“The Badlands. A harsh place where only dogs may live…if barely”.
-Strategos, “Travels of the Equestrian Military”
“I tell you Green Horn being on the Royal Guard isn't what it used to be” Gate Keeper, surly glared across the open expanse of the Badlands with all the disdain he could muster in the sweltering heat of the barren wasteland.
The heat magnified his irritation tenfold.
“What did they used to be like…sir?” Green Horn asked from behind her helmet, she had strung a piece of cloth across her helmet to keep the sun’s glare out. A bead of sweat dripped down the tip of her horn, but it evaporated before it could hit the ground.
“Plenty of things!” Gate Keeper waved a hoof, “A lot more glory for one, no guarding some backwater-without-water border crossing”
“Fort Ditch is the first line of defense for Equestria’s southern border.” Green Horn swatted a fly, or maybe it was a flea, from her coat.
“Nothing out here, but rocks, Dogs and more rocks, oh, and sand” Gatekeeper retorted and shifted from where he sat against the fort’s wooden wall. “That’s another thing. No Dogs! The Royal Guard was off fighting Dragons, Manticores, Hydras, Lamia, and all manner of beast. Now, there is none of that since the Foundation.”
“Uh…” Green Horn cocked her head to the side, “Wasn’t the Foundation a thousand years ago? How would you know what the ‘glory days’ were-?”
“SOOOO much glory in those days! Legio IV Dawnguard has a long and illustrious history. We fought at the Battle of Bridletop and Picket Fence’s Charge! We defeated Nightmare Moon’s traitors outside Caste Everfree and lead the charge for Celestia. We were once a legion of five thousand we had ten cohorts now we barely muster a century!” Gate Keeper tried to spit in disgust but he couldn't muster the spittle.
“Equestria has been at peace for some time. Our last battle with the Diamond Dogs was well over a century ago-“
“AND ANOTHER THING!” Gate Keeper interrupted with a shout, “The Royal Guard was paid better! That’s the only thing the Dogs are good for out here…”
Gate Keeper stopped his ranting as a group of four Diamond Dogs came into view. The bridge across Fort Ditch’s ditch had collapsed due to disrepair before Green Horn had even been posted there. The Ponies had yet to fix the rope bridge, Gate Keeper often enough mumbled curses about bureaucracy when it came up. Since Fort Ditch sat at the mouth of Bad Canyon, the only passable geographic feature into Equestria from the Badlands through the Bad Mountains, this forced anyone seeking passage to climb down the ditch. Climb down the rock, spiked walls across several yards of more spiked rocks and up the opposite wall of spikes that looked like rocks due to the advanced age and erosion.
At least the Ponies had the courtesy to hang a climbing rope down one side.
Gate Keeper and Green Horn instinctively covered their nose before the Diamond Dogs shuffled close enough. Despite their being no water to bathe in the Diamond Dogs still managed to smell like wet dog. It was hard to tell if they had ever bathed in their lives, their fur was covered in dirt and they exuded a haggard, mangy atmosphere. All three Diamond Dogs except for the spotted pup that clung to his mother were taller than either Pony but every single one looked malnourished and ready to collapse. Of the four, one Diamond Dog with a ragged leather collar studded with a miniscule ruby, loped forward on its front paws, his mouth panted between every other word.
“We ssseek…passssage. Sssaftey in…Pony-land. Pleassse, Poniesss let my…family in…” the lead Diamond Dog splayed his large paws in submission.
The other male Diamond Dog growled slightly at the others’ show of obedience but was immediately cowed by the she-dog’s glare.
“Name and number of entrants” Gatekeeper droned in a practiced tone.
“And uh…” the Diamond Dog looked back and forth between the Ponies and his group, “Four dogsss. I Rufus pup of Red of Red Tail Pack. I come with brother, mate, and ssson. Pleassse, Poniesss. We need water and-“
“Alright, alright.” Gate Keeper scribbled in a ledger he had been sitting on, “Water is inside. Don’t drink much of it in one sitting or you’ll probably barf…thank the Sisters the Guard’s supply is private. Anyway, all that’s left is the entrance fee.”
Gate Keeper’s words seemed to perk him up the closer he got to the word ‘fee’. Without a doubt this was his favorite part of his job.
“Entrance fee?” Rufus’ tone was surprised and slightly panicked, “We know not of fee. We have nothing! Give gemsss to Diamond Dog packsss over hillsss that sssay road here…what word…’toll road’?”
“Well, you do have those rubies around your necks they would juuuuust about cover the fee…” Gate Keeper reached forward with one hoof to knock at the pebble sized ruby around Rufus’ neck. Each of the other Diamond Dogs, even the pup, had a similar gem around their necks.
“What? This is pack gem!” Rufus’ was exasperated, he had clearly come to his wit’s end long ago, “Ssspecial! Important! F-father give gem to usss! I give gem to mate and ssson! Ssstrong bond-“
“Well! I guess you’re not getting in then” Gate Keeper did not flinch as he moved his quill to strike out the small mark he had made in his ledger.
“W-wait Pony! F-f-fine! Take pack gem! I-I want my pack live…” Rufus deflated at his own words and with trembling paws yanked his own collar from his neck.
“Brother! No!” Rufus’ brother howled and stormed over to grab Rufus’ arm, “All we have of Father! Of pack! We don’t need Poniesss we-we join Fang and-“
“No, Russsty. We never make it that far. Thisss…thisss…only hope for Redd. Pleassse for your nephew.” Rufus implored his brother even as his own mate grimly detached her gem and their son’s gem.
“Brother…” Rusty stood there for several long moments and looked like he wanted to explode before he too dejectedly deflated and ripped his collar off his own neck and handed it to his brother, “…fine. Take.”
It did not take long after that for the Diamond Dogs to get through the gate. Gate Keeper hollered and the wooden gate swung open just enough to admit all four Diamond Dogs.
“Umm, sir. Gate Keeper, sir.” Green Horn spoke up after the gate had closed again, “I know I am new to Fort Ditch and while I don’t know all of the unofficial regulations I know all the standard regulations…but there is no fee. Princess Celestia has declared free passage into Equestria for all Diamond Dogs seeking passage since the accord of-“
“Green Horn weren't you listening to me before about pay? The Royal Guard Ponies who put up the good fight to keep Equestria safe have to supplement our income in these dismal days. We must be working overtime and extra hours and stuff. How many dogs are in there? A hundred or four hundred? I lost count.” Gate Keeper returned to sitting on his ledger, his body squeezed into what little shade there was.
“But-“ Green Horn began again before Gate Keeper silenced her again.
“Don’t worry I haven’t forgotten about you. Here is an advance on your next pay stub.” Gatekeeper tossed over the smallest ruby, “I tell you the old days were grand…”
Gate Keeper and Green Horn had admitted a dozen and more number of families, all in increasingly desperate states of health and hygiene then the last. They had come begging on their paws, thirsty, started and stricken with sun stroke. Between their pleas they had babbled and mumbled their hardships and news from across the Badlands: the water wells were drying up, food was running off, desperate tribes were on the move invading their neighbors or raiding their scrapes, massive beasts were devouring, wealthy chiefs were offering piles of gems to attract more dogs to their packs, and those too poor or sick or weak were dying in droves to make it into Equestria.
Gate Keeper though had not really listened, but he managed to squeeze some measure of wealth out of the refugees which kept him in a happy mood. By the time the sun had dipped below the Bad Mountains and their shift had ended Gate Keeper had a hefty pouch of loot, which he with no small amount of ire shared with the night sentries as he slipped them a few gems with a conspiratorial wink. Green Horn had felt particularly dirty when she walked back toward her barracks, it had less to do with sweat and grime then the hoofull of gems she had lined her pocket with.
Fort Ditch was roughly shaped like a square, some argued it was more of a rectangle; the outside walls that ringed the Ditch were made of wood hauled from the other side of the Bad Canyon which had dirt and stone infill. The majority of the buildings within the fort were also made of wood, a bit old and rotting wood and tiles. The only stone structure besides the twelve watch towers was the Tribune’s villa off center of the fort. Walking through the fort was easy as the two major streets bisected one another as they stretched from gate house to gate house on opposite ends of the fort. The Royal Guard rank and file like Green Horn slept in a dozen shabbily maintained barracks arrayed surprisingly evenly across the northern section of the fort that faced Equestria. The Diamond Dogs had been sequestered in the dilapidated southern section of the fort, which forced Green Horn to witness the squalid conditions they lived in as she trotted through.
These barracks had not been used by the Legion IV Dawnguard in centuries, not since they had been full strength. Green Horn wasn’t sure if it was the quality of Equestrian wood from the Everfree Forrest or the charms of Unicorns that had kept everything standing for so long. The number of Diamond Dogs now numbered in the hundreds, well beyond the former capacity of the area when the Dawnguard had been at full strength and so they lived practically on top of one another as they buried into the ground to expand space for their families. Tribune Daisy sent requests daily for a properly sized escort from Fort Last to Fort Ditch to get them out from under her supervision or at least move out the excess but it had been weeks since a proper escort had been organized. Green Horn was not sure exactly why that was but she had heard one of the other guards’ snicker that the message had probably been lost in some pencil pusher’s desk drawer. That or it had been lost by the Mail Pony.
Fort Ditch was simply not a major depot that could handle this many Ponies and Dogs, the aqueduct system might have once been designed to support this many but the water and sewage system had long since degraded as the Legion downsized. The drought affecting the rest of the Badlands probably had something to do with that as well. Still, most of the food came from bi-monthly deliveries from Fort Last and Tribune Daisy had instituted strict rationing twice already. Further then that if one of the raiding Diamond Dog clans arrived Fort Ditch had not been designed as a major, defensive structure either. The walls were low and once an enemy passed over the wall that would be it for the garrison. Fort Ditch had originally been founded after Celestia and Luna’s legions had marched south, had camped for a night and decided the weather was too hot and dusty and that they did not want to march any further.
These thoughts and more had whirled through Green Horn’s conscious, but after a long day of baking like a potato in the sun all she had wanted to do was eat her rations from the Mess and slump off into her cot. In fact she did just that, when she reached her cot she slowly undid the buckles and straps that held her segmented armor together. She sighed in relief as she pulled off layer after layer of bonded, steel hoops from her shoulder guards to her cuirass. She carefully pulled her helmet off and placed it with the rest of her armor beneath her cot and cringed at the state of her coat and (shaved) mane. Tribune Daisy had also instituted a shower lottery, she had not been the lucky mare or stallion to win the chance to use the shower for two minutes that week. She sighed and wistfully rubbed at her coat and wondered if the dirt would ever come out or was she going to look brown and green forever. These and all thoughts slipped away as she crawled under her cover and in a matter of moments had become completely dead to the world in slumber.
The smell of smoke and the sound of shouting penetrated her senses like a knife and immediately had woken her up.
The sun had completely set and Luna’s moon had risen high into the night sky, though from the window slit Green Horn could see that it was marred by the rising trails of smoke from the southern edge of Fort Ditch.
“ALRIGHT YOU PUKES! UP AND AT THEM!” Centurion Roll Call’s voice bellowed in the confines of the barracks and like clockwork Greenhorn and the other members of her Century climbed out of their cots and pulled on their armor as quick as they could. In a matter of minutes Green Horn had pulled her armor back on and had her sword at her side and shield around her forehoof.
“THAT is what I like to see! Besides pie! I don’t need to tell you what’s going on! The Dogs are rioting! Get out into formation and we will put them down like the dogs they are! Come on!” Centurion Roll Call bellowed again and the section of her Century followed him in his fully armored, plumed helmeted glory from the barracks and into Fort Ditch’s streets.
Immediately, her ears were assaulted by an uproar; not of Ponies but the Diamond Dogs howling in anger at the sky. She could see now that the fires emanated from the section of the fort where the Diamond Dogs had been confined, but they were clearly and quickly spreading out as firebrands were being hurled skyward before they sailed back earthward onto the roofs made from kindling. To Green Horn the fires seemed to make the shadows of Ponies and Dogs stretch and expand, twisting against one another across the ground and remaining walls of the buildings that had yet to catch on fire. The spill of other Centuries from their barracks only made the shadows grow and become even more jumbled together to Green Horn.
As the Centuries trotted off toward the center of the Fort, outside of the Tribune’s villa where there was a staging plaza, Green Horn guessed that there had to only be around a hundred Royal Guard Ponies out of all the assembled six Centuries. Normally, a single Century numbered around eighty soldiers and the rest were made up of laborers and specialists’ troops. Two Centuries would form a Cohort of around one-hundred and forty Ponies which also would form a Cohort which consisted of six Centuries. All together you needed, usually, ten cohorts to even form a basic Legion which usually consisted of around four thousand and eight hundred fighters all in all. That there were six assembled Centuries which were supposed to form close to five hundred Ponies but barely formed one Century nagged at the back of Green Horn’s mind before it was whisked away by military training as the Royal Guard arrived in the plaza.
The Diamond Dogs had quickly fled the burning confines of their quarters, males, females, and pups milled about in a chaotic mess of fear and anger as they milled about with no direction or idea what they should do. That is to say the majority of the Diamond Dogs, but from Green Horn’s perspective she saw plenty of Diamond Dogs that turned to her and the Royal Guard with clear intent as they advanced with whatever their massive paws had managed to pry loose. Some had planks of wood that still smoked from the barracks, others had pipes or pieces of furniture, but she could clearly see a few had somehow managed to get their filthy paws of Equestrian swords and shields. Even as the Royal Guard assembled the Diamond Dogs hurled two separate barrages at them: the first consisted of a wave of cries for food and water; insults that the Ponies wanted them dead and they could try if they wanted them so badly. The second barrage actually consisted of things more physical as the Diamond Dogs hurled rocks and even tiles that forced the Royal Guard to bring their shields up. A few ponies down from Green Horn one recruit had not paid enough attention and before they could raise their shield a rock slammed down into their face, only partially absorbed by their helmet the Pony went down on her knees. The next Pony behind her stepped forward in her place and kept his shield raised.
In theory the Equestrian Maniple was designed with the unity of the three Pony Races in mind. Earth Ponies being the sturdiest breed would hold the front line while Pegasi with swords and spears formed behind them, entirely Pegasi formations would often act as a mobile guard for the flanks, and finally Unicorns, like Green Horn, would cover the rear flank and provide cover with shield and magic missile spells. The last few Centuries though had seen the percentage of Ponies recruited lopsidedly favor Pegasi followed by Unicorns, who primarily were only posted to Canterlot except in officer positions or bureaucratic slip ups like Green Horn’s case. Therefore in this situation Green Horn stood her ground in the front row of the formation, nothing but her shield between her and hundreds of angry Diamond Dogs.
“Swords up!” Centurion Roll Call called from over the Century as he circled three laps above them before he landed not far from her in the front row next to the Century’s standard bearer, the Signifier. Add Up still owed Green Horn five bits.
When the command for swords went out Green Horn mechanically slid her sword out from her belt and slid it into the forehoof harness on her right leg, satisfied when she heard the metallic snap of the sword’s hilt sliding into the holding mechanism she extended her leg back and forth, the blade rest on top of her hoof and extended around a foot beyond it. They had only been trained to use their swords in their mouths in desperate situations- or when the enemy were completely beaten , after all a strong enough blow could potentially knock their teeth out or at worse break their necks. The blade harness though did limit their mobility which worked well when an Equestrian formation needed to stay together but not well when an enemy needed to be pursued to prevent them reforming. The Pegasi did not have any issues of mobility but there was also concern what they would do when...
“Here they come! Get ready to send these Dogs packing!” Centurion Roll Call’s shout drew Green Horn’s attention forward as the mass of Diamond Dogs that had gradually inched closer and closer to the Royal Guard finally broke out in a mass run.
“Sisters help me…” Green Horn breathed as what seemed like an endless wave of Diamond Dogs poured across the plaza in what at first seemed like agonizing slowness before all too soon the shapes of the Diamond Dogs were racing forward and were on top of them.
One black and white spotted brute wielding an club made from a bed leg was the first to crash against Green Horn’s shield, she could smell the sickening dog breath from the Diamond Dog as it howled in her face and pressed against her. It swung its long arm skyward to bring its club crashing down on her but by pure military instinct Green Horn acted first and in a swift, mechanical motion stabbed forward with her sword into the unarmored Diamond Dog’s chest. The Diamond Dog had to be twice her size but still seemed as much surprised as she was by what had happened. It opened its mouth as if to say something, but instead gasped for air and then toppled backward. Green Horn had no time to process what she had done because no sooner had that Diamond Dog fallen another quickly took his place and with startling ease her sword stabbed out and dispatched the newcomer to the ground almost on top of her first victim. To her it had seemed like forever but in reality barely a minute had passed by and unlucky for her events around her were moving much faster.
The Diamond Dogs had crashed on the shields of the Royal Guard like a wave, the Royal Guard had held but the Diamond Dogs had just rushed past the front ranks to strike at the flanks of the formation. Centurions seeing this quickly called for the flanks to shift and form their shields but in no time the Royal Guard were completely surrounded by a sea of barking dogs. The Centurions called for the formation to push forward through the mass of Diamond Dogs, but the front ranks quickly found that there were just too many to push forward! The Royal Guard held firm in the center of the Diamond Dogs, their shields and swords withstood the first assault with ease at first but not even the Royal Guard could hold forever. Slowly the Royal Guard ranks were squeezed and pushed tighter and tighter together, the constant assaults by the Diamond Dogs made it hard for the outer ranks to move their weapons and react to every result and eventually it began to take a toll on them. A slip of the sword here and a failure to raise a shield quick enough there lead to the first deaths, Ponies recoiled from ripped open faces or clutched at their stabbed sides. The ranks behind them quickly filled the gaps left by their fallen comrades but morale and cohesion were slipping fast as more Ponies fell. With the deaths of the first few Centurions, Roll Call himself was pulled to the ground when a Diamond Dog ripped his wing from the socket, the formation slipped even further into panic. The rout really hit home when the first few Pegasi swept out their wings and jumped into the sky, this opened up more and more holes in the formation that the earth bounded Ponies left behind could not keep together. In one gruesome moment Green Horn beheld the Royal Guard’s formation utterly collapse and the Diamond Dogs rush into their ranks, unstoppable. This was before she felt a strong blow connect with the back of her helmet and the emptiness of unconsciousness became all that she knew.