• Published 8th Apr 2015
  • 1,080 Views, 37 Comments

Wires - Dark Avenger

Shining Armor is sent on a peacekeeping mission to Gueldergrad. The task should have been simple, but things never go smoothly in the Frozen North...

  • ...

High Strung

The Royal Guard has little experience in urban warfare. Their official doctrine is to improvise and attempt to minimize losses.

After giving himself a minute to catch his breath and collect his thoughts, Shining retreated from the edge of the roof and returned to the stairwell. He sluggishly made his way down, pausing to wave off the salute from the squad that followed him into the building. They rounded up the three insurgents that survived – two ponies with scorched manes, and a goat with a broken foreleg. All of them gave him bitter looks as he passed by. The goats on the ground floor were gone, and dozens more were quietly filing out of their homes as the guards continued their search. Tiny white specks drifted in the air, wavering in the breeze, and by the time he made it back around the corner, a thin sheet of snow had formed on the pavement.

A pair of medics rushed past him as he made his way back to the crossroads. They had a stretcher between them, carrying a stallion that howled in pain as he clutched his belly. A third one trailed behind them and paused when he noticed the wound on Shining’s face. The medic’s eyes widened, but Shining waved him off before he could say a word.

“I’m fine,” he blurted out. The charge he had made recently still left him short of breath. “Just go. Help the others.”

The medics took the wounded guard into a hastily established triage station within a hollowed-out cafe. More voices of agony came from within, and Shining made sure to avert his gaze as he passed by. A dull ache formed in his chest as he looked down the street leading back to the bridge, where he found the decimated Granite squads gathering around their wounded and dead.

“Captain, this is Onyx Omega,” Bonnie said over the radio. “We’ve cleared the last of the gun nests. The road should be clear.”

“Understood,” Shining replied. “Tell everypony to saddle up. We’re moving out. Meet me at the next waypoint in ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir.” There was clear tension in her voice. Shining huffed and lit his horn, adjusting his headset to switch to a private channel.

“You have something to tell me, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Bonnie hesitated for a few seconds. “How do we expect to advance like this, sir? I hate to admit it, but… this Legion is putting up a hell of a fight.”

Shining glanced around for a moment, making sure nopony was near. “If you ask me, this was the peaceful neighborhood. Only gets worse from here.”

“The crystal pony squads can only take so much punishment,” she replied. “They said these guns are pushing their limits. Maybe we should use more thorough bombardment.”

The captain lowered his voice even more. “We’ve got civilians living in the districts ahead. I’m not risking that much collateral damage.”

There was another lengthy pause, followed by Bonnie almost whispering. “Understood.”

“Just stick to the plan. Meet you at the waypoint. Out.”

Shining turned off the headset. A series of loud cracks rang out to his left, akin to rapid thunderstrokes. He turned his head, staring at the corner where the large capric gun had been set up. Despite the bitterness he felt from the losses inflicted by the weapon, he had to admit they gave it an excellent firing position, granting the insurgents both defilade and a good field of fire across the entire street.

It was so good, in fact, that Granite Four – the Granite section’s Hailstorm squad – had decided to set up in the same spot. A trio of guards – all of them unicorns – lay against a pile of rubble that they used as cover. One of them had a pair of binoculars to watch for any movement, while the other, considerably larger stallion kept his glowing horn aimed down the street. The third did not even poke his head out, his glowing horn pointing at the second guard.

The squad leader lifted his binoculars to inspect the blocks ahead. “Eleven o’clock,” he said. The large stallion next to him went into a low stance, his entire spine seeming to line up with his horn. The magic aura around it glowed brighter for a moment before discharging over a dozen times in quick succession, letting out the thunderous noise once more. Bolts of energy raced down the street, slamming into walls and pavement, where they set off miniature explosions and tore head-sized chunks out of solid concrete. The squad eyed the clouds of dust and smoke for any movement, and they fired a second volley when a pair of equines emerged from their torn-up piece of cover and tried to race across the street.

Tapping his headset, Shining cleared his throat and spoke into his mic. “All units in District Fifteen, assemble on the first waypoint and prepare to move out!”

The squad leaders replied one by one to confirm, and within seconds, the first of the armored ponies galloped back to the crossroads, forming up on each corner around the banner of the infantry section they belonged to. Shining grimaced slightly as he noticed the holes in many of the squads, as well as the wear on the ponies who survived. The sergeant in charge of one particularly battered unit turned to look at him, and once the guard got his squads in order, he immediately ran toward Shining.

“Sir!” He stopped a few feet before the captain and snapped to attention. “Sergeant Falchion, Granite Two. Permission to lead the advance.”

Shining stared at him silently for a few moments. “Again?” he asked. Taking off his helmet, he rubbed at his sweat-soaked mane and glanced at the squad in question. The guards stood firmly, despite the blood and soot staining their armor, not to mention the various holes and the cuts and bruises underneath.

“Yes, sir!” Falchion did not even blink, staring firmly at his superior. Shining noticed that his hooves were restless, however, tensing up every time the captain spoke up.

Shining looked back up at him. “You do realize you’re at least halfway understrength? And where’s the lieutenant?”

“Dead,” the sergeant replied through gritted teeth. “Along with many others. And I want to be the first in line to make those savages pay for every single pony we’ve lost.”

“I understand.” Shining sighed. “But we can’t make another attack like this. The insurgents clearly won’t fight us in the open. And if we do, we’ll just get chewed up.”

Falchion opened his mouth, looking ready to protest, but the frown on the captain’s face made him hesitate. “Yes sir…” he muttered. Turning around, he trudged back to his squads, glancing at the bodies of his fallen soldiers along the way. The medics carried them off the road, lined them up in the ground floor hallway of one of the apartment complexes, and used a large tarp to cover them up.

“Basalt Two,” Shining spoke into his radio again. “Move into a holding pattern above the districts ahead. I want to know what’s waiting for us.”

He turned toward the corner on his left, where Diorite – a troop section from the Scylla – had formed up. “Diorite, I’ll need your Hailstorms to lead the way. Cover the advance. Obsidian, on their word, you’ll do a strafing run to give them time to set up. Granite will follow in reserve. Pyroclast and Tephra, move as close to the crossroads as you can and be sure to find good positions. We’ll be marking plenty of targets for you soon enough.”

The replies came in, but Shining Armor was no longer paying attention. Glancing back at the triage station, he noticed a group of pegasi wearing medic armbands land near the entrance. The guards stationed there saluted to the leader, whose face was obscured by a thick scarf. Shining narrowed his eyes, tightness forming in his chest as he tried to make out the stallion’s features. He removed his helmet and scarf just before stepping inside, revealing a beige coat and brown mane underneath.

Shining exhaled slowly and looked away, trudging after the squads that marched down the street. The latest broadcast of High Strung came to an end, and an eerie silence settled on the city.

Coalcutter raised his hoof, and Shining froze. Crouching low, the lieutenant snuck to the corner ahead and peeked around it. After a few moments, he gestured again, and his companions moved to catch up.

Shining tensed up as the icy winds bit into his sides again, and he fiddled with his cloak to pull it tighter. The old fabric reeked of filth and various chemicals, making him reluctant to breathe through the pieces covering his face. The thick layers of fabric concealed the light armor him and Coalcutter wore underneath, which were infused with magic to make them more resilient to bullets. Though it proved effective during tests, the spell could only absorb a few impacts before it shattered, and few unicorns had the skill and energy reserves to cast it.

Bonnie had laughed herself sick as her companions struggled with their confiscated outfits, but the joke soon ended up on her. Since her body was her “armor”, she did not need extra plating, and was instead wrapped from head to hooves in dirty, dark colored rags that were riddled with stitches, layered over her until her glow was completely hidden. The redundant wrappings made her gait sluggish, and it muffled her grumbling each time the others glanced at her and chuckled.

The end result was a trio of impoverished citizens of Gueldergrad, wandering down the streets on the east side of the river. It made them blend in perfectly with the dozens of goats and ponies they saw along the way, driven from their homes by the conflict raging throughout the city, all wearing similar outfits consisting of whatever fabrics they could scrape together from the ruins. Behind them, explosions and the rattling of gunfire echoed faintly among the walls, while the radio chatter among Shining’s troops whispered into his earpiece.

Although his troops had made it to the waypoint, the attack soon ground to a halt. The Legion did not set up any more bottlenecks like the one near the bridge, having opted for a fighting retreat instead. Gun nests were set up in ambush, chipping away at his squads, then pulling back right before the ponies could overrun them. Casualties mounted, and Shining eventually called off the advance and ordered his troops to hold the line. He then assembled his squad, and – amidst a charge feigned by Diorite One and Three – they slipped behind enemy lines.

The radio chatter consisted mostly of calm exchanges between squad leaders, requests for the pegasi overhead to do sweeps, and the occasional call for artillery support. His ears twitched, and he tensed up a little as a much louder and more agitated voice joined in, calling for immediate backup. The detonations in the background nearly drowned out what he was saying, and Shining’s mouth had already opened before he caught himself. Biting his tongue, he turned the volume in his earpiece further down.

He sighed and looked up from the snowy asphalt, fixing his gaze on his companions. Coalcutter was on point, Boninite a few paces behind, while Shining brought up the rear even further back. To keep up the ruse, they occasionally wandered off to sift through the trash or peek into the abandoned buildings nearby, as they were scavenging for supplies. Bonnie made her sluggish movements look even more clumsy, and her groans of frustration turned into feigned moans of agony. Setting aside the disguise tormenting her, he could tell that Bonnie was uncomfortable on a deeper level.

Coalcutter was the biggest surprise so far. The normally reserved, soft-spoken, and even quite slim-looking pony proved himself to be anything but a wimp once out in the field. His motions were cold and calculated, and his expression – what little of it could be seen under his mask – was all but emotionless. He rarely spoke, relying on hoof signals to report what he saw and to let them know when to move, or when to stop and be silent. Shining felt an odd urge to smile as he watched Coalcutter’s performance, and he could not resist asking about it.

“The mines teach you to tread lightly,” Coalcutter said. They stopped at an old abandoned factory to perform another fake scavenging session. “One guy I know thought it was smart to run for the surface when he found a diamond. Poor soul was trapped for two days when the passage caved in.”

His ears perked up as indistinct shouting came from around the block. Shining and Bonnie crouched low as he raised his hoof, and they retreated into the hollow garage space of the factory, while Coalcutter crawled forward to check on the commotion. The two holed up next to some scattered barrels and boxes, sticking to the shadows while they watched the snowy streets outside.

Bonnie fiddled with her mask and crept a bit closer. “Sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant?” Shining kept his eyes on the wide door.

“With all due respect… why are we doing this?”

The captain frowned slightly. “This really isn’t a good time.”

“I thought about asking earlier, but I figured you had enough to deal with.”

“Well, you’ve been briefed like everyone else. We’re here to—”

“No, I mean… why are we…” She circled her hoof, gesturing at the two of them. “...doing this?

Shining blinked and looked over. “Oh… the mission?”

Bonnie nodded. “It’s a little… unorthodox, sending both ponies at the top of the chain of command to do this.”

Shining gave a deep sigh. “You talked to Setter, didn’t you?”

“Did you two have an argument?”

“Hmf…” Shining sat down and checked under his cloak to make sure his equipment was still there. He even started testing the straps, despite knowing they were all secure.

Bonnie sat back on her haunches and raised her hooves defensively. “He didn’t mention it, but I didn’t need to ask.”

“You’re here because you’re the best ponies for the job,” Shining grumbled, not looking up. “So is he, but I told him to stay.”


“I told him I needed him more back there.” He fitted his cloak back over his gear and sighed again. “But, to be honest, I do wish I brought him along. He’s a fine officer, our best medic, and a good friend. I need all three, and I’m not gonna be making new ones anytime soon. But this mission… it doesn’t align with his principles.”


“He believes we should not be here. That we should turn back. I believe… I know we can’t do that.” More noise came from outside, making the duo tense up for a moment. “We have to end this conflict once and for all. And this mission is dangerous enough already. Would do more harm than good to have someone tag along who doesn’t agree with you.”

“I see.” Bonnie looked away. “You think this will be the way to do it, sir?”

“I’m not sure. But we’re here because I bet everything on this plan, and I want to see it through. If we succeed, the fighting ends, and our job here is done.”

“And if we don’t?”

Shining chuckled coldly. “I don’t intend to survive if that happens. After what it cost us today, that’s the way I want it to be. Setter can take over from there.”

“But sir… according to the chain of command, if you’re gone, I take charge, then it’s Lieutenant—”

“I know. But they’ll listen to him. This mission will be the test that decides which one of us was right. If I’m wrong, he’s the one who should lead my ponies. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Yes sir…”

They sat in silence, staring at the falling snow, and even the explosions in the distance died down for a few moments. “Heh…” Shining pulled back his hood to scratch his mane. “I just hope Brand won’t make things difficult. If the worst happens, I mean.”

It was Bonnie’s turn to chuckle. “Hey, give him a break. He’s an excellent officer. Brave, determined, and loyal.”

The captain shook his head. “Yeah, to a fault. Did you know he volunteered to put his squads into the speartip?”

“And you refused him that honor?” Bonnie said sarcastically.

“Naturally.” Shining’s smile faded all of a sudden, and his tone went grim. “I wouldn’t want to see him get so many ponies slaughtered just to ‘prove their worth’.”

Coalcutter peeked around the edge of the smashed garage door, and he waved his hoof silently. The two inside got up and followed his lead, making their way deeper into the east side of the city. A sharp whine rang out overhead as the speakers came to life, signaling the start of another broadcast.

“My fellow citizens. We all grew up in a fantasy world. Every day, we were told about the wonders of friendship and harmony. We lived in houses decorated with symbols of love, we celebrated holidays devoted to such ideals, and we bowed to royalty that embodied them. But when those who preach friendship and harmony came to our homes to punish us, accusing us of ‘disobedience’, is it time to abandon such ideals?”

The lieutenant raised his hoof again, and they crouched behind a couple of wrecked carts. Up ahead, a group of goats and ponies galloped across the street, all wearing tan overalls with blue patches on the shoulders. The goats carried rifles and various smaller tools, while the ponies mounted heavy weapons on their backs, and some even pulled carts. Shining frowned as he noticed a pair of them pulling a cannon similar to the one encountered near the bridge.

“No. Never. We should not throw away something pure because others attempt to taint it. But we shall defend our homes nonetheless. Though it pains us greatly to resort to fighting, we shall not give our lives when we have yet to build and prosper.”

“Power station is close,” Coalcutter said. He pointed to the intact pylons nearby, the power lines all properly fixed and seeming to converge toward a point further ahead. Shining poked his head out, only to duck again when another wave of hooves rumbling came from up ahead. Another column of insurgents rounded the corner, this time heading right for the team’s position. Shining curled up as much as he could, hiding among the wreckage and trash, while he reached stealthily for his crossbow and fitted it onto his right foreleg. It gave a faint hum as the mechanism drew the string back, and he hid the glowing orange tip of the bolt under his cloak.

The weapon was the closest the Royal Guard had to firearms, since they had yet to make big advancements in the field that the Caprics had apparently perfected. Equestrian-made rifles were either bulky and overpowered, or far too complex and fragile for use by the average soldier. And since unicorns specialized in ranged combat, it was their job to engage targets at mid to long ranges. In fact, the Hailstorm squads took much inspiration from the mechanisms of automatic firearms, with one unicorn acting as the “gun”, while the other was the “loader”.

Still, recent experiences had shown that every guard unit’s equipment needed to have some level of ranged weaponry. Thus, the crossbow was introduced as a compromise. It could be fastened to and detached from a foreleg easily, its internal motors could wind the string back after each shot, and the soldier had a variety of different bolts at their disposal. The standard bolt with the orange tip exploded on impact, while the silver bolts used the charge in the crystal to propel themselves to extreme speeds, allowing the solid core to penetrate armor. Optionally, one could also load stun bolts, flares, smoke rounds, and various other utilities.

Glancing to his side, Shining saw his companions curl up in their own little crevices, as if cowering due to the approaching insurgents. He lowered his head, pretending to be deeply interested in the pile of filth at his hooves. His foreleg with the crossbow attached to it twitched a little. If a fight broke out, he would have to rely on it instead of firing from his horn directly. Revealing themselves as guards would only make them a nuisance. Revealing himself as Shining Armor would make him a huge target.

“When we came here, we found a city in turmoil. The Caprics, though clever and industrious, had to endure the vile corruption of their leaders. All their great works became hollow shells, or worse: palaces for those who could prosper, while others toiled in poverty. We tried to follow in their hoofsteps and hope that hard work could form a bond, while the ideals of friendship could help cleanse the taint.”

He held his breath as the column drew near, the rumbling of their hoofsteps drowning out High Strung’s speech. He caught a glimpse of the insurgents’ faces before averting his gaze again. Most of them were goats, much less repulsive than those he had seen in the slums, while the gloomy expressions were replaced by grim determination. He stole a few more glances, and an unpleasant knot formed in his gut each time he saw a pony among the figures. There was no sign of fear or hesitation in their eyes, just the same commitment as that of the Caprics. Biting his lip, he looked to his right, keeping tabs on any nearby escape routes in case things turned ugly.

The Legion paid them no mind as they galloped past the wrecked carts, and within a minute or so, they rounded a corner again and disappeared from sight. The trio emerged from their cover, and Shining saw his companions stealthily stow away their own crossbows. He tapped the side of his own weapon, and the motor gave a brief whirr as it gently released the string. The limbs of the crossbow folded in on the stock, and he tucked it back under his outfit.

“Let’s go,” he whispered.

The street they followed suddenly tilted downward, and there was an abrupt change in scenery as well. Rather than surrounding them with blocky apartments and filthy, abandoned industrial complexes tightly squeezed together, the city opened up along the team’s path, leading them through great parks, colorful plazas, and even a long avenue lined with trees. What once must have been a serene view to countless visitors now felt eerie to Shining as he glanced between the dead, blackened husks, their branches intertwined like bony fingers over his head.

“The honest ones were indeed quick to embrace us. But others felt that their power was challenged, or saw us as nothing more than fresh cadavers to feast on. Still, we tried to embrace them as well, for true friendship knows no prejudice. We sent them envoys, which they humiliated and murdered in front of our eyes. Such vermin deserve no mercy, let alone the blessing of friendship. And having rejected our kindness, they learned quickly to fear our wrath.”

“Isn’t he ever going to shut up?” Shining muttered. Even the sounds of fighting had all but faded into the breeze, leaving them with just the sound of the snow crunching under their hooves, the branches rustling and creaking, and the echoes of the broadcast all over the city.

“At least he’s keeping us company,” Bonnie said. “This has to be one of the nicest places in town, and that’s saying something. So where is everyone?”

They rounded another corner, and Shining raised an eyebrow as Coalcutter came to a sudden halt, yet did not signal any kind of threat. Following his gaze, the captain looked up, and a sickening jolt went through his stomach.

“Sweet Celestia…”

A goat swayed in the breeze above the team. He wore an elegant police uniform, a far cry from the ragged militia they encountered before. Snow collected on his head and the side facing the wind, and his neck twisted in a sharp angle where the cable had been fastened around it. His jaw was slack, letting his frozen tongue hang out. While he did not move, his eyes were wide open, still expressing his last moments of horror as he stared down at the street from his nearly upturned head that rested on his right shoulder. The blood that coated his bushy ginger moustache had turned into macabre red icicles. A forage cap lay a few feet away, half-buried in snow.

Lining either side of the street behind him, almost every lamppost had at least one body attached to it in such a manner. Some had been tied to the post itself instead of hanging from it, and they had several holes torn in their bodies, the blood frozen over the wounds. While most of them were goats, including several wearing regular police uniforms, a few ponies had been strung up as well, all wearing the same expression of that last moment of mortal terror.

Halfway through the street, one of the bodies had a wide sign tied to its forelegs, giving the grotesque impression of the corpse holding it up for the world to see. The text "Смерть душегубцам, ворам и изменникам." had been painted on it in bold red letters.

“What’s it say?” Shining said.

Coalcutter hesitated for a few moments. “Death to all murderers, thieves, and traitors,” he replied.

A sharp cry in the distance made them all tense up and, to Shining’s dismay, they all huddled together reflexively, eyes darting back and forth. Not that he could blame his companions, as the voice felt like claws were being dragged up and down his spine, and even his own instincts responded by urging him to seek the nearest friendly companion.


More of the horrid screams rang out, followed by panicked bleating and gunfire. The bleating soon turned into cries of agony, while the crazed war cry was chanted over and over again.

“What the hay is going on?”

They rounded a corner, only to run almost headfirst into a group of elks coming the other way. Shining’s companions primed their crossbows, but he lifted his hoof to halt them. The elks blinked in confusion, looking over the team until their eyes landed on Shining Armor, and they started cheering in unison.

“Itt vannak! A hősies szent harcosok köztünk vannak!”

Shining winced. “Shhh!” He waved his hooves. “Cut it out! You’ll give us away!”

In response, the elks fell to their knees and bowed their heads. The one closest to the team crawled forward a bit and spoke up. “Blessed warriors, we are your humble servants. What is your bidding?”

Shining groaned and hung his head, muttering curses under his breath. Bonnie stifled a chuckle, lifting a hoof to her face, even though her mask already hid her smile. Coalcutter, on the other hand, took a few steps back, the strange, jittery movements of the elks making him flinch repeatedly.

“Oh for the love of… get up!” Shining took the hoof of the nearest elk and pulled him to his feet. “You’re making a scene.”

Another elk got back to its feet. Its disjointed movements reminiscent of the primitive flip book cartoons Shining had seen during his school days, except here the pages were not turning fast enough. Coalcutter took another step back. “What is your bidding, Great Ones?” the elk asked in a raspy voice.

“For the last time, we don’t need anything! Why don’t you just go back and…” Shining Armor trailed off. The sounds of heavy fighting still raged behind them, and the horrid screams of the elks became less and less frequent. “Hmm…”

“Sir?” Coalcutter inched a bit closer, whispering shakily. “Orders?”

“Stand by.” Shining looked over the elk posse in front of him. It consisted of almost two dozen half-frozen fanatics, armed to the teeth with various crude melee weapons, firearms, and their own antlers. “Actually, we uh… we could use you... as a distraction.”

The elks all raised their heads, eyes wide with excitement. “Tell every soldier you have in the city,” Shining went on. “Keep the Legion busy for as long as you can while we carry out our... divine mission.”

The lead warrior turned around and threw his hooves into the air, making the whole squad step back. “Zemlya herself has blessed us this day!” he cried. “Come, brothers and sisters! We will help her warriors carry out their war against the heathen filth!”

With that, the elks all got up and shouted various blessings and vows before they continued their march down the street. Bonnie stared in horror and turned to Shining, only to blink in shock when she found him with an amused smirk on his face. “Sir!” she said. “Sir, this… this is insane. You’re not actually asking them to—”

“There’s an entire army between us and High Strung,” Shining replied. “We can’t spend all day dodging patrols, and if it goes on like this, we’re gonna get caught.”

“These elks are lunatics! They won’t spare anyone if we let them loose!”

“Especially themselves,” Coalcutter remarked.

The herd rounded the corner and broke into a gallop. Moments later, more of the bloodcurdling screams and war cries rang out, and the street erupted into gunfire. Both of Shining’s subordinates winced and turned around to look at him.

“We better keep moving,” he said. “Use every minute they bought us.”

The ponies' surroundings changed progressively as they hastily made their way through them. There was still little in the way of architectural consistency, but the streets appeared to widen and straighten out, now featuring clearly visible alleyways between the tightly packed buildings.

What used to be rows of trees cut through the pavement, some of them having toppled over and onto the houses, while others were missing outright. The remnants of majestic decorations hung from shop windows, and their interior now offered nothing but piles of snow on the empty stalls. Wrecked civilian vehicles wore thick coats of snow in their old parking spots. Most were little more than metal carcasses, reduced to the bones after being stripped for parts. Bonnie stopped next to one of them at one point, the other two joining her after a brief delay. Shining spoke for all of them when he sighed upon seeing a vaguely body-shaped dent on the roof of the car. He then gestured further down the street and trailed after the crystal mare, who shook her head and continued onward.

The grim sight acted as a landmark for the increasingly apparent change in their surroundings. The wrecks and ruins they passed were no longer as viciously war-torn. Rubble and trash was replaced by even piles of snow, gradually thinning out over the course of a few blocks. The low rumbling of the heating system came from beneath their hooves, adding to the ambience of the desolate district. Aside from preventing the formation of ice on the untrodden pavement, it seemed to have little purpose, as no citizens were around to make use of it. The team had left the war zone, and their journey now led through a ghost town.

Shining himself was far from comforted by this. The presence of locals could be a risk, as their allegiances were murky at best, but at least one could deduce from their behavior if any potential threats were nearby. Their complete absence, especially in such an untouched district, meant there was some kind of hazard keeping them away. This made the captain all the more wary of his surroundings, and he took extra care each time they passed near a building that seemed to show signs of life.

“That building up ahead…” He glanced at Coalcutter and pointed to a badly damaged apartment block. Unlike the other buildings nearby, the rubble from the entrance had been cleared away, the boards over the windows looked fresh, and there was even an intact stovepipe leading out of one of the rooms on the upper floors. “Maybe someone had settled in over there. Have a look.”

“Yes, sir.”

Coalcutter approached the entrance carefully, using his disguise to make himself look like a drunk wanderer stumbling in the wind. Shining and Bonnie kept a generous distance as they followed him, while he peeked in through the doorway.

“What a squalid mess…” Coalcutter muttered. He glanced over his shoulder. “I think this is abandoned.” While he spoke, he lifted a hoof and waved it twice toward the ruins. His companions readied their crossbows in response, and he slowly moved into the half-collapsed hallway.

Shining tapped Bonnie’s shoulder. “Bonnie, you’re up.” She nodded and raised a hoof to her chin, and her sparkling body shook slightly. Some of her radiance now seeped through her outfit, but just before it could stand out in the grit and snow-covered street, she disappeared through the doorway. Coalcutter snuck back out and took cover near the entrance, letting her explore the interior.

“Clear,” she said over the radio after a few minutes. “Stairwell is smashed above the second floor. No way further up.”

Shining lowered his crossbow. “Nopony home?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” She emerged from one of the intact balconies on the first floor, but kept whispering over the radio. “Not for the last few days, at least.”

“Hm… then why leave all the signs?”

“I’m not sure. If his fanatics were here, they’d have…” Bonnie paused, shaking her head. Her body went almost shadowy for a moment, shifted to a flat texture, and finally balanced out again. “Let’s stick to our mission, sir. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“We’ll be tearing out the root of this damn travesty soon enough,” Shining said. “For now, I’m concerned about locals. Had enough surprises for one day.” He glanced at a nearby shop with its windows blasted out, and his eyes narrowed as he peered into the pitch blackness within. A thick web of barbed wire criss-crossed between the shelves, and a few pieces of various junk dangled from the barbs. He grimaced and slowly walked on, waiting for the others to catch up. “Can’t believe how careless these bleaters are.”

“Few who live in the North seem concerned for their own well being,” Bonnie said. The street narrowed significantly, and most routes of escape had either collapsed or been blocked intentionally. Coalcutter lagged behind, making sure they were safe from the rear until they were out of the bottleneck.

“I mean their military. Have you seen what kind of gear they’re leaving around for anypony to pick up?” Shining frowned as he spotted an alley that was blockaded from the street by a thick mesh of barbed wire. “All this wire, the guns, and even the comms equipment. It’s like they turned the city into a fortress and just disappeared.”

“There’s a good chance those fanatics have at least a few ex-mils among them.”

“Well, this equipment has no business being free for the taking, military or not.”

Shining’s ears twitched when he heard Coalcutter’s rapid hoofsteps behind him, as well as the stallion’s puffy breath. He turned around and met the Lieutenant’s eyes while pointing quickly to a pile of burnt out rubber tires, which blocked off a dank alleyway nearby. Coalcutter raised his hoof just before Shining could speak.

“Is anyone else hearing this?” he asked quietly.

Shining raised an eyebrow, and he fiddled with his mask to expose one of his ears. It twitched from the cold wind biting into it, but at least he managed to hear with slightly greater clarity. He filtered through rumbling of the sewers below them, the hum of the incapacitated power lines overhead, and the distant bangs and faraway yelling. He tilted his head and blinked.

“Hearing what, Lieutenant?”

“The music,” Coalcutter said. A look of alarm settled on his face when the others just stared at him in confusion.

“What… you mean like back at the bridge?” Shining grumbled, his ear flicking. “They really want to get on our nerves, don’t they?”

Bonnie tapped her headset. “Radio’s silent,” Bonnie said. “It’s definitely not feedback.”

“No, I’m…” Coalcutter glanced over his shoulder. “I’m pretty sure it’s... bells.”

Everyone went silent for a moment. Shining turned his gaze back to where they came from, staring at the dilapidated entrance to the narrow street, over the red brick buildings and the few surviving trees along the wider road. The rubble and junk in this part of the city no longer showed destruction, merely generations’ worth of decay. The sights no longer set off paranoia, just depression.

“Bells?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

Shining turned back to the others. “I can’t hear a thing. Bonnie?”

“Hmmm…” Bonnie exposed one of her ears as well. “Nothing. Where did you hear it first?”

Coalcutter pointed back to the street they had left behind. “That house, with the dog kennel.”

“Think it might be a trap?” Shining said.

“I… honestly don’t know, sir. You should hear for yourself.”

“Very well.”

They slowly made their way back, exiting the bottleneck one by one until they made sure the coast was clear. Coalcutter took the lead, and they headed for a fence haphazardly assembled from rusty sheet metal of various shapes and colors. Bonnie was the first to step through a massive hole in the rickety barrier, making sure there was no trap in the blatant opening. Her companions followed close behind, and they approached the small house hesitantly, as its rotting wooden beams looked ready to crumble at any moment. Facing the house, they formed up near a more intact section of the fence, which hid them from any eyes on the street.

Shining opened his mouth, wanting to ask Coalcutter about the specifics of the noise when he heard something. It was faint, and he almost dismissed it as just the wind moving things around, but it was too regular. Five distorted, glassy notes, the last one sustained for a few seconds, followed by the next five.

“Yeah,” Coalcutter said with a nod. “That sounds like music to me. The caprics have a thing for using bells, so it might just be locals?”

“I’m not sure,” Bonnie replied. She nodded her head at the street. “Look around. This street is Oblivion Avenue. No signs of fire or violence, just really basic scavenging… at best. Nobody’s lived here for a while, nobody’s trying to live here now.” She peeked over the fence for a moment. “Whoever’s ringing came here for some other reason... and now they want our attention.” She glanced at herself, noticing that her glow had gotten a little brighter. “Sorry. I’ll try and keep myself in check.”

Shining waved it off. “We’ll get over it. And you’re right, this is definitely for us.” He glanced at the stallion by his side. “Coalcutter, you’re finding new ways to surprise me.”


“Have none of you caught the tune yet?” Shining quietly whistled, echoing the notes of the faint melody. “This is the Equestrian anthem. Someone is talking to us.” He circled the house slowly and stopped halfway when the melody got clearer. He looked up and pointed to a little nook between the roof and the walls of the house, where a tiny box had been tucked away.

His companions joined him at his sides, staring up at the box. Moments later, Coalcutter blinked and turned to look at the street on the far side of the adjacent house, parallel with the street they just left. “Sir, I… I think I hear another one.”

“A trail of crumbs, huh?” Shining smirked. “Bonnie, you’re on point. Follow the noise. Coalcutter, watch our rear. It’s a straight shot from here to the station, so we’re meant to come back through here.”

“Affirmative,” Bonnie said. After a bit of searching, they found another conspicuous, pony-sized hole and entered the next yard. The mare entered first, followed by Shining and Coalcutter. They reached the next street and discovered a second source of the melody, this time perched on a crude wooden lamppost. The wires all dangled limply from the post, save for a single thread emerging from the noisy box. Following the wire with his gaze, Shining noticed that it was part of an intact line that led down the street.

“Bonnie, follow that line,” Shining said. “Coalcutter, hang back for a moment.”

“Got it.”

Coalcutter went into a low crouch near the post and watched them advance. The street stretched a long way down, rotting wooden shacks dominating one side, shoddy brick structures on the other. Copious amounts of steam bled from the sewer grates dotting the pavement, which both concealed their movement, but also blocked their vision at the same time. The melody followed them, however, a new source popping up ahead each time the last one became too faint, acting as a guide. Shining grimaced, a knot forming in his gut. The warm steam mixed with a putrid scent, making the cold, sludgy city feel like a humid, rotting swamp. Breathing through his mouth, he marched on and quietly hummed the melody to himself.

They reached an intersection, and the next source of the ringing guided them onto the perpendicular street. It was almost impossible to see through the thick steam, and the pavement under their hooves actually felt hotter than before. What little snow managed to coat the rest of the city stood no chance here, and the barren stretch of road across the hut-covered hill was pockmarked with dirty puddles. In more displays of Capric carelessness, the power lines connecting the pylons crisscrossed all over the place, some of them limply snaking along the cracked and flooded asphalt roads, others tangled into knots and cords above the ponies’ heads. Some of the lines were haphazard replacements made of recycled metals, and others were not electrical wires at all. Several bundles of barbed wire blossomed on the four pylons looming over the team, presumably to ward off scavengers, but oddly enough, Shining saw a few strips of it stretch between the towers as well.

“Got another source,” Coalcutter said. “Ground level.” He nodded at a small hut that was all but drowning in the steam.

“Good work,” Shining replied. “Let’s scout it out.”

The ringing continued even as they stepped onto the mire that used to be a paved path through the yard, all the way to the front porch. It was less than twenty meters long, but halfway across, visibility reduced to almost nothing, save for the grey sky and all but the tallest buildings around them. The fog created by the malfunctioning sewers almost felt like the city itself were alive, desperately trying to hide its embarrassing features.

Bonnie halted all of a sudden, which prompted both Shining and Coalcutter to drop to a low crouch and carefully form up a few yards to either side of her. They readied their weapons and did their best to scan their surroundings through the thick haze.

“What is it?” Shining whispered.

“There’s someone in front of us.” Bonnie replied. “Three, maybe four. They’re just standing there.” She reached for her crossbow. “I think they’re looking our way, but… they don’t...”

Coalcutter glanced at her, while his crossbow swept the area in front of him slowly. “Hostile?” he said.

“Not sure. I don’t think they see us. But they… These aren’t equine.”

Shining frowned. “Bonnie, cover us. Coalcutter, move ahead.”

The lieutenant barely managed to take a step when, just a dozen yards ahead, a smudgy shape became visible through the steam. Shining squinted as he saw an outstretched limb wave in their direction. He held up a hoof and lit his horn, while his subordinates dropped back into a crouch, and Bonnie’s coat flickered for a moment.

“Ils sont arrivés!” They all tensed up from the distant voice, which seemed to echo all around them. “Maintenez votre feu!”

Shining blinked, and the glow on his horn winked out. “Griffons?” he muttered.

Coalcutter’s movements became much more tense and rapid as he kept trying to find a coherent shape to aim at. “Sir… orders?”

Shining stood up and took a deep breath. “Garde Royal!” he shouted. “Nous sommes amis!”

There was a brief pause, though with the tension in the air, it felt like it lasted minutes. “Bienvenue. Réduire vos armes.”

The steam shifted slightly, thinning around them as it seemed to pull away, and they spotted additional vague silhouettes surrounding them from all sides, objects held in their limbs that were pointed right at the team.

“Sir!” Bonnie moved a bit closer to the captain, the exposed parts of her body lighting up, while she aimed her crossbow at the nearest shape.

Shining looked around and sighed. “Lower your weapons.”


Coalcutter said nothing, but his breathing was noticeably faster. His weapon alternated between the potential targets, and he looked for even the slightest sign of hostile action, yet none of them moved.

“Listen to your capitaine,” came a slightly accented, low female voice from up ahead. The air shifted, and they heard slow, rhythmic wing swipes, creating a gust that dissipated some of the thick, scented steam around them. Through the thinning mist, the ponies noticed a tall, imposing, winged figure, standing on its hind legs with its clawed hands in the air. “If we wanted to attack, you would be dead by now.” She smirked. “Lower your weapons. You aren’t among enemies.”

Shining held his breath for a few moments. “Identify yourself,” he said. His voice was calm, almost casual, despite being outgunned from every direction.

The griffon sighed, her curved beak clicking faintly. She lowered one of her arms and brushed back some of her dark grey plumage from her head. More griffon shapes came into focus through the mist behind her, numbering around half a dozen now. They stood under the rickety roof of the hut in a loose formation, though each one had their weapon out.

“We are from the Protection des Frontières Groupe,” the female griffon said. “Equestria sent you, the Griffon Empire sent us. And we’ve been here for longer. We need to talk, Capitaine.”

“Griffon commandos,” Shining muttered.

The two parties stared at each other, Coalcutter still keeping a twitchy foreleg near the crossbow hanging from his side, while Bonnie’s glow faded. Shining frowned a little as the griffon’s bloodshot, pale grey eyes locked with his own for a few moments, after which she blinked and looked away. Her talons touched the ground, and she hung her beak with a sigh, lifting one claw to give a brief wave. The griffons around them all lowered their weapons as well, letting them hang by their sides.

“What are you doing here?” Shining asked.

“Rest assured, there is nothing we can do to this place to make it any worse, Capitaine.” The griffon’s beak curled into a smirk, and Shining’s forelegs twitched in response. “But you can. Come in.” She nodded her head at the entrance of the hut behind her. “We’ll offer what’s left of our hospitality.”

“Captain…” Coalcutter began.

Shining Armor raised a hoof to cut him off. “Alright,” he said and glanced at his subordinates. “At ease.” He then turned back to the griffon. “Let’s make this quick. We have a mission to carry out.”

“That you do,” she said. Turning around, she made her way toward the entrance, her matted tail drawing mud from the ground. Shining was the first to follow, with Coalcutter and Bonnie trailing behind hesitantly. The soldiers all nodded and stepped back as they passed, some of them even giving friendly smiles. Shining nearly recoiled when he saw one particularly large griffon with an eagle head and night black plumage, his imposing figure looming over the ponies. He chuckled, while Shining frowned, gritting his teeth as he heard the griffon follow them into the hut.

The hut itself turned out to be just a hollow shell, while the griffon hideout was a series of cellars, starting with a concealed hatch in one of the unremarkable corners of the hovel. It led to a long corridor, several chambers and additional paths branching off from it on either side.

“How long have you been tracking us?” Shining asked as he climbed down. Bonnie silently refused a helping claw from the large griffon, and she kept an eye on him the whole time, only looking away once Coalcutter reached the bottom as well.

The female griffon chuckled and led the group down the hallway. “You are quick to catch on. We’ve had eyes on you before you entered this district, but we only activated the signal after you searched our outpost.”

Shining hummed in response. Peeking into some of the chambers, he saw furniture and other household equipment that had been salvaged from nearby homes in an attempt to create a semblance of a liveable space. The air was quite warm, and after the chill of upper Gueldergrad, it felt almost uncomfortably hot. The malfunctioning sewers were inadvertently taking care of what the city’s non-magical heating was supposed to.

“Signal?” he asked.

“Yes. We’ve set up the devices throughout this district, using them as guidance for each other and a deterrent for outsiders.” The griffon led them into a larger chamber at the end of the corridor. There was a wide table in the center with a stool on its left side. Several desks stood side by side along the far wall, laden with comms equipment, paperwork, and several devices Shining could not identify. “The locals are superstitious. They seem to fear the sound of bells especially. Even those who have the Legion giving them discipline.”

Shining cleared his throat loudly. “Speaking of the Legion…” he began. The griffon nodded and gestured to the stool. The captain plopped onto it, while the griffon sat on a mattress against the wall on the right. Next to it were a couple of photos and other personal items, and the opposite wall even had a salvaged mirror hanging above a sink improvised from a washbowl and a redirected water pipe. Bonnie and Coalcutter stepped in as well, moving to stand on either side of Shining. The large griffon followed close behind, moving into the corner nearest to his own leader.

Shining stretched and flexed his limbs, sighing in relief from having freedom of movement after he had untangled himself from the heavy winter clothing. Tension formed in his gut briefly as he looked around in the room and glanced between its occupants. In the back of his mind, he could almost hear the ruffling of pages, old bureaucrats chuckling in the darkness, the overhead light burning his eyes...

He cleared his throat and looked at the griffon leader. “So… Griffon special service,” he said. “I see Novy Rubezh picks carefully who gets to hear about their emergency first.”

The griffon said nothing, merely leaned back on the dirty, creaking mattress and stared at the cracked ceiling for a while. Her silvery beak and head feathers stood out in the dim light of the candles set up on the desks, showing her let out a long sigh. “Are you alright?” Shining asked.

“No, we’re not. None of us are, Capitaine.” The harrier turned her head slowly to stare at him, her eyes glinting in the light. Shining tilted his head to the side slightly as he returned the gaze.

“Look… if you’re in trouble, we could help,” he suggested. “Our encampments aren’t that far. We’d share supplies, but we packed light. I’ll contact the brigade. You’d just need to hold on for a few days, and we’ll have you out of here.”

The griffon nodded and sighed again. “Yes, you could help. Let’s just… not get ahead of ourselves. I’d rather you listened to us first. On which note…” She cleared her throat and sat up straight, holding out her claw. “Agent Marie Delacroix, commandante of Team Nine, PFG.” she said.

Shining blinked and held out his forehoof, almost reflexively, and they exchanged a very weak shake. “Shining Armor, Captain of the Equestrian Royal Guard, currently in charge of 12th Brigade.”

“Griffon spies?” Bonnie said with a brief chuckle. “Is this a declaration of war, or some bad joke?”

“Lieutenant Boninite, my executive officer.” Shining frowned at her, but eventually smiled and shook his head. “As you can see, she speaks her mind.”

Coalcutter remained silent, occasionally casting wary glances at the griffon by Marie’s side. The hulking avian leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, possibly just to flaunt his muscles, judging by how they bulged and the arrogant smirk he gave them. “And this is Lieutenant Coalcutter,” Shining went on. He nodded his head at the stallion. “You can thank his fine hearing for bringing us together.”

In the dim light of the candles, Shining could just barely catch a couple more griffons enter the room with sluggish, lackluster movements, taking their seats at the desks. Bonnie was the only other source of light, and Shining noticed the griffon who sat close to her made some small talk. While his XO did her best to look uplifting and cheerful, the avians seemed to treat her as more of a passing curiosity. In the dark, he watched the other two griffons occupy themselves with menial tasks, fiddling with pebbles on the floor and scribbling on the pages, in between inspections of the equipment. Still, he felt an air of excitement from the otherwise lifeless group.

“Good.” Marie said with a slow nod. “You’ll… meet the others once we’re done, I think.” Shining raised an eyebrow at her, as she never introduced any of her subordinates by name.

“So…” He coughed and tapped one of his hooves. “Yes. The situation. I’m sure there’s something we can do to help you. I mean…” He gestured at the dismal conditions around them. “This is hardly a good place to work from.”

Marie kept her eyes firmly on Shining. “I’m… not sure how to say this,” she said. “The more time we spent here, scraping by… we forgot about the simplest things. You are our last resort.”

Shining raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“It hasn’t been easy. We’ve lost a lot.” Marie finally hung her head and gave a deep sigh, nodding toward the corridor. “There’s a tally by the clothes rack, you may have seen it.”

“Is that how long you’ve been hiding down here?” Shining asked.

Marie looked up again, glancing at his subordinates. They all stared at Shining, and she finally let out a quiet laugh.

“That is how many agents we’ve lost over the three months we stayed here,” she said with a cold smirk. Shining’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Marie lifted up a hand to stop him. “Don’t be sorry. You could have arrived earlier, yes… but then I doubt you would have made it here. Now… I’ll…” The griffon looked at Bonnie, who was still talking to the griffon at the desk, while the other had left with a bundle of papers under their wing. “...explain what happened.” Shining Armor simply nodded and crossed his forehooves, listening attentively.

“It is too late for diplomatic talk, so I will be brief and direct,” Marie said. The sliver of an amused smile persisted on her beak. “We were sent here to cause chaos. Incite revolt, create disorder, throw the entire nation into disarray, disrupt all their workings. Then the Griffon Empire would step in, and we would quietly give them the reins. Once we had our agents everywhere that could cause damage, it would be weeks before Equestria could form a response, and Novy Rubezh would already be Imperial territory.”

Shining Armor’s jaw dropped. He closed it immediately, and his brow furrowed as he shook his head. Leaning closer, he placed his forelegs on the desk, making the old wood creak.

“Outraged? I think I see why,” the griffon mused, her head tilted weakly. “Either you are an idealist, or... the ponies that get to be in the newspapers are clueless as to what Equestria herself does behind the scenes.”

“I am an idealist.” Shining huffed, shaking his head again. “Equestria means what it does. We’ve been making the world a better place for years now. I suppose that, being an empire led by a tyrant, you can't even imagine doing something good for another country out of commitment.” Toward the end, he spoke through his teeth, but otherwise kept himself from grimacing despite the distaste he felt, though his breathing picked up a little as well. Bonnie’s glow intensified briefly as she turned her attention back to them, while Coalcutter coughed a few times and shuffled in place.

Marie Delacroix weakly smacked her hands against her cheeks and chuckled. “Oh dear…” She rolled her eyes, and the brute beside her snorted, his smirk widening. “You know, I have no shame in admitting it. Equestria is superior to the Empire. For all the effort we put into our clandestine operations, and with our history regarding social movements…” That word made her shake her head. “You outclass us.”

“The hay are you talking about?” Shining said. His frown deepened at the constant expressions of amusement from the griffons before him.

“Nobody talks about how Equestria wins its conflicts or gains new territory - you’re just making friends. Nobody talks about Equestria’s past sins, because everyone who’s ever sinned either turned into a literal monster or got erased from history.” Marie sat up straight, spread her arms, and gave a wide grin. “And you believe it all.” Moments later, she dropped her arms and plopped back on the mattress with a light thud.

Shining Armor glanced at Bonnie, who simply shrugged in response. He huffed and turned back to their hosts. “Get on with it,” he said, now raising his voice. “All your rhetoric aside, you caused this mess, now we have to clean it up.”

Marie pushed herself back to her haunches, still grinning. “We didn’t cause this mess, Capitaine.”

“But you just said—”

“It was like this when we arrived,” she said, her own voice getting lower. Her claws came up to rest on the table, and she pulled herself closer, staring deeply into his eyes. “I led twenty four agents here, only to find a city in chaos. Civil war. Gang warfare. Everything falling apart. The goats were tearing each other to pieces. Nobody knew, not even our intelligence. We had one goal - Novy Rubezh had to be part of the Empire.”

“And you couldn’t call your own army to deal with this mess?” Shining asked indignantly.

“What would our army do? Come here and fight a bloody war on a thousand fronts? Then you would find out, come here, sparkle and shine, and make it look as if we’d…” Marie chuckled again. “...actually done what we came here to do? Chacun sa merde...” The griffon working at the desk mirthlessly joined her laughter.

Shining slowly tapped his hoof on the table. “So what did you do then?” he asked, struggling to keep an even tone.

“We worked hard, very hard,” Marie whispered passionately, her eyes locked with the captain’s. “We took what we were meant to ruin and infiltrated everywhere to repair it. We enrolled the goats, worked with whoever wanted to work with us, made them something. From negative one to zero. This city was Inferno alive, tearing at everything inside of it. But we did all we could to preserve it, to make it presentable.”

“Then you made the wrong choice. If it was this bad, you should have known better. Evidently, it didn’t work.”

Marie looked away, eyes losing focus, and even her smug smile vanished. “No, it did not.”

“Then why didn’t you just leave? Why stay here? I have… little sympathy for you, but this…” Shining rolled his eyes in disgust, unable to finish his sentence.

Capitaine… I mentioned how I think Equestria’s methods are superior. You worked for your reputation, and now your reputation works for you.” Marie placed her claws against her chest. “Us? Call it xenophobia or whatever you like, but I know what the rest of the world thinks of us. ‘Sneaking, cheating feathered scoundrels.’”

“If you think you’ve broken the stereotype, you should think again,” Shining retorted. “Assuming I’d believe a word of this.”

“Well, yes.” Marie talked over Shining as he tried to speak again. “Ponies are made of rainbows, and a griffon will stab you in the back. Both are unanimously believed. Neither is true. We need that reputation to stay… at least mostly baseless. Unlike Equestria, we are not so good at simply erasing history at will.”

“That never—”

“So we do it the hard way. We are all dead, Capitaine. Agents of the Protection des Frontières Groupe, we know what we sign up for when we’re sent to places like this. If we fail? This mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist. Nobody ever knows. Nobody can know. Nobody will know. Nobody alive in this world...” Her bloodshot eyes never blinked, and she merely paused to catch her breath. Her head tilted to the side, and she smiled once more. “Now you know why we supported you on the bill against necromancy all those years ago.”

“You’re all going to die so nobody ever finds out about your involvement in this mess. Right…” Shining crossed his hooves and leaned back. “That is, after you tell me you cannot return and that you would not send for your army because of… this. I fail to see the logic here, and frankly, it’s starting to feel like there isn’t any.” He leaned a bit closer, eyes narrowing as he inspected her face. “How long have you not slept for?” he scoffed.

“Three days.” Marie’s smile widened, and Shining had to resist the urge to slam his hoof on the table. “I see you don’t get it yet.”

“No, I guess I don’t,” he replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Then let me make it simple. Our army will not come. Our exterminators? They are already on their way, if not within city limits. They will wipe us out. They will destroy everything. Believe me, there will be not a brick left. There will be Talons, there will be Yeux, there will be Tempêtes. The utter chaos in this place means it can easily be blamed on magical causes. It is, after all, the Frozen North. Nothing will remain. No one will know.” She tapped her claw on the wood for emphasis. “Capitaine, this is not just us. It would have been us if this were a smaller scale coup. But with this?” Her voice croaked as she whispered. “We are all dead. It is inevitable. For all our faults, we can keep a secret, and that secret is coming to get us, Capitaine. It will make us into a secret too, and whatever caused this insanity… will not live to affect the rest of the world.”

Shining stared at her for a while, blinking in disbelief. “...was that a threat?” he finally blurted out.

“A fact. Puff your chest and shout bravado all you want. This is what will happen. You should never, ever have come here. So many ponies will die. This… did not have to happen.” The bird’s head was close to dropping onto the rotted wood of the table. “But now you’re here. Chasing phantoms. Fighting for a big, sparkly, rainbowy nothing. The biggest in all of this land’s history.”

There was another long pause. “I don’t believe you,” Shining said.

Marie gave her usual patronizing look, as though she were speaking to a simpleton. “Do you have any reason to doubt me, Capitaine?”

“You’ve given me plenty.” Shining leaned onto the table again, almost making one of the legs crack. “If you are an intelligence unit, you’d have every reason to deceive me. How do I know you’re not just making up this whole story to scare us away before we learn too much?”

Bonnie stepped in. “Better yet, what if you’re not servants of the Griffon Empire at all? Just some rag-tag mercenaries, or criminals on the run? If anyone’s chasing you, we’d be the muscle you need to keep them away.”

“Lieutenant, stand down.” Shining noticed how the smug look on every griffon’s face vanished. The one at the desk got to his feet and stepped toward the mare, while the brute next to Marie approached from the other side. She raised her claw, making them pause.

“Perhaps you will trust the voices of your own soldiers then,” she said, no sign of amusement in her tone this time. “Guillaume.” She gestured to the comms equipment while looking at the griffon near the desks. He nodded and walked over to one of the devices, flicking it on. The speakers crackled for a few seconds, and Shining’s blood ran cold when a familiar voice emerged from them.

“...this is Basalt Five! Command? Does anypony hear me? Dammit!”

“What the hay?” Without noticing it, Shining reached for his sword, his eyes staring daggers into the griffon leader’s own. “How—”

Marie lifted a claw without looking at him, her eyes fixed on the speakers. “We’ve been monitoring them ever since they got near the city limits. They moved erratically for days, always complaining about their radio.” She smirked. “It seems someone was sending them rather strange orders.”

Bonnie frowned. “You mean you can listen in on our radio signals?”

“No,” Guillaume said. His accent was much thicker, but thankfully intelligible. “They broadcast on an open channel…”

“And so did whoever talked to them,” Marie added.

“Corporal, this is hopeless. We—” A strong wave of static drowned the voice out for a few moments. “I don’t care if it’s the captain or Celestia herself who keeps radioing us. We’re going back before this damn blizzard eats us alive.”

“Yes sir!”

“And fix that damn thing already! Junk or not, we don’t want to get stuck out here without any—”

Shining winced as he heard a loud snapping noise, followed by an odd groan and the sound of a body hitting the floor.

“Sarge? Sarge! Oh fuck… Gregale’s hit!”

“Got contacts! Ten o’ clock!”

“Got one on our six! Shit… they’re all over us!”

“On me! Everyone form up!”

A loud voice with heavy Griffonian accent spoke up. “You are surrounded and have no chance! Drop your weapons!”

“Fuck you!” Shining heard the distinct sound of a crossbow discharging. “Come and get me you birdshi

The recording suddenly cut out. Shining blinked, taking a moment to realize he had gotten to his hooves, and that his legs were trembling with anger. He turned to look at Marie, who casually leaned back on her mattress with a sigh. “This happened two days ago. It was all we could pick up,” she said. “Any more, and we would have risked revealing ourselves.”

Shining remained silent for minute, trying to come to terms with what he just heard. His subordinates said nothing either, and an eerie silence filled the shelter. The distant rumbling of the sewers and the occasional faint tremor, followed by a deep boom, were the only signs of a world outside this hole in the ground.

“Sir...” Coalcutter said. Shining blinked in surprise as he turned to look at him. “The Atoll… we experienced something similar. Is it possible that… you know…”

The captain frowned and slowly returned to his seat. “Yes,” he replied in a low voice.

“Some kind of sabotage?” Bonnie asked. “How would anyone even know how to hack our equipment when it’s practically brand new?”

“I can only speculate,” Marie said. “Our military does keep a close eye on Equestrian advancements, but as far as I know, we haven’t gotten this far yet. Besides, our equipment only allows us to listen in. The team sent after us may have stalked your scouts, but I doubt they could achieve something on this level.”

“Are the insurgents really this advanced?”

“They are resourceful, but they have their limits. Beyond that, if it was any faction in this region, we have never found any trace of them.”

“So…” Shining took a few deep breaths. “How about you tell us something useful, Agent.”

Marie shrugged. “I don’t blame you for your persistence,” she said. Sighing, she closed her eyes and lifted a talon. “But there is one thing you should understand. If you expected to clean up organized crime, then you can put that off. No doubt you’ve found some of the remaining street trash. They are no longer a threat. Their organization is in ruin, and they’re too thinly spread to even start a war among each other. Consider it a parting gift, courtesy of the PFG.”

“Mhm.” Shining frowned. “One good thing your lot has done here, and no doubt it involved a stab in the back.”

Marie chuckled weakly and shook her head. “I am too tired to argue otherwise. I see you’re not going to bring this up, so I will. We did want something of you.”

“I hope you know that we’re not really in a bargaining mood,” Shining said, glaring at her. She laughed again in return, which by now made his ears flicker and his spine jitter with irritation. He noticed that everyone else remained silent, and all eyes focused on the two of them. Even the faint rays of light seemed to converge on the center of the room, making him squint. His eyes continued to drill through the griffon, and an uncomfortable weight settled in his gut, even as he tried to keep a straight face.

After a pregnant pause, Marie spoke up again. “You see… call us what you want, and we’ll call our griffon kin from the Kingdom what we want. But us and them have more in common than just our species. A notion of… ‘honor’... it retained meaning, even after we’ve traveled through Inferno itself.” She looked away and smiled, for once not out of condescension, but mirthless revelation. “Or, rather, I suppose that is when we found that very meaning. So as we hid here, striking out against the fanatics, the remnants of the mob, trying to help the locals… we became tired. We cannot wait for the exterminators anymore. Our failure is eating at us while await our death sentence.”

Shining took a deep breath, but stopped himself at the last moment. The knot in his stomach tightened, and he almost gagged when he thought of how he was about to suggest mass suicide. He felt every dull vibration from the sewers in his bones, the tired smiles burned into his vision even when he closed his eyes, and the bitter laughter echoed in his head. Every muscle in his body screamed at him to leave this place.

Marie stared at him curiously, and she nodded. “I know. The others couldn’t take it. Eight of the fifteen that are gone took their own lives. Either did it themselves or wandered off on their own and met… expected results. We held on, until now. You…” She swallowed. “You could help us.”

Shining’s ears perked up, and he adjusted himself in his seat.

“This may be much to ask…” Marie glanced at her subordinates, and her bitter smile vanished altogether. Though Shining could not see it on her face, he could imagine how she felt. “But we are all soldiers here. Our countries don’t exactly find each other too appealing. This is the closest any of us have to an honorable end. Struck down by our foes.” She looked back at Shining. “And not just a nobody. The Captain of the Royal Guard and current regent of the Crystal Empire.”

His jaw dropped. “You’re telling me—”

Marie nodded, smiling again. “—to kill us.”

Shining stared at her silently, his jaw twitching as he kept thinking of and rejecting responses. Bonnie kept turning her head between him and Coalcutter, as though she expected either of them to make a move. The latter held his breath and kept his eyes on the large griffon again, whose superior expression had vanished as well, and he simply fixed his eyes on Shining as they waited for a reply. The captain’s hooves twitched as he noticed Marie’s lips curl back a little more in anticipation.


The smirk vanished from her face, and she blinked. “Pardon?”

Shining leaned closer and raised his voice a little. “I said no.”

The griffons looked at each other, shrugging and muttering to themselves. Eventually, Marie hung her head with a deep sigh. “Hm. Typical. True to your ‘values’ even when you’re trampling all over your own crime scene. I suppose it was delusional to expect—”

“I know what you’re up to. Might as well give it a rest. We don’t kill for petty insults.” Shining got up from his seat, making both of his companions tense up. “You want to die as soldiers? Well, I’m not going to make it that easy for you.”

Marie’s eyes traveled across the trio, and she frowned. “What do you want?”

“You’ve been here long enough to know this city. Find us a way to get to High Strung.”

“High Strung?” She chuckled. “You honestly think killing him will help this city?”

“I never said I want to kill him. I just want to bring him to justice. Make him end this pointless war.”

All the griffons in the room gave a cold laugh, and the radio operator chimed in again. “It takes a poney to deny what’s right in front of them.”

Shining firmly slammed his hoof on the table. The laughter stopped, and his piercing gaze made them all drop their sardonic expressions. “You don’t agree with what we stand for?” he said through gritted teeth. “Fine. You don’t even have to. But that’s the price you have to pay if you want to face our firing squad. So what will it be?”

The snow had stopped, and the thin layer of white on the streets quickly dissolved from the heat of the sewers, which continued to function in the adjacent district. The team weaved through it using deserted streets, but by peeking down the other streets they passed, Shining caught several glimpses of bustling activity.

“I have received a letter from one of my fearless Legionnaires, and I trust he will understand if I now share it with you. Ahem… ‘My brother became a member of the Royal Guard before the rest of my family moved here. His unit is one of those we are now fighting against. How could I ever face him in battle?’”

Unlike the war-torn areas they left behind, there was little to no destruction here. Instead, several broken down homes were in the process of being rebuilt. It was a display of cooperation that all but mesmerized him, even when he could only look for a moment or two. Goats wearing hard hats ran back and forth, bleating instructions to earth ponies that took care of heavy lifting and masonry. Unicorns powered complex machines and delivered tools and materials that were constantly being airlifted in and out by flights of pegasi. Those who were not part of the heavy-duty work, mainly the women and children, brought food, hot drinks, helped with cleanup, and even put up decorations.

Further into the district, they spotted the smokestacks of the power plant among the rooftops ahead. The sounds of labor now echoed from all around, almost drowning out the distant noises of battle. Down a street to their left, a unicorn lifted the final stone onto the roof of an apartment, allowing the earth ponies to fit it precisely into its slot. They then stepped back to let a pair of goats inspect the structure, and the nearby crowd gave a loud cheer as the building was declared to be safe for refurbishing.

“This is the question that pains us all the most, for we are all fighting our brothers and sisters, and every death fills our hearts with sorrow. The black banners you may see outside are the symbols of our grief, while the fire and smoke are the testament to our will. We do not blame the Royal Guard, for they have sworn loyalty to their own masters, while we have sworn to pursue our destiny. We will fight just as readily as we will make peace with them, as long as they promise to fight us no longer.”

Shining paused on one of the corners and looked up, spotting a couple of black banners hanging from the windows of a renovated office building. The interior was still hollow, clearly showing that whoever had been working on it now had more urgent matters to attend to.

“A heartwarming sight, is it not?” Marie said, coming up to his side. “Indeed, paradise can be won through hard work. Unfortunately, lifting stones and building homes is not all these people did.”

Shining turned his eyes back to the ground. “Did they make their weapons too?” he muttered.

“Oh, no.” Marie lifted a claw and waved slowly, and a trio of griffons further back emerged from cover and caught up to the leaders. “It surprised us greatly as well. They used Capric military supplies.”

“What?” Shining turned to look at her, eyes wide. “Who in their right mind would leave something like that lying around?”

“A just question. They did not.” Marie glanced at the machine pistol hanging from her side. “High Strung told many lies, but at first, his ponies did try a peaceful approach, just as he said. The corrupt militia arrested, tortured, and killed their envoys. When the news got out, the Legion was formed, and they declared war…” She smirked at Shining. “I believe this was what got Equestria’s attention as well.”

“The broadcast.” Shining frowned. He watched Coalcutter check their surroundings up ahead, and he waited for the lieutenant to signal back before continuing down the street. “So what happened?”

Marie lagged a few steps behind and spoke just loud enough for him to hear. “There are two major weapons caches on the borders of this city. One had been sold to a criminal organization, the other was taken by rogue elements of the military. They offered the Legion a purchase, and many thought High Strung had joined the ranks of criminals, even though he vowed to never make deals with such filth.”

“Hmph.” Shining spat. “Just another promise he didn’t keep?”

“It seemed that way, yes. But it was just them being observant. Greed, as they learned, was a cancer running deep in this city. Both organizations were delighted to support this new ‘gang’ that could keep their partners in the city under pressure. They showed up with an impressive display, hoping to encourage the Legion to buy more. Instead, they were ambushed and killed, and the weapons they hoped to sell were used to take control of the eastern half of the city. In one stroke, High Strung had decimated his enemies and gained unparalleled strength.”

Shining did not reply. He merely picked up the pace, making Coalcutter give him an odd look before he moved on to inspect the next corner. Wherever they went in this district, the speakers overhead delivered High Strung’s monologue at an almost painful volume.

“Many believe me to be a visionary because of all the things I’ve planned and achieved. Some believe me to be a prophet because of things I have foreseen. Others wonder if I arrived from a world beyond, bringing divine gifts to allow mortals to prosper. I promise you that I am none of those things. I am an ordinary citizen of Gueldergrad, the same as any of you. And if you follow in my hoofsteps, you can become just like me.”

A column of insurgents approached from their right, so the group took a detour through a side street, only to pause when they came across another pile of corpses. This time, the Legion had forgone any symbolic display of the bodies and simply left them lined up against the wall of an apartment. Both the wall and the bodies were riddled with bullet holes. The blood had mostly been washed away by the periodically melting snow, but the bodies themselves were well-preserved.

“This was no ambush,” Coalcutter said. He coughed and cleared his throat. “Then they would have had a chance to fight. This was murder.”

Marie nodded as she inspected the carnage. “Ah yes, to be precise, the ‘entrepreneurs’ did try to surrender first,” she said. Glancing at the ponies, she smirked. “Are you surprised?”

Bonnie shot her a glare, but Shining’s eyes remained fixed on the corpses, and his forelegs shook again. “Those gutless savages,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

The large griffon gave a cold laugh as he approached from behind. He hefted a machine gun that was strapped around his midsection and tapped it lightly, making the bullets on the ammo belt jingle. “We are in Gueldergrad, Herr Kommandant,” he said in a deep baritone. His voice immediately drew the attention of all three ponies. “This is the way to survive out here.”

Shining took a deep breath, unholstered his crossbow, and fastened it to his foreleg. “Then it’s about time we put an end to it.”

The sun was setting by the time they neared the end of the street. The smokestacks were now in plain view, with just a few lines of rooftops separating them from the group.

“We need to pick up the pace,” Shining said. He nodded his head down the street, which led through a small square before it reached a perpendicular road that led straight to the power station. “I’m taking point.”

“Sir.” Coalcutter nodded and moved to the back of the formation.

“Um…” Bonnie raised her hoof. “I think you better—”

“I don't care what you think,” Shining snapped.

The mare blinked, and before she could reply, her superior got up and swiftly made his way to the corner up ahead. He peeked around it and, without waiting for the others to catch up, waved for them to follow and trotted onward. The griffons seemed surprised by this as well, with Marie and her large companion staring at each other in confusion.

“Sir, wait!” Bonnie struggled to keep her voice down. She rushed after the captain, stopping at the corner and waving after him futilely.

Shining was about halfway across the square when he heard a scream from above, making him freeze. Moments later, all sounds became lost in a dull whine, while his body felt like a dragon had closed its teeth around him. Through the intense agony and pressure, he could faintly feel his face smash against the pavement, followed by debris pattering against his body all over. He screamed, throat aching from the effort, but he could not hear his own voice at all.

Noises came from all around him, only registering as dull tapping and crackling through the roar in his ears. Something hit the ground near his head, making him wince as it sprayed his face with crushed asphalt. Moments later, something grabbed his leg and started dragging him rapidly, making him shout and curse as his face scraped on the rough pavement.

“Verdammt du Hurensohn!” the figure said. Fighting through the sudden stiffness in his neck, Shining turned to look and saw the large griffon cursing through his clenched beak while he dragged the captain by his hind legs. To either side, griffons pressed themselves against any cover they could find and returned fire. A pair of white snakes zoomed past the left side of his vision, which he recognized as smoke bolts.

Shining thrashed weakly, his limbs still rather stiff, and he managed to roll onto his back before going limp again when a round struck his chest. His armor absorbed the impact, but it still knocked the wind out of him. “Gaah!” Out of breath, he only managed to faintly croak the words while his hoof clutched at his chest. “F-Fucking… uugh!”

Once they were finally around the corner, the griffon unceremoniously tossed him behind a nearby trash can and fell to his knees, gasping for breath before stumbling over to retrieve his large gun that lay discarded on the sidewalk. Shining noticed a subtle limp in one of the griffon’s forelegs, and as the gunfire picked up all around, he groaned and pulled himself upright, intent on joining the fray.

He quickly checked himself for wounds, finding that his clothes were torn up in a few places, and some shrapnel had embedded in his skin and drew a bit of blood, but he was otherwise unharmed. The roar in his ears slowly subsided, and the stiffness faded from his limbs, allowing him to prime his crossbow and load it with an explosive bolt. He poked his head out from behind the trash can and spotted over a dozen goats and ponies on the rooftops across the square, unleashing a hail of lead and explosives on those below. The smoke screen Bonnie and Coalcutter had created gave them and the griffons time to seek good cover, but the wind was rapidly clearing it away.

Bullets pinged off the crystal mare’s glowing body as she tried to advance, Coalcutter lagging behind as he tried to provide cover fire. He ducked behind a concrete bench, and he looked up for a split second before curling up as tightly as he could. “Incoming!” he screamed. Bonnie hit the ground, and a heartbeat later, a rocket slammed into the tree behind her, blasting it apart.

Shining coughed a few times before he managed to take a proper breath. “Suppressive fire!” he shouted. Hoping actions would speak louder than words to the griffons, he took aim and pressed the trigger with his left hoof, but his right was unsteady, and the bolt landed several feet below, blasting a large chunk out of the prefab concrete slabs of the apartment. Cursing, he loaded a second bolt and fired again, this time hitting the roof, but the insurgents had already noticed him and simply took cover. While he fumbled with the next bolt, a volley of bullets came straight at him, ripping apart the trash can he crouched behind.

“Shit!” He quickly backpedaled and fired blindly, only to fall on his back and wince as several bullets tore through the air above his snout. Moments later, his ears perked up as he heard a piercing avian screech, followed by a heavy thudding noise that made his blood run cold, at least until he spotted the source. The large griffon’s face twisted into pure rage, beak open in a loud cry, which was completely drowned out by the booming of his weapon as it fired at the insurgents. The rounds kicked up clouds of dust on the rooftops, forcing the insurgents to keep their heads down.

The griffon slowly advanced, alternating his fire between the rooftops ahead to keep the enemy pinned, while the others dashed from cover to cover. Two of them collapsed when a couple of the insurgents’ smaller arms found their mark. They still twitched and attempted to crawl behind cover, not so much crippled by the wounds, but their fatigue after a long and futile mission.

Shining quickly got back to his feet and rejoined the attack, barking orders at Coalcutter and Bonnie, who managed to reach the far end of the square, but were pinned by heavy enemy fire. The captain fired bolt after bolt as he tried to catch up, only to freeze when he heard the large gun go silent. The brutish griffon shouted obscenities in his own tongue while he fumbled with his weapon, and in the corner of his eye, Shining saw the insurgents take aim at him with all manner of large ordnance. In the split-second he had to react, he lit his horn and formed a shield around the avian, and his teeth clenched from the strain as the barrier was subjected to intense abuse from all over. The purple light rippled as bullets bounced off it, often whizzing past dangerously close to the griffon’s nearby comrades, and a pair of rockets eventually forced the attacking group to keep their heads down.

“Ghh… f-fire your damn weapon!” Shining blurted out between labored breaths. “And where in Tartarus are the others?” The griffon cursed even louder and finally managed to snap the mechanism into place. Lifting the gun, he reared up on his hind legs and pulled the trigger, while Shining quickly dispersed the shield on the griffon’s left side, letting him tear into the exposed insurgents. The recoil itself seemed to keep him upright, and his fury on his face was illuminated by the constant muzzle flash.

Bleating and pony voices came from their right, and Shining’s eyes widened as he looked over to see a familiar weapon being set up on the rooftop, its barrel pointing straight at the large griffon. Others kept firing with smaller arms, keeping those around the brute pinned. In their haste to get the big gun working, however, the insurgents paid no mind to their surroundings. It proved to be a fatal mistake - Shining spotted Marie and three of her subordinates swoop down from above, heading straight for the gunners. She unholstered what looked like a pair of bulky, black flare guns, and her wings spread wide to slow her descent right before she slammed onto the roof.

The landing was a bit clumsy, as evidenced by how she needed a few seconds to right herself, but it also managed to disorient her opponents, and even tossed a pair of them over the edge. Before the others could react, she aimed the pistols and fired, twin cones of flame erupting from the barrels. They engulfed the gunners, making them scream and thrash, moments before fire reached the ammunition being loaded into the gun. The resulting detonation wiped out the whole gun crew, while the griffons leaped off at the last moment.

Now relieved of the intense fire on their flank, Shining was able to focus on the remaining insurgents ahead. He let the shield dissipate completely and charged forward, while the other griffons around him emerged from cover and took to the skies. His heart pounded in his throat as he felt bullets whizz past and slam into the ground all around him. An unlucky griffon failed to gain enough speed and altitude before a hail of rounds tore into him, and his body hit the ground right in front of the charging unicorn, making him grimace as he leapt over the corpse and tumbled into the entrance of the apartment. A goat stopped halfway down the stairs, rifle raised, but Shining dropped to a crouch and managed to fire first. The explosion took off the goat’s hind legs, and they fell over, screaming in pain before the captain slammed his armored hoof on their throat. He then paused to reload before rushing up the stairs.

Above, he could faintly hear mixed Capric and Equestrian shouting, and occasionally he could see the silhouette of a griffon rush past the windows and the holes torn in the apartment. Adrenaline still flooding his veins, he sprinted tirelessly all the way to the top, where he was confronted by a pair of ponies this time, one of them carrying a machine gun similar to the large griffon’s, the other laden with boxes of ammunition. The pile of sandbags at the top of the last flight suggested that they intended to set up a gun nest and mow down any who tried to ascend.

“Who the fu—” The first pony’s words were shoved back down his throat by Shining’s hoof, breaking his jaw. He groaned in pain and stumbled back, while the captain grabbed the machine gun, wrestled it from his hooves, and shoved him aside. He then smashed the butt of the weapon against the head of the other pony, the heavy ammo boxes dragging her to the ground the moment she lost her balance. She whimpered and twitched, blood leaking from her head onto the tiled floor.

Those outside remained oblivious to Shining’s advance, as they busied themselves with firing at the griffons circling in the air around them. While the heavier weaponry could not keep up, the avians were too exhausted to outrun the smaller arms, and the eager insurgents managed to pick off a few, sending them hurtling to the ground. Shining aimed his crossbow at the nearest pair and fired, blowing off the right foreleg of one and shredding the side of the other’s face. The others turned around in panic, giving the griffons a chance to swoop in and mow them down, mostly with their guns, though a few of them actually plucked their victims off the roof and let them plummet to the streets below.

Shining paused to make sure the coast was clear, both around the square and the surrounding blocks. There was little beyond the ambient noises of the city, but he could almost feel the tension in the air. Heart still racing, he galloped back down the stairs and returned to his subordinates. “Everything alright?” he asked.

Coalcutter had his back against the wall and gasped for breath, dust coating him all over from all the holes torn in the concrete. He gave a quick nod and patted himself down. “We’re good, sir,” Bonnie said. She sat on her haunches and struggled with her wrappings, checking if they could still conceal her with all the holes torn in them. Eventually, she just pulled them off and tossed them away. “And you?”

“Never better,” Shining muttered. He glanced at the end of the street. “We have to keep moving. No way the Legion missed these fireworks.”

His companions nodded and got up, moving to his sides, keeping their crossbows primed and attached to their forelegs. They paused when Marie landed nearby, along with her surviving agents, and walked up to them. Her large flame-guns still bled smoke in their holsters, which made Shining tense up a little as he thought back to the weapons’ victims. The harrier’s eyes trailed along the trio, and she nodded. “Glad to see you are all in one piece, Capitaine.

“Thanks.” Shining managed to crack a smile for the first time since they met. “I… I think I owe you one, heh.”

Avec plaisir.” Marie returned the smile halfheartedly.

“Macht nichts,” the large griffon added, moving up to her side. Shining looked over and noticed that his claw tightly clutched a wound on his shoulder, which bled profusely. He hissed every time he moved an inch and nodded his head back at the far side of the square they had crossed. “Don’t do that again.”

The captain stared at him in a mix of awe and annoyance, though he no longer felt bitter contempt like when they first met. “What’s your name?” he asked, earning himself a few surprised looks.

The griffon stood tall and puffed his chest, though he kept a straight face. “Maximilian Leonhardt.”

“Well… thank you, Maximilian.” After a bit of hesitation, Shining held out his hoof, and the eagle-headed griffon shook it awkwardly. “Once we’re among better circumstances, I’ll make a list of all your names,” Shining said to Marie. He then paused, noticing some of the fallen griffons in the background, and his expression darkened. “Sorry. About your losses.”

Que pouvaient-ils faire de plus dans la vie?” Marie shrugged and gave a bitter smile. “Their duty is over now. Ours is not.”

Shining Armor nodded. “Agreed. Let’s move.”

They hurried along the last few blocks, this time making sure the coast was clear first, and both Coalcutter and Marie went ahead to peek around the corner before they made their next move. “Looks like this is it,” the former said as they returned. “Saw a couple of insurgents moving around, but I don’t see any strong defenses set up.”

“Understood.” Shining turned to Marie. “My team and I are going inside.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “You wish to go in alone?”

“With respect, this is a matter between ponies of Equestria. Let’s keep it that way.”

Marie snorted. “It may be none of our business, but I must warn you, Capitaine. Do not expect a friendly negotiation.”

“Noted.” Shining checked his gear and gestured for Bonnie and Coalcutter to move forward. “I suggest you head back to the square and wait for us. We may need a lift when all this is over.”

“Hmph.” Marie crossed her forelegs. “We are not your steeds to be used for transit.”

“We won’t be riding you,” Shining said, frowning at her. “I’ll call in a squad of pegasi to pick us up. Some extra cover would help a lot though.”

“Very well.”

He got up and slid along the wall as he approached the corner, his companions having disappeared around it already. Just a few feet away, he paused and turned back for a moment. “Hey, uh… about that whole firing squad thing…” His forehoof tapped nervously. “I know we agreed, but… if there’s any way you could, you know… not die? I’m sure we could work something out.”

Marie and her fellow agents chuckled, and for the first time, it felt friendly. “Save your breath, Capitaine,” she said. “You’ve done more than enough for us. We signed up for a mission where failure meant death, and we accepted that cost, so we shall not run away from it. You have given us a chance to act like soldiers, one last time. That is worth more than our lives.”

Shining could only stare at first, but eventually he managed to return the smile. “I understand. Take care.”

“We will.” Marie lifted a talon to her forehead in a half-joking salute. The griffons then turned to head back in the direction of the park. Shining glanced back one last time, and he noticed them gather their fallen comrades and place them side by side, after which they spread out to collect dry branches from the trees.

This is it, he thought. The grinning, smug stallion’s face was clear in his mind’s eye, and he could almost hear his voice, in the flesh, rather than through loudspeakers. We’re coming, you bastard.

He had turned his radio up slightly after the fighting on the square, and while this district seemed relatively calm, everywhere else, his troops reported a massive spike in insurgent resistance. Some sections even spoke of counterattacks. His breathing picked up the pace, and his limbs willed him toward his destination more than ever.

The team ran as fast as they could across the wide street, heading straight for the power station. Most of the surrounding area was bare, with only snow, mounds of dirt and waste, and a few unfinished buildings on either side. The power plant itself had a massive courtyard in front of it, separated from the sidewalk by a chain link fence half-eaten by rust. The main complex was four storeys high and formed a wide U-shape around the courtyard, with the entrance in the middle. Many of the windows were broken, and the walls were dirty and cracked, but the place was otherwise functional and in relatively good shape.

Just as Coalcutter warned, a few insurgents lingered about, seeming confused by the recent gunfire and unsure what to do. A few well-placed stun bolts quickly brought them down, and by the time the others managed to react, Bonnie had smashed through the rickety fence and galloped toward the double doors. Shouting came from all over, and a machine gun opened up from the third floor, which Shining quickly dispatched with an incendiary bolt that engulfed the window and several adjacent ones in flames. More and more guns opened up from either side, but by then all three ponies had made it through the entrance.

Inside, they found themselves in a tight lobby area, a punch clock and an empty reception booth on the right, and a row of empty and broken seats on the left. At the far end, a narrow corridor lit by flickering fluorescent lights led deeper into the plant. The floor was littered with the occasional scraps of paper and leaves the wind brought in, but otherwise the place was decently preserved - on par with the exterior, at the very least. The faint hum of the generators could be heard from beyond the walls ahead, and the drumming of hooves on the upper floors made dust and loose insulation rain from the ceiling.

“Hurry!” Shining said. They rushed down the corridor, Bonnie taking the lead. Coalcutter focused on translating the signs, which Shining used to keep track of their position. They eventually reached a branch in the corridors, and his pulse accelerated when one of the signs pointed toward the ‘tower’. “If he’s still here, we can’t let him slip away.”

“Contact!” Bonnie dropped to a crouch and fired down the corridor on their right, setting off a loud bang, followed by the agony-filled screams of a goat. The light above and several dials on the walls were knocked out by the return volley, and Shining could only get one shot off before he had to pull back around the corner to avoid the next hail of bullets.

“On our six! Get down!” Coalcutter shoved him further back and dropped as well, firing his crossbow in mid-air down the opposite corridor. Shining was about to protest when he felt bullets slam into the wall right above his head, and he saw more armed figures approaching them rapidly. His ears twitched when he heard hooves closing in from the direction his team had come as well.

“They’re all over us!” Bonnie shouted. Her body gave a brief flash each time it repelled an impact, seemingly without any damage, but the strain was clearly written on her face. Shining cursed and moved beside her while lighting his horn, and a purple shield materialized between them and the insurgents. The mare nodded and quickly turned around, rushing down the opposite corridor. Rather than bother fighting her opponents one by one, she simply barreled through them, letting Coalcutter deliver the killing blows, while Shining covered their rear.

“Granite, this is Basalt Two.” His earpiece continued to feed him the transmissions between his units. “Be advised, I’m seeing a lot of activity in your sector.”

“Pyroclast, this is Diorite Three! We’re taking fire and need arty support! Fire for effect! Coordinates are...”

“Go, go, go!” Shining yelled. They passed through several more administrative spaces before coming up to a pair of double doors. Bonnie kicked it open, revealing a large chamber that almost made Shining dizzy from the sudden contrast. A long metal catwalk hung above, while bulbous, humming machinery lined the chamber on either side, each one leaking a few thin jets of steam every now and then. The ponies could only gawk for a few moments before a stallion emerged from behind one of the generators and opened fire.

“Shit!” Shining quickly used his shield to block off the doorway, just in time to absorb a few stray rounds from their pursuers, while Coalcutter and Bonnie fired back at the increasing number of insurgents emerging from the far end of the chamber. The catwalk above creaked, and they looked up to see more gunners galloping toward them.

“Citizens, it seems we have some uninvited guests.” Shining ground his teeth together from the familiar voice as it boomed throughout the building. “I am flattered by your presence, Captain, but it is time to set limits. You cannot expect to just walk into my home and do as you please. I’m afraid I will have to ask my followers to escort you out.”

The ponies huddled together as the Legion closed in around them, Shining having extended his shield to cover them from all sides. More and more gunfire pummeled it, until it cut out abruptly when a scream rang out, making his skin crawl. He turned to see the insurgents in the doorway wheel around and fire desperately before an elk rammed straight into them, goring two of them with its antlers.

“Halál! Halál rájuk! Éljenek a megváltó lovagok!” The catwalk shook as, seemingly out of thin air, elks began to pour onto it from either end, trapping the goats and ponies in the middle. The fanatics’ piercing cries echoed in the chamber, followed by near-deafening gunfire as they opened up. Dead and living alike tumbled off the catwalk, the latter taking a chance with the height rather than the bullets. They screamed as they landed with wet cracks, their legs going limp and twisting into odd angles.

At the far end of the chamber, the Legion’s warriors tried to fire at the nearest elks, but this only seemed to invite the fanatics to leap down, straight at their opponents. Some of them landed without getting back up, while others immediately went on a rampage, seemingly unfazed by dislocated limbs. “Zemlya ellenségei! Nincs kegyelem! Halál mindegyikre!”

“Sir?” Bonnie shouted over the sickening cacophony. “Orders?”

Shining was left stunned by the view, even forgetting to fire his crossbow. His eyes narrowed when he noticed a prominent figure among the insurgents - a tall pony wearing a brown coat and hat, both military in design, all the way down to the decorations and insignia. He barked orders at the surrounding gunners, which gave them enough coordination to actually keep the elks at bay, though they had no hope of pushing them back.

Without a word, Shining loaded his crossbow and charged toward the group, even running past a few insurgents who were still standing, only to have one or more elk land on top of them moments later. He ignored their screams and stopped about twenty yards from the Legion officer, who was still focused on other threats. Shining crouched behind a large pipe, raised his hoof, and fired, aiming for the generator next to the group. The machine erupted with a loud roar, drowning out every other sound, while a cloud of steam engulfed the area. The captain quickly charged in through the searing fog, bumping into survivors that stumbled around or tried to get back up before he finished them off, and eventually he found the officer, groaning and squirming on the floor, blood oozing from a wound in his side.

Shining roughly grabbed him by his collar and pulled him up. An elk approached from nearby, but he held up a hoof, and the fanatic stayed back. “Where is he?” he shouted. Behind him, his companions managed to catch up and now stared in shock through the slowly clearing fog.

“Grfh…” The officer coughed and shook his head. “Whah… who the—” He doubled over when Shining gave him a swift punch to the stomach. “Gahhh! Uuurgh…”

“Don’t try my patience!” Shining growled. “Where the fuck is your boss, High Strung?”

“Y-You won’t… you can’t win. We’ll—Ahh!” The officer screamed as Shining punched him again, this time near his wound.

“You can give me your beliefs along the way. But I’ll only spare you if you talk. Right now.

“That way!” The stallion lifted a shaking foreleg and pointed to the doors that led further into the complex. “But it’s locked! N-No one is allowed to go in!”

“We’ll see about that.” Shining dropped him, making him groan and twist from the pain. “Bonnie, get that door open!”

She nodded and ran ahead, while Shining followed close behind. He lit his horn and used his telekinesis to drag the officer on the floor, unfazed by any of his protests or sounds of agony. After a few unsuccessful kicks, Bonnie slammed her entire weight against the heavy doors, which finally gave away, revealing a short, dark corridor. Thick bundles of wires ran along the ceiling, several of them having come loose and dangling to the floor like ominous vines.

“All units, be advised. We’ve got reports of massive troop movements from all sectors. Basalt teams have yet to confirm. Repeat, all units...”

“This is Diorite to any available squads, we need immediate air support along D-14! They’ve got heavy weapons on every damn rooftop!”

The transmissions were more and more frequent, not to mention frantic, and Shining could feel his pulse raging in every inch of his body, the pressure mounting with every step he took down the corridor. There was another pair of doors at the far end, and Bonnie rammed against it, but no amount of force she used could pry it open.

“So eager to barge in? By all means, carry on. Perhaps you will finally learn something.”

Shining struggled to breathe. The tight space felt like it was crushing his lungs, and the radio chatter turned into painful white noise in his ears. “Move aside!” he barked. Bonnie barely had a moment to dive out of the way before his horn discharged, releasing a powerful wave of magic that blew the heavy doors right off their hinges.

A plume of dust got kicked up by the blast, but Shining advanced without hesitation, his subordinates hesitantly lagging behind. They entered a tall, circular chamber, though it took a few moments for the dust cloud to settle and give a clear view of finer details. Broken catwalks and bare walls surrounded them, clearly not having seen use for years. Piles of trash, dust, and debris lay everywhere, and a few rays of early moonlight streamed in through a hole in the dirty glass panels on the ceiling.

Is this supposed to be his ‘inner sanctum’? Shining thought. I don’t see any—

His eyes landed on a piece of loose cable at his hooves, and he traced it all the way to the ceiling, while the rest of the dust finally cleared. “What... the hell?”

The frantic transmissions went on non-stop, both Coaclutter and Bonnie kept saying his name, and their prisoner babbled something, but Shining could not hear any of them. Even his own words did not register in his mind as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, allowing him to see with proper clarity.

A whole swarm of mismatched wires filled the center of the chamber, either dangling from the ceiling or emerging from the floor like roots, forming a bizarre, almost plant-like bundle. Amidst all the cables and barbed lines was the distinct shape of a pony. Its body was badly mutilated, but not decaying. Its limbs hung limp by its sides, while its head was tilted back, mouth wide open to accommodate the hoofful of wires lodged in it, while dozens more pierced and wrapped around his body all over, keeping it in the air.

A pair of wide open, lifeless eyes stared up at the sky. The mouth did not move, but a familiar voice rang out all the same, albeit much more faint and distorted.

“Welcome to Gueldergrad, Captain,” the pony from the billboards said.

High Strung, former advertising agent from the city of Vanhoover, was the cause of the unrest that led to the Gueldergrad insurrection.

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Comments ( 3 )

Hell of a ride!

I'm glad we got a long chapter with a focus on just three "good guys" for awhile. The amount of jumping between subplots and secondary characters in the last few chapters was getting hard to follow (a problem I'm noticing more and more of this story, though that might just be because it's being released as it's done). I much appreciated being able to stick with Shining, Bonnie & Coalcutter for a time and put the chaos of the frontlines aside for a bit.

I'm eagerly awaiting the next chapter now, trying to figure out if we're on the doorstep to a false climax or not. So many loose ends still to tie... Good luck!

Oh, and by the way...

A goat swayed in the breeze above the team. He wore an elegant police uniform, a far cry from the ragged militia they encountered before. Snow collected on his head and the side facing the wind, and his neck twisted in a sharp angle where the cable had been fastened around it. His jaw was slack, letting his frozen tongue hang out. While he did not move, his eyes were wide open, still expressing his last moments of horror as he stared down at the street from his nearly upturned head that rested on his right shoulder. The blood that coated his bushy ginger moustache had turned into macabre red icicles. A forage cap lay a few feet away, half-buried in snow.

That paragraph was bitchin.

(P.S. I was reading this while listening to the Evpatoria Report, and after it was finished my iTunes dilligently went to the next two artists in alphabetical order, playing these two songs for the last few thousand words. Talk about intensity...)

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