The Equestrian Spring

by Chocolate Milk

Community Organizing

The Equestrian Spring
by Chocolate Milk
Chapter IV: Community Organizing

“This isn’t over.”

Across the nighttime sky he raced, periodically moonlit through breaks in the dense cloud cover overhead. Just one minute ago he had been flying towards Canterlot Castle. Now, he had no idea where he was going.

To leave the helmet was to sacrifice for the good of his princess and his nation; he understood this. He also understood that the protesters had acted unjustly and dishonorably. Conflict heavy in his heart, he was forced into the only conclusion that would allow him to continue functioning: “This isn’t over.”

Thoughts of his life, his work, his princess and his love melted away with the rapidly increasing altitude. At around 6200 feet he shot through the stratocumulus pall with a satisfying poom. Some weather pegasus wouldn’t be too happy about the unsightly hole he’d left. But it was worth it.

Up here on an overcast night, divorced from Canterlot’s constant noise and motion by billowing shields of vapor that shone silver in the moonlit sky, the stallion was not Commander of the Pegasi Infantry. He was not a guardian of the realm; he wasn’t even a subject of it. He was not a husband.

Up here, he was Tempered Steel. And Tempered Steel wanted to lie down.

He landed silently on a well-formed cumulus a few seconds’ continued climb upwards, folding in his wings to lie on his side. At the moment his head hit the cloudy haze, the entirety of his vision compressed itself into an absolute simplicity: on one side, Tempered Steel saw nothing but a white as pure as any he had ever known; on the other, the unfettered black of the universe hastened to greet him.

“Hah,” he breathed.

“Wouldn’t that be nice.” His eyelids fluttered and then fell, and Tempered Steel allowed the cloud to bear him slowly along through the sky and towards a much-needed sleep.

For one full hour Luna waited in silence, standing atop the stairway of her castle’s Grand Hall. On either side of the hall were Lieutenants Clamor and Choler, and behind them were their platoons at attention: 40 guardsponies each, straight backs and bat wings up, two pairs of shackles in each of their black saddlbags.

One could be forgiven for assuming their presence to be none more than a blunt demonstration of military might. In fact, Luna had requested the extra presence so that the sheet-freeze system would not have to be employed, should the protesters attempt an encore performance. That said, she was not unaware of the intimidation factor—nor was she particularly perturbed by it.

But tonight there was nopony to intimidate, and Luna was left to affix her eyes on the empty archway and beat back the creeping sense of foolishness that grew with the painfully slow progression of the moon across the sky. Not since her first few nights after returning to her midnight throne had she suffered through a completely unattended Open Hour. Luna was not fond of wasting time. Nor was she fond of being ignored.

“Princess,” called Clamor from across the hall, “it’s been an hour.”

“Yes. I know.” She did not stir. In her mind played countless disjointed thoughts, all variations on a similar theme.

“At ease,” called the commander-in-chief. The clangs of shifting metal armor rung out across the room and raked against her pride.

“Lieutenants.” Clamor and Choler darted to be at their princess’s side, racing for the honor of her proximity.

“Take your guardsponies out for drills. Loud ones.”

In a poorly lit living room on the third floor of a Green Street brownstone, 27 ponies fell into conversation with whoever was next to them. They dotted the room in no particular order: sitting back into their haunches on the graying rug; lying on the ragged constructions of cloth, wool and wood that were barely fit to be called couches; leaning against the patchily painted walls, legs crossed in front of them. None of them knew the other guests’ names, and none asked. All of them knew the name of the mare in the dimmest corner of the room, who sat alone and in silence, a single brown rag draped over her neck, surveying her guests.

They talked of freedom and of justice. They spoke of the unbearable chill they had felt at the hooves of the Night Guard, indignation and pride vying for dominance within them. They compared their thoughts on the newspaper coverage of the incident, and they agreed that it was biased towards the diarchy. They whispered to one another conjecture about the place in Equestrian history they were making for themselves at this very moment. They practically tittered over mean-spirited jokes at their midnight ruler’s expense. And together in that artless den, sharing their hopes and their fears for themselves and their nation, 27 ponies became more than acquaintances. More than friends. They became brothers and sisters, born anew of a vision for the future that had stirred them to unite, and had called them to action.


The task of silencing a crowd of ponies engrossed in conversation is a difficult one. Success is a question of balance: one must usually convey both the power and thoughtfulness of a pony worth listening to before a rabble will acquiesce to the orator and settle in to become an audience.

Apparently, Just Cause did not have this problem. She had spoken softly and with no force behind her words. In fact, most of the ponies didn’t even hear her, but instead reacted to the abrupt halts in conversation that radiated outwards from her corner of the room. And as for thoughtfulness: well, all she’d said was “hey”.

“I would like for each of you,” she uttered, pausing for a deep breath, “to explain to us why you are here today.”

What was once a modestly jovial living room had become in one fell swoop a courtroom. All eyes darting and all necks craning frantically this way and that, each pony’s claims to knowledge and authenticity had been put on trial by Just Cause.

Finally, amid the silence, a unicorn colt of dark gray and on the cusp of stallionhood rose from somewhere near the middle of the room. He didn’t need to look around to know that he was being watched. But though he was happy for them to listen, it was not his intention to speak to his new family.

Locking eyes with the stoic earth pony in the gloom, the colt began to speak:

“I don’t trust Pri—” he started, catching himself before granting the mare her honorific.

“I don’t trust Luna. I didn’t trust her before the thing last night, and now I really don’t trust her. Nopony in my family does.” He cleared his throat.

“Me and my dad, we’re descended from one of the Royal Guardsponies Nightmare Moon killed a thousand years ago. We’ve never forgotten it. And now that same mare... she killed four ponies. But now she’s a princess again.”

The colt bit his lip. “I don’t know why I care about it so much. I know it was a very long time ago. But it’s still my family.

“And if I can be honest with you, I’ve never really thought anything bad about Prin— uh, Celestia. But I’ve been talking to these ponies, and they make a really good point: it was Celestia who made Luna a princess again without even asking us.”

He stamped his hoof hard into the floor. “And for what? Who cares if she can make a prettier night sky? Who cares if she makes us a little bit safer with her magic? Celestia didn’t even ask our opinion about letting a murderer rule our country. So something has to change. We need to be able to pick our leaders. That’s why I’m here.”

As soon as he finished speaking, the colt turned his eyes down and away from Just Cause’s unfailing stare. Through shallow breaths he struggled to fold in his legs and lie back down on the mottled rug. Again, silence overtook the room and choked it with anxiety.

“Did any of you hear about that dragon in Ponyville a few years back?” asked a tall, blue earth pony mare near the stairwell, leaning casually against the wall. The room’s silence continued, and then so did she.

“There was a dragon sleeping in a cave up on a mountain near Ponyville. It was snoring and blowing smog into the sky, and if it had been left there for too long it would have taken decades or maybe even a whole century for the pegasi to clear up all the smoke.”

She uncrossed her legs as she pulled herself off the wall to stand on her own four hooves. “Yeah, the fact that none of you seems to have heard about it speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I was visiting family in Ponyville at the time, so I witnessed firsthoof how Celestia handled the situation. Our wise and powerful leader thought it’d be a good idea to tell the six young mares who stopped Nightmare Moon to go scale the mountain and get the dragon to leave. I guess she thought taking on a dragon could be some sort of a ‘teachable moment’ for her star pupil and her friends.”

The mare’s eyes hardened and her back went straight. “Celestia’s smart, sure, but she does makes mistakes. Otherwise your ancestor wouldn’t have had to die,” she reasoned, gesturing to the gray colt with a tilt of her head, who nodded back to her.

“This time, they were OK. But that’s not the point: if she had been wrong about this one, she would be responsible for more deaths than Nightmare Moon. Six ponies dead—just barely too old to be fillies—because she wanted them to learn something.” Her tone fell with the weight of her closing remarks: “Maybe she’d be more sensitive to the fact that she can be wrong about things if she had an election to worry about every once in a while. That’s why I’m here.”

After a final glance at her new family, she leaned back against the wall and returned to her casual pose.

It didn’t take long for a third pony to join in. A slender pegasus mare with an airy sage coat and and thick-rimmed glasses framing her eyes spoke from her seat on one of the room’s couches.

“Hi, everypony,” she whispered through a bashful smile.

“I think this makes me very different from the rest of you, but I think that Celestia and Luna are both decent ponies, even if they have made mistakes. What I’m really worried about is what happens to Equestria without Celestia.”

Her eyes flicked to as many other ponies as were visible to her from the couch, and her voice was soft and sweet. And as she spoke, everypony but Just Cause found themselves involuntarily leaning towards the quietly confident pegasus.

“What if something happens to her? What if she just decides to leave? I’ve asked her this a few times at Open Hour, and she always says the same thing: ‘Your concerns are noted, my little pony.’ ”

She shook her head. “But she hasn’t done anything. How does Equestria stay safe without Celestia? Nothing’s permanent, and we’re going to have to go without her someday. I hope we’ll be able to get her to see that she needs to help us learn how to run the country ourselves. But if she won’t do that, then it’s better for us to be thrown into the deep end during the Equestrian Peace than during some sort of war, right?”

Her eyes continued to shift around the room, now with heightened energy. “If she won’t help us, then this is the perfect time for Equestria to learn how to govern itself. And that’s why I’m here.”

In the dimmest corner of the room, Just Cause smiled.

“Mrrph. Wha— what time...”

Tempered Steel reached way back behind himself and extended his wings as far as was comfortable. Before him was a disorienting monochromatic swirl: wisps of the dissipating cloud licked along the outlines of the abyss, rendering in sharp points and rounded edges; off-whites, heavy grays and every shade in between.

“Look at that moon,” he said to himself. “I must have been out for two hours, at least.”

He tried his hardest to shake off his murky headache, but only succeeded in aggravating it. Taking flight, he used his hooves to cover his eyes, then ran them up and through his black mane with a wide, unrestrained yawn. Spiraling around and below his wispy hammock, the addled stallion began his return to Canterlot Castle. His mission was not yet complete.

As he approached the castle, violet flashes and sparks broke over its outline like subdued fireworks. They were Night Guard drills, and he’d recognize them anywhere. Had it been any other night, or had he been a bit less depressed, Tempered Steel would have remembered that magic-heavy Night Guard tactics like these were never drilled near populated areas, much less in central Canterlot. And if he had been really on-the-ball, he would have been able to surmise that whatever the reason for these intense drills taking place in her backyard, they were highly unlikely to signify that Princess Luna was particularly content with the state of her affairs. But tonight, all he saw were drills.

With a hoof to his mouth in preparation for another yawn, he glided through the magnificent archway and into the Great Hall.

“Stop!” he heard, in a voice sharp enough to pierce armor.

A large, dark figure framed by unilluminated stained glass stood at the nexus of staircases that wove along the sides of the circular room and met opposite the arches. On either side of its marble platform were torches with blue flames that seemed to curl away from the figure. Even more so than usual, ritualism and power suffused the Great Hall on this night.

“Come here,” she called, and he obediently complied. He landed on the stairs a few steps below her, and bowed deeply to his midnight princess. Fears of how much she’d learned of his day’s work fired through his mind and jabbed at his insides.

“Your name is Tempered Steel, correct?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“You are my sister’s Commander of the Pegasi Infantry.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Luna shot a burst of air through her teeth. “Unbelievable.”

The princess took two steps forward. “A Royal Guardspony of the highest rank thinks it’s acceptable to fly right through the Great Hall at night—at a time when he should not even be in the castle without my explicit permission—and apparently has decided that formality is unimportant when Princess Luna is on the throne. Where is your helmet, Tempered Steel?”

“I apologize, Your Maje—”

“Save it. Please.” She raised one hoof and turned her head away from him.

“Do you know what my sister said to me about the Royal Guard, just a day ago? She told me that what makes her proudest about the Royal Guard is your discipline.” Each sentence stung like a needle; each pause primed the words to come with venom. “I’m sure she would be interested to hear that one of her handpicked commanders is standing before me right now after careening through the Grand Hall past midnight with only a breastplate on. Why are you here, commander? Where is your helmet?”

“Your M—”

“This is completely unacceptable. Do you hear me?” Luna looked down at her punching bag through narrowed eyes. “Do you understand me? Completely unacceptable. I don’t care how good of a commander you are, Tempered Steel. I don’t care what you think about me, and I don’t care what you think about the rules. Your opinion isn’t important. You are my subject, and you are subject to the rules of Equestria, and you are subject to the rules of Canterlot Castle. Get it? You don’t get to decide when to follow the rules and when not to. You follow the rules all the time. Not just when it’s convenient, Tempered Steel. All the time. So what are you doing here? Why are you here? And where is your helmet?

From her perch atop the marble landing, she brought her head down to mere inches above his upturned face and bore into his eyes with her own. “Speak! Speak, Tempered Steel! I’m telling you to answer my question! Where is yo—”

“Stolen!” he cried out. The commander’s ears twitched in anticipation of a royal roar that did not come. He broke the silence himself: “It’s been stolen, Your Majesty.”

Long before the word had escaped his lips, he knew that it was not what Princess Celestia would have wanted him to say. He could have taken the blame. He could have feigned absentmindedness. He could have admitted to assuming nobody would be around to see him, and told her he was here to pick up some paperwork he’d forgotten. There were any number of ways for him to have taken his rebuke and been on his way, with Princess Luna none the wiser.

But Tempered Steel had his limits. He could lie to a Night Guard lieutenant if he had to, and he could lie to a journalist if it was called for. What he could not do—would not do—was lie to the ruler of all Equestria. And in the midnight hours, that ruler was Princess Luna. The stunned mare before him had assumed that he did not respect her. And in truth, he didn’t feel one way or the other about her. He’d never spoken to her before. But her crown, her title: there was nothing he respected more.

“Who has your helmet, Tempered Steel?”

He looked up at his princess.

“Just Cause has my helmet, Your Majesty.”

The princess’s mouth hung slightly open, and Tempered Steel could see her tongue slide back and forth along her teeth as her eyes focused on something distant.

After a few seconds she snapped back into the conversation, jaw set and eyes on the commander. “Tell me exactly what happened. Leave nothing out.”

Temperance stared out through the window, gazing at the clouds and trying her hardest to wish them away. The stars were just behind them, and every so often she managed to catch a glimpse of a few delicate pinpricks of light escaping the gloom as the clouds raced and stretched along the sky. Across the street, the lit windows of her neighbors’ houses blinked away one-by-one, each lost light sending her heart sinking further down. When the last of them died, it took a bit of Temperance’s breath with it.

“I’m so sorry to have kept you here this late,” she said, her smile failing miserably to belie her disappointment. “I’d like to go to bed now, Tenderheart.”

The nurse rattled her head. “No, no, dear; it isn’t a problem at all. I’m happy to wait a little while longer if you are.”

“No,” she sighed, “it’s alright. If he’s not back by now, then it’s probably just one of those nights. I had a feeling it might end up that way. Thank you, though.”

Tenderheart set her book face down on the couch and crossed the room to join her patient and her friend. Her eyes watered as she swallowed a yawn, and she turned away from Temperance to wipe off her eyes with a hoof.

“Pardon my asking if it’s out of place, dear. But what does ‘one of those nights’ actually mean?” Tenderheart clambered up onto her hind legs, planting her hooves on the handles of the wheelchair. “What exactly is it that Commander Steel is doing on a night like this?”

A single cloud caught Temperance’s attention as it crossed the midnight sky. Through the middle of it was an unsightly hole, anguishing and violent like a piercing or a puncture. She fixed her eyes on its wound, tracing its tranformation from circle to oval to thin, straight line as its bearer sailed from one end of her window to the next.

“I have no idea,” she said at last.

The noise from inside the apartment was deafening. Some ponies laughed uproariously. Other ponies were deep into retelling their own life stories to still others who were actually listening. Gone were the polite murmurs of an hour ago, the symptoms of unfamiliarity and trepidation replaced with the shared exhilaration of a newfound home. Not a single one of Just Cause’s guests had failed the character test. And now, though names largely remained a mystery, none could call any other in that room a stranger.

“Hey, I have a question for you guys.” The crowd quieted and turned to face their host; a few snickers and whispers remained to perforate the silence. Just Cause reached behind her and pulled out a dull dome of shaped metal. Its lustrous golden sheen was masked by a thin earthen coating that reduced it to a muted bronze, and much of its silvery plume had been left strewn across the nearby alleyway.

“Which of you took this helmet?”

A sly, knowing laughter overtook them, and most of the eyes in the room turned towards the doorway that led to the stairwell. A few ponies back there gave playful nudges to a blue mare leaning against the wall.

“That was me,” she informed the crowd with as much nonchalance as she could muster. Yet as the sounds of raucous cheers and hooves pounding on the floor reverberated through her consciousness, her full cheeks brightened and reddened. The corners of her mouth wrested themselves from her control and reached for her ears. It was all she could do bring her hoof up to her mouth, but even that was unable to hide her widening grin.

Just Cause made her way towards the center of the room with the helmet draped over one hoof and a rag hanging around her neck, and though the ponies parted to allow her to pass, their attention remained squarely on the blushing blue mare at the back of the room. When she reached the epicenter, she placed the golden artifact gently down on the rug.

“Come,” she intoned, beckoning to her with a hoof. The mare moved to join Just Cause, head held high, all auspices of indifference cast away. She strode through the throng, stopping before her host and the dull metal she had laid on the floor. Just Cause raised a hoof, and the crowd fell to a dull hum.

She nudged the helmet towards the blue mare with her muzzle, and the ponies once again burst into applause. The mare brought it towards her and rested her hoof atop its dome, the redness returning to her cheeks.

Just Cause reached behind her neck, pulled the rag over her hoof, and extended it outwards.

The mare’s eyes vacillated between the rag and the stoic pony who was offering it to her. Tentatively, she reached out and accepted the unconventional gift, pausing for a moment before delivering an apprehensive “thank you.” Snickers escalated to guffaws.

Then Just Cause spoke, and all fell silent. “You can use that to clean it off,” she said.

“I’m sorry? I... don’t think I understand.”

Just Cause locked eyes with the mare. “You dirtied that helmet, and it doesn’t belong to you. So clean it off.”

“But, Just Cause, he was—”

“He was doing nothing until you stole his helmet,” she replied, cocking her head to one side and leaning forward. “He is not the enemy. He is a pawn. And what you did was foalish. So clean it off.”

The rag fell to the floor, partway covering the sullied armor. The accused pony’s face reconstructed itself into a scowl and the crowd’s silence took on a new edge. “Who died and made you princess, Just Cause?”

Staring up at the blue pony towering over her, Just Cause blew away a stray lock of her frazzled mane out of the side of her mouth and smiled the smile of a seasoned gladiator, one who’d long since lost count of how many lions had lost their lives at her hooves.

“You’re here because of”—she stroked at her jawline—“dragons, right? You’re upset that Celestia sent some young ponies to a dragon’s den. ‘Think of the fillies,’ is that it?”

“Yeah,” she rumbled.

“That’s a very noble concern. Caring, selfless, honest. I’d love to meet the pony to whom that really belongs. Because it certainly isn’t you.” The few smiles that had survived until this point took their leave—Just Cause’s included. A few gasps fled from the spectators’ mouths.

“What are you talking about?”

“You see one of Celestia’s highest-ranking Royal Guardsponies, and the first thing that comes to mind is that you should steal something from him.” Just Cause scoffed. “Concerned with the safety of your fellow ponies? You put us all in physical danger. You’re not concerned with anypony but yourself.”

“That’s not—”

“So what is it, then? Let me guess: are you angry with your parents?” she sneered. “They want you to take that gavel cutie mark into studying law, but you want to drop out of school and live off the trust fund so you’ve decided to join a group of protestors that want to overthrow the government? Because ‘that’ll show them!’ Something like that, right?”

The mare said nothing.

“Clean it off.”

Her breathing had grown shallow, and her teeth were clenched together so firmly that it was beginning to hurt. But all it took was a heartbeat for her to fold. All at once her jaw grew slack, her head hung limp, and her knees buckled as she lowered herself to the floor at the hooves of a powerful mare indeed, who looked down on her with unbridled contempt.

She slipped the helmet onto one hoof and lifted the rag with the other. Slowly, deliberately, the mare set to work with the rag, managing at first only to brush away the loose clumps of dust and dirt that had stuck to the helmet’s exterior. As time passed, with Just Cause and her new family watching her in silence, the mare began to apply more pressure, revealing more and more of the gold’s originial splendor with each pass. Grime from the city streets had snaked its way into the many grooves of the armor’s traditional carved patterning, and once the smoother sections of the helmet shone as they ever had, the mare crumpled up a corner of the rag and ran it through each carved line until all traces of mud and sludge had been removed. Cleaning out the engraving from “-T” had proven especially difficult.

After all traces of what she had done were scoured from the gleaming article, she offered it to the mare who stood above her.

“Well done,” she said.

“Now, leave.”

The mare rose to her hooves, her head low and shaking slowly left and right. She stammered into incoherence any rebuttal she may have been trying to articulate: “I— um... uh... uh—”

“Consider this a grand lesson in humility. And a much more basic lesson in cleaning up after yourself.”

“But— b-but I thou—”

“We are not here to justify your personal rebellion. What we fight for is bigger than you. You do not understand that yet, and therefore you have no place in our struggle.”

With wide eyes, the mare turned her head to inspect a changed mob. The ponies who had cheered her mere moments ago for an act of defiance now met her with silence and glares for that very same act. Her eyes developed a red tinge and her knees began to shake as she battled with all her strength against her body’s automatic response to shame and humiliation. Under the haunting eyes of rediscovered strangers, the blue mare shuffled her way through the crowd, which parted noiselessly, granting her one last gift: an unobstructed path to the exit.

Princess Celestia woke up.

She woke up for no easily discernable reason: there had been no noises, lights, or drafts that reached her tower and disturbed her in her sleep, no letter slipped under her chamber door by a dutiful Royal Guardspony. Nor had there been any spell cast or potion quaffed with the effect of rousing the Princess of the Sun from slumber when matters of urgency or interest arose in the nighttime hours. But, for whatever reason, Princess Celestia woke up.

Rubbing at her eyes, she could feel the weakness in her muscles. What time is it? A lone spark jumped from the tip of her horn and the curtains parted to reveal a moon partially shrouded by cloud-cover, yet unmistakably at its apex.

The princess chuckled, Oh, thank you, Luna! she mused as she allowed her head to fall unceremoniously back down onto her overstuffed pillow.

She couldn’t recall the last time she’d woken up early enough to be able to enjoy the quintessential pleasure of going back to sleep. And on any other night, that might have been enough of a disconcerting thought to spur her to investigate: to check up on Luna, say, or to stretch her wings with a quick fly-over of Canterlot. But Celestia’s day had not been a laid-back one. The mare was tired; and further, she was all too well aware that the day lying ahead of her would be very tiring as well.

Snuggling back under her covers, the princess spoke aloud through a tiny, high-pitched yawn. “Whatever it is,” she said, “I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

And deep within Canterlot Castle’s solid stone walls Princess Celestia returned to a wonderful and refreshing sleep, afforded to her by a blissful, short-lived ignorance.

After flying over every street within a 500-foot radius, an armorless Tempered Steel touched down in the same place he had four hours earlier. And he was not alone. Wandering aimlessly in the alleyway behind Green Street, violently shaking her head and murmuring to herself with sharp syllables, was a light-blue earth pony mare, one who the commander recognized well. Clip, clop, clip, went his hooves against the cobblestone, but it wasn’t until he was almost close enough to reach out and touch her that she noticed him there.

“What do you— oh!” was all she was able to get out before he lunged forward and covered the mare’s mouth.

“I’m only going to ask you this once, and if you answer incorrectly, the next thing you remember will be waking up with a severe headache in the castle dungeons. Do you understand?” The commander spoke quietly, in low tones.

The mare nodded. Tempered Steel withdrew his hooves.

“Where is my helmet?”

A weak laugh escaped from deep within her chest. “That’s no problem at all, commander. I’ll even walk you there myself.”

“If there is even the tiniest hint of an ambush, mare, you’ll be waking up with much more than a headache.”

“Honestly, commander,” she said, eyes glinting in the moonlight, “you don’t have to worry about that.”

Tempered Steel motioned with his head to lead the way, and through the semi-illuminated haze of the city, the mare and the stallion trotted in silence. They made their way through the back entrance to the alley and turned right onto Green Street, and about halfway up the block, the mare stopped.

“This is the building, commander. They’re on the third floor.”

“Get out of here,” he muttered, and she silently obeyed.

“Third floor...” the commander whispered. His eyes trailed upwards along the exterior of the unremarkable red-brick brownstone’s five stories. On either side of it were taller, more modern buildings, heavy on wood, chrome, and class. The brownstone’s facade featured two windows per floor, and it would be reasonable to assume that there were two windows per floor along the back. Regulation stipulated that there would be a fire escape along the back as well.

A single lock of hair was blown by a light gust, just above the commander’s ear. “Let’s go,” he whispered, walking up the concrete steps to the brownstone’s dark oaken door. Using both his hooves, he turned the knob and found the door unlocked. He stepped into the small, dimly-lit entrance area, shutting the door behind him, and began climbing the stairs with a pall of darkness flowing behind him, each move upwards heralding his approach with a loud, prolonged creak.

Knock, knock, knock. He heard a faint rustling from inside, and then significantly more. One yawn, two yawns.

A crack formed between the door and its frame, and a piercing light-gray eye shot through. “Hello, Tempered Steel.”

“Hello, Just Cause. You know why I’m here.”

The door swung halfway open, revealing to the commander a slew of ponies strewn about the ground, some awake, some waking up, and some completely conked out. Those that were awake had their eyes fixed on their new guest. Through a visible window at the back of the room, he took note of how much darker it appeared to be outside than usual.

Just Cause waved a hoof at a gray unicorn colt, who promptly disappeared from Tempered Steel’s view. “You’re lucky that we don’t operate like your government. The decision to return your helmet was made collectively, by all of us,” she said, flicking her head back at the hastily awakening group of ponies behind her. “But how’d you know we’d give it back?”

“I didn’t.”

“And what would you have done if you’d come here to find we still weren’t going to give it back to you?”

The commander hummed a note of contemplation. “I wouldn’t worry about the hypotheticals if I were you, Just Cause. You’re confused enough as it is.”

Encased in gray magic, the helmet levitated past the window, which now displayed a pitch-black darkness, and onto Just Cause’s hoof. “Here,” she said, extending it towards him.

Tempered Steel looked at the frazzled and picked-apart plume and then back at Just Cause. He pulled it off of her hoof and looked inside:

For my selfless hero: never forget who you strive to be. I love you. -T

He tucked it underneath his foreleg, against his body. “I am appreciative of you and your ponies seeing reason. Thank y—”

The darkness had extended beyond the confines of the window, gleaming out of the corners like a negative burst of sunlight. As he stared, he saw the dark shine rapidly increase in intensity, within mere seconds engulfing the entirety of the apartment’s back wall in an impenetrable darkness. He returned his attention to the ponies at the door, who were slowly backing away, eyes focused no longer on him but around him. He turned to see the hallway behind him likewise filling with darkness, before four yellow headlights appeard from within it.

“Lieutenants, stand down,” he stated calmly. “They gave me the helmet already; we can go.”

“Oh, I’m afraid we can’t, commander,” returned the voice of Choler. Just Cause pulled hard at the doorknob, but to no avail: some unseen force kept it frozen on its hinges, the ineffectivity of her pull sending her tumbling backwards and into the apartment.

“Listen, Choler, we’ve got what we came for. There’s no need for us to make any arrests.” Six golden globes of light appeared momentarily in the darkness at the back of the apartment before blinking out of view, and Tempered Steel’s voice took on a new urgency. “Pitch-black ops are dangerous, Choler! You know that!”

“I’m sorry, commander,” she replied, the sound of her voice filtered through an unseen smile. Just Cause bent her knees and stood stock still, her eyes scanning the darkened stairwell furiously. “The law’s already been broken. Nothing left to do but enforce it.”

The darkness from the window spread out and over those ponies who had backed away the furthest. “Lieutenants Clamor and Choler, I am ordering you to stand down!”

“Sorry again,” said Clamor this time. “This one comes from Princess Luna.” And in a display just as magnificent as any of that great midnight mare’s star-filled nights, the abject gloom of the stairwell was broken in a split second by the sudden and synchronized appearance of dozens upon dozens of shining golden globes, a black slitted pupil running through the middle of each.

“Step aside, commander,” came Choler’s sing-song voice. “Now then. Clamor. Let’s have some fun, shall we?”

(to be continued)

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