Barrier motioned all of the cadets close with a hoof. “Gather up, cadets…” The unicorn waited until they had all huddled around him, curiosity written on their faces…and with a brief burst of magic and both forehooves pulled them in close, initiating an awkward hug; to his surprise, none of them complained. “By Faust, I thought all of you were dead…”
“Not yet, sir…” Swiftsword responded, her voice cracking just slightly before she seemed to catch herself. “But if we don’t return to camp soon, we may all be.”
The large embrace broke after several more seconds, Barrier sighing as he straightened up and slightly altered his tone. “Right, we mustn’t doddle. What’s the situation here in the Empire? We got here as soon as we could, but obviously,” he motioned at the assortment of ponies he’d brought with him, “our resources are limited.”
“I don’t really know yet, sir.” Swiftsword responded firmly, her posture subconsciously straightening. “This last day has been eerily quiet. We’ve not seen hide nor hair of Sombra or any of his abominations. These ponies,” she motioned to the immobilized guards, “were the first ones we’ve seen in awhile. Before that, we were burning corpses.”
Barrier pressed a hoof to his chin in thought before nodding. “Alright, take us to wherever your base is. We can all get caught up more there. We don’t wanna be out in the open any longer than we have to.”
“Sir.” Swiftsword gave a brief salute before turning to the other cadets. “Verdant, Winter, Forge,”
The three ponies faced the mare expectantly.
“Gather those three up,” she motioned to the paralyzed guards. “We’ll take them to the ghoul to have them treated.”
The first of the element bearers finally commented; Fluttershy speaking as soft as ever, spotting the darts still embedded into the three guards. “Um…are they going to die?”
“Nay.” the green earth pony explained as he hefted Cobalt onto his back. “The poison is mostly composed of the stunning spore of a plant known as the Vile Plume. Had we wanted them dead, I would have used the toxin of the Nuptup plant or simply shot them with arrows.”
“It...burns…” Spearmint hissed through clenched teeth as Iron Forge lifted her from the ground with careful movement.
“Though I mayhaps had added a little ground up ruby reaper for additional pain.” Verdant confessed almost sheepishly.
“So, uh…” Shining Armor was the one to speak up this time. “Who’s the ghoul you mentioned?”
Swiftsword eyed the unicorn critically for a moment before answering. “Doctor Black Harvest.”
Barrier frowned just slightly but didn’t comment.
Swiftsword continued without pause. “We do not wish to speak of the horrors the mad doctor hast performed.”
“Right, talk as we walk.” Barrier tapped his hoof sharply on the crystalline ground.
“Right. Come along, ponies and drake.” Swiftsword motioned with her hoof and began to make her way further into the city, the small caravan following behind her.
“Barrier,” Rarity started almost sweetly, though her voice was tinged with annoyance. “Could you please explain who these ruffians are exactly? They did assault us, and you seem very familiar with them.”
“Lower thy voice, plump one.” Swiftsword shot the mare a hard gaze. “We do not wish to give away our position.”
Rather than Barrier, Twilight was the one to answer; her voice notably softer and less annoyed than Rarity’s. “They’re your cadets, aren’t they? The ones from the story.”
“Story? What story are you talking about?” Rarity sped her pace up slightly to walk alongside Twilight.
Rainbow Dash also made her way closer to Twilight, though rather than speaking she just shot Swiftsword an aggravated look to which she received a flat stare.
“Barrier told Pinkie, Spike, and myself a story about a group of cadets he trained.” The lavender unicorn explained.
“Well, those cadets he trained were ready to kill us all just a few minutes ago. How do we know we can trust ’em?” Rainbow Dash also kept her voice fairly quiet.
“I told thy group to identify themselves,” Swiftsword glanced at Cobalt who was still limp on Verdant’s back. “Thy thestral chose to attack, so we swiftly incapacitated them. We then subdued those of you we deemed the most dangerous and demanded the plump one and drake to surrender.”
Rarity huffed and glared at Swiftsword. “Stop calling me ‘Plump One’. My name is Rarity, and I do not enjoy being insulted.”
Swiftsword didn’t even look at the mare. “At any rate, had thy thestral not rushed in to attack, thou would not have faced thy predicament.”
“Duly noted,” Barrier interjected, “I’ll be sure to talk to her about it when the time for it comes.”
“Good. Now then,” Swiftsword’s horn flared and a formerly invisible disc of crystal separated itself from the center of the street. “The time has come for us to go underground.”
The ponies filtered into the hole, Barrier and Shining Armor’s horns lighting up as the lid to the outside was closed once again.
Verdant Range had waited until they had all oriented themselves to ask his question. “Sir, may I enquire as to why there are so many ponies who are clearly civilians with us?”
Barrier sighed, but answered regardless. “It’s a long story, but the short version is that these six are the current wielders of the Elements of Harmony. We’ll need them to help us if we want to have any chance of dealing with Sombra.”
Swiftsword snorted and the group lapsed into a brief silence, until a certain pony drew everyone’s attention as it dawned on her just what they were walking through.
“Yeugh, a sewer?” Rarity huffed. “Honestly, have you no tact?”
“Wouldst thou prefer if we were to remain above ground, leaving us out in the open and easily spotted by Sombra? Only a fool wouldst remain above ground as we travel such a distance.”
“Still, for a lady such as myself to tra-” Rarity was cut off by an irate Swiftsword.
“Speak not of thy standing to me. I am born of a noble clan and raised as such. I have been raised to lead by example, honing mine body and skills to serve our kingdom as a worth noble should. Thou…” Swiftsword snorted with derision. “Thou would be the first to be picked off by griffins due to plumpness and thy clear lack of combat skill.”
Rarity raised a hoof to her chest in apparent offense. “How dare you! I-”
Swiftsword cut the mare off as she spun around, magic flaring as she drew her sword and pinned Rarity to the wall, blade held dangerously close to the mare’s muzzle. “Mine recollection indicates that one dost not require thy tongue to use one of the Elements of Harmony. Cease thy worthless prattling, lest I cut thy tongue out and feed it to thee!”
Rainbow Dash made to lunge only for a sharp voice to cut her off.
“Swiftsword, that’s enough!” Barrier’s voice bounced almost painfully off of the walls, followed by the sound of the stallion slamming his hoof into the ground.
Verdant Range, quick as his burden would allow, quickly moved forward and wrapped a hoof around Swiftsword’s withers, pulling her away.
Barrier waited until Rarity was on her own four hooves again to speak once more. “By me, Swiftsword.”
The mare fell back to Barrier’s side without question, having heard the tone only a few times before.
“I apologize for the field commander’s actions, Miss…Rarity, I believe thy name was. She hast been burdened with the duties of command and…well, we used to have far more ponies to our group.”
“So,” Applejack spoke up, trying to alleviate the tension. “You were sayin somethin’ about a story?”
“Yeah!” Pinkie chirped up happily, drawing a glare from every standing soldier present to which she sheepishly smiled. “Plucked pegasus,” she pointed at Hat Trick, “Mountain o’ muscle,” she grinned at Winter Gem, “haystack-horsey,” Iron Forge stared flatly at the energetic mare. “wasp-nest warrior,” Swiftsword didn’t acknowledge the mare at all. “And snack-sized stallion.” Pinkie finished by looking at Verdant. “They’re-”
The green stallion, like his companions, didn’t show any outward emotion in particular, though he did reply. “Mayhaps we should save the storytelling, introductions, and other intelligence for when we are safely back at our base?”
“Okey-dokey-lokey then!” Pinkie fell to the back of the group where she followed via hopping.
“So…” Barrier glanced back briefly at Swiftsword. “How many ponies are at the base? Did any of the other guards survive?”
“Most of the Crystal Ponies still cower in their homes. As for our guards, only Thunder Aegis remains in fighting shape. We have twenty-one additional guards, though they’re injured and tended to by the ghoul and Nurse Lifeline.” Swiftsword answered. “Thunder Aegis is guarding the entrance to our base at the moment…” Swiftsword fell silent and motioned to upwards to another ponyhole cover.
The crystal pony-cover shifted just slightly before Hat Trick rose from the ground, his eyes glancing around nervously before sinking back into the hole and giving the all-clear.
“Quickly, head towards those stairs!” The pegasus climbed from the hole and reached in, helping his fellow ponies to the surface and directed them to a flight of stairs that led underground once again, these attached to the side of what appeared to be a restaurant. “Knock three times. The password is ‘Majesty’s Son’.”
One by one, the ponies climbed out of the sewer and followed Hat Trick’s orders, with Barrier and Swiftsword being the last to enter, taking care to replace the sewer-cover.
Barrier glanced around the entrance to the stairs one final time before tugging the door shut behind him and turned around to greet the haggard-looking doorpony.
“Captain Barrier.” The pony at the door gave a tired salute.
“Private Aegis,” Barrier gave a friendly smile, throwing the stallion off just slightly; Captain Barrier wasn’t known for being terribly friendly to most ponies.
The light violet-unicorn known as Thunder Aegis glanced behind him where the ponies were heading deeper into the makeshift base. “Sir, the starved-looking pink one is an-”
“I’ll explain in a bit, Aegis. Just…give us a moment.” Barrier let a shaky breath escape him as the adrenaline he hadn’t realized was running through him began to fade. Idly, his mind took note of the wild golden, red-tipped mane and tail that Thunder Aegis sported. How long has it been since any of these ponies got any real sleep?
Swiftsword finally broke away from Barrier’s side and stood in front of him almost at attention. “We hast commandeered the wine cellar of this restaurant for use as our headquarters, for the time being. Tis large enough to hold the ponies we have, and we make use of food from the restaurant above. We have kept careful track of what we have commandeered, so that the crown shall be able to compensate them.”
Barrier nodded. “Was there anything else you’ve had to commandeer?”
“Medical supplies.” Verdant Range supplied as he stepped out of what appeared to be a backroom of sorts. “We take supplies from the hospital whenever we can.”
Rainbow Dash peered around Verdant into the room behind him, wincing at the injured ponies that lined the walls; some of them were missing limbs. “So why aren’t you guys in a bunker or something?”
“Sombra was one of the highest ranking ponies in the guard. He would know exactly where to look for us had we hid in a bunker, so we hid here.”
“Good call.” Barrier praised, resting a hoof on Swiftsword’s shoulder. “You’ve done an admirable job, Swiftsword; especially so given the circumstances. For the time being, consider yourself relieved of your command and go get some sleep. All five of you, go get some sleep. You as well, Aegis. We shall take up vigil until you wake.”
Swiftsword gave a sharp salute before her body visibly sagged and turned back to the other cadets. “You heard the Captain, we shall soon prepare for bed. And Captain…make sure the ghoul doesn’t do anything to us whilst we sleep. I do not trust her or her sick mind.”
“I’ll remember that the next time you need somepony to patch you up.” A dry voice retorted, coming from the backroom, belonging to a lavender mare with dark, solid-purple mane -held back by a hairband- and piercing amber eyes, the image of a lone scalpel resting on her flank with a single drop of red on the tip. “So,” she eyed the ponies that Forge, Verdant, and Winter Gem were still carrying. “It seems we have some new faces for my table. Tell me, what ailments or injuries have they sustained?”
“They were all struck with a dart coated in Vile Plume spore and ground ruby reaper.” Verdant explained.
“Bah, and I thought you may have had something worthy of my efforts. Just place them on an empty cot and have Lifeline take care of them. I already have preparations made in case any of you foals accidentally stuck yourselves with your darts.”
“Dammit, I said I’m fine!”
Barrier’s eyes widened slightly as the scratchy voice reached his ears and he found himself pushing past Doctor Black Harvest into the backroom. The walls were lined with closed bins and sealed casks as well as dozens of makeshift cots, but Barrier had eyes for none of it.
“Mother, I beg of thee! Thou art missing thy left eye and are very injured! Please, listen to Nurse Lifeline!”
Barrier found a smile creeping onto his muzzle despite the battered form of his friend. “Listen to your nurse, Sergeant Fleetfeather.”
The mare whipped around, breaking away from the nurse and her daughter. “About time you got here.” The mare made to limp forward, a tired smile on her muzzle.
Barrier met the powder-blue pegasus mare half-way and embracing her in a hug...during which he pivoted sharply, drawing the mare to the side and positioning himself so that she fell onto him, rather than the floor. “Bedrest, Sergeant.”
“Oh for Faust’s sake, I’m fine!” The mare argued but allowed the unicorn to place her back on her cot regardless.
“Flash would’ve had my hide if I’d let you do anything looking as rough as you do. What kind of damage does she have, Nu-” Barrier stumbled backwards as his vision went black and something latched itself to his face.
“Heh…” Rainbow Dash held a hoof to her muzzle to stifle the laughter even as the rest of the girls giggled at the sight.
“Wind Whistler…” Barrier’s voice was muted as he gave several sharp tugs with his magic before the filly finally surrendered herself to his magic, smiling apologetically as she dangled upside down in the blue aura. “It’s good to see you well.” Barrier nuzzled the filly, ignoring the further laughs it drew from both the element bearers who were watching from the doorway to the other room.
“Uncle,” the filly tilted her head at him curiously, causing her to slowly begin to rotate in the gravity-free magical hold. “Pray tell, what is the reason for thy strange manner of speech?”
Barrier’s smile faltered slightly. “That…is a very long story that I’ll tell both you and your mother whenever we get back home to…” Barrier winced, remembering the former capital was no more. “Well, I’ll tell you both when we get home. Now, go keep your mother warm, Windy.”
“Barrier,” Fleetfeather lifted her wing to allow his magic to deposit the filly beneath it. “What is our current status? Who are all of those ponies in the other room? And why is there a dragon still allowed to breath in our midst?”
“That is a story more suited to when everypony is awake, the cadets included.” Barrier smiled apologetically to the mare and glanced at Shining Armor. “Captain Armor, can you take the first shift for guarding the entry-room? I still have some things to sort out here.”
“Sure thing.” Shining Armor nodded and backpedaled towards the door.
“I’ll come with you, Shiny.” Cadance moved to follow.
“Tell the girls they might as well try to catch a few hours of shuteye. Once everypony has rested a bit, we’ll get everything out in the open.” Barrier waited until Shining Armor had departed and the element bearers had found beds to turn to the one-eyed mare on the bed and ask a question that had been on his mind for some time now. “Now, there’s something I have to know, Fleet. Why don’t the cadets trust Doctor Harvest? What did she do?”
“I saved lives.” The curt voice of the doctor rang out from behind the unicorn. “They don’t trust me, however, because of my methods.”
“You’re a diseased maniac.” Fleetfeather scoffed from the bed.
“What were your methods?” Barrier glanced critically at the smaller mare, inwardly noting that she didn’t flinch in the slightest.
“We had many ponies that were injured beyond what conventional medicine could save. Their organs were beyond salvation…but not beyond my ability to replace. I studied the notes of my old teacher, before he was…” the mare hesitated just slightly. “Well, I studied my old teacher’s notes. Most fools believe Dr. Flankenstein wished to raise the dead by cobbling together a collection of pieces from dead bodies, but what he really wished was to take the working organs of freshly dead ponies and use to aid those who needed them. His experiments failed because he could not find a way to keep the body from rejecting the foreign parts. His skills as a surgeon were rather crude as well, but as for I…well, aside from having far greater skills with a scalpel, I found what my patients needed.” The mare’s horn flared, levitating a vial of green liquid from somewhere and transferring it to Barrier’s magical hold. “By taking this daily, my patients can live with the new organs. They call me a ghoul for taking apart the dead to save the living, but these ponies will continue to live, thanks to me.” The mare stopped and took several heavy breaths, the speech having been far more long-winded than she’d intended.
“Organ transplants one-thousand years ago?” Twilight’s voice called up from her bed. “It’s astonishing that you’re able to pull such a thing off! They’re common now, but all of my research into history said they were hardly even thought of until maybe five-hundred years ago!”
Fleetfeather, sharp as ever, glanced at Barrier. “One-thousand years? What’s she talking about Barrier?”
Barrier sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth, glancing at Twilight who smiled apologetically…before flinching as Doctor Harvest was suddenly in her face, feeling her skull with a hoof and waving a hoof in front of her eyes. “No signs to indicate she has a concussion…is she simply mad?”
“Pfft,” Fleetfeather snorted again from her cot. “As if thou are one to talk. That aside, Barrier,” Fleetfeather gave the unicorn a hard gaze, which the stallion was reluctant to return.
“...when the Empire is secure again, Fleetfeather. Until then, just get some sleep. For Windy’s sake…” Barrier tugged Doctor Harvest’s tail sharply, drawing her attention. “Doctor Harvest, I need information. How severe their injuries are, how we are on supplies, I need everything you can tell me.”
Black Harvest raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to declare me an affront to nature and threaten to have me executed?”
“Once upon a time, I might have, but…times have changed. For now, I’m just grateful you kept everypony alive.”
Black Harvest seemed taken by surprise but ultimately nodded. “Alright, I’ll check up on the injured guards…”