Off The Grid

by MajorPaleFace

Shadow of Steel

The conflict was being played out to the sound of horn blasts and drum beats. The thump of catapult-fire and the roar of Changeling missiles. Some sounds, the silence of shock, the pain of the wounded and the cries of bereaved comrades were common triggers for Johns PTSD. He tried to ignore it.

Go!” At his command, the final squad of Legionaries dashed away from him towards friendly lines. All who could be evacuated, along with his spare equipment, had been sent back through the teleportation array.

He and two Unicorns were crouched behind a pile of timber. The Changelings had just revealed their ace card as wave after wave of thick-bodied monstrosities poured out of a sink-hole from the camps centre.

The two Unicorns with him were Sergeant Jackal and Senior-Guardsmare Green Petal, together they’d been providing suppression for the retreating Equestrians.

The shield wall had been retracted to protect the evacuation site toward the rear, John and his two assigned mages had been tasked with holding this sector.

He flattened the area with sustained laser-fire while the unicorns sent out explosive magical barrages. They synchronized their attacks – dismantling any bug warriors who came within range.

He reloaded. He’d armed himself with a Type-16a Support Weapon. It had a longer emitter, higher rate of fire and could hold up to four ‘cells simultaneously for an increased charge.

The pause in his defence resulted in multiple incoming Changeling shock-troops. A hail of short-range magic attacks decimated their standard line. Many fell dead, simply slackening to the ground.

As they reached within melee distance, he finally leapt up and fired. Short, sharp bursts picked off single enemies and small groups who were too close to one another.

One came within a meter of him, its head was split open like an overripe cantaloupe. Its exoskeleton cracked loudly with the explosion of gore.

Their probe had been defeated, but more rallied on the far side of the ruined area. Chewed up tents and bodies littered the landscape, small trenches had been constructed by both sides, yet provided little protection.

A series of anti-air fire whipped up from the bug-line toward an incoming scout. As he crash-landed behind him, John dissuaded any secondary skirmishes by directing a field of fire at the enemy.

He placed his laser rifle at his armoured feet, he passed a grenade to Petal, “throw it!” He followed up the given explosive by throwing one of his own. The little dark spots sailed into positions thick with bugs and detonated.

The duel whumf-whumf­ as they blew-apart the enemy was felt through the dirt. He re-armed himself, spinning to meet the flustered Pegasi who shook with the near-death encounter.

The messenger sucked in the death-heavy air, focused on the Non-Commissioned Officer chevrons of Sergeant Jackal and spewed out his message.

“We’re pulling back! Right now, head to the East gate for your ride or you’re gonna be left behind!”

He ruffled his wings and prepared for take-off. A cascade of energy blasts painted the area around them, the unicorn-duo raised energy shields to ward off the attack – John returned fire as bolts deflected off of his power armour.

It was dusk now. The setting sun had turned to orange and then almost tangerine. Rich hues of red blended with purple and sepia tones that kissed cotton-candy clouds. Wisps of jet-black smog curled and danced within the sunset palette, like an artist who had forgotten to clean their painting tools.

His eyes flickered back to the Guards in front of him, “stay close; we move together – understood?!”

“Ahh-hoo!” The dog-bark like chant was sounded by all three. They massed behind Johns bulk as he rose to fire at the bugs, twin bursts were his signal to move – he heard them scamper off.

“Come on!” He heard the scout yawp. John turned and ran, zig-zagging to put-off any enemy marksmen.

He skittered over a few dead ponies, ignoring their loss – he resumed suppressing the enemy. The bugs wasted no time in taking over their abandoned positions and they immediately dispatched another probe-attack.

Pillars of earth were displaced as a result of the bug artillery strikes, in the confusion a few short blasts obliterated their troops, “fall back!” He yelled over his shoulder and resumed firing.

This reverse leap-frog carried them bit-by-bit towards the eastern gate. A final platoon of Legionaries awaited after the final gauntlet.

A plethora of bugs had been encircled between the defending Legion and the retreating Equestrian troops. They formed a tight-knit skirmish nearly a hundred meters squared.

The smaller, winged-kind were slowly being eradicated by the tactically superior equine forces – the upper hand would shift with the encroaching reinforcements.

“Pegasus, get to the Legion commander and tell them they’re in danger of being overrun – go!”

“On my way!” He took off violently, weaving to avoid any attempts on his life.

He checked his rifles charge, “Sergeant Jackal, Guardsmare Green Leaf – shields, as strong as you can give me,” his hand gave a chopping gesture, “we cannot allow the enemy to meet with your troops until they’re ready for evacuation.”

They nodded grimly, “won’t get by us, sir,” Sergeant Jackal spoke for them both.

They stepped toward the skirmish, igniting a colourful energy barrier between him and the small-scale battle. His objective was clear; survive.

The inbound throng of bug-like creatures careened and rolled over the blackened and death-splattered terrain without remorse or mercy.

John had set his remaining three fragmentation grenades to detonate on proximity, they were spread as far as he could throw them.

The enemy artillery was being used to try to batter down the shield wall established by the pair of Unicorns. He began firing, his arms shook with the sustained volley as Changeling bodies stacked up by the dozen.

His energy shields wilted under the return fire, John skittered down toward a small defilade. He heaved up a destroyed piece of a cart and placed it between himself and the enemy. Leaning around it to shoot at those exposed, a grenade exploded in a flash of dirt and limbs.

This exchange continued for some time, John was able to hold off the mounting enemy force, who couldn’t do anything but fall dead once in front of him.

He heard his name on the wind, a gentle sound like rolling waves at a distant beach, barely audible over the overlapping clap and rattle of combat.

Squinting at the shield wall he could see a small squad of Equines waiting for him. John pulled back, his departure was the rallying cry needed for a Changeling massed-attack and the ground rumbled under the weight of a thousand chitinous hooves.

He burst through the shield wall, not slowing even a little as he sailed past a unit of ponies. They quickly caught up, hot on his heels. He had to be precise with his footwork as the ground was littered with the dead – mostly Changeling.

The archway of the Eastern Gate soared overhead as he crossed under it, a trio of longbowmares speckled the encroaching enemy force with arrows, not slowing their advance at all.

Go, go, go, go!” The heavily accented voice of Sergeant Gil spurred on the final retreat, as they all descended on a single carriage like bats out of hell.

They scrabbled aboard. The cart was overfilled with ground-only soldiers, a handful of Equestrian fliers waiting above them. Together, they trailed behind the already evacuated Legion.

Once inside they were pressed against one another as the cart turned vertical, attempting to get as much altitude as possible. It weaved to narrowly avoid ground-fire and artillery strikes.

As their cart levelled out, they watched in silence as Camp Saddle pad was completely overrun. John couldn’t help in feeling he had failed. He had been taken in by these creatures and had let them down. The gears in his mind worked, he knew what needed to be done.

As a final departing gift, John had rigged his miniature fusion generator to self-destruct. He’d prepared for the worst and felt no pride in seeing that it was necessary.

He mentally instructed its activation, a warning to escape to the minimum safe distance flared across his Heads Up Display and whisked away at a mental command.

“Hold on everyone, I left a little something for them,” hollow eyes turned from him back to the camp, his mouth set in an expression of apathy as they waited.

Out on the rolling skyline twenty kilometres away, a lance of orange-white energy shot into the pinked clouds. After an instant blinding light too painful to look at widened into a corona of energy. An enormous eruption of many-hued hellfire replaced the brightness, morphing into an obsidian pillar and then flattening into a mushroom-like cloud a kilometre across.

Underneath the unimaginably large-scale explosion, the terrain was crushed and flattened – the camp and the three small mountains surrounding it disintegrated under a stampeding shockwave.

The ponies all stared in stunned awe, having never witnessed the spectacle of a sub-atomic detonation before. Multicoloured tendrils akin to the magical shield barriers fluctuated and patterned around the edges of the giant cloud. The mix of technological power and natural magic feeling like a sacred violation.

John shuddered involuntarily at the sight. For despite the scale of the Changeling attack, this would surely have decimated their advance – if not halted it altogether.

* * *

They sped towards the Staging area, John could see it had been expanded into a small city's worth of troops and supplies. Thousands of tents and small structures lay inside a multi-tiered defensive wall. It was curved and far better fortified than the camp had been. He could make out the squarish forms of the catapult sites, they had halted their bombardment after Johns attention-grabbing explosion.

Within moments they were swooped down amongst hastily cut forest into a medical evacuation centre. The area had been cleared to accommodate the enormous Equestrian losses.

Hundreds of massed dead had been laid out in groups. Capes or ponchos covered them, those still alive were entrapped by the sheer amount of fallen soldiers and held both hate and derision in their eyes.

He disembarked from the carriage, its pulling crew unstrapped themselves, aiding the medical teams nearby with triage.

The Legionaries were unharmed, a red-plume toting officer caught their attention with a whistle and the troops jogged over toward them.

John was left alone with a pair of Royal Guard from the 23rd. He began walking – directionless, they didn’t talk as they looked for their unit. A large tent of Royal Guard was separated from the tents of wounded. It was a long hall-like structure and wall-to-wall packed with ponies all eating and drinking. They murmured in hushed conversations, but the mood and atmosphere were of disappointment and frustration.

“Unit?” He was broken out of his observations by a Guard sat near to the entrance, the tables-worth of ponies with her looked at John warily.

“5th Battalion, 23rd Brigade,” Sergeant Jackal had stopped alongside John.

She shook her head, “we’re 2nd Battalion, you’re a few over I think.”

They followed her accompanying head-jerk. It was three matching tent-halls down and one opposite, each tent had a weary sentry who would direct them closer to their unit. Each one was almost full, but each unit had seen combat across the frontline around Saddle Pad.

“5th Battalion?” John asked before the Sergeant had the chance.

“Take a seat,” a heavily bandaged unicorn stallion gestured at the bench he was occupying.

“This is where we part ways, Sergeant,” John turned to say it, looking both ponies in the eye.

They shuffled passed him, only Sergeant Jackal looked up, saying, “carry on, sir,” before continuing in.

The sun had vanished entirely behind a smog of radioactive clouds and below the curtain of the bug-occupied mountains. The base was fast succumbing to the shadowy darkness of night-time.

Stars twinkled overhead creating warped and twisted patterns in the pre-evening sky, he searched them for some moments. A passing guard patrol snapped him out of it and he carried on his hunt for a familiar face.

“How is she?” After roaming the camp cluelessly, he’d barraged into a medic who claimed to be on a mission to find him. He followed, and after exiting his armour he was eventually ushered into a dimly-lit, dingy and cramped medical ward.

Dozens of critically wounded Ponies, Thestrals, Gryphons and other mammalian fighters were arrayed on camp beds. Many of whom were in the process of being stitched shut, bandaged over or illuminated with healing spells.

In the far-back corner rested a single cot, the familiar form of Lieutenant Midnight lay motionless. If not for her horrific injuries, he could have sworn she was only sleeping.

Major Dahlia, the battalions head surgeon, had greeted him. Hurriedly she had requested a subordinate to take over her work on another, showing John the young officer.

She rubbed the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hoof, “she’s in a coma. I’d really like her to stay that way so she can properly heal.”

The kindred doctor pulled up a clipboard with some scribbles John didn’t recognise and her eyes widened.

“She has broken ribs, bruised kidneys and pelvis and torn muscles all over her body. Her liver is bleeding and we don’t know why. Blood pressure and heart rate are low and honestly, I’m concerned.

She flipped a page, “her bloodwork is a mess. Toxicology report lists large amounts of beta-blocker-sedatives, high-dose synthetic adrenalin, painkillers,” she paused, “a ‘meta-steroid,’ the likes of which I’ve never seen before, trace amounts of a cocktail of augmenting chemicals and a rapid coagulant,” she dropped the report.

“Now these drugs that I assume that you gave to her may have kept her alive, but now I believe they’re assisting in killing her.”

John absorbed the information from the report without reaction, he didn’t allow his face to betray his true feelings, for he never did.

“I can administer a stimpak, I’ve got immuno-boosters and a smoother that’ll help alleviate some of the drugs negative side effects.”

She was shaking her head before he’d even finished speaking, “are these drugs likely to cause more issues?”

“She was beat-up and insistent on continuing. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. It’s unlikely they will,” he explained as he checked inside his medical pouch.

He removed a Stimpak, and two other injectors, “here you go Major, give her these and let me know if her condition improves or declines.”

She took them, the kindness from when they’d spoken before being replaced with mistrust. She didn’t say anything, simply injecting them into a drip-line. John's ears were still ringing from the battle.

“Major, I need to report, can you point me in the right direction?”

She glanced at him, before exiting. John followed, casting one final look at Midnight before he did.

It was dark. The base was, in effect, under lights-out. He’d moved his armour behind the medical tent at Major Dahlias insistence. It was nestled between it and an adjacent dwelling, covered with a tarp.

He pulled his combat jacket tightly against his neck, the biting cold threatening to make him shiver. He hadn’t eaten or had any fluids all day and was in desperate need of a shower. First, he needed to find some senior leadership.

It wasn’t long, trailing through the darker-coloured rows of Thestral occupied tents, that he arrived outside of a single command-style domicile. The crest of the 1st Lunar Guards were displayed outside on a totem pole. John approached the flap – dull light traced its edges.

He poked his hand through one side, peering inside he could see a single, large black Thestral staring back at him.

“You’re not the Princess,” Kodiak said glumly.

She didn’t move as John entered, the flap tickled his legs as it fell back into place, “that I am not.”

She relented and turned to move deeper inside her quarters. A pair of dim-golden lamps provided a small amount of light, making the inside feel warm against the exterior cold. Silken decorations were inlaid along the top of the tent, a small sleeping area in an alcove to the rear was partially covered by more see-through sheets.

Her fur was sleek and clean, her armour lay on a ponequin in another corner next to a still-wet grindstone. They were underneath an array of well maintained, recently polished and sharpened blades.

She tossed him a small scroll, “officers pass for the showers. Turn left once outside, head down about six rows until you reach the canteen and its behind there. You can’t miss it, its surrounded in water casks.”

It was an unnaturally generous gesture, he thought. “Oh – before you do, speak to the canteen staff – tell them to prepare an extra meal for delivery to my quarters. And be back within thirty minutes.”

They stared at each other; John wasn’t sure what to say.

“Thanks,” he allowed, ducking his head in gratitude as he left.

The ground had already begun to freeze over, his breath fogged in front of him. He felt a hard days’ worth of grease and sweat stick to his pits and bits and relished the coming cleanse.

In no time he found the Canteen, it was four times the size of the one at Saddle Pad, yet entirely enclosed. He entered through an unguarded flap, the tent was filled with thousands of ponies, Rows almost thirty across and as many deep were overflowing with troops who consumed their body weight in food and drink.

The Royal Guard and Thestrals seemed to be largely separate, both groups competed to one-up one another in terms of noise output. The dead-silence from outside was shattered as a wave of sound hit him. His ears had just started to relax and again they were jingling.

‘Great,’ he sighed and fought his way to the front of the food line. Fortunately, it was only a dozen long – so he didn’t have to contend with too many unsavoury glares as he cut in.

“Lieutenant Colonel Kodiak wants another meal made for her quarters. Said you’d know what she meant.”

He offered what he hoped was a friendly smile, the slightly overweight, middle-aged stallion looked like he couldn’t care less about what the Colonel wanted.

He had what John would later swear was a thick Boston accent, “ah, so it’s yoah who’ah headin’ down fer’ ah date wit da Colonel? Me n’ Patty was jus’ tahlking ‘bout it, wasn’t we?”

He gestured at possibly his twin brother. The other food prepper simply nodded as he passed a load of fried vegetables to the next pony in line.

“Its wicked pahcked in heah, jus tell Kodiahk wen yous see’r, she dodent haveta worry; me n Patty got it!”

He nodded his thanks and carried on through the bustling eatery toward the showers. A large wooden building had been built on struts, it had no lights and John had to feel his way toward the door.

Finding it – he ducked through the entranceway. A pair of guards, one Lunar and one Royal stood either side of a desk. Behind which sat a tall yet plump mare. Her long spiralled horn was currently being filed down in a haze of turquoise magic.

Not one of them attempted to hide their stares as he placed his shower authorisation on the desk. She looked at it for a second, before continuing to study John's face. Her light violet eyes traced the scar that marred his features and became slightly sad as she refocused on his own eyes.

“Do you require your uniform to be laundered?” Her voice was smooth and soft.

“Uh, I don’t really have time…” he trailed off.

She leapt to her hooves, rounding on him from behind the desk. She began ruffling his clothes with her magic, “oh nonsense, I can have this cleaned in an instant. Now just head through there, turn right and you’ll see the shower blocks. Feel free to use whichever you like.”

He paused, “thanks.”

He showered quickly, the blisteringly hot water revitalised his body, he gouged a soap bar into his flesh and worked all the grease and muck from his skin. His aching muscles were thankful. He rinsed with hot water, turning the lever toward the blue mark to cool him down before he rubbed himself dry with the soft white towels provided.

His clothes were neatly folded on a bench in the hallway, even his weapons looked clean. Redressing and rearming, he thanked the willowy mare as he left, she smiled with genuine kindness in return.

The frigid night-time air chilled his semi-damp hair and neck. He cradled the length of his support weapon under one arm, his hands thrust deep into his jacket pockets and shoulders hunched as he double-quick-marched back to Kodiak and dinner.

He didn’t announce his presence in the slightest, barging the tent-flap aside revealed the large Thestral waiting no less calmly for his return.

He rubbed his hands together, holding them towards one of the lamps. They watched each other, neither spoke.

The minutes stretched on. Kodiak flicked through a few pieces of parchment and then began writing a letter of her own. John kneeled near the ponequin; dismantling his side-arm and support weapon, he cleaned their internals thoroughly.

Padded hoof beats sounded from outside, both looked up as a Thestral head poked his snout through the flap, “Princess Luna here to see you, ma’am.”

At last,” she rose, loudly shutting a tome she had been screening through.

The guard retracted his head and was replaced by Princess Luna. It had only been a few days since John had seen her, yet it felt like months.

She wore her usual silver regalia, covered in a thick dark cloak. She had a large hood that shadowed much of her facial features, looking much like the pony-equivalent of death.

Her hood fell in a burst of navy-coloured magic, revealing tired eyes and a mouth that offered a taut yet polite smile.

“Colonel, thou did not conceive to inform us that the human would be joining us,” she turned to him, “Yet we are glad for your company.”

Her cloak unfurled to be placed on a hook beside the entranceway, she magicked a pair of regal cushions into existence and sat opposite Kodiak.

The large Thestral bowed her head in welcome, “Princess. He invited himself.”

“Did he indeed? Manners, Commander. Did your mother not teach you any?” She looked back at him and for a moment, the calamity of the day was discharged from his body.

He sat next to Luna at her beckoning, he crossed his legs and sat upright. Both mares eyed the laser pistol he placed within easy reach but decided not to comment.

The two ponies spoke in a relaxed manner that John thought was at odds and in poor taste given the events of the last few days. They discussed mostly superficial military matters, the political climate and once that had been brought up, Luna offered some very sage counsel to the young Colonel.

“We have found even we are not spared the opinions of the noble families and parties. Some of whom carry much weight in the Canterlot political arena.”

Kodiak frowned at this but sipped at some kind of sugary liquor.

“Indeed – I would advise caution when discussing military matters with any of them; “play nice,’” she said in a mockingly cutesy voice, “as my sister has directed. Yet this task was difficult for us and ‘twas a long time ‘fore we could master this in conversation.

“Pretend all those you encounter are sided with the opposing party and plan your political comments accordingly. Knowing your politics can easily sway a pony’s opinion of you.”

She continued, “the recently imprisoned Colonel Leaphian kept his own beliefs regarding the Thestral government a secret closely guarded.” She glanced at John who watched on with interest, despite this lesson not being particularly useful for him and decided he could be trusted.

“Colonel Leaphian was found guilty of acts against the state and the ruling members of your hieratical leadership. He capitulated, testifying against the Thestrian rebels and helped to root them out.”

Kodiak sneered, “good – although I’m sure his sentence was reduced as a reward for his help.”

Luna hummed but declined to talk more about it. The food arrived, a pair of Thestrals brought three meals between them and announced their contents.

Cooked mixed vegetables, roasted sweet and regular potatoes with a side salad that contained a variety of nuts. They placed down a fruity wine and some kind of yellowish-brown liquor, John tried a little of both before sticking to the wine, the other drink being extremely salty and pungent. Luna also had wine, while Kodiak selected the salt-drink.

“We hope thou are fairly hungry, Commander,” Luna said with a smirk, as a fork levitated in her magic.

The three of them ate, Kodiak and Luna commented on the taste and flavour of the food, John wasn’t listening as he more inhaled the meal rather than chewed it.

He left nothing to spare; finishing his wine in a single, long gulp. He waited for the two mares to finish. Shortly after both Lunar Guards entered, replacing what John now realised was merely the starter with more food and refilled his glass.

The main course consisted of creamy butternut squash linguine with fried sage. A large plate of vegetable paella was placed in the tables centre for them to help themselves.

He forced down forkful after forkful of food, his gut swelled and bloated. He downed his second glass of wine and his surroundings started to look softer and more subdued.

He finished far sooner than Kodiak or Luna, although both ate in a decidedly starving and unladylike manner.

Next came dessert, some kind of cheesecake with ice cream. He ate all of it, not even caring for the poor dietary choice and chased it down with more wine.

When he exhaled, he could smell the alcohol. It was bitter on his tongue as he ran it across his teeth, working out little pieces of food.

The plates and silverware were collected and they all had their glasses topped up, or in Johns case refilled once more. A small selection of nuts was placed on the table along with more bottles of alcohol.

He felt warm and cosy – the alcohol spread from his stomach in rippling waves. Kodiak and Luna began chatting aimlessly and he sipped on his wine.

The conversation shifted again to more genuine topics, Eventually, John noticed the silence – his head tilted to see both mares looking at him.

“Say again?” His voice slurred slightly and he cleared his throat.

Luna started, “we were discussing the explosion that marked the end of the fighting day – you are responsible, yes?”

“I rigged my portable reactor to detonate on command if I needed it to, seemed like the perfect time. I bet it really rocked the Changeling assault.”

“Indeed – the Changelings had attacked across a front stretching from the San Palomino Desert all the way through into the Everfree, in an attempt to bypass Ponyville they crossed between the township and Rambling Rock Ridge. They were caught in a delaying action by more of my Lunar Guards,” she looked both resigned and proud.

She shifted her weight, her glass having been drained, was placed on the table, “conservative evaluations place the Changeling military strength in the low millions, between two to three. It would seem you wiped out a staggering amount of that force. Well done.

“Three days from now a public announcement of your arrival will be made, of your continued assistance and ultimately, of your heroism and valour.”

John pursed his lips, “I don’t fully believe the heroism part is needed, I’m a professional soldier – would you expect any less of me?”

She smiled wryly, “we would not.”

She gestured at her subordinate, “Colonel Kodiak and I will present you with an award, we shall give a little speech. Several nobles and dignitaries from other nations are taking an interest in this conflict, as well as the small reports of a new, tall biped. So be prepared for an ask and answer session.”

He nodded, “I wasn’t planning on staying here for very long, I think I might have a way to end the war sooner.”

They both looked more attentive, “explain,” Luna said a little demandingly.

“well,” he began, “the Anlace – my ship. It has weapons technology aboard, some of which could be fielded against the Changeling threat.”

There was a pause while the two thought about this revelation.

Luna turned her gaze on him, “thou did not convey this to us earlier, what has changed?”

He shrugged unconsciously, “I’m just tired of fighting, I want to help your people.”

His eyebrows lifted and met Kodiaks calculating eyes, “if I can save you the cost of war – then what is there to lose?” He faced Luna, no one spoke for a while.

Luna balled a piece of thick vanilla ice-cream with a dessert spoon, her brow crinkled.

“Are these weapons similar to the explosions you have brought upon us – during the excursion you undertook within the Changeling hive and today after evacuating from the camp?”

Her expression had hardened, somewhat threatening, hurt my ponies and you’ll regret it.

He moistened his lips and tried to look appeasing. Although the wine had fully taken hold of him and the sway of death-inclined emotions and memories that swirled at the back of his mind were making it difficult.

Finally, he opted to smile earnestly, “yes.”

He continued as the two ponies searched each other’s reactions, “well, its more of a maybe. Much of the ship is simply gone – what remains is less than half, many of the main weapons were located toward the forward part of the ship that was destroyed in the crash.”

They again looked to him with guarded interest, “the heavy-lift vehicles and VTOL Dropships were stowed in the rear part, which is also gone,” he counted off on his fingers, “and the prototype anti-ship battery was on the aft nacelle, also destroyed.”

He shook his head dejectedly, “no – I’d really have to have another look at the ship, see what I can find. I remember requisitioning a pair of Jupiter-Class cruise missiles, they were disassembled and stowed Amidships – so I might be able to cobble together a single working one, with some assistance.”

He lowered his counted fingers and made a placating upwards-palm motion. He grasped the wine glass; his dexterity had escaped him and some of the rose-coloured liquid threatened to spill into his lap.

The beverage was stolen from him in a sparkling blue cloud, Luna smiled sweetly at his indigent glare as it was placed out-of-reach.

“Tomorrow morning then, we will arrange for transport to the Anlace. You shall have two full days to conjure whatever you are able and then be back here for the parade.”

John glumly thought about the tang of the confiscated wine on his lips and how sweet it would have been.


Okay, that sounds fine. At the very least – I can probably provide you with some heavy ordinance to use against them.”

He found himself drunkenly nodding along with them, he had to remind himself to act more normal.

“Very well,” Luna looked contented – happier for the plentiful meal.

“Very well,” Johns imitation went ignored.

Luna changed the topic, “John I’ve had some quarters arranged for you – if you will accompany us?”

He glanced at Kodiak as she slurped her drink coyly, was she flirting?

“Roger,” he gathered his side-arm and support weapon, he felt his cheeks flush with the sudden burst of movement and his private thoughts about the black-coated Colonel.

They wished each other goodnight, John’s tall frame stood in stark contrast to Luna’s quadrupedal form out in the dark, cold night. The star-scape above was so luminous, a spattering of buckshot through an obsidian veil.

Their footfalls and hoovesteps crunched across the frozen ground, the camp dark and quiet. A quartet of large, all-male Thestrals courted around them, helpfully shielding John from a gust of freezing wind.

In silence then journeyed through the canvas corridors, eventually approaching a pair of large, high-topped tents.

A guard entered each one, a few seconds later one emerged followed by the other, “all clear, ma’am.”

She nodded in thanks, a ’follow me,’ head sweep later and they were alone inside one of the living spaces. It was a tent within a tent, the shrunken interior meant John had about a finger width between his head and the ceiling. Luna’s horn was free to swish through the air as she walked away from him.

The Princess used her magic to hang up her cloak, unburden herself from her decorative silver pieces, placing them in a dark wooden chest, that had carved lion paws for feet.

A large four-poster bed sat amongst a pile of pillows and silken decoration. John felt comfortable enough to sit on a large dais that was semi-recessed into the ground, facing the entranceway.

His eyes began to flutter shut, as he drifted off his eyes flew open at the sound of a bottle cork being opened, like the crack of a gunshot.

John needed a better line of employment, years ago the stench of death and all the killing didn’t much bother him. That was no longer the case.

He shivered a bit, a tall, thin glass was levitated to him from over his shoulder, he grasped the stem of the glass childishly, “Champagne?”

She smiled as she sat next to him, a small cushion underneath her. He studied her face, unsure of how to act. Raising her glass a little, he foresaw the invite for a toast and clinked his glass together with hers.

“To you, for the victory, you helped us achieve – for the loss of so many and to the fallen.”

He didn’t feel like he’d earned it but drank anyway.

“So, where am I sleeping?”

Her figure was still, her sparkling eyes unblinking as they bored into his own, “in the other tent, or here if you wish.”

He must have missed something, was he dead? Was he dreaming?

“Err, here?” He leaned back a fraction.

She focused on his mouth, “tis a cold night, Commander, you are welcome to stay here. We can drink a little, conversate a little.”

He got to his feet, winding his way out from under her neck which had begun to pin him against the dais, “Uhm I’m just going to go to bed if you don’t mind – I don’t mean to be rude.”

Her demeanour changed instantly, noticeably she stiffened and relaxed, “of course not, goodnight, Commander.”

He offered an awkward wave, placing the mostly full glass at her hooves on the ground, he swiftly exited and brushed passed the door-staff.

Once inside his own temporary home, he took in his surroundings. A smaller bed, perhaps a younger cousin of the one next-door, lay on a raised level at the rear of the tent.

A few cabinets and a chest were arranged around the place, an empty area at the centre he sensed was meant to be occupied by his power armour station.

His eyes widened as the events with Luna played again and again within his mind, what the fuck, he mouthed the question. Maybe he was just looking too much into it.

He heaved the furniture to create a wall between the bed and the entrance, pulling the drawers out of the chest slightly – he rested his support weapon on the makeshift shelf.

He folded his jacket over the dresser. Unholstering his sidearm, John left his boots on and got under the covers. They were soft and silky, they smelled like lavender. He stared at the ceiling for the better part of an hour, it would be some-time before sleep took hold of him.