• Published 8th Apr 2015
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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...

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Occupation

The standard issue weapons of a Royal Guard are the spear, shield, sword, armored shoes, and the mounted crossbow.


Red lines formed on the snowy paths as the prisoners were marched through the compound, many of them limping or clutching minor wounds. They cast a few bitter glances at the guards they passed, but otherwise kept their snouts pointed at the ground. Behind them, the rest of the ponies streamed into the shacks, spears held at the ready as they searched every corner.

Few stragglers remained, and most of the goats had already been rounded up, staring silently as the ponies emptied every building one by one. Shouts rang out, followed by a loud crash, making everyone tense up for a moment. One of the doors burst open, and a mobster tumbled out, his yellow tracksuit all torn up. A pair of guards stepped out after him and shoved him after the others to join the line.

Shining Armor grinned as he watched his troops work. There was an odd beauty to how the bulky armored figures could perform such fluid movements, swiftly clearing out each shack and herding the prisoners. Despite there being less than half as many ponies in the compound as there were goats, the rag-tag group of caprics were easily rounded up and kept under hoof by the well trained guards.

“Sir!” Bonnie called out as she approached, her squad leaders forming up behind her. “All the goats accounted for, Captain.”

Shining nodded in response. “Well done, Lieutenant. Keep it up.”

“Thank you, sir.” She issued her orders to her subordinates, who left shortly afterward, leaving the captain and his second-in-command on their own. Shining sighed and took one more look around, only to pause when his eyes got caught on the ground before him.

“Hm…” Another grin tugged on his lips, this one a bit more tense. “I guess the future’s coming for us.”

“Sir?” Bonnie turned to look at him. Shining nodded his head at the ground before him, and his foreleg pointed to a discarded breastplate half-buried in the snow. The intricate Equestrian decorations on its surface were drenched in bright red blood, and several large holes were torn in the side, the edges jagged and pointing inward.

“Our armor is going to need some improvements. We won’t last long if everyone we face is so heavily armed.”

Bonnie shrugged. “Perhaps we should upgrade to heavy plate all around?”

“Probably not. Plate is no use here. Not what we have.” Shining nudged the armor component with his hoof again. “See? The rounds punched right through. Setter even mentioned that it just makes extra pieces to dig out of the wounds.”

“So what can we do? Get rid of the armor entirely?”

The captain shook his head. “No. There’s a good chance others in the city still use conventional weapons. But if we run into this again, we’ll need to be prepared.”

“I understand.”

“Hm…” Shining chuckled and nudged her friend lightly. “You and your ponies looked like they can take quite a beating though. We could just put one in each squad, and these fancy boomsticks become useless.”

The mare looked away and sighed. “It’s… not that simple, sir.”

“Oh?”

Bonnie reared up and waved at a bulky stallion in the distance. Upon noticing it, the guard quickly galloped over to them. “Sir!” He snapped to attention and took a firm stance, looking more like a statue than a living equine. “Sergeant Lazurite, reporting.”

Shining returned the salute and smiled, glancing at Bonnie curiously. “At ease,” he said. “You did some great work there, sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir.” The guard did not loosen his stance one inch, though he did start to make eye contact.

“Yes, my crystal ponies can take a beating…” Bonnie said. She paused and pointed to one of the discarded rifles nearby. “But these weapons… they’re a tough one, even for us.” She turned to the stallion she had invited. “Sergeant?”

“Very powerful,” he said. His voice was deep and gentle, yet it still conveyed weight and power no smaller than his appearance did. “The bullets even managed to chip me in a few places. So small, and yet they’re like nothing I’ve felt before.”

Shining glanced over at the wounded guard, whom Setter was busy patching up. “A couple of scratches is still better than how the sergeant here ended up.”

“Yes, sir…” Lazurite replied hesitantly. “But the whole squad had to focus their magic to support me. Without that, I don’t think I’d be here to talk about it.”

“Hmph.” Shining frowned. “I’ve seen your ponies shrug off heavy crossbow bolts back during training. What the hay are we up against?”

Bonnie risked a small chuckle. “Like you said, sir. The future coming right at us.” This only made Shining’s frown deepen.

“Then we better adapt,” he said and turned to the sergeant. “Based on what you felt, how many would have to pool their magic to stand a chance against sustained fire?”

“A squad of four, at the very least,” Lazurite replied. “Can be pushed further if all of my ponies focus on it, though they’d have to be close by. Four should be enough to keep them all safe though.”

Shining hummed, looking away in deep thought. “Thank you, sergeant,” he said. “Dismissed.”

Lazurite saluted again and ran back to his post. Bonnie watched the stallion leave, and her gaze landed on a few of his troops conversing nearby. The one at the head of the group was busy recounting a story in a funny voice, while the others giggled constantly.

“There’s also the issue with morale,” she said.

“Indeed.” Shining sighed. “Any trouble so far?”

“None, sir. We are from the Frozen North. Worst I’ve heard is one soldier complaining he wanted warm, sandy beaches.”

A chuckle burst out of Shining, though he quickly straightened his face. “Stick to the point, Lieutenant.”

Bonnie risked another smile, the chuckle from her commander dissolving some of her tension. “Sorry, sir. My crystal ponies are in good spirits. We are ready and willing to get the job done, no questions asked.”

She glanced at Lazurite in the distance, who was busy herding his squad toward the edge of the compound. Along the way, he attracted the gaze of many of the guards, and even some of the goats as well, who seemed to shrink in terror from his sight. “And after that little stunt,” she went on, “I’d say their pride got a little boost too.”

“I see.” Shining tapped his right forehoof idly. “Well, if they’re that confident, I’d say we should give them a chance to shine.” He smiled at Bonnie. “No pun intended.”

The mare rolled her eyes and returned the smile. “What did you have in mind, sir?”

“We could set up tactical squads. Combine them with other units and have them advance in case of heavy incoming fire.” He nodded at the shiner sergeant in the distance. “Put guards like him in charge. They push forward, while the rest of my ponies can support them at range.”

Bonnie nodded hesitantly. “Yeah, that... sounds reasonable.” She glanced at the cheerful group again. The comedian had just finished his story, earning himself a few pats on the back, and even a playful bonk on the head. The lieutenant took a deep breath, her voice becoming a touch strained. “But sir, with all due respect: my crystal ponies are not meat shields.”

Shining returned the nod. “Of course,” he said and turned to follow her gaze. The guards stopped talking and slowly split up, each one returning to their respective squads. The one who provided the entertainment stopped grinning and approached Setterline’s medical team, helping them carry the wounded pony away on a stretcher.

“You’re better than meat, aren’t you?” the Captain added under his breath.

Bonnie did not react, and only spoke again a few seconds later. “What are your orders, sir?”

“Tell everypony to saddle up. Next stop: Gueldergrad.”


While his forces prepared to mobilize, Shining Armor took a quick tour of the compound to inspect their work. Celestite soldiers were spread thin between guard duty, holding the perimeter, and hauling supplies. Onyx assisted where they could, while the Basalt squads kept an eye on the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, the medics had set up temporarily in one of the shacks to take care of any wounds suffered so far.

Just as he got to the front door, the captain hesitated a little. There was not much time left before they had to leave, but he was hoping for some good news before they did, if only to remove the knot that had formed in his gut. He took a deep breath, stepped through the door, and shook himself to get rid of snow that had amassed all over his coat.

The medics inside were already busy packing up, with their final patient in the middle of getting moved out. Backing away into the cold once again, Shining made way for Setterline, who backpedaled to guide a pair of pegasi outside, the stretcher suspended between them.

“How’s he doing?” Shining asked. He nodded his head at the wounded pony once the procession had fully exited. The pegasi slowly lifted off the ground, using careful wingflaps to ascend smoothly before making their way back toward the coast.

“Took a nasty shot to the abdomen” Setter replied with a sigh. “Thankfully, the projectiles themselves don’t make very messy wounds. Can’t say the same about the armor though. Took two unicorns almost an hour to fish out all the fragments with their magic. Don’t know what a mess we’d have made with just regular tools.”

“I see,” Shining Armor said quietly, letting himself sigh at the revelation. Overpowering technology of the enemy, or inadequate equipment of their own? Neither was an appealing conclusion. The ones up the chain of command would only accept the former, if anything at all.

The stallion shook his head to banish the stray thoughts. “Will he be okay?”

“He’ll be fine. I’m having him airlifted back to the port just to be safe. No telling when we can set up in the city itself.”

“All right.” Shining managed to smile again. “Good work, Setter.”

“Thank you, Captain.” The medic rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Glad I could be of service.” He dragged his hooves in the snow a few times, leaving bright red smears.

Shining looked away, giving a deep sigh as his eyes traced the horizon. The medic joined him, he could see in the corner of his eye, and looked - as much as he could with his glasses catching snowflakes. It was a desolate, rural, snowy picture all around, and not in a way that even the territories by the Crystal Empire would compare. Judging if only by his gestures, Setter was not much more at home in Novy Rubezh either. Dark silhouettes of mountains surrounded them, half-obscured by the thick, grey haze that never seemed to lift in this land. The sun could barely break through this veil, making the already bland environment seem even more barren. In the distance, Shining could just barely make out a group of straight-edged shapes, which he recognized as their destination. Gueldergrad.

How many more will get torn up before we get there? he wondered. Or while we’re there?

The pink pegasus was likely wondering the same thing, the captain guessed. Setter went back to check his saddlebags and recover his tools, having had enough of the view. The fatigued look on his face reminded the unicorn of his own draining spirits for the day, and the desolate, monochrome surroundings did little to help. He briefly considered asking the medic for some kind of pill that could make things less cold and confusing and unclear, but Setter hardly looked like he was in a joking mood.

Yet another reason to move on, Shining thought.

Before either of them had a chance to strike up a conversation, a Celestite soldier from among those on guard duty approached them. He ran up to the medic and held out a tin cup, thick steam rising from the surface of its contents.

“For you, Doctor,” he said with a wide smile. “Fresh coffee, straight off the stove.”

The medic returned the smile and took the cup. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you, Doctor. All of us.” The guard leaned a bit closer and nodded his head at the drink. “We tossed our rations together. Three whole lumps in there.”

“How kind.” Setter took a quick sip and nodded in approval. Shining raised an eyebrow at the scene, and he smiled when he realized the guard and his wounded comrade were from the same unit. The stallion thanked them one last time and galloped off to escort the next group of prisoners.

“What will we do with them?” Setter asked before taking another sip.

“Hm?” Shining blinked and tore his gaze away from the somber column of goats.

“The prisoners. Do we drag them all the way to the city?”

The captain shook his head. “No chance. We get rushed, and it’s just one more thing on our backs that we don’t need. We’re taking them back to the port.”

“Hmf…” The doctor frowned slightly. “Of course.”

“Something on your mind?”

Setter did not reply at first. He gulped down the last of his coffee and huffed, glaring at the goats being marched away. “We should just hand them over to the civilians. Let them deliver justice.”

Shining raised an eyebrow at him. “What? No.” He paused and cleared his throat. “At least… not for now. We’re spread thin, everyone is tense, and the last thing we want is a fight breaking out. Besides, we’re supposed to help them. No shelter, no food… they need that a lot more than vengeance.”

Justice,” Setter repeated. He huffed and gathered his saddlebags. “But you’re right, I guess. They’ve been through enough.” It was his turn to look away, focusing on the silhouette of the city in the distance. “Let’s try to make sure we don’t cause them any more. We are peacekeepers, not an invasion army.” He snorted and gave a tiny smirk. “At worst, we should be regular morons. Not oxymorons, you know.”

“Yeah. Right.” Shining slowly walked off, issuing orders to his subordinates. In truth, they were on track already, and he just wanted to escape the conversation. It was one more thing he did not want to think about right now.


Basalt Two and Three scouted ahead of Shining armor’s group. They reported no more enemy positions between them and the city. Speed now took priority over stealth, since the squads needed to arrive before the rest of the regiment caught up, lest they all run into fierce resistance while stuck in the open. Every potential threat had to be identified first, and, if possible, neutralized.

Meanwhile, the prisoners were divided into several smaller groups, each one guarded by a squad and an escort of pegasi. This way the ponies had eyes on every goat at all times, and the separation meant they could not start a riot all at once. Shining radioed the officers in the regiment’s main column, and once the last of the goats had been sent on their way back to the coast, he ordered all squads to advance.

Shining Armor went for the opposite of being sneaky with their movement. He ordered his squads to spread out in a wide formation, putting them in plain view while making them resemble the spearhead of an entire army. If anything was waiting for them in the city, this sent them a clear message. They could either lay low, buying the ponies time to get close and seek them out, or engage in the open, which would give them away.

Of course, Shining knew this meant taking a gamble with the lives of the ponies around him. This was exactly why he marched right among them, no further than three ponies behind front row, despite all of his subordinates urging him to reconsider. He did not even exchange his armor, the design of which clearly painted him as an officer. At the same time, he refused to be on a chariot and insisted he walk among his troops, which drew quite a number of odd stares. For all intents and purposes, he was one more Royal Guard among dozens, albeit dressed in more vibrant colors.

The march lasted for well over two hours, and no incident happened along the way. The terrain was no challenge to overcome, but the sight of the vast, oppressing landscape, and the deathly silence took its toll, as did the somber patches of pine groves to either side of their marching ground. Soon enough, despite him ordering silence and strict formations, everypony started grouping up and chatting away idly.

“You know, I’ve always wondered…” Shining’s ears perked up when he heard Bonnie’s voice. He glanced over to his right and saw the mare walking beside a tall grey pegasus. “Why does everyone keep calling you ‘warhawk’? I mean… you’re not actually a warhawk, are you?”

“Huh... “ Shining murmured under his breath. “You two already making small talk?”

“My official position is ‘Political Supervisor and Morale Officer’,” Brand replied evenly. “There’s very little resemblance.”

“Right…” She risked a playful smile. “Maybe it’s just your attitude?”

The pegasus’ expression did not change. He merely adjusted the collar of his brown trenchcoat, which, combined with his lack of armor, made him stand out almost as much as the captain did. “I wouldn’t know. I just follow the rules.”

“Uh-huh…”

The pair walked silently for a while, Bonnie giving odd glances at the guards in Brand’s squad. Unlike the rest of the formation, they marched in perfect unison, heads held high, not once expressing boredom or fatigue. Her eyes narrowed when she noticed a hint of tension on their faces.

“I think I read about them once,” she said hesitantly. “Warhawks.”

Brand nodded. “Some of my ancestors held the role.”

“Really?”

“Back during the era of the Three Tribes, and even during the earliest decades of Equestria, the pegasus military was the only protection ponykind had from its enemies. Recruits were plentiful, but to win battles, one needs good leadership and obedient troops. Newcomers would have no experience, and they were liable to rout. One could toss them into the fire and hope to get decent soldiers from those who survived. But we could not afford to lose ten battles before each victory.”

Bonnie stared at him, grimacing slightly and walking with a bit more tension in her gait as their conversation progressed.

“This is where warhawks came into the picture,” Brand went on. “Their role was inspired by the Apexes in the Griffon military. A member would be assigned to either fresh squads, or to veterans who were suspected to break soon, and their job was to make sure every soldier did their duty.”

“Why not just give the troops better training?” Bonnie asked. She flinched a tiny bit when Brand glanced at her and took a deep breath, though his expression and movements seemed unchanged.

“Soldiers are trained to perform specific tasks in battle. Warhawk training is different. They are there to make sure nopony else forgets their own duty.”

“How?”

“Most of the time, they would lead by example.” He glanced at his troops, some of which risked stealing glances at the two of them. They immediately looked straight ahead, holding their breaths. “While others would cower in the dirt, a warhawk would shrug off any hail of spears or arrows, nor would they fear the claws and teeth of any beast.”

The pegasus tugged on the sleeve on his right foreleg, the fabric seeming to catch on a bulky object underneath. “But if that isn’t enough, they will motivate the troops directly. Reassignment, disciplinary action… and even severe punishment.”

“That sounds… a bit barbaric,” Bonnie remarked.

Brand frowned slightly, which made the crystal mare flinch again. “War is no delicate business, Lieutenant,” he said, his voice gaining a hint of bitterness. “Countless victories were thanks to the efforts of warhawks. Many defeats could have been averted, and many lives could have been saved, had they been there to keep the soldiers in line.”

“I see…”

The two did not speak any more for the rest of the journey. Even so, Shining kept a watchful eye on Brand for a while, particularly when he interacted with the guards in his squad. All it took was a glance or a subtle gesture, and every hint of slack building in the troops ceased to exist. Unlike his fellow officers, the “warhawk” did more than earn respect. He commanded fear.


They had been on the way for three hours. It was past seventeen hundred, seventeen hundred twenty four last he got to check. Tension built inside the unicorn leading the march. The imposing nature of the Frozen North had him convinced that something bad had to go down on an hourly basis, and the landscape seemed to support that theory. All barren, crooked, and desolate, with smoke rising in thick columns on the horizon.

Of course, the frosty wind did not aid in keeping minds calm and sharp either. Soldiers were trained to withstand the elements, but they had their subtle effects nonetheless. While the recruits marched tall and proud, he found himself glancing left and right non-stop, expecting to see something the scouts might have missed. After a while, he genuinely hoped something would indeed happen, if only to help get rid of his anxiety.

Shining shook his head, trying to clear it of the nonsense, and looked around again. But no matter how hard he tried, things still felt off. After some hesitation, knowing that he was close to doing this at least three times before, he held up a hoof, and the guards behind him came to a halt.

His eyes narrowed as he scanned their surroundings. Up to that point, with the exception of the occasional dead trees or large boulders, the ground had been completely bare. Now the ponies found themselves before an entire field of what looked like twigs and branches sticking out of the snow, akin to the dead husks of bushes.

“What’s wrong, sir?” one of the lieutenants asked.

Shining Armor gulped, an eerie sensation forming in his gut. A gentle breeze brushed past him, and he noticed how none of the bushes made any noise or swayed in response.

“I don’t know…” he muttered. “I just…”

A figure rose up from behind a boulder, a pair of the “branches” revealed to be attached to the top of its head. Its body was covered in thick, dirty rags, hiding most of its features. It reared up, holding its forelegs at the sky and crying out at the top of its lungs.

“Bajtársak! Talpra! Eljöttek hát! Végre itt vannak!”

Moments later, the entire procession tensed up as the barren plains burst into motion. The “branches” all rose out of the ground, quadrupedal figures rising out of every nook and cranny in the uneven terrain. They formed a wide semi-circle around the ponies, some of them only a few yards away, others barely within shouting distance.

“Végre! Dicsértessék Zemlya! Áldott legyen a Föld! Csoda történt!”

The others all started to cheer, some of them hugging each other, while others reared up and howled at the sky. Shining blinked in confusion, and his legs twitched when he spotted some of the figures holding weapons. Most were cobbled together from tools or junk, but he noticed a few of the capric rifles as well.

“Sir…” One of the guards took a step back, hefting his spear. “Are we… under attack?”

“I don’t know,” Shining replied. “Setter, what the hay are they saying?”

Setter opened his mouth, but he never got a word out. The figure who kept shouting looked directly at Shining the moment he spoke. A wide grin appeared on its face, and he called to them, this time in perfect Equestrian with barely a hint of an accent.

“So it is true! The agents of the Goddess speak in the tongue of the beings from across the waters. Praise Zemlya! All is as it has been written!”

The captain stared at them, completely baffled. After taking a deep breath, he slowly lowered his spear and held out a hoof. “Greetings!” He even managed to force an awkward smile. “I’m… we’re members of the Royal Guard, on a mission to help the locals of this region. You don’t have to be afraid of us.”

There was an odd moment of silence, after which the throng before him burst into cheers once more. “Thus have they spoken!” the leader exclaimed. “Now is our time, faithful children, to serve for the glory of our Goddess and the rebirth of her creation!”

With that, they fell to their knees and bowed their heads, the sharp tips of their antlers pointing at the air in a lethal swarm. “Take us, Holy Ones,” they murmured. “We offer our lives to the eternal Goddess and her Warriors.”

The guards stared down at them, a few of them glancing at their captain, waiting for his command. Shining looked around and quickly waved his hoof. The rest of his troops lowered their spears and took a loose stance, while he stepped out from among them.

“Thank you for your, uh…” He smiled awkwardly. “For offering to help. We are very grateful. But first… well, who are we speaking to?”

They kept their heads firmly planted on the ground while they spoke. “We are the forgotten children of Zemlya, shaped in her image and a testament to her beauty. ‘Elk’ they named us before, but earth we are, like all of her creations.”

“I see…” Shining glanced back at his subordinates, who all shrugged. “Thank you. For now, we will need you to make way. We are heading for the city, and—”

The moment he mentioned the city, the elks started murmuring and glancing at each other, a few of them lifting their heads. Shining bit his lip, struggling to keep still and show a firm exterior. Eventually, the leader of the herd stood up once more and gave a joyous cry.

“Bless this day! The filthy city shall be cleansed at last!” He waved his hoof at his companions. “Come, children! You have heard the command of the Goddess, for She speaks through her Servants!”

With that, the entire herd got up in unison and shuffled away to either side, forming a clear, wide corridor for the ponies to pass through. The guards continued to just stare in shock, casting a few anxious looks at their leader, who stood alone between the two groups.

Bonnie was the first to return to her wits, and she quickly trotted up to the captain. “Sir… your orders?”

Shining blinked, the mare’s voice snapping him out of his trance. “Form a column,” he said. “Let’s move.”

“We’re marching right through them?”

“We don’t cast stones first, Lieutenant.”

“Understood.” Bonnie turned around, only to pause and glance back. “Pardon me, but…” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Did you just issue commands to a bunch of—”

“We’ll discuss this later,” Shining replied quietly. “Even I’m not sure what I just did.”

The lieutenant returned to the formation and passed on Shining’s orders. The soldiers all muttered nervously as they rearranged themselves, forming a column six ponies wide, spears and crossbows held at the ready. The captain raised his hoof and waved it forward, and the formation advanced, a wall of elks on either side of them. The latter stood completely still, only their eyes following the ponies’ own, who hesitantly returned their gaze and tensed up even more.

Shining waited for his soldiers to catch up, and he rejoined the column the moment he spotted his pegasus friend. “Great.” He gave a deep sigh. “First it’s the mob, now a bunch of fanatics.”

Setter leaned toward him stealthily and spoke under his breath. “It may be worse. See those scars on them?”

“Huh?” Shining glanced off to where the pegasus pointed, and he spotted an elk looking right back at him. Unlike most of its companions, this elk only had very few rags covering its features. Its right foreleg was constantly trembling, and the fur was missing in several patches, the skin underneath blackened.

“Frostbite,” Setter muttered. “Third degree, at least. I’m just wondering how they’re still standing.”

Shining huffed and looked away, the elk’s gaze sending shivers down his spine. “So they’re having some trouble with the cold. Why are you whispering?”

“Severe cases have been known to do more than just tissue damage. The constant pain, blood clots, and toxins from dying tissue can damage even brain functions, well before the victim is incapacitated.”

“So… you’re saying the cold is affecting their minds?”

“Past tense, Captain.” Setter gave a short chuckle, which made his words all the more unsettling. “It already froze them out of their minds. Just wondering what’s taking their bodies so long.”

As they progressed, Shining spotted the fanatic that spoke for the group once more. He walked beside the column, giving them a hopeful grin that showed decaying teeth. His steps were awkward, but fluid at the same time, as if some external force controlled his motions. It almost looked mechanical, yet disturbingly quick and efficient nonetheless.

Bonnie came up to tap him on his shoulder, and he glanced back, frowning a bit when he noticed the elks were moving again. As soon as the column moved past their part of the “wall”, every member of the herd closed the gap and slowly followed the guards. Another chill went down his spine as he watched them. Every elk had the same unnatural gait as their leader, yet they seemed to be in perfect unison at the same time. If not for the eerie nature of their movements, it could have rivaled the harmony the captain’s own troops had.

Shining huffed again. “Collective insanity? That doesn’t sound plausible.”

The medic gave another chuckle. “It’s not the first time in history. All it takes is one loudmouth, and people can spawn a whole religion.” He looked around, inspecting some of the elks’ faces. “In fact, they may be better off this way. Gives them something to cling to instead of losing it altogether.”

“And now they want to join us.” The captain laughed coldly. “If gods are for us, who can be against us?”

“Hmph…” Setter glanced at him and smiled. “Or rather - with friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Shining rolled his eyes and nudged him, still smirking. “Don’t be like that. We’re here to help people, and we need all the friends we can get.”

“Do the ambassadors of friendship carry weapons?” Setter quipped.

“Hm… Who are you referring to? Us or them?” Shining nodded his head at the elks. Their ranks thinned slowly, so he assumed they must be halfway through by now.

Setter huffed. “I’m not sure myself.”

“Well, we carry no worse than what those in the city might throw at us.” Shining hefted his spear and patted his friend’s back. “Compared to that, these might as well be twigs.”

“Can’t say that antlers beat twigs in that contest, though.” The pegasus tilted his head in disapproval, glancing back at the “march” of the abused.

“If we can’t use the antlers, then at least what they’re attached to.” Shining risked another look at the wall of mangled elks staring back at him. Whatever the rags did not cover all looked hopelessly scarred by the elements. He doubted Setter and his medics could help any of them, let alone all at once. “Honestly, I don’t have high hopes for their combat value either. But denying them a chance to feel useful might be even worse. And who knows? Maybe they can tell us something useful.”

“You know, I’m gonna be spewing rhetoric here, but I’m not very fond of these new developments,” the medic said, taking a breath to calm down. “I hope you know what you’re doing with these.”

Shining raised an eyebrow at him. “What do you mean? Twigs or antlers?”

“Hooves,” Setter answered with a grin, gently shaking Shining’s foreleg off his back. “You’ve got snow melting right through my coat. Damn, this sucks.”

The unicorn chuckled, retrieving his hoof. “Well, sucks for them even more.” By now, barely a handful of elks stood to either side of them. He waved his foreleg, and the guards spread out, assuming their original formation once more. “For now, let’s just say we found them on the street and decided to take them home.”

“Sure. You’re the one explaining it if they wet the carpet though.” The medic flashed him a grin, though not for long, having to cover his mouth up with a hoof when an unpleasant gust of wind blew right against his teeth.

“Lieutenant Setterline.” Shining Armor stared at him sternly for a few moments. To lighten the mood, he then stomped his hoof a few times to get the snow off.

Setter chuckled and sighed again. “I apologize, sir. As you ordered.” He turned to the rest of his staff and gave instructions.

The captain had a small smile left on his snout as he looked over his troops again. The conversation kept lingering in his mind, both worrying and amusing him somewhat. Once the formation had been fully assumed, he gave the order to advance, the elk herd following close behind. The smile froze into his cheek, and Shining only removed it when the muscles began to ache.


The scouting teams, Basalt Two and Three, took up positions just beyond the edge of the buildings. Within the hour, the first company of the main force caught up with them. They had finished their tasks back at the port – there were detailed reports for Shining to examine, and thankfully they had found a good, open area to organize before entering the city proper.

The elks following the group cheered wildly upon seeing additional ponies arrive, and they spoke of “the vast armies of the Goddess”, with Shining barely able to calm them down. After a bit of awkward chatter, he managed to convince them to set up camp outside the city and wait for the ponies to call upon them. It was surprisingly easy to talk them into it, but the challenge was to put up with all the fantasy and rhetoric they attached to every word he spoke to them. Still, for the sake of giving his troops some breathing room, it was worth it, and soon they could all focus their attention on entering the city.

Gueldergrad looked odd. There was no better way to sum it up. Even at the very outskirts, at least the few parts of them that were not eaten up by mountains, it towered with its many uniform designed, blocky apartment buildings. Shining Armor caught more than a few of his soldiers simply staring at it while they waited for his order. It did not look like anything most of them had seen with their own eyes before, and even to a seasoned individual, the sight was simply bewildering.

Tall, almost rectangular buildings stood side by side with structures that clearly predated their neighbors by decades, if not centuries. One style of architecture bled into another, and into another, until they dissolved into an odd industrial mush in which prefab concrete apartment blocks prevailed, if only by sheer numbers. Being a Captain and a member of royalty, Shining had his share of art classes, and the architecture specialist in him cringed in pain every moment he spent looking at the mixture unfold on the streets.

Meanwhile, the soldier and prince in him cringed as he looked at the state the streets themselves were in. Had they been in due repair when his troops got there, it would still have been striking, but instead the city was a neverending display of scars. Chunks were blasted off brick buildings, planks and boards covered the doors and windows of stores, massive cracks climbed up the walls of apartments, smoke and flame trickled out of some openings, and piles of broken glass littered the poorly paved, winding streets. Most of them were empty, save for the occasional wreckage and pile of debris in the way. Twisted, burnt out metal carcasses had to be pushed out of the way, some of them still resembling the odd four wheeled machines mass-made by the caprics.

The ground was a nightmare in and of itself. It was freezing cold by any pony’s standard, but somehow, the snow that fell on the capric capital had turned into an unpleasant, disgusting grey mush after it had been on the asphalt long enough. If the property damage was the wounds adorning the “body”, the gooey snow looked like the vile ooze it “bled”, tainted by the metal, concrete, and smog.

Shining split his forces into three columns, one hundred leading each, while the rest slowly advanced behind them in reserve. “One thousand ponies,” he muttered. His gaze traveled along a line of bullet holes in a nearby wall, some of them accompanied by bloodstains. “One thousand. Three hundred of which I still don’t have. That’s all they gave me to keep the peace in this place.”

“You’re forgetting about the guards you left at the port.” Setterline remarked. “And the wounded. And the crazies. And the—”

The captain sighed. “I know, Setter. Don’t remind me.”

It took almost an hour before they came across any signs of life. A few lanterns winked up ahead, and some of the apartments had light seeping out of the windows as well. A goat would trudge across the street every now and then, covered from head to toe in thick clothing. They merely cast a quick glance at the approaching guards before hastening their steps and disappearing within one of the buildings. Eventually, the street led to a large square, which had been repurposed as a marketplace of sorts. Dirty and rickety stands were strewn about, most of them closed, and some of them showing signs of damage that definitely were not caused by the elements.

Shining halted the column again when he heard hoofsteps approaching. Unlike the soft pattering from before, this was a series of heavy thumps from a group moving in unison. Moments later, a quartet of caprics rounded the far corner, wearing baggy, blue and white vests, most of them rather worn, dirty, and even incomplete. They had batons hanging from their belts, along with what looked like smaller versions of the mobsters’ rifles.

Upon noticing the guards, the goats only paused for a moment before continuing as if nothing were out of the ordinary. One of them approached a stand, which an elder goat was busy locking up. They chatted idly, the young buck giving a smug grin and chuckling, while the elder was clearly agitated by his presence. At one point, the former rapped the stand with his baton, making the old goat gasp and stumble back. The youngster and his companions laughed, spat a few more words at the civilian, and marched away.

“Where do we start?” Bonnie asked.

Shining huffed and shook his head, his eyes still trailing the group as they left the marketplace. “Someone must be in charge here. Either those thugs, or an actual government.”

Setter left the column and approached a few nearby caprics. They glanced warily at the guards, but responded without hesitation. “They said the Duma is just a few blocks away,” the medic replied once he returned. “We need to ask for general secretary Provolozhny.” He took out a piece of paper and quickly jotted it down, handing it to Shining Armor.

“Alright,” the captain replied. He looked around, nodding in approval despite the rather banged-up look of the square, and flicked his headset on. “All squads, set up a perimeter around this area. Ten block radius. Scouting teams are to search that region and make sure this is a safe zone.”

He then turned to the pegasus. “Setter, find a good place and set up a medical facility. Nothing but emergency treatments until we have all the supplies.” Finally, he glanced at the pair of ponies to his right. “Lieutenant Boninite and Lieutenant Brand? You’re coming with me.”


The ponies’ journey took them down a long avenue to another large square with a wide structure at the far end. It was a sight to behold, even despite the numerous scars adorning its surface. Unlike the bland apartments, damage to this structure did far more to ruin its image, and it seemed to have taken a lot more beatings than its closest neighbors. Still, despite the wounds, it still held plenty of its old might and authority.

Shining Armor stepped cautiously on the ornate steps of the wide staircase, which supposedly led to where the current government was holed up. Bonnie and Brand followed suit, each accompanied by a pair of guards from their respective squads, keeping a sharp eye on either side of their ascent. Once they reached the top, however, it no longer seemed all that necessary.

With the knowledge of Capric history in mind, Shining could see how the state of the building was almost poetic. This was Gueldergrad’s central civil command, and by far the most luxurious, exalted and decorated building in the whole city, while the city itself was the crown jewel of Novy Rubezh. Even museums should not have been able to compare. By all means, the contrast should have been massive, even more so now that the streets had been brutalized.

Instead, the halls of the Duma – a fine piece of real estate that the general secretary received for free upon election – were a perfect match for the streets outside. As the group progressed through its corridors and ascended a ruined staircase, the various scenes of destruction became all the more vivid and inventive.

“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Brand asked quietly. His eyes kept scanning the windows to their side, every single one of which was broken, letting the icy wind have free reign inside. Their hooves knocked aside the fragments of bricks and cobblestone, neither of which were part of the Duma’s architecture, but could be found in abundance on the streets and apartments outside.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant,” the captain said without looking. He was busy shaking his head at the portrait of a previous general secretary, or at least what little of it could be seen among the crass drawings all over it. Maturity was never the strong suit of any rioting crowd.

“Should we start looking for bodies, or do we stay sharp for an ambush?”

“We’re looking for the government, Lieutenant.” Shining Armor gave a small sigh. “Or whatever is left of them. Either way, we need to know for sure.”

“Affirmative.” The tall grey pegasus turned to his soldiers. “Stay quiet and watch for any movement.”

The group did not have much luck in finding anyone. The meeting hall and most other public affairs rooms had been reduced to scrap, and some even showed signs of a fire breaking out inside. Many a wall was littered with hastily drawn graffiti or plain words. Shining could not understand any of it, save for a few words he assumed were names when he tried reading them, but he had some good guesses at the contents. Bit by bit, he began to share Brand’s concern. Perhaps the Duma would provide little more than a grim reminder of how their predecessors failed the challenges they would now have to face.

Still, the captain’s spirits did not falter, even if they were not particularly high. The group had been exploring the building for next to an hour by that point. If there was anyone inside, they would have either made their attack, come out in peace, or hid away in fear. The goat mob did not strike Shining as great tacticians, so he doubted they would wait this long to make their move. Then again, that said nothing of any other factions in this city, if there were any.

One of Bonnie’s crystallites suddenly halted and raised a sparkling hoof. Her and the lieutenant exchanged quiet looks, and Bonnie herself turned to face Shining. She made a series of subtle hoof gestures toward the captain, while everyone else went completely silent and still. The shiners had keen senses, so it was best not to disturb them.

“A couple of presences,” the gestures told the unicorn. “Directly below.” It made sense – directly below, in the basement, was where they would have checked last. They just had not gotten there yet. If the crystal ponies only sensed it now, however, then whatever was hiding down there must have been major.

Shining inquired about that with a gesture, but only received a shrug in response. He nodded at the others and set off, quickly moving down the stairs and past the ruined offices back to the entrance of the Duma. Finding another passage off to the side, they soon found themselves in the dilapidated maintenance areas. Shining nearly gagged when one of Bonnie’s ponies opened the comparatively ugly and unremarkable door, and the whole squad was stricken by a wave of foul air. Even Brand’s soldiers – including Brand himself – jerked their heads back slightly.

Communicating with gestures again, now just to avoid having to open their mouths, they advanced through the damp, narrow corridors. They were clearly out of order, quite morbidly so for a maintenance area. The air itself had more dust and mold in it than oxygen. Rusty pipes and valves ran along the walls at almost every turn, of which there were many. Weak electric lightbulbs that hung off thread-thin cords illuminated their path, but threatened to go out every few seconds. Then again, their glow was so weak that the crystal ponies were a more useful light source.

The one that sensed the presence lead the way, lighting it up for convenience’s sake. Thankfully, there was not much debris in the way, so the bulky, armored ponies had no trouble getting through. At least, debris is what Shining assumed it was. As they neared the supposed center of activity, there were more and more and more clumps of dead wires sticking out of the cracked walls. At first, they looked like either damaged wiring or unfinished maintenance work, but later there were large bundles hanging out of the ceiling or the walls. At one point, they were so numerous and tangled that they completely blocked the ponies’ path, forcing the lead shiner to gain some momentum and rip through them. Right after she did, Shining noticed a few strands of barbed wire sticking out of the bundles, no doubt responsible for the brand new scratches on the mare’s armor. One of the stallions in Brand’s squad could not help but wince as he passed through the opening after her.

Shining Armor, on the other hand, gave a satisfied hum. Barbed wire meant that somebody was definitely holed up here, trying to keep others out. Whatever threat that implied, he was still happy to know this would not be a waste of time.

Moments later, they arrived at a more solid obstacle. A large door barred their path – an intricate mechanism covered in gears, more a circular opening than a door, in fact. From behind it, Shining could hear faint noises. It was a shelter – the government’s shelter, most likely. The captain gestured for his soldiers to take up a loose formation and tapped the surface of the metal firmly.

The metal rang in a deep tone, and the voices on the other side went silent. The group waited for a minute before trying again, but the door did not open, nor did they get any response. Sighing and coughing to test the air, Shining spoke up:

“Bonnie, find us a way to open this.” He grimaced, the air tasting bitter on his tongue. “Whoever’s in there won’t need this shelter anymore. Brand, keep an eye out.”

“Understood, Captain. We’re on it,” Bonnie replied. Her own senses appeared to be immune to the noxious air. “You’ll want to stand back, though. We might knock some debris loose.”

Shining nodded and stepped back. “Of course. At your discretion, Lieutenant.” Behind him, Brand had already gotten his two guards to step away. Once they had given her enough space, the orange and blue crystal pony knocked on the huge door. Two lunging headbutts followed.

“Alright… Just like demolition class,” she spoke to her subordinates, albeit the Captain could barely hear her behind the echo. “Keep your necks safe.” It was odd – he was certain they were surrounded by tight, crumbling concrete walls, but the echo was far too metallic, almost artificial in how it kept ringing in his ears. The material of the door had to be something else.

Surprisingly, it did not take more than three coordinated headbutts until a low hiss came from the mechanism, followed by a loud, obnoxious screech as the gears turned and swung the door open. The heavy slab of metal took a while to get out of the way – enough for the ponies to get back in formation, having to look both unthreatening and be ready to face an ambush at the same time.

After half a minute of painfully slow movement, the shelter door revealed a male goat standing behind it. He was relatively big, the top of his head balding, and his beard was bushy, ginger, and very unkempt. There was a bell-shaped tie on one of his horns, and one around his neck, with the latter tied the other way around. He had massive, bruise-like blue spots under his eyes, which stared directly at the ponies, looking oddly clear compared to his disheveled look. An expensive-looking suit adorned his body, covered in various liquids. It apparently was not the first time, judging by some older stains and the dreadful smell that emerged from within the room.

Shining Armor was confused, and even somewhat concerned, until he faintly recognized the face of the goat, despite how swollen it was. The hours he had spent reading through the intelligence reports had him come across a photo of the same face countless times, and he allowed himself a sigh of relief. The mouthful of foul air he inhaled made him regret it soon afterward.

“Are you general secretary Provo… loshniy?”

The goat hung his head and gave a curt nod. “Yes, Provolochniy,” he muttered. “You come to take my head yet?”

“No, sir. We are here on a peacekeeping mission, and we’ll need your…” The unicorn leaned forward slightly to peek beyond the doorway. “...full cooperation.”

The goat mouthed the word with a baffled look on his face. “Peacekeeping? My Equestrian is good, Kapitan, but I don’t know what you mean with that word.” He lifted a hoof, halting the ponies just as they tried to enter, and he looked back over his shoulder, shouting something.

“Вылезайте, народ! Не по нашу душу пришли, слава Земле-то.” Moments after he spoke, his companions revealed themselves, all dressed fancily and disheveled like he was. The lead goat stepped back, letting the ponies get a good look at the interior. Cardboard boxes were strewn about, some acting as makeshift bunks, but most of them were impromptu tables. Empty tins of food littered the floor, and even more frequent were bottles, plastic and glass. The far end of the room contained shelves stocked with supplies, only a fraction of which had been spent so far.

“Here, come in. One horn is better than two,” Provolochniy said with a sigh, showing them to a corner that looked slightly presentable. It even had a proper desk. “Those want us dead. What do you want, though?”

Shining Armor tagged along, followed closely by Brand’s soldiers, who hesitated little despite the torture the shelter was for one’s nose and mouth. Thinking of how to explain things, the Captain glanced at his XO, who simply shrugged. “We are…” he began, “Well, we received reports of trouble in the city, and we are here to restore order.”

The goats paused in the middle of setting up food and drinks, turning to glance at each other. They stared at each other’s similarly swollen, sweaty faces for some time, one of them even having his glasses slip down his nose. Then, one by one, they began to snort and chuckle in cold tones, as one would try to laugh while facing the gallows.

The general secretary himself laughed the most heartily. He slumped into his chair behind an actual desk, grabbed his bottle, poured a generous dose of the clear fluid into his glass, and raised it to the ponies. Shining Armor had to stifle a coughing fit from the fumes emitted by the drink, and that was in a room which already stretched the definition of “foul”.

Na zdarovje, Kapitan. I wish you the best of luck.” He downed the glass and gave a small grunt, his cheeks reddening slightly. Despite how vile the drink seemed, the goat showed no further reactions, and even the flush went away within a few seconds. Shining blinked, looking over the rest of the goats’ faces for a moment. They all seemed to share a similar set of swollen cheeks and bruised eyes, with Provolochniy firmly in the lead, his face the bluest of them all. Looking more closely, Shining sighed when he noticed a hoof imprint on one of the snouts. It seemed no older than a few days, and the room was in use for much longer than that.

“What do you mean?” he asked. His hoof twitched as he resisted the urge to ask if they let any other “guests” in before the ponies.

The goat snorted. “What do you think we’ve been doing here for the past six years? I had over twenty predecessors, and only three of them lived long enough to resign.” He tapped his hoof on the desk. “This place? This is what they’ve reduced us to. This shelter was meant for if… if… if one of your Princesses went insane again, something of that order. Our Duma… you have probably already seen what they’ve done to it.”

The ponies stared in shock, only Brand and Shining Armor seeming to take it in stride. “Who is behind all this?” the latter asked.

“That... cursed ‘High Strung’,” the goat spat. His hooves made quotation marks in the air, which almost made him lose his balance and fall out of the chair. “Уродище крысомордое, век бы его не видать.”

“And what do they want?”

“I wouldn’t know. Nothing is enough for them. Never has been, not since they moved in, him and his pony ilk.” Provolochniy stifled a hiccup. “No offense, you’re okay. I don’t think you’d qualify them for ponies, anyway.”

Shining grimaced at the thought, but he stayed on track. “Maybe you should have tried negotiating with them?”

He gave another cold laugh. “Negotiate? Another word I don’t understand. Not anymore, anyway.” He nodded his head upwards, to where the streets would have been. “These animals? They don’t negotiate. They don’t listen to anything but bullets and kicks to the face. Before they herded us here, there was a school they attacked. They hung every adult and took all the kids away.”

Bonnie gasped in shock. “They did what?

A silence came over the ponies. Shining glanced over his shoulder at his companions. Brand’s eyes were fixed on the head of the less-than-acting government of Novy Rubezh, an odd, predatory look in them, while the guards behind him remained stoic, if a bit disturbed. Bonnie and her own ponies frowned in a mix of anger and disgust, but they too remained silent. Shaking his head, the captain eyed the food and drink stocks of the Duma’s shelter, followed by its inhabitants, with their torn suits and drunken odors.

“General secretary…” Shining’s voice faltered for a moment as he fought the urge to gag. “We’ll be moving you out of here. From here on out, you’re under our care and protection. You and the rest of the government. And until we have new orders, or we find that your own armed forces are able to sustain the situation…”

At this point, Provolochniy already bowed his head and sighed. “...we will be in charge of getting Gueldergrad back on its hooves,” Shining went on. “You will help us if you want to prove that Princess Celestia was right to let your people put you in office. The same applies to everyone else.”

The goat shook his head and mumbled. “Так точно, Kapitan.” He even tossed in a left-hoofed salute.

“Come again?” Shining said in a more stern voice. It was more to calm Brand, who had already taken a step toward the drunken goat, than to demand any discipline from the pathetic residents of the shelter.

“Sir, yes sir.” Provolochniy took in a breath and stomped a hoof on the desk, gaining the attention of his colleagues. “Так, ребят!” he brayed while climbing out of his chair. “Поднимайтесь давайте, все, конец халяве. Закрываем контору, укрываем поляну. Вывозят нас. Эй, вы, дети подземелья, вы слушаете вообще? Да я—”

His banter went on even as he stumbled into the tight corridor outside, the others close behind. None of them looked too happy, but the presence of armed foreigners convinced them not to waste much more time.

It was already dark by the time they walked the officials back to the encampment in the marketplace. In the glow of the crystal ponies, the ministers and secretaries of Novy Rubezh stared silently at the bleeding, torn streets of their capital city, sour looks forming on their faces. Shining wondered if that was a result of the grim sights, or just having to bear the cold winds after being dragged out of their comfortable hole once more.

But what puzzled him most was the name Provolochniy had mentioned. “High Strung”. The intel reports mentioned it as well, but details were extremely scarce beyond what the pony did in Equestria, and that was not much to begin with. Why his name would inspire such venom here, he could not imagine.


“Is it from Basalt One? Have they found it already?” the Captain inquired hastily, rushing along with a Celestite guard to their radio setup.

“No, sir.” The guard struggled to breathe in the middle of his sprint. “It’s the ship herself. They’re on air again.”

They rounded a few corners, reaching the corner where the radio crew had set up a makeshift communications center inside an abandoned cafe. Shining quickly relieved the pony on duty, bent over the desk laden with sparkling devices, and spoke into the receiver:

“Atoll, this is captain Shining Armor. Respond.” He breathed deeply after the galop and struggled to keep his voice calm. The lingering aftertaste from the fumes in the government shelter did little to help.

“Sir!” an agitated voice broke through the thin layer of static. “This is lieutenant Coalcutter.”

Shining gritted his teeth. A thousand things wanted to come out of him all at once. Frustration, questions, and orders for the troops he had almost considered lost at this point. Eventually, he calmed himself, grateful that the officer he left in charge of the Atoll was alive and well, and he spoke in an even voice. “Status report. Keep it brief.”

“All crew and equipment accounted for. We’re... anchored off the north coast of the peninsula. No enemy activity.”

Shining let out a breath he had been unconsciously holding. “Any place you can make it to the shore?”

There was a lengthy pause. “Yes, sir. But it might take us a while if we—”

Shining could not help stomping his leg on the radio board, fortunately avoiding any switches. Even so, the voice on the other side trailed off. The captain shook his head, partly at himself.

“Offload everything and everyone, lieutenant. Right now. I want them all here in the next 48 hours.”

“Yes, sir!” There was no hesitation this time, though the captain could still clearly notice tension in the voice.

You’re going to contact us again at exactly 0800 the next day,” Shining said. “And I will want your civilian captain to explain what the hay happened at the port. That is an order.”

Um, sir… Our— our captain, she’s—

“I am aware that she is a civilian – you are ordered to have her report to me.” The unicorn barked. “Is that clear, lieutenant?” He resisted the urge to growl, the memory of the Atoll abandoning them at the harbor still fresh in his mind.

“...” The radio fuzzed.

“Lieutenant? Lieutenant Coalcutter, can you hear me? Respond!”

Nothing but static came as a response, and the green glow of the crystal labeled “signal” had switched to a dark yellow one. Shining Armor gripped his head with his hooves and let out a long groan.

“They had better have a good excuse when I hear from them again,” he muttered to himself.


The journey back from the cafe was a lot slower and less frantic, yet somehow the captain felt a lot more drained by it. Ponies rushed back and forth all around him, hauling supplies, shouting orders, or inspecting the city from on high. Within minutes, he even heard the sounds of tools banging and whining in the distance as some teams got to work on setting up defenses and dwellings. Everything turned into a blur of motion and noise, yet oddly enough it made the desolate city seem a lot more calm.

He gave a deep sigh and trotted down the street leading back to the marketplace. His eyes slipped closed, and he held his breath, letting the drone of activity give him a moment of peace. For a moment, he imagined he was back home, helping the locals work on the Crystal Fair stands. A smile tugged on his lips as he saw vibrant colors under the warm sun. His wife bickered with him about the quality of the catering, and he could not decide whether he should join the jousting tournament first, or—

Shining’s ears perked up when he heard laughter nearby. His eyes snapped open, and he paused, looking around for the source of the noise. Peeking around the corner, he noticed a couple of militia laughing while pointing up at one of the apartments. Following their gaze, the captain noticed a crystal pony mare leaning out of a window. She was busy hanging up some flower pots, while an old doe behind her murmured thanks and blessings non-stop. Further up, some lookouts were setting up on the roof, no doubt the other members of the mare’s squad.

After the last pot was in place, the mare climbed back inside and waved off the old goat, even as she wept happily and tried to pull the pony into a hug. The guard then paused when she noticed the chuckling of the goats on the street. Peeking out again, she gave them an icy glare and shouted at them to get lost. They yelped and looked away, stumbling off.

“How did it go?” Setter asked. Shining’s head jerked a little, as he did not pick up on the medic approaching him from behind.

“Swimmingly,” he grumbled. “This city is in the hooves of a bunch of drunk cowards hiding in a hole.”

“Hmf...” The pegasus smirked. “Not anymore.”

“Nope.”

“And the Atoll?”

“They’re on their way.” Shining huffed and sat on his haunches, his forehooves rubbing his temples. “And there will be some explaining for them to do.”

Setter placed a reassuring hoof on his shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on them. We have no idea what happened just yet.”

“Yeah…”

They watched the crystal mare join her comrades on the roof, who cheered for her “successful mission” playfully. She laughed with them and took over the watch, letting her squadmates lie down and rest. Further down the street, other guards mingled with the locals after taking care of their duties. Despite their cheerful advances, the reception was mostly cold, unless the locals happened to be children, or there was alcohol involved in the interaction.

Setter nudged the captain in the side. “Almost makes you feel at home, doesn’t it?”

“Almost…”

There was a burst of static nearby, making them blink and glance to the side. A radio buzzed to life in an old pub to their left, making the elder goat snoozing next to it jolt awake. He fiddled with the knobs until a male voice broke through, speaking in a sly, almost mesmerizingly warm tone.

“Good welcome, citizens of Gueldergrad. And an especially warm welcome to our newest guests, the famed Royal Guard of Equestria.”

Moments later, the same voice began to echo throughout the streets from a whole array of sources. Hidden loudspeakers, PA systems, and even the average radio placed in a top floor window, the volume turned all the way up. The guards nearby looked around in confusion, a few of them hefting their weapons. Shining Armor stood still, a grim look on his face as he looked up. The streetlights flickered on, and in the distance, he spotted a large billboard, its own lights coming to life and revealing the smug grin on a familiar face, staring right back at him.

“I am High Strung.”


Gueldergrad’s current population is approximately 350,000.

Author's Note:

Merry Christmas to everyone. Sorry we took so damn long. Hope it was worth the wait.

More to come soon.

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