30th of March.
Black Star was furious; she'd never been so angry at another pony in all her life. She was walking around, loudly cursing in the command tent. She snapped her eyes back to Lightning who was lying on the bed in the corner, watching Black Star work herself up again. Half the night had gone, and she was still not showing any signs of coming down.
“I told you we couldn't trust that praetorian! She has obviously escaped with the research subject! But once I've told Chief Decurion Avarice about this, she'll be sorry she was ever born!!!” She shouted out at no one in particular. Lightning Strike had stopped listening hours ago. There was really no reasoning with Black Star right now.
“I still don't see what she has to gain by taking Lobo… Or even how she would be able to do it.” Lightning Strike said as she looked at her mare friend pacing about. Black Star snorted in annoyance.
“Praetorians have freaky powers! Even if they're not unicorns! It's not natural I tell you!! She did something to take him away; I bet she's even sitting somewhere laughing about it RIGHT NOW!!!” She said, her voice getting increasingly fearsome towards the end.
“She most definitely is not!” A booming voice came from behind Black Star. She turned around and saw Bender stepping into the tent. Black Star glared at him.
“And how would you know that smith?!” She asked in a threatening voice. Bender just looked at her, and Lightning could see he was having difficulty keeping from laughing straight in her face. Then a serene and goofy smile spread on Bender's face, which made Lightning Strike´s eyes go round.
You’ve got to be kidding me! Lightning thought, since she knew what that goofy smile meant.
“Because she's asleep in the forge right now.” Bender's voice boomed out as he came back to his senses. Black Star's eyes shut open in surprise, and then her face contorted in anger again.
“I'll tear her apart!” She growled and stomped towards Bender. He just raised a hoof and blocked the exit. Black Star eyes stared daggers at him.
“Get out of the way; that’s an order...” She said in a low voice, looking as menacing as she possibly could. Bender just raised an eyebrow and snorted at her.
“I'm not some soldier you can order around, Missy. I'm an independent blacksmith and Sellsword, so you can take your bucking order, and shove it up your flank!!!” He growled at her. Black Star took a couple of steps back in surprise; she wasn't used to being told no and certainly not in the manner Bender just did.
“I was here to tell you something important… But seeing as you can never behave yourself, I think I'll just leave again.” Bender continued in an annoyed tone of voice. He turned around but was immediately stopped by a hoof on his shoulder.
“Look… I'm really sorry, okay Bender… It's just… I'm wound up right now. You have no idea of the implications that losing my specimen right now has. I might be on the verge of something incredible right now… Something that will make Lobo´s summoning pale in comparison. But I need my specimen here if I'm to continue my work. So please… If you know something, tell me.” Black Star said. Bender looked at her rather surprised. It wasn't the best apology he had ever heard, but still, the fact was that she tried, so it would be rather rude to just throw it back in her face. Besides with one look towards Lightning, he knew she would smash his teeth in it he didn't accept this peace offering.
“Alright… Hammer Sssssooort of heavy…..” Bender averted himself when he realized he was about to give them Hammer Song´s name, which she had explicitly told him not to do before she dozed off. Both Black Star and Lightning looked curiously at him. He gave a couple of fake coughs, and then plastered a very bad looking smile across his face, trying to look innocent.
“The praetorian came back earlier this evening, just after the Sunset. And she was quite roughed up. Lobo had knocked her out in the forest last night when she went after him, trying to speak to him one-on-one. When she came to this evening, she made her way back here and is now recovering at the forge.” Bender said.
“What do you mean he knocked her out? Lobo can’t hurt anypony.” Lightning said as she rolled out of bed.
“That's the mistake she made, also assuming that was the case. So she was completely cut off guard when he attacked her. She figures he’s probably just been playing along, or he was finally able to break the spell somehow. Anyway, she wanted me to tell you that he is loose and won't be coming back. Unless he's hungry…” Bender told them. Black Star stared at him in disbelief. The mind control spell she had put on Lobo was the most powerful she knew. How could he possibly have broken it without being able to use magic himself? Was his will truly so strong that he had been able to overpower the spell?
“Did she say anything else? Please, every little detail is important.” Black Star stated. Bender thought back on what Hammer Song had told him.
“She said he didn't want to kill her. That it would be a waste of energy since he wasn't hungry. And that the only reason he knocked her out was that he didn't want anypony to know in which direction he was going.” Bender said. At hearing this, Black Star seemed puzzled. Her face contorted slightly, as if in deep thought. Suddenly a mischievous look spread across her face and glanced towards Lightning Strike´s command table. Quickly she moved over to the table where Lightning Strike had her maps and reports spread out.
“Did that help any?” Bender asked while he and Lightning Strike made their way over to the table as well.
“Oh yes! Definitely…” Black Star said while she studied the maps. Bender looked a bit perplexed.
“How…” He wondered. Black Star looked up at him, then shook her head and looked down at the maps again.
“The fact that he'd knocked her out so she wouldn't know which direction he took, means that he has a destination in mind. And since he’s thought about where he's going, we can figure out what he's been thinking.” She stated confidently. Lightning and Bender looked at each other with the sort of expression that said, yeah right. After having studied the maps a while longer, Black Star smiled.
“Since we know he has a destination in mind, I assumed he had been looking at a map, and I was correct. It's this map to be exact.” She said while indicating the detailed map of the Northern Territory's. Lightning raised an eyebrow.
“How do you know that?” She asked. Black Star chuckled and indicated four barely visible marks on the map just below North Bay.
“He was a bit careless while he was studying the map. This mark was not left by a pony… He's going to North Bay.” She said and smiled at them. Both Bender and Lightning bent down to study the marks then let their eyes roam over the rest of the map.
“But there are the same marks under Stalliongrad as well.” Bender said and indicated them with his hoof.
“Yes but the ones under North Bay are more prominent, which means he's leaned in closer when he looked at North Bay. Putting more weight on his paw while studying it, thereby revealing which one he's more interested in. It's probably because North Bay is by the sea. Being new to this realm, he's never seen the ocean. He’s probably curious about it and wants to see it for himself; I think he’s also interested in what normal ponies are like. Therefore he is heading for North Bay where he can see both. We’re actually quite lucky that he knocked out that Pretorian. If he hadn't, I would never have looked over your maps for clues.” Black Star stated proudly. Lightning Strike looked at the small marks that had apparently given Lobo’s intentions away. She had known Black Star was intelligent, but the way she figured out all this from the fact that Lobo had knocked somepony out when he escaped was quite impressive.
“I want ten of your best soldier's to be ready at first light. The subject has a one day head start on us. But the fact that it doesn't know that were following it gives us an advantage. I have a few preparations to do until tomorrow.” Black Star said merrily as she walked towards the exit. When she had disappeared out into the night, Bender looked back at his sister, but whatever he was about to say, disappeared from his mind when he saw what a devilish grin she had while she looked at him.
“You did it, didn't you? You got together with that praetorian! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! From the moment I heard you didn't buck her across the Empire when she touched your tools, I knew you liked her! But it's even more isn't it; you're truly in love aren't you?!” Lightning Strike said with a big grin across her face. Bender took two steps backwards at her rather blunt, although joyous, statement.
“No! I don't… mmm… I mean, what happened is… Dammit!” Bender was trying to wiggle himself out of this awkward situation and failing miserably.
“Ah, you can tell me. Is she any good? Do you think she's open-minded?” She said with an evil grin and a sultry gaze in her eyes. Bender looked down at her, horrified.
“You keep your hooves off of her! She isn't playing on your team, you know.” He said sharply.
“That's just because she hasn't tried it! Yet…” She said teasingly.
“Lightning!” Bender growled menacingly.
“I'm just messing with you, Bender. What else is a little sister for?” She said with a heartfelt smile. Bender raised an eyebrow as he looked down at her.
“Funny you should ask. I'd like to be released from my contract, get all my back pay and a glowing recommendation from Decurion Lightning Strike for any future work I might be inclined to seek.” He said with a smirk. Lightning strike looked a bit sadly at him, but she was still smiling.
“So you're going with her. Good… I've never seen you like this around a mare before. And you're probably the only stallion that wouldn't end up in the hospital when she punches you; I've seen a few of them, and she's got a vicious left hook. Come to think of it, I actually think she tried to floor you a couple of times for real.” She said as she put her hoof to her chin while she was thinking.
“Ah, they're just signs of affection. You know, like little love bites.” Bender said getting a dreamy look in his eyes. Lightning scoffed and walk away.
“Yeah right, little love bites… Do little love bites would seriously injure a normal pony? Remember the love bite she gave you at the forge, the one that actually made you flinch? She was definitely trying to floor you that time. You should have seen the look on her face when you didn't collapse from that, Bender.” She said with a chuckle. Bender looked back at his midsection where a bruise could still be seen.
“Yeah that was a good one! Almost reminds me of my mom… Oh sweet Celestia I didn't just say that!!!” He said with a horrified look in his eyes. Lightning almost collapsed on the floor because she laughed so hard.
“I'm going to miss hearing you blurt out things like that. You could always make me smile no matter what, and besides, we did have a good run this time; how long has it been?” She wondered.
“I'd say about three years.” Bender answered.
“That must be a new record for the two of us I think… I'll have everything ready by tomorrow.” Lightning answered with a sigh. Bender nodded and headed for the exit. Just as he was on his way out, he heard Lightning behind him.
“Remember that there is always a place by my side big brother… Don't take any stupid work.” She said eyeing him seriously. He looked back at her with an amused expression.
“Now when have you ever known good old Bender to do something stupid?” He asked. The way Lightning gawked at him made Bender burst out laughing.
“Seriously though, I know you've got my back. And remember that all you ever have to do is call, and I'll come running, little sister.” He said and gave her a wink as he left the tent. Lightning looked after him, filled with feelings of both joy and sorrow. She was happy that both of them seem to have found a special somepony but also sad that life once again was splitting them up.
He had been running all night and dawn was fast approaching, only stopping when he'd captured something edible. The Wolves in this world were famous for their stamina, but Lobo was in a completely different league compared to them. Not too surprisingly, he had also come to the conclusion that it was easier travelling by night. It was much too hot during the days when the sun was out, and the light made the risk of being spotted higher. Then there was the added effect he received from the blessing of the moon when travelling by night. Having his ethereal self constantly feeding and healing his physical self was a truly powerful blessing. His two sides has started to interact with each other on a deeper level than before as well, most likely because of what happened to him last night under the full moon, unaware of its benefit. Now that his ethereal and physical sides were starting to merge more with each other, this would most likely make it much more difficult for him to ever leave this physical realm again and return home to the realm of light.
Lobo grunted while he looked down from the cliffs, out across the endless stretch of water. He had become curious about the ocean when overhearing some of the soldiers back at the camp talking about how much they had wanted to see it again. Some of them had grown up along the coast, and they sorely missed it now that they were so far inland. Upon seeing it, he could understand why. It looked spectacular, how the ocean reflected the moonlight overhead on its pitch black surface. Not to mention the smell, it was almost overpowering, but it was a fresh, appealing smell. But the biggest reason for wanting to come here was that Lobo had learned that all adults in this realm had once been pups… Or rather foals as these ponies call their young. It was fascinating for him. He himself had always been what he was, from the second he was created; he had always been the guardian of the eternal pups. And the eternal pups were just that, eternal. They would never grow up. So the thought of seeing one of these foals that could turn into a grown-up, was a rather intriguing prospect. He had really missed looking after the pups, and the thought of seeing anything that would remind him of them brought a smile to his face.
Lobo once again raised his head to take in the splendid view, while he kept feeding off the plentiful moonlight on this clear night. It was hard to admit, but he had never felt so alive, as when he was running through the landscape under the moon. He turned his head and looked towards the sleeping city of North Bay situated further down the coast. Slowly he started walking towards it. He would find a good place to hide and rest at the edge of the city. Once the sun rose tomorrow, he would see what these ponies were truly like now that he was free from Black Star and the rest of them back at the camp.
The only thing Lobo regretted about his rather impromptu escape was something he realized while he made his first kill on the run. While he was mauling a rabbit and fantasizing that it was Black Star he was ripping to bits, he suddenly understood that it could have been. Lobo could easily have just walked back to the camp, gone to her research tent, walked up to her, and before Black Star knew what was going on, ripped her throat out. He became frantically angry when he realized what an opportunity he had wasted. He had already been on the move for hours, so returning now would be detrimental to his efforts. They might already be looking for him by now. Lobo had kept a furious pace for quite a while after understanding that he had most likely wasted the best chance he would ever get at killing his tormentor. Somewhat reluctantly he had to admit that the ponies were not all the monsters he had thought them to be, once he had come to terms with this thought, he had started to show more interest in the rest of the pony soldiers at the camp. He decided early on that listening in on their conversations and paying more attention to what happened around him couldn’t hurt. Now he will find out what ponies think of him when they didn't know who or what he was. He left the cliff behind and disappeared amongst the shadows of the forest again, moving silently towards the sleeping city in the distance.
Longbow was moving quite fast past the ten soldier ponies in the guard, towards the front of the escort where Chief Decurion Avarice was walking. As soon as she had arrived back from scouting the last bit of their journey for their small contingency, she had been informed that Avarice wanted to see her. Longbow had a wicked grin across her face because she knew it meant she would be doing something important for the Empire again. From the first day of recruitment she had been trained as a scout and trailblazer. Longbow´s moss-green coat and lighter green mane made her blend in naturally with her surroundings; she kept her mane braided down towards her back so that it would not inhibit her purple eyes while aiming her bow. Her exceptional skill with the bow had also earned her interest from Avarice himself, as his go-to problem solver. Every time she had been on a mission from Avarice, Longbow had earned a promotion after a threat towards the Empire had been neutralized permanently. So when he had asked her to join him on this excursion, Longbow hadn't hesitated for a second. As she reached Avarice’s side, he called for a halt and motioned with his head for her to follow him. She looked longingly at him while she followed him. His immaculately shaped black armor fit him perfectly and complimented his already regal look, especially as it contrasted quite nicely against his dark grey coat. Against his dark grey coat, Avarice´s indigo-blue mane and tail should have looked out of place, but the tail was kept clean and immaculate while his main spread out across his black armor, adding to the feeling of cold, calm power radiating from his startlingly pink ice. Finally the crests on his helm proved his status within The Grand Army. The two of them walked away from the squad so they would be able to talking in privacy. As they stopped she stood in front of him and gave a smart salute.
“Vexillarius Longbow reporting, Sir!” She said.
“At ease Longbow. Now I have a task for you. I'm sure you've heard about the rumors that there is an uprising in this area.” Avarice asked.
“Yes… Something about civil unrest in Stalliongrad.” Longbow answered. Avarice nodded and looked her straight in the eyes.
“Yes and it's been gathering momentum. Until recently, we couldn't understand where they got their Intel from, but on our way here I received the report that explained it all. It seems that the so-called rebels have managed to get their hooves on a Praetorian armor set, or they've made a very good copy. One of these rebels has been impersonating a Praetorian quite successfully. Although they were stupid enough not to realize that a Praetorian up here in the North would be quite suspicious. When intelligences started coming in about the stray Praetorian walking around asking the wrong questions, it didn't take command long to figure out what was going on.” He said with a smile. Longbow nodded as her magic grabbed the Longbow off her back and levitated it in front of them.
“So do you want me to bring this fake in for questioning?” She asked while she was checking to make sure that the Longbow was in perfect condition.
“No… Just kill the imposter and bring in the armor so no one else can use it. According to the reports, he's been spotted in this area a couple of times, so I want you to stay in this area and kill him the next time he presses by.” Avarice answered. This made Longbow looked questioningly at him.
“You don't want me to at least interrogate him? We could probably get a few answers about these rebels.” She asked. Avarice just shook his head.
“No, they have already been rooted out back in Stalliongrad. Whatever information he might have is already useless. If you feel merciful, you may give him a quick death.” He said.
“As you wish. That will actually make my job easier.” Longbow said while she levitated an arrow against the string of the bow. She drew back, and grinned at Avarice. They had played this game before, and he had to admit that he liked this game of hers. He levitated a dry piece of wood from the ground and made it spin between them.
“I always think about my subordinates when giving out a mission. Four from my escort will also join you.” Longbow looked noticeably disappointed. “Don’t frown like that. I know you like working alone, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Most likely you will kill this fake Praetorian with your first shot, but I always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Avarice said as he surprised her buy flinging the spinning piece of wood straight up as far as he could.
“Yeah yeah I know… But that fake Praetorian is as good as dead already.” Longbow said as she released the arrow up into the night. There was a loud thump above them. And a few seconds later the piece of wood landed with an arrow through it.
“I know that is your special talent, but I still find it fascinating how you can do that even in the dark of night.” Avarice said.
“Well it was quite easy this time. As you threw the target up it blocked out some of the stars up there. All I had to do was aim where the star used to be in order to hit the target. Often what you can’t see is just as important as what you do see.” She said with a grin.
"Don't get too cocky Longbow; it's been the downfall of many a great pony. Now you know what you have to do, get to it.” Avarice ordered. Longbow saluted and disappeared into the night. Upon seeing her leave, four soldiers scrambled to follow her, but when they reached the edge of the Blackwood's they stopped and started looking around themselves like a group of lost foals. After a few seconds Avarice rolled his eyes and sighed heavily.
“Didn't you forget something!!!” He bellowed out into the night.
“Ponyfeathers! Almost got away too…” He heard a curse from deep inside the dark woods.
“For Celestia´s sake! Get your flanks in gear!!!” Longbow called back. The four soldiers almost tripped over themselves as they tried to catch up to her. Avarice chuckled as he thought about the hell Longbow was without a doubt going to put those four soldiers through.
Thanks to Meeester for the Pre-read/Edit