• Published 11th May 2013
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Denuo Fortuna - Firecaller

She was a unicorn on the run. She needed somewhere to hide, somewhere quiet and boring. The tourist pamphlet was out of date but the place sounded ideal... Ponyville

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Chapter 11 - A Campfire Story

Chapter 11 - A Campfire Story - Redone

Sunbeam looked morosely at the campfire.

“Goodie, camping. Like I’ve never done this before. I mean, why would I want the perfectly good soft bed at home when I can lay on the cold, hard ground. Why on earth would I want to be close to the kitchen with all its chilled beer, the bathroom with its hot water and flushing…”

Applejack playfully slapped her shoulder. “Aww, quit your moping.”

Sunbeam turned to Applejack. “Okay, what I don’t understand is: how did Pinkie get in? I’m sure I locked the door as I much prefer dealing with my hangovers in private.”

“Partner, some things are best left unknown.”

“Yeah, well there I was, on the couch and totally not whimpering in pain when Pinkie waltzes in and tells me she had a 'Super-duper' plan and that I was invited. For invited read: I was coming no matter what. And at that point, I was in no condition to run or hide. Heck, I think it would have taken me several attempts just to find the floor. Now if I’d had a few more hours I might have...”

Rainbow shook her head. “It wouldn’t have worked. Running or hiding from Pinkie doesn’t work. Trust me on this.”

Sunbeam looked up at Rainbow with surprise. After several seconds, Sunbeam rubbed her eyes. “For the record, I find that statement incredibly unsettling. Anyway, here I am, out camping, away from all things soft and fluffy. Still, I’m not alone and as they say: misery loves company...”

* * *

Rarity sighed. “But Pinkie dear, I'm far too busy to take time out for a camping trip. I want to help Sunbeam, of course I do. Some bonding would help her open up but... Please don't look at me like that Pinkie, Pinkie! Please don't... I'm not looking Pinkie. I'm not looking. Gah! Stop that Pinkie. Okay! Okay! I'll go! I'll go... Now if you don't mind, I've got to cram several days worth of fashion into one now.”

Pinkie smiled. “Now to get Rainbow and Applejack.”

Rarity watched her bounce out the door and shook her head. “Poor dears… they haven’t got a chance have they?”

* * *

The campsite was quite close due Sunbeam's still-healing injuries. She hardly limped now, so it wasn't too bad. but she had outright refused to ride in the wagon pulled by one of the others.

Sitting on the log next to the fire, she watched the Cutie Mark Crusaders attempt to put up a tent.

Sunbeam winced every time one picked up the mallet.

‘Those poor tent pegs, I don’t think they’ve done anything to deserve to be treated like that.’

Sunbeam looked up at the rapidly-darkening sky as the sun set.

‘At least I have a job proposal to go back to now. I can try it out, see what working at ‘The Swift’ is like. Plus, it isn’t too far from my house.’

She looked back at the ‘tent’ that the Cutie Mark Crusaders were standing proudly next to.

Sunbeam’s train of thought de-railed. “Uh… How?"

Rainbow put a hoof around her neck. “Don’t worry, we packed an extra tent.”

* * *

“Come on Sunbeam, you must be able to think of some scary or creepy campfire story.” Applejack sighed. “It’s kinda traditional before turning in.”

Sunbeam sipped her coffee. “Well apparently ‘The Slendermare’ is old, ‘The Headless Horsemare’ isn’t scary, ‘The Rusty Horseshoe’ story...'

“Is boring.” Scootaloo chimed in. The other crusaders nodded.

Rainbow smirked at her. “Come on Sunbeam, surely you can think of a story that could keep us awake tonight.”

Sunbeam wracked her head for something to tell, something that fit for young fillies ears anyway.

‘Okay, I think I can write off most of the stories from Silver’s Mercenaries. And the whole Zebra shaman thing is -never- being told...’

Her eyes narrowed, a tiny smile on her face, as an idea popped into her head. “Okay then, I think I’ve got a story.”

Sunbeam took a breath in. “Right, first off, the backstory. This is a story told to me by ponies. Many, many times over I might add, so other ponies would learn from it.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Like we haven’t that opening before.”

Rarity hugged her shawl over her. “Do give the poor dear a chance Rainbow.”

Sunbeam gave a nod towards Rarity. “Thank you Rarity. Right, this all starts a little over a thousand years ago, in a country very much like Equestria. This was because they modeled it on Equestria. They had two princesses, a Day and a Night Princess. They even ended up fighting like our Princesses.”

“Now these dual rulers were kind, fair, wise, the whole nine yards kinda thing. By all accounts, the whole place was pretty much a paradise.”

Sunbeam smiled. “‘Pretty much… Now you see there was the problem. Ponies being ponies, there was still crime and corruption. This was where the two princesses didn't quite see eye to eye. The Night Princess was of the opinion that it was part of pony nature and best to just try and keep a lid on it as much as possible. However, the Day Princess was of the opinion that 'her little ponies' were better than that. That not only could it be stopped, it should be stopped. Totally.”

“Now after one particularly bad event, which was never really recorded, the Day Princess decided no more.” Sunbeam looked upwards. “She decided to remove to flaws of paradise, without telling the Night Princess…. And thus the seeds were sown for the fall of paradise.”

Sunbeam’s eye’s glazed over, her voice becoming dull as she repeated the words on rote. “The Day Princess decided to set up an organization, a glorious organization to bring about peace and harmony to all her ponies. An organization to remove the last flaws from paradise. These gallant ponies were to be her 'sharp edge' on the war on crime.” Sunbeam rolled her eyes as she made circular motions in front of her with a hoof. “Yadda, yadda, yadda…”

“Quietly she recruited the best she could find from all fields and gave them guidelines to operate under. A slightly relaxed version of the rules the normal guard operated under. But still a straight-jacket to what they eventually decided was needed.”

“So with all this talent, they made many breakthroughs and advances. It is rumoured…” She glanced around at the assembled ponies with a half smile. “...That they even made a set of powerful amulets that allowed the six users to wield enormous power. Those six ponies would be able to act as judge and jury. No one pony making a decision on guilt or punishment, but rather it would be a subconscious consensus deciding guilt and punishment. It was a travelling court that could dispense justice in seconds. But this still wasn’t enough. As the organization toiled away under the constraints of the law, they seemed to make little headway. For every gain there seemed to be a loss. For every criminal caught, another sprung up.”

Sunbeam winked at them. “Ponies can be awfully stubborn at times can’t they?.”

“Anyway, there was an incident. An incident which set the organization on the path to…” Sunbeam winced. “...Glory. Short version, the brother of the head of the organization was killed in a revenge attack. Now the head of the organization did what a normal pony would do under those circumstances. Their best operatives found those responsible and killed them. No court, no judge, no waste of time or materials.” Sunbeam looked away, her voice holding just a trace of bitterness. “And thus they set the tone for future generations.”

Sunbeam rolled her shoulders. “Now here was where the head of the organization failed in his willpower. He became more and more distraught at his actions at the days went by. However bold ponies...” She made small circular motions by the side of her head with a hoof. “Yeah… bold ponies… In the organization noted that the crime rate had fallen dramatically in the aftermath. They realized they had frightened the flawed criminals of the land. Now these ponies saw their leader faltering. To stop him undoing the good he had done they decided to act before he went to the Princesses and confessed his actions.”

“He was retired.” She smiled evilly. “And not in the dictionary meaning of the way.”

Sunbeam paused and sighed, the dull, reciting tone returning. “These bold ponies took power in the organization and threw off that straightjacket of rules and laws. While still answerable to the Day Princess in theory, they tailored their reports to make acceptable reading to the Princess to conceal their true actions from her.” Sunbeam yawned. “Apparently it was a glorious time. The flawed ponies in paradise were being retired and soon organized crime would be a thing of the ugly past, not of the glorious future.”

Sunbeam stuck her tongue out.

“Paradise was complete... almost. While organized crime was gone, crimes of opportunity and passion still occurred. Now this troubled these great…” Sunbeam pantomimed sticking her hoof down her throat. “...Ponies, for it meant a flaw still existed in paradise.”

Sunbeam rolled her shoulders again. “So they turned all their efforts to a way to counter this. To make ponies worthy of the Tartarus…. sorry, paradise, that the organization was striving for.”

“Success, one of their best and brightest found a way to predict such events, with a ninety percent accuracy rate. Unfortunately how this was done was lost in the purges, a loss that all ponykind should lament. Yeah, that would have worked great at Las Pegasus.” Sunbeam blinked. “Excuse me. But now their operatives could go and remove these ponies before they became flawed. The ten percent error was deemed an acceptable cost for paradise.”

Sunbeam’s voice turned back to bored. “So wonderful, glorious, boring paradise existed. Yay... There was no crime as ponies hurried from one point to another as quickly as possible. Most stayed inside, refusing to go out unless absolutely necessary, further reducing the chance for them to become flawed. Yay… Wonderful crime-free paradise. Did I mention Yay?”

A smile flicked on her face. “But this was only for a brief moment. A new event was predicted, many months away, a horrible, terrible event. Paradise was to be lost, sending them all into a… “ Sunbeam adopted a high Trottingham accent as she placed a hoof on her chest. “...Frightful panic.”

“They looked for the catalyst, the reason for this horrific loss. They expended many, many resources until they found it... The Night Princess herself would be the catalyst.” Sunbeam flashed an evil grin again. “Oopsie.”

“Now the Night Princess was the sister to the Day Princess so any action taken against her would have repercussions. Well duh! What troubled them most was that if a Princess was flawed, could not everypony be flawed? The princesses were supposed to be perfection, any other view was close to heresy in their books. So they thought about this, they examined it, and finally a breakthrough in self-denial was achieved. They reasoned that the Princess herself couldn’t be flawed, it was an outside influence acting upon her that would make her flawed.” Sunbeam shrugged. “Don’t ask me how that’s any different, I’m just repeating it. Doesn’t make any sense to me either.”

“But try as they might they couldn’t discover this source and what with time rushing towards the fall, they had to make a decision. A decision that would have left lesser ponies mad with despair.”

Sunbeam smiled again. “And very bad decision it turns out.”

“They would retire the Night Princess! Now this decision was not taken lightly. Apparently, it even caused a brief conflict in the organization itself, but after honorably retiring the objecting members, the organization was now pure and ready to act.”

“They selected thirty of their best and trained them day and night. All their resources were diverted into making powerful amulets which enabled the users to operate by themselves. Each one a powerful tool for paradise. Each one with the power close to that of an Alicorn. This came at a cost however; being able to use such an amulet indepently would have terrible consequences for the user.

Sunbeam rubbed under her chin. “You see, the six amulets previously constructed could only be used together as a safety function. They allowed each bearer to draw a safe fraction of the magic needed through each of them, with the flow combining to becoming more than the sum of its parts. Whereas a single user would have to draw all the power needed through themselves at sustained alicorn levels. Now a pony's body isn’t supposed to channel that much magic in one go and will burn out if the user tries to use too much. Like fighting a Princess for example. But those insane… I mean brave ponies, accepted this as a just cost for paradise. Such was their... devotion, shall we say.”

“The night came and those ponies marched off to glory, to secure paradise.”

Sunbeam took a sip of her coffee.

“No pony knows what went wrong. The records do show that it all kicked-off before it was meant to though. The Day Princess joined in, fighting beside her sister. Now that really didn’t help the plan. While the Night Princess herself was grievously injured in the course of the battle, she lived. Thus cursing paradise to its terrible fate of being able to make its own decisions.”

“So, the dust settled and all those brave, suicidal ponies were all dead. But… they had made sure that they carried nothing that would link them to the organization just in case this happened. So in the many investigations that followed, some carried out by the organization itself, nopony found anything to identify who was to blame.”

“The Night Princess became, justifiably, paranoid at this. Thinking things were being hidden from her, she became distrustful of her sister and began seeing plots against her everywhere.”

“It was during this time that the Night Princess started infiltrating dreams, looking for those plots.” Sunbeam shivered and looked around briefly before continuing. “The organization was aware she could do this and had taken steps to keep her out of their dreams. But when the Night Princess flies into your room one night and makes physical contact with you as you sleep… no drug is gonna stop that. She’d grown distrustful of the lead investigator, who was in the pay of the organization and by making physical contact she was able to break through every defense he had and see directly into his mind. The organization and all it’s actions lay exposed to her. The Night Princess decided to act. Oh yeah, the lead investigator was found dead the next morning, his face twisted in terrible fear.”

“The very next day, the Night Princess and almost all of her guard stormed the main buildings of the organization. No pony inside was spared. They fought with valor, from the lowest of cleaners to the highest of council members. They fought shoulder-to-shoulder.”Sunbeam’s voice filled with gleeful malice. “And shoulder-to-shoulder they were mercilessly slaughtered.”

“It was all over by the time the Day Princess arrived with her guard. She confronted the Night Princess over what she had done, but by now the madness had hold of the Night Princess. She accused the Day Princess of forming this organization, the very organization that had tried to kill her. The Day Princess refuted knowledge of the plot to kill her, but wasn’t able to counter the fact she had formed the organization. She begged her sister, killing her was not what the organisation had been meant for. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. Enraged by her sister's betrayal in her eyes, the Night Princess turned on the Day Princess.”

“In all the books I’ve read about it, what happened next was called: ‘the fall of paradise.”

Sunbeam took another sip of coffee.

“And from what I understand, that’s a polite way of saying: ‘major property damage over a very large area’. Anyway, bloody and bruised, the Day Princess stood victorious. But she had been…” Sunbeam air-quoted with her fore-hooves. “Infected by her sister's madness. Or, it could be argued, that she was just a little upset with the organization.”

“She turned on the remains of the organization that had been hers.” Sunbeam adopted a faux shocked expression. “Apparently, she blamed the organization for corrupting her sister, can you imagine that?”

Sunbeam’s smile faltered. “Thus the purges began. Anypony connected to the organization disappeared. Nopony knows what happened to them, but the rumors…” Sunbeam swallowed. “Don’t let the Day Princess take you alive’ was the chant.” Sunbeam’s eyes glazed over as she stated into the distance. “And still is, ‘whatever you do, don’t let her take you alive... Best to retire yourself before letting her take you… Don’t let the Day Princess take you alive...”

Sunbeam shook her head and plastered on a smile.

“Now you may be thinking this means it was all over for them, but the organization persisted. Even before the operation to retire the Night Princess went into action, they knew there would be consequences. So in foresight, a group was dispatched to another land, to await the message it was safe to return. That message never came.”

“So, they began rebuilding. Rebuilding without the errors and flaws of the past, or the Princesses. To build and bring about paradise...” Sunbeam waved a hoof in a bored fashion. “Etcetera, etcetera… you get the picture.”

“However, they soon encountered their first major problem. Sunbeam looked down. “They needed new recruits. But in these new lands, all that surrounded them were simple villages and even simpler, vastly flawed, ponies. They would have to mold the new recruits from as early as possible to stop those flaws from forming.”

“So they sent out operatives in secret. Going from village to village, searching for potential recruits. Trying to spot recruits as young as possible, before flaws had a chance to set in. These operatives selected foals based on their talents. Sometimes they were sent out with specific lists to look for, but they are always on the look out for powerful or unusual talents. These rare ponies were always selected.”

Sunbeam kept looking down, her hoof twisting into the ground. “Always selected. So once an operative had spotted a... potential recruit, they would enter the household at night and would take these recruits to their…” Sunbeam spat the word out. “...Glorious... future in the organization. And just to be nasty… and just so that the rest of the household might know the glorious fate that awaited their offspring, they would leave a hand carved gift in the shape of a snake. The animal the organization had adopted as its emblem.”

Sunbeam hoof kept twisting itself into the ground. “I’m sure everypony considers that a fair trade, right?.”

Taking a breath, she looked up. “Now these new recruits, while still young, had been brought up in a flawed environment, so flaws were still present. Most notably being blind to the future being offered them. Some would try and escape. This was deemed to be down to the pull of old blood ties. So it was decided that new blood ties would need to be formed. The 'Rite of Passage' was introduced to rectify this and to help the new recruits bond to the Clan.”

“Before 'The Rite' they are treated like the flawed ponies they are, with harsh punishments handed down. They are, however, given full knowledge of what 'The Rite' entails and what lays beyond it to help entice them forward. Full membership of the clan awaits them. Once deemed ready…” Sunbeam let out a bitter snort. “Yeah, ready... they are sent out to retire a specific target.”

Sunbeam tailed off. Lifting a hoof, she examining it intently, unconsciously wiping it on her chest several times before putting it back down.

“Those that fail are viewed as an unnecessary drain on resources, they become little more than slaves. But if you pass…”

There was nothing but the sound of the fire as Sunbeam stared into it.

Her voice cracked. “You’re supposed… to be treated better. Supposed to be given luxuries, better quartets, better food. Supposed to be treated with kindness, as befits a full member of the Clan. They are supposed to welcome you into the Clan with open forelegs. Not fly into a fit of rage and...”

She shook her head and took several deep breaths before carrying on.

“But some still try to leave though, even after the rite. The sudden freedom goes to their heads. They leave to try to return to their old families. It never works out though, they can no longer fit in with their old blood ties, not after everything they've done. Sure, everypony tries, but the knowledge of what they've had to do gnaws through at any trust. Fear grows. Fear of reprisals against any village helping them as well doesn’t help. Often the villagers will just drive out those that have returned. They are not the same ponies anymore. Plus they don’t want the reprisals.”

“Some ‘retire’ themselves at this point.”

“Most return to the clan. Now fully aware that their old blood ties, their old families, no longer want them anymore.” Sunbeam looked up. “And they are the worst. They return only because the clan is now the only family they have left. The only ponies that will accept them for what they are, what they have done. They are the most... unquestioning... in following orders. They become the true monsters. Willing to follow any order of the clan. You can look into their eyes and you can seen nothing. Ponies you thought you knew are dead on the inside, friends, roommates, your own brother…”

Sunbeam took a breath in. “You’d expect the clan to treat them harshly when they return. No, it’s much worse. They treat them as long lost members of the family. It is a day of celebration, of rejoicing. They become truly lost at that point as they are accepted back into the fold.”

She looked up with a smile. “Okay, here is where the all backstory stops and it started getting interesting. Against all that, there is one who escaped... Okay, I admit just walking out the front door of the infirmary, when she was supposed to be out cold, may be stretching the term a little, but she did escape. They had taught her stealth, infiltration, concealment. To an unusual level it turns out as they had a specific purpose for her.” Sunbeam looked away for a second. “Guess they should have thought about that a bit more before they had to start looking for her.”

Sunbeam looked back. “So, she escaped…” She tapped the side of her head meaningfully. “...But not exactly unscathed.”

“Now while the Clan does try to find everypony who leaves, dead or alive, most ponies are only gone for a month, two at most. Five years is an unfathomable amount of time to them. They search for her greatly because of that. Not to retire her, but to guide her back to the fold. They view her as ill, an illness that needs to be cured with kindness and generosity. But she knows the real reason why ponies in command are so desperate to get her back, even if most looking for her don’t.”

“So time passes. This mare knows she can’t go back to her village and is starting to find herself in need of a few little luxuries in her life: food, water, shelter... those kinda superfluous things. So after a few false starts, the mare ends up joining a mercenary band.”

Sunbeam smiled. “She’d been trained to sneak around and the mercenaries were all too eager to show her how to apply that skill on the battlefield. Of course, there's a name for ponies that go around, sneaking up on ponies with intent. And she got so very good at it. At range or up close, her name became feared on any battlefield. You could be miles away from the battlefield and suddenly the pony standing next to you falls dead, his or her head shattered. Or you could wake up in your tent one morning and find the pony you’d been sleeping next to all night, well, they they got a major problem in the throat area and they ain’t going to be waking up anytime soon.”

Sunbeam shook her head. “Funnily, ponies really don’t take well to that kinda thing. They much prefer some moron standing in front of them, swinging a blunt object. At least that way they can fight back. The enemy who you can’t see, who kills without ever giving you a chance to fight back... That seems to upset them for some reason.”

Sunbeam sighed. “It also starts so many rumors. Even amongst the ponies you're supposed to be working with. They don’t seem to like efficiency in that regard and it all ends up with you being feared by so many, friend and foe alike. You can even end up with a bounty on your horn.”

“Anyway, her tenure with the mercenary group was suddenly cut short when it managed to get itself wiped out. The details of which I won’t bother going into, suffice to say it wasn’t her finest hour. But she did survive, more out of luck it must be said. Afterwards, she earned a living making use of the skills she learned, skills that would always be in demand to the right pony. She still needed bits to live after all. Those skills got her one heck of a ‘pretty little bounty’ and an even bigger reputation. Ponies hated her… But were still willing to pay enormous amounts for her skills… Of course the Clan placing a quite large, unofficial, bounty on her didn’t help.”

Sunbeam stared into her coffee, her voice distant. “Wherever she went, ponies were after her.
She quickly ran out of places to run to, places to hide. Constantly on edge, just waiting for somepony to...”

Sunbeam finished her coffee. “One time, a bounty-hunter even caught up with her. But when it came down to it, she saw the bounty hunter before they saw her. Bad mistake. And having been chased for so long, being hunted, always on edge… she vented all her frustration on that unfortunate mare. She made it a warning to others.”

She looked around, there was look in her eye that made everypony uncomfortable.

“Don’t ask what she did. You really don’t want to know. Not even when she was with the mercenaries had she done anything quite like that before. But it was that night she realized just what the Clan… just what he… just what everything had done to her... Just how far she’d fallen...”

Sunbeam looked down into her almost-empty coffee mug.

Her tone was emotionless.

“She enjoyed it.”

Sunbeam lifted her mug and drained the dregs. Putting the mug down with a click, she looked into the fire.

‘It was just the frustration coming out that night. That’s all it was. A one-off event... A teeny-tiny little slip. It was -only- that one time after all, it’s not like it’s ever happened again. So it’s still possible to be normal. With a little effort, normal is still possible. It was -just- that one time… So, with some effort admittedly, normal is still doable.”

She felt her shoulders relax as she looked into the distance. A soft smile on her face. ‘Normal -is- still possible.’

A sincere smile grew on Sunbeam’s face. The others looked on in horror at it as her last words kept repeating in their minds. ‘She enjoyed it…’

Rarity pulled her shawl over her tighter; Pinkie sat with her mouth open, the popcorn falling out of her container while Applejack shivered and Rainbow wrapped her wings around herself.

Looking up, Sunbeam started when she saw the others all staring at her. She’d momentarily forgotten they were even still there.

She cleared her throat.

“Ahem… Uh… Anyway… It doesn’t show you know. She still looks like a normal pony. This mare, this cold blooded merciless killer, could be the pony you walk past her in the street. Could be the pony you’re stood next to in the shop. Could be the pony you’re making small talk to as you wait to buy some apples from the Apple Families stand.”

Sunbeam leaned forward towards the Crusaders. The campfire underlit Sunbeam’s face, casting odd, dancing shadows over her face as her eyes were cast into shadow.

“She could even be the pony seated across a campfire from you… A monster that looks like a pony... and you’d never know until it was all waaaayy too late.”

She gifted them with a smile of somepony enjoying a private joke.

The fire crackled loudly in the silence as Scootaloo, Applebloom and Sweetiebelle all shivered as a feeling they'd never truly encountered before, a cold, slimy feeling, crept up their spines.

Leaning back, Sunbeam suddenly clapped her forehooves together, making most jump, and in an ‘obnoxiously chipper’ tone she addressed all present.

“Sooo, I hope everypony enjoyed that little story... and I hope everypony sleeps really well tonight.”

Sunbeam tried not to smirk. “Speaking of which, which lucky pony is sharing a tent with me tonight? I really hope they don’t snore...”

Author's Note:

Updated on 30th March 2015

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