A storm was brewing.
It might not have seemed like it to most, what with the wide open blue skies, but for weather pony Aria Blaze it was as clear as the muzzle on her face. It was impossible to miss the tingle in the roots of her feathers, or the sense of pressure in her ears. Far below her hooves the Everfree stretched out in an unending carpet of green, the source of so much of the strange weather that battered Ponyville.
Spreading her wings wide, she caught a rising thermal and soared higher in a lazy spiral, landing on a little fluff of cloud floating on its own. There were wisps of grey far on the horizon. A swirling vanguard of an oncoming weather system, that was about to cause Ponyville some problems. Even from this distance the power of the storm was evident. Her hometown was going to be subjected to an absolute deluge. As she pondered the ramifications of this particular downpour a piercing cry echoed through the air. Aria allowed herself a small smile at the large large red tailed hawk swooping around her. Wordlessly, she extended a leather gloved hoof, letting the bird land.
“Looks like we’re gonna have a stupid long night ahead of us Deathclaw.”
The hawk clacked his beak in response before nuzzling his owner.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get you some mice later, okay?”
Satisfied with that answer, Deathclaw took wing again. Aria followed suit, the pale fuchsia pegasus shifted the angle of her wings and whipped about, her purple and aquamarine pigtails tousled in the breeze. Soon the trees were behind her as she shot for a small circle of fluffy clouds floating around Ponyville’s outskirts. A pair of pegasi waited for her there. One was midnight azure coated with a wild white mane her forelegs draped over the edge of her perch. The other stood, attentive and wings twitching with a nervous energy. Her pale blueish-purple coat and neat blonde mane were a stark contrast to her companion. The second pony took a step back, giving Aria room to land. Deathclaw settled down on his master’s outstretched hoof a moment later.
“What’s it like out there?” the blonde asked. "Was I right? I was right, wasn't I?"
Aria frowned, rolling her eyes. “You were right Cloud Kicker. There's a thunderstorm heading our way. Should hit sometime tonight.”
“Great,” the other one sighed. “We have the Queen visiting! We can’t let a thunderstorm ruin the festival.” She glowered at her fellows. “You’re just going to have to pull an all nighter!”
Aria frowned. “Night Glider, we’re short hooved as it is.”
“So? Festival! Queen! Come on!”
“If Starlight Glimmer is going to send you to check up on us, you can’t just throw your weight around—” Aria began.
“Whoa, whoa! Calm down Aria! I’ll help out of course. Don’t need to lose your temper or anything.”
“You do have to work on that temper of yours,” Cloud Kicker agreed.
Aria huffed but nodded. “Alright. ...Sorry.”
Cloud Kicker blinked, jabbing a hoof towards the ground. “The hay? Is that a caprataur?”
Argument forgotten, Aria and Night Glider followed Cloud Kicker's outstretched leg. Sure enough, two ponies were walking along the narrow road towards Ponyville’s weather tower, followed by a large, horned bipedal figure. With a very large axe strapped across its back.
“Ponies are hiring caprataurs for guards now?” Night Glider asked.
“That’s not a captrataur,” Aria growled. “The horns are the wrong shape.”
“How do you know? It’s not like you spend time in the Everfree,” Cloud Kicker said.
“Lightning Dust does. She’s told me all about those things.”
“Well, did your mare—” Night Glider started.
“She’s not my marefriend!” Aria snapped. “Ugh! Night Glider, you are the worst!”
“Well, what do you think they want?” Cloud Kicker asked, shuffling from hoof to hoof. “They could be anypony! And that axe looks really sharp!”
The identity of the ponies and their associate was indeed a mystery. But answers weren’t going to present themselves on a cloud.
Aria flapped her wings a few times. “I’ll go find out. Stay here Deathclaw.”
Deathclaw gave a shrill cry in disagreement, before grudgingly shifting over to Cloud Kicker. She let loose a high pitched squeal at the sensation of taloned feet on her back. “Aria! I don’t want your bird! Get it off of me!”
“As soon as I get back!” Aria cackled, before rolling off the edge of the cloud.
- - - -
“I’m beginning to think that this town is paranoid,” Adagio grumbled.
Adagio, Will and Suri stared up at the impressive form of Ponyville’s weather tower. A singular lance of stone that stabbed into the sky, it was fortified like the ranger’s lodge and Ponyville itself, featuring a crenulated set of battlements at the top. To Adagio all of it was beginning to feel absurd.
Suri shrugged. “Maybe it’s because of the Everfree?”
“We’re two days away from Canterlot!” Adagio exclaimed, waving a hoof at the tower to insanity before her. “This isn’t some town on the outskirts of The Heartlands, surrounded by monsters!”
“Maybe somepony should tell the monsters then."
Adagio squeezed her eyes shut. Oh, what fresh torture is this?
Opening them again, she looked up at the voice that had addressed her. A pegasus hovered overhead, all purple and aquamarine and with a grumpy glare on her face. Adagio felt her mood improve slightly. Finally, a pony in this town that she could relate to!
“Who are you?” the pegasus asked.
“Baroness Adagio Dazzle. I’m here to speak with the head of the weather patrol.”
Before a response could be provided, a shrill cry rose from a small tuft of cloud, high overhead. “ARIA! Its feet feel really strange!”
The pegasus- Aria apparently- smirked. “That would be me. What can I do for you?”
“It’s a simple matter. I wanted to know the status of the weather for the festival.”
Aria sat back on her haunches with an idle ruffle of her wings. “Weather status huh? Well, we have a thunderstorm brewing over the Everfree. I’m guessing it’ll hit sometime tomorrow morning, assuming we don’t knock it out.”
A thunderstorm? Wonderful.
“...I’m assuming that you have a plan for that?” Adagio asked with a faux soft smile.
“Of course,” Aria said, her eyes narrowing. “The Ponyville weather patrol has handled plenty of thunderstorms and if it's big enough, we’ll call in help from the Ranger’s pegasi.”
In that sentence Adagio saw an opportunity. A chance to earn a little more good will with her subjects and Queen Chrysalis.
“Well, if you need an extra pair of hooves, one of my guards is a pegasus. She has strength and stamina to spare.”
Aria hummed, rubbing her chin. “I guess it’d be pretty rude of me to deny your generosity m’lady. I’d have her rest up though. We’ll be working through the night.”
Adagio glanced back at Iron Will with a raised eyebrow. “Will?”
“I trained everypony in that squad. I can guarantee that they can handle any amount of work you throw at them.”
“Alright then,” Aria nodded. “Have your pegasus swing by tonight.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to handle that,” Aria grinned.
Adagio watched Aria soar back up to her cloud perch before sighing and turning towards Suri and Will. “Let’s get back to the manor.”
- - - -
The journey back to the manor house had been thankfully devoid of any more distractions or shenanigans and once they were back, Adagio had been able to give her guards their new marching orders. With Will and her guards gone and Suri taking a nap in the servant’s quarters, Adagio found herself alone in the main bedroom.
The wide rectangular chamber had been her parents' bedroom back in the day and was still just as she remembered it. Her mother’s collection of hoof carved knight figurines resting on the mantle above the fireplace. Her father’s poetry books- most of them romance focused- still sitting neatly in their shelf.
She flopped backwards onto its queen sized mattress with a huff and a pout. She stared at the rich purple canopy, her mind racing over the events of the day so far. On analysis it had gone worse than she would have liked, but better than it could have been, considering the state of the situation when she arrived.
Letting her eyes drift closed, Adagio tried to fall asleep, and allow the stress of the day drain away. This quickly proved to be futile. No matter how she flopped, twisted or tried to lie on the bed, the mattress felt far too lumpy, itchy and just... wrong. Grunting, she rolled off the bed and walked down the hall towards her own childhood room.
It had been almost twelve years since Adagio had really walked the halls of her family’s summer manor. She just... hadn’t had the stomach for it. At least with Suri, Will and her guards the old place felt a lot less empty.
Like her parent’s room, her old bedroom was much as she left it when she stopped coming here. Voraciously curious as a filly, she had collected quite the library of journals and books as she grew up. The former were full of her own writings. Mostly observations on the politics her parents were involved in and amaturely scribbled poetry and songs that had never really gone anywhere. The books were all history, philosophy and science. All parts of her classical and nobility based education. Even during the summer, they had always wanted her to learn.
Lowering herself onto her old bed, she sighed in relief at the much more comfortable feeling of the familiar mattress that seemed to remember her just as fondly. Tomorrow was the festival and despite everything she had done today, the coin was still in the air on whether or not she had accomplished anything. There was a vice like grip that had settled into her stomach.
I wonder if Fancy Pants ever has these doubts? He’s always so confident, she thought. Of course, it’s not like he gives a damn about having the king and queen like him.
Perhaps that was the secret? To look out for oneself before the ideals of harmony that The Heartlands so wanted to embody? It was a question that danced enticingly at the edge of her mind. Had she been willing to be more ruthless, could she have already been a baroness? Could she have pushed her house back to glory?
But right on the hooves of those thoughts came memories and the soft words of her mother. If she were here, she’d cluck her tongue at such thoughts, and set to gently brushing Adagio’s mane while explaining what it meant to be a noble.
“We owe as much to our subjects as we take,” her soft voice said, echoing in Adagio’s ears. “A ruler needs the love and respect of their subjects. Without it we'd be no better than thugs, extorting tribute from travellers on the road.”
Adagio sighed and rolled onto her side. For now she’d see what tomorrow would bring.
- - - -
A cracking impact split the silence of the Everfree Forest, forest birds scattering at the sudden burst of noise. A moment later the wounded tree toppled over with a second thunderous crash.
Iron Will was in his element. Despite his bodyguard profession, his life serving the Dazzlings had been mostly uneventful... with perhaps one noticeable exception before now. There just wasn’t a lot of opportunity for the kind of exhausting, work up a sweat labor that he liked to do. And it gave him a chance to really use his axe for something besides intimidation.
Tightening the grip on his axe, Will pulled back as far as he could, and selected his next target. It was a thick pine tree, uprooted by the sudden shifting of the terrain, that had toppled across the sturdy stones of the Great Western Road. Bringing the blade down in an overhead strike, its razor honed edge clove into the wood like the talon of a mighty dragon.
All around him, the Everfree Rangers worked with his fellow guards to clear away the underbrush and the chopped up remains of trees he had already felled. He mostly ignored the fact that the rangers were very intently working as far away from him as possible. If they wanted to hold backwards beliefs, then they could do that in their little compound, as disappointing as that was. The sole exception to that was the turquoise pegasus at his side, Lightning Dust.
“You know, if you lose your grip on that, it’s going to be a rather cutting end to our relationship.” She smirked, setting to push one of the halves off the road
Will raised an eyebrow and began to carve the other half into smaller chunks. “....And I thought my jokes were bad.”
“Hey now, don’t go to pieces on me Will!”
She gave the log a strong buck, sending it toppling off the side of the road before looking up at Will with a cheesy grin. Will mentally shrugged. Battling puns it was.
“Now you’re really beginning to hack me off!”
“You want to fight big guy? I’ll take a little off the chop!”
“Really? I bet I could make you cleave me alone.”
Lightning Dust cleared her throat. “Cutting things.”
There was a momentary pause before minotaur and pony broke into roaring rounds of laughter, doubling over at the sheer horrible goofiness of the lines they had just finished throwing at each other. Adagio’s guards, familiar with Iron Will’s jokes, rolled their eyes and kept clearing brush. Spitfire was much less amused however. She swooped down on them, wings flared and tail thrashing.
“Would you two idiots knock it off and get back to work! I’d like to get out of this forest before nightfall and the rest of the damn ‘taurs show up!”
“Oh, calm down,” Will huffed, rolling his eyes. “We’re just about finished here.”
Spitfire rolled her eyes right back at him before galloping back over to her group. Will watched her go with a frown. There was something about that mare that was gnawing at his instincts. ...Besides the obvious speciesism. They were so very eager to get out of here. Which could be because of his distant kin, admittedly.
“She always like that, Lightning Dust?”
“Pretty much,” Lightning shrugged. “The Everfree is a dangerous place, even this close to the edge. The sooner we get out of here the better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you and caprataurs related? Two legs, similar names, horns.”
“So I’ve been told,” Will said, turning his attention back to chopping wood.
“Don’t you know anything about them?”
“Only a few stories. My people’s elders have always said that we drove our goat headed cousins out of the home islands centuries ago. Don’t know how true that is, but I’ve never seen one.”
Lightning bucked another log off the road, glowering all the while. “Consider yourself lucky. I’ve only tangled with the Everfree tribes once since I joined the Rangers. I thought I was pretty fearless until I saw six of those brutes come thundering out of the undergrowth, waving spears and clubs and screaming like they were Scorpan himself.”
“How long you been with this outfit?”
Another log was sent flying. “A couple of months. Transferred up from the reserves after a lot of training.”
“That why you’re not so anti-taur as your fellows over there?”
Lightning Dust winced, her ears flicking back. “Sorry about the lodge. They’re just...used to fighting creatures like you.”
Will waved a hand dismissively, sparing a backward glance towards Spitfire and her flunkies. Now they were scattered about in groups of two while working, occasionally muttering to each other while keeping an eye on the surrounding forest. He scanned their surroundings as well, in case his taller stature would let him see something that the rangers couldn’t.
The undergrowth was thick. Even as it was cleared away from the road there were still plenty of places they could be ambushed from, including the small rise in the ground just off to their left. The partial gloom from the thick canopy certainly didn’t help either. Really, upon a second look he could see plenty of reasons for the rangers to be worried about beasts slinking through the underbrush. Still…
Dropping his voice to a whisper, he tapped Dust on the back. “Tell me, you notice anything strange as of late?”
“Besides the new noble and her minotaur bodyguard?”
“I mean with your fellow rangers.”
Lightning Dust blinked. “No? Some rangers got redeployed to other lodges recently. But that happens all the time. What are you driving at?”
“I’m not entirely sure. Just...my gut instinct is telling me that something is up.”
“I’d suggest cutting down on the late night snacking. There’s nothing going on here.”
Will shrugged. Maybe Dust was right, maybe she wasn’t. For now, he’d give them the benefit of the doubt.
- - - -
Miles beyond where Iron Will and the Everfree Rangers worked, the crackling thunderstorm continued its approach. The massive thunderhead moved with the swiftness of a whole herd of pegasi, darkening the sky ahead of the sun as it dipped towards the horizon. Peals of thunder echoed through the trees, while lightning danced along the cloud’s belly like jagged daggers. The Everfree’s monsters and caprataur tribes alike recoiled at the clashing cacophony.
Even the largest of the Everfree’s beasts weren’t immune. Hydras dove to the depths of their lake homes. The mighty star beast ursas retreated to their caves, roaring at the sky for disturbing their hunts for food. Their responses were different, but the reasons were all the same.
Something was coming.