• Published 3rd May 2013
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The Dusk Guard Saga: Rise - Viking ZX

Steel Song is a lot of things. Earth pony. Uncle. Professional bodyguard. Retired. So when he receives a mysterious package from Princess Luna, he's understandably apprehensive. Things are never as they seem in Equestria...

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Assembly - Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Nova’s body hurt. Not the dull pain broken by brief sharp flares that signified a major injury or the sharp pain of a surface injury, but a burning pain that ran through his legs, across his flanks, and up his chest. Even his throat felt raw and ragged.

He blinked as sweat stung his eyes. His red mane had long since passed the point of damp, instead having turned to a wet towel that clung to his shoulders and forehead. There wasn’t a single part of his body that wasn’t soaked in sweat. He knew he smelled horrible, but he had reached a point several miles earlier where he had just stopped caring.

“You’ll want to stretch out for a bit,” came a cultured voice at his side. He recognized a hint of Manehatten in the accent.

Nice place, Manehatten, he thought. Always some challenging jobs.

“Your body isn’t quite used to this just yet,” the voice continued. Nova carefully turned his head, wiping sweat from his eyes with a forehoof. Standing next to him was the pink unicorn mare who had shown up that morning named Dawn Triage. Her coat was a bit darker now, even she had broken into a heavy sweat as a result of the long run.

“Stretch?” he asked, panting.

She nodded. “If you simply stand there you run the risk of making yourself much more sore than you’re already going to be. Do some stretches, even if it hurts.” She walked off before he could respond, heading over towards Sky Bolt where she lay on the grass, her sides heaving. He found a bit of solace in the sight of the winded pegasus. Seeing that he wasn’t the only one on the team who had found the run taxing beyond belief assuaged his ego somewhat.

He slid his forelegs out carefully, stretching muscles along his back and flank. On the other side of the wide training courtyard he could see Sabra carefully balancing himself on one hoof, stretching his other three limbs into the air. They’d barely just finished their morning run, and already the Zebra appeared as calm and neutral as ever. He didn’t even appear to be breathing hard.

Which made him the only member of the team to earn that status, Nova realized as he put himself into another stretch. Even Steel—he paused the thought train, mentally reminding himself to call him Captain Song before he earned any other extra miles for the team to run. Even Captain Song was still breathing hard, although the tough old stallion didn’t seem any worse for the wear. Nova was starting to understand exactly how well the Captain lived up to his name.

Nova had just put himself into a very complex backwards pretzel twist, a move he was particularly proud of being able to pull off as most mares he knew couldn’t even get halfway close, when Hunter’s voice echoed across the training yard.

“Dusk Guard! Fall in!” Nova groaned and carefully twisted his body back to a standing position. He started to jog over towards the far wall where Hunter and Captain Steel were waiting, but something in his back leg rebelled, so he contented himself with a brisk trot that was designed as much to hide his sore leg as conceal the urge to limp. If there was one rule he’d learned as a thief that he figured applied to the Guard, it was not to let them see your weaknesses.

“Alright team,” Captain Song said as the ponies lined up. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your first taste of what it’s going to mean to be a Dusk Guard. Just so you know, that run was a trial run. Ten miles. It would have been eight, but somepony made a few smart remarks.” Nova cringed inwardly at the words. “Now,” the Captain continued. “In the future we’ll be doing longer runs than that—” There was an exasperated gasp from Sky Bolt. Nova looked over to see her staring at Captain Song with an exasperated look on her face.

“Do you have something to add?” Steel asked.

Sky Bolt shook her head. “No sir,” she said, although her voice sounded weak and her legs were trembling. She gave a weak smile. “I’ll manage.” Nova almost snorted, catching himself at the last moment. At least she was optimistic. He had the feeling that if they did this again the next day his legs were going to fall off, or at the least his hooves.

“Determination is good, but in this case discretion is better,” the Captain said. He began pacing back and forth in front of them. “Some of us are going to be incredibly sore tomorrow. Some of us won’t. Each of us is at a different level in our abilities. In order for us to work together, as a team, we need to understand where each one of us is at, what each one of us is capable of.” He stopped pacing and motioned towards Dawn. “That’s why we’re spending the next few days prepping for the actual training we’ll be undergoing. Dawn Triage will be watching each of us, even me, in turn over the next few days as we undergo various exercises. As the official medical expert of the Dusk Guard, her word is law, even superseding mine as the need arises, and it’ll be her decision that decides what sort of training we’re going to be doing each day. Any questions?”

Nova shifted his eyes to the left, and then to the right, but nopony had raised a hoof. “Alright then,” Captain Song said. “Everypony follow me. We’ve got one more thing to do before we break for breakfast.” He turned and began to move off at a brisk jog, heading for one of the training field's entrances. One by one, the members of the team fell in behind him.

Nova almost stumbled as he started forward. His legs felt as if they’d been drained and filled with lead in the short time he’d been listening to the Captain. Burning lead. He grimaced as lances of fire burned their way up and down his flanks with each step. He wasn’t going to stop now.

Why are you here Nova? came the voice in the back of his mind. What are you trying to do? Prove something? He ignored it. He could doubt himself another time. Right now, his only goal was to survive until breakfast. He felt his body fall into a steady rhythm, the burn in his legs subsiding. He just had to last until breakfast. He could pass out then.

They didn’t go far. Following the Captain’s lead the team left the training yard, passing some early arrivals from the Royal Guard as they did, and then turned and followed a well worn stone path. A minute later, they arrived outside of a weather-worn building that was sitting, as near as Nova could tell, on the far side of the training grounds. It was fairly plain, lacking the usual coloration of most Equestrian buildings, and its grey coloration made it look as if it had been constructed from cement. As they walked through the single open doorway, Nova rapped the material underfoot with his hoof loudly., drawing an odd look from Dawn but nothing else. There was no doubt about it, the entire outside of the structure was made out of cement.

The inside was even stranger. As the team passed through the doorway the sound of their hoofsteps changed from the sharp clop of hooves on stone to the ringing of hooves on metal. As he stepped inside, Nova took a quick look around. The Captain was waiting for them inside an empty, plain looking metal room. The room itself was a perfect square, with only the open doorway behind them and two closed doorways on the far wall, one of which Steel was standing in front of.

“Dusk Guard, for those of you who have never been here, welcome to what every young guard recruit learns to fear: The Crucible.”

“The … Crucible?” Sabra asked, his mouth twisting around the word. “Haina—” he shook his head. “What does this word mean?”

Sky Bolt spoke up. “It’s a high pressure device used to melt materials,” she said. “Although it can also be used to describe something that severely tests somepony.”

“I see,” Sabra said, nodding. “Asante.

“In this case, the second definition Sky Bolt gave is correct,” Captain Song said, drawing everypony's attention back to him. “The Crucible is the Guard’s official obstacle course.”

“You going to tell them the unofficial name?” Hunter asked.

Captain Song’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Not if you hadn’t brought it up,” he said, resignation in his voice.

“What’s the unofficial name?” Sky Bolt asked. Nova could see a bright look on her face. He began to turn his attention back to covertly trying to stretch his back legs.

“The unofficial name,” the Captain said, giving Hunter a look that promised a reckoning later. “is Celestia’s Home Exercise Device. And,” he said as Sky Bolt tried to hide a laugh. “If any of you call it that within her highness's hearing, all I can guarantee is that I’ll try to match her punishment for you.” He glared at Sky Bolt, but it only made her chuckle louder. Then Dawn began to laugh as well, her polite, evenly spaced chuckles contrasting with Sky Bolt’s more unladylike laughter. As their laughter began to escalate, Nova could feel his own slightly sour mood begin to evaporate. He started to chuckle. It was a pretty good nickname.

“See, this is exactly why I didn’t want them hearing that,” Captain Song said to Hunter. His expression was neutral, but Nova could detect a hint of annoyance in his voice even over the sporadic laughter of the group.

“They’d have heard it eventually,” Hunter said, giving Steel a nonchalant look. “Besides, now they’re all in a good mood. The only ones who aren’t laughing are you and Sabra.” He gestured at Sabra with one hoof.

Sabra shrugged. “I don’t get the joke,” he said simply, giving the group an embarrassed grin.

“Someone will explain it to you later. Until then, don’t go repeating it in the wrong place,” Ste—Nova caught himself—Captain Song said. “Now, if we could have a little order, I’d like to get to breakfast sooner than later.” After a moment the laughter subsided, and he continued. “Anyway, today we’re going to be running The Crucible in teams of two. Each team will have three minutes to make it through the course. If you or your partner fails to reach the end, neither of you do. Some of us—” He indicated Dawn, Hunter, and himself. “—have run the course before, so we have some idea of what to expect. The course itself is fairly straightforward, just follow the arrows and you’ll be guided right to the end.”

“What about flying?” The question came from Sky Bolt.

The Captain grinned, the same kind of predatory grin he’d given Nova when he’d informed him of who he was. “You’re welcome to use your own abilities to their fullest,” he said. “In fact, I encourage it. Just be warned that this course was designed to challenge, so if you try something like say flight or teleportation, you might find yourself surprised.”

Nova knitted his brow in surprise. “What about damages?” he asked.

The Captain shook his head. “The course is durable, it’s been in use for decades. Even if you do damage it, it won’t be the first time, I’m sure.” He paused for a second, his eyes taking on a piercing look that made Nova uncomfortable. “Although I guess it couldn’t hurt to tell you to not purposefully destroy the course. Oh, and no breaking through to the outside or flying out. It’s clever, it’s been done.” He stared at the line of ponies. “Any questions?”

Nova shook his head along with the rest of the group, his mind already psyching itself up for the task ahead. Three minutes, an unknown number of obstacles and—

“Nova, you’ll be paired with Sabra. Sky Bolt, you’re with Hunter. Dawn and I will run the last trial.”

Right, and a partner. Nova looked over at Sabra, who gave him a small nod. He returned it after a moment's hesitation.

“Do you have any idea of what we will be facing inside?” Sabra asked as he walked over.

Straight to the point. “No, not a clue,” Nova said. “No one ever hid anything worth grabbing in the Guard’s quarters. If you want to know what the hallway to the Royal Archives is like, I can tell you that.” His response was met with a laugh from Sabra, and Nova had to crack a smile. He hadn’t been entirely joking.

“Alright,” Captain Song called. “Nova and Sabra, you’re up first. Once this door opens ...” he said, tapping one of the room's doors with one hoof. “The clock is ticking. Three minutes to get as far as you can or reach the exit. The rest of you come with me up to the observation deck.” He slid the other door open, revealing a set of stairs that lead upwards and began to climb. One by one, the rest of the team followed him, leaving Nova and Sabra alone.

“Well,” Nova said, positioning himself in front of the door. “Let's get this over with as fast as we can. That run already wiped me pretty good.” His stomach gave a small rumble as he spoke. “And I could really use breakfast.”

“I am hungry as well,” Sabra said, taking position next to him. “But something tells me that this will not be as easy as it sounds.” One of his ears gave a small twitch as he cocked his head to one side. “I hear gears moving. The door will open soon.” He turned towards Nova. “As fast as we can, correct?” he asked with a faint smile. Nova nodded.

Moments later the door snapped open and Nova hurled himself through the opening, ignoring his muscles scorching protests. Tall concrete walls rose high to either side of him, framing the open sky overhead, a ribbon of blue framed by grey. Brightly colored arrows had been painted on the walls at head level, guiding the way forward. The space between was filled with loose sand, and Nova could feel his hooves digging deep with each step, sucking away at his momentum. If the ground stays this loose through the entire course, I might have trouble making it, he thought as the aerated soil pulled at his body. A quick look to his right confirmed that Sabra was running alongside him, easily keeping pace with Nova’s speed, though he too seemed to be pushing hard against the sand.

Up ahead the first obstacle loomed. The path sloped sharply upward in a loose, crumbly rise that looked as if it might collapse at any moment. Beside him Sabra put on a burst of speed, sprinting forward. Then, as he reached the base of the upward slope he leapt into the air, throwing his body to the right and pushing off of the wall with all four hooves, propelling himself upward. He landed more than halfway up the slope, his hooves scrabbling for purchase, but the forward momentum he’d gained was more than enough to carry him to the top of the slope.

Nova grinned as he recognized the maneuver as one he himself had used before. As he reached the slope he followed Sabra’s lead, leaping left rather than right and kicking off the wall with all his might, his legs burning under the strain. He hit the slope at the same place Sabra had, hooves scrambling madly against the soft sand as it slid back beneath him. Unfortunately, his weakened muscles hadn’t had the same strength Sabra’s had, and his momentum quickly fled as the sands slipped down below him. He threw one hoof forward blindly, hoping to dig it into the stand and prevent himself from sliding downward. Instead, a striped fetlock wrapped around his outstretched hoof, and Nova bent his wrist, ignoring his legs' protests as his downward slide was halted. Sabra was laying on his belly, his legs braced against the top of the slope as he pulled, and with his assistance Nova was able to pull himself up the last few feet of the slope.

“Thanks,” he said as he looked down at the next challenge.

Hakuna Matatizo,” Sabra said, and Nova didn’t bother asking for a translation as Sabra had already leapt to the next challenge. The rise they had made their way to the top of ended in a drop-off, the sand held back by a wooden wall that opened up into a large open space full of clear blue water. A series of wooden walls divided the water about halfway across, turning the square into a simple maze that a pony would be required to swim through. Below him Sabra hit the water with a loud splash, his jump having carried him halfway towards the maze already. He emerged with a shake of his head that threw water everywhere, and then turned and waved at Nova with one hoof.

“Hurry! I am not a good swimmer!” he yelled up at Nova. Nova could see for himself that the zebra was struggling to even keep his head afloat. He took one last quick look at the walls around the pool and then took a running start, coming down just past Sabra with a titanic splash. The water was cool, but not unpleasantly so, and it had the added effect of rinsing some of the sand out of his coat. As he broke the surface of the water and took quick, gasping breath, he was suddenly somewhat glad that his runaway mouth had earned him an extra few miles of running. If they’d been here earlier he would have been doing the challenge before the sun rose, and the water was cold enough as it was.

Sabra splashed past him, moving painfully slow despite the large amount of flailing he was doing. Nova made a few wide strokes with his hooves and passed him quickly, his own body cutting through the water with an ease born from summers of practice at public pools. When he reached the entrance to the maze he stopped, pulling himself up against one of the low walls that made up the entrance. He took a quick look at the peak of the wall above him. Six inches wide, nice and sturdy. he thought. I might not be able to make it but ... He turned back to Sabra, who still had a quarter of the distance to cross before he reached the entrance to the maze. Bracing himself against the maze wall, Nova summoned forth one of the most basic unicorn spells. A bright yellow glow began to sparkle around his horn, while a matching yellow field bloomed to life around Sabra and began pulling him through the water, aiding his movement.

“You’ve got good balance, right?” Nova asked as Sabra drew close to the wall. Then, without waiting for an answer he sent a surge of magic along his horn. Sabra flew upwards out of the water, boosted by Nova’s magic, while at the same time Nova was shoved down, his head completely submerging as he rocketed down towards the bottom of the pool. Telekinesis was one of the most basic magical abilities of any unicorn, allowing a unicorn to surround an object with a magical field and move it by force of will. Of course, the heavier the object, the more magical power it took to move it, as merely moving something with one’s magic didn’t negate the amount of energy that it took to do so. If a pony used less magic than the mass of the object they were moving, then the often found the remaining mass being exerted as an opposing force on their own horn. Hence most unicorns quickly learned to stick to small objects that they could easily manage.

Not Nova. He’d learned long ago that with a little lateral thinking, a force on his horn could be a great tool if used right. He’d even come up with a few variant spells that used similar principles in varying ways. What it currently meant was that he’d been able to push Sabra up out of the water while at the same time pushing himself down to the bottom. The moment his hooves hit the bottom of the pool he let go of Sabra with his field, hoping the zebra had figured out what was going on, and pushed upwards with both his hooves and his magic. The resulting force was enough to push his body completely free of the water as he surfaced, launching him high enough into the air that his scrabbling forward hooves just barely fell over the top of the wall. Still blinking water from his eyes, he kicked his back legs fruitlessly, trying to find purchase on the slick wood.

Once again Nova felt Sabra wrap a foreleg around his and pull him up. He kicked up one of his hind legs, felt it slip over the lip that was the top of the wall and pressed down, ignoring the legs' tortured protests as he pulled his body onto the narrow ledge. He wiped at his eyes with one hoof, blinking his eyes at the heavy winds that were surging all around them.

“Why did the fans turn on?” Sabra yelled from his carefully balanced position on the wall. Around them panels on the walls had opened up revealing massive fans, all aimed in different directions and filling the room with a maelstrom of wind currents that were strong enough to ruffle even Nova’s wet mane.

“Because we’re above the wall!” Nova called back. “Makes it harder for a pegasus to fly over the whole maze. Now let’s go!” he said as he carefully pushed himself up. “We’ve got to hurry!” Sabra nodded and turned, running down the narrow walltop with practiced ease, and Nova followed him at a slower pace, looking for a clear opening in the water path he could jump into.

* * *

High above on the observation platform Steel scoffed in surprise, watching as the two made their way towards the end of the maze, Sabra leaping from wall to wall with a fluid grace that looked almost unnatural and Nova leaping back into the water once he saw a clear path and moving through it with surprising speed.

“They’re doing much better than I thought they would,” he remarked to Hunter as the two ponies reached the end of the challenge and entered the next part of the course, a series of staggered pillars with small platforms placed around them at unequal heights, connected by thick ropes. Without a pause they leapt onto the first platform. Sabra must have said something, as the zebra flipped over onto his back and held his hooves up. Nova then took a running start, leaping up and landing on Sabra’s hooves. They both gave a heaving push ... And suddenly the purple unicorn was flying through the air, his fiery red tail streaming behind him like flame from a rocket. The assisted leap sent him arcing high, and he landed with a quick roll on top of one of the higher platforms, skipping several of the platforms in-between.

Beside him Hunter nodded. His expression bore nothing but an impressed look at the resourcefulness of the pair. “I gotta say, the climbing over the wall never occurred to me when I ran this thing with the Rangers,” he said with a hint of awe in his voice. “I tried to fly, the fans knocked me into the water, and I swam the rest of the way. I feel a little upstaged.”

Steel nodded as he watched the pair pass through the pillars, Sabra launching Nova over the gaps and Nova returning the favor by holding the cables tight with his magic, allowing Sabra to run across them rather than going hoof-over-hoof underneath.

“I think I underestimated them myself,” he said as the two cleared the jump over the last platform and ran through to the next challenge. They came out on a high ledge above another pool of water. This time a single path was in front of them, a sloped and twisty thing that wove around the pool like a snake as it descended. Of all the challenges, it had been Steel’s least favorite back when he had been in the academy. The entire path was enchanted, coating it in a thin layer of ice and making its sloped surface almost impossible to navigate quickly. Most guards simply opted to jump and swim the length of the room rather than try to navigate the downward slope.

As he watched, the two seemed to be considering their options. Nova was shaking his head, gesturing at the path, and moments later a brilliant beam of yellow light shot out of his horn, panning along the path and sending up spurts of steam. The two began to move down the path, easily navigating its awkward turns without the ice.

Steel turned to look at Dawn, who was watching the events below with a very interested look on her face. “Can you do that?” he asked.

She gave a small shake of her head. “Not a chance.”

“I didn’t think so,” Steel said as he turned back to watch the pair leave the challenge. They were over halfway through the course now. “I remember a few cadets tried it when I was in the academy, but it took a lot of heat to even melt the ice, let alone evaporate it.”

“What’s his special talent?” Hunter asked.

Steel thought for a moment. “Well, his file said it was probably either for sneaking, hiding, or thieving.”

Hunter gave a small shake of his head as the two ponies below began working their way up one of the ubiquitous rope ladder walls that seemed to be featured in every obstacle course. “And we never bothered to ask which it was. Last night I overheard him telling Sabra that it wasn’t for stealing. It doesn’t match his cutie mark either.” Down below, Nova seemed to have the upper hoof as Sabra became more and more entangled in the loose ropes. Nova reached the top of the ladder and turned, using his magic to straighten the loose ropes and letting Sabra speed to the top.

“What does match his cutie mark?” Steel asked as he watched the duo move on, Nova’s horn still glowing yellow. “I tried asking him about it on the train, but he dodged my question pretty well, and I didn’t just want to order him to tell me.”

Hunter shrugged. “It looks pretty familiar,” he said with a nod. “But I haven’t been able to put my hoof on what it is just yet. I swear it looks familiar though, with the crescent and all.” He frowned as Nova once again sent out a pulse of yellow-red light, this time giving Sabra a quick boost up to skip an entire section of the course. “Maybe it’s just me getting old,” he said hesitantly. “But wasn’t Nova’s magic colored blue last night?”

“Hey, you’re right!” Sky Bolt said, her eyes widening. “Why is it that red-yellow color now? I didn’t think unicorns could change the color of their magic.”

“They can’t,” Dawn said, her voice concerned. “A unicorn's magic is part of who they are. You can’t change its color. The closest you can come is mixing your magic with somepony else's, but even then that requires two ponies.”

“Hmm,” Steel said as the duo moved on, the strange yellow mystery winking out. “I think I have a few questions for our young thief now,” he said as the two ran past the last obstacle and finished the course. He checked the observation platforms clock. Two minutes and thirty-five seconds. “And we might need to see about making this course a bit more difficult, maybe set some traps.” He turned his attention to Hunter, who was shaking his head and staring at the swimming maze with an amused look on his face. “Hunter, why don’t you fly down and collect those two, bring them up here and then you and Sky Bolt can do the next run.”

“Yes sir.” Hunter threw out a quick salute as he leapt up onto the platform's railing, his wings balancing his body. Then, with a cocky grin, he fell backwards, twisting his body and gliding over to the two ponies at the end of the course.

Steel turned his attention towards Sky Bolt. “You should head down to the start of the course,” he said,. “Hunter will probably fly straight over there, so you might as well be waiting. You ready?”

The young mare nodded, her face set in a determined smile. He could still see a small tremble in the tips of her wings. Of the entire team, she was probably the one least used to the gauntlet that she was being put through, but she was meeting the challenge with a commendably good attitude. “Alright, get going.” Sky Bolt mimicked Hunter, pulling herself over the railing and lazily gliding down towards the entrance of the building, and Steel turned towards Dawn. “As for you and me,” he said. “We’re going to ask Nova a few questions.”

Moments later the figures of Nova and Sabra rounded the last turn in the stairway and stepped onto the observation platform. Both ponies were breathing heavily, although where Sabra’s was controlled and steady, Nova’s was more of a heaving gasp that was rocking his whole body.

“Well,” Dawn said, walking over and taking a closer look at Nova’s heaving sides. “Somepony gave this test their all.” Nova’s ears turned down as he gave her an annoyed look, but he didn’t say anything as she paced around him until she prodded his side.

“Hey, hooves off,” he said weakly. “I’m a little sore, and I don’t like being poked.” Dawn ignored him his response and instead kept circling.

“Nova,” Steel said, stepping in front of the colt and looking down at him. “Before I start this next round on the obstacle course, I want to clear something up. I need you to answer me truthfully. Are we clear?”

The young unicorn looked at him for a moment, his ears back flat against his head and defiance in his eyes. “That depends on the question,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “Sir.”

Steel shook his head. “Unacceptable. If I ask you a question, then I expect a truthful answer, in full. I can’t have someone I need to rely on lying to me.”

Nova opened his mouth as if to spit back a hot retort, fire in his eyes, but stopped and closed his mouth. His ears were still down, but the defiant look in his eyes had been replaced with a look of suspicion. The two stared at one another for a moment, Steel doing his best to mimic the stern impassive look that he’d gotten from so many training sergeants as a cadet, and Nova doing his best to look unaffected, which wasn’t easy for him as Dawn was still closely examining him, and his eyes kept darting in her direction. The only pony who seemed completely indifferent to the entire exchange was Sabra, although Steel wasn’t quite sure he’d be able to tell if the monk was taking great interest.

“I—” Nova’s mouth uttered the single syllable before clapping shut again. Steel waited, watching the youth. “I—” Nova started again, but this time stopped as he Dawn poked his rear leg with one hoof and he shied to one side. “Hey, hooves off!” He said angrily. “What are you doing back there!”

“Your leg was once injured, was it not?” Dawn asked quietly, impressing Steel with her patience. The shocked look on Nova’s face apparently told her everything she needed to know. “The signs are there,” she said as he stammered inquiries. “The muscle tone is slightly less than the other leg, the favoring slight but apparent. I would assume it happened in the last year, am I correct?”

Nova looked at the group, as if searching for a way out of the situation, then back at Dawn. “Yeah, just an accident a few months back. Is that what you wanted to know about?” he asked, ears perking. “My leg?” His expression darted between Steel and Dawn. “It happened months ago, it’s not a big deal.”

“Not quite,” Dawn said, speaking up before Steel could. “It does mean I will need to make a more detailed examination of your leg later to make certain that it hasn’t been improperly healed. Also, we will need to adjust your training to focus on it, as I would gather its lesser strength comes from a subconscious thought to use the other leg more. Still,” she said, circling him once more. “That is not what Steel wanted to ask you about.”

“Hey up there!” came a call from down below. It was Hunter’s voice. “Is the first part of the challenge waiting? Because I’m pretty sure that would put us over our time limit before long!”

“One moment!” Steel called back. A suspicion was forming in his mind. Something he would have never considered before a few weeks ago. What if the unicorn standing before them wasn’t a unicorn at all? He’d only turned up a few weeks ago, barely after the Changeling invasion of Canterlot. Could it be possible? He fixed Nova with another, more serious look. “Nova, I’m ordering you to stay where you are. Don’t move.”

‘What? Why?” Nova asked, his expression growing worried.

“Sabra,” Steel said, ignoring Nova’s question. “If Nova tries to run for it, stop him.” The zebra gave him a small nod, although there was confusion evident in his expression.

“Whoa, whoa!” Nova said, sitting back on his haunches and holding up his hooves. “I’ll answer your questions, alright?” His eyes were wide now, darting between the rest of the team.

“Questions later,” Steel said, staring at him. “If you so much as make a move like you’re going to bolt for it during this next bit ...” he left the threat hanging in the air, his eyes darting towards Dawn. “Dawn, can you scan him to see if he’s really a unicorn?”

“Wait? Really a unicorn?” Nova looked completely baffled now. “Well of course I’m a—whoah! Hey, that tickles!” A dull orange glow had surrounded his body, pulsing in time with the glow that had sprang up around Dawn’s horn. Her eyes were tightly closed, an expression of concentration on her face. There was a small ‘pop’ as the glow around Nova disappeared, and her blue eyes opened, wide with what looked like surprise. She looked over towards Steel.

“He’s not a changeling,” she said, her voice slightly higher pitched than normal. “He’s a unicorn, just like he said.”

“Wait, you thought I was one of those freaky bug things?” Nova said, looking almost as surprised as Dawn. “What gave you that idea?”

“The same thing that I wanted to ask you about before you got all defensive,” Steel said, feeling slightly surprised, and more than a little embarrassed at the scene. “Your magic, it was a different color last night.”

Nova looked at Steel, his jaw slack, and then burst out laughing. “Really?” he asked between laughs. “That was what you wanted to ask me about?”

“A unicorn's magic cannot change color,” Steel said, ignoring the laughter as Nova slumped down on the deck, his sides heaving in and out almost as hard as they had been when he’d first reached the platform. “Hunter said that your magic was blue last night, and yet down on the obstacle course it was yellow. The only thing I could think of that would account for that would be a changeling who was sloppy with his magic.”

Nova’s laughter slowed to a mellow chuckle. “Tartarus,” he said, brushing away tears from his eyes. “I never thought I’d get that accusation. I had a pony in Los Pegasus accuse me of having an identical twin once but ...” He looked up at Steel. “Alright, I may as well tell you.”

“Is there a particular reason that you didn’t wish to share anything?” Dawn asked before he could continue.

Nova shrugged. “I like my privacy.” Dawn made a small clicking noise with her tongue, but when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to say anything he turned back toward Steel.

“It’s … part of my special talent,” he said, turning one side towards the the group so they could see the mark on his flank. “When the moon is up, my magic is blue and I can freeze things with my beam spell. When the moon swaps for the sun, my magic does the opposite.” He pointed at the twin crescents of his cutie mark. “As near as I can tell, the lower crescent here,” he said with a tap at the near circle orange crescent shape and it’s jagged outward edges, “is similar to Princess Celestia’s Royal Seal, which I guess is the sun part of it, while the top crescent ...” He tapped the white slash that sat across the top of the lower crescent. “It's similar to Princess Luna’s royal seal, so I guess that represents the moon. As near as I can tell anyway.” He dropped his hoof and looked back at the group. “And before you ask, I’m not related to either of them, I can’t move the sun or the moon, and all it really means is I can do some cool stuff only during the day, and other cool stuff only at night.”

“I have never heard of something like this.” Dawn said, leaning in close towards the mark and causing Nova to scoot slightly back. “How did you earn your mark?”

“I’d rather not talk about it if it’s all the same to you,” Nova said, his face momentarily downcast. “But my magic’s been like this my whole life.” He looked over at Steel. “So. Satisfied?”

Steel nodded. “Satisfied. Although you’re going to be doing a few extra miles tomorrow.” Nova’s shoulders slumped. “If you don’t like it,” Steel said as he turned back to the platform railing. “Then you can learn to start taking orders like you’re supposed to.” A little part of him kicked as the words left his mouth, and he knew the words had been harsh. He looked back at Nova and saw that the youth was staring down at the wooden flooring, an angry look in his eyes.

“On second thought,” he said, turning away so Nova wouldn’t see him looking at him and regretting his harsh words. “You’re new to all this, and it’s probably going to take a bit for you to adjust, so no extra miles. But you are going to have to learn to trust me.”

As he turned back to the railing and signaled to Hunter that the test was about to start, he had the distinct feeling that it might have been easier to ask the unicorn to fly.

* * *

“Have you seen the news yet?” Hunter held up the latest edition of the Canterlot Daily as Steel sat down across from him, a bowl of steaming oatmeal gripped carefully in his teeth.

“Seen what?” he asked without looking up.

“This,” Hunter said, tapping the headline.

“Railway porter critically injured in train attack,” Steel said, reading the headline aloud. “Late night assault possibly connected to train robberies plaguing the Equestrian Rail Service for months.” He took the paper from Hunter, ignoring his breakfast as he examined the article further.

“I heard something about the robberies on my way here.” Hunter said, taking a bite of his salad and grimacing. “Crikey. Onions. Anyway,” he said with a pause as he wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I ran into an old friend of mine and she said that from what she’d heard, the ERS has been swamped with thefts lately. One every week or more. No idea who, why, or how.”

“Well the papers make it sound like somepony's out to harm everyone who’s ever ridden on a train.” Steel folded the paper and tossed it back to Hunter’s side of the table. “It’ll pass. They’ll find something to new to fixate on.”

Hunter shrugged and took another bite of his salad, grimacing as another slice of hated onion passed his lips. “Could be,” he said when he’d finished chewing. “That the steward wandered in on the thief and he tried to quiet him permanently.”

Steel shook his head. “Doubt it,” he said. “The article said that they found him after he was “attacked” and from details they gave I think that’s mostly conjecture.”

“I don’t know,” Hunter said, flipping the paper open on the table. “Listen to this. ‘According to doctors, the unnamed stallion suffered numerous blows to the head consistent with a blunt object.’ That sounds like something deliberate. It can’t be an accident or the ERS would have said something to that effect.”

“You misunderstand,” Steel said, giving his head a quick shake. “I’m open to the idea that it was a deliberate attack, but not to permanently silence. If it had been that, he wouldn’t be in the hospital.”

“Maybe the attacker figured the job was done?”


“Realized the horror of what he was doing?”

“More likely,” Steel chuckled as Hunter took yet another grimacing bite of his salad. “You know, you could just pick the onions out.”

Hunter shook his head. “Nope, they’re good for me.”

Steel laughed. “And the logic there is?”

“If it tastes so bad, there must be something good in it. You know, like medicine.” Hunter said before taking another large bite, face contorting with every movement of his jaw as the sharp bite of the onion burned his tongue. Steel chuckled and dug into his own oatmeal.

“So,” Hunter said as soon as he’d finished his latest battle. “You think he found the thief and got taken out in a panic?”

“I don’t know,” Steel said, his mouth gooey with hot oatmeal. “I—” he paused and swallowed, following his gulp with a sip of his water before continuing. “I think that if it was a panic, than whoever did it would have likely been caught, but since they weren’t, maybe they didn’t panic and knew what they were doing.” He flipped the paper around and tapped the headline with one hoof. “This will scare a lot of ponies though. Equestria just isn’t used to having something like this happen. If this were the griffon kingdoms sure, nobody would bat an eye, but here? In Equestria?” He shook his head.

“Yeah,” Hunter said, the last of his salad vanishing. “I’d hate to be in charge of the railroad right now. Nopony's going to want to take it if something like this happens again.”

Steel sat up, his breakfast momentarily forgotten. “Come to think of it ...” he said as looked up and down the rows of tables, checking to see if anyone else in the sparsely occupied cafeteria was listening in while tilting his head so it looked as if he was only stretching his neck. Hunter followed his gaze. Sky Bolt and Dawn were having a discussion a few tables over where Sky Bolt appeared to be doing most of the talking, Sabra sitting nearby, looking at his food with what looked like trepidation. Nova, on the other hoof, clearly had no such reservations. He was sitting along, devouring a large stack of oat cakes with zeal. The few other ponies making use of the cafeteria were off on their own or preoccupied with other matters.

“Come to think of it,” Steel said, facing Hunter once more. “That would explain something I saw last night.” He said, relating the disruption in the Night Court that he’d seen the previous evening to Hunter. “I would bet that given the newsponies that I saw last night, if you flip through this paper you’ll find something about that tied in.”

Hunter's brow furrowed beneath his stetson as he frowned. “Huh. I wasn’t aware that the Princesses had that much pull over the ERS, but if they’ve been having thefts for months, and now this attack, that could put them in a rough position.”

“Yeah, the rest of the board members were pretty unhappy,” Steel said with a frown. “I should have asked her more about it.”

“Hang on,” Hunter said, opening the paper as something he’d read came to mind. “I thought it said ... Aha!” He looked up at Steel, giving the Captain a grin. “According to this, the Royal Guard are going to be investigating. Maybe we should take a look at it?”

Steel sat back, locked in thought. Technically it wasn’t anything within their jurisdiction unless asked, but he could keep tabs on it. “Ask one of the Royal Guard Commanders to feed us their intelligence,” he said. “But otherwise, we stay out of it unless we’re asked. if we found anything, we’d just report it back to them anyway.”

Hunter nodded, then looked over at the four other members of the team. “So,” he said. “what’s on the docket for the rest of the day?”

“Physicals,” Steel said, taking another quick gulp of his oatmeal. “And while Dawn is doing that the rest of us are going to do a little hoof-to-hoof combat training, just to see where everyone stands. After that,” he sat back and shrugged. “I’ll give everypony a bit of a pep talk and assign us each our individual duties.”

“We won’t be training all day then?” Hunter asked with a nod. “Sounds good, we don’t want to overtax anypony.”

“No we don’t,” Steel said. “That and there are some things that still need to be taken care of.”

“Like the barracks?” Hunter asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes, like the barracks.” Steel looked over towards where Sky Bolt was laughing with Dawn about something and shook his head. “That mare has got spunk, but she tore that place apart and only she knows what the construction crew is doing in there. I need to spend some time having her explain just exactly what she’s been doing while we were out. That and make sure the barracks is going to be back in one piece in the next few days.”

“What about the rest of the team?”

“Sabra we can just turn loose,” Steel said. “He asked me earlier if we going to be given time for his regular training anyway, and I doubt he’s going to cause any problems.”

“What about Dawn?” Hunter asked, his eyes darting to the mare in question and then back at Steel.

“I’m going to have her test Nova’s magic ability, see where he’s at.” Steel looked down at his now empty bowl and then over towards the cafeteria's clock. “Alright, time to get the physicals done.” He looked back at Hunter. “You’re up first.”

“Really?” Hunter said, his expression crestfallen. “I was a Ranger a week ago, can’t you just, call it good?”

“And deny Dawn her chance to say hello?” Steel asked in mock disappointment. “She’s been looking forward to this all morning.” He cocked his head to one side, rolling his eyes back as if deep in thought. “I think she even mentioned something about getting a special needle out just for you. The harpoon, I think she called it.”

“Oh. Very funny,” Hunter said as he picked up his own dish. “I thought Nova and I were the two wise-guys around here.”

“You’re never too old to learn new tricks,” Steel said with a smile. “Now pony up and lets get moving.”

Author's Note:

And we're almost to the end of Assembly (which is only Part 1 of three, no fears). Originally, this was actually one MASSIVE chapter, but I decided that it was a little too much, as even divided into two, each of its parts are longer than the average chapter by several thousand words.