• Published 3rd May 2013
  • 13,017 Views, 946 Comments

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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Training - Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Nova had barely found a good hiding place when he spotted the first group of Royal Guard. He crouched low, willing the bushes he’d taken cover in to conceal him from any prying eyes. Sky Bolt was somewhere behind him; he’d told her to find a hiding place near him and follow his lead, but he hadn’t looked back to see where she was.

Hunter had failed to mention a crucial detail of the field in his aerial reconnaissance report. That or he just hadn’t noticed it. A wide, deep trench ran straight through the middle of the field, dividing the two teams. Fortunately, it was dry thanks to the warmth of the summer, but it still was going to prove difficult to cross without being spotted. Especially with a group of Royal Guard already on the far side, watching and waiting for the thirty second countdown to end.

Nova took a quick tally. Six pegasi, three unicorns. Nine in total. Not something he could engage without risking getting taken out. He wasn’t even sure he could take on one Guard, let alone nine.

His mental countdown came to an end and moments later there was a loud bang from the center of the field. That was the signal, the teams could officially engage now. Still, he saw no reason to move just yet. The bushes he was hiding in were well covered and shaded by one of the field’s oaks, which would keep him from being spotted by air. A few nearby low walls gave him plenty of options for movement without being seen if he needed it. No, for now he’d wait.

There was a crack behind him and he fought the impulse to spin around. Fortunately the Royal Guard were talking amongst themselves, so they didn’t appear to have heard the noise. Nova eased his head back as there was another rustle behind him. Sky Bolt was trying to make her way into the bush with him, her wings tangling with the brush.

“Pull your wings in,” he said, his voice as low and quiet as possible. “And don’t whisper, just keep your voice low and quiet,” he said as she opened her mouth.

“Why low and quiet?” she asked as he carefully pulled one of the branches back so she could close her wing.

“Because low and quiet doesn’t hiss like a whisper,” Nova said, turning his eyes back to the Guard. They looked like they were getting ready for something. “Call it a whisper if you want, but don’t hiss. The hiss carries.”

“Got it,” Sky Bolt said, moving up alongside him and still managing to make—to his ears—an unbelievable amount of noise. “That’s a lot of Guard.”

“Shh,” Nova said, and Sky Bolt gave him an annoyed look. He ignored it. What were those Guard—ah. He understood now. They were airlifting the Unicorns.

Each pegasus had grabbed a unicorn’s foreleg in their hooves, and one by one each of the unicorns was lifting from the ground, each supported by two pegasi. One of the trios peeled off and headed towards the right end of the field, kicking up dust in their wake. They were heading for near where Steel was supposed to be. The other trios moved towards the left side, one backing up into their own territory and the other heading past Nova and Sky Bolt’s hiding place further down the field.

“What are they doing?” Sky Bolt asked. This time her voice was low.

“What else?” Nova asked as the two pegasi still on their side of the field came down and dropped the unicorn on the roof of one of the field's simple buildings. “They’re setting up a watch.” He turned and checked the sister building on their own side. Just as with the other building, the two pegasi set down the unicorn and then broke off, heading towards midfield.

“Three buildings, three unicorns,” Sky Bolt mused, a hoof under her chin. “They’ve got a way of signalling to each other?”

“You bet,” Nova said, looking at the guard on their side of the field. The unicorn was already looking across the area, one hoof up to shield his eyes from the sun. “These guys are going to be coordinating—or at least telling their team—everything.” His words were confirmed as the unicorn’s horn lit up, flashing in a series of four colors.

“You know what that means?” Sky Bolt asked as the unicorn’s horn continued flashing.

Nova shook his head. “Nope, but I do think I know what to do first.”

Sky Bolt grinned. “Take him out?” she suggested with a flare of her wings that made the bushes rustle. Nova held his breath at the movement, but the unicorn was looking the other way. Without a word he raised his hoof and pushed one of her wings shut, shaking his head. She nodded and the other wing popped back into place.

“No, that’d be too obvious,” Nova said once her wings were back in place. “I’ve got a better idea.” He took a quick look at the terrain between them and the dividing ditch. Low walls, bushes … bingo. His eyes settled on a large tree that was sitting right on the far edge of the field. “Alright,” he said, plan already in mind. “You see that tree?”

“Yeah, we going to it?” Sky Bolt asked, already inching forward.

“Absolutely not,” Nova said with a small shake of his head. “Because that’s exactly where they’ll expect somepony to try and cross.”

“But that’s the only covered spot.”

“Exactly. Only covered spot,” Nova said, giving her a smug grin. “Not the only blind spot. Now trust a thief who never got caught and follow me exactly.” As he gently pushed his way out of the brush, making sure that he was low enough to the ground that the unicorn on their side wouldn’t see him through the wall, he heard a loud yell followed by a series of crashing noises from the right side of the field.

“You think that was Steel?” Sky Bolt asked, mimicking his movements as best she could. It struck him as ironic that of the two of them, the one with the darkish purple coat and fiery red mane and tail was the least likely to be spotted.

“Probably,” Nova said, pushing away his observations of Sky Bolt’s passable attempts at stealth. “I wouldn’t want to be those guys right about now.”

* * *

The first guard tumbled back in the dirt, rolling onto his back in a vain attempt to ease his meeting with the ground. The sharp sound of the impact as Steel’s hoof had met the guard’s armor, coupled with the distance the unicorn had been thrown, seemed to have stunned the remainder of his attackers.

Amateur mistake, Steel thought as he stepped forward towards the next closest guard, bringing his right hoof up in a quick blow to the side of the guards head. Now go the most maneuverable.

The pegasus' helmet did its job, metal flexing under the blow from Steel’s hoof, but the impact was more than enough to stun the poor pony. By the time his teammates had collected themselves enough to move forward, Steel had wrapped his hooves under the dazed pegasus and tossed him on his back near his still gasping comrade.

There was a bright flash nearby as the referee teleported in to keep a close eye on the action. The remainder of the group, two unicorns and one earth pony, had already spread themselves out in a standard Guard formation. One of them was levitating a wooden spear in front of him, the other two had wooden training swords gripped in their teeth. Steel had managed to take the first two before they’d drawn their weapons. Now that the rest of the team had been given time to pull out their own, he’d need to play it cautiously. He wasn’t wearing any armor, a single blow would be enough to put him “out.” He hadn’t even brought a weapon.

The guard on his right, the earth pony, charged forward, wooden blade already whistling through the air straight at his right flank. It was a textbook maneuver Steel had learned in the Academy. One guard drove the target forward by attempting to get them to move away from his blow, only for any other guard to engage the target while he was distracted for an easy multi-pronged attack. It was a classic feint.

So Steel leapt forward, but not the to left as the Guard were expecting. Instead he moved right, throwing his body forward and brushing his right shoulder into the right side of the oncoming guard. The wooden sword rushed past his flanks so closely he could feel the air whisper as it slid by. Before the guard could recover, Steel brought his elbow up, hard, driving it into the guard’s unprotected underbelly. The guard gave a startled ‘oomph’ as the air rushed from his body and went limp, falling to his side. Acting on instinct honed from years of experience, Steel threw his weight with the unfortunate guard, rolling over him and landing on his hooves as the other guard's sword, levitated by magic, sunk into the dirt where he had just been standing.

Steel grinned at the two unicorns as he notched his hoof under the “blade” of the fallen Earth Pony’s sword and kicked it up into the air. He hadn’t felt this good in years; it was almost a wonder what two weeks of constant, dedicated training had brought back to him. The training sword spun for a moment, almost hanging lazily in the air before Steel caught the handle in his teeth, swinging the blade around to his right. He almost winced as the wooden handle met his tongue. Somepony either needed to clean the training equipment more often, or the earth pony who was still trying to catch his breath in front of him needed to brush his teeth.

He gave the blade another quick shake. Not too badly balanced. Workable. He shifted his weight back, waiting for the last two guards to make a move. The two unicorns stepped back, exchanged glances, and then turned tail and bolted toward their own side of the field.

Steel debated for a second as to whether to give chase, but quickly decided against it. They could lead him into an ambush and turn the tables on him just as quickly. He’d whittled their numbers down by three, and that was enough for now. He dropped the sword to the dirt—relieved to be free of the lousy taste—and offered its owner a helping hoof up.

“Thanks,” the earth pony wheezed, still trying to catch his breath.

“Not a problem,” Steel said, noticing that the other two ponies were now back on their hooves with the referee’s assistance. Although both were wincing as they moved.

“That’s three outs,” Blitz said, looking at each of the Guard in turn. “Head for the sidelines, folks.” There was another flash and he teleported away.

Steel looked at the earth pony. “He’s pretty good at that,” he said, nodding his head at the spot where the ref had just been.

The guard nodded. “Teleportation is actually his special talent, so he referees most of the games. By the way,” he said with an impressed grin. “Those were some nice moves. I’d heard that you were good from some of the guys, but that was impressive!” The earth pony winced as he took a sharp breath. “Also, kind of painful, but that’s what I get for being cocky.”

“You going to be all right?” Steel asked as the earth pony limped over to stand by his fellows. “I hit you pretty hard.” He’d been trying to hold back, but he wasn’t a fool. He was a lot stronger than most.

“He’ll be fine,” the unicorn said, offering him a grin. “We just got the wind knocked out of us, a few bruises. Nothing permanent. Well,” he said, tipping his head at the pegasus that Steel had downed and grinning. “Mic here might need to get a hoofprint pounded out of his armor, but he’ll be fine.” The unicorn took a quick look around the field. “We’ll get out of here now, before Blitz ejects us. Come on guys.”

As the three ponies wandered off, Steel took a quick look around. He could still see the two unicorns that had retreated, now back on their own side of the field and undoubtedly covered by a few more ponies he couldn’t see in case of a pursuit. He didn’t see anything on his side, although he knew Sabra was somewhere over to his left.

Hunter swept by overhead, his wings stirring up dust as he came down to a hover near Steel. “Any problems, boss?” He called.

“None, just a couple of Guard who didn’t know what they were in for,” he said with a smile. “Anything from the left side?”

Hunter shook his head. “They’ve got the majority of their pegasi over there guarding the air, so I’m not sure. I haven’t spotted Nova or Sky Bolt yet.”

“They’re probably keeping hidden,” Steel said, nodding in the direction of the left side. “Head back over there and keep an eye on things.”

“You got it boss!” Hunter snapped a quick salute against the brim of his hat and darted off in a rush of wind. Steel took another quick look around. Nopony close by. Time to move. He trotted over to a nearby wall, slid behind it, and began to slowly make his way upfield.

* * *

“Alright, so now what?” Sky Bolt asked, for what felt to Nova like the tenth time. At least this time the question actually applied. They’d reached the bushes he’d spotted on one side of the ravine without being seen, although there had been a few moments when Nova had been certain that Sky Bolt was going to get them spotted.

Since then however, he’d had the time to take a closer look at the terrain on the far side of the ditch. He could make out a series of low divots in the earth on the other side that would keep them from being spotted once there, but the problem of getting to that side remained. Apparently when it rained all the water had flowed towards the end of the field they were on, breaking down the edges of the ditch and excavating the bottom. The result was that it was much deeper and had steeper sides than it had further upfield.

Even so ... he thought, his eyes turning to the more obvious crossing point near the edge of the field. With the right timing ...

“Now,” Nova said, checking to make sure that his horn was concealed beneath the thick brush. “Now we just cross.”

“Here?” Sky Bolt hissed, and Nova shot her a look.

“Yes here,” he said, deciding not to comment on the hiss. “Where else?”

“How about that tree?” she said, pointing at the thick oak by the edge of the field that he’d been looking at a few moments ago.

“Again?” Nova asked, rolling his eyes. “I already told you, that’s where they’ll look.”

“Yeah, because it’s the only covered way across.” Sky Bolt said, glaring at him. “I don’t even know why we’re doing all this sneaking around. We should be out there busting heads like Steel. Instead we’re letting these guys rule our side of the field.”

“You want to get your head busted that fast, be my guest,” Nova said, gritting his teeth in irritation. “Me, I’m going to get to their overwatch without being seen and take him down.”

“And how are you going to do that?” Sky Bolt asked, shifting in the brush. “You can’t even teleport.”

“By giving them,” Nova said, raising his voice slightly as his horn lit up, his magic focusing on the distant oak, “something else to look at.” He poured a little more magic through his horn and one of the tree’s lower branches lit up. It began to bend back, slowly at first but picking up speed as Nova increased the amount of magic he was putting into it. He watched his horn almost as carefully as the tree, making certain that he wasn’t putting off enough of a magic glow to break his cover.

When the branch was pulled back almost to what looked like its breaking point, Nova stopped its movement. His front hooves dug into the ground as his neck and horn strained to hold the massive heavy limb back. “Get ready,” he said. “When I say go, we make for those divots over there, alright?”

“On the other side of the ditch?” Sky Bolt said, tilting her head. “But that’s straight across the—”

“Now!” Nova let go and the branch swung forward, shaking the entire oak and making its thousands of leaves rattle. He didn’t wait to see the success of his work, but dove out of the brush, his leap carrying him nearly to the edge of the ditch. Sand and dirt gave way under his hooves as he slid down the side, kicking up dust that he would have rather avoided. As he scrambled up the far side, he turned his head and saw, much to his relief, that both of the unicorns on the buildings were watching the rustling oak—a full fifty feet from where he was.

He was almost at the divots he’d spotted when he heard a shout. A burst of adrenaline spiked into his system and he dove into one of the divots, hiding behind a small wall of earth. He’d have to look to see if he’d been spotted. The shadow of three pegasi passed over him and he nearly bolted, but they continued on without stopping. Curious, he risked a single look over the earth wall.

Sky Bolt had apparently decided to run too late. Both of the unicorns on overwatch were firing bolts of magic at her as she was flew back toward the center field, a trio of guard pegasi in hot pursuit. Nova ducked back down over the wall and shook his head. No way to help her now. Still, with the watchers occupied ...

Nova grinned as he slunk over the mound of earth, heading for a nice line of bushes near the overwatch. Time to get in close and cut off some of the organization he’d seen.

* * *

“That low-down-scumbag-rotten … argh!” Sky Bolt shouted as she executed a quick barrel roll around another quick array of magic bolts. “Thief!” She shouted the last word at the top of her lungs. What a jerk! He could have at least explained what he was going to do rather than trying to be all mysterious about it. She clutched her wings together and dropped like a stone, a magic bolt going right over her head. She was almost out of range, but now she had three—no make that six pegasi in pursuit. Where had the other three come from? Another bolt shot past, but it flew wide. She was nearing the end of his effective range. Dang, she’d forgotten just how big a full sized hoofball field was.

The bolts finally stopped, much to her relief, but she could already hear the wingbeats of the pegasi behind her. She couldn’t see Hunter—he was either above or below her viewing angle, or helping somepony out. So she twitched her wings and sent herself into a slow bank, heading for her own flag, thrusting her wings back as hard as she could.

She wasn’t a fool. She knew she was the weakest member of the team, at least when it came to fighting and all the other guard stuff she’d been learning. But she was smart, and Celestia help her, she was going to take at least one of these Guard ponies down with her.

* * *

“Ah ponyfeathers,” Hunter said from high in the air as the second group of pegasus guards lifted from the ground on their own side of the field. He’d halfway figured that Sky Bolt and Nova would end up going their separate ways, but in just a few seconds she’d managed to stir more panic than a diamond dog in a dragon’s den. “Well, they’re aggro now and we’re in a stroppy mess,” he muttered, turning his attention back to the hotspot he had put his eye on. An entire team of unicorns was heading straight up the middle of the field, four in all, with two pegasi as backup, and they were headed right for Sabra.

“Well,” he said to nopony but himself, “I guess I’ll go help the rookie.” The six pegasi were closing on her even as she ducked low to the ground and made her way for the flag. He tucked his wings to his sides and dropped like a stone.

* * *

“Come on, come on, come on ...” She was rushing over the field now, flying just high enough to clear the chest high walls that decorated the field most of the remainder of the way to the flag. She took a quick look behind her, gasping at how close some of the guards were. She could see their grins now. Not only did they have her, but they were going to have the flag as well unless—

A rope snapped behind her, held taut across her path by a familiar dull orange magic. The lead pegasi’s eyes widened in shock as he plowed right into it, the rope magically lashing itself around his wings and legs. He gave a startled yell as he dropped, his rear hooves clipping a wall. Seconds later he was tumbling end over end through the brush. The other two pegasi slowed and Sky Bolt felt a bit of relief, only to have it fade as the pair pumped their wings and increased their altitude, the trio behind them mimicking their actions.

Great, just great. She was almost at the flag now, and she could see Dawn standing nearby, her horn aglow. Not only had she lost Nova—who was probably out now—she’d been the spearhead to bring the other team right into their own base. And there wasn’t a thing she could—

No, she chided herself. She was a Dusk Guard wasn’t she? Of course she was! And if she was a Dusk Guard, well then why not act like one?

Sky Bolt dropped her altitude and speed, slamming into the low wall that surrounded the flag. The impact jarred her hooves and nearly knocked the wind out of her, but she ignored the sudden shock, pushing out with all her might and tucking her wings close. The lead pegasus let out a startled yelp as Sky Bolt shot back into the air and crashed right into her, grappling her body and throwing the mare off course. Sky Bolt rolled, forcing the larger, stronger guard pegasus underneath her. She only had a second to make it work. Already the other guard was fighting her, trying to flip back over as they swept past the flag. Sky Bolt let go with her front hooves, gathered her rear hooves under herself and pushed...

The Guard pegasi’s wings clipped the far wall of the base as she went down and it was all over. She let out a sharp yell of pain as her wings were knocked aside, sending her into a backwards flip, and then she too was tumbling across the ground as her compatriot had, leaving a trail of dust before slamming into a small hill with enough force to send loose dirt flying into the sky.

Sky Bolt landed nearby and whistled. It wasn’t a really nasty crash, pegasi were pretty tough. But still, it had been a rough one. The guard mare cracked her eyes open, saw Sky Bolt standing in front of her, gave a little laugh and shake of her head, and then let her head drop back on the sand pile. Sky Bolt felt a smile creep across her face which quickly turned into a grin. She’d done it! She’d won! She’d—

That was when another pegasus collided with her from behind, knocking her to the ground.

* * *

Dawn had managed to keep the second pegasus from grabbing at the flag or taking her out when he’d shot past, but she hadn’t been able to focus on where he’d gone; the other three had been upon her seconds later. They swooped and banked around the arena, circling her like timberwolves. She had her ropes up, six of them, but she didn’t trust her ability to split her focus enough to keep all three of the pegasi away from the flag. If they landed she could snare them with traps. Or maybe she could stun one—

Hunter crashed down from the sky, slamming one of the circling pegasi into the ground. Sensing her opening, Dawn flung all six of her ropes at one of the others, letting them go and counting on gravity to do her work for her. She spun and fired a spell at the other pegasus just as he darted towards her. The bolt of magic hit him square in the chest, sinking right through the armor. A perfect shot. The guard had just enough time to look surprised before he plowed into the coarse soil, his body rolling to a limp stop.

Dawn turned her attention back to the last guard just in time to see Hunter tackle him from the side and send him sprawling to the ground. A second later, that guard was out of the game as well.

“Well,” she said, brushing the dirt off of her shoulder. “That went much better than expect—”

The first pegasus that had passed her and gone after Sky Bolt shot by overhead, the bright red flag clenched in his teeth. Hunter looked up as she shouted, only to fall as the guard's training sword slammed into his side like a javelin. Hunter went down, the guard dropping his sword as he struggled to gain momentum. Dawn fired another spell, but her aim was off, and she only clipped his wing. He fell from the sky as his wing went limp, but landed on his hooves, galloping towards the far side.

Dawn’s mouth compressed into a thin line. There was no way that she was going to lose to a bunch of Royal Guard. She galloped after him, firing spells blindly.

* * *

Nova was amazed at the confidence the other team had. There weren’t even any guards on their watch. Which was slightly funny in his way of seeing it. No guards for the Guard. He grinned as he finally moved out of the brush and up against the side of the building proper, taking a quick peek inside the door. It was an empty room, with nothing but a set of stairs leading up to the next floor, and then presumably to the roof. He crossed them out. Any smart guard would be sitting where the stairs were always in front of him, just in case someone came up them. No, that was out.

He could feel a few spells in the air as well, detection and proximity spells designed to silently alert the caster if anyone passed through them. Kind of like a forcefield, but without any physical resistance. Or actual resistance for that matter, Nova thought as his horn glowed briefly. In his mind’s eye he could feel the bubble around the second floor of the structure. Sloppy work not extending it to ground level. Then again, the more area somepony covered, the more magic it took to keep it going. A quick bit of work with his own magic, and he had a small opening in the bubble, just large enough for him to walk through. Perfect.

That problem solved, he turned his attention to making his way to the top of the building. The first floor was larger than the second, making the roof of the first a convenient step, although Nova didn’t doubt that he could have gone up one of the flush sides if he’d wanted to. But the less magic he used the better, and that route might have taken magic. Unicorns with enough training could feel magic being used nearby. Well, Nova admitted, really anyone could feel magic if it was powerful enough, but unicorns were especially sensitive. He fixed his eyes on the lip of the first story roof, cast a small, light spell on his hooves that would only last a moment, and ran at the wall.

He got his hooves over the lip with ease, pulling the rest of his body up just as the spell on his hooves wore off. That was fine, it had only been there to deaden the sound. Standing on the small space allotted by the different sizes of the floors, Nova took a look at the next obstacle.

It was simple really. The second floor was shorter than the first floor, and he didn’t even bother casting his sound canceling spell this time, he was light enough on his hooves to make it up without noise. He pulled himself up, climbing over the lip onto the flat, open space of the roof and through the gap he’d made in the security spell, and realized he had no idea what to do next.

The unicorn guard was standing some ten feet away, attention completely focused on another part of the field. From the look of it, there was some sort of aerial combat going on between ponies down back near the base. But other than the Guard and a training spear lying next to him, the rooftop was bare. Nova sat there for a second. Then, with a shrug, he moved over behind the Guard, picked up his spear, and gave him a tap in the side.

The unicorn’s ears shot straight up in surprise and he spun around. His face almost paled as he looked at Nova, his jaw dropping.

“Wha—how?” he asked.

Nova shrugged and tapped the guard again with his spear, grinning at him. “Doesn’t matter. You’re out. Ambush.”

“You can’t just tap me with my own spear and call me out,” the Guard said, eyes narrowing. “You have to do something to me that would incapacitate me!”

“Incapacitate you?” Nova said, raising one eyebrow. “You sure?”

“Yes!” the Guard said, stomping one hoof. “So I’m not 'out' yet!”

“Okay,” Nova said, shrugging as he reached out with one hoof and shoved the unicorn back a step—right down the open stairwell he’d been standing in front of.

The guard’s eyes went wide as his front hooves scrambled for purchase, but the smooth wood didn’t grip and he tumbled back, his surprised yell cutting off as he crashed down on the steps. What followed was an assorted cacophony of pained shouts mixed with the rattle of armor as the unlucky Guard painfully made his way to the first floor. Finally, with one last crash, he came to a stop at the base of the steps, groaning in pain.

“Well, that looks pretty good to me,” Nova said, looking down the stairwell. “But in case you think that’s not good enough ...” He tossed the spear down the steps. There were a few wooden rings as the spear made its way down, followed by a sudden grunt of pain from the Guard. “That good enough for you?” Nova called down. The Guard gave a pained nod, clutching his stomach with one hoof. “Good!” Nova said, turning away and flicking his tail over the opening. He took a quick look around. The other watch was looking at something going on at that end of the field, so ...

He took a running start and leapt from the roof, tucking and rolling across the first story roof and then landing on the ground on all fours, running at a full gallop for the back of the opposing team's field. Whatever was going on back at his base, his team probably had it well in hoof.

* * *

Sabra tapped the end of his staff against the ground, feeling the vibrations as they reverberated up its length and into his hoof. He was patiently waiting in the center of the field, just as Steel had asked him to do, waiting for somepony to come by and require him to act. As was the usual, he was blindfolded, his eyes closed behind a long grey cloth that he had tied around his head the moment the match had begun.

But being blindfolded didn’t mean that he was blind. He could feel the rough bark of the tree at his back. He could hear the rustling of the bushes nearby and the leaves overhead. Each sound was distinctive in it’s own way. He knew that there was a bird's nest with two young birds in it in the tree above his head; probably about twenty-two feet up and fourteen feet towards the back of the field, which was the direction he was facing. If anypony tried to move past, he’d hear them long before they saw him.

As he waited, he pondered. There was the usual pondering, the thoughts of the question, and thoughts of the lessons and philosophies he had been taught at the monastery. There were the occasional thoughts of home, and how his mother and father were doing, or his brother, or his two sisters. It had been a long time since he’d set out on his pilgrimage, although truly, what was a year? Or two? He wondered if his brother had married that young mare he’d been so smitten with. A year was a long time, she might even be with foal by now if he had. His brother had wanted a family of his own so badly.

Not him though. He wanted knowledge. Knowledge of the world, of the universe, of life itself. He wanted to be able to answer any question of existence, to be able speak on many levels like many of the legends of old. Technically, he could. He could pass on the knowledge he’d been taught at the monastery with perfect form, recite the wise words of hundreds of wise sages before him. But he hadn’t yet found the answer he sought that would allow him to go back and join those ancient sages. He was only a master, the sixth level of knowledge. He would not be a legend until he found his answer. And he wanted to be a legend.

Still, he knew many things. He knew the knowledge of the sages that had gone on before. He knew that the leader of the Dusk Guard was an honorable pony who truly believed in doing what he could to protect others. He knew—or rather believed—that serving on the Dusk Guard would bring him closer to the answer he was looking for. He also knew that there was a group of six ponies trying to sneak by, crouching behind one of the walls he’d seen before he put on his blindfold. He also knew that they hadn’t seen him yet.

Carefully he eased himself up from his seat behind the tree and began to walk forward, balancing his Fimbo across his back with ease. The sounds of the ponies' hoofsteps did not change, so they hadn’t been looking. Good. He could surprise them and give them a fair chance of surrender.

He crossed the distance between them quickly, his hooves lightly moving across the ground. With a quick push of his back legs, he leapt over the dividing wall, coming down on three hooves, his Fimbo landing across his outstretched hoof. There was a succession of gasps in front of him, giving away more about the group. Six, just as he’d thought. One of them a mare from the sound of it. He could hear feathers rustling, but in two sets, so that meant two of them were pegasi. But from the weight of the footsteps … it was hard to tell as most guard were much more heavily built, but it sounded as if the entire group were somewhat lighter on their hooves than an earth pony. That meant the rest were unicorns.

Jambo,” Sabra said, giving the group a slight bow. “I am Sabra. Kujisalimisha.” He said, letting his own tongue flow at first. “Surrender.” There was a pause.

“Are you kidding?” It was the mare who spoke. Second from the front. “There’s one of you and six of us. And you’re blind!”

“I see well enough,” Sabra said, tossing his Fimbo in the air and catching it with the other hoof. “So I invite you again to take the peaceful path and surrender.” There was the sound of a wooden weapon, a rod of some kind, heavy-tipped, falling against the wall. One of the guards in the back had dropped their training spear.

“I surrender, I’m out,” a voice said, followed by an outburst of protests from the rest of the group.

“You can’t be serious!”

“He’s just one zebra!”

“Coward!” The last one had been the mare.

“I’ve seen this guy on the training field,” the guard said. “I’ll skip the bruises, thanks.”

“When Sergeant Ember finds out about this—” the mare said.

“She’ll commend me for smart thinking,” The guard answered in a dry tone. “Although I don’t mind sitting here and watching. Do you mind?” The sound of the last question was different, the guard was looking directly at him. Sabra shook his head.

“Fine then, coward,” the mare said. “We’ll deal with this without you.” There was the sound of wood rasping against the wall, sliding against ponies' coats. They were now armed.

Sabra sighed. “Very well,” he said, giving his Fimbo a quick spinning toss and switching hooves again. “Kuja!”

“I don’t even know what that means!” the mare yelled, her voice growing louder as she charged him. Sabra heard her hoofbeats, heard her stance, her positioning as she moved forward. He snapped his Fimbo up horizontally in front of him, levering it against one hoof, and was rewarded with a sharp crack as the guard's wooden training sword slammed into the tough bamboo. He dropped the leverage almost as quickly, spinning the staff around in a tight arc, flipping it across his hooves. The end of the staff connected once, then twice, each time on a different side of the head, then twice on each side of the mare’s breastplate, the rapidity of the blows making the impact sound like one giant ring. The mare took a step back, stunned, dropping her sword from her mouth.

Sabra didn’t hesitate. He stepped forward, twisting his body around the stunned mare. The Fimbo’s tip swung up, ringing against the helmet of the next guard in line. There was a muffled thump as that guard stumbled against the low wall. That made two.

There was the sound of flapping wings to his left and Sabra dropped, flipping his staff around his neck to preserve it’s momentum. There was the crack of wood on wood and the Fimbo flexed as it met the guard's weapon head on. Sabra used that flex, whipping the Fimbo back around his neck and cracking it against the ribs of the pegasus, who let out a startled gasp of pain before crashing to the ground. Sabra swept his Fimbo back to a ready position, stepped forward—and gasped as twin bolts of tingling numbness hit him in the chest, throwing him to the ground.

For a moment all he could do was lay in the dirt in surprise. Then as his mind caught up with who he had been facing he started laughing.

“Whoah, hey, buddy.” It was one of the guards, although Sabra wasn’t sure which one. “Are you ok?”

Mimi ni—I am fine,” He said, sitting up and pulling the blindfold from his eyes. “I laugh because I have been—” he thought for the word, “—foolish.” He rubbed at his chest with one hoof, trying to ease away the stinging sensation. “I should have expected unicorns to use magic.”

He looked at the scene around him. There were two guards still standing, both of them unicorns, one of them with his legs still braced against the ground horn aglow. One of the pegasi he’d heard was sitting on the wall with an amused expression on his face, his weapon lying on the ground. That would be the pony that had surrendered. The other pegasus was lying on the ground, both hooves clutched around his middle and gritting his teeth. The other two guard he had taken down, the unicorns, were both leaning against the low wall, ears twitching. The ring when he’d struck their helmets must have been incredible.

“Congratulations,” Sabra said, climbing to his hooves and giving the two remaining unicorns a small bow.

“Uh … thanks,” one of the two said, although the guards phrasing almost made it sound like a question. “You’re not so bad yourself—”

Sabra’s ear twitched as another sound reached his attention. Somepony was running up the field behind them, hoopsteps pounding but even. He turned just in time to see a royal guard pegasus leap over one of the low walls, one wing dangling limply at his side. A bright red flag was clutched in his teeth.

“Sweet Celestia!” One of the guards said as they caught sight of the pony galloping towards them. “It’s Twist! He’s got the flag!”

“Well then cover him, you two!” The unicorn mare yelled as several dull-orange bolts flew over the pegasus’s head. “Cover him!”

The two unicorns hesitated only a moment, then leapt into action, horns aglow. A small shimmering circle appeared in the air behind the approaching pegasus, its dull blue coloration matching the glow atop one of the unicorn's heads. Moments later a dull-orange bolt slammed into the disc with a sharp crack that made Sabra’s ears twitch. The other unicorn ran towards the pegasus, his own magic adding a second, smaller shield behind the first that glowed a soft green.

And not a moment too soon. Dawn’s head appeared over the low wall the pegasus had jumped, her horn a bright orange spike, her eyes narrowed on the retreating pegasus. A bolt leapt from her, this one much brighter and more beamlike than the others. There was another sharp crack as it met the blue shield, and then the blue shield crumbled, the unicorn who’d been maintaining it letting out a cry as the shield broke into small blue fragments, the rest of the beam slamming into the smaller green shield, which flickered, but held.

“Take the flag and go!” the one named Twist yelled, tossing it at the unicorn and spinning around. Dawn fired a second bolt, this one aimed at the unicorn, only to have it blocked in the air by Twist’s body as he threw himself in the way. Dawn fired off a second bolt a she jumped over the wall, but it went wide and a second later a blue bolt slammed into her side and she tumbled into the dirt.

“Dang it!” she yelled as the two unicorns began to gallop off. “I almost had you!” The pink mare pushed herself to her hooves, shaking her mane back into place with a toss of her head. Her eyes widened slightly as she saw Sabra for the first time. “Are you out as well?” she asked, speaking once again in smooth, cultured tones.

Sabra nodded. “I think I need to train more with you and Nova,” he said, tapping his chest with one hoof, the motion sending tingles rippling across his body. “I am unused to combating magic.”

“I believe that was the point of this whole exercise,” Dawn said as her horn lit up and a faint wave of orange rolled over her body. “So we could see exactly what we each needed to learn.” She pointed her horn at Sabra and he felt a sudden chill as her magic rushed over him. When it stopped, the tingling in his chest had vanished. “Unfortunately, it looks like we each have a lot to learn,” Dawn said, stepping over to the pegasus she had downed and tapping her horn against his side.

There was a small flash and the pegasus took a deep breath and sat up. “Sun above,” he said, arching his back. “I’m going to find that private who said you were a pacifist and make him run laps until his legs fall off.” He took a quick look at his back, smiling as his wings stretched out.

“I am a pacifist,” Dawn said, already walking past him towards the other members of the Royal Guard. Sabra noticed that the pegasus he’d downed was still holding his ribs. Perhaps he’d hit him harder than he’d realized. “But,” Dawn said as she stopped over the still grimacing pegasus, “that doesn’t mean I won’t fight back.”

* * *

Nova was getting bored. He’d slipped past a group of three unicorns and a pegasus heading in the direction of the watch tower he’d taken out with relative ease. He’d even gotten close enough to them to overhear that they’d lost the watch on the right side of the field as well, in addition to the two earth ponies who were sent to check on him. Probably either Captain Song’s or Sabra’s doing. So he had pushed towards mid field, hoping to meet up with one of them.

So far however, he thought as he peered out from a bush. It hasn’t paid off. He’d been waiting for nearly a minute to see if he spotted anypony from either team, watching across the wide section of open field that stretched all the way from the middle to the far right wall, only a few bushes and low walls breaking up the open space.

He looked upfield towards the other team's base, weighing the odds of being able to steal the flag completely alone. There had been twenty-five ponies total on the other team. Ten pegasi, at least six of which were somewhere on the other side of the field either grounded or still chasing Sky Bolt, and one who was back investigating the watch he’d taken out. Eleven unicorns, of which he knew three were accounted for as watch, another three in the small team he’d passed. Three earth ponies, none of which he’d seen. That left four pegasi, five unicorns, and three earth ponies who could theoretically still be in the game.

All in all, not bad odds, as long as I just sneak in and— his train of thought cut off as he spied two unicorns in guard armor entering the field. They were moving at a full gallop, legs sweeping back and forth as they headed in the direction of their home base and—they’ve got our flag! He could see the flash of bright red cloth being held in the lead unicorn's teeth.

Nova burst from his cover, grinning as he heard one of the two yell in surprise. His horn was already glowing a bright yellow, magic at his command, when the unicorn without the flag began firing bolts in his direction. Nova didn’t even bother trying for a shield; he’d never had luck with them. Instead he reached out with small, rapid tendrils of his own magic, nudging aside any bolt that came close to him and sending them slightly off track as he angled in on the running pair. He was running at a diagonal now, he’d cross paths with them in a minute and then—

And then what? He almost stumbled as the thought occurred to him. He couldn’t take them on hoof-to-hoof. Against one maybe, against two he’d have no chance. He deflected another bolt and it flew past his face. Maybe if I just use my magic ... He was almost at the crossing point, he had to make a decision. His horn lit up, brighter and brighter as spells from both unicorns whipped past him. He lowered his head, pointing his horn at the lead unicorn, magic pulsing with a molten heat behind his horn. He looked the lead unicorn in the eyes, gritted his teeth—

He was standing in an abandoned building, a charcoal-grey coated Night Guard bearing down on him even as the ceiling began to fall in. His horn was glowing so bright he could almost see it reflected on the guards armor, a brilliant and cold blue that made his head feel as if he’d just swallowed a whole mouthful of ice water.

Nova blinked and the memory was gone. A stun bolt shot past his face, almost grazing his mane. He narrowed his eyes, focused—and his horn went dim, the molten feeling in his mind fading as he let the magic dissipate.

The two unicorn's eyes widened, but neither of them faltered. Twin stun bolts swept into Nova, knocking him from his hooves and sending a burning, tingling sensation across his entire chest. The unicorns rushed past, both with grins on their faces as they saw Nova go down.

By the time he’d picked himself up from the ground, chest still burning with the tingly pain of the stun bolts, the signal flare from the opposing team had arced into the air. The game was over. The Dusk Guard had lost. Nova shook his mane, trying to dislodge some of the dust and twigs. Once again the question was in his mind. What are you doing here Nova? He thought as he made his way towards the side of the field. What’s the point?

He was so occupied with his own thoughts that he didn’t notice Steel watching him with a thoughtful look on his face.

* * *

“Alright everypony,” Steel said after the two teams had shaken hooves and congratulated each other. “We gave it a good shot out there, and we lost, but that’s alright. I’m still giving each of you the day off tomorrow—” There was a small cheer from Sky Bolt and Steel coughed.

“As I was saying,” he continued, giving Sky Bolt a friendly but stern smile, “you’ll each have the day off tomorrow, after our morning workout and the fitting for the diplomatic dinner. The day of the diplomatic dinner you will have more free time than normal so that you can ensure that you are at the dinner on time, with your formal wear.” Steel gave the line of Dusk Guard a stern look. “And I expect all of you to be on your best behavior during that dinner, a fact which I will repeat tomorrow. Mess up, and you’ll be running yourself to Los Pegasus, understood?” He paused, waiting for a response. “I said, am I understood?”

This time the effect was immediate. “Yes sir!” the five ponies shouted, almost as one.

Steel smiled and nodded. “Good. Now,” He began to pace back and forth in front of the line of ponies. “I still want to say something about our performance today. I’m not surprised that we lost. I am however, expectant that we each learned something from it. Sky Bolt?”

“Yes, boss?” she asked.

Steel held back a sigh. Hunter ... he thought. I can choke Hunter for that later. “You were assigned to work with Nova, correct?”

“Yes, boss, I was.” Her ears drooped, but then sat up as she shot a dirty look at Nova. “Until that knucklehead left me behind!”

“I didn’t leave you behind,” Nova said with a roll of his eyes. “You wouldn’t follow my lead!”

“And who said you should lead?” Sky Bolt shot back, rising up in the air. “Why should I listen to anything that you have to say?”

“Maybe so you don’t get every pegasus on the other tea—”

“Enough!” Steel bellowed, pushing his voice out with every bit of muscle he could muster. It wasn’t exactly the Royal Canterlot voice, but it was close enough. Both Nova and Sky Bolt’s face snapped back to him as they sank back on their haunches, ears low.

This,” Steel said, putting as much emphasis on the word as he could, “is exactly why I wanted us to have this little game today.” He looked up and down the line of ponies. “We are the Dusk Guard. That means that we are to be the most elite team of Guard in all of Equestria. As of this afternoon—” he said, looking at each member of the team, “—we are not. This isn’t because of our skills in various areas, or because of what we can or cannot do, but because we don’t work like a team.”

He paused, a thought occurring to him. “No," he said, correcting himself. "I'm mistaken. It's not just that. If this was just about teamwork, we’d be able to pull it off, even now. Teamwork is something that can be taught, the actions recited. No, what we need is something a little bit more.” Steel paused and smiled as the memory of his first meeting with Princess Luna flashed across his mind. “And up until now I think I’d almost missed it. Ponyfeathers, I had it told straight to me and I almost missed it.”

He looked at the ponies standing at attention in front of him. Hunter, with his hat. Sabra, who was giving him the same look he’d been giving his blindfold for the past ten minutes, one of stony confusion. Sky Bolt, who was still fluttering her wings and was either muttering insults or equations under her breath, he wasn’t sure which. Dawn, with her unflappable and slightly un-approachable attitude. Nova, who was already on rough terms because of his past. He didn’t really know any of them.

“We need more than just teamwork if we want to be the best,” Steel said, preparing himself. “We need to be … friends.” Some of the ponies brows furrowed. “I was going to leave you all with standing orders to evaluate your team performance so that we could train that, but now I don’t think that’s going to be enough. Each one of us comes from a different background. Each one of us has a different story. And,” he said, “each one of us has something past their skills to add to this team.”

Steel paused and cleared his throat. “To tell you all the honest truth though, I’m not exactly sure how to do that,” he said, noticing that Sky Bolt and Nova in particular looked quite shocked at this pronouncement, although Dawn was probably hiding her own reaction behind that impassive mask. “So here are my orders. Think about how today went and figure out where you can improve, but if you can, talk to somepony else on the team about it. After that, I just want you to all promise me to give everypony here the chance to know something about you.” Steel looked at each one of them. “Can you each do that?”

Hunter’s response was almost immediate, a “Sure thing boss” that got Dawn to crack a small smile and nod her own agreement. Sabra agreed in that same calm way that he always did, while Sky Bolt looked at both Sabra and Nova before saying anything. Nova was the last to speak up, uttering a simple “Yes, sir” before going silent once more.

“Alright then,” Steel said. “I’m going to try the same. For now, you’ve all got the rest of the day off. Except for you Nova,” he said, pointing with one hoof. “I’m calling in that favor you owed me right now.” Nova’s ears fell back, but to the colt's credit he didn’t say anything. “Follow me to my office,” Steel said as the rest of the team began to dissipate. “We need to have a little talk.”

Author's Note:

Sweet Tartarus I'd forgotten what a huge chapter this was! This took almost a half-hour just to go through a reformat!

Anyway, not much to say here. I hope you enjoyed reading through the team's adventures on the CTF field. I put it in the story for three reasons. The first was that without it, I felt like things got a little too slow at this point in the story (which, in case you're counting, is about half-way done). The second was that it would be a big letdown if you followed all of these characters coming together (all of part one basically) and then didn't get to see them do something. Third, I needed to establish the baseline for the majority of the characters. Up until now, we've not had a chance to see their skills in action ... and their failings.

Plus, it was a great opportunity to explore Nova's character a bit more and lead into his ... oh wait, spoilers! You'll find out this weekend!

And in case any of you were wondering, yes, CTF will probably make a reappearance later in the series, either in the side-stories, or in the main stories themselves.