other trains left as well, fellow soldiers waiting in lines for the next ones. Ponies surrounded the railroad, waving and seeing the troops off, back to their homes.
Letting out a deep sigh, Fleethoof reached back into a satchel he’d snagged from the ship and pulled out his journal. He stared down at the book for a long while, chuckling under his breath as he mused over its contents. It symbolized everything about the war to him. Now it had served its purpose. Opening up to the next blank page, he realized there were only two pages left to fill.
‘So close…’ he thought humorously to himself as he began to write his final entry.
It’s finally over.
Princess Celestia leisurely closed the cover on the weathered journal, each page delicately falling into place as it shut. She took a deep breath, and let it slowly out. She hadn’t been prepared for the emotional ride this simple book had taken her on. The rain outside had all but slowed to a stop, the soft pitter-patter of water against glass almost soothing to the nerves. A quick glance at the longcase clock up against the wall showed just how early in the morning it was. She had been up nearly all night, and tomorrow was an important day.
Turning back to the cluttered desk, Celestia gently rested her hoof on the fragile book. Her horn lit up as she hastily gathered up the papers, maps, and books on the table together, lifting the journal up lastly and carrying it with her out of the library. The dark corridors of the castle were silent and empty. It added to the somber mood her studies had left her with. It was so hard to believe the war had only ended a little over a week ago. Even though it had been a decisive victory for Equestria, many ponies had lost their lives and loved ones across the sea – and each one lost was devastating to the Alicorn. She was just thankful the war was finally over.
Celestia stepped into her bedchambers. Even a few hours of sleep would do her good. She had been losing sleep for too long over the stress, and though the war itself was over, the fallout was still a lingering issue. The protestors continued to try to demonize her for the conflict, but their cries fell on deaf ears. Everypony was just happy to have their loved ones home, and to be able to reconcile and move on. The Princess had protected Equestria, after all.
Slipping under the covers, Celestia set the journal on a nightstand, and let her eyes close. The feeling of peaceful relaxation took her, a sensation she was much grateful to have back again. She needed her rest. Tomorrow was a very important day.
Birds chirped outside the open windows while Celestia strolled down the hallways of Canterlot Castle. Her horn glowed with golden light, levitating the journal alongside her as she walked briskly through the morning light. Though all the doors and halls looked vaguely similar, memory and practice taught her hooves where to go, and she knew where she was headed. Rounding a corner, she came to stop and knocked on a door.
A moment passed before she heard the latch on the other side open, and the door swung inward. The red Pegasus pony she had been looking for stood in the doorway, looking in surprise at the Alicorn. His goldenrod mane was tousled and unkempt from sleep. Fleethoof clearly hadn’t been expecting her.
“Your majesty,” Fleethoof greeted her, running a hoof through his mane and recomposing himself, “What a surprise! I wasn’t expecting you to come to me.”
“I just wanted to bring your journal back to you, Fleethoof, and let you know that Captain Cuirass has been dishonorably discharged from the Royal Guard,” Celestia replied, placing the journal in his hooves, “Your report and the testimonies from your fellow soldiers was all the evidence we needed of his atrocities.”
“I’m glad I could bring some justice to the griffons,” Fleethoof said slowly, “Enemies or not, they didn’t deserve that. I’m ashamed of what he did.”
“Humility for others’ faults isn’t very becoming of you, Sergeant,” Celestia remarked teasingly, a soft smile touching her lips, “We’ve also had to remove a number of soldiers from service. We received reports of one particular unit killing civilians without discrimination during the Asgard assault.”
Fleethoof’s stomach churned. Civilians killed on purpose. The thought left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Good…” he muttered, mostly to himself, "I heard about what has been going on in the Griffon Kingdom..."
Celestia's eyes lowered for a brief moment. "Yes, I was afraid the few remaining griffons would revolt against their new leader."
"The country has been all but dissolved, your majesty," Fleethoof pointed out, "The griffons have fallen apart. There's no hope for their recovery now."
"I understand that," she replied simply.
Fleethoof hesitated before adding, "I feel I am to blame for this. My actions played a part in bringing a nation down. I helped cause this."
"Nopony could have foreseen the extents the war would go, Fleethoof," Celestia explained in a comforting voice, "Do not blame yourself for matters out of your hooves."
He didn't reply, simply nodding to acknowledge he had heard her. “Thank you for returning my journal, your majesty. I suppose I’ll see you in an a few hours then.”
“Fleethoof,” the Alicorn interjected as he began to disappear back into his room again, “I was hoping I could ask a… favor of you. If it’s not too much to ask, could I hold on to your journal? I’d like to archive it in the Canterlot Royal Library, for anypony to read.”
The Pegasus stopped and stared for a moment, shock painting his face. “Anypony to read? Forever?”
“Forever,” she answered with a nod.
Fleethoof was silent, fumbling with the journal in his hooves for a moment. He glanced down at the tattered, sentimental little book. His heart and soul had been poured into those pages. They had helped him get through the war. Cadence had used them as his medicine. It had helped him… but maybe now it could help somepony else in the future. The war was over – it was time to let go.
“Alright,” he agreed with a small smile, then added, “Just give me one minute.”
He turned on his hooves and rushed over to the desk in his room, setting the book down and flipping open the back cover to the last blank page. He grabbed the quill from the inkwell and began to fill the final page with words. His mind raced as he wrote, the corners of his mouth curling upward in a satisfied grin. Celestia watched from the door as he completed his journal, finishing the last entry with a quick, practiced flourish of his hoof – his signature.
“Here, keep it safe,” Fleethoof said, handing the book back to the Princess, “Maybe it can give somepony the same guidance and solace it gave me.”
Princess Celestia gently took the book with her magic, bowing her head thankfully to the Pegasus.
“Thank you, Fleethoof. I’ll see you shortly at the ceremony then.”
“Farewell, Princess,” Fleethoof called back as he shut the door, leaning back against the wooden frame. He felt released, like the last string tethering him to the past had finally broken. With a sigh, the pony smiled, and laughed.
Trumpets sounded as a gathering of ponies stood around the throne room of Canterlot Castle. The three Princesses sat at the far end, surveying the cordial decoration that stood to the ceremony. Flower garlands hung overhead, and Guards stood at attention of either side of the long, red carpet running the length of the room. All the ponies that had shown up were dressed to the nines, fitted to honor their heroes.
Celestia glanced to her sister at her side, Luna returning her look with a happy smile. Celestia felt the same pride she had shown, looking back to the doors across the expanse. Beside her, Princess Cadence held a small wooden case lined with velvet. Three medals and three insignias lay inside.
The trumpets sounded again, and from outside the room, Fleethoof shifted nervously on his hooves. He tried to straighten the collar on his ceremonial uniform, struggling against the suit. He suddenly felt the stiff collar move on its own, glancing down and seeing a veil of magenta magic surrounding it, setting it back into place for him. He glanced over at Shining Armor, a knowing smirk on his face.
“Thanks,” he murmured, smiling sheepishly.
Both ponies stood just outside the doors, dressed in their dark green suits. Sashes bearing their Cutie Marks had been custom made for the occasion. Fleethoof took a deep breath to steady himself. Shining Armor looked over at him again.
“Nervous much?” he asked jokingly.
“I don’t see how you’re not,” Fleethoof retorted, “This is the biggest moment of my life.”
“Yeah… Meeting the Princesses, getting honored and decorated, facing ponies from across Equestria applauding us, I don’t know how I’ll survive,” Shining Armor said sarcastically, still smiling from ear to ear, “Do you think they’ll put us in charge of a company now?”
“I sure hope not…” muttered the Pegasus, shivering at the thought.
Shining gave his friend a confused look. “Don’t like being in command?”
“Not of a lot of ponies. Too much responsibility.”
“I had to deal with it at Asgard,” stated Shining, shrugging a little, “It isn’t so bad when you get used to it.”
“I’ll take a small squad of excellent ponies over an army any day,” Fleethoof replied.
There was silence between the two again for a moment as Celestia’s opening speech began in the adjacent room. Fleethoof took another deep breath, feeling the anxiety and nervous energy building up in him.
“I’m glad you’re the one here with me, Shining,” Fleethoof said after a moment, catching the Unicorn’s attention, “I read the reports. You really deserve this.”
“I’m glad you’re here too, Fleet,” Shining said in return.
The trumpets began to play again, and then the Royal Guards began to push the door open.
“Here we go,” Shining Armor said, smiling at the Pegasus beside him, “Got my back?”
Fleethoof smirked back at his friend and brother in arms. “Always.”
In unison, the two ponies started their trek down the long red carpet. Ponies on either side of the room turned to look at them, all smiles and bright eyes. The applause came gradually, building the further into the room they got. Guards on either side of the carpet saluted the ponies as they walked by. Ahead of them, Celestia and Luna smiled proudly, and Cadence’s eyes lit up. Shining Armor’s smile grew wider when he saw Cadence.
Both ponies stepped up to the Princesses and stood at attention. Celestia looked between the two for a moment before addressing the audience.
“Fillies and gentlecolts,” she began, “Today we honor two brave heroes. Everypony who served in the Griffon War showed true bravery, but these two ponies before us showed exceptional honor, duty, and valor.”
“Sergeant Fleethoof,” Celestia said, turning to the Pegasus, “For putting the greater needs of Equestria, and even your fellow soldiers, above yourself, and for the valiant acts at Midgard, Asgard, and Skyfall, I hereby promote you to the rank of Captain. And for risking your life to return Princess Cadence safely to Equestria, I present you with the Medal of Honor.”
The Alicorn’s horn lit up as she lifted one of the silver medals from the case Cadence was holding. She carefully draped the ribbon around Fleethoof’s neck and pinned an insignia to his lapel, the Pegasus glancing down at the medal resting on his chest. Smiling happily, he saluted the Princess, dropping it at her nod.
“Sergeant Shining Armor,” she continued, turning to the Unicorn next, “For your upstanding dedication to your soldiers, and for your incredible actions in Asgard, I hereby promote you to the rank of Captain, and bestow the Medal of Honor to you.”
Fleethoof watched as a second silver medal and insignia levitated out of the case, finding its home around Shining Armor’s neck. Everypony behind them applauded loudly. The two newly promoted officers exchanged a quick smile, excitement shining in their eyes.
“Shining Armor, without your efforts at Asgard, Alaric would still pose a grave threat to Equestria, and the war would not have ended so quickly,” Celestia continued after a few moments, “You took command of your soldiers when no other officer was present, and you led the Army to a swift victory. For your courage and talent, with your consent, I would like to appoint you Captain of the Guard.”
Shining Armor’s eyes were wide; his mouth hung slightly agape in surprise. Fleethoof breathed a silent sigh of relief, thankful he wouldn’t be put in such a position of command, and proud of his friend beyond words.
“Yes, of course, your majesty! I gratefully accept,” Shining replied, his smile reflecting his joy.
“Congratulations, Shining Armor, Captain of the Guard!” Celestia decreed, levitating a gold medal from the case and draping it around the Unicorn’s neck with the other, then placing the last insignia pin on the lapel of his uniform.
Again, applause nearly shook the hall as both ponies turned around, presenting themselves to the crowd. Shining Armor was still looking down at his commendations in disbelief. Fleethoof smirked and nudged him gently, getting him to look up as photographers snapped photos of the two new commanders. Fleethoof smiled and waved, spotting his parents amidst the crowd and giving an exaggerated wave.
“Fillies and gentlecolts, Captain Fleethoof, and Captain of the Guard Shining Armor.”
The ceremony coming to a close, Shining Armor and Fleethoof embraced one another tightly, and then made their way back down to the rest of the ponies, fanfare honoring the officers. The two separated, joining their respective families as reporters clambered around to try and get interviews. From the elevated thrones, Luna leaned closer to her sister.
“I want him, sister,” she uttered in a hushed tone, “You claimed Shining Armor for your Captain of the Guard.”
“Luna, we discussed this,” Celestia said in a tired tone.
“It will be beneficial to everypony, sister. We could prevent so much more future disaster,” Luna rebuked eagerly.
“We don’t even know if there will be any future crisis we need the military for.”
“You didn’t anticipate a war with the griffons either. Was this not eye-opening enough? “ Luna argued, “’Tis better to be safe than sorry, sister. I will take full authority for this. It is my plan, after all.”
Celestia didn’t say anything for a moment, her eyes dark as she pondered the matter.
“Very well, Luna – if this is truly what you wish, you may run your experiment,” she reluctantly agreed, “Just be careful. These are ponies’ lives. You are not playing a game.”
“Trust me, dear sister,” Luna said, and then stepped down to the floor.
Celestia watched as Cadence stepped down as well, rushing over and embracing Shining Armor. Fleethoof and his family had already made their way for the door, Luna following shortly behind. Only once they were out in the corridor did she finally catch up.
“Excuse me, sir Captain,” Luna called out, catching Fleethoof’s attention, “A moment of your time?”
Fleethoof excused himself from his parents’ presence, and approached the Princess of the night.
“Yes, your majesty, what is it?”
“Firstly, permit me to congratulate you on your promotion,” she said with a smile, “Do you have any plans to continue your service with the Royal Guard?”
“Not particularly…” Fleethoof muttered after a long pause, “I love serving and protecting Equestria, but… I saw so many horrible things in the Army. I don’t think I could lead a company of ponies, knowing so many lives were my responsibility. I can’t handle that. I feel bad when one pony gets hurt in my squad, but… I can’t imagine that on a large scale.”
Unbeknownst to her, Luna’s smile began to grow wider with each word the Captain said. He was playing right into her plan.
“And does the position in my Royal Guard not interest you?” she inquired.
Fleethoof chuckled a little. “Not quite enough service for my taste, sorry. Your majesty, you just said ‘my’ and ‘you’.”
“Yes, it seems you were correct about my dialect. My sister has been most informative. I may speak normally to my soldiers,” she replied, clearly less interested in her own speaking habits.
“I think you can speak that way to anypony, your majesty.”
“Please, do not attempt to further confuse us… I mean, me,” Luna interjected, “Besides, Captain, I have another offer for you.”
The Pegasus’ head cocked to one side. “What sort of offer?”
“You have demonstrated immense military and tactical prowess and talent. You have rightly earned your rank, and you wish to serve, but as a soldier, not an officer commanding an army,” Luna surmised, the Captain’s eyes lighting up as she summed him up entirely, “I have been putting together a unit specialized for special operations not meant for an army. Only a few ponies strong but made of the best in Equestria.”
“And you want me to be a part of this team?” Fleethoof guessed.
“No, Captain Fleethoof. I want you to lead it.”
“You want what?” he asked, “You want me to lead a team of only a few ponies on special missions… doing what, exactly?”
“Anything - anything that can prevent another war like this from erupting,” explained the Alicorn, “I believe if a few ponies can keep a cataclysm at bay by unconventional methods, it is better to utilize them than prepare the army for war.”
“Princess, with all due respect, what you’re asking of me is highly irregular.”
“Captain, everything these past few months have been highly irregular. The only way to fight strange is with strange. I prefer to have a few ponies I know can accomplish a task quickly and efficiently than risk the lives of hundreds.”
Fleethoof was silent, and then chuckled again. That was definitely something he could relate to. He shook his head slowly.
“How many ponies in the team?” he asked.
“No more than six. A small squad, like you’ve used before, as I’ve read,” Luna answered, “You could be in command of an elite force, like you enjoy. You can be an officer without acting as an officer.”
“How would the rest of the military know about this?” the Pegasus continued, lowering his tone so as not to attract any attention.
“They won’t. Everything this team does will be highly confidential, only available to my sister and I. You’ll only receive your orders directly from us. You’ll be given your own unique equipment tailored to your sets of missions. You’d be fighting a war before a war begins.”
“Princess Luna, this doesn’t sound like something your sister would approve of.”
“My sister has put me in charge of military oversight,” explained Luna with a pleased smile, “I had a lot of time to study on the subjects, and she doesn’t enjoy getting her hooves deeply involved in these matters. I planned this down to the finest detail, I decided this would be beneficial for Equestria, and I want you to be a part of it, Captain.”
Another long moment of silence fell over Fleethoof. He stared at the wall for a while, mulling the proposal over in his head. He laughed softly and shook his head, turning and beginning to walk back to his family.
“You could spare hundreds of ponies from fighting needlessly,” Luna called out to him, “You could save their lives right now. Spare them the trauma you endured. Princess Cadence opened your eyes to this, correct?”
Fleethoof froze in mid-stride. The Princess’ words had hit a nerve, his feathers rustling. He turned back around, locking gazes with her as he made his way back.
“How many positions are filled?” he asked.
“Three, four if you accept.”
“I want to make one thing very clear first. I am not doing this to be cool, or to be better than anypony, or play hero, or to abandon the ponies in the Guard and Army. I’m doing this to help them, and Equestria,” the Captain stated sternly, “And I want to pick the last two members of the team.”
Luna nodded. “Very well, Captain. I can agree to those terms, provided the ponies pass the entry test.”
“What is the name of this team?” asked Fleethoof.
“I named it after the first true special operations mission Equestria has ever ordered, and the first battle of the Griffon War,” the Princess answered, “Fireteam Skyfall.”
The name sent chills down Fleethoof’s spine. For whatever reason, he loved it. It fit perfectly. It was also his debut battle; his induction into warfare. He nodded slowly, looking the Alicorn in the eye again.
“Very well, Princess Luna. I accept your offer.”
Luna smiled widely. “Most glorious decision! Go, be with your family. Tomorrow come see me, and we will discuss everything in greater detail. Tell me, do you have an idea of who you want in the outfit?”
“I do, your majesty,” Fleethoof replied, “And I’d like them both promoted for their excellent service.”
“It shall be done, Captain Fleethoof. Congratulations again.”
Princess Luna turned and left, leaving Fleethoof to his family. He smiled slightly, a comfort and pride settling over him. He was going to be much more in his element now he was commanding a small, specialized team instead of a massive force. Walking out of Canterlot Castle with his parents gushing over his achievements and safe return, Fleethoof began to feel normalcy return to his life. He'd be able to return to the ordinary, the everyday humdrum of life: coffee at the cafe, daily mail, and catching up with old friends.
Looking out across the city of Canterlot, and Equestria beyond that, he drew in a deep breath.
He was home.
Later that evening, Princess Celestia stepped into the quiet, empty library. The entire building had been so silent since Twilight had left. Nostalgia touched the Alicorn as she trotted over to the Military History and Warfare section of the library annex. In her magic’s hold, she held Fleethoof’s journal. At the end of each bookshelf sat a glass case reserved for special or archaic books of related subject. The Warfare case was expectedly empty.
Lifting the lid, Celestia gently placed the book into its eternal home. Just as she was about to close the case, she paused – and then opened the book to the last page. Her eyes swiftly read Fleethoof’s last entry, a smile slowly forming on her lips and her heart warming. She set the book down again, and shut the lid, closing the final door on the war and making her way back out of the library.
To my dear reader,
If you have reached this entry, it can mean one of two things: you are greatly into military history, or you are a soldier – troubled or new – looking for something to relate to. You found the journal of a former soldier, and hoped this would hold the answers you sought. I hope to Celestia it did.
There is nothing I can tell you that will ever make anything you will endure or have endured any easier. War is a terrible ordeal. I have watched many of my friends die, and I have taken the lives of countless others. Nopony is meant to bear witness to the horrors combat unfolds to your eyes. As soldiers, it is a great burden on our minds and souls. We suffer so greatly, often for reasons we don’t even fully understand.
So why do we do it? For the longest time, I didn’t understand. Now I do.
We do it because we love something. We love Equestria. We love the ponies we fight for. We love our brothers and sisters in arms. Those things are worth protecting – they are worth fighting and dying for. We fall, broken, so others won’t. It is a sacrifice we make to save others. Something will always want to take what is ours, and it is our job to stop them at any cost. It will never be easy, but it is not impossible.
You’ll be scared, more scared than you’ve ever been before. You’ll feel like you’ve been left alone in the world, and that nopony understands. I felt this way before. Always know that somepony in the world cares for you, and you are never alone, not with your brothers and sisters looking out for you. A wise pony once told me, your fellow soldiers are the only ones looking out for you. They are your greatest support and lifeline. Rely on them, and let them rely on you, and you will never be alone – and you will never fall.
And if you ever feel lost and damaged, sometimes all you need is a kind word from somepony who cares for you. Friends are the greatest weapons against fear that you can ever have.
I pray that with my efforts, and the efforts of every soldier in Equestria, that you will never have to go to war, reader. I pray that you will never have to endure the fear, the pain, and the sorrow. I pray that you know the value of life, and live each day to its fullest. You are more loved and luckier than you know.
Good luck, reader, in all your endeavors. Never lose yourself.
-- Captain Fleethoof
Thank you for reading my story. I would like to extend a personal thank you to everyone who commented, liked, and/or favorited my work, especially to the ones who gave me feedback as I was going along. You all have been a huge support. I would also like to extend personal thanks to Silverstein and Treilacl, for their continued reviews and edits from start to finish, and to SilverTongue123 for helping spread my work.
I hope the story was to everyone’s liking! This was the first fanfiction I have written in a long while, and after my extended hiatus, it felt good to return to writing. All the views have been so inspiring, and all of you in the community are a wonderful bunch. I purposely left the end open for a sequel, planning to continue if I saw a demand for more. If you have an opinion, I would love to hear it.
If you have any comments, criticisms, or just something you’d like to tell me, I encourage you to leave me a message here or in my inbox. I love feedback almost as much as I love all my readers.
Thank you, everyone,
-- Dusk Quill