"Please, cut them out!" Spike cried, spewing a stream of green fire throughout the cave. The pain was unlike anything he had experienced or could describe. It made the first day they'd started growing feel like a mild annoyance by comparison. Now, he might as well have been run through with a dozen swords."I can't take it anymore!"
"Keep pushing, Spike, you are almost there. The pain will subside soon, as long as you keep pushing."
Had it been anypony else, the words would have fallen on deaf ears. There were many he could have called mother, but Celestia was the most motherly of them all. Only her voice could pierce the blinding agony.
"Follow the pulses. Use them to feel your new muscles,"
Electricity raced down his back, hitting muscles he'd never had before. They convulsed and cried on their own, though that pain was nothing compared to the agony of growing and releasing his wings. Even the painkillers weren't working anymore. At this point, his world was nothing but darkness and agony.
Then a new cutting edge of torture ripped through his back as he tried to follow her advice. There was a splash of liquid soaking his body and the cave floor he was lying on. A strange, cold sensation crystallized on scales and flesh he hadn't felt before.
"Hold still, Spike. Your wings are free. You will feel a burning sensation. As a dragon, it will be new for you, but it will be temporary. Afterwards, the pain will subside."
She hadn't lied. Whatever new hell this was, it was focused and unimaginable, and it was removing his flesh as he screamed out. The cave itself threatened to collapse in a sympathetic earthquake, his cry was so great. The instant the pain faded on his left, it started on his right.
"The Grand General and I are using a solar plasma stream to cut away the dead flesh. Even bloated with fluid, the scales are fireproof. Nothing less can cut them cleanly."
"Please... Make it sto-o-op..." Spike's tears had already burned a hole into the cave floor a meter deep, and the agony just kept coming.
"We're done. Your pain should subside in the next few minutes."
Spike sobbed. Promises meant nothing at the moment. All that mattered was the pain. Yet her words proved prophetic. Slowly, moment by moment, the pain went from “unbridled torture” to “excruciating” to simply “horrific” to finally, at long last, just “terrible”.
"I know this has been hard for you, my son, but the trial is nearly over. You have but one final task to perform to get your new wings."
"Please... The pain..." Spike inhaled, his lip quivering and tears still flowing. "How can I make it stop?"
"As I said, there is only one more thing to do: flap. Flap your wings, hard, and keep going. Now, Spike."
Spike nodded and probed his new muscles, letting them twitch about and flail until somehow, against all odds, they did as he asked. They flapped.
"Again, my child. Keep going, again and again. It will help your pain, and someday, let you fly."
He did just that, flapping them in the heart of the cave, moving them and stirring the ground, but never taking off.
"Just like a duckling in an egg, you had to be the one to hatch your wings. You must be the one to move them now, so that they may grow strong. If you don't, you will never fly, and this will all be for naught. Flap your wings, Spike. Do not worry about whether you lift off from the ground. That will come in time. All that you need to do in the here and now is flap. The rest will come in due time."
Spike flapped again and again. Each movement was easier, each breeze carried some of his pain with it to some unknown place.
"You have beautiful wings, my son. Make them strong and proud."
He would. He had to. He had paid for them, and he intended to collect his due.
"So they have something for us?" Rainbow asked.
Twilight nodded, stretching out on her bed and letting the caffeine refuel her mind. "Yeah. Not sure what it is yet, but Intelligentsia thinks they have something big. They asked for a bit longer to put it all together. I'd get ready if I were you. Remember,—"
"It's never easy." Rainbow finished for her. "Gotta be the unofficial motto of the Evening Guard."
Twilight's ear twitched at the knocking at her door, and the voice that followed.
"Hey, Twilight. It's me, Spike."
"Spike!" She pulled open the door, letting her little brother in her room for the first time in over a month. He had been nearly bedridden the entire time, but now it was time for something different.
He walked in with two huge wings wrapped around his body. Though they weren't as large as Celestia's, they were still impressive. He spread them out one at a time, unfurling their leathery, scale-covered spans.
"What do you guys think?"
"I think it's time you got some lessons from Rainbow." Twilight took him into a huge, strong hug, squeezing him like a giant bottle of hot sauce. "They're magnificent, Spike. I'm so proud of you!"
"Yeah, gotta say, sulfur breath, you got quite a thing going there!" Rainbow gave him a noogie. "Next thing you know I'll be running you ragged in the air, too!"
"Thanks, guys. Ow. Still kinda hurts."
Twilight let go, not wanting to hurt him any more than he already had been. "How are you feeling other than that? Still tired?"
"Yeah, this whole thing has left me drained. Literally, in a way." Spike sighed and flopped onto a seat, futzing with his wings so he wasn't on them. "Celestia says I can't go with you for a while yet. Apparently, just like a pregnant mare, my body takes resources, minerals, cells, bone material, and a whole bunch of stuff from the rest of me to make these things. I have to rebuild myself before I can come with you. Could take months."
"You focus on recovering." Twilight put her foreleg around his back as gingerly as she could. "Don't worry about us. Just rest, eat, and do light exercise as recommended by Celestia. You'll be back in no time; you'll see."
He wiped away a tear. "Thanks. I needed to hear that."
"Hey, I got an idea!" Rainbow lit up, clopping her forehooves together. "We should head out and do something fun after we get back from our next mission! Just the three of us, and maybe Trixie. Can't just train and fight all the time."
"Now that I can get behind. What do you say, Twilight?"
"Sounds good to me. I could use a real vacation, even if just for a day." Twilight pulled open her closest, then stopped and laughed at what she saw: bookshelves. "Dangit, I was going to look at my clothes for some ideas, but I stashed all of them in my storage unit and filled my closet with books."
"Heh, yup, that's Twilight all right." Spike pulled out one of the spell tomes and flipped through it while Rainbow snickered. "Clothes, in a closet? Pfft. Clearly should be filled with books."
"Well, I'll deal with that later. Time to go poke Intelligentsia about what it was that they found."
"Hey, Gen." Twilight poked Intelligentsia on the shoulder as she was face-down in a stack of papers. "You okay?"
“Yeah,” Rainbow said. “You look like you went a few rounds with the sand pony. And lost.”
Intelligentsia groaned and yawned, and a document stuck to her face as she lifted up her head. "I've just been... Busy. Really busy."
Twilight raised an eyebrow. "And did you find some ponies to train like the Princess wanted you to?"
"Like I said, busy."
Spike started counting on his fingers. "Twilight relieves her of duty in three, two, one..."
"Exactly, Spike." Twilight plucked off the paper from the Lieutenant's face. "Gen, I think it's time you had another order to get some sleep."
“Later. After the briefing.” Intelligentsia slammed down a tall cup of coffee and gasped. “Okay, ready. Lots of ground to cover. Going to need to fly through things. First and foremost, we’ve finally hooked a lead on the pony that escaped from Wintervale. Everypony, say hello to Slick Dagger.”
She slapped a mugshot picture down on the table and spun it around to face them. The gruff chin, the stubble beard, the scar on the cheek, all kinds of details rushed into Twilight’s mind as it reconstructed and filled in the blanks of the image of the pony in the fall town.
Twilight flipped the picture over, finding another focusing on his cutie mark. “That's him. The pony that escaped Wintervale. Well, I didn't technically get a good look back then, but still. My gut says that's him.”
Intelligentsia laid out a series of additional pictures, including one at a train station. “He was spotted in Prance, and managed to give officers the slip. Then, they received an anonymous tip from a pony that he could vanish into thin air and put up instant brick walls to block pursuers.”
“Aw, crap.” Rainbow rubbed little circles into her temples. “Illusionists.”
“We think so, but the tip was legitimate.” Intelligentsia put down one more picture of the stallion, this time showing him tied up and beaten to death. Miasma lingered over the bloody floor, and crystalline wires ran through his legs. A sign was hung around his neck, which Intelligentsia read aloud. “‘Traitor: Find the Tomb of Evening Tide.’ I've only recently figured out what that means. But there's something much more important here.”
Twilight swallowed her breakfast back down. “More important than his murder?”
“Correct. The picture of him at the train station. He's stepping off a train that departed from Germaney.” Intelligentsia pulled out a map and drew a line down rail line after rail line. “We managed to trace his travel, all the way back… to San Palomino. There, we managed to finally unearth his bio.
“He was a known mercenary and illegal bounty hunter. Did just about anything if you pay him enough. Up until last year, he operated exclusively in the deserts of his home Duchy. We're not sure why he left, but he did, and was next seen by you. He then vanished for a time before returning to San Palomino.”
“And then he decided to go to Prance, presumably to find this ‘tomb.’” Twilight took a sip of her own special blend of coffee, which Bon Bon had begun to package and sell nationwide. Told you my coffee is awesome, BBBFF. “So, we have a pony doing some very bad things that may or may not be connected to the mining companies out in San Palomino, he's on the run, gets murdered by Illusionists, and has a cryptic message around his neck. Who's Evening Tide?”
Intelligentsia smirked and rubbed her hooves together like she'd just found a treasure chest. “The lost Grand Mage!”
“Um, I hate to break it to you… but I'm the current Grand Mage. I know secrets the Sisters haven't told anypony else. There is no ‘lost’ Grand Mage.”
“Well, it took some prying.” Intelligentsia pushed back her glasses. “But Celestia revealed to me the truth. It all adds up, when you really think about it.”
Twilight's jaw went slack. “She had another Grand Mage and didn't tell me?”
“Yes, I promise, I'll be there shortly.” Celestia backed into the room, hounded by no less than a dozen officers needing orders or decisions made. “I'm afraid this is a compartmentalized meeting. Please return to your duties.”
Even Twilight thought Celestia looked like she was about to pull out a chair and beat them back with a whip. “Princess?” she asked after folding her forelegs.
“Ah, I see you've already started.” SLAM! She shut the door and sealed it away in golden magic. “Forgive me; things are still rather hectic.”
Twilight raised her eyebrow. “Hectic enough that you forgot to tell me about a fourth Grand Mage, other than me?”
Celestia sighed, visibly deflating to the point where Rainbow and Spike stepped back in shock. “Yes, and no. It’s more complex than that.”
“I have a genius intellect. I'm sure you can explain it to me, since I'm asking. And you promised.”
“Hey,” Rainbow whispered to Spike. “Should we, like, leave so we don't get incinerated?”
“Quiet.” Twilight stepped up to her mentor, looking up and directly into her eyes. Celestia was as tall as ever, massive compared to any other pony in existence, and yet she seemed so much smaller. “Tia, what's going on?”
“Twilight, you are the fourth Grand Mage to serve Equestria. I did not lie about that. But...” Celestia took out a scroll and unfurled it, revealing the drawing contained inside. The picture wasn't near as detailed as a photograph, but it got the message across well enough. The blood-soaked mare stood in dark armor, and carried a huge sword on her back. Her tan coat was as unassuming as that of any random citizen of Ponyville, but her eyes told whole tomes of stories. Tales of battle, war, and unrestrained, unrelenting bloodlust adorned her irises as plainly as the symbol on her chest.
“That's…” Twilight’s words softened to no harsher than a down feather. “That's the symbol of the Lunar Republic.”
“Indeed. You are the fourth Equestrian Grand Mage, but Luna had one as well, which makes you the fifth post-Discord ascendant, although how anypony other than Luna and those in this room know that is beyond me. I set out a long time ago to destroy every iota of her history so that she could not be used as a martyr to the Rebellion. I thought I had succeeded.”
“Whoa.” Rainbow whistled. “Must’ve been some big-shot to warrant the ‘never-existed’ treatment.”
“Correct. As our new piece of evidence suggests, her name was Evening Tide. Though, it could just as easily have been ‘Blood Tide,’ and it would have been far more fitting for her than for the dragon you banished. She was a murderous, bloodthirsty, psychopathic monster only held back by my sister. She lived for one thing: killing. Even in this mere drawing, you can see it in her eyes, her stance.
“What's worse, is that she was good at it. Unparalleled. Her combat skills were even superior to Luna's. Nothing and nopony in Equestria could stop either of them. It's why the war dragged on for as long as it did.”
“What happened to her?” Spike scratched his chin. “She's not here now, so I'm guessing you found a way. Was it when you used the Elements of Harmony?”
Celestia shook her head. “No. I… I called in a favour from a friend of mine. A dragon.”
Spike froze in place. “W-what happened to them?”
“They killed each other. The Grand Mage of the Lunar Republic, and the eldest dragon alive, both reduced to nothing but a tower of flames that burned for days on end. I never imagined such a thing.” Celestia winced and staggered back from an invisible dagger in her heart. “To this very day I wonder if I did the right thing pressing the fight, or if I should have made a plea for peace.”
“So that's why you didn't tell me.” Twilight rolled the picture back into the scroll. “For all intents and purposes, Evening Tide never existed anyway. And on top of that, it's still an open wound for you. I'm very sorry, Princess. I should have trusted you.” She dropped into a bow.
“You are forgiven, Twilight. In fact, here, come closer.” Celestia lifted up her left wing and motioned her head to point to her side. “Part my coat underneath my sixth rib. Tell me what you find.”
Twilight swallowed. “Ummm….” Her parents had given her untold numbers of lessons on Canterlot High Society Etiquette. While “no messing around with the immortal Princess’ coat” wasn't one of them, she certainly felt it was strongly implied.
“Twilight, trust me.” Celestia tilted herself to the side, though it was anyone's guess if it was to make it easier to reach or if she was that exhausted. “I need to show you this.”
Twilight nodded and approached in silence, save for the little clops her hooves made on the floor. She reach up and felt her mentor's side, counting the ribs and rubbing around with her hoof under the sixth. A small ridge that shouldn't be there bumped her hoof, and she parted the thick coat there. “It's a scar!”
“Indeed. Alicorns regenerate very quickly. Though it was a deep wound, it should have healed in minutes, or at the very most hours, but I was in bandages for months. One thousand years later, the only real injury I've had since Discord, and it's still not vanished. The cut was from the blade you saw on Evening Tide’s back. That's how good she was.
“Now, imagine that strength in the hooves of a pony without mercy or compassion, who was dead set on annihilating Equestria entirely in the name of the Republic. She was a hero to them, so I erased her from history as best I could.”
“Unfortunately, it seems somepony knows.” Intelligentsia rearranged the papers, organizing them with the picture of Slick Dagger on top. “I wish we knew for sure which organization wrote that. It might help us trace the leak. Your Highness, other than those in this room, who else knows of the existence of the Lunar Grand Mage?”
“Only Obsidian Armor. He's the only pony I've told this to in hundreds of years, aside from Luna, of course.”
“Hmmm…” Intelligentsia bit the side of her lip. “That means either the Night Guard knows and has a leak, or the Captain is the leak, or…”
“Hey, Shining wouldn't do that!” both Twilight and Rainbow said, then shared a look.
Twilight continued, “There are other possibilities. Dragons, for instance. It wouldn't be the first one we've had involved with the Majestics, and I'd imagine most alive today were also alive during the Rebellions.”
“True. The dragons are a constant X-factor, and our lack of intelligence on them is a major thorn in my side.” Intelligentsia lit her horn and drew a magic circle in the air that had crisscrossing lines all over its inside. “My connection mapping doesn't work well with dragons even when I do know them. The fact that the Majestics have eluded me for so long suggests that either they, or something else I can't map well, is involved.
“Even more worrisome, however, is what this tomb entails, and why they're looking for it.”
Celestia cleared her throat. “I might be able to shed some light there. I just talked with Luna, and she said that there is a tomb, and she did spread rumours about its existence and the ‘treasure’ within during the Lunar rebellions.”
Twilight felt her throat turn raw. “If there are bonded artifacts there, we have to clear them out immediately.”
“That's the thing…” Celestia raised an eyebrow at another sheet of paper. “According to Luna, we've nothing to worry about. Apparently, she made the Tomb, then sealed it off quite thoroughly, all without putting anything of military value inside, but spread rumours suggesting otherwise. Worse, she laid elaborate and deadly traps throughout the labyrinth.”
“Gah!” Twilight shuddered. “That's… disturbingly clever, actually.”
Rainbow shook her head. “Not really. It's just begging to get somepony killed.”
“Yeah, but back then, it was a time of war.” Twilight gazed into the image of Evening Tide. “And they'd just lost a ‘hero.’ It makes sense to tie up the enemy on a wild goose chase, especially one with a trap at the end.”
Celestia packed up the old drawing. “In any event, Luna covered the entrance even more now, so I doubt they'll ever discover it. What is more important is finding out who wanted to find the Tomb. Thus, we are sending you to San Palomino to find out.” The Princess unfurled a map slightly larger than the table itself and rotated it to face the group. The Duchy was massive, and even with the sizable map, not all of it was shown. A small sliver of a valley at the northwest edge of the Hinterlands separated it from Canterlot. Mountains surrounded it on all sides except the southeast, and the northwest had a violent, everlasting storm line that divided it and the no-pony’s-land beyond.
Nearly all of the Duchy was desert, but there was some arable land in the east, by the Hinterlands, where Appaloosa, “The Gateway to San Palomino,” was founded. Mesas, canyons, and most especially buttes were common sights throughout, and there were areas where the fire magic innate to the land itself was so strong that any loose water that touched the ground evaporated instantly.
“Your mission proper will start here, in Sierra Maredre, the capital of San Palomino.” Celestia tapped a city near the center with a hoof. “Be wary of everything there, Twilight. San Palomino, despite being an official Duchy, has used its vast mineral wealth to influence the Council greatly in order to allow virtual autonomy. There is very little in the way of law and order there.”
“So I've read,” Twilight said while sketching in some notes. “Nearly no public services outside of telegraphs and trains. Everything else is private enterprise, even police. Crime is rampant, safety nonexistent. A pony could get rich quick, or more likely, plunge into unrecoverable debt.”
“Precisely. Note, however, two exceptions that may serve as relative safe havens. The first is here, a few dozen miles west of the capital. Fort Earthborne.” Celestia tapped her hoof on the map again. “It's not on this map, but there is a very large military base located here, under the command of General Stone.
“The second exception is in the north, near the Stormridge mountains. I’m sure you’ve heard of Los Caballos, the new, pre-planned city created by a number of large mining and defense companies. I hear they're having trouble attracting tenants for the more high-class buildings, though they have a wealth of common ponies for the nearby mines.
“Ironically, though large companies might not like regulations that get in the way of their profits, they don't mind things that protect them, like police forces. Though everything is still private, the companies have enacted a number of ‘policies’ in lieu of laws that they can and will enforce with their security services. Things like assault, theft, and murder are all much less common there.
“If you are in trouble and can get to either location, do so and you can find some measure of safety. Since Spike cannot accompany you right now, your lifeline will be the telegraph system, which is well developed in this Duchy and is available in most towns. We will provide you with the necessary telegraph addresses and cyphers needed to contact military aid.”
“Okay, that's a start.” Twilight put down her book as she scanned the map. “So I'm to find out who Slick Dagger was working for and explore their connections from there?”
Celestia nodded. “Yes, that is your primary objective, although given the nature of the organizations we’re chasing, I’m not expecting you to uncover everything all at once. I’m merely asking for more clues.
“That being said, there are secondary objectives as well. Lieutenant?”
Intelligentsia floated a list of names and locations to Twilight. “Everypony on that list is a victim of a rash of pirate attacks over the past few years. Entire towns have been destroyed in a few of them. Trains are robbed regularly and ruthlessly. Cargo airships are raided by other airships at least twice per week.
“The military has destroyed and captured a number of rogue, makeshift vessels so far, but the attacks aren't letting up. Intelligence gathering has indicated that most of the ships are actually flying under one of a few flags, each belonging to single individuals. Pirate Commodores, if you will. There's an entire fleet worth of ships out there, and they're not being built in any known shipyard.”
“Just keeps getting better.” Rainbow leaned in over Twilight's shoulder to read the list. “So we're supposed to take these guys on by ourselves?”
Intelligentsia shook her head and adjusted her glasses. “No, but their presence and recent uptick in activity has destabilized the region. Celestia, I think, has something in mind.”
Celestia spread a wing, covering Twilight's back and turning them away from Intelligentsia. “Twilight, there's an opportunity here we must not squander. Duke Badlands is an idiot. He would have been removed long ago if he wasn't a very useful idiot for others on the Council as well as some of Equestria’s largest corporations.
“But his failures to subdue the pirates, along with the fact that Los Caballos is in dire financial straits, has weakened his position. Moreover, the Duchy’s vast wealth of resources makes it some exceptionally juicy low-hanging fruit. In fact, it is likely to be the last of the low-hanging fruit that we can go after on the Council, which makes it all the more important.
“Find me something, anything to discredit him. It doesn't even need to be criminal, just something the press will sink their teeth into like a starving dog on a bone. Something—and this is key—something horrible and out of the ordinary even for San Palomino. If you can do that, I'll do the rest.”
Twilight put her hoof on Celestia’s shoulder. “You can count on me, Tia.”
Celestia pulled her in with her wing for a small hug, then resumed the regularly scheduled briefing by getting Intelligentsia’s attention. Dutifully, the analyst had been covering her ears and humming.
“All done with your conversation that I totally didn't hear?” Intelligentsia chuckled.
Celestia winked. “Twilight, there is one other objective for you as well, although it's really more of an errand.” Celestia pulled out a small, orange-sized object wrapped in cloth and set it on the table. After the white sheet was removed, she revealed a clear, cut, and sparkling gem shimmering away in its nest. “Of the gems you retrieved from Zebrica, this is by far the most promising candidate to become a bonded core. Twilight, you are to stop in the Hinterlands on your way to San Palomino and deliver it to Blade Forge, who will attempt to fashion a bonded blade for you. Duke Buckheart’s daughter is expecting you in the capital and will take you to where you need to go.”
Spike licked his lips. “Wow, that looks tasty.”
Twilight ignored him, but smiled on the inside. “How long will it take to make the weapon?”
“Some time, and there is no guarantee that this relatively small core will be enough. It may not even work. After delivery, Forge will want a sample of your magic, and then you are free to go on your way. Waiting days for it to be done would take too long.”
Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but stopped when she felt a claw tap her shoulder. “Hmm?”
“Um, Twilight?” Spike twirled his clawtips together, like he would when he was small enough to fit in a basket. “Do you think that I could come with you? To the Hinterlands, I mean. I know I'm not ready for the missions yet, but if I could go that far, I'd still feel… useful. Kind of. Please?”
“Well, I don't see why not.” Twilight tapped her chin with her pen. “The Hinterlands Duchy may be impoverished, but it is peaceful, and the second safest in all of Equestria, behind only Canterlot. What do you think, Princess?”
“I don't have a problem with it, so long as he waits with Blade Forge in Minotas for a royal chariot to return him to Canterlot. Blade is a master weaponsmith as well as my friend, and his clan is renowned for their fighting ability. If he can't keep Spike safe, we have even larger issues at hoof.”
Rainbow reached over and gave Spike a turbo-noogie. “Hey, don't you dare feel unwanted or useless. You're on medical leave. This isn't something you can help. We just want you to get better, okay?”
“Ow! Ow! Okay, okay, sheesh!” Spike pried her off and rubbed one of his head-spikes. “Watch the scales!”
Twilight sighed at her ‘foals’ with a smile and put away her notebook. “When do we leave?”
Celestia looked in a coffee cup, and must have been disappointed with its emptiness, based on her expression. “After breakfast. On our current timetable, you will arrive by chariot in the mid-afternoon. I will send a second chariot to take Spike home in the evening. After he leaves, Twilight, you and Rainbow will need to move more low-key. A royal chariot will attract too much attention.
“Thus, you will travel by train from Minotas to Appleoosa, and from there to Sierra Maredre. You will be largely on your own since Spike will not be with you. However, leylines crisscross the desert, and many areas are places where we can teleport reinforcements to if you so request via telegraph. Naturally, there are exceptions, and we won't know where your investigation will take you.
“As such, I recommend you stock up in the Hinterlands with rations, water, clothes, whatever you think you will need. Bring money, and do not expect your rank to carry the same weight as it does in other Duchies. Many will not care. You have full authorization to use lethal force as you see fit, and you may well need it. Mounted guns are becoming commonplace there.”
Intelligentsia chimed in. “Worse, new kinds of contraband are turning up, from drugs, to innovative concealed weaponry and illegal booze that is definitely not made in compliance with national regulations. Even salt isn't guaranteed to be safe there. I've included all the more commonplace hazards you might not expect in my report, along with a full political brief and intelligence on known criminal organizations.”
“Excellent,” Twilight said. “Now go get some sleep, a meal, and then tell Celestia who you'll be training.”
“Ugh.” Intelligentsia head-desked on the table. “I wish you hadn't reminded her of that.”
“My little pony, I don't need to be reminded of it. I was going to ask in a moment anyway, but I'm willing to let it go to allow you some sleep. But only for that, and I expect your answer later today.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Intelligentsia pulled herself up and straightened her uniform. “By your command.”
“Very good. Twilight, get some food. Intelligentsia, get some sleep. I have a ton of orders to dole out over the next few hours. If you need me, I'll be in the command center downstairs.”
Twilight bowed slightly as Celestia left, while the others did so deeply before letting Twilight be the next one out. The entire group was heading out in the same direction, walking through the rows of alcoves on either side of them.
“Lieutenant! Front and Centre!”
Twilight almost jumped into a salute herself the yell was so loud, but thankfully her body settled on merely bouncing up like there had been a mild earthquake.
Intelligentsia, however, did snap into a salute with trained, practiced precision. “Sir, yes sir!”
Captain Dual Strike emerged from one of the alcoves, marching up to her like a steamroller unto a butterfly in a coma. “Lieutenant, care to explain why there are three Dukes crawling up my backside about the delayed Stalliongrad threat assessment?”
“Sir, all projects are continuing according to timelines established by—”
“Not good enough! Get it done or I'll have you cleaning the toilets in the barracks after cabbage soup day, do I make myself clear?!”
Twilight raised an eyebrow at that.
“Sir, yes sir!” Intelligentsia saluted, holding stiff and firm despite the death glare aimed at her.
The Captain left after a grunt, then stopped when a different pony he came near saluted, to which Dual Strike saluted as well. Then, the next pony he came near saluted, and so on, and so forth until he was out of sight.
Intelligentsia sighed. “That's our little way of telling him to screw off when he yells at us like that. Protocol states he's supposed to salute back, even if we all line up for it to slow him down.”
“Ah.” Twilight shot a sneer at Dual Strike’s general direction. “I'll have to remember that one. Should prove useful.
“That being said, this is all the more reason to assign ponies to take over some of your duties. You obviously have too much on your plate. Go finish that one assessment, then go to bed and don't come back to duty until you have at least one pony chosen. That's a direct order from me, and if Dual Strike tells you to do anything different, those orders are hereby countermanded. Clear?”
“Crystal.” Intelligentsia yawned. “I should be able to finish it in an hour or so. Good luck in San Palomino. I think you'll need it.”