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Two thousand calories per day.
Thirty two bunkmates left.
Fifty seven usages of the word “shit”, eighty percent of which were muttered by the trainees.
Clockwork groaned as he rubbed away the faint headache that had pestered him for the past hour. It had been three weeks since his entry into camp. Four more recruits had been kicked out officially because of “physical inadequacy”, but Sergeant Brass Hoof’s reason was much more direct. And louder.
“They were fucking PATHETIC excuses for trainees and they would’ve been dead the moment they laid eyes upon a griffon! The rest of you gonna meet the same fate?!”
“SIR NO SIR!”
The pegasus looked down at the now familiar thing he had been forced to eat for the past three weeks. It was a healthy mixture of vegetable soup, lightly salted crackers, and a alleged milkshake made of a blend of several different fruits. All together, it contained the nutritional value of a Hearth’s Warming Eve dinner, two thousand calories with none of the taste. He laughed when he recalled his reaction to the fact that the military did not feed their recruits the remains of wash outs. Just their clothes.
The stallion ate his meal in silence, as all the recruits were trained to do so. He was surrounded on all sides by more than a hundred ponies, all of which were silent, sitting up straight, and dressed in matching uniforms. Furthermore, everypony at camp looked a bit leaner, more well toned. Clockwork was no exception. He could run farther, carry more weight, and his eye-hoof coordination had improved beyond his already exceptional levels.
Pity it was all for nothing, he thought, as he did not plan on becoming a soldier.
That mindset was a heavy contrast to Charger’s. The mare sitting next to Clockwork didn’t seem to have changed much since her entry into Camp Currahoof, but that was all phenotypically. Under those blue eyes and vibrant coat, Charger was an improved mare. The pegasus gulped, even if she seemed a bit scary to the other recruits, she had only become more attractive to him. She looked amazing with a short mane, even better when it was wet. He had always been a sucker for wet manes, and eyes. Especially eyes.
Clockwork suddenly realised that he was ogling her and stopped. “Hey Charger?”
The mare looked up from her own bowl. She was smiling, something she hadn’t done in a while. She was really stunning when she smiled. “Yes?”
Clockwork blushed. “We uhh. . we make a good team. Right?’ he asked.
The mare nodded. “Of course. What would make you suggest otherwise?”
“Well. . .” Clockwork rubbed the back of his neck. “I dunno why I asked. Would it be alright if, I mean, after we graduated, we could maybe-”
“All shit-for-brains on your hooves!” a familiar voice yelled out.
Thirty two bunkmates stood as one.
“YES SIR!” they shouted as one voice before making their way to the courtyard specifically designated for exercise. Despite their relatively short stay at Currahoof, the crew knew full well that “get sweating” was Sergeant Brass Hoof’s own way of saying “go exercise until further orders.” It was all routine now, push ups, sit ups, speed runs, and jump training. It didn’t take long before their Superior Officer arrived.
“Now that y'all slugs have worked up a nice sweat, get over to the range. We’ve got a special day ahead of us!”
Everypony hesitated for a few seconds. Firearms training wasn’t until after Currahoof and the obstacle course.
“Did I stutter?! MARCH!”
They didn’t need to be reminded again, immediately falling in line. There were still a few kinks here and there, but everypony was getting better. With an untempered rhythmic stomping of hooves, the trainees marched to the firing range. It was on the other side of camp, far away from where any misfired shot could harm somepony. However, given all of the leg torture they’d experienced in the past several days, it might as well had had been a lap around the pool. They found their way to the front door and awaited orders. They had learned early on not to go anywhere unless it was with the superior officer’s word.
“Everypony inside. I’m feelin’ a little merciful today, so once you’re all sat down at your respective work stations, I’ll grab the guns. Sound good?”
“Yes and thank you sir!” the crew shouted. They made their way inside, sat down, and waited. And waited. And waited.
Clockwork took advantage of the unexpected free time and looked around. Nothing was different from the last few days, sans the absence of a rifle on the table in front of him. Recruits in other rooms were separated by magically enhanced, bullet-resistant glass. On either side of the room, trainees were busy fiddling with their weapons. Slowly disassembling and reassembling, frantically looking for a missing piece, all of which were done with dull looks. Sure, it was a menial task to field strip, account for, clean, and put back every single piece the same way you found it, but couldn’t they just appreciate the break from rigor for a second?
While Clockwork hated what rifles, revolvers, and all other manner of firearms were designed for, he had to appreciate the mechanics of the things. Springs, cogs, and levers designed to withstand the worst that Equestria had to offer, but all so intricately placed to create an overarching mechanism designed to deliver a small lead projectile with deadly force. What the hay were the dogs thinking when they invented gunpowder, anyway?
“Alright you uneducated PLEBES!” Brass Hoof shouted as he entered the room, a cart containing thirty two rifles, all colored the same dull brown like always, trailing behind him. He threw one at the recruit in the far back of the room and continued to make his way up the line. “I’ve got your weapons. You all know what to do! Disassemble, clean, reassemble, and test! YOU ALL GOT THAT?!”
For the faintest of moments, Clockwork thought he saw the workhorse actually smile in a positive manner. The veteran finished passing out the weapons, unhinged himself from the now empty cart, and spun around. He held a stopwatch in one hoof. “Well then GET TO IT!”
Without a word, the cadets set to work. Clockwork looked the weapon over and determined in was an E-1 Grand semi-auto. He knew this one a little better than all of the other weapons he had taken apart, which was probably because it was the standard infantry weapon for the Equestrian Military. He wouldn't need this where he was going. With a short sigh, the stallion broke apart the weapon in seconds, then began taking account for and cleaning every piece. He practically had the thing committed to muscle memory, so he let his mind wander a bit.
Basic training didn’t make much sense to him. Why train somepony who so obviously wasn’t going to fight on the front lines how to do just that? He knew how to fight in trenches, ration food, and climb over seemingly impassable rock outcropping without his boots, and knew that, in a pinch, next to every plant was edible. In hindsight, a lot of what was expected of the basic troops could be found in the average goat: low intellect, high stamina, and the willingness to be directed by someone who’s taller than yourself, all of which were traits he really didn’t have. He still did not yet know how to take apart the engine used to power airship propellers nor understand the inner workings of a holograms generator. Sure, those were tall orders and this was Basic Training, but couldn’t the military give him at least an inkling of knowledge that he would use in his future career?
“Done, Drill Sergeant!” Clockwork shouted, eyes straight ahead. A chill ran up his spine when he remembered, again, that his special talent for machines extended all the way down to include those designed to kill. Then again, that chill may have just been a reaction to Brass Hoof yelling in his ear.
“CRIPPLE! WHY DID YOU COMPLETE MY ORDERS SO FAST?!”
“Because you like orders to be completed quickly and without any problems, Drill Sergeant,” Clockwork replied, sparing a look at his commanding officer.
The stallion nodded, checked the rifle to make sure it functioned properly, then looked to his pocket watch. His eyes went wide. Clockwork couldn’t tell what emotion that it was filled with, but it was one that had yet to appear on Brass Hoof’s face since the pegasus had entered camp. “BY CELESTIA, COLT! This is a new record! Something tells me you might make it after all, Private Cripple! You will never be a soldier, but you’ve certainly proven yourself in the world of rifle maintenance! PERHAPS I SHALL KEEP YOU AROUND. You may WALK to Currahoof starting NOW!”
Clockwork, saluted, rose from his seat, and made his way out of the building. He was too focused on staying on the Sergeant's good side for the moment to notice the looks of surprise on his fellow trainees' faces. Even Charger's ever stoic expression became tinged with interest.
The stallion made sure to break his form only when he reached the base of Currahoof. Looking back on it, the monolith of earth and stone didn't seem nearly as intimidating as it had been when Clockwork had first jogged it.
He followed Brass Hoof's instructions to the letter, moving no faster than the speed that a brisk walk could provide. He finally had time to focus on the actual topography of the mountain rather than trying to survive the run up and down.
The peace was eerie, but it was a much needed break from the turmoil of training. Clockwork took a deep breath, noting the almost ice cold freshness of the pine. Such a phenomena was almost impossible to detect when one's olfactory sensors were drenched with the musk of sweating pony. The other, perhaps most noticeable difference was the near silence. It was almost uncomfortably quiet without the constant stomp stomp stomp of sixty-four pairs of hooves on packed dirt.
The stallion was wrenched from his thoughts by a voice. It was not harshly exclaimed; it sounded more like somepony with a rather deep voice was speaking into a megaphone, only much clearer.
"Excuse me! Are one of Brass Hoof's troops?"
Clockwork looked to his right and noticed two ponies in the distance. They stood in front of a large chain link gate. Some crates were off to the side, probably foodstuff and cloth.
"Yessir!" he shouted back.
"Then you're needed over here."
Without a word, the pegasus trotted over to the duo. While Clockwork certainly wasn't one to judge, he had to admit that he stood before probably the strangest pair of ponies he had ever seen.
The one that had called Clockwork over was an immediately recognizable, if not startling sight: a “batpony” or, as Clockwork preferred using official titles, a Nocturni. To his slight confusion, rather than a pair of wings, the stallion sported a sharp, slightly curved horn. He was a very dark grey, and his mane as black as night. His eyes were a deep golden yellow, and his pupils were slitted in a similar manner to that of the dragons that guarded said gold. He was clad in the standard armor of the Lunar Royal Guard, though the eye-looking centerpiece was missing. A silver-hued long rifle hung over his shoulder.
Clockwork extended his forehoof. "Its an honor to meet you, umm..."
The night guard returned the hoofshake, adding a warm but toothy smile. "The honor's all mine. The name's Long Shot. I'm the chief long ranged combat specialist for Luna's Royal Guard."
Clockwork withdrew his forehoof and looked to his left. A tan pegasus sporting a dirty blonde mane and aquamarine eyes glanced about the area in fast but short intervals as if he was anxiously waiting for something to arrive. He was wearing a shiny off-grey fedora and vest, making him look extremely out of place. Clockwork noticed that he had a oddly oily smell coming off him, like someone had dunk a glob of wet grass in a vat of petrol.
"I don't mean to sound rude, sir, but-"
Long Shot kept his smile, though his fangs were much more noticeable at this point. "First, don't call me sir. I technically have no rank anyway. Second, ignore my friend," the sniper cut him off. "The only thing you need to know is that his presence is required here."
"Alright then." Clockwork nodded, if only because he knew nothing else he could do. "If I may ask, what are you two doing here?"
"I'll explain when the rest of your group gets here, which should be about now by the looks of it."
Clockwork turned around to find the rest of his bunkmates gradually making their way up the slope. After a while, he was standing among the crowd, watching as Brass Hoof talked to the Nocturni just out of earshot. After a couple of seconds, the Sergeant turned back to and silenced the crowd with a stomp from his prosthetic.
“Alright shitheads, listen up! I know it will be sad to hear these words escape my lips, but I will NOT be training you today. Instead, Commander Long Shot will be in charge of you. Mark my words though, any of you so much as sneeze without his approval, and I’ll have your flanks hanging on my mantlepiece before nightfall. Do you all fathom what I am saying?”
With a nod, the Drill Sergeant continued his jog up Currahoof, making a slight creaking noise as he walked. Before long, he was over the hill and out of sight.
“Sheesh.” Long Shot looked up from inspecting his strange looking rifle. “Looks like he needs some oil in more than a couple of spots, eh?”
The crowd emitted a small collective laugh, one that was silenced when the pegasus besides him waved a hoof in his direction.
“I’m in charge of you today. So listen up. That gate behind me is one of several that allow entrance into this military installation’s combat simulation zone. Both them and the fence connecting them is enchanted with the same paralysis spell I’m sure you’ve all encountered during your mud runs.”
Some of the recruits shuddered, others nodded. Clockwork did both.
“Needless to say, the only way out of there is on a stretcher, but I have an explanation for that.” the soldier hopped off the crate he was sitting on and kicked the lid away. “Everypony grab a gun and three clips.”
The crowd lined up and retrieved the necessary supplies in short order. Clockwork was busy checking over the surprisingly lightweight weapon when Long Shot spoke again. “I’m sure you’ve all realized by now that, due to you all being here, you’re gonna be involved in a combat simulation somehow. You are all correct on that presumption. My partner here will explain the technicalities.”
The tan pegasus at Long Shot’s side stood, cleared his throat, and explained the situation. “It is regrettable that we must train for war at any day, but as my teammate has said time and time again that the Griffons are planning something. I wholeheartedly agree. The weapons you have been provided are sixty-percent of the weight of the military standard E-1 Grand. The ammunition you are to use in this simulation is all enchanted to have only a third of impact force and resulting recoil. No permanent damage shall be sustained unless a round is fired directly into the eye, and anyone who shoots one of their comrades there today will be talked to, with vigor, by a military tribunal. These rounds are enhanced with the same paralysis spell as the fence behind me, meaning that should you take a direct hit to any part of your body, that portion will be rendered immobile. If you are shot in the center of mass, your entire body will be rendered immobile. All the unicorns here today should know that this sort of spell can only fade with time, not with willpower or magic. Do I make myself clear?”
Clockwork was mildly concerned that the brown pony had yet to take a breath.
The pegasus looked towards the ground, then began to draw in the dirt. “The objective of your first simulation is very simple; survive. You will be divided into two equal teams of sixteen soldiers, and everyone shall have a gun, a radio, and three magazines of ammo.”
The pegasus coughed and continued.
"You shall each have a head commander, a secondary, and the rest shall be organized however the commanders wish. From there, you have two methods of mission success. The first is offensive, hunt and kill, eliminate the enemy team before they eliminate you. The secondary method is defensive. Hold off the enemy and survive until time is called. This simulation will last a maximum of five hours. If neither team has been eliminated, the side with the most soldiers shall be declared the winner. Are there any questions?"
Nopony raised their hooves, and it was then that Long Shot spoke. "Alright then. I'll divide up the teams according to Brass Hoof's orders. From there, you are to report to the specific gates I assign you to. We good?"
Clockwork kept his rifle ready as he crept through the forest. He fiddled with the red patch on his fatigues, making sure it was visible to his allies. Unfortunately, that also meant anypony on the enemy team would know his allegiance as well. He was alone, and while that may have seemed like a stupid idea, it was exactly how Charger's plan was supposed to go.
It wasn't much of a surprise when Charger was named commander of Red Team. He was also pleased to find that he was one of ponies on her side. However, what he was really impressed with at the moment was her plan.
The commanders would stay at a fortified "bunker" of sorts, really just a well defendable position, which would be guarded by six soldiers. The other six would be dispatched to patrol the team's borders at random intervals to intercept and eliminate the enemy.
The remaining two soldiers, one of which was Clockwork, were assigned to act as long range scouts. They would report back any enemy activity too large to handle individually and deal with anything they could. With luck, they could lure enemies into traps they had set up.
The stallion had to admit, for a mare whose plans usually ended with her, and often Clockwork, in bandages, this plan was remarkably well thought out for being made up in only a few minutes. The entire thing had gone off without a hitch and nopony had been downed by enemy fire yet.
It wasn't long before Clockwork had dug himself in by a small clearing. No major foliage to block line of sight, some tall nearby trees would make for excellent vantage points, and the-
Clockwork flattened himself to the ground, breathing a quick sigh of relief as he saw the incoming rounds impact the tree in front of him. He waited for a moment then made a mad dash for said tree, narrowly avoiding the last three rounds in his enemy's clip.
Wasting no time, the pegasus raised his weapon and turned around.
"I thought I smelt pollution over this way."
Clockwork straightened out his aim. "I've got everything you have and more, Smokestack."
The brutish, dark grey stallion shrugged, a cocky smile plastered across his muzzle. "I can fly."
"I don't care." Clockwork gritted his teeth, he actually considered aiming for the grunt's head. "You haven't shot me yet, so what do you want?"
"Just wanted to know why a cripple like you would want to go through all the shit that the military is just to get kicked out."
Clockwork pulled the trigger halfway. "You aren't a very smart pony, you know that? I wouldn't be telling a griffon to burn in Tartarus if I had a sword to my throat."
"So shut up!"
Clockwork felt his body begin to go numb, but not as quickly as he had expected. Smokestack's aim was still off, having hit the pegasus in the shoulder rather than the chest. He still had a couple of seconds to take him down.
And so he did.
One of the things he had learned in biology was that most winged creatures have a lot of core muscles in or very close to their chest, most importantly, the one’s that controlled the wings.
Clockwork's last memories of that day were of Smokestack's paralyzed body hitting the floor moments before his, wings stuck outwards and unable to be closed. Clockwork would’ve laughed, his expression was priceless.
At the base of the sharply spired and seaside Dragonspine Mountain Range, in the Southeast portion of the territory Griffon Empire, there is an immense fortress of red stone and white marble set that houses the Red Order, the servants of Carniferous, the god of all griffonkind.
It is called the Red Palace.
Inside the structure are the spoils of centuries of existence; trophies, weapons, and ancient tomes detailing their people’s bloody and glorious history. Just outside the fortress’ grounds is an immense colosseum constructed of the same material as the Red Palace. The arena was neatly packed with griffons, many of which were warriors of the organization housed in the building nearby.
The minute whispers that had enveloped the colosseum like a thick blanket immediately disappeared as the leather-clad beastmaster rose from his seat and raised his talon in a call for silence. No one would speak from this moment until the conclusion of the battle, not even if the exclamation might save the warrior's life.
The battle in question was the last trial in the right of passage that all Acolytes of the Red Order must complete in order to advance to the rank of Templar.
The Acolyte stood in the center of the arena's sandy floor. Like every Acolyte before him, his only weapons were his claws, wits, and the six-inch blade he grasped in his right talon. Like all the Acolytes before him, he wore no armor. Like all Acolytes before him, he was to fight a fully grown monster. What made this Acolyte unnerved was that while most Acolytes in the Order tended to take down a wolf, or even a bear if it was needed, the upcoming war made the upper ranks desire new blood that was already proven by combat, and as such gave the beastmaster free reign over the arena.
The only sound that occupied the arena was the steady clanking of chains as the gate rose into the ceiling. That sound was quickly replaced by a sharp, malicious hissing. The source of the sound soon revealed itself as its dark grey body evacuated the stone-walled cell it had occupied for the past three days without so much as a shred of flesh.
The creature was a basilisk, a demonic serpent that seemed to be a cross between a dragon and a cobra. Twelve feet in length, fangs three inches long, and an acidic saliva that could dissolve one in seconds.
The Acolyte shivered, as did the occupants of the coliseum that were not a part of the Red Order. He whispered a short prayer to Carniferous to lend him her blessing, then launched himself at the creature.
The battle that followed was an intricate, semi-practiced dance of sharp knives, venomous fangs, and twisting figures.
The Acolyte was winning, having made several successful strikes on areas of the great serpent's body that were in constant contact with the sand. This led to the basilisk having to position itself rather awkwardly in order to avoid the abrasive sea of tiny rocks. The Acolyte's plan was working well. The griffon warrior waited for what he believed to be the right moment, leapt for the kill and-!
The Acolyte missed his mark, hitting the sand with all the force that a statue could muster before crumbling to nothing but large chunks of rock. The warrior had failed.
The highest ranking member of the Red Order overseeing the fight, an individual known as the Warfather, was impressed at the crowd's reaction: almost pure silence sans a few nervous murmurs. They had a right to such a worried reaction, for a basilisk of any age had the power to turn its enemies to stone with only a direct stare. The Acolyte, like the three before him that day, must have forgotten that fact during his final adrenaline rush. No matter, a soldier such as him would not have been effective. He would not be mourned.
After a silent prayer to the goddess of the griffons, Warfather drew his sword and leaped from his balcony, soundlessly landing in the sand a few seconds later. He let his beak upturn slightly as he spied his target.
The basilisk was not known for its hearing, and that was an advantage Warfather exploited. He quickly made his way closer to the grey serpent, which was swallowing a choice lump of rock that used to be a talon. When he was just a short distance away, he readied his wings and tapped his sword against his shoulder pauldron.
The basilisk sluggishly turned around, signifying that its previous opponent's strikes actually had some effect to them. The warrior-priest jumped, flapped his wings once, and landed on the other side of the reptile. With perfect precision, he made a clean, deep, nonlethal slice into the creature's scaly hide.
Again, the basilisk spun around, but its combatant was already opposite his previous position. Again, another nonlethal cut was made. Then another, and another.
The one-sided game continued for only a short time, as the senior warrior knew better than to play with a creature such as a basilisk. Divine intervention would do little when one was a stone statue. He knew better than to kill the monster, considering that the beastmaster spent years trying to get a rooster to lay an egg, let alone convincing a toad to lay on it, and even he had to admit that he held his respect for his dedication to work with such beasts. With one last strike, the serpent collapsed on its stomach. Its eyes darted around rapidly in an attempt to find it’s attacker, but closed them seconds later due to sheer exhaustion.
Warfather sheathed his blade as the beastmaster and his young assistant rushed forward with a heavy blindfold and several medicinal wraps. They would be glad to know that their pet would not die today. Such a rare creature would be needed to train new Acolytes for the eventual retaking of what was rightfully theirs.
The griffon turned around and took to the sky, knowing full well that today's matches were concluded. He had other business to attend to, and to keep the His Majesty waiting was akin to playing with death.