Stories in Stone
Luna's Royal Guard
Twilight offered a quick prayer to Celestia that she would not explode on the way home. The Apple family reunion had gone quite well, though this was the first time she was able to see it in full swing.
The food she had been offered the first time was dwarfed by the mass of the meal that was present this time. She had not seen much of Applejack aside from the greeting when she had arrived. After that, the rest of the family swarmed over them both with questions. It was all simply chatting or suggestions for trying somepony’s new recipe, or askance of how she liked it in Ponyville. There were a few rather off-hoof comments that brought some laughs from the mostly farming ponies, and she knew she was being hit on by a few of Applejack's cousins, though it was all polite, if loud.
After a few hours, and more food than she ever wanted to look at again, she found Applejack once more and let her know she was heading out. Spike opted to stay longer and help clean up, though Twilight was unsure if he meant the dishes or what was still on most of them. Where he put it all never failed to surprise her. Applejack was a bit disappointed to see her go, but knew she was in the middle of studying something, and aside from AJ's usual offer of help if it was needed, she let the purple unicorn go without any fuss.
On the way back, Twilight had to smile thinking of how Applejack's family had all but adopted her the first time they met. Perhaps she had just come at the right time, though she still believed that AJ might have gotten into the apple brandy a little too deeply that day. Normally, AJ was not as generous to people randomly showing up on her farm. Not to say she was hostile, but there were no trespassing signs around the orchard for a reason.
Pushing open the library door, she all but fell over herself onto the floor, groaning loudly at the pain from her distended belly. She had sworn never again to eat that much last time, too, and, well, that did not work in the slightest. Most little promises like that tended to get lost in the bustle of some major event like the Apple reunion, particularly with how good all the food was.
Twilight's gaze fell on the crate. With another groan, she pushed herself to her hooves once more. She lit a few more candles about the house; the moon’s light had shown her the way home, but inside, it was still too dark to see much. Maybe finding out a bit more about the weapon would take her mind off her belly. It was still early, after all; well, by Twilight's standards, anyway.
Setting everything up kept her mind from the pains in her belly quite well, though she took a quick visit to the little pony’s room before trying to cast the spell, not knowing how long she would be watching this time. She really didn't want to have to stop in the middle of something interesting to answer the call of nature.
As she was settling, a glance over to the glimmering blade made her pause for a moment. Was it blue before?
She moved closer and the faint blue glow faded. She backed away and the blade lit up again— not enough for it to shed any light, but a very noticeable outline. If the room was darker, the blade would clearly be seen in the darkness. But why did it stop when her shadow was on it? She glanced behind her and up, seeing the full moon shinning into one of the windows.
Twilight smiled at figuring something else out about the Waning Moon. The blade was gifted, and likely enchanted, by Luna herself; it was little wonder it would react to the moonlight somehow. She moved back to the other side of the table so she did not block the moonlight from her window to examine it closer.
Seeing it from this side, she could see that the light was collecting around the weapon, dancing over the blade and giving it the soft blue glow. She smiled, greatly impressed at the subtle, yet beautiful, magic, though she still could not figure out the purpose of it just yet. It did not seem to be combat-oriented, and the glow was too soft for a light spell. Best to find out from the past, though Jer'rahd had not even received the blade yet. She cast the scrying spell, letting the world around her fade as she was thrust suddenly into the gray unicorn's body once again.
“WHAT IS YOUR MAJOR PROBLEM, WORM!? DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH? I SAID YOU WILL RUN, AND BY CELESTIA, YOU WILL RUN OR I WILL END YOU!!!”
Tales of dragons that belched fire and beasts that could rend a pony in half, creatures that would pull limbs off of ponies with their minds abounded as horror tales to scare foals. As Jer'rahd and Rhede tore down that track along with a herd of other ponies, the short, squat, light brown coated unicorn in the wide-brimmed fedora screaming at them all was by far more terrifying than anything they had heard in the old tales. The brick of a pony trotted alongside the group of them, dropping back to scream at anypony falling behind, herding them all towards a stable on the far side of the Marea 51 training compound.
“COMPANY, HALT! THAT MEANS YOU, MAGGOTS. LINE YOUR SORRY FLANKS UP. I WANT TWO ROWS, MY LITTLE PONIES, TWO, AND IF YOU PARASPRITE DROPPINGS CANNOT COUNT THAT HIGH, THEN YOU BEST CRAWL BACK TO WHATEVER ROCK YOU WERE UNDER AND LIVE THERE, BECAUSE I DO NOT WANT YOU IN MY GUARD.”
The short stallion paced before the group as every pony lined up facing him. More than a few were panicked; the rest looked around, wondering what was going on. Jer'rahd had been told tales of fearsome creatures like this by his grandfather, but he was completely unprepared for actually meeting one.
The stocky pony's light brown coat had more than a few old scars. His mane and tail were cropped very short, and the black hair that was left bristled almost like some sort of bush or angry feline had been the idea for style. His cutie mark was, of all things, a bear. A very angry looking bear that seemed ready to jump off his flank and attack anything it didn't like, which was apparently everything. He wore an olive green harness that was adorned with the markings of his rank and held a short blade in a scabbard at his left side. The strangest thing about the unicorn was his wide brimmed hat. It had the chevrons for sergeant on the front, and there was a hole for his horn and another two for his ears to poke through, although he seemed to be missing one ear. His eyes were a bright blue, more so than Rhede's, and they seemed to burrow into the skull of whatever pony’s gaze he met, forcing them to turn away. The intensity in that stallion’s gaze was enough to reignite the sun if it ever went out.
“I AM DRILL SERGEANT STONEHOOVES. THIS IS THE FIRST COMPANY STABLE. I OWN YOUR FLANKS FROM THIS POINT ON, UNTIL YOU ARE PROVEN WORTHY OF THE GUARD. EVEN THEN, I DO NOT THINK ANY OF YOU ARE WORTHY OF SO MUCH AS SPIT SHINING THE HORSE SHOES OF A REAL GUARD MEMBER. YOU WILL ONLY ADDRESS ME BY MY RANK OF DRILL SERGEANT, AND I WILL ADDRESS YOU IN ANYWAY I SEE FIT. YOU WILL DO EVERYTHING I TELL YOU TO AND YOU WILL END EVERYTHING YOU SAY TO ME WITH MY RANK. ARE WE CLEAR?”
There were a few muted affirmations and a few who were too shocked to respond or realize he was talking to them. A few at least caught on and shouted back with a “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“WHAT WAS THAT? I HAVE HEARD LOUDER FARTS FROM A BUNNY RABBIT. WHAT DID THEY GIVE ME, WET RABBIT FARTS TO TRAIN THIS TIME? SAY IT LIKE YOUR FUTURE DEPENDS ON IT, BECAUSE MAKE NO MISTAKE, FOALS— IT DOES.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant “
“WELL ISN’T THAT CUTE. BUT IT'S STILL WRONG!!! YOU BARELY MOVED UP FROM A RABBIT FART TO THE PLOP OF WARM MANURE HITTING THE GROUND. NOW LOUDER!”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!! “
“YES ,DRILL SERGEANT!!!”
“STILL CRAP, BUT I SUPPOSE THAT WILL HAVE TO DO. I DON'T HAVE TIME TO GIVE YOU MAGGOTS SINGING LESSONS. NOW THEN, I NOTICE A FEW OF YOU HAVE BROUGHT SOME PLAY TOYS WITH YOU. I SHUDDER TO THINK THAT ANY OF YOU EVEN KNOWS WHICH END OF THOSE THINGS IS THE POINTY END. NOW THEN, YOU WILL DUMP THAT SORRY EXCUSE FOR WHAT YOU THINK YOU WILL BE WIELDING AS A WEAPON ON THE GROUND RIGHT HERE...”
Stonehooves paused and grinned, his forehoof tapping on a spot before him.
“...UNLESS, OF COURSE, YOU THINK YOU HAVE THE SKILLS WITH WHICH TO USE THOSE TRINKETS. I WILL MAKE A LITTLE DEAL WITH YOU BRAIN DEAD ROCK TROLLS: YOU COME UP HERE, GIVE ME YOUR BEST LITTLE SHOW, AND IF ONE OF YOU MANAGES TO SO MUCH AS NICK MY HAT, I WILL LET YOU KEEP THAT LITTLE TOY YOU HAVE. HECK, I MIGHT EVEN BAKE YOU A CAKE, BUT SINCE IT’S NOT GONNA HAPPEN, YOU CAN FORGET THE CAKE. NOW WHO'S FIRST?
Only three of those gathered took the challenge. The few others with weapons simply dropped what they came with into the pile. Jer'rahd did not really want to face the Drill Sergeant, but he also had no idea what would happen to his grandfather's sword if he left it in the pile, so at the very least, he was going to try.
The first earth pony mare had barely drawn her sword when the weapon was knocked out of her mouth by the Drill Sergeant. Jer'rahd blinked, having barely seen the unicorn move. He glanced back to the others in the group at their wide-eyed expressions and was certain no one else had seen him move either.
Stonehooves said nothing, letting her pick the sword up again before it was sent flying once again. The earth pony was getting frustrated and went to pick it up again, though as her teeth closed around the grip, she herself was sent flying and dropped her weapon as she hit the dirt in front of the pile.
“THAT'S THREE. DROP THAT TOY ON THE PILE AND GET BACK IN LINE. NEXT!!”
“That was not even fair, you didn't let her pick it up before the third time.” Rhede blurted out.
Trust Rhede to come to the defense of a mare. Jer'rahd sighed.
“OH, I AM SOOOO SORRY THAT I AM NOT PLAYING FAIR, PRETTY COLT. MAYBE YOU CAN ASK THE DIAMOND DOGS OR THE DRAGONS TO GO EASY ON YOU WHEN YOU’RE OUT THERE. I'M SURE THEY WILL CALMLY HAVE NO PROBLEM WITH LETTING YOU GO AND PICK UP THE WEAPON THAT THEY JUST KNOCKED OUT OF YOUR GRIP WITHOUT SHOWING YOU YOUR INSIDES. THIS IS NOT A SPAR, MY LITTLE PONIES; THIS IS TO PREPARE YOU FOR A LIFE OR DEATH SITUATION. FAIR IS NOT IN THE VOCABULARY. YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED TO EXPECT ANYTHING ALL THE TIME. NOW UNLESS YOU GOT SOMETHING ELSE TO SAY, NEXT!”
Jer'rahd winced as the other pony who had moved forward with him tossed his spear into the pile without even trying and stepped back in line, leaving Jer'rahd up there alone. He exhaled deeply, striding forward and pulling the blade from the scabbard with his magic, eyes locked on the pony in the hat as he bowed a bit before he slid back, leveling the blade, his eyes never leaving the Drill Sergeant.
“WELL, WELL SEEMS ONE OF YOU MIGHT KNOW A THING OR TWO AFTER ALL. NOT LIKE THAT'S GONNA MATTER, BUT SINCE YOU’RE THE LAST ONE WITH ANY BALLS HERE, I MIGHT AS WELL MAKE A DEMONSTRATION OUTTA YOU.”
Jer'rahd's teeth gripped the handle of his sword a bit tighter as the light brown unicorn’s horn flared blue as he drew his own weapon, a thick curved blade, from its sheath at his side. A kukuri, an odd choice. Jer'rahd had never considered something that was more of a brush clearing tool to be chosen as a weapon.
That thought barely had time to register before he was already on his back with that same weapon resting against his neck.
The sergeant backed up as Jer'rahd picked up his blade with his magic, still not taking his eyes off the other pony. He switched styles, holding the blade in his mouth and noting the smirk on the drill sergeant’s face. Like before, he was not sure how it happened, but he was seeing stars as his chin was crushed to the ground with a hoof resting on his head, that curved blade nearly poking his nose. He saw his own sword a few feet away on the ground and realized he was not even facing the group after landing this time.
He was let up once more and he floated his blade over, taking the handle into his mouth again. There had to be a trick to this. What had his grandfather said? Ah, “watch the hooves.” His gaze shifted to the pony’s hooves this time, waiting for the attack. Even watching them, he barely saw the drill sergeant move. His horn flared, a green box of energy forming in the air before the sergeant’s attack. The unicorn’s eyes widened as his blade glanced off the hastily-made shield. The Drill
Sergeant recovered quickly and moved, bringing about another attack without leaving any easy opening. Jer'rahd had already accepted this was going to hurt and had spit out the blade as the sergeant’s hoof caught him in the jaw, he gripped his sword rapidly with his magic, fighting the stars he was seeing, and brought up swiftly before he crashed into the ground for a third time.
He groaned lightly, looking up, eyes widening at the drill sergeant’s face taking up his entire field of vision as the brown pony stared down at him, the stallion’s blue eyes searing into his own green ones. A tiny quarter apple cut had been made in the side of his hat brim; the sergeant’s own blade had whipped around to block the blow when he knocked Jer'rahd down, but it had not quite been quick enough.
“Well now, you are a clever pony. No pony has so much as made a breeze against my hat in years. Seems there might be hope for at least one of you. Granted, you cut my hat, so that makes you my new special friend. It won't be long ‘til you wish you were not such a clever pony. BACK IN LINE NOW, AND SHEATH THAT BLADE. NOW THAT THE SHOW’S OVER, I WANT ALL OF YOU LOT TO HAUL FLANK DOWN TO THE END OF THIS ROAD. IF I SEE SOMEPONY LAGGING, I WILL
ADD A FEW MORE LEAGUES TO THE RUN. NOW MOVE!!!
He let go of Jer'rahd, watching him scramble back into line and take off running with the rest of them.
“Aww, how cute, Jer. You made a friend already. And here I thought you were not the sociable type,” Rhede chimed.
“Stuff it, Rhede.”
The next three months had more screaming and running than Jer'rahd had even thought was possible to fit into such a short time. Every single pony in the troop had lost any fat they had shown up with and were well on the way to putting on muscle.
They hauled rocks, peeled potatoes, ran up hills, ran down hills, and ran in rain, shine, snow, and half a dozen other weather conditions brought about by weather pegasus guards. The fliers’ sole purpose seemed to be making the most inconvenient weather possible for those training.
Out of the initial thirty recruits, however, they were down to twenty-one by the end of the second week. Most of the pegasi had quit after being told that flying was banned and they had to run everywhere. A few of the unicorns quit when the same ban was put on magic. The last couple left due to injuries in some of the training; thankfully, nothing serious, but they would not be back for a while.
Jer'rahd nearly quit himself once; being the drill sergeants special friend meant if any other pony messed up, he got their punishment as well for failing to provide a proper example. If he messed up, the whole troop suffered for it. More often than not, he was set up to fail as well. By the end of the first month, he was almost as hated as the drill sergeant by the rest of the trainees. The verbal and emotional abuse from both Stonehooves and the rest of those training wore down on him heavily.
Thankfully, Rhede remained unchanged and managed to talk him out of quitting, mostly by complaining that if he was putting up with this crap, Jer would be, too, for dragging him into it.
“Don't pin this on me, Pelt. I asked you at the start why you were joining. You told me it was to attract mares with the uniform,” Jer'rahd cursed, half-buried in the blankets of his bunk.
“Yeah, there's still some mares in the stable, but I am way too tired to even think about chasing them, so it's moved on to a need to impress them. I mean, if I quit, word might get out I let some mares do better than me, and we can't have the fillies
thinking my virile self is weak, now can we?“ Rhede smirked.
“Heh, congratulations, Rhede. I think you just managed to talk me out of quitting.”
“Oh? Afraid to leave your best friend behind?”
“No, just to see if you crack from the strain before I do.”
By the time they had moved on to the combat training, several more had quit or been injured, leaving them at sixteen. The remaining troops had been told to make groups of four, though only Rhede willingly paired with Jer'rahd. The numbers became uneven as another was lost.
The last to leave had been an earth pony who had sunk so far into depression from the abuse, physical labor, and reconditioning that he had tried to take his own life.
The sole remaining pegasus mare had saved him from leaping off the roof of the stable. The sergeant had the pony sent to receive help, and spent the rest of the day yelling at the pegasus for breaking the no flying rule. From that point, the squad had another Special Friend of the drill dergeant’s aside from Jer'rahd: the pegasus Starfall. She was a bit older than most of the other recruits, maybe in her early twenties. She was still rather attractive, if angry all the time. Her coat was light gray to the point of being silver; her purple mane and tail were streaked with darker gray, though both were cropped short for the training. Her eyes matched her mane, though they seemed to sparkle like crystal. The cutie mark gracing her flank was a six pointed star with a multicolored trail arcing across her flank, like a shooting star or comet.
To say she was not happy to be the sergeant’s new special friend was an understatement. When she saved the earth pony, it made all the groups odd-numbered. The two others who were in the small squad with Rhede and Jer'rahd were moved to take Starfall and the suicidal pony’s place in other groups, leaving the mare with the pair.
For the same reason the others did not like Jer'rahd, they were not fond of Starfall, either. Once she became a special friend, the same rules applied to her as they did to Jer'rahd. Both of them messed up at the same time once, and only once.
The three day drill the rest of the squad was forced to endure because of that screw-up made everything else they had done up to the point seem like a tea party.
Several agonizing weeks later, they moved into the next part of training; the physical work eased up a bit at that point. They were still driven hard, but the sergeant seemed more content that they would follow his orders and toned down his aggression, if not his volume.
Weapon training started with simple moves, and then went to sparring with mixed weapons and among the troops as a whole. Other stables of ponies were brought in, along with their drill sergeants, and a few mixed bouts of sparring were set up among the trainees. Starfall beat Jer'rahd to place first in their group, though she placed third overall. She grumbled quite a bit that she only lost due to the no flying rule.
Several older guards were brought in at this point to fine tune some of the training on weapon specifics. While the pony teaching blades was impressed with Starfall's ability to use two short blades with her wings, hooves, and mouth, he was equally impressed by both Jer'rahd's weapon and that he could use it both with and without magic. It seemed that was not often the case with unicorns.
Rhede seemed to fall to the standard armament of spears, where he was little more than average with the weapon. While he was average in melee, he proved quite smugly that he could bull’s-eye a target at two hundred paces while in a dead run.
Even Jer'rahd was surprised at his accuracy, as his friend had never showed any interest in training with anything before.
“Where the heck did you learn to do that, Rhede?” Jer'rahd questioned after the day’s training noting even Starfall seemed a little curious, though she remained quiet.
“What do you mean? I am quite adept at using long, hard things to hit small targets.”
Starfall's eyes narrowed as she glared at the earth pony as he chuckled. “I cannot believe that he just said that out loud,” she groaned.
“Unfortunately, I can indeed believe he said that, Starfall. And now I really do not want to know any more about it,” Jer'rahd snorted.
The weapon training went on for another week before the groups were split again. Jer'rahd picked up on a few more tricks with his blade before then, but Starfall had proven herself better than he was by the end of the sword training.
He was sent to magic training with a mixture of other unicorns from the other units. Starfall was pulled aside with the other pegasus, and Rhede and the other earth ponies went off to some other sort of training. Jer'rahd, however, was nearly thrown back to the earth ponies’ training, as he could not even manage a simple attack spell.
Only three things kept him from being washed out of the unicorn training: his knowledge of spell craft, his ability to seamlessly join into a battle group of other unicorns (though the power he added was negligible), and the versatility of his shield spell.
He could put the shields up with a thought, even the larger versions, as well as shape them somewhat into other forms, though anything more than just a simple flat rectangle or square took more effort than it was worth to make. At full power, it was also found that the shield could support the weight of about twenty ponies before it finally started to collapse as the strain became too much. Something like this would easily be useful tactically as a bridge or a temporary barricade. They proved nearly useless for attacking, as even if he made the shield into the shape of a sword, it was locked in space where it was formed.
Attempts were made to force him to learn other spells. The instructors first thought it was just failure to understand how the magic worked or how to use it, but after Jer'rahd recited a few theories and spells that even the instructors did not know, they considered it a mental block. He had spent a great deal of his foalhood studying magic and knew a good bit about it, but could not access it in any way aside from the usual unicorn telekinesis and the shield.
The shield was brought into question when he told the instructors he had only been able to cast it once he gained his cutie mark. That drew more attention to him than he liked as the senior unicorns tried to figure out how to replicate the spell and failed to make anything even close to it.
It also surprised the instructors that he could easily join a link of spell casters. His power was barely felt when linked, and he could not use the others’ power to boost his own, but he linked with an ease that was used as an example to the other casters.
Even after the training, he was not allowed to use what he had learned, except when it was raining. Then he was required to keep a shield up over the drill instructor to keep him dry. Celestia help him if the sergeant got wet.
The final week was more paperwork, a mental exam, and a physical examination to see if they could handle a forced march in triple gear. This would be followed by a three day exercise that turned them loose into a section of the Everfree Forest and expected them to survive. Rhede aced survival training, so Starfall and Jer'rahd planned to simply follow his lead. Their own scores were not bad, but after Jer'rahd mistook poison joke for something to aid in healing, and Starfall chose a toxic mushroom for dinner, it seemed safer to listen to Rhede.
“So what are the supplies they are giving us again, Starfall?”
“Three flasks of water, one meal of dried oats each, our weapons, rain and cold gear, three medical kits, and a flare scroll in case it gets too bad out there, or one of Everfree's resident monsters comes looking for a snack and it’s bigger than we can handle,” the pegasus listed. “I figure we might have gotten something else considering we are the only three-pony group going.”
“I figured you would be happy just to be able to fly again for a bit without somepony screaming at you to slow down.”
“There's that, too.”
Jer'rahd glanced up as Rhede trotted back over carrying the intel bag each group leader was given. Each pack contained a compass, a map, and a lot number to where they would be going. Again, both Starfall and Jer'rahd felt slightly more comfortable letting Rhede be considered the leader in this, mostly because he seemed to want to be lead and neither of them wanted that sort of responsibility. This would be the last event of their training aside from more paper work and graduation ceremony. Over the course of the training, Starfall had become at least a little friendlier with the pair, though she seemed to have no inclination of keeping up the association after graduation. What bothered Jer'rahd was Rhede's lack of hitting on the mare.
“I've got the map; the camp site for our group is in this section here.” Rhede unfolded the parchment, pointing a hoof at a small square on the map labeled “85”.
“We are going to be the furthest group into the forest. That has to be some sort of compliment. It's like they are saying they can trust us to be the least likely to screw things up,” Starfall muttered.
“Well, if we have everything, should we get going? It will take us most of the day to get there, and that’s if we don't run into anything,” Jer'rahd quipped.
“Bad luck to say such things, you two, though I agree; we've been cleared to go whenever— no sense hanging about.”
Rhede trotted back over to the drill sergeant, letting them know they were on their way to the site, leaving the map with Jer'rahd. The gray unicorn looked down at it, surprised, as three markers appeared in their location on the map. The spell would allow them to follow their way to the site as a navigational aid, though part of the training was that the map would stop working once they reached the check point so they would need to find their own way back out of the forest.
A few hours later, Rhede and Jer'rahd sat on the edge of a ravine at a path leading down into it. Starfall had flown off ahead to find a trail up the other side of the trench wall, leaving the two of them alone for the first time in a while.
“So, any reason you have not been hitting on her since you first met?” Jer'rahd questioned, glancing over at his friend.
“She's in mourning still,”Rhede responded.
“Her mate was killed in a battle with the griffons a few years ago. She refused the money for her and her foal that is normally granted to a soldier’s widow. Claimed she refused to take a handout. She enlisted and sought to work for a living. Left her daughter in the care of her sister to join. Foal’s only about two years old.”
“How the heck did you find all this out, anyway? She barely talks to anyone.”
“I have sources. Plus, I pay attention, Jer. She writes her foal and sister every single night, talks to herself occasionally when she thinks no one’s listening, and is usually crying when she’s on watch. She's a strong pony, but stubborn. I could work on her and get her to open up to me and maybe do some things to take her mind off her loss, but that’s not the way I work; you know that. If she was looking for someone else, she would find them herself. She needs someone who's not going to be a one night stand like I would.”
“She doesn’t show she's in pain about anything.”
“She won't; she fits this little group fairly well. She’s stubborn, I'm handsome, and your hard-headed,” Rhede quipped.
“I think you mean you're an idiot, Rhede,” a voice from above stated.
“You find us a path up the other side, Starfall?” Jer'rahd smirked.
“Yeah, it’s right over here. Follow me. Eyes off my rear, Rhede, before I kick you,” Starfall snapped.
“Butt of course, m'lady.”
“Puns now... I thought you were better than that, Rhede,” Jer'rahd chuckled, trotting down the path on this side of the ravine.
“Hey, I can steal your shtick occasionally, Jer.”
It was nearing nightfall when they made it to the site. The place was little more than a small clearing of land surrounded by trees with a wooden pole jutting from the middle of the ground, etched with a sloppily-painted sign marked “85”.
They moved about setting up a perimeter, gathering sticks and fallen logs to form a fire in the middle of the camp. The first night had Rhede taking first watch as the others slept, and then waking Jer'rahd for the midnight watch. He then woke Starfall for the last. The second day passed uneventfully, aside from gathering food and finding a small stream for water.
They took turns staying at camp and forging, one remaining to make sure the fire stayed lit. While not very cold out, there was enough of a chill in the air that the warm fire was welcome after trips foraging in the damp air of the forest.
The final trip out for the second day was as the sun was setting. Starfall and Jer'rahd headed out to gather more firewood to make it through the night. Rhede remained behind, figuring the two could pick up sticks without the help of his survival skills.
“So, Rhede told me about what happened. I am sorry for your loss,” Jer'rahd said, gathering up a few sticks with his magic.
“Stow it. I have heard that from every pony from here to Haygas, I do not need pity.”
“Not my intent to offer pity. I lost my father and grandfather not long ago as well. Just because you hear it from everyone doesn't mean that some ponies don't know how you feel.”
“Really? Your dad leave you to raise a foal on your own, too?”Starfall snapped back.
“Nah, just his goldfish. It died about a week later, so I suppose I didn't do so well with it.”
“Heh. Fine; I suppose I shouldn't snap at you for it,” Starfall sighed. “You're at least trying to be sympathetic. But I still do not want my business spread everywhere.”
“Rhede won't tell anyone else. I am rather surprised he told me. I suppose he only did because I asked... sorta.”
“Every pony’s got a secret they want to keep from others. “
“True, but it’s hard to get to know a pony if there's a major one keeping them from trying to be friends.”
“What makes you think I want to make any friends here?”
“Like secrets, every pony needs a friend or two. Be nice to think the ones I will be counting on with my life can at least be that, hmm?”
“And here I thought Rhede was the smooth talker,” Starfall chuckled.
“I've known him for years; it’s only natural that some of his skill gets picked up, even if I don't use it to be the biggest tail chaser in Equestria. Anyway, if you don't want to talk about anything, that’s fine. Not too comfortable regaling ponies with my life up to this point, either. But we will here if you feel the need to bring it up sometime, provided we are not late to get back and the drill sergeant kills us all.”
“Right; I will keep that in mind if I ever feel like gushing like an old gossip mare. We should have enough wood now, anyway; might as well head back to camp.” Starfall smirked as she hefted a pile of lumber between her wings.
Entering the clearing back at camp, they both noticed something was wrong immediately. Rhede stood where they had last seen him, staring into a now-dead fire. The moonlight filling the clearing showed the scavenged food and their packs scattered everywhere, torn open and looted. Jer'rahds ears perked at a low hiss emerging from the darkness of the bushes.
“Rhede, what the hay is going on here? What..?! Jer'rahd! Get over here! He's been turned to stone.”
Starfall backpedaled away from Rhede in midair, the earth pony’s expression frozen in a look of shock facing the bushes on the other side of the fire. The hiss grew louder, along with an angry growl that sounded oddly like a chicken with something caught in its throat.
“Starfall, get the flare scroll and send it up.”
Jer'rahd's blade was out in a moment and tilted at an angle as he faced away from the fire, allowing him to watch the bushes in the weapon’s reflection. He really hoped the stories his grandfather told him were right.
“If you see something move, don't look at it directly. Use the reflection of your blade.” Jer'rahd stated.
“Will that even work?” Starfall questioned, a hint of panic in her voice. “What the heck did this even?”
She yelled out, hastily digging through the bags and the scattered contents further.
“They used cockatrices in the Dragon War. My grandfather used to tell me how he killed a bunch of them with this trick. I think this might be one; cockatrices have to meet your eyes directly to turn you to stone, and only they can reverse the stoning, supposedly.”
“I can't find the flare scroll. By Luna's gaze, where is it?! Oh BUCK ME... JER’RA-” Starfall shouted, her voice cutting off as the petrification slid back over her head, her wings fanned out in a panic before turning to rock as well.
Starfall had lifted her head and met the gaze of the large chicken like creature that slipped from the bushes in front of her. Its lizard like tail whipped behind it as it hissed, quickly turning to Jer’rahd. He winced, at the gaze feeling his muscles stiffen even through the reflection, though he remained flesh and blood.
He didn’t hesitate, and knew he couldn’t; he whirled, screaming out loudly with his eyes shut tight, charging where the cockatrice was. He impacted hard into the surprised beast, knocking it down with a loud squawk. The two struggled, both trying to get the upper claw or hoof, the creature’s claw digging a gouge in Jer'rahd's shoulder as they fought.
He finally managed to get atop the beast, shoving his hoof down on its head and driving its beak into the dirt before it so much as managed to glance up. The cockatrice continued to try and struggle under him. He magically drew his blade and pressed the tip to the side of the monster. The beast growled, though it froze, feeling the point of his sword pricking its side.
“Good. Seems you do know what that blade means. Which means you are likely smart enough to understand me. Now, grandpa filled my head with a lot of old stories about things that turn people to stone. The main thing he mentioned was that unless you had a powerful unicorn nearby, only the creature that turned some pony to stone can reverse it. So here’s the deal: you are going to turn both of them back to normal, or I am going to put more and more of my weight on your head until that tiny brain of yours mushes out of your beak.”
He leaned forward, a bit hoof driving the bird’s beak deeper into the ground. He could not see the bird’s eyes, but he felt its gaze trying to turn his hoof to stone.
“I wouldn't do that, either. You manage to turn me to stone, and you just get smashed quicker. Now change them back before I need to clean your blood and brain off my hoof.”
The bird seemed to whimper, likely from the pressure he was applying to its skull, though the stinging on his hoof stopped.
“-HD, IT’S RIGHT... here?!” Starfall finished, looking around in surprise and seeing Jer'rahd perched atop the bird, driving its head into the ground. She turned away quickly, shivering and moving behind the pair.
“Now the other one,” Jer'rahd snarled.
The earth pony slowly regained the normal color of his coat and fell back on his rump with a huff, looking around confused.
“What in the name of Luna's dainty hooves was that?!”Rhede gasped.
He took stock, seeing Jer'rahd, and turned his head away from the bird, moving behind the pair as Starfall had done.
“Oh crap, a cockatrice. Figures I would get blindsided. What the hay happened here, you two?”
Jer'rahd didn't answer. His eyes narrowed, looking down at the top of his hoof and the bird under it.
“Thank you for your cooperation. But no one, and no thing, threatens, let alone attempts to kill, my friends,” the gray unicorn snarled.
He shoved his hoof down, putting all his weight onto it. The bird screamed out in pain, the cracking of its skull filling the clearing, along with its death cry. Blood and the remains of its eyes burst from under his hoof as it finally slammed into the ground, the avian bucking hard underneath him trying to squirm away even with its head turned to paste. He drove his blade though the beast’s side, spearing the heart, before he moved away, its thrashing stilled save for a feeble twitch of its tail, before that, too, remained unmoving.
Jer'rahd sat back hard, staring at the corpse. He had never killed anything before; never really wanted to, but any fear he had, any reluctance, was gone the moment his companions were harmed by the bird. He intended to kill it, whether it cooperated or not. He exhaled hard, slowly rising back up to his hooves, staring at the blood on his hoof as the others approached him.
“Well now. I suppose this means I owe you again. One of these days, Jer, this little tally you have over me is gonna get cleared. The deal with Silphy, and now I owe you my life, too,” Rhede groaned.
“Not sure who Silphy is, but I do owe you my life, Jer'rahd. Thank you,” Starfall added.
Jer'rahd shrugged, his tail whipping as he pulled his sword from the beast’s side, cleaning the blood off on its pelt before sheathing it and wiping the blood from his hoof.
“It's nothing. I am sure either of you would have done the same if the roles were switched. And I thought I asked you not to mention that mare’s name again around me, Rhede. Why do you even remember it?” Jer'rahd questioned.
“You always remember the ones that hurt a friend, Jer. Makes it easier to know who to screw over.”
“So should we send a flare up now? There might be more of them.”
“Nah, cockatrices are solo hunters, though this one’s a little farther north than it should be this time of year,” Rhede commented, looking up at the moonlit sky. “The smell of blood, though, will attract other predators. I don't fancy meeting a maticore out here. At the very least, we should head back, but first...”
The earth pony moves over to the bird, drawing a knife and kicking the beast’s body over onto its back. After a bit of work, he sliced off one of the scaled legs, flicking it over to Jer'rahd's hooves with the blade.
“Tuck that in your pack, Jer. Give them a little proof that you're a badass back at base. I doubt you'll live it down from the drill sergeant, but we're nearly done with training anyway, and some sort of proof this camp was a dangerous one would be good. Though I do not relish heading back now, it’s been a long day, and a hike at night will not be pleasant.”
Jer'rahd looked up at the full moon with a smirk as he floated the claw into his saddle bag.
”Maybe Princess Luna will protect us on the trip back. We're likely the only ones awake out here; we might be of interest for her to watch over.”
“Awfully faithful of you to believe our sad little lives are important enough to garner the attention of the moon goddess, Jer'rahd,” Starfall quipped with a slight smile.
The trip back took far longer than the trip there. With no map, and half of it stumbling around in the dark, it was to be expected, though. Morning had come and gone, and the sun was just passing noon when they exited the forest, nearly crawling back into base camp. They were not the only ones who had trouble, either; a group had tossed up their flare the first night after one of their number had taken a bad fall into a ravine. Most of the other groups were back already, though there were still some left in the woods.
As Rhede predicted, no one believed the report the three gave until Jer'rahd produced the blood-soaked claw. A bit of an investigation was made into it, and all three of them were questioned thoroughly while site 85 was investigated. The reasons for checking it out were not explained, though most of the officers seemed tense until it was declared a rogue bird. Even with the Dragon War so far in the past, the idea of a controlled cockatrice hunting trainees was enough to worry the older officers.
Jer'rahd's actions were commended, and he was to be promoted upon graduation. The remaining week of training went by rapidly, finally ending in a large ceremony with all the ponies’ achievements and awards being granted to them, along with their duty assignments. Afterward, they were given a week before they were to report to their duty stations. Much to his dismay, Rhede was being assigned to a private sector near Manehatten due to his test scores, though at the least, Starfall was going to be in the same location as Jer'rahd, if in a different unit.
The three of them hit a bar as soon as the ceremony concluded. Starfall knew of a little place in Canterlot called Siebte Empyrean, run by a half-pegasus, half-zebra named Star Cloud. She figured it would be less crowded than the other bars closer to the parade grounds.
The place was still full, though Starfall was correct in that it was not as bad as the other bars. The pegasus stayed with Rhede and Jer'rahd for a time before her sister and daughter showed up.
She introduced the two to Rhede and Jer'rahd, and like Starfall, her sister, Starshine, showed no interest in Rhede. Leaving the trio be, Jer'rahd dragged the disbelieving Rhede away from their table as the earth pony tried to flex and impress the pair. Sitting back down to his own drink, he half ignored Rhede's rant.
“Honestly, am I losing my touch, Jer? Has all that time I spent in training made me less of a stallion? Have I... oooh, look at her. Why hello, lovely; what brings such a delightful mare out into this cold night alone...?” Rhede commented, trotting off after a crimson earth pony mare with a book cutie mark.
Ignoring his friend's flirting, he sipped from his mug, watching Starfall play with her foal, the little filly staggering a bit as she walked around the table top, bating around Starfall's dress uniform beret as his friend spoke with her sister.
A smile cracked his lips as he took another drink, his mind chasing ahead to what might become of them now. It was nice to have made a new friend, but with them all being separated, how well would that friendship hold out?
Then, too, there were the rumors. He shouldn't worry, but talk of attacks along Equestria's borders continued to trickle in, and it was on the lips of most of the bar’s patrons.
War. Another war with the dragons, maybe? He shuddered softly, comforted by the feel of his grandfather’s blade still pressed to his side, the blade’s straight edge nicked and scratched from the combat it had seen. Skirmishes had been going on for years. The official end of the first dragon war was not quite a hundred years ago, his grandfather barely out of colthood when he signed up to fight. The war ended and he married; after a time, Jer'rahds father was born. His father followed rather closely in his grandfathers’ hoofsteps, enlisting before he was really old enough to do so and somehow managing to slip by the age check. He fought in the War of the North with the Griffons as well as skirmishes with several other factions. Somewhere along the way, he met Jer'rahd’s mother, married, and then had Jer'rahd.
He couldn't remember his grandmother on his father’s side, and he had never met either of his grandparents on his mother’s side. His mother died not too many years after he was born, so he barely remembered her, just the funeral. Years later, his father was killed in a conflict, and then his grandfather died of sickness. He spent the last few years of his life before he was of age staying with Rhede's family, friends of his grandfather.
After both of their deaths, was it now his turn to join the conflict, the constant wars that his family lived in, and seemed to thrive in? While his grandfather never spoke of his father before him, it was often implied that he was a soldier as well.
Would there ever be a time of peace in Equestria? Would he live to see it? If there was, would he want to see it? His father was always tense when at home, like he wanted to be back on duty. He was never comfortable, particularly after his wife died. His grandfather was the same way; even after he retired, he always had to be doing something. He never wanted to slow down. Jer'rahd looked down into the drink he had, annoyed at the deep thoughts rolling around in his head.
“I need a better drink.”
Twilight blinked awake as Owlowiscious’s hooted again, breaking her from the spell. She looked over at the owl sitting on the corner of her desk, the room nearly dark, as most of the candles had burned down.
A small bit of parchment was lifted to her by the owl bearing the Apple family crest on the stationary. Unrolling it, she looked it over and winced at Applejack's nearly illegible scrawl. From what she could tell, Spike had passed out after eating more than twice his own weight in food, and would be staying at the farm that night.
“Thank you for keeping an eye on Spike, Owlowiscious, though he clearly needed somepony to stop him from eating, not just watching him. I think I should probably go to bed now, myself. Please take this back to Applejack and then take the rest of the night off.” Twilight yawned.
She wrote out a note thanking Applejack for letting her know about Spike and to just send him home when he woke up. Lifting it to Owlowiscious, she watched as he took it and flew back out the window into the night, heading back to the Apple farm.
Twilight yawned again, her stomach feeling better, at least, now that it wasn't screaming at her anymore. She stayed up long enough to write the events of the scrying in her book, making notes of the commendation Jer'rahd received, as well as some other interesting points, before blowing out the last candle and heading to bed.