"Come on! I just work here! I'm no soldier!" a terrified white earth pony laborer muttered to Loo. "I swear, further into the caves are just the barracks, the sleeping quarters! There are no other exits other than where the planes leave from and where we come in, I swear to Celestia!"
Loo gritted her teeth angrily at the name and jammed her sidearm harder into his temple. He was visibly trembling, and if he shook any harder, he was likely to leave a mess on the floor that was a color other than red.
"Please! I-I just– "
A bullet cut him short.
Loo glanced quickly around the plant. Countless bodies were laid out on the rocky floor. The constructs halfway through completion were dismantled and burning. Thick smoke pouring out of the fires threatened to suffocate anything still alive in the network of tunnels the Party Crashers rampaged through, pony or otherwise. Screams of the dying echoed through the caves as the sound of machine gun fire silenced them.
The main control room and securities area had been annihilated near the start of the conflict when Pinkie and her troops made their appearance. Belle kept an eye on the entrance until the colonel gave the signal that she could move up. Only a few tried to escape but were quickly met with an array of lead projectiles.
Pinkie approached the pegasus with a disappointed scowl across her face. She noticed the thin, fresh trail of smoke still escaping from the barrel of the gun and its empty chamber and then at the body by her hooves.
"Dammit, Loo, I heard him tell you what he knew. We could have taken him with us, had him help our side. We're not Celestia!" she said, chastising the brash orange mare.
"Hey, we've got nearly a two week walk back home ahead of us, and even if we raid their fridge, we're still going to have few supplies. We barely made it here without running out of food, and we've gone through so many bullets, if we got jumped by another battalion, we'd all be dead! We just don't have the resources or time to be taking prisoners with us from all the way out here!" Loo snapped back.
The pegasus reached into her saddlebag and took one of the few remaining clips out, locking it into place and pulling the chamber closed. She turned and stared Pinkie in the eye with an uncompromising look.
With a heavy sigh, Pinkie glanced back into the heart of the facility and took a step. "Come on," she instructed. "Let's make a quick sweep of the place. It sounds like Belle and A.B. have taken care of just about everypony else. I barely hear them shooting anymore."
Loo briefly studied the corpse on the ground beside her. His gray matter stained the floor and the pool of blood was only slowly increasing in size at this point. His eyes stared lifelessly into the abyss. His bowels had emptied in front of them upon death. But, Loo couldn't feel sorry for him. He worked for the enemy. Thus, he was the enemy. Perhaps if there were another twenty soldiers with the Party Crashers that day, they could have taken him and others back with them. Unfortunately for the deceased worker, their situation didn't allow it.
The pegasus followed her commanding officer a few steps behind as they moved through the rest of the base, checking the various tunnels ahead of them.
As the sounds of their echoing hoofsteps got further away, a gray unicorn stallion stirred in the control room. He opened his eyes and groaned under his breath. His sight was a touch blurred, but not due to any serious injury or loss of blood. All he had was a pair of bullet grazes on his side; nothing had found its way into his body. He slid his hoof around in front of him, finding his small glasses. He silently thanked Celestia that he knew how to play possum.
He pulled his charcoal colored mane, streaked with aged silver hairs, out of his face and placed the glasses atop his snout. His ocean blue eyes came into focus and he looked around at the devastation in front of him. Several corpses laid strewn on the floor with bullet wounds in their torsos and necks. If it wasn't for the soldier who was standing in front of him when Pinkie arrived, he probably would have joined their ranks.
He quickly mourned their loss. His thoughts returned momentarily to his long dead wife. He missed her amethyst eyes and that gorgeous buttery coat. The turquoise necklace he gave to her as an anniversary present had been lost somewhere in Canterlot when the Doctor and Derpy attacked it two decades ago.
Though he wasn't used to seeing death around him in the hidden caves, it reminded him of her. He swore that day that he'd make the rebels pay for taking her away before he died. Slowly, with angry determination, he rose to his hooves and grabbed a saddlebag and weapon off one of the dead troops beside him. The bag had a small amount of ammunition and what could only be described as snacks. It would have to be enough for now.
Doing his best to keep his breathing in check, he stumbled out of the control room and peeked around the corner. He didn't see any of the invaders, but he wasn't foolish enough to try attacking them head on. Not only was he badly outnumbered, he also knew he was badly outclassed in the art of fighting. He never considered himself to be a great markspony and challenging the feared Party Crashers would only result in his demise. He wasn't about to let that happen.
The unicorn craned his ears around, listening for any indication of where Pinkie and the others may be. He scanned the immediate area and saw no visual sign of them. He did his best to look past the uncountable number of bodies covering the underground landscape. Taking note of how many there were just made him angrier. Throwing caution to the wind, he quietly and quickly made his way to the entrance of the cave behind the cascading river of rushing water.
As he approached the opening, he stepped up his pace. The deafening falls made perfect cover for any noise the unicorn may make. He saw a faint light trickling through the living blue wall and he knew he was safe, at least for the moment. If the Party Crashers were right behind him, he wouldn't have been able to see them very well or hear them coming either way. He hung left and climbed the dirt path that led into the tunnel.
The fragrant scents of the thick forest surrounding the falls tickled his snout, and the gentle breeze from the flowing water blew a cool mist into his face and chest. It was a nice change from the dark, dank caves he had spent several years in. But, he wasn't there to sightsee. He needed to get to a safe spot.
The unicorn reached the top of the path and headed straight into the trees, keeping enough distance from his old base but remaining close enough to see when the four unholy terrors made it out. As he waited, he picked at various leaves and grasses and threw them in his saddlebag. It wasn't much to eat, but thanks to the desperate circumstances, he was going to inevitably carrying light. If he maybe had the chance to get some things from the kitchen, perhaps he wouldn't have been reduced to nibbling on scraps.
The gray stallion remained otherwise still and silent for nearly a half hour before he heard an explosion coming from behind the falls. The Party Crashers must have finished their slaughter and sealed the entrance. Hiding behind a large tree, he peeked around and saw the mares celebrating another easy victory and, he assumed, heading home. Keeping a fair distance between them, the unicorn followed Pinkie and her troops.
Knowing when to continue moving once they arrived in some of the more barren areas of Equestria made the unicorn's stalking exceptionally difficult. Not only would he have to barely sleep, but trying to find some cover was next to impossible. He hoped they had no reason to ever look behind them.
His stomach was in knots as well. There were some days when he had to forgo eating anything, and he felt like he was starving to death. Trying to keep his throat from burning up was nothing short of a nightmare. Hardly a puddle was found on the long trek, and the few he did find were little more than mud.
As the unicorn tailed the Party Crashers, he had to shake the thought from his mind to just attack them recklessly and hope for the best. He knew his best plan of action, should he even survive, was to see where they went. If they were indeed heading back to a base, he could become Celestia's hero overnight, if he could make it back to Canterlot without being discovered or possibly shot at by a trigger-happy aerial patrol.
Nine days came and went before he knew it. Though without the moon coming out in so long, it was difficult to tell when mornings began and evenings ended. He had barely slept in the last forty-eight hours because of such uncertainties. Plus, wanting to remain close enough to see them but far enough away not to be noticed made finding a safe place to rest a bit difficult.
Pinkie and her crew must have had watches. They appeared to sleep at regular intervals, but not for very long. It seemed they were trying to return to wherever they were going as quickly as they could. The unicorn had also taken note that they skipped a few meals here and there, while he hadn't eaten more than a few dry blades of grass in a day and a half, and there was little to no vegetation anywhere as he seemed to walk further and further into an arid hell.
His limbs were burning and his joints were stiff. He was fighting a war against his own body and he felt like he was about to lose at any moment. His eyes were starting to get heavy, and he knew if he passed out, he probably wouldn't wake up and all his following would be an utter waste.
Ahead of him, the Party Crashers came to what appeared to be the edge of a steep cliff. In a burst of pale blue magic, they vanished. He gasped audibly and, with a sudden burst of energy, charged ahead to where they were just a moment ago. Sure enough, he found himself looking down into the bottom of a canyon. The unicorn spotted them and dove quickly to the ground. Frozen high on the cliff, he watched them glance around, double checking for any enemies. Pinkie reached into a small stack of rocks and in front of her, a hidden door slid open. The group disappeared into the hidden facility and the door shut behind them.
'This is Ghastly Gorge, if I know my geography right,' the unicorn thought to himself. 'Then that must mean...'
He craned his head behind him and to the right. There was no doubt in his mind that the Everfree Forest was relatively close, maybe a quarter of a day's travel on hoof. Despite never having gone in there at any point in his life, he was aware enough of its existence and where it was in relation to Canterlot and Ponyville. Even when he was a young colt, he was told scary stories about the horrors that lurked in the shadows in that dreadful place. Though he didn't want to find out firsthoof if the stories held any semblance of truth behind their words, it was the quickest way to the royal city.
With renewed strength, he rose to his hooves and galloped toward the Everfree. He would only need one more day to get to Canterlot from his current location at top speed. Fatigue and hunger would simply have to wait. The only thing that kept him going was the idea of what Celestia would do to him if he failed her.
"Commander, the Party Crashers are here," the loudspeakers announced.
The quartet entered the control room and were greeted by their fellow soldiers, congratulated on another job well done and their consequent safe return. They said a few pleasantries and were met by Derpy a few minutes later, having left her quarters to welcome them home personally.
"You made it. I take it everything went smoothly?" the commander asked.
"Wouldn't be here if they didn't," Pinkie replied.
"So, Commander, we ready to hit Canterlot?" the pink mare asked.
"Soon," Derpy answered, "but first, I want you all to see something. You're going to love this."
The pegasus turned and led them toward the rehabilitation area. As they went, the Party Crashers noticed there seemed to be a lot more soldiers roaming the halls, many of whom they hadn't seen either at all or in a long, long time.
"Commander, what's with all the new faces around here?"
"I called in General Shining Armor and his best troops. I want to throw everything we have at the Princess when the time comes."
When they finally arrived, nothing could have prepared them for what they saw. They found Cadance and Shining Armor before them, as to be expected, given what Derpy just told them. Floating above the rest in the room was their sky blue friend, and below her was a familiar lavender unicorn, standing on wriggling legs and struggling with her next step. She saw the Party Crashers enter the room in her peripherals and greeted them with a jubilant smile.
"Hey girls! How's it going?"
"Twilight!" Pinkie screamed, charging and coming to a screeching halt in front of the purple mare. "You're.. y-you're awake! A-And walking.. kind of! How are you feeling?! How long have you been up?! How in the world are you able to move after laying there all this time?! And Rainbow, you're flying?! You're flying! I don't believe this! What's gone on around here since we left?!"
The unicorn's concentration was stressed and broken momentarily, causing her to slump onto her belly. Pinkie tried to help her up, but Twilight happily waved her assistance away.
"It was a few days after you headed out. Rainbow's been helping me every minute of every day since then getting me back on my hooves as fast as possible. Commander Derpy wants me as ready as I can be for our attack on Canterlot. My magic feels ready to go, but my legs aren't cooperating as much as I'd like them to, despite using that same magic to speed up my recovery. Can't say I'm surprised though. I hadn't moved for, what? Four-plus years?" Twilight explained.
"And this just kinda.. happened one day," Rainbow chimed in, backflipping in midair. "Wasn't even really thinking about it and I was off the ground. I'm past the hard part now. With a little more time up in the air, I should be as good as new as far as maneuverability goes! Speed, not so much. Well, if we had the time."
Loo took to the air and lapped slowly around her pegasus comrade. She nodded at Rainbow, fairly impressed. "Not bad, kid. Not bad."
The older orange mare cocked an eyebrow at her and smirked.
"Oh yeah," Rainbow said with flushed cheeks, remembering the age reversal.
"Twilight," A.B. spoke up, "if ya can't walk before we go after the Princess, what are ya gonna do? Ah can't imagine you'll wanna sit that out."
"Rainbow will carry me if it comes to that. But, there is something personal I was hoping to do before we attacked."
"What is it?"
"Well, if I told you, it really wouldn't be personal, now would it?" Twilight answered with a wink. "Rainbow's the only one who knows right now, since it seems like I may still need her wings. Maybe I'll tell you all later. We'll see."
"Either way, it's so good to see you on your hooves again, Twilight," Belle said.
"It feels good too, and I couldn't be happier seeing you all again." Behind her smile, her thoughts drifted briefly to the only others that would have made her return complete. She knew what she had to do before the fighting started.
The gray, near-sighted unicorn stumbled tiredly up to the first royal guards he see as he approached the royal city from the train tracks. If the moon ever came out anymore, it would have been high overhead when he arrived. He had been in a near-gallop most of the way through the Everfree Forest and the deserted Ponyville, and by now, he was ready to throw up what little fluids were left in his stomach. He collapsed onto the ground in front of a pair of white pegasus guards.
"Sergeant," he started, breathing heavily, "Sergeant Jet Set.. re-reporting. I n-need to.. to see General.. Tiara immedi.. immediately. I know where.. Party.. Party Crashers are."
The guards turned to each other in shock. One of the stallions lifted the unicorn onto his partner's back and nodded when he was firmly in place. A second later, the pegasus sped off as fast as his passenger allowed him to move.
Jet Set struggled to keep his eyes open, exhaustion threatening to consume him. He so badly wanted to sleep, but he had to see the General. He wasn't sure how long the soldier was carrying him, but it couldn't be long. He tried not to think about the fact he was in the air, or look down, lest he stain the pegasus' back with bile.
The guard finally landed in the command center and laid on his stomach. A few of the others took note of the half-dead unicorn on his back and gently lifted him up and set him on the floor.
"Tend to his needs immediately. I have to get General Tiara. He says he knows where the Party Crashers are," the guard firmed stated.
He shot off to Diamond Tiara's quarters, knowing she was probably asleep. The clock on the wall indicated it was 1:13 in the morning. She would likely be furious, but he knew what he had to tell her would change her attitude quickly. If Sergeant Jet Set was absolutely certain of his assessment, the war's end could be right around the corner. Where the Party Crashers were found, they'd undoubtedly find Commander Derpy and likely most of their best soldiers.
The pegasus flew past the dark sleeping quarters after a few turns down the hallway. He almost knocked a few of his comrades over as he darted through the castle, but he couldn't worry about that. Beside the barracks was a single door where he'd find General Tiara. He stepped beside the lone guard and knocked loudly, snagging the attention of the confused stallion.
A moment later, the aged pink mare opened the door and stared daggers at the maniac who dared interrupt her sleep.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?!" she yelled. "What the hell could be so important that you have to wake me up at this hour?!"
"Apologies, ma'am, but Sergeant Jet Set just arrived not long ago. He's in terrible shape, but– "
"Why the hell isn't he at Neighagra Falls?" she interrupted.
"He didn't say, but he claims to know where the Party Crashers are."
Any sign of fatigue disappeared in an instant. "Take me to him. Now," the general commanded, climbing onto his back. Normally, she wouldn't be caught dead riding one of her soldiers anywhere, but this was a different situation.
"Right away," her escort said, taking to the air. The guard by her quarters closed the door as they departed.
When the pair arrived at the command center, three unicorn doctors were looking over the worn out sergeant, giving him a bit of nourishment and some fluids intravenously. General Tiara dismounted and approached Jet Set with purpose. She knelt beside his head and he turned to look at her with his eyes half closed, still weary from his journey.
"Sergeant, what happened to you? You know where the Party Crashers are?"
"They.. showed up and.. destroyed.. base. Snuck away when they.. di-didn't see me. Followed to Ghastly.. Gorge." Jet Set's breathing was labored, but with some rest, he would be alright.
"Sergeant, I want you ready to go in the morning to show us the way there. I want you doctors to get him fixed up quick and see that he gets rest. He looks like hell." She glanced into Jet Set's eyes. "If you really found their base of operations, if we go in there and crush those scumbags and end this, whatever you want as a reward will be yours."
The doctors levitated Jet Set away to their medical ward as fast as their legs could take them. General Tiara raced off to inform Celestia of the discovery.
Diamond Tiara violently threw open the doors to the Princess' war room. She was in her usual position, bent over some papers, studying what information she had about the enemy and trying to put together some plans of attack. She paid absolutely no attention to the double doors or the earth pony entering her domicile.
"Princess Celestia, I have urgent– "
"Not now," she said coldly.
"But your highness– "
"I said not now, General! I am not in the mood for one of your speeches! Leave me be!"
"Your majesty, I– "
She was cut off by a pair of burning eyes staring into her soul. Wishing to scowl but stopping herself, General Tiara bowed and turned away. The doors were encompassed by a faint blue glow and closed behind her. She stood there motionless for a moment, gritting her teeth in frustration. From time to time, the Princess was unreachable, too focused in her personal vendettas to listen to anypony, and she couldn't have picked a worse possible time.
Fury coursing through her veins, Diamond Tiara sprinted to the barracks. The guards saluted as she kicked open the door, startling everypony awake.
"Light those torches," she said to one of the guards, a unicorn. When they came alive, the sleeping troops rubbed and covered their eyes. There had to over a hundred of her strongest in front of her in the massive room.
"Listen up! I want you all up at 0700 tomorrow morning and ready in a half hour. Since some ponies aren't interested in the intel we just came across, I'll tell all of you. It seems we stumbled upon the Party Crashers' little hidden base. We're attacking tomorrow in the morning, and we'll be heading out at 8. I'll have a plan drawn up before we leave. Now get some sleep."
The soldiers looked at each other with tired but anxious looks as she left and the torches turned themselves off. Murmurs and quiet cheers were passed around among them, and a few minutes later the room was silent again.
General Tiara muttered angrily to herself as she walked the few feet it was from the barracks to her personal chambers. Tomorrow could easily be the most important day in the life of Celestia's army, and she didn't seem to give a damn!
'So sick of that fool! Always has me do the dirtiest of the dirty work, but when something truly important comes into play, she just pisses it away,' the mare thought to herself as she entered her room and closed the door behind her. 'Fine. Whatever. Once this whole damned war is over and done with tomorrow, maybe I can use this to prove just how incapable and worthless she really is as a leader.
'It's been me risking my neck ever since Pinkie almost blew her head off! I should be the one in charge of this damned world! What could she do if everypony suddenly turned against her anyway? She couldn't fight off her entire army all at once if I got them to listen to me, and who wouldn't anyway? Nopony but me hardly even sees her anymore! Perhaps her pigheadedness tonight was a blessing in disguise.'
She glanced at the clock on the desk near her bed. 1:29. She set her alarm and crawled back into bed. Though she hated having her beauty sleep interrupted, she didn't mind the reason why tonight. Thoughts of the impending slaughter filled her mind, and she fell back to sleep with a laugh and a wicked smile on her face.