“Look, I’m sorry Strongheart, but Appleoosa will have to settle for the assistance of your chief and his tribe.” Caliber told the buffalo girl, the pair moving briskly through the throne room of the royal palace, “The guard is spread thin enough as it is. There are settlements and villages all over Equestria in the same situation, but they have no aid whatsoever. They are our priority.”
“I understand.” Little Strongheart bowed, her humble eyes taking in the foreign appearance of the royal palace, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Caliber opened his mouth as if to answer, but his focus diverted to recognise the unicorn guard step in behind the buffalo girl.
“Spellbound...” he said as she approached, “Tell me you’ve got good news.”
“I'm sorry Caliber, we still can't say.” the grey coated and white maned unicorn shook her head, “Whatever Luna’s doing or where, my team can’t pick up on her magic.”
“Damn.” the captain growled, “Alright then, forget it. I can’t spare the resources any longer; go back to your team and get them ready to be shipped off. I’ve got a special job for you too.”
“What do you need?” Spellbound asked pointedly.
“Go to the police and tell them we need more numbers.” Caliber ordered, “Ask nicely first, but do what you can to get as much horsepower as possible.”
“Captain, we’ve already got the police keeping order in the streets.” Spellbound protested, “Plus, it’s dangerous to send non-guards out into the world. We cannot trust them with something like this-”
“We can’t allow ourselves to doubt our own when we are in such dire need.” Caliber retorted, “Round up the police that are keeping order and get them to the garrison. Have the police put their desk-ponies and pencil-pushers on the street.”
“Um...” Little Strongheart spoke up, “Was there anything we could do to-”
“The best thing for you buffalo to do is go back to Appleoosa.” Caliber replied, “Help them sort out their strife in our stead.”
“Very well, then we shall do just that.” Little Strongheart bowed, “Farewell.”
“Who was that?” Spellbound asked as the buffalo girl trotted out of the palace with intent.
“Strongheart of the Thunderhooves buffalo tribe.” Caliber answered as he too watched her leave, “She’s the one that escorted those girls back to the city.”
“Them, huh?” Spellbound responded, “How are they holding up?”
“They were a sorry sight when they first came in, but the report is that they’re picking up rather steadily.” Caliber replied, his eyes distant, “The first of them woke a few hours ago.”
“How are you taking it?” Spellbound ventured, picking up on that look in the captain’s eyes, “I mean, between being Celestia’s captain and working with them personally, nopony would expect-”
“Enough.” Caliber snapped, “You have your orders, and I have more important things to worry about. You are dismissed.”
“Sorry; you know I don’t mean to pry.” Spellbound’s face softened as she powered up a teleportation spell, “I’ll be in touch.”
The light of her magic fading with her disappearance, Caliber exhaled tiredly and allowed his eyes to close. But no sooner had he done so did the next disruption present itself.
“Captain!” a royal guard cried, charging in through the palace doors, “It’s the messenger bird!”
“Then what’s the problem?” Caliber responded, “Let it through!”
“But sir...” the guard replied, looking over his shoulder, “It’s just that...”
He didn’t need to finish his sentence. For through the door behind him came Paragonia, his path through the air wonky and encumbered. He came to rest at Caliber’s hooves, and while the Quetzalcoatl landed of his own accord, it seemed to the captain a conscious effort to not simply crash right then and there.
“What in Equestria happened to you?” Caliber demanded, seeing signs of a conflict all over the creature’s body, “Are you alright?”
Paragonia hissed weakly, looking back beyond the door he had flown through. Caliber reached out to him as the Quetzalcoatl slumped, stopping him from collapsing.
“Medic!” Caliber called, prompting one of his armoured pegasi to hustle forwards, “Do what you can, but get him to that vet down in the east quarter. The girl there’s good with snakes...”
The befuddled medic tried to get a nursing hold on the odd creature, while Caliber reached over to Paragonia a final time so as to retrieve the missive he brought. Before he could think to read it, the medic was already off, taking the loyal messenger to somepony who knew best how to help.
“Thanks.” the captain said to no one as he broke the seal on the letter and begun to read, “You’ve brought some good news at last...”
“Captain!” a voice cried out from the palace door, one of the reassigned police officers entering in a hurry, “Good news! There’s somepony here to see you and he says he’s got vital information regarding Terra!”
The guard closest to Caliber looked over to see his reaction meld from surprise to suspicion. They all must’ve been thinking the same thing. Too good to be true...
So as the silhouette of a single earth pony stepped in from behind the oblivious police officer, one could hear a feather drop as every guard in the place recognised the aged stallion. And how could they not? His was a face they were all expected to know, especially in light of recent events...
“Son of a... bitch.” Caliber said, at an utter loss for words, “I never thought I’d see that face of yours again, but for you to show up here of all places...”
“Aye, it’s been a while.” the mysterious stallion stepped in past his ignorant escort and into the hall full of on-edge guards, “How is my favourite pupil going?”
“I’m no longer a student, much less one of yours.” Caliber retorted, “I still can’t believe you threw your lot in with Terra, but I guess I can now finally understand why they gave you such a high bounty, Atlas.”
“I’ll take that to mean you never asked?” Atlas replied, his serious look shifting behind his reflective bifocals, “Your favourite teacher becomes a wanted criminal overnight, and they never told you the reason? Why am I not surprised?”
Caliber’s stare intensified. “Have you gone senile you old geezer?” he snapped, “You turned traitor. End of story.”
“Well, there’s no dog like a loyal dog.” Atlas retorted, “But I thought I taught you to question everything. If that’s a crime then call me a criminal, but it’s all I’m guilty of.”
Standing before the door calmly, the surrounding guard had him essentially surrounded. A few of them inched in, as if to make their encirclement more obvious. They seemed ready to pounce on Caliber’s word, but he and the old stallion were focused entirely upon each other.
“Now what are you talking about?” Caliber demanded, “I already thought you were insane, but this is pushing it...”
“A certain somepony sought me out one fateful night, spouting nonsense about a great power sealed away, a being that fathered the earth pony race.” Atlas replied as coolly as ever, “I sought the truth behind this piece of lost history, and became wanted because of it. I discovered the princess’ secret before its time, and was labelled a traitor for it.”
“Cute story.” Caliber said, not phased in the slightest, “Well rehearsed I’m sure, but you’re a bit beyond convincing me of anything. Not about Terra, and definitely not about the princess.”
“I know that already.” Atlas shook his head, “And that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.”
“Talk?!” Caliber scoffed, “You can’t possibly expect me to believe that you finally show your face back here just so we can-”
“Don’t talk then. Just listen.” Atlas cut him off quickly, his tone deadpan, “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“What else could there be?” Caliber asked incredulous, “Terra has got to be the oldest and most dangerous enemy the princesses have ever known, and you are his lapdog, a criminal with nothing but lies and betrayal to his name!”
“You really are quick to roll over for those sisters.” Atlas commented, a sense of disappointment to his voice, “It doesn’t suit you. If you are so close-minded, I fear I risked coming here for nothing after all...”
“Look who’s talking.” Caliber snapped, a hint of malice to his voice, “You’re the one who let lies and deception turn you from your duty. They trusted you, I trusted you, and for what? You abandoned it all so easily...”
“Lies? Duty?” Atlas repeated, “Seeking the truth was my duty, and it revealed to me the facts and fictions in the stories you are so ready to gobble up. Now that my duty is to Terra, there have been no questions that haven’t been answered, and no truths that have been hidden. Can you say the same of your princess?
“Of course not.” Atlas continued, the answer clear to his eyes, “It’s written all over your face. There are unanswered questions swirling in that indoctrinated mind. You’ve served long enough to know when you’re being lied to, and you’ve seen for yourself the shadowy ways they work! You don’t trust anyone, you’ve simply been tamed.”
A telling silence hung as Caliber flinched at the accusation. It felt like long ago, but it was only recently that he was caught in a mystery crafted by Celestia herself, designed to bury the reality of Terra’s existence and have her sister’s role in a great tragedy go ignored. He clashed against a stallion burdened by the truth of it all, while he himself was made ignorant, fighting for a cause he misunderstood. He never once wavered in his duty, so why was he never told the actual truth?
“That is why I stand here!” Atlas roared defiantly, “It is not so much I, but you! You all, you guards; you who devote everything to their protection! They lead you along, playing you like fools, sparing you secrets and telling you lies, and to what end exactly? Trust is worthless unless it’s mutual. It won’t lead you down the path this world needs. I have devoted myself to the path that will.”
“Enough.” Caliber finally spoke, “It’s true that I have sometimes wondered about Celestia’s methods, but that has never meant that I do not trust her. In fact, it’s more than that. I believe in Celestia. Every time I have had my doubts, my faith has been rewarded. Every time she has strayed from being upfront, it has not been without reason. And I have seen for myself how those reasons are righteous.”
“Don’t lecture me on good intentions, child.” Atlas growled, “They are no excuse for deception. They will lead this world to ruin as they have already done before.”
“I may not always know truth from fiction, but I know right from wrong.” Caliber held his ground, “As do the rest of us guard. And the distinction has never been clearer.”
“Is that so?” Atlas ventured, continuing to instigate, “Look at what it has come to. This isn’t some grand crusade, or some epic war. Terra only seeks to take back what is his, a right to rule, a right that was stolen from him by your princess and his brother. He has done nothing but contest the throne. It is you and yours who have sewn the chaos.”
“Your king is mad, and you along with him!” Caliber retorted, his old teacher’s words ludicrous to his ears, “You employ savage criminals to terrorize defenceless townsfolk, your own people, into compliance!”
“Terra is driving his cause with his own lifeblood.” Atlas snapped, “His quarrel is but with your princess, yet she raises these ‘innocents’ between him and her fate, cowering behind you so that you can fight her battles!
“Am I wrong?” the old pony continued, “Where is Princess Luna? I stand freely in a palace you claim she is fit to govern, and she is not even here. Where has she run to captain? You must be wondering if she will ever return...”
“The princess will come when she is needed.” Caliber replied evenly, “But you forget that you are here alone, and while I admit our defences are weaker than they’ve ever been, you surely aren’t insane enough to think you’ll get anywhere on your own?”
“I already said I was not here to fight, though if I must make a stand to make my message heard, I’m not about to hesitate.” Atlas replied, “What I mean is, I had no idea your defences would be so crippled when I set out for this city. I do wonder just what would happen if I made an attempt...”
All around Caliber, his scattered guard changed their stance, instantly readying themselves for action. Some looked to the old stallion, prepared for him make a move, while a few look anxiously to Caliber, awaiting his word.
“Stand down.” Caliber spoke, commanding his guard to ease up, “That’s an order.”
Tentatively, the various guards relaxed their posture and looked to one another in uncertainty. Atlas may have been intimidating by nature, but for the captain to avert conflict so directly, the old pony really had to be the real deal.
“Fine then, let’s be diplomatic.” Caliber proposed, “But I’m warning you Atlas, I’m in absolutely no position to play games with you. If I were you, I would speak plainly.”
“Sorry kid, but what I have to tell you is for you alone.” the old stallion replied, “Dismiss your guard. Then we will talk.”
“Tsk, I give an inch...” Caliber visibly scowled, his tone changing instantly, “So much for diplomacy I suppose.
“Guards!” he roared, the palace filling with his authoritative voice, “Negotiations have broken down! Place Atlas Black under arrest!”
The guards all around the palace moved to act on their order, but a moment before they sprung, the grand doors thundered open and through it darted a lone pony, the same police officer that had announced the arrival of Atlas himself.
“Captain!” he called frantically, being sure to steer clear of the old pony as he zipped over to Caliber, “There are more invaders, just outside the palace!”
“What?!” Caliber reeled, his mind racing, “Who? How many?!”
“There’s two!” the officer replied, looking briefly to the motionless Atlas, “And it looks like more of the most-wanted! I’m sure it’s the twins, but there’s definitely something strange about them!”
“Damn it!” Caliber’s teeth were grinding, “Damn you Atlas! What do you have to do with this?”
“Those kids is it?” the earth pony said to himself, his own mind ticking to make sense of it, “For them to make it here, it must be...”
“Guards, stop the twins from reaching the palace!” Caliber ordered, “Engage the enemy, but don’t be reckless! They’re earth ponies, so stick to the air and keep your distance! I’ll handle things here!”
One by one, his guards flocked from the palace, cautiously veering clear of Atlas on their way out the great doors. When the last of them was gone, it was only Atlas and Caliber left in the room.
“Looks like you’ve got your privacy after all geezer.” Caliber broke the heavy silence, “If you really came here to talk, then get talking. You can start with why the twins are here.”
“Are you familiar with the others on the wanted list besides me?” Atlas asked, “Namely, Haywire?”
“The number one bounty head right?” Caliber replied, “He’s the infamous doctor who was banished for his crazy methods. His bounty just kept going up and up in the hopes it’d force him out of hiding, but he’s been laying low for years...”
“Well, that was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.” Atlas said, “He wasn’t assembled like the rest of the bounty heads. He was there from the beginning, before even I knew about Terra. He played a large role in bringing the others together.”
“How is this important?” Caliber questioned, "I asked you about the twins..."
“Well, for starters, he worked out some kind of deal with those sisters.” Atlas replied, “They were only pretending to be on board with Terra. They just wanted the means to fulfil their own agenda, and if they have made it here, then I fear that they’ve been successful.”
“Means?” Caliber repeated, the old stallion’s concern at the concept troubling him somewhat, “What do you mean? And what is their agenda?”
Atlas shot a look over his shoulder and in the direction of the commotion outside before speaking. “You will see for yourself in a moment, and there is little time for explanations.” he said urgently, “There is something else, something more important that you cannot afford not to know.”
Caliber didn’t reply this time, instead tilting his head subtly and listening intently. He couldn’t tell where this was coming from, and why Atlas would be so desperate to supply information to an enemy. Naturally he was suspicious, but even still...
“Do not misunderstand captain.” the grizzled stallion spoke, almost as if he could read his old student’s mind, “I act only in Terra’s interest, but you are not the only force working against him. If you stay ignorant, we would both suffer.”
“I’m listening.” Caliber replied evenly, “What kind of force are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the force that somehow had this worked out at a time when Terra’s name was still dead to the world.” Atlas said seriously, his eyes distant, “The one that showed me the truth behind Celestia’s deception. The one who partnered with Haywire to amass a fighting force that could be manipulated, directed, and shaped into a tool that could be used to kick-start Terra’s return.”
“I’m not about to believe any of that until you tell me just how it’s your problem too.” Caliber said directly, the possibility of this information being fake too present to be ignored, “Weren’t you talking about a force that was working against Terra?”
“Indeed I am.” Atlas replied, “I know not the name of the one who has been dictating it all so far, so well has he kept his identity concealed, but I know that he was the one that knew first of Terra’s seal, the one that partnered with Haywire and brought the most wanted together, and the one who knew to obtain the prophet Scryer to track down and stop the heroes fated to stop Terra.
“His designs are his own however, with Terra serving as but an instrument.” he continued, his tone shifting, “Make no mistake. Everything that has happened so far has been in his favour, and as long as he is free to work behind the scenes, puppeteering this farce, you can be certain that he will succeed.”
“Succeed in what?” Caliber drove the issue home, “What’s his aim?”
“I am here because my prying was found out, but I only learned enough to make them cautious.” Atlas answered, “I couldn’t get to the root of their schemes, but I did discover what the mysterious pony wants with Haywire. He seems to have figured out a way to draw out, or manipulate natural energies. I suspect that whoever this enigmatic pony is, his intention is to take away Terra’s power and make it his own.”
“And that’s why you told me all this?” Caliber asked, “You’re the only one who’s actually on Terra’s side, and he’s in danger of being replaced? I guess I can understand why you’re here now, but still, how is any of this my problem? It’s not like-”
“But that’s just it captain.” Atlas cut him off, “I believe that it won’t stop at Terra, or very possibly, it won’t even start with Terra. If they really are able to cut him off from his aspect and take it in themselves, then Celestia and Luna are just as threatened. More so if they can steal Terra’s power first. Considering the fact that they have Celestia as their prisoner, you should be just as worried as I.”
“I’m not buying it.” Caliber said evenly, “Manipulating powers like those is too far-fetched to speak of so casually. Do you have any proof?”
Almost as if on cue, two figures stepped cockily in from outside, their twin noses turned up as they took in the sight of an empty palace. Their appearance shocked Caliber in more ways than one. Even Atlas’ eyes flashed slightly from underneath his glasses.
“Just as I thought...” the old stallion grumbled, his tone ambiguous, “What has that maniac done to you?”
“Do I hear jealousy?” Tango’s solid face cracked a scornful smile while her sister continued to stare passively, “I don’t blame you geezer. This is everything you ever wanted ain’t it?”
“What... what the hell am I looking at?” Caliber asked with wide eyes, stuck between disbelief and incomprehension, “You two... could you be-”
Like the police officer had claimed earlier, the invaders were clearly the fourth and fifth most wanted, but it was obvious to him that they were also something more. He had never seen anything like it. The whites of their eyes were tinted white-green, and what were once exposed and vulnerable organs had become something more like marbles. But even then, those alien eyes were not half as strange as their bodies. Their once crimson coats now crackled with thin veins of green energy, and what was once flesh had become what could only be called stone. Coupled with hair that had transformed into ghostly manes, the twins' eerie appearance was like that of a statue possessed.
Indeed, the more Caliber thought about it, the more he felt like he had seen something like this before. The eyes, the mane, the terrifying aura that made his hair stand on end... they looked so much like Terra that it almost felt like he himself was standing there bearing down on him him.
“You’re looking at the future of the earth pony!” Tango declared, a false reverence to her voice as she respond to the captain’s original question, “We are the lesser race no more! We are now... The Earthen!”
“You had no right...” Atlas seethed, bringing Caliber back to reality, “That fool’s methods are an abomination! This is no way to inherit the king’s will!”
“Oh, can it you old fart!” Tango snapped, her rocky exterior shifting as she snarled, “No one likes a sore loser!”
“Even from the beginning, your true motives were as clear to me as the day...” Atlas’s tone was truly furious, “You two never cared for the king’s cause! You never cared about what our kind has been through!”
“Maybe if you weren’t so caught up in the past then you wouldn’t have been left behind!” Tango smiled ferociously again, “Like I give a shit about any of that! We’re the future! You’re just a damn relic!”
“You are nothing but pretenders.” Atlas growled, “Masquerading as our allies while you worked with those bastards, plotting against everything we’ve worked so hard to accomplish! You are scum who care about nothing but yourselves, throwing everything away for some illusion of strength!”
“So you did actually have it figured out?” Tango mused, “I guess he was right to send us here after all. But out of all the places you could’ve run, we really have to thank you for deciding to come here. It makes our job just that much easier...”
“If he thought you two would be enough to tie up loose ends, then I suppose I should also be thankful.” Atlas retorted, “I was hoping to have a chance to give you two traitors a proper farewell.”
“Quite the arrogant fuck aren’t you?” Tango spat, “But don’t be so quick to flatter yourself; we didn’t come for you. Truant let us on a little secret, you see? Said that Canterlot had been stripped of its defences for whatever reason, and the time was ripe to wipe it off the map. You being here is just convenient. A nice little bonus, I guess you could say...”
At the implication, a chill ran down Caliber’s spine. He had been so rattled by the sudden appearance of twins, it hadn’t yet occurred to him just how severely he was outnumbered. And if these two had managed to waltz into the palace so casually, there could only be one reason...
“What happened outside?” Caliber demanded coolly, discarding his anxiety, “What happened to my guards?”
Tango smiled wider than ever, giving the sick look of somepony who had been eagerly awaiting the question. “A little slow on the uptake aren’t you pegasus?” she replied, her focus shifting from Atlas to Caliber, “Let’s just say that they won’t be joining us. For now, us four are just gonna have to make do.”
“You bitches.” Caliber snarled, “You better not have killed anypony.”
“Heheh, I dunno...” Tango feigned innocence, “They’re mostly in one piece. Anyway, that was just foreplay. Anyone who dies from something like that ain’t worth worrying about. If they’re alive and know what’s good for ‘em, they’ll stay down.”
Caliber’s teeth were grinding. He couldn’t deny it, the situation was hopeless. If he was worried about facing off against Atlas before, then now he was petrified. He had no way of knowing the extent of the twin’s newfound power, and if they were infamous before undergoing such a horrid transformation, they would most definitely be a force to be reckoned with. So he had three enemies to contend with, each of whom he could not afford to underestimate, and all of them wanted him out of the picture. And with his guards incapacitated or worse, he was now the last solider left standing.
Against insurmountable odds, he would have to hold his ground alone. Utterly outgunned with everything in the world to loose, a nervous drop of sweat rolled on past his eye. There would be no talking his way out of this one, and he could feel that these three opposing parties were only moments from clashing.
Tango quickly picked up on Caliber’s tension. “Heh, what’s the matter there pegasus?” she taunted, “You gonna piss yourself or something? I can’t blame you, you’re all on your own!”
“There’s a big difference between one and zero.” Caliber retorted, cool and intimidating, “If you think the royal guard captain is gonna go down without a fight, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Still a headstrong little brat I see.” Atlas remarked, looking sidewards at the pegasus, “Some things never change I guess.”
Caliber’s undaunted gaze turned on his old teacher. “You erased any nostalgia I had for you when you threw your lot in with Terra.” he snapped, “I won’t let you have your way either!”
“That’s my line pipsqueak!” Atlas spat, but then changed tone suddenly, “But surely even you can tell. Whether or not this hall will belong to Luna or Terra at the end of the day, both our causes are for naught if those whelps get their way. So long as they want both of us dead, I propose-”
“If you’re asking me to team up with you, you can forget it.” Caliber cut him off, “I’d sooner die than be on the same side as somepony like-”
“As would I!” Atlas was the one to interrupt this time, “I’m only suggesting we stay out of each-others way until we lay these traitorous mules to waste.”
“You’re saying some pretty funny things there Atlas.” Tango spoke up, tired with watching the old student and teacher quarrel, “Who will lay who to waste I wonder? It doesn’t matter if you feel like making friends with the fly-boy over there, 'cause it doesn’t change a damn thing!
“Foxtrot and I are twins remember!?” she continued, adopting an aggressive stance with her silent sister mirroring her posture but a few paces behind her, “We’re the perfect tag-team! You two don’t have a prayer!”
“Look like their patience finally ran out.” Atlas remarked, turned to face Caliber, “What do you reckon kid? I don’t know too much about them two, but she’s not lying when she says they’re a perfect team.”
“Then keep them, and us, separated.” Caliber ordered, “Pick your favourite and get out of my sight. I’ll handle what’s left.”
“Tsk, so be it.” Atlas replied, watching as Foxtrot’s deadly posture begun to twitch with anticipation, “Get ready. They’re coming.”
* * * *
“Hey. Marco.” Rainbow Dash nudged the stallion dozing silently in the warm safety of her lodge, “Are you awake? Hello?”
“I am now.” the dozing stallion replied, righting himself and rubbing at his eyes, “What do you want?”
“I’m worried about Paragonia.” Dash replied, watching as Marco looked about the room, regaining his bearings, “He should’ve come back an hour ago.”
“It’s not too strange if you think about it.” Marco said, hefting himself off of his cushiony couch and taking stance beside the anxious pegasus, “Our message to the captain said we convinced Tager to help us and that we were waiting for Luna, so as far as I can tell there’s nothing he needs to tell us, nothing urgent at least. No news is good news right?
“Besides, it also can’t be easy for Paragonia to constantly fly between Hordimare and Canterlot.” he continued, “He deserves to have a break if Caliber hasn’t got anything important to tell us.”
“That’s what I told her.” Tager chimed in, the pegasus entering the room as Marco finished talking, “I knew that guy well, and if he’s in a pinch like you say he is, he’s not the type to waste resources.”
“I’d like to think my friends are important enough...” Dash turned to her old friend, “Just sitting here, waiting to find out if they’re gonna be okay is driving me nuts!”
“It won’t do anypony any good if you worry yourself to death.” Marco replied, “The fact of the matter is we can’t do anything for them while we’re stuck here."
“I know, I know...” Rainbow Dash resigned, “But it’s killing me not knowing how they’re doing!”
“Me too, but I’m trying not to think about it.” Marco said, “You should too.
“By the way...” he continued, changing topic as he looked about the room once more, “Where’s Gilda?”
“She went to get her things together at her own lodge.” Tager replied, leaning up against the window frame and looking out, “That was a while ago though...”
“You sound worried.” Marco joined her by the window, “And that worries me.”
“No, I’m not worried.” the pegasus responded, “Gilda’s a big girl. She can handle herself. But while I was outside, I noticed a whole crowd of ponies who clearly weren’t local, and I could’ve sworn I heard G’s name come up a few times.”
Dash looked between the two, Tager resuming her serious stare out the window while Marco held a hoof to his muzzle, clearly in deep thought. “Is it okay like this?” she asked, the silence concerning her, “With everything that’s been going on, it can’t be coincidence.”
“You have a point.” Marco finally spoke, “But even still, I can’t figure out a reason for anyone to know about us being here. I guess it’s possible Terra used that Scryer guy, but that wouldn’t lead them to Gilda would it?
“Hrm, I’ll have to talk with that kid Torren when we get back...” he continued, obviously at a loss, “Where did you Gilda’s her lodge was?”
“Closer to the edge of town, not all that far from where we came back from the valley.” Tager replied, “Why? Wanna go?”
“Yeah.” Marco nodded, “Like Dash said, now’s a bad time to start believing in coincidence.”
“Scryer? Torrin?” Tager questioned, the names unknown to her, “You guys are still talking gibberish. Whatever, it doesn’t matter, ‘cause it sounds like things are getting interesting here after all.”
"Your definition of interesting concerns me..." Rainbow Dash sighed, "Was it really worth explaining anything to you?"
"Here." Marco said from the corner of the room, throwing a pair of thick woollen coat the pegasus' way, "Put these on. We're going outside."
"Hey look Tager!" Dash joked, "There's one for you this time! Isn't that thoughtful?"
"I reckon it's more cautious that thoughtful." she replied, "Either way, thanks but no thanks. It's too hard to fly in this thing..."
"Good." Marco said as he put on his own coat, tucking his hat away as he pulled the wooden hood over his ears, "Because you're both earth ponies now."
"Oh, I get it!" Dash exclaimed, copying Marco by pulling the hood on her coat over her ears also, "Pretty sneaky..."
"Hmph, so that's how it is." Tager shrugged, the last of them to finally equip her coat, "Whatever. I guess this way's kinda fun too."
* * * *
“Damn it!” Caliber managed between coarse, aching breaths, “They just won’t stay down!”
His royal blue mane was looking a little different due to a significant gash on his forehead. It was superficial, but facial cuts are infamous for bleeding a lot.
He watched as Atlas struggled with the fight of his life. The old stallion swung and stumbled as Foxtrot wrestled with him ferociously, refusing to let up as she kicked, bit, lunged, and charged in a frenzied attempt to hit a vital spot. Her opponent remained in control however, dodging and blocking her onslaught efficiently as he waited for an opening to appear.
But in her maddened state, Foxtrot became more and more frustrated with each failed attack. And in her frustration, she suddenly changed tact. As Atlas pulled his head up and out of range of one of her frenzied kicks, she lashed her own head forward, and sunk her savage teeth into the old pony’s exposed neck.
“Argh!” Atlas roared in pain, tightening his neck muscles on reflex, his unparalleled focus allowing him to stop the mortal blow mere millimetres from penetrating his artery. His instincts compelled him to counterattack and escape the hold, but it was no good. If his concentration broke, even for a second, Foxtrot would take a chunk out of his neck and kill him. Considering his options, he quickly looked over to his mutual ally. Caliber was close enough, but he was in no position to worry about anypony but himself.
Tango stood victoriously before her kneeling opponent, a hateful grin splitting her earthen muzzle. Like her sister, she had yet to take a hit. And while it seemed as though Atlas was the one backed into a corner, it was the captain who was rapidly running out of options.
“What’s the matter pegasus?” Tango teased, “You’re not dead yet are you?”
Caliber rose to his hooves slowly, his blue eyes deadly and staring right at the earthen mare. “Ooh, scary.” Tango mocked him further, “But we both know you’re not going to get very far without your wings.”
Caliber grit his teeth and threw an affirming look to his left wing. His right was currently tucked in for the sake of balance, but his left drooped and refused to move at his command. It had been dislocated. He didn’t need his enemy to say anything, without the advantage of flight, he would be overpowered in moments.
As Atlas had done, Caliber shot a look to his mutual ally, wondering if the old pony could reset the joint. But with Tango still squeezing relentlessly upon his neck, the answer was obvious. The two stallions would have to solve their own problems.
Tango cocked her head unconsciously as Caliber seemingly begun to fidget, rocking his body subtly in some attempt to reposition his limp wing. It continually came to rest in the same unresponsive manner, indicating to Tango that whatever desperate method he was using to relocate his wing wasn’t taking affect.
Though confident, the stone-skinned mare was not patient enough to let Caliber do his own thing any longer. She placed a rocky hoof forward as if to pounce, but she stopped in her tracks as the reason for her foe’s curious actions became apparent.
Seeing her move, Caliber summoned up his courage and did the unthinkable. His breath held and jaw locked, the pegasus tucked his hooves in and rolled left. With a gruesome pop, his dislocated wing became set, the reckless manoeuvre forcing it back into its socket. His roll ending with him back on his hooves and his wings splayed wide, he rocketed forwards with blurring speed as his foe remained in shock a moment longer.
Tango staggered as the captain’s first blow was struck. As if they were blades, Caliber’s wings formed the leading edge of his strike, whipping around in a clean and precise sweep. In his wake, the earthen twin took a curious step backwards, not quite comprehending as she looked down to see a splintering crack stretching from her front to her right side.
“What was that?” she demanded, “There’s no way your wing-play is stronger than rock.”
“Your earthen bodies might pack a punch, but speed is also force.” Caliber remarked, flapping his left and right wings in silent unison, “With enough of it, anything is possible.”
At the other side of the room, still locking down Atlas, Foxtrot saw the aftermath of the captain’s counterattack. Her eyes wandering to the crack extending across her sister’s body, she let her attention slip for an instant, and gave the hardened pony between her teeth the chance he was waiting for.
Inspired somewhat by Caliber’s reckless tactics, Atlas got his front hooves in position behind his foe’s and did what no other grizzly old stallion would do in his situation. Flexing his neck muscles harder than ever before, Atlas pushed his head forwards and pulled his hooves back, tripping Foxtrot and forcing her onto the business end of her own hold. By the time the maddened twin realized what was happening, it was already too late. With a final flex and a full bodied roar, Atlas swung his whole body down, slamming the twin violently into the marble floor.
The throw was absurdly powerful, and would have broken the neck of any normal enemy with ease. In this case however, the sickly crack of bone did not fill the palace, the damage dealt instead told by the sound of shattered rock. But regardless of his power, Atlas’ attack was a double edged sword. Foxtrot had managed to keep her teeth buried in his neck, and slamming her head to the ground was like hammering a nail into his vital spot. The impact had pushed her teeth significantly closer to his artery.
Atlas rose from on top of his fallen enemy, the motionless twin giving no further resistance as the aged stallion got clear and put a nursing hoof to his wounded neck. He could ignore the pain easily enough, but the damage was still real. When he brought his hoof back before his eyes, it had practically run red. Not a good sign.
“One down at least.” he said to himself, taking note of the reaching cracks all over Foxtrot’s earthen body, the damage all but separating her malformed head from her earthen body, “Now, which of these two should-”
Before he could properly decide his next opponent, one such candidate came tumbling over in heap to where he stood. “How are you doing kid?” Atlas asked the panting captain as he got back up and resumed a readied stance, the signs of injury present all over his body.
“Better than you at least.” Caliber responded, noticing the red beginning to run down the old pony’s front, “I only lost a wing...”
“And yet your enemy stands.” the old pony remarked, motioning to the lifeless shell of Foxtrot, “If this little cut here is payment enough for victory, I would pay it threefold and claim this forsaken hall already.”
“You really don’t get it do you grandpa?” Tango interrupted, “You’re a damn relic Atlas. Just look at us! This is the future of our kind! We’re the chosen ones, and no matter how faithful you think you are to your king, you’ve been left behind!
“If you really think so much of the king, then you should know better than to look down on his power.” she continued, displaying her side and the crack stretched across it, “Victory? Don’t make me laugh. You’re both out of your league.”
Caliber and Atlas watched in horror as the crack begun to lessen, her rocky body seemingly healing itself as any proof of the captain’s strike was completely erased. Tango grinned knowingly as Atlas turned on the spot, the conclusion having already dawned on him...
“Damn it all.” the old pony said under his breath, watching helplessly as the once broken Foxtrot emerged from shattered marble beneath her, the remnants of any damage dealt fading away as she silently levelled her gaze upon him, “If this keeps up, we really might...”
* * * *
“There’s so many of them...” Rainbow Dash whispered, her wings cunningly hidden under her beloved woollen coat, “Where in Equestria did they come from?”
Similarly garbed following their stay in Dash’s lodge, Marco and Tager remained silent as they moved inconspicuously down the main street of Hordimare. As it stood, the town’s recent influx of foreign earth ponies gave little than the passing glance at the disguised trio, but considering how quickly things would fall apart if they were discovered, it was better to be safe than sorry.
The small group maintained their silence as they passed yet another attentive lookout. His eyes squinted against the snow, he quickly dismissed the rugged-up ponies as local and continued his search.
As they finally got clear, Marco took the chance to address Dash’s concern. “My guess is this is what was planned for the Appleoosans.” he said grimly, “Terra got to an earth pony settlement that was far away from help, and forced them to do his bidding.”
“But how?” Dash asked, “You’re talking about a whole village getting manipulated here! Didn’t Luna send her guard all over the place so that kind of thing couldn’t happen?”
“You can only spread so thin Dash.” Tager commented from the rear, suddenly interested in what was going on, “If you try to save everypony, you often can’t protect anything. Good intentions are nice and all, but they generally get bad results.”
“I still don’t understand how.” Rainbow Dash whispered, addressing Marco more directly, “It's a whole village dude! It doesn’t make any sense!”
“Look around.” Marco said, “What do you notice?”
Dash impatiently obliged, scanning left and right. “Okay...” she droned, nothing in particular jumping out at her, “What am I noticing?”
“All these unwelcome faces all have one thing in common.” Marco replied, “Obviously they’re all earth ponies, but that’s not all. They’re fit, muscular, and they are also all stallions.”
“What’s your point?” Dash questioned, “How does that answer my question?”
“What he’s getting at is they’re farm ponies.” Tager spoke up once more, “But it takes more than a bunch of muscle-heads to make a village. Whatever town they’ve come from, the kids, the elderly, the bakers, the dentists, and the school teachers were all left behind. And for a reason.”
“That’s right.” Marco nodded, redirecting Dash’s attention, “Back in their hometown, those ponies are most likely being held as hostages to have these more ‘useful’ ones do Terra’s bidding. And on this end, these ponies are also being held hostage, stopping their hometown from seeking outside help.”
“How the heck do you know that?” Rainbow Dash questioned, “That sounds a little too specific.”
“Because it's textbook.” Marco replied grimly, “Similar things have happened in the past, and the results have never been pretty.”
“That’s horrible.” Rainbow Dash whimpered, “And this would’ve happened to Appleoosa if our friends hadn’t done what they did?”
“It certainly would have.” Marco nodded subtly, “Except it would be much worse than this. The longer we take putting a stop to all this, the higher the risk of other towns suffering this fate.”
“How much longer do we need to skulk around like this?” Tager asked impatiently, “Wouldn’t it be quicker if we just took out all these guys? If you’re so worried about ‘em and their hometown, we could probably squeeze them for a name and find out exactly where they’re from...”
“That’s no good.” Marco disagreed, “These aren’t the kind of enemies you can just fight. Each and every one of them are innocent.”
“Does that really matter?” Tager probed further, “You’re doing exactly what the bad guys want if you let them have their way like this. If we sent a few innocent heads rolling, they’d start think that hostages don’t work-”
“Stop it Tags.” Dash ordered, cutting her right off, “That’s not even funny.”
“What?” Tager shrugged complacently, “You guys won’t win if you keep playing their games. And nothing says ‘fuck off’ quite like a pile of beat up-”
“You’re crazy.” Rainbow Dash interrupted her old friend again, shaking her head in disappointment as she did so, “Come on Marco, say something to her...”
Oddly enough, Marco did not respond. As he continued to lead the three of them on, the stallion seemed to be stuck in deep thought. “Um... Marco?” Dash called to him again, “Don’t tell me you're actually thinking about-”
“No, of course not.” he finally spoke up, “I’m just trying to think is all.”
The small group continued to move unobstructed through the town, but eventually Marco stopped in his tracks to recognise a certain building by the side of the road. It was a place he had been earlier...
“Isn’t that?” Dash asked under her breath, also recognising the building, “Yeah, that’s totally it. That’s that bar place we were at before.”
And while Rainbow Dash stopped and looked out of curiosity, Marco had found himself stop for a completely different reason. “Damn it.” he muttered as the door flung open, a pair of locals stumbling out in the wake of two invading earth ponies, “I should have known...”
“Damn it lad, didn’t anypony teach you to respect your elders?!” the ditzy drunk cried, picking himself up and dusting himself off, “What’d you lot get so violent all of a sudden for anyways?”
“I’ll only ask one more time gramps.” one of the shadowy earth ponies threatened, his counterpart pinning down the other downed stallion, the begrudged bartender, “Where do we find the griffin?”
“Why does everypony keep asking me about that dang griffin girl?” the old stallion moaned, “You outsiders sure are obsessed...”
“Stop wasting our time!” the earth pony above him growled, he and his companion lashing out with a swift kick to their respective targets, “Where’s the Griffin?!”
The bartender pony and the drunk fell together, the former raising a nursing hoof to his muzzle as he rose back up to his hooves first. “Just tell them already you blithering idiot...” he snapped, “Or so help me, I’ll never serve your wrinkled old ass again!”
“Heh, wouldn’t that put you out of business?” the old pony chuckled despite himself, apparently taking pleasure from inconveniencing his attacker, “I’m your best customer!”
“Don’t remind me...” the bartender replied, rolling his eyes, “Will you just tell these guys already? I’m not in the mood to take any more hits over your stupid stories!”
Watching the exchange silently, Dash’s eyes blazed under the hood concealing her increasingly enraged scowl. “This is nuts...” she growled quietly, visibly tense even under the coat she wore, “There’s no way I’m gonna let this continue-”
Before she could properly finish her sentence, Marco reached out and grabbed her. He didn’t say a word, and as their eyes met, he silently indicated over her shoulder and at the oddly quiet pegasus behind her.
Tager stood forward, a few paces ahead of Dash and Marco, her expression hidden behind the woolly hood over her head. A telling silence hung over her as she stared at the scene before her, a tension in their air as she continued to observe.
Rainbow Dash turned back to face Marco, and quickly realized that his intention wasn’t to stop her from intervening, he was waiting to see if Tager would be the one to do something...
Curiously however, all she seemed to do was walk. Forwards. Almost casually, she swaggered on up to the scene, and before anypony realized it, the cloaked pegasus was practically upon the bar’s doorstep.
“What the heck are you looking at?” the earth pony standing over the bartender demanded, taking an intimidating step forward, “You’d get out of here if you know what’s good for you, lady!”
“Hey, are you guys open today or what?” Tager asked the bruised bartender, shrugging her hood off and letting her vicious mohawk spring out, “I could use a drink. It’s been a long day.”
“I told you to get lost!” the earth pony shouted, raising his hoof as if to strike, “This hasn’t got anything to do with you!”
“That’s my point you fucker!” Tager roared, punishing the stallion with a lightning fast headbutt, “Of course it hasn’t got anything to do with me! That’s why I’m so pissed off!”
“Damn you!” the remaining earth pony cried as he lashed out with his own strike, “You’ll pay for that!”
The stallion was quick, but to Tager this was child’s play. Even without her wings, the disguised pegasus’ speed ran circles around her opponent as his swing went wide, leaving himself exposed for a well placed two-legged buck.
Before the earth pony knew what had happened, he was sent flying over the surprised faces of the bartender and the old drunk, landing solidly in the snow four full metres from the bottom step.
“You guys got off easy.” she spat as she put a hoof to the side of the stallion she headbutted and shoved him, rolling him down the steps, “It’s no fun beating on idiots who don’t even want to fight.”
“Whoa, nice moves baby!” the drunken old stallion sprung up energetically, “I’d recognise that funky hairdo anywhere! You saved our skins bounty-girl!”
“Oh, if it isn’t the feather-head.” the bartender also stepped back up, “Fancy you asking for a drink. I thought I made it pretty clear you were banned for life.”
“You’re too stingy brat.” the old pony drawled, “The girl saved your ass too, the least you could do is thank her!”
“I’m still trying to pay off the damages from last time I let her in here!” came the reply, the stallion turning his muzzle up immaturely, “Fine, have it your way. ‘Thank you Tager, you’re my hero!’ Good enough?”
“You guys make a cute couple.” Tager didn’t notice herself grin at the pair’s antics, “Seriously. I might vomit.”
“Join the club...” the old pony chuckled, putting a hoof to his mouth as his drunken stomach churned, “Getting thrown around by goons doesn’t mix well with a few too many ciders.”
“A few?” the bartender repeated, a coy eyebrow raising, “You’re not fooling anypony grandpa...”
“Take it inside you two.” Tager ordered, “It’s a bad day to be enjoying the sights. Lock the place up, lay low, keep quiet and all that shit. Just try an’ keep each other company and wait for all this to blow over.”
“Hold on, hold on...” the old pony insisted, “Just what the heck is going on?”
“Does it look like I know?” Tager replied, flicking her hood back on and leaving the two there by the door, stepping over the motionless stallion at the bottom of the steps as she departed, “It’s not like I care or anything, but it’s dangerous out here. There’s a whole lot more where these two came from and I won’t save you again, no matter how nice you ask.”
“Thanks again!” the bartender waved mockingly as his saviour turned her back on him, “...you crazy bitch.”
“We should probably do what she said.” the old pony spoke up from his side, “You know, hole up, stick together, throw back and-”
“Just get inside.” the bartender exhaled tiredly, turning on the spot, “I swear... after all this I could use a drink myself...”
“That’s the spirit!” the drunken stallion slapped him firmly on the back, “Drinks all around!”
“Oh, shut up.” came the begrudged reply, “You owe me enough as it is.”
Marco and Rainbow Dash watched as the bar door slammed shut behind the approaching Tager, the two of them swapping a brief look as they seemed to share the same thought.
“Looks like she got into a fight after all.” Marco whispered, making sure the pegasus in question couldn’t hear, “Though I guess it was better than doing nothing...”
“It still didn’t seem like the right thing to do.” Dash also kept her voice hushed, “I mean, even if they were being unreasonable...
“I get the impression that she didn’t care.” Marco mused, “What would you have done?”
“Dunno.” Rainbow Dash replied honestly, “Not that.”
“What the hell are you two whispering about?” Tager snapped as she returned within range of earshot, “Got a problem?”
“Nope.” Marco said, he and Dash putting on their best smiles as a nervous drop sweat ran down their respective necks, “Shall we?”
The three of them continued on their way for close to a full minute, none of them speaking a word until Tager got fed up and stopped on the spot and turned on the others.
“Okay...” she said, the tension in the air unbearable, “What is it?”
“It’s nothing.” Marco said a little too quickly, “Let’s just keep moving.”
“It’s just that...” Rainbow Dash begun, obviously unable to hold her tongue as Marco had done, “It’s nice to know you care a little about what’s going on here after all.”
“What are you talking about?” Tager cocked her head rebelliously, “I never once said I felt anything for this hell-hole. Truth be told, I hate this place and everypony in it. Everything about it sucks. It’s too cold, and the ponies are all snobs. Not even a decent meal for miles. Not a half-decent fucking thing about it...”
She seemed to pause for a moment and contemplate what she was to say next. And for somepony who wasn’t in the habit of choosing her words with a great deal of care, that must have meant something...
“Listen here you two.” she continued, “Until you guys came looking, I had nothing to do with the princess, and I couldn’t care less about their problems. I may have hated this town and everypony in it, but they never had anything to do with this either. And now look at ‘em. Their lives are being turned upside down and they don’t even know why.”
“You don’t have to talk about it like that.” Dash spoke up once again, “It’s okay not to want to put up with it. It’s not like we’ll think you’re weak or something if you admit you care a little about what’s happening!”
“I never cared what anyone thought about me before, and I’m not about to start now.” Tager shook her friend off as she walked away, “You may have got me a little interested in what’s going on, but I’m still only here for one reason!
“Take me to Terra.” she said evenly from the front, “I’m gonna kill him.”
* * * *
Far away from Hordimare, the thunder of conflict echoing out from the royal chambers of Canterlot had quieted. The city below was mostly ignorant to the battle taking place in the heart of their beloved home, but for the few who found themselves guessing at what force could cause such an uproar, they could somehow tell that this uncomfortable silence was only the calm before further storm.
“Damn it...” Caliber panted, his body shivering with every painful breath, “Now what?”
The statuesque form of Foxtrot closed in on him, limping slightly as the reaching cracks splitting her side and neck rejoined and begun to fade away as they had done before. The muted twin seemed to smile subtly to see the wounded pegasus before her swear in resignation, the stallion watching helplessly as the proof of his resistance was erased by the all too familiar repair of her stone-like form.
Indeed, with their earthen bodies ready to recover from what seemed like any amount of damage, they were the only ones who could actually see the results of their efforts. In the wake of their newfound powers, the small force of royal guards lay beaten, and their palace itself was more or less broken. And perhaps most noticeably of all, the number of their enemies had been cut in half.
Atlas groaned weakly, Tango’s rocky hoof pressed laxly against his fallen figure. The aged stallion had put up one hell of a fight, pushing on as the wound on his neck continued to drain him of his strength, but his invincible enemy had pushed him past the limit until he finally succumbed to his injuries.
For Caliber’s part, he had been squaring off with Foxtrot, but had fared no better than when her sister was his opponent. It was all the captain could do to trade blows, which was bad enough even without his silent adversary regenerating from any lucky shots.
So things truly were going from bad to worse now that Atlas was down. Smiling maliciously, Tango left the defeated old stallion face down in a crater of broken tiles and rejoined her twin sister, the two of them just about ready to put an end to the fight.
“Wipe that smile off your face...” Caliber demanded, talking stance as his troubles duplicated, “This... this isn’t over yet.”
“Denial’s the first stage of grief ain’t it fly-boy?” Tango teased, her satisfaction doing nothing but growing, “And sure we’ve gotta be sure the old guy dies here, we might let you live. If you beg.”
“I told you it’s not over...” Caliber held his ground, “Against the likes of you... I’m nowhere near done.”
“You talk pretty tall pegasus, but just look at you...” Tango lent in ever so slightly, “You’re scared right? You don’t wanna die do ya?”
“Nobody does.” Caliber yielded somewhat, “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of course not!” Tango roared, “That’s why you lose!”
“I’d never lose to somepony like you.” the captain’s tone was even, “Somepony so consumed by madness that they’d sacrifice their bodies, their very lives... all for the sake of power.”
“Well, we just can’t wait to prove you wrong!” Tango spat, not daunted in the slightest by the pegasus' tone, so assured she was of their superiority, “We don’t need those things anymore! And no matter how much your stupid ego wants to deny it, you’ll understand the difference between us when your fucking dead!”
“Oh, I know what the difference is alright...” Caliber instigated, his eyes intense, “You cast aside your hearts, your souls, your beliefs, your family, your friendships, and your very bodies, all for the sake of strength? You’re wrong. It is those things that give us strength. Without them, you are nothing. You’re hollow. You’re already dead.”
“Don’t fuck with me!” Tango roared, her anger overflowing, “You’re really gonna keep spouting that shit in the position you’re in? Look at you! We have all the power you pathetic little pegasus!”
“I didn’t say power, I said strength.” Caliber countered, “But I can already tell that you don’t know the difference.”
Even as he said the words, a light smile formed and a single chuckle escaped the captain’s lips, some humorous realization apparently hitting him.
“Hrm?” Tango scowled, the concept of such a thing striking her, “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Caliber’s smile faded as his seriousness returned, “I just feel like I’ve had this conversation before. Except at that time, it was a little different. At least he stood for something.”
“They really don’t come any dumber than you do they?” Tango seethed, moving forward with intent, “We’re a little past the condescending remarks don’t ya think? Look around! Your guards are down for the count, and your change-of-heart buddy Atlas is done for! You’re alone soldier-boy! Ain’t nobody left who can protect you!”
“If I needed protecting I wouldn’t be the guard captain.” Caliber retorted sharply, “I’m still alive, so stop trying to convince me that you’ve won!”
“You can’t stop us.” Tango carried on despite the captain’s resolve, “We’re the future of all earth ponies! You can’t fight the future!”
“Can those deformed eyes of yours even see?” Caliber questioned, “Just look at yourselves. You don’t have a future.”
“Then I’ll settle for the present!” Tango replied, “Nothing else matters if we can just bring this whole damn palace down!”
“That form of yours won’t last forever.” Caliber said seriously, the impermanence of their unnatural forms clear to his eyes, “Whether it’s today, a year from now, or even ten, soon enough your stone bodies will crumble away, and there won’t be anything left. How could there be? Your lives have only ever been measured by how much you’ve taken away...
“I don’t care how delusional you are.” he continued, his blue eyes blazing beneath a bloodied mane, “If you took Terra’s so called gift so that you could come here, then you already submitted to death before the fight. And if you go to war never looking to come back, then the battle is already decided.”
“Oh it’s fucking decided alright!” Tango bellowed, springing forward, “Get ready solider-boy! It’s time for you to die!”
His every bone aching and muscle throbbing, the wounded pegasus stood firm as his two enemies charged in enraged, burning with a hateful desire to close the curtain on their frenzied battle.
The clash resuming could be heard from outside the palace, the sound of it even stirring some of the defeated guards outside. Among those few, a number of them rose once more, knowing that their fight wasn’t yet over.
After all, the protection of Canterlot was never the duty of a single pegasus.
* * * *
“Defiant to the last are we?” Truant sighed, releasing his magical hold, “How noble.”
Gilda dropped to the ground once more, the griffin gasping as the air returned to her lungs. She was quick to right herself, but despite her stubbornness, she still knew when she was outmatched.
The black-eyed unicorn nodded to one of the several earth ponies surrounding Gilda. The burly stallion got one hoof forward before the griffin swirled, swinging out with a back-clawed slash that connected directly with the side of the pony’s head.
Truant sighed again as another of his minions was sent tumbling backwards, coming to a crunching halt as he slammed into the wooden side of Gilda’s lodge.
“Useless, every one of you.” he spoke tiredly, not even caring to look as the ponies around him faltered to see one of their rank sent flying, “It is so hard to find good help these days.
“Well, they do say that the job is done best when by oneself, but alas, the techniques I usually employ only apply to the pony mind.” he continued, his head almost hung, “And these measures that I am left with are both crude and unreliable. Won’t you simply yield and tell me where this hero character is?”
“Go to hell!” Gilda growled, refusing the unicorn for what felt like the hundredth time, “I already said, never!”
She heard another earth pony step up, and she reeled to match him. Her bloodshot eyes piercing, the intimidated stallion immediately backed up. Satisfied, the griffin rounded back on her original target, only to find Truant leaning in with intent, his long horn primed with black energies.
Before she could guess at what was to happen next, Gilda felt an immense pressure strike her in the chest, Truant’s spell hitting her like a freight train and sending her bailing backwards, the strike all but knocking her unconscious.
Unable to tell why the unicorn would suddenly change tactics and strike her so viciously, Gilda collapsed into the snow heaving, the blow to her chest leaving her severely winded.
“My apologies, but it would seem I no longer need your directions.” Truant was smiling as he stepped out and over the panting figure of Gilda, “Yes... this feeling is familiar. Another fragment of Luna’s soul resides in this town too, and it is drawing closer.
“Most excellent.” he continued, his face the picture of satisfaction, “The one who carries this piece is certain to be related to that missive I intercepted. Which means the hero is with them.”
At this, Gilda’s hazing vision focused, the griffin only then realizing that he was talking about Tager. She unsteadily begun to pick herself back up, knowing that the others wouldn’t stand a chance against Truant’s magic. She had to stop him from leaving, mo matter what...
“Enough.” Truant spoke, motioning for the earth pony nearest to Gilda to prevent her from rising, “I have wasted more than my share on the likes of you.
“Finnish off this pest.” he commanded the surrounding earth ponies, “She is of no further use.”
The half dozen stallions seemed to stall, looking between each other and the wounded griffin as they came to terms with their grim orders.
“If you can’t stomach this simple task, then perhaps you too have no further use.” Truant commented darkly, the crowd around him shivering to comprehend his meaning, “I imagine you are aware of what that would mean to my comrades sheltered in your hometown? I shudder to think how Meetlemarsh would suffer if you were to fail this simple task...”
Whatever hesitation hung in the air was gone instantly as a shadow seemed to cast over the earth ponies’ doubt-filled eyes. Gilda’s teeth clenched as she realized what such a thing meant...
“Very good.” Truant smiled mirthlessly, bidding his farewell to both the griffin and her stallion aggressors, “Then I shall be off.”
The black magic of his horn summoned up by his teleportation spell, he snuck one final smile to Gilda before he warped off in pursuit of her friends.
“Goodbye.” his condescending farewell carried even as he disappeared, all too content with leaving the troublesome griffin to her fate.
* * * *
“Keep a lid on it Rainbow Dash!” Marco hissed from beneath his hood, the reckless pegasus continuously moving too far ahead of him and Tager, “Remember, if we get found out now, we’re in deep trouble.”
He cast a sideways glare at Tager. “We’re already pushing out luck as it is...” he continued with a sigh.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Tager snapped, already fed up with bumbling around in disguise, “I didn’t see you about to do anything back there!”
“It’s a miracle nopony saw what you did to those earth ponies at the bar.” Marco complained, “For somepony who’s mean to be so aware of her surroundings, you sure know how to make a scene...”
“Heh, well I wish I could say the same.” Tager nodded forwards with a grin, “But it looks like Dash got away from you again...”
“Great...” Marco groaned, wondering where the impatient pegasus had charged off to, “What else can go wrong?”
“Excuse me.” a deep pitched earth pony spoke from behind Marco, the buff stallion placing a firm hold on his shoulder, “I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.”
“You were saying?” Tager added coyly from his side, “Maybe next time you’ll just keep your mouth shut.”
“What seems to be the problem?” Marco addressed his interrogator coolly, flicking off his wooden hood and donning his treasured hat, his aim being to settle the stallion by proving that he too was an earth pony, “Anything I can help you with?”
“Cut the crap.” The earth pony spat, “I already know that you two-”
He was cut off suddenly as a sharp cry split the cold air, the source of it only about a block away. The earth pony, Marco, and Tager found themselves point their heads toward the sound, all but forgetting themselves as they tried to make sense of it.
“That was Dash!” Marco turned to the spot he thought Tager stood, “She’s gotten into troub-”
He stopped short when he discovered nopony by his side. Confused, he faced forwards once more to meet with the curious eyes of the inquiring earth pony, only to see him get struck from behind and fall face-first into the snow at Marco’s hooves.
“Looking for somepony?” Tager asked mockingly, “C’mon, let’s go see what happened to Dash.”
And just like that, the pegasus was away before Marco could even speak. He did however find his voice when he spun around, scanning the immediate area to find no less than a dozen earth ponies staring back at him, and the unconscious stallion out cold by his hooves.
“Yeah...” Marco sighed in frustration, “I’m right behind you...”
Tager zipped around the corner at lightning speed, chasing the sound of her friend’s cry down the closest street. In mere seconds she rounded the last corner and arrived on the scene to find Dash pinned down by a foe she immediately recognised.
“Urgh, get off me, creep!” Rainbow Dash groaned, struggling to lift the pale hoof pressing her roughly against the ground, “Let… ah, let me go!”
“Seems like I didn’t need to bother with the griffin girl after all.” Truant smiled thinly as his pit-like eyes took in the familiar sight of the amulet around Dash’s neck, “The magic in that pendant calls to me, leads me-”
Whatever the self-absorbed unicorn was to say next went unspoken, his focus diverting to see a reddish blur launch toward him from the side. And while Tager’s speed was great, Truant’s magic was instant, and the assaulting pegasus was sent tumbling back the way she came as the unicorn struck her with a defensive spell.
“Well now, if it isn’t the bounty hunter...” Truant kept pressure on Dash as he turned his attention on his adversary’s landing place, “Ah, I see. No wonder you didn’t respond to our call to arms. It would seem you have… conflicting interests.”
“Buddy, you have no idea...” Tager flashed a smile, her enthusiasm flaring to recognise an enemy worth her time, “You’re the Truant right? I was hoping I’d bump into you!”
To the unicorn’s surprise, the pegasus before him rocketed directly for him once again, seemingly going for a repeat of the last charge. Truant thrust his horn forward so as to quickly counter her assault as he had done just moments ago, but in doing so he failed to notice the salt-like crystal lob in from his left.
Whatever the mystery substance was, the moment it touched a solid surface, in this case Truant’s unsuspecting side, it burst brightly like a miniature flash-bomb. It was akin to a magician’s quirk, the harmless thing popping sharply into a puff of smoke and sparkles.
His concentration wavering on account of the unexpected strike, his magic wavered just in time to let Tager charge on through unobstructed and deliver to the conceited unicorn a tackle worthy of her reputation.
Truant staggered backwards from the impact, and Dash took the chance to spring up off the ground and bounce over to Tager’s side, instantly mirroring her friend’s prepared stance.
“Damn it Marco!” Tager growled, directing her head up and around, knowing him to be behind the intervention, “Don’t get in the way!”
“Don’t thank me just yet...” the earth pony in question replied, dropping down off of a nearby roof behind the two pegasi, “Those dozen earth ponies you left me with back there are still following me.”
“I thought you’d be able to handle them yourself.” Tager rolled her eyes, “They’re just normal earth ponies...”
“Yeah, come on Marco!” Dash joined in, “Why don’t you use some of those potions you’ve been lugging about!”
Her suggestion was met only by an uncomfortable silence. For Truant’s part, he seemed content with just studying the interaction of the three before him, watching with indifference as they attempted to coordinate.
“Marco?” she tilted her head in confusion, “What’s the matter?”
“I was going to mention this earlier, but...” he finally replied, though he refused to make eye contact, “My potions froze while we were in the valley. None of them are going to work...”
“That’s perfect then!” Tager cricked her neck in preparation, “All the more reason for you to hang back and leave this to me!”
“Don’t be stupid!” Marco cried, “Just look at that guy! There’s no way you can handle this on your own!”
“Jeez, you’re annoying...” Tager exhaled, stepping forwards despite Marco’s objection, “I’ve made it this far haven’t I?”
As the question left her lips, the scene was joined by the earth ponies Marco had forewarned the others about, the dozen stallions filing in with intent. Curiously, as they moved to encircle Marco and the two pegasi, Truant help up a commanding hoof, silently commanding them to halt.
“That’s far enough.” he spoke softly, the ponies in question jarring to a stop at his order, “Just wait where you are.”
Marco and Tager ceased their squabble as Truant stepped up to them once more, that same half-interested look still on his face.
“You sure are quick to fall to infighting.” he commented, “It causes me to wonder if you truly are the comrades of those others.”
“What are you talking about?” Marco’s eyes narrowed, “Dash, who is this guy?”
“Tager said his name was Truant, or something...” Rainbow Dash replied, but her tone was tainted by her own concern, “Hey, what does he mean by comrades?”
“I was just noting how strongly you contrast your friends.” Truant smiled mirthlessly, “Indeed, the only thing you seem to have in common with them is that you too possess a fragment of the princess’ soul.”
The unicorn looked over his opponents with satisfaction as the conclusion dawned on them one by one. But while Tager was keeping her cool, Marco and Dash found themselves scowling with rage for they now knew that they were looking at the face of the one responsible for hurting their friends.
“It is, in truth, particularly amusing.” Truant remarked, taking pleasure in their discomfort, “On one side I am faced with firmly united ponies in the scorching desert, and on the other I am in the ice, my foes seemingly divided.
“Here we have the prideful griffin, the so-named element of loyalty, the infamous bounty hunter, and... you.” Truant’s hollow eyes stuck on Marco as he counted him off. “I wonder if this varied cohort will fare better than its counterpart.”
“You bastard!” Dash yelled, the rage taking over as the unicorn continued to speak so nonchalantly about her friends, “You’ll pay for what you did to them!”
Before Marco or Tager could tell her to wait, Rainbow Dash shot off the mark, rushing recklessly at the unicorn with a speed that seemed to surpass even Tager’s. It almost looked like she might land a strike, but her blurred figure was snatched from the air by one of Truant’s magical tendrils, it’s victim being stopped centimetres from her foe.
“Unlike your ‘friends’, there will be no phoenix to save you.” the unicorn stared seriously at the pegasus in his magical grasp, “Nor will you find that winged serpent of yours able to come to your aid.”
Marco could only watch in horror as Truant bowed his head slightly, letting his long horn tap upon Dash’s forehead. For her part, Tager thrust her wings out from under her coat, but regardless of her intentions, she wouldn’t be able to make it in time.
“I would take you prisoner, but Terra has made it clear only his own kind can be spared.” the unicorn said darkly, his horn burning with evil intent, “My apologies, but I suppose I’ll have you die here.”
What happened next caused Marco’s, Tager’s, and even Truant’s eyes to widen. Staring down the end of the unicorn’s glowing horn, held suspended in the tight grip of his magic, Rainbow Dash simply vanished.
“Wha-” Truant begun, unable to believe his warped eyes. But whatever he intended to say, he didn’t have enough time to think, let alone speak before he was struck. And while nopony understood what had happened, Tager was already in motion, flying in as quick as all hell and twirling mid-flight, cutting the air with her wings as she strafed past her target.
The befuddled unicorn slumped into a kneel, the sudden strike powerful, but doing no significant damage. As Tager landed on the other side of her target, she too noticed the lack of any visible injury.
“Tsk, I can’t get enough speed wearing this fucking coat...” she told herself as she threw the thing off, leaving her hardened leather patch and ceramic weight as her only accessories.
Taking her attention off of the still-kneeling Truant, Tager found herself staring at Marco, or rather, the pegasus breathing heavily by his side. “Nice save!” she called, still not understanding what had happened, “How the hell did you do that?!”
Tager’s expression changed the moment she realized he hadn’t done a thing. Indeed, as she looked closer, the stallion wasn’t even looking at her. His gaze was locked onto something behind her...
“So this is the first hero...” a voice came from behind, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
To Tager’s mind, everything slowed down. Nopony could sneak up on her like this. After all the training, after honing her senses to that of the world’s best, it was meant to be impossible for her to be caught with her guard down. But this voice, it couldn’t possibly be...
“Did you really think you could tamper with my soul without me knowing?” Princess Luna asked the fallen Truant, her eyes deadly, “If you aim to call upon my powers to strike down my friends, then you have another thing coming.”
Now Dash’s escape made sense. With her pendant around the pegasus’ neck, Luna had been able to teleport here, and had also seemingly teleported Truant’s captured foe out of harm’s way.
Marco couldn’t tell if it was luck that she had come when she did, or because she could somehow tell that the two fragments of her power had come together. Either way, once he was sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him, the long-awaited reappearance of the princess was a welcome sight.
“Are you okay Rainbow Dash?” she asked directly, not taking her serious eyes off of Truant, “Are you unharmed?”
“Urgh... I’m fine.” the pegasus groaned as Marco helped her right herself, “Thanks. You saved me...”
Truant scowled as he himself rose once more, keeping his stance firm before the princess. But despite his still exterior, the ponies that were once at his mercy could see the gears turning in his rattled head. Tager was the first to recognise the look forming on his face. The once-confident unicorn was desperately trying to conjure up a way to escape.
“Forgive me if I misunderstood...” Luna spoke to the unicorn once more, “But did you claim to have defeated Philomena?”
“Defeated?” Truant scoffed at the princess’ choice of words, “She came to save her miserable allies, and I killed her.”
“Killed her?” Luna didn’t appear shaken, “Someone like you couldn’t accomplish such a thing.”
“No?” came the arrogant reply, “It wasn’t long after I confiscated your little heirloom that I blasted that whelp to ashes and sent them scattered across the desert!”
“Well, that is the first step.” the princess replied as cold as ice, “Did you perhaps neglect the others?”
Watching the two in nervous silence, Marco gulped to see Truant look his way, his void-like eyes locking onto the pegasus next to him.
“Dash...” Marco whispered, “He might make a break for that pendant. Quick, take it off so you don’t get hurt.”
Tentatively, the pegasus obliged by unclasping the amulet and passing it over to him. But in the moment before she gave it to Marco, during the split second it was between their two hooves, Truant made his move.
With a black flash, the unicorn appeared on top of the two, his slender hoof reaching desperately for the object he desired. The surprise caused Dash to jolt, whereas Marco hadn’t faltered. He had seen this coming from a mile away, he just hoped to hell a certain somepony else had too...
An inch from claiming his prize, Tager slammed into the vulnerable Truant, easily twice as fast without her coat restricting her movements. Pushing all of the momentum of her dive into her front hooves, she combined her tackle with a mighty two-hoofed shove, sending the unicorn rolling backwards considerably far.
On the rebound, Tager landed on all fours between Marco and Dash, her face contorted with the grin of having landed her first fully successful strike.
“I guess you’re not completely useless without your toys after all.” she said sidewards to Marco, “Not bad...”
The distance having been cleared, Luna flew in over Marco and the others and put herself between them and the recovering Truant, guarding them passively as their attacker rose angrily to his hooves. For her part, Luna simply stood with her magic primed, almost as if she was waiting for the unicorn to attempt something else.
Marco quickly realized what she was doing. The princess was trying to force a retreat. After all, she had barely applied her magic, and had yet to use it against Truant directly. To be so sparing, she must have been weak. Which made sense, as she must have only come to save Dash at the moment she sensed her to be in danger.
“Curse you...” Truant growled, Luna’s unfettered stance pushing him into a corner, “This isn’t over. Mark my words!”
Tager stepped forwards as it became obvious her enemy was about to teleport, but curiously, Marco stopped her. The pegasus had half a mind to push him aside, but then she recalled how enraged he had become when Truant boasted of defeating his friends. If anypony wanted him dead, it would be him...
The unicorn’s dark magic flared as the expected spell was loosed. With everypony watching, his cohort of earth ponies included, Truant’s black spell enveloped him and faded away as he teleported away.
Certain that the unicorn was truly gone, Luna’s brave face fell. Her posture slumped dramatically as her exhaustion immediately became apparent, the princess vocalizing the release with a tired sigh.
“Is it really okay to let him escape like that?” Marco asked, understanding, yet still doubtful, “That guy was crazy strong. We’ll be in trouble if he pops up again...”
“Marco...” the princess breathed, apparently too caught up in her own concerns to address his, “Did he... is it true that he obtained my amulet by attacking the others?”
“Yes.” he replied flatly, “No one died, but that’s all we really know. For some reason, we haven’t gotten any new information from Caliber.”
“We’ve been waiting for you to come back so you can take us back to Canterlot.” Rainbow Dash jumped in, “I... we need to see them!”
“Very well then.” Luna nodded sympathetically, straightening up her tired posture, “Let us make haste. We only add to Hordimare’s troubles by staying.”
Even as she said the words, the crowd of earth ponies that had gone ignored begun to mummer, their disorganization apparent now that their leader was gone.
“About that...” Dash spoke up again, her eyes downcast, “I’m not coming with you. I have to stay here.”
“What?” Marco asked in disbelief, “You’ve been the most concerned of all of us, and now you don’t want to go anymore? What happened to what you said? They need you!”
“I know that.” Dash’s replied, her tone unusually level, “It’s just that, well... we still haven’t found Gilda yet. She could be hurt or something, I can’t just leave her!”
The crowd of tense looking earth ponies circled slightly, unintentionally reminding the group before them the danger of loitering.
“Gilda’s a big girl Dash.” Tager reminded her old friend as she saw the desperation cross the faces of the surrounding earth ponies, “She doesn’t need our help, and it’s gonna do more harm than good to tangle her up with these guys.”
“She has a point Rainbow.” Marco agreed despite himself, “Your friends need you right now. We can come back for Gilda.”
“But Gilda is my friend.” Dash muttered, deeply conflicted, “And there’s nothing worse that abandoning a friend! I won’t do it!”
“If you really are a friend of G’s, then you should know better than to count her out.” Tager grinned reassuringly, “And who knows? This might be the chance she’s been waiting on to make up for last time...”
Dash bit her lip silently. Tager hadn’t completely convinced her, but it was now clearer to the troubled pegasus where her priorities truly lied.
“Then it’s decided.” Luna closed her eyes in recognition, finding meaning to the quiet, “Let us return now to Canterlot.”
The encircling aggressors edged in ever so subtly, and Dash, Marco and Tager inched backwards into their own defensive circle, with Luna standing passively in the centre.
But now that the others were close, Luna closed her eyes again and let her magic flow. The luminescent glow enthralled her three targets and Rainbow Dash instantly recognised the feel of teleportation tug at her quickly sickening stomach.
“Oh no...” she managed, holding a hoof to her muzzle, “I think I’m gonna hurl.”
And with those foreboding words, the light enveloping them shifted, and the four ponies were lurched across the world and warped safely back into the comfort of the royal palace.
Or rather, the carnage it had become.
“Oh Celestia...” Dash gasped, the chaos around her reflected in her dizzy eyes, “I really think I’m gonna be sick.”
The regal marble floors were cracked and split all along the once sacred hall, some of them even slick with blood. Some pillars stood with mighty chunks taken out of their intricate stone, while others lay entirely levelled. The very throne had not gone unscarred in the conflict that had raged here, Celestia’s seat having lost a significant portion of its uppermost right edge. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the palace was littered with a small number of royal guards, each alive, but down for the count. Even so, there were no enemies, nor a victor of any kind gloating about the defeated guardians. It appeared that whatever had happened here, it was well and truly over.
Marco, Dash, and even Tager took the unexpected scene in with silent shock. Luna however, was utterly aghast. She had been away, and in her absence her home had been dealt a great blow. In all the years, across all the decades, the palace had never seen such havoc. And at a time when it was under her charge, it had been reduced so swiftly to this...
Not far from her side, Marco was kneeling by the side of a nearby guard. “These injuries are horrible.” he commented, tending to the mare as best he could, “Whatever happened here hit hard. There’s nopony left standing-”
He was cut off abruptly as he felt a desperate clutch at his hoof. The downed guard's eyes were still painfully shut, but she tugged Marco closer with fading strength.
“C... captain...” she struggled, managing but the single word before slipping back into unconsciousness, her armoured head clanking against the broken floor as she did so.
Luna felt a cold shiver run down her neck to hear the desperate plea. “Captain?” she echoed, her voice filling the ravaged palace with ease, “Captain Caliber! Where are you?!”
“Caliber?” Tager repeated, her tone switching to one of concern, “No... He couldn’t-”
She stopped dead and ran across the shattered palace floor, her eyes recognising the figure laying lifeless against the marble only a few paces from the foot of the throne. The slate around him was stained a grizzly red, the mortal wound on his neck trickling blood at an alarming rate.
“This is...” Tager muttered to herself as Marco and Dash raced to the scene, “Atlas Black? What the fuck is he doing here?”
“That’s a lot of blood.” Marco commented, “Is he still alive?”
“Yeah, but at this rate he’s a goner.” Tager looked over the old bounty head, “Who could have done this? I heard that this old dude was quite the hoof-full.”
She continued to check over Atlas for a few moments before she realized Marco and Dash had suddenly fallen silent, and Tager’s nerves twitched to comprehend what such a thing meant. It was a silence that simply screams that something is wrong, and the kind of quiet of somepony unwittingly stumbling upon a gruesome truth...
Her eyes recognised the signs just as well as her ears. Both Marco and Rainbow Dash had their vision locked onto something just across the room, by the great doors that led to the palace. Tager followed their frozen gaze and soon enough she saw it. A silhouette slumped lifelessly on the top tier of the steps outside.
Tager knew not how she recognised the pony. The pure white and regal blue of his coat and mane were disguised under a sheen of red, and his feathered wings hung low and lifeless at his sides. Indeed, it was more the sinking feeling in her gut and the discarded and damaged helmet at his hooves that told her she was looking at the royal guard captain, or as she once knew him, Caliber.
Luna saw him next, and that chilling feeling grew a hundred-fold. She couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead, but what was immediately clear was that the safety of her city had been paid for in blood. It was also clear to her, by looking at his position upon the steps and the unconscious guards all around, that he was the one thin membrane that had kept the palace from falling to the enemy. Even still, despite having been spared a crippling loss at very heart of her home, a death in her name was something she wasn’t ready to face. Not now. Not after everything she had done to put the past behind her; not after all those important promises and oaths she made...
Marco was the first one to notice the stone. He was too captivated by the grizzly scene before him to realize it sooner, but the twin stone formations near the lifeless figure of Caliber were like fallen statues. They were just about as broken and dead as the rest of the palace, but he couldn’t remember such ornaments being here before.
If Tager could tear her eyes away from the sight of her old captain, she would recognise the statue-like forms as the remnants of a further two bounty heads, the Crimson Sisters as they were once known, Tango and Foxtrot. She wouldn’t know how their bodies had been so warped, or what force would be capable of bringing them down, but with the third, fourth, and fifth highest bounty heads all laying defeated, in the royal chambers no less, whoever managed it must have put up quite the fight.
This realization, it seemed, hit the group all at once.
“Caliber?” Marco called, addressing the lifeless pegasus slumped on the steps, “That’s you right? What the hell happened here?!”
“Are you even alive?” Rainbow Dash asked urgently, “Can you hear me?!”
“Captain!” Luna boomed, fearing the worst, “Answer us!”
Still silence. The chorus of desperate pleas didn’t seem to penetrate the pegasus’ bloodied shell...
“Say something damn it!” Tager boomed, “Hey! CALIBER!”
The four ponies audibly held their breath as the ravaged stallion’s head tilted ever so subtly and a single blood-shot eye glared out from under a bloodied and soiled blue mane.
“You’re too loud lieutenant.” Caliber’s rasp voice carried, full to bursting with a strength that defied his utterly wrecked form, “I can hear you just fine...”
* * * *
Back in the chilling winds of Hordimare, concerned heads peeked out from behind drawn curtains and barred doors, watching in cautious silence as the invading earth ponies seemed to file out in an unorganized mess, their apparent leadership having abandoned them here.
One such stream of retreating ponies left the town by way of its eastern exit, close to which lay a victim of their occupation. Beaten and pretty much left for dead, Gilda laid sprawled out with her face to the snow, not reacting as the earth ponies who had assaulted her parted around her motionless figure on their way out of Hordimare.
“Damn it...” she growled as the chorus of retreating hoofsteps faded away, “I couldn’t even stop the one unicorn...”
She bore many painful injuries, but what hurt most was her pride. It was a demon she swore to be rid of following her reunion with Dash, but even so, to be unable to keep Truant from teleporting to her friend and to then be overpowered by his earth pony followers... it was humiliating to say the least.
But it wasn’t her pride that kept her going, it was Truant’s hubris. Thinking her to be done away with, he had carelessly revealed the name of the town he and those working with him had been using to hide. And while she hadn’t the place to piece it together herself, it was also the town from which these earth pony invaders had been drawn.
She didn’t even know if this information was important, but she had no choice but to cling to it. If they could use it, if it could be of help to her friends, then perhaps she hadn’t endured this for nothing.
So Gilda did the only thing she could do. Crawl. Face to the ground, inch by bloody inch, she pushed forwards. She just needed somepony, anypony to come to her. If she could just get them to carry on her message, she just might be able to avoid failing her friends...
She stopped her struggling to hear the crunch of snow beneath hoof as a lone earth pony stopped in front of her beaten figure. She raised her head to see, but that brief moment of hope was met only with dread.
“This is your fault.” the enraged earth pony hissed, apparently the only one remaining of his group, “Because of you...”
Gilda let her eyes close as the stallion ran at her, the sound of his hoofsteps against the snow getting louder and louder until...
She opened her eyes again to hear the earth pony slide across the snow, having been knocked out cold only a few paces from his destination. Gilda couldn’t properly raise her head, but whoever her saviour was came into her field of vision from above, his wings flapping idly for a moment until landed right by the griffin’s head.
Gilda didn’t waste a second, reaching to the pegasus’ dark purple hoof the moment it touched ground and gripping it as tight as she could.
“Hey... mister...” she breathed, “Please... listen to what I have to say...”
“Don’t waste your energy.” the pegasus spoke, his voice gravelly, “I saw the whole thing.”
To hear his indifferent tone, Gilda raised her head and took in the full appearance of the one who had saved her.
“You...” her pained voice stung of surprise, “You’re...”
On closer inspection, the pegasus staring down at her was a face she’d memorised some time ago. Not that his razor-sharp teeth and yellow snake-like eyes were easy to forget, but she had to look twice to be sure, so unbelievable it was for her to be gripping at his hoof in a place like this...
“Doctor Haywire, at your service.” he smiled coyly, flashing his shark-like teeth, “Although you probably know me by a more... flattering title.”
“I don’t...” Gilda struggled to make sense of his appearance, and by extension his actions, “Why did you...”
“Like I’d sit by and let some thug beat on a girl.” Haywire seemed to attempt a disarming smile, though it fell apart on account of his menacing teeth, “Sorry I didn’t jump in earlier, it’s just that I’m not very good at fighting, and I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of that mean-ol' unicorn.”
Gilda held her tongue for a second as the gears in her head slowly started to tick. This was the pegasus Tager had been hunting down until Marco and Dash intervened. There was absolutely no way she could trust him...
“What’s with that look?” Haywire cocked his head, able to read right through the griffin’s thoughts, “I’m not gonna bite or anything. Actually, I thought I might lend a hoof.
“After all...” he continued, pulling something out of a small satchel on his right side as he spoke, “I wouldn’t be a very good doctor if I didn’t treat someone in such dire need as yourself.”
Curiously, Haywire held up the object he removed from the satchel in front of Gilda’s eyes, waiting for her to take it. For her part, the griffin just eyed the tiny thing with suspicion. It was just a plain-looking little red pill.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret.” Haywire spoke again, knowing why Gilda hesitated to take the pill from his grasp, “This is the medicine that got me in so much trouble and made me a wanted pegasus. And while it hasn’t exactly got the Canterlot Medical Association’s tick of approval, take it from me, it works.”
Tentatively, Gilda grabbed the little pill with weak claws. She kept it away from her beak, but she was finding herself less certain of the pegasus’ motivation. She was fully aware that desperation was clouding her judgement, but if there was even a possibility that Haywire could be trusted, at least this far, then maybe...
“So as long as we’re sharing, why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?” Haywire lent in even closer, smiling slightly as saw through Gilda's doubts and picked out the perfect words, “Come on... what have you got to lose?”
Gilda winched. She had no choice. “Please...” she managed, “My friends have to know where that guy came from. It was a place called... Meetlemarsh. You’ve got to...”
Oh my, he let slip with something like that did he?” Haywire pondered, tapping at his muzzle with that same grin still on his face, “It’s no sweat of my back to carry on your little message, but as you’ve probably guessed, my charity only extends so far. What’s in it for me?”
“I’m begging you!” Gilda grovelled, shame and desperation combining to form a single frustrated tear, “Please just do this! Help my friends!”
“Hrm, that’s curious...” Haywire commented unsympathetically, truly intrigued, “You got so roughed up because of your pride, and yet here you are, giving up said pride.
“Heh, sacrificing what you treasure most for the sake of one’s friends is it?” he continued, “How poetic. Your buddies must mean much to you. Then again, they’re not my problem. Unless...
“Hey, this might sound a bit weird, but...” Haywire lent in so close that Gilda could feel his hot breath, “What are their names?”
The chilling wind that blew constantly from the wastes outside the town seemed to turn still as the broken griffin took her leap of faith. Haywire’s uncaring eyes just stared down as the names he asked for were spoken, none but him and the abandoned street there to hear them...
“Hrm, I see.” Haywire tapped at his deformed muzzle, “Interesting...”
He continued to contemplate for a few more moments, ignorant of how Gilda was hanging on his next word.
“Okay then.” he finally nodded, “I’ll deliver your little message.”
“Thank you...” Gilda exhaled the breath she had been holding, “Really, I-”
“Don’t sweat it.” Haywire dismissed with a shy chuckle, stepping forward as if to leave, “Just take that pill I gave you, otherwise you might die-”
“Hey, wait...” Gilda stopped the pegasus from walking past her, “I didn’t tell you where they are yet...”
“Ah, don’t you worry your little head about that...” Haywire stepped past the griffin on his way out of the city, a sick smile parting his lips, “You don’t need to tell me where to find ‘em.
“...I know where they’re headed.”