• Published 14th May 2017
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The Black Monsoon - The Pree Sphee



Much time has passed since Nightmare Moon had reigned supreme over the Elements of Harmony, plunging Equus into the dystopia of her dreams. A mangy group of outcasts travels the grisly world in search of the six powers that could bring back the sun.

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Chapter 1: "You wear a cloak of righteousness, and anypony will blindly follow the monster inside."

"I do not regret a thing.

"Look around you. See all the propaganda, the controversy, and the conflicts. See how far your 'pathetic, glib-spewing enemy' has risen from the deep mud of the True Darkness, colonizing the uncolonizable, and accomplishing the impossible. From our raids on Moon Worshiper camps to our first successful assassination of Former-Appleloosa Herd's Dictator, we have come further than any other anti-night organization on Equus. We have brought back the dead horizon of battle, sharpening it to the point of no return and inevitable victory.

"And yet our greatest strength, physically and mentally, will never be understood by you of the Night Guard. Not our courage, not our beliefs, not our training. But the simple, simple fact that we are ponies, and we are dying for the place we love - and in the end, morality is the ultimate tool for honorable victory.

"So take a good look down, ponies of the Night Guard, because our war is still going to wage after I die, and those glistening suits of armor you wear on your bodies now will not and can never prepare you for the ferocity of our justice, our rage, and the oncoming cataclysm. Take a good look down and realize that by the end of your obliviously comfortable apocalypse - and by the end of our nauseating, grueling adventure - your bodies will be scarred, your armor will be long destroyed, and your souls will look back and wonder how you could have ever seen the raw horror that you have done to us and think of it as a kindness. We will win because of the moral high ground which we stand upon. History, all of ponykind, and the fact that Fluttershy has escaped your clutches and is spreading her kindness across Plussia are all proof of that. Yes, Equus, it is true. We are the heroes. And you - the killers, the rapists, the oppressors - are the villains.

"Ma seule crainte c'est que quelqu'un de nous oublie ce fait." {My one fear is one of us forgetting that fact.}

-Sacré Rouge's last words, on death row in accordance to the Into Darkness Act [enacted 7-iD]. 13-iD.


PART 1: "THE RARITY OF INFLUENCE”

Rumbling.

Rumbling was the word I would use. Vibrating deeply with an inconspicuous hum to its nuances, and numbing the back of my head as it rested on the soft leather seat behind. Even as I was stuck in a sitting position between the auto-cart’s driver seat and the steering wheel, my rest was still comfortable, and well deserved for that matter. Four moon cycles without meaningful sleep had been spent on this long, psychological road, and to make matters worse this period of time had all the exciting equivalent of watching a slug drag across the muddy ground. It was naught but lazily peering out into the technologically green haze as we drove, avoiding the Everfree Swamp when we could, and making the odd pitstop in herds for gas and hotel rooms.

Before I had closed my eyes for a short recuperation before the inevitably chaotic next few minutes, I had enough time to momentarily respect my surroundings. It was magically raining again, as it did so often in Queen Lune’s Equestria, and as a result the dirt and grass of previous times were subdued to a recognized rendition of mud. This sludge stretched across the canvas of Equestria, painting the previously colorful mountains, plains, and deserts an indifferently dark brown - not that it would make any difference in the hollowing black which all ponies lived in. Now though, sixteen years into Darkness is more than enough time for the Night Guard to infect the wilderness with its increasingly complex and evolved technology and magic.

In front of us a single railroad cut through the mud some distance away, coming from the faraway Former-Vanhoover herd and running south miles and miles until finally arriving at Megaplex Herd. Even though I couldn't see it, I knew there to be the South Luna Ocean just a few miles south, which the railroad continued on its journey via viaduct, a mountainous distance above the roaring waters of the ocean. My auto-cart was on a hill overlooking the railroad, lights turned off to further conceal itself from the organic night vision of the Night Guard approaching.

There were mountains in the distance. My vision’s green haze blotted out the details, but I still recognized the silhouette of the Undiscovered West’s rolling mountains and floating cities, ruled by the recently freed Discord. I felt a safe warmth knowing that we were far from his part of Equus, although it was just a thin layer of comfort. It was akin seeing a battleground from miles away, knowing of the loud booms of cannons and quiet lisps of murders, but being unable to hear a single thing from this distance.

Well, that was exactly what it was like.

The scent of pines and White Tail sequoias steadily flowed through my OEMP’s breathing filter like a smooth current, and apart from the rain softly landing on the leaves, metal, and mud around me, I heard the occasional stressed breath from the mare sitting beside myself. Her eyes, I knew, were wide open and her ears were perked, waiting for the inevitable radio signal which would launch us into a new endeavor. I also heard the soft tapping of her hoof on the auto-cart's innards, which was a habit she had picked up years ago, like an impatient and stressed filly waiting for the dentist to call her in from the waiting room. More times than I would care to admit, I found myself repeating her actions.

After a while of our idleness, the mare to my right suddenly straightened and her tapping stopped. What steadily came through to my ears also made my breathing shorten: the distant ratta ratta ratta of an oncoming train, but from this location it sounded stationary, as if it wasn't really moving, but asking for permission to suddenly explode in volume and spring up upon us cinematically.

A soft nudging of my right arm brought me from my stupor, and my eyes consequently opened to reveal the railroad looking more like a blackish-green ruler spanning across my visors among the distant mud. Surrounding us was wet silt and trees, as the White Tail Woods provided the perfect cover for our upcoming assault.

“Rain,” my passenger spoke up as my eyes steadily dragged to her. “Vivacious just called. Let's go.”

I knew it was a bad habit of my own, much like her (and my) tapping of the hoof, but I momentarily let my mind study Fleck’s person. She was sitting just beside me, a few inches closer than the average stranger, and was slouched in her seat like a colt about to say, “Are we there yet?” Her head was tilted towards me, and through the bi-circular night vision goggles shown her eyes, and even those were waiting for me to start driving.

Flecksturz wore an Assassin suit much akin to my own, except it followed the same procedures for tailoring: main color matches the pony’s natural coat color, secondary lines matching the pony’s mane and tail dominant color. I remember asking my Ordermare years ago, “Why isn't it all only black and brown, for camouflage?” to which she enlightened me with, “Don't ask so many questions, Asi. Skd.” Her latex suit, embodying her slouched body as if it itself was the lazy pony sitting beside me, seemed the most out of place to me. The pure white attire almost glowed in the darkness like a sign which read “I am a Light Bringer Assassin, do with that information what you will,” and the carrot orange seels of hard leather traversing throughout the suit in thin lines also did not help her furtive occupation. I remember that she had tried to make a deal with our Ordermare to at least darken the suit to a gray, but our Ordermare's track record of informative explanations had yet to end. However, throughout her years of becoming an Assassin Golden Soldier alongside my own improvement and self, I had been much more prone to injury than her.

A memory sprung up to mind--

(“Every fucking time I have to bandage your next stab or gunshot wound is a heart attack for me! Please stop it! Sunpads won't fix everything…”)

--and gently faded out of existence, mirroring its many brethren. I had long gotten used to these brief attacks of the mind.

Still, I thought the attire suited her well. The snowy color blended perfectly with the bare fur on her neck, even if the orange lines didn't perfectly match her wavy mane and tail, which both had a thick black stripe coursing through their waters. Her night vision goggles glowed a light purple (Orchid, I remember her correcting years ago), and did not host the fog of solid color in neutralization. She saved that for dealing with strangers, civilians, and foragers she did not particularly care for.

As of now, Flecksturz’ eyes shone through her visors as they did whenever she was around me, and soon they shifted from calm waiting to prickly annoyance.

“Quit doing that,” she said quickly, straightening in her seat.

Meanwhile, the train in the distance let off a series of long, deep roars like an animal showing its teeth - I imagined it would have been deafening in close proximity, bless Vivacious Swan and Sunbeam Auroras’ hearts. The muffled blows were in the pattern of reinforcements needed. Normally, any nearby Night Guard patrols in the True Darkness would have rushed to aid the locomotive. That would be, if our Demomares weren't already in a skirmish with the scheduled Night Guards just a few miles off.

This was an official Light Bringer pilferage on a slave transport train, and now it was defenseless.

I figured now would have been a good time to tune in to the radio. I briefly took a moment to shake the fragile shards of tiredness and moved my hind right hoof on the gas pedal. The auto-cart’s rumbling escalated into a roar as it jerked forward, dragging its two occupants from the surrounding edge of the White Tail Woods and into the open True Darkness. I knew that all I had to do was turn my head to see the expanse of the healthy forest behind us, but the moment the trees beside us vanished, we were suddenly in the middle of a forever expanding world of mud, openness, and easy targeting from any direction. I suddenly felt like a tiny dot, or an ant, in a brown universe - that this was all the world was: mud and night, Night Guard technology and Light Bringer rebellion. Moon Worshiper insanity and Everfree Swamp infection. Forager neutrality and civilian fear.

But I knew this world wasn't so simple. It was a new reality altogether from sixteen years ago, and had changed much even from thirteen years ago, when I was first brought into the Light Bringers. Countless anti-night organizations had risen, but only a few had firmly taken root around the world: the Light Bringers, NRGE, Sun-Sons, and the Pithy Fire. Each one had a specific trait which gave the ponies inside more than just willpower to rise from the mud below, and the Light Bringers’ was now the merging of magic and technology, much alike the Night Guards’ own goals. However, along with our own improvements came the enemy’s by the truck load - or train load. Herds have become an accepted form of living across Equus, replacing the former cities they're named after. They were essentially a collection of magically-induced tents ruled by a Dictator chosen by Nightmare Moon herself - or, as citizens must legally call her now, “Queen Lune.” Each one was veined with intrusive Night Guard patrols and watches, so whenever we were unlucky or needy enough to find ourselves in a herd for gas or rest, my job as a social exchanger truly came to light.

After Equestria calmed its rebellious roots (or rather, had it beaten out of it au raison the Everfree Swamp infectiously spreading to cover most of middle Equestria, Moon Worshipers growing significantly in size and organization, and the most pugnacious cities being left to the mercy of Discord; Ponyville was the first and last victim of his punishment way back in 1-iD), Nightmare Moon had also followed suit in her calmness. She was willing to compromise soon, and part of what made the universal spread of herds so beneficial to both sides was the introduction of neutral zones. These were newly built areas in Equestria, half herd and half pre-Renaissance city, willing to open its doors to anypony who was ready to pay a 70% tax rate and endure no Night Guard protection from any domestic threats.

The building of these neutral zones’ being financially beneficial required non-paid workers, though. Or slaves.

When my hoof pressed down on the button labeled “चालू” on the left cheek side of my OEMP, a small, light green box appeared on the top left corner of my vision. Technological humming steadily pervaded my ears - not too loud and not too quiet, but biologically and physically at the perfect volume for the temporal lobe of the wearer’s brain via magic. After a few seconds of speeding through the mud and green haze of my surroundings, the train slowly materializing in the far right of my vision, and Fleck holding onto a bar overhead, seemingly focusing her equilibrium on her grip; the radio slowly zeroed in on the nearest signal besides Fleck.

“...Fallen Princess dammit, this fucker is loud!” Asi. Prof. Vivacious Swan’s shriek zoned in as her name and rank materialized in the box.

Needless to say, her gentle demeanor was not in its prime.

“Vivi,” I said as I drove, eying the steadily growing train and sound which accompanied it, still speeding towards the railroad in the distance.

Before I could finish, though, Vivacious interrupted with an excited, “Rain! You’re back! We're following the train exactly as you said! And before you ask, lemme-- nnrg!” There was a metallic rattle on her side, and even though I knew the OEMP’s pinpoint-accurate microphone couldn't catch her, I internally heard Sunbeam Aurora dropping a few “fucks” of her own at the wheel. “--Lemme just repeat the mission! So we're attacking this train and freeing the slaves so the Demomares can pilfer accurately, yeah? But in order to do that accurately we need to assassinate our five targets: the conductor, assistant conductor, brakemare, flagmare, and slaver. Their names are, uh… Wait, lemme elaborate. Quiesce is the conductor, Pugnacious is the brakemare, Picaresque is the flagmare, Serene is the slaver, and Solicitous is the assistant conductor. I'm right, right?”

Flecksturz sniggered beside me and shook her head. After she reached up with a hoof and held down on the OFF button on her OEMP, she quipped, “She's excited.”

“It's her last pilferage,” I concurred after also muting my microphone. “After this she’s a Golden Soldier.”

“A grizzled, ‘dark and brooding’ character like us?” she sneered, peering at me, her partner in crime. Her smile was mischievous and unromantic, but undoubtedly her own. When the train let out another call for reinforcements, this time sending a shuddering hum through the magically stabilized auto-cart, both of our heads instantly flicked towards the direction, thoughts of our closeness dissipating so quickly it almost concerned me. Now the train was growing even more, and the train tracks also grew in size as we neared and I knew the transforming façade of our new surroundings was just a little time away. “Are you coming to her graduation?”

A few memories flicked in and out of existence from the word “graduation,”--

(“Rainy Rain Rain, congratulations my friend, you've just graduated from Moon Worshiper slave to my own personal assistant!”)

--which were quickly snuffed out of my focus. Fleck turned to me, but before she could put in her unnecessary apology I answered her question: “I'll try.”

“Rain?” I heard from Vivacious Swan, her voice high with hope.

“Yes,” I answered after my hoof lifted from the mute button, and Fleck returned to her attentive state. Her default seemed to be glaring cantankerously at nothing in particular. In an endearing matter, for me that is. “That's right, Vivi. Good job. Now board the train.”

“Yeah!” she affirmed, and I was suddenly reminded of how awkward she could be under that gentle and sophisticated shell of hers - physical, crystal shell included. “I will do that! That's what you ordered, that's what I’ll do! I'll keep you updated!”

Asi. Prof. Vivacious Swan’s text dissipated from the light box, which was quickly replaced by Asi. Gol. Flecksturz.

“Thanks for the exposition.” She smirked, a hint of mischief glinting in her night vision goggles as she peered ahead. I couldn't help but smile at her wit, and I knew that Vivacious Swan was also expressing her own recognition in the form of a blush on her crystal shell.

The train was now a considerable size in the right corner of my visors and still growing, and the roaring of its engine and chugga-chuggaing of its wheels were audible and steadily growing.

“Remember what we are doing here,” another voice susurrated in my ears, deep as always and italicized with a thin Fancy accent, and doing a fine job of painting an internalized picture of the one who was speaking. His name and rank were branded on the aforementioned square, and for a moment I pictured Asi. Gol. Remy at his precariously balanced vantage point far away, looking down at his copy of Homo Prospectus biblically. “There are ponies who would kill for a chance like this - a stab at the Night Guard and their construction. The ones we free tonight, however, might be grateful, or they might be enraged or scared, brainwashed to believe they're working for a better Equestria in the building of these neutral zones.”

As his words came through, the train in the distance grew even larger, and its last call for reinforcements roared in my ears as it charged forward on its tracks. I steadily turned the steering wheel to veer left, and once I did the wheel suddenly jostled from its first contact with the railroad, and I subsequently corrected its course so the tracks were now immediately to the right of us, dashing past as we drove - not nearly as fast as the charging locomotive behind us, though.

“Do not take this journey so lightly. We are Light Bringers, but we are also pieces on the chess board. If one of us should die tonight, think back on your life now, and cherish your moments. I can assure you it won't flash before your eyes as quick as that gunshot. Pour la lumière, mes amis.

“...You might have noticed I added a theatrical flare for our dear actor. I am quite proud of it. Rain and Vivi, you have 10 minutes until you reach the viaduct.”

I pressed the button just underneath the radio comms labeled “बंद,” and the light green box disappeared.

It only took a few seconds for the roaring engine and blur of wheels to reach a deafening level as the towering locomotive screamed past us, in no mood to stop or slow down. My auto-cart couldn't keep steady (how could it?) and jostled hard, shaking Fleck and I to the absolute core. When our auto-cart finally settled, it was impossible to miss our target standing mere cubits from our bug of a vehicle, easily trumping it in every possible way. Even as it'd only been an impossibly short amount of time since the slave train had popped into reality from behind, the front of the train was now noticeably smaller than the bulk of its body from distance. I took that as an invitation, which I obligatorily accepted, to step down harder on the gas pedal. As we sped up and eventually came to a matching speed, I studied the booming locomotive for a spot to board.

The train was shaped like its purpose: a bullet. Thick plates of armor spread across the locomotive like a quilt of monstrous protection, although it wasn't an armored train completely, as between the tight gangway bellows I knew were doors leading to one of three things: a luxurious living room for one of the Night Guard essentials, complete with magical atmos-padding from the chaotic world outside, running water, and any other living-quarters requirement or convenience; or a middle class rectangle of rows of bunk beds belonging to additional Night Guard and their slumber; or it was a leaky, humid metal tank with chained ponies lining the cold steel walls. The slaver usually remained in that space, her reasoning sugarcoated with the words “diurnal disinfectant.”

Its color was a solid black as it tore through the air and tracks, moving as dark as the night sky but not even close to as soundless. The train was easily twelve cubits tall, dwarfing my auto-cart, and was obviously big enough for two floors - I knew the top one was used for technological maintenance while the bottom was used for the two and a half types of passengers. The mighty wheels just below held the impossible weight of the train with ease even as the bottom of the locomotive was almost scraping the ground, and they were a blur of metal, steam, and liquified mud as they spun at astronomical speeds. Just as a form of personal satisfaction, I pushed down a little more on the gas pedal of my own vehicle, and then we were floating to the side of the train in the blissful chaos of mud, speed, and Fleck’s face of a mare who desperately wanted this to end.

I kept searching for my entry point, which was the second car from the gangway bellows leading to the conductor’s workplace. These bellows were different from the ones pre-Renaissance, and were more a small room between cars. While my head was craned up to catch the raw power of the train my corp was supposed to pilfer, I felt a quick tap on my arm, tough enough to hit it from its previous perch of a lone bar to my right. I turned and realized Fleck was yelling as loud as she could at me, but the blistering sounds cut her off.

I tapped my OEMP as a sign, and Fleck took it and switched to a proximity-based private channel by pressing slowly on the ON button. When I followed suit, the magical focus muted the thunder of Night Guard technology just cubits away to the volume of a background fan at night.

“Be. Careful. Rain.” Flecksturz somehow broke the laws of modern language and seemed to emphasize every syllable of every word. “I am so fucking serious right now.”

I nodded once, then continued to search.

“You know, you're not the main character,” her serious voice bounced in my head. “There's no unseen director or writer pulling the strings, saving your death for the end of the story. If you keep taking dangerous risks, you will eventually get killed. It's my job to help you or our corp with any contemporary or serious injuries, but you know from experience a gunshot is anything but contemporary. Every time you just take an MPIK pill and I put down a sunpad on your arm or leg and violà, it's healed, I get a sense of guilt knowing you're slowly getting used to it. Well, what about the time when you're shot by a Night Guard patrol and I'm not around, huh? You'd be used to it until your only remedy is alcohol and gauze.”

Tomorrow’s a new day,” I assured before my counting proved useful and my target area was specified. I sped the auto-cart up the side of my target. When I felt the boiling glare of Fleck on the side of my face, I turned to meet her with reassurance. “I will try to be careful. You know the reentry point. Remy will keep you updated.”

Flecksturz’ eyes narrowed at me in a testy glare. “You better,” her internal message shot at me, almost verbal but too important for that. I lowered my hoof from the button reading “चालू” and signaled to Fleck that I was ready to board. She nodded, although it was a numb action, before scooting closer to me.

My auto-cart was essentially a short dune buggy, saving the replacement of the metal shell of normal cars with a series of long, sturdy bars holding it all together. The convenient addition of an under hoodkept any stray mud from flying up from the bottom at the open-aired vehicle’s occupants. The auto-cart was only a few cubits tall, and the bottom of the vehicle was extremely low to the ground - the disproportionately large wheels, two on front, two on back; almost made the whole thing look hunchbackesque. As silly as it'd look to a colt imagining faces made from the bumpers of cars, the vehicle was essential to anypony who wanted to travel in short, lightning fast bursts of speed. It did not host the complexities of Night Guard tech with gears or shifting, but had four simple mechanisms for driving: the steering wheel, the ON button (labeled “चालू,” in Equestrian), the gas pedal, and the brake/reverse pedal. Inside, it wasn't comfortable in the least (a tiring four moon cycles on the road had made me rethink that opinion), but it did provide Flecksturz with enough room to slide over the armrest to my right and grab the wheel with one hoof.

She tapped my shoulder and I scooted to her original position, the train’s thunder growing noticeably louder as I did as if that extra cubit of space was enough to burst somepony’s eardrums - that an arms’ length closer was all it really took for the volume of a behemoth’s roaring wheels to reach the tipping point of one’s ears. When I had successfully switched seats with Fleck, she slowly guided the auto-cart close to the train - close enough for me to reach out and touch the wet, churning metal of the monster of a vehicle. Flecksturz, meanwhile, grabbed my supply strap to steady my balance. It was a hard leather strap looping around my body from my left shoulder to my right lower back which was home to my spare projectiles, ammo cylinders, artificial wings, a moon drainer, OKL-4D dagger, small cube of MPIK pills, and a dormant bag clip.

Before I jumped onto the roaring wave of technology, I reached behind my bowed head and equally roaring mane and gripped the instigation cable on my OEMP’s right side. When I pulled the thick collection of wires from its holster to the port on my night vision goggles, my vision lit up like a powerhouse and my normal view of the train in front of me faded into an advanced menu.

The Injury Exposer was the first sign which seeped into existence, blotting itself on the top right corner of my vision. It was a 2-D picture of a faceless pony facing left in the frozen pose of mid-trot so all limbs could be correctly displayed. The image was the same color as my green surroundings, albeit a darker shade for recognition, and through years of seeing all shades of green in that image, I knew that the more serious the injury, the darker the shade of the location on my body.

On the image, nestled between the front and hind left legs, my right hind leg was as black as the unadulterated night sky above.

The bottom right corner of my vision was magically adapted to my own eyesight and lagged just behind my eyes as they turned this way and that, as did the rest of the menu. This particular corner was occupied with a small rectangle, decorated with a lighter border of green, showing the total amount of bullets in both of the cylinders to the sides of my cheeks attached to my loaded SMG OEMP. The white numbers in the space read “39/39” and just below the numbers read “LB-6 loaded” in Equestrian, stretched to match the length of the number of rounds. Just above the ammo count was a tiny square on its right corner, shining with a bright, “7 धूप” [7 Sundial(s)]. The shape of said projectiles outlined the letters in an artistic glaze; an arrowhead with a small hole in the middle.

I knew the password, and a bizzare form of satisfaction hazed my mind in knowing that all it took was two words to end a pony’s life. I could feel the loaded flinging knives positioned in the curve of my OEMP’s mouth part - handleless arrowheads, serrated with thousands of microscopic sawtooths heated to the point of a glowing red.

The last component of my enhanced vision to come was a simple, long, and vertical rectangle running from the Injury Exposer to my ammo counter, which was a barely transparent shade of dark green. It was a DM-Radar, waiting for Dark Magic to be sensed to fill up with black - Night Guardian armor, the bat ponies themselves, weapon vials, and manipulated wildlife were all gracious farms of dark magic. Naturally, it was a pitch black in color from the magically-enhanced train just in front of us, so it served me no benefits.

Another tap of my shoulder from Fleck, this time three consecutive hits. I took the sign and reached my left hoof back, and after a few seconds of chaotic boredom I felt her wrap what I was waiting for around the hoof. Another three taps, and I reached forward and grabbed my point of balance with my left hoof and pulled back my right one.

One could have easily mistaken what was on my hoof as a simple black glove, fastened to my fetlock with a buckle. A faint, dark purple glow steadily pulsated in the cloth, and the shade matched my coat color.

Flecksturz returned my right hoof with the same pulsating cloth attached to it, took another few seconds to steady the auto-cart, and then, “You're clear. Please be careful…--

And then she said my name.

For a moment it felt as if I was standing on a tall cliff, and just in front of me was the wall I was supposed to jump to and grab the tiny handle. The ground beneath me was a mere cubit from my bottom hooves, and yet the rolling mud, railroad tracks, and cascading rain below’s raw speed could have easily compensated as a deadly height of a mile high cliff.

(“Rain… this is what happens to my toys who don't obey.”)

The memory evaporated in my head, but the view of the top of an impossible skyscraper of a Yakestinian mountain gave my heart a brief jolt, as if I was still in that situation fifteen years ago.

After the auto-cart’s magically enhanced wheels reached their most stabilizing point, I jumped. For that brief moment of being suspended in the roaring air and sloshing mud and pouring rain, I was over a thousand foot drop again, and my trajectory was the only thing which kept me going forward. But as much as I had hoped for - and half expected, I'll admit - that brief moment did not stretch out in a kind of slow motion. There was no undershooting camera angle, there was no sudden absence of sound as time seemed to slow for me, and there was certainly no perfectly timed lightning illuminating my angelic form, suspended in the air, showered by thousands of raindrops, now at a snail’s pace.

I simply jumped, kept my focus on the smooth metal above the blender-like wheels, and landed on the Night Guardian slave train.

The short sleeves of cloth instantly stuck to the vibrating metal like super glue, and all in an instant a cascade of earthquakes shook me to the bone. The vibration of the metal jarred my brain as my front hooves and right hind leg instantly set to work, climbing the train like a steep mountain.

I knew I was near my target entrance: the gateway bellows to the second car from the front one - this was where the assistant conductor was presumed to be.

Among the powerhouse of my vision appeared the small square in the top left corner, with Asi. Prof. Vivacious Swan’s ID popping into existence. The deafening chaos around me seemed to inwardly swell before diminishing again, giving off the calm sound of the mare again as she spoke. In fact, it was more than just calm, it was furtive.

“I'm in the train now,” she whispered as the rest of the world was no louder than a mouse’s squeak. It all seemed so out of place, like a muted movie, seeing myself climb up the train to the sounds of a technological monster miles and miles away. I could still feel every rain drop on my bare neck sting like a bullet, and I could smell and feel the raw power of the locomotive, but the sound was now a thing of my imagination. “Oh, Celestia… I'm in the slaver’s quarters. There are ponies chained to the walls, kneeling over… They're muzzled and blinked. I can't see their faces.”

I made my way to the top of the train's gangway bellows. It was a thick rubber, I knew, but the Light Bringers’ planning and investigation hadn't gone to waste. I mumbled the projectile password into my OEMP, which was a simple two words, two syllables each of a name, and moments later a sundial zipped out of my mask and embedded itself easily into the thick material. The rubber around the sundial started to glow a soft orange as it melted quickly. I grabbed the end of the heated arrowhead and started to draw a circle.

It was almost like a spy movie.

“They're… calm,” Vivacious Swan shakily continued as my sundial followed suit. “Do they even know what's happening?

Asi. Gol. Flecksturz joined Vivacious’ name in the box. “They're sedated,” she told her, a little uneasy herself. “Either that or they think they're doing the right thing. ...Actually, just assume they're sedated - same difference.”

“They think they're doing the right thing,” Remy cut in, and I realized his name was in the comms. “You wear a cloak of righteousness, and anypony will blindly follow the monster inside. Perturbant mais vrais.” And with that, his name once again melted into nonexistence. I guessed he was either being pithy or didn't want to argue with Fleck, just wanted to run into the conversation, hurl his two psychological cents at her, then run away.

“It's haunting,” Vivacious Swan growled. “Absolutely haunting.

“Well, that's what we're fighting,” Flecksturz’ empathy bounced in my head as the pony-wide circle was finished and the rubber seeped into the train's innards in a lava hot mesh. I tossed the sundial, and without another look around I hopped into the train. “And these are the ponies that we're freeing… Scout ahead, see where Serene is, then eliminate her. Don't forget to moon drain another one.

The box in the top left corner of my screen dissipated, and with it came my hearing. The train’s atmos-padding muted the chaotic outside world, although a barrage of rain screeched violently into the opposite wall from the hole above, already forming a chaotic puddle below. I found myself in a dark metal room, and I knew it was used as a temporary passage from car to car, as there was a door just in front of me, behind me, and an emergency exit to my left. Each one had an office door-like pane of glass on it, and through the door in front of myself was a blaring white light that blinded my night vision.

After a brief cringe and removal of the suction pads on my hooves, I reached to a button on the top right corner of my night vision goggles labeled “निर्मल.” After I pressed it, my night vision dissipated. My HUD faded to a transparent green among my surroundings as I reached forward and opened the door, slinking inside.

The first two things that assaulted my senses were: a cesspool of purple, and a high-pitched scream sending my ears straight up into the densely perfumed, orange scented air. There was a lovers’ bed in the far left corner of the magically-ballooned chambres, and a naked mare was staring at the dripping and muddy pony who had just walked in, so out of place among the decorative and seductive room.

My eyes wandered past her robotically as I searched for the assistant conductor - this was where she was supposed to be, after all. All I saw around me, though, was a heavily scented bedroom, and along with the flowing perfume through my OEMP’s breathing filter came the knowledge of Solicitous’ hobby of harlotry. A tile floor on the right side of the train car was courtesy of a kitchen, as the wall was replaced with cabinets both low and high. Besides the fact that the stove seethed heat with a dormant frying pan at its side, a few kitchen utensils littering the cabinet surfaces, it was just a normal kitchen.

Vivacious Swan’s ID flashed into existence, transparent as it lagged behind my flicking eyesight of the assistant conductor’s chambre. “Serene isn't here,” she whispered. “It's Picaresque… Why did the slaver and flagmare switch places?

For the first time of the pilferage, Asi. Prof. Sunbeam Aurora’s ID was in the conversation. “It's a trap, you're gonna die, Swan.

“Sunbeam,” Flecksturz warned, and I could see her frowning face even now. Speaking of faces, I could imagine Sunbeam’s nonverbal response aswell: a face that spelled the words, “Mm-hmm.”

It took me a few seconds to realize that there was another face in existence, and this one I could see perfectly in front of me. Conveniently, the box in my top left corner dissipated just as she opened her mouth.

“Who the FUCK are you!?” the mare in the bed finally got out, her terrified face reconstructing the question perfectly.

I took a step towards her, already forming the question in my mind. She reacted instantly, practically throwing herself to the desk beside the bed before pulling out a Dark Magic vial with her hooves. I caught a glimpse of her naked body under the covers and briefly closed my eyes; did she think the pre-Renaissance “au naturel” fashion was still appropriate? I didn't blame her for the fear, though - a stranger looking like I did suddenly dropping in was not a foreseen part of anypony’s everyday routine.

“You're not a unicorn,” I reminded the mare coolly as she fumbled with the DM-vial for a second before pointing it at me uselessly. Even though I knew it was just a vial-shaped hunk of metal and dark magic without a magical grip, I slowed to a stop. “Put it down. I’m not here to hurt you. I just want to ask you some questions, Miss...?”

“Miss-- err… I can still use it!” she threatened, but her small posture and obvious fear told me otherwise. “I can… Y-you’re intruding! You're intruding on an official Night Guard worker transport! Stop continuing now or I'll… Or I'll… God dammit, how does this go!?”

I wasn't entertained or threatened in the least. Still though, I bowed my head and arched my back - the Equestrian equivalent of holding my claws up in surrender. Out of habit I dragged my right hind leg out of view, even though it was covered by my Assassin suit. In social situations, a nonthreatening act is often received with a positive response. “It goes, ‘Cease thy continuance immediately lest I make with lethal force.’”

“Right!” the mare in the bed nodded almost gratefully, before realization killed her relief. “You’re no Night Guard or forager. How do you know that!? Answer me now, s-sir! Guy!”

“I've heard it so many times it's almost a memorized script,” I was briefly tempted to say, but held back. I kept my eyes steady on the terrified pony in front of me, and even though I knew my appearance betrayed my words, I had to venture on. “I only want to talk with the assistant conductor. Where is she?”

She seemed lost, as if the previous shock and horror of the past few seconds infected every one of her senses. “Who?”

I took a moment to remember her name, then narrowed my eyes as I knew it would only waste time if I delayed saying it any longer. “Solicitous.”

The mare’s eyes remained terrified as she stared me down, still pointing the vial's opening at me with both hooves like a gun in the b-D movies. I knew she couldn't fire it, though - not with her forehead being bare of any horn.

And yet, as if she was a newly mutated pony, the pistol vial was suddenly engulfed in a gel-like, golden aura of magic before being lifted from the mare’s hooves. My eyes widened slightly. The notion that she was some sort of sci-fi breed of mutant was instantly shut down by the way she stared at the pistol vial too, absolutely dumbfounded, obviously no closer than I was to drawing any conclusions. I was expecting the vial to steadily turn towards me in a suspenseful scene. After some time of only floating there, however, the vial vibrated momentarily before being crushed by the aura into a disjointed piece of metal. It fired off one pitiful shot as its base was squeezed, drawing a flinch from the already horrified mare, but the dying animal’s yelp was quickly drowned out.

“Guns has’t nay lodging in rightful squares,” a smoothly feminine voice stabbed from behind, raising my hackles and cooling my blood. I turned my head to find a Night Guard too close to imply her caution, studying me as if concerned. The restroom door behind her, just to the right of the door I came in, was open, and I figured that was where she came from - an oddly casual event, considering the sharp armor adorning her body like a blanket of golden spikes. Her entire physique, save for the ornamental gaps in the thorny armor, was covered with ropes of golden spikes from the varying lengths and sharpnesses of wicked sabers to serrated thorns. Her helmet took the form of a bull’s head, two keenly curved horns jutting from her forehead. As the golden aura of her unicorn horn dissipated before her equally colorful eyes peered down into my goggles, I instantly knew this was Solicitous. From both her dialect and profile during debriefing I recognized her as First Generation Night Guard, meaning she was one of the ponies who had betrayed Equus so long ago and joined Nightmare Moon’s ranks. Not only was their interpretation of honor insulting, I found their butchered Manespearian Equestrian extremely agitating. “If't be true thou art intent to end me, Light Bringer, and if’t be that I shall defend my life, ergo wouldst thou agree that we should engage fairly?”

Her words were deafened by my mind as I opened my mouth with the intent to shoot. The OEMP caught my brainwaves and I felt the leathery trigger lever smoothly slide between my teeth as I turned quickly.

Before I could fire off my version of a rightful square however, Solicitous seemed to transform into a blur as she dashed forward with inpony speed. I barely caught sight of her hoof as it grabbed my throat before I felt the air rush from my lungs, the floor suddenly ramming up into my back, and myself looking up at the ceiling of the train car and Solicitous’ proud face, dazed. The 2D image of my injury exposure’s neck flickered a darker shade of green, but soon recovered.

“Fie!” I heard her scoff, scowling as she looked down at me. Her multiple spiky visages already started to morph back into one. “To bethink a foe pony couldst have such a pithy treasure as honor--!”

If she expected that I was to stay still as she monologued, I was quick to disappoint. My system recovered quicker than anypony could have expected, and I grunted as I threw both gaskins to my chest before bucking my hind hooves straight up. Her own breath joined mine in oblivion as I caught her in the chestplate. For a brief moment I could see her pupils shrink to a pinpoint and eyes widen like saucers as the force launched her into thin air. The raw, unexpected power was enough to send a few small drops of blood on my visors, courtesy of her own wide open mouth.

Before her armor clanked on the ceiling above, I was already up and drawing back for another swift buck, this time aimed at her head, when yet another piercing scream from the mare behind me caught me off guard. Just as the distraction caused my near miss of the falling Night Guard’s head, I felt something slam into my backside and knock me to the ground. Before the mare from the bed scrambled off of me, she got in a few untrained kicks to my head - annoying, if anything.

“Help!” she was screaming as her fleeing, naked figure was brought into focus. “Help, anypony, please-- He's not pony! He's not pony!”

I didn't have time to warn her to stop. My mouth instinctively opened, and in a split second my OEMP was firing at her, a civilian who had become a liability.

TFFTFFTFFTFFTFFTFF!

Silenced bullets spewed from both sides of my peripherals as I flexed my neck and gritted my teeth into the leather trigger. As the 39 bullets in my bottom right vision quickly decreased, a flurry of white streaks bombarded the walls around my target with holes and dents. However, my eyes were still just a smidge unchoreographed, so I missed most of my shots. Still though, a scream of pain and streak of red on the wall beside the fleeing pony told me I got one shot in just before she disappeared behind the car door I came in.

“Queen Lune have mercy!” she sobbed as she fled.

Before I could even begin to think about finishing off the assistant conductor, my visors were blocked by a black, furry appendage before I felt my OEMP’s clip rip out and break. As the twisted metal adhesive clanked to the floor, the OEMP was ripped out of my mouth; the moment the instigation cable was detached from my night vision goggles, my HUD fizzled out of existence. When it was thrown into the corner of the room behind me by Solicitous, I lept up and shot out my hind legs again, nailing her in the chestplate for a second time.

K-K-KRG…

The Night Guard screamed as the cracks echoed in our ears, backing down. My left hind hoof stung from slamming into her hard armor yet again, but nevertheless I was charging at her, jumping up and bucking at her head.

This time she saw it coming - the knowing look in her eyes was only a moment long, but I still saw it one millisecond too late. She leaped to the left, and in a split second she sent a hind leg of her own to ram into my outstretched appendages. My world quickly spun like a top as I followed suit before tumbling to the floor dizzily. As the cesspool of purple around me infected my senses into blurriness, I suddenly saw a golden spike flying to my stomach, clear as day. Instinct took over, and quicker than physically possible, my right hind leg bent at an unnatural angle to catch her spike.

And just as my vision cleared enough to see Solicitous’ horrified face, yellow sparks flew from the spike in her elbow armor. The golden spike that was so tantalizingly close to its target stayed numb with fright as it jutted out the other end from my right hind leg, yet nothing bled. There was a shredded hole in the hard leather her spike entered through, which gave off the shining, metallic tendons and beridium alloy exterior as my metallic leg held firm. I could see her speechless face through the ominously glinting cave of my appendage, shock and horror mixing into one emotion.

She tried to withdraw her armor, but with a minor flex her golden spike was stuck. A mere look at the beridium which made up my leg and she knew her armor was going nowhere.

“Thou art nay pony,” she breathed simply.

I merely responded by narrowing my eyes and saying a certain name clearly: two words, two syllables each. From a predicted cubit or two away, my OEMP responded with three consecutive beeps before a sundial shot from seemingly nowhere, slicing through Solicitous’ right hind leg like a knife through butter.

She screamed and violently tried to buck away from me, and with a quick twist of my leg her trapped armor was sliced in half. When I was up on all fours with her golden barb planted in my mouth shortly after, she was staring at me with a death glare, her hind leg wounded badly but adrenaline already giving her natural pain killers. When her nares flared and she was charging at me again, horns pointed squarely at my chest, I reacted instantly.

With so much as a spit upward and a quick kick, the shard was soaring at Solicitous in a straight line - however, she headbutted the makeshift dagger away with her armor. Before I could react she already rammed into me, but I quickly grabbed the two horns on her helmet. Without much success in stopping her or at least redirecting her, I kept the sharp horns at bay as I used our momentum to skip up the wall behind me and jump, landing a few cubits away from her with a clack on the tile.

With an immediate sense of situational usage, I swiped my right hoof across the kitchen cabinet’s surface and locked onto the first thing it slid over, keeping my eye on the now enraged Night Guard turning towards me hellishly. I drew my utensil forward, and with an unbelievable amount of luck I saw a steak knife raise into view.

For a moment we stayed like that, Solicitous breathing hard through her nostrils and haunching over, eyes narrowed to show off her venomous slits of pupils perfectly as blood painted everything below her right hind cannon maroon. A twitching muscle and gorey bone were visible in the drooping slice of fur, still in shock from the blistering heat and precision of the sundial. The shining armor of her left elbow was cut short, but besides that the dangerously sharp thorns adorning her body gave her the appearance of an armored wild animal backed into a corner - which she was, quite literally. I, meanwhile, stayed low to the ground as my hackles rose from underneath my Assassin suit, mentally daring her to make a move as I held onto the steak knife firmly. My dark purple suit and brown lines of sturdy leather running vein-like through the seals of fabric gave my own body the visage of a dark predator - perhaps a shadian widow spider, with the psychological venom we were spitting at each other. As our eyes met, no respect shown in them. Her own might have been reflecting some distorted form of “honor thy enemy” nonsense, but mine were as hateful as the red blurriness infecting my peripherals.

Then, in an instant, her horn started to glow a golden light before--

Bh-ZNNG!

I heard her teleportation magic before I saw her figure implode in a swift golden spark of magic. Before I could even hope to recover from the sudden drop of combat honor, I felt the searing heat of magic behind me. Solicitous’ hoof slammed into the side of my head from behind, and I had to take a few steps forward to recover until--

Bh-ZNNG!

--another teleportation spell, and suddenly she was in front of me, bucking me in the face - more specifically, my night vision goggles. My entire world cracked as I stumbled back, and a barrage of hooves and spikes bombarded my face, chest, and neck. For a few horrifying seconds I lost all control of the situation as her attacks and the searing pain stemming from each punch and slice prevented my eyes from adjusting to this new, cracked world which I had been in multiple times before. One hit in particular sent me to my knees - it was a deep jab to my jugular, and I gargled out a pathetic response as she continued to hit me with more and more force. Finally, I blindly stabbed the next hoof that was launched at me, and the knife embedded itself between the plates of the frog and heel of her hoof. She screamed yet again and drew back before throwing an untrained, spiky elbow aimed at nothing in particular. I hurriedly deflected her attack with the bloodied steak knife, and a million fireflies flew from the contact through my broken visors. She attacked again that way, elbow first, and I deflected again, again, and again before an unforeseen curve of her spikes suddenly grabbed the knife and threw it from my unholy grip.

If it wasn’t for the cracks on my visors, I would have seen her hoof reaching for my supply strap. In an instant, she used my sudden backward momentum to rip off the night vision goggles from my face, my vision swimming from the obstruction in its current. I heard my goggles clack onto the floor as I was spun around, and after a flurry of the world around me digging into my eyes, my face was suddenly mere inches away from the still operating stove. My front hooves reacted instantly, shooting out on the surrounding cabinets to occlude my descent, and for a few moments my eyes burned from the invisible flames oozing from the red hot surface. Her hoof buried itself deeper into my head, and a misplaced metal thorn dug deep into the back of my neck. I grunted out painfully as my stronger arms steadily pushed my head back from the red hot surface, but a quick up and down of a second hoof on my head sent it to just millimeters away.

I felt sweat trickle down my forehead as I pushed back yet again, my eyes focused on nothing but the searing hot stove, burning the hairs on my face in every realm except physical. A magical glow sounded from behind me yet again, and suddenly her arms were noticeably stronger - I knew this Night Guardian move without having to see it. She was using levitation magic to push her forearms down even more, and the force was gradually building. If it wasn’t for the adrenaline pounding through my system, a red glow illuminating the walls of my vision being the irrefutable proof of that, my head would have already been mush.

Without thinking I suddenly twisted my neck, and the small thorn buried deep in it stung briefly as her grip was detached. She took half a second to instinctively draw back to get a firmer grip, but that was all the time I needed to slam my right hind hoof into her gored one.

“G-UH!” she yelped out as she momentarily backed off, and I quickly snatched the frying pan from just beside the stove before bringing it around and slamming it into wherever it landed with full force. It threw her head to the side violently as the piercing noise sent her ears to the sides of her ringing skull.

I quickly took a leap away from the stove, positioning myself between her and the door I had come into. The transparency of my night vision goggles let my eyes adjust beforehoof to the room, so the disorientation from the goggles being ripped off was minimal. Still though, when the assistant conductor steadily turned her head my way, the thin line of her mouth curved up into a wicked smile.

“Doth mine orbs deceive me?” she affronted salaciously, her golden eyes dragging themselves across my features as she tilted her grinning head. “It seemeth mine own previous subject of harlotry hasn't a garden to plant but a blot of venereal mud upon thy figure, fine colt. Oh, confound these times! Bushkeeper, if't be true conditions wast different, haply we shouldst elope.”

Each perverted word seemed to dribble down from her lips, and I took brief pleasure in knowing I had cracked her shell. Now her interior was in full light, illuminated by her physical desperation and psychological disassembly. Unfortunately I've heard my fair share of such off putting remarks from Moon Worshipers and Night Guards alike, but it had gradually become quite easy to peer through their masks of flattery to see the underlying scum. Solicitous, the pony whose name I no longer had trouble thinking of or saying, a formidable First Generation Night Guard, was no different than a starved whore. I had cracked her shell after one desperate struggle, and the mere thought of that was enough for the corner of my mouth to prick into a curve.

Now I had more than just the order to kill her.

“Currish dame, I see through your thalia,” I said lowly just before the sting in the back of my neck acted up, but my pounding adrenaline kept it ashore.

“Neigh, it beest entire,” she murmured, and my eyes instantly latched onto an ever so small step forward she must have taken. “I has't nev'r seen a sir as quite so fair as thyself, noble steed. However, thy beauty is the very thing yond pains me, for now this train hast becometh thy tomb!”

If I hadn't seen her masked step forward, I would have been a few moments late in predicting that she would charge me again, this time her horn glowing furiously as her hooves were enveloped in the same aura of strengthening magic. I barely had time to rise the pan up to my chest before she rammed into it with unnatural strength, her horns easily spearing right through the metal and letting off a twisted and garbled screech. Her horns would have even pierced through my stomach if I hadn't sucked in my gut from her dangerously close spikes.

Just as I was searching for another way to wound her, I felt a sudden force behind me, pushing me back into her horns. When we entered the gangway bellows through the door that hit me, I didn't dare look down to see how close her horns were to my body underneath the Assassin suit. The sudden change of rooms must have affected Solicitous’ expectations as her hooves momentarily slid on the now large layer of liquid on the gangway bellows’ floor, and it was enough for me to gain control. I used her disorientation and twisted the frying pan, consequently driving her horns to the same direction as I almost steered her towards the corner of the room. When I felt the miniature bullets of rain showering my suit from the hole in the ceiling, I twisted off the pan, rotated to the side to give the rain a direct path, and kneed her head up.

The speeding rain from outside my entry point pelted her eyes and she screeched out, turning away to shield them. I instantly latched onto her back and positioned myself between and around her extruding spikes before I reached down to my supply strap and unsheathed the OKL-4D dagger from my left shoulder. Her ears jumped into the air at that sound, and she panicked, instantly bucking her back into any wall she could come up against. Unfortunately for her, each time she jumped back into a wall the long shards of her armor clanked against it before I did, stopping my derailment. Before I had a chance to dig the knife into her neck, though, she quickly caught onto my grip’s cementation and her horn glowed a desperate golden.

Bh-ZNNG!

I dropped to the floor, surrounded by her leftover flurry of golden sparks and glowing fireflies. This time however, I was ready as her reappearance heat washed over my back, and before she had the chance to get her bearings I was already in the air, grabbing her around the head. In one swift movement I ripped her helmet off by her horns, flipped her over my shoulder, and slammed her face into the scorching hot mesh of rubber from my entrance.

Her muffled screams of horrified pain were drowned in the tar-like goop, but however hard she pulled back, the jello would not let its prey go. Each time her forelegs tried to instinctively shoot out and push her head from the mesh, they would graze against the hot mess and instantly retreat, until her third instinctive movement resulted in them also becoming enveloped by the lava-like trap. My eyes narrowed and my ears flattened at the sight of her pathetic demise, yet I did not look away. How could I? Her screams soon subsided to gurgling as her body barely held onto life in her boiling brain, and only then did I lean over her and dig my dagger into the base of her neck.

K-k-krg…

“Pour la lumière,” I heard myself murmuring.

Solicitous’ squirming ceased as her limp body fell sickeninglyto the side, detached from her neck inwardly. The Night Guard's macabre face was still buried in the mesh, hopelessly glued inside for all eternity. I took a moment to let the dagger settle inside my victim before steadily withdrawing it, a few more cracks rumbling from her cervical vertebrae. The OKL-4D dagger dripped with her maroon innards hungrily before I took a moment to wipe its blades clean on my Assassin suit and holstered it afterwards.

Immediately I set to postmortem procedures, reaching over to my lower back and unclipping the moon drainer from the supply strap. It was a small, cup-shaped, futuristic-looking tool with a suction pad on the bottom of it, glowing steadily with evaporated magic. I reached my hoof into the cup and the moon drainer obediently latched onto my grip before I brought it onto Solicitous’ still fur.

Whirrrrrr…

The device vibrated gently in my hoof and grew warm as the color seemed to drain from Solicitous’ corpse - not in the natural process of decomposing, but in a magical, vacuum-like manner. From the furthest points of her body, her pitch black fur desaturated into a plain gray, and the stream of discolor steadily flowed towards the moon drainer. The orange perfume I could now smell from her body alone dissipated, to be replaced by the surrounding scent of wet metal and copper blood. As the grayness washed over her flanks, I took a moment to study her cutie mark, which I had purposefully ignored when she was still alive - when she was still a villain, not a fellow pony. It was a scroll of ancient, crumbled paper with an inked feather resting to the side of it, and on it read in Olde Equestrian, “शांति~और~सहवास.”

“Peace and cohabitation.”

In her lifetime the unicorns, pegasi, and earth ponies held irrefutable biases against each other in Princess Celestia's kindom, adding another facial cosmetic to Nightmare Moon's rebellion for newcomers to join, so I thought nothing of the implement today. Before my eyes, the cutie mark steadily faded from her fur before disappearing altogether. Once her figure had been completely grayed and stripped markless, the moon drainer responded.

Whirrrr-- blip!

As the moon drainer’s many wires and glass vents glowed green, I pulled it off her fur and attached it to my supply strap yet again.

And that's when the adrenaline wore off.

Among the countless bruises and cuts that were suddenly ten times more painful, the most prominent wound that infected my system came from two hornmade holes in my stomach. I gurgled out of pain before stumbling to the floor, and with a wave of realization I knew the push of the door had indeed shoved her horns into me. I took a moment to peer down to the two bleeding hollows in my body, about the size of kiwis, and with a mild sense of satisfaction I knew my natural earth pony strength, added to my adrenaline and conditioning, had kept the horns from piercing too deep. Still though, not only was it excruciating when any wisp of air stung into my innards, there was also the high risk of infection, almost certain blood loss, and a guaranteed pestering by Flecksturz - all of which equally unpleasant.

I squeezed all the pain down by grunting through my teeth before reaching to my waist. After plucking the white cube of MPIK pills from the supply strap, I numbly squeezed one of the pills through the suction-utilizing cap and swallowed it.

Moments after, the oozing blood outside the two wounds started to bubble. It wasn't painful, however. In fact, I felt almost no pain from any of my wounds. The Magical Pain-Injury Killers set to work almost instantly, reducing the excruciation to just faint aches and unsavory memories within seconds. I realized I had closed my eyes to enjoy the flooding of artificial dopamine, and opened them to find that the inner blood surrounding the kiwi-sized holes were boiling before the many bubbles soon turned to a desaturated white and solidified, cutting off any more blood from escaping my body.

I took no time to bask in the pleasure however, as I knew the temporary (and, unfortunately, ultimately painful) effects would only serve me for so long. I was back up and returning to the assistant conductor’s chambre before my body had time to resist. Still though, when I pushed open the door to the room my vision swam as the purple was all I could see, smell, and hear, and I had to correct myself from stumbling to the wall for support. An MPIK pill’s high was very short, so I didn’t bother to wait for it to pass, but it did buck the user with all it had in the short time it took over.

Fortunately, the side effects were already wearing off as I bent down to pick up my OEMP and attached the velcro under strap to my neck so it would at least hang from my lower face. The actual clip was broken, so if I had any intentions of shootings I’d have to manually hold the trigger lever in my mouth. A few more seconds of recovering from the brief trip and I had my night vision goggles also in my hooves, already strapping them back to my face. The cracks that Solicitous’ buck made disrupted my vision, but as I reattached my instigation cable from my OEMP to it, my HUD was ironically fine. The magical hallucinations were embedded in my eyesight rather than the screen, henceforth their following of my vision as I’d shift my view. After a brief acknowledgement of the dark shade of green my stomach in the injury exposer glowed, I pressed the button on the bottom left cheek of my OEMP to check in with Vivacious Swan.

"--IS THAT YOUR DEFINITION OF CAREFUL, MOTHERFUCKER!?”

That didn't sound like Vivacious Swan.

”Hello, Flecksturz,” I greeted pragmatically as I held my OEMP to my mouth with a hoof. ”I see Remy’s reconnaissance is reaching you just fine.”

”Rain,” another voice piped up, which most certainly did sound like Vivi. She spoke tiredly, although not exhausted, and the occasional pant escaped through her microphone. ”You’re alright, right?”

”Right,” I confirmed, and I could feel Fleck’s seething rage from here. ”What happened with Picaresque while I was... busy?”

”BUSY!?” Fleck’s voice scoffed in our ears as Vivacious Swan responded:

”Something weird,” she concurred after another pant. ”But she's eliminated. Can I tell you in person?”

Under normal circumstances the pilferage came first, but we had planned ahead and the viaduct was still a decent amount of time away. Plus this was Vivacious Swan, after all. “How much longer until you reach the assistant conductor’s chambre?” I asked in response.

”About as long as it takes to open a door,” she affirmed just before the opposite gangway bellows’ entrance swayed open. When I turned to the younger mare trotting inside, my mouth curved into a smile.

“Greetings,” I stated as I turned off the radio comms.

Through the thin cracks and crevices in her maroon Assassin suit shone her crystal exterior, just a few shades lighter than her attire. When the purple light of the room came in contact with the crystal pony’s shell, a steady stream of reflected magenta colored the walls and ceiling like a miniature water light. Her umber eyes were clearly shining through her equally brown night vision goggles as they peered at me happily, accented further by her snow white mane and tail. Her night vision goggles were specially equipped with optical corrective lenses to mimic her usual accessory of glasses, and her mane was done tightly in a bun resting on the top of her head like a tidy nest. I remember clearly how I was vocally confused with her fashion sense in this line of work when I first met her, to which she responded, “My hooves are the part of me that gets this job done, leave my mane out of it, sir!” Her cutie mark, hidden underneath the latex of her suit, I knew was the quaint image of a green book with a blue ribbon adorning its cover. Born in 5-bD, she didn't have any clear memories of the sun, and spent her days before joining the Light Bringers as a librarian in Former-Coltifornia Herd after the Crystal Empire became a quarantine. Her OEMP was not the sub machine gun brand like my own, but were of the shotgun variant. Thick, magically induced suppressors jutted forward from the two cylinders on the sides of her face mask almost comically, although the buck-censors on the back of the cylinders seemed to balance out the weight.

Vivacious Swan greeted me with a more than friendly hoofshake, and from the spritely raised cheekbones showing in her night vision goggles I knew she was smiling. “It's good to see you again!” she bubbled, as if our pilferage was suddenly days away from happening. Her excitement was evident in every pore of her crystal shell, only emphasized by her light panting. “I mean… wow, it's my last mission before I'm a Golden Soldier, isn't it?”

“Indeed,” I replied before my smile disappeared. “What did you want to talk about?”

Vivacious Swan, after one last pant, looked back to the door she just came through. I briefly wondered if she was mourning the three train cars of sleeping Night Guards and prisoners until she turned back towards me, her eyes lowered in confusion. “Well, it's not common for specialized Night Guards to switch places,” she acknowledged, and I felt a warm glow of pride at her seamless knowledge. “So Picaresque being there instead of Serene threw me a loop. Turns out she’s not a light sleeper, and she picked me out as I was freeing the prisoners first.”

I remembered how she would always free any prisoners before she continued the pilferage.

“We tussled a little, and… one of the prisoners I freed stepped in and killed her.”

My ears perked. “A prisoner killed the flagmare?”

“Yeah, and she was just a filly as well… She charged her from behind with her own hoofcuffs and strangled her. Now that I think of it, she was a lot more vocal about her displeasure than the rest.” Vivacious Swan peered up to me. “I was just wondering if we should put special interest in her. Maybe she would make a good Light Bringer.”

“Let the Demomares do the recruiting,” I pointed out. “If she wants to join she will. Did you moon drain the flagmare’s body?”

“Yes, I moon drained Picaresque,” Vivacious Swan answered as she stretched her supply strap out, showing off the content moon drainer. She always liked to call her victims by their name. Wasted respect is what I declaim. “Cutie mark, history, person and all. In this little prison, just waiting to be brought back to base and examined by a bunch of unpony machines.” The faintest hint of a glare infected her features. I knew how she felt about the subject and stayed silent to avoid another argument. It wasn't until she blinked that her eyes locked on the solid white bubbles on my stomach. “That… does not look good. We should hurry before it pops.”

“Flecksturz made her joy of another medic job explicitly known over the radio,” I reminded, drawing an uneasy nicker from Vivi. “And there’s something else that you might need to know before we continue.”

“Indulge me,” she cooed as we both started on our way to the gangway bellows behind myself. It connected the assistant conductor’s chambre to another Night Guard stable before the last doorway lead to the front of the train, where the conductor and brakemare were obligatorily stationed. Now it had the extra addition of the slaver, apparently, as there was nowhere else for her to go.

“A civilian was in this room when I entered,” I explained as I held the door open for Vivi, who expressed her thanks with a joking, ‘My, what a gentlecolt.’ “When I was busy with Solicitous she ran out and called for help. It's safe to assume the Night Guards in the next room won't be sleeping.”

“Well, that's what we train for,” she affirmed as she passed through the doorway. “I mean… if those are the right words.”

“Perfectly said,” I acknowledged as I followed her in.

When we both entered into the small cubical known as the gangway bellows, I peered into the window leading to the following Night Guard stable. From the high window and my shorter perspective I could only see the tops of the bunk beds lined up against each wall. From what I could spot, they were all empty. Of course.

“Fallen Princess,” Vivacious Swan swore from just to my right, and I looked over to see her staring at the corpse of Solicitous. I cringed at her reaction before she said it: “This… this is not okay, Rain. What if you died like this?”

I put a hoof on her hard shoulder and turned her face towards my own, her dark brown eyes wide with shock. “You're almost a Golden Soldier,” I reminded quietly before gently pulling her forward and pressing the place where her forehead resided under her night vision goggles to my own. She closed her eyes at the gesture, although mine stayed attentive. “The Night Guard is the enemy. I'm not going to trot over your morals. We're too different and you're too special for that. But just remember that they are the evil in this world, Vivacious Swan. They are the reason the sun no longer shines above us. They are the reason that Nightmare Moon’s reign has survived for so long. They are not ponies like us. Okay?”

“...Okay,” she whispered. I smiled at that and pulled back, her eyes opening just after. “...It just scares me. If we don't honor them with a quick death, does that mean we also have a chance of dying… like this? Does this mean ponies on our side have died like this before? Is there a chance for you, or Sunbeam Aurora, or Flecksturz, or Remy to die like this?”

“Don’t worry,” I smiled to her again. “We're too hard to get killed in the first place. I taught you better than this.” When she finally returned my gesture, I turned my attention towards the doorway leading to our final objective. “You remember what to do in these scenarios, yes?”

“The Solar Flare Maneuver?” she squeed.

“We're not calling it that, but yes.” The 27/26 in my ammo counter caught my attention before I decided to save the reload for later - every bullet was a potential killshot.

Vivacious Swan took my affirmation as a sign to make her way to the opposite side of the closed door as I joined her on the other side. After she threw a glance my way from her attention on the door, I reached over and pushed the door open, making sure that the Night Guard on the other side saw my arm before it disappeared back into cover. Immediately afterwards, a flurry of dark magic in all the darker shades of the rainbow flew through the empty doorframe in a barrage of deadly color. The atmosphere exploded with the sound of their DM-vials.

As the magical shots fizzled out of existence when they splashed into the door behind us, I counted the types of vials the Night Guard had based on sound. They were equipped with standard Night Guardian weaponry, and I could pinpoint a decent amount of pistol vials, scatter vials, and assault vials.

“God fucking dammit!” I heard from around the corner - a young Night Guard stallion, Second Generation. “Every FUCKING time!”

“Just focus!” another Night Guard spoke up in response.

Vivacious Swan’s cheekbones raised in her night vision goggles and I knew she was smiling again. When she turned her head to see my natural scowl however, she shook out of it and turned her attention back to the situation. Meanwhile, I pushed my OEMP’s trigger lever back into my mouth and gripped it. When the three second mark passed, Vivi suddenly dived into the doorway’s entrance diagonally, facing forward as she went.

PFFTM!

A feminine scream cut through the air just after the shotgun OEMP’s shot rung in our ears, and another barrage of magic vials’ ammunition sprayed the other side of the wall I was leaning on. After I specified a spot of coverage behind the bunk bed’s lower bunk across the doorway, I took the invitation and also dashed into the room. I decided to forego Vivacious Swan’s dramatic flare and kept to my furtive dash as I also fired off a few shots in the Night Guard’s direction, my ammo counter lowering down to 21/21. Before I slid to a stop in the cover across from Vivacious Swan, I noted how the white stream of bullets bolted into one of the Night Guards’ forehead, and some more cut through another one’s leg.

“SHIT!” one of them cried out as I made eye contact with Vivacious Swan. “Oh, SHIT!”

More dark magic zipped over my head, although their shots were confused and unsure. When the comets of dark light pelted the bunk bed and wall I was facing, they fizzled out without a trace. Even the ones who skidded off the fragile bed sheets and pillows above me left not even a wrinkle out of place - standard DM-vials only affected sentient sources, I knew.

I peered over to Vivacious Swan, who was looking back expectantly. I answered her gaze with a series of hoof movements: I pointed in the direction of the Night Guards, then brought my other arm forward and tapped my right fetlock twice before pointing to my eyes.

“How many do you see?”

Vivacious Swan answered back in equal fashion, tapping the bulb of her hooves together twice: “Twenty.” We didn’t have to be talking like this, but my OEMP's broken clip required my mouth to wrap around the trigger lever. Not only was it more convenient, but she could always use the extra Equestrian Sign Language practice - I was the only other one in our corp who had chosen it among our two required foreign languages.

I nodded. Two dead, one wounded, seventeen more to go. I signed my calculation with Vivi.

Vivacious Swan suddenly dashed out from her cover and fired off two more shots into the crowd before tumbling to a stop behind the bunk bed one row down from mine. The sound of thick blood spraying across the floor and walls as gore squelched to the ground replaced the screaming, although the remaining Night Guards more than made up for it with their obscenities. The moment their fire focused on her, leaving the opposite column of beds from myself open, I leaped forward and fired yet again. 15/16. I barely caught the sight of blood spurting from one of the Night Guards’ chest, and another one lying against the wall’s head - the one I had wounded before. Their end of the train car was now splattered with blood, and I'm pretty sure I saw the beginning of one of them slipping on some spilt gore.

I looked at Vivacious Swan yet again. “Sixteen,” she signed with a tap of her hoof bulbs, a 90 degree twist of her right one, and a conjoining tap of her full hooves.

”Fifteen,” I corrected. One tap of my bulbs and a 90 degree rotation.

We continued our maneuver for a third time, one leaping diagonally and shooting just before the other leapt the opposite direction, also firing off shots. After that we switched turns. When I went across another time, I kept them confused by leaping back immediately after. Then Vivacious Swan followed. We also peered up over the bottom bed bunks’ cover and fired at them from there when their dark magic amalgamated towards the center of the bed’s columns. Each and every time we changed cover and fired, another dropped, leaving the rest to only guess who was next and where their enemies were coming from.

“Remember what we're fighting for!” a Night Guard mare was screaming over the chorus of silenced OEMPs, DM-vials, and yells of pain and death. “Remember what we’re dying for! Do. Not. LET. THEM! PASS! -- GUGH!”

Another unpredictable blur of a Light Bringer Assassin. Another spurt of blood showering the Night Guards, reducing the previously empowered voice of the mare to a disgusted gargle.

“Just shoot at all of their positions!” another Night Guard screeched. It took some time for their onslaught of dark magic to coordinate, but soon a steady flurry of deadly comets were flying between, around, and over our spots of cover. There was nowhere to dive safely.

Coltifornian journey,” I heard Vivacious Swan say clearly, to which her OEMP responded to with three consecutive beeps. Just after the three beeps resonated in her ears, she quickly twisted her head just barely above cover.

Buh-TSHH!

With a launch of electrified smoke, a black blur shot from the center of her OEMP and careened straight into one of the taller Night Guards’ neck fur. The Night Guard only had enough time to briefly ponder what the sticky sphere was until the Blofignian Magic-Bomb exploded.

The Night Guard was instantly decapitated as the sphere shot out a layer of flat smoke, spreading across the area like a horizontal fan. Whatever part of the surrounding Night Guards’ bodies touched the magical gas was instantly vaporized. Because of the bladesque flatness of the smoke, it almost gave the impression of acid floating on the denser air molecules as the taller ponies’ heads and foreheads seamlessly slid off of their bodies, only to be evaporated in the layer of voracious magic. Some of the Night Guards were not so lucky as their taller sisters and screamed out of excruciating pain as the very top of their scalps and their upper heads disappeared, blood dribbling down their faces from their exposed brains.

I looked to my left to see that Vivacious Swan was staring at what she had just caused. Her mouth was unreadable through her still smoking OEMP, but her eyes shown with a paralyzing horror each time the Night Guards’ screaming pricked her ears. Her eyes were glued to the still alive Night Guards, and I instantly knew what she was thinking: regret.

That, I could not have. After the magical gas dissipated, I quickly trotted toward the wounded Night Guards.

1/1…

...0/1…

...0/0.

Just as the last Night Guard collapsed to the ground, my OEMP automatically launched the two empty ammo cylinders from its sides. The empty clinking they made as they bounced on the wet floor was the only thing audible as I narrowed my eyes, surrounded by the corpses of my enemies. I had purposefully shut out their own individual characteristics when they were alive, but now my eyes and mind were free to explore. After all, they were now only empty shells, as callous as the two ammo cylinders now rolling to a stop in the small lake of maroon blood and discolored organs. Inspecting these bodies were comparable to inspecting paintings on the wall: individual. Personal. Maybe even beautiful… but never alive.

Some had eyes that were wide open with an eternal fright. Others’ were closed peacefully, or half open as if their bodies couldn't decide between the two. A half-decapitated brain slithered across the slippery floor, oozing gray matter and sending a unique stench into the copper air.

“I know the procedure.” Vivacious Swan’s hollow tone made me turn to her, and she had made her way into the little hallway between the columns of bunk beds. “The Golden Soldier is supposed to fire the last shots... and next time that’ll be me.” Her eyes were lowered through her night vision goggles - she never neutralized her view into the murkiness of brown, even when her corp all did so in the past as we surrounded her. “The last three targets are in that room.” She pointed a shaking crystallized hoof to the door just behind me. “Remy just called in… we’re on the viaduct.”

I pulled my attention from Vivacious Swan’s unreadable face and focused on the side window, trotting to it. When I peered outside into the otherworldly rainstorm, I almost had to take a mental step back to come to terms with the raw expanse of the South Luna Ocean, fanning out like a worldly canvas as its expanse blanketed Equus for miles and miles onward. The ocean reached as far as the eye could see before blending into the black night sky, the only differentiating factor being the white froth of the many waves commingling in the natural pool hundreds of cubits below the train. True to Remy’s word, the viaduct stretched all the way from the passed cliff’s steep edge to the distant continuation of land yet to be seen in front of the train, and it was just in range for Sunbeam Aurora’s boating skills. The train’s speed was comparable to a speeding bullet, but even then I predicted it would take another five minutes on this thin viaduct before we reached the other side, where our Demomares were waiting patiently with pilfering supplies and recruitment scripts. It was our responsibility to be gone by then.

The sound of Vivacious Swan’s departing hoofsteps brought me back to reality.

“Asi. Prof Vivacious Swan,” I called without turning, and her hoofsteps stopped. “Come here.” She obeyed, although there was the faintest molecule of hesitance in her step. When I felt the aura of warmth that belonged to her, I turned to her and smiled. “Be sure to have a blast at your graduation.”

“We’re going to be separated for about as long as it takes to open that door,” she laughed, her white bun bouncing from the movement. “How ‘bout you tell me on the boat in a few minutes?”

“You're right,” I reminded myself as I shook Flecksturz’ warning from my head. “I'll see you soon. I'm proud of you.”

“Yeah, I'm pretty cool,” she agreed before turning away and starting toward the gangway bellows we entered through. She reached a hoof back on her supply strap to the two folded, peach-sized artificial wings. “All thanks to you.”

When Vivacious Swan’s maroon figure disappeared behind the corner leading to the emergency exit, I turned back to the doorway I was supposed to enter. I made my way to just inches from the door before reaching up and pressing the ON button on my OEMP’s left side before manually holding it to my mouth.

”--And you're gonna be the first one I recruit, Sunbeam!” Vivacious Swan’s excited voice beamed in my ears. ”The moment I get back and recruit my new corp, you’re the first one on my fucking list! --Rain! Sorry, save it for the private comms, I know! Switching off now!”

Isn’t she just adorbs?” Sunbeam Aurora snickered before both hers and Vivacious Swan’s names disappeared from the comms.

Remy,” I called after my smile wore off, and Asi. Gol. Remy gave a grunt of acknowledgement. “Is there any way you can help me? There are three targets in the front room, and perhaps a civilian as well.”

La pute à poil?” Remy questioned.

Yes,” I sighed as I reached on my supply strap and grabbed two full ammo cylinders from my chest. ”Try not to hit her.”

I see her in your far right corner. She is wounded. Why the change of heart? We usually do not care about civilians.”

I clicked the ammo cylinder into my left port first, and my ammo counter updated to 39/0. “Think of it as an invisible gift for Vivacious Swan. Besides, you say it like we’re not the good guys here.”

Hmmm, that is debatable.”

Can you help me or not?”

Remy’s questions did not stop, however. “Also, why is she naked? Does she still think it is pre-Renaissance?”

Shh. I’m sure she has her reasons; tomorrow’s a new day. Answer my question.”

There was a brief pause on the other end. Meanwhile, I clicked the other cylinder into place. 39/39.

I have a clear shot on the brakemare. ‘Pugnacious.’ That is her name, yes?”

For convenience let's say it is. Ready when you are.” I pressed the OFF button on my OEMP.

Immediately after I lowered my hoof back to the ground, I heard glass shattering from behind the door, followed immediately by a mare screaming. I took a few more moments longer to let the traumatizing chaos discombobulate the three remaining occupants before bucking the doorway open and aiming my OEMP at my two remaining targets…

...Who were currently fighting each other. Well, it wasn't exactly fighting, more like one of them hopelessly struggling against the other’s might. The mare whose physical file matched Serene - the mare who had switched places with Vivacious Swan’s original target - currently had Quiesce in a deadly headlock, a wicked dagger held by her hoof as it hovered over the conductor’s neck as if struggling to find its point. Pugnacious’ body was still twitching on the floor as blood pooled around her destroyed head; the glass window on the emergency exit to our left was imploded from the sniper fire, her memento mori. The naked mare I had encountered before was exactly where Remy had said she would be, cowering in the corner. She was wrapped in a blanket, although her hastily bandaged left foreleg was peeking from underneath it.

“Hey,” Serene hummed as she peered at me with confident eyes. “Thanks for the assist, Handsome.” And with that, she plunged the knife into the conductor’s neck.

Quiesce gargled blood pathetically as Serene let her go. The conductor stumbled to the floor, clawing at the pouring maroon as if she could catch it and pull it back in. I could only stare, hopelessly confused, and the mare in the corner of the room screamed yet again. I shook out of it before the average pony, but by then it was too late - Serene was now diving out of the emergency exit to my left, her wings already spreading before the rainstorm engulfed her.

I was instantly at work, reaching over my shoulders with both hooves and retrieving the artificial wings from my supply strap. When I brought forward the pair of folded black additions to my suit, I once again switched on my radio comms. Remy’s name was still there, as always.

“It seems your target is escaping,” he deadpanned before I could get anything in.

“One of them killed another,” I informed quickly as I extended the wings to full length with a flick of my wrist. At the same time, I trotted towards the red lever of the train’s brake. “Serene killed Quiesce. It was an assassination.”

“...That is unconventional.”

I planted the stems of the artificial wings on my Assassin suit’s back hurriedly but exactly before I felt their magical connection attach to my brain, and I instantly had control over them like they were organic limbs. My own limbs, meanwhile, turned my body so the brake lever was directly behind myself.

“Would you like me to kill her?” Remy asked politely, as if it was nothing more than asking a light favor. ”She is currently trying to adjust to the momentum. Like paper in the wind. An easy target.”

“No, I got her,” I concurred before spreading my own wings. Afterwards, my right hind leg raised and slammed the brake lever to the floor. If it wasn't for the atmos-padding that blanketed the train’s innards, I knew I would have been thrown forward from the sudden stopping. “Just tell the Demomares we didn't have enough time to moon drain the two corpses in the conductor’s cab. They’ll take care of it.”

“Keep your radio on anyways,” Remy suggested. “I will guide you once I tell them.” Remy’s signature dissipated into nonexistence.

As I positioned myself in front of the portal to another tumultuous world via the atmos-padding’s threshold, I felt the wide-eyed stare of the last pony in the room land on my turned figure. I turned my head to meet her gaze, which she defiantly held strong. Even as her leg shook with the poorly bandaged consequences of my actions, her unclothed body cowered underneath a small blanket, and her eyeliner drooled down her cheeks in a tear-streaked tattoo, her simple remark sent a numbing sensation throughout my head:

“You are not pony.”

I couldn’t hear her voice, obviously, but the words her mouth formed embedded themselves into audible existence. I kept my eyes stoic under my cracked lenses and mouth hidden in my OEMP as I reached up to my night vision goggles and pressed the button labeled “निर्मल.” My vision was once again engulfed in a blazing green light as I responded with a gruff, “Get that wound treated.”

Then I jumped.

The very moment I felt the first drops pelt my suddenly nonrespondent body, it abruptly felt otherworldly as the roaring of the train, and the thundering of the rain, and the humming of my plastic wings were now only a faint whisper, easily drowned out by the silence of my lone name in the radio box. My body was instantly drenched again as all sense of direction lost its meaning in the sudden shift of gravity, and for a brief moment I thought this was all the world was: rain pelting me from all directions, Night Guardian technology thundering miles away, and my cracked lenses making a mess out of it all like an ever-changing stained glass painting. My OEMP flailed about as if it was a wild animal stuck in a cage, but my arms couldn't possibly coordinate themselves for the simplest of things let alone hold it still. Every organ in my body seemed to tumble in my innards as the menu surrounding my vision was blurred to a green haze, trying desperately to keep up with my rapid eye movements.

But before I let my mind give out from the onslaught, I instead spread my artificial wings into the waters of chaos and held my bodily form. It took a while, but my velocity steadily calmed before I shot some brain power into them and beelined my body upwards. Instantly afterwards I felt my gravity shift as I was suddenly looking up into the eternal night sky. The sudden change of direction was felt throughout my entire body as my neck lurched back from the whiplash, but with some straining I was looking forward yet again. There were no clouds in the night sky, coaxed by no pegasi, but yet the rain still fell, pelting my night vision goggles like a windshield on a stormy day. My hooves were kept at my sides - a sacred pledge of honor to differentiate this flying from a pegasus’ natural abilities - and I tilted my body so I steadily arched in the aerial torrent aimed at the past spot where Serene had jumped. With a quick readjustment of my OEMP so it hung just in front of my mouth, I started to search for the Night Guard.

It is weird listening to your pornographic panting,” Remy complained.

Where is she?” I asked.

Continue on your current path. Her gold armor is a beacon in the darkness; you will find her easily. Do not let Flecksturz hear these uncompromising sounds you are making, Rain. I'm worried the sexual tension between you two will erupt.”

Duly noted.”

If my wings had feeling in them, I knew they would be in excruciating pain about now. A checking back glance to both artificial wings sent a shock through my system at the raw stretching they were enduring, however I knew their durability was not to be doubted. Liquified pegasus magic coated the innards of their flexible exterior, emitting a faint green glow underneath their wings, undebatably and obscenely visible in the complete darkness of Equestria. The metal clip they were attached to on my Assassin suit was lined with tyrophani alloy, one of the sturdiest medals ever discovered in Equestria (the only one beating it being beridium), so I knew I was in safe hooves.

It was then I caught a glimpse of gold in the swimming pool of dark greens, and my eyes instantly latched onto it. The glow of Serene's armor penetrated the surrounding darkness much like Remy had described it: a beacon, beckoning the wishful release of death. It seemed to glint aggressively as it fought against the pouring rain and buffeting velocity, steadily floating up in the thin ocean of air.

She is heading straight up,” Remy acknowledged. “I believe she is trying to lose you.”

I grunted my agreement.

I have her. Say the word and she is dead.”

Serene is mine,” I warned as I neared her, her figure most certainly heading straight up into the night sky.

So why do you suppose she did it?” Remy’s voice murmured in my ears as the rest of the chaotic world remained mute. “Killed her comrade, I mean. Accidental friendly fire is punishable by lunar exile in Night Guard standards. If she had killed Quiesce with full intent, what was her motive? She cannot return to the Night Guard - even if she hides what happened, the mere risk of the astronomical consequences surely must dissuade her. That, and I am sure the Light Bringers will be happy to send Queen Lune an anonymous letter concerning this misbehavior. Do you think she is part of Celestia’s Rebels? I do not think so. To infiltrate a Night Guardian rank… let alone infiltrate so well that her name shows up in our files is beyond anything those ponies have done. Or maybe she is actually Serene?”

It doesn't matter,” I breathed as Serene’s gold silhouette among the darkness morphed into a pony’s form. She was above me for quite a distance by now, but I wasn't supposed to catch her - only get her in range of my OEMP. I tilted my torso up to follow her ascent into the rain. “We are supposed to kill her. She's a Night Guard. No questions necessary.”

I disagree. It is insightful to ask questions, if not only to understand our enemy more. Her story did not start with her name appearing on our mission log. Her motives obviously do not align with her comrades - if they even were her comrades. And, now that I think about it, she is still flying straight up… She is not trying to lose you.”

It was true. I was now directly below the easily flying Night Guard, and she had not even turned once. I was slowly gaining on her in the pouring rain and background noise, no derailment in sight.

Once again,” Remy reminded. “My sights are trained on her.”

I didn't respond as I focused all of my energy into following the gold armor, still ambiguously unchanging in its direction. I could feel the brain power steadily draining as I continued to ascend to the night sky, the artificial wings now glowing a stronger green as the magic fought gravity more and more. It was disorienting for the unnatural usage of magic in my earth pony body. Even as I had exercised my brain for this type of strain many times before as part of training, I knew it would never be so sacredly natural for my race, whose strengths were elsewhere.

My mouth clasped around the trigger lever as I reached up with a hoof and pressed one of the four green buttons on the chin portion. It was the furthest one to the left, and after a fluctuation of my cracked night vision, two white circles appeared in the very center of my view. Every time the powerful wind or a particularly painful raindrop hindered my sights on Serene just ahead, the white donuts shrunk to microscopic circles; every time I could focus enough to adjust my view on Serene, the circles grew to match the approximate size of a bullet hole on her body. I knew that these were the projected areas of impact my OEMP would hit, but our trajectory and the natural wind were enough to think it wouldn't be completely reliable. I still trusted in its abilities however, and my mind strained even more as the wings glowed an even brighter shade of green, the very edges tinged with a hellish red. As I flew closer and closer to Serene, the only sound in existence was my heart pounding in my ears and the patient breathing of Remy--

POP!

--which were quickly joined by the MPIK pills expiring.

Excruciating pain flooded my entire being like a monsoon. I screamed out as my hooves instantly wrapped around the now bleeding holes of Solicitous’ horns, and the many internally bleeding bruises and leaking cuts which littered my body only added to my sudden hinderance. My injury exposer littered the 2D print of the pony with dark shades symbolizing the countless cuts and bruises which adorned my body, and my stomach was forebodingly close to a solid shade of black. The wind suddenly changed directions and gravity in my organs shifted, and my clenched eyes did not have to be open to know I was falling.

For some time my vision was only darkness tinged with green, my hearing only the hitched breath Remy was taking, and my feeling only the battering wind and upturned innards as the direction of down was suddenly thrown about. My hooves held on tight to the two holes in my stomach as if the lurching feelings signified that my vital organs would soon be spewing from them. I couldn't control my wings. The burning in my abdomen and the pulsating of my nerves and the internal bleeding of my veins spread a paralyzing fire all across my body, and all I could do was pant heavily to keep from fainting.

That is inconvenient,” Remy’s voice bounced in my head like a pinball. “And quite cinematic. You must be more careful next time.”

Fucking shoot her!” I yelled back in response as I pried open my eyes to see the world turning, spinning, and everything between. I risked the remaining brain power and spread open my wings, which glowed the faintest of greens in response before I was momentarily gliding upside down and peering up at the eternal night expanse, speckled with that glint of gold…

...Who was suddenly dropping. Through the green haze of my night vision goggles I could see her figure briefly spasm before going limp, and now she was no more than a hunk of flesh and armor in the wind, falling to an inevitable and gorey landing.

Affaire classée,” Remy whispered.

As quickly as my sudden upside down velocity was achieved, my body’s weight ultimately toppled on top of the spread wings and plunged me once again into a spiralling freefall. I tried to suppress my pain by holding onto the oozing, boiling blood on my stomach and breathing in and out, but there was no way to possibly stop the grid of pain in my entire body.

I…” I squeezed through gritted teeth. “...fucking hate… MPIK pills.”

Maybe you should use them correctly,” Remy suggested as I forced my wings into the direction I thought would stop the chaos of the world, but ultimately failed. “They are properly utilized for that last boost of activity until you are given proper anesthesia by a doctor. Your fall looks very bad from where I am sitting. You must be dizzy.”

Please stop talking.”

This time I tried tilting my wings in my interpretation of up. My surroundings cleared enough for me to see that I was now at the viaduct’s level, the South Luna Ocean just hundreds of cubits below. It wasn't until I realized I was upside down again before my wings folded inward again under my weight.

I grunted in frustration before twisting my body right side up, but the pain of my abdomen made my back arch yet again in a cringe and I was catapulted downwards. The black waters of the ocean below were sent careening forward, and I could pick out the faint outline of our pitch black boat in the water, the apparent size of a BB. And now the size of a pill. And now the size of a bean. It was quickly approaching.

Try to slow your descent before hitting the water,” Remy reminded me. “Do not die. I would not like my last memories of you to be sexual grunting.”

My wings artificially flexed outward and glowed with an even more powerful green and red. My identically colored eyes shrunk to the size of a pinpoint as the water grew closer and closer. I tried to aim for the waters surrounding the growing boat, but the speed of my descent gave me no time to accurately position myself.

Another lick of fire scratched against my stomach and I cringed - hard. The last thing I saw before my eyes clenched painfully shut was the top of an individual wave, now so close the two white circles in my HUD were as big as dinner plates.

Ice cold water instantly crushed my entire being as gravity suddenly lost all meaning. The luxury of unconsciousness was nowhere near my mind as my lungs were shocked back into adrenaline-spiced life. The absolution of the icy liquid flooded my OEMP through the manually held attachment to my face and the cracks in my night vision goggles. Through the rushing blood, the faint humming of the sea, and the calm breathing of Remy, I could hear my night vision goggles’ visors shattering. Water instantly flooded my eyelids like a hole through a ship, and I instinctively reached up and swiped the floating glass away from my eyes in slow motion.

Sunbeam Aurora’s voice echoed in my head through the radio: “Uh… guys, I think that was Rain.”

I kept my eyes clenched shut as I fought my way to the surface, my sense of direction astronomically better now than in the past few minutes. I decided to rely on natural hearing and slowly smacked the button on the left of my OEMP labeled “बंद.” Remy’s slow breathing steadily faded out of existence as his voice was replaced by the angelic humming of the deep ocean I was in. When I was sure no stray glass shards from my night vision goggles could cause further injury, I opened my eyes. In the quiet, looming abyss of dark blue and green around my tiny body, I could see the surface of the South Luna Ocean slowly nearing me. Through the white froth and fluctuations of reality in the waves above, I could barely make out the viaduct an eternity away. Down here in this void of murmuring water and humming pain, the viaduct seemed to go on forever - but at the very edge of my vision I could see the beginning of the back car of the slave train, stationary as Demomares boarded and started the pilferage out of sight. The moon floated conspicuously above the waving surface of water, illuminating the countless and consistent raindrops landing on the South Luna Ocean only to be swallowed up by the endless water. It was teasing me at this point, taking pleasure in the fact that I could not possibly reach up and grab it from the permanently dark sky.

It was cinematic, really.

My head emerged from the freezing sea and I instantly took my first sputter of breath. The rain instantaneously greeted me back to the world as if the sky itself was but another ocean, awaiting my abrupt arrival. Everything around me was black without my night vision goggles, but the white illumination of the moon seemed to line my surroundings with a white pen. I started to turn my body to search for the escape boat before another explosion of pain shot through my system, and I groaned as I held the bleeding holes in my stomach. The freezing temperature added an otherworldly saturation of pain, as if the exterior of my body was a shell rolling in Plussia’s rolling winters, and my innards were the equivalent of a hellish forest fire. Through the dark reflection in the water below, I could descry the slightest hint of maroon stringing around me within the dark blue.

It was then I heard the gentle rumbling of an aquatic vehicle approaching me from behind. It was slower and deeper than the boat’s original noise, so I knew it was backing up towards me. If it wasn't for the burning fire in my abdomen, I would have taken the rare opportunity to dunk my head under the water yet again and float limply to rest.

Besides, they had other plans.

Quick as a whip and twice as snappy, a pair of snow white hooves penetrated the darkness of my peripherals and wrapped themselves underneath my forelegs. With a painful heave and a wet slosh, my back was suddenly on the hard stern of the boat, vibrating gently from the engine and swaying sickly from the waves. My soaking wet arms instantly darted over the two holes in my stomach with a wet squelch to be drowned in the constant downpour of rain and the splashing of the ocean’s waves. With a brief jostle of the back of my suit, my exhausted artificial wings clattered to the ground beside me. A few more equally abrupts adjustments and my loose OEMP and broken night vision goggles joined them. I had no time to rest, however, when I saw the ocean underneath the chocolate-brown stern gently drag itself away as my captor did just that to me via my supply strap’s grip.

“You’re unbelievable,” Flecksturz snapped at me from behind. “Fucking unbelievable.”

I felt her grip on me shudder and heard a door open behind before I was dragged through it, leaving the black surroundings and pouring rain to peer at me wishfully. Without much surprise, I found myself in the innards of our escape boat. I didn't even have to crane my neck to know what the familiar setting was like.

Magical enhancement ballooned the inside of the outwardly small speed boat to match a houseboat’s level of accommodation. The rectangular room was big enough to allow for a driver’s seat and steering wheel in the right corner, a decent sized living room in the center of the space complete with two couches and a table, and a small fridge by the sliding glass door which lead to the hallucinogenic and disproportionately large stern. Sunbeam Aurora personally customized the interior to her liking, and the orange light which lit us, wide windows adorning each wall leading to the outside blackness, and the homely curtains decorating said windows all added to her content. To the side of the driver’s seat was a small corridor which lead to three doors on one side, two on the other. My nostrils were attacked by the copious amounts of orange scent for the upteenth time, and the previous deluge just outside was now nothing more than nostalgic rain bouncing off of the top of the boat and the miniature stream I was leaving.

As I was being dragged through the room, painting the wooden floor with water and the occasional string of blood, I looked to my left to see a drenched Vivacious Swan getting up from the sofa. A towel was wrapped around her ruby colored and textured body, artificial wings of her own lying at her side. The absence of her night vision goggles gave way to her horrified brown eyes latching to mine through her hastily worn glasses.

“Rain?” she asked earnestly, and in response I tilted my head upwards and tapped my chin twice with a hoof.

“I’m fine.”

“Rainnn!” another, higher pitched voice rang in my ears. I turned to find the boat owner herself, Sunbeam Aurora, leaning back in her chair casually as she eyed me. “Another cinematic injury to be healed up? How’d the assassinating go?”

“Disappointing finale,” I grunted.

Sunbeam Aurora’s dark gray fur peaked out from underneath her black Assassin suit, and no night vision goggles obscured her dark blue eyes. She often complained to our Ordermare about her consistent supporting roles throughout our pilferages when Flecksturz, a physically bright unicorn, was constantly “put in action.” In truth Sunbeam was indeed more suited for infiltration with her furtive colors and successful history as a Celestia’s Rebel spy, but her streak of “spontaneous rays of personality” had nevertheless landed her in a spiteful position. Her boisterous mane and tail were blue flames dancing down her body and around her face, only italicizing her sharp features and even sharper tongue. Her cutie mark was a cinematic camera - during her 12 years of life pre-Renaissance, she was starting off as a student filmmaker. Her scriptwriting skills were the equivalent of a young filly who thought modern art was intellectual, and her acting and directing skills were just as repugnant, but her true talent shined with a camera in hoof. Like an unseen prodigy, she was landing professional-level jobs left and right at a preposterously young age.

Not that the filmmaking industry was at an alltime high these past sixteen years. She enjoyed her paychecks for outsmarting Night Guards and infiltrating Moon Worshiper camps just as much, though.

“Get his supplies from the stern,” Fleck snapped at the two mares. “A declipped OEMP, broken pair of night vision goggles, and tired artificial wings. Fuck’s sake…”

As Flecksturz dragged my limp body past Sunbeam Aurora into the corridor, I heard the start of an exchange with Vivacious Swan:

“Remy’s teleporting in. What's our coordinates?”

Another door was pushed open, and I found myself in the ER room of the boat. It was a small and cozy room with a patient’s recliner to my left and cabinets upon cabinets of medical supplies on my right. Flecksturz knew better than to hoist me up on the recliner, so she settled on the floor right beside it. Lawful medical procedures were a thing of the past, she knew, but the proper order of things to commence in were still just as important. Her horn glowed a soothing orchid as a sanitizing bottle and floor rag were levitated over to the left corner of the room, did their job quickly, then floated away.

“Just one fucking mission,” she muttered stingingly as she dragged me to the corner and sat me up. “One fucking mission is all I ask. One round. One go. No heart attacks. No blood running cold. ‘I will try to be careful,’ you say. Fucking ‘busy.’ Pfft.”

“Fleck,” I said.

“You shut the fucking FUCK up!” she spat as she marched to the countless cabinets before throwing one of them open and pulling something out, levitating doctors’ gloves to her hooves at the same time. Her wavy orange mane, complete with a thick black stripe through its waters, seemed a bit more frazzled as it hid the back of her face. “What an action hero. Just sponges up every fucking injury in the book and is magically healed in the next scene. Well not in real life. One misplaced bullet or dark magic beam and that's it. Fucking movie star piece of face-fucking ponyfeather shitbag cunt biscuit. Not a shred of goddamn concern for the ponies who rely on you, huh? Fucking nothing. Fucking movie star assclown bitch. Fuck’s sake.”

“Flecksturz,” I tried again, but she was too busy kneeling down to me and zipping the dark purple Assassin suit off with no lack of regret that she couldn’t be rough. Her hooves were clad with the mitten-like rubber gloves of sanitation. Her face was intentionally aimed downwards and her mane obscured her features.

“I’d fucking slap the shit out of you,” she was muttering quietly. I opened my mouth yet again, but a glare that could chew through metal was my only reward. Meanwhile, she finished zipping down my Assassin suit and tossed my supply strap to the side with a heavy rustle. “God damn movie star protagonist. Think you're not pony like the rest of us? Rain, the Invincible Cyborg-Assassin? You have no fucking idea how thin-ice lucky you are, cunt. No fucking pussy-scratching clue. If I wasn't here you'd be--...” She suddenly stopped talking, and I took the opportunity to try again.

“Flecksturz, look at me.”

Her hooves stopped working. Her mane had now fallen over her downturned eyes, but her muzzle was clearly visible as vexation vibrated in its features. She hiccuped a solitary sob before snapping her head away angrily, as if she could glare the escaped emotion out of existence. “You asshole,” she whispered. “You… self indulgent actor.”

“Focus on me,” I said sternly.

In an instant reaction her face shot upwards to glare at my own. Every pore on her cheeks, chin, snout, and eyebrows screamed with burning annoyance and anger, but her eyes were lonely islands in the sea of rage. They were terrified. This was how she coped with her tender, or vulnerable, emotions: her unquenchable, absolute frustration. Frustration at the world, at herself, and most outwardly frustration at me. The purple orbs in a sea of white were narrowed, but at the same time wide as could be.

“Do you know how easily a life can end?” she murmured in a mix of chagrin and terror. “I've seen it many times before, Rain. It’s so sudden. I've turned to get the last tool that would save somepony’s life, and in the small time that took I turn back to find them… gone. No last words, no final breath, they just… stop suffering. And leave us thinking what we could've done to stop it if we had more time. It’s unfair.” She glared at the ground, her equivalent of shaking her head sadly. “Everypony thinks they’re the main character. Everypony thinks they're invincible. Everypony thinks they’ve gone through too much and traveled too far to die in such an unfair way. Even me, sometimes. Even the ones who say they know their time is up have that faint, lingering light in the back of their minds that chants: ‘Somepony will save me. They have to. Some impossible coincidence will save my life, some hero, some… fight still left in me.’ It's in marekind’s nature - it's part of what makes us pony, that light. But it's also part of what makes us so cringely fucking gullible.” Her eyes locked onto my own. “Prime example: Equestria.”

“I'm sorry,” I said softly.

I could tell that her mind accepted my gift, but her numbing aggravation stampeded it to death. “You're always sorry. You're always not responsible. You're always just trying to do the right thing.” Fleck’s eyes suddenly narrowed even more, and in the raw pain and guilt, all I could see were those eyes. Angry, terrified, and confused, but undoubtedly belonging to Flecksturz, and hence the most uplifting thing in the world. “That's who you are in front of a camera, Rain. Who you were. But now you're not. You’re in the real world, where ponies we love die, and heroes get themselves killed, and ponies you think will survive pass away that night while ponies with fucking bullet holes in their heads survive because of some unimaginable stroke of luck…” Her eyes seemed to glow as the rest of the world darkened to something as dark as Queen Lune’s Equus. “You're a Light Bringer, Rain. I’m a Light Bringer.” Her horn glowed in the literal sense as a medical needle and thread floated towards us, complete with a small syringe, a cotton ball, a razor, and a bottle of what I knew to be anesthesia. I had seen it too many times for it not to be in my vocabulary. “How--… Why does this keep happening, Rain? Why do you keep doing this? No matter how many times I've gone through this, no matter how minor or major your injury is, every time I turn around to get a syringe or a needle, I'm scared to turn back. I'm scared that you might be… gone. I’m scared that’ll happen to somepony I care about; that it’ll be just as unfair and as sudden as the other ponies I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to. By now I expect it, and sometimes I might even wish for it - for that faint diamond of relief in the sea of devastation - but... I’m scared.”

She hiccuped another sob before cursing and scowling her sadness away. Her eyes were tear-rimmed, but the tears did not fall. They never did. Like Tartarus she would ever let them fall.

“I want it to change,” Fleck murmured. Her anger still lined her words’ edges, but it wasn't intentional. Meanwhile, she levitated the syringe and bottle up to each other before puncturing the bottle and drawing out the clear liquid. The razor also stroked my arm’s fur away, leaving a little patch of skin exposed. “I don't want it to end, I never want it to end. Not with you by my side. I just want it to change…”

“Things are going to change,” I said. Meanwhile she swabbed my skin with the cotton ball, leaving behind a thick, clear liquid and a cool sensation. “However long it takes. Things will change. I won't be a Light Bringer forever, and neither will you. We march as soldiers now, but eternally trot as ponies.”

“I wish I could be so sure,” Flecksturz whispered as she slowly slid the syringe into my arm and injected a stream of numbness into my system. “After all, you're one leg short.”

“I’ll see you soon,” I murmured as the pain slowly evaporated with my awareness. “And thank you, Flecksturz.”

“You're welcome,” she said faintly.


Horseshoe Bay was Equestria’s only civilian-open bay on the eastern side of the country, although it was heavily saturated with Night Guard propaganda and security. Cruiseships lined the half-circle arena of land around the water, and in an attempt of populist luxury, each one towered well over five stories tall and contained many apartment rooms, large pools, and boisterous buffets. Although the civilized aspect of the bay was buzzing with foragers looking for adventure, Night Guardian security at a scrutinizing level, and civilians being hustled in the middle of it all, the natural side of the bay was quite different. The water from the Celestial Sea flowing through the horseshoe-shaped entrance was calm and pleasant, and for centuries it had streamed into Equestria’s mainland in the form of a long river. The large Potomacintosh River sliced the eastern side of Equestria in half between Former-Baltimare Herd and Haysead Shamps before traveling many miles to central Equestria - just to the east of Rambling Rock Ridge, now home to Neutral Zone: Oxbow - and splitting into two other rivers, one going North while the other headed West.

Although the northern river had once flowed freely all the way to the Crystal Empire, now it was cut short and devoured by the Everfree Swamp’s greedy thirst. In an ironic twist of fate, the river flowing West cut straight through the heart of the Everfree strongly and diligently as it had pre-Renaissance, when the death trap was only a forest. After reaching the southeastern edge of the Ponyville Ruins, it spread into a large and bountiful lake, now serving as a water-based Neutral Zone floating just above its waters. The mutated sea life and cannibalistic sea ponies still infected the waters like a cancer, but the ponies’ infamous care and magical deterrents brought a surprisingly low casualty rate to Neutral Zone: Murcheron.

The lake’s shape seemed to loop around and avoid the Ponyville Ruins in an S shape before coming to the bottom of the Canterlot Mountain. A persistent stream of water, once a magnificent waterfall, fell from the city of Canterlot, which was now transformed into Nightmare Moon’s base of dictatorship. The smoke sent spiraling into the sky from her initial attack on Canterlot was still frozen in the air, sixteen years later. An independent spell had been cast to freeze the dark smoke into a mold - a reminder of our defeat and her righteous crusade on all of Equus. At the very bottom of the mountain was Location 9 - the amalgam of fallen ruins and stone as the small waterfall eroded it to a holey, maremade hill. Just a few miles north was a large Moon Worshiper residence. How or why they remained so close to the supposed keeper of justice was beyond everypony.

A few miles away from Queen Lune’s Dominion was Light Bringer Roots 4, residing quietly at the very southeastern edge of Unicorn Range. It was an averagely sized building compared to the other six Light Bringer Roots in Equestria, and its camouflaged exterior helped quite a bit in evading Night Guardian scrutiny. Like any other Light Bringer Root in Equestria, it was split into three different buildings: the high command, an armory, and living quarters. The living quarters building was comparable to a college dorm with its fitness-themed, recreational, and apartment like compartments. The armory was used for supplying our five different sects with OEMPs, other weapons, and auto-carts fit for their needs. The high command, meanwhile, was the most necessary part of Light Bringer Roots 4. Here, newcomers were selected, trained, and given the option of which sect they saw fit for themselves. Just as important was its Hollow Moon Room (where our moon drainers were analyzed and accepted), publish studio, and base of orders.

I was currently getting a great view of the base of orders. The room was made to have the aesthetics of an office, although my Ordermare’s motif reflected perfectly in the space, which most certainly was not like an office. Even as it held the standard one-desk-two-chairs format of an interview, there wasn't much else that gave off the impression of a professional office. The many accommodations belonging to my Ordermare lined the small, cube-like room like a wallpaper, surrounding and emphasizing the decorative results of her past missions: a broken pair of Demomare night vision goggles here, a Knight’s flail still crusted with ancient blood there, and too many badges of newcomers who graduated under her guidance all over the place. There was a creaked open window to my right, and if I possessed night vision goggles I would have been able to see the distant silhouette of Queen Lune’s Canterlot among the dark horizon. Rain fell soothingly on the window as its white noise filled the room, and the faint smell of wet pavement drifted from the window’s opening like a gaseous comfort.

“Rain, when were you born?”

I blinked simply as I stood in front of my Ordermare, her arms crossed irritably across her chest. She was leaning back in her chair in the slightest of degrees as a firm atmosphere of annoyance pulsated from her narrowed cyan eyes, and was currently wearing the standard gray Ordermare suit which I had never seen her out of.

“September 17th, 21-bD,” I answered obediently.

“Twenty one years before Darkness, hmm? And what is sixteen plus twenty one?”

“Thirty seven.”

“Thirty seven?” she mused, her frown deepening. “Thirty seven years, Rain. Thirty seven years of life. Would you mind explaining to me why I doubt that?”

I already knew the answer, but I stayed silent. I knew from experience she hated if I answered that question.

“Because I'm not convinced you are thirty seven years old, Rain. After this last pilferage, I would have assumed I was speaking to a fucking colt.”

“I understand,” I nodded, but she wasn't done yet.

“Your little ‘thing’ you have that makes you think you're invincible? It's reminiscent of a teenager who just picked up an OEMP for the first time. Rain, recite to me the ranks of your sect: Assassin.”

“Yes, mare,” I confirmed, my forward gaze unwavering. “Light Bringer Assassins have four ranks: Asi. Skd, Asi. Prod, Asi. Prof, and Asi. Gol. Within these four ranks are two categories of skill: ensemble and corp. Starting with the ensemble category, which are Light Bringer Assassins who perform organized and populated pilferages on Moon Worshiper camps and assassinations on renowned or wanted foragers and Moon Worshipers, an Assassin Skilled has graduated from standard Light Bringer training and has chosen the Assassins as their desired sect. They then graduate to Assassin Prodigy after completing three missions - success or failure is irrelevant as long as they are not killed.

“Moving onto the corp category, these ponies audition or are selected to participate in an individual corp of ponies which performs both freelance and scheduled pilferages on Night Guard resources and assassinations on renowned or wanted Night Guards. Assassin Professionals have succeeded in at least four missions and have stayed in service for at least five years. Ponies of the Assassin Prodigy rank are put into a corp immediately after the graduation to this rank. The most prestigious Assassin rank is Assassin Golden Soldier, which ponies of the Assassin Prodigy rank achieve after having succeeded in seven missions - at least four in succession - and having stayed in service for over six years. They can choose to either become the leader of a new corp or stay in their previous group.”

“And what rank are you, Rain?”

“I am an Assassin Golden Soldier, and in my graduation I have chosen to stay with my previous corp. It was and is currently being lead by Asi. Gol Étoile Night, commonly referred to as Remy.”

“So you’re a Golden Soldier. Not leading your own corp, but still a Golden Soldier... You broke your night vision goggles, Rain.” She leaned back in her chair a bit more, and the quiet creaking from those extra few degrees seemed to amplify her frustration even more. “Those same Demomare night vision goggles you've kept for thirteen years. That pair of night vision goggles I've fought our former Ordermare to let you keep. And your OEMP’s muzzle clip was also broken. Not to mention those two holes in your Assassin suit.”

Even as my injury resided underneath a blanket of stitches and a sunpad, it still twitched with a tinge of pain at my Ordermare’s comment. It had been two moon cycles since our most recent pilferage of the Night Guardian slave train, but a quick and bumpy boat ride through the Yakon River was enough to send its recovery back a few more days; even with the sunpad’s magical healing aid.

“This is not proper behavior of a Golden Soldier,” she said lowly. “This is not proper behavior for a Light Bringer. This is not proper behavior for a stallion.” After she finished her last accusation, her eyes steadily drifted to peer at my own. “And yet, I still have faith in you.”

My ears perked in the slightest. This was a new change in her script.

“Would you like to know why, Rain?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Out of every member of your corp, you've known Flecksturz the longest, yes?”

I answered her question before one of my own surfaced. “Yes. We were classmates pre-Renaissance.”

“Considering your differences, forgive the average pony’s confusion towards your platonism - if that's the correct word.”

“It is not.”

“I like to avoid the word ‘friendship,’ as you know.” Her chair tilted back onto all fours as she rested her arms on the table. “Granted, you’re both insufferably irritable and antisocial, but the request still stands. You were a successful film and stage actor in your youth, and meanwhile she was shoveling chips in her mouth in front of a TV in her college dorm. I understand you two have been through much. She had behavioral problems in her adolescence, correct?”

I mentally narrowed my eyes. “That was a very different time,” I would have said if I wasn't talking to my Ordermare. “She's past that,” I decided on instead. “I would have personally not liked it to progress as far as it did, but she’s past it.”

“No worries,” my Ordermare assured. “I am not concerned that her past transgressions will affect her present performance. She is, after all, a Golden Soldier. Flecksturz’ prestigious standing is quite hard to miss. There’s a reason she is sent in to fight rather than Sunbeam Aurora.”

“Indeed. She’s more competent.”

“Yes, but… I don't think I have to tell you about her coat color. A snow white. And yet she is supposed to utilize stealth for a living. Sunbeam Aurora not only has the privilege of being naturally darker, and a pegasus no less, but she also has experience as a... foreign spy.” She avoided naming the other anti-night organizations, if Celestia’s Rebels could be called an ‘organization.’ “Any sane Ordermare would have assigned Flecksturz to transportation and Sunbeam to your and Vivacious Swan’s side.”

“Sunbeam Aurora is louder. Flecksturz is naturally quiet.”

“And stubborn, and bad tempered, and unsociable. Let’s not bring in personality to the workplace. Rain, I have placed Flecksturz with you and Vivacious Swan because she listens to you.”

“It seems to me that I'm more of the listener.”

My Ordermare smiled coolly before continuing. “You are the only one who has any influence on her. And the more pilferages you two embark on, the more open she becomes to other ponies’ command. I am, of course, alluding to myself. And what about Étoile Night? You've chosen to stay with his corp rather than start your own. If I wasn't so irritated right now I would be saying something along the lines of, ‘You’re more than competent to do so.’”

“Thank you. And I've chosen to stay with Étoile Night because of our history.”

“In the past I expected that you chose to stay because it was good practice for your Fancy.”

“That is a minor reason. Remy is a good friend. He also gets along well with Fleck.”

“So he can befriend anypony. I’ll be sure to use that sometime.”

“He is also a reputable sniper and a necessary asset to the corp. Remy has saved each member of his corps’ lives many times with both his reconnaissance and aim. He is open to criticism and suggestion, and never dictates his corp like too many Golden Soldiers do now.”

“Do you know him intimately, Rain?”

“Of course. He is a good friend.”

My Ordermare simpered. “If you were anypony else, I would have read your mind and said, ‘No, that's not what I mean.’ But you're already so oblivious to any social and sexual advances of both genders that to say, ‘It went over your head,’ is an understatement.”

“Thank you.”

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“Yes it was. It means I'm reliable as a social exchanger of my corp because I am not affected by strangers’ personal influence. So thank you.”

Her neutral smiles stayed put as she simply blinked. “Okay, you’re welcome.” Her smile disappeared, replaced with a concerned frown. “And what about Vivacious Swan, your other combat partner?”

“She is not my partner anymore.”

My Ordermare’s ears perked, and her voice was tinted with more earnesty than I could have expected. “Did something happen, Rain?”

“She is graduating to a Golden Soldier. This was her tenth pilferage, fourth in succession. She has also been in service for seven years. Her graduation is scheduled in a few days, and she plans on starting her own corp.”

“In a few days, you say?”

“I do not know the specific date. I don't plan on going. This is her moment of independence; I don't believe she would prefer her former teacher’s being there. Perhaps I would come off as keeping her down.”

“I understand.” She paused. “Well actually I don’t, but it’s your choice. You also did not attend Remy’s or Fleck’s graduation, and only showed up momentarily for your own.”

I stayed silent.

“Vivacious Swan,” my Ordermare continued. “Is quite the surprising Assassin. She is a crystal pony, so I had originally predicted an unlucky flashlight encounter would be the death of her. But so far she’s been doing just fine. Why do you suppose that is, Rain?”

“She is skilled. Her Assassin suit also suppresses the reflections on her body. By the time any light would be reflecting off her coat through the minor gaps in her suit, it would already be too late for her target - she knows how to predict and avoid lights and bat ponies’ organic night vision. There were indeed a few instances of foragers and civilians catching her shine in the darkness, but they were quickly dealt with. Her ethnicity has never dissuaded a pilferage, only inconvenienced a few.”

“I’m not concerned with that.” My Ordermare’s eyes seemed to dig into my own, and the protection of my night vision goggles was now much more absent. “And what of Sunbeam Aurora? Her name is a little ironic, wouldn't you say?”

“I agree. Her coat color would suggest otherwise.”

“Her personality would also suggest otherwise. She's almost as bad as Flecksturz, but she has a sense of humor, so that's how we got through to her.” My Ordermare snorted. “Fallen Princess does she have an annoying sense of humor.”

“She can come off as belligerent, yes. However, she is an intricate member of my corp. Her history as a Celestia’s Rebel spy--”

“Fucking terrorists,” my Ordermare glared lowly to herself. A few seconds of silenced passed before she realized I had stopped talking. “Continue.”

“Do not worry. When I turned her towards the Light Bringers, she had not gone back to her former comrades since.” The faintest glimmer of relief reflected in my Ordermare’s eyes. “Her history as a Celestia’s Rebel spy seemed to guarantee her a spot in a combat role, but when she had made that assumption explicitly clear, Remy set her straight. She left Celestia’s Rebels on a good note, so she has access to their alliance and help at any time. We make sure she doesn't make well by that, though.

“Besides transportation, she also helps me with social exchanges at Night Guardian supply stations, Neutral Zones, random forager encounters, and herds.”

“A little ironic that you would charm and wangle strangers but won't come to your friends’ graduations.”

“It’s not me who uses social interactions to psychologically corral information, but a character I choose.”

“Of course. You're the actor.”

“Sunbeam Aurora does not even try. She uses her sharp beauty and natural charm to pry.”

“Excuse me, Rain, did you just call somepony beautiful?”

“If you are implying the question if I am attracted to her, then no. I am merely stating the fact that she is pleasing to the eye. That is one of the reasons she is so successful as a social exchanger.”

“Of course. Why you’re both successful.”

“The fake personalities I puppeteer are why I am successful.”

“Sure,” my Ordermare skipped over. “Rain, tell me about the last member of your corp.”

“There is nopony else.”

“Are you sure?” She raised an eyebrow expectantly, and for the first time in this conversation my posture faltered as I tilted my head slightly.

“Are you referring to me, Ordermare?”

“Please call me by my full name.”

“...Are you referring to me, Ordermare Chillstep?”

The moment the words left my mouth, Chillstep rolled her eyes up in a thoughtful manner. It was as if she was tasting a food she didn't particularly enjoy nor dislike, rolling it in her mind until she came to a conclusion. “I don't like the way you say it. Nevermind.” She adjusted herself in her seat. “But yes, that is precisely what I'm referring to. Tell me about yourself. Why are you a necessary asset to this corp?”

“Is this a psychological test?”

“No. Now tell me about yourself.”

“There is no need to assume I am incompetent in my career.”

“That's fantastic. Now tell me about yourself, Rain.”

I could feel my pupils contract as I peered into Chillstep’s scrutinizing eyes. What was she alluding to? We've had the beginning dialogue of this exchange many times before, but she had taken a new turn this moon cycle. Why the sudden change in tone? I had devoted the last thirteen years of my life to the Light Bringers, and she had been my Ordermare for the vast majority of them. She had ordered me to infuse my skills into many pilferages and assassinations beforehoof, but had never ordered that simple command: “Tell me about yourself.” It was a bit ironic how that request seemed to be the hardest of all the ones she had previously given me to answer wholeheartedly. She obviously knew my value as a Light Bringer, and I had served in my corp very effectively in my opinion, so why the doubt?

“Answer my request, Rain.”

“I am a combat element in my corp and a social exchanger,” I finally decided on proudly.

“Good for you. Why are you necessary to your corp?”

There it is again. What did she want from me? A mist of understated frustration coated my innards. Just as I was giving in to something along the lines of, “I'm effective in this corp, but I can put my efforts elsewhere,” Chillstep spoke.

“You do not have very high self esteem, Rain.”

I blinked. “Irrelevant if it does not interfere with my performance.”

“Except it does. It interferes very much with the welfare of your corp, and serves as a blaring risk to all Light Bringers in these roots.”

“These unimportant character flaws do not reflect in my actions.”

“If you have low self esteem, Rain, then you have low self image. When you have low self image, that means you will also have a low response to danger. When that happens, you take unnecessary risks, and when that happens, you flirt with death, and we all know how deliciously easy it is to fall in love. Your advances towards getting killed will eventually yield results, and a dead Rain equals an unresponsive and destructive Flecksturz.”

“I suppose so.”

“You are a necessary component to the corp you chose to stay in because without you Flecksturz would be a liability, never truly sharing her prodigal medical talents with us. Vivacious Swan would have never progressed through the ranks to where she is now. Sunbeam Aurora’s conversion to a Light Bringer would have been a lot more dangerous, if not impossible, had you not turned her in the right direction. And Étoile Night…?”

Chillstep’s voice subsided to a faint whisper as she peered down yet again, deep in thought. A few moments passed as her cyan eyes dug into her desk before she finally looked back up to me. “You are the only one he has told his history to.”

“A mere side effect of platonism,” I concurred, earning a smirk from Chillstep. “Besides, his history is now known by you. The information has been passed on - nothing more.”

Remy had not taken that well.

“You see, Rain, that is precisely why I have faith in you.”

“I tell you personal profiles of my friends?”

“That is a minor reason. The true fact of the matter is that you show promise for improvement, even after all these years. You still have flaws. You still have lapses in judgment and character, and you rarely think of yourself. Even after all these years, Rain, you are flawed, but still a necessary asset to your corp - every member of it.”

“I will work on these inadequacies immediately.”

“Don't.” She glared through me. “You’ll become one of these Golden Soldier dictators, perfect in every way except self awareness.” She seemed to roll some saliva in her muzzle, think about spitting, but ultimately decide against it. “But I do suggest you work on this problem of indestructibility you seem to have worked up in your mind.”

“Is that an order?”

“No. Just a suggestion from an acquaintance.”

“Understood. I will take it appropriately.”

“Take it urgently, Rain.”

I nodded deeply.

“Your night vision goggles will be repaired - the same, outdated green Demomare pair, of course. Your OEMP will also be repaired, although you’ll notice a few more dents on the sides, and the velcro will be worn out, naturally. They’ll be ready by 16 hours.” Chillstep sighed, clapping her hooves together softly. “We’re done. Go and pester Fleck some more.”

“I don't think that will yield positive results.”

“It was an attempt at a casual nature. Now get out of here.”

I nodded yet again before turning about face and trotting quietly to her office’s exit. It was a plain wooden door with a stained glass window reading, “क्रमघोड़ासर्दस्टेप” [Ordermare Chillstep]. I nudged it open before walking out, and I suddenly stopped in the long hallway just outside her office. From my left to my right it ran, soothing white lights littering the ceiling as if they would make a difference in this world. Every ten cubits or so there was a painting of an important figure or propaganda piece by the publish studio on the walls. Immediately in front of me was something too realistic to be a painting but too artistic to be a picture of a intense-looking Sacré Rouge. Her coat was the richest shade of red anypony had seen, as much as what her name would have suggested, and it was devoid of the many scars and bandages most Light Bringers knew her by. In this picture she seemed to be focusing intently on something just above the framing as her head was craned slightly downwards, and her jagged mane and sharp eyes shaped her superiority like pale yellow markers. She was not frowning at something, rather focusing, and the blurry maroon background around her seemed to emphasize that point. Underneath the picture was a plaque made of red diamond. The words, “There is no better dream than the dawn,” glinted in Equestrian and, just underneath, Fancy in the shining metal. A few more cubits to my left, and on the wall closest to me there was a worn and tattered propaganda piece.

“यहद्वाराखड़ेहोजाओऔरराष्ट्रोंगिरावटकेरूपमेंदेखनेकेलिएहमारेस्वभावमेंनहींहै।.”

“It is not in our nature to stand by and watch nations fall.”

The words were sown onto a Light Bringer flag, and I was taught enough history to know that this was the very message that was flown on the Light Bringers’ first successful Dictator assassination in 7-iD.

“Rain!” a feminine voice chippered from just behind, and my mind eased with the fact that my Ordermare’s lecture was officially over. I turned to find Vivacious Swan trotting towards me, an immovable smile planted firmly on her face. A white button up shirt replaced her previous Assassin attire, and her thin glasses seemed almost glued to her perked ears. The shirt’s sleeves were rolled up as always, and she also held a portable rain-deterrent spell in the form of a small, glowing white vial hanging from her supply bag on the her strap. A pair of black jeans covered her back portion, although her white tail flourished freely and excitedly outside of its confines.

When Vivacious Swan reached me, her canter slowed to a steady trot before finally stopping just in front of me. “I just wanted to say thank you,” she squeed. “For putting up with me over the years. I…--” She let out a frustrated sigh before wording her next statement carefully. She knew me well enough to know about my tendency to miss graduations, so I knew that what was coming was to be taken as if she was speaking on a podium, myself in the crowd. “You've taught me things about myself, and given me irreplaceable experience, that have changed the way I see the world. Before I joined the Light Bringers-- well, even after I joined but before you chose me as your student, I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I was just an average pony. But with your guidance and patience, I've become something I had never even thought possible. I'm a Golden Soldier now because of what you've done for me, and even though I could never repay you, I sure as Tartarus will try. If you ever need help from another corp, or even if you just need somepony on your side whenever Fleck acts up on you, I'm just an assignment on the request board away. From the bottom of my heart, Rain, thank you.”

Throughout her entire speech, I could feel my mouth raise from a thin smile to a full fledged grin. Vivi finally reached forward and pulled me into a tight hug, and even though my stomach wound burned a little brighter, I returned it with one arm. “Seeing you come this far is reward enough for me,” I said. “Take good care of your corp.”

“I will,” she replied with what I imagined a grin that gave my own a proper competition just out of sight. “So how was that little monologue? I've been thinking about it all day.”

“Nothing short of perfect,” I said before pulling back.

Vivacious Swan’s infectious grin stayed put on her face for some time afterwards, but after a while, I saw the faintest glimmer of doubt in her eyes. It was the same doubt that sparked in her system each time she would see my cold response to deceased Night Guards, so I once again stayed silent to let her lament. However, much to my surprise, her eyes suddenly scrutinized my own as she spoke earnestly.

“Rain?” she finally asked. “For your last lesson, give me an honest response. Do you believe in future-based anxiety?” Another frustrated sigh caused by lack of proper wording. “I know the wording’s a little weird, but… do you think that foreboding feeling in your gut means something?”

“I’m on and off about it,” I replied.

Vivacious Swan seemed to take the slightest hint of comfort in that and cherish it. “Alright, thanks. I just… I dunno.” An emotion I could not read shimmered in and out of existence in not only her eyes, but her entire body. “...I just have this feeling that, despite all the great stuff that's happening... something awful is coming.” m

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