The next morning, as reveille was being played, and the night watch were heading off to bed, the peace and quiet that had prevailed inside the Moonflower was shattered by a warning cry from one of the sentries. He had been alerted by one of his comrades below, and had passed it on to alert the senior officers.
“Sir!” the young unicorn called, catching Dusk’s attention.
“What is it?” Dusk bellow back from his position in the doorway of the bunkhouse. He had only recently risen himself, and was still feeling a little groggy.
“Visitors, sir!” the sentry replied. “It’s those ponies who came to meet us on the way in here.” Ah, that meant that Rare Diamond was paying call on them. Briefly retreating back inside the bunkhouse, Dusk hastily threw on his armour, horseshoes, and helmet. He then quickly headed back outside, being careful not to wake the sleeping Captain Flintlock, who had been in charge of the night watch, and had only recently fallen asleep.
Now looking far more presentable, Dusk quickly had one of the platoons on duty line themselves up in front of the gate. A decent show of force, just to remind this slippery customer who he was dealing with. In short order, Dusk, along with a line of fierce looking thestrals, all fully armed, arrayed themselves before the gate. Turning his gaze upward, and cupping his snout with a hoof, Dusk called up to the sentries in the gatehouse.
“Alright you two; open the gate!” he called up. One of the earth ponies waved a hoof to show he had heard him.
The large, solid doors that let ponies and large vehicles in and out of the Moonflower were actually quite complex in design. Fashioned in a way similar to loch gates on old canals, the heavy doors could only be opened with ease via the use of two large paddles inside the gatehouse, which sat above the entrance and linked to the catwalk and battlements that ran around the mission’s walls. The paddles were part of a mechanism of wheels and cogs, which turned the minor movements of the paddles into sufficient force to move the heavy doors.
The two earth ponies, whose strength made them well suited for the role, heaved away. Slowly but surely, the doors opened, just wide enough for the three ponies that were waiting patiently outside to enter.
The governor and his two aides trotted into the mission. Whilst his two aides seemed a little unsettled by the small collection of military might before them, the governor himself remained calm and impassive. It was this apparent air of calm that unsettled Dusk the most. He would have been happy even if the stallion complained at the overt display. Instead, the earth pony greeted him as an old friend.
“Colonel Star Dusk, so good to see you again. I see you’ve already settled yourself into this old place,” he said, smiling disarmingly.
“I think you’d agree it’s an excellent place to hole up for a while,” Dusk replied. “As you can see, we have excellent security, and are ready to repel any attacking force.” Once again, the governor smiled and nodded his head. Beyond that, Dusk could not read him.
“I hate to suddenly come and bother you like this, I’m sure you are quite busy at present, but I was wondering if you would like to come to dinner this evening at my house?” Dusk raised an eyebrow.
“Dinner?” he replied.
“Please, sir,” Diamond replied. “I am nothing, if not a good host to my guests. Plus, my wife would very much like to meet you as well.”
Were it any other pony, hay, were it even Celestia herself, Dusk would have been far less suspicious. However, no matter what he did, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling of suspicion he felt around the earth pony. He was far too calm and collected. It was as if he knew what Dusk was going to do, before he himself did. Everything about him left the guardsman feeling uneasy. Still, regardless of his concerns, there was no practical reason to turn down the offer. And who knows, the stallion might prove useful at some point. Plus, it was something of a necessity to keep up good relations with the people of San Maretonio.
“Very well then,” Dusk replied at length. “I shall call on you at just after five. Will that be acceptable?” The governor seemed to grow even more relaxed.
“Of course, of course,” he replied, that unnatural smile still on his lips. “Though I would hope you would drop the suit of armour.” Dusk nodded. He had one or two dress uniforms in his trunk that would be suitable. “And of course, do bring your second-in-command with you as well; he seems like an amicable fellow.” It was here Dusk had to check the governor’s plans.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he replied. “Captain Flintlock was in charge of the night watch, and he’s catching up on his rest. Unless you want a grouchy soldier at your table?” The governor laughed. Once again, it sounded fake and forced.
“No, no, that is quite alright, my friend. Very well then, I shall see you in a few hours.” And with that, he turned to leave, his two aides following. Dusk again signalled for the gate to be opened. He had hoped that the notion of being locked in would unsettle the visitors, but again, the governor seemed immune.
Leaving the sentries to go about their duties, Dusk returned to the bunkhouse he had left not so long ago, and began to search. After going through the hoof locker and a few of his own cases, he was able to find one of his old uniforms. These were typically for special occasions and formal events. In the Lunar Guard, the standard officer’s dress uniform was a deep blue tunic, similar to Luna’s coat, with a small row of silver, star shaped, buttons running along the chest. On the shoulders, there were gold epaulettes; these were complemented by the gold insignia sewn onto the arm, which signified Dusk’s rank of colonel. Finally, on the left side of the chest was the small ribbon that signified Dusk’s various decorations. All in all, he looked quite the respectable officer.
He decided that he would go alone; after all, it was less than a mile from the mission to the town, with the governor’s house at the far end. He was also doubly glad that Flintlock was unable to attend. As gifted as the stallion was in matters of soldiering, when it came to social niceties, he had an alarming tendency to misstep, and occasionally cause fights.
To save time and effort, Dusk elected to fly over the wall, instead of bothering the two guards that had been posted in the gatehouse. While the Moonflower was well defended against ground based attacks, it was still quite vulnerable to a strike from the air. The large open courtyards inside the mission could quite easily become a killing floor, if enough enemy pegasi were able to gain superiority. That was the reason Dusk had constant patrols over and around the mission. If those Bright Lights were going to take this place, then by Luna, they would have to shed a lot of blood for it.
Leaving one of his staff in charge, with explicit orders to immediately go and wake Flintlock if anything untoward happened, Dusk took to the skies. With a running start he leapt into the air and began to flap his bat like wings which thestrals are known for. Such a short take off proved quite taxing for the ageing colonel. Thestral wings were designed to glide and perform well at high speed. Ideally, a guardsman would jump into the abyss from a vantage point, then gain speed, rather than attempt to take off from the ground.
Luckily, for Dusk, he didn’t need to keep it up for long. Pounding his wings and straining himself somewhat, he just about managed to clear the top of the wall. He then relaxed, allowing his outstretched wings to glide for a few moments longer. He landed in the odd no pony’s land between the walls of the mission and the inner most point of the civilian settlement. Much to his annoyance, the landing on the hard, sandy ground kicked up a fair amount of dust onto his dress uniform. He quickly brushed off what he could and hoped that he wouldn’t look too unkempt.
The next part of his route, of course, took him through the shanty town the civilians had set up for themselves. It was pleasant enough, with the charm of a Saddle Arabian souk. It was crowded and busy everywhere he went. But everypony seemed happy, foals were playing, darting in and out of the wagons, carts and tents that dotted the landscape. The adults meanwhile, were equally relaxed. With supplies now far more readily available, many were taking the opportunity to enjoy themselves, talking to neighbours, playing card games and trading what they had amongst themselves. All in all, Dusk decided that the morale situation that had previously weighed heavily on his mind, was something that could now be put on the back burner.
After around ten minutes of weaving and edging his way through the crowded settlement, Dusk eventually found himself on the outer line of the Moonflower’s defences. Here, as per instructions, the guards had dug themselves foxholes; small fortifications that would give them a fighting chance in an attack and allow them to hold the line for longer. Dusk had originally intended to create a small trench network, but Flintlock had advised against it. If one part of a trench was breached, then the whole thing was compromised. Whereas a group of foxholes would have to be taken one at a time. Plus, as they were individual positions, they didn’t have to form a line and could be dotted all over the landscape. Furthermore, as a fall back option, the foxholes could be covered and hidden; then when the enemy advanced, the unicorns inside could spring up and cut them to ribbons before they knew what was happening. As he continued, Dusk came upon one of these foxholes, with a pair of unicorns standing watch. Upon seeing Dusk, they quickly saluted; a comical show considering only their heads were above ground.
“All quiet I take it?” Dusk asked as he walked up.
“Yes, sir,” one of the unicorns answered confidently. “Nothing out there but desert. And if anypony tries to sneak up on us, we’ll spot ‘em five miles out.” Dusk smiled at the stallion’s slightly cocky attitude.
“Glad to hear it,” Dusk replied. Just then, an idea struck him. “Tell you what; I’m heading out now to meet with Rare Diamond, San Maretonio’s governor. It’ll probably drop dark by the time I return. On my way back, I’ll try to sneak past the line. There’s ten bits in it for you if you can make me.” The two unicorns grinned at each other before replying.
“I hate to take money from a senior officer, sir. But if you insist.” Dusk laughed at the jab and headed on his way. He liked to think he had a good connection with his subordinates; he certainly didn’t want to be seen as unapproachable or aloof. With that, he waved goodbye to the pair and headed off for San Maretonio.
You might expect that, having trekked for the better part of two months through the desert, Dusk would be more than sick of the sight of it. After all, Appleloosa Territory was hardly well known for its natural beauty. Compared to say the stunning vistas of Neighagra Falls or perhaps the glittering lights of Manehatten, the region had little to offer. For mile after mile, there was nothing but sand, dirt and endless cacti.
Still, Dusk had found the place steadily growing on him. Like the icy Frozen North, the desert appeared barren and lifeless, but it was still a thriving ecosystem. Its beauty was more subtle. But in its own way, this seemingly hostile desert could look truly beautiful. In that way, it was a lot like Princess Luna. Most ponies were in awe of Celestia’s obvious beauty and hundreds over the years had asked for her hoof and fought each other for her favour. Luna in contrast, had a more subtle beauty that was so often eclipsed by her elder sister. Perhaps that was why Dusk found himself enjoying the walk between his temporary home and the small settlement of San Maretonio. Perhaps he equated this desert with his fallen princess.
The route was not particularly long, nor was it overly treacherous. The Moonflower and San Maretonio were connected by a small, winding dirt path. Prior to the mission being abandoned when war broke out, the trail would regularly be used by ponies going to and fro. The mission depended on the town for its supplies, since it was one of the few trading settlements in the region.
Cresting over a small hill, Dusk once again found himself outside the town, which at this time of day was fairly busy. Shops were open for business, as was the local watering hole, and ponies were contentedly going about their own affairs. Few if any paid much attention to Dusk as he walked up the main street. Then again, it had been only the day before that the town had been all but overrun with civilians from his band looking for supplies themselves. It stood to reason that most would no longer be fazed by the sight of a thestral.
It was a straight shot to Governor’s House. The town, being one of the so-called ‘boom towns’ of the region, was of a very basic design. The various shops and houses were arranged in two straight rows facing each other, creating one large, open main street. At the end of each was either the sheriff’s office or Governor’s House. As it was one of the few settlements in the territory (and its population of just under five hundred being the largest) it was the logical place to set up government offices.
Dusk steadily walked up the street, cutting in from the right hand side, just behind the sheriff’s office. For the most part, the place had a pleasant rustic charm to it; all the buildings were of a fairly simple construction but were nonetheless serviceable. Governor’s House however, was quite a different story. It was a large, almost ridiculously so in comparison to its surroundings, timber framed mansion, with three stories if one counted the partially converted attic. The timber had at some point been painted white, though by this point it was beginning to chip and peel. Regardless, Dusk couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated.
Reaching the large double front doors, Dusk reached for the bell cord on his left, giving it two swift tugs. Somewhere inside, he heard the connecting bell ring. A moment later, the doors were opened by none other than Rare Diamond himself. The Canterlot bred stallion now wore a formal suit, complete with waistcoat and pocket watch. It was certainly a far cry from the more western attire he had previously worn like so many of the townsfolk.
“Colonel, glad you could make it!” he greeted warmly. Dusk did his best to smile and shook Diamond’s hoof. “Please come in, come in.” The governor backed away and ushered Dusk inside.
While it was not quite as opulent as Dusk had imagined, the interior of the mansion was still a major step up from his own humble quarters. The building boasted electric lights (a relatively new invention at the time requiring a number of large, magically charged crystals) and was lavishly decorated. Dusk quickly found himself seated on a more than comfortable sofa, while Diamond went to fetch his wife.
It had been a long time since he had been in such an opulent place. Sitting there, in what was actually his last halfway decent dress uniform, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat like the poor relation in his current surroundings. Still, Diamond seemed to be amicable enough, and was offering a hoof in friendship. For the time being, Dusk decided to put aside his previous misgivings and just enjoy his stay.
A few moments later, Diamond returned with a young mare in tow. Like her husband, she was dressed in finery and gave off the aura off high society. She was an earth pony like him, with a mane that was black as a raven’s wing. On looks alone, Dusk came to the conclusion that she probably originally came from Mexicolt. During the column’s long journey, beauty had been one of the many things sacrificed. Make up and mane products were not essential to survival, and so quickly ran out. Seeing this pretty young thing stirred a feeling in Dusk that he had almost forgotten.
“Colonel,” Diamond said as he held his wife by the foreleg. “Allow me to introduce my wife, Crystal Leaf. Crystal, this is Colonel Star Dusk of the Lunar Volunteer Army.” Dusk quickly got to his hooves as the governor spoke to be respectful. Doing his best to remember his proper manners, Dusk took the young mare’s hoof in his own and bowed as if to kiss it; the correct behaviour toward a married mare.
“Charmed,” Dusk replied, doing his best to smile suavely. An amicable silence held for a moment as Crystal Leaf smiled at Dusk, again causing forgotten feelings to bubble up. Rare Diamond quickly moved things along.
“Well, Colonel, if you would like to follow me.” He turned and began to head back toward the door he had just come through. Presumably this led to the dining room. “I’m sure you will enjoy this little soiree; my cook is the best there is in the entire territory.”
Following the couple, Dusk was led out of the sitting room, and out into the main hallway of the house. The finery persisted throughout the short journey. Everywhere was well lit and had the finest décor. Dusk even spotted a handful of portraits and other paintings that certainly couldn’t have come cheap.
Diamond led him past another couple of rooms, one of which appeared to be his offices, before finally leading them to a set of solid oak doors with beautiful stained glass set in them. Throwing these open revealed the dining room. A long wooden table complemented by lavishly upholstered, high backed chairs. At the far end of the room was a large fireplace, which had evidently been lit only recently, as the kindling was still catching. The table itself was quite long, obviously intended to entertain more than just a single guest; there were at least a baker’s dozen worth of chairs. In this case though, the table was set for three. One at the head of the table, and one either side.
“Make yourself comfortable, Colonel,” Diamond said, gesturing to the nearest chair. “The starter should be with us shortly.” Dusk settled himself down in the chair, with Crystal Leaf sitting opposite him, and Diamond himself at the head of the table. Reaching onto the table, Diamond rang a small silver bell. A moment later, the doors on either side of the large fireplace opened, and the servants began to lay out the first course.
The first course of the evening was a soup starter, something that took Dusk back to his foalhood. It was vegetable soup; a piping hot broth with fresh sliced vegetables floating here and there. With a pinch of salt and pepper, it was quite a tasty dish. San Maretonio may have been out on the frontier, but being such a large settlement, fresh produce was easier to find than in other, more isolated settlements. The civilians in his charge were more than grateful for this fact, and had probably emptied half of the town’s stocks in their sudden rush to purchase supplies.
Diamond dismissed the help with a wave of a hoof and quickly engaged Dusk in idle conversation.
“So Colonel, out of curiosity, where were you serving prior to your current situation?” he enquired. “Somehow I imagine you didn’t elect to take on your current role.” Crystal looked up from her own meal to hear the thestral answer. Taking a moment to clear his throat, Dusk answered.
“Well, I volunteered about a month after the war broke out,” he began. “It was just after Colt’s Run. Most of the folks I knew figured we didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Tartarus before that. But when those Bright Lights all turned tail and ran, it was one hay of a boost for the Lunar cause. So, I left my home and joined up with the Appleoosian Rangers as a lieutenant.” At this point Diamond cut him off.
“Ah, one of those ‘bushwhacker’ outfits if I’m not mistaken. Famous for doing raids behind the lines.” Dusk bit his tongue for a moment; he didn’t care for the connotations of ‘bushwhacker’.
“Not as much as you might think. Most of our time was spent on the front lines. Although we did perform some raiding operations. When I was promoted to captain, I was actually running with General Nighthorse; and I was involved in the capture of old Goldwing.” Goldwing was the commander of the Solar Guard for the early part of the war. His capture was a massive propaganda coup for the rebels.
“Oh, now there’s a story I’d like to hear,” Crystal commented, interrupting the two stallions. Dusk smiled; this was a story he did not mind telling, Luna knew he’d gone through some experiences he never wanted to think about again, but this one made for a good tale.
“Yes, Colonel,” Diamond added. “I heard a few bits and pieces, but it would be interesting to hear the story from your own side.” Taking a moment to enjoy the attention, Dusk began.
“Well, let me think. I’d say it was about six months after Shy-yolk. Luna, what a mess that was; I don’t think I’d ever been as scared as I was on that day. Anyway, for whatever reason, the Bright Lights didn’t press home their advantage after they drove us off from around Baltimare. That gave us a load of time to rest, regroup, and lick our wounds. When we realised that they were planning to simply wait us out, Nighthorse ordered us on the offensive.
“We were outnumbered of course, as we so often were, but we knew a lot of the Bright Lights were raw recruits and wouldn’t stand their ground if we could spook them. The plan was to repeatedly hit the enemy positions and cause confusion. That way when Shooting Star’s brigade showed up, we could push them back. Nighthorse decided we needed to damage their morale. Well, what better way to do that than to capture the leadership. I and two other captains, along with Nighthorse himself, were to attack the enemy camp and grab as many officers as we could. We didn’t think we’d actually find our way to Goldwing’s tent.”
By the time Dusk was wrapping up his story, which was actually very close to the actual events, rather than being boastful, the main course had arrived. As the servants laid out a vegetable pie with a salad garnish, he continued.
“And so, we’re all running as fast as we can, flapping our wings to try and speed up, with Bright Lights on our tail. Nighthorse still had Goldwing, still unconscious, on his back, and was making for the lines. Anyway, eventually he comes to, realising there’s a bag over his head and that he can’t move his legs. So he calls out ‘Where am I? What’s going on?’, and Nighthorse turns back to him and asks him ‘Have you heard of General Nighthorse, sir?’. And Goldwing replies ‘Have you caught him?’. So we all start laughing and Nighthorse just says ‘I am Nighthorse!’. Poor guy froze. We got him back to the camp and sent a party under a white flag to tell the Bright Lights we had their CO. Damn were they mad.” Dusk began to laugh at the memory. Diamond and Crystal both joined in, though with a more restrained air.
“Really, Colonel,” Diamond said, taking a moment to dab his eyes. “You make the war sound as if it were all some colthood adventure.”
“It had its moments I think, sir. But I’d rather not have to go through it all again. Hay, I’d rather not have been forced down that road in the first place.” Crystal Leaf set her utensils down a moment.
“You were fighting for what you believe in, Colonel. You still are. As much as I hate to say it, from what I understand, your only option seemed to be war after the thestral ministers were expelled from the court.” Her judgement took Dusk by surprise, even more so when she flashed him an endearing smile from across the table.
“Alright, I think that’s enough talk of such matters for now,” Diamond declared. “I must confess that I’m more interested in what you are doing now. It must be quite a difficult task moving all of those ponies over such a distance. And with the…” He made a motion with his hoof. “Unpleasantness that has suddenly sprung up. What exactly are you planning, Colonel?”
Now, Dusk put himself on his guard. It was a probing question, quite different from the idle stories that had been the subject of conversation for most of the evening. Everypony of course knew that the thestrals that could, were making their break for the Badlands. But Dusk was under strict orders to give no more information than that. If the Royal Guard found out where they were hiding, it was quite possible they would continue their assault. The caves were hidden well, but they would not survive a protracted siege. Setting his glass of wine down, Dusk worded his reply carefully.
“Our orders are to head for the border, out towards the Badlands. And from there we will go where we can.” More of an omission than a lie, Dusk hoped it would close down Diamond’s line of questioning. All of a sudden the unease he had felt before around the governor returned.
Luckily, Rare Diamond seemed satisfied with the response, at least, enough not to press Dusk further. The remainder of the meal went off without any incident. Mind you, by the time desert came around it was quite clear to the thestral that Crystal Leaf was doing everything within her power to flirt with him, though whether or not Diamond noticed he did not know. In any case, he decided, he certainly wouldn’t mind seeing her again. He gave Diamond an open invitation for the pair to visit the Moonflower as his guests at some point in the next few days. While he could not match their price tag, he could nonetheless offer them a meal by way of thanks.
Eventually, after a cup or two of after dinner coffee, Dusk took his leave. Thanking the governor again for his kind hospitality, Dusk departed and began to head back the way he had come. It was getting on for early evening. He had arrived at around a quarter to five; it was now almost ten o’clock. The last dregs of the day were clinging on to the western horizon, and in the east, the stars were beginning to appear.
As he headed back, he contemplated the evening’s events. He had hoped the meeting would give him a better read on his erstwhile host. Yet he still felt uneasy. There didn’t seem to be any real danger, in fact, Rare Diamond had gone out of his way to be as helpful as he could to Dusk and his stallions. But that last question…
On the surface, it was innocent enough, but the way he had eased it into idle conversation. Dusk had felt as if he were being played. Still, he knew he had given nothing away; no details and no names. Try as he might, he could neither force himself to drop his concerns, nor could he prove that any sinister scheme was at work.
In any case though, Dusk didn’t feel overly threatened. He had a hundred guardsmen to call on, and knew that there was no enemy for miles around. And in another few days, they would be safely on their way to their new home. All he had to do was hold his nerve.