• Published 12th Aug 2013
  • 13,697 Views, 217 Comments

Warring Dusk - AlphatheGriffin17

A happy day soon descends into a war between two peoples. Canterlot is under siege, the princesses are captured and Dusk must take up arms or watch his home fall.

  • ...

Counter Strike

Even though she knew what she had to do and she'd been given the go ahead to do so, Rainbow still found herself lingering in the sky flying out of Ponyville. She and about two dozen other Pegasi that she'd picked out herself to help reinforce the fight Dusk told them was happening in her birth place. She'd barely questioned how he knew. If Cloudsdale needed her help, she was going to give it.

But now she felt torn. Cloudsdale might need her, but she knew her friends definitely did. They were going to the heart of all of this, to finally put an end to it and she wasn't there to help them. She was almost tempted to tell the other Pegasi to carry on ahead and insist she stay here and help. But what would that do to them? They all looked to her, she could tell. Where should she go?

"R-Rainbow?" Fluttershy drifted next to her. "A-are you okay?"

She looked at her friend. Even though she was scared, she had volunteered to come with her to Cloudsdale, saying that there might be ponies who needed her help, like she had done in Ponyville. Rainbow had said that she didn't have to, but she did it anyway. If she had enough conviction to follow this through, why shouldn't she?

She suddenly realised something. Was Fluttershy, of all ponies, really inspiring confidence in her?

"Yeah, I'm fine," she assured. "Just thinking about some stuff."

"Don't worry. I might not like fighting much, but I'll be happy to cheer you on. Yay," she added softly.

"Thanks." She lingered for a few more seconds. "Okay, let's get moving."

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe the Pegasi were already winning the fight and they'd be arriving in time to mop it all up. The moment they broke through the clouds and saw their city, she wished that were true.

It was like when Discord had shown her that vision that made her leave her friends last time. Cloudsdale was crumbling. Chunks of magnificent cloud buildings had been blown away, becoming non-descript bits of water vapour. Small explosions sprouted up in her field of vision, faint screams and cries filling her ears, flashes of thunder and lightning, green from changelings shooting from above.

It didn't look like there was any great advance from either side. No mass of Pegasi or swarm of changelings. It was war, plain and simple and it had come here. Ponyville was one thing, but this... she didn't even know what to say.

"Oh my goodness," gasped Fluttershy. "This is... this is..."

"This sucks," she deadpanned.

"I... I guess it does."

Something green flashed in the sky. It was close. It was heading straight at them.


Her fellow Pegasi complied, getting out of the way. The changeling crashed into a building directly below them, blowing a hole in it. It climbed out and took off, joining another group of its fellows without even looking back.

Rainbow resisted the urge to go after it and knock its shiny white fangs out. Instead, she gathered the Pegasi around her.

"Okay, here's the plan!" she yelled. "We head in the city and find whoever's in charge! Look out for any of the Wonderbolts, holler if you see 'em! Don't go flying off! We stick together and only get in a fight if we have to! You got that?" They all nodded. "Right, let's go then!"

"Rainbow, wait!" Blossomforth had spoken up. "That house there, that was my parent's house!"

She knew what was coming. "I'm sorry, Blossom, but we don't have the time."

"Yes, we do!" she insisted. "They might be in there somewhere! I have to see!"

"If they're smart, they'd have gotten outta there while they could!"

"But I have to see! I could just go down there and-!"

"And what?!" she challenged. "You go off and anything could happen! You could get separated from us, attacked by changelings, have a heavy bit of cloud fall on you! We can't get distracted, Blossom! It's not just your parents that need help, it's everypony in Cloudsdale! The only way we can do that is if we stick together and fight!"

"But I... I..." Poor Blossmforth looked to be on the verge of tears.

"It's okay, Bloss." Thunderlane patted her shoulder comfortingly. "You'll find them later, once we kick these changelings outta here. I'll help you find them, I promise."

"Okay..." She coughed a little and gave the stallion a small smile. "Thanks, Thunder."

His cheeks went a little pink. "No problem."

Rainbow smirked a little at the sight before returning her focus. "Right then, let's hustle everypony! We needed to get going five minutes ago!"

Confident that they would follow her and that Blossomforth wouldn't fly off, Rainbow darted off. She cursed that she had to slow down a little to let them keep up, but she had to stand by her plan. If they started separating, they'd be easier targets for the changelings. They needed to focus their efforts if they were going to beat them

Even though she had slowed down, everything else still sped by. She saw glimpses of things as she sped by. A team of Pegasi creating a tornado that they spun at a group of changelings. A lone Pegasus looking relieved when he saw his friend before the pony pounced on him with a hiss. A changeling being frozen by a barrage from a snow cloud. A mare going after another who was being cornered in a building by a bunch of the bugs.

Still, she kept on flying. She barely had time to wonder if she could help them. She had to keep focused, to find one of the Wonderbolts, like she'd said. There weren't many large teams, only small skirmishes. She figured that had to mean something, that somepony had organised the others somewhere else. All she had to do was find them.

Finally, she did.

She saw it, a flash of blue and yellow over near a small cluster of houses. She stopped and felt a grin form when she recognised instantly who it was. Soarin, the best at banking and swooping in the Wonderbolts, once claiming that he could dodge his way through a pit of hungry dragons blindfolded. She'd also saved his pie at the Grand Galloping Gala.

Hopefully, he'd remember that. Right now, he looked like he was pinned down with four other Pegasi by about eight changelings. Two of them were carrying one who looked like she'd been injured, while another and Soarin were holding back the changelings, though they were steadily closing in on them.

She didn't waste any time in flying over to them. "How about we even the odds?"

One of them looked around just in time to see her hoof slam into his face. They were taken completely by surprise, swamped by Rainbow's team until they all lay in heaps on the clouds below.

"Nice work!" Soarin flew up to her, beaming. "You guys got here just in time!"

She chuckled, controlling the fluttering in her chest. "Yeah, saving your apple pie, saving you, I'm on a roll right now."

His smile widened. "Hey, it's you!" he realised. "Rainbow Dash, right?"

That fluttering became a little harder to control. "Heh, yeah, that's me."

"Alright! Just the pony we need right now!" He nodded to the others. "They all with you?"

She nodded. "We had a little trouble in Ponyville we had to sort out, sorry we couldn't be here sooner."

"Well, you're here now, that's what counts," he said. "We were on a little scouting run when the bugs ambushed us. Violet here got hit, but she should be okay once we get her back to base. You gonna come back with us?"

"It's the whole reason we came here."

"Great!" He looked to the two stallions carrying the mare. "Singer, Stratus, you keep on what you're doing. Rest of us will cover you 'til we get back. Let's move out!"

Already, Rainbow could feel her confidence lifting. All of what she'd been seeing would be over soon enough, once they got back to this base they'd established. It was too early to say anything yet, but it looked like they were going to be okay.

They made it through the rest of the city without too much trouble. Their group was so large that any changelings who didn't stay out of their way when they saw them were easily dealt with. They had to stop, now and again, on account of Violet, but Fluttershy was there to administer some small term treatment until they arrived back at the base.

As it turned out, it was the very coliseum where her sonic rainboom had first made a name for itself. The only differences were that the exposed top and bottom had been reinforced by storm clouds. Any changeling who tried flying through those would be instantly zapped. All of the other entrances were being covered by ponies on guard. Some were Wonderbolts, some just normal ponies. All of it was looking good.

"Hold up a sec." Soarin stopped her when they arrived at the entrance. "We gotta run you through a small screening process, just to make sure you're the real deal."

It turned out this 'screening' was being zapped with a small bolt of electricity from a storm cloud. Though it would hurt for a Pegasus, their natural affinity for the weather would keep them from being harmed too badly, Soarin explained. If a changeling were to be hit with it, it would be enough to disrupt their magic and expose their true form.

Rainbow had to admire the thinking behind it, even if her leg was stinging and twitching a little afterwards where it had been zapped.

"Yeah, sorry about that. Sorry!" he added to Fluttershy, who squealed on receiving it and scurried over to join them. "We can't risk any of the bugs sneaking in here as one of us."

"It's cool, but you should have known anyway." She grinned. "You can't mimic this level of perfection."

That earned a laugh. "That's the kind of moxxy that we like to see in the Wonderbolts. The captain's gonna be pleased you're here."

"Spitfire's in charge then?" she asked.

"You know it. It's thanks to her most of this stuff is in place. She's got a command centre up in the top box, I'll take you there."

"Wait, do you have some kind of medical bay or something?" She gestured to her friend. "Fluttershy's not much of a fighter, but she's great at being a nurse and doctor. Just without the degree."

"With or without degrees, we could always use more carers." He instructed a nearby Pegasus to show her where to go, apparently in the changing rooms. "Come on, we should get going. Spitfire will wanna see you."

"I'll um... I'll see you later, Rainbow," Fluttershy murmured as she was led off.

"That's a promise!" she called, flashing a cocky smile at her. At least she would be okay now, just so long as the changelings didn't get through.

Soarin led her up past all of the stadium boxes. Each one of them had somepony in them. A family huddled together. Isolated, lonely ponies staring hopelessly into nothing. A group of friends sharing jokes and good cheer. A stallion with a mare, sleeping on his shoulder. She could see too, in the centre, ponies assembled there. Training, being organised and briefed by members of the Wonderbolts.

She didn't really know what to make of all of it, seeing so many of them fighting to survive or just waiting here for it all to end. In the end, she just kept on walking, telling herself that it would all be over soon enough.

They finally reached the top box, the guards either side letting them through. A map of the city had been laid out in the centre, some black and blue flags sticking out in places. Looking over it all was the captain of the Wonderbolts herself. She looked up when they entered the room, smiling and nodding approvingly.

"Soarin, good to see you made it back," she said. "Didn't feel like stopping for any pie on the way here?"

"Nah, the bugs didn't feel like sharing," he returned. "I did manage to bring back a few guests to help us out."

"So I see." She turned to Rainbow. "Good to see you again after so long."

"Likewise, ma'am," she said respectfully. "I'm here with about twenty others, to help however we can."

"Good, 'cause that sounds like just the kind of numbers for what we've got planned. Come on over, I'll show you," she invited. "Soarin, make your scouting report outside and head down to the training floor when you're done. Operation: Hailstorm is about to get underway."

"You got it, captain." He saluted, grinned at Rainbow and hurried out.

"Hailstorm, huh?" Rainbow looked over the map. "Sounds like a cool name."

"Well, hopefully, the operation will be just as cool when we do it," she smiled. "As you can see here, we own the east side of town. We've had reports of some changeling hit-and-run parties and scout jobs, but nothing too serious. Meanwhile, the west side is all under their control. They came up there from Canterlot and got a hoofhold before we knew what was going on. That's bad because the west side is where we need to be."

"How come?"

She pointed at the weather factory. "That's why. That's our best bet of sending them back where they came from, but they've got the whole area locked down tighter than Soarin's food cabinet. That's why we need to push in there and take it back before they can."

"I don't get it though. Why the weather factory?"

"The changelings might be able to look like us and walk on clouds, but the one thing they can't take from us is how to control the weather," she explained. "We've been using anything we have to hoof so far, but if we could get the factory back, we'd be able to churn out everything. Hurricanes, tornadoes, snow clouds, thunder clouds, everything we can use and they can't. The whole factory is just one big armoury, waiting for us to get stocked up on it."

Rainbow nodded. "Now, that sounds good to me. So, what's Hailstorm? How does it help us get in?"

"Simple. While they do have a hold in the factory, the changelings have themselves spread out into three different HQs, a couple of housing districts and part of the business. So what we do is divide into three teams and attack each of these locations at the same time. Each will be lead by a couple of Wonderbolts and are designed to keep the changelings busy while the priority team, led by me and Soarin, will focus on the factory."

"So the ones at the factory can't call for back-up from the other bases while you guys attack the factory and get in," surmised Rainbow.

"Yes and no," answered the captain. "Like the others, priority team will look like we're trying to take the factory, but it's just another distraction. You see, there's also gonna be a fifth, smaller team that'll slip around into the factory through one of the cloud exhausts while we keep them occupied. Then, they turn on the weather machines and let 'em have it!"

"Now, that's a plan!" declared Rainbow. "So where do I come in?"

"Well Rainbow, if I'm frank, you're one of the best damn flyers I've ever seen," she said honestly. "I mean, you've pulled off a sonic rainboom, not to mention you've been your fair share of scraps. That's why I want you to lead the stealth team inside the weather factory and end this thing. You think you can do that?"

A whole well of emotions flooded through her. Surprise at this announcement. Pride that it was Spitfire who was telling her this. Pressure from the responsibility this placed on her. But more than that was a duty, a loyalty to her home and to her friends to do the best she could. And she was the best.

"Ma'am," she replied, saluting her, "you can count on me."

It appeared that allying themselves with the diamond dogs had more than a few benefits. Since they weren't really enthusiastic about going above ground for fear of leaving the tunnels they'd laid claim do, they preferred to have at least one connecting tunnel between older mining sites and newer sites where they had started digging. It allowed some of the dogs to start work on the new site, while the others finished off collecting in the old one.

Dusk had been told this by Rover while he, Spot and another of the larger brutes dug their way through the rubble that blocked the passage. It seemed that he'd misjudged the diamond dogs, for it did seem to be an efficient way of making sure they gathered up as many gems as possible. He asked why, if that was the case, this one had been blocked.

"We collapse it when we retreat," Rover explained, once he'd finished digging. "Enough so they think they can't follow, but not so much that it doesn't take long for us to dig back through."

"I see." He nodded in approval. "That's some good thinking on your part."

He scowled. "You are saying you think we are stupid?"

"Not at all," he replied evenly. "I was just complimenting you on your forethought."

The scowl became a frown. "No, not four thoughts. Just one, one good idea. Mine, of course."

"No, I mean that... never mind." He looked back at the tunnel. "Are you almost through?"

"Yes, yes, almost done," assured Spot. "You wait with your friends, thinking pony. Let us handle the digging."

Dusk nodded and stood back to let them work, making sure his fellow ponies stood either side of him. Since they only needed a small group to maintain stealth, they had three diamond dogs with them and three ponies to balance it out. The rest of their pack had remained with the town, to act when needed. To this end, Cadence and Ray had accompanied him down into the tunnels, both of them having volunteered. Dusk was only too happy to bring them along.

There was another purpose to having them set up like this. He didn't expect the diamond dogs to turn on them, but he wasn't going to take any chances either. He had each of them keeping close watch on one dog. Dusk watched Rover, Ray focused on the big brute and Cadence had Spot. In case anything did happen, they should be able to handle them.

Again, he didn't expect anything to happen, but better safe than sorry.

"We is through!" announced Rover, the other two clambering through while he waited for them. "Come on, ponies, long ways to go yet. We will show you the way, follow us."

"Lead on then. Just don't go too far ahead," he added.

Rover forced a smile. "Of course, thinking pony. We wouldn't want you getting lost down here."

Dusk started to follow the diamond dog, making sure he was in front of him while he lit a light orb. Cadence and Ray moved close to their own dogs. Hopefully, he wouldn't have to use his precautions.

They proceeded in relative silence, their steps echoing slightly in the cave. They moved as quickly and as lightly as possible, just so they didn't spend too long down here, but also in case they weren't the only ones down here. Now and again, the dogs might stop, sniff their surroundings and start off again. Just so long as they knew where they were going and that they didn't turn on them, Dusk didn't mind what they did.

He started to go over his plan again in his head, just to reassure himself. Their group was like the advance guard, moving ahead of the main force who were in town, waiting for the signal he would give. Until then, his team had to sneak in using the caves and find out some important information, namely where the queen was, how many changelings were still occupying Canterlot and where they were keeping the prisoners.

From there, the three of them would have focus on those three aspects of attack once their main force arrived. Cadence would focus on freeing the prisoners, adding a few guards to their number and, hopefully, her aunts. Ray would be helping bolster their fellow ponies, and dogs too, against the changelings in their way, while Dusk would focus on finding the queen... and one prisoner in particular.

He felt his heart ache at the thought of her. It gave him strength when he reminded himself that she wasn't going to be a prisoner much longer. He just had to hope that she was okay...

He looked up to see Rover turn his head away. Had the dog been watching him? He pushed that question aside and looked around at the others. Cadence was watching Spot, giving him friendly smiles whenever he looked her way, while the smaller dog reacted like she'd just growled at him. The brute seemed to be eyeing up Ray, probably thinking he could take him on if need be. If only he knew who he was up against.

The stallion had that look on his face again. The one he'd seen before when he'd asked him about the rumours of what had happened during the battle.

"You seem pensive, my friend," noted Dusk, walking in step beside him. "Something the matter?"

"Hm? Oh, hey bud," he greeted awkwardly. "Just um... just thinking."

"About what?"

"About um... about Flutters. I um... I hope she's gonna be okay, that's all."

Dusk kept a straight face this time. Usually, that would seem reasonable to assume and it wasn't entirely dishonest, but with the rumours of what he had about Ray circulating in his mind, he wasn't so sure this time. He'd dodged the question again, like he had last time. He still had that same look that only made him ponder more about what was on his mind...

But he put it aside for now. There were more important things to focus on right now.

"Don't worry about her," he comforted. "She'll be with Rainbow and she won't exactly be going to the front lines. She can keep herself safe."

"I know. I just... I'm still worried about her, that's all, you know?" he muttered. "I... I don't... well, what I mean..."

"Don't worry, Ray," Cadence said gently. "I think it's very sweet that you care about her so much. I'm sure she'd appreciate it."

He rubbed the back of his head. "Heh... thanks..."

"No problem. Dusk and I can understand how you feel, can't we?"

"We can." He offered him a smile. "Thanks for coming along with us."

He returned it, grateful for the change of topic. "Hey, no problem. You're my friend and I'm not gonna let you go in to something like this alone."

"I wouldn't have been entirely alone," noted Dusk, glancing around at the dogs and Cadence.

"Yeah, I mean alone with these guys. No offense, big guy," he added. The brute only growled in response. "Yeah, see? We're cool."

He laughed a little. "The best of friends, I can tell."

"I thought so too. Besides, it's not just that." His expression hardened. "Chrysalis needs to pay for what she's done, whether or not her intentions are good for her people."

"I don't think it's really even that," put in Cadence. "Rulers like her, they say they're acting for the good of their people. In truth, they're driven by their own selfish desires and greed."

Ray cocked his head. "You think that's it?"

"Well, she did attack Canterlot first when she saw a chance to acquire its riches and luxury," she reasoned. "And she doesn't seem like she's in any hurry to leave."

"I'm sure there's more to it than that," blurted Dusk. "The leader may be more at fault than her people, but there has to have been more to motivate the changelings to invade."

Ray glanced curiously at him. "What makes you say that?"

Dusk had to think for a moment. He still hadn't mentioned where he'd really gotten his information from and he didn't think they'd react well when he told them it was from a changeling. For now, it was best to keep that to himself.

"I just don't think they're all that bad," he answered, somewhat honestly. "They can't all be as driven by greed and hate as Chrysalis."

Cadence nodded. "That's a better way to look at it, I admit. I hope they realise that soon enough and get themselves a better leader."

He echoed the gesture. "I do too."

"You ponies really like to talk lots, don't you?" piped up Rover. The dogs had been silent throughout and Dusk had almost forgotten they were there.

"It helps you learn a little more about who you're talking to," countered Dusk. "Since we don't have your sense of smell to do so."

"Yes, we always wonder how you cope," remarked Spot.

"Then I advise you to focus your efforts on making sure we're going the right way," he replied.

"Come on, thinking pony. Don't you trust us?"

"Since you make a habit of kidnapping ponies to do your manual labour, not really, no."

"That's only some days," dismissed Rover. "We're not all that bad. Sometimes we even pays our work ponies a little bit from what they find."

"Yeah, emphasis on the little," muttered Ray.

"Don't be like that, you two," said Cadence softly. "I'm sure Rover and Spot have more to them than that, like what you said about the changelings, Dusk."

"Thank you, princess pony, you is right. Like we only take work ponies when we really need them, like the whiney one."

"Exactly. Although," she added, "I'm sure they wouldn't whine so much if you didn't kidnap them first."

"But we always give them back!" insisted Spot. "Just to get what we need, is all. Just like how you is using us to get what you need."

"But we bargained with you, we didn't chain you up and force you to do it," Ray argued.

Spot shrugged. "Details, details."

"Yes, yes. See, think, thinking pony," advised Rover. "You may be a pony and I may be a dog, but maybes we aren't so different from each other, yes?"

"And how do you determine that?"

"We both seek treasures, thinking pony and princess pony." He turned those hungry eyes to study him. "I sees the look you have in your eyes. It is the one I see in the eyes of all diamond dogs, I even sees it in some ponies eyes, like you two now. The scent you gives off too, that tells me something."

"Which is what?" asked Dusk.

"That you is seeking treasure too, both of you," answered Spot. "Might not be gems, but it's still something that you need, something that you really, really want. It's precious, very precious indeed and something you both can't live without."

Dusk was speechless. Ray raised his eyebrows in evident admiration. A small smile played on Cadence's lips.

"I think it's fair to say that's a very good guess," she said. "Though, as you say, it's not jewels. It is something far more precious than anything you'd find in any cave."

Rover barked out a laugh. "I finds that rather hard to believe. Hope it's worth it when you find it, thinking pony."

"Believe me, I think that it'll be worth it when Dusk and Cadence here find their treasures," chuckled Ray.

"I suppose you can tell too then?" muttered Dusk.

"Of course I can," he replied. "I don't need to have an insanely good sense of smell and gem fetish to be able to tell what you're looking for. It is kinda obvious, even if you're not me."

"You is one to talk, flashy pony," laughed Rover. "You has that same look at times. I sees it on you too."

"Yeah, when you're with that shy pony, we sees it," piped in Spot. "You gets the look with her."

Ray flushed. "Dusk, the dog is doing my thing. Please make him stop now."

"I don't know, Ray," giggled Cadence. "As you say, it is obvious."

His face went even redder. "Well... I um... I..."

Dusk suppressed a smile while he took in their surroundings. He acknowledged a large, open area and a continuing path on the other side before he froze. Had it been his imagination or had he seen something move in the tunnel ahead?


"Aw, come on, Dusk," Cadence complained playfully. "We're just having a little fun."

"Yes, seeing flashy pony turn red is very fun," agreed Spot, laughing harder.

"Please, be quiet."

"Yeah, thanks Dusk," stammered Ray. "What he said, can you-?"

"Shush!" He stopped. They were silent. Now, they could hear the sounds of movement he'd picked up before. "Get down!"

They quickly hid behind the nearest piece of cover. Dusk hid behind a crystal cluster, suppressing a cry as he almost fell off the path. He glimpsed to see a black abyss going on endlessly. He'd have to watch his hoofing.

He extinguished his colour orb, gave his eyes time to adjust to the dark and squinted through it. The sounds came closer. They were definitely hoofsteps, coming out of the tunnel. Shadows moving in the in the darkness. Ponies or changelings? Or something else?

He could hear the faint movements of the others. They were ready to act, should they need to. The sounds stopped. They must just be at the mouth of the tunnel entrance.

"Who's there?" a voice called out. "We know you're in here."

He frowned. They didn't sound like changelings. He could make out their silhouettes and what he saw was enough to make him create another orb. One just small enough to light them up, so he could confirm who they were. The light passed over them and they squinted at the sudden brightness, but Dusk got what he needed.

Dusk felt relief sweep through him when he saw the distinctive golden sheen that marked the armour of the royal guard of Canterlot. It only intensified when half a dozen more followed him, a mix of Sun and Shadow guard. He emerged from his hiding place, the others following closely behind.

"I must say, you gentlecolts are a sight for sore eyes," he said sincerely.

He watched the diamond dogs out of the corner of his eye. Rover's lip lifted a little to expose his teeth, Spot's fists were clenched and the brute had tensed visibly. He made a mental note to keep an eye on them. They were probably just wary of them due to their pack's reputation.

The guards didn't really seem to feel the same way as much. A few of them were watching the dogs cautiously though.

"I might say the same for you, sir," the lead one greeted. He regarded him cautiously. "You are ponies, aren't you?"

"Don't worry, we're not changelings." Cadence stepped a little closer and smiled. "It's good to see you're all still in the fight."

"Princess Cadence!" Relief broke out across his face now. "Your highness, it is a thankful sight to see you're not a captive."

"Likewise to you all," she returned. "I take it you managed to escape being captured by the changelings?"

"Yes, your highness." He gestured to his fellows. "We were on patrol in the lower town when the invasion started. I remembered these caves and how to access them, so I lead my fellow soldiers down here." His face fell. "I still feel some shame though, just running away..."

"Running from a battle that can't be wrong is nothing to be ashamed of," comforted Dusk. "For what it's worth, you made the right decision."

"Thank you, sir," he said, with a slight smile. "Still, I'd be lying if I said if I didn't want to take the chance to return the favour for the changelings. We've been camped out under here, waiting for the right moment to fight back, rescue some other guards or civilians."

"Well, there's no better opportunity than right now," Ray said brightly. "Always good to get a little extra muscle."

Dusk started forward to meet them, but was stopped by Rover's arm. It came down and barred his progress. The dog's lips were curled back to expose his teeth.

"Rover?" A growl started in his throat. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Something wrong with your friend there?" the guard asked.

"I'm not sure," he answered. "Calm down, they're on our side."

"No, thinking pony, they is not." He dipped his paws into the pockets of his jacket. "Don't believe them, they is not your friends."

"What are you...?" Gradually, he caught his meaning. "You smell something, don't you?"

"I do. I knows what smells like ponies and what smells like bugs and right now..." When his fingers emerged, brass knuckles came out with them. "They smells like they need to be squashed!"

Dusk looked back at the soldiers. They had tensed up again, now with horrible leers set on their faces. The first one he saw in particular looked the most menacing.

"You know, I never did like dogs much." He crouched low. "Get them."

In the blink of an eye, the changelings darted forward, their fangs bared and their eyes flaring. The leader charged straight at Dusk, tackling him before he had time to even react. Dusk felt the sharp shot of pain as his legs were pinned, staring up into its leering face.

"Almost fell for it, didn't you?" it hissed. "Our queen told us ponies might try to sneak in down here. Looks like she was right."

"Indeed she was." The shadows moved behind him. "Did she tell you about this?"

The changeling cried out as he was grabbed and flung into the air. Ray appeared next to him and drop-kicked him into the ground. He teleported away again, flashing behind another changeling and kicking him too. Watching while he kept up his flashy display, Dusk was once again thankful that he had come along.

The others were holding their own too. Cadence had taken off into the sky and was duelling with a changeling. Green and blue flashes of light sparked all around as they soared and dived around each other. The big brute was taking on two changelings at once, one of them already in his grip and struggling helplessly. Spot was swinging a chain around, wrapping it around a changeling's throat and pulling him closer.

Rover was in a boxing match with a changeling of his own. He bobbed back and forth, darted and weaved around his opponent, delivering short, sharp jabs to his face, chest and head. Now and again, his opponent might land a blow, but it was clear that Rover's brass knuckles were doing far more damage than the changeling's hooves could.

Specks of green blood sprinkled to the ground. Diamond dogs certainly weren't gentle when they were threatened by the look of it.

Dusk glimpsed something behind him. Rover was too caught up in his battle to see another changeling sneaking up behind him. Dusk acted quickly, his horn flashing and the changeling screeching.

Rover yelped. He turned and saw the blinded changeling. He knocked him down with a strong right hook, offering a left to his other opponent and sending him sprawling. He gave Dusk a bewildered look until the blinded one recovered and lunged for him, forcing him back into combat.

Even though the two groups were even in number and the changelings fought their hardest, the balance was tipping in their favour soon enough. He saw Rover and Ray floor a changeling together. Cadence knocked her duelling opponent out of the sky and he crashed into the one Spot was fighting. Dusk bounded off a wall, knocking into a changeling with blue hooves and sending him sprawling with an orange one.

But it didn't go so well for all of them.

The large brute was fighting the other changeling nearby, his friend lying in a heap. He tried slamming his powerful fists on it, but the changeling was too fast for him, dodging his blows and landing some quick strikes of his own. Though they were small, they were enough to make him stumble backwards, closer to the edge of the path. An edge where he could only see darkness below.

It looked like this changeling had learned from the mistakes of his predecessor.

He started forward to help, but ended up being grappled by another attacker. As he tried to get back up, he glimpsed the dog was now teetering on the precipice. His eyes were wide with fear, trying to keep himself balanced. The changeling darted forward, his punch missed, was struck in the chest. It shot up, striking his chin.

Dusk finally managed to throw his attacker, scrambled to his hooves, hurried over. He only had time to see the dog's face, hear his terrified howl echo through the cave before he vanished. He could see his paw desperately clawing at the air.

It was too late. He was already falling.

He was only dimly aware when Ray knocked aside the remaining changeling and announced they had won. He didn't feel much of a sense of victory. He was trying to comprehend it. One of their number had died. He'd barely even known him, didn't even know his name... that was what made it worse. He hadn't even known him.

Silence settled as this dawned on the others. Ray was surprised, Cadence was even more shocked. Rover and Spot stood at the edge, their heads bowed. He wanted to say something inspiring or comforting, but nothing came. What was he supposed to say?

In the end, Cadence spoke for them. "That poor dog. Do you think... there's a chance?"

"Not likely," said Ray bluntly. "These caves are pretty deep. He fell a long way."

"You don't think he might have grabbed on to something?" she ventured. "I could fly down, have a look..."

"He was too far from the edge. He wouldn't have had anything to grab onto."

"Well, I..." She trailed off. "Dusk? What do you think?"

He shook his head. In this instance, words had completely failed him.

"You gonna be okay, bud?" asked Ray.

"I... I think so," he found himself saying. "Maybe... it would be best if we just... kept moving."

"What about them?" Cadence nodded to the dogs. "Do you think we should say something?"

Silently, Dusk turned around. Whether it was some sort of responsibility or guilt that drove him, walked up to them. Spot had moved away, leaving Rover staring over the edge. Dusk looked too. There was barely any sign the dog had even fallen.

Dusk looked at Rover. "I'm sorry about him." Even that didn't seem sufficient.

"No big deal," he murmured. "Even for us, mining for gems isn't all safe. We get jewels, but now and again, we lose dogs. We is used to it."

"Still, it must still hurt, losing a member of your pack." He followed his gaze down into the abyss. "We'll make sure that his loss... wasn't in vain."

"You tried to save him." Rover's eyes turned to him. "You save me too, even though we not members of your pack, you not even diamond dogs. Why?"

"Because whether it's a herd or a pack, losing somepony... or somedog that's part of it is never good. Trust me, I know..." He fought for a few minutes to control himself. "Besides, we're all in the same pack for now, right?"

"Yes. Or the same herd," he said after a moment. He saw the corners of his mouth twitch. "So, we go on then?"

"You sure you don't want a few more minutes?"

"No point, won't bring him back now. Besides, like you say," he added, smiling wider, "we have to make this count. For both of our treasures."

"Very true," replied Dusk, returning the smile. "Lead on then, Rover."

"I shall, Dusk."

The stallion watched him stride off, noting that was the first time he'd actually called him by his name. He looked back down into the abyss and followed not long after, hoping that would be the only loss to occur in this battle.

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