Celestia approached the Lore Stone with the somber dignity that the construct demanded. In the modern world, few would have recognized it as being anything other than a large boulder sat in the midst of rolling highlands with runes of old scripts carved into it. But Celestia knew better. The runes were of the so-called Tongues of Eddas, the languages spoken by the Scoltanavian and Braelic clans of earth ponies in the years before the Unification. In those days, the tradition was to inscribe the Sagas of the Clans upon great stones such as this one. To an outsider, they might appear to be merely written histories, but to one who knew better, they were much more.
The princess bowed in respect to the ponies of ages past and touched the stone with her magic, allowing the latent earth pony power in the Lore Stone to interact with the world once more. In an instant she was surrounded by ghostly apparitions, hundreds of ponies girded for battle and armed for war; the IX Cohort of the VII Legion; the Chevaliers of the Lord High Marshal; the warriors of Clans Úll, Eriskay, Galloway, and Connemaras; militia; wandering warriors; witch hunters. A vast gathering of ponies from all races and tribes, united together in one purpose. Leading them, a pair of alicorns, one of the sun, the other of the moon.
Celestia watched with detachment as her younger self gave orders to her commanders, speaking in the archaic Ponish of the era. It was always strange for her to watch the scene play out, as though she were watching an entirely different pony. In a way, she was. The Celestia of the vision looked identical to her, it was true. But their physical similarities masked how much had changed.
I was so young, she mused. So young and naïve. Dozens of wars won and scores of great threats vanquished, and still I was innocent to what was to come. We both were, she added, seeing the eagerness for battle on Luna’s face. It was as though we thought the light of our righteous fury alone would burn out the Shades.
The past Celestia finished giving her orders and the army marched forward, the land shifting around them to show their movement while the viewer remained close to the Stone.
This spot I know well. The Battle of Westingfoal. Seventy-three killed in the melee and five score wounded. She sighed and let her eyes fall shut. Such bloodshed there was in those days.
“Punishing yourself for the past won’t change things, dear sister.” Celestia turned to see Luna, the real one, standing close by, watching her with a frown. “It worries me that you seem to want to dream of such things.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps it is simply on my mind. Is that truly so surprising under the circumstances?”
“Surprising? No. But you know as well as I that we can’t change the past. And wishing we could won’t help us cope.”
The solar diarch nodded, not disputing the statement. “You are right of course, sister. It won’t. Intellectually, I know this. But rationality often eludes me when it comes to the suffering of my little ponies.”
Luna gave a humorless smirk and stepped to her sister’s side. “And logic has always been my strength, has it? I think that Nightmare Moon would disagree.” Celestia shot her a pained glance. “Sorry,” added Luna. “But my point stands. I know how difficult it is to balance reason and emotion, but that doesn’t mean I can’t remind you to stop wool-gathering. It’s not healthy.”
The elder alicorn gave her sister an affectionate nuzzle. “Thank you, Luna. It is good that you are here to remind me.” While they talked the ancient Equestrian army broke into a charge against the black-clad cultists of the old war. “It is just so easy to wonder how things might have been different if only I had reacted a little faster or been a little wiser.”
Luna nodded sagely. “All warriors must wonder such things. It is our lot. We ageless ones have it worst of all.” She returned the nuzzle. “But you mustn’t try to bear it alone. You were not the only young fool on the battlefield, and I was more reckless than you.” She watched the battle unfold with a sorrowful eye. “I left you with the burden of our dead for a thousand years. Now that I have returned, please lean on me.”
With a smile, Celestia draped a wing over her sister’s back. “I will do so gladly. Especially since you seem to bear it more gracefully than I.”
The younger mare shrugged. “For me, the wars of old are a recent memory. You have maintained near-total peace for centuries. Far be it from me to begrudge you your reluctance to face such horrors once more.” She reached out a hoof to the Lore Stone. At her touch, the battle faded. “Still, I would like to visit the real stone with you. To reminisce of old comrades.”
Celestia sighed, her voice thick with sorrow. “Would that we could, little sister. But I am afraid this stone only exists in my dreams now.” Luna gave her a sharp look. “Iconoclasts,” explained Celestia. “A byproduct of the ideology of the Prench Revolution in 306 AU. Violence from that war spilled over into Equestria, and ponies sympathetic to the revolutionaries destroyed monuments, books, artifacts, relics, shrines and sacred places, anything that resembled the established powers in their eyes.”
Luna spat an oath in old Ponish that would have made Twilight blush. Celestia couldn’t help but smirk.
“My sentiments exactly. They even dishonored the graves of old warriors and the memorials of heroes because they were viewed as agents of the old system. This stone and dozens of others were destroyed. Fearing that they would be lost forever, the elders of the clans hid the remainder away so deeply that even I do not know where they are.” Luna gaped in horror, as though unable to comprehend what was said. Celestia just walked over to the Lore Stone with a resigned expression and stroked its surface. “I gathered the pieces of the shattered stones with the idea of reforging them, of course, but the techniques used by the ancient clans to weave the magic have been lost to time. Now, there are few who live that know that they even existed, and none but you and I who have seen them in person.” She gestured to the surrounding hills. “This place now exists only in my dreams and in yours. It is fortunate that my memory is as long as my years.”
Luna ground her teeth in fury. “What madness would possess ponies to desecrate the tombs of the dead?!”
Celestia gave a bitter chuckle. “Oh, Luna, you know as well as I the reasons. Hubris, greed, misplaced honor… the reasons are simple.” She leaned against the pillar of stone and added in a whisper, “The reasons are always simple.” Clearing her throat she stood erect and turned to face her sister. “But I suspect you did not come into my dream to reminisce or visit, and I don’t want to waste any more time on my little pity party.”
Luna frowned. “Pity party? Is that a real event? If so, we may need to have a word with Miss Pie about mental health and—
“It’s an expression, Luna. What’s wrong?”
“The investigation has revealed some… troubling news,” answered Luna. “I thought it best to bring word to you immediately, but it was too complex to send in a letter.”
“A breakthrough in the investigation?” demanded Celestia. “Luna, why didn’t you say so immediately?!”
Luna waved her off. “Time passes slowly in the dream realm. Since we started, mere seconds have passed in the waking world, and I thought it best to ensure that you were in a good frame of mind before we began. Or do you doubt my methods?” she inquired a touch archly.
Celestia glanced down, chastened. “You are right of course. Tell me; what has happened?”
“T’would be easier to show you than to tell you,” replied Luna. “Colonel Query and his aide-de-camp are already asleep and waiting to debrief you. Before we begin, however, I would like to ask you about another of your officers.”
That does not bode well. “Oh? Who?”
“Captain Sabre,” answered Luna. “I would like to involve her as well, but, before I do, I must ask: how far do you trust her?”
It worries me that you feel the need to ask; not because of Argent, but because your asking suggests a conspiracy. “The Argents have served the realm faithfully for longer than we have. Argent Sabre more than lives up to their legacy.”
Luna glanced at the Lore Stone. “Fitting, under the circumstances. Very well. With your permission I would like to brief her as well. I require her opinion on certain matters.”
“Be my guest,” replied Celestia.
The lunar princess closed her eyes, and the dream dissolved around them, leaving them floating through an endless expanse of night sky. It reminded Celestia of the visions she’d had when she first took up the Mantle of the Sun. All around them drifted orbs of light, and within them lives and stories played out, ranging from cheerful to frightening to outright strange. Celestia caught herself looking with great interest (and no small amount of confusion) at what appeared to be a realm populated entirely by giant talking heads of great philosophers conversing with a familiar red draft pony. She forced herself to close her eyes. This is Luna’s territory to watch over, not mine. I shouldn’t pry.
“Ah, here we are,” announced Luna. “Argent Sabre is… oh my.”
“What?” asked Celestia, opening her eyes as her curiosity got the better of her. “What— oh.”
The two alicorns found themselves in an underground chamber hewn from rock. Dimly lit passages branched off in all directions from the central room, which itself appeared to be the living space of a musician hinging on madness. An abundance of music sheets littered the room amidst costumes and tools of the operatic arts. A grand piano dominated the room and a dark-maned stallion cloaked in black stood playing it in a frenzy, his zeal obvious even behind the white mask that covered his features. The most striking feature of the scene, however, was Argent herself, who had eschewed her armor in favor of a white gown and stood trancelike in the center of the chamber singing in passionate crescendo. Her aria reached higher and higher as the stallion behind the piano urged her to, “Sing, my angel!”
Luna shot Celestia a glance. The elder diarch fluffed her wings in a shrug. “Honestly, I had no idea she was such a fan of musicals.”
Her words seemed to shake Argent from her trance and she blinked in shock at the presence of the alicorns. “Your Highnesses? How did you… where am I… what…?”
The stallion, furious at the interruption, stormed towards them. “Darn you! You little lying Pondora!” he bellowed. “You little demon! Is this what you wanted to see?”
Luna rolled her eyes. “Be gone, phantom. You have no power here.”
At her command, the stallion vanished. Argent gasped in horror. “Princess! Why did you… wait…” she narrowed her eyes, “…is this…” the vision began to fade around them, “this is… a dream?”
“Indeed it is, Captain,” replied Luna. “I apologize for interrupting you in the midst of… whatever that was, but my sister and I require your aid.”
Celestia nickered softly. “You would probably enjoy The Specter of the Opera, sister. It strikes me as your brand of musical. Though I am surprised to see your own love for it, Argent.”
Argent managed a dignified sniff. “I didn’t always want to be a soldier, Princess, whatever my father wished. And I’ll have you know that my singing voice is every bit as mellifluous in the waking world as it is here.”
“Then I look forward to a demonstration,” teased Celestia. “But, in the meantime, I believe Luna wishes to discuss the investigation with us.” She didn’t need to specify which investigation.
Argent nodded, instantly alert. As though reflecting this, her dress morphed into her armor.
Taking the reins of the conversation, Luna explained, “I’ve left Colonel Query and Lieutenant Watch in another shared dream to wait for us. I’ll bring us together now.” Luna lit her horn and the starscape around them spun into motion. By all rights it should have been sickening, but, according to the bizarre rules that govern dreams, Celestia was able to look on without difficulty. The scene resolved with them standing in a lab. The solar diarch recognized it as one of the crime labs of Equestrian Military Intelligence. Celestia might have thought that they were actually in the EMI headquarters, had it not been for the fact that the lab drifted through an endless ether of stars and nebulas. That sort of ruins the illusion. Then again, she amended, there was that one incident when Colonel O’Neigh’s team overcharged the teleportation ring while fighting an Ursa Major…
Two ponies were waiting for them: a heavyset earth pony stallion with dark grey coat and black comb-over and a slightly built unicorn mare with pale blue coat and blonde hair. Both wore the green-brown semi-dress uniform of the EUP Guard with crossed swords and watchful eye of the EMI. Both ponies had been examining the starscape when Celestia and the others arrived, the mare with interest and the stallion with some trepidation. So intent were they on their research that they didn’t appear to notice the newcomers.
“Fascinating,” the mare was saying. “Despite the lucidity of the dream, I seem unable to interact with or effect anything beyond the room.” Her voice was without accent, which surprised Celestia because she knew for a fact that the mare had one and simply hid it. Does she consider herself on-duty even while sleeping, or has her mask become her face, I wonder? Unaware of the scrutiny, the officer reached out a hoof and waved it in the open starscape. “I wonder if the magical properties of the dream differ from one section to the next, or if I simply have mental block in place that prevents me from altering it.”
The stallion looked on uneasily. “Close, maybe don’t poke the mysterious ether,” he advised, the gravel in his voice revealing his age. “I don’t even want to imagine the paperwork for reporting a subordinate lost in the endless realm of dreams.”
Argent looked up at Luna with trepidation on her features. The alicorn gave a reassuring smile and shook her head before addressing the stallion. “I assure you, Colonel, that such harm would not befall you or your aide.”
The two intelligence ponies jumped in shock at her voice and spun to salute. “Princesses,” greeted the stallion, recovering from his surprise with admirable swiftness. He glanced at Argent. “And I see you brought the captain. Good.” He limped over to Argent and held out a hoof for shaking. “I’m Colonel Earnest Query, but ponies who work with me call me Ernie. This is First Lieutenant Close Watch, my aide-de-camp.”
“Charmed,” chorused the two unicorns.
“It’s a pleasure to officially meet you in person,” he glanced around the dream world and chuckled, “so to speak. You’ve given EMI quite the workout over the years, especially with that business in Stalliongrad.”
If Argent was put off by the fact that the intelligence officer clearly knew about missions that weren’t part of the public record, she didn’t show it. “I trust I haven’t made too much trouble for you?”
Query laughed. “You have, but it’s been the good kind of trouble.” He made his way over to the table at the center of the lab, where Celestia now saw the scorched tip of a unicorn horn. Where did they get that little trophy? “But, much as I’d like to discuss your escapades at length, we’ve got more pressing business to attend to.” He fixed his diarchs and the captain with a grim look. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this; we’ve got a serious breach of security on our hooves and we aren’t certain who we can trust.” He paused to let that statement sink in.
It came as little surprise to Celestia, but she still felt a pit form in her stomach at the thought of a traitor in their midst.
Seeing that no one had any questions yet, Query continued, “The first problem, of course, is that the infiltrator never should have been able to make it as deep as he did without being spotted. If he’d snuck in the conventional way through all the checkpoints or over the walls, he would have needed to use some sort of magical ability; a ghost-step, a phasewalk, a chameleon spell, something to avoid notice by the patrols. Those spells aren’t easy to do, and they leave magical residue that we can trace when they’re used, especially dark magic.” He grimaced. “However, we didn’t find any signs of evil magic anywhere on the grounds before the Great Hall itself. That means he teleported in.”
“Which brings us to our second problem,” said Watch, taking over the story. “As you know, the anti-teleportation wards on the castle grounds prevent unsanctioned arrivals from popping their heads in. They can still be overcome with enough power but, quite frankly, the experience is so taxing that even a unicorn like Miss Sparkle would be fairly disoriented and drained.”
Argent nodded. “So his dark magic was powerful enough to overcome the ward without draining him then. Ominous indeed.”
“Respectfully, Captain, no,” corrected Watch.
Query sighed. “At first we assumed the same as you did, that whatever Dark Arts he was practicing were sufficiently powerful to overcome the wards, but the fact of the matter is that he wasn’t that powerful.”
Argent huffed. “He seemed plenty powerful to me.”
The stallion winced. “I misspoke. I meant powerful enough.”
“Overcoming the wards without being drained takes a truly absurd level of magic,” explained Watch. “It’s not unheard of, especially when the Dark Arts are in play, but I was concerned that there might be a simpler explanation.”
Celestia didn’t need to be an intelligence officer to guess where this was headed. “Like a traitor deactivating the wards.”
Watch nodded. “Exactly. Now, this is a representation of the spell formula of the active ward.” Her horn lit with golden light and a complex magical glyph sprang into life in the air. “I won’t waste time making you examine it; it’s flawless, as it should be. It seemed like a dead end, but, well, my instincts said otherwise. So I decided to take a closer look at the infiltrator’s remains.”
Argent’s brow furrowed. “How’d you manage that? Celestia didn’t leave enough left to fill a paper bag.” The princess gave her a pained look and Argent blushed. “Er… what I meant to say was—"
“You are correct, Captain,” interrupted Watch. “There wasn’t much left. But I’m very thorough. My special talent enables me to tease the instrumentation down to a level of detail impossible to reproduce without a prohibitively high number of tailor-made enchantments. Most of the body was ash, but,” she indicated the nub of horn on the table with her hoof, “there was just enough left of the horn to enable me to find this.” Once more her magic lit the room, and this time a string of medical projections were displayed, one set in black, one set in gold.
Watch explained the charts with the air of a university lecturer or doctor. “The gold is my thaumatic field. The black is the stallion’s thaumatic field, or what’s left of it at any rate. Now, in a healthy unicorn’s thaumatic field, like mine, the currents of magic flow and arc according to a predictable and measurable pattern. When spikes occur, they do so in direct proportion to the level of magic being utilized and follow an exponential increase. Whenever it is pushed too far, the field becomes unstable, leading to magical exhaustion, backlash, and even total thaumatic collapse. A unicorn can continue to cast in this state, but it risks permanent damage to the nerves, horn, heart, thaumatic field, ultimately the entire nervous system if left unchecked.”
As she explained, Celestia examined the gold systems more closely. Watch’s magical field was indeed a healthy one, even if the occasional spike did indicate above average stress. For the most part the thaumatic energy flowed in natural peaks and troughs, not unlike the waves of the sea.
“Now for the stallion’s,” continued Watch, gesturing to the other pony’s field. “He was not healthy. Notice the erratic flow of energy, the constant and unpredictable spikes, the way that the power ramps up to ridiculous levels even when there isn’t an active body attached to it to prompt the magic, and—look there!” she pointed to a brief break in the line that appeared before the wave reappeared at an even higher power level than before. “Sometimes the thaumatic field just shorts out as though experiencing total collapse before coming back. Conventional magic doesn’t do that; the thaumatic energy is encouraged to flow in specified ways according to the deliberate action of the unicorn or according to the natural flow of energy. When spells are used, they’re supposed to redirect the current in a manner akin to digging a channel for the energy and pointing it in a specific direction. What this is doing is more like forcibly ripping the current up and slapping it down in a new place with no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
Argent massaged her temples as though she was getting a headache. “So, in practical terms, what does that mean?”
“Simply put, this stallion’s thaumatic field was falling apart,” explained Watch. “The dark magic was reshaping his field to suit its own specific designs and forcing it into whatever configuration it needed to achieve it, regardless of the damage it did. Ordinarily, the body’s immune system kicks in to prevent that; that’s why the thaumatic field gives out due to exhaustion or collapse before the body does. But here?” She shook her head in disgust. “I’m frankly astonished he was holding together at all. By all rights he should have been catatonic from this level of thaumatic distress. I can only imagine that the dark magic was stitching him together as it went. Even so, he was probably half dead by the time he broke into the Great Hall. After all, this magic is still active in a nub of a horn three days after death. But the damage was probably already permanent. Without more of the body to examine I’m just guessing here, but I’d estimate that he was maybe an hour at most away from organ failure, with Ghoul Syndrome not long after that.”
Argent blanched, and Celestia didn’t blame her. ‘Ghoul Syndrome’ was the vernacular for a particularly virulent byproduct of certain Dark Arts wherein the body was gradually consumed to feed the enchantment. “Well, that’s bloody horrifying,” murmured the captain. “But, as truly unspeakable as all this is, I must admit that I fail to see how this equates to their being a traitor in our midst.”
Query gave a dark chuckle. “Because there was no cleanup on aisle seven.” The four mares gave him looks ranging from confused to censorious. He seemed unbothered. “Teleportation is an incredibly complex spell under the best of circumstances, Argent, and this poor son-of-a-mule’s circumstances were anything but. It’s impressive enough that he managed to ‘port in without exploding. If he’d tried to do it through a ward, well, the only fight you would have gotten in that evening would have been with Raven over who got the decontamination shower first.”
Watch sighed. “That’s disgusting, boss.”
“Tact is for young stallions and field officers, Close. I’m neither.”
Luna cleared her throat. “Returning to the matter at hoof, I believe the implications of this are clear. Somepony, or perhaps multiple ponies, altered the ward to allow the intrusion before repairing it.” Her eyes narrowed. “And the only ponies capable of such sabotage are our own.”
A grim silence followed the declaration. Celestia fought the urge to gnash her teeth in rage. Centuries of practice helped, but only just.
“Well, somepony’s going to be joining the statue garden after this,” mused Argent with disgust evident on her features. “Though at least it’s a pretty short list of suspects. Not many ponies have the expertise necessary to alter those sorts of spells, much less the access.”
“It’s longer than you may think,” countered Luna. “And the pony with the access and the pony with the expertise don’t necessarily need to be the same pony. A turncoat guard could escort the saboteur almost as easily as sneaking about himself, and a patrol of turncoats could ensure that nopony would be in the area to interrupt the work.”
“A chilling prospect,” stated Celestia. “And one that places few above suspicion.” She glanced at Argent. “It seems we are quite fortunate to have you in the capital, Captain. Can you vouch for your soldiers?”
Argent nodded. “My dogs have all been with me for at least two years of dirty work on the borders. Some were here for the invasion. If any of them are traitors, I’ll eat my helmet.”
“And you came with a full platoon; twenty here in Ponyville and forty more still in Canterlot. Sixty trustworthy ponies.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but I’d suggest more like eighty,” corrected Argent. “The twenty Solars and Lunars we have training with us have all been vetted by our resident quack.” Luna looked confused. “Apologies, Princess. Our resident psychologist. And I trust Lieutenant Morning Song like I trust my own sister. Besides,” she shrugged, “We’ve been running the poor blighters ragged the last month; none of them have had time to shoplift, much less commit high treason. And, to be blunt, we’ll need the horsepower”
Luna gave a noncommittal grunt. “I’m not entirely enamored with the idea of taking that word as bond, no offense to your lieutenant, but you’re right in saying that we won’t accomplish much without more hooves. And I suppose we don’t need to tell everypony the full story; just a select few trusted officers and footponies.” She grimaced. “My apologies, enlisted ponies.”
Celestia smirked. “Old habits die hard, eh, Luna?”
Her sister glared, then continued. “Query, Watch, and I have begun compiling a list of guards and staff members with alibis or else personal connections to the throne that make the likelihood of treachery remote.” She turned to Celestia, “However, that would be much easier with you here, dear sister. To put it bluntly, I don’t know the servants like you do, and in any case I would like to have all eighty of the soldiers we can count on for certain present as soon as possible.”
Celestia and Argent exchanged a glance. “All eighty might be problematic.” She explained the situation with Jacques and the plan to leave Argent and her soldiers operating discretely nearby.
Query quirked an odd smile. “Well, this just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? You think he’s on our side?”
“He’s given me no reasons to doubt him and ample reasons to trust,” replied Celestia frankly. “I think he’ll be instrumental in the coming fight.”
Watch shook her head. “Only if Ponyville is truly secure. Though, I admit, I think it’s probably safer than Canterlot at the moment.”
Luna frowned. “I can certainly see the importance of having a Guard presence in, or rather near Ponyville as you’ve planned, but the Bearers can handle themselves. As can this Friar Jacques, I suspect. Knowing Twilight’s propensity for research, he’ll unlock his powers in short order, and he’ll be quite a menace to any practitioners of the Dark Arts who bother him. At the moment, Canterlot is more vulnerable and we’ll need numbers to secure it. I don’t suppose you have a way of leaving only a few soldiers in Ponyville?”
“Not easily without drawing attention,” responded Celestia. “Without the excuse of training exercises for the whole company, it would draw the wrong kind of attention to leave only a few guards bivouacked nearby.” She ran through a mental checklist of ponies she knew from the quaint village. “There’s a former operative in town that I’m confident I can convince to start working again, and a few retired soldiers and spies who I’ve trusted to keep an eye on things, but I’d feel more comfortable with a few more spears on hoof should things go sour.”
Argent tapped a hoof against her barding, her expression thoughtful. “Perhaps a pair of soldiers assigned to Jacques as bodyguards? Declare him a foreign diplomat?”
Celestia shook her head. “No, making him a diplomat would only increase his visibility. We need another excuse to…” she trailed off as inspiration struck and broke into a wide grin. “Captain, Morning Song was a psychologist, correct?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“And a strange creature coming to a new world via magic portal may require some counseling to help him adjust, wouldn’t you say?”
Argent’s smile was sly. “Why yes, Your Highness. I suppose he would. And I can’t imagine anypony thinking too much of that.”
“Or of an officer of Song’s station having an assistant or two,” added Luna. “Say, a pair of fellow soldiers perhaps?”
“I know just the stallions for the job,” nodded Argent. “And, if I may, Princesses, I have another recommendation as well. It seems that there are two stallions who recently faced off against a Shade and fared reasonably well against him. It happens that one of them was injured and they may benefit from some time off base in Ponyville.”
“Are you certain they can be trusted?” asked Luna, skeptical. “I know that Oaken nearly died, but I would not put it above our enemy to stage that.”
Argent nodded. “I’m certain. I could see it in their eyes. One sees the heart of a warrior in battle, and, unless Oaken and Ironhide are exceptionally good actors, they’re trustworthy.”
“Well, you’d know about good actors,” remarked Celestia. Argent shot her an arch look. “All the same, I think that’s an excellent idea. If nothing else it will give us a local presence while we resolve the situation in Canterlot.”
Watch stepped forward. “If it puts your mind at ease, Princess Luna, Ernie and I had the exact concern that you do about Privates Oaken and Ironhide, so we looked into it. There’s nothing in their records to suggest any involvement. I’m confident they can be trusted.”
Luna still looked unhappy, but she didn’t argue. “I have reservations, I admit, but I suppose taking a few risks is inevitable. Very well. You have our blessing, Captain.”
“Excellent,” said Celestia. “Then come morning we shall make the necessary arrangements and leave the good friar in the capable hooves of the Bearers and their helpers.” She gestured to the starscape around them. “This is quite useful. Why don’t we use this for planning sessions more often?”
Argent cocked an eyebrow. “Respectfully, Princess, I think that the fact that we haven’t had to resort to this before now is a good sign.”
“I’ll send you back to your own slumbers now,” announced Luna. “I still have the rest of the night to attend to, after all. And, while I can’t alter your dreams per se, would you like me to hint at any special requests to your subconscious?” she offered.
Query didn’t even hesitate. “The Osprey’s concert at the Stockyard, ’76.” Watch turned and gave him a long look. “What? I was young once.”
Luna nodded to the colonel. “As you wish.” He vanished in a shimmer of light. “Lieutenant Watch?”
The mare shook her head. “I’m a lucid dreamer. Wherever I end up I’ll probably just change it.” There was a flash of light akin to a teleport and she was gone.
“Something peaceful and innocent, if you please,” requested Argent. “I imagine I’ll need it in the days to come.” She glanced at Celestia. “Though I have always been curious as to whether or not princesses truly do dream of magic sheep.”
Celestia considered her options then gave a sly grin. “Something musical for me.” She winked at Argent. “I’m of a mind to get back into the sing of things.” Her grin turned cheeky at the pun.
Luna and Argent just stared flatly. They exchanged a glance, and then Luna asked, “What do you think her penance should be for that?”
Argent adopted a courtly stance. “Far be it from a lowly captain to suggest a penalty for a princess.” Her gaze flicked to Celestia. “But, if I did, I would suggest the infliction of the latest colt bands upon her.”
Both princesses eyes widened in horror. “You’re a cold mare, Argent,” chided Celestia.
“Given my profession, that’s probably a complement.” She bowed low. “Goodnight, Princesses.”
The captain faded into mist, leaving the two sisters alone. Celestia regarded her astral surroundings with approval. “This really is helpful. Though, I must say, the temptation to use it to prank ponies who’ve tweaked you must be intense. I don’t know how you resist it.” Luna didn’t reply. “Luna?” Celestia turned to see her sister wearing an impish grin. “Luna…”
Celestia found herself in the front row of a concert for a skinny jean-wearing colt with bangs like a mare and a voice like a filly, surrounded by shrieking females of all ages. “Immortal protectors of the realm,” the alicorn grumbled to herself. “Intrigue. Strategy. Betrayal and espionage. Childish pranks.” Her eyes narrowed. “I will spend decades making Luna and Argent pay for this.”
Sandstone pulled the collar of his jacket up with a nervous tug and peered out of the dark alley to survey the worn cobblestone thoroughfares that crisscrossed the area. He needn’t have bothered. The Industrial District of Canterlot was deserted after 7:00 PM, and that had been seven hours ago. Nopony was in sight and, even if they had been, the brown jacket and hat he wore thoroughly masked his golden coat and brown hair. Still, Sandstone couldn’t quite shake the feeling he was being watched. He shot a fearful glance up at the twinkling stars. What if the stars spy for them too? Would we even know? Or would the first warning be when stallions and mares started disappearing in the night, starting with our leadership and moving onto—
He smacked the side of his head with a hoof. Get a hold of yourself! If those classist bastards could do that they’d have done it by now. You’re wasting time! Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to cross the street deeper into the Industrial District.
His path took him down a series of twists and turns that would have left an outsider befuddled. The warehouses and factories of the District were strung together in a manner that might generously be called eclectic, the product of centuries of changing technology and expanding consumer society. Older, smaller factories geared towards practical industries like steel and copper smithing were buried beneath modern behemoths built to churn out luxury goods. Each new generation of fashionability seemed to demand new factories, with their predecessors being absorbed, converted, or, most commonly, discarded. Just like the ponies who work them, thought Sandstone bitterly as his journey took him into the oldest part of the District, where tiny brick buildings shivered in the shadow of the giants that had invaded their lands. Designer bags; buildings; industries; ponies; it doesn’t matter. As soon as we outlive our usefulness, we’re discarded and replaced with the newest fad. He spied his destination: a dilapidated little brick warehouse bearing a sign so worn that the lettering was mostly gone. Once, he knew, it had been a booming business by the name of Marks’ and Angles’ Manufacturing, named for the two stallions who ran it. Now, only the faded ‘Marks’ remained.
Hastening to the heavy iron door, Sandstone knocked, two taps, a pause, then three in rapid succession. A slit window opened in the door to reveal a pair of eyes. “State your business,” came the challenge.
“The State is my business,” answered Sandstone.
The slit slid closed, and a moment later the door guard, a fellow earth pony, opened the door to admit him. They bumped hooves by way of greeting. “Welcome, brother,” said the guard warmly. “Please head below. The meeting will begin shortly.”
Thanking him, Sandstone trotted towards the stairs. While the factory itself was dark, the orange light emanating up from the lower rooms let him easily find his way. Voices drifted up to him as he descended into the fire-like glow, and he felt a shiver of anticipation as he entered the meeting room.
The chamber had once been a storage room for the factory, a wide open space with tall ceilings held up by iron beams and rivets. Nearly two hundred stools had been set out, with a space cleared in front of them for a podium, a microphone, and two heavy workbenches, all backdropped by a massive red banner. Sandstone felt his heart swell with pride at the sight of the flag. It was a beautiful thing, really: a majestic crimson field with three black hooves in triangular formation set in a gold circle at the center, reaching for a black forging hammer from which white lightning shot.It was a flag of unity; of dedication; of justice.
It was the flag of the Vox Mannorum.
Already the room was mostly full, as Sandstone had been one of the last to arrive. Many of the faces present he recognized, but there were plenty of newcomers as well. Given that this was a meeting for trusted members of the Vox only, he guessed that most of them were from their sister chapters in Manehatten, Detrot, Fillydelphia, and the other major cities. There was an excited buzz in the air as stallions and mares speculated as to what could have prompted the summons. More than one pony seemed to think that something had happened at the palace and, though they weren’t sure what, they were confident that it had taken the Diarchists down a peg.
Sandstone stayed at the edge of the group, not really listening that hard to the conversations as he searched for one pony in partic—
Two light blue hooves covered his eyes. “Guess who?” sang a sweet voice.
Sandstone couldn’t keep a mischievous smile off his face. “The Great and Powerful Trixie?”
An indignant huff greeted his guess. “Hmph. Figures that a male can’t tell the difference between that windbag’s coat and mine.” The hooves started to retract. “I mean, her blue’s a long ways from cyan or sea greeEEE—
Her scream was cut off as he seized her hooves and swung her around in front of him, planting a kiss on the startled mare’s lips. “The coat of the most beautiful mare in the entire world you mean?” he said with a sly grin. “Yes, I’d have to be pretty thick not to tell the difference wouldn’t I?”
The mare, a pretty unicorn with blue-green mane and cyan coat, flushed red, but still tried to maintain her huff. “S-so you think you can just whip me around and kiss me and complement me and it’ll all be better, Sandy? You’re going to have to do a lot better than that to—"
He cut her off with another kiss, this one lasting considerably longer and having the added flare of dipping her to the floor as though they were swing dancing. After holding the position long enough to both draw glances and subsequently be ignored by other Vox, he gently pulled her back to her hooves. He smiled in satisfaction as the indignation on her face was replaced with a deep flush and a dreamy look in her sea green eyes.
“Tha…” she breathed. “That… wow. Okay. That would do it.”
With a cheeky grin, he ran a hoof through her mane. “What can I say? I was happy to see my best girl.”
Regaining something of her mocking tone, she brushed his hoof aside. “Your ‘best’ girl, huh? I hope that doesn’t mean you have some other mares stashed away someplace.”
Sandstone chuckled and kissed her on the tip of her horn. “Aw, come on, Breeze. You know you’re the only gal for me.”
She nuzzled him under the chin. “What’d I ever do to deserve you?” she asked with a happy sigh.
“Something awful, I bet,” he replied.
Before she could retort, they were interrupted by a stallion clearing his throat. “Sea Breeze? Sandstone?” They turned to see a wizened stallion who had the air of a professor. He tilted his head towards the stools meaningfully. “We’re about to get started.”
“Thanks, Tweed,” replied Breeze. She looked up at her coltfriend. “Where should we sit?”
He threw a foreleg over her withers and started towards the seating area. “Someplace up front if we can manage it,” he answered. “I don’t want to miss anything.”
She nodded feelingly. “Yeah. There’s got to be something big going down if Brother Thornberry asked so many of us to be here. I can’t remember the last time I saw this many Vox in one place!”
“Neither can I,” agreed Sandstone as they made their way towards the front. “So many ponies I haven’t seen in ages. Cabbie Jack from the Manehatten rally; Bronze Spoon from U of F; even ‘Auntie’ Farm from Trottingham!”
“And it’s not just Equestria, either,” murmured Breeze, pointing to a blonde stallion with chiseled features, lean muscles, and a thick Germane accent who was holding forth on some matter of policy to a mare. “Isn’t that Brown Shirt over there?”
“Yup. And that’s Red Star he’s speaking to.” They found two seats relatively close to the front and ponies shuffled down to give them space on the end. “Quite the collection of Vox,” he remarked. Then, teasingly, he added, “Though I can’t help but notice that your gaze was drawn to our friend from Germaney.”
Breeze snorted. “Please! He’s not my type.” She glanced over at him. “Though, I admit, it is impressive to see a unicorn who’s better muscled than most earth ponies.”
She giggled and leaned against him. “Don’t worry, Sandy. You don’t need big muscles to be the right guy for me.”
Further banter was cut short by the distinct thunking sound of a hoof being tapped against a mic. They turned to see Brother Tweed standing at the podium as the chatter of the crowd quieted. “If I could have everypony’s attention please,” the stallion asked. “Brother Thornberry will begin in a moment, so if everypony would please find your way to the seats, we can begin.” There was a shuffle as the assembled ponies found their places. “Thank you. Now, please put your hooves together and welcome Brother Thornberry.”
With that he stepped aside to allow another pony to take the stand. As introductions went, Sandstone found it to be rather lackluster. But then, Brother Thornberry really needed no introduction. The blue-coated stallion was a legend, having stepped up to fill the hole left by the death of the Vox Mannorum’s chief architect. Like the true believer he was, he’d made it clear that he had no intention of replacing their martyred leader. But Sandstone knew that none of the Vox would have begrudged him the role. He has enough fire for all of us.
The stocky blue stallion stepped up to the podium with alacrity, black mustache bristling fiercely as his crimson eyes blazed beneath brow and mane that stopped just short of being disheveled. With slightly rumpled jacket and aggressive movements, he looked more like a harried businesspony than the dynamic leader of a movement that was going to change the world. As it should be, thought Sandstone with satisfaction. A common pony to free the common ponies!
A thunder of stomping hooves and cheers greeted Thornberry’s arrival at the stand. The stallion gave a curt smile and acknowledged the applause with a wave of his hoof, but he didn’t indulge himself. After a moment he held up his hoof for silence. Instantly, the noise ended.
“Thank you,” he said, his tone terse and blunt. “Thank you all for coming. The journey has been long for many and dangerous for all, but I would not have asked you here if it were not of the gravest importance.” He paused to see to it that his words had the desired sobering effect. He needn’t have bothered. Everypony was already listening with rapt attention. “For so long the Vox has labored in the shadows to ensure that one day we shall all walk equally in the light, free from the tyranny of the alicorns and their Imperialist lackeys. Long have our allies in Parliament labored to bring about equality for all, that no pony may hold power above another, but…” a growl rumbled in his throat and his eyes smoldered, “at every turn that sun-flanked witch has undermined the very ponies she claims to protect.”
Murmurs of agreement rippled through the audience.
“It started innocently enough,” he began, his voice dripping with scorn. “It always does. First the high class ponies invite poor ponies to their towns with the promise of work and good pay. But soon the prices of living go up and the pay goes down; lives become less than the bottom line; factories close as each new product goes out of fad in a month and the working pony gets thrown into the trash along with designer purses and gold watches!”
Grumbles of assent and a cry for justice. Sandstone nodded his head, his jaw set in anger for all the working class ponies who’d been wronged.
“Pretty soon, the workers have to take any job they can get just to put bread on the table! And the State, rather than providing that bread, instead encourages the very businesses that keep us enslaved to the almighty bit!”
Angry shouts and curses against the unfairness of the system.
“And where do these bits go, you ask?” Thornberry snarled. “Well, if they’re not building new penthouses and mansions for the wealthiest Equestrians, they’re funding the Diarchists’ imperialist wars abroad!” He leaned over the podium to glare out over the audience. “The princesses are fools if they think we don’t see what’s happening! Celestia may couch it in platitudes about ‘relief efforts’ and ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘honoring alliances,’ but her War Dogs are imposing Equestrian policy and culture on foreign powers every, day!” He punctuated his words by pounding on the stand. “And Her Royal Highness Luna is even worse! Ever since she’s taken power, she’s been pushing for even more war-mongering! And why should we be surprised? We’ve all heard the rumors of what happened in Ponyville! I don’t know what Celestia is doing to keep that savage on a leash, but her Dark Age barbarism will lead us down the path to destruction!”
Roars of approval and demands for change.
“Proof?” exclaimed Thornberry as though that had been what was demanded. “You want proof of their imperialism? Well, my brothers and sisters, look no further than the Crystal Empire! The utter gall of Celestia, to make her niece the Empress of that land in all but name, to enslave an entire population of ponies after overthrowing the existing government! She even sent in her War Dogs under the command of one of her most trusted lieutenants to establish an Equestrian-controlled military! A lieutenant who just happens to be the Prince Consort of Cadence herself, and thus a member of the royal family!”
It was a testament to Thornberry’s vocal power that he could continue to be heard over the outrage of the crowd.
“On the topic of the illustrious Shining Armor,” he spat the name, “has anypony else noticed the coincidence that he just so happens to be the brother of Celestia’s personal student, who Celestia just happened to entrust with the most powerful magical weapon in the realm, along with her hoof-picked entourage?”
The assembly was growing hoarse from the shouting.
“And in all this, tell me, where was the voice of the populace?” he demanded, smashing his hoof hard enough against the podium to make the top crack. “Was Parliament consulted about the annexation of the Crystal Ponies? Or the power granted to Celestia’s cronies? Or the unilateral deployment of Equestrian forces to the so-called Empire? No! Of course they weren’t! Not that it would matter, as our Populist comrades are continually overruled by Their Majesties’ Government! It’s a mockery is what it is! A darned mockery of everything we—
His voice cracked, and a sound akin to a sob escaped his lips, cracking in the abrupt silence like a dropped glass. He gripped the sides of the podium and lurched forward, eyes shaking with emotion. Sandstone felt his pulse skip a beat. Is he having a heart attack? A concerned murmur rippled through the crowd and a pair of medical students from the University of Canterlot rose to attend to him, but the venerable stallion held up a hoof to forestall them.
“I’m fine,” he croaked. The crowed relaxed. “I simply couldn’t help but think…” his voice trailed off to a sigh. Sandstone and Breeze exchanged a worried glance. Brother Thornberry was never at a loss for words. At length, the stallion found the strength to continue. “It has become apparent that our allies in Parliament are not making headway against the corrupt system. The State, I fear, has become too far removed from the ponies it is meant to serve to recover. Which means…” he sighed once more, and, had he not been mic’d, his voice would have been inaudible to them, “…which means that, with a heavy heart, I must remind you that, if equality will not be granted, it must be taken.”
No cheers or cries of approval greeted Thornberry’s words, as everypony seemed to sense the solemnity of the moment. But, even so, Sandstone felt a thrill of excitement ripple through the crowd as each pony seemed to look on with eager anticipation. They had waited, dreamed of this day for so long, and, while it was regrettable that it had come to this, they were willing to bear the burden that other ponies feared to. They knew their cause was righteous; they knew that the Imperialist Dogs could not stop their fury.
He himself was not immune to their strength of conviction. Indeed, his heart soared with exhilaration for the liberation at hoof. And yet, he still felt a treacherous spike of fear in his soul. We’re going up against trained soldiers… EUP Guardponies. And not just Regulars, either, but Solars and Lunars. Most of those guys are twice my size! They’ll snap me in half! He tried to shove his treacherous fears aside, but the nagging voice would not go away. Seeming to sense something amiss, Breeze leaned in and nuzzled him, a beatific expression on her face as she tried to share her passion without violating the silence. But the sight of her only redoubled his fears. What if something happens to her?! She’s even smaller than me! I know it’s all for a better world, but if she’s not in it—
So deep in thought was he that when Thornberry spoke again he jumped in his seat. “Make no mistake, brothers and sisters. The struggle will be great, for our enemy is strong, numerous, and armed with an arsenal born of greed. Some may call us fools for what we are to do.” He paused to let the words sink in, then leaned in with a sly grin on his face. “But we shall have the advantage. Yes, brothers and sisters, we have acquired weapons which shall ensure our victory over our oppressors. And, while the full details must be kept secret from you for your own safety until the time is right, tonight we shall begin familiarizing you with the tools of war. To that end,” he extended a foreleg to a shadowed alcove in the back of the room, “our benefactor.”
Sandstone’s eyes travelled to the dark corner and he jolted in his seat at what he saw. Stepping from the shadows was a truly massive stallion. The grey-furred earth pony wore a white long coat and fedora with a tie the color of burning embers. His tale and mane were of the same color. The eyes were obscured beneath the brim of the hat, and his cutie mark was obscured by the coat. Sandstone might have wondered about both, but he was too busy being distracted by the size of the stallion. He stood easily half a head above the average draft pony, and more than twice that above the average stallion. His muscles flexed beneath the coat even at rest, and when he walked towards the podium his hoofsteps sounded like the tread of some great beast.
How did I not see him there?
“Has he been standing there his whole time?” hissed Breeze, unknowingly echoing his own thoughts. Sandstone could only shrug.
The mystery stallion reached the podium, which Thornberry yielded to him, and ducked his head to be low enough to use the mic. He then smiled, a wide, toothy grin of perfect, pearly white teeth. More than one mare in the audience became extra attentive. Sandstone’s eyes narrowed.
“Good evening,” said the stallion, his voice a rumble that seemed to emerge from the depths of the earth while still being gentle enough to soothe a frightened child. He tipped his cap to the audience. “It is a pleasure to join you all here. While I cannot give you my name for security reasons, you may call me ‘Quartermaster.’” His grin stretched back to his ears. “And I am here to help you win a war.”
Whispers broke out amongst the Vox as ponies questioned who he was and what he meant, but he held up a hoof for silence and was obeyed. “I know many of you must be afraid to fight trained soldiers,” he said slowly, sympathy in his voice. “There is no shame in this. The first battle is not an easy thing. But, in the end, the enemy is mere flesh and blood. And, with the right weapon, no one is invincible. You have all the fire necessary to fight. All you need,” he gestured to the tables behind him, “is an edge.”
Once more Sandstone was startled as four ponies emerged from the shadows pulling two large wooden cases with them. Did I miss them too?! And who are they? They don’t look like Vox! Without a word, the four ponies clustered around one of the cases and began lifting it onto the leftmost table. Though they looked to be strong, fit earth ponies, they struggled to raise it up high enough to complete the task, and had to do so with careful coordination. While they worked, the stallion called Quartermaster simply walked over to the other case, grabbed it with one foreleg, and heaved it onto the right table without ceremony.
Sandstone gaped. He heard at least one mare whistle appreciatively.
While they worked, four more silent stallions emerged, hauling what looked to be mannequins wearing Royal Guard armor out onto the floor and setting them up in a line stretching out from the podium to the left. Once their preparations were complete, they withdrew without a word, leaving Quartermaster alone.
He opened both cases and began removing items from inside, setting them down on the table. It was a mixture of crossbows and spears, though there seemed to be two distinct varieties of each, one plain and the other ornate. “Any laborer knows that getting the job right is more about the tool than about the pony wielding it,” he said as he worked. “A weak pony with a screwdriver will drive screws better than a strong one with a hammer.” His work done, he turned to face them. “What I bring today is your tool kit.”
The hulking stallion looked out at the audience, tilting his hat back as he scanned their faces and allowing Sandstone to see his eyes for the first time. They were the color of smoldering embers, the same as his mane and tale, with pupils and irises that struck Sandstone as being just a shade too large.
“Words are cheap. Actions are better. So, to show you how effective they are, I’ll need a volunteer.”
His eyes drifted over the room, at one point passing over Sandstone. The young stallion wilted under the other’s eyes, as the fiery gaze seem to burn straight though to the back of his skull. For a moment, Sandstone thought he was going to be picked, and his mane stood on end with an instinctive fear. Then Quartermaster’s gaze drifted right, and the feeling grew worse as a mighty hoof was pointed at Breeze.
Breeze swallowed. “M-me?” she asked.
Quartermaster beckoned her forward.
The mare glanced at her coltfriend. His instincts clamored for him to keep her away from the strange stallion, but he had no idea why. Brother Thornberry wouldn’t have invited him if he wasn’t trustworthy, he assured himself. I’m just being paranoid. Even so, it took all his effort to swallow his unease and force a reassuring smile. “Go on,” he said as encouragingly as he could manage. Smiling, she trotted forward amidst whispers of ‘lucky’ and ‘see if he’ll pick me next’ from other attendees. Sandstone just watched, unable to will his stomach to settle.
Breeze reached the front and stood fidgeting. She wasn’t the fidgety type, but, as she was dwarfed by the massive stallion, Sandstone couldn’t blame her. “What’s your name?” asked the giant.
She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “Breeze,” she replied. “Sea Breeze.”
He put a foreleg over her shoulder and led her over to the weapons with a wide grin. “Well, Breeze, let me show you what we’ll be working with today.”
Is he an arms dealer or a shop teacher? thought Sandstone sourly, wishing he’d been picked instead.
Quartermaster took one of the plain crossbows from the table and passed it to Breeze, along with ten bolts. “Have you ever fired a crossbow before?”
“Well, it’s fairly simple to do. You simply pull back the string, lock it into position, load the bolt, point, and fire.” He demonstrated on a crossbow of his own. “The crossbow is the great equalizer on the field of battle. Even the armor of an EUP Guard can only do so much to resist a well-placed shot. Observe.” Casually, he aimed his crossbow and fired at one of the dummies, placing the bolt squarely in the heart of the peytral. “See? Now you try.”
Breeze went to cock back the bowstring with her magic, but Quartermaster stopped her. “Ah, ah,” he tutted as though speaking to a child or a dog. “No magic.” He glanced out at the audience. “And no wings for you pegasi. For unicorns, the stress of combat makes it easy to lose control of your magic if you aren’t trained, and the repetition of the action may wear out your thaumatic reserves and leave you vulnerable. As for pegasi, well, these aren’t shortbows we’re using; pulling the string back on a crossbow with your wings is a great way to snap your wings. Now try again.”
Unable to use her magic, Breeze had to resort to brute strength. Which, unfortunately for her, wasn’t much. It didn’t help that she was having difficulty figuring out how best to hold the weapon while she pulled on it. She fumbled with the weapon for nearly a minute, earning snickers from many of the Vox as her face turned red with embarrassment and frustration. Quartermaster just watched.
Sandstone glared. Why isn’t he helping her? Does he like watching her struggle? And how are these weapons supposed to help us if we can’t use them?
Eventually Quartermaster seemed to take pity on her, though only after she’d tried to brace it against the floor with her mouth on the butt of the weapon and both hooves on the string. He told her to brace the crossbow with one foreleg while the other levered against the string. Once she’d managed to load the bolt, he pulled out a pocket watch. “On my mark, begin firing and reloading at the closest target. We’ll see how many you can shoot in a minute. Ready? Mark!”
Breeze fired. The bolt shot wide of her target. Dropping the weapon back into the load position, she struggled to pull the string back for a second shot. Sandstone willed her to work faster as Quartermaster watched impassively. Breeze’s reloading went considerably better now that she knew what to do, but even with her best efforts she only managed to fire two more shots and load a third before she was interrupted by the command, “Stop.” She sat down panting. The Quartermaster took her weapon and unloaded it as he talked. “Three shots in a minute. This is actually not terrible for a first time shooter, so you should not be ashamed,” Breeze perked up a little. “But it’s a liability on the battlefield.” Her ears wilted. “The average for a standard infantrypony is six; Solar and Lunar drill to eight; Rangers demand a minimum of ten, and some of their snipers have been known to approach twenty by some super-equine feat.”
Stallions and mares exchanged distressed glances and whispered dark predictions to each other of how a battle with the army would go. For the first time that evening, Sandstone felt the confidence of the Vox fall.
“Yes, attempting to outshoot Guardponies with standard equipment would be suicide,” agreed Quartermaster. “Fortunately,” he retrieved one of the other crossbows, “this weapon is anything but ordinary.” He held it up so that even the ponies in the back could see it. The stock appeared to be a relatively normal crossbow, but the bow looked far stronger and the string was connected to a mechanism of gears and levers which all culminated in a crossbar grip. “This, fillies and gentlecolts, is the future of ranged warfare. Half again as powerful as the average crossbow, reduced bolt drop, and sighted for increased accuracy, with a unique loading mechanism that will shave precious seconds off of every shot. Simply pull the lever and go.” He passed it to Breeze along with enough bolts to bring her total back to ten, then stood behind her. “Give this a try.”
Breeze took the weapon with some trepidation, likely still embarrassed from her earlier display. Tentatively, she took hold of the cocking mechanism, sitting down on her hindquarters to give herself stability in preparation for what would no doubt require considerable exertion. She braced, yanked—
And fell over backwards when the lever cocked the bow with ease. Only Quartermaster’s bulk kept her from hitting the floor. He gave her a broad smile and helped her back to her hooves amidst chuckles from the audience. She blushed again, but Sandstone was relieved to see that she was smiling this time. Once more Quartermaster took out his watch. “Ready?” she nodded. “Mark!”
The sound of the first bolt drilling deep into the dummy was audible throughout the basement. Blinking away her shock at the success of her shot, Breeze cranked back the mechanism and fired again. And again. And again. And again until she’d exhausted all ten bolts a split second before Quartermaster announced, “Time.”
Silence reigned, broken only by the sound of Breeze panting from the adrenalin rushing through her veins. Quartermaster gave his broad smile and winked. “Congratulations, Miss Breeze. You just shot like a Ranger.”
Breeze gazed at the ten bolts buried in various dummies, then bared her teeth in an eager smile. “Buck yeah I did.”
Cheers ripped out from the audience and there was a thunder of hooves as ponies leapt to their feet to celebrate. Brother Thornberry picked that moment to return to the podium and direct their cheers to the fact that they now had the edge over the enemy and to ask for volunteers to come and demonstrate all the new weapons that Quartermaster had brought. Stallions and mares from all backgrounds and professions flocked to the stage to be the first to try them out. The chant of “Vox! Vox! Vox!” broke out and more than one pony wept for joy in the heady passion of the moment.
Sandstone remained in his seat, watching. He wanted to be ecstatic like the others. After all, having an edge like this would mean that the revolution would be over quickly and with little bloodshed; that soon the tyranny of the Crown would be ended and the power distributed to the citizens of Equestria; that he would be a part of that change. Tweed was celebrating. Thornberry was celebrating. Everypony was celebrating. And rightly so! We have every right to be celebrating! Everything finally seemed to be coming together.
So what’s wrong?
He looked to the front of the room, where, through the mass of clamoring ponies, he saw Quartermaster holding two spears, one a normal steel-tipped spear, and one tipped with a strange dark crystal. At the moment he seemed to be explaining the difference between the two to a cluster of eager young Vox, Breeze foremost among them. As though he sensed the other stallion’s scrutiny, Quartermaster looked up. Their gazes locked across the room, and once more the pale stallion’s gaze seemed to burn through Sandstone’s skull. This time, the younger stallion refused to look away.
What followed was unlike anything Sandstone had ever experienced. If asked, he could not have described what he saw in the other stallion’s eyes, but a potent sense of wrongness settled in his gut like a poison. And still Quartermaster stared. Their wordless interaction could not have lasted more than a moment, but to Sandstone it felt as though hours had passed.
Then the spell was broken. Breeze looked back at her coltfriend and waved him forward. Quartermaster shot him a wink and a smile and beckoned to him as well. Sandstone shook his head to clear it. See? That wink was normal. Nothing to it. Mind’s playing tricks. Forcing a smile, he strode up to join them, looping a foreleg over his marefriend’s withers and listening attentively as Quartermaster explained. It’s just my imagination, he assured himself as Quartermaster spoke of the weapons like a professor lecturing on physics. I’m jumpy from the lack of sleep and the stress. So what if the guy looks a little weird? If Thornberry trusts him, I should to.
The pit in his stomach remained.