“No, no, NO! How many times do I have to tell you? When you’re using ice arrows, you shoot between targets to get two birds with one stone! Between! Now do it right on this pass, or I swear I’ll take those arrows and pincushion the lot of you! Again!”
Under the watch of azure eyes twice as cold as the frozen bows they wielded, the platoon of marksmen let loose their frozen volley across the snow-swept plain. Upon impact, each crystalline quarrel exploded into a spray of flawless ice to encase the targets they’d landed between, just as the captain had ordered. Only upon seeing such results did the armored officer finally give a grim nod of approval.
“Good. Looks like the lot of you aren’t completely hopeless after all. Finish up whatever’s left in your quivers, then switch to normal rounds.”
With a salute as crisp as the frigid air around them, the archers took bows in hand once more and returned to their craft. Shining Armor stayed on for a moment – just to make sure that his instructions were duly carried out – before he turned on his heels and walked over to the guardsman waiting at a nearby skiff.
“Never would’ve pegged you for the drill sergeant, sir,” the young soldier grinned from beneath his golden helm as he fired up the vehicle and directed it towards one of the southern slopes. “Always thought it was sunshine and roses with you.”
“You’re probably right on that,” Shining Armor freely laughed once they’d cleared earshot. “But sometimes, you gotta play the part to get the results you need.”
“Were they not living up to standards, sir?”
“Actually, they were too far above it,” the captain replied. “The Hawkeye platoon has some of the best shots on the force. Only problem is when you get so good at hitting the targets, it takes a bit of work to switch to not hitting instead.”
“I take it they’re not used to using the ice arrow?” the guardsman inquired. Shining Armor just shook his head.
“Never could manufacture them quick enough to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, the Tower’s been helping on that end, so we’ll have a good reserve ready by the time we need it.”
“And speaking of the Tower,” the young soldier continued, “you’re scheduled to meet with them and the rest of HQ in ten minutes.”
“Shoot, already?” Shining Armor grimaced as he glanced towards the quickly waning sun. “I was hoping to make a run by the trenches and get an update on the progress.”
“Already done, sir,” the guardsman nodded as he pulled a report from the pouch at his side. “Got this from the Engineering Corp while you were orienting the Hawkeyes. Pit Chief says they’re ahead of schedule and should be able to start on the mountain battlements first thing in the morning.”
A quick glance over the document caused the captain’s grin to grow just a little bit larger.
“You’re a lifesaver, Flash,” Shining Armor laughed as he handed back the report. “Remind me to buy you a drink after this is all over.”
“You could do that,” the blued-eyed soldier grinned. “Or you could introduce me to your sister. I heard she’s a real cutie.”
“Hey, there’s joking, and then there’s volunteering for latrine duty,” Shining Armor laughed with amusement in only half the words. “Now what were you saying again?”
“Me?” Flash Sentry gaped with sublimely played innocence. “I didn’t say a word.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Of course, Flash Sentry knew about the captain’s legendary protectiveness of his sister, which is what made the opportunity too good to pass up. And besides, it was all in good fun. After all, it’s not like a regular guardsman like himself would ever have a shot with Princess Celestia’s protégé, right?
“Anyway, you’d best head on up,” Flash continued, all business once more. “In the meantime, you want me to run by the supply depot and get an updated inventory?”
“Make sure we know the number of Widowmakers we’ve got in stock,” Shining Armor nodded, “then take the number to Pit Chief and revise the layout for the Jotun Pass accordingly.”
As Shining Armor smiled watched Flash Senty leap from the skiff and broke off into a dash towards the depot and his awaiting orders, he spared the departing figure a quick smile as he took hold of the wheel.
He was a good soldier. Newly assigned from the Manehattan branch, the boy was fresh out of officer school, but already showing more that his fair share of promise. Smart as whip with plenty of foresight to boot, he’d halved the captain’s workload by anticipating orders and executing them with flawless aplomb. In fact, the only flaw he might have would be his all-to-willing readiness to make a joke. Not unlike a certain azure-haired officer, Shining Armor had to admit, but something he needed to watch out for. After all, guys like that were strangely popular with the ladies, and if there’s one thing he would not abide, it would be letting a man like that to get within spitting distance of Twilight. Work was one thing. His baby sister was a whole other matter.
Still, levity could only last for so long. Mirth faded away as Shining Armor’s gaze switched from the soldier’s departing figure to take in the view.
From his rapidly rising vantage point, the azure-haired captain could make out the entirety of the Jotun Pass, the long, narrow valley that lay carved into the north side of the Crystal Mountains. With literally every useable pass through the mountains stemming from this one spot, it was a natural chokepoint and the perfect battlefield for the war that would erupt in just two weeks’ time. Nul’s darkness would be funneled through the narrow pass and towards the awaiting armies below.
Of course, nature could only do so much, which is why everywhere one looked, the vast swath of land was abuzz with frantic activity. From the rumbling of heavy machinery tearing furrows into the icy ground, to skiffs that hauled lumber and steel up the wind-swept slopes, men and women labored tirelessly to carve out every advantage they could. Watchtowers rose, battlements formed, and trenches wound a zigzagging maze through the cold soil. Even now, the captain could see the land shaping into a killing field the likes of which had never been seen before nor likely would ever again. No army on earth could possibly hope to breach the rows upon rows of defenses that only grew stronger by the day.
But the armies they faced would not be from this earth, and even all of this might still not be enough.
“Well, it’s not like worrying can do anything, right?” Shining Armor shrugged as he gave his head a firm shake. One of the most important duties of an officer – if not the most important duty – was to believe in victory whatever the odds may say. After all, if the leader didn’t believe the battle could be won, how could those who followed? And so, willing a fresh smile back onto his face like he did increasingly as of late, Shining Armor parked the skiff and headed into HQ.
Well, headed under was more like it. Despite the lofty designation, HQ was really little more than a glorified pavilion with an unimpeded view of the entire battlefield. But under that quickly assembled awning was gathered a group that could have made a cadet’s tent seem a palace.
Abbot Apocrypha stood with staff in hand as he stroked his long, silver beard, his usually mirthful eyes brooding and serious as he considered the ever changing landscape on the table at the room’s center from its northern side.
“It will be a challenge,” he murmured softly, as he reached out a knotted hand to illuminate several glowing points on the map, “but if we could establish focal points at these locations, it should be possible.”
“Excellent,” Ironside nodded from across the table, looking like a boulder come to life as he turned ice blue eyes a third member at his right. “Lord Lacero, do you think your men could assist with that?”
Though shorter than either by far, the wiry man with short, white hair in the well-worn cuirass met the gaze with unflinching ease as he softly adjusted the snowy wings behind him.
“It will be done,” he answered, the words easy yet so full of unyielding strength that he could well have told a real boulder to step out of its path and been unsurprised when it happened. After all, one does not become a Consul of the Griffon Imperium by being soft or weak. “All that I ask is the assistance of Equestria’s engineers.”
“You shall have it,” Princess Celestia affirmed with a quick nod of her head, the rainbow of her aurora tresses shimmering with the simple motion. “As soon as we confirm their other duties are complete, we will– Ah, Shining Armor,” she smiled upon catching sight of the waiting captain, “how go things?”
“Very well, your majesty,” he replied, bowing with fist to heart as he spoke. “If you need engineers, I’ve received word that the corp will complete the current project later today. We’ll have enough manpower to get started on the launch sights and still have enough squads to knock out all the focal points in one go.”
“Impressive,” Lacero nodded as he stroked his sharp chin. “It seems you Equestrians haven’t gotten rusty in the easy times.”
“You think everything outside of total war is an easy time,” Ironside chuckled. “But we can talk about how boot-chewing tough you are later. Captain Shining Armor!” he barked, the sound so ferocious that even the seasoned officer jumped at the sound.
“Clear your schedule, As of now, you’re posted at HQ.”
“… Sir?” the captain gaped, azure eyes wide with surprise despite it being outside every fiber of training he had. Nobody, not even officers like him, just got assigned to HQ. That would be like promoting the bus boy to manager in one fell swoop: it just didn’t happen.
“Did I stutter?” the general asked with a slate-hued eyebrow arched in question.
“N-no sir!” Shining Armor replied as he saluted once more, albeit still having no idea what was going on. Fortunately, the general’s little mean streak was cut short.
“Your reaction has its merit,” Celestia said with a gracious smile as she softly kicked Ironside underneath the table. “Our discussions with the Abbot led us to believe that your talents might be best served here instead of on the field itself.”
“If what you told me is true,” Apocrypha continued, “your mastery of protections and barriers could be a powerful force that changes the landscape itself and alters the very course of this war. Are you prepared to shoulder such a burden?”
“Yes sir!” Shining Armor called, clarity doubling the resolution already forming in his chest. “I won’t let you down.”
“Good, good,” the abbot smiled as he happily stroked his beard. “We’ll need to get you up to speed on our plans quickly, but first, I believe that Princess Celestia has news for you.”
“Indeed,” she nodded as her regal visage grew somber. “I felt that you should know. Your sister and her friends… they’ve arrived.”
Shining Armor stopped. He knew it would happen. It was the entire reason they were here in the first place. But hearing those words, realizing that his baby sister was actually getting started on quite possibly the most dangerous task of all… even knowing hadn’t prepared for the sinking dread that hit his gut like a cannonball.
“Bah, quick moping, boy!” Lacero snorted as he smacked Shining Armor hard across the back. “From the way Ironside keeps yammering on about this Graves fellow, they’re probably safer than you’ll be here.”
“Not just them,” Ironside hooted. “The whole lot of them are ten gauge worth of firecrackers stuffed into a twenty gauge shell. If anything, I’d be more worried about the beasties they run into than them.”
“Your sister is in good hands,” Celestia smiled as she put a consoling hand on Shining Armor’s shoulder. “And she has considerable strength herself. After all, it was she and her friends who have saved Equestria time and time again, correct?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Shining Armor nodded as he put a smile back on his face. “It’s just… she’s my little sister. I just can’t help but worry, you know?”
“Better than you can imagine,” Celestia laughed, the sound rich and warm as the summer sun. “But right now, it’s not a time for worry, but for faith. I know of none more worthy of our trust than your sister and her friends. Believe in them, Shining Armor. They will be fine.”
Out from the thick bank of iron-hued clouds, the serpentine form of a unique Equestrian airship appeared as it gently touched down on the stony mountain crags. As the whisper-silent engines droned to a halt, liquid metal panels slid aside to reveal the precious cargo contained within. Cargo that shattered silence like a hammer to an egg.
“But how does it work?” Twilight cried out once more, struggling in a valiant effort to remain aboard the ship even as her friends made the even more valiant effort of dragging her off. “If the wave harmonics are reversed in order to cancel out the physical oscillations in the atmosphere, won’t there be a catastrophic loss in power? Theoretically, reaching the tri-squared kiloarcanas needed for flight would be impossible!”
“Now – uff – come along, sugarcube,” Applejack grunted as she work to pry Twilight’s surprisingly persistent fingers from the mercurial doorframe. For a scrawny bookwork, she sure had a powerful grip. Probably all those hours clutching a quill is what did it. “These folks were kind enough to give us a lift. Don’t wanna –urgh – make thing’s harder for ‘em, now do we?”
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash grunted from where she yanked onto a booted foot. “So quit being an egghead and… let’s… gooooWOAH!”
Living up to her less-than-kind childhood nickname, Rainbow tumbled to the gravelly dirt as Applejack finally finished with the digital displacement. Unfortunately, that meant Twilight came along for the ride, which is how she ended sprawled out on top of her athletic friend in a distinctly ungraceful, yet somehow eye-catching heap.
“Now really, girls, this isn’t a school trip for little children,” Rarity tutted as she descended in a decidedly more controlled manner. "Do try to keep a sensible head about, would you?”
“Says the girl who still brought a jewelry box along,” Applejack muttered under her breath. Apparently, it wasn’t low enough, as the prone form Rainbow Dash snorted aloud and Rarity’s rosy lips pursed up in prim disapproval.
“Now see here, dear Applejack. I’ll have you know…”
“You ah, you sure you’re gonna be all right there, marshal?” one of the pilot called as he eyed the ongoing from safely in the cockpit. Clearly, trusting the fate of the world to a bunch of girls who looked to be on the verge of a catfight wasn’t an investment she was too keen on making.
“We’ll make it work,” Graves grunted as he finished the last detail inspections of his spell gun. Constant care was always important, but it’d be a while before he’d be able to fine tune his weapon like this again. Had to make every little bit count.
“Anyways,” he continued as he snapped the iron framework back into place. “Sure you can’t bring us any closer? Getting off the Snowspires will take a good half day at least.”
“Really wish we could help, chief,” the other pilot grimaced. “But even these prototype engines can only filter out so much extra mana before we crash and burn. And plus…” he swallowed, casting an eye out into the leaden-grey skies, “we’ve got no idea what’s hiding up there.”
Graves silently nodded and stood to shoulder his weapon.
“Understood. You let the princesses know we’re on our way.”
With a final salute, Graves took up his packs and descended the ramp to join the girls below. Once cleared, liquid metal flowed back into place as the teardrop ship sealed itself and lifted off to begin its flight back over the mountain for the long trip hope. In a mere matter of moments, the clouds swallowed the ship and it was quickly lost from sight.
Eyes lingering on the vanishing point for just a moment longer, Graves turned his slate-grey gaze to the six Ponyville girls who were now tousling about on the gravelly slope like a gaggle of school children. Honestly, he could understand their concerns.
They were civvies, no two ways about it. Now, he had to admit, they did look a sight more professional than they normally did, even if they normally looked about as professional as sweat pants and sandals. In the week after their briefing, it seemed like Rarity had spent a good portion in her workshop to make up travel ensembles for the lot of them. Clearly designed with each wearer in mind, each outfit bore the trademark colors and patterns that spoke to each girl, but in an entirely new way. The clothes were composed of a unique mix of sturdy leather and breathable fabrics to streamline their forms for ease of movement as well as protection. A run through the ERA enchanting division to lay on more protective charms than a porcupine had quills, and you had field wear that rivaled any suit of armor you could shake a stick at.
But anyone could put on the outfit. The real question was whether they could play the roles, because so far, their bright-eyed stares and lollygagging smiles convinced Graves that there didn’t have enough tension between the lot to draw tight a pair of shoelaces. Well, except for Fluttershy, but her day didn’t start till she’d found a good six things to worry about before breakfast. Anyway, the question remained: civilians that they were, would they be able to handle the rigors of the journey ahead? Graves had to find out.
“Alright, ladies,” he began, his gravelly baritones ringing clear through the crisp mountain air. “Here’s the deal. We’ve got–”
“Now you hold on fer jess a second there, marshal,” Applejack called as she finally stopped the sass battle with Rarity to give in him a knowing look. “I know you mean well an’ all, but I’m pretty sure we all know what yer about tah say.”
“… You do?” he blinked.
“Psh, ain’t it obvious?” Rainbow Dash grinned. “You’re gonna go on about how we’re about to start on some big important missions that’s gonna be scarier than sitting through one of Twilight’s cram sessions–”
“Hey! I was trying to help you get into the reserves!”
“–what with all the monster and boogie men running about, or something like that.”
“Yea, about that!” Pinkie Pie cried out as she waved one arm about in frantic desperation. “Are there really gonna be boogie men out there in them woods?”
“No Pinkie, boogie men aren’t real,” Twilight explained as she threw the smirking Rainbow Dash a withering stare.
“Oh, that’s a relief,” the bubbly baker sighed with shoulder slumping relief. “If we had to deal with things that weren’t even real, I don’t even know what we’d do.”
“And to top it all off,” Rarity smiled as she stepped up to straighten his long, leather coat like she always did, “you’ll go on about how you’ll do your best to take care of us and keep us safe and everything, when really, it’s going to be the other way around.”
“It’s simple math, really,” Twilight giggled. “You’ve saved the world before, but we did it twice. Three times if you count the Crystal Empire and the Changeling invasion as half a world saved apiece.”
“Point being, Big G,” Pinkie Pie beamed, “is that between the six of us, we’ve got you beat!”
“Not that we don’t appreciate your concern of course,” Fluttershy hastily amended, just in case that somewhere underneath his stony exterior, the marshal’s feelings had actually been hurt. “But um… what we’re trying to say is that, um…”
“That we got this whole business down pat,” Rainbow Dash crowed. “So save the speeches for the big awards ceremony they’ll be throwing when we get back and let’s go already!”
So it was with much whooping on the colorful athlete’s part and a much more reserved enthusiasm on the rest that the six girls shouldered up their gear, blew past the marshal, and began the trip down the gravelly slope.
For a good while, Graves could only gape in amazement. Did they have no idea what was going on? Did they think that a trip into the Savage Lands, a place where even the hardiest of adventurers avoided like the plague was going to be some… Sunday picnic? They were mad. They had to be, or at least clinically delusional that bordered on dangerously unsound.
But then again… maybe that was a good thing. They may have been civilians with no training and no idea what they were headed up against, but that sort of unbridled confidence to face all obstacles with smile and a swagger counted for something. Not everything, mind you, and certainly not what he’d prioritize for a mission of this magnitude, but it was something nonetheless.
So they had that. The question was whether that would be enough.
With no clear answer in mind, Graves could only offer a silent prayer as he shouldered up his gear and headed after them.