It was really surprising how cool the New Lunar Republic base had been after her long trek through the desert. She'd been told many times that one didn't have to go far underground to escape the heat of the desert, but she hadn't expected the change to be quite so sudden.
She told herself this to distract herself from how closed-in she was quickly beginning to feel. She'd spent so long on the Storm King's airships, she'd gotten used to being able to see into the distance as far as her eyesight could reach. So far, since she'd entered the facility, she had never been more than a few yards from a wall closing her in. Her heart was beginning to pick up its pace, her breath coming in slightly shorter intervals.
Tempest forced her breathing to slow, refusing any sign of her discomfort to show itself outwardly. She would not be intimidated by something as stupid as walls. "Claustrophobia," as well as any kind of phobia, was not in her vocabulary.
"So, you're Tempest Shadow?" The mare leading the way asked. They were walking down a long, slanted hallway, and in the low light, Tempest could see enough of the mare to make a few assumptions about her. She was an earth pony, and combination of a sturdy earth pony build and lean, toned muscles made it obvious that she was a skilled fighter. Every creature she'd ever seen TRY to look intimidating was tense like a coiled spring, constantly on the very tips of their hooves. Every creature that had ever given her any kind of challenge in a fight had not been tense, they had held themselves with quiet confidence, not nervous energy. That was exactly the message given by this pony's posture: she wasn't tense, but that only meant that she was ready.
"You made quite a ruckus in Canterlot, you know!" the pony sighed, shaking her head as they neared a large, circular door at the end of the hallway. It looked almost like a vault in some kind of bank, with the crest of the New Lunar Empire engraved across the front. "Left those pencil-pushers at dispatch hiding in their little office cubicles ever since!"
"I know my actions were-"
"HUP-UP-UP!" The other mare covered Tempest's mouth with her hoof. Upon Tempest raising her eyebrow in questioning, she simply smiled and shook her head. "Now, I'm not the one you're going to be talking to about your past! If you want a therapist, there's ponies here for that..." Her eyes rolled upwards for a moment, as if searching her mind for information. "...somewhere."
"I only want to know two things about you, got it, rookie?"
Tempest nodded, growing slightly irritated with the strange mare's hoof still over her mouth.
"First, I want to know why you're here. Twilight Sparkle pulled a lot of strings to get you in here, so you've gotta be something real special!" She finally took her hoof away from Tempest's mouth, allowing her to speak.
"I'm here... because I want to leave my past behind me. I want to make up for what I di-" She was rudely cut off by the stranger's hoof returning to cover her mouth.
"Wow. Seriously? That cliched?" She sighed and shrugged, turning away from Tempest and pressing a small button next to a speaker on the wall. "Hey! I'm back with the rookie! Thanks for not turning on the anti-invasion measures!"
The speaker crackled to life, a rough-sounding voice screeching back at her.
"It was ONE time and you barely got singed!"
"Yeah, yeah, you can whine all you like next time you set hoof in my dojo while I beat the stupid out of you! Now let us in, would you?"
"Sure, sure, whatever..." the voice replied. After a short pause, the speaker spoke up once more.
"Um, which button was it?"
The mare's eyes widened, and she very slowly and deliberately pressed down on the intercom button once again.
"That had better be a joke... or so help me, I will knock this door down and reacquaint you with it. Painfully." she whispered.
In spite of her earlier annoyance, Tempest was starting to like the mare's style.
There was a short pause, then the sound of massive deadbolt being pulled out of place by an unseen mechanism. As the door slowly swung open, the other mare turned back to Tempest, giving her a sly smile.
"Second, a yes or no question. Can you fight?"
Tempest finally smiled. That was an answer she could give with confidence.
"Oh, better than you would believe."
The mare's smile grew into a full grin, and she offered her hoof to Tempest.
"Name's Quick Strike. I'm the combat instructor around here, so you'll be seeing a lot of me!"
Tempest nodded, taking the mare's hoof and gripping it firmly. For a brief second, the two squeezed tightly, a small contest of strength. Tempest was impressed by her strength, and she seemed to think the same, giving her a firm nod.
"Just call me Tempest. It's easier to remember than my real name."
"Well, welcome to the New Lunar Republic, Tempest."
The rest of the New Lunar Republic didn't seem quite as open as Quick Strike while she was being given her tour. She still got her fair share of questioning and derisive stares, but they were easier to ignore in Canterlot. She could even see a occasional smile when ponies thought she wasn't looking, though she couldn't comprehend why any pony would be happy to see her. A couple of ponies had tried to congratulate Quick Strike on "bringing in" Tempest, only to find themselves bashed upside the head and reprimanded for "harassing the rookie."
Is that why some of these ponies are happy to see me? They think I'm being taken prisoner? The thought crossed her mind that she could have been betrayed again, that this would be her punishment, but Quick Strike seemed so candidly honest, it was hard for her to earnestly believe it.
She had to admit that she was impressed with the New Lunar Republic's facility. It was much more than a simple base for training guards. There were living quarters, a fully-stocked kitchen, a massive library, a fully-fledged command center for coordinating precision strikes, training areas with nearly every kind of exercise machine imaginable, and even a mail room. She had been surprised to see a few computers in the command center, as well as ponies working with small, ergonomic tools like ballpoint pens and electric light bulbs. If Equestria was one thing, it was dedicated to its studies of magic, almost completely eschewing such technologies completely in favor of magical means. Magic's potential was near-limitless in its applications, unlike computers, which had their limits clearly set from the day they were made. Even the Storm King had dismissed the idea of technical means of communication in favor of magical, claiming that he refused to accept anything with a limit.
"Yeah, they're a little trashy, but they're tools, just like anything else! They get the job done, and they save WAY more space than filing cabinets!" Quick Strike had joked when she caught Tempest staring at one. "Besides, without the radar to track dune worms through the sand, we'd lose a LOT more unicorns out in that desert!"
Dune worms. The massive, subterranean predators that populated the Plains of Lore. Tempest had seen a few dead ones in her travels, gigantic and bloated monsters with dozens of rows of teeth, striking from below to catch their prey: unicorns, more often than not. The greater their magical potential, the more tasty they seemed to be to the monsters. She had to admit, knowing that the devices were to ensure safe travels made her feel much more comfortable around them.
The tour finally ended with Quick Strike jumping up into a red-carpeted room, elevated only a couple steps above the nearby floor. Tempest could make out long tapestries lining the walls covered in scenes of great battlefields across epic landscapes, with strong-looking heroes leading armies to battle. The Storm King had often commissioned similar artwork of himself for ego-stroking propaganda on his ships, but these seemed to be the genuine articles. Tempest moved to walk inside for a closer look, only to find Quick Strike's hoof against her chest, holding her back. Looking up at the other mare, Tempest gave her a questioning look. So far, this had been the only open door she'd not been allowed through.
"If you're doing to come into my dojo, you're going to have to follow the rules!" Quick Strike smiled. "Rule number one: everyone bows to the master before they enter!"
Tempest blinked for a moment. Setting aside her pride wasn't hard for her, she'd had plenty of practice working for the Storm King. Rolling her eyes, she lowered her head, bowing to the yellow-coated earth pony. Quick Strike returned the motion before stepping to the side and letting Tempest enter the room.
Tempest's first few steps were hesitant. The carpet was odd to the touch, rough and short fibers obviously meant to give good traction to any hooves standing on it, but she could feel a thin layer of padding underneath to cushion any falls. It was simultaneously coarse and soft in different ways. The room was wide and open, with seemingly nothing inside but the tapestries and a row of colored belts crossing the spectrum from white to black, hanging on the far wall. Quick Strike trotted to the far side of the dojo, to the edge of a gold-colored embroidery in the carpet. She widened her stance and narrowed her eyes, staring Tempest down with greater scrutiny than any pony had given her since she'd arrive. Just as Tempest was about to ask what she was doing, Quick Strike answered the question for her.
"No holds barred. Use magic if you want to. If you're going to join the training for Canterlot's Night Guard, I'm going to need to know what I have to work with! So, I want you to attack me. Give me everything you've got!"
Tempest didn't feel a need to hesitate. It made sense, seeing as she'd introduced herself as the NLR's combat instructor. Of course she'd want to gauge her abilities, and a sparring match was the best way to do that. As she walked to the other side of the gold embroidery, Tempest's mind was already beginning to analyze her approach.
Ordinarily, quadrupeds have terrible sense of balance on fewer than three legs, so I'd try to sweep her front hooves out from under her, but this mare is obviously well-trained enough for that not to be a problem. Whenever she was dealing blows to the ponies who tried to say she'd "captured me," though, she left herself totally open. It looks like her style is total offense, so unexpected follow-ups could exploit her openings. If she really meant it when she said "no holds barred," then...
Tempest grinned as Quick Strike gave a ceremonial-looking bow, one that she quietly returned. Before she'd had the chance to look back up, though, magical energy was already gathered underneath her, flashing and crackling out of control. In a colorful explosion, Quick Strike was thrown up into the air. Tempest's powerful hind legs flung her forwards and up into the air, lashing out with one of her back hooves aimed directly for Quick Strike's temple. In that moment, Tempest's instinct took over, years and years of hard training on the streets outside Equestria bringing time to a snail's pace as she identified, analyzed, and responded in the moment. She was already in "the zone."
To her surprise, however, Quick Strike was faster, throwing up her front hooves to protect her face. There was a shock wave when the two mares collided, Tempest's powerful kick blocked completely. Behind her hooves, Tempest thought she saw her smiling. The force of Tempest's kick carried them both downwards, back to the floor. Tempest's entire weight had gone into the kick, but Quick Strike had been strong enough to hold it back. Tempest focused on the muscles in her leg, springing herself backwards and out of reach to regain her footing. As she did, Quick Strike rubbed the point of impact on her foreleg, giving Tempest an ecstatic grin.
"I think that just might be the strongest kick I've ever seen!"
Tempest had never liked the cliche of chatting in the middle of a fight. If one had time to talk, they had time to deal a finishing blow.
Without a word, she rushed forward, this time aiming a sweeping kick at Quick Strike's forelegs. Once again, her response was faster than Tempest, rearing up to avoid it. This, however, left her wide open for a follow-up. Halfway through the sweep, Tempest planted her front hooves onto the ground and pushed herself upwards, bringing both of her back hooves into Strike's stomach and changing the sweeping kick into a powerful buck.
Quick Strike was thrown into the air, soaring up and slamming against the wall with a painful-sounding grunt. Tempest humbly considered her legs to be her most attractive and powerful feature outside of her explosive magic. She had bucked her way through solid walls, created countless improvised projectiles by kicking them, and brought enemies several times her size into submission with only a few well-placed blows. Her bucking strength could easily break ribs and other bones, and for a split second, she wondered if she had gone too far with the poor instructor.
This was why it was completely unexpected when Quick Strike rolled upon hitting the ground, springing up and taking her turn to kick at Tempest in an almost identical movement to her opening attack. The move was so fluid, so without warning, that Tempest couldn't defend against it in time. She felt Quick Strike hit her like a ton of bricks, throwing her off of her hooves and to the side. The world tilted and jarred violently when Tempest hit the wall of the dojo, and she stumbled to the side as pinpricks of light swirled in her vision.
So.. that's what it's like to be on the receiving end of that move...
Before Tempest had even stopped seeing double, Quick Strike was already on top of her, in one moment punching hard into Tempest's chest and knocking the air from her lungs, and the next having grabbed her hoof and pulled it over her shoulder. Before Tempest was even aware of what was happening, Quick Strike had spun around, twisting her leg at an awkward angle and pulling her up and over the mare's shoulders. What little was left of her dignity disappeared as she was left lying on her back on the floor, gasping for air and unable to see straight. Quick Strike, having lived up to her name, flopped to the ground next to her, her chest heaving up and down as she drank in as much air as she could.
"Game... set... match..." she panted, reaching over to Tempest's hoof and giving her a weak hoofshake.
"What... just happened?" Tempest asked, the double images in her vision finally starting to align back into one. She still was relatively certain she could make out constellations from all the stars she was seeing, though.
"You might have a concussion, I may have fractured a few ribs... And I just found my new favorite sparring partner."
Tempest paused for a moment, the last ten seconds replaying in her head and breaking down into an analysis of what went wrong. In the end, it seemed as though she'd simply been outsped. Her hesitation after bucking into Quick Strike had left her open. Worrying about the pony's well-being had given her the perfect opportunity to steal the advantage, and once she had it, she'd simply been too fast to lose it, completely incapacitating Tempest in a matter of seconds.
Tempest felt something bubbling up deep in her chest, an unfamiliar giddiness as the endorphins rushing through her bloodstream caught up to her.
"Heh... heh... Ha ha ha! HAHAHA!" She couldn't help it, the laughter was out of control. She probably sounded like a maniac, laughing after being beaten like that, but Quick Strike quickly joined in, adding her own chuckles and giggles to Tempest's. The two of them laid like that for a few minutes, laughing away the tension in the air until they were both completely at ease again. Eventually, Quick Strike stiffly rose to her hooves, then offered Tempest an open hoof to help her up.
For a moment, Tempest hesitated, then shook her head, rolling to a laying position on top of her hooves and shakily rising back to a standing position. She may have been beaten, but she didn't need help just to stand up. The moment she was standing on her own, however, Quick Strike threw a hoof over her shoulders, leaning against her with a goofy-looking grin.
"You definitely weren't lying! You CAN fight!"
Tempest chuckled as they made their way back to the doorway of the dojo.
"You still soundly trounced me, though! I've never met another pony so fast, and I've NEVER been thrown around like that!"
"Pfft! Don't worry about that! 90 percent of the ponies around here that don't work in accounting or something like that have had their flanks kicked by me at one point or another! Consider it a rite of passage!" She tightened her grip around Tempest's neck, leaning in close to her ear to whisper to her.
"Besides, don't breathe a word to anypony about this, but I nearly passed out when you bucked me into the wall! Girl, what was that Storm King guy feeding you?"
This caused another round of laughter between the two that lasted almost until they'd reached the infirmary. To Tempest's amazement, Quick Strike's ribs were intact, although she had a few minor burns from the magical explosion. Personally, Strike had been in such control that Tempest was given a clean bill of health and a warning to watch herself for any bruising that might be hidden by her dark fur. Tempest hadn't even realized just how tense she'd been until that tension was washed out of her body by the post-fight exhaustion. She was so satisfied and relaxed, she almost didn't notice the dirty look one of the doctors was giving her from the other side of the room.
"Really? No broken bones? I knew earth ponies were tough, but you're something else!" Tempest grinned at Quick Strike as they limped their way out of the infirmary.
"Well, they say that when you break a bone, it heals stronger than it was before!" Her companion chucked to herself. "At this point, I could probably get hit by a train and worry more about the train!"
Tempest chuckled softly to herself, trying to imagine the other pony being struck by a train, only to stand up with a bored look on her face. The imagery was simply too absurd, but still somehow believable after seeing her move so easily following being bucked into the wall. As Quick Strike led her down a few more hallways and into the living quarters, she talked about Tempest's fighting style, from her posture to her final blow in the match. From even just a few short minutes of sparring, Tempest was amazed at how much Quick Strike had analyzed her. She had noticed the same turning point Tempest did: her hesitation to follow up the blow to her abdomen out of fear she'd been injured.
"I told you there were no holds barred! I wasn't worried about you hurting me, I wanted to see you at your best! Well, maybe next time?" she said, patting Tempest on the back before removing her hoof from her shoulders and trotting a few lengths ahead. "Come on, friend! Let me show you which room's going to be yours while you're here training!"
Tempest stopped in her tracks, her mind latching on to how Quick Strike had addressed her.
Quick Strike turned to face her, giving her a joking blow to the shoulder.
"Well, DUH! I like you, and you're the first fighter in a while to knock me on my rump! I think we're going to get along just fine!"
Tempest hadn't even realized it until now, but she agreed with Quick Strike. Over the course of a single day, she'd already come to trust her, laugh with her, and even respect her. They were friends!
That... was on complete accident. I wasn't even trying to make a friend! How did I-
"Hey! Room 222, here we go!" Quick Strike pulled out a small keyring and unlocked the door before tossing it to Tempest, motioning for her to walk inside. Tempest shook off the shock of her unintentional friend-making and peeked in through the doorway.
The room was minuscule, barely much longer or wider than the two beds crammed inside. There was a single desk pressed into the far wall, and a cheap-looking chair pressed against that. Aside from that, the only notable feature was a self crammed with books running along the edges of the room, just below the ceiling, and a single light bulb to illuminate it. If she'd been feeling cramped before in the underground bunker, she didn't want to imagine what she'd feel once closed into the room.
"Why... are there two beds?"
"Because this isn't the penthouse suite!" A voice echoed from inside. "They've gotta save space if they want to avoid having to hire MORE digging crews!"
Tempest stepped into the room, searching for the source of the voice. There was a small, amethyst-colored dragon sitting on the bed closest to the door, leaning against the wall with her face buried in a book almost larger than her head. With a long sigh, she placed the book face-down on the bed to keep the pages pried open, hopped down from the mattress and offered Tempest a clawed handshake.
"Meet your roommate!" Quick Strike cheerfully slapped Tempest on the back before beginning to trot away, leaving her alone with the tiny dragon. "If you need me, you'll know where to find me!"
Tempest wasn't certain what kind of expression she was making as she absent-mindedly extended out her hoof for the dragon to shake. The formalities dealt with, she spread a pair of winged arms and jumped up onto the bed again.
"Name's Moonstone. Don't worry, I'm not exactly noisy, and, contrary to popular belief, my breath does NOT smell like sulfur!" She picked the book back up, only leaving the black spines on top of her head in sight. "Just don't make a racket, don't touch my stuff, and we'll be just fine."
Tempest nodded, quietly walking into the tiny living quarters and sitting herself down on her bed. Her unexpected joy from making her first friend quickly snuffed out by Moonstone's cold demeanor and their prison-like quarters. She was a loner by nature, traveling alone, living alone, and spending most of her time with only herself for company. She wasn't entirely certain she liked the idea of a roommate.
Not to say that she was worried, of course. She was Tempest Shadow! She wasn't going to be intimidated by-
"If you're bored, I recommend 'The Lunar Conquest.' It's easy reading: a collection of short stories, but thick as your foreleg. Should pass the time until lights out rather nicely."
Tempest sighed, rearing back onto her hind legs to get a better look at the books. It had already been a long day, and sitting back with a nice book might be just the way to end it. But she didn't take Moonstone's recommendation, instead picking out a copy of Sunny Xu's "The Artistry of Warfare." It was an old favorite of hers.
Curling up on her bed and trying to ignore the feeling of Moonstone's eyes boring into her, she set herself to reading. Her mind wasn't on the first chapter, though, she practically had it memorized. She was reflecting back on everything she had learned over the day about the New Lunar Republic. Quick Strike had shown her almost everything in the facility that didn't require some kind of security clearance, but hadn't talked much about what they stood for or why they did what they did. Many of the ponies here seemed more obsessed with Princess Luna than any form of patriotism, and that worried her. Without a clear mission statement, any military force was doomed to fall to infighting and conflict of interests.
Perhaps she would ask her new friend about that tomorrow.