Stalwart knew this was a mistake. All of it. He could feel it, in his gut and at the very base of his horn; a niggling sensation that left him on edge and snappish. Once upon a time he might have done his best to ignore it, push the feeling back until its voice was so quiet that it lost all power, at least for a time. He'd have done it, in spite of his more experienced comrades who advised that he trust what his instincts told him, despite the way the voice would rise at odd moments when his concentration slipped, because he was rational.
Unicorn he might have been, but he knew that magic wasn't some vague, mysterious thing. It was, for the most part, consistent, and it obeyed certain laws. He scoffed at the notion that there was some kind of ineffable consciousness that would throw out warnings in such vague, inexpressible manners. The best way to stay ahead of the game was to trust in the senses that you knew you could rely on.
And then... That night had come. The night when Stomper had listened to his gut instinct and Stalwart hadn't. Because Stalwart had 'known better'. Because it was cold and wet and he didn't want to deal with the trouble, or believe that anything bad could have happened to the fillies.
Nopony could really be sure of what exactly had happened to Posey and Lavender in the end. But they could be sure that, whatever it was, it couldn't be good. Their apartment had been ransacked, and they themselves were nowhere to be found. No real clues left to say where they'd gone. But Stalwart knew. He didn't know how, but his instincts spoke to him, and this time he listened, because he'd be damned if he ever ignored them again.
They were dead. He couldn't say when or how it had happened, though he could guess, but he could be sure that they were gone. And regardless of whether or not the prisoners they'd brought in the other night had actually been the ones to push the knives in, they were at the very least murderers by association.
According to standard procedure he should have been kept as far away from them as possible. The Force really didn't need officers with that sort of personal or emotional connection on a case; emotion clouded judgement, begot slip-ups and avoidable mistakes, and perhaps worst of all, it could lead an officer to pursue vengeance, rather than justice. If he were still in Fillydelphia, he reflected, by now he'd seriously be considering a request to make an appointment with the station councillor.
But he wasn't in Fillydelphia. He was standing in snow that came up past his shoes, sheltering from a chill breeze behind a box wagon made of hardwood planks and thick black iron banding. A wagon that held the two bastards who'd slipped past him that fateful night, and their two miserable accomplices.
He'd told himself that it was all right, that he wasn't going to let anger push him into anything rash. That he only had to see this through to the logical end, just as far as Canterlot itself. And the Brass hadn't objected, when by all rights they should have done. Maybe because they agreed with him. Or maybe because, in some very small and very stupid corner of their collective consciousnesses, they'd hoped that he would do something rash, and take the problem out of their hooves.
Maybe that was just wishful thinking on his part. Regardless. It was a mistake.
In the Equestria of older days, the journey from Fillydelphia to Canterlot was no small trek; a four-day hike even in the best of conditions, though the roads were usually well maintained, and a chain of modest wooden huts lay strung out along the roadside. Simple and sturdy things, with straw beds and a mound of firewood, offering more shelter and comfort than a tent or a patch of dry ground. For those with a little extra coin to spend, or a Royal Warrant to flash, two good-sized villages straddled on the road, at the halfway and three-quarter mark as one walked from Fillydelphia itself.
Of course, the travel time could be slashed to a day or less if one travels by air, but that had its own disadvantages; hot air balloons are cramped, pegasus-drawn chariots cost a small fortune, and only the most important or influential ponies could manage to get an airship to carry them.
And then the Trans-Equestrian Railway Line was laid, just a year or so prior, with tracks running from Fillydelphia to Canterlot to Vanhoover, with talk of extending the line south to Dodge. And with the number of ponies that a single train could carry, the average citizen could travel the same distance in a day or less, for a very reasonable price and in relative comfort. It was revolutionary, and that was no mere political hyperbole.
That being said the system was not, by any means, perfect. The steam engines were finicky, even temperamental, the point where trains were making it a habit to carry teams of puller ponies to help maintain speed when the boilers were burning at sub-optimal levels. And the tracks themselves were vulnerable to anything that could cause obstruction. Obstinate sheep, autumn leaves... And of course, snow and ice.
Close to the cities and towns, where pegasi patrolled the skies, that wasn't a problem. A nudge here, a bumped cloud there, and the worst of the weather could be kept away from roads and railways and all the niceties of civilisation. But in the space between, only a scant few kept watch on the weather systems that spilled out from the big cities, and for the most part they were let loose to do blow themselves out or spill what little moisture remained in their clouds.
Things weren't very much wilder, but the snow fell on field and forest and railway alike, and so the trains were waiting for the first scheduled break in the weather to start running again.
And it left Stalwart hoofing through the loose packed snow, escorting a wood and iron box with only four criminals and three constables for company. A mare named Moonstone on the far side of the wagon, and two stallions; Vision keeping watch at the back of the cart and Brisk sweating at the yoke.
He bit back a curse as the wind snatched at his cloak. Rough fabric snapped through the air, catching snowflakes from the gentle fall and sending them spinning in all directions as he trotted ahead, up to Brisk.
"How much further to the next stop?" he called, over a gust that threatened to pluck his words away.
Brisk shrugged, exaggerating the gesture through his own cloak, and the heavy yoke fastened about his shoulders.
"Three, maybe four miles? It'll feel like a hell of a lot longer in this mess, though. What I wouldn't give for a couple of pegasi on the force... If we lost the wind, I'd say we could skip this stop and leapfrog up to the next along."
Ah, now there Stalwart sympathised. The snowfall itself had been easing off all day, and the roads were clear of major drifts, but a headwind made every distance seem like twice itself, and when the gusts really got up they were scattering a stinging spray of ice at exposed fur. Making as much ground as possible was more than tempting, but with it ran the risk of getting caught out on the road after dark. And wouldn't that be a perfect ending to this misery? Have some unwary traveller stumble upon his frozen body come morning.
"Call it a night at this one, Constable," he called back, and fell into formation once, taking care to keep his head from turning into to peer at the wall of wood and banded iron to his side.
After the windswept road, sheltered by low fields on the south side and woods on the north, the hut was a gift, so welcome it was as though Celestia herself had stepped down from her throne and lead them towards it. Thick walls, made to keep heat trapped inside and wind trapped out, straw mattresses on rope-sprung frames and a firepit stocked nearly to the ceiling with dry timber.
The prisoners were not so fortunate in their accommodations, of course. They wouldn't leave the cart, though they at least had shelter from the wind, blankets, and whatever warmth leached in from the fire set for the guards on watch. It took no small amount of effort to banish the thought that it was more than they deserved. That even sleeping out in the snow was more than they deserved. And there was the uncomfortable notion that it would save a lot of trouble.
It wasn't why he'd joined the guard, though. Not to punish, but to uphold the law. The same law that dictated courts and trials, due process and assumption of innocence. Ignore that side of the law, and what was he then but a paid thug? No, he had to believe in the law, and that the law would lead to justice.
Not that the belief gave him any cause to sleep easy.
It was fortunate, then, that he had the second shift that night. Four guards, each taking two hours to cover a full eight hour night, left him with only that first two hours to lie restless on the rough sheets.
It was all but soundless inside the hut. Light breathing from the other two sleeping guards, the crackle of logs on the slow-burning fire, and the eerie moaning of the wind against the standing timbers. All sounds that, far from keeping him up, should have been like a gentle lullaby. Not that he should even have needed that, with bone-deep exhaustion weighing him down, making his joints throb with not quite pain.
But his eyes wouldn't stay closed. It was as if the tiredness was there, around him, but wouldn't actually touch him, and it was all he could to do stay in one position, head turned to the side, staring into the fire. Bright sparks, miniature points of light wreathed in smoke, drifted up to the chimney flue, the orange glow casting dancing shadows all around the rough wood that made up everything inside the hut. It was almost hypnotic. Almost.
When, at long last, two chimes sounded from the bell outside he sat up, pushing hooves into his eyes. It should have been a simple matter to step into his shoes and buckle his barding on, but his concentration wandered, grip fumbling, making the steel clatter against the table. He cursed, giving it a second try with more than the necessary force, and wrapped his cloak tight around himself before scooping up a mug of cider, taking a breath and stepping out into the nighttime chill.
There was still a stiff wind blowing, but it came easterly out of Fillydelphia and though sliced at exposed skin it carried something of a memory of home. Moonstone nodded to him as she surrendered her seat by the wagon to him, but neither of them said anything. Nothing to report meant quiet prisoners. Normally a mercy. So Stalwart settled himself down as comfortably as he could, prodding the fire with a stick and lifting his mug with a magical grip, holding it above the flames until he saw steam rising from within.
Presently, as he was sipping at hot, sweet cider cradled in his hooves and breathing in the rising fumes, he dared to glance over at the bulk of the cart. Its squat sides were orange in firelight, standing harsh and stark against the ink-blue of the midnight sky and the pale silver glow of a near-full moon. He started at it, blinking away the afterimage of the fire itself, for longer perhaps than he'd intended, until he realised what he was doing and dragged his gaze back to the fire. But treacherous eyes slid sideways, back to the heavy, blocky shape.
He tried to turn them on further, to the moon rising high above and the eerie shape of the Mare, but something pulled him back. An urge, from nowhere, to stand and to see inside. Or more than that, a need. Why? He had no idea, just knew that it was an itch through his horn and behind his eyes, plucking at him until he set the mug down beside the fire, snatched up a spear from the pile beside him and stood.
The wagon had three windows, all of them unpaned and barred. One on the door at the back, and one on either side, set high up. Too high up for him to see anything from beside the fire. Spear held easy at his side Stalwart stepped up to it. Snow crunched underhoof. The phantom itch in his skull was...getting stronger? Or was it diminishing? He swallowed hard, pushing it away, and lifted his head to peer between thick bars.
At first he saw nothing. After the light of the fire it took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he huffed out a sigh that turned to mist inside the wagon. The shapes within, patches of even deeper darkness in the gloom, were clustered close enough together to seem as one. Details resolved themselves as he looked. The big griffoness was the base of the pile, and her great wings were wrapped around the others as best as she could manage. All four were sleeping, or at least seemed to be.
Another few seconds after, and that was all he dared look for. Regret welled up, replacing the urge and the itch. Not for having looked, necessarily; it was his duty to check on the prisoners, after all. But for what he'd seen. It made him feel empty somehow. Dissatisfied.
The spear returned to the pile, the contents of the mug were tossed back in a single burning swallow, and Art passed the rest of his shift in stillness and silence. The exhaustion that before had almost hovered around him now seemed to settle and seep into him. When he ended his shift and slunk back into the hut it was a struggle to keep from collapsing on the bed and sleeping in his armour. But he peeled it off, and spent the last four hours of the night in a deep, black sleep.
The next morning came as the start of a new routine. Three sleeping guards woke as one with the clanging of the bell, taking a moment to yawn or rub at sleepy eyes, before they pulled their barding on and set a pot of heavy oatmeal porridge to bubble over the fire. Rough as it was, the straw bed sang a sweet siren's song to Art, sliding temptation under his skin. The call to let himself fall back upon it and bury himself under the blanket was almost a physical pull.
A shake of his head and a snort were all it took to break that pull, though; he wouldn't be here today if he were so easily swayed by the call of a warm bed, even one so sweet as this. Self-discipline was just one of the things that was more than essential to a guard's life. One might say it was cultivated it. And it was something that he needed to remember.
The four of them ate outside; Brisk, fresh from the last watch, clutched his bowl as though it were a blessing handed down by Celestia. A few more bowls were pushed into the wagon for the prisoners, the pot washed out with snow, and then it was time to move once more.
Art had made a few calculations as he ate; at yesterday's pace, they had another four days minimum to go before reaching Canterlot. Add one or two if they ran into a stray snowstorm on the road. This wasn't a routine to be savoured by any means, not least because it was giving him an inordinate amount of time with little to do but walk or think, but if the weather improved the escort might be able to shave a day off that estimate. That, at least, was something to look forward to.
Indeed, early signs were promising; the weather held clear and crisp through the morning, and the easterly wind lent a little haste to their pace, in a welcome contrast to the headwind of the day before. They made good progress under a pale sun, good enough that Art found himself almost enjoying the brisk march, even while he was taking his turn hitched up to the heavy yoke, dragging the wagon behind himself.
At least until he heard a voice calling from within the wagon, beckoning the guard trailing behind.
A female voice; the griffoness, then, Natasha or such. Her words were muted into incoherence by the wood between them but he could hear the constable's reply clearly enough.
"No, we're making fine progress. Hut's not too far off, and if things get that bad we can try to make it as far as Foalston from there. Should be less than a day out, if we manage to hunker down for the night first."
Oh, hells... He shook his mane out and glanced back over his shoulder; he couldn't see behind himself, not with the dark mass of the wagon there, but he could imagine the griffoness's beak poking out from between the bars.
The stallion's head appeared from behind the wood.
"Can I have a word?" he said, jerking his head forward. Vision trotted up beside him, silent as he waited for Art to speak, while Moonstone dropped back from the left-hand flanking position to cover the door.
"I don't think it's a good idea to be holding conversations with the prisoners, constable. It's unprofessional, and we all should know how these mobster types like to try and sneak useful intel out of us. Remember, they're neither our guests nor our friends. They're criminals. Or... potentially criminals," he said, catching himself. Their guilt might not have been in doubt, but they were still await their day in court. And he had standards he had to hold himself to. "Keep your lips sealed around them."
Vision dipped his head, keeping lips pressed tight together in what might have been a very literal interpretation of the command. There were responses bubbling up behind his tongue, responses Stalwart fancied he could already hear in his mind. Some of them sensible rebuttals to his point, some of them bordering on insubordination. All of them unnecessary. He'd given an order. His subordinate knew to follow it, and so the constable dropped back into position as Stalwart pushed his own second-guessing aside. And did his level best not to feel the sullen eyes he knew were boring into the back of his neck.
To the hells with that, he knew he was right. Beyond just the technical, letter-of-the-law interpretations. Let Vision be surly if he so chose, the constable hadn't seen what Stalwart had. He didn't know.
Pushing his shoulders harder against the yoke and straps, Stalwart spat into the snow, and pushed on.
In the urge to make as much ground as possible, breaks came few and far between. In the morning this was barely an issue, but by midday the weather was changing for the worse, the wind turning about to blast back in the escort's faces. To make matters worse the snowfall had been heavier further inland, and the road went from a few inches deep at the worst, to half a foot in spots where the drifts had spilled themselves out across the stones.
It turned what had been a fairly pleasant hike into slow, dragging nightmare. A series of hellish moments that repeated themselves in series ad infinitum. Thick, piled pack snow would clutch at steel shoes and fall in clumps between metal and fur to melt down into a soaking, freezing slurry that gathered up under the frog. That wasn't even taking into account the wind that grew into the same bluster of the day before, throwing powder up into the air like a frigid sandstorm. And it was worse for Stalwart.
Without a place to stop for a midday break he found himself stuck on the wagon until they reached something approaching proper shelter. That meant he had to deal with the thick, iron-rimmed wheels that bit down into the piled snow, spun uselessly on their axles and left the thing as little more than an oversized sled to be dragged by brute force. Of course, wheels are not skids, and as the wagon slid along it made little piles of snow that built themselves up into chocks, bringing the whole thing to irregular, shuddering stops that made harness straps bite deep into his shoulders.
It meant that even progress of a few hundred yards let Stalwart with angry red lines on his shoulders and a sheen of sweat all across his body, sweat that the bitter wind would chill down so that, whenever he paused for a breath or to get the wagon clear and moving again, the wet cold would sink down into deep muscle and bone before the next stretch would leave him gasping and covered in yet more frothy perspiration.
By the time they reached the next rest stop he'd been pulling the damn thing for the better part of the day, and all four legs were set to just fall from his body. He took first watch knowing that, as soon as he laid his head down, no power in Equestria would wake him before his six hours were done.
Those two hours sitting in front of the fire were fragile; Stalwart was barely aware of the flames before him, let alone the prisoners, save in rare moments when awareness would return and ever so carefully remind him that he was in no fit state to watch even a foal. But he wasn't troubled by thoughts from the night before, and when he did retire his sleep was once again deep and dark, tainted only by the exhausted hope for an easier day tomorrow.
Alas, the snow was coming down in flurries. It wasn't a blizzard, not by any means, but for a few seconds at a time it would fall thick and fast before ebbing away for a minute or five. The breeze was gentle, thankfully, though when the flurries came they came at random and without warning, and once or twice they blew heavy flakes into Stalwart's eyes, leaving him scrubbing at them with a hoof while the layers piled up around them.
"Mmph, Celestia damn those pegasi!" he snapped at last, a little before midday, shaking a few errant flakes from his muzzle. "Why, in all the circles of Tartarus, are the damned weather patrols dumping this sort of mess out into the countryside?"
"I don't think they are," Moonstone replied, holding a hoof up. A stream of gathered snow fell away from it, released into the breeze that sent the powder swirling away back and to the right of them. "Wind's maybe west-south-westerly? Means this muck might have blown in from the Everfree."
Almost before that last word was spoken Stalwart drew in a sharp breath. Oh yes, because that was all he needed... He put his tongue out as if he were a colt trying to catch a flake or two, narrowing his eyes. Could he taste hot metal on the air, or was that just his imagination? What about the sudden, warning tingle at the base of his horn, or the crawling feeling beneath his fur?
"Damnit all... Right, we're picking up the pace here. I want you and Brisk to stay tight behind the wagon, eyes on the door. If we can skip the next stop, we're doing it. I want to burn straight through Foalston and hit Saddleside tonight."
He turned his eyes to the left, to the vague direction of the cursed forest itself. If he squinted, he almost fancied he could see the tips of the trees, a dirty black smear on the very horizon. A bad idea. He knew it.
When the wind picked up once more to throw more snow into their faces, he found himself wanting to throw a hoof up to the sky and scream. In the wake of this new thought the little things, small annoyances, were becoming something more. A leather strap digging into his barrel. The edge of his barding biting into his flank. His cloak bunching up in odd places, made damp through by the snow, until he wished through the strange infuriating mix of cold and heat that he could tear everything off and bury himself in the snow.
Instead he tucked himself closer to the guard at the yoke. There was no chance of gaining any extra shelter, standing on Moonstone's left side and facing the wind, but it made him imagine shelter for a few precious seconds.
Behind him, inside the wood and steel box, there was the gentle clatter of hooves and the lighter clicking of talons. Stalwart glanced back over his shoulder. Movement was hardly prohibited, so long as it was inside the wagon, but his nerves were already singing with tension. He dropped back, lifting a hoof to bang on the side when he caught a glimpse of green light through the side window, illuminating the inside. He opened his mouth to call a halt, and the wagon exploded.
He didn't realise what had happened until he was already face down in the snow, and if there was a memory of watching the timbers expand and split, seeing metal splinter until the whole thing burst apart in flames and a wave of overpressure, he never recalled it. All he knew was a blinding burst of green, then blackness, then coming to in a heap in a snowdrift with flakes dusted across his body. He felt nothing. Not the chill of the snow or the weight of his barding or even the merest sensation from his limbs. A cold, clear part of his consciousness recoiled in terror, fearing the worst. Everything seemed detached from reality, dreamlike, serenaded by the high ringing of tiny bells.
Then he was aware again. Dull pain spread through his body, through limbs that moved at his command and he let out a desperate sob, a choking sound of pressure relieved. Moonstone lay not far from him, groaning senselessly, her body still trapped in the tangled remains of the yoke. He couldn't see Brisk or Vision, the wagon blocking...
The wagon was a wreck. Though the wheels and most of the chassis still stood, there was little else that wasn't debris. The right hand wall was just...gone. Reduced to a spray of wicked splinters spread out across the snowfall on the far side of the road. The front and back walls were twisted ruins hanging from a few steel straps, scorched on their inside faces, and the final wall was bowed open. Flames, yellow and emerald green, danced across the wood, blackening the surface of it.
And there... Figures were moving. Dark behind the fire, clambering down from the ruin to dash into the snow. One large, feathered and beaked, the other equine, but two of them were nothing like. They surely had been caught in the explosion, blackened and warped. How were they still moving?
He didn't care. He didn't want to know. His constables were down, the world was spinning, and the Everfree wind was getting stronger. He pushed himself up, tried to stand and fell back. Legs too weak to hold him. So he crawled towards Moonstone, calling for her. Yelling for a status report in a cracked and threadbare voice. No point looking for the other two, not yet. Triage procedure, save the ones that can be saved and need it, don't waste time with the others. Moon was down. Did she need help? Could she be helped?
There was a crunch of snow behind him, audible even over the sound of bells.
Stalwart turned and whimpered. One of the burnt and blackened things was walking towards him, from the back of the wreck where he knew Brisk and Vision had to have fallen.
He scrambled back. It drew closer. At this distance he could see more clearly. Its skin wasn't burned, it was smooth and slick, like an insect's carapace. He could see fangs jutting down from a quirked maw and the glint of metal rings on a grey frill. Stalwart...
...stood as it drew closer, reaching for a spear that lay on the ground beside him. He stood over Moonstone, brandishing his weapon, lips curled in a snarl. He didn't know what this thing was but there was no way it had left Vision and Brisk untouched, and now it wanted him, and Moon. The monster snarled at him, gathering its holed legs and flaring its gossamer-thin wings before leaping. His spearpoint thrust out to meet it and the monster impaled itself on his strike, the cold steel sliding through its shrivelled heart as Stalwart...
...shrank away from it. There was no spear at hoof, and if there was his limbs were too weak to use it. And he was terrified. It was all he could do to put himself between the monster and Moon, forelegs held up against his chest like a shield. This close, he could see the thin scar on one side of its face, and the torn ear on the other side, a ragged flap of skin less than half the length of the right ear, looking almost like it had been blown...off...
"You... You're..." And there, wrapped around one leg, was a steel band set with a gem that he could feel in his horn.
The creature drew its head back. Its eyes...
...widened as a silver spearpoint burst through its throat from behind. Black ichor spewed out of the wound and from its fanged jaws. Boneless, it feel to one side to reveal Brisk and Vision, bloodied but defiant, fresh spears held firm. Vision held out a hoof, his eyes full of determination and understanding; Stalwart had been right all along, the constable could see that now, and as Moonstone pulled herself to her hooves a new purpose spread through the four of them; hunt those bastards down, bring them in dead or alive-
...narrowed then softened. It - he? - drew up short and pawed at the snow.
"I'm sorry," he said. The voice was a harsh buzz, two-toned and shot through with a curious Griffish Isles accent. "I know you hate us. But we didn't do it. We still don't know what they did to them in the end. I'd tell you if I knew, I swear, but..."
"What are you talking about?" Stalwart gasped in a high, almost shrill voice.
"Lavender and Posey. We didn't do anything to them. We were just supposed to pretend to be..."
That was the other thing, calling from the other side of the road. Breeze - if it was him - flinched and looked over.
"Right, right." He paused before leaving, pressing his tongue to one curved fang. "The other two are alive. Stunned, but they should be all right. Take care of them, Art. It's not worth coming after us, you know that. We didn't mean to hurt anyone. We... We just want to be left alone."
For a second he hesitated again, so that Art was almost sure there was something else to be said, but the Breeze-thing turned away fully and bounded across the road to join the others. Art watched them, standing out against the white snow, until they dipped behind a bluff and were gone.