• Published 19th Sep 2013
  • 2,076 Views, 200 Comments

Wind and Stone - Ruirik



The Red Cloud War saw the pegasi lose everything to the griffon hordes. Legends rose, heroes died, and through it all, Pathfinder survived. Eighty years later he must confront those painful memories. Memories of loss, of home, of the wind and stone.

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Fort Updraft (Part I)

True to his word, the recruiter had woke both Finder and Carver early the next morning for training. He gave them both a simple ration for breakfast: a dry, hard, biscuit-like thing that he jokingly suggested was made sometime before pegasi could fly. After a drink of water, he showed them out of the office and into the dark streets.

Finder rubbed at his bleary eyes, still in the process of waking up. His excitement and Carver’s obnoxious snoring had conspired to rob him of a decent night’s rest. It didn’t help matters that they had been roused from their beds before the first rays of dawn had broken, and while Finder liked mornings, he didn’t like them quite that much.

The normally bustling streets of Stratopolis were quiet in the predawn light. Oil lanterns suspended on wooden posts bathed the cloudstone in an eerie glow. Finder shivered at the sight of it all; everything was too quiet.

After a series of light stretches to prepare their wings, the recruiter led Finder and Carver into the skies. They flew east, passing over a lake that spanned miles in all directions. The black waters were calm, with hardly a ripple to distort the mirror-like surface. It was such an alien thing for the colt to behold, at least when compared to the constantly shifting ocean back home.

Their flight came to an end a little more than a mile past the lake where Fort Updraft was built. Surrounded by a thick stone wall raised fifteen feet high, the fort’s centerpiece was a barracks large enough to house multiple regiments in training. Surrounding it were smaller buildings to house the officers and support staff, a hospital, supply warehouses, and a series of forges to fit new recruits with weapons and armor.

The recruiter landed a short distance from the gatehouse, with Carver and Finder close behind. There he left them to wait while he retrieved an officer to put them into a regiment. Carver turned to the younger pegasus after a few moments, yawning softly.

“You get any sleep last night?”

“Not really,” Finder answered, mirroring Carver’s yawn. “Did you?”

“No,” Carver sighed. “Those were really lousy cots.”

“Do you think the ones here will be better?”

Carver snorted and grinned in amusement. “Not a chance.”

Finder kicked at the grass underhoof. “Figures.”

A tired, yet companionable silence fell between the two as they waited for the recruiter to return. Carver closed his eyes, seemingly attempting to catch a few extra moments of sleep while sitting up. Finder took the time to preen his wings, plucking a few loose feathers that had been bothering him all morning.

The recruiter trotted towards them, prompting Finder to lightly nudge Carver’s shoulder. The mason’s eyes blinked open and he stifled another yawn with his hoof. They both stood up and saluted him as he approached, a gesture which he immediately returned before speaking.

“Right, boys, here’s where we part ways. The stallions by the gate will show you to your barracks; you’ll both be in second platoon. Training will begin later this morning after the rest of the recruits arrive.”

“Is there anything we should do until then?” Carver asked.

“The guards will tell you.” The recruiter saluted them again. “Ante Legionem nihil erat”

“Et nihil erit post Legionem,” they answered, returning the salute just as he’d taught them.

Smiling proudly, he lowered his hoof . “Good luck boys; kill some griffons for me!”

“We will Sir!” Carver grinned.

“Buck yeah!” Finder cheered, his wings flexing with excitement.

With a flap of his wings, the recruiter took flight, leaving Finder and Carver alone. The two exchanged a look for a moment before they walked towards the imposing gate. There, clad in pristine iron armor, an imposing stallion with vivid red eyes and a golden coat waited for them.

Pathfinder felt his initial excitement shrivel under the stallion’s glare. Instinctively, he moved a little closer to Carver. Both of them made sure to salute the soldier as they came to a halt before him. The soldier seemed unimpressed with their effort, though he dutifully returned the gesture.

“Follow me, greenwings,” he ordered, his voice deep and gritty.

Like good recruits, Finder and Carver followed close behind. Passing through the open gatehouse, they entered Fort Updraft’s sparse field space. Several large and imposing stallions moved about the fort, all in polished armor with wingblades and sheathed swords at their side.

“Excuse me, sir?” Carver asked, earning a grunt from the soldier. “Where will we be training? I mean, this fort doesn’t seem that big.”

“Physical conditioning and combat instruction will be conducted in the fields outside of the fort,” he answered. “Everything will be covered during the orientation later today, so save your questions until then.”

“Yes sir, thank you,” Carver responded.

The stallion led them to a massive building where he pushed open a pair of heavy, wooden doors. Inside of the building was a large open space divided into four distinct sections. Each section contained several orderly rows of beds for a newly constituted platoon. Their chaperone led them to an empty section and motioned them in with a hoof.

“You two are in second platoon, so this is your barracks. You’re free to pick any bed that’s available and you will keep that spot until you are deployed. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” they answered.

“Good. The rest of the recruits are scheduled to arrive later this morning. Until then, you two are to remain around the barracks. I recommend you greenwings get some rest; you’re gonna need it.” The soldier offered them a smile that sent a shiver down both their spines before he returned to his post.

The barracks lacked any aesthetic furnishings, and only heavy wood logs gave character to its walls. It gave Finder a comforting sensation; most of Altus had a similar utilitarian construction. Two rows of cots lined the walls, providing enough beds for a full platoon of sixty-four pegasi. Each cot had one pillow with a rolled up blanket set on top of it.

Carver trotted to the nearest cot, tossing his haversack beside it and testing the pillow with his right hoof. “Well, home sweet home, I guess.”

Finder nodded, setting his own bag down and sliding it under his cot with a hoof. His eyes drifted around the empty barracks, taking in the new sights and sensations. He wondered if Longbow had been in a barracks like this one, or if he had trained somewhere else. Finder sighed, his ears flattening slightly. He hoped that wherever he was, Longbow was safe.

Carver glanced over, frowning when he noticed the maudlin expression. “Hey, you okay over there?”

Finder smiled a little. “Yeah, I was just thinking.”

Carver nodded, leaning back on his haunches. “Feeling homesick?”

“A little, I guess.” Finder sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “I’ve never been away from my family this long before.”

Carver nodded again, an understanding look on his face. “Ever been away from them for more than a day or two?”

A thoughtful frown pulled at Finder’s lips. “The longest time I went without seeing my dad or my brother was when I was little. Dad would take Longbow out on a fishing trip and they wouldn’t come home for a week or two.”

“You’re really close to them, aren’t you?”

“My mom and my brother, yeah. Dad… well, I don’t know.”

Carver pushed away from his cot, trotting over to Finder and sitting beside him. “What do you mean?”

The younger pony chewed at his lip, his gaze shifting from the heavy wooden planks that made up the floor to Carver. He gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Longbow’s his favorite, which is fine. He’d be my favorite too.”

Carver’s brow creased and his lips pulled into a frown. However, before he could pry into Finder’s depressed sentiment, the sound of hoofsteps caught both their attentions. Two mares trotted into the barracks, both sparing the stallions a passing glance before they resumed their conversation. The taller of the two had a nearly white coat with a lilac mane that she had cropped short. The mark on her flanks depicted a wooden staff with a single green serpent coiled around it.

The smaller mare had a rose colored mane with an ochre coat. Her marks showed a field of wheat in front of a rising sun. Her green eyes looked from the white mare to Finder. Out of habit he smiled to her, a gesture she returned with a playful wink. Finder’s cheeks burned and a fluttering sensation tickled his belly.

Carver leaned close to Finder, grinning ear to ear. “Look at those mares,” he whispered.

“Huh?” Finder shook his head, snapping his mind back to reality. “Oh, um, yeah. Yeah, they look nice.”

“Nice?” Carver scoffed. “They’re buckin’ gorgeous!”

“If you say so.”

Carver licked his fetlock and brushed his disheveled mane into a semi-presentable state. “Wish me luck, buddy!”

“With what?” Finder asked, his face a mask of confusion.

“What do you mean, with—oh, right. I forgot you’re still a kid.” Carver gave a sheepish chuckle, his foreleg rubbing his chin. “I guess at your age I wasn’t quite the ladies stallion I am now, either.”

“I could get a mare if I wanted to,” Finder protested, earning an amused laugh from Carver.

“That’s the spirit!” Carver slapped Finder on the back, knocking the breath from the colt’s lungs. “Wish me luck!”

“Good luck?” Finder winced, a hoof rubbing at the back of his neck.

Carver sauntered over to the mares, an easy smile on his lips. They largely ignored his approach, at least until he got too close. The taller one smiled to Carver while the smaller of two leaned very slightly back.

Carver locked eyes with the taller mare. She was a few inches shorter than he was, with a lean, toned musculature. Her eyes, a rich hazel color, watched him with a level of calculated interest.

Carver stopped when he was less than a foot away from her. “Hey there.”

“Hey yourself,” she responded, leaning very slightly on her hip.

“I’m Carver,” he introduced himself before motioning to Finder. “The pipsqueak over there is Pathfinder.”

“I’m not a pipsqueak,” Finder grumbled, moving closer to the others.

“I’m Summer,” the taller mare said. “This is Dawn.”

“Pleasure to meet you both,” Dawn said, her eyes watching Finder with a keen interest.

“So,” Carver took a half step closer to Summer, his wings subtly flexing. “What’s a couple of gorgeous mares doing in a barracks like this?”

“Really?” Summer looked disappointed. “That was the best you had?”

“I—huh?”

“I mean, you could’ve gotten so creative or poetic! Say something about how you want to wrap us in your wings and lay upon silken clouds under a sea of glittering stars. You know, that fancy lovey-dovey crap that all the little colts think mares wanna hear.”

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t mind part of me in your wings,” Carver shot back, his grin slipping from confident and easy to mildly nervous.

“Oh honey,” Summer’s voice seemed to purr in Carver’s ear. She offered him a demure smile as she reached out with her right wing. Her dexterous primary feathers slipped under his chin and traced over his jawbone. “Have you ever made a mare truly fly?”

“Fly? Oh—OH!” Carver’s mouth dried up. “W-well I—I mean…”

“Uhg, Summer,” Dawn rolled her eyes and slapped her friend’s shoulder. “Quit teasing the poor guy, I don’t need to see another gullible stallion’s little centurion hanging out.”

“Hey, I didn’t make you stare at it,” Summer argued, rubbing the sore spot with a hoof. “Though I gotta say if you called that a little centurion I’m terrified to know what you consider a big one.”

“You… I … Uhg!” Dawn pressed a hoof against her forehead and closed her eyes.

Smiling, Summer returned her attention to Finder and Carver. “So, I hear the mess hall is open for the early recruits. Who’s hungry?”

“Food… sure…” Carver muttered, still in a shell shocked daze.

Summer stepped forward, her feathers giving Carver’s nose a playful flick. “Coming, big guy?”

The act seemed to snap Carver back to reality, his grin reaffirming itself. “Ladies first.”

“Ooo,” Summer purred, “look, Dawn, we’ve got a true gentlecolt.”

“You’re a terrible pony, Summer.”

Laughing, Summer trotted out of the barracks, the three other pegasi following along.


“Recruits! Attention!” a stallion’s voice boomed.

They responded quickly, standing upright with their heads high and their wings folded at their sides. A large stallion in full armor trotted in front of the line. What little of his nearly-black coat the recruits could see bore dozens of scars, and his eyes were ice blue with a fierceness that sent a chill through anypony brave enough to meet his gaze.

He surveyed the platoon, lips twisted into a contemptuous scowl. “Greenwings,” he began, his voice a low, almost guttural growl, “I am Centurion Skyhammer. As far as the lot of you are concerned, I may as well be Emperor Haysar himself. Early last week the Eighth Legion deployed from this very base. By now they will be arriving in Nimbus, where they will carry our glorious banner into battle. This leaves me with four weeks to whip the lot of you into fighting shape. And make no mistake, I will make soldiers out of you.”

Skyhammer walked down the line of recruits, his pace slow and deliberate. Every pony he passed received an intense look of scrutiny. Skyhammer’s trained eyes seemed to instantly hone in on any imperfections in the hastily fitted armor his platoon had been given less than an hour earlier. He came to a stop in front of Finder, a moment of genuine confusion briefly flickering over his face.

The young pegasus had been given the smallest equipment that the armorers had been able to find, not that it had helped much. The armor he wore had been sized for a small mare. Even still, the heavy iron plates were too large for Pathfinder. The belts that secured the armor around his body had to have extra holes punched into them just to keep the armor from sliding too much.

Finder was grateful that the armorers had at least taken him into a back room while they were trying to fit him. The second he had walked out of the armory—straining notably from the substantial weight of the cuirass—every pony had gotten a laugh at his expense. Even his new friends Carver, Summer, and Dawn couldn’t resist a chuckle.

“And just who the buck are you supposed to be?” Skyhammer asked, his scowl shifting a to a perplexed look.

“Pathfinder, sir!” he answered, trying not to show his fear.

“And what in the blue hell are you doing here?”

“I’m here to serve the Legion, sir.”

“Serve the Legion,” Skyhammer snorted, stepping away from Finder and shouting loud enough for the regiment to hear. “And how exactly is a scrawny flank stain like you supposed to help the Legion?”

Finder could hear the muffled chuckles from the recruits around him. His cheeks burned, yet he stood his ground. “I can fight, Sir. I can kill griffons.”

“Kill a griffon, eh? You’re dumber than you look, Flank Stain! The only reason I don’t throw your scrawny ass out of my platoon is because you might at least make a halfway decent meat shield for the real legionnaires!”

Finder swallowed the lump in his throat, far too afraid to say a word.

Skyhammer shook his head in disgust before continuing down the line. Every pony he passed without a comment seemed to let out an almost imperceptible sigh of relief. The next pony he stopped in front of was a light blue stallion with a slender build and a quiet demeanor. Skyhammer’s attention immediately focused on the recruit’s sword, which had been slung over his right side instead of the left. With an abrupt turn, Skyhammer was face to face with with the stallion.

“Name.” Skyhammer demanded.

“Windshear, Sir.”

“Think you’re a special pony, Windshear?”

“No, Sir.”

“Then why, greenwing, do you have your sword on the wrong side?”

“Sir?”

Skyhammer reached forward, grabbed the leather wrapped hilt of the sword in his fetlock, and pulled it free of the scabbard. He held up the blunted iron sword, intentionally weighted to be twice as heavy as the actual weapon. “Your sword, you slack jawed, feather brained, useless mule! Why is this weapon on the wrong side?”

“I’m a lefty, sir.” Windshear answered.

“So you do think you’re some kind of special pony, don’t you, Windshit?”

“N-no—”

Skyhammer threw the blunted weapon to the ground, his hoof cuffing the unfortunate stallion behind the right ear before he addressed the entire platoon. “Recruit Windshit here thinks he’s special! He thinks that because his parents dropped him on his thick, empty, misshapen excuse for a skull, he can disrupt the entire frontline!”

Skyhammer jabbed Windshear’s breastplate, his impact making a sharp thunk. “Do you know what happens when some dumb hotshot disrupts the frontline, Windshit?”

“N-no, Sir.”

“We lose unit cohesion, Windshit, and when we lose cohesion you risk the lives of the soldiers fighting beside you! Do you want to get your brothers and sisters killed, Windshit?”

“No, Sir!”

“Then pick up that weapon and put it on the correct side!” Skyhammer shouted before continuing down the line. Windshear waited until he had passed before he retrieved his weapon, resheathing the blade and placing it on his opposite side.

With a purposeful grimace, Skyhammer continued down the line. Three more ponies were passed with no comment from the centurion. None of the three dared to make even the smallest sign of relief. Skyhammer stopped in front of Carver, having found the rare pony that was taller than himself.

Skyhammer really hated having to look up at greenwings.

“Name.”

“Carver, Sir!”

“Carver, huh? Let me tell you something, Carver: you’re so fat and worthless, that even as I speak your parents are packing their trash and leaving town with no forwarding address so they don't have to see you again. The night after you left they threw a big fucking party! I was invited, but I had to stay here to make sure you don't get the chance to fuck up my beloved Legion!"

Carver desperately bit down on his tongue, he had the distinct impression that talking back to Skyhammer was an easy way to sharply reduce a pony’s life expectancy.

Skyhammer continued his walk down the line, stopping when he spotted four new ponies approaching the platoon. They wore the same armor as every other legionnaire, only with a red cross painted on the shoulders. Their armor was also customized with two leather bags riveted to the flankplates. Inside were the various tools needed for proper battlefield triage.

Summer led the group, with Dawn close behind her. Following them was a pair of stallions Finder had not met. Skyhammer approached Summer, his ever present scowl never fading.

“Name?” he demanded.

“Summer Celsus,” she answered, delivering a crisp salute to the centurion. “My medical team’s been assigned to this platoon, Sir.

“Celsus… Celsus… Ahh, you must be Senator Dicentis Celsus’ daughter.”

“I am, sir.”

Nodding, Skyhammer leaned closer to Summer. “Let me be crystal clear on this, Celsus. I don’t care if your father is the Senator representing Nimbus. You will receive no special treatment and I expect nothing but your best in my platoon.”

Summer dared to smile at the centurion’s sentiment. “The pegasi of Nimbus don’t give anything less, and I’d be offended if you did, sir.”

“The pegasi of Nimbus couldn’t tell their asses from a hole in the ground.”

“Well then it’s a good thing that I’m a medic and not a scout, sir.” Summer replied, not rising to Skyhammer’s bait.

“You think you're a funny mare, Celsus?" Skyhammer growled. His keen eyes locked onto Summer's, daring her to try her luck with another comment. Instead, she returned the centurion a tiny yet confident smile.

"Right then," Skyhammer said after failing to get a reaction from the Nimban mare. "Distribute yourselves evenly: one medic per two sections."

“Yes, sir.” Summer saluted again and turned to face her medics. “Dawn, sections three and four, Poultice, sections five and six, Salve, sections seven and eight. I’ll take sections one and two.”

“Ma’am.” They saluted, each trotting to their assigned sections.

Skyhammer waited until the medical team had integrated into the formation before he addressed them again. “Alright greenwings, playtime is over. We’re gonna march until your hooves bleed. Then, we’re gonna march some more!”

“Sir, yes, Sir!”

A simple, almost gentle smile pulled at Skyhammer’s lips. Everypony in the regiment seemed to quiver in fear at the sight.

“Now then,” he began, his voice calm and friendly. “Check around your hooves, make sure you haven’t left a mess that the nice groundskeepers will have to clean up, AND GET YOUR LAZY ASSES TO THE GATEHOUSE! MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”


“Company,” Skyhammer shouted loud enough for the whole platoon to hear him. “Halt!”

Sixty-four pegasi stumbled to a halt; coughing, panting, and wheezing from the six hour jog that Skyhammer had taken them on. Their route had traced the edges of the lake, following the curves of hoof-worn paths through the soft grasses. All the while, Skyhammer had kept them in formation, utilizing a combination of increasingly biting insults and the occasional smack keeping his recruits in line.

There had been no breaks to drink, no rest for the weary, and no leaning on the pony beside you for support. Several greenwings, Finder included, vomited out what little food had been in their bellies before the march. Even then, Skyhammer hadn’t given them time to slow down.

He would break them of their “weakness”, or kill them trying.

Finder took several steps towards the lake’s edge, his hooves and legs numb from hours of abuse. His body burned and his heart pounded in his breast; his oversized armor only seemed to intensify the heat. He barely noticed the faint feeling that came over him before his body fell uselessly to the ground.

The sudden noise attracted the attention of most of the platoon, Skyhammer included. His ever present scowl deepened and he trotted over to the young pegasus. Carver lingered not far behind, gasping for breath and sweating profusely.

Skyhammer stood above Finder, his right hoof giving the armor a relatively light kick. “Get on your hooves, Flank Stain. The dirt’s too good for the likes of you to take a nap in it!”

Pathfinder coughed, unable to catch his breath for a few seconds. “Y-yes… yes, sir.”

Planting his front hooves on the ground, Finder tried to heft his body back into a standing position. His exhausted muscles burned at the effort, causing his forelegs to violently tremble under him. He made it just over half way up before his legs failed him. Finder collapsed into the dirt with a heavy grunt and the clatter of his armor.

Skyhammer rolled his eyes, a disgusted sneer curling up the right side of his mouth. “Medic!”

Dawn trotted over, stopping in front of the centurion and saluting. “Sir.”

“See to him,” he growled, waving a hoof at Pathfinder.

Dawn nodded once, moving past Skyhammer to her first patient of the day. Skyhammer sucked in a deep breath while wiping the sweat from his brow. “We’ll rest here for one hour, then we will fly back to Fort Updraft.”

In response, Skyhammer received an uncoordinated, tired, and muddled set of replies. He allowed it without a reprimand; they had earned their rest for the time being. Pulling his helmet off, Skyhammer tucked it under his wing and walked to the lake for a drink.

Dawn crouched down beside Finder, giving him a tender smile. “Hey there, handsome. Fancy seeing you here.”

“H-hey, Dawn,” Finder managed between gasps. “Hah… H-how are you?”

“Sweaty, same as everypony that isn’t you,” she answered, a slight frown tugging at her lips. “How long ago did you stop sweating?”

“I-I don’t know… an hour, maybe?”

She reached forward with a hoof, pressing carefully against Finder’s neck to gauge his pulse. Carver sat down beside him with a weary grunt, the hairs of his coat clumped and damp. His left wing gave Finder a reassuring nudge. “How’re you doing, buddy?”

“I… I’m good,” Finder coughed again, “I just… just need a second…”

“You need more than a second; you’re dehydrated and you’ve got a nasty bout of heat stroke right now.” Dawn reached into one of her medical bags, retrieving a leather waterskin. “Drink this.”

With a little assistance from Carver, Pathfinder was able to sit up and grasp the waterskin in his hooves. Popping the cork off with his teeth, he quickly recognized the smell of salt that drifted out from the cap. His brows knitted together, puzzlement filling his face.

“What’s in this?”

“Saltwater,” Dawn answered, her hoof tapping the bottom of the skin. “Take one mouthful and gulp it down, then we’ll get you to the lake for fresh water.”

“Isn’t saltwater undrinkable?” Carver asked, a hoof wrapped around Finder’s waist to steady the colt.

“One mouthful to get the salt into his system, and that’ll help his body absorb the fresh water more efficiently,” Dawn explained.

Finder took a breath. Living in Altus, he’d had the distinct pleasure of tasting saltwater on more than a few occasions. Steeling himself, he hefted the waterskin to his lips and held his breath. He nearly wretched as the potent liquid filled his mouth. Dawn helped steady the waterskin until Finder had swallowed.

“There we go,” she said with a friendly smile. “Let’s get you out of that armor and down to the lake.

Still grimacing from the overwhelming flavor of salt, Finder managed a nod. With Carver’s help, he slipped free of his armor and carefully set it aside with his helmet and sword. Together, Dawn and Carver shepherded him to the lake’s edge, where the colt was able to drink all he could. After a short walk into the lake to further lower his temperature, they helped him back to his armor and let him rest.

“Thanks guys,” Finder said after a few moments. “Sorry about this.”

“Don’t worry about it, Squirt.” Carver gave Finder’s shoulder a playful smack. “These things happen.”

“It’s my job to help, but sometimes it’s a pleasure,” Dawn said with a wink.

Finder’s cheeks burned and he grinned to the ochre colored mare. Carver’s elbow gave a surreptitious nudge to Finder’s ribs. Before he could say anything, Summer trotted up to them, a casual smile on her lips.

"Hey, Stud," Summer greeted, giving Carver half a glance before nodding her head to Finder. "Pipsqueak." She took the briefest of moments to enjoy the looks on their faces before turning her attention on Dawn. “When you’re done here, Salve needs your help wrapping a few sprained ankles. I need your saltwater too, Poultice and I got a lot of dehydrated ponies to look after.”

“Got it,” Dawn replied, standing up and hoofing over her waterskin. “Where’s Salve at?”

“Down by the lake, just head that way.” Summer pointed Dawn in the proper direction and took the waterskin with her wing. “And get yourself hydrated as well; the last thing we need is a medic keeling over.”

“Yes, ma’am.” With a quick salute, Dawn trotted away to see to her duties.

Summer looked down at Finder and Carver. “You boys rest up; I’ll check on you again later.”

“Hey, I’m all sore and tired too, can’t I get a kiss to make it better?” Carver teased.

With an amused snort and a roll of her eyes, Summer kissed the top of Finder’s head and patted Carver’s mane with her hoof. “Poor baby.”

“Hey, why does he get a kiss?” Carver pointed a hoof at Finder.

“Cause he’s cuter than you are,” she answered with a smile.

“You’re a cruel mare, Summer,” Carver pouted.

“It’s just my Nimban affection. See you later, boys!” She sang as she trotted off to her next patients.

Carver let out an irritated grunt. “Mares.”

“Yeah…” Finder pawed at the grass with a hoof.

“So, are you gonna go for her?”

“Huh?” Finder cast a puzzled look to his friend.

“Dawn, you scrawny featherhead!” Carver grinned. “You gonna go for her, or what?”

“You mean, like, ask her out?” Finder asked, his cheeks burning.

Carver snorted and laughed, his hoof slapping Finder’s shoulder. “Looks more like a good rut would do you wonders, pup.”

Finder laughed nervously, his hoof rubbing his shoulder. “I… I don’t know if she--”

“Kid, if you were a mare and she was a stallion I’m pretty sure your cherry woulda been popped about ten minutes after you two met.”

Pathfinder stared at Carver with a blank expression for several moments, his mind slowly processing the comment. “You’re a seriously messed up pony, Carver.”

“Ain’t it great?” he asked with a broad grin.

“So you insist.” Finder smirked, elbowing Carver’s side.

Exhausted from the long jog, Finder and Carver closed their eyes and relaxed under the shade of the trees. A gentle breeze whispered through the leaves overhead and gently cooled their bodies and soothed the ache in their muscles. It wasn’t long before both fell into a light sleep, their minds drifting to their distant homes.

True to her word, Summer returned to check on them after having finished inspecting the rest of the platoon. Careful not to wake them, she lightly touched Finder’s cheek with a hoof to gauge his temperature, then moved to his neck to check his pulse. Finder started to stir, though he quickly settled again once Summer’s hoof gently stroked his mane.

Satisfied that he was recovering from his bout with heat stroke, Summer left him and Carver to rest. Almost every pony in second platoon seemed to be taking advantage of the break for a short nap, though a few were taking the time to play in the cool waters of the lake. Summer was pleased to see her medics diligently moving through the ranks, ensuring everypony was resting comfortably and had gotten enough water.

Her eyes narrowed when she spotted Skyhammer. Unlike the rest of the regiment, the Centurion continued to wear his armor as he reclined against the trunk of an old oak tree. His helmet sat beside him, exposing his slate-grey mane to the light of day.

Careful not to step on anypony, or disturb them from their well earned rest, Summer trotted towards him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you have a moment?”

“If you’re not getting a drink then you should be resting,” he answered without even opening his eyes. “We’ll fly back to Fort Updraft soon.”

“Yes, sir, I need to speak with you about that.” Summer allowed herself a disdainful frown.

“Too tired to fly home, Celsus? I’m disappointed, I thought Nimbans were supposed to be the finest soldiers in the Empire. Oh well, I’m sure we could find a stallion or two willing to carry you back,” Skyhammer chided.

“I was doing marches worse than this by the time I was sixteen, Sir,” Summer shot back.

“What do you want, Celsus?” he asked, cracking open one eye to look at her.

Summer’s eyes looked to her left, then her right, ensuring none of the other recruits were close enough to overhear their conversation. She wasn’t terribly surprised that every recruit had given Skyhammer an extremely wide berth. There was little doubt in her mind that they all were happy to be as far away from him as possible. For once, the platoon’s natural distaste for their Centurion would prove useful to the medic.

She took another step closer to Skyhammer, her voice dropping to a hushed tone. “With respect, sir, what in the hell were you thinking today?

Skyhammer fully opened both eyes, giving Summer his fiercest glare. “Check your tone, Celsus.”

Summer remained unfazed by the glare, and dared to match it with an equally strong glare of her own. “You can’t expect day one greenwings to march for six hours in this heat, fully equipped, and deny them a waterskin.”

“I can, I did, and I will again.”

“No, sir, you won’t.”

Skyhammer got to his hooves, getting nose-to-nose with Summer. The two stood at the same height; their eyes locked in a vicious battle of wills that neither would concede. Skyhammer’s lips twitched with a barely restrained snarl while Summer’s face maintained a focused, righteous, indignation.

“I don’t think I heard you correctly a moment ago, Celsus.”

“Legionnaire Codex, Article Five, Section two: the ranking medical officer of all military units is empowered to override or countermand the order or orders of any ranking officer in combat or non-combat conditions to preserve the strength of the unit,” Summer said, accurately repeating the entire code. “ If you want to continue training this platoon, then you will give the recruits their waterskins. Unless, of course, you’re trying to take casualties before they’ve seen their first griffon.”

“And what would the spoiled brat of a senator know of griffons, hm?”

“My father may be the senator, but we’re still Nimban. I was seventeen when I saw my first combat, sir. Young Nimbans don’t have the luxury to be soft like the ponies of Stratopolis.”

"There's a reason it's called the Cirran Empire and not the Nimban Empire, Celsus," he spat.

Summer returned the sentiment with a wry smile. "There wouldn't be any Empire if we didn't pull Roamulus' sorry ass out of the fire four hundred years ago, sir."

“Keep that up, Celsus, and I’ll have your head on a spear,” Skyhammer promised.

“It’s Nimbus that stands as the front line against Gryphus, Nimbans who die protecting the Empire’s border, and House Rain that ensures the Emperor and the Senate can conduct their business in peace,” Summer continued, her wings twitching and her eyes never breaking contact with Skyhammer’s.

“House Rain has had centuries to pacify the griffon hordes, and not one of them has succeeded. Winter Rain is the latest in a long line of failures.”

“Lord Winter Rain has personally killed more griffons in combat than anypony alive.”

“Shame he couldn’t save his own son,” Skyhammer countered with a cruel smirk.

Summer’s expression went flat, the playful fire in her eyes turning cold as ice. Skyhammer was careful to look unphased by the sudden shift in her demeanor. Still, he remained prepared to defend himself, just in case.

A fight with an offended Nimban was not something he wanted to engage in.

“The recruits will get their waterskins when we get back to Fort Updraft, and they will carry them on all future training exercises,” Summer said, her tone clear. It was not a request.

Skyhammer's eyes filled with a fire of their own. Placing a hoof on the mare's shoulders, he pulled her closer until the two were separated by barely a few inches.

"You think you're hot stuff, don't you, Celsus?" Before Summer had a chance to defend herself, he nearly spat into her face. "Just because you're from the east doesn't mean you know shit about command and authority. I've fought griffons too, you know, and I guarantee you I've killed many more than you have, or you ever will with such a righteous attitude as yours."

His hoof tightened on her shoulder, and Summer masked her discomfort with a thin scowl. "Let me be clear about one thing," Skyhammer continued, "the book might say that you have authority in my platoon, but mine is absolute. The recruits will get their water, but know this; if you ever disregard an order from me ever again, I'll personally gut you for insubordination. Is that understood?"

Summer's response was a restrained nod; she wasn't interested in pushing her centurion to a fight.

"Good," Skyhammer grunted as he let go of her shoulder. Sitting back down against the tree, he rested his hooves behind his head. "Now get back to work, Nimban."


After resting a little more than an hour and a half, the platoon had flown back to Fort Updraft. Skyhammer had given the platoon another hour to eat before summoning them outside for lectures on the Legion’s history, procedures, and military basics. After nearly three hours of education, they had been dismissed for dinner and to their respective barracks. There hadn’t been much conversation that night; everypony was simply too tired for it.

Skyhammer woke them at dawn the next morning.

“ON YOUR HOOVES, GREENWINGS!”

Several ponies, Pathfinder included, fell out of their beds at the call, half-asleep and thoroughly confused at what was going on around them. Still, with Skyhammer’s ‘encouragement,’ the entire platoon was awake, armored, and assembled in the courtyard within fifteen minutes. Skyhammer didn’t seem particularly impressed by their timing.

“Understand this, greenwings,” Skyhammer shouted, his roar echoing over the field. “We are at war, and I’m gonna drill your lazy asses until your worthless little hearts burst, and then I’m gonna drill you some more! You get me, greenwings?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” the platoon answered.

“Grass drills until I’m tired, greenwings! Start with wing-ups!”

They reacted immediately, dropping low to the ground and planting their wings in the grass. Skyhammer counted a brisk “up, down, up, down,” rhythm for the exercise. Finder lost count somewhere around the fiftieth wing up.

“Sit-ups, you lazy slobs!” Skyhammer barked.

On command, all sixty-four ponies switched positions and began their next exercise. Skyhammer didn’t keep a rhythm this time. Instead, several of the camp’s centurions paced around them, ensuring everypony kept exercising. Skyhammer watched for a moment before trotting into the mess hall.

“Keep at it you slovenly sacks a’ shit!” One of the centurion’s shouted.

For over an hour the centurions hounded the recruits, shifting them from exercise to exercise with no rest in between. The whole time, Skyhammer remained inside the mess hall, presumably enjoying a hearty breakfast while his recruits toiled. When he reemerged from the hall he carried a wooden mug in a hoof, sipping the contents with a sadist’s satisfaction.

“I’m still not tired, maggots!” Skyhammer touted. Had any of them been capable of looking, they would have noticed the amused grin on Skyhammer’s lips as he sipped his drink and trotted to the officer’s barracks. The guards laughed at the comment, and the recruits fantasized over the various ways they wanted to kill their centurion.

For another hour, the guards ordered the recruits from exercise to exercise, without ever repeating one. When Skyhammer finally released them from the grass dills, they moved immediately into an hour of formation marching as a cool down exercise. Only after that was done did Skyhammer release them for the morning meal.

After a couple of hours to rest, Skyhammer led them on another long march. He allowed them to bring water this time, perhaps because he didn’t feel like stopping to treat heatstroke again. They marched well into the afternoon, returning to Fort Updraft in time for dinner and more lectures on the Legion, none of which Finder’s exhausted mind could remember. He was simply glad he could walk unassisted.


The first week repeated a similar pattern. Every morning, Skyhammer woke them up bright and early. The platoon would spend two hours before breakfast doing drills, most of the day marching, then receive historical and tactical lectures in the evening. Only after a week of hard training did Skyhammer allow his platoon a weekend to rest. Pathfinder wasn’t the only pony who slept most of the time away.

The second week was markedly different than the first. While every morning still began with grass drills, Skyhammer replaced the marches with weapons training. Everypony was expected to master their blades, and many were offered bonus pay to train in specialized weapons, such as bows, javelins, and spears.

For hours each day they practiced against wooden posts wrapped in straw, all while Skyhammer and the camp guards kept a watchful eye on them. Finder enjoyed weapons training, even with the heavy armor on his back quickly sapping his energy and interfering with his movements. The blade reminded him of why he had joined the Legion, and gave him a means to fulfil that purpose.

Finder’s difficulties hadn’t gone unnoticed by Skyhammer, or the fort’s master armorer.

“Flank Stain!” Skyhammer barked, startling the unsuspecting colt.

Finder snapped to attention, his heart skipping a beat in his chest. “Yes, sir?”

“Report to the armory, the smiths have new armor ready for you.”

“Yes, sir!” Finder saluted, a cautiously excited grin pulling at his lips.

Fort Updraft was equipped with a large armory staffed by multiple blacksmiths and dozens of apprentices under their tutelage. Malleus, the master smith, was a large pegasus with a charcoal colored coat and a short mohawk mane that had long ago turned white. He personally oversaw the fitting of every recruit from the moment they arrived to the moment they left. He made it a point of personal pride to ensure everypony that set hoof into Fort Updraft received the best armor and weapons he could provide them with.

Trotting through the open door, Finder spotted Malleus standing near the center of the room, a sword in his hooves. The old blacksmith was inspecting the weapon, which had been freshly crafted by one of the apprentices. His keen eyes searched the metal for even the smallest of errors in the construction. The whole time his face remained a mask of neutral focus.

“Almost there, lad, you just need to take it to the whetstone and secure the hoof grip. Unless you want the blade to fly off at the first swing.”

“It would certainly surprise the griffons, sir,” the apprentice replied.

Malleus scoffed. “That it would, but it also leaves the poor bastard wielding it holding a handle with no blade.” He offered the weapon to the apprentice, who took it with a hoof. “Bring it back to me when you’re done.”

“Thank you, sir.” The recruit bowed his head, trotting to the back of the forge with the weapon.

Turning around, Malleus grinned at Finder. “Aha, there you are!”

Pathfinder saluted the elder stallion. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”

“At ease, son, I’m not your centurion,” Malleus said, motioning to an open area for fitting recruits. “Come over here and get out of that armor. It’s high time you got something more fitting of a colt your age.”

“I’m not a—”

“You’re not fooling anyone in the Legion, kid.” Malleus slapped Pathfinder’s armored back.

Finder chewed at his bottom lip, his ears flattening against his head.

“Hell, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the blacksmith continued, “if every colt your age was so patriotic we’d have more legionnaires than we could count! Now come on, off with the armor!”

Finder nodded, his hooves lifting the helmet from his head and setting it aside. After a few moments of struggling, and a bit of assistance from Malleus, he was freed of the heavy cuirass. Malleus removed the sword from the armor and held on to it while Pathfinder slipped off the iron leg guards and set them aside.

Malleus set the armor into a wooden box which he pushed towards the wall. He hooked his fetlock around a second box which he slid towards Finder, a proud look on his face. Pathfinder peered inside, his own wings fidgeting with excitement.

“I gotta say, kid, whipping up some armor for you was about the most fun I’ve had in months,” Malleus said, sitting on his haunches and reaching into the box with his front hooves.

The harness he pulled from the box was made of a treated leather base that held a deep brown color. Thin iron scales were sewn into the leather backing in an overlapping horizontal pattern that covered most of the shirt. Pathfinder stared at the creation in awe, his eyes wide and his mouth open.

“What is that?” he asked, taking the armor in his hooves. “It’s so much lighter.”

“This is lorica squamata, the old style armor from the days before the Cirran Empire,” Malleus explained, “It’s not terribly common anymore, but a fair number of the scouts still favor it to the banded armor the regular infantry wears. You’ll have a greater range of motion and, as you noticed, it’s not nearly as heavy. The downside is that it won’t protect you as well as the other armor could.”

Finder hesitated at Malleus’ comment. “So… if I got hit…”

“I’d try to avoid that if I was you,” Malleus deadpanned.

The sentiment did wonders to moderate Pathfinder’s enthusiasm.

After taking a breath, Finder tried the armor on. Malleus stood close by, occasionally stepping forward to help the colt with a stubborn belt or to adjust the way the armor sat on Finder’s back. After a few minutes of combined effort, Finder stood in his new armor, stretching in various directions to get a feel for it.

“This armor is amazing, Malleus!” Pathfinder gave the old stallion a bright smile. “Its almost like a second coat!”

Chuckling, Malleus reached for the box, his hooves retrieving a set of bracers sized for the colt. “That’s how armor is supposed to feel, son. Here, try these on and tell me if they feel right.”

Finder nodded, and managed the task easily enough. The bracers were a single strip of iron bolted onto a soft leather backing. Unlike the old ones that had to be secured too tightly to Finder’s legs, the new ones sat comfortably. Likewise, the new helmet Malleus gave him fit perfectly as well.

The blacksmith gave Finder a few minutes to adjust to his new equipment before he retrieved another box for one last item.

“Well, kid, ready for your first set of wingblades?”

“Yes, Sir!” Finder answered, barely containing his excitement.

Malleus smiled. “Let’s make you a legionnaire, son.”

The pinnacle of Cirran military engineering, wingblades were worn by every pegasus enlisted in the Legion. A long chain of sharpened iron scales were arranged on a specialized leather rigging that secured the blades along the leading edge of the wing. No two sets of wingblades were alike as each was custom made for a specific soldier’s wings.

Each scale overlapped the next, with a larger scale at the crest of the wing for deflecting attacks. At end of the chain was the longest scale, shaped like a metal feather and honed to a razor sharp edge. While wingblades were rarely capable of delivering a fatal blow, especially against an armored opponent, they were widely regarded as the most versatile and dangerous weapons in the Cirran Legions.

With Malleus’ help, and a few small tweaks with the rigging, Finder was fitted with his new weapons. He stretched his wings, getting a feel for the weight and admiring Malleus’ craft. The blacksmith stood in silence, a proud smile on his face.

“How do they feel, kid?”

“They’re perfect, Malleus,” Finder answered, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. “If it wasn’t for the weight of the metal, I’d barely feel them.”

“You’ll get used to it in a week or two,” Malleus said, “the scales are sharpened, so try not to poke your eyes out.”

“Sure… wait, does that actually happen?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“The greenwing, and how stupid they are.”

“Oh.” Finder shut his mouth, sincerely hoping Malleus didn’t peg him as one of the stupid recruits, and that he didn’t prove himself to be one.

Careful not to cut himself, Malleus took Finder’s right wing in his hooves and carefully held the limb at full extension. He leaned close, giving the leather rigging one last, careful look to ensure everything was up to his standards. Satisfied with the right wing, he gave the same attention to the left. Finder stood as still as he could waiting for the blacksmith to finish his work.

“Okay, you’re good to go.” Malleus motioned a hoof towards the door. “If anything comes loose or feels odd come back in and we’ll see what we need to adjust.”

“I will.” Finder held out a hoof to Malleus. “Thanks for everything, Malleus.”

The blacksmith bumped his hoof against Finder’s, giving the smaller limb a firm shake. “It’s my job. Now you best get back to work; I’m sure your Centurion has plenty more for you to do before the day is over.”

Finder left the armory, getting back to the drilling grounds in time for another group drill, this time involving the entire regiment. Finder joined with the ponies of his platoon, sitting in the first open spot he could get. Skyhammer paced in front of the group, the other centurions already lecturing their platoons.

“Today we begin aerial combat drills,” he began, shouting loud enough so everypony could hear him. “Now, you’ve all been practicing formation marches and flights, and those will serve the Legion well in the days ahead. But once we’re engaged with the griffons in air to air battle, all that pretty shit is done. To that end, there are only three rules you slovenly sacks of shit need to learn.”

“Rule number one: Don’t stop moving. If you hover, if you hesitate, if you stop, then you’re already dead.” He emphasized the sentiment by pointedly jabbing the nearest recruit’s chest. “The griffons are stronger than we are in single combat, and they can wield their weapons more effectively in the air. We have speed and agility, use those to your advantage.”

“Rule number two: Never lose your wingpony. All aerial operations are conducted by teams of two. Your wingpony watches your back, and you watch theirs. If one of you gets a griffon on your tail, then it is your wingpony’s duty to bail you out. If your wingpony should be killed,” Skyhammer hesitated in his speech, his right hoof subconsciously rubbed a jagged scar on his left foreleg. Snapping himself free of the memory, he hardened his gaze and continued. “Should your wingpony be killed, you are to immediately fall back and regroup with another pony who lost their partner. Once you have a new partner return to the fight.”

Skyhammer paced down the line, looking at the trodden dirt under his hooves as he composed his thoughts. “Rule number three: Know your regiment’s zone of control. Before battle, the Legates will assign every regiment to a zone. Once there it’ll be our responsibility to gain air superiority and crush all resistance. Griffon skirmishers will frequently try to draw you out of your zone; do not pursue them once they leave your area. You will be alone in hostile skies and they will tear you to pieces.”

Skyhammer paused for a breath, looking into the eyes of everypony in his platoon. His eyes softened, and his voice quieted. “Things will get messy in the heat of battle, so if you lose sight of your zone either fly up high enough to survey the battlefield, or land and support the legion advancing from the ground.”

Looking to his fellow centurions, Skyhammer nodded at his platoon. “Alright, everypony partner up with the pony next to you. We will be joining with first, third, and fourth platoons for the duration of this exercise, understood?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” they replied.

“Then get moving, greenwings!”

Finder shuffled through the crowd of ponies until he found Carver, who had been on the lookout for him as well.

“Nice armor!” The elder stallion grinned.

Finder laughed and grinned. “Thanks! It’s nice to have something that fits!”

“I’ll bet,” Carver said with a nod. “Ready, kid?”

“More than you are, Gramps.”

The two laughed as they took to the skies.

Pathfinder was stunned by how much easier everything was in his new armor. He flew with his platoon for the entirety of the drill and, for the first time since their training had begun, he wasn’t exhausted at the end of the day. In the void where exhaustion had been, Finder only felt an overwhelming sense of pride. He decided then and there that he could get used to that feeling.

After a successful day of drills, all four platoons were dismissed for the evening. Finder and Carver landed near the barracks and waited for Summer and Dawn to show up. They hesitated in their usual greetings, transfixed by the unique armor he wore.

“Well look at you,” Summer spoke first, inspecting Finder’s armor and wingblades. “You almost look like a proper soldier in that.”

“Really?” Finder asked, grinning excitedly.

“No, but it’s a start.” Summer winked.

Dawn gave Summer’s shoulder a light punch. “Lay off, Summer, I think it fits him very well.”

Carver rolled his eyes. “Dawn, would you just fuck the kid and get it over with?”

Finder wondered why his armor suddenly felt so hot and uncomfortable.

“That would take all the fun out of the game,” Dawn shot back, winking at Finder. “Don’t be jealous that there are more appealing ponies than you.”

“I’ll have you know that back home I was quite the mare’s stallion,” Carver boasted, puffing out his chest and doing his best to look dignified.

Summer wrapped a foreleg around Dawn’s shoulders, flashing her trademark grin at Carver. “Us Nimbus mares have higher standards. Get yourself a few battle scars and we’ll talk.”

Carver waved a hoof at Pathfinder. “He doesn’t have any, either!”

“Details,” Dawn said with a shrug.

Carver grumbled to himself, kicking at the ground with a hoof.

“So, who’s hungry?” Finder asked, desperate to change the subject.

Receiving three motions of agreement, the four pegasi trotted to the mess hall.

Like the barracks, the mess hall was built to feed the entire regiment at once. Dozens of tables capable of seating ten pegasi at a time were arranged into ordered rows. At the back of the mess was the serving counter where the cook and his private fiefdom of assistants worked to feed the hungry recruits.

The cook, whose name nopony seemed to know, but everypony called “Chef”, was a tall, fine-boned pegasus with a snow white coat. His mane, a rich chestnut color, was long, messy, and tended to get in the way of his blue eyes. Chef had a peculiar habit of chewing on the quill of one of his discarded feathers. He never said why, seeming to enjoy the increasingly wild rumors it started among the recruits.

The four pegasi took their place in the food line, each taking a tray and waiting their turn. All the recruits were given the same food: a chunk of bread, a scoop of potatoes, and a main course of some gravy covered thing that they had to assume was edible. Chef hesitated before serving Pathfinder, noticing the colt’s new armor.

“Well, well.” Chef grinned at Finder. “Aren’t you all fancy today.”

“Yes, sir,” he answered, “fresh out of Malleus’ armory.”

Chef laughed, slopping a plate of the alleged food onto Finder’s plate. “Malleus always did have a good eye for armor. Try not to get it too dinged up before you get into an actual fight.”

“Oh come on, Chef, the dings are the best part!” Summer jeered.

“Anypony ever told you that Nimban’s are bloody mad?” Chef asked, a playful smile on his lips.

Summer shrugged, brushing a hoof through her mane. “Why, Chef, we’re not mad, we’re the only sane ponies left.”

“So you insist.” He hefted a spoonful of food onto Summer’s plate. “Take’s a buncha crazies to willingly live on the edge of Gryphus if you ask me.”

“It’s not our fault the rest of you don’t know how to have a good time,” Summer answered with a yawn.

Chef chuckled, serving Carver and Dawn their food. “Much nicer to have a tankard of ale and a warm mare I’d say.”

“We’re much warmer after a good fight,” Summer said, grinning at Chef.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Carver mumbled.

Summer’s grin widened, sending a shiver of terror down Carver’s spine. She slipped a foreleg around his shoulders and leaned over until her lips were mere inches from his ear. When she spoke, she used a low, husky voice. “Well if all you wanted to do was watch I think I can help you out.”

Carver’s face burned, his lips pressed into a thin line, and his eyes focused intently on Summer.

Summer tilted her head down, her eyes looking up at Carver, and a demure smile appeared on her lips.

“...No.” Carver shook his head, taking his tray in his front hooves and flying back to their table.

Finder bit his fetlock almost hard enough to draw blood, trying desperately not to laugh at his friend’s misery. Dawn nudged Summer’s ribs, struggling to contain her own giggles.

“You really are a cruel mare, Summer.”

“But I look good doing it.”

“Alright, alright,” Chef interrupted, waving them off with a lazy wing. “Fun as that was to watch, you’re holding up my line. Piss off.”

“Sorry, Chef,” Finder said, taking his tray and following after Carver.

“Sorry,” Dawn smiled apologetically to the lanky stallion.

“We’re sorry, Chef,” Summer added.

Back at their table, Carver had already started eating his meal before the others had sat down. Finder sat next to him, Dawn and Summer opposite of them.

“How’s the… um…” Finder pointed at the pile of gravy coated mystery food, “whatever that is.”

“Good, actually,” the large stallion answered, his expression as surprised as theirs.

“You wouldn’t lie to us, would you?” Summer asked.

“Only to you, Summer.”

“Fair enough.” She shrugged, taking a bite of the potatoes.

The four ate in companionable silence for a time, though Carver mostly wanted to avoid another ribbing from Summer. Halfway through his meal, Finder spotted Windshear walking towards them, a somewhat lost look on his face as he searched for a spot to eat.

Finder’s initial impression of Windshear had been similar to his brother’s best friend back in Altus: a quiet, skittish pony named Pan Sea. He had been surprised to learn just how wrong that initial impression had been. While Windshear was, indeed, a very nice pony, he had quickly earned a reputation for being ruthless in combat practice--the kind of pony who would merrily beat his opponents with a truncheon.

Summer and Dawn had been stunned when they learned that he wasn’t from Nimbus.

“Hey, Windshear!” Finder waved to the sky blue stallion with a hoof. “Need a place to sit?”

“Sure, thank you.” The stallion smiled, taking the open seat next to Pathfinder. “Nice armor.”

“Thanks,” Finder said, shoving a spoonful of food into his mouth.

“How’ve you been, Windy?” Carver asked, taking a drink of water. “Haven’t seen you too much lately.”

“I volunteered for spear training, and the special weapons group is from all four platoons.” He shrugged, rolling his sore shoulders and sighing. “So I’ve been training with them.”

“How’s that going?” Dawn asked, leaning towards Windshear with genuine interest.

“It’s… hm,” Windshear’s left hoof rubbed the back of his neck, his face pulled into a contemplative frown. “It’s really challenging, but also really rewarding. We have a lot of stances to learn, and the weapon has such a strange balance when you’re used to a sword. Plus it’s tiring as hell after a while. But when you start to get the feel for the motions, when you get your momentum to the perfect point, it’s just the most amazing feeling of power in your hooves.”

“No offense, but they look like they’d be pretty unwieldy in the air,” Carver suggested.

Windshear’s expression soured to a degree. “We can’t use them for more than basic thrusting--shut up, Summer.”

Summer held up her front hooves in mock surrender, her lips twisted in a foalish grin. “You have to admit, it’s a perfect weapon for a stallion.”

“Ugh,” Windshear rolled his eyes.

“There is no way you are the daughter of a statespony,” Carver argued, pointing a hoof at Summer. “Absolutely no way.”

“Why not?” she asked in turn, an easy smile on her lips. “Just cause I don’t talk like a stuffy Stratopolis mare?”

“Maybe you need a good stuffing,” Windshear suggested with a coy grin.

Summer laughed out loud. “Well played, Windshear! Well played indeed!”

Windshear chuckled, bowing his head graciously. “As I was saying; in formations we’re limited in our ability, but they’re training us for ground assault where we have plenty of room to swing and move without accidentally killing other pegasi.”

“Is it true you get bonus pay for the training?” Finder asked.

Windshear scoffed. “That’s what they say, but I haven't seen any of it yet.” His gaze drifted down to the food on his tray. “They could at least give us extra rations.”

“You should see basic training in Nimbus,” Summer began, popping a chunk of bread into her mouth. “Survival training drops us off in the wild with a knife and a waterskin.”

“Nimbus is right on the edge of Griffon territory though,” Windshear noted, “wouldn’t that mean griffon raids could easily catch or kill trainees?”

Dawn answered as Summer chewed another mouthful of food. “That happens now and then, but we’re usually dropped off much further west.”

“If you survive a griffon encounter, your name is known throughout the city.” Summer picked up the conversation, allowing Dawn a moment to eat. “It’s really rare for griffon raiders to travel so far into our territory though.”

“Say, did you all hear about the tournament next week?” Windshear asked.

Finder and Carver exchanged a confused glance while Dawn and Summer looked equally surprised.

“What tournament?” Finder asked.

“The scuttlebutt around the barracks is that the centurions are gonna hold a regiment-wide tournament to test everypony’s combat training before the war games.” Windershear explained, his grin wide with excitement.

“Do you think they’re placing bets on winners and losers?” Dawn asked, “cause if they are, I want in.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Summer answered.

“Do you think we’d have to fight each other?” Finder asked, his apprehension rising higher than it had been in a long while.

“Maybe. It depends on who gets knocked out of the tournament first, I’d wager,” Windshear said with a shrug.

Finder’s eyes looked around the table at his friends and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He didn’t want to raise his blade against any of them, regardless if the fight was real or not. It would be like raising a blade against his own brother, a thought that Finder found particularly revolting.

“Hey, chin up.” Carver gave Finder’s elbow a light punch. “I’ve seen you practice. You seemed pretty good with your sword.”

“The dummies don’t fight back.”

“Relax, it’ll be fun!” Windshear draped a hoof around Finder’s shoulders.

“Watch, Skyhammer places me against you right away.” Finder grumbled.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be nice.”

“Really?”

“Sure, why not.” Windshear grinned. “Then Dawn can kiss your wounds all better.”

“And I’ll rub salt in yours, Windy,” the medic promised.

Windshear tousled Finder’s mane with a hoof. “Yup, that mare’s a real keeper.”

Finder stuffed a spoonful of food into his mouth; his eyes surreptitiously glancing at Dawn. She easily noticed, and a warm, gentle, smile blossomed on her lips. Finder’s eyes instantly darted back to his plate as his cheeks began to burn.