• 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 5

Chapter 5

The morning sun was beginning to rise over the horizon when the Overnight Express pulled into Canterlot Station, disgorging its few weary passengers into the early dawn air. Steel yawned as he stepped out of the carriage he’d been sleeping in, blinking through gritty eyes. Years of experience traveling had led him to be able to sleep in most positions, often no matter how contorted as long as he was in need of it. But nothing could ever get rid of the stiff muscles acquired from such an awkward rest or even worse, the bed-mane. He rolled his head, eliciting a satisfying crack from his neck that sent a twitch of relief down his back, and then he started across the station.

Canterlot station was, as most public locations in the capital city of Equestria, incredibly ornate. Steel trotted past marble pillars wrapped in gold and silver plant sculptures similar in style to the palace itself, his hooves echoing off the marble flooring and across the wide hall. Despite his weariness, his mind was alert running over his mental checklist.

Hunter had agreed to become a member of the Guard; they’d worked out the finer details the day before and gotten Hunter’s signature on the contract that Princess Luna had provided. He’d been fairly certain that Hunter would agree to the position. The pegasus had never been one to sit still for long. Even when he’d been partnered with Swift Wind the two of them had always been on the move, jumping from assignment to assignment as they worked. And then there had been the accident…

Steel’s pace slowed, the ringing echo of his hoofsteps becoming jumbled at the change in tempo. Hunter hadn’t deserved—well no one had, really. But Hunter hadn’t deserved what had happened. And Steel could tell that even though Hunter was still the same friend he’d met in the Badlands all those years ago, there was a hurt inside that pained him.

Steel shook his head, turning for the station restrooms. Hunter would be fine. He, however, needed to quickly clean up before he continued on to his next destination. If he didn’t catch her early in the morning, he likely wouldn’t at all. Then again, showing up in a dirty, unkempt state wouldn’t earn him anything either.

The station's restrooms were as ornate and polished as the rest of the station, with white marble floors that shone in the early morning light. Three massive skylights glistened overhead, enchanted with a mirror-like tint that kept any pegasus flying overhead from seeing through them. A massive mirror dominated the wall behind the sinks, outlined with a golden trim, and Steel could see himself in it, his mane flattened to one side and his coat sitting funny on his face. At the far end of the restroom a red-coated unicorn in a maroon vest was putting the finishing polish on the last of the faucets, his magic running a white cloth over the metal until it gleamed.

Steel felt a bit guilty to be the one to ruin some of the pony’s hard work, but he needed a way to freshen up and he hadn’t awoken early enough to use the facilities on the train before it had reached Canterlot. Fortunately the restroom had been designed with this in mind, and he had no trouble fitting his head under the faucet's cool spray. He ran his hooves through his mane, trying to get it out of the obnoxious fold it had been in when he’d awoken.

Hunter wasn’t due to show up for another two days, giving him a little bit of leeway with his schedule. If he somehow missed Dawn this morning, he could always try again the next morning, although the sooner he contacted her the better. It wasn’t that she had any other obligations to think of. She was retired just as he was—or had been—and he knew she’d want the job more than anything. But being Dawn, she wouldn’t want him to know that, or at least she would want him to act as if he didn’t. She’d want a list of reasons why she should even consider coming out of retirement, and even more why she should go into the Guard, and then she’d spend at least a day thinking on it before she gave him an answer. But if he didn’t play along with that, she’d turn him down no matter what.

Given that she’ll take a day, maybe two, to decide, he thought, rubbing his hooves through his mane and frowning as it stubbornly resisted his efforts to bring it to shape. I could probably go to Canterville tomorrow, or maybe even tonight depending on how long I have until she meets with me again. I might even be able to stop by Canterlot Cloudrunners and see if that pegasus engineer—he rolled his hoof, lost in thought as he searched for her name, —Sky Bolt! That's it. I might be able to recruit her if things go smoothly enough. He ran his hooves under the sink once more, dripping water into his mane and getting it as sopping wet as he could manage.

Steel sighed as the stubborn mane popped back into the same sleep-affected position. Since he was going to be living in a palace barracks for the foreseeable future, he would need to make certain that his home in Canterville was taken care of for an absence longer than the few weeks he’d prepared it for. He didn’t want to sell his home; he’d grown quite fond of the small place, even if it had felt empty. It was something that was his, somewhere he could stay that had acquired a sense of permanence in the few years he had lived there. Maybe he could rent it out to somepony. But then that didn’t quite sit right with him. Cappy pressed her way into his mind unbidden. She was already watching his home already, why didn’t he ask her—

He shut the water off with a bit more force than he needed to, grabbing one of the provided travel towels hanging near the mirror and rubbing it across his face with enough force to make his cheeks warm. He’d find someone to do it. It didn’t have to be Cappy. He’d already asked enough of her as it was. Maybe Summer. He finished toweling his mane and took a look at himself in the mirror. He wasn’t the cleanest he’d ever been, but at least his muzzle felt clear and his mane was no longer folded over on itself. He gave his head a shake and, satisfied that his mane was standing the way it should, headed for the exit, dropping the towel in a nearby receptacle.

* * *

The home that the file directed him to was near the outer edge of the Canterlot noble district, a tall and spacious design that was almost gothic. It was tightly pressed against the houses nearby, built right up to the edges of its lot and towering overhead with steep buttresses. It was made of a dark red brick, making the white trim that ran up every buttress stand out all the more vividly. An elaborate stained glass window filled the space above the front double doors, two red unicorns rearing, their horns alight with magic. With the buttresses terminating in sharp peaks above the roof, Steel could easily imagine the surrounding colts and fillies in the neighborhood viewing it as being inhabited by some spook.

He lifted a hoof, giving the door three quick raps that echoed through the home. Around him the last shadows of the dawn faded as the base of the sun lifted over the Canterlot skyline. From what the file had said, she was an early riser and quite often had left her home by the time the sun was up, but with any luck—

The doorhandle in front of him took on a dull-orange glow and swung inward, a pink colored mare stepping into its place, her horn glowing with magic. “Yes?” she asked before the door had even finished swinging open, “may I help you?”

Her voice was crisp, carefully enunciated with only a hint of a Manehatten accent. Blue eyes regarded him from under a carefully styled dull-orange mane, arranged in the straight style that from what he had seen were the height of fashion among the Canterlot nobility that summer. She was wearing a small saddlebag on her side, but he could still make out the cutie mark on her flank, a bandage wrap sitting across a syringe. If the gradient pink coat and the mane hadn’t been clear identifiers, the cutie mark certainly was.

“Ms. Dawn Triage?” he asked nonetheless. He had to play the game by her rules here.

“Yes, that’s me,” she answered, her eyes narrowing. “Do I know you?”

He shook his head. “Not really. We met once, a few years ago at one of your birthday parties. I also assisted a Ranger squad a few years before that in the White Tail Woods that was later treated by you.“

“Ah, Steel Song,” she said, nodding her head and giving him a polite smile. “Yes, I do remember your name,” she said as his eyebrows raised in impressed surprised. “I don’t forget the names of those who bring those under my care back to me. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Well,” he said, running over his plan in his head. “It’s a bit complicated. Would you mind if I came in?”

“Not at all.” She stepped aside, motioning for him to follow her into the home. The door shut behind him as he stepped into a vast entryway, the interior of the home opening up in front of him. It was spacious and somewhat grand, befitting the home's place on the edge of the noble section. The ceiling overhead was domed, subtle hints of the gothic architecture seen outside spread tentatively across the interior all the way to the roof. A grand staircase sat to one side, a sweeping curve that that made its way up the side of the room to the second story, where a balcony gracefully swept out to overlook the first floor.

“This way please,” Dawn said, stepped through another set of doors, this pair already open and draped in heavy red cloth.

“Beautiful home,” he said as he followed her, his hooves sinking into thick, plush carpet.

"Thank you,” she said, pulling up a decoratively cushioned seat with her magic and motioning him to its partner nearby. “My uncle left it to me when he died. He knew my love of the Equestrian Classical period and wanted me to have it.” She gave a small, polite laugh, a gentle smile on her face. “I never had the heart to tell him that the gothic architecture wasn’t quite my style. Now,” she said as he seated himself. “What is it that you wished to talk to me about, Mr. Song?”

“I came here to offer you a job,” he said, choosing the words carefully as they left his mouth.

“I’m retired.” There was no emotion in her voice as she said the words, the inflection was as flat as he could have managed it. “You might have heard that.”

“I know,” He said, nodding. “I also know that it wasn’t by choice. You were forced into retirement.”

“Perhaps I’ve learned to enjoy it,” she said, her voice curt, controlled. Steel took a measured breath. This was exactly what he had been expecting, a sort of social game.

“Your time at the local hospital says otherwise,” he said, giving his head a slight tilt in her direction. “But even if I didn’t know about that I’d still trust my instinct. And my instinct tells me that you’re not enjoying your retirement. You—“ he said, gesturing at her with one hoof, “—want to be back out doing what you do best.”

“And that was?”

“And that is,” he said, emphasizing the word. “That is helping ponies. You were a doctor and a medic, the greatest the Rangers ever saw. Judging from the number of medical articles published in journals these days under what are clearly pseudonyms, and the number of ‘mysterious assists’ at the local hospitals, you still are.”

Dawn’s expression had changed from cool disinterest to a look of suspicion now. “I’m afraid your ...” She paused for a moment. “Your resourceful knowledge has me at a bit of a loss, Mr. Song. Last I heard your name mentioned, you were retired, just as I was. In fact, if I remember correctly, didn’t we retire in the same year?” she asked, rolling her head back, a slow, exaggerated motion. “How is it that I get the feeling that you are, shall we say, less than retired?”

Steel sat back, a smug expression on his face. “I think we could both agree that I’m about as retired as you are.”

There was a moments pause. “Indeed,” Dawn said, leaning forward. “So then, I’ll admit, I am intrigued. What kind of job are you offering me, knowing as much about me as you seem to? And who are you working for?”

Steel took in a quiet breath. This was the moment when the dice would be thrown. He would explain the job and make his offer, and in a day or two she would let him know if he’d won her over or not. “I’m offering you a position as a combat medic and doctor for a very particular set of ponies,” he said, waiting for her response.

“Go on.”

Excellent! “You would be working for the Equestrian government. The Princesses specifically. In fact, I report to them directly,” he said, noticing a subtle but small widening of her eyes and taking care to keep his voice level. “In light of recent events in and around Equestria, I have been tasked with assembling a third division of the Guard—“

“No,” she said, cutting him off with a raised hoof. “I’ve told the Guard time and time again: they are a waste of my talents. Sitting around in a medical station all day on the faint chance that somepony sprains a muscle or actually gets hurt? My answer is no.” She rose from her seat.

“You should let me finish,” Steel said, fixing his eyes on her as she made to leave the room. “I know you turned down those jobs, it was in your file. But I’m still here.”

“Then you may be as large a fool as those other Guard,” she said, a look of annoyance on her face. Still, she slowed, stopping her movement out of the room. “I did not devote my life to medicine to spend my days waiting around in an office. Now if you—”

“And you wouldn’t,” Steel said, risking the interruption. “The Dusk Guard isn’t going to be like the other Guard divisions.”

“Really?” Dawn said, her voice cool. “Then tell me,” she said, settling once again in her chair and looking him right in the eyes. “What makes this Dusk Guard different?”

“For starters, we’re small,” he said. “Only myself and five other ponies. We’re going for skill and ability, not numbers. We’re going to train harder, much harder than the other guard divisions. You’re familiar with the training regimen used by the Rangers?”

“Of course,” she said, giving one hoof a dismissive wave at his question. “I helped them refine it.”

“Ours will be tougher. Every pony on this team will be in peak physical condition, and I’ll need someone to make certain that each one of them is. Additionally,” he said as her mouth began to open, “I’ll want those who are on the team to keep their skills sharp. Which means—” he said, preparing his trump card, “—that you will have the full weight of the Dusk Guard behind you. You would train with us, monitor the health of the team, deploy with us, and you would also be expected to keep your skills in sharp practice.”

“Meaning?” she gave him a hopeful look.

“Meaning that we could require you to ‘assist’ any medical institution that you felt required your expertise in order to keep your skills sharp.”

That had done it. He could see the hungry look in her eyes now, a yearning. She wouldn’t just be another retired doctor, she’d be a doctor again and free to help anyone without the red tape.

“Would you mind if I put on some music?” she asked, turning her head and lighting her horn without waiting for his response. A gramophone in the corner took on a dull orange glow and a gentle stringed melody began to flow through the room. “Notezart,” she said. “Always help me think. Now,” she said, turning her focus back to him. “What is the purpose of this Dusk Guard? How am I to be assured that my skills will be well used?”

“Essentially to serve as special respondents to whatever events that either I or the Princesses deem relevant,” Steel said. “Everything from natural disasters to full-out invasions like the changeling attack a few weeks ago.”

“Would I be given a rank? Expected to fight if needs be?”

“Yes to both,” he answered. “Think of your time in the Rangers, but possibly with much more expected of you.” If the promise of being able to work again hadn’t piqued her interest, that certainly had to.

“You do know that I’m a pacifist?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes, I do. Of course, going off a few of the stories in your file and some from those you’ve treated, it seems you’re fairly flexible with the word.” Very flexible, he added mentally. Some of those files had been educational indeed.

She gave him a smug smile, sitting back. “As long as we’re on the same page then. I’ll do it.”

Steel felt his jaw drop as his mind ground to a halt. ‘You’ll—you’ll do it?” he stammered.

Dawn gave a polite laugh. “You seem so surprised, did you expect me to say no?”

“Well, no,” he admitted, recovering. “I expected you to take you time about it to make me sweat.”

“Normally I would have,” Dawn said, rising from her chair. “But I’m actually meeting with a few of my old commanders from the Rangers today for lunch, including the one who forced me into retirement because of my age.” Her face took on a smug grin. “I can’t pass up a chance to casually mention that I’m serving in a new elite Guard detachment at the behest of the Princesses now can I?” The gentle sounds of Notezart faded as she switched the gramophone off with her magic. “I assume I’ll need to relocate? When and where?”

“We’ve been issued a barracks on the palace grounds,” Steel said, rising to his feet and following her out of the room towards the front door. “We’ll be assembling there at five A.M. sharp in eight days.”

“Excellent,” Dawn said as she once again opened the front door. “Will that be official orientation, explanation and introduction only? Or will we begin training?”

“We’ll train that morning, either a light workout of my own devising or an enhanced workout if you can generate one before then.”

She was shaking her head before the words even finished leaving his mouth. “Not until I see the condition of each of the team members. I’ll observe them first.” Her horn made a final bright glow shutting the door behind them with a click. “So then, Captain Steel?”

He gave her a small nod. “Correct.”

“Well then Captain, I have prior appointments I must be keeping,” she said, snapping him a quick Ranger salute. “I shall see you in eight days, and I do expect that my rank and pay will be at least somewhat increased from my time in the Rangers.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” he said, returning the salute with one his own. “See you in eight days.” She gave him a curt nod and then set off down the street at a brisk trot.

Well, he thought to himself as he began heading the other direction. That actually went better than I expected. Two down, three to go. But first, Canterville.

* * *

Canterville hadn’t changed a bit in the few days he’d been gone, which wasn’t surprising. In the five years that he’d lived there, the largest two changes that he could recall had been two new homes that had been built, one of which was his. The next biggest change he could think of was the time the students had painted the normally red schoolhouse a vivid green after winning a competition with their teacher...

He’d stopped by his home already and found everything as he’d left it, although the garden had looked much more lively. Summer and Cappy’s efforts no doubt. That or his gardening skills were even worse than he’d thought.

He’d collected a few extra things from his room, a few odds and ends that he was going to want with him now that he knew he would be gone for some time, as well as the last volume of his journals, and set them by the door so that he could quickly collect them on his return trip to Canterlot. Then, pausing at the rain barrel to splash what little water it had held to clean some of the dust from his legs, he’d set off down the road towards Canterville.

The Post Office was closed, its door tightly shut and a cheerful little sign inviting him to “come back later” hanging in the window. Steel stood there for a moment in surprise, the hot sun beating down overhead. Ordinarily the Post Office was open until the evening, for it to be closed this early in the afternoon ... He looked up and down the street, checking to see if any other business were closed. None were.

Maybe Summer knows where she is, Steel thought, as he turned towards the backstreet that lead towards the small shop. They’re close friends, I’ll check there before I try Cappy's house.

He stepped into the shop, the small bell above the door letting out a faint ring, but no head poked up from behind the counter and he couldn’t see anyone managing the shelves.

“Just a minute!” came a cry from the back of the store. A moment later the blue coated unicorn backed out of the back entrance, a large crate of produce floating behind her in a magical grip. “Sorry about that, we’re just taking care of some new—“ she turned her head and caught sight of him, “—oh! Hi, Steel!”

There was a yell from the back room followed by a loud crash that made Summer grimace. “Cappy! I told you that was too many boxes—“

“Steel!” Cappy burst into the room, sliding past Summer with a huge grin on her face. “You’re back!” She skidded to a halt in front of Steel with a huge smile on her face. “Guess that trip was a lot quicker than you thought huh?”

“Well, sort of,” he said. He could feel a pit growing in his stomach at his words. “What were you two doing?” he asked, trying to draw her attention away.

“Spout’s garden had a pretty big turnout, so he sold us some of the extras,” Summer said, setting her crate on the counter. “Cappy closed down early to lend me a hoof getting some of the extra vegetables taken care of. Although,” she said with a thin-eyed look at Cappy. “If she’s going to keep dropping things…”

“Hey, I warned you!” Cappy said as she flashed her smile at her friend. “I work for the postal service.” She turned back to Steel and gave him another bright smile that made his knees feel weak. “So, how was Canterlot? Did you see your sister?”

“Canterlot was fine, and so was my sister. And no,” he said, anticipating Cappy’s next question. “No cutie marks for Jammer or Sparkle yet.”

“Aww, well, it’ll happen,” she said, smiling at him. “Still, it’s nice to have you back here.”

“It’d be nicer if he’d help us with these vegetables!” Summer yelled from the back room. When had she even slipped away? He hadn’t noticed her move.

“Oh come on, Summer. He just got back!” Cappy called back.

“No, I’d like to help.” He gave his shoulders a roll and started towards the back room. “I used to work all day in armor,” he said to Cappy as they walked. “I’ll be fine.”

“Oh, I gotcha,” Cappy said, giving him a wink. “You want a challenge. Hey, Summer!” she called, angling her head in Steel’s direction. “How many boxes do you think we can fit on his back?”

The three of them worked in the back for a while, making small talk while organizing the various bushels of vegetables that Sprout had delivered into boxes and then stacking those in the massive cooler that Summer kept for surpluses such as the current one. Steel began to relax as he sorted and moved crates of cucumbers and tomatoes. The conversation was light, mostly jokes and talk about the town or what Summer and Cappy had planned for the next few weeks. Before he knew it an hour had passed and the last of the crates was carefully being stacked by Summer’s magic in the cooler.

“Well,” Summer said as she spun the cooler door shut. “That should keep me good on greens for the next week or two.” There was a faint thump as the cooler door locked shut and the blue glow from Summer’s horn diffused. “Thanks for your help, you two.”

“Not a problem,” Steel said, Cappy echoing her own sentiments just seconds after his.

“So, Steel,” Summer said as they headed for the front of the shop. “What are you going to do now that you’re back?”

A nervous feeling crept into Steel’s stomach, not at all unlike the feeling he’d had when being interviewed by the Princesses a few days earlier. “Well—I’m not actually back,” he said, turning to Cappy. “I actually stopped by to see if you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on my house for a bit longer.”

“Oh,” Cappy said, her golden eyes seemed to lose some of their sparkle. “I thought you were—nevermind. For how long?”

“I’m not really sure. At least a year, maybe longer.” Cappy’s face fell as the words left his mouth, joined by the sinking feeling in his stomach, but he wasn’t done. “The Princesses themselves asked me to Captain a new Guard division. As small and empty as the place is, I want to keep it. It’s the home I built, and I’d like to be able to come use it when I’m on—are you ok?” Cappy’s face had taken on a slightly sick look.

“I’m fine,” Cappy said, although her voice was less upbeat than it usually was. “I’ll watch your place for you, don’t worry about it.” She gave him a small smile, but he could tell her heart wasn’t in it. “It was nice to see you again.”

“It was nice—” the bell over the door tinkled as it shut behind her, “—to see you too,” he said with a sigh. She was already gone. He hung his head slightly and looked over at Summer, who was staring at him with a look he couldn’t identify.

“Well,” she said after a seconds pause. “I need to close up, so I’m afraid you’ll have to head back to Canterlot now.” There was a clatter as she flipped the store’s sign over to closed with a sharp burst of magic and pulled the door open, ushering him out with one hoof. “Oh, and Steel?”

He paused in front of the entryway to the shop and turned to see Summer staring at him with a flat expression.


“Don’t worry about your house,” she said, her voice tight. “Whenever you come back, if you come back, it’ll be just like you left it. Empty.” The door slammed shut with a crash, leaving him alone in the empty street.

He sighed as he walked up the street, his body drooping. Part of him felt sick for what he had done. Yes, he’d promised her that he’d let her know if it would have been anything large, but what was he supposed to do? It wasn’t like he was some integral part of Canterville, he mainly kept to himself. Sure, maybe she was—no. He pushed the thought away. It doesn’t matter, she’s half your age, and just being friendly. You’re an aged stallion whose daily duty involves putting yourself where you could be killed.

He paused, looking back down the road towards the simple white-and-blue Post Office and letting out another sigh. Somehow, his thoughts weren’t making him feel any better. The pit in his stomach felt even larger, like it was gnawing into his chest, an empty, hollow, feeling. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and took the first step of many.

It would be a long walk back to Canterlot.