Part Five: Hard Roads Are Never Easy To Trot
The road to Cimarron was taking longer than expected. All along the road Discord had placed a number of traps designed to make anypony falter and turn back. Some of the traps bore his trademark sense of chaotic humor. Once Airborne felt himself having walked backwards, retracing his steps only when did he notice his hoofprints in the sand that he stopped and turned around to face the ruins of Cimarron in the distance to make sure he actually would walk in the right direction. The rest of the spells drained the ponies of their strength, every now and again did they have to stop to regain their energy. Only till Duty cast a spell on them that helped block the effects of Discord's necrotic magic. After that they started to make some real progress towards Cimarron. There wasn't anything left of the outskirts of the city. Most of them were thatched roofed multi-story buildings made of timber. Most had burnt to the ground only leaving charred outlines in the dirt of where they once stood. Among the burnt piles of wood poked out yellowish colored objects that Airborne mistook for some kind of cactus but upon closer inspection it was revealed that they were in fact old bones turned yellow by decades of sitting exposed to the brutal sunlight above.
"What happened here Sunrise?" Airborne asked. Sunrise lifted her forehoof up to look at her PipBuck. Scrolling through the records in her PipBuck, Sunrise reads off the limited reports Rainbow Dash had collected about the fate of Cimarron. "The city of Cimarron was heavily targeted during the War. They hadn't even completed the building of the stables that were to house the city's population when the bombs fell. Anypony who was caught inside of the city was instantly killed. Any of the mustangs who survived the bombs did so because they were away from the city when it happened. This is why Mustang ponies are rarely encountered back in Equestria. They are practically on the verge of extinction." While the ponies talked Duty cast his eyes about the broken remains of the houses. The souls of Cimarron still lingered in this place. The problem with so many ponies having died during The Last Day is that there wasn't enough servants to help those who recently lost their bodies to move on. Duty had no doubt that some of the residents of Cimarron had moved onto the other side on their own but most still remained living out their last moments over and over again for 200 years. A fate Duty considered worse than Death.
Duty knew that even though they relived their last moments over and over again often ghosts would wander away from the site where they had died to roam the wasteland in search of anypony they felt might comfort them in their eternal agony often seeking long lost descendents to connect with but these ponies were different they seemed to be stuck in this hellish place. Something or somepony had cast a spell that drew on the life forces. Such a spell was beyond Discord's ability to weave. The spell was very similar to the one they had encountered a few days prior but on a much larger scale. Only one such pony in all of recorded history wielded such a malignant power and she was thought to be long dead. "Nightmare Moon" Duty whispered under his breath.
Celestial had heard Duty say something under his breath. She was still smarting from the tongue lashing she had received from the immortal unicorn a few days prior. Her pride hurt just as much as her sore hooves did. As she turned to say something, in the distance she noticed something with large black wings take off from the nearest ruined skyscraper. She whirled around to Fractured Heart who nodded, "We need to find a place to hide! Now!" Starshine quickly searched among the ruins of the houses, she eventually found the entrance to an intact basement did the other ponies rush inside after she removed the debris that covered the entrance. The large winged creature flew closer, peeping outside Airborne looked up to see that the pony that flew overhead was none other than Nightmare Moon herself. The long dead alicorn wore a grimaced smile that spread across her muzzle. Clearly wherever the princess was bound she was up to no good Airborne thought. Nightmare Moon flew overhead and didn't notice the ponies hiding in the basement like breezies cowering in the shadows. As the princess disappeared from view Airborne breathed a sigh of relief.
Ever since Airborne had learned the purpose of his mission into Mustangia and the possibility of facing down both Discord and Nightmare Moon terrified him but facing down one of the legendary princesses made his legs shake. Equestria's Pre-War rulers had developed a godlike status among the ponyfolk of Equestria. There wasn't any point in denying the fact that Equestria's duo rulers had access to magical abilities that far outstripped that of any unicorn. The legacy of Nightmare Moon was enough to still strike fear into the hearts of anypony who so much as even heard her name uttered aloud despite her having redeemed herself in the eyes of her subjects as Princess Luna.
Starshine looked at Airborne, "Don't worry. I don't think we are her main concern right now. Besides we need to know where she came from and where Discord might be. Let's focus on what we can do now and worry about how to deal with her royal highness later." Airborne nodded in agreement. After a brief conversation it was decided that both Fractured and Sunrise would recon further into the ruined city while Celestial, Starshine, Airborne and Duty would stay behind in the basement to make it somewhat habitable to use as their hideout while they searched for Discord. Celestial helped Airborne remove the remains of a family of Mustang ponies who had sought refuge in the basement when the balefire bombs went off. The act caused the family's ghosts to protest in anger and Celestial noticed Duty gritting his teeth as he listened to their invisible complaints. Celestial smiled taking some satisfaction in Duty's agony, the immortal unicorn seemed very much made of marble to her.
A couple of things made her feel uneasy around him, firstly that she like the rest of her companions knew so little about him. He hardly ever spoke and when he did it was like listening to a long forgotten recording that had sat collecting dust until somepony decided to give it a listen to. The way he moved and spoke reminded her of some stories she had heard growing up about the Canterlot Royal Guard. Duty certainly had the skill of a warrior of old and he carried himself like somepony who possessed an authority that extended beyond his unnatural lifespan. Which was the other thing that made her nervous, this pony would never die no matter how many times she might unload into him. He would simply rise again and again until he finally sunk that wicked blade of his into her side. Not that she didn't enjoy the thought of testing her skills out against somepony like him. In the wasteland she had grown too accustomed to dealing with small time bandits and raiders. While they certainly always outnumbered her they lacked the necessary skill to take her down. Duty however was different, he obviously could handle himself in a fight as he had demonstrated back in the ramshackle village they had visited before crossing into Mustangia.
Duty could sense Celestial's thoughts echoing through the air. Her desire to kill was great but he felt that her malice towards him wasn't based on his earlier lecture but instead centered around her fear of him. He was accustomed to the reaction he got from any mortal he encountered in his endless wanderings across Equestria. He knew that he was something unnatural, he had violated his Mistress's taboo by taking the body of the unicorn who he now possessed. He often tried not to draw attention to himself when he visited any settlement in the wasteland. He often tried to avoid visiting large groups of ponies but his duty as a servant drove him into some of the more remote villages in the wasteland to help the recently deceased move on. But there was something else that drove him to seek out other ponies, this body he wore had memories of enjoyment with those he called friends. The concept of friendship was foreign to Duty, he had longed to experience it but never had found it. Often when he completed his duty of shepherding the departed to the other side he found that he sometimes would run into somepony who would watch in horrified terror as he completed his duty by removing the soul of the dying from their shell. Often those who encountered him were the loved ones of those he had to reap.
His duty was also clear on what should be done if anyone saw him completing his task. It was one thing that he regretted doing time after time, he would have to dispatch the individual or individuals before they got word out to other ponies about a strange unicorn in their midst. Should anyone become enlightened to the fact that the legends about Sleipnir's servants were true then the very balance of nature and magic in Equestria would start to unravel. The worst experiences he had was to execute his duties on an unknowing foal who had wandered into their parent's bedroom only to find him waiting for them once they entered the room. It was never something he enjoyed doing and their haunting wails still filled his dreams even now he could see their wide eyed innocence as he drew near them with an unnatural speed and the ease in which the act was done never made him feel good about what he had done afterwards but his duty was clear. Nopony was to know and this is why he never had developed any friendships over the centuries with the living. He could only bring death and pain to those who crossed his path. His path was not one that he would wish upon anypony but it was his and his alone to walk. Since the old world had collapsed his job had become that much harder to fulfill. These days pony's lives were filled with so much pain and torment that when he arrived to carry out his job that Death itself became a much needed release from the twisted world that these pony's knew.
This sometimes however wasn't always the case, there were those who tried to live their lives to the best of their abilities and did what was right very much like his current companions now. He always admired those who could prevail when it seemed that they were cast into the pits of Tartarus. After Airborne and Celestial had returned to the basement after burying the bodies of the deceased family, Duty noticed that their ghosts disappeared finally having received a decent burial. Duty approached Celestial, "I am sorry to have offended you. It is difficult for me to reign in my emotions especially when I perceive somepony acting so callous in their rush to meet their end. Too many times I have witnessed such an act and always found it foalhardy. I only said what I said because I believe it is better to be cautious and never underestimate your opponents especially when they are as powerful as Discord or Nightmare Moon. I can see that you are not a foalhardy pony Ms. Celestial and that you bear the mark of somepony who has been through much but has never given in. I respect that quality in you. So please accept my humblest apology." Duty bows his head waiting for her response.
Celestial was taken aback by Duty's forthrightness and his sincerity. She could tell that he actually meant what he said, that much was clear. She briefly nodded her head, "I accept your apology Duty and I also apologize for the way I have acted. I will not be unkind to you ever again." Duty felt her relief as she relaxed. He had gained her trust and as long as she knew that she would never feel threatened by him she had nothing to fear. Duty quietly turned and sat down in the corner pulling the hood over his face. He was quietly meditating trying to sort through his thoughts. He was finding that he didn't quite know what this new feeling was that was arising inside his chest. It was one of both intense affection and mutual understanding that he had with his companions. He knew that they all considered him to be a friend but he had never even given it any thought as to what it meant to be a friend to another or what it would make him feel. "This life has certainly been interesting. I never expected this to happen in all my centuries of living," Duty thought to himself. Slowly a smile spread across Duty's muzzle pulling his lips away from his mouth exposing his bright teeth that flashed beneath the hooded cowl of his cloak. He felt the smile remain on his face and snorted in disbelief that he would ever really have found something as rare as friendship in this upside down world he called home.
After a few days Fractured and Sunrise returned from their journey into Cimarron. They had reported that the building Nightmare Moon had left from was not where she had taken up residence. It was most likely a perch upon which she could stand watch out over the wastes outside of the city to see if anypony was approaching the city and had made it through the many traps she had placed on the road. "Although," Sunrise said, "There is a slight problem, most of the major roads into the city have been blocked by heavy rubble some of which looks purposely placed there to begin with. I am sure Discord or Nightmare Moon did this to prevent anypony from reaching their main base somewhere near the center of the city. So our only choice is to either fly into the city center which I have no doubt Discord has prevented by placing spells that make flying just as difficult as walking along the road here was or we have to call off the mission for now and wait for reinforcements from Equestria to aid us. Either scenario gives Discord and Nightmare Moon the upper hoove. If we sit and wait they gather strength if we decide to fly in we risk dying. Personally I would rather not wait any longer and let Discord's plans whatever they maybe unfold any further."
Airborne didn't need to think about the decision very hard. He knew what was at stake. "We go forward at all costs. We have come this far so let's get the job done and get back to Equestria. We will wait until tomorrow to start our mission until then let's get some rest and check our weapons. I don't know about you but I probably have a good few inches of sand inside my weapons already." Airborne sits on his haunches pulling out his weapon cleaning kit from his utility barding and spends his time disassembling the various components to his rifle the All-Equestrian. As he figured the weapon had accumulated amount of grit inside the bore which he cleaned out. He spent the rest of the time carefully cleaning the weapon's components and lubricating them before assembling the weapons again then did the same with his two Firewing Fourty-Fives Gust and Thunder. Sunrise checked her shotgun while Fractured and Celestial also cleaned their weapons. Starshine and Duty got a fire going and were able to get suitable meal prepared within a matter of minutes. Duty despite not having a desire nor need to eat was an excellent cook something that shocked the rest of his companions. "Aren't you a jack of all trades Duty?" Starshine said as the immortal unicorn pawed in embarrassment at the ground with his forehoof.
The meal had left Airborne feeling full and content for the first time since coming across the border into Mustangia. It was nice to finally have some time to relax without having to constantly look over his shoulder for threats. Starshine cuddled up next to him as he placed Gust and Thunder back into their respective holsters. "Airborne after all this is over I want to start a family. I mean we are always risking life and hoof on each mission we undertake. It would be nice to have something to fight for than just each other and our responsibility to help rebuild Equestria." Airborne blushed and blinked as she nuzzled him under his chin.
"I know what you mean but do you honestly think we are ready to have kids? In this world nothing is certain, I mean one day we could be at home as happy as can be and the next we could end up dead on a mission. Who would take care of our kids if we are both killed on a mission?" Airborne replied. Starshine tenderly turns her husband to look at her. "Which is exactly why we need to have a family. I am tired of always having to fight for a world that seems to try to strangle the life out of you. I know that sometimes you feel so worn out by everything that is happening in Equestria and your desire to help everypony is part of the reason why I love you but it would be nice to have a reason of your own to fight for and something you could focus on in between missions. So let's have a family and actually start living a life rather than just trying to always defend ourselves from the very world we are trying to help." She places her lips on his and kisses him. She could feel his heart pounding away inside of him as the heat from his blushing face made her laugh slightly.
Both Fractured and Sunrise turned away from the kissing couple focusing on cleaning their weapons while Celestial sat in the corner looking in envy at them. She longed to experience that feeling of having somepony to fight for again but she had lost the only pony she had ever loved when Darkstar died back on their very first mission into the ruins of the Crystal Empire. A few tears streamed down the side of her face and she lifted a forehoof to wipe them away. She had to stay focused on the mission ahead of them and not let her feelings about Darkstar get in the way. She knew that he had died defending his friends and that it was the way he would have wanted to have gone out of this world. Not that his absence made it any easier for her. She sometimes wondered what life would have been had he survived the mission to the Crystal Empire. She wondered how he would have reacted to hearing her voice for the first time since she had the operation that replaced the tongue she had lost to bandits. Somethings though could never be and Darkstar wasn't coming back. She wiped the tears that refused to stop flowing away from her eyes as she sat staring happily at both Airborne and Starshine together. Both of them had been saved by her love Darkstar and that was comfort enough to know that his death had some meaning in the end if two ponies like her friends could live.
Airborne laughed as Starshine pushed him onto his back as she climbed onto his chest. She was so beautiful and he briefly forgot that they were both in a small basement surrounded by other ponies. To be honest he didn't really care either, in that moment all that mattered in the world was Starshine. Duty felt the air crackle around both Airborne and Starshine as they became more intimate. He cast a spell that would shield their activities away from their other companions and would let them have some privacy. He was glad that they both had time to find happiness in each other while they still could. The task ahead of them was daunting enough, it would be better if they could have this moment to refocus themselves and strengthen their resolve for what came next.
In the center of the city Discord sat in a large twisted throne made from metal girders he had warped into a suitable yet stylish throne for the God Of Chaos. He had been aware for sometime that a small group of ponies had made it through his traps and were now somewhere on the outskirts of the city. While it was tempting to seek them out and make sure they no longer presented a threat to him he knew in time they would seek him out then he could have all the fun in the world while he amused himself with the sounds of their dying screams. He had sent Nightmare Moon on a mission to wreak havoc in her own way in the land he once called home. She would be disrupting the dreams of those who lived in the land formerly know as Equestria by sending her servant the Tantabus into the dreams of the unsuspecting ponies to torture them with nightmares of death and despair.
Discord shivered in delight feeling the first of the waves of chaos hit him as Nightmare Moon carried out his commands. The panicked whinnies of so many ponies was music to his ears but in that endless chorus he recognized a voice. One he had thought long silenced and one that made him remember a much more idyllic time before the War. Fluttershy's screams made him place his paws over his ears and he wailed aloud making the foundations of the building he had taken up residence in shake. He quickly got up off of his throne and smashed his clawed paw through the nearest pillar as if it was made of the brittlest material imaginable. The God Of Chaos sank to his knees screaming trying to drown out Fluttershy's whinnies of terror and felt tears gather in the corner of his eyes for the first time in two centuries. "I am so sorry Fluttershy." The God Of Chaos whispered into the ether as he continued to scream with her into the night.