“Um, excuse me. Sir?”
Graves slowly blinked before peering up through sweat-soaked bangs at the source of the query. Sergeant… Strider, if he recalled.
“What is it?”
“Pardon the interruption sir,” Strider repeated with a nervous gulp, “but I was wondering if it might be time for a break?”
A break? Gunmetal grey eyes glanced over to the spacious practice chamber’s lone, ticking clock. Apparently, time flies even when you’re not having fun because lo and behold, five hours had come and gone in the blink of an eye. Now that he thought about it though, it sort of made sense. His bones ached, his muscles burned, and sweat had long since soaked through his most recent change of shirts. Even the sturdy leather of his broad, flat-brimmed hat seemed to droop in exhaustion.
“… I’m good,” Graves grunted as he stood up once more and cracked his stiffened neck. “We’re gonna run scenarios fifteen through eighteen one more time and then…“ His voice trailed off as he noticed a decidedly undisciplined fidget coming from the waiting officer.
“Something wrong?” the marshal inquired. Strider swallowed as those steely orbs affixed on him, his six years as an officer doing nothing to keep him from feeling like a greenhorn grunt once more. This marshal just seemed to have that effect.
“Begging your pardon sir,” he called out far more loudly than necessary, “but I think that the break was more… ah… more required by everyone… else…”
Following the officer’s gaze, understanding dawned as Graves cast his eyes over the groaning heaps of semi-comatose cadets strewn across the floor. Casualties of a necessary cause, as one might put it.
The Savage Lands. Honestly, he’d had time to process and he still couldn’t quite believe it. After the first time he’d gone, each of the rare, subsequent visits had been made with the joy of giving Opal a bath. He’d gotten more scars in that handful of missions than he did in a regular year elsewhere. And now, he was making it again, only this time, with six untrained civvies in tow.
It wouldn’t be easy. Never was, The only bright side was that along with the assignment, Graves had also been given administrative leave to use any and all resources necessary to prepare for his mission. On this point, Graves was not about to skimp. Before an hour had passed, Graves had entered the Academy and commandeered two classes of senior students in order to help simulate any and every hostage crisis he could think of. He’d run through scenarios of ambushes, kidnappings, line-breaking charges and chaotic retreats, with the new recruits serving as both the opposing forces and his disorganized charges. When he’d exhausted the list, he ran them again, and when that was exhausted, he invented some more. He couldn’t plan for every contingency, but he could damn well try, and he’d begun drilling with relentless abandon.
That had been three days ago.
Graves wanted to simulate reality, and that meant fighting when he was tired, sleep deprived, and injured. Lacerations crossed his body, bruises formed a leopard’s pelt, and he was pretty sure several bones were no longer where they should be. Toss on only a few hours of rest between each marathon session, and you had a man who’d come up against the brink of human endurance and laughed as he waltzed right on by. And even after all of that, he was still better off than his groaning troop. At least he could still stand.
“Hm,” Graves intoned. “Alright, we’ll end it here. Comet.”
“Yes sir?” a handsome cadet called as he wobbled to his feet.
“Find me a replacement for this lot and have them prepped for practice by thirteen hundred sharp. Dismissed.”
With a trembling salute to the sandy blonde locks plastered down with sweat, Comet slowly set to helping the other groaning cadets get to their feet and back to the sweet release of their barracks. On the other side of the room, the door clicked shut as Graves walked off.
Boot heels clicked against marble tiles Graves walked the pathway linking Academy and palace beneath a clear, starry sky. Luna’s moon was high in its journey already and signaled an hour far beyond what Graves expected. He’d kept those cadets far too long and pushed them harder than he should have, but even as a cool breeze washed over his weary body, Graves heaved a heavy sigh. Everyone had to make sacrifices, and that included those cadets. In total, they’d be working with him for a solid week, perhaps ten days at most to prepare for any and every worst case scenario he could think of, and those ten days were going to be nothing short of pure, distilled pain.
But ten days wouldn’t be enough. Ten weeks might not be enough. In the field, the only thing you could count on is that nothing could be counted on; that’s why good soldiers reduced variability to achieve success. When your job is to protect six girls who do nothing but create variability, sometimes in ways you didn’t even think possible, well… what then? Even if Graves practiced every waking hour from here till launch, would it really make a difference?
“Now there’s a face not even a mother could love,” came a loud and very familiar laugh. “Seriously, I’d show you, but I’m afraid your reflection would turn you to stone.”
“Skipping out on meetings again?” Graves rejoined, a twitch at the corner of his lips as he turned to see the smiling face of Shining Armor.
“Eh, it’s all good,” the azure-haired captain shrugged. “Those old codgers have their hands on every little detail, so I figure I’d hop out and see how you’re holding up. Considering you look ready to chew rocks and spit gravel, I take it that’s not very well.”
“That’s how I always look.” Graves replied as he relaxed his expression. It wasn’t until he actively loosened up that he realized how much tension had been there.
“Uh huh,” Shining Armor nodded, clearly not convinced. Graves offered no response and so the two silent for a spell as the cool wind blew and the moon shined bright.
“So… what’s up?” the guard captain began once more. “The world on your shoulders weighing you down? Or did you and Rarity have a fight? ‘Cause if it’s the fight, then let me tell you, the answer is chocolate. Doesn’t matter what you did, all you need to do is get her–”
“We didn’t fight,” the marshal sighed with a generous roll of the eyes for good measure. “I was just thinking about the mission.”
“Ah, weight of the world, it is then,” Shining Armor nodded. “Well… what’s exactly got you so bugged out? You’ve stopped the end of the world before, right?”
“Few times,” Graves nodded.
“Were you particularly worried about those?”
“Not really,” he shrugged.
“Then what’s so special about this one?”
It didn’t seem like Graves realized it, but the thunderhead came back to his face as lightning flickered in his sharp, grey eyes. Shining Armor looked on, appraising the expression as he would a tactical map, apparently with equal success as his cobalt eyes illuminated.
“Ah, I see,” Shining Armor nodded, doing a very fair impression of the stone-faced marshal. “Well, in that case, there’s only one thing to do.”
A quick snap of his silver gauntlets, and a pair of ethereal swords appeared in front of the crimson garbed-captain. Taking hold of the saber, he tossed the straight blade to Graves, who eyed his companion with a most dubious look.
“Fencing?” he rumbled. “Really?”
“Standard competition rules,” Shining Armor smiled as he gave his blade a few experimental swings. “First to land a fatal blow wins. Courtyard serves as the boundaries.”
“Don’t suppose I got a say in this, do I?” Graves sighed. The captain simply smiled.
Without warning, Shining Armor leaped forward and the gleaming edge of his glittering saber slashed out. But Graves was ready. As man who trusted others considerably less than the distance he could throw them, the marshal was ready for the underhanded strike and brought his own sword up to parry the ambushing blow a hair before it found his neck. A fountain of pale blue sparks cascaded to the ground as blade met blade and the battle began in earnest.
Back and forth, flickering and darting faster than the eye could follow, the two slashed and parried their way all across the tiled courtyard. Though the layman would struggle to even keep track of the pair, let alone their blades, a trained observer could discern that Shining Armor held the clear edge in skill. With the grace of a swooping heron, the captain’s sword forms flowed together in a seamless dance to rain down a relentless torrent of lethal strikes. Blindingly fast, but heavy enough to cleave a man in two with the effort of parting silk, Shining Armor’s sword was an immaculate storm of whirling death.
But even in eye of hurricane where one mistake would send its victim into the swirling vortex of bladed fury, Graves did not yield. There was no flow to his movements, no polish to his form, but the marshal’s strikes came from a body mercilessly engineered for combat. Sharp and precise, his straight sword lashed out like a hissing viper seeking blood with savage alacrity and pinpoint precision. Every motion of his was clean, stripped of everything but the essentials for the utmost in efficiency. With this, he created speed, an ungodly speed that was enough to hold ground against the captain’s flawless form. For a time.
Swordplay was not one of the marshal’s true skills and soon it began to show. Glowing slash marks made their appearance on the marshal’s arms and legs, signals of where even his inhuman speed had not been enough. Try as he might, he couldn’t break through the captain’s perfectly composed defense. With a body already worn and wearied from hours of combat, the outcome was inevitable. Shining Armor advanced, Graves gave ground, and suddenly–
–Graves leaped aside, evade the sword only to find the boot as Shining Armor twisted to deliver a whiplash kick to the marshal’s side. Grunting as the captain’s shin caught him full in the short ribs, Graves was a fraction of a second too slow in moving his sword. In that second’s fraction, Shining Armor executed a sharp repost, a fluid thrust, and plunged his saber into the marshal’s chest where it dissolved into a swirl of glittering motes of delicate blue light.
“My win,” Shining Armor smiled, panting, but flushed with the thrill of victory. “As expected.”
“Obviously,” Graves snorted as stretched out his aching side. “But why would one of Equestria’s seven Sword Saints need to cheat?”
“Cheat? Me?” the captain gasped in injured tones. “I’m shocked and appalled you would even say that!”
“Competition rules don’t allow kicks,” the marshal growled as he advanced a very menacing step closer. “Or would you prefer that we go again with that amended?”
“Aw, come on, don’t be like that,” the captain laughed as he clapped the marshal a hearty slap to the back. “I just thought it’d be a great way to illustrate the power of bending the rules.”
“First off,” Graves frowned, “that wasn’t bending the rules: that was tying them in knots and tossing them under the train tracks. And second, why the hay would you need to show me that?”
“Because obviously,” Shining Armor sighed, “a certain simpleton I know has forgotten that fact and needs a reminder.”
Graves blinked, not because the captain’s words confused him – indeed, they were about as clear as quality crystal – but because he couldn’t believe they’d been spoken.
“You know,” he began, his tone taking on the dangerous rumble of an avalanche forming in the highlands as patience started to wear thin, “I’m not exactly in the mood for that kind of talk. You wanna run that by me again?”
“Sure thing,” Shining Armor grinned, completely nonplussed by the tones that would have even stalwart veterans quaking in their stripes. “You. Are. A. Simpleton. A straight forward, bull-headed simpleton who tramples over rules like weeds in a field.”
“Hah?” Graves gaped. “I don’t trample the rules. That’d be you and your officer’s sash.”
“Oh really?” Shining Armor intoned with an eyebrow arched in challenge. “Who’s the one that bucked regulation by skipping previous tour requirements and simply blazed through the Academy’s open exams?”
“Both of us,” the marshal remarked in defense. “You took them the same year I did, remember?”
“Fair enough,” Shining Armor conceded. “But who was it that, despite having about as much magical punch as a potato, decided to join the marshals, most magically intense branch of the military, hmm?”
“That’s… not exactly a rule,” Graves frowned as he found himself on the back foot on that one. “It’s more guidelines than anything else.”
“Very well then,” the guard captain smiled. “Then what about this? One of us – I won’t say who – earned the Right of Petition and decided to use that right to specifically flout the team requirements of a marshal so he could go it alone without a lollygagging care in the world. Refresh my memory; who exactly was that?”
Graves wracked his brain for a response, but nothing came forward in response to Shining Armor’s obnoxiously smug grin. As much as he hated to admit it, as much as it rankled at his sense of propriety like seeing shorts at a military parade… the captain had a point.
“Face it, Graves,” Shining Armor concluded with all the satisfaction of a bureaucrat on tax day, “you break twice as many rules as the next ten contenders. I mean, sure, I might bend them a little here and there just because, but you tear them apart like they owe you money.”
“Okay, okay, I guess I do break convention quite a bit,” Graves cried in exasperation as he finally conceded defeat. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
“What does it…” Shining Armor blinked. “Graves, the entire reason you’re worrying yourself bald is because you’ve forgotten why you broke the rules in the first place.”
“Think about it,” the guard captain continued as for once, his smile still in place, but far more intent than usual. “The reason we’ve got all these rules in place is that most of the time, it keeps things safe and in order. But there are times – not many, but some – where breaking the rules creates some pretty big opportunities.”
“Like how a kick to the ribs helps you stab a man?” Graves intoned with eyebrow arched. Shining Armor beamed.
“Precisely. You were always one of those people. You didn’t care what the rules were. You’d cut corners, steal head starts, and flat out make things up as you went so long as it created an opportunity. While other people were worrying about playing the game right, you just went hog wild and played to win. And it worked. Well, mostly.”
“Then what am I doing wrong now?” Graves asked with gunmetal grey eyes sharp as daggers. Most would have thought the raven-haired soldier snapping in displeasure at some unkind words as he had before, but Shining Armor knew better. The only time Graves got like this was when he was hunting for something.
“Your problem,” the guard captain said, the smile fading away for the first time that evening, “is that you’ve been playing your way for so long, it’s become a rule set all on its own. You’ve gotten so used to working outside the rules that you're actually throwing away standard methods that can help you win.”
“I… what?” Graves gaped. That wasn’t right. That couldn’t be right. The only reason he’d ever been able to survive for so long was because he always took every available advantage. To hear Shining Armor say otherwise was like hearing him announce plans to retire from the military and join a yodeling folk band. And yet…
“You’ve got a sword,” Shining Armor continued as he conjured up the ethereal straight blade once more. “But you’ve also got a free hand, your legs, a coat, and who knows what else. The only reason you didn’t use them was because you decided to play by the rules. But when you’re out in the field–”
“Sir!” a rapidly approaching voice called out as it was soon followed by a pair of armored guardsman dashing into the courtyard. “Begging your pardon, sir, but your presence is requested in the war room. Now.”
“Duty calls, Shining Armor shrugged as he gave turned to the soldiers and waved his acknowledgment. However, just before he left, the azure-haired officer turned back towards Graves and spoke once more.”
“A man fighting on his own only has so many tools at his disposal. But when that man’s on a team? That’s a whole lot of opportunity just waiting to happen.”
With a clap to the shoulder and a final grin, Shining Armor jogged over to where the guardsmen stood and trotted off. This left Graves alone once more, standing in the courtyard as the moon tipped past high point and began its descent. It was a lot to take in. Or maybe it wasn’t. Shining Armor had left him with some thoughts, but it wasn’t like he’d never had them before. Rather, it was more like he’d had them so long ago, he’d forgotten that he’d ever had them before.
Break the rules. Play to win. But spend all your time outside the rules, and you forget what it's like to be inside them. You miss out on opportunities waiting to happen. Perhaps he’d been going about it all wrong. Sure, he could drill all the unconventional tactics he wanted, but he was going to need more if he wanted to make this mission a real success.
And slowly, the wheels began to turn.
“So can we strengthen up our position on East Seven?”
“I think so. The Ivory Tower has confirmed their support, correct?”
“Yes sir, they wrote in just this afternoon. Numbers aren’t confirmed yet – they’re still working to rally the magisters – but we’ve got at least three full companies confirmed.”
“Excellent. Shine, How many do you think you’ll need at HQ?”
“Ideally, all three. The more mages we have at central, the more flexible we can be with our shield placements.”
“Understood. Nothing promised, but we’ll get you as many we can spare. Now for the Griffonheim…”
Though the hour was late, the lamps in the war room burned bright. Standing around the scale model of the mountain pass that would be their battlegrounds, the Equestrian High Command continued their plans for the upcoming war with break-neck speed. Heads were foggy and bodies weary, but a potent blend of coffee, revitalizing charms, and a sense of urgency kept them well-adhered to the task. The planning they laid out now would directly determine how long their lines held, and how long their lines held would answer whether the world faced salvation or destruction.
“Shining Armor,” General Halberd called. “What’s the status on the Canterlot guard?”
“Sir, we’ve begun transferring them towards the Pass as of twelve hours ago,” the guard captain answered as he handed his commanding officer a nearby report. “Within the next two days, the full group should be transferred over and ready to begin cold weather acclimation, save for a skeleton crew left to run the city.”
“I see,” the general murmured as he flipped through the reports, not without some difficult though as the hook in the place of his hand was not exactly suited for paperwork. Though he could have had any number of prosthetics replace it, rumors said he kept the hook because it was more convenient out at his station in the deserts. What exactly he used it for, none truly cared to ask.
“Not bad,” he finally concluded as he set the slightly shredded report down. “However, I’m concerned that the supply transports aren’t running at optimum efficiency. Any way we can shave down the dead time of each ship?”
“I’ll consult the engineering team as soon as I–”
“–As soon as you do what, may I ask?”
Words died in his throat as with a queasy sense of dread, Shining Armor turned around to find himself looking at his very lovely and very pregnant wife.
“Cadance,” he smiled, doing his best to look chipper and not guilty at all. “I, ah… thought you were overseeing the evacuation of the Crystal Empire.”
“I was, dear husband,” she smiled sweetly. “That’s why I had to fly back to Canterlot and make sure the arrangements to receive them were in order. Imagine my surprise when I went to check in on your room and found you out of bed. Again.”
Cobalt eyes darted to the other officers in the room, but found no support. Regulation stated that in even in states of emergency, high command was required to get six hours of rest every twenty four hours; too much was at stake without having those in charge make silly mistakes from a lack of sleep. True, every officer fudged the rules for a final check here or a second review there, but at least they did it without getting caught.
“It… was only for an hour or two,” Shining Armor tried to explain as Cadance slowly stepped forward. “I just had to make a quick tour of the Academy and straighten out the… ah… emergency… listings…” The captain stopped talking as Cadance merely looked him in the eye and reached out her hand.
“Come with me. Now.”
Red-faced and embarrassed like a student called to the principal’s office, Shining Armor quietly took his wife’s hand as he followed her from the war room. Though he couldn’t see them, he could feel the grins of the veteran officers who had no intention of bailing out the rookie captain, especially not when lady folk were getting involved. After all, they were soldiers, not suicidal.
Out in the hall, Cadance led them along at a brisk pace, quite a remarkable feat considering how swollen her belly was. Once they were clear out of earshot though, she quickly turned on her husband and let loose.
“Shine, you promised me you’d take care of yourself!” she cried in exasperation as she delivered a solid wallop to his arm.
“I did! I am!” Shining Armor called out as he sought to both placate his wife and fend off her angry barrage, neither with much success. “I’ve been getting regular treatments by Doctor Residence: you know how good his charms are.”
“They’re still not a replacement for a good night’s sleep!”
“I’m still sleeping!”
“Two! Hours! A night!” Cadance yelled as she delivered a sound punch to his ribs. “Honestly, you’re getting to be as bad as Graves!”
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Shining Armor winced. “He looks pretty strung out if you ask me.” To his great surprise, this was the comment that stopped the beating.
“You saw him?” Cadance asked cautiously, not quite placated, but at least no longer violent. Shining Armor nodded.
“Probably half an hour ago. He looked nervous. Well, not exactly nervous – he never looks nervous – but a lot worse than usual.”
“I should think so,” Cadance nodded as she finally began to lower her fists. “He has to take Rarity, your sister, and all the other girls out into the middle of the Savage Lands. He must be beside himself with worry.” The crystal princess looked right up at her husband. “You had a good talk with him, I trust?”
“About as good as we ever have,” Shining Armor nodded. “All I know is that when I left, it looked like he was thinking of something.”
“That’s good,” Cadance sighed in relief before her frown returned. “Now if someone would listen to my advice, we’d all be better off.”
“Hey, I totally listen to your advice!” the guard captain grinned. “I just don’t act on it all the time is all.”
“You are utterly incorrigible,” Cadance said with a roll of her eyes as she swatted her husband once more. However, there was no heart in this one as instead, she took hold of his shoulder and leaned into his chest. “I just wish you wouldn’t be like him and try to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. I know you care, but people worry about you too, you know.”
As clever as Shining Armor liked to pretend to be around Graves, he was still a guy and thus, very prone to missing the obvious cues. It was only then, when he heard the concern in her voice that he realized how worried she really was. Kicking himself for being a fool, the young man quickly wrapped his arms around the love of his life.
“Hey, sorry about that,” he said softly as he held her close. “You know me. I get so wrapped in up in stuff, I tend to lose track of time. I’ll get some rest and real soon, okay?”
“You’d better,” Cadance answered as she looked up, violet eyes twinkling as a smile came to her face once more. “Or else I might have to drag you there myself.”
“Whoa there,” Shining Armor laughed. “I thought you wanted me to get some sleep.”
“Aw, are you tired of me so soon?”
As one, the two Equestrians turned towards the unexpected third voice. There, walking towards them with the soft whisk of iridescent silk and a haughty smile on her harsh but beautiful face, came the regal figure of Queen Chrysalis.
“Two timer,” the Changeling monarch laughed as she traced a chitin-clad finger under Shining Armor’s chin. “And to think, you toss me aside after we spent all last night together.”
“Yes, renegotiating the Equestria-Changling Armistice for these present times was certainly riveting,” the guard captain replied without flinching, “as is every other diplomatically necessary discussion we’ve shared.”
“Ooh, so cold,” Chrysalis laughed, the sound arrogant yet musical at once. “I hope you’ll bring that delightful chill to our next meeting?”
“Unfortunately,” Cadance smoothly interjected, “my husband has to retire for the evening. I, however, as a representative of Equestria, would be more than happy to conduct those negotiations on his behalf.”
“Marvelous,” Chrysalis smiled, seemingly not at all off put by the clear undertones of the princess’s words. “In that case, Captain, I’ll see you at some other time. Rest well.”
“Er… yes,” Shining Armor nodded, rather thoroughly off put by the cordiality of her words. “In that case, good evening, Queen Chrysalis. Cadance.”
With a quick kiss, Cadance released her husband and watched as he walked off towards his quarters, his steps only a hair faster for the circumstances than they’d normally be. She watched with composed serenity right up until he rounded the corner before she in turn rounded on Chrysalis.
“Look here, sister,” she said, all political niceties tossed aside like dirty laundry. “I don’t know what your game is, but Shining Armor is mine, you hear?”
“Such jealousy!” Chrysalis gasped in delight as she took a deep, savoring breath. “So spicy and piquant, you’d almost think I was trying to steal him from you.”
“Well, what else would you call it?” the princess challenged a she crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “I saw the way you walked up, the way you were made those eyes at him while you sashayed all about.”
“Something you’re familiar with?” the Changeling smirked.
“Please, I’m a princess, not a nun.”
At this, Chrysalis tossed her head back and laughed aloud.
“My dear Cadance,” she smiled as she slowly walked forward, smiling like a spider as it crept forward on its web. “Are you feeling threatened?”
“Not at all,” Cadance smiled with prim confidence. “Shining Armor’s a good man. He’d never leave me for someone like you.”
“And now, I ask you this,” the queen continued, drawing even closer as her smile grew to reveal pearly white fangs. “Who ever said I wanted him to leave?”
“I, uh… huh?” Cadance gaped.
“You two are absolutely adorable together,” Chrysalis grinned as she reached forward to twirl a lock of Cadance’s shimmering tresses. “But as sugary sweet as things may be, why not add a little spice to heat things up, eh?”
“Wait, are you saying–” The crystal princesses worked to speak, but her words ended in a stifled squeak as Chrysalis leaned close. Very close.
“Sharing is caring, isn’t it dear?” the queen said, a very warm look on her usually cool face as she leaned in even closer. “And who better to share such a tasty morsel than a pair as close as us? A pair as…. intimate… as…”
With a strangled cry, a red-faced Cadance quickly pushed the laughing Chrysalis away.
“Think about my proposal, darling,” the Changeling sang as she walked off, willowy hips swaying in the evening breeze. “I look forward to speaking with you soon.” And with a final, musical laugh, Chrysalis was gone.
For a moment, Cadance stood there, face flushed the shade of carnations as the queen’s words bounced around in her head. Just a moment though, because in the next instance, she was hot on her way to where her husband would be undressing right this very instant. Curse that Chrysalis and her devilish words! She was just toying with them, trying to worm her way into her- his head! Well, there was no way Cadance was going to let her win. There was no way she was going to let Chrysalis get her fiendish claws in her- them- him! Him!