Princess Luna stood tall beneath the arbory arch that led to the gardens. Before her, Tail, Bonecrusher, Indar, and a new unicorn stallion remained at attention. “Ms. Tail,” the diarch shouted with authority. “The squad is now under your command. Your orders are to patrol until the conclusion of the Summer Sun Celebration, or until Captain Barrier or I relieve you of your duty. Is that clear?”
Tail sharply saluted with a crispness in her step that she had not quite shown before. Indar, Bonecrusher, and the newcomer followed suit, and Luna responded by smiling at the squadmates.
“Take some time to brief your new recruit,” the alicorn added, “and good luck.”
Tail watched as Luna vanished into a bright, brief pop of magic. After a moment, she lowered her hoof and turned to the fourth member of her unit. “I don’t believe we’ve met. This is Indar and Bonecrusher. My name is Tail. It seems we have a moment, so I’d like to thank you in advance for joining us on this patrol. I know it’s a little unorthodox.”
The bone-white unicorn nodded after his icy blue eyes drifted over each of the other pony’s forms. “Lieutenant River Styx, ma’am,” he replied in an Appleloosan accent that made Tail’s ears twitch to the country timbre.
The lavender pegasus quickly scanned Styx’s frame. Not as tall or bulky as Captain Barrier, she thought. Perhaps his specialties are more speed based. Would make sense given— Her ponderings derailed and her feathers ruffled when she noticed that he was saluting her. She quickly returned the gesture.
“There’s no need for that, Lieutenant. You’re the veteran here from what Captain Barrier told me. Though, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please tell me what your specialties are? That would help me set our patterns.”
River Styx dragged the saluting hoof over his gunmetal mane. “Yes, ma’am. Air and wind manipulation, silent teleportation, and levitation are my primary magical points of interest—in addition to basic castfire, of course. I’m a bit more nimble than most of my peers, so I aim to do things with quickness and precision.”
“Air and wind?” Tail tapped the bottom of her muzzle with a gauntlet-covered hoof before her chocolate eyes glimmered with excitement. “You’ll be my wingmate then, and we’ll break in twos. I’ll take point. Styx at my flank. Indar, point of the second group. Should be a good spot to maximize the coverage of your shields.” She paused to stare at Bonecrusher. “And I’m trusting you with our backs, Private.”
A smirk split Bonecrusher’s muzzle, and she gave her jaw one of her freshly patented stretches. “You do save the best for last, Civvy. I’ll give you that.”
Tail snickered, watching as the earth pony fell into place a step to the right and back from Indar. She pivoted around and waited for River Styx to slide into his respective position close to her side. “It’s time,” she whispered, taking a single step before a raucous roar burst into existence. “Move out!”
Crowds sloshed about the streets. Admittedly, that was unsurprising considering the holiday was one dedicated to staying up through the night for the sunrise. Most ponies appeared content to give the squad jovial waves as the guards weaved their staggered column through the masses. Unfortunately, most was not all.
“Watch it, pal!” Crusher bit when a drunken reveller crashed onto her armored torso. The lime mare promptly pitched the tan assailant from her withers and spun to snatch his scruff with her forehoof.
In a heartbeat, Tail turned and stepped to the pair. Fear-filled aquamarine eyes peered up at the pegasus as heavy breaths puffed from the unicorn’s open mouth. The stench of booze hit Tail’s nostrils—apple and cinnamon to be exact—and she responded by lightly patting Crusher’s shoulder.
“He’s just a bit tipsy, Bonecrusher. No point in fussing over it. Just let him up, and I’m sure he’ll be on his way.” Tail’s calm tone drew a frustrated snort from the mare’s compatriot. It was not a behavior she intended to let fester for long. “However, Mr. Stallion, let me be clear. If my patrol catches wind that a partier is getting out-of-hoof, and that pony happens to be you”—Tail patted Bonecrusher’s shoulder again—“I won’t be stopping her from owning your flank.”
With her impressive strength, Bonecrusher hefted the stallion onto his hooves. She snickered as the wobbly and warned colt rather timidly stumbled back into the crowd. “Is it wrong that I hope we have to come back?”
Tail flicked her namesake and proceeded to her point position. “Yes,” she answered succinctly. “Yes, it is.”
She was met by the thoughtful-appearing gaze of River Styx, whose lips seemed to fluctuate between a grin and a grimace. Tail tilted her head at the spectacle, her confusion and concern driving the unicorn to actually ask the question that had obviously been sitting on the tip of his tongue. “Do you think that was too much? The statement to the civilian, I mean.”
The pegasus felt her heart thump heavily behind her breastplate. Of course, he would be testing her. He was one of Barrier’s trusted officer friends. Did I step over the line? I threatened a civilian. Oh my goodness, I did. She felt her feathers press against her sides as the trickle of Bonecrusher’s chuckles dripped into her ears.
“No, sir,” Tail stated with a tranquility that masked the turmoil that had brewed within her thoughts. Crusher’s cadence had set her straight. “He was sent on his way without further incident”—she leaned close to River Styx to whisper—“and it’s put a certain mare in a good mood.”
Tail firmly held her mouth shut in a desperate attempt to stifle a rather threatening yawn. The hours of venturing through the city had largely been uneventful. A few more over-exuberant revellers had crossed paths with the squad several times during the night, but nothing major had transpired.
In fact, much to Tail’s delight, things were going smoothly. Indar seemed—well, Indar was as calm as ever. Bonecrusher actually had what appeared to be a contented smile plastered to her muzzle, and Lieutenant River Styx had done little beyond prod the pegasus with a few questions whenever she made a judgement call.
“Amazing how boisterous it is out here by the wall,” Indar broke his stoic silence.
His comment prompted Tail’s gaze to wander to the stone defenses and intermittent towers that otherwise dwarfed the residential neighborhood. “Happy ponies will celebrate,” she answered over the drone of cheers. A smile graced her muzzle as a few partiers danced in the streets. The night would soon come to an end, and she hoped that the dawn would bring a new chapter in her budding career.
A few more blocks drifted past the staggered column. The harmony of citizens continued to stroke their aural senses—until the raspy squeal of a foal popped from an adjacent alleyway. Tail’s head snapped, sending her stare down the darkened backroad after her forehoof shot out horizontally to signal company halt.
“Help!” The coltish sound pulled the pegasus closer to the penumbra, and the tappings of scrambling hooves yanked her attention. A teary, red-eyed flier emerged from the shadows before he burrowed his grey coat against Tail’s armor. “Please help me!” the jet-maned youngster squealed. “Ponies are chasing me!”
Styx flinched at the spectacle, and his brow descended as he watched his C.O. wrap one of her forelegs around the colt. He mumbled something under his breath but hushed himself when Indar and Bonecrusher stepped forward to Tail.
“Sweety, you’re safe now. Nopony is going to be after you anymore,” the mare spoke in a motherly tone as she gently brushed his back. She turned her head to give a curt nod to Indar, a sign for the shieldmaster to be on alert, before re-affixing her focus upon the fluffball that clung to her kit. “What’s your name, little one?”
The colt relaxed his grip, took a step away from the relatively towering mare, and drew his fetlock to wipe his dampened cheeks. His barrel still heaved heavy breaths from his tiny frame, and Tail fought to bury the rising anger that swelled within her towards any pony that would bring this kind of harm to a child. “I’m—um—I’m…”
The kid’s fading voice drew a grunt from Bonecrusher, and it prompted a soft groan to slip from Styx’s barely open muzzle.
“My name is A.K. Yearling,” he answered sheepishly—an answer which drew wide-eyed gapes from both Tail and River Styx. Blinks soon after followed from the two guard ponies, and the colt blinked a few times as well. He tilted his head towards River Styx, and his raspy, pouty voice re-emerged. “Why does no one ever believe me?”
“Because you’re obviously pretending to use the name of a famous author as your own,” Styx challenged through his Appleloosan drawl.
The rebuttal earned a stomp from the offended colt, and his feathers ruffled to a childish fluster that reminded Tail of herself in her youth. “Nuh-uh! Aunt Daring uses my name as hers! I’m not the pretender!”
Tail crouched in front of the colt and peered into his eyes. She spoke with emphasis, hoping to cut out any further arguments with a child stemming from her lieutenant, “Well, Mr. Yearling, do you mind telling me where you’re staying? It’d be my unit’s pleasure to escort such a renowned author home—”
“Explorer!” he corrected. “I’m staying with my aunt for the holiday, but we got separated.”
There is no way this colt can be telling the truth, but he seems so convincing when he speaks. The pegasus scrunched her snout and let out a soft sigh. A tender, age-appropriate coaxing was on the tip of her tongue. Somewhere, she imagined, Captain Barrier was checking in on this scene with a smug grin on his face. Then again, a guard’s duty was to her ponies.
“Where is my damn amulet, you impudent brat?” a booming voice ensnared the guards’ attentions and dragged them into the darkened depths of the alley.
Fire sparked across Tail’s chocolate irides as they reflected the orange blaze of an incoming spell. Her breath hitched, and she snatched the colt with her forehooves before tumbling away from the approaching bolt. “Indar! Hex, shot high!”
A lattice of hexagonal shield planes burst into existence at the behest of Indar’s glowing horn. The barrier protected Tail and A.K. from the assault, and it deflected the jarring, hellfire beam into the sky to produce a rather dramatic explosion. “Not good,” the stallion huffed just loud enough for Tail to hear after the shattered panes dissolved into the night.
Two storeys up, two-tenths of an A.E.U. The uncovered parts of Tail’s coat stood on end. She tightened her grip on the colt while snapping her sights to each one of her ponies. Debating the kid’s identity had to wait for later. The alley—the street—they were both dangers. That shot came from a rooftop, which meant that they had to get off the grid unless they wanted to become the victims of an ambush.
“Above!” Bonecrusher’s roar redirected Tail’s focus to a maroon pegasus whose dropping trajectory was on a collision course for Styx’s neck.
“Off the road!” Tail spat. “House right!” She lunged through the opened window of the nearest home and came crashing into a thankfully empty living room. Her squadmates flashed into position at her sides—with River having teleported himself, and with Indar having taken care of the additional burden known as Bonecrusher.
The pegasus flipped the sobbing colt onto her saddle-spot and rose to her hooves. There was no time to linger. She had to get the little one to a safe place. They needed to get some separation. Then she could think. You can think on the run! “Indar! Styx! We’re jumping house-to-house! Short-range ports!”
Tail started sprinting towards the opposite wall, pulling the stares of her compatriots just long enough for their brains to switch gears. She felt River’s magic engulf her in an oddly familiar warmth, and the earthly tones of the dwelling quickly stretched beyond the limits of her senses.
Three of them popped into a crowded kitchen filled with a family of startled ponies whose shocked, frozen poses and expressions drew an apologetic squeak from the marginally queasy lavender pegasus. “Sorry! Just passing through!” She twisted, regaining her balance atop the homeowners’ wooden island, and scrambled in the direction of the nearest friendly establishment her mind could register.
Shouts from those inside joined a cacophony from the ponies in the streets—those whose nights had been perturbed by the chaos her unit was undoubtedly tugging along. “Buck, I think we’re being tagged! Lieutenant, what’s your silent teleportation range?”
“Five blocks, ma’am,” Styx answered as he ran behind a cluster of equines who had been baking.
More screams came from the next room—certainly due to the intrusion of Bonecrusher and Indar. “Keep the pattern! We need to head two blocks towards Central, and then we’ll double-back to the wall!”
Bonecrusher’s agonized groan filled the house. “Why are we running, dammit? I fuckin’ hate teleportation!”
“Because,” the pegasus replied as Styx and Indar warped the quintet into the darkened bedroom of yet another abode. The soft landings upon an elegant violet silk bed were each met with brief, yet relieved grunts from the guards. “I want to get this colt to the Phoenix Fire.”
“You want to drop off a foal you just met at one of the busiest bars on the morning of the Summer Sun Celebration?” Styx once again prodded.
“Yes!” This time, Tail shouted her succinct answer. “We need to get the kid out of danger, and a bar full of the toughest guards in Equestria is just the place. Plus”—she glared at the lieutenant with that passionate inferno Bonecrusher, Indar, and Captain Barrier had come to know very well—“I can’t fight all-out with him on my back.”