Off The Grid

by MajorPaleFace

Fire Support

John snapped out of his dreamless sleep, he inhaled freezing air through his nostrils – instantly invigorating him. He habitually raised his left arm to look at the time, only to remember his pip-boy lay on a workbench just out of reach.

He had fallen asleep on a pop-up bed, he didn’t remember going to sleep. The final of the three Intra Venus drips had finished being administered, the clear fluid having turned red with a little of his blood as it climbed up the line.

He unscrewed the IV from the cannula after sitting up, swinging his legs around the bed, he felt grubby and realised it had been some time since he’d had a genuine shower. A camp like this was bound to have washing facilities – he had a new mission, then.

He was still in a lot of pain, the cheap camp bed only exacerbating things. Reaching down to the little satchel at his bed’s side, he removed a pair of injectors and a handful of pills. A painkiller, duel anti-rad treatment and a super-stimpak to promote healing. The super-stim as long as his forearm once unfolded, it shot three needles through an inject-site on the quad of his skinsuit, the bottom half of which he still sported.

With still hands, he carefully injected the anti-rad under the skin of his stomach, a bruise on the opposite side a tender reminder of the previous days’ medical machinations. Next, he dry-swallowed a secondary anti-radiation drug called Finaraldexirine. It would help to reverse cell-damage by temporarily allowing the body to create new genetical information. This information wouldn’t change anything within the body, instead, it prevented terrible tumours and cancers from developing.

The second pill was a standard pain killer, Ibuprofen along with Caffeine and Codeine. The last of which causes constipation – but he was sure he could locate some pickles to eat.

He packed an OD Green duffle with a threadbare towel, fresh underwear and socks, brand-new waterproof boots, T-shirt, and finally black Cargo pants. He placed his Pip-Boy carefully amidst the clothing and swiped a hygiene kit from another steel case.

As John was about to leave, he remembered the commando encounter and took a Laser Pistol in a thigh holster – a newer AEP-30 model along with a collection of back-up cells and a combat knife. He considered a hand grenade but decided against it.

He donned a pair of plastic all-black sunglasses before brushing the entrance flap aside and standing to his full height, the pain relievers helping instantly.

A pair of Royal Guard, a Unicorn and a Pegasus, glanced at him from their assigned watch positions but didn’t otherwise say anything.

“Morning,” John offered.

“Good morning, sir,” the shorter of the two replied.

“Where are the showers?”

“Over by the cook-house,” the unicorn replied, his accent sounding continental.

John didn’t reply, instead, he moved toward the mess hall, which rose above the lesser tents surrounding it. He breathed sharply with the walking form he adopted, attempting to force his sore limbs into a more regular gait.

He passed several dozen ponies of all four types, they seemed to blend into two groups, the three pony sub-species and Thestrals. He considered the societal implications – deciding he’d ask one of them later, possibly the Princess if he had time – he still knew very little about the new land he inhabited.

The shower block was formed of several chamber-like tents. Each with enough space for multiple ponies to shower at once, they had little privacy curtains – standing in one of the chambers, he drew it closed.

The curtains were the same rough-hewn canvas that everything else was made from. The ground had wooden slats, so he could stand without getting his feet dirty. He undressed and turned on the faucet, resisting the urge to scream as freezing cold water splashed over him – he stood there for several seconds – his skin thickening and numbing with the coldness.

Turning off the water, John quickly used a new soap bar to lather himself up. Every crevice and cranny – he gave himself a thorough wash. Using a little mirror from the hygiene kit, he wet-shaved with a one-use disposable razor and a little packet of shaving cream. He also brushed his teeth and scrubbed his head with shampoo.

Turning on the tap once more, a deep groaning emerged from the head – pre-empting the eruption of ice water, John trembled slightly as he rinsed himself off, the now-black foam and suds disappearing through the slats.

Quickly drying himself as his body was full-on shaking at this point, he breathed loudly – trying to urge himself back to warmth.

He then took a few missteps as he stomped into one sock and then the other, hastily pulling on his grey boxers, John rubbed his hands together tentatively – hoping to achieve some heat-gain.

Next, his standard-issue black combat trousers and OD-Green T-shirt – he brushed his arms inside the sleeves of his jacket – zipping it up and hunching his shoulders, he felt much better already and his trembling slowly abated.

Pulling on his boots, he laced them up and packed his old clothes into his duffle, before strapping his side-arm around his leg and rolling up his left sleeve to equipping his pip-boy. Grabbing his duffle before drawing the still-wet curtain and walking back toward his tent.

The freshness he felt after showering and wearing clean clothes was indescribable. All too often he was forced to live in the same uniform for days or weeks, he still felt grotty inside. His stomach gurgled – he had absolutely no appetite and felt a small amount of nausea, but he knew he should probably eat.

Weaving through the labyrinth of tents he reached his own. Entering it after nodding once at each guard, he noticed the smell – oil and grease, overlaid with the stench of an unwashed tramp, he’d really needed that shower.

He slung his duffle atop his bed, opting to tie the entranceway open to allow a small amount of fresh air to cleanse the putrid breathing space. He pocketed the medical kit, which contained the samples he’d taken. Next stop, the canteen – and those pickles.

The ponies gathered there watched him – a new group of Royal Guard occupied much of this part of the camp. Reinforcements, John realised – they had distinguishing green and red marking on their greaves, they served no meat at the eatery so he’d assembled a myriad collection of vegetables and fruits – and pickles. They also had the options of hot porridge or heated oats, coffee or tea.

He refilled his depleted mug, from which he’d already drained, with steaming black coffee. It had a sweet, fruity taste and John made a mental note to acquire some for himself, as it was the best he had ever tried.

John scarfed down his assorted food – shovelling it in with a desperate hunger he hadn’t realised he possessed.

After belching loudly, he finished his third cup of coffee – ignoring the stares from the new guards and left after dropping his cutlery and plate off at a washing station.

He trooped around, sniffing out a particular blue pony. It wasn’t long before he spotted her, she was a head above the pair of darkly armoured Thestrals that watched the movements of those who ventured too close like hawks.

As John neared, one challenged him with her eyes – relaxing as she recognised him. The Princess had a lightly armoured breastplate affixed to a full harness – it had slots and latches to connect the rest of her armour, should it be required – she also had a small silver crown.

She talked with a white Guard officer that John didn’t recognise – only shifting to look at him as she noticed the surprised stare from the new officer.

Luna examined his new outfit with interest, “ah – Commander. So good of you to join us. This is Colonel Whitebow of the 23rd Royal Guard Brigade. She’ll be in command of our ground forces across this sector.”

She was a tall, lithe Unicorn mare – she had white-blue eyes, with grey hairs and a small smile permanently tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Commander,” she greeted.

“Colonel,” he replied.

He stuck out his hand reflexively, she looked unsure of the gesture but slowly lifted up a foreleg, holding it next to his hand.

They both watched as he clasped a hand around her limb and gently shook it. He released it. Colonel Whitebow curiously examined her forelimb before placing it next to her other.

“We are pleased you found us, now we must ‘debrief’. Come, we can talk more in our quarters.”

He followed the two ponies back across the way he’d already pathed – matching the stares and glances from any of the newcomers – he saw no pony he recognised.

After a brief five-minute stroll, they entered a large ornate, blue-tinted tent. It had a crescent moon icon above the threshold, John grazed his fingers across its textured surface, the last of three to enter as the two Thestrals did an about face to ward off any intruders.

A large dais had been recessed into the ground – the combat engineers having gone a little overboard with their rulers temporary living space. The cold earth was reserved for peasants and so had been covered with slats, much like the shower block – over which lay a thick, mottled blue rug.

The walls had silver and dark blue linen décor – intricate fabric hung in decorative swirls around every surface. Silver and blue stained wooden furniture had been arrayed along with an assortment of thick, plump cushions.

A low table had maps, diagrams and scrolls covering it – its underside held recesses wherein countless more spilt out from. As Princess Luna and Colonel Whitebow parted to sit in a dais and a cushion, respectively – they made visible a sitting Major Kodiak.

The jet-black Thestral looked up from a piece of paper, greeting each of the other ponies with a look. She looked down her nose at John, seeming to debate with herself in her mind.

She broke the silence, “are all of your species so difficult to kill?”

Both Luna and Whitebow looked slightly alarmed at the potentially provocative query, looking askew at John – warily hoping he hadn’t taken offence.

His face remained blank as he claimed a cushion of his own, “sadly, no.”

She hummed – seemingly satisfied with the answer.

Colonel Whitebow spoke next, clearly trying to get past the awkwardness as John and Kodiak stared each other down. John only looking at her as she finished talking.

“Princess, I’d like to bring the Commander up to speed.”

“You read our mind, Colonel.”

John looked curiously at her. She wore the same lightly armoured golden chest-plate as Captain Ivory. It barely covered her chest and front legs, tapering off along her back and midsection.

She pulled a few scrolls and files toward her, glancing at them before reaffixing her sharp blue eyes on Johns own, “Major Kodiak has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, she temporarily commands the 10th regiment – of which the 1st Lunar Guard Battalion is a part of.

“The rest of her unit has been coming in over the last few days, along with my own 23rd Brigade. This will give us a total strength of around eight thousand troops.”

The stark mare thrust a map toward John, on it were little triangles and squares denoting different unit positions. He recognised the topography from his own pip boy readings. Their own position was nestled in between three little rises in the terrain, allowing an easy retreat if necessary.

Forward of them, he could see the gorge, it was far longer than he’d realised – possibly rivalling the Grand Canyon back on earth. On the other side were markings of what he assumed to be Changeling positions, with three separated triangles denoting Equestrian forward positions.

He pointed at them as he began copying the information into his pip boy’s map, “Lieutenant Midnight?”

The three mares blinked at him.

“Correct,” Whitebow seemed unsurprised at his guess.

He hummed, Whitebow pulled out a scroll as he again inspected the map, he kept an eye on her as she prepared a quill.

Luna started first, “Commander we need to talk about what happened in the hive.”

He grunted, “where should I start?”

“From the beginning please.”

Within his mind, the images of the past week’s events seemed to come to life in front of him.

“Lieutenant Midnight, myself and a small team of Thestrals moved on foot toward Blackwater and the Gorge on what initially was a reconnaissance mission.”

A pair of quills held aloft in the blue magic of the Princess and the chalky white of the Colonels own, scribbled incessantly as he spoke.

“It took several hours,” he continued, “it had been dark when we had left and daylight greeted us as we arrived on the outskirts of the town.”

Their scribbling paused as he closed his eyes to imagine it, suddenly back in the hive, the sounds of death and chaos seemed to erupt around him, causing his heart rate to spike.

He breathed deeply to calm himself. “We began our reconnaissance, sending myself alone into the town – I immediately made contact with the enemy. With hundreds pouring out toward me, I opened fire – but there were just too many, I fell back toward the Lieutenants position and we defended ourselves.”

Luna glanced at another, darker piece of parchment, “it mentions in the Lieutenants report that you instructed them on the use of your weapons?”

His head swivelled to face hers, “that’s affirmative.”

She made a note, “continue.”

“We fired at the horde, now possibly numbering a thousand – I fired one of my nuclear bombs, we took cover as they were completely annihilated.”

“Then we –”

Kodiak cut him off, “you have such destructive weapons at your disposal?”

He glanced at their emotive faces, “Yes.”

He wasn’t interrupted again as he continued with his tale, the Lieutenant continued toward the gorge while he conducted a sweep of the town. His fight with the commando and finally he described in detail about his excursion into the hive, he described all that he’d seen, culminating in its destruction and his near-death.

Again, it was Kodiak who spoke, “Lieutenant Midnights report also mentions you assisted a hostile Changeling? One of the commandos.”

Luna and Whitebow looked up as well, the atmosphere becoming chilly.



He paused – why had he? He didn’t really know.

Very few can fight as skillfully as she could, “we were pretty evenly matched – I think it may have even beaten me. Certainly, without my armour, had the Lieutenant not shown up…” he hesitated.

“Go on,” it was Whitebow this time.

He started slowly, “I can’t really explain it – I’ve killed countless times, many were near-death scenarios. But this was different, far closer a contest then any I’ve ever had.

“Besides – she was practically dead. Multiple perforated organs, spinal damage, concussion. These were the last reading I had before losing consciousness.”

“The drug I gave her would probably only help keep her alive a moment before the entire mountainside exploded. Not to mention – a stimpak is designed for humans and so likely didn’t have too much of an effect.”

The three mares spoke quietly amongst themselves, John’s attention shifted to the medical pack which contained samples of the strange fluid he’d encountered.

He pulled it out and tossed it across the table, “I took samples from within the hive, they seemed to have technology comparable with my own, I actually took sensor readings that were similar to the ones the Anlace bleeds off. Levels of radiation consistent with starship power generation, hull strength suitable for passing through an atmosphere. But the vessel had to have been several times the size of the Anlace.”

They considered his words.

The tent flap burst open, startling the four of them. ‘Not again’, John snapped down to lie flat on his back, viewing the scene upside-down as he sighted down his laser pistols sights.

One of the door guards was the source of the intrusion, John prepared to end this Changeling infiltrators life – only to pause as a haggard-looking Midnight weaved around him.

“Princess – Colonels!” She started.

All three stood, John whirled around as well. As usual, she had grime and blood splattered across her fur and armour.

“You just can’t go five minutes without getting into trouble, can you?” John deadpanned. His comment ignored as she rushed to speak to the Princess.

“Changelings at the gorge,” she was breathless, “they attacked our position –” she moved toward the table, between John and it – uncomfortably so.

She used a quill to inscribe a series of diamonds on the map, erasing those that existed, “we actually set up a little west of our assigned coordinates as it allowed for better concealment. We dug in and waited. I eventually ordered a scout to check out the other side of the gorge as we had no clear line of sight.

“The scout was engaged and fell back to us, we killed his pursuers and retrieved him unharmed – our position was then bombarded by enemy artillery.”

She drew new enemy positions, “here, here and here – we repelled a ground attack after the bombardment ceased, we suffered a few casualties – including Sergeant Silent Star.”

She looked back at John as she noticed their closeness, her rear leg bumping into his crossed ankles, she sidestepped away from him and continued.

“They fired on our position again – this time we escaped with a few wounded toward a cloudbank directly above us, from there we could see the enemy firing positions,” she indicated the new additions to the map.

“I have a plan to destroy those positions, ma’am.”

The Princess’ looked back and forth between the scrolls, the map and finally at the young Lieutenant, “proceed, Lieutenant.”

“John – have you got any explosives? They have to be small enough for me to fly with and they would need to have to be simple enough for a pony to detonate.”

He glanced at the attention he now held, four sets of eyes on him, “sure – I can do that. I can come with to oversee their use –”

Absolutely not,” Colonel Kodiak interrupted.

“Colonel?” The Princess inquired.

“The wounds he suffered are far too great to allow him to return to duty! He needs at least another week of rest before continuing operations.”

Whitebow opted in, “he’s a grown stallion Kodiak – if he wants to fight, let him fight.”

“Princess it would be reckless to allow such an asset to potentially kill itself simply for the sake of ‘overseeing’ what I’m sure can be easily taught, my niece is a clever mare.”

“Hey – this ‘asset’ has a name and rank, Lieutenant Colonel.”


“Enough!” Midnight broke in before the Princess could, the blue mare closing her mouth slowly as they all refocussed on the young officer.

“We don’t have time – it’ll be faster if I go alone – John, just help me out with some explosives. It’ll be dark by the time I get back and under that cover, we’ll sweep in and plant the charges – destroying their offensive capabilities and allowing our engineers to construct a forward base without being harassed by artillery fire.”

There was a raw silence while everyone thought about it, “Ma’am?” She addressed the Princess directly, “permission to return to my unit?”

“Granted, Lieutenant. But you are not flying alone,” she stood up – her full height being realised from Johns position on the floor, “come with me. Colonel Whitebow, continue organising the new arrivals into their quarters – prepare your engineers to depart for the Lieutenants position as soon as possible. Colonel Kodiak, I want you to find out when our own artillery is joining us – and both of you prepare for a possibly imminent attack.”

The Princess hurried out of the tent, Lieutenant Midnight and the door guards quickly forming up around her as she led them away from view. John sighed, groaning as he rose with a little difficulty.

He ignored the other officers and began heading toward his little enclave of humanity. Once inside his tent, he got to work – assembling timed and remote detonation capable demo charges. Each about the size of a tin can, they used an ANFO or Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel Oil mix, each weighing about a kilogram – easily enough to obliterate a small vehicle. He spent the next thirty minutes quickly preparing seven charges, having spares couldn’t hurt.

* * *

Princess Luna led Lieutenant Midnight and a pair of Lunar Guard toward the eastern side of the camp, they passed a small internal checkpoint, occupied by a dozen Thestrals and Royal Guard.

Midnight had a feeling like she’d just entered the bad side of town – the uniform military tents made way for haphazard tents of different ages, styles and of differing nations.

No guards greeted her gaze, instead, dozens of Griffins prowled around them, sporting similar combat harnesses – the powerful creatures had always unnerved her, they were unpredictable and that was something she hated.

Griffins, large hybrids suitably built for killing. They had the lower portion of a lion and the upper body of an eagle. Powerfully large, oversized eagle wings adorned their backs, they had sharp talons for frontal limbs and an eagle’s head with a flesh-ripping beak.


“We know – trust us – we know. A gift from my sister.”

Against saddle pads far eastern defensive wall rested a tall red tent, hanging from it were the heads of several creatures – including a single Thestral.


“We know, now calm yourself, Lieutenant.”

Half a dozen nasty looking griffins and a minotaur stood guard at the opening of the tent, they stood aside and watched on silently as the four ponies passed through.

The interior had several chests filled with gold, a single large gryphon lounged on a small throne. Skulls decorated the top of it, the Griffin purred at their entrance.

“The mice enter the cats’ layer. What can I do for you, mice?” The gryphons voice was playful, Midnight didn’t like it.

“Phaeton. It hath been some time.”

“Ah – Princess, you grace me with your presence once more – I am honoured,” he used a powerful wing to offer a kind of half-bow.

“So you are. We have a mission for you.”

Phaeton leapt from his chair, stopping a few inches from Midnight – the three Thestrals had formed a barrier between the Princess and the predator, each remained still with great difficulty.

She glared daggers at him, he was far taller and twice her mass – she would go for the throat, she decided – if the situation turned sour.

Millenia ago – before the fall of Princess Luna, the Griffin Empire had fought a long and costly war with the ponies of Equestria. It had lasted decades, with hundreds of thousands killed on both sides, the ponies losing three of theirs for every one gryphon felled.

It had been a clash of borders and of cultures – the gryphons’ old ways having been at odds with the Equestrian style of living. Diplomacy had failed, as always and had been followed by all-out war.

Eventually, the Thestrals underground city had been discovered by the gryphons, mistaking them for ponies the gryphons attacked – not expecting the Thestrals ferocity and tenacity. The Thestrals formed an alliance with Equestria, brokered by Princess Luna – which had remained all these years – together they pushed the Imperial Griffin Army out of Equestria, all the way back to the empire.

It was at that point that the war had been drawn to a close, a truce had been negotiated under the new emperor – as an agreement within the treaty, a single fort and a single gryphon-controlled city-state, Snowbush, could remain on Equestrian soil, the remainder of the IGA returned to the gryphon empire, across the eastern sea.

Ever since gryphons had a sense of approbation toward the Thestrals.

Midnight hated them, unconditionally – possibly even irrationally. She had witnessed one of her blood-relatives get slaughtered as a filly, all for the silver around her neck.

She remained professional. Midnight could feel the rage boiling beneath the surface.

He looked smugly at her, nevertheless addressing the Princess, speaking over Midnights head.

“My band has been eager to perform, what will you have your mercenary do?”

Luna clicked her tongue, “escort the Lieutenant back toward her unit – assist her in some sabotage and then keep her and her unit alive until reinforcements are brought forward.”

“To borrow one of your expressions, it shall be a walk in the park,” he grinned infuriatingly.

“That remains to be seen,” she hummed, “Remind us how many troops you have at your disposal.”

“A thousand wings align with mine, another three hundred mixed ground attack; ponies, zebras, minotaur and deer.”

She unfurled a map with her magic, a duplicate of the one still within her tent, “divide your flyers between these two locations,” she gestured at the flanks of the forward observation points, “your ground forces will march in along with our engineers, keeping them safe – your wings will act on harassing attacks where ever possible.”

He considered her map, his yellow eagle-like eyes had a double eyelid, she studied him as his head cocked to one side while he regarded the map.

He called once as all birds do, “so shall it be,” a pair of matching gryphons materialised from behind them, “Eurus, Zephyr – take half our flyers each and prepare to depart – and send in Kronos.”

They waited as the previous gryphons scurried out, a large hulking minotaur replacing them, he had to stoop to enter. He was far taller and broader than the human, even in his armour, he had a light brown coat and bulging muscles covered him from his digitigrade hooves to his wide pectoral muscles and thick neck.

He had one horn missing and a large scar ran diagonally just below it, “boss?” He had a gutturally deep voice.

Phaeton weaved through them until he stood underneath the large minotaurs height, “Kronos, take your bulls and the other ground walkers to the gate and await further instruction.”

The bull saluted with a large fist held over his chest, “as you wish.”

As the bull left, Phaeton turned, “I am ready to depart whenever you are, Lieutenant.”

She couldn’t remove the sneer on her face, “wait for me by the mess,” she spoke flatly. With that said, she brushed past him being sure to clip him as she did so.

She didn’t turn back as she took to the air, quickly manoeuvring for the humans’ tent. It took a few moments, as she landed a pair of enlisted Thestrals at the entrance of the tent snapped off crisp salutes, she returned them as she briskly entered. The smell of chemicals and oil greeted her, not horrible but also not natural, she rubbed her snout.


“Here,” he rose from behind his armour, a green satchel clutched in a hand, he opened it as he walked over, “seven one-kilogram bombs – each can be detonated using a delayed fuse or via remote,” three little detonators were also provided, a button on a small stick, essentially.

He placed the bag around her neck, showing her how to arm them, disarm them and the different detonation modes.

“You got it?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Just don’t blow yourself up,” he smiled, but it looked forced.

“How are you doing?”

“I’ll be fine. You best get to it, Lieutenant,” he held a hand up in a mockery of an Equestrian salute, with one hand coming up just above an eye.

He turned around and moved away from her toward his armour, which still sported battle damage. She prepared to leave, turning right once outside and weaving her way towards the mess hall.

After leaving John, Midnight had made a stop-off at their equipment tent, replacing her single, dirty wing-blade for a pair of more ergonomic blades. They sported double the length, each blade so thin it looked fragile – but the Thestral armourer had assured her they were of the highest Thestrian quality.

She’d rounded up Phaeton and his six equally well-sized and equipped Griffins, “Are you ready to depart?” More sneering tugged at her mouth, but she cooled it. Settling for a sullen glare.

“Indeed,” he called once more like a bird, the carrion behaviour in their species had always been a topic of jest.

‘Damn bird-head.’

She explained the plan, after destroying the enemy positions – with any luck undetected, Phaetons Griffin band and the Guards three forward platoons would swoop in and engage the enemy.

Leading them into the sky they performed an aerial warm-up lap of the camp, before shooting for the setting sun and her platoon.

* * *

“Do you see ‘em?” Sergeant Agameles whispered a little hoarsely.

“Yes, Sergeant,” Goldenrod confirmed.

“Well how many, damn it?”

She squinted, not daring to lean too far through the mistiness of her platoons’ cloud cover. That was the beauty of cloud-walking, you weren’t restricted to the surface of the cloud, like with the actual ground.

“Maybe twenty,” she said at length, “they’re sniffing around our old position but they blend in too well for me to get an accurate count.”

“Sorry, Sergeant,” she felt her ears splay a bit as she rose from peering through the condensed vapour, droplets clung to her from the chest upwards.

“Don’t be sorry, we’ll hit ‘em as soon as the Lieutenant’s back.”

They waited in silence. It had been several hours now, first the throng of bat-ponies had baked in the midday sun, now they were shivering in the freezing night-time air.

She was hungry, tired and getting thirsty – all their rations blasted to bits during the bombardment. They had shared a few morsels of thick, dry bread and a few sips from a single water bladder.

‘Join the guards,’ they had said, ‘great pay and opportunities,’ the same voice continued.

“Go to Tartarus,” she mumbled sullenly.

A sound barely audible made an ear twitch. She looked around – no-pony else made a move. The lookouts kept a watchful eye on their surroundings, the others huddled for warmth – weaponry nearby.

‘There it was again,’ “did you hear that?”

Those near to her side of the cloud nodded. She patted herself down, her forelegs feeling a little sluggish.

She found it, pulling out a small, thin whistle – she blew it into it, eyes scrunched shut – it was like blowing into a blocked pipe. It made a shrill sound – only so loud as she was the one creating it. A Thestral hunting whistle, fairly standard fare for most Lunar Guards – it was at a frequency only bat-ponies could hear, they used a more traditional whistle to communicate with their non-bat-related cousins.

A series of notes from the east were returned, she and several others creeping to the edge. She squinted into the darkness – no moon present tonight.

A dozen shapes emerged out of an adjacent cloudbank, several larger rising high into the, a lone Pegasus-shape moving toward them.

The larger forms had her prepared for a Changeling attack – it never came as Lieutenant Midnight, slowly emerged from beneath her, accidentally prodding her in the stomach with her helmet.

They both huffed as she helped the tiring Midnight up, she took a moment to catch her breath, Goldenrod noticed a new addition, a little green satchel.

“What’s in the bag, ma’am?” She asked.

“Our ticket to destroying those positions, I hope,” they spoke quietly.

“Gather round, kids,” she ambled into the middle of the group – noticing their fatigue, she passed her water bladder to Goldenrod, the mare hungrily drank as she spoke, before sliding it to the next Thestral.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” she held out a copy of the map from earlier, using a small red-light gem, her Sergeants moved closer.

“We’re sitting between our old position and the Gorge,” she marked them out, “I have explosives on me from the human, they’re simple to use,” she instructed her three remaining NCO’s on their operation, they in turn passing on the knowledge to every-pony present.

“Four teams – Sergeant Agameles, you’re running interference – find some cover around the gorge and wait for the signal.

“Sergeant’s Thelian and Shadow – I want you to divide up and place explosives on the enemy positions, I want a dedicated demolitions pony per team to carry the bombs.

“Contrary to popular rumour, the mercenaries finally showed up,” this preluded a round of quiet murmuring, “I know, I know – I expect you all to demonstrate why the Death Walkers are the best of the best!”

That challenge made Goldenrod feel rejuvenated. Damn beak-heads.

“I’ll be keeping tabs on our mercenary friends; we’ve got a battalion-sized flight inbound on our flanks – once we take out those positions – it’s Skytalon all the way.”

The Lieutenant passed out the explosives, “Sergeant Shadow I’m appointing Guard Goldenrod as your demo-mare,” three tubular packs the size of beer bottles were given to her.

It took but a moment, every-pony had checked and rechecked their gear, prepared their weapons and crouched ready for the signal.

The Lieutenant had disappeared into the black, seeking-out her money-oriented attaché. Goldenrod was the third in Sergeant Shadow Chaser’s column of eight, opposite them Sergeant Thelian’s team of eleven also stood-by. Clementine was his teams' demolitions mare, she nodded at her and Clementine nodded back.

Sergeant Agameles squad had just left, swirling toward the gorge – looking for a position. A lot could go wrong with this plan, she realised, they could be detected, the mercenaries could abandon them, the–

“Okay, let’s go!” She was interrupted as Sergeant Shadow took off with a powerful wingbeat, immediately the second guard did the same, buffeting her – she powered through it, automatically pulling into formation alongside the first two.

Within seconds, both teams slowly glided toward the gorge, no lights on the other side gave them away, but Goldenrod knew that the area was likely swarming with Changelings. A flicker of movement far-off to her right made her stare at the empty sky, the Griffin-standard formation betraying the Lieutenant and her carnivorous escort.

As they neared the gorge, still high enough that spotting them from ground-level would prove difficult, she tried to spy her comrades. They were too well-concealed and so remained out-of-sight.

A minute more of gliding in silence and the strike teams hung high over the enemy positions, she kept an eye on her team leader, any second now he’d give the signal to dive.

They continued a little farther than she anticipated they would, the blocky Sergeant swaying and tilting his wings in the Equestrian flight-code for ‘dive, dive, dive!’

She did so, hot-on-the-hooves of Shadow and the Thestral in-between them. As they approached ground level, she could make out the features of the terrain previously unknown. Several blackened pits gave away the Changeling batteries positions.

Their team landed just below a shallow berm, taking cover and spacing out – she quietly drew her sabre. She approached Shadow, giving him a nod, he made a series of hoof-signals, ‘attack, first and second emplacement. Two with you – team remains here.’

‘Understood,’ she signalled back.

She leopard crawled toward her target, two others mimicking her on either side, the gentle pat-pat of raindrops calming her as her mind entered the ice-cold focus she’d been trained for.

Taking extra care to be vigilant and stealthy, she saw a few patrols, but they were nearer the gorge. Her eyesight was good – the small hairs unique to her species allowed her to feel things before she saw them in darkness such as this, closing her eyes – she could only sense the two at her sides.

She looked back, left and right – giving each an instruction to move to either side of the first artillery pit. The earth around had been blackened and raised slightly.

As they stopped near, she peered over the top, shrinking back down instantly – wishing she hadn’t seen what she had seen, the image stuck with her.

She chanced another look, this time forcing herself to stay. It was a deep, dark pit – some two-dozen feet wide, long and deep. Inside lay a creature, unlike any she’d ever seen before.

A giant beetle! As big as an expensive house, the thing only just fit inside the hole, which was more like a tunnel – the beetle – if that’s indeed what it was, lay submerged beneath her, surrounding it were several dozen Changelings, each in a sort of sleep-state. Not aware of her or much else, she needed to get further in.

‘Was this responsible for those artillery barrages?’ A slave – or just a beast of burden.’ The self-posed query went unanswered.

She took a small pebble the size of a coin and tossed it at the creature. It bounced off its thick side and landed near a small group of Changelings. No response.

She tried again, this time a hoof-full of pebbles. Nothing. Her teammates waited nervously, she indicated that they should wait, ‘keep watch.’

Slowly, ever so slowly she crawled into the pit, sliding across the hard surface, the earth hardened like ceramic. The Changelings eyes were closed, they chittered and quivered quietly – dreaming bug-pony dreams.

She carefully moved further into the pit – the angle now impossibly steep. The Changelings seemed rooted in pace, she spied a small ridge, no more than a few inches thick but enough to find some purchase.

She made her move, latching on. She hung for several seconds, tentatively looking around at the still forms of the Changelings – she could sense many more life forms deeper within the pit.

Carefully she pulled herself up, she stood – back to the wall, with only her rear hooves touching the ridge, ‘much like how the human walked,’ she thought.

Goldenrod retrieved one of the three explosives she’d been given, careful not to drop it – she reached up toward the underside of the massive creature. It took some doing – but she managed to stick the little explosive stick inside an oversized leg joint of the insect-based siege beast.

A few more moments passed as she climbed back out, halfway through a Changeling shifted position, nearly pinning her against a second – she drew a dagger but calmed after seeing the bug was still not yet with it.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she made the final effort to the top – where a Thestral hauled her out, “well?” he asked, voice barely above a whisper.

“One down, two to go.”

They reached the second pit after no more than ten minutes. The rain had picked up turning the area into a quagmire, the three of them covered in mud. She rustled her bat-wings, shaking off some of the dirt.

She entered, just the same as before, the mud and rain-slick surface making it more difficult – weaving through the small army of nightmare-fuel with her heart in her throat, she breathed steadily – focusing on her training. The explosive was set just like before, no dramas. Exiting just like she had done, only this time there were no close encounters.

It took both guards to heave her out this time, the downpour now in full-force making exiting the last few feet of the pit impossible, mud-like lava and a river of rainwater nearly drowning her. The Changelings seemed unaffected, she noted as she passed.

The third pit lay to the rear of the first two, on the map it was the furthest position west from them, the closest to the Changeling hive, too. Taking the initiative, she led them towards it.

As they neared the third emplacement, her sense of impending doom lessoned. Thestral senses were largely still unexplored scientifically, but it was thought they could sense forms of harm, some innate magic-in-the-air bullshit Goldenrod didn’t really subscribe to.

‘Although,’ that feeling completely dissipated as the trio peered into their final objective. Empty. It was empty, no bugs, no giant beetle, only scorched earth. Suddenly that sense of fear and danger came back so fast she stumbled back, a terrible migraine building.

“What’s wrong?” A guard asked.

“We need to–”

A trio of bright flashes rippled across the area, the shapes of many darting forms both on the ground and in the air were illuminated for a split-second.

“Goldenrod, the bombs!”

The headache was overwhelming, “yeah,” she gasped, fumbling with the detonator, she dropped it.

The two with her stood and drew their weapons, multiple secondary explosions – huge implosions in vibrant green and blue were like miniature suns, the shockwaves battered them.

‘There!’ The detonator blasted away from her into the hole, it was illuminated just as it disappeared from view.

She scrambled in after it – light-gem in hoof, casting shadows all around – no doubt any ‘ling nearby would haul-flank towards her, but she only needed a few seconds.

At the bottom, “gotcha!” She held it up to her yolk-yellow eyes, it looked intact. ‘phew.’

Scrabbling back out, the torrential rain had been joined by its brother, howling winds – the sudden flash-storm wasn’t uncommon in Equestria, it was just bad timing. Thunder and lighting erupted, briefly illuminating the many aerial forms – she depressed the detonator.

There was a definite delay – a few seconds, she reckoned, before a second trio of explosions wracked the landscape, the flaring light and noise being hammered back by the weather for daring to compete.

A monstrous roar overshadowed even the wind and rain, as the beetle nearest Goldenrods group emerged from its hovel, its shape barely visible. It was still half within the crater when it exploded, blossoming into an enormous ultraviolet blast that struck the three of them off their hooves.

Everything went black for Goldenrod.

* * *